My trip to Laos was an event from start to finish. There was a bus full of people, ready to go a full 30 minutes before departure. A friend rushed me on board where I took a seat near one of my aerobics friends, Charliao. She is married to a German man and speaks fluent German, the result of living in Germany for several years. She and her husband speak German, though he lives in Thailand! It is funny to meet people who are basically white, but do not speak a lick of English. It always throws me off and reveals my ethnocentricity I guess. I had ridden my bike with backpack on to one of my schools, to park my bike for the weekend. It was safe under the care of Kru who lived at one of the houses for teachers. Later I found out I had misunderstood someone when I asked them to pick me up from my house.
Take My Wife, Seriously
It is going on dusk and the host of the trip, a lovely person with an awesome voice basically mc’d for the next 7 hours. First, there is some singing, it is after all, a karaoke bus, with lights and colorful decor throughout. What fun the Thais songs are… so upbeat. Before they discover there are indeed songs in English, they ask me to sing. The only song I can think of is that Carpenters song, Close to You, which is my standard in-pocket karaoke number. They are amazed a farang can sing and I win hearts. Then it’s mister funny guy’s turn. He is a teacher during the day but by night, he is Johnny Carson or Don ?. I have never seen so many wide mouths in total hillarium gut laughter. I am sure there were a few wet pants. So, not only is he funny, he stays funny for hours. These people laughed for hours. I did not understand a word but my cultural IQ was rising. I am positive there were plenty of naughty jokes. It doesn’t take language to decode that. I sat in amazement.
We stopped at gas stations along the way, which in Thailand are like mini-worlds. There is a coffee stand, 7-11 or other quickie mart, maybe an OTOP store (where local products are sold) or restaurant. The bathrooms are clean and there is always an attendant. Thai women know not to take their purses into the bathrooms. Instead they grab some toilet paper from their purse and head, to the head, so to speak. I have not learned this yet. I place my bag over my shoulder and squat. It drops down as I am reaching for the water container inside the small cistern. I can’t reach it without the purse sliding off and dropping onto the ground. The ground. The place only feet touch. Feet are soiled and not pretty in Thailand. They are a symbol of what is unclean. You do not point your feet at anyone. Some people find it unacceptable to move something with your foot. Not that I would know anything about that. That is why you do not see (up North anyway) people sitting cross legged. I even have find it distasteful now. I saw someone on TV being interviewed and he had his legs crossed and pointing right at the woman interviewing him. Disgusting, I thought to myself. So, the bag slung down and I tried to pour water on my hand to wipe but the bag was in the way. When you cannot speak you learn to watch. I have watched and learned.
Mouths need time to rest and they soon discover some English songs and ask me to sing. I love to sing so it is not a problem. My seat mate was asleep and it was about 11pm. I happened to see a song in English scroll by and wrote it down quickly. “I will Survive.” Peppy I thought. It takes a few stanzas before the microphone reaches me and when it does the singer is in full throttle so I scream, “And now your back…” I mean I was loud, my seat mate on the other hand, remained asleep. With music in the air almost nightly, I believe Thais learn to sleep anywhere, anytime. Another woman picks up the microphone and in a low, beautiful voice with Melissa Ethridge over tones, she sings a rock song and sounds like she is really singing the song live in concert. We all cheer her madly when she finishes.
A bad smell permeates the bus. People remark, “men” which means bad smell. From then on no one uses the bathroom on board the bus. I know this from the way people disembark the bus at every rest stop. Thai people have a natural no nonsense attitude when it comes to smells and poo. Children do not wear diapers and poo and pee when and where ever they need to. I have witnessed this in China as well a Thailand. One evening, a friend of mine remarked on her previous wretched day, where she spend a good part of it on the toilet having bad diarrhea.
The Border Fiasco
It was approaching 7am. We were nearing the Friendship Bridge border crossing into Laos at Nong Khai, Thailand. I was thinking positive thoughts that the tour people knew what they were doing with me. After all, I had given them 1200 baht for a VISA, etc. They asked me to bring 4 additional photos. I should have know something strange was going to happen when they gave me back the 1200 baht. Suddenly, I find myself saying yut noi ka. Yut noi ka. Stop please, this time a little louder. The bus does not stop in Thailand so I can get a stamp to show that I have left Thailand, legally. I had to stand up and loudly pronounce I have to get off the bus. The young woman whose parents who own the tour company said calmly, my father has taken care of everything. It is s tour bus, she said. I said I cannot go into Laos without a Visa. This turns into an hour ordeal, and in the meantime, the tour bus leaves and heads to the first temple and I fill out forms and then go back to the Thailand entrance to get an exit stamp. The whole time the husband and wife are arguing (correction, the husband was almost in hysterics and his wife was trying to calm him). He passed cars and drove over road bumps designed to make you slow down. Then when the Thailand immigration people get confused about my passport, being a PCV is very different from the normal farang, I get passed to a different office only to come back to the first immigration official again. The tour man yells at the immigration man for not understanding. I am so sad he is so angry at other people. Finally, I get my stamp and we are on our way back to the Laos entrance. I wait in line and talk to a nice couple, she Thai, he Australian, who just got married the day before. My turn, now I am with the wife only, the husband has departed, to get a stiff drink I think. Looking back, I think it was their intention to have me whisked through each way sign unseen. No one got off the tour bus to show I.D. or passport. Laos is an ASEAN neighbor and travel reciprocity exists between the countries. I don’t know if they need a passport. So, I could have easily been swept back and forth through each country. Laos does not allow you to apply on line for a VISA so, you have to do it at entry point. I had to pay $34 or 1050 baht. Sweet Pim is the wife and we are now both in a taxi headed to find the rest of the tour. My heart goes out to her to have such a hot headed husband. When we catch up to the tour, at temple Pata Luang (over 400 years old) and everyone asks me if everything is riap roy (complete and presentable) yes, I say, thank you. A new guide is talking to me though I am not sure who she is. I ask who are you and she explains. She proceeds to say ..”blah blah…. because you were late.” Still tingling from the nerve wracking experience, I had to talk back. “I was not late, things took the time they were supposed to, or I didn’t do anything wrong.” Something like that. So it is morning and all of us are in the clothes we slept in last night. The women walk to the bathrooms. This I had not experienced: The morning Thai put on you face ritual. After soundly brushing teeth, everyone washed their face and began putting on their face. The powder, make up and eye make up. It was a funny sight because there were all of these women in varying poses with their mirrors, sitting down on wooden platforms near the monk dorms and in full view of the monks who were walking around, some talking to me. What was there to hide? I felt odd just brushing teeth and putting on face cream. Simple. I went to see the temple. My camera battery had died, but I can’t think of a better place or people to be with when that happens though. My Thai friends always want to include me and others in the photos they take.
Now it was time to go shopping. Some of the shops we went to call women “madam,” or was it just me? I hate being called madam in the U.S. But here…. It was so exotic! I am sure they thought I was loaded. It is custom to get gifts for people who are not on the trip, so I had teachers, friends and puan baans on my mind. My friends would ask me, “What did you buy? How much did you pay?” The Laos kip is very devalued, thousands to 30 baht. Needless to say, tee shirts cost 70 bath (just over $2). I bought a few.
At the big park, the sun was going down and people were coming out to run, cycle, walk, and play along the mighty Mekong river that runs through Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The park is so big two aerobics classes are held in different parts of the park at the same time morning and night. After sitting on a bus for nearly 14 hours, we were ready for some ass kickin’ exercise.
We joined a male Laos teacher and his two accomplices. We had to pay but I am not sure how much. The club took care of it. I know the price on my head was much higher than the Thais. The main leader had two-side kicks. One on end, a hip cool looking dude who did all the moves with a slow, relaxed energy. In the middle, an undersized-woman (small person) decked out in a purple tutu-like outfit with black lace top, seemed to be a backup dancer. Both of them seemed to dance to their own beat. The main event, was a big, not overly effeminate, gay man or ladyboy, as they call the themselves in Thailand. He was tough. He had a strange way of counting though….badt hok badt (8,6,8), ha see badt (5,4,8) see song badt (4,2,8). I think he was saying 8 (badt) after each number. I could not figure it out. He did some Jane Fonda nonstop full throttle and had us all sweating and screaming. Afterall, we are Pua Aerobics club. He had to stop every once in a while because the plywood gurney stage he was standing on would shift off its blocks and he would get off and place the cement blocks under the legs again, so he wouldn’t fall off it and die. The stage is small at the park in Pua too. One night our instructor, Pao, lurched off the metal stage, misjudging its width, not only to land on her feet but clear my bicycle that was parked against the stage.
Laos dinner and dancing
I found the food we were served in Laos very similar to the food in Thailand. But, a soup with tofu, mushrooms and seaweed was different and very tasty. After dinner, there was, guess? Yes, karaoke and dancing. Laos line dancing, if you will. The dancing was very subtle and repetitive. What am I saying! The Thais had gotten the Laos wait staff to come up and dance (men and women) and they started to buy dances off the male wait staff. Women would give staff money and then dance with them while others tried to inch their way into their dance space. It was funny and cute. I did notice a difference between the male Thai dancing back home and the male Laos dancers. The male Laos dancers barely moved, while the male Thai dancers are quite the high steppers. I would say the same for the women too. Much more reserved than the Thai women. The Laos dancing had a few steps that were like the waltz and box step. The remnants of European influence.
More karaoke on the way home and more stops at 7-11 to buy snacks. My Thai friends piled into the 7-11 and bought dozens of snacks and gave everyone a nice treat on the bus. The funny man gave me a thank you and called me the naam Jai farang, who basically was generous to sing and dance at their beck and call. We arrived in Pua at 4:30 in the morning. I was sound asleep when someone behind me said in a loud but sweet voice, “Su-saan, wake up,” shaking my shoulder. One of my eyes was stuck shut still in sleep mode and would not open. You know how they burn when it is not quite time to get up but you force them open anyway? Now I had to find a way to pack everything into my pack since I was carrying home more that I brought with me. I was hoping I would get a ride home, but my friends misunderstood me. I didn’t want to wait around and I did not see the person who lived closest to me. She was still asleep on the bus. So I started to walk away and head to my bike, a ten minute walk. We were all zombies getting off that bus. The next day I found out my friend drove all over looking for me near the post office and Kedt office (in the opposite direction of my house). I think she felt bad for not giving me a ride home and then had to save face. Thais get very worried for my safety when I ride my bike… and it was early morning, granted. I found my trip home, well, trippy. I was not quite awake or ready for the day, I was on autopilot. I passed early risers too, running, riding bicycles, exercising, sabai yen (cool and comfortable). I got home and promptly went to bed and didn’t wake up till 10. I was still out of it then. I had made plans not to go in to school for afternoon classes since I was not teaching anyway.
I bought dried plums and some pork (mo-dah) wrapped in banana leaf and gave to teachers at lunch. But that didn’t feel really Laotian, so I bought other things… Key chains, bracelets and scarves, made in Laos. Having not gotten exactly 50 gifts that would have covered teachers at each school, (male and female) plus friends, I had to perform triage and give to those I know better than others. That doesn’t seem fair. Next time, I will do what Thais do, bring food items from the trip and share at lunch. Operative word, share. Thais do that very well.
I will miss the annual Loy Kratong festival in Pua this year as I will be traveling to Cambodia on November 28th. They are already setting up at the park near the lake, where people will float their kratongs, a beautiful lotus flower shaped vessel with candles inside. Students are making them now from banana leaves. Loy Kratong falls on the evening of the full moon of the 12th lunar month (November 28 this year). The kratongs will glisten on the water in moon light. As they are sent off into the water, Thais will honor the Buddha by asking for forgiveness, as they symbolically let go of the past, grudges, defilements, and send prayers for a joyous new beginning. It looks like it is going to be another sanook, Thai festival.
Tonight, I am headed to Wat Phuket for the start of the Kathin Festival. It is held once a year to celebrate the end of the rains retreat and honor the monks. Traditionally, monks do not leave the temple for three months during rainy season. Now, it has come to an end and they receive new robes and other gifts in gratitude for their practice of the dharma and prayers for people in the village. There will be a dinner Khuntok dinner, Northern style tonight. On Saturday, there will be a ceremony of offerings to the monks. New robes sent by the King of Thailand will be offered, so it is quite an important ceremony and I did not teach the monks today because they are cleaning and getting ready for the events.
Ready or not Cambodia, here I come… I have the privilege of attempting a 10 k run through the Angkor Wat temple grounds at Siem Reap, in Cambodia Dec. 2. Some of my fellow PCV’s will run the 1/2 marathon. Wow, Good luck and How exciting! Oh, and yes, I do have my VISA (on-line) to enter and exit – in hand!