Day 26 start of journey to Taman Negara

We spent some of the evening planning what to do. Cyrus in the end contacted his boss, who had asked him to give up booked holiday to come in and work, to tell him no. I think it was a big decision for him, but it should have been an easy one, when I hear how badly he is taken advantage of. Maybe it’s a Chinese attitude: loyalty, work comes first. Anyway, I’m glad he put me first. But….Cyrus had also lined up an interview for a new job, so at some point in our holiday together we would have to be back in KL. We plan a trip to Taman Negara, back to KL for a day then go to Melaka, and from there I would go to Singapore.

On waking up we checked out, got breakfast at the food court in the market (for me Chinese veg buffet). Got the subway to Titiswanga and from there a 3 hour bus to Jerantut. From here you need to get another bus or bus/boat connection to get to the national park. It was hot when we got to Jerantut. Cyrus seemed a bit bewildered to be in a strange little town and hesitated a little before we carried on with the plan: to spend a quiet night here and get the boat the next day (we were too late for the last boat of two anyway). Jerantut turned out to be much smaller than the Lonely Planet suggested and we quickly found a recommended hotel (Sri Emas), where the friendly gay receptionist with mutiple pierced ears and a camp laugh took a shine to me and quizzed Cyrus in Malay about me and him (Cyrus never really told me what he said). Anyway, the room is adequate and cheap. Over the road is the LBK agency/cafe where we would take breakfast the next day and book a boat ticket. The road is quite pretty with a row of gabled colonial houses from the 1920s in purple and pink.

There isn’t much to do here, we wander, get an iced drink, and get hot…..Evening is a bit disappointing as the travellers’ cafe is closed and all the eateries are Malaysian (thus not vege friendly). I feel I’m annoying Cyrus with my food requirements, but we finally find a cafe by the railway (Railway Cafe), where the owner speaks good English and helps me order a stuffed omelette (with noodles and veg). Cyrus’s banana split is served minus banana, my mango dessert is replaced by a less exciting black cherry one. We go to bed early, and give up on TV as there are only 3 channels (Malaysian drama/ HK movies).

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 😦

Day 20 – Luang Prabang – Magic moments

This is 3 days out of date: long haul journeys and holidays keeping me away from a computer.

30 December. Woke at dawn, up at 5.30, thinking it was 6.30 and onto the deathly quiet and empty street in complete darkness. Like passing ghosts an apparition of novice monks in orange robes, barefoot passed by in single file their alms bowls around their necks, and then gone again into the blackness. A second line passed right by me on the same side of the street, in descending height order, sleepy and looking like they would rather be in bed. An old woman, crouching on a cushion, with a bowl of sticky rice, waiting for the next contingent. I thought about climbing the mount to watch the sunrise, instead, I did a circuit of the peninsular, So still, so quiet. A couple of locals offered me some rice for the monks (for sale)… On reaching the main road, the one lined with the spectacular temples and guest houses and cafes, a few mini-buses and tuk-tuks were arriving and discharging their cargoes of tourists with cameras ready for the “performance”. I really didn’t want to be part of this. Light was slowly coming. The street busying with those taking vantage points either to give alms or take pictures. I wandered the fresh food market, Women cooking and preparing over fires in big pans their dishes, Men browsing the vegetable stalls, some with torches, some apparently with night vision. I couldn’t even make out what the produce was, let alone the quality. Back on the main drag, I sensed then saw the next troop of monks and I watched from a respectful distance. On a side road I chanced upon another, where an old woman, head bowed was dropping a handful of rice into each monk’s bowl.

As they turned the corner onto the main street through the half-light there was a series of dazzling flashes, Like media stars being ambushed by paparrazzi the monks’ daily chore was rudely disturbed. This happened with the next 2 groups of monks too. These assholes with flashes obviously haven’t read any of the polite notices asking tourists to desist from this kind of disrespectfulness of what is a solemn ritual. Or, he thought it doesn’t apply to him. What does he think when he takes then looks at those pictures? A special moment? A moment ruined for those giving alms, those collecting and everyone else observing with dignity. I decided I had experienced my own special moments and didn’t want to see any more. Zoo animals and people offering us (the zoo visitors) bamboo shoots to feed them. Most sights are raped of their magic by idiots with camera or phones. Those who think a picture is worth a thousand words. The point is they wouldn’t even have 5 words to say, so little do they actually engage and reflect on their experiences. Cameras make us lazy and give us something to hide behind.

I enjoy the first light at the temple near the guesthouse and witness the bizarre sight of an over-dressed man in his thirties wearing a red and blue shell-suit jogging circuits of the grey stupa.

I take a little sleep and dream of sitting in a cafe at a window with a woman. In the street outside is a procession of high-powered super cars, some with big spoilers.

I have breakfast at the Mekong and watch the long boats ferrying monks, locals their baskets empty, now they’ve sold their produce and other folk on some kind of business over the river.

I visit the library where you can swap books to replenish the stock, Here, the Children’s Library, which relies on donations is managed. They collect clothes and other recyclables. Most importantly they encourage people to but books from their stock to give to local remote communities, where books are a a scarce commodity, and schools are to few. Children by law only need to attend school to the completion of primary level. Some villages have no teachers. Distances are great and travel across the mountainous areas is hard. This organisation also has a river library which is trying to spread reading habits and increase the availability of materials to the harder to get to places. Books are a luxury. I think about all the stuff we throw out in UK. I think about all the books we threw out at Regency.

I do my bit. I buy a couple of books. They are are cheaply published and do not look fun to learn from. I’m touched by the plight of kids here. On the one hand I don’t like being a tourist, but on the other hand tourism brings money to this country. As the volunteer worker told me, all kids should learn English  as they need to connect with the outside world.

On my bike I cross the wooden bridge, over to the rural side of the town, and end up once more at the ruined temple (incidentally I just got an email message wishing me a happy new year from the monk i met there). I was drawn there by the large group of people and a spectacle. I was at another cremation. Opposite the altar, which stands beneath a tower are 2 shelters, one for the men and one for the women (they are dressed up in white, the men are slightly less casually dressed than usual), I summise.There is evidence of a kind of feast/picnic, but now the proceedings are quite advanced. On the altar stands a big cream gilded coffin. This is lowered by monks with newly shaven scalps into a hole on top of the altar. There are some set-piece photos. A group of women, a couple quite elderly pose before the altar, one ( a sister of the deceased) holds a framed photo of an old woman (must be the coffin recumbant). This is watched by a solitary standing old man. The sole man there who seems moved by the gravity and dignity of the moment. As the women return to the shelter area, I notice the old woman has tears in her eyes. This is the only show of sadness seen. Everyone else is quite sociable and jolly. A fire is lit under the coffin and a huge ball of fire engulfs the coffin. The monks stand in a group for a photo and video opportunity before the fire, then begin to take their leave. A could light cigarettes. The crowds disperse quicky with the pyre still burning. Strange there is no smell.

I cycle into the compound of Wat Phan Sa-At which is high above the Mekong and take my time to take in the view of the 2 rivers converging, framed nicely by a small group of novices and some shady trees.

I follow the road through the Bans with the textiles and paper workshops, til the road comes to an abrupt blockage: an open-sided marquee straddling the road where some party is taking place. There are some young guys playing a keyboard and the microphone rotates between a number of others. Laos pop, strangely soothing and up-beat. I’m spied from the wings and invited to sit, and a beer is poured. Beer Laos with ice. Then I’m beckoned to the swelling dance floor where both old and young (I don’t mean kids) are jiggling, moving, rotating in a merry way. The girl who invites me insists on my downing countless BeerLaos in one. Soon lots of people want to dance with the falang, Everyone smiling at me, laughing, and Beer being our common vocabulary. One of the PA speakers falls over, the numbers dwindle, then there is a second wind.

By 4pm we are all drunk, and I decide the time is right to retrace my path. I’m drawn back to the Wat by the river for sundown and am entranced, almost hypnotised by the chorus of novice voices led by an older deeper monk voice chanting in the prayer hall as dusk descends. A special moment.

I roam the night market and to my deep joy discover several stalls selling bountiful cheap and delicious veggie buffets. I eat at the first place I see, but really should have browsed first, as each one along the same lane looked better and better. I stymie my excitement by buying a takeaway box from more stalls for my long journey tomorrow. Here I bump into Marie, once more. Somehow it didn’t surprise me. We meet up later after i have done some souvenir shopping (I didn’t want textiles, so I bought a painting of a tree with some Laos text on hand-made paper). Marie and I go to Utopia bar, with its little winding paths and coloured lanterns it feels like some kind of fairy land. By the river we drink. The 1/2 hour of reclining chat and stargazing is eventually disturbed by a large loud sweary drunk group of British (some) backpacker types. Shouting at each other about cliques, hostels and beer.

I have many calming dreams this night.