A Trip To Laos
Having rested up overnight in Bangkok after an arduous trek back from Cambodia, it was time to head off into the wild once again. The first leg of the trip was an overnight train to Nong Khai in the far north-east of Thailand, an area known as the Isaan region. Grabbing my pack, I climbed aboard the train and found my seat. The carriage was relatively empty on this particular journey, even though I had noticed a substantial number of passengers waiting on the platform. It only occurred to me later that the passengers were mostly Thai, no doubt impoverished Isaan locals who were more than likely crammed into the Third Class carriages at the rear of the train as the 30-odd baht ticket was all they could afford. So for bugger all baht they got to cram into what is basically an empty boxcar with no seats, with 200 other of the country’s poorest citizens for the 13-hour journey (13 hours scheduled – in reality the journey took more like 16).
About twenty minutes into the journey, the waitress/hostess came by and took orders for dinner and breakfast and even offered to open the bottle of Chang beer that I had purchased at the 7-11 prior to the trip and now had sitting on the table in front of me. She did this and even brought me a glass and poured it for me, before sitting in the seat opposite and pouring a glass for her self. So there we sat for the next ten minutes chatting while she sipped away at her drink. She finished up and decided she had better go and take the remaining passengers’ dinner orders. Dinner arrived at around 7:30, served up by my friendly hostess, who enquired if I would like another beer with my meal (no doubt a subtle hint that she would like another beer). The beer promptly arrived with three fresh glasses. My dutiful hostess poured one for me, one for herself and the third for a co-worker who appeared from out of nowhere. It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling all over to be reassured that just because I had escaped Bangkok, that did not mean that the rest of the country’s locals didn’t know how to milk a cash cow Farang at any given opportunity.
After dinner, my table was removed and my double seat was folded out into the cocoon that was to serve as my bed for the evening. At 5’9” I could only just lay down in it, head gently touching the headboard and toes rubbing against the adjacent wall. Had I been any taller I’d have been resigned to sleeping in the foetal position. With the bed made up, I propped myself up and started penning in my diary, when I made the unwise decision to open the bottle of Mae Kong Whiskey I had brought along for the trip.
Much is written about the incredible sense of smell possessed by sharks. It is said that a Great White Shark can smell a drop of blood in the ocean from over a mile away. Well those predators of the deep have nothing on the supernatural ability of Thais to smell free alcohol. As if guided by some sixth sense, no sooner had the bottle been retrieved from my pack, than my ever-dutiful hostess made yet another appearance with two glasses. She unapologetically perched herself on the bed next to me and poured both myself and her a glass of the formidable brown liquid. This accomplished, she lifted her glass in salute and let out a gleeful “Chork de kar!” Somewhat amused by the strange creature’s flippancy I raised my glass and let out a bemused “Cheers”. We sat there and drank our way through the better part of the bottle as we chatted on. Throughout the conversation, it became obvious from the way she rubbed my thigh and occasionally “accidentally” lingered a little high until she could feel she was getting the desired result, that her services as regarding the bed weren’t necessarily limited to simply making it; and food and drink were not the only things she had for sale. I had previously been informed that many girls in “respectable” jobs often moonlight as freelance prostitutes. It is quite common for hotel receptionists for example, to offer other services after their shift is finished, so the revelation that my endearing drinking partner dabbled in the ‘pay for play’ scene really came as no surprise. I managed to extract myself from the clutches of my hostess come prostitute, put the remainder of the Mae Kong back in my pack and curled up for a good night’s sleep.
Come 7 AM and a rather dishevelled and hung-over looking ‘little miss short time’ made her way through the carriage waking people for breakfast. It never ceased to amuse me as I travelled through the kingdom that, even though the natives can hold their liquor better than their brethren living in the west, the Thais are still no match for Farangs when it comes to putting away the booze, yet they will practically kill themselves trying to keep up – I can only surmise that it comes down to the whole ‘loss of face’ complex that is predominant in Thai culture. While pondering this thought, I enjoyed my breakfast (sans hostess) and quietly took in the water buffalo strewn landscape as the train made its way to Nong Khai.
It was after 10:30 when the train finally arrived at Nong Khai station. Impossible to miss the stop as it was the last on the line with the railway tracks terminating some twenty metres beyond the platform. The Mekong river lay less than a kilometre to the north and beyond it lay the communist state of Laos (paradoxically named ‘Laos – People's Democratic Republic’).
“Tuk tuk,” “Taxi – missar you wan taxi?”
Ahhh the incessant chirp of the tuk tuk and moto drivers. After sixteen hours on a train I was starting to develop delirium tremens from my sudden and forced withdrawal from the exposure to these hawking male equivalents of the Pattaya bargirls. But alas, even here in the extreme north-east of the country, as far away from civilisation as anyplace in Thailand, you could still rely on the moto-touts to badger you non-stop the instant you step off of the train (or any other obvious form of tourist transport) and are within visual and audible distance. Here at Nong Khai, they lay congregated around the only entrance/exit from the station. A formidable gauntlet you have no option but to run if you want to leave the station. I am in no rush, the border is open till 6, so as soon as I see the impending onslaught I execute a quick u-turn and retreat into the sanctity of the train station, figuring I have time on my side and can wait for the ravenous mob to dissipate as they ferry off their overcharged victims one by one. I rifle through my daypack to dig out my copy of the Lonely Planet and explore my options. It is at this point I realise part of my pack is quite wet. As I remove the items I so carefully stuffed into my pack the day before, I discover the source of the strange dampness. My trusty bottle of Mae Kong, destroyer of hostess-whores Thailand over, has cracked and the contents leaked down the front of my pack. I come to the only logical conclusion as to how the bottle ended up in this condition. Last night as I slumbered peacefully, with my bottle of liquid joy secured in my locked daypack, there was evil afoot. My recently departed hostess, there can be no doubt; was in her bunk at the end of the cabin trying with all her might to will the blessed fluid into her bloodstream via osmosis. Such was the strength and determination of her attack, that she succeeded in cracking the bottle to release the precious liquid and its aromatic vapours.
I take a nervous look over my shoulder, just to check if she has detected the scent of alcohol but no, she has not appeared. I quickly remove the bottle and place it in a pile of garbage stacked beside a 44 gallon drum doubling as a bin on the platform, taking care to spread the remaining contents over as wide an area as possible to create the strongest possible scent and thus, draw attention away from my now fragrant daypack. After returning to my pack and cleaning it as best I could with the minimum number of tissues (these are like gold here, no toilet stocks toilet paper, even in department stores or restaurants, so one must vigilantly carry tissues to ensure one is never caught in a compromising and uncomfortable position). The cherished pieces of paper were added to the aforementioned pile of refuse before I repacked my daypack and continued my perusal of the Lonely Planet guidebook to determine my next course of action. The book suggests that the cheapest way to reach the border is to get the bus that departs from the bus depot, just north of the station. After brushing past the assembled throng of touts at the station entrance, I turn and head north (not exactly following a compass, but I presume that heading generally in the direction of the border is north). A quick reconnaissance of the area reveals a couple of roadside vendors but no bus stop. So I decide to ask the vendors for help.
“Sawadee kup” I say, and she replies with a “Sawadee kar” of her own and immediately tries to sell me some of the local grub (which in this case is quite literally grubs).
“Mai ow kup”, I reply, “bai rot may tee glai tee soot yoo tee mai” (I don’t want bugs thankyou, where is the nearest bus stop?)
“Ja bai mai” she says, (where are you going?)
“Mai rot may, tuk tuk” (you don’t take the bus, take a tuk tuk)
“Mai ow tuk tuk, ow rot may” (I would rather drag myself by my lips to the border than be forced to pay those thieves to transport me, I want a bus)
“Tuk tuk” (I’m not going to help you because you are a rich farang and we are poor Thai, so I hope those tuk tuk drivers totally fleece you)
She then waves to a tout and calls out “tuk tuk” at the top of her voice (this is my husband, I would prefer that he was the one to fleece you so that I can share in the bounty).
I give up the exercise and head back to the sanctuary of the train station, the tuk tuk driver in hot pursuit. I wave him off and say “later, later” and I head back into the station. I spot a fellow traveller who had been in my carriage last night, a Swede called Bjorn who was also heading to Laos. Bjorn was trying (and failing) to communicate with the stationmaster, asking “where do I get the bus?” in English, French and then finally what I assume is Swedish. The stationmaster responds to each attempt with “Pom mai kow jai pah sar falang” (I don’t understand farang language). An obvious impasse here, as I assumed the Swede could not speak any Thai, or hence would have understood the answer. I walked over and started chatting with the Swede and we ended up getting a tuk tuk to the border together as my brief conversation with the stationmaster yielded much the same result as my conversation with the bug vendor.
Begrudgingly Bjorn and I headed out to face our destiny amongst the assembled hordes that despite the passage of time, had not appeared to have thinned out any. We asked some of the drivers “how much go border” and we got prices varying from 400 – 100 baht. Knowing full well that the border was only a kilometre or so away, even at 100 baht that is still a rip off, but in the 40 degree heat that early March produces, hauling 30kg of luggage on my back that distance was less appealing than being screwed by this tuk tuk driver. “ONE HUNDRED baht” I said, loud and clear to the driver, who gave me a full mouth smile as he nodded his head and said “yes, yes, one hunlet baht”. I then quietly spoke to my newfound friend and asked him if he had his visa yet? He, like me had not, so I said not to fall for this guy tying to organise it for us as you get a visa on arrival at the border. The tuk tuk engine fired into life, and we were off. A few hundred meters down the road and around the bend to the right, then sure enough it came. “You stop here, you get visa, vellllly cheap,” and the tuk tuk began to decelerate. As if it was rehearsed to perfection, Bjorn and myself in synchronisation both screamed “No, no, have visa already!”
“You have visa alledy?” enquired the tuk tuk driver.
“Yes, just go border thank you”
“You sure you have visa?” he enquired in a suspicious tone?
“Yes, we get visa in Bangkok already” I said as I then questioned myself as to why I felt I needed to justify myself to this con artist. “Just go border.”
All 5cc’s of the tuk tuk’s engine roar as the infernal machine gathers pace. A few hundred more metres on and we swing left for another hundred metres or so and then right again and it's fifty metres or so to the border. We jump off the tuk tuk and Bjorn gives the driver the agreed 100 baht bill, I get out a fifty to give Bjorn, when the driver smiles a buck-toothed grin at me and holds out his hand.
“He pay you 100 baht already” I said
“You pay too” he replied
“I say ‘100 baht’, you say, ‘yes 100 baht’, he give you 100 baht already”
“Yes, yes, one hunlet baht…. Each”.
Thirty minutes in the departure line, waiting to get the stamp in the passport and a 30 baht bus ride across the Thai-Laos friendship bridge which spans the Mekong and we are at the Laos immigration gate. Another half hour and US$30 later and we get the visa and entry stamp in the little blue book. We proceed to walk down the walkway out to the bus stop when we arrive at a checkpoint.
The guard asks us “you have entry ticket?”
We show our passport with the entry stamp but the guard replies. “You need entry ticket.”
What? Isn’t that what you get your passport stamped for? Or is Laos, in addition to being the world’s most heavily bombed country, some sort of giant amusement park that requires an entry ticket as well as formal government approval?
“Where get ticket?” I ask.
The guard points to a stand about twenty metres back from where we just came. So we proceed back to the little stall, get relieved of another US$10 and are handed a little, yellow piece of paper that appeared to have come from a yellow legal pad cut into 2 by 3 inch pieces. Each piece of yellow paper had the word ‘ENTRY’ stamped on it in red ink with one of those cheap stamps that librarians use to stamp return dates in books. We take our newly acquired entry ticket back to the guard at the checkpoint who, having just watched me buy the ticket, takes the little piece of paper and proceeds to examine it thoroughly to ensure it is indeed genuine. It is examined front and back, held up to the light and rubbed between his fingers to ensure it has the correct texture. Once satisfied that I have indeed legally acquired the ticket and that is indeed legitimate, he tears the paper in half, then in half again and then a third time to ensure this highly illicit contraband does not fall into the wrong hands and says in a most authoritative tone “PROCEED.” Bjorn then hands over his ticket and the examination process begins anew. Although amused by the apparent bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake of the process, I am also somewhat relieved to be in a country where the government officials appear to take their jobs seriously and act professionally, a far cry from Thailand and Cambodia who it must be said, have both got the best government officials that money can buy.
Heading out into the bus depot, what a welcome sight it is to be greeted by yet another marauding horde of tuk tuk and moto drivers. Then it came, the inevitable…
“Missar, where you go?”
“You wan tuk-tuk? Only fie dollar.”
“Mai ow, rot may” Oh crap I thought, they don’t speak Thai here, “No, no thankyou, we get bus”
“You wan woman? Massage, boom boom?”
I once again declined his gracious offer.
“You want ganja?”
I look around. I am about 5 metres from this purveyor of Laos’ finest leaf and probably that exact distance from the guard who is now scrutinising the entry ticket of an English girl in her twenties – clearly within earshot of this member of the constabulary, who is not the slightest bit concerned. So much for my impression that the Laos officials were more steadfast than their southern counterparts! Perhaps the whole entry ticket thing is just another scam?
“No ganja thanks.”
This time with a slightly softer voice, “you wan cocay?”
“No thankyou, no drugs.”
“OK, OK no dlug…” a slight pause followed as he pondered what else he could sell me, then came “Missar… you wan hair-o-ween?”
By this time we are past his tuk tuk so we wave the tout away and proceed across the road to what we assume, judging from all the locals gathered, is the bus stop. Relieved to finally get a chance to sit down, have a drink and wait for the bus. It is at this point, Bjorn notices liquid seeping from his pack. He hurriedly opens it and starts dragging out various electronic gadgets. Bjorn it turns out, is one of the new breed of backpackers – flashpackers is the term that has been coined. In a matter of seconds the pavement around his bag (and in the midst of dirt poor locals) is displaying more electronic gadgetry than the Pentagon control room. The gadgetry that sustains him on his travels; two mobile phones with enough functionality to launch and control a satellite, a PDA, a 15” ultralight laptop with wireless connectivity, Bluetooth and every kind of port and slot imaginable, USB keys, Flash cards, CDs, a camera and associated equipment that Jim Brandenburg would be proud to call his own, an iPod and cables of all types and sizes to ensure that each item can connect and interface with each other. The locals look on in amusement at this strange farang who is meticulously dissembling and drying these strange, funny looking gadgets that look like toys you would give to a baby, while he lets his clothes get wet with some mystery liquid. Finally the electronic array is patted dry and baking in the sun and Bjorn’s attention returns to the leaking bag. His hand enters the pack and emerges a few seconds later with the culprit item. A broken bottle of vodka. In a panic I scan the faces in the crowd around us, looking for her. She must be nearby casting her evil spell over us but no, she is nowhere to be seen, she is many kilometres away on the train bound for Bangkok. I can only think to myself, “Indeed the force IS strong in that one.”
After a short wait, what looks like a battered and beaten, rusted out stretch minivan, painted with blue and white house paint arrives and the locals file in. I ask the driver if he is going into Vientiane, but I can’t understand his reply. Bjorn meanwhile has had his first successful linguistic interaction with the natives today; one of the passengers understood enough English to confirm that this is indeed the bus to Vientiane. The price for our chariot; the princely sum of 4,000 Kip (about 45c), roughly one tenth of the price quoted by our smiling tuk-tuk driving, drug dealing, pimp. We jump on board, standing room only but the locals are friendly and make room and help us get our backpacks in. I spent the trip standing in the door way, slightly concerned as the folding door was not controlled and locked from the driver’s seat (as was the vehicle manufacture’s intention) but rather given free play on its hinges to open or close as it or the vehicle’s, cornering-induced centripetal forces so decided. Further to my dilemma was that the door hinged outwards so leaning against it would not secure it but to the contrary would result in a very nasty case of gravel rash and possibly several broken bones. Looking desperately for anything to grab hold of and stabilise myself against the driver's erratic style of driving, the best I could muster was stand on my tippy-toes and reach up and push hard against the ceiling and hope this would secure me sufficiently. Suddenly I felt some hands grab my waist and I turned to see a pretty young local girl seated in the row behind me whom, sensing my distress at my predicament, had reached over and put her arms around my waist and held on to me. I turned and smiled and whispered “thanks” to her. She just smiled back. Seated next to her was an older woman in her fifties or sixties, who was not too impressed with what she saw. She said something in Lao to the younger girl and after a brief exchange, shooed the young woman’s hands away and proceeded to hold onto me herself. I just smiled and said thankyou to the older women. I can only assume the older woman was the younger one’s mother or aunt and was trying to protect her daughter’s image (that or she just wanted to grope a young farang herself in the guise of helping him out).
Arriving at the bus terminus in Vientiane, Bjorn and I find a tuk-tuk to take us to our desired guesthouse. We finally negotiate a price of $3, because “it is velly long way – on other side of town,” funny the book said it was pretty central and it doesn’t look that far on the map. I attempt to point this out to our extortionist but realise from his total look of confusion at this funny picture I have placed in front of him, that he, like the majority of his fellow SE Asian residents, has no idea what a map is, let alone how to read one. We have to simply accept the extortion and jump in. To his credit, the driver does actually make an attempt to make it seem like it is a long way by driving down an alley or two and then doubling back down the next street, and generally taking a very indirect route instead of the left out of the bus terminus, down two streets, turn right and six blocks down on the corner that he could have gone. The end result was we got a mini tour of Vientiane and were able to identify where the two ATMs in the city were located. Upon arriving at our destination, we checked in and as it was $4.75 for a single room or $5.30 for a two-bed room, we chose the latter option and ended up sharing the double.
Showered and cleaned up, it was time to explore the town. First item on my agenda was the Laos National History Museum. I usually like to visit a museum first, to get an appreciation of a society and its history and culture. The museum itself was quite small, consisting of about eight rooms over two floors. Upon entry I walked through the first room, exhibiting the palaeontologic history of Laos, most of it pictures and drawings hanging from the walls. There were a few exhibits of dinosaur bone fragments and so forth but it was the large fossilised rock in the corner that caught my eye. I walked over to it, knelt down and rested my hand on it to feel the tactile reality of it. As my hand passed around to the back of the rock, between the rock and the wall I could feel something foreign, a piece of paper taped at one end to the rock. I leaned over the rock and lifted the paper up as best I could to attempt to read what it said, eventually making it out. ‘Please don’t touch rock!’ I’m sure the sign is very effective.
Moving on to the next room you are greeted by a set displaying a typical hill tribe house and surrounds and various folk handicraft to be found throughout the Laos countryside. Up a flight of stairs and you enter a room telling the story of the era of trade with the Dutch, whom the Laos appear to have admired and respected, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In stark contrast the next few rooms tell the story of colonisation and the fight for independence against first the French and later the Americans, both of whom it becomes obvious, they still dislike. Down a flight of stairs and you enter the last two rooms, which tell the story post independence and the establishment of the “glorious” communist regime that is still in power. I try to find the part of the story where it discusses how the Pathet Lao, after booting out the royals in 1975 with the aid of the Vietnamese, then effectively succeeded power to the Vietnamese and became in essence a puppet state of Vietnam for two decades however this and the subsequent Lao-Vietnamese genocide campaign against the Hmong ethnic minority were not present. I assume that they have not had time to add that last important snippet of their history into the museum’s archives yet, that will probably go into the new wing, when and if one is added. I take my leave of the museum, freshly annoyed with the Yanks and French for destroying another beautiful country, though it soon becomes evident that the influence is not quite exactly as it’s portrayed in the museum. A quick walk around town reveals a treasure chest of French colonial style buildings as well as bagel and coffee houses. The French colonisation and influence resulted in a culture that could adopt others ideas and improve upon them as is evident from the range and quality and style of buildings in Vientiane, which is far superior to Bangkok which although a behemoth by comparison, is an unending carbon copy of straight brick shanties, wooden shanties or yellow brick, shoebox shaped, villas and flats, with a throng of very similar high-rise buildings.
That night, after being shown the sights around town and then having dinner with Jans, a German backpacker in his early 40s who has been in Vientiane for over a week, we end up back at the guesthouse relaxing with a few beers. In time Bjorn joins us and we shoot the breeze chatting for a few hours. At the table next to us is a grotty specimen of western society, accent unidentifiable due to the extreme state of his inebriation. Jans informs us that this particular character has been in Vientiane longer than he has, however his time there has consisted of perching himself at that table every morning and proceeding to start drinking and to continue drinking until the bar closes (which being communist Laos is at 11 PM). Jans has never seen him eat anything substantial, he is three days overdue for a shave and smells like he hasn’t showered in the time he has been here. He looks over with bloodshot and glazed eyes, mutters something incomprehensible and has a little chuckle then drops his head back to his bottle. Fortunately this character retires to his room soon after.
Come 10.45 Jans decides to call it a night as he needs to get up early the following day to arrange his onward visa to China. Bjorn and myself decide to kick on. As the guesthouse bar is closed, we head down the road to get some drinks at the local shop. We enter the shop and begin to peruse the various offerings. As Vientiane at this time of year is still in the low 30’s even at night and without any form of refrigeration, we quickly conclude that buying more than one beer is folly, so after grabbing a pint bottle each of the local brew, we check out the spirits section. It seems the Laos have a fixation with the tiger because of the various whiskeys on offer there was, ‘White Tiger’, ‘King Tiger’, ‘Tiger King’, and ‘Tiger Black’ amongst it. Bjorn grabbed a bottle of whiskey and I grabbed a bottle of the local rice liquor (also displaying a tiger logo). This is similar to Sake but at 45% alc/vol, much stronger. In addition to bringing on inebriation, it also has applications as an engine degreaser, paint stripper, octane booster for tuk-tuk fuel and as an isotonic sports rub when Dencorub is not strong enough.
At the checkout, the cashier rings up my bill:
1 pint of beer Lao – 7,000 kip (~ 80c)
1 750ml bottle of rice liquor – 6,000 kip (~ 65c)
1 packet of local cigarettes – 2,000 kip (~ 22c)
That has got to officially make this the cheapest piss up of my life – beer, spirits and cigarettes for less than two bucks. Bjorn’s bill read much the same, having settled for the ‘King Tiger’ brand of whiskey at 6,000 kip, because after a long and painful decision making process he concluded that he could not justify spending 15,000 kip (~$1.70) on the Johnny Walker. God bless brutal, genocidal communist regimes that destroy their own economies and drive their people back to subsistence lifestyles.
Returning to our guesthouse, Bjorn and myself were quietly pleased with ourselves as we watched the hordes of drunken and partly-drunken westerners who, having been ejected from their pub at eleven, now wandered the streets searching in vanity for a venue; any venue that was open and sold alcohol, either for consumption on or off the premises and the subsequent looks of envy at the bottles of beer, whiskey and rice spirits that adorned our table. We sat talking and observing the local scantily clad ladies propositioning passers by on the corner opposite our guesthouse. By midnight, their pickings were quite slim and in short order a couple of them wandered over and sat down with us. Their English was extremely good and they were all extremely attractive girls. We chatted with these girls for the next couple of hours as we did shots of the whiskey and rice spirits and all got quite drunk. The young lady sitting to my right, who had been very flirty and touchy-feely leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“I want fuck you!”
“I didn’t come here to pay girls for sex honey, I’ll drink with you and talk all night, but I’m not gonna pay you for sex.”
“I wan fuck you” hand now rubbing my crotch with resultant physiological response on my behalf.
“Sorry baby – it’s not happening” removing her hand from my crotch.
“I wan fuck you – Free for you, No pay.” Now attempting to slide her hand into my pants.
Now I have always been of the school of thought that ‘if you pay for it – it doesn’t count’, which has ultimately guided my behaviour when pursuing women. Women who are only attempting to get money out of you and give the bare minimum in return (and this would apply to hookers as well as that certain class of women who would not consider themselves hookers but who nonetheless only hook up with a guy because he’s loaded and to those girls who want to be wined and dined and taken on 20 odd dates where you pay for everything, before she’ll let you get physical in any way shape or form), are ultimately given the flick as soon as I work out what the score is. However as I scanned through the contents of my internal guidebook of morality and principles, there was a missing entry under the bit about having sex with a girl who happened to be a prostitute but did not want to be a prostitute with you. As that hand was now working its way under my belt, inching closer and closer to my now very aroused member, I needed to make a decision quickly even though I was at a moral crisis point.
I decided to kindly reject her offer as it happened. It turns out the decision not to proceed with our union was actually a lot easier to make once I had a little more information. Information, which I could then cross-reference with other guiding principles and morals I hold myself to. Fortunately the next phrase out of her lips sealed the deal as a definite negative.
“You ever fuck ladyboy before?”
For me, a truly outstanding trip report.