Luang Prabang, Laos – Always wanted to file a story for you from Luang Prabang. If there’s a place IN the world where you wanted to get away from it all, this is it, way up the Mekong River in the landlocked mountainous up-country of Laos, ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’, or as the French would put it, during their 100-year occupation of the former French Indochina, ‘The Land of a Million Irrelevants’.
The Franco condescension of these friendly people and land is because little of material value is produced here outside of fine quality silverwork, distinctive brightly colored hill tribe weavings, opium, and jungle hardwoods. No rice. Everything is imported. Also, that’s the way the French are.
The Japanese tourists shuffle in an excited tour-guided cluster, the Israelis travel in groups of no less than six, the Americans are in a demanding hurry, the Scandinavians, above everybody, travel as confident couples, the Germans stomp around ‘like Robocop’, Su says, and the French sort of glide with their nose in the air, with the impression of proprietary rights, like the owner of a hotel, passing through the lobby.
They surely left their mark here, in the colonial culture, architecture, second language, and fine dining. Whereas Saigon was dubbed the ‘Paris’ of the Orient’, and Phnom Penh an ambassador’s leisurely outpost, Vientiane was a sleepy, low-drama backwater capital, and the ancient imperial city of Luang Prabang served as an isolated haven for French fugitives and, apart from the insurgency, a Parisian holiday extraordinaire.
You can see why. Like the Mekong flowing by, everything here moves slowly. Time seems to stop. An artist, or a writer, or anybody for that matter, could do well to recoup or create here.
“See what I mean?” I said to my two traveling friends. “See why I wanted to bring you here?”
“It’s so peaceful,” said Bryan.
A person can take in all the attractions in two days, including the waterfalls downriver, or the Buddha caves upriver, but you may wish to linger longer.
After three days, my two friends and I sat at the Luang Prabang airport watching a mechanic on a ladder, hand-tightening nuts beneath the wing of a twin-engine turbo-prop, the safest way in and out of the city via flights from Vientiane, Savannakhet, or Chiang Mai, Thailand. The other routes are by river when navigable, or a horrendous, grinding mountainous two-day trip overland from the capital.
So, with bandits, the army, and revolutionaries out on the land transport routes, according to Paul in Vientiane, our best bet, given our time schedule anyway, was to fly.
“I hope that isn’t our flight,’ chuckled Bryan, nodding out the window toward the tarmac.
“It is,” said Su, our lovely interpreter and the former ‘Miss Phuket’, who ran from the tsunami, scaled the eight-foot wall at the Tap Lamu naval base, held onto a coconut tree, prayed hard, and lived. Looking with concern at the maintenance man on the ladder, she said, “I would like to see, you know, zzzzzzzzrrrrrrrtt, with a, you know,” she said, holding her hands like she was holding a big DeWalt power tool or a grenade launcher.
Earlier in the blistering sun, we had climbed the 665 steps to the top of That Phousi, the great temple that offers a breathtaking view of the city. That’s all there is to do, but eat, drink, and lazily stroll the bazaars along the streets and river. Maybe take a boat trip. Fine dining with good French wines.
Along with a bevy of rude Japanese tourists, we visited the national museum, where among priceless intricately-crafted gifts of jewels and jade presented to the former royal family, there was a cheesy cardboard crackerjack prize replica of the Apollo lunar lander from the U.S. that Richard Nixon thought was appropriate, but was as out-of-place as a velvet Elvis at Sotheby’s, causing Bryan and I to stop speaking English and slink away from the exhibit in embarrassment.
“It’s like something you’d buy out of the NASA gift shop,” laughed Bryan as we left the museum.
Did Nixon send that as a joke? Was the current Lao PDR People’s Democratic Revolutionary government putting it on display as a joke to us, a cruel indictment of Americans? A slap in the face for our foolish involvement in Southeast Asia? Over here, losing face is everything.
“I think they’re serious,” said Bryan.”
After the disturbingly brutal cultural humiliation of the museum, we had a half day to burn before our flight, so we sauntered down to the river, where any of a dozen boatmen will take you upriver to the Buddha caves, or downriver to the waterfalls.
The ‘uniform’ of a boatman is simple; old, over-worn and over-washed long sleeve cotton shirt, old sun-bleached tattered trousers, like blue or maroon, and flip flops. Boatmen dress pretty much the same everywhere, like rickshaw drivers. The motorcycle taxi drivers dress the same. A car taxi or mini-van driver will have black shoes, nice shirt and slacks.
Bus, train, subway drivers all wear simple uniforms, usually blue or grey, as well as personal chauffeurs and captains of your flight and cruise ship, decked out with gold braid. One’s life is no less at peril in an aircraft or a longtail boat, but that surely isn’t the criteria, is it?
No. Anybody can drive a fucking longtail boat; the uniform and gold braid represents a degree of qualification and passenger psychic comfort, if not respect, just short of what might be shown royalty. And if you should get too surly with a stewardess, she just might go tell the captain and have you removed from the flight.
Yeah, you really wouldn’t want to see the captain of your flight come aboard dressed like a raggedy-ass Burmese fisherman, now, would you?
Bongs on The Mekong
We must have been obvious. He must have recognized us right away, that boatman, who approached us. We had a notion of just going out for an hour or so, since the river trips consumed nearly a full day.
“You want boat trip?” he asked.
“We only want to go out for an hour or two,” I told him.
“Can do,” he replied. “I have small boat. This way.”
He led us down the embankment to his boat, took us across to the other side where he picked up his sister-in-law, I think it was, and her friend, who we took ten minutes downriver and deposited off near a tiny river village, the girls getting out gingerly and giggly with their umbrellas and long Lao skirts.
On the way back upriver, the boatman pulled up behind a long, tall sandbar where we were obscured from river traffic and dropped anchor. He then went to the rear of the long narrow boat, excusing himself as he passed between us, and magically produced a beautifully burnished bamboo bong ‘bubbler’ being brought by said boatman from a small aft compartment, along with a square block of wood of prepared, finely minced local Lao bud. He was locked and loaded for interested clientele.
Su declined, but he filled the bowl six times for two each for himself, Bryan and me, then dropped us back off at the dock below the city. Bryan gave the guy a thousand baht, a very, very, good tip that said he could take the rest of the day off, and tomorrow, too, and we more or less meandered up the street, looking for a cool drink and testing out our new world view.
“My mouth feels like the bottom of a litter box,” I told my friends.
“How did he know?” asked Bryan. “Are we that obvious?”
After years and years of not being able to access ANY CASH WHATSOEVER in Luang Prabang, they finally discovered the value of economic enterprise, and have realized tourists will spend money in their country if they have some way get to it. As previously noted, things move slowly there, like the river.
So now, amidst major ‘Visit Lao’ tourist marketing, even Luang Prabang has a bank, an exchange, and an ATM. If you can imagine the nightmarish predicament of being without money in a foreign country, the government of Lao had you set up for it.
You had to go back across the border…through immigration…back through customs, and…yeah, something like a nightmare. No plastic, no Euros, no traveler’s checks. Thai Baht or US dollars. Take twice the amount you expect to spend.
“It’s good,” Bryan repeated to the Lao lady vendor selling fabrics outside the temple. She kept holding his Euro notes up to the sun and looking through them with suspicion. Hadn’t she seen Euros before? The place was crawling with foreigners, mostly French. We were the only Americans for a thousand miles, or at least a couple of blocks.
Reassuring the money was good, Su rattled off something in Thai, which the lady seemed to understand, being first cousins to the Thai in language and ancestry.
“Good everywhere IN the world,” said Bryan. “Better than the dollar.”
The ‘Golden Triangle’ is just upriver a couple hundred kilometers, so light to extremely serious hard drugs are easy to find. They find you. If you’re traveling alone, all the taxi drivers down in Vientiane offer everything in a whisper.
“Mai ow, mee lao. Already hab.” (‘Mai ou. Mi lao’. Don’t want it. Already have it).
“Yeah. You can take me to the morning market.”
No. I didn’t really already have all those offerings – it’s just the best way to ward of any vendor, especially if you use their lingo.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Vientiane morning market and a few silver shops around town are the only places in Southeast Asia where you can find those hand-crafted silver lighter cases with the dragon on one side, and pheasant of the other. Balance, Su said. The dragon and the pheasant. I’ve had several stolen from me, both here, and back in the States.
I had gone to Vientiane earlier, not to find the lighter cases, but to visit the Thai embassy and contact an old friend for the comedy tour. He had a terrific Hitler imitation; you know the one at the Reichstadt, and in Bavaria with Eva, doing the whole act Chaplinesque, speeded-up, 90 frames per second or whatever it was before talking motion pictures. Even in a bowling shirt, it looked like Hitler.
Paul could do the thing with his shock of hair, the lips, the clenched fists, the rocket-like straight-arm Nazi salute, and the manic rolling eyes in a chilling imitation of that piece of footage that everyone but Rocky Ahmadinejad has seen.
The act is hilarious to the point of rib-cracking at the Vientiane beer garden after six pitchers between four people. I have him do it every time I see him. He could do Hitler, and I could do Farrakhan.
If he could work it in some way with a military crowd, you know, comparing any contemporary tyrant with Hitler. ‘You gotta know your audience. You gotta know your audience,’ Manny, my former mentor and handler, always used to say. He always used to say shit twice*, I don’t know why. Emphasis? Imaginary friend?
Ain’t but two kinds of people normally needs ‘handlers’. Professional politicians and prize fighters, mostly. Maybe ditzy high-profile Hollywood stars and mob bosses. A lot of people have personal trainers, or ‘my people’, as in, ‘I’ll have my people get in touch with your people’, but only a relative few of us have a need for handlers. Manny needed a handler hisself, to get a handle on all that bad press that spilled out of the nasty chapter that ended our professional relationship.
Well, you could know your audience, but still have a stale, inappropriate or irrelevant message. That’s what I told him. Especially if your serve was off.
And he said, “You know something, Bic? I’m gonna tell you something. You think you know everything, don’t you? You think you’re smarter than me, don’t you?”
And I said, “That’s not telling me something, Manny. Those are questions,” at which time the restraints that usually barely contained his latent sociopathic tendency became unbound, and in a fit he ‘went Pentacostal’ in a state of advanced agitation, and issuing forth a plume of vitriol, followed thereafter by an assault upon my physical person.
Oh, yeahhhhh, of course there was alcohol involved. Tequila, to be exact, leading to the referees being called in to stop the contest, and a decision to my satisfaction in the end, but that’s what tequila can do for you, and trying to represent yourself in court.
Mr. Ferguson, my advisor and ‘the brains’ of our outfit, or so he liked to think, attributed Manny’s outburst as a result of failing to assiduously follow his med schedule and my whole asshole attitude, your honor, he said, which was inadmissible, as was, not being able to ‘see the forest for the fucking trees’, which he was advised was demeaning to the defendant, had nothing to do with the determination of the charges at hand, and was stricken from the record during the preliminary hearing, as I recall. The tequila had nothing to do with it, Marta, a known liar, so testified.
Mr. Ferguson, a very large, beast of a man in both manner and breath, had been an associate of Manny’s for years, so I wasn’t surprised whose side he’d come down on. He didn’t particularly like me (since the day he overheard me say to a promoter in a phone conversation, “Me, Manny, and Moe, the ‘Man-Child’ ”), although he once said I had potential (‘you can be somebody someday,’ he said one day after training. ‘Like, a fascinating public figure?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said. ‘You need bloodlines fo’ a job like dat. But you could be ranked. With the right agents and the right venues, me an’ Manny can take you almost all the way to the top.’). Manny had said the same. If I stayed away from ‘that bad crowd’.
If it wasn’t for the debt they owed my dad, he or Manny wouldn’t have had anything to do with me at all, least ways in an advisory capacity. They said so.
No class. A trailer trash incident. That whole damned episode crossed my mind while thinking about Paul’s Hitler sketch, and here, all these years later, those words stuck. “A Whitewash Salem Witch Hunt. A…Whitewash…Salem…Witch…Hunt.”
Funny now. Comic. A contentious family squabble that had screenplay potential written all over it. Manny, Marta, or Mr. Ferguson might see it differently. Manny kept saying, ‘I shoulda played the Race Card...I shoulda played the Race Card.’ Sure, but just like on tour, Manuelo, you gotta know your audience.
Damn. I was talking about Paul’s Hitler imitation for the tour, and ended up going OFF on Manny.
Having left Paul’s card in Thailand, I couldn’t remember his number and couldn’t reach him at the bowling league, so I had two full days to wait until they sorted out that lie at the embassy and issue me a new Type ‘B’, non-immigrant, multiple-entry visa, a sure-enough hassle these days since that sicko, John Mark Carr, remember him? confessed to the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey, got extradited from his fugitive rat hole in Pattaya, didn’t do it after all, but was on the run for some other kind of porno rap in California, and ended up getting some major negative reviews in the news, giving English teachers in Thailand a bad name, and giving all foreigners staying over 90 days a major headache from the new tight-ass Thai immigration laws.
Everywhere IN the world, countries are beefing up their border security and tightening their immigration laws, not just Myanmar.
“What’s the gun for, Tony?”
“I don’t know, Frank. Maybe I’m just, how you say? BARAnoi.”**
Yes, clinically speaking, but there’s justifiably paranoid reason, in which case, it’s not technically paranoia. It’s fear. It’s the border, there’s two big-ass German Shepherds, and those guys in uniforms and AK47s. And that’s on the friendly side. That’s not Myanmar. We’re talking Seattle, here.
So it’s best to consume the entirety of any illegal contraband than try to sneak it across an international border. For that, you needed to talk to Manny, who spent a few years as a coyote down on the U.S./Mexican border running drugs, illicit pharmaceuticals, and people, mostly.
I asked him once about where he got all his investment seed money, which, according to my sixth sense, I deeply suspected was illegitimate, and he told me, “I usually tell people, ‘That’s between me and my accountant’, but since it’s you, Bic, I’ll tell you,” he said. “That little man inside the ATM.”
“You know what ATM stands for, don’t you?” Manny asked.
“’All…The…Money’. You heard it from me first, Amigo. Don’t use it in your comedy routine. I’ll take you down, publicly.”
I was supposed to be a thousand kilometers away, being serious and researching UXO on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but sitting with a Beer Lao at a riverside café on stilts, watching the boatmen and the Mekong meander by the dozen or so young men playing soccer on the sand below me, seemed like a better idea.
Like Holly surprised me one day by saying, “Fuck ‘should’.” Evidently, she’d given it prior thought. I tried serious once, for about thirty years or forty years, and un-serious seems to work a whole lot better for me. The game down on the sand wasn’t serious. They weren’t keeping score. Just playing. A novice kick sent the ball sailing into the tall reeds. Another errant kick sent it into the river.
They invited me to join them but two things stopped me; age and common sense. I was still coming off that nagging knee injury suffered after stepping off a curb a month earlier in Ayutthaya, rendering me momentarily incapacitated of movement, and considering replacement knee surgery, right there, on the spot.
Although a real doctor would have probably prescribed rest, a helpful taxi driver in Vientiane said the best thing to do for a knee, and the best way to consume opium if you didn’t have a pipe, was to ‘eat it’.
Much to my surprise, after about a half hour, the knee discomfort and feeling in my lower extremities diminished to the point where the faster I walked, the better it felt, and ended up sprinting in tropical heat for one hundred, maybe a hundred fifty yards along the riv…did I already tell you this?
No need then to explain laying soaked with perspiration and panting for a couple of hours on the floor of that cool concrete pavilion, waiting for my heart rate and the swelling to recede, and oblivious to the hundred or so aerobics students doing their evening workout routine around me to bad disco music.
“Ah you okay dokay, Mistah?” they kept asking.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just trying to catch my breath. Waiting for Travolta and the endorphins to kick in.”
“Travorta and the Dolphins?”
Yeah. They’re a disco band.”
Above me, a large square sign with red letters, and a big red arrow pointing to a big red ‘X’, and no map, declared, “YOU ARE HERE.”
*years later, I asked a psychiatrist what he thought about someone saying everything twice, and he laughed and said, ‘Imaginary friend?’ I asked my editor, and he said, ‘Redundancy.’
**One of my lines from ‘Scarface’, which I co-wrote the screenplay with Oliver Stone. The original script read, "I don't know Frank. It gives me a sense of security." Like the change?