Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Last Sunset at the Sunset Bar

The Sunset Bar was only a decent place to go for an hour or two, and only at that time of the day. But during those two hours, it was heaven on earth.

The Sunset hung out over the bank of the Mekong River, its main supports coming from old gnarled trees that grew through the floor and continued through the roof. Not a piece of wood, horizontal or vertical, met any engineering standard in the world. And the roof- that was just found metal, rusted tin, some woven palms- not much more than a nod to the idea of protection from the elements.

No doubt many a European gave the Sunset a pass when they saw it. That is, if they saw it... it lay at the end of an unlit, potholed, dusty path that paralleled the riverbank.

But if you found it, and got there just after four in the afternoon, a magic light descended on this ramshackle creature, and it came alive. You could watch the sun change from brilliant white to gold to peach, the river mimicking the colours in turn. By six o'clock the view was a scene from Apocalypse Now, the sun a blood-red ball, silhouetted palm trees in the distance.

By then, second or third Beer Lao in hand, the groove of the Sunset kicked in. You were bathed in deep hues shifting into further into the infrared. Friends, lovers, fellow travellers all took on a magic glow, while the tables and the chairs and the rickety railing were suddenly all  just right for the scene. It had a vibe, a quiet little perfection. A flawed, humble thing that held an incredible, beautiful secret for an hour or two every day.

Now, river cities around the world, after years of neglect, have come around to embrace the water that runs past their doors. From Whitehorse to Winnipeg to London, urban planners are reclaiming the view and creating public space along waterfronts. And the same is happening in Vientiane.

For the last two years, a $30-milllion US project has created a massive public walkway along the Mekong. The scale is staggering, given the city's size and the country's poverty. Riprap and interlocking blocks protect the bank; a wide boulevard of brick and asphalt creates a beautiful promenade, garnished with statues, temples and flower beds. The centre of the project is complete, while bulldozers and dump trucks work at both ends, preparing what in the end will be at least a five-kilometre path.

And on this day, a bulldozer is about 50 feet away from the Sunset Bar.

It is the last night at the Sunset; tomorrow the owner closes shop. He's already dismantled the lower decks, and tomorrow he'll salvage what he can of the main building. Through dumb luck and (un)happy circumstance, we are here for the last sunset at the Sunset Bar.

Nothing else has really changed. We order our Beer Lao and snacks; kids play soccer or volleyball on the sandbars below; older youths plow their monster trucks from one river island to another. A lone fisherman pulls his low-slung boat up to the shore, packs up his kit and heads home. It's a day like any other, except a small piece of Vientiane's charm is about to pass into history.

The Sunset's owner will receive no compensation for Progress' onslaught. He was a squatter here, and has no rights. Next week the Sunset will be a memory, the trees that anchored it to the bank torn out and gone. The gnarled wood, culled from old shipwrecks on the Mekong, sent to the dump or reused in someone's home. There's word he might have the opportunity to create a new bar on the promenade.

It doesn't matter. It won't be the Sunset. Set on a boulevard of concrete and metal, it will be square, plastic, and safe.

It's almost 6:30, and the sun so crimson it can be looked at directly. The gap between it and the earth is visibly shrinking. I force myself to remember that it's not the sun moving down to the horizon, but the earth rotating to the east. For a few seconds, I feel myself on the surface of a giant, moving sphere.

The earth swallows the sunset.  It's dark and the bar is lifeless and grey in the glow of a lamp. It's time to go.

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