Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Warren Allen Ashby
Page 2 of 3
Four O' Clock: Slow boats [Double time.]
Sometimes pairs of days or experiences become strangely juxtaposed and in their complementarity offer a brief glimpse into a moment of time that is whole. This set began one dawn as I turned my journey back south toward Vientiane. I had already decided to take the slow boat back down the Mekong, but the boat no longer left from Luang Prabang but from the small town of Pak Krone three hours away by a large sawng-thaew down a winding dirt road, and so I was at the "bus" station (a large dusty field) at the edge of town at 7 a.m.. At the last second a Belgian photographer arrived and jumped on the back of the bus where he had to stand for the rest of the way, and we would be the only farangs we saw for the next couple of days. Pak Krone itself is just the end of the road. Thirty houses and a couple of food stalls. Nothing else.
The boat for Pak Lay, another larger town half way to Vientiane left at 2. It was a small cargo boat, carrying 15 passengers, and it was slow. It would put into the river bank here and there and take on or let off more passengers and cargo, and then after about 2 hours of traveling we stopped for the night. The Mekong, as wide as it is, is also dotted here with small islands, sand bars, and large rocks, and so once the sun sets abruptly and suddenly at 6, it is unsafe at any speed. When we stopped half the people went to a small village we were near, stepping gingerly across the muddy swamp in between, but Roel and I stayed on board climbing onto the top flat deck. I pulled out my mat and sleeping bag and had a fairly good night of it. There were not as many stars as I had hoped for, but there were two shooting stars and a satellite, and later when I woke in the middle of the night the Southern Cross was directly overhead. Faithful old friend.
The next morning we were off at 6:40, still putting in here and there to a village, and each time we stopped someone had to push the boat away from the bank with a long bamboo pole, and eventually, just for fun, I became proficient at that task.
That morning I put on my socks and my jacket to ease the slight chill, and sometime around 10 the sun broke out, and shortly before that the two boatmen who didn't seem to do much (because as I found out later they were just passengers) (once an idiot . . . ) climbed up onto the top deck and shared some sticky rice and a sauce with us. It was delicious, and then a little after 10 we seemed to stop putting into as many villages, and the river widened, and for a while we lost most of the rocks and islands that were wrapped around us, and the mountains on both sides descended to shapely hills and we began a long straight run. Roel and I were still on the top deck, out in the sun, but it was easier to nap there, to see, and, of course, to get burnt. And the burnt rapidly became a concern, overtaking and passing "fretting about being burnt."
The heat gets to you pretty quickly, like living inside a microwave must, but the real problem was that when I tried to go below (1) There was no room. It had been taken up with people and cargo: large sacks of rice, long bamboo poles, personal goods, huge bundles of straw, etc. which I suppose is what a cargo boat is for. (The more you travel the more you learn.) However, if I dropped down in through the back, which is the cook's kitchen, it is followed by the cook's bedroom (two 3 x 6 foot mats on a floor). Now, this space is empty, and while I'm wrestling with my conscience about inviting myself into someone else's bedroom, I notice that next to his bedroom with no wall in between is the engine room. So, it is possible to lie down, but (2) it's (a) just a different kind of heat and (b) it is LOUD! So, the question simply becomes: "burn above or blow out your ears below" and for me it's back out on the deck, in my hat, which stays on, and brave the heat of the microwave which also stays on. No timer here, except the sun.
On the boat the Lao, as elsewhere as I discovered, seem to regard anything that is out as common property. That morning one of them helped himself to one of Roel's bananas, and later to some of his water, and yesterday they had no trouble picking up our books and looking through them, even taking them out of our hands. But it is an indiscriminate behavior because yesterday I also watched two men take some fruit from a large open burlap bag that a woman had left up on the top deck.
Still, fingered, poked, shared and burnt, the furnace of the day passed over and through us and we arrived at Pak Lay (pronounced as "Lie"), tanned, relieved and abandoned at 3:30 in the afternoon. Pak Lay was actually a wonderful town and in retrospect I wish I had spent a couple of extra days there, though it is difficult to know a good retrospect in advance. Of course unlike Pak Krone it was a town, but more importantly it had an open feeling about it. It seemed easy and relaxed, and the Guest House we stayed at (the only Guest House) was 30 feet up above the river, with some tables set out in an roofed-in open area that looked down onto the river in what I guess will eventually be a dining place. The town itself seemed small but nestled into a flat hollow between the hills and the river.
And now, against these first two days of floating along in hell's furnace, we can juxtapose two days of gliding in heaven's grace, experiencing as Rilke says that "emotion that almost startles/when happiness falls." Perfection. Two of the great days of my life. Gliding downstream.
I got up with the roosters, or rather with the majority of the roosters because some neurotic rooster was acting as the town crier at 12:30 a.m., although fortunately the others ignored him preferring a dawn of something a little after 5. I had a coffee at the food stall across the street and then walked the two minutes with my packs to the boat landing. Roel and I had shared a room but he had had enough of hell's slow microwave and wanted to take one of the speed boats that ply this area of the river and could get us to Vientiane in 5 hours or so. They are fast, and loud, (the helmets the passengers wear are to protect their ears and not their heads) and we had already seen (or thought we had seen) a couple of them pass us the day before at warp speed. They are fast. But we thought they needed 8 passengers and Roel had found the first one but it only had 4 passengers so far.
It was then that I saw my destiny because as I looked down onto the river there were two larger slow boats bound for Vientiane. One was a newer blue, and the other just a faded brown wood, but the latter looked like it had a "bench" on the front, right under the overhanging captain's pilot bridge. That bench just kept calling to me like a Siren, and so eventually when I walked up the hill to the Navigation Office where Roel was waiting in the shade I told him I thought I'd take the slow boat. He had already purchased his ticket for a fast boat for 20,000 and so I went to the ticket office and bought a slow one for 8,000, and then walked up to the store to re-provision myself with 10 bags of peanuts, a box of raisins, two more large bottles of water and some sticky rice which they nicely put into a Styrofoam container for me. When I got back to the boats I tried to find someone who could tell me where to put my stuff on the brown boat, but, alas, there was no one really around. The ticket woman told me the boats would leave at 11, but the blue one pulled away at 9 just after I got back with my provisions, and so I walked up the new plank to the brown boat and stored my packs and provisions with the sacks of cargo in the middle.
There a were a couple of women on board, and they seemed to have the nice (and only) room right under the pilot's bridge. At the last minute another five Lao got on, and the captain, who was an older and distinguished looking man, and two crew. And then it was 9:30 and we were off. I took my bench, the others sitting in front of me, in the sunlight, facing me, and eventually I got my small pack, a container of water, three bags of peanuts and the raisins, put the socks on my feet to keep them from burning, and by god I thought: "I be home."
It was a beautiful ride, with the sound of the water under the boat, a breeze from the movement, and a tranquility and peace which does pass all understanding. At 10:30 the speed boat warped past us and Roel waved or I think it was a wave since he could have been just trying to get a breath of air. Still by 11:30 we had mostly turned east instead of south, and the sun was behind us, and I could sit in the cool of the overhang, in my hat and eat, drink, take pictures, and smoke my pipe. At 12:30 we made our first stop and let the five Lao men off, in what was the last possible Lao village on that starboard side of the river, and that just left the three women and the captain and the crew and myself. While I was smoking my pipe the captain wanted to try it and so I put in some new tobacco and handed it up to him.
In the middle of the boat there were a hundred large sacks of hard corn kernels, and a single bird about the size of a robin perched on them. They were packed so high that to get from one end of the boat to the other you had to take off your sandals and crawl over them on your hands and knees, past the engine and past the cook's bedroom. There were four people sitting on the floor in the very back next to the kitchen (which is really just a couple of pots on a small wood burner). There was a young man who changed the engine's speeds and direction whenever the captain sounded a bell and three women: a girl of about 14; a woman of maybe 25; and an older woman of maybe 40. The woman in her 20s motioned for me to come on. She was feeding some chickens out of her hands, and knew I wanted the toilet which was at the very rear. It was just an outhouse with a hole on the floor and the water below you but hey, it exists, it was clean, it didn't smell, and it worked, washing away the sins of my world or maybe just transporting them into the arms of the people on the shore who bathe and drink from the river.
At 1:30 we pulled into the shore in a Lao town, to pay a toll and check in. We caught up with the blue boat there, and while we were stopped the captain invited me up the wooden ladder into the wheel room for lunch: sticky rice, a chilli paste to dip it in, a vegetable dish you could eat with a spoon or dip it in, some hot sweet potato and a thumb sized piece of meat. It was all quite delicious and unexpected, and quick since we left after 15 minutes, but it was a hiatus in time and another moment of grace falling.
You could tell the second the Mekong touched the Thai border. Suddenly the houses on the right shore were concrete and not planks of wood; the roofs were red tin and not thatch; there was electricity, and cars, trucks, and bulldozers were working feverishly and the whole landscape looked manicured, and so soon we were sailing between poverty and plenty, between a rock and a really hard place.
Shortly before dusk, around 6 p.m., we stopped for the night. We had been following the blue boat all day, and in fact once when we stopped at a security check that boat was behind us and so the captain made a circle in order to let it take the lead again. (And it was only then that I realized these two boats were traveling together in their own double time.) Then right after we stopped and put in the mooring lines, it began to rain. It was my first rain though it was only a hard quick shower, but after that it was dark. The captain wanted me to sleep in the town with him, but I indicated that I wanted to sleep on the boat, but he kept insisting that I take a walk with him into town anyway, (he didn't speak any English and so this was actually much more subtle and possibly more mutually confusing than it might sound). However, since I wanted a beer which I never got (or saw) I took the five minute walk with him through the houses until we came to a private home. A woman and two teenage daughters there were preparing dinner and we waited for a while and then when it was ready we went upstairs to join them.
Upstairs they had one flourescent bulb and a small black and white TV. Both of these were hooked up separately to large car batteries, which had to be recharged every two weeks. The price of electricity. Sitting on the floor in the lotus position, as the Lao do, the food was placed before us on a small raised table. There were two circles; a table for the kids, and one for the four men and the two women. The captain was given a bottle of homemade schnapps and eventually each of the men, including myself, drank three glasses of this red fire water which was meant to be drowned like a shot of vodka in a single gulp, but which unlike vodka lingers as a palpable taste for some days afterwards. And then we ate.
The basic staple was sticky rice; and along with a sauce to dip it in. There was a kind of broccoli, and another more bitter vegetable dish, and some fish in the middle which we shared by just pulling off a piece. If you were dipping your rice, the others waited. We ate without haste, until we were through and there was nothing left and then we had a glass of water and a toothpick, and the mats were swept. The captain had generously sent out earlier for two bottles of purified water for me, but somehow there was also ice (which seemed a miracle to me in a village without electricity) and which the woman took out of a cabinet. We sat for few minutes after that, and then a young man walked me back to the boat where I tried to sleep on the slant of the front deck. There were noisy kids about for a bit, and then some talking, and twice I thought I saw and felt a rat scurrying about my feet. But the stars came out; and it was a cool and glorious end to a wonderful day. That peace descended again as the stars rose, and the dark led me down into dreams of light.
When I next looked at my alarm clock it said 5:45 and as I looked up and could see the captain walking down the slope to the boat and so I knew it was time to rise and shine. We were off by 6:30 but 20 minutes down river the fog snapped shut on us like the jaws of Johan's whale and we had to stop for 30 minutes. Around 8:30 I was a little hungry and so I grabbed myself a handful of my sticky rice and a packet of crackers. Then at 9 the captain came out on the front deck with me and brought breakfast, and he and I ate together after my initial refusal. I donated a bottle of water to the cause. There was more sticky rice, dipped in a hot chilli sauce, some jerky, and pieces of an omelet. At first I thought we were supposed to finish everything, but then I realized that the first mate hadn't eaten yet. While he was steering I handed him my camera and asked him to take a picture of the captain and me and he took 5, delighted in the sounds the camera made winding itself forward. And then he came down and ate, and the captain went back to work and I went back to the bench with my name on it.
By then the sun was out full force, and we came into Vientiane at exactly 10. I passed through customs and when the tuk-tuk driver said 4 thousand, I said 2, and he (too quickly) agreed with me and by noon I had shaved, showered, cleaned up my pack a bit, and was ready to go out. But the jolt passing from those last two days on the Mekong to sidestepping the motorbikes on the streets of Vientiane was a hard snap of the neck. On 4 days on the river, time had doubled itself, stretching and then suspending its nature. On the first 2 days I had prayed for the end of time; prayed for the noise to stop; prayed for the sun to set; prayed that somehow my image of a peaceful ride down the muddy Mekong would suddenly appear or if not I just prayed to be delivered off this slow boat where time kept stretching out like a tight wet cord drying in the sun, tightening about me while my skin burned. And then suddenly we were in Pak Lay, and off the river, above it, and I was watching it flow free from the shore.
But the next day, after I had surrendered to the Siren's song, the current I could only see from the shore suddenly opened and held me, gliding into grace. To be sure, this was a bigger boat, without passengers, and the captain became a friend, who fed me both on deck and at night in the home of a family in the quiet of a Lao village. But from the moment I stepped on board to the moment I stepped off in Vientiane, this was a different kind of time. Clocks stopped; desire ceased. I was too full in each moment to want to step beyond that moment, to either wish to be out of it, or to wish for it to be more, or even in the great Faustian wager to ask that it remain. I was not in eternity, but only in a time that did not seem to pass even as it came to an end. I don't expect you to believe me, and once I had stepped on land and shaken off somehow the slow roll of the river, that time too faded as a feeling, and except for an illuminated moment of melody here and there, the song of the dreamtime passed. I only knew that I had known a happiness that was as uninterrupted as it was constantly changing, flowing. Looking back from the shore to the boat I felt fortunate, not that I had known the Mekong, but that somehow the Mekong had known me and accepted me. It is as close as I know to the mystical state that the Sufi poet Rumi tries to invoke in his work which I had been carrying with me, and which I had read on the river under the overhanging arch of the captain's bridge.
This we have now
is not imagination.
This is not
grief or joy.
Not a judging state,
or an elation,
This is the presence
The Essential Rumi tr. by Coleman Banks with John Moyne (261)
One river, two times, once, in a whole life time, the feeling of happiness falling, into happiness.
Five O'clock: Vientiane [Time's up.]
Back in the capital again, I went to the bank to change another $100 and got 1701 for it, compared to 1560 for the first $150 and 1610 for the next $100. That was 10% inflation in two weeks which I thought ought to put it close to (or over) the top in the free falling Asian currencies. Then I walked along the river. It was a lot quieter now than during the festival, and the river was shallower, and along the bank teenagers had started a number of small vegetable gardens. Then I went down to Mixay's for a beer and a cucumber salad which somehow burned the taste buds out of my mouth with an invisible chilli taste which just shows that chilli can make anything hot. Mixay's itself is a famous ex-pat hangout overlooking the Mekong and while I was sitting there I watched my two boats pass by; the blue in front and the brown behind, like visible memories, and I raised my glass of beer in a toast of my appreciation and in a "God speed" for their own future.
Later just at dusk walking down the street I began to hear voices. I had heard them before on my last evening in Vientiane and so I wasn't terribly worried. Besides I could see the speakers hanging in the trees, and I had gotten used to the invisible voices in almost every village and small town, but this time the voice was a woman's beautiful voice and I thought she was reading poetry and as I walked along the river her voice followed me from speaker to speaker. In the mornings, from 6:30-7:30 somebody plays propaganda, and news and often some snatches of music. It one of the things that unites the country, although evidently more and more towns are turning the sound down or off, and disrupting the ubiquity of the lovely loud distortion.
There is another constant for the Lao as well, and that's their schools. They take them seriously. They are always the finest building in any village, (which is often what the church is in the rest of the Western world) and the kids all dress in a "uniform" fashion. The girls wear a black or dark blue sarong and a white shirt; the boys black pants and a white shirt, and since the kids all seem to come home for lunch you can often see them cycling to and from the schools in long waves of bikes. A stream of black and white.
Six O'clock: Paxse ["Time waits for no man (sic)."]
It's hard to get information in Laos. I asked my Guest House manager how long it would take to get from the capital to Paxse in the south. It was some 380 miles on the map, and he thought it ought to take 8 hours, but the young man on the bus next to me the next day said, 24, and in point of fact we split the difference. It was an 18 hour magical musical bus ride, with the cassette tape in the front turned full up, and each seat packed. Windows open. Local stops. And the driver's taste in music was at least consistent if not suspicious since all he played was a kind of Lao rock-disco delivered on the bus's distorted and fractured speakers at just one decibel below the point where you would scream out, "Turn that fucking thing down!" And except for an occasional break to change tapes he played music the whole way. But hey whatever keeps you awake and on the road, eh? Besides, as it kept turning out it was also a journey of "Good luck/bad luck. Who knows?"
The luck began in Vientiane at 7:15 in the morning when I passed up the cab driver in front of the Guest House and flagged down a cheaper tuk-tuk, and asked him to take me to the bus station for the 8 a.m. bus, but instead he took me to a modern bus sitting by itself at the edge of the market that was going to Paxse, and so I thought: "what luck: a modern express and not a rundown local." The ticket was 11,000, but then my luck turned as in a typical Lao fashion we had to wait for the bus to fill, and this took until 10:30.
However, once we were underway we went, stopping only four times: once for a toilet stop in the woods; once for lunch; once at Savannakhet; and once at 8:00 p.m. for dinner. That was the good luck; the bad luck was that the road to Savannakhet was excellent, and we reached it around 6:30 or so, but from there it was ruts and mud all the way down and so we didn't get into Paxse until 3 a.m., which is just exactly the perfect bad hour to arrive anyplace, since the hotel staff will be asleep and surly and you will still pay for a full night and only sleep for a few hours. However, to my surprise, there was a tuk-tuk driver at the bus station that was willing to take me into town to the Paxse Hotel, the hotel I thought I wanted. I was still reading my Lonely Planet guide book in the dark, though he kept trying to take me to the other Hotel, which was less expensive and which (of course) later (in the real light of day) was nicer and so my luck was once again flowing in opposite directions at once, though I didn't know it. But he took me, not for the ride I feared (or fretted) into a deserted alley to be mugged, but straight to the hotel I asked for.
Now the Hotel Paxse is a something that Busby Berkeley would create for Laos if he had ever been here. I had to wake the man who woke the desk clerk who took my 9,500 for a "room near a bathroom," and then pealing back an inner locked gate, those two guardians of darkness left me to ascend the wide marble stairs into this huge cavern of an empty upstairs lobby where there were directions leading off into directions. Fortunately, from behind a set of screens in the shape of a box in the middle of this cavernous lobby, a man coughed, got up, looked at my key and lead me through a series of doors down a labyrinth of corridors to my room. Coughing as he went.
But hey, I thought: Look, I'm here, I have a bed; there's a bathroom of sorts near, (you had to pour buckets of water down the toilet to make it flush) and I'm still safe and sound, though perhaps not exactly in my right mind. So: count your blessings Allen. Though as I climbed into bed I couldn't help but remember the two young women who got on the bus in Savannakhet. One was French I think, with a ring in her nose, and the other was Australian. And when we had arrived at Paxse they had elected to stay at the bus station in order to save on a night's room rate, saying something about being "real budget travelers" which as I pulled the blanket with holes in it up over my body I thought was probably a slur directed at me (and true because although I was living on less than $20 a day, I wasn't living on less than $10). Still I thought, for future reference, their decision in some ways may have been wise. If you don't know where you are, stay put until people are up you can really ask, and until you can really see them and where you are, face to face. Certainly, in spite of the book's map, I couldn't have found this place in the dark, and it was more than 2 km from the bus station and I had estimated less, and so basically I had been wrong all day. My 8 hours had become 18, and only the book had been right about that, after having been wrong almost everything else today, and so as I tried to fall to sleep I thought: it's not my fault that the book's bad news was right and that I was wrong, and that my bad news had been the best news that I had had all day. My mind was flowing to sleep in intricate swirls.
Seven O'clock: Champasak [Out of time.]
For some reason (perhaps a developing habit?) I woke up at exactly 7 o'clock, and so I decided not to fight it, and got up, showered and tried to see how to get to Champasak. I walked to where the boats should be, and there was a boat there loading, and the book said twice a day, at 7-8, and 12-1. But just to make sure I stopped into the Lao Tourist office, an oxymoron in itself, and in a typical fashion the man there told me that the boats left at: "2," at "only," at "10," and "all the time," though as it turned out he was right in all cases. He also told me that the Sala Wat Phou Hotel in Champasak was in the same price range as the Paxse and the Phonsavanh (where the cheapest rooms were $7 and $4). And this was a form of good news since the book said the Sala Wat Phou was the only accommodation in Champasak and it said the rooms were $25. So, "Good news, bad news. Who knows?"
So I shouldered my pack at 8 and went down to the dock and there was a boat leaving for the 1 ½ hour ride down the Mekong. It was a long narrow boat and eventually filled and everyone sat on the floor on mats with the roof just above your head, though it was open on both sides so you could easily pass in and out. When I got off the boat there was a tuk-tuk driver who was willing to take me the 4 kilometers to the hotel, although in the flurry and excitement of disembarking I was already up the bank when I realized that I hadn't paid for the boat, and so I dropped my packs in the dust and went running back down the hill wading into the water so that I could give the departing boat my 1,000, with everyone laughing at the running and wet farang.
The Sala Wat Phou Hotel was really excellent. In fact it was too excellent. The exquisitely furnished rooms on the second floor with their own veranda started at $25 a night and went up to $40, but there was one room on the ground floor for $12 and next to it was another for $15, which in a rare moment of self-generosity I took though it went well beyond my self-imposed budget. Still, I told myself, it's a corner room and will get a cross breeze at night, and besides it should have been $20 because it had both air conditioning and hot water, although the manager and I agreed on this price if I wouldn't use the air conditioning. In fact the manager's English was excellent and this made our negotiations and my decision much easier. I gave them my laundry and ordered lunch and paid for one day in advance, and by noon I was ready to relax and get a sense of the place, and stay for 2-5 days as my heart and its time beckoned.
After lunch I showered and then took a walk up the hard surface road for 20 minutes or so, and then back down by the dirt road (the native American sacred red road) that parallels the front road, and these two roads were the entire thickness of the town. The houses on both sides of the paved road were significantly better than the village shacks along the back road, but it was a quiet and pleasant town. There were only three small shops, and nothing else. That evening at 5 I walked across the street to sit on the bank thirty feet above the Mekong and watch the sun set. Below me women were taking their evening baths, as they also did each morning (twice a day), modestly keeping on a sarong while they washed themselves.
That evening the young woman who served me dinner sat at the front desk and watched me eat, and took my plates with a smile, and then when I had only half a glass of beer left, I started up a conversation with the manager, Yoi Soumpholphakdy. Yoi had just came here two weeks ago after spending three years as the manager of the Guest House on the island of Don Khong, still further down the Mekong. His English was excellent, partly as a result of living in Australia for 15 years, and he wanted to talk, and talk he did. He stood by my table the whole time and gestured with his hands. He told me about his friendship with Joe Cummings, who has written the Lonely Planet guide for Laos and therefore is a sort of a god here since his book is the Bible that steers the faithful to his selected hotels and restaurants. He also explained why he had to go to Australia in 1979 when he was 16. He had come from a rich family from Savannakhet and when the political winds blew against them, they fled, and his father died in exile. One of his brothers, a doctor, had been educated in France, and a sister and another brother in England.
He offered me some of the famous lao lao from the island of Don Khong. It is a clear schnapps, and it was really excellent. It is exceedingly smooth and has a wonderful lingering aftertaste. He says he and Joe made it famous, and it is in the book. He has a real respect for backpackers, who are young and trying to see the world before they work. He thinks that even though he never felt he belonged in Australia, that it was still an eye-opening experience for him. It allowed him to see that truth is multi-sided and needs to be thought through one individual at a time, and that this can only be done when viewpoints are openly challenged, though he asked me not to publish some of his remarks, especially those about his family and politics.
We talked about how much Laos is changing. It only has 4 ½ million people, and it has some natural wealth, and a lot of water, especially here in the south, and the next war, he says, will really be over water. He thinks Lao kids have been spoiled, and follow the images they see on TV, wearing the apparel of gangs for example, but he has a faith in how things are going. He himself can't drink the lao lao because he has an ulcer, which he developed in Australia. He talked about breaking up with his girlfriend there, and how stressed he was at his job, and how eventually he decided to come home and become a manager in this chain of three Inns owned by two of the owners of SODETOUR. He told a long complicated story to indicate that while he did not have a university education and therefore is the black sheep of the family, that nevertheless he has some natural abilities and he believes since he can think problems through, he could be a good inventor. For example on the night he and his girlfriend broke up he went to drink and play the slot machines, and he noticed that the wheels turned in different ways if you deposited 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 coins, and he wondered if there might be a pattern, and so he started playing different coin patterns, and he won a good deal, $200 and $400 at a time, while losing very little and eventually winning a check for $57,000. We talked until shortly after 8:30 when I called it quits, paid my 5,000 for dinner (which I somehow recorded twice, indicating that lao lao does double lots of things).
The next morning I rented a mountain bike from Yoi around 9:30 and headed on out down the paved road looking for the Khmer ruins that were 8 km away. The children here greet you, as they did in the mountain villages, and if the parents see you coming they encourage their children to wave and say "hello" in Lao, and so I spent a good deal of my cycling time riding with one hand and waving with the other.
The Khmer ruins of Wat Phu are singularly unimpressive from the postcards, and when you first see them from a distance they maintain that illusion, but as you begin to walk through them and ascend the steep hill along the wide cobblestone path that is covered by shaded trees, they get progressively more spectacular, step by step until in the stillness at the top among the small temples there, the whole is absolutely breath taking, with the more massive temples resting below in front of their hand made lakes.
There were only three other farangs there, my Australian nemesis and her French friend and another man who had joined them. The Australian still couldn't stop talking and she filled in all the spaces, but there is something admirable in her spirit and in her willingness to travel alone. She said the night they spent in the back of the bus until 5 a.m. was cold and noisy, and so maybe for my few dollars more I made the right decision after all. ("Good news, bad news.").
That afternoon I let the three of them descend first so that I would have the summit to myself for an hour of pure peace, though when I finally descended myself they were all still at the little restaurant out by the front gate. They were eating, and I ordered a beer and talked with them, once again waiting for them to leave so that I could have the view to myself. After they left I tried to pay attention to what was around me. There were people gathering rice, and an old woman kept moving her cows and her water buffalo and staking them out so that they could continue to graze on the stubbles of grass, and there was some quiet Lao music playing. The restaurant had no walls, and only a roof and so it was cool and open and quite pleasant, and I just sat there and read and relaxed, and "took my time," and then slowly cycled back. "hello-ing" my way home, and got back at 4:30, though the time seemed stretched into days in a pleasant way.
The next day I had arranged through Yoi to go by boat at 7 a.m. to Um Muang, a Khmer 6th century ruin further down the Mekong and on the other side and seldom visited by anyone. My boatman had one of those larger passenger ferries and he had brought along his three kids with him, all under the age of 6. It took us an hour to get to the village, and then he walked me to the site, which was also quite beautiful. These ruins were smaller and located in the forest right above a small stream that connects to the Mekong. I stayed for an hour or so looking it over and taking photographs, and then we returned. There was a different kind of peace here, and not just because of the absence of people. The surrounding forest made the time I spent in it more intimate, but it also lacked the grandeur of Wat Phu.
On my final day at Champasak I had arranged to be taken to the island of Don Deang in the middle of the Mekong just across from the Inn and be left there for the day. It is a long thin island, probably 8 miles long, with just a single path weaving along one coast, or near the coast. There are a number of small villages there, but mostly built along both sides of the small path, and not two or three paths deep. There are no cars, no shops, no motorcycles, no electricity. There were only a few TVs and radios. The people seem relaxed and typical for the Lao: shy and then warm. I'm not sure that the children had ever seen a foreigner before. Some smiled; a few said hello, and a couple fled in terror. But once when I was resting on a log two young girls, around 14, gathered up the courage to come talk to me. And more adults here would nod or say hello. There were a number of schools and so I passed a number of children early in the morning and then again around 2, walking and on their bikes.
There didn't seem to be any places to eat, but a number of small outdoor stalls sold drinks, and at one of these a man stopped me by speaking to me in English, and so I came over and sat down, and we quickly drew a crowd of his relatives, including his wife, and his neighbors. He was a French Lao, living near Leon, and works as a cab driver and by his own admission drinks too much. He seemed sober enough to me, though he was drinking lao lao before 10 a.m. He was a kind man, and the woman at the stall went and got some ice (God knows how or where) and gave me a glass of ice with hot water poured over it. We talked for a while, and after buying him a lao lao, somewhat to his wife's objections, I agreed to stop on my way back.
The path wanders along, mostly cool under the cover of trees, and people are always greeting you. I walked to the end, rested, turned around and went back. There are birds, and bamboo, and views of the Mekong. I stopped again at the stall. The man and his wife were taking a bath nearby and so I waited for them. He has been here for 8 months and leaves in 6 weeks or so to return to France. His daughter is married to a Lao who lives in Nashville. We talked some more and they set up a "cot" for us to sit on under his house and opposite the outdoor stall where it was cooler. Most of the Lao houses are built up on stilts, over 10-15 feet from the ground. While I was waiting for him I got out a tennis ball and played with some of the boys, and then gave it to one of them, and later I saw two other boys playing with it, and so it was nice to see them share.
Sitting under his house we gathered a crowd of some 30 children, and 20 adults, and most of them giggled and smiled when I took out my camera and wanted to take some pictures. One woman walked up smoking a cigarette. She was the first young woman that I had seen with a cigarette, and she was gregarious. She looked me over and told me, and everyone, how beautiful I was, and how she wanted to take me home. The crowd laughed wildly. The town drunk also put in a series of appearances, being lead away each time. And the "first man" of the village (or island?) showed up, and eventually I ordered a beer to be split between four of us: my host, the first man, an old woman who had asked me for a beer earlier, and myself. It was served with ice, since it was warm. But it was a nice moment, toasting to each other with everyone smiling and talking and laughing. A moment of time where the stranger is accepted and made welcome.
I showed them some photos of Joanne and my daughter Debbie and my grandsons, and we talked a bit more, and then I paid for the beer, gave a tennis ball to a young girl (seeking some gender equality in spite of the fact that I know it is often not wise), and left. Since I was back shortly before 3, I walked to a secluded sandy beach and stripped to my bathing suit and laid down on my sarong, only to have six people walk by me on their way to their boat, laughing at the white whale lying in the sun, since they do everything they can to avoid it. The boatman had dropped me off at a Wat, and so I went back to it and sat in a covered building at its edge waiting for him, and in spite of my fretting, he was right on time, though there was a brief shower right before he came.
Earlier Yoi asked me if I'd like a special Lao dish on my last evening there, and I told him, of course. It was fish chopped up and mixed with coconut and herbs and spices, rolled in a banana leaf and then steamed. You open it and put it on rice. As I told him, it was easily the best meal I had had in Laos, and he told me that it was a speciality of Don Khong and it was the first time he had tried to get his cook to prepare it, but she did a remarkable job. I had a beer with it and a coffee afterwards and by my Lao standards it was expensive (10,000) but it was more than worth it. After I paid my bill and thanked him for my stay here, he reached over and gave me a whole bottle of the Don Khong lao lao. I was unbelievably touched, but it was the perfect end to a simple day and to an absolutely exquisite time here.
That night I took a walk in the dark up the road to the Wat and went inside and bowed to the stupa, and walking back I thought that one of the great things traveling has taught me is to pay respect. That means to honestly say "thank you" as often as you can. It means to try to acknowledge each person's presence in your life which is difficult here because you look so strange and everyone wants to stop and look at you, and they are shy, and so you need to let them look, to smile at them without forcing them to look away, and say hello quietly. They need to hear a voice as they look at you. It makes you more human for them. And so constantly showing respect is a wonderful challenge. But these people are so fine, so generous and honest, that it is a delight to be a guest in their country, and to honestly be thankful you are.