Monday, November 5, 2007

Musings from More Days in Asia

Finally, a long morning of rest and a day filled with sweet nothing… My paperwork is behind me and my conscience is at ease, let the holiday begin.

My first two days and night in Vientiane, Lao PDR, left me thinking about just how similar the Asian countries are to one another. Is it just human nature to dwell on differences? Whether referencing the good, the bad, or the ugly, my Lao experience proves another case of “same, same, different”.

After learning the interesting way three years ago about internet bookings in remote areas, I was apprehensive that my room in the Villa Manoly was actually confirmed. Considering I had just spent 14 hours on the bus from Bangkok and patiently waited in each of the visa, immigration, and border crossing lines (which cost 650 Thai Baht, $36 USD, and 10 Thai Baht, respectively), I just wanted a shower. In typical Asian fashion, people hesitate to tell you no when they really should. Had I followed directions from the over-zealous tuk tuk drivers on each of the four street corners, I literally would have circuitously navigated back to each of them. A ploy? A little reminiscent of Cambodia where each taxi driver is so kind and helpful because he benefits directly by bringing you to his buddy’s guest house. Even a monk couldn’t tell me where a nearby and perhaps rivaling temple was located. Hmm. At last, I’m able to locate the guesthouse which seems to be 1-2 km from the city center on a quiet tree-lined street. The Mekong lazily flows past just a block down, and the afore mentioned temple complex is opposite the villa.

The Manoly is an old colonial remnant consisting of a main building and at least three adjacent buildings. A terrace with several small tables and rattan chairs greets you and leads into the main entrance, which has immaculate marble flooring and more period furniture. I feel of days gone by and am expecting a French soldier to swagger in at any moment. Instead, a young Lao man informs me that there is in fact a room for me upstairs and he would love to show me the way. The marble feels cool and refreshing on my feet. My en-suite room is quite large and filled with dark wood furniture. Probably once very grand, it feels a bit tired, but welcoming none the less. Adjacent to my room are two other bedrooms and a foyer, which doubles as the maids ironing quarters. This space opens to a large balcony overlooking the grounds, which are vast and green. A small turquoise pool surrounded by worn lounge chairs looks inviting. Numerous coconut and mangrove trees provide ample shade. An old ox cart brimming with colorful flowers sits in the garden and a woman busies herself watering the inhabitants of this peaceful estate. I am more than satisfied.

At night, the air con hums yet only manages to produce mildly cooler air than open windows. However, I rest peacefully without hearing any of the barking street dogs which I know are having their nightly conversations. At the Manoly, there is no bar or restaurant, and no internet, TV or phone. I sleep for 12 hours.


I spent about three hours in a very American-style café: bagels, granola, smoothies, lattes, homemade pizza, and cookies. Even carry out. And nearly every customer was Western. Conversations I could eavesdrop on consisted of the usual backpacker chatter – how much will you pay for a latte, but more importantly, which countries have you done? – and this generally among two kids who just met over Beer Lao the night before. The other convo is among the slightly older – my age-ish – and conservatively dressed crowd. These folk look like so-called “consultants”. I hear smatterings of teaching ideas, HIV, NGOs, and miscellaneous entrepreneurial enterprises. Is this exciting, annoying, or just the daily grind in any city?


Let me set the scene. I have followed the instructions provided by the Lao tourism authority brochure and sit on the fourth floor of a bar known for having the best views of the Mekong. It is after sunset, so I mainly see the neon glow of a party barge illuminating the shore as it sails from A to B. I happen to arrive in the middle of a Lao culture show and there are two girls and two boys on stage performing traditional dances to live music. Everything from the bell-toned music to the colorful and sparkly costumes to the elegantly bent back hands demonstrates the closeness in culture to her neighbors. Once the local performance finishes, the background music resumes, the film “American Pie” is broadcast silently from satellite TV, and a gecko scrambles over the wall.

The social customs aren’t so different, either. I glance around to check out the other patrons and am not surprised to see four sexpats, all men seemingly enjoying dinner with their local honeys. Around the corner of the center bar I hear from a loud American that he’s not at all surprised to see “Jane” here. Ah, sexpat central. Only minutes ago, Jane greeted a white faced male with a kiss. Now she taps beer for the three men around her, including the previous guy who appears to either be her “boyfriend” or client for the night. The other examples of the sexpat industry are typical: older, washed up, Western men who have gone local. I have revisited this issue a number of times and I always reach the same conclusion. On one hand, I am all in favor of people finding happiness with any partner they choose. However, these men actively seek out a certain kind of woman to fulfill their fantasies. In fact, three more European men have just entered the arena and to watch their interaction with the female employees is pathetic. On the other hand, many of these girls are smart and know where the money is. I can only fault the local governments for not providing more opportunities for women (and men in some cases) so that people aren’t encouraged to participate in this profitable lifestyle. The tourist authorities were kind enough to provide an etiquette section in my brochure, which explained that the Lao government prohibits locals from “socializing” with guests. I wonder who enforces this or how much the payoff is not to?

The cultural performance resumes. Only every now and then does a patron look up from his drink or the girl across the way to take notice. My friends in Bhutan beware! You are just babies in tourism. You have done amazingly well to ward off such cultural invasions, but don’t allow the West to take you by storm. The performance finishes and “Saturday Night Fever” takes over the airwaves. Back to things that sell…

A big, burly, blonde man has just joined Jane and her male friends. Another Lao woman also enters the stage, totaling five men and two women. I still hear the loud American’s voice booming, now about the American sport’s scene. The men hardly pay the women any attention. It’s ironic that we can all relate to this part of the scene. Off on stage right, which is immediately at the table in front of me, a desperate attempt by an old crusty man to grab the young waitress is foiled. She ever so coyly gives him the eye and bows out. He is defeated this time. The other American Joe’s have turned to military talk and discuss maneuvers gone wrong. To stage left, a new couple enters, but this time, two men. The Western man is blonde some BeeGees-era hairstyle. I presume they are gay based on their body language with one another. This part of Asia is very open to gay relationships, cross-dressers, even sex change, but I wonder whether they realize the meat market they have entered.


But that was all just happy hour. I have changed venues for some dinner and return to a small restaurant situated around the fountain that I had strolled past earlier. It is after nine and safe to say that I avoided the crowds. The only other el fresco diners are a foursome of European NGO workers who seem to be discussing fish farming on the Mekong. I tune in and out. The chef focuses on grilling my prawns, which he finishes by dousing them with something for a flambé effect. I glance beyond the grill to see a cockroach scurrying about and four ferrell dogs frolicking near the fountain, which has now been turned off for the night.


Yet another semi-sleepless night has passed in a semi-reclining bus seat and I have returned to Bangkok. The waits were less this time than upon arrival to Laos PDR; however, filled with more chaos (from the Thai side) and that slight sense of unease one has when turning over one’s life in exchange for a bus ticket.

Once I landed at the bus terminal and realized that the bus arrived even earlier than expected (ETA: 530am, actual ET: 415am), I concluded that I’d had enough of aimlessly roaming the streets and schlepping my poorly packed things. I am just tired of being in transit. Instead, I hopped in a taxi bound directly for the airport. My initial idea was to splurge for a day room where I could lounge in comfort. But, when I learned the going rate was more than I would be spending on my beach bungalow for a week, I opted for the quiet and very hard row of seats hidden away in a corner near the toilets. Another woman had the same idea and was literally camped out in her North Face sleeping bag. I only had a fleece and a sarong as protection from the freezing air conditioning, fluorescent lighting, and surrounding din, so my extra hours of rest amounted to no more than an hour and a half of squirming in discomfort.

I tried to prolong my zzz’s by calculating how many minutes I’d spent waiting in lines: check in lines, security lines, immigration lines, bus lines, border crossing lines, luggage collection lines, taxi lines… ugh, transitting.

It had finally reached a more civil hour and food and coffee sounded appealing. I reorganized, brushed my teeth, and set out down the corridor. By this time, both tourists and sweeps with drug dogs were in action and the Bangkok airport was business as usual. I took a pass on Starbucks and settled on Café Nero, the Asian cousin next door. Curry and a banana shake sounded better than a latte and a scone anyway. Much to my people watcher’s delight, my eyes and imagination were in for some treats. First, a possibly Russian version of the Osmond Family cordoned off the tables across from me. The family consisted of dad, mom, two sons, one daughter and possibly her husband, and a young boy (either grandson or accident). I first took notice of dad due to his sleep-deprived-bed-head-induced-Elvis, but ginger, hair do. The two sons and the youngster followed, sporting equally rad looks: a ginger Donny Osmond; a 70s disco sweep (also ginger); Euro-trash mullet (yes, ginger). Mom had a bad blonde dye job and the same make up (and mole) as the evil girl teammate in “Dodge Ball”. Daughter was blonde, too, only with darker roots. The other guy was much taller and had a relatively average, brown head of hair – hence I presumed he married in. Other crowd pleasers included two old and crusty sexpats with the usual way-too-young-and-pretty-for-you local girls and an entire Philippino boy’s soccer team, accompanied by a few moms and the coach. They were allowed to order menu item 3, 4, or 5 with either coke or cold chocolate.

My morning continues in the Sky Lounge, where I have been sitting in a comfortable leather couch for several hours. When I first arrived, the only other guests were two of the men from the Russian family – disco Dan and tall average guy. Had they shown off the rest of the family or just ditched them to have a vodka? I only hope that Jen’s Air France flight was operational so we can commence on our beach holiday together.