The transport in Laos has been a wonder to behold – we have just arrived at our amazing eco lodge just outside the touristy town of Vang Vieng on what is our 6th night in this country and we have yet to travel on any form of transport that could possibly claim that it was comfortable. The best of a bad bunch was probably the 45 minute trip back up to Na Hin where we managed to nab the front seats of the truck we were in. The rest have been painful. Let me explain.
But first, let me describe our night in Tha Khaek. We walked from our hotel to the tiny main town on the banks of the Mekong and grabbed a beer – after a short storm, we began to look for a restaurant, finding one up river which had an interesting line in badly translated food. We managed to avoid the usual intestine type items and had quite a pleasant meal in what was a strange place which, as with a lot of South East Asia, was quite keen on karaoke – they actually had a separate room in the restaurant featuring darkened windows, quite good sound proofing and the usual karaoke paraphenalia. During our meal, we noticed that the room, which had seats for at least 40 people and it’s own bar, as well as a DJ booth on a stage and a big screen, had a meagre 3 people in it, sitting at a table wailing to the music. One or two more joined them later and Annika started wondering whether we should join them. Next thing I know, we are sharing a table with 5 excitable teenage Lao girls, being forced to down the local beer and asked to write down the songs we’d like to sing. Now, I have never done karaoke in my life. This is down to the fact that I simply cannot stand the idea of singing in public (football matches notwithstanding) so I tried to come up with a song which I could be pretty confident they would struggle to find on their machine. I wrote “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and sat back, readying myself for my next role as ‘crushingly disappointed wannabe karaoke guy’. Imagine my horror then, as the menu of songs appeared on the screen during the current Lao dirge and, as the DJ typed in the first few letters, the options dwindled to reveal the 4 words I didn’t think it was possible to see that night. It wasn’t the original- in fact it was only the first verse, repeated twice, the chorus, the ‘where do we go now’ bit and the famous ‘guitar solo’ played on what sounded like a Bontempi organ but I belted it out like Axl Rose himself and I am no longer a karaoke virgin. I feel dirty. Annika tried to sing “Hello” by Lionel Ritchie, despite writing down “Madonna” and then the locals returned to some more familar Lao fare which perked them back up again after the confusion of Guns N Roses. Much more beer was consumed, photos were taken (featuring the ubiquitous, South East Asian ‘V’ sign) and we eventually made our excuses and left.
Next morning, we had to leave early to get a bus from the local market to a village called Konglor. I say bus but it was to be what is called a sawngthaew which literally translates as ‘two benches’ – a flatbed truck, varying in size with two benches down both sides and a roof to carry stuff on. We would soon be getting used to them.
After an hour or so of stacking up with all manner of things, including gallons of some kind of clear liquid that was apparently alcohol and some tables, we began our journey to Na Hin, where we would need to change to another sawngthaew to get to the village. On the bus, a local guy with some mirror shades chatted to us – unlike most Lao people, he spoke quite good English and told us all about himself (his name was Phone) and plied us with all manner of foodstuffs including some white fruit he was carrying mountains of which was like an apple and some banana/rice thing. He was a bit of a wide boy, talking enthusiastically to all the other passengers and, after our experience of people who speak good English to tourists in Vietnam, I am ashamed to say that we wondered whether he was going to try and rip us off but he turned out to be very representative of all the Lao people we’ve met and was just a really lovely guy. His moment of glory came when he managed to get the woman next to him to not only show him a photo of her daughter but to give him the girls’ number, which he then proceeded to call, there and then, as we rumbled up through the mountains. Lord knows what he said but it seemed to go pretty well and, the chat up complete, he took some time to take a photo of the photo with his own camera so he could remember her when they inevitably met up. We also exchanged email addresses with him but he wrote his hotmail password on his as well as the address!! “I have no secrets”, he said. Mental.
The journey was also notable for me having the hair on my arms tousled by an old man sitting next to me. It was not the last time I had such close contact with the local population that day.
After 3 hours or so we arrived at Na Hin – we pulled up near the market and were immediately asked if we wanted to go to Konglor by a new sawngthaew driver. We jumped onto the back of the new truck and waited for it to leave along with an old lady who was already there. It left after 5 minutes, drove a circuit of the market dropping some stuff off and then returned to the original spot. The driver got out, switched off the engine and went to sit with his mates. It was a good 45 minutes before we left again, with more passengers this time, including a lady with knarled toes and an apparently drunk man, holding a mysteriously shaped bag and babbling Lao to anyone who would listen. Again, we trundled off round town, looking for more passengers by beeping the horn (a common practice around these parts) and after a few more circuits and a stop to deliver some petrol, we were off at last!
One by one, the passengers were dropped off on the way and, lucky me, I was told to move to the other side of the truck to sit next to drunk man who very quickly took a shine to me. His first move was to begin playing with my beard, stroking it and sort of pulling it a bit, despite my efforts to stop him, a sort of leery grin accompanying the gesture. It was followed by a big slap on my thigh, his hand lingering just a little too long once the impact had taken place – about 10 minutes too long I think. The rest of the journey was spent trying to resist the man’s advances whilst the locals looked on, mildly amused and Annika desperately tried to stop herself from laughing so hard that she was weeping. Attempts included more thigh touching, thigh rubbing, arms round me and a wonderful moment when he put his arm through mine whilst I guarded against his roaming hands, resulting in our arms being linked. Thankfully he left us before we got to Konglor village but by then, Annika had laughed so hard it was clearly causing her much pain.
We found a homestay in the village and wandered off for some food as we were starving. On the way back, we walked through the village to get to our house – the village consisted of around 100 wooden houses (on stilts to cope with the floods that come in the rainy season), each one of which seemed to have a few children outside it ready to wave and shout “Sabai dee” to us as we walked by. These people really are so nice. We were fed by the family we stayed with, which was tough as we’d eaten too much before but we got through it and, after realising that conversation was impossible when neither party speaks more than 2 or 3 words of the other’s language, we went to bed early.
Next day, we wandered down to the caves and hired a boat and a driver to take us through. The river from the south disappears into the mountain and winds its way through 7km of caves an out the other side. Our boat had to stop every now and again because the water was too shallow and our guides dragged it over the rocky bit and we’d jump back in. Once out the other side, we stopped for a drink and chatted to the people we met during the trip (including a French couple who are travelling for 14 months!) and then returned the way we’d come. It took ages to get to Konglor but it was well worth the effort. We met some great people and staying with the family was brilliant, despite the fact that, with the heat and lack of shower, we both felt pretty grubby by the end.
Our next challenge was to get back up to Na Hin and try and catch a bus to the capital of Laos – Vientiane. The aforementioned front-seat sawngthaew trip took us to Na Hin where we were given to another truck to take us to the junction where the Vientiane buses would pass by. After 45 minutes one arrived and, after the usual period of stacking with stuff and milling around of people, we jumped on. There weren’t two seats together so I asked someone if the seat next to them was taken. It was. They all were. Most people had only got off to go to the toilet or get a snack. We had to stand, as did around 20 other people. A 45 seater bus with around 70 passengers – I managed to stand under the roof air vent which meant I could stand up straight but the air which I was breathing was thick with diesel fumes. Being as we knew the journey was at least 4 hours, we assumed that some people would get off in Paksan down the road but they didn’t – Annika got a seat for the last hour but I ended up standing for the whole 4 hours. Absolute agony and an experience I would not like to repeat. By the end, I think I had begun to hallucinate. We eventually got to our hotel at 10pm, showered and collapsed into bed.
Vientiane is one of the most bizarre capital cities I have ever seen. It is tiny – a population of only 600,000 apparently – and is quite westernised. The streets are very clean and tidy, they have traffic lights and road markings and clear pavements and, wonder of wonders, the drivers obey all the rules! If you want to cross the road, you wait for the lights to turn red for the traffic and for the green man to light, then you can cross! It’s bizarre and the first time we have experienced this kind of crazy insanity since early December. We loved it and it’s a real shame we had to move on so soon but we are pushed for time so after a day cycling round in the raging heat and an evening at another restaurant which trains street kids to cook and wait tables etc. we got a VIP bus to Vang Vieng. As usual, the VIP bus turned out to be a crap old minibus with no legroom so another early night is required. We are staying in a wooden cabin in the mountains, next to a babbling river on which we will be kayaking tomorrow.
The last few days have been bonkers, exhausting, dirty, fabulous, fascinating, confusing and great. We have 5 more days in Laos – I fear that it might not be enough.