The next morning I looked my map over and decided to ride to the Thai border. I wasn’t planning to go into Thailand for quite some time, but from the Lao border town I could take a long-tail boat to Luang Prabang.
I was riding along the hillsides out of town and a boy in a white shirt and blue school tie came up alongside me on a motorbike. He introduced himself and we shook hands as we rode along. His name was Len and he went to school in Luang Namtha but was on his way home to his village for lunch. I asked if I could come with him and he agreed. We turned down a steep dirt path and over “the new bridge” made of cables and some creaky wooden planks and up a red dirt path to a clearing of wooden houses on stilts. Some had tin roofs; others were made of grass. Fat black hogs rooted in the dirt and chickens and dogs stalked about beside them. A group of children walked up the dirt path in speedos and big snorkeling face masks, carrying homemade spears.
Len’s house was also the general store. It was barn-sized, with a few beds on the ground floor. Len’s father sat on one of the beds puffing on a blue water bong. Len’s father was the sole proprietor of outside goods. He had shelves of lighters, batteries, biscuits, beer, and cigarettes, all made in China and with packaging in Chinese.
We sat down with Len’s friends and ate some fried eggs and vegetables with sticky rice and a delicious spicy papaya salad. I asked Len to tell me about his friends and he said they had all quit school after primary since there was no money. They were vegetable farmers in the village now. All of them were under twenty years old.
I went down to the rivers and sat on the dry rocks in the sunshine. A boy my age was wading slowly into the water with a woven basket tied to his waist. The basket was cinched at the top like a tapered vase so that the fish could not get out. He dipped his face to the surface of the water and looked into the river with his mask. His grey t-shirt stuck to him, soaked by the glassy water. He waded in chest deep and looked again. A jumping spider flipped from rock to rock by my feet, searching for its food; water bugs skimmed effortlessly and silt rocked back and forth between the shallow water rocks, caught in an eddy like a pendulum.
When I came back from the river, we sat again around the little table and everyone smoked Chinese cigarettes and passed around a bottle of Beer Lao, a luxury in the village. Len had asked me to purchase it from his father’s store. He provided Lao whiskey.
We smoked and drank again and I realized that anywhere I would go in the world, the people adore this sport. They were as drunk in the Laotian countryside today as they were in the discos of Hong Kong and New York. I went out into the late afternoon light and walked around the village again. Some shirtless boys were building a pigsty, nailing boards to cross beams and sawing them off jaggedly at the top above the nails. I helped them for a while and it was good fun work to pound the nails in.
In the other sty, a fat black sow batted the piglets away from her food with her snout. She shrieked and pissed as she ate and the piglets chortled weakly. The children chased the piglets and they galloped around the dirt yards. A beautiful girl about my age stopped to watch us build the sty; she carried a naked child on her back and as she stared at us, a strand of drool rolled down from her open mouth.
Len had invited me to go to his cousin’s wedding the next morning, so I stayed the night. In the morning, we got up with the dawn and the village was empty and cold. We walked Len’s red Spiderman motorbike (which he offered to trade me for my mountain bike) out of the garage; we both got on the back and rode it back into Luang Namtha to buy Lao whiskey for the wedding. The whiskey came in plastic bags and I held onto it all as Len drove through the rice paddies where the farmers scattered seeds in the cold morning. We rode through a little shantytown and up a steep dirt hillside where three other men pushed motorbikes up towards a blue tent, each of them carrying two bags of whiskey. It wasn’t really whiskey, so much as a clear liquid with a taste like sweetened rubbing alcohol.
We hoofed the bike up the hill and as soon as we’d set it down, a wild-eyed man in a bandana and shirtsleeves greeted us with two shots of whiskey each. Men, women, and children bustled around setting up tables and affixing microphones to a karaoke machine. The tent was on a hilltop and all around us were sloping villages, rivers and rice paddies. The hosts motioned for me to sit down and Len went off to greet his cousins. On the little loaves of sticky rice in plastic bags, three whole fish, fried and crisp with sauce, and some brown beef were set out on banana leaves. A bottle of Beer Lao, full of the whiskey, was in the center of the table.
The men all wore army surplus jackets and green caps and they stuffed the fish and rice into their mouths with dirt encrusted fingers. Children ran about, chasing motorcycle tires with sticks. The boys opened Beer bottles with their teeth and one of them howled in pain and joy. It was an amazing meal. Everyone threw scraps of bone down by their sandaled feet to the roving dogs. A burly fellow strutted by with a bag full of dozens of cigarette packets and threw them out to the tables and everyone’s arms went up to catch them. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and was face to face with a shot of whiskey. I took it and then another. All of the boys at the table were blitzed and we poured beer for each other and passed the fish and couldn’t stop smiling. The children were jumping rope with an engine belt. A guy in a tractor hat staggered around with a bong made of PVC.
I watched the bride and groom; they sat on plastic chairs in the midst of the party and guests filed up to them to tie strings to their wrists. Len told me that in Lao tradition, each person has guardian spirits who will sometimes wander away from you; the strings are meant to bind them to you before an important time in life. On the wedding couple’s wrists, each piece of string was tied with money: 2,000 and 5,000 kip notes worth about twenty and fifty cents each. The bride was not smiling at all.
I was sitting next to a very pretty young girl with long black hair and dark eyes and a small scar on her lower back. She got up several times to pour beer for the boys at the table and they shouted and harangued her and laughed in a rough teasing way that seemed ridiculous since she was so beautiful and they all wanted her. I had my journal out and she saw that some things were written in Chinese.
“I am Chinese,” she said. “From Yunnan. I came here with my family.”
We spoke in Mandarin and she told me her story. Her parents came to Laos because they were farmers and there were too many people in Yunnan and not enough land.
“I don’t really have friends here,” she said. “They treat me differently because I’m Chinese. I’ve lived in this village for six years. The Lao wilderness is not so beautiful and there is no history like in China.”
The boys poured her more whiskey and I drank it for her and told them to stop. She said she wanted to find a boy that could take care of her. Not a handsome boy since he would love other girls. She knew a twenty-seven-year-old American who came to build houses for the poor and thought of him sometimes.
“My parents are old,” she said. “They say they don’t know what I miss about China.”
I told her she should run away to the capital and find a larger world. She laughed sweetly.
“What would I do there? I’d be lost.”
It was true, this was bad advice unless you had a lot of will and sensibility, and I always felt like I’d be free enough in any life to escape from it if I had to.
“I am not pretty at all,” she said. “And there is no one here who loves me.”
The boys drank and leered like jackals at her. I told her to come with me and we would take a walk.
We wandered through the drunken fiesta as Carribean music swirled and the people twirled and danced.
The girl’s name was Mei Ying and it meant Bravery. We went down the road and she brought me to a waterfall where she said she liked to go to be alone. I really wanted to hold her or to take her with me or to save her from everything that troubled her. But, I couldn’t.
Soon it was time to go and Len came down the hill with the motorbike. Men and women were coming out of the rivers in towels and drying clothes by fires built on the banks. Children jumped on the backs of bicycles and pedaled madly down the dirt roads, two and three to a bike. Pink sky, blue hills. In the rear view mirror, I saw that Len was grinning happily and I agreed with him completely.
That night, we went to the longhouse where everyone was preparing for the harvest feast. The house was raised fifteen feet above the ground on stilts and there were about fifty people in it, all shadows blue and black under a few hanging bulbs. At one end, women broiled pig meat in a stew pot. On the other, three men in Russian fur hats and thick horn-rimmed glasses sat writing Chinese characters on a scroll. They wrote by oil lamps in bottles and dipped feather pens into shallow bowls of ink. Paper skeletons hung on the walls beneath the rows of wooden masks. Smoke billowed through the house and burned my eyes. Boys lay on blankets picking through magazines. Men sat on short stools passing cigarettes and wine. The floor was covered in dust and ash near the cooking fires. They brought out tables and set bowls of rice upon them. Everyone clamored to the tables for food. A dark face came out of the shadows holding a glass of whiskey up to me, but I refused.
Two old men were curled up on a blanket around a small glass bowl and a candle. It was opium. I watched as one prepared the pipe, using a needle to twist the opium out of a small bowl. He stuck the little gooey black ball on the end of a pipe and held it over the candle flame, twisting the pin into the smudge of opium to create an air hole, then he put his lips to the pipe, inhaled, and curled back up on the blanket on the floor. The men on the blanket noticed me watching.
Len said we should go to his older brother’s house and we did. There were no televisions or radios in the village and, aside from Len’s father’s store and the big longhouse, most of the houses had no electricity. Len’s older brother was a farmer and he lived in one of the simple houses with a straw roof and a dirt floor. We went in and he greeted us. His young wife sat on banana leaves on the ground, nursing a baby. We talked about religion. The landscape had changed significantly in this regard. In China, people asked me how much my watch was; in Laos, I was often asked if I was a Christian.
Len’s brother’s wife brought us sticky rice and fried eggs on banana leaves.
“I am sorry that we don’t have meat,” his brother said. “It is a poor village and we have only eggs.” He looked bashful and smiled at the dirt floor.
They were the best eggs I’d ever had.
We walked back to Len’s general store. Inside, the village elders were gathered, sitting around a fire on stools on the cement floor. Above them, a hanging bulb was on and it lit the room with a pale glare. They smoked cigarettes and talked, with Len’s father seeming to lead, though he was younger and his hair was still dark.
“They are talking about the future harvests,” Len said. “Which crops to plant and what will grow best.”
We went up the ladder to the loft above the store and into the wide cavernous room where everybody slept. Len and I shared a set of mats under a mosquito net. He turned his cellphone on so that it played soft Lao music for a while and we fell asleep under the nets.
Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.