Like most people who live far from their families, I do not look forward to Christmas and usually run from it as fast and as hard as I can. Laos, a country that is both Buddhist and Socialist, seemed a good sanctuary from all Yuletide trappings. Last year in Paxse I was thrilled to see no vestiges of any holiday but New Year's Eve-- which was being heralded by many brightly colored balloons that were all taken down well before the midnight countdown because they were so wizened. My kind of decorations, I decided, and was eager to return to Laos for more holiday austerity this year.
At first Vientiane seemed an extravaganza of temples with a healthy dash of bookshops and I roamed through both. I tried to imagine the city the way it was when Marthe Basseme arrived well over a hundred years ago, after Vientiane had been vigorously sacked by Siam and was a site of ruins and jungle with only Wat Sisaket still intact. It amazed me that so many temples had sprung back up so quickly in a country that is not wealthy, and that they had survived the revolution that turned Laos from a monarchy to a republic.
On Christmas Eve, I drank one too many Beer Laos and watched the sun set over the riverside marketplace. Perhaps that was why the following morning seemed less contemplative than the day before and why my walk through the streets of Vientiane was filled with Christmas trappings that I had managed to ignore until now.
I went back to Kosila Books near That Dam, thinking if Christmas was going to haunt me, I might as well give a present. Bearing a collection of stories by Minfong Ho that I had read on the train, a book published by ThingsAsian Press--To Vietnam With Love--and the Alan Rabinowitz account of environmental adventures in Thailand that I had bought and read after my arrival, I gave them to Sam, the dedicated bookseller who owns the shop.
"Then you must have this," he told me, turned to the nearest shelf and handed me Laos: Culture and Society. "How did you know this is the one I would have chosen for myself?" I asked him and he smiled at me and said, "Oh, I know these things." "You're a bookseller," I said and he nodded.
And then Christmas was alive and well and as it should be, in a bookstore, where the best presents are always found and bookloving people are able to find a common ground of understanding and perception . "Merry Christmas," we wished each other and suddenly, in the midst of plastic tannenbaum and overheated faces under polyester Santa Claus hats, it was.