The Chinese immigration building: kind of airport-esque, with shiny marble floors, metal detectors, desks and guard rails, passport scanners, staff with ironed clothes and nametags. Never before had I seen a machine that scanned my passport and printed out an already-filled-in departure card.

The Laos immigration building: a wooden shack with faded paint. Three windows on the outside for visa processing.

Last words spoken to me in Chinese (by the guy behind me in the visa line): “Hey brother, there’s something wrong with the back of your pants.”

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Yeah, a hole had opened up right beneath my tailbone. I suppose I was unintentionally giving China a farewell moon.

So begins my month in Laos.

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First impression: wow, this place is still Wild.

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Second: wow, this place is poor.

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Third: this place is a little sad.

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Fourth: this place is used to foreign travelers. Almost every guesthouse, restaurant, “Night Clup,” and “Beer Lao Rebate Shop” are market with bright yellow signs like this one. No need to learn to read!

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Fifth: Jeez, this place is beautiful.

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First night: I stopped in a village about 40km from the Chinese border. A little meander brought me here, where three teams of three guys each were spending their evening hours playing a kickass game of “Sepak Takraw” (that’s the Malaysian name). This is surely the coolest sport ever. It’s like soccer in that it’s purely hands-off (except for tossing the serve). It’s like volleyball in that it involves a net, up to three contacts, and generally some spiking.

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And it’s like gymnastics, in that it involves frickin’ flipping around. Utterly, utterly sick. I don’t know how these guys avoid landing on their faces.

Oh, the simple life: twelve guys entertaining themselves for hours using only a rattan ball, two bamboo poles, and a net. Developing social bonds, keeping healthy, negligible environmental impact. Compare to my diversion of choice during high school: sitting at home, often alone, in front of boxes made of glass, plastic and rare earth metals, clicking buttons on either a mouse or a remote control. Shudder.

Though, actually, I think there’s a case to be made that playing so much Diablo II prepared me for a life of travel. Always thinking about my gear, my inventory, my next quest, and what not.

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I can’t figure out what it is that feels so different from China. Is it just in my head? Didn’t China have views like this? Why does Laos feel so giant, so open, so untouched?

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Goodnight, Oudomxai.

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Here’s what this post is really about. Three days in, I hit the holy grail of traveling: an invitation to a village. I hate thinking of it this way, of having certain kinds of experiences that I want to have. Of being out and about trying to collect them. Of fitting individuals into my mold. And yet…isn’t the point of being here, and of being here like this (i.e. on a bike) that it makes it possible for this stuff to happen?

What the hell am I talking about? Well, about 10km out of Oudomxai, the capital of this province, I encountered an improbable travel partner: a fourteen year-old boy who cycles the 19km downhill to school every morning, and then cycles the same 19km uphill back to his village at around lunchtime. On a shitty little bike with only one gear. He spoke just enough English to keep a stilted conversation going on for the next 9km, and when we got to the top he invited me to come to his village.

I had been having village-anxiety constantly throughout the previous couple days. How should I carry myself in places like this? Everything is so beautiful, so rustic, so totally different from the world I know, that I just want to walk around. To peer into people’s houses. To see what they wear, what they eat, what they have, what they don’t have, how they sleep. To take photos of their awesome natural building, their beautiful outfits, their adorable children, their wrinkly-but-lively elders. How can I possibly do this while not treating them like objects? In particular, since I don’t even know how to use their language to ask permission to take photos? If a Lao traveler showed up in my suburban American subdivision and started walking around sticking hisher camera in children’s faces, how would we react? How can I give them the same respect that I would demand they show me and mine? Doesn’t that mean no snooping, no pictures, more or less no nothing?

Thankfully, it’s different when you’ve got an invitation!

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With a head full of worries, I followed “Korp Song” into his village. He took me into his family’s two-room bamboo shack: the kitchen, in front, about 6x6m, had a small fire going in the corner with one iron pot on it. For lunch, his mom served us rice and boiled greens. Behind the kitchen was the living quarters: 6x12m or so, with a couple tiny bedrooms kind of partitioned off on one side, and a bench, a TV, and a dresser on the other. KS insisted I take a nap on his bed, which was made of bamboo slats woven together, just like a basket or a Sepak Takraw ball. When I woke up, he insisted that it was too hot to ride and suggested I should spend the night.

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Not sure how I could possibly interact with these people until dark, I broke out my secret weapon: the frisbee. Instant ingratiation with my host, who gets to look cool in front of all the other villagers by playing a strange white mans’ game with me, and then with all the other kids, who get to try out a new toy.

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After an hour or two of tossing the disc around, most of the kids seemed used to me. I had given them something, shared something of myself with them, taught them a little; some sort of comradery had developed and I felt more or less accepted. So I did what I really wanted to do: broked out the camera. First, pictures of animals, just to get the kids used to the device.

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And of my own stuff. Nothing wrong with that, right? (Also pictured: pigeon shack. Apparently they eat them.)

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Moving on to some pictures of the scenery…

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Finally, the kids fell right into my trap, insisting I take pictures of them. Am I a manipulator? A voyeur? An imperialist? I don’t know, but these children were so insanely unbelievably adorable. Brace yourself.

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The first kid to start tagging along with me, slumping on my shoulders, grabbing my hand, and so forth. They’re warming up…

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That’s what I’m talking about!

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The boy just behind me, in the blue shirt, is Korp Song, the one I met cycling on the road.

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There seemed to be millions of children. KS’s household consisted of mom, dad, grandma, and six children from two to fourteen years old. Other houses must have been the same, since the village was teeming with kids. Running around on their own, playing in little packs, using anything and everything as toys.

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Half a plastic jug and a bunch of sand. That’s what I call entertainment!

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The old “fill it up and dump it out” game.

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Little exorcist girl.

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I decided to go for a little walk.

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Didn’t realize they’d all follow me – or start leading me. Including one naked baby!

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Down to the river. I doubt any of these kids were older than 10, but they all seemed totally comfortable here. Not in the least scared of climbing, jumping, crossing…

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Even this little tyke is walking on balance beams!

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And then, the most adorable thing in the universe happened. One of them put a plant in my hand. I uttered some sort of “Dawwww,” as in “Dawwww, that’s so sweet.” One of the girls liked the sound repeated it, and then gave me a flower to get me to say it again.

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Within a minute, all eight of them were involved in a new task: climbing around the river banks in search of flowers to give me in order to elecit more weird falttered white guy sounds. 2013-06-14 Homestay 087.JPG


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You shouldn’t have!

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The only thoughts in my head: this is absolutely magical. These children are incredibly sweet. Unspeakable kindness, purity, warmth. Where else could this be found?

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In the end, they just started picking out fistfuls of weeds to give me. Does these kids’ sweetness know no bounds? They made me carry everything back to the village, the sight of which cracked Mom up.

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That’s right, dudes can put flowers in their hair, so what?

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What else do village kids do for fun? Ah, yeah, set brush fires and then play in them!

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First, the kids were called in for dinner and ate with Mom. Then, Dad, eldest son (KS) and I sat down to eat. More rice, more boiled greens, and a bowl of something crunchy ans spicy that KS called “fish.” I tried it and actually really liked it, but couldn’t see what it was due to the fact that the kitchen didn’t have a light in it. Later I brought back my flashlight and had a look: I had been enjoying mini-crabs, eating them shell and all! KS opined that he liked the food in the city and was tired of just eating rice and boiled greens all the time. With all this good weather and open space, I don’t understand why the villagers don’t have small kitchen gardens everywhere. I kind of wanted to teach them about organic small-scale gardening, super-efficient rocket stoves, composting toilets, and other awesome permaculture stuff. But I’ve got to go learn it first. To Thailand!

That night, I slept again on KS’s bamboo bed while he slept with his siblings and parents. In the morning, I awoke at 5AM to the father playing a DVD of a Lao pastor, wearing a suit and preaching the Gospel. 95% in Lao, with occasional lines in English. Absolute crap like, “I feel so happy when my little daughter claps for me. She always claps for me. How much more, then, should we clap for God?” Lots of other absurdities that made me very sad. These people have such a beautiful way of life – of course, difficult in many ways that I’ll never know – why do they want to copy ours? Or, at least, why not take only the best things from us, medicines and a few technologies, and leave other trappings behind?

They offered me breakfast, but I, too, had had my fill of rice and greens. Actually, since the previous afternoon, I had been thinking about the bunch of bananas and leftover donuts sitting in my food bag. They had been calling my name for hours, but I didn’t have enough to share with the family, let alone all thousand of the village kids lurking around.

Before I took off, I thought long and hard: should I give the family some money? They had welcomed me without batting an eye, fed me two meals and offered me a third, put me up for the night, and given me the experience of a lifetime. As always, I don’t know exactly what I had learned, but I had felt a million things, from deep anxiety to utter amazement to overwhelming joy. A cheap guesthouse here costs $4 a night; a guided overnight tour to a mountain village costs $30 to $50. Surely I ought to give them something? But what are they expecting? Did they bring me here knowing I’d pay them? Has all this hospitality been directed to that end? Were the kids in on it? Or would it be me that, by deciding to give them some money, would be cheapening the whole thing? Maybe they had done everything expecting nothing in return, and I would be the one to turn it into a mere exchange of service for cash? If I pay them too much, will they start encouraging the son to bring other foreigners back? Or am I not the first? Was this real? What’s the right thing to do?

In the end, I shook the father’s hand with 100,000kip ($12) in mine. I couldn’t read the look in his eyes – surprise? disappointment? gratitude? Either way, he thanked me. When I thanked him back, his son replied, “That’s ok. No need.”

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8 Responses to F*CKING ADORABLE

  1. 썌키 says:

    Best post yet! But there’s some major 꼬마보지 showing in one of those photos, might want to mosaic that stuff before some paranoid DHS official reports you.

    Also, please watch out for unexploded ordinance on your way down. Did the villagers have any household appliances made from old missiles and grenades or anything?

    • Michael Roy says:

      Good catch on the 꼬마보지 – my mom caught it too! You’re talking about the photo where she’s sitting down on the rock, right? I’d hardly classify that as “major,” but yeah, I had meant to anti-pornify that before posting.

      Jeff, can you use context clues to figure out what 꼬마보지 means?

  2. Tanya says:

    This is my favorite entry so far.

    The part about the bananas and doughnuts has me really thinking about the us/them divide and my own practiced selfishness. It causes me to speculate, uncomfortably, what I would have done. I’ve been in similar situations in the past and behaved selfishly. I have felt entitled to the things that are mine and them more than I have wanted the joy of sharing what I had, however great or little. Is this human nature, culture, or my own personality? Is it right or wrong? I will only know the know the next time the situation arises and, knowing myself so well, I fear the answer. But your experience encourages me to consider my own behavior more closely. Thanks for sharing, dear friend.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Actually, I did give Song Korn a couple of bananas on our way up the mountain. I would have shared everything I had with the family, except that it would hardly have amounted a banana or donut each, plus I needed some grub to get me up and over the mountain the next morning. Or so I told myself.

      To some extent, every time we eat or buy or do anything, we’re bound to have some sort of impact on someone somewhere. For example, the links between meat consumption and deforestation are pretty well-published, and articles on the effects of the quinoa boom in the affluent west for those less affluent South Americans who used to consume it as a dietary staple. Thus, I feel like I generally ought to engage in these sort of “how much of this should I take?” deliberations even when not directly in the presence of those who could stand to benefit or suffer from my decisions. In a nutshell, this is the sentiment underlying 3RR.

      Thanks, Tanya, for your close reading and thoughtful reply. It means a lot to me.