Southeast Asia Travels #2: Singapore smiles

January 2, 2002

Dear friends,

I'm head over heels for this country. It's beauty, people, food, landscapes,
textiles, and customs are amazing. I know I'm being dramatic, but I don't know
how else to communicate what it's like traveling here.

Actually, maybe there is a good way. Here's a story... (warning: it's long. you
may want to print and read)

+ New Year's Eve in Laos

January 1st is known as International New Year's Day in Laos. It's celebrated,
but it's not the big deal that it is in the western world. I wasn't too bent on
doing anything special. I'd made some friends among the staff at the guesthouse
(a guitar is great for that!), one in particular,  a university student named
Sombath studying English at Lao's National University. I hung out with him and
his friends that previous day (that story is better told over a beer on my
return), and he invited me out to some parties with him that night.

So I spent that day wandering around Vientiane, looking at some Buddhist temples
and taking in the vibe. Everywhere I've been in Laos, people smile at me and
greet me with "Sabaidy", the Lao greeting, usually accopanied by palms pressed
together at the chest,  that functions as "hello", "good morning", "good
afternoon", ""how are you?", and "i'm fine",,, Children are especially apt to
greet a foreigner this way are are gleeful when you reply in kind.

This gorgeous day was no exception, and I was in a good mood as I sat to rest my
legs at a stone bench under a tree by the Mekong River. The Mekong separates
Laos from Thailand and has dramatically different levels in the rainy season and
the dry season. Currently (dry season), it's planted with crops in the dried out
parts of the river.

As I sat on the bench, an older gentleman on a bicycle stopped to ask me where I
was from. He's a doctor here in Vientiane and was glad to chat for a few minutes
in broken English but disappointed I didn't know good enough French to
communicate. Like many older, educate Lao men, he spoke French well as a result
of Lao's colonial history.

Not long after that, a young man named Leum pulled up on his bike, leaned it
against a tree and struck up a conversation with me in decent (for Laos)
English. He's a 20-year old student studying English on his own time. He had a
Lao-English dictionary with him to help him through snags in the conversation
and had come out that day expressly to practice his English. I offered him  the
seat next to me and we talked for a while, breaking only for him to buy us a
snack of a some type of white root vegetable less bitter than radish that
everybody peels and eats for snack here. He was curious like many people I've
met here, about the WTC attack, and expressed his sympathy for me and my

After a while, he gave me some pointers on the surrounding areas and I walked
around some more, had some lunch (noodle soop), and went back to the guesthouse
to take a quick nap before meeting Sombath. He knocked after short but helpful
nap. I went downstairs, chatted with the staff and other travellers, and then
hopped on the back of Sombath's motorbike.

The next few hours consisted of trying (mostly without success) to round up
friends and party details. Nobody has cell phones here and few people have
landlines. Socializing and planning is consequently much more diffcult. The
general strategy is this: stop by on your bike and invite someone out, go run an
errand or invite someone else while they get ready, go back and pick them up.
Not efficient, but sufficiently interesting for me.

We stopped by the dormitory for female medical students where his girlfriend
stays. (As a side note, gender relations and equity seem to be quite good here,
from a superfical perspective at least). She had some bones to pick with him,
though, so that didn't go too well. Other friends had left already and plans
weren't looking good. We were hungry so we went for dinner.

We pulled up on a side street that sported about a dozen food vendors with carts
on wheels and bought, from various stalls, some sticky rice (wrapped in banana
leaf), a mixed salad of cooked greens, a cold noodle salad, and a roasted and
salted fish, whole on a stick. Each purchase went into the basket on the front
of Sombath's bike and when we were through, we went back to the guest to eat.
The total cost came to about 15,000 kip, or about US$1.60. We shared it and it
was delicious. Both are standard here.

There were some issues about the possibility of Sombath needing to work at the
guesthouse that night to fill in for another employee (who is also the boss's
son). Needless to say, my friend wasn't too pleased by this prospect, but in the
course of the night, we stopped at a few places to call in and confirm that he
didn't have to go in.

Back on the bike, the night wind and dust cool on my face we headed to the first
party and noticed along the way that the streetlights were out. Indeed, all the
power seemed to be out. People sat in houses and shops with candles and things
were a bit quieter than usual in Vientiane. Noticeably missing was loud Lao
music playing somewhere nearby. (People listen almost exclusively to Lao and
Thai music here.) Only the din of traffic and chatter continued unabated.

Our destination was a dirt courtyard with a few dozen people hanging around, in
the dark. We stopped for a while as Sombath and a friend attempted to chat up
some your Lao women. During this, the power came back on, to the great delight
of everyone and the squeals of children. The flirting was predictably
unsuccessful (even I could tell they weren't interested and I speak about 10
words of Lao) and we soon were back on the bike.

We stopped for a beer at place that had several stone tables outside and Lao
karaoke VCDs playing. I should explain the Lao style of beer drinking, although
it works better in a group larger than two. There's one glass and a large bottle
(or several) of Beerlao, Laos' domestic brew and, by far, it's leading brand.
The first person poors themself a bit of beer and raises his glass to his
companions, getting their attention and often a gentle nod of the head. He
finishes the glass and poors each person a bit of beer in turn. You can't refuse
the first round, and you'll have trouble refusing later one's too, though it's
acceptable. After the glass goes round, the next person pours. It's a great way
to drink, though it has the obvious drawback that people with various tolerances
are forced drink roughly the same amount.

Afterwards, we were back on the bike (I know, I know, not the brightest move in
the world, but par for the course here and I was thankfully safe on the road),
stopped a few other places including a men's dorm (think 20 cots in one room...)
before heading for what was to be the most interesting destination of the

It was the birthday party for Sombath's friend Tho. I knew that he was the son
of a Brigade Leader in the Lao Military, so I suspected his family was fairly
well to do. We had some trouble finding the place and were about to go back to
the main road and count dirt lanes to find the third from the opposite end as
the way we'd come in when we tried a smaller dirt path of the lane and saw a
house with lots of motorbikes parked outside. Western music floated out the
window and I saw party decorations in dim light through the window.

We were warmly greeted at the door and inside I saw a few low tables, but
together in an L-shape. They were spread with various Lao dishes including
papaya salad, rice and meat. Around them, in ornately-carved high-backed chairs
and benches that had a throne-like quality to them, sat about two dozen
twenty-something Lao men and women.

We removed our shoes, and were immediately absorbed into the party. It was a
well-educated crowd and many spoke a bit of English. I met a woman who planned
to study in Los Angeles, and man from Myanmar studying in Laos for a five years,
and the birthday boy, who was very gracious and happy to have me there. On one
wall, stencil english letters spelled out "HAPPY NEW YAER" and lights wrapped
around colored streams provided all the light in the room.

For such a large group, the Lao style of drinking I described above had to be
modified somewhat. At any given time there were two or three pourers and they
stood and circulated around the room. I took my turn to pour, which was a lot of
fun. Amidst a debate between friend over whether one would drink the beer I
offered despite already being quite drunk, the glass broke. The lights came on
and the beer was swiftly cleaned up and broken glass carefully retrieved from
the floor by barefoot partyers. A new glass was in my hand in minutes and the
party continued.

It later gave way to dancing and a few trips to the bathroom, where a pair of
communal flip flops were happily donned to keep my feet off the wet floor of the
standard asian squat-toilet-and-the-room-is-shower-stall bathroom. Throughout
the party, I felt incredibly welcome and cared for.

Midnight passed without notice and when I headed home with Sombath at around
1:30, we noted that it was now 2002 and wished each other a Happy New Year.

+Odds and Ends

I'm now back in Vientiane after a trip to Vang Vieng, which you may have seen
profiled in the NY Times recently. Oxygen folk, the newspaper photo above my
desk is from there. It was great. I played takraw, a game sort of like
volleyball but with your feet with some village kids, who were impressed with my
abilities (who'd of thunk that all that hackeysack and volleyball experience
would come in handy in Laos?). I kayaked (for my first time!) down the Nam Song
and explored two caves where I had to wade through cool underground water up to
my neck to get through.

I head tonight by night bus to Bangkok, Thailand, where I'll meet up with Elbert
and go off to who knows where. Our plan was to go north to Chang Mai, Thailand,
but I'm itching to explore Laos some more, or maybe head up into Myanmar.

+ "Too Busy Living"

Now that I have a guitar, I was able to capture the difficult time I have
keeping a journal here in a song. Guitar players can give it a shot and let me
know what you think...

(I lost my pick, so this is written to be played with a simple finger-picking
pattern ;-) )

[E]I try to make notes
I [D]want to recall
My [E]friends, lovers, places
I [D]cherish them all


Got to [E]remember these sights
[D]remember those sounds
but I'm [D]too busy living
to [A]write it all down
Yes, I'm [A]too busy living
to [E]write it all down

[E]Smiles from children
and [D]how-do-you-do's
in [E]all different languages
to [D]all different tunes

repeat CHORUS

Bridge (instrumental): [G] [D] [D] [G] [A] [E]

[E]Smiles in Singapore
[D]Laughter in Laos
[E]Dinner in New York
At my [D]grandmother's house

repeat CHORUS

end with [D] [A] [E]

+ On to Thailand

As the song above suggests, I can't even write down everything I'm experiencing
myself, much less do it justice in email. I hope that what I can send back is
enjoyable for you, though, and provides a bit of a window into another culture.
Let me know what youthink!

More from another spot in a bit. Hope all is well with you and yours!

Healthily and happily in Laos,