Spending the Night in Laos

by Steven K. Bailey, Feb 1, 1996 | Destinations: Laos / Vientiane

Editor's note:

You're traveling in Vietnam and suddenly realize your visa is about to expire-- but you want to stay longer.

When you try and get an extension at the local police station, the authorities explain that there are none (not since the new laws, anyway).

What's a traveler to do?

A quick trip to the Vietnamese embassy in Vientiane is the fastest and most economical way to update your paperwork.

Here, Steven Bailey gives us the ins and outs of Laos.

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Laos was one of those countries that kept me guessing. Every bend in the river, every twist in the road, every bus or ferry full of passengers, every store and market offered something unexpected. Laos remained one gigantic jungle-covered surprise. This seemed particularly true of the accommodations. Every hotel and guesthouse I stayed in was memorable in its own quirky way.

Vientiane, the capital of Laos, looked very much like the sleepy French colonial river town it used to be, with low-rise buildings and roads of red dust. The city felt like a time warp and my guesthouse epitomized this sensation. At breakfast I sat on the verandah of the Lani Resthouse enjoying fresh baguettes and strong black coffee. French-speaking guests, copies of Paris Match, potted plants and ceiling fans surrounded me. I thought this must have been what Indochina looked like in the fifties, a notion reinforced by the propeller-driven aircraft and helicopters roaring overhead towards the airfield.

For a few seconds the effect remained strong enough to convince me that I actually was in French Indochina, but then any romantic illusions I had about the French crumbled when a woman at the next table began hacking away at her morning smoker's phlegm while clipping her nails over her breakfast plate. And to further destroy the time warp as well as Gallic credibility, I opened my Bangkok Post to discover that the French had resumed Pacific nuclear testing in the face of international condemnation.

I discovered a strong Chinese influence in Laos as well. In the town of Muang Xay, I spent the night at the Phou Xay Resthouse, formerly the local Chinese consulate. My "suite" had once entertained VIP Chinese bureaucrats, and its living room came equipped with a naugahyde couch, a vase of plastic flowers, and a chipped tea set. The bathroom proudly exhibited a Western-style toilet that flushed by filling it with the shower hose. The bedroom offered two lumpy cots and a wheezy fan electrified from seven to ten o'clock each night. The cost of this extravagance: $5.75.

I did not have a television, but for in-house entertainment there was my own private zoo. Two steel cages lay just outside my door. In one moped an Asian black bear gone gently senile. He poked his long claws through the bars in hopes of a handout. In the other cage lived two nasty gray monkeys who copulated enthusiastically for hotel guests and lunged with bared fangs at anyone coming within reach. All night long I listened to the daft snuffling of the bear and the shrieks of the sex-crazed monkeys.

I had further troubles with Laotian wildlife in Muang Pakbeng, a shanty town that dribbled down through a cleft in the jungle to a Mekong River ferry landing. The only guesthouse, the Soukchareun Sarika, consisted of a warehouse-like building subdivided with scrap lumber into tiny cubicles. The Sarika jutted out over the riverbank on a trusswork of rotting timbers that creaked ominously underfoot; I could see daylight through holes in the floor and cracks in the wall. My window--no glass, screen or curtain--offered a view of the bucket-showers and squat toilets. I once peered out to see an old woman bathing in her birthday suit; she cackled cheerfully, waved and continued scrubbing.

At night the rats sprinted the length of the building with Olympic enthusiasm. They skittered above the flimsy ceiling and beneath the rickety floorboards. They dodged beneath my bed and scrabbled up the walls. I'd foolishly left some peanut brittle in my pack and this attracted every rat in the place. I could hear rats above and below and to either side of me, all frantically scuttling after the scent of sugar and peanuts. In the end I chucked the candy out the window and it banged loudly on the roof of the toilets, provoking indignant protests in Laotian. At this point, however, the rats left me in peace.

I traveled from Muang Pakbeng to Ban Houayxay with an English journalist who had grown tired of the Laotians' constant attempts to overcharge him. He remained determined to get the lowest price possible for a room. We ended up in a blank-faced, concrete hotel on the main street of Houayxay. Our $3.50 bought us dirty sheets, cobwebs, and a litter of cigarette butts. As an added bonus we got unspeakably foul squat toilets and a crazy pattern of circles burned into the floor by mosquito coils. Across the hall, young Chinese women lazed sullenly in a room full of drying laundry. Something did not seem right, I thought, and that night the hotel basement revealed itself to be a disco-brothel. All night I lay awake listening to the pounding beat of disco music and the drunken cries of lustful Chinese.

In tiny Ban Nambak the English journalist and I stayed at a government guesthouse that had no guests, no food, no electricity and no water. It did have two plainclothes policemen, however, who expressed great interest in the English journalist.

"Why are you in Laos, monsieur?" they asked him.

"I'm a tourist. I'm on vacation."

"You are not un journaliste?"

"Certainly not," the English journalist snorted, looking offended. Over syrupy-sweet Ovaltine coffee the interrogation continued until the policemen lost interest, wished us well, and rattled off in their Russian-made jeep.

Every night I spent in Laos was memorable. I simply never knew what to expect. I grew to relish this unpredictability, even look forward to it. I had, I finally realized, become addicted to Laos. I smiled, for I knew that I could not help but return.

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