Here I Feel the Heartbeat of this Country

The place doesn’t look like much: a few plastic tables and chairs scattered on a quiet bend overlooking the Mekong. A middle-aged woman cooks meat over a charcoal grill, and the warm beers are served accompanied by a glass of ice. It’s dusk; the mosquitos are so ferocious they can bite their way through jeans, and like most places in Vientiane, a thin layer of dust erupts into the air with each passing motorbike. But the sun is low in the sky and the slightest of breezes rises up from the river, taking the edge off the soggy June heat.

There is only one other customer: a man who hasn’t taken his eyes off me since I arrived. Each time I glance his way he smiles, a wide crooked smile, and my heart beats with that odd mix of violation and excitement.

I’m onto my second beer when he speaks. “Jao wao pasa Lao?”

“Pasa Lao bor dai.”
One of the few Lao phrases I can speak proficiently: I can’t speak Lao.

He nods, and says something I don’t understand. He’s well dressed in a business shirt and grey pants, and I wonder what it would be like to go home with a man I can’t even communicate with.

In any case, it’s against the law. Sexual relationships between Lao and foreigners, that is, unless they’re married. So any tryst with this man would not only be uncommunicative, but also illegal. How proud my parents would be if I were arrested for sleeping with a stranger.

Shit. Has it really come to this? What the hell am I doing here?

I’d come here for a person and ended up loving a place. Now the person is gone and I’m still here, paralysed by indecision. No reason to stay, but not wanting to leave.

The man stands, raises his glass to mine and speaks the one English word that almost all Lao seem to know. “Cheers.”

I return the gesture.

He pays his bill and wanders off along the riverbank towards the coming night. The embers of his cigarette flitter through the darkness like fireflies over the water. My body aches, wishing he would turn around.

And for a moment I’m so sad and goddamn lonely I could almost run after him. But then I feel it, in the stillness, the quietness. The steady, comforting boom-boom of this land, rocking me through the emptiness, telling me I am right where I’m supposed to be.

Amy Ward-Smith is an Australian writer. She spent several years living in Southeast Asia and continues to travel there frequently. She currently resides on the eastern coast of Australia. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tincture Journal and Literary Orphans.