Siam I Am

Friday, October 21, 2005

Siam Chronicles 14 - Now We're Lao

Two from the Vault, A Postscript to the Six-Legged

Touching Family Reunion, Phnom Penh
We had met before, oh yes. Those beady eyes and that stretch of antennae were unmistakable. The first skirmish occurred on Rabbit Island. The roach in question introduced himself informally, after being unmasked in an attempt at stowing away in our dirty laundry sack. Emitting a shriek like a baby pig being trussed up was my first line of defence, followed by a prolonged bout of the heebie-jeebies and no small amount of arm flailing, as I extricated him from the salt-encrusted under shorts of my bathing outfit. Each time I lobbed him clear I would start to refold, repack and reload but there he’d be again, blitzing up from under the cracks between the bamboo on the porch and launching onto the bikini bottom once again. I called in for backup. Alex succeeded in the procedure through swift evasive maneuvering. He then deftly double tied the top of the sack and imprisoned the cargo inside, under protective guard.
(Days pass)
We had broached Phnom Penh again, when we commenced Operation Stinky Sink Laundry. Many secrets were divulged that day about our enemy. He was more inventive and tenacious than we had given him credit for, and further, he was a family man.
I surveyed Mama roach on defensive atop my swim trunks, fronting the cantonment entrenched in my bikini bottom. The porcelain pestle of sink was puddled in blue fabric which teemed like a watering hole on the Savannah.
Meanwhile Papa roach had taken the offensive and the loud reports of the mano a mano conflict in the bedroom accentuated my acute attack of the jim-jams.
After the commander succumbed to his injuries, the army was easy to overcome. Drowning a hundred babies is actually easier and far less of a moral strain than it sounds.
War is war, after all.

Night of the Drunken Moths, Koh Phi Phi
Who knew moths like beer? This is not a fact that my bio teachers ever mentioned, and yet this seemingly spurious allegation proves to be true. I have photos, you see - proof.
The squadron solidified while Alex was out obtaining provisions. I was toasting the sunset over the rock-ringed bay with the brown bottle, an amber tear tipped over the flare of pebbles floating through fire, when the whisper of wings predicated the onslaught. Suddenly the single porch light pulsed into a zoetrope of fluttering shadows, larking through the lintels like blurred angels of ascension. They had come for the beer. Brown with yellow spots, these were a typical breed of bar-brawling moth, dead-set on daring their drunk on. Swarming over bottle and glass their tortile tongues unfurled and began to suck up the nectar. Stultified, I let them have at it. One enterprising wino dived right in and was baptizing himself in the brew with bonhomie, a transverse of inter-species communiqués.
When Alex returned he was horrified that I’d let a legion of moths become insupportably squiffy, and his face was refulgent with concern for their safety. He tried to prize them from their increasingly erratic toeholds about the rims with the gentleness of a yearling ewe. I warned him that drunken moths get surly and are not interested in intervention. He discarded this information until they flew at his face and wavered away through the pall of the bay, off-kilter and surely screaming curses at his mother.

Now is Lao
We left the 4,000 islands with reluctance, watching the paddy fields patched in intermittent shade band into emerald and jade, fading into the gullet of lightning storms as we headed north to pitch base camp.
On the way we went through Champasak, Savannakhet and Vientiane. I have nothing of interest to report about this except that in Champasak Alex returned from forage with two bottles of lao lao (break through the clouds moonshine) instead of beer by mistake, so the rest of our visit to the comically named Wat Phou is a bit of smudge, and that Savannkhet is penurious and directly across the river from Thailand. This means in layman’s terms that the Thai writhe over the river for a cheap good time in droves. We were fortunate in our choice of accommodation in that we found ourselves stationed directly across the street from the Rose House, a brothel tended by transvestites. Its French colonial facade sparked a neon symphony of hot pink at night, and the sound of the clientele puking into the street kept us company as we tried to dream it all away.
With one more stop at Vang Vieng, a place where anything’s available for two bits a gander, and one more halcyon tube down the river, we were back in Luang Prabang.

Looking for an apartment in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos is An Undisputable Experience. My favorite prospective was a twenty five room ex-guesthouse, with a bathroom in each cube, please understand. We told the broker, a “Mr. No” that we were but twain, and the amount of space was too much for our needs. With a smile like snagged leather he explained patiently that we would have our relatives come over and live with us, and our friends. While I was imagining my parents trying to navigate Laos PDR in their retirement I had a lingering nightmare of keeping twenty five bathrooms tidy, and a further sort of Shining flashback that made the whole effluent enterprise unacceptably unsavory.
The rest were all actually inhabited by families, who were generously vying to give up their homes for an exorbitant rent to move in with their moms for a year. These domiciles were not clean and the prospect of removing the insect population from their ensconced curtilage filled us with dread. One even possessed a full sized loom (eight feet by four) wedged into the kitchen. Again another fantasy of inexpertly weaving shoddy materials anointed with the aroma of garlic and onions blurred my vision, but this was quickly abandoned.
It was not to be. We settled for a westernized flat smack dab in the middle of the little town, across and adjunct to two major wats, with ample room for my studio, and started to settle on in.
The bartering in earnest and had only just begun.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Siam Chronicles 13 - Beware the Khmer

Phnom Penh Again
On the way back up north from the islands we blundered back to Phnom Penh. We went to S-10, the Khmer Rouge torture facility manned by fourteen year old sadists that served as a terminal for thousands before an irremediable omega at the killing fields. I will write no more about that place, except to say it gives a small clue to the living nightmare the Khmer are still shaking to wake from.

Beer and Loathing in Kratie
“I was planning on staying for a month but it ended up being two weeks,” was the ominously similar sentence solicited from everyone we met who had been to Cambodia. “Why?” was of course the pursuant query. The hesitant, “You’ll see,” combined with a certain shifty look, comprised the inevitable response.
We now understood completely. We had disembused at the midpoint town of Kratie. Laureate for a small population of rare fresh-water dolphins, further attenuated by the dynamite decimation under the Khmer Rouge (not for food but for fun, as the signs comically read, this damage was done by “unconscious hunters”), it now scrubs a hub to routes up north and is a natural stopping point for an immanent ascent into Laos through the unofficial border.
The long and short of the point is that we were swarmed tendon to joint in a sudden mesh of flesh yearning to be the conduit from which our money flowed forth. The fifteen fellows vying to wend us by the elbows to this guesthouse or other chanted as a Grecian chorus, “Where you go? What your name? Where you from?”
We attempted to answer politely, prompting the antiphon “You nice people, we see that.” This meant functionally that we were totally unable to shake the horde which snowballed at each footfall until we were suffocating under a landslide of auditioning guides.
We gave up after a few blocks and agreed on the closest place just to flee the flock. It was leaky and the walls were gummed with dirt. We hid out of sight of the windows as the serenade of mendicants continued their cant from below the balcony. We sneaked out again, sticking to the shadows, when we surmised it was safe.
But they were waiting. We skedaddled into the nearest noshery and demanded beer. Enough beer to get drunk. After a pleasant interlude in the cups we fought to upright and see the sights.
But they were waiting. Amidst pleas and cries we scarpered back to our mingy birdcage. Our resolve ossified into a single goal - leave Cambodia. But unfortunately this required a ticket to exodus. So again, we girded our coins and set out with the sun, an amber refulgence minnowing up from the Mekong.
But they were waiting. Alex tried speaking in Russian, a language he does not know, to discourage the jostle. Predictably, this did not work.
At a “ticket counter” things got worse. The details steamed the entourage into screaming.
“He a huckster, a charlatan!” How do they know the words huckster and charlatan? The day was rife with mystery. Meanwhile, the crowd was surly and tending to violence. The shyster in question hollered over the hubbub that the bus was broken, we’d have to go “by taxi” and that the fee would thus go up. In point of fact, it did indeed go up every second by five dollars until we were forced to agree with our Grecian chorus and edge elsewhere for an end to our misery.
Finally the deal was done, and at a respectable rate, but the fact that the bus was broken was indeed no prevarication, and we would have to travel by “taxi” to a boat to get us back to blessed Laos – and even then all would depend on the mood of the self-appointed “border gaurds.”
Anything, anything, you want a foot or perhaps an eyetooth? Extract it, just get us out of here and with the celerity of a flaming bunny, man.

Escape from Cambodia
At 6am we met in a formica café with a gang of farangs who were also desperate for escape. “I was planning on staying for a month but it ended up being two weeks,” they all said. We smiled at each other over our eggs on grease, served with a side of drowned ants.
The “taxi” arrived an hour or so later, it was a beater of a loamed white four door coupe. Now came the clown car fun part. There were eight of us. Four were serried into the back, Alex and I shared shotgun and the driver sat literally on the lap of some guy with a briefcase and aviator glasses who did not speak.
We weathered a couple of hours before the car broke down. It was a stick, and I noticed the driver’s arm was lingering longer and longer on my bosom between shifts, so I was game for the abeyance.
We spilled out in front of two twee huts, plenary with a big-eyed child flaunting flounces manning each door, but were afraid to wander off to piddle because of latent landmines. While the driver changed the tire the children multiplied until the doorways were soon stuffed with illimitable eyes, and a creepy singsong chant started up, bouncing between the huts, that made my skin go all clammy.
But finally the car was fixed, and Alex and I swapped spots. I noticed the driver’s arm stayed well away from his hairy bosom. Thankfully.
An hour or so later, after umpteen chicken fights with water buffalos who are both intractable and none too bright, we finally materialized to greet our boat. It was what I think is referred to as a “cigar boat,” tindered together with detritus that could seat three. There were of course six of us making the many hour journey, so again the wish for smaller hips and the quash of contortionists.
I was now well used to the depredation of having my neighbor’s appendages implanted into my organs, so this bit was actually rather fun and scenic. And the boat only broke down three times. The first was notable in that we were adopted by a luminescence of jewel scarabs, a kind I’ve never seen in any book or reference guide. The size of a dime and silver-gold burnished into a verdant fringe, I melted and motioned to a settled specimen, murmuring “How beautiful.” Looking at the submerged islands ripped by wind and river sparking with the whiz and flash of platinum wings, I felt right.
“Not so pretty anymore,” the brittle bark broke the caesura, and I looked to find that the lad from Manchester had ground the dazzling beetle into the planks. I thought perhaps he might also enjoy dynamiting some dolphins.
The third breakdown was also notable, as we were nearing what the locals affectionately call “Corruption Border.” The driver used this hiatus to secret a sack that stank of long dead fish under our bags, with a wink and a point at the machine-gun toting guards swaying in hammocks in front of a shack. I didn’t know what he was smuggling and I didn’t care. What I did care about, most adamantly, was that now all of our bags would be a malodorous saturnalia of revenant fish guts.
We breached the shack to find the guards at the amicable stage of inebriation. They let us pass for an evenhanded bribe. Now our Charon plunged into his final gambit. He would require more money to ferry us across the river to blessed Laos, or we could take up residence here, or perhaps try our luck with swimming. A final scam, a swansong to sweet Cambodia – our stay would not have been complete without this act of closure.
Reaching Laos felt like liberation. Just another small bribe, a tuk-tuk to a ferry and there we were at the 4,000 islands, a pure paradise on earth. We languished in love with the land for days and said our sincere “I dos” to a protracted stay in the gem of South East Asia.