After the turbulence and whisking clouds, the sky clears. 10 minutes to land. The dirt roads below remind you of the deep red earth between Lusaka and Livingston where elephants roam and you can buy fat cake and fried fish heads at road-side stands. From above, Vientiane looks a lot like deep red dirt roads. And green countryside. And murky rice paddies. It’s barely October…
First breakfast: two fried eggs. Then pork noodle soup, which looks and tastes like Pho, only this has no fish balls.
“How do Laos people drink coffee?”
The hotel restaurant waitress gives me a look, then she says, “you mean what’s the Laos coffee like?”
Her question is better. “Yes!”
“They put the condensed milk with the coffee and sweetener, but maybe it’s too sweet…for you.”
“Can I order—”
She shakes her head no. “Here we don’t have. You want Latte? Cappuccino?”
“Black coffee is okay.”
Slurps of pork noodle soup later, she returns. “One of the cleaner ladies here brings the Laos coffee every day. We will bring you some to try. It’s okay?”
“It’s just a small. Just to try.”
She returns with the drink on ice. It’s super savory and very sweet and milky; it complements the humid morning warm…
The hotel concierge presents a map of downtown Vientiane. She circles the hotel off Quai Fa Ngum.
“What must we see or do today?”
She writes “Hopeko” by one landmark to the far right of the map. “15-minute walk here,” she says, “maybe twenty.” She circles a few other locations.
“These are temples?”
The manager, a French man, arrives then. “Have you been to Paris,” he says.
He circles another landmark on the map. “You must see this one. C’est tres magnifique.”
Outside, the air is clammy. On one side of Rue Settathirath, a gaggle of electric wires hangs and runs parallel with the road. Coffee shops and bakeries and French colonial architecture that reminds you of downtown Dakar. The narrow alleyways and worn buildings that could tell a million stories about back then. Instead of the tired yellow, bumble-bee taxis in Dakar, here there are three-wheeled tuk tuks painted heavy blue or green. Left on Avenue Lang Xang until Patouxay. Remember the Arc de Triomphe in Paris? Same-same, but different. Laotian mythology lives in the arc’s ceiling. Two photos by the fountain with Patouxay in the background cost 40,000 Kip…
Sharing several Beerlaos with an expat Aussie friend. Earlier today, the Richmond Tigers defeated the Adelaide Crows in the Australian Football League, which is a big deal for some Melbourne fans. She says there’s no western fast food in Laos. She says: “No KFC, McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks.”
“Yummy. Why not?”
“They’re still pissed at America for Vietnam,” she says.
Over 600,000 US bombing missions occurred during the Vietnam war. Because of Laos’ proximity to Vietnam, they bore the pain of many of those missions, and today, the remnants of that past are called “bombies” and they lie in the rich soil, ready to detonate, mostly in the north-east and east of Laos and each is the size of a tennis ball and filled with steel pellets. In 2006, the Vientiane Times reported that “about 400 people are killed or injured by unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos each year.” Another, more recent on-line site, http://www.legaciesofwar.org, states that at least 20,000 lives have been lost since the end of Vietnam because of these leftover “bombies.”
Make Laos “Bombie” Free Again…
The beer is good and cold. She orders several dishes. The best is the fish served out of a plastic bag. The sauce is gooey and thick and just a tad spicy. Laos is a communist country so the conversation moves toward China. When I ask if Laos and China are partners, she nods no.
“I wouldn’t say they’re partners with China,” she says. She leans in and moves her hands toward each other like they want to choke or strangle something. She says China has dammed the Mekong and keeps damming the Mekong. Damn. Now, the Mekong is more difficult to predict. You think about cartoon analogies, because sometimes cartoons make more sense than real life. You picture Gargamel’s wicked, intruding hands harassing Smurf nation to make gold…She’s a writer too and you talk about how difficult dialogue is to capture—among other things. The Beerlao is starting to take effect, but the “bombies” are on your mind because you think that’s another sad story to hear about the world…
On a plane to Pakse. In the seat pocket, Champa Meuanglao: a charming magazine, and on page 40, there’s “The Tale of the Lady Fish” in both English and in Lao. You fall into the tale and you wish your culture had tales like this one to tout as your own. Maybe it does, but you’re not sure. Does the Sons of the American Revolution count? Here in Laos, the Pa Nang fish has only half a ribcage…
“Long, long ago, our ancestors spoke of a beautiful and magical princess, whose comeliness and virtue were reminiscent of those of the legendary Nang Soumountha. It was said that whoever was honorable enough to wed the princess would bring tremendous prosperity and richness to his people…her beauty spread far and wide across the many kingdoms, finally capturing the hearts of two valiant princes of two of the most powerful kingdoms in all the land…”
You already know how this will end. You look out the window of the twin-engine plane and down below and, Jesus, it really does look like sub-Saharan Africa. Back when you were in the Peace Corps, in northern Namibia, in Owamboland, in the tropical savannah, in the African Bush where the world was all relative to the dry and wet season, and everything on the radio was local Kwaito and Brenda Fassie, and almost every taxi driver in Owambo had a cassette tape of Don Williams.
Don Williams, you remember? You wondered then how in the hell Owamboland attained Don Williams cassette tapes. You’re not sure what album it was—that doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s all kind of like that documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Or something like that. You haven’t listened to Don Williams since, but back then you memorized every song because you could envision the lyrics when you had to do chores like fetch water (eta omeya) or look after the goats and cows in the fields (you forgot that Oshiwambo phrase). Or maybe you just memorized Don Williams, because Don Williams was so slow and easy to memorize. It was easier than the CDs you had at the time for your Sony Discman: Rage Against the Machine, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Prince’s Musicology, Led Zeppelin II, and Enter the Wu-Tang.
“Realising that neither [prince] would yield, the princess, in a selflessly heroic move, sacrificed her own life to save the thousands that would die in warfare. Before her untimely death, she instructed her trusted aides to halve her body and offer one side each to both princes…The princes woefully did as they had been instructed. Once each half had been submerged into the water, it magically became a fish, and like the form from which it came, had only half of a ribcage…”
Wu-Tang Clan Forever…
Champasak is a sleepy village, but in ancient times it was the King’s home. You’ve been to Angor Wat, and this is nothing—absolutely nothing—like Angor Wat, but it’s kind of better because there’s no one here and it’s foggy and it might rain soon and your son is on your chest and you’re wandering through an ancient village. You make it to the top and the views are better than Angor Wat, but you shouldn’t compare, you’re just saying, right. There’s a temple at the top. You’re not sure how Hindu and Buddhism bleed together here, does it matter? There are relics and there’s burning incense. You make a prayer with your wife and son because yesterday a lot of lives were lost in Vegas and maybe, you think, America needs prayer from where you are. Meanwhile, the Mekong keeps moving…
Champasak sits right on the wide, milky-looking, moving-at-snail-pace Mekong river. It moves faster than it looks though and the mythical serpent-like Phaya Naga lives in the waters.
You commit to running every morning. It’s barely six, but the sun pokes through the bloated cloud cover and the roosters are crowing and your son isn’t awake yet, so, you know, it’s now or never. You take the main road first. You pass road-side shops selling everyday stuff, like stuff you’d buy once every few months at COSTCO or Target. The rice paddies here are lush green and full; rice grass sways with the breeze. The cattle look more like water buffalo than cattle. The houses are built on stilts, and you wonder if the Mekong gets this high, but later, you learn, because you ask, that, no, the Mekong doesn’t get that high here, but the stilted houses allow for a cool place for families to sit and relax and feel the breeze. Every house should be built on stilts then.
There are dogs on your run, and you think, no way you’re afraid of these dogs, and only one comes at you, running like it might snip at you, and you stop and point at it, and say, “no,” and the dog stops then, really afraid of you, and you turn and keep running and feel bad when you pass a monastery where a line of monks, draped in deep orange and maroon robes, walk. They’re serene, but determined, and you’re not sure if that’s accurate because you only get a snapshot of now. You keep running and see more monks and cut back off the main road and loop back along the even-more narrow road that hugs the Mekong. Families and shop owners are on their knees, holding out alms and food—sticky rice and fruit and hard boiled eggs—and they wait for the monks to arrive and pray over their residence and work place. As you run, you watch a few exchanges. It seems dogmatic, sure, but feels real. To submit to something. That always feels real.
After your run, you watch a crew team sprint up and down the Mekong. They chant. There’s a rhythm to it that you can count, but you don’t understand the words. Is it kind of like jiayou in Chinese? At the back of the boat, one man sort of kneels so he’s higher than the others. He’s looking out in front of everyone, directing them by knocking on the boat’s side with his oar in between the rhythm of the team’s rowing.
At a recommended restaurant for lunch. The owner speaks English. You order Beef Laap.
“North Laap and south Laap is very different,” she says.
You have no point of reference, but you say, “yeah? How are they different?”
“South is more spicy.”
You order more fried fish in chili sauce and take a drink of papaya juice.
She says she has a one month-old son. “It’s good luck if the son looks like the mother and the daughter looks like the father,” she says.
My wife and I look at each other and then at our son and then to her.
“You have very good luck,” she says…
The next morning, you don’t wake as early, but the roosters are still crowing and there are no clouds, but the sun’s not so high, so it’s still early. On your run, you miss the monks, but this time you pass children walking and biking to school. They are wearing their school uniform: crisp, white, buttoned-up collar shirt and navy blue pants.
You just learned that word, but it’s the greatest phrase ever. It’s almost as great as “Asalamalakum.”
Every morning should be like this one.
Green. Lush. Overflowing rice paddies.
Cattle sauntering through fields, neck bells cackling.
Stilted, cozy houses on the horizon. Chicken satays grilling on road-side stands.
There’s a dog.
You run…you could run like this for miles and miles.
Or kilometers of monasteries…
On your last morning in Champasak, you decide not to run. You’ll take a bike ride with your son or take a walk or do something else, like read. Grey, dusty clouds hover over the Mekong. They don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon, and you think it might rain. There are other things to write, for sure, but you don’t want to think too hard about Laos. It’s too beautiful and peaceful and serene. You spend your last few hours thinking about how to submit to it all…