Brawling In Luang Prabang

So I have this thing about traveling where I don’t really make any definite plans because I want to be free to go where I please and strike where I please. It fits the pattern of most of the things I do, as I don’t plot out my novels until I finish the first draft and prefer meandering wanderlust and flânerie over the doldrums of fact-packed guided tours. I should add that I am just fucking awesome.

Anyway, when my wife and I went to Southeast Asia, we still had at least one pair of airline tickets we needed to buy, from Luang Prabang to Bangkok, where we would “catch” our flight back to Korea. The touristy places we were visiting all possessed travel agents in abundance, and since their prices are usually better than the ones you find on the internet (or are they?) we just decided to very harmlessly buy the tickets while we were on the move, which I’ve actually done many times before for buses, boats, airplanes, and god knows what else, without a hitch.

It is a truism to say that trouble often comes from irresponsibility, or just plain stupidity, and my pre-baby spending habits consist of spending without caring how much money I have, since I have a steady if ridiculously pointless job and all I really buy these days are tickets to faraway countries, food, and books. I had developed the very philosophical notion that constantly checking one’s bank account leads to unhappiness. On top of that, I was convinced of the ineffectiveness of my wife’s Korean bank card, which we had to use because my own American card (its valor proven in countless strange locales), was left by my own braindamaged self (along with all the contents of my hallowed wallet) in a Gyeongju taxi cab some months ago.

The Korean card I currently possess belongs to a provincial bank which is so limited in scope that you cannot use the card outside of Korea or on any non-Korean website (read that again to see how ridiculous it is), so I assumed that my wife’s card was more or less the same, even though it belongs to a different bank and has a golden VISA stamped on its beautiful plastic face. But we tried the card in a few places, notably the airport in Shanghai, with success, and it worked in all the ATMs, until…

We had been sitting around for an hour or two at a nondescript sort of open-air office called Grace Travel Service on the the beautiful main street, Sisavangvong Road, of an exquisite city in Laos called Luang Prabang, wrestling (figuratively) with the purchase of our airline tickets to Bangkok, when the unthinkable happened. The card was declined.

How embarrassing!

Because the guy helping us get our tickets took his sweet time with this assistance, and because nothing seemed to work at his office—there was no internet, so he had to run into a few different internet cafes to buy our tickets for us (this being another sentence you must read over twice)—I assumed that it was a problem with the technology in the office or a problem with the inability of Korean things to work outside of Korea. I was also tired of waiting around in the middle of the afternoon in a beautiful city with a feckless man in a feckless office, so this was the last straw that broke the camel-made-out-of-needles’ back.

I shook my head, said we were leaving, the feckless fellow said we had to pay him $25 (without giving a reason, so far as I can remember), I said no, we didn’t, and walked out to put my shoes on outside—or tried to, for the man had seized the camera wrapped around my chest and was blocking my escape with a pair of white eyes that were suddenly bulging with fury.

The office had no doors, just a huge opening of some kind that led out onto the street, so we were both suddenly in public, shouting at each other. He tried to convince me to return to my seat and continue bargaining with him, a rather strange proposition under the circumstances, and I demanded that he take his hands off me and begged my wife to call the police. We attracted a crowd in the yellow heat of the Lao afternoon; it was the first time I have ever been the center of attention for so many curious gawkers, something I did not expect as I did not think I was shouting that loudly (though I was) and actually threatened once or twice to go out into the street and denounce him to the tourists and Laos who were then walking about, pleasantly minding their own business.

I write ceaselessly about how often people stare at me here in Korea, it is one of my many own personal cliches, but that was a new one for me there in Luang Prabang, a different flavor of gawking, as it’s a strange thing to be surrounded by people who are staring at you with the same cattle-like expression of disturbed concern painted on every face, everyone sort of leaning in from stage left and stage right, with each person asking the same mental question and drawing the same mental conclusion—Should I get involved?—No!—Never!—Don’t get involved!—Just don’t!

One man with a vague European accent decided to. He tried to convince the Lao to let me go, but his tan-legged wife (whose face was masked with Jennifer Anniston’s), another ardent non-interventionist, dragged him out of sight, and then there we were again, with my pregnant wife growling everyday Korean swears (“fucking dog bastard”) at the Lao and the Lao laughingly replying with his own language’s insults, uttered in her direction with the most repulsive confidence you could imagine, chuckling with one hand on his hip and the other on my camera strap. Just a moment before he had tried to level with her, saying something about how calm and rational Koreans are, trying to turn her against me, both moves being so weird they were certainly inspired by a rather deranged intellect; this after he insulted America (a sarcastic “you’re so powerful”), which didn’t really bother so much as confuse me.

He had a very dark, and very not underfed, sort of face. He was probably not so strong either, but fighting me is probably not too different from fighting a person-sized soggy noodle.

As to his character, this is what I know: he mentioned to me earlier, when we were buddies, that his family worked on a farm somewhere, then tried touting some of the travel opportunities available to us in Laos, hidden under the guise of smalltalk, all while we were attempting to buy our tickets from him, and watching in agonized awareness of how one of the last days of our honeymoon was fading away as he slowly, very slowly, spelled our names out on a sheet of paper, and refused to allow me to write them for him. He also sort of followed me out when I went to go double check his prices with the Bangkok Airlines office just a few minutes before our brawl, and this odd behavior of his should have sounded an alarm or two, but didn’t. It was like watching a bad movie—we’d been there so long we didn’t have the moral strength to turn the thing off until it got so outrageously bad we had no other choice. Thankfully movies do not try to steal your camera when you do this.

I myself never called him any names, and didn’t insult him or his country, at least with any words (my actions speaking somewhat more loudly), and just kept repeating different variations of the same theme—let me go, I want to call the police, mixed in with vague threats about how he’d surely lose his job, etc. I’m honestly surprised by this, but I’ve never been in a public altercation with a complete stranger so I guess this is just how I roll.

When the guy’s manager finally got on the phone to do my bidding, that is, to call the police of an undeveloped country in Southeast Asia run by a communist dictatorship to mediate in a petty tussle with one of the natives, I suddenly remembered a book I’d seen back in Thailand—the title flashed in my mind, very literally—Nightmare in Laos: The True Story of a Woman Imprisoned in a Communist Gulag—and realized that it was probably not a good idea to get the authorities involved, since the police in Korea, anyway, are notorious among the foreigners here for siding with the natives in any disagreement. Therefore we should just cut our losses and “bribe” him with his $25, though somewhere in the argument we realized that he had bought the airline tickets with his own money, without telling us, and needed $25 to cancel them, a fee that was perhaps astronomical to a man who came from a family of Lao farmers. When we paid him he let me and my camera go.

Because he didn’t tell us he was buying the tickets, and didn’t say there would be a $25 fee if we decided to cancel them, we weren’t really obligated to pay him; but, under the circumstances, we were.

This “brawl” left us both feeling miserable for a few hours, and although we had a great honeymoon this event is, probably, unfortunately, going to be the first thing we both think about when we remember our adventures together in Indochina.

The brutal idiocy of all of this is that it had nothing to do with problems with a Korean credit card or Lao technology; both were probably fine. What wasn’t fine was the fact that we had spent all our money, or someone had stolen all of it from us, without our knowing it.

When we talked to the Korean bank there was a communication error of some kind and the woman there told us we’d spent three million won, or something like twenty-six hundred dollars, while we were flying from Shanghai to Bangkok; since I could not precisely recall purchasing anything at the time (I was dreaming of all the wonderful things that awaited us in Thailand and Laos), I thought the claim somewhat alarming and immediately suspected identity theft. My grandfather had just been defrauded of five thousand dollars after he believed a man who called him, claimed he was me, and said I needed bail money because I’d been imprisoned in the Dominican Republic on drug charges. They probably got the information on him after I lost my wallet to that taxi cab in Gyeongju, which is really where all these problems began.

Much stress ensued, but eventually we calmed down, borrowed some money from my sister in law, got the tickets, and enjoyed the beauty of Luang Prabang, which is such that I hope to return as soon as possible to make up for all the horrible things that happened there.

Later we discovered the bank’s communication error and learned, to our mutual embarrassment, that we’d simply spent all our money. BUMMER.

So, next time we make plans and check our bank account before we travel. The end.

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