I completely lost track of my whereabouts. I spent :
3 days in Ko Samet, a small island on the Cambodian side in Thailand, touristy but not too many;
a week in the centre east of Thailand, in Buriram farmland, staying with farmers.
Then went to Sudokhai for a couple of days, visiting the old city that was the capital of Thailand, cycling through the temples.
Back to Chang Rai, then to the Lao border. I have to check notes for anecdotes. Top of the list would be the happiness of children. Most of them smile, wave and say hello.
Some of the anecdotes that I had jotted.
In Bangkok, the clock indicated 9h25 but the attendant sold me a ticket for the 9h20. I pointed it out and she said it was OK. It was OK. Timetables are approximative. Buses rarely start on time. Other factors come into account.
Long distance Thai buses, often, have stylish staff comprising of a driver dressed like a Air pilot, a co pilot and a bus hostess, with uniform like a air stewardess. We get safety explanations, like on a plane. The panel at the front flashes between time and air temperature.
In some bathroom there is a sink but no pipe below, so when brushing my teeth, the water run on my feet.
Arrived at the border, check out at the Thai border. It is funny, it feels like leaving home and what is familiar for a new adventure. I cross the Mehkong river with an English couple. At the Lao border, In Ouayxay I get a visa. Some people are very happy because the exchange rate of Thai Bhats into Lao khips make them millionaires. I get 700 000 at the ATM, no idea what it represents. (13,500 Kips to the pound). But I didn't found that straight away. Lao seems poorer than Thailand. Everyone has their interpretation of how much Kips there are to the dollar -2000, 4000, 8000, 9000?, and how many dollar to the pound?
I share a room with a Chilian girl from New York, forgot her name. In any case at the hotel they asked for Thai Bahts.
Because everything is such in high sums, it seems like being ripped off everywhere. What? 10,000 for a beer? But after a while get used to it and realise it
is quite realistic. We had a diner in a small local restaurant. All the guys come to piss not far from our table, as it was the last one. There were no toilets, but the countryside.
In the morning we board the boat down the Mekhong to Luang Phabang, with a stop one night in Pakbeng. I had diner with an English couple from Chletenham and later we had a drink with the 2 Danes who drank non stop on the boat. Interesting guys, they try everything... they were funny in a lewd way, but witty.
I slept well, in my princess bedsheets. Usually most bedding is either Disney characters or teddy bears. I tried to be clever at breakfast and avoid the restaurants where farangs (foreigners) were and went to one with a good view with only locals. I chose on the barbecue what looked like a chicken breast with sticky rice, but the chicken was something I could not identify, mainly skin and fat. They had sliced it when they served it. I put back in the plate the piece I had a bite on. When later I passed by the same place, having picked up
my rucksack, I noticed my meat was back on the barbecue, recycled.
Back on the boat I had a good seat, a bus seat, yesterday it was a wooden bench. Read a rubbish book about Thailand written by an American full of himself. Only distraction was that the left side of the boat got hit by a wave and everybody on that side was soaked. The right side came to the rescue and offered our sunny spot to dry things out. I talked mainly with a Swiss couple who work in Tibet to organise eye surgery and care there.
Arrived in Luang Phabang, I shared with a German guy, or Dutch. I can't remember. Both of us went our own way after dropping our bags.
I spent 3 nights in Luang Phabang. The place is beautiful and they preserve the style they inherited from the French colonialists. When they build a new house, they follow the same style. What is annoying though is the tourism aspect. It is quite commercial and based on selling all kind of stuff to tourists and on the other hand, I witnessed several Italian retired people taking pictures of an old man as
if he was some kind of animal at the zoo.
I visited the cave, as advertised in the guide, but as usual, what is in the guide is rubbish. Whereas I missed going to the waterfall. Everybody I have met since said it was really good. Never mind. Something to do next time.
In the morning I went to Nong khiaw. At the bus station I had breakfast, Chicken noodle soup, at a stall with locals. I then boarded the songtaew, 22 on board. All the knees touched. Even locals reacted when we stopped to pick more passengers. One of them was a charming little girl who made the trip more pleasant for everyone as she passed around some tamarind fruits and was bubbly.
We arrived in Nong khiaw at lunch time. A small village surrounded by villages. I shared a room with a German girl, Petra, in a bungalow by the river. We went for a walk, visited a village, where they gather the grass used to make local brooms. A boy proposed to show us a waterfall and proposed a return by boat. We agreed without checking if payment was required. On arrival he asked for 60,000.
Rip off. It shattered the trourist illusion that those were nice people. We had diner at an Indian restaurant. There was a storm in the early night. First time I see the rain in Asia.
Morning after I took the boat to Muang Noi. The 1 hour trip was very nice going between mountains. When I got out the boat my camera fell from my pocket in the water. People encouraged me to let it dry for a week. (I did, it started but shortly after it would not focus). Muang Noi is a very nice village with one muddy road and guest houses on each side. After putting my stuff in a guest house, I Went for a walk with Laura, from England and Karmen from Slovenia. We walked to caves, throught rice fields and to a small village where we were surrended by children. We walked back to Muang noi before night fall and met again for diner. I didn't sleep well that night. Roosters started going at 4h30.
Morning after with Laura, we joined for a fishing trip the 3 Germans who happened to stay at next bungalow in Nong khiaw. We had a long
negotiation about the price with the Lao guy who organised the boat trip with the fishermen. Eventually we went, with 2 fishermen. We caught few fishes, but enjoyed the barbecue, with lots of Lao Lao, the national alcohol made from rice. It even help linguistic skills. I had a conversation in Lao with the older fisherman.
The only downside was when we stopped at a village and wanted to buy beer. The lady said 6000 and our guide intervened to say 10,000. I let others walk in front and stopped at another stall where the lady also said 6,000 but her daughter came and said 10,000. We unsuccessfully argued the point and left without buying anything.
On our return to Muang noi, I went for a massage, a Lao massage. Bliss. Much softer than Thai ones. Left completely blissed.
The Morning after I went early to the market. I had a cheap noodle soup at a stall. I Warned the locals about the super spicy sauce, but they laugh. A child even put 2 spoons of chili as if nothing.
The 3 Germans, Anna from Sweden and Yakko from Finland took the boat back to Nuang kien,
departure 9h30 Lao time. The weather was cloudy and everyone was quiet on board. The seat was a plank and quite hard. On arrival, we checked whether to take the boat back to Luang Phabang or the bus. As the Weather was uncertain and the previous boat uncomfortable, we decided on bus. One was waiting at the pier, we jumped in to leave as quickly as we could. The driver reversed on a puppy. It was an horrible noicse and its front leg smashed. Anna and anja, the girls were very upset. As for the local people, it was impossible to read as to what they made of it, whether they were upset, even the owners of the dog. We were wondering whether it would be killed and put in the pan as we left. No crippled animals around. Very few adult cats either. We went from the pier to the top of the village and actually waited 2 hours to fill the rest of the minibus. When we left, the driver drove like a lunatic on mountain roads and killed a couple of chickens on the road until Anja, angry, told him to slow down. When we arrived in
Luang Phabang, we stayed at the Merry guest house, where the Germans, Sebastian, David and Anja had been before.
In the evening we went to Utopia, a fantastic bar, very chilled, with lots of plants, low tables and a beach volley ball. Yakko and Anna joined us. We left for a live rock venue that ends up being a whiny dark place for old people. So we Went to the bowling alley instead. We left the bowling to crash a party next door. It happened to be the prosecution service party. They welcomed us and gave us plenty of beerLao. Anna and Sunny joined the dancing, whilst Sebastien, Yakko and I drank with the people who for some of them were mostly well inhebriated. It was a kind of slow line dance, not touching, facing and turning side ways walking in circles, with little hands rotation. Later Sunny walked straight to the stage and took the tambourin from the singer and play the tambourin.
When we left we were ourselves quite "happy" and walked the journey back to the hotel like pranksters.
The morning after we left for Vang Vieng. That is Sebastian (Basti or plastic), David (Sunny),
Anja (gorgeous), Anna from Sweden. We lost Yakko who went direct to Ventiane.
We spent a week there in Vang Vieng. Taking it easy, partying and eating lots of pancakes.
People usually alternate between a day of activity and one of slobbing in front of an tv showing either episodes of friends or family guy relaxing at a restaurant, watching episode after episode. A day of activiy means either visiting caves, kayaking or swiming or floating on an inner tyre tube from bar to bar, which had either zip lines or swings over the water. The entertainment is drinking and watching people falling spectacularly in the water. At night party in the numerous bar/night club and at anytime of the day, watching premiership matches.
Except the restaurant (family guy) that we went to every morning for breakfast which was very efficient, ( I always had " fried vegetables with chicken comes with rice") the other restaurants had staff who were so slow and relaxed that they always forgot items, and laughed it off when we pointed it to them. What we came to describe as Lao Style.
We also visited caves and spent a day at the hospital when
Anna had a high fever and eye infection
and Sunny a kidney problem. Otherwise I had really good Lao massages, less painful than Thai massages.
At lunch time we left to Ventiane. The cleaning lady gives me a packet of condoms, for no particular reason, as a good bye present. Sunny gets his camera nicked from his bag on the way to the bus station.
When we arrived it is not easy to find a room and have to make do with a rubbish room without a window but airbricks with the one next door.
7th Breakfast with the others. Sebastian covered in bed bugs bites. I stayed snuggly within my sleeping bag. Called Not (her name), who I had met at the bucket bar in Vang Viang and meet with her and her friend (the role of chaperone) for a coffee. Then catch on the diary. Hard work. Met with the others and went to an Indian restaurant. Later watched Arsenal Chelsea at a bar.
8th Forgot how the day started. We changed hotels, I shared with Sebastian and Sunny, Anna and Anja shared. Then I went with Sunny to the French medical centre.
We just caught the dentist before he went to his lunch, French style, 2 hour break. He gave his prognostics from Sunny's condition and left. The secretary explained it would be 1 M 250,000! Doctor Evil comes to mind. We had an appointment for 5. Meanwhile, we thought of the options and we had 4 hours to find an alternative. Walking down the street, we passed the medical university. I asked for the dental section and there we found the dentist students. The check up was 3,000 (20 pence) and Sunny got fixed for 50,000. He thought the methods were a bit unorthodox but didn't have pain and I personally had great fun witnessing the whole thing and discussing with the students.
We did a bit of shopping and came back to the hotel. By then Anja had left, to go back to Germany. It was the begining of the end for the group. In the evening we went back to the Indian as my companions liked it much. I said my good byes to Anna who was going to Cambodia and went to my dinner with Not (her name) and her friends. I had a good time. Present were
a Japanese girl and guy, I forgot their name and Sunnit. Sunnit was an interesting character, Lao, who went to France, Aix, when he was 4 and came back to Lao some 40 years later. He was teaching French to those people and they also did Aikido together. What was most interesting was how he managed to make them behave in French way, beside the fact that they spoke very good French. He paid for the dinner. I went back to the hotel and looked for Seb and Sunny but we missed each other. It felt a bit lonely as I had got used to being in a group. Finally we reunited for a last night in the hotel room.
Morning after. Good bye to the guys who were flying to Hanoi, via Kuala Lumpur. I looked for a book. Then I went to look for a camera as my other one does not work anymore. I spent most of the afternoon doing so and bought a fuji. Not as good as mine but everything else seemed either crap or expensive. This one was a compromise. I had half a massage before taking the bus to Pakxe. Nothing to
compare with the ones I got from Goon in Vang Viang. Tried to catch up with my emails at the bar in front of the hotel but the connection was too slow and chatted to a Canadian guy we had seen previously and who was starting a project of mining for gold on the Cambodian border of Lao. Then was picked up . I took an overnight sleeper coach and was with a French guy who became a farmer in Lao. His story was quite interesting and I could relate to many aspects of his life. I slept well. Should do more sleeper coaches.
9th Arrived at the bus station in Pakxe. Found difficult to wake up and almost everyone from the bus is gone, including Renaud, the French guy. I got a Songtaew with a couple of Australian and we stop in town, at a restaurant. Breakfast first to decide what's next. We look in the guides at accommodation but after deliberation decide to take a bus to Tadlo. We board an old bus that departs as soon as we are on board. lucky.
Although the bus broke down an hour later. The driver goes underneath and the
lady conductor passes him the tools. Half the bus get down and go for a piss. Women crouch and guys do it against a tree but pretty much in the same place. We observe from the shade the progress. Now she passes him a big kitchen knife. Not sure how it would help as it seems water is leaking, probably the radiator. After a short time, everybody is invited to get back on board and we go again. An hour later we arrive at TadLo. I think it is a scam as all the farang (foreign) tourists are asked to leave and a tuk tuk is waiting for us. He took us to a guest house by a lake. I choose a guest house next door half price. Then with a couple of Canadian, the Australians, plus some others in the restaurant have lunch and discuss. Everyone has done Vang Vieng and Ventiane. After lunch I cross the bridge and arrive at a waterfall and a pool. It is really beautiful. Take the sun and have a swim and then with the Canadian we go upstream, to another waterfall. Then we come back and I admire the place from the
middle of the bridge. It is really beautiful. I see a sign saying that at 5 there is English classes for kids at the temple and go. There is no class today but I say my greetings and thanks to Buddha. On the way back I take a lot of pictures of kids who enjoy posing for a picture with my sunglasses.
In the evening I have dinner with the Australians, who order some LaoLao. The alcohol free period has not started yet!
10th This morning I had arranged to go trekking with the guest house owner, mr Samy. Only the Australians, Locky and Shena came, others overslept. It was a nice walk. We saw 3 villages and classroms and 2 waterfalls. I had brought some pens but never enough for the pupils. Pity. In between villages we found a shop that sold pens and notebooks and bought the lot for the last village. We gave it to the Teacher. Back to the village, Lunch, a shower, read a bit and that was the end of the afternoon.
11th This morning I had breakfast at the resto by the river, baguette and tea. I met an
Australian girl, Lisa, who I asked if she was interested for an elephant ride. We went to the place and couldn't get a ticket before 1. So we went by the river and played with the kids. It was a great feeling because it reminded me of my own youth, spending the summer at the river with my friends. All the farangs there agreed that it was better than being amoungst tourists on a beach.
I also like the sound of all those kids playing. We had lunch and went for the elephant ride that was great, more relax than in Thailand. The elephants are not attached and go as they like. I chatted a bit with the owner of the resort, a French guy. We were talking about the girls of his staff who were watching tv attentively. He told me about the time one of them came to him to ask him why on TV all the farangs in Paris or New York speak Lao or Thai and when they come here they don't.
After that when I went to the village I looked for a book to exchange and ended up watching some boxing with Mr
Jom, another restaurant owner. I came back, had a shower and packed my bag for tomorrow. I caught up with Ricardo who also was doing an elephant ride and as is the case, I had pictures of him and him of us (me an Lisa) so I copied his pictures. Then I went to the Wat (temple) as I thought it would be interesting to partiCipate in teaching English to the Kids. Instead, as the class did not happen, I prayed with the monk who teaches them and some of his pupils. We took some nice pictures and he was keen to see the pictures I had in my camera. Afterwards I went with him to his house, or rather his mother's. The guy was very nice, but it was difficult to see how I could help those people. Everyone is so poor. I went to diner at 9h00, I thought of witnessing poverty and not being to help (well I left them 100,000 k) It is difficult as there are so many poors. I left her my hat, chocolate and whatever I could that was in my bag. Later I went to Mr Jom with my computer as he
was interested in seeing pictures from Chang Mai.
12th I ended up not sleeping but I have some reserves. Mr Samly gave me a ride to Bang Beng where I was supposed to get a Sangtaew to Taten and change there to Paxtong. The hourly sangtaew took 4 hours to arrive.
Despite that, I had a great time. First I was waiting at a very small shop with a table where I had a cup of tea. I showed the men at the table the films I had taken of the kids at the river in Tadlo and they enjoyed it. I showed it to the young girl who was cooking meat on the grill and she enjoyed it too. I was impressed that despite watching the movie on the camera, she would still, without looking, turn the grill to cook both side of the meat. Despite the long wait, I did not wish to be anywhere else. I was totally contented to watch the world goes by and felt serene. Then young girls arrived and put their fruits (which I mistook for local aubergines)
on a table outside the shop. Everytime a sangtaew or bus arrived and stopped
they rushed to sell their stuff, with little success.
I tried to talk to them but nobody there had any English, nevertheless I managed to teach "my name is ..., happy to meet you". It was quite fun and the 6 or so of them managed well. A German guy who was staying in Tadlo arrived and joined me. He was sitting in the corner and was well impressed in my efforts to entertain the kids. I got the netbook out and showed the films of the kids in Tadlo playing in the river and the kids in Buriram dancing. They loved it. A sangtaew arrived and they rushed to sell their fruits unsuccessfully. I grabed a bassin that was left on the table and went to the sangtaew and managed to sell 2 lots for 2000k. The girls were startled and didn't say anything. The German guy encouraged by my efforts offered to teach juggling but they didn't take to it. Nevertheless we used 3 fruits so that was another 1000k that they earned.
Here as well as in Thailand, little girls play trading for real.
The sangtaew arrived, quite full as usual, and we took the road
which actually was in construction, so most of the time we drove by the side of it in a dust path. The progress was slow and at one time we got off to push the vehicule. When it got going, I was engulfed in a cloud of black smoke. Time to time I was brushed by a chicken underneath the bench. Actually when we arrived in Taten, I noticed that everywhere underneath the benchs were chicken, ducks, in a semi comatose state, maybe from being tied, stampled or beaten by the uncessant bumps on the road.
We arrived in Taten and I had a couple of hours wait for the bus to Paxton. I was mobbed there by young girls to buy their food. I had some sticky rice and 2 skewers of meat that they said was dog, to have a laugh. It was not dog but I am not quite sure what it was.
The bus dropped me on a spot on the road in Paxton, where there did not seem to be any guest house, or bar. So I walked trying to find one. A bike stopped and the guy who was riding it offered
me a lift. I said that I was looking for guesthouse/hotel in Paxton. He drove, and drove, til the end of the town and beyond. I was getting worried and told him again I was going to Paxton. He pointed that it was behind and I asked him to stop. He thought I was going to Paxse, 40 kms ahead. So I walked back the 3 kilometres with both my bags. I tried to be philosophical about it and so it as a test of my ability to be in the local "no problem" mode.
Back in Paxton, I met the friendly faces of an English couple who were in Tadlo. I went to drop my bags and take a room at their guesthouse and we had mid afternoon lunch. Then I went to a coffee shop, run by a Dutch guy and a Lao wife. They have a coffee plantation and a coffee shop where lots of farangs (foreigners) were. The guy gave me some guidance about what to see around.
I went back to the guest house and had a drink with the English couple, and little by little, we were joined by all the people who
were at the coffee shop, as everybody seems to be staying at this guest house. We shared stories, including food poisoning and stomach problems and tips about where to go. Most of them went to a restaurant and I stayed behind with a couple of Tchecks and a couple of Austrians. The owner of the guest house, who was very nice and spoke good English invited my to have some food, which I obliged. The Tchecks had some too and retired to their room and the wife of guest house'owner sat with me and kept talking to me in Lao. I had spoken some and was assumed to understand everything. She brought me watermelon and some special dessert as it was the Chinese new year. The others came back and we chated some more outside around a beer.
It was a weird kind of day. I had left at 7h30 and arrived finally at the guest house at 16h00, just to do 70 kilometres. But I never got frustrated about it. Lao style.
I went for coffee with others, still undecided regarding whether to go or stay a day. I decided to go. Once again it took 3
hours of waiting before getting going. I took a sangtaew from the market and departed. Same as usual, always more people than needed. We are full, let's go. 3 more persons arrive as the sangtaew leaves. I arrived in Paxte, went to a cash point and had a lunch. Then I took a tuk tuk and arrived at the kilometre 8 bus station to discover that there was no bus and that I had to take a sangtaew again. This time however I was sitting in the cabin, with a monk, a young guy who did not want to speak.
After dropping people one by one, we arrived at the pier for the 4000 islands. I took a boat, in the dark and went to Don Det. I got into a guest house and there some people at the restaurant outside. I met Dan, who was staying in KT GH in Bangkok. There was a good atmosphere there. We had a few drinks.
A French Canadian, Marco entertained us with his guitar and Canadian songs.
Dan, Marco, Anya and Vesna and I rented bicycles and went to the other bigger island, Don Kong. There is a bridge between
the 2. We took the route clockwise. Nice scenery, chilled people. We got to a beach and had a swim. Then we had lunch, preceded by a game of boule with Marco. I was happy that my petanque skills are still good. The lunch was leisurly. We went to the boats as we knwew we would be running out of time.
We got 2 boats and were taken to an expanse of water where Dolphins swim. We saw quite a few. When we arrive, a dolphin just knocked out a big fish and the boatman spotted it. We went to the fish and scooped it. It was alive but groggy. The boatman, who was a happy guy anyway, was very happy. He was enthusiastic at every sight of dolphin. We were near a Cambodian custom point, where they have a bar. We swam, we were the only ones. lucky us. People in other boats had to stay in their boat.
When we came back, we had to race to get back as the sun was red and half an hour away from dropping behind the mountain. We got to a big waterfall but just missed the last sun. We left
but Dan's bike got into problems. The chain broke. He had to spend the rest of the journey back using the bike like a scooter, resting on a pedal and pushing with his foot.
Same type of evenings, after a welcomed shower, nice conversations with travellers topped at the end by going to the tip of the island to the big beach. It would be difficult to imagine that we are on a river, on an island, still far away from the ocean.
The 2 good stories heard that night were that of 2/3 Americans guys who bought a longboat in Phon Phem, had it repaired and took it up the Mekhong. Their story was quite extraordinary.
18th Leaving for Cambodia with Marco, Vesna and Anja. We all count our money and we should just be ok. No surplus of Kips. Departure at 8 on the ticket but by the time we left the Cambodian frontier post it was 12h30. God knows when we will arrive in Pnom Phen.
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