“It’s crazy to hear all the tourists come into this bar saying, ‘Oh, the Lao people are so simple and shy and sweet!’ ” said Clara, her magenta lipstick and hearty Irish face framed by graying blond hair.
“I’ve been working here in Luang Prabang for three years now, and I can tell you that Lao people are a whole lot more complicated than tourists assume.”
The nineteen year old Lao waiter with spiky hair came in and Clara spoke to him rapidly in Lao. Apparently the French couple sitting outside didn’t like their wine and were sending it back without paying. Clara made a joke and sent the waiter back out with a smile.
“See him?” she said, “His name is Noi, and he used to be a monk.”
“Most men in Laos become monks for a few years,” Clara explained, “It’s an excellent way to get an education here.”
A bespectacled British professor sidled up to the counter and chimed in. “I was chatting with a monk today– very good English, too!– who told me that his goal is to become a computer technician. He said he wants to go to M.I.T. for school.”
Noi the waiter trotted back inside, still smiling, and Clara gestured dramatically towards him. “Noi is getting married this week!” she declared.
The young man hid his head in his hands, suppressing anguished giggles. At last he peeked up at us and choked out: “Yes. Married.”
Noi blushed. “I maybe have a son,” he said. “So… married.”
“Ooohh…” said Vijay and I in unison, understanding.
“If you meet a Lao man over twenty-five here and he says he’s single,” Clara said as Noi walked out, “he’s lying. Everyone here is forced to get married extremely young. They can’t sleep together unless they’re married, and a Lao woman can go to the police and force a marriage if a man has been sexual with her out of wedlock.”
“Seriously!” Clara cried. “Then once they’re married, I see so many men and women blatantly cheating on their spouses. And then they turn around and say that Western women are sluts because we are sometimes intimate before marriage.”
“Is there a lot of prostitution here?” the professor asked.
“Oh yes,” said Clara . “Some Lao fathers will take their son to a prostitute when he turns fifteen. It’s funny, isn’t it… When sex is for money here, it’s all fine and dandy, but God forbid it be for unmarried love or passion!”
“I don’t know– maybe I’m just having a bad day. I love it here, but I’m torn between different expectations, you know? One minute they want me to adhere to Lao culture and be just like them, even though it’s so different from how I was raised. Then the next minute we all go out to eat, and because I’m the Westerner they hand me the check!”
“Do you hang out with the other expats in Luang Prabang, much?” I asked.
“HA!” Clara let out a hearty laugh.
“They’re nuts, all clumping together and organizing exclusive events. I got this text message yesterday: “Expat salsa night!” and went: DELETE. I mean, there’s a girl who’s lived here three years– just like me– and I’ve never seen her once at a Lao restaurant or Lao event. She doesn’t even speak any Lao. If you’re going to act like that, why be here at all? Why not just stay home in Britain?”
At this point Noi came back in with a package of food from the nearby Lao market. Clara and Noi unwrapped the steamy barbecue chicken and sticky rice, and everyone’s stomach growled. Vijay and I paid up, said our sincere thank you’s, and walked out into the warm night.
The Mekong River winked in the moonlight as Vijay said, “Are you sure you’re not just staying for the pastries?”