As you will see at the conclusion of this piece, by the end of my first 24 hours in Vietnam I knew that I had passed into another kind of time, back into a world where violence is always immanent and often real, and although this piece is about Laotian time and not Vietnamese I guess it is true that often you have to cross a border before you can really see what you have left behind.
Like the open boat that plies the familiar canal,
I find that I come again and again to you.
Anonymous, from the Kokinshu 732
Quoted in Edward Seidensticker's tr. of The Tale of Genji (101).
As you will see at the conclusion of this piece, by the end of my first 24 hours in Vietnam I knew that I had passed into another kind of time, back into a world where violence is always immanent and often real, and although this piece is about Laotian time and not Vietnamese I guess it is true that often you have to cross a border before you can really see what you have left behind. Still, by the time my first 24 hours in Vietnam were up I had already been deftly scammed five times after having had that experience only once in the 24 days I was in Laos.
So, if you will, let me begin across the border in Vietnam and start this reverie from the back half of a van that passed for a local bus. It was descending from a mountain village near Khe Sanh and on its way to Hue, gorging and disgorging passengers and cargo at absolutely random intervals. Under my feet were two huge sacks of rice stacked on top of my pack and next to my feet were two circular wire mesh containers of live piglets; 6 in one and 4 in the other. And over there in the corner was a man with a live duck between his feet sitting next to an old woman chewing a red glob of betel nut and occasionally spitting a stream of red juice onto the floor, and occasionally onto my backpack. But my real nemesis was in front of me, and there was no escaping him.
He was probably 35 and dressed in a dirty blue flashy track suit, and he was drunk and it was only 9:30 in the morning, and I didn't know it then but I still had another two hours of his almost undivided attention. Earlier he had moved me, somewhat against my will, from the first bus I had been on where they had scammed me out of $8 (or 100,000 Vietnamese dong) and into his van, yelling out as he sucked up my large pack, "No steal! No steal! Vietnamese no steal," which wasn't particularly comforting since I wasn't sure why these three words were three of his fifteen chosen ones. But he hoisted my bag into the back of his van and now I was his full attention, and what he wanted more than anything else was to talk.
He kept telling me: "English no good; baby no school." And: "Kennedy and Bill Clinton Number 1; Ho Chi Minh and Lenin Number 10" and he would display his disgust at Number 10 by jamming his thumb down in a vigorous gesture as if he were squashing a bug. I wanted to be polite, although I knew it was useless to be polite to a drunk, just as it is useless to be anything to a drunk, but I didn't want to make my precarious situation any worse. Then after an hour or so he stopped telling me "baby no school" and decided he wanted to learn the words for "market," (which we had just passed) and for "jacket," and "pants" which were nearer at hand, and then in what became a mutually frustrating experience, he took off his watch and he wanted me to teach him how to tell time in English. He spun the hour hand like a roulette wheel, and at first we did fairly well since he knew his numbers: "One o'clock," "two o'clock," "three o'clock . . . ." although at first he thought "seven" was really "eleven," but the problems started when he moved the minute hand. Was that 5:13 or 5:14? And what exactly is "six oh!? three?" Why isn't it "six zero three?" And is that "7:45" or "quarter to eight?" And if you can say "ten to nine" for 8:50, why can't you say "thirteen to nine?" And if 10:45 is quarter to eleven, then why isn't 10:30, "half to eleven?" But before we could get to midnight or noon we arrived in Hue, my destination, and as a parting gesture he offered to shake hands and when I put out my hand he took it, and brought it up to his lips and gave it a long and appreciative kiss. Welcome to Vietnam!
# # # # #
The flight time from Kennedy to Tokyo's Narita airport is 14 hours and it's another 6 to Bangkok, and Bangkok was where I was meant to begin and end this trip. My plans were to spend a month each in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. It had been 10 years since I had really traveled alone, and it was interesting to me that I had approached this trip with more trepidation than I did when I spent 15 months on the road, and I also quickly learned how much in the last ten years I have developed a tendency to fret about life, worrying about every small detail long in advance, and it took a full experience of Laos' sense of time to break a ten year bad habit, and to at least change worrying about what might come to thinking about what might come.
But even before I had cut that Gordian knot the world was revealing itself to be a series of enjoyable little challenges and successes: I needed a piece of scotch tape to hold part of my palm top computer in place, and discovered that my airline luggage receipt pealed off and so I cut a piece of it off to do the trick. Or I needed some new small plastic bags to cover my passport and my money in my passport case that I wore around my neck, and voila there they were on my airline lunch tray protecting my silverware and my napkin. And the hours passed and I arrived in Bangkok a little after midnight, and by accident found a beautiful old 6 room Guest House right on the Chao Phraya river that divides that city the way the Thames or the Seine does theirs, and I relaxed for a day and then booked a night train to the Thailand border town of Nong Khai where the Australians have built the Friendship Bridge into Laos, one of the two major bridges across the Mekong, (called the Nan Kong in Laos) (and which, by the way, the Lao pronounce "Lao" without the sound of the "s," an alteration which the French created in one of their typical un-neo colonial mistakes).
And here in Nong Khai it quickly became a case of mistaken identity, or, if you prefer, of screwing up where every new reader of a language screws up: namely, ignoring the words that don't make any sense.
The Lonely Planet guides are the cheap backpacker's Bible. They give you all the essential information of how to get there, what to see, where to eat, and where to stay, and before I left I visited their web site to get some of the most recent information that travelers had posted to it, and I found out there that you could get a Laos visa in Nong Khai by going to Khon Kaen and walking along the lake past the temple and 1 km down the road to the Laos Consulate. So when I got to Nong Khai I set out with the map the guy at the guest house gave me which had on it "Laos Immigration" and I started to walk toward it, and sure enough there was a lake on my right, a large one, and I walked by two Temples though their names were in Thai, and after I walked a mile or so in the 100 degree plus heat I stopped at an expensive hotel and asked the desk clerk where the Laos Consulate was. But she didn't speak English, though graciously she put me on the phone to someone at another hotel who did, who told me that I was an idiot and that my information was all wrong, and that she could get me a visa in one hour, not for 1000 baht ($25) but for 2000B though it would include transportation across the bridge.
Well, it took this idiot the rest of the day looking at maps, and practicing my English in a variety of air line ticket offices to figure out that:
(1) There are a lot of temples in Thailand;
(2) The lake I was walking by was really the Mekong River;
(3) Her visa was only good for 15 days and would cost $5 a day to renew in Laos; and
(4) That Khon Kaen (the two words I didn't understand) was a town 170 km (3 hrs) back down the railway line and that I would have to catch a 7:40 a.m. train there, pray that I could get the visa done in 3 hours, and catch the 2 p.m. train back, and lose a day traveling by train.
So it seems that there are some serious and fundamental relationships between language and time that I really hadn't understood before I started this trip. But the idiot was learning. Though I won't regal you with the comedy of errors of getting the visa in Nong Khai. Suffice it to say that eventually pluck and luck won out over cupidity and stupidity, and early one morning, two days later, the driver of my tuk-tuk (a loud three wheeled taxi found cheaply all over South Asia and Thailand) dropped me at the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge, and I was ready to enter Laotian space, and time.
From the Thai side, for some inexplicable reason, it takes the bus 30 minutes to show up to ferry you the two minutes it takes to cross the Mekong. I was standing at the back with two Lao men when one of them tells me that he is going back home for 3 days after having been away for 10 years. "Welcome to Laos," he says to me. We are both beaming, and then once we disembarked, I passed through customs, changed $50 for 1560 kip for a dollar and before I could put that thick wad of money away there was a Laotian tuk-tuk driver who offered to take me the 20 km to Vientiane for 80 baht ($2.50) and so we were off. Rock and roll.
My driver asked me what Guest House I wanted and I told him but when we got there they were full as was the one next to it, and even though I had already paid him, he remained faithful and took me to another place which had a room that needed to be cleaned: fan and hot shower for $10. I took it since this was a special festival week and it was likely that many of the cheaper Guest Houses would be full, and besides the woman at the desk spoke 4 languages fluently and as her husband passed me in the hall he joked with me in English. I felt like I was "in the zone" and I asked him about the holiday and he said: "it starts this evening," and I asked him if he thought the Vietnam Embassy would still be open, and he said: "probably until noon," and so, since it was 11:30 (and I needed to arrange that visa) I left my bag and took my tuk-tuk driver, who was still faithful and beaming, and we headed out and found it; I filled out the forms, gave them $55 and they promised it would be waiting for me in a week when I returned. Back at the Guest House my room was ready; I gave them my laundry to do. I noticed that they had nice postcards and stamps for sale and a small restaurant. Time was flowing quickly and easily; I felt like a boat in a fast and open current. No rocks. Rushing water. Both banks far away.
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is a comfortable small town, and you can easily negotiate it by foot, as you can Florence. It has a few major paved streets and a boulevard or two, but most of its cross streets are still dust or mud. It's a town that seems overrun by teenagers and potholes, or maybe the men and women just all look young. Certainly they seem to be mothers at an early age. And they all have their own motorbike, a Honda 100 or its equivalent, driven equally by men and women, though rarely with a woman driving and a man on the back. The women are often very attractive but poured from the same mold: 90 pounds, thin waists, long black hair, pants (sometimes bell bottoms), a tee shirt and often with a long sleeve shirt unbuttoned over that. The men are often the same, but with a light jacket replacing the open shirt. The other outfit for the women is the sarong and often a silk blouse replaces the double shirts. There are an enormous number of bicycles, often being ridden by younger kids coming to and from school, and often you see people holding a hand across their faces as they ride, protecting themselves from what they perceive to be fumes and the dust, and often the young girls on the bicycles will carry an open umbrella as they cycle along to protect themselves from the heat.
The Lao word for hello is "sadahwee," and you will hear it a lot, especially from young children from 2-12 who will shout it out at you as you pass by and then wave their hands with their palm open outward in a tick-tock motion like a clock's pendulum. They are a shy but friendly people and they will often stop to stare at you, even in Vientiane, as if foreigners are still really the stranger to them, which given their history, we are, and so I spent a lot of my day smiling and waving. A welcome exchange. Though surprisingly to me, since Laos has really only been open to tourists for a couple of years, there is also a good deal of English around, on the signs, even on some of the restaurant stall signs.
In the afternoon I visited a number of the local Wats. These are the Buddhist temple complexes which you will find all over southeast Asia, and in order to be an official Wat they each must contain at least six parts: a sim or enclosed temple where the monks can be consecrated; an open pavilion for lectures; a dorm for the young monks to live in; a library; a stupa (or monument), and a tower containing a large drum. The architecture varies from Wat to Wat as do the sculptures of the Buddha contained inside the temple, or the colorful paintings that often appear on the walls, most often depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha.
I also paid a quick visit to the Patuxal down at the end of a long Boulevard. It's the "Arc de Triomphe" for Vientiane, and for 200 kip you can climb the circular stairway inside it. It was completed with cement that the United States government gave to finish the airport runway, and so some locals call it "the vertical runway." But the views from the top are grand, out over the lush green hills to the mountains far beyond and back in the other direction over the Mekong. It's peaceful here and you can sense that this capital town still fits into the larger landscape, without sky scrapers or factories or even a sprawling suburban area. It's still a carpet of green in all directions.
Since I arrived during the festival of the boat races, in honor of the full harvest moon in October, there are hundreds of small food and beer stalls along the dirt road that fronts the Mekong, and there are at least half a dozen large rock music stages set up for later in the evening. During the day the boats are raced next to the shore. The boats themselves are extraordinarily long and thin. Forty rowers sit in pairs of twos down the middle with five extra rowers standing along a curved stern and given this man(sic)power the boats can move for short distances at a good speed. There are boats either for men or women, and never gender mixed, either inside a boat or in the competitions.
In the evening, just after dark, the people gather along the banks of the Mekong and put small flower boats into the river. You can purchase these boats everywhere. They are most often in the shape of a circular crown decorated with flowers and with candles stuck into them. These candles are lit and the people gently place them into the Mekong's current, and as they float away they are meant to carry away the sins of your year. It is quite beautiful to see, hundreds and hundreds of yellow lights floating down the river as far as the eye can see, and the kids shooting off roman candles everywhere. Lights in the sky, lights on the water, and gaiety everywhere in between. It is a unique time, and for me, a wonderful way to enter Laotian space.
Still, three days later I set out for Vang Vieng, a small mountain town on the way to Luang Prabang. The guide book said that you shouldn't travel by road to Luang Prabang because of the poor condition of the road and because of the frequent robberies and some killings, but the book is wrong. Things are changing fast, and the road has been completed, and it has been exactly one year since the last robbery.
Vang Vieng itself is "not without charm" as the Lonely Planet says. It's a little off the main road, and since it is up in the mountains I expected it to be cooler, but there's no wind, and it's a hot hot heat. I found the Phoubane Guest House that a Swiss couple I had met on the train in Thailand had suggested I try, and it is really quite fine. There are five rooms upstairs in an old wooden house, each 4,000 kip. There are sit down toilets and mandy baths (large containers of water with plastic ladles) for showers downstairs, and it has a small restaurant attached.
After I settled in I took a walk out of town, and down to the river, and took some pictures. The mountains here are jagged, as they were in the north of Cameroon, or the north of Malaysia. The houses here like most village houses in southeast Asia are on stilts. It's cooler this way, it keeps the bugs and animals away, and lets the rain and the mud remain below. The walls are built out of teak wood, or woven mats, as well as the newer concrete and brick. There's a good size indoor/outdoor market at the bus station. But now for the first time on my trip my first afternoon and evening here are harder to describe, because their pleasures were so deep, so momentary, and so simple, although the passage into these pleasures passes first through three individuals I met and saw that first day.
The first was Kerry, a 53 year old American who was also saying at the Phoubane, and has more than mastered the art of the monologue. According to his own nearly interminable testimonial, he has been traveling alone since 1971, takes Valium, and is a little worried about his "loose ends." I was quietly reading on the veranda when he passed by me and I casually asked him if he knew how to get to Luang Prabang and after I dropped that coin, his music played for 20 minutes, and I never did get my question answered. Originally he was from San Francisco where his father was a judge and he was going to be a lawyer, but in 1971 (I didn't ask) he threw it all over and dropped out, and has never really found or wanted a way back in again. He told me about his rootlessness, his half-hearted desire to be a journalist, his hatred of India where the doctors set his broken clavicle incorrectly. He exudes a constant stream of energy, but he never once had a question for me. I had been worrying that I was staying too close to "home" and not really venturing out enough, but he really never went off the grounds here. So it was hard for me to see what he was seeing, and what he was trying to be a part of when he traveled, and yet he seemed to have all his belongings in a single day pack while I was still lugging about my 40 pound backpack as well as my day pack. Even so, I must confess that in my first comparisons to him, I suddenly felt better about what I was trying to do, and doing.
Then later at dinner I met a young man from New Zealand, Harun. He too was on the road by himself, though only for eight months so far but with no hurry to return home. He still had Europe and Latin America he wanted to see. He was heading up to China now, but wanted to be able to be back in Bangkok with his mates for Christmas and New Years. He didn't want to be alone then, but he had some nice stories (about primitive tribes in Sumatra where on an alcohol induced whim he got a tatoo on his right shoulder)(a lovely abstract design actually), and he shakes hands to introduce himself, and asks questions, though the answers don't seem to interest him much since often he asks the same question twice. And when he went to pay our hostess he just talked naturally in his New Zealand accent assuming she would understand his English and his desire to pay for his half of the room (since he was sharing it with a fellow traveler from Boston), and for me since her English was very limited and he wasn't trying any Lao at all, the miracle was she did, which suddenly said a lot to me about my own reticence to approach others because of my own fears of becoming cornered in a conversation where neither of us could understand the other.
I saw my third lesson of learning that day up the main road at the second large Wat. There was a festival going on with a good deal of praying, some games, speakers blaring, food, and crowds of people. I first discovered it on a walk around 5 p.m., just before dusk. There were a few farangs (foreigners) there as well, and one British man in his mid-20s was trying to gather 30 kids about him in order to have his picture taken with them, and the kids were delighted, though as the process stretched out from a moment into minutes some of them wandered away. But I came to admire him because after he had photographed his moment of time he continued to play with the kids and talk to them, often stooping to be on their level, and letting them climb all over him. This play continued for half an hour or more and from their enthusiasm he seemed to me to be a natural teacher. His six farang friends were just sitting and watching, and so he was the unique man out, and doubly so I thought since he had had to overcome his biological British reserve.
In any case, I could see that each of these three men had gifts I do not have. I could not travel like Kerry for my whole life. I know now the whole world is not equally my home. Now traveling for me only makes sense as an equal aspect of rootedness, though, I often ask myself, if my house burned down and the college detenured me, where exactly are those roots?
And I don't have Harun's naturalness. He seems perfectly at ease. He's not even concerned about how to get to Luang Prabang, or when the bus or truck leaves, while in my own (biologically induced?) fretting I walked up in the afternoon heat to check on the next morning's schedule. On the other hand he missed yesterday's only afternoon bus from Vientiane, and so he had to come up with a private sawng-thaew, (a small pick-up truck with an enclosed roof and benches down the right and left sides) but then, for him of course, it was honestly "no worry mate".
And I can't join in as easily as the young British bloke with the kids. Earlier down by the river four men had asked me to come sit with them, but I refused, and often young men, and sometimes children will stop and try to talk to me, and I can feel myself tense as if I'm going to make a mistake, or as if we'll hit a deep hole of dark silence, and while it is very important to me to acknowledge every "hello," to try to be patient even with the drunks, to constantly (and honestly) smile, still I can't take that extra giant step and join in. So, evidently I'm not Te Kaihau (the wanderer), I fret too much, and I can't really fit in, but hey like Popeye, "I am vat I am," and now this is the part I can't tell.
After dinner Harun had heard about a restaurant up the block that had 10 farangs in it, and he was excited to go and thought I would be too, especially since there was little to do here except watch TV with our hosts. But finally after he left I walked off in the other direction. It was partly because I don't feel that I fit in with farangs and their desire to separate themselves from where they are, but mainly it was because I enjoy being on my own, and enjoy the other direction. And as I walked down the road in the dark, the stars were extraordinarily bright, and then as I passed each house around 7 p.m., I could see the families sitting on the floor in a circle sharing bowls of food, eating with their fingers. And off and on someone would say "sadahwee," and I would say "sadahwee" back. And later when I returned in the dark to the festival at the Wat there were women sitting on the ground on either side of the road selling food, and illuminating each woman was a single small oil burning lamp, and the effect of the two long lines of light and the smoke was breathtakingly beautiful, and suddenly even in that moment it was difficult to explain, even to myself the joy of the walk, the stars, the open homes, the sounds, the long lines of light. Are these the gifts of old age, as Eliot says, and were they gifts only for me? Do I travel only to walk down a road a night, alone in the dark, watching others live their lives? Is that it? But if that's it, then why can't I communicate the joy I felt, or the feeling of finally being at home here where I was, on a dirt road, off, in the other direction, in time with myself?
The next day I took one of the great walks of my life. Harun and his Boston roommate were going on a tour to some caves which the Lonely Planet recommends as one of the local attractions. OK, OK, as the local attraction, but my Swiss friends told me my hostess knew of a private walk to some other caves, and so after everyone left in the morning, I asked her and she got me the "map", and I copied down the route to The Other Direction:
Go down to the river,
take the small boat across,
go up the dirt road for 5 km,
turn right for 1 km,
at the school turn to your right and pass through the gate,
keep walking on the path and
when you come to mountain, climb the steep hill up to the mouth of the cave.
And so I set out around 9. And I did well for a long while, and even loved walking on the dirt road past rice paddies with the green jagged mountain peaks all around in the heat of the morning. But shortly after the school I got lost in the myriad choices of paths, and although some kids laughingly set me straight, and I gave the oldest girl a tennis ball, when I crossed a stream in the narrows I walked too far to the left and didn't go back right to the main path, and I was lost again. This time I was really lost, although it took me thirty minutes of being wrong before I decided I had better go back in order to be right. But I spent that thirty minutes in the "Vietnam jungle." It was a path, or at least I think it was, twisting and at times invisible. Damp and wet. Green and slippery. Closed in. It rambled up and down steep hills over rocks and roots. With vines like snakes. Briars and thorns. It was my first real experience of this since Guatemala, and I fretted a little (my own default position) about what would happen to me here if I stumbled and broke my leg. So after thirty minutes I surrendered to the obvious, turned back, a little exhausted, my water running low now, and started over from the stream again.
This time walking along the right trail I got a guide who suddenly materialized out of the rice fields with credentials in his hand (a note written in English from another lost soul). He raised three fingers for a price and we set off. It was only ten minutes to the base of the climb up the mountain but I would have had a hard time finding it. We crossed a stream with a great place to swim, which I did, coming back, and then turned right, left and right again. The hike up the hill to the mouth of the cave was steep, and the cave was huge, with a golden reclining Buddha inside, down in its depths. But once there the guide wanted 3,000 kip ($2) and not 300 (why isn't it "thirteen to nine?"). By now, I was shaking from the heat and the sudden cold of the cave, and some from irrational fear, and the combination of these factors caused me to settle on 2,000 (my only Laotian scam), even though I knew that was more than I had paid to get from Vientiane to Veng Vieng. But with the fist full of money in his hand, he left me alone, and I explored the cave by myself with my small flashlight, and then walked back to swim, and along my route I took careful detailed notes to place with my hostess' map so that the next lost soul wouldn't need this shepherd's help. Out on the main dirt road I waited for an hour at a "country store" (19 items on the shelves) for the local "tractor" truck which would take me back to the river, returning around 3:30.
But this factual recitation, like the recitation from the night before, doesn't capture the joy of being alone and searching, of walking in the jungle, and dealing with my own fears, but most of all these words can't capture the sense of belonging to the full fine heat of the day, the blue skies, the hunters shooting off their guns in the distance, the sounds of the birds, the greetings of the children, the kindness of the people, the sound of the water flowing next to the rice paddies, pushing the tractor truck when it got stuck, and the beauty of just being in this landscape.
The next day I traveled with Harun. We left Veng Vieng at 8, or rather we were at the bus station at 8, a 20 meter walk, but the driver of the sawng-thaew waited for a full load (14 or more) until almost 9, and then charged us 2,000 each for the 1 ½ hour drive to Kasi. There at 11 and this time for 7,000 kip we caught another sawng-thaew (run by a frustrated race car driver) and he made it to Luang Prabang by 3:30, and by 4:30 I had showered at the Phounsab Guest House the manager in Vientiane had given me a card for, where they charge 8,000 kip for a double and 6,000 for the same room for a single, but this time it was a double rate for me since Harun had decided to share the expense for a couple of days before he headed on up to China.
The ride from Kasi was a thrill and not only because of the driver. Harun and I stood the whole way on a grate on the back of the sawng-thaew. I was off to the right side and so I could see forward as well as to the sides and behind, but Harun, standing in the middle, had the luggage on the top blocking his view. A storm chased us for the first half of the way. We could see it pouring back behind us in the distance while we remained in the sunlight (which in many ways is how I feel about Laos itself). But I still continued to worry (ok, fret) about my day pack which was resting on top of the luggage on the roof and which had my camera and my palmtop computer in it, but the storm never caught us, though three times the road in front of us was wet where it had it had swept down before us. However, stiff and burnt as I was at the end, the view for the whole way was spectacular. It was a good road twisting over mountains that initially seemed like the north of Cameroon: jagged sharp green peaks layered in front of each other like teeth, which softened by the early afternoon to the Appalachians, and then it seemed we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding along the ridge, although here the Lao people have done a great deal of deforestation in order to have wood to cook with. We passed through 30 or 40 tribal villages, most without electricity, and mostly resembling much of what I had seen in the hill country of Northern Thailand 10 years earlier, perched on the ridge of the mountain on either side of the road, the land falling away behind the houses, though in each village when the children would see us they would shout and wave wildly and we would wave back. Harun said it was my hair they were waving at, and even with the curls (sic) in the wind it was waving back at them.
Luang Prabang is the ancient capital having surrendered its claim to Vientiane in the early part of the 20th century when the country became a French protectorship. It is also the home of the Palace where the last King and Queen were deposed in 1977 (shortly after the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh in April 1975). The royal couple were then exiled to a cave prison in northern Laos where it is said that they died in the 1980s. So the source of political power was transferred to the south, sucking up most of the people with it, but the buildings remained and today the population has inched its way back to almost 16,000. And the Mekong is still here and the Palace and there are 32 major Wats here as well and so there are monks of all ages walking around in their orange robes, and often carrying an open umbrella to protect themselves from the heat.
The town itself is actually quite beautiful and it has the peace of its age. The Mekong and an adjoining river, the Nam Khan create an "s" through it, and there's a large hill, Phu Si, in the center (directly across the street from my Guest House) which has a golden temple on it. It's a quiet town, and often there are whole sections that it seems you can reach only by a footpath, and the smell of wood smoke is everywhere, though I did pass a computer school with 10 computers, the students each learning Windows 3.1, but when I asked the instructor about the Internet, he said, "next year."
My Guest House was on one of the main streets, a block off the river and a block up from the Palace, and yet every morning I was coaxed from my sleep by the sound of roosters, and if I got up by 6:05, I could open my shutters and look down on the sidewalk below me and watch the long line of 100 monks slowly pass by with their begging bowls. Our hostess would kneel in front of our Guest House by her door and as each monk passed she would drop a handful of sticky rice into their bowls as they opened and shut their lids in an easy and graceful gesture. Sticky rice, it should be said is the staple dish for the Lao and although I was promised that I would see it in Vietnam and Cambodia, basically I didn't. I'm told that it is grown as sticky rice and not just prepared that way. It's literally a sticky white rice that usually comes to your table in a woven circular container with a lid. You lift off the top, drip your hand in and scoop out a blob and roll it in your fingers into a small ball and then dip it into the food in the other dishes. It's actually quite good, quite fun, and quite addictive and matches the Lao's other addiction which is TV. There's a color set in every home, every shop, and it's always in the center of things, and since the doors of most houses are always open whenever you pass by you see all these rapt faces caught in its light like the Annunciation.
The Palace itself is elaborate and beautiful from the outside but quite simple and sparse once you are inside including the furnishings in the separate King and Queen's bedrooms. It is also the home of the Pra Bang. This is a golden image of the Buddha which is only about two feet high, said to have been cast in Sri Lanka, and brought here as a gift from the Khmer in Angkor Wat, and in a sense it was this statue which brought Buddhism to Laos in the 14th century, and it is still regarded as a sacred talisman of the nation, and in fact Luang Prabang means the "Great Pra Bang."
There is a serenity here that is difficult to share since it is neither the serenity of nature nor that of say the ancient native American earthworks. One afternoon, for example, as I walked along the Nam Khan I took a half an hour to watch a fisherman in his boat spread out his net across the stream, float along next to it, and then slowly haul it back in again. The fact that I could take thirty minutes and follow him as he floated down the river meant a lot to me; it is a kind of open time that seemed rare to me even then. Later that same day I climbed the Phu Si, my temple on the hill in the heart of the city, and had the top and the view entirely to myself for an hour. Coming down that afternoon I tried the "other direction", and walked through a number of smaller Wats. In one a young monk introduced himself and then showed me the way into a hidden cave where there were statues of the Buddha and a quiet and a hush that was disturbed and illuminated only by the moving beam of my flashlight as it cast its light across the vast variety of faces of the Buddha.
In the evenings I would eat dinner in one of the small restaurants along the Mekong and then head back home along the side of the illuminated Palace to enjoy a final beer and a pipe full of tobacco sitting by the large open double doors of my Guest House facing out onto the street. One evening when I was relaxing there I noticed an attractive American woman come in who I had seen earlier and I invited her to join me. Her name was Christina Fink and as it turned she was the editor of Burma Net. That's a web site that posts information about the repression that still continues in Burma, and is a valuable source of information for a country that still is in the dark for most of us as well. She was in Laos in order to renew her visa for Thailand where her home office is, in the north in Chiang Mai. Burma Net is actually funded by the Soros Foundation and we had a good, and from her side, passionate three hour conversation about Burma, and I realized that in spite of listening to VOA and BBC every day on my small short wave radio that Luang Prabang had almost entirely swept me away from the cares of the world. I had forgotten about the camps containing fleeing refugees, forgotten about repression and torture and murder, forgotten that leaders of governments are sometimes completely narcissistic, and had forgotten about the daily courage not only of Aung San Suu Kyi but of countless others whose individual stories poured out of Christina, cascading one after the other with a care and an intensity and commitment that I had forgotten.
On my first evening in Luang Prabang I had taken a walk by myself trying to get oriented and to get a sense of the place and by accident I happened to pass what I discovered the next day was Wat Ahum which is noted for its two large bodhi trees. That evening there were six kids playing under them. They were each waiting for a leaf to break free and fall, and then shouting and screaming with delight, they would rush to try and catch it before it hit the ground, and reward themselves when they did by putting the captured leaf into their pockets. I watched them play for nearly an hour, caught by their particular enthusiasm and entirely oblivious of time until it was too dark to watch or to play any longer and we all left to go our separate ways leaving behind in the dusk our own momentary apotheosis of time.
Sometimes pairs of days or experiences become strangely juxtaposed and in their complementarity offer a brief glimpse into a moment of time that is whole. This set began one dawn as I turned my journey back south toward Vientiane. I had already decided to take the slow boat back down the Mekong, but the boat no longer left from Luang Prabang but from the small town of Pak Krone three hours away by a large sawng-thaew down a winding dirt road, and so I was at the "bus" station (a large dusty field) at the edge of town at 7 a.m.. At the last second a Belgian photographer arrived and jumped on the back of the bus where he had to stand for the rest of the way, and we would be the only farangs we saw for the next couple of days. Pak Krone itself is just the end of the road. Thirty houses and a couple of food stalls. Nothing else.
The boat for Pak Lay, another larger town half way to Vientiane left at 2. It was a small cargo boat, carrying 15 passengers, and it was slow. It would put into the river bank here and there and take on or let off more passengers and cargo, and then after about 2 hours of traveling we stopped for the night. The Mekong, as wide as it is, is also dotted here with small islands, sand bars, and large rocks, and so once the sun sets abruptly and suddenly at 6, it is unsafe at any speed. When we stopped half the people went to a small village we were near, stepping gingerly across the muddy swamp in between, but Roel and I stayed on board climbing onto the top flat deck. I pulled out my mat and sleeping bag and had a fairly good night of it. There were not as many stars as I had hoped for, but there were two shooting stars and a satellite, and later when I woke in the middle of the night the Southern Cross was directly overhead. Faithful old friend.
The next morning we were off at 6:40, still putting in here and there to a village, and each time we stopped someone had to push the boat away from the bank with a long bamboo pole, and eventually, just for fun, I became proficient at that task.
That morning I put on my socks and my jacket to ease the slight chill, and sometime around 10 the sun broke out, and shortly before that the two boatmen who didn't seem to do much (because as I found out later they were just passengers) (once an idiot . . . ) climbed up onto the top deck and shared some sticky rice and a sauce with us. It was delicious, and then a little after 10 we seemed to stop putting into as many villages, and the river widened, and for a while we lost most of the rocks and islands that were wrapped around us, and the mountains on both sides descended to shapely hills and we began a long straight run. Roel and I were still on the top deck, out in the sun, but it was easier to nap there, to see, and, of course, to get burnt. And the burnt rapidly became a concern, overtaking and passing "fretting about being burnt."
The heat gets to you pretty quickly, like living inside a microwave must, but the real problem was that when I tried to go below (1) There was no room. It had been taken up with people and cargo: large sacks of rice, long bamboo poles, personal goods, huge bundles of straw, etc. which I suppose is what a cargo boat is for. (The more you travel the more you learn.) However, if I dropped down in through the back, which is the cook's kitchen, it is followed by the cook's bedroom (two 3 x 6 foot mats on a floor). Now, this space is empty, and while I'm wrestling with my conscience about inviting myself into someone else's bedroom, I notice that next to his bedroom with no wall in between is the engine room. So, it is possible to lie down, but (2) it's (a) just a different kind of heat and (b) it is LOUD! So, the question simply becomes: "burn above or blow out your ears below" and for me it's back out on the deck, in my hat, which stays on, and brave the heat of the microwave which also stays on. No timer here, except the sun.
On the boat the Lao, as elsewhere as I discovered, seem to regard anything that is out as common property. That morning one of them helped himself to one of Roel's bananas, and later to some of his water, and yesterday they had no trouble picking up our books and looking through them, even taking them out of our hands. But it is an indiscriminate behavior because yesterday I also watched two men take some fruit from a large open burlap bag that a woman had left up on the top deck.
Still, fingered, poked, shared and burnt, the furnace of the day passed over and through us and we arrived at Pak Lay (pronounced as "Lie"), tanned, relieved and abandoned at 3:30 in the afternoon. Pak Lay was actually a wonderful town and in retrospect I wish I had spent a couple of extra days there, though it is difficult to know a good retrospect in advance. Of course unlike Pak Krone it was a town, but more importantly it had an open feeling about it. It seemed easy and relaxed, and the Guest House we stayed at (the only Guest House) was 30 feet up above the river, with some tables set out in an roofed-in open area that looked down onto the river in what I guess will eventually be a dining place. The town itself seemed small but nestled into a flat hollow between the hills and the river.
And now, against these first two days of floating along in hell's furnace, we can juxtapose two days of gliding in heaven's grace, experiencing as Rilke says that "emotion that almost startles/when happiness falls." Perfection. Two of the great days of my life. Gliding downstream.
I got up with the roosters, or rather with the majority of the roosters because some neurotic rooster was acting as the town crier at 12:30 a.m., although fortunately the others ignored him preferring a dawn of something a little after 5. I had a coffee at the food stall across the street and then walked the two minutes with my packs to the boat landing. Roel and I had shared a room but he had had enough of hell's slow microwave and wanted to take one of the speed boats that ply this area of the river and could get us to Vientiane in 5 hours or so. They are fast, and loud, (the helmets the passengers wear are to protect their ears and not their heads) and we had already seen (or thought we had seen) a couple of them pass us the day before at warp speed. They are fast. But we thought they needed 8 passengers and Roel had found the first one but it only had 4 passengers so far.
It was then that I saw my destiny because as I looked down onto the river there were two larger slow boats bound for Vientiane. One was a newer blue, and the other just a faded brown wood, but the latter looked like it had a "bench" on the front, right under the overhanging captain's pilot bridge. That bench just kept calling to me like a Siren, and so eventually when I walked up the hill to the Navigation Office where Roel was waiting in the shade I told him I thought I'd take the slow boat. He had already purchased his ticket for a fast boat for 20,000 and so I went to the ticket office and bought a slow one for 8,000, and then walked up to the store to re-provision myself with 10 bags of peanuts, a box of raisins, two more large bottles of water and some sticky rice which they nicely put into a Styrofoam container for me. When I got back to the boats I tried to find someone who could tell me where to put my stuff on the brown boat, but, alas, there was no one really around. The ticket woman told me the boats would leave at 11, but the blue one pulled away at 9 just after I got back with my provisions, and so I walked up the new plank to the brown boat and stored my packs and provisions with the sacks of cargo in the middle.
There a were a couple of women on board, and they seemed to have the nice (and only) room right under the pilot's bridge. At the last minute another five Lao got on, and the captain, who was an older and distinguished looking man, and two crew. And then it was 9:30 and we were off. I took my bench, the others sitting in front of me, in the sunlight, facing me, and eventually I got my small pack, a container of water, three bags of peanuts and the raisins, put the socks on my feet to keep them from burning, and by god I thought: "I be home."
It was a beautiful ride, with the sound of the water under the boat, a breeze from the movement, and a tranquility and peace which does pass all understanding. At 10:30 the speed boat warped past us and Roel waved or I think it was a wave since he could have been just trying to get a breath of air. Still by 11:30 we had mostly turned east instead of south, and the sun was behind us, and I could sit in the cool of the overhang, in my hat and eat, drink, take pictures, and smoke my pipe. At 12:30 we made our first stop and let the five Lao men off, in what was the last possible Lao village on that starboard side of the river, and that just left the three women and the captain and the crew and myself. While I was smoking my pipe the captain wanted to try it and so I put in some new tobacco and handed it up to him.
In the middle of the boat there were a hundred large sacks of hard corn kernels, and a single bird about the size of a robin perched on them. They were packed so high that to get from one end of the boat to the other you had to take off your sandals and crawl over them on your hands and knees, past the engine and past the cook's bedroom. There were four people sitting on the floor in the very back next to the kitchen (which is really just a couple of pots on a small wood burner). There was a young man who changed the engine's speeds and direction whenever the captain sounded a bell and three women: a girl of about 14; a woman of maybe 25; and an older woman of maybe 40. The woman in her 20s motioned for me to come on. She was feeding some chickens out of her hands, and knew I wanted the toilet which was at the very rear. It was just an outhouse with a hole on the floor and the water below you but hey, it exists, it was clean, it didn't smell, and it worked, washing away the sins of my world or maybe just transporting them into the arms of the people on the shore who bathe and drink from the river.
At 1:30 we pulled into the shore in a Lao town, to pay a toll and check in. We caught up with the blue boat there, and while we were stopped the captain invited me up the wooden ladder into the wheel room for lunch: sticky rice, a chilli paste to dip it in, a vegetable dish you could eat with a spoon or dip it in, some hot sweet potato and a thumb sized piece of meat. It was all quite delicious and unexpected, and quick since we left after 15 minutes, but it was a hiatus in time and another moment of grace falling.
You could tell the second the Mekong touched the Thai border. Suddenly the houses on the right shore were concrete and not planks of wood; the roofs were red tin and not thatch; there was electricity, and cars, trucks, and bulldozers were working feverishly and the whole landscape looked manicured, and so soon we were sailing between poverty and plenty, between a rock and a really hard place.
Shortly before dusk, around 6 p.m., we stopped for the night. We had been following the blue boat all day, and in fact once when we stopped at a security check that boat was behind us and so the captain made a circle in order to let it take the lead again. (And it was only then that I realized these two boats were traveling together in their own double time.) Then right after we stopped and put in the mooring lines, it began to rain. It was my first rain though it was only a hard quick shower, but after that it was dark. The captain wanted me to sleep in the town with him, but I indicated that I wanted to sleep on the boat, but he kept insisting that I take a walk with him into town anyway, (he didn't speak any English and so this was actually much more subtle and possibly more mutually confusing than it might sound). However, since I wanted a beer which I never got (or saw) I took the five minute walk with him through the houses until we came to a private home. A woman and two teenage daughters there were preparing dinner and we waited for a while and then when it was ready we went upstairs to join them.
Upstairs they had one flourescent bulb and a small black and white TV. Both of these were hooked up separately to large car batteries, which had to be recharged every two weeks. The price of electricity. Sitting on the floor in the lotus position, as the Lao do, the food was placed before us on a small raised table. There were two circles; a table for the kids, and one for the four men and the two women. The captain was given a bottle of homemade schnapps and eventually each of the men, including myself, drank three glasses of this red fire water which was meant to be drowned like a shot of vodka in a single gulp, but which unlike vodka lingers as a palpable taste for some days afterwards. And then we ate.
The basic staple was sticky rice; and along with a sauce to dip it in. There was a kind of broccoli, and another more bitter vegetable dish, and some fish in the middle which we shared by just pulling off a piece. If you were dipping your rice, the others waited. We ate without haste, until we were through and there was nothing left and then we had a glass of water and a toothpick, and the mats were swept. The captain had generously sent out earlier for two bottles of purified water for me, but somehow there was also ice (which seemed a miracle to me in a village without electricity) and which the woman took out of a cabinet. We sat for few minutes after that, and then a young man walked me back to the boat where I tried to sleep on the slant of the front deck. There were noisy kids about for a bit, and then some talking, and twice I thought I saw and felt a rat scurrying about my feet. But the stars came out; and it was a cool and glorious end to a wonderful day. That peace descended again as the stars rose, and the dark led me down into dreams of light.
When I next looked at my alarm clock it said 5:45 and as I looked up and could see the captain walking down the slope to the boat and so I knew it was time to rise and shine. We were off by 6:30 but 20 minutes down river the fog snapped shut on us like the jaws of Johan's whale and we had to stop for 30 minutes. Around 8:30 I was a little hungry and so I grabbed myself a handful of my sticky rice and a packet of crackers. Then at 9 the captain came out on the front deck with me and brought breakfast, and he and I ate together after my initial refusal. I donated a bottle of water to the cause. There was more sticky rice, dipped in a hot chilli sauce, some jerky, and pieces of an omelet. At first I thought we were supposed to finish everything, but then I realized that the first mate hadn't eaten yet. While he was steering I handed him my camera and asked him to take a picture of the captain and me and he took 5, delighted in the sounds the camera made winding itself forward. And then he came down and ate, and the captain went back to work and I went back to the bench with my name on it.
By then the sun was out full force, and we came into Vientiane at exactly 10. I passed through customs and when the tuk-tuk driver said 4 thousand, I said 2, and he (too quickly) agreed with me and by noon I had shaved, showered, cleaned up my pack a bit, and was ready to go out. But the jolt passing from those last two days on the Mekong to sidestepping the motorbikes on the streets of Vientiane was a hard snap of the neck. On 4 days on the river, time had doubled itself, stretching and then suspending its nature. On the first 2 days I had prayed for the end of time; prayed for the noise to stop; prayed for the sun to set; prayed that somehow my image of a peaceful ride down the muddy Mekong would suddenly appear or if not I just prayed to be delivered off this slow boat where time kept stretching out like a tight wet cord drying in the sun, tightening about me while my skin burned. And then suddenly we were in Pak Lay, and off the river, above it, and I was watching it flow free from the shore.
But the next day, after I had surrendered to the Siren's song, the current I could only see from the shore suddenly opened and held me, gliding into grace. To be sure, this was a bigger boat, without passengers, and the captain became a friend, who fed me both on deck and at night in the home of a family in the quiet of a Lao village. But from the moment I stepped on board to the moment I stepped off in Vientiane, this was a different kind of time. Clocks stopped; desire ceased. I was too full in each moment to want to step beyond that moment, to either wish to be out of it, or to wish for it to be more, or even in the great Faustian wager to ask that it remain. I was not in eternity, but only in a time that did not seem to pass even as it came to an end. I don't expect you to believe me, and once I had stepped on land and shaken off somehow the slow roll of the river, that time too faded as a feeling, and except for an illuminated moment of melody here and there, the song of the dreamtime passed. I only knew that I had known a happiness that was as uninterrupted as it was constantly changing, flowing. Looking back from the shore to the boat I felt fortunate, not that I had known the Mekong, but that somehow the Mekong had known me and accepted me. It is as close as I know to the mystical state that the Sufi poet Rumi tries to invoke in his work which I had been carrying with me, and which I had read on the river under the overhanging arch of the captain's bridge.
This we have now
is not imagination.
This is not
grief or joy.
Not a judging state,
or an elation,
This is the presence
The Essential Rumi tr. by Coleman Banks with John Moyne (261)
One river, two times, once, in a whole life time, the feeling of happiness falling, into happiness.
Back in the capital again, I went to the bank to change another $100 and got 1701 for it, compared to 1560 for the first $150 and 1610 for the next $100. That was 10% inflation in two weeks which I thought ought to put it close to (or over) the top in the free falling Asian currencies. Then I walked along the river. It was a lot quieter now than during the festival, and the river was shallower, and along the bank teenagers had started a number of small vegetable gardens. Then I went down to Mixay's for a beer and a cucumber salad which somehow burned the taste buds out of my mouth with an invisible chilli taste which just shows that chilli can make anything hot. Mixay's itself is a famous ex-pat hangout overlooking the Mekong and while I was sitting there I watched my two boats pass by; the blue in front and the brown behind, like visible memories, and I raised my glass of beer in a toast of my appreciation and in a "God speed" for their own future.
Later just at dusk walking down the street I began to hear voices. I had heard them before on my last evening in Vientiane and so I wasn't terribly worried. Besides I could see the speakers hanging in the trees, and I had gotten used to the invisible voices in almost every village and small town, but this time the voice was a woman's beautiful voice and I thought she was reading poetry and as I walked along the river her voice followed me from speaker to speaker. In the mornings, from 6:30-7:30 somebody plays propaganda, and news and often some snatches of music. It one of the things that unites the country, although evidently more and more towns are turning the sound down or off, and disrupting the ubiquity of the lovely loud distortion.
There is another constant for the Lao as well, and that's their schools. They take them seriously. They are always the finest building in any village, (which is often what the church is in the rest of the Western world) and the kids all dress in a "uniform" fashion. The girls wear a black or dark blue sarong and a white shirt; the boys black pants and a white shirt, and since the kids all seem to come home for lunch you can often see them cycling to and from the schools in long waves of bikes. A stream of black and white.
It's hard to get information in Laos. I asked my Guest House manager how long it would take to get from the capital to Paxse in the south. It was some 380 miles on the map, and he thought it ought to take 8 hours, but the young man on the bus next to me the next day said, 24, and in point of fact we split the difference. It was an 18 hour magical musical bus ride, with the cassette tape in the front turned full up, and each seat packed. Windows open. Local stops. And the driver's taste in music was at least consistent if not suspicious since all he played was a kind of Lao rock-disco delivered on the bus's distorted and fractured speakers at just one decibel below the point where you would scream out, "Turn that fucking thing down!" And except for an occasional break to change tapes he played music the whole way. But hey whatever keeps you awake and on the road, eh? Besides, as it kept turning out it was also a journey of "Good luck/bad luck. Who knows?"
The luck began in Vientiane at 7:15 in the morning when I passed up the cab driver in front of the Guest House and flagged down a cheaper tuk-tuk, and asked him to take me to the bus station for the 8 a.m. bus, but instead he took me to a modern bus sitting by itself at the edge of the market that was going to Paxse, and so I thought: "what luck: a modern express and not a rundown local." The ticket was 11,000, but then my luck turned as in a typical Lao fashion we had to wait for the bus to fill, and this took until 10:30.
However, once we were underway we went, stopping only four times: once for a toilet stop in the woods; once for lunch; once at Savannakhet; and once at 8:00 p.m. for dinner. That was the good luck; the bad luck was that the road to Savannakhet was excellent, and we reached it around 6:30 or so, but from there it was ruts and mud all the way down and so we didn't get into Paxse until 3 a.m., which is just exactly the perfect bad hour to arrive anyplace, since the hotel staff will be asleep and surly and you will still pay for a full night and only sleep for a few hours. However, to my surprise, there was a tuk-tuk driver at the bus station that was willing to take me into town to the Paxse Hotel, the hotel I thought I wanted. I was still reading my Lonely Planet guide book in the dark, though he kept trying to take me to the other Hotel, which was less expensive and which (of course) later (in the real light of day) was nicer and so my luck was once again flowing in opposite directions at once, though I didn't know it. But he took me, not for the ride I feared (or fretted) into a deserted alley to be mugged, but straight to the hotel I asked for.
Now the Hotel Paxse is a something that Busby Berkeley would create for Laos if he had ever been here. I had to wake the man who woke the desk clerk who took my 9,500 for a "room near a bathroom," and then pealing back an inner locked gate, those two guardians of darkness left me to ascend the wide marble stairs into this huge cavern of an empty upstairs lobby where there were directions leading off into directions. Fortunately, from behind a set of screens in the shape of a box in the middle of this cavernous lobby, a man coughed, got up, looked at my key and lead me through a series of doors down a labyrinth of corridors to my room. Coughing as he went.
But hey, I thought: Look, I'm here, I have a bed; there's a bathroom of sorts near, (you had to pour buckets of water down the toilet to make it flush) and I'm still safe and sound, though perhaps not exactly in my right mind. So: count your blessings Allen. Though as I climbed into bed I couldn't help but remember the two young women who got on the bus in Savannakhet. One was French I think, with a ring in her nose, and the other was Australian. And when we had arrived at Paxse they had elected to stay at the bus station in order to save on a night's room rate, saying something about being "real budget travelers" which as I pulled the blanket with holes in it up over my body I thought was probably a slur directed at me (and true because although I was living on less than $20 a day, I wasn't living on less than $10). Still I thought, for future reference, their decision in some ways may have been wise. If you don't know where you are, stay put until people are up you can really ask, and until you can really see them and where you are, face to face. Certainly, in spite of the book's map, I couldn't have found this place in the dark, and it was more than 2 km from the bus station and I had estimated less, and so basically I had been wrong all day. My 8 hours had become 18, and only the book had been right about that, after having been wrong almost everything else today, and so as I tried to fall to sleep I thought: it's not my fault that the book's bad news was right and that I was wrong, and that my bad news had been the best news that I had had all day. My mind was flowing to sleep in intricate swirls.
For some reason (perhaps a developing habit?) I woke up at exactly 7 o'clock, and so I decided not to fight it, and got up, showered and tried to see how to get to Champasak. I walked to where the boats should be, and there was a boat there loading, and the book said twice a day, at 7-8, and 12-1. But just to make sure I stopped into the Lao Tourist office, an oxymoron in itself, and in a typical fashion the man there told me that the boats left at: "2," at "only," at "10," and "all the time," though as it turned out he was right in all cases. He also told me that the Sala Wat Phou Hotel in Champasak was in the same price range as the Paxse and the Phonsavanh (where the cheapest rooms were $7 and $4). And this was a form of good news since the book said the Sala Wat Phou was the only accommodation in Champasak and it said the rooms were $25. So, "Good news, bad news. Who knows?"
So I shouldered my pack at 8 and went down to the dock and there was a boat leaving for the 1 ½ hour ride down the Mekong. It was a long narrow boat and eventually filled and everyone sat on the floor on mats with the roof just above your head, though it was open on both sides so you could easily pass in and out. When I got off the boat there was a tuk-tuk driver who was willing to take me the 4 kilometers to the hotel, although in the flurry and excitement of disembarking I was already up the bank when I realized that I hadn't paid for the boat, and so I dropped my packs in the dust and went running back down the hill wading into the water so that I could give the departing boat my 1,000, with everyone laughing at the running and wet farang.
The Sala Wat Phou Hotel was really excellent. In fact it was too excellent. The exquisitely furnished rooms on the second floor with their own veranda started at $25 a night and went up to $40, but there was one room on the ground floor for $12 and next to it was another for $15, which in a rare moment of self-generosity I took though it went well beyond my self-imposed budget. Still, I told myself, it's a corner room and will get a cross breeze at night, and besides it should have been $20 because it had both air conditioning and hot water, although the manager and I agreed on this price if I wouldn't use the air conditioning. In fact the manager's English was excellent and this made our negotiations and my decision much easier. I gave them my laundry and ordered lunch and paid for one day in advance, and by noon I was ready to relax and get a sense of the place, and stay for 2-5 days as my heart and its time beckoned.
After lunch I showered and then took a walk up the hard surface road for 20 minutes or so, and then back down by the dirt road (the native American sacred red road) that parallels the front road, and these two roads were the entire thickness of the town. The houses on both sides of the paved road were significantly better than the village shacks along the back road, but it was a quiet and pleasant town. There were only three small shops, and nothing else. That evening at 5 I walked across the street to sit on the bank thirty feet above the Mekong and watch the sun set. Below me women were taking their evening baths, as they also did each morning (twice a day), modestly keeping on a sarong while they washed themselves.
That evening the young woman who served me dinner sat at the front desk and watched me eat, and took my plates with a smile, and then when I had only half a glass of beer left, I started up a conversation with the manager, Yoi Soumpholphakdy. Yoi had just came here two weeks ago after spending three years as the manager of the Guest House on the island of Don Khong, still further down the Mekong. His English was excellent, partly as a result of living in Australia for 15 years, and he wanted to talk, and talk he did. He stood by my table the whole time and gestured with his hands. He told me about his friendship with Joe Cummings, who has written the Lonely Planet guide for Laos and therefore is a sort of a god here since his book is the Bible that steers the faithful to his selected hotels and restaurants. He also explained why he had to go to Australia in 1979 when he was 16. He had come from a rich family from Savannakhet and when the political winds blew against them, they fled, and his father died in exile. One of his brothers, a doctor, had been educated in France, and a sister and another brother in England.
He offered me some of the famous lao lao from the island of Don Khong. It is a clear schnapps, and it was really excellent. It is exceedingly smooth and has a wonderful lingering aftertaste. He says he and Joe made it famous, and it is in the book. He has a real respect for backpackers, who are young and trying to see the world before they work. He thinks that even though he never felt he belonged in Australia, that it was still an eye-opening experience for him. It allowed him to see that truth is multi-sided and needs to be thought through one individual at a time, and that this can only be done when viewpoints are openly challenged, though he asked me not to publish some of his remarks, especially those about his family and politics.
We talked about how much Laos is changing. It only has 4 ½ million people, and it has some natural wealth, and a lot of water, especially here in the south, and the next war, he says, will really be over water. He thinks Lao kids have been spoiled, and follow the images they see on TV, wearing the apparel of gangs for example, but he has a faith in how things are going. He himself can't drink the lao lao because he has an ulcer, which he developed in Australia. He talked about breaking up with his girlfriend there, and how stressed he was at his job, and how eventually he decided to come home and become a manager in this chain of three Inns owned by two of the owners of SODETOUR. He told a long complicated story to indicate that while he did not have a university education and therefore is the black sheep of the family, that nevertheless he has some natural abilities and he believes since he can think problems through, he could be a good inventor. For example on the night he and his girlfriend broke up he went to drink and play the slot machines, and he noticed that the wheels turned in different ways if you deposited 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 coins, and he wondered if there might be a pattern, and so he started playing different coin patterns, and he won a good deal, $200 and $400 at a time, while losing very little and eventually winning a check for $57,000. We talked until shortly after 8:30 when I called it quits, paid my 5,000 for dinner (which I somehow recorded twice, indicating that lao lao does double lots of things).
The next morning I rented a mountain bike from Yoi around 9:30 and headed on out down the paved road looking for the Khmer ruins that were 8 km away. The children here greet you, as they did in the mountain villages, and if the parents see you coming they encourage their children to wave and say "hello" in Lao, and so I spent a good deal of my cycling time riding with one hand and waving with the other.
The Khmer ruins of Wat Phu are singularly unimpressive from the postcards, and when you first see them from a distance they maintain that illusion, but as you begin to walk through them and ascend the steep hill along the wide cobblestone path that is covered by shaded trees, they get progressively more spectacular, step by step until in the stillness at the top among the small temples there, the whole is absolutely breath taking, with the more massive temples resting below in front of their hand made lakes.
There were only three other farangs there, my Australian nemesis and her French friend and another man who had joined them. The Australian still couldn't stop talking and she filled in all the spaces, but there is something admirable in her spirit and in her willingness to travel alone. She said the night they spent in the back of the bus until 5 a.m. was cold and noisy, and so maybe for my few dollars more I made the right decision after all. ("Good news, bad news.").
That afternoon I let the three of them descend first so that I would have the summit to myself for an hour of pure peace, though when I finally descended myself they were all still at the little restaurant out by the front gate. They were eating, and I ordered a beer and talked with them, once again waiting for them to leave so that I could have the view to myself. After they left I tried to pay attention to what was around me. There were people gathering rice, and an old woman kept moving her cows and her water buffalo and staking them out so that they could continue to graze on the stubbles of grass, and there was some quiet Lao music playing. The restaurant had no walls, and only a roof and so it was cool and open and quite pleasant, and I just sat there and read and relaxed, and "took my time," and then slowly cycled back. "hello-ing" my way home, and got back at 4:30, though the time seemed stretched into days in a pleasant way.
The next day I had arranged through Yoi to go by boat at 7 a.m. to Um Muang, a Khmer 6th century ruin further down the Mekong and on the other side and seldom visited by anyone. My boatman had one of those larger passenger ferries and he had brought along his three kids with him, all under the age of 6. It took us an hour to get to the village, and then he walked me to the site, which was also quite beautiful. These ruins were smaller and located in the forest right above a small stream that connects to the Mekong. I stayed for an hour or so looking it over and taking photographs, and then we returned. There was a different kind of peace here, and not just because of the absence of people. The surrounding forest made the time I spent in it more intimate, but it also lacked the grandeur of Wat Phu.
On my final day at Champasak I had arranged to be taken to the island of Don Deang in the middle of the Mekong just across from the Inn and be left there for the day. It is a long thin island, probably 8 miles long, with just a single path weaving along one coast, or near the coast. There are a number of small villages there, but mostly built along both sides of the small path, and not two or three paths deep. There are no cars, no shops, no motorcycles, no electricity. There were only a few TVs and radios. The people seem relaxed and typical for the Lao: shy and then warm. I'm not sure that the children had ever seen a foreigner before. Some smiled; a few said hello, and a couple fled in terror. But once when I was resting on a log two young girls, around 14, gathered up the courage to come talk to me. And more adults here would nod or say hello. There were a number of schools and so I passed a number of children early in the morning and then again around 2, walking and on their bikes.
There didn't seem to be any places to eat, but a number of small outdoor stalls sold drinks, and at one of these a man stopped me by speaking to me in English, and so I came over and sat down, and we quickly drew a crowd of his relatives, including his wife, and his neighbors. He was a French Lao, living near Leon, and works as a cab driver and by his own admission drinks too much. He seemed sober enough to me, though he was drinking lao lao before 10 a.m. He was a kind man, and the woman at the stall went and got some ice (God knows how or where) and gave me a glass of ice with hot water poured over it. We talked for a while, and after buying him a lao lao, somewhat to his wife's objections, I agreed to stop on my way back.
The path wanders along, mostly cool under the cover of trees, and people are always greeting you. I walked to the end, rested, turned around and went back. There are birds, and bamboo, and views of the Mekong. I stopped again at the stall. The man and his wife were taking a bath nearby and so I waited for them. He has been here for 8 months and leaves in 6 weeks or so to return to France. His daughter is married to a Lao who lives in Nashville. We talked some more and they set up a "cot" for us to sit on under his house and opposite the outdoor stall where it was cooler. Most of the Lao houses are built up on stilts, over 10-15 feet from the ground. While I was waiting for him I got out a tennis ball and played with some of the boys, and then gave it to one of them, and later I saw two other boys playing with it, and so it was nice to see them share.
Sitting under his house we gathered a crowd of some 30 children, and 20 adults, and most of them giggled and smiled when I took out my camera and wanted to take some pictures. One woman walked up smoking a cigarette. She was the first young woman that I had seen with a cigarette, and she was gregarious. She looked me over and told me, and everyone, how beautiful I was, and how she wanted to take me home. The crowd laughed wildly. The town drunk also put in a series of appearances, being lead away each time. And the "first man" of the village (or island?) showed up, and eventually I ordered a beer to be split between four of us: my host, the first man, an old woman who had asked me for a beer earlier, and myself. It was served with ice, since it was warm. But it was a nice moment, toasting to each other with everyone smiling and talking and laughing. A moment of time where the stranger is accepted and made welcome.
I showed them some photos of Joanne and my daughter Debbie and my grandsons, and we talked a bit more, and then I paid for the beer, gave a tennis ball to a young girl (seeking some gender equality in spite of the fact that I know it is often not wise), and left. Since I was back shortly before 3, I walked to a secluded sandy beach and stripped to my bathing suit and laid down on my sarong, only to have six people walk by me on their way to their boat, laughing at the white whale lying in the sun, since they do everything they can to avoid it. The boatman had dropped me off at a Wat, and so I went back to it and sat in a covered building at its edge waiting for him, and in spite of my fretting, he was right on time, though there was a brief shower right before he came.
Earlier Yoi asked me if I'd like a special Lao dish on my last evening there, and I told him, of course. It was fish chopped up and mixed with coconut and herbs and spices, rolled in a banana leaf and then steamed. You open it and put it on rice. As I told him, it was easily the best meal I had had in Laos, and he told me that it was a speciality of Don Khong and it was the first time he had tried to get his cook to prepare it, but she did a remarkable job. I had a beer with it and a coffee afterwards and by my Lao standards it was expensive (10,000) but it was more than worth it. After I paid my bill and thanked him for my stay here, he reached over and gave me a whole bottle of the Don Khong lao lao. I was unbelievably touched, but it was the perfect end to a simple day and to an absolutely exquisite time here.
That night I took a walk in the dark up the road to the Wat and went inside and bowed to the stupa, and walking back I thought that one of the great things traveling has taught me is to pay respect. That means to honestly say "thank you" as often as you can. It means to try to acknowledge each person's presence in your life which is difficult here because you look so strange and everyone wants to stop and look at you, and they are shy, and so you need to let them look, to smile at them without forcing them to look away, and say hello quietly. They need to hear a voice as they look at you. It makes you more human for them. And so constantly showing respect is a wonderful challenge. But these people are so fine, so generous and honest, that it is a delight to be a guest in their country, and to honestly be thankful you are.
The 8 hour bus from Paxse back up to Savannakhet was one of the old rickety affairs with open windows and the occasional curtain tied up that could be untied to block the sun when it bore down into you on your side, though this time the radio was softer. The seats are too close together for farangs and so your knees are always knuckled in under the seat in front of you if anyone ever sits next to you, and there is always someone next to you. However what is really unique abut the ride is that the road is dirt, or more accurately: dust, a dust often so unpleasantly thick that when a truck passes coming from the other direction the passengers near the back (where I was) can't see those near the front (where you pray the driver still is). In fact, when we arrived onto the hard surface road 2 kilometers out of Savannakhet everyone stood up and brushed themselves off, making yet another thick creamy cloud inside. But my 8 hours on this "I told you so" road ("told you so" because I had come down this exact road, albeit in the dark) was otherwise uneventful. We made the same kind of random stops to suck passengers in or disgorge them; to let the weaker bladders, mostly men, step off into the wayside bushes to relieve themselves; and to avoid the ubiquitous potholes.
At the bus station I got another tuk-tuk to the hotel I had selected from the Lonely Planet guide, which at 1,000 kip I guess I way overpaid judging by the comments, congratulations and laughter of the other drivers, but hey I told myself 60 cents for 3 km is 60 cents. Besides what was left of my dusty conscience simply decided that it just couldn't handle the world's currency problems after a ride like that.
I showered and then I showered and then I showered one more time and then I went out to look at the town and find the Mekong, and did both. They've actually done a nice job along the Mekong, opening up a long stretch of the bank as a public space. And the river is quite wide here, as wide as the Hudson as it runs past NYC. On the other side in Thailand there are skyscrapers with large neon lights on them, and on this side, small dingy shops with single neon bulbs and the ever present TV running inside, though the color and B&W reception seems worse here. I've seen a few farangs, but not many, and mostly women with nose rings. (That's an honest description and not a judgment).
I ate at a restaurant that I later found in the book. I had a Mekong fish and a bowl of steamed rice. Neither were particularly good, but I had taken a corner table by the wall so that I could look out the window, at a long slant, onto the Mekong, and I ate alone since there was no one else eating there but me, unless, of course, you could count the ants. My table was a Disney World for ants, and there were literally hundreds of them who joined me for my meal. I'd brush them aside onto the floor but that scattering only allowed them to spread the word. I felt like it was a kind of refugee attack on a UN storehouse. But hey, company is company.
Still Savannakhet seemed to me to be a pleasant place, and in spite of the run down industrial feeling, it seemed even more openly friendly than usual. A lot of the people, kids as well as adults, said "hello" in Lao, and returned my "hello" in return with a fetching and sometimes bewitching smile.
The next day I decided to slow down and wander aimlessly a bit in place rather than aimlessly from point to point as I had been doing. So I spent a relaxed day finding and sending postcards, buying a phone card for $10 so that I could phone some friends at home and give them the Guest House number to call me back on, and just trying to get a feel for the town. In the late afternoon I went down to one of the outdoor beer tables to drink a beer and watch the sun set over the Mekong. These tables are in groups of 3-5 with a couple of kids' plastic chairs at each and are always managed by women who sell a little food and a good deal of beer and some handmade snacks. Their whole business can be shut down shortly after dusk and carted away.
I watched some children fly kites over the river and then after dark I walked up to the outdoor phone to call my mother and use up the last of the phone card, in what turned out to be a wonderful comedy of errors. On the digital readout on the phone you can watch your units fly by in large chunks descending like an express elevator towards zero. I had already figured out that America was exactly 12 hours behind me and so 6 p.m. for me was 6 a.m. on the same day for my friends back at home who were fated still to live through a day whose time had already passed for me. My mother answered and recognized my voice but she wanted to put her hearing aid in so that we could talk and I was screaming "wait wait" because the elevator was rapidly approaching the ground floor and when she got back on all I had time to say was: "I'm in Laos; I'm fine; and the time on my card is up." And it was, even before I could say "bye."
So I listened to her laugh as the line went blank and then I wandered around looking for a restaurant. The one I had selected for myself earlier was full of locals, not an empty table anywhere, but at least that let me know that my intuitive taste was improving, and so I headed back down to the Mekong and walked out of town until I found a nice restaurant with a view of the Thai neon lights blinking on the far shore and had a relaxing meal to end a relaxing day. Back at the Guest House they had filled up the large parking lot with tables and 300 chairs and a platform stage for a local band in order to celebrate a couple's engagement party and when I arrived at 8 p.m. they were just concluding. I could watch everything from my upstairs screened in veranda and so I watched the band play and the couples dance at the end of their evening. The Lao themselves dance slowly, in couples, and often in a kind of square dance line, using their hands for movement rather than their feet or the lower half of their bodies and there is not, by our standards, a lot of outward energy and very little touching. But there is a grace and a beauty to it, and you could tell that they enjoy it.
Earlier, shortly after dusk, just after I had phoned my mother, two young boys had cycled by me, and the boy on the back of the bike had shouted out "what iS yoUR NAME?" And I was so shocked to hear his English that I didn't answer until, weaving and pedaling out into the dark he repeated his question, and I shouted out in reply: "ALLEN." And out of the dark I heard back, almost in an echoing voice, "AL-Len," "Al-len," "allen." As if somehow the dark here knew my name.
I encountered death five times during my brief time in Laos. The first was on the first of my two slow boats down the Mekong. We had put into a small village to let someone off and while we were there one of the crew purchased a chicken and as he carried it by me where I was flopped on the top deck, he stopped and let me look at it, face to face, clucking hen scratch to human voice. Then thirty minutes later when I was taking a walk to the back of the boat, there was the chicken again, outside on the upper deck next to the kitchen space below with his neck slit, and a slowly coagulating pool of blood in a dish, and the long knife resting on the cutting board next to his head. A still life on the water.
The second time was in Champasak. Late on my first afternoon there I had walked across the street to the banks of the Mekong to watch the sun set. The river itself meandered along fifty feet below me. I sat on an old uprooted tree and watched as a young man on a motorcycle pulled up to the house immediately to my left. He too was carrying a live chicken with its feet tied and he went into the kitchen in the back and then came out again, and while I watched the silent peacefulness of the boats on the river making their way home in the twilight, I could hear the axe fall with a single dull thud, and that sound rippled through me like a chill. "Dinner time."
Two nights later after Yoi's gifts and still in Champasak, I took a solitary walk to the temple, and on the way back at the end where a dirt side street met the red dirt road, there were a group of six or seven people gathered under a single bulb hanging from a wire in a tree, and when I got closer I could see that it was the butcher at work carving up a large water buffalo. The tarp the buffalo was on was covered in pools of blood and there were body parts everywhere.
My fourth and fifth encounters occurred in Sepone, at the end of my stay in Laos, and in fact my fifth experience was one of my final sights in Laos. Sepone is the small mountain village in Laos close to the Vietnamese border. It attracts few tourists since the road is poor, the single accommodation is even poorer, and it's a small border crossing. Right next to my hotel in Savannakhet there was a tour guide's office and when I went in to get some information about getting to Sepone he offered me a ride, for a price, since he had to travel out to the border to pick up some French tourists who were crossing over from Vietnam, but he was leaving too late in the day for me.
Still when he arrived in the evening, after I had been in Sepone for most of the day, I tried to hitch a ride in his van the 30 kilometers to the border the next morning, and once again for a price, he said it would be fine. That night I noticed that both the driver and the guide slept in the van when they realized that it was 3000 for a bed in the Guest House, but the next morning he was ready to go at 6 as he promised. However before we left he wanted a coffee in the market and so I went with him and we drank one together, and then as we were getting ready to leave there was a man at the edge of the market who had just sold what looked to me like a live racoon to another man. Its legs were tied and there was a rope around its head and yet it was still hissing and struggling for its life, and so before the man handed the racoon over he took a stick and beat it about the back of the head four or five times until it was semi conscious and quit struggling, and then he beat it again just to make sure. It was really painful for me to watch this animal struggle for its life, but the others standing around (including many women and children) seemed to find it natural. Still, it reminded me not only of our different sensibilities about death and violence, but it also forced me to remember that the Lao (like the Vietnamese) insist on killing every wild animal. You can see them constantly shooting the birds and squirrels with guns, or in the case of young boys with slingshots, and for the most part they are also often deliberately cruel to the dogs, kicking and throwing stones at them. But this death was a difficult one to watch, and it seemed less natural and more painful than the first three, though I guess if your time is up, it's up.
Still, I am a little ahead of myself as I head toward my fourth encounter with death, and so let me back up and get to Sepone first.
I had gotten up at 4 in Savannakhet in order to get to the bus station by 4:40 in order to be on the 5 a.m. bus that actually left at 5:20 and arrived in Sepone at 10:30. In some ways Sepone was the strangest town I was in or even passed through in Laos. It's in the mountains and except for the hard surface road passing through, it's just a series of dirt streets leading off into dirt bike paths, leading back in all directions into the hills. It feels like what a western frontier town must have felt like in the early 1800s. If you could put a frontier town in the jungle. Wood and thatch buildings, no street signs, little electricity, wells for water, dogs and cattle and chickens wandering about freely, and more people on foot than on bikes. As I discovered later from a Danish man who was visiting here and staying at the Guest House and who spoke Thai and Lao and was actually living just across the border in Thailand, it was a town that had been completely destroyed by the Americans during the Vietnam war. We did bomb it back into the stone age, and while the original village had had a single and unique ethnic complexion, after the war the population was ethnically very mixed and so only a few of its citizens are actually indigenous.
It was a little work finding the Guest House. The people here seem more reserved and less friendly and then too when you finally do find it there's no sign to indicate that you are in the right place. There's only a single small sheet of yellow paper attached to the wall giving instructions:
"Find Mrs. Khambo for the key and pay her 3,000 each for one night."
And finding Mrs. Khambo is also a little bewildering, since you have to find someone to find someone to get someone else to get on a motorbike to go find her and bring her back. But the rooms are all locked and so it has to be done and eventually, pushing my hand gestures to their limits I did it and I ended up in a large 12 bunk room with three others, since evidently the three other rooms are being occupied by some NGO's from Handicap International who are here clearing bombs from the war, since evidently there are a lot of them still lying about.
The house was on stilts and so of course the rooms were all upstairs, with a long open veranda along the front. It took me a while to stretch the small mosquito net across my single bed. I would pull one way and it would twist the other, as if it was playing with me. There was no electricity; only a drop toilet; and everyone showered out at the water pump in the open court yard. Two of my bunk mates had evidently gone off to the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was 20 km away toward the border. Across the dirt street was the police station and the officers there, at least 16 with another 10 watching, played volleyball all afternoon. When I got back from lunch I put on some socks and my sweatshirt since it was that chilly, and that was the first time I had made use of either of them.
There was the Danish man and two other farangs there, and eventually the four of us went to dinner together, after meeting in a random fashion throughout the afternoon. We were a strange bunch both collectively and individually. The Danish guy was 48 and retired; he said he was working on a phrase book, but it was hard to tell how important it was to him. He has a shack for a home up in the mountains someplace just across the Thai border, and he has a son who has married a Thai woman and lives back home. He has sworn off women, since he thinks they are all out to trap him in a marriage. "They are all whores looking for an easy life; they'll tell you they love you after fifteen minutes, and I try to tell them that's not what love is, but they won't listen." He still dominates the conversations for the most part, and while he enjoys speaking with people he also seems to enjoy the power of being a foreigner and the power that speaking the language affords him.
The second guy is from New Zealand. He arrived last night around 9 after hitching from Savannakhet, and he's carrying a surf board with him bound up in its special case. And you might want to consult a map to get a sense of how strange this must appear to the Lao and to the rest of us as well, but he says it was worse earlier when he was carrying three boards and he had to leave one behind for a while in Kuala Lumpur and the other got mangled on a local bus some place in Thailand. He's 22, and is part Maori and wears an ivory fish hook, and comes from the northwest coast of North Island, New Zealand. He has been on the road for 17 months, and like the Danish man he too can't stop talking. He is physically a bundle of energy and while he stands talking to you he waves his whole body as if he is surfing, swinging back and forth. But most of his stories are depressing.
Today for example he and the third guy, an architect from Australia who is traveling alone for 6 weeks after passing his Master's degree, went looking for the Ho Chi Minh trail, and it's interesting to hear their separate versions of the same story. The New Zealand guy tells it as a story about people who were constantly trying to scam him, while the Aussie tells it as a tale of linguistic misunderstandings. Basically they got a guide and a driver to take them the 20 km to the trail for 10,000, and when they got there the guide showed them a couple of tanks on the trail, and then he wanted 12,000 more to show them an airplane, and when they didn't want to pay that he explained that it was 10,000 each for their time, and rather than pay him what was for them the additional 10,000 somehow the guys gave up, paid 12,000, and hitched back to town.
At dinner the New Zealand guy told another story of being on the bus from Vientiane to Paxson (on the way to Savannakhet) when he had gotten 90,000 kip pinched from his bag, and a young woman he was talking with had her camera taken. Then, a couple of days later in Savannakhet they saw the camera in a shop, and the people there went with them to the police station which had one uniformed guy out front and a number of un-uniformed guys inside. They filled out a lot of papers, paid 15,000 and got her camera back, and it was only later that evening when they were talking to two other women who had, by chance, been to the police station that day, that they realized their station was a sham, and they had been scammed again. He has stories like this about every country.
But his temporary Aussie mate is the good news to his bad news and is basically grateful for his experiences, although he has been sick a little. For dinner he just wanted fried rice and when they also brought him a bowl of soup he spooned out all the vegetables and pieces of chicken one by one and then just drank the broth. Still, he was genuinely happy for the experiences he was having, although, he confessed, he was a bit homesick as well.
Before meeting these three gentlemen I had spent a pleasant day in Sepone. I had taken a walk out of the village down a jungle path and ended in a huge clearing with the largest school I had seen. It was five separate large buildings and no other village nearby, and in the evening I tried to use my facility for rudimentary and creative sign language to buy two cassette tapes of Lao music at the cassette stall in the market and succeeded in drawing a nice crowd that played charades with me, laughing at me all the while, but eventually I got the tapes I wanted. At lunch when I had first met the Danish man at the only restaurant that said "Restaurant," he was helping them create their first Lao/English menu and its 15 items were clear and impressive when he was done, with the possible exception of his having called "sliced beef and onions" "sliced ox and onions". And the woman who ran the restaurant (and throughout Southeast Asia it is almost always women who run the local food stalls and restaurants) wanted to fix us a special Lao dish for the evening, something with minced meat and vegetables, and she was ready for us at 6 when we returned, including making our two helpings feed four people.
But my lasting impression of Sepone has another source and comes from another time. Because twenty years ago the Americans really bombed this town. During the war the people lived in nearby caves, and all over town there are signs we were here. There are the countless craters and the blank walls of the bombed out and gutted buildings, and there are shell casings propped up like garden gnomes all around the town, one of them reading on its side in paint: "Here's death to you from the USA." And just recently, in the last few weeks the UXO people from Handicap International have collected over 70 bombs from this neighborhood alone, twenty years later and many of them still alive and dangerous. Then driving to the border the tourist guide pointed out a bomb 10 feet high resting upright by the side of the road, and he told me that when he was a student in Savannakhet during the war he could hear the sounds of the bombs falling day and night off in the distance.
The effect of all of this makes the people somewhat cold I think. Many of them, according to the Danish man, still have nightmares about the war. But there's also a sudden reserve about their faces as soon as they realize that I'm an American. This isn't true of the children, of course, who live in a different time empty of memory and who just seem to regard all foreigners as simply foreign and therefore interesting, but there seems to be a special memory of time here for many of the adults, as if the past has not completed itself, but is a living part of the present, as present and potent as the unexploded bombs the UXO people are collecting. This presence of a remembered time of death was my fourth experience of death in Laos, a county that otherwise is simply a country of life. For Laos was a wonderful experience for me, and in some ways being out here in this village was a good way to end the trip, and the easy ride to the border the next morning let me leave the country as I entered it, with enthusiasm, ease and joy, and most important of all, with a desire to come back into its time and embrace.
For both sides the border crossing must be a form of Siberia for wayward clerks. Laos let me out easily enough but Vietnam was a drip by drip methodical encounter with boredom. I filled out the forms they wanted and moved from office to office and eventually had to list my camera, computer, and radio as possessions, though I didn't have to tell them how much money I had, which was a question on the form, and actually they physically wanted to see those three items, but then 45 minutes after I had begun the last man waved me on through. Outside waiting was a young man with a motorbike who was willing to take me to Khe Sanh (some 19 km up the road) but he wanted $5 (in dong) and so I got him to take me to Lao Boa, 3 km up the road for 10,000 so that I could go to the bank, but of course there was no bank, just a crowd of people pressing around as I changed $50 for 55,000 dong on the street with one of the young women. Then I let him take me to the Guest House in Khe Sanh, and by 10:30 I was into my somewhat dingy and dark room, and had my cold shower.
I choose Khe Sanh because it was only 19 km across the border, and because it was supposed to be a pleasant mountain town, and I thought it would be an easy reach coming into Vietnam and give me a more daylight time to adjust to new faces, new customs and a new language. It was also an important Vietnam war base and I thought I might get a sense of that, and in fact back at the top of the Khmer ruin of Wat Phu in Champasak when I told the young Aussie woman I was going there she started singing a rock song about Khe Sanh and was joined by her two companions who completed it with her and then compared various versions by different artists.
But the real Khe Sanh is not a song. The base itself was closed during the war and bulldozed under. In fact later the Viet cong are said to have unearthed a usable bulldozer from the site. It was the site General Westmorland was trying to defend when the Viet cong crept around it and launched their Tet offensive which ultimately I suppose was the American version of Dien Ben Phu. But now there isn't much to the real town and it certainly isn't picturesque although the landscape around it is. Part of my impressions could be slanted because I had just come from Laos and because while I was there the weather was dreary, overcast, and chilly. I had planned to stay two days but I knew before I put my pack down that I would be heading out to Hue in the morning, praying for sunlight on the coast.
On first impression the people here seem to let you go by without staring, though a number of kids shouted "hello" to me, but there was something else unsettling about the town. It was a typical town: paved road through the middle, dirt streets everywhere else; small dirty shops, no streetlights; a few larger public buildings. In the afternoon I took a walk through the mud of the market and then up the hill to two cemeteries, one of which looks like a cemetery for the war dead. But, on the hill just above it the ground looks like it had been flattened and then carved into deep trenches, although the view from there over the mountains was extraordinary.
The Guest House in Khe Sanh, the Nha Hang, was a double story building in the shape of a "u" with the front side, along the street, missing and a large inner courtyard. The woman, who took my money gave me room A2, which as you face the Guest House from the street is the second room on the left. There wasn't anyone in A1, and in A3 there was an old woman and what appeared to be her grandson. These details are important, and so I hope you've got the picture so that this next story will make some sense, and then maybe some day you can tell me what it was for and while I feel compelled to put it into this article on Laotian time.
I went to bed shortly after listening to VOA at 8 and was awoken at midnight with loud shouts, the shattering sound of glass being broken in the window of the room next to my door, and the scatter of scurrying feet. My guess was that someone had thrown a rock through the window, and, ethnocentric as I am I wondered if it was intended for me since all day whenever people had asked me what county I was from, I told them "America."
I got out of bed, crawling out from under the mosquito net, but I didn't turn on the light or open the door. I still couldn't ascertain what was happening. The woman and the young man in A3 were screaming in Vietnamese, "Thief! Thief!" I suppose, and then there were just voices talking. Eventually I opened the door and looked outside, but there didn't seem to be much going on, and so I went back to bed. Then shortly after 1 there were two loud thuds across the courtyard as if someone had thrown something heavy against the side of the building, and a shadow moved down the outside corridor next to the window I was sleeping under, and there was what appeared to be the rustle of branches or brush being scattered by my door, and the sound of a liquid being poured and I decided that someone was trying to set my room on fire, and it was only then that I realized that there was no other exit. I was in a concrete box with bars on all the windows. So, I got up and got my mace and my small flashlight. I decided that I would at least face those there were trying to kill me, but when I opened the door there was no one there; at least not in front of me.
Out in the dark across the street there were five or six single lights moving, and shouts and two minutes later five men appeared out of the darkness into the dim lights of the courtyard, heading up to the reception area in the far corner. One of the men was in a police uniform, and like four of the others he carried a heavy wooden baton; the other, a young man in his early 20s was wearing a tench coat and was their prisoner. They took him into the reception room, and while three women who managed the Guest House stood outside the open door, they yelled at him and occasionally struck him with a baton. He seemed to me to be whimpering; he was certainly coughing, and he seemed drunk or drugged as he wandered aimlessly around the room. I went for a closer look, but no one seemed to acknowledge my presence. After a while the man in uniform, accompanied by the woman who ran the Guest House came over to my side to inspect the broken widow pane. It was then that I noticed how close it was to my door, and how from a distance it seemed to be my window. And there on the ground in front of our rooms were 4 large broken branches off the small trees in front of our rooms. The woman picked up a large wet towel from the ground and made a gesture towards the window indicating that this is how the man broke the window pane. The lights were dark in the room but I could see the two faces of the young man and his grandmother inside, watching as they sat, huddled, on the bed in the back corner. The policeman went back to his interrogation and his beating; the man continued to whimper and cough. The host rode away twice on his motorcycle and came back. I went to my room, and put my torch and mace under my pillow and in 15 minutes all was silent, though I can't say that I was asleep.
In the morning at 6 when I stepped outside my door the young man from next door was there, standing in the doorway, and I could see his grandmother's frightened face as she sat on the bed in the far corner. On the floor of the cement corridor directly in front of his window there were large stains of blood, but I had no way of knowing whose they were, and when I nodded "good morning" and tried to show my concern, he ignored me. All around outside was a thick fog and for the first time since I had left America I realized I was in a place I didn't want to be in. I couldn't make sense of the violence. It seemed pointless. I couldn't see how anyone's life had been made better by it or even what it was for. But it left behind scars, dried blood and fear, and in that morning's fog the fear was palpable to me.
I can't pretend I know how the Americans felt who had to defend their jungle base at Khe Sanh, or how the North Vietnamese felt who were attacking what they believed was a foreign disease in the body of their own country. I can't pretend to know what it must have felt like in April, 1975 to watch the Americans flee, and to watch the dominoes fall in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. I can't pretend that I know how the racoon felt or the people watching him die, or why the young man in the trench coat pointlessly broke a window pane, and branches off a small tree. In Laos and in Vietnam they are still collecting the bombs as they are the land mines in Cambodia. So, violence is close in Southeast Asia, as close as the next step or the fall of darkness, but until I crossed this border I had never felt that it was real, but in that morning's fog among those faces the deeper fear was that I didn't know what it was for, and I knew I never would.
I went back inside my room, shouldered my pack and walked out the door at 6:30 a.m. and started walking up the hill toward the bus station, when a bus came by and I got on, because they said to, and they scammed me before I could even sit down, and though I didn't know it then, in 5 hours I would be getting off another "bus" in Hue, stepping into the sunlight, and having my hand kissed because I had helped a drunk learn how to tell time, something, that when I stepped on that first bus, I knew I couldn't do.
Of the four countries (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia) I visited on this 90 day trip, Laos was certainly my favorite, though it is difficult to capture the particular quality of its enchantment. When Yoi stood by my table that first night in Champasak he said he thought that the Lao were not aware of their real value, which is an ability to know how to "take their time." You can see it, he said, when the tuk-tuk drivers wait for ½ an hour for a fare in front of a hotel rather than cruising the streets. You can see it in the women chatting in their small stalls waiting for a sale, or in the men who run the boats or the buses, as they wait for them to fill before they embark. Time is not a clock time for them, even if the end of the journey from Vientiane to Paxse is 18 hours away. Almost no one in Laos is in a hurry, he pointed out, while people in the rest of the Western world have to use the money they earn at stressful jobs, in order to buy time and come to places like Laos so that they can slow down. What good is lao lao if you can't drink it, he asked, and I think there is a deep truth in what he was seeing. The Lao know how to "take" time, while we have let time take us. We live in a world of clocks, while the Lao live across the border.
In a more personal way I learned to try to finish the moment I was in before I started the next one; I learned that it was important to put an empty space between moments, for it is this empty space that the Lao live in. For example, I would enter a shop looking for something I needed, say something simple like pipe tobacco, but at the same time I was also aware that it was nearly lunch time, and that I needed to get a bus schedule for the next day, and so after the owner told me she didn't have any tobacco and tried to explain to me what shop might have it, I would say "thank you" and be heading out the door when I'd realize that I hadn't really paused with my "thank you." So intent was I to get my tobacco and bus schedule before lunch that I hadn't looked her in the eye; I hadn't been able to linger and finish the moment she and I were sharing.
And then I realized that Harun was right. It wasn't enough to linger, but I needed to be prepared to suspend my search for my tobacco, for my lunch, to let the conversation drift, even to turn aside, to forget my goals. For so much of our lives, I realized, is an expectation of a moment that has not yet come: the weekend, a vacation, the anticipation of opening the mail box, glancing at the answering machine. We spend so much of our lives waiting for the future, forfeiting a present, a woman's smile in a shop, a man sitting on the bank of a river next to us. Or to put it another way, the Lao are masters at not showing up in the next moment where they are expected. They find it easy to step aside from a path they are on (to the tobacconist) and move to another path (having a beer with a stranger before breakfast). Today, tomorrow, the pipe tobacco, the lunch, the bus, the money, these do not matter. What matters is just now, just here, this smile, this moment, to be fully present in the present. To take delight in the unexpected.
So, the more I looked the more I saw how completely the Lao have (without knowing it) reversed our evaluation of time. They "take" time, while we allot it. We measure life by the tasks we complete, and the ones we have yet to complete. Life as a grocery list. Even my teaching is a series of allotted moments: 50 minutes for a class; an office hour; the meeting at 3:00 p.m.. Even my relationships are a series of allotted moments: the evenings set aside for dinner, the time to walk the dog, the time to call my mother. In fact, floating down the Mekong I couldn't find any moments of my time in America that I had not proportioned out in advance, and even when the unexpected happened, the flat tire, the telephone call from a forgotten friend, it got placed into the goal I was moving toward, or moving further way from. A lived eschatology.
Then I also realized how wonderfully the Lao have made themselves inaccessible to time, while in the last decade we have made ourselves more and more accessible. Now with our cell phones, faxes, e-mail and answering machines we live enmeshed in an insistent immediacy. We have allowed anyone to get to us at almost any moment, and almost everyone does. We have raised the speed limit on our lives. No wonder we are exhausted. For us, time itself is becoming the aggressor, and we are its victim, harassed by its demands, fearful that we cannot meet its transient obligations. We often live five minutes behind, in a fog, where time itself is becoming the enemy, sometimes even a violent enemy we can never see, nor contain, nor understand. We don't know how to take time, much less take time back. We don't even have time to set our sins down on the water; we cannot float free.
So letting the river carry me I wondered what it would be like to not show up in the next moment where you are expected (by yourself and by others). I wondered what it would be like on your way to work, to turn left at that corner instead of right, and drive to the end of the block and pull over. But now what? Because allotting time is insidious for us, and so parked at the unexpected corner, we will quickly develop another expectation for ourselves. We'll tell ourselves we're going to call in sick, take a free day, and then we'll go here and do this or that. But we aren't "taking" time when we do this; we aren't "telling" time. We are still looking at the clock, looking at what is expected of us. We have not found the empty space, that has no horizon, an old woman moving her cows in a field, the sound of water running through the rice paddies.
So, what I found on this trip is that I can travel to Vietnam and see the ancient Cham towers or travel to Cambodia and stand in the splendor of Angkor Wat, but no matter how splendid these edifices are, like the Parthenon and Machu Picchu, they are still ruins. Laos too has its ruins, its fair share of temples and Palaces and Wats, but the real attraction is just the people living their daily lives, for it is here that the Lao have created something truly unique and valuable. Will they lose it? Probably. Will they lose it the same way we lost leaving our doors unlocked, and perhaps for the same reasons? Probably. But does it exist? Absolutely. And while I believe that their attitude toward time will change as they become less and less isolated and more and more enamored by the gold that does glitter, still I feel privileged to have visited them at a time when their original edifices were not in ruins but lived in, with the shouts of children and the gentle hum of a bicycle as it passes, with the sound of a net dropping on the water, with the wave of a captain as he beckons me to join him for breakfast, or children chasing leaves under a Bodhi tree.
On my third morning in Champasak I went out at six o'clock to the bank of the Mekong and waited by the stone stairs for my boatman to take me across to the island. I thought we had agreed to meet at six, and I didn't want to keep him waiting. But he was not there. Another younger boy was, and although we didn't have a language to share between us, still I could tell he had a small boat and was willing to take me where I wanted to go. And then at 6:30 another older man showed up in a small boat and offered to take me across, but I said "no" and tried to explain with my hand gestures that I was waiting for my boatman with the large boat. After a while the young boatman left with a fare, and the older man and I sat there, without speaking, watching the sun rise over the river, while I watched the clock tick, and a little after 7 I told myself that it was time to go back across the road and tell Yoi that my boatman had never arrived and that I was going to try to make other arrangements.
So I got up and walked across the road and to my surprise the old man followed me, 30 steps behind. I found Yoi sitting on the front veranda, taking his time, and after I explained my predicament, as he listened patiently, waiting for me to finish, he called out to the old man standing at the edge of the lawn, and they exchanged a few words, and Yoi told me: "This is your boatman. The other man couldn't make it and so he sent this man to take you. You can go with him." And as I took my walk that day, I thought a lot about that half hour he and I had spent in silence together. Why hadn't he been more forceful? Why wasn't he worried about wasting his time? Why didn't he just leave me after I rejected his third offer to take me across? And I realized that Yoi was right; the Lao really know how to "take" time. They don't measure it by money gained or money lost. They step out of time, because every thing they really love about life takes place there, in the present, not worrying about being late, or anxious about missing the bus, or fretting about finding that pouch of tobacco. They are not waiting in time as we would wait, because waiting for us implies that this moment is less important than the moment that is coming, while for them there is no moment better than this moment. For them, time is not the enemy; it is a friend. Thirteen to nine
In my last night in Sepone, my last night in Laos I had a dream. In it Don Billiar was talking to me with a peaceful quiet intensity. Don was a former member and chair of the English department at the college, and at one point President of the Faculty. He was a distinguished man, almost an English don in his temperament and tone and in his wry sense of humor. He died perhaps 10 years ago of what I suspect was AIDS though because of his sense of propriety and privacy he never said. His friend, partner and our mutual colleague Ted Vaughn was there with him at the end in the hospital and then a year or so later Ted also died of AIDS.
In my dream Don was patiently trying to explain to me that when it comes time to die I should concentrate on the Chinese character for "wholeness." He was adamant about this and kept quietly repeating it to me, over and over, as if teaching me a phrase in another language. "Focus on the character; be present with it as you die. This is very important."
That morning in the van on the way to the Vietnam border the dream came back to me, and as I watched it repeat itself I simultaneously thought what an interesting idea it was, to physically look at that Chinese character at your moment of death, to recognize that somehow it is death that makes life whole, that the world beyond the end of time is connected to time in a larger whole of which we are both part and process, and that if the Lao are right and emptiness is a place of genuine joy, then death too can be an emptiness which makes our allotted time, whole. Time can be an enemy or a friend or even a slide, down into the Mekong, a river, a color of brown that runs clear through your fingers when you lift it from below, something, that carries everything anywhere and always, without end.