Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Happy Days in Luang Prabang

It took me less than 15 minutes to clear customs and get out of the little airport! Everyone joined the queue to apply for visas, but I didn’t have to, thanks to my Singapore passport.

A young chap ‘’switched on’’ the baggage carousel once he saw that most of us have arrived, and when most of us have retrieved our luggage, ‘’switched’’ it off again.

As I got out, I saw a few rows of people sitting serenely and waiting patiently with placards bearing names of guests. I was the first to get outside, to the surprise and delight of the hotel staff waiting for me, as she rushed forward to greet me. ‘’Yesterday my guest was the last person to come out, today you are the first,’’ she beamed.

The hotel was about 15 minutes from the airport. We finally arrived at Maison Souvannaphoum hotel, the former residence of Prince Souvanna Phouma! While waiting to check in, the lady who picked me up at the airport served me a welcome drink, and commented, ‘’my colleague said you look like a Thai… if you go to the market tonight and speak Lao, it will be cheaper… I will teach you some words later.’’

Too Good to be True
My room was beautiful. I loved the verandah. I went there to gaze at the pool. I wanted to go back to take my camera, but oops… the door to my door just would not open. Somehow I had locked myself out, barely 10 minutes after my arrival at the hotel. Should I shout for attention? I looked around and, though the thought of climbing down the two story apartment, or climbing to the verandah of the next room crossed my mind (as they did not look too challenging), I didn’t want to create a scene so soon upon my arrival.

So I hollered. The sun bathers at the pool could not hear me, and the service staff were too focused on serving drinks to hear me either. After quite a while, I gave one more try and waved frantically until someone saw me and I quickly pointed to the door behind me. ‘’Five minutes,’’ she shouted back and hurried off to get help.

Within seconds, the lady who had picked me up at the airport came running to my room, panting, to rescue me. It appeared that someone had turned on the ‘’auto lock’’ knob on my door!

Wide, Wide Boulevards
The hotel is on the ‘’main road’’, it seems. A huge, wide boulevard. Traffic was not heavy at all on this road, and there were rows of shops across the road. I rambled along lazily, soaking in the peace and quiet of the city. The whole place is so unhurried, serene and clean. No choking pollution of Bangkok and Manila. No constant vehicle-beeping and honking of Vietnam. Cyclists glided by unobtrusively. You see tourists, but they seem to blend in and not look like ‘’targets’’ for another rip off.

Under the Luang Prabang Stars
In the evening, I went out of the hotel again to walk to the night market nearby. Again, along the same stretch of boulevard towards the end, and across the roads where there were lights and street stalls.

It was a lovely leisurely walk. I felt safe and peaceful walking alone. The whole ‘’market’’ was just so serene and quiet that you almost wanted to whisper to the vendors there. Which was what I did, while talking to an old lady about my purchases. There were activities, lots of life and actions, but everything was carried out in quiet dignity.

At the market many looked at me with curious eyes. I guess I look like one of them, yet I could not speak their language! Or maybe I was a Thai, they must have thought. And why not, since at the customs at the airport in Bangkok (where I took my connecting flight to Laos) spoke to me in Thai!

Most of the tourists were Caucasians and a few ubiquitous Japanese. The Caucasians were very brave indeed. They were tucking in enthusiastically at the street stalls selling local buffet dinner at 5000 kip (US 50 cents!) Much later Rod (a French guy I met at the excursion to the cave and waterfall) explained that they only did that in Laos because it was ‘’so clean and safe’’, that most would not have done it in other cities!

My souvenir shopping done, and my appetite whetted, I walked back to my hotel hoping to get some dinner. As I ambled back contentedly, I looked up, and saw the sky sparkling with stars. My heart smiled all the way back to the restaurant, and dined alfresco, under the twinkling Luang Prabang sky.

Pak Ou Caves and Kwang Xi Waterfalls
The next morning I went on an excursion to the caves. It involved getting into a small boat and traveling for two hours along the Mekong River with many other tourists. I did not mind the boat ride, except that it was very cold and windy. All I had was a shawl to go over my T-shirt... and the good company of Rodolphe (Rod), who works and lives in Singapore.

Rod and I somehow clicked and chatted throughout the trip, while Verra, from Yugoslavia, chimed in once in a while.

The trip to the caves took longer than anticipated and by the time we came back to town it was almost time to join the next excursion to the waterfall. This meant we had no time for lunch and most of us were starving.

Rod was trying not to snack but gave in and bought a chocolate bar while we endured a 40 minute ride to the waterfalls. Once there, we saw a local stall selling local food, at about US$2 each meal! That was considered expensive for Rod, who has been eating US 50 cent meals and staying at US $5 guest houses.

We had a plate of egg and vegetable noodles each – energy replenishment - before starting on our scary climb uphill. We saw the nice waterfalls but got ambitious and wanted to climb up the hill. The paths were narrow, slippery and as usual I was gung ho to go up and forgot to worry about the descent. ‘’If you are worried about slipping now, think of going down later – it’ll be worse,’’ Rod reminded me.

After this warning, he offered to carry my bag, and thus free my hands so that I could clutch at whatever I could to help hoist myself up. At one point as I rested and hesitated he gave me a push, saying, ‘’let me push you from behind’. That got me moving quick! ‘’See, when I say I will push you, you will start moving,’’ he laughed.

The climb accomplished, and Rod’s swim at the foot of the waterfalls done, we chatted with an interesting British guy sitting nearby. He and his girlfriend no longer found their jobs ‘’meaningful’’ back home in England and decided to sell their home and travel, and do voluntary work. So now they are in Luang Prabang, working at the ‘’rescue centre’’ at this waterfall and taking care of the captive bears in the park.

Sauntering back towards our waiting coach, Rod and I started our usual ‘’philosophical discourse’’ again. I commented how nice it is to have a partner that can share the same ideals - just uproot and go. But that’s when the partnership breaks down, when you travel together on such journeys, he said.

Somehow the conversation drifted to love and marriage. ‘’I think I have found and lost the love of my life and marriage is not what I really need. A woman can have many relationships but she has only one true love in her life and that person is not necessarily her husband. Often you marry the person out of timing or convenience, not necessarily out of true love,’’ I told him. It was quite unusual for Rod to agree so readily. ‘’Ya, I think love is such a teenage thing – the last time I truly felt love was five years ago! Nowadays you partner with someone because she looks gorgeous, or you marry her for companionship,’’ This, coming from a man who currently has a Singaporean girlfriend!

I guess it’s not unexpected to hear this from Rod. During our day together, he’s been commenting on how gorgeous the Laotian girls looked with their sarongs. How shapely and feminine they looked, and how the sarong hid their physical flaws and flabs. ‘’You see this girl – she is wearing jeans – so awful, compared to the other one wearing sarong. You should wear sarong in Singapore,’’ he urged me. ‘’Me, wearing sarong and trying to walk in my heels and run after the bus and MRT to go to the office?!’’ I scorned. Now, I truly learned the significance of the phrase ‘’sarong party girls’’. These girls must have heard expats like Rod loud and clear, and have learnt to strut and sway their bums in ‘’sexy, feminine sarongs’’ and party away…while coo-ing, ‘’so cute, so funny’’ into their ears.

‘’So, you are studying Italian and spent a month in Italy. Tell me how are Italian men different from the French men,’’ Rod asked. I felt I could be honest with him and not offend him, and gave him a clumsy explanation about my observations – the Italian men are more gallant and warm while being natural ‘’in-the-face’’ flirts. They say ‘’ciao bella’’ to almost any girl. But the French are more ‘’taciturn’’ lovers and can appear cold at times. ‘’Let’s put it this way, the Italians go for quantity and the French go for quality,’’ Rod interpreted my comments shamelessly.

On our way back to the city, the coach stopped by a Hmong village. Rod was more ‘’soft and sentimental’’ than me, who seemed so cold, hardened and blasé. I simply stared at the villagers, unfeeling, while he goo goo-ed and ga ga-ed over the little girls at the village. ‘’So cute, this one. Look at that little one, she is so cute, carrying a baby half her size on her back,’’ he coo-ed, and snapped umpteen photos (while I kept my camera intact, in my bag). He chatted with the children in Thai (yes, he is learning Thai!) and played with them. I merely walked next to them quietly, wondering at all this fuss over these kids and amused by his sarong party girl-inspired phrase, ‘’so cute’’. One of the girls kept asking him if I was Thai and he kept saying no, that I was ‘’farang’’ (foreigner). ‘’She must be Japanese then’’, the girl replied. When Rod said no again, she re-insisted I must be Thai. She was finally convinced that I wasn’t Thai, as I didn’t understand their conversation and kept asking him what they were talking about.

Dao Fah Disco
I loved the quiet night stroll to the night market and decided to go back that evening after the excursion. I bumped into Rod again there. He asked me if I wanted to join him and some friends he’d met on this trip to the famous Dao Fah disco. I had earlier declined him when we parted after the excursion, but now it seemed not a bad idea after all to check out a Laotian disco. There had been so much speculation about this place – it absolutely has to close by 11.30 pm, it’s one of the largest or most happening discos in Luang Prabang. (apparently there are only two or three in this place), it has a local band, it is frequented by both locals and foreigners.

We hung around on the main road while waiting for the other guys to sort out the trip. A few guys were trying to decide whether to go or not. Some were waiting for two girls who were having their dinner nearby. ‘’C’mon Janet, we go ourselves, don’t wait for them,’’ Rod was impatient.

Finally one of the guys came over and announced that they were all coming with us, and to give the two Swiss girls ‘’three minutes’’ to finish their dinner. Rod introduced me to Urtz, a Swiss German. ‘’She speaks French,’’ Rod told him, by way of introduction after giving him my name. ‘’De Laos?’’ Urtz asked if I am Laotian, not sure how else to react. Ha ha, I laughed, ‘’no, I am Thai’’. Rod chuckled knowingly, while Urtz seemed to believe me. We waited for more than three minutes and Rod asked, ‘’did the girls mean three girly minutes or three real minutes?’’ ‘’If they are Swiss, then it should be like Swiss watches, right? Three precise minutes,’’ I said. ‘’Oh no, with girls – they will always be girly minutes – meaning it will be much longer…’’ Urtz said.

When we finally rounded up the whole group – seven of us, all from Europe except me – we started haggling over tuk tuk fares with the drivers. Christian (another Swiss German) was particularly aggressive. We let Rod have the final say, since he works in a Swiss bank and should be savvier in the area of money and negotiations! (He had been a great help to me during our excursion with all those currency conversion and calculations.)

We cramped ourselves in the tuk tuk and drove about 2km or more in the wild darkness and strong wind. I crouched and trembled under my thin shawl. My hair was blowing wildly all over. I now hate to think how awful I must have looked among the men!

On the journey, we introduced ourselves, all new found friends and fellow travelers: Christian, Katrina, Katherine, Urtz, Rod, me and another guy whose name I did not catch.

When we arrived, the disco was empty. It was only 9.30 pm, considered early. A local band was playing. Rod ordered us beer. Beer Lao is the cheap and good local beer there but the waiter must have pretended he didn’t understand Rod’s order, for he brought us two huge bottles when all I could manage during the entire night was one glass!

Rod began translating for me the Thai songs the band was singing. He really loves the language and even has some favourite Thai songs! The music got much louder and more people, mainly locals, started streaming in. Rod continued to chat, while I was not terribly inclined to shout back into his ears. I never understood why people go to discos if they want to talk – you have to either shout at your friend to be heard, or half guess what each other is saying.

Soon a bunch of local girls came and sat at a table near us. They kept staring at me, especially one of them. Rod said, ‘’Look at that girl behind - she keeps looking at you. She must be wondering who is this local slut sitting next to so many farangs. In Laos the local girls cannot go out with foreigners without both of them getting into trouble, you know that!’’ I replied, ‘’ya, maybe I should surprise them and go and say sabaidee (hello in Laos) to her, ha ha!’’

Rod commented how simply the girls dressed for the disco – jeans and T shirts, compared to those who were dressed to the nines in Singapore. ‘’And they are enjoying themselves so much in their own group, unlike those in Singapore and China who are all out to swoop down like vultures on any foreign man in sight,’’ he continued. I wonder if he was a tad disappointed that no one wore his favourite sarong, nor approached him, nor even made any eye contact?

We continued to chat (or yell, rather) while the rest of the group started dancing. At one point he commented that something was ‘’so funny’’. He repeated, ‘’so f-a-r-nee’’ the Singlish way. Suddenly he turned to me, ‘’funny, how come you don’t have a Singapore accent?’’ I gave him a shrug and a pair of raised eyebrows, a la francaise.

We finally joined the rest at the dance floor. By that time my throat was hoarse with shouting, but then the ‘’nameless’’ guy started talking to me. It turned out he is French, from Toulouse (though I still didn’t manage to get his name, or maybe I had forgotten it). We started yelling into each other’s ears, and in addition to my throat, my ears rang, reverberated and ached too.

The place was supposed to have closed by 11.30 pm but remained open till 1.30 am. I was eager to get back, as I planned to wake up at 6 am to watch the alms giving procession.

The same tuk tuk driver was outside waiting to take us back. Urtz took out his half eaten cake bought from the night market and offered us a bite during the drive.

Rod told the driver to drop me off at a ‘’very cheap hotel – Maison Souvannaphoum’’, as he winked at me. ‘’No, not cheap, very nice, ‘’ replied the driver. ‘’I know – her one night at the hotel can pay for all seven of us for a few nights at our guest houses,’’ Rod joked.

When the driver stopped outside my hotel, I hardly recognized it. ‘’We are here? Where is my hotel?’’ I asked, disoriented. ‘’Here, here,’’ the driver replied. I realized that the gate had been closed; there was no way I could get in, and almost panicked. ‘’You mean you don’t recognize your place? And you paid so much and now they lock you out, oh dear,’’ Rod continued to tease.

Urtz and the Toulouse guy got down with us and circled the ‘’fortress’’. ‘’Wow, this is your mansion? So nice! Can we stay here with you?’’ they exclaimed. The din must have alerted the security guard, who came over to open the gate for me. It was a sight – the guard looking suspiciously at the noisy gang while Urtz and Rod peered inside and asked him, ‘’do you have a spare room for us?’’ ‘’Hey, don’t get me into trouble!’’ I said, laughing.

I waved and shouted goodbye at the gang. Urtz and one of them decided to ride on the tuk tuk standing up, behind the vehicle. As it began to move off, Urtz asked, ‘’how much did you pay for the room?’’ ‘’Not a lot – it’s part of the package by the travel agent,’’ I mumbled self-consciously, and very sad to leave the happy-go-lucky group.

I went into the hotel compound and felt even more awkward, like an errant princess who had been out for a wild night. Escorted back by a bunch of bohemians and having the security guard shine his torch behind me to guide me in the pitch blackness, back to my room.

There are many ways of traveling: in grand style, in great comfort, in opulent luxury, in modest arrangements, or on a shoestring such as backpacking.

When you travel the grand and opulent way, you tend to meet rich and snooty tourists like those in my ‘’mansion’’ who do not even return a smile. On the other hand, when you travel the modest and humble way, you get to meet and interact spontaneously with people who ‘’happen’’ to share the same space on the main road, you bargain collectively for a cheaper tuk tuk, you share a half eaten cake after the disco, and you still get sent home like a royal princess.

I choose the humble and modest way, despite my mansion.


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