OK, it wasn’t *exactly* a brothel

For the past week I’ve been holed up in the delightful Thoulasith guest house, situated in downtown (so to speak) Luang Nam Tha, Laos. LNT is a wonderful base for trekking to the surrounding hill-tribe villages, some of which lie in the nearby Nam Tha National Protected Area. At least that’s what I’m told.

I and 12 other tourists arrived by private minivan last Thursday. On the bus I met Raquel, an inquisitive and serene young Peruvian psychologist. She was in the middle of a multi-month, rather humanistic backpacking trip during which she was indulging her every curiosity. A few months ago she participated in an international entrepreneur’s seminar in Delhi, India, where she met Thon, a Laotian tourism professional from LNT. She was eager to reconnect with him, and I was eager to tag along – hoping for an insider’s itinerary instead of a pre-packaged tour.

“We will go have some drinks with my boss,” he commanded, after exchanging just enough great-to-see-you’s and nice-to-meet-you’s to be polite. Yes, we were puzzled that he offered us drinks at 2 pm, and before he had even *tried* to sell us any tours, but we shrugged it off as lack of experience. Still, we insisted on talking tours before drinking booze. After an hour of his vague and disinterested responses, we gave up being tourists and decided to be travelers instead. Thon seemed bent on showing off his western “friends” to his boss, even at the expense of a sale. “Sure, let’s go meet your boss,” I said, hopping into his company pickup.

He drove us 10 kilometers out of town to the “shop” where his boss would meet us. It turned out to be the Laotian version of a honky-tonk bar. Three other pickups were parked haphazardly in the weed-choked gravel lot out front. The saccharine screech of SE Asian pop music blared from the speakers. Inside, at a rowdy corner table, sat the all-male glitterari of the Luang Nam Tha tourism scene: directors, assistant directors, managers, founders. All were exceedingly drunk on Beer Lao, and on each middle-aged lap perched a 20-something girl, whose job it was to keep the ice bucket and glasses full and to remain within easy squeezing distance. Some squirmed more than others.

Raquel and I were introduced all around, and in great detail: we were given the vitae of every man at the table, and struggled to act suitably impressed. After much drunken chair-swapping we were finally allowed to sit down…each in front of an ice-filled glass of Beer Lao. It seems Lao custom dictates that if you’re late to a party, your penalty is to drink two glasses immediately. If you’ve come from a different province, you must drink four glasses. And if you’ve come from a different country, you must drink eight glasses. I suspect this last rule was made up on the spot, but we did our best to comply.

Suddenly the much-revered boss, a diminutive fellow whose name I can’t recall, staggered over to our end of the table to be sociable. He was by far the most drunk. His “girlfriend” was by far the most uncomfortable about his attentions. In short, he was the most seamy of them all. Then he started shouting in my ear.

I can’t remember what he was shouting about – trying to explain something to me, or to ask me something – but my pleas for him to step back and stop shouting fell on deaf ears. Leaning away from him and looking annoyed didn’t work either. In the end I had one hand on his chest, holding him at bay as he leaned in to try to shout directly into my eardrum, as the other hand wiped his spittle from my face. You’re not allowed to lose your temper in SE Asia – it causes your host to lose face and always ends badly – so I stood up, smiling, and said I needed some air.

As I paced in the dark outside the bar Thon came out and sort of half-apologized for the boss. There was a clear hierarchy at play at the table – Thon had to ask permission to do anything – so this admission of inappropriate behavior was surprising. I finally agreed to go back inside, if only to spare Raquel. But the whole scene was just gross. The men got drunker, the younger men waxed poetic to us about the obvious importance of the older men, and the women grabbed and cuddled or were grabbed and cuddled by whoever happened to be sitting next to them. We needed to escape.

At long length we got Thon to convince the boss to let us leave – Raquel actually had to invent an illness and overdue medication.

Our escape vehicle, driven by the sober Thon, was the boss’s luxury pickup. One member of LNT’s tourism A-list jumped in beside me to catch a ride back to town. “He’s too drunk to stay out,” Thon explained. I just hoped he wouldn’t puke in my lap.

“Why do you go to a bar so far from town?” I asked my neighbor, whose crooked grin and droopy eyes swam in his beer-soaked face. “So we don’t see our families,” he replied, his eyes briefly sharpened with surprise at his inadvertent honesty.

The next day, Raquel and I just rented bikes and rode through some area villages, exploring on our own. I’m sure the treks, kayaking, rafting, and other tours on offer from the dozen or so operators around town are just great. But somehow I’ve soured on official Luang Nam Tha tourism.

Advertisements

On further reflection…

I keep thinking about the negativity in my past few posts. I’m out here in the world, seeing new places, meeting new people, doing what I love to do! Why all the complaints?

A big part of it is the tourist/traveler tension. In roughest terms, someone on a 2-week holiday is a tourist: You see the sites, eat the local specialties, take lots of photos, and go home happy. Someone on a year-long trip is more of a traveler: You read the history and literature, you learn the language, you get off the beaten track, you have the option to stop and hang out for a while.

The observable differences between the two are fewer than most long-trippers would like to admit. “I’m not a tourist,” they sniff. “I’m a traveler.” Whatevah. See you on the shuttle to the local shrine, along with all the other tourists wearing zip-off trouser-to-shorts cargo pants.

The difference is in frenzy. Tourists have little time to see/do everything, so they rush about during frenzied, tightly scheduled days and go to bed exhausted. Travelers have little time to absorb what they see/do; their minds are frenzied. Tourists can reflect on their trip to China in a leisurely fashion back at home, but travelers must try to think deeply about a place in the moment; tomorrow, after all, is a new country, a new culture, a new language.

By this definition, I am a traveler by disposition, and suffer the consequences. But new China doesn’t let people be travelers. Foreigners can’t drive here. Many mountains, lakes and other beautiful places now *charge admission*, the proceeds from which are used to build chairlifts and offer themed rides and other horrors that spoil the very nature we’re being charged to see. No wonder I feel so uncomfortable here.

Following this tangent for a bit: let’s talk about the Disney-fication of China. Most travelers I’ve met have commented on it. The best-known example is of the hutongs in Beijing. These traditional inner-city neighborhoods were the lifeblood of the city…and tourist attractions. But the Chinese government chose to tear them down (for political reasons as well as simple short-sightedness, I’d imagine). Now the government is scrambling to rebuild some – newer! better! cleaner! with tour guides and shopping! But they miss the point: hutongs were interesting to tourists as a glimpse into real life, an older way of life, a different life. They were a chance to get lost, slam into the odor of their public toilets, see old men playing MahJong with their lifelong neighbors, etc.

Here in Xian I met Ben, a native of Taiwan, now an American citizen splitting time between LA and Hong Kong. Like the Chinese-Singaporean I had met on the train to Ulaan Bataar, he was eager to explain and defend many aspects of China which I find distasteful. He said the Chinese government is learning – slowly – that foreign tourists do not (for the most part) want Disney-China. In the past, he says, it created experiences for Chinese tourists. And these Chinese tourists, he continues, are similar to the caricatured Japanese tourists of 25 years ago: They travel in controlled our groups, with cameras, obediently boarding buses and eating buffets on cue. They *want* Disney.

Now the Chinese government is learning, Ben continued, that foreigners don’t want a sanitized, easy-to-digest, manufactured version of the country. I smiled and nodded at him, but I don’t believe it; the senseless destruction of Chinese heritage continues apace. See: Kashgar.

[Please note that I’m not saying that hutong residents shouldn’t get modern plumbing and internet if they want it; in fact, if they want to knock down their homes and replace them with ugly concrete modern high-rises, so be it. But it’s not the residents that choose; it’s the government. And the residents of the “modern” tourist-hutongs are turned into human zoo attractions, forced to put signs on their doors that say, “This is a private residence. Please do not enter. Respect our privacy.”]

Indeed, as China destroys the artifacts of its cultural heritage it has no soul to replace it with. I *thought* I had written an earlier post about my (unsuccessful) search for Chinese funk, but I can’t find it in my archives. Anyway, I had a whole thing about how there’s no FUNK here, how the Chinese artists at the 798 Art Space in Shanghai, and musicians like Carsick Cars (“just like Sonic Youth!” said a promoter at a concert I attended) are the definition of derivative. I’ve seen no originality or uniqueness in the 7-ish weeks I’ve spent here.

Lo and behold, my instincts were dead-on! Read this article in the NYT, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC: “On Day for China Pride, Little Interest in Ideology”.
A short quote:

“…ask Mr. Xie to explain China’s core values β€” not what his country achieved, but what it stands for β€” and he is dumbstruck, a student called on in class to report on the book he forgot to read.

“The ability of China to adapt,” he said after a long silence. “To learn from the West.” And, in a phrase that sounds plucked from a pamphlet, β€œthe diligence and industriousness of the laboring masses.”

(italics added by me)

I could go on and on here – is it the end of political ideology around the world? After all, America seems to have lost its own centering ideology, its politics having devolved into sniping and mutual obstruction. And remember the Russian business-school administrator I wrote about earlier, who said that her country is also searching for a guiding philosophy.

These are the questions on my mind. They make me want to read more books, by clever people with PhDs in history and/or sharp, witty insights. Instead I’m stuck with what I can scrape together from hostel book-exchanges (trash) and Chinese English-language bookstores (American and British classical literature). I would give my left arm for 30 minutes in Idlewild or a free Malaysian delivery from Amazon.com.

A foot massage and three beers later…

OK, so I was kinda cranky when I posted before. This place had really gotten to me, and I suppose it didn’t help that I was tired and hot and sore and that a tuk-tuk *hit* me (and ran over my foot!), leaving a nasty bruise on my leg. So today, instead of spending my last day at the temples, I opted to wander in town a bit, have an hour-long foot massage (ahhhhhh) and then have a few beers with a late lunch. I’m much more cheerful now.

I’m back into the mode of traveling alone, and I have to say that in many ways I prefer it. I’ve met and chatted with dozens of other travelers and locals since Marjan and I parted ways just 5 days ago. I suspect that part of my current relief is that Marjan wasn’t my perfect match in terms of travel companion, though we got on just fine. I’m just happy to be doing my own thing again.

For example, in Phnom Penh I met a Dutch man who’s teaching English for a year in the Cambodian countryside as part of a volunteer program with an NGO. He said he doesn’t know that he or NGOs in general are doing much good here. There’s terrible poverty in rural areas, and families can’t afford to send their children to school – let alone feed them well enough to pay attention to their studies. But when an NGO comes in to help (he says) Cabmodians view it as an opportunity to get a swankier school rather than to increase the number of children who go to school. People live for appearances *right now* rather than investing in the future of the country via education. “It’s an interesting problem,” he said. “In Honduras, for example, there was no NGO help [because of a general boycott] and they did a great job of helping themselves.” He also said that it’s different in Vietnam, where people have national pride “because they defeated the Americans.”

Today I met a man from New York – he lives right down the street from me, in Stuy-town – who’s here fro three weeks. He and his travel buddy were sitting next to me at lunch. He was drinking a diet Coke out of a can, and there was a small homeless boy hanging around, gesticulating at him and his drink and making a drinking motion. He boy wanted the guy to hurry up and drink the Coke so that he could have the can. He absolutely refused to leave until the guy finally finished.

The whole situation was annoying for us, as you might imagine, because we couldn’t have an uninterrupted conversation (and I had to pay half my attention to the boy’s proximity to my backpack). But forget us – what about the boy (and the dozens of others around town)? On the one hand, collecting cans is definitely more productive than simply panhandling or out-and-out stealing. (An education would be even better, of course.) On the other hand, he’s learning a lesson early that all Siem Reap area citizens seem to know: If you whine and pester and annoy tourists long enough, eventually they’ll give you the can (or buy your postcard or bottle of water or guide book) just to make you go away. Speaking of going away: I can’t wait to get out of here, and I’m completely disinclined to buy any souvenirs at all because I’m sick of being harassed about them.

This whole question about tourism and developing economies is an interesting one. It comes up a lot when scuba diving. If there is a beautiful, untouched reef somewhere, scuba shops open up to bring tourists there. The tourists come in greater and greater numbers, requiring more hotels (and resulting in more deforestation and then runoff when it rains, which kills the reef). At least one person (and often many more) in every dive group touches the coral either accidentally or because they’re a poor or stupid diver. When you touch coral it dies, and it takes weeks for that little bit to grow back. The regrowth can’t keep up with the tourist volume, the reef suffers, it can’t support aquatic life, the diving starts to suck…and we divers move on to the next “untouched” spot. Replace “touch the reef” with “brush against ancient carvings on Angkor Wat” or “trod on Mayan ruins” or “trek through virgin rain forest” and the whole thing gets depressing quite quickly. Makes you think you should just stay home and watch the Discovery Channel – let the professionals do it!

————

Oy vey – what’s with the doom and gloom today? I better shut the eff up.