Business

A Little Story… A Guitar as a Gateway to Culture

Kuang Si Waterfall Park

Visiting the Kuang Si Waterfall Park in Laos

The pulse of traffic hummed behind us on the busy streets of Bangkok, Thailand. Pedestrians and motorbikes split and converged on the other side of our trio as we negotiated the terms for Laura’s highly coveted shiny green guitar.

“Okay, maybe you’ll take 800 baht and a really fun monkey mask?” my friend Laura replied to the Thai street vendor. She knew it was a ridiculous request, and she said it partially in jest and partially with hopes of securing that green guitar for 800 baht.

The vendor chuckled and looked to me for affirmation that he had understood Laura’s proposal. I nodded and our faces were twin mirrors of amused confusion. You see, the street vendor was  sticking to his guns. He was good-natured about his refusal to bargain the wooden guitar down any lower than 850 baht, about US $25 at the time.

That’s when Laura pulled her ace card out of her purse. I was flabbergasted find myself staring at a dime-store monkey mask more suited to a four year-old’s birthday party than the inside of my friend’s purse. I had unexpectedly run into Laura earlier that day, so I was rapidly adjusting to bouncing off of her energy and travel style. A jumble of three distinct questions flitted through my mind:

  • Why in the world does Laura have a plastic monkey mask in her purse?
  • Did she actually bring this to Thailand from the US?
  • Is this Thai man going to be insulted she’s trying to bargain with a monkey mask?!

The street vendor waited several heartbeats before answering. Laura continued to proudly proffer the monkey mask with an impish smile. Then, the guy burst out laughing. And color me amazed that he grabbed the monkey from her hand, turned it over a couple times and then held it up to his face. He wagged his head a few times for our amusement.

We gave him four enthusiastic thumbs up. But what did this laughter mean, did he actually agree to 800 baht in exchange for a plastic monkey mask?

Yep! That’s exactly what it meant. Far from insulted, the street vendor shook Laura’s hand, posed for a photo, and then shooed us on our way so that we could buy a Laotian guidebook and then catch our night bus over the border!

Post-sale and all smiles from Laura, the street vendor, and the monkey mask!

I walked away giddy with bubbling laughter. That was ridiculous! And yet, the entire conversation was the most fun I’d had all day. Meeting up with Laura is a whole separate story I recounted at the time, but the short of it is this: Laura is a college friend. I had no idea she was in Southeast Asia but I ran into her at a guesthouse in Bangkok. Within two minutes I had convinced her to book a bus ticket to Laos with me that was leaving that night. Before we left Bangkok, Laura wanted to buy a guitar, and that guitar bargaining session was on the first day of the six weeks we spent backpacking together through ThailandLaos, and Cambodia.

This green guitar, later nicknamed Jixie, shaped all sorts of stories over the course of the following six weeks. That guitar opened up frequent singalong sessions with talented locals. It broke the ice with new backpackers. And became the the launching point for many of my favorite moments. With the guitar in tow, we decided to entertain and find the fun and joy throughout our time backpacking together, which is why we soon bought puppets too.

Kids loved the sight of the guitar, and we thought the puppets would enhance our ability to play with local children we met in the rural areas. The highlight of our puppet shows in Laos were simple and repetitive — we only knew five phrases in Laotian — but they loved it anyway. They went something like this, in Laotian:

Hello!

How are you?!

I am great. No worries.

Helloooooooo.

Then we’d sing an impromptu song that included the phrases “I’m great” and “no worries” over and over again. It was a ridiculous few weeks, but some of my most enchanting memories of rural Laos (and of my time backpacking with Laura).

It seems absurd in retrospect — what a wacky way to travel Southeast Asia — but the spontaneity (and likely the fun of having a friend to share the moments) made for a special trip. Let’s explore how the green guitar traveled the region.

laos handicrafts

A stuffed monkey and a puppet compliment the guitar on ensuring we can bridge any gaps and have fun with the local children we met along the way!

Using Play & Song to Connect with Kids at Angkor Wat

The puppets and guitar were a handy way to interact with and entertain the street kids in Cambodia. Laura is the most randomly happy person that I know. Once we had the guitar, she needed to expand our offerings. She spotted a duck puppet at the night market in Luang Prabang, Laos and simply had to buy it. At that time, I couldn’t imagine how she would use it enough to justify carrying it in her backpack (which was overpacked!), but she insisted. Not one to doubt her, I bought a stuffed monkey to play alongside the puppet. We carried those three friends — the puppet, monkey, and the green guitar — nearly everywhere we went in Southeast Asia. Although the local kids often didn’t have a clue what we were saying, their slow and cautious smiles were universal.

Music is one of those mediums that bridges gaps. Music is inclusive, there’s more to it than the language of the words, anyone can appreciate the beat and rhythm to feel part of the experience.

Laura’s green guitar, to which we added a hand-embroidered Laotian pink strap, was a magnet for all of the children hawking bracelets and guidebooks near the temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia. As soon as our tuk-tuk puttered to a stop at the Wat, the children ran toward us from all directions.

Their purpose was primarily to sell us trinkets, but even the older kids lost focus when they spotted Jixie. When we arrived to the lake, she and I were exhausted from a day hiking the steep ruins around the Angkor complex. We were grimy, hungry, and just a little cranky when our tuk-tuk made the final stop so that we could watch the sunset over the lake. Our grand plan was to relax by the lake in solitude and eat our sweet and salty pineapple fried rice. We only achieved half of that plan. Once we had sunk onto a bench for the sunset, the kids surrounded us. They varied in ages and they held our hands, petted, cajoled, begged, and looked longingly at the green guitar. The brave kids even snuck out a hand to pluck the guitar strings.

At this point, Laura and I were fighting the experience. I adore children. But I was tired. The children had formed a tightly packed throng and wouldn’t leave even when we encouraged them to target other tourists.

Cambodian children laugh heartily

kids at angkor wat

The guitar was too alluring for the kids. They weren’t budging. Which means Laura and I had no choice but to surrender to the moment. Once Laura pulled the guitar into playing position, the kids transformed. They had quickly ditched their baskets of bracelets and instead perched on our laps, hung around our necks, and sang with us dozens and dozens of songs. Everything from Frère Jacques (they knew it by heart because it helps them win over tourists if they can sing/count in multiple languages) to a cutesy Thai pop song that was all the rage in Thailand. The were in that moment with us and we had ceased to be targets for their sales, and they had ceased to be young workers helping their family earn money. Like all things

The guitar was the bridge between us as humans — its presence altered the kids from a pushy hard-sell to a genuine childlike experience filled with laughter and joy. These kids work after school (and some don’t attend school), and no matter how I feel about their work, I was happy to connect as an adult there, sharing and delighting in the wonder that kids bring to life.

That experience was as memorable as touring Angkor’s temples. Although the splendor of Angkor is incomparable, the connection formed in that moment grounded out my day of exploring and gave me a specific moment of human connection to remember alongside the region’s long history. Their young voices singing aloud — confidently from the older girls and with a weak timidity from the boys and little girls  rejuvenated my spirits more than our planned, quiet introspection by the lake could have possible done. I am grateful to those kiddos for sharing their joy, and to Laura for the ridiculous bargaining session that allowed us to travel Southeast Asia with a bright green guitar.

vang vieng with a guitar Ziplines in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Laos

Hiking With a Green Guitar in Northern Laos

The kids in rural Laos loved the guitar. And the child sellers at Angkor Wat sang rousing version of popular songs. But perhaps the pinnacle of absurd was taking the green guitar to the Gibbon Experience, a weekend zip-lining trip into the Bokeo Nature Reserve in northern Laos. That guitar went everywhere. It participated in our shenanigans in Vang Vieng, and the quiet days exploring the smaller temples of Angkor Wat.

The lens through which we see our travel experiences changes when we add another filter — another person’s point of view, a fresh sense of humor, a different travel goal. A new filter colors every interaction. It shifts and changes the landscape of possibilities and indelibly imprints itself on every memory. Laura’s guitar taught me that there are many ways to find a window into a new culture and new country. In so many ways, her guitar was our gateway. Even more, it taught me to look for a new lens every once in awhile. I needed to see how much fun it is to participate in a local culture, rather than just travel through and observe.

Those first weeks backpacking through Southeast Asia were my first experiences so far outside my own culture. It was my first year on the road, and I was caught off guard. To be frank, I was reserved, cautious, and hesitant because of the unfamiliarity. But you know, it was that silly green guitar that showed a filter through which I could connect, engage, and participate. Our travel paths separated, I ventured into India with my cousin and Laura headed back to Los Angeles, but I learned from her to always travel with an openness to new experiences. Without Laura and her guitar, I have found other gateways into a new culture. Food is the easiest way in because, well, we all eat. I also volunteer and support social enterprises on the road. One traveler I recently met has a go-to card trick that works as an ice-breaker. Sometimes the bridge is simple your tourist map and look of confusion, while other times it’s a sincere smile and a thoughtful question.

Each time, though,  it’s a gift.

, , , , , ,


  • Candice

    Lol, I love this story. Those random moments make life most fun.

    Also, I’d like to travel with you and Laura. I think we’d make a great trio.

    • Anonymous

      Those moments do indeed Candice!  And I think the tree of us would have a blast, Laura is just about the most fun person I know personally, and you take that title for people I know most virtually, so it’d be shenanigans for sure :)

  • Andi Perullo

    I found Couchsurfing to really help ease me into traveling to new places when I first started seriously traveling!

    • Anonymous

      Agree Andi! Couchsurfing was one of the first steps I took so that I could meet locals and feel comfortable on the road…now with Twitter and blogging it seems like there are fun people to meet with everywhere I go! :)

  • Shannon,
    What a fun post to read. I also travel with a guitar and found it has had similar effects to those you recount here. It’s resulted in a few collaborations with local musicians that are some of my most favorite travel memories. The puppet show/sing a long, though.. wow, that is so awesome. My ice breaker is of course camel drawing, which works wonderfully. 

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Phil! After traveling with my guitar-toting friend it’s always on my mind to learn someday because it really is fun to watch you guys jam with locals. You have an ace in the bag with the camel drawing…love it and with the kids in particular I can only imagine the number of giggles it gets! :)

  • Rajasthan Tours Operator

    very good i enjoyed too much while reding this

  • Rajasthan Tours

    excellent picture and great story