Yes, We Have No Banana Pancakes #6: Goats, Missiles, Chickens, and Fighter Planes – Southern Laos to Northeastern Cambodia

Goats, Missiles, Chickens, and Fighter Planes

A few days ago we crossed the Laos border by boat into Ratanakiri – the northeastern province of Cambodia. From Stung Treng (where the boat dropped us off) to the town of Ban Lung, we took what was possibly the worst road I have ever seen. Apparently in the rainy season everything turns to mashed potatoes, then hardens nicely in the dry season to what resembles a construction pit on Mars. Really, it made the McCarthy (Alaska) road look like the Autobahn. In Ban Lung, big clouds of red dust are constantly blowing. Everyone wears scarves over their faces, or keeps a cloth handy to breathe through whenever a truck passes. It looks a lot like how I imagine Libya.

Why are we here? Well, the saving grace is a beautiful dust-free, deep, clear lake in a volcanic crater a few kilometres from town. We went swimming there all day, every day. The land it’s on belongs to the Tapoen people. We’d see them in town with amazing amounts of fruits, vegetables, grasses, jars and packages of this and that, strapped to their backs in these woven basket-backpacks. We would pass each other on the street and beam astonished beams at one another’s carrying containers. Our backpacks, of course, had about 50 times the amount of engineering for about 1/10 the amount of stuff.

The Tapoen had a little community center by the lake where one could learn about their weavings, tools, society, and architecture, and rent an inner tube to float in (10 cents regular size, 20 cents tractor size). We also visited a cemetary of theirs where they carved effigies of the deceased and put them on the shrine-like graves. They were about three feet tall, with assorted bits of found objects for eyes or what-not, and everything was very overgrown, hidden here and there in the woods. It reminded me so much of the grounds of Bread and Puppet.

Even after three solid days of soaking in this lake, however, our feet were still stained a permanent henna-red from the dust in town. Because of this dust and these roads, we decided to fly directly to Phnom Pehn, the capitol city. The alternative was 10 hours in an open-backed pick up truck which, without my industrial strength goggles and respirator, I don’t know how I would have survived. Some people were actually looking forward to this ride. “To compare is to despair,” we keep telling ourselves, for many travelers we meet are planning hack-your-own-path-through-the-jungle-and-string-your-hammock-above-the-wild-tigers-5-day-treks that we feel should be avoided at all costs. We are already far enough away from a cup of coffee as it is. They would be just as miserable sticking to an agenda of collecting old illustrations from grammar books and photographing handmade pull-toys.

The border crossing was so hectic, and the weeks before it so relaxing, I forgot to prepare myself for the fact that we now again speak not one single word of the language (in this case, Khmer). I had just learned how to have a mini-conversation with a five year old (how old are you? You are beautiful, I like chickens, 3 little pigs…) when zooom, we boat over to a land where we are mute and have to count our change for about 20 minutes before we realize we are holding about a dollar.

When did I last write? We traveled through central Laos by bus not boat for a change. We tried to get on the “express” bus from Savannakhet to Paxse. We got up and to the ‘bus station’ at 5 in the morning to get on a bus that stopped for every single person on the road for the 7 hour duration. Grandma with 10 kilos of rice on, unattended child with rooster off. Woman who shoves a wet bag of clams or something under our seat on, ancient man with cigar off. We come to a village that has a 4 ft. high pile of bananas by the side of the road. Oh please, don’t let us get involved with those bananas. Of course, they miraculously get hoisted and tied somehow to the roof.

(I just have to interject that in the background here at this restaurant, all the guys are huddled around this TV show that’s like a cross between Teletubbies, Benny Hill, and Planet of the Apes, Asian-style. It’s so bizarre that I just can’t figure out one single thing about it.)

Back to the bus. Every time we’d go through a town where there was a market on the roadside, before we even came to a stop, what seemed like hundreds of ladies and girls ran over to poke barbequed chickens on sticks into every open window and door. They climb on board, “Ping gai! Ping gai!” they shout (bbq chicken). They even sound like a bunch of chickens, bok bok bok bok… Everyone buys their chickens and everything settles down, but the same thing happens in the potato radish town and the lime punch town. You really can have quite a feast just right from the window seat. Further on down the roadside what, to me, looks like a baby in the middle of what to me looks like nowhere is carrying two huge buckets of water balanced on a stick across it’s back. Also, in and on the roadside is constant casual animal behavior, which is always a delight. Even in a ‘nice’ restaurant here, a mama hen and her 6 pee-pee-peeping chicks will come scurrying in and out dramatically. I love it.

Before relaxing way into life in the Si Phan Don (the southern tip of Laos where the Mekong spreads out to make a myriad of islands and waterfalls), we boated over, with our friends Joe and Terry from Seattle, to Attapu province. This was one of the most bombed areas during the war due to it’s proximity to the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The banks slope steeply down to the river and are covered with carefully crafted gardens. The the lettuce beds and little steps from tier to tier that are carved out of the muddy clay make it look like little, sprouting adobe tiny-towns. With people and water buffaloes bathing their babies at the edge, it makes it extremely hard to imagine just how many bombs fell on this exact location. We’ve read that America dropped enough bombs for a planeload to fall every 8 minutes around the clock for 9 years. Villagers have turned the debris into gates, flower planters, little bombshell birdbaths. Because of the mud, there’s still hundreds of unexploded bombs buried below rice fields and rivers that still kill people every month.

Needless to say, this is an extremely intense and strange landscape to be contemplating as we hear about the progress of weapons inspections and negotiations about going to war. Should we or should we not bomb Iraq? It is so embarrassingly absurd to see the lives and land of the people that the bombs of 30 years ago have affected. All the technology and finance and debate, and on the other end grandchildren, lettuce, and pigs. Shannon bought some textiles in Sekong province with images of daily life woven into the borders: plants, goats, missiles, chickens, fighter planes. I just can’t imagine what these people thought was happening.

We have been able to keep up-to-date with the news, see the peace marches in London and Paris on the BBC, and hear about the paranoia and fear sweeping the U.S. I’m so proud of all the anti-war demonstrators. I’m sorry the U.S. seems to be such a scary place right now. I really love New York so much.

So, we really are having no major problems. No anti-American sentiment, just respectful curiosity. No worms or broken bones, just one leg burn from a motorbike muffler, one motorbike flat tire, one long long night of cheese-sandwich food poisoning, one fish bone caught in my throat causing me to become spiritually uplifted in the gratitude of it becoming unlodged 20 minutes later. Really, whenever we find ourselves in an absolutely foul-smelling uncomfortable, hot frustrating situation, I just think of that fish bone and get a new perspective.