Thailand 2013: Vientiane, the Old Bangkok?
Part 3 of 3
Being back in my old girlfriend’s neighborhood (Isaan) produced no ghosts from that relationship. Now visiting Vientiane, I would soon discover where the ghosts of Bangkok in the 60’s and 70's now hang out.
The morning after our dinner boat cruise on the Mekong, we get ready for a visit to Laos and the city Vientiane. But there is one last duty to perform before we got started – I told you in the last article so you know the answer – we have to get one last, good Thai meal under our belts. Who knows, we may get stranded in Laos and not have it for days. Heaven forbid! So it comes as a big surprise when we walk a few meters from the guesthouse to the Daeng restaurant. This large open air restaurant serves Vietnamese recipes Thai-style. Sounds strange at first but the dishes we ordered were delicately cooked Vietnamese favorites with a little more spice than usual. Their pork rolls (nam neung) were so light and crispy I could have made a meal eating just them (I almost did). Daeng restaurant is deservedly one of Nongkhai’s most popular places to eat.
The first thing we do to get into Laos is a visit to a Thai government building to get a visa. We fill out a few forms, wait, talk to some people, and wait some more. You know the routine. While waiting, I see this comical sign. Who says bureaucrats don’t have a sense of humor.
After we get our visas, G assures us we will not have any problems in Laos. Seems the ornately coiffured woman G introduced us to last night has made a few phone calls on our behalf. I have no idea what this means but as I am not likely to get any answers, I don’t ask the question. For those who have not done this before, getting into Laos through this crossing is not easy. First, you get cleared on the Thai side of the Mekong, and then you travel by an ancient bus over the river where Laotian immigration has a look at you. We have no problems on the Thai side. On the Lao side, my Thai entourage has their passports stamped immediately. Then G talks to a Lao person who directs us to a particular window. The uniformed woman sternly eyeballs me but duly stamps my passport. We leave the waiting area but I notice a lot of westerners we came over with still waiting.
After we clear the passport area, we meet our Lao driver. He directs us to a mini-van and as we all pile in, I noticed the image of Che Guevara on the door. I find it mildly amusing that a very committed Communist’s picture is on a vehicle used for purely capitalist gain. No matter, our driver is friendly and speaks Thai very well. He is well worth the thousand baht we will pay him for five hours of work. Notice we will pay him in Thai baht. At every stop we make in Laos, Thai baht or American dollars are the preferred currencies. I never saw a single Lao kip as even our change is in Thai baht. Another ironic thought is that for many years, Lao people who had money to invest found a Thai partner and invested in Thailand. Now the money was flowing the other way. This political border was merely a cost of doing business, much like the border between the US and Mexico, where if it didn’t exist, there is but one community.
After we start our drive on the main road to Vientiane, it suddenly occurs to me I am in the country where God’s own nectar is brewed: Beerlao. I ask the driver if we will pass close to the Beerlao brewery. My wife translates and the driver shakes his head “yes”. He told her that we will soon drive right by it but it is closed today. A few minutes later we pull over to the side of the highway into a driveway. There it is, like a golden palace with a golden treasure hidden inside. We take a few pictures and as there is nothing more to do, we continue our journey. From then on, I notice that every third business in Laos has a Beerlao sign with the company’s name displayed. The communists may run the country but Beerlao is clearly the face of many businesses in Laos.
Our next stop is at the gigantic golden stupa Pha That Luang. This was originally established in the 3rd century as a Hindu temple. It is an extremely impressive monument but tourist access within the walls is very restrictive. After a few snaps there is not much to do here either, but endure the hot weather. The sleeping policeman on “guard” at the entrance confirms this. I was going to take his picture but with my luck, I would probably have spent the night in a jail cell for doing so.
After that, it was on to the famous Patuxai or victory gate. This arch was built in the late 1950’s in honor of those who died in the war of independence from France. Ironically, it looks very much like the French Arc de Triomphe but the architectural style and carvings are definitely Laotian. While walking in the park beside it, I also notice an equally imposing structure just opposite Patuxai. I ask the driver what it is and he answers something about “government”, so I assume this is a hugely ornate government office building. I guess the communists need their monument as well.
The weather is starting to look grim so we hurry off to our next destination, Wat Ho Phra Keo. This temple dates back to the 16th century and originally belonged to the Lao royal family. Although not outwardly impressive as some of the more ornate Thai temples, the art work in and around the temple is worth the hassle to visit Laos. The paintings, carvings, and sculpture, were subtle but beautiful examples of medieval Asian art. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed inside so the only pictures I have are from the outside. Even these wonderful examples do not do it justice.
Now it is time to get to the border and into Thailand before the weather gets worse. On our way back through the city, I see what might be small bar areas with neon lights and quirky English names. What are these places like to visit at night? How much of a bar scene is there in Vientiane? Just outside the city I see a massive building about halfway completed. The driver says it’s the new American embassy. How strange to see such a large embassy being built on the soil of an old enemy from the Vietnam War era. A quick check on Wikipedia shows that relations between the two countries started to thaw after Bush signed a trade agreement normalizing trade relations. Since then, exports to America have been increasing. Hopefully, that includes a lot more Beerlao as it is hard to find. I wonder if this huge embassy means Laos is being brought into the fold of the new American alliance in South-East Asia.
After we arrive at the Laos side of the border, I see a large duty-free shopping area with lots of shops. We pay the driver and the girls announce they want to do more shopping. I frown a little but G says Pee Noi is going to pick us up on the Thai side and can’t get there for another hour or so. I also announce I want a Beerlao so we agree to meet later in an hour or so. I find myself a nice little outdoor restaurant around the back and in the shade. It’s probably my imagination, but drinking Beerlao in Laos tastes so much better, if that’s possible. A few minutes later, a small Lao man ambles over to my table and offers to sell me Viagra. No thank you. Then he pulls out a small vial of pills which he called “drugs” or something. No thank you, again. He goes back to his table right across from mine where there is another Lao guy and a girl. He then brings the girl over. “Look at my girlfriend, isn’t she beautiful?” The girl smiles at me on cue. He continues, “She can go with you, she from Vietnam, very sexy” and she sits down opposite me. “No, no” I cried, “My wife will be here soon. Please get up.” She complies and they leave the restaurant. I ask for my check and when the waiter returns, he hands me the bill and offers me Viagra and other drugs. I politely decline. Jeez, I know I am getting older but why is it always the offer of Viagra first? I quickly finish my beer and leave. As I walk around the shopping area looking for my wife, I wonder all western men in Laos have this experience. Are they the constant target for touts selling all sorts of illegal stuff? Is this what Bangkok was like in old days during the Vietnam War? If so, then for those looking to recapture those early days at the Thermae, when it was full of interesting scoundrels with big, and sometimes illegal dreams in a newly growing Thailand, you might try a visit to Vientiane.
Soon after that I find my wife and we board the pre-WWII bus to take us back over the Friendship bridge and Thai soil. We clear Thai immigration and we see Pee Noi is already waiting for us. Now safely back in Thailand, the skies open up and release a huge downpour of rain. We make our way back into the city of Nongkhai and park outside of an open air restaurant called Dee-Dee’s (get it, good-good). It’s crowded with many Thai patrons in spite of the heavy rain. We literally get the last table and sit down to order some food. The menu is basic Thai with Isaan favorites, but our food was fresh with a little bit of spice to it. The pad pak boong (water spinach) was the best I have ever had. I could eat at Dee-Dee’s every day for the rest of my life. Now I understand why this restaurant is full even in the worst of weather. After we finish, I get up to use the hong nam and when I return, I find Pee Noi has paid the bill. I protest but she says with a smile, “You are my guests.”
The next morning we plan to go back to Bangkok. G and Pee Dtum will drive my wife and I to the airport at Udon Thani and then they will go back to Korat. G has some “family business” to take care of. But before we leave the guesthouse, there is the small matter of my wife’s birthday to deal with. Pee Noi has bought a beautiful cake loaded with fancy icing and fruit. She places it on a cement table in the promenade with its beautiful backdrop of the Mekong River, where we now gather. Candles are lit and we all sing “Happy Birthday” as only the fun loving, off-key Thai people can. The cake and coffee makes for an excellent breakfast. When I go to settle the guesthouse bill, Pee Noi waves me off again with a gentle wai. It now occurs to me she has mostly paid for our entire trip to Nongkhai, including our room, dinners, and the Lao driver. I try in vain to give her some money, but instead I get a kiss on cheek, with much laughter from the rest of the group. It has been a wonderful trip to Nongkhai, all made possible by gentle cancer survivor with a wonderful guesthouse on the Mekong River.
Sitting in the waiting area at Udon Thani airport, I have one more déjà vu moment from the many flights I have taken with my old girlfriend. It passes sooner than I expect and I board the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok with my lovely wife. After we land, it is strange to again walk through the old Don Meuang airport. Now quiet and relaxed, it is nothing like the old days. As I would be flying back to America in two days, we decide to stay one night at the Amari Hotel next to Don Meuang and then one night at G’s condo nearby. We have a little trouble finding the bridge to the hotel but we eventually do and enter the hotel’s lobby. Like Don Meuang, it is instantly plain to see that today’s Amari is nothing like the old days before the new airport was built. I vividly remember the crowded lobby-bar filled with loud talking businessmen having a last few drinks before their flight back to their homelands. Or those just arriving, in high spirits and ready for a few days of business and fun in the (paid) sex capital of the world. Now the lobby is almost entirely empty and it remains so the one day we are there. The only exception was when a large group of Chinese tourists invaded the lobby. Loud talking and using wild gestures, they could have been western teenagers on an excursion to Disney World. As the high-flying businessmen have moved to better venues and a different airport, these are the only customers the Amari can now attract. Like the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, another part of old Bangkok, it is probably gone forever.
The next day was MY day in Bangkok. This is my one day my sweet wife allows me to roam the streets of Bangkok alone. I know this causes her great angst as she believes I am quite helpless in Thailand. To ease her stress, I always promise to check in by phone every hour and to be back before sunset. We take a taxi from the hotel, the wife get out at her friend’s house, and then I am on to Pantip Plaza. The plaza is not too crowded at mid-morning but it still has a fair amount of customers roaming around. I am looking for gifts to take home and maybe a few movies. I start by buying a few movies. I pay the vendor and promise to be back in 20 minutes. I decline his offer for “young girl” movies. As I am looking around the first floor, I spot a large manikin under the escalator dressed as a policeman with his hand held up in a “stop position”. In the other hand is a sign that says something like “Stop Piracy” or other. This scarecrow is not scaring anyone, and I suspect it is only brought out when the foreign piracy people come to town. I find some other gifts and pick up the DVDs.
I catch another cab bound for Nana Plaza. Although I usually avoid the expat areas, I am an incurable people-watcher and this is a great venue to indulge my fetish. Plus, I sometimes enjoy chatting with some of the bar girls while sipping a beer. It’s strangely relaxing and by the end of my excursion, I will have had my fill of Nana expats and its bargirls for another two years.
Even though it is the end of May and the beginning of the rainy season, the streets of Sukhumvit are crowded with street vendors and street walkers. Many vendors are selling fake vitamin V and sex toys in the open, along with sexy videos of girls as well as boys. I suppose it’s a rite of passage into late middle-age that street vendors assume you need Viagra before pictures of underage girls. Neither items, I can assure you, are things that I need or want. I walk back towards Nana and settle into Zen Bar and order a beer. For a mid-afternoon Friday, it has a fair amount of good looking girls. There are even a couple of stunners trying to make eye contact. I guess the slow season has arrived and pickings are slim. I get a smile from a pretty girl so I invite her over. She is from Korat and seems fairly new to the game as her English is not very good and openly tells me she has a son. I finish my beer and repeat the routine at another bar further down the soi. In this bar, the girls are definitely a little longer in the tooth and more desperate for business. But I am having a good day so far as I have not been yelled at by some boozy expat wanting to talk about American politics.
I try another bar but it’s worse than the previous one, so I continue walking down the soi until I see a sign for Annie’s Soapy Massage. I am again filled with nostalgia as ten years ago I spent a couple of wonderful evenings there. I wonder what it is like now. As I approach, I see a couple of girls sitting outside that are not easy on the eye. But after I enter the building, I am immediately escorted to the glass enclosure behind which sits female flesh. There are 10 pretty girls sitting down but three of them are pretty hot looking. Not bad considering it is not even close to prime time. With a will power nothing short of Herculean, I exit Annie’s saying I will return later. I know they don’t believe me.
With the daylight waning, I head back up to Sukhumvit and wander into Bully’s for a last beer. There’s some action at the pool tables and a few people in booths, but it’s obviously not their busy time. I order a beer and watch a little TV. Then someone approaches me from behind the bar and introduces himself as Tony, the manager. Fellow Yanks, we start talking and I soon discover he is from the east coast of America, same as me. I ask how he ended up here in Thailand and he told me a great story which you should ask him yourself. It’s instructive for anyone hoping to find a good job in Bangkok. Later, he said he had recently been to Virginia Beach for some business, which is really close to my home. We even knew some of the better restaurants there. Then we discuss what it is like to run a business in Thailand. All great stuff from a guy who is really committed to making Bully’s a great restaurant. I was very impressed and greatly enjoyed our conversation. I did not get a chance to sample the food, but based on meeting the manager, I am sure it’s delicious. Now close to my curfew, I pay my bill and rush out into the rain of Bangkok and head back to my wife on the BTS.
My wife has planned for us to go out with her old friend from home and her husband. I arrive at G’s condo in plenty of time to shower and change clothes. Her friends arrive a few minutes later in a new Mercedes sedan and we drive to a Thai steak restaurant. This will be an ordinary dinner party but the Thai family we will share it with is not. They have an interesting story that not many are privy to.
We were going to dinner with D and her husband and daughter. Although we had met this couple before, I did know until my wife told me a few days ago that they are not really married. D, my wife’s childhood friend, is his mia noi and her daughter is the fruit of their love. This little family has been together for some time as D’s daughter is now at university. D lives in an upscale house in Don Meung and from all outward appearances; they are a normal Thai middle class family. She is respectable in all ways Thai and my wife understands the life she is living. D’s husband is some executive in a large Thai corporation and foots the bill for everything, including the daughter’s university expenses. Everyone is happy with the situation, even my wife, who at times seems a little envious. This is how the mia noi system works in Thailand. For those of you thinking that 10, 20, or even 50 thousand baht a month is enough to keep your Thai woman true to you please open your wallet a little further. It is a long term and expensive investment of resources. Anything less is contingent on the next best offer as she has to be able to have respect in Thai society via outward signs of support, or it just isn’t worth it.
Anyway, we had a wonderful dinner of decently cooked steaks and good conversation, mostly in English. They are a wonderful couple and he is pretty humble for a person of his stature. And the daughter was cute beyond all measure. I exchange business cards with him and we promise to stay in touch. Having contacts like this when I do move to Thailand can be invaluable. But more than that, he seems like a nice guy. Of course, he insists on paying the check. He drives us to our condo where G will meet us the next morning. My wife will be staying on a couple of weeks more for one last trip to see her mother, so it will just be me leaving for America the next day.
My flight is not until 11 AM but G arrives at 8 AM even though we are just 10 minutes from the airport. As I dress I notice that the hot sweaty days, reduced beer intake, and the steroid drugs have reduced my weight to my normal profile. My wife even compliments me on my physique. But as I board the plane, I am thinking of all the things that happened to me on this trip. There will be many adjustments I will have to make when I finally do come to Thailand to live full time. Keep working, learn Thai, watch the drinking, keep exercising, and above all, keep jai yen at all times. I know many come to Thailand for its “freedom” but it only exists as a fantasy or as long as you have the money to buy that freedom. For the rest of us, having a good life in Thailand has to be earned, doesn’t it?
Here’s hoping your Thai reality is not fantasy.