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Archive for November 21st, 2008

14kms from Vientiane

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Things generally don’t really get happening until the afternoon and evening in terms of PSI’s outreach work, so I had the morning to myself to explore the town a bit more. After a breakfast of granola, fruit and yogurt, and a cappuccino, at JoMa, I walked up to Samsenthai Road, then east to Lane Xang. A bit north there are a pair of markets, the ‘morning market’ which is mostly electronics, clothes, and so on, then the much more interesting Khouadin market, which has a covered and atmospheric clothing area and a very lively outdoor food market. I shot a lot of film on my Leica of vegetable and fish stalls, a bacci game (on which many thousands of Kip were being wagered), barrows and barrow-men, and just lots of action.

Walking back in the direction of the hotel, I stopped at a sandwich and juice shop on Samsenthai for a very tasty cheese (Vache qui rit), mayonnaise and salad (lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and lightly pickled veggies) baguette and a mango shake, all costing about $2.50.

I rested a bit back at the hotel and tried unsuccessfully to have a nap. I don’t seem to be able to nap here, and sleeping is not coming that easily for some reason.

At 2:00 the driver came to the hotel and whisked me out to PSI. I met up with Elena and the two of us went to PSI’s nearby drop-in centre for transgender (TG) men and men who have sex with men (MSM). The centre offers a variety of services including anti-HIV and STI education (condom use and awareness), internet access, a doctor’s office, kitchen, dance area, TV room and access to peer support workers. It was a busy place and I managed to get some good shots of the action, plus some staff portraits.

Trangender men have a very different position in society here than they do back home, and katoey, as they are called, are quite visible and very accepted. It is a very similar situation to that in Thailand. Some katoey have a subtle effeminate nature while others are indistinguishable from women and have undergone hormone treatment and sometimes surgery. In some cases, their female mannerisms are very accentuated and are caricatures of what it is to be a woman. Some do work in the sex trade, sometimes with foreigners, sometimes with locals. I was told that some katoey will sleep with a foreigner, then take that money to pay a young local man (likely university age) to sleep with them. That young man will in turn take that money to buy things for his girlfriend. This is apparently not a rare phenomenon.

Being openly gay but not a katoey, from what I understand and have seen, is also broadly accepted. When I went out with the peer outreach team, we spent time in very ordinary places and the team was very openly who they were. There were no looks or energy from any in those places; they were simply who they were and that was considered normal. I can’t say that the same would happen in Canada, despite how liberal we might be. TG men certainly couldn’t live the same kind of open life.

The first excursion with the team was to a beauty salon about 14kms from the centre of town, very close to the massive and impressive Beer Lao brewery. There the peer workers chatted with about four men, some katoey, some not, about condom safety. They passed out literature and free condoms, and the men they talked to seemed very open and relaxed.

We returned to town and I had a bit of time before we were to head out again, so I went out for dinner at the same restaurant as the previous night. I had a tasty green bean salad, as was the bottle of dark Beer Lao, but the main course was challenging. Fried Vientiane-style beef sounded good, but the tough jerky-like leather that arrived, while tasty, required endurance to chew through. I made it, and also downed about a pound of sticky rice. I felt a bit dazed afterwards.

I met up with the peer team on their motorbikes at the main fountain in the centre of town just before 7:30, and I got on the back of a bike and we headed out of town again. We stopped on the way to pick up a young Danish student doing her masters in public health. Over the course of the night she provided me with some very interesting and useful information about katoey and MSM in Laos.

We drove out near the Beer Lao brewery again and pulled into a restaurant where we had beer and snacks. The peer workers knew it as a place where they could make contact and share information. There was not much action, however, so I mostly picked the Danish student’s brain.

Down the road a kilometre was a sprawling outdoor venue called the Dodo Bar, adjacent to a hopping nightclub (it seems that Wednesday is one of the main nights to go out). Here there were a great deal of katoey and some MSM, so the peers sat down at a table with some beer and would take off around the place to chat with folks, share info, and give out condoms. Sometimes it was quite subtle and fast, sometime less so. It was a challenging place to do photography as it was very dark, but I think that I managed to get some shots that captured the essence of what they do.

Sitting at the table was interesting as well as people would come and sit for a while and chat. We, the farang, weren’t of particular extra interest to anyone (as is generally the case in Laos), which was fine, and people were comfortable with being photographed. Quite a few katoey joined us, and some very quite stunningly female and certainly blurred all sorts of preconceived lines of what gender means for me. A number have spent time in Pattaya, the sex capital of Thailand. They were saying that they could make more there in a week than in a month in Laos. At least one had a regular foreigner boyfriend who called and sent money frequently.

We drove back to town on now-deserted roads at around 11:00 (Laos goes to bed early).

The evening was one of those mind-bending experiences not dissimilar to my work with deminers on the Lao-Vietnam border last year, in the sense that it’s so different from my routine experiences back home. One could not possibly pre-imagine spending an evening drinking Beer Lao with Laotian katoey at a outdoor bar 14kms outside of Vientiane.

Written by sockeyed

November 21, 2008 at 00:46