Hanging with the nose pickers

Society in Laos does not seem to frown on picking one’s nose in public. Although I must admit to having picked my nose in the past, I never inhaled. And I have never been so gauche as this latest succession of men, women and children who pick away while walking down the street, while tending roadside food stands (best avoided, me thinks) or while standing in the crowd passing the time.

I can not think why nose picking is not socially disapproved here. By the same token, I can think of no reason why nose picking is socially disapproved back in New Zealand. I guess the reason has to be something to do with hygiene. Who can name anyone who died from anything contracted from someone else’s nasal secretions?

Kids with guns are everywhere here as well. Big, small, in all different colours, noisy, quiet. All the same basic game. And the endless arguments about who shot whom and who is dead and who is immune. It is a wonder they get anything done. Tragic in a country so riven with conflict that guns are still harmless and fun. I didn’t see any kids with plastic landmines or unexploded ordinance. Perhaps that is too close to home for the toy companies. Or maybe it is just that kids can’t be bothered waiting around to see if any of their friends step on them. Far better to leap out and shout “blam blam blam”.

Lots of backpackers too. Weird to see them all gathered (herded?) together in one place. In China there are lots, but they are spread out across an enormous country and vast cities. So you don’t really notice them. Here things are small and the proportion of backpacker experiences to local experiences that one has (as a backpacker) is much higher. Still, they seem a fairly quiet, sober, “real”-Lao-seeking bunch. I guess they have to be since Luang Prabang is lights off and go to bed at 10:30.

I have to wake up the guy at my guesthouse every night because they lock up at 10pm. He sleeps outside to make it easier. Not sure why they don’t just lock the front door and give me a key. Still, if everything were the same as at home. Not quite so crazy as the hostel in Ulaan Baatar where the secret door after-hours access code is written just above the door. I guess they figure that spies can not read English.

Laos has an appealing lack of tourist infrastructure (like decent roads, settled prices, cellphone networks and internet places) and tourists (backpackers are here in droves, but other sorts seem somewhat limited). And sometimes there is an endearing lack of experience with tourists that makes me smile. Like occasionally people don’t know how much to charge for things because they sell so little. Or there was one place with jam, butter and toast sold separately. Bundling, versioning, volume discounts, group tourism and mass marketing have yet to make it to this side of the Mekong.

Luang Prabang is a great town. I highly recommend it. Pleasantly slow, slightly Frenchified (to the extent of fresh baguettes and excellent cafes), if a little over-populated by noisy motorcycles (although one is welcome to hire one and add to the furore).

But don’t come here if you are in a hurry (you would disturb the mood), if you are a tick tourist (for there is little to see – unless you like temples), or if you don’t like to just sit about and watch the world go by.

Today the world about here engaged in its annual boat racing on the Nam Ka river. An excellent thing to watch, at least for a while. One street along the shore was devoted to the festival. Music, food, bars, teams parading in bright uniforms, crowds in team colours on both sides of the river egging on their chosen squad. Teams in black (ugh! too hot), red, white (lots in white), and even a team in orange. The Dutch guys I was with immediately began to support the orange team, of course. In fact, they ended up winning and marched through the streets in triumph, their boat carried amongst them.

They raced in heats, one against another. It was pretty unclear on the exact rules, although by the time they passed us it was usually clear who was going to win. The huge number of white teams made it particularly difficult. The boats were different sizes and had different numbers of crew, but they all seemed to be in the one division. I guess the confusion is part of the joy. If I could speak Lao all these questions would be answered, but then what use would our imagination be?

Every night in Luang Prabang there is a market in the main street. No traffic (well at least no non-pedestrian traffic). Just lines of people sitting under light-bulbs selling shirts and bags and lampshades and other miscellaneous Lao souvenirs, and a bit further down a food market, more frequented by the locals (except for that one stand that always seemed to have all its seats taken by foreigners – some kind of magnetic attraction, or perhaps it is listed in the guidebook).

It is one of the sights in my personal guidebook to wander down market street a little later in the evening when the number of customers is low and see the lines of lights on either side of the road. Like will o’ wisps, I always think. Although in this case summoning me to buy a Beer Lao t-shirt rather than to drown in the fens, I guess.

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