Were it not for the Mekong River, which drifts lazily by this border town, it might be difficult to tell whether the land belongs to the Laotians or the Thais.

Thousands of refugees have poured in from Laos across the river, bringing so much of their way of life that the refugee camp is called "Little Vientiane."

But for the second, it is in northern Thailand.

Sheltering some 24,000 people, the camp has grown in recent months as thousands of Laotians continue to flee their country's new communist order.

Newcomers crossing into Nongkhai find the camp is a city in its own right, the province's second largest concentration of people, complete with schools, cottage industries, trishaw taxi service and organized vice.

A few of its inhabitants, refugees say, use the camp as a base to support scattered guerrilla bands fighting the government in Laos. But most of the people here seem more interested in finding a third country, preferable the United States - to take them in.

Meo hill-tribe women sell embroidered table cloths and shoulder bags to Thai tourists who visit the camp. Small factories produce straw roofing and other building materials. Makeshift studios take photos for passports and relatives in other countries. There is even a bakery turning out fine French bread.

The underworld appears to be thriving, too. Thai police recently claimed to have discovered a syndicate procuring Laotian women for the brothels of Bangkok. Drugs are easily purchased.

When holidays arrive, the merrymaking is as raucous as that found at home. During Laotian New Year in April, the camp erupted with folk dancing, processions through the dusty streets and the traditional dousing with water of anyone in sight.

According to John Crowley, an American attached to the International Rescue Committee, about 5,000 Meo entered the camp between January 1 and mid-April.

They were too late for a U.S. resettlement program that had already filled its quotas. In June, however, the United States announced a new program opening the way for 25,000 more refugees.

Half of the new quota is for Laotians in these camps, who are now being processed and may start departing as soon as next month.

Rescue Committee records show that of people interviewed between the new year and April, about 18 percent were in families claiming to have immediate relatives in the United States, about 9 percent said they or their families had worked for U.S. agencies in Laos, and about 41 percent claimed direct or indirect membership in U.S.-affiliated agencies, mostly the old Laotian armed forces.

In the past, people in these three groups have received priority in entering the U.S. In an effort to weed out fraudulent cases, interviewers ask exacting questions concerning, say, a refugee's rank and duties in the military or the name of his American supervisor.

They are not always successful. Rescue committee officials were recently upset to read a Bangkok newspaper report that a Thai police corporal, assigned to guard the camp's gate, married a Laotian and managed to emigrate to the United States by posing as her brother.

Refugees can also apply for resettlement in Western Europe or Australia, but those who do not qualify for any country are consigned to languish in the camp for years.

With assistance from the United Nations, Thailand is currently sheltering a total of more than 110,000 Indochinese refugees. So far, the Bangkok government has refused to accept any for permanent resettlement.

The government is now reported to be considering a plan under which refugees with no prospects for resettlement elsewhere would be allowed to leave the camps after five years.

For a few of the camp's people, however, the most important thing is getting back into Laoes to fight. In the streets one occasionally sees young men with shaven heads who have vowed to cut their hair until the communists are overthrown.

According to one well-placed refugees, small numbers of men in Little Vientiane pass in and out of Laos with help and equipment from the Thai military.

Compared to fight from Cambodia or Vietnam, getting out of Laos is relatively simple. Phone lines to Vientiane are open and boats ply up and down the river, some of them willing to take passengers across for $100 per head. People without the money or connections simply swim.

But the risks are still considerable. In April newspapers reported that an elderly woman was killed when Laotian soldiers fired on people creeping across a Mekong River sandbar under cover of darkness. The next afternoon Thai villagers, angered that the body was left in the sun, crossed to the sandbar and cremated the remains where they lay.

Nonetheless, the flow of escapees shows no sign of ending. Apparently word has filtered back to those who are unhappy with Laos' new society that life in Little Vientiane and other camps like it is worth the risk of late-night crossing.