Laos through my eyes

The following is a guest post by Colin Cotterill.

In 1976, like Captain James Cook on his ill-fated trip to Hawaii, I set off from Blighty in search of adventure and never came back. Oh, perhaps the occasional Christmas or odd publishing junket, but I knew I’d never be taking advantage of the over-sixties London Transport bus pass.

Colin Cotterill

Colin Cotterill

Instead, I discovered Asia and was not clubbed to death by the natives. It was a love affair that blossomed in the migrant centers of Australia where Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees were living uneasily beside Bulgarians and South Americans. As an English teacher I was often the first Westerner to hear their stories, ground out painfully in their new language.

Theirs were tragedies and tales of woe often told with humour and grace. And it was in this setting that I met the Lao for the first time.

When the families eventually settled in overcrowded condos and cramped town houses, they invited their old teacher to come for lunch. I’d often find myself at the kitchen table with a crowd of old French-educated ex-members of Lao parliament. There had been many.

They’d tell me about the corrupt old days when Vientiane was still a Gomorra of bars and opium dens, of US aid money that paid the salaries of every member of the Royalist armed forces and bought the luxurious summer residences of their generals. Of drinks on steam boats down the Mekhong and old French habits that still distinguished the upper classes. These, I learned, were ‘the good old days’. These were the times they believed the communists would ruin forever.

Naturally I wanted to see just how true this all was. I had my opportunity in 1990. UNESCO had a position at Dong Dok, Pedagogical Institute. I was to help revamp the old East German English language curriculum whose methodology was written in German.

These were the days when Russian experts in sandals and sweat stains still appeared in dark corners, when chickens wandered shamelessly into the classrooms, when you’d roll up your trouser legs to wade across campus through mud, where the new language lab tapes grew soggy in the hot season leaving thirty students repeating – like a small herd of cattle – bass words playing at half speed.

The teachers I worked with then are still my friends today but these days they get paid.

When the UN project ran out of money, the ministry asked if I’d be silly enough to work for nothing setting up a similar pilot project in the deep south. NGO’s were looking for footholds in the provinces and I had a ready-made project. I had the option to be either a VSO, an AVA or a Japanese volunteer.

The Aussies offered the best package which included beer. I went to Pakse to set up an English department. In the capital, English language graduates were being offered positions in the fledgling tourist industry. Only the poorest speakers became teachers. In the south there was no such temptation. We had two hundred applicants. Thirty were offered placements on the course. All but four went on to teach.

I’d been about to build a little house on the Nam Ngum River and start a three year curriculum project but Lao fate steered me in another direction. I sold my jeep and gave away my dog and headed to Thailand where I went through two career changes.

To my surprise I became a social worker and spent a good deal of my time working with abused kids. And that move inevitably led to a career as a writer. I have written nine books set in Laos in the seventies that continue to get good reviews around the world. That success spawned one or two small scholarship projects back here in Laos.

And I constantly look back to the bright side of my experiences in Pakse. If I’d stayed in Laos I wouldn’t have changed careers. I wouldn’t have vented my spleen writing about (and killing off) the awful characters I came across working in child protection.

I wouldn’t have discovered I had a small gift for fiction. I wouldn’t have dug out my old Lao interview tapes, nor gone back to visit old friends, nor created an alter-ego, Dr. Siri who gets the better of bureaucrats on my behalf. I wouldn’t be a novelist or travel around the world answering questions on the little country that – in spite of everything – I love.

7 Responses

  1. Ingo-Steven Wais says:

    Dear Philip,
    dear Mr. Colin Cotterill,
    well it looks to me that you are the Captain James Cook of the 21st. Century. really outstanding and great. Of course , the most interesting chapter of your proper and easy to read lines is to me the one of your 1st. contact with the Lao . It impressed me a lot by reading , that Vientiane was once nothing but a “Gomorra” . And that some of it ´s inhabitants were strong enough to come through and hold on. Doing some kind of resistance. I also didn ´t knew of how corrupt these so-called “good old days ” have been . No wonder , that the Communists had it such easy to become these “Men-in- Power”. Fortunately for Laos – also their time was “limited”. To conclude: You ´ve mentioned that you ´ve wrote some books. My question to you is now : Are they still available in the UK ?
    Best wishes, Ingo-Steven Wais, Stuttgart/Cardiff

  2. Ingo-Steven Wais says:

    Dear Philip,
    dear Mr. Colin Cotterill ,
    after I had written my 1st. comment I had the strange feeling , that sthg. was “lost”. Back at home I knew what it was.
    There ´s a famous Kate Bush Hit, “Cloudbusting”, released in Autumn ´85 and peaked at the UK charts at # 3 , in Germany # 2. This song contains lines / lyrics which are so suitable to people who still do or who have suffered amongst “Dictator-Regimes”. Like the Lao in these ” good old days ” too. According to your article. So I just want to add a few lines of “Cloudbusting “, dedicated to those , which still are suffering under the pressure / violence of any kind of military – governments : “…everytime it rains you ´re here in my heart / the sun will come out like your son is coming out /On top of the world/Looking over the edge/You could see them coming/You looked too small/In their big black car/To be a threat to the men in power/I hid my yo-yo in the garden / But I can ´t hide you from the government/ Oh god daddy/ I won ´t forget.,,,,,Well, I do hope that you like these few lines and agree to me.
    Best wishes, Ingo-Steven

  3. Dirk says:

    Laos impressed me a lot after travelling for some weeks around the country. Such nice people and scenery. Wish to go back!

  4. Bradley Jones says:

    Dear Colin

    Great blog – i havent yet read any of the Dr Siri novels, but have just ordered The Coroner’s Lunch from Amazon … am looking forward to devouring it in the near future…

    Best wishes

    Bradley Jones

  5. David Brown says:

    As somebody who has all of your Dr Siri books I found this a really interesting blog. If you are ever in Taipei, I’d love to buy you a drink.

  6. David Brown says:

    As somebody who has all of your Dr Siri books I found this a really interesting blog. If you are ever in Taipei, I’d love to buy you a drink.

  7. Hey there! Someone in my Myspace group shared this site with us so I came to check it out.

    I’m definitely enjoying the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting
    this to my followers! Terrific blog and outstanding design.

Leave a Comment