From the Embassy to Halloween — an unexpected “Joker”

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The beginning of my adventure

It was Halloween, 31 October 2019, exactly a year ago, when I had my craziest day in Laos. I was not sure whether Halloween was celebrated in Laos, and if yes, which subculture[1]  would take part in it. My guess was that it would be probably more interesting for teenagers and young adults, who tend to be influenced by Western (social) media: YouTube, Instagram or streaming sites like Netflix. I was able to confirm my theory after my Halloween night, but more about that later.

The only thing I knew about Halloween in Laos was that Team V set up a Halloween party  and held one of their English lessons in a “witchy” style to showcase the main features of this event for their students. To do this they used a host of fun activities and lots of classic spooky Halloween-themed songs which could also be used in a special school lesson on this day (follow the link if you want to read about this event and the historical roots of Halloween).

One difference between Team V’s approach and mine was that they celebrated Halloween in their “safe” classrooms at the LGTC, whereas I went out on my own adventure to search for a spooky and fun Halloween event at night in a beautiful, dimly lit Vientiane. If you are ready for a wild ride, do not hesitate to continue reading — at your own risk!

So how did it all start? It started like most encounters in Laos: You meet a new person who introduces you to a variety of other new people who then invite you to certain events where you again — meet a lot of great people. One small encounter or meeting can bring about the biggest surprises and lead to many new experiences (which reminds me of the butterfly effect). One also never knows what will happen in the near future: In Laos, life happens when one is busy making other plans!
Furthermore, this way of “social circling” and forming connections can continue ad infinitum — if you are willing to take the risks, which means to deviate spontaneously from already set plans and jump into unknown situations. You do not have to know what exactly will happen or where you will end up. In my experience, everything turns out beautifully in Laos; obstacles are merely temporary challenges and overcoming them only leads to greater happenings, as was the case during my Halloween night.

 

Invitation to the Crowne Plaza Hotel

In my case, the whole chain of experiences started to unfold on 23 October in 2019 at the Crowne Plaza, a beautiful new (five-star) hotel in Vientiane. The German Embassy team had invited us (Ms Yvonne-Jacqueline Dyck and I, Mr David Trendl) to join the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened on 9 November 1989. Not only the unity of the Federal Republic of Germany and the preceding restoration of peace were celebrated, but also the honouring of the long-standing Lao-German friendship and the fruitful relations between the residents of these countries, were exclaimed.
As mentioned before, the Crown Plaza is a noble hotel with a huge lobby by boasting high, gleaming marble walls and an interior that looked very modern while at the same time creating an atmosphere of a natural wooden touch. Throughout the evening, the conference room was visited by many people of different origins: We met Mme Gerlinde Engel (the German co-founder of Angels for Children), a French businessman who works for the marketing section of a Lao café chain and presented some interesting facts about Lao coffee production and distribution, as well as various Lao government officials. Moreover, we encountered a group of students of the National University of Laos (NUOL) who study German, which includes not only the German language but also several other fields, such as tourism, culture and politics.
Certainly, I must not forget to mention His Excellency Mr Jens Lütkenherm, the German Ambassador in Laos, who gave the main speech on the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin WallFurthermore, he both praised and encouraged Lao-German cooperation in fields like business, diplomacy and education to foster sustainable progress and support the continuation of fruitful relationships between both countries and their residents.

 

After the speech a great buffet was served that contained Lao and German specialities. There was something for everyone: Traditional Larb, gently cooked fish (Mok Pa), spring rolls (the fried ones are called “cheun yaw” and the fresh ones carry the name “Pun yaw“), fried rice salad (Naem Khao Tod), very sour sauerkraut, creamy mashed potatoes, crisp asparagus-broccoli salad (my personal favorite) and tenderly cooked ham. Lao sausage (Sai Gok) and German sausages paired with pretzels were provided to fulfill the needs of guests who were looking for a very savoury and traditional German meal.
I was certainly happy that I had not eaten before we went to the event. In my opinion, this mixed Lao-German buffet was one of the best buffets that I ever had the pleasure of enjoying. Mme Engel did not have to tell me twice to eat as much as I could. My teammate Jacqueline (the nickname she introduced herself with was “Jacky”, as it was easier to pronounce for Lao people) liked the dessert very much, which consisted of a plethora of different fruits and pastry such as a tasty mousse au chocolat served with a little flower on top called Asian pigeonwings. I had seen this flower being used in plenty of beauty products like shampoo and skin care products before. All in all, we were utterly and comprehensibly spoiled by the professional and very attentive team of chefs and waiters of the Crowne Plaza.

 

Meeting new Lao friends (who study German!) 

While we were eating and drinking some champagne served by ever-moving and relentlessly attentive waiters and waitresses, the aforementioned group of Lao students approached me. They asked me where I was from, which initiated our small talk. I was really thankful that they treated me with such friendly directness, because I had wanted to approach them before but was not sure about the right way given the typically more cautious social behavior of Lao people. To their question I replied that I was a volunteer from Germany who teaches English and German at the LGTC. This comment made one student answer with the German sentence “Mein Name ist Lucas” (my name is Lucas) and some other sentences that I am no longer able to recall. The only thing I am still certain about is that all sentences were pronounced almost perfectly – I was thoroughly impressed.

In the meantime, Jacqueline had returned to the buffet on a mission to get some more fruit during which she was stopped by a friendly elderly Lao couple who asked her how she liked the German food prepared by Lao chefs. They wanted to know if it had the same taste that she was used to in Germany or if she could taste slight differences due to nuances in flavors or other changes made by the cooks. She did not return for a long time, because, as I found out later, she had further met and then had another longer chat with a Malaysian woman who works for the International Red Cross. She and her both being Protestants, they had a talk about their Christian faith and shared their views on this topic with each other.

Just a moment later, the other students also introduced themselves to me: This is how I got to know Jiro, Melinda, Memmy, Noumnim, Seangdeat, Lucky and Lucas, who all study German at the National University of Laos (NUOL has just launched a new cooperation with the German department of the University of Education in Karlsruhe. Sadly, this project had to be postponed to 2021 due to the Covid 19-pandemic). In the meantime Jacqueline acquainted herself with Melinda and they had a brief conversation in German. Melinda was wearing a traditional Bavarian dress, which is called “Dirndl”, and Jacqueline was dressed in a sinh (a traditional Lao skirt) which she had been able to borrow from a Lao friend. As the invitation to this event had been quite spontaneous and we received it only shortly after our arrival in Laos, she had not yet had the time to buy one of her own. The two of them instantly made a connection and on top of that, their outfits were a wonderful representation of Lao-German friendship and intercultural exchange. While they talked, plenty of people pointed at them smiling and a person unknown to all of us insisted that they should take a photo together, which they did.

 

After that we continued our lively conversation — mostly in German — and learned plenty about each other. Some of our new friends told me they would like to work for the German Embassy or the Goethe Institute in Laos after finishing their studies. The later the evening, the funnier our conversations became — we started to joke about Lucas’s outfit, which was made up of a pink shirt and a black tie with white trousers. It certainly looked great but had some similarities with the outfits of the waiters. This became our running gag of the evening: Whenever we had finished our drinks, we said “Lucas, could you serve some more champagne, please?” Certainly, there were enough opportunities to repeat this joke until it grew familiar with everyone. As the evening went by, we continued to crack many jokes and generally had a great time.

Our new friends speak German very well and were very eager to get to know us. They asked us a lot of questions about German culture, our tandem-teaching project and — in general — about our stay in Laos. I told them that we are involved in a research project of our university, the University of Education in Karlsruhe, our main goal being to advance our own professionalization as intercultural teachers and learners.
When they asked me about the challenges that I encountered and what my own experiences of the project had been so far, I tried to summarize the points I viewed as most important: The chance to visit Laos not as a tourist, but as a teacher of English who can learn something about other kinds of teaching styles, expectations of students, attitudes, and my own mental preconceptions (habitual ways of behaving, judging and concluding) of people from a culture different from one’s one, was immensely beneficial to my own growth — as a teacher and as a human being — that I would never want to have missed out on[2].
I also explained to my friends that we work and cooperate closely with our tandem-teachers to plan lessons and try out new methodological ways of presenting our classes’ content in a way that is easily accessible for students and leads to sustainable long-term progress. I concluded my short elaboration with telling them that these procceses were not only beneficial to the Lao teachers and students, but also immensely valuable for my own development as a teacher in a highly globalized world. After, the group of Lao students told me about their university and provided me with a closer look into the different fields of their German studies: Linguistics, culture, tourism, politics, and history. I was surprised about the broad spectrum of their studies, including basically everything related to Germany and its culture.

After the more work-related discussion with Lucas, I wanted to engage in light conversation and started to speak with Noumnim about movies. I asked her about the cinema culture in Laos because during my time there I had not seen a single one in Vientiane and all my students told me that they mostly use Netflix to watch movies or series. This led to us finding out that we both like anime (Japanese animated cartoon movies that are usually based on on hand-drawn comics, called manga).  She seemed quite curious about my knowledge of anime and we were able to exchange a lot of fun facts about our favorite ones. The fact that I took part in some cosplay events and competitions, where you dress like one of your favorite characters surprised her even more. I told her that Germany has quite a large subculture of people interested in Japanese anime and cosplaying; It is certainly not only an Asian phenomenon anymore. We both agreed that dressing as one of your favourite characters from movies or computer games is a creative and fun thing to do and that it is really not easy to create your own costumes,  or make-up, which is even harder if you are aiming to match it with the original. If one wants to take it even further, one has to act in the way the chosen character acts, which requires specific knowledge about your character’s behavioral nuances as well as the ability to use your facial expressions and body language to their maximum potential — a task that any good actor has to master.

I am telling you this to share with you my passion for acting and movies, which hopefully helps to illustrate why I was so eager to join the Halloween event that I am going to talk about now. By the way, Noumnim’s favorite anime is Naruto, which is one of the most famous and most-cherished ones by long-standing anime fans. I cannot recall every conversation because we talked about a lot of different topics. Only one thing I know for sure: It just took a few minutes of talking and couple of glasses of champagne (we felt like it was the weekend, even if it was Wednesday!) and we became good friends; We got along very well from the beginning. Jacky and I are very grateful for the invitation we received and the opportunities to meet so many wonderful people.

After this evening many meetings that would deepen our relationship with our new found friends were still to come. This included a volleyball game, two Karaoke nights, a visit to the That Luang festival, an invitation to a Christmas party at the NUOL and many more. It was this friendship, especially with Lucas, that would lead to my great Halloween night.

 

Movie night turned into Halloween adventure 

Jacqueline, Phi Ha (our friend and Team X member who had arrived in the meantime) and I were asked by our Lao friends to join them for a movie night at the German Embassy. This movie night was set for Halloween, 31 October, at 7.30 p.m. The movie was called “Bornholmer Straße” and would be shown in German with English subtitles — a perfect opportunity to meet our friends, have fun and practice speaking German together. The movie tells the story of Colonel Schäfer, who works at the border checkpoint “Bornholmer Straße” in Berlin that connects East and West Germany. It shows the events of 9 November 1989, when the collapse of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) began by the opening of the border.
We thought that this movie was a worthy continuation of our first meeting at the Crown Plaza Hotel where we had  celebrated the German reunification. In addition, we were able to celebrate our own small Lao-German reunion. Even if it sounded like a great plan; Like so often in Laos, things turned out differently in a spontaneous manner. I did not watch the movie that day because life had something else in store for me.

A few minutes before we were going to meet Lucas, Melinda and Jiro, to our surprise, they told us they had moved on to the Vientiane City Center to do some shopping. They had not found anyone at the Embassy and thus got the impression that the movie night had been either cancelled or postponed. Afterwards, we still wanted to go there to see for ourselves what had happened. At the same time, Lucas texted us in our WhatsApp group saying that they had heard of a Halloween party featuring a dance and costume competition, which they wanted to visit.

When I read this message, I was standing in front of the entrance of the Embassy while Jacqueline and Phi Ha were already walking through the door and passing the metal detectors, which had been installed for safety measures. I had to make a quick decision: Do I enter and watch the movie or do I leave and wait to see how the plan for the Halloween party would turn out? Actually, it was not a thought-out plan yet — just an opportunity, as they were still unsure about what to do and where to go. I knew myself, which means that I once I decided there was no going back. I would not enter the Embassy again, even if our friends went home and I were to end up alone. Meditation has taught me to listen to my heart (or gut instinct) and decide without paying too much attention to the my mind, which sometimes holds me back with its endless pondering. I just like to go for things without much hesitation and see what comes of it.
So, I did precisely that, and what first came of it was that I did end up alone in the street, not knowing what to do and with no one answering my messages on WhatsApp about tonight’s plans. Great…!

 

As I had not received an answer and it was too late to go back to the Embassy to watch the movie, I decided to go to the night market and look for some presents for my family. Deep inside, however, I was still hoping for a message from Lucas about the Halloween party. I really wanted to see how this festivity is celebrated in Laos and what one has to do during the dance and costume competition Lucas mentioned because I  had never heard,  let alone taken part in anything comparable.

As I have described before, my interest in cosplays and acting made me more than willing and ready to have such an experience in Laos. At the time, I was, however, still just walking down the street, looking to give the next TukTuk driver a sign to pick me up. It was already dark, and a beautiful Vientiane, dimly lit by streets lights and glowing signs of shops and ATMs lay in front of me. A small breeze of cold wind greeted me, and the big bear statue in front of the Embassy was still smiling its big smile. “It was a good day for Halloween,” I must have thought.

The streets were filled with big cars and scooters, which always try to use every inch of free space to squeeze through the traffic and make room for the cars behind them. Also, there were a lot of dark alleys that seemed to stretch out endlessly into the darkness. This phenomenon reminded me of side river channels that break off from the main river, just to flow back into it again after taking a little detour. In this night, Vientiane seemed like a beautiful dazzling labyrinth with so many paths and secret corners that my mood turned adventurous. Also, I should mention that despite all the noise coming from the streets, everything seemed strangely peaceful. Until, suddenly, a loud sound interrupted my thoughts. I was startled…

…by the ring tone of my own mobile phone. I picked up. “Hallo David, wo bist du?” (“Hello David, where are you?”), I heard a voice say. Then, I realized that it was Lucas. I told him I was about to get a Tuktuk to the night market. He asked me if I still wanted to go to a Halloween party with him and I replied that I had been waiting and hoping for him to call me and ask this question. I became very excited. “Wo soll ich hinkommen?” (“Where should I go?”) was my response, which I burst out with such energy and relief that my joy pervaded the air.

He answered, “ich hole dich mit meinem Roller ab, in zehn Minuten” (“I am going to pick you up with my scooter, in ten minutes”). This filled me with delight because it was the first time I would ride on the back of someone’s scooter through Vientiane.

 

A few minutes later Lucas pulled up right in front of me on his black-and-red scooter. The moment I swung myself on the back seat our little tour began. He told me that he needed to buy some cigarettes for his aunt, so we drove to a shop to do so. Our drive reminded me of the times when I was a teenager driving to school on my own scooter. It was a time when I felt cool, free, but also fortunate because not many students had an expensive scooter at the age of sixteen. Here in Vientiane virtually every student seems to have a scooter or motorbike and even a lot of the teachers at the LGTC use scooters and motorbikes as means of transportation. I guess it is the vehicle of choice because it is less expensive than a car, easier to park and, most importantly, in lots of situations it might actually be faster than a car because you can get past certain obstacles that cause traffic congestion, which has become notorious in this town. It is certainly a pratical ride if you want to stop fast and easily park in front of one of the small food stands by the street to grab a pineapple shake or some sliced watermelon before you continue your ride.

In our case, however, we did not pick up a pineapple shake but cigarettes for his aunt. After that we drove to Lucas’s house because there was still more than enough time until the party was to start. Having reached our destination, we were standing in front of a wooden door that had beautiful carvings on its surface, which I was not able to decipher. Although the door looked very impressive, what impressed me even more was the person  that had been standing behind it after it was opened: Melinda greeted me with a big knife stuck in her head, painstakingly dividing her head into two halves (pun intended). Shocked, I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Then, luckily, I remembered which day it was: It was Halloween!

 

The making of the “Joker“

After the initial shock had subsided, I entered Lucas’s house. I met his father, who greeted me very kindly and asked me to take a seat. Lucas offered us soft chocolate-vanilla rolls that tasted delicious. Water and Pepsi were prepared to quench our thirst and sugar cravings. We were sitting on the floor around a small table that served as our playboard. Lucas asked me if I knew  a fun German card game and I suggested a simple classic that I have always liked playing: It is called “Mau-Mau”. The German word has nothing to do with the Lao word “mau”, which means “drunk”, but there might be an unintentional connection between these two words in the way that the card game can be played as a drinking game — or is at least often accompanied by the consumption of beer amongst young people.

After I explained the rules, we started to play our first test round. It was tremendous fun because the game is so easy but, as most good card games, does not fully depend on luck or the advantage of a good hand of cards, but also on a good memory and a bit of cunning. Lucas and Melinda really enjoyed the game and even played the longest round I have ever witnessed. Both of them so often had only one card left, just about to win, when the game took a full turnaround because the last card never matched the number or colour needed to secure the much-needed win.
I think their game lasted about 20 minutes. We had to reshuffle the cards three times to have a new deck to draw from. In case you are curious who won, I have to admit that I have forgotten. Nevertheless, it did not matter because we had so much fun and laughed a lot!

 

 

After the card game was finished, Lucas informed me that it was time to put on our make-up for the Halloween party. “Our make-up” sounded strange to me, as I did not expect that I would have the opportunity to take part in the process because our get-together was so very spontaneous; I had thought I would be going as a bystander and remain undisguised. In the end , I was very happy that I was given the chance to put on some make-up or even a costume  appropriate for Halloween.

No sooner said than done, I knew precisely which kind of make-up I wanted. My choice fell on Heath Ledger’s Joker from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight”, which is my favorite Batman movie of all the ones I have seen so far (meaning all of them). The make-up is easy to do — it needs only three colours: White, black, and red to create its scary effect. This was later confirmed by another Lao friend who told me I looked like a “frightening ghost”. (In retrospect, I think I looked pretty funny!)

I was standing in front of the mirror working with the make-up that Lucas had given me when, suddenly, his mother appeared – in a zombie costume. It looked both funny and scary at the same time. The scary figure brought us tasty muffins with vanilla and chocolate cream. At the same time, Lucas was doing something I could not figure out: He was soaking bits of paper tissue in water and putting it on his mouth, chin, and cheeks. I was curious about the effect that it would achieve. While I was doing my own make-up, I was watching Lucas for several minutes repeating this process layer after layer. Finally, it became clear to me that he was creating a wound or some kind of a monstrous-looking mouth. After the tissues had dried up he used red make-up to give them a bloody look.
I was very surprised by the end result because it looked quite real and disgusting; exactly the effect he had aimed for.
Speaking about make-up: Melinda was the only one who did not use any make-up, Halloween-related make-up that is to say. She was dressed in a long red cape that made her look like Wonder Woman — with the only difference being the knife that jutted out of her head. All in all, we looked great and were ready for the party!

 

After we left Lucas’s house and got into his car, we began to drive around in search of a good club where we could celebrate Halloween. I thought that they already knew where to go, which, was actually not the case. Lucas informed me that there were a lot of clubs with Halloween parties, but only a few that had a competition like the one we were looking for. After a few minutes of driving we arrived at a club called “Gold Star”.
It looked really nice with a big stage and lots of fairy lights, but we figured it might be too classy for the Halloween party we were searching for. Also, the clientele seemed to be too old to be interested in Halloween; This was a place where you could eat good food and listen to relaxing Lao, Thai or Jazz music — not so much a place for the younger party generation, who made every effort to look as frightening as possible on Halloween.
Although it was a nice first impression and we could have celebrated there, we only stayed for a few minutes because Lucas found out that they would not be holding our much-desired competition. After we left, two more disappointments would follow until finally we found a different club with a small dance floor where live music was performed. Its name was “Phoenix Club”, a name that was certainly promising. I felt that this was the place we had been looking for the whole time.

There were plenty of people and a few of them were dressed in Halloween costumes, whereas the majority of guests were just wearing normal outfits. The club’s lightshows and the colourful interior created a nice atmosphere. Pink, blue, and yellow were the main colours bursting out of the crystallinelooking disco lights. These colours reflected on the surface of a giant spinning disco ball, which was a beautiful phenomenon that all of us witnessed with delight. After entering and looking around, Lucas asked the bartender if this place was going to hold a Halloween competition, which the friendly girl confirmed. We finally arrived at our much-desired destination. As we had been slightly discouraged before, having found this place, we were really happy. Our rebirth was yet to come!

 

The club was packed, thus we were lucky that a few people were just leaving and we could get a vacant table. The atmosphere was electric: A live band was playing Lao and Thai songs (and two or three English songs in between). A lot of people looked at us — some looked surprised, and others smiled.  I took both reactions as compliments: Either they were scared or they liked our make-up and costumes. I enjoyed the live band because they were engaging the audience by encouraging everyone to sing along.

Speaking about Thai songs, this is the perfect time to tell you about Team IX’s favourite song Mau touk kuad” (the male singer’s version), which is played almost everywhere in Laos. Every time this song was played, no matter where we were, one of us recognized it and we started to sing — or hum — together, and our mood lifted instantly. It changed from happy to euphoric (despite the song’s sad lyrics). We heard this song at least in ten different places and thus it became a kind of running gag to spot this song everywhere — every time strengthening our bond as a team.

Back to the Halloween night in the Phoenix Club: I was standing on the left side of the club next to a table with Lucas and Melinda. When Melinda and I got in the mood to dance, we made our way through the crowd of people that was dancing and drinking in front of the stage. Next to us there was a group of people who offered us free beer and asked us if we wanted to take some selfies with them — a wish that we happily fulfilled.
Everyone was happy and cheerful and we kept dancing and having fun. This went on until the music suddenly stopped and a young man with a microphone jumped on stage to announce something in Lao. Lucas told me that the Halloween competition was about to start. Thus, I asked him what we had to do and how the procedure would unfold. His answer followed straight away in a rather unexpected manner: He pulled me on stage and told me to start dancing as soon as the competition host told me it was my turn. I have to admit that I had no clue what to do and “which steps to take” (literally and metaphorically speaking).
Once again, it was time just to relax and be spontaneous, just like my greatest teacher, Laos itself, had taught me multiple times up to this point. Five seconds later a microphone was thrust into my hands and I told everyone my real name and as well as my nickname, “The Joker”. Lucas and Melinda followed the same procedure, as did the other five people on stage. The people watching us were really happy and smiled and cheered for us. A group of people had already shouted out the name “Joker” before I announced it.
As I had expected, the people who celebrate Halloween in Laos were mostly young adults. This subculture is influenced more strongly by social media and Western values and traditions than older generations. This group of people, according to my Lao friend and my hair dresser Toni, are a big part of the “opening up[3]” of Lao culture and bringing new fashion trends and body art such as earrings for men, tattoos, and different styles of clothes to Laos.
While I can think about these things in retrospect now, there was no room in my mind for such thoughtful reflections when I was on stage. The show started and I still had no idea what to do. Thus, I thought the best decision was just to have fun and do whatever would feel natural to me. After all, Halloween is not too serious of an affair.

 

My first dance competition — not an easy task!

All of us started to dance. We did a lot of funny moves to entertain the crowd, which was constantly cheering us on. After what must have been about a minute, the person next to me was given a big large amount of fluorescent plastic bracelets. I wondered which purpose they might serve.
Suddenly, a group of people directly in front of the stage began waving rapidly to call me over. They were holding some of the bracelets in their hands and it seemed like they wanted me to pick them up. I was confused and did not understand what I was supposed to do with five or six of the yellow and pink bracelets. Hence, I just took them, thanked the people and continued my performance. It was at this point that I finally understood the function these bracelets served: They were the currency with which the people showed their support!

The performer who collected the most of these liquid lights would win the competition. Having understood this, I just saw the person next to me earning a huge bunch of these bracelets. He danced like crazy and made a lot of funny movements; It was clear to me that he wanted to win and put all his energy — and wit — into his moves. Before, I had been oblivious to the fact that a vital component of the performance was not only one’s dancing skills or costume, but entertaining the crowd. Our job was to entertain everyone — I realized that we were the live act of the moment. Thus, one thing was for sure: I had to step up my game.

This was easier said than done. The other dancer next to me, who was wearing purple makeup and had long spiky hair, was doing a good job: Hhe did everything from spinning around at a high speed to twerking in a funny way that made the whole crowd laugh and cheer him on. Actually, I was enjoying his performance the same way everyone else was and it made me smile multiple times, too.
Another dancer, a girl dressed like a zombie in a skirt, was doing some slightly erotic movements resembling the Indian belly dance. This hilarious and great performance got way more intense as time went by, in ways  that I cannot fully describe here. Now, imagine me standing between these two full-body, high-energy performers. All I can say is, I could not keep up in intensitiy, or eroticism. They were really great. Nonetheless, I wanted to do some fun moves, too!  Thus, I started to do some Tecktonik moves I learned some years ago. This style of dance is a very quirky way of moving your arms and legs, mostly used in combination with Electronic Dance Music (EDM). This kind of music is also played in the night club “ZEUS” in Vientiane, where I had a great night meeting Lao and Korean people who invited me and my Lao friend to dance and drink with them, but that is another story.

So there I was, on stage and doing some rapid moves with my arms with a crowd of almost 100 people laughing at me. Now if I think back, I see how ridiculous it must have looked: A foreigner wearing an improvised Joker make-up waving his arms and legs around in this manner certainly looked hilarious. I must have looked like a crazy clown! (Wait. I was a crazy clown!)
On top of that I was not performing to an electronic song, but to a funky Thai song, which was being performed by a great live band that supported us in every way possible and got everyone in the mood to party. Sadly, as we were all on stage, no one of us could take a picture or record a video; Also everything happened so fast that it still feels like a dream even now.

It was a great experience because everyone was just having fun dancing, smiling, and, obviously, cheering us on. I was happy that it was not a serious affair. After all, it was Halloween, which I almost forgot during the performance. Everyone supported us with clapping and their beautiful smiles. My friends Lucas and Melinda were also having fun and dancing in their own way in a more unflashy style, which was especially fitting to Lucas: His slow moves were actually perfectly in accordance with his scary zombie outfit!
Moreover, Melinda received some sparkly neon-bracelets and accepted them in such a graceful way that would have made Wonder Woman proud. We continued dancing for what must have been three or four minutes and got more and more glow sticks. I was especially happy when I received around twenty bracelets from another group of Lao people standing around a table right in front of the stage. I thanked them and did the traditional Lao greeting called “Nop” to express my gratitude, all of this while trying to hold the glow sticks in my hands without dropping a single one of them, because they were the currency needed to win and this friendly group of locals also had paid for them.
After I accepted my reward and placed it carefully on the floor of the stage, so as to have my hands free to continue my performance, I witnessed an unbelievable thing. I could not believe my eyes!

 

By a hair’s breadth

The guy dancing next to me had received what must have been a shocking 200 glowing sticks. He had to use both of his arms to form a kind of bowl to hold them and carry them to the side of the stage. It was an unbelievable amount of glowing sticks glow sticks — one for every person in the bar (actually, enough for every cheerfully clapping pair of hands I saw during our performance). Right at that moment the music stopped and a loud voice echoed through the room, saying something in Lao, which must have been something along the lines of  “The competition is hereby finished, please clap for all the participants”, which encouraged  everyone to give us a huge applause.
We were all breathing heavily and smiling, a sign that all of us had given their best. After that we were provided with water bottles (the Tigerhead water that is typical everywhere in Laos) and emptied them like we had not had any water in days. I did a “Nop” to everyone and patted the shoulder of the guy who I was sure would be declared the winner. He smiled and thanked me, too. I hugged my friends Melinda and Lucas and told them how much fun I was having. I was really grateful and told Lucas that it had been a good idea to push me onto the stage.
In the meanwhile, two members of the awesome staff were counting the number of glow sticks every participant had received. Obviously, the winner was already decided: No one could possibly beat great co-competitor with more than 200 glow sticks. Nonetheless, they counted the sticks for every single person. I did not think that I would stand a chance of getting second place, because the girl who had performed her unique belly dance boasted a collection of what seemed like close to a hundred bracelets. Nonetheless, I was hoping to finish third, which I figured was still possible after I took a quick look into the round at the other participants. I  had not been able to keep an eye on the other participants during the event, but now I saw that their heaps of sticks looked pretty similar to mine. To me it seemed that one or two glow sticks would make the difference and “decide” the winner — by a hair’s breadth.
I still remember that time was passing very slowly then and I continued chatting with Lucas and Melinda (all of us were still on stage).

Lucas told me that the first place would get three million Lao Kip (roughly 300 USD), second place one million LAK (roughly 100 USD) and third place still 500,000 LAK (roughly 50 USD). I was really surprised because I did not expect such a huge sum to be awarded to the winners of this short but intense Halloween competition. I am certain that all of us could feel that the air was full of suspense because the race for third place was very close.
We were hoping for the best, but knew that the great experience was the most valuable thing we were taking home. Suddenly, we heard a loud voice that interrupted our chatting. The winners were to be announced.

The first place went to the person we all knew would win. If I remember correctly, he had collected more than 250 glow sticks and had won deservedly due to his funny, over-the-top and highly energetic dancing. Next, the second place was announced. As I expected, the girl who had danced on the left side of the stage won with 84 fluorescent sticks. She received a huge round of applause and seemed very grateful.
After that, only the third place was left to be announced. I felt the tension rising rapidly, not only in myself, but in all of the remaining performers, because the third place was the only chance we had. We were all waiting. Who would win?

After a brief pause, the announcer finally cried out: JOKER! The presenter waved me over to where the two other winners were standing. I received a huge round of applause; Everyone was smiling at me, and I felt both humbled and grateful. The presenter handed me my 28 glow sticks and thanked me for my participation. After that, when I was about to to leave the stage, he gave me a sign to stay for one more moment.
All three of us received a huge card board bill with a Phoenix on it and a number indicating our placings. It was the first time I had held such an oversized cheque in my hands that, up to now, I only had only known from TV shows or charity events. It felt great.
I thought that the Phoenix was a perfectly fitting symbol for the transformation and revival of a not-so-promising evening into one of my most cherished and fun experiences in Laos. It was certainly the most memorable Halloween experience of my life.
Thank you, Laos.

 

“A Phoenix has to share its light“ 

Shortly after my excitement had worn off, we headed to the main bar. I gave my card board bill that proved I had finished third to one of the bartenders. He left and came back twenty seconds later with my reward: 500,000 LAK!
I had just had the best Halloween experience of my life and additionally received roughly 50 USD for it. I could not believe it and felt so tremendously happy that I had to thank my friends again. Ultimately, it was them who had made it possible for me to take part in such a wonderful event, and thus, it came to my mind that they should be rewarded accordingly. I made up my next plan. Obviously, everyone deserved its share of the spoils!

 

All’s well that ends well

Two weeks later, on a Saturday, I invited my fellow team members of Team IX, Phi Ha, Jacqueline, Annabell, and our friends Lucas, Melinda and Jiro to a wonderful dinner at one of our favorite Indian restaurants in Vientiane, the Nazim. This way, I wanted to thank everyone and  considered it a good way to spend the money I had won to create another memorable experience — and fill our bellies with delicious food. Jiro told me he would like to try out Indian food and since we had already gone out with them before to eat traditional Lao food, it seemed like a great idea.
Furthermore, we already had some favourite dishes at the Nazim restaurant, e.g. tomato chicken curry and potato and cauliflower curry (Aloo Gobi). Our list of favourites also included garlic naan, which is a soft aromatic bread with ghee and pieces of garlic on top (I think of it as the Indian version of herb-flavoured butter baguette). Garlic naan was one of Phi Ha’s all time favorite foods, which was evident by her dedicating a small song to this Indian gem of a bread, which became another running gag of Team IX (and Phi Ha’s happiness and enthusiasm about the garlic naan made it taste even better!).

Being a group of seven, we had to order more food than usual and wanted to try out some new dishes. One of these was spicy prawn curry and a savoury curry with chickpeas as a vegetarian alternative. I also have to mention Jacqueline’s favourite drink: The one and only Mango lassi, which is a yogurt-based milkshake with, as you can guess, tasty mango pulp. It has a creamy texture and a sweet taste with a touch of sourness due to the yogurt. Needless to say we all loved these dishes![4]
We had lot of fun and continued our habit of making jokes and running gags that we picked up on our first meeting in the Crown Plaza, with the most memorable one coming from Lucas: Whenever we asked him a question for which he could not provide a fitting answer, he happily replied with the sentence frag meine Mama, die weiß das!, which means ask my mommy, she’ll know.
It was such a pleasant feeling to be able to crack some jokes with our Lao friends using German — and them being able to understand everything and laughing with us. All in all, we had a great evening and I was really happy that I could express my gratitude for the invitation to the Halloween event.

Obviously, lots of other invitations, meetings and activities were about to follow, which further cemented our friendship. To this date, we are still in contact with Lucas, Melinda and Jiro and exchange pictures on social media in reminiscence of the great time we spent together.

 

I hope that my article has showcased how every (unexpected) incident or encounter — no matter how minor it may seem — can lead to great and surprising outcomes.
One lesson I surely learned having had these experiences was: If you are open-minded and ready, Laos always has an ACE up its sleeve.

 

Text by D. Trendl

Sub-edited by B. Martin

Photos by Y.-J. Dyck, L. Jakob, L. Koumphaphan & D. Trendl

 

Notes

[1] A subculture is a cultural group embedded in a larger culture, which has other values, beliefs, and interests than the main culture it belongs to. Nonetheless, the subcultre has enough similarities with the larger culture to be still considered part of it. It is like a little branch which is still connected to the bigger tree (offshoot).

[2] For the interested reader: Obviously, this intercultural experience confronted me with my own preconceptions, attitudes, and behavioural habits and has taught me how to adapt to a new environment and its various challenges sucessfully. It was certainly not easy to work around the language barriers, but, as I stated, I was completely sure that all of us did the our best and worked to the best of our abilities. While, sadly, I only learned some Lao words and sentences, I explained to my friends that I had learned a lot about cultural differences on multiple levels, be it in topics like politeness, traditions, and ceremonies, belief systems or values, such as having a benign and laid-back attitude towards life and the beauty of true humility (which can probably not be learned, but mostly occur naturally).

[3] Toni told me that, to his mind, Lao culture should try to slowly welcome influences from other cultures inasmuch as they enrich Lao culture with a greater diversity of styles, trends, and products. I had the same impression as Toni, namely that the Lao youth would welcome these additions. Furthermore, we both agreed that this “openness“ to the foreign or the unknown should obviously count for every culture, the Western world included. He said that Europeans could learn something from Buddhist wisdom. I think that, while this openness sometimes requires cultures to let go of concepts held dear, it could help to reduce ethnocentricity in our highly globalised world and increase acceptance of foreign modes of expression.

[4] Fun fact for curious readers and travellers: Here is the list of the numbers of the dishes we ordered in case you want to check it out: 22, 27, 29, 31, 44, 49, and 66. We love to eat our dishes with steamed rice and garlic or butter naan.

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