Archives for posts with tag: Laos

If there is one thing that I have learnt in the past ten years cavorting with the homosexuals, is that gay bars sort of look the same everywhere. Like entering a Mark and Spencer’s department store anywhere in the world, you can have some confidence about what you will find and what you won’t. Cheap-ish polyester and cotton clothes and huge snack selection shall be waiting for you regardless of whether you are in Milton Keynes or Kuala Lumpor (although I hope for you, dear reader, that you are not in Milton Keynes).

Stepping into a gay bar you can expect decent music (usually either 70s and 80s vintage disco or more contemporary pop beats, which nowadays will alas involve some Lady Gaga crap). Patrons will most likely fall in the either good, the beautiful and the bad type; there will be people that realised they were in a gay bar only after having been seated (and its corollary of straight men partly flattered by the attention and partly freaked out). Drinks won’t be too expensive, some guy will be wearing a sleeveless t-shirt even though it’s January and around midnight all the single men will turn into post-modern cinderellas waiting for a charming prince to take them home, for nothing is more bitter to a dapper gay man than enduring hours of bad pop music only to end up going home alone.

Save for a pool table (boy have I seen weird stuff in gay clubs, but a pool table??!), I didn’t feel like I was venturing out of my comfort zone. Weird if you consider that Luang Prabang is yes the tourist capital of Northern Laos, but is also in a place that until 1990 was linked with the outside world by unpaved roads. It was the only bar in Luang Prabang where there were as many locals as foreigners, maybe because the Lao customers were not expected to get a drink but could just hang out in a gay friendly space.

The owner, a very friendly Laotian in his 20s, explained to me that he had left his business in Vientiane to move to Luang Prabang because he liked the vibe. He said he expects to open a wine bar on the main street, a bar that would be ‘same same but spicier’. I looked around: a clingy couple holding hands and sighing at one table, a girl kicking everyone’s ass at the pool table and wondered how such a welcoming space could exist in a town of 26000 inhabitants, in one of the poorest Asian countries (Laos is supposed to graduate from low- to middle-income country by 2020, insh’allah). Laos simply defies all explanations I have for its tolerant attitude towards homosexuals. You tend to associate the gay rights movement with affluence (but some countries that are twice as rich as Laos are not nearly half as open), religion ( nearby China shares the same religion and even the same one-party communist system, but it is not a champion of gay rights), political pluralism (did I mention that Laos is a one-party state?) or social fabric (Laos is a multi ethnic society where ethnic affiliations can be important). Also, Laos is not a freewheeling place on the sexual side of things: sexual relations between a foreigner and a Lao can only happen through marriage and public display of affection is frowned upon. Laos does not seen to have as bad a prostitution problem as nearby Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand (and trust me, as a single white male travelling solo you don’t have to do much effort to find some ‘part-time companion’).

I cannot claim that my short visit allows me to speculate as to why Laos society is so accepting and where the exceptionalism comes from. I can only wish that more sleepy provincial towns (in developed and developing countries alike) had more places like the bar I went to in Luang Prabang.

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The night bus ride from Vientiane, the capital of Laos to Luang Prabang was supposed to take eleven hours. It took seventeen. The distance is approximately 400 km.
The rainy season had caused landslides and various other shenanigans while also coating some parts of the road (the main road leading to the North of the country) with thick red mud.
Around 4 am we stopped because a truck was stuck in the mud and it could not be unstuck until there would be more sunlight.
Eventually we got going again, climbing steep and curvy roads, following the course of rivers, driving through hills with patches of vegetation missing, a sort of ecological alopecia induced by the illegal logging that feeds into the Chinese and Vietnamese manufacturing industry, for Laos is so poor it does not really have any industry.
As I was thinking back at my two days in Vientiane, catching up with a friend and soaking in the city’s sleepiness and provincial bonhomie, our bus eased its way on a road that had cracked up into half and seen an entire lane washed into the river. After barely pushing through and seeing the murky waters opening their arms to us, we arrived at a rest stop.
Some of the Laotian passengers went for their noodle soup break and I bought some sliced pineapple. I noticed a sign advertising clean toilets (with western seats!) and was waved in by this old woman who perhaps had the sharpest business acumen in a 50 km radius and managed to spot a great business opportunity while leaving basically in the middle of nowhere. I thought that if she hadn’t been born in a little village, but somewhere suburban in the West she would have probably graduated top of her MBA class.
Upon exiting the toilet (with western seat!) I looked to my left and saw the most breathtaking landscape opening up in front of me, something for which the woman could have charged an admission ticket: endless hills, with nothing built on them, soaked in mist and clouds.

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