After a couple of practical and not particularly noteworthy days in Chiang Mai, we left the relative comfort and familiarity of Thailand. On February 25, 2013, we entered the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, the first communist country either of us have ever been to. The visa-upon-arrival process was relatively easy, but no less confusing because of it. We each had two passport photos, $US35.00 and two forms that we had filled out while waiting at the Chiang Mai airport — one a visa application, the other a customs form. Beyond this, all that was required was an additional $US1.00, patience, and the willingness to smile and shrug when being confronted with scowls and military uniforms. Everyone on our flight — including a foursome of middle-aged Aussie girlfriends, a beer-happy Spanish couple traveling with one of their mothers, several pairs of Germans wearing beige traveling get-ups, one of the ubiquitous couplings of old-white-dude and much-younger-Asian-woman, and an American who insisted upon complaining about the fact that the visa fee charged to Americans was a whole $5.00 more than that charged to Europeans — was admitted.
The currency in Laos is the Kip. One US dollar is equivalent to about 7,888.77 Kip. The old white dude traveling with the much younger Asian woman apparently did not realize that crossing a border into another country might entail the use of an entirely different currency. I guess that's what happens when you become part of the Euro Zone. When the woman manning the taxi stand portion of the airport's welcome desk informed him that it would cost K50,000 to have an air-conditioned van drive he and his companion to their hotel in the center of Luang Prabang, he went on for several minutes, throwing his hands around and sputtering something about “zee Internet.” When his tirade was met with blank stares and a half-smirk, he repeated with greater volume, “ZEE INTERNET!”
The Lao welcoming committee stared pointedly at his companion, who attempted to explain the whole Lao Kip v. Thai Baht thing. English, the first language of neither half of this couple, was an unwieldy tool with which to pry open this dude's brain. Eventually he got it and then spent the next minute trying to apologize and explain away his ignorance. The Lao welcoming committee returned an expression that seemed to say, “you have made us all lose face and we are not amused.”
I understand that Laos is becoming a much more open society, and that tourism is growing in leaps and bounds. Still, it seems to me unwise to antagonize the people who greet you upon arrival.
Me, I was raised right by my Filipino parents, and so I was respectful and raised no stink at all, even when our guesthouse's promised “airport transfer” turned out to be the same K50,000 taxi trip that everyone else had been using. My inner brat wanted to wave my hands about while exclaiming “zee Internet! Zee INTERNET!” but I was wise enough to realize that such antics were likely to be unwelcome. I guess that's what turning 42 gets you! We simply paid the woman, received a slip of paper which we then handed to a waiting driver, and got into the next silver mini-van waiting by the curb.
One of the first questions that one gets asked in Laos is, “Where are you from?” That is the first thing the taxi driver asked us and when we answered “America,” he gave us a big smile and said, “Dollar! Very good!” Many Americans might attempt to argue this point, but when $1.33 can buy you a heaping plate of home cooked Lao cuisine, such behavior borders on downright offensive. Not that being offensive seems to trouble most of the falang visiting Laos, but as I said, I was raised right by Filipino parents. And so I nodded and agreed and gamely took the taxi driver's “card” — a scrap of paper with his name and number written on it — in case we decided to go to the waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang.
We arrived in central LP just as the heat and glare of the afternoon were softening into evening. Smoke from nearby slash and burn agriculture spread a diffuse golden light and as we wound our way through Luang Prabang's outer neighborhoods towards its historic center (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), a happy exhaustion spread over me. Traveling to unfamiliar places, immersed in languages that are beyond your capacity to hear or speak, navigating arcane procedures; it's an exhausting affair. Everything we had done that day — from negotiating with a tuk tuk driver to get a reasonable fare to Chiang Mai's airport to checking into our flight on Lao Air to entering a communist country to getting local currency from a bright red ATM to figuring out where our guesthouse was — had required all of our attention and all of our vigilance. We had done it all without a hitch, but my brain was pretty much fried.
By the time we arrived at the Sieng Khaen Lao Guesthouse and were shown to our boxy first floor room, it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. Tim turned on the air conditioner, I lay down on the utilitarian mattress and fell instantly asleep.
I woke up just as the sun was setting. Luang Prabang has a 12:00am curfew, so it was either get up and get out or surrender to sleep and start over in the morning. Not wanting to spend my first night in this famously beautiful town in the company of a disgruntled New Englander and a television, I pulled myself together, completed my first costume change, and stumbled out into the shady warmth of dusk.
Much has been made of Luang Prabang's charm. I will not offer any contradictions. It is a beautiful little city, still carrying the stains of French Colonialism with a strange sort of pride. Its historic district extends into a peninsula flanked on one side by the storied Nam Mekong, and on the other by the smaller Nam Khan. Despite the droves of (mostly French) tourists and the bustle of the nightly handicrafts market, the city has a languid, relaxed air that is best experienced leisurely and on foot. That first night we wandered all the way from our guesthouse, along the banks of the Mekong, almost to the very end of land. There, we happened across a Wat, one of the most important and most famous monastaries in Laos, Wat Xieng Thong.
As we wandered the grounds of this lovely temple, a young man approached us and said, in a sweetly accented English, “There will be a candlelight procession later on. If you like, you can stay and participate.” Whatever friendliness Tim and I had experienced in Thailand, we had never been approached by a complete stranger unless some sort of monetary exchange was expected, so we hung back a bit, waiting for the sales pitch. There was none. Instead, under the full moon and in the sultry night air, the young man told us about the history of the temple, helped us grasp some of the basics of the Lao language, and explained how he had come to speak English (and French and German and Korean) so well.
This was how we met our friend Syfohn. “Sounds like cellphone!” he said cheerily as we introduced ourselves. We chatted with him for an hour and a half, while the temple grounds slowly began to fill with both locals and tourists. At one point a trio of novices approached him, their orange robes muted in the darkness, and asked him an undecipherable question. “Candlelight procession,” he replied carefully. “Candlelight procession,” the monks repeated.
“They are my students,” he explained. “I teach an English class at a monastery school.” He paused and then added, “perhaps, if you have time, you would like to come to a class and help. You are native speakers, and it is very helpful to hear native speakers.” His English was careful and deliberate and very charming. Even if we had wanted to, there was no possible way we could refuse.
And so this was our welcome to Laos. Bureaucracy, exhaustion, beauty and kindness. We hung out with Sayfohn for the rest of the evening, until he had to go to what I believe is his third job, that of a security guard at a hotel. The monks held a service in the ornate temple, the sound of chanting spilling out into the night air while tourists gawped and peeked through doorways. The three of us sat on the pavement outside, nibbled by ants and mosquitos, chatting quietly. Local children ran and laughed, giving a happy, festival edge to the night. After a while, the energy within the temple loosened and released. Perhaps twenty monks, each of them lit by glowing candle flame, emerged into the courtyard. The people who had been waiting there gathered up their offerings — various flowers as well as complex forms made of folded banana leaves and marigolds — and lit incense and candles. Sayfohn dismantled his fistful of devotions and gave us each a stick of incense and a flower. Then, barefoot, we were caught up in the gentle flow. Led by an orange blaze of monks, we circled the temple three times.
After the third circuit, people made their way to a trio of chedi, where they knelt, offered prayers and sent their wishes out into the universe. For a while, the three of us were silent, stilled by immediacy. Then, we put on our shoes and began walking through Luang Prabang's historic streets, as closely and as casually bound as three childhood friends. Sayfohn was separated from us by age, culture, history, geography, economy, and language. And yet somehow, as easy and courageous as a smile, he had reached across those distances and transformed us from falang into friends. Sayfohn, if you are reading this, thank you once again. You are a hero to me.
On our walk, Sayfohn pointed out Wat Sop Sickharam, the temple where he held his nightly English classes. We made our promises to meet him there in a couple of days and said our goodbyes.
I started off this post by making fun of the older-French-dude-with-younger-Asian-girlfriend for not realizing that the unit of currency would change once he entered Laos. Bu it turned out I had made a similar mistake. Perhaps because of the short plane ride, or because of the similarities in language and food, I had believed that Laos would be just another kind of Thailand. Different in some abstract, historical and/or political way, perhaps, but not in any way that would be obvious or discernible to the senses. Cross the boundary from southern Indiana into Kentucky, for example, and you might never know the difference. A few short hours in Luang Prabang had proven me wrong. Laos feels as different from Thailand as silk does from cotton. Due in large part to Sayfohn's open heart, I felt welcomed and at home in Laos in a way that I had not experienced in all of my time in Thailand. It was surprising and lovely and I was eager for more.
I could not have known it at the time, but Laos had even greater surprises — both weird and wonderful — waiting just around the corner.