Siam I Am

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Siam Chronicles 21 - Hello and Goodbye Pi Mai

It's my third to last night in Luang Prabang, it's 2am and I'm staying up with the monks. Unlike me they don't have a glass of whiskey, but they do have both a gamelan band and a raucous game of bingo to keep them company. I'm unemployed, I don't have to do a damn thing, but I'm waiting with the monks anyway. I guess it's my way of saying goodbye. I suppose I also need some time to ruminate - it's been a strange couple of weeks, even by my standards.

Warming, Storming and Swarming

It all started two weeks ago when the storms hit. The couchant front has caused floods and mudslides in Thailand and China, and has brought early rain to Laos. Two weeks ago rain sluiced through the swelter in the middle of the day. I enjoyed the respite and was maundering down the Mekong when I noticed a lake of raisin-sized frogs in a spectrum of colors hopping madly through the street. There were hundreds of them, and I trod like a drunkard to avoid squashing any. When I was clear of that herd, I stopped to admire a lovely red beetle, flat and square, bedizened with black slats and yellow sides. I bent down gazing at it for a spell, until I realized it was one of a multitude, many of which were dropping onto my person from above. I hadn't considered that they were equipped with stinger bits, but they were. I ran through the unruly fester of glinting cerise, brushing myself like mad until I was free. I made it home, dodging the squadron of carmine wasps drilling down from the tree tops. That night I thought it was safe to emerge and write, with only the standard mosquito attachment in sight. That's when the termite queens came for me. They are like dragonflies with stumpy bodies, and I learned that once a year on the first rain they flood the city, so thick that they are everywhere, they are the air, they blacken all the lights with their flimsy crush. This torrent started with a slow trickle, banging into my laptop screen, alighting on my body, until I shut everything down to watch them multiply into epic dimensions, attracting cascades of lizards including a shockingly vivid species I'd never seen before. The lizards were efficient, they averaged a bug every seven seconds, but they were soon severely outnumbered and I retreated to a dark corner with a case of the willies in the shrill thrum of wings. My upstairs neighbor, the Belgian architect, came home laughing to find me huddled in his doorway, his slim red face covered with insects, his feet crunching on our newly lain carpet of wings and exoskeletons an inch thick. He said it was like this all over town, a black monsoon of suicidal queens. We shut off all the lights and I scurried indoors, but all night long the whap whap whap of bugs banging on our window screens filled my dreams, and for the next week all the lizards in town were unnaturally fatted and slow moving, dragging their bloated bellies with supreme hebetude.

Expected and Unexpected

The rains continued, but in the dead of night so the weight of the sun was unalleviated. According the British weather service index, the average heat and humidity of Luang Prabang for April is registered as "high," with it clicking over to "extreme" as May closes in. Our concrete bunker of a bedroom soaks up the heat of the day. At night it is a good ten degrees warmer than it is outside, and that is … well, if I could curse freely I could describe it to my satisfaction, but instead I will just say it is very, very hot. I am acclimated, I move little during the day, I am not uncomfortable. But at night, tumbling into a bed baking in a hundred degrees, I sleep fitfully, if it all, churning the sheets into a puddle of sweat. It is worse since the power has been going out with the storms, usually all night long, so there are no fans for aid. It has been hot, it is hot, I cannot think of a time when it wasn't hot.
Laos has four New Years, four chances throughout the calendar to make those resolutions you will so cleanly break. They celebrate Hmong and Western New Year in December and Chinese New Year in February with a week of drunkenness. But they also have Lao New Year, and this is when it happens. SE Asia doesn't have cold, snowy winter with the hope of spring, they have drought and searing atmosphere with the hope of water. The Mekong and Nam Khong are so low now they have become stagnant ponds between sand banks. This is their worst time, death from thirst turning to life from rain. They celebrate the onset of their temperate season with fire, and they celebrate the hot New Year not with kisses and champagne but with water.
So a week ago kids started throwing water at us, little kids, toddling up with their parents encouraging, and we would stop to let them dump a bit onto our pants. But they were tiny, and they always seemed to go for me, so I was walking around town looking like I'd wet myself. The official celebration wasn't supposed to kick in for another few days, but this is Laos, it is Lao time, and things get going when they do and stop when everyone is too spent to continue.
We got word from our newly married San Francisco friends Zack ( and Madhavi (, out seeing the world, that they would come and visit us mid April. We didn't hold our breath - many have pledged the same and many have reneged. Luang Prabang is the third largest city in twentieth poorest country in the world. Communication is unreliable so we sent by email a map to a guest house owned by a friend, and directions to our home. They gave us a general timeframe. I still didn't reckon they would make it - as I write this there are fist sized beetles and spiders much, much larger scurrying around my feet and some sort of winged ants setting up a home in my clothing - it's not exactly Paris.
I was shocked to see them on our doorstep. It turned out they had serious second thoughts at Bangkok, but they made it, unbelievably, braving the two days of bus rides through the serpentine track through mountains just to see us.
We had last met in San Francisco, at Emmy's Spaghetti Shack in the outer Mission. Since then we had moved to the center of nowhere and they had gotten married, traveled through Africa, Israel and Sri Lanka and were about to move to New Zealand. I think we all didn't know what to say. They asked a few times what it was like to live here, what it was really like, and I couldn't respond. I made lubberly attempts. I tried describing my routine of walking, painting, penny whistle playing, and writing, but it fell flat and flaccid on the ground like dreck. I didn't know what to say, my life here is not easily validated.
That night they turned in early, and my upstairs neighbor, the Belgian architect, came home late and we spoke about it. He has lived here for years, and he said it was impossible to convey, it is beyond trying. And I think that is true. Not that people wouldn't get it, not that they wouldn't understand - it's just so simple that it's incredibly complicated. When I lived in Prague I was doing so much, I had a hundred stories for every day so a year stretched to ten, time stretched. When I lived in San Francisco I had a few choice stories per week but I was busy, motivated, and four years folded into a good two years of memories. Then there is the People's Democratic Republic of Laos. Time here ceases to exist entirely. I've written a lot, painted a lot, learned a lot, but it all seems like wildflowers on an overpass, an occasional pertinence. I've become quiet and observant, and this is inherently difficult to convey.

Then There was Water

Any initial fumblings were quickly extirpated by the fact that Zack and Madhavi had coincidentally arrived just in time for Lao New Year. Laos has less people in the whole country than there are in the city of New Orleans, but Pi Mai (New Year) is no less raucous than Mardi-Gras. It's an all-out massive water-fight for three days, with parades, street parties, and people smearing your wet face with white flour, black charcoal goo, red lipstick muck, yellow poster paint or green questionable substance. None of these things except the flour is easy to remove from your person, and impossible to eradicate from your clothing. It's anarchy. It's a city-wide melee. There is nowhere to go outside your house where you won't get doused again and again and again so you are dripping all day, a nicety in the saturating heat, with people with paws covered in something smeary running up to you and rubbing them all over your face saying, "Kiss from you, kiss from you."
We went to the waterfall in the morning, unaware that it is tradition for all Lao peoples to go there for Pi Mai and saturate themselves in the pools for luck. On the way we got drenched by village kids flinging buckets of water into the tuk-tuk. We squirted them with our woefully inadequate water guns, it was wet, it was fun. Once we got there we admired the tiger, Phet, in her acre wide cage, and she came out to consider us, breathing tufts of rancid buffalo meat five inches away. I had also noted her keeper, with his claw-raked face. I kept my distance. We walked on and up the mountain to the hidden pool, and flopped in, submerging in the crisp azure palliative. I swam to the edge of the cliff and watched the water tumble down through three pools into a wide lake that shunted off into the jungle. I proclaimed my intention to never leave, that Alex should just bring me food until I died from old age, pruny and happy, remembering at last what it was like to not be hot.

Stupas in the Sand

The next day the Mekong road was shut off for a street party. Alex got crotch-grabbed, Zack was kissed by a man in a Saddam Hussein mask, trucks packed with people singing went rolling past, drenching us with buckets of water. It was awesome. Everyone went across the diminutive rivulet to build a sand stupa (representation of the Holy Mountain, Mount Meru) on a drought spawned island.
We made it across the trickle of river and built our stupa out of sand and trash, and declared it stupendous. Everything and everybody was covered in water and flour, drifts of flour were glissading through the air, it was like we were winding through a cloud. A loud, drunken cloud. Zack got freaked by some incredibly soused British blonde, Madhavi hung back with infinite tolerance, and then we all danced to bad Asian pop under a beige army tent. It was a good day.
Things petered out at dusk, the party ends at twilight as it always does here. I appreciate that, no one gets stupid or inconsiderate in an all-night beer binge. They get started early and end early, rising and setting with the sun.


The next day was more of the same, and at this point our friends and Alex were all getting a bit tuckered out. I should have thought I would be the first to capitulate. The others when they saw the bucket brigades were fleet of foot like gazelles, but with my slippy flip-flops I could harness no more than a shoddy trot, so I got the full blasts. My celerity impediment was augmented by the fact that they used my trenchant mass as a shield. I was sad to discover all three could easily hide behind me. But even when this wasn't the case, Madhavi said the water would arc from the rest of them onto me. I said I was secretly a sponge twisted into woman form with rubber bands. But I courted this, I walked up to children with my head down so they would whelm me with water and their shrieks of laughter, I was willing. I was less willing to be covered in staining red dye that smelled funny, but it was a small price to pay.

Parades, a Prostitute and a Pugilist

There were even two parades. They were fun, especially since you got to dump water on monks and soldiers, which really I think you should be able to do every day anyway.
In the last week I have witnessed two singular events on our way home from dropping Zack and Madhavi at their guesthouse. The first was the vendition of a Lao prostitute - I've never even seen a Lao prostitute before, much less witnessed the deal being struck. I will spare you the details, but will say that her pimp was a transvestite and the British backpacker john had to keep saying (well he was screaming actually, in a drunken slur) that he wanted consort with the girl, not with the pimp. I can't recount this conversation accurately without profanity, which was all the drunk Brit seemed capable of formulating, so let's leave this seedy scene.
Two days ago I got another first, also while leaving Zack and Madhavi's guesthouse on the way home. It was a Lao street fight. In Laos it is law that to hit anyone will automatically incur a fine of five hundred US dollars. That's a lot in America, but in Laos, where the average salary is twenty bucks a month, that's two years wages - the equivalent of sixty thousand dollars. I was told by the expats that it is a rare year when there is even one fight, when the men are drunk enough to delve into penury. This fine is very effective. So while walking back from a night of talk and cards on the porch of the guesthouse, Alex and I were surprised to discover a semi-clothed man wreaking havoc on the main strip. He couldn't hit anyone, it was too costly, but he was screaming, pacing across the road and whipping his beer soaked shirt at the curious onlookers - there was a crowd of Lao encircling him on their motorcycles, not intervening, just observing. He ran up to the motorcycles shouting and beating his fists on the chrome, he snapped his shirt, he was very angry and stunk of liquor. We waited with the crowd, watching, until he was so keyed up that I thought he might splurge on a good drumming at the expense of two years salary, and we hastened off. But that is as bad as it gets in Laos, people walk around with big plastic sacks of money and leave their stores untended on the honor system, it is in its way an idyll.

One Part Insomnia, One Part Bingo, Two Parts Buddha

After two days of doing as little as possible we said goodbye to Zack and Madhavi tonight, and I feel that I didn't know them well until they got here though I've known them for years. Heat, beer, water and being covered in some sort of sticky gunk makes you remarkably candid. On the opposite side of the world we met in the middle of mayhem, and parted again. I will miss them.
The monks are staying up all night at the wat outside our door, as they will for the next three days. Things are dry and quiet now, and there are piles of flowers everywhere. The air is sweet with night blooming jasmine, plumeria and the smell of approaching rain. Every Lao makes the journey up here to bathe the Buddha in water with flowers and scented oils. And play bingo. So the monks keep a vigil all night, and I keep watch with them, as the pilgrims come and pray.
I am leaving the day after tomorrow to head up to China, after putting it off for two days. I am on Lao time, I do what I want when I am ready and stop when I am spent, and I am happy.


At 4:55 AM, Blogger xz said...


reading that it's like i was there myself!

maybe that explains why i feel so damp?


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