Laos

LAOS FROM 10,000 FEET was a grey-green frothing seen through a J heat-mist that was like a pane of dirty glass. As we came into Vientiane in the late afternoon the mist thickened and the pilot came down as if to look for landmarks. For the last half-hour bundles of rags kept whirling past the cabin. They were vultures – bad things to hit at two hundred miles an hour. We landed bumpily in a haze, as though bonfires had been lit round the field; and in this the sun wallowed – a diffused yellow disc. As the door of the cabin was opened, the heat rolled in.
In most journeyings there stands out the memory of days of discour¬agement; when the enthusiasm flags under the strain of petty physical discomforts. The introduction to Laos was spent in such a period. This was the earthly paradise that all the French had promised; the country that was one vast Tahiti, causing all the French who had been stationed there to affect ever after a vaguely dissolute manner. To be fair to Laos I was seeing it at the worst of all possible seasons – it was late March – when the air is burdened with the presage of storms and the landscape blighted with autumnal sadness. Heat lay like an interdict on the town of Vientiane, although the sun was wrapped until late morning in a swelter¬ing mist. At certain hours, out of the stillness, a hot wind rose suddenly and skirmished in the streets, producing a brief, false animation, flapping huge leaves in the faces of passers-by, who were half disembodied by the swirling dust, above which they floated like genii. Sometimes the grey, swollen sky squeezed out a few drops of rain.
I was lodged in the government guest-house, a European villa – since it had two storeys – which at some time had gone native, with earthen¬ware dragons crawling on its roof. Hornets had started cellular constructions in the window shutters and armies of cockroaches marched across the floors. Precious, expensive water was brought in large pots and left in the subdivision of the room where, using a gourd with a hole in its bottom, you could take a shower. The main advantage of having this open pot of water in the room was that it collected a gauzy layer of mosquitoes which were content to stay there in harmless concentration, unless disturbed. The Mekong could be seen from the window, a sallow strip of water across half a mile of whitened riverbed. Perhaps this drought had something to do with the town’s electrical generating system, because only occasionally – and never at night – would the filament of the electric light bulb consent to glow feebly. Whenever the hot wind sprang up, stirring the trees round the house, great dry leaves as big as dishes came tumbling down and fell with a crash in the layer already deposited on the earth. It was the death-rattle of the year, which in Laos expires in croaking senility, to be reborn with the raging storms which were about to break.

Vientiane is a religious centre, one of the two ancient capitals of Laos. It abounds with pagodas, many of them deserted and in ruins; and colossal Buddhas, with dusty half-obliterated smiles, sit in the tumbled brick work.
Since at this time, when the earth had dried up, there was no work to be done anywhere, it was the season of bouns; the Laotian festivals. Each pagoda holds one, as a means of collecting funds. They last for three days, and although an attempt is made not to hold two bouns at the same time, there are so many pagodas that duplication cannot always be helped; so that every night for several weeks the sky over one or more districts of Vientiane glows with the reflection of thousands of lights, while from a distance one catches the gusty, carnival sounds of Laotian rejoicings. Bouns start at about eleven, and go on all night.
The first night after my arrival I went to a boun, which I found by following a crowd. It was about two miles from the town’s centre and I passed several pagodas on the way, where carpenters were working by lamplight in preparation for a future festival.
An enclosure had been built round the pagoda in which every kind of light, from hurricane lamps to fluorescent tubes, had been concentrated in an anarchic glare. The pagoda had hired a generator for the occasion. There was no entrance fee, but young ladies with demurely lowered eyes waited just inside to accept donations, in return for which you received a candle, a posy of Japanese lilac and two joss-sticks in a bamboo container. Among the many attractions was a free theatre show, lasting for many hours, indistinguishable, except to an expert, from the theatre of Siam. Actors remained on the stage for what seemed interminable periods, occasionally advancing or retreating a few steps. Meanwhile their babies played happily round their feet, and quite frequently a stage-hand would walk across and interrupt a scene for a few seconds to pump up the pressure in the hurricane lamps.
On a nearby platform the lap ton was being danced. Once again it was the major attraction, but as it was still incorrect for Laotian girls to dance in public, religious enterprise had arranged for hostesses to be brought over from Siam, just across the river. The pagoda hired the girls for the three nights and lodged them in a nearby building. It cost a piastre to cavort round the stage for about fifteen minutes with one of them. They were dressed in hideous knee-length frocks, and some seemed to have permanent waves. The backward Laotian girls in their dowdy finery, their silk scarves, their skirts woven at the hem and waistband with silver and gold thread, and their abundant jewel-decked chignons, could only look on wistfully. As I arrived the organisers were having trouble with the microphone – indispensable adjunct to any social occasion in the new Far East. A young man chanted a soft, nasal melody which could only be heard within the boun enclosure itself. But suddenly the electricians were successful with their tinkerings and all Vientiane was flooded with a great, ogrish baying. The electricians hugged each other, and, enchanted by the din, the audience began to drift away from the theatre and make for the dancing floor.

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