Gatecrash Wedding in Laos

By: Joseph Kultgen

Public Service Announcement: Drinking and driving is bad.?
With that said I’ve drank and drove a few times in my day
and have puked in the back of cars while someone drunker
than me was at the wheel.? My question wasn’t meant to be
judgmental but rather compassionate.? They were drunk; the
streets were dark and littered in potholes.? When all is
said and done I know I would have jumped on the back of
either of their scooters.? I just needed assurance that we
weren’t going to take some drunken steroid infested crotch
rocket ride reminiscent of high school.? You’ve got to hate
crap like that.?
The next portion of our conversation seemed to flow like
there was no language barrier at all.? Ton explained that he
was careful to make the necessary judgements to drive
safely.? This wasn’t one of those times when someone
drinking shouldn’t drive.? This was one of those times a
person uses his judgement correctly.? The idea of harming
himself or another person was foreign to him.? This appears
to be the norm in a society built upon few enforceable laws
but harsh penalties for living.? His outlook was
refreshingly unique.? Most of us live in a world where we
aren’t trusted to make our own judgements.? He has no
choice.
I soon discovered upon exiting the gala that it had never
been their intention to drive.? The party was just down the
street.? The energy reached a fevered pitch as we rounded
the corner and entered the rear of the bride’s house.? I
walked stoically onto the back patio with my head held low.
I do this for a variety of reasons.? The primary reason I do
this is in my everyday life is because I find if I look up
the craziest wacko will undoubtebly engage me in a
conversation.?
I did it in Laos as a sign of respect.? Bowing is an
integral aspect of the salutation and this way I was half
way there.? The depth at to which you bow and the duration
all reflect your position in life relative to the person you
are addressing.? The corresponding hand positions are
difficult if not impossible to master by anyone except for
the natives so I don’t suggest trying.? Just keep your head
low and don’t look someone in the eyes unless you are given
indication that it’s appropriate to do so.?
Two more reasons to keep your chin low.? Let’s just say that
walking into a communist country like a goddamn red, white
and blue peacock perpetuates certain stereotypes that affect
our relationships with other countries.? The second reason
is simpler.? People taller than the mean height of 5’3" will
ultimately take a roof of the house to the noggin sometime
during their stay in this vertically challenged land.
About 40 people were comfortably dispersed in 4 primary
groups.? One group was inside the house and used the back
patio door to supply food, drink and a constant flow of new
people to the party.? One of the people in this group was
Pond’s wife who we unfortunately didn’t get to meet.? She
was too busy working behind the scenes.? I assume it’s a
traditional bonding time for the mother, bride and her
girls.
The second group was dancing around a tree just brought out
by a woman from inside the house.? It was the Lamvong dance,
except they were all circling the tree together.? It was a
small space so I can see why.?
The third group was a table of primarily older men drinking
and a rare 2 smokers.? Not many people smoke in Laos and
this was the first time I saw anyone smoking in such a
public space.? I greeted what to me looked like the oldest
guy at the table.? I would say he was about 48.? This is old
in a country with an average life expectancy is 54 years
old.? He was also one of the smokers.? Yeah right…. Smoking
kills.? We grabbed two seats at the ends of the "old-guys"
table and spurted out? "kop chi li li" another 30 or so
times.?
A fourth group congregated along a makeshift bar situated
behind us on the perimeter of the lawn and street.? This is
where the guys who brought us to the party set up camp.
Within about 6 seconds of sitting down a 1/3 full glass of
BeerLao was between my eyes.? I took a drink and watched my
friend Paul try to explain that he would prefer soda water.
It was basically a long-running joke at this point into our
5-day Laotian trek.

I can’t explain how foreign the concept
of abstaining from drinking is to the Laotian people.
Laotians don’t have any concept of not drinking because of
personal choices.? Many people don’t drink often because it
doesn’t bode well with their health, but this wasn’t the
case. Let’s just say it wasn’t the first time people would
be brought into hysterics upon a toast from Paul’s soda
water.? It only got funnier each of the 25 additional times
he declined a drink.
Being able to consume and abuse almost anything at our
discretion is not the situation in Laos.? There isn’t the
same kind of access to external factors. Their gentle
personalities and suspicious nature is a reflection of their
lack and oftentimes desire of material goods.? This is
ideologically different than western capitalism principals
that are slowly being adopted since 1990.? Not to mention
the U.S. did conduct a secret war in 1973 that left it the
most bombed country of the Vietnam War.? I know you probably
don’t want a history lesson, but the rational was to cut off
the northern trade routes of the Ho Chi Min Trail in order
to curtain the spread of communism.? There I said it.
A few short minutes later a sharply dressed Pond walked into
the party.? He wore a purplish blue iridescent silk oxford
with the sleeves rolled up.? Both his wrists were tightly
wrapped in a white cloth rope – traditional Lao boxing
style.? He looked like a bad ass as he sat down between me
and Paul.? Pond quickly got offered a drink from one of the
4 people who were circling the table like vultures looking
for sober victims.? A variety of drinks were being served.
Variety, however, is a relative word in Laos.? No apple
martinis or cosmos - just whiskey and beer.??
Up until this point I had only drank Whiskey Lao and Tiger
whiskey, which appear to be the two competing, brands.? At
8000 kip ($.80) per bottle I was happy to see the party
upgraded to a bottle each of Johnny Walker Red and Black.
One woman also carried around a pitcher of diluted whiskey
and water.? This is what you drank when you wanted to stop
drinking.?? The great aspect of drinking in Laos is the one
glass rule or in this case one glass and one-shot glass
rule.? This ensures that when you are given a drink you
pound it immediately.? In general when drinking beer in Laos
the person who buys the 40’s-esqe glass bottle pours a drink
for himself before offering the glass to the surrounding
people.? This is brilliant for 2 main reasons.? The beer
stays cool and fewer dishes are made for our bride throwing
the party.?
Pond, myself and the rest of the people at the party
continued to drink and speak in whatever means we possibly
could.? A lot of time was just spent laughing enjoying the
collective moment we were sharing together.? Paul excused
himself after the party turned into an alternative version
of the century club.? One drink per minute for 100 minutes.??
It was probably during the 58th minute when the food came to
the table.? Traditional Lao drinking food.? Rather than
pretzels and buffalo wings the Lao people make extraordinary
hot mango salads to entice drinking.? I’d eaten a super hot
mango salad in Thailand just days before so I was aware what
I was in for.?? The dish was passed immediately to me and
the elder at the table began aggressively coaxing me to take
a bite.? I grabbed the spoon and took a small bite hoping to
overt their attention.? This really didn’t work.? Now I was
being ostracized for my lack of bite.?
The elder took the large Chinese soupspoon and started
burying it deep in the salad.? His eyes and the 12 other
leering pairs made it apparent I needed to bring my game to
the table.? I grabbed back the large spoon and made a single
aggressive swoop into the salad.? The spoonful of salad I
pulled out was about as much as the spoon was designed to
hold.? Unfortunately it is nearly impossible to dump out any
overabundance from the deep metal spoon because of their
high vertical edges.? Not much else to do but take the bite.?
I don’t remember what happened for the next 3 minutes.? I do
remember about 3 minutes later feeling like my head was
going to spontaneously combust and that I had probably not
been breathing for the three minutes prior.? Once my eyes
rolled back around to the front of my head I noticed a very
concerned elder offering me a shot of whiskey.? This is only
the second time in the evening I refused a drink.? Instead I
opted for an outstretched glass of BeerLao.? After a quick
shot of beer I lunged for the shot of whiskey and then a
glass of diluted whiskey.? It’s a pretty amazing situation
when a shot of whiskey is smoother than a hot mango salad.
In retrospect I should have taken the shot first.? These
guys knew what they were doing.
I’m pretty sure Paul had returned by this point to witness
my hiccuping frenzy caused by the ridiculouslly hot food.? The guesthouse was locked and instead of waking up the owners twice he opted to come back to the party.? What a considerate guy!? The night progressed in this standard fashion for a while until Pond excused himself from the table.? Much of the rest of the table cleared at this point and headed in separate directions.
Group #4 hanging out by the back bar was still in full
stride.? It was time for the friends and youngsters to take
the reigns of the party.? One of the 10 or so twenty year
olds was strumming a guitar and a variety of other guys were
intermittently interjecting lyrics.? We weren’t going to
leave the party without listening to some tunes.? After the
first few songs the guitar was extended our way.? Paul was
always up for hacking out some obscure song that no one in
Laos had ever heard of.? To be honest unless you knew
Betterman by Robbie Williams, a little N’sync or the "it’s a
hip - a hop - a hip"? song they probably would have no clue.
Paul broke out a funky upbeat song that got the crowd
clapping - although at a very different beat than the song
suggested.? Next we broke out Creep and some of the guys
joined us in singing the melancholy mumbling of Radiohead.
It was probably the loudest we ever sang that song.
Pretty soon DJ Jacky Joe was at the stereo plugging in burnt
CD’s from Malaysia and Thailand.? Most of the music was
completely unfamiliar to me, but there was a couple of
compilation CD’s that caught my eye.? I recognized 2 songs.
The Final Countdown by Europe was the first track and I
hadn’t passed this song by since 1985; so why start now?? The
crowd seemed to like my selection based on the amount of air
guitar I saw being played.? Next up was a little "Beat It"
by Michael Jackson.? Unfortunately this was the worst
karaoke version of "Beat It" I’ve ever heard.? In retrospect
the complete lack of knowledge of Michael Jackson has got to
be a good thing for any society.?
The party slowly unwound into a sparing match between a
4-foot tall Bruce Lee fanatic and myself.? After a few
tornado kicksHealth Fitness Articles, a mock punch to my nuts and a lot of
posturing it was time to go.?

This experience opened my eyes to a country that first started allowing Westerners to enter in 1989.? Our knowledge and experiences are skewed by the boundaries and institutions we place ourselves.? It was wonderful to escape to a place where those boundaries are outside any field I have ever walked.?

?2003 TrekShare LLC - Reprint with Permission. ??

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