Oudoxai is a small town in northern Lao, but if you were dropped here with no knowledge of your whereabouts you would, most likely, be puzzled as to where you were. For over the past few years the Chinese commercial invasion of Northern Laos has become epitomised in Oudomxai. Hotels and restaurants, the blight of karaoke and the dreaded dust. What is it with the Chinese and dust? Quite where the dust comes from in Oudonxai I am struggling to see, but in the same way that Europeans built churches and cricket greens in their far flung colonies to remind them of home the Chinese like to have a nice cloud of dust. They, the Chinese, have also brought with them an industrious atmosphere. Quite unLaotian like there is a lot of scurrying back and forth as ant like people dash hither and tither on small motorcycle looking for all the world as though they have many important things to all be taken care of at once. Only when one tries to scratch beneath the surface is there the realisation that once the dashing is done there is simply a lot of lounging at either end of the dash. In China there is a wonderful array of sleeping. When I say array I mean in the styles and locations, on the back of a motorbike, on the shop floor, hanging from a scaffold on a noisy building site. Like the Thais the Chinese can sleep anywhere at any time, the big difference being that the indiscriminate Chinese sleeper is sleeping through sheer exhaustion where as the Thai, and his Lao counterpart, is sleeping randomly because it is a nice thing to be doing with some free time. So here in Oudomxai the cultures have blended, the Laotians dash in an industrious manner on their motor scooters from snoozing place to snoozing place.
Last night, feeling the omni-present insatiable hunger of the long distance cyclist I set out in search of a good hearty meal. I passed a few small grubby looking places serving a variety of intestines and insects that did not tickle my fancy or my hunger.
I ambled down the street. Ahead, emanating from a doorway was a warm glowing light illuminating the pavement. Inside was clean as a new pin. The furnishing was that of a Chinese restaurant with the rotating table tops known, as I understand, as Lazy Suzies, and large shiny wooden chairs. The staff, all Laotian smiled pleasantly as I took a seat. “Sebaidee” I greeted them, “sebaidee” they greeted back. I gazed at the street, in the doorway motes of dust played gently in the light until a passing lorry would agitate the air and the dust would take on the personality of the dashing motor-scooters. Again we exchanged smiles. The staff, I observed, looked a little unsure as to what to do. I enquired if they spoke English, they said they did not. I gestured for a menu hoping there may be some English there. The staff looked confused. Utilising my limited knowledge of Chinese I enquired if they had two of my favourite Chinese dishes; fried egg and tomato and spicy Sichuan pork. They looked puzzled and giggled. This was not going very far. I tried ordering Thai food in Thai, all Laotians speak Thai, no success. Then a lady best described as gentle on the eye arrived on the scene. She, it transpired, spoke wonderful English. I explained that I would like to order some food but for some reason this was proving to be problematic. She smiled. “We would like very much to help you with your food sir, but this is a furniture shop”.
I felt a little silly, and left.