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Published: February 18th 2021
Well… This month’s missive begins with mixed feelings. It has been related to us that within the village (outside of the children who universally call us “teacher”, whether we teach them or not) we are now generally referred to, obviously in Laos, as Grandma and Grandpa falang (foreigner). Whilst such titles reflect poorly on our aging you do have to bear in mind that elders are very much respected here in Laos and so, maybe, it’s simply an honourific term of endearment. That’s what we’re choosing to believe.
Anyway, the decrepits are well known for their alcohol consumption and the bankside New Year celebrations didn’t change that opinion as, following one Lao Lao shot too many, 3a.m. saw me hauling my sodden muddy self onto terra ferma after an unplanned venture into the river. Of course I’ve already waxed lyrical about the locals’ penchant for such refreshment, but where does their consumption actually sit amidst the rest of Asia? Judged in terms of litres of alcohol per capita they come a lack luster joint 6th
along with Japan (another lowly surprise to us) below South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia and China. Restrict the intake to beer only though and they
jump up to fourth. Nevertheless – and here I’ve failed to find any published data to support or otherwise – among the women folk I’d suggest they’d come out tops. There aren’t many countries, anywhere, outside of Laos, where women indulge as heartily as men. Again I’d guess that this reflects the large number of matriarchal-led families.
So, what about other vices?
In Laos male cigarette smokers outnumber women inhalers by something approaching ten to one. Although among the many ethnic minorities where smoking is predominantly limited to huge self-rolled cheroots (e.g. the Ta Oye or Suay) or monstrous bamboo pipes (e.g. the Katu) the women (and girls) are the main practitioners. Visiting our friend Somphone’s home in the Katu village of Ban Kok Phoung Mai our first exposure to the latter was upon meeting his wonderful mum who was rarely without her charcoal-laden bong. And here I qualify. Whilst the structure certainly is a bong – the locally grown tobacco sitting atop glowing coals before its smoke is sucked through a sugary water-containing reservoir and up into the length of bamboo – it is not (typically) employed for other herbal substitutes. Anyway, the second encounter was far
more surreal: a young girl of maybe six years in age walking along a lane contentedly sucking on her pipe that extended from mouth to knee. Indeed I found this article in the South East Asia Globe (Southeastasiaglobe.com): “The Laotian tribes who smoke before they can walk”. The focus of the piece was actually our stomping ground, the Bolaven Plateau: a 6000 sq. km basaltic volcanic projection that, like a vast fertile stump, rises to some 1350 metres just east of us here at Tad Lo. It is also where Somphone’s (and Sivalay’s, we didn’t realise they were neighbours) village is located. I’ll need to chat with one of them to ascertain whether non-weened babes do indeed enjoy a puff, but clearly they start at an incredibly young age.
Gambling. I believe this (under article 76 of the Laos Penal Code) to be technically illegal, yet mighty popular it is. There is the twice weekly lottery that is hardly hidden with women sitting out on the streets behind tiny tables on draw days waiting to record your inspired selections – there is much weight placed on your previous night’s dreams. To win first prize you would predict 5 ordered
numbers (0-9, eg. 07154, a 100,000:1 shot) although rurally such odds (payouts) are not acceptable (practical, there aren’t the funds) and you are restricted to predicting the final three numbers (a 1000:1 shot), whilst the final two numbers also pay out, minimally. However, in terms of monies wagered cards is far more intense, and widespread, and pursued. The Covid-resultant dearth of tourists and consequent expansion in down-time has seen a huge uptick in card schools. Our ladies, for it is predominantly women who play cards, regularly gather on a weekend (plus any additional day that takes their fancy) and just as we are rising for coffee and breakfast they may be on their third round of Beerlaos and deep into their session. Seemingly they play only two games (we’re now familiar with one), but in both a single hand might win 10,000 kip from each losing person, and as six or more individuals tend to play that’s $6 potentially won in a minute. Scarily, that exceeds most rural workers’ daily wage. Then come early afternoon, with flushed faces and no doubt many fleeced wallets, they will call it a day, just as we are sniffing after our first non-caffeinated beverage.
The Lao rise early, engage early (remember that wedding parties are usually over by 5pm) and retire early. Pon merely shakes her head in disbelief when we answer her enquires regarding the time we returned from M&Ms the previous night (that morning). Ha… And now, typically, that’s what we would have been doing until the wee hours: playing cards. We don’t play for money although, certainly with Chinese whist and Yaniv, it would have proved financially rewarding. The bizarre French game (Coinche) where a 9 is the highest value card, unless in trumps where it is a Jack or some other nonsense we’ve largely managed to avoid. We let Mathilde (and poor suffering Martin) play that on-line with her friends.
And whilst on the subject of cards… Mr. Soulideth, the gentleman who kindly offered us the use of a building for our proposed expanded English classes (yet to receive the go-ahead from the chief), sadly passed away after a long illness. He lay in state for two days before his cremation and on each of these evenings many of the villagers would gather in the grounds of his (Tim’s
) guesthouse/home. His coffin, an ornately decorated and towering construction in
white and gold complete with flashing lights, was situated behind a small shrine bearing his image. At this each new arrival would kneel and light incense before joining one of the many outdoor tables to… play cards… for money. And drink the odd shot of lao lao. We introduced several men to “Shithead”, but few were interested in a game without financial risk/benefit. Pon lost 50,000 kip on the first evening. As I type this we were expecting to be at the funeral itself. Indeed Weah, our twelve year old student, had to run me into town on his moped to the nearest barbers as my in progress (respectful, pre-funeral) haircut was abruptly terminated when the clippers died, leaving me looking extremely disheveled. Regardless, we were never summoned to accompany the Sipasert
Apparently hard drugs are a problem, although largely hidden. As a visitor you are highly unlikely to encounter those with an opium habit, let alone an intravenous user. I’ve recently learnt that a Laos national may, legally, grow a few marijuana plants for their own usage and away from tourist centres (with police on the make) no one cares a jot. It’s all rather reminiscent
of Mexico. On a number of occasions I have been, totally randomly and never with a request for remittance, presented with several handfuls as all with an interest seemingly have it in abundance. Pon merely views it as a wonderful essential ingredient in several soups. It is an herb after all. Nevertheless, as a vulnerable falang one should always indulge with discretion (and caution). Hmmm, and probably not accept donations from strangers?
Sex? As mentioned in previous blogs there are many extremely young (and not infrequently single) mothers. Love and relationships appear to be a very laidback, if often transient, affair. Like a number of other Asian nations transgenderism is simply accepted, there is absolutely no associated stigma. A friend of ours, a boy, wears a skirt and blouse to school and to the temple alike. That said, any sexual encounter with a falang is a different matter entirely, regardless of the Lao national’s age, position, or gender. Outside of wedlock it is illegal and if caught (often with the first signs of a burgeoning pregnancy) you will be fined (a definite) and indeed deported (if the relationship doesn’t plan to/hasn’t already resulted in marriage). If you do get
married to a Lao, and we know two people - French Nicholai and American Jonathon – who have, then, much like in the United States, there are years of hoops to jump through before you cease to require a visa.
Early January saw us and M&M take a short four hour trip south to visit Fa and her family in their dreamy bucolic Mekong-side village in Champasak province. Ah, some heat; recent months have seen temperatures drop into the 20s, really rather chill for us, at the foot of the plateau. It goes without saying that we ate wonderfully and drank excessively.
From here we backtracked to Laos’ second city Pakse to call in on M&M’s friends Nicholai, his wife Keow and their teenage daughter Marie. French Nicholai has lived in Laos for approaching two decades, he speaks the language fluently, has built the most spectacular home/homestay on the edge of the Mekong, teaches English and French at a formal school, is a talented cartographer (knowing some amazing off-the-grid walking tours), and really should be an extremely contented gent. Sadly he isn’t. In recent months a neighbour has developed their restaurant into a karaoke venue and
now the evenings no longer bask in a sleepy chorus of frogs and insects, rather a distorted caterwauling. He is not a man of patience and, following numerous requests for some consideration and a constant dependence on ear plugs, last month saw him spend an evening in the cells after losing the plot and requesting a reduction in volume whilst brandishing a machete.
Thus we descended upon them. Nicholai was still a man on a mission and on returning from a speciality goat restaurant (excellent black pudding) we bumped into the police chief and his sergeant. Would they like to come round later for drinks? Nicholai’s reasoning for the invitation being that they would get to experience the disturbance first hand. And, sure enough, at 6pm as we cracked the first beers from our newly purchased case and gazed through the lush foliage to the great grey river beyond, so the first wannabe rock star screeched and the bass reverberated through our wooden deck. Jeez… An hour later the teeth jarring “singing” abruptly ceased, replaced by almost inaudible local recorded music. And then, as if by magic, the police appeared. Ali, highly suspicious as to the timing, gave me
a questioning look. Had the police duplicitously notified the bar as to their recognizance? Regardless, Laos’ finest tucked in with gusto; not to the beer, that interested them not, but Nicholai’s stock of steeped lao lao was mightily appreciated. The karaoke failed to restart and the police continued to drink. The chief, far from sober and somewhat enamored with Mathilde, repeatedly throwing the dregs of his lao lao across the (fortunately tiled) floor before a re-fill. Meanwhile the young sergeant was highly focused on an increasingly scarce Marie. It proved to be a totally pointless and lao lao costly venture. Although there was now plenty of good will, Nicholai had failed to demonstrate any antisocial behavior. Staggering, the chief disappeared and we prayed that he hadn’t fallen into the river. Eventually the sergeant followed suit and we were left to consider quite where this left Nicholai and family.
The next morning Ali, I and Nicholai were up early and at little past 7a.m. so the neighbouring bass initiated. Really? Nicholai rolled his eyes. Ali and I gathered our flip-flops and went to have a gentle word. Obviously there were no patrons at this hour, merely an individual cleaning, and
yet on approach the volume was monstrous. We were barely five feet away from the sweeper when he noticed there was company. I gesticulated to the sound system, to my watch and then spewed something about sleeping children. Grudgingly he did turn it down, and it did stay down, but I fear Nicholai has far more heartache ahead of him.
It is only recently that we’ve noticed Pak Dam’s testicle. In less than a year he has necessitated Ali having rabies jabs, has (himself) had scabies and some other, even worse, skin complaint and now we discover that he only has one ball (an – on researching such things - extremely late dropping ball). Ali physically checked his status and, distastefully, made me do the same; there really is only one. There’s no visible sign (under the abdominal skin) of the missing gonad which means neutering (for a Western life) would require a far more intrusive operation, whilst non-descending bollocks may have serious future health implications. We’re beginning to feel that there was good reason as to our previous fifty years of pet-free life. Ahhh… There was Gaylord, a fleeting pet experience. He/she (I can only sex most fish
upon dissection) was a funfair-won goldfish, that, following several days of continued (but dull, we reasoned) life in a bowl, we thought might appreciate a swim in a more expansive environment (the bath). We were young and ignorant… The water was cold (but, with hindsight, chlorinated), although what did for it was when he/she insisted on swimming in tight little circles. Thus we initiated a gentle current and it duly, no doubt excited beyond belief to be free from a six inch world, rapturously expired.
As mentioned above, another joint visit with M&M saw us at Somphone’s homestay, some twelve or so kilometres away up on the plateau. They had arrived at his village a day before us and, bless him, he came to collect us in his “tour chariot” (rotavator linked to a seating carriage) that provides a leisurely and scenic, though, given the off road tracks and lack of suspension, mighty bumpy and dusty ride. Our collective plan was to spend some time with Somphone and his family, experience some Katu culture and then, guided by Somphone, walk a meandering jungle route back to Tad Lo via two off grid waterfalls. On our arrival Somphone’s
wife Duk was busy performing the labour intensive process of roasting coffee beans over an open fire. Given the dearth of tourists and the abundance of home grown beans only the finest red Robusta were being prepared. And what heavenly coffee they make. We wandered the village and investigated the tiny local market, each seller crouched behind a small ordered assemblage of unknowns that apparently included black ginger (great for tea), mac bo nuts (similar to almonds) and various mysterious gourds and greens. That night we hooked up with Sivalay who joined us all for dinner and the inevitable case of beer before we retired relatively early in preparation for our walk the following day.
Somphone is a font of local knowledge, be it jungle medicines, beliefs, traditions, flora or fauna. He was, as most Katu are, an Animist: believers in a largely spiritual and animal based philosophy. For example, if you needed to kill a snake then you must first pin its jaws to prevent it swallowing your spirit. That was until his youngest child became extremely ill and traditional approaches failed to remedy the condition. Western medicine, such as it is here, eventually came up trumps. Extremely
No, the wee lad is not the driver, he is Somphone's nephew along for the ride.
unusually he has converted to Christianity. Going from total belief to nothing was never an option. His neighbours would (did) understand a switch in belief (however bizarre: mankind’s savior feeding the massed with three fish, walking on water and later rising from the dead, really?) but to suddenly be an aetheist, a believer in nothing, would be beyond the pale.
With the ever charming and patient Somphone informing as we progressed, the hike was very pleasant. The first waterfall, Tad Fai Mai, impressive whilst the second, Tad Vangla, provided a wonderful chill pool for a dip and an ideal place to pause for some lunch. This, a first for us, involved packing ingredients into sections of bamboo and simply placing the lengths over a fire. Sticky rice, spicy noodles, bok choi and some flower buds gathered en-route served on a communal banana leaf mat made for fine sustenance. Although we are all more than happy to eat with fingers a friend of Somphone’s insisted on crafting chop sticks and spoons from redundant split bamboo. It never ceases to amaze the finesse achievable with a three foot machete.
Having walked, slipped, tripped and trudged for ten kilometres or so
through the bush we looped back to Somphone’s farm where we paused to feed the chickens and water some crops. From here, running a little late, we had intended to laze the return to Td Lo atop the chariot and yet the contraption was evidently not designed for driver plus four western bulks and soon the ruts and our combined weight had displaced the rear axle. The right rear tire was also shredded but, apparently, that was of no concern. Thus we added another five kilometres to our little trek.
The fields are busy at this time of year with the harvesting of the manioc in full swing; the sliced drying tubers of which, laid out on great expanses of tarps, provide a sweet tang to the air. This backbreaking work is predominantly performed by seasonal workers who may well set up temporary camps within the fields they are charged with clearing. Somphone provided new information regarding the lucrative crop: he may, for some sorely needed ready cash, designate a hectare next year to manioc, but he would never sacrifice mature trees on his land for the purpose. Sadly, like palm oil, manioc rapidly leeches the soil of its
nutrients. On first planting a stem might, ultimately, measure an inch in diameter prior to harvesting the tubers, but each successive replanting/season sees the plant (and subterranean tubers) dwindle in size. Five years and the soil is spent. In those years you may well have accumulated enough money to build a new house and more, but then the earth is largely barren. Many have sacrificed towering ancient old trees, let alone swathes of mature coffee, for the almost instantaneous – yet finite – wealth. Somphone has no intention of raping more of his land than absolutely necessary to survive the current predicament.
January saw the roll out of Pfizer’s
and more recently AstraZeneca’s
Covid vaccines, just as an array of more transmissible virus variants appeared. Although not on par with Israel, incredibly the UK appears to be handling their distribution and administration in a rather efficient manner. Indeed my parents (already jabbed once) inform that Ali and I have received notification of our imminent appointments. There’s a few extra doses up for grabs then. Here in Laos we have received some China-donated Sinopharm
. This utilizes well established technology incorporating dead viral particles (akin to the rabies
vaccine) rather than the new-fangled mRNA vaccines. Nevertheless, the results of phase three trials remain unknown; not that this has stopped China already administering 31 million doses and Laos providing emergency clearance to enable its provision to essential workers. Quite when the general populace, let alone foreign squatters, might be offered shots remains to be seen although I suspect that is many months off yet. Of course this could well be a stumbling block as to our eventual departure. It has always been a prerequisite to have had a qPCR test within 72 hours of departure from Laos in order to transit through airport hubs, but how long before the requirement (to enter your terminal destination) switches to having received full vaccination?
And so, in a misnomic (the word doesn’t actually exist, it should) semi full circle, such thoughts on future vaccination programs for poor countries prompted me to check quite where Laos’ wealth sits among Asia and the world. Inversely to the nations’ drinking habits I find that I have been exaggerating its financial deprivation. According to the IMF (2020), in terms of total GDP Laos ranks 116th
of 186 sovereign countries/territories. That said, Afghanistan comes in at
a healthier 113. Adjust that for populace (GDP/capita) and it is a marginally worse 123rd
, although looking thus at the data India slips from 5th
richest (total) to 122nd
(per capita). The majority of the African continent aside there are also many miniscule island nations generating trifling incomes. Laos, with a population of 7.1 million, is still very much an undeveloped and impoverished country. However, like Fiji, with its communal bonds, you’ll not find many truly desperate for food.
As ever we remain deeply grateful for the hospitality, generosity and love we have received here. Our rent at Sipasert
was slashed by 20 percent last month: “we can’t charge so much for family”. Wanderlust aside we have absolutely no complaints with our stasis and, continued good health prevailing, there are very few imminent concerns. My almost full passport and my parents, with their 60th
wedding anniversary approaching in the autumn, may disagree but such worries can only be addressed when truly pressing.
The next entry will have seen our Covid-dodging dip into Laos extended to a full year, who’d have thought….?
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