The first time I left Laos I took a sampan across the Mekong river. It was early morning. Air and water were still. I cradled a tiny silver ring in my hand, given to me by an old Meo woman. I knew I would return.
This January, after my second visit, I left by air. As the prop plane became airborne and banked, I could see the roofs of wats gleaming below, like jewels in the surrounding forested hills. We banked again and I lost sight of Luang Prabang. I looked down at my wrists encircled by twenty-four white silk strands. Each one a blessing, knotted at a sunset Buddhist prayer ceremony. Once again I carried away from Laos a small but poignant gift. Again I vowed to return.
The first time I visited Laos it was on a whim. “If you like Nepal you will like Laos!” tossed out a fellow traveler in Burma. It was November. I had left San Francisco in July, traveled from London to Nepal by bus. Continuing my journey east, I was on a tightly restricted three-day visa in Burma. The Vietnam war was raging but in Laos there was a ceasefire. I would get that stamp depicting three elephants in my passport – land of a million elephants – and see something of the tiny land-locked kingdom for myself.
I cannot remember what I thought Vientiane, the capital, would be like. Maybe I did not anticipate. In any case it would have been a waste of time. Dusty, run-down, faded, French colonial flavor with a strange eeriness were superficial impressions. I found my guidebook-recommended hotel. It too seemed odd. It, like everything else at the time in Vientiane, was not what it seemed.
The hotel was a brothel. I was told by two girls I met at dinner. They invited me to stay with them. I accepted. They were working for the US government, helping feed the rural Laotians. Their work was classified with, I later discovered, direct computer links with Udon 52 bomber base in Thailand. Rice drops? We had dinner with a 30-something American who said he had made so much money hauling gravel up the Mekong that he was shortly to retire on his 80 ft yacht. Gravel? In the center of town was a huge monument called Monument des Mortes. A copy of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it was built with US aid money and US cement earmarked for a new airport. For the Laotians? It was known as the vertical runway. Further down the Mekong at Savannakhet I was told there was a railway station with no connecting railroad lines. Nothing was as it seemed.
The communist Pathet Lao barracks were at one end of town. A grim building with grim looking inhabitants. I decided to walk along by the Mekong to sort my thoughts. I was approached by a soldier who energetically gestured with his machine gun for me to move away from the river. I happily complied – they had a trigger-happy reputation. Instead I would get some more currency. That was available in the dress boutique in the main hotel – well the best rate was.
At night I went with my new friends to Spot, the place for expats. The entertainment, dancing and atmosphere were frenetic. It was a place to forget the present while champagne corks popped. Belting out Rolling Stones – sometimes singing standing on his head (!) was Bernard. He was the best entertainment in Vientaine. Burmese I was told. Escaped via remote jungle paths and crossed the border into Laos. And so the asssortment of helicopter pilots, green berets, CIA agents and those masquerading as something they were not, danced with a passion, on the edge of crazy, as if there was no tomorrow. One night during a rare slow moment John Denver’s Country Roads played “take me home to the place I belong…” My two friends suddenly had tears pouring down their cheeks. They were from Virginia. Who knew when they would return. Who knew about tomorrow for many who were at Spot that night, or for Laos? The girls were still serious when curfew warning came at 12:50. Spot emptied in moments. Everyone climbed into cars or waiting taxis. By 1:00 Vientiane was silent.
I had wanted to visit Luang Prabang on that first visit but it was out of bounds then. So at last a long cherished wish was accomplished. I fingered the silk strands on my wrists. They had been placed there after a day traveling on the Mekong to the Pac Ou caves, three hours upstream from Luang Prabang. This time I was able to enjoy the river. There were fishermen, women guiding long narrow boats and naked children swimming from sandbars. We stopped for tea, and sat looking at the river from a bluff high above the water which the late afternoon sun washed golden. It was still. This time it was peaceful.
The knotted silk strands are now tied with a satin bow. They are a tangible memory of a deeply moving ceremony which followed a peaceful picturesque day. Blessings, they will keep me safe I was assured. I hope they do. Until I return to Laos once more.
Note: 2 million tons of bombs were dropped over Laos between 1964 and 1973. 30% failed to detonate. They are being cleared, but at the current rate it may take 100 years to make the country completely safe.