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Perfect Condition

Perfect Condition
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The standard reply I got to my query from travel agents in Bangkok on how to get to Laos by rail or road was a snobbish ‘we don’t sell tickets for Nonghkhai’, the railhead and border town for Thailand before you cross the mighty Mekong river into the Lao People’s Democratic Republic capital, Vientiane (pronounced Wiengchang). Do not get deterred by this uncharacteristic Thai indifference because there are inexpensive and excellent overnight air-conditioned trains to the border.

Like Nepal, Laos is landlocked, and what India is to Nepal, Thailand is to Laos. It is a former French colony, which eradicated monarchy in 1975 after the Pathet Lao Communists came to power. They even banished the alphabet ra (from Rasa for raja) from the Lao dictionary. And today blame the rajas for the ills of this impoverished land of 5 million Buddhists. Yet every temple in the country that the present military rulers in civilian garb frequent is a legacy of the monarchy. On the outside, Laos is a very relaxed, even laidback, communist state, a great getaway from the region’s cackle and congestion. No wonder Kissinger called it a condition, not a country.

Did you know that Laos is the most-bombed country in the world? It has received a per capita punishment of 1.5 tonnes of explosion, though unlike Vietnam, it does not wear the scars on its sleeve. Whenever US bombers took off to plaster North Vietnam, they would offload unexpended ordnance over Laos. Barring a minor insurgency in the north and one bomb blast in three years, Laos is now a peaceful nation combating disease and malnutrition. Tourists are coming in droves. The 30,000-strong Lao Army is being taught military English by Indian army officers.

The only violence I witnessed in Vientiane was by one doctor Bounxay Ket Sattha who has won medals for ‘wart and frackel’ (sic) ‘killing’. For the equivalent of $2, he guarantees removal of every growth regardless of its location and disposition. His clinic was overflowing with people loaded with warts and all that.

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