-Christopher Walken, playing a music producer in a Saturday Night Live sketch
Cyclops? You mean the sissy that whimpers at the sight of a leech?
If you’ve engaged in the ancient art of hula dancing while sipping a Long Board pint on draft then you know that on ‘Hawaii time’ everything runs a half hour late. Generally, in Southeast Asia modes of transport tend to run thirty minutes ahead of schedule or two hours behind. In Laos the bus or boat will probably show up sometime that day, but if not just come back tomorrow, okay?
It’s a country where the day can be enjoyably passed watching Caucasoids go bat s##t with their western sense of urgency.
With the religion of Thailand (Buddha statues outnumber people), the political structure of Vietnam (communists have been in power since 1975), and a poverty exceeding Cambodia’s, Laos is quite capable of confounding. The Laos National History Museum in Vientiane houses exhibits containing artillery and pictures of artillery with captions like ‘Slaughtering Tools of U.S. Imperialists’ and ‘What U.S. Imperialists Used to Butcher Innocent People of Laos and Vietnam’. During the conflict the United States devoted resources to train Laos guerrilla fighters and improve infrastructure, like in 1969 when cement was donated for the construction of an airport. Pataxui, an Arc de Triomphe replica, built to honor the Laos that died in wars prior, was erected instead. Expats refer to it as ‘the vertical runway’.
Crossing an international border can bring a tectonic plate shift in priorities. Since when do faith and tribute take precedence? The Laos people, they’ll spend their last kip note on lotus offerings for their favored Buddha figurine over the bowl of rice to soothe the empty stomach every time. After all, it’s not this lifetime that’s of concern but the thousand after. Crime is nonexistent in a country where the perpetrator is punished for the next twenty-seven life cycles.
Vang Vieng, Laos is a town of twenty-five thousand situated on the Nam Song river, known by young degenerates as ‘the place to get hammered while floating down the river on an inter tube.’ Only true veterans in debauchery have the stamina to continue past sunset. So it was an evening spent observing, and only observing, mind you, the drunken antics of Caucasoids from both sides of the meridian. During which time I realize that even after seven years of college life I still have no idea how to go about seducing a woman dancing--more like stumbling about--on tabletop in her bikini. This brings an acute sense of shame when noting I graduated from a state institution and retraction of my degree with this admission would come without shock.
As I walk back to the guesthouse the techno beat transforms into something tribal. Through a construction site’s bamboo fence comes chanting, palms slapping snares, and cowbell. We need more cowbell.
It’s near midnight. A short walk up the street Caucasoids are, or are in the process of getting, stupid, swash-buckling drunk* to celebrate the Monday night after Easter or the Tuesday morning after the Monday after Easter, and here’s this beautifully earnest haven of indigenous music. The only logical explanation: during the last 20 meters I traversed a wrinkle in time, traveling back to an era when music wasn’t synthesized. Even before the days of the music video, the dark ages when the ear judged the tune and success wasn’t based on the depth of cleavage ba-ba-bouncing behind the “musician’s” own ba-ba-bouncing chest.
From one realm to the next, from the slurred shouts of Euro-hooligans to a live percussion that goes straight to the left ventricle. From the bikini-clad tabletop dancing masses to a midnight mass, of sorts. Try as they might, when the sun goes down in Vang Vieng the white devils own the night.
Mountain biking around Vang Vieng brings one to small villages. One becomes an intruder. It’s not that there’s hostility from the villagers, it’s simply that you’re a bicycling voyeur with no business in these parts other than smiling and waving and saying, ‘sabadee’ (hello). The people are pleasant enough to put up with you, they return the gesture, but in the next two minutes of silent smiling you begin to grasp the vast disconnect that exists between your fragmented western mind and their simple--far too simple for you--way of life. You may have the patience of a snail, the ego of an ant, but you’d go bat s##t yourself if the most exciting part of your day was saying ‘sabadee’ to smucks like you.
In Luang Prabang the bicycling hurts. The thirty-five kilometers to the Kuang Si Waterfalls are pushed through in pockets of sweltering heat. You wise up on the way back, leaving at dusk. The ride is supremely pleasant, but the locals are just as clever as you, the insects sharing your strategy, your chest feels like what a car’s grille must in the early evening. The small bugs smacking into it attack like BB pellets, the larger ones analogous to beanbags shot out of a canon. You’d slow down but the bike’s back break does nothing more than squeal and your not about to apply the front one at forty kilometers an hour downhill. Your face knows what it is to be a car windshield.
Three hours later, as your brushing your teeth prior to bed, you spot bug bits in your tear ducts. A leg and a wing in your swollen left eye. The next morning there’s more. Your eye, it’s puffy and bloodshot and can see half as much as it could the day prior. Notre Dame has its Hunchback, Luang Prabang, with its Unesco-protected peninsula of ancient wats, has its Cyclops.
Man, I need a vacation from this, uh, vacation. It’s time to slow down from the slowdown.
I head north to the hammock-above-river bungalows of Nong Khaiw, a village situated between two magnificent limestone mountain karsts. It’s beautiful, but a bit too busy. In two days I spot five or six cars passing along the road and at least three bicyclists.
So it’s a boat trip upriver to Muang Ngoi Neua, a village inaccessible by land vehicle where generators supply electricity from twilight to nine or ten in the evening. It’s another hammock-above-river bungalow with a background of saw-toothed mountain karsts. It’s a setting so tranquil, so serene, that as I’m trekking past a herd of wild water buffalo the animals kneel and wai as we cross paths.
I mean, they would if their bodies could contort in such a way.
While ‘off the grid’ I bathe in the river. Kids swim to me, shout ‘sabadee’ before climbing atop, and use my shoulders and head as multi-tiered diving boards. Yeah, this is fun and all, but my earlobes aren’t ladder rungs. My lower jaw isn’t a spring board so you can practice your back flips.
Well okay then, I guess it is.
In the village I meet a new master. Sam from Australia has been traveling continuously since 1985. He’s 74 and plans on dying on the trail, whenever and wherever that may be. I forecast at least another 26 years of travel, for after walking to a nearby village together I notice my shirt is saturated from collar to waist. Even my shorts have a sweat line. Sam’s shirt is lightly damp around the neck.
We head to a waterfall after eating lunch, I probe his travel expertise, I discover that he’s the Yoda of drifting.
Learn much, this vagabonding padawan did.
“Ah, got a leech on my foot, mate.”
An Aussie just called me ‘mate’. Awesome.
In the process of checking out his leech I notice I have a half dozen of my own. They’re attached to my ankles and calves and I’m far more generous than I’ve ever given myself credit for. A blood donor superstar, a Red Cross wet dream.
Every five minutes we stop to pull a few more off. Their greed runs red down my legs.
In Vietnam I read several books about the War. A story comes to mind, that of a soldier being medevaced out of the bush after a leech crawled up his penis. He couldn’t urinate, the field medics were considering incision to relieve the pain from the buildup. It was so excruciating the soldier began screaming for them to “cut off my dick.”
Um, Sam, I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, mate, but I’m not interested in facing the decision of how many inches to take off the ‘ol rifle barrel. When it comes to firing accuracy every centimeter counts.
“What was that, my man?”
Turning back, this sissy is.
*definition: so drunk impromptu sword fights are started even though the challenger and target are without swords, without anything remotely resembling swords, and yet without the wherewithal to end the imagined hostility so three friends and twenty-seven strangers are required to intervene, after which the two make up with an embrace that lasts uncomfortably long--two Kesha tracks and half a Britney Spears ballad.
|Kuang Si Waterfall, outside Luang Prabang|
|Hiking outside Nong Khiaw|
|Inside Pha Tok Cave, outside Nong Khiaw|
|A new friend made hiking outside Muang Ngoi Neua|
|Water buffalo around Muang Ngoi Neau, right before they waied me (or would have if physcially able).|
|Traveling upriver between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw|
|Pak Ou caves outside Luang Prabang, home to various Buddha images.|