As the night train to the Laos border pulled away from Bangkok's art deco station, I sipped my beer and looked at the man sitting across from me. He was elaborating on the subject of Thai girls and I was feeling grateful that our beds would be made up soon so he would have to move. I hoped he didn't talk in his sleep because I already knew far more about him than I ever needed to know.
The next morning there he was, clearly fancying himself as an Old Asia Hand after three years in Thailand, telling everyone within earshot where they should stay and how they should barter and where they could get a free refill on their cup of morning coffee. I listened carefully, making mental notes of neighborhoods and restaurants to avoid while I was in Laos' capitol city. The Ancient Mariner was someone I never wanted to have to listen to again.
I didn't need to worry. He was a man who knew where all the cheapest places in Vientiane were to be found and I was willing to pay for comfort--a financial incompatibility lay between us like a very welcome moat. He was dead set on his 250 baht guesthouse and I decided upon my hotel choice, without making my selection public, minutes before disembarking at the border.
It was on the river or where the river would have been if it hadn't dwindled to the size of a large brook--all of it close to the Thai side. It was disconcerting to see the Mekong so diminished from what I had seen in Kratie, and I hoped its lack of majesty was because of the season and not the dams in China. The rainy season had ended only two months before and wouldn't resume for another six--by then people would probably be wading from Thailand into Laos, with no need for the Friendship Bridge.
I walked away from the long line of hotels and restaurants on a road that soon became dust and flowering bushes and trees. A little mini-mart flanked by a Christmas tree on one side of its doorway and a spirit house on the other had phone cards for sale. When the proprietress and I couldn't get my phone to work after inserting the card in what we thought was the proper fashion, she called for her teenage son who restored functionality without even a flicker of impatience.
A man emerged from a nearby house and walked beside me, asking where I was from and if I spoke Spanish. "Where did you learn Spanish?" I asked him, in ESL classroom mode. "Cuba," he said and the balance of power shifted in a heartbeat. He smiled and walked on, clearly savoring his moment of surprise and status, while I struggled to put my dropped jaw back in place.
The next morning I went out in search of a place called That Dam Bookstore, which was in the vicinity of a towering stupa called That Dam. Although the wordplay was what drew me there, the name had been changed to Kosila Books, a well-kept place crowded with bookshelves and paperbacks in a multiplicity of languages. The owner is Sam, and he is a man who is an honest-to-god book person. His English is fluent and his patience for questioning foreigners apparently inexhaustible. It's a browser's spot, with many surprises and I went away with an Iris Murdoch and Alan Rabinowitz's book on conservation adventures in Thailand.
Monument Books was my next destination--it's a pretty store,smaller and more enticing than the one in Phnom Penh, and as I wandered through it, two copies of Tone Deaf faced out on a display stopped me cold. "Oh, it's my book!" I said happily to the clerk hovering nearby, who responded with a look of total incomprehension. "I wrote this book," I told her in Thai. She and two of her colleagues smiled at me the way they might at a street person they hoped was harmless, and wandered off to a safe distance. Relegated swiftly from happy author to shunned leper, I went back out into the blazing sunlit street.
In the riverfront street of my hotel was the Ventiane Book Center, with an open front and every piece of merchandise swathed either in cellophane or dust or both. The clerk swabbed at the cards I bought with a feather duster and I energetically polished my hands with a clean handkerchief I'd fortunately brought with me. I sneezed, she nodded, I left with no reason that I could see to ever go back.
Temples are the punctuation mark of Vientiane and they are beautiful, quiet places with trees and flowers. I found my way of being in that city was to eat, see a temple, wander, and then repeat. It's a better prescription than Xanax and Valium put together for a frazzled refugee from Bangkok.