by Tobias Thornes
Through the green heart of Thailand we had rushed, where the hills erupt like forested thimbles or rounded dice scattered across the plain: a mesmerising memory of a land where Earth still stores some beleaguered secrets amidst her lofty nooks. The train snipped the undergrowth, charging over little-serviced rails. Yet, sluggish seemed our final approach into the city of contrasts, famed Bangkok, where she lazily listed through thickets of slum shacks. People lived, and slept, and ate, right against the rails; children and dogs stole freely across the tracks, while a filthy stream of sewage sweated in the sun.
But more hideous even than this was the contrast with the concrete metropolis through which my feet soon were wearily to walk, journeying into richer quarters. There, I met with a concrete veneer designed to hide the squalor swept either side of the swanky squares and doorways of the city’s rotten heart. A rich-man’s metro ran there, spacious and underused. It didn’t call at the slums. The city stank of car dust and the impoverishment of ‘growth’. Fast food counters thronged with members of the new middle class, crowded into artificial environments as cold as the steel that bore their ugly foreign signs. But I eschewed these evil eateries, following my inner compass away from the cars and the queues and the crude plastic tat piled up in consumerist shrines, back to the jungle of alleyways on the older side of town.
There, I found an open home with empty tables set for food, and a proud proprietor waiting with a welcome and a smile: the lone woman was host and cook, who warmed a healthy mix of fresh green leaves and spices in her huge wok. Served with simple staples of water and rice that cooled a thirsty tongue, it tasted all the sweeter for the added hospitality stirred liberally into the mix, a flavour that I feared would soon be all too hard to find in a world at risk of destroying the things we really hold most dear.
Another night train carried me on, to arrive early in the morning where Thailand expires into its northern neighbours close to Laos’ capital, Vientiane. A river runs between the two countries, spanned by a railway bridge that we were borne across by a small shuttle train, a little bunch of tourists and travellers from far-flung places congregating at this crossing-point that the locals little used. They filled her up with a hosepipe and the little train sputtered into life, so that soon we were transported to the tiny terminus of Laos’ only railway link: the end of the line. All that awaited there was a small customs office, placed with the sole purpose of collecting thirty-five US dollars from each passing traveller as payment for entering Laos.
Vientiane was a city unlike any other. Although undeniably Asian, and packed with amazing temples that gleamed in white and gold on almost every street, it had some of the aroma of the quainter parts of Paris. French displaced English as the barely-spoken second language; cafes displaced the street-stalls predominant elsewhere and French bread was for sale instead of rice. As an obvious foreigner, everywhere I went I was thronged with calls of ‘Put-put! Put-put!’ and none of the numerous drivers of these expensive machines seemed satisfied that I’d rather walk than catch a lift. The centrepiece of this ex-colonial town, still extant but surrounded now by much newer creations, was a relic of far former days: a curious man-made mountain that must have towered over the low buildings of its time, but now, tucked away in its quiet corner, forgotten by the passing traffic.
The city had become a place of comings and goings, where every third shop was a currency exchange. It was there that I met the Talkative American, a left-wing pro-peace and anti-Trump traveller, living in self-imposed exile in South-East Asia where he hoped to hide from what his country was becoming. He reminisced about the Vietnam war, the crisis in American democracy and the sad reality of America’s xenophobic wing, sipping his cold beer in a veranda-café. ‘You’ll like Hanoi,’ he said when I’d told him my next stop. In this he would be wrong.
The only route from Laos to Vietnam is by road, and it was on a twenty-four-hour bus journey that I found myself that night. Once the young men manning the bus had at last contented themselves that there would be no more passengers and allowed us to set off, through the dark hours of the night we crawled our way upwards past buildings with three walls (it’s too warm to need a fourth) at one of which we stopped. There, at once people appeared and set food for their travelling customers on servery-tables, while Vietnamese pop blared out from a television set.
It seemed we were in a race with the other bus companies, to see who’d be first at the border crossing. We must have arrived in the early hours of the night, for when I woke at sunrise we were parked up and second in the queue at the rainy mountain pass, waiting for the border to re-open for the day at seven o’clock. It seemed like hours by the time we’d handed in our passports in a chaotic rabble and been let through the Laos border, re-boarded the bus and gone through the whole process again at the Vietnamese end, where we each had to pay 1 US dollar for the cost of the compulsory passport stamp. No other currency would do.
The place was indeed beautiful, and the windy road ran down through high forests and rural villages where peasants worked in picturesque fields and red hammer-and-sickle banners adorned every street. For all the human and environmental cost of the Vietnam War, the Americans never did stamp out the Communism that was still entrenched here with self-conscious zeal. When the mountain scenery was swapped for towns and ugly highways, the all-day journey became somewhat more tedious, but my destination proved to be no more pleasant. Disembarking at last, I set off with eager steps to find Hanoi’s railway station, but had I paid proper attention to the scale on the map might have been less optimistic.
Mile after mile I plodded through air thicker with fumes than any I’d known, whether beside the crowded main road or in the quainter side-streets, largely as a result of the huge swarms of autobikes that roared around every corner. I wouldn’t heed these drivers either, as they advertised ‘Auto! Auto!’, refusing to myself become a party to this poisonous air. But when after some time I checked for directions from a helpful young woman keen to practise her English, I found the station to be still many, many miles away. She helped me to find the correct bus to take, and even insisted on paying the (small) fare. It was in gestures like this that my hope for that, my own floundering generation, was founded. Therein survived a far older kindness, one that gives without the possibility or expectation of reward: a spark of human sympathy, amidst all the noise and smoke.