By Brenda W. Clough
Nowadays this is fairly easy. Go here to see the schedules and get tips. I did this in 1969, in my early teens and it was… different. There were at the time no dentists in Laos, at least none that my parents trusted, and so we went to Bangkok to get our teeth looked at. For some reason I had to go — but I can’t remember any toothache. And for some reason we didn’t fly, a trip that would then take perhaps an hour or two.
Instead we began by going from our house in Vientiane to the bank of the Mekong River in the afternoon. On the other side was the Thai city of Nong Khai. You will note in that link that there is now a bridge and a rail link connecting the two cities. When I did this there was no such thing. You could stand on the muddy bank of the river and on both sides it was mostly jungle. The settlements were set well back from the actual water’s edge because of the flooding — the Mekong used to overflow regularly. We took a dugout boat equipped with an outboard motor. My father, myself, and our two bags fit in toward the front, and the boatman sat at the engine in the back. The river is not that wide — you can see across to the other shore — so the ride could not have taken more than half an hour. The water was always gray-green and full of jungly sediment; there is no such thing as a clear river in Southeast Asia.
I write this and it sounds like something in a novel. I remember it as not such a much. Of course we had to ride a boat, of course it was carved out of a single teak log about the diameter of your torso, and of course we sat on the thwarts because there were no seats. From the shore on the Thai side we took a bicycle rickshaw to the train station. This is always fun — you can do it now, in selected American cities (San Francisco and DC for example), but it does not look right when an American lad is at the pedals, dressed in bike shorts and muscular with American protein and vitamins. In Asia these things are always manned by skinny older Asian guys, heavy smokers dressed in black pajamas and rubber thong sandals.
And then the train! We had a sleeper, and I insisted on the top bunk, which my father was happy to let me have. It had a tiny anemic fan, a night light, scratchy sheets and a petite pillow. Unfortunately at that period what it didn’t have was air conditioning. Wow, it was hot! The air temperatures were in the 90s, with the standard super-high humidity of the region. The other notable feature which I remember well was that the cars were sized for the Thai people, who are not noted for height. The bunk was too short even for me, a young teen, which means it must have been less than 64 inches long. My father, at six feet, must have had to curl like a pretzel.
So it was impossible to sleep well, although I am sure I did. When it was day we sat in our seats and watched the Thai countryside roll by. I remember endless flat fields of rice paddy. And millions of water buffalo. I diverted myself by trying to count them — why didn’t I have a book? I can remember no other trip where I didn’t bring a book. I remember I counted well over two thousand water buffalo before getting bored. I doubt the countryside looks anything like that now — at the minimum those water buffalo have been replaced by diesel tractors.
I calculate that our journey took roughly 24 hours; we pulled into Bangkok and suddenly it was civilization again. Which is to say air conditioning! We went to a hotel and took showers!
The ebook version of my novel How Like a God is now available from Book View Cafe.
My newest novel Speak to Our Desires is out from Book View Café.