The Lao Puppeteer in Thailand

Picture a little valley surrounded by fog capped rainforest mountains. You can’t really see how green the rice fields are right now, because it’s night. You can just see a few street lights, hear a few dogs barking, a billion frogs, crickets and the low hum of a little motorbike. That’s me on the back, riding along the thin muddy roads that wind their way through the fields. It’s muggy, but we’re riding fast and the air on my face is cool. I’m not wearing a helmet and my hair is flowing around behind me like in the movies. In one hand I’m holding a plastic bag with two ice creams from the 7 Eleven. My other hand is holding on to Keo, who hums and steers us through puddles. I nuzzle into the back of his neck a little bit, then kick my legs out wide, look up at the stars and smile.

We get back to Makhampom and join the others, who are drinking beer by candlelight around the outdoor kitchen- the heart of this place. There’s a little theatre with bamboo walls that are mostly opened to get the breeze. A little river winds around the kitchen, the theatre and the guesthouse where we sleep.  It’s a tiny place, just outside the tiny village of Chiang Dao in Thailand. Makhampom have been creating inspiring theatre with communities for 30 years and are holding a reunion, drawing people from all over the globe who have come here at some point in their life to play and learn.

It’s September 2011. I’d flown straight from the desert to this lush landscape. In the three weeks prior, I’d moved house, worked ridiculous hours on five different projects, performed in two shows and become a shell of a human.

Keo is flirting in Thai with the cooking ladies. They shriek with delight as he sings and jokes. I do the washing up so they can enjoy his company for a while longer. Keo is from Laos. We speak mostly in mime, with a bit of broken English, worse Thai and terrible French, which he learnt while studying puppetry in Paris and I learnt in Year 9.* He is a Found Object Puppeteer – which means he can walk into a room full of over 100 children, see an old blanket lying on the ground, gracefully turn it into a shy elephant and mesmerise the entire room.

Keo has a casual, calm confidence and is almost instantly comforting and familiar.

Keo is not overly affectionate, but one day he touches my back, the next day he carries my stuff and dinks me on the handlebars of his bike and from then on we somehow always find ourselves sitting next to each other.

Keo and I turn brushing our teeth and washing our face into a physical comedy routine, giggling into the communal bathroom sink after everyone else has gone to bed each night.

Keo is tall, quiet, slender and mostly barefoot. He is leaning up against a beam in the bungalow, running his hands through his long straight black hair and smoking. The bungalow is the space underneath the guesthouse, with cool pebbles for a floor and plenty of hammocks. There are no walls, so from where I’m lying on a wooden bench I can see the rice field and a billion stars. I’m looking for instrumental music on my laptop that he can use for his puppetry. I find the Amelie soundtrack.

Keo massages my back in the bungalow. Then my legs, then my arms, then my hands. Then after what seems like an eternity he gives me a soft kiss on the forehead. We hide under a blanket in the bungalow while the frogs, crickets and Yann Tiersen hide soft giggles and contented sighs.

The next day Keo draws a moustache on a coconut and a bowtie on tea towel to make a dancing Frenchman. He finds me in the audience of laughing children and his puppet offers me a drink. I accept, then plant a kiss on the coconut’s moustache. The audience shrieks with laughter.

That night, after we perform a masked clown routine for the group, he tries to teach me Lao in an old wooden bar in the village.  An elderly Thai man is singing ‘Blue Moon’ and his son plays blues slide guitar. I learn how to say ‘I love you’ and ‘no worries.’ Then we salsa dance to Ray Charles, ride back to the bungalow and fall asleep in a hammock.

Keo gave me an animal keyring he’d carved out of a seed pod. I gave him a mixed CD and a Makhampom T Shirt. I didn’t want to leave Thailand, but I did. It was a beautiful moment in time, in a beautiful place. I haven’t spoken to Keo since.

*The longest sentence I can remember in French roughly translates to ‘I love the dancing penguins at the beach.’ We didn’t speak much.

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