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Shadows and Dust

If the North of Laos was a strange place, trapped in a time warp by its shadowy, leisurely dictatorship masked as communism, the towns and cities of the central plains are a hundred times more so. The government is not so much seen as felt. It is a constant preponderance of silly looking Soviet influenced poster art beseeching citizens to “be vigilant” and “celebrate the people’s victory”, it is the bombastic uniforms replete with bright little medals all of the police wear and it is the half life decay of the French Colonial buildings now filled with indolent, filthy families hawking noodles and dried meat from open kitchens on the street front verandas. Every price is proscribed – not by the government, but by the nascent consumer market that has sprung out of China like a wayward bamboo grove.

The prices for everything are entirely nonsensical, and bargaining is a pointless exercise in frustration. Watching a local buy something in the the market, then going directly to the shopkeeper and handing over the exact same amount is the only way to avoid getting the tourist treatment, which consists of a blank, stupid grin and a repetition of the initially quoted, doubled up price. Why argue over what amounts to a couple of dollars? For one thing, it creates a false market which feeds the wealth of a select few merchants, artificially raising the prices of certain commodities for locals as well, over time. If and when the tourist trade collapses, its absence leaves a wake of useless goods, inflated prices and beggared merchants.

For another thing, I have the strong suspicion that the market stalls in Laotian cities are not owned by the people who work there. My guess goes something like this: there are some massive villas on the edges of most towns. Their windows are tinted, there are Toyota Land Cruisers and Mercedes cars in the garages and there are satellite dishes on the roofs. These villas are owned by the local party representative who happens to control customs and trade in the city. The local slugs sit in their air-con parlors and skim a bit off the top of everything smuggled into their little fiefdom, simultaneously issuing trade licenses to those who wish to serve them. Far from the eyes of tourists, they employ migrant people from the surrounding farms to work in their markets, which suspiciously sell row after row of the same Chinese garbage, bamboo trinkets and western cosmetics at nearly identical prices. Those working in the markets don’t care if they sell something or not, because it’s not theirs to sell and they only profit from it if they can manage to rip off a tourist. This is just my guess from observing the places at close range for many, many days, but it makes for a miserable time for everyone and has about as much to do with communism as the jasmine bush wilting on my balcony back home in Prague. In fact, it sounds a lot like the new, exciting shopping centers that are growing like a cancer on all of the cities of Central Europe. Fixed prices for the same old garbage, with the underclass locked into indentured servitude to the lofty “will of the market” and a handful of international conglomerates. The only difference is that we’ve developed the leech of advertising to impress upon people the relative value of the dingus they’ve just bought themselves and provide a living for those who feel themselves to be above slave labor.

Before you get your pointing finger all bent at me – advertising is what I “do”. But I do feel a change of heart coming on with every passing kilometer on the boat. Watching the tiny wake of the Pohoda crawl out from under the boat and lap the distant, sandy shores behind us, I try hard to think of one positive thing I’ve done for anyone I don’t personally know in the past five years or so. They’ve been good years, full of travel, discovery, celebration and love, but I stretch my head around the possibility of finding another way, free of the selfishness, implacable egos and insupportable, banal, “pat my back” humor of the “industry” and its acolytes in Prague. There’s still time, I tell myself, already disappointed.

Thakek is a wonderfully underwhelming little dustbowl. We docked at the international trade terminal – the ferro cement crusted embankment smiling at the Thai town opposite. I wobble up out of the boat and through the passport inspection office without thinking – I just walk right by them and nobody even asks. One man approaches me as I am leaving the compound asking if the little boat down below was mine. Yes, I answered, it’s from Luang Prabang. He whistles through his teeth and strolls down to take a closer look. Out past the little duty free shop for the folks making the big trip over the river, there are a clutch of drunken-looking tuk-tuk drivers assembled in front of the local five star hotel and casino. Gambling is illegal in Thailand, so the well-heeled take the jump over into Laos to enjoy the pleasure of throwing their money away. Past the hotel, the street is no longer paved. Old storefronts are shuttered against the crushing heat of mid-day, their owners hidden in shadowy cubicles watching television or napping fitfully. On the main promenade, a double-wide street bedecked with curiously Chinese looking lampposts and graced with sparkling new asphalt, there is a sign advertising internet. Mister Lu, a Chinese transplant to Lao, lives there with his Vietnamese wife and his son, Mickey. Driven mainly by his desire to escape China’s one child policy, Mr. Lu has followed so many other emigrant Chinese into a life of hard work and big plans. His little internet shop will one day become a restaurant, and then a hotel. Unlike the pipe dreams of many of the Lao people, who seem content to sleep the day away and drink most of the night, I get the feeling that Mr. Lu’s plans will work out.

I check the internet for any sign that someone might want to buy our boat, but my posting on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree board has been buried by a million “Whats a chill guest house to stay at in Laos?” questions from dopey kids with Chinese characters tattood on their legs. Can’t some moderator move that stuff to the “Buy the Book, Idiot” rubric and leave some space for actual questions and offers? So much for that. I pick up a couple of fried egg baguettes from Mr. Lu’s wife and head back to the boat. The walk takes me on one of the secondary roads – another dirt track separating old French buildings that haven’t been painted since the fall of Hanoi. Concrete balconies sag and all the joinery is warped into laughable angles, leaving wooden shutters flapping and creaking on rusted hinges, unclosable doors barely concealing rooms inside piled with heaps of charcoal, old wood and overrun by chickens. There are no people anywhere, no signs, and the electrical cables dangle from their poles like the barbed wire surrounding the old Greek section of Famagusta on Cyprus; a whole city lost in time and quietly decomposing in the sun. Once back, I slip by the sleeping immigration officers again and pass a few young guys hauling Phillips washing machines up the long stone stairs. Gerben jumps off to pick up some water and smokes from the Duty Free and we push off a few minutes later, hoping that Savannakhet won’t be a rerun of this canceled show. The former capital of Laos is our last hope to sell the Pohoda before our visas run out and we are forced to give her up and head back to Thailand.

Gerben is at the tiller when we make our final stretch of river into Savannakhet. The river here is impossibly flat and wide – it keeps stretching thinner and thinner, like the dregs of suds from an emptied bottle of shower soap. The land on either side extends just as flt to distant, hazy horizons on all sides. There’s not a hill in sight. Eventually, the river starts to ripple up in the telltale pattern of looming sandbars and maybe even a rock or two. I was writing one of the earlier blog posts, leaning back against the folded up blankets, but I glanced back at Gerben, who was all smiles and seemed comfortable with the path ahead. A couple of minutes later, we were in trouble, weaving between a sudden onslaught of drift nets and a handful of small, sandy islets. I jumped up to the front and helped guide Gerben through the mess and suggested that he follow the Laotian shore closely for the next little bit. He did, but soon we were in trouble again. A last minute correction went wrong and the boat scraped hard over some rocks. He cut the engine and we drifted down a little rapid, spinning dangerously close to the swirl of the little waterfall he’d just avoided. It wasn’t a big one, but it was serious enough to have flipped the boat if we’d gotten much closer. Back under her own power, the boat spun out of the mess, but there was a problem. We’d destroyed the new rudder Lee welded for us in Nung Khai and the propeller shaft fin has been bent at a 45 degree angle. I flared up at Gerben for the first time on the trip, telling him I’ll take the rudder from there. He was furious that I blamed him for the crash, and probably more furious with himself for allowing it to happen. Saying I wanted to take over was probably the worst thing to say at that point, but I had piloted us through most of the rapids upriver and felt that I had more confidence with handling the boat in situations like that. It was stupid, and as I pulled over to the side to fix the broken rudder and prop fin, Gerben fumed in the front of the boat. An hour or so of smooth river and silence passed, then the docks of Savannakhet came into sight. Before we disembarked, I apologized to him for saying what I did, admitting that it wasn’t fair. He accepted, but was still pretty angry about it. I could tell that a beer or two would sort it out, so we moored the Pohoda to a floating restaurant and hopped up to a table to get a hot lunch, attracting stares of curiosity from the staff and the handful of Thai patrons giggling over their gambling exploits of the night before.

After two weeks on the river, we’d reached our destination in one piece. The boat was whole and ready for, perhaps, a little more. We had two huge plates of food and a couple of cold beers in front of us. Up on the banks, we could hear the reassuring rattle of tuk-tuks and smell the burnt, acrid smell of chicken on a stick. All was pretty much right with the world again and all that was left was to sell the boat and make our escape. We talked up the bars full of well-fed dudes just lining up to buy the Pohoda as we ate. We imagined rows of guesthouses teeming with drunken frat boys, dusky-headed erstwhile Canadians with their massive backpacks and bobble-headed girls in tank tops – all with copies of the Lonely Planet clutched in their hands and fat money belts strapped to their waists. After lunch, we made a little sign with some markers we’d bought in Nung Khai for the purpose and hiked up the dusty embankment to the main riverfront street of Savannakhet.

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