The author enjoying beer with his students

We wash our hands in a bucket by the door, and take a table on a terrace. Before us, the Nam Khan river, just a few miles from its confluence with the Mekong. My students order crayfish, rice, curries and Bia Lao. The smart young women from the capital Vientiane appear uncomfortable in the simplicity of this roadside shack, where the toilet is a hole in the ground and the food is served on cracked plates. Everyone talks loudly, laughing a lot. They are getting to know each other, away from the constraints of the city. Snatches of conversation are translated for me, but I am happy just to watch them, to enjoy their happiness, to see the city women relax now. Light ebbs away from the grey sky. A cool breeze wafts up from the river. The students laugh.

The next night we dance in a karaoke bar on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. We drink lots of Bia Lao. The women sing mournful elegies. One of my students leads me to the dancefloor and the beer encourages me to dance as she does, my arms tracing twirls and loops. Everyone laughs at me, happy at my silliness, my awkwardness, and pleased I am joining them. We eat meats and fish barbecued at the table on tiny stoves. We drink more beer. The women look at the men. The men laugh.

In Vientiane, I go for dinner with the two oldest students and their wives. My translator comes with me, and we sit at a large round table in the Soviet-era hotel by the Mekong. A beautiful woman sings mournful elegies on the stage. My students, encouraged by Wantanee my translator, tell stories of the war years and their lives in the Future Leaders Programme, down in the tunnels, shaking from the ordinance landing above them. I ask them what they think of Americans and they look sad. One explains that he does not see Americans clearing mines in the fields around his hotel near the Plain of Jars, just Europeans and Canadians. I am glad I am not American. The man from the Plain of Jars presents me with a gift – two halves of a cleaned out cluster bomb to use as a paperweight on my desk at home. As we talk, the beautiful woman on stage dances and sings a mournful elegy.

I wander through the city to find the square where I sat in 1991 drinking draught Bia Lao, that was served in plastic jugs, which we then poured into our glasses. Teenagers exploit the dark to cuddle and talk. Tourists laugh, seated at the tables of a smart French restaurant. It no longer seems to be the centre of this odd city that is quiet, dark, more shaded than bright.

At the restaurant by the river

From the terrace, the Nam Khan is now a massive shadow below us. Huge moths are drawn to the restaurant’s lanterns. We drink beer and laugh. We are happy.