“Oudomxay:- Bereft of any real beauty, it has little to offer the visitor; your best bet is to get here early and catch the next bus out.”
quoth the Lonely Planet
But what the hell, we decided to go there any way. A cave was said to be nearby and Tahn had his heart set on going into a dark, dank hole. On our arrival we did find the town a little strange, on a main trading route from China its industry was built on trucking. Tourism hadn’t found its way here yet and we were surprised to find ourselves scrutinised by the locals. We found an old hotel that gave us a cheap and dilapidated room that was so bloody large you could do a waltz around half the room.
First things first, find a tourism shop and see whats going on with the cave. Hmm, no tourism, but an Information place. Sorry cave is closed due to floods, but here’s a map. Knock yourself out with your own activities. So I guess we’ll stay the night and leave just like the Lonely Planet says.
On our way to look for dinner that night a boy with a clipboard intercepts us on the footpath and asks enthusiastically if he can speak english with us. Soon he is joined by a girl on a scooter from his english class. Wow, english foreigners. We speak a little but hunger beckons, maybe we will see you later?
Dinner is a scary affair with mystery stuff on sticks. Communication is hard so we find it difficult to order. Emm wishes over her mystery balls that we had a more cultural experience in Asia like the last continents we visited. To get involved with the locals, to have maybe volunteered to teach english or something.
So with queasy stomachs we follow some pretty lights accompanied by the sound of happy singing with a sign saying “Beer Garden and Karaoke”
It’s a pretty spot by the river and a nice place for a drink. Weaving through the tables to find a seat a group of very drunk and merry men call us over to sit with them. Glasses are poured and a cheers is announced and the exuberant drinking begins. We swap stories with our new friends as they take turns passionately singing Lao pop songs. Unfortunately names were lost, but our company composed of a teacher a doctor and two drivers. After more beers and cheers (It seems a custom to salute your fellow drinkers as much as possible) we were finally cajoled into singing even though we were saying we didn’t know any Lao songs. They whipped out the english list and randomly played english songs for us. Out came the likes of Killing me softly.., Hotel California, Fly me to the moon and some Backstreet boys.
Having too much fun the gang wanted to take us to the local night club. Against our better judgment but in tune with adventure we got on the back of their motorbikes and made it safely (yay) to the local hang out. A group of people were out the front with a police presence on the peripheral. Inside it was really dark and all the booths were empty with what turned out to be a band playing in the shadows.
Sliding into the darkness beside us, a young intelligent guy with good english sparks up a conversation. He says that he has a bad job and goes on to say that he is a radio announcer. Of course that seems like a great job to us, but he explains that he is forced to read a script and is incredibly highly censored. It is basically all about propaganda for the government. He really wants to be a journalist, a writer, photographer, but Laos is very restrictive for journalism. He tells about the politics and their obsession with communism, even though they are call “The Peoples Democratic Republic”. Russia is seen as a failed communist state, while China is very successful. He kept referring to government control as “Big Potato.” He is afraid that Laos will lose its culture with the influx of the Western way of life.
Before long Emmily is on the empty dance floor and the reluctant crowd in the shadows suddenly feels they too can dance and there is soon a crowd around her. The groups of girls giggle amongst themselves and dare each other to dance with her. As soon as the dancing begins the police come in to make sure nothing untoward takes place. We have read that there are only specific places you are allowed to dance in Laos. It seems like such a strange freedom to control.
More beers and cheers. Beer is for all the friends. “My friends are your friends.” Emmm asks a girl to dance with her and soon the girl is trying to teach a traditional Laos style of dancing which closely resembles line dancing that the whole dance floor soon takes up. The radio announcer introduces a friend of his who is an english teacher, Phaysone then urges us to stay another day in Oudomxay so we can come to his english class. We agree and disappear into the night.
A lazy day ensues. Movies on cable TV and the heavy rhythm of the rain. We were stopped a few more times by the boy with the clipboard, always as we were crossing the bridge, for more english chats. We begin to anticipate meetings with the english troll on our way over the bridge into town. Late in the afternoon we track down Phaysone in the downpour and he takes each of us in turn to a small cluster of huts on a mud track on the outskirts of town. A simple classroom with bamboo walls and a dirt floor, with a higher mound of dirt for the teachers platform and amusingly misspelt english sayings posted around the walls.
We helped Phaysone with two of his classes, the primary and mixed class. Taking turns proofreading his english textbook (sooo many mistakes) and teaching the class by writing words on the whiteboard and helping with pronunciation and recognition. This was made all the easier as a chicken ran through the class while Dotahn was teaching the word ‘hen’ to the class. Then on to past and present tense and the verb ‘to be’. Arg, it must be hard to learn english and we certainly need more practice teaching it. The kids were shy, but happy to have us in the class and a few kids really tried to engage us in conversation. A couple even asked for our signatures.
After class Phaysone was so appreciative for using “our precious time” to work with him, even though we explained it was our pleasure and our time was open. He took us to his families little restaurant for noodle soup and some home distilled rice whisky, otherwise known as Lao Lao and discussed the difference in cultures with him interpreting his brother in the conversation. We wanted to help him get other traveles involved as he said it was the best way to learn for the kids, thus emails were swapped so we could send him information on volunteering.
Wow, an amazing couple of days. Take that Lonely Planet and thankyou to mystery wishballs.