A Travellerspoint blog

March 2012

My Salavan home: Tata Guesthouse

*How to eat snails. Plus, what you miss by sleeping in*

sunny 21 °C

I would love to be able to say that I drove a motorbike around Southern Laos without mishap. If there were to be a mishap, I would like to be able to say I was not at fault and that it was due to circumstances beyond my control. If I were to be in any way responsible for any kind of mishap, I would hope I had a good rationale to justify my decisions... Alas, as it is, I went too fast over a too-rickety bridge, my favorite light blue shirt is ripped, my arm is bruised my favorite shade of dark blue, and all I can say is, “I knew better.”

I have no light blue thread, so instead I select light pink. As I sit in the open air lobby of my guesthouse sewing my shirt, an adorable little girl comes and sits beside me. I take out some colorful molding clay (just something I carry around, you know) and we start making things and trading the Lao and English words for fish, apple and the like.
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I don’t know the Lao word for ‘live,’ so I ask her where she sleeps. She says, “here,” which I take to mean her parents run this guesthouse and she lives here. Presently, the man who showed me the room, her father, appears and says to us, “gin kow” - time to eat. He is inviting me to eat with them. I shyly say okay, thank you, and join them at a round stone table. His wife brings out a tray with several dishes and basket of sticky rice. “Ahahn Lao,” she says - Lao food. I nod and smile enthusiastically - yes I want to try Lao food!

The father’s name is Roiyan (pronounced roi-YAN). His wife is Maniyum (pronounced man-ee-YOOM). Their daughter is Tata (pronounced ta-TAH). Which makes sense when I recall that the lodge is named Tata Guesthouse - very sweet. This being my first Lao meal with Lao people, I wait to see how it works. Roiyan takes some sticky rice, balls it up in his fist, dips it into a main dish to soak up some broth, and pops it in his mouth. Maniyum spoons some food into Tata’s and then her own bowl. From this I gather that you can either dip sticky rice in the food, or spoon it into your bowl. Very well. Besides sticky rice there are three dishes: A salad of minced chicken, some hard-boiled eggs, and a bowl of… snails. They are in a dark, murky soup with some greens. I have never eaten snails before but - not about to insult my hosts’ hospitality - I follow their lead and sip a spoonful of the broth.

The first impression on the palate is that of river muck. On the second and third taste, I detect more salty and earthy notes to the flavor, and it begins to grow on me. Roiyan spoons a couple snails into his bowl, picks one up, puts it to his mouth, and sucks the snail out of its shell with two quick little slurps. I observe this, then try it myself. A full minute later I am still trying, generating all the suction I can muster, the muscles in my mouth are fatiguing, and the snail is not even close to coming loose. Who would have thought it was so difficult to eat snails? Meanwhile little Tata, who of course has no problem slurping her snails, brings me a toothpick. We all laugh as I concede defeat and manually extract the creature. I now have this gummy thing little grey on the point of my toothpick. Still unsure if I want to eat a snail, but feeling like I am committed now, I pop him (her?) into my mouth. The verdict: Not too slimy, and pleasantly chewy. No wonder the French like them. I bet I would enjoy escargots in garlic and butter even more. As we continue eating I periodically try sucking the snails out of their shell, but each time have to resort to the toothpick. Here is the family, Roiyan and Tata effortlessly eating snails.
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Over dinner, we exchange English and Lao words. I am not shy to get out my notebook and write new words as I learn them. Tata also has a notebook for learning English in school, and I think her parents appreciate that I teach her some English. When we have all eaten our fill, Maniyum brings out a box of long, brown, hard-shelled fruits. Tamarind, or “makkham” in Lao. I have had tamarind-flavored sauces before, but never the fruit itself. Maniyum takes one, peels the crackly skin off the sticky fruit, and hands it to me. I take a bite. Sweet, a little tangy, and really delicious. This gives rise to my first proper, spontaneously uttered Lao sentence: “Khoy mak makkham” - I like tamarind.
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I wake up around 9am the next morning. Roiyan is around so we sit at the table and chat, getting by on his partial English and my nascent Lao. I am wearing a tank top and have forgotten about the massive bruise on my arm until he points and inquires with concern if it hurts. “Noy neung,” I say - a little. He asks if I have put medicine on it. Assuming he means to ask if I have cleaned the minor abrasion, I say yes, I put alcohol. “No, no good enough,” he pronounces. He disappears behind a door, returns with a small tin of something that smells like Tiger Balm, and very gently applies it to my arm. I am touched. Literally and figuratively.

Roiyan asks me if I will leave today. Probably, I say. He encourages me to stay one more day. I say I’ll think it over, and head to the market for breakfast. I wander through, amazed as always at the variety of foods and random objects you find in Asian markets. I finally pick out a noodle stand with a central location, order a bowl of phoe, and just sit and watch. To my right, a woman squats by a pile of neatly folded siins (traditional Lao skirts) and bargains with her customers. In front of me are piles of various vegetables, their proprietors weighing and selling when customers appear and otherwise talking with their neighbors or just sitting quietly. The aisle has a constant stream of people of all ages, all of them Lao – I am the only white face. I watch their eyes, hair, clothing and affect as they pass, and they regard me with equal curiosity. Some smile, others look away, and the children tend to just stare. I take my time over the phoe; it is a good prop for my real mission, which to sit here and observe. I try to get a feel for the rhythm and flow of the place, feeling like I am peering through a hole at a different planet. At some point the thought strikes me: “These people, everyone making up this exotic and fascinating picture around me … They are here every day, shopping and selling, then they go home and make food for their families… This is their daily life I am voyeuristically watching, not some movie set erected for my entertainment.”

I am starting to suspect that Laos rewards the patient traveler, that the simple act of waiting and watching can lead you to interesting experiences. I will stick around Salavan one more day and see what happens. This afternoon I decide to head for a weaving village called Toumlon that looks to be reasonable driving distance. Key fact about road travel in Laos: Distance is not the whole story. The map is really, really not the terrain.

First I reach a section of highway that is being resurfaced. They have placed large tree trunks clear across the road, even some sections that look perfectly intact to me. The road is somewhat elevated, and by these blocked off sections are tire tracks leading down to a gravel/dirt detour alongside the paved road. The slope down to the side road is way too steep for my comfort, but since all the other cars and bikes are managing, I hold my breath and go for it. I make it down in one piece. On the way back up, I have to put the bike in first gear and help it along with my feet. This repeats several times bypassing several segments of roadwork. I finally reach the turn-off leading to Toumlon and heave a sigh of relief, thank goodness I’m done with the on-again-off-again road for now.

The road to Toumlon soon becomes dirt. A very rough dirt road. I bump slowly along for half an hour, the only other occasional vehicles I see are trucks and tractors. Finally, I reach what looks like an X-games motocross adventure course. There is a steep slope down to a nearly dry riverbed littered with large rocks. I am fairly certain that even if I were to make it down without breaking the bike or myself, there is no way I would get back up. Not looking to have two motorcycle accidents in two days, reasoning that I have already seen a weaving village, and figuring God gave me a brain so I could God-forbid use it once in a while, I make an about face.

I go back along the bumpy dirt road, back along the on-again-off-again highway, and begin to relax my shoulders only once I regain the highway leading back to Salavan. I am once again passing lots of intriguing paths leading off into the forest. With plenty of time to spare until evening, I pull over, park the bike in a small clearing, and start walking. The path looks like it used to handle 4WD vehicles but in recent years has not been maintained, perhaps only for foot traffic. With golden afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees, this could be a trail in any national park. I wonder who uses it now and for what. When I stop walking, in the absence of my own footsteps it is eerily quiet. After about half an hour, I sit down in the middle of the trail to listen to the forest, watch the spiders and ants, and study some Lao (I always have my notebook handy and am adding words and studying daily).
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I get back to Tata Guesthouse as night is falling. Instead of going into my room and closing the door, I sit down in the lobby to read, then make some more clay animals with Tata. Presently, just as I was hoping, I am invited to eat with the family again. The menu is abut the same as yesterday. Roiyan shows me again how to eat the snails, just those two quick slurps. It looks so very easy. I try again hoping for better luck tonight, but am unsuccessful. Still, I attempt to suck out each snail the Lao way before resorting to the toothpick. On the fourth snail, I accidentally do something different and feel the meat of the snail flicker out and touch the tip of my tongue. So there IS a trick! I experiment with my inadvertent innovation. Turns out you have to kind of roll your tongue, partially cover the opening of the spiral shell, then vacuum. Closer, closer, this feels like it may work… All at once, like magic, the animal is shoots out of its shell, and with a slurp-pop and I have him in my mouth. “I did it!” I cry in my excitement, holding aloft the empty shell. We all laugh, then document the occasion with a couple more photos.
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Meanwhile I am now managing pidgin sentences in Lao, making possible the following negotiation. Maniyum goes to the market every morning to makes papaya salad, and I ask if I can go with her tomorrow. She says yes. I ask what time she will leave. Six in the morning. I have gotten in the habit of sleeping until I feel like getting up, usually around 9am, but the prospect of visiting the market with a local as opposed being a total outsider is sufficient motivation for an early rising. I say thank you, dinner was very tasty, see you at six tomorrow morning!

Mornings at Tata Guesthouse: What you miss by sleeping in

I have begun to suspect that a lot goes on in Laos while I am still snoozing. To my detriment I have been too lazy to seek out what I may be missing. Today, though, my alarm goes off at 5:45am. I instantly regret committing to an early morning showing. Bleary-eyed, I dress and wander out to the stone table shortly before six. It is still dark.

Roiyan appears and tells me, maybe-I-think, that he is making rice. Whenever I do not understand something said in Lao, my first hope is that the speaker will simply show me to whatever they are talking about. Sure enough, Roiyan leads me through the family’s living quarters and out to the backyard where a woven basket sits steaming atop a charcoal fire. He lifts the lid for me to see that beneath the billowing steam is khow neow, sticky rice. He takes three small handfuls of the khow neow, forms them into three little balls and places them on a leaf. This he places, along with a candle, some incense and a bottle of water, at the base of a tamarind tree. He lights the incense and says a quick prayer. The family’s living area has an altar, a shelf secured to the wall about eight feet off the ground. Using a stepladder to reach, Roiyan repeats the offering on this altar.

Next, Tata runs out into the yard stark naked. She sees catches sight of me and smiles as she skitters over to a large water drum where she scoops up some water in the plastic bowl, takes a sip, then gives herself a little shower. My room has a telephone style shower with a heater so I can take hot showers, but of course the family does not live like that; most people in Laos wash themselves with a bowl and a basin. I am fascinated by everything I am seeing, but wonder if I am intruding. No one seems to be uncomfortable with my presence, so I decide to just be a fly on the wall. Maniyum now appears in her night clothes, goes over to a little cooking area (the “kitchens” here are hardly recognizable as such to the Western eye), and spoons some cooked vegetables into a plastic bag, which Roiyan takes from her with a nod and a smile. This he brings out front along with the basket of sticky rice and a bottle of water. I follow him out to the road. Now he is trying to tell me something, but I cannot understand. He pantomimes carrying an object at hip level with both hands. From his and Tata’s faces I can tell this is something quite obvious to them, that I should really know what they are saying, but I cannot get it. Once again, I use the wait-and-see strategy. Presently, ten saffron-clad monks file down the street, each one carrying at hip level a large beaten metal bowl. So that’s it – monks. Head bowed respectfully, Roiyan places a handful of sticky rice into each monk’s pot. The last monk takes the bottle of water and slowly pours it out, all the monks singing a chant as the stream splatters on the ground.

It is 7am. Time to go to the market. Maniyum and Tata get on her bike, I follow them on mine. We drive ten minute to her stall, which seems to be shared with another business which sells khow neow (sticky rice) baskets and assorted furniture. Maniyum begins sweeping the area (though to be honest, everything in Laos is so perpetually dusty I am amazed that people bother sweeping every day). Tata helps wipe down the tables. Maniyum now assembles her ingredients and starts throwing things into a mortar and pestle. First she puts several chilies, adds some sugar and spices, then grinds. Next come a couple small tomatoes, a handful of shredded papaya, a quick pour of some mystery liquid, and another round of mixing. She puts the results it in a bowl and presents it to me with a basket of sticky rice. Ah, sticky rice. Tasty and filling, it appears to be ubiquitous in Laos, eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I’m pretty sure it is the nutritional equivalent of having about six bagels with your meal, by the way, but I don’t much care.

The papaya salad is spicy and tangy, and the sticky rice is perfect for soaking up the juice. Tata and I eat while Maniyum chats with her neighbor. And I chat with them - I am able to communicate that I am heading for a town called Sekong today, and one further south called Attapeu tomorrow. They are impressed with my Lao, especially when I tell them I have been studying for all of five days. Then they go back to talking rapidly with each other, but to my delight, I understand when Maneeyoom tells her friend that I “pasaa gang Lao, gin gang hoie” – I speak Lao well and eat snails well. I swell with pride on both counts.

Before I leave, Maniyum presses some more tamarind into my hand. She refuses to let me pay for the papaya salad, or for that matter my dinner the last two nights. I am sad to go. I want to tell Roiyan and Maniyum what kind and special people they are, to thank them for letting me into their lives. I want to see what Tata will look like in five or ten years, want her to come visit me in the US someday and I will help her more with English. Instead, it is all just smiles and hugs.

Posted by sbw2109 14:28 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Road trip! - Southern Laos by motorbike

*Abusing the rental bike and my physical person*

sunny 21 °C

Having passed my ‘test day’ on the motorbike without incident, I decide the road trip is on. I pack up, check out, and carefully secure my pack onto the back of the bike with a long rope. Once I am satisfied with the rather elaborate system of loops and knots, I strap on my helmet and throw a leg over the bike. The bag immediately slides to one side, pulls the bike over, and it hits the ground. This is observed without comment by several Lao people seated nearby. I sigh, right the bike and try simply wearing the pack on my back with its weight resting on the seat behind me. This works fine. I nod at my taciturn audience, leave the guesthouse, merge onto the main street and get out of town. Here comes the cliché moment in the movie: Just me and the open road, wide sky above and mountains around… I totally get why people take motorcycle trips. This is exhilarating.

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I keep passing intriguing little turnoffs, and what’s the point of traveling by motorbike if not to explore the such things? I take a little trail leading off into jungle and the main road instantly feels miles away. The terrain is rough, I’m not sure the bike was made for this, but it must lead somewhere, surely just around that next bend… Half an hour later, after bumping the bike gingerly along what I have termed my ‘self-guided off-roading jungle trek,’ I have found nothing. Well, nothing other than intricately patterned butterflies and gorgeous forest views at every turn. I regain the main road without incident, thinking I rather like roads that get me using all four gears.

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My next stop is a village where women weave traditional cloth in an open air pavilion just off the main road. A nearby sign proclaims, ‘model healthy village.’ They immediately try to sell me their work, pushing a little hard for my taste, but are kind and friendly nonetheless. I feel guilty I did not come to buy, and wish I could explain my backpack is heavy enough. And as it is, all I can communicate is that I am from the United States and I am currently en route from Pakse. At which point I realize, to my near-shock, that I am having partial language success: My attempts are being understood!… But they are garnering responses I can’t begin to understand.

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I eventually thank them and drive on, musing that something about the weaving village felt a little Truman Show-esque: Here is a perfect box into which you can drop your well-intended tourist dollars in exchange for some authentic local handicrafts and leave feeling virtuous. My inner optimist scolds: Hey, this brings money into the community while supporting a traditional lifestyle, what’s your gripe? The cynic grumbles, I don’t know, it felt somehow inauthentic, and I suspect their pushy selling behavior comes not from their traditional culture but the growing number of white visitors… I go back and forth for a while reaching no grand conclusion, but the whole thing gets me questioning what I expect villages to be like, what is ‘authentic,’ how I expect people to react to me, and whether that is reasonable.

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Next I take a road leading through a village and then to a waterfall. At first I have the very beautiful and tranquil spot to myself, and I marvel over the view. A young French couple shows up, and I practice my French on them. Then a boy and a girl from the nearby village arrive, and they practice their English on me: “Bhen!” It takes me several repetitions to figure out they are asking for a pen. I am happy to oblige with a spare from my backpack. We play around for a while, the boy shows off with his slingshot, I teach them how to use my camera, and the whole encounter is quite lovely and charming. (If I may foreshadow, since I am admittedly publishing this late: At the time this pen thing seems simple and harmless, but it comes back to haunt me later.)

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With the sun beginning to sink, I head for the nearby Tad Lo waterfall, reputedly a popular backpacker spot, figuring I'll to find a guesthouse there. As I approach, I quickly see that it is quite the backpackerville. After a day of driving through remote countryside and rustic villages, the sight of squarely built guesthouses, English signs and people walking around with big backpacks (nevermind that I have one myself) somehow offends me. This is not Laos. No way I am staying here. Inordinately angered by this scene, I decide I will just see the waterfall then turn right around and leave.

The falls are reached via a wooden bridge built as follows: The bottom layer of boards lie perpendicular to the length of the bridge. On top of that are two tire tracks made of boards running lengthwise. Picture it like this and you get the basic idea -
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- but picture it with narrower tire tracks, half the tire track boards breaking/missing, and some of the base layer lacking as well so in places you can see clear down to the water below. Now then. Rather than parking the bike and walking across, or even driving slowly across using my feet for balance, in my aggravation I proceed with a ‘get this over with’ attitude. I can already tell the waterfall is totally un-spectacular, and why did I even come here…

My front wheel falls into a gap in the boards, twists, and sends the bike shooting off to the side side. I wrestle for control, lose, and go careening into the railing, my backpack throwing me forward and adding mass to the collision. After the impact, once I realize I am okay, I am furious (at myself of course). I look around fuming, noting several backpackers in a café overlooking the river. I can tell they saw the accident and perhaps have some mild interest or concern, but no one comes over to see if I am okay. Lord I can’t wait to get out of here.

I gather my scattered belongings and senses and take stock. I will have some colorful bruises but nothing is broken; good. My pack has a couple rips in the canvas; okay. The bike still starts, but the gear shift is somehow caught such that it will not drive; NOT okay. It appears one of the foot pedals is bent and blocking the gear shift. I take out my Leatherman. At this point, two young Laotion men pass by. I try to ask in very broken Lao if they know a repair shop nearby, or how to fix what’s wrong. We spend the next fifteen minutes fidgeting with the Leatherman and ultimately jumping up and down on that bent foot pedal. I am ready to give up when suddenly it works. I thank them profusely in every language I know how.

It is almost night. There are guesthouses everywhere. I should really stay here. But I cannot bring myself to spend one more minute at Tad Lo. Thus I am back on the road, driving in the dark, bugs hitting me in the face, in a really toxic mood. The next town, Salavan, is about an hour away. I have time to lecture myself: “Nice job, Sharon. Really, brilliant going there. What, you couldn’t spare five minutes to walk? And why are you in a bad mood now? You put yourself in one, that’s why. What are you going to do when you get to Salavan? I know you, you’ll schlep around with your big backpack in the dark trying to find the best deal on a guesthouse which will save you about three US dollars and make absolutely no difference in your life. You know what? Don’t even start. Just find the first decent place to sleep and take it. Think you can handle that?”

I reach Salavan, start passing guesthouses, and randomly pick one to ask the price. A man with a kind demeanor shows me a comfortable looking room and quotes the price at 50,000 kip, a little less than $7. I hesitate – I could probably find something for 30,000 or 40,0000 kip – but recall my lecture and decide to stay. I drop my stuff in the room and settle down in the open air lobby area with a needle and thread to sew the tear in my shirt.

Posted by sbw2109 00:30 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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 Comments (0)

Sketches of Chaloklum

*Party tricks to make friends quickly, plus guide to dining and night life*

24 °C

I. Party tricks to make friends quickly

Apart from SCUBA diving, my first days on Koh Phangan are spent in relative solitude. Many couples have come here to spend the holidays canoodling in paradise, which means less solo travelers for me to meet. Which is fine. At first I soak up the alone time. I have a beachfront bungalow for $13/night, a bit of a splurge by my lodging standards, but I am enjoying my walks and swims along Chaloklum bay. I decide I could do with some human contact, so when my diving instructor Gem invites me to a Christmas Eve party, I force myself to overcome my antisocial tendencies and show up.

The party is well off the main drag at some place called The Crow Bar, which I find only thanks to Gem’s hand-drawn map. I walk into the open air bar to a big buffet of free food (liquid consumption will be surely compensate) and a festive gathering of local Thais and Westerners in assorted states of sobriety. Gem greets me warmly and urges me to get caught up on the food and drink, so I get a plate and start mingling.

I soon realize most of the crowd is associated with one or another of Chaloklum’s diving schools. So, cool, this is the local dive crowd. I get to chatting with the wife of a dive instructor who tells me there was a party here last night during which the men were competing/showing off by hanging from the rafters and doing ten pull-ups. So, cool, we are talking about this and then suddenly – I really don’t know how this happens – I find myself hanging from a rafter myself, everyone looking up at me expectantly. I know virtually no one here, but they are all about to know me. No, I cannot do ten pull-ups. But I can do ten gymnastics-style leg lifts, bringing my feet up to my hands and back down again, legs straight and toes pointed of course. The stunt demands a combination of control and flexibility (not to mention sobriety) that makes me pretty sure it will not be duplicated tonight. I finish to huge applause; apparently I put the macho pull-upping men in their place. I sheepishly return to my drink, but am no longer invisible - quite the opposite. Everyone knows my name and it will take me weeks to learn theirs. On the whole, though, this ends up being a good way to make fast friends. I am presently invited to a party at someplace called Gemini Bar tomorrow night, then something going on the next night, and the next, then it is New Years…

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Thus life goes by at island pace. Thanks to a bout of foul weather, my SCUBA course becomes a drawn-out affair. Many travelers have only three days to get a PADI certification before catching their next flight on, and so are forced to dive on days with strong current and poor visibility. I, on the other hand, can – and do – hold out for better diving conditions. My stay creeps past two weeks. I scout about for cheaper accommodation and my friends help me arrange a bungalow in the prestigious Pikey Villas [see part II below]. I invest $6 in a blue hammock which quickly becomes my favorite perch.

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We play Scrabble on rainy days. Note that Scrabble at Pikey Villas must adhere to the Queen’s English; over my vociferous objections I have been denied credit for many a legitimate word because although it was in the bloody Oxford English Dictionary, it was branded with that terrible scarlet letter A, that unpardonable shame, “American origin.” Whatever. When not being hazed for my nationality, I feel warmly accepted. I am not yet an ‘official’ resident of Pikey Villas – for that you must pass out in the Crow Bar and most likely wake up with explicit drawings on your physical person, courtesy your artistically inspired friends. But I cannot run an errand in town without seeing people I know. And when I pass lobster-hued 21 year olds in neon green “Full Moon Party" T-shirts, I cannot help sighing to myself, “ah, the tourists.”

I suppose I have become a self-hating backpacker, inasmuch as I have grown weary of hanging out with people who are every bit as transient as I. I enjoy being anchored in the local community and moreover, having grown up and lived in large cities my whole life, I am fascinated with the day-to-day functioning of this little village. I observe how activity centers around the key local joints, how information flows through the social network, and what constitutes worthwhile information. I note the overlaps and gaps between Thai and Western Chaloklum, starting with the many Thai-Western couples (usually a Western man with a Thai woman). In short, it is a bit of an anthropological exercise carried out with cocktail in hand, perhaps summed up in the following.

II. Chaloklum dining and night life

World’s End Café looks squarely out at the dock that all the dive boats use, weather permitting. (When waves are too high they use the island’s main port, Thong Sala.) Run by a British couple with a personable 3 year old son, World’s End has good breakfasts and coffee, sandwiches and other fare. It is perfectly situated to observe goings-on at the pier, and its proprietors are always in the know. Go for “brekkie” and you will learn whose boats went out that day and how full they were. Go for afternoon coffee and you hear whether the boats had to turn around before reaching Sail Rock and whose boat almost capsized.

The Lost Dog (a.k.a. “The Dog”) is a mainstay of Chaloklum’s modest nightlife strip along the ocean. Run by a British man and his Thai wife, it boasts a pool table that is home to frequent tournaments with plenty of drinking of course. You can enjoy a pizza while you wait for your turn on the pool table because it is conveniently located right next to…

Café de la Moca, a delicious Italian restaurant run by an Italian man and his Thai wife. Twice a week is pizza night, and the melting-hot cheese really hits the spot when you get tired of curry. Which may take a while because the options are so good. Such as,

Texas (no I do not know why it is named that) makes, hands down, the best Massaman curry. Run by a Thai couple, it is situated on a corner that everyone passes if they are going anywhere. Have dinner there and you will see your friends speed by on their way out. Dine late and you will hear via the street traffic grapevine who is going to be in pain tomorrow.

The Old Lady’s is owned by a diminutive but slightly plump white-haired Thai woman. I am unsure of the restaurant’s actual name because no one ever calls it anything other than The Old Lady’s. From the street I initially notice its exquisite array of orchids, hanging roots and other plants. The food remains a mystery to me because the Old Lady has not yet opened for the season and no one knows when she will. Happily, my last week on the island, she opens her proverbial doors (the whole place is open air) and… Yum.

Zhaba, also on ‘the strip,’ is a Russian-run restaurant and bar with a faithful clientele of compatriots. Walk in and you will think Chaloklum is a Russian town. I once order tonic water and lime, and instead get a vodka tonic. I’m sure it was an honest mistake; no one walks in there just orders water. Really, my only complaint is the long bookshelf with untold literary treasures surely offering years worth of erudite reading… all inaccessible to me because every last volume is in Russian. This irks me. I am used to strolling up to bookshelves in cafes and hostels and having my pick of four languages worth of books - not none.

The Crow’s Nest (a.k.a. “The Crowie”) is tucked away 200 meters down a dirt road. You would have to know about it or be of an exploratory disposition to find yourself there. It is run by Chris from Estonia and his wife A from Thailand (and I do not know how else to spell her name, it is simply pronounced like the letter “A”). The Crowie is a favored spot for a nightcap and throws great parties. Watch out for absinthe, which may come at you when you least expect it.

Pikey Villas is a group of wooden bungalows scattered behind the Crow’s Nest. So christened by its inhabits, a colorful crowd of local expats mostly from the UK. Many are instructors at Sail Rock Diving School and can be found, if not doing pull-ups at the Crowie, supporting the ever-popular…

Gemini Bar, a full bar recently added to the Sail Rock school. Gemini hosts great Christmas, New Years, birthday, and just-because parties that begin with a delicious buffet and proceed to impressive amounts of drinking. People sometimes end up in the pool which, being unheated, is actually quite chilly. But they are probably too drunk to notice.

Seven Eleven. This beacon of Thailand’s development constitutes a major point of activity in town, with constant foot traffic in and around. Several food carts rest right outside the stoor like symbiotic species, so your Seven Eleven run can be combined with grilled chicken or a banana pancake. We sometimes go for a late night ice cream, eaten just outside on a dirty stone bench beside a perpetually overflowing garbage can. This bench serves as a passing hangout for the whole town, of course arriving in varying states of sobriety (and here please envision a long-tailed curve, distribution strongly weighted towards the intoxicated end of the spectrum).

Omega Bar (pronounced “Omeeega” if you are a Brit) holds jam sessions every Wednesday night. Any and everyone is welcome get on the mike with a guitar, or take a turn on the keyboard or drums. Sometimes there are talented people making brilliant music. Granted, everyone is eventually so wasted and happy that were the music horrible, no one would care. I have verified this by taking a turn on the keyboard.

Baan Tai – A town on the south side of Koh Phangan, down towards Had Rin (of the infamous full moon parties), with a decidedly more active nightlife than Chaloklum. One evening, several upstanding gentlemen go down to Baan Tai for a refined evening of entertainment wind up engaging some… how to put this delicately… professional services of a personal nature. Baan Tai is henceforth a easy means of referencing said occasion, generally in the interest of making someone blush.

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January 13, 2012

This morning I go for brekkie with friends at World’s End. We chat about the previous night’s shenanigans, keeping one eye on the weather over Chaloklum Bay. The water is wavy and the pier quiet; the diving boats are using the more protected Thong Sala port today. The sky is an intense mixture of brilliant sun and fast-moving rain clouds. We get back to Pikey Villas just as the rain starts, settling into hammocks on the porch to wait out the monsoon. I eat an orange, spitting the seeds over the railing. A red hawk circles overhead. I wait until he perches in a palm tree, then lift my binoculars for closer observation. I am not an avid bird watcher, but I like this hawk (he is familiar by now), and even more like the idea of having time to sit and peer at a bird. Today is my last day on Koh Phangan; tomorrow I leave for Laos. The matter grew somewhat forced - my Thailand visa is on its last day. But I also feel ready to move on. I came here for a SCUBA diving certificate, but seem to have found something else: Peace. Now it is time to trade comfort for the unfamiliar.

Posted by sbw2109 16:54 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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