The Lao word for “five” is “ha”, so in text messages people write “555!” – “ha ha ha!”
The other day I went to pour some hot water into my tea thermos and a roach jumped out at me. After I killed it and the panic attack was over, I decided to wash out the thermos as best as I could, but I knew just soap and water would not do the trick. I had to disinfect that thing.
So I went to the corner shop to try to buy some bleach.
I have no idea how to say “Bleach” in Lao.
The corner store I usually go to is owned by a lady who does not speak any English. It is about 10 feet x 10 feet and arranged in no particular order. Some of the items I generally buy from her include: laundry soap, eggs, dish soap, nail polish remover, cooking oil, Beerlao, phone cards, and toilet paper.
I knew that bleach is not such a strange obscure thing and that she would probably have it. So, I spent a few minutes looking around, and she noticed I hadn’t found what I wanted. I was looking in the dish soap/bathroom cleaner area, thinking that would be the most obvious place to find bleach. But there was none. She picked up a bottle of window cleaner and held it out to me. “Baw….” (no) I said. She said “Hongnam?” (Bathroom), and I said “Yeah! Something to clean the bathroom!” and she held out another bottle of cleaner… that still was not bleach. Again, I said “No.”
She thought for a minute, and then bent over, and rummaged around in the back of the bottom shelf for a few minutes. Then, finally, after what seemed like ages, produced a huge bottle of fish sauce with a huge flourish. “This must be what you’re looking for!” was her obvious thought.
There are bottles of fish sauce everywhere you turn your head in this country. At the Tesco in Nong Khai they actually have an entire aisle dedicated solely to fish sauce.
If I wanted fish sauce I could have easily said “Nam pa”, or even pointed to one of the 50 other bottles in plain sight in the shop.
“No.” I said again. Finally I decided to try French. “Eau de javel?”
It was the “aha!” moment, she finally understood what I was looking for. In the most logical place for a bottle of bleach, somewhere between the mayonnaise and the warm pepsi, she pulled out a blue bottle written entirely in Thai, and said “eau de javel.”
The communication barrier is slowly getting easier to handle.