Friday, December 30, 2011

Rewind: Christmas in Laos

Christmas 2010, Win and I were given an incredible, unexpected gift: a week off from teaching, contingent on our doing a “visa run” to Laos. Your typical visa run involves going to a Thai consulate in another country with a massive envelope of paperwork (Laos, apparently on best consular terms with Thailand, is the country of choice among teachers), waiting x number of days, and going back to Thailand with a Non-Immigrant B visa in-hand. However, having decided to get yearlong multiple entry visas, our visa run was a cake walk: leave Thailand, see another country, come back to Thailand and get a new 3-month entry stamp. So to Laos we went.

Twelve hours on a train, an hour waiting around at the border crossing, and a single sign telling drivers to start driving on the right, and we were in Laos. Flat, dry, and rundown, Laos’ capital city of Vientiane made for a lackluster first impression. Buildings, storefronts, even the stray cats, everything was sparse, dismal.

Aside from the presence of a bowling alley and the city signage having French flair – a trait that carried over to street, restaurant, and hotel names – Vientiane was very much like a small Thai city. The manner and language were similar; the architecture and tuk-tuk drivers much the same; there were the same orange-robed monks, the same women hiding from the sun beneath umbrellas, the same stray dogs rummaging through garbage. We navigated the city on foot, walked its streets, saw its museums. We ate its food, drank its beer, and spent its devalued kip (worth so little, I was withdrawing a million kip from ATMs the whole time, which was bizarrely satisfying in its own right).

After a day and a half, in what would turn out to be a moment of poorly executed planning, we boarded a bus to head into the heart of northern Laos.

Having been told that there wasn’t a bus leaving for Luang Prabang until evening, we were surprised when the ticket seller told us a bus would be leaving at 4 pm. As we stowed our backpacks and climbed aboard, it seemed a positive turn of events, catching a bus right as we arrived at the station. As the passengers were finding seats, the driver and some helpful hands started filling the aisle with packages, copious amounts of luggage, bags of rice, and all manner of freight, including three pieces of PVC piping, a foot in diameter and at least 12-feet long. In order to reach our seats, we now had to clamber and balance our way over piping, walking along armrests at times.

And so we set out, luggage shifting precariously in the aisle, Lao karaoke blaring and crackling from the speakers. Up and around steep, jutting hills, through luscious jungle foliage, encroaching thick and dark along the roadside, pushing its way toward the bus windows. As mid-afternoon gave way to evening, we passed through meager villages, clusters of single-room homes, many without furniture or front doors. The countryside wore its poverty openly. Bonfires served as stoves, simple elevated bamboo platforms as beds, possessions were few. Late into the night, long after the small village clusters went to sleep, the bus lumbered jerkily along half-finished roads, karaoke still blaring.

After twelve cramped hours, we arrived in Luang Prabang at 4 am. The whole town, all guesthouses and hotels, was sound asleep. We tried knocking on doors, calling phones, checking to see if anything was unlocked, all to no avail. So, we sat down somewhere well-lit to read and nap and waited for Luang Prabang to rub the sleep from its eyes.

Ill-timed though it may have been, our 4 am arrival had two unexpected benefits. First, as the sun started to peek over the mountains and the town stirred to life, we got to start our day off with fresh fruit-filled crepes, a treat one would be hard-pressed to find in Thailand. Also, we got to witness Luang Prabang’s famed procession of monks, numbering into the hundreds, lining the streets every morning bowl-in-hand, going from storefront to doorway, collecting alms, something many tourists wake early to see.

After schlepping around and scoffing at prices (“Only 40 US dollars a night”), we finally found a place to bed down for several days. It was a dank little hole of a room next to the guesthouse kitchen, but it was affordable. Luckily, as we discovered after napping well into the day, Luang Prabang was a lovely town, giving us little reason to spend excess time in our room.

Nestled between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, The Unesco World Heritage city of Luang Prabang sits high above the flowing waters on its hilltop peninsula. It was my first tryst with a World Heritage City, a first fling that would, unbeknownst to me at the time, turn into a travel love affair.

Roaming around town, the architecture is awash in French colonial remnants; beautiful balconies, wooden shuttered windows, massive homes mixed in with smaller, more Southeast Asian structures. Cafes, baguettes, creperies, Luang Prabang embraced its heritage as part of the French colony Indochine, using it as a tourist selling point surely, but also full of genuine relics of its past.

French remains Laos’ dominant second language (though it is being steadily overtaken by English), and to hear the Laos (plural of Lao, referring to the people of Laos) speak French was a surreal experience. There was none of the harsh, nasally, pretentious quality that you get when listening to French or other Europeans speak; instead, the words were tranquil, a calm, steady flow, all rounded edges and curved letters. It was delightful to listen to, as if the Laos spoke French as it was intended, a beautiful, delicate language.

Mixed in with its French heritage, an abundance of Buddhist temples stood their ground, solidly announcing Luang Prabang’s Buddhism. Although, with the highest number of Buddhist monks per capita (a statistic I might be making up, but there were certainly an impressive number of monks), the predominance of Buddhism in the area announces itself. Everywhere we walked, groupings of orange-robed monks, from small male children to wrinkled elderly men, meandered along the streets. In all of Thailand, never had I seen so many monks, especially child monks, all in one place.

Despite the attempts around town to appear more festive, garland and lights and trees appearing in large numbers, it wasn’t a particularly Christmasy Christmas. And, with near-tropical temperatures, it certainly wasn’t a white Christmas (although I don’t know that Southeast Asians would know what to do with themselves if it ever did snow).

In fact, we spent Christmas Day flying back to Bangkok through Luang Prabang’s ‘International Airport’ (a building so small it resembled a bus station more than an airport). The flight was my Christmas present to us, a way of avoiding 24 hours on buses and trains. Buying airline tickets also gave us time enough to spend three days soaking in Luang Prabang: enjoying its dichotomous culture, eating French, Lao, and French-Lao food (I even ate some buffalo), and most of all, just relaxing, reading, and relaxing some more. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Why of the Wai

The wai (pronounced ‘y’), a little bow of the head with your hands in prayer-position, is the traditional Thai greeting and parting gesture. We Americans have the wave, in all its variations and incarnations; well, the Thais wai.

Socially-nuanced, wai etiquette is complex. It affects how low you bow your head, who wais first, and whether you wai back at all. The lower one’s social position, the more respectful the wai; we’re talking about full-on, touch your hands to your face, thumbs-to-nose, fingers-to-forehead, deep bow wai-ing. Equals can bow lightly, hands more chest-height. The lower position person always wais first, and I’m pretty sure that you aren’t supposed to return the wai of a waiter or service person at all. Luckily, the etiquette is very forgiving for foreigners.
All complexities aside, I really enjoy the wai. It might be my years of practicing yoga and all the associations with the gesture itself, but I truly enjoy living in a country with such a nice greeting. I find it calming, peaceful, and somehow delicate. Less frantic than our wave, the wai takes a little extra time and effort, a mini pause. It is a brief moment acknowledging another individual.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Frying Frenzy

My students love to try to share their food with me. Unfortunately, many of their food choices make me sick to even think about eating. Uncooked ramen noodles, french fries with a quarter inch layer of salt, weird fried crackers that taste like fish, gross jelly candy that has to be sucked from its plastic container. Many classes start with me saying repeatedly in Thai, “No thanks, I’m full, I already ate” just to avoid having to put unclassifiable foods in my mouth.

And in front of the school and in the cafeteria, stands cater to the students’ every whim. My least favorite is the vats of boiling oil filled with a mixture of mystery meats, similar to hot dogs and baloney (as if they weren’t unhealthy enough when microwaved or boiled). Skewered and tossed into a plastic bag with sauce – sweet chili sauce, ketchup, or (gag) mayonnaise, your choice – these fried meats are then devoured right off the stick.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the students who partake in all the fried foods. Win and another co-worker, Stephen, have taken to eating massive amounts of fried chicken and baloney during snack breaks (the school has two, aside from lunch). It has gotten to the point that these lunch ladies not only brag about the foreign teachers buying their fried meats, but also about the frequency with which the two of them show up. On the bright side, Win and Stephen don’t attempt to force-share their food with me. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

For Love of the King

Today, December 5th, is Thailand’s Fathers’ Day. In America, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day are randomly assigned Sundays on the Calendar. Here in Thailand, on the other hand, much more significance is assigned to these holidays; Mothers’ Day is the Queen’s birthday, and Fathers’ Day is the birthday of His Majesty, King Rama IX. Not only is today a celebration of one’s own father, but also a celebration in honor of the King. 

The Thais, without exception, love their King. Pictures of the King are proudly on display everywhere you look, pictures adorn walls in nearly every home and restaurant, clocks and calendars feature the likeness of His Majesty, and in every Thai city billboard-size pictures stand at street corners. While we Americans have money featuring a variety of past U.S. presidents, King Rama IX is on every Thai coin and bill. Once a week, many people nationwide wear yellow, pink or purple to honor the King (although, following the red shirt-yellow shirt debacle, yellow tends not to be the color of choice). The Thai monarchy is incredibly revered and beloved, and it shows. 

The love of the Thais for their King is not only genuine, but also well deserved. Reigning since 1946, King Rama IX is the world’s longest reigning monarch. Born in Massachusetts, educated in America and Switzerland, and an accomplished jazz musician to boot, the King has done much good for the people of Thailand. No matter what the political situation in Thailand, the general Thai populace is united by their love of the King.

Despite the fact that the Thai monarchy is supposed to be divorced from politics, the opinion of the King holds heavy sway; he has authorized numerous coups, overseen umpteen constitutions, and dozens of changes of Prime Minister. In the early 90s, he oversaw the change to democracy. He changed the country to what he dubbed a “sufficiency economy” enabling the Thais to develop a self-sufficient system, better agricultural practices, and more environmentally friendly methods. Because of King Rama IX, Thailand is much better situated to become a legitimate first world country.

It is no big surprise that Fathers’ Day is a pretty big deal in Thailand. The Friday before Fathers’ Day was filled with ceremonies, songs, and assemblies for the students; today, parades, participants all in pink, marched along the streets; fireworks filled the night sky; and somewhere in town a ceremony took place, a candlelight vigil of sorts, with songs written by the King himself, as well as prayers and more fireworks.