Flies and frangipani. That was my first impression. As we sat on the outside veranda, wondering in what kind of place we were exactly, drinking Beerlao, and eating an uncooled salad, revolting; the scent from the big plumeria flowers surrounding us everywhere allured the air (the national flower), as insects scrawled the torn plastic table surfaces and an emaciated cat gazed imploringly, with fixed, determined eyes, on the floor for the scraps of duck skin we were hesitantly consuming.
We were in Laos, having navigated the quietly menacing labyrinth of customs and its imposing, gruff officials, and had arrived at our hotel – the Dhavara Boutique – all white, lavish, cool-interiored elegance (the fragrance of lilies); but venturing out on to the streets to have an explore, had just sat down at one of the first places that we had come across to take off the edge of the airport stress and unwind; the beer cold and delicious, the food basic and unpalatable, as a woman appeared slowly from behind the shrubbery, her eyes yellow-white – no irises – blind, holding out a wicker tray for money and her daughter looked at us steely with a straight, been-there-before gaze.
Vientiane seems poorer, but is much more expensive, than Hanoi. And it is quiet. The people don’t insist (before I had even begun to reach into my pocket to give them some money the silent family by the table had disappeared); they speak in much lower, gentler tones. Is this is really a capital, we wondered, or is it merely a slow and sleepy backwater, a slumbering truck-stop town with people barely moving, static and dusty in the hot and glinting afternoon….
Passing by yet-another Thai like golden Buddhist temple we were spoken to at that moment by a lazing motorbicycle-taxi driver – swarthy; good-looking – who sat up from his chair and offered a tour of the sites for a fee that we paid upfront – it seemed like a good way to get our bearings as we had bought no guide, had looked up nothing (all part of our ridiculous ‘magical mystery tour’ concept) which was all very well in theory but not quite in practice, as the burning sun made random wanderings an impossibility. Accepting his offer, sat in the cage-like back of the taxi, we held on tight, became more excited, and were driven through the Vientiane streets as they widened and became more official-looking, and realized then that of yes of course this was a capital as you would expect it to be; the government buildings, the grander, more imposing boulevards, the monuments at the centre (the first of which, a kind of Laotian Arc De Triomphe, striking me as rather magnificent and genuinely impressive even if the placard in the centre of the stone spoke sadly of the building being incomplete (due to the country’s turbulent history) and of being, it said rather mournfully of itself (though I totally disagreed), a ‘monster of concrete’.
As we strolled back through the gardens by this building to take our bike-taxi for the rest of the tour, we realized, then, that the driver, unsurprisingly perhaps (depending on how you look at life) had gone. We should have paid at the end, I suppose, but D and I are the trusting – you might say stupidly naïve- type of people and I had trusted him: we prefer to live our lives uncynically.
At that moment, though, in the full glare of the 2pm sun, I was white-hot full on furious. The amount we had given him was far above the standard rate – about fifteen U.S dollars as neither of us is one of those purse-pinching foreigners who barter and haggle every last price to the bone – we both find it undignified, not to say quite simply wrong – and we were left only with the option of paying for another taxi (money given at the end, it goes without saying), and to take the rest of the tour.
Hot and bothered, foul-tempered, we had been arguing anyway, quite ferociously with quite murderous undertones since morning, specifically about my lack of fiscal awareness plus spendthrift tendencies versus his more sensible, but too reality-biting insistencies that we not run out of money half way through the holiday, urging me (but too much, too much) not to everytime just order one more thing on the menu (“just to try“)and bankrupt us in a country where we hadn’t got any footing, as we did in Mexico City where, refusing my pleas to get just one more thing on the menu, he had saved us from being arrested (we had exactly just enough to pay the bill).
This opportunistic Laos taxi scam tipped me into foul-tempered tantrum territory however, (‘God you’re such a toddler‘ I was rightfully told, but I felt quite strangely cut to the quick) finding me bored and petulant in the beautiful, golden temple. I am aspoiled brat, I know, but then these gilded, luxuriant temples don’t actually do that much for me somehow really, (seen it all before in Thailand, darling), and I wonder, in any case, just as I did with the grotesque and ostentatious extravagances of San Pietro and other such basilica in Rome when I lived there, whether Jesus, or in fact the Buddha, would have actually approved of these cost-crippling edifices erected in their honour. Surely the former despised the moral emptiness of money and materialism, the latter all wordly possessions. In any case, gold was never my colour.
Fuming over beers, as we reached the end of our tour, though we then couldn’t pay the bill as D had mistakenly given another beggar woman who approached our table a denomination of the Laotian kip that was ten times what we had thought it was (oh well, she definitely needed it more than we did), it nevertheless meant that I was forced to sit, bad-tempered (and probably culture shocked, again – I think it is something you are not quite aware of until afterwards), looking out onto the languid, molasses-slow streets with its piles of starfruit, mangoes and watermelons as he wearily traipsed back to the hotel to get the necessary money from the safe – after which we both fell asleep in exhaustion – it had been an early start back in Hanoi – and slept for a couple of hours under the cool, welcoming sheets.
We woke up. I felt weird, spaced out, groggy, as did D, though to a more potent extent, but it didn’t quite stop our haranguing, the lingering resentments of an argument resisting the refreshing mood changers of sleep, me insisting that we go and get some dinner, that we needed to eat (our foul lunch had been quite insubstantial).
I suppose that one of the problems of a two week stay in a very foreign country is that you miss the simplicities of the food you eat at home. You just somehow start to feel a little bit sick. At home, you could just take some yoghurt here, a piece of toast there, some walnuts, some cut up, favourite, fresh tomatoes. Whatever you feel like. It’s not always meal meal meal like it is when you are staying in hotels and going to restaurants and local eateries all the time, which can get gastrically tiring and leave you queasy and jaded (particular when there are insects crawling over everything).
Still, as Duncan says, I am a fat pig and I have to eat, and I wanted just something before we went to bed as I am one of those tiresome males who simply cannot sleep on an empty stomach. I try, but my gut brain must be married to my brain brain quite inextricably because in that situation, hungry, I just lie staring at the ceiling, wide awake until dawn or until I sneak downstairs, give up, and raid the fridge – and in any case I was quite eager, as we eased into it all a bit more, to see more of the city,how it would come across at night.
We found a lamp-lit roadside restaurant filled with Lao businessmen drinking bottles and bottles of Laobeer (laughing and gesticulating, not any way near as vigorously as the Vietnamese), and sat down. A passable chicken and ginger stir-fry, quite edible, tasty, even, was then, unfortunately, also served with a repulsively green bean salad that made me feel, as I picked at it, as if I were trapped and mangled up inside a lawn mower; mulched up and mangled with aphids, ticks and chlorophylled leaf cells rended apart.
I suppose because of our similar upbringings, we both lack that dismissive, aristocratic ‘take it away’ of the hand when presented with food we do not like. Like many hypocritical Brits we instead prefer to eat it politely. Or at least some of it. Just a bit, so as not to appear too rude. And although the grilled and salted river fish I ordered, hideous to look at, folded in-half on itself when it came to the table and of peculiar, offputting odour, tasted quite nice when you broke the rubber-grey, slightly slimy flesh, that salad, half-eaten, its mounds of liquified, bacterial legumes, still somehow really haunted the tastebuds.
We went to bed early, not talking.
Duncan was feeling hot, and took some aspirin. I put in my wax ear plugs in order to block out most of the local noise as I suffer from sleep neurosis (those foam ones you can get just don’t cut it at all, even if overuse of the much more sound-plugging wax ones inevitably leads me to ear infections). The hotel is airy, big, ‘colonial’, yes, but as in Hanoi, nobody seems to have ever heard of double (or triple, as might be necessary) glazing.
I drifted off asleep on my side of the enormous king-size bed (perfect for soon to be divorcing couples), Duncan already sleeping, thinking wistfully to myself of Japan, England and Vietnam, entering that gateway to the unconscious that you have when things start to go illogical, and eventually managed, in my subsurface, moistly earplugged solitude, to fall soundly, if weirdly, asleep.
I awoke to a sickening groan and a thud.
The sound of it even penetrated through my noise defences and make me sit up with a start.
What on earth had happened. Had he become really sick? Oh god. Was he lying on the floor?
The bed was empty.
The room was silent.
I called out Duncan’s name from behind the bathroom door.
No response, though the door was closed.
The light was on.
And I opened it, slowly, afraid, to find him naked and unconscious beneath the sink, body rigid; eyes tight shut.
Horrified beyond measure and panicking, I called out and woke him, helping him to his feet as a fever raged through his body and he finished off the trials of whatever stomach bug had assaulted his system in the bathroom, vomiting back the food that had caused it.
He had come to go to the toilet and just blacked out.
Once back asleep in the bed, to which I had to practically carry him, I lay in the dark deeply worried and wondering what to do. We would not be able to get our plane to Luang Prabang the next day, that was sure; there would be all kinds of hotel and plane cancellations, and we would have to book three more nights at the hotel we were in at that moment until he was well enough to get a plane back to Hanoi.
That was the least of my worries, though.
I didn’t know if he had had concussion when he hit his head on the marble floor (there was a big red smarting patch on his forehead), and didn’t even know what concussion was exactly; didn’t know if this was going to turn into one of those horrendous food poisoning episodes that require hospitalization, intravenous drips, or if in fact this was a tetantus reaction to the nail that had struck through his foot (in plastic sandals, right into the flesh as walked back from a jazz club down a darkened street back in Hanoi and I suddenly heard a yell of pain as he stepped mistakenly on a plank covered in sharp, upturned nails, feet bleeding all the way back to the hotel). The incubation for tetanus symptoms, said the computer, was about seven or eight days, exactly right. Awful. Surely not, though. He hadn’t been spasming or convulsing, or plagued, like the Black Dahlia, with the risus sardonicus.
I kept looking at sites frantically, wondering what to do.
The man on reception, fast asleep, could barely even lead me to more sources of toilet paper, let alone, medical services, and in these moments of emergency, thank god I say for modernity, internet access and the immediacy of information.
I turn on the computer, typing away on the blue screen as he lies motionless and silent in the dark, and seek out information on hospitals.
I try to keep calm.
It seems that there is a clinic at the Australian Embassy for Commonwealth Citizens if need be (but I doubt at 3.30am in the morning), or else some thinly recommended hospitals in Vientiane if absolutely necessary. But it seems, in fact, unimaginably, that even Lao people, when in need, cross the river at the ‘friendship point’ on the connecting bridge and head into Thailand, where the medical care is apparently far far better.
Are we really going to have to cross over into another country in the middle of the night?
He was out cold when I found him, like an El Greco crucified Christ, skin sallow and yellow green, unresponsive, and the sight had shocked me to the core.
I kept lying there, thinking, checking his temperature, then getting up and returning to the computer, reading different things, about food poisoning in Laos and what to do. And on looking through various websites it did seem to me that the much larger and powerful country of Thailand definitely looms over this country in more ways than I had even perhaps assumed was the case. Not only do people use the services of Thai doctors and hospitals when they need to it seems, they also even pay for quite a lot of things in Thai Baht (as well as dollars), particularly for anything beyond everyday inexpensive necessities. The Lao script – beautiful, hieroglyphic, is similar to Thai but unreadable to people from that country, though it seems that the reverse is actually not true: the Lao people are often able to read Thai. The smells, when we arrived at the airport, were familiarly, green curry-like; nothing like Hanoi, and the way the people act and interact – reserved, modest, sensitive (Buddhist)- reminds me very much of my time in Bangkok and Ko Samet, although that was a long time ago, almost twenty years ago, when D first came to Asia to live with me, and we spent a beautiful week in a hut by the sea, the waves lapping on the shore in the morning, under veils of threadbare mosquito nets, a giant spider watching us from high up in its web.
Is a film by the genius Thai director known as ‘Joe’, whose real name is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and thus unpronouncable and unmemorizable to most art cinema-loving westerners, including myself.
Like the equally mesmerizing Uncle Boonmee Who Can See His Past Lives, which very deservedly won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 20I0, this film, set in the north of Thailand, not far from where I am writing this beyond the Mekong River in Luang Prabang (and where Duncan is now safely recovering, thank god, sleeping in this new, relaxing hotel : fan going round on the ceiling, just as I originally fantasized about when we were first considering coming to this part of the world), this other Tropical Malady is a stunning, and very surprising film that lulls you into a slow, beautiful dream; when the lights go up and the work has come to its close, all you can hear in your head in the room are the sounds of jungle insects – there is no soundtrack, only the sounds of nature – and wonder at the uniqueness and curious beauty of what you have just seen.
The view from the balcony here, over the brown, gentle waters, with its papaya tree, its great, curving, banana leaves and its lush, palm-dotted vegetation, is very reminiscent of the backdrop to that film, which begins quite gently – there also doesn’t seem to be any story – as it follows two Thai men, one a soldier, who slowly and unexpectedly fall in love.
Vignettes of Thai life – a village fair here, a trip back to a hometown, scenes of eating, walking to caves, driving in jeeps, karaoke – the pace of the film, where virtually nothing seems to ‘happen’, would frustrate and bore certain people who need the pacing, plot structure and motives, explanations, and the usual, Freudian analyses, but to me and Duncan it was just immersive; real. Making you forget your own surroundings. Coy, understated, much like the people here, with more than meets the eye.
And also chaste. The two leads, neither of whom is especially handsome by either Asian or Western cultural standards, just seem like gradually closening friends – there is no sex, they don’t even kiss – not until one crucial moment halfway through, one of the most erotic I have ever seen in cinema – when a tongue touching a hand becomes an oneiric, Lynchian tumble down an illogical, irreal tropical dream hole at the moment when the pursuee – more lithe, delicate, shy – suddenly walks into the forest and becomes the pursuant.
At this point, like Mulholland Drive, where identities become confused, and things are disturbingly turned on their heads, the film becomes something else entirely, suddenly now a Thai legend, a fable, the more virile of the two being hunted by the friend who walked into the shadows, now a tiger. In the dream-logic of the film, though, this is breathtakingly, for me at least, effective and natural somehow, exploring the unspoken power channels of desire, death and destruction (the film opens with some Thai soldiers finding the remains of one of their group in an open area of forest, mauled, presumably, by a tiger), exploring homo-erotic love in the most tender yet profound way that I can think of; the nuances of power balance; protection in illness; the springs and animal sources of desire; the idea of souls intermingling, of reincarnated beings, which his other, more well known film, Uncle Boonmee, also movingly explores in one of the most powerfully beautiful scenes I have ever encountered on a screen.
As Uncle Boonmee reconciles himself to the fact that he is dying and does not have very long to live, at the family house away from the city where he meets up lovingly again with his sister, the film is as slow, as beautiful, and as hypnotic as Tropical Malady – much of the screen time taken up with simple, even mundane conversations around the family table; food eaten together with the family members, even dead ones, who return, as ghosts, or even as monster-like, red-eyed shaggy haired creatures, yet the protagonists rarely even flinch: the dead and the living are one and the same in this culture; the diseased and the deceased commingling together quite harmoniously, and Uncle Boonmee, placid, resigned to his fate, even happy, finds himself slipping through time and space as the film, ravishingly, takes us, then, across the border to the ornate and luxurious procession of an ancient Laotian princess (Boonmee in a former life and incarnation, we later presume, though we are utterly nonplussed and open-mouthed at the daring of the director at this point), as the woman, a royal of Laos, blessed with bearing but not with beauty (her ugliness a great source of shame as she is swathed and bandaged in silks and bangles and all regal forms of adornments), she lightly touching one of the youthful and handsome palanquin-bearers’ shoulders as she is carried along, a suggestive manner that carries no ambiguity, as they approach a beautiful waterfall and she steps off (I wonder if it is the one that we can cycle to from here in Luang Prabang).
Her subject, like a protagonist from a Laotian legend, can kiss the princess only when seeing the beautiful reflection that deceptively appears in the pond when she has uttered an incantation, the reality too offputting as she turns her real unvarnished face towards him, eventually pushing him away and wanting solitude when she slowly immerses herself in the water, crying alone, and is ravished, to your eyes’ disbelief, under the surface by a thrashing, ravenously passionate fish.
Both of these films are feats and feasts of the imagination, leave you in a hypnotic trance: perplexed, amazed.
As I was this morning when, after eventually falling asleep next to Duncan, and listening to his slight, silent breathing (no earplugs, obviously), woke up to find that he had in fact not worsened at all in the night and felt that he would probably be able to make it on the plane after all.
You can imagine my relief.
Although I have experienced this person’s propensity to fainting once before (memorably in the opening sequences of Trainspotting many years ago in a cinema, as he convulsed in the seat because of a needle, blood and injection phobia and was carried to hospital in an ambulance), as have his parents, when he fainted on one occasion during Christmas yet recovered almost fully within a period of twenty four hours, I have never once seen him stone out cold, like that, as though dead (except, now I think about it, on that terrifying day at the cinema).
The sight filled me with pure terror, and it is not something that I am likely to forget soon.
I also should have remembered, though, that he is a very fast recoverer: the fever burns itself out; he gets whatever it is out of his system, and though a touch weaker, comes quickly back to life.
As I sit here looking at the confluence of two rivers, with boats moving langorously along the currents, he is still asleep, still with an elevated temperature, but getting better. I am sitting outside, writing and feeling the Mekong breeze, but do so with some trepidation. As the light falls there may be mosquitoes, and the area is possibly malarial. We have been warned by the management that we should spray ourselves and avoid getting bitten, and it is advice that I am going to heed. The door to the cabin is firmly closed. We have none of the windows open either. Having had one nasty scare so far in Laos, and seen the face of frightening, unfamiliar illness, I don’t really think we should be really taking any chances.