I was clubbing in Tokyo, Japan and it was three to one. Three soldiers, to me. An ex-girlfriend on my arm, scared. How did I get myself into this situation? More importantly, how did I get myself out of it?
When we are kids we all have dreams of being the karate kid. No, not being lanky and whiny (I didn’t have to dream about that part), but being the guy who fights the bullies in the bar…and wins of course. In the summer of 2002 I had my own karate kid moment in Tokyo, Japan.
Yes, it seems I jumped straight to Part 2 rather than training on the beach in California with a small Japanese guy who can act really really well. Despite not being in Okinawa, I still managed to find a group of *US Soldiers.
*Note, I really respect all US military personnel and thank you for your service from the bottom of my heart. There are jerks in every crowd.
The Break Up
Fresh off of a break up, I decided I needed a night on the town. My relationship was one of those overly complicated emotional roller coasters where the girl’s ideal ending of the relationship was mutual suicide. Yeah…I really need to blow off some steam, especially after our last talk, “I think we want different things. I’m not ready to get married.”
“I never wanted to get married. I just want to be with you for the rest of my life.” We had been dating for 2 months. The water was boiling, the steam whistled, it was time to take the pot off the stove.
A Night on the Town in Tokyo
In Tokyo the options are endless, so I gathered a group of friends and we hit the clubs in Roppongi with the aim to drink and dance the frustration out. Clubs in Tokyo rage all night and after bar hopping in some seedy, sweaty, overly packed clubs in Roppongi we headed down the hill to the more refined, upmarket area of Azabu Juban to find a club where we could dance until the first trains started at the crack of dawn.
It was 1 am and this was our last stop for the night, a dark, smoky sweaty club filled with well dressed 20 somethings. Past 2 am there was no getting back in, you stayed until you were forced to greet the morning sun. We wove our way through the crowds, grabbing shots and beer along the way until we hit the dance floor, beads of sweat flying to the beat of underground Japanese house music. The bass beat deep into our souls, it cleared our minds just as the booze erased the past. Only now existed. The beat, the rhythm, the…why was she staring at me? Through the haze I could see a girl at the bar, looking at me with an intensity you don’t ignore when you’re drunk and looking to forget the world.
Reality is a Bitch
I staggered over, preparing my first clever remark (“hello”) and…smack….I walked right into a wall. The wall of reality. I could now see the girl closely and who was it but my ex-girlfriend. Thirty three fucking million people in Tokyo, 23 city Wards, and thousands of bars and we choose the same one. I don’t want to bore you with the details of our conversation. You know how they go. We rehash the break up, she cries. We rehash why we can’t be together, she cries. I try to be polite but firm, I cry. She tries to emotionally black mail me. Good times.
We are sitting on stools, facing each other when suddenly three heavily muscled white guys, heads shaved, walk up. All were wearing t-shirts that were 3 sizes to small. Maybe they were better at working out than shopping. The leader takes her hand kisses it and says, “You’re the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.” He turns to me “you get the fuck out of here.” He turns back to her. She turns to me with frightened eyes.
Beat the War Drums
Amazingly, as if out of a movie, his two buddies stand behind him staring threateningly at me, cracking their knuckles. I tried not to laugh. The pressure was building and if I couldn’t dance to blow it off then how about a good fight? I was pretty sure I could take 2 of the cocky soldiers, but the third might have been a problem. What to do? My ex was looking scared, and she had no idea what was going on. Time to man up.
“Where are you from?”
“Fuck you. Get out of here before I kill you.” Cracking knuckles danced to the bass pulsing from the dance floor.
He tried to turn back to her. I kept his attention and his lips away from her hand. “Look, I’m here with her.” I kept my voice low and polite, he kept his loud.
“We’re going to beat the shit out of you if you don’t get the fuck out of here.” Why was he talking so slow? “We’re fucking in the army and you’re fucking nothing.”
I turned to face him further. He stepped closer to me. His buddies stepped up. I stayed seated. “If you don’t stop swearing in front of my friend you’ll have to leave.” Calm, controlled. I shouldn’t have been, but I was.
How you Beat 3 Guys at Once
“Yeah, fuck you! What the fuck are you going to do about it.” He released her hand. That’s what I had been waiting for. I raised my hand slowly, high over my head, and extended two fingers. Did I mention I know, Karate, Aikido and few other arts? No? Well, here we go. I extended my index and middle finger and…made a “come here motion.” The boys seemed confused.
Within seconds five extremely large Japanese bouncers descended on the group, wrapping the soldiers up in tight grips. “Throw them out,” I said in polite but firm Japanese.
From the corner of my eye I had seen the bouncers getting more and more tense during the conversation. Three in morning and the guys would never find anywhere else that would let them in. They would be stuck on the streets until the first trains started.
The bounces started dragging the guys out when the leader lunged for me. He got low and began to plead. “I’m sorry. I”m sorry. We were just joking man. It’s cool, we’re sorry.”
“Fuck you.” They got hauled out of the club. My heart pounded to the rhythm of the music. The club gyrated along oblivious to our drama. A bouncer returned with two warm yellow towels for us to clean our hands, to help wipe away the distastefulness of the situation and the unwanted kiss.
Moral of the Story…Nah, It’s Just a Good Story
The girl and I didn’t work out, but that’s no surprise. But I had my Karate Kid Moment. I like to think that Mr. Miyagi would be proud that I didn’t resort to fighting. “Todo-san, you have strooong Karate.” Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to fight, but in most instances there is always a safer way out.
Just remember, there is no bar….
Stay tuned for more alcohol induced ,judgement impaired situations in future posts. Like how I found myself in a penthouse with the head of Sri Lanka’s mafia and an empty bottle of scotch. But that’s another story…
Have you ever felt unsafe while traveling? How did you handle it?
If you are heading to Tokyo, changes are you are looking to experience eclectic Japan. While temples and history are nice, so is soaking in the vibe of cool and young Tokyo. It is hard not to drool cliches when writing about Japan these days, especially when talking about the eclectic youth culture located in Harajuku, Tokyo. Just about every guidebook recommends “people gawking” along the Jingu Bridge where you can usually catch Japan’s insanely strange youth fashion. You’ll find everything from lolita to goth, french maids with a sweet spot for fake blood, to cross dressing little bow peeps.
At times the Jingu Bridge area just next to Harajuku station feels a bit contrived, teenagers dressed up waiting to have their picture taken by photographers, hoping to land in a fashion magazine. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to gawk, and if you are headed to Meiji Shrine you have to pass over the bridge anyway (this is a must-see shrine in Tokyo). But if you are looking for a slightly more authentic creative spirit, and you like to walk, continue past the bridge towards Yoyogi Park.
Travel Tip: Your best chance at premium gawking is on a Sunday when most people are out on the bridge and running around Yoyogi Park (yes, rebellious youth have to work and go to school on the weekdays too).
Map of Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park
To get to Yoyogi park, just cross the Jingu Bridge and instead of turning right into the Meiji Shrine with the large, beautiful, shaded, wooden torii gate, take a left and follow the sidewalk around the corner to the right. You’ll see the Harajuku entrance to the park right in front of you along with some delicious street food vendors!
Yoyogi Park Tokyo
Yoyogi Gyoen (park) is Tokyo’s largest and has a number of wonderful wooded areas that will make you forget about city life for a short while. The park comes into its own on Sundays when groups gather from all over Tokyo to meet and share their mutual interest in just about anything you can think of. This includes everything from skateboarding, to freestyle cycling, African drum circles, dance troupes, cross dressing senior citizens, bird watchers, musicians, jugglers, martial arts and students practicing for upcoming plays.
For me this is where the excitement of the Japanese culture is on display best. You will still get outrageous fashions of the young and bored. But what you will get more of is the Japanese predilection for forming groups and trying to perfect a certain task. It doesn’t matter what that task is, what matters is being part of the group and progressively getting better (or trying to).
What is “Normal”?
So while most guidebooks will tell you to come and witness “crazy” Japanese society, I’d challenge you to come and witness “normal” Japanese society. Sunday is a time for groups to gather, for creativity to be let loose, and for people to polish their stones with a singular conviction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dancing elf, a cross-dressing little bow peep, or a juggler. They are all welcome in Yoyogi, they are all involved in the same cultural experiment, just expressed differently at times.
Once you’re done in Yoyogi don’t forget to take a walk around the Meiji Jingu grounds for a more subdued expression of Japanese culture. Once you are calm you’ll be ready to shop for the crazy costumes in Harajuku’s back streets and especially along the always crowded Takeshita Street, just across the street from the train station.
What do you think? Are the Japanese youth in Yoyogi creative or conformists? Is this a must see for a visitor to Tokyo?
As far as red light districts go, Tokyo’s Kabukicho near Shinjuku station is relativity tame. Unlike Amsterdam there are no pot houses (aka “coffee shops”), sex workers are not selling their services live in windows like a pimped out version of a holiday display, and at only 600 square meters it’s not even that big. What Kabukicho lacks in in your face raunchy, it makes up for in subtlety and uniqueness. Walking around during the daytime is always a safe bet, but come after 6 pm and the streets are packed with partying salary men showing business associates a “good time” and getting hammered. Sounds enticing doesn’t it.
What type of clubs exist in Kabukicho?
Kabukicho is an interesting look into both a sexually liberated and restricted society. Something a go into a lot of personal detail on in my upcoming book. The strange tolerance of places like this, and the need for them is itself an interesting commentary on Japanese society. However, as with most sex districts in the world, criminals and crime syndicates pray on the drunken loneliness of the back ally visitors. Entrance fees can be hundreds of dollars and non-negotiable so don’t just pop in a place to check it out or to use the toilet. Touts are on the streets selling themselves, their business or funneling the drunk and naive into holes in the wall.
A recent ordinance in Tokyo dictates that all sex clubs need to be closed by midnight (as opposed to closed in general!). Any open after midnight are sure to have protection by local gangs and should be avoided.
By the Numbers
This tiny area of Tokyo boasts over 300 sex shops, nearly 200 clubs, 80 love hotels, and hundreds of bars and restaurants. It is estimated that around 150,000 people pass through it each day. Whether you agree with it or not, it is an interesting facet of Japanese and Tokyo culture. My advice is check it out for yourself, but don’t get sucked into this money trap. If you want to have a great, authentic time, go drinking in Golden Gai, a small block of bars just next door that have Japanese hip built into their DNA.
I was excited, nervous and sweaty. It was 2000 and I was on a date in Japan. I chose the perfect spot, the 11th floor bar overlooking Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake and where I spent 5 years of my life after university (near the lake, not the bar). The bar was called Medusa. Small and smokey (like most Japanese bars at the time), the dark room was sandwiched by glass. One side was a wall-to-wall panoramic view of the lake, distant mountains glowed as the sun retreated for the day. A massive aquarium claimed the wall behind the bar, glowing blue from black light. At first glance it looked empty.
“Look again,” the bartender advised. He didn’t look up and kept at his task, chipping away at large cube of ice until a perfect sphere emerged. One for each whiskey destined for a group of black tied salary men. We found two small jellyfish, tentacles undulating as they pushed and floated around the tank. It’s hard to know if the bar was being cheap, or just going for ultra minimalist sheik. We weren’t drinking in Tokyo, but this was a cool as it got in Shiga and we were cool to be there.
Everything was going my way. She was laughing at my jokes, almost touching my arm, and hadn’t once looked at the business men who really could afford the place.
But this isn’t a story about my date.
Everything was going well, the drinks arrived. “Kampai.” We clinked our mojitos together. Yeah, mojitos were very cool back then. No one knew what they were.
I know, you are reading thinking everything is normal, but please, please remember it was 2000, and I was a shy, quiet young man with not much sense of style, short on self confidence and even less money in my pocket.
Halfway through our drinks I decided to play it cool. “I’ll be right back. Just need to use the toilet.” Smooth, right?
I walked through the dim, smokey den like I owned it. When I passed women whispering, they were talking about me. [In a good way, seriously, a little credit please]. The men avoided my eyes because they couldn’t compete. I had everything. Then I entered the restroom.
Small, like most things in Japan, but stylish, like the rest of the bar, brushed steel trimmings and a glass sink basin. But what really drew my eyes was the toilet. A shiny, ToTo, complete with heated seat and full control panel that was as complicated as a airplane cockpit. A airplane cockpit with all the direction written in Japanese.
I sat down to enjoy the heated seat, even though there was no need to sit. I stayed away from the buttons not wanting anything to go wrong. I hadn’t yet learned to read a toilet. But then I saw it, the button I had been looking for all my life. A cute little button with the picture of a bird and two chiming notes. Could the Japanese have invented a melody to prevent unfortunate bathroom noises from escaping into the absurdly nearby bar? It made perfect sense, a lack of space in Japan meant bathrooms were basically one poorly insulated wall away from the drinking and flirting.
And lets face it. If you have to flush more than once people start wondering what’s going on. If you leave the sink running you are wasting water and destroying the environment. Either way, your screwed with the beautiful lady waiting for you outside. That day I didn’t need to flush or use the sink (except to wash my hands, yes, of course I wash my hands!).
But I couldn’t leave without listening to the greatest invention of the new millennium.
A little tip to anyone in a foreign land. Don’t push buttons if you don’t know what will happen. Especially buttons on a toilet. But then again what harm could a cute little bird be?
Needing to satiate the same driving curiosity that led me to Japan in the first place, I extended my index finger and pushed the cute little bird. “WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH, WHOOSH…” The sound of a flushing toilet assaulted me. Over and over again, louder and louder each time. There was no end. What the fuck! Where was the cute little bird?
“Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh…” the flushing sound continued one after another. I panicked and pushed the button again hoping it would turn off. It just extended the noise for another round. I panicked further. What if my date could hear? What would she think of me? I pushed more buttons out of desperation. I got hit immediately by a powerful stream of warm water. I jumped up.
The water followed me out of the toilet and soaked my jeans. I turned around and got it in the face.
“Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh…” the noise wouldn’t stop. Adding to the cacophony of embarrassment a blast of hot air roared out of the toilet like a jet engine. There was no place for me to escape the stream of water so I sat back down into an odd mix of wetness and heat. I sat in misery for what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably just another 30 seconds until everything finally shut off.
I sat there. Jeans soaked around my ankles wondering what to do next. Who in their right mind puts a bird tweeting picture to describe the sound of flushing? Why the hell would you make the flushing sound so vigorous? Of course this was Japan and there must be special technology to sound proof the bathroom. Right? Of course, this was Japan. I could explain away the wet jeans by blaming it on a tragic sink malfunction. I stood and gathered myself. I was about to leave when I remembered that I hadn’t actually flushed the toilet yet. I cursed, gathered my courage and flushed.
Nothing. Hardly any sound at all. The water drained away peacefully. It made me even angrier at the little cute bird and its mocking tweets. I had been in the toilet for almost 10 minutes. I was soaked, and thoroughly embarrassed. My only hope was that that no one had noticed.
The lock clicked loudly. Why was everything in this cursed bar so amplified? I gathered myself together and was ready to walk coolly through the crowd. I opened the foggy glass door, stepped back out into the smoky room and stopped dead in my tracks. All 20 patrons were staring at me. My faced turned a deep red as I limped through the room, caught up by tight wet jeans. Everyone was now certainly whispering about me.
I reached my date. She looked at me. I looked back. I braced for the questions. The water spread to my underwear, and I smelled like the toilet. A fancy, evil, Japanese toilet, but still a toilet.
She smiled, looked away… towards the bartender. “Two more” is all she said. The music started again, the crowds stopped whispering, I was still soaking wet but I had another mojito.
So you have a toilet story or another misadventure while on the road? Share all your dirty, embarrassing stories below.
Another story from my 2 decades of travel. This story took place in 2001.
By the end of this story a number of people will be dead.
The compact dirty white van left the tourist choked streets of Hanoi, Vietnam’s French Quarter early in the morning. We were a group of 10 strangers bound together by our desire to see the turquoise beauty of Ha Long Bay, and its breathtaking limestone islands thrusting out of the waters. We were also cheap, backpackers looking to save money but desperate to spend 3 days living on a boat, cruising the pearl culturing backwaters of Vietnam’s UNESCO World Heritage site, and exploring the natural caves dotting the area. Sixty eight dollars was a lot to us for two nights on the boat, three meals a day, and an English guide. Sixty eight dollars almost cost all of us our lives.
What you get for $68 Dollars
Seagulls screeched as the van jerked to a stop at the crowded fishing port near Halong City. The harbor was oddly full, tourists milling around watching the sea, the sky and the ever increasing number of groups ruining each others once in a lifetime trip. “Wait right here and I’ll see what’s happening.” Our guide jumped out of the van leaving us to sweat with the air conditioning turned off.
Twenty minutes later and he was back. He pulled open the sliding door with a forced smile. “I’m not sure if we’ll be able to leave today,” he confessed. Before he could get another word out the van erupted from the back as two French girls started yelling.
“What do you mean?” They never gave him a chance to answer. “We paid good money for this trip and I’m not getting screwed by you.” The other members of the group looked away embarrassed.
The guide blushed. Or was it the heat? “There is a hurricane moving up the coast and we are not sure if it will turn off into the ocean or make landfall here in Ha Long. Until we know we can’t risk getting out on the water.” That made perfect sense to me and the rest of the group. We got out to stretch our legs without complaint. The salt air scrubbed away some of the bitterness we felt at flying halfway around the world to be stopped at the water’s edge.
“We paid for this trip!” The blond French girl, dressed in dirty fisherman pants continued to yelled. “You will take us on our trip,” the other French girl demanded. The guide shrugged his shoulders helplessly. It wasn’t his call, his company was only hiring the boat and the captain said no.
The longer we waited the more frustrated the crowd became. The French girls led charge after charge whipping up the fervor of the other tourist groups, demanding to get on the ocean while the sun was still low. Our first destination was supposed to be a massive cave used as a military hospital during the Vietnam war to protect the injured from constant air attacks by the US forces. The guides and the boat captains looked like they needed the shelter from the verbal bombs being thrown at them. Threats of being fired, losing their tips, curses and accusations of being cheated were launched with laser accuracy.
The Journey Begins
Our guide returned from the front lines as the rest of us relaxed on the wooden dock. Movement in the other groups meant something was happening. Decisions had been made.
“The hurricane is moving out to sea so we can go.” The French girls grumbled that the delay was pointless. “But the captain doesn’t want to risk going to the main cave. We’ve decided to take a different route and see another, smaller cave. The area has better protection in case the storm reverses direction.”
“WHAT. Are you fuckn’ kiddn’ us. We paid for the Cave and we are going to the Cave.” The rest of us were fed up with the tantrums and agreed to vote on it. The French girls pouted and yelled when they lost. I’m from an island on the ocean and you don’t question the captain, especially when he has been fishing these waters all his life. The French girls started to yell at the captain too when we reached our two story wooden cruising boat. He yelled back happily before slamming the the cabin’s door shut.
“He says the water from here to the hospital cave is too open.” It was clear he had also said something less polite about the French girls.
I wish I had not been so relaxed and shy back then. I might have questioned the sensibility of going to sea with a hurricane off shore. I was sure our guide was just mistranslating as no one would get near a boat if an actual hurricane was close enough to shore. Right? Plus, I had paid $68 dollars.
Ten boats set out from the harbor. Seven towards the main cave and two others joined us for the ride to the smaller, less spectacular cave. The sky was overcast but nothing to hint a hurricane was just off shore. The waters were a bit choppy but I’d been in worse.
Stunning limestone cliffs burst out of deep green waters as we sailed through narrow channels. Standing on the top deck I never felt so alive, so enchanted by the stunning force of nature that at once eroded the surrounding bluffs and fed the greedy green ocean more limestone to maintain its jade coloring. The wind whipped through my hair as I posed for a photo, a majestic grouping of islands and cliffs behind me. The sudden shock on my friend’s face told me something was wrong seconds before a warning bell sounded throughout the ship. I spun around and and saw in horror as a massive wall of mist, rain, wind and power come pounding through a narrow gap between island and straight for us. The hurricane had shifted and it was upon us without any notice.
Battle to Save the Boat and our Lives
The shrieking of the French girls were drowned by the high winds as the boat erupted in organized chaos. The crew couldn’t speak English and yet we all knew what to do. The main cabin was made of glass windows and doors. We had less than a minute to lock everything down before the storm hit and we all pitched in, fastening locks, shutting doors. We battened down the hatches. After closing the front main glass door my friend Rob and I stared wide eyed as a side door began banging around as the waves picked up height and uncertainty. We ran together, the storm chasing us.
We reach the door together….BAM, the storm hit, knocking the boat steeply to the side. The world slowed down and we watched in horror, slow motion horror as the the door swung violently closed shattering the glass directly onto us as we desperately turned our heads and shielded our eyes. We were both only wearing bathing suits and a thousand glass daggers tore through our skin and spread like a minefield around our feet. Grabbing each other and the now glass-less door for support we tried in vain to stay still as the storm pounded the boat rocking it from side to side. Torrents of rain streamed through the gap preventing us from getting a firm hold as our bare feet slipped across thousands of tiny shards of glass.
Blood steamed down our bodies. We gritted our teeth and bore it, riding the waves, pitches, and glass for the next twenty minutes. The storm ended as quickly as it started as an eerie calm fell across the jade waters. Rob and I were alive. The whole crew was alive. The captain kept us from hitting the surrounding cliffs, the hull wasn’t pierced. We were alive. We turned to see how everyone else was doing and stared into 8 faces of shock and pain. Rob and I didn’t understand until we started walking towards them and pain exploded across our bodies all at once.
A Dinner Celebration and a Time for Mourning
Rob had taken the worst of the glass spray and had a 6 inch piece of glass embedded in his left foot. We both had hundreds of cuts all over our bodies and our feet were so sliced that we couldn’t walk without falling in pain. The others, no longer tourists, but friends and survivors rushed to help us. It took over an hour for our friends to pick the glass out of our skin, and then disinfect our wounds. But we had survived. The specter of death didn’t do anything to mellow the French girls’ moods and we suffered through a tirade longer than the the storm and more painful since we couldn’t move to get away.
“Haven’t you ever cleaned a wound?” one girl chastised the guide. “We are NOT giving you a tip” the other girl assured.
Rob and I groaned and that sent them into another tirade of insults, threats and irrelevant chatter. “Shut up and be glad your alive,” Rob said softly. Maybe it was the glass dagger being taken out of his foot or the shard being removed a hair’s breath from my eye that convinced them to remain quiet.
Bandaged, dressed in clean clothes a few hours later we relived the story under the shining stars, thanking the beautiful breeze that caressed our skin and the cold beers in our hands. Sixty eight dollars didn’t buy a fancy dinner but the rice and vegetables tasted like heaven. Suddenly, a second boat pulled up to ours and a large bellied man jumped on board carrying a large bucket. He paid us no attention and walked straight to the steering room. He was the owner of the boat. He used to be the owner of a fleet. The bucket was full of crabs for the crew that had saved his last boat. He didn’t even look at us.
Our guide rushed to the celebration but came back slowly, deep in thought. “The boats what went to the Cave didn’t make it. The storm caught them in open waters and capsized all of them. Everyone is dead. The owner is here to thank the captain for saving his last boat.” The owner never looked at us as he left.
Almost 70 people died* that day and we only survived because we were on the right boat, 3 of 10 that decided to go the other direction. We drank our beer in silence and paid our respects. A few days later when we returned to the mainland we all rushed to the internet to tell our parents and loved ones we had survived. They all asked why we wouldn’t be! The outside world never learned of the deaths, or the news wires never picked up the story.
Two months later Rob was playing softball and a ligament in his foot snapped. It turns out the glass dagger cut the ligament so that only a thread remained. I still have a few scars as well, but we made it out alive. This was the first time I almost died and I have respected the winds of fate and happenstance ever since. Live your life to its fullest, don’t complain about hard working folks doing their best to survive, treat each other with kindness, be happy. You never know when you will be among the seven other boats.
*Post script. While researching the details for this story I found an obscure BBC news report that quotes government sources saying 3 tourists (1 Thai and 2 Indians) died along with 2 crew members during the storm. My death estimates come from witnesses and other tourists from nearby boats who gave estimates from 20-100 dead. It is still unclear how many people actually died.
This is an older story from 20 years ago in Laos. It also won the People’s Choice Award from the Southeast Asian Travel writing Competition in 2010.
No, Thank You Laos
How many people can you feed with a 600 pound catfish I wondered as I walked down the deserted street in northern Laos. Somewhere, in the darkness close by, the mythical Mekong River snaked its way through the intense blackness, hiding the massive catfish and the largest population of gigantic species in the world.
It was just after 9:00 PM but there was no one else on the streets. I walked cautiously, afraid to disturb the romantic stillness in the air and the humming wildlife from the encroaching jungle. I was in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995.
Lost to a bygone era, the French inspired Indochinese houses surrounded me, converted to coffee and gift shops but still trapped in a memory of the past that attract nostalgic tourists in search of the Asia from grandfather’s stories. Latticed white balconies hung over the street as I moved farther down looking for signs of life. Nothing, no one was awake, doors were barred and windows shuttered. The only light came from an exposed light bulb dangling from a small overhang slightly ahead.
Life was slow but predictable in Luang Prabang. The locals rise at 5:00 AM to offer rice and vegetables to the hundreds of brightly robed Buddhists monks who walk silently down the road each morning seeking alms. Nothing exciting usually happens in this small town, especially at night. As I approached the light bulb I noticed a crackling sound as blue sparks danced from the frayed, dirty wire. Worried, I watched for a few minutes before moving on, conceding that there was nothing I could do. Electrical safety is not a strong point of the region and as I took one last look behind me the bulb exploded and a jet of orange flame raced up the wire, quickly taking hold of the wooden eves.
I looked around frantically, forgetting that I was all alone, as the fire began to flare just above the wooden door to a small shop. “Bang, bang BANG,” I pounded on the rough door as splinters and paint chips flew in my face. The fire was spreading quickly as a short middle-aged man opened the door just enough to peek out.
“Sir, there’s a fire on your roof. Please come out!” I pleaded into a blank face. Behind him, through a small crowded store stocked with postcards and bottled water, I could see his family sitting on the floor watching television.
“Closed,” he said and shut the door abruptly. I knocked again, feeling the heat spread just above my head. The door opened again. His face was no longer blank as he shook his head and waved me away. His family, three generations packed together, looked concerned as a crazed stranger jumped up and down yelling. Just before the door slammed shut again I grabbed the father and pulled him outside by his shirt. Screams of protest erupted from the family inside.
The father struggled against me as I forced him onto the street releasing him just past the fire, which was spreading to the next building. He yelled, went limp and then rushed into the house screaming. The family streamed onto the street yelling at the top of their lungs. The cry was repeated and soon the whole town was awake as Laotians, young and old surrounded the house.
The town organized itself to fight the fire. There was no fire station, or water hydrants. A fire threatened everyone as the rows of wooden houses held each other up. Buckets of water were passed in lines from the houses across the street and others set off in search of fire extinguishers. Smoke, ash, and the screaming of babies choked the once silent streets.
A young man ran up the street with the first fire extinguisher as the crowd cheered. “Phsst…” nothing happened. One more try, still nothing. A second, and then a third extinguisher arrived with the same result. We worked harder at throwing water towards the second floor. Thirty minutes into the fire a fourth extinguisher arrived.
A sudden jet of white foam shot from the extinguisher to the delight of the crowd. Ten minutes later the fire was out. Just as suddenly as it began the people disappeared. Without a word to each other or to me, they gathered their buckets and went home. Doors shut in unison and before I knew it I was once again alone in the middle of the dark street. I was confused and hurt. I had just helped save a house, possibly a whole UNESCO heritage site from destruction. Where was my thank you, or at least the collective camaraderie that comes with a challenge overcome? I walked back to my hostel in a daze wondering what had happened.
I woke up at five in the morning with the rest of the town and walked back to the scene of the fire. The blackened wall was the only evidence of the previous night’s excitement. The family waited patiently in front of their store and home for the monks to walk by. One by one they placed spoonfuls of rice into the alms bowls of the silent monks. Neither side gave or sought recognition. When their rice was finished they returned home without a backward glance. The monks continued on without offering even the slightest recognition.
At that moment I realized it wasn’t the architecture or the Buddhist temples that offered a glimpse of an older Asia. It was the people of Laos, of Luang Prabang. They taught me, or rather reminded me, that you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Good is its own reward, something we’re quick to forget in our media hyped, competitive modern society. It’s a lesson I have not forgotten, so thank you Laos, if you permit me to extend a bit of my own culture to compliment yours.
[photos by: Hanoi Mark]