Friday, July 20, 2007

Those Crazy Kids

I’ve lost of all sense of distances and geography. I reached this epiphany upon arrival at Vang Vieng, a bend in the Nam Song river about 230 kilometers south of Luang Prabang.

I was in the back of a tuk-tuk with Mitzi, a chef from Maui, and Miksa, her 8-year-old daughter, when Mitzi said that Vang Vieng is the middle of nowhere. Vang Vieng may be in the middle of Laos, a landlocked country in the middle of Southeast Asia, but I didn’t feel any further from home than I did in Singapore, Borneo or Bangkok. These days, everywhere is the middle of nowhere, yet everywhere is home.

I’m operating under the traveler’s mindset in which home is wherever you are at the moment. One reason I wanted to take this trip was to stop thinking about my “future” and start thinking about the present. To be in Vang Vieng is to be far from home, sure. But for this traveler, for a few days this week, Vang Vieng was home. And when you are home, you are happy.

Vang Vieng Panorama

Here’s something strange. I groused about the travelers’ ghettos in Southern Thailand, those beaches where twentysomethings spend their days baking under the sun and their nights drinking themselves to oblivion. Vang Vieng is that kind of town, only it lies on a river, is surrounded by mountains and takes some serious effort to get to.

The town’s main drag, which was paved only within the last year, is lined with the usual assortment of restaurants, tour operators and Internet cafes. Menus from one establishment to the next are identical, offering the same mix of Lao and Western food. And every restaurant has wall-mounted televisions playing movies or American television shows from morning until late in the evening. It’s the perfect scenario for diversity, but someone decided at some point in time that travelers love “Friends” and there are four or five restaurants that show nothing but the defunct NBC sitcom. Also popular are “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy.”

How to explain this? Take another look at those identical menus. Some of them contain an extra page labeled “Special Menu.” Dishes include Happy Tea, Happy Pancakes, Magic Omelets and Magic Pizza. And if you just want the happy without the calories, you can order a “Bag of Weed,” “Bag of Opium” or “Bag of Mushrooms.” Perhaps stoned out of your gourd, with civilization a day away by bus, back-to-back-to-back-to-back episodes of “Friends” sounds appealing. (I avoided “Friends,” but did watch “The Simpsons” for three hours with Miksa one rainy afternoon.)

Vang Vieng operates in a bubble. It’s where backpackers are allowed to act like the adolescents they are. The government keeps an eye on the tourists, and all businesses must shut down before midnight. But it’s still a party town, and backpackers spend their nights drinking and smoking and their days floating down the river on inner tubes. It’s the kind of place that I should have hated, but I had a blast. I blame the "people matter" mantra.

I had a good time because I hung out with a pair of travelers I never expected to meet: a single mother and her young daughter. I’ve met families on the road, but these encounters were limited to a single conversation on a bus or a beach. Mitzi and Miksa, however, are the kind of people I’d be friends with at home and we spent three good days just hanging out.

Mitzi and Miksa on the Path to the Caves

Ghost Miksa

When I first met Mitzia and Miksa, I thought I might learn something profound about Laos by spending time with a child and trying to see things through her eyes. But she is a wise kid, unencumbered by the expectations adults place on themselves in a foreign country. While Mitzi and I were checking out crude thatched houses in a village outside of town, approaching them like anthropologists or visitors from another planet, Miksa was enthralled by the baby pigs squealing in a puddle of mud. It didn’t matter that we were in Laos. As long as there were puppies and kittens, Miksa was happy. The only time she wasn’t happy was when we were caving and Mitzi and I turned off the flashlights to experience total darkness. Oh, and when I slaughtered her in a game of checkers.

I never thought I’d spend time on this trip hanging out with kid. I want one of my own.

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