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Along the shores of the Mekong river

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Dhammapada (the way of the buddha)

World Poems #1 ກະວີແປ #1

World Poems #2 ກະວີແປ #2

World Poems #3 ກະວີແປ #3

World Poems #4 ກະວີແປ #4

World Poems #5 ກະວີແປ #5

Along the shores of the Mekong river

The complete series can be found at http://kongkeo.ibnsites.com
 

 

Thakek years: 1967 to 1970

 

We arrived in Thakek around 1967. I didn't even remember whether

we got there by plane or by bus. What puzzled my mom and me the

most was why we had to move in the first place. Compared to Savannakhet,

Thakek was like a tiny town - far from the locus of power. Moving

there was like you got demoted from your job. Still, my dad was

anxious to move there. From his point of view, it was understandable.

Thakek was a town where most of his clan were. You could say Thakek

was a Saycocie town as much as a Choulamany town. Everywhere you

went, you seemed to run into someone with the same last name as yours.

In my case, it was "Saycocie". To my dad, what was important was not

power or wealth but the feeling of being at home. He could drop by

to see his only brother - a medical doctor, whose house was at Nong

Boua just below the foothill of Wat Chom Thong. Also, around that area,

some of his half siblings built their houses there. What's interesting was

many of my siblings like to stay close to one another even in the states.

There were two spots that they congregated: Houston, Texas and Milwaukee,

Wisconsin. I, alone, live in California.

As usual, when we moved to Thakek, we resided in the post office. The

difference was the size of the two posts. The one at Savannakhet was

like a mansion. Living them made you feel like you were a king. On

the contrary, Thakek post office was small about 1/3 the size of the one

in Savannakhet. As a result, the employees working there were less than

the numbers of fingers in my two hands. Some of the employees were housed

at the tiny post office compound.

Whatever one might think of our new residence, it was livable. Situated

at the corner of the two roads - one running alongside the Mekong River

and another running straight to downtown Thakek where the market stood,

our new residence was at a walking distance to school, the soccer stadium,

the temple (Wat Khang), the ferry port (Tha Dane), the market and of course

the Mekong River. What's more: there was a little stream flowing by the

post office. Connecting the two sides of the land was an old iron bridge

where kids liked to use it as a jumping board during the rainy season to

wildly bathe themselves. It was hard to say whether I liked the new places

or not. Far away from close friends and new to the area made me want to go

back to Savannakhet. For the first year, I made a trip back to Savan

during the summer school vacation. Until later did I feel at home in Thakek.

Maybe, it was the magical place called Thakek where steep hills circling around.

Or maybe, it was the friendliness of Thakek people itself. I didn't know.

What I knew was my heart rested at peace in Thakek.

I think if it would be a great idea if I tell you a brief history of Thakek.

To my knowledge, Thakek was first mentioned in the history book as the legendary

Sikhotabong kingdom. That Sikhotabong standing a couple of miles from the center

of Thakek was a reminiscence of that era. It was said that Sikhot came to rescue

Vientiane kingdom from the destruction of the wild hordes of elephants. As a

reward, the king of Vientiane had to partition half of his kingdom to Sikhot and

gave his only daughter to Sikhot for marriage. All went well in the beginning until

the Vientiane king was getting scared of his son-in-law rising power. To cut short

of any trouble, the Vientiane king turned to ruse and deceit. He tricked his

daughter into asking Sikhot about his death spot as neither spears nor swords could

penetrate his body. Trustful of his wife, Sikhot let her know that his death spot

was his bottom. As soon as the Vientiane king learned of Sikhot's secret, he had

a lance planted in Sikhot's toilet. As expected, Sikhot made a daily routine to

the toilet and made his death there. Before he died, he cursed Vientiane that it

would never get prosper. Even if it did, it would last only as long as one winked one's

eyes. Even up to the present, Vientiane has never gotten over Sikhot's curse. What

a curse indeed! It was rumored that when Kong Le made a coup d'etat in 1960

and won the government for Chao Souvannaphouma, he came down to Thakek

or did something to nullify the curse. Sad to say that the curse was still unbreakable.

Some thought that only when Hat Don Chan was sunk to the bottom of the Mekong

River then Vientiane would prosper. So far, Hat Don Chan still grows and grows.

Also, it was believed that the curse would go away once the leader of Muang Lao

(Vientiane in particular) places the interest of Muang Lao and Quon Lao above

his and his clique. Maybe, one day, this will happen ... Also, from the history book, I learn that Thakek was the site of the bloody fight

between Chao Souphanouvong's Issara troop and the French. It was said that

the Mekong River was turned into red color as the planes fired on the fleeing

Issara troop. To the dismay of the onlookers from both sides of the shores, Chao

Souphanouvong's boat was capsized as the plane repeatedly fired at it. My dad

who was watching the event from Thakek couldn't help his tears from slipping down

his face. That went one of the Lao Issara heroes. Fortunately, Chao Souphanouvong

survived that massacre. The Lao Isan from Nakhon Phanom helped tend his badly

wounded body. This dramatic event was the first phase in rallying the ethnic Lao

from both sides of the Mekong shore to Chao Souphanouvong cause - Muang Lao

for Quon Lao. And that marked a special place of Thakek in our long history of

fighting against invaders.

What's more: Thakek was the very last stronghold for the fight against Siam during

Chao Anou's war of independence. Thakek, or to be exact Mahaxay (I tend to use

these two names interchangeably) was the last exit before Chao Anou moved on to

seek political asylum in Vietnam. If you've ever been to Mahaxay, you would feel

right away as to why Chao Anou regrouped his scattered troop there. Fortifying

by the rows after rows of steep hills, Mahaxay was an obvious choice against the

advancing of the Siamese war machine. I, myself, was in Mahaxay in 1998 and

felt in love with the place. Wherever I looked, I felt like I was floating between

the clouds. Adding to the stretches of rice fields and a river (SeBangPhai) running

through the town, Mahaxay was like a heaven on earth.

2/16/00

 

Some of you may ask what the name of Thakek means. Taken it apart, "Tha" means

the port like a ferry port and "Kek" means the guests. Put it together, Thakek means

the port where the guests come and go. I guess they call the town Thakek is because

this town is only a transit point to Vietnam and Nakhon Phanom. By the way,

Nakhon Phanom covered both sides of the Mekong River. Sometimes, the seat of

power was located at the right side of the river _ that was the present day Thakek.

It wasn't clear when Van Wuffstoff visited Laos in the middle of the 17th century

(during the glorious reign of Chao Souriyavongsa) that he stopped by to see

Nakhon Phanom of the right side of Mekong River or the left one. From that account,

Nakhon Phanom - a Lao town was flourishing and the pride of the middle LanXang.

From Thakek, there was only a short distance to the South Sea. Also, there was only

the Mekong River separating Thakek from Nakhon Phanom. In case you don't know,

Nakhon Phaom is the site of That Phanom - a sacred place for the devout Buddhist

across the Mekong River. For those who liked to listen to Lao songs, they would

know that Thakek was immortalized in Siravong's song entitled "Neun Nai Ana"

(#1 in the land). Roughly said, the song talked about Thakek natural beauty namely

the mountains which encircled the town as if they were the fortress. Even those of

us who took refuge in the Napho refugee camp could witness that beauty if they had

a chance to step out of the camp and watched Thakek from Nakhon Phanom shore.

Now, let me talk about Thakek as a town in the late 1960s. In architectural design,

Thakek was structured very much like Savannakhet. The difference was only in

scale. The government buildings were concentrated in almost one area. There,

you found the post office, the hospital, the bank, the city hall, etc ... What was

interesting about Thakek was the large concentration of school buildings in one

area: Ecole Charite (charity in English) - my school, a couple of public schools,

and a middle school (College Thakek). Imagine how crowded the road passing

these 4-5 schools when the schools ended each day (each session). In Laos,

schools started at 8 am and ended at 12 pm for the morning session. Then, it

resumed at 1pm until 5 pm for the afternoon session. Again, when I visited Thakek

in 1998, I witnessed students crowding the road for no less than 10 minutes.

What a sight indeed to see rows and rows of students either walking home or

riding bikes home. They still dressed up in the same uniform: blue pants/shorts/Sinh

and white shirts/blouses. It was not much different today as 30 years ago.

2/20/00

 

Talking about schools, I couldn't help mentioning about my school - Ecole Charite or Charity in English.

Yes, it was a Catholic school like the one I attended in Savannakhet. I had to admit

that the academic standard of this school was tougher than the one at Savan. Most

students could speak French with ease. Also, the French textbook they used to

teach was harder than any of the textbooks I read. Still, to my big relief, I

miraculously passed that class. In Laos, they called 4th grade Hong Song Noi and the

5th grade Hong Song Yai. For the 6th, it was called Hong Thi Neung. In Hong Song

Yai, I had a close friend whose name was Dat (meaning hit a little bit or almost hit).

He was different from any of the friends I had. He was not a Lao but a Vietnamese

with a big skull especially the big skull shaping like a coconut (Houa Nguon). It was

said that this kind of people were smart, and he was especially in math. He outdid me

and the class in math called Calcul Mental (the kind of arithmetic that you calculated

in your mind without committing yourself to paper). What the teacher did was given

two numbers to the class either by addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.

As soon as the teacher gave the numbers, he raised his hand almost instantaneously.

When I occasionally outdid him, he gave the answer even without raising the hand.

Apart from that competition, we were like twins. He spent most of his time after

school and during the weekend at my house. Great that he liked Lao food (Mok

Noh Mai, Keng Noh Mai, etc... If not, he would go hungry most of the time.

At my backyard, we played Mak Bea. The game was like this: we drew a square

and placed Mak Bea at each corner. Most of the time, we placed tens of Mak Bea

on the line (side). The goal was to hit Mak Bea off the line or off the corner with

your Mak Bea without plunging your Mak Bea in the square (the ones that you hit,

you kept it). If you could do that, you would continue until your Mak Bea strayed

into the square. Then it was your friend's turn. To say the least, it was a fun game.

There was another game of Mak Bea that we played. The goal was to hit a small

hole. By the way, I couldn't remember how the game was played besides that.

Lastly, the game of Mak Bea was played using both hands. From the right hand,

you used it to hold Mak Bea while, from the left hand, you used the middle finger

to aim at another Mak Bea (the thumb was also used to anchor against the ground).

2/23/00

 

Bak Dat as we, kids, liked to call him was horny. He liked to show off his thing.

Though short in stature, his thing was big. At that time, he was not 12 years but

He liked to play with his thing so much. Wonder what he would feel if he left with

Girls like me. At school, I was seated between two pretty Vietnamese girls. At

First, I didn't feel anything. Then, later, when my friends kidded me how lucky

I was to be flanked by such beautiful creatures, I couldn't help but glancing at them

As often as I could. Maybe, I got the idea from the movie, I plucked the red roses

Grown in my house front yard to both of them. From that day on, my friends kept

calling me a lover boy. Too bad, my family did't stay in Thakek so long otherwise

I might end up marrying a Vietnamese girl. Who knows, right?

Fortunately for me, while attending Ecole Charite, I had an ardent Lao patriot as

A teacher. His name was NouHak. He talked passionately about Muang Lao and

Quon Lao. He wished that some day before he died, he could witness a greater Laos

  • a replica of the once great LanXang. In his class, I came to learn of other countries,

of how modernized they were, and how unfortunately our country was. Subjected to

a constant warfare from both inside and outside, Muang Lao was left badly torn and

underdeveloped. Maybe, because of my teacher strong feeling about our homeland,

I came to love Muang Lao and Quon Lao no less than he was. There was one event that

Deeply strengthened my patriotism. I happened to read a history book written by Maha

Sila Viravong. In one of the chapters, the book talked about Chao Anou heroic effort

And sacrifice for our homeland. Despite his failure and the complete destruction

Of Vientiane kingdom, Chao Anou became my #1 hero. I had to admit that I hated the

Siamese so much that I couldn't bare the thought of witnessing the pages written about

Chao Anou's torturre to death. Without any regret, I tore those pages apart and burned them right in front of my eyes.

2/27/00

I guess I must be a little bit jingoist for whatever I read, I thought of Laos. One time, I read an old newspaper, maybe Xat Lao, about the location of Vientiane which was too close to Thailand therefore becoming an easy prey to the Thai attack. That's right I had never though of that before. Why didn't we move our capital inland far from the Thai border. Another time, I listened to the soccer match between our national team and the Thai national team broadcasting live from Bangkok in the King's Cup. Believe it or not, our team beat the favorite Thai team by a score of 4 to 3. When the whistle blew to signal the end of the match, I cried in jubilation. What a great feeling indeed to beat the Thai who contemptuously called our national team "a pig stadium". I also liked to listen to the broadcast from Vientiane which sometimes I hardly heard anything. This happened a lot especially when it was raining. Still, it did't bother me that much. Being a true Lao had to be tough all the time. By the way, my favorite program was the one that answered to any questions sent by the listeners. There was one question I would like to get answered was: why was the Mekong River so murky while the ocean was so clear? Too bad, nobody asked that question. Another program that I listened frequently was about the song hosted by Phouma Somsouthi. I know not a few Lao people, my sister included) liked to listen to Thai songs but I just switched to Lao songs whenever I had access to the radio. At that time, the song that I remembered vividly was by Khamla Nohkeo. It went like this: if you were cold because of the wind, you should cover yourself with the blanket. Also, if you were cold because of the sky, you should sit by the fireplace. Then the song asked: if the young male and female were cold at heart, what should they do? To tell you the truth, I liked to hum a Lao song and sing at times. One time at school, I sang a song in front of the class - a part of school curriculum. The song was about Vientiane. How beautiful it was with Thatluang and Wat Phakeo. By the way, the song was sung by Thantavan called "ViengNaiPhan". How strange it was! Later in that year, I had a chance to see Vientiane for the first time.

It happened like this (it was actually my second time in Vientiane - the first time I hardly remembered it apart from a brief stay during the soccer match between Savannakhet air force team and the Thai air force team):

My brother in law who played for Savannakhet air force team passed away when his T-28 plane plunged into the tree on his way back from Udon to Savannakhet. In fact, he was a very good pilot, maybe, on the same par with my brother, who was one of General Ma's elite officers. Unfortunately, on that tragic day, he flew home with another pilot in the driver seat. During the funeral at wat DongMieng, I witnessed for the first time apart from my grandmother's passing away when I was very young the burning of a human being. Seeing the flame and the chanting of the monks, I realized how fleeting life was.

Also, during one of my visits to his coffin at wat OngTu guarded by the standing straight soldier in front, I listened to a story about two brothers who went to fight the Yak. As a good brother, the big brother wouldn't let his little one risk his life with the Yak so he came up with the idea fighting the Yak in a cave. Before getting into the cave, he told his young brother that if the blood flowing out of the cave was clear, it meant that he was killed. On the contrary, if the blood was thick red, it meant that the Yak was killed. If it was the first scenario, he wanted his brother to block the exit of the cave with the big rock so that the Yak couldn't have a chance to come out.

The young brother waited anxiously for the outcome while the rain was pouring down. Not knowing that the big brother defeated the Yak, he blocked the cave with the big rock immediately. Why? Because seeing the light red blood flowing out of the cave, he thought it was his brother's blood. In fact, it was the Yak's thick red blood but because of the rain, the thick red blood was turned into the light red blood. Too bad that I didn't remember the end of the story. Still the image was powerful enough for me to remember until today. Maybe, it hinted at our people dividing into 2 camps, the left and the right. In our hearts, we both wanted to get rid of the Yak but with different means. That didn't mean we didn't love one another. Fate just made us choose different means. If I were to tell that story again, I would say that the young brother realized about his mistake later so he went back and unblocked the cave. With the two hearts and minds together, they went back to their homeland and lived happily ever after ...

3/5/00

While in Vientiane, we stayed at Dr Koukeo's house. Dr Koukeo Saycocie was the head of the Red Cross. One of his daughters married to Mr Pattana Choulamany who became the head of the protocol department in the ministry of foreign affairs. I guess, maybe of this connection, when I graduated from Lycee de Vientiane, I became an employee of that ministry. My dad told me about his early stay at this house when I came to Vientiane to finish high school. At that time, the only high school in the country was in Vientiane and it was called Lycee de Pavie. Later, it was called Lycee de Vientiane. The story went:

my dad liked to get up very early in the morning. Because everyone was still asleep, he had to tiptoe to the kitchen. As I knew, Dr Koukeo's floor was made of wood. Walking ungracefully would sure cause a disturbed noise. He was too polite for that. Also, he was too conscientious as a guest not to waste the host's money. As I learnt, he would 't use the light if he could go by using the flame from the stove while cooking rice. Maybe, because of his inherent goodness and intelligence, he was later sent to further his study in Hanoi and Paris right after high school. His exemplar behavior became a guiding light for me to follow right to this very moment. By the way, did anyone know that a majority of students who attending the prestigious Lycee de Pavie was Vietnamese or half Vietnamese? Too bad, even in their own country, the Lao didn't have access to a higher education where power and prestige resided. My dad, a full Lao blood from the provincial capital apart from the royal family and the influential clans in the big cities, was a rare phenomenon in the highly hierarchical educational system. In a way, his success was partly of himself and partly of his family connection. As I found out, the Saycocie clan was powerful in Thakek. Since Mahaxay, a birthplace of the Saycocie was under the Pathet Lao, they were numerous in this provincial town. Some of their members even held a minor position in the government. My great grandfather was the first Chao Muang of Mahaxay and his son, my grandfather

Vientiane at that time, right after the big flood in 1966, was exciting. Everywhere I went was packed with people. It was not only during the day but the night also. Better yet, the night was more exciting as the city was covered with lights, namely the bright street light. I remembered that one day my dad took me to see the morning market. It was so big and alive with people buying and selling. To me, it became an institution by itself. Next to the morning market stood LanXang avenue. At all times, it was congested with cars though comparatively big than any avenue I had ever seen. What impressed me the most was the huge festival at ThatLuang. Wow! There were so many pavilions. Strangely as it turned out to be, what I vividly remembered during my trip at that time was the bombing of the casino right in ThatLuang. Maybe, because of that accident which counted a number of dead bodies, my dad did't take me to see ThatLuang festival again.

Lucky that he allowed me to see the movie at SengLao and Bouasavanh. At that time, the American western movies were popular. The heroes were Ringo, Jungo who drew the guns so fast and killed the enemy so instantly. Do you know what I liked most about Vientiane? It was the Pho. Wow! The Pho stalls and shops were almost everywhere and Vientiane people ate it for lunch, dinner and just for the sake of eating. I saw some people ate them before the start of the movie and then again right after the movie. Some when going to work didn't pack their lunch but ate Pho instead. Even today, Vientiane people are still fascinating with Pho the way the old generation did 30 years ago.

 

Part 9

Getting back to Thakek, I was glad that I returned in time to welcome the king and queen to this quiet town. As I remembered, the students lined up the streets from the airport to ChaoKeng's house where they would reside in. For our school, especially my class, we lined up in front of the house where they held a Pakut fighting next to Wat Nabo. When the king's and queen's car passed by, we wildly waved the paper flag though we didn't even have a glimpse of them because their car windows were all black and rolled up. It was curious to see that the policemen standing beside us turned their faces in opposite direction as the car rolled by. Later did I find out that they did so in other to protect the royal family better. As usual, the king and queen stayed at Chao Kheng's residence which was next to the soccer stadium and by the Mekong river. Talking about Chao Kheng, he once held a very lavish wedding party for his daughter (maybe son). Of course, I wasn't invited ((only my parents were) but I was curious enough to go and see what was going on. Wow! There were lots of Benz Mercedes parking there. I guess all the Mercedes in town were gathering there. I also heard that one of the wedding gift from a wealthy Chinese merchant was a Benz Mercedes!

Did I mention that there was a Pakut fighting next to Wat Nabo? Yes, I frequented that place a lot especially during the weekend. They had tens of big Pakut which I could only imagine possessing one. One time, I went fishing for Pakut (to be correct, catching Pakut with either bare hands or a little net) in the swamp outside the town. In fact, it was not exactly a swamp but a collection of small holes in the uncultivated fields.

It was the first time that I could get many Pakut, though little ones indeed. Some of them were good fighters (they fought until their fins were badly torn) but a majority of them just didn't fight when facing the rivals. What was funny was that some really showed off when I put them in different bottles in opposite to the rival bottles. But as soon as I put them in one bottle, they just swam away with their fins down. Maybe, with no luck in securing the good Pakut, I didn't go there any more. Besides, my parent didn't like the idea that I came home dirtying my clothes.

I almost forgot to mention that, during the trip home, we climbed a tall electricity pole. It was not the pole made of log but a steel one and it was very tall. It was built with four legs and had stairs onto the top. Most of my friends climbed almost to the top while I could manage to only half the way. Still, the view below and all around were spectacular. I could see the Mekong River running by from afar, Nakhon Phanom on opposite side, and of course, the whole town of Thakek. To say the least, that was my great feat considering that I was a height phobia. Looking down from a high place usually made me nausea. Even thinking about it made my head swirl.

 

Part 10

At Thakek, the Mekong River was at its shortest width, maybe half the distance of the one at Savannakhet. From Thakek shore, you could see what was going on in Nakon Phanom, and it was enticing with their bright lights, big buildings lining up the shore and traffic going on all the time. I spent as much time in Nakon Phanom as I did in Thakek during the weekend. Luckily, they didn't usually charge me boarding in the ferry crossing the Mekong River. By the way, I was only a kid and skinny too, not much a load to their ferry. The places I liked to frequent in Nakhon Phanom were the movie theaters (they had recent movies than the one in Thakek), the market (they had sweet and red watermelon, they also had the kind of navy blue short that I liked to wear to school. It was interesting to tell you that those who sold the shorts were Vietnamese and they were plentiful in Nakhon Phanom. They always talked to me in Vietnamese as if I could understand any words they spoke. By the way, the only Vietnamese language I could understand was Ung Keum (eat), Daek Lum (pretty) and some counting words to only six. Since my brother, the one who was a pilot, was exiled to Nakhon Phanom after the coup d'etat in 1967, I went there almost every week. He liked to give me a red banknote of 100 baht which I used to buy a soccer ball. I was very awful with this round ball. In a couple of months or so, I would buy a new one as the old one was continually kicked right into the stream and flowed straight to the Mekong River.

The field that we played soccer was the backyard of the post office residence, and it was next to the stream only a few yards to the mouth of the Mekong River. We did try to prevent the loss of ball by stationing one of us by the stream, and still the ball flew past him. What the heck with the ball! If I couldn't extort some money from my parents, I would go to my brother in Nakhon Phanom and got some without even asking for it. It was funny that my brother always wanted to marry a tall girl (not to mention a girl from a glamorous town like Savannakhet or Vientiane), roughly at his height, because he said that it would be very inconvenient to kiss his wife if she was shorter than him. As it turned out to be, his wife was rather short and from a town less glamorous, Thakek. Whatever it was, his choice of wife was a good one for they stayed together through the thick and thin of time until today.

 

Part 11

Getting back to soccer, we used my dad's garage as one of our goal post and the stack of our slippers as another one. Of course, we could do that only when the car was not in the garage. Most of the time, as a courtesy from my kind dad, he would park the park in the street and allow us the full use of the field. Though I liked to play soccer, I was not good at it. Whenever we played for money, I always lost. The opposite team seemed to be faster and I hardly caught up with them. One of the opposite team player later played for the national team. That was how good some of my rivals were. As I told you before, the soccer stadium was by Chao Kheng's residence. It was less than half a mile from my house. Every Sunday during the soccer season, I would be there. Hardly did I pay for the tickets. Between the walls of the stadium, there were big holes all around it. Sometimes, they would post someone to guard the certain big holes, I just avoid that. In Savannakhet, the walls were solid and tall. Still, we didn't pay a Kip to get in. What we did there was to stand on one another's shoulder and climb in. The last one to get in tended to be tall and agile. He would just jump and reach to our extended hands from above the stadium. For Vientiane stadium, it was short enough to climb the wall and I hardly paid for the tickets except for the very big events which featured a team from other countries. Those events were heavily guarded, and you would have to waste a substantial amount of time to get in freely. It was funny that the favorite team in each respectful towns that I lived was the high school team, and the formidable team that everyone wanted to overthrow was the army team. One of the players in Thakek army team was Dum (black). He was so black that the only white part was his teeth. He was as fast as lightning. One time, when the Thakek team went to play the Thailand regional team in Nakhon Phanom. The Thai spectators even cheered him as wildly as the spectators from Thakek did when he scored the goal. That was an unbelievable moment indeed. After all, the Nakhon Phanom people were not lesser Lao than we were. What Nakhon Phanom as well as Isan people waited was when the Lao in Laos had shown some greatness then they would rally themselves behind them.

Part 12

At Thakek, I had the pleasure to have a French boy as my friend. I don't remember exactly what his dad was doing there, maybe a professor at the College Thakek or a doctor at the hospital. As I know, there were some French people working over those two institutions. Whatever his dad was, he was a good friend of mine. We always played Badminton together. Close to house, across the bridge, there was a Badminton club. They always had the net on until late the day. Usually, we kids could use the court and play right before the sun went down. Unfortunately, the court didn't have the light on. That meant if you wanted to play on, you had to hit Mak Pik Kai in the dark.

You might guess that my French friend was bigger than me. On the contrary, he was quite short. Still, he outplayed me with the game of Badminton. Worse, he outran in the 100 meter dash. For Badminton, it was okay for him to beat me for I rarely played this game but for the 100 meter dash I couldn't bear the shame of defeat. You know what? I practiced running days and nights along the road by the Mekong River. Then, one day, I beat him soundly and fairly. Funny that once he was defeated, he hardly went on the 100 meter dash with me any more. Too bad that his dad didn't stay with the job at Thakek very long otherwise my French would be greatly improved (this friend of mine hardly spoke Lao at all). Besides, while he stayed at Thakek, he always took me to see the French speaking movie at a French cultural center near Wat Nabo.

Talking about the Badminton Club, they had once a music band from Vientiane played there. It was the country music band (Lao Banna). I don't remember the name but I did remember that the lead singer was the first one who invented the Lao country music, very much along the line of Thai country music (Luk Thoung). Telling the truth, Lao country music was strange to the ears because I was used to only Pheng Lao Samay. I always hummed the songs such as Leua Phieng Phab (only the picture was left), Hak Heng Nun Me Chom Jay (only if that place has you), etc... still, it was quite an invention. Maybe, with time, Lao country music will be as popular as Thai country music is currently enjoying.

 

Part 13

I remember that, at my house, we had a gramophone, which we played Lao music as well as Elvis Priestly records. Those Elvis Priestly records were mainly from my exiled brother who was a big fan of him. It was funny that my dad who was an admirer of anything French decided to come to America when things changed for worse in Laos while his elder son who was an admirer of anything American settled for France. That's the way fate actually works.

At Thakek, they had only one movie theater. Sometimes, when the rain poured so heavily, it had to cancel the show. As expected, the movies were mainly Thai films and American films. Know what? All shown movies were in Thai language. No wonder the Lao people living across the Mekong River were heavily influenced by the Thai that they didn't have to study Thai to be able to read and understand the Thai language. For me, I could read Thai as well as I did with the Lao itself when I was hardly ten. One would say that it was definitively a blessing or an advantage to be able to do so. To me, as I come to realize later, it was both a blessing and a detriment at the same time. It was a blessing in the sense that my mind was widely open with the Thai materials I had access to. At the same token, it was a detriment because whenever I wrote in Lao, I unconsciously used the Thai words. It might sound unharmful but I knew deep down in my heart that it did affect my psyches making me always realize that I was intellectually indebted and inferior to the Thai.

At times, I was even excited with the news that Miss Thailand, Aphatsara Hongsakhoun, won Miss Universe in 1967 as did many of the Lao. That was how effective the Thai influence was on us, the Lao.

 

Part 14

As I liked to watch movies so much, I went to any movie showing in town. They liked to have a movie at the temple when they had Boun, or when someone of importance passed away, they also had the movie showing right in front of their front yard. One movie was still very much in my mind. It was not exactly a movie but a documentary about the actual fighting in the Vietnam War during the Tet offensive in 1966. Maybe, because of that bloody massacres on the civilian lives, I came to hate the Communists. At one time, I even called Neo Lao HakXat as Neo Lao KhaiXat. In fact, the government did a good job in propagating that Communism was an evil enemy of Lao people. Not a few times, the government had a public showing featuring the capture of the North Vietnamese soldiers in Lao soil. No wonder Lao people were so afraid of Communism that they would fled in hordes once the Communist force had taken Laos. My dad, being a more mature person, came to view Neo Lao HakXat as a patriotic force. He knew General Singapore Sikhotchunlamany (later became minister of communication) and Outama Chounlamany (later became deputy minister of education) as they came from the same town, Thakek. Besides, those two were some sort of classmates of him . It would take me quite some time to realize the intricacy of politics and how things work in the real world. Nothing was in black and white but shaded in an intricate spectrum of color. Sometimes, things appeared as if they were good in nature but later they completely took a 180 degree turn. And sometimes, things looked so bad but later we found out they were not so much different than any of us. Only an understanding heart would take us through the web of constructed realities. I was glad that I was in a position to do so given the good education my parents had put me in and the culture that I always derived strength and wisdom from.

Wonder if any of us, the Lao, could see things as they are and still come to love the land who exiled us and the people who betrayed us.

 

Part 15

When I was in 6th grade, I showed some sign of greatness. I wrote an essay about democracy and got the highest grade of the whole school. As any Thakekian knew that Ecole Charite was the best elementary school in town. Of course, it came as a surprise to me because there were so many brighter students than I was. To make matters worse to all bright students, the teacher read my essay aloud in front of the whole class. He even quipped that if I were to run for the state assembly, I would be elected for my words were so eloquent that he wondered if I would be able to keep my promise to the voters or not. Yes, that was my only big moment in that school. You know what? Later that year, I didn't even pass the exam to the 7th grade. Telling you the truth, I daydreamed into the testing day. Vividly did I remember that I wrote an essay completely out of the subject. By failing to make a reasonable grade in any subject, I put myself out. I (in fact, it was my dad) found out that the only reason I didn't get accepted to College Thakek was of a poor grade from that essay. You got to remember that there were hundreds of sixth graders from all over the province competing for less than 60 or 70 vacant slots. Of course, most of those who passed the test were from my school. That didn't bother me much because I knew that many of them were far more intelligent than I was. What ticked me was that one of my acquaintances who didn't fare as well as I did got accepted to College Thakek. Worse, he lived next to my house. His mom and mine always liked to compete in whatever they had, namely the dress. At times, it went as far as who got the best kid. Failing the College test ensured his mom that she got the best kid. Fortunately, I didn't live in Thakek long enough to endure that shame. Right after the exam, we moved to Thadeua, Vientiane. That was another story.

 

Part 16

Before I go on to another subject, let me go back to my school again. Every year, during the Lao New Year, they had a contest between all schools in the province. That contest was about who was going to build the best thing. One year, it was about the kite.

Another, it was about the balloon and so on ... the contest was held at the public school in front of my school. With ingenuity, my school managed to win the first prize most of the time. I did remember that the only part I contributed to the winning team was the coloring of the kite and the balloon. Whatever it was, it felt great to do well besides academics. Also, at my school, we occasionally went to the Catholic church nearby to pray to all the grim looking saints. Wow! What a contrast! This church was so richly adorned with stained glass while the temple next door was shabbily decorated. In fact, it was so old that only the constant wiping of the diligent monks made the wall looked a little bit more presentable. Funny may it sound I went to both the church and the temple. The church was because of the requirement as an Ecole Charite student. The temple was instead because it was fun. I liked to go there when they had walking in circle holding the candle (WienThien) around the temple. Seeing the flame flickering with wind and the young couples trying to shelter the candle from being blown out made the walking behind them exciting. There was another Boun that fascinated me. It was Boun Khao PadubDinh (the alms giving to the soil). Everywhere around the temple, I could see batches of sticky rice with some KhaoNom (kind of dessert) on it. Last but not the least, I liked Boun Phaveth when the monks would go on reciting the story of Phaveth for the whole night and even the night after that. What I didn't like was that I had to walk home right in the middle of the night when silence was dreadful and every rattling of the leaves made the hair on my head stand tall. It was said, or it was rumored, that the widowed ghost (Phi Mae Mai) would throw her long hair down at you if you walked under the big Pho tree in front of the temple. What's more if you survived that juncture, your legs would be pulled down the bridge when you tried to cross it. Unfortunately for me, I had to walk past both the Pho tree and the bridge to get to my house. At times, I would run with my eyes half closed until I had got home. I was glad to report that the ghost never caught me. In fact, it was more true to say that I had never met a ghost or even its shadow even once. Wonder if I saw one, how would I react?

 

Part 17

Generally, Thakek was a quiet town. Hardly, there was any activity besides the Buddhist festivals. In the street, as expected, there were no cars but occasionally bicycles passing by. Sometimes, you could even take a nap right in the middle of the street. For me, like most Thakekians, walking was a means of transportation. In fact, it was really fun to walk especially after school had been over for the day. Most of the time, the street was completely occupied by students. I was not in a hurry at all. As always, I liked to stop for quite a good time when I passed the stream. Up from the bridge, I could see the boat passing by. At times, I would even see someone catch the fish right out of the stream. I, myself, never had a good luck catching a fish, even a tiny one. Most of the fish, I got when I went fishing were a courtesy of my friend. Besides using the fishing rod, he used the trapping net laying across the stream to catch the fish. No wonder he could bring home a bucket full of fish almost every day. By the way, he was a good boat rower too. Too bad that his boat was full of leaking holes that whenever I got on the boat with him, I had to continually pour the sipping water out. He, himself, didn't mind if his boat capsized once in a while for it will give him a chance to take a bath. Me, I couldn't stand the thought of hanging on to the capsized boat. Why? Because I didn't know how to swim. I who, most of my childhood, lived by the Mekong River couldn't swim. It was like the saying "living by the river and still have to buy Padaek." What a shame indeed!

 

Part 18

I had one more thing to add about the stream. It was kind of dividing the town into two parts. If I wanted to go to the soccer stadium which was at the south side of the town, I had to cross a bridge. Also, if I wanted to go my school which was at the east side, I had to pass another bridge. It was only the north side of the town that I didn't have to cross the bridge. In case that you forgot, Thakek's west side was the Mekong River. Of the two bridges, the one to the south side was my favorite. First, it was by my residence, the post office. And secondly, both kids and couples liked to hang out there. For kids, they liked to use the bridge as a jumping board to dive into the stream. Of course, I was talking about the rainy season when the water was almost at the same level as the bridge. Though not taking part in this crazy dive (some did a 360 degree roll over dive. Wonder how could they do that in such a short time before hitting the water), I enjoyed watching them take a plunge in and out of the water so many times as if they were not tired. By the way, each time they did things differently. That was how creative Lao kids were.

As the stream met the Mekong River not so far from the bridge, I would like to talk about the Mekong River too. It was the place where most Thakekian living along its shores took the bath. Also, it was the place where we watched the boat race. In fact, I had a lot to talk about these two events.

Let's begin with the Mekong as a bathing place. Right in front of my house, there was a kind of path leading to the river. Just before sunset, most Thakekians living around that quarter would go and bathe there. Of course, my brothers, sisters and I were regular guests as our house was less than a hundred yards away. Even those who didn't bathe at the river came to watch the sunset there. In fact, I didn't know who was so gracious to build a Sala (a resting place) that you could sit and lie down right the shore of the Mekong River. At times, people just parked their bikes and watched the sunset or the girls bathing under the many Taan trees which were lining up the Mekong River. Later, I came to know that some boys came to watch my sister take a bath. They would come at exactly the time when we were about to go to the river, and left the place as soon as we were gone. As a matter of fact, my sister was pretty. Besides, she was a school Basketball star. I still remembered her colored photograph (a rare thing in Laos those days) wearing a light blue Basketball uniform. Either a result of her beauty or her star status, there were many boys chasing her around. One of the boys was very handsome. He was a mixed blood, half French and half Lao/Vietnamese. He would frequent our house almost every evening. Of course, she liked her no less but, unfortunately, an auto accident crushed his young life. If I remembered well, she wore black for him for quite some time.

 

Part 19

The second big event along the shores of the Mekong River was a boat race. If you haven't seen one, you definitively need to see it. Apart from the boat race itself, the bravado of the boatmen was even more exciting. There, even without being in the boat yet, the boatmen would dance, sing and use such a foul language that if you were the opposite sex, you wouldn't dare to be in sight. Still, that didn't mean to harm anybody. It was just part of the event. That was why it was so colorful. Having one without the other was unthinkable. I wonder how these boatmen got so much energy. They rowed so fast, so hard for such an extended period of time and still they had energy left to stand up in their boat and did all kinds of things similar to what they did before getting on board.

Some said that Lao people spent too much time having fun that they were unproductive. To me, that was what made Lao people unique.

One year, my house, in fact the post office, became a host to one of the boat racing teams.

You could guess that how exciting the environment was. First, these boatmen were from the countryside. They tended to be more Lao than the city people. That was they played as part of their work. Also, they tended to exhibit their emotion more explicitly than the city people. I would say that I liked these people. Their honesty, simplicity of life and modesty would sure touch anybody who had a contact with them. That year, it happened that the team the post office supported finished the second place in the boat race, and I was glad for them for they really deserved every bit of it.

I would also said that Lao people had a liking for the boat racing. Everywhere it was held, whether in a town or a village, people would gather en masse to watch it. Some would stand in the sun or with the umbrella to cover their heads for hours just to savor the excitement of the event. For those who were not familiar with the boat racing, it was held in the 11th month of the Lao calendar (roughly the 10th month of standard calendar). That time, the water was at its peak as the rainy season was about to end. It was said that this boat racing was held to honor the Nak (the legendary serpent) who lived in the Mekong River. In a way, it was a Lao way to thank those who protect them as well gave a plentiful food to them. To Lao people, especially the ethnic Lao who lived along the shores of the Mekong River, both the Mekong River itself and all of its tributaries, this river was everything to them - a food haven, a transportation link. In short, it was a gateway to Lao civilization. It was where the Lao culture came into being, and it was where the Khene was heard the loudest.

 

Part 20

Talking about the rainy season, it was fun - real fun. Most of time, it was the occasion for us, the kids, to get a free shower. My friends and I would run wildly in the rain with just a short on. At times, if it was not raining hard, we would gather below the roof gutter and let the torrent rain soak our bodies. Also, as the rainy season came with the mango season, we got mangoes as a byproduct. In my backyard, there was a mango tree. Whenever it rained, it had a tendency to drop off its ripe fruits. Still, I rather went with the mango trees behind my friends' backyard. It was more fun to get the mango from other backyard than one's own. There, I could use my agility to snatch the fallen mango faster than anybody. Usually, I would go home with a big back full of mangoes. And it became a norm that my family would wait for me in the living room to have their share of the mangoes. That was the harder it rain, better yet the harder the wind blew, the more mangoes I would be able to get.

Besides the fun part, the rain provided us with free water. Most of the time, when it rained, we would be able to replenish our water tank and likely saved me a couple of days of hard work. Unlike Savannakhet, we had to get our own water. Every day, after school, I had to go to the pumping water (aside from the last year of our stay at Thakek when we had our own well) which was about half a mile to my place and got water there. The way to transport it was to push the cart and it was very tiring for I was not a strong type of guy. Anyway, I was glad that I did my part, though small as it was, in helping my family. During my three year stay at Thakek, I was relieved at times doing that job when Ai Kham, the big muscle guy, came to live with us. He could handle the water cart with ease. What's funny about him was that when my parents relayed something to him through me and if he overheard it first, he would waver me away before I could even utter a word. Besides, he liked to listen to English speaking songs though he hardly knew what they meant. I sometimes asked me why he liked certain songs, he would say that he just liked them because of the tune! 2 years ago, I went to Laos and saw him again, this time he had no muscle left but there was one thing that still remained with him. That thing was his preference of the English songs over any other songs.

 

Part 21

The other day, my friend Thip called me from New York and asked if I had a chance to water the Buddha stature or not. At that instance, I just realized that it was Pimai Lao (Lao New Year). Wow! What a difference between Pimai Lao in the U.S. and back home. Here, I didn't get even a bit of pouring water on me on that occasion. In contrast, back home, my clothes were constantly wet despite the hot sun of the dry season. In fact, there was hardly any adults throwing water at us but who cared we did it among ourselves. We would load our water pistol and fired repeatedly at any of us in sight. For three days from sunrise to sunset, it was a water show time. To say the least, our show time was far more civilized than the adults did. There, they tended to resort to things that we, kids, did hardly imagine of. One was the use of water that made you itch. Mainly, it was the guys thing. They tended to get satisfaction that their water could make the pretty girls scratch her private parts. The harder the girls scratch those parts, the merrier they guys were. Another thing was the rubbing of the girls' faces with the charcoal. I remembered that the guys busted into our house and rubbed my big sister's face with the charcoal. Before they left, they got creative by mixing water with the color and dumped it on her. Yes, for the Pimai spirit, everything was pardoned. Wonder if anybody dared to do the same thing in the U.S., that person would sure get a lawsuit.

What I found worth admiring was that, on this occasion, our house was thoroughly clean. My mom told us that a cleaning house was a way to greet the New Year. It suggested that we would get rid of whatever was bad and began anew. Also, my parents took us to the temple to pour scented water on the holy monk and the sacred Buddha. Of course, we had a Buddha statue at our altar that we brought down to be watered but the act of going to the temple with the community to celebrate this big event was part and parcel of our culture that made us uniquely Lao. At the end of the three days festival, my parents took the Buddha statue back to his altar.

 

Part 22

Someone would ask that why we, Lao people, pour water on one another on Pimai Lao. First, it was a very creative idea to do so as April was the hottest month in Laos. Being soaked by water, even for a while, made you cool and the day seemed more bearable. Second, it was a way to say "Thank you" to those we love and respect. And thirdly, it became our way of life a very long time ago. It was said that Pha Phom (Indra) came down from heaven to ask the wise man who could answer any questions. His questions were:

  1. What is the sacred part in the morning?
  2. What is the sacred part in the afternoon?
  3. What is the sacred part in the evening?

Regrettably, the wise man couldn't answer these 3 questions. Part of the bet was that if the wise man couldn't answer the questions, his heart would be taken away. At the same time, if he could, Pha Phom would give him his head. The wise man had 3 days to come up with the right answers.

It was said that the wise man had to leave his home for he couldn't bare the thought that he got no answers for Pha Phom's questions. He decided he rather went to the jungle and died there than baring the shame. Fortunately, on the third day, while resting under the big tree, two vultures were talking about how lucky they were to eat the corpse of the wise man at the end of the third day. Oblivious of the fact that someone might overhear the conversation, the male vulture divulged the answers to Pha Phom's questions. And the answers were:

  1. the face
  2. the chest
  3. the feet

(it was called the sacred spot because we wash our face in the morning, rub water on our chest in the hot afternoon, and again wash our feet before going to bed)

Of course, those were the correct answers therefore they helped save the wise man's skin. At the same token, it meant that Pha Phom's head had to be cut as part of the deal. Before death, he told his daughters to take turns holding his head on certain days of the year so that his head wouldn't burn the earth. For some reasons, this tradition was adopted by Lao, Thai and Khmer people as part of their cultures. Later, those days were called "Pimai" which we celebrate up to the present moment.

 

Part 23

As some of you might know, Thakek people liked to refer themselves as "Kunh" when talking to other people. This way of addressing oneself was interesting and had no counterpart in any parts of Laos. Telling the truth, when I first heard it, I thought the other person whom I talked to was named "Kunh". Until later did I realize that he meant himself. By the way, Thakek accent was kind of in the middle between Savannakhet and Vientiane. Though not originally from Thakek, my accent could be said to be close to Thakek one. In fact, it was a combination of Thakek, Vientiane and, lastly, Savannakhet to a lesser degree. Whatever accent anyone had, one should be proud of it. One shouldn't pretend to be what one was not as some people tended to do.

My uncle, Loung Kinnavong Saycocie, was a typical Thakek. He was content with what he had: a house with many planted trees in the yard. Though neither grand nor luxurious, his house was very clean. He and his wife, Pa Matsa, took the great pains scrubbing the wooden floor everyday until it became spotlessly shining. Whenever I visited them, I had to make sure that I wiped my feet thoroughly before stepping on their precious floor. It was interesting to note that though over 30 years had passed, their floor was as shining as before. In both their front and back yards, they had all kinds of fruit trees namely the LamYai, the Mango and the Orange. What I liked most was that these fruit trees were so short that I could pick their fruits right from the ground. It was said that the soil around Wat ChamThong was very fertile. Everything that was planted there gave a bountiful harvest. I remembered that there were some wild Mak Tong trees, not far from my uncle's house and they didn't belong to anybody. So whenever I passed by that place, I got free Mak Tong. Unfortunately, my stomach didn't like Mak Tong that much for I tended to get diarrhea almost each time I ate them.

 

Part 24

Before I go on to another topic, I would like to talk about my uncle family to some extent. There were 5 people altogether in the family. Three of them had the same nickname: Deng. Starting with the eldest one, they were Deng Yai; then Nang Deng and Deng Noy. Wonder what the three siblings called themselves. It must be so confusing if you were to look for someone with the name of Deng in their family. Anyway, they were all good people like their parents. Uncle Kinnavong, my dad's only brother, and Aunt Matsa (fish) took great care of their kids. As I remember, I never heard them swear even once. No wonder that they did well in life. My mom told me that aunt Matsa was not his first wife. He used to get married once but, unfortunately, his wife eloped with her boyfriend the very night they wed. Maybe, the woman was forced to get married by her parents for, to me, uncle Kinnavong was the nicest man I had ever met. He had a better luck when his parents arranged to have him married aunt Matsa, a distant relative from Sakon Nakorn. I was told that my family lived on both sides of the Mekong River. First, they lived in Mahaxay. Then, the Siamese after the defeat of Chao Anou came and relocated them to Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakorn. Some of them went back to Mahaxay and began to have a last name "Saycocie" when the French enforced the Lao to have one. I am proud to tell you that they remain faithful to one another until old age, and likely until death do them apart.

Thakek, in general, was a quiet town. Then, out of nowhere, the canon sound was heard around the town. I was told that the Pathet Lao force was making a move. News of casualties was spreading. This happened in coincidence with the heavy bombing of the U.S. in both North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao area. It was strange that I didn't see any dead bodies during that incident. Still, when we drove out of the town, I was told that the very spot I passed by was the battlefield and not a few soldiers were buried at that very spot. In fact, I was updated every day by the news received through the wire telegraph at the post office. At that time, it was a radio war news, not a television war news like today. I remember that I first saw the television for the first time in 1969 -  the year the Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Of course, it was in black and white. As I remember, the whole town had only 2 or 3 television sets. The one I watched the landing was in front of the market. Of course, it was exciting to witness that. We, Lao, used to compare a girl with the spotlessly beautiful face as a moon. What a shock to see that the moon was full of big holes. Wonder if any girls wanted to have a face like a real moon.

 

Part 25

It seemed that the market was the place to be - food, entertainment, or just hanging around. About one time or two each year, the drug company from Thailand would come by to sell their products. They would have an open movie showing right at the market. Those drug companies sold the medicine for the headache (Poat Hai Thanh Jai), sore stomach and toothache. Typical of any Thai advertisers, they were loud and spun out mostly a lie about their products. Still, because of our tendency to take words at face value, we bought those products in tremendous amounts that they kept coming back years in years out. As I remember, one of those lies was that their magic tooth cure could sap the creature eating our tooth instantaneously. To substantiate their claims, they showed a plastic bag containing a creature that was supposedly coming out of the toothache. Reminiscing back, I still had a hard time believing that we could fall for that blatant and unethical lie.

At the same time, not to be outdone by the Thai advertisers, the 555 tobacco company from Vientiane came to Thakek. They also had an open movie showing at the market. This time, they said that those who bought a pack of 555 cigarette at the movie showing would have an entry to win the brand new Honda motorcycle. To my knowledge, no one won that motorcycle despite the fact that many bought the cigarettes there. Luckily, in my family, no one smoked cigarettes so we didn't buy any. Talking about cigarettes, I did try to smoke it once. Of course, I didn't let my parents know. Telling the truth, I couldn't even finish a puff before throwing a cigarette away. It was so bad to my tongue that I wonder why anyone liked to smoke it.

 

Part 26

I liked to go to the market too besides for the movie showing. There, you could come and buy things to cook. It was funny to add that almost all of the vegetables and fish came from Nakhon Phanom. Didn't it seem like we could not even grow our own vegetables? Of course, it was not my duty to go buy food every day. In my family, we had one person who did that job. You could call a servant but I preferred to call her Eauy Hom. She took care of many of my little brothers and sisters from the days in Savannakhet, Thakek and even Vientiane. To say the least, I liked her a lot especially her cooking. At the same time, I disliked her rough manner especially when she was angry; she liked to give me and my little siblings a big slap in the butt. By the way, did I tell you that my family was a big family? In Savannakhet, I had 5 siblings despite the fact that we already lost 3 at their very early age. When we lived in Thakek, we added 3 more. That was one for every year we lived there. Until today, I still wondered how could we cramp together in a 3-bedroom house; not to mention that it would be terribly hard to feed all of us with just my dad's income. As I remember, all of us - kids swallowed anything laying in front of us as fast as it appeared. Since our family was so big, we had to divide each meal into 2 groups. My little siblings who were terribly fast in devouring food were luckily with another group. I, because of the age advancement, was to eat with my parents and elder sister. Glad that I made into the second group otherwise I would have to train hard to eat without even grinding the food first.

The reason I liked to go to the market was mainly to eat Pho (Vietnamese noodle). I liked it so much that whenever I had saved enough money, I would go to the market and savor a bowl of Pho until not a drop of soup left in the bowl. Also, I liked to go to the market to buy Kapi (a kind of source that smells as pungent as Padaek). I remember that once I got angry with my parents for an unknown reason (kids' stuff), I thought of leaving home and ate only Kapi to sustain myself. Luckily that I didn't carry it through. If not, I wonder how I would turn out to be - as black and cheap as Kapi?

 

Part 27

I guess you could say the market was the downtown of Thakek or any Lao towns. Around it was a gathering of mostly Chinese shops selling everything from furniture to food. I even bought a pair of binocular there. It looked stylish (I could close it and carried it in my pocket) but hardly comparable to the binocular used in the military. I used it mainly to watch the boat race. Most of the time, I had to do without it especially when I came to realize that it was just a toy -  looked good for a while but with no useful function at all. Next to the Chinese shops, a little bit away from the market, were the Vietnamese shops. They sprung up almost everywhere in town. They were the tailor shops, the candies shops, the bicycle repair shops, etc ... and, of course, the Pho shops. When the Chinese/Vietnamese New Year came around, the town was like their town. It made me realize that a majority of the ethnic Lao lived in the countryside, not the town at all. Apart from the Chinese/Vietnamese, there were a couple of Indian shops mostly selling cloth. At times, I saw an Indian peddler pushing a cart selling a Roti. Whenever he was around, the Roti aroma permeated a good section of the town. I bought some of his Roti and would say that was the only Indian food I ate and liked even up to today.

I remember that I bought a number of lottery tickets from that area of the town. It was a Thai lottery ticket as the Lao didn't have one yet, or even if we did, Thakek didn't have one. To be frank, I was swept by the idea of getting easy money like many other short-sighted thinking people. To my dismay, I didn't win even a small amount from the lottery. By the way, the lottery that we played was Lek Song To (two numbers) or Lek Sarm To (three numbers). My mom seemed to have a better luck with it. She won periodically, or maybe, we knew only when she won.

 

Part 28

To me, playing cards was okay even though you could lose some hard-earned money. What troubled me was the card playing and the casino. In Thakek, the card playing was spreading like a fire in the dry season, and it was virtually legal. Not a few times, I saw many policemen came to play at my house during my mom's recovery after giving birth (Gnun Kum). I would say most people playing cards at my house were high ranking people or, if not themselves, their wives. They played black jack and some other card games which I didn't know. The cash amount played was huge. I would say that it amounted to over one hundred thousands Kips ($1 equals to 500 Kips - that was over two thousand dollars) at times despite the fact their own salary would never came that close, no matter how high ranking they were. Fortune lost, fortune gained. That was the nature of the game but the one who always won was the house where the card was played. Each time, someone won the card, Ngeun Tong (money for the place that held the card playing) was received. By the end of the night (in fact the early morning), Ngeun Tong could amount to no less than one hundred dollars. That was a huge collection of money for a poor country like Laos. I would say that, like any other things in life, the effect of a certain thing was beyond our ability to conceptualize. Three years in Thakek were like hell to us, kids, smoke and noise from the men and women played the card were suffocating and deafening. Imagine three births, three Sukhouan and three excuses of any sorts to hold the card playing could make us victims of the gambling ourselves. Luckily, out of my ten siblings (2 more were added in Vientiane), only one fell victim to the gambling. Wonder if any Lao families with the same situation could fare better than we were.

 

Part 29

I didn't know exactly what year they opened a casino in Thakek. It was said that the Thai had lobbied the government people to allow them to open a casino there. In fact, aside from Thakekian, not a few gamblers came from Nakhon Panom. This casino was close to the ferry station, which was by the market. After the Thai gamblers had finished playing, they just took the ferry back to Nakhon Panom. At times, I saw many Thai patronizing the place. Their dark skin and arrogant manner just couldn't hide their presence. You might wonder why I was there. Most of the time, I went there with my mom. A little note here: my mom was a wonderful mom. She was smart despite the fact that she finished only 3rd grade. She knew when to go for it and when to go home when luck was not on her side. Unfortunately, this trait was not with my brother who was addicted to gambling. Maybe, with time, he would learn to use my mom's strategy in regards to gambling.

In fact, my mom didn't want me to go there but, as I was a very curious boy, I insisted on going with her. She knew that I was old enough and wise enough to know what was right and what was wrong. She even said that I was the only kid in the family who knew how hard it was to bring food to the table every day. When she couldn't make herself depart the casino for dinner, I was the one who brought dinner to her from home. When she won even a little bit of money, she would tend to go home. At times, she would stay until she won big because her gut told her that it was her day. By the way, there was one game I remembered from those days with the casino, it was Mak Touat. My mom had one superstition about gambling. She never brought Mak Kiang (oranges) with her. In Lao, "Kiang" means "lost all". Maybe, because of a special ritual she had in anything she did, she carried herself well in life. Imagine a not-so-educated woman could raise 11 kids with just my dad's income (he was too honest to engage in any kind of corruption). I guess that was the wisdom inherited from her (our) ancestors, which rendered an otherwise hard life into a bearable one.

 

Part 30

There was one incident related to the opening of casino in Thakek. During the Boun (festival) at the temple, a bomb was planted in a LumVong (Lao dance) floor from a big time lost gambler. When the bomb exploded, it took away many lives. Among one of the many victims was my friend's dad. He was a colonel with a promising career laying ahead of him. With the loss, my friend's mom had to take him out of the school and devoid me of a friend when his family moved away from Thakek shortly. I met him again briefly in Vientiane before he fled across the Mekong river right after the Communist had taken Laos.

Also, at about the same time, the Christians came to proselytize Thakekian. To me, it was odd to make people change their faith. Of course, I was familiar with Catholicm since I was schooled in a Catholic school but they didn't come out strongly against Buddhism as these Protestant missionaries were doing. Their language was harsh, crude and self-congratulating. I was not surprised to learn that many Thakekian just ignored their presence despite the fact they distributed books, leaflets, and even made an attempt to vilify the teachings of Buddha at the very Buddhist temple. You can say foreign ideology and foreign religion come and go but true ideology (Khuam Penh Lao) and longtime religion (Buddhism) would always be with the Lao. That shows how strong our Lao culture is.

Talking about culture, there was one person who could typify Lao culture. Unfortunately, he took the path that most Lao people found detestable. Born of a royal blood from the South, he enjoyed the privilege most Lao could only dream of. Instead, he misused his power. First, his family sided with the Siamese. When it was his turn to make a mark, he sided with the French partly out of distrust of the royal family from the North and partly out of his own vested interest. I guess any Lao older than 30 would know him. He was Chao Boun Oum Na Champassak. Some claimed that he could render himself invisible or by shrinking himself into the bottle. Some more claimed that wherever he went, he always had the village, the town provided him with a young girl. Strange as it was, those images lingered in our people's minds. One time, he came to the post office with the French bodyguards. Because of his big body and French bodyguards, he seemed to be an alien even in his own country. That was the only time I saw him. I, sincerely, hope that his descendants will learn from his mistakes and serve their people/country as their high status and privilege are entitled them to.

 

Part 31

While in Thakek, I also saw Lum Leuang (folk music and dancing) for the first time. It was at one of my relatives who died from alcoholism. This stage playing was colorful with its lively backdrop. The acting was okay. What fascinated me was the sound of Khene (Lao musical instrument) and the Lum (singing). I didn't know why the sound of Khene reverberated in me as if it were the sound from the bottom of my own heart. Still, I couldn't tell what it was exactly. The sound was kind of sad and alive at the same time. Maybe, it captured the spirit of our people who had to endure both the pain and pleasure of life. It was pain in the sense that we, as a people, had to constantly leave our homeland as a victim of war especially with the Siamese. Many of them were relocated as far as around Bangkok, namely at Sarabury. Wherever they were, the sound of Khene was with them. It was a way to let the world know that they were Lao and would die as a Lao. At the same time, it was a pleasure because it was the nature of Lao people who always have fun in their hearts. Even today, Lao people are content with the least convenience of what life has to present. It was said that, "He who inhabits a pile house, eats sticky rice, and plays the khene, he is a true Lao."

Usually, when you heard the Khene playing, you would hear Lum accompanying it. What is a Lum? To some who know, they would say that it is a direct relationship between tone and pitch. To me, it is a sound coming straight from the Lao soul. Lum is not an ordinary singing but a wisdom passed down from generations to generations. It told of past legends, heroes, and the good old days. As recently as in the seventies, Lum was a way to hold Khuam Penh Lao for the ethnic Lao living in Isan (Northeastern Thailand). Also in Lum, you would find Pa-nyah (a contest of wit). Included here is a sample of Pa-nyah.

(male)

O my dear, I wish to ask you about the big tree in the center of the woods if I may. I want to know whether many people live there. A black crow wishes to eat the fruit of that tree and smell its fragrance. But I am not handsome; I am black as the crow. (Are you married or single? I love you but I fear I will not succeed because I am ugly.)

(female)

O my dear, I am like a small tree on the heights waiting for the rain to pour down. If the fifth month (April) comes but brings no rain, the small tree will soon die. (I am single and want a boyfriend).

(male)

Can this really be true? A big tree without a ghost or a pretty girl without a lover would burst the breast of Nang Tawranee (the goddess who protects the earth). If the ghost who protects the fields (pee da-haek) has no coconut shell (water bowl), the earth will dry up in dust. If you are pretty, you must already have a lover. (I can not believe that you have no lover.)

(female)

My dear, since the time when I was a seedling there were no vines to entwine themselves around me. Now that I am a sapling, still no vine embraces me. (I have no boyfriend.)

(male)

You say that the tree has no vines, but why then is it overgrown? If the place under the house is too small, how can you keep a buffalo there? I want to die and become a water bowl which will be warmed when you hold it. O, luck, why do you not come to help me live with her? (The implication is that she is lying.)

(female)

I was a virgin pure like a daeng jing melon. Since I became a girl (Sao) no boyfriend has slept with me. Since I became a girl no boyfriend has talked with me. You are the first one I've met. Please protect me and keep me as your lover. I will never forget you.

For those who are interested, you can check out the book entitled "Traditional music of the Lao: Kaen playing and Mawlum singing in Northeast Thailand" by Terry E. Miller, published in 1985.

 

Part 32

During one of my mom's pregnancies, my dad took me to get the cow for a Baci. We drove a truck to a village about 20 miles away from our home. It was very rare for me to go to the village of any kinds. To my memory, that village had a temple surrounded by a cluster of houses. These houses were typical Lao houses. That was two stories. The first story was empty. You could hang the net and lied lazily in there. Some houses even used the first story as a place to keep the livestock. It was said Lao people especially villagers built the houses that way was because of the flooding. Along with the houses, there were all kinds of fruit trees swaying with the wind. It was fun to listen to the wind in the environment that was serene. Sometimes, I could hear the buffaloes playing in the swamp. My dad had me wait on the veranda of one acquaintance while he went looking for the cow with some villagers. It took them quite some time before he got back. As we arrived at the village quite late in the afternoon, some time meant that the sun was about to set. By the time, we were about to take off for home, some houses had lit their lanterns. For some, they just sat in the dark enjoying the crescent moon which kept getting brighter and brighter as the sky gradually turned black.

As my dad wanted to go home as soon as he could, he didn't have dinner at the village. It was my dad's habit to have meal with my mom. Still, he was concerned that I might be hungry; he got some sticky rice and dried meat (Sean Loth) for me. I don't know why it was so good to eat out so I finished the handful of sticky rice in a minute. When it was time to take a ride home, I could hum a happy song. Unfortunately, I was bumped to sit with the cow on the way home as we got some guests riding with us. The constant "Moo, moo" of the cow beat me so I had to stop humming and enjoyed this unavoidable song instead.

 

Part 33

As you might remember, Thakek post office - the place I lived, was by the Mekong River. Sometimes, a big ferry boat would stop by and anchor there. It was rumored that, in one of the ferry boat, lived a Phi Pob. At first, I didn't pay any attention to this rumor. Then, something very close to home struck. My niece, a daughter of my half sister, died unexpectedly. At that time, she was 7 or 8. Of all the three daughters and one boy she had, this one was the prettiest. They all lived in the post office compound. The three girls behaved okay. Maybe, because they were old enough. The little boy, instead, when left alone playing in the yard, would eat dirt, mud or whatever he could lay hands on. I guess that kind of things happened when you lost your father. By the way, his dad was the T-28 pilot whose life was cut short when his plane plunged into a tree on the way back home from Oudone.

To my remembrance, she was slightly sick that her daughter didn't pay much attention to her. In fact, the night she died, her mom wasn't at home. I, myself, was awakened in the middle of the night when the wailing and the pounding of the wood to make a coffin for her permeated the post office compound. I had to admit that it was really sad to witness a little girl die - a girl you saw and played with every day. When my three siblings died, I was very little that I didn't remember anything. Now (then) that I was old enough, death was really a devastating and mournful moment.

Since my niece's death, no ferry boat came to stop by the shore in front of our post office. Maybe, Thakek people living close to the post office chased the supposedly "Phi Phob" ferry boat away. Or maybe, they found somewhere else to anchor their boat. Whatever it was, I was glad that I didn't have to be scared about Phi Phob in the area any more.

By the shore of the stream next to the bridge, I and my siblings planted the corns. It was said that if you planted the corns laughing or smiling unpleasantly, when they gave their fruits, they wouldn't be nice. That was the corn wouldn't be lining up nicely. Proud to say that the corns we planted gave a very nice fruit. Though not fenced off at any way, no one came to steal our corns. If I remember correctly, we planted the corns every year and they were good to us every year.

In general, I got along very well with my siblings. Still, at one time, I fought with my older sister. She complained, maybe rightly, that I never called her "Euay" despite the fact that she was 3 years older than me. At that time, what I didn't like about her was that our parents gave her more money than to me. What I didn't realize that, as a grown up girl, she had more to spend. Just look at her pants, they were all fashionable. Typical of the 60s, the tip of the pant was large. At times, when she spent time at home wearing those kinds of pants, we didn't need to sweep the floor. The tip of her pants just took care of that task! Now, I would proudly say that I get along very well with her for she is sure a good sister. And she rightly earns my respect to be called "Euay" at last.

 

Part 34

Sabaydii,

At last, 'Along the shores of the Mekong River' is coming back to you. This time, I have the intention of finishing it at least my Vientiane years (1970-1981). I can't guarantee how often it will come to you but I will say that I will try to make it twice a week as before. For today, let me wrap up the Thakek years which are long overdue.

*****

Whenever I think of Thakek, the image of enclosed walls of mountains come to my mind. Yes, this cluster of scenic mountains is what makes Thakek so captivating. Thakek might not be a booming town. In fact, it was quite a sleepy place. Still, it was where I felt most comfortable with. It was where the extended family of my dad lived.

Yes, it was where the Saycocie clan, my clan, reigned (figuratively speaking, of course). After all, what did we have but sincerity, diligence and devotion to family? If you happen to know the Saycocie, you will see that they very much represent Thakek people. And it was in this that Thakek embraced them as their own despite the fact that they were not originally from Thakek itself.

From bits and pieces, I learned that many of the Saycocie clan came to Thakek after Mahaxay, their birthplace, fell to the Communists. What was interesting was that the Saycocie came to represent Thakek as much as the Choumamany, the clan hometown, did. It was not strange to see that both of these clans married one another as to strengthen their grip of power in Thakek within themselves. In general, the Saycocie was not politically oriented unlike the Chounlamany. The only exception was Colonel Bounleuth Saycocie, my uncle, who bypassed the regional politics to the national level. He participated in the coup d'etat with General Ma against the government. Since the coup failed, there went the infatuation with power of the Saycocie clan.

After all of these, what does Thakek mean to me? The friendliness of people strikes a cord in my heart the most. The use of the word 'Kanh' to refer to oneself captures this friendliness well. Moreover, Thakek is synonymous with the love of motherland. It was here that courageously resisted the might of French forces phased two. The blood of patriot Lao all painted the Mekong River red. Who could forget the sight of the wounded Chao Souphanouvong making his way to Nakhon Phanom amidst the enemy heavy firing? The fact that Thakek people stood firmly behind Lao Issara, the successor of Chao Anou fighting spirit, testified to patriotism of Thakek people.

Thakek, a gem of Lao bravery and friendliness, will remain with us - all Lao forever. As Thakek people, we will one day make Thakek proud. Come, fellow Thakek abroad, don't let our hometown be sleepy any more!

 

Hakphaang,

Kongkeo Saycocie

The end

(Thadeua, Vientiane years coming up next)


 Sabaydii,

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?

Part 2

Sabaydii,

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!

 

Part 3

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 4

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 5

Sabaydii,

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.'

 

Part 6

Sabaydii,

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!

 

Part 7

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 8

Sabaydii,

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.

Stay tuned!

 

Part 9

Sabaydii,

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?

 

Part 10

Sabaydii,

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!

 

Part 11

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 12

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 13

Sabaydii,

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!

 

Part 14

Sabaydii,

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 River…'

Until that time, if there is one…

 

Part 15

Sabaydii,

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!

 

Part 16

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 17

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 18

Sabaydii,

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.

 

Part 19

Sabaydii,

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 l