We heard there was a helicopter to Phongsali. For US$45, the trip would take an hour instead of three days. And the boat going upriver to Nong Khiaw wasn’t going to leave until the owner’s other boat returned to Luang Phabang. We met a Belgian at the dock who had been waiting for three days to claim a piece of space on a diesel-guzzling slow boat packed with tires, baskets, bags of rice, and maybe pigs and poultry.
WHERE THE FISH IS FRESHER
Four Days in Northern Laos
BY SOULIER BLESSÉ
So we decided to take the chopper, along with a guy named Jerry from California who we met in Luang Phabang. It seemed like a sufficiently dramatic transport to this isolated provincial capital on a small finger of land sandwiched between Yunnan Province in China and northern Vietnam. David and I loved Luang Phabang, the old royal capital of Laos, but we did not like the hordes of European package tourists and Australian backpackers. To give it credit, though, Luang Phabang is one of my favorite cities, and for all its popularity, the town handles tourists very well.
The Lao pay about one tenth the foreigners’ price for seats on Lao Aviation flights, but unlike the foreigners they don’t have reserved places. David and I felt pretty bad that we might be taking the seat of a Lao person just because we were falangs with more money. But, as is the tradition with all forms of Laotian transportation, they stuffed in all the people who wanted to fly, plus a substantial amount of cargo. No live animals, but a lot of fruits and vegetables. There was also an enormous bag of baguettes. We didn’t realize the significance of the baguettes until later.
The scenery out the open window of the old Russian helicopter was straight out of Apocalypse Now. The monsoon forest is mostly virgin, with very little in the way of human habitation, other than the occasional hill-tribe village, identifiable by a few thatched roofs and a little patch of cleared land. We passed over the Mekong that even in the dry season still looked impressive, a transnational snake gliding sinuously from China along the borders of Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to its mouth in Vietnam.
David and I chatted over the loud noises of the helicopter and stuck our heads out the ten inch wide window behind us. It wasn’t the smartest thing we could do, but hell, how often can you stick your head out a helicopter window?
After forty minutes of flying, the helicopter descended on a large grassy field in the middle of nowhere. There were around one hundred or so people milling around on the field, many of them very interested in the cargo coming out of the back of the chopper. Boys sat down in the shade underneath it. Women from the Akha tribe, wearing their traditional hats decorated with silver coins, were standing warily at a distance. Smiling soldiers in green fatigues walked around and chatted. We asked around about getting to Phongsali, since this obviously wasn’t it. The pilot spoke a little English and French and we understood that there would be a songthaew (a covered pickup truck with bench seats) coming in an hour or so.
Everyone stared at the three bewildered falangs with big backpacks standing on a big field in the mountains of northern Laos. There was no malice in their expressions, just a little friendly curiosity and surprise. But as they were staring at us, equally we were gawking at them. Separated by language but united in strange circumstances, our interaction was at a standstill. I decided to do something entirely out of the ordinary. I asked David for four film canisters, which he promptly threw to me. Then I began to juggle. Initially the onlookers were even more perplexed than they were before. But soon they formed a circle around me, its size growing rapidly. It was an interesting twist on the traditional tourist dynamic – it seemed that I had flown into this part of the world not to be entertained by the locals but to entertain them myself.
I still had my backpack on while I was juggling, and in the heat of the early afternoon sun, I grew tired after about twenty minutes of “performing.” But the kids still followed Dave and me as we sat down to have a drink of water. We didn’t really have anything more with which to entertain them, but we did have a pile of postcards from Bangkok, Vientiane, and Luang Phabang. We broke them out and displayed the photos of places they had in all likelihood never seen, with such colorful commentary and deep insight as a smile and the name of the place. At least they understood that I meant Bangkok when I said “Krungthip,” the city’s Thai name. The kids especially liked the postcard of the old man smoking a bong.
But this wasn’t the main event for the afternoon. We could hear another chopper cutting through the air as it approached us. Soon everyone was fleeing for shelter as the wind picked up dust and dirt and pebbles and threw it into their eyes. We went with a dozen men, women, and babies into the songhthaew that had just arrived
This wasn’t a civilian helicopter. It was a green military one, meaning that some VIPs were about to come out. This theory was confirmed when a convoy of top-of-the-line Daewoos and new Toyota 4-Runners pulled up alongside. Out of the cars came some top military brass and a few beautiful women. Out of the helicopter came a group of flamboyantly dressed men and women, whose profession was pantomimed to me by a boy standing next me to me. He motioned with a microphone and an air guitar. Ah, I thought, that explains why they’re dressed in ruffled salmon shirts and tight pants, like they’re about to go to the 1977 Springfield High School Prom.
From the little bits of information I could gather from soldiers, kids, and the pilot, there was a festival in Phongsali, part of the Visit Laos Year 1999-2000 promotion. For such a promotion, there was very little in the way of advertising in the two main tourist cities of Laos. This was to become apparent when we got into town.
But first we had to get there. After the musicians and the officers got into their cars and drove away, we piled into the songthaew and drove away on half-finished gravel and dirt roads through densely forested hills until the town of Phongsali, nestled in the mountains, came into view. Then the truck stopped at a checkpoint. All the people got out, and an imposing officer and his minions searched through all the bags but ours. One man had a small black bag that he carried with him. The officer took it from him because he saw a set of portable opium scales sticking out. He rustled through the bag and found a block about an inch thick, half as wide but as long as a sheet of printer paper, covered in mulberry paper. It was opium. The officer took it from the now distraught man, wrote down his name, and accepted a thick roll of 5000 kip notes as a bribe. The funny thing about the opium scales is that tourists buy the exact same scales in Luang Phabang antique shops.
Then we got back into the truck and ascended the hill into town. The man sitting across from me gave the international smoking sign – left index finger and thumb clasping an invisible bowl or joint, right hand sparking an invisible lighter. He then pointed to eight of the ten men in the truck. They were all opium mules. The other two young men in the songthaew were both wearing tee shirts, one canary yellow and the other a rosy pink, both with the word “Sweethearts” written inside a heart. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t have the guts. (We saw one of the two a couple of days later in town, and he explained that he was a dancer at the festival).
The town was abuzz. Well dressed men and women with a lot of luggage were distraught that they couldn’t get a room in either the Phou Fa Hotel, which was formerly the Chinese consulate, or the less salubrious Phongsali Hotel. The only accommodation David, Jerry, and I could find was in a guesthouse across the street, next to the bus station. We got it from a pair of other travelers who found the room too noisy.
We drank a couple Beer Lao and ate some peanuts in the Phongsali Hotel restaurant, where the walls were decorated with posters of Western food, like bacon and eggs sunny side up with toast, orange juice and coffee, on china with silver flatware. We tried getting food, but to no avail. They didn’t have a refrigerator and it wasn’t dinnertime.
After eating some peanuts and a few Beer Lao among us, we retired to our “room”. The room turned out to be little more than a partitioned section of floor with three cot frames and dirty mattresses and sheets. But for 7,000 kip each, or about 80 cents, we weren’t complaining. Jerry, our California friend who told us about the helicopter, was sharing the room with us. On his bed was the book “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish,” by Douglas Adams, the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” writer. I said to Jerry, “Hey, I bought this book over the summer in Greece, and gave it away in Egypt. I remember that I wrote ‘Santorini-Luxor on the title page.” Sure enough, I flipped to the inside title, and there were the words “Santorini-Luxor.” No one else had written where they received the book or gave it away, but there were stamps from Dahab, a Sinai scuba-diving town, as well as Bangkok. This book had travelled from the Cyclades to northern Laos over the course of six months, and ended up in the same guesthouse as me. I couldn’t speak for a few minutes, and then I went downstairs to have a beer and told just about every foreigner in the town (there were about 10 or 12 of us).
After all this excitement, I said to Dave that I’d take a nap for a few minutes, but we ended up sleeping until nightfall.
When we woke up, we were quite hungry, but not in the mood to attempt to order food from the not entirely forthcoming “restaurant” at the Phongsali Hotel. We went down to the fair, and availed ourselves of the multitude of culinary offerings on hand. We had pastries, chickens and chicken feet, pho, in addition to numerous other dishes which we couldn’t identify. Also at the fair were a bunch of stalls depicting the advance of technology, agriculture, communication, and transport in Phongsali Province. A few of the stalls were selling traditional garments of the various hill tribes in the area. The prices, around 100,000 kip, or $13, were so high that it seemed obvious that the festival organizers were expecting rich foreigners. Unfortunately all they got were a bunch of American, Australian, and European backpackers, and a few skinflint IMF advisors.
The next day, after a parade of the ethnic tribes in the area (where Dave and I got to stand with the Lao journalists under the Party reviewing stand), we took a walk around town, looking for food. Aside from the morning market, where we could buy lao-lao (the local hooch) infused with green herbs and insects, vast quantities of meat on the hoof, various mountain fungus and vegetables, and a happy looking hedgehog in a rattan basket (asking price about a dollar), there wasn’t much choice of cuisine. We’d only managed to get omelets and pho to eat since we’d been in town.
We’d heard a rumor that there was a bakery up the main street. Sure enough, we saw a sign, hand printed on a sheet of paper that said “BAK ERY”. Inside, we saw a miniscule oven that was probably powered by a light-bulb, and above it, another photograph of a breadbasket overflowing with the kind of breads you get at a complimentary Embassy Suites breakfast. But there was no sign of anyone baking inside the dirt-floored shophouse; in fact, judging by the dust and cobwebs on the oven, it looked as though the entire baking operation had been out of service for years. This, Dave realized, was why there was an enormous bag of baguettes on the chopper.
The town of Phongsali has been almost entirely created with the aid of Chinese military and financial support, Australian foreign aid, and IMF development funds. In addition to some 1920s-style French-Indochinese buildings, there are several newly-constructed government offices, including a courthouse; there is a large compound of new houses, which are apparently for the Communist party higher-ups. While we were searching for spring rolls, Dave and I walked through the part of town with all the nice houses, and we stumbled across a group of middle aged men in suits who were surveying the development of the town. Most of them were wearing Communist Party lapel pins. Dave and I were eating crisps on the side of the road when one of the men noticed us, and, in a grand gesture of glasnost, looked back at us and started to smile. Then, to our utter astonishment, he gave us a thumbs-up from about 25 feet away. Now, Dave and I were entirely unaccustomed to contact with Lao government officers, having only dealt with the occasional soldier and opium inspector. We had no idea what the protocol was for responding to a thumbs up from a Communist Party official, so we gave a thumbs up back.
This man was the happiest man in a suit that I have ever seen. He exhibited all the characteristics of a man who understands his mission in life. Dave and I had no idea what this man’s mission in life was, but we figured that he was the minister for tourism in the Province of Phongsali. Through his efforts, we gathered, Phongsali had almost paid for the “Visit Laos Year 1999-2000” banners that were strewn throughout town.
As we walked up the hill that Phonsgali is perched on, we eventually stumbled into Frontier Land at Disney World. The streets were made of big stones, the buildings had stone foundations and mud and rattan walls. The roofs were mostly thatched, with a few corrugated metal sheets thrown in for good measure. For once in my life, there were no telephone lines to mess up our photographs. In front of many of the buildings were old women in black hats and black leggings, preparing dinner, doing some knitting, and watching their chickens. We walked farther up the hill, and ran into an ethnic-Chinese looking man who was leading a pony on the road out of town. We stopped and looked at each other for a moment, and I attempted to say some pleasantries in Lao. He gave a bashful smile, bade us farewell, and walked off along the dirt road that skirted a mountain.
Dave and I could see the “stadium” from the top of the hill, where the festival was going on. Apparently, it had been created at great expense, because whoever constructed it had to flatten the top of a mountain. They did have the sense to leave a set of dirt and stone bleachers on one side, so there’d be seating for the masses. We could see the row of stalls, the VIP nightclub area, and a rather intense game of volleyball (we later learned that the Oudamxai Province team upset the Phongsali team). The stadium was an impressive sight – there was a long retaining wall on the side closest to town to make a flat playing field, and on another side, there was a steep drop into the jungle below.
After a few days, we left Phongsali on the back of a pickup truck, with the destination of Hat Sa, a small village with no electricity on the Nam Ou. Many westerners call it the “Nam Ou River,” but “Nam” in Lao means river (as well as water, in a different form), so it is redundant. Dave and I were now joined by two Australians, one from Brisbane and the other from Darwin. I was sitting across from a young man with a cleft palate that had not been operated upon. We had a bag of sweets, and, just to entertain ourselves, we gave this poor specimen of humanity a durian flavored hard candy. Durian, for those who don’t know about it, is a vile-smelling spiky fruit that is banned from most hotels because of its stench. In the markets, durian sellers have their own special area. Some people consider it the greatest fruit, but others simply despise it.
I can’t exactly describe how he ate this candy, but needless to say it was entertaining, because he had an enormous grin on a face that defied all normal boundaries of where mouth ended and lip began. Of course it was also sad, because we as westerners knew that he was ostracized for a deformity that could be very easily corrected with the simplest of surgery.
We arrived at Hat Sa at around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. As soon as we got off the bed of the truck, it was clear that we were looking for a place to stay for the night. A man of about 60 or so, distinguished looking amidst the primitive conditions around him, came up to us and started speaking in basic French. Suddenly, I was the interpreter for the three other people in our group. I indicated that we wanted a place to stay for the night, in addition to a meal for that evening. Monsieur (I never learned his name) was happy to oblige, as he was the owner of the “Hat Sa Guesthouse.” (there was another guesthouse in town, across the street, but that was called the “Ban Hat Sa Guesthouse.” We never learned if they were owned by different people, or if there was a monopoly on accommodation in the village. He asked if we wanted some cold Beer Lao. We accepted with surprise, as we were unaware that such luxuries would be awaiting us at the end of a bumpy truck ride through the jungle.
As we were drinking our beer around the only table we saw in the entire town, it started to rain, and all the children of the village who were milling about and observing us without coming too close had to come under the tarp to avoid getting soaked. We started talking to them, as best we could. I had a Lonely Planet Lao Phrasebook, which gave me directions on how to say “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong,” “I am pregnant/have diarrhea/am an addict,” “Please give us a room with a mosquito net for the evening,” &c. The kids taught us how to count up to 100 in Lao, and they also helped me with my pronunciation of various ways to make fun of my travelling companions. Because I had the book, the three other falangs with me had no idea what I was saying until they wrested the phrasebook from my greedy paws.
Later that evening, as we were beginning to feel a bit peckish, Monsieur came up from the river with a live catfish, which had a leather bight through its mouth. Monsieur put the catfish into a tub of water, and walked up the hill, retrieving another man, who proceeded to butcher the catfish on a wooden block right before our eyes. The butcher was obviously skilled at his trade, saving every last morsel of the catfish in the appropriately sized pieces. In exchange for the service of butchering the catfish, he received two choice cuts of filet.
The catfish itself, prepared by Madame, who herself did not speak any French, was perhaps the best fish that I have ever tasted. Its texture was like melting butter, its flavor subtle yet well-defined, gently seasoned with lemongrass and chilies, and served with sticky rice and spiced Irish potatoes.
In addition to the wonderful meal, the Australian had a bottle filled with lao-lao – moonshine. The stuff was pretty nasty to our western palates, so we purchased some Coca-Cola and Red Bull syrup from one of the three shops in town and made some cocktails. We offered one of these dreadful concoctions to a Lao man who was sitting at the table and trying to converse with us, but he seemed rather unwilling to partake in the imbibing. Luckily for us, we were the quote unquote guests and he felt obliged not to offend us by refusing.
Needless to say, his expression was one of disgust rather than gratitude, but I think he knew that our hearts were in the right place.
After dinner, we decided to take a swim in the river to eliminate several days worth of grime. The Australians in particular were in need of a wash, considering that they had spent several days on the dusty road in pickup trucks and buses, and then a couple more days in Phongsali, where the shower consisted of a cistern, a bucket, and a hole in the floor. We changed into our bathing suits (the Lao, modest but not silly, just wash in their underwear, the women with a sarong), and went down to the river. We were only fifteen or so miles away from the source, so we figured that we wouldn’t get too many diseases. And considering that this jungle highway was just beckoning at us to jump in, we couldn’t resist.
The water was cold, the current stronger than we expected.
But when I was floating downstream on my back in the cool brown water, looking around at the lush green jungle all around me, looking at the bamboo village on the opposite bank, I was completely at peace with myself. I felt a unity in my body and soul. I delighted in the delicious irony of swimming with catfish in my belly, I delighted in the contrast of cold wet and hot wet, I delighted in being exactly where I was, at the beginning of the end of the middle of the earth. It was one of those few moments in my life when I felt so distant from everything else in the world, so completely isolated from any of the problems awaiting me in the myriad places where problems hide and lurk, that I felt I could stay in that river forever.
But there’s only so long that you can stay in a river – the river flows down, and the water isn’t as trustworthy, the banks are concealed with the worst kind of civilization, and the communion between self and surroundings is forsaken for the trappings of the modern world. I would never live in Hat Sa, and yet I almost envy those who live there. We had a Lao-Lite experience – we did not have to wonder whether we’d catch anything, whether our house would withstand the next monsoon, or whether our crops would grow. We knew nothing of the everyday hardship and toil of that village, but we knew something of its benefits. We knew that we could escape on the next boat down to civilization. And we did, knowing that we’d probably never return to Hat Sa for another catfish.
Soulier Blessé is a New Jersey boy who bought a 1/2 oz for $4 in Tela Honduras in 1996 from the same guy who sold the Eyeshot Superintendent (a N.J. Boy as well) a similar bag back in 1995. Click here for a behind the scenes look at the corespondence that led to the above text you have just either attentively read, printed out, or scrolled over without so much as a considerate glance.