Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What Kind Of Mark


Luang Prabang – These stories were waiting here. You just need to get here to set them free. If you’d ask, I’d say they were in the river. Talking about this ancient city where last night I dined at the Indochina restaurant, situated prominently on a corner, the former residence of the personal physician to the king, with Luang Prabang already an empire capital for 800 years.

There was live music, seven musicians, all old men, youngest guy in his late sixties, four on Oh-ee, one on balaphone or xylophone, another man on a stringed instrument we’d call a Chinese dulcimer, and a drum. And off on the side, an old lady was playing little hand cymbals, going chinggggg…chink, chinnnng…chink, setting a slow, foot-tapping beat.

They were playing for a group of forty retired Thai teachers from the teacher’s union, all dressed in their finest, having dinner out on a trip to northern Laos. They were from Udon Thani, one of them told me, a short, chubby lady with too much makeup, who had just come off a solo performance to a Traditional Thai melody. She was a pro, and gave her colleagues a beautiful show, the arch of her hand evidencing her many years of practice.

Could her work, like Mozart’s, stand eternal? Would her dance be remembered by her children? Could her art form be appreciated by her grandchildren or those who followed, or was it just for the moment, for her aging colleagues, and me sitting off to the side, watching her slowly trace a precise line through the air with her arched hand, the other hand with thumb and index finger forming a circle, as if on a string, the disciplined and measured step, the bend of her knee in a curtsied dip, her studied grace and synchronized elegance, her beauty.

Those girls start training young, ten, eleven years old, and continue Traditional dance throughout their lives. Not all of them. Some of them turn out to be bar girl whores, trying to hook up with a farang* before they turn thirty, before that magical window of opportunity closes.

In the restaurant, the old ladies and men, too, later, got up and danced a most polished and graceful dance to one of their traditional songs. Their movements were so careful, sweet and beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. I drained the contents of the wine glass in its entirety.

The Indochina restaurant. That might sound fancy. Not really. Five bucks, and they provided a great table off to the side in the courtyard, where there was a direct view of the band, except for all the asshole photographers from another party of about twenty, a tour group, who kept coming up and obscuring the show, shooting what looked like the best they could do from that perspective, but inadvertently had me looking at the backsides of Europeans periodically throughout the performances.

There was no end to them and their recorders. I tried to focus on my food, which incidentally, wasn’t bad for eating alone. I shared the shrimp with a cat.

The waitress was particularly efficient, but cruel. A grimness that set her firmly within the human race. She too, was doing the best she could do. I made it a point not to provoke her, or to be too demanding. She appeared as though I and the other customers, were annoying to the extreme, and that she could snap at any moment.

Down on the corner of the roundabout that leads to the night market, in front of the tourist information building, there was a group of thirty teens in a circle taking turns throwin’ moves, break dancing on the concrete parking lot surface, throwing incredible moves of strength and balance like you see on TV, to Lao rap music on a small player you could barely hear for all the other noise going on.

‘Trippy,’ I thought, standing there, watching an eleven-year old spin upside down on his shoulders, his hands, the back of his neck, back to his hands, doing some wildass splits moves with his legs, then popped back to his feet and strutted off to the roar of circle. Another kid jumps out.

I saw another kid throwing himself around like that earlier on the smooth concrete surface of the pavilion basketball court, and wondered if that is what the young people in Luang Prabang were doing. Evidently, he wasn’t the only one.

This river is amazing.

Like anywhere, if you live there, you take your environment for granted, but maybe not all the time. Maybe that's an overstatement. People come from all over to see where you live. That’s why they say if you’re going to do photography, to do your shooting right after your arrival in a new place, before from your perspective, the unique becomes commonplace.

You don’t see that many Thai at the beach. You don’t see many Lao hanging out down here on the riverfront wall for sunset. After dark, you may see a few couples here and there, another small group, three or four near parked motorbikes, a face aglow from a cell phone display.

You don’t see that many Indians hanging out in the badlands.

One of you wrote back, quoting someone else, a zen philosopher, about eternal gratitude to the past, eternal service to the present, and eternal responsibility to the future. That’s a nice attitude to keep in mind, and a flow like this river. Thank you.


‘Standing meditation’, duh…that was the fourth. Standing, sitting, walking, and dreaming.


All the farang men here are wearing cargo pants. Almost all. Yeah. It’s the look, I guess, and the comfort, but all those pockets are useless, and it adds unneeded weight to your luggage. I’ve got a pair. The Lao guys wear slacks or blue jeans. The Lao women all wear the traditional black skirt with the big band of colored embroidery at the bottom. Young and old.

You see a few Lao women in blue jeans, but not many. The government has encouraged them to dress 'tradish', as we say on the rez, traditional. The farang women will fall out on the street any old kinda way, and you know it.

I watched one go down the street, thinking, ‘You ought to cover that up, honey.’ Like those European broads going topless down the beaches of Thailand, like they’re in Europe or something. They have no idea of how offensive to Thai culture that is. The Thai men, they love it, sure. The Lao taxi drivers stand in their clusters and stare. You catch them staring, and they just smile.

To go into the temples, you’ve got to cover it all up.


*This may have already been explained. A farang is any non-Asian, used like ‘Wasicu’ in Indian Country. The word derived from Asians trying to say, ‘France’, fuh-rahn-ceh, and so Frenchmen and thereafter, all Europeans and Americans and Australians and everybody white and round-eyed, are farang.

Africans are Aff-ree-kah.