I’m in Vientiane, a sleeping beauty just starting to wake up. I’m typing this at Spirit House, because it’s quiet. Three tables away sit two middle-aged monks. Checking their smartphones, they’re just chilling. Puffing a cigarette, one flashes his purple nipple episodically.
In his cage, a crested bird whistles, while others, flying freely, chirp. The Mekong is within sight but barely trickling. There are too many dams upriver, most of them Chinese. With its hand on the spigot, China has much of Southeast Asia by its yellow balls. It’s always soothing to watch the red sun set, right from here.
For just $11 daily, I might just linger here until death do us part, though this wheezing resthouse is likely to collapse before I do, in the middle of the night, under an impossibly huge moon. A final monsoon will wash us all away.
My barred window looks into a narrow and pleasantly noisy alley. This is the tropics, man, where men, birds and/or insects are supposed to generate an unceasing cacophony. Within shouting distance, there’s the Lao Poet Hotel, but that costs $90 a night, and at the far end, there’s La Cage du Coq. It’s not a whorehouse, cockfight club or mixed martial arts gym, but merely a French restaurant, where entrees hover around nine bucks. No, thanks.
Traveling alone, I’m accompanied by a French corpse. Montbéliard-born Henri Mouhot (1826-1861) wrote wonderfully in English, “It is only in the solitude and depth of the woods that one can fully admire and enter into the sort of harmony and concord which reigns in the songs of the various birds, forming such a pleasing kind of symphony that the voice of one is rarely overpowered by that of another; one can enjoy at once the general effect and the melodious note of the particular winged musician we prefer. Scarcely does the sun begin to gild the tops of the trees, when, alert and gay, they commence their morning hymn. The martins, the warblers, the drongos, and the dominicans, respond to the turtle-doves’ cooing in the highest branches. Music of a less dulcet nature is discoursed by the aquatic and rapacious tribes, such as cranes, herons, and kingfishers, who from time to time utter their piercing cries.”
Even in a Lao city, birds still serenade all day long, so I’m happy to have a window again. The most blessed trees are riotous with twittering birds.
Before dawn, orange clad, barefoot monks in single files make their rounds to exchange chanted blessings for food. Waiting for them on sidewalks, the devout sit on straw mats or low stools. In front of them are woven baskets and aluminum or wooden bowls containing sticky rice, bananas, money and/or bottles of water. Lao and Thai monks are forbidden to eat after noon, so many down soft drinks all day long, resulting in more than a few turning into virtual Buddhas, in form if not spirit.
I had wanted to come earlier, but flights from Saigon were indirect and surprisingly expensive, and there were no vans or buses from Ea Kly, where I also lived. This time, taking a bus from Da Nang to Savannakhet cost me just $17.30, but I almost didn’t make it to the station.
The hired driver freaked when I spoke to him in Vietnamese, on the phone. Soon after hanging up, he texted, “I’m sorry, brother, but I don’t drive Vietnamese or Viet Kieus. You should contact the travel agent for a refund.”
At least he answered my call. “Brother,” I pleaded, “I’ve already booked a hotel in Laos, and I’ve returned my room in Hoi An. I’m standing in the dark, with my bags. Not all Viet Kieus are the same, and you don’t even know me. Just do me a favor, brother, and take me to Da Nang.”
After fifteen minutes of haggling with him and the travel agent, the crank finally showed up, but only on the condition that he wouldn’t charge me anything, just to show that this was never about money. He just hated his fellow Vietnamese, at least as customers.
With relief, I entered his car. As dawn paled, however, I got a closer look at this man’s face and realized, with renewed anxiety, that we had met days earlier.
I had walked into his travel agency after seeing a board listing bus rides into Laos, “Brother, I have an American passport. Do I need a visa for Laos?”
“Of course, you need a visa! You need a visa to enter every country!”
“Actually, you don’t. Some countries don’t require a visa.”
“They all require a visa!” He smirked.
“Brother, I’ve been to about thirty countries, and many of them didn’t require a visa. I know.”
“I don’t care if you’ve been to a hundred! They all require a visa!”
Shaking my head, I had walked out, yet here I was, being driven by the same combative man. I was at his mercy. How does a guy like that stay in business? Who can live with him?
In silence, we rolled up Highway One, on a stretch that had been littered with the mangled dead, screaming wounded and busted vehicles in March of 1975. Finally, the bus station came into view in gorgeous sunshine. I got on my coach.
The twelve-hour ride was uneventful. There were three rows of two-tiered sleeping berths, with each made for a stunted, bunched up munchkin. The two aisles were also packed, with one man forced to sit nearly the entire time. This scrawny and frowning dude could have gained a bit more space just by piping up a bit, for the woman right in front of him had too much room. A Gimpel the Fool type, though, he kept his peace.
We passed through Quang Tri, then Khe Sanh. All along the way, there were many cemeteries embellishing the landscape, for most of them were quite gorgeous, with their graves inspiringly ornate, each a miniature Oriental temple. These cities of the dead looked better than the living ones, nearby. There were also many military cemeteries, where the unidentifiable also rested. We’re just pondering hash.
Cramped, I didn’t rest much, but damn it, I was entering Laos, if they would let me in! The border paperwork went smoothly. Crossing into Poland from Ukraine three years ago, our bus was detained for nearly five hours. With their ultra cool yet swaggering passports, Americans may not appreciate how serious, and often even deadly, are borders.
The bus was jammed with Laos and Thais. There were just a handful of Vietnamese, and only one white, a Swiss queer traveling with his Thai boy toy. At the last Vietnamese settlement, a handful of Bru beggars waited outside the roadside restaurant where we ate. The old women looked like driftwood in conical hats, windbreakers and sarongs, and the two boys, stunted and not too bright. It’s hard to think if your stomach is always resentful.
Though the GDP per capita of Vietnam and Laos are roughly the same, the Land of a Million Elephants does look poorer. There are far fewer stores lining roads, and rural houses are mostly made of unpainted wood. Homes of two or more stories are seldom seen. Most strikingly, many fields are left fallow. The demographic pressure to cultivate each inch of land is just not as intense, as in Vietnam.
Even in Vientiane, there are unpaved roads, with one stretch right by the Mekong, on a prime piece of real estate just 1.4 mile from the Presidential Palace. The country’s tallest building has but 14 stories. Not that I think Asia’s skyscraping contest is so wonderful. Six of the seven tallest on earth are in Asia.
In Savannakhet, I was supposed to switch buses to go to Vientiane immediately, but rolling in, what I saw from the bus windows jazzed my interest, so I just had to get off for this one-night stand. Even with no hotel reservation, Lao money or working phone, I had to inspect more closely Savannakhet’s mysterious concrete dinosaurs at a roundabout, the Nuan Money Restaurent Guesthouse (with its two red lanterns dangling over a cheerless entrance) and the Macchiato de Coffee, with its trilingual confusion, London Tube sign and a red British phone booth, sans phone, fronting it.
The bus station was a large pavilion, with benches mostly filled with rural folks, with some women in the traditional tube dress, the “sinh.” More were decked out in jeans, T-shirts, track pants or pantsuits, the last undoubtedly in honor of Hillary Clinton, even if they had never heard of the eternally cackling candidate. Run, witch, run!
One side was a darkened row of sad looking doors, which I correctly identified as the station’s resthouse. That should be cheap, I reassured myself, so I’ll stay there, if I can’t find anything reasonable.
There are only 50,000 Vietnamese in Laos, supposedly, yet during my brief stop in Savannakhet, I saw quite a few Vietnamese businesses, and it was at a Viet restaurant that I managed to exchange some money, actually. All the Savannakhet ATMs I had tried rejected my cursed card. It was no fun to trudge around in the dark, overburdened, without any cash.
In any foreign place, a compatriot, or at least someone who speaks your language, can save your sorry ass. Traveling through Siam, Laos, Cambodia and Cochinchina, Mouhot routinely relied on white missionaries, though it must be added, local dignitaries often treated this farang with tremendous hospitality.
Still, a man who had willingly left all that’s familiar to lunge into the unknown couldn’t help but be moved by each reminder of his heritage. One example, “The sight of the Cross in foreign lands speaks to the heart like meeting with an old friend; one feels comforted and no longer alone.”
In Vientiane, I would run into many more Vietnamese businesses, two large Buddhist temples and, most remarkably, one devoted to Tran Hung Dao, a 13th century military hero worshipped for repelling two Mongol invasions. The profound depth of history is a comfort progress devotees can’t fathom.
The 268-mile bus ride from Savannakhet to Vientiane took nine hours, but that’s because we had several stops, all longer than necessary, for Laos are relaxed. The bus was so packed, people didn’t just jam the aisle, perched on plastic stools, but were sardined into a semi-dark luggage compartment, among bags and a motorbike. Removed of its fixtures, the bathroom was also used for bags. Everyone was cheerful, however. Sometimes, Lao pop with its prancing rhythm would play over the speakers. At each stop, food and drink vendors rushed on to sell, most notably, various meats and even eggs skewered on sticks.
Having traveled 350 miles across Laos, I haven’t seen one tusked animal, just a million statues of elephants. They guard gates, flank elevators and dangle their trunks from walls. I even ran across one with a buxom mermaid on top. I must say that the Lao landscape is much cleaner than Cambodia’s, however, and perhaps even Vietnam’s, not that’s saying much.
There is enough trash, but they tend to be clear plastic bags. Degraded and murky with time, they lie still or gaily skip across the countryside. Maybe Laos don’t even see them, or consider this garbage a kind of modern foliage.
If I was the President of Laos, I would decree that clear plastic bags be outlawed, and replaced with bright orange ones, so that they’d resemble leaves on the ground. Tourism will spike with this new slogan, “Laos, where it’s always autumn!” Or better yet, “Laos, the eternal Vermont.”
Compared to Vietnam, Laos has many more cars and trucks to motorbikes, but this can be attributed to the much lower Laos taxes on vehicles. A Vietnamese who does a lot of business in Laos, with about ten trips here yearly, has this explanation, “The car is a much bigger status symbol here. Unlike us, they would buy a car instead of improving their house. A rich guy in Vietnam might have two cars, but you’ll find many Laos with three or four cars, and they don’t put them to work, like we do. If we have several cars, they must make money for us, but here, they just use cars to drive around, for leisure.”
He told me that on the Savannakhet/Vientiane bus. It appeared there were only Laos on it, yet here we were, two Vietnamese who quite by chance sat next to each other. A foundry owner, he’s also from Nam Dinh, my ancestral province, so we even talked with the same accent, more or less.
In the mid 19th century, Laos was terra incognita to the West. Mouhot in 1860, “During the last twenty-five years, only one man, as far as I know, a French priest, has penetrated to the heart of Laos, and he only returned to die in the arms of the good and venerable prelate, Mgr. Pallegoix. I know the discomfort, fatigue, and tribulations of all sorts to which I am again about to expose myself; the want of roads, the difficulty of finding means of conveyance, and the risk of paying for the slightest imprudence by a dangerous or even fatal illness.”
The first Westerner to reach Luang Prabang, Mouhot himself would be killed by this land he so adored and venerated. Buried in a nearly inaccessible patch by the Nam Kan, his grave is continually assaulted by the jungle, just like the Angkor Wat he so famously described.
It’s eternally resonant, “One of these temples—a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo—might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.”
So even the mightiest of civilizations can rapidly be reduced to destitution, squalor and ignorance. One day, you cockily and effortlessly build pyramids, the Taj Mahal or innumerable atomic bombs. The next morning, you’re panhandling outside the Japanese-owned 7-11 or shitting on the sidewalk.
In 1975, Laos had just three million people, and it’s up to 6.9 million now, an astoundingly low figure compared to adjacent Vietnam’s 97 million, Thailand’s 70 million, Myanmar’s 54 million, Cambodia’s 16.6 million and, of course, China’s continent-bursting, globe-popping 1.4 billion. You can see where this is going. Laos’ underexploited space and resources are being eyed by its neighbors, plus a few others. Leading the pack is China, by far. It has huge construction projects all over Laos, with thousands of its own workers brought in. China’s also building a rail line, Lao’s first, from Vientiane to the Chinese border. When it’s finished next year, everything Chinese will be funneled into Laos at an even more accelerated pace. With its unprecedented demographic pressure, China has a plan to infiltrate everywhere.
Vietnam, too, has designs on Laos, I’m sure. Always have. Mouhot wrote about Luang Prabang in 1861, “Were they not restrained by fear of the Siamese, and their horror of the jungles so prolific of death, this principality would soon fall into the hands of the Annamites, who now dare not advance nearer than seven days’ journey off.”
As for the Thais, a third of their land really belongs to Laos, but that logic counts for nothing. Everyone takes what he can. Invading Laos in 1828, the Thais destroyed Pha That Luang, Laos’ most sacred stupa, and in their brief war against the French in 1940-41, they wrecked it again.
Over drinks at Spirit House, Laos expert Mike Boddington told me that Vietnam is spending $100 million to build Laos’ new National Assembly. When someone spends that much on you, he wants to nudge up a bit, at least. Vietnam’s President Nguyen Phu Trong’s first trip abroad was also to Laos. Geopolitical jockeying is a universal game.
Mike has a world of experiences of seemingly everywhere, but his special focus is Southeast Asia, with Laos his most ardent passion. Mike first came in 1994, “We flew into Vientiane on one of the old Chinese copies of a Russian twin-engine plane that accommodated about 50 people in cramped circumstances: there was a Boeing 737-200 on this route, leased from Iceland, but that day it was not operational because the pilot had been knocked off his motorcycle in Vientiane and killed.” Mike was the key figure in the creation of Cope, a center to help victims of landmines, plus others disabled. I’ll visit his home soon on the outskirts of Vientiane.
North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trails branched into Laos, so the United States dropped a record two million tons of ordnance on this poor country. These included 270 million cluster bombs, of which up to 80 million haven’t detonated yet. Each year, Laos continue to be killed by UXOs, so that’s the most tangible of the American legacy here. More abstract and unquantifiable, yet much more explosive, is the dissemination of an increasingly absurd and decadent American culture.
Projecting power and sex, America enthralls, so on Vientiane’s tuk-tuks, for example, I’ve encountered several American badasses on windshields, dashboards and mud flaps. These include Al Pacino as Serpico, Sylvester Stallone as Cobra, and, twice already, even Stallone as Rambo! There’s even a Rambo haircutter, although its sign shows two blacks with huge afros!
On one of the Rambo-adorned tuk-tuks, there was also an American Eagle and, oddly enough, Che Guevara! So the same driver idolizes a Commie killer and a killer Commie, but they’re both seductive images of power. Quantity and quality wise, no one sells this better than America.
Traveling through Southeast Asia, Mouhot was repeatedly baffled by the apparent happiness of its people, despite their poverty, high taxes and/or oppression from their rulers. Laos were additionally cursed, “Their poverty borders on misery, but it mainly results from excessive indolence, for they will only cultivate just sufficient rice for their support; this done, they pass the rest of their time in sleep, lounging about the woods, or making excursions from one village to another, paying visits to their friends on the way.”
Before you dismiss the above as biased nonsense from a white racist, the Vietnamese foundry owner made very similar observations, “There aren’t so many foreign companies here because the Laos just aren’t that reliable. They don’t have the same attitude towards work as we do. After the 15th and 30th of each month, many won’t show up the next day because they just got too drunk after being paid.” He laughed. “They don’t eat so well, but they like to drink.”
“What do they drink? Rice wine?”
“No, beer. They love their beer!”
Can’t blame them. Beerlao is excellent and cheap, and what’s wrong with just ambling to neighboring villages to chatter with your buddies, or plopping yourself under a tree, to reflect, doze off or hear birds singing?
Buddhists value silence and stillness, and despite all of its modern convulsions, Laos is still a land of temples. With its spacious ground, each is a meditative oasis. A tuk-tuk driver may not recognize an address, but if you just tell him which temple it’s near, he’ll take you there.
Calmed by Laos’ pace, I’m lingering.