|These. Are. Fabulous.|
I want to believe that my friend is joking, but I take stock of the places I've been, and it dawns on me: only backpackers wear the kaleidoscope parachute pants that are sold by the pile at the night market.
"But my teenage cousin-in-law has a pair of red ones, any my landlady wears them!"
"And they're Lao. They can. You can't."
I'm crestfallen. Not because I just spent 20,000 kip on a pair of fantabulous fisherman pants at the night market. You see....nothing fits me anymore.
That's an exaggeration. I still have my leggings. Of my ten sinths, only three still fit, but even they are struggling against my body-by-beer-Lao. My principal has given me permission to wear stretchy skirts while I sort out my December binge eating. But I was really, really looking forward to a meeting at the river office in my new elephant pants.
I sigh, and lovingly fold the elephant pants into a messy pile, and put them back in the "can't leave the house in this" pile. Backpackers. Grr. They're not everywhere, just in certain parts of town. But in a town as small as Vientiane, that can feel like everywhere. Our apartment isn't close to anything interesting, and still, just down the block, my friend saw two backpackers with thumbs out, sign blazing "Luang Prabang or Bust!" (Not the smartest move, since, at 340 km along mountainous roads, it's already a 7 hour drive... and a bus ticket is $21.00 with air con, and for a whopping $6 extra you can get lunch and a toilet). They are easy to identify, even without the trademark guidebooks (it's all mobile now, anyways). They're dressed like jerks. They come in Indiana Jones explorer gear, more pockets than you could possibly need, shiny new boots laced to the top ankle, missing only a bag to carry the looted tomb goodies. Or, they have on the tiniest shorts, spaghetti strap tanks, dirty hair, and a slight hangover. And of course, elephant pants. Sometimes couples are in matching elephant pants (what happens during the breakup?? Who keeps the matching set?! Is this in the prenup??).
I've been the tourist in Laos who wore the sleeveless shirt and shorts to a Wat, and was kindly, but firmly, given a sinth from a dusty box to cover myself up. That banged up box of donated sinths from the temple's ladies auxiliary exists for backpackers and ignorant tourists (like myself) who missed that bold type in the guidebook "don't be a jerk." Rather, it probably read something like, "Laos and Thailand are culturally modest countries, and it is extremely impolite to be half naked, so, please, outside of bars, cover your upper arms and thighs." Just not with elephant pants.
|Sinth of Shame, circa 2012|
The thing about the backpackers are: you're not entering the wilds of unexplored territory. You're visiting a capitol city of a country with an ancient history, that at the very least, has wi-fi. And most aren't going into the rural provinces for anything more than a bathroom break. They'll leave Vientiane and head to Vang Vieng for the great outdoors, Luang Prabang for elephant tourism and ancient temples, or down south for waterfalls and Wat Phou, the sister temple to Angkor Wat. So, if you wouldn't dress like an 1800's English tomb raider for a visit to a German castle, then why dress like that for a tour of a living, working, breathing temple in Southeast Asia?
(You know the answer, I know the answer: orientalism. Stay woke, my readers).
I have so many more thoughts on backpackers, but I must admit something: I'm jealous. I'm jealous I didn't save my $7.45/hour Bath and Body Works college pay and backpack somewhere with a friend. I'm jealous I didn't spend my honeymoon posing in front of the Taj Mahal, or sipping green tea in a Kyoto tea house. I'm jealous I don't get to wear my elephant pants in a new city, eyes glittered over by the golden temples and glistening dumplings. But I'm not jealous of their flight home, where they relive the last week, month, or more of exploration, then lovingly fold their elephant pants in to a messy bunch, and place them in the "can't leave the house in this" pile. By the time I leave Laos, I'll only have elephant pants and sinths to wear anyways.