Sunday, March 29, 2015

Will the Party end in Vang Vieng (Again)?

Morning view of the Nam Xong, Vang Vieng.
A dark party scene may be re-emerging to wreck this idyllic spot. 

The bucolic silence is ripped through by a couple of high-pitched motorcycles screaming down the dark street. Vang Vieng, Laos is about to turn into Cancun spring break on a river. 

"Rich kids from Vientiane up for the weekend," says the owner of Le Cafe de Paris in a thick French accent -- one of several Continental-owned enterprises in the small riverside town. A testament to French Indochina being alive and well in small clusters.

The searing heat is melting into a comfortably warm night as I sit at the bar sipping the first decent glass of wine I've had in weeks thinking of the Buddhist funeral I crashed earlier in the day. Suddenly I'm reminded of what Norman Lewis wrote of the French officers he met in Laos during his trek through Indochina in the early 1950s. 

They all espoused the way of life in the country they called an Eden, he wrote. They promptly took Lao wives and went as native as they could until they were out of the military and could complete the job. The owner of the cafe has lived in Vang Vieng for more than a decade and took a Lao wife years ago. He sits at his bar every evening in shorts, a baggy T-shirt, with a jaw covered in stubble and a cigarette dangling from his lips pouring drinks, chatting with guests, curating the music selection (Elvis, Édith Piaf, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, 80s-era French rock) from his computer and keeping an eye on the tables while his wife runs the place. 

I ask him if the dark party scene that blew up here in the early 2000s, and was quashed, is coming back. "It's coming back," he says. "But not for long." 

Unlike it's more sophisticated cousin to the north, Luang Pranbang, Vang Vieng has no UNESCO World Heritage Site protection -- and accompanying curfew -- so throughout the first decade of the new millennium the rowdier element of the backpacking crowd flocked here to party 'round the clock. Bars built huge platforms on the water for raves and the once-idyllic spot where a few travelers came to smoke a joint and relax with locals attracted harder drugs and trashier travelers. By 2012, one guidebook reports, that on average an estimated 20 people per year were dying from drug overdoses and drowning in the river. In August that year, the communist Lao government came down hard on the businesses and put a stop to the debauchery. There's a rumor around town that the Australian government had a hand in it too, since it was the country with one of the highest death tolls. Shut it down or lose Australian economic aid. 

There's a sense now that it's only a matter of time before the reins are pulled again. But for many aspects of the town, there's no turning back. There are enormous, ugly hotel blocks popping up between sweet little guesthouses. There will be a high-speed rail line run through Laos with stations in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in the next decade -- a project of the Chinese government which Laos has heartily embraced. The place will be something completely different in the next 10 years, party crowd or no. 

It will continue to cater to the tourists, but rather than elevate parts of Lao culture, specifically exceptional Laotian food, to the high-end like Luang Prabang has done, Lao restaurant owners here still seem convinced that foreigners want pizza, pasta, and burgers. When I want local food (which has been every day) my only options are the street-side stalls that intimidate the hell out of the tour bus set with the dirt, dogs, and lack of air conditioning. My French buddy says he's tried to convince Lao restaurant owners to do Lao food in an upscale environment, but so far it's been useless. 

A part of me feels guilty for taking refuge in an Anglo establishment, eschewing the sumptuous Lao food in the outdoor stalls for a plate of French cheese, baguettes, paté, and olive tapenade but I cycled 20 miles today and I just want a glass of wine. Even though it's not French. According to my new friend, imports of all sorts are taxed at about 40 percent and getting wine in from France is "very complicated" though getting cheese isn't. The glasses on the menu are Californian and Chilean.

As with nearly all the destinations I've spent time in within the past couple of months in Southeast Asia, Vang Vieng is experiencing its own growing pains and quirks. Last night just as I grabbed the shower faucet to turn it on the electricity went out. Nothing out of the ordinary in this part of the world, but a reminder that even the most modern buildings can't function properly without up-to-date infrastructure. Whether the basics will be upgraded with the building of a state-of-the-art railway remains to be seen. 

On one hand Vang Vieng is more customer service-oriented than most of the places I've seen so far; a relief for exhausted travelers. On the other, though this little hamlet has scores of guesthouses, hotels, hostels, and all the entertainment a traveler could want, there's not much for the locals to do when they aren't working in hospitality. So, "they drink," my friend says. 

The natural landscape is incredibly beautiful, but the amplified Western Top 40 party tunes blaring from the waterfront bars destroy the gorgeous tranquility. The growth will not stop but how that growth is controlled, if at all, will be interesting to observe. Laos has been so poor for so long no one is stopping to forecast how all the unchecked growth might destroy the culture. All that matters for many in Vang Vieng, understandably, is that they can finally afford to feed their kids even if it means the quaint spot turns into Cancun's Hotel Zone. 

For now, it's all I can do to finish my glass and step out into the warm light of a full, deep blood-orange moon over the river and the whining of motorcycles drifting on the air like the buzzing of flies. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A Head-Smacking Good Time

“Is this,” I pause, trying for a word that might be easily understood. “A party?”

“Party? No, we come to make foods things for when the people dead.” 

The gears in my head start to slowly click as the young Lao woman with braces says,”My grandfather has dead.” 

I have gatecrashed a Buddhist wake. But, oddly, I don’t feel embarrassed. I won’t have that head-smacking moment until later. 

Ten minutes ago, I was sailing through the countryside about eight miles north of Vang Vieng, Laos on a mountain bike looking for a place to stop for lunch. I spent the morning riding out to the first of several caves I want to see that are scattered throughout the limestone karst mountains north of Vang Vieng on the west side of the Xong River. Some extend miles into the formations and are famous for reasons ranging from religious to piratical.  

Sweat was dripping off my chin and running down my torso in torrents when an older woman with silver hair shouted “Sabaai dii!” (Hello) from the open gate of a property with a good crowd of locals settled around half-a-dozen tables in front of a building, eating. In this part of the world people sitting at tables in front of a building on the side of the road usually means restaurant. 

I’d pedaled past, but not finding anything closer to my next cave turnoff, covered in a layer of grit with sweat stinging my eyes, I wheeled around and cruised back to the roadside eatery and pulled my bike up between a couple of scooters parked in the shade of the main building awning. 

I don’t see the woman who’d said hello, but ahead of me to the right, a table of women around my age are smiling and nodding, if with somewhat curious expressions on their faces. I figure it’s because most foreigners in this neck of the woods are not alone. Normally, the travelers they see along this road are zooming past in groups mushed into buses and kayaking tour trucks heading upriver. 

A middle-aged woman appears and says something in Lao, friendly. I smile, making the sign for “drink” and ask for water. She heads off and to my left a man springs out of his chair at a low-slung table surrounded by a group of about eight men of middle-to-old age. They’ve seen me ask for water and there’s a great waving of hands and much gesticulating as a couple usher me over and offer the empty chair. The long table is loaded with traditional Lao food, including my favorite dish, laap. I say “sabaai dii” and fold my hands in the traditional Buddhist greeting. I do my best to say “I’m sorry I don’t speak Lao” in Lao, careful to say “khoy” — meaning “I” — with a downward inflection, rather than an upward as I had been when I arrived in Laos. “Khoy” with an upward inflection is “penis.”

They all light up even more and three or four start chattering at me all at once. I can also say “I don’t understand” in Lao, and that’s mostly what I get out between all the questions they seem to be asking. 

Water shows up, but I realize dimly that I don’t see menus on any table. Someone has summoned a man from inside the main building who speaks a little English and he and I cover the basics. I’m from the States. I’m out here looking to explore the caves. I like Laos. He needs to get back to the people he was with inside so in a moment a pretty young woman in her early 20s with braces sits down in his place. Her English is better. Her name is Gaan. She lives in the capitol city of Vientiane and studies hospitality at university and her grandfather has dead. No wonder the first table of ladies was looking at me like I was an oddity. 

A man in a red shirt sitting across the table with a large water bottle in front of him is her father. He pours a small amount of clear liquid from the bottle into a shot glass and hands it to me. Rice alcohol. Alcohol of any sort is not what I need in this heat, but there’s no way I would say no. I drink it and they all laugh as I make the “wow that burns” face. 

As we talk, a plate of crackers, cookies, and small packets of sticky rice and beans wrapped in steamed banana leaves is placed in front of me. Someone brings more water. A few yards away, the land slopes up a short grade where three or four more long, folding tables are lined with mostly women. Everyone is laughing, chatting, men come and go from our table, doing fly-bys. These are my new friend’s uncles, cousins, aunts, family friends. The funerary ritual lasts three days. People will come and go from the widow’s home, bring symbolic offerings, food, money, and good cheer. I didn’t feel instant mortification when Gaan told me where I was because the whole thing has the atmosphere of a summer barbecue and because no one batted an eye when I wandered in looking like a half-drowned rat. There’s no sadness, no mourning, there’s only gracious, welcoming openness. 

Theravada Buddhism, the predominant religion in the land, teaches that death is simply a change, not an ending. Other belief systems of ancestor and spirit worship blend with that and therefor Grandfather is simply in an afterlife that functions something like this one. 

Several people insist Gaan take me partway up the steep hill behind the family home so I can appreciate the incredible view of the limestone range across the river. My friend has already encouraged me to take pictures, though I have not told her what I’m doing in Laos. 

As we come back to the gathering, I realize that there will be no way they will accept money for the food and water, let alone shots of rice wine they’ve given me. By this time I understand that the matriarch widow is in the main house, and I’ve seen the short, decorative silver and gold foil trees with monetary offerings pinned to the leaves so grandfather can buy things wherever he is. I dig out a few thousand kip and Gaan leads me into the house where the first man who spoke English is quick to pull one of the foil trees aside and show me an altar with a framed picture of the deceased, his father. 

There are foods and flowers surrounding this picture with money pinned all over the altar and the several foil trees around it. His widow is pleasant, kind, and doesn’t seem surprised or even to think it’s bizarre in the least that this strange woman has wandered into her house. I’ve greeted her, seated myself on the floor with the relatives across from her and I ask my friend to tell her family that I apologize for intruding and I meant no offense, I was simply confused. The widow smiles warmly and dismissively and her son says, “It’s OK! It’s OK!” 

He passes me a plate and Gaan tells me to put the money on it. I start to pass it to her grandmother but her uncle stops me and they tell me to hold it to my forehead. The matriarch starts to intone something and Gaan tells me she’s saying a blessing. When she’s done, she takes the offering on behalf of her late husband and Gaan’s uncle hands me a parting gift of prepared food wrapped in a plastic bag from a bundle made for visitors. I sit quietly with the group as another local woman comes and goes through the same ceremony. 

As I leave I give Gaan a quick hug, something I almost never do with people I meet back home after knowing them for an hour. But, it’s something I’ve done in Southeast Asia a couple times during this trip, I realize. Distilled human connection. Then I get back on my bike and pedal off for the next cave. And, laughing, smack myself on the forehead.