I arrived in Thakhek at the last twinge of twilight. Along with six other tourists, I squeezed into a tiny tuk-tuk with all our luggage. The merry driver shrugged off all our expressions of doubt at the impossibility of the exercise, “No problem, no problem!” I had to salute his business sense in packing so many fares into one trip (still less for us than going alone, still more for him than one). We bucked and bounced and stuttered down the dark road into the center of town, so laden with weight that other tuk-tuks screamed past in a glory of exhaust and dust.
Already exhausted from the long, uncomfortable bus ride (bus travel anywhere in Laos is a slow, arduous experience), I stumbled into my guesthouse disoriented by the boisterous Saturday evening crowds sipping beer, singing, and having a grand ol’ time in the restaurant that occupies the front of the guesthouse. Thankfully my room was tucked in the back. Never has a fresh, white bed’s linen looked so good. But first I had to wash my feet or I was sure to mar that freshness with gross grey streaks (feet are inevitably always dirty in SE Asia – a fact of life, like death and taxes.)
I awoke early, very early, to beat the heat. The Mekong region is about to be hit by an early heat wave and I wanted to explore before I wilted under the sun’s vengeance. Normal afternoon temperatures hoover around 30 to 32 Celsius, but by mid-week highs will hit 37 or 38 Celsius. That’s freaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. So my strategy of the week: early to rise, siesta, then late to bed.
The Mekong towns of Laos are hot and dusty this time of year when no rain soothes the dead brush and the fields are mostly blackened burnt patches picked over by wayward cows and goats. Thakhek is even dustier than I expected. The town center is dead by ten in the morning, the tuk-tuk drivers napping where they’ve parked or huddled in patches of shade. Most people on a Sunday are hidden deep within their cool houses, whether the sorrowful French colonial buildings that bow under the weight of history or the intrepid stilted wood houses under which chickens scratch and laundry flash-dries.
The town center is well beyond it’s heyday as a French colonial trading town across the Mekong River from Thailand. The graceful, lilting poetic bones of their rule still stand in the structures lining the main square. The concrete may be gray and flaking off, the shutters and wood verandas faded to sepia, but the symmetry of architectural motion is still there, buried beneath the commercial signs and corrugated tin awnings. A few of these historical structures have been renovated (including my guesthouse, with gleaming dark teak floors and French doors opened to the street for breezy afternoon daydreaming), but most are content to hibernate.
Just steps away is the river, the wide lazy Mekong. A few local fisherman drift with the current on their canoe-like boats as they pull long nets across the river. They perch down on the tip of the prow until I think they will capsize their boats, directing their nets with practiced patience.
I hired a tuk-tuk driver to take me 6 kilometers to a pilgrimage temples Wat Pha That Sikhotabong. He probably over-charged me, but we bartered the price a bit, and then he introduced himself, Nueem (which is phonetic – I do not know how to spell his name). A gregarious man who laughs from deep within his belly. As we chugged past the few planted rice fields, oasis of lushness in the brown dust, and obstinate cows congregating on the road, Nueem pointed at items and had me repeat the Lao name until he was satisfied.
The temple is one of the most revered in Laos, yet I was the only foreign tourist there. A few families carried offerings of braided flowers, incense, fruit, and these beautiful hat-shaped creations made from palm leaves folded like origami. Nueem retired to a shady bench overlooking the river and I wrapped myself in a skirt-for-rent. Unlike Thailand or urban Vientiane, covering your knees and shoulders is not enough when visiting a Buddhist temple – a skirt is absolutely required. At least I wasn’t the silly farang – several local women also rented skirts to wrap over their jeans.
The wat is simple – a gold-painted stupa with a pointed spire, much like a railroad spike, and a small bot set on a white pedestal. The solemn Buddha is almost too big for his temple. When I shook off my shoes and walked inside, I almost ran smack into his back. The symbolic tree that shades his head is a few tiered layers of gold cloth hung from the ceiling like a light fixture. It’s a simple bot, and more atmospheric for its simplicity. There is no distraction here from the principal Buddha, no flashy displays of gold and wealth. Just a red and gold painted ceiling, and jewel-colored patterns on the columns. A teenage monk accepted offerings from a small, but steady trickle of faithful. Children ran among the columns, occasionally playing one of the many gongs; the monk did not blink an eye. Their laughter floated up with the incense.
Rural Laos is never far away from town. When the morning was still fresh, I walked along the river out of town. Soon I was walking through villages, mostly clusters of the classic silted houses. A cow rolled in the mud of a rice paddy and the annoyed owner sprinted out to give the cow a piece of her mind. Goats raided trash barrels and boys raced down the road on their bikes. As I walked past, everyone shouted out greetings of “Sabaidee!” with huge smiles. Children shyly approached to practice English – one tiny girl, maybe 5 years old, shouted out “Good morning”, then ran away and hid behind her father. Everyone gathered on their porches in the shade, which serve as their living rooms, to eat and chat and watch TV.
I was sad to turn around and walk back to Thakhek, but the sun was growing higher and it was time to retreat before the rays could do their worst.