"Sabai dee" Laos

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February 6th 2012
Published: February 9th 2012
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First, I would like to apologise for the rather dour and curt previous entry. In my defense I was sober.

Getting from Jinghong to the Laos border by bus was simplicity itself. We were greeted at Mohan on the Chinese side with an official-looking, modern, immigration station. A few minutes later at Boten in Laos we reached theirs: a rather rickety wooden shack. Formalities completed and we were just about to remount the impatient horn-tooting bus when I noticed a money-changers: we had no Laos kip, would arrive late at our destination and didn’t know if Yuan would be readily exchangeable away from the border. Ali placated the driver whilst I ran over. The rate was good so I swapped the remaining Yuan and hurried back feeling rather pleased with myself. Then as the bus pulled away I counted my spoils: he’d short changed me big-time. Not totally surprisingly my loud cursing caught the driver’s attention. What was surprising was that he stopped and allowed me to get off again and what was totally surreal was that the cashier (whom I just wanted to give a piece of my mind to – in a language he wasn’t going to understand anyway) was almost waiting to hand over the missing money which he duly did after my first spew of expletives. Given the rushed, beeping chaos he obviously thought that he’d be able to pull a fast-one, but he could – and almost anywhere else in the world he would – have stuck his ground and I would then have had to dwell on my carelessness: immediately I liked Laos.

Luang Nam Tha in the north is the centre of minority trekking operations in Laos. That is: operations offering trekking to minority villages. It is also a chilled place to just sit a while (which we hadn’t really done thus far), particularly when you find a diamond guest house (TaiDam) and excellent restaurant (Papaya). TaiDam is a row of quality huts set within a jungle-like garden. Each hut has its own veranda with table and chairs, a comfy bed, hot shower, towels, free drinking water, free boiling water for drinks and hangs on the side of a slope overlooking fish ponds and rice fields: some view, and cheap as chips at $6/night. It is totally the sort of guest house where you are content to just laze and sit around playing BananaGrams or Crib with a bottle of whiskey (80 cents) and a couple of litres of coke ($1): which, of course, we duly did. Then, after watching the sun set, it is time to stumble to Papaya for local Black Tai (Tai dam) food with such gastronomic delights as Rattan (yes, as in furniture) jeow (perfect stuffed into mini balls of sticky rice) and Black Tai-style fish that is steamed in banana leaf parcels with an assortment of exotic aromatic yummies such as banana flowers. Post-dinner comes Lao Lao: a coarse local firewater infused with whatever is to hand; at Papaya this was honey although we have since had versions with additives ranging from twigs and herbs to snakes. This is strong liquor possessing uncertain digestif qualities and, I suspect, in sufficient quantities, even more uncertain long-term effects on your vision. It does definitely aid sleep though – ideally after you have made it back to your guest house. Anik, the owner of Papaya, is some chef and we were toying with the idea of asking him whether he would be interested in us investing something in his business. Wouldn’t you know it, one morning we found him discussing a new venture with two Aussies... Still, we weren’t far off the pace. Whilst here we met some interesting characters: a charming Italian and Spanish couple; a dubious Dutch man who gave us, amongst other things, a real hot tip for a relatively undiscovered Thai island (certainly not announcing that until we’ve been); as well as the – so it was to become – ubiquitous French oldies. Really, Frenchies who make us look like spring chickens are everywhere in Laos (a colonial throw-back?).

After an overnight jaunt to the sticks of Muang Sing, that was cockerel hell (Ali has a theory on cock calls that may or may not have been researched, but would take a serious insomniac to investigate), we finally prized ourselves away from Luang Nam Tha and made our way to Nong Khiaw (site of Ali’s biking prowess video on Facebook). Perched on the Na Som river, and surrounded by majestic karst mountains, it is a beautiful spot and leads upriver (no road links) to Muang Ngoi Nua. If anything, this single-road town is even more spectacular and has some wonderful walks to nearby villages where I seemed “blessed” to be offered free and ever more bizarre versions of Lao Lao. It transpires that Lao Lao does strange things to the mind when you are trapped in a deep, foliage-sealed, ditch/tunnel and being (relatively) rapidly pursued by a water buffalo.

Muang Ngoi Nua only has electricity for four hours a day but this didn’t stop two back-to-back weddings – held in open-ended marquees along the one dirt road – from blaring music non-stop for 20 hours, terminating just as rooster madness kicked –off. It wasn’t as though each wedding had only one sound system as each party also catered to their young guests with Laos hip-hop vying for attention against the live band: both, seemingly intentionally, amplified to total distortion. The Laos’ love LOUD “music”.

Whilst here we regularly ate at a place that did an all-you-can-eat buffet; this restaurant was run by an attractive young woman who had a mixed-race child and after chatting it became apparent that sex between Laos’ and westerners is illegal unless you’re already married: her then boyfriend was fined $200 even though they went on to – temporarily – marry (and produce said child). We also got to enjoy, along with all the locals, the sights and sounds of two intrepid westerners who had thought it a good idea to construct their own bamboo raft. This was a monstrously huge vessel that still bore the full vegetation of the cut boughs (and did act as a pretty good sea anchor – slowing the stupid gits’ uncontrolled passage down the broad and fast-flowing river). As they came into view there were girly screams from the burly sailors with expletive-laden begging for help. Eventually a kindly passing long-tailed boat did go to their aid and, brilliantly, gently pushed them to shore a mile or so down river forcing them to walk in shame back to the village. The next day we met them seeking a new machete with which to humiliate themselves further: didn’t catch the outcome.

From the peace of the countryside we headed to the Pearl of the Orient, Luang Prabang. And indeed stunning it is: a peninsula between the Mekong and Khan rivers with broad tree-lined streets, French colonial architecture, a wealth of Buddhist temples busy with saffron-clad monks and surrounded by promenades with a multitude of cafes and bars. It is also tourist central and a bugger to find a cheap place to stay, not that this seems of any concern to the masses of old French tourists and younger flashpackers (see “Deathknell for the backpacker?" Deathknell for the backpacker?).

Across the Khan in Greater Luang Prabang it is suddenly far quieter and walking the area we happened upon a sign offering land for sale. Curious, we looked a little closer at what was visible of the fenced-off, jungle-like, plot and started jotting notes. Soon we were joined by a lady and her daughter who seemed very interested in our intensions. Before we knew it we had been ushered into what turned out to be a mirror-plot next door that was apparently a local’s eatery/drinking hole – totally unapparent from outside. It got better and better: 15 by 90 metres and terminating actually on the river. No other guest houses in Laung Pabang have such a location: we had visited most of them. Then a mobile phone is thrust upon us and we are speaking to the owner in Vientiane. Details are discussed (fortunately he spoke English) and a potential meeting is set-up. Our heads are spinning. I start taking serious photographs and videos of all I can from across the fence at the bar whilst Ali goes on a more detailed reckie of the neighbourhood. An hour later and I am sitting on one of the raised bamboo platforms drinking a beer when Ali returns. She has news: the locals are delightful; she was invited in for tea at the shack of the lady who initially spotted our interest and has been coo-cooing over the daughter’s newborn baby. The baby begins to cry and predictably Ali is soon rocking him back to sleep, now in front of an amazed local audience. Ali then tries to hand the contented baby back to Grandma but both Grandma and mother are gesticulating and saying “please take”. It transpired that they really did want Ali to take the baby; all quite heartrending. I also had news, bad news. I had noticed a fence cutting off the last ten metres of the plot, the ten metres abutting the water. Chatted to the girl serving at the bar (an abundance of English speakers here) and yes, sure enough, she confirmed that this land wasn’t for sale – a minor detail overlooked by the owner. So, in the space of two hours we’d gone from a perfect business opportunity to a no-go. The girl did say though that her parents would certainly consider selling the bar/restaurant plot if the offer was good enough: food for thought. Still, we had found a great, hidden, ridiculously cheap, bar and so sat discussing events and downing beers in the late afternoon sun. As we did we became aware of the other clientele occupying some of the dozen or so bamboo gazebos dotted among the palms: they were all schoolgirls; most weren’t in uniform but none of them could have been more than 16 and there they sat in groups of three or four playing cards and chucking booze down their throats. The four girls next to us were plastered with flushed red faces and playing for money, not kip but dollars. Was this an underage drinking den or something far more sinister? Obviously it was our duty to investigate further so we stayed until very late, ate a magnificent fish Tom Yam and ended up as flushed as the girls. Group by group they drifted away with no sign of a pimp or a punter, so I suppose they were just unruly youngsters. That said, they did all have very active mobile phones. After some eight hours or so we finally called it a night, but three of the four by us were still hard at it, the fourth now curled-up asleep.

From a potential den of iniquity we headed to a town that leaves you in no doubt as to its intensions, Vang Vieng: home of tubing and “happy menus” (these bear no resemblance to their McDonalds namesakes). This place is right at the top of the list on the party-backpacker circuit along with Phuket and full moon at Koh Phangan. Seriously, we overheard whole groups who were on one-month holidays that consisted solely of these three locations, plus Bangkok as the entry/exit point. It has to be said that the small town of Vang Vieng is situated in one of the most beautiful locations on earth, sat on the side of the Nam Song River with a backdrop of rice fields leading to sublime karst mountains (yes, Laos does have a lot). It was once heaven and now not quite so. A days tubing entails hiring the inflated inner tube of a tractor and hot-tailing it some 15 km upstream before floating back to town. Admittedly this sounds, and can be just that, rather relaxing. The twist is that the bankside en-route is lined with party bars that offer semi-free buckets (think kiddies sandcastles) of spirits plus opportunities to kill yourself (tottering bamboo towers for jumping off, precipitous slides for careening off and dizzying swings to fall off), all whisked up to a frenzy by westerners paid to get the party going. Approximately one in three people in Vang Vieng are walking wounded: strapped ankles, gashed heads, arms in slings; and these are the lucky ones. About 20 people a year die here from their exploits, either by plummeting into water too shallow to receive them (method of choice currently - it is dry season) or by drowning due to intoxication (more popular in wet season). One man fell to his death just four days before we arrived. On top of all this you have, rather un-sportingly, a police force who subsidize their wages from drug busts ($700 is the current accepted going rate for a pay-off) - a bit mean when all the restaurants display menus with pretty much anything anyone so inclined could wish for. According to the owner, our guest house, indeed our specific room with its balcony overhanging the river, has had more than a dozen victims; obviously we didn’t add to the tally. Both of us did have a most unhappy pizza though that left us with trots no. 1 for the trip.

Ha, I almost forgot… Our initial room in Vang Vieng was a rickety hut in a quiet secluded field; it seemed idyllic – Ali secured this one. On closer inspection however it had a door that could only be locked by an external padlock (we secured it at night by cunningly chaining the free-standing fan to the inside so that at least we would be woken by potential intruders). Ali had also missed the twisted remains of the bars on one window and the fact that there was a 3ft gap at the top of one of the toilet walls where the wooden struts had been pulled away. I was not happy and went to speak to the management only to return with a pail of nails and a hammer. I jest not, before we went out that night I had to build my own hut. I did do a rather spitefully shoddy job though. What else did we do whilst we were in Soddom? Ah yes, we helped a Nigerian scamster write some letters. Actually we’re not entirely sure if this was the case (i.e. he was a scamster), but it did increasingly point that way (and he seemed like such a nice French chap too). Anyone received any letters pertaining to the World Expo in South Korea this year (English only marginally better than your average Nigerian)?

And so, as visa time was becoming short, we headed to our last destination in Laos this visit: Don Det and Don Khone of the 4000 Islands (we plan to return again in October to see some of the South). This entailed a rapid decent to the border with Cambodia as the 4000 Islands (most of them mere pimples) sit in a wide stretch of the Mekong just as it exits Laos. Don Det is backpacker heaven and consequently guesthouses, eateries and bars abound. Nevertheless there are still quiet pockets on this 6 km by 2 km sandy sleepy oasis and everyone who visits ends up staying longer than they intended. It is linked to the less busy Don Khone by a bridge and both are cycling heaven (unless you’re Vicki n Rich) – it’s flat. The latter island boasts the biggest (in terms of flow) water falls in South East Asia. At the falls the surrounding rocks are strewn with finger-sized fish laid out to dry that are simply scooped from the white water with nets mounted on lacrosse-like sticks. Don Khone also has a number of semi-deserted beaches and bays for tranquil lazing. We both loved the place.

Once again we weren’t disappointed in the people we met and spent one particularly memorable night at the farewell bash for a Danish woman who was heading to Thailand. This was organized by the staff of a quiet isolated little restaurant at the centre of the island that only she and we seemed to frequent. A fire-pit had been dug for the evening and freebies of the predictable Lao Lao had been laid on. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, as evening turned to night there were just the three of us and we took to heckling the rare passersby to come join us. Takers included a fascinating English/American couple (D, get in touch if you read this) and a fire-juggling, germ-fearing, German. As the evening progressed it materialized that the charming straight-laced Danish woman (even older than us) had only recently been released from Cambodian prison for – of all things – exporting painkillers (the post office became suspicious of the frequent visits and massive rattling packages – as 10,000 tablets are prone to do). She was lucky: given 20 years she was deported after two and then released by the Danes; quite how she is still at liberty to travel so freely though is beyond me. You certainly meet some characters on the road…

The Laos people themselves are quite reserved but never fail to greet you with a hearty “Sabai dee” and are gentle, honest and kind. The children are adorable and Ali really did want to accept the offered baby plus any other waifs and strays we came across. We both can’t wait to return.

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