Published: May 24th 2009May 24th 2009
A bizarre sight in the middle of all this.
The flight from Hanoi to Vientiane takes only about one hour but the price of the plane ticket cost almost twice as much as the flight from Saigon to Hanoi. I have no idea why this is so other than it’s probably due to some tariff levied on international flights. I had wanted to take a bus from Hanoi to Vientiane, Laos via Dien Bein Phu but many travelers whom I met in Hanoi discouraged me from doing so. “No, no, no. Big mistake. Buy a plane ticket. You’ll thank me for it later” was what this big burly Americano told me at a bar in some narrow alley near the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
I have no idea how I ended up at this bar. It was in a dark and sketchy part of the area with no commercial activity going on near by. All I remembered was that after I finished eating a bowl of noodles from some sidewalk eatery in the Old Quarter I started walking east and somehow lost my bearings and ended up in this sleazy looking place. I was sitting on a barstool by the window and just a few feet away from where
A Wat on Lan Xang
Lan Xang means millions of elephants
I was sitting is a narrow stairwell going up. I noticed people going up and coming down regularly as I sipped my whiskey behind the bar. That’s when this big burly American came down, talking real loud like a good old corn fed Americano, and downing a big bottle of cerveza. “What’s upstairs?” I asked. “A cat house” was his casual and nonchalant reply. I didn’t ask him if he’d had a few rounds with some little lady. I just assumed it.
“Have you been in Vietnam long?”
Burly man didn’t answer immediately to that question. As a matter of fact he ignored my question for the moment. All he did was suck on his big bottle of beer then looked at me for a solid two to three minutes without saying anything, then sucked on his big bottle of beer again. He looked real creepy. I can tell he likes his beer. He’s got a big beer belly and he burps loudly after every sip of the bottle. “I got here last night”, he finally said. “I was in Thailand, I was in Laos, took the bus from Laos to here.” He sucked on the big bottle
Ministry of Culture
A crumbling old French Colonial building.
of beer some more. I can’t tell what kind of beer he is drinking. It looks something like Ha Noi Beer or Hai Noi Beer. I can’t really see because it is a little dark in here. Loud music is playing in the sound system. There are six or seven people sitting behind the bar. Most of them are Vietnamese. The others are foreigners of some type, maybe Scandinavian or something. There’s a pool table behind and a huge LCD screen with a soccer game on. He mumbled something about Laos and hill tribes. It was difficult to hear with the loud music blasting from the huge speakers. “I said no, don’t do it. It’s the most painful bus ride I’ve ever taken” said the big burly man. I never even asked him about taking the bus but it got me thinking about it. One of the Scandinavian guys went upstairs and another came back down. The one who just came down looked red and sweaty, like he just had a workout. “No, no, no. Big mistake. Buy a plane ticket. You’ll thank me for it later.” It seemed to me that the only thing this guy wanted to talk
Thailand on the other side over yonder. You can take a boat and enter Thailand through there, I think, although I'm not sure.
about was his horrible bus trip from Laos to Hanoi. I decided that it was time to move on. I got out of the bar and walked into the dark streets and kept walking until I saw a traffic light and turned right because that seemed to lead to a bigger street a quarter of a mile away with lots of traffic and I figured that that’s probably the best place to start to find my way back to my hotel.
After fumbling around for a couple of hours near the Old Quarter I finally found my way back to my hotel. I had to ask several people for directions. Vietnamese people are poor English speakers, and my Vietnamese is totally nonexistent, so that exacerbated the problem. However, after a few hand gestures and mimics and other strange facial expression in an attempt to be understood, I finally found somebody who spoke a little bit of English. At my hotel I asked the desk clerk if she happened to have a bus schedule handy or if there might be anyone who would be able to help get some information on how to get to Laos by bus. The lady
A financial institution of some sort on Lan Xang
was a little reluctant to help me, especially when I told her that I wanted to go to Vientiane, Laos. After fifteen minutes of misunderstanding about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do I realized that the desk clerk was not going to be of much help to me, so I slept on it and the next morning I decided to fly instead of taking the bus. I was kicking myself for being such a chickenshit. I took a shower, put on some freshly washed new set of clothes, packed by luggage, and checked out of my hotel room. It was six o’clock in the morning and the sun was barely peeping over the horizon as my taxi drove through the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter but already people were about getting ready for the day, setting up their shops, sweeping the sidewalks, washing the tables, pots, pans and such stuff. Even a few backpackers are up and about. I see a European looking couple lugging unbelievably huge packs on there backs, wandering about and looking in every direction with a dog-eared handy dandy guidebook opened in one hand and looking down on it from
Arc d' Triomphe replica
time to time, comparing what’s in the guidebook and what they see right in front of them, trying to figure out which way to go. They look like they just got up without taking a shower, and haven’t taken one for days, from the looks of them; their hair is all over the place, their clothes are all rumpled up, and their faces look like they could use a nice hot cup of coffee. They’re not the only ones. Up the road ahead I also see a group of four backpackers being crammed into a little minivan with all their packs. They too look disheveled and rumpled up. Backpackers are a funny lot. They’re cheap sonsabitches too. I really don’t blame them for being so. Most of them are just clueless kids in their twenties.
It was still too early when I arrived at the airport, around seven o’clock. The Vietnam airlines check-in counters aren’t even open yet, so I waited around and chatted with a couple from India for fifteen minutes until they opened. I’ve noticed recently that Indians are all over the place in this world. This is what I told them. They just laughed and said yes, that is true, we are all over the place. These two were in Hanoi for work though, not for play. I was the first in line when the check-in counters finally opened. I told the lady that I don’t have a ticket yet and asked if there were any seats available on the flight to Vientiane. She quickly tapped a few keys on the computer and a minute later she said yes, there are plenty of seats available, as I had expected. That’s the reason why I decided to fly instead of taking the bus. I knew there would always be a flight and I knew that these flights weren’t always full, especially on a weekday. It costs two hundred US dollars for a one hour flight. That’s why many cheap backpackers opt for the painful and uncomfortable twenty four hour bus ride from Hanoi to Vientiane. Sure, you can see the countryside and all that if you take the bus, but you can do that too without having to endure all the pain that you go through on a rickety old bus that breaks down every hour. I understood what the big burly Americano was talking about.
I arrived in Vientiane at 9:30 am. I quickly got my Visa on Arrival at the airport which allows me to roam around the country for thirty days. But I wasn’t even going to spend any more than three days in Laos. At this point I’ve just had enough of landlocked Southeast Asia. I was itching for the ocean. I needed to be in archipelagic Southeast Asia, so I decided that I would only stay in Vientiane for a couple of days. After that I would cross the border over to Nong Khai in Thailand, hoping to get a ticket on the 6:20 pm train to Bangkok. From Bangkok I would fly to Bali and spend a week there.
Vientiane at first sight is just like any other city that I’ve seen in Southeast Asia except for one thing. It looks dead. There is nothing about this place that excites me. It’s laid back and quiet and quite unremarkable. As we pulled out of the airport I feel like I’m in some provincial town in Southeast Asia, not in a city that’s supposed to be the center of government of this here nation they call Laos. It’s hot, dusty, and humid, quite the opposite of Hanoi’s temperature. I see the usual tuk-tuks and such. I see old French-Colonial buildings that are faded and crumbling from lack of maintenance. I see Buddhist temples everywhere. That’s not unique around these parts of the world. It took only ten minutes to get to my hotel from the airport, yet I was charged 60,000 kip. That’s US$6 to you and me. I stayed in a nice and comfortable hotel for a relatively cheap price. It is located on Quai Fa Ngum at the riverfront of the Mekong Delta. The delta is pretty narrow. On the other side of the Mekong is Thailand, almost a stone’s throw away. During the dry season the water level of the delta is low enough such that half of the delta in the Laotian side is nothing but a wide sandlot while the other half towards the Thai side is given over to the free flow of a narrow strip of water that is the Mekong River. During the rainy wet season the water level could be high enough such that the whole channel is filled up to the brim, filling up the whole channel with water over a kilometer wide. Another wide strip of dirt and sand along the Mekong on the Laotian side of the river is something called Don Chan. I have no idea if that’s the name of the place or if there’s a village called Don Chan in what looks like reclaimed land. There’s also a nice splashy gaudy five-star hotel that was built recently called the Don Chan Palace Hotel, the tallest building in Vientiane, perhaps in all of Laos, and is now apparently opened for business. It is the only five-star hotel in Vientiane, at least that’s what their brochure claims. Perhaps the reclamation project was meant specifically for the building of the five-star Don Chan Palace Hotel so that the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos (PDR Laos) will have something modern to show to the world and to project the image that the country is making headways towards progress, so that the whole world won’t think of Laos as some ass-backward agrarian communist society with the proletariat living in poverty and the members of the politburo living like kings.
Since I had just come from Vietnam I still had some Vietnamese currency, some dongs leftover from Hanoi in my wallet. Thus I needed to look for a bank that would exchange my dong for a kip. That may sound just a tad bit obnoxious if we didn’t know any better but since we, us, me the critically acclaimed and award winning travel writer, and you, the gazillions of you who are an astute and dedicated follower of my critically acclaimed and award winning travelogue, are an intelligent, mature, and worldly lot of people familiar with the ways of the universe who understand the human condition, we do not stoop down to the level of the lowest common denominator by commentating on a foreign word that is phonetically similar to what we refer colloquially as a part of the male organ that is used to reproduce and expand the human race. No. Instead we treat the practice of incorporating foreign words into the vernacular, however humorous it may come out simply because it is phonetically very similar to a term or phrase that we often use colloquially in coital matters, with utter seriousness without any humorous intent or thoughts at all whatsoever because it conveys the message in a succinct and natural way.
And thus I approached the changing of my dong for a kip with the seriousness and single mindedness of someone who needs a few bundle of the local currency in order to get something to eat before I starve. And a few bottles of cerveza to cool off from the suffocating humidity, and that’s no joke. This place is about as humid as the human body can tolerate it. I’ve just been walking for three blocks on Quai Fa Ngum and already I’m sweating like a dog. I think Quai means street or road in Laotian, although I’m not sure. Fa Ngum is the name of the street. In our part of the world we usually have the name of the street first before the word that describes it as either a street a road, an alley or a court or whatnot, like Revolutionary Road or Santa Monica Boulevard or Smith Street and other ridiculous street names like that. Here in the PDR Laos they have the word street in front of the street name. That’s just how it’s done around here, much to my chagrin. There’s a foreign exchange booth on Quai Fa Ngum adjacent to the BCEL bank. I have no idea what BCEL stands for, all I know is that it is perhaps the national bank of the PDR Laos. The foreign exchange booth wouldn’t change my dongs so I went inside the BCEL bank to see if I can extract some useful information from the employees inside. I asked the lady at the information desk about exchanging dongs for kip. She had a little difficulty with the English language although she looked somewhat “western” but somehow she managed to get the gist of my inquiry. She shook her head excitedly as if to agree with me, which I took to mean she had at least a remote understanding of what the heck I wanted from this awkward exchange of hand gestures and facial expressions and such, such as, like Miss Teen South Carolina, as such. She said Lao-Viet Bank. I said thank you. This lady was interesting to me because although she had a Laotian name, something like Sokapournurom or something close to that according to her name tag, she did not look Asiatic at all whatsoever, which is odd in this part of Southeast Asia because she is the first of such species that I’ve encountered on this trip, starting in Vietnam, to posses such interesting features for an Asian. I have seen many non-Asiatic looking Southeast Asians in the Philippines but very few in other parts of Southeast Asia and none so far in Vietnam and Laos until now. Her eyes were not Asiatic, her nose was aquiline, she had light skin tone with freckles, and she had light brown wavy hair as opposed to the straight jet black hair of many Asian men and women. But she clearly is of some Laotian descent just from the hint of some of her other features and also because of her proficiency in the local language. After she was done attending to my inquiry she attended to another customer and she spoke to him in rapid fire Laotian like a native. If I had to guess she might have some French in her, which makes a lot sense in Indochina.
So I walked for about half a mile from the BCEL on Quai Fa Ngum to the Lao-Viet Bank on Quia Lan Xang. A few hundred yards away is the Laotian replica of the French’s Arc d’ Triomphe, but with a little Indochinese touch, such as the sharp and curvy angles at the corners common in Thai, Laos, and Cambodian Wats instead of straight squares common in western architecture. Along the way I passed by the almost crumbling French-Colonial building that houses the Laotian Ministry of Culture. Coming from Hanoi the humidity in Vientiane is almost unbearable. Vientiane is not the original name of this here little town, a town so slow and sleepy that you would be forgiven if you thought time is dilating to the limits of special relativity. But no, we are not in another planet with a different set of physical laws. We are simply in a place that was originally called Wieng Chan. The French had a heckuva hard time with the Indochinese pronunciation so they changed it to a name that is more agreeable to the French tongue, thank you very much.
I finally found the Lao-Viet Bank. It was inside a white building that the locals call the Morning Market; as opposed to the Night Market I suppose. Whatever they call it, all I could gather from what I saw was that it was a shopping mall. There were tons of handbags on display for sale and all kinds of other accessories that you would usually find in a shopping mall. Once I got me some kips for my dongs I moved on but not before I took some pictures of the surrounding area along the way for posterity’s sake.
Lan Xang is a four lane wide boulevard. Lan Xang supposedly means millions of elephants. The street sign is spelled in the Frenchified “Lane Xang”. Apart from the Patuxai (Pah-tuk-sai), the replica of the Arc d’ Triomphe, there was really nothing remarkable about Quai Lane Xang. I saw nothing but cars, motorbikes, taxis, and tuk-tuks, nothing uncommon or unusual in Indochina. There’s a few tourists here and there being courted and hassled by tuk-tuk drivers and Laotian vendors selling noodles. That’s it. So I walked back to Quai Fa Ngum along the riverside to find something to eat. The heat and humidity was starting to exert its maximum effect on me as sweat started pouring out of the pores of my skin. I was practically drenched from head to toe after fifteen minutes of walking. My shirt was soaked in sweat and the salty taste of my perspiration was dripping continuously from my forehead down to my eyes, nose, and lips. In a repulsive way it provided my contact lenses with the wet saline solution it needs for lubrication. I couldn’t even barely tolerate it any longer, so I decided that an ice cold bottle of cerveza would surely be a nice antidote to the suffocating heat. I stopped by the first thing I see that remotely resembles a restaurant next to the huge compound that is the Lan Xang Hotel. I suppose this hotel does not have five-star rating by international standards since the Don Chan Palace Hotel claims that it is the only five-star hotel in Wieng Chan (Vientiane). Whatever its rating is it sure looks pretty expensive to stay to me, but that’s just me because I’m ignorant. Just an aside, an FYI if you will, Lan Xang was the original name of the Laotian Empire that came before this newly named Laos nation, now called PDR Laos or Lao PDR. I prefer PDR Laos because it makes more sense to me. How it all came about, the making of the Laotian Empire, is a mystery to me, and I don’t really want to write about it because quite frankly, I just don’t care.
I grabbed one of the outside open air tables with a shade in the restaurant, sat on the plastic chair, and ordered myself a large bottle of Beer Lao. On a table next to mine but on the inside part of the restaurant an old European lady with a mixture of white and blonde hair was yapping away on her cell phone. She yakked away in an incongruous mix of English and Laotian or whatever language she was mixing it with, carefully enunciating each syllable of an English word she was trying to convey and then speaking more rapidly in the indigenous language as if she was giving an instruction on how to spell the very same English word she just uttered. She kept stressing the letter r, as in “uhrrrrr”, making sure of the proper rrrrroll in the pronunciation, then switch incongruously into ying yang blah blah. “Uhrrrr, make sure you get that”, more incongruous ying yang blah blah for several minutes, and then “yes, sir, thank you.” Then she hung up her cell phone. On another table next to hers sat another Euro-type gentleman whom she obviously was acquainted with because she started yakking it up with him immediately right after she hung up her cell phone. I don’t “Par Layz Vou France Say” so I couldn’t figure out what the hell they were talking about but I could pick up some of the c’est la vous la vie la vida loca kinds of words they were uttering to understand that yes indeed French was the language being spoken by these people. That’s about as interesting as that whole affair got so after I finished my big bottle of Beer Lao I got out of there and headed for one of those open air food vendors along the delta for lunch.
The many little enterprises along the riverfront are not what you’d call restaurants. What they are are stalls of bamboo structures with thatched roofs and no walls, thus open air, with several plastic chairs and tables for the patrons to sit and eat. There are several food vendors, maybe fifty or more, lined up along the delta on Quai Fa Ngum and the menus are pretty much the same, so it doesn’t really matter which vendor you choose. I picked one at random, ordered some sort of stir fried squid and another big bottle of Beer Lao. The waiter was some effeminate looking Laotian fella with a long curly hair which was wrapped up tightly into a pony tail. He had a lithe body and a deep dark tan. He was wearing an army fatigue T-shirt and matching colored very very tight shorts, so short and hemmed almost all the way up to his pelvic girdle which threatens to expose his pubic hair. Yuck! This guy is as gay looking as they come. He didn’t seem very chippy at the moment either for whatever reason and his annoyance was compounded by the big fat lady lying on a hammock in the corner of the hut who was bossing him around. If I had to guess I would say that the lady is the proprietor of this little shindig and the mother of the fairy fella attending on me. While not attending on me or some other guests the fairy fella would get yelled at by the fat lady lying on a hammock in the corner. She would yell at him to do this or that and if he did something wrong she would yell at him even more. It was a comedy of errors of some sort and it provided me with a lot of comedy and entertainment and a constant source of laughter although I didn’t laugh out loud. That’s “LOL” for you tech savvy people out there. I didn’t want the fairy fella to get mad at me if I LOLed. He might spit on my food and rub it on his you know what.
The food was nothing to write a long New York Times critique about. The atmosphere was a bare minimum. Calling it ambiance would be an overstatement. The scenery was just god-awful. While you look at the lack of activity going on in the Mekong Delta mosquitoes would attack every piece of your body that you are not currently preoccupied with by scratching or slapping away other bug bites or waving away the flies that land on your food. There is absolutely nothing attractive about this place. It is dusty, dirty, and boring. The tall splashy and gaudy Don Chan Palace Hotel down the river is a bizarre sight in the middle of this god-awful place. I’ve been to some pretty god-awful places before but at least they were exciting adventurous god-awful places. This place is just god-awful boring. If you like boring this is the place to be and the communist Pathet Lao government who runs this here nation called PDR Laos is making sure that it stays as boring as possible to drive away the western decadence that used to wreak havoc in here during the Vietnam War fought by the Americans. That was just about as boring as I could stand it so after the meal I went back to my hotel, took a shower, and took a nice long afternoon nap.
And a good afternoon nap was exactly what I needed. This tropical heat can really zap the living daylights out of all the energy out of you. I woke up around 5:30 pm from my long afternoon re-energizing bunny nap, which had me jumping like a five year old kid with an inexhaustible abundance of energy. Even early in the evening the humidity in the southern part of Southeast Asia can be suffocating. I went out again for a walking tour heading north on Chao Anou towards Setthathirat, Samsenthai, and Khun Bulom roads where I knew there would be a lot of sidewalk vendors hawking food and drinks. Just like most cities in Southeast Asia, the sidewalks here are filled with sidewalk vendors selling deep fried munchies, barbecued meats of questionable quality on a stick, fried noodles, noodle soup, popcorn, deep fried bananas, deep fried crickets, and other foods that I knew nothing of. Woks are sizzling. Early evening diners are filling up the sidewalks as tourists, mostly from Europe although quite a few are also from the United States, are up and about walking, browsing, and filling up the little cafés and pizzerias. If you’re gonna be a major tourist destination in Asia you better have a multidinous array of restaurants and cafés catering to the western palate because most western tourists haven’t got the stomach to handle the strong and intense ingredients of the east. Even if they braved the local menu, the effects afterwards will surely be regrettable. Thus it is common to see a bunch of pizzerias and café Italianos in places like Hanoi, Vientiane, Cebu City, and Video Night in Kathmandu. However, I have seen from time to time western travelers sitting down on one of those little Playskool plastic chairs and chowing down local food. On this very evening in the trashy and filthy streets of Wieng Chan (Vientiane) I saw one such traveler, a guy in his mid-thirties, of medium height and above average weight; to put it unkindly he is a fat looking slob with a big belly, big brownish/blonde frizzy hair almost approaching an Afro, thick coke bottle glasses with creepy serial killer like black horned frames. He was wearing a dirty gray shirt, a pair of black shorts, and slippers. He was slobbering away on some Laotian noodles on the edge of the sidewalk at the corner of Setthathirat and Chao Anou. But he wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by a bunch of twentysomething Laotian guys who barely spoke English. This is one of those moments where I eaves drop on unsuspecting individuals for a tiny slice of their otherwise uneventful moments of their lives. I have absolutely no business listening to this conversation. I am doing it simply for my own amusement because I am interested in things that don’t concern me. Perhaps that’s the only thing that I’m ever interested in.
I was pretending to browse the goods and wares of the many vendors on the street nearby, inching close enough to the situation so that I could hear parts of their conversation. You could tell that this overweight European looking gentleman has been traveling along the trails of the Mekong Delta for awhile, perhaps for many weeks now. He looks the part: he’s been wearing the same clothes for days and it looks like it hasn’t been washed for ages; he’s got bloodshot red eyes; he’s picked up some of the local habits and a little bit of the language. He is halfway of going native. He would blurt out two or three almost intelligible local Laotian words or phrases while his local buddies would strain their eyes and ears trying to understand what exactly he is trying to say and when they finally get it they all would explode in a galactic glee of laughter and respond away in rapid fire Laotian. Forgive my ignorance but there are a lot of words in the Laotian language that sounds a lot like boom, koom, and woom buloom, and words to that effect were surely part of what they were saying. Woom boom rat-tit-tat ha ha ha was the response of the one of the Laotian fella who had seemed to understand what the big fella was saying, and big is the appropriate word to describe him because he towered over these little Laotian fellas like Andre the Giant. That’s exactly who he looked like too when he finally stood up from the plastic Playskool chair he was sitting on. He looked like Andre the Giant in black shorts with thick glasses. He took out a cigarette from a pack, lit it, took one long deep drag, and started saying something like “Buk bung! Bong bulong!” all over again or whatever local phrase he had picked up. It was amusing to see such an exchange. Andre the Giant would utter one Laotian phrase or word abruptly - Buk Bulong! - and the locals would respond rapidly and laughing hysterically as if something funny was going on. I absolutely had no idea what they were saying nor had I any clue of what the exchange was all about. For all I know Andre the Giant could’ve been asking where the best little whorehouse in the Wieng Chang (Vientiane) area was or where was the best place was to get a milkshake.
Fifteen minutes of watching the bizarre exchange between Andre the Giant and the locals was enough of an amusement for me so I moved on to walk on some of the other streets on this night in Wieng Chan (Vientiane). Barbecued chicken and other meats of questionable quality and origin wafted in the air. The filthy smell of the gutters was mixed in their as well. It makes me feel so alive to be in such an “exotic” atmosphere. Exotic is a euphemism for something out of the ordinary. To put it quite crudely, exotic could mean filthy and disgusting as well as an assault on the senses like it’s never been assaulted before, and that’s exactly what I’m feeling right now in these otherwise nondescript and totally unremarkable streets of Wieng Chan (Vientiane). Now sweat is starting to come out of the pores of my skin again, so I decided to go to one of those riverfront food vendors by the Mekong to get a bite to eat and have me a tall cold bottle of Beer Lao. I picked a stall that was the most convenient for me, the one right across the street from the place where I was staying. Another fat lady proprietor, another gay guy serving me, the fat mama bossing the gay guy around. This time I chose a table that was down below on the banks of the river. Plywood boards were laid on top of the sand dirt embankment where six tables stood beneath three rows of neon light bulbs for lighting, each row ten feet apart with three bulbs for each row. After a quick look at the menu I decided on barbecued chicken with papaya salad and rice. A big bottle of Beer Lao was really all I needed because all I wanted was to cool off. Food was only secondary on my mind. Besides me there was an older Australian guy in his mid-sixties having dinner with a much younger Laotian lady companion, and four Germans; one couple, a youngish chubby guy in his twenties, and an older gentleman who looks like he is a veteran of Asia travel. This old Asia hand types are easy to spot because they look much too comfortable in this environment. They don’t look queasy and irritable like those casual travelers such as me, the jumpy and nervous types who frighten easily at the sight of a cat size rat, who look around constantly for fear of being mugged and who are always feeling their back pockets to make sure their wallet is still there and have not been finagled by pickpockets.
The Germans were talking amongst themselves in their native tongue. The older Australian and his young Laotian lady companion were too busy eating their food to talk. I sat alone silently with my Beer Lao soaking up the sweat and the surreal atmosphere, slapping my legs and arms for mosquitoes and bugs. Every now and then one of the Germans would get up from their chair and head out into the darkness in the river just down yonder, a few steps below. It took me a while to figure out what that was all about after the Germans and Laotians took turns going down that the darkness out in the river beyond our embankment is the unofficial designated open air latrine. I didn’t dare go out into the darkness in the river. That’s how queasy a casual traveler I am. The meal was again unremarkable. The papaya salad was a little too sour for my taste although the peanuts were a nice little touch. The barbecued chicken was pretty bland. I was expecting it to be glazed in some local sauce. Instead what I tasted was charred chicken skin with the meat undercooked. A few bite of the chicken was enough for me. I barely touched my food. Instead I was pre-occupied watching the Germans, the old Australian with a young Laotian lady friend, slapping away the bugs and flies, and drinking my Beer Lao with sweat dripping from both sides of my temples. I found the Germans rather boring. The old Australian guy with a young Laotian lady companion was also uninspiring. There was nothing interesting about any of them that would be worth writing about. After I finished my Beer Lao I paid my bill, 60,000 kip, and walked back to the E-Z bar right next door to my hotel.
Quai Fa Ngum is lined with many bars, clubs, and cafés catering strictly to the hordes of transient tourists, many of whom stop by for only one day or two on their way to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. The travel industry has been propping up Luang Prabang as a must see tourist destination. I have never been there and I am hesitant to go there simply due to the hype. I tend to view places like it that way, simply because I refuse to buy into the hype. For the same reason I have never been to Boracay, in the Philippines, simply because the amount of props it’s getting is a deterrent enough for me. Luang Prabang is probably overrun with millions of tourists by now and the sleepy outpost of orange robed shaven head monks that it once was is probably long gone. I’m sure the monks are still there but I bet it’s no longer sleepy and charming, so I decided to pass on Luang Prabang. Ditto for Vang Vieng. When I see young European kids in Vientiane (Wieng Chan) wearing tank tops with “Tubing in Vang Vieng” written in the front and back of their shirt, my first inclination is to avoid Vang Vieng at all cost, so that’s exactly what I did.
Maybe it’s the economy or maybe it’s just the off-season, but the bars on Quai Fa Ngum seem to be all noise, loud and booming, but look inside and what you see is pretty much a crowd way below its capacity. As I walk by and pass one of these bars I might see two or three tourists inside. The rest are local servers and non-paying customers. The E-Z bar is typical. All loud booming music, three Euro-types drinking Beer Lao and one lone older perverted looking Americano inside. Sitting with him on his table was a not so young Laotian lady who makes her living at night, specializing on unaccompanied transients from Europe or the United States. I sat behind the bar, as far away from the Americano and the lady of the night shift as possible. As I looked around I saw no other customers other than the ones I just mentioned although there were at least twenty five people in the bar. Most of these people were non paying customers. They were either part of the bar staff or were free lancing ladies of the night. Loud booming music, which I can’t emphasize enough, was playing, and there was a soccer game on the wide screen television in front of the dance floor. There was absolutely nobody shaking their booty on the dance floor. Eventually after my second scotch on the rocks the lady of the night worker found her way towards me and sat on the barstool next to mine. Since there was barely enough clientele to solicit it didn’t surprise me that she would eventually work herself towards me. I pretended not to notice her even though she was making her presence obvious to me. It didn’t take her long to drop all the pretense of coincidental encounters with strangers in the bar because she needed to get down to business. She just turned towards me and started talking to me, asking me the usual “where are you from? What are you doing here?” Before I could even answer she was already onto the next question.
“You have cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“Ohhh, ha ha ha, blah blah blah…” to her friends, the bar staff. It appears that she is a regular. Isn’t that a surprise. Asking for a cigarette was just an excuse to get my attention and keep a semblance of a conversation. She had a pack of her own.
“You like cigarette?”
“I don’t smoke.” I was sipping my scotch. She laughed and giggled and said something to her friends again, the bar staff, and they all laughed along with her.
“You stay what hotel?”
“Ooooh, blah blah blah…” to her friends again in Laotian. They continued laughing at my expense. Then she turned to me and looked at me obliquely and said “You’re handsome.” I look at myself in the mirror behind the bar across from me. I look anything but handsome. I am sweating like a dog, my eyes are bloodshot red, my hair is all over the place, my clothes are all rumpled up, and I look like I just escaped from a Laotian prison, which many people tend to look like after traveling in the Southeast Asia for many weeks, so I laughed out loud (LOL). She and her friends LOLed with me.
“You tell me your room number, I come visit you.” I LOLed even more. They LOLed louder. It appeared to me that I provided them with a lot to LOL about, and I was happy to oblige. Eventually I drank up all of my scotch, so I moved on.
“Where you going?”
“To my room, to sleep.”
“What your room number?” I LOLed. They LOLed even more as I was walking away.