Once again, we arrived in a riverside town named Nong Khiaw in the pre-afternoon hours. We climbed the stairs from the boat launch and for once managed not to get invited to a full day beer drinking and eating extravaganza before making it all the way up the stairs. It was starting to look like a normal day. However, soon enough we ran into one of the guitar playing Laotian guys from the Chinese New Year celebration a few days ago. He said there is a big wedding in town and that everyone is invited. But first, we wanted to find a hotel and settle down.
We walked across a tall concrete bridge which spans the two halves of the town. What a view! The limestone cliffs frame the left, the wide meandering river flows below, and the hills lined with bungalows are on the right. Everything looks so green and fresh. Once again, we were hoping for a river view. The bungalows right across the bridge were reasonably priced and in a descent shape so we settled down. As we were walking in, a small group of local people was sitting and eating and drinking beers–a familiar sight. One of them waved me down and invited me to sit down. I politely excused myself and said I would join him later. Weronika and I hadn’t eaten yet, and I also had to run around town and take care of a few things before I sat down and started drinking beer Lao style.
Weronika was not feeling well and decided to lie in bed and play solitaire. I headed out onto the town to see if I could find a kayaking outfitter who could arrange a three day trip down to Luang Prabang at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, the only place I found were unreasonable with their pricing, so it looked like the kayaks would have to wait. There was not much to do in the town. The place where the wedding was had people drinking, but I did not feel like going alone, with Weronika lying in bed with the sniffles.
Eventually I did return to our bungalows and brought a few beers with me. I checked on Weronika who was eagerly laying down the cards in solitaire, and went out to meet my new friend. He was the son of the owners of these bungalows and had gotten married just a week prior. His wife just returned from her home village and there was a small celebration. I sat there and talked and drank and ate. The day went by and people came and went. Some other white people–falang–came and joined the celebration at various times. First it was Aryan, the young Dutch guy discovering the joys of traveling alone for an extended time. Later, a German guy who was the manager of the Bamboo School, a local community initiative to provide schooling to Lao children.
At one point two white guys in strange attire came along. They wore black corduroy carpenter pants, white shirts, something resembling a black tie, and black leather hats. They were German. Amish? Hassidic Jews? A bachelor party turned stranger than normal? Nope. They were German carpenters. Their story is quite interesting. They belong to an ancient German carpentry guild hundreds of years old. They completed their studies and now, in accordance of the traditional rules of the guild, they had to leave their home town for three years and a day and go work out in the world. First they had spent a year in Germany working with various carpenters honing their skills. The next year they had spent in broader Europe. Now they were in Laos using their skills to build schools for poor kids. They hitchhike from place to place. When they work their temporary employer is expected to provide room and board. And they are renowned for their good quality craftsmanship and excellent work ethics. SO the next time you see a person dressed like this standing by the side of the road, give them a ride or buy them a beer.
As the night wore on, the Laotians retired to bed. It was just the three Germans, Aryan, and Steve and Melanie. They ate a couple whom I met earlier in the evening wandering the streets looking for an empty room. All the hotels were full. However, the owners of hours let them sleep in the living room. They joined us for a few beers. We sat and drank and no one believed me I had an actual wife back in the room who I was going to check on every so often.
The next day we met up with Aryan and Steve and Melanie at brunch. Aryan said he was just invited to the wedding by the son of the hotel owner we were all staying at. He said all of us were to come as well. His only confusion was that he thought that the son was the groom. We all scrounged up the best clothes we could find and headed across the bridge to the wedding.
The party was going strong. Everyone was sitting outdoors under shaded tent canopies. Round tables were set with haphazard plates and bowls of Lao food. Full bottles of beer and bags of ice sat on the tables, while empties littered the ground. A band played and people danced gently in circles serenely moving their hands to the rhythm.
We joined the table with the son of our hotel owner. We tried to blend in by eating, drinking and dancing. We talked to some people who could speak English and enjoyed our time there. We also met another Polish couple at the wedding who were photographing their way across Southeast Asia. After a few hours we presented a small gift to the bride, said our “thank you’s” and headed out. Before we left, someone mentioned that the next morning there was a funeral and that we should come as well.
Getting up at six in the morning did not come easy to Weronika and me, so we didn’t. We eventually did go out to breakfast where we met Aryan. He did go to the funeral but informed us that it did not happen. Instead, he said, at six in the morning, he ran into a couple of Lao men drunk off their mind at a table in front of a house. Their English wasn’t too good and all he could deduce was that this was a house warming party and not a wake.
Things did get cleared up later when we met Grzegorz, the Polish photographer we had met at the wedding the day before. It was a wake indeed. The actual funeral was four days earlier, and the body was cremated. The celebration takes place over multiple days. This morning was a spirit welcoming party. It consisted of making a fake coffin, decorating it with candy, small bills, and other things which may be needed in the afterlife. This was then brought to the temple, blessed, stripped of a anything useful by kids, and sent off into the afterworld in flames. And everyone is also really drunk.