The Mekong River area in Southeast Asia is known for its stunning scenery.

When Dara Sitthideth of La Grande views images of the river today she sees not beauty but darkness, a makeshift raft and an inattentive Laos soldier to whom she may owe her life.

Sitthideth, the owner of the new Thai Fresh restaurant, escaped Laos one evening four decades ago by crossing the Mekong River to Thailand. The river, unlike today, was heavily patrolled by soldiers seeking to stop people from escaping Laos.

“They would shoot anyone caught trying to get across the river,” Sitthideth said.

A native of Thailand, Sitthideth had moved seven years earlier with her parents to Laos where she had many relatives. Sitthideth, then a teenager, escaped from Laos because she knew its government would soon send her to a communist indoctrination camp, said Dave Messinger, a long-time family friend and a native of Thailand.

“She has a mind of her own. She did not want to be thrust into the communist system,” he said.

Sitthideth, her older sister Cindy and six other people had built a raft with sticks and inflated garbage bags. They carried it down to the Mekong River to begin their stealth passage of between one-quarter and one-half mile.

“We were cold and scared,” Sitthideth said.

The crossing progressed without incident until Sitthideth looked up and saw an armed Laos soldier walking along the shoreline.

“That was very frightening,” she said. “We all tried to keep our heads down.”

Fortunately, the soldier apparently didn’t see Sitthideth and her companions. If the man had spotted their raft, the consequences could have been deadly. The Laos military killed hundreds of people trying to cross the Mekong River in the 1970s, Messinger said.

They didn’t see any other soldiers and made it to the other side of the Mekong River safely. Sitthideth said she did not fully appreciate what she had done until years later when she returned.

“When I saw the river I got a scared feeling, because it is so wide,” she said.

Messinger said Sitthideth’s party was not only at risk of being shot but also of drowning, noting that the Mekong’s fast-moving waters have claimed many lives.

Sitthideth did not realize the magnitude of the risk she took because she was so young at the time.

“I look at it now and think, ‘How did I do that?’” she said.

Although she was a native of Thailand, Sitthideth could not reside in the country as a citizen because her parents were still in Laos. She was sent to a refugee camp where she lived for 1-1/2 years before immigrating to the United States, where she had friends and family.

She first lived in Eugene, working in a Chinese restaurant and attending South Eugene High School. She knew little English but made it through her classes with the help of an interpreter provided by the school. The interpreter served as a mentor, meeting with her after classes to help her with her with homework.

Sitthideth lived in Eugene for almost two years before moving to San Francisco, where she worked at sandwich shops that catered to the office lunch crowd.

“She took it upon herself to learn how to serve the English-speaking public,” Messinger said.

Sitthideth moved back to Eugene about two years later and after another two years moved to Portland and worked as a clerk for Franz Bakery. She was based first in Portland and later in the Walla Walla, Washington, area, where she also assisted friends operating Thai restaurants.

She became very interested in opening a restaurant in La Grande while in Walla Walla after learning about the community.

“There are no other Thai restaurants. I wanted to introduce Thai here,” she said Wednesday.

Sitthideth decided to open a Thai restaurant in the Market Place Underground, which was still under construction. In the meantime, she opened Thai Crystal in Pendleton. Last fall, she opened Thai Fresh when space in the Market Place Underground became available.

Today, as the owner of two restaurants, Sitthideth views cooking as an extension of her childhood. She explained that like many children in Thailand, she began learning to cook at about age 4.

“I watched my mom cook every day,” Sitthideth said.

Messinger, who advises Sitthideth on her restaurant operations, believes she has a bright future as a Thai restaurant owner. He pointed to her impressive fortitude, escaping from communism and clearing cultural barriers in the United States, as well as to her ability to prepare food with genuine Thai flavor.

He added that she is popular with the people she works with.

“Employees want to work for her,” Messinger said. “She has a good heart.”

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