We sat in the cramped seats of a leaky-window bus, an 11-hour ride from Vientiane up to Luang Prabang. We passed mountains of limestone that rose up like the Angkor towers, dense forest and slash-and-burn fields of black, where smoke spindled like skinny incense. Punctuating the wild were villages of thatched-roofs and rusty satellite dishes, women swatting plastic bags at the flies that hovered over their roadside produce stalls, dirt-faced children who looked up, startled from inside doorways, then smiled and waved.
It was our fourth day in Laos.
I nodded; Alicia was right. There were the racial differences—lighter skin, sharper eyes—but also a kind of impoverished solidity to the people: lean but sturdy, skin firmer, less taut than that of their Cambodian neighbors.
Laos ranks among the world’s poorest 20 countries, and it endured its own US-fueled war and rounds of secret, incessant bombing. But there’s a difference between Laos and Cambodia, a lack of trauma that feels palatable.
We arrived that night in Luang Prabang, the country’s biggest tourist attraction—a Unesco-site of colonial chill. Vientiane was pretty mellow itself, but it’s hard to get a feel for a country by one city, especially its capital, often bound to be wealthier than the rest of the place.
It’s been a week now, and little differences between Laos and Cambodia have continued to reveal themselves to me. Like there aren’t private security guards sitting in plastic chairs outside every restaurant and guesthouse. There aren’t girls, bare arms folded and legs crossed in short skirts, sitting in similar plastic chairs outside of karaokes. I haven’t seen twelve-year-olds on the sidewalk, hunched over and breathing deeply into plastic bags that fill and deflate, fill and deflate, with the rhythm of addiction.
The foreigners are different too. There’s more backpackers, nearly exclusively backpackers, it feels, all wearing a uniform of flip-flops, shorts, Beer Laos tank tops and hungover sunburns. I’ve only seen a few Western white men with local women, and in most of those instances, they’ve had mixed-race children in tow. I haven’t seen any older burn-out travelers, with missing teeth and weathered skin and the particular wiriness that decades of addiction bring (think Iggy Pop in sandals).
I’ve read the newspaper a few times; it hasn’t been filled with stories about child rapes and murders and bizarre happenings (ie: a monk being disrobed for getting caught having sex with a married woman). Signs in my guesthouses haven’t advised me against having sex with children. I don’t finish all my food at a street stall, go to pack it up and take with me, then realize there aren’t street kids to give it to. There’s sidewalks, and the electrical wires stretch down the streets in smooth, discernible lines.
I hadn’t expected these differences. They’d existed in Thailand, but Thailand is wealthier, didn’t survive a war just a few short decades ago. I’ve been experiencing them as a series of little moments, realizations, that have started to add up in me, assemble in a line, make some sort of shape—a constellation of tragedy, a map of the way tragedies continue to exist in us, reverberating like sound waves or the rings inside trees when you cut them down and turn them sideways.
Cambodia, I’d thought, didn’t seem like a place that a genocide had occurred in. Phnom Penh, when I’d first arrived and walked its blossom-lined streets, didn’t seem like a city that had been evacuated, abandoned, left to crumble and rot for four years.
But the longer I’d stayed, the more I’d become aware of these strange things, little fucked-up moments that sparked and burned like dying stars. They felt like glimpses in to something too terrifying to look at squarely. So I suppose I didn’t look, didn’t think about them more deeply than a passing pang. This is how you deal with suffering, the same way I step over junkies in the Tenderloin: you build a wall around yourself, and you need this wall—if you let it all in, you might snap, go over into that dark side you’ve glimpsed and not ever come back. It happens; it sounds dramatic but you’ve seen it happen, like the kid in middle school who takes too much acid one night and is never the same. It could be you.
What I mean to say is that I normalized all the trauma in Cambodia, in the way people normalize everything—begging children and tuk-tuk drivers that couldn’t read maps, karma-scarves faces atop pick-up trucks, eyes that blazed black in the dust.
Sometimes it takes leaving a place to really know it—the way I’ve come to know the US much better by having traveled outside it. And now that I’m in Laos, somewhere chiller and possessed by a less horrible history, I’ve suddenly become aware of all these observations that were collecting quietly in me. It’s made me reconsider Cambodia, redefine it by a comparison country. And oddly, it’s made me miss it, crave it, the way we love things we can’t save.
“I was glad I went,” Suki said as we strolled the night market tonight. “There were some cool moments and it was really educational, but man,” she paused, shook her head slightly and her earrings followed her, glimmering, “I was ready to leave. It was heavy there.”
“How do you mean?” the writer in me asked, wanting details, specifics, scenes to cite.“I don’t know, it was just this heaviness in the people.”
I looked around at the gentle bustle and glowing lights of the market, and nodded. “I think I know what you mean.”