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Published: October 1st 2008
I miss working in an office...Bangkok - Pakse - Don Khong - Don Khon - Pakse - Attapeu
No, I really do. The first thing this sunset over Laos southern sunshine island of Don Det had me thinking was "God, I wish I was sat in front of a computer monitor for 8 hours a day". Then I slapped myself for being stupid and went back to my hammock.
As I retrieved Vik’s rucksack from an overly confident tuk-tuk drivers vehicle I banged my head on a typically well positioned and unfeasibly rusty Laos road sign. There was an audible “oooo” from the group of drivers who surrounded us.
“Happens to me all the time; that was nothing - in Scotland we put barbs on the signs so you reeeally know when you’ve hit one” was the kind of message I was trying to send out to the assembled group as I attempted to compose myself. Unfortunately mild concussion, blood in my hair, on my hands and a concerned wife asking me how many fingers she was holding up were probably telling a very different story.
This was not the best position to be in. Rule one in the Bartering with Locals handbook clearly states that standing in the street, bleeding from an open head wound does not put one in a strong bargaining position. And then it began to rain. Blood plus rain plus several kilometres - the tuk-tuk drivers had calculators out - this was not going to be good…
This photo, taken on the old railway line which runs across Don Khong to Don Det reminds me of the end sequence of Blackadder when, as he walks away from the camera somebody keeps jumping out from the bushes and hitting him on the head. I think the blokes "Bring Out Yer Dead!" plague cart adds to the effect.
we need not have worried. This was Laos after all; a place where, unlike their South-East Asian neighbours, the clamber for the tourist dollar is in its relative infancy and bartering often seems to be too much hassle. Scrapping with each other for business would be tiresome. Urgency, bother, getting worked up, expending energy - these all seem unfamiliar concepts for the people of Laos.
Market stall holders keep their takings in a bucket hanging above their produce and guesthouses keep theirs in an open drawer behind the reception counter in elastic band bound bundles next to their cigarettes. It’s a place where the bank’s daily float of cash arrives in brick sized blocks of notes piled high in a red and white plastic carrier bag on the back of a scooter. It’s a place where between the hours of 11am and 5pm most of the country enters what we came to term the fuggy haze, when 'normal' operation slows to snails pace and most of the population can be found sleeping next to their stall, desk, vehicle or livestock.
Actually, the livestock one is a personal favourite. Aside from rice paddies, palm trees, muddy brown rivers, reddy-brown
Flower Lady, Bangkok
Check me out. I can fly.
dirt tracks and thatched shacks on stilts, the countryside is awash with people squatting frog-like next to loosely tethered water buffalo. I like that. The people here seem to have the same relationship with their buffalo that we in the 'West' have with our dogs and cats (aside perhaps with the chopping it up for meat thing or occasional sacrifice - although in certain parts of Glasgow…). Putting a lead on your buffalo and escorting it to an open green area then squatting like a frog and watching it do whatever it is a buffalo does during its day seems to be the extent of many peoples working lives. Buffalo escort. Not a job title that springs up too frequently in the Job Vacancies section of Edinburgh’s Evening News.
The daily lives of animals in Laos is one of those odd little fascinations born of too much thinking time in a hammock. On more than one occasion I found myself wondering where the lines that separate livestock from pets from strays are drawn as there seems to be little to distinguish one from the other. Chickens and ducks scurry along the streets with trails of constantly meeping chicks in
Canoe Carnage, Don Khon, Laos
You'd have thought that painting your canoe black and yellow would have been enough to keep the other canoes away... but alas it doesn't work like that. I suspect a wee bit of a rise in the rivers water level didn't help.
tow; cows mope in rice paddies or more often, turn roads into obstacle courses by just hanging out on the tarmac, and cats so skinny they make Kate Moss look like a career in Sumo wrestling is beckoning wait patiently under restaurant seats and tables for just about anything to fall their way. Even the goats seem to just hang about in their clans by the roadside or in abandoned buildings (like the “goat ballroom” on Don Khong which was just weird - a beautiful wooden building by the Mekong River that seemed to be a dance floor for goats) making those odd, strained, eerie, UUURRRRGGGHH noises that they do. Who owns these animals? How do they keep tabs on where they are? And more to the point - why is it that they all seem to just get along? Shouldn’t the dogs be chasing the cats and chickens or something?
The biggest animal related question for me though is why are there so many pregnant dogs at the bus stations in Laos? It is true that there are a lot of dogs just about everywhere in Laos, but for some reason the bus stations have become like doggy
Siam Paragon Food Market, Bangkok
Vik's favourite place in Bangkok. Aircon and Salad. What more does a girl need?
maternity wards with a disproportionately high number of bloated bitches waddling between the buses and market stalls looking like today could be the big day (again). Of course most of the dogs look the same. This is especially true on the islands in the south where I guess the opportunity for finding a partner with a bit of pedigree is fairly limited. Somewhere out there though, there’s a highly potent, caramel coloured, fox-faced mutt with short white legs that must have been using the bus network in the country as a means of getting out and meeting chicks. He’s the doggy equivalent of a sailor with a woman in every port. He’s the Littlest Hobo on Viagra. Maybe tomorrow he’ll wanna settle down, but I suspect this is one Little Hobo whose exploits would never really take off as a popular kids TV show.
I read somewhere a saying attributed to French Colonialists: 'The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodian’s watch the rice grow and the people of Laos just listen to it grow'. While I understand that this saying is in some way, supposed to capture the slow pace of life, whoever it was that first coined this
Food Market, Nr Paksong, Laos
No less impressive in terms of variety or obsessive compulsive arrangement of produce than that of the Siam Paragon. All that's missing is the air-con.
phrase had clearly never heard what passes for music, nor have they witnessed Laos karaoke. Suggesting that the people have ears sensitive enough to hear rice grow suggests that they might have the ability to carry a tune or at least know when to stop making truly awful music. Alas not.
This is a country where the 'pop ballad' demo mode on the Casio keyboard is the backing for nearly every song. It’s a place where it’s often difficult to tell when one song ends and the other begins. It’s a place where music videos are shot in soft focus and every video is 'acted' out by well quaffed teens occasionally strumming a guitar they never learned to play or doing that closing their eyes, clenching their fists, feeling the pain thing. And without fail the theme of every video and therefore song is of young love cut short by tragedy (strangely enough, most of the videos I saw also seemed to feature the sea and people whimsically skimming stones or staring thoughtfully at waves which strikes me as a bit odd for a land locked country). For a country that is the essence of happy-go-lucky and has the
Balconies 1, Bangkok
Random characterless hotel with lots of balconies. Spot the satelite dishes and house plants...
kind of laid back style you might associate more with the Caribbean, they listen to some surprisingly awful and thoroughly depressing music.
Yet, it seems to be a really happy place. It’s a place that’s secure enough within itself to cope with crazily depressing music. There are no manic-depressives going on rampages here. Even the most mentally unhinged probably couldn’t be bothered no matter how convincing the voices in their head were.
Encountering half naked men ambling down lanes, streets or country tracks wielding machetes is not unusual, nor is it intimidating. Having toothless old men trying to sell you machetes as you wait for buses is normal (Vik tried one out but decided to give it a miss what with us crossing international borders and everything); five year old girls squatting in the mud trying to cut open coconuts the size of their heads with cleavers is an everyday occurrence. Another lesson travel has taught me: when it comes to machetes and large knives it’s all about location, location, location. Bus station in Laos: okay. Bus station in Edinburgh: bad.
You may have noticed that bus stations have received a fair amount of my attention in
Balconies 2, Bangkok
Taken from the base of the more interesting Wat Arun.
this blog and while this wasn’t necessarily intentional when I started writing, it is perhaps unsurprising. Bus stations are, for me, a microcosm of society - particularly in Laos where there is no real form of public transport other than the bus (or variations of). To a certain extent every walk of Laos society utilises or makes their living at the bus station. People seem to go to bus stations just to hang out because it’s a highly social place.
In the 'West' we talk a lot about trying to achieve a 'work life balance', however in Laos it's more of a 'work life mix' they seem to achieve. Work should be fun. It should involve plenty of networking (chatting with your mates) and, of course, the opportunity to sleep at any given moment. Above all, work shouldn't be something that may involve or create stress. This means, in particular, avoiding conflict or bartering situations with people carrying a camera worth more than you make in a year but who seem intent on saving themselves the equivalent of 5p off the cost of a ride into town; people who don't even understand what you're saying and are bleeding from
River Life 1, Bangkok
The towers and buildings that surround the river in Bangkok.
a head wound brought about by poor spacial awareness.
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