Intro: For a week in the capital of communist Laos, Vientiane, I met a small circle of lesbigays whose lives centered around restaurants, friendships and different relationships that were romantic, poignant yet cheerful.
By Richard Ammon
A friend of mine visited Laos in 1969. He made ten visits and dropped a thousand bombs. Thirty years later, he declined my offer to go with me to Vientiane, the capital of modern communist Laos.
A war zone is never forgotten. In his scarred memory, the mountains and forests of that country will never be beautiful, the highland rebels never trustworthy.
I have no such pocked memories of those hills and faces. My images are very different as I recently explored Vientiane, across the chocolate brown Mekong River from prosperous Thailand–less than a kilometer away but generations apart in government, infrastructure and freedom.
Vientiane is a provincial city with mostly unpaved roads. Among worn and dusty Buddhist temples and ramshackle shops are a wide variety of no-tech goods hauled in by foot, bicycle, tuk-tuk or lumbering old buses.
Along the bustling bumpy streets and beleaguered buildings, I wondered what gay life sprouted here. The reports I saw before arriving were ambivalent and sketchy. Lonely Planet talked of tolerance yet not without warning of a "less liberated" military milieu.
In Bangkok, gay Utopia Tours posted in their website Pink Pages some anecdotes by gay travelers who reported that social contact during the day was difficult for gays; friendships could only be nocturnal. The two stories were dated 1996 and 1998.
Before leaving Bangkok in June of ’99, it was suggested that I contact the owner of European Steakhouse restaurant in Vientiane. No further reference was needed. (Note: Laos is governed by a repressive Communist government not sympathetic to gay life. I have, unfortunately, had to omit and change names to maintain the confidentiality of the folks I met.)
A Touch of Class
Tucked into a rutted back street a short distance from downtown Vientiane, the impeccably furnished restaurant (closed as of 2008) is in stark contrast to the dingy neighborhood. Inside it’s decorated with polished wood columns, fine art prints on the walls, pink and mauve tablecloths across twenty tables set with fresh flowers, crenellated napkins and fine wine goblets. The place is an exact replication of the owner’s standards and taste brought from his native European country and out of his many years in hotel and restaurant work–all very haute.
The fifteen-page menu ranges from a French smoked clam appetizer to a bottle of Chateau Malescot St. Exupery Margaux 1979 ($80) by way of cordon-rouge fillet avec jambon fume, served by handsome Lao young men, suited-up and ready to please. The place has become the favorite haunt of ambassadors and top-level businessmen.
It is also the discreet and unspoken heart of gay Vientiane.
Should I have been surprised? Not really. Lawrance is a modest gentleman with the ability to provide quality cuisine and a tasteful milieu. Behind, or rather beside, this man is his partner and mate of seven years Su, a thirty-six year old native Lao man whose slight stature belies his canny ability for business and sociability. Looking ten years younger, Lawrance met Su in Bangkok as he was recovering from the loss of his lover of nineteen years from HIV in 1993.
Grieving, Lawrance decided to recharge his life with travel around Asia. Little did he know at the time he was on the verge of a personal renaissance. He fell in love with Su, packed up his life at home and moved to Vientiane in 1995. His friends thought he was crazy. Lawrance’s kindness, sincerity and courage touched Su as they set out to seal their love and the restaurant’s success. And they have done very well.
Su has a sister, Lang, who also works in a restaurant that serves quality food. Lang also happens to be a forty year-old lesbian–and looks fresh as twenty five.
Our little group first met at Lawrance’s restaurant: Lawrance, Su, Lang and her lover Num, a cute shorthaired girl of 22 with Chinese-ancestry features. Later, a life-long friend of Su’s visiting from his adopted San Francisco joined us. And there was also Dion, a quiet sort-of-straight friend, who sat and listened to our English conversation with interest. ("He is straight now but we think he may become bisexual," said Su.)
The Gay Scene: Nocturnal and Discreet
If you are looking for the gay community in Vientiane, this is probably one of the very few to be found. The little family extended their warmth as I peeked into gay life in this tattered culture so beaten up by colonial and militaristic intruders over the past couple of hundred years.
Contrary to my prior impressions, these gentlefolks were not people fearful of getting busted or hiding in dark shame. Instead they were playful, open to talking, relaxed and obviously enjoying each other’s company.
Later that night, the little band decided to take me to see the ‘scene’. Lang drove a jeep. (I told her the American word for it was ‘butch’.) We boys went on motorbikes to a cavernous dark disco near a lake and then back into town to a smaller and more intimate bar. The next night we visited a nightclub at one of the big hotels, the ‘best’ disco in town with its lounge atmosphere, ‘mixed’ customers and small dance floor. (A recent February ’04 posting on Lonely Planet Thorn Tree site said, "Chess Pub is a disco, with kathoeys and gays blended in; closes at 11 pm. Gets busy around 9:30.)
But none of these places are wholly gay and during the day gay couples do not walk hand in hand, although many Lao follow social customs by holding hands in public with their best friends–men with men or women with women. Like most lesbigay folks around the world they are invisible in their work and among their families.
Having read about the usual cultural prohibitions against homosexuality in Asian cultures and about the strong pull of family traditions, I half expected Su to describe some wrenching stores of family tensions during coming out dramas. The worst I got was that he got married before he fully came out to himself but the marriage melted away into a divorce not long after.
As for parental anguish: "not really. My mother was not upset. She just said for me to be happy." What about other gay people? "The same, I think. Some of the parents do not know. But there is a big change these five years. People are more accepting. They know it exists. We can see Thai TV and the kathoeys (drag queens), so it is nothing special now…"
In 2006, a reader wrote to GlobalGayz about his experience with a gay guide: "if you meet him you can have a lot of (non-sex) fun. All his friends are gay and they want to greet guests here. He wanted to bring me to a massage place but I told him I would like to just go to a bar; I think the name of the bar was Sauladet and the boss there is a foreigner. Many gays from Laos and Thailand go there.
"Also he showed me Nam Phu Square near to the Lao Plaza Hotel (1min. walk). There are many ladyboys and gays cruising around there in the late afternoon (for money). But I was nervous because he look so different from me with his clothes; he was very feminine and everyone seemed to look at us. So that was my first expedition with a gay guide."
Changing Sex Roles and Images
Kathoey is a more common term for homosexual for most Lao. A man who is effeminate is considered a kathoey whether he cross dresses or not, whether he is homosexual or not. As usual, the ‘straight looking’ masculine role is upheld as the acceptable appearance for a man.
Even if he likes other men, this role can mask and protect the true self. It ‘s just recently that ‘gay’ has come into usage and spread as the accepted term in Vientiane. Su described the bizarre goings-on in a small town south of Vientiane where "hundreds" of drag queen gatoeys parade about in the day and evening without shame or fear.
They deliberately tease straight men with suggestive comments and gestures, and with frequently favorable results. As the horny hets get a bit drunk, and lacking the now-forbidden lady hookers, they turn to this next best touch of pleasure being flaunted before them. In the morning they can blame it on the booze, mitigated by their ‘king’ role (top) to the ‘queens’ female role. It is not unusual for some money to change hands during these interludes. Among themselves, however, gatoeys usually do not have sex.
Sex is metamorphic. It changes shape according to desire, which in turn is shaped by circumstances. In Asia, as I talk to more young people coming of age in the 90’s, sexual desire and behavior are more of a fluid process than a set menu, marking a change in cultural attitudes from previous standards set by Asian traditions or European colonialists.
Categories of sexual orientation are less distinct than before; experimenting is more acceptable. Su claimed, rather offhandedly, that he liked "to be king with gay boys and queen with straight boys". The discos are mostly straight but playful contact between gays is easily expressed. Little Dion, listening eagerly to all our chat and laughter, understood enough to laugh with us.
Feeling accepted and wanted, straight, gay or in between, he is part of the youngest Lao generation to move forward with more (cautious) freedom of choice than has been known before. Su said there is a "boom" happening in Vientiane; people are being sexual, "including the young horny monks!" As a foreigner in a repressive country, I decide not to pursue that issue!
See this special report on Lao transgenders by researcher Serge Doussantos in Vientiane. In the report he said: "Whilst there are some similarities with the sub-cultural experiences of transgender males in Thailand, this preliminary paper shows that little is known about Kathoey in Laos. The numbers of Kathoey are difficult to assess. It seems a significant number of young boys feel feminine and wants to be perceived as females. The traditional society in Lao seems to have been accepting and tolerant of transgenders, and Kathoey are seen in all walks of life although their professional activities are related to female occupations…"
Cross-cultural Love: Liung and George
In a backward communist society, the course of budding love and enduring passion weave a crooked path. Liung is a handsome young waiter who served my gourmet dinner at Lawrance’s restaurant. In easy conversation with him between courses, he told me that he is presently completing course work in architecture at the local university. He was also interested in the Internet.
With Lawrance’s support, I arranged to meet Liung the next day at my hotel and use the business office computer to show Liung how to send e-mail to his boyfriend. Over breakfast he talked about piecing together a better life for himself. He has a good temporary job, a university program, close friends and a special boyfriend. It sounded good–except for the slight problem that George happens to live seven thousand miles away in the US.
As I listened, I couldn’t help recalling previous conversations with Asians who have fallen in love with farangs (foreigners). The stories are variations on a theme of dashed hope and abandoned love. Farangs come for business or fun–and they go, while the hearts of the young Asian remain bound to their culture by language differences, poverty, lack of education or restrictive immigrations policies.
Behind his calm demeanor and gentle smile, I sensed an apprehension in Liung’s voice that suggested he understood the pitfalls of long-distance romance. He was expecting his boyfriend to return to Vientiane the following month and they spoke to each other by phone once every two weeks–for now. Although I didn’t doubt their sincerity, I tried to gently suggest that Liung be careful about giving away too much of his heart to someone so many miles away and also a culture away. He understood what I was saying with a slight nod of his head and a downward glance. I didn’t have to make the point twice.
When Liung and I logged onto the Internet a little while later, it was during a not-unusual five-hour power shutdown. Fortunately my hotel had its own backup generator to keep the essential equipment operational such as elevators, fridges and computers. Liung had never seen the Internet or e-mail so I showed him my Yahoo account and several messages from friends. He wanted to know how to do this with his boyfriend.
Unfortunately he did not have his e-mail address, so we read some of my mail. He cannot type, and he has difficulty with many English spellings. It was a poignant moment and I felt the daunting hurdles between the cultures of these two guys. Liung really wants to be in love but the details of love become frayed across technologies and long distances; it often fades with time especially when they only can see each other twice a year.
After a short lesson in e-mail, we went into the web to show him the wonders of the countless pages of information available to the modern age. But that bid was short-lived: after entering the URL of the Utopia gay center in Bangkok, the graphics and colors of the site appeared but no text or links to further access Utopia’s services. A message appeared announcing that this Internet site was blocked, as was the ‘Advocate’ and ‘Frontiers’. Unexpectedly, we could get the ‘New York Times’, but not ‘Time’ magazine. It was a mild shock to squat in front of the Internet and have some obscure government functionary prescribe the limits of my choice. It was another curt reminder of the socialist fence surrounding personal freedom in this country.
Cross-cultural Love: Rudi and Ma
In addition to Lawrance, another expat and friend of his had entered Laos by way of romance, but with less fortunate results. For some, there is always the morning after when the piper will be paid–and paid dearly if you have a longing for smooth-skinned lads with little education and no job. Such objects of affection are a dime a dozen in any impoverished country, but it only takes one to capture the heart of a hairy-skinned, world-weary, older foreigner.
On a beach in Pattaya, Thailand, several years ago, Rudi encountered a sweet-faced urchin who would change his life. Ma, the sinuous, passion-lipped wonder with the dark almond eyes was available for a price and Rudi paid it. Close to fifty years old and with prospects dimming for a devoted lover in his native European country, Rudi followed the many tales about Pattaya’s fountains of youth and came to Southeast Asia.
It didn’t take long for Ma to catch Rudi’s erotic desires and vulnerable heart. After their first few commercial encounters, Ma made himself available to Rudi for a more involved relationship. Rudi had few ties left at home and could relocate wherever he chose. As they drew closer together, Rudi discovered that Ma was not from Thailand but from across the border in Laos.
The young man of twenty-five was persuasive. "Now I see how strong he was to get me here," mused Rudi as we sat in his little thatched-roofed restaurant on the banks of the Mekong River in northern Vientiane. "It sounded like such a good idea: I would come here and together we would start this business and have a nice life." Then with a roll of his eyes, "but now it is a terrible mess."
Rudi moved to Laos with Ma oblivious to the cultural snares that would eventually bind him in anguish and frustration. What he did not fully realize at the time was: (1) Laos is a very poor country and its people are desperate for money; (2) it’s a communist country encrusted with an inefficient bureaucracy and arcane rules for doing business; (3) native Lao attitudes toward homosexuality are not wildly enthusiastic; (4) a distinct split exists between the locals’ outward deference paid to farangs and their hidden resentment toward these moneyed ‘colonialists’ who should be taken advantage of if possible.
Into this quick sand stepped Rudi. He brought his wallet and set out with good intentions. Bright ideas slowly turned out to be defective light bulbs. He discovered that foreigners cannot own a business in Laos, only natives, so today Rudi’s restaurant is not his but Ma’s. But Rudi’ passion for Ma persisted long enough for his dream to become bogged down in alienation, taxes and perhaps most lethally, Ma’s family.
"At first they pretended to be very pleased to have me as a friend. They pretended it was an honor for their son to have an older foreign patron, but really what they wanted was money", Rudi lamented.
"It’s all about money. Before I came, everyone worked–the mother, father, his brother and sister. Now guess who works–I do. They use my money for their living. And because I have not yet been able to get a work visa I need Ma to fill out the forms for me so I can be here officially as a worker. So now I am only an employee."
Exasperated with his own foolishness, Rudi slumped back in his chair as we looked out over the peaceful river flowing by, this Mekong River with it’s own sad history. Ruefully he continued. "I cannot believe how lazy and crazy these people are. They have no feelings of gratitude. There is thinking here I have never seen before. If they can take my money, they think they do not have to earn it. And if I protest too much, Ma’s mother says he is spending too much time with me and wants him to be with her. It’s incredible. She can control me through Ma, and of course he will follow her first. It’s their tradition. It has killed our feelings."
I had to resist a slightly scornful urge toward this sophisticated western man who had let himself be trapped by these not-so-simple natives, and even more by his own naive impulses. But his anguish revealed the true pain of his shriveled and abused love for Ma, not to mention the risk he now faced of not having legal access to his considerable investment.
But Rudi has pursued a strategy, which may restore his mind and resources. He has submitted, with Ma’s help, the proper applications for a work visa. For a while, it was held up by a particular clerk’s ‘illness’ (so he was told) who processes these things. So Rudi has no choice but to wait for him and hope the system will trudge along with some efficiency and issue his papers. "After I have my permit, I can have my own business. And I will move far away from here, down south in Laos, perhaps to Peske Island," he sighed. It was the first ray of hope I had heard in this tale of woe.
Rudi also mentioned that Lawrance, too, is technically the employee of his native lover, Su. He took no delight in pointing out that "Lawrance is always working and Su is out with his friends and spending the money". But I did notice a wry smirk.
A Lao Lesbian Tale
Twenty years ago Lang, Su’s sister, took advantage of the changes convulsing the government in Laos and made her way to Europe to study. When the Communists grabbed control of Laos she stayed rather than return home. There she lived for fourteen years while married to a native Scandinavian. Finally coming out as a lesbian, she returned home in 1997 where she has sought perfect love with imperfect partners– straight girls whom she thought she could persuade to her ways. It was not a successful fantasy.
Now she has a lesbian lover, Num, but who is 18 years younger. Needless to say age discrepancy has its own set of worries: "I am nervous to think another girl person will want her…" so she tries to keep a short leash on the lover’s sense of freedom.
Lang told me that Lao lesbians face more shame. "Traditionally, people are less tolerant to lesbian women than gay men." She wasn’t sure why. I thought perhaps it’s because people have been de-conditioned somewhat by the presence of cross-dressing male gatoeys especially on Thai TV. There is no equally popular cross-dressed lesbian role model.
It may well also have to do with Loa women being more submissive and following customs without question. Men have more freedom to be rebellious before they settle down. To mask their natural affections, most Lao lesbians marry and quietly conform to the strong familial demands. Lang thought a couple of the ‘straight’ women she had befriended were secret lesbians, but they were tightly closeted if they were–much to Lang’s disappointment. "They were so cute!" she added wistfully.
For now, Num and Lang live together in a convenient arrangement that is nevertheless cloaked in a convenient disguise. They share a three-bedroom apartment above Lang’s restaurant with four other women who are straight. They all live together, two to a room. The others are co-workers from her restaurant or nearby workplaces such as an embassy or upper class residence.
Lang and Num are not out to the other women who probably understand their relationship anyway. But nothing is said since the living standard, crowded as it is, offers a much better quality than living in a cement hovel or bamboo hut at home. Also, the women’s youthful attitudes are more modern and more urban. Tolerance for a lesbian couple is higher now, Lang thought. As coworkers, they are also friends who can be found at Chess Disco dancing together or with boyfriends on weekend nights. When I went with Su, Lang, Num and friends to the mixed clubs, the women were happy to dance together.
Back to Basics (Again)
On my last evening in Vientiane I briefly encountered one of Lang’s waiters, Tong, a shy 21-year-old gay boy (as reported by Lang). He was studying English, in the same class as Teo, another (straight) waiter and friend. Lang told Tong about me so when I asked Tong, after some light chatter, if he liked other boys he was not surprised. He replied, "I think sometimes," with slightly averted pretty eyes. Then looking back at me, he said he feels some shame "if I admit my nature".
I tried to assure him there was no shame in being gay and there were many happy gay and lesbian people in many countries. He seemed pleased to hear this from an older person and smiled with, I hope, some understanding.
Later, after dinner and after hours, Teo gave me a lift on his motorbike to Lawrance’s restaurant, dodging the watery potholes filled from an early evening storm. Along the way I asked him what he thought of gay people. "It is okay I think. People must be what they are." But there are many who don’t agree, I said. "Yes, they tease them and make them feel bad. They don’t understand." By the end of our ride, I thought Tong would be quite all right. With a good friend like Teo, he was in good hands as he discovered his "nature".
It was a nice image to carry with me the next day as I flew away from the little land called Laos.