A Laos Diary - November 2003
by Angus Kitchin
Tuesday, 4 November 2003
Down at the jetty I find myself at the back of a queue of Americans who are complaining about the heat and having to wait in line. There are no locals there right now, just them, so it is their own impatience that is causing their frustration. Another one of their group slips into the line behind me and gets a glare from his wife - two places ahead - after he replies to her "We're all waiting for you, you know", with a cool but pointed "Well, I am in line". Poor bugger. I'm not sure if I feel sorry for him because he's on a package tour or because of who he's married to. Either way I'm glad I'm free of it all, and climb aboard a narrow boat to cross the Mekong River and enter Laos.
At the BAP Guest House I am told that I've missed my Italian friends by about 10 minutes. They've taken a bus to a nearby town where their boat awaits them. I enquire about privately chartering another boat, but it's ridiculously expensive so I think about my options. Either way I'm here for the night. Option 1: forget about Luang Nam Tha (where the Italians are going) and take the slow boat to Luang Prabang, or option 2: take a truck to Luang Nam Tha tomorrow morning and try to meet up. I need money either way so I try and find a bank and think about my options at the same time.
There is one bank in Huay Xai and even though it's a small town - very small actually - it proves to be a real pain to find. I spend well over an hour or so going around the place twice. On the second circuit I ask somebody for directions every 50 m or so and finally find out where I went wrong. The bank is disguised as a nice house, set back from the road with a double-entranced drive, and no sign. Of course my clue should have been 'nice house' since there aren't any here. I decide to change $20 for a starter and get 208,200 kip. Considering that the largest denomination note I'm given is 5,000 kip - worth around 50¢ - this represents a sizeable stack of cash. Either these people basically pay nothing for products or they need barrows to carry their cash around in. Certainly the money I've just received doesn't all fit in my wallet in one go so goodness knows how they do it. I walk back to the guest house, pockets bulging.
Back in the guest house I play games on my iPAQ - something I'm rarely inclined to do - and am only brought back to the consciousness of the world around me when the noise on the tin roof outside my window gets too much. It eventually subsides and I realise I'm really quite hungry, so I head out in search of food.
On the way I meet Moa, and seconds later Margreet too. Moa needs to change $50 so I gave her warning about making sure she'd got something to carry it in. In the end we all decided to have lunch and discovered that everbody here seems to have run out of rice. A bit odd for a country that depends upon it.
Margreet is a PhD student in Maastricht studying the effects of different meats when correlated to instances of bowel cancer. She's here on a three week holiday. What delight lunch was! Oh the anecdotes from her studies. Such fun when faced with noodle and mystery-meat soup. However, as an aside apparently pork is inhibitor to bowel cancer, so I hope my mystery-meat is that. We talk for ages in the restaurant and after an hour or so the three of us leave to pick up some snacks, go back to the guest house and sit upstairs to have a picnic.
By seven we've come up with a master plan: get cleaned up, go out and get some street food, pick up a bottle of Lao whisky and share the food and drink between us upstairs in the guest house. Done! We find a street vendor and work through his broken English and gesticulations to get food. It seems we have pig insides (he points to his stomach), pig skin (he pinches his arm), pig insides again (he points to his arm this time), chicken, and egg pancakes with pork inside. All good news of you are at risk from bowel cancer, but not so good if you tend to err on the side of caution and stay vegetarian when traveling, as Margreet does. Despite this she joins Moa and I in our meat fest, but sticks to chicken. Again, nobody has any rice, so its meat all the way.
The whisky was much easier, and odder. Basically it is all the same price if you go for the local brands, coming in at 10,000 kip (about $1) per bottle. The odd part is that a 2 litre bottle of Pepsi to go with it is 12,000 kip.
Before we start I get myself organised with my onward plans, deciding to try and catch up with my Italian friends, rather than join Moa and Margreet on the slow boat. The evening is great. We sit and munch our meat and drink our drink, having a great time into the bargain. Come almost midnight we are all about ready to turn in. Moa's already drifted off so it's Margreet and I who clear up and then say goodnight ourselves.
Wednesday, 5 November 2003
Along the way there is spectacular scenery but it is an incredibly bumpy dirt road we're on, and with a Lao Michael Shumacher behind the wheel too - until his truck brakes anyway. Well, almost brakes. He pulls over a few times after the wheals start making all sorts of nasty knocking noises, jacks the vehicle up, shakes the wheel to make sure the steering hasn't snapped, then drops it all back down again when he can find nothing wrong. Nothing that would be fixable on the road anyway. Our journey continues at a more sedate pace, although I'd be quite happy for the whole ordeal to be over right now.
We pass loads of small villages with wood and grass huts, and children on the side of the road who wave and smile as we go by. Some of the younger children first stop dead in their tracks as they see two white faces on the truck, mouths agape, and I imagine to myself that it must be the first time that some of them have seen a white face. Very few tourists come up this way and the trucks don't go by that often anyway. Earlier on in the trip we'd seen a more disturbing picture. That being boys of about 15 or 16 walking along with rifles slung over their shoulders. These boys didn't wave back.
Finally we get to Luang Nam Tha at about 4:30 pm. Paulo and I decide to team up to find a guest house and ask about treks. We need a minimum of four people since the other trek is full and so, when we're out for food, we ask anybody and everybody if they want to go. No takers. On the way we meet up with some people who Paulo recognises: a French woman who speaks Dutch, a South African woman who sounds like she's from Southampton, and the only Japanese girl I've met who doesn't have a camera. We join them for a beer and a basket of sticky rice, but I leave them shortly afterwards since I'm tired and want to go to bed.
In the room I spray for bugs and climb under my mosquito net. You're supposed to vacate the area for 20 minutes after using this stuff, but I am too tired and decide to suffer it out. At first I hardly notice the strange sound like gentle rain, but after a while I realise what it is. The whole place must be more or less infested with ants and they are falling out of the ceiling from the spray, hitting the lino floor with a small 'tick' sound each. After about 10 more minutes the sound subsides and the storm is over. I look out to see a carpet of dead ants everywhere, brush them up as best I can with the doormat, and go back to bed. Within seconds I'm asleep.
Thursday, 6 November 2003
There's just enough time to go back to the guest house and grab some breakfast, but a confusion in the kitchen means my order is missed and all I now have time for is a small baguette (baton, torpedo, sub, call it what you will). I am not impressed and I'm hungry, and on the way to the guide hut I'm shouted at from across the street. It's Metteo and Simona. They're off to Muang Sing shortly and dive into tales of their adventures. I can't believe I'm missing them again and have to cut them short given our own pressing engagement, and by 9:20 the boat trip people are on an even smaller truck than yesterday. It is more like an oversized túk-túk. Our guide is called Toh (pronounce like 'Tor', but without the 'r') and after dropping by a couple of markets for lunch things we get to the boat landing by 10 am. The boat is a long open-topped affair with no seats and only grass mats on the area where we (the tourists) sit. One driver is at the back and two steerers are at the front with paddles so they can push us away from various obstacles if the rather coarse steering from the back isn't fast enough.
The day is grey and I rather wish I'd brought a jacket, or something with long sleeves at least, to help against the surprisingly chilly breeze that the boat creates. Bits of plastic high up in bushes within the stream indicate that the water level goes to at least 3 m higher than it is now, and that there isn't any refuse collection up-stream. Rapids were becoming exposed and the job of the steerers was clearly strenuous for the two of them, working with their paddles to avoid rocks. Occasionally they are not fast enough and the long rasp of a rock would draw down the entire length of the boat. If we were holed at least it wouldn't be deep water.
We arrive at the first village at 11:25 and it's getting hot now with blue sky above. This is Ban Hoay Luet where almost 50 families of the Khmu tribe live as farmers growing rice in fields, or on the mountain if you are not quite so lucky. Houses are wood and bamboo with rattan weaving for walls. We snapped a few photos of children who never smiled until Paulo showed them on his video camera. They liked that. 25 minutes later we were back in the boat and heading to the next village.
12:20 and we're there, greeted by 15 children shouting and playing in the water and two older children washing. This is Ban Soup Simp village, again Khmu people, with similar cultures and taboos as the last village. There are 40 houses with 60 families and a school. They typically educate the 70 children here in one class with one teacher teaching two subjects at a time, working Monday to Friday from 8 am to 11:30. Often they get to 15 or 16 and then start working in the fields. They have limited electricity for a light bulb in the school house and in a few privileged homes, but it's free, generated by the constant flow of the river through a small race.
The children see me pecking on my iPAQ and I am aware that I am surrounded by small people wondering what I'm up to. I show them. They're not very impressed, but generally they seem more sure of themselves around tourists - perhaps because there are more of them. They buzz around and squeal with delight when Paulo does his video camera trick. That sells them completely and we have a demonstration of rice husking (if that's the correct term) and I even have a go. My efforts, however, end up in lots of rice going everywhere and when I blew the husks away I had two whole grains and a broken one left in my palm. We called an end to that game and left the village to go up a set of rapids and to a lunch spot a little way back up river. If I thought that going down the rapids was difficult for the boatmen, going back up is considerably harder. The engine could not help much because of the rocks smashing the blades, so they punted us through with much effort, puffing and panting.
For lunch we had all sorts: sticky rice, vegetable salad, papaya salad, bamboo stuffed with pork, and some great little silk worms. I guess the ones I tried in Si Surithani were simply not good because these were juicy and tasty. Still not my favorite snack, but certainly OK. You just throw a few into your mouth like peanuts - only softer. I felt a bit bad because although the guide ate with us, the boat crew sat aside and ate whatever was left. Having said that, they did have their own lunches and our leftovers were simply adding to the pot, so to speak. We waited by the river until they stopped eating. Paulo took a dip but managed to avoid the ominous turd-shaped object covered with algae and bumping along the rocks. I sat and watched countless dogfights with red and blue-black dragonflies. Ants paraded, flies landed on me (some didn't leave alive) and somehow every other insect that I saw was trying to shag its neighbour. This was it. This was life: fights, sex and death. One I've never experienced really, one I've not experienced for a while, one I don't plan on experiencing for a very long time to come ... if ever.
An hour and a half after we arrived we are all fed and watered, and ready to continue onward back up river. It was entertaining playing with Paulo's GPS receiver as it slowly scores the trace of our progress along the river onto its screen like an Etch-a-Sketch. More rapids and 30 minutes further up river towards another village (20°54'31.9" north, 101°25'53.3" east if you're interested), we pass two people fishing by slapping the water with sticks and driving the fish into a net. One was wearing a flat cap, like a Yorkshireman, for some reason. Had a tourist boasted about the quality of the Yorkshire ales, perhaps, and suffered at the hands of an upset Chief? Who knows?
2:48 and we're at Ban Soup Tod village with Lantan people. Similar to the Khmu in taboos, rice growing, etc. and they even have their own writing system. The village of about 16 houses has its own school and electricity, like the last one, and as a special treat we were invited up to the village Chief's house. They used the opportunity of guests to try and ply their wares, which included clothes, earrings, a dagger and some bags. Nothing that appealed to me but Paulo was interested in the knife and a jacket. When he wanted to pay in baht, out came the calculator and a price was offered but even the guide - who was acting as interpreter - said it was way too much. Nagisa was interested in the earrings and the guide raised his eyebrows again. Nevertheless, Nagisa soon became the owner of one $3 earring and Paulo bought the jacket for $5. This put them in a better mood (the battery on Paulo's video camera had run out by then) so we could take some photos of the hithertoo shy girls all in their traditional dress: simple black cotton with blue or purple edging and tiny bells for buttons. By 3:30 we were away again. One more village to go.
3:51 and we've arrived at the Ban Mai village where the Thi Dam people live, described as a people with 'no taboos', according to Toh, but I feel this relates more to photos rather than loose morals. There are about 50 houses here and they make silk. They have electricity poles and the houses have numbers painted on metal plates nailed to one of the support piles.
We were shown the silk worms and the spun cocoons they make before the whole thing is boiled and the single thread unwound from each cocoon. They also grow cotton up in the hills and there were buds of that all in a large basin next to an equally large basin full of what looked like dark green wool. It turned out to be dried weed from the river that is used to feed the worms. We didn't stay long in the village because the truck driver was due to pick us up from the jetty at four pm and it was already five past. It didn't bother me much though since this place also had music blaring from a stereo somewhere and it had lost the feel that the other places had. Still, it's a developing country and 'development' means that sort of thing I suppose. Even Luang Nam Tha didn't really cater for tourists until three years ago.
The boat back is swift since we were only a kilometer or so away from the jetty. The driver was patiently waiting and within 20 minutes we were back in town. Nagisa and Paulo went and had a Laos sauna and massage down the road whilst I checked my e-mail. 16 e-mails and a shower later I'm back out eating some chicken dish that tastes distinctly of fish when Paulo and Nagisa turn up looking thoroughly relaxed. I envy them their sauna and massage, particularly when I hear that the massage isn't given by the same band of sadists that torment tourists in Thailand. We sit and talk about odd things like 'what is England's problem with mixer taps in bathrooms?' (Paulo), 'many Japanese use public baths and don't have baths or showers at all' (Nagasi), and 'how to shave off the insulation from electric light cables to create an impromptu power outlet' (me - didn't feel like I could offer much more on the bathroom front).
It's only 9:35 and the evening is still fresh and young, but it hadn't spent a day in the sun like us, and I was feeling quite tired. Nagasi looked almost asleep at the table too, but that could just have been the conversation. Either way, I bid them good evening and bit Nagasi happy onward travels, then go back to the guest house where I do a bit more writing. By 9:58, though, I just slip into bed and go to sleep. It's going to be quite a long day tomorrow.
Friday, 7 November 2003
Whilst we were standing in the area of the market laughingly described as the bus station we were continually harassed by old women in traditional dress trying to flog fabric bracelets and hats. Not interested in either of them we shooed them away. Persistent as ever they came back, nudged us and opened the hats to reveal massive bags of marijuana. Methinks they suppliment their income in other ways perhaps. We shooed them away again but another gaggle just took their place. We walked off.
Time for food, and when we go down to eat we find an Australian called Chloe sitting there. We'd seen her as we checked in and, since she is extremely attractive, we joined her. During the course of the conversation she told us how much she missed her boyfriend back in Aus and how she was converting to Judaism for him. Either this was a spectacular brush off or she really does miss him. Either way it's not going to go any further for either Paulo or me. Still, apart from her good looks she is quite fun to be around and when her travelling buddy, Alistaire from London, comes down from his room, we all decide to go out and explore the countryside. On the way we Paulo spots Metteo and Simona (later he confesses he actually spotted Simona rather than Metteo), but they are eating and we are walking so we just agree to meet up before they leave town.
An hour later we're back after having discovered that the countryside is hotter and dustier than the town of Muang Sing. Plus it's pretty much all the same. It seems a decent time for Paulo and I to head off and find a village away from the old women pushing drugs and trinkets. A friend of his did this a year or two ago and said that the villagers are normally quite welcoming of people who can be bothered to seek them out. We take his GPS to make sure we don't get lost.
After about an hour we pass a group of four children laughing by a dirty pond next to the road. We say 'sábaai-dii' ('hello'), as is our way, and the older little girl turns to face us holding a frog she's just caught. Now, you have to remember they eat frogs here, and so it was disgust and mild surprise that she squeezed her fist until its insides popped out of it's mouth. It blinked in shock and desperation as she then went at it with a stick to lever the guts away from it, leaving it very thin and very dead. Not a nice way to go. Kids, eh? Who'd 'ave 'em? The other three weren't much better as they dug their hands into the muddy bucket and drew out handfulls of tiny fish. What fun ponds can be. Even serial killers need to start somewhere.
A kilometer or so further on we find an Akha village on a hill. We walked around with about 20 children in tow, generating lots of attention with our cameras. Paulo's trick with his video was - as always - well received and kept everybody amused for some time. Eventually we ended up being offered a bed for the night by one man as we were on our way out of the village. We thought about it and accepted.
We joined the man and the rest of his family in their home and talked as much as we could. Paulo's guide book helped a lot since it had both pictures and the Lao text for the phrases. Bit of a shame that they couldn't read I suppose. The family seems to be two couples and their children. One of the couples may be a daughter and husband set up sharing the house with parents. It's difficult to tell since the older man's wife is pretty young too. Either way there are three children here too. The house is divided into two with an elevated area with a springy bamboo floor which is about a foot above the earth floor of the other half. The lower half is the cooking and general storage area, the elevated part forms two sleeping areas. A small fire burns brightly and water is boiling for a drink.
Paulo and I sit as half the village files in and out to see the visitors. I feel odd and slightly uncomfortable with this much attention. Paulo shows him the pictures of Laos in his guide book and gives the children colouring pencils. They love the video camera too. Lots of fun, that.
Food is prepared by the two women: rice, rice & more rice with cooked bamboo and chili & pepper powder dip. It tastes great and we are offered loads. It is also cleared up by women as the men just sit and watch. The younger woman starts to breast feed her child and it seems strange for me to see somebody so young do this, but if this culture is anything like that of the village I visited in Taman Negara, they may start from as young as 12. She could only have been 17 at the most and I thought she was probably younger. We eventually turned in onto our thin mattresses at 10. I was feeling quite cold by this time and knew I would be in for quite an uncomfortable night.
Saturday, 8 November 2003
I sit outside in the mist feeling a bit chilly as the sun struggles to cut through. The sky is cloudless but the mist has leeched any colour out of the scene. I clean my glasses. Not quite so misty after all, but the sun is still has a halo and I can still see my breath. The hut (21°14'17.1" North, 101°7'31.1" East for the record, accurate to 9 m - guess what's just been turned on) seems to be one of the larger ones in the village. The smells of wood smoke hanging in the morning air feels like home - although that's about as far as it goes. I cast my mind back to this time 12 months ago, time difference excepted, as I was getting ready to be driven to Heathrow by my parents. I'm brought back to reality as two puppies seem to be taking great delight in driving a tiny piglet to an early grave. Actually they seem to be tormenting the whole litter which has been shuffling around under the hut since about 4 o'clock this morning. Here we go. Mum's coming over to see what's going on and the two puppies have just shot out between my legs as I sit. The high pitched squeals don't seem any less distressed, but they are getting less frequent as the bass grunts calm them down and they start to suckle.
Paulo pokes his head out of the door and tells me that breakfast is ready. It's rice surprise! Interestingly enough, the surprise is that the breakfast is accompanied by the young mother feeding her child, too. The inside of the hut is still dim, despite the brightness outside, but it's much lighter than it was last night and I reassess her age to nearer 13, or 14 tops. The child must be nearing a year too. It looks pretty big anyway. Different cultures, different ways. The rice is good though, and it is served with boiled green vegetables and a smaller dish of mashed something that tastes good. Paulo doesn't usually have breakfast apparently, but I tuck into mine and almost finish it, refusing a second helping of rice.
We pack up and go to pay the man of the house. He laughs when we ask him how much and waves us away. In the confusion he accepts our offer of 10,000 kip each (just under US$1) and they pose for a group photo before we head off.
The GPS tells us we have 6.4 km to go before we get back to town and we cover this reasonably quickly - saying 'sábaai-dii' along the way to whoever will listen, which is most people. Back at the guest house it's time for a quick shower before going out again and go to the That Xieng Tung Festival. This is a festival that takes place during the full moon of the 12th lunar month - today in other words - and we only get charged double to get there, which isn't bad actually.
The festival is held on top of a nearby sacred hill which has the Thai Lü stupa atop it. It is principally a religious festival, coinciding with the Buddhist That Luang festival in Vientiane. It also coincides with other Buddhist festivals held in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand, but I think this is a coincidence. The ones in Thailand are big festivals, or so I'm led to believe. People have been talking about them for weeks there and the Akha village that we spent the night in seemed particularly non-plussed about the whole thing. The villagers weren't Buddhist but this That Xieng Tung affair is described as 'multi-cultural' by the guide book, although I think this just means that people turn up for the beer and food regardless of religious leaning. The food, whilst I'm at it, is an interesting collection of dishes. The most popular of which seem to be deep fried chicken's feet and something that Paulo tells me is pork skin that expands to two or three times its original size when deep fried. These aren't small bits of pig either and have to be fried a bit at a time. The result is a thing that looks like a four foot Quaver (the corn snack, in case you are in any doubt).
It's 12:42 pm and it's scorching up on this hill without shade. My iPAQ seems to be drawing a curious crowd of people who wander off when they see it's not anything particularly interesting, until I meet a girl called Somchith. It turns out she's a tour guide from Luang Nam Tha and invites me over to sit with her friend. I am a bit conscious of moving without Paulo knowing where I'm going so I say I will join her shortly and go to find him. I do so successfully and find Chloe and Alistaire into the bargain, drinking lào-láo - the local Lao moonshine. It is very strong and evaporates in your mouth as you drink it making you cough as you breath in the fumes. However, after a couple it feels great and we all go off to find Sonchith and her friend.
We sit and eat noodle soup with them, then accept her invitation to join in with performing a Buddhist prayer. This involves handing over some cash and randomly picking a chopstick with a number on the end. This corresponds to a particular pre-written fortune cookie type thing. This you read (or have it translated in our case) and walk round the stupa three times then light the incense stick and candle, thinking about the message you've been given. I feel that one way or another there is quite a lot for me to think about right now and the whole thing feels really nice. It doesn't matter that I'm not a Buddhist. It was just a moment for contemplation and reflection, to say goodbye to some people and to wish them well on their journey.
After saying goodbye and thank you to Somchith we buy more lào-láo and sat talking as we finished it off, then head back down the hill to the road. Along the way we were joined by an incredibly tall ex-monk (French or Dutch I think) called Paul. Anyway, at some point between the top and the bottom of the hill I lose them, so get a lift back to Vieng Sing alone. After getting a bite to eat and a very strong coffee, I went to the market to get a larger bite to eat because I am still hungry. Then I hear my name called and turn to see the four of them standing there.
The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur and some of the info comes courtesy of two Dutch girls I apparently saved when I pushed them out of the way of an oncoming truck. They are called Katja and Iris. From what I remember I ushered them out of the way rather than doing any heroic stunts, but they seemed quite glad either way. The other, more mundane events involved going to two outside discos - one in the Police courtyard - and then going back to the guest house for beer. At about 11 pm (apparently) I disappeared. I actually went upstairs to use the loo and thought that it would be a really good idea if I just turned in, after all Paulo had arranged for a pick-up to pick us up at 6:30 the next morning (us being him, me and the two Dutch girls) and take us back to Luang Nam Tha in time for the only bus going to Udomxai, and then on to Luang Prabang for Paulo and Nong Khiaw for me and the girls. Given the usual timings of the buses this would involve a stopover somewhere, but with Paulo's superb negotiation skills we could do the whole thing in a day. And so to bed.
Sunday, 9 November 2003
The journey was long and cold. I had hoped that the sun would burn off the morning mist and warm up the day. It didn't, and by the time we had reached Luang Nam Tha - an hour and a half down the road - I was frozen. The next bus was much better because it was enclosed and by 12:30 we were in Udomxai.
The next bus isn't due to leave until 2 pm so I've got enough time for something to eat and have a quick peek at my e-mails. To my delight I find that Moa and Margreet are still in Luang Prabang, but only for another couple of days. If I go to Nong Khiaw I'll miss them both. I quite like Margreet and so I make a decision and change my ticket to take me to Luang Prabang instead.
The bus down there, which I just managed to catch as it was leaving when I was changing my ticket, was packed. The rear window was obscured by bags and sacks, and the central aisle was knee deep in sacks of rice. My rucksack went on the top of the rice since people were glaring enough as it was with the delay I had caused. I certainly didn't want to negotiate a path to the back on a moving bus with a real risk of breaking my ankle. We arrived in Luang Prabang about 4½ hours later and it was dark. However it was light enough to see that some of the Laos had been travel sick. This is not unusual. What is more unusual was that somebody had trodden in it and then walked over my rucksack. To make matters worse I didn't realise it was sick until another traveller told me what had happened. I was using my fingers to try to identify it at the time, so that stopped pretty smartish.
After sharing a túk-túk into town I walk down through the night market towards where most of the accommodation is when I feel somebody tugging at my rucksack. I turn to see Margreet who had leapt up from where she had been eating as she saw me walking past. It was good to see her again, but priceless to see her face when I told her what was now on her hand, crisping nicely.
I follow her back to her table and join her with a bowl of soup and boiled rice (they had run out of sticky rice). We swap stories about what we've been up to and I learn that Moa had moved on that afternoon. I was lucky that she hadn't done the same. After we finish eating she shows me where her guest house is and since it works out at US$3 per night I decide to stay. It has been a long day, but now that I'm fed, have found my friend and don't have to endure any more bus journeys, I feel like I can relax and so go to bed.
Monday, 10 November 2003
After lunch we both sat in one of the ordinary Internet cafés for an hour and a half whilst I sorted through my 20 e-mails and Margreet did her thing.
At dinner we bump into Paulo and join him for a meal and a few drinks until the place closes. He's travelling down route 13 tomorrow - famous for bandits as it skirts what is euphemistically known as the 'Saisombun Special Zone' of Laos - as he heads down to Vientiane. Margreet, however, still needs to think about what she wants to do and how she is going to do it. Luang Prabang can be a bit of a black hole when it comes to making decisions and she is fast running out of holiday before she needs to get back to Bangkok and then fly home. I am going to Vietnam on 18th and Margreet fancies the idea of going too, but she hasn't got a visa yet. We dropped into a travel agency earlier and found that as long as her passport was with them by 9 am she would have it back on Friday. That will be tomorrow's project - daft as it may sound calling it a 'project'.
Tuesday, 11 November 2003
We wander back to the guest house at around 5:30 and I take the opportunity to do some writing in my room whilst Margreet does some washing. We've finally agreed to head north to Nong Khiaw and then Muang Ngoi before returning back here either for Friday or Saturday to pick up Margreet's passport. The rest of the evening follows the usual routine of grabbing a bite to eat and a beer. This time, however, we bought the beers in a shop and drank them on the upstairs balcony of the guest house, talking about genetics and other such things that form the core of Margreet's PhD. I put my swimming head down to the beer, but I feel that it may actually have been my brain trying to think again after a long break, complaining like an old gearbox when the oil has run dry. I had to go to bed shortly afterwards.
Wednesday, 12 November 2003
At about midday we arrive at the town of Nong Khiaw and make our way down to the collection of restaurants and stalls near to where the boats leave. It's not a jetty or anything - it's just a convenient place where the boats can land. Meals are expensive but when I ask why, the price is automatically dropped by 1,000 kip. It's not much but it's a recognition of the overpricing more than anything else. As the three of us eat we watch, mouths agape, as a little boy of about six torments a cockerel. Pouncing upon it, throwing it up in the air, plucking its tail feathers, and even tying a 3 m length of string to it's foot and throwing it on top of other cockerels, then dragging it back as it tries to escape. Nobody turns a hair except us, powerless to do anything about the torture. I can feel my blood rise and start to visualise tying a rope around this child's foot, throwing him up in the air and dragging him back as he tries to run away only to pull his hair out and throw him again. We do nothing and just join the other people waiting for the boat.
The boat fits about 10 people, each of us sitting in line with the transom, alternating between facing left or facing right. As we go through rapids water is shipped each time, mainly down our backs, but an hour later we arrive at the small community of Muang Ngoy where the three of us head to Aloune Guest House. Who should be the very first people I run into but Katja and Iris from Muang Sing. They've been here since the day after I left them but leave tomorrow for Luang Prabang. They tell me this is a very relaxing place, very easy to lose track of time. A fact clearly demonstrated by it being 3:30 pm now and they haven't moved from their hammocks all day. We chat a bit and then I read whilst Margreet listens to music, Elaine goes for walkabout, and Katja and Iris stay in their hammocks.
At about 8:30 pm I am woken by Margreet asking if I want some food. In a semi-drowzed state I am led to a nearby restaurant but find that it has closed in the interim. There really aren't many people here and with tourism and guest houses being the major industry, there is a glut of restaurants. All, it appears, assume that everybody should eat by 8 pm. Not unreasonable since there is only electricity between 6 and 9:30. We go to the (only) bar instead and find that it is our friend from the bus who is running it. He sits with us as we drink our government approved Beer Lao (until a few years ago it was the only beer available, now there's only two and one of those is generally out of stock). He tells us about a nice walk to another village about an hour away, and a cave about half way along the track. At 9:40 the candles are the only remaining light source and by 10 or so Margreet and I decide to call it a night.
Trying to find our way back in the moonlight was interesting. Fortunately the moon is still quite large after last Friday's full moon, but even so the dusty monochrome street is filled with tracks that all look the same. After one or two false turns we make it back and turn in.
Thursday, 13 November 2003
Breakfast was the usual noodle and vegetable soup with sticky rice for me, and the more exotic banana pancake with fruit salad for Margrette. We do seem to get on very well - which is handy - and spent the next hour or two talking about music and films. It also seems that my tastes in both leave a lot to be desired with her. Being from the continent rather than from England I acknowledge that her like for art-house movies and certain bands is simply more cool and more hip than mine can ever be, by definition. That's my excuse anyway, and thin as it is, it allows us to move on to the more important matter of what we're going to do today. Katja was quite right about it being easy to lose yourself here. We decide to walk through the village and on to the nearby cave. On the way we get scammed for 2,000 kip each by some school children with a table and a hand drawn sign saying that the proceeds go towards the development of the place. There was an additional note on the sign that said Lao people pay 2,000 kip too. We handed over our money at the same time as watching a couple of locals walk past without paying. I ask why and am told that villagers don't have to pay. Fair enough, but Lao tourists are like Santa Claus, Leprechauns and the Tooth Fairy. The walk to the cave, however, was very nice and it was very relaxing once we'd got there. Margreet and I just sat there watching the light reflected from the water dance over the cave walls. Just before we finally motivated ourselves to take some photographs and not simply sit on the bank paddling, a French couple arrived with a still and video camera. The guy was in charge of the video and spent the next 15 minutes just videoing the ripples. Nice for a few minutes perhaps, but surely it gets dull after a while. If you've been to see a long film of rippling water recently by a Frenchman, it was probably by him. Sounds like perfect art-house movie material to me, be even Margreet said she'd probably give that one a miss.
The mountains all about us means that the sun drops quite early on, and by 4 pm we were walking back to Muang Ngoy in their shadow. By the time the electricity comes on at 6 it is really quite chilly again, and by 7 we were changed into jeans and fleeces to eat dinner. Bizarre to consider the extremes of temperature here when it is neither high altitude nor a desert. We eat in a restaurant that was recommended by Katja for its spring rolls which are, indeed, excellent. As we were finishing, and without warning, we're pounced on by a Californian called Jayno who's staying at Aloune Guest House too. She tells us of a spit-roast pig that is being consumed next door to Aloune and that everybody is invited. Before we can ask any more she's off at another table telling them too. We decide to give it a go.
The sound of laughter and the smell of fresh pork draws us to a gathering of about 10-15 people who are devouring the last of the pig. Goodness only knows where it's all gone, but gone it has. Also, just to make the scene slightly more surreal, there is a loud 'Angoooz' and I turn to catch the tall form of Metteo fling his arms around me shortly followed by Simona. Margreet looks stunned, then I feel just as stunned as he turns to Jayno (who's back too) with one hand still on my shoulder and says, 'Zis is the guy I was telling you about'. She raises an eyebrow and says, 'Sounds like you're quite a celebrity'. Before I get a chance to reply another unknown voice from the other side of the table slurrs out, 'Whoza celbrelity?', and when I say I think he meant me I find a large slug of lào-láo thrust into my hand and feel four or five pairs of eyes stopping what they were doing to watch me. I down it to a drunken cheer, the eyes go back to their previous conversations and I'm given another lào-láo, which I also down. I'm not offered a third. Being a celebrity clearly has a short half-life with the fickel public. Metteo, Simona, Margreet and I chat for a while longer as we catch up. They're a nice couple and I make a mental note to try and meet up with them later on in Italy.
Soon, though, Simona voices the thoughts that have been going through all our minds - tiredness. We say goodnight to them and the dwindling mix of tourists and locals huddled around the fire drinking even more lào-láo. Margreet and I pick our way along a path that I'm sure is actually somebody else's back yard until we find Aloune, then hit the hay.
Friday, 14 November 2003
At 9 am Margreet and I have got our things together and head down to the boat to take us back to Nong Khiaw in just over an hour. As we're drifting along at a much faster pace since we're with the current this time, we get great views of the dramatically forested mountains that protect this region. In Nong Khiaw we board the truck back to Luang Prabang which we share with six other tourists: two Swedes (one a carpenter, one a blacksmith), a German couple and two American girls. In Luang Prabang I successfully negotiate a túk-túk back to town for a damn good price and after a brief hunt around the guest houses end back at the same place we stayed at last time we were here.
A wash and brush-up later and we're out to check e-mails and to kill some hours until it is time to pick up Margreet's passport. The time arrives, but we're told to come back later because the lady's husband hasn't returned from the airport yet. We have something to eat then go back. Still no passport. The Vietnam Embassy in Vientiane has delayed it by one day, but because of the weekend it won't be back until Monday evening - three days away. The travel agency is really unsympathetic and have a 'what can we do' attitude. For starters they could have got the passport to the Vietnamese Embassy on time, that would have helped. Actually it probably wouldn't have. They process visa applications in an interesting way here. It may be the way all embassies and consulates do it, I'm not sure, but in the Vietnamese Embassy there are meetings each day to go through the applications. Those that are granted are issued and stamped that afternoon, ready for collection. However, there are various speeds with which this all takes place. If you go for a 3-day visa then it is one day down in the plane, one day processing the application, then back on the third day. A 4-day visa is the same except the passport stays on somebody's desk for a day, and the 5-day visa sits for two days. Now, Margreet went for a 4-day visa, handing it in on Tuesday. It should have made the plane down to Vientiane that morning but didn't, so it started a day late. Added to this the Vietnamese apparently 'held a meeting' about something else and a day passed without any visas being processed at all. The result being that whilst Margreet and I are in Luang Prabang arguing the toss with the travel agents, her passport is still sitting on somebody's desk waiting to be processed on Monday, not becomming available until that afternoon. Margreet will have next to no time in Vietnam that way so we try and fight for her money back. We stayed calm throughout all the discussions, as is recommended since losing your temper is embarrassing for everybody. However, it incensed them. The guy threatened to take me outside saying that he could do whatever he wanted to me. He waved his fist towards me to emphasise the point and I just sat there, refusing to be intimidated. He was just trying to get me angry so he could sit back down, raise his arms, and watch the farang lose his temper. I didn't - neither did Margreet. They eventually agreed to give back the money for the plane and give her US$14 compensation - the equivalent of two bus tickets to Phonsovan. Margreet said she would think about it.
We go to try and meet up with our new friends from the truck down here, but they've all moved on from the bar we were going to meet at. It is over an hour after we were due to meet I suppose. The beer in that bar is much more than in the Cruisin' Gate anyway, so we drop over the road and have a couple of bottles there - complete with two free shots of coloured lào-láo each. Finally, after a nice walk by the river, we get back to the guest house and turn in.
Saturday, 15 November 2003
We spend an hour and a half on the Internet before going for lunch. We have absolutely nothing to do, and it's all because of delays with a travel agency that doesn't want to do a refund. We sit in a bar and watch the world go by, talking for hours about I don't know what. I like Margreet's company very much. We share some beers and a very expensive bag of peanuts (worked out to about 50 kip per nut) until we were hungry again, so dawdled over to the Cruisin' Gate for a cheap meal. I don't quite know why this is the case, but considering this place is a bar and restaurant, it is so much cheaper than any other restaurant or bar around here, and comes very close to the street food prices. The food is very good, too.
An afternoon of beer, food and sun takes its toll and since we checked out of our guest house this morning, thinking that we wouldn't be spending another night here, we decide to try and check back in again. No luck. For some reason the next two guest houses we try are full too. This is really unusual, but it just goes like that sometimes, I guess. We finally find a place with space, albeit rather grotty space. Then again it is less than $2 per person. We check in and collapse into a swift slumber.
I am woken by Margreet swearing at the clock as she realises it's twenty past ten - almost an hour after the travel agency closed. This puts her in a bad mood fueled by frustration and for the first time I don't know how to help her. Anything I could say (like 'don't worry', or 'everything will be all right', or worse still 'calm down') would just sound hollow or patronising, so I decide that low profile is the best option, said that I was sorry we had overslept, and passed out.
Sunday, 16 November 2003
Breakfast at the bus station was served by a lovely lady who fussed around us and prepared sandwiches and rice for our 9 hour trip to Vientiane. The journey takes us down the infamous route 13 following Paulo's footsteps. It is said to be safe now, but since a bus was shot out 6 weeks ago and two French people were killed in February, it's not exactly the ideal holiday destination. Methods of getting to Vientiane include boat (3 days - would require visa extention), VIP bus (don't let the name fool you - it just means air conditioned), or local bus (the rebels favoured method of pissing off the Government). The boat option was out and guess which type of bus was left for us to chose from.
A surly looking Lao chap with tight facial features and a small, hard crack where his mouth should be took our rucksacks. He showed no regard for them whatsoever as he threw them in the back. I chose to follow him into the bus to make sure everything had landed OK but he waved me away as if I was a troublesome insect. At 10:30 we were on our way. There weren't that many people on the bus and only two other westerners - one girl from Norway, one woman from Switzerland. Sitting right at the back there was a young Lao lad no more than 18 or 20 years old. I didn't pay much attention to him until I noticed he was holding something awkward. This was our guard against rebel attack and the awkward thing he was sitting with was an M-16 machine gun. Clearly the threat was real. I was never in much doubt of this, but had still approached the whole thing of a 'people blow this sort of thing out of proportion' and wasn't really concerned. Suddenly I started to feel uneasy. Clearly nothing really bad happened during the trip because you're reading this and no matter how conscientious I am about writing my journal, it's a damn trickey thing to do when you're dead. Actually there was no untoward event at all, but after passing a recently deserted bus with all its doors open and a window broken (shot out perhaps?), every time we passed somebody carrying a gun who was also trying to flag down the bus - the driver didn't stop, thankfully - I did start to get a little nervous.
Eventually our trip was over and at 8 pm we arrived in Vientiane, 9 hours after we left ... more or less. Next there was the usual battle with the túk-túk drivers with the good natured, but nevertheless tiresome banter back and forth with them saying 5,000 kip or 4,000 kip was very cheap, and us saying that we wouldn't pay more than 2,000. We won in the end and were taken to a guest house that had been recommended. Unfortunately it was full, as were the next three we tried and I started to wonder if we were going to end up spending a night on the streets. I know that technically this is high season, or near to it anyway, but I am still surprised just how quickly these places fill up. Anyway, we eventually find somewhere with a twin room and no fan available, and check in. Down in the lobby we finish the last of our sandwiches, sticky rice and bananas and I feel really quite full at the end of it. Soon the day starts to catch up with us and we decide to retire to our rock hard mattresses and I drift into a hot, restless sleep.
Monday, 17 November 2003
I've been in need of a haircut for some while now and as we approach an open fronted barber's shop I ask Margreet if she minds us dropping in. The place is full of school children, all in their uniform of black trousers and white shirts, and one that was sitting in the chair is hauled out as soon as we approach. It's brushed down and I'm offered a seat. I try to think of how I am going to say what I want when the barber - who speaks not a word of English - points to a poster of a Manchester United football player on the wall and says, 'Michael Owen?' I consider the options and figure on it being my best bet since I don't want another Fiji experience, and nod my head. Out comes an unguarded set of clippers and a comb, and 10 minutes later - once I've put my glasses back on - I'm staring back at a passable haircut. Very good. The man tells me it will be 10,000 kip. Even better, less than a dollar. Bringing Margreet into the shop with me caused enough of a stir amongst the school children as it was. Realising that I'm out of kip and having to get her to pay sent them into raucous laughter. One of them sticks both thumbs up at me and says 'Very good', which makes the two of us laugh as well and we move on without Margreet worrying about her passport for quite a while.
The search for something to eat is less successful. We drop into a coffee shop on the side of the road and find that is all it sells, that and tea. We stay for a huge jam jar of sweet, strong iced coffee for Margreet and a pot of very strong tea for me. As we are sitting there we are approached by what I can only describe as an ancient beggar lady. She creeps over, looking miserable, slowly puts her hands together in prayer and bares her single tooth, then offers one of her hands for money. It looks like a dried autumn leaf. She sighs a long, deep, pitiful sigh as she withdraws her empty hand and turns. Then, with some new lease of life, she trots off down the road at quite a spritely pace. The two of us are left staring at the remarkable transformation.
We continue walking and happen upon the Post Office. Margreet sends some postcards for her to race back home before we turn our attention to the market over the road: Margreet wants a sarong, or 'salon' as they seem to be called here - emphasis on the 'l'. No luck but it kills enough time for us to arrive back at the travel agents bang on 3 pm. The man from earlier appears and he says he's 'just got to go and get it from the Embassy'. Margreet's face drops as he rides away. How long will we be here? Embassy delays? Traffic? Not to worry though. He was back exactly 10 minutes later. No trouble. No fuss. We walk out dazed, but Margreet is very happy and plants a big kiss on my cheek which, in turn, puts a big grin on my face. She's really nice.
We walk on to another travel agency - not trusting these jokers if they are in any way connected to the Luang Prabang lot - and Margreet books a plane ticket (again) from Hanoi to Bangkok. This place is so professional and they just tell her to come back later to pick up the ticket once they've printed it out. Just over the road is our guest house so we confirm the bus for this evening and are met by the lady that runs the place who is standing in the doorway. 'Everything OK?', she makes the 'OK' sign with her thumb and forefinger. 'Yes, everything OK', we reply. In celebration for things going right Margreet buys me a beer next to the Mekong in a balcony bar. Very nice setting, too, as we talk.
Come 5 pm we go back to the guest house to find a minibus waiting. It takes us and our bags to a nearby hotel that is on the pick-up route of the bus to Hanoi, or to the border at least. It isn't due until 6:30 so we nip out again to pick up Margreet's ticket and some snacks for the journey. On the way I almost walk straight into Paulo - again. He just seems to pop up everywhere, and at the most unexpected times too. I know that everybody with the same guide book tends to go to the same places, but it still astonishes me when you bump into somebody walking down the very street you are in.
We get back to the hotel and this time the bus is there, waiting for us. We load our luggage and board. The lady at the guest house promised us good seats and I must say I was a little unsure about this since there didn't appear to be any seating plan. However it became clear that what she had done was ferry us to almost the very start of the bus' pick-up route, hence it was practically empty, so we had the pick of the seats. Very nice of her.
The rest of the pick-ups took over an hour, so with refuelling too, it was almost quarter to eight by the time we were finally on our way out of Vientiane. Unfortunately this embarkation onto our journey proper also signalled the driver to turn off the air conditioning and for his assistant to open the roof vents to allow in the Vientiane evening air - a concoction of traffic fumes, charcoal fires and humidity. The latter is a winning combination when added to the plastic seat covers we have. Ah yes, the seats. Always a joy on buses here. The privilege of air conditioning (or at least the facility of it even if it's not turned on) classifies this bus as VIP, and with it you get seats which recline. Actually they recline quite a long way - which will no doubt be fun and games later. However, the seat pitch has been specifically designed with the revolutionary formula: work out minimum leg room for farang and subtract 5 cm. They don't take off much in the way of 'required' leg room. Just enough, in fact, to kid you into thinking this may actually be a comfortable ride when you first sit down. It's only when you get going, start to slouch a little, and hit bumpy roads that the hard plastic seat back in front of you hammers your knees and gives you bus-induced RSI in your kneecaps. An odd phenomenon that kept the medical profession guessing for years until one of them took a bus trip in Laos once - all was revealed. To complete the picture, and to leave me with the phrase of 'it's all part of the experience' as justification, the roads here are bloody awful. I've known this for sometime, of course, having done one or two journeys over them now. However, this is at night and you honestly cannot tell if the shaking around is due to a badly maintained paved road or if it is some sort of unpaved route away from the Chinese built roads of the 1970s (when they and the Laos government were still talking to each other). It's too dark to see (even with the rather dim headlights) and frankly I'm more concerned with trying to get a bit of kip (sleep rather than money) since midnight is fast approaching. I resort to just trying to relax through the bumps and wonder if this is what it's like to be a bean inside a maraca. Margreet doesn't fare so well and is troubled with back pain. We stop for food and various opportunities to relieve yourself of it again, but still our journey continues.
Opinions expressed on Readers' Submissions pages do not necessarily reflect those of talesofasia.com, its publisher, or anyone else that could be remotely affiliated with the talesofasia name.
Unless otherwise credited, the copyright on all text and photographs appearing on a Readers' Submissions page belong to the credited author and are not the property of talesofasia.com. Inquirires regarding this material should be made to the author. Unless stated otherwise, all other text and photographs on talesofasia.com are © 1998 - 2005 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.