Delightful SE Asia – And Only There
— Jakarta, Indonesia —
This is my very first look at Indonesia, so I keep my eyes open. The minibus takes me from the airport to central Jakarta. Suburbs are supposed to be drab, but I hadn't expect them drab like this. The rain just adds to the depressive scenery.
At a huge intersection, we stop for a red light. A middle-aged, middle-class lady in white jeans and floral blouse waits to cross the road. She stands on the boardwalk next to a puddle.
A rumpled Toyota approaches fast and drives full-speed into the puddle next to the lady. A gentleman driver could easily give the puddle a berth or slow down, in order to protect the lady on the curbstone. But no, the careless Toyota fully rushes through the puddle.
The lady gets a broadside of muddy water all over her white jeans and floral blouse.
The lady smiles. No, she laughs.
— Sa Dec, South Vietnam
"Don't take me to another pagoda or Ho-Chi-Minh-statue", I plead to Mr. Lan, my private local guide. "And I don't need the famous flower garden either, the one where Jacques Chirac and all stopped by. Boring." We lounge around a petite coffee stall between market and river.
Mr. Lan looks puzzled. Do I want to fire him? "Eehm…", he asks cautiously "- but where can we go then?"
"I want to meet people and to see nice countryside", I tell him. "Maybe you know some people on the farm we can visit for coffee? We’ll bring a present of course."
Mr. Lan thinks hard: "You mean… you mean you want to go the village and meet village people?"
"Just that! Can be your family, too."
Mr. Lan says "Hmmmm…". He points across the river. "My friends stays over there. They have rice fields and an orchard."
"That's great! You think it's possible to visit them?"
"But you are sure you want to go there?"
"Yes! Let's buy some fruit, then we go, ok?"
We raid the market for apples and strawberries, the more unusual kinds of fruit, then we hire a rowing boat to take us across the water. The other side of the river sees very few westerners. We need only one more short hop on a xe om, a motorcycle taxi, until we meet quite a decent family-home built of concrete with a leafy garden in the front.
The farmer-owner welcomes Mr. Lan with a friendly smile. Only then he realizes that there is a westerner in tow. The farmer-owner startles for two seconds – then he flashes a great welcome smile to me, points to the garden bank and rushes for coffees and water.
Ten minutes later the twelve-year-old son of the house appears. He welcomes Mr. Lan with a friendly smile. Only then the kid realizes that there is a westerner, too. The boy startles for two seconds –
– then he flashes a great welcome smile to me.
— Luang Phabang, North Laos —
Paddong. Boink. Squeeeek. Shrappshrappshrapppp. Dongdongdong. On a dilapidated Chinese rental bike, I cruise quiet side roads of Luang Phabang. At a snail’s pace, I bounce along cobbled stones and bomb craters in the heart of Laos' pagoda capital.
Further up the road, a group of street kids play petanque with their flip-flops. They wear torn shorts and nothing else. But what is this? As I slowly approach, they suddenly stop their game and stare at me, eyes wide open.
I slowly cycle on. I don't know why I should raise such an alarm with small dark kids in Luang Phabang. They look at me and gesture fiercely at my bike. Do they believe this bike belongs to them? No, see, here is the name of the rental shop, painted on the frame.
They gesture more. Still cycling slowly, I try to inspect my vehicle.
The kick-stand hangs half down. At the next sportive left-turn, the kick-stand might have scratched along the surface! It might have caused inconvenience.
I stop. I shove the kick-stand back into traveling position, smile "khop chai lai" at the kids and cycle on. One boy nods at me seriously with wide eyes, as if he wants to say: "Better man, THAT was dangerous. Good we took care." Yes, good.
The other kids smile with relief.
— Khon Kaen, Thailand —
I don’t know if this has been rehearsed or not. I sit in my favorite live music pub in Khon Kaen, the capital of Isaan, and listen to spicy mor lam country pop, with around 150 enthusing Thais.
Suddenly a grey-haired westerner climbs on stage. He may be 60 or 65 years old. Everybody else in the audience is 20 to 40.
This pub has no custom of people walking onto the stage, but the westerner gets a big applause just for entering. He looks quite smart in his business trousers and long-sleeves shirt. Tall, slim figure. Band and Mr. Farang whisper, then the band starts to play. Everybody recognizes the schmaltzy guitar intro: It's "Wonderful tonight", Eric Clapton's ode to his wife. Mr. Farang sings it quite nicely, with the odd ironic twinkling in his eyes, like a seasoned entertainer who's seen it all.
Upon the last cry of the guitars, Mr. Farang gets a biiig applause, the audience is very delighted. The westerner smiles, nods, and starts to walk off, back to his table.
Suddenly the keyboard player talks into the microphone: "Khun… Please, wait!" Mr. Farang looks back, makes two steps back towards the stage.
"Where you from", asks the keyboard player?
The westerner smiles. He walks back to his microphone tripod and re-adjusts it one more time:
– the westerner says, and pauses. Another half-ironic smile casually travels across his face –
"…I live in Khon Kaen, of course!"
The westerner gets one more huuuuuge applause.
Do write more about Jakarta if you get the inclination – there is something about the place that I find fascinating.