From the north with their hard man Jett Lee countenances and their eat-to-excess karaoke restaurants, and their Mekhong river dredgers and their mini-skirted, short chunky legs, they’re coming.
They’re coming. From the south they’re coming. With their almost Lao, we’re-brothers-under-the-skin rhetoric and their rotating door governments and their cross-dressing TV shows and their skin-whitening creams, they’re coming.
From the east and the west, they’re coming. With their bleached highlights and their designer ethnic wear and their Lonely Planet security blankets, loud voices, I-wish-we’d-left-the-kitchen-sink-at-home backpacks, wash-off tattoos, e-mail addictions and impossible empathy, they’re coming.
They’re boldly coming to where they think no man has come before, seeking out new lies and new uncivilizations. Exploring a strange new world: Laos, the final frontier.
I lived in Laos in better times. Not better for the Lao, I must say, the Lao who struggled to make a living. Whose government officials sold pond fish at the market before work because they hadn’t been paid for three months. Whose college students washed their one white shirt over and over until it became transparent. Whose soldiers fought in flip flops and whose housewives cooked bees and frogs and snakes because the markets were empty. No, those weren’t better times for the Lao. But for people like me who were escaping from ‘civilization’ it was the perfect place. Two cars passing at the same time would be considered traffic. Dust would blow up from the streets and leave the old, once-white buildings with a brown blush. Girls on the street would think to smile then remember that someone might be watching, writing down, reporting. But I felt as if that pace and simplicity were meant for me. Laos was never an easy place to live but I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that the happiest and most miserable scenes of my life have all taken place in that theatre of the bizarre. It was as if the complications and pleasures of the world had all been stripped down to their basics.
I never know what to expect when I step off the Lao Aviation flight from Bangkok but these days I’ve come to expect less. It all begins with the list of charges at the Visa On Arrival desk. What high-level meeting decided that an Aussie should pay a dollar less than a Swede? Only in Laos, they say. I sat on what used to be the bank of the Mekhong but all I could see was two-hundred yards of building site. They’ve filled in half the river to make a road. So what that Sri Chiang Mai opposite turns into Venice for three months a year? I walk through the nighttime streets where badly made-up transvestites lurch out of the shadows at me like Living Dead zombies. Jumbo drivers offer me drugs and sex, then swear at me when I refuse politely in Lao. I can get every movie and TV series ever produced for a dollar a DVD and pick up a Chinese Sonely player, (guaranteed to last till just before you get it home) at the Morning Market Mall.
The invaders are causing untold damage. The kids don’t know which is their culture any more. By far the worst programmes on satellite are the Lao ones – women in uniform talking about cattle and coffee beans, self-conscious mo lum singers doing poor imitations of their Thai counterparts – so none of the youngsters choose to be Lao. They used to shout, “Hello, Soviet” at me in the good old days, now they say, “Hi, man!” and high-five me. They tease their hair into Thai punk and wear T-shirts from Kunming with dirty words they can’t read across their little chests.
It was naïve of me to think the place might maintain the simplicity and innocence I’d fallen for twenty years earlier. My good old days weren’t theirs but there are so few places to visit now where time has stalled and then started to run in reverse. People eat better now and have more than one shirt to wear, but now the clock is running forward at twice the pace and I see them tumbling along in a swirling deluge of the unfamiliar. I feel like pinning up fliers on lampposts asking people to help me find my lost Laos. The final frontier is being breached. Phasers on repel, Mr. Spock.