The Lackadaisical Lure of Lao

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, January 27, 2005

They French have a saying about Indochine that pretty much sums up the three countries that made up their former colony. They said that "In Vietnam they plant the rice, in Cambodia they stand and watch it, in Lao they listen to it grow." Once you've been to all three it makes a lot of sense and now I'm starting to love the lackadaisical lure of Lao.

I dragged myself downstairs this morning and found a nice comfortable spot on the veranda at my guest house. I ordered a strong cup of Lao coffee heavy with condensed milk, a fresh warm baguette and strawberry jam. It was very chilly this morning and the mist normally doesn't burn off until around 10ish. Under overcast skies it's as if the country patiently waits for you to wake up. I settled back into my chair and sipped my coffee and read the International Herald Tribune. On the way back to my room I dropped it back on the coffee table in the lobby and looking at the date I paused. I asked a fellow traveler, "This paper's from Tuesday -- isn't it Wednesday?" "I don't think so", she told me, "I think it's Thursday." The news was nonetheless news to me since I haven't seen a television in three days. I also love not knowing if it's Wednesday or Thursday because that's when you know you've been traveling a while. In Lao time is more or less a nuisance anyway.

And so all day I did things the Lao way. I meandered all about town to the tip of the peninsula at the confluence of the rivers and sat and stared a while. Before I knew it it was time for lunch so I shuffled over to one of the myriad Mekong riverside restaurants and took a seat. I had a huge plate of curried fish with fresh mint and a bowl of jasmine rice for $2.10 and that included a large bottle of water. There is something hypnotic about the Mekong. In the peaceful, quiet afternoon under a shady tree watching the placid river subtly churn while skinny long tail boats sliver their course it hit me like it does from time to time while traveling. I am on the other side of the world, sitting by the Mekong in Lao and I'm a world away. It's only when you slow down does it dawn on you.

I stopped in shops afterward and looked at the beautiful handicrafts and then went to the former Royal Palace. In the communist takeover of 1975 the royal family was forcibly moved further up north and were never heard from again. The palace now stands as a museum. Possibly the least influential of its neighbors Lao, whose culture is heavily influenced by its more powerful neighbor, Thailand still exudes its own distinct charm. The architecture is more feminine and fluid, like a beautiful woman of opiate grace. Lao was colonized by the Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and of course the French and there is evidence of those influences throughout their culture. From baguettes to wats the Lao people have put their own spin on things and made them their own.

The palace itself was tiny and hardly palatial by any standards but its main halls were stunningly decorated. A beautiful mural by a French artist in the 1930s wrapped around one of the larger rooms depicting Lao life throughout different times of the day and was painted in a style of a more romantic and less brutish Gauguin. The throne room was crimson red with colored mirrored mosaics depicting various scenes from Lao history and was astonishingly detailed. In the center sits a golden throne of magnificent craftsmanship gleaming under a crystal chandelier. In one hall there were huge and beautifully painted portraits of the royal family from the 1950s in an almost Soviet Realism style by as I guessed a Russian artist.

One of the reception rooms displayed gifts from foreign countries in glass cabinets. There was indeed a cabinet of gifts from the United States and it was filled mostly with crap. The irony of one in particular was a gift from Richard Nixon. It was a tiny Lao flag and a pebble. The inscription stated that the Lao flag was taken to the moon and in an expression of great human achievement that all the people of the Earth share our US government gave the tiny Kingdom of Lao a moon rock. This seems a very nice gesture indeed. The irony however is that during this time, Nixon and Kissinger in violation of international law were dropping more bombs on Lao than on any other country in the history of man. In fact more bombs were dropped on this small landlocked country than were dropped throughout Europe during all of World War II. The American servicemen known as Ravens were not even allowed to let their families know their whereabouts and their mission so secretive that even amongst themselves their real names could not be revealed. All the while the United States obliterated huge chunks of Lao -- many of the bombs weighed over 500 pounds. "Dear Friends, Enjoy this cute rock --it's from the moon! You've got craters about the same size of that place because we're bombing the living shit out you people! Damn right! Signed, Your Friend, Dick Nixon".

After that it was time for yet another stroll but the day was getting away from me so I had to rush back to my hotel, shower, change clothes and meet the American ex-pat from Africa for a drink. We ended up having dinner together and then things started taking a turn. When a man starts talking to you about their past relationships you know he's already thinking of making you one of them. I was not interested in the least. Sure enough after dinner we headed to a shop where I was having a skirt tailored to pick it up and he made a move. You'd think when someone tries to hold your hand and you're making a fist that they'd get the hint. Forget it. I finally had to point to a shop I'd been to that day. Then came the arm around the shoulder and I moved my bag to the other side to separate us. After I'd picked up my skirt and was yawning he asked me if I'd like to go to the waterfalls with him tomorrow and I told him, "Maybe". I seized that opportunity and said that if I was going to do that I'd need to get some sleep because I felt a cold coming on. Immediately I thrust my hand forward and shook his hand and said, "Ciao! Maybe tomorrow I'll see you at the waterfalls -- I'm going to bed. Goodnight!" I spun on my heels and headed to the bar near my hotel for a nightcap -- solo.

Tomorrow I'll just meander about town and see some temples. The next day however I'm planning on a little day trip and not to waterfalls just in case. All of the travel agents in town advertise a boat trip to the Pac Ou Caves to see the "thousand Buddhas" The one I plan on buying my ticket from is advertised as "Take the slow speed boat to see the Pac Ou caves!" Only in Lao.

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