Friday, August 7, 2015

Vientiane: Then and Now by Barbara Amalberti


Vientiane in 1989

For days I had being sitting under the banana trees, in the lush garden of the small guesthouse, looking at the other side of the Mekong, where the elusive and forbidden country of Laos lay.
I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation at the next table. Three young men, speaking with a variety of accents, were discussing the possibility of crossing to Laos. ‘I’ve heard we can get some sort of a visa somewhere in town,’ one of them was saying. ‘It’s expensive, but it will be worth it. Can you imagine the stories we’ll have to tell?’
I smiled: the thought had never crossed my mind. How could you get a visa?   Weren’t the borders closed? I found myself absorbed in their planning.
‘Why don’t you come with us?’ asked one of the guys, noticing my interest and inviting me to sit with them. Before I knew it I was part of the adventure.
Two days later we were in a dark, smelly office in an alley, in a less than salubrious part of Nong Khai. A fan was blowing in a corner but it did little to alleviate the heat of the stuffy room. A Thai man with a sly smile and high cheekbones, unusual for a Thai, handed back our passports.
‘Your visas,’ he said. We looked at each other with nervous anticipation.
On 9th December 1989 we walked down the steps toward the entrancing waters of the Mekong and hopped into a flimsy boat, with our pale faces, big eyes, backpacks and dodgy visas.
Not long after I stepped off the boat, taking care not to slip in the mud. I was in Laos, a closed country, a communist country; I couldn’t help feeling a shiver of fear and excitement running down my spine. 
We were going to spend two days with a guide, staying in a government-run hotel in town and then we were free to go. We had ten days to explore Laos on our own and at our own risk.
‘This is our car,’ said our guide, pointing to a battered old mini-van. We made our way slowly into town, on a bumpy, empty road, driving past run-down temples and markets that looked bare and almost deserted.
When we stopped, I jumped out and picked up my backpack. I looked at the big hotel in front of me, a featureless and austere building that intimidated and fascinated me at the same time.  The rows of windows opened on a long balcony, the paint was pealing from the façade and the big car park at the front was empty.
I soon realised that Vientiane’s charm was not in what was there, but in what wasn’t. No shopping streets lined with stalls selling cheap sundresses and music tapes, no locals offering to take you to the best guesthouse in town, no traffic stopping you from crossing the roads. I wasn’t fazed by the fact that there were no queues, because there was nothing to queue for. Walking the quiet streets, stopping to look at abandoned temples and old stupas overgrown with dried up grass was all I needed to be perfectly content.
Although the French left Laos in 1954, their influence was everywhere. I walked past the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the closed shutters of the old building made me wonder what ghosts of a bygone era now inhabited the place. The Palais Presidentiel would have been imposing once, but it now stood lonely and worn out, like a defeated old man who has lost his purpose in life. 
Vientiane felt like a village abandoned by its inhabitants.

******

Vientiane in 2015

It’s March 2015 and I am about to cross the Mekong again. There is a bridge now in Nong Khai, the Friendship Bridge, opened in 1994, but the boats are still there. They don’t transport people anymore, only goods. I watch them going back and forward, full of huge bags of food, double mattresses, fans, television sets…I even see a couple of washing machines. I wonder how they stay afloat.
I cross that bridge with my husband Nigel and our two teenage daughters, Julia and Sofia. This time we have a proper visa, delivered efficiently by the immigration officer at the border.
‘It’s expensive’, Nigel whispers to me as he hands over the money.
‘Yes, but it will be worth it. Think of all the stories we’ll have to tell!’
I have booked two rooms in a guesthouse, amazed by the choice of hotels, big and small, now available in Vientiane.
Michael, the guesthouse owner, is waiting for us in a small café, in a narrow alley opposite the Ministry of Health.
‘Welcome!’ he says when we arrive, and I find myself enveloped in his embrace. Like meeting a long lost uncle. Michael is no ordinary host.
We drive through the heavy traffic. New buildings are popping up everywhere; the city is like a giant construction site.
‘This is a new mall.’ Michael points to a green and orange building to our left ‘They are sprouting everywhere, but most of them will never be used.’ Apparently there is money to be spent in Laos but it’s not necessarily spent wisely.
The next day Michael takes us for what he calls a “windscreen tour” of Vientiane. As we sit in the comfort of his air-conditioned pick-up truck, he shares his knowledge and love of Vientiane and Laos.
The whole town looks freshly painted and new.
Michael tells us about some of the horrors of the Vietnam War. At the COPE visitor centre, we get out of the car to explore. Julia stops in front of a harrowing metal statue of a woman and child, in a patch of overgrown grass.
‘Are these cluster bombs?’ she asks.
‘Yes,’ Michael replies. ‘These tiny components are the most common cause of injuries by unexploded devices here. For many people the war is far from over.’
The small museum, part of a rehabilitation hospital, aims to increase awareness about the issue and highlights the amazing work done to help people with disabilities lead more fulfilling and productive lives. Michael’s tour of the centre is engaging and compassionate, at times I feel tears pricking my eyes but his humour never fails to make us smile.
Late in the afternoon we meet Xoukiet, Michael’s wife, and we accompany her to the market to buy food for our dinner. 
‘There are so many cars!’ I say to Xoukiet.
‘In the last couple of years it has become very popular to buy cars in instalments: everyone now can own a car.’ She explains that the problem is the roads haven’t been upgraded and this is what causes the traffic chaos.
The market is packed with food, fresh and cooked, a real feast for the eyes and nose. Xoukiet jabbers to the sellers, handing over bundles of kips and laughing as she passes yet another bag to Nigel. At home we sit around the big wooden table, beautifully set and laden with local delights.
As we share our final meal of the holiday, I muse how this time around, Vientiane’s charm lies in what is there, rather than in what isn’t.

 

___________________________________________
Barbara Amalberti is originally from Italy and, after a few years of nomadic living, she moved to Australia in 1991. She lives in Melbourne with her Australian husband and their two teenage daughters and is a counsellor specialised in working with migrants.