Siam I Am

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Siam Chronicles 17 - Great Joy in Muong Ngoi

A Very Buddhist Christmas

There are Evangelical Christians loose in the village. There is no escape. I had hoped to leave them busy with the daunting task of running the United States of Evangelica, but they are far too crafty to be outmaneuvered by an airplane and an evasive hegira through the sprawl of a vast jungle. The emissary of Evangelica, a man they call “Dubya,” plunked through Asia a bit back to pan for something better than enmity. Every day he issued statements condemning human rights offences of countries abiding within said continent. This is always a smart idea on a good will tour, like telling your dinner host their children are truly ghastly.
These daily invectives were contemned as so much hypocritical buffoonery by the local press, who had a field day with the thousands of prisoners being held for years without trial back in Evangelica, and Dubya’s serious consideration of using his first veto to overturn an anti-torture act. There was snide mention of how Dubya’s own personal God said something once about the inadvisability of casting stones.
One bright morning over a croissant I was delighted to discover that he had finally run out of countries and had at last turned on the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. The writ in question decried the lack of Evangelical Christians in what is the only non-secular communist country in the world. The only problem with this accusation is that they ARE here. In supernumerary plenitude. It’s a regular ecclesiastic orgy, an excrescence of Evangelicals, a froth of the faithful fighting to convert the heathens.
They swarm out of the woodwork come Christmas, bearing freakish plastic trees that spin and shriek tinny pinged carols. Their scheme is simple – buy businesses and force the employees to attend church and listen to preaching and wear elf costumes. Or they’re fired. Sort of the “my God writes a paycheck better than your God” principle.
The only glitch in this system is that Buddhism inculcates the implicit respect for all other major world religions, which are each seen as another valid view of enlightenment. In Malaysia, the Buddhist residents bow in passage before a mosque, Hindu temple, or church (and hypothetically synagogue if they had any), and here the unmitigated expanse of wats are full of paintings and sculptures of Hindu gods hanging out in Nirvana with the Buddha and Bodhisattvas.
So with good humor the Lao have turned the forced Christmas infusion into a new myth, one of a mad dwarf from Finland named Santa, who has long white braids and brings candy to foreigners once a year. They drink, they feast – for the Lao possess an admirable attitude that there are no bad holidays and having another occasion to celebrate is in itself an occasion to celebrate.

We spent the Christmas holiday and the first night of Hanukkah outside town in a posh bungalow seamed into gardens and freezing swimming pools. There was a bottle of moonshine provided on check-in, compliments of the mad Finnish dwarf. For both days the sky was a numinous blanket of pure white, which gave the illusion of snow and winter evaporating the expanse of field flowing into mountain.
Alex and I lit the first candle and opened presents. He got a jar of peanut butter – pickings are slim. I don’t know what myth the Lao would make from Hanukkah, a celebration not yet forced into their culture, but I’d be interested to find out. Assuredly though, it would have something to do with drinking and karaoke.
On the second night of Hanukkah I hung out with some older gents from Israel, and received a standing invitation to come there and fly planes for the military. I tried to explain that I flew once and was singularly bad at it, but they assured me I’d learn quickly or die just as fast. Although the memory of the ground rushing to meet the upended plane was difficult to dismiss, they presented a compelling argument.

Thing Unseen Revisited Beneath a New Moon

Laos’ New Years is in April, and it’s two weeks of drunken water flinging and then dousing the unwary with a sack of flour. But true to form, the Lao have adopted the Western New Years as another excuse for taking a week off to assiduously study drinking and all its possible permutations.
We headed up to Nong Khiaw in the chilly northern mountains for New Years Eve, and were stuffed into a minivan for the journey. Everyone in Laos is sick right now, with some sort of terrible respiratory affliction. Instead of nose-blowing, the accepted way for man, woman, and child to expunge is to hork, hork, hork and whack out a big loogie. For four solid hours I got to experience what it would be like to be crammed into a kennel with a coterie of camels, and was feeling ill by the time we stepped off the gooey bus. We made haste to sniff our way to a truly excellent restaurant and compendium hostelry jutting across the Nom Ou River.
That night, while we waited for over three hours for banana-leaf garlic mok, we were sidled with a festive throng of Frenchies. Alex was drawing up a hostile coup of the kitchen on a napkin and sharpening his fork on his spoon in preparation for attack when our dinner finally appeared around eleven o’clock. The full restaurant cheered for our good fortune. We dealt with the mousse and headed off to bed in the river cabin, to the consternation of our companions. Though the French didn’t understand, we had a plan. A beautiful plan. To spend New Years ensconced in blankets burrowed in a river cabin by candlelight. As midnight struck, I was in the bathroom photographing a huge slug sliming his way through the shower. It was the best New Years ever.
Around 2am we were woken up by the rave raging on across the river. At 3 by wolves baying close to the cabin, insistent and invigorating. At 4 by someone chucking suspiciously large objects off the bridge into the river. At 6 by the strangely synchronized sound of a hundred roosters sounding the yawp all at once. I’m used to Luang Prabang roosters, which scream constantly and are uninterested in the hour. Perhaps they are not provided with adequate timepieces.
The next day we fled to the smaller village of Muong Ngoi, surrounded by twisted rock mountains of black veined in red, overrun with folds of trees like moss. The mist lies low on their peaks, and the streams and creeks bisect the region into plush wedges.
More bombs were dropped on Laos in the Vietnam War than were dropped in all of World War II, and Muong Ngoi is constructed out of old mortar shells with “Made in Arkansas” or “Made in Oklahoma” stamped across the drab green bellies. When we arrived, the whole village was drunk and rolling through the single dirt street, spraying each other with beer. I had never seen an entire village drunk before, and it is an interesting experience. All the restaurants were closed and abandoned except for old women weaving in tipsy time and belting out toothless karaoke. The guesthouse proprietors were snookered beyond redemption, but with much cajoling we were finally able to secure a $2 room in a house full of insensate backpackers.
The next day the party raged on, as it would for another week at least. Alex and I hiked through the mountains to caves and quiet plains. We passed a group of boys fishing with a live giant centipede, squirming red between chopsticks, and another group bringing a muskrat home for dinner.
That night under a new moon as the generators growled to a halt I was forcibly reminded that the sky has stars in it. Lots and lots and lots of stars. Venus was so big and orange it was clearly three dimensional and the Milky Way spiraled dizzyingly between the black curtains of the mountain crags.
The next morning we boated and bussed our way back to Luang Prabang, passing mountains in chiaroscuro of red and yellow behind the banana trees. I thought there must be a plague of some terrible leaf blight, until it dawned on me that Laos has deciduous trees and what I was seeing was the flush of fall. It even looked like Appalachia, minus the banana trees. I’d been living for four years in the land of mist and perpetual spring, and the sudden sight of fall foliage filled me with a desire to forage for apples and throw them at squirrels.
And joy. Lots of joy.