Stickman Readers' Submissions January 30th, 2002

A One Night Stand In Savannakhet

In December 2001 I was travelling in Laos for the second time, this time in the southernmost part, around Paksé in Champasak province. I had entered the country via Chong Mek (Ubon) and wanted to go back to Thailand at Mukdahan, crossing the Mekhong River from Savannakhet. So at the end of my stay I had to go from Paksé to Savannakhet, that's a journey of about 270 km which can be accomplished in roughly 7 hours (the amazing slowness of land transport in Laos would also be an interesting topic but is not my main concern here).

By the way, at this point it's already time for a small insertion. Because while I was en route to the checkpoint at Chong Mek, a 17-year old Thai schoolgirl talked to me and invited me to her parent's house in a shabby, dusty farmer's village called Ban Hin Sung, just 1 or 2 km away from the Lao border and only accessible on a dirt road, where I stayed overnight. Another remarkable experience. Just to anticipate your most urgent questions: Yes, she was very cute, but no, she was a decent girl and no, we didn't even sleep in the same room. On the other hand, I think she told me her older sister works in BKK, and when you hear that, you cannot help thinking, "Oh well, what kind of job could she be doing there?" and "How are the chances of her younger sister ending up in Pattaya once the parents need more money?" But maybe that is just our imagination playing a trick on us when we see a farmer's daughter in the classical home region of the farang scene bargirl. Her family were a bit surprised, but very hospitable. We also visited the father's fields, vegetable garden and orchard outside the village and climbed a tamarind tree to gather fruit. Of course I hadn't planned this additional stop and didn't really have so much time either, but it was fun anyway. The funniest thing was that the girl decided to address me as "ajarn" (teacher, professor) as I was a) 9 years older than her, b) a "smart, cultured, worldly" farang and experienced traveller and c) a student. Or whatever the reason. So let me do some promotion for Isaan here once again and invite all of you to visit this fascinating region with its sometimes rather impolite, but nevertheless funny, warm-hearted and super-friendly inhabitants. And people from Ubon seem to be among the friendliest of them all. In April 2001 I had already experienced something similar when I was invited to spend the night in a policeman's house in Khong Chiam (BEAUTIFUL scenery on the banks of the Mekhong) who had also met me on the bus. Yet another thought: imagine something like this to happen in a farang country…

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Now, in order to come back to the main thread, after the bus to Savannakhet had finally left the "bus station" at the market in Paksé, it stopped once again to pick up some more passengers after hardly 500m or so. I was sitting on the right side, occupying two seats as there was plenty of space left. Apart from me, there were 3 other farang men on board: 2 Canadians travelling together and one German guy, all seated behind me, on the left hand side. Among the people boarding the bus now was a young Lao woman who smiled at me as she passed me and sat down right behind me. I'd say her appearance was so-so, really not a stunner, but quite nice.

First nothing happened, but after 10 minutes, when I was studying something in my notebook or looking at some photos, I cannot remember exactly, she suddenly leaned over the back of my seat with open curiosity and asked me something. When she realized I could speak enough Thai to lead a fairly decent conversation (or a basic one with Lao people) the whole story took off. Her name was Lantoum and she was 20 years old and on the way home to Vientiane (a nice 670 km journey). According to what she said, she had just visited some friends or relatives in Paksé. She couldn't speak English. During the next short stop, she got off the bus to buy some food, and after that the other westerners and I were fed with small bananas… She wasn't shy at all, happily addressing all of the male strangers, but her attention still focused on me. Then the bus stopped again for around 45 minutes at a bus station some kilometres outside of Paksé, the regular starting point for the trip to the north, where you had to purchase your ticket from a booth. Now the girl grabbed her bags and started moving to another seat in the back, complaining that she felt annoyed by the cigarette smoke of a man sitting next to her or behind her. I already thought this would be the end of our talk, but somehow she decided to propose me that we could sit there together, which I happily accepted. I mean, I wouldn't have dared to ask, as it might have been embarrassing for her. So we suddenly found ourselves as a pair on the last bench on the left side, behind all the other western guys and directly at the back of my fellow-countryman from Germany. Later we got out to buy the tickets. There's one funny thing about this, as the seller normally puts the name of the passenger on the appropriate line on the ticket. Now we westerners wondered what she had written in our case, and Lantoum read it and told us that it simply said "falang", which caused a lot of laughter.

Finally we left the bus station. On my journeys, I always carry some photos (of my home town, family, winter landscapes etc.) with me, and now I found it was time to show them. Lantoum also had some pictures at hand, and after that, it was the turn of the guy in front of us. He sometimes turned around and participated in our conversation, and I tried to translate his explanations into Thai/Lao. Hours passed, and I had time to think about my situation. Somehow it was funny, it seemed I cannot travel by bus in Laos without an Asian girl sitting beside me (cf. my story "A Trip To Laos")….

Anyway, this was only the beginning. As we were becoming acquainted and the girl was getting tired, she first nestled against me and laid her head upon my shoulder, then finally wanted to lay down and asked me if I was OK. So we ended up like some couple in love, or I don't know what I must have looked like. A little bit improper, at least. She had put her head in my lap, covered herself with a thin jacket and grabbed one of my hands. Fortunately not so many people were able to see us. The German guy in front of us found it rather funny. Now isn't this a kind of strange behaviour for a decent Asian girl? It just wasn’t clear to me what kind of person she really was. A prostitute? No, it didn't seem so likely. I was a bit confused, and actually I still don't know it as I am writing this story.
At one point she had already told me that she would also stay in Savannakhet for the night and travel on the following day because the trip was too inconvenient if made in one leg. And she had also indicated that we could find us a hotel room together! But I wasn't sure if that would become reality. Things can change very quickly in SE Asia, and I didn't rely on that option. Like many times before, I just decided to wait and see what would happen.

But after we had finally reached Savannakhet and disembarked around sunset, Lantoum organized a tuk-tuk and asked the driver for a hotel in the mid-price category. Then she asked me if I wanted to come with her, and I agreed, still not sure if she really intended to share one room with me or not… This question was answered when we arrived at the hotel. The price for the two-bed room was 45,000 Kip, that is about 250 Baht, which she paid without hesitating and without seeming to be overly embarrassed to have a farang man in tow. Then again there was a strange moment when we entered the room and she was a bit uncertain for one second and asked herself aloud, "Why don't they have a room with separate beds?" – Whereupon I thought, "So what do you want then? Invite a stranger to stay in the same room, but not to sleep in the same bed with you?" And I still had no idea how this was going to end. I mean, I didn't expect her to have sex with me, but it had become more and more likely during the course of the day. And now she suddenly wanted to turn round? OK, it's no use to try and understand Asian women. Please don't get me wrong, I wasn't angry at her, just slightly confused.

Each of us showered, then we talked and she came up with something like "I want to take you to a Lao disco where you can meet many beautiful women." So it was getting even stranger and more confusing. What the hell was she trying to propose? To look for another woman (a prostitute?) and take her back to the hotel? How would that work? No, I wanted Lantoum herself, if any girl at all. And I wanted to eat something and then go to bed, not to a disco! Well, we went to have dinner in a nearby restaurant, then returned to the room. As both of us were quite tired, we finally ended up in bed. And yes, we ended up having sex. Don't ask me how, it was rather strange, like everything in this story. Anyway, suddenly she called out "number one!", got up and produced something from her bag. It turned out to be a giant box of Lao condoms (manufactured in Taiwan) – the famous "Number One" brand, advertised at every pharmacy. They come in packages of three, and this box had maybe 15 packages in it! Again I wondered what kind of person she was and what she was carrying this for.

No details here about the actions that followed. Only some short remarks: She behaved a bit strange, for example she didn’t want to uncover her breasts! She also told me she had only slept with 2 other men before. So how come she approaches a farang and decides to stay in the same hotel room with him, just as if it was something perfectly normal for a decent Asian woman? Anyway, try not to think and analyse too much in Thailand, Laos or elsewhere in SEA, better just be impressed and enjoy.

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Now after we had finished, I thought the silly idea with the disco had been forgotten once and for all, and I was preparing to sleep. It was maybe around 9:30 PM now and the day had been a little bit strenuous, but Lantoum seemed to have livened up and consequently returned to that old topic again. And she was still very fond of the idea and kind of insisted on getting dressed and going out again.

So now it was time for an amazing experience, the Lao disco… The nearest establishment of that kind was directly opposite the hotel and next to the restaurant where we had eaten. Before entering, we returned to the restaurant to pick up a young girl (the owner's daughter, I think) who must have told Lantoum that she would come with us if we should go to the disco. She looked like at least 16/17 and I was quite surprised when I found out she was only 13 when talking to her later.

Well, "disco" – it was a fairly dark room with many low tables and sorts of sofas grouped around them and a small stage and dancefloor at the back. Most people were sitting at the tables, chatting and drinking beer. So did we. Then Lantoum tried to convince me to go in front of the stage and dance, but I refused, so the two girls went together while I remained seated, reflecting about the course of the day and the strange setting I was currently in, and hoping I could get out of this place soon. Generally speaking, I don't like discos, mainly because I'm into a different kind of music, i.e. rock/metal. Talking about that, how would you imagine the music played by the live band in that venue? I don't really know how to describe it properly, but it was a mixture of pop and traditional Lao music. Definitely not like Thai pop music, more like the Isaan style mor lam (if anyone knows what that is), involving that rather complicated art of finger dance.

Finally (and reluctantly) I also ended up on the dance floor – first round with Lantoum, then with the young girl. Of course I was the only foreigner, and I didn't know how to dance and how the other people would react at my sight. I tried to imitate their movements – basically you had to take a few slow steps towards your partner and then back again, all the time gently moving the upper part of your body, your arms and hands in an elegant manner. But it turned out to be not so difficult at all. The atmosphere was very relaxed and friendly. Nobody was making fun of me; most people smiled at me indulgently and reassuringly. After some time I began to enjoy it and even invented my own dance figures. So in the end I had to change my opinion – yes it WAS a bit silly, but also a lot of fun. But when the young girl and I came back to the table, Lantoum had disappeared. We waited for some minutes, then the girl went to look for her in the ladies' toilet, but couldn't find her, so we decided to leave. Neither of us had an idea why and where she had gone. The most convincing assumption was that she had returned to our hotel room, only I still had the keys! Anyway, we tried and had a look. The door was not locked, and what did we find? Lantoum was lying in bed, half asleep. She had really gone back because she was sleepy and obviously asked the porter to open the door for her, but she hadn't told us she'd leave the disco! So it was time to say good night for the young girl, then I joined my new acquaintance to finally get some sleep after this interesting day.

The next morning we fortunately didn't have to hurry and got up around 10 AM. But the time of leave-taking came closer as I still wanted to go to Surin on the same day and planned to cross the Mekhong before noon, if possible. Lantoum wanted to see me off at the boat pier. When packing our things, she gave me 5 packages of "number one" condoms as a present (or should I say souvenir?). Funny….I couldn't help smirking.

We boarded a tuk-tuk to the riverbank and first had breakfast there, namely gai yang khao niao, roasted chicken with sticky rice (wow, at least one cliché in my story…). Of course my female company couldn't do without som tam, which is called tam mak hung in Laos and a good bit less spicy than in Isaan (that is to say, also edible for the average farang…). It was windy and quite cold, some of you wouldn't believe how unpleasant the weather can sometimes get during the cool season in Isaan/Laos and the North of Thailand. But what am I saying there…while I am writing this, it's about 10° C here in Europe and I'd call that rather "mild" (for January). Everything is relative, and your personal viewpoint always depends on the circumstances.

But that meal reminds me of something else. Of course, Thai and Lao languages are closely related to each other and very very similar. But in addition to that, some Lao person told me they watch Thai TV most of the time, so they learn to understand and speak Thai quite easily. In the case of Lantoum, it seemed she had only seen the more sophisticated programs (if something like this exists at all on SE Asian television), because she used to prefer the somewhat nobler expressions. Like in khun dja thaan arai, what do you want to eat? It sometimes sounded a little stilted to my ears. As far as I'm concerned, she could have used that good old word kin (same in Lao language!) instead of thaan… I often thought, "you don't have to be involuntarily polite to me". Funnily, on the other hand, Lao people NEVER make use of polite particles, even if they speak some sort of Thai and not Lao.

Anyway, then we had a closer look at the Savannakhet Immigration checkpoint, only to find out that I had to wait three hours for the next passenger boat to Mukdahan and that my schedule was seriously in danger. I had imagined there would be a ferry every 30 minutes or at least every hour because there is quite a lot of border traffic in that area, for example to and from the Indochina Market. Reportedly the reduced frequency was due to the fact that it was a Sunday, but who knows? As Lantoum wanted to travel on to Vientiane by bus and couldn't wait any longer, we finally had to say goodbye. She gave me her photo, then asked me for some money, 500 Baht, to cover her expenses. Remember, she had paid the hotel room and also the beer in the disco and the tuk-tuk rides. So it was OK, and of course I gave her the money. The farewell scene really wasn't too spectacular, no big feelings involved. And no resentments left. I think both of us could be quite happy how things had developed; both of us had had some fun. And apparently she didn't want any money for the sex.

Now the question that remains unanswered until the end: What kind of woman was this…? What was her motivation? And could something similar happen to you in THAILAND as well? I don't have a definite answer, but I have some thoughts on this matter. I think one important point to consider here are the differences between Thailand and Laos, especially the respective societies.

Guidebooks hold that there's no such thing as prostitution in Laos. While I am really not sure about this, there are definitely some differences between Thai and Lao women and their position / status in society.

According to my experience, (young) Lao women often appear to be less shy and more self-confident than their Thai counterparts. If you just talk with them, it will hardly ever bring them in a difficult (embarrassing) situation. I would say it is seen as quite normal, innocent, inconspicuous.

So it's time for some speculation now: They must be educated in a slightly different way than Thai girls; they might have more of a self-consciousness due to the (somewhat) socialist order in Laos which might pay a bit more attention to the emancipation of women; they don't have to care about their reputation so much because of traditional reasons or because there are no??? – or not many – prostitutes in Laos (compare this to Thailand: in a country with so many bargirls and such a dubious reputation, it's really no wonder that all the "normal" girls try to behave even more decent in order not to be mistaken). And maybe what Lantoum did is an accepted (if not a "normal") behaviour for a Lao woman, but I don't know, maybe it's just an illusion…

Stickman says:

You probably just increased tourism to Laos! This girl sure wasn't a prostitute, probably just a regular girl who happened to like you. As stated, the 500 baht was simply to cover the expenses that she had already paid for. Sounds like both parties had a nice time.

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