Si Phan Don, Laos
The narrator flees the Kingdom for the misty mountains of Laos, luring an unsuspecting Aussie and Finn along to do her bidding. It is P'chum Ben, the feeding of the ancestors holiday, big deal in these parts, and the three of us have a week's vacation.
The Aussie: slick lawyer from Melbourne, racking up karma points in Phnom Penh representing garment factory workers in their struggles; talented runner; forthwith known as the Koala, due to her penchant for munching leaves and hugging people (I've only seen cartoon koalas, so this description may be slightly inaccurate). Bad habit of allowing herself to be dragged along on my adventures when she can't muster a good excuse (stay tuned for our recent motocross fiasco).
The Finn: bubbly blond alcoholic (these are her words), can be seen zooming around town on her moto working tirelessly for victims of land grabbing or hunting down the best happy hour specials for her after hours job writing for the local magazine (though she was involved in alcohol-related research even before the job). Currently working in the Netherlands (these are my words – she prefers to say she's producing the Vagina Monologues in Phnom Penh. Actually she prefers to stand on a table in a crowded bar and screech, "Who wants to see the Vaginas!"
And finally the Narrator: hails from New York City (note: not America, they really are different countries), aspiring novelist, and the best Pilates teacher in all of Cambodia (mostly because I am the only Pilates teacher in Cambodia). Personal goals include showing up to my Saturday morning classes on time and with no glitter anywhere on my person, and making more than one blog entry a year.
Is getting there half the fun? Many stiff, cramped hours on the bus finds us, finally, on the other side of the Japanese bridge (1 kilometer outside the city). Do not attempt to leave Phnom Penh during peak holiday time. Do not patronize Hua Lien bus company, which stops every two hours to eat. We're stopping again? Who could be hungry? We scratch our heads as everyone scrambles off and hits the food stands with a vengeance. And we only stop at backwater gas stations. When we reach Kratie, a lovely town with a proper bar right next to the bus station (according to the Finn, who has the skinny on every watering hole up and down the Mekong), suddenly we are in a great rush and must forge ahead. Luckily most passengers disembark there, so we have room to spread out and sulk in sober comfort. For 20 minutes until we stop at another gas station to eat.
12 hours later we hit Stung Treng. About that one-moto town I will say as little as possible. However, if you find yourself there, stop by the Riverside guesthouse and restaurant, as it's the only option in town.
The next morning we board a minivan and drive two hours to the doorstep of Laos, but the van isn't allowed to drive further, so we cross on foot. We walk 200 meters to a little hut, scattering a pack of grazing goats and chickens hanging out outside, to the awesome fierce power that is the Lao border. The Finn gets right nasty with the guards, making a huge caterwaul over the $2 they are charging to stamp our passports. I play smiley, conciliatory American, on the unlikely chance they'll go all China on our asses and string us up by our ankles in some backwoods prison.
Bribes paid, guards appeased, we board another minivan that drives to the wooden fishing boat that will ferry us to our destination, and finally, we are there.
Si Phon Don, Laos, the 4,000 islands, where the Beer Lao flows like water, and the water flows like my Dominican boyfriend in high school, dark and fast. The only Lao words I know are hello, thank you, ice, hot, very hot, and spicy. It's low season, so the tiny island, usually thronged by scruffy backpackers is rather sleepy and laid back. We find bungalows on the river on the "sunset" strip of the island, passing on the "sunrise" options. Who wants to see sun at that hour? Given the lifestyle of the backpackers that populate the island I am surprised that side has way more guesthouses.
We grab a quick lunch at one of the cafes (3 hours in Lao time), and head off towards the old French railway bridge that connects Don Det where we are staying to Don Khon, a larger island with more attractions and upscale accommodation. It's rainy season and the flowering trees are lush and in full bloom along the red dirt path that skirts the island, running alongside the river. There are puddles everywhere and the ground is muddy; and a light mist hangs in the air. We pass thatch roof houses, small rice paddies, guest houses, and water buffalo parked on everyone's front lawns. We are almost waylaid by a sign advertising BBQ catfish at a backpacker restaurant, but keep going.
Upon reaching the bridge the Koala and Finn plonk down and refuse to go farther. The Finn needs to rush back to the hammocks and the Koala is nursing a sprained ankle. We agree to rendezvous at the hammocks in 1.5 hours, and guided by the spirits of some very well-fed ancestors I take off for an afternoon run.
Back across the bridge, and with a quick stop to pick up Beer Lao and water, I reach our bungalows in time for sundown. The girls, sacked out in the hammocks, gratefully accept my offering. "You got our telepathic messages!" they cry, popping open the icy cans, and I dash off for a cold, twilight bucket shower before rejoining them. I practice the Zen art of balancing a novel and a beer on my stomach whilst lying in a hammock, and read in the fading light.
When the beer runs out we eject ourselves and search for dinner. We stop at the Pool Bar and Restaurant for a pre-dinner drink, but by the time they're delivered we're hungry enough for dinner. The problem was we kept ordering drinks from the menu. 15 minutes or so would pass, and they would come out to inform us they didn't have the ingredients. No gin, no tonic. No vodka, no soda, no wine. This happened 2 or 3 times, until we stumbled upon a winner: beer. We suggest they remove the word 'bar' from their sign, and wait another hour for our food, then stumble home.
Though cows cover every square inch of the island, there is no fresh milk to be found. Only the sweetened, condensed milk that looks like Elmer's glue is available, so I take a small spoonful to cut the bitterness of the coffee. We sit overlooking the river and plan the day. The girls hire bikes to explore the larger island, while I plan a similar trip on foot.
I originally wanted to take this trip alone, needing time to myself. But am glad I ended up with two friends, so I could have company at times, and pawn them off on each other when I want to wander off on my own. And they proved themselves worthy traveling companions. Despite packing way too much (Laos is no place for a bra), the Koala arranged our visas, booked bus tickets, researched guest houses, and even covered my bribe at the Lao border. The Finn supplied me with soap, toothpaste, torch, socks, and a host of other items that one generally doesn't leave the house without, much less the country. Hey, I didn't get this far in life worrying about things like toothpaste. Thank god I moved to a country with such affordable dental care.
I retrace my steps from the day before, and pass more pagodas and rice paddies until a rainstorm strands me at a cafe for a lunch of hard boiled eggs and Beer Lao. There is supposedly a big waterfall, so I follow the wooden signs, until I find the spot. It is not so much a waterfall as a giant set of rapids from the Mekong. I dodge the tourist vendors selling t-shirts and woven bags, and the Korean tour groups (they seem to travel in groups of no less than 50), and sit by the thundering river. After the concrete and traffic exhaust of Phnom Penh it is blissful to sit amongst trees and water.
Our plan is to meet at the catfish restaurant we saw the day before. On route I am waylaid by a gaggle of saronged women selling pashminas. They look like the usual tourist shlock, but one catches my eye. The shimmering gold thread laced through the turquoise and coral design catches the sun, making the fabric look like it's caught fire. Two peacocks face each other, their tails spreading out across the ends of the shawl. I decide I can't live without it, and though it's only $4, I'm almost broke. I don't bother to haggle – it's cheap enough, and the big, toothless smile the woman gives me when I pay her is worth the extra cash. As I'm hiding it in my bag so my friends can't see and working out the best way to ask them to float me some cash until we get home I suddenly realize why the dollar tanked and everything that's wrong with Americans.
I join my friends at the end of a long table; at the other end are a band of backpackers. Of course there's no catfish. At least we're getting better at turning up to restaurants a good hour or two before we're hungry. All is not lost, as it turns out the backpackers are all Finnish. The Finn proceeds to converse with them for the next two hours in Finnish while the Aussie and I catch up in English. We have much to discuss, including her issues at work and my issue, whether break-ups are easier or harder when the reason is that someone had to get on a plane. Answer: yes.
Near midnight we take our leave of the Nordic pack and head home. The rustic, scenic dirt path we traveled that morning is of course pitch black. And they still have their bikes. And no one has a torch. Guided by the blue, heavenly glow of Polaris and the Koala's mobile, we slowly, painstakingly trudge back, trying to dodge puddles, mud patches, and water buffalo. We stumble along, cursing and laughing and reach the bungalows covered in mud.
I'm starting to really like this condensed milk. Every cup of coffee I add a little more, wondering what those chemicals will do to my body. Muddy and hung over, we compare mosquito bites and wait for the boat to take us back to the minivan that will deliver us back to the Kingdom. The Cambodian border guards are so sweet! They chat us up as we wait for our minivan driver. We skip Stung Treng and head to Kratie for the night, which we hope will prove more exciting.
We are somewhat right. After checking into a cheap guesthouse, we go for a lunch and then wander along the river. Almost as small as Stung Treng, Kratie has much more charm and atmosphere. It is also home to the famed Irriwaddy Dolphins, a rare breed of nearly extinct dolphins that live in the Mekong. Most people go to Kratie to see the dolphins.
Is it wrong that I don't care if I ever see these dolphins? I want them to thrive and multiply, I just don't feel a burning need to see them with my own eyes. We wander past a large Ministry building and notice some kind of giant creature. It's a deer, in fact a whole herd of them. Unlike dolphins, I am captivated by the deer and thrilled to see them. Some of them wisely back away, others stand their ground and eye us warily. I have a brilliant idea, and hold out the bag of prawn chips I'm holding and slowly, steadily approach a large deer with a huge rack of horns. My instincts are correct, and after letting him sniff my fingers, I feed him a few chips and he lets me pet him. Soon we're having a proper love fest. The Finn snaps a few shots; the Koala is too disgusted, and wonders aloud whether the local hospital carries rabies shots. They finally drag me away and we wander some more.
We stop by the local market – same assortment of fruit, kramas, household goods, sparkly flip-flops, clothes that are too small for any Westerner, motorcycle parts and fried meat on sticks that every market teems with, but we are not inspired. Which presents a dilemma: it's 5:00 and we've have exhausted all the entertainment options in town. The Finn comes up with the brilliant plan of Khmer beauty parlor. I choose one underneath our guest house and the Finn goes to one around the corner. The Koala declares us both nuts and heads to the room to nap.
When I sit in the chair in front of a dusty mirror, the woman disappears and a 10 year old girl emerges. She pours a bottle of shampoo onto my dry hair and starts scrubbing with all her might, her tiny claws raking my scalp. She is laughing maniacally while I try to suppress my screams. It's like being attacked by a squirrel.
"Um..." I try to say to the woman who's returned with a couple friends and sitting next to me, flipping through a Khmer tabloid. "Tuk?" Water? I am wondering if the squirrel intends to use any water in this 'hair washing' torture. Everybody laughs. I'd be laughing too if it wasn't my head. Finally the girl pulls me up and leads me by the hand to the back where I lay down with my head in a sink and keeps scrubbing. She also keeps up the high, shrill laughing, and is trying to talk to me. "Madame...(something in English I can't understand)" "Madame... (something in Khmer I can't understand). I start laughing with her, if only to keep from crying. I wonder if anyone knows I'm back here, or will come rescue me.
Finally she wraps a musty towel around my shoulders and we return to the front room. Now a small crowd has gathered, someone's set up a table, someone else brought a radio, and they are all ready for the show: me.
They gleefully watch as the squirrel roughly dries my hair; then they take out the straightening irons and the real work begins, transforming my wild, unruly hair into sleek, long tresses. I should say now that I have a lot of hair. The crowd eats and talks, but keep their eyes glued to me. After the first hour the Finn pops in – her hair is shorter and thinner than mine, so she is long done. She buys us beer, and through a mix of bad Khmer and sign language, gets one of the women to apply her makeup.
If we were a novelty before, we are now a full-blown, three-ring circus. More people turn up, livelier music is played, and with little encouragement they go to work on us, not sparing the glitter wand for a moment. The Finn goes early 80s with bold blue eye shadow, false lashes, heavy eyeliner and sparkles galore. I opt for a shimmering seafoam green, and heavy rouge. After another hour my hair is done, and they all gather around to view the final product. The Finn looks like one of the Go-Gos. I look like Janice from the Muppets, if she fell on hard times and had to sell it. We both could pop into a karaoke joint and do a couple numbers and fit right in – and I know I could use the extra cash. All of this has cost us an exorbitant $2 each, and we run upstairs to scare the Koala, who is indeed horrified. We do a quick photo shoot on our seedy beds, and then hit the town and go for dinner at a Khmer bbq. Of course, we run into a table of expats, a couple of whom the Finn knows.
"Uh... you guys look... pretty." they manage. We're just being ironic! Get it?! They don't seem convinced, but they let us eat with them anyway.
Glitter does not come off easy. In the harsh morning light we look like faded disco queens. We arrange for a share taxi to get back to Phnom Penh, not wanting a repeat of the bus fiasco. We find one who will take us for $12 each, but knock it down to $10 because the driver won't let us put our bags in the trunk. He won't even let us open it. Good lord, what's in there? Bodies? Drugs? Dolphins? We cramp into the back, bags under feet and sweat all the way back. The traffic jam on the way home is even longer, and though we can see the city from the car we sit for three hours on the road.
Will the narrator kick her addiction to condensed milk? If you see a shadowy figure crouched in an alley fiendishly licking a golden can the answer is no. Will the border guards seek vengeance on the Finn? Will the Koala remember not to pick up her phone when I call? Will the narrator ever stop asking herself redundant questions and then answering them? Not any time soon.