A Brush With Death in Upcountry Laos

by David Calleja, Oct 2, 2009 | Destinations: Laos / Thailand / Savannakhet

Savannakhet is a serene city in Laos known for its classic French architecture that is slowly disappearing. Its border with Thailand is marked by the Mekong River. Each day, young men congregate along the roadside. Smoke rises from street vendor's hot skillets. They sell skewered meat, fish, and eggs which people take to benches by the river and eat in the midday sun. Motorcyclists gather to laugh and chat as they survey the streets waiting for people docking from the boats, looking for rides into the city centre. A little further up the road is a private club for elderly men to play bocce.

Along the riverfront, the old buildings that the city is famous for are still standing. Unfortunately, the charm that the riverfront is noted for having seemed to be missing on the day I arrived.

The vibrant chatter which initially attracted me to the river was missing. A large crowd had gathered by the foreshore 50 metres ahead of me. Everybody's attention was on seven men swimming in the river. They were shouting instructions in Lao, passing orange lifejackets along a rope at a frantic pace.

I could sense that something was wrong but I did not have the courage to ask what was happening. People were waiting expectantly and I thought to myself that it was as if I had entered a morgue. By the end of the day, I wish I could have taken those thought back.

I summoned up the nerve to ask a waitress in case she knew what was going on. Without wanting to draw too much attention to myself, I called her over, requested a bottle of water and asked in a low voice, "What is happening?"

Through a series of broken English phrases and hesitant hand gestures, she put the pieces together so that I could work out the scenario.

"Two children jump in water for swim, people look for them," she began, while pointing to the group of men swimming in the river simultaneously.

As I looked into the distance, I could see that a strong current was hampering their rescue efforts. But there seemed no urgency in their voices when conducting the mission, suggesting that the children may have already died, and that the rescuers were going through the motions until police would arrive on the scene. 

The muted sounds of on-lookers gave a hint they knew that that the children were already dead but did not want to reveal their feelings in case the parents were nearby.

"Where are the children now?" I asked.

A few moments of silence passed before the young lady bowed her head and said, "You have water now. One thousand (Lao) kip, please," as if wanting to shoo me away.

At that point, I knew that I had touched on a sensitive topic and I began to think of a worst-case scenario. Since nobody was absolutely sure whether the children were still alive, I did not want to pre-empt anything.

The lady who served me previously initially ignored me when I called her back, but eventually returned after I indicated that I wanted to buy some snacks from her stall.

While waiting for my food to arrive, I asked if anybody had called the authorities. Maybe the authorities could supply a high-powered speedboat that could cover greater terrain.

"Yes, they are over there," she answered, and singled out some plainclothes officers to my left. One of them had a beer in his hand. I assumed this must have been his day off.

So who are the men in the water?" I asked again.

"They are farmers and fisher (men)," she said. This was the part-time rescue team summoned with the responsibility of trying to locate the missing children. There were no professional lifeguards or trained medical teams were on standby.  Two local fishing boats paddled along the water, hopeful for any signs, but they happened to be there by coincidence. All the volunteers could give was their heart and very best undertaking to locate two dead children in dangerous conditions. If the kids were not swept out to sea at lightning speed, then they certainly would have hit themselves on jagged rocks lying beneath the surface.

"How long have they (the children) been in the water?"

"They go inside water at 12 o'clock," the lady answered back. I looked at my watch. The time was now 12:45pm, and the children's chances of survival were diminishing.

Quickly surveying the crowd, I noticed that more by-passers had stopped. Perhaps they were curious or wanted to pay their respects. My first instinct was to leave because I did not fancy being in the vicinity of any grief-stricken parents. "If the police and swimmers cannot find the children, then who will help the parents?" I asked.

The young lady said "Monks pray."

I thanked her for the help she had given me, passed on a brief smile, acknowledging the grim circumstances and set about the task of finding my way out amongst the crowd as quickly as possible. All I wanted to do was head back into the town centre.

Suddenly, a prolonged series of screeching wails came from a woman standing right behind me. As I turned around, she collapsed to her knees and started crying and yelling in Lao language right in front of me. It was the mother of the two missing children. There was no formal recognition of the children's deaths, but I decided that authorities and monks could undertake this investigation, not me. I really wanted to leave and get back to the centre of town, but something was holding me back from leaving.

I then felt a tug at my left trouser pants. The mother of two children whose official statuses were the subject of a current rescue effort, had fallen to her knees and latched onto the end of my pants. She was overwhelmed by the circumstances, and had commenced wailing in Lao in a high-pitched tone which bordered on screeching. Tears were streaming down her face.

Although I could not deduce her age, her back was slightly bent due to years of manual labour and she looked too old to start a new family. Her two most important treasures had just been snatched from her and no amount of reassurance could soothe her. Without waiting for confirmation, the grieving process had already commenced.

If only I could understand her words, then maybe my knowledge of the grieving process could increase. Instead, the only posture I knew was to simply stand there and look dumb and uncaring, hoping that somebody, preferably a monk, would come and save the day.

Everybody in the crowd felt a sense of helplessness.  The image of the woman's expression was already imprinted in my memory and to this day remains one of the most disturbing images I have ever encountered, probably because of the raw impact of coming to terms with death in another culture.

Within a few minutes, two monks who had walked from the pagoda convinced the woman to hold some incense sticks. At first she lacked the will to grip onto them. Her body was completely numb and she fell to the pavement. As the monks gently coaxed her to follow them, she resisted further, continuing to let out painful cries. ‘So this is how public grief looks like up close and personal', I thought to myself. It took two extra people in the crowd to help her, by which time she was still crying hysterically whilst being carried away.

By contrast, her husband stayed 15 metres behind her, sobbing quietly. He cut a forlorn figure, and his silence was as symbolic to his wife's hysterics.

As I looked in his direction for a few seconds, his eyes caught mine. Initially I interpreted his message as saying, "Why must we suffer like this?" But his glance may have also contained a second meaning, as in "What are you doing here?" At that point, I wished the cracks beneath me would open, swallow me up and then spit out my bones and conscience.

What saved me from drowning in my own guilt was a group of some school children riding past on their bicycles. This turned the father's staring away from me and towards the newly arrived kids. They were heading in the direction where the crowd had originally gathered. Every child was dressed in their school uniform: a neat, white shirt and navy blue pants. They were all curious as to the commotion taking place, oblivious to the circumstances. 

Perhaps the distraught father was hoping that his children were actually amongst the group of children on their bikes, and would miraculously ride over to greet him, ending the nightmare in existence. But no such scenario occurred.

Within two minutes, one of the swimmers had climbed out of the river and used hand gestures, signalling for the rest of his colleagues to walk or swim further up the river. Shaking his head, I interpreted this sign as the rescuers conceding defeat. There would be no hope of finding the children alive, so the best they could do was further away where maybe they could use their fishing nets to find the children's bodies at the bottom of the river.

As the lifesavers wandered off into the distance, the stunned crowd dispersed and attempted to return to a semblance of normality. Some individuals headed towards the pagoda to join the chanting and prayer ceremonies. Slowly the vendors went back to their street-side skillets, motorcyclists returned to their machines and the bocce game resumed. But parents who remained near the river seemed to be holding their children a little tighter, gripped by a steely resolve that a similar tragedy would not strike their family.