February 13, 2007

Land of a million elephants

Follow-up to Opium country from Esprit de l'escalier

I thought I was joking when I said Thai scams were so rubbish it’s as if they’re a decoy for something bigger. As it turned out, leaving Thailand turned out to be if not a meta-scam, then a bona fide scam, or possibly scamola. In Chiang Mai I stayed at Libra Guesthouse, which was cheap and run by a big extended family who spoke good English and were helpful and gave me a deal for the trek and it was cool cos there was always something going on. I liked it, basically, so signed up for their deal to get to Luang Prabang in Laos by bus to the border and by slow boat down the Mekong River.

The bus seemed fine and we arrived to Chiang Khong on the border (i.e. the river) without incident at 3pm. Here, we sat around in a restaurant and the travel people got us to fill out the visa forms. They showed us the price list for the various nationalities – Brits had to pay 1700 baht (Canadians had to pay 1900. Suckers, I thought at the time). They went off to get the passports sorted out as more buses turned up and by the time they returned and we could cross the border to Houay Xai it was 5.30. There were about 50 of us on this package and we were ferried across the river, happy and oblivious.

Our first point of call on Lao soil was the passport control. Because it was after 4pm, we had to pay an “overtime fee” of 20 baht which we felt was a rip-off. Then we saw the real visa-on-arrival rates, which were roughly 500 baht less than we’d paid. The travel company had pocketed about eight quid per person commission on top of the 20 we’d already spent. So had we done this independently we’d be 520 baht better off. Before we had time to bitch we were escorted to a travel agency where we were given a welcome talk from a shifty fellow who introduced himself as Mister Information. He stressed in broken English the importance of paying for everything in kip, the Lao national currency, and not baht, which is “currency foreigner”. It just so happened that they had a currency exchange counter right there, so everyone dutifully went and bought kip. Still smarting from the visa thing, I smelled another hefty commission, so changed far less than the lady urged. And it turned out that all the prices were quoted in baht. The free night’s accommodation was only free if you didn’t need a single bed. Luckily I’d met Jon and Pedro, and we immediately bonded over our love of not being ripped off, so shared a triple.

For the next couple of days of boat travel there was a scam at every turn. Free breakfast was shit (but what does one expect). They urged us to buy cushions for the boat which allegedly had wooden benches; they were wooden benches but they had cushions already. The price of the boat ticket on its own was less than the lovely people at Libra had told me. Information had also told us that accommodation in Pakbeng, the one-horse town we were to spend the night, was hard to come by, so some saps booked pricey rooms from Houay Xai.

The boat ride itself wasn’t as cool as the Rough Guide had reckoned – I was expecting to be one of few falang riding an authentic cargo boat, not one of 50 on specially-designed boats. Still, I met a bunch of folk I’ve ended up travelling through Laos with. And we got a glimpse of rural Lao life on the Mekong – there were people fishing, bathing, and selling tat to passing boats of tourists which never failed to pull up. The countryside is beautiful, and there was a whole bunch of fauna, like elephants, water buffalo and dead dogs floating by. There was even adventure: on the second day to Luang Prabang, there were two boats carrying a mixture of package losers like myself, and independent types. The boat I wasn’t on ran aground (it’s dry season and the rocks are fearsome) and our boat was requistioned to rescue the passengers. A more upmarket package boat was nearby so to free up space on our boat they agreed to take 20 of us, including me. It was pretty comfortable, so I finally felt I was getting my money’s worth.

In New Zealand, a diet of pies gave me a fair bit of flab that I haven’t managed to shake off. Then I discovered the Lao Diet. Basically, you arrive in Lao and start eating anything and everything. Then you start feeling ill, so you stop eating, then you throw up in the middle of your night in Pakbeng. For another day you still don’t feel hungry, but when you do, repeat the process. I was a bit cautious after Pakbeng so I haven’t really followed it through, but it’ll probably work.

I think I sound like my mum if I say this but Luang Prabang is gorgeous. Laos’s second “city”, it’s full of historical buildings and temples. It’s pretty touristy too, but I totally let it off. After travelling through former British colonies, for the remainder of my trip I’m seeing how our neighbours the French did with their white man’s burden. Thailand was never colonised. It’s a wonder they’re so civilised. Anyway, the French were only in Laos for 50 years, but 50 years after they left, there’s still a big Gallic flavour. It’s pretty much like Thailand* but with added baguettes, wine and petanque. It’s the first place on the trip where I’ve met French tourists whose English isn’t so good; it’s as if they expect Laos to still teach the language of their old oppressors in school. I wonder how they get on, but don’t know how to ask.

Monks are everywhere in Laos. They wear orange robes, have shaved heads and carry parasols, so they’re pretty dapper. Every dawn they walk around town and get free rice in the almsgiving. I headed out one day to see this. After seeing one group of monks pass, a lady approached to sell me rice. I couldn’t see any more monks so declined. As I walked away she called “Oh come on, you know they’re not allowed to…you know.” A good point, but I’m not getting any either.

You get a lot more opium in Laos. Maitre d’s and tuk-tuk drivers all ask, if you decline their primary service, if you want “smoke”. With the drug market in such a healthy state, it’s books which are the hot commodity. The Lao government doesn’t seem to mind people reading what they want because bookshops are everywhere, but apparently books aren’t imported so they rely on travellers to bring reading material from abroad. I was chatting to a novice monk in LP who was practising his basic English and he asked, conspiratorally, much like a pill-hungry flake at a festival, “Do you know where I can get a good book?” I actually had The Picture Of Dorian Gray which I was on my way to trade in, but this didn’t meet his criteria, so I didn’t mention it.**

Laos is marginally more expensive than Thailand for everything except beer. The beer here is the legendary Beerlao. It follows that I should invest a lot of time in the pursuit of inebriation while in Laos so therefore I went to Vang Vieng. I’d never heard of the place until I was in KL, where I met a Hungarian girl who raved about the place. She was like the Robert Carlyle character in The Beach, except as far as I know she didn’t commit suicide. More people on my way up north said it was good too, so I cut short my time in Thailand and Vietnam to go for a few days. The main thing about the town is the tubing. You rent a big inner tube, jump in a tuk-tuk and float down the river, stopping at bars and rope swings along the way, for the best part of a day. I did this twice. I know the phrase “this is the life” gets bandied about a lot these days, but VV is The Life. Myself and Michelle, a Canadian girl from the slow boat, also rented scooters for a day and went exploring caves and lagoons and it was brilliant, especially as the guy whose bikes they were didn’t notice the damage I’d done to mine when I took a spill. The town itself was slightly lame as there are loads of bars showing DVDs that are known not by their actual names but by the TV show they show (e.g. The Friends Bar, The Family Guy Bar, The Other Friends Bar), and because of civil unrest (yes, Laos is a dangerous place, Mum) there was a police curfew so the bars shut at a godly hour. We had a good group of people though, which always helps one’s enjoyment of places. Never got around to smoking opium, but scored some good craic.

I was the only westerner on the local bus to capital city Vientiane yesterday, where I fly to Hanoi this afternoon. I have 3 hours to see the sights and buy a Beerlao t-shirt.

*The country is more developed than I heard it was – there were supposed to be no ATMs but there’s at least two.
**He didn’t really say that – he said, “I want a book.” I just wanted to make a sly dig at the overrated Oscar Wilde.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Jake

    In all fairness Wilde’s high regard comes from his plays and his reputation as a man of ready wit, not his short stories. I enjoyed ‘A Picture of…’ but then I’m a sucker for anything Victorian where an opium den is mentioned in any way.

    26 Feb 2007, 12:38


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