Last week I wanted to get away from everything for a couple of days and went to an eco-lodge about 30km out of town on the banks of the Nam Ngum river. It is a beautiful setting with precisely nothing to do except to admire the view – which was exactly what I wanted. Except that we had chosen to go on International Women’s Day.
I may have previously mentioned that there are a couple of things that I don’t much like about living in Laos. One is mosquitos which, I accept, are to be expected and tolerated at a riverside ecolodge. The second is the ubiquitous speakers that accompany every Lao celebration and most commonly blare top volume dance music or Thai pop music – neither of which are exactly my favourite musical genre. It had not occurred to me that International Women’s Day is exactly such a celebration.
So my beautiful, peaceful getaway was party central. Teenagers from nearby villages drank Beer Lao and swam and listened to (in my opinion) bad music. Very Loudly.
Did I mention that I had a hangover and really needed to sleep? Or indeed that I can turn into an irrational monster when overtired?
So, after a frustrating early afternoon hour of trying to sleep, I stumbled along the path to the office and bumped into the owner of the lodge. I don’t think I was rude but I did say that I was frustrated that my experience was not meeting my expectations and that I was considering not staying because I might get a better night’s sleep in Vientiane. He suggested that the point of the lodge was to give tourists the opportunity to experience real rural Laos, and Lao people like to party. I said that I was paying $40 a night to get away from the city and get some peace. Then, credit to him, he asked that the speakers were turned down and it was quiet enough for me to get some sleep.
A couple of hours of sleep later I wondered down to the restaurant. Now, in the late afternoon, a large group of local young people (ironically mostly young men but I will save the politics of that for another conversation) are enjoying the day off work and/or school afforded to them by International Women’s Day. The music is back but at a (in my mind) respectful volume. The atmosphere is high-spirited. Small groups sit at tables drinking Beer Lao, talking and laughing. Others swim and lark about and relax on inner tubes on the river. I see that there is pressure to drink and a couple of times the high spirits over-balances into posturing but it is easily resolved within the group. Mostly what I observed is a group of young people relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and having fun.
And it made me think.
How different is this from the outraged complaints that I made a few months ago about young backpackers in Vang Vieng?
What should we do when happinesses come into conflict? In this particular situation, is the happiness of the person who paid to be there really more important that the person who lives there? Of course I don’t think that is true. But how are these happinesses interconnected?
Several times when I have told Lao people that I am studying happiness in Lao they have made a joke about how the thing that makes Lao people happy is Beer Lao. Then they usually laughed and were very keen to tell me that they were only joking. But I’m not so sure that it is entirely a joke. Drinking beer is not only about getting drunk, it can also be about having fun with friends and family (or indeed about both at the same time). Please note that I am not suggesting that drinking Beer Lao is the only way to have fun or indeed that drinking Beer Lao is always fun, but it occurs to me that fun has in some way come to be seen as the poor sibling of happiness. In the hierarchy of happiness fun could be seen as the soap opera and fulfillment or joy or finding meaning in life as the opera. People often talk about ‘real happiness’ and they are rarely referring to fun, indeed sometimes they are contrasting the lofty goal of real happiness with sensual pleasure.
These are philosophical questions that I will undoubtedly continue to grapple with. But what I thought about whilst watching that group of young people drinking, swimming, laughing and talking was that I wouldn’t like to have a life without fun. And that one person’s fun is another person’s hideous speaker.