Thursday, November 14, 2013


The most cheerful ice cream salesman anywhere
He’s standing alone on a Luang Prabang street corner, and you might hear him before you see him. 

“Hello!” he calls out loudly to those walking by. “You want ice cream?” He speaks energetically through a plastic cone held up to his mouth, much like a cheerleader. His outspoken salesmanship is unusual for normally reserved Laotians. But the passing potential customers still turn him down. 

Undaunted, he cheerfully sends them positive wishes as they walk away. “I wish you good luck! I wish you happiness!” Short and thin, he’s the excitable type, with an infectious energy that most street vendors lack in Laos. His mismatched clothing is too big for his small stature. He has a full head of grey hair; despite his age he still has a youthful gleam. 

His name is Tay, and he doesn't peddle his product from an ice cream truck, or an ice cream cart for that matter. He sells his treats from a simple bicycle, with a small cooler strapped onto the back. With such a positive attitude, I knew that this senior ice cream salesman must have an interesting story to tell. He did. 

Tay is 74 now, but he’s not originally from Luang Prabang. He grew up in a village further north. As a youth in French colonial Laos there was little opportunity available, so he decided to join the military. 

“1952, I go to French Army,” he tells me. At that time the colonial years were waning, and Laos soon became independent. But the French Army's departure didn’t end Tay’s military career. 

A Royal Laotian Air Force T-28, taxis during the war (Photo: Wikipedia)
“French go back to Paris,” Tay continued. “1957, Americans come to Luang Prabang. I go to American Army.” 

Of course he wasn’t exactly in the U.S. Army, he was officially in the American supported Royal Laotian Army (RLA). Tay gestures across the Khan River towards Luang Prabang airport.  Back when the Americans were here, it was a major air base for both Laotian and American aircraft. Tay was based there.

“T-28 fly here,” Tay says, recalling the days when US made T-28s flew combat missions from the base. The T-28 Trojan was an old World War II propeller plane, refitted for combat use by Laotian pilots. He remembers the much faster US Air Force jets as well. F-104s and F-105s flew in from bases in Thailand, and circled overhead. 

In those years Tay already knew how to speak Laotian and French, and soon he picked up English too. So the military put his language skills to use, assigning him to communications. His rank rose to Sergeant. He frequently operated a radio while airborne, assisting the Royal Lao Air Force. 

This former military air base is now Luang Prabang's current airport
“I see my friend (below),” Tay said, while pantomiming how he would wave out the window to his army buddies, as their plane swooped down low over RLA ground troops. In those days Vietnamese infantry were pushing into Laos, and American air power joined together with Laotian government soldiers on the ground to push them back. 

Tay summed up all three eras of power here, in three short sentences: “In Luang Prabang, French responsible. Then America responsible. Then Lao responsible." 

When control of Luang Prabang shifted for the last time, it meant the end of Tay’s 23 year military career. When the communists took control of Luang Prabang in 1975, the RLA ceased to exist, and Tay was stripped of his military rank.  He was sent into the infamous 're-education' camps. Imprisoned far from his family, he won't talk about those years. But everyone knows conditions were bad in those prisons, and some prisoners died. Tay survived.

When he was finally released five years later, Tay made his way back to Luang Prabang. Barred from working any government job, he sold ice cream for a while. Then foreign tourists began returning to Luang Prabang, and his language skills served him again. 

“I go to travel with the tourists,” he says, describing his tour guide job. In those post-war years there weren’t any Americans visiting Laos, it was mostly French and other Europeans. To this day he still speaks French well, even better than his English.

The war veteran advertising his delicious ice cream
In 2004, he decided he was getting too old for the tour business, so he retired from it. But without any pension, he still needed an income. “I go sell ice cream again,” he explains, “because I’m poor.” 

As we’re chatting, a light rain starts to fall. Tay’s ice cream business is always slow during monsoon season. He’s looking forward to the dry season, when sales pick up during Luang Prabang’s annual festivals. 

I purchase one of the ice creams Tay has on offer. I’m a little leery of the quality, but after tasting its sweet coconut flavor, I have to admit that it was delicious. I give him a generous tip, although it seemed such an insignificant gesture. Tay had joined up with two powerful foreign armies, hoping to better himself, and provide for his family. Both of those armies departed. Both of them let him down. Rather than having the good army pension he deserved, he was imprisoned, and left in poverty. 

Still, like most Laotians, Tay’s life is not focused on money. He may not have much cash in his pocket, but he is rich in family. His four children are grown and married, and now he has grandchildren. 

As I shook his hand to depart, Tay said goodbye in his usual positive manner. “I wish you good luck, I wish you good health, and prosperity!”

I wish that I could give him all of those things. 

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