20 April 2011

Tuk Tuk Smoke Smoke

I began writing this on the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. It is not the fastest way to get there. It is not the cheapest way to get there. It is the slow way, the beautiful way. When your travel time is limited you want to get from place to place as quickly as possible so that you can be there for as long as possible. Air travel is great for this. It is like a magic tragic. You board a plane in Los Angeles, have a snack, watch a movie and land in New York. The fact that you missed the Rocky Mountains, the red bluffs of the South West, the heartland and the Appalachians is irrelevant because you didn't have time for in between. There is a lot to see between here and there and when you have the time to take your time it is worth it.

The boat I am on is a 60’ green and red barge. It is piloted from the front by a Laotian man who handles currents and narrow passages calmly and effortlessly. As is usually the case there are way too many people on this boat. I don’t believe the word “capacity” translates into any of the South East Asia languages. There are no seats on the slow boat. I am sitting on a blue and white pillow decorated with pictures of cartoon puppies that I bought for 40baht before crossing the border. In total I will spend 15 hours crushing these puppies with my bony ass. I know what you are thinking, being crammed onto an over-capacity barge for 15 hours with nothing to sit on but a cheap pillow sounds like a slow boat to hell. It’s not. The boat is traveling up the Mekong River into the heart of Laos. Laos is untouched. There are no housing developments or restaurants or gas stations lining its shores. The Mekong is a brackish brown green path into the depths of the jungle. During the monsoon season the Mekong dissects the jungle foliage perfectly. The browns of the water meld seamlessly into greens of the shore. This is the dry season. The waters have receded leaving a belt of sand and shale. The seasonal shoreline gives the rivers edge the look of bombarding climates; desert sands that erupt suddenly and shockingly into deep green jungle.

We docked for the night at Pakbeng village. The sun was setting and insects the size of small birds were on the attack. For the first few hundred yards up the hill Pakbeng is tourist equipped. It has a handful of guesthouses, restaurants and shops selling water, beer and chips. There are no 7-11s, no ATMs, and no Wi-Fi. Pakbeng is more than happy to feed and shelter passing strangers but it’s not about to put on airs. It will how ever sell you weed. We looked at four guesthouses before settling on a place that offered two rooms with gorgeous views of the Mekong. On our way up the hill we were approached by six different Laos men and a kid asking if we wanted weed, ganja, tuk tuk smoke smoke or high yeah? We were also asked by our waiter at dinner, by the doorman at the town's only bar, by the lady that sold us toothpaste and just for good measure by the guy that made our coffee the next morning. The room with the gorgeous views cost us 30,000 kip a piece ($3). Later that evening when we asked for towels the proprietor refused to lend them. We had been the first up the hill. She didn’t know that four boats had docked that night. She wasn’t happy when she found out. She charged everyone else four times what she charged us. We had the best rooms in the house. She could have gotten even more for ours. I showered the next morning and dried off with my bed sheet.

I went for a run before we got back on the boat. It was early and the surrounding jungle looked exactly like you would expect it to look. Dew hung heavy on everything, mist crept down the slopes, bird calls echoed through the foliage and the morning sun shone soft and hazy as it burned the clouds to whisps and vapor and nothing. The image was everything you expect from pictures of the exotic. Yet when you are here you are shocked by how real it is. As I passed through the village with droplets of salty water and Beer Lao beading on my skin I caught the attention of a group of village kids. They started running along with me waving and saying “Sabai-dee!” I returned their hello and then sped up a little challenging them. They laughed and raced forward to catch me. I sped up again. They caught up again. The villagers took notice. The tallest and strongest of the kids noticed them noticing and decided to test me. He took off. The kid couldn’t have been more than twelve but he was quick. I raced to catch up with him. We ran neck and neck. Villagers on both sides of the road “Ohh’d” and “Ahh’d.” I smiled at the kid and burst ahead. Safely in front I turned back and clapped. I gave him two thumbs up. He narrowed his eyes considering the distance, considering it a challenge. I waved him off shaking my head no. I jogged away slow and out of breath. Moments like this are what living abroad is all about. In this place I am different to them and they are different to me. Abroad I can have a foot race through a village with a twelve-year old Loation kid and we can both get caught up in the “Look at you, look at me” joy of the moment and we can both remember it fondly even though our lives will never again be in step.

Luang Prabang is beautiful. Nestled against the Mekong the city has a palm lined river front, meticulously maintained French architecture and a quiet romantic atmosphere. This is not a place for activity it is a place to read, nap, sip and savor. It looks like a something Disney built minus the falseness. Most tourist stops in South East Asia are a gauntlet of sights, smells, colors and temptation. Luang Prabang is different. The mixture of Laos and French influence here is oddly at ease. Here an orange robed monk walking past a boutique hotel with a name like Au Fil Du Mekong makes perfect sense. The one thing it's missing is good eats. In other parts of South East Asia the cheap food is the best food. Not in Loas. In Loas the food looks like Thai food and tastes like nothing. With three exceptions, baguettes, Lao coffee and Beer Lao are all excellent.

We leave for Vietnam tomorrow. The bus ride takes 24 hours. Im going to need that puppy pillow.