By any standard, learning the Lao language is no piece of cake. The Lao script is based on an old Thai script. There are no spaces between written words in Lao. As the Lonely Planet Lao phrasebook bluntly informed me, “The rendering of Laos words into Roman script is a major problem as many Lao sounds, especially certain vowels, do not occur in English. There is no official system of transliterating Lao, and [even the] Lao government is incredibly inconsistent in this respect.”
Lao is also tonal. But not just two or three tones – there are six of them. As Mike learned the hard way, the same sentence can mean: “I go to the office”, “buffalo go to the office”, or “male organ go to the office” depending on your tone. Seeing as how we seem to be incapable of even hearing the difference between some of these tones, I can foresee some challenges.
I have, however, picked up my first Lao word, sabaidee.
Sabaidee means hello – a friendly hello. You can also use it as goodbye. This is one word you hear everywhere in greeting and farewell, and on Friday night all the local staff Mike works with decided to formally say a friendly hello by inviting us to a banquet, that night, in our honour.
Kapono, his deputy, informed Mike of this plan at 3pm Friday afternoon.
The chosen restaurant was a five minute drive out of town, through a stand of coconut trees and out to the banks of the Khan river. When we arrived most of the office staff were already there, about forty of them, standing around on the tile patio overlooking the river, talking, laughing, and drinking Beerlao.
A word about beer… I don’t like it. I never have. I know that this is unusual for an Australian – it’s practically cultural heresy. But what I hadn’t known before I got here was that, in Laos, beer is similarly venerated. Beerlao, with its charming slogan, “beer of the wholehearted people”, is officially the national nectar. And, while refusing a drink in Australia won’t earn you much more than mockery, here it’s just not on. As Kapono said as he handed me a full glass of beer as soon as we arrived, “In Laos, drink together very important. Make like family.”
I looked from the beer, to Mike.
“Put some ice in it,” he said to me, sotto voce. “It’s better cold.”
So I loaded it up with ice, and I drank – again, and again, and again. For every two or three minutes someone would wander up to clink glasses with us and make an incomprehensible toast to health or life or work or happiness. And, as Mike informed me gently, if you toast, you must drink. And if someone wants to toast, you must toast.
And so I stumbled through the evening, a cultural neophyte, but learning fast. I learned for example, to be more careful in the future about what I put in my mouth when it’s battered and fried and I don’t know quite what might be inside. I learned to take Kapono seriously when he leans over the table, wiggles a cautionary finger at the fish, and says; “I think many many chili for you.” I learned that at Lao banquets, after everyone has finished eating the many many chilis, there will be very loud karaoke. And I learned that when there is karaoke, there is usually dancing.
Oh yes, dancing. Not swing dancing, mind you, or ballroom, or even disco – all of which I can make a decent go of. But something of a slow, stylized, Thai-esque, line dance.
As the guests of honour, I also learned that Mike and I were expected to open the dance floor. Mike smiled at me again as we got up to follow Kapono and his partner Aelan to the dance floor – a sort of coded apology for failing to forewarn me of this special privilege – and I smiled back. For what else can you do in front of forty watchful pairs of dark and merry eyes?
And so we danced. Or, more accurately, we shuffled after Kapono and Aelan, trying to imitate their tiny steps and fluid, twisting, hands. Above us a disco ball was generating a neon meteor shower – a hail of purple and green stars flashing across Mike’s face.
I tried. Aelan tried too.
“Look,” she said, slowing down her graceful fluttering and breaking down the moves for me. But in the five long minutes that we tripped in a circle to Nampang’s heartfelt wails, it was no good. One of my hands was supposed to twist in while the other faced out, and then they should have reversed. Here my thumb was supposed to be angled down – lightly kissing my first finger. There my fingers were to spread like a fan. I could master each of the poses in isolation, but I simply could not make my hands move simultaneously as they were supposed to – fluid and independent, in opposite directions.
I looked at Aelan again. She smiled.
“It is easy,” she said to me.
She meant to be encouraging.