As promised, here is the series of Vientiane. Section 1 is about Thadeua from 1970 to 1971. Section 2 will be about Vientiane as a whole (1971-1981). I don't know how long each section will go. What I will do here is to assign parts to each installment. Think this way: Savannakhet years take about 30 parts (mostly long ones). As for Thakek, it takes about twice that many (mostly short ones). Reasonably, both Thadeua and Vientiane will take roughly 100 parts. That translates into at least a full year of my writing on this series. Get ready and go for a wild ride with me.
Thadeua years 1970-1971
When we first arrived in Vientiane, we stayed at my grandparent's house at Bane Sisavath, Nahaidieo. This grandparent was from my mother's side. Strange as it may be, both of my grandparents weren't even my real ones. My grandmother passed away when I was hardly three years old. My grandfather whom I thought was the real one turned out to be my grandmother's new husband. Since he saw him since day one, I accepted him as my real grandfather anyway. Besides, he was very nice to me. When we were in Savannakhet, he was there too. Since I liked to frequent the movie theaters, LaoChareuane and NangLit, which were just within a walking distance from his place, I usually dropped by his to get some cookies. As usual, he would have a big bowl full of cookies ready for me. Physically, my grandfather looked like a Ho with his fair skin and rather tall stature. What was interesting was he wasn't originally from Xiengkhouang like my mom. If that was the case, I would mistake him to be a hundred percent Ho. As it turned out to be, he was from Vientiane, to be exact, Bane Nahaidieo where all of his siblings were still living there. Some of his family members had dark skin and couldn't be mistaken for anybody else but Lao. Strange as it may be, all of them built their houses next to one another. It was here that I first spent my Vientiane years. Moreover, it was the first time that I was among my mom's side of the family.
My grandfather's house was big. Typical of a Lao house, it was made of wood with the first story left open. There were three bedrooms. Of which one central room could easily be divided into two or three bedrooms. When we got there, all of us eleven people slept in the central room. The other room was occupied by my step grandmother's son of an earlier marriage. He was the same one who, at one time, came to live with us at Thakek. He was less than ten years older than me so, at times, I slept in his room.
In general, my mom's relatives were okay. Typical of Vientiane folks, they were competitive. My grandfather sister's kids were in school age. One was even in my same grade. I will have more to say about this later. Originally, my dad wanted me to go to school in Vientiane, namely Ecole Sisamouth. Unfortunately, there wasn't even a single place for me so, like it or not, I had to follow my family to Thadeua and attend a public school there. Anyway, I was glad since day one I never left the side of my mom. Besides, I heard that we were going to reside in a brand new building at Thadeua. Wasn't it that exciting?
More than I could dream of, this new residence was incredible. In fact, it was The building in town. From afar, it was like it was dropped out of sky. Made out of brick and modern-looking, this building was of a two stories. The first story was used as a post office while the second floor was reserved as a living quarter. There were three bedrooms altogether very much like the residence in Thakek. That didn't excite me. What excited me was the spacious veranda that could be used as a swimming pool. Of course, that was an exaggeration but, to us kids, it was a swimming pool when it rained heavily. Yes, most of the time, during the rainy season we could get plenty of water to make a splash. I and my siblings who were only a couple of years apart made full use of the veranda. Just think eight of us except my elder sister (sixteen) who thought she was too old for that kind of stuffs ran around splashing water on one another. Most of time, we played ball too.
Just imagine how wild it could be with all the screaming and running around. Yes, that was our new residence in Thadeua. Moreover, this place was at the center of the town activities. In front was ThaHeua where heavy pocket Vientiane folks went to shop at Nongkhai. Besides, this ThaHeua was full of the riverside restaurants. In fact, the market was next to it. Just cross the street, then voila. For the school, it was less than five minutes walk. If I was in a hurry, I could dash there in one breath. The temple? I could even hear when the Gong sounded for noon.
What I liked most about my new residence was that I could see the Mekong River right from my veranda. See the boats cruising across the Mekong River with either the Lao or Thai flag flowing at the boat helm. The waves these boats made rippled across the river. Most of the time, when it was sunny, I could see the sparkling diamonds reflected on the surface of the water.
Yes, this was Thadeua where I lived. What a wonderful place to live indeed!
As a town, Thadeua stretches over a single road - Thanon Sai Thadeua. This road was built by the Americans. It starts from Khai Chinaimo, the military headquarter of the 5th region, to the town of Thadeua - a distance of over twenty kilometers. Since this road was well built and well paved (one could say this is the number one quality road in Laos), motorists came to use it as a racing track. Most of the time, the road is straight. Only at one point or another, it has the dangerous curve. It was here that claimed a lot of lives to both motorists and passers-by. I would say that this Thadeua road is very picturesque with rice fields and occasional houses painted on both sides of the road. Moreover, if you want to engulf in the scenery of Thadeua road, do come during the rainy season (a little update here: many more houses have been built on both sides of the road recently. That means that it is highly probable that you will see more of the houses than of ricefields). At that time, you will witness the lushness of the countryside. Soaked with the rainwater, the grass, the leaves and the rice grains are beaming with green and golden yellow. At any pool of water, the buffaloes will be fully entrenched in it. If you are lucky, you will also see the kids running naked in the torrented rain. Since, at some years, it rained so heavily; the road was worn away. Some said that it was due to the Mekong feat which was overflowing. In case you don't know, this Thaduea road was running parallel to the Mekong River. So when the Mekong River overflowed its banks, this road was heavily affected by the inundation. When time passed, this beautiful road was full of cracks. Even when it was repaired, it didn't look the same. Maybe, because of the cheap materials they used or people who did the fixing didn't know what they were doing, Thadeua road gradually became a typical Lao road. You know what I am talking about, right?
Thadeua road is also where the famous cigarette company '555' was located. In fact, it was its garden. Since its big pool was covered with lotus flowers and nice looking fish, Vientiane people liked to have a picnic here. Besides, this garden was architecturally designed like Chinese emperor summer palace, Lao people felt like they were camping out in another land. From 1960s onwards, it seemed like the land stretching from Chinaimo camp to Thadeua became an industrial site for the growing Vientiane. There, you could find factories like soda, beer, soap, lumber, cigarette matches, so on and so on. Also, on this road lies Thanaleng, a ferry port to Nongkhai where things were shipped across the Mekong River. This port was only a few kilometers away from the town of Thadeua itself. The garden of 'heaven/hell' which I like to call (I forgot the name) was also on this road. By the time I was there, it wasn't built yet. As you can see, Thadeua road was the road of the future for the new Laos. Some said it was the road that facilitated the Thai goods to ever needed Vientiane market. Whatever it may be, Thadeua road greatly benefitted Thadeua folks. With money generated from the Thai tourists and Vientiane nouveau rich, new houses built on concrete sprung up everywhere. To accommodate the needs for gasoline consumption, Thadeua opened a gas station. Its main customers were nobody else but the many taxi drivers who became a new crop of Thadeua folks.
Thadeua, I don't know whether it is still booming or not. With the opening of the Friendship Bridge in Thanaleng, all the traffic across the Mekong River won't pass through Thadeua as before. Like time that comes with change, Thadeua post office - an architectural landscape of the town, looked decrepit when my mom visited the town again in 1997. Thadeua, that is the fate you can't foresee. For the time being, let's relive the past through my memory. Maybe, one day, Thadeua will rise up again when it come to learn that it has so much to contribute to Muang Lao and Quon Lao through its own distinctiveness.
When I arrived at Thadeua in 1970, I was thirtheen. At that age, I should have gone to Lycee but I failed the exam test. That was why I had to repeat the same grade again. Maybe, because of that reason or maybe because I used to attend a private school before, I had a very easy time at the public school. I would say that I was placed first in the class every month. There were one or two classmates who were in a position to compete with me. One was a Chinese born girl whose family owned a gas station, and another was a head of the class who was very diligent. These two gave me a hard time at some months. Telling the truth, I sweated badly at the time of tallying the scores from each subject. As I remember, there were arithmetic, reading, composition, dictation, arts (drawing), physical exercise, and even singing. The way we tallied the scores was done in class in front of everyone. One student was assigned to go to blackboard. Each time, the score from each subject was told, he would write the score on the blackboard under each student's name. Of course, the attention was given to our three names since we always ranked in the top three. Most of the time, when I scored most subjects with the perfect score of 10, I just relaxed since I was so sure that no one can top me. Unfortunately, at two or three months, I got most 9 instead of most 10, my eyes would fix at the two rivals' scores with the utmost attention. I remember vividly that, at one time, the result wasn't finalized until the last score was called. As it turned out to be, I beat the Chinese born girl by only one point. I guess I don't have to tell how relieved I was at that moment. My teacher even jokingly quipped that I survived this time. Hearing that, I swore to myself that I wouldn't let this kind of things happen again.
I forgot to tell you that, in Thadeua primary school, each grade had only one classroom. That means if you are in the top of the class, you are in the top of the grade as well. By the way, saying that doesn't mean I was a kid with a big brain. Instead, it just means that no one in Thadeua was better than me in regards to performing at the sixth grade level. Realistically speaking, not a few kids were smarter than me. They just weren't exposed to a learning environment that I was familiar with. I wonder how many of my classmates' parents were educated like mine. Also, I couldn't help wondering that they had enough support at home financially and emotionally like I received from my parents. Besides, I was in a different league than they were comfortable with. It must have been a frustrating experience for my rivals who always ranked first and second throughout their learning years to always be ranked behind me. Yes, it was hard for public school students to compete with private ones. Most of the time, if not a hundred percent, private school students would leave their counterparts in public school in the dust. When it happened that public school students outshone the private ones, those public school students must be exceptional indeed.
I have many stories to tell you about my classmates since not a few of them came to have their own characteristics which were very colorful, reminiscent of their colorful town - a threshold of Lao/Thai culture.
There were over thirty students in my class. About a third was the female. Three of those came to my mind vividly. In fact, I even remember two of the girls' names. They are: Chan (literally means 'moon') - a Chinese born, and Kanda - presumably of Lao Isan origin. Chan was kind of chubby for the Lao kids. Typical of the Chinese, she had a one layer lid eyes and fair skin. When she walked, she walked very fast like she was always in a hurry. At times, she sat in front of me so I had time to observe her hair (there was no school policy that girls and boys were sitting separately so occasionally the boys and girls sat next to one another or in a row close by). I would say that they were long than seeing from afar and very delicate. From what I observe, Chan did her schoolwork fast. When all the girls had problems with their schoolwork, they liked to turn to her. When that happened in school, you couldn't find anywhere louder than their study group. In fact, it was not only the school stuff when they gathered but all the girls stuff too. Chan took the pleasure of beating me in any subject she could. When that happened, her cheering fans - mostly female would stare at me like saying 'you are not that unbeatable after all.'
As intense as our rivalry was, someone still had the gut to spread the rumor that we were lovers. The first time I heard this, I couldn't believe my ears. Me? Chan's lover? No way. I could garner tens of reasons why that was not the case. First, she was my rival. How could one become one's rival lover? That was absurd. Second, my preference for girls was always with the ethnic Lao. Third, I wasn't ready for puppy love yet. So on and so on. I guess one of the reasons my friends liked to tease me with Chan because I sang a song 'Hark Heng Nun Mee Chom Jai' (if that place has you). That song was sung in front of the class as part of the curriculum. Yeah, if people like to tease you, they will find every excuse to do it. Justifiably or not, that is not the case after all.
Who knows, anyway? If she and I happened to go to the same school after the primary school, we might have established some kind of relationship. Unfortunately, she didn't pass the exam to the coveted Lycee de Vientiane as none of my classmates at Thadeua did either. Chan, wherever you may be, let's hear this word of mine
'you are a fine young girl. Our intense rivalry of the past was only for the sake of excellence. I wish that, in the future, we will have a chance to compete again. This time, it will be for the rebuilding of our beloved country, namely our little town - Thadeua.'
Now, I will talk about Kanda - a girl who seemed to have her face covered with the make-up all the time. In general, she was an attractive girl. With make-up and nice dress, she became like a young woman. At that time, the hit song was about a woman named Kanda who fled the countryside to live in a red roof apartment in Bangkok. Of course, that song was a LukThung song from Thailand. As you would have guessed, any Lao town, any Lao village along the shore of the Mekong River was under the spell of Thai entertainment might. The Thai beamed their radio wave to the Lao around the clock. It wasn't a surprise to see Lao people especially Thadeua people listening to the Thai radio throughout their waking hours. With the popularity of that song, Kanda became a hit in our school. At times, I even sang that song when passing by her.
There was one girl I liked to look at in particular. Too bad that I don't even remember her name. In stature, she was about my height which was quite tall for the Lao girls. With a fair skin and a nice smile, she became my big attraction. Mainly, because of this girl, I had to make sure that I dressed nicely for school. Usually, I didn't like to iron my clothes because it took so much time but since I was rather attracted to her, I began to iron my clothes as neatly as I could. The funny thing was: I even curled my eyebrows. I don't know whether anybody noticed this or not. If so, I would look silly to them indeed. A boy with a curled eyebrow. Yuck! In retrospect, I just realized that I was influenced by the Thai movies I frequently saw. The actresses and, at times, the actors always had curled eyebrows. When you were young, you were easily led to believe that whatever the hero and heroine put on typified the best of the best and the beauty which you yourself just couldn't do without.
This girl I remember not a name liked to walk by the post office to the market. Some said that her mom had a stall there. When I was in either Savannakhet or Thakek, the market was my favorite place. I don't know why when I got to Thadeua, I hardly went to the market at all. Strange that it was so close but I had no recollection of visiting it even once. Maybe, I was afraid of running into her or maybe, I was too lazy to even cross the street. Likely, I was just too satisfied with the view from the veranda to venture out anywhere else. By the way, there was one time I went to the riverside restaurant. This particular one was next to the market. The reason I went there was because a televised boxing match between the heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and Mohammed Ali (at that time, he was known as Cashier Clay) was shown there. The restaurant was overflowed with patrons. Among them were me and my dad. I don't know why I and my dad cheered for Mohammed Ali. At that time, he was very boastful that it was hard to root for him. Anyway, we rooted for him for the simple reason that he was a contender. Presumably, he was an underdog too. I guess we all or most love underdog, right? When the decision was reached that Mohammed Ali won, a big cheer erupted in the restaurant. Of course, those who won the bet had a big smile on their faces. We left the restaurant with a big smile too though we didn't bet a single Kip. Before I left, by instinct or not, I stole a glance at the market. Maybe, for one more time, the girl I liked was mysteriously there.
I am not sure whether she is still living in Thadeua or not. Likely, as most Thadeua people had crossed the Mekong River for good, she must have been living somewhere in the third countries now. Imagine if I happen to run into her again, what would I react? Will I still steal a look at her? Or will I come out and bluntly say that 'know what? Back in Thadeua in 1970, you were the girl whom I liked.'?
Imagine, imagine. That is all I can do. After all, even back then, I don't even remember talking with her at all!
Now, I will talk about my male classmates. Of over twenty of them, I remember five names: Oukeo, Ken, Morakot, Mith and Panya. A few more which I don't remember their names but their images are still lingering in my mind.
Oukeo, one of the few students of my same age, was not originally from this area. His family came from either Xiengkhouang or Paksane, I am not sure. What is sure is that they are of Lao Phuan. His dad was ThaneMoh (a doctor). At least, that was what Thadeua people called him. Likely, he had some training in the medical field and was in a position to administer cure on some minor illness. Very unlikely that a real doctor would be stationed in this small town. After all, there weren't that many doctors in the entire country. Anyway, Oukeo's dad was a doctor to us. As I remember, I once went to his dad to have a vaccine shot for the chicken pox. Oukeo told me that he relearned in the same grade because he didn't pass the entrance exam to Lycee de Vientiane. His family wanted him to pursue a secondary education therefore he would have to sit in the same class again. I would say that though learning the same thing he still had a hard time mastering it. Not a few times that I had to help him with his homework. Maybe, with the new educational system, he might have succeeded and gone to a secondary education. Unfortunately, during the early seventies, spots for the secondary education were very limited. Not only that one had to be good at learning but one also needed luck too. At that time, there were only five or six secondary schools in the whole city. Lycee de Vientiane was the most coveted one. Second was Lycee FaNgum and third was Dongdok. Of the private ones, Sinxay, Pathamavong and Sisavath were the ones that the students who had failed the entrance exam to those three schools had to resort to. Oukeo, lacking both of those assets, opted out to make a living right after his failed entrance exam for the second time. Before I left Laos in 1981, I saw him working for the sewing cooperative at Bane Mixay. I told him that I would leave Laos and asked whether he wanted to come with me. Obviously, his answer was 'no' since I met him again in Pakse in 1998. This time, he worked as a person who went with the ferry travelling along the Mekong River. His job was to load and unload cargo from the ferry to the truck and vice versa. It was strange that almost thirty years had passed but we still recognized one another.
That day, while boarding a ferry (Heua Buc) back to Pakse from Muang Khout (Lao territories on both shores of the Mekong River - a strange thing in itself), Oukeo came dashing to where I sat. His hand was wavering wildly as he ran from the shore to the ferry. At first instance, I was surprised to see an anonymous person waving to the ferry. Maybe, he knew somebody on board. I wasn't so sure. When he got closer and took off his hat, I then realized that it was nobody else but my Thadeua friend. Yes, time and hard work had taken a big toll on his body. He looked old than his forty years of age could do itself. Now, married with kids, he had to work harder to make ends meet. He told me that since the rainy season had started, he hardly stayed home. As you know, only during the rainy season that it was safe to navigate the big ferry around the Mekong River. I then asked about his dad whom he said had passed away some time ago. His younger brother, Manh, who happened to be my classmate at Lycee de Vientiane was now a math teacher at that school. This brother of his was good at school. The reason I thought Oukeo's family was from Paksane because Manh went to the Catholic school over there. Really curious to know how I didn't see Manh while still staying at Thadeua. Did he still go the school in Paksane or attend a private school somewhere in Vientiane? Too bad this thought didn't come up at that time. Moreover, I dropped by to see Manh at Lycee de Vientiane (now called Mathayom TonePai Vientiane) but, on that day, he wasn't scheduled to teach any class. Manh I was told was doing well now. As a teacher at that prestigious high school, he got a special privilege both financially and status-wise. In case that you don't know, the teachers at this school could take two kids under their wings. Those two could be anybody who was ready to enter the secondary school. Given the high price of any seat at that school, this privilege was translated into a big monetary reward. The reason I knew all about this was because a woman who dealt in some sort with the educational system in Laos told me. Comparing the two brothers' lives, I couldn't help but sighed heavily. Oukeo had traveled all over Laos but little did he cover in 'real' life. I don't know how much and how long he had to travel to even make a decent living. I wish and pray that, one day, Laos could be his as well as his brother's. After all, every Lao back home rightly deserves it.
Ken (another term for giving alms to the monks), another classmate of mine at Thadeua, was a shy guy. He tended to talk slowly and move slowly too. If one didn't know him well, one would say that his demeanor was like that of the girl. He liked to smile a lot, and his smile was so innocent that you couldn't help but like him. Of all the friends I had at Thadeua, Ken was the only one who came to play with me at my new residence. I guess he liked his white shirt so much or that was the only shirt he had, he wore the same one every time I saw him. From what I noticed, this shirt of his was patched many times. If one was to exaggerate, one would say that there were more of patched parts than of the original shirt. I wouldn't go that far but I would say that it didn't look like a shirt at all. As a buddy, I offered him some new clothes including my white new shirt but he didn't take any of them. No matter how hard I tried to make him accepted my clothes, he still wouldn't take them. I guess he had too much pride in himself to get anything for free. I met Ken again in 1980. This time it was at my home at Bane Nahaidiew. Hard to believe my two eyes, he stood in front of me like a tall basketball player. He told me that he was in the army - artillery unit. He just finished a math course in trigonometry. Soon, he was going to have a star on his shoulder. That was what I got from the few words he spoke. Yes, I was glad for him - a farmer's son who somehow managed to climb up the invisible social ladder.
Now, about Morakot (yes, it was like the name of our famous emerald Buddha), he was the one who was the most artistically inclined person. Just came from VangViang, he was more interested in music and painting than what the school curriculum had to offer. Looking at his painting, I would say that he had a talent for this kind of things. His painting was colorful and full of life unlike mine which was dull and robot-like. About the music, while I was still crazy about the love song like 'Mayouri', he was into the patriotic song like 'PhaenDinThong'. He said that, being from VangVieng whose natural beauty was captivating, he came to love this country of ours as his own life. I am sure that if he sticks in this entertainment business, he will create something of beauty to glorify our beloved country, Meuang Lao.
Another classmate, Mith (literally means 'friend' in Lao), was another one of those who stayed in the same grade for another year. He liked to sit at the back of the class. If anyone who popped in after school had started, it was likely to be Mith. Most of the time, he tended to be late for class. Whenever he appeared, one would see that he would have his hair well-oiled and evenly parted. Being a handsome guy to start with, he even looked like a movie actor by the same name. Yes, I am talking about Mith Saybansa - the Thai movie star. Know what? When Mith Saybansa died from an acting incident (fell off a rope hanging down from a helicopter. His face was completely smashed), we teased our friend, Mith, that what was wrong with his face. Besides the look, Mith also had a good singing voice. When it was time to sing in class, he was the one everyone was looking forward to. Typical of Thadeua people, he loved Thai Louk Thoung. He could sing about every song that was broadcast on the radio. Of course, it was not from Lao radio but Thai one. As my residence, the post office, was at the center of activities (close to the market), I heard the Thai radio blasting Louk Thung songs all day long. I will have more to say about Thai songs later.
That last one I liked to mention here was Panya (a beautiful name indeed but too bad he wasn't much into education). This guy was well-built. Out of school, I saw him most of the time at the market. I am not sure what he sold but, in my mind, I always perceived him to be selling vegetables. Strange as it may be, but who could make sense of the perception anyway? Besides, he liked to say when we were planting something at school that he had plenty of it at the market. I am sure when growing up, he would make a good merchant or even a good businessman.
Above is an account of my classmates which I know the names at Thadeua. Next part is going to be about the account of my classmates which I don't remember the names.
Since I don't remember the following classmates' names, I would call them names through either their personal description or their particular characteristics. The first one was a fatty and short fellow. I would call him 'a traveler' since he liked to travel a lot. He told me that he had covered all of Isan. Name any province in Isan, he would say that he was there. Of course, at that time, I knew only Oudone, Khonekaen, and Oubon. For Nongkhai and Nakhone Phanom, I didn't have to mention since I assumed that if I was there so many times, he must have been there too. Otherwise, he wouldn't be called a traveler. He also told me that wherever he went in Isan, he spoke Thai. His reason was that he wanted to blend in with the native speakers. Not knowing much about Isan, I nodded my head in agreement. At times, I wondered why I didn't need to speak Thai in either Nongkhai or Nakhon Phanom at all. Still, everywhere I went, I was able to blend in pretty well. Or the other parts of Isan were different. I wasn't sure at that time. In retrospect, this classmate of mine was more Thai than the Thai of Isan themselves. Yes, this kind of things usually happens when you are constantly exposed to the seductive Thai influence.
Another classmate of mine was a nimble soccer player. He was born on exactly the first on January. Since he was born the same year and same month as mine, he was exactly nine days older than me. He told me that his house was by the Mekong River which I had never been there. Maybe, because he lived by the river all the time, he became a great swimmer. He boasted of collecting a large number of drifting logs when heavy rain uprooted the trees by the shores. On the weekend, he also told me that he worked for the ferry carrying cargo from Nongkhai to Thadeua and vice versa. After school, when he was free, we played soccer. Of course, since he was fast, it was very hard to guard him when he played in the opposite team. Most of the time, he played on my team since he and I made up such a fantastic scoring duo that we could beat any opposing team. Wonder if he continued to play soccer, he would have a big chance of playing for the national team.
My last classmates whom I liked to mention here were of the two brothers. I guess they were the relatives of my teacher. At times, I saw them carrying my teacher's teaching materials with them. Besides, I was told they were living close to one another. These two brothers were quite young especially the younger one. I wonder what they were doing in the sixth grade. My sister who was in fifth grade was even advanced in learning than them. Anyway, they were nice fellows but it was too bad for them to jump too many classes. So instead of helping them, this kind of favor put doubt in their learning capability for they were always ranked at the bottom half of the class. I don't know how much they knew of what was going to be on the test but our classmates always asked them for a clue. Really wonder if they were a little bit more advanced in learning, they might be able to top me off from the #1 list. If that happened, I would have much to fuss about, right?
Here, it won't be complete if I don't talk about my teacher. Too bad that I forgot her name too. Typical of Lao schools at the primary level, there was only one teacher who taught all subjects. I couldn't tell how good she was but good enough to teach the sixth grade. I was glad to have her since she seemed to be fair. Given the intensity of the competition between the top rivals, she could easily tip the balance in favor of my rivals by either grading me badly or adding a few points to my rivals' tests. My friend told me that Chan complained to her a number of times that I got a better score than she was on certain tests. Whenever that issue came up, my teacher would show her my test and compare it with hers. One time, to show to the class who was better, she had me and her gone to the blackboard and done the math solving problem in front of the class. Since I was good with math well before I attended public school, I beat her as soon as the word 'Go' was hardly sounded. I would say that my teacher was rather fond of me. I guess I was the best student she had ever had. She even told the class that they should emulate me since she had never heard me saying the bad words to anybody especially the notorious words 'Ku' and 'Mung'. Of course, I didn't utter those words because I was raised in an environment where nobody liked to use them. Besides, I was too much of a city boy than a country boy anyway.
There was one sign that showed how my teacher favored me in a special way. That was she liked my singing voice. I wouldn't say that I was a good singer but I wasn't bad either. Back in private school, I scored nine out of a possible ten almost all the time. Yes, comparing the quality of singing voice between those who attended public schools and private ones were hard indeed. In general, those who attended public schools were better singers so to compare me with the best in public schools was preposterous. Still, most of the time my score was in the same range as the best singer in class, Mith. One time, before the school was over, she had my friend called for me to sing in front of the school. That day, a little band from Vientiane came to play at our school. Fortunately for me, I was on the trip otherwise I would be terribly nervous singing in front of the big crowd. Worse, I might even make a fool out of myself. As you know, singing alone and with the music are different things. If you are not used to the music, you will go one way and the music another way. What a terrible thing to happen indeed!
I remember that we once had a fair by the river which was in front of the school. One of the attractions was the XingSa (merry-go-round). Its bright light and its spinning up in the sky magnetized the young and old alike. Though scared of height, I took the courage to have a wild ride with it. In fact, I wanted the wheel to go on forever since whenever I was on top of the wheel, I could see very far beyond. There, I could see the boat gradually disappearing into the horizon. On one side, I saw the full view of the growing Nongkhai and, on another, the stretched out of Thadeua. Yes, after only four or five round of spinning, they had to take me off. Looking around, I saw that a long line of XingSa riders was anxiously waiting for their turn. Since Thadeua hardly had a fair, people thronged the place. It was also the time to show off what one had. It wasn't unusual to see people especially women dressed very elegantly. Yes, you could tell how the fairest in town was by that occasion. Frankly speaking, I thought that my elder sister was that person. At that time, she was hardly seventeen and rarely stayed with us at Thadeua since she went to Lycee de Vientiane and had to stay with our grandparents over there. Still, whenever she came by to stay with us during the weekend, she became the queen of the town. A guy next door who later became my brother-in-law followed her wherever she went. He, himself, went to Dongdok University, since he rode a motorcycle, it wasn't hard for him to pop it here and there or anywhere. My dad didn't like him that much because he didn't want him to distract her from her study. It was my dad's wishes to have all of his kids go as high as they could educationally. I would say that he was right. Male-female relationship did cut short my sister's education. She dropped out of school when she had finished Quatrieme (roughly 8th grade now).
Getting back to the fair, I enjoyed seeing people all dressed up especially the girls at schools whom I hardly recognized at all. Yes, with the full make-up and beautiful dresses, they were turned into young women - like the ones I saw on the movie screen. The boys didn't do bad either. They pulled out their best clothes, or who knows? They might even put on their big brother's clothes. My buddy, Ken, didn't have a big brother like the others so he wore his dad's outfit instead. Most of the time, when walked together, he had to constantly pull up his loose pant despite the fact that he had already rolled his pants so many folds. He told me that he first thought of not coming since he had nothing new and fit to wear but the constant blaring of the music from the loudspeakers was just too enticing for him to ignore any more. Yes, the music was very loud that one couldn't be helped but being drawn out. Yes, the music they played was the same kind of music that Thadeua people had heard of every day. It was nothing else but Thai LoukThul music. The songs that were a big hit at that time were NamThouam (flooding), GnomPhaBanhChaoKha (the Hell chief) and EeMae (mom), just to name a few. I, myself though preferred to listen to Lao music, couldn't be but swayed by the magic of Thai LoukThul too.
Yes, Thadeua is a land of the Lao but Thai cultural influence was so heavy that you sometimes wonder whether you were living in the land of the Lao or not.
One morning, I noticed that there was quite a noticeable group of people waiting at ThaHeua. That was a sure sign that something of importance was about to happen. As you know, Thadeua was the number one gateway between the two countries: Laos and Thailand. It was not unusual to see important people popping up now and then. That morning it belonged to the Thai comedy movie start: LoTok. Dressed in dark clothes with dark eyeglasses on, LoTok looked more serious than he was on the screen. Of course, being a fan of Thai movie, I was excited to see him in person. I thought of coming down from the veranda to get closer to him but when I was about to move, the black car approached him and took him away to Vientiane. It was funny that, though excited, I was disappointed to see the great comedian so short in stature and less impressive than I imagined. Apart from his very dark skin, LoTok looked quite old from afar. I wonder if I happen to meet the female movie stars like Phetsara and Aranya, and they didn't look that great as I imagined; I wonder how I would feel. Yes, image could be tricky. It could make you fall head over heel with it, or it could make you feel numb big time. I guess my experience with the celebrity was of a latter. After all, a celebrity was just like anyone of us, so why did we have to make a great deal about him/her? Yes, a brief encounter with a celebrity did give me an opportunity to reflect on the nature of things. Whether this new perspective on life sticks with me or not, I am not sure. What I am sure of is that no celebrity can draw me out to see him/her in person again.
Talking about movie stars or movie per se, Thadeua did have one movie theatre. In fact, it was an exaggeration to say that it was a movie theatre since it had only the roof, the four walls, the white cloth called the 'screen', the old movie projector that broke down at least once during the show, the loudspeaker using as a sound system, a motor generator that generated dimly light and rows of seats made of hard wood. This movie theater was open only when old films were cheap enough to be shown here. I went there two or three times then fed up with the constant stops either the film was too old or the projector broke down, I stopped going there altogether. Just to tell you how old they showed the film there. Think of "PhetTutPhet' which was opened in the sixties, they showed it again at this Thadeua movie theater. I heard that this movie junk place was closed down when there was less than the number on your two hands showed up for the show. About the entertainment, aside from the movie, there were TV programs like the soap opera, Japanese movie series 'Sanjiro', Japanese cartoons and the weekly radio song contest. I, myself, was addicted to the movie series 'Sanjiro'. Since we had no TV set yet, my brothers and I went to our backyard neighbor and stayed in front of their TV until the very last scene had been shown. Impressed with the Sanjiro character, my brother-in-law even named his son by the same name. Now, about the song contest, it captivated the Thadeua people big time especially the young. I guess, in their hearts, they must have dreamed of participating in that event. In fact, at times, I even heard that there was a Lao participant from Thadeua itself singing LukThul song in the contest held somewhere in Nongkhai. I would say that this song contest was just a means to hook people into buying the sponsor products. Really wonder how many of those participants had made it big to the recording where real money resided. As I saw, one could barely listened to most participants' singing voices since they were no better than the babies' cries. Anyway, in the reverse angle, it did make some people think that they were better than those participants so they kept replenish the pool of would-be singers and therefore make the sponsors rich beyond imaginable.
Like someone once said: 'a sucker was born in every minute.' Who knows? At one time or two, we might be one of its yummy victims.
At Thadeua, in 1970, our family had a new member. It was my brother, No. My mom had an unusual nickname for her kids. Since the birth of Lu (a female) in 1966, she started naming her male kids ending with 'o'. Yes, first it was To in 1968, then Ko in 1969, No in 1970 and finally Yo, the last one, in 1975. Apart from the last one whom she thought she wouldn't have any more kids after No, it seemed that my mom was able to reproduce a baby every year. My dad jokingly said that if we were in France, we would be rich since the government rewarded well for every new baby the family had brought in. Up to that time, my parents had brought forth thirteen of us - ten are still alive and three passed away at their very early ages. Writing about this, I thought of a French short story. It went like this: a not-so-young man married to a young and beautiful woman. Since she was so beautiful and every man had an eye for her, the husband was afraid that her beauty might win someone's heart. If that was the case, he would have rather died than losing her to a new lover. To save him from that tragic fate, he came up with the idea that he would impregnate his wife every single year. That way, no one would be crazy enough to take her off her feet while still having a baby in her belly. To make the story short, his plan did work. I don't remember how many kids he finally had with her and, the most important part, I don't remember how the story ended. I don't think my dad read this story or even had that kind of plan. After all, he didn't need to do that for my mom loved him very dearly. Where, on earth, could you find a man so devoted to the family as my dad did? With only one income, he could support the whole family. That was quite an accomplishment indeed!
Before I go on to another subject, I would like to dwell on my brother, No, a little bit. This story of his is like a story telling back and forth in time. I don't remember anything in particular about him at Thadeua apart from the picture taken together with the whole family behind the post office. I am not sure who held him. It was either my mom or our housemaid who not only cooked for us but raised my little brothers and sisters as well. When No was about seven or eight (the age my son is now), his head was full of Toum. Teasingly, we called him 'HouaNam' (thorny head). I don't know how long it took to cure this disease. What I remember is that I took him on a bike and rode him to the special hospital dealing with the skin disease somewhere almost at the edge of the Vientiane itself. Reminiscing back, I was glad that I did a job as a big brother. Still, I can't help but wonder if I was willing to take that task or not. Much likely that I had no choice but to do it. Now, No turned out to be not bad-looking at all. At least, he didn't have a head full of Toum anymore. Last year, to crown his handsome life, he got married to a beautiful girl from Laos. He, himself, was an ex-marine and well-beloved by everyone.
Thadeua, like a story of my brother - No, is experiencing many stages. First, it was birth. Then, came the decline and finally will arrive a reawakening or revival. Until then, have trust in yourself Thadeua!
About ThaHeua, I had been there many times. Yes, it was the place I boarded the ferry to my favorite weekend spot in Nongkhai. Thadeua port was kind of small compared to the one at Nongkhai. Consisted of only a cabin where the visa was stamped and narrow wooden stairs from the water up where a boat platform was floating, Thadeua port had nothing impressive to talk about. Every hour or so, one boat would stop at the platform and another one would take off. In case that the boat was full before the schedule, it would take off earlier. Otherwise, the passengers had to wait in the boat until the one from Nongkhai had arrived first. For me, I didn't need to wait in the boat at all since I had a good view of which boat was coming and which boat was leaving right at my veranda. With that vantage, I could time myself and jump into the boat right before it took off. By the way, did I ever tell you that my current grandpa was once PhaEk Lykee? My mom told me that my grandma eloped with him right after the performance. Funny that some Thai tourists let me know that I too looked like PhaEk Lykee. Maybe, because I had a white face (I sometimes used my big sister's powder to rub on my face) or maybe because I had a curled eyebrow with dark painted eyelids, they might think that this boy was sure looking like a Lykee. The fact that they even added a PhaEk in front of Lykee did tell me that I wasn't bad looking at all during my adolescence years. Or maybe, they just wanted to make fun of me. Who knows, right?
The reasons I liked to go to Nongkhai so frequently were because I liked to watch movies at a good quality movie theater. There were two or three of them in Nongkhai. The one I frequented the most was 'ThepBunTheul'. This one was near Nongkhai ThaHeua to the south. This movie theater featured mostly Thai movies and western cowboys ones. One time, they had a live concert from Laos playing there. As I remember, it was 'SoSoSo' (the association for the promotion of Lao artists). This association had almost all of the Lao artists joining namely KhamTeum Sanoubane, KhamLa Nohkeo, Bounthieng Manivong, BangOne, and KhanThavane just to name a few big names. I saw all of them at that live concert. Unfortunately, there were only a tenth of the capacity crowd watching them. Since the concert I watched was during the day, I guess it helped explain why so few people watched them. Or maybe, no one bothered to care about Lao music. Since we didn't even care about our own products, how could we expect our neighbors to care about ours, right? I wonder that I might be the odd one caring about what most Lao just ignored it at such an early age. Yes, that was the path I traveled and am still doing it now.
What I liked most about Nongkhai was CafeNomYen (Thai tea). Since it was usually hot in that part of the region especially during the summer, something cold and refreshing was more than welcome. I would say that, as anywhere in Thailand, the shops in town belonged to the Chinese Thai. The owners tended to have a fair skin with one eye layered lid. At times, you could even hear them speak with one another in Chinese. One of the characteristics of the Thai shops was the poster of movie stars, and of beer namely Maekhong (Mekong). The latter one, if you were female, you would be taken away by what you had seen. Instead, if you were male, you would stare at it with your wide eyes open. Yes, it was the picture of sexy woman barely clad or, better or worse than that depending on your point of view, the woman with the top off. As a boy, this kind of poster magnetized me that I had to stop by the shop especially the refreshment shop more frequently. One more thing that I loved to do while strolling along in Nongkhai was hanging around the bookstore, or to be more correct, the stall that they sold books, magazines and newspapers. I loved reading short stories, free verse and glancing at the pictures in the magazines. I guess I don't have to tell that Thai magazines used the technique of star power plus a sleazy writing that catered to your base instinct. As for the newspaper, it splashed the front page with the big and shocking headlines. Its accompanying pictures either from a murder scene or car accident jumped out at you almost every single day. As for the writing, it was as sensational as any cheap novel was. Hard to believe that this kind of things captivated not only the Thai audience but the Lao as well. In general, I only read the sports and entertainment section from the Thai newspapers. I would say that I followed the soccer news worldwide as religiously as anybody could be. The Thai newspaper did pretty well in that field. After all said and done, Nongkhai was my gateway to the outside world. It let me experience new things and expand my horizon. Hardly in a decade or so, I was to be back and spend some three months in Nongkhai camp before being transferred to Napho camp in Nakhon Phanom. Yes, life is like a circle. We just keep coming back to where we are originated from. This will be another series on 'Along the shores of the Mekong RiverÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦'
Until that time, if there is oneÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¦
One time, I had a chance to travel up and down the Mekong River. This time it wasn't just riding a boat across the Mekong River but actually along with it. This came about when one of my parents' friends asked whether we wanted to go to the religious festival at ParkNgum (mouth of NamNgum river). Since the offer was so good (travelling in their ship at no cost), we took that great opportunity. As I remember, we took off early in the morning. My mom brought with her a big TipKhao (sticky rice container), SiinHaeng (dry meat), and my favorite - JeoPadaek (Lao fish sauce). My dad took care of sleeping materials namely the straw mats, pillows and blankets since the time we went on that trip; it was in the winter season - right after the rain had stopped not long ago. For me, my job was to carry myself there with less whining. I don't remember how many of my brothers and sisters went along with us. I guess it was only me and my big sister whom my parents could be assured that we two wouldn't jump into the water when not noticing. As the trip was long and something that we were not used to, I guess it was reasonable to take some preliminary precaution by not taking the young kids with us. On the way to Phouthabath site (footprint of the Buddha) at ParkNamNgum, there was hardly nothing noticeable apart from the occasional drifting of uprooted tree along the Mekong River. When I started to write this, it became even clearer to me that our trip occurred when the water level was at its maximum. Everywhere I looked at, it seemed like it got surrounded by water. I don't know exactly when we got to our destination. After a long trip, we just didn't care much. What we wanted was to get out and run wild for a while. I would say that we walked for some great distance without feeling tired until we ran into an uphill walk to the Phabath site. My mom as well as any of our female counterparts had to resort to a frequent stop. I guess if it was not for the sacred site, some of us would say a big 'No' on this climb. When we got to the site, the pilgrims thronged the place. Judging from the sound of their voice, they were definitively from both sides of the Mekong River. Isan accent was as prevalent as Vientiane one. The way they dressed also told me that they were from different regions. Female Thai pilgrims, though of Isan, tended to wear their hair short. Dark skin to start with and colorful dress in addition drew them out from the Lao folks who were quite simple in appearance. Phabath itself was as tall as my height and as big as a bathtub. Moreover, they had it poured into concrete. What a way to keep a sacred site! I am not sure how many of the pilgrims really believed that this huge footprint was really a footprint of Buddha. I guess this kind of question was irrelevant. The fact, that they made it to the site wherever they might be, told me that they had a strong belief in the power of Buddha whether the artifact was faked or not, it was completely out of the issue. For me, I couldn't help wonder that our Buddha must have been a giant indeed. Besides, to get to Laos from India, he must have flown here using his supernatural power. Otherwise, by walking as solemnly and as slowly as he did, he would have never gotten to our country in his lifetime. My mom, true to her belief, had picked up some soil over there and placed it on my head.
On the way home, that was the part that I remember the most. When our ship was leaving the site, I got a full view of ParkNgum. To say the least, it was so beautiful. Covered with the lush trees, you could see green dancing in your very eyes. The NamNgum river was lucidly clear that you could even see the fish swimming around. The contrast became quite obvious when we were leaving NamNgum river and entering into the murky Mekong River. In my mind, PakNgum is like a land floating somewhere in the big river. The image of the land dividing itself into PakNgum and the others where one was lush with vegetation while the others were so murky like the Mekong River was still very much in my mind. PakNgum like KhubNgum (the folks singing of NamNgum people) would always be mysterious but captivating to us - non NamNgum people.
I remember that as we got closer to home, we passed ThaBo at night where they lighted the small paper boats or, the most, little rafts making the Mekong River in that junction aflame with the candle light (yes, I forgot to tell you that our trip happened to fall on the boat festival season). Though cold in an open air, I enjoyed this ride home tremendously. Above, I saw the stars shining lighting the sky up. Below, the candle lights on the little boats lighted the surface of the water no less than their counterparts doing up there. Yes, life on the river was great. Just experience it then you will understand what I mean.
We finally arrived home late at night. Everyone was already at sleep but this memory will never be asleep in me for a long time to come!
Thadeua didn't have a rocket festival but it did have a boat festival. As boats from each side of the Mekong River participated in each other's event, the festival was held at different times as to maximize the most participants. I, myself, witnessed four boat races during my family two years stay at Thadeua. Two were from the Nongkhai side and another two from Thadeua side. The ones at Nongkhai I saw one from afar. Yes, I just went to the shore of the Mekong River on Thadeua side and watched the boat racing from there. Of course, the boats looked tiny but, still, I could tell which one was winning. The other time, I saw the boat race at the Thai side. I guess the Thai just had a way to incorporate every fun game and every gaming aspect into the boat racing. It wouldn't be a strange sight to see people betting so openly on the boat racing that it scared me. You might say that the crowd at the boat racing on the Lao side was rough (naughty or even offensive to be exact), wait until you see what their counterpart in the Thai side did. I guess the boat racing was just an excuse to play rough that other circumstances wouldn't allow you.
Now, about the boat racing on Thadeua side. At one time, I watched it at the starting point and another at the finishing point. Yes, watching the boat race from two contrasting positions did give me great perspectives on life. At the starting point, the excitement mounted when the boat race was about to begin. Since it was too early to tell which one was going to win at that early stage, you were just satisfied with the mere fact that you did participate in the event. Besides, all participating boats were given an equal amount of attention from you. After all, all boats had a fair chance of winning the race at the starting point. Now, at the finishing point, your perspective was completely different. Most of the time, the outcome was dictated well before the finishing line was in sight. That means it was useless to watch the race at the end. What made the adrenaline running at that finishing point was when the race was close. That one alone was worth the waiting. I guess that is the reason I spent most of the years in Laos watching the boat race at the finishing point.
Typical of any events held outside the big towns, this boat racing at Thadeua was far less colorful and less exciting than their counterpart in those towns. First, there weren't that many boats participating in the event. Second, the big names didn't come or if they did, only one or two were there at one time. And lastly, I guess the price wasn't big enough to attract the high caliber boat there. As I told myself, if you wanted to see the best of the best, or better yet be the best of the best, you had to go to the center of activities. In our country case, it was nobody else but Vientiane itself. That was where I was heading now and that was where the next series on Vientiane itself would follow. Before then, I would say that Thadeua did give me a perspective from the countryside looking in. I guess you would never know what it felt like to be inside until you were actually experiencing it.
As I told you before, Thadeua post office was an architectural masterpiece in this town. Modern and forward looking, it stood out. Anyone who came to this town had to look with awe at this structure including Thai people. Imagine that what welcomed you first was a cabin called 'ThaHeua', then out of nowhere stood the grand looking building right in front of your eyes. Since it was the state of art, I guess it was one of the reasons my dad chose to come here despite the fact that they didn't provide him with a car as it was in the case of Thakek and Savannakhet. Moreover, there was only one staff working for him. At times, I couldn't help wondering why he came here. First, Thadeua was not a province like Thakek or Savannakhet therefore getting this job was like a big demotion. Second, settling here far from his folks at Thakek was like an exile to Siberia to him. I should have asked him but I didn't so I guess I had to be satisfied with the conjecture that he came here for the love of his wife and his kids. It was known that my mother always wanted to get out of Thakek since she didn't like to go there at the first place. Yes, living among one's husband's folks was a hard thing to crack. Like it or not, one had to watch everyone's step and that was too much to bear indeed. I guess every wife wouldn't wish to be in that situation no matter how nice the husband's folks might be. Regarding us, the kids, my dad might have foreseen that it would be to our advantage to go to school in the capital. As you may know, Vientiane was the place where the best schools resided. He, himself, was the product of Lycee de Vientiane (formerly known as Lycee de Pavie) before going on to Lycee de Hanoi and France ultimately. Yes, the time he went to school; Laos was still under the French and the most you could go that high was at 9th grade (Troisieme). He must have envisioned that we would follow his path by attending the best school our country could provide. I guess that he was right since the bureaucrats of our country came predominantly from Lycee de Vientiane. In another word, they represented the cream of the crop that the other Lycee from Luangprabang, Savannakhet and Pakse could even come close (College Thakek had only up to Troisieme). To be fair, most students who were great in math came from Lycee de Pakse and, to a lesser extent, from Lycee de Savannakhet. I don't know much about Lycee de Louangprabang to make a sweeping generalization. Given those two lofty tenets, my dad opted to come to Thadeua - another step closer to the capital itself. Yes, it took a great man to put the significant others' interests beyond himself. Adding to his sincerity, honesty and integrity, my dad was the one I always looked up to.
Now, getting back to the post office itself, it had a big front yard which was covered mostly with the concrete. The part that wasn't covered with concrete was the one next to the fence which sat two coconut trees. At one time, we had a coconut climber to come and pick the coconut for us. Strange as it might sound, the coconut climber was an agile monkey. His owner was just there and collected the money. Since we rarely saw the monkey especially the one that worked this great, we became his big fan. Each time that he unplugged the coconut and dropped it down, we wildly cheered for him. At times, being naughty, he just sat up there until the owner couldn't wait any more so he pulled the rope which was tied to the monkey waist. Realizing that his owner wouldn't tolerate this kind of fickle behavior (I guess that he was used to being pulled so many times), he rushed to pull down the coconuts even faster. I would say that, adding to his lazy time, this agile monkey could finish his job in both coconut trees in less than fifteen minutes. When he triumphantly came down, we rushed to greet him. Since we patted on his head too many times, he began to grimace. To change tactics, I grabbed on his hand and shook it. I guess he loved it since he made some exciting noise. Yes, monkeys are like us. Too much of anything just doesn't sink well. Or are we different?
About our backyard, it was so big that you could even build another house in it. At times, we used it as a soccer field but since the weeds grew so fast, we weren't fast and diligent enough to cut them as needed. My dad used the portion of the land close to the kitchen to make a small garden. There, he planted tomatoes, MakPhet and some lettuces. Though it wasn't much, it did save us some money and the most important thing was that if we need any of those, we just went there and picked it up. Wasn't that convenient, after all?
At one time, Ai Kham - the one I talked about before, came to spend a night with us. Since each room had two beds except my parent's bedroom and each bed already had two occupants except mine, I had to share a bed with him. Being a type of a person who was very conscious of oneself, I didn't make any noise in bed. That meant that I rarely moved at all. Yes, it was very hard to sleep on only one side. It always happened that when you were restricted to only one choice, you yearned for more. With that being said, sleeping in that condition was a hard thing to swallow. Most of the time, I felt stiff and itched to make a change in body position. Ai Kham, not troubled by that nonsense, felt asleep not long ago after he had laid down his head on the pillow. What was more: he snored right at my face. I don't know how long I stayed awake. I guess it was long enough until sleep fell on me itself. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that I was so conscious of myself even with my own relatives. Either in gene or not, my son - Ariya is very much like me not much different from the carbon copy.
Yes, life is not rational as we thought it to be.
Most of the time, Thadeua was sleepy. You could hardly find anything to do there - no soccer game to watch and no place to hang around. Of course, things would have been different if you had money. You could either go to the riverside restaurant and sip the cold and sweet coconut drink or you could take a boat and ride to Nongkhai. The riverside restaurant was open until the sunset while the ride to Nongkhai was stopped at five p.m. In Savannakhet and Thakek, I loved to take a bath in the Mekong River but not at Thadeua. I guess it was because I turned into a young man and was too conscious of my image. Compared to others at the same age, I was a little bit skinny. The most important thing was I didn't know how to swim despite the fact that I had lived by the river all of my life. My younger brothers and sisters all knew how to swim. I guess I was the only odd one in the family who perfectly matched with the saying that goes like this: 'live by the river but have to buy Padaek'. Anyway, one of my fun times was to go to hunt for MunhPhao which one of my friends' parents had planted it at the edge of the town. I would say that digging for MunhPhao and ate it at the spot was very delicious. You couldn't compare it with MungPhao buying at the market which was quite stale. Another thing was to listen to the Lao music broadcast by the station in Vientiane. The program that I liked to listen was the one orchestrated by Phomma Somsoutthie. His voice was great and his selection of music was to my taste. One of the songs he liked to play was something like 'even if it is raining, I will still come to you. So does if it is flooding, I will wade to you.' I guess that year was the year of flooding since both the Lao and Thai had the song by the same theme. Listening to this song while the rain kept pouring down had made the song even more significant.
One program I liked to listen was the story of 'PhuSanaSipThip' (the one who wins at ten directions). This one was from the Thai radio station in Sakhol Nakhorn. Now, I really wonder how I could receive the signal since this station was not in nearby Nongkhai but somewhere in the neighborhood of Savannakhet and Thakek. That was over two hundred miles from where I lived. Later, I was told that this station signal was more powerful than the one from Vientiane itself. No wonder I could listen to this station wherever I lived. PhuSanaSipThip was the story of Jadet or Burengnong who rose from an ordinary man (boy) to become a great king of Burma. He was the first king of Burma who subjugated Ayutthaya and, finally, LanXang after the mysterious disappearance of Chao Sayasettha. I guess Burengnong was called 'PhuSanaSipThip' because he won wherever he went for a battle. What's more: people loved him dearly. What made the story so interesting was that it was constructed around a love story between Burengnong and the girl who was the big sister of his childhood friend, the future king himself. I would say that this Burengnong was great with words that none of the girls that the words happened to fall on could resist from falling for him. To make the story more interesting, his heart was only with one girl: that forbidden childhood friend's sister. Too bad that I don't remember the end of the story. This story went on for the entire duration I lived in Thadeua. By the way, the guy who wrote this story was a Thai by the pen name of Jacob. Just this fact would be enough to convince you that Burengnong was a great man indeed for even a supposedly enemy from Thailand had written so highly of him. In case you wonder why this story mentioned ten directions while, in reality, there were only eight directions. The other two were referred to as Pha (sky or heaven) and Din (earth). If you have time, read this story for it is no lesser great than SamKok itself.
I intended to write about the riverside restaurants in the last episode but I just kept writing on other things. So today, I will write about it for this riverside restaurant is what made Thadeua bustling especially during the weekend. Starting from the late afternoon each Friday, Vientiane folks began to pour into Thadeua. They came by cars, motorcycles or taxis for those who didn't have that kind of luxury. Whatever means they came from, they all had one destination in mind: the cozy riverside restaurants. First of all, please take my word as the first class restaurants. In fact, it was far from that label. This restaurant, consisted of only a wood structure hanging by the Mekong River, had many stalls in it. Each stall had each different set of table and seat that was arranged in a way that separated one from another. Roughly, in the restaurant the size of five or six classrooms, there were equally the same numbers of owners or stalls. I would say that the quality of their serving was equal since they were all occupied. Again, it might look that way since there were more Vientiane folks looking for a place to sit, drink or just relax than there were enough seats for them at the whole restaurant. Wonder why they didn't build more restaurants or add more seats to it. I guess having the place crowded only two or three days out of the whole week wasn't a good investment after all. I, myself, was excited to see so many people at one time. They all dressed in a nice clothes, something that people around here only saw it on TV. Yes, those Vientiane folks who liked to spend their late afternnon time here were, in general, wealthy by our country standard. Just look at their cars. Not a few of them were brand new, something that most Lao couldn't afford one in their whole lifetime. Yes, this was Laos of the early seventies when American secret involvement helped generate a lot of income to some. I guess that is the way thing is in life. Those who work hard does not necessarily equate with success. Luck that comes in the name of the right place and right time is what that counts the most. At one time, I saw my dad's staff in Xiengkhouang post office who was just promoted to be the chief director in Vientiane post office coming to spend his late afternoon with his whole family at the riverside restaurant. I don't know how my dad would feel but, to me, it didn't sink well at all.
There was one more thing about my dad. He loved to give alms to the monks despite his western training. It wasn't unusual to see him go to the temple nearby even during the weekday. He would find time during his working hours to drop by the temple and gave alms to the monks. I, myself, hardly went to the temple since the temple ground was full of white dirt which flew at you whenever anything passed it by. Worse, when they had a festival there, what you could see was flying dirt. I guess I just wasn't born to be a temple goer. I came to Buddhism more from the intellectual perspective than from the existential one. I guess both the value which, by having only one, one is lacking something.
There was one more thing I would like to tell you about Thadeua. Its political stance was leaning to the rightist. No one talked about the Pathet Lao or NeoLao HakXat. If it happened to be mentioned, they would say we should rather call them 'NeoLao KhaiXat'. For me, who was exposed to both schools of ideas since the days in Thakek, didn't favor one over another. If I had to choose at that time, I would have incorporated both of their ideas and synthesized to make the right ingredient for our country. Yes, it is easy to mess with one's life and still able to recover from it. To a country, a path wrongly taken will doom the whole generation. By the way, I didn't think much at that time. What I wanted was just to go to Lycee de Vientiane and hopefully go to France to further my education as my dad once did.
(Vientiane years coming up next)