Luang Prabang diary
by Dave Tomory
[ places - october 04 ]
When President Kennedy announced in 1962 that American military assistance would be given to Laos to help it resist an incursion by North Vietnamese communists, he called the country Layos. The name Laos is itself a spelling mistake made long ago by the late colonialists, the French, who somehow made a plural out of Lao, the real name of the country (as it is of the people). If Kennedy had known this he could have avoided the pronunciation problem he had, which was how to tell the American people that soon they would be militarily assisting a country apparently called Louse.
The bus from the political capital Vientiane will take nine hours or so to reach Luang Prabang, the cultural capital in the northern mountains. It is a new purple Chinese bus, and I have taken Seat One, front and centre, for that panoramic view through the floor-to-ceiling windscreen. On goes the video. Soon begins the Chinese gangster B-movie with subtitles.
Shit! Cut crap! How you speak us! I have losing estimation for you!
I will be obedience from now on.
And lots of hot sex, all received with indifference by the Lao teenage girl in Seat Two. We dawdle through the plains, stopping often for smoke breaks. The man behind me bellows nonstop to his neighbour, pausing only to leap out of the bus at every halt and begin furiously sucking on the first of as many cigarettes as he can get through before the driver calls us back. Smoke curls away between the roadside bamboos.
Then the dark comes down, we are hemmed in by jungle, the movie dissolves into a billion pixels and is replaced by a CD of gangsta rap in Mandarin. Jungly mountains rear up ahead. These are the badlands: buses have been shot at on this road, hijacked, burned. The shooters are holdout Hmong guerillas, mountain people and longtime enemies of the veteran communist Lao government. They are passionate about America. Thousands of their comrades have emigrated to, I am told, Minnesota. Now the bus stops only to give rides to village guards, boys with old sporting rifles. Every time we drop a guard off in his neat rattan-and-thatch roadside village and plough on undefended into the night, my panoramic view takes on a paranoiac edge. I am being propelled in this lit-up bus like a dummy in a Christmas storefront towards the guns of the resentful guys in the black pajamas. How I wish I was wearing a shirt with something American inscribed on it, like Souvenir Of Minnesota.
Luang Prabang is a sort of Indochinese Oxford, smaller and prettier and classier than the capital. It has the culture. It preserves the identity. It thinks well of itself. It has specialities. It remains a slightly twee but notable relic of Asie Française, which is nothing like the British India I'm used to, all that sweat, duty, and cell-block architecture. The French relished princely Luang Prabang, so poised within its confluence of rivers, so elegant, with its pagoda roofs sweeping down like golden wings. Typically they found Buddhism the religion smug and institutional but loved what it looked like, that ascetic Buddhist aesthetic. They built villas and cafes to admire this gorgeous East from; and today the monks, ever graceful in sunset orange, still twirl their parasols along the promenade by those cafes, where French tourists sit all afternoon in wicker chairs amidst the retro décor, eating tuna-and-watercress baguettes and drinking Beer Lao from imported tumblers. For one long lunchtime moment it's Indochine as it never was but should have been.
I am sitting in one of these cafes, listening attentively to the Iranian at the next table, when a large man in biker gear climbs off a large bike and comes striding up the steps. The Lao headwaiter, clinging to the doorpost, whispers Hello, American Boy, to which the biker firmly replies: American Man. It's okay, they know each other. The American man sees the Iranian and veers off towards the far corner, inside.
The Iranian has an ancient-decayed-civilisation face and manner. He says he used to be a hippie, but he's two decades out. He is dressed like Peter Lorre and talks like Sydney Greenstreet. "One day, one day of this bliss followed by a week in the two-dollar guesthouse and lunches of chicken-on-a-stick. I live," he says, "like a dog, but today I eat like a Frenchman."
It's a great line, but he said it a while ago and hasn't said a good one since. The Lao liquor got to him, and the beer chasers. He began by saying wry things about Iraq and went on to say wry things about Los Angeles, where, as the scion of some exiled Shah-related clan, he'd lived on monthly cheques from Zurich. When the cheques stopped coming he moved for unspecified reasons to Laos, which he now patronises from a great Persian height. Finally, alas, he takes my silence for tolerance. The booze persuades him that I am okay to confide in, he gives up acting the cosmopolitan sophisticate and collapses into good old-fashioned Middle Eastern Jew-hatred. Two minutes, and he's into the Aryan Race and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Lao headwaiter, hovering behind him, is nonplussed until the Iranian says that all he wants anymore is a good, pure Muslim woman. Then the headwaiter raises his eyes to heaven. There must something he knows about the guy.
Rules Of This Guesthouse: "Staying at hotel or guesthouse to attach guest inside and foreige country guests. Come to stay. Disallow to apply another dopes and betting... Awesome received or lead the guests into your room before you get allowed... Peace to the guest who come to stay also in sure to the way policy nation wided tourism in Lao PDR." I like it here. It isn't a whorehouse after all, but a guesthouse for tourist-bus drivers whose ladies come and go. Distant laughter comes from other rooms. The profession maintains a certain propriety that is at one with Lao charm, discretion and reserve; so far, no sign anywhere of the parade of old farts with juveniles that you see in Bangkok.
Out of the window, a dusty yard, clothes drying on fat bamboos, a satellite dish at the foot of a palm tree, a kid hoisting his sneakers on a long bamboo up to the roof to dry. Red tile and red corrugated iron roofs among the tall palms. A misty jungle mountain, more a hill, conelike, in the background, and a mistier one beyond. A rare sound of birds - no, a turkey in the yard. The rest are lunch. Today I passed a man sitting by the roadside with a big sack of yellow finches, plucking the tiny bodies for kebabs.
To the airport. A saamlor is a motorised version of the cyclo or pedicab of French times, in this case a clapped-out Honda 200 with a sidecar that is merely a platform with a rickshaw bench seat and canopy. It was already running out of petrol when it stopped for me. We got to the Shell station but it was dry, and so were the roadside shanties that sell petrol by the bottle. We pushed on, and the airport beacons came in sight. The saamlor stalled. The driver took off the tank and shook it, replaced it, and the saamlor started. We ground up the last hill but one before the airport; the control tower came in sight. The saamlor stalled. I got off and the saamlor started up and we decided it would always start up if I got off. Twice it stalled and twice I got off and twice it started again. Just in time, we rolled down the last hill and into the airport forecourt. In this way I left Luang Prabang, and it was perfect.
Luang Prabang International is true airport reality. Like every good guru, it strips away illusion. Departures has a big picture window on to the runway, where little planes from Danang, Chiangmai, Vientiane, pull up outside with a little scream of rubber.
Also waiting for the Vientiane flight is an amiable paranoid Australian in shades, a scruff beard and tatty tracksuit pants.
He says: I'm pissed off with this place already. It's all finished here. Look at Thailand. They started up the tourism, then the crims moved in and killed everyone and took over.
I say: It's happening here too?
Already has. The Vietnamese terrorists are here.
How do you know?
A feeling. But I'm usually right about these things.
He too likes this airport. Proper Western-style airports, he agrees, are illusionistic. They try to assuage the fear of flying by seating you in what looks like a carpeted shopping mall, they stun you with muzak and customer relations. In the mysterious West, reality is hidden.
Not in Luang Prabang International. In plain view from Departures, planes the size of Volkswagen buses come and go. And they have the frank unconcealed character of buses. Baggage is flung about by oafish baggage handlers. Pilots stand around, yawning and scratching. Cleaners clamber down wheeled gangways with bulging trash bags. Planes are refilled from a pulsating hosepipe, as in a garage. Battered aluminium food canisters are brought in grubby little vans. And the Australian points out that the planes themselves are not held up in the air by invisible, illusionistic jets, but by real propellers.
The little plane, so slow, hangs trembling in the hot sun over jungled hills. Circular clearings appear below, entire villages of animists synchronising their watches by the 13.20 to Vientiane. The engines roar and hiccup, the whole plane shakes. You are always aware of the effort. The Australian has lashed himself into his seatbelt like a sailor to a mast, he is drinking and drinking from a blue metal water flask, only stopping to breathe booze into the bottled air. In the seatback pouches before us both there are no airline magazines, no safety information sheets, just sickbags.