Tha Khaek – Not the worst place in Laos, but damn close…
Above Photo: A great advert for being invaded and colonized by Communist Vietnam.
A couple of years ago I passed my birthday in Laos. Not in lovely Luang Prabang or one of the thousands of wonderful towns and villages we passed through, but, unfortunately, in Tha Khaek (see map at the bottom of the article), a ‘Vietnamese’ town in Laos.
On paper, Tha Khaek should be a great place, nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, opposite the glistening stupas of Nakhom Phanom in Thailand, and surrounded by belts of stunning karst mountains containing fascinating caves and scenic spots. Outdoors types should love it as a base for hiking, climbing and caving around the still-densely wooded, mountainous Khammoune Province.
In the town itself, the array of French-colonial architecture and buildings sounded interesting, as it was a former French port on the Mekong, and, to cap it all, if you asked me to invest money in one Laotian town right now, in spite of all my comments below, paradoxically, I’d invest it in Tha Khaek.
Yet the place is an absolute shithole, and totally unlike other towns in Laos. The streets were dirty and rubbish-strewn, the place stank of rotting garbage (uncollected for the three days we were there) and the stench of sewers and decaying rubbish followed us everywhere on the litter-covered pavements and streets.
There is a square in the centre of the town called ‘Fountain Square.’ It sounded lovely, but turned out to be a beaten-up, broken, dry, 1970s poor-quality concrete fountain, which again was surrounded by rubbish, litter and dog shit.
It might have something to do with the Vietnamese having colonized Tha Khaek demographically and economically, for example owning the big hotels, catering to the cross-country trade from Thailand to Vietnam, and the whole place actually feels like an unfriendly Vietnamese border town rather than anything you would expect in Laos.
Tha Khaek is also at the epicenter of the dog-eating trade with Vietnam, where animals ‘dognapped’ in Thailand are brazenly smuggled across the Mekong then driven across Laos to be eaten in Vietnam, in enormous trucks full of small dog cages. I thought this was ironic too, because Tha Khaek’s streets are full of mangy old dogs roaming around, barking at nothing and shitting everywhere.
The place has so much potential, yet it’s buried under mounds of stinking, uncollected garbage and filthy litter-swamped streets. The (presumably Vietnamese) city fathers of Tha Khaek need to be dragged through the town and given a lesson in civic pride, then be made to clean the place up themselves.
It’s nothing a bit of self-respect, education and a regular litter clearing service wouldn’t change, but none of those are in evidence in Tha Khaek right now, and yet there’s money in the town – its a bustling cross-border hub full of commerce and big cars.
Then maybe Tha Khaek could begin to attract more tourist money, leading to the renovation of the crumbling historic buildings and to a general upgrading of the town, as has happened to Savannakhet, a town not far away, which is still a Laotian town, and not (yet) overrun with, or annexed by, the Vietnamese, which is increasingly happening elsewhere in the country (I’ll write about this again).
Until then, Tha Khaek will remain a place to be suffered as travelers use it as a base to explore the incredible scenery of Khammouane Province.
Our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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