Saturday, August 07, 2010

On Attempting to Return to Vientiane

Three days ago I returned, after five years, to Vientiane. Or, rather, I attempted to return. It was the same street certainly, Th Fa Ngum. But on the right side, where there used to be a long row of noodle shops, guesthouses and locally owned businesses, there are now espresso bars, handbag shops, convenience marts, and at least two places for TexMex.

On the left side there used to be a river.

I guess it’s back there somewhere, though you can’t see it from the road anymore. The river has moved away.

Five years ago I wrote an essay about Vientiane. A charming period piece, it turns out, about a city that no longer exists. Like the colorful narratives of 19th century British India, scholars may wish to read my essay, to imagine what Vientiane was like, in faraway 2005. A place where dogs could sleep in the street without coming to harm. I waxed rapturous about eating morning glories in the green strip alongside the river. There is no river now and no green, but there are still little places to get morning glories, sandwiched between the street and a parking lot.

Walking down Th Fa Ngum I find myself suffused with disapproval, sneering at my fellow travelers, fully half of whom are engrossed in the worship of their chosen form of technology: laptop, iPad, palm pilot, hypno-phone.

I am an insufferable snob.

I must take care not to become intoxicated, lest I ask someone, “Why can’t you just drink cappuccino, eat TexMex, surf the Web, and stay home?” One punch from one of these sturdy European boys would lay me flat. They are very sturdy these boys, gym-toned, ornamentally rugged. They’re absolutely dreamy.

These tanned and stubbly, dusty and hunky white boys are too gorgeous to resent for long. One look from them and I am ready to throw up my hands. Oh, what the hell -- colonize me too! Merge me with your vast foreign conglomerate!


Jacob, painter and wanderer, sits on the patio at the Mixay Paradise Hotel, gathers his long yellow-gray beard into an elastic, and says, The Mekong doesn’t pull me anymore. It is too diminished. But the sky above the Mekong – it is magnificent! It is as if, with China cutting off the flow, the Mekong has moved its drama to the sky!


It does not appear any restoration has been done at Wat Si Saket since I was here last. However, I did find some repairs underway. Green tin sheets cover the roof of the wat and workmen clamber over a few nailed-together boards. My tally: nine workmen, one pair of sneakers, eight pairs of flip-flops, one helmet. The workmen are cheerful and welcoming: they grin at me and shout down from the roof.

I stop waving to them. I don’t want them to wave. I want them to hold on with both hands.

Wat Si Saket is the oldest wat in Vientiane. Despite appearing run-down, it is beautiful and atmospheric. There is no attendant, not even in the central sanctuary. Many of the niches are missing their Buddha images. There is no one to sweep the floor.

Wat Si Saket was built in 1818, its oldest buddhas date from the 15th century. Ideally, this wat would receive as much attention as the new Chinese-run guesthouse where I stay, where the floors are always immaculate, despite the steady traffic of backpackers here in rainy season. At my excellent guesthouse there are never fewer than eight staff people present to ensure that one does not nick an extra packet of Nescafe.

Ideally the restoration of Wat Si Saket would be done with the same level of care and expertise granted to espresso bars on the riverfront.

The foreman holds his ledger over his head to keep from being hit by falling tiles. It’s a good idea – one smashes just a few feet from me. Immediately I begin to twist the ethical arithmetic: if one of these old tiles hits me – can I keep it?


At the bar, just shy of 1am, a Danish entrepreneur explains his business plan to me. He would like to provide steady work for the disabled. In telemarketing. In telemarketing you need a really thick skin. The first few weeks can be really rough. People are nasty. It’s ideal work for the disabled – people are nasty to them already. They’re used to it. Telemarketing is just more of the same. Gives them a chance to support themselves. Also it is ideal because disabled people don’t have any other options.


Of course Vientiane has not really been spoiled, it has only sprouted a barnacle, a carbuncle, a wart, or hemorrhoid of profitable nonsense.

What a snob! Do I expect the youth of the world to suffer properly, with no luxuries permitted beyond an occasional banana pancake? Do the hard working employees of NGOs not deserve their Belgian beers? Do I disapprove also of antibiotics, of aero planes? Do I think that it is good to be inconvenienced?

I guess I am suspicious. I live in Tokyo after all. Therefore I know it is possible to be convenienced clear to death.


All right, full disclosure. I do not mean to excuse my action, only to unburden myself, and to maintain a level of honesty with my audience.

I went to the TexMex restaurant. Which I criticized previously. In my opinion, a TexMex restaurant in Vientiane is not a business that merits patronage. However, I myself patronized it. And, in defense of those patrons, at no point did I see anyone order food. It’s a beer joint basically, with lots of working girls. Only one reprobate actually went so far as to order food – myself.

You see, I have a weakness – Cousin Isabel might call it an obsession -- for TexMex. Even, or especially, bad TexMex. I have eaten some of the very worst TexMex on Earth. In places like Tokyo, Thailand, or Quebec – places for which TexMex was never meant. Ask my husband for verification. I have dragged him to these places. (My husband: pause to contemplate the suffering of this person.)

The nachos were only deep-fried disks of white flour. Nonetheless, I enjoyed them. The guacamole was avocado, garlic, lemon – also very much enjoyed.

I ought to have been eating vegetable noodle soup, or laap with sticky rice. Instead I was eating TexMex. Please understand: my father is in the process of selling the family’s most beautiful orchard. I was acting out.

I do not intend in any way to excuse my action.

As I sat drinking BeerLao, contemplating the demolition of my nachos and the farm, in fact as I was writing this confession, a dark shape hurtled beneath my table, jack-knifed across the patio of the TexMex bar: a crippled man.

A cripple myself, I am a student of cripples, and never have I seen a man crawl with such agility and speed, despite his two useless twisted feet. He slithered across the floor, over a moped and onto his makeshift wheelchair. He circled the block once and, as he passed the bar again, he let out a loud fierce maniacal cackle, which caused the TexMex patrons to all look up -- and then smile nervously at each other.

Avenging fury -- he seemed as much a spirit as a man.


That night, no matter how many times I woke up, I returned always to the same dream. To the same hotel. A vast and luxurious hotel, large enough to serve, almost, as its own world. A perfectly convincing British pub occupied one floor and on another there was a sushi bar. There was a Thai place, and a Swedish place: authentic meatballs, loganberries. There was a place for golf and a place for sex and a place for video games. The hotel was so large there was even space for riding horses!

The elite, such as myself, spent their lives at this hotel. It was immense and offered so many environments, no many luxuries, so many eating experiences.

This was a very good thing – because the world outside the hotel was terrible, and getting worse all the time. Outside the hotel was a wasteland at war, where the poor lived out their lives in terror and hunger. Where the poor lived with ever-increasing anger.

Meanwhile I lived in the luxury hotel, moving from one floor to the other, sliding down the bannisters, considering myself both adventurous and sophisticated. Still, there was always the fear of the world outside. I’d been there several times -- never for more than a few minutes. A terrifying place.

Anyway, now was the time to enjoy the hotel. I ought to immerse myself in it now, while I had the chance. The hotel could only last so long. The world outside was increasingly desperate. The outside wanted in.

1 comment:

moonknee said...

This is an amazing essay. I love it.