Laos didn’t offer a lot in the way of entertainment, either for adults or children, so the expatriate community devoted significant time and energy to creating events as best they could. I love celebrations, but entertaining, both as a hostess and a guest, is a challenge. Because Russell was head of the United Nations Development Programme’s five-part Foreign Investment Project, we were immersed in both aspects of entertaining. For two people who are introverts, the inevitable overload could be trying. Celebrations of holidays — Lao, American and other countries’ — helped lighten the load.
This week, like every week, is busy with social engagements. Tonight, we’re invited to a restaurant dinner for some “visiting firemen.” Tomorrow night, we go to the US reception for the new Asia Society Representative. Saturday, we’re off to an Aussie’s for dinner. Lacking most forms of entertainment that Americans take for granted, that’s what folks do here — a seemingly endless round of dinners and receptions, often more than one a day.
To be fair, many embassies host movies, including the U.S.of A. (The official U.S. presence here is not yet an embassy because of the Vietnam War and Golden Triangle drugs, but recent agreements between the two governments will probably result in this status being upgraded to ambassadorial rank.) The “embassy” shows U.S. movies every Wednesday night. We haven’t gone yet, because they haven’t shown one we’d like to see (somehow, we’re not yet bored enough for “Arachnophobia”). But some good stuff is coming (e.g., “Dick Tracy,” even though we’ve already seen it), so it’s just a matter of time.
Next weekend starts Pimay (“pee-my”) Lao, or Lao New Year, a three-day event mainly marked by everyone sprinkling water on everyone else. Tomorrow, the Ministry where Russell works will have a Pimay reception. At the end of it, we’ve been warned, they’ll probably start scattering water. My theory is that this is an animist practice which has survived and been incorporated into Lao Buddhism; e.g., at the hottest time of year, just before the rains, you do what you want the gods to do — make it rain. I have no backup for this idea, just intuition.
There are important ceremonies at the temples, and it’s also a time of gift-giving. All our household staff will have three days off, and we’re giving each a present.
Last weekend, a Lao friend invited us for a pond-draining and picnic. Lao who own fish ponds drain them at this time of year, cook the fish that remain and throw a big party. There must have been over 30 people, most of them Lao. We were the only Americans among the expatriates
They pumped most of the pond, and then sent in crews to catch the fish. First they used a dragnet to herd the fish down to one end of the pond. Then individual men threw weighted, round nets while others caught fish in their hands. The biggest catch was over two feet long and very delicious. The fish were cleaned, spitted and grilled over a charcoal fire. We also had sticky rice eaten with the fingers, a salad not consumed by some of the foreigners (including this one) because salads are often contaminated with parasites, plus bananas and watermelon.
We had a very busy Pimay Lao. Saturday, we attended the UNDP picnic at the nearby dam and lake. As we rode on the bus through villages, children came out and threw water at us. Because the windows were open, it usually came in, but all the riders, Lao and foreign, treated it as part of the fun, even though some of us got really soaked.
At the lake, we took an hour’s boat ride to an island for the picnic. Everyone brought their own food and also shared. The Lao kept offering saddles of roast goat and potent home brew. What with wine and beer brought by expats, it was a pretty merry afternoon.
On the way back across the lake, everyone got in the Pimay mood and began sprinkling each other with water. Then they poured bottles of water and ended up sloshing each other for the whole trip. We came in for our fair share, too, arriving on shore soaked to the skin. Since we had declined to swim in the lake for fear of water-bourn diseases, it was a bit daunting to now be covered in lake water. However, we don’t seem to have any ill effects, so maybe the holy nature of the “Buddhist baptism” saved us. We had a super time and were glad to have been part of this typical observance of a very Lao holiday.
The next day, our household staff came by to bless us with scented water. After a gentle blessing of water poured down our backs, things got more silly, and we all ended up wet again. This seems to be the general picture — first the blessing, then the fun of getting everyone as wet as possible. Even the most dignified and elderly Lao engage in the whole affair, always with good humor and appreciation.
Later in the day, we visited the two main wats (temples), to see the religious observance. Men, women and children of all ages brought water to the temples and bathed all the statues of Buddha and the Nagas (serpents) who are his guardians. The people also poured water on each other; it’s especially auspicious to be anointed with water which has been caught after streaming over a Buddha. Many Lao — strangers all — came and sprinkled us with water at the temple, all the while smiling and giving good wishes. It was a very lovely and sharing experience.
I should also mention that throughout Pimay, when we patronized our usual shops, they would come from behind the counter and dip a small branch of flowers in water and scatter a few drops on our necks and shoulders, wishing us “Suh-buy-dee Pee-my,” good luck for the new year.
Russell’s birthday party with fellow April-babies featured dinner for 30 with two kinds of cake and a cherry pie (for those who don’t like cake). Then a great round of singing birthday songs from different nationalities before the honorees were allowed to blow out the candles. The Irish and Bretons led us in their folk dances, and we played charades. The party started at 7:30 p.m., and the last person went home at 2:00 a.m. All three hosting families stayed to do kitchen cleanup because Sunday is the maid’s day off.
The Vientiane Players (the VIPs) are a small play-reading group that now and then does live performances for the rest of the English-speaking community. We’ve rehearsed a melodrama to be performed this Thursday in honor of a departing VIP member. Russell plays the villain, Jasper Breakneck, and I’m the heroine, Arabella Lucre.
We attended a Friday evening exhibition of fine silk weaving, the premiere of a video about Lao silk textiles, and a dinner of traditional foods, followed by a performance of a sequence from the Ramayana by the national dance troupe. The fabrics were wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the dance-drama.
The VIPs have gotten beyond melodrama and are now reading Terrence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables.” You may remember it as a movie with Deborah Kerr and David Niven. I doubt we’ll perform it, because the group seems to prefer performing comedies, but it’s nice to do something with a little bite to it.
The U.S. Chargé is having a very formal reception for the Fourth of July. Many Americans are unhappy about this; U.S. Embassies usually host a barbecue and games with the whole family invited. This formal affair will be adults only. We’re dragging out our fancy clothes to swelter in the heat and stand up for God and country. Wonder if the U.S. feels it’s better to keep a low, relatively non-American, profile, so no in-your-face celebration of the Fourth?
The U.S. “Embassy” hosted the first American cultural program since 1974 (before the Lao Revolution) — a troupe of dancers and musicians, all with Hawaiian blood, trained in the royal school in Honolulu. A Hawaiian ethnomusicologist from the East-West Center explained the dances and their significance (even those having to do with the kings’ powerful procreative forces!).
[There’s evidence that Hawaiians are descended from S.E. Asians who sailed across the Pacific to the islands, so there was an underlying connection to this program.]
We’re inundated with invitations to goodbye parties to the point that we’d really rather not go. A party every night is no fun, especially when many of them tend to be rather stiff diplomatic affairs. One friend looks totally exhausted in her last week here, trying to train her replacement, pack up her house and go to all the parties in her honor.
This afternoon, we’re viewing a video made by a Russian journalist about southern Laos, including the last elephants. Laos used to be called “the land of 1000 — some say 1,000,000 — elephants” but those days are mostly gone. It’ll be a real treat to see the video (and a good example of glasnost — when in the last 70 years would a Russian be communicating openly with an American, let alone loaning her a copy of his work?).
The visit of [Russell’s older brother and wife] coincided with one of the major Lao holidays — the end of Buddhist Lent, when boat races are held on the Mekong in celebration. Long, narrow boats with as many as 30 paddlers, sometimes men, sometimes women, race downstream before thousands of spectators who’ve come from far away. I’ve never seen Vientiane so full.
We had about 40 people for our Halloween party. Most of the foreigners came in costume, although most of the Lao did not. It must seem pretty strange to the Lao to see adults all dressed up. We had some great costumes, including the American Chargé as a court jester winning the men’s prize, plus Oliver Hardy, an opera star with balloons creating a giant bosom, a mummy, Fidel Castro, two hula dancers, and a boat racer from the holiday just past.
Tonight, we’re attending a piano concert by Francois-Joel Thiolier, who’s won a number of international prizes. Such events have been very rare in Vientiane in recent years. The pianist’s cousin is the French cultural attaché in Vientiane. When F-J planned a tour to Singapore and Korea, his cousin prevailed upon him to perform here one night.
Ah, but it wasn’t that simple! The French Embassy has no grand piano. However, the American Residence does. J-L holds dual citizenship, American and French, so a deal was worked out, including a reception afterwards hosted by the American Chargé at his expense. The French wanted to move the piano to their Embassy so it could be entirely their show, but good sense and the strong character of the pianist prevailed. Moving a grand piano is a disaster for its tuning.
The invitation calls for “Tenue habillée”, which means all the ladies of Vientiane are rummaging through their closets to outdo each other.
We’ll be celebrating Thanksgiving with another American family. They’re cooking the turkey (they had to kill, pluck and dress it today), corned bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans. We’re supplying home-made rolls, green tomato chutney in place of cranberry sauce, Aunt Ann’s wild rice casserole (with ingredients brought from home last spring), mince pie (from scratch — no prepared mincemeat here) and hard sauce. Obviously, Thanksgiving isn’t a Lao holiday, so the two men will have to take a half-day of annual leave.
We’re about to depart for our Christmas vacation in Thailand’s historic cities of Ayutthaya, Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. I’m not sure how we’ll get Christmas dinner. We’re staying in a traditional Thai guesthouse in Chiang Mai during the holiday. Probably one of the big hotels will have turkey with all the trimmings, and we’ll sign up.
[As it happened, Chiang Mai’s Dusit Inn offered a multiple-course extravaganza, including Christmas pudding.]
The invitation for the New Year’s Eve party at the Australian Ambassador’s residence called for “fancy dress, black tie or casual.” This latter designation was so the Lao would feel free to come, because they usually don’t have black tie and are nervous about wearing costumes during this transitional period — they don’t want to be seen embracing too many foreign customs. R&I went as 1991 and 1992. Most people wore black tie or cocktail dresses, but a number of folks sported fancy dress, including the French Ambassador who won a prize for his impersonation of French actor Gerard Depardeau. His wife came as a turn-of-the-century Parisian belle in a tight skirt with a bustle. Unfortunately, she went to the ladies room and couldn’t get her skirt back down. I happened to be next in line, so I had the honor of being asked to grab it and tug. When it finally didn’t budge (too much dancing and perspiring), the Australian Ambassador’s wife and I cut it off.
We’re going to our first baci (“bah-see”), a traditional Lao celebration of blessing for marriages, births, anniversaries and other life-transitions. Its origins go back to animism, and its main feature is the tying of strings around the wrists of the honoree(s) by all present while murmuring blessings. Before this ritual, there are prayers, and afterwards, food and dancing.
We’ve been doing a fair amount of official entertaining recently. Last weekend, we had our first luncheon with all French-speaking guests — a bit trying, but good practice.
The Women’s International Group hosted Black and White Night, a charity dinner-dance to raise funds for projects benefiting Lao women and children. I spent days making two papier maché zebra heads which we wore with white shirts and black trousers. Feels like there’ve been too many costume events lately, but maybe we all need the challenge.
The Vientiane International School hosted a fundraiser with booths for food, plants, games of chance, used books, used clothing, handicrafts, baked goods, etc. I wish I’d taken a camera, because the whole playing field was covered with colorful parachutes raised on bamboo supports some 20 feet high. We think this must be an adaptation of war materials, because one sees them all over Vientiane — red, gold, blue, green and multi-colored parachute-shapes which have never been used for that purpose. They keep the sun off, let the breeze in and look like the tops of myriad Arab tents.
The Russian Culture Centre started showing Monday night flicks. Last week, it was “Doctor Zhivago”; this week, “Nicholas and Alexandra.” It seems very strange to see Anglo-American movies at the Russian Culture Centre. Obviously, these films have a Western point-of-view, and Dr. Zhivago’s author was prevented from accepting the Nobel Prize by the Soviets. Anyway, it’s glasnost in Vientiane, and Yuri is hosting a series which we’re all enjoying.
We went to a wedding reception that was truly a landmark in changing Laos. 600 guests, a live band, performances by the National Dance Troupe, enough food to feed an army and videotaping. All in the grounds of the Lane Xang Hotel. Few foreigners were invited, so we felt honored. It was a far cry from our Halloween party last year. People danced a lot, and it was the liveliest party that anyone could remember in a decade. Mme. Chantao, the bride and herself a middle-aged businesswoman, is thought to have been very brave to have attempted such a party. She was dressed in traditional Lao attire, red with lots of gold (usual colors for Asian brides). Most of the Lao ladies wore the pa-sin skirt but without the traditional wrapped top, preferring a fancy blouse instead. I wore a silk suit, the skirt light blue and the top in beige, pink and blue with gold threads. Even so, I was underdressed by local standards. There was an abundance of gold thread, gold jewelry and not a few diamonds, emeralds and rubies.
[Here’s another detail, one I didn’t like to share with the family in case they’d worry. I got one of the worst cases of food poisoning I ever had at that party, spending the remainder of the night sitting on the throne and heaving explosively into the shower. God bless Russell, who kept cleaning me up again and again. Luckily, by morning I had it all out of my system and didn’t need further care.]
We had a lovely celebration of our mutual 20th anniversaries with Michael and Monique Mann, who were married on the exact same date. Australian Ambassador Michael hosted the formal dinner at the Embassy with lamb flown from Sydney. The menu included deviled crab in the shell, sautéed artichoke hearts, potato puffs, mixed green salad, angel food cake with chocolate mousse filling and boiled white icing. I did the artichokes and the cake, which was time-consuming but easy, except for the fact that the humidity was very high, and the icing kept going to sugar before setting. Folks were all dressed up, and we had a jolly time (perhaps due to the copious champagne).
[The two families left the next day for a continuing celebration in Hong Kong, but that’s a story for a future post about foreign trips while living in Vientiane.]
This weekend is the annual Christmas Bazaar of the Women’s International Group, raising funds for projects benefitting Lao women and children. There’ll be around 30 booths: one each for Lao, Indonesian, Japanese and Malaysian crafts; plants; a raffle; UNICEF cards; jewelry; used books, clothing and household items; cakes and cookies; hand-printed cards; balloons; face-painting; espresso coffee and Italian ice cream; plus food stalls from the embassies of Russia, Indonesia, Mongolia, India, Japan and Malaysia. Russell and I will be unveiling and selling the 1993 Vientiane Guide [of which I was editor, more of this in the next post]. There’ll even be a money-changer, so you can exchange your dollars for Lao kip and keep on buying!
Russell and I were treated to a wonderful 20th anniversary dinner by L’Opera restaurant. They’d wanted to do it earlier, but we didn’t have time. We arrived at 8 pm, somewhat dressed up. They’d put a special bouquet on our table with a reservation sign hand-written in Italian. They then served a meal created just for us. We started with scallops in a caper sauce. Then over-sized, very thin ravioli stuffed with cheese and garnished with a fresh sauce of coarsely chopped tomatoes and herbs. This was followed by batter-dipped, fried red snapper in a hearty sauce, very unusual. The meal was accompanied by a bottle of Valpolicella Classico and ended with panettone (Italian Christmas cake). Pino and Paolo, the two restauranteurs, each came by to drink our health and to chat a while. One of the things that makes L’Opera such a wonderful addition to Vientiane is that the proprietors treat you as if you’ve come to dinner at their house, and they’re awfully glad you did.
[There’s a photo of L’Opera near the end of the previous post.]
It’s Christmas week, but it doesn’t seem much like Christmas. Laos is a Buddhist/Socialist country, so you don’t see any Christmas decorations, and you don’t hear Christmas music in the stores. Many foreigners here have put up plastic Christmas trees, but they don’t smell right. In Africa, we had a seven-foot tree off the slopes of Mount Meru. Here, we have coco-palms and tree-tall poinsettias.
Still, we’re doing the best we can. The Women’s International Group and the Vientiane International Choir had a Christmas party with carols last week. The Swedes celebrate with St. Lucia. Mike and Monique have invited us for Christmas eve dinner at the Australian Residence.
We just observed Lunar New Year. Both the Chinese and Vietnamese communities were celebrating for three days. Friday, all the shopkeepers of both communities burned fires of colored paper before their stores and set off strings of firecrackers. This scares away the demons and leaves behind a trail of shredded paper on all the streets. They blow about like faded autumn leaves.
Saturday, flag-bedecked trucks full of colorfully dressed drummers went through every neighborhood, again to scare off the demons. Their loud and intricate rhythms punctuated the day.
Sunday, cook Khetmani invited all our household (staff and us) to her home for a Tet party (her family is of Vietnamese descent). We took her a large bouquet which was much admired and appreciated by the entire neighborhood. Lunch included various local dishes, mostly stir-fry, followed by both Western and Lao dancing. We left around 3:00, having come at 11:00 a.m., as invited. We learned later that the party lasted until 9 p.m. and that this is the Lao way — there’s sort of an open house, and people drift in and out. We were the only foreigners among scores of Lao, and we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Other events this week coincided with Australia Day. Mme. Long (our former cook) did herself proud with tidbits on toothpicks in beautiful designs. Although she complains about the amount of work at the Ambassador’s Residence, I think she’s secretly pleased to be in such an important role. Certainly, her talents are suited to all that entertaining.
We hosted a party for all the people who helped us make the official slide-tape show on investing in Laos. We had both Lao and foreign guests, so we danced the lamvong (the Lao national dance) as well as various Western ones. What a contrast with our Halloween party a year-and-a-half ago. Much livelier, the Lao more relaxed. When we played the music for the lamvong, our Lao friends chided us that it was too sedate. This would never have happened in our early days here. One only danced a sedate lamvong in public, and the Lao would never have said anything.
Wednesday was a killer day. We had two high-ranking Lao officials and reps from the Asia Foundation to lunch, which meant putting on a fancy do. At the last minute, one of the Lao officials couldn’t come because her plane was delayed, so we had to reorganize the table in a hurry. Next, I hosted a meeting of the old and new Vientiane Guide Committees at 5:30. This meant baking a cake and fixing coffee/tea after the lunch. Then we hit the shower and changed clothes for a 7:30 reception at the French Embassy. A strain to speak French at the end of a long and tiring day.
We very much enjoyed the Native American program which the U.S. Information Agency brought here. The Ambassador hosted a reception and a preview of the program with performances by Zuni and Lakota Indians — singing, playing drums and flute, dancing. The best dancer by far was a Lakota named Kevin Locke who is considered the finest Native American dancer in the world. It was ferociously hot and humid on the Ambassador’s terrace, but they were all game performers, even though they’re not used to such weather. The public performances were the next two nights, and we went to see the whole show, which was even better than the few numbers performed at the Ambassador’s Residence.
We’re in the midst of rehearsals for “Kowboy Karaoke,” a musical revue written by an American here, using some of the songs from his karaoke set. Russell is the narrator, and yours truly is one-third of a trio that sings “Three Coins in the Fountain” — pretty hysterical when you consider that I have major problems carrying a tune in a bucket. Hopefully, the background karaoke music will help. The event is in honor of the many families which are leaving within a few weeks of each other (us included).
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COMING NEXT MONTH
Laos, 1991-1993: Creating Work
The challenges for a dependent spouse seeking a new life path.
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