Siam I Am

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Siam Chronicles 4 - There's a Song in Luang Prabang

Bubblegum Butterfly and Badmitton - Bring on the Nightlife
"THIS? THIS is a GAY bar???" The Australian sybarite slurred. He appeared surprised. Perhaps it is because I was fresh from frisky San Francisco, but I had failed to miss the panoply of more obvious signs. The cocktail list read like a roster at a cabaret (including concoctions called "orange funny," "bubblegum butterfly," and "pink gay"), the back was bedecked with rainbow banners, the crested emblem of two men embracing emblazoned both marquee and menu, and finally, there was the most tell-tale indicator of them all - the simple fact that we were surrounded by transvestites.
But his surprise was fugacious, and he quickly opted with a wink to risk sleeping in the gutters for an opportunity to get to know the clientele just a bit better.
Luang Prabang has an 11:30 curfew and everything shuts shingle by 11, so we left him to his imbroglio and headed back with all due celerity fearing a hostel lockout. Outside it was the usual late-night street badmitton mania, as we passed a plethora of players batting the birdie back and forth on the pitted streets. Reaching the guest house, I banged on the glossy green doors until an accusing eye peeped out followed by a pejorative "Where have you BEEN?" I had three minutes to go before curfew, easy, but I still felt inundated with guilt as I slunk across the slick stone floor to a very hard bed.

A Skein of Convoluted Yarns
The figurines are undeniably hideous, red-faced, leering and covered in full-length body hair, as they festoon the fairy-lit street market. While otherwise identical, Grandfather sports a beard, Grandmother goes without. Remnants of an ancient animism, they were the Adam and Eve of the East until Buddhism subsumed them like a steamroller a toad. Now the most decipherable version of their tangled tale that I could tease from the local argot has something to do with a big, big, tree:
I. Something About a Tree
Back before people knew light there was a tree so tall and so wide that night hung eternal underneath its tessellated branches. Grandmother and Grandfather, seeking the stars and suns and the clouds and all the furbelows of the sky above for their kin, hefted their axes and hewed in harmony. They hacked and hacked at the back of the tree, paced and patient, knowing when their task was complete the tallest tree would fall on them and not the village below. And so it was with a keening crack Grandmother and Grandfather, hands hasped tight, gave their life for light. In this way they proved themselves to be agents of enlightenment, each part of a whole, together comprising the Buddha of Luang Prabang, who is not in this way unlike Voltron.
This story is unique in Luang Prabang in that it does not culminate with the protagonist giving his wife and children away to a gruesome demon. Like the following emblematic representative, culled from the congealed core of a baffling ballet we attended in the royal concrete bunker:
II. Take My Wife, Please…
A giant comes to pay respects to the Holy Mountain. In a cavalcade of hilarious etiquette gaffes, the great serpent thinks the giant has forgotten to offer obsequience to the West after completing his devotions to the other three directions, when in point of fact the giant was just about to offer obsequience to the West. Well, we all know how that is, so we cheer for the giant when he slays the serpent with a standard suite of sneaky double-jointed pointing. But now the Holy Mountain is goofily tilted from the power of pointing, so the giant slinks away never to ballet again. This prompts a suspiciously green sage to offer limitless reward to anyone who can right the wronged mountain. A great tusked demon comes and accomplishes this quickly with more frenzied gesticulating. But the reward the demon demands is the sage’s own wife! The sage cheerfully agrees to this cheapest of bargains, and then first the demons then the monkeys emerge to dance for joy amidst great tintinnabulation and rhythmic stomping.

Never Eat Off the Street and Other Remarkably Good Ideas
Things had been going rather swimmingly, after all. My innards had been on their best behavior for days, and the clean mountain air and cheerful Lao disposition was having a meritorious effect on my constitution.
There is the music for one thing. The people here sing everywhere they go, heavily accented American pop, ululating traditional tunes, made-up melodies meandering in monotone circles – happily heedless of a watery voice or an unfulfilled arpeggio. I find this egalitarian idea of music most refreshing. They are also heavily enamored with the truly massive drums hog-tied horizontally before the wats that throng two or three to a block, and at least thrice a day the thunderous, teeth-chattering booms reverberate around the corners and roll down the mountains resetting the rhythm of your heart.
There is also a certain amount of unrestrained optimism in the Lao – for example, we biked to the royal weaving village yesterday (through rutted mountain roads on bikes proudly labeled "City 1 Speed" - story of my life), where they were using unexploded missiles from the Vietnam War as planters and macabre yard gnomes. And then there’s the incontrovertible pace of the swarm of brick-layers outside our guest-house – they lay one a day like clockwork and retire in the shade to chat cheerily. They have the utmost faith in the process, strong in the certainty that one rosy day far away the street will somehow be complete.
And finally there was Alex’s job offer – a teaching position that doesn’t start until September (and even then it would be part time to start) - but it’s a beginning. I met an older lady from Pennsylvania the other day who had been told by god to come to Laos, so she abandoned her teenage son and spent five months hungry and sleeping in the gutters until she was out of the blue offered a position as manager of a bakery – a position which for some reason included a house, maid, butler and motorcycle as part of the benefits. I was puzzled why god would need a bakery manager in Laos so desperately, but a deal’s a deal, and it gave me some hope that there are more opportunities here than at first meet the eye.
So, my faith restored, my stomach strong, and looking to cut the costs of our stay we finally agreed to Alyssa’s suggestion of trying the street vendors that stuff the fly-filled alleys come sun-down. Here you can purchase squid on a stick and other things that smell far, far worse amidst a colorful collection of disapproving dowagers and deformed dogs. And for fifty cents it’s all you can eat in this grizzled gastronomic galleria of glee.
Needless to say I was up all night and all day clinging to my bed ruefully, loathing myself for ignoring that age-old adage about not eating off the street. But there is a song in darkening Luang Prabang and it will sing me soft to sleep, perfectly off-key and resplendent in it’s enthusiasm.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Siam Chronicles 3 - A Quick Note About a Very Slow Boat

I puffed up the mountain with all the grace of a leprous hippo. I don’t have a good track record hiking up mountains, and the macerating heat and biting red ants aided a revival of my oft-made vow to abnegate this activity completely in the future. We bungled down boulders and stumbled through streambeds in search of the waterfall that Alyssa promised lay high above the soughing turquoise pools and dense green jungle like a panacea for the saturating heat. And finally there it was - just a few dangerous drops away – leaping like lemurs we crumbled into the cool waters. I take a moment to pause because though beyond my powers of description this moment was a cheesecake slice of pure bliss.We swam through other pools and waterfalls on the way back down, but none like that hidden pool high above that felt like floating through clouds over the mountain tops on the roof of the world.

2 Days Ago
“Those g-damn Canadians,” Alex spat vituperatively from the back of the pickup. His face was red, wet with sweat, uncharacteristically angry. It had been a slow, slow boat ride. There had been nothing but mountain and jungle and the occasional thatched village and the hammer of the sun for seven long hours before running aground finally, finally at Luang Prabang.The goateed lads in question had roomed across the rattan screen from us the night before in our duplex hut in the remote village of Pakbeng, loudly regaling the known world with their numerous close-encounters with casual sex. Now as they clotted the doorjamb of the French colonial guest house before us, we were enjoined with the prospect of reliving the experience.Fortunately for us, they shuffled on to find a better rate, and we had the place literally all to ourselves - so a shower then and off to explore what we hope will be our new home.It seemed almost natural to run into Alyssa Hamel (an MVP, Punk Rock Kickball 1 & 2) within 30 minutes of our arrival. Although I’ve known her for 11 years (since Hampshire College) she has a peculiar penchant for the chance encounter. After months of tsunami relief work on the Thai islands and kicking through Cambodia, Sunday found her on an unplanned trip to Luang Prabang to receive rabies treatment and reconnect with two hapless travelers from her past.

3 Days Ago
Pakbeng, a mountain town on the Mekong, was exploding into bi-level wooden houses with no electricity or plumbing, and looked exactly like a snapshot of the old west. The sticky night was filled with candlelight, and the cresting cacophony of the jungle. A young mother and her son cooked us the best food we’ve had in ages with a mortar and pestle and a Bunsen burner as we watched the promenade on the dirt road. First a crippled child limped down the street, beating a cur with a crutch, followed quickly by a motorcycle collision, which was followed even more quickly by a high-speed motorcycle chase.Replete on exquisite curry, we watched with fascination as the proprietress of our guest house beat lizards from the walls with a broom, only to fling kittens at them, who would of course lazily kill them as is their want.

4 days ago
I love this mountainous jungle. To be clear, I love driving through it in a comfortable van, the spicy scent of flowering vines shunting through the windows interspersed with the smell of fire, of trees burning. I don’t pretend to possess the internal fortitude to have my ardor undiminished by routine leech incinerations or galloping jungle rot or any of the other myriad botherations to be found on foot.We pass nothing for hours but lush green mountain after lush green mountain, and the occasional denuded one, red with embarrassment. That and the sporadic emaciated cow, picking its plodding way down the roadside, heavy horned head dragging in the dirt.We stayed the night in Chiang Khong, and while nothing to moo about architecturally, it is a place singularly abounding in spectacular butterflies – wisps of cerulean and scarlet and a flutter of green swallowtail like a snow globe filled with whirling confetti.

Now is Now – A Personal Aside
Alex is out again looking for work, on initial survey the prospects for employment are grim. My stomach problems have not subsided even with treatment, and I have begun to chalk it up to total gastronomic wussification brought on by too many years of clean Cali cuisine.But I am in love with this beautiful city, with its carious paths and moldy mansions snug between two great rivers. This is where I want to stay, this is what I had hoped, but this is not going to be a place where finding a job will be easy for Alex, with three schools only and all state run. So we cross fingers and toes with thumb on the nose…

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Siam Chronicles 2 - Goodbye, Chiang Mai

Under no circumstance should I have drunken that herculean quantity of malt liquor. The rain, a tease of chiffon cloud for so long, finally broke the heat over Chang Mai last night. Euphoric we dashed through the drenching waves in search of conversation and drink. In retrospect the phrase "unthinkably stupid" is apt, but at the time it was natural to huddle conspiratorially over the great brown bottles of Chang brew piled high like some archaic hecatomb descanting politics, semiotic philosophy, and the punk movement in America with a motley medley of fellow farangs amidst the anodyne hum of torrential rain.
So it was that this morning found me in a whirl of regret and whizzing through yet another novel, while Alex pounded the pavement in search of gainful employment. A pity, I like Chiang Mai, an expansive corrugated shanty town fringed by jungle in full flower set at the base of a great green mountain. Innumerable orchids grow everywhere, I recognize a few varieties that I had shamefully killed with care in San Francisco flourishing untended in tin cans in the gutters. I've spent the majority of the last few days dripping my way through the endless wats - more crumbling and less ostentatious in general then those in Bangkok, they exude a quiet simplicity that is most alluring.The city seems mainly to be a hub for "trekking," wherein tourists are firmly strapped to the top of an elephant and banished into the jungle to gawk at the hill tribes. This is reputed to be quite enjoyable, though I should warn any Victorian poets peering at this through frilled sleeves that, as an Aussie mournfully disclosed last night (with tangible regret), they no longer dispense mandatory opium infusions at the pit stops.
We're headed to Luang Prabang on what is ominously deemed "the slow boat" tomorrow, which will appropriately take a number of days. We're restless to get there and settled in, although there is some thought that perhaps we'll chuck it all and head down south to Phukket where there are plenty of teaching gigs to be had and also a beach to recommend it. Our power converter mysteriously self-destructed, taking the surge protector to hell with it in spite, so it may be a while before I can get pictures posted...

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Siam Chronicles 1 - Let's Get the Rock Out of Bangkok

We were stranded at the Golden Mountain. I cursed the tuk tuk driver silently, wondered what on earth induced him to flee without payment, and started slogging past woodworkers carving swirling teak posts on the sidewalk thick with sawdust, over the mephitic canals, in search of another of the hopped up go-carts. We didn't have to wait long before a leathery fellow with a suppurating neck wound agreed to schlep us back to our concrete bunker for a dollar. It is a Buddhist holy day today, and the reverberating chanting of the monks steeps the stinking streets in a deep puissance.
It can be argued that the most distinctive thing about Bangkok, more than the garish swirl of life or even the panorama of the crenellated wats, is the overwhelming and pertinacious odor. Those who are familiar with the miasma of a Parisian alley or New York in July would gladly flee for solace back to the more familiar and tamer reeks of simple urine and garbage when faced with the sheer eye-stinging enormity of Bangkok brand stench. It pervades everything - lurking under the spices of the food even, oiling your tongue as it lies heavy and still in your nostrils. It clots your pores and drips through your sweat, and no amount of water or militant scrubbing will keep it from waking you in waves come first bleary blink of morning. But it is not just the stink that whacks you sideways like a blunt instrument while staggering through the street - the sulphurous exhaust from the buses and traffic leave you swimming in an acidic caliginous fishbowl and woefully bereft of any bronchial cilia to speak of. And then there are all the old women with creased faces and dirty flower print dresses that barricade off the sidewalks, searing rotting shellfish in homemade woks (trays beaten concave) emitting great blasts of spicy steam that makes your eyes water and your throat retch into spasmodic coughing. The stink, the fumes, the spice - a city of tears then.
Not as I remembered it quite, but almost assuredly my perception is tainted by whatever stomach malady attacked me as soon as I hit the tarmac from Tokyo and led me to a few days of bed rest and crackers. But if you have a mania for oversized golden buddhas in copious quantities, then certainly this is the city for you.
We're leaving now to race the rainy season and take the night train to Chang Mai. It's about time to get the rock out of Bangkok.