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Published: August 8th 2007
Laos is Havana cigars and classic cars cool. (Luang Prabang)Huay Xai - Luang Nam Tha - Nong Khiaw - Luang Prabang - Vientiane
OK. I admit it. I doctored the picture slightly. It's had the Dale Winton treatment - I brought out the orange a bit... a lot. But it was such a good picture - I saw the hidden beauty and had to have it. Why am I having to justify myself? Why am I talking to myself? I feel like I've just had a boob job... I'm not ashamed of my cosmetic enhancements.
“There’s something strange in you’re neighbourhood,
There’s something weird and it don’t look good,
Who you gonna call?”
Those of you whose answer to this question was “Social Services - I keep them on speed dial” should consider moving neighbourhood because the answer is of course, “Ghostbusters!”
If you are in an office environment right now it might be wise to raise your head from this screen and check what everyone else is doing. If the group at the water machine have stopped chatting and are staring at you quizzically, and your boss has put her teleconference on hold to stand and gawp at you; the chances are that you gave in to the entirely natural urge to fully utilise the exclamation mark in the answer. Stay calm. Lean back in your chair, smile and avoid the temptation to start with the “duh-duh duh duh duh, duh-duh-duh duh duh duh!”.
Of course, what the Ghostbusters movie gave the world was more than just a catchy theme tune. They took phrases like “ectoplasm” and “poltergeist” out from the realms of nerds, freaks and other
Its 30 Baht for the boat from Chiang Khong (Thailand) to Huay Xai (Laos) - that includes a 10 Baht "baggage handling" fee. But don't expect a flunky in silk white gloves and a bow tie to gently lay your belongings on the chaise longue in your cabin. Baggage handling simply means you get to keep your baggage with you rather than leaving it on the Thai shores for the dogs and kids to nibble.
such viewers of Living TV and took them mainstream. Admittedly they also created a generation of men who, while stood at a busy urinal, still sub-consciously think “don’t cross the streams!” - but that aside, the Ghostbusters legacy was a positive one that finally made it acceptable to talk openly about paranormal activity without fear of being burnt at the stake for being a witch.
There are times though, when you have to realise that there’s a normal etiquette to be followed when considering such talk. For example, you should avoid telling even close friends that last night their recently deceased spouse/loved one was moving a vodka shot glass around your coffee table, and that, by the way, their hook handed great-great granddad with the wooden leg, who haunts their IKEA wardrobe, watches them sleep at night. (Readers can rest assured that sort of thing could never happen in our household - Vik doesn’t like glasses being moved around a table unless they’re on coasters. Any beings from the other side will tell you that coasters are the spirit worlds biggest pet hate: its their equivalent of the engaged tone).
If a person you had been acquainted with
The Frontline, Chiang Khong
Once you get through security (a few locals staring at you as you tramp down the hill to passport control), and have had your passport stamped by the bloke who wants to savour each stamping because it'll be so long until the next - you find yourself on a beach with kids and dogs frolicking in the river. Laos faces you 50m across the river. There's less formality at this border than crossing from Scotland to England.
for some time were to meet you one day with their normal greeting before excitedly telling you about a paranormal experience, you would accept this as being an acceptable dynamic of the conversation - you’ve had time before this conversation was raised to assess the psychological stability of the person in question.
However, if you were to; for example; meet a total stranger while waiting for a ferry in rural Northern Laos who followed the rudimentary greetings and such like with “I felt a strange presence in my bed last night”, this might be considered crossing that line of etiquette and you would be justified in wondering whether this person was of somewhat questionable sanity.
I’m not one to jump to conclusions, or to pre-judge - except where celebrities and plastic surgery is concerned, when I turn into a walking talking copy of Heat magazine. Oh, and I usually jump to the conclusion that any film starring Leonardo DiCapri-Sun is going to be crap but that anything with JLop is sure to be worth seeing (“Shall We Dance”, “Maid in Manhattan”, “Angel Eyes”… the list goes on; that girl knows a good script when she sees it).
Sunset over Thailand, from Huay Xia, Laos
If you look REALLY closely you can see monks in orange nappies having their daily scrub in the river. They're not the only ones. The river serves as laundry and bath to people on both sides of the border.
Anyway, the person that introduced himself with a story about a “strange presence” in his bed the previous night had already come to my notice in the small town of Nong Khiaw due to a) the small number of Western visitors to the beautiful town and b) his love of round the clock beer drinking. He seemed to have beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Which is why when he was telling me, with a look of genuine fear and excitement in his eyes about his chilling encounter, I already had visions of some bemused Laotian farmer on the other side of Nong Khiaw telling anyone that would listen about the large Westerner he found sleeping in his pig shed cosily spooning his prize Pot-Belly. Not only had Porky been kept warm all night, but in his confused state the beer blinded Westerner had paid the farmer $5 for a nights accommodation before scribbling “Great place - clean rooms, warm welcome; en-suite a bonus” in the youngest sons schoolbook.
But I shouldn’t make fun of this mans genuine terror. He was sure that something other worldly had been in his bed last night. And I understand why he’s afraid
Temple on the hill, Huay Xai
Since there isn't much else in Huay Xai, we felt it necessary to make the most of what it had. We're sick of the sight of temples, but had to include a piccy because... just because we do. I like sunsets. Had you noticed?
and confused. I mean, given other worldly status and the ability to slip silently beneath the sheets with any mortal, what kind of sick, twisted spirit has overweight, beer swilling Europeans high up on their list?
But for all the fun I’ve poked at this man and the “presence” he felt, in my short time in Laos, and in particular in Nong Khiaw, I can understand and believe in his experience.
There are few places I’ve been in the world that carry with it the burdened, quiet atmosphere that Laos does. It is a country shrouded almost literally in a choking grey smoke screen of secrecy.
At first you could be mistaken for thinking it a thick fog creeping across the hills. But it carries with it in the breeze the throat rasping smell of fire. It crawls across the countryside, between dramatic limestone formations, blocking the light from the sun as it goes. It coats the rice fields and villages in the ashes of the dead and lost jungle it carries with it. Laos is becoming a charred wasteland at the hands of foreign loggers who, not content with raping their own countryside have paid for the
Tuk-tuks, Huay Xai
Another gem of a photograph from the Susiemaroon collection. Note the way your eye is drawn from left to right and the wonderful colours, accentuated by the crimson of the first vehicle and the setting suns orange glow. $300.
right to do the same in a country that has little but the natural beauty of its landscape and people. The loggers legacy is the dead, black, smouldering, stubbled hillsides, displaced villages and dangerously low numbers of indigenous species including tigers and bears.
But Laos is no stranger to suffering quietly at the hands of foreigners with their own agenda.
In the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s Laos was, quietly, another victim of American foreign policy. Objecting to their inclusion in a democratically elected coalition government, the CIA oversaw the arrest of the popular Pathet Lao and in doing so began a guerrilla war. Not wanting to commit ground troops, the US financed Royal Lao troops and Thai and Hmong mercenaries to fight their war for them. The “secret war” - an effort to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail - began in 1964 and lasted 9 years with the US dropping more explosives on Laos than has ever fallen on any country - more even than fell on Germany during World War II. What the Americans found to bomb in this highly underdeveloped country is really beyond me, but by the time they left the countryside had a
Village near Luang Nam Tha
We hired bikes and headed for the hills. Thankfully, the hills we headed for were not as dramatic as some of the ones surrounding us and our lungs and legs survived yet another gruelling test. My arse on the other hand felt like it had been used as batting practise by Freddy Flintoff and chums.
whole new array of unusual round crater ponds. Nobody knows for sure how many died because Laos was not developed enough to hold censuses and keep records of births and deaths.
Laos just doesn’t seem to stop burning. The thick grey smoke of the present that drifts across the hills, through the trees and hangs over wooden hut villages carries with it an eerie sense of secrecy and history. It’s perhaps of little surprise then that what it leaves in its wake and all that remains is ghosts.
That’s the serious bit over. Honest. I promise not to give you too much history or travel related gumpf ever again.
One of the photographs in our selection, appropriately titled “Ghost - But No Sign of Demi Moore”, is our evidence of ghostly goings on in Laos. The caption explains all.
Personally I’m not a great believer in things spiritual. As I tried to explain to our excited travelling acquaintance, I have experience with people who’ve fallen victim to the old “strange presence” in the bed thing.
One dark, dark night, many moons ago when I was a student, one of my housemates (yes, house - not
Rice Hut, near Luang Nam Tha
Like Pizza Hut but with less cheese.
flat - we lived at the top of a dark hill, in an old mansion house built on the site of an old Indian burial ground - there was a persistent, eerie smell of Pakora and Chicken Tikka Masala) had a similar experience.
She told us that as she slept she was aware of someone or something holding her down and breathing on her cheek. This from the girl who had a large picture of a young Mick Jagger on the wall above her bed. We’ve all seen the bit in Ghostbusters 2 where the aging bloke with the funny eyes steps out of the painting. Since the Stones were clinically dead for most of the Forty Winks tour, its not beyond the realms of possibility that during the break between “Satisfaction” and “Jumping Jack Flash” Mick momentarily died on stage and, desperate for his Ventolin inhaler and a cuppa, fell out of the picture and ended up wheezing on her bed. She did make a lot of tea and lived in a house full of asthmatic students. Seriously, we might as well have lived in a retirement home - tea, wheezing, FHM and beds you didn’t want to
My Pants Float, river near Luang Nam Tha
Bob treks bravely toward the man in his pants.
Check out the definition in those calf muscles. Like a well sculpted race horse.
think about how many people had died in.
Over the next months there were further ghostly sightings in the house - none of which I was party too I’d like to add. Vik woke one night thinking that one of our housemates was sitting at the end of the bed in his pyjamas. He denied it the next morning, though I suspect that with the only PC in the house located next to our bed, the urge to play Championship Manager may have been too strong. I can recall several occasions when we’d play Championship Manager while Vik slept. If she ever did raise her head we’d sway from side to side and say things like “wooooo! Its all a dream… go back to sleep… or get up and make us a peanut butter sandwich.”
Then there was the pixie on the stairs. Except it was a really tall pixie and the housemate who saw it only saw the curly toes of its bright shoes as it ran upstairs.
I don’t recall what time of year this was, but I don’t think it could have been one of Santa’s little helpers returning to peel the price tags off
Dragons & Smoke, near Luang Nam Tha
Its just before 4pm. The haze in the background and the slightly orange tint is due to the sun being blocked by thick smoke from burning jungle. The black dots filling the sky are not due to a dirt lens, but are infact hundreds, neigh billions!, of dragon flys.
someone’s Christmas present.
More likely is that someone thought everyone was out of the house and decided to dress in their secret weekend clothing. I’ve never been one for Leprechaun fantasies, but I believe there are people out there who like nothing better than the feel of a long red beard and a velvet green tunic. When we were interviewing for housemates, clearly this is a question we overlooked.
To this day, the people who lived in that house (with the exception of a mentally stable few - yours truly included) maintain that there was a “presence” in the house. However, their descriptions of a heavy breathing, pyjama wearing pixie seem somewhat unusual, even for the spirit world. Links
My Library project: http://www.thelanguageproject.dreamhosters.com/langproj3b/index.php/gallery/album-8/35
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