Thursday, 1 September 2011
Back in the very early 90s I used to escape Bangkok by taking the overnight submarine-train to the end of the line at Nong Khai. Buffalo grazed by the tracks. There wasn’t a backpack in sight. I remember taking a perverse pleasure in being the only foreigner to get off the train, and wearing brogues and a suit. I would then cross over into the People’s Undemocratic Republic of Laos by boat (they hadn’t built the bridge then) to a) try and sort out my tangled business affairs and b) make a bit of extra wedge by delivering consignments of Physignathus Cocincinus or Thai Water Dragon on behalf of an Austrian ex-con called Otto K (who makes guest appearance in Zen City). I used to carry the little blighters in specially converted egg boxes. Vientiane had a curfew on those days and militia would prowl around on motorbikes searching for foreign miscreants. The “Russian Club” was a wonderful restaurant overlooking the Mekong that once hosted Soviet advisers; in my day it featured an enormous blue parrot, a beautiful head waitress with very long black hair called Bernard and I was locked in the toilet (but not with the parrot or, thankfully, Bernard) by a heroin-addicted friend of mine who was being very silly. Men in white coats used to inspect the Vientiane watering holes, Joan Jet and the Blackhearts were on at the only nightclub in town and all the girls wore traditional pha-sin. I should add that Bier Lao on draught, not the bottled stuff, is – was – excellent.
Anyway, after returning from the PUR Laos I would normally ended up spending a few days recovering in Nong Khai at a guesthouse called the Meeting Place. This was a sort of Rick’s Place – but on the Mekong not in Hollywood Casablanca – full of nefarious characters with activities to match. It provided the inspiration for the Double D guesthouse in my second novel, Neville Changes Villages, and the sequel. Many of the characters in the Double D are based on real people, including Ivan the Mexican, the CIA folk in their natty shorts, the humourless Dutch SS helicopter pilot and, of course, the Aussie proprietor: the much lamented Alan P. In the story, Neville meets a weird character called the Prince of Enigma. He’s based on a guy I think I met over a series of Mekong whisky-fuelled nights when Alan unwisely left me in charge of the guesthouse while he went on a trip to the Plain of Jars. The POE told me he was staying in the temple opposite the Meeting Place but later, when I asked the abbot, neither he nor his monks knew anything about him. Still, the hugely entertaining tale POE related to me over the course of those nights provided the basis for Shadows and Pagodas. Oh, yes, he also makes an appearance as a barman in the R n’ B club in Zen City. Like the characters, many of the details of the Double D and surrounding area – the Kangaroo Bar, Pappaya Girl on the poster, the limes in the urinals, the non-PC jokes, etc, etc. – are based on what I remember, and as good I can get ‘em.
The Meeting Place was –if I may paraphrase Junior Parker and the Blue Flames – a great place to sit, drink, think and write. I probably overdid it on the whisky, though.
You can still visit the Meeting Place and even the temple opposite (the latter is a good place to do a bit of mindful walking meditation). But Pappaya Girl has long been taken down, Alan P died of cancer back in Oz, they’ve built a bridge across the Mekong and you can buy organic fruit juice in Vientiane. The Russian Club was demolished some time ago to make way for a concrete promenade, which looks rubbish.
Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.