We’re received in the compelling town of Meung Khua with approximately negative three smiles. The remaining swarms of children are neutral, if not utterly unimpressed with us. The workforce here is divided into three main industries. The first industry revolves around the smoking of cigarettes. The second is moving medium sized rocks into piles. The third industry is dismantling said piles. A fourth burgeoning industry, dust creation and airborne dissemination, is projected to expand five-fold in the coming decade.
We run into the French couple from earlier and invite them to dinner. The boyfriend, Alex, asks what the weather is like in Malaysia. It’s hot, we say. The conversation peaks around there. The French are first to cut the silence and say goodnight. With tremendous willpower we sever ourselves from the charm of Meung Khua and charter a longboat down the Mekong.
The French couple is on the same narrow blue boat as us. Alex puckers his lips and surveys the passing greenery with an austere gaze hinging on caricature. Plus je regarde, plus je deviens intellectuelle, he thinks, furrowing his brows to suggest painfully deep philosophizing. His girlfriend watches him with intense admiration. Even sitting beside the most stereotypically French thing that has ever happened, I too can’t help but become transfixed by the enormity of the jungle. Our boat cuts through the muddy brown water deep into the afternoon. Everyone, including the ship’s eight-year-old stowaway dressed in Angry Birds regalia, succumbs to midday exhaustion. I drift in and out of consciousness to the site of passing settlements, hunched over cranes, bathing villagers, and steep towering cliffs. And smug Frenchman.
Downstream there are two fishermen. As fate would have it, the two fishermen have caught a very very large fish, red, that hooks a price of over $60.00! Imagine that! $60.00 in the hands of an impoverished fish-or-man! Well, well, well, our own boat captain happily pays the price, but not before exchanging a few crass words from the purveyors of such a fat fat fish! The old man, resigned to converting his epidermis to leather, futilely attempts to barter with our captain, pointing out that the fish is worth far more. His younger, more slippery comrade, meanwhile, is able to utter little more than a "A wuh huh wuh wuh wuh wuh," while flapping his swollen lips wildly. Having ostensibly forgotten that their precious white cargo has places to go and bed-bugs to see, the old man and the captain negotiate a price for quite some time, while the slippery creature continues, as though he were a speaker in a great hall, delivering an erudite sermon to a school of fish:
"wuhWuh, WuhhhWuh, ahWuhwuh...wuh huh huh wuhwWuh Wuh...Awuhwuhwuhwuh," (to the tune of Bad To The Bone).
Finally, after our brave captain scams the fisherman thoroughly using a weighing device that does not actually have any scientific grounding to it, we snatch the fat red fish and set off! The man with a membrane, under the impression that he has vanquished us in some competition unbeknownst to I, flails wildly as he waves us goodbye, grinning the whole time, whispering a smug "wUhWuhwuh, wuhwuhwuhwuh!wuhWuhWuh?...Wuh?" to himself.... Understandably, "wuhwuhwuhwuh" has since become an irremovable proverb, idiom, quote, space-filler, expletive, and point of logical reasoning within our pidgin lexicon here in Malaysia.
Showering off downstream I momentarily forget my herculean strength and rip the entire shower valve out of a wall. A powerful column of water shoots out of the ensuing hole, and I send Jacob to fetch the hostel warden. In a few seconds a flurry of Laotian men run through our hut and into the bathroom, where I stand towel-clad, trying to gesticulate just how this happened, and where an unstoppable jet of water is threatening to flood everything. After much toil the mess is temporarily clogged. Afterwards the crowd of shirtless, dripping Laotian men goes outside for cigarettes. There they pant and holler and catch their breaths and draw the attention of skeptical onlookers who are left only to speculate on the schematics of the orgy in room 302.
If you sit with an Australian long enough they will tell you their itinerary. There’s Bali and Bangkok, Yangon and Kathmandu, maybe Manila, and Siem Reap, too. There’s Ho Chi Minh City, and even Hanoi, and of course the isles of Thailand, which they insist you’ll enjoy. Then off to Goa, Varanasi, and Jaipur, “let me tell you all about it, I’ve read the whole brochure.” From there to Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake, make sure to check their blog they say, and peek the “epic sunset pics” they’ll take. As you motion to leave, the Australian will frown, what’s wrong, don’t ya wanna hear what I thought’a Georgetown? These cities are the dots that connect to form the wobbly shape of South East Asia. Each one’s veritably ancient and worthy of visitors, but none sounds so exotic and compelling as Luang Prabang, perched along the snaking Mekong.
Luang Prabang looks like Los Angeles in the movies; delicious blue skies, trim, towering palms, suspiciously clean sidewalks and orange clad monks walking around in conga lines everywhere. All around there’s gold curving temples and smooth quiet streets lined with ornate wood paneled houses framed by just the perfect amount of overgrown foliage. All the amenities of Europe coupled with the irregularities and charming dilapidation you come to expect of Asia. There’re boutiques displaying fair-trade hand-made ergonomic designer shawls and street vendors hawking useless colorful mass-produced trinkets that are just too sumptuous not to buy. If you wait by the river long enough a Tuk Tuk driver will ask to see your sunglasses; if you show him your own rendition of a Tuk Tuk you will be asked to drink moonshine in the back of his vehicle. If you turn down offers for cheap boom-boom you will be asked to leave. That’s okay though, its lunch time anyhow. You can get hunks of chicken right off the street, on which I exclusively dined, but they come paired with stellar French baguettes too, which you can haul atop a hill to watch the sunset. When its time to snap some selfies to the backdrop of the Laotian skyline just smear that chicken grease off on your slovenly self and click away with those tropical green hills behind you. There’s that fucking French couple again.
Nearby a woman is holding a hundred tiny birds hostage in a wicker cage, but for a meager sum you can simultaneously pay their ransom and score some karmic surplus. A troop of Laotian teens does just that. The oldest one opens his clasped hands to release a soaring little sparrow to the winds. Then it’s the youngest one’s turn. He fails some crucial mechanical gesture of the hand-opening process and cripples the bird mid-release, and the maimed sparrow spirals into the hillside below. Flightless, the bird is ravaged by a band of hungry ants before our baguettes are even finished.
That night I go out wearing my first ever silk shirt. The Vietnamese lady that sold it to me said it looked “so-goo,” but I’m still a little self-conscious in it. A torrential downpour ensues, followed by a torrent of Russians, concluded by a torrent of enraged bar goers, and I’m quick to learn that the world is profoundly indifferent to me and my silk. The town is teased by an 11pm curfew, so everything closes early and abruptly, with the exception of the alcohol-serving bowling alley, coincidentally owned by the police commissioner himself. There, for less than the cost of a Happy Meal, you can acquire two handles of whiskey and a lane to bowl. A miniature United Nations, sans Australia, forms beside each lane, merrily drinking and chanting and dizzily throwing balls into the gutter until the world slips into darkness. The French couple may’ve been there.
On a dark and mysterious walk home Jacob and I find ourselves in possession of a dozen bananas. The air is warm and crisp and quiet here. Flanked by temples and cottages and the lush embankment of the Mekong, there has never been a more opportune time for a cigarette. The bright stars overhead mock us like a thousand distant embers. A nearby murmur offers hope; from around the corner appears a squadron of drunken Brits. “Excuse me,” Jacob says, “I happen to be a small businessman, and I was hoping to trade these bananas for some cigarettes.” The Brits chatter to themselves in some unknown dialect; it may just work. The alpha male of the group, signified by his backward cap and impressively bright tank top, procures a single cigarette then snatches the stack of bananas. “Wait,” Jacob pipes up, “we asked for two cigarettes.” The Brit reels Jacob in by the arm and states, with profound self-assurance, “I’m a big business man.” Fucking Brits, Jacob mutters. I tell them they’re welcome for that whole World War II bailout, and gain some distance from the pack of increasingly angry Englishmen. They yell something about Vietnam in exchange, and then pelt us with our own bananas. The next morning we say bye to the French couple who’ve become a daily chore and who’ve coincidentally booked the room right beside us. A cramped bus and a quick flight later and we’re back in the veiled bosom of Kuala Lumpur.
Stepping out of the airport I see a woman wearing a black t-shirt that says, “don’t worry, everything is going to be amazing.” I smile despite its complete banality. It’s a nice phrase, and depending on the state of your GI tract, sort of rings true. In this part of the world, everything is, if not grotesque, inconvenient, asinine, exhausting or dull, well, amazing. The woman, staring off into passing traffic, sputters a thick column of drool onto her shirt. Amazing.