Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Second Look

I was in a taxi, inching my way down a narrow, congested road that was far too small to handle the post-rainstorm traffic that was struggling to get to Bangkok's busiest bus terminal. I had missed my bus, was annoyed at the thought of buying another ticket, and was in no mood to answer my phone--but I did. A man's voice rattled out a long string of rapid and purposeful Thai that I couldn't keep up with. I handed the phone to my taxi driver, with a murmured plea for help.

His voice brightened audibly as he responded with information on our whereabouts and he smiled as he gave me back my phone. "The bus is waiting for you," he told me, and we both relapsed into happy shock as we pulled into the entrance to the bus terminal. A man grabbed my bag as I opened the taxi door and my cab driver wished me luck, too bemused to quote the fare. I jammed more bills than the meter asked for into his hand before following my luggage into the night and onto the bus.

The woman who had sold me my ticket to the Thai/Laos border had asked me for my phone number as we completed the transaction and I'd thought it was merely another manifestation of Thai bureaucracy in action. I'd been tempted to make one up for her and now I was deeply glad that I hadn't. As the bus inched its way out of Bangkok and then began rocketing down the highway, I felt so happy and grateful that I didn't care that I was unable to sleep.

I'd been careful to leave on Thursday evening, before the flood of voters began their odyssey to their home provinces to cast a ballot in a crucial and highly emotional election. Although this year for the first time ever, people from other parts of the Kingdom had been able to cast absentee ballots in Bangkok, many were eager to go home for the weekend, especially since--as I discovered later--Friday had been declared a holiday and Thailand faced a three-day weekend. Buses that we passed on the road were packed with travelers and I was even more thankful that my bus had waited for me.

This was my last visa trip before I returned to the States, and I'd decided to return to Savannakhet, even though it had been less than enticing when I'd gone there several months before. This time I brought reading material, including two big fat police stories by Jo Nesbo, and my netbook so I could work during what I knew would be a long, lethargic Laos weekend.

I had a reservation at a place called the Sala Savanh, a French villa that had previously been the site of the Thai Consulate-General, At least I'd have a modicum of colonial grandeur to wallow in before I left town on Monday afternoon, unlike the stark and dirty surroundings of the hotel I 'd stayed in during my last sojourn in this unprepossessing little spot, I told myself. The online photos of the place had looked promising and it claimed to have free wifi. Given the wretched, stormy weather that had engulfed all of SE Asia and had my Bangkok Internet only intermittently useful, I wasn't counting on any wifi in a town that looked as though it had just received the blessings of electricity the week before.

By the time I dropped off my visa application, was found by a tuktuk and entered the Sala Savanh, I was soaked through to my liver and my shoes I knew would never be the same again. A narrow, curving wooden staircase led me up to a little landing where double doors let me into my room. All I noticed was a bed and a hotwater heater in the bathroom; stripping off my saturated clothes, I savored the luxury of a hot shower in a bathroom that had no urinal and a bed that let me stretch out at length. This is why I take buses, I decided, it makes me appreciate life's most basic pleasures. Then I fell into the silence that engulfed me and slept.

Not only was the Sala Savanh wonderfully quiet, it was within walking distance of the river, the Thai consulate and the city plaza, which was long, bare, and bordered with places to eat, including a sidewalk cafe that served comfort food with a strong French accent. A picturesque Catholic church sat at the far end of the square and in the afternoon rain, women wearing traditional Lao skirts drifted past on bicycles, steering with one hand, the other holding an umbrella. The sound of crickets and children's voices filled the cool afternoon air and I savored that as much as I did my frites and Beer Lao. Houses in soft shades of pistachio, mint green, pale indigo, sky blue, mustard gold, and fading cream were my view when I watched the approach of twilight from the Sala Savanh's covered verandah, along with a forest of vintage TV antennas sprouting from rusting tin roofs, silhouetted against the darkening sky.

I tucked the mosquito net to make a snug canopy around my bed, put my netbook on a little wooden writing table, and tried the wifi. Even though the rain still fell in relentless drips, the Internet was slow but sure and the small vases on my bedside tables held tiny bouquets of green leaves. When I reached out to touch them, I was amazed and delighted that they were real. I misjudged this place when I was here before, I realized just before I was caught up in another wave of deep and restful sleep.


Dr. Will said...

It's hard for you not to fall in love with a place, I think. You've convinced me. I'm going there the next opportunity I get. Lovely writing.

janet brown said...

Thank you, Will. This wasn't love at first sight but I fell hard in many ways the second time around--it's very slow and very sweet.