[A Laos travelogue, from a journey taken in 2002]
In the words of former Taoiseach of Ireland, Charles Haughey, the situation is “grotesque, unprecedented, bizarre and unbelievable”. It’s 10.30 at night in a bar on the outskirts of Muang Sing, a town itself on the outskirts of the rest of Laos, a country on the outskirts of the South East Asian tourist trail, and, from an admittedly euro-centric viewpoint, civilization – where civilization is intended as the comforts of technology. We’re the only customers, and have spent the night ordering ridiculously cheap and good beer from our engaging host. At 9.30, when the electricity from the town generator was shut off, he switched on his own, so we could continue watching videos on a huge TV screen. Now, with candles on our table, he explains that he’s shutting off the generator and going to bed, and with that he promptly dissappears, leaving us to our beers and unpaid bar tab. Between the four of us we eye each other nervously, wondering individually whether we’re the only bad-hearted one to think of running out the door (if there were a door – there isn’t, just an empty frame). In Laos ten dollars can get you a lot of kip (local currency), so technically we’re loaded, though in any other place we’d have a very limited budget, hence the temptation. What publican in Europe or the States would dangle such a moral challenge in front of his customers? We haven’t the gumption to be dishonest, and instead, after finishing our beers, go in search of the bar owner, sleeping in a back room with his family. We wake him up, embarassedly, pay our tab and venture out into the pitch black night.
It’s a cliché expressed often about Laos, and its people, that it is too laid back for its own good. Back in the 1950s Norman Lewis in his epic travelogue of South East Asia, A Dragon Apparent noted: “It is considered ill-bred and irreligious in Laos to work more than is necessary…The accumulation of wealth which is not to be used for definite, approved purposes, causes a man to lose prestige among his neighbours, just as in the west, the process is reversed” [pg255/56]. As with all clichés, there’s quite a bit of truth to this, and arriving in Laos from either Thailand or Vietnam, the relative lack of interest on the part of locals in tourists, and their dollars/kip is like a lungful of clean pure air to a drowning man.
Savannakhet and Thakkek
Three weeks earlier we crossed the border from Vietnam’s desolate de-militarized zone, into Laos. Waiting for the ‘bus’ to bring us to Savannakhet in the extreme south of the country, I noted all the men and women had those little face masks, made of plastic or cotton. Fear of Chickens immediately gripped me, and of chickens there are many in Laos, envisaging the air borne onslaught of several types of hitherto undiscovered avian flu. Seven hours later, after sitting happily in the open air compartment crudely fashioned on the back of a truck that passes for a bus, and the bumpiest ride of one’s life, the reason for the face masks became more obvious and less avian. The fine red dust track that passed for a road was interactive, and a good part had lodged itself in my nostrils, ears, throat, and eyes.
The countryside is poor, and destroyed by war and bombing. One sees along the side of the road bomb craters. There are dead, dry, napalm stripped trees in the middle of fields that still remain only half cultivated. Cows and buffaloe graze, and in their midst dozens of chidren play, while their mothers work or rest in houses that, resting on stilts, are little more than wooden covered platforms.
Savannakhet, has little going for, or for that matter against, it. It simply is, in a quiet way. It’s the first time I see anyone walking, leisurely, akwardly balancing two piles of banknotes under his chin, amounting to what must be a couple of million Kip( 900 kip currently to the dollar, with the largest bank note being 500 kip). He wanders from the bank without a care in the world, other than keeping the difficult load balanced, and no-one blinks an eye. This is a country where an estimated 40% of the population live below the poverty line (and of the remaining 60% one can safely presume that very few are ‘rolling in it’), and yet this stroller wanders unmolested. Not wishing to draw unfair comparisons, but weeks earlier I had the misfortune to be on a busy Hanoi street where a girl dropped her wallet, bulging with pre-Tet [Vietnamese New Year] cash. The ensuing scrum, of which I was a passive member, left me with bruises that cured me of any remaining delusions that the average Vietnamese is small and delicate.