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Crossing over

*Introduction to Lao language and culture*

22 °C

I like to check out the market when I arrive in a new town. It is usually interesting, easy to find, will give you a feel for where you are, and has something good to eat. My first act of orientation upon waking in Pakse, Laos is thus to wander through the market. It is enormous and baffling. I must have grown accustomed to the Thailand markets and without realizing it come to recognize at a glance the fruit stands, vegetable stands, flowers-and-incense stands, knick-knack shacks, and so on. Here in Laos, I cannot quickly ‘read’ what I am seeing. It is just different enough to confuse. My eyes bounce from vibrant chilies to veritable mountains of cabbages to trays of cooked fish swarming with flies to a woman lifting a squawking chicken by its feet… This place feels so foreign. If I want to get a sweet snack (which I prettymuch always do), I don’t even know what to ask for. To make matters worse, people here clearly speak much less English than in Thailand, making it harder for a newcomer to access. My thoughts swirl. I am in a new country, I need to learn the food, I need to learn the language, I need to learn the culture, I need to learn… basically everything.


My Thai language efforts were highly unsatisfactory, perhaps thwarted by the whole tonal thing. I managed to learn the numbers and a few other essentials like horng nam (bathroom) and ka-nom (dessert), but my attempts at any more sophisticated communication were generally met with laughter or – even worse – blank stares. Very disheartening. Lao is likewise a tonal language, so I am already glum about my prospects. I would need to find a Lao person who speaks good English (rare here) and is willing to patiently coach me on the difference between kai to mean far, kai to mean close, kai to mean egg, and a couple other versions. It also wouldn’t hurt if (s)he could explain the food, social customs and such… Really, what I need is a language and cultural broker. Good luck, I say sarcastically to myself.

On the upside, I do know one word that will be of imminent use: Phoe. I stop at a small roadside food stall and manage to make myself understood. Five minutes later I get a steaming bowl of noodles and broth. On the side is a heaping plate of mint, basil, lettuce and green beans alongside. It is delicate, fragrant and warming. (Yes, I have just come from the market where the vegetables are sitting in dusty piles on the ground. Yes, it is highly unlikely that these greens have been thoroughly rinsed in distilled, safe-for-tourists drinking water. And yes, I happily ignore this knowledge.)


After phoe, on to business. One of my last acts before leaving Koh Phangan, having mastered the automatic motor scooter, was to gain some familiarity with the semiautomatic variety. Not wanting to spend too much time at it – there were vacant hammocks waiting to be occupied – I learned just enough so that I could later rent one, drive off, and learn on the road. Time now to implement. After a quick look around to gauge prices, I hand over my passport in exchange for a 100cc Honda Wave. It is the lowest motorbike on the pricing totem pole so I know it is not exactly state of the art. But I am not exactly the most discriminating driver, this being my third time ever.

My fondest wish is to do a road trip, but I decide to be responsible: I will first take a day to make sure I actually can drive the thing. I head about an hour down the road, and all goes well. I feel pretty comfortable, and actually prefer having gears. There are now several waterfall turnoff’s nearby. Figuring any waterfall will do, I randomly pick one called Tad Gnuang. As I pay the nominal fee for entry and motorbike parking, I notice that the man taking my money speaks excellent English. Wheels turn quickly and I ask him point-blank for what I want: “Say.. After I visit the waterfall, can I buy you a cup of coffee and you teach me some Lao?” He consents. I spend a few minutes checking out the waterfall, which is a very nice one, then return excited for my Lao lesson.


My teacher’s name is Boualy. For several years he worked with an ecotourism company in Vientiane, the capital, then returned home to help develop Tad Gnuang. After covering some basic Lao words and phrases, we get into a long conversation about sustainable development and his plans to make Tad Gnuang a community asset where tourism dollars help fund a school, library and clinic, and where visitors can get an authentic taste of local culture. Laos, for most of its history, has been relatively remote but now it is changing by the minute. It is interesting to explore the economic, education, infrastructure, health and social aspects of its rapid development. We discuss all this seated in an open air cafe surrounded by leafy green. A girl is slowly cooking bananas and potatoes over a brick oven/grill. The local coffee, grown right here on the Bolaven Plateau, makes me smile and sit up straight with every sip. Moreover, over the course of our conversation, the family running the place smilingly bring us shots of Lao Lao (local whisky – tasty but strong!), then two roasted bananas, then cups of tea. They are incredibly warm, and like that I am interested in their language and country. I think am starting to get an idea of Lao hospitality.


I leave only after several hours, and only because it is getting dark. I stop at Pakse’s night market for dinner. Having no idea what anything is, I point to a pot of stuff that looks good, nod yes for sticky rice, and soon find myself with a hot bag of food and nowhere to eat. I drive to a spot overlooking the Mekong river and settle down on a rock. Note: Here in Laos, as in cultures around the world, eating is a highly social activity. Families share meals, period, and I think Laotians find it a rather sad sight when foreigners dine alone. Not five minutes pass before a man from a shop across the street comes over and indicates I should join his family at a table in front of their shop. They bring plates and utensils for my food (which I was eating with fingers out of the bag), hand me a bottle of water, and sit with me while I eat, attempting what little communication is possible with my ‘noy neung’ (‘little bit’) Lao. I am wowed, to say the least. I eventually thank them, return to my guest house,and fall asleep thinking that most of what has happened today, I cannot picture happening anywhere else I have ever been.

Posted by sbw2109 03:21 Archived in Laos

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