Like every beautiful, alcoholic and verdant landlocked country, Laos is a strange and delightful place. All the more so since it’s still half-heartedly Communist while supplying every aspiring French café with bootleg, week-old editions of Le Figaro. In Southeast Asia one must take paradoxes (or merely oddities) with more than a dash of salt. Preferably an espresso or lukewarm beer – something to give another portly morning that extra oomph.
I came to Laos expecting (to see) what many foreigners do: a gaggle of lazy-eyed prostitutes fending off gap-year Brits with opium-laced rafters stitched to their pasty bottoms. Being low season, I was pleasantly surprised when this was not the case. Of course, a multitude of other stock-made images immediately come to mind: Tony Poe, Colonel Kurtz and a dashing Catherine Deneuve all trading horses amidst a backdrop of (now) scooter-donning Hmong chieftains. Again our hopes were dashed. Rather, we’d stumbled upon a disjointed, mountainous kingdom of fog, buttered corn on the cob, colonial nostalgia, fresh-baked croissants and creaking retrograde fans. A land where shivers of a selectively forgotten past stoke the embers of an uncertain future.
Entering the country is not dissimilar to entering El Salvador from Guatemala – or so I’m guessing. After a rocky and sleepless 11-hour ride in which you’ve exhausted both Elliot Smith and Chopin, at sunrise you arrive at a roadside diner overlooking a mighty, murky, mirthless river to fill out immigration forms in order to cross to the other side. As Apollo snorts into the haze, the elements bumble a jig somewhere between fog and drizzle, that curious state you reach on a humid hike at around 2,500 ft. anywhere north of the 50th parallel. Short squat men in faded camo sit around sipping Lipton, sporting arms of questionable efficacy and eyeing the cutish Belgian girl in the corner. A knockoff Red and two flaming cups of instant coffee later and the viscous air verges upon refreshing.
The river, of course, is the mighty Mekong, fabled giant of every colonial imagination from Burmese and Han to Frog, Yank and beyond. On the receding side, the delightfully placid, slow walking, curry-munching Thais, content to scream Tuk-Tuk at random intervals between bouts of staring at the sun. On the other side, mystical Laotians, mountain recluse and hilltop folk of Fabien fantasy, calm and welcoming, chipper and cherub-like – as evidenced in their currency if nothing else. Depending on the hour, they may subscribe to your creed or simply chuckle and light another Qionghua. As you may have surmised, they are by and large a delightful people.
Beyond the border our first port of entry was Vientiane, the country’s disproportionately underwhelming capital (a jaunt to Bangkok, Yangon or even Jefferson City will attest to this). While I wasn’t necessarily expecting expansive slums and Stalinist stadiums of post-1970s sultanic standards, the 2-3 mildly templish government blocks that line the main boulevard were hardly enough to conjure the feel of éminence bureaucratique, much less justify the 50-odd UNDP-plated SUVs permanently stationed out front – but that, I suppose, is a matter for the American taxpayer, not I.
A quick 10-minute walk around town reveals an odd combination of cheaply built but freshly painted temples, newly constructed if poorly designed guesthouses, crumbling souvenir shops and a generous smattering of chic French cafés. Indeed, Vientiane has a higher per capita of establishments pushing La vache qui rit than anywhere south of 14th street – or west of the English Channel for that matter. (Even the street carts stock it).
Though the mildly cosmopolitan bent is impressive, it is also bizarre; whereas in Hong Kong – or Tokyo, Peoria or Sacramento – we usually socially (self) segregate the profitable from the charitable, the civil servant from the banker, the preacher from the lawyer, the bougie expat from the moderately privileged backpacker/sex tourist/average-Joe-I’m-45-and-teach-in-a-Thai-village pervert – but we do not in Vientiane. Whether you’re there to irrigate rivers, convert the hill tribes, find gold or simply fool around with 15-year olds, chances are you’re having your pain au chocolat in the same establishment as the a) well-meaning NGO girl from Maine b) less well-meaning if not malicious lonely older drunk from Texas and c) aspiring Greco-French restaurateur Skype-dictating in the corner. Which I suppose says more about size than moral quality of a city, but still.
My first night in town I was accosted both to and from dinner. It was drizzling again so I swiped the collapsing green umbrella from the guesthouse and stole off toward the village center, a 5-7 minute walk from the crumbling corner mansion I was staying in north of town. Chancing upon the first boulevard, I hear the screeching of tires and a rapidly advancing jeer: “Ahhhhh! Meeeesta! You wann dees? I know you wann dees! Don’t play me fool!” An admittedly not unattractive – if still intimidating – creature of the night had pulled up alongside me in a souped-up scooter, wearing nothing but jean shorts and a black bra. Though creeping along at 5mph, she managed to rev the engine every 10 feet or so. It was 8:15pm and raining on a Tuesday night. “What you way-ding for?! Get on the bike, stoopid boy!” I nervously chuckled and ran across the street, dashing between a Tuk-Tuk and a 4x4 for cover. I turned back to see if she was still there, as Moses might the Egyptians (…I could think of no better analogy): there she was, circling in her scooter, screaming epithets and feigning anger.
When I left the restaurant 45 minutes later she was waiting around the corner. She kicked the engine into full gear as I made for the boulevard. I took the first alleyway and jogged toward my guesthouse. A number of other gangly adolescent girls now emerged from several doorways, stilettos and skirt to boot. The scooter dame lost interest when reached the doorway and made my way inside.
In the lobby I met a friendly older Texan with a very strong lisp. He was drunk and very affectionate toward his local companion, a short, squat maiden no more than a decade younger; it was refreshing to see a Westerner with someone more than half his age. Though he’d been negotiating the cost of what wasn’t meant to be a ‘love-chamber’ for several minutes, he was still of a cheery disposition (and still would have been without the spirits from what I could tell). Chancing upon him upstairs an hour later, I rhetorically asked him how he was doing. “Living the dream!” he beamed, without an ounce of irony. Whatever the circumstances, there was something simple and sweet about his candor.
Upstairs I grabbed a bottle of beer settled down to read Hobsbawn. The alcoholic Frenchmen I’d met earlier that day reemerged to ask the time. Or the year, I cannot recall. If he had reeked of booze at 3 in the afternoon, the odor had crystallized into a sad, hard stench by 9pm. Having given him the hour, he asked about the internet connection – or perhaps it was the baseball score; he was clearly keen on making a new companion at whatever the cost. Since he could barely muster a sentence in English, I poured him a glass of beer and asked about his curious ‘Vancouver’ accent, his acclaimed place of residency.
He too had now been wandering Thailand for the past ten years, living off the proceeds of a healthy inheritance and popping over to Laos when it suited him. In another life he’d been a polytechnicien tax attorney – or so the story goes – but had bought out the firm he worked for the moment the hereditament came in the post. After transferring to the firm’s PR wing for a few years – bright lights, big guts and boozy dinners – he threw in the towel and made for the East. A mostly friendly character, by this point he could barely put a sentence together in English or in French. When I asked if he wanted another cup of beer, he disappeared into his room and came back with a clear unmarked bottle of something much stronger.
We stayed up late smoking too many cigarettes. I should have escaped with my book, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to savor the cliché: the second floor veranda of a crumbling colonial mansion on a rainy night with a weather-beaten, washed-up frog from a storied French family; the prodigal son who at least appeared to have reached middle age – though in all likelihood couldn’t be older than 35. When I came back with another bottle of Laos beer, a creature of the night emerged from around the corner, smiled, and disappeared around the bend as quickly as she had appeared. Caught off guard, we each began to wonder if our hotel had more secrets than the ‘book’ – that dastardly Lonely Planet! – had advertised. My retired companion chuckled and began to reminisce about his own new momentary friend from the previous evening.
Ten minutes later another whore came around the bend. This time we couldn’t contain our bemusement: just what was happening a matter of feet from our bedroom door? The old house, a labyrinth of sinking corridors and fading portraits, was clearly home to more than croissant- and café-seeking goons. I looked up and confusedly smiled as the second lady of the night sauntered past. She smiled, kissed her two fingers and pressed them to my forehead before disappearing, like the other, around the corner and into the night.