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Mikey Travels Lightly

Sum of the Sweat

LAOS | Friday, 12 March 2010 | Views [600] | Comments [2]

It's been awhile since my last post here, which means plenty of time to find reasonable excuses for this reticence.  I would like to say that I have intentionally put down the blog for awhile so that I will have fresh and exciting stories to share when I return, but that is not the truth.  I think that my own laziness and the practical challenge of finding an affordable and working internet connection in Laos are two very reasonable excuses.  Closest to the truth, though, would be to say that I haven't wanted to spend an afternoon writing in an internet cafe because I have been too busy enjoying my time in places that will be so far away very soon.

My month of bicycle riding in Laos was an experience that I cannot imagine forgetting.  As with Thailand and Vietnam before, I left Laos promising myself that I would come back.  Actually, I left expecting to return during this trip, just as I had when leaving Thailand and Vietnam.  When I pack my bag for the last time and get on a plane headed home, I know that I will take with me the conviction that I will return.

Among my travels, Laos was an incomparable place to explore.  The landscape, especially in the north, was to me an exhilarating blend of beauty and wildness.  Some images of Laos will stay with me for a long time.  Villages hanging on to the side of impossibly dramatic mountain roads.  The houses supported on one side at the side of the road, on the other by bamboo posts reaching down sometimes 20 feet before finding a stable surface amid the vertiginous drop to the floor of a valley 1000 feet below.  The sounds of the jungle at night; gibbons and smaller monkeys the only sounds I could place amid the cacophony of noises which grow louder and louder throughout the night before evaporating with the first light of dawn.  Riding raggedly into and through villages with children screaming 'sabadi' (hello!), smiling with there whole bodies.  Sometimes giving stinging 20mph high fives or being chased on foot or bike.  I will especially remember the adults, languidly rocking in hammocks in the shade of simple houses, some bemusedly watching me, some indifferent.  I found this vivid picture of contentment and simplicity in every village.

The images of contentment in simplicity, a pervasive sense of ease, are for me, my strongest impressions of life in rural Laos.  The villages of Laos are usually very small and, even on a bicycle, come very often.  Even the smallest are introduced with uniform signs- the English translation set below the Laos- the English name of 'Crimeless Village' often suffices for the smallest of villages.  The traffic coming and going is always the same; masses of school children in white shirts and black pants or skirts on bikes and on foot, motorbikes carrying things unimaginable to those who've not been here, tractors ('The Chinese Ox') which look like little more than a boat's small outboard motor in the stores of the towns, but when finished with a wood trailer and rear axle carry large loads of workers and food. The occasional speeding logging truck tells the story of Laos' sale of it's forests to Vietnam or China. 

The houses are all on stilts, the area beneath each house telling the families' story; a loom, a cement mixer or a plow suggesting what work will get done when it needs to.  Much of the work done in Laos is agriculture, every village is bordered by rice fields and everybody generally works communally on a few rice paddies during the intensive and short rice season.  I think that the content idleness which I saw so much of is seasonal; when the rains come again, in April or May I would expect to find everybody working.  The small stores selling coca-cola, beer, rice wine, water, chips and candy were my usual stop, the usual setting for my brief interactions in the most rural life.  It was probably at one of these stores that I began to suspect that many Laotians were wondering whether I am crazy or stupid, when registering looks which seemed to say 'how do these foreigners have all the money if they are stupid enough to chose to ride a bike all day and let ten buses pass by.'

One night in Laos, when staying in a bungalow in a small village bordered by rice fields to the east and a river and the jungle to the west, I woke in the last hour of night and listened to the cacophony of screams of innumerable very wild sounding animals which seemed to be coming from everywhere.  After taking in the myriad sounds for a while and wondering what to expect upon opening my door, I got up and headed for the outdoor shared bathroom.  Upon opening the door everything changed, and I was in my familiar world again- the animals acquiescing the last hour of night at my interruption- my intrusion immediately and quite dramatically silenced the wild and mysterious world around me but left me with a pervasive feeling of wonder.  With the stillness of the mind of waking from deep sleep, walking under moonlight and rustling trees in the silence that my presence immediately conjured, I experienced with dreamlike surreality the sound of my footsteps changing the nature of the world around me; my footsteps delineating the extent to which I could enter into the world of the wild. 

Inspired by some wonderful French travelers I met in Luang Prabang, I decided to practice speaking Laos and bought a dictionary and phrase book.  Laos is the first place I have been in which I have earnestly tried to understand and speak the language and this was, at the time, an incomparable experience.  My Laos phrasebook proved far less than useful and I never found an opportunity to practice any of the three pages regarding the practicalities of sending a telegram.  Neither did I practice the obvious phrase, ''this guesthouse doesn't have an escalator.'', though there was ample opportunity.  The worst aspect of learning a language from this phrase book was that you can't know what each word means, only the phrase in whole is translated.  You cannot be at all creative with what you say and the content of the book is absurd.  Most villages I visited had a store which sells packaged foods- chips, cookies, cans of soda, cigarettes, candy and water, motorbike mechanics were not uncommon, and restaurants were a less common and welcome sight.  Nowhere among the patchwork of villages I visited did I get to ask for the ladies department or voice my discontent with the cut of a particular pair of pants. 

Laos is a perfect language to learn from a dictionary.  Grammatically, it is fantastically simple.  You get to say things like; 'me like this', 'me like this yesterday', 'me want eat food' and 'you eat food now, no?'.  There is no 'is' in Laos, it is implied.  There is no future or past tense, just a single tense modified with some form of 'now', 'earlier' or 'later'.  At least at the beginners level, you can just throw words together and with a little practice the very simple rules for grammar become apparent, without proper grammar you will be understood well enough.  It is wonderful with a very limited vocabulary to be able to focus on remembering the words and have the license to be creative with how you put them together.  I would hear new words in Laos or look up ones I was still learning by the phonetics in my dictionary and find that if was saying the word 'slow' of 'i go slow', for instance too quickly, I would instead be saying 'i go angry'.  I tried to learn words that didn't sound too similar to words I would rather not say.  If all that separated a useful word from an obscene one was one of the five or six tones of the language, I would abandon the word and find a synonym which wouldn't get me in trouble.  There were phrases that I said often only because they were fun.  My favorite being the tongue twister, 'Ni nung nyai naam' - 'this big (bottle) water'.  After about five weeks of practice, I left Laos fairly proficient in the butchering of the language; a small vocabulary of words struggling to express more than their share of ideas.  Some of the people that I met made my endeavors very worthwhile.  Although I could communicate with many Laotians in English and express myself much more easily and accurately than in Laos, speaking in Laos opened many doors.  I traded Laos and English practice with a few friends and with my constant abuse of Laos tones and phonetics, I suspect that I may have dispelled my friends' insecurity or shyness in speaking English.  For me, my attempts at learning the language kept me looking for opportunities to practice with Laos people and this as well as traveling by bicycle proved to be a comfortable though sometimes challenging way to get a little outside of the bubble of the more commonly traveled routes and routines.

With more stories of Laos to bring home (on May 21st) than I've written here, I will call this submission done, eat lunch and further explore the 8th world wonder; the Angkor temples of Cambodia.



Wonderful! I am delighted to hear your mindful progression of learning and speaking the language of Laos. I couldn't stop smiling. I am looking forward to the tour of Angkor Wat. Love Mom

  Catherine Apr 1, 2010 6:52 AM


was my till short by more than 5 dollars or over by more than then?

  looks good Feb 18, 2012 1:46 PM

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