Laos was hands down one of my top three favorite destinations that I visited on this journey. It was lush and relatively untouched, I got to play with baby elephants, and it has the cheapest beer that side of the hemisphere. I only scratched the surface of the country, having entered through the capital, Vientiane, then taking a bus up to the famous tubing town of Vang Vieng, and lastly ending my time there in quaint little Luang Prabang. I had intended to head to Vietnam quite a bit earlier but I became so enchanted by the ancient capital that I extended my stay and was there for nearly two weeks.
With all of Luang Prabang’s history, there couldn’t have been a better place to learn about some of the folktales that have shaped Lao culture. I found the Garavek Traditional Storytelling Theater right off the Mekong River waterfront that had a nightly show for the very reasonable price of 50,000 kip, roughly $5 USD. The room was teeny-tiny with four risers of seating for 30 guests. It has a caddy-corner stage that is up close and personal with the front row, all of which creates an interactive and intimate experience for attendees.
The show is performed by a duo, a young man who serves as the storyteller and an endearing older gentleman, who looks like the Laotian Father Time, that accompanies the tales by playing a traditional folk instrument called the khene. It’s a mouth organ, fashioned entirely out of bamboo, and it sounds like a harmonica and an accordion had a baby then made the bagpipe its godfather.
The story behind that gizmo goes like this: According to legend, back in the olden days there was a lovely princess who wanted to round out her extracurriculars by picking up a musical talent. She tried playing a plethora of different instruments but sucked at all of them so she had the khene made specially for her. And what do you know? She dominated it and captivated the whole village with her songs, so much so that a king from a neighboring town demanded she come to his court to perform. She played song after song for him until she finally ran out of wind and carpal tunnel set in. This jerk-off had the nerve to tell her that she was mediocre at best and that she needed to step-up her game if she wanted to be dismissed. She came back day after day and he continued to chastise her, leaving her completely exhausted (clearly this dude had never heard of the positive reinforcement technique). But you’d be surprised at how much motivation a gal can muster up when she’s trying to get out from under some prick’s thumb. She pulled herself up by the pantyhose, turned down all of the gentlemen callers invitations to the balls, and holed herself up in her room until she perfected her craft. After her umpteenth concert the king finally decided that she was rocking it. And then just as abruptly as he brought her in, he gave her a gold star, patted her on the back, and sent her on her merry way. No banquet, no crowned jewels, nothin’. Oy, did this story give me hellish flashbacks of my intense grade school orchestra teacher and learning to play the double bass. As if carrying that thing home every weekend wasn’t punishment enough!
The night carried on with half a dozen more narratives, including how Laos came to be dubbed “Land of a Million Elephants” and the explanation behind the name Luang (capital) Prabang (golden Buddha statue gifted by Sri Lanka). My personal favorite was the story behind Mount Phousi, a 100 meter hike that I took one morning and narrowly dodged a sting from a flying ninja Emperor Scorpion. But I digress. Once upon a time there was a super high maintenance queen who awoke one morning with a monstrous craving for mushrooms. I guess she needed to catch up on her soaps or something because she refused to get off her throne and instead sent the Monkey King to go fetch her the goods. Apparently she wanted a very specific type of mushroom but wouldn’t disclose that information, instead reasoning that he should know her well enough to know which one it was (Is that you, Jackie Burkhart?). The poor guy went back and forth to the top of Mushroom Mountain while her highness turned her nose up time and again. Fed up, he went back and ripped the whole top of the mountain off, brought it back to her, and said, “Here, devil woman! Pick your own damn mushrooms!” And there it has sat in front of the palace ever since. Ah, now I get why they pronounce Phousi as “pussy!”
The storytelling session was enlightening and whimsical but throughout the duration I had to step on my own foot to keep myself from laughing out loud. The narrator really wanted to give the full effect, I suppose, but he came out sounding like Fozzie Bear repeatedly asking the question, “I’m Ron Burgundy?”
Still, if you visit Luang Prabang you should set aside an hour to check out Garavek as it does provide you with a quirky little slice of Lao history. Just don’t down one of their infamous ‘shroom shakes beforehand or you might not be able to contain yourself. Waka! Waka!