Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Lao. Wow.

Okay, so I used this same title in my facebook album. So sue me. It's catchy and it's mine, so I say it's broccoli and I say the Hell with it. Last weekend, in a desperate attempt to cram in every last second with something I planned to do and had not done yet, I booked down to Mukdahan to see my friend Rambo and to cross into Lao. Lao has been on my agenda since I talked to Susie, who runs the New Orleans Jazz Festival and gave us free tickets when I took students to work in the Lower 9th. She mentioned that of all the places she visited in SE Asia, Lao was her favorite. Recently, I also found out that my Oncle Jacques had also taught in Vientiane, Lao over 50 years ago. Jacques has been my secret beacon, since I was a kid. He was an international teacher, a free spirit, drawn to travel and explore, until he was killed in Africa in a car accident, still quite young. As much as I was enchanted by his wandering ways, it was the look in my mother's eyes when she described him that hooked me.

More and more I have been contemplating, and even occasionally sensing, non-linear time, the oneness of everything physical. There are moments when I am working out in my concrete house in Thailand and I am simultaneously in my attic in Maine. I can't tell whether it is me in Maine in the past and a memory or me in the future after I write this and I am back home. In fact if I just let the right presence work (flow?), past. present, future commingle. For a flash I am me walking on a red dirt Lao road and I am also Jacques working in a hot, sepia toned Lao classroom. Not an imagined projection but a compression and dissolving. A blur and a clarity.

I didn't know that I could have, for the past two months, gone directly across the river in NKP and gotten a Lao visa on arrival, but going two hours south was part of my plan since it involved a visit to Rambo.

Rambo took me to a lovely restaurant at the base of the bridge to Lao, and we drank a bottle of Lao whiskey as a proper send off. He regaled me WIth stories of his latest big bust, a gang of Moped thieves who were stealing huge numbers and shipping them to Lao. Of course, Rambo would not let me pay for anything, and we also ended up visiting a very odd new cowboy bar (which could have been transplanted directly from Wyoming), an indie music bar, and a bumping night club. This time I was described as an FBI agent doing some work. Last time I was a very rich computer engineer. In that Rambo reminds me of my deceased friend Drew Griffith, who once took me on patrol and told the local sheriffs deputies (as we, well he, was making an arrest) that I was undercover DEA. In Thailand, when you become close to someone, they will often 'adopt' you into their family, and Rambo and I have been brothers since we sang Unchained Melody to each other back in October.
The next morning I was on a bus, finally crossing the Mekong after 10 months of looking at it.
So big and muddy and brown thanks to all of the recent rains. Navigating borders suddenly brings home the importance of papers and money and language, and I found myself getting very anxious as I got off the bus, went through the check points and reboarded. As the only falang on the bus I knew every time I got to the window I would gum up the works and sure enough in Lao I went to the wrong window and had to push my way backwards to another, freaking out that the bus would leave me or I would be short some paper or money or they would just rip me off because they so obviously could. Yet nothing actually went wrong and I remembered again how good that anxiety really is- first of all to remember in a very small and indirect way the insecurity that millions of people experience every day across the globe, but also to shake off the dullness of security and routine. The essence of why I travel- not to have my fat ass pampered on a Carnival Cruise, but to get my palms sweating a little and to force my brain to go, Okay, what do I do in this particular strange situation?
 As I read up on Lao, two astonishing figures clubbed me over the head. One: Thailand has 66 million people. Vietnam as 90 million people. Lao has 6.6. Six point six million? That is roughly the same as Massachusetts, but Lao is 237,000 Square Kilometers and MA is a paltry 20,000! The other figure is unfortunately attached to my home country. Lao holds the horrible distinction of being the most bombed country in the world, ever. Bombed continuously by the USA, a great many sorties originating in NKP where I live. 580,000 missions carried out, which works out to one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  Over 2 million tons of bombs. More than all of WWII together. Of the 80 million cluster bomblets dropped in Lao, some 10 percent did not explode, and still cause deaths to this day. It was all part of the "Domino Theory". If Vietnam went, so would all of SE Asia. We befriended one side, the Vietnamese the other, and poor Lao did not stand a chance. It makes my guts ache to contemplate; when I put my passport on the immigration officer's desk I half expected him to begin screaming in my face. He didn't. The Lao people I met were poor, curious, gentle, and generous. They were not quite as quick to smile as the Thais in Isaan, but most all returned mine when flashed. Not poor on the level of the Cambodia I saw, but again the step down in economics from Thailand was evident- How could it not be after such a devastating recent history? Naturally once all the major player's ambitions were satisfied in the Capitalists versus Commies game, no one gave much of a shit about what happened to the people of Lao. I am sure I could ask every single student at my high school to point to Lao on a map and none would be able to, much less tell me about its importance in the preservation of democracy in the world today. Yet a goodly sum of their grandparents taxes and blood went into what politicians and generals propounded as essential and necessary.  Now of course it is Afghanistan and terrorism. New places and catchphrases of fear. Same old bullshit. I saw a lot of charcoal being moved about- demonstrating a lack of electricity, no doubt.
The trip south was rewarded (or punished in some senses) by a trip in a mini van two hours back the other way. It was a van intended to hold 15 passengers and at one point with a baby in a lap we had 25. Pretty wild considering we also had a huge heavy load on the roof. The most interesting event was when the driver pulled over, went under the van, came out with a four foot long grey, grease-covered cable, started the van back up and we headed out again- after all the people who had run into the woods to pee reboarded. I had a nice chat with a young girl on the way to see a friend. She worked in an export office and welcomed the chance to use her English. She laughed when I asked if she had been to university and said very few people she knew had gone.

It was hard to get a line on if I was overpaying once I got to Ta Khek and I wrangled for quite some time with the tuk tuk driver over his 80 baht fee to town, since in NKP I typically pay only 20-30. It turns out it was the going rate and food too was about equal or more than in Thailand, since a good portion of it actually is bought there! I used the Lonely Planet guide and treated myself to a nice place for once- here a nice place means paying right around Motel 6 prices. There is a bit of left over French influence in Lao, and my hotel had high ceilings, shutters on the windows, and super coffee and French bread for breakfast.
In the morning I rented a Chinese-made (i.e. dogshit quality) moped (350 baht -had to love the no paperwork, no signing anything, no helmets big enough for a white head) and headed out for my first destination, the so-called Buddha Cave.
Such a perfect place to drop 2 million tons of bombs don't you think? Well, the rains were wreaking havoc here too and the road was out.
The local kids loved it, diving into the rushing water. Meanwhile and large contingent of villagers were busy with sandbags and lumber constructing a new crossing. I decided to head further up to see another cave, thinking they might be done by the afternoon so I could pass.

At this cave a much larger bridge was washed out and the only access was this rickety walkway made of rebar and planks. The cave was fortunately an easy walk. Perhaps because of it however, there was no one else there, a nice bonus.

As I would expect in Thailand, this was lit up with what we would call Christmas lights. It was nicely accessible thanks to the massive concrete steps.
Then it was back out on the road. No lunch places in sight anywhere- very unlike Thailand in that sense. I did stop at one roadside stand for an iced tea, where they were selling these water buffalo strips for eating.
Back to the Buddha Cave road, where unfortunately the bridge was not quite yet done, so I headed back into town.
I went back for a nap which was nice to beat the intense heat, though I slept through the sunset I'd hoped to see over NKP.

Still, there it was- Nakhon Phanom at night- a nice image reversal seen from the banks I had so often gazed upon at a distance.  A sweet little jewel there. In the morning, after a great breakfast I was on a mission- to beat the heat and to see those dang Buddhas. They had been discovered some years earlier by a villager and were dated back some 600 years, hundreds of Buddhas in a small cave. I crossed my fingers and said a little multi-religious prayer and lo! the bridge was done.
Only a little tricky to navigate and then up 8 kilometers on a busy dirt track. Families were busy getting back and forth now that the road was open and the fishermen where everywhere.

They use these ingenious nets in Thailand as well, simply placing them on the bottom for a few minutes and lifting them straight up, forming a catchall with the bending bamboo.

 One wrong turn led to this happy crew diving off the culvert into the current.

Then finally it was the Buddha Cave where due to the water level the only access was by boat, making it even more sacred, quiet, and mystical.
 The cave itself was small and incredible. No pictures were allowed and there were a group of women all in white chanting prayers for a friend who had recently died. Other old women were decorating elaborate banana leaf icons and there was a gong that people rubbed and which produced a resonant overtone. Through a small hole in the floor an emerald green pool of water reflect light upwards. Wholly holy. And to emerge and look out over this. I felt cleansed and blessed.
 A quick jaunt back to town- well not all that quick- on the Chinese moped I dared not exceed 60 K though on the Honda I borrow back in Thailand I regularly hang at 90- and I was on the barge back across to Thailand. It was like getting a tiny taste of the most delicious desert ever, and knowing you  were not going to get any more for a long time. Aaaargh. But then again, more reasons to come back to this place I have grown to love so deeply.


  1. Good closing line! I know exactly what "Aaaarg" means and feels like.

    Perhaps that time melting stuff is due, in part, to the envelopment of Jung's collective consciousness. Well, in the senses that: there are a lot of people in the moment around here; and one is free of the Western ilk. I think it takes a while to tune into that atmosphere, but it does open sdoors to interesting perseptions, as Huxley would say.

    Pen pi di Thailand was giving you a glimpse.

    Mai roo krb

  2. I'm planning on moving to Nakhon Phanom and teaching for a few years before retiring completely. I'll be new to teaching in schools but have spent many years in IT doing presentations to management and mentoring trainees. Once I've completed a TEFL course I'll be looking for a job in the area, except I have no idea how start looking. Can you recommend any of the schools to contact directly?

  3. Give me a way to contact you and I will give you some helpful people you might contact. Where are you getting the tefl? Speak any Thai?

  4. I sent a message to you on facebook with my email address. I only speak tourist level Thai at the moment but am starting to study it now. I was looking at CIT as a TEFL provider, but I'm open to suggestions.

  5. Hey Luke I did not get your message- I did post my email under my profile on my blog so try that. CHeers