Pakbeng was the pitstop city on the two-day boatride down the Laotian portion of the Mekong. We checked our bags into one of the numerous hotels that existed solely for one-night-only stays, each with the same threadbare blankets and cheery-bored proprietors, and went looking for a restaurant early in the evening. All of them were empty, all of them lit with strobe lights and blasting strange techno, ghosts of electronic noise and foreign tongues on tinny speakers. Each had a menu of buffalo meat and locally brewed bathtub liquor at bargain prices, so we picked at random and sat down.
As we ate, we noticed that the tables around us gradually filling up until the restaurant was packed. We recognized people from our boat, gave them our barely-committed acquaintanceship smiles, and noted how suddenly our pick for dinner was suddenly flooded with business. When we looked up and down the street, a similar pattern held. Those few restaurants that lured some tourists within the early goings were flush with business, while those that hadn’t remained desolate and empty.
When we exited the restaurant, some Australian teenagers sauntered up and asked us to recommend a hotel nearby. The restaurant owner tried to interject and the young Aussies recoiled as if assaulted, declaring they would only follow our advice. Restaurant Owner rolled his eyes, wandered off, and got back to the business of selling water buffalo sausage.
We were certainly no better informed in terms of accommodation than Restaurant Owner. He, after all, lived and worked in a tiny tourist town, the lower reaches of which were nothing but hotels and restaurants. He was likely on first-name basis with the other business people, if not friends or relations. But our opinion was solicited and desired, it was upheld as more trustworthy, more honest, less likely to contain hidden charges or bedbugs. Surely we wouldn’t screw them over. We were travellers, all of us. We were in this together.
Farang is the word for foreigner in Thai, and it is in Thailand we began to notice restaurants that were either entirely full or entirely empty and devoid of human presence. The first minutes just after sunset, those critical moments when the early diners go out on the prowl, can mean a night full of business or a night of desperately wailing menu choices at the backs of people in Hawaiian shirts. “We have pizza!” they cry, waving frantically to open tables. “Spaghetti! Fried rice! Pad thai!” Please Christ just come into my restaurant! It would be unbecoming to beg, but they get close.
Because one table full of foreign tourists means more will come, as though drawn in by homing beacon or the distinct smell of beer and SPF 70. If you’re the first in the restaurant, the waiters will try to convince you to sit as close to the entrance as possible, to lure in still more, like a lighthouse in the fog. You are the herald, they whisper, and through you the word will be spread. You are the safety mechanism, the seal of approval that communicates that everything is okay. We wanted to resent the implication, the need to always be sat facing the front window, not each other, smiling and clinking our glasses excitedly, but when we saw the effectiveness we couldn’t really argue.
This conventional wisdom carried back to our days in Korea, where the local belief was that a full restaurant was probably tastier than sparsely attended adjacent feeding centres. An empty restaurant, the logic went, was one being actively shunned for low quality, and thus Koreans would often wait for a seat at a popular restaurant even if there might be seats at identical fooderias nearby. (And I can assure you: there are other restaurants nearby. There were 12 different barbeque joints within a two-minute walk from my apartment building.)
But on the road, this clustering of eats tended to have a little something else going on. It wasn’t enough for a restaurant to have any old kinds of people in it (and the locals were probably off in hidden culinary hidey-holes, supping on finer and cheaper delicacies than we could ever discover). No, the people in the restaurant needed to be other travellers. Other tourists. Other foreigners. Other farang.
Part of it might have been, as the Aussie teens indicated, a mistrust for the locals. Sure, they knew what was up, but they were also far more capable (and, in the eyes of some, likely) of fleecing you. Locals, in the minds of travellers, were opportunistic renegades out for your dollars, and cared nothing for your dainty foreign tastes, your milquetoast bowels, or your need for organically grown GM/cruelty-free rutabagas. Their recommendations, for food or for accommodation or sights or haircuts or markets or clothes, were all secretly traps or pyramid schemes or surprise prostitution stings.
But other travellers, being the paragons of truth and wisdom and purity, would never lead another traveller astray. Their recommendations, whether voiced or implicit by simply patronizing an establishment, were tantamount to a full health inspection and gold-star Lonely Planet review. The presence of foreigners at a restaurant or a hotel indicated that: the price was good, the food was tolerable to excellent, the spiciness would not liquidate your intestines, no particularly bewildering or terrifying equipment or ritual was necessary for eating, and the waiters all spoke florid, glorious English. Can we eat there? Should we sleep at this hotel? What have you heard about this city? I notice you are not from here, and thus I trust you.
And while this lazy heuristic sometimes holds true, it creates an icky local/traveler trust gradient. Residents of the country you visit are all shifty, salacious ghouls out to drown you in hookers and cockroaches, while anyone with a backpack is a wandering bodhisattva just trying to make sure you get through your weary life in peace.
When we disembarked our Mekong boat in Luang Prabang, we decided our next stop would be Vangvieng. Vangvieng, we heard, was a place of beauty and majesty, but when we started telling people our plans, they reacted with horror. “Don’t go there!” they declared. “The police shut everything down. It’s a ghost town.” We grew worried, and wondered if we should simply skip it and head to the capital.
Upon arrival, things became clearer: the major drug and riverside bar scene, where roughly two tourists per month perished in idiotic cocaine and ropeswing tragedies, had been cleared away. All of the majesty and the nature and the people and the culture were still present, but you couldn’t do loads of crystal meth and float down the river. You could still float down the river if you wanted.
The trick became knowing what you wanted, and knowing who to talk to. Sometimes other travellers were a valuable resource, having hit the same places, having already seen and eaten and explored, having already travelled the travel we hoped to travel. Other times, our interests diverged, and suddenly the advice of a droopy burnout sipping vodka out of a bucket didn’t seem the most valuable. Similarly, sometimes the locals wanted nothing more than to separate us from our money and hoped to do anything other than pickpocketing to get it… and sometimes they were just kindly business people happy to tell you the kinds of things they know you’ll want to see and where to go to get them.
And sometimes you just had to go out for dinner before sunset. Sometimes you need to catch a bus on your own, or eat at an empty restaurant, or take an unbeaten path. Sometimes the road you want is the one only you can find.