Saturday, October 06, 2007

Savan Smiles

Savannakhet, Laos.  The city is a very old woman, dusty and strong with more than few broken teeth.  She holds herself together in an undeniable charm – a gritty antiquity of French colonial times blended with dismal, soviet-bloc design and a spattering of lackadaisical makeshift shacks.  This southern city wears it’s history on it’s sleeve.  I like to walk the streets and listen to the ghost echoes; the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages one hundred years ago, silenced loudspeakers alerting comrades to the cause of 75, distant booms of bombardments from Siam, Thailand, Khmer and everyone else wanting to pluck the jewel of this ancient kingdom.

For most tourists, Savannakhet is a one night stop en-route to more documented destinations to the north and south.  For me, it is a place I like to spend a little time.  I got to know the city pretty well in 2006, making all of my explorations on foot.  I am excited to return to Savannakhet to look for evidence of change.  Unfortunately, this trip is but a brief stop on my way south, but I manage to get some time to revisit some of my favorite lanes and alleyways during an early morning walk.

Stepping past the gate of my guesthouse and heading down the road, a truck passes.  Two little boys in the back practice their English, “Good morning,” they say.

“Good morning,” I call after them and wave my hand.

I hunt for a Vietnamese noodle shop I like.  It’s somewhere near the Catholic church.  There are not many Catholics in Laos.  There are far more Vietnamese.  During the French colonial period, Vietnamese filled the majority of the civil servant positions.  They relayed the francais demands to build roads and stables and boarding houses.  I can’t find the noodle shop.  The church is hard to miss.  Down another lane, ‘Laundry Row’ I call it, at least a dozen storefronts hang their washing out on lines with bragging signs of competition: 10,000kip/kilo, 9,000kip/kilo, 8,000kip/kilo.  The dogs no longer come out to bark at me, they can smell my ease and know their testing teases have no weight on me.  Some boys spot a woman covered up as if she is a bee keeper.  She is crazy, deranged; afraid in her vulnerability.  Two of the five boys go to tease her.  My tongue wags silent in my mouth searching for some variant of ‘Hey, leave her alone! Maybe someday you, too, will be crazy’.  I find no words and leave them to their mischief.  A left towards the Mekong; this road last year was dirt, now it is paved but already potholed and cracked.  Sweet magnolias, champa, arch over the sidewalk and I am in a dream, a tuk tuk driver yanks me from my reverie.

He woos me to go for a ride.  I tell him ‘I go not far.’  He disagrees.  I tell him 100 kip (1/10th of a penny).  He laughs.  He tells me today is the boat racing festival (it’s not).  He offers me drugs.  I decline.  He offers me a girl – it’s 8:30 am, I know they are all sleeping, those still awake too wired on crystal meth to lay down on the floor without holding on.  I smile, decline and thank him for the information.  He looks confused and pulls away. 

I find a café that I know.  Like the rest of the city, very little has changed in the last year.  At the café, they still don’t like my table selection – they would have to turn on the fan which takes effort: walking over to the switch, lifting a finger, walking all the way back to sit down again.  They are still unfathomably grumpy.  The son – too old to be living at home, too lazy to find a bride – is still playing video games.  The infant is walking now.  They still make the greasiest omelets known to man.  It mops up last night’s whiskey.  The menu still offers both Lao Coffee and Nescafe, and still a request for either yields a hot cup of the instant garbage (this area grows some of the best coffee in the world, Nescafe should be criminalized).  I eat and write and plead for a second cup – she wont accept that I can order in her language and repeats everything I say in English.  Coffee is coffee everywhere in the world, even bad coffee with an accent.  I ask how much.  Incomprehensible words I speak.  I try again.  Nothing.  I rub my fingers together.  She walks away to do the math on a piece of paper and returns slapping it down on the table.  I don’t leave a tip, it’s not customary and all the money in the world would not erase my stigma.

I head back to the guesthouse and take in more of the city steam.  I walk slow to catch the subtleties.  I want to go slow.  I don’t want to go fast.  I don’t want a tuk tuk.  I don’t want to buy pens or sunglasses or a knock-off Rolex already displaying the wrong time.  I don’t want to drink instant coffee and I don’t want any ganga, girls or yaba (meth).  I just want to walk in the heart of this classic beauty of a city and immerse myself in the delicate harsh charm.  I smile back and wave to the old woman with her broken smile.



 In northern Laos, the sister city of Luang Prabang has much the same architecture of Savannakhet.  However, Savannakhet has not received UNESCO World Heritage status; it has not been gussied up with fresh plaster, brilliant painted shutters and tidy red brick walkways.  It is the exposure of the gritty and earthy unabridged history that gives Savannakhet a charm I love.  If you happen to be traveling in Laos, don’t short change the untouched reality of Savannakhet.