The grand old train station, Hua Lamphong, in central Bangkok, has no cafe per se. Instead there is a food court. The food court offers a KFC, a coffee bar, and a noodle shop. I had envisioned sitting with a coffee in the grand hall as I waited for my night train, a 10-hour ride to the northeastern city of Nong Khai and then a short rail hop across the river to Laos. But the guy behind the ticket counter said they stopped selling food in a cafe because of the pandemic. The KFC was closed or about to close. The others had already shut for the day. The station was scantily occupied, with a few outside vendors selling boxed Milo drinks, canned soda, water, salty snacks, and some cut up pineapple. I stood for a moment and took it in, then bought some water and a packet of shrimp crackers.
This grand old hall, I thought, as I gazed up and then snapped some photos to record its last days as an active railway station. Hua Lamphong is a world-renowned train station, built in 1916 in the neo-renaissance style, rumored to be a mirror of a train station in Paris or one in Frankfurt, or both. King Chulalongkorn was a sovereign, like his father King Mongkut, who wanted to build great modern buildings in the kingdom, to showcase Thailand to the world through transit, housing, and design. The Italian architects who designed the station, Annibale Rigotti and Mario Tamagno, also worked on other projects for the king, including a royal palace and a throne room. The station showcases dramatic wood and metal framing, a soaring ceiling, overshadowing all other Thai train stations. Thailand never fell under colonial rule, unlike neighboring Laos PDR, and others. Thailand had remained uninvaded through a policy of collaboration and commerce with outsiders. No need to exert colonial law and systems: The Thais were ready to accommodate all comers in many aspects.
The two Italian architects selected for the visionary work did not let King Chulalongkorn down: Hua Lamphong is considered one of the greatest train stations in the region and still dazzles in the 21st century with its soaring lines and 20+ tracks. At its pre-pandemic peak in 2020, 60,000 people a day streamed through its halls.
But after more than 100 years of devoted service, the station is closing, replaced by an enormous cold, black glass box in the northern suburb of Bang Su. Originally Hua Lamphong was slated to be torn down, but architectural historians globally and locally fought for adaptive reuse; the suggestion was it could follow the path of St Pancras in London, or Union Station in Washington, DC, living a second life as a gathering place for food, socializing, and shopping. The iconic station is perfectly located for such a role, sitting astride Rama IV road, once a grand canal, and opening onto an impressive urban place. These voices of preservation seemed to be prevailing. I made my way to the siding, imagining how extraordinary the building must have been in 1916, as the Great War raged in all its mechanized horror. I pictured the parasols and hats of the day, the long dresses, the picnic hampers and entourages. This moment of purpose-built space, order in the chaos of mass transit, organized transit of humans and goods in a growing, sultry city lined with canals akin to Venice and the sweet and complex smells of life near the equator.
As my train pulled slowly out of the station on time, I settled in with my journal. My roommate was a nurse returning home to Nong Khai for the long holiday weekend. She urged me to stay in Nong Khai for a few days before traveling to Laos. The food, she explained, is the best in Thailand. Isan food: Sticky rice, fried chicken, fried locusts, green papaya salad. All delicious. And beautiful wats or temples, too.
Alas I noted, I had people and work awaiting me in Laos PDR. Another time.
It was a slow slog out of the megalopolis that is Bangkok. We stopped to board passengers at the mega station in Bang Su. I had once lived in Bang Su, when I was a young reporter, and had commuted to my newspaper via river taxi. That quiet suburb was gone, I could see from the windows. The new station could have been flown in from anywhere – South Korea, Argentina, Holland. It had none of the elegance of line and spirit of Hua Lamphong.
As my journey begins, it’s still the early days of global travel restarting after the pandemic years, so there are fewer of us voyageurs from afar. It’s mainly Thai families and business people on the train this evening. The porter is eager to make up our snug bunks and get to bed himself. He knocks loudly on our cabin door and holds up the key he uses to unlock our berths. It is not long before the rocking train lulls me to sleep. As the sun comes up, we are close to Nong Khai. I gather my things, bid my cabin mate goodbye, and prepare to clamber down into the fetid morning steambath.
A friend with a car is meeting me in Nong Khai. Ken and I used to work together in Bangkok many moons ago and we have been in touch via Zoom during the pandemic, sharing book ideas and gossiping about the region. Ken is a telecom executive based in Vientiane and perhaps more importantly, he is a fully Thai and Lao fluent Canadian who also acts in Thai movies and television shows. In Laos, most of the media comes from Thailand so that makes Ken a particular stand-out star, as the farang (foreigner) who speaks the local languages perfectly, is movie-star handsome, and warmly affable.
In Nong Khai, we alight the train and buy tickets for the short journey into Laos. There are two trains a day across the bridge to Thanaleng station and signs admonishing us to have our passports stamped lest we are turned back at the border.
It is me and Ken and two Australian aid workers on the narrow gauge train across the Mekong to Laos and we arrive at a deserted, dusty wooden train station and border checkpoint. There are five or six uniformed men wandering around, each in a different colored uniform, each smoking, each checking phones.
We line up at a window that apparently is where the customs officer will be at some point.
It is already 85 degrees and it is not even 7 am.
After the airport border set-up, this strikes as rather quaint and cinematic. There are a few side arms on display but otherwise, nothing feels particularly militarized. Finally, the sliding wooden window opens in the low-slung wooden building – not exactly Hua Lamphong – and a border guard asks to see our papers. Ken translates for all of us. There are issues about visas, about when we applied for them. There are documents collected. And then there are photos taken. Not just the official ones, mind you, but also the ones where the border guards want to pose with Ken.
I am entering the last true Communist state in Southeast Asia but before we do, we need to get some photos for the various Facebook pages of Lao PDR border workers. Yes, Facebook.
As they pose and smile, I think about this nation: The Lao People’s Democratic Republic formed in 1975, as the devastating Indochinese War and decades of colonial rule were finally pushed aside. The land-locked country had been the last of Southeast Asia to open for tourism, and the offerings were wildly all over the place – from private jets and thousands of dollars a night for exclusive mountain top resorts owned by European groups to very modest backpackers accommodations.
To travel to Lao PDR is to see what happens as Communism pushes into contemporary global market places, how people and dogs make sense of change, to learn to travel roads where there are no maps and the concept of maps doesn’t compute. Don’t bother showing your phone map to your tuk-tuk driver: It’s nonsense to them, Ken told me, hogwash. Directions are offered as reference to physical features – you turn in where the two palm trees lean in together near the canal. There is a place there where an Italian man sells delicious pizza in his backyard with his Lao wife. They also have wine from France.
I checked into my Vientiane hotel – which had won recent design awards and did not disappoint whilst also creating a strange, jarring contrast to the border, the Facebook photos, the pitted roads of Vientiane lined with dogs, motorbikes, noodle shops, and American fast food chains. I had some hours before dinner and had already settled on a trip to an NGO that highlighted the evils of cluster bombs and their work to help victims and eradicate the bombs from Laos PDR. The front desk offered to call me a car.
The dogs along the road were mongrels, and stared at me with vague interest: Tattered looking, tan, black, brown, white muzzles, stubby legs, legs in a stance that suggested they could either attack or run as needed. The road was busy. Women in print dresses and cropped pants pushed along and clutched plastic bags made from rice sacks, while men smoked and leaned against concrete walls. The road was lined with mazes of wires and ancient cars mixed in with brand new cars and vans, all against a backdrop of sooty buildings with paint cracked and flaking.
The driver had cranked his AC and opened my door for me: Then he took me to COPE, the Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise Center. He indicated that he would wait for me and drive me back.
At the COPE small, eccentric information center and museum, on the grounds where there are also clinics and medical workers, they told the story of how Laos was the most bombed country given its size, and how they worked to rebuild limbs and lives. It is a modest complex and what struck was the way the curators displayed the American bombs in rather artful manners, and how they narrated with data the story of the dark evil of the bombs, as they ruined and ended lives. Bombs, unexploded ordnance, or UXOs, obviously defused, festooned the space like contemporary sculptures, dangling from wires attached to the ceiling, while outside a sign made from prosthetic feet greets visitors. One prominent display featured a life-sized rural Lao dwelling with American and European military gear used as functional decor.
In a small dark theater, as the only audience member, I listened and watched as families were interviewed in a film detailing how their outdoor cookstoves detonated unearthed bombs. Thus, many of the bomb victims are women and children, cooking or working in the fields. The center had a wall of prosthetic legs, all out of date versions, and explanatory text about how new materials and fitting regimens lead to better quality of life. “In Lao PDR, there are a range of UXOs contaminating the countryside, including large bombs, rockets, grenades, artillery munitions, mortars, landmines and cluster munitions,” I hastily jotted these words down.
The United States bombed Laos starting in 1964 and continued until 1973, dropping two million tonnes of bombs and leaving behind a legacy of unexploded ordinance that maims and kills today. I squinted into the bright light as I left the theater and stood in the empty museum.
Through tears I bought long necklaces made by local artisans, mainly women, from paper and thread, part of the craft-based economy the center funded to bolster hill tribe communities. I talked to the gift shop attendant, and I told her how in the US, we never learned about this bombing. We actually never really learned about Laos. She was very tolerant of my account and I sensed I was not the first person to have shared similar tear-filled confessions. I asked if people in Laos were disinclined to welcome Americans because of the bombing?
Why, she asked? What good would that do? Better to just move on.
She was about my age and she told me how she and her family had survived the bombings. How her family had been rice farmers and had learned to live with the French colonials and then had to learn to live with the daily US bombings that went on for most of her childhood. Laos is very mountainous and geologically similar to Thailand in the abundance of limestone caves. Her family, as did many others, moved into a cave. They came out to tend their rice after the bombings stopped each day, as the sun went down. Her father called them Night Farmers.
When I was back at the hotel, I immediately dove in online to find out about munitions and Lao PDR. I sipped bottled water, cranked up the A/C and stretched out on the bed with my laptop.
Of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped on Laos PDR by the US, about 80 million failed to detonate and continue to threaten Lao citizens and others. The year 2023, I learned, marks 15 years since the Convention on Cluster Munitions was signed by 94 countries – and to date now signed by 123 countries. Nonsignatories include the US, Thailand, Russia, China, India, Iran, Turkey, Brazil, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar. It is estimated that 11,000 people have been killed by cluster bombs in Laos PDR, and that about 30 percent of these are children. Cluster bombs are being used in the Ukraine war, it was noted, by the Russians; 58 people had been killed at a train station by cluster bombs. UXOs tumble from the sky and are rigged to explode and spew shrapnel before they hit the ground, for maximum human carnage.
That evening, Ken met me at the design hotel and we walked to the river. There’s a carnival along the Mekong in Vientiane, and suddenly I feel like I am at the Iowa State Fair. Garish illuminated rides whiz, cotton candy and the scent of hot sugar, frosted donuts pale and pink and yellow, aisles of crafts most likely fakes made in China, throngs of families children tugging at adult hands, the Mekong sparkling with the lavender and lemon yellow reflections of the rides.
Ken’s company has a number of booths at the fair, as do many firms, and the workers dress in matching outfits to represent their brand. This is a thing in Laos, where each company has a sort of uniform, and so the streets are filled with people in bright polo shirts embroidered with company names. Even Ken dresses this way.
Ken stops in to check on his sales team, to find out if they are getting more people to sign up for telecom services. They offer us cold Cokes or water in cans and bottles – the tap water in Laos is not potable, ice is to be avoided at all costs, and showers are bacterial vectors.
While Ken coaches his sales team in Lao, I watch the families walk by with balloons of Pikachu, Super Mario, Hello Kitty. Laos was a country that 100 percent locked down during Covid. The only path out for Ken had been via a flight via Seoul, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, he told me.
So he and everyone else just sat tight and waited for the Chinese vaccine to arrive. Laos had just started to really dig into the tourism dollars then, Covid. Hotels, cafes, restaurants, shops shuttered. They were only opening up again now.
Laos is deeply dependent on Thailand and China as its main trading partners. Ken had explained to me the Laos economy: A young population with a per capita income of less than $8,000 per year. But he was hopeful. His volunteer work was inspiring and showed a bright potential – young Lao entrepreneurs and students in design and technology, who were learning how to build arduino kits, use sensors to track the flow of the Mekong, and think about crops and climate change. One of his mentees had even purchased a telescope, the first one in Laos.
We had hoped to take the new Chinese-Lao train from Vientiane the next morning to the mountain arts town of Luang Prabang, where I had some work to do, but we were not able to buy tickets. The ticket system was something conceived of by someone who never traveled: Train tickets were in-person purchase only, starting two days before the desired travel date. Ken had sent someone to secure them but it was a holiday weekend and the train had sold out.
At the crack of dawn the next day, we climbed into a company truck, the sort with a double cab and four-wheel drive, for the journey north over the mountains. This a five-hour journey, at least, and due to the heavy rains of late, Ken anticipated the mountain roads to be slick and muddy. So trucks might be blocking the road. Ken was at the wheel. This was a familiar journey for him and he said he relished the chance to be on the road, listening to music, breathing fresher mountain air.
We bounced along on sealed highways that gave way to winding country roads of varied quality. It was a bumpy ride. I paged through a Laos guidebook Ken had given me the day before, a primer of things, some of which I knew, some of which I did not.
We were surrounded by verdant bright green rice paddies and I imagined what it would feel like to live for a decade in a cave while during the day your world was bombed. And how not everyone was sitting around with a radio or television so you didn’t even know what was going on. Nor when it might stop. Ken talked about the CIA in Laos PDR then, how there were whole secret towns or outposts where they hung out. I dozed off.
We stopped alongside the road at a place called the Amazon Cafe, in a middle-of-nowhere town filled with small houses and hand-made fences, clean cars, laundry lines, and chickens. We bought iced coffees after they ensured Ken all the ice was made with boiled water. In the bathroom, a brown toad the size of a softball stared at me indifferently.
Then one road led rather vertically with cutbacks up the mountain, and the road was lined with trucks stuck in the slick mud and families in Toyota vans with drivers who did not know how to maneuver the muck. There were no guard rails. The truck drivers were very young and gangly and I said they frightened me as fellow travelers on this dangerous slick road cut into a mountain where the sides were sliding and giving out.
Don’t worry, Ken assured me, wrestling the wheel and turning on the four-wheel drive.
They are all local kids and they know this mountain better than we do. They know the mud and they know the road.
I thought about long-gone French magistrates and how they enslaved local boys to work on coffee plantations. Or enlisted them to tend their tangled gardens, paths clogged with advancing weeds, their stone statues of religious figures or lions striking the Lao workers as peculiar indeed.
Make no mistake, for even now as Ken seemed to control the truck, we could still slip away across the ragged eroded edges or we could descend the other side to the royal town of Luang Prabang, a place spared from US bombs because the King and Queen of Laos were sympathetic friends and their home was not to be bombed. Of course when we got to the summit and stopped to catch our breath, there was a family there that recognized Ken and all wanted pictures of him for their social media accounts. So we posed.
After we washed up in a small, historic hotel, we walked through the night market in Luang Prabang to a grand hotel in an adapted historic building where we dined alongside fish ponds on long, pillow-covered benches. We had cocktails to start, things with pineapple and guava and mezcal, and the lights twinkled and the food was delicious. Ken and our companions were lit by candles on the table and floating in the water and a nearby table celebrated a grandfather who was laughing and talking loudly in Lao and I wondered if he, too, had been a night farmer, waking up to the clear break of starlight knowing he would have all night to tend his fields.