Day 14 (Christmas eve) Vientiane Sauna and Massage

Seems like the next destination could be tricky: accommodation in Luang Prabang is full up. I find this out with the help of a girl in the tourist office who phones my Lonely Planet numbers. Everyone here seems to have that book. Thousands of trips are being shaped by one book..what power……

I decide to stay put today, take it easy, writing yesterday’s blog, having a dragon fruit shake then lunch at a veggie buffet place in the very hectic dusty market.

From then I cycle on to my destination for the day: Wat Sok Pa Luang, but get a little lost on the way. It’s not too far out of town, but I overshoot the turning, then ask some rather immature cops, who are busy stopping and intimidating motorcyclists. I notice the cartoon patterned white socks one of them is wearing as the fumble over my map trying to show me the way.

The Wat entrance is an ornate yellow and white gateway opposite the German embassy and a cafe made from the front end of an American plane. The path leads up a dusty forested track. Between the trees I spy an assortment of wooden huts. The temple is somewhere at the end but I dont need to get that far for my purpose: a herbal sauna.

This is housed in one of these huts on stilts in the forest. Chickens running around underneath. I’m called up some steps to the terraced area, given a sarong and undress. The sauna is up here. Steam billowing over the crack in the wooden walls. As I enter I can see nothing, just a point of light from the point where the sun must be, the light creeping in through the same cracks that are letting the steam escape. The experience is like Anthony Gormley’s Blind Light. You are in a small box, can see no further than about 50cm, yet are aware of others somewhere in the space. You hear conversations and reply to questions but the disembodied voices can only be placed to faces when we step outside sweat drenched to drink tea and cool down on the seats on the terrace. The sauna is heated by a furnace under the hut burning eucalyptus, lemon grass, basil and rosemary. Smells so invigorating and makes my skin so smooth. Outside and inside I meet a curious mixture of Laos professionals on a break from their work: employees of precious metal companies, who sound like they are ripping apart the mountains of northern Laos in an explosive search for gold and silver; an estate agent. A clutch of Finns arrive, no doubt to get a fix for what they miss from home. Two guys smoke and drink beer either side of going in the sauna. What a waste, as you sweat it out immediately. One of them has a fantastic job, working for the National Geographic Society teaching cartography to the Laos. His work involves flying in helicoptors over undeveloped and badly mapped regions taking aerial photographs then interpreting them. A slightly camp Laos with a slim body (oddly all the other Laos there are pudgy or fat – unusual in this country), called Mina flirts a little amd introduces me to his “friend”. Obviously gay and I know he picks up on this on me too. Anyway he is nice to chat with.

After the sauna on an adjacent platform I stretch out on a bed in the cooling breeze for a Laos massage of 1 hour, which involves a lot of prodding, thumping and pulling my limbs and digits to make it all crack. Relaxing.. By now the place is busy. Maybe 10-12 people there. Funny watching the new arrivals unsure of what to do, where to go. Arriving out of the forest and not really knowing what to expect. Just like I was!

Walking back to my bike I pas a young novice who is jiggling about on an old car tyre. I can hear some faint pop music. As I reach him I see partially concealed in his sleeve a mobile from which the music had been coming. Caught in the act he turns it off and stands still. I take his photo, then as I walk off he resumes his solo performance. This is forbidden behaviour, I learn later.

I cycle back to the city, I can feel a headache brewing, maybe from dehydration. I reach the promenade by the Mekong and see an orange gowned shape in the distance: it’s Sombath, my novice friend. We were both looking for each other, we greet each other with smiles. A half-conversation ensues about robes and I teach him some English words: “reincarnation”, “comfortable”, “take off”, “put on”. He gives me his mobile number and agree to meet again.

Darkness falls. At 6.30 I go back to my room and sleep off my headache. This has intensified following an annoying conversation with a humorless Frenchman who knows it all and does it his way….

I go out and walk around the block a few times. Guesthouse bars, Indian restaurants, 7-11’s. It’s a bit cold. Tuk-tuk drivers on corners, almost given up on fares, a few santa hats, a fairy-light strewn Lao Christian church, the same old man-woman prostitute calls out. He-she has been waiting for me (he-she says!). Town is dead, bars look empty. This is not a party town.

I call it a night and fall asleep with my i-pod plugged in.

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