Day 25 – Bangkok -KL

Arrive in BKK at 7.45. Underground and Silom at rush hour is not too relaxing or personable, and a million miles from LP. Internet cafe to catch up on this blog. Flying to KL at lunchtime. I hope Cyrus has sorted out somewhere for us to stay!

The station for the express link to the airport looks spanking new and clinically clean. A contrast with the busy dirty road with no pavement I have to cross from the subway at Phetchaburi to get there.

I have just the right amount of time at the airport to post some cards, at a fraction of the Laos postal rate (35 baht for 5 cards). I spend my remaining baht on a Thai vege cookbook which looks awesome, and a small bottle of Thai whisky for Cyrus which is probably awful….

I have 3 seats to myself on the plane but my ordered vege meal doesnt materialize as the booking system seems to think I ordered chicken. After much insistence a substitute meat free meal is found. It isn’t great…..

KL airport is quite far from the city and the transit bus takes around 1 hour to get to KLCC. In the meantime I find out that Cyrus hasn’t sorted any hotel out for us and that he won’t have all the days free that we had planned to spend together. I’m tired, hungry and a bit annoyed. Especially as I will be traipsing the streets of Kl in the early evening looking for a room.

It all works out OK. I go to Petaling Street and find the hotel (I think, that a couple mentioned to me in Laos). It’s a much better standard than the horrible backpacker places I have seen before and quite a good price (77 ringett). Le Hotel. Cyrus walks from Bukit Bintang (I’m not sure why) and we meet in the street market. It’s good to be together again. We have an average noodle meal and a cold soya drink, the share a beer at the cafe where the Burmese boys were working last year. They are there no longer. I wonder what has happened to them…..

Day 24 – Khon Kaen

A long sleep…..and then success at finding a veggie meal at the bus station: exactly what I wanted – fiery spicy red curry with fresh lime leaves.

We head out of town to Ubonratcha Dam. Its around 50 minutes on the motorbike and fortunately not as hot as it has been. The dam is in a sculptured park of golf courses, trees, flowers, dinosaur sculptures, water features, a big Buddha on a hill (which we didn’t bother to climb to in the end), a huge reservoir and the dam. We take a stroll and chat a lot about relationships and goals in life, then have an ice cream.

On the return journey at sunset we visit a temple right on the main road which has rocks set all around it lined with 10’s of thousands on elephant statues of various design and size grouped together like families all facing the same direction and looking out over the road. As cars and trucks go by horns are honked. This is apparently the elephant temple and people come here with big sets of these little statues (some are also zebras and cockerels which are also in their own little family groups) and with a monk, they lay them out. The shrine has a statue of an elephant at the feet of the Buddha on its roof, at the road there is a lifesize and life-like elephant by the naga lined steps. Around the shrine peeking out between the pillars of the wall are more tiny elephants and next to them are rather cheesy saluting statuettes of armed guards, again placed there by the public. Inside the shrine are a number of cabinets with rings of flashing rd lights each containing a Buddha, a different one for a different day of the week. Each one a shrine for an offering.

Back to KK, I pack, shower, a friend of nick’s arrives to chat, actually he chats on line with some other guy most of the time. We bike into town, dinner at the night market again and a final shake.

The train is about 30 minutes late, but finally we say goodbye and I’m off on my own again.

Day 23 – Khon Kaen

The plan was to get a night train to Ayutthaya. Nick picks me up on his motorbike and we go to buy the ticket but the train is full. we meet a NZ guy who is struggling to get help: he has lost his passport and wallet on a train. We try to help the station master understand the situation. I think he just appreciates the fact that he is not alone here!

Plan B is a bus to  Ayutthaya, but they are also booked. We to and fro across town, then settle on the fact that I cant get to  Ayutthaya. I decide to stay at Nick’s place and leave the following day. The day is a bit of a failure for other reasons as it is a holiday and most places are closed. I have the address of a veggie restauarant but….yes, closed. Nick cooks some veg in his room which is about 20 minutes from town, past the university in a sleepy suburb. It’s really hot and he sleeps while I internet. We get out at 5pm and the sun suddenly sets before we get to our destination, which is a large lake called Beung Khon Kaen next to a couple of big temples. And more dinosaur statues. We take a stroll, then have a lot of fun playing ping-pong under a strip-light in the park (I lose 6-3).

Dinner is a bit of a disaster. It starts in an Italian restaurant, which is expensive, then after deciding on a pizza, we are told they have stopped serving them…. We decamp over the road to a Thai place, with a cow-boy-hatted busker barely able to play guitar serenading customers. The food is poor. My rice arrives with the waitress’s finger in it. My veg is over-cooked and soggy. It puts me in a dreary mood. I love Thai food and this is some of the worst food I’ve ever had. Sticky red vinyl table cloth, Xmas tree and shrine, and bill is way too much for that crap…..

A pineapple shake soothes my tastebuds and we sit at the shrine square again.

Day 22 – Leaving Laos- Arriving Khon Kaen

I’ve booked a bus to Khon Kaen, Thailand to see Nick, in the afternoon. My morning is filled with relaxed activities: breakfast and a sit in the shade at Wat In Feng where I read my murder mystery set in Vientiane. Later I search for the building where some of the action is set, but cannot distinguish it. The area by the fountain has probably changed a lot in 20 years. I get my final mint-lime shake and watch an American girl eating noodles with one chopstick: she pushes into a mound of noodles and hooks up a bunch which she then sucks up like a kid eating spaghetti. She later uses a spoon, using the sole chopstick, held like a pen to push noodles onto it before putting it in her mouth.

As soon as I board the bus at Vientiane I feel I have left Laos. It is a Thai bus and feels like a plane. Our luggage is tagged. The bus has a separating door to the driver’s “cockpit”, the aircon is cold, and the seats are all new. There is a crew with uniforms with medal ribbons, but I’m not quite sure what they are awarded for. I know we will be on time, and there will be no breakdowns or unscheduled stops (actually we do set down people where they want later on).

A fidgety old guy sits next to me and he talks to himself from time to time. He has a big bag of baguettes (don’t they sell them in Thailand?). One of the most noticeable things about being back in Thailand is mobile phones. There are a number of very loud and lengthy calls throughout the journey, including one from the woman directly behind me, which makes the ride rather unrelaxing. My little old guy, like many others also has a loud musical ring tone which I hear far too often… just for an update on where are you now? I see a girl whizzing along as her friend’s motorcycle passenger using her phone as a mirror as she does her make-up. A boy in the back of a pickup having a loud conversation over the noise of the road.

I notice my bus ticket would have been almost half price if I’d bought it myself. The transfer to the bus station costs as much as the ticket. Anyway it’s peanuts. What I wasn’t expecting (as I’d spent all my Kip) was an exit fee at the Friendship Bridge. I ask to pay this in dollars and have to pay an “overtime charge” for the imposition this makes! Again it’s trifling really.

The roads in Thailand are free-flowing, cars look newer, settlements more developed. Oh, there is a huge stone monument welcoming me to “the Land of Smiling”. Laos seems happier to me.

Khon Kaen 4 hours later. Nick is not at the bus station. It’s dark, busy, a bit hectic and it feels like not many foreigners pass through. Finding somewhere to sleep is a priority, so I take a bed in more or less the first hotel I find: Saen Samran, with scrubbed wooden interior and peeling sad walls. It’s fine for 200 baht.

I pop back to the bus station, thinking maybe Nick was there…and he was. Good news. We walk to the night market. Everything written in Thai except the fruit shake stall, it’s obvious there are no veggie stalls. I ask Nick to ask a stallholder to fix me some noodles and egg, which they do and it’s nice.

We walk a lot. There isn’t too much to do or see. Khon Kaen has a lot of very wide roads lined with banks and commercial buildings, lots of hoardings, dinosaur statues and many golden bridges and photographs of the king. We spend an hour at a square which contains a shrine which contains a stone pillar. Outside are shrines to Buddha, to Shiva to other deities, and here people come and light joss sticks and pray for good fortune. They seem to try every belief sysyem just to make doubly sure. The square also has a large number of plaster animals. elephants mainly, left there as tributes. The trees here are brightly lit and there is an out-door cinema playing Hong Kong movies. We chat and get bitten by mosquitoes.

Day 21 – Leaving LP

Still trying to catch up, but I don’t think anyone is reading this, so who cares…it’s just for my memory sake!

Don’t want to get up and don’t want to leave and progress slowly back to faster, more “civilised” ways of living.

The so-called VIP bus is typical of those plying the route from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, and I soon discover why. It has a cracked windscreen and some other windows sealed with tape. !5 minutes before departure a team of ” mechanics” are tightening/adjusting/fixing some part of the engine with a wrench.

To say the ride is slow is a serious understatement. 380km in around 11 hours, sometimes moving at no more than 15km/h. This is a main road, but is without markings or lighting and the edges are broken. In many places, around 405 of the road between LP and Vang Vieng the road is unsurfaced, dusty, pitted. God knows what it is like in the rainy season. Because of this or inevitably there isn’t much traffic: local motorbikes, motorbikes and sidecars, pickups, a few buses, kids on bikes and trucks. One of the reasons for the country’s lack of development is surely the almost complete lack of decent communications. Oddly this is one of the attractions.

The first 6-7 hours are twisty (SHARP CURVE, SLOW DOWN!), bumpy and mountainous rural kms of wondrous sites: beautiful craggy densely forested limestone peaks, like jagged teeth. Houses and Bans hug the edge of the road, as there is no flat land anywhere else: i see men and boys gathered round a cock fight, marquees being set out for a celebratory meal, girls in colourful Hmoung dress, including amazing pom-pom fringed headwear arriving in pick-ups, parents blowing up balloons, girls collecting tall grasses which are dried in the sun by the road before being woven into thatch panels, old women walking up the steep road with baskets of chopped fire wood in baskets strapped to their backs, big round flat basketfuls of red chillis drying on the roofs of shacks. A man pumping water, another scrubbing his jeans with soap.

Everything covered in a grimy layer of red dust from the road: roofs, crates of bottles, drying clothes, motorbikes, kids with no shoes…..

The bus stops intermittently to pick up locals by road and load their baskets of wares into the huge luggage space beneath us which already contains a motorbike. There is a toilet but using it on these roads is a losing battle against gravity. The lilting sound of Laos pop is broadcast on the bus stereo. Strangely calming, and totally apt.

The available farming land is paddy in the valleys,and is being burned to fertilise the soil. Further toward Vientiane, where the villages and roads are evidently more developed, the land is more cultivated and looks like it is commercially exploited for produce rather than the subsistence of the highlands.

Our pit-stop involves a free meal at the canteen. My choice of veg and rice is pretty basic and not very appetizing. So glad I brought my takeaway from the night market in LP.

Over the top of the highest ridge we descend gradually as a big red sun slowly sinks beneath layers upon layers of blue and indigo ridges shrouded with an ethereal mist. New year’s eve is upon us: some men are sitting around fires drinking beer as their women bring out a plucked chicken to boil in the pot. For most people it looks like a regular evening.

Unsurprisingly there are accidents on this road: one involving a couple of motorbikes. A big group gathered around, but you wonder how on earth, if indeed any serious emergency would be dealt with in these difficult places.

!! hours, yes and I’m back n Vientiane, which compared to Lp feels as busy as London (well), but it has traffic and people and noise and is so much faster! SO glad that the Mixay held onto a room for me as I’m able to get out fast and have a nice Indian dinner by the river and then buy some beer and look at the tiny horizontal sliver of a moon lighting a patch of the distant water on the last night of 2011.

I go to the BeerLaos MusicCentre for the countdown: It’s a big stage with yellow tables and chair and mountains of beer can displays all sponsored by BeerLAos, behind the municipal hall. The square is busy, but I wouldn’t say really crowded,. I guess all the young Laos teenagers are there, eating at tables, drinking, laughing. All are in their smartest casual dress. Even some Laos girls are wearing high heels, but not expertly, as I see at least 2 trip and stumble. There is a group of British girls wearing little black dresses, exactly as if they were back home. There are older western guy with Laos girlfriends. The smell of fried fish and boiled chicken’s feet.There are those photographers again, taking posed pics for you: this time by an avenue of white fairy lights.

Some singers/bands are doing what looks like X-factor Karaoke style performances, but the crowd seem to know and love every word.

As midnight approaches, some old guys in suits make a long speech…Don’t know who they are, but probably important officials. Many party poppers firing confetti into the air, a couple of Chinese floating lanterns, accompanied by gasps as they falter then lift off, as if there was a tragedy averted.

After a sing along by a mixture of suits and stars (I guess), a popular band takes the stage. They are a bundle of cliches: guitarist with AC/DC t-shirt with long headbanging hair, kids dance on each others’ shoulders and sing along with a rather chubby sun-glass wearing singer with a blue t-shirt who croons such provocative lyrics (in English, some): “Girl you’re amazing. I wouldn’t change anything about you. You’re perfect the way you are…” They move from soft rock to rap metal (tuneless and stupid!).

A small group of khaki wearing police in too big caps watches from the distance, and I’m poked by one so he can have his chair. They are really pissed, groggy, almost stumbling. Clearly enjoying the sponsorship deal by BeerLaos. They toast me and wish me happy new year (oddly the only people who do), then see a “flashpoint”….. a small group of teenage boys have removed their t-shirts as they dance to some rap act. This requires action and the police rush over to make the boys comply with strict Laos law! They are monitored from then on…….

That’s enough for me…back home to bed…alone 😦