The first white I met in Laos was a man of about 50. He was hunched over on a couch in the shabby lobby of a mini hotel, by the Savannakhet bus station. Not a big tourist attraction, the city does have an elegant Catholic church and dinosaur bones in a museum. When I addressed the man in English, he replied, “Ah, my English, not so good!”
“So what do you speak?”
“French, German, Spanish, Italian and a little bit of Portuguese.”
“Where are you from?”
He came in with a youngish South Asian man and a middle-aged Lao woman. They were boisterous, alright.
The Lao’s English comprehension was good enough to understand just about everything her companions said, apparently, but when she spoke, it was mostly interjections, punctuated by constant laughter, “Sometimes, I look him! Very stupid!”
Or, “You drunk already?!” I drunk!”
Or, “I drink! You drink! We happy! How many you drink?”
If this woman doesn’t stop speaking English soon, the world will run out of punctuation marks.
The white man’s English was clearly not American, so I guessed, “Are you Australian?”
“But you speak English perfectly.”
“Thank you.” He smiled. “In school, I did better in English than Norwegian.”
His name was Thom, and he had been in Laos for three months, he explained, and he would stay three more weeks.
That’s a very long vacation, I thought. “So are you a rich guy?”
“No, no, I’m not rich!” Thom laughed.
“So how do you make money?”
“I’m an online gamer. I have my PlayStation here.”
“And I also get a pension.”
“A pension?! You don’t look old enough.” Thom’s a thin, pale man of about 5-10, with groggy eyes, a moustache, scraggly beard, mullet haircut and no wedding band. “How old are you?”
“How do you get a pension at thirty four?!”
“That’s Norway! But I was sick, really sick. I was pissing blood, shitting blood. I worked in transportation, but I couldn’t work anymore, so I said to them, ‘Why don’t you just give me my pension?’ So they did!”
“When was this?”
“A year ago. I get 14 million kips a month. That’s, like, 1,600 dollars!”
For doing nothing, that’s not bad at all, though not so great if you’re still in Norway, where a draft beer is $10, then you’re expected to tip 15%. A plate of spaghetti at an ordinary restaurant will set you back $23.
In Laos, Thom can drink without limits, and have very fine meals for under $10, easy. A bowl of udon with crispy pork is just $1.70, and a good cheeseburger costs $5. He can get a savory crepe at an excellent French joint for just $6.50, not that he’s that kind of a guy.
Not all is well, though, for Thom’s trouble magnet, “I have no impulse control. If you felt like breaking a window, you wouldn’t do it, would you? But I would. That’s why I have to take pills, but I can’t get them in Laos. It is a problem.”
Since you can get all kinds of illegal drugs here, for very cheap, I don’t see why prescription ones should be a problem?
Thom, “I’ve been robbed, man, scammed. I’ve been mugged. They wait outside the bar for you, then follow you. The other day, three of them tried to rob my motorbike, but I fought them all off!”
“That’s not very smart. You didn’t know how many of them there were. They could have killed you.”
“But I fought them all off, and I yelled to this tuk-tuk guy nearby.”
“And he helped you?”
“And he helped me chase them away!”
“You must know how to fight. Most guys don’t.”
“I don’t punch. I headbutt. That’s how you get them.”
I just laughed.
Thom, “About ten days ago, I was just dancing and having a good time, but this farang guy thought I had looked at him funny, so he gave me shit.”
“What nationality was he?”
“I think he was British. The bar owner is my friend. He said, ‘Thom, it’s not worth it,’ so I just walked away.”
“Yeah, he’s Lao. So I walked away, but the British guy followed me outside the bar, and he just punched me!”
“He sucker punched you?”
“Yeah, but I grabbed him by the head, and I headbutted him. I knocked him out!”
“Just like that?”
“Yeah, then I ran!”
“You know what you’re doing.”
“No, I don’t. A few days ago, I fell down in the bathroom, and knocked myself the fuck out! I thought somebody had beaten up.”
“You must have been super drunk.”
“Yeah, but there was water on the floor.”
“There often is.”
“Three guys carried me out. When I opened my eyes, I asked them, ‘Did somebody beat me up?’ It was pretty funny. I did hurt my fuckin’ knee,” and he rubbed his right knee. The memory made him shudder.
“You don’t want to go to the hospital here, or to jail.”
“I almost did. I was with this farang guy when he ODed, and the cops took me in.”
“They thought you had given him the drugs?”
“Yeah, but I had nothing to do with it.”
“So did he die?”
“No, he didn’t. They took him to the hospital, then deported him.”
“What nationality was he?”
“I think British.”
Because of his English proficiency, Thom’s likely to hang out with English speakers, one must assume, so French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian guys, etc., may also be fighting and overdosing as much, just not in Thom’s presence.
Thom’s South Asian friend turned out to be a Nepalese-born resident of Dubai. An executive for a multi-national, he’d been in Laos for 67 days, but not for work, just for fun.
“Oh man,” Thom lamented, “In three months, I’ve lost about 37,000,000 kips.”
“Man, how do you lose that much? That’s, like, more than four thousand bucks!”
“They rob you, trick you, put shit in your drinks.”
“That’s so much money, man, but you’re still here, and having a good time, so everything is cool. You should think of it as a tax. It’s your tax for being here.”
“That’s a pretty high tax!” Thom laughed. “It’s worse than Norway!”
After this, I’d see Thom around Baan Anou, and he always appeared happily drunk, except once. Just after 7AM, Thom was sweetly curled up at the corner of Setthathilath and Saigon. He had but one flipflop on, and behind his ass, on the street itself yet still upright, was an empty bottle of Beerlao. That very evening, Thom was out again, whooping it up with other youngish farangs.
In two days, Thom’s flying back to Norway to check on his sick grandma, so don’t tell me he’s not responsible!
We talked over country songs of Thom’s choosing. He loves Billy Carrington, “God is great, beer is good and people are crazy!”
Toby Keith, “We got winners, we got losers / Chain smokers and boozers / An’ we got yuppies, we got bikers / An’ we got thirsty hitchhikers / And the girls next door dressed up like movie stars / Mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, I love this bar!”
And Thom loves everything by Alan Jackson, but especially, “It’s alright to be a redneck / It’s alright to drive around in a dirty ol’ truck / Catch a bunch of fish and shoot a bunch of duck / It’s alright to be a redneck / Chase around the girls on Friday night / You want to make ’em feel alright.”
Many Europeans love American country music, in fact. There’s a Vientiane bar, Tennessee, that’s owned by a Frenchman from Marseille. Stumbling in, I asked, “Hey, why do you call your bar Tennessee?”
“Because I like country music and I like whiskey!”
At the bar that sunny afternoon were two other Frenchmen, from Toulouse and Bordeaux.
The walls were covered with goofy signs celebrating alcohol, America and very nice, knockout asses, mostly bent over. There are license plates with the Statue of Liberty, “I LOVE LAS VEGAS” and “USA / FBI / 007 / AMERICA.” A message behind bar, “WARNING / DUE TO PRICE INCREASE ON AMMO / DO NOT EXPECT A WARNING SHOT.”
The world over, America is equated with the freedom to drink, drive, screw and shoot with unprecedented abandon.
Young Lao man wore a black T-shirt showing a silver handgun, “THIS IS MY GLOCK / THERE ARE MANY LIKE IT, BUT / THIS ONE IS MINE.”
Another young Lao man had a Beretta 92FS on his polo shirt, and Rambo is big here, at least among tuk-tuk drivers. A barechested Stallone with his rocket launcher keeps appearing on tuk-tuk mudflaps.
When I lived in Saigon from 1999 to 2001, there was just one Pizzeria in town, Annie’s. Vientiane’s first was Swedish Pizza and Baking House, which opened just a decade ago. Though it’s now surpassed by Soul Kitchen, Pizza da Roby, Via Via, Pomodoro and Ai Capone, among others, Swedish Pizza still has its loyal customers, and I like to come here early in the morning, because it’s a quiet place to drink a cappuccino and write. Not hip, it’s popular among older Chinese guys, who treat it like a teahouse.
In a Vietnamese city, there several cafés on every city block, sometimes two or three right next to each other, but in Vientiane, you can walk a mile without seeing one. One morning, I was on the streets just after 5, thinking I’d find at least one café somewhere that’s open, but I ended up hiking nearly five miles, before ending up at Baan Ton Mali Cake Café on Phonpapao Road, at around 9AM.
Along the way, I inspected some interesting graves at Wat Phonhthanh Tai. A beautiful lady with sharp, half-laughing eyes have bequeathed her ashes and a few bone fragments there. Regrettably, I couldn’t read her name. Though we understand that losses and destructions have to routinely occur for fresh sprouts to shoot, it still kills us whenever we’re not diverted.
Naming a Lao pizza joint “Swedish” couldn’t have been a marketing ploy, since I’m sure most Laos, to this day, don’t associate Sweden with anything. Its offerings yield no clues, for besides Swedish meatballs, there’s nothing else on its extremely cluttered menu that’s remotely Swedish.
There are Italian, Greek, German, Russian, Mexican and even Chinese dishes, and America is well represented by the “HOT DONGS.” As for pizzas, there are roughly a hundred varieties.
Now, I understand. A Swedish pizza means anything goes, so that the Poseidon, for example, contains seashells and crab claws. The Afrikano has banana, curry, raisins and pineapple. The Domino is flecked with cashew nuts. The Achilles’ boasts the philosophical sounding “bread crunch.” The Columbus also features seashells, which are obviously super popular. Maybe it has something to do with Laos being a landlocked country? Having never seen breaking waves, groovy surfers, bikini babes, melancholic lighthouses, oil tankers or half naked mermaids, Laos compensate by breaking their teeth with seashell pizzas.
“Oh, just shut up, Kale, and eat it all! Spit out the blood and swallow the seashells. This is how they do it in Sweden. This Western meal is costing our family a fortune! After this, we’ll have to make do with duck chin for a week, if not a month or a year, just to make up the damn difference! But it’s definitely worth it. During this multicultural era, even us Laos must know what the Swedes are up to, just in case they start swarming over here, as refugees, and we must be nice to them. To accommodate their slow learning, borderline retarded kids, we’ll have to cut out all of our hellish, tongue searing and esophagus puncturing seasonings and serve up, for each school lunch, the blandest meatballs or seashell pizzas. This thought is so depressing, we may just have to emigrate to Sweden, perhaps tomorrow? And stop crying, Lokelani! People are staring at us. Let me educate our idiotic children!”
Actually, Swedish Pizza is not that expensive. With its utilitarian furniture and no decors to speak of, it resembles a downscale cafeteria, something you’d find at a community college that’s about to be shut down. Spacing out there one morning, however, I met a most interesting farang, a 46-year-old Swiss.
With a boyish face and in great shape, Hans, not his real name, looked like he was no older than 30. For three years, Hans was Laos’ only German teacher, and he got paid all right, $3,000 a month in 2011, plus free housing, health insurance and a free flight home each summer. The German Ambassador once said to Hans at a party, “You’re the second most important German in Laos!”
At Hans’ institution, there was an Icelandic IT whiz who got paid even more, $6,000 a month.
With so much cash in a poor country, these youngish white guys should have attracted plenty of women, but it was illegal for a farang to have sex with a Lao if they’re not married. This problem was solved, though, because Hans knew the son of Vientiane’s police chief. The rich kid just told Hans and the Icelander, “Don’t worry about it. You guys just do what you want.”
Hans used his money to travel, his grand passion, and he has been to 102 countries, “And not just passing through, you know. If I just spend a day or two, it doesn’t count.”
A favorite is the Philippines. Hans fell in love with a Filipina, but he couldn’t be there all the time, “But we were serious. I sent her $500 a month for two years.” He smiled awkwardly. “But guess what?”
“She was already married! A friend emailed me to say that she had a husband, and they were buying a house together, with my money.”
“There are stories like that. Here too. Many of these girls just see you as an ATM,” and Hans used his index fingers to draw a line across his forehead.
“But there are also well-matched couples, with happy marriages.”
At Wat Chan, for example, there’s a grave with the ashes and bones of Luis Merand and his Lao wife, Leuane. Only three years younger, she also died 16 years before he did, so judging from their grave maker alone, Luis tended to Leuane until the end.
“That’s true, there are good marriages, but I know this one farang in Vientiane. He was married to a Lao. They had a house, then he got sick, dengue fever, so he had to stay in the hospital for four weeks. When he got out, his house had been sold, and his wife was gone!”
“There’s another guy, a Japanese. He fell in love with a Lao, and they got engaged, so he bought her a motorbike, then two cars, then a house, but on the day of the wedding, the very day of the wedding!” Hans laughed. “She said, ‘Goodbye!’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, “I’m getting married today, but not to you, so thanks for everything, but goodbye!’ That day, she married a Lao! Everything was already set up. The ceremony, the restaurant, the guests came, but the Japanese was gone!”
“There must be so many of these stories.”
“There are, but I know what I’m getting into. Wherever I go in Asia, I always have a woman. After Vientiane, I’ll be in Khao Lak, Thailand, with a Filipina, then I’ll go to Taipei, with another Filipina.”
“How does that work, exactly?”
“In Taipei, I’ll be with this woman for a month, so I’ll pay her $800, plus I’m flying her over from the Philippines, and I’ll take her shopping.”
“Does she buy a lot? How much will she buy?”
“Enough, but she has to be careful. If she buys too much, she may not get another vacation with me. It’s nice for these women, you know. They get to travel, stay in a nice hotel, eat well and make some money. A lot of them do this.”
“Each woman must have so many guys, no?”
“It’s funny, but they always say two! If they say you’re the only one, you won’t believe them, but if they say too many, it’s a big turnoff, so they always say they have two other boyfriends!”
Hans is back in Switzerland, where he teaches high school German and geography, “I think I got my taste for traveling from my parents. They took us to a lot of places when we were young. But my sister, she has five kids and doesn’t travel.”
“It is so much easier to travel as a Swiss. You’re a small country surrounded by everything!”
“But actually, some Swiss don’t travel! I know three people. I know a woman who told me that if she’s in a hotel room, the first thing she does is to clean everything, especially the bathroom. She can’t get on a plane, you know, because how can you clean an airplane bathroom? Another man told me he would never sit on a toilet that’s not his, so he also can’t travel.”
“Just sit on it, man!” If you’re too fussy about dirt, you’re not going to see much of the world, or even your own country or city. Don’t let shit ground you.
“I agree. Tonight, I’m staying in a hostel, so it’s a shared bathroom, but I was just at a five-star hotel in Sihanoukville. I got a great deal. It had a pool, and I love to swim!”
“How is Sihanoukville? I hear it’s all Chinese now.”
“It’s 98% Chinese! That’s all you see!”
“Oh, come on! It can’t be that high!”
“But it is! They are building all these tall buildings, all these hotels, so there’s so much trash, everywhere. It’s disgusting.”
Hans showed me on his phone a road strewn with trash bags, large and small, plus all sorts of other garbage. Cambodia is just horrible at waste management, so this surge of Chinese construction and tourism in Sihanoukville is making the mess even worse.
Hans, “Sihanoukville was a paradise ten years ago.”
“If it’s that bad, then why do people still go there?”
“Many people just stay in their hotel.”
“That doesn’t make sense. I mean, you travel to walk around.”
“There are only five good restaurants, maybe. There’s nothing to do. There’s this one dirt road with shacks on both sides. It was very depressing. There were all these prostitutes, you know, but I’m not sure if they were too young. The Chinese would go there, or they’d show up at the bars between 2 and 4AM, to pick up prostitutes.”
“They don’t drink socially. They just come to pick up prostitutes!”
Chinese businessmen build partnerships through bouts of eating, drinking and karaoke singing in flashy venues that employ pretty hostesses or prostitutes. Plus, the male/female ratio in China is messed up, thanks to the traditional preference for baby boys, which was made even worse by the now abolished one-child policy. Since millions of female fetuses were aborted, millions of Chinese men must now pay to get laid, in or out of China. With more cash to spend, Chinese sex tourists will become more ubiquitous.
Since the defeated and diffident must prey on the most vulnerable, they often target children. Seasoned whores terrify losers. Though pedophilia is certainly a sickness, it’s perfectly logical when it comes to these aging Chinese bachelors.
Walking around Vientiane, I’d see these stickers on utility poles, with each showing a doll-like prostitute. Though they’re in Chinese, what they’re selling was obvious. One girl was bottomless, for example, though standing sideway. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they’re just aggressively pitching, Nolan Ryan like, an ointment for anal fissures. Rub this on your bunghole or I’ll throw at your damn head!
I’d seen these doe-eyed, I-pay-attention-to-nothing-but-schoolwork looks before, most recently in Macao, though the whores there advertised themselves with colorful tart cards. (In London, there are similar cards, but with white girls.) Though the law against panickingly repetitive slamming between unwedded foreigners and Laos is still extant, it’s clearly not seriously enforced.
There are enough whores here, with many coming from China and Vietnam, while thousands of Lao women have been trafficked to Thailand.
Sounds grim, but here in Vientiane, the craziness is limited to a tiny, if most conspicuous, part of town. With its end of the road aura, Laos does attract nutcases who show up and think they can do anything. Complete with swinging saloon doors and a false front, there’s a bar called Wind West, and there was even a Cowboy Park, but that has been shut down. In the end, Lao has remained Lao, for the Laos, and not a Wild West for farangs, Chinese, Vietnamese or whomever. Let’s hope there’s no irreversible disfigurement on her horizon.
Tomorrow, I’ll take an 11-hour bus ride to Phonsavang, in the heart of the much-bombed Plain of Jars. It’s miraculous that so many of these two-thousand-year-old beauties have survived, but that’s the Lao allegory. Bombarded with everything down the centuries, she’s managed to retain her distinctive elegance, serenity and dignity.
Geography is always a factor. Laos is upriver, beyond the mountains and, even with much recent reckless logging, still covered with jungles mostly. Even in the brightest sunshine, she’s always just around the bend.