My time in Laos taught me that even I was not the person I thought I was. An ordinarily apathetic American, the son of CPAs, I never imagined I would be tossed in jail for killing a prostitute. Back then I wasn’t a murderer. Murder, with premeditation, came much later.
As the newest teacher in the Buddhist kingdom, I resolved I would do everything by the book. I would rely on my good intentions to pave the road ahead. As good intentions often do, mine led me to a place I hadn’t planned to go. It took me a while to figure out that in Laos, the good guys were the bad guys. Who knew that the American saviors of Asian democracy, who bragged they’d never lost a war, would abandon their lofty undertaking and ditch loyal allies without warning?
Jack Gaines was one of the Americans who came to save the Kingdom from Communism, and stayed around to watch it fall. Like Asia itself, Gaines was a charmer and a seducer. I disliked him from the get-go. Based on what I heard about his caddish behavior, I summarily condemned him for his lack of couth and civility. Decades later, I can still see him smile and hear him say, How much civility do you expect in a civil war?
In February 1973, Laos was squooshed between Thailand, which was fighting to remain free, and Vietnam, which was freefalling into Communism. The civil war in Laos was a sideshow in the Vietnam War. “Laos was only the wart on the hog,” a U.S. diplomat once observed undiplomatically. But, as Gaines would say, Oh, what a wart it was!
To this day, when I think of Laos I wonder if it’s possible for love to grow true in a place poisoned by lies and deception.
. . . . .
An open-air motorboat ferried me across the milewide Mekong River from Thailand. Upon landing on a muddy bank, I scrambled up ahead of the other passengers to reach Royal Lao Immigration and Customs. Royal though it was, the Immigration office was a shack no bigger than a telephone booth back home. I presented my passport to a ruddy-faced officer in a green uniform and high-peaked hat.
“Patpawt no good more three days,” he said. He admitted me to the Kingdom anyway.
A decade earlier, my parents had made us passports for a trip to Hawaii. As a consequence of my old man’s colossal incompetence, I was condemned to spend precious hours of my first day in Laos renewing my passport.
Arriving in Vientiane, more bad luck. I checked out the Sanook Hotel but couldn’t check in. The no-stars Sanook had been highly recommended by a hippie I’d met in Bangkok, who’d just come down from Laos still high.
“Up in Vieng, you can buy dope by the kilo,” the hippie told me. “Old grannies sell it at the Morning Market. They make soup with it, Man. I shit you not.”
“What about the war?” I asked.
“It’s far from the capital. You’ll never even know it’s there.”
“I heard a rumor about a ceasefire.”
“Yeah, that rumor’s been around for years.”
After waiting for what seemed to be years, a reedy Lao man of indeterminate age appeared before me like an apparition. I handed my passport to the anemic desk clerk.
“I’m Benny Bendit,” I said.
“Say here Paur,” said the clerk.
“Paul Bendit is my real name. Benny is a nickname.”
“You name Nick?”
“No, Paul. But you can call me Benny. I need a room.”
“No loom. Maybe rater.”
“How much later?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the clerk.
It was not yet eight a.m. Roomless, restless and afflicted by the hotel’s ailing air-conditioning, I ordered coffee.
“Nohm, or no nohm?” asked the clerk who was also the barista. The coffee cup of my brain was brimming with incomprehension.
“Nohm it mean lady’s boob and also mean milk,” the gaunt man explained.
“Kafe nohm it mean kafe wit’ milk.”
Ten minutes later, I got my kafe nohm. Lao coffee was a mountain-grown Arabica blessed with a unique flavor and blended with chicory to stretch the meager crop. Kafe nohm was served in a three-inch high glass with a half-sized spoon atop a saucer. Wallowing in the bottom of the glass was an inch-thick dollop of sweetened condensed milk. In a quaint custom that defied a coffee-lover’s logic, Lao coffee was always served with a glass of weak Chinese tea. Coffee comes with tea. Welcome to Laos.
At quarter to nine, the kafe nohm was a sweet memory. The weak tea had miraculously washed away the sticky-milk residue of the coffee. I removed my passport and Traveler’s Cheques from my Samsonite and made sure to lock it.
“Is it safe to leave my suitcase until a room becomes available?” I asked the druggy-eyed clerk.
“You come back too soon,” he said.
“Is it O.K. to leave it here for half an hour?”
“How about one hour?”
I looked into the young old man’s dilated eyes.
“You don’t understand English, do you?”
Passport in hand, I set off for the U.S. Embassy. I was confident I could conclude my embassy business, check into the hotel, and collect a teaching certificate before the end of the day, maybe even before noon. My unfettered
enthusiasm belied my unbound naïvete. As a newbie, I had no inkling this would be a red-letter day in the Kingdom’s six-hundred-year history, a date that would live in anti-Communist infamy.
On the streets of Vientiane the first thing that hits you is the capital’s signature fragrance, an eau d’égout that emanates from open sewage trenches. The next is the feeling that a soggy blanket of moist air is smothering you. Sweating bullets, I trod a treacherous pedestrian terrain over tilted and cracked sidewalks.
Rue Samsenethai was a jumble of two-story shophouses that mingled the sights and smells of Siam, China and India with those of France, Corsica and the Hippie Trail. The main drag’s distinctive characteristic was a mélange of
motorcycle fumes mixed with the pungent aromas of curry, incense and the Vietnamese soup called phở. There were few cars. Three-wheeled bicycle taxis took up the prime parking at the Constellation Hotel. Samlor drivers parked willy-nilly near the curb, sitting on their bicycle seat, or lounging on the passenger seat under its canvas awning.
In Rue Chanthakhoummane, I discovered a dilapidated bell-shaped Buddhist monument. Tufts of grass and little trees reached out from its cracks. The sooty pile of broken bricks and century-old mortar looked like a twelve-layer cake topped by a stone party hat. Plopped down in the middle of the road, the resolute black hunk compelled traffic to circulate around it. What a stupid place to place an ancient monument! A quarter of the way round it, I caught sight of an American flag flapping high above a canopy of flame trees.
The U.S. Embassy compound stood on Rue Bartholoni, a short street named for a French aristocrat who drowned when a mail boat went down in the Mekong River. Behind equally high walls, the Consulate stood on one side of the shady little street, the Chancery on the other.
Within the ramparts, the whitewashed buildings were chockablock with puffy-faced, paunchy Americans. The diplomats who were fighting a war within a war wore a hangdog expression that foretold the futility of their mission.
The first time I saw Jack Gaines he was standing ahead of me in the queue for the Embassy cashier. It was impossible to ignore a big lug with bushy blond hair in a loud Hawaiian shirt. Even from the back, his posture was an affront. He continually shifted his leggy weight from one buffalo-hide sandal to another.
Sensing my stare, Gaines turned around and flashed a toothy grin. Jeez, I thought. This guy’s got gleaming teeth, a tan like he just got off a beach, and a physique like he spends all day in the gym. But landlocked Laos had no beach and at the time there weren’t enough health-conscious foreigners to support a fitness club. Not only did he lack a gym, he lacked good manners. He was so American. Here was a prime example of the kind of American in Asia I intended to avoid.
As the idiot in the Hawaiian shirt advanced to the window, I caught a glimpse of the graceful Lao woman behind the narrow brass bars of the cashier’s cage. Craning my neck, I could see the cashier wore an immaculate white blouse. Atop her smiling face, her shiny black hair was piled high in a chignon adorned with gold ornaments. Admiration for the cashier melted away when the lout in the loud shirt waved a check in her face as if there were no bars between them.
“Look, Dollface,” said the toothy check-waver. “You really have to cash this. It’s got my name on it: Jack Gaines. You know me: Jack Gaines, The All-American Boy.” I was irritated by the way Jack Gaines The All-American Boy was treating the angelic cashier. Despite the rude treatment she was getting from Gaines, the cashier delivered her refusal to cash his check with a certain sweetness.
“Sorry, I no can do, Mister Jack,” she said. It was customary in Laos to use the honorific Mister with a person’s first name.
Mister Jack kept up the verbal barrage.
“Look here, this is a perfectly good check in perfectly good U.S. dollars. If I paid any taxes, I’d be paying your salary.”
“You choking me, Mister Jack.”
To Lao speakers of English, “joking” and “choking” were homonyms. However, the pretty cashier’s meaning was clear when she added, “You too funny.”
“O.K.,” said the badgerer. “If you won’t cash my check, you can come to my house and swallow my one-eyed snake.”
That did it. I’d had enough of The All-American Boy.
“Excuse me,” I said to Gaines. “But I’m in a hurry.”
“Take it easy, Buddy Boy,” said Gaines. “This is Laos. There’s no such thing as a hurry here.”
He turned to leave, slowly. Like he said, no hurry. Making a mental note to ignore Gaines if I ever saw him again, I stepped up to the lovely doe-eyed woman in the cashier’s cage. I felt the need to apologize on behalf of the American people.
“Miss, I’m really sorry about that guy,” I said.
The pretty cashier accepted my payment without looking up. As I stammered on about Gaines’s rudeness, she completed the transaction.
“Hav’a ni’ day,” she said.