Friday, 21 November 2014

Postcard from Laos: Hotel in a bath tub

Our hotel in Muang Mai was down a narrow dirt alley. It didn't even look like a road as much as a space between houses, but there was a sign saying guesthouse with an arrow clearly indicating this path and a woman in a little shop across the street made what must be the international symbol for sleep and waved us down the little lane, so with some trepidation, we went. Chickens scattered, dogs barked, and people stared as we bumped our way over the potholes for 200 m before the road ended at a river. Beside it was the most wonderful covered patio with polished wood tree trunks as the tables and chairs, and beside that was a guesthouse. This was our first accommodation experience in Laos, so we weren't sure what to expect. What we got was a slightly musty smelling room with dirty walls that needed painting, a hard bed, a ceiling fan, windows with shutters and screens (yay, no mosquitoes!), and a bathroom with a gecko, a broken water heater, and a toilet that was a porcelain hole in the floor (we were provided with a large bucket of water and a ladle for flushing purposes).  For this, we paid 60,000 Lao Kip, or $8.44 Canadian, but I felt like I was really paying for the privilege of sitting by the river outside.  The peaceful sound of the water, the golden afternoon light, the sweet taste of fresh, ripe mango, and David Copperfield on the iPhone – perfect! 

 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."

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