Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Finding the River

At sunset yesterday, I rode my rented bike down a long dusty road along a bluff above the sand bar that last October was the mighty Mekong River. Now it has shrunk during the dry season to a trickle that can barely be seen from Vientiane, the tiny capital of Laos. But at the end of the road, beside the aptly named Sunset Bar, I managed to catch a glimpse of the river in the distance. I have been entranced by the Mekong since the days of the Vietnam war when its name conjured up exotic mysteries and distant adventures. Now I am here beside it, and an amusement park is being set up on the river bank, dominated by signs advertising Pepsi and Beer Lao, for the New Year's celebration next weekend.

It was the fitting end to an intense day. My sole purpose for coming here this trip was to obtain a new visa for Thailand. I'm never very happy in the presence of bureaucracy, particularly if it controls my future, and my nerves were on edge as I rode my bike up to the consulate a half hour before the 8:30 opening. A few hundred people had beaten me to it. Outside the gate, a crowd of vendors sold visa forms and even filled them out, for a price. Although I'd brought a book to read, this was difficult while standing mostly in the hot sun for nearly two hours. So I watched the fascinating crowd. Behind me a trio from Morocco were chatting in French. Standing nearby was a tall Lao ladyboy with green fingernails and jangly gold jewelry. She was talking in a deep voice with a small Lao girl. A western man in a wheel chair on the sidelines watched the line move slowly. Two monks in orange robes stood by. An older Indian woman grabbed shade where she could while her son held her place. When I reached the outdoor shed, where processing took place, one of the two fans was working. I'd been advised to dress conservatively so I wore long pants, a blue short-sleeved shirt, and even socks with my shoes. It was a wasted effort, as the two over-worked consulate clerks barely saw me over the counter. I asked for a double-entry visa, two 60-day stays (each with 30-day extensions), and was told to go inside the main building and pay 2000 baht. More waiting inside a tiny room listening for my name to be called. I paid up and got a receipt for the visa which I will pick up this afternoon on my way to the airport and the flight back to Bangkok.

Vientiane is a comfortable place to wait. Yesterday I had a a lovely salad with a chicken sandwich for lunch at the Sticky Fingers Café, and beef and mushroom croquettes for dinner at YuLala, a tiny restaurant around the corner from my hotel that features Asian fusion cuisine with jazz on the PA system. And for dessert, I got a plate of sticky rice and mango, drenched in coconut sauce, at the Full Moon Café. Afterwards, I strolled through the amusement zone and watched Laotians at play. Every night seems to be a holiday. At a minimart, after fending off a few children looking for money (there are relatively few beggars here), I bought treats to nibble on while watching movies on my laptop back at the hotel. It's an easy and uncomplicated life and my retirement funds would certainly go even farther here than in Thailand. I seem to require less excitement and few diversions these days. I read less, walk alot, and watch more movies and TV. There are signs advertising jobs for native English speakers. But could I be happy here, away from my new friends in Bangkok, and Pim?

Communication with Pim has been relatively easy. If I stand on the bank of the Mekong, in sight of Thailand across on the other shore where my mobile phone service is located, it's possible to send and receive calls and messages. And each of us has a laptop with a web cam, so we can chat on MSN Messenger while looking at each other. One of these days, they'll develop the technology to include sound, and then we'll be in a Dick Tracy universe (except that his device was on the wrist). This is one of the reasons I chose the Chanthapanya Hotel, because of its free wirless. But the reception is dodgy and it's often a struggle to open web pages. Next visit I'll take a pool over the internet.

When it's relatively cool (think Fresno in the summer), I ride my bike. I soon found that the one-way signs mean little to two-wheeled traffic. In addition to cafés, the city contains some wonderful Buddhist architecture. This Buddha is at Wat Si Saket, the city's oldest temple (the rest were destroyed by vindictive Siamese during the many regional wars). Built in the 19th century by Chao Anou, a Laotian prince installed by Siam (his rebellion caused much of the destruction), the wat includes thousands of small niches in the cloister walls which contain silver and ceramic Buddha images like these seen here. It was closed during my previous visit, but this time I got to join a group of French tourists who were viewing the ancient inner sanctum where walls are crumbling and wood is decaying. At the eastern end of the city, I found Wat Si Muang which is the site of the city pillar, home to the guardian spirit of Vientiane. The hall was full for an early evening ceremony of some sort which involved lots of string, generally used to make symbolic connections (it's more animist than Buddhist, though it is hard to tell the difference). Across the street were some strange floral offerings, looking a little like the kratongs that Thais float on the river. Perhaps they will be used for the New Year's festivities. After the wat, I turned toward the river to ride past the huge Don Chan Palace, Vientiane's most luxurious hotel. It was build for the 2004 Asean conference on an island believed to be the home of a powerful naga, the sea beasts that patrol the Mekong.

I am more convinced than ever that Southeast Asia culture has a unity that is falsified by the artificial borders that separate Thai from Lao and Khmer (and the other ethnic groups). Laos is the smallest of the political groupings, its seven million landlocked people just beginning to rise out of poverty. There are no railroads, most of the roads are unpaved, and nearly 80 percent of the people work in agriculture. I have been told that more Lao live in Thailand than in their own country, mostly in Isan. Pim, like most of the Isan women I've met, speaks both Thai and Lao. Laotian women wear a distinctive dress called a phaa sin, ankle-length with a distinctive pattern at the bottom. But the men wear pants. Like Thais, the Lao love to eat and there are hundreds of small stalls along the roads with charcoal braziers cooking delicious smelling street food. These observations are superficial, I know, but with more time and study I hope I can begin to understand the commonalities of the people leaving in this corner of the earth south of China, east of India and north of Australia. I also hope to see more of it.

1 comment:

Marcus said...

Hi Will,

You'll love this - especially the photograph!

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/15/world/asia/15laos.html?_r=1&oref=slogin