Walking to Pakxeng

Luang Prabang
June, 2003

20150422141113239_0002I had been in Laos a few days, in the town of Luang Prabang and could not wait to explore the countryside. Being severely allergic to tour groups meant going on a solo walkabout. So I set off from Luang Prabang, heading north-east, thinking to go walking for week or so.

The map I had found showed no roads but there is a partially paved road now. The road follows the meanderings of a small river and there are villages strung out along the riverbank. People here fish the river and farm parts of the surrounding hillsides. Once a week they take their produce to Luang Prabang, to the market. Most of them have never even visited Luang Prabang which is the closest town, barely a hundred kilometers away. They had never seen a foreigner.

20150422141113239_0001Smiling welcome greeted me in every place I stopped. No sooner would I stop, but be surrounded by people, just as curious about me as I am about them. We talked – I in my broken (but rapidly improving Lao), and they in broken English. We were helped along by the phrases at the back of the guidebook and when that failed vigorous miming came to the rescue.

When I reached a village I would greet the headman or woman and ask permission to pitch my tent in a field. I was the equivalent of a one-man circus come to town. People would drop whatever they were doing and I would be trailed by some twenty people, all eager to watch and to help.20150422141113239_0007

More hindrance than help, at any one time there would be some ten youngsters pounding in tent pegs – at the wrong ends! Vociferous arguments would break out – someone who had merely seen a similar tent was the undisputed expert and had no qualms about lording it over the rest. I knew that once pitched I would not be able to go anywhere near the tent for at least a couple of hours. There would be people going in and out of the tent, opening and closing the zippers, looking into the pockets, lying down in the tent to see what it felt like.

20150422141113239_0004More than once I had been asked if I would sleep in their house so they could sleep in my tent. Once I remember I found six people squeezed into my little two-person tent! It was literally bursting its sides. At one village I was taken to a grand old lady. She sat on a throne like chair and had a long intricately carved ivory cigarette-holder. Her word was clearly law in these parts. Grandma flatly refused to let me pitch my tent when I first asked her. I was a little perturbed and since it was already getting dark, wondered what I should do. Then she turned to me and said ‘You are like my daughter; you will stay in my house’. There was no room for argument and I offered none. “But”, she continued, we have heard of your tent. Put up your tent so the children can play”.

20150422141113239_0005At another, they simply refused to let me pitch my tent outside, claiming it was dangerous. But there were no spare beds. So we compromised – I slept in my tent inside the shack that passes for the local store.

My folding camping stove was another instant hit. People young and old, would call their friends and then ask me to turn on the stove. Then to turn it off, fold it and put it away. A second later I would be asked go through the process all over again. I was beginning to feel like a pro at this one-man magic show. Dinner of instant noodles was greeted well enough, but in the morning it was the coffee I made that found no favor. Everyone of course wanted a taste and the faces they made were priceless! My coffee is black and lacks sugar. Too polite to refuse the first cup, they hurriedly said “no” to the second.

20150422141113239_0006At one village they tried to teach me to fish the traditional way. I failed. Bursts of laughter greeted my inept attempts. Little children doubled up with laughter and hurried to call their friends to come and watch. I realized I had the starring role in this inadvertent comedy show and it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul started selling tickets.

They did catch some fish and cooked them for the evening meal. We ate Lao fashion, sitting on the floor on bamboo mats, balling up sticky rice in one hand and taking bites of fish with the other.

20150422141113239_0009There other meats on occasion, frequently unrecognizable. I thought it prudent not to ask what I was eating.

Most evenings the other villagers would gather in someone’s house and we’d have an evening of chatting and drinking the locally brewed liquor. The local brew is made from rice and is a perfectly vile concoction. I made unobtrusive use of the fact that we were seated on a platform of split bamboo strips. The chickens rooting around under the platform did not seem to complain.

20150422141113239_0003Eager to save me the effort of walking, they told me that a truck went to Luang Prabang once a week. If I would only wait, I would not need to walk. So on the way back I decided to do just that. Boxed in between baskets pf produce, a few chickens, one goat and assorted villagers and children, we trundled back to town over the red dirt road.


Tourists of Another Stripe

Bangkok, Thailand

June 3, 2003

Bangkok is chock full of tourists, the SARS scare notwithstanding. They fill up the cafes, bars and restaurants in town, crowd the beaches in the south and stream to the hills in the north. They travel here in couples and groups but the majority of the tourists are men. Young and old, they walk by hand in hand with Thai women. A woman who looks no older than fifteen walks by matching her steps to the shuffling gait of a seventy year-old. Sex tourism is alive and well. I had heard and read about the thriving sex tourism in Thailand but being here it hits me between the eyes. It is hard to stomach but I sternly tell myself that I do not know enough to judge.

There is a place off Sukhumvit road, called Nana Plaza. Lit up garishly Las Vegas style, it is a four-storey building consisting of nothing but bars. I found myself visiting it one evening. All the bars are manned by women, the clientele are exclusively male and all are foreigners. I did not see any other women among the tourists there. I sat at a bar, ordered myself a drink and fell into conversation.

There are eleven girls who work at this particular bar. They come from various parts of Thailand, many from the north-east, a region called I-san. Thai law provides education up until the age of twelve and then one has to pay. From what the girls say the steep fees prohibit most from pursuing further education. And so they try to find other work. If none is available, as is frequently the case, they find themselves here – to earn a living and to send money home in some cases. Some have been here for many years and some not that long. They laugh with each other but there are shadows in their eyes. The hard eyes and closed expressions speaks loudly but I wanted to know more. I spoke with some of them.

Mink who is thirty has been working here for some years. From a large farming family of poor farmers, she could not find work in her hometown and so she is here trying to save enough money so that she can go back. She misses her family terribly. Not that she can save much she says. They work here every day from noon until two in the morning. They get paid some three thousand baht per month and have to pay for their room, their food and whatever personal expenses out of that. If a customer takes her out, they have to give the manager half of what he gives them. Mink confesses that she doesn’t mind tending bar, but she does not like to go with men. So I ask her what she would like to do instead. Is there anything that she could learn? Is there something she likes to do that can earn her a living? She pauses and says that she would like to learn Thai massage. She’s always been good at it – she used to give her grandmother massages since she was a little girl. But it costs money to go to massage school. It is far more money than she can save. Suway confesses it is even harder for her to save because she has a five-year old to support. She has no idea who the father might be. Ning was sitting in the corner writing in a notebook. I asked if I could see. It is a journal, much like mine. She writes in English – to practice, she says. I did not read – it seemed like too much of an invasion of privacy but a few sentences caught my eye. They are painful to read. Ning has been going to school when she can. Scraping, scrounging and studying, she hopes someday she won’t need to earn a living at Nana Plaza. She wears a flesh-toned sleeve over her forearm. Noticing my gaze, she peels it back a bit. There are multiple scars on her wrist – from the times she has slit her wrist. She is not the only one. There are many women the girls tell me, that wear scars on their wrists as one would wear bracelets.

Sitting at cafes and restaurants I’ve heard and overheard men attempting to justify themselves. For six hundred Baht, they can take any of the girls out. The loud voices brashly claim that in contributing to sex tourism, they are in essence helping these girls earn a living. That this is their chosen profession and that this is the culture in this land. But they are not so different, these girls, from you or I. They too hope and dream and fear. I suspect they too bleed when they’re cut. Why is it that these men who come here do not see that?