The nation of Laos is not, as I originally believed, a Greek enclave somewhere in the Hellenic archipelago, pronounced Lay-yo-s, but actually Lao, which rightfully rhymes with wow, the most bombed nation on Earth, a little landlocked phallus of a country tucked inside the hot, steaming vagina of Southeast Asia. Beyond the tourist areas there are still unexploded bombs and mines all over the place, while craters from Nixinger’s War continue to blight the landscape; and although the Lao people are still losing limbs every hour thanks to America’s bizarre compulsion to kill, kill, kill, they won’t hold it against you. At least outwardly.
When I left Thailand’s numerous enormous portraits of old king Bhumibol’s twisted lips and crossed the big muddy Mekong River in a roaring canoe I concluded that I was entering a different world. On the far side I leaped into the muck as though discovering America, I peeked out from under my rusting morion, and I found a river town called Huay Xai, where red flags with yellow crossed hammers and sickles danced in the windows of pink French façades. The soldiers at the customs office dressed in the same brown uniforms as the North Koreans I’d seen eyeing me with their gigantic binoculars back at the barren Demilitarized Zone. In fact this country struck me as being like North Korea minus North Korea: the same tasteless banquet of despotic communism sweetened with a generous helping of capitalism, salted by regular contact with outsiders via porous borders, spiced with tropical heat and beauty, engorged with a toleration of Buddhism, and given a final sour kick with a lack of an evident personality cult.
This excerpt comes from Kingdoms in the Sun, a book of adventures in the past and present which costs less than a roll of scotch tape.