Lament for Laos

We call them ang mohs not just because they are merely the white men but because they are a whole package of unbridled arrogance and willful ignorance towards local dignity. Apart from the colour of my hair, the slant of my eyes and a slightly lower level of blood alcohol concentration, I have very much been an ang moh myself two days here in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng was a village set on the idyllic Song River. Vang Vieng now is everything that is wrong with tourism. These white people jump naked into sacred pools. Crushed cans of dirt cheap Beer Lao, moonshine whisky and cigarette stubs churn in a cesspool that is the river. You could ride on an abused elephant for far cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Lao children grew up under the shadow of debauchery: they spend their days chasing after tuktuks laden with half-naked tourists; and, they spend their nights playing at the billiards table among the fog of a Malboro cloud. The Laotian cafe owners play re-runs of Friends, neither knowing what is so amusing about 6 decadent people living in an apartment, nor knowing if they’ll ever even have a taste of the standards of developed world luxury espoused therein.

A festering ankle injury from two days ago meant I had to spent my second day in the town floating down the river in an inner tyre tube with a bottle of moonshine whisky in my hand, together with R (an Aussie friend I made the night before) and alongside a dozen other ang mohs from all over the globe. Admittedly, it was guilty fun floating from bar to bar downriver.

We had a Laotian guide, he sat on the kayak, splashing us with the cold Laotian water or blasting us with techno from a huge speaker mounted before him. He’s like the goddamn guitarist from Mad Max, with all the post-apocalyptic madness. Apocalypse: it must have felt like one to the elder villagers that have seen the decline of the town over a decade. They would stand idly by the banks at makeshift bamboo bars, hawking more alcohol and chips. I see entertainment in the eyes of their children but a deflated frown in the eyes of the elderly: they have no other choice.

If one peers past the haze of drunkenness and techno, one would see an engulfing sight of sheer green-clad cliffs, blue running waters, and the lazy afternoon sunlight that wafts about. But there is no space for beauty in our intoxication. Not in my heart or in R’s despite our attempts to savour it. (Thank goodness I had yesterday to myself on the motorbike exploring the beautiful countryside.)

On the way back to town, we are bikini-clad, half-naked sardines packed into a tuktuk, and the same techno music is blasted through the tiny evening streets. The inebriated Laotian guide is pounding the roof of the tuktuk to the beat. R and I and a German couple with us all concur he’s probably in his late twenties, but he has the wrinkles of a man aged by two packs of beer and cigarettes a day. The villagers we zoom past would again look on with a certain drowning dejection, however used they are to this.

R and I together with A, a North Carolinian teacher are having a drink and a joint at a bar later that evening. A French guy stumbles pass our carpet: I can see the whites of his eyes and his epileptic hands. He collapses on his face two seconds later. A few ang mohs jump in to check on the French man. He OD-ed on opium, this Brazilian dude who joined us for a cup of an opiate-laced tea explains. The stoned waitress doesn’t do shit, she can’t count notes properly, nor even open her eyes fully. A, having already had a bad trip on that joint, bails back to her hostel, having just seen a man OD just an inch in front of her.

Sometime in the evening, two Dutch girls I’ve returned to the hostel with from another bar don’t want to pay their share of the tuktuk fee. He’s cheating us, they exclaim with giggles and with gin of their breathes. Every inch of my soul is on the verge of exploding, “What the fuck is 10,000 kip to your wallet? What is 10,000 kip to his livelihood?”

But long before I muster the indignation to do so, the tuktuk driver accepts a French kiss from Girl A as payment. God fucking dammit. Girl B walks away drunkenly from the negotiation for her payment, leaving Girl A to continue teasing the half-smiling, half-quivering driver.

“No, no! We having fun chat chat”, says he, when I step in and try to gently convince her to just fucking pay what is essentially one bloody US dollar.

This town is fucked.

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