Couchsurfing in Vientiane

Somewhere in Vientiane's quiet downtown, I leaned against the cracked walls and fading paint of an old French storefront to await my rendezvous with a Lao friend. We'd never met before, but his screen-name was Lucky. He'd kindly offered to be my couchsurfing host in Laos' capital city. 

A moonfaced young man soon hopped off his motorbike and skipped towards me with a round smile, then jumped back on with me behind him. He whisked us through the low-key, colonial-era backstreets to Vientiane's main riverfront drag, then turned down a dirt lane that appeared to lead nowhere. Off to the west the sun hung low across the Mekong and our trail seemed to hit a dead end against its muddy banks. Lucky curved along the shore and ramped up a long narrow wooden bridge to speed over a stretch of swampy wasteland. On the other side was Lucky's "village," a small cluster housing the humble abode of Lucky's family.

Stooping through the low doorway, various family members launched into warm welcomes. Lucky's dad smiled a friendly sabai di, his brother-in-laws rose to greet me, his sisters shot laughing glances and giggling whispers, and his nephews pointed in curiosity, half-hiding behind the doorway behind. His wiry mother ran for a mat so I could join the circle of bodies on the floor. She then spent the evening on kitchen runs, taking obvious pleasure in keeping everyone comfortably stuffed.

She came back from her second run with a basketful of surprises wrapped in sticky banana-leaves. The first mystery package, she motioned, was intended for me. I watched in horror as she peeled back the fleshy wrapper to reveal a globular white mass of slimy tendrils. It was called khao tom, and it was delicious: sweet, syrupy, and to my relief, purely vegetarian. She slowly brought out more dishes as the evening passed us together, emerging from the grimy florescent kitchen with baskets of sticky rice we rolled into balls and scooped in a spicy fish sauce. The beerlao delivery woman soon showed up with a twelve-pack of cold bottles that quickly disappeared, and Lucky's energy-stocked mom came out with yet another basketful of khao tom. Lucky informed me she'd prepared these treats for her ancestors. Still, she seemed to mind about as much as I that they were intended for dead people, insisting I force down more.

Just before midnight, Lucky rode us back across the swampy wasteland and the long narrow bridge to check email, one of his nightly rituals. Lao youth trickled out the doors as we arrived, loitering on bikes and motorbikes, only a few stragglers remaining around the small cluster of computers to fight virtual battles, shoot up the neighborhood with uzis or chat with friends in other identical internet shops around town. They might have wished for there to be a single girl in the shop. Lucky checked his email. His faithful relationship with the internet and the contented, whipped look in his face as he typed away told me it was the highlight of his busy day. As he said on the ride home: who needs a girl when you've got the internet?

Lucky's mom awoke at 4AM and may or may not have tried to rouse me from sleep. It was Horkhaopadapdin, a name I'll probably never get down without the aid of Ctrl-C. On this day, offerings are made all over Laos to relatives passed on. Since the younger generations are generally less concerned or connected with the dead (and laugh at the idea of waking up before 6AM), an elderly crowd gathers in the predawn darkness to remember friends and family on the other side, ask the guardians of hell to release various ancestors so they can enjoy the khao tom, and pray for good luck in the upcoming year. Lucky said his mom wanted to take me along for the quiet, candlelight procession towards the cemetery, but either nobody woke me up or somebody tried to no avail. When my morning came the sun was out and Lucky's mom was well into the daily chores, shuffling happily about the house as though she'd just popped some speed, apparently content with the omens cast that morning, and unconcerned that I'd missed the "H" festival. Lucky, on the other hand, didn't seem too concerned with the dead or waking up very early. 

Between two nights at Lucky's home I explored the city's ancient and modern sites by bike and took a couple longs walks along the Mekong, catching dusty evening soccer games and picnickers by the river, entire families lounging around, seated on or leaning against parked motorbikes; kids and youth dispensing of energy like there'd be no tomorrow as older generations sat back to take in the stunning Mekong sunsets. As I pulled on my pack and started through the open wooden doorway, Lucky's mom offered a final leaf-wrapped khao tom for the road to Vietnam.