Halcyon Days of Vientiane

Randy Johnson


Copyright © 1976, 1996-2013, Randy R. Johnson, all rights reserved

Laos is just a state of mind. It is a quiet, inexpressible mood that I can always recall when I long for an escape from the rat's maze of modern life. Laos has been called a fairy-tale kingdom, a blissful throwback, a naive backwater country victimized by a war it cannot understand. In its brief months of interim peace, it was for me a sleepy Shangri-la.

Once in Laos, time drifts by leisurely; hours meaningless, days merging into Life. The Laotians are a quiet easy-going people, dancing through a rugged existence at a snail's pace -- doing nothing, leaving nothing undone. Yet only brief crossings of the murky Mekong separate Laos from the coarser world of Reality. Once across the river, a tightly packed 'taxi' would eventually transport you from the sleepy border station at Tha Dua toward sprawling Vientiane, the City of Sandalwood, modern capital of Laos. Along the way, lush farmlands spread across the plain, where peasant farmers -- 80% of Laos' population -- leisurely tended their fields.

My girlfriend Jean and I arrived in Vientiane on a rainy Saturday evening in the late summer of 1974. We had bolstered our wits as usual, to meet the perils of this strange new capital. But by nightfall, the city of 200,000 lay in a shimmering coma; a few cars splashed by, and few people ventured to navigate the inundated streets on foot. Several simulated clubs pretended to rage on into the night, while the avenues hung empty in the steady drizzle.

The war was over -- for a while at least -- and gone for good were the CIA mercenaries and Air America pilots who used to take on the town. Over in the storied Constellation Hotel, the bar was empty, the lounge and restaurant deserted.

We took a room in the less fashionable Lido -- a stark room befitting the ancient bordello that it is -- a creaky old wooden structure with dilapidated plumbing, and tenants to match. Our room opened onto a porticoed walkway on the third floor. We were rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a pounding at the door and a girl's desperate voice.

"Let me in! Hurry, open the door!"
"Who are you?" I stammered, bolting from bed in a general panic.
"Hurry, please let me in," she pleaded.
"What do you want? Who are you?"
"I have to talk to you. I'm a friend of John -- open the door!"
"I don't know anyone named John. I don't know anyone in Laos!"

More pointless dialogue ensued -- cautious on my part, frantic on hers -- until I demanded to know why I should let her into our room.

"Because I have a gun, and I'll shoot if you don't open the door!"
It was certainly a reason to reckon with -- but not for long.
"I'm still not going to let you in."

I stood my ground, pressed tightly against the wall, and scared. Then, after an interminable pause, she walked away, followed closely by a second set of footsteps.

With that alarming introduction to Laos, and with the bedbugs, sleep was difficult to come by that night. The next morning we moved out to a small rooming house near That Dam, the large grungy-black stupa which is said to cover a sleeping dragon. If the dragon could sleep, perhaps we could too. A national law had recently been passed making opium illegal, and a hotel sign reflected this new austerity: "No Opium Smoking in Lobby"

Vientiane was the old French colonial capital. Most of the French had gone (officially), yet much of the French remained. Old French villas still looked out through shuttered windows on wonderful little French restaurants, and French bread was as common as rice. Chinese, Indian, and Laotian merchants loitered in their shops, chatting with friends over the latest political gossip. There was none of the hustling, no hawking of wares so common in much of Asia.

Wandering through the capital, we soon fell victim to what the French came to call the "malaise Laotian," a lethargy characterized by lolling about in cafes and bars all day. It seemed to have claimed the majority of the locals and foreigners alike.

All of the remaining foreign correspondents lived at the Constellation and were to be found there most mornings, breakfasting late at the bar. The Café de la Paix, sporting a voluminous menu of gourmet French cuisine, was another popular post for watching life drift by; as was the local 'hippie haven', Chè Perrot. We passed more than one pleasant evening in an excellent little Vietnamese cafe on a secluded side street. The proprietor spoke French and served up some marvelous Vietnamese spring rolls, replete with forest greens.

Next door was the notorious White Rose Cafe, a blaring night spot which must be seen to be appreciated. Although I doubt whether, once inside, anyone has actually seen much of anything. The total absence of lighting not only saved on power, but on costumes and partitions as well.  There was not actually anything (or service) that you could not be served while in a booth at the White Rose, and only a very little less right there at the bar.

The chaotic open-air Morning Market was a great place to get lost, its vast area a jungle of food, goods, and people. Several mornings we had breakfast at the Indian food stalls there. After chapatti and Milo, we spent the morning rubbing elbows with the Laotian women buying food for the day, and the hill people stocking up for the week.

Here were the Meo tribes people selling their characteristic dark, hand woven material. There were Indians with bolts of voile and silk, Vietnamese stalls covered with black silk and Chinaware, and Laotian cloth with silver and gold brocade. Beside huge clumps of fresh dried tobacco sat equally huge clumps of marijuana, and ready-rolled joints at a penny apiece.

Here also were Nepali merchants offering exotic gold and silver jewelry from Nepal, Tibet, India, and Cambodia. Like everyone else, they would gladly change your dollars into Lao kip, at the inflated black market rate of 1100 to the dollar. But "black market" was merely a figure of speech here, since legality was mostly a matter of convenience, and only the bank would insult you with the "official" rate of 600.

Across from the market is the Communist Pathet Lao compound. Well barricaded and guarded then, it had a nice large vegetable garden inside. The Pathet Lao troops -- very young men in Chinese caps and baggy trousers -- were often seen browsing in the market or wandering along the streets. In those halcyon days, some of them wore the green arm bands of the 'Coalition Army' and patrolled side by side with government regulars. Such anomalies became the commonplace when peace broke out, however briefly, in Laos.

Even the sights of Vientiane have the bizarre charm of Laotian incongruity. The Monument to the Dead -- Patuxai -- a garish mockery of the Arc de Triomphe, straddles a traffic circle (leading nowhere) at the end of the Avenue Lan Xang, named for the original Lao 'Kingdom of a Million Elephants'. It is appropriately festooned with not quite a million elephants and other cement atrocities. Also known locally as the "vertical runway", it was constructed of concrete donated by the U.S. to expand the air strip at Wattay Airport.

With a little research, we managed to locate one of Laos' lesser known cultural treasures in a small Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Vientiane. Some years ago, one of the local priests was commissioned to paint a mural around the interior of its modest Buddha Hall, depicting the epic tale of Phra-Lak, Phra-Lam, the Lao version of the classic Ramayana.

Their means were meager, but their spirit was strong. And so, in the Lao fashion, they made happy use of what they had. Small matter that the priest could not draw, let alone paint -- house paint was brought over from Thailand and the task was realized through months of devoted effort.

When we finally tracked down the temple, we were chagrined to find the Buddha Hall padlocked and no one in sight. I wandered into the monks' quarters where I found several of the younger boys in saffron robes. They were lounging on bamboo cots, amid a scattering of their few belongings: photographs, notebooks, comic books, and cigarette packs. One of them spoke some English and indicated that the priest who held the key was teaching a class and would not be free for well over an hour.

Later however, as we stood before the hall pondering whether or not to wait, three of the boys came scurrying up, carrying the key they had borrowed for us. They giggled openly as we removed our shoes outside, and then watched us closely as we pored over the masterpiece inside.

The mural consists of about 35 separate scenes, each seemingly wrought by the hand of a child -- so simple and inaptly done. There is no perspective at all, and it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the horses from the cows and monkeys. The story proceeds clockwise around the room in three rows. However, the good priest was a bit shaky on the story line, and the pictures were sometimes out of sequence, obliging us to skip around the room in order to follow the epic plot.

Yet it must have been a tedious task, even for the accumulation of religious merit. As an afterthought, he embellished one scene with several large and colorful butterflies. Following this lead, on the very last scene depicting Phra-Lam's (Rama's) army returning triumphantly home, in the sky above, one of the artist's helpers has rendered a large bi-plane to keep watch over them.

All in all, the mural would have been a rather laughable sight had we not already passed into that fantasy world of Laotian perception where life is appreciated as it is, and not compared to what it might have been. It is an enchanting mural, the honest expression of the old Lao priest. His spirit and his humanity are felt within the room much more than if he had painted an artistic masterwork. His was a work of love and peace, emotions you can feel when viewing his simple pictures, no less than when talking with young Lao monks or standing in a sacred Buddha Hall.

Outside, we had a chance to talk again with the young novices. They were shy at first, but their curiosity soon overcame them and they set upon us with questions. One of the boys set out on an animated monologue concerning the mural which delighted us no end, although we couldn't comprehend a phrase of his broken French-Lao-English. But it didn't really matter, they were a joy to be with. Their simple virtuous life brings them a pure look of quiet innocence. In the midst of a hard life, love and serenity are theirs without striving.

We left the boys behind, as we eventually left Laos behind, on a slow boat across the swirling brown Mekong. From the opposite shore, Laos appears only as a dense green jungle, keeping its simple secrets within.


1976: Things have changed now in Laos and the little boats no longer come and go across the Mekong as they once did. The merchants and foreigners have gone from the bars and the bazaars of Vientiane. Perhaps even the Nepalis have packed up, and the White Rose shut down. Perhaps life is a little less exciting in Vientiane today -- but the warmth and charm of Laos and its people surely remain, unaffected, as they have been for centuries.

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Copyright © 1976, 1996-2013, Randy R. Johnson, all rights reserved