Walkabout

Vientiane

My ticket to Vientiane was still good and I decided to use it. I felt drawn to but distant from the youth all around me, come across the world to laze about happily and chase each other through the warm nights. They talked about their countries with each other, exploring each other’s worlds. They talked about how it would never be the same after this. They fell into brief and passionate spells of love and there was nothing to restrain them. Above all, I could see they felt close to each other. I had my maps and miles ahead and I still felt bound to the road. In the late afternoon, amidst a lazy vegetable market and the three-wheeled tuk-tuks and motorcycle shacks, the bus pulled into Vientiane.

It was a dusty ramshackle place where the buildings were slapped together with wood and concrete, and chickens and dogs ran through the urban yards. I couldn’t believe it was a capital, but it made sense in a country where every Springfield and Fairview was made up of thatched huts.

Vientiane seemed like a city of invasions. Each influx of new ideas or dominating force had taken root, been abandoned and then seeped into the landscape like a petrified forest of foreign artifacts, left behind from aborted physical and ideological conquests of the little country and preserved amidst the city’s quiet markets and streets. The preservation was not deliberate; it was a will neither to preserve nor to destroy. You could see the history of the country just by walking through the streets. I passed crumbling stone stupas that spouted moss and vines and had been turned into traffic islands. The Buddhist wats were enormous and ornate and teemed with saffron robed monks carrying books and rushing around the grounds. Down on the embassy row, I found the wide palm lined boulevards and colonial mansions that the French had built.

The embassies dominated Vientiane. They were sprawling, gated compounds, lined by palms; bigger and more formidable than anything the Lao had built, and military in their architecture when you compared them to the artful temples. Fruit vendors hauled their tottering carts alongside the few commercial banks. There was an occasional communist concrete box building and a few Nokia signs lit intersections, blinking on and off in the dust shrouded evening. Along the Mekong, couples sat out on an esplanade eating fried fish and drinking beer as the sun went down. Chinese dump trucks rumbled through the city along the river.

I went up the staircase of Patuxay, the monument in the midst of the main embassy boulevard that was built as a memorial to independence from the French. Strangely, it looked quite a bit like the Arc de Triomphe, but adorned with the jagged spires and eaves of a Buddhist stupa. The Lao still drank coffee at breakfast and ate baguettes. In the tower, white paint flaked off the high stone ceiling. Mold grew in patches and the names of lovers were carved all over the walls. “J’ai’teme Claire. We will marry soon. Jason and María Lovers Leap, May 2005 10:40 a.m.” There were innumerable names in Lao. A few spikes of rebar jutted from the ceiling. The iron window bars were bent into a praying Buddha and through them I watched the streets of Vientiane. I could see the whole city from there. It looked like a massive park with clusters of buildings in it, a forest, with no edifice higher than the highest palms. Golden spires of the wats jutted through the leaves all the way to the Mekong, beyond which were low savannah trees, flat under a wide sky. If the city were abandoned the next day, it looked as though the forests would take it back immediately. What history would you imagine in an abandoned city of elaborate temples, colonial mansions, concrete block buildings, fallen-in cellphone shops and fortress like compounds with dozens of inscrutable flags? I recalled a friend who said that if the world truly collapsed, the peasants would be the ones who would know how to survive, and for whom the least would change. There seemed to be something of this at the heart of Laos. I was struck by the way that families leaned out of the windows of the old French mansions in Luang Prabang. The paint was fading and chipped and the roofs were in disrepair. It seemed that once the French were gone, the people just moved in without much ado, and if the buildings came down, they would move back out. García Márquez wrote that it is not a home until someone was buried under the ground. I had seen no graveyards in Laos, and of everywhere I’d ever been from village to capital city, this was the country in which man had taken more modest roots than I’d ever seen. It was a Buddhist country, through and through.

I rode along the city night and within ten minutes in any direction I wound up in grassy fields and rice paddies. The city seemed like an accidental conglomeration of embassies and government buildings and modest commerce, brought together more because of the international structure of the world than by the will of its inhabitants. In the grassy parts that were neither suburbia nor countryside, men repaired broken down buses by floodlight and children walked along the dirt paths followed by trotting dogs.

I had run out of books again and went though the city looking into every bookshop I could find. Five different bookshops yielded mostly horror fiction, strange French paperbacks about outer space and classics that I’d already thoroughly read. I found a book of Singapore ghost stories but they were all formulaic and revealed nothing about the city. I looked through some children’s books of Lao folktales. They were all about betrayal, deception and greed. There was always tragedy followed by swift retribution.

I finally found a little bookshop owned by a Brit in his sixties who I found playing chess against himself. “This way, I’m not offended if I lose,” he said.

His name was Rob and he’d grown up in Malaysia and Thailand, raised by diplomats. He spoke Lao, Thai, Malay and Indonesian, though he’d worked at one point in Vietnam and could get by with that. He’d lived in Singapore where he’d known Paul Theroux and though I pressed him for details he told me only that, “I saw Paul at all the parties back then. It was a small community. Wild parties, you know, marijuana and girls. We were young.” He smiled about it but I couldn’t get anything out of him. He eventually became the British ambassador to Laos, and after the British consulate packed up and left, he decided to stay. “I’ve had a great deal of solitude here,” he said. “Intellectual solitude. As ambassador, I’d go out to all the parties and meet the Lao officials—they were just bureaucrats in a social service. They stay with it for thirty years and they rise in it. You can’t blame them if they’re not bright. With Lao friends you go out, eat, drink, tell a few jokes and that’s it. There’s not any discussion of things, but why would they complain? Singapore is the most comfortable place for that, but I don’t like to go back to places that I enjoy. I lived for years in Chiang Mai on a mountainside. Little houses and palms. Now it’s all Nokia, Canon, all the chains with their bright lights. I can’t find the house anymore. I can’t even find my daughter’s school, or anybody I knew back then. I’m sure you’ve seen how the whole region is modernizing obsessively. In Singapore, even in the shacks they’re surrounded by electronic equipment. The laborers are in there fiddling around with TVs and radios. I could talk to my Thai friends, but when we began discussing things—philosophies, why to build a refugee camp or something like that—they ceased being Thai. They became American or European.”

I bought a copy of The Old Patagonian Express which I’d already read once before. We said goodbye and Rob walked out the door with me. My bicycle was lying on its side on the ground. “It will be a lovely journey you have ahead of you,” he said. “Look at that bicycle, it almost looks human, lying there on the ground by itself.”

I rode along the town looking for some food and wound up at a restaurant on the Mekong. The outdoor tables were all full except for one where a blonde fellow my age was seated alone with a pack of long, black menthol cigarettes and a lighter stacked neatly in front of him. His blonde hair was combed back and he had bright green eyes. He sat with his hands folded. I asked if he minded sharing a table. “Not at all,” he said.

His name was Christoph, a twenty-two-year-old Austrian who had just spent six months in Singapore studying business at the university there. “I don’t want the eighty hour work week life,” he said. “I’m going to work in a bank specializing in Eastern Europe. Don’t get me wrong, I want to make money. I just don’t want to hand over my life to it. The people that get stuck in business don’t know what to do with themselves. They wind up making some choices and don’t know what hit them twenty years later, you know? In Singapore, you go into a business lecture and the first thing the professor says is, ‘I drive a Mercedes and my wife drives a BMW. Here’s how you can get there too. Everyone listens. They may get over it someday, but not in this generation. The students all have little computers and the boys’ backgrounds are cars and watches. The girls have some vacation spot with a five-star hotel or something to do with fashion. I can’t imagine the narrow-mindedness. They gawk at Ferraris in the street. Just gawk. Grades are the most important things for a hire, you see, so they spend one hundred hours per week in the library. It’s always crowded and you can barely find a seat. The Wharton kids couldn’t believe it. So then what? You have kids, pay for school, etc. But it’s all social pressure. You look at how fast these places are growing. But what’s behind it all, psychologically?” An American journalist that I’d met in Vang Vieng stopped by our table to say hello. Christoph had opened up a map and looked confounded. “There are too many places to go,” he muttered. The journalist was twenty-six but haughty.

“You have no idea how privileged that sounds,” she said.

I thanked her for her insights. Christoph and I shook hands and said goodnight and I rode back through the dimly light streets along the wats.

My passport was at the Vietnamese consulate and in the morning I would pick it up with my new visa in it and begin the long ride through the mountains, down to the Ho Chi Minh trail and into Vietnam. I found a guesthouse that night with a few rickety bunks full of foreigners who lay back under the ceiling fans and smoked and stared. The proprietors were watching television in Russian and I talked to them for a while. I hadn’t spoken Russian in months, and the last time was with a fellow named Yuri who wound up in the back of a truck I was riding in across Tibet. I had just come out from under a tarp amidst the cheese wheels and mattresses, having hidden from the People’s Liberation Army at a checkpoint. We had been equally startled by each other. The Lao family had been sent to Moscow by their communist government in the ’70s to learn the language. The Soviet Union fell. Their skills were obsolete and they opened a guesthouse in Vientiane. But they watched the Russian news every night. They were a surly couple and didn’t want to say much to me. They kept glancing back at the television images of corruption trials and oil deals in the place where they had lived so far away.

The next morning I went to the Vietnamese consulate and was greeted by a pleasant fellow in spectacles who handed me my passport from behind a barred teller’s window. The consulate had posters of fishermen in conical hats and some words about the “famous fish sauce of Vietnam!” I checked my new visa. It had the red communist insignia and a gold star above an arc of golden wheat. “Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” it said. There were a few red stamps. The date of entry was January 31st. My Lao visa expired on the 30th. “What about this?” I said, “The date is no good.”

“It is no problem,” he said. “You stay in Laos on the 30th and go to Vietnam on the 31st.” This didn’t seem so airtight, but I wanted to get moving and decided it didn’t bother me too much for now.

Riding out of Vientiane was strange. I followed a stream of motorbikes down the long paved road and knew that there was nothing ahead of me now. There were no further destinations, no towns ahead of me of note. I would wind up in the mountains alone, perhaps staying in villages, maybe sleeping outside. I still had weeks ahead of me and felt a vague sense of loneliness having entered and departed the biggest city in the land and having found nothing but a series of ramshackle buildings and forbidding consulates, the quiet jocular Lao, tending mindfully to their way of life. On the way out I stopped at a bank and changed $100, which would be enough to get me to Vietnam. Inside the bank, the air conditioning breathed in a heavy constant stream and some tellers stood in white shirts and ties, looking like the development posters that hung above them on the walls. A shriveled old woman came in and reached up to the counter, pushing a large pile of bills in front of the man for deposit. Vendors walked around with sandwich-signs of wristwatches, knives, binoculars, and pens all slung on strings and crisscrossing their bodies. Out in the streets, a pack of dogs trotted by as if on a mission. I rode out until the road split away from Vientiane. The last kilometers were repair shops and government buildings whose architecture was an incongruous concoction of the governments that the Lao had known—red, sloping colonial roofs stuffed down over a windowless concrete block. There were food stalls and baguette stands on the back of motorcycles; men lay with their children on mats in the shade of the bikes. I had no idea where I was going at all.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.