As a little girl she used to count the days until the Paknamnoy market every month, praying for any break in the monotony of her village. She would prance and flick around, while parents and elders would shush and shoo her away, always muttering that she should be grateful things were not so exciting. She was too young to care or ask what that meant, figuring old people were just dull. Everything about her village was dull. Everything about her people was dull. The Akha Pouli did nothing but farm and fish, yet still they spoke of how everything used to be so good and simple. She didn’t think simple was good. Simple was boring, like everything else in her village.
When market day would finally come she would burst out of the dark, smoky confines of her family’s windowless hut, startling the rooster who’d only begun to stir. Her father would never let them leave until both her and her brother finished their chores, so her brother would work at his same sluggish pace to annoy her. She would wake up early, then, and get most of his chores done as well, giving her brother his own reason to look forward to market day.
Mother would start reheating the rice and vegetables for breakfast while grandma would start softening up her resin. Brother would sleep in like the slouch that he was, and father would go check on the poppy fields. Dogs barked at the kids running around and the cats mewed by the stoves, while the buffalo chawed on dewy grass and watched with stoic indifference. You could hear the excitement in every hut and home as women gathered the garments and dresses they had been working on for months. Their intricate weaves and bright designs seemed to burn away the morning mist as its fading tendrils retreated further into the valleys below.
When the chores were deemed finished and breakfast had been fed, finally her family would set off for the market. It would take nearly two hours to get down the mountain without horse or motorbike, but it was a beautiful walk under tall verdant canopies and over cold, glistening streams. Once they reached the dusty road they had only a mile more to go and the excitement grew palpable. Other families could be seen heading up the road toting their own items to trade, cueing the eager children to splinter off to play.
Once in the market you saw what seemed like endless bamboo stalls featuring everything from headdresses and embroidery to machetes and tobacco. Smoky wafts of corn and fish came lingering over from Mister Oum’s stall, where he gently wrapped banana leaves around rice-bedded minnow to make what most claimed to be the best Mok Pa in the region. The stringy chords of the khaen flute bobbed and brambled over the cacophony of the crowd, while the myriad colors of traditional Laotian cloth swam like the rivulets of an untethered rainbow. Among all this bustle and babel sat a lone stall at the far end of the North road. A small, hesitant man waited behind the bamboo facade with his unique apparel dangling from its hangers. They were colorful, but not quite as colorful as their traditional competition. Some of them were simple, just black shorts and pants, white t-shirts, all ornamented with some strange insignia. They were clean, though, and perfectly crafted; machine crafted. The elders in the market eyed this man and his stall with distrust. He brought goods from them; the ones who forced change, the ones who stole simple.
The little girl playing chase with her friends found herself out of breath and in front of this outsider’s curious stall. She checked back to see if anyone followed, then, satisfied that she was safe, finally looked up. Her eyes narrowed, lids laden with questions. There were weird shirts and jackets, strange shoes that looked like they were made out of plastic, baseball caps and athletic jerseys whose affiliations meant nothing to her. He even had toys and candy! Each individual piece wrapped neatly in it’s own plastic wrapping. This stall was a world unto itself, the borders of which was where everything this little girl knew suddenly stopped. She absently stepped closer, looking at the man with inquiring eyes, eyes that almost plead for him to explain. Taking his cue, the small man smiled and stood up. A swarm of the other kids charged onto the scene trying to pull the girl back into the game, but she wouldn’t budge. The kids followed her gaze and similarly fell silent, all enraptured by the extraordinary before them. The man began unfolding his explanation.
Utterly enthused, the kids all raced away scouting for parents. The little girl had her eyes on the red jacket with awesome white stripes down the sleeves and a cool three-pronged leaf on the front. The answer she got from father was expected, though; they didn’t have the money or the goods to squander on useless garbage from China. So she left the market that day with nothing. And she left the market the next month with nothing. But two years later she finally left the market with that red Adidas track jacket. It was a little big for her, but she’d grow into it, and eventually she did. While her body grew into that jacket, so did those imports grow into the Paknamnoy market. The elders passed and the children grew, and soon tradition became expensive to maintain. Then the trickle of tourists became an unstoppable flood, and submerged the country in Western cliche.
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Now a woman, she makes her way down to the market, tired of the endless plastic strewn on her path. She recognizes the bamboo stalls when she arrives, but nothing else looks the same. What once harbored sturdy handmade tools and generations of embroidered tradition now flaunts the same cheap assembly line collection as almost every other stall next to it. Shoddy plastic toys, pasty tourists, candy wrappers and potato chip bags that will soon clog the rivers and roads; this is what the market has become. This is what her home has become. She hovers idly in the Paknamnoy market wishing things were still good and simple. But nothing was simple anymore.