Tuk Tuks, Bombies, and Front-loading Washers

January 26, 2010

Lao Betty Boop on Tuk Tuk Mud Flap

After about 60 hours of travel, we made it back to Pennsylvania with all our limbs and luggage in tact. We took a tuk tuk to the Luang Prabang airport thinking we needed 3 hours for international travel even though there are only about 5 departing flights per day. Some of the tuk tuks had 1940s propaganda-poster-style mud flaps with Rambo on them spraying bullets from his stylized machine gun. Our tuk tuk happened to have a generic Stevie Wonder/ Jimmie Hendrix hybrid beaming above some groovy Lao typography. Such a strange cross-wiring of pop cultural cues. Above that was the more modest and less cloying Lao version of Betty Boop. This was probably the most suggestive imagery we’d seen since we’d arrived in Laos. No need to Revive Ophelia here (at least as far as I can tell). All the billboards presented images of wholesome, well-fed, and sparkly-eyed pig-tailed youths drinking through crazy straws. The most blatant visual evidence of any kind of departure from strict morality might be a popped Izod collar here or there.

We climbed the stairs into the plane and our airline attendant was smilingly eager to help us find a good hotel in Bangkok. After he left us to strap himself into his tiny fold-out seat, we looked at each other with a forlorn nostalgia for a moment that just happened a second ago. The airline attendant’s vibrant amiability came to represent all the kindness we’d experienced during this trip. We’d spent the past few weeks with people who don’t have front-loading washing machines, don’t have to worry about their next car inspection, and don’t talk about the next thing in their Netflix queue. Their frame of reference just arched in a different direction. It’s refreshing to be around people who don’t get Three’s Company references. It’s good brain practice to move beyond the old devices you use to relate to people. It forces you to use older, I guess, more primal ways of understanding someone.

Selling Bracelets

We’d become so accustomed to trusting people–walking down the crowded street almost radiating with a feeling of goodwill for our fellow man like some deleted scene from Godspell. Even haggling in the Night Market, there was only the good humored shaking of heads to say “no, can’t do, what you pay?” Even though we failed miserably at haggling. Once Michael actually gave a girl 5,000 Kip extra because she was so nice after we haggled her down that same amount. The girls in the above photo are smiling because they got the equivalent of 8 bucks from us for three bracelets. Later the same girl who sold them to us came back and said we got ripped off. Cop jai lai lai!

And we knew we were returning to a very cold and solitary East Coast. We thought about the amazing experiences we had in this beautiful country and the people we met from the whole spectrum of Lao society. How an amalgam of these encounters would amount to one big smiling Buddha amid wafting banana fronds, puppies, and dancing elephants. Of course, we were only there for a short while, long enough to over-romanticize about dancing bananas and the like. But the people really are that amazing and nice. It’s almost heartbreaking.

Unexploded Ordnance

We also found one of the most relaxing and beautiful spots possibly in the whole of Luang Prabang just days before leaving. It was called Utopia, overlooking the Khan river with treetop walkways and alternating levels of tiki fabulousness. This was the first instance I saw of the use of UXO (unexploded ordnance) as decorative flower pots and architectural accents.

Unexploded OrdnanceThis peaceful tropical paradise is the most heavily bombed nation in the world. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives over Laos to stop North Vietnamese troops from entering Lao territory. Ironically, the Lao even have a cute word for the explosives. They refer to them as “bombies.” According to the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme, 78 million bombies failed to explode and there have been around 12,000 UXO-related deaths or injuries since 1973. Fortunately, there are some efforts to raise awareness about UXO and very time-consuming efforts to diffuse the bombies that have impacted a quarter of the villages throughout Laos.

The irony of this giant mortar shell lodged in the ground as a stepping stone in the restaurant bar called Utopia was not lost on me if only a bit fuzzy and mutable. Maybe it’s too big for me to wrap my head around. The image seemed so much more meaningful than any process art installation in Central Park because they are just there unfolding their symbols for whomever cared to look down from their lau lau cocktail. They were more powerful because no one claimed ownership of their creation as art. Because the people I’d met were the most peaceful and kind people I’ve ever met. The bombies don’t translate into this landscape. They are a rude interruption. So why not make a flower pot?

As we slogged through customs in a daze and slouched in metal chairs for three hours waiting for the shuttle at JFK, we were distracted by a distant and chilling feeling of loss. When will we ever get the chance to go back there? I knew I’d start feeling a certain bitterness for my real life back here in the wintry fog of Pennsylvania, and I would over-romanticize about the tropical utopia that is Laos. Although, I soon became acutely aware, after an olfactory reminder that hadn’t bathed in days, that I’d eventually miss our front-loading washing machine. We thought about our neighbors, co-workers, friends and family, and it all amounted to a pretty good exchange because we will never forget our Lao experience.