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Take Me to the River

Twenty-two years after the communist victory, guerrillas still hold out in the mountains; there is enough brigandage that the U.S. embassy discourages road travel between Louangphrabang and Vientiane. In September 1996, Claude Vincent, the founder of the country's largest tourist agency, and several Laotian employees died in an ambush along Highway 13 south of Louangphrabang. The alternative transport, Lao Aviation, will test a tourist's mettle with its loose scheduling and Chinese- and Russian-built turboprops. Embassy staffs fly the state-owned airline, however, and claim the no-frills planes are well maintained. And the airports do post air passengers are covered by insurance signs and request that travelers show all weapons.

Vientiane, though a national capital, has the feel of a provincial Asian city. Just beyond the Lane Xang Hotel, a grande dame with de Gaulle-era plumbing, corn grows on the floodplain and water buffalo rest along the dusty levee. Government ministries and foreign consulates share the broad, untrafficked streets with vegetable gardens and centuries-old temples.

The "new thinking" seems to have mellowed the insular country I encountered in 1992. Then, Laos had only two international phone lines. To file my stories I had to book calls to the United States 12 hours in advance, then ply the hotel operator with packs of Marlboros. Now, Laotian businessmen chat on mobile telephones. Outside the Lane Xang, Mr. Phoutvilay, a former PL soldier, is ready to forgive Americans, forget the war, and floor his three-wheeled tuk-tuk all over town. "No problem, no problem," he repeats, ferrying us to one gracious, untouristed temple after another. The tin roof of his cab bears a jocular hand-printed slogan: have you written your last will?

As for nightlife, if this is Monday, it must be the Hash, a cross-country run hatched in 1938 by several bored British expatriates in Malaysia. The hashers are a hardy, spirited lot— a drinking club with a running problem. We set out a half-hour before sunset to track a four-mile course through the southern suburbs of Vientiane. The 40-strong pack is a sight to behold: Thai, Laotian, English, American, and Australian joggers, urged on by a horn-blowing Swede. The devious trail takes us down narrow lanes, across the grounds of a Buddhist temple, through a hotly contested soccer game. We are refugees from a Monty Python skit: teetering along rice-paddy dikes, scrambling through riverside fields of squash, dodging dumbfounded water buffalo.

IN THE SMOKY DEPARTURE LOUNGE OF VIENTIANE'S WATTAY AIRPORT, the lone clock's hands are frozen at 6:47. My head is throbbing from post-Hash festivities at the Samlo Pub, where we drank Beer Lao by candlelight after the power failed, and from the early-morning propaganda that blasted from a speaker outside my hotel. After an unintelligible Lao Aviation announcement, we join the ruck converging on the Russian AN-24 bound for Phonsavan, the largest town on the Plain of Jars. Our pilot wears a small image pinned on his right breast pocket; Buddha is his wingman. The only seeming requirement on the sold-out, open-seating flight is that all baguettes be stowed in the overhead rack. The plane lumbers over the Mekong, then swings north to follow the narrow valley of the Nam Ngum River through the mountains. The smell of aviation fuel and fresh-baked bread hangs in the cabin.

Halfway through the 40-minute flight a large, empty valley with a long asphalt runway appears: the lost city of Long Tieng. Thirty years ago this mountain-ringed site, code-named "Alternate," was in effect the second-most populous city in Laos, yet it appeared on no maps. As the nerve center for a clandestine war conducted by the C.I.A., Long Tieng's very existence was classified. The fallout from that conflict lingers still. Many of the 450-odd U.S. servicemen who remain M.I.A. in Laos were pilots, and the resolution of their fate is the greatest sticking point between the United States and Laos. And the Laotian countryside, particularly the Plain of Jars, is littered with unexploded ordnance, especially tennis-ball-size cluster bombs, known locally as bombis, which continue to kill and maim innocent children and farmers.

In Vietnam, rules of engagement prohibited bombing within 500 yards of a temple. No such rules applied in Laos, especially on the Plain of Jars, which gets its name from the stone containers— remnants of a vanished culture— scattered across the sere, windswept region. On the rolling grasslands south of Phonsavan, a load of bombs has stitched a straight, horrible scar through a collection of ancient jars. A 10-foot-deep crater yawns just a few yards from a six-ton jar, the largest on the plain. At least 20 nearby containers were shattered or overturned by the force of this needless explosion.

My guide, Singkham Phanouvong, who lived in a cave for part of his childhood to avoid the interminable air strikes, regards the destruction as "a souvenir of America."

After the haunted plain of jars, Champasak Province, in the far southern panhandle, comes as a relief. Founded in 1905, the provincial seat, Pakse, pales next to wondrous Louangphrabang, yet it does have the Champasak Palace Hotel, a six-story whitewashed elephant, which is the only hotel I have ever stayed in that has a machine-gun bunker, tastefully landscaped with bougainvillea.

The region's recorded history stretches back at least 1,500 years, to the time of Wat Phu, a temple complex 25 miles south of Pakse. At the foot of a soaring, jungle-clad mountain capped with a phallus-like rock formation, Wat Phu has been used for religious purposes, possibly including human sacrifice, for nearly two millennia. King- doms now long dead bequeathed a legacy of laterite and sandstone straight out of an Indiana Jones movie set. A frangipani-shaded staircase climbs to a sanctuary festooned with carvings of Hindu deities. One thousand years ago Wat Phu was a seat of Khmer culture; now cattle and a handful of tourists wander the ruins.

The relative buzz of Pakse vanishes just a few miles to the east, where the 60-mile-wide Bolovens Plateau rises from the Mekong River valley. The massif holds orchards, rich wildlife, and tough, self-reliant Mon-Khmer hill tribes that have only recently begun to interact with the ethnic Lao. Their wariness comes naturally: the lowland Lao historically raided the highlands to supply a thriving slave market in Cambodia. The hill people also had little use for the French. When the colonial authorities tried to suppress a local cult in 1901, the people of the Bolovens revolted; it took the French 35 years to restore order.

Prosperous settlements line the road to the market town of Saravan, once an important stop along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The hill people have left their mountain fastness for better land, reliable water, schooling for their children. Cash crops, such as coffee, provide a relatively good income, yet life remains a struggle. Beneath their raised houses, the Katu people store rosewood coffins; in a land with a life expectancy of 52 years, death is never far away.

Laos has few means of generating revenue aside from timber and hydropower. Large tracts of the Bolovens have been logged and replanted with fast-growing eucalyptus; a Korean company is building a 100-megawatt dam along the plateau's eastern escarpment. But a planned $1.5 billion hydroelectric project in the upper panhandle is mired in controversy. The Nam Theun II dam would flood 175 square miles of the Nakai Plateau, a barely explored area that harbors the saola, an oxlike creature unknown to biologists until 1992. This "lost world" forest bordering Vietnam also shelters newly discovered species of wild pig and muntjac deer. It may seem incredible after the wartime beating it took, but Laos has the most unspoiled environment in Southeast Asia.

Away from its few cities, Laos remains a hunter-gatherer society. In the countryside, nearly every Laotian male seems to own a homemade slingshot or muzzle-loaded rifle and scours the forest for bush meat. The morning market in Saravan is notorious for its trade in game illegally taken from the Bolovens, although our guide, Xa Thepvonga, assures me that the authorities have clamped down. The dusty, sun-blasted bazaar does display a large sign forbidding the sale of mammals and birds. Directly beneath the proclamation, a man offers a blue whistling thrush. Whether the songbird ends up in a cage or a cooking pot, the man doesn't care. I buy the thrush for 1,500 kip, about $1.60, with the intention of setting it free in the forest. Money for the hunter; merit for me.

This is Laos's dilemma: how to preserve enough of its rich landscape to attract eco-tourists yet exploit its abundant natural resources to sustain its people. As good Buddhists, the Lao adhere to the Middle Path, seeking balance in all aspects of life. The best tack, they argue, lies in developments like Tad Lo, a resort on the western face of the Bolovens, where the Xe Set River tumbles down a series of waterfalls.

The ambiance of Tad Lo is classic old Asia: rustic bungalows decorated with woven-bamboo walls, rattan furniture, and ceiling fans. The grounds are planted with poinsettias, hibiscus, and a long-leafed epiphyte the Lao call "tongue of the mother-in-law." Suay tribesmen offer elephant rides through the surrounding forest of bamboo, rosewood, and padaung.

And a few miles upstream stands the Tad Lo dam. While its 1991 construction spelled the demise of an 80-foot waterfall, Laos now earns hard currency selling electricity to energy-hungry Thailand.

"Bad for the natives, but good for economic development," says Mr. Xa. He rubs a thumb and forefinger together, the international sign for profits. "It is a balance."

It is here, at Tad Lo, that I free the whistling thrush. The bird hops onto a table from the cramped basket, then unceremoniously falls off and rolls into the undergrowth. Its purplish, spangled wings cruelly clipped, the bird is helpless. Mr. Xa persuades the staff to display the thrush in a bamboo cage on the resort's bar. It will sing, he tells them, and please visitors. If they eat the bird, he warns, they will suffer bad fortune. I leave Tad Lo with little faith in the songbird's long-term prospects. This is a country, I remind myself, where some protein-starved people eat rats. Anything is fair game. After 10 days here I have nearly lost track of time. A slow ferry carries us from Pakse the two miles across the Mekong, a passage that may soon be rendered obsolete: a Japanese firm is slated to begin work on a bridge.

We cross into Thailand at the Chong Mek checkpoint, where a dozen overloaded timber trucks are waiting to exit Laos, and hire a taxi for the 50-mile trip to the provincial capital of Ubon Ratchathani. In just a few hours, Bangkok will be ours. Crowds. Decadence. Pollution. Streets without birdsong.

The driver pops a cassette of Thai rap music into the tape player and takes his late-model sedan up to 60 mph on the smooth highway. Laos recedes in the rear window, a fading dream. And the world is suddenly a more efficient, less magical place.

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