Tien Van Pham is going "home" nine years older and wiser - more optimistic about life than he was in 1979, when the frightened 14-year-old escaped the Communist takeover of his native Laos.
The Laotian government, having relaxed its restrictions, has granted Pham permission to return - to visit relatives, his parents and a sister, who remained behind.Accompanying him will be another Salt Lake resident, Brad J. Williams, whose friendship with Pham has been built on "admiration."
"He's a pretty unusual guy," said the all-American Williams of his pal. "He went through a lot just to get out of the country. People think everything is going to be great in the United States, but it's probably the hardest part of being a refugee."
But Pham shows no animosity or lasting scars from his escape and subsequent settlement in America.
He's eager to return with his Caucasian companion, one of the few tourists to be granted entry into Laos.
In was in August 1979 that Pham and four friends bid farewell to life in Vientiane, the Laotian capital and largest city. For three days they wandered through the forest en route to their ride to freedom on the Mekong River.
But the boat had left without them.
Determined to flee, they used plastic bags and gas cans to conquer the mighty river during the monsoon season.
Three of the boys, ages 12 to 14, were found unconscious on a river bank in Thailand. Two had drown.
Pham's gold necklace - a possession he hoped would serve as his ticket to France, where three other siblings were living - was taken by Thai soldiers for "safe-keeping."
The vulnerable Laotian youths were then settled in a refugee camp, and Pham found work in a Thai cafeteria. His earnings: 50 cents a day.
It was there he met missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who encouraged him to come to America. Photographs of Utah enticed him, and he informed American officials in Thailand that he wanted to resettle at the church's Missionary Training Center in Provo.
"The MTC doesn't take refugees," he was told. "How about Salt Lake City?"
Shortly thereafter, Pham ended up in the Holladay home of Mr. and Mrs. Gary C. Smith and began attending Olympus Junior High School. But for the most part, his lessons were foreign; he knew no English.
"I just looked at everyone and smiled because I didn't speak the language," said Pham, flashing a warm grin. "They could say anything in front of me and I didn't know what they were talking about."
Pham is now fluent in five languages but admits to having been discouraged during the adjustment months. "But after I began to learn the language, I overcame the depression. I got along very good, even though I was the only Oriental in the school at that time."
Nearly three years ago, Pham did go to the MTC, with Williams, before leaving on their respective missions - Williams to England, Pham to California, where he became a U.S. citizen.
The travel bug bit them both.
Next month, with his American passport tucked securely in a jacket pocket, Pham will test his friend's adventurism in Asia.
"Laos is still back in the 16th century. Not very many cities have electricity or running water," he said. "And there are no streets on top of streets (freeway overpasses)."
Pham, who's been working 12 to 15 hours a day as a Granite School District custodian to finance the trip, is convinced Williams will assimilate well in Thailand and Laos - even though he speaks only English.
"Language of the heart is most important," he said. "He loves people very easily. You can't find this kind of guy very often."
Pham and Williams likely won't be returning to Salt Lake City soon. From Laos, they'll fly to Hawaii to enroll in BYU-Hawaii.
"It's cheaper than flying all the way home," they said, sheepishly.