In Vientiane, a lull before the storm

Our correspondent enjoys a drowsy detour in the Lao capital before preparing to take over as second mate on the Mik Sip.

Published July 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When explorer Francis Garnier arrived in Vientiane in 1866, he was amazed by the extent to which the city, which had been pillaged and razed by the Thais just a few decades earlier, had already reverted to jungle. He wrote, "The absolute silence which reigned in the enclosure of a city that formerly was so populous and so wealthy astonished us."

One hundred thirty-three years later, the silence that astonished Garnier has not entirely gone. Walking through the Lao capital, one gets the feeling that if the government one day decided to relocate the entire population to Coconut Grove, Fla., Vientiane would revert to dust and vines in a matter of weeks. In no other Asian capital is a traveler more likely to share a sidewalk with a water buffalo, fall into an open sewer within view of the Presidential Palace or get a quiet night's sleep.

But while I was in the drowsy Laotian capital, I once again encountered a set of obstacles that halted my progress and threw my Mekong travels into uncertainty.

By far the biggest obstacle was that, for various reasons, Robert and Chris had to leave Laos and Vientiane was the ideal place to do that. This posed a grave problem for me, since we had yet to navigate the dreaded Khemmarat rapids below Savannakhet -- and I knew just enough about driving the Mik Sip to kill myself and everyone onboard in a very inefficient and undignified manner.

Each night during our Vientiane layover, I would meet with Robert and Chris over dinner to propose and discuss different options for extending our Mekong travels. As is perhaps natural with people who have been living on a boat, we were so taken with the novelty of civilization that we really didn't care which civilization it was. On various nights, we convened for Pizza Reine at La Provengal restaurant, mint curry and lassi at the Taj restaurant and bacon double-cheeseburgers at a place called Uncle Fred's Country Chicken.

In the daytime, I cruised the city for 30 cents a day on a decrepit, undersized, one-speed "Hare Sport" -- the kind of bicycle a person rents from his guesthouse only when there are no options. I spent hours rattling my way over Vientiane's dusty, rock-strewn streets.

Everything in Vientiane, it seems, is either under construction or falling apart. When I first arrived, I was pleased to discover that my visit coincided with the Tet holiday; unfortunately, the celebration was hampered by the fact that all the streets in Chinatown had been torn out for repaving. I visited the monstrous concrete Victory Arch (nicknamed the "Vertical Runway" because it was built with cement donated by the United States in 1969 for airport construction), only to find it partially closed off because the upper viewing decks -- which from the inside resembled a condemned YMCA handball court -- were beginning to crumble.

By far the liveliest place in Vientiane was the morning market, where amid crowded stalls offering Lao weavings, gold jewelry, Ray-Bans, shampoo, fake Nike apparel and Vietnamese sugar cookies, scores of middle-aged ladies prowled the aisles with bags full of Lao currency, accosting foreigners and offering to exchange for dollars at 50 percent better than the bank rate. When I asked one lady if she accepted traveler's checks, she said, "Yes, but only if you write down the same name as the one on the check." Needless to say, she didn't ask for my passport.

By contrast, the women working at the government bookstore on Setthathirath Avenue were literally asleep behind the counter when I arrived, and seemed confused when I wanted to buy something. Communist-themed comic books lined the bookstore's back wall, and copies of the hopelessly non-controversial Vientiane Times (sample front-page headline: "Non-aligned movement adopts stance on global issues") sat stacked by the front door. On the glassed-in display shelves -- just across from the Marx, Lenin and Kaysone Phomivane posters -- sat new English-language titles like "Markets and Development" and "Entrepreneurship": evidence that the current leaders of Laos are beginning to allow the inevitable.

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Historically, Lao leaders have had a knack for acting more out of impulse or bravado than calculated common sense. In 1550, for instance, King Potisararat was crushed to death while attempting to impress a group of visiting ambassadors with his elephant-lassoing skills. In 1817, a pagan priest named Ai-Sa briefly seized the southern royal palace at Champassak through his fearsome power to create fire; when it was later discovered that he'd merely been using a magnifying glass, he was run out of town.

But perhaps the most well-known story of Lao derring-do dates back to 1478, when the governor of Kenetha captured a rare white elephant and gave it to King Chaiya. Impressed by news of this rare find, the emperor of Vietnam dispatched a delegation to ask for a few tail hairs from the sacred beast. The Lao king's son, who didn't care much for the Vietnamese, sent the delegates home with a box full of the elephant's feces. War ensued. Luang Prabang was sacked.

By comparison, today's communist leadership, with its gradual concessions to tourism and open markets, seems downright dull. But perhaps this is because, after a few hundred years of being dominated by the interests of either Thailand, China, France, the United States or Vietnam, the leaders of Laos want to choose a more deliberate, self-determined path for their country.

Efforts at development in Laos have been slow at best. Construction is set to begin this summer on a nine-mile railroad link to Vientiane from Nong Khai, Thailand. Once this project is completed, Laos will have increased its total number of rail miles built this century to a whopping 12. Also on the docket this year is the expansion of Dansavanh Resort and Casino north of Vientiane. According to a somewhat telling Bangkok Post interview with resort developers, attractions at the Dansavanh will include parasailing, karaoke and "not getting malaria."

Not surprisingly, the Mekong and its tributaries are the biggest weapons in Laos' economic arsenal. According to "What and How to do Business in the Lao PDR" (one of my purchases from the sleepy ladies at the government bookstore), the biggest development potential in Laos lies in hydroelectricity. River-generated electricity is already Laos' No. 1 export; sources estimate that the Lao Mekong basin could one day generate electricity equivalent to the energy in 1 million barrels of oil a day. Optimists have nicknamed Laos the "hydroelectric Kuwait" of southeast Asia, an ironic moniker for a country where most villages don't have electric power and old-fashioned flame-torches are still sold in the markets of the capital. To date, no dams (and only one bridge) have been built on the Laotian Mekong itself, but plans to construct a reservoir 12 miles upriver from Vientiane have been on the table since the 1960s.

If constructed, this dam would alter the commerce, agriculture and ecology of the Mekong in a manner unparalleled in its history.

After five days of maneuvering in Vientiane, Chris had successfully extended his visa and talked his friend Terry into joining the crew; Robert had convinced his girlfriend Sarah to forgo their Thailand beach rendezvous and meet up with us in Laos; and I had purchased a share in the Mik Sip with the intention of learning how to drive it and taking over when everyone else had left. Within 12 hours of Sarah's arrival at the airport, we were back on the river.

Downstream from Vientiane, the Mekong widened to the size of a New England lake, its current slow and muddy. Even near the capital, every inch of dry-season alluvial soil was planted with vegetables. In some places, the alluvium had broken away from the riverbank, leaving dozens of tiny, tomato- or corn-covered islands standing forlornly out in the brown current. On the shore, Lao schoolchildren on their lunch break shucked their uniforms and swam in the shallows; others raced down the grassy riverbank on makeshift sleds fashioned from cardboard boxes. At the edges of the sandbars, thousands of tiny brown frogs jittered like popcorn whenever we splashed ashore.

Since I was now part owner of the boat (and would have to fill Robert's place in seven days to somehow assist Chris through the Khemmarat rapids), I gradually began to learn how to pilot the Mik Sip. The more I drove the long teakwood boat, the more I came to realize what kind of dangers the journey would present.

From a passenger's perspective, the Mik Sip had seemed to glide through the river without much effort. But once I took my place behind the engine, I realized that our peeling, yellow-painted boat was anything but a precision machine. The rudder, for instance, had been fashioned from a flattened coffee can and was held in the prop-wash by a spacer made from a rubber flip-flop sandal. The throttle lever had long since broken off and had been replaced with a creatively lashed triangular file. The tip of the drive shaft was stripped of its threading, and the propeller was held in place with twisted wire. The bail was a creatively scissored oil jug, and the depth-sounder was a bamboo pole.

Fortunately, the 300-mile stretch of river above Savannakhet was wide, slow and sandy -- a perfect beginner's course.

With easy waters and a lively five-person crew, our transit downriver came to resemble a blissful, goal-less elementary school summer vacation. During the day, those who weren't driving would chat or read or doze in the front of the boat. In the evenings we would set up camp on a sandbar, cook tremendous dinners and share stories or tell jokes over the campfire.

Though we slept in the sand, we dined like kings: steamed green beans and baby corn in butter; potatoes baked with garlic, garnished with crushed red peppers; French bread with cream cheese and tuna; roast chicken with sticky rice and soy sauce; pumpkin, carrot and potato stew thickened with ramen noodles; fresh cucumbers, onions and tomatoes, diced up along with hard-boiled eggs and seasoned with lime and vinegar; papayas, bananas, lamoot, watermelon and mandarin oranges for dessert. One morning, Robert gill-netted four fish and cooked them for breakfast. Each night, Terry mixed us "Mekong-and-Mekhong" cocktails, made from boiled river water and the eponymous Thai whiskey.

We came to enjoy our simple lifestyle so much that we weren't even that demoralized when Lao soldiers showed up at our beach camp to roust us out of bed at gunpoint on three consecutive nights.

Terry, an Alaskan firefighter who slept through the entire gunpoint drama the first night, ultimately figured out that the best way to deal with the soldiers was to feign utter cluelessness. Whereas I spent 15 minutes the first night earnestly trying to explain our largely unexplainable situation with a tourist phrasebook, Terry simplified our dilemma the following two nights by patiently smiling, scratching his head and babbling a steady stream of Grandpa Simpson nonsense to the soldiers. Apparently equating stupidity with harmlessness, the shore patrol left within five minutes -- laughing derisively -- both times.

Apart from the soldiers and the odd Lao fisherman who showed up at our campsite out of curiosity, we didn't mix much with the locals during that stretch of river. The lone exception came when we stopped to drop off our garbage and fill up our gas cans at the city of Paksan. There, the proprietors of a riverside tavern (who, incidentally, wasted little time in hurling our carefully accumulated garbage into the river) directed us to the local Buddhist fund-raising carnival.

Unlike, say, a Southern Baptist fund-raising carnival, the Paksan Buddhist fest was a rollicking, drunken affair. Old women aggressively hawked chicken-on-a-stick in the street while old men squatted and sipped rice whiskey in the shadows. Married couples swilled beer at the courtyard tables, while younger couples danced atop a wooden stage to Lao pop tunes (which, after three weeks in the country, still sounded to my ears like an oil drum full of mynah birds being slowly tortured to death, to a synthesized backbeat).

By far the most enthusiastic participants at the festival were the children, who followed us around in packs, shoved candy into their mouths until their chins turned orange and ran screaming from one gaming stand to another. At one booth, a dozen 10-year-olds crowded around a kiddie craps table, placing 100-kip (2-cent) bets onto a grid featuring cartoon fish, crabs and shrimp. When Sarah squatted in their midst and won five consecutive pots by betting on the crab, the children stared at her in reverent amazement.

After we left Paksan, we took the Mik Sip on a spontaneously conceived three-day excursion up the Kading River -- a canyon-girded Mekong tributary where the birds roared in their canopy hideouts, the water buffalo fornicated shamelessly on the shore and shafts of sunlight pierced the bottle-green water down to clean sand bottoms.

By the time we had returned to the Mekong, Robert, Sarah and Terry were due elsewhere. The itinerant trio caught a bus back to Vientiane at Kading Village -- leaving Chris and me to navigate the remaining stretch to the Cambodian border, Khemmarat rapids and all, by ourselves.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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