When you walk towards the Mekong from central Vientiane at night you eventually cross Setthathirath Road, the last street before Fa Ngoum Road that runs along the river front. The river, the beautiful river, which the Lao claim that if you watch for long enough you will see the bodies of all your enemies drift by. I’ve seen the Mekong at Chiang Saen, at Loung Prabang, at Vientiane, at Nong Kai, at Phnom Penh and finally at the Delta, last resting place of many Americans and more Vietnamese, and it has never failed to call to me. My woman, hopefully the last of many, knows that my ashes go into the Mekong.
When you come to Setthathirath Road a newcomer to the city can turn right or left if wandering aimlessly; to most it will make little difference, to the left you will come across a popular outdoor restaurant, usually filled with backpackers, NGO workers, expats and the laughing Lao girls that prey upon them. If, like me, you turn to the right and continue towards what passes for the main street you pass a dimly lit bar, and through the window a young woman can usually be seen serving bottles of Beer Lao to a few customers. If, like me, your marriage is in tatters and the young woman has black hair to her waist and cheeky dark eyes your life can change forever. That can be the difference between a left and right turn on Setthathirath Road.
I had met an American teacher from Taiwan on the train from Bangkok to Nong Kai, a serious young man with glasses who shared a taxi from the border into the city. This was in my guesthouse days and he informed me that there was a place in his guide book that guaranteed the best possible accommodation at a minimum price. Our driver failed to find it, and in his defence the address we went to was the same as that printed in the guide book. He offered to take us to a better place nearby and I accepted, my new American friend declined and headed off alone to find the missing guesthouse. Later he passed the restaurant where I was having a late breakfast and I called out to him and he came in and sat down, looking askance at the rice and omelette and pursing his lips at the bottle of beer that was washing it down. Needless to say he wouldn’t join me and refused an invitation to meet that evening, departing while mumbling about alcohol and not consorting with the native women. I saw him the next day complete with small backpack and guide book heading into a temple but by then I had met my beautiful Da and cared not one whit for him.
I actually walked past the bar, some inner vision of the future must have pushed me along warning me not to stop, but scoffing at such premonitions I turned back and walked in and ordered a beer. She was talking to another young American, one with no doubts at all about alcohol and native women, and stopped to serve me, smiling with large perfect teeth before returning to her conversation. Happy just to look at her I enjoyed the new beer; many claim it is the best in Asia and it tasted good that night and finally fell into a conversation with an Englishman who entered as if he owned the place; which as it turned out he did. If Paul had been born three hundred years before he would have been a privateer living off the easier merchant ships, a hundred years later a sergeant in Wellington’s army slitting the pockets of the fallen enemy for coins and carefully leading his men away from the hottest part of the battle. He claimed gypsy parentage and had had five wives and acknowledged seven children; like so many men who had spent too long in Asia he lied when the truth was sufficient.
As the bar filled he formed a group which he invited me to join, introducing a stunningly beautiful Thai woman as his wife. I met them at one of the few times in their relationship that she wasn’t taking to him with some sort of sharp instrument or he wasn’t arranging to have her beaten up in retaliation for his injuries. But this was in the future and the excitement of the situation consumed me. I was in the fabled city of Vientiane, the beer went down like water but I knew there would be no drunkenness that night and when the beautiful barmaid joined the group for her break it was only natural she would sit next to me and lean against me to laugh at one of my brilliant and witty sallies. The Fates spin their web and men rush to its entangling mesh. We forget that Discord waits to cut the thread.
Enough doom saying; the bar closed and Da, as I now knew her, invited me to supper and when I accepted asked if I minded if couple of her friends could join us; I readily agreed and she summoned a pair of tall handsome girls who looked at me unsmilingly. With the intuition of their kind they knew there would be no joy in the evening for them. Even after five years I can still only pick the Asian transvestites, known as K’toei in Thailand, if they look like a professional rugby player who has forgotten to shave. Fortunately, without exception, they have instinctively known that I am not sexually inclined towards them. Vientiane is full of supper clubs, most of them attached to the larger hotels where merry makers can ignore what ever licensed premise’s closure times the government is enforcing that month and carouse till daylight if they are inclined. Set for other pleasures beside food and drink we waved off the envious lady-boys and headed for my guesthouse. So ended one of the finest days of my life.
Last year I went back to Vientiane to buy jewellery and precious stones at the Morning Market, the Talart Sao. I had developed a side line selling them to a few people in Australia and the long fine 18 carat chains, studded with small dark sapphires or rubies were popular and reasonably priced. I bought the almost pure Chinese gold as well but that was for me, my hedge against inflation and my Thai woman’s insurance against the future. As I got out of the tuktuk at the border Da and her sister were waiting for me. The Farang community in Vientiane was close knit, as were their wives and girlfriends and if she had been in the city she would have know of my presence almost upon my arrival. “Hello” she said, “remember me?” she still had my motorbike and insisted on taking me to her house only a few kilometres from the immigration post where her family were waiting to see me one more time. Soon I was sitting with a bottle of Beer Lao, which they had sent across the road for like so many times before, with Da’s new baby on my lap. A chubby fair haired child, her American father had a bar in Pattaya and had made the mistake of frolicking with his staff when she was pregnant. I knew Da would have not tolerated that; her pride always out weighed any economic considerations. She looked at me and laughed, “you remember first time we meet?” she said “you stay five day and I wait for you to pay for boom boom but you no understand”. Even at Udon Thani Airport I had only handed her a wad of baht as an after thought.
For me that first night had been close to perfection, I woke late the next morning with her small brown body nestled against mine and the magnificent hair fanned across my chest and stomach. Even in those days I would have had Captain Ahab reaching for his harpoon with a gleam in his eye. I suspected the sex for her had been less than perfect; I was a casualty of more than twenty years of domestic warfare where sex had been a weapon, a tool to punish and reward by both combatants. Greed made me hurry where I should have waited, and insecurity made me wait when I should have hurried. The next five days passed in the bliss that only a new romance can bring, but the real world called and promising to return the next year I headed home. I was back in two weeks.
My wife met me at the airport, a great victory had been won on the home front, someone had shown her how to access my computer and it revealed the existence of several female correspondents, one from as far a way as Uzbekistan. To her this online infidelity more than made up for the years of adultery she had made me suffer. She railed at me non stop for ten days then one morning she woke me up at dawn. She had searched my pickup truck and found a letter that I had written to Da and intended to post that day. Now she really had something to worry about! During the course of our marriage I had been stabbed, slapped and spat on. Drinks had been thrown over me and I had been verbally abused in public in the foulest possible terms but nothing had prepared me for the frenzied attack that followed. She leapt at me, kneeing and kicking for my groin, her voice an incoherent scream of anger, totally deranged by her jealous rage. For the first and what I hope was the last time I struck a woman, two short, chopping punches high on the forehead that left her stunned and immobilised. I walked into my bedroom, we’d slept apart for years-my snoring kept her awake she said- picked up my wallet and passport and walked out with only the clothes on my back. As I left she totally incongruously called out after me, “don’t forget to bring something in for dinner tonight.” To this day I wonder about that comment. Had my blows caused a temporary amnesia? Or had she considered the battle over for the day with the honours even?
I decided to give Da five weeks; I had been around long enough to have heard about holiday romances and I suspected the cultural differences may be insurmountable. Fortunately I had several thousand dollars in a bank account, the remnants of the sale of my business and some shares I had received in a life insurance deal. The bulk of my money was in property and my wife’s pension fund; a tax avoidance scheme. In reserve there was a small employer funded pension scheme in my name from a previous job. This I decided I would cash in and it would keep me until the divorce and property settlement that I naively believed would take about six months.
Back in Vientiane an overjoyed Da took me to a mid range hotel where I was provided with TV, fridge and hot water shower for about six dollars US a day, cheaper than my former guest house, and we set up house. She kept her job, I enjoyed sitting at the bar watching her work and sneering at the hopeful drinkers chatting her up. Paul never expected the girls on his staff to sleep with the customers but didn’t leave those from poorer families much option on the thirty dollars a month he paid them. At least the small wage allowed them to be selective and most had money coming from overseas boy friends occasionally. (Including Da, I later found out).
By this stage I was thinking in four currencies, Australian dollars, US dollars, Thai Baht and Lao Kip; the latter three in common usage in Lao- the type of currency depending on the size of the transaction. I can recall business people bring the weekend’s takings into the bank, some times in two plastic shopping bags stuffed with one thousand and two thousand kip notes. At that stage the largest note was five thousand, about sixty cents US. I would cash a hundred dollars and walk around, pockets bulging, a kip millionaire.
Then the five weeks were up and I was hooked. We found a flat about a kilometre from the Talart Sao on the bridge side of town. It suited me perfectly I loved the market and I could even walk into town. Da negotiated my right to live there at the local government office. The Lao authorities watch every one; particularly foreigners. A Honda Dream motor scooter was purchased, every Lao girl’s passion, but I never drove it; I rode pillion to the joy and amazement of the locals. She was smarter than my present consort; I was never allowed to be bored; she took me somewhere nearly every day and we went out in the evenings. In those days there were lines of small restaurants built out of bamboo along the river front and after she fell out with Paul we spent many an inexpensive evening there. The house was always full of young women, lengthy card games were played and they would turn up in droves bearing food and cook up huge Lao meals. As I write this my Thai woman has come in with some long pink skinned potatoes from the local market, tonight she’ll cook chips and grill German bratwurst from the Chiang Mai shopping malls. I’ll peel some tomatoes, chop them up and stir them into frying onion with half a teaspoon of finely sliced chilli; my special sauce. I eat Thai food about once a week; usually the large freshwater shrimp hissing from the grill or floating in that prince of soups, Tom Yam, aromatic of chilli, lemongrass and coriander.
One night I went out alone; Da had gone to Thailand to see her mother and her plump sister, Noi, was installed to cook and make sure that I behaved myself. The couple of hours that I had allowed myself stretched to long after midnight before I flagged a tuktuk, skilfully negotiated four times the normal fare and headed home. As we turned into the street I saw a crowd of people near the flats and closer inspection revealed an Army unit, a couple of officers, a few policeman looking like curious onlookers and two civilians with automatic weapons. I hate civilians with automatic weapons.
Pulling the three wheeled taxi up well short of them I paid him off and slinking as quietly and unobtrusively as a nearly two metre, hundred kilogram white man can in Asia headed past the group of warriors to my lane way. One of the officer’s eyes lit up; smiling broadly he said “are you Julian?” I confessed I was. “Come with me he said” dismissing the Army and Police Force he and the other officer lead the way into a nearby vacant block with the heavily armed civilians bringing up the rear. As we approached and entered a stand of trees the thought suddenly occurred to me with utter certainty that they were going to shoot me. I felt not even a twinge of fear, only expectation and almost turned around to see if someone had brought a spade but then we were through the trees and saw the lights of buildings a head.
They wasted no time presenting me to another officer who looked at me and asked what I was doing in Vientiane.
I had a flat I said and lived quietly and was on good terms with the neighbours.
He knew that but I only had a tourist visa why didn’t I get a business visa?
I nearly said because you lock people up with business visas but with no business, but merely said I wasn’t eligible.
How about a work permit? Same again.
Well you're not living here on a tourist visa, he said, get back to the tourist area with the other tourists.
There was a misunderstanding I said, all the criteria had been met and the Nie Barn had agreed to my residency.
“I’m the Nie Barn,” said the arresting officer who had addressed me by name....and he was saluting the guy behind the desk? That made him at least a Lao general. To the uninitiated a Nie Barn is the head of a local government area known as a village. Villages can be part of a city also and the Nie Barn rules. He is mayor, Supreme Court judge, militia commander and lord high executioner. I found out years later that Da had declined a deal to let me live there that included her sharing his bed a couple of afternoons a week.
The now friendly gunmen lead me back to the flat, accepted a bottle of Mekong Whiskey as a mark of my friendship and I went in to the terrified Noi.
Da arrived the next day, there were few cell phones in Lao in those days but some times I thought they were telepathic anyway. She was furious, we had paid a year in advance for the flat, the princely sum of US$480 but it wouldn’t be wasted, family accommodation was in short supply or it could possibly be sublet. Two rooms in a guest house were organised at a cheap monthly rate; it was new and clean and fifty metres from Setthathirath Road but things were starting to go sour. I had retained a firm of Australian lawyers whose principal interest seemed to be working out how much money I had. My wife had grown used to having everything and now considered it hers. The lawyers rubbed their back legs together and confidently predicted lengthy court battles; they said I should come back. Da was spending more and more time in Thailand. ‘Friends’ whispered in my ear. Finally she confessed to a second boyfriend, an American tour guide who came to Asia four or five times a year. She had returned from a trip to Northern Lao, to visit family, bearing seashells and even my determination to ignore her nomadic lifestyle crumbled. She pleaded with me that it was only for the money. The head of her family, a brother in law, had had no work for months. I knew this, I had ‘lent’ him money on several occasions but my funds were limited and would be for several years although I was yet to realise this. I forgave her, left her most of my remaining cash, less than $500, and went back to Australia.
I got off the plane in Australia with less than a hundred dollars in my pocket and headed for the Government emergency housing office. I had little desire to stay with friends and indeed had seen few of them for a year. My wife had whispered darkly about alleged interference with my step daughter when she was a teenager. The girl now belonged to an American religion and was no doubt coaching her mother in American divorce strategy. What followed was nearly two years of nightmare and at the end the Divorce Court judge said he was furious that it had ever got to court and wasted his time when the husband had offered the wife such reasonable settlement terms in the beginning. The lawyers shook their heads, smiled, and totalled their bill.
I saw Da about six months after left her, a friend lent me the money to accompany him to the Philippines and Thailand and I was desperate for a break. I rang her from Pattaya and she came down on the bus to meet me but it was soon apparent we were trying to cook on cold ashes. I sent her home from Bangkok and she looked back for a long time as the taxi drove off. Some time later I got a standard bargirl email demanding money; I knew she hadn’t written it and it wasn’t from her best friend whose English was easily recognisable. Maybe it was a mistake? I wrote back saying I had none and it was time we both moved on.
A small black dog sits hopefully at my feet as I write this, he demands and gets two or three walks a day. I strap him into the small harness that is the wonder of the locals and the envy of the village dogs, clip on the lead and we walk out into the dusty street. He keeps me here as much as the car and the house and my Thai woman. Bangkok, Angeles City and Saigon send out there siren call and I’ve still yet to see Uzbekistan- but who would walk my dog?
© Julian. All rights reserved by the author.