“I’m traveling in the south of Laos,” writes intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst from the road. “My favorite southern city is Savannaket, another Lao city on the romantic Mekong River. French-colonial and wooden Lao houses line Savannaket’s streets.
“I ate at a good French restaurant on the main square (US$8 for a three-course lunch, no corkage fee) and at the Hotel Mekong restaurant, a tourist hangout, on the river. Locals have set up tables and chairs on the river bank; one night I drank beer and later ate noodles while watching the sun set over Thailand on the right bank.
“Just upstream there’s a new bridge joining the two countries, although the old ferry still goes, too.
“I stayed in the Leena Guest House, US$12 a night. The hotel provided towels, soap, toilet paper… and a condom. In another local hotel, I saw a sign that read, ‘Migal articles and dangerous articles are not allowed.’ The sign also informed that ‘all forms gambling are not prohibited.’ Finally, my favorite: ‘Visitors will not be laundered or cooked in the room.’ We might be laundered and cooked elsewhere, I suppose, but not in the room.
“In Savannaket I saw the family mansion where Kaysone grew up. Kaysone was the first communist dictator to run Laos from the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until the 1990s. Unless the Laos are rewriting history, from a look at the beautiful house and spacious grounds I conclude that Kaysone’s family had a very good life indeed. Many of the communist revolutionaries of the 1960s and 1970s came from bourgeois stock. Ho Chi Minh refined his views on communism not in a poor Vietnamese village but in Paris, New York, London, and Moscow. (The remains of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, now a tourist attraction, lie a few miles to the east.)
“After Savannaket I headed south to Pakse, then the next day took a two-hour trip on a wooden seat in the back of a truck to get to Champasak. When it came time to pay (US$2), the driver collected from everyone in turn. But instead of paying, one older Lao man simply smiled sadly and shook his head. The driver moved smoothly on to the next customer. I happened to be watching, so I saw it plainly. I’m sure the others missed it, the driver was so careful to avoid a scene.
“I spent the night in Champasak at the Souchitra Guest House, US$6 a night, a place so popular that the truck stopped there and the driver called it out.
“I’d gone to tiny Champasak to see old Khmer temple (Wat Phou) ruins that predate Angkor Wat by some 200 years. The crumbling compound, once Hindu and later Buddhist, rests on the side of a terraced hill. The compound had been lined up with the planets to ensure good luck and prosperity. I felt the spiritual charm of the place, easy to do in that isolated jungle setting, and wondered about those who worshiped there 1,500 years ago.
“I wondered, too, how Wat Phou could be in such a remote location. Apparently, the Khmers used different roads than we do now. I’d have thought that roads would follow natural contours, whether for the Khmers or modern-day Laos, but apparently the Khmers had other ideas.
“To get to my next and final stop, an island in the Mekong River, I took another truck and then waited for a boat. Shops near the boat landing sold everything one might need on the islands: diesel, oil, motorcycles, bicycles, tubes, parts, hardware, plumbing supplies, sugar, tea, coffee, beer, and soft drinks. Two pharmacies offered medicine, bandages, and cough drops. Most important of all, a guy sold cell phones.
“Perhaps the biggest hassle here has been cell phone delay. Before cell phones, if you wanted to catch the 8 o’clock bus…or ship something on the 8 o’clock bus…you hurried to be there by 8 o’clock. Now you simply call the driver’s cell phone and ask him to wait. You take your time.
“In the Third World, time has little value, and Laos are far too accommodating to refuse a simple request. So we waited and waited, over and over, at times for more than an hour, for passengers and freight. In one case, the bus behind us, which had left an hour after us, went by while we waited for someone to arrive and tie a motorcycle to our bus’ roof.
“You heard it here first: Cell phone delay, a growing inconvenience in the Third World.”