…when Laotians wear plaid, and I’ve already broken my Canon. Yes, sadly my camera somehow died within 2 weeks, and yes that opening line was a clear and direct reference to the album you should all go out and buy when it comes out in 3 days, Asher Roth’s “Asleep in the Bread Aisle.”
April is without a doubt my second favorite month of the year. It’s a time of creation and transition. Obviously a lot of people get busy on July 4th, which you can directly attribute to the masses of April birthdays including my sister, brother, niece, dad and a handful of other close friends. The New England weather I love so much slips its gargoyle skin into flower blossoms and breezy iguana necks this month. There’s music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.
April is a month of life, and it should feel like a damn good time to be alive.
After writing last from Pakse I caught a bus heading due south for what are affectionately known as “The 4,000 Islands.” It’s a remote but pristine archipelago just north of the Cambodian border on the Lao Mekong River. Several of the islands have become traveler hotspots you hear about in the ever increasing whispers about their dramatic beauty and traditional simplicity. After a bus ride and a brief slowboat, I arrived in Don Det, where a German backpacker I met months ago had traveled 28 hours by bus to visit… and told me it was worth every second.
Besides the decent amount of family-owned power generators, Don Det only has electricity for 3 hours per day. From the miniscule beachfront at the point, long rows of simple wooden bungalows line what are known as the “Sunrise” and “Sunset” sides… Nearly every bungalow is the same, with an awful bed inside, no bathroom, no light or fan, and a small deck with 1-2 hammocks looking out onto the water. There were far more bungalows than I expected, but very few were even close to capacity and it made for a very, very small town feel.
I met my ragtag band of international neighbors right away, and we rented tubes for 50 cents to take a nice long float down the river. While in Muang Ngoi I’d befriended a Canadian guy who raved about this English girl he fell for there and really wanted to see again. As we floated down the river, sharing our traveling tales, it turned out that the girl I was talking with was this guy’s love! To connect the dots even further, our other neighbor was the one who persuaded the Canadian guy to spend time in Muang Ngoi in the first place and had traveled with him as well. We were all pretty overwhelmed with the tangential crossing of paths, and the girl was even more lovestruck with our Canadian buddy… Sometimes fate deals you a royal flush on the river, both figuratively and literally.
The high spirits led into a tasty BeerLao watching the cotton candy sunset and a great chill session at what’s called “The Reggae Bar.” Absolutely nothing about this place is reggae, no rastas or Jamaican flags or otherwise, but they play damn good reggae music, and I dug it. They’re well known for staying open later than the other places, which means they keep the lights on until 10:45pm. The power went out just as the monsoon rains started, so all 30 people stayed sitting on their ground cushions, sharing libations while the rains thundered down around us in the dark and moondrenched laughs were exchanged across the tables.
It was also during that hour that we found out one of our neighbors, a 40-something Californian nonstop talker, ran a softcore porn website of herself. The 20-something Mike Myers look alive who met her at the Vietnam border and told us about it said straight-faced, “I honestly wanted to check it out, but my Paypal is broken so I couldn’t register.” I loved this guy.
Two days later I found myself invited by my new neighbor (a Frenchman named Joma who lives in the Ranier Islands, spends significant amounts of time in Madagascar, and has one of the wildest haircuts I’ve ever seen) to visit an extremely remote village. An incredibly sweet Lao woman who sold baskets at the Don Det waterfalls had befriended him and extended an invitation to visit her husband’s home village, where she claimed most had never seen a Westerner. We arose early and excited that morning, met up with a new American hippie friend, and rented bicycles to ride 30 minutes through dirt paths, wooden bridges and scattered rice fields to meet with our Lao host (“Mama Dam”). It turns out that she hadn’t visited the village in 40 years, since she was 15 years old, so the adventure began. After 4 hours of treacherous bike rides, two broken chains, river swimming, long hikes, and a seemingly endless walk through scorching rice fields, we arrived several islands over in their village. True to their word, most had never seen a Westerner. The time spent the in Ban Sai Hong and the trek itself were both incredibly, incredibly special… days like that one revitalize the desire to backpack. They reinvigorate the joy of connecting with others. And they remind you not to wear a jersey without suntan lotion unless you want some really stupid tanlines.
The next seven days melted into one blissful afternoon of silent introspection. I’d love to say I partied nonstop or hiked a new mountain everyday, but I spent most of my time by myself primarily listening to and working through the flow of internal thoughts. I visited as many local schools as I could to gain information on the area’s basic education status, read 800 pages to complete the incredible book Shantaram, swam to an island and back nearly every day, wrote voraciously in my journal, and stayed away from external connectivity as much as possible. Removing all of the usual minutiae, stresses and external interactions from daily life really forces you to think big picture thoughts. I made a home out of my hammock, and my eyes fixed on the shifting horizon as it cycled through technicolor birth and death.
When I did come out of my shell of private introspection occasionally at night, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people who equally fed off the energies of the island. One night’s dinner and late night chill session included a 30-something Valencia jungle warrior who’d lived amongst the refugees of Burma and Peru for months at a time, a 68-year old widowed mystical poet who spoke 10 languages and blessed us all with her scholarly wisdom (and gave me a lovely poem), a Barcelonan couple who I truly loved and hope to meet up with again, two Englishman both named Andy (one was self-referred to as “Candy” or “Gandy” because he was the gay Andy hahah) who lived in Don Det for several years, and two Russians who sang hysterical songs of the motherland proclaiming the strength of the Russian man… Oh, and my total room rent on the island was $23... altogether... for eight nights...
April 14-18th is Lao New Year, which means the whole country stops to have a water fight. No joke. Everyone just drills each other with buckets, hoses, waterguns, and more. Absolutely no one is safe, and they take special delight in drilling falong (Westerners). It’s a blast, and my last night in Don Det I came across an all Lao birthday/New Year party. After idling outside for a bit, I was invited in and seated at a full table of Lao men ages 18-40. No one spoke any English… But they spoke the language of celebration. We shared self-made ricepaper spring rolls, drinks, Karaoke songs, weird hip-shaking dances and a serious amount of hysterics. The children went to bed early and the heat really turned up, as my favorite cultural tradition I’ve ever seen started-
For some reason, it’s a Lao New Year tradition to rub baby powder on your face and the face of others late night… especially older wasted people that are passed out. I can’t even begin to describe how funny it was, but people were covered in baby powder, defenseless and clueless as to how ridiculous they looked. Everybody loved it.
I thanked the gracious hosts and finally left the party around midnight to walk the few steps to the beach front where a 15-traveler bonfire was simmering, and was reunited with my Barcelonan friends. We shared a great late night jam session as a storm settled in the distance and the man in the sky flicked the bright lights on in off in the waterfront horizon. Silent lightening enveloped us from all directions every few seconds for several hours. It was the kind of natural display that lets you know there is Godliness even in science’s playground…
Tomorrow my Laos visa expires and I’ll fly to Thailand to travel south for 6 weeks with my buddy Crosby. I’m pretty confident that most of my NYC fatigue has been washed out in the blue and green rivers of this country. The last month has been good, great, grand, wonderful. That is the word that captures it best. Full of wonder. Both in the internalized monologue asking constantly difficult questions that require scary but truthful answers, and in that feeling of amazement and intrigue that this culture offers to an outsider in each passing day, especially through the work of Pencils of Promise...
There is a tremendous peace to these people and this land. The sun and mists rise slowly each morning and the soft clouds bow their heads in deferent acknowledgment of each day’s closing. Children dominate the landscape holding hands under soft pink faded umbrellas. Elderly women walk in packs, their woven purses complementing traditional skirts that speak of maternal kindness. These women always walk silently, never making a fuss or even addressing their peers. They simply walk together towards their shared destination, screaming dignity through the heavy bags under their eyes and the patience of their step. The family underlies everything here. They look after each other not because they are told, but because it is simply how they live. And permeating each collective act is the beautiful silence and confidence of necessary solitude. It’s witnessed in the men carrying wood logs on their backs from the fields and the women preparing banana stands at dawn.
I’m incredibly thankful to have spent this month amongst the Laotian people. Sometimes it’s in the absence of the usual sound and speech that the deeper subconscious of a people or an individual can be heard. Having come from a world of constant sound and stimulation, being here has been a healthy reminder that each man and woman’s most powerful statement is not expressed through their way with words, but in their way of life.
Be safe and stay classy,
Key Trip Info
Album of Choice- “Mastercuts – World Beats”. Global rhythms just sound good in beautiful places.
Song of Choice- Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden”. Get it acoustic, preferably 1965 BBC Concert… In my humble opinion it’s one of his five best lyrical masterpieces. The words all have jagged edges, and land with a thud at the base of your cerebellum. Like many of Dylan’s best yarns (Tangled Up in Blue, Desolation Row, Stuck Inside of Mobile, etc) it’s a children’s bedtime story for adults that have lost their key to clarity’s front door. You know something is happening but you don't know what it is... Listen to it twice in a row and just try not to have a few lines stuck in your head… I dare you… I double dare you... or you could take the Physical Challenge.