The Outsiders

Attapeu Travel Blog

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Monk washing. Thought it was rude to snap the monks so I zoomed in on their laundry instead. Daring I think you'll agree.
There is a sign hung around the neck of every traveller who ventures beyond the borders of his or her own country.  As the traveller journeys  further from home, into societies where his/her differences with the locals in terms of appearance, habits and knowledge widen, the sign becomes correspondingly larger and more noticeable.

There's only one word on the sign. The language in which it is written may change, it might read "Gringo" in South America, "Falang" or "Farang" in Laos or Thailand or "Gaijin" in Japan. But, whatever the language, the meaning is clear: "Outsider." 

And it's a tricky bugger toting this sign around and being labelled such an obvious outsider, because the word can hold a variety of meanings for every person who encounters it.
OK - maybe I'm just a bit pervy but doesn't her hair plait look just a teeny bit phallic to you?
Of course to you, the traveller, it means that you've dared to push beyond the boundaries of your homeland with its familiar, easily-negotiated rules and quirks. This is no mean feat; boldness gifts the opportunity to learn, first hand, new and interesting things about people and places only otherwise encountered on a TV screen. It also shows you're prepared to escape your comfort zone and to do that, you've got to have a bit of bottle (so well done you).

Seen by the locals, the outsider sign means that everyone in the strange town you've just pitched up in knows what you are and immediately marks you down as "other" to themselves. Some people will tag you immediately as prey and approach either directly or more subtly to tap your perceived wealth.
The river at Attapeu, with a little ferry getting ready to cart a whole load of motorbikes across.
Others will be wary or shy simply because they know that they cannot communicate with you in any depth. And then there are those who are genuinely friendly and will go out of their way to help you, outsider or not, profit or not.                     

As I strolled around the small town of Attapeu, at the end of another fairly lengthy motorbike ride, I felt like the sign around my neck was larger than usual. I was attracting more than the odd curious glance and I heard that word: "Falang" repeated over and again by various locals. It's weird how your ears attune to pick out a particular word when it's the only one you can understand in a language. It also made me a bit paranoid: "What the hell are they saying about me?" In fact, this being an quiet town in a distinctly off season Southern Laos, they were probably just exploring variations on the theme of: "It's unusual to see a falang here at this time of year/at all.
A temple. Yawn - I can't summon up any enthusiasm to elucidate further.

But the feeling of being an outsider grew throughout the day, peaking in late afternoon. This coincided with a walk through the grounds of  the largest of the Attapeu temples. I ended up encountering one of the local teachers who had just been addressing about 50 young monks in a nearby building. The monks, and I mean nearly all of them, formed a loose circle of orange robes round us, fascinated by the exchange played out in broken English. It was like being surrounded by a clutch of amiable man-size tangerines.

I smiled and Sabai Dii-ed to the max and a few of them gave me a nod and smile in return. I should have taken photos of them but I was too concerned about whether or not they would think it was rude.

Later in the evening I wandered along the main street looking for somewhere to eat.
Some water buffalo stood in front of the local fun fair/odds and sods market.
I ended up in a streetside cafe that looked promising and was immediately greeted with a chorus of "falangs" emanating from a conversation sparked amongst the family who owned the place. There was no menu so a man, sat at a wooden table close to mine, was impressed upon to ask, in English, what I wanted to eat. Turned out I had a choice of noodle soup with chicken or noodle soup without chicken. Easy choice.

As I slurped down the soup, juggling slippery noodles between chopsticks and spoon I chatted more to the English-speaking man. Turns out he was the local bank manager and spoke English (and Russian) pretty well. We chatted about our families, London, coffee, football, tourism, Beer Lao, his time in Moscow, my time in Laos, Wimbledon tennis (a half Lao, half English girl had apparently played this year and he'd seen her on TV) and various other random things. From time to time he would translate snippets of the conversation for the family who owned the shop and they would nod, smile and "umm" in appreciation.

It was the most uplifting chat I'd had with a stranger in my whole time in the country. In a way our hour's broken English talk embodied everything I had already learned about the Lao, everything suggested through the smiles and Sabai diis exchanged before the language barrier became too significant a hindrance. What it all adds up to is simple: these are good people, we fast-moving, know-it-all Westerners could learn a lot from them about pace of life, about attitudes to others and about what's really important.

Oh and as it turned out, I'm not a falang after all, my friend the bank manager beamed at me as he explained that the term "falang" applies principally to the French as they were the European power that colonised Lao (+ Vietnam and Cambodia). So I was temporarily excused the label for an hour or so. It was on a technicality of course, but then I've been a near-constant outsider for 10 months now, so it was nice to take off that bloody annoying sign, if only for a little while...                             
Saladin79 says:
Cheers Chris - much appreciated! Enjoy India; I'll be heading there later in the year - looking forward to it. Everyone says it's culturally "challenging." D.
Posted on: Oct 15, 2008
wilson0211 says:
like a good book, couldn't stop reading - excellent read, thank you!
Posted on: Oct 15, 2008
Saladin79 says:
Why thank you too Charlene. Always a pleasure to receive comments from your good self. D.
Posted on: Oct 14, 2008
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Monk washing. Thought it was rude …
Monk washing. Thought it was rude…
OK - maybe Im just a bit pervy bu…
OK - maybe I'm just a bit pervy b…
The river at Attapeu, with a littl…
The river at Attapeu, with a litt…
A temple. Yawn - I cant summon up…
A temple. Yawn - I can't summon u…
Some water buffalo stood in front …
Some water buffalo stood in front…
photo by: Saladin79