After a year’s almost nonstop assault of Wenzhou-nese scowls and stone-cold stares, one would think that the effortlessly bright faces and smiles of the Laotians would be a relief. And, for a time, it was.
The difference in the two personalities was clear from the moment we hopped off the bus in Nam Tha. Well, to be honest it was already starting to be felt the further south we travelled on the road out of Xishuangbana in Yunnan, China’s southernmost and ethnicallydiversemost province. People were already nicer, for example the taxi driver who not only waited for nearly an hour with us – at no extra cost – at the gate to Dai Ethnic Village until we got our tickets, but also came back the next day to deliver our tickets and give us a dropoff at the bank. Wenzhou had taught us distrust, so we were waiting for it – the demand, the letdown – but it never came. Or the noodle lady at the bus stop in Kunming who offered to store my suitcases in her house at no charge. Just take the valuables out, she said, I can’t be responsible for that. Still, there remained enough of the trademark roughness and stares to remind us of where we were. Such as the bus conductor who walked up to me to rub my arm with her fingers and tell me how strange my skin was (and a whole lot more which my Chinese friends – yes I have some!- chose not to translate), or the snake lady in Ganlanban who yelled at us to stop playing with the monkey unless we were willing to pay for the privilege. Or maybe she was yelling at the monkey for playing with us when we had not paid. Long story.
Long story short, I was already starting to relax around the edges when we rolled into Nam Tha, unloaded in a guesthouse recommended by a highly enthusiastic first time world traveller from South Korea whom we met along the way, and went on an early evening stroll around town.
Sa Bai Dee is hello in Lao. It’s impossible to say it without smiling. Of course you could, but you’re bound to feel like a fool. Better not to say it at all. I’m not claiming that everyone was on a permanent high (although that is definitely an option on the menu, the actual menu), but the chorus of Sa Bai Dee never let up for long, especially as we passed through outlying villages between Nam Tha and Luang Prabang – a stretch that we intended to hitchhike but ended up just hiking for 18km before getting picked up. Most blessed thing about it, no sales pitch followed. There were no more stares, just glances, and even if those were prolonged there was human warmth behind the eyes, a kindness, not an icy refusal to believe that you could exist. The children especially were a delight, bellowing their joyful, Sa Bai Dee like they were pulling us into some big secret from across the street.
I thought I couldn’t get enough of this goodwill, I thought I could just endlessly stuff myself with it. Apparently, though, I and my thoughts have yet to get well acquainted. Because when I met with the borderline scowly face of the young waiter who sat us for breakfast the next morning in Luang Prabang, a part of me was relieved. He didn’t crack his one and only smile until after he brought the sandwiches and coffee.
Luang Prabang is more touristy, that was clear from the tuk tuk ride offers to scenic spots that came on the heels of the half-hearted Sa Bai Dee. Here is where I surprised myself, because I actually didn’t mind that the distribution of friendliness was not as even as before and that the locals were a touch roughened for overexposure to visitors. Not all smiles were free, some had to be earned with an assault of Kap Chai Lai Lai (thank you) for the littlest thing.
I felt at ease with this arrangement, especially considering my constant unease with the very notion of being a “First World” tourist. But the balance didn’t hit the perfect mark until we paid a visit to one of the temples in town. I shouldn’t say we, because after climbing the initial set of steep stone steps to a park where there was the ticket booth, I took one look at the double set beyond which the actual entrance to the temple wasn’t even visible, and opted to hang out in the park instead. It was a lovely serene place with a Bodhi tree at its center. The tree was bordered by an enormous stone carving in the shape of a lotus flower.
My plan was to take a nap on a bench, but I had barely begun when I heard a group of boisterous local women come up the steps, clearly exhausted from the initial climb. They roosted on the benches behind me. I carried on with my business of trying to tease out a nap from a half-sitting half-laying down position. Soon, one of the women shook me insistently on the shoulder. I pretended to snap awake and turned, which highly amused the women. Following the instigator, they all gave me cheerful Sa Bai Dee. Through a mishmash of languages and gestures they understood that I had no intention of climbing up any further, I was happy right where I was. That amused them even more and sent them into rolls of chatter and laughs.
And there, it hit me. The mood finally felt right. They were laughing somewhere between at and with me. It wasn’t entirely inclusive but it wasn’t entirely exclusive either. I couldn’t help but be a good sport about it because if I was going to be the target of invasive curiosity or amusement, I would rather it be in the cool shade of the middle ground, among a group of wheezing middle aged devotees with big bellies and bigger laughs on their way to commune with the gods above.