Looking out over the low wall, I observed the river activity. There was a Jeep parked in the middle of the river, and a motorbike too, the water barely making it halfway up their tires. There were old people and young people in the river, men and women. What were they doing? The washing, it seemed. Doing their laundry by beating their clothes against the rocks, and giving the Jeep a bath for good measure. But also, I realized with growing embarrassment, washing themselves. Teenage boys stripped to their underwear before getting all soaped up. Women wiggled out of their bras and panties, a sarong tied tightly around themselves to preserve decency. They splashed water on their faces, brushed their teeth, and washed their long hair, submerging themselves in the deeper parts of the river. As it got later and later, more and more people came, each with a small plastic basket holding their shampoo and soap. It seemed like the whole town was taking a bath in front of my hotel. I alternated between gazing determinedly at my book or just as determinedly at the closest bit of shoreline, where a woman, fully clothed, was building a fence. What must these people think of me, sitting here watching them bathe?
Along the road the next few days, I saw more people bathing than I think I'd ever seen before. Women wrapped in sarongs stood in the ditch by the roadside and washed themselves from tiny streams coming off the mountainside. An old woman in a village came out of a makeshift shower hut with just her skirt around her waist, not bothering with the delicacy of a sarong. Across the street from our roadside food stand, a woman slipped gracefully out of her wet sarong and into a towel. A man or boy in briefs was not such an unusual sight. In every village we passed through, the communal tap was busy with someone washing themselves or their clothes. Some had a screen around them and some did not. Habituated as I am to shower curtains that hide me from empty and locked bathrooms as I wash, it was a bit jarring to see bathing be so open and communal.
When we arrived in Luang Prabang, the city known as the jewel of northern Laos, I went to a popular restaurant called the Big Tree Cafe. There, on the wall amongst photographs of elephants and Lao landscapes, were three women, wrapped in sarongs, standing in a river with soap in their hair. One of them was bent over, but looking up, directly at the camera. "Excuse me," she seemed to be saying, "we're in the bathroom here. Please leave and close the door behind you."