The International Writers Magazine: Disconnected Strangers
on the river to nowhere
am staying the night in a mean little river town on the Thai-Laotian
border. The Mekong is the only settled influence here. The rest
is a long row of thrown-together shops catering to the necessaries
in just such a place. City planning is early American Western expansion
style. The place is called Kong Chiang, on the Thai side, and has
sprung up due to the recent upsurge in tourist travel from Northern
Thailand to Laos.
I am here for the
night rustically and will catch a fast boat to Luang Pabang, the ancient
capital of Laos and supposedly one of the best-preserved towns in the
world, tomorrow. It is my summer vacation in Southeast Asia, yet one
more time to find another place a step ahead of the bastards. It can
be a lot of fun, I have learned, if you keep the right attitude.
The entire area along the river is like a cheap Asian version of an
extended American strip mall. Only this place where I find myself now,
in a large bamboo hut of a restaurant looking beyond the Mekong into
Laos, river bank and forest, is there a feeling of the best of Southeast
Asia. The river is moving on and two French men who I assume are chemists
(At odd times during my travels I have met French people who are
not chemists, but mostly I seem to find myself in the proximity of pharmacists;
I suspect the involvement of an intelligence organization, and am vaguely
interested in seeing how it all turns out in the end.), I would
say they are ages circa 60 and 40, look and sound like they are making
reserved and cultured comments about events far away, since there is
absolutely nothing happening here, which as any guide book would tell
you is its charm.
Down the dirt road a ways is the modified and compartmentalized trailer
blocks that are our rooms for the night. Actually, they are OK, as OK
goes. The fan works and there are no obvious rats or other potentially
harmful things. Our hostess at the guest house ha,s at some time previously,
been removed from a more hereditary gender, has fine teeth, and the
booming voice of the over-compensator. Her name is Rochelle, and she
has the sort of immediate and over-familiar rapport that, in tandem
with her orange hair and artificially inflated bosom, made me think
back to a very strict junior high school Math teacher. Rochelle settled
us in, made friendly small talk, and gave us an idea about how we might
spend the rest of the afternoon. Her limitations with the English language
became clear around the time of giving us an idea, and other than something
about the pool of nature all was not clear and it seemed best to simply
thank her and go outside for a look around.
Things to do that Rochelle perhaps did or did not cover: have a look
around; watch the wind throw little tornadoes of dirt down the one and
only main road that divides Kong Chiang into two sides of competing,
third world frontier capitalist ventures; dodge motorbikes; wonder if
there are refugee camps nearby; and get an espresso from the guy who
has an espresso machine set up on the corner (US $1 and "Yes,
many," he replied to my question about the camps; or that might
have been an encouragement to buy more coffee.). I also pop into the
largest and nicest building of teak wood I might ever have seen. It
is ridiculously ornate for the surroundings and is carefully watched
over by an impeccably dressed Thai fellow. The place is a cosmetics
store, air conditioned, and for sheer size and supply must be as well-stocked
as any cosmetics store could be. To what purpose? I do not know, but
have a hamburger anyway (US 55 cents) before heading back to the place
I will sleep. Thai food is wonderful, but in a place like this it might
be best to stick to something familiar; to politely ask them to cook
the meat carefully, well-done, or even a bit more; to take it back again,
blackening the burger, to burn it beyond any semblance of taste or aroma,
and then I will apply ketchup to it myself.
There are several places to eat along the way, some no more than tents
with blackboard menus. The people standing outside them do not tout,
but their looks change from the hopeful to the baleful as they figure
out that I am not going to pick them. I pause for a minute in the sitting
room of the hostel; there is an advertisement something on a
sheet of paper which hints at the existence of nearby computer facilities
for a nature walk, with Rochelle as guide, to "the close
by clear water area of swimming" (swimming in the Mekong would,
I assume, be tantamount to ordering a cup of freshly-brewed hepatitis)
and "on the way seeing the locally growing herb."
"Hey," says an Australian guy who was on the bus, "wake
me up if I dont get up tomorrow."
"For the boat you know."
"5 a.m.," he said, holding up a Singha. "Cheers."
next morning we cleared Thai immigration down on a muddy wharf populated
with backpackers, immigration officials, locals selling things,
and people in some ways like me (30ish to 40ish types, attempting
to dress down for the occasion, but not really succeeding, people
with enough money, who dont really have to do this, young
at heart with the jolly air of an anticipated folly that will provide
lively conversation for years to follow) and some local children
kicking a round, taped collection of rags. "Bekham," reads
the hand-written name on the back of one of the shirts. On the Thai
side, the border guards seemed bemused at the prospect of foreigners
paying for a six-hour trip up the Mekong on a long-tailed boat.
On the Laotian side,
there was much less concern with the more pedestrian sociological aspects
of our journey. These were strict fellows, and they were ready for us
when we got there. We about ten at a time, a flat ferry boat-full
were quickly stamped through and then put in a mini-bus and taken
to the center of some small collection of semi-abandoned buildings.
Immediately one noted the influence of French architecture. We had been
deposited in front of a little restaurant where potatoes (french-fried)
and chicken were prepared, presumably for the sole benefit of Western
travelers such as us. The owners of the place seemed a bit embarrassed
at it all, except for the Australian guy, who made quick work of a large
lunch, and while he ate we passed a few otherwise very quiet moments
before another mini-bus came to deliver us to the area of embarkment.
The dock, as it were, was an almost vertical drop with an attempt at
mud steps hacked into the bank; they must have been wonderfully efficient
during the dry season, I thought during my less-than-graceful descent.
I was initially wedged alongside Jimmy, a fellow from Ireland. "Fookin
Roy Keane," he said. "Nice to meecha."
The boats are exactly the sort one sees ascribed to these parts in the
movies no head cover and about three feet above the water
line, able to hold from 6-8 tourists, and from 10-15 locals. Not a luxury
ride, but then again not that bad, if you can maintain a semi-lotus-like
position for an hour or two. The boat would stop every so often and
everyone would stand up, as someone in the back mentioned, "to
avoid carnal thrombolosis."
A mile upriver we stopped for a not-really precarious transfer to a
similar long-tail: You Are Now In Laos, was the simple explanation.
The river is a place to be, at times calm and placid and at others with
strange currents that flowed not always up or downstream but often from
side to side; eddies that swirled out from twists or turns, or sunken
trees, or something else that whipped them into brief rapids.
As in all human situations, especially when other people are around,
there are those determined to establish a hierarchy. Jimmy is an experienced
backpacker, and has looked askance at worse. He has a fine nose and
an opinion on most things. "I just hate to see them knicking us
for every penny," hed said, haggling with the English-less
Laotian who had transported us to the docks (Price: US 30 cents). "Paid
im right off, didja?" hed howled as I picked
myself up at the bottom of the mud steps. Other than the mid-river change,
we made three more stately stops along the way. One, at a dock below
a Hmong village where the only Laotian passenger on board bought two
huge catfish-looking creatures and announced that anyone staying
in my guest house will eat their dinner of this catfish for free on
this night. After stretching our legs, he became my seat companion,
and we exchanged a few words. There was something about him that went
against the grain of what is necessary to be a truly successful tout,
and he kept a dignified silence for the remainder of the trip.
At another little dock set below another little village of huts perched
on bamboo stilts neat collections, from a seeming distance, of
places to live we picked up a boy who looked about 12, and was
probably closer to 20. His father watched with some anxiety as he settled
in amongst the foreigners; a bit farther upriver, he turned and offered
me (sitting directly behind) fare from a huge ball of sticky rice, and
I gave him what was left from my bottle of water, and the fellow in
back holding the motor kept the same firm grip and someone leaned forward
to whisper something with a brogue twinge that I missed entirely except
for "very important" and when I turned around Jimmy was reading
a paperback and the Australian guy was sitting next to him, head up,
looking like home was right around the bend.
The last stop, for refreshment, was at a sort of floating 7-11; soft
drinks, Pringles, fried rice and such could be had. We walked across
the boats that had preceded us to get to this rickety, floating contraption;
behind it was a hostel, set on firm ground, for those who chose to break
their journey in the middle; or even get off here thinking, Forever.
We bumped along the way, passing villages and temples, and long stretches
of river and forest on either side, and then caves with Buddhas standing
guard, which meant we were close to Luang Pabang, and it was there we
hit the rain that we had seen looming where the sky spread out above
the funnel of tree line. Then warming sunshine, and then we were walking
up a long flight of stone stairs leading up from the water.
I found a place a bit away from the center, an old two-story French
colonial mansion in just the correct faded condition. In the lobby,
which during family days would have been the drawing room, there were
tastefully framed black and white pictures of elephant days and of elegantly-dressed
colonials, some local art more elephants, and some Buddhist things
and a tacked-up loose leaf notice about some sort of nature walk
to the falls. I took the room downstairs with a comfortable double bed,
writing table, air con, bathroom with hot water, and window looking
out on the grounds very green and expansive with a couple of
ancient and shady trees for US $6.
I was greeted and signed in the extent of his English
by a young Laotian fellow who would see to my needs, delicious coffee
Lao and those wonderful Laotian breakfasts based around fried eggs with
French-style baguettes, plus directions to this or that place, and finally
a quick ride out of town, in a careful and efficient manner for the
next few days. He would have been the boy of old, as in
the boy who would have impertinently suggested to the French officers
that the jungle might not be the best place to put the fort. The boy
Graham Greene would have sent out for another pipe at a dubious time,
or that Somerset Maugham, in his later period, would have had lying
around in a kimono just for local color. The boy who would have handed
the Americans in mirrored sunglasses a neatly rolled-up flag and wished
them a pleasant helicopter flight out from the place where officially
they had never been. A timeless and unflinching witness to the civilizing
influence of the Western world. He was a nice kid, and smiled a lot,
although I never caught his name.
Luang Pabang was fairly busy with visitors for the rainy season, and
at the time it seemed that it could only get bigger. Since then, Hmong
guerillas or bandits remnants of the war to stop the spread of
communism in Southeast Asia have become more active in the area
of Vang Vieng, a nearby town which has grown along with the tourist
boom; buses have been machine gunned, with some actual Western People
comprising a noticeable minority among the victims.
But why is this happening? The Hmong have considered themselves perhaps
rightly an oppressed minority, like many people who live high up, for
eternities; is this not merely a continuation of a centuries-old situation
seen in many other places? Well, yes, and the Laotian crown prince,
in exile, was in the States the other day picking up money here and
there just as another raid took place, and it could well be that if
the Lao government really wants to clean this mess up resettlement,
as ever, has not solved the problem, in spite of some successes
they will have to turn to the Vietnamese for military help, which would
not set well with a large portion of the common Lao folk. It would probably
be enough to angrily rouse them from their usual state of sopoforic
acceptance, or enlightened Buddhist reverie, which would doubtless please
the Thai military authorities in the North and Northeast, who remember
the short border war fought there in the late 1980s. They would love
nothing better than to destabilize the Lao regime in so clever a manner,
and in the meantime are content to stridently deny that ten Thai soldiers
died for every Lao to fall during that short, stupid, other jungle conflict.
On the other hand, to follow the line of thought common in some American
political circles these days, one senses the hand of religious extremists
in all this. The menacing specter of weapons of mass destruction, of
cleverly disguised Mosque-littered spheres of influence, which need
to be absolutely, finally, conclusively and beyond all question bombed
into potential Wal-Mart parking lots. Of grim-turbaned death squads
looking for flirtatious blond women to slap around, of people in this
area who the powers that be have been meaning to decapitate for a very
long time now. But have the right people for the job been notified?
Have the deadly mechanisms been self-righteously and irrevocably set
They make a great beef steak in Laos. A tinch of oyster sauce and the
usual Lao tang of fresh mint and herbs as opposed to the Thai aftering
of chili. Of course you can enjoy this meal anywhere they slaughter
water buffalo fresh, but its always special where they know how
to do it right; just as with the really good raw kipper outside of those
stands in Amsterdam that from a distance look like bus ticket kiosks
in Turkey. And isnt it odd also how you cant get a decent
Greek salad outside of Thracian Greece. Also very nice are the Lao fish
or meat or salads of fowl. Fish, in my case, is tossed around with green
onions, mint leaves, garlic, lime juice, and a modicum of mild chilies,
then rolled inside a little ball of lettuce and herbs and tucked away.
This, with a little sticky rice, and a cold Beer Lao (a very good light
beer), and that is a meal in those parts.
As the tourists move in, or moved in around that time, however, it became
not so easy to find that kind of food, at least not in Luang Pabang.
It could be argued that few travel to Laos for the food, good as it
is, and certainly those who go to Luang Pabang are considered to be
interested in temples, first, and the royal heritage of the Lao, second,
if at all. In the temple that overlooks everything, Phu Si, "the
monks smoke water pipes!" a backpacker in Malaysia once told me.
From this vantage point you can see the Mekong on both sides of town,
and the endless green of the jungle, and the main street where
all the foreigners congregate that could not be more than three
miles long. Pensions, internet cafes, the odd used bookshop, and restaurants
fill the spaces, and most of the latter are designed after what a Laotian
who had never left Luang Pabang thinks a foreigner, who has no real
idea about Laos, would expect of one of the poorest and most isolated
countries in the world.
So one finds the expected selection of clean local food
eateries each with a sign that might as well read: We and
are making a real effort here to allow you to taste our poor food without
spending the rest of your holiday in a dyspeptic coma" and
other more chic settings for cuisine, with fake Colonial décor
anterooms leading to something or other notions of what French food
must have been like when the French were there to do it as well as they
could, given where they were.
Not a few of those places make a really good hamburger (US 90 cents).
I met the Australian guy as I was leaving one of them, walking through
a seemingly endless and mostly unpopulated tribe of neat, round tables
with clean white tablecloths and thick table linen artfully folded;
a scene waiting to be framed, or, perhaps more expectantly, to be populated
by the sort of folk who make it a point to stay far far away from the
Luang Pabangs of the world. He was sitting near the door, catching the
breeze, and from the look on his face had been expecting to bump into
me at any moment.
"Get a room, didja mate?"
"In this little neighborhood."
"How much they knickin you for?"
"Yeah," he said. "Enjoy it while it lasts mate. Shell
be up to eight next year."
"With all the mess that goes along with it," I said.
"Sure," he said. "All that stuff."
"Still looking for the Y mate."
"Good one," I said.
"Cheers, mate," he said, holding up a Beer Lao.
There are other areas where food can be found. If it were possible to
map, in concentric circles, the socio-economical distribution of food
resources in most cities, it would probably look much like it does in
Luang Pabang, from the fab and over-priced of the center moving slightly
outward to the less-decorous, with as good or better food, menued-up
family size and at more reasonable prices, to those places on the outskirts
of town where slightly-addled widowers sit dreamily rolling week-old
venison meatballs between sweaty palms (US 35 cents a plateful).`
Off the main street also is where one finds the morning market,s with
all the interesting things people bring to town hoping to sell, and
needful things they are. Various herbs and vegetables and roots or what
could be roots but really might be anything; knives, and not the sort
you can slip in your pocket, or tuck onto your belt, but the sort of
vicious curved gut-gougers that have been the stuff of screaming nightmares
for well-heeled Western diplomats down through the centuries; what looked
like a .45 automatic set beside a nice pair of aged, yet still spit
polish hiking boots; a very white skull with mirrored sunglasses placed
rakishly across the ridge of the nose (just kidding), and so on down
the road which leads to the river.
Here, there, are a few places set up for tourists to drink beer, the
local equivalent of Vientianes more charming beer gardens. In
places such as these one finds the few people in this country who, outside
their own families, enjoy the pleasures of free speech. And a few of
them sometimes make use of that right, which has been granted them through
no other means than the acquisition of English, although most are content
to use it in whatever agreeable fashion will ply one more beer out of
their new tourist friend. But these make up only a minute percentile
of the local people who show up in these places. Most are, like the
tourists, looking for a little diversion, -- mainly those who have picked
up a word or two of the language here or there university students
and men heading home from work, or stepping out for an hour after dinner.
Its a good place in Luang Pabang to wave away the mosquitoes,
but it cannot match the more elegant pilsner rendezvous of Vientiane,
or those floating rafts on the Mekong where it is possible to chat up
the sort of local people who would be inclined, and capable, of speaking
to a foreigner. It is a very good place for us and them to watch the
river flow, and maybe have a snack. And perhaps lean over, amidst the
hubbub, and whisper to your knew foreigner friend that the last minor
functionary bribe you were forced to pay was especially exorbitant and
discomfiting for your family.
Once you make it to Luang Pabang, its easy to be a tourist. Simply
start walking, right down the main street, and you will come to the
vestiges of the Lao Royal Family the palace where they used to
live; you can check it out, and also ponder the vanishing act of the
family itself right around the time the Pathet Lao took over. Then just
keep walking and you will come to wonders of Buddhist temples, some
more known and wondrous than others. I can state personally that the
monks will come right out and talk to you, and that they speak varying
degrees of English, and are more friendly than the Thai monks, who I
am sure are very friendly but in a fashion more in tune with the indications
of their culture. Or maybe it had something to do with me. Careful research
would shed a fresh light on this and more.
Yes, the monks come right out and talk to you in the Land of a Million
Elephants, and one of them said something about getting a job when this
holy man thing played itself out, and it is pleasant to discover that
one is never truly alone. There are the monks, the elephants (the pictures
of them), and travelers of all sorts: backpackers passing through, or
staying too long (Primary indicator: a sudden career change to ENGLISH
TEACHER OFFERING LESSONS FROM HOSTEL); more affluent older types choosing
to rough it; less affluent younger types taking advantage of the chance
to live it up a bit; and various varieties of solo goers.
There are basically two types of solo travelers: the first, who sets
out seeking companionship, and is often disappointed not to find it;
and the second, who does not, invariably finds it, and is interested
in some way.
I was neither pleased nor displeased in Luang Pabang, because I had
been there too long, as was indicated by the non-concentric circles
I walked around and around, when it was August and very hot. I had already
climbed the endless dragon stairs to the excellent view of mountains
and river there was no end to them or my wanderings and
should have taken the next whatever out of there, but didnt.
I did all that and more, talking to the monks and all, when it was hot,
and it was then that I began to see the logic in those little cafes
that have sprung up and down the main visitors street. Most are
not very elaborate, or not even intentionally unelaborated. These are
just little places, in some regions they would be referred to as a walk-in
closet, with tea, coffee and cold drinks, and some places to sit, humble
though they and the prices they charge may be. At first it is easy to
walk by them, but these cafes do a good and steady business in all Asian
tourist destinations because they are enduring and will wait until it
is very hot and you have seen everything, but are unaware of that, and
still walking around, letting it come to you slowly that it is time
It was noon, August, hot, time to go, and I sat down at one of these
small cafes and had a big water, and then a small one to chase it down
with. Not many people were out that time of day, so it was a while before
someone came along, also hot, a day or two late for the boat out, like
me, and in need of refreshment. We had already passed each other, without
acknowledgement, several times: at the internet café, coming
or going; peering down at what must have been the old landing dock below
the Royal Palace; at Wat Xieng Thong, on the northern side, a temple
so famous that even the famous bandit Black Flag Haw spared it the torch
when he sacked the city in 1887; buying water (that concept!) at a nameless
place along the river walk near to the Manoluck Hotel; and finally,
with an anxious-looking guide, descending Phu Si, while I wearily ascended.
The guide was no longer with him, and we sat drinking water and watching
things around us. The French often do not trouble themselves with English,
and at university I troubled myself with very little, and so it took
a nudge from other forces to set us in motion.
Something out of the ordinary came puttering by on a decrepit motorbike
and wiped out harmlessly and inconsiderately sending vegetables
rolling up and down the empty street. The driver stood right up, scratching
his head, with the putt-putt motor still running. Faces appeared in
windows, and a bell was ringing somewhere.
"He made a mistake, perhaps. A bad thing."
This with little trace of foreigners English.
"Unlucky. Not bad," he said. "Unfortunate."
He took from his billfold and offered a card.
"This is my card," he said.
"Yes, and one of mine." The last one, as my cards went, and
a bit soggy from the miles.
His identified himself simply as a chemist. From several names listed,
he advised that I simply call him John.
"We have been seeing each other."
"All over the place."
"I believe we would say chemist, on the continent?"
"Instructor or professeur?" Dragging that one out.
"Teacher. Of English."
"At a university."
In the street tomatoes and such were being collected.
"A little local color."
"Yes, perhaps your guide could best explain."
John made a slight contra temps gesture.
"I think it would make sense to me you or him."
John was traveling by car from Vientienae, with his driver, and had
liasoned with his guide in Luang Pabang. All of course arranged well
ahead of time. He was very interested in my trip up the Mekong, and
I wanted to know how much his overland travel had cost.
"All this just came to me," I said, when I had finished telling
him what I could.
"Yes, it is wonderful, even for a quick journey."
"I liked it. It was quiet by then."
"Did you see the old AA gun?"
"The cannon? Yes."
"When I was in down on the coast this Australian guy, owns a restaurant
there or something, runs a fishing boat up and down the coast in season,
told me about these two Russian gunboats, about 20 miles into the bush,
just left there to rust."
"Yes," he said, "we have left our shit everywhere."
It sounded very good with more of a French accent.
"It is still very nice here, you know. Although: my guide took
me to the hill tribe village yesterday. All quite interesting, and her
French is very good. But the way she spoke of them, the description,
while we were standing in their house. It was as though they were lower
types of people. And she just took me right into the house, without
asking permission. Of course they could have asked permission before.
And to talk about those people in such a way, even if they dont
know the words, while they are listening in their own house."
"I like that one, in English. Some people."
The motorbike was being led away, with a procession of talkative young
people now in tow.
"Yes, it is everywhere."
"In my country also."
He took a small sketchbook from his day pack, and was rooting around
for something else.
"Well," while still looking, "I do a bit of sketch work
to, um, amuse myself, as they say. But I cant find
"Here you go. Le pen."
"Ah yes, the pen. You have one also."
While removing his hand a small green something dropped out.
"Silk. That is neat."
"Yes, silk. A small boy in the village. He gave it to me as we
were walking to the car."
"Ran up from the house?"
"That we do not know."
"Interesting. And nice."
"Would you like it? I could be rid of that whole thing."
"Yes, Ill take it."
It took a slight exertion to bend from his seated position and swipe
"There you go".
© Dan Pendergrass October 8th 2004
American University in Dubai
Travel in Hacktreks2
all rights reserved