Bet On A Budget
So there I was upside down with nothing on the clock but the maker’s name. And, it looked like rain. To my front were hills, wet green hills with grey wreaths of cloud wrapping the lower slopes looking lush and jungley and wet. To my left was Thailand, right was further into Laos and for some reason the words to Buick Six started running through my head…’ I got this graveyard woman, you know she keeps my kid, But my soulful mama, you know she keeps me hid…’. Except this was Wilko Johnson’s version.
Why this should be so I have no idea but maybe something to do with the hangover; I noticed people were looking, the drivers of the line of trucks parked there until the border opened presumably wondering what the knob head without a brolly or luggage was doing standing at the side of the road. Well there was a market of sorts behind the trucks so I thought it best to find out a couple answers, like, where was the nearest centre of habitation and how far? Even better – and how to get there? Questions, questions, answers sometimes, and such is life, so I wandered down to the market, sat down and asked for a beer.
As Laos is it naturally took all of ten seconds before the audience arrived and the usual questions began which whilst answering between swallows, I had a few of my own to be answered.
“Where is the next place?”. Giggles, laughter, tee-hee-hees, “Pakse”. “How far?”. “Two hours, three hours. Could be two hours…could be three…maybe”. Tee-hee-hee. “More beer?”. “Yes thanks”. It was beginning to get very rainy dark by now, I could smell the greenery and felt that if it was all that way to habitation I’d best find a way to get there. Most pronto if such a condition (Which I very much doubt) exists in Laos. It appeared there were two ways to get there, one being to wait until the border opened at 6pm for the trucks and hitch a ride on an incoming or get a taxi. “Taxi?”. Giggle, giggle, tee-hee, ‘Yes, taxi”. I had a look around, I could see wet green hills with clouds attached, I could see a laterite road, I could see trucks, I was in a small market, but taxis I did see not. ‘Hmmmmmm’.
A guy arrived all grins and handshakes, this then was my taxi it appeared, so after finishing the beer we wandered across to behind the parked trucks to find a vehicle that once upon an age ago had resembled a Toyota Corolla, but was alas no longer in it’s prime. Cracked windscreen, rag in the petrol filler, one headlamp and back windows that didn’t wind up completely – it also stank of petrol inside so I figured that smoking was probably out of the question. Two women were standing around, one holding a baby, both I’d guess to be mid or late twenties and both of whom spoke far better Thai than I did Lao which was a relief as I’d then know when they were planning to murder me for my meagre means. As far as I could work out this was a three way split to Pakse as that’s where they were bound for as well and we agreed some monumental figure in Kip which in reality was about 10 U.S.. I’ve been in these parts far too long to actually expect them to cough their share but it was nice they made sharing noises expecting me to be all gentlemanly and shush away their offers, them being poor and all. Yea ; Like fuck, I was skint as well and had a sight further to go than they had, so there gals. As these things are in the Land of Sleepy People, rations had to be procured before any journey so sugary drinks and snacks were bought and a few beers for the driver and self before we climbed aboard for what promised to be a boring or not two or three hours or not. It actually started to my surprise… Eventually.
And we were off leaving the border point at Chong Mek behind to head for the rain laden hills where I fervently hoped we would not break down unless we were heading downhill. It was a nice journey, the ladies chattered away, the driver chattered away, the baby found me to be a great source of amusement, ‘grin-grin’ “What the heck is that thing Ma?”. Guess who ended up holding the baby? Yup. We dawdled along stopping now and then for a smoke and to enjoy the jungley scenery, the occasional heavy raindrop splashing down with the threat of lots more to come, we communicated amiably, had comfortable silences and the baby gurgled and grinned and kicked it’s little leggies seeming happy in my lap content to suck on a finger dipped in beer. Piece of piss this fatherhood business you know.
We crossed the river on a nice shiny new bridge and after a time duly arrived at Pakse where we stopped at the market and unloaded the ladies who promptly scampered off leaving me in the back with the baby. I looked at the driver who smiled. “One minute” he said in reply to my unasked question and sure enough the baby was duly collected with much ‘bye-byes’, but I did notice no loot had changed hands for their share of the fare. Next thing, find a guest house which is easy as they all have a yellow sign outside which announces the fact that this is a guest house so we just drove round until I saw a sign and asked the driver to head off down that lane which was basically a clay mud track. The place was surprising, brand new, spanking new and looked like some millionaire pad in Pattaya. It was also deserted. ‘Funky’ I thought.
There was an outside reception cum bar area so as it was 3pm it was probable that the staff were asleep somewhere around and where better to look than behind the counter? Struck lucky and found an inert form there which on waking to my cough looked around, saw me then took off for a back office. Seemed reasonable that she’d gone to get reinforcements so after paying off the driver sat down and waited and thought that this place was a score as guest houses were subject to pricing control so my very limited budget wasn’t going to get completely erased overnight. Still looked like rain, the sky by now a mean grey colour the cloud base seeming to be mere hundreds of feet above ground and no way a night for sleeping rough…..
Whilst waiting for someone to arrive I helped myself to a bottle of beer and sat down then contemplated the vagrancies of going on the piss with Mr S. I should rephrase that to read ‘going for dinner’. Six and half a dozen really if you’ve known him as long as I have.
The previous afternoon it had been suggested that we at the factory as the office was named, should decamp to an eatery in Samsen and enjoy a sociable session munching, drinking, listening to tunes and probably execrable attempts at karaoke which was more or less standard wherever we ended up. Cars were loaded and off we went, the Wee Leks priming their appetites as the wheels went round and round with Wee Lek No.3 getting into Brandy slugging mode as is her wont and with great hilarity. Samsen, as you probably know has a railway station and as the night wore on Mr S suggested that he may perhaps catch a train up to Ubon to see some former workmates for the weekend. Later, it was suggested ‘just for fun’ that I accompany him. Fair enough by me. Later still a bet seemed to be on offer which I had a bit of a problem following but seemed to involve me getting from Chong Mek to Savanakhet on 1000 Baht and collected back in Mudkahan on the Monday morning. Having had many beers this still seemed to be an impossibility as the entry visa for Laos was 1400 and the usual 100 ‘Overtime’ payment to speed things up would end up in a nett loss before we even set off. The gig was finalised as they’d see me over the border and leave me with the 1000 on Saturday morning and see me on Monday morning. Maybe.
The great problem with betting during a night of drinking is that it affects judgement. In my case it affected my previous geographical studies and knowledge of the area in that Savanakhet is a fair ways from Chong Mek and there isn’t a direct route. Well, there is always the option to walk directly but this would in my considered opinion be most unwise. The small matter of two overnights and sustenance plus travel seemed to have slipped my mind as well. Tsk, tsk, silly old me.
Well, they got the pot together and on asking what my share of the winnings would be Wee Lek No., 1 replied, “Life”. Very droll. Someone went to get tickets and later we poured out of the joint for the train whereby Mr S and I boarded, found our seats to be converted to sleepers at a later time then found the buffet car to continue our beer assault.
Morning found us pulling into Ubon an hour late for whatever reason,( just make like the locals, make one up), so time being short as the border closed at noon, I stopped on the platform to buy a packet of fags. “Hoksip Baht” sez the lady. “Samsip baht sez I. She repeated the price was 60 Baht. I replied that they were 38 Baht in jolly old Bangers and that was the government set price. So there. Then she got offensive. So I got offensive. My Thai is jolly good for being offensive and casting insult upon those deserving of it as I perceived this wench of being. Mr S’s mates had turned up and were watching with undisguised interest at this Saturday morning spectacle and indeed was probably the most interesting thing that had happened in Ubon since an F-105 had piled in in 1972. Eventually she complimented me on my lingual abilities and we had a bit of a laugh before muggins here coughed the sixty Baht for the fags. Aye, and if some former girlfriends had complimented me more on my lingual abilities they’d probably be far better off by now, but that’s another matter.
Photos were taken to show that we actually were at Ubon railway station before loading into the pick up for a dreary drive to the border, which is in reality is very far away if you are sitting in the back being bounced around on every pot hole and bump without a cushion to sit on and in great danger of spilling the resident beer. We stopped for a few minutes to buy some barbequed chicken before heading off again with myself feeling quite the Gent there gnawing away on a scrawny leg and waving imperiously at the occasional native we passed. Noone threw a spear at me so I couldn’t have caused too much offence.
Duly we arrived at Chong Mek and started the hunt for a joint to do passport photos for the Lao visa. Here’s the rub and proves that the fates had conspired to lead me on this path :- I never carry my passport in Thailand. My EU driving licence has always sufficed as a means of I.D. even when entering military installations which I had to do from time to time. Just that once for some reason I’d left the office with it in my pocket and I still cannot remember the reason why. Maybe a Wee Lek had ‘magicit’ into my pocket, being as they are, Hawwy Potten fans and were forever running around in fits of giggles ‘magiciting’ things.
Example; In my part of the factory I had my very own fridge that I used to prime with Kit Kats for coffee time munchies. I’d wander away for a minute or two then on opening the fridge would find no Kit Kats. “Where are my fucking Kit Kats?”, I would suggest and be met with three sets of very serious eyes whereupon a Wee Lek would announce that they’d been ‘magicit’ directly to their desks and had had no option but to eat this gift from ‘anutter place’. I’d walk away followed by shrieks of hilarity. I don’t doubt for a minute that they knew that I knew that they were lying through their teeth, but what can one do?
Passport piccies done we duly ambled across the border, stamped out of Thailand, grabbed the form at the Lao end, sat down and began to fill it in. Mr S insisted on filling in the reason for visiting to be a bet and duly did so in Thai script and to me at least it looked as though he’d written a bit more than that, but whatever, it got a smile from the Immigration chap who visa’d me in then directed me to the entry stamp guy for his 100 Baht ‘overtime’ fee whereupon I was dumped after ensuring that I had only 1000 and chump change on me. Chump being the operative word in this instance. For those thinking I might fiddle it, at that time the only ATMs in Laos were in Vientianne but was way the wrong direction and so not part of the plan at all.
So there I was upside down with nothing on the clock but the maker’s name. And, it looked like rain.
My daydreaming was interrupted by the arrival of a tall lass who chattered away in Lao. I asked if she could speak English. Nope. Could she speak Thai? Sigh…yes…but didn’t like to (In Thai). Room was about 150 Baht per night and excellent, hot water, bathtub, separate shower and never used before. Absolutely spotless. Did she want a copy of my passport? Nope. Best have a beer then and do some hard financial planning. How much is beer? Worked out to be about 20 Baht a large bottle. Two brownie points so far then, great digs @ verycheap.info and cheap beer @ verycheap.info. Next thing to do was trog off down to the market and change money as every shoppette selling gold or silver in Laos doubles as a money changer. The concept of me walking a whole Kilometre was met with outright horror and the inert lass was instructed to fire up her little Soviet two stroke and run me down, but no touching, right? Quite how you are supposed to sit on the back of a wee motorbike and not have any bodily contact with the rider is beyond me, but suffice to say we arrived back with her unimpregnated and a bonny new scarf that I’d scored for her for all of 50 Baht or 120 million Kip or thereabouts. Next question was food, where to buy? Tall lass pointed, ‘thataways’ so I headed off up the muddy lane trying to keep out of the puddles while a bunch of kids did their accidental best to splash me which in itself led to them practising their English while they walked to the food market with me. (Small note to Thailand : 10 year old kids in Pakse speak far better English than University graduates in Bangkok. There’s reason for that and it’s called ‘being up your own arse and not outward looking’).
Third brownie point was enough sticky rice, chicken and som tam to feed a regiment for a mere 200 million Kip or 80 Baht. ‘Should’ve brought a rucksack’ I thought. So hand in hand with the bairns we walked back while they learned to sing, ‘Fee fye fo fum I smell the blood of an Englishman, be he here, be he there…’ They thought it was great fun and soon adopted trying to be menacing whilst saying it with enormous grins. Regular educator I am. Suffice to say a good crowd had gathered to meet the stranger in town so fun was had by all as we polished off the grub and some more beers before I thought to turn in as Sunday had to be an early morning.
It rained that night, goodness me, it rained like thunder and it got cold but a quilt had been provided so I slumbered happy as a warm little puppy listening to the downpour outside and the smell of the wet undergrowth permeating my room. I always sleep like a log in Laos – the local’s habits must be contagious.
Morning brought me to at the ungodly hour of seven and after a quick shower was ready to join in for the next part of the trek. Outside was still grey with heavy looking clouds, the mountains a dark wet green with tendrils of mist around the lower reaches which did not bode well for happy campers such as I, so approaching the desk interrupted the gals having their breakfast. Smiles met me, guests being few and far between I suppose, and was offered some of whatever it was they were eating. I declined as politely as I could as intestinal soup is not my ideal morning repast and enquired as to the whereabouts of the bus station fully expecting it to be around about the market area. Nope, it was thataway about 40 minutes. By walking? That horrified look again…then, no, by samlor. Where’s the samlors? Tall lass waved her arm around to which I understood to mean, everywhere. Well, everywhere except where I was actually standing, naturally. I noticed her looking at my handphones, I had two cheapies both on Thai networks which were sod all use in Laos, so in the interests of international relations removed the SIM card from one and gave it to her. The sparkle in her eyes fairly brightened the day but the realisation that a 1000 Baht phone was probably two weeks pay for her was a reality check not to be ignored.
Many ‘bye-byes’ later I hefted my luggage, (Wallet containing 300 or so Baht in Kip), and squelched up the lane to the road to await a samlor. Not a lot seemed to be happening, no traffic, no people, no dogs, cats or errant reptiles. Just wet looking mountains and the smell of fresh rainfall. After a time a samlor arrived in the distance and slowly coursed towards me where after stopping and the obligatory greetings found that we could indeed travel to the bus station for a teensy weensy consideration. Country samlors in Laos are very civilised ; The passenger sits beside the rider on a chassis welded onto the motorbike frame so that conversation may be made whilst perambulating. This is nice as is the standard speed of a fast walking pace which I have come to understand exists for two reasons. One is to save fuel and the second is that it is harder to converse if going any faster due to wind noise. As we headed out of town I looked around and saw…wet looking mountains. And not a lot else.
After half an hour or so we came upon what was obviously a provincial airstrip and of course, I remembered Air America and their shenanigans out of Pakse then wondered if Mel Gibson was around to be my co-pilot so we could steal a Porter or a C-47 and make a run for the border, thence to Soi Cowboy and tell lies. I pointed and said to the driver, “Air America, eh?”. I think his reply was “Wankers” or something like that before he scrounged another cigarette. Another ten minutes or so and on the left he indicated what was a bus station. O.K., there was a bus there, a small single story concrete building and obviously a little food market. And, a bus park full of water filled potholes. But nothing else, a lonely outpost to serve the airport assuming there were actually any flights. Driver paid off and pop-popping into the distance I made my way to the ticket desk avoiding the potholes, then stood and surveyed the destinations with some glee and wished that I had a few more bucks than I currently had. I could go to Vietnam for less than the price of a taxi from Sukhumvit to Thonburi and smiled at the thought of Mr S waiting patiently for me in Mudkahan whilst I was cavorting (Or whatever it is they do) in Vietnam.
The two ticket ladies were looking at me inscrutably, puzzled I imagine at the sight of a foreigner standing there at 8am with no luggage and all alone. We soon surmised that Pigeon English was an acceptable means of communication or Pigeon French or even better, Lao. Thai was a no-no for some reason so we settled on a version of English.
“Where you going?”.
“Eh? (Puzzled look) That’s in Thailand”.
“No have bus go”.
“Yes, Savanakhet please”.
“Savanakhet no Mudkahan”.
(Smile) “Savanakhet please”.
(Big smile) “O.K., too hundred an twenty million Kip”. Actually, that bit is a lie. It worked out about 90 Baht. Ticket bought and the info that the bus was to arrive and leave in 30 minutes gave me time for a sit down in the food market to peruse cloudy dark skies, and, wet green mountains. Also a bunch of people sitting around saying nothing but grunts over their bowls or drinks, rainy Sunday mornings being the same the world over I suppose.
A bus turned up. A Dinky toy sized bus. I wondered where the bus was that had brought the bus then asked the guys sitting opposite me if that bus went to Savanakhet. It did. At least it was air con, it had no doors. This would be useful if hijacked and a quick exit required…
To be cont. TT.
Welcome back! It's nice to see stories from those who haven't written in a long time.