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Trip Report A road trip into the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

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The Hillbilly and the Mekong Affair…


Dum ti dum, ti dum, dum, ti dum ti dum, dum ti dum ti dum…doo diddleeeoo di, do diddleeeoo di…. (Theme tune for Man from Uncle)


Laos is a landlocked one party communist country of about 7 million people, surrounded by an extraordinary bunch of neighbors; juntas, communists and capitalists, monarchies and republics - Burma and China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, yet they seemingly manage to co-exist quite well with all of them. It is one of the “Mekong River countries”.......

So – this time…
“The man went over the Mekong, to see what he could see………..”

My partner on this trip was a character from the nether regions of music and espionage, who we shall refer to as “Amos” – (carrier of burdens).
Our mission – or rather his - was to infiltrate the Laotian army music corps and play Western style music with them in the hope that it would lay the seeds of a cultural subversion of the communist hierarchy. My mission was to cut the fuel bill and sample some “Laab”.

Our sponsors were of course anonymous, but if you are interested in more information you might try asking General Heinieburger c/o of the CIA. (Contact details on request).

Our route would take us from the Eastern Seaboard, Thailand, avoiding Bangkok to the Thai border at Nong Khai, via Kabinburi, Korat, Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani.
The flooding in Bangkok meant that this was not only the nearest border crossing but also the most accessible – any plans to drive near or through Bangkok would have been ill advised.

We set off at mid-morning, quite lightly loaded by my standards. As my natural countenance bears a remarkable resemblance to James Bond, my co-conspirator decided he would off-set this “dead giveaway” by assuming the appearance and personality of an Appalachian woodsman…this wasn’t difficult; he merely turned up the brim of his hat at the front…come to think of it, he routinely did that anyway. However it was difficult to see how he could fail not to attract some attention, standing as he did at least 2 meters tall, a good head and shoulders above the average Asian crowd.

Anyhow, from now on he would be referred to only as Amos. (I had suggested he could have been called “Al” as in short for altitude, but he didn’t think it was a good idea).

By that night we had booked into separate rooms in Nong Khai. (Under assumed names of course – I cunningly assumed the name in my passport)
The journey had been pretty uneventful, except that due to the flooding in and around Bangkok, we couldn’t buy bottled water at any of the gas stations on route; we were repeatedly greeted by row upon row of panic bought emptiness. We even pulled in at a TESCO’s but the situation was little better.

There had been a rather unfortunate incident at Tesco’s when Amos replied a casual comment made by one of two foreigners standing next to him looking at the empty shelving…one a tall spindly character with a pencil moustache, the other a rather rotund and small man – both were wearing striped shits and berets….and smelled of garlic

“The Perrier is thin on the shelves tonight”
“Yes, there’s a lot of panic buying about, not even Evian”


This led to a bit of a misunderstanding as it turned out to be the password / secret contact code phrase response that these two men had been seeking –

“Allo, I’m Dentresangle and this is my sidequique Norbert, ‘ave you brought zee garlic and chicory? Say ‘Allo Norbert”
“Bonjour” said Norbert – this was followed by a sharp clip to the ear delivered by Dentresangle…
“Allo” said Norbert correcting himself.
Dentresangle continued…”Listen carefully, I will say ziss only once………”

It turned out that they were in fact spies for the French government hoping to infiltrate the Laotian army canteen with some high-quality nouvelle cuisine. We quickly cleared up the misunderstanding and went on our way… leaving Dentresangle red-faced and his “sidequique” somewhat red-eared.

Quite late we arrived at Nong Khai. The guesthouse we stayed at was overlooking the Mekong – a teak, or “faux-teak” structure with a wide range of rooms, from about 250 to 1200 baht. I paid about 800 for a pleasant room with TV air etc. Amos the spy however chose to stay away from any prying eyes and paid 250 baht for a subterranean dugout behind the boiler-room, seemingly it was below water level too – it had all the charm and character of a set from “Eraserhead”.
I noticed as he strode in front of me down the corridor towards the room, hunched to avoid hitting overhanging pipes etc., how the dogs had stopped barking and the roaches and geckoes had scurried back into their nooks and crannies.

On entering the room, he muttered something about “Home from Home”………..turned in the doorway…said something like “catchya later” and shut the door. As I groped my way back to the lobby nothing could be heard apart from the rumbling in the pipes and the occasional whimper – I think it was a dog, but it could just as easily have been Amos.

After we’d settled in, Amos and I set off for a quick walk around the “centre” of Nong Khai. It doesn’t take long, although it seemed a lot busier than the last time I visited, at about the same time of year too…

The Monastery in the centre had a large and colourful event going on, temple fair with Ferris wheel et al; on a stage brightly painted characters were enacting some traditional theatre. Thick makeup, extravagant costumes and brash clanging music ... it looked very “Chinese” as did the tent-full of dignitaries sitting in a fenced off area having some sumptuous banquet, the tent lavishly decorated in red and gold, with a forest of enormous red candles flickering and smoking away. One could tell these people were VIPs by the customary hair-dos. The men all had their hair dyed black and worn in a comb-over pasted to their scalp and the women had elaborate architectural affairs that ascend several inches above their heads before turning into a caricature of a 60s American beehive…back-combing and lacquer are the keys here I feel…all set off with a trowel-full or two of ultra-bright and highly contrasted make-up…. crimsons, pinks and azure blues all on one face…very similar to the actors on the stage opposite.

Needing sustenance, we sat at a folding tin table on blue plastic stools on the sidewalk served from a rot ken – one of those stainless steel trolleys with a huge steaming stock-pot, and had a large bowl of noodles each, and took in the hubbub around us. Everywhere the smells of cooking; spices, BBQ, steaming stocks and caramelised sugars of the sweet stalls…. rudely interrupted now and then by a waft from the sewerage system, even an old carpet placed over a grating couldn’t fully prevent from bringing you back down to earth and reminding you that this was real life. Suitably noodled up, we returned to our rooms to get a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s entry to Laos..

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    Hi Wilko,

    Which Guesthouse did you stay at?

    We have a booking, of sorts, with Nut Mee for our trip in May. If you stayed there or know of it, would you recommend it? Is it well located to explore Nong Khai on foot?

    I am also looking forward to your report on the border crossing as we plan on doing the same.

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    The next morning I awoke quite early and joined the joggers on the promenade that covers the riverbank. (As I’ve mentioned previously seems to be a sort of symbol of Thai wealth or snobbery on full view for the benefit of the Laotians across the water).
    Maybe it’s a lifetime in flip-flops but most Thai people seem to jog without actually jogging, they have developed a kind of slithering motion that moves them at little more than walking pace but probably requires just enough extra effort for it to qualify as exercise.

    When I say “joined” I mean that only in the sense that I was there too – I didn’t take part in the exercise; for one thing I don’t know how to do the strange motion that these joggers have adopted….I just took in the misty atmosphere and took a few photos of the “Friendship Bridge” that I hoped to be driving across into Laos in the next few hours.
    I returned to the hotel, packed and had breakfast…packing was fine but the breakfast was memorable only because of its extremely poor quality. There was rice soup available but no salty eggs, so I opted for a western style breakfast; instant coffee, those watery frankfurters and scrambled eggs congealed into one solid lump. The toast was that ghastly sweet bread, partially grilled and the margarine made me feel sick.
    It sounds dreadful, I know, but if asked would I stay there again, the answer would be yes, if only for the location and convenience of car parking.

    Leaving the hotel it was a very short drive to the Bridge and Thai customs and immigration. Amos increasingly immersed in his role as a spy had to be persuaded to remove his false moustache…and spectacles without lenses. Yes, he looked unrecognisable, but the moustache was plastic, in fact I think he’s got it and the spectacles from one of those Groucho Marx look-a-like toys…..

    After much debate we had decided to approach the border assuming the guise(s) of two foreign tourists, so simple, so plausible so no one would suspect a thing. ………. Well one “normal” and the other a 2 metre high hillbilly in Hawaiian sports shirt broad brimmed hat turned up at the front khaki shorts, and a pair of large leather boots rounded off with black socks…….

    The Thai side passed pretty much without a hitch, I presented by purple book - my car passport (55 baht from DLT) - and processed the vehicle documents quite quickly, the officials were very helpful and directed me from one kiosk to the next….my passenger disappeared into the toilets…I think needed to get rid of the chewing tobacco, it was making him sick. I was hoping he’d get rid of it as without spittoons, it was likely to end up gobbed onto the ultra-shiny boot of some immigration officer.

    A quick drive across the bridge, which has a railway line down the middle, and the next thing we knew, we were in the Laotian compound… unfortunately we arrived just behind about 5 coach-loads of tourists… Again processing the vehicle was no problem but we had to wait about 45 minutes for our passports to emerge from the visa office…. they were released in batches and those various nationalities in coaches were clearly taking a lot of their time. I paid 1500 baht and my accomplice saved a bit by paying in US dollars. Processing the car was a lot quicker and quite simple too – at one point a rather officious-looking officer had started to grill me as to why I wanted to enter Laos with my car but his antipathy melted away as soon as I explained that I had driven all the way here so I could eat Laotian “Laab Moo” - my favourite dish.

    Having got through into Laos so easily we felt pretty elated – we joined the traffic into Vientiane laughing a cheering ourselves “Ha! Ha! – So long suckers!” our mission was about to begin…

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    I‘ve spent a lot of my life driving on “the wrong side” of the road, and sitting on the “other” side of the car, and vice-versa, so switching sides wasn’t a problem for me. However I hadn’t researched at all on driving in Laos so I really wasn’t sure of elementary things like speed limits and driving behaviour. The road into Vientiane is a four-lane affair but the 80km speed limit seems to be adhered to by the majority…I’m told the local police are quite greedy when they have cause to stop foreigner, so I proceeded with some caution.
    Overtaking when you’re sitting on the wrong side of the vehicle has its own problems…. largely visibility…it’s hard to see what’s coming in the opposite direction. This normally involves pulling some way back from the vehicle you want to pass and edging slowly out to get view of the road ahead. However the process is simplified greatly if you have a passenger. All you need to do is edge out into the overtaking lane all the while keeping an eye on your passenger’s body language and facial expressions. If his face remains pan, it is then safe to move further out into the on-coming lane… if his face begins to contort in horror or he starts to curl into a foetal position or tries to put his foot on an imaginary brake-pedal then you can be fairly sure something is coming and it is unsafe to overtake. A very simple yet effective way of coping with a driving position on the blind side, I’m sure you’ll agree. Amos however was proving a little too sensitive… he couldn’t get used to overtaking on the “other” side, don’t think he had switched to driving on the right. He was particularly concerned that I should “undertake” slow vehicles on the right rather then overtake them on the left as this projected him out into the oncoming traffic first.

    His discomfort didn’t last long, a few minutes drive saw us parking outside our little hotel. Located in a side-street about 500 metres or so from the tourist lanes running down to the river bank near the centre of Vientiane, it was in a convenient yet quiet street – perfect for a couple of subversives to lie unnoticed.

    Amos had been there before and we were greeted by our “contact” – whose name was Soviet. In case you had forgotten Laos is a one-party communist state and apparently Soviet is quite a common name. In fact Soviet turned out to be anything but that which his name suggested – far form being a communist party hardliner he had more the countenance of a typical market trader; a wry grin, a penchant for gambling and a great sense of humour when it came to talking money. A “sleeper” perhaps?
    The place was fine for two undercover agents – clean rooms, off road parking for the car and extensive building work going on in the garden; landscaping and a new pool. Vientiane is slowly but surely entering the rush for tourists. Our pied-a-terre was being dramatically upgraded, no longer a guesthouse but now a boutique hotel, or rather sometime in the future a boutique hotel, just for now it was a building site.
    However although the place was undergoing major alterations, there didn’t seem to be any actual work going on so the place was still pretty quiet and the rooms – ground floor rear block – were OK; TV, hot shower and soft – yes SOFT mattresses, not like the horsehair fibreboards that pass for mattresses in Thailand. The price was 500 baht – or one zillion million trillion kip…. Jeez!

    I’m just not a mathematician and the number of noughts involved in the Laos currency, the Kip, left me utterly confused. As far as I could see there was no coinage only paper - any coins minted would have been worth hundreds of times their face value as scrap. At the time of our visit, 1 baht was worth 261 kip – so rule of thumb was you divide everything by 250 to get an idea of the price…. but with that many noughts confusion was bound to follow. I recall at one point sitting in a café and thumbing through my cash in order to leave a tip. I chose a lovely crisp 500 kip note, until I realised that that was 2 baht…hardly a tip even in impoverished Laos. For those of you thinking in Dollars or Sterling the number-crunching gets even worse…£1 is about 12,527.00 kip, so 500 kip is... Hmmmmmm … 6 cents or 4 pence…. or something like that.
    Paying in Vientiane can be done in just about any currency you like – outside the Kip US dollars and Thai baht are quite common. Beware! You are like to get your change in kip. The banks seemed to vary quite a bit on exchange rates so maybe shop about a bit. However with Soviet when paying in baht, I was able after a little friendly haggling, to use a mutually agreed exchange rate rather than the one advertised on the hotel counter. The fact is that he did not have to change his Thai cash into Kip, as he could use it quite easily as cash later on so fees and bank exchanges don’t need to come into it.

    It was still not 2 pm and there was a lot to do. So we checked in, parked the car up inside the grounds and then, armed with a poultice of virtually worthless paper money, we set off into town in search of a SIM card and a baguette.

    Amos knew the way and strode ahead, his hat brim bent back against the wind and his long gangling legs swinging his brown boots with black socks like pendulums (penduli?). In his wake he left a swirl of mango leaves, dust and litter. I followed behind breaking into a trot now and then to prevent the gap between us from extending too far.

    I can’t remember what I paid for my SIM but that means the price wasn’t memorable and therefore not outrageous. (I find outrage tends to stick in the mind). I couldn’t work out how to get an Internet a/c set up for the phone though. The immigrant Chinese girl running the phone stall didn’t seem to know – her knowledge of English seemed to be far better than her knowledge of the Laos phone system. Anyway I got a working SIM, topped up with 250 million trillion zillion kip - the equivalent of about 2 minutes airtime.
    Then it was time for a baguette; this WAS memorable. We sat at a rickety table in an equally rickety shop-house and a rickety elderly lady took our order – one tuna and one cheese (mine) baguette. I really didn’t know what to expect, certainly didn’t expect what I got. They say that taste is one of the strongest triggers of nostalgia. Well, one bite sent me back to France in the sixties, picnicking with my parents by the side of a stream and guzzling fresh French bread with “Vache qui Rit” and tomatoes. Some of the best French style bread I’d had for years, in a little side street of Laos… life is full of surprises!
    This was to be my first but not last experience of the French influence or residue in Laos.

    After the baguette we made our way back to the hotel. Amos had a meeting to arrange… with his contacts in the army. I was pretty knackered so I took a nap in my room leaving Amos making various phone calls as he tried to get his contacts sorted. I was just doing nicely when a knock on the door awoke me; it was Amos – he’s arranged a meet and could I drive him there?

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    We drove across Vientiane – it was my first chance to get a look at the city. It was a mix of the Gallic and Stalinism, with a dash of Mao thrown in for good measure. Broad boulevards lined with flowers and trees run past buildings with that unmistakeable Communist monolithic touch. Large open spaces “for the people that really are military parade grounds, great civic buildings dwarf all around them as if to remind us of the power invested in the State and its machinery. However despite this, Vientiane remains small and the “folies des grandeurs” of the state architecture are still relatively restricted in scale…I guess they just couldn’t afford to build that extra few stories into the truly megalomaniacal range.

    Away from the government buildings the city clearly shows its French roots; tree-lined avenues and streets are fronted with 2 and 3 story buildings with facades of decomposed plaster or leached cement that are so typical of the French, right down to the louvered shutters on the windows. One could have been in the Dordogne or Languedoc.

    The meeting…
    At this point it will help if you hum the theme tune from “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to your self. If you can’t remember – see above or click here - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC88U1SyQQw

    Not for us this time were the side streets – we were headed for the People’s Military Museum. An imposing communist monolith-style building with large military machines – tanks, planes etc. - placed on podiums around its grounds, we drove into a car park and waited – a couple more phone calls and eventually a car appeared at the far entrance – headlamps were flashed and we approached each other meeting broadside in the middle in front of the grand entrance with the museum forming a monolithic communistic backdrop.

    Electric windows whirred down and short greetings were exchanged before we all got out – two of us and two of them…but you don’t know how many eyes were watching us from afar.

    Leaving the cars, we continued the meeting in the shade of some trees at the edge of the car-park. Amos had met the senior officer before and knew he was a musician; the other officer a corporal was an unknown – although apparently of lower rank he seems to able to make some very persuasive comments to his superior – how this was so was not clear.
    Amos produced a CD player from an inside pocket – I couldn’t swear to it but I got the distinct impression that the corporal flinched and went to reach for something in his own pocket……….Amos inserted a CD and handed it over to the senior officer with some headphones. There was a pregnant pause whilst the officer listened impassively to whatever the contents were. Occasionally his foot would twitch rhythmically… and he would cock the headphone so that the “corporal” could listen in…. eventually he smiled a little wry smile and handed the machine back to Amos…”Yes” ….he could help us.

    Amos needed an orchestra – well a brass section and a violinist and a cellist….the contact was an officer in the Army band………. He could supply it all…all that is except the cellist who was in Vietnam. Apparently the senior officer was an accomplished violinist but after the corporal whispered something in his ear, he said he would not be playing – someone else would stand in for him…”just as good”.

    Satisfied Amos arranged a further meeting with the musicians at a studio, hands were shaken; we returned to our respective cars and departed in opposite directions.
    As we left, I noticed several other pairs of cars dotted around the car park with small groups standing around them – it seemed a popular meeting place. On the way out we passed a battered 2CV bouncing into the car park. Inside I could make out the red face of Dentresangle and the glowing red ears of the long-suffering Norbert.

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    That night Amos had more contacts to make – the American and the French connections…
    He set off on foot, while I stayed in my room to catch up on some zzzzzzzeds and watch a bit of TV.

    The Hotel had satellite or cable or something – most of which seemed to be Thai TV plus all the usual Western BBC, Australia Network and, like a cockroach you can’t seem to kill, Fox; plus the other “foreign” Channels, Korean soaps, Singapore, Chinese and Japanese News. There was a lot of Chinese stuff… and most fascinating of all were the Laotian homemade TV shows. These followed classic communist propaganda themes. (Why do we always use the word “propaganda” to describe communist media, whilst leaving the likes of 50s American TV and Fox out of it?).
    These Laotian shows looked as if they had been filmed 30 years ago – maybe they had – and largely portrayed people working in factories or fields with a “happy” woman singing on the soundtrack; presumably extolling the virtues of working for the Laos state. Every now and then the hammer and sickle would make an appearance accompanied by some panoramic views.
    It seems that all work in Laos whether industrial or agricultural is carried out by people standing in neat rows. I suppose it is meant to give the impression of everybody doing their bit and an orderly society – to me it looked like a bunch of extras or soldiers employed by a rather inept film producer. In one film a man and woman are seen hoeing a crop. They are dressed in immaculate military uniforms – spotless – and don’t appear to be actually doing anything at all. There is a close upon the woman’s hoe and it looks as if all she is doing is shuffling the foliage with it. …but what would she know about farming, she looks as if she was born reared and educated for the ministry of information and never done anything more strenuous than fill in a form.

    These dated and stilted movies are interspersed with rather incongruously bright consumer commercials: - advertising gymnasium equipment and other rather expensive-looking consumer durables.

    The “uplifting” documentary was then followed by a “soap” which was clearly littered with good state-approved role-models with useful tips on how to live, behave and interact with your neighbours in a state-approved manner and so be a productive member of the proletariat… it reminded me very much of “Neighbours” and those anagrammatically challenged denizens of Erinsborough.


    Night 1 - Getting lost…

    Sometime after dark, Amos returned and asked if I’d like to meet the other contacts – a Franco-American set-up that “specialised in media publications – music, video photography etc.………..
    I said OK…


    We set off through the back streets of Vientiane and it soon became apparent that Amos was lost. We zigzagged, doubled back etc. and eventually ended up on a dark unmetalled alley he thought he recognised. Past houses shops and what appeared to be some sort of “ladies house” we eventually cane to a brightly lit town house. A few motorbikes were parked outside. We walked in and turned into the front room.
    There sat Ivan… – he said a quick “Hi” and returned to his task in hand – surrounded by IT paraphernalia he was mixing one of Amos’s tracks. The room was a tangle of technology, computers sound systems, speakers, and cables, on the opposite side of the room was …Keon – French Laotian, he was the photographic side of the set-up. This was a room where technology dominated; the occupants were the slaves as they were bounced from one techno-problem to the next………was the mix right? how do we change it? Which effects do we use? Where are they? What flavour pizza do we order? The whole room took on the appearance of a diorama when one realises that neither of these guys were over 4 feet tall… miniature Mekong media magnates? Or agents who could go undercover and still stand up?

    As there was no soundproofing, it meant that this was not really suitable as a recording studio. Ivan was prepared to fill the widows etc., with cushions but the noise from any passing traffic could still penetrate, especially when it was accompanied by the neighbourhood dogs that would challenge any passer-by with a chorus of raucous barking and howling. From Amos’s viewpoint it was therefore only an editing suite, so later on he would need to find further facilities to continue his musical invasion.

    I’ve sat through a few recording sessions over the years mostly as either an observer or one with a financial interest rather than having any direct artistic input, and anyone who has been present at any of the production phases of a record will know that if one is not directly involved the process is possibly one of the most mind-bogglingly boring, monotonous and repetitious activities that man has ever undertaken…. hours even days can be spent just trying to get one note to sound right…and if the operators aren’t wholly on top of the technology the technology takes over. These guys had long since succumbed to the technology; like a badly trained dog it had taken over and was dominating their lives, holding them prisoner in their own home. I observed the proceedings for a while and then decided to take my leave.

    I set off into the night – it was about midnight. Now I’ve been travelling for years and should have known better, but the ease of driving to Laos had made me forget that I was in a different country and in a city I’d never been to before.

    I walked a short way down the dimly lit alley and encountered my first problem. Laos does not have the same stray dog problem as Thailand, but many people keep guard dogs, which they release at night to keep any burglars at bay, as well as unwitting passers-by like myself. It wasn’t long before a large dog followed me down the other side of a fence, barking loudly and then horror upon horror the ruddy fence just disappeared – leaving the dog and me next to each other. Avoiding looking at it I managed to walk slowly on and the animal presumably decided that I was no longer in his territory and stopped following – it remained just standing in the road barking. This worried me too; if I wasn’t in his territory, then whose territory was I in now? An even bigger dog perhaps? – Big enough to frighten off the first one? Whatever the reason for the dog’s reluctance to follow me any more I made it to the main road without being further threatened………but where was I?
    I’m an Aquarian and we are meant to he a pretty infallible sense of direction so I set off in the direction I thought would lead to the hotel. Walking at night in a strange town is not a good idea, looking lost is even worse, so I was determined not to look like a victim or as if I didn’t know where I was. I carried on looking for some familiar landmark that would set me on the right route home…. as time passed I realised it was taking much longer than it had to get to the house in the first place. Occasionally I’d pass groups of people on the street, eating or playing cards but I really couldn’t see much point in asking for directions…how could I? I didn’t know the name of the hotel or the area it was in…

    I had my mobile phone with me, but due to a miscalculation stemming from the number of zeros involved in kip currency, the balance had run out – so I couldn’t even contact Amos…it would be unlikely he’d try to contact me until morning.

    The next problem was I was spotted by a couple of lady-boys on a motorbike – they followed me down the road for quite sometime insisting that I needed a massage. In the end I saw a hotel and in an effort to get rid of them walked into the foyer saying I was staying there. They still hung about outside for a while before finally giving up and driving off. In the foyer I realised that if I couldn’t find my own hotel, this place would at least be somewhere to stay for the night. So I picked up the hotel’s business card and set off again.

    By this time I’d been walking for well over an hour and the walk from the hotel to the house has taken no more than 20 minutes and that included getting lost. My mouth was getting dry and I was beginning to get worried. I was becoming concerned that I was looking more and more like a “victim”, having walked past various groups of people in both directions, I also had a sizeable wad of cash on me………

    So I needed to get sorted….I had the feeling that the hotel was in an area called Silom and the hotel was similarly named…. I was going to have to try and get help…

    At this point I walked past an office – could it be a taxi?- well I never worked out what it actually was – but there were some people in there still awake, photos of anglers and fish on the walls and on a noticeboard outside and it still looked kind of official – so I walked in, much to the surprise of the occupants. First I tried to speak Thai but with little success, then French until one of the guys chirped up in quite good English. I told them I was looking for “Hotel Silom”. They didn’t know it but said that his brother would drive me to Silom on his motorbike. They were very helpful. I climbed on the back of the bike and off we went – to an area of town that was right in the centre and definitely not where I wanted to be. We stopped – I said I might as well go back to where we started. Then a passing motorcyclist stopped and asked if we needed help, we asked him the whereabouts of the hotel – again he spoke good English, but didn’t know the hotel. So we went back to the “office” – I explained that I had walked here and that the hotel could not be more than half a kilometre from here. They talked it over and then suggested that it might be in “SIHOME” – not Silom – that was just round the corner! Another short stint on the bike and we were outside my hotel. We nearly missed it as the road looks the same from both ends and I was looking at the wrong side of the road for the hotel, it was only when we turned round to go back that I realised we were right outside the hotel…What a relief – I’ve never been so pleased to see a 2 star hotel in all my life.
    I thanked the guy – whoever he was - profusely, and gave him a tip, which could have been anything from a few cents to several hundred dollars – I wasn’t really concentrating to the cash I handed over – he seemed happy enough – and anyhow I’m pretty sure that this guy had acted out of generosity rather than personal gain.
    To this day I have no idea what that office was or who those guys were, but they gave up their time to help me out of a fix that I got into by my own incredible stupidity and I’m very grateful.

    So there I was back at the hotel – I’d broken every rule in the book about staying in a new place, and as an experienced traveller I should have know better…

    Did you spot my “deliberate” mistakes???

    When you get into a new hotel, town country etc. etc.…
    • Pick up the hotel name card – if you get lost you can show it to a taxi driver or anyone else.
    • Try to remember to the name, address and area of your hotel.
    • Keep your phone topped up – you never know when you might need it.
    • Carry a map
    • Don’t carry a wad of money… just enough to get by.
    • Stay way from dark or poorly lit alleys.

    If in doubt you can always stay the night at a different hotel and don’t hang around getting massages off roving lady-boys…



    Day 2 –
    The next day I got up early planning to find some breakfast; buying a map was also high on my list.

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    ......Amos was back from his night with the techno-boys and apparently none the worse for wear. We set off down to the riverfront to see what we could see. Possibly as part of his “undercover” instinct Amos did not like or trust the businesses in the touristy lanes running down to the river front so we by-passed any café on those and headed straight for the river – which was just as touristy, but didn’t seem to make Amos so uncomfortable. Here we got a passible coffee and croissant in a trendy if a little plastic coffee house. After that we did a few necessary things like top up phones and buy maps etc. etc. I perused a couple of book shops and then bought the Laos equivalent to “oleang” the strong black coffee-based street drink made by stewing coffee, corn and soya in an old sock and then serving over ice – this had the usual, predictable effect and we hurried back to the hotel, stopping only to buy some yoghurt and toilet tissue at a local supermarket.

    People’s Art Centre –
    Amos had arranged to contact someone at the “Peoples Art Centre” – so that afternoon, he and I drove across town and met with the guy who ran it. Not a government man, he was more a free agent and clearly trying to help artists and musicians in a climate of restriction and repression.
    Upstairs, there was a showroom with walls crowded with shelf after shelf of CDs – both audio and visual - produced by his cooperative. Although clearly some were made to keep the authorities happy – picturesque folk albums etc., other stuff was more subversive and heavily influenced by the “Indy” rock of Japan or the West. This guy apparently had access to better recording facilities and also some other like-minded musicians. However, as with most things in Laos it wasn’t possible to pin anyone down to a specific date…. quite yet.

    When Amos had finished there, we went back to the hotel and Amos went on to Ivan’s place. This gave me the time to take a squiz round the tourist centre of Vientiane.

    What a cute place Vientiane’s old town is…it had the same effect on me as Amsterdam, you can’t believe a place this small and “low-rise could be the capital of anywhere…it was just a French country town…. With an inner city population of about 200.000 it compares favourably to somewhere like Norwich in the UK.
    My first job was to get my sandals repaired – they were purchased over 10 years ago in Brisbane and I’m loath to part with them, but they are now entering the “constant repair phase”. The UV had taken it’s toll on the plastic buckles so what I needed was cable ties, so I set myself the task of finding these…. language for stuff like this is usually quite easy, “tie caben” maybe, anyway this and the accompanying mime seemed to amuse a few hardware store proprietors until one family finally brought forth their eldest son…. presumably because he spoke English – I doubt if he was intended as a human sacrifice; anyway he got the meaning and I bought some…. they were a bit big, but now armed with an example a whole world of cable-ties opened up to me and I was able to go to other stores until I found some of suitable size and strength.

    [A note about cable ties: - This was probably the first trip for decades that I had embarked upon without a stash of cable-ties somewhere in the vehicle; they have got to be one of the most useful things to have knocking around that I can think of. They have a million uses, a million solutions to all sorts of problems, loops for hanging things, lights lamps, holding curtain back in hotel rooms – holding them together, fastening zippers, sealing bags, repairing straps, hanging up Mozzie nets, even tying cables and of course, fixing sandals.]

    I also checked out some nearby furniture shops and have to say I thought the quality of build was pretty good. The finish in particular was much better than anything I’d seen in Thailand, where the subtleties of cabinet making and French polishing are virtually an anathema to the majority of manufacturers there…. but then Thailand didn’t have the experience of being run by the French.

    History tells us that colonialism is at best viewed ambivalently, and the French as colonists were neither the “nicest” nor very good at leaving, but they did manage to leave their mark on Laos in the form of one or two things that could be viewed positively. Unlike the USA who seem to have managed to leave a legacy of nothing better than unexploded ordinance, the French left some food traditions and some town planning and architecture.

    Hotels and Architecture of the “Old Town”.
    With my sandals firmly attached to my feet, it was time to look round the “old town” – the touristy bit by the river, which essentially is the interconnecting roads between the river front, Rue Fah Ngum and Setthathirath Road which runs parallel about 200 meters back. There are some interesting streets further back in the town but these streets running down to the river seemed to contain the largest density of tourist orientated businesses, internet cafes, restaurants hotels etc. The front itself is pretty much developed for the tourist now but here and there is the odd reminder of what things must have been in a not too distant past when it serviced the commercial traffic on the river. One large building still housed printing business; pallets of paper and printed materials awaited collection and dispersal on the sidewalk. Squeezed between hotels and bars, dark mysterious Chinese shop-houses still carried on their dark mysterious business that they’d carried out for years away from prying eyes in their gloomy interiors furnished with dark heavy pieces of Chinese furniture.
    The overall appearance of the river frontage buildings is rather pleasing; the usage may have changed but the façades have been preserved. A fusion - no mixture - of French and Chinese – some buildings were newly refurbished but in between others added extra character to this row of buildings. Shabby shop fronts hide immaculate interiors, Chinese shop houses sporting cock-eyed French louvered shutters hanging from rusted hinges, leeched and crumbling rendering all reminiscent of a French provincial town. Faded adverts painted on the plaster hint at previous uses of the buildings. Every now and then a new building would stand out sporting wonderful French modernist touch…and – joy of joys! - No high-rise to overshadow a frontage that still keeps very human proportions.

    Temples.
    In amongst all this, Vientiane is a city of Temples. The communist regime seems to have left Buddhism in tact and the temples apart from being very numerous are largely in very good condition; sporting brightly coloured and intricate decorations in bright reds golds and greens…. a dazzling array of light, colours and reflections. Images and statues of Peaceful Buddhas mingle with angry-looking mythical beasts, and walls columns and ceilings are smothered in swags and garlands, plinths, lintels, pediments, cornices, brackets and capitals drip with gilt; it looks as if there has been a terrible explosion of scrambled egg that no-one has bothered to clean up. Virtually every street has some form of place of worship, be it large or small. A seemingly endless supply of new and old….and still the building of new temples and extensions continues. Where do they get the money from???

    The roads and streets of Vientiane are named in Laos and French - “rue de this” etc. The roads leading down to the riverfront Northwest of the Presidential Palace are where most of the guesthouses and hotels are as well as other stuff for tourists. The basic character of these roads seems to be “up” – tourism is on the up and there is clearly a lot of new buildings going up to cater for this increasing numbers of visitors who in turn up which is bringing the prices up. For instance, guesthouses are now “boutique hotels” a licence to quadruple the prices if ever there was one. Shop fonts and facilities are being up rated renovated and extra floors put up. Many of the old warehouses have been knocked down or spruced up. Nevertheless, the original street plan has been maintained together with the relatively narrow streets themselves and the area still has some character.

    Hotels.
    I decided to check out a few of the hotels…

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    Firstly I noticed that the more expensive ones always give you the room price in dollars and the printed literature does this too. However they seemed prepared to except Thai baht and of course Kip, along with probably any other currency you cared to offer. The stumbling block however could be the exchange rate offered. I’d check the daily rate on the net fist before accepting anything offered at a hotel front desk. Thinking in baht the rooms ranged from a very basic hostel type to reasonably priced 800 or 1000 baht right up into the 4000 baht bracket, which seems a lot. Most of the hotels don’t have a full range of facilities either – such swimming pools or as car parking. Several said they had parking when I asked but it turned out either to be on the street outside or in a nearby public car park – I could have done with a bit more security. Example: Best Western were asking between $74 and $86 for a double room, (about 2700 baht) they did have a pool, but parking appeared to be on the street in front of the building.

    Food.
    I wasn’t able to do a lot of eating out in “posh” restaurants in the time I had but the eateries in these roads looked pretty interesting. I talked to a few of the local expats and formed the impression that the overall food scene is pretty good. The traditions of Laos and French cooking have lead to a plethora of good places to eat. Apart from the Laos street food and restaurants promising “authentic” Laos food, I saw Indian, Turkish, Italian, Belgian and of course French. My impression of food in Laos was that it is a foodie’s paradise – a fusion of great food traditions, S.E. Asia and French – what could be better? Several restaurants offered traditional French food, even regional – I saw a Provencal restaurant. There were also some Boulangerie-Patisseries. Unlike Thailand many restaurants offer pretty impressive wine lists at reasonable prices. Running the risk of gaining an Orson Well’s type figure which would have drawn too much attention to myself, I decided to try several Boulangeries and to leave till later “La Terrasse”, a traditional French restaurant that had been recommended to me by Amos’s French connection at the studio.

    Here’s the thing – I’m an unabashed Francophile and sitting in a café with a decent cup of coffee for me is a rarity, as I seldom find coffee I like, in fact I hardly ever drink coffee except in France… that was until now; now I drink coffee in Laos too! The coffee and croissants I had there sent me back to the towns and boulevards of France in the 70s, the only thing missing was a papier mais cigarette dangling out of my mouth.


    Night 2
    Well time to get some more food; this time Laos food………..a lot of nightlife in Vientiane is centred on the River. So I made my way there and ordered a Laab and watched the traffic. A different demographic to the ones I’m used to in Thailand…the “westerners” seemed in general to be a far more sophisticated bunch. There were the usual backpackers – determined to see as many countries as possible either before they started their studies or having finished those, before they started work. These seemed mostly to be “genuine” backpackers; university types with a desire to encounter other cultures and maybe learn a little, unlike Thailand where the backpacker has largely been replaced by a different youngster – a sort of long-range chav, whose only desire on encountering another culture is to consume as much of its alcohol as possible and then throw up on it. Then there were the “alternative” travellers; those who looked like they were in San Francisco in the 60s – they probably don’t remember being there and somehow they’ve ended up here, by way of Morocco, India and any country with cheap “natural” narcotics. In their 50s and 60s, they are financed by the money they made from selling their wholemeal candle and quasi Buddhist therapy businesses, they sport the remnants of hippidom and long hair that has long since departed – a wispy ponytail or a bandana covering a naked pate, or a cheesecloth smock gives a clue to an earlier hedonistic lifestyle. Here and there one could spot puffy white pairs of newly-weds – on leave from their office in Slough, on their adventure honeymoon – their last attempt at a real life experience before they engage fully in the 9 ‘til 5 grind and never ending mortgage payments; a journey of both geographical and mutual discovery. Then there were the “non-tourists” – teachers, aid workers and government advisors, fluent or at least conversant in the local language – well they could order food – they exude an air of confidence; always keeping an eye out for some unsuspecting victim who they can corner and then unfurl their “encyclopaedic” – if a little jaundiced - knowledge of Laos. One thing that always perplexes me in these situations is why so many tourists, women especially, have to drape themselves head-to-toe in “ethnic” wear when they visit a country? (It seems that the further away from home, the greater the need for ethnic clothing – you wouldn’t wear a beret, striped shirt and onions in France, would you?) Any dress sense they had goes out of the window and is replaced by an uncoordinated mish-mash of peasant or workers garments both local or from a completely different region or country, thrown together in clashing disunity with a pair of cheap sandals and all topped off with a braided hair-do………..”…They’re SO much more comfortable than my western clothes – well of course they would be – the locals wear them…”
    – Look around – NO they don’t!

    Woven into this were other Asian tourists. Chinese seem to be especially prevalent. Usually in big groups they wander around in herds looking at shops etc. then after being herded into one of the large purpose-built restaurants where they gorge themselves on shark-fin soup, they are herded onto a bus and disappear to some monolithic hotel on the outskirts of town. The Thais tended to be in family groups – happy to see the cheap prices in Laos and pleased to adopt a polite if rather condescending grin as they drink in the atmosphere…for most this is the only time they leave Thailand – still only about half a kilometre across the river.

    Across the road from me another “Chinese-style” play is being performed, very similar to the one in Nong Khai.

    Off for a walk around the riverbank……………groups of Laos people sit around, chatting and playing cards, some have a guitar and some beer…eating al fresco is the primary option. The crowds take over sidewalks and it seems every available open space is strewn with tables and festooned with strings of lights. On the roadside stalls, pools of white light illuminate their wares, you hear the “pok-pok” rhythm of the som tam mortar and pestles and kitchens ladle out bowls of this and that, and staff wind amongst the tables and red plastic chairs carrying steaming bowls, heated fish plates with candles flickering beneath, and plates of grilled meats………Smoke rises from barbeques and mingles with the steam from the bamboo rice cookers and Chinese baskets…. interrupted by the pungent smell of roasting garlic and the eye-watering, lung-scratching smoke from the fried chillies; this mix of aromas is a delightful onslaught on the olfactory senses….and no-one is paying more than a few dollars a dish.

    Ravers might find Vientiane a little quiet…by 10.30 things are winding down and many club type bars have notices saying they shut at 11.30…there is a “disco” in a hi-rise about 3 km down the road but not for me – my low profile means that my nigh-on perfect rendition of the dance sequence in Saturday Night Fever will have yet another rein-check…anyhow I hadn’t brought my white jacket. So it’s an early night.

    Day 3 - A French Restaurant and an “Eco” resort.

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    I did not read the entire report yet, but your take on your fellow tourists is a scream! Will mark for later. I have friends from US who have spent the last 5 or so winters in Vientiane, so may make it over there one of these days..sounds like an interesting and pleasant city.

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    The next day I had decided to move on. Although the communist edifices of Vientiane made a suitable backdrop for Amos’s subversive activities, I began to realise that there was more to Laos than its communist government and “Das Capital” - a lot more to see outside the city ………it was time to “go bush”… so after a coffee and croissant at the Boulangerie I got ready to go. Packed etc. but then decided to stay and have a light lunch with Amos…it was partly because I wanted to check out “La Terrasse” before I went and secondly it was about time Amos learned to use a knife and fork. (I’d noticed he still hadn’t grown out of the spoon and pusher technique he’d used since infancy).

    “Plat du Jour” and “Le Menu du Jour” are euphemistic terms for leftovers, but that needn’t be a recipe for “le disastre”, in fact it can be an opportunity for a good, cheap nosh. It this case salad Nicoise, beef brochettes, great sauce, and some excellent frites (not those horrible skinny little French fries invented in Belgium), followed with some classic French suites – tarte aux pommes and crème caramel. There appeared to be a good wine list, although as a teetotaller I only look and sniff these days.


    So after stocking up with a nice bit of French nosh, I said my good-buys to Soviet and set off for a couple of days in the jungle. I had a contact - one Tom Barnaby........ ex-detective and bon-viveur, now an English sleeper who ran an eco-resort as his front. We had communicated over the net for some time and sounded like his place was perfect for my needs. Near to Vientiane yet nestled in those forests that still cling to the banks of rivers, where the farmers can’t clear the land to farm it... a green ribbon of virgin forest that follows the rivers.
    The resort was on the banks of the Mekong Tributary, the Nam Ngum, about 30 km outside Vientiane.... an easy little jaunt out of town along route 13 and then a quick left down a dirt track for a kilometre or so...and you’re in a different world. .... (Don’t tell any though will you?)
    The drive takes you past the South-East Asia Games Stadium; now there’s a thing. A beautiful dual carriageway road sweeps you out to this monument to overstretched national pride, as you get further from the town the amount of potholes increases and then the stadium appears, really a spectacular sight.... until you get closer then the state of disrepair becomes more apparent. The place looks as if it was built for the single event and then has never been used again, it is partially overgrown and the entrances blocked with permanent-looking heaps of concrete and rubble as if anyone interested in looking around might get a rather frost reception. It’s so sad to see such a large site virtually abandoned and clearly seldom put to good use, the Laos people certainly aren’t benefitting from this folly to a government’s self aggrandisement.

    After that the dual carriageway peters out and eventually returns to the typical Laos road - a bit of asphalt here and a bit of exposed hard-core there...

    Then a small sign against a bush and you head down a dirt road towards the river...and then an even dirtier road to the resort. After navigating around a water truck that seemed to have got bogged in - although the driver happily waved me on - I found the parking area in front of the reception cabin. I noticed that by now my car was completely coated in the local red dust.

    Inside Tom the sleeper was doing his job - sleeping. He awoke dusted himself down and greeted me heartily.
    “Hello old bean! Welcome to the jungle!” - he spoke with that plumb-in-the-mouth that is so characteristic of British public school old-boys.
    “Which school?” he asked,
    “Rugby”
    “Oh really? Jolly good! I was Uppingham, we suffered many times at the hands of you lot...such a great rugger school.... but so you should be, what-what?”
    He clasped my hand - “come and see your room...”

    The resort is built in the woodland on the sides of the river valley. My cabin was a short walk down a path...I could see there was some illumination for after dark, otherwise it would have been impenetrable. The bungalow was pretty comfortable rattan affair. The main room had large French windows that opened out onto a deck overlooking the river below. There was a good-sized double bed covered with a large mosquito net. The shower room-cum-toilet was quite large and full of pebbles and slabs of stone. One of those rather impractical design statements to make you feel you are really communing with nature, whereas in fact you’re just likely to twist you ankle - and then you’d have a few interesting sayings to commune with mother nature! There was hot water too!

    As this place is meant to be “green” you can expect interruptions in power and water etc. as the systems are a bit rickety and minimal. There was however wireless Internet which is sourced from a 3G mobile modem - worked OK, but don’t expect to download any mega files whilst you’re there...

    “Care for a G&T on the river?” asked mine host. “We’re going to do a little trip in about half an hour to catch the old sunset, what-what”

    Sounded rather pleasant so for a few million kip (about 6 bucks) I decided to take up the invite. I unpacked a bit and then made my way down to the river. This is only about 30 meters away down a network of footpaths.
    He resort has a large pontoon on the river. Part of this is a “swimming pool” - as far as I could make out this is simply a deck with a large hole in the middle (about 15 meters square where you can take the plunge - it looked like there was a good chance of being swept under the deck and off down the river (I noticed some knotted ropes - presumably to cling onto if the current was too strong).
    Further along the pontoon there was a large restaurant/sitting area a kitchen and a raft moored to the side. This was to be our transport for the evening.
    As the raft wasn’t ready, I took the time to have a juice and get to know the other guests...well guest actually - it appeared there were only 2 of us there that night. The other guest, Mildred, was an Aussie Canadian - 50 years old and getting away from what sounded like an incredibly domineering family.

    The boat trip was great - seated on some comfy bamboo chairs with a table and a bowl of fried rice we just motored up the stream for about an hour or so and then with the motor cut off drifted silently back down......plenty of sunset shots and a few of the other river traffic, which was pretty sparse. On the return float the river settled into a glass-like sheen and all you could here were the sounds and calls of the wildlife drifting across the water broken only by the occasional human voices as someone called for a ferry to cross the river.

    Got back - ate some lovely food - a Laab no less - the cook was clearly very proud of her abilities and I think rightly so. Tom kept a staff of about 4 or 5 to run the place - at times like this there didn’t seem to be much to do, but a place like this needs constant maintenance and repair. This place would do me for the next day or two and then I would have to plan the rest of my trip up north...or not.....Not long after dark, I retired to my room and soon fell asleep.

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    For one reason or another, I felt incredibly tired out by the river.... not unpleasantly, just loved falling asleep with the sounds of the jungle outside.. The next morning I woke up really early and decided to take a walk down to the river... great photo stuff!!! Early morning mists were drifting across the river and pinkie-orange rays of sun were stretching over the brow of the nearby hills. Spent quite some time snapping away and was rewarded with some wonderful photos very impressionistic in colour and texture. Another one I took of the small car ferry reminded me so much of an Oriental version of Constable’s “Hay Wayne”... put that down to the great light, the camera and a dose of good luck, rather than any photographic skill on my part.

    After breakfast I took a wander through the woods - some paths had been cleared so you could take in the local scenery; some paths had also grown over so the occasional retracing of tracks was needed. Here and there a lizard or some other critter would scamper off through the undergrowth, I got a few good photos of some beautiful and large butterflies band other insects, mostly unidentified beetles ants etc. I was surrounded by the whoops cries and chirruping of various birds but didn’t have the lenses for that sort of thing - I did however manage to get right close to an enormous giant wood spider (golden orb) whose span was almost the size of my hand.

    At lunch I was joined by an English woman who had arrived by boat that morning. The guests here seem to ferry themselves along the river going form one riverside resort to the next. After chatting for a while we decided to take the truck and go and explore the neighbouring countryside. The local roads were mostly un-surfaced but at that time of year easily passable - I couldn’t say what would happen in the wet. This time the main problem was dust - you really have to keep the speed down to avoid smothering the inhabitants and chattels of local towns and villages in red dust. I had toyed with the idea of taking one of the tiny vehicle ferries across to the other side but the risks of seeing my car and its contents sinking into the river just seemed to outweigh any benefits.
    After a short drive we came a cross a local market, and the locals seemed very amused by our presence and especially our attempts at communication. I think most of these people were ethnically Hmong and didn’t appear to speak mainstream Laos or understand my efforts to modify my Thai to Laotian. A couple of the local younger people came up and said a few words in English...I do hope that in the long run their education will give them some real benefits. These people seem really poor and it is not easy to see what opportunities there are for them to get out of the daily grind of poverty.
    By sunset we were back at our resort.... an evening meal and then retired. There is something about this sort of place that quickly makes you sync with the sun rather than your watch. Timepieces are irrelevant; you just get up with the sun and sleep after sunset ... there’s not a lot to do after dark and I’d hate to miss those beautiful misty mornings due to a wasted late night of pointless boisterous revelry.

    A couple of nights here and I was slipping into some kind of sultry languor. No shops, no man-made noise just the sounds of the forest around me, the only sign of human habitation was the occasional whirring of a passing boat on the river, or the waft of cooking rising up from the kitchen down by the river.

    My stupor was finally broken by a call form Amos.....he’d finally got a breakthrough with the musicians and found a studio and was going to extend his stay in the country. He would now make his own way home. I however had commitments back in Thailand, so I decided to return home and get back to normal life.

    I said my good-byes to Tom and his staff and promised to return as soon as my next mission had been assigned - little did I know then that I would do a least two more missions to Laos before staying again at Tom’s jungle refuge......

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