The Hillbilly and the Mekong Affair…
Dum ti dum, ti dum, dum, ti dum ti dum, dum ti dum ti dum…doo diddleeeoo di, do diddleeeoo di…. (Theme tune for Man from Uncle)
Laos is a landlocked one party communist country of about 7 million people, surrounded by an extraordinary bunch of neighbors; juntas, communists and capitalists, monarchies and republics - Burma and China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, yet they seemingly manage to co-exist quite well with all of them. It is one of the “Mekong River countries”.......
So – this time…
“The man went over the Mekong, to see what he could see………..”
My partner on this trip was a character from the nether regions of music and espionage, who we shall refer to as “Amos” – (carrier of burdens).
Our mission – or rather his - was to infiltrate the Laotian army music corps and play Western style music with them in the hope that it would lay the seeds of a cultural subversion of the communist hierarchy. My mission was to cut the fuel bill and sample some “Laab”.
Our sponsors were of course anonymous, but if you are interested in more information you might try asking General Heinieburger c/o of the CIA. (Contact details on request).
Our route would take us from the Eastern Seaboard, Thailand, avoiding Bangkok to the Thai border at Nong Khai, via Kabinburi, Korat, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani.
The flooding in Bangkok meant that this was not only the nearest border crossing but also the most accessible – any plans to drive near or through Bangkok would have been ill advised.
We set off at mid-morning, quite lightly loaded by my standards. As my natural countenance bears a remarkable resemblance to James Bond, my co-conspirator decided he would off-set this “dead giveaway” by assuming the appearance and personality of an Appalachian woodsman…this wasn’t difficult; he merely turned up the brim of his hat at the front…come to think of it, he routinely did that anyway. However it was difficult to see how he could fail not to attract some attention, standing as he did at least 2 meters tall, a good head and shoulders above the average Asian crowd.
Anyhow, from now on he would be referred to only as Amos. (I had suggested he could have been called “Al” as in short for altitude, but he didn’t think it was a good idea).
By that night we had booked into separate rooms in Nong Khai. (Under assumed names of course – I cunningly assumed the name in my passport)
The journey had been pretty uneventful, except that due to the flooding in and around Bangkok, we couldn’t buy bottled water at any of the gas stations on route; we were repeatedly greeted by row upon row of panic bought emptiness. We even pulled in at a TESCO’s but the situation was little better.
There had been a rather unfortunate incident at Tesco’s when Amos replied a casual comment made by one of two foreigners standing next to him looking at the empty shelving…one a tall spindly character with a pencil moustache, the other a rather rotund and small man – both were wearing striped shits and berets….and smelled of garlic
“The Perrier is thin on the shelves tonight”
“Yes, there’s a lot of panic buying about, not even Evian”
This led to a bit of a misunderstanding as it turned out to be the password / secret contact code phrase response that these two men had been seeking –
“Allo, I’m Dentresangle and this is my sidequique Norbert, ‘ave you brought zee garlic and chicory? Say ‘Allo Norbert”
“Bonjour” said Norbert – this was followed by a sharp clip to the ear delivered by Dentresangle…
“Allo” said Norbert correcting himself.
Dentresangle continued…”Listen carefully, I will say ziss only once………”
It turned out that they were in fact spies for the French government hoping to infiltrate the Laotian army canteen with some high-quality nouvelle cuisine. We quickly cleared up the misunderstanding and went on our way… leaving Dentresangle red-faced and his “sidequique” somewhat red-eared.
Quite late we arrived at Nong Khai. The guesthouse we stayed at was overlooking the Mekong – a teak, or “faux-teak” structure with a wide range of rooms, from about 250 to 1200 baht. I paid about 800 for a pleasant room with TV air etc. Amos the spy however chose to stay away from any prying eyes and paid 250 baht for a subterranean dugout behind the boiler-room, seemingly it was below water level too – it had all the charm and character of a set from “Eraserhead”.
I noticed as he strode in front of me down the corridor towards the room, hunched to avoid hitting overhanging pipes etc., how the dogs had stopped barking and the roaches and geckoes had scurried back into their nooks and crannies.
On entering the room, he muttered something about “Home from Home”………..turned in the doorway…said something like “catchya later” and shut the door. As I groped my way back to the lobby nothing could be heard apart from the rumbling in the pipes and the occasional whimper – I think it was a dog, but it could just as easily have been Amos.
After we’d settled in, Amos and I set off for a quick walk around the “centre” of Nong Khai. It doesn’t take long, although it seemed a lot busier than the last time I visited, at about the same time of year too…
The Monastery in the centre had a large and colourful event going on, temple fair with Ferris wheel et al; on a stage brightly painted characters were enacting some traditional theatre. Thick makeup, extravagant costumes and brash clanging music ... it looked very “Chinese” as did the tent-full of dignitaries sitting in a fenced off area having some sumptuous banquet, the tent lavishly decorated in red and gold, with a forest of enormous red candles flickering and smoking away. One could tell these people were VIPs by the customary hair-dos. The men all had their hair dyed black and worn in a comb-over pasted to their scalp and the women had elaborate architectural affairs that ascend several inches above their heads before turning into a caricature of a 60s American beehive…back-combing and lacquer are the keys here I feel…all set off with a trowel-full or two of ultra-bright and highly contrasted make-up…. crimsons, pinks and azure blues all on one face…very similar to the actors on the stage opposite.
Needing sustenance, we sat at a folding tin table on blue plastic stools on the sidewalk served from a rot ken – one of those stainless steel trolleys with a huge steaming stock-pot, and had a large bowl of noodles each, and took in the hubbub around us. Everywhere the smells of cooking; spices, BBQ, steaming stocks and caramelised sugars of the sweet stalls…. rudely interrupted now and then by a waft from the sewerage system, even an old carpet placed over a grating couldn’t fully prevent from bringing you back down to earth and reminding you that this was real life. Suitably noodled up, we returned to our rooms to get a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s entry to Laos..
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The Hillbilly and the Mekong Affair…