Two days in Laos

The boats in northern Laos have signs reading ‘No going on the roof.’ The rule is no women on the roof, but foreigners seem unable to grasp this simple gender discrimination so it has been extended rather than risk capsizing. Animist beliefs are powerful here, and people often wear amulets to appease and charm the spirits. If a woman sits above a man, his amulets become useless. This is particularly dangerous for boatmen, since it could cause the whole boat to break down or sink. (An extension of this belief holds that women’s clothing should not hang above men’s on a washing line, though the guesthouses no longer seem to hold with this. Too difficult to tell the sex of cargo pants.)

Despite this belief, on the boat from Paxse to Don Muang on the southern tip of Laos, the captain tried to herd me onto the roof with the foreign men. The boat was packed as usual. No one would consider taking a trip without a 50-kilo sack of rice, a few chickens and ducks, a bag of cabbages, some motorbike parts and a gaggle of toddlers. The Lao would be good people to be shipwrecked with, and their cargo methods increase the chances. There are no seats on most boats; women squat on the ground among the sacks, chatting and breastfeeding. When new people arrive everyone shunts along without resentment. The 6:45-from-Chappaqua notion of ‘my’ seat and ‘my’ space is foreign here, as are the sighs and eye-rolling that go along with it.

I sat on the side of the cargo area, leaning against the wooden column that held the roof up. I had decided to uphold traditions despite the boat captain sending me to the roof. But the ceiling was low and I couldn’t sit with my head upright. Nor could I let my legs dangle since the floor was so packed. I sat in a Beavis-and-Butthead slump until I couldn’t take it any more and climbed up.

The roof was tin and packed with basting foreigners. Lao pople would not willingly expose themselves to sunlight, so presumably the women-on-the-roof ban was overturned to ease space pressure below. The heat, which is not especially intense in November, was worth it for the views up top. Just above the Cambodian border, the Mekong hits middle-aged spread, and I was heading for Si Phan Don, the Four Thousand Islands, which lie in the 14-kilometer span. My out-of-date Rough Guide said these islands were beautiful but rarely visited by tourists due to the distance and the transport conditions, so I was surprised to see a dozen falangs on board. It turns out that the land border with Cambodia is now open for business and Don Khong has become a popular stopover on the Indochina circuit. (And it’s all about circuits. Backpackers hate backtracking.)

The crew of foreigners on the roof was representative. Three Canadians—they are everywhere, this year’s Australians—a Swiss, a German, one Irish, three Dutch (also wildly overrepresented, and my personal favorites), one English guy, a Finnish lad, and one South Korean. Normally I’d expect a handful of Israelis and French, too. Americans are notable by their absence in this part of the world. It’s partly the political and economic climate this year, but more that US culture does not support extended travel breaks as other western countries do. The ‘year off’ does not sit well with puritan sensibilities, and American graduates are too busy working to pay off the colossal college fees that are picked up by the taxpayer in Europe. The working Dutch can save up four weeks vacation allowance to see Laos and still have a week or two left over in a year. Those paltry six weeks were famously hyped as an ‘sabbatical’ at Netscape—unpaid—a perk extended to long-term employees.

The boat broke down, of course, thanks to my presence on the roof. But it’s easier to deal with a stationary boat than a broken-down bus. The river scenery is entertaining, and you can walk about and stretch. River life is the same throughout rural southeast Asia: kids swimming, girls shampooing their hair, women washing clothes and dishes, men fishing from small boats. Everybody waves and shouts ‘Sabaidee!’ Our breakdown brought a bonus: we got an unhindered view of the sun setting on the western bank. The boat guys watched expressionless as all the falangs whipped out cameras.

As we neared Don Khong, a backpacker group started a frantic discussion on the cost of the journey. I had got on at Paxse, and agreed to pay 30,000 kip ($3). They had got on an hour downstream at Champasak and didn’t fix a price, but their guesthouse owner told them 20,000 kip. They are passionate. They will not pay 30,000. The boatman had not mentioned a price yet for this ten-hour journey, but the backpackers thrash the issue for an hour. A dollar has powerful hold on a 22-year-old brain here; these same kids spent much of the trip comparing prices on massages and marijuana pizza toppings.

Finally the boatman came around to collect money, and asked for thirty. After a drawn-out, aggressive bargaining session, they beat him down to twenty-five. The French-Canadian girl leader was still aggrieved.
   ‘I’m giving you twenny and that’s it. Twenny from Champasak. Falang not stupid! Twenny!’
I quietly paid my (fair) 30,000. I was on the boatman’s side.

We piled off in a cloud of bad grace. At the landing, it was getting dark and there was a single pick-up truck, which our guidebook said cost around $3.75 to hire. There were ten of us. He quoted 40 cents each. The baby backpackers started up again, insisting on 30 cents, though our alternative was to walk eight kilometers in the dark. The ringleader got more passionate. She’d been traveling with Israelis, and it was a point of pride now to bargain for everything. We stood there while the spat continued, and I wanted to smack her. Eventually I hauled my pack onto the truck.
    ‘I’ve been on a boat for ten hours. It’s dark. I want to go to a guesthouse. Ten cents is not enough for me to stand here.’
Slowly the others got on the truck. I felt like a blackleg, but didn’t care. The Lao have been unfailingly fair and generous hosts, but these kids have a paranoia that is more appropriate for Saigon or Delhi. ‘They’ are out to rip ‘us’ off. The backpackers do not realize how distasteful it is for the Lao to haggle in this way, or how it sets up the cynical dynamic between tourist and local I’ve found from Thailand to Majorca. I’m glad that hagglers keep prices down for me—and I bargain happily, when it’s appropriate—but I wish they knew when to stop.

I lost my backpackers temporarily when I checked into the Villa Don Khong. At four dollars, in a village where beds can be had for a buck, it constitutes luxury. Cold-shower, rat-in-the-walls luxury, but luxury nonetheless. I had a perfect day there. The room was light, which encouraged me get up at 5.30 and go down to the river to watch the sun come up. Some meditation, then some yoga. Breakfast on the verandah at seven was toasted baguette, two eggs from the hens who roamed very freely below my window, wild honey, papaya, and Lao coffee the consistency of melted chocolate. All for a dollar, since I’m counting now.

At nine I rented a bike and went to the ferry crossing. The ferries here are planks of wood nailed across two or three wooden fishing dories, with a diesel engine attached to one. From the mainland I rode down to the Cambodian border, 30 kilometers or so, to see what was billed as ‘the largest waterfall in Southeast Asia’. By volume, that is, for it’s not very high, but it’s still impressive. A Canadian who had been on my boat ride wondered how you’d get a canoe down there while his Scottish girlfriend looked blank. We Celts don’t think in those terms.

A returning Lao emigrant in Lacoste polo shirt and bermuda shorts insisted I pose in his family portraits, both still and video. These native tourists seem ill-at-ease here, and go out of their way to align themselves with falangs.
    ‘Where are you from?’
    ‘Ireland. And you?’
    ‘Germany. Koln,’ he says, in an accent even I can identify as adult-learned. He’d moved to Germany 28 years ago. It is hard to go back. I know how he feels.

I was whimpering from saddle-soreness by the time I got back to the ferry, and all I could think about was noodle soup (a common problem these days). I picked a winner: Mrs. Somphan made ‘fo&eacute’, Vietnamese-style, and the spiciest green papaya salad I’d had yet. The chili tears that streamed may have been tears of gratitude. Back at Villa Don Khong, I read some old French magazines and took a nap before hauling my weary backside to Mr. Pon’s riverside restaurant for a sunset drink. Lau-lau, rice whiskey, toned down for foreigners with lime juice, wild honey, and ice. It’s the best 30-cent cocktail I’ve ever tasted, and who cares that the restaurant faces east? It gave me time to pre-order the fish steamed in banana leaf, which was worth a two-hour wait. This terrine of the freshest fish imaginable has the texture of custard and a wonderful, delicate flavor. I fought through a few more pages of Ken Wilber’s Marriage of Sense and Soul and wished I’d brought something else to read. And so to bed.

Don Khong is my favorite kind of tourist spot: industrious, switched-on, and moderately prosperous in its own right. The farmers and fishermen here are amused and hospitable but not overawed by the new visitors. The island is paved with immaculate roads—pork barrel, I assume, since the current prime minister grew up here—but in three hours I saw just one pick-up, one huge SUV, and three Honda Dreams. And countless bikes, of course. By the time this trip finishes, I will be able to produce the following in all the major Southeast Asian languages:

‘Hello’; ‘Thank you’; ‘Chicken’; ‘Pork’; ‘Spicy, please’; and; ‘Hey, look! Falang on a bicycle!’

2 thoughts on “Two days in Laos”

  1. Easy, Tony–the Lao accent makes it hard to say the ‘l’ in Köln, which he repeated several times as “Kun”. “Deutschland” is a difficult word, too.


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