I wish I could tell you that I’ve been getting deep into Asian cultures travelling the way I am, but I am afraid that would be a blatant lie. I’ve mostly been hanging out with other foreigners – friends, fellow travellers, or westerners (semi-)permanently residing in Asia. Generally, the people I’ve been meeting are the most interesting and entertaining company, with open minds and generous spirits. I guess this is what more or less automatically happens to you when you leave the home comfort zone for a substantial period of time.
In Vientiane, the capital of Lao, I stayed a few days with Shane, an Englishman teaching English literature in an international school. I was amazed by his crazy life stories, we shared good conversations, and equal amounts of fun exploring evening food markets and driving around town. One night he took me out for a drink. We went to a 4th floor bar located on a magnificent spot right by the Mekong, overlooking the river by night from three sides of the terrace, and the city lights from the fourth. There were mostly westerners present, watching sports on TV, playing pool, drinking beer, chatting away. Also small groups of Lao girls, dressed up all pretty, ordering large kegs of Beer Lao to share, talking and laughing. Maybe a couple here and there, whispering privately with the romantic view as a background.
And as the evening progressed, the couples vanished and the groups mingled. I watched a decent-looking westerner court a beautiful Lao girl with amusement and fascination (from a first row view right at the bar!), curious how their game would enroll. Until Shane dryly told me that the girl is actually a prostitute. In fact, he said pointing out different girls to me, they’re all hookers. And just wait for a little bit, you’ll see the ladyboys walk in too.
My amusement subsequently turned to bewilderment, and as the evening turned to night, the alcohol flowed, the dancing and touching began, I started to feel the steel taste of disgust in my mouth. In the last bar we entered – the final step in the game – I saw a Lao girl roll her eyes as an artsy looking 50-something breathed down her neck and kissed her ears.
This is expat world at its finest.
Beautiful Asian girls selling their bodies to the WWW, the White Walking Wallets. An emotionless business deal between two worlds, and I cannot imagine either one feeling happy or accomplished after the deal is factually done. I might be wrong though.
Fast forward to Luang Prabang, a western enclave formed by a UNESCO world heritage site in Northern Lao. Curiosity drove me into The House, a Belgian beer bar sitting on the shore of the Nam Khan river. 2 hours later I’m still there, listening to the stories of Ernest and Wim (the 2 owners, both from Antwerp) about foreigners’ mishaps and misconduct in their bar. They think Lao is just like Thailand, Ernest tells me. They fly straight in here and think that they can just get anything they want just like they’re used to over there. I even once had a huge, fat dude in here having breakfast with 5 boys. Children still. He asked me where to go to find more.
I’ve been feeling slightly uncomfortable lately, moving around foreigners. I’m leaving Luang Prabang tomorrow, on the Mekong towards Thailand. Before I get there, I hope to be able to see a bit of Lao that doesn’t add to this feeling of… shame for being here.
I need to get away from the foreigners. All of them. Just for 1 freaking day and I’ll be fine!
PS. don’t misread this story; Lao is great, and if you get to Luangprabang – go have stoofvlees met fritten en nen Duvel or one of these things at The House. It’s an ultimate place where you don’t have to feel guilty about feeling at home abroad, as Luangprabang is not ‘real’ Lao if you know what I mean. Just reading that menu board put a big fat Belgian smile on my face. Other nationalities will most definitely find their fancy too!