Thursday, August 13, 2009

Border Running

Vientiane, Laos

the Scandanavian Bakery, home of the delicious pastries and sandwiches

charming little French town? nope, just Vientiane, Laos, smack dab in the middle of South-East Asia

A week ago I went on a border run to Laos. Now “border run to Laos” might connote to you various and sundry illegal activities. I know that whenever I heard the phrase that’s what I thought of. And the actual border run, at least at the start, for all of its legitimate claims, still felt, well kind of illegal. We met in the parking lot of a Tesco Lotus (giant British supermarket and Thailand’s equivalent to Target, except much, much bigger) at night, and were promptly herded into several vans, cattle style. I was with a friend (who had also lost her passport and visa in the Great Night Swimming Incident of 2009), and both of us kept remarking on how much we felt like illegal immigrants, smuggled away to go work in some sweatshop or field for two cents an hour. But luckily a sweatshop was not our destination. Instead it was Laos, the capital city Vientiane, to be more specific. Me, my friend and all of our visa run assorted companions (and wow were they assorted) all were paying this company to take us to Laos, handle all the complicated paperwork and procedures, so that we could end up with brand, spanking new, perfectly legal visas. And so at 8pm, from the parking lot of Tesco Lotus, we were off.

I have to pause here to describe some of the primary characters in this little escapade. There were nine people in our van (three in each row, and that includes the driver’s row). Despite the close quarters the vans were as nice as vans can be and even had a fairly large television screen to watch DVDs on. But at the end of the day, the vans were still vans. And there’s no way you can spend ten hours in a van with eight people without observing some things about your fellow travelers. So without further ado, our cast (or at least the star players).

Cranky/Crazy Old American Man: Early 60s, teacher, and a perfect example of what I like to refer to as the Crankification and Jerkification Process that Happens to Western Men in Thailand Who Have Lived Here for Many Years (I think I may start a Wikipedia page for it any day now). Now that’s a generalization, and I realize that not all older men become cranky who have lived here for a long time. But out of the old Western men that I have met or observed, most of them fit this description to a tee. I don’t know what exactly it is, but I have a couple of guesses.

Maybe it’s the sad reality that older white men in Thailand, no matter their physical or emotional attributes, tend to be able to have their pick of young, pretty Thai women. There’s probably a whole thesis you can write about this, but if you come here and spend about five minutes out in Bangkok, you’ll see it, over and over and over again. All types of older white guys walking around with much younger and usually much more attractive Thai girlfriends. It’s very possible that some of these relationships stem from genuine love, and I don’t want to judge, but unless you are the most optimistic person in the universe, you can’t say that all of these relationships are based on mutual understanding and respect. You have to admit that many of these relationships are nearly business transactions. Each party is receiving what they want. For the men it’s a young, pretty Thai girlfriend. For the women it’s security and the promise (whether real or not) of power and money. And maybe men who live in this environment for years and years start to get influenced by all that power and money that’s projected onto them (again whether real or not, most of these guys are teachers, so not exactly rolling in dough), and they start thinking that they are powerful. Again there could be many reasons.

The reality is that so many of these guys that I’ve been around act like complete and total tools. There’s no other way to describe it. They are completely condescending toward Thai culture and speak of it with such animosity and disdain that you just have to wonder what in the world they’re doing living here. And they talk to Thai people in exactly the same vein. Like the guy in the van. Over the course of ten hours I cannot count the number of times he loudly and rudely shouted at our Thai drivers (in English of course, another characteristic of this species of expat, they never speak Thai, despite many of them living here for over a decade). First he freaked out because we stopped at a rest area and he couldn’t get the door open. It was locked, because you know, most cars now have automatic locks. He couldn’t find the lock to open it so he immediately starts raging at the drivers (again in English) about how dangerous it was for them to “lock us in”, and how they can’t do that, because if we were in an accident we would all “burn up”. This was his general argument and he proceeded to repeat it about twenty times, the same thing, with all the talk of burning. Here were these poor drivers, probably underpaid, getting screamed at by this crazy American man (in English may I remind you) for something that was in no way their fault. And it proceeded this way the whole trip, whether they were driving too fast, or too slow, or that they needed to STOP RIGHT THAT SECOND at a rest area because he PAID FOR THIS and could in no way wait like the rest of us until a scheduled stop (and they stopped at least every two hours). Everything he said was in caps, everything laced with rudeness, everything just stinking of this white male, superior, downright colonial attitude that I can’t stand. Guess what white dudes? Thailand isn’t a colony, never has been. So don’t come here, live for a few years, and act like you own the place. Because that’s exactly what they do. Act like they own the place, get offended when Thai people don’t understand them (despite the fact that they’re speaking in ENGLISH, for the last time you’re in Thailand you crazy maniac!) and then spend most of their time discussing all of the things they hate about Thailand and Thai people (I cannot tell you how many of these conversations I witnessed on this trip and it made me want to barf, on them preferably). So yeah, this guy pretty much sucked at life and I wanted to push him out of the van, but unfortunately the opportunity never presented itself.

Younger American Dude Who May or May Not Have Been on Drugs the Whole Time: So this guy was the antithesis to the above guy, and for that fact alone he was a much better traveling companion. But he was still not exactly normal. From the moment he stepped on the van his speech was about 10% actual words and 90% dudes, rockstars, superstars, sexy and various other nicknames given out often and at random. For the first hour he spoke loudly and incessantly, seriously at a faster speed than I’ve maybe ever heard anyone talk in my life. He was sitting next to this poor Swedish guy who gamely tried to keep up with the “conversation” but really with this American guy I don’t think a conversation could be anything but one sided. He swigged down whisky from the back seat and discussed the large Xanax that he was planning on taking for the trip. He was in many ways the prototype of American surfer boy, shorts, ripped t-shirt, spiky hair, but then you look closer and guy’s looking a little rough around the edges, little bit hollow cheeked. And at that moment his appearance, combined with his endless and hyper speed stream of consciousness style of speaking, was when I realized he was probably on drugs. Don’t get me wrong, he was a nice guy. He didn’t talk to our drivers like he was King Leopold touring the Congo. But this nice guy, very likely on something, I don’t know what, but I’m pretty sure humans aren’t supposed to talk that fast without some kind of chemical assistance. That is until about an hour into the trip when the talking abruptly stopped. I looked around, shocked by the sudden silence and the Xanax and whiskey had obviously done the trick. And I kid you not, he didn’t wake up until we were almost to Laos.

Random Europeans: I lump them all in here, because while the other Americans in our van were embarrassingly impossible to miss, these sweet and understated Europeans were quiet, unassuming and helpful. A British guy who sat in the front conversed with the drivers (like actually talked to them, not at them, and shock of shocks, in Thai, the language they speak, the language he had learned after being here for two and a half years because he had made an effort and wasn’t a giant jerk face). Then there was the poor Swedish guy I mentioned before, Pelle, who somehow managed not to knock out crazy, rambling American dude before the Xanax did. I have to admit, it was a wee bit embarrassing to be an American in this particular van. We were not represented well. It would have taken an Olympic effort of generosity and diplomacy on my part to wipe out the evil Olympics of horribleness from cranky old dude and the special Olympics of crazy from younger surfer dude. But alas.

So those are some of the people I shared cramped quarters with for ten hours (and then ten hours again on the way back). I can’t exactly say that wonderful friendships were formed, but it wasn’t boring.

After a little wait on the Thai/Laos border (the bridge that forms the border crossing is called “Friendship Bridge”, how cute right?), we were off to Vientiane (which ended up being about 15 min. from the border) and straight to the Thai embassy. The first clue I had that Vientiane, despite being the capital, may not exactly be a “city” was that the embassy was on a dirt road with farmland surrounding it and roosters clucking about. Cue more waiting, more having to prevent myself from strangling loud, obnoxious older American men(and one Canadian) who were loudly discussing all the things they didn’t like about Thai people (at the Thai embassy, of course, because why be offensive if the target of your offensiveness isn’t right there to hear it). And then we were back in the van and driven to the guesthouse where we would be spending one night. All of the visa related stuff was done for the day (and at this point it was only around 10am) so we had the rest of the day to explore Vientiane.

The absolute first thing on my list: coffee. Now you might scoff but let me first say that coffee is one of the cultural aspects of Laos. They are famous for their coffee. So this was less about me needing caffeine (and boy did I need it after a night on the crazy van) and more about a cultural learning experience. I was dedicating myself to the subtler aspects of Laos society. It was to be an eye opening experience. Okay fine it was all about the caffeine. So me and my friend, Lauren, caught a ride into town, and as we reached “downtown” that’s when I first began to realize that Vientiane was just the kind of wonderfully absurd, strange little town that I could so easily fall in love with. It’s a capital city but it’s about as small town as you can get, quiet and peaceful, few cars and almost no traffic. From my limited knowledge of its geography it seems that the bulk of the town is spread out along the Mekong River, which gives the whole place that sleepy, waterfront feel that only a place on a large body of water can have. It’s wonderfully cool there. Or at least cool relative to Thailand. I’ve grown so accustomed to it never really being below 90 degrees during the day that Laos seemed practically chilly to me, and it was probably in the 70s there. You can walk around there and not sweat and that in and of itself is a miracle.

Oh and it’s French, so, so French. You see, Laos was a French colony and the effects of this are obvious everywhere you look. The buildings are French. The wideness of the streets. The large open square in the center of town with a big, dramatic fountain in the middle. All of the street signs are written in Laos first and then French beneath. The mailboxes say “Boite aux Lettres”! It may seem silly to get excited over a French language mailbox, but if you know me, you know that I love France and all things French. I spent a semester in Paris and I loved every single second of it. And I’ve missed France ever since. And never in a million years did I expect to find a cure for my French homesickness in the middle of South-East Asia. But that’s exactly what I did. Except Vientiane isn’t simply French. It’s not simply anything. In the one day I spent there (and yes I realize that is a very feeble amount of time) it seemed to me like it’s this wonderful hybrid, a kind of pretend, anything goes fairy tale land that changes from second to second, from whim to whim.

You want a French pastry? Well here are about a dozen wonderful bakeries. There’s a kind of famous one, called The Scandinavian Bakery, and in just over a day we managed to eat there twice. The largest, most delicious chocolate croissants, every kind of fresh bread behind the counter, the smell of its wafting from the kitchen in all of its flour-y, earthy, sweet glory. Tiny, delicate cookies. Massive, decadent brownies and scones. Salty, perfect salami or ham sandwiches on fresh baked croissants or baguettes. And of course the coffee. You get some of this wonderful food, and then you take it and sit on the upstairs balcony, in these tiny Parisian chairs at these tiny Parisian tables under this very Parisian awning. You look out at the very French square and fountain, but it’s surrounded by palm trees. And walking through the square are two women in traditional Asian skirts, holding umbrellas, and you realize that every time you think you’ve got a handle on this town, it shifts and becomes something else entirely.

You want cheese or wine? What about one of the many, many French restaurants. We went to one for some after dinner cheese (an included dinner was cooked for us at the guest house by the tour operator’s Thai wife, and it was hands down one of the best meals I’ve eaten in Thailand, and that’s saying something), and I was back in Paris. It was called “La Cave des Chateau” or the Cellar of the Castle (thank you rusty French!) and the place was a little cave, the walls and floor all in stone. It was tiny, and in the back was a tiny bar, just like the many tiny bars I saw again and again in Paris. And like in Paris, standing at this bar were two very French men, one in an apron (the chef). They smoked cigarettes and sipped wine and conversed loudly in their native tongue. And as I sat a few feet away, eating delicious goat cheese and sipping delicious French red wine (and all for so cheap), again I could have been smack dab in the middle of the French countryside. But then our Laos waiters came up to us and we conversed with them in our broken Thai, and I wasn’t so sure where I was anymore.

In my 24 hours in Laos there were so many moments like this, strange, wonderful, moments that spanned cultures and continents. I only saw the very outside surface of Vientiane and I’m sure there’s a much richer, much more complex world within, but what I saw I really loved. I loved the quirks, how currency there seems to be a very fanciful thing. The Laos currency is called a yip (what an awesome name for a currency, I wish we had yips back home), and I’m not sure what the exchange rate is, but it’s a lot of yip to a dollar, like up in the thousands. But most places will take Baht. However if you pay baht you are probably going to get yip back in return, so most of the time I had no idea how much I was paying or getting back in change. One store didn’t have enough yip or baht to give me change so she asked if she could pay me in American dollars. The restaurant we went to said on the menu that it accepted Baht, Yip, US dollars and the Euro, to make matters even more confusing.

The people were kind, all of our assorted taxi and tuk-tuk drivers who we could talk to in our very limited Thai (apparently the Laos and Thai languages are almost identical). Fun fact about Laos tuk tuks. Whereas the ones in Bangkok are actually one, solid vehicle, designed as a tuk tuk, the ones we took in Laos were literally one part motorbike, and then like some planks and benches cobbled on to the back and somehow made to balance. Yet another endearingly quirky (and kind of terrifying) facet of Vientiane. Oh and the beer, how could I forget the beer? Laos is known for Beer Lao, which I’ve had in Thailand and have liked. But according to Lonely Planet, you can only get the draught version of Beer Lao in Vientiane (where it’s bottled). And so at one bar I ordered myself a draught Beer Lao, and it was perfection. Light and airy, almost sweet, and again, very, very cheap.

Without planning it, we met up with most of our visa run group at a hotel bar later in the night. This hotel is hard to miss because it’s the only high rise in Vientiane (according to Lonely Planet, I know I’m a dork, it’s the tallest building in Laos, and it’s not an exceptionally tall hotel or anything). It sits right on the Mekong river and it also possesses a bar that stays open past midnight, when all bars in Vientiane are supposed to close. Our tuk tuk driver took us there when all the other bars were closed and I’m assuming this happened to the other people in our group too. So we finished up the night with more beer Laos, talking with all of these random people about random things. Somehow I ended up in one conversation about the American healthcare system (and shockingly it did not end in tears or shouting) and another conversation with an Irishman about why it is or isn’t okay for Americans to claim that they are English or Irish or Norwegian (people from those countries apparently think we should just call ourselves American and get over it) But as I explained there are no true Americans (unless you’re Pocahontas’ great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter), we are a glorious melting pot, and yes I actually used the phrase, “glorious melting pot.”

Maybe it was the Beer Lao, maybe it was the cool, fresh air (no pollution in Vientiane!), maybe it was the view, the Mekong river running past the hotel in the dark, so much open space around us (such a nice reprieve from the urban bustle of Bangkok) but despite wanting to strangle some of these people only hours before, I ended up genuinely enjoying their company. Or maybe it was none of those things. Maybe it was just Vientiane and its affect on us, this tiny question mark of a city, charming and weird, lovely and diverse, a European face planted on a traditional Asian town with centuries of history and a fair share of tragedy buried beneath its ground. I know it made me feel something, the way only a few cities ever have in such a short period of time. I wish I could have spent more than a day there, and I very much hope I can go back.

But after just one day, with a new visa in hand, we were back on the van (different cranky old American guy this time, same horrible attitude, this one freaked out because there were no DVDs not dubbed over in Thai for us to watch). We crossed over the Friendship Bridge and I was back in Thailand, but with a newfound love for the tiny little Laos city I was leaving behind, and about 30 dollars worth of yip in my wallet, which despite its absolutely adorable name, I found is nearly impossible to exchange for Baht in Bangkok. I guess not everywhere can be as multi-cultural as Vientiane. Oh well, I still love you yip.

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