Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Early Extradition

July 22nd 10:51pm, Laos Laos Garden, Luang Prabang.

"Last Order," he says, in typically soft Laos accent.

Confused checking of watches, blank faces. "Really?"

"Yes, close at eleven," he says.

"Wow, Okay, another round then, I suppose," we say, stupidly ignoring what turned out to be, I think at least, a major hint and continue to play pool.
Before the drinks have even arrived the shutters are closed, the fan is turned off along with the television. We're flanked on all fronts by the tired faces and indeed bodies of the bar staff. Each one looks at us without the slightest hint of apology in his face. We're the ones breaking etiquette here, apparently. Two sips taken from our beer and a game of pool just started, a decider of three in fact and it's clear there's only one choice: abandon ship.

So with full drinks and a curfew looming (Yes a curfew!, one ought not be out past 12 if one is a foreigner, one ought to be back at one's guest house. One is going to be given the tired welcome of a proprietor who almost definitely needs to be woken from a fiercely burning slumber that stretches the definition of the word welcome beyond breaking and mutates it into something that describes a greeting composed entirely of contempt. And yes, that is at only midnight.) and weirdly the only place a dyed in the wool Irish twenty something can get a drink is the bowling alley. They're the only places that you can get a scoop after 11.30pm in this country. Don't ask me why but this simple fact alone pushed us into a drunk round of said game and threw into sharp relief my heretofore untested but now transparently pathetic bowling abilities. It was also the stage on which a meeting took place between me and some friends of friends (who are now friends, I guess) from back in the old country. What a teeny tiny small little world.

I've tried to understand from locals what the buzz is as regards this early to bed thing and the best I can get is that the country is marinated in Theravada Buddhism. This means that the local heads get up with or before the sun to give the monks, of which there are many of all ages, a bite for the day. The monks stroll peacefully through the town collecting these alms and then head back for, I presume, some hardcore praying.

It's a nice idea I suppose and the fact that they've removed themselves from a culture that might create a lot of alcoholism is possibly a good thing. Mind you when you take into account what is here and weigh it against the problems that might arise as a result of having a pub scene I'm unconvinced that it's entirely balanced. For example you might cut down on unplanned pregancy as a result of over exposure on the part of a healthy and drunk young duo of boy and girl but there are a massive amount of little kids around here (not that I'm suggesting for a second that any were unplanned - I mean in a lot of places the lights go out at 10ish so it's not surprising that entertainment follows a similar reductive pattern to the oldest amusement of all); there's a cute little Lao girl running around this net cafe as I write. Similarly it's hardly the problem of accumulating vices amongst the populace because since I've been in Laos, even in Pak Beng which is tiny but riddled with guest houses and not a lot else including electricity and walls, I was offered both weed and opium out on the streets and by the waiter and owner of the restaurant in which we ate dinner. So it can't be that My Body is a Temple thing either. Don't ask me, maybe they just aren't into talking endlessly and stupidly about the same things every night in a smoky pub listening to repetitive music trying to make eyes at someone they wouldn't help up from a bad fall sober. Maybe that is it... I don't know what's wrong with them.

Part 2 of my round up of recent photos:

The official method, I swear to Jesus, of entering Laos. Thundering out of the heavens sitting there up to your ankles in smooth muck, worrying about your gear and it's level of moisture content. The head with the umbrella is a government official. (Are you getting the picture that the words 'official' and 'government' don't seem to mean much in this part of the world?)

You can't help but laugh at the Duty Free Shop in which you can purchase crisps and sandwiches and pepsi while in the limbo of immigration transit in Huay Xai.

More real life people who live on the banks of the Mekong. I began to wonder after we floated slowly past yet another of these riverside dwellings why they looked at us with such amazement, since two boats have passed daily, packed to the gills with plastic coated westerners for years now. Maybe they still find them as inscrutable as I do.

This is cool. Young monks are everywhere, they're pretty chilled and mostly if you say hello they nod and reply with a smile. Fong, our guide on a recent kayaking trip we took down the Nam Khai with two delightful Dutch ladies, explained to me that in Laos, if you are the same age as someone with whom you're walking, it's par for the course to throw your arm around them. Just to say you're cool with them. They walked all the way down the road like that.

Video evidence, as if it was needed, that I wasn't just complaining about nothing. Note the serious depression on the faces of all the miserable pink poncho-ed profoundly wet travelers.

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