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 😦
i was planning to get the daytime bus to Luang Prabang and got up at 7am to sort myself out. But, the prospect of arriving there in the middle of the evening and having to search for a room put me off. I bought a ticket which means I will miss the passing countryside, but I hope I can see it on the way back.
After a chat with a guy from Singapore called Mervin I walk across the sands of the Mekong to sit by the water. and it really is like a beach with fine sand…and nobody there.
My novice friend and I have a chat by SMS (so weird when you think about it) and I get him confused when I mention my orientation. Either unheard of to him or just doesn’t get what I mean. I guess sometimes it’s better avoiding those issues.
Anyway I decide to spend my day on foot for a change and go to the veggie buffet place and am the only customer. It’s another 2 juice day, the best one coming at the end: lemon and mint…wow it really punches the thirst.I also devote some time to my book The Redundancy of Courage by Timothy Mo. Oddly it’s the second book I’ve read this trip on the subject of war. This is a satire on civil war in South East Asia. It could be Malaysia or Indonesia.
I spend most of the afternoon watching everyday stuff at the big central market, which was originally housed in a pair of temple-like cantilever-roofed houses.
The space between them has now been taken up by a newly constructed and unfinished modern shopping mall. There are a few shoe and belt stores on the basement and the first floor has a couple of jewellery stalls which seem to be being kitted out.
Other units are empty. The top 2 floors are reachable by escalator and there is no security to stop you wandering the acres of empty spaces and looking through unglazed spaces onto the roof of the old market and the haphazard overspill mess of corrugated roofs and tarpaulin covers.
Under these is a maze of stalls selling everything from washing machines to books to dried fish to yards of fabric. This is also where the hairdressers are. The smell of heated hair mingles with tossed threshed garlic and offal.
Women crouch on their stalls chopping meat, an old lady lounges among her baskets of oranges.
Porters wait to be called to wheel their handcarts across the broken concrete floor full of bags of goods. I am the only falang there.
This is not Tesco’s. Shopping is noisy smelly hot work, and selling looks exhausting. Brand presence? There is none.
Outside the new market (mall) there is a pick-up. On board is a Buddha statue, it’s a kind of portable temple. A young orange-robed novice sits in there cross-legged tying orange strings around the wrists of supplicants. An old man in regular dress sporadically bangs a gong hanging from the struts of the pick-up.
Now 45 minutes until my pick-up for the bus to Luang Prabang. Finally moving again.
I based this day on meetings-up, which actually were short-lived. I should have left town today, but it’s OK, I’m still on schedule.
This is Christmas Day, but it just feels like a Sunday. Most places are closed. My morning is a gentle cycle to a few Wats, taking me to an Indian lunch. I have bought a Laos SIM card to facilitate rendezvous, but neither Sombath nor Em reply during the morning.
After a pineapple lassi I cycle out of town via Wat Si Muang, which is built around a stone pillar and worshipped as the founding stone of Vientiane. Planted there when King Setthathirath decamped his capital from Luang Prabang. Before the pillar was lowered into the hole it now stands in a volunteer sacrifice was needed to jump into the hole. They got this. Apparently.
Back to the sauna. Fewer people and I get chatting with Tobias. a German who is working as a volunteer marketing water processing plant equipment.
After some SMS chit-chat I meet Sombath, the novice, once more at the Mekong. He asks me to read to him the story of the young Buddha, and I teach him some words, but I don’t think he grasps them. Feels like the people around us are listening in. What a weird thing to be doing. Before we part I ask him about his dream and hope. He wants to be a “businessman” and earn money to support his family and develop his country. I thought he might say that. I take a last picture of him. It looks timeless. Orange robes, dignity, a background of the desert-like dry Mekong Riverbed.
I have also been trying to meet Em, with whom Ive been chatting on-line for quite a long time. I’m a bit confused by his texts and when he does turn up on his motorbike I have already gone for dinner. When we meet we barely talk and I don’t really understand what we are going to do. Anyway it turns into a 20 minute windy bomb around some of the sights (which I have already seen) with a few snatches of question and answer. Then back to my guesthouse and he rides off to work. So weird, we didn’t even have a conversation or even look at each other’s faces.
Evening again and nothing much to do once more.
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.
The day continued with a hot dusty cycle to Pha That Luang: a park with a neighbouring Soviet monument that features a statue shrine of King Setthathirhat wearing a Davy Crocket hat, a crumbling Wat to the south with a wall lined with pointy stupa and an incomplete cement reclining Buddha, a pristine wat to the north with a cluster of Buddhas ringing a tree, and the centre piece – the symbol of Laos, a walled golden multi-teared angular stupa representing an opening lotus flower (awakening of knowledge) enclosed by a cloister. There are groups of cute little school kids running around and I watch a solitary Laos boy solemnly position his little camera on a small tripod to photograph himself standing in front of each monument. More of a chore and a proving of being there than experiencing the place.
I’m also becoming familiar with the tourist photographers. They wear big cotton sunhats and red numbered vests. They shoot your portrait as you pose in front of the monuments then print and frame on the spot. I guess the ubiquity of cameras hasn’t reached here yet, or that this is a special souvenir.
It’s rush hour, but no big deal. I grab a shake which I partially spill in my basket, and head for the Mekong for sunset. Here I bump into Marie once more, then I catch the eye of a cute novice monk who is walking the promenade. Suddenly he is in front of me asking if I am here for the sunset. He is so gracious, has a charming modest smile, sweet and calm, simple and serene, neat and clean in his orange robes and blue sash, and we ask each other many questions. He walks the river sometimes in the cool evening hoping to find somebody to practise English with. His name is Sombath and he comes from Pang Hong District. He is now 16 and comes from a poor subsistence farming family with 6 children. At the age of 11 on finishing primary school his parents suggested to him that he enter a monastry as a novice, as they could not support his education. He tells me it was not a difficult decision. For the last 5 years he has been rising at 4 and praying, collecting alms (food, but not pork), eating breakfast and building the library. After lunch he prays and studies Buddhism and English. He rarely watches TV, just the news, and has no internet, but wishes to save and one day get a laptop. He rarely sees his family but has a mobile to contact them. I ask him if he has friends, but he says not close ones. The ones he have from his home village are richer than him and not novices. He has never seen the sea.
I’m suddenly aware that behind him (he declined my invitation of a seat on the steps) there is a beautiful pink sky as the sun goes down on the river. I ask him to pose with the sky behind him for a memorable shot and souvenir of an eye-opening meeting and insight into another world. It makes me reflect on what the typical 16-year old in UK is like. I hope to meet him again. There is a lot more I’d like to find out.
I spend the evening with Marie drinking Laos Beer and eating Indian. we chat about this and that then get back at around 10.30 to the hotel.
A night of disconcerting dreams ensues. I’m being pursued endlessly.