Apr/May 2008 Travel

Strangers in a Strange Land

by Mona-Lia Ventress

Jamming in Luang Prabang

In Laos we arrived at the former Royal capital of Luang Prabang. Here we had the luxury of spending three nights in a romantic little bungalow overlooking the Khan river. We sat on mats next to a low bamboo table on the little terrace where we were served breakfast, tea, and drinks. We'd sit for hours, fascinated by the industrious farmers on the opposite bank, tending to their crops. The river served many purposes. The farmers piped water up into steel drums, from which women filled their watering cans and meticulously watered each and every plant on their tiny plot. Children floated past on inner tubes. Other kids of all ages bathed, had swimming races or just lay in the sun. Women pulled out the very green seaweed which we later saw in piles for sale in the market place. They washed it and laid it on the roof of their shack to dry. The farmers even used the river to exercise their fighting cocks by carrying them to the middle of the river, forcing them to swim back to shore.

We became obsessed with this small Laotian village across the river. We kept hearing music, exotic sounding melodies sung by men with high raspy voices through what sounded like a bull horn and accompanied by different combinations of drums, sax, guitar and keyboards. The music sounded like an experiment, as though Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had created Led Zeppelin in Laos instead of England. It would go late into the night and start again early in the morning, bouncing acoustically through the valley. The first night we spent in the bungalow we must have woken up every hour on the hour, tag team style. At separate moments throughout the night we stood on our balcony, mesmerized by the sounds. I wanted to find my way across the river to record this exotic music but had no idea which way to go in the black night.

By the end of the second day we'd gained our bearings. We recorded, and then crossed, the noisy steel and wood bridge into a small village. The music was hard to find. We could hear faint drums or a voice singing and we saw a young boy with an alto sax on a motorcycle. So close and yet so far away...

As we meandered down one narrow, dusty back street two boys of maybe fifteen or sixteen appeared, carrying a battered acoustic guitar and a Cirwin Vega PA enclosure with a 12 inch speaker and a tweeter. Mark mimed playing guitar and asked, "You play music?" They nodded affirmatively. He then asked, "You have band?" Again, the affirmative nod. We figured they were just saying yes to everything, without understanding, so Mark asked for the guitar and played a few chords. They both got very excited and motioned for us to follow them.

We were fully expecting a rehearsal room, or a garage where kids might hang out to play. We took off our shoes and followed them into a square, concrete room furnished only with a handful of straw mats, three or four pillows and a television playing in the background with a couple of younger kids watching it. We realized we had been invited into their family home to drink, talk, play music and to learn a few new words of each others' language.

We were motioned to one corner of the room where we sat on a mat and leaned against the concrete wall. It was surprisingly comfortable. One by one, things began to appear in front of us; first a large ornate glass decanter filled with lao det, a very strong, clear whiskey made from sticky rice. Next, a bowl of dried banana chips, then a bowl of addictive little cough drop tasting candies called 'hacks'. We began drinking tiny little shots of lao det. I succumbed to peer pressure and drank like one of the boys. I even tolerated one of the teenagers next to me lighting up a cigarette. As we drank and ate banana chips and candies we exchanged names and salutations in both Lao and English. There were three boys now and they all seemed eager to practice their English. I asked them for a song. One of them picked up the guitar and started strumming one chord and singing a melody. He interrupted himself saying, "This is a Thai song," and went back to singing. The two other boys began swaying to his music and suddenly began singing in unison in what must have been the chorus. They sang with incredible soul, especially the one sitting next to me, feeding me shots of lao det, four to Mark's two. I thought he had a crush on me, and my suspicions were proven correct later when he asked us to spend the night, directing the question directly to me.

Every so often a very young and pretty woman, trailed by a small dog and a wide-eyed kid would appear with a new tray of snacks for us. She knew we were harmless. I caught her eye a few times and I could see her proud approval of her son, who had brought two musical Americans off the street and into her home. "What a neat mom," I thought.

They sang a few more songs, each taking a turn at the guitar and main vocals. Then they asked Mark to play. He played a standard slow blues with his usual fancy embellishments. He was doing his best to impress them with no pick and two missing strings when all three of them started swaying to the beat with a concentrated stare. Without warning, as though we were all long time friends who'd played the song together many times, they began singing in unison. The song was beautiful and flowed perfectly with his chord changes.

I beamed. We were jamming with three Laotian teenage boys in a small village outside of Luang Prabang.



After the sun set, Mark started walking. In Laos every building that opens onto a street doubles as a store front. Every opening or doorway seems to have a ubiquitous glass case of bottled water, local imported beers, little rounds of cow cheese, candy bars, and baguettes. In the building behind any glass case there could be a fine art gallery, or a father and newborn infant watching television on an opium bed.

As he walked past these store front/homes Mark heard a live band playing a strange kind of music behind a long table of what looked like family and friends celebrating 'tet'. He crossed the street and stood in front of the building to listen to the music. which at that point was pretty good--the quality was destined to decline rapidly as the musicians were also celebrating! The family immediately noticed him--at 6' 3" he stood out like a lighthouse in Indochina--and invited him in to join their feast. He didn't want to intrude so he said "No thank you" and moved to the side of the building out of their view so he could listen to the music without distracting the family. Vietnamese hospitality was sometimes difficult to deal with. He stood there for five minutes, considering whether to run back to the hotel to get the DAT machine to record the music, when a voice behind him shouted, "Hey! Why you stand here?"

He turned around and saw a young Lao girl.

She repeated, "Why you stand here?"

He said, "I like the music."

"Oh music. They my friends. You, you come with us."

He hadn't noticed that the building he was standing in front of was next to another, even larger family celebration. He said, "No, that's okay."

She said, "No, you come now."

He said, "No, I really don't think I should..."

"Come now!"


He found himself in another family home. How did this keep happening?

"Take off shoes, sit here."

He did as commanded. When he sat down he was immediately given a shot of Johnny Walker red and a hunk of pork skin, fat and very little meat. He chewed the meat, and drank the whiskey. Both went down surprisingly easily. He was surrounded by five or six not unattractive women and one older fatherly figure who was giving him the evil eye. He became uneasy and his unease became worse when the girl sitting next to him asked him if he had a wife. He quickly said, "Yes!" She asked, "Where is she?" He said, "At the hotel just around the corner." Conversation between them suddenly stopped. Mark began to feel very uncomfortable.

He was offered more food and shots of whiskey though. One dish was a tet tradition; huge papaya stuffed with sticky rice and chilies and cooked for ten hours. It tasted exactly like a perfect Mexican tamale.

After an appropriate amount of time he got up to leave. He put his hands together and bowed to the father, saying "kamp chai lai lai." The father replied, "Thank you very much." They repeated this six or seven times as Mark grabbed his shoes and backed out of the room. He walked back to the building next door, but the band was already too drunk to stand up.


Welcome to Cambodia

A few days before Pnom Penh, I began to have weird nightmares. My sleep was plagued by strange, ominous, intense phantasms, which woke me up in a state of perpetual alarm. I'd loved Vietnam, the people, the cities, the never-ending klaxon backdrop--and I began to dread this last leg of our journey into Cambodia.

We were picked up at the Vietnam/Cambodia border and loaded into a bus that our hotel in Pnom Penh sent. People piled into the bus and I sat next to the window directly behind the driver. I was tired and could manage nothing more than listlessly staring out the window at the constant chaotic traffic. A little motor scooter drove into my view. I noticed it because there were three large adult men balanced on it and it was trying to overtake our bus. I noticed our driver looking at them in his side mirror. They had just about overtaken the bus when--I swear I didn't imagine this--our driver did a quick swerve into the motor scooter, presumably to scare them. Instead though, he hit their back tire with enough force to completely wipe them out. The bike and riders went flying; especially the guy on the back. He flew at least three meters in the air and came down hard several times on the pavement before flying over an embankment, rolling extremely violently down a hill and out of sight.

I was stunned. I was having trouble registering what I had just seen, when someone from the back yelled, "Hey! I think we hit a chicken!"

I yelled back--like the punch line of a terrible joke--"That was no chicken! That was a guy!"

I turned to the man sent by our hotel and said, "We just hit someone, I think we killed somebody, we have to stop."

I told him exactly what I had seen.

He discussed the situation with the driver, who hadn't even considered slowing down and explained, "If we stop, the villagers will kill us."

A few kilometers down the road an ambulance went screaming past us. When we got to the hotel, they hid the van and we never saw the driver again. That was our introduction to Cambodia.


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