One the way back down from Tham An Ma, we walked through the village of Ban Xieng Mouk. (Ban means Village so that’s a bit redundant.) The people were celebrating a wedding. A few women women were frying seaweed and cooking pho on the outdoor clay ovens. People seated at a picnic table under a plastic tarp were drinking Lao beer and small glasses of must have been Lao Lao, a kind of moonshine made from fermented rice. I gestured with my camera to ask permission to take their picture and they motioned for us to come over and immediately came at us with glasses of beer. We sat down and issued a series of mini-bows as thanks and repeated, “Cop Jai lai lai.” Thank you very much.
One of the men was playing guitar. His blue button down shirt was threadbare and ripped in so many places, a strong wind might wisp it away. I thought it would do perfectly hanging on a rack in Urban Outfitters. He sang a few melodic Lao songs that sounded like innocent and up-beat ballads from the 50s. The others seated around the table clapped in rhythm and sang along in parts. He nodded and dipped his guitar at me and articulated his next line and paused for me to repeat it. I tried my best and he nodded in approval. We continued this way until he gave me about 5 measures of melting vowels. I’m sure I’m must have sang about something surreal and ridiculous because they all laughed. Then he handed the guitar to Michael. Michael quickly discovered that all the songs he knew by heart were either lachrymose love songs and minor sounding dirges. “What’s a universal song they might know?” We tried the Beatles. He played Yesterday and they tried clapping along to this utterly unclappable song, but they obviously didn’t recognize it. The only upbeat song Michael knew was Alice’s Restaurant. This was a success finally.
Children of all ages were darting in all directions. A line of 12 or so were running around the open field hanging onto a length of rope. They stopped in front of me, accordioned into a staggered pile and looked at me. I aimed my camera at them and they screamed in mock terror and ran away giggling. They have no idea how impressed I am that they can be entertained for an entire afternoon with nothing but a rope.
The glasses of beer and lao lao kept coming and I gestured that I’d had too much booze but the pouring continued. I thought it would be horribly rude to reject it even though a big bottle of Lao beer is about 10,000 Kip or a dollar and the people of this village probably make enough for one beer a month. Joyce was telling me that government workers make the equivalent of $20 a month. And selling the harvest from the surrounding farm musn’t bring in too much.
Elizabeth later told us that the way to politely refuse more alcohol is to simply leave your glass full. She said she learned this the hard way as well.
We asked Joyce what might be an appropriate gift to bring back for them as thanks. We thought a bottle of Johnny Walker Black might be fitting because they would know of it. She said that would be a gift reserved for a high official. “How about Johnny Walker Red?” Michael asked. She said that laminated print of the pictures I took would be very much appreciated.
A young man of about 25, who spoke english sat down with us and asked if we worked in Luang Prabang. I tried to explain about the MMAP project with a mixture of concrete nouns and charades. He was studying law and I assume he was in town for the wedding. I wanted to know more but we had to get back to the center before dark.
We finally gathered the equilibrium to extricate ourselves from the picnic table and find the trail back to the center. We thought we’d embarked on the correct trail but found ourselves in the middle of a farm. A woman balancing baskets filled with the beautiful salad greens that we’d had for lunch pointed us back to the village and smiled. We pursued our lao lao-infused journey back to the center after passing the villagers once again going in the other direction. We rolled our eyes and pointed in mockery of our mistake and, again, they laughed.