Vientiane Stories and Tips

The Back Door to the Middle Kingdom

Boten Photo, Laos, Asia

My book selling was not strictly for business. I used it for pleasure and studies as well. I always tried to carry good books. In some of the hotels, the staff already knew my preferences and gave me free books that other people had left behind. I knew owners from bulk second-hand shops who got their books from the hotels in a similar way. Buying books from the second-hand stores made it possible for me to sell the books one by one and to make a reasonable profit. In one of them I found an old guide of Nepal, and through it I was exposed to the idea of trekking along the Himalayas. It looked like the perfect escape. Walking day after day in the open, with no buses, no technology, no electricity, promised a quiet period with no snoopy watchers in sight.

Another interesting option was one that I had been thinking about for years, a trip to China. Years ago my original idea was to travel from Beijing to Hong Kong by bicycle, but now a long train ride across China looked more appealing.

The choice of China was based on the presumption that the touchy local authorities would keep any foreign intervening parties under strict control. In the worst case scenario, I expected snoopers only in the cities with big concentrations of foreigners, such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Believing that writing would be easier in trains and cities, my heart was with the Chinese option.

I crossed the border to Laos, processed the Chinese visa and visited Sam to get rid of another heavy load of books. This time he asked too many questions, and requested details about times and places, giving me the impression that after the failed search at Nita, another path, a more personal one had been chosen. I evaded the questions the best I could, collected money from him and my passport from the embassy, and started for northern Laos.

Due to my security concerns, the stops in the towns were short, a policy that resulted in a very thorough survey of the area. I visited Vang Vieng, Kasy, Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Xam Nua, Udom Xai, Huay Xai, Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing and Boten during this hurried trip. Despite the beautiful nature, the steep, green mountains, the well-kept temples and palaces in Luang Prabang, the old capital of the northern Laotian principality, and the less spoiled local people, I liked the northern part of the country less than the others. The disappearance of good coffee, the inferior food and the lack of good book stores played a role in that judgment. However, I felt better able to manage travel without being followed in that area and that was always a valuable asset.
I woke up in Boten, Laos and, waiting for the bank to open, ordered a coffee at the shop next to the guesthouse. First, they served me a cup of green tea, then a big bowl of noodle soup with fresh sliced tomatoes and, after I complained for a second time, they served a diluted coffee with too much condensed milk. The small village consisted of some shops and buildings that housed the officials.

The only people staying overnight were shop owners in their adjacent houses, officers in the closed compound next to the border and truck drivers in their vehicles with noisy whores. Its single street had some twenty buildings scattered along it and ran parallel to the narrow road leading to Udom Xai, northern Laos’ main traveling hub, almost four hours south from here.

Two of the buildings were guesthouses with simple rooms. A double bed with a mosquito net in a wood structure with small neon lights was all the furniture featured. The toilets and the cold shower were shared, but at the time there were no other guests. At slightly less than two dollars per night, it was a little overpriced considering the location, but the rarity of tourists made the high price necessary for the guesthouse owner. However, I stayed to allow an early start in China, because an hour would be lost when crossing.

(Excerpt from Chapter 53. The Back Door to the Middle Kingdom)

The Cross of Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle edtitions.

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