During this visit I slept in the cheapest hotel in Vientiane, called Sabaidy, two words meaning "feeling good" in the Lao and Thai languages. It was a good location at the center of town, very close to the Namphou Fountain and one block away from the beautiful promenade along the Mekong River. The guesthouse’s original building was a two-story colonial structure, which the owner re-modeled into three floors, without adding even one centimeter to its height. The first floor contained the large lobby with the reception counter, a small eating area with an advanced entertainment system, which signaled the family’s wealth, and a kitchen at the rear of the building. The reception counter had a computer with a database of the guests. Information was provided daily to the local police, as in all Southeast Asia. They always insisted on knowing where you came from and where you planned to go. However, the answers were accepted without further review. The mezzanine floor hosted a single room used by their cleaning employee. The room hung over the kitchen’s entrance and at its side, and a balcony overlooked the lobby.
On the second floor was the dormitory, a huge room housing eighteen beds, divided with the help of two thin curtains to create partitions of six beds, which gave the illusion of improved privacy. Each partition had two fans, one for the upper berths attached to the wall and the second for the lower ones, placed in front of them above a line of six simple wood lockers. A few small private rooms were scattered in front and above the dormitory. All of them were constructed of wood, including the shaky stairs, which lacked some steps and linked the unstable structure. Three small rooms with shared bathrooms made up each floor. Small electrical water heaters hung above the showers, a popular and ineffective arrangement in cheap backpackers’ hotels. The usual toilet in that part of the world was a hole in the ground and the fingers of the left hand were used by the locals instead of toilet paper, but here, there was a charming approximation to western toilets, only the flushing mechanism was missing and a big bucket of water was placed next to it to flush the toilet. A small bowl was used to pour water from the bucket into the loaded toilet.
The owner of the guesthouse was a serious and attentive man, although seldom friendly. He belonged to an old communist family and as a child spent four years living in remote caves close to the town of Xam Nua, not far from the triple border with China and Vietnam, while his parents were involved in the communications between the Vietnamese party and the local one during the revolution. When he grew up, he was sent to study abroad as compensation for the hard years. First, he went to a secondary school in Moscow and afterwards he went to study architecture in La Havana, Cuba. The skills he learned in that tropical heaven were used to rebuild the dormitory, which was an additional reward to the family. The Spanish he learned there created a bond between us. Several times, I met party members who came for long and opulent meals in the lobby, and twice I met aging Russians who came to speak with him in Russian. Despite their wealth in local terms, the owner slept with his wife and three children in the guesthouse’s lobby, on a big mattress that was brought out at night. This was the usual way of living for most Southeast Asian families. I saw it everywhere, and it may explain the locals’ unwillingness to make long trips alone and their general commiserating attitude toward backpackers traveling alone who were classified as outcasts by their societies.
Paying a bit more than a dollar a day for my bed and ten cents for my
coffee, it took a while for the money I earned from the books to run out. When that happened, Bangkok was the natural next stop.
(Excerpt from Chapter 42. Losing Paradise)
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