Pak Beng, Laos
19° 53' N 101° 8' E
Dec 28, 2006 11:11
Distance 138km

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Text written in: English

The World's Most Convenient Highway Nation

"Sum, kup, pet, sip, cow."

The bus lurches. Bertrand is learning his numbers in Lao.

"Am I right?"

"I don't know," I say.

He looks blankly, and then shakes his head and tries again, fingers counting with him. "Cow, sep, pet, hah..."

A stream of unknown numbers. Foreign and nonsense-sounding. I would like cow oranges please. Silly-sounding simplicity that still sits comfortably within me. It is like hearing kid riddles. I know what cow is. I know what pets are, and a sip. Bertrand intones; the engine buzzes; the old German man behind me wags his head to his headphones playing Rammstein. It is this kind of world we have entered. A farmyard of Lao numbers waft around us before joining the hum of the engine and making a nursery rhyme of our trip. The Lao man beside Bertrand shifts and offers him a biscuit. They are kind that way. I move on my bags of rice which serve as a seat, and watch the outdoors curve past our bus windows in a field of scruffy landscape which still steals the heart.

We are heading towards a destination eight hours hence, which in my mind already has no name. Instead, I think of it in pure linear. Up for four hours, then sharp right and straight ahead for another four. We'll be there then. I won't be able to say it when other travellers ask where we are going. Instead I'll shake my head apologetically and tell them to ask my husband; he's the one who knows. I don't mean to be like this. But I can't help it - these last few days have turned me into a lethargic bubble of bliss. I ask no questions, and have no idea - no visual picture - of what awaits. I take buses not knowing where they're going. I cannot remember things like names and stop-off points. I am a helpless zen infant following Bertrand and Chantal and being moved by what appears.

It is ten o'clock in the morning - we've already been travelling two hours. The mist is painting the tops of the mountains - the bottom of the sky - in watercolour. The mini-bus is devoid of modern comforts, but kitsched-out in co-passengers with hairstyles that would be the envy of any black 70s soul band. There are copious quantities of hair, no matter which way you look at it. Most flirt on the edge of being a mullet; spiky; volume. It fits with the feelings I have about Laos. It should be utterly foreign: - where else have I seen these sagging huts; these piles of corn; people holding chickens under their arms, like handbags; this crazy oriental pop blaring through the bus? Nowhere. But this is nowhere. I am in nowhere and it feels exactly right. I am Monkey Magic travelling complete with an entourage of like-minded hairstyles.

In fact, this makes the second day of our trip to nowhere. It feels as though we pick places without exactly knowing why. Heading north; vaguely east. The guidebook never makes it sound promising, as every town other than Luang Prabang seems to be listed as an edge-town; a satellite servicing people on their way to somewhere. China. Thailand. Vietnam. Cambodia. I look outside the window and wonder however people could just consider Laos as a place to pass through.

I embrace it fully. I am drawn to Laos. It is peaceful. It is not just by the people; it is something about the place, or the attachments that people have to it, perhaps, that sit unspoken in every sagging hut floor; in each scratching chicken by the road. It is a presence that asks not to be recognised . The people smile more than I was told; the tranquility fades (not runs) through the air like paper bleaching in the sun. The air is misty in the mornings; sweltering in the afternoons; the air smells like smoke from fires.

Bertrand has stopped reciting numbers and is trying to say "that's far too expensive" in further silly syllables. He kisses my cheek and tells me I taste like dust. Maybe that's another thing I like about Laos. It is easy to think less about money. We don't have to bargain. People smile as though they know everything there is to know from reading their guidebook, and say the Laos are lazy.  They won't do things for anything less. But I see them doing everything for nothing every day. They are always in small intimate groups, doing things together. Building houses, usually. I have yet to see a Lao man not working. I don't think they're lazy. They're like me, when Idon't care about where we go. None of us mind, that's all. There is a take-it-or-leave-it freedom of concern which emanates the air like opium.

I adjust myself on the sack of rice I am sitting on. Ihave no doubt that this is where I wanted to be. Strangely I am not in Asia. I am nowhere. The land is scrubby; hilly; it feels like the strangest kind of cowboy country imaginable. In the perverse confusion which rises from peacefulness, I don't know why I think of cowboys at all. There are no trails. There are no horses. There are chickens, perhaps, but who ever thought of cowboys and chickens together?

People live in huts, in clusters beside the road. They do everything out the front of their houses. They gather there and live there; always together. The bus passes and in this way, we are privy to their lives. There are dusty faces in comfortable circles; sole people crouching in front of private fires, cooking unidentifiable morsels of animals. I see a pile of old food. A whole town gathered around a tiny baby, held aloft in the air by his father. Children waving when our bus goes by. Boys playing volleyball on dry grey nets. Drying clothes on makeshift fences. A running path of huts, scrub, huts, scrub, but Laos-style: it has never seen a trot at all. Our bus might move but still, inside, the sparseness of the towns makes them feel like they only gently stroll past our vision.   

I have been told that everything is going to change here soon. But I don't want it to change. The Chinese plan on building an enormous freeway now - 10 lanes wide - so they can get their trucks quickly through Indochina. It feels like Laos will turn into nothing but a kind of petrol-stop on the way from degradation to more degradation.

Lao would have nothing to say to this, just as I have nothing to say to the others when they change directions or other itineraries. We all of us feel contented; it is hard to imagine another way of being. But this contentment will not save it, and my heart empties to think of this. These forests; wild rivers; peaceful towns; will all eventually succumb to the same course of fate as brothers Thailand and Vietnam. The huts will be replaced by concrete bunkers; the quiet by motorcycle traffic; the mist by truck smoke.

In this world we enter, life certainly becomes, if nothing else, more uniform.

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