The Kindness of Strangers. September 11th in Laos.

by Kim Fay, Sep 10, 2002 | Destinations: Laos / Vientiane
The Pak Ou boat on the MekongPhotos by Julie Fay

The Pak Ou boat on the MekongPhotos by Julie Fay

The Pak Ou boat on the MekongPhotos by Julie Fay

Day One

In the spider-infested, two-dollar-a-night Arimid Guesthouse, in the grimy Lao border town of Huay Xai, I wake too early for comfort. Still half asleep, along with my sister, Julie, and our friend, Page, I gather my bags and trudge across the dirt road to the boat landing. We're taking a two-day cruise down the Mekong River, to the ancient royal capital of Luang Prabang, and although the journey was exceptionally well-organized by Pudsadee, our travel agent in Bangkok, I've misplaced the crucial piece of paper with the exact time of our departure on it.

River travel is a rite of passage for many visitors to Laos - a source of pride for those people who also get a perverse thrill from bargaining ten cents off a buck-fifty for a lovely hand-woven tapestry. As far as most visitors know, there are two choices when it comes to tackling the mighty Mekong.

The fast boats, which can deliver you to Luang Prabang in a day, involve eight passengers impersonating sardines, with their knees tucked to their chests, swaddled in helmets and life vests. I've read that the pilots are usually hopped up on meth, and that fatalities are not uncommon.

The slow boat, on the other hand, exchanges risk for the prolonged torture of two ten-hour days in a small cabin on hard wooden benches. There are no stops, unless the boat breaks down, and amenities are limited to the food you manage to scrounge before departure (Lays potato chips seem to be a local specialty) and a primitive toilet.

These, as I've already written, are the options known to most. They are cheap, and once they're over, you can boast that you survived them. But let's face it - survival is for amateurs. Finding luxury in rural Laos is a true achievement, and yet we've managed to do just that. Drifting next to the slope of the shore, the graceful hardwood Pak Ou awaits.

Discovered through the serendipitous alchemy of a passing suggestion from the friend of a friend, a casual glance through a Frommer's Adventure Guide and a random search on the Internet, our vessel evokes the romance of Out of Africa and Passage to India. Her deck houses a small dining area with a bar, and a salon furnished with rattan and hand-woven cushions. The bathroom is spotless. Including food, shore excursions and an overnight stay in a luxury lodge, the cost of such decadence is $150 per person.

Waiting for our fellow passengers, who for some unexplained reason are still going through customs on the Thai border, we appropriate the salon. As we spread out our novels and journals and cameras, we watch a sad parade making its way to the slow boat, which is moored downriver. Each person hesitates at our gangplank, as if he can't believe his good luck. Then, reality sets in as he is politely directed to the boat behind us.

Solo and in pairs, they file past. Only the Americans stop to joke with us before theatrically accepting their fate. It's as if we're driving a brand new Mercedes through a slum. I'd feel guilty if these people hadn't chosen slumming as their preferred mode of travel. Just as we don't want their experience, they don't want ours. To them, we aren't legitimate. We aren't serious about this country we're visiting. To us, they're fools.

* * * * *

Of our two guides, we meet Phonesy first. He approaches, carrying a clipboard of names. He is wearing an infectious grin and (although the day is already filthy hot) a pressed white dress shirt tucked into tailored black trousers. Just a few years out of his teens, Phonesy is paired with the serious twenty-seven year old Air. "Like the wind," he tells us, pronouncing the "r" with a soft upward lilt. While Phonesy is fluent in a brand of English that is gutsy, animated and so fluid it is often incomprehensible, Air's second language is a sedate French. The boat is managed by a French company, and most of its clients parlez Francais.

Along with Phonesy, Air and a crew that includes a captain, a co-captain, the captain's wife who is our cook, the captain's two small children and Smiley - a grinning boy whose job it is to tie ropes and, well, grin at us - we're accompanied by six passengers.

Page, who surprises us with the fact that she's lived in France, is our liaison with the elderly Frenchman whose name we never quite grasp. His monologues both intrigue and exhaust as they loop philosophically from drama in Paris - she thinks he might have been a film professor - to travels in Dakar, Senegal and Madras.

Mr. Tuan, his wife, Hoa, and their nine-month-old son, Lam, are Vietnamese nationals who also lived in France and now reside in the Pak Se district of Laos, where he owns an Internet company. Both husband and wife speak minimal English, and I'm delighted to discover that they understand my Vietnamese. I've been taking lessons to brush up, but without any place to practice, it was hard to gauge my progress.

In her sixties, Deb is from Bangkok. She wears Bali Hai boxer shorts and a cropped t-shirt that shows off the rose tattoo on her stomach. Her haircut is butch chic, but she's traveling with a much younger man, Mr. Wu, whose silence gives his otherwise unassuming presence a slight air of mystery. "He's my companion," Deb eventually confides, "but I prefer to tell people he's my assistant." I don't know what she means to imply by either of these words. She is an endless source of fascination, engaged constantly in her two favorite pastimes - smoking and applying make-up.

Between the crew and passengers, we speak Lao, Thai, Vietnamese, French and English. Over the course of our two days together, we will use these languages to begin weaving a tapestry. Lack of time and ability will leave our handiwork unfinished, so that in the end what we will take away of one another are tiny fragmented portraits stitched against the vast brown backdrop of the Mekong River.

* * * * *

Beyond the rails of our floating sanctuary, the hills rise from the water, as if the land is sinking. The entire forest is a variation on the color of green. In the high branches of hardwood trees, ferns brandish their enormous prehistoric fronds. Swathes of rice and maize plantations have been carved out of the jungle. Shadows of clouds lay low over the forest, and when the sun emerges, it's as if it is coming out of the earth, emanating from the banyan and coconut leaves.

In a small perch above the salon, the captain and his partner navigate, with a view over the entire river. The Mekong has a mind of its own, flat as a lake and then riddled with eddies that warn of the clusters of rocks just below the surface. The spray over the bow makes you feel as if you're on the open sea. Years of experience - up to twenty - earn a pilot his license on this river.

After a lunch of chicken, vegetables, curried potatoes and rice, the boat makes its first stop, at a tribal village called Khone Teun. Phonesy tells us that there are three main tribes in Laos - the Lao Leuan, the Lao Teung and the Lao Soung. This village is inhabited by members of the Lao Leuan. Apparently, you can tell the difference between the tribes by their architecture. Lao Leuan homes are built on stilts, with windows and steep roofs, while the homes of the Hmong, who are members of the Lao Soung, reflect their origins in the cold hills of China before their migration to Laos in the 19th century. Their homes are windowless, built directly on the ground, with ovens dug into the earth next to the beds.

We wander past faded wooden shacks and traipse up the hill, past a Bodhi tree, to a temple. We explore its shadowed interior, the crudely beautiful wall paintings that illustrate the life of Buddha. In the doorway, a cluster of children, young monks and mothers watches us. It's as if an earthquake has erupted beneath a museum, tumbling the visitors into one of the displays. The curators, whose days are generally uneventful, aren't quite sure what to do.

* * * * *

The remainder of the afternoon is passed lounging on the bow, where we tackle some of life's larger questions - is American wrestling fake? - and exchange life stories with The Boys, as we now affectionately refer to Phonesy and Air. We are brushed by the coolness of a distant twilight storm as the boat approaches Pak Beng, a very dirty village (there are a few very dirty guesthouses for the travelers on the slow boat) whose very dirty market we are encouraged to tour.

Wedged between the tranquil camaraderie of our afternoon and the colonial magic of our overnight stay in the lodge, just a few hundred yards away, the village is a surreal crease in our journey. A startlingly clear snapshot of abject poverty. A forever image of flies clustered on chunks of bloody boar meat, before we are led to the vast hardwood verandah of the Luang Say Lodge. Overhanging the river, the lodge's thatched roof is grazed by fans of wide leaves. An elegant elevated walkway leads to a collection of private bungalows whose wall-to-wall shutters open to expose the sun setting golden over the Mekong.

We have walked into a mirage, where draping white tablecloths drift in the auburn glow of lamplight through bamboo shades. Moving like dancers in a ballet, girls wearing brilliant sarongs serve plates of minced duck and boiled onions. Lightning flares beyond the distant hills, but the outside world has ceased to exist. This has nothing to do with ignorance being bliss. We aren't ignorant. We are very aware, and because of this, we are profoundly grateful for our own good fortunes.

* * * * *

Days Two and Three

The river emerges from a bay of mist and rises, like an island, into the steaming day. A flock of white birds shatters the opaque green of dawn. Our crew, we learn, spent the night on the boat drinking rice wine and sleeping on cushions. We passed our own imprisoned in a drapery of mosquito netting, hiding from the biggest damn spider in the world.

The clouds are gray and low-slung, and we are worn out from yesterday, from the fresh air and bleary sun and unadulterated beauty of the landscape. We sprawl out, reading, writing in our journals, napping on the floor like children in a pre-school, chatting idly about everything and nothing at all. Beneath the overcast sky, there is no indication of the passage of time. Impressions dissipate within our languorous nonchalance. The fleeting fragrance of jasmine. A lone elephant logging hardwood on the shore. A swirl of mud in the water, as if it is held beneath a sheet of glass. We are old Mekong hands. A piece of our hearts has been claimed by it, and yet, before we have a chance to realize how much we appreciate it, we already take it for granted.

* * * * *

As we crest into the afternoon, sailing toward the end of our journey, we visit Xang Hai - Whiskey Village - where we sample fiery variations of lau-lao and purchase a few cloudy bottles for the road. We're traipsing back to the boat when the village children discover a spindly snake about four feet long tangled in the pots of fermenting rice. While I flee to the deck - I'm terrified of snakes - they cheer on Smiley as he beats it to death with a stick. It's in the wake of this Lord of the Flies bloodlust that we arrive at the sacred Pak Ou Caves in the mouth of the Nam Ou River. Pared into the base of a massive limestone cliff, Tham Thing and Tham Phum, with their subterranean chill, house 4,000 Buddha figures, many of which are centuries old.

The caves mark the final phase of our boat trip. We are on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, and as the sun glides low in the sky, we see Mount Phousi rising from the forest, its shimmering pagoda standing guard over the town. The bow nudges the base of the steep steps that lead up to the ancient capital. Despite the unavoidable intimacy of the past two days, there is scarcely a nice to have met you as Deb and the Frenchman and Mr. Tuan's family rapidly disperse.

It's all happening too quickly. We aren't ready for this part of our journey to be over, but there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it, as our suitcases are hauled up and deposited on the top of the steps. The sun is casting shadows down the length of the road. Clinging to the camaraderie we'd initiated on the boat, we invite Air and Phonesy to celebrate my thirty-fifth birthday with us tomorrow. They surprise us by suggesting a party on the boat, which will be moored for three days before it embarks on a return cruise to Huay Xai.

We love the idea - a Mekong River Reunion. It indulges the pangs of nostalgia we're already beginning to feel. We make plans to meet up at six the following evening, then head for our hotel, which is right up the road.

Referred to as The Castle by our guides, Auberge Le Calao is a French villa with a multi-tiered terrace that overlooks the river. Built in 1906 by a Chinese-Lao merchant who relied on architectural plans from his cousin in Macao, it was gloriously restored in the mid-1990s and turned into discreetly elegant accommodations enhanced by one of the most gracious staffs I have ever encountered

We are still wearing the day's sweat and river dust, and we marvel at the sheer whiteness of the hand-embroidered bedding, the grillwork above the arch that separates Page's sleeping area from ours, the louvered shutters that hold back the night. After the concrete bed of Huay Xai and the toxic-waste spider of Pak Beng, I'm more than ready for the unadulterated luxury of those beautiful sheets. By nine o'clock, I'm tucked in. Rains pour, thunder shakes the room and lightning illuminates the sky. Or so I'm told. I sleep until dawn, when I wake to a dappled gray sky and the first day of my thirty-fifth year.

* * * * *

Thirty-five is a momentous birthday. Especially for a woman who is not married, does not have children and has not yet published her novel. Ever since leaving the U.S., I'd planned to rise on this morning before the first cinder of daylight, walk up to the top of Mount Phousi, and meditate while the sun rose over the verdant jungles. Instead, it appears that these thirty-five years have thoroughly exhausted me. I roll over and go back to sleep, moving only hours later when Julie and Page also begin to stir.

We spend this overcast day wandering down lanes, gazing at temples, lingering in shops - practicing the fine art of doing nothing. This is a place where silence is a refinement of the stillness that hangs in the air. Scale and pace are reunited with basic human need. A telephone rings, and it sounds as if it's coming from a future still decades away. It's possible to believe that this place can never be touched, can never be contaminated. But the world has encroached. We just aren't allowed to see it.

There is an underground of dissent, among the people who live here, about what is in the best interests of Luang Prabang and its inhabitants. One camp fears influences such as tourism and the Internet for its inevitable decimation of indigenous culture. The other camp resents preservationist do-gooders such as UNESCO for turning indigenous culture and local architecture into a mimicry of its original self.

Then there are the Hmong. Where do McDonald's and the ability to e-messenger fit into their lives, I wonder, as we browse their single-aisle textile market on the edge of town. They squat on the counters of their stalls, badger us to buy beautiful hand-stitched pillows for less than a dollar, and then, once the transaction is finished, ignore us completely.

It's all too much for my aging thirty-five year old mind to absorb. We retreat from the ethical complexities and high noon sun to Caf‚ des Arts for lunch, where we turn our fickle attention to papaya salad, steamed fish in banana leaf and Mekong seaweed with sesame seeds.

* * * * *

We don't want to go down to the boat empty-handed, so we gather our lau-lao and buy a few big bottles of Beer Lao for the party. The twilight is lavender and the sky is drizzling as we slip down the muddy incline to the boat. Phonesy and the crew are finishing dinner, and Air is nowhere to be seen.

Oblivious to our bewilderment - have we arrived early, late, on the wrong day? - Phonesy sprints off to find Air, leaving us alone with the Captain and his family, Smiley and a few others we haven't met. No one speaks a bit of English, but by the time the night is finished, we will know enough about our battalion of hosts to have defined them with nicknames. Mr. Diamond, Chicago and The Bartender are but a few.

Waiting for The Boys, we ease the absolute lack of common ground by cracking open some lau-lao and taking turns swigging from a small dirty glass administered by The Bartender, who's quite partial to the one for you, three for me school of serving. When Phonesy and Air finally arrive, they're accompanied by their friend, Tia. Nineteen years old, Tia works in a shop that sells beautiful lamps made of mulberry paper. He speaks English, has a disposition that would melt the hearts of high school girls around the world, and is unaccountably hip, considering his upbringing in a rural village outside town.

While our initial feelings of awkwardness are slowly being lau-laod away, there's no amount of rice whiskey that will allow us to pretend this is just another normal night out on the town - a fact bolstered by the sudden appearance of a wide-eyed face on the river side of the boat. A half-dressed man uses the railing to drag his primitive pirogue up the river, all the while staring into a tableau of three foreign women, half a dozen Lao men, a table glutted with booze and a CD player crooning Eric Clapton.

The man stares at us, as he passes into the night beyond the boat, as if the entire scene has been transported from another planet. Somehow, the brief presence of this outsider gives our party a sense of solidarity. We are partners in crime in that weird traveler's netherworld, an ephemeral no man's land where cultures verge for just a short while amidst the clinking of glasses and shouts of cheers and sok di and singing of three lines from the five songs we all know, over and over and over. Estranged from the context of our daily lives, we create our own universal truths. 1) You are always welcome at the Hotel California. 2) Whoa whoa, hey hey, I love you more than I can say.

Plastic awnings are lowered to protect us from the incoming storm. The deck grows steamy and cozy. Mr. Diamond sings the traditional Song of the Two Sisters. Phonesy disappears for half an hour, only to return carrying a small white cake adorned with three frosting cats and the words: Happy Birthday, Miss Kim Fay, Age 35. I don't make a wish before blowing out the candles, since it would be selfish to want anything more than what I have right now, this unexpected kindness of strangers.

* * * * *

Days Four and Five

There is only one word to describe the day after my birthday. Hangover. We accomplish little more than breakfast on the verandah - thank God for fruit shakes - but we don't really care. Last night will have been worth it, once the headaches subside, and besides, we need to shore up energy for tomorrow, Tuesday, September 11. It's The Boys last day in town, and they're taking us on a tour through the countryside to visit the Kwang Xi Waterfall.

Our departure is scheduled for 8:30 a.m., and we leave right on time. Lao time, that is. The Boys straggle to our hotel around 10:30, and it takes another half hour to rent Hondas and get on the road. After two disappointing pit stops - to view a 300-year-old UNESCO-sponsored weaving village that is nothing more than a dismal warehouse, and to search futilely through the leech-infested sludge of the Nam Khan River for the grave of Henry Mouhot, the Frenchman who brought Angkor Wat to the attention of the western world - we toss Lonely Planet aside and head for the falls. Our tinny bikes climb through lush countryside, past the squinting curiosity of local villagers and the envious expressions of a group of back-packers pushing their broken down taxi-bus along the side of the road.

The slapdash settlement just outside the entrance to the falls is Tia's childhood home, and we stop for lunch at his uncle's restaurant before making our way into the park. The waterfall is spectacular, a magnificent cascade that fills the air with a cool mist. Our hair and clothes are as wet as if we've been caught in a storm. Foreign tourists bask in the sun around the base of the falls.

Had we come without The Boys, with just our guidebook for company, we'd probably be doing the same thing. Instead, we're led to a secret swimming hole a short distance away, where The Boys strip down to their skivvies and leap in. Having been warned about modestly in Laos, I've felt uncomfortable at times even wearing a tank top, but swimming, it appears, is a matter not beholden to cultural mores. Julie, Page and I take the plunge, and any remaining reserve splashes to the wayside as we test our strength against the current, stand on our hands underwater, dive off one another's shoulders and push one another off rocks.

We're very soggy as we head home, but the afternoon is still warm. The sun bathes the landscape in a shimmer of gold. Ahead, Julie and Page lounge on the backs of Tia's and Air's motorbikes. Phonesy tells me about a girl who broke his heart. I sing Three Dog Night and Waylon Jennings. For a short while, against the backdrop of a lustrous countryside, we are not Lao and American, twenty-two and thirty-five. We are simply two people in love with the beauty and freedom of the day, and we're happy.

* * * * *

Since The Boys are leaving early the following morning, we ask if we can take them out to dinner to thank them for their kindness. They suggest the Indochina Spirit. We walk through the night's dark silence to the edge of town. The exterior of the restaurant is lovely, with rich hardwood walls and a thatched roof. The honey glow of lamplight steeps through a warren of dining rooms. We gather upstairs around a low table, resting on the cushions scattered on the floor. The shutters are open wide. We have the place to ourselves.

As we pass around dishes of fish soup and chicken rice and prawn curry and Mekong seaweed, we laugh and chatter as if we've known each other for a lifetime. In a sense, this is true. A new existence began for Julie, Page and me the hour we entered Laos, and it will end the moment we leave.

Phonesy explains that he was a monk from the ages of 16 to 18, and he had his first drink when he was twenty. Tia confesses that he wrote poetry when he was young. (Certainly, in his case, young is a relative term.) About love, we ask. Oh no, about the poverty and suffering of my childhood. Page and Air speak French, although Air breaks away every once in a while to tease me about a sentimental outburst of tears on my birthday.

We are nearing the end of our meal when Phonesy, perched on the edge of the table beside us, declares, "I have met many American women in my life ..."

In his fabulously fractured English he tells us about the time he invited some guests from the boat to his birthday party. The group promised to come, but they didn't show up, which explains why The Boys weren't prepared for us on my birthday. There is something so impossibly bewildered in Phonesy's telling of this story - what kind of person with any heart would let him down? - that we want to rush right out, find those lousy tourists and kick their butts. Instead, we listen as Phonesy says that we have changed their minds about Americans.

When it comes to traveling the world - whether you're the visitor or the visited - there is so much power in a fleeting impression. Entire countries are pigeonholed based on the personality of a single traveler passing through town. A trip can be either the best or the worst of a lifetime, based on a single incident. As Phonesy grins at us, and Air and Tia nod solemnly, we're flattered to have had a great time and been good ambassadors, as well.

Our moods are high as we walk back to the hotel. We follow the lighted main street, rather than the darker river road. The town, like the restaurant, feels deserted, as if it belongs solely to us. We stop on a corner and say the first of our good-byes to Air, who will be spending the night in town rather than on the boat. The moment is awkward. Although we've shared an exquisite life-affirming experience, chances are we'll never see The Boys again. Even if we were fluent in the same language, would it be possible to express what we've meant to one another? Overcome by a formality that masks our emotion, Julie, Page and I take turns shaking hands with Air. Tia leaves next, but our parting is casual since we'll see him in his shop before we depart. Phonesy makes up an excuse to walk us back to the hotel.

As we pass a caf‚, Page and Julie notice a large group of foreigners watching TV. Luang Prabang isn't like Bangkok or Bali, where backpackers cluster in the evenings to drink beer and watch bad action movies. Foreigners here seem to want as little to do with each other as possible. We step inside, to see what's going on.

The channel is CNN. A building is burning. We look around the room, but no one is talking. After a few moments we realize that there has been a plane wreck in the middle of New York City. We try to figure out what happened. Then, in an instant, it becomes sickeningly clear. Terrorists have attacked the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon.

Julie's and my parents are on business in Philadelphia with side trips planned to New York. Page's family lives in New York. Standing on the curb, Phonesy listens to our hurried good-byes and watches us rush away. He understands that something has gone terribly wrong, but he doesn't know what.

Page races back to the hotel to call her family. Julie and I race to an Internet caf‚. Thank God for Hotmail and the message that our parents are safe. Later, when we meet back up with Page, she tells us she spoke to her father. This is a small miracle, considering both the Laotian telecommunications system and all the people in America who are unable to contact their loved ones during this time.

Growing numb, we settle into a new caf‚. Surrounded by British and Australians and Europeans sitting on a rough timber floor, we watch the small fuzzy image of our President as he addresses the nation. It's nearing midnight, and we're exhausted. We feel as if we're hallucinating when we hear the first snide remark about President Bush. Then there's an under-the-breath, what did they expect?

Not once do we hear how terrible or how sad or how tragic. Instead, we learn that somehow we might have deserved this assault, and that our president is a "wanker." I have never felt lonelier in my life than I do now in this room, but although we want to leave, we also need to know what's happening back home.

Finally, around one a.m., CNN cuts out and everyone drifts away. No one has expressed a word of sympathy for us or the people in our country, and we return to the hotel feeling doubly wounded. We lay in the dark silence of our hotel room, so tired we find it impossible to sleep. Another storm will come and go before the night is over, and when we wake it will be to a world irrevocably changed.

* * * * *

Day Six

My sleep is haunted by the unceasing loop of a nightmare that someone is outside the door of our hotel room trying to break in. I wake completely worn out. Julie and Page are bleary-eyed, silent, as we walk through the overcast town to breakfast at the Healthy Caf‚. We have no experiences to fall back on, to help us process what has happened, and we are alone. Our dear Boys have sailed back up the river, our country is mourning without us, and we are raw from the callousness of the travelers we encountered last night. We need the solace of familiar food. We order pizza.

We spend the day wandering in and out of shops. It feels profane, and yet at the same time we don't know what else to do. We have no routine to comfort us. We have no community to embrace us in its collective sadness and rage. Every trip into the Internet caf‚ breeds new anxiety. We have many friends and family members in New York. What if? We can scarcely bear to read the New York Times online as details of the events trickle in.

The hours pass, and the tragedy weaves itself in and out of the day. Mist lays like a shroud over the town. The tranquility we basked in just the day before now feels like desolation. The Lao people all know what has happened, and despite their country's heartbreaking history with our own, they are genuinely sympathetic. A few attempt to offer consoling words, but our cultures do not express emotion in the same ways. Too much is lost in the translation, and the efforts fall short. When we run into Frankie, a Scotsman we met at the waterfalls, his compassion is so heartfelt that I want to weep. I hadn't realized how much a few kind words could mean.

Dinnertime arrives, and we are pulled back to the Indochina Spirit, accompanied by a duo of incompatible ghosts - the specter of the Trade Towers collapsing, and the phantom of three Lao men and three American women sitting around a table laughing into the night. We sit upstairs in the same room, but we choose a different table. We're acutely aware that it's impossible to bring back the enchanted hour that preceded the terrible news, although in fact, that's exactly why we're here.

Instead, the music is so haunting we ask to have it changed, and the tables are filled with non-American foreigners who make no effort to hide their stares. We now know why we had the place to ourselves with Phonesy, Air and Tia. The world had lost its footing, and everyone but us was watching its mad stumble. It seems impossible that we didn't feel it, that it didn't shake the restaurant right off its foundation.

We eat, and we talk, and we miss The Boys. As we reminisce about our short time with them, it's a kind of salvation, a comfort simply knowing they exist. After everything Laos has suffered, its inhabitants can still smile, are still kind, are still capable of innocence. Phonesy, Air and Tia are living proof. If there is anything that will get me through the darkest hours of this profound tragedy, it is this.

* * * * *

Fact File:

For comprehensive Indochina travel, including air tickets, ground transportation and booking for the LuangSay Cruise, contact Pudsadee at East-West Travel in Bangkok. Email:

Arimid Guesthouse - Despite the spiders, this guesthouse offers charming bungalow accommodation at ultra cheap prices.
Telephone: (084) 211-040
Fax: (084) 312-006
Huay Xai, Laos
(Located just above slow boat landing)

Le Calao Inn
Telephone: (071) 212-100
Fax: (071) 212-085
Luang Prabang, Laos

Indochina Spirit - One of the best dining experiences in Indochina!
Ban Vat That 50-51
Telephone: (856) 71-252-372
Luang Prabang, Laos

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