Diary of The Travelling Seanchai.
2006-12-20 to 2006-12-29
Just over one week in Laos and it seemed like a month! Not because it was a drawn out, unpleasant experience, quite the contrary, but because so much happened. It is an amazing country with the most gracious of people and one that is definitely going on the `to visit again list`
Babies don`t cry in Laos, the Lao people don`t have the concept of road rage, street vendors understand that no thank you means no thank you and dogs and cats get along, happily lying beside each other in the street. (This bothered me more than I would like to admit because of my clearly stated policy on cats. It was like Laos dogs didn`t know it was there inbred right to terrorise and generally scare the wits out of these fur balls and the cats seemed to smirk at me because they knew I couldn`t speak dog to rectify this most unnatural of events). Hate cats….
But as soon as I got to Luang Prabang I knew it was somewhere I could stay a few days and on another trip maybe a few weeks. It had the feel of a small seaside town that was either a week before or week after the peak season, just the right balance of locals to tourists. They have wonderful night markets there, where the centre street gets taken over by vendors who lay their products on the ground and the 500m plus stretch of road are all lit by individual light bulbs that hang over each stall. They are so friendly that you gladly part with your kips.
I had met Hannah from Adelaide in Nha Trang and left her in Hoi An when I went north to Hanoi and she crossed into Laos. She`d met the Bournemouth girls Ruth, Kate, Nadia and Sally and Bondi boy Mick and this was to become the gang for Christmas! We ate at the night food markets where every type of meat (and I sincerely hope that includes cats) was being sold. It was like being at a food court but with no names on the food so it was all pot luck!
On Christmas Eve I thought I would have some alone time and take a mountain bike to cycle the 32km to a well known waterfall. Oh hindsight has a cruel sense of humour…
I set off, feeling very good about myself and the first few k`s went without incident as I cycled and greeted the kids that would run along side with a `Sabidee` and a wave! Then a sign appeared apologising for some road works ahead. I thought, ok, a few hundred metres, maybe at most a mile of rocks and dust roads. A predisposition to making assumptions is a dangerous trait for the traveller I was soon to discover.
This dust road was to continue for the remainder of my journey making it excrutiatingly long. Then a tuk tuk (cab) driver pulled up beside me and told me it was way too far to go on a bike and that for a few dollars he would take me. He had an evil smile and right there and then I determined to keep going myself. He just drove along side me for about a minute as I sweated away while trying to keep a smile on my face and a civil tongue in my mouth! He pulled off to wait for me at a point further ahead.
It was hard going with the trucks and cars spitting dust and stones up on me. The worst were the cabs of tourists who would wave back sympathetically at this moron on a bike as he coughed thanks to the clouds that their sympathetic cab had just spat up on him! My iPod had a sick sense of humour throwing up “Free to Decide” by the Cranberries, The Veronicas were `having a day from hell” and Ricky Gervaise was on the “Free love freeway”!
And then, just when I was getting a bit of momentum and some rhythm on this rocky path I drove straight into… a tar pit!! A tar pit?!! All the way out here? Why in God`s name were they tarring the road out here when I had just gone over 15km on pure dirt? Does Jackie Healy Rae have relations in Laos can someone check for me?I was destroyed, covered from head to toe in tar which stuck and dried into my skin. What was equally as demoralising was that the bloody road was only being tarred for 100m and then it was back to the dust road (dust and tar is a great combination everyone that is planning a particularly evil stag party)
Now any other self respecting traveller would have called it a day but oh no, I pressed on, seeing this as just another obstacle on the path to what must be the greatest waterfall man has ever seen! A little further on, my evil imp of a tuk tuk driver was back again, smiling at the obvious tarring I`d received and beckoning devilishly to give up my foolish journey and take the easy option. His salacious grin will inspire me for the rest of my life when I am about to throw in the towel. He was disappointed that I cycled on by and with good reason, the next 2 kms were all downhill! Dizzying descent but it was a welcome relief from the big climb right up until my next obstacle… a freaking huge water buffalo in the middle of the road, facing me and not looking too happy (has anyone ever seen a buffalo smile?!). Give me a brake!!
Speaking of, the brakes were on quick smart and I delved deep into my extensive library of knowledge but nothing came up for tarred and dusted cyclist to water buffalo passing etiquette so I waited till some local came along and blew his horn until the beast decided to make way. I kept going and eventually made the waterfall which was great but in fairness it would have needed to be surrounded with the finalists of Miss World dancing to a band of Elvis, Sinatra and Dean Martin while celebrating Liverpool winning the league to make it worthwhile. Ok, maybe the sun, dust, tar, scares and sore bum had made me delirious but I took a tuk tuk back (but I made sure it wasn`t with my evil tempter from earlier!)
After throwing out my clothes and washing myself with petrol first and then soap, I was able to face the world again!
Laos has 5 recognised religions and Christianty ain`t one of them. Not that that would deter the son of an Irish mother (especially one whose mother had said then that I shouldn`t have found myself in a country that didn`t recognise Jesus!) and the girls had spotted a tiny sign saying there would be a Christian service upstairs in a cafe at 8pm. We went along and about 14 of us from different countries were present. We thought that when the Canadian lady that was running it shut the doors, locked the shutters, turned out the lights and gave us candles, that she was just setting a more spiritual mood. There go those assumptions again!
It was then she told us that last Christmas a pastor had held a similar service and had then been summarily executed for doing that a few days later. And that someone else who had publicly said that they were Christian had been held in prison for the last 18 months. Wow, it really felt weird now but strangely rewarding in a way that we were doing something that we believed in but with potentially dire consequences. Not that for a second we thought that anything was going to happen to us but it couldn`t help score some brownie points with the Mam!
One of the things I love most about this trip is the veritable United Nations you get around the tables in the pub at night. Everyone is new, all of your old stories have never been heard and you`ve never heard any of theirs. You still have chances at first impressions and everyone is on the same level, no one gets above themselves, no pretentions, no rubbish…
It was a great night, lots of drinks and a group of about 20 of us sang Christmas songs and carols for an hour or so. But all the promise of a wonderful Christmas day, which was to be held at the Waterfall (via Minivan this time obviously) was wiped out within a few hours.
I joined the girls at their guest house and I was greeted with muted hellos and a room that had well and truly been turned over. Two of the girls had been robbed of their passports, iPods, flight tickets, travellers cheques etc and despite their obvious disappointment they were putting on brave faces. We were devestated for them and we called the police who were as helpful as a chocolat teapot. The Tourist police had very poor English (I would have thought that having more than Lao would have been a basic requisite for tourist police) so I got my guest house owner to help translate. So the girls spoke to me, and then me to him in French (it came flooding back) and then him to them in Laos.
In these countries, there is a very visible difference in the treatment of men to men and men to women and the police didn`t like how the girls had spoken to them and wanted to teach them a lesson. So they kept some of the other girls passports and wouldn`t give them back for a few hours.
We tried to make the most of a very bad situation and get some food and have some kind of Christmas dinner of sorts. We were going to gather together but then there was a little miracle. We got a text from the UK saying that they had received a call from a Dutch tourist saying that they had grabbed one of the passports from a street urchin that was trying to sell it. That was great news and then one of the girls thought that the best way to get the other one back was to go to another street urchin and get them to find the other one!! We offered $20, a fortune around here, and 15 minutes later we had their passports and the flight tickets back!! Granted the material stuff that could realistically be sold was gone but we had taken the matter into our own hands and got result! Screw the local police, go to the street kids!
As one of the girls said, was it possible to have the worst and best Christmas day all at once?! We sat that evening, had a few sandwiches, a few beers, a bottle of Baileys and recounted regularly the events of the day, made so much easier with the outcome! But we were all knackered from the events and emotions of the day. A few calls home to our parents and friends topped off the evening!
The next day (St Stephens/Boxing Day), Nadia and I took off to Vang Vieng (VV) on a 5 hour bus trip. The twists and turns on the road were like nothing I have ever experienced and I`ve driven the Conor Pass in Kerry. The turns were regularly 180 degrees and over sheer drops. I couldn`t understand how people were sleeping when every turn guaranteed either a jaw dropping scenic view or a body dropping imminent death!
Then we bumped into the most amazing character I think I have met. I`ll keep his name to myself and you`ll understand why soon enough! He was a bone fide American cowboy, who`d been living in this little town for about 8 years and had just set up his own bar (and house) which had opened up 4 days previously. He loved Country and Western music and he sold about 5 different types of drink. From what we could work out he`d had about 7or 8 customers to date and we were the two for today. He paid for our drinks and our snacks, played all his favourite songs really loud (James Taylor will never be the same again for me) and proceeded to tell us about his life. We were in for some shocks.
He`d worked in Thailand in the 60`s and 70`s which had started his love affair with SE Asia. Then in 1986 he and three friends (who didn`t survive) were all shot by another in a drug frenzy and he showed us the scars to prove it. Then he moved over to Laos about 15 years earlier, and to VV 8 years earlier. He`d married and divorced a local woman and now lived next door to her. He hired staff, one of which was like a little sister to him and whom he let wash him as he was `not much for working too much`!!
Then the bombshell! Two old ladies had approached him 4 years earlier and said he should be a father. So he became a first time dad at the age of 56 when he paid $100 for a baby boy that was 20 hours old…. Who said life was priceless? There was Golden Mountain (the name he`d been given) lying asleep behind the bar, actually looking healthy. To say that we were shocked was an understatement. It was amazing and yet so typical of an event in the life of this impossibly likeable character. This crazy cowboy loved his kid and was never going to leave VV now and despite his crude humour and questionable scruples, he was someone that you couldn`t but enjoy his company!
VV has a unique tourist attraction. Large restaurants with elevated comfy tables and chairs with non stop Friends, Family Guy and Simpsons episodes! From 7am to midnight you could watch them without having to move or talk to anyone, just don`t let the Americans find out or they`d all be over here! Terribly anti social though and it led to a quiet buzz in the town…
The next day we tried the other tourist attraction famous around these parts… tubing!! All this consists of is taking an inflatable tube down the Sing River and float down between mountains and jungles and then stopping from time to time at the riverside bars where you are `hooked` in by staff members. The draw card, the flying fox!! A huge swing where you throw yourself from a height and try and limit the damage on your body as you crash impact into the water!
With the additonal dutch courage of a few beers and my now infamous irrepressible spirit that I can achieve things when I put my mind to it, I kept trying to improve my level of difficulty in my dives. All I was achieving was increasing the likelihood of finding it difficult to walk again!! I will post some movies and pictures!
Fresh from the massive beating I`d taken at the hands of the water, I saw an immediate way to re-establish myself amongst my new friends. At the next bar, after a few beers, the old lady that ran the bar gave us a bottle of her own home made Lao Lao Whiskey, an evil concoction. We all had one, then some of the lads had two, 3 of the lads had 3, a local had 4 but yours truly took 6, firmly establishing myself as a complete idiot!
I was a hero again (well at least in the eyes of the guys who to be fair were going blind from having 2 or 3 shots) as we hit the water again! To be fair I was alright but I knew that something wasn`t right later when I had this strange buzz in my head. I kicked on that night to the amazement of my friends, one of which had had a 3 hour sleep after taking just 3. I laughed it off as a return to some of my best form but that was premature!!
The next day, Nadia and I took off on what would turn out to be a 4 bus, 22 hour journey to my current destination, Chiangmai in Northern Thailand. We got in yesterday and I couldn`t eat or sleep or drink all day, suffering from dehydration, most likely some sun stroke and the evil after affects of the Lao Lao. As David Bowie once sang, “We could be heroes, if just for one day”
So bye bye to Laos… a country that makes the surreal seem strangely apt, the bizarre seem comfortingly familiar…
Next :- Bombs, booze and boneheads!