I started getting ill in Phonsavan, a fever accompanied a throat ache that was so bad it left me unable to eat anything for several days. My condition deteriorated during the long 10-hour busride back to Vientiane, on an ancient Korean bus that sounded more like a large Russian helicopter. Along the way, we had to stop several times for on-the-fly repairs to its engine, but eventually reached Vientiane in the evening.
In Vientiane, I went to the International Clinic, part of the Mahosot hospital. The only difference between the two is that at the Clinic, prices are higher, and the doctors and nurses speak a little French or English. I was examined first by a nurse, then by a doctor, in a room filled with mosquitos. The doctor quickly diagnosed me with tonsillitis, and then prescribed three injections and a one-week follow-up course of antibiotics to battle the infection. The intravenous antibiotics were stored in those glass vials that I only recognised from movies and reminded me of World War II and morphine. Tap-tap-tap of the finger against the top of the vial, then the breaking of the top. The beautiful, friendly Laotian nurse took the better part of a half hour to administer the drugs, while commenting on how handsome I was, which admittedly helps the recovery process quite a lot. After two more days of injections, I felt a lot better. I started eating a little bit again, and soon had completely recovered.
Through a chance meeting, I had been invited to attend a village festival, in the small village of Song Pueai, a half hour from Vientiane. Every village in Laos has such a three-day festival, although on different dates, and all the villagers work together to organise a number of parties at the homes in the village, the community hall, or the local temple. I was staying at the house of the mayor of Song Pueai, a pleasant man who spoke no English, and I was once again humbled by the friendliness and hospitality of the family and the many friends, neighbours, village officials and policemen who came to visit. The mother and daughters in the family had prepared two dozen different kinds of dishes, delicious Laotian food. One glass of beer went round and round, and in between I was offered many glasses of Lao lao, or the very strong Laotian rice whiskey.
In the evening, we all went to the local temple, where in the field behind it a stage had been set up. A band was playing Laotian pop music, which did remind me of sixties Rock & Roll, but then with Laotian singing and melody. As soon as one song started, the area in front of the stage was filled with the 100+ people, young and old, who had come to the party, dancing in that conservative Laotian style where both women and men wave their arms and hands a lot, and move a little with their feet. As soon as one song was finished, the dance area was seemingly evacuated, as everyone rushed back to their tables and chairs to enjoy some more Beerlao. Some announcements followed, another song started, and the dance area was filled again. Meanwhile, some soldiers who had assumed a policing role walked around carrying their AK-47 rifles, while their platoon commander was being offered many drinks and cigarettes.
Several times, there was a traditional opening of the dance, when the names of three women would be called out by the announcer, and they came forward to the dancefloor. Then, the names of three men, who came forward to invite the women to dance, after which the rest of the crowd filled the dancefloor. As a guest of the mayor’s family, this happened to me as well, my name announced as Mr. Pleesot from prathet Hawlen, or The Netherlands. Together with the platoon commander and a son of the mayor, I went to the dancefloor and invited one of the three women, a friend of the mayor’s family called Pheng, to dance with me, by making the traditional wai gesture, placing your palms together while bowing your head slightly.
I stayed that night in the house of the family, on the first and only floor of the house, and was awakened very early the following morning by the now familiar sound of chickens, roosters, buffaloes, dogs and cats. After breakfast and saying many thanks to the family, I went back to Vientiane by songthaew.
From Vientiane, I continued on towards the town of Savannakhet, over 450 kms southeast of Vientiane. It’s a provincial capital that functions as a trading post between Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Again the French influence, as you walk past old colonial villas that are so badly maintained that they now resemble ruins. A group of boys is playing jeu de boules in the small town center. Nearby, the Laotian red, blue with white flag is posted next to the everpresent red and yellow hammer-and-sickle flag. The Vietnamese influence is most visible nowadays, however, with signs in both Laotian and Vietnamese, and many of the locals speak both. There is a local Vietnamese school, a Mahayana Buddhist temple, and even a Catholic church. While in Savannakhet, I visited That Ing Hang, the holiest religious site for the Laotians. It’s a nine meter high tower with a traditional Lao stupa, built in the mid-16th century, and has a large collection of Buddha statues.
But soon, I was on my way again, to the town of Pakse, and the Laotian New Year was about to start.