In the far corner of the room were women sitting on the floor and with very little hope I asked them if there were books in English. They beckoned to another wall. And there were English books--Lao/English dictionaries, workbooks for learning English, texts on Business English from the days when business was still conducted on typewriters. I scanned the shelves hoping for one of Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri mysteries that he had published in special editions for the People's Democratic Republic; I'd seen them in Vientianne in a bookstore that was only marginally more enticing than this one. There were none.
I wasn't surprised. The English language literary scene didn't seem to have appeared on Savannakhet's radar; there wasn't even that traveler's mainstay, the shelf of yellowed, curling, abandoned, multilingual paperbacks, in the hostelry that I was staying in. Although I usually ignored that amenity, at this point I would have tackled a John Grisham masterpiece in Dutch or even Norwegian. But the Savanbanhao Hotel didn't even have maps of Savannakhet in English, which meant not only did I not know where anything was--I had no idea of what there was in this place.
So I walked, for hours, in hot sunlight, down roads that shredded my shoes with the efficiency of razor-blades. Along the river and under the trees were tempting little spots that served grilled chicken and fish and papaya salad at cloth-covered low tables. Hungry, I ordered and looked for a table that didn't have clusters of flies where food had been spilled on the jaunty red tablecloth.
The food was good and the flies enjoyed it. I thanked every god I could think of for the lid on my basket of sticky rice and for the generous portion I'd been given; resolutely I tried to avert my eyes from the plates of chicken and somtam and green vegetables that were no longer mine.
Across from my hotel was a kind woman who sold me a large bottle of cold Beer Laos. I was asleep before six.
The free breakfast offered by my hotel involved one sunny-side up fried egg, a cold baguette, and a cup of milky, sugary instant coffee. "We don't have black coffee," the waitress told me and I fled.
"Chez Boune," the desk clerk replied to my desperate plea for real caffeine, "I will take you there on my motorcycle." And in a small, impeccable cafe, built from Laos timber and open to the dilapidated sidewalk, I was served the most splendid double-espresso in Southeast Asia. "Better than Bangkok," I told the woman who brought it to me, who responded "Better than Starbucks?"
Chez Boune eroded my moral fiber. It was there that I had a dark Beer Laos with my bruschetta well before noon and finished my lunch with a piece of coconut layer cake. And it's the only place in the world where I ate every last morsel of the butter that was served with my baguette the following day--it tasted like summer, sweet and clear and clean on my tongue. "We get it from France," the Laos owner told me, "My husband and I lived in Paris for years."
I walked for miles in Savannakhet, constructing my own mental map of the place, realizing that if I had never been to a colonial Mekong outpost, I would probably have loved this one. But I had, and I didn't. Same old broken pillars behind the walls that obviously once enclosed an estate, same old gaping windows in abandoned French villas with fading mustard-colored walls, same old goats foraging near government offices. A few leafy trees swooped over a road for about a block; the other streets were unshaded and the one large and ugly fountain near a dismal-looking park was bone-dry. Not only did I miss the grace of Kratie in this place--it made me miss Vientianne.
And yet Savannakhet is what I'd wanted. It is Thai. People speak Thai, eat Thai food, happily accept baht for the smallest transaction. They are kind; not even the tuktuk drivers can measure up to the rapaciousness of their counterparts in Vientianne. Their slow pace is soothing and the lack of distractions offered by the town makes it a fine place to catch up on projects that have been ignored or to sit on a verandah and read. Just be damned sure that you bring your own books.