December 25, 2007

251206 Silent Night in Nong Khiaw - part 1

Power lines cut = no electricity = no TV/radio/karaoke to mar the peace on Christmas day, hence the title of this post ;)

Back at Sunset Guesthouse, guests who had been looking forward to the hot showers 'promised' in the guidebook write-up had to contend with bathing in freezing cold water. Such is travelling in Laos - expect the unexpected! For more predictable experiences infrastructure-wise, the cat recommends destinations like Japan or Singapore...but bear in mind that even Singapore has had a few major power failures in recent years ;)

The cat was glad that the 'Ban Apa instinct' - to bathe in the afternoon during the cold season when the sun is still up - had kicked in Ban Boun Tai (Phongsaly province) it'd seen some locals bathing as early as 1:30PM in the afternoon, at a standpipe right next to the bus station.

There must be something about Belgian men & 100% candlelight dinners (no artificial preservative, colouring, or electric source of light added) in Laos...6 days ago when the cat met Mr Belgian 1, he was cooking & eating his dinner by candlelight on the rooftop of Muang Sing Guesthouse. Tonight at Sunset Guesthouse restaurant, Mr Belgian 2, Mr & Mrs French & the cat sat down to enjoy a candlelit Christmas dinner in what might be the most 'puritanical' sense of the word - food was not just eaten, but ordered, prepared, cooked, served & paid for & the dishes washed by the flickering glow of candles as well.

Mr Belgian 2 spends several months a year in Laos & Cambodia, & was pursuing some rural development project (construction of wells in villages, etc) in the latter with his own funds, hoping to make a small difference to this world. He had plenty to tell us about Khmer society & corruption in 'Kampuchea' (been a long time since the cat last heard this name used). He would often lapse into French as Mr & Mrs French didn't understand English really well, but the cat managed to catch bits here & there, which it could piece together with stuff it had heard from Singaporean friends who have been involved in some projects in that country.

The cat has never been to Cambodia before, but the first film it ever watched was The Killing Fields. At that time it was just a toddler sitting on the cinema floor with rats scurrying around, watching images of a guy eating a lizard & plenty of people wearing black carrying guns & killing other people on the big screen. Years later, it read a condensed version of Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, learnt the expression 'dam doeum kor' (lit. plant a kapok tree), & realised that the author (who shares the same surname as the cat) was the actor who 'ate' the lizard.

Roughly two months from now back in Singapore, through some strange twist of intertwined fate linked to the people it had met in Laos, the cat would meet with Dr Meas Nee, who had lived & worked in the refugee camps on the Thai border during the years when 'being deaf & dumb' was the way to stay out of trouble with the Khmer Rouge & alive.

As Mr Belgian 2 spoke, two statements kept recurring, about how 'Khmer women are very strong' & that 'Khmer men only want money - money money money'. The first statement seemed rather redundant to the cat, because of the kinda society(ies) it was brought up in - isn't that the (traditional) expectation of Asian women? (Strong or not, you just have to be, since when was it a choice? Like it or not, you are the one who has to hold the family together come hell or high water. & if you're not happy with that, well too bad, you were born a woman...& other lofty stuff preached by the older generation...)

Mr Belgian 2 seemed particularly incensed by the use of the terms 'chicken' & 'chicken farm' to refer to female prostitutes & brothels in Cambodia, & the French appeared similarly appalled. The cat grew up with this slang meaning of 'chicken' (in Chinese, Cantonese, various other Chinese dialects, Thai, Bahasa Indonesia, etc) bandied around in daily conversation & on primetime TV & Hong Kong-made movies, along with 'duck' as the slang for the male equivalent. The cat grew up thinking of it as a sort of euphemism. To the Europeans, it was an insult. On the other hand, some Chinese can be intrigued by the Japanese use of the character 妓 (Chinese for prostitute) for the word 芸妓 (geisha), which technically had no such negative connotation. If cultural baggage could be weighed, all of us could go bankrupt from excess baggage charges? ;)

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