Flying Flip Flops in Laos

flip flops

Many cultures in Southeast Asia, where I’ve lived off and on for years, have a serious taboo about feet. You don’t point your feet at people. You don’t point your feet at religious statues. You take your shoes off before entering someone’s home. You don’t gesture at things with your foot, and you don’t touch someone with your foot, ever…

The foot is considered to be filthy, and even sacrilegious in nature.

Also of note is the sacredness of the head, the most revered part of the human body and where the soul resides. It’s a no-no, for instance, to ruffle a small child’s hair. Children slap each other in the back of the head and run away – the weightier version of a maliciously flicked ear. Accidentally touching someone’s head should be followed with a quick apology.

And you never, under any circumstances, touch someone’s head with your foot (should you be so inclined)…

Several years ago, I was traveling through Laos, a small, rugged country northeast of Thailand. At the time, I had a real love/hate relationship with my flip flops. I loved that my tropical internet, entrepreneur lifestyle allowed me to live in them, but they were cheaply-made and never lasted.

After a few short weeks of wear and tear, the “tongue” that went between my toes to connect with the sole would usually start popping out at random moments. Annoyed, I’d poke it back through to see if it’d hold, and wander off to find a new pair when that wasn’t enough.

Well, my right-foot flop was on its last leg and came apart several times over the course of a night of sticky discotheque floors. Irritated, I vowed to get a new pair in the morning.

But with my Westerner-sized feet, I couldn’t find anything I liked that fit me. So after a few days I was still wearing this same pair of defect kicks, and a walk out for dinner meant constantly stopping to fix my footwear. It was really starting to wear me down.

One morning, determined to solve the issue, I marched out to the closest thing to a shopping center that was around. My flip flop even came apart four or five times on the way there.

At the first store, I couldn’t find anything my size, as usual. Same with the second and third. In the fourth, the lady saw that I was in a bind and purposely tried to charge me double. Adamant about treated fairly, I instead decided to make my way to the tourist center across town.

My flip flop was floppier than ever and in the span of about three blocks, the strap popped out of the sole two times. I’m usually a very patient guy, but I was tired and irritated and hot and my nerves were frayed.

A family of Laotians were all eating a big meal outside a restaurant, and several of them smiled at me as I passed. Unlike my usual jovial self, I scowled like a grump and ignored them.

Just then, as if in punishment, my sandal failed again, causing me to trip and stumble, twist my ankle, and almost fall down. I sensed everyone looking at me, and whether out of lost patience or embarrassment, I suddenly threw a mini-tantrum (also very taboo in Laos).

I dramatically gritted my teeth and kicked out my foot, meaning to send the pesky flip flop flying away from me, at which point I suppose I planned to stomp off without it like a frustrated child…

But the joke was on me.

The loose strap caught between my toes, and instead of the sandal flying forward, it zoomed straight up into the air. High, high into the air.

I turned and watched in horror as it careened over the table of Laotians, who weren’t paying attention anymore, and bore down towards them. Destined for someone’s plate…

…or even, gasp, someone’s sacred head.

I hollered and sprinted towards them, arms outstretched. As they turned to look at me in confusion and surprise, the sandal clattered off an empty (thankfully) plate at one end of the table, and then tumbled to the ground. One girl screamed out and everyone went silent. Mouths hanging open. For a moment, time stopped.

Them all looking at me, maybe wondering why I hurled my flip flop at their dinner. Me with my face no doubt alternating crazy shades of white and gleaming red.

We just sat there and looked at each other…

…and then the whole table burst out laughing.

I couldn’t help but join them.

Relieved, I gave everyone a gracious wave, gathered my trouble-making flip flop, yanked the other off my left foot, and stuffed them both into a trashcan. Humbled to the core.

Then I wandered off down the road, barefoot, to finish my mission with a tad more dignity and tact.

(photo courtesy of Windujedi/