LAOS DIARY

by Edward Wilkinson Latham

Photography by EWL

Outpost Magazine

Bandits amongst the Jars.

Three black pigs engaged in a screaming contest are tied to the back of the truck, occasionally being smacked by a kid with a homemade wooden hammer.

“Boop, boop,” he shouts.

“Squeal, squeal,” they reply and the driver tries to find the gears. I sit on the roof, perched between the shifting cargo whilst the aged suspension, leans and grinds its way south to the Plain of Jars. An hour after leaving Luang Prabang we come across a small group huts at the side of the road. Four men in olive clothes and worn Chinese hats stand at the side of the road divvying up parts of a cow that met head to head with a truck that morning. Our driver steps out and after some talk puts some cash in one guys top pocket, and grabs a piece of the animal and throws it up on the roof beside me. Me and the other two roof top passengers shift around trying to avoid contact with raw piece of rump. As we are about to pull off, a man runs up to the driver with a brick of money and a piece of paper and hands it through the window. With no banking system to wire money it’s the trustworthy way of sending funds from one part of the country to the other and because the drivers normally stick to the same routes there is no problem.

Magnificent mountains shaped like ragged teeth start to appear through the mist, surrounded by a savanna of wild tall grass. This is where the dragon sleeps. The sun spotlights through the clouds and a breeze rustle the sugarcane. According to the Loa government, guerilla groups live in the surrounding caves, occasionally taking a ramble to the road to wave down a truck and create some havoc. The driver increases the revs as we speed down hill. Like a wagon driver traveling through Apaches, country, he goes all out. I just want to stop and get off.

Coffee & cigarettes.

The ticket shack was open and two men dressed in what seemed to be some kind of uniform waved me in encouragingly. A few locals lined the wall patiently waiting to buy tickets. One salesman drew me up a chair, pressing down on both on my shoulders so that all I could do was sit down. Before I knew it I had a cup of coffee and a cheap Chinese cigarette in my hand. “Breakfast.” said one of the men, giggling with gusto at his own pronunciation. The small queue of Laotians seemed bemused by the white face sitting behind the ticket table, in some mistaken position of local transport authority. My system was unprepared for the toxic barrage of four Chinese cigarettes and two coffees and as I got up to find my ride north, I felt uncomfortably ill prepared. The trucks suspension seemed to suffer from the amount of paraphernalia that had been loaded up for the trip. Crates of milk and beer, numerous, unidentifiable packages, two pieces of old pipe, random parts of some engine and an owl. As soon as we left the market is was up hill all the way. The noxious swill of coffee and Chinese cigarettes bounced in my system making me focus diligently on not having to jump out and run into the jungle. No matter how much I concentrated on feeling better I was constantly distracted from my sweaty meditation by the flapping owl, which seemed to want out as much as I did. About half an hour after our start we made our first stop: a couple of wooden huts selling gas in plastic bottles, various long life snacks and a bumper supply of Chinese cigarettes. During my absence in search of relief, the pick up had been loaded with yet more passengers and cardboard boxes. My western behind perched on the back, the dusty air at least cooling my fevered brain. The owl man seemed to have had enough, and whilst gripping the frightened animal in-between his knees, he hunted in his jacket pockets, finally producing a film canister. Biting off the lid, he scraped out a piece of reddish brown gum, rolled it in his fingers and forced it down the gullet of the owl. I knew what he had in that film canister and he knew I knew. Perhaps realizing I was looking a little peakish even for farang standards and that I would be grateful of anything remotely similar to an Imodium, he offered me a large helping from his pot to calm the fighting fish in my gut. As for the owl, he soon calmed down and began to look like he’d had an appointment with the taxidermist.

Lao Morning

The Pagoda Hotel in Luang nam Tha was run by a small neat man with secret service pretensions donned in dark glasses and a khaki trench coat. With a suspicious tone, he explained in not so may words, that he liked to keep a tight ship and asked me to hand over my passport for the duration of my stay. Unwilling to comply I tried my luck and took a few dollar bills out of my pocket, folding them inside a photocopy of my passport and casually slipped it across the counter. As he carefully thumbed the three dollars he said he also exchanged money and flashed a nicotine smile.

“Good night Mr.”

As night came I could see a few small fires lining the street. Women selling satay sticks if buffalo meat. Tuff, indigestible and very tasty. Making sure I was in by curfew my body found no difficulty in sleeping after the days traveling.

In no time it seemed I was up and tried frantically to untangle myself from the polyester blanket that had wound its way round me like a toga with a strangle hold. Flinging open the shutters of my hotel room I was first blinded by the morning light. The remainder of my functioning senses targeted a loud speaker some forty feet opposite, nailed to a solitary telegraph pole in an unused field, broadcasting the Lao breakfast news at Metallica volume. A Chinese ‘lets work’ jingle sends my brain frantic but once I’d regained my composure and made my way downstairs I soon felt the benefits of a strong Lao coffee and fresh baguette lifting the vale on my morning. An elderly woman sat on a mat praying to an altar as the smoke from the burning incense slithered in streams across the room to the open door. Outside the hazy morning light projected through the smoke from small fires burning dry leaves. Children cycled through the arcs of light in their clean white school shirts and the cockerels shouted back at the voice in the air.

Jesus loves me

The jungle was humid and the track winded up and down, past poppy fields and solitary huts. I began to wonder if I had lost the track and my mind completely as the sun beat down. I was out in the middle of nowhere looking for a remote village near the Chinese border. Some of the local tribes such as the Hmong fought for those CIA flyboys from Air America during the Vietnam War. I told myself that being dressed in cargo pants and an indigo tribal jacket, looking like Denis Hopper out of Apocalypse Now was no co-incident. Since being a kid it had been a fantasy to get lost in the jungle with my Leica. The fact that some tribes belonged to the Cargo Cult, and believed Jesus would come to them one day in cargo pants, driving a jeep, did sit in the back of my sweating brain. The shade from the jungle canopy made a welcome stop between the hot open clearings and I kept thinking about how the CIA had convinced them of such a biblical comedy. “Sure, up there amongst the natives it must be a temptation to play God.”

Stop repeating lines out of Apocalypse Now I told myself. Get a grip I sat there in the quiet of the jungle wet and exhausted. I soon heard the sound of snapping twigs down the path. Relieved to possibly find out if I was on the right track I got up and walked toward the sound. I rounded the corner of the path and came face to face with a small gaunt faced man pulling a donkey with one hand and holding the strap of an old M-16 with the other. He looked at me, dressed in my tatty old pair of green cargo pants, the jacket, red headscarf and sunglasses. Pointing his rifle I began to wish I had been mistaken for Rambo Jesus. Raising my hands I tried to explain with my minimal Lao and terrible charade technique that I was looking for a village. Still not convinced I tried the friendship maker and slowly produced a fresh pack of American cigarettes from my bag. Taking one out and lighting it to calm my nerves I then tossed the pack over. I took my small backpack off and sat down, emphasizing a stretch and a big yawn to make him think that I stare down the barrel of a gun everyday. He lowered his weapon and tied the rope on the donkey against a tree.

He said something that I didn’t understand.

“USA?” he then asked in a straight voice, still holding on to that gun.

“Yes?” I replied lying, not quite sure. I had been somehow thinking he would say “Jesus?” and my mind had been preoccupied with whether or not to make the career change to action man apostle. “USA, number 1”he replied to my relief.

He then pretended to drive a car and pointed back at me.

“No!” I said immediately making a walking gesture with my fingers.

Once he had smoked three cigarettes back to back he seemed relaxed and after some more charades on my behalf, he pointed the way along the path, holding up three fingers. He untied the sad looking donkey and we said our good-byes.

Easy Riding

A huge solitary wooden slated cylinder approximately thirty feet high by twenty in circumference had been sitting solo in the middle of the piece of waste ground for about three days. I passed it everyday on my way to have my morning indulgence of coffee and French pastries. On the side was painted a large Marlboro sign but that only added to my confusion. I didn’t think Marlboro would support bear bating or any gladiatorial past times, so its purpose remained a mystery, until one evening I followed a group of young exited monks. The sun was setting and the piece of empty land had been transformed in to a county fair. Children threw darts at boards, gambling a few kip, to hit the right colored circles that were home drawn on pieces of paper. The merry go round looked as if every part had been repaired or replaced. Pieces of thick solder (weld) were holding it together as small infants turned in circles, clinging on to the backs of the metal ponies. In the center of all the action, which included noodle stalls and yet more dart throwing was the huge slatted cylinder. Stairs now lay against one side and around the gallery at the top was a throng of people looked in. I heard the crackle and splutter of a motorbike engine start up and all the pieces fell into place. A death wall. By the time I could get through the gate and pay my money there had already been another two performances. A performance every fifteen minutes. The dare devil entrepreneurs were raking in a fortune. As the gates were opened everyone rushed up the stairs, men, women and children taken over by an overpowering excitement. The stairs and gallery shook and wobbled under the strain of the crowd. Once we were settled a man and young boy came through a door at the base of the death-wall. The small boy watched his father rev his engine and accelerate round the red and white painted wooden tube, turning in circles whilst his father revved some more and started to climb the wall. The slats clacked and rattled as the blue Chinese built bike defied gravity and circled the wall. Reaching the top and gathering speed he passed some three feet or so away from the exited crowd, flinging his shirt over his head and folding his arms out to the rapturous applause of the crowd. Every kid suddenly thrust out their hands to try and touch his fingers as he sped past. Not only did the boy’s father perform mad stunts but also so did his mother. Dressed in red and white-stripped Adidas pants and top she sped around that tube to the delight of her son and the crowd. Small girls cheered extra hard as their red hero sped past, her glossy make up, pale skin and black hair, illuminated by the sodium lights. Smiling she waved at the crowd with both hands off the bars, before making her decent. Getting off her bike she waved to her fans above and taking both her husband’s and little boy’s hands, they stepped through the small wooden door, to more awaiting fans.

Look-alikes

Vientiane was quiet apart from the odd car horn and dog bark. The streets had been dug up and deep trenches wove in a frustrating puzzle around the centre of the city. The whole place has come to a stand still. It’s New Years Eve and I walk the dusty streets with my traveling companion looking for a hotel. Vientiane, had once been one of the wonders of South East Asia, like Saigon and Phnom Penh, a commercial center, bathing in tropic fumes of the exotic. My companion Michael Lee looks the spitting image of Bruce Lee and cheeky enough to strike up a conversation with anyone. He had been given the name Michael by some travelers back in China, where he ran a bar. Unable to repeat his Chinese name which literally meant ‘Muddy Bridge” they had decided on Michael and it stuck. With stories of shady deals back in China he had entertained me on the bumpy drive south from Van Vein. I had asked why they hadn’t called him Bruce, to which he had no idea. I decided I would call him Bruce and in return he called me ‘Dalai Lama’ because of my shaved head, and similar sunglasses to his holiness’s specs.

A bit shocked by the exaggerated prices of Vientiane we decided to share a room. All hotels were full and yet the streets were empty. In a back street, off the main drag we found the ‘Golden Tiger Hotel,’ complete with unstable looking whicker furniture, a dusty karaoke machine and five girls who immediately set on us like we were Bruce Lee and the Dali Lama.

“You like be my friend?”

Trying not to make any replies that would make the conversation go further than necessary, we shuffle past the party girls and walk along the turquoise painted hallway towards reception. The desk was enclosed with glass and a sliding window. Behind the desk counting out a stack of dollar bills was the spitting image of Pol Pot, dressed in a black shirt buttoned to the collar and with the same hair cut of short shaved back and sides with a tuft of hair on top. Michael starts to giggle. I’m not sure if it is because the convention of look a likes in this hotel or because a persistent and heavily made up Lao Joan Collins trying to get his attention. The room was either ten dollars for a standard or fifteen for one of the better, larger rooms, with a bath and two beds. The cheap room was like a broom cupboard, but I had stayed in a lot worse. The larger room was completely different in character, with a large bath, shutters on the windows and a great writing desk. The windows opened on to the view of the city and pagodas. I imagined writing great lines at that desk incased in the yellow light of the room. With the sweat beading on my brow, fan turned to max and a cold drink sat beside the typewriter. Mr. Lee snapped me out of my daydream and before I said we’re taking it, he shows me a black rectangular mark on the bathroom wall, where once an old Russian water heater had been, like in the other rooms. ‘Bruce Lee’ would have probably slept under a muddy bridge and not cared whist I was hooked on the room and my Graham Greene fantasy. Negotiating the price with Pol Pot was harder than we thought. He sat there in his glass case surrounded in money. I almost felt I could put in a quarter and try to grab him with a large pair of pincers. However it was Joan Collins again, who kept trying to do the grabbing as we both kept slapping away her hands, whilst we tried to talk to Pol. We settled on ten dollars, a key for a shower room down the hall and having to buy the girls a drink. As we crawled towards midnight the Dali Lama, Bruce Lee, Joan and her girls and even Pol Pot took turns in butchering the songs of the sixties and seventies on the karaoke machine. The party continued until the small hours without me and while I sat at the old teak desk with paper and pen, watching the sun come up over the palms and pagodas I realized that my romantic fantasy of history had been substituted with cheap gin and ‘California Dreaming.

Mekong

The long and narrow cargo boat was stacked with crates of Beer Lao, rice and engine parts. Taking a break from sitting on the roof and watching the Mekong unfold, I went below to rock in my hammock. The sound of the engine didn’t exactly make it conducive to sleep. The repaired boat engine had to be constantly cooled and it was the youngest son’s duty to make sure that water kept going on. He sat there inches away from being chopped up in the drive belt emptying water from a yellow bucket like he was playing on the beach. The captain’s wife invited me in to the living area, come sleeping area, come only area. The entire family of five lived on the boat, rearranging the small vacant areas according to the time of day. It was now lunch and we sat on bamboo mats taking turns to take a ball of rice from the basket. To leave the lid of the basket off was not done, not because the rice would get cold, but that bad spirits could enter the basket. Lao people also think of it as unfortunate to eat alone. The only one who was doing so was the captain and really he wasn’t as he stood only six feet away, steering the boat around rocks and away from small whirlpools. We dipped the balls of sticky rice in bowls of fish sauce, laughing to fill the gaps between my bad Lao and their bad English and looking out the window the banks of the Mekong looked no different from what I imagined them to look like two hundred years ago. And inside, little seemed to have changed either. A country whose people are bound by close family and who rely on the Mekong river as their life force, once the forgotten part of Asia and now opening to visitors with a honest friendly smile.

EWL©