Friday, 31 January 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 16. NONG KAI







29/01/03: Catch the midday bus to Vientiane and pick up passports; cross the border into Nong Kai and book into Mut Mee Guesthouse; to a bar with L and meet O.

30/01/03: Breakfast and then explore town with L; buy T-shirt from market for 70 Baht; drink at Mut Mee with usual crowd, plus ‘Poppy’ and some Dutch girl; on to a bar.

31/01/03: Ride bikes to Sala Kaew Ku with colleague and Welsh L & K and marvel at the genius of Luang Pu Bunleva Suirat; tea at Mut Mee, and then catch the overnight train back to Bangkok…

Nong Kai: town of the wild frontier and a marked contrast from the salubrious surroundings across the border. Actually it’s rather sedate, but relative to Vientiane, staring back at me from the opposing banks of the Mekong, it’s a riot. Maybe it’s just the stories I hear, but there’s a palpable sense of violence in the air, a feeling that the simplest faux pas will not be forgiven easily. Or maybe it’s just the cold showers, or the belligerent mosquitoes. Even the Beer Chang seems uptight and I desperately crave another beer Lao before we head back south.
But do not weep, Nong Kai, for you possess a strange jewel that I imagine I’ll struggle to find the kind of ever again. Sala Kaew Ku is a bizarre collection of concrete follies on such a massive scale that one cannot help but be impressed. Hindu deities collude with every different form of Buddha you can think of. There are serpents, giant frogs, skeletons and strange symbols, and I know not what they mean. And in the centre a mausoleum with graphic depictions of the demise of Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat, the late crazed genius responsible for this place. You can make out his body beneath a glass dome; it’s been there since he died in 1996.


A part of me thought we should have targeted an earlier bus, despite my hangover. The journey to Vientiane itself was not a problem – the local transport had already proved itself to be fairly reliable – but we had to collect our passports and then make a dash for the last permitted border crossing of the day. It wouldn’t be a complete disaster if we missed this because I knew my way around Vientiane and where to find accommodation, but we’d made arrangements to stay at the same place as L, Welsh L & K, a guesthouse they all had experience of and rated very highly. On top of all that, I hoped we might be able to make a final visit to the Scandinavian Bakery.
But time was not my primary concern. I had never felt entirely comfortable about surrendering our passports for transportation back to Vientiane ahead of us. It wasn’t so much the threat of perfidy that concerned me, so much the possibility of human or administrative error. On reflection, I reasoned that, the physical distances involved aside, the process was no different to that which I’d submitted myself to in Bangkok. Besides, the little time we’d left ourselves to attend to the situation gave us few alternatives.
When we turned up at what appeared to be a derelict passport office it looked as if my worst fears might actually be realised. The doors were open but there was nobody home and little sign of any recent activity. Perhaps we had the wrong building? We double checked the address and the surrounding street signage. No, this was definitely the right building. 20 minutes worth of panic later, a member of staff walked in off the street to inform us that the passport office had been closed for lunch – no matter about the doors being left unlocked.
Our passports secured, we managed to meet up with L, who we hadn’t wanted to bore with this whole procedure, had lunch at the Scandinavian Bakery and then hailed a taxi for the border, which seemed a lot farther outside of town than I remembered.

First impressions of Mut Mee Guesthouse are good. It overlooks the Mekong, faces Vientiane, the rooms have a certain charm, and the riverside garden is a delight. Why, then, do I not feel quite right in myself? Beer in hand, I stare across the Mekong and yearn to back in Laos. I could have been too, because at the point of departure my companion and I still had two days left on our extended visas. Laos… what a revelation it had been. Looking back, I can barely recall feeling anxious or nervous, or at least not without good reason.
Before we parted company in Luang Prabang, the congenial M (Mk.2) had said something that struck a chord: that on any given travel it took him at least a month to get into his groove. Until such time had passed he’d find the whole thing quite stressful, but something one had to get through as a matter of course. It had taken at least that long for me, and, without even realising it, I’d finally found my groove in Laos. But I wasn’t in Laos anymore (which I didn’t feel was haunted, despite the many, many bombs the USA dumped there during the course of the Vietnam War) and I could feel the attendant stress I now associated with Thailand slowly edging its way back into my psyche.
When L asks anyone if they would like to accompany her to meet some friends for a drink in town, I jump at the chance. Cheap beer: it’s this nation’s saving grace. I exaggerate, but my companion is tired, and Welsh L & K fancy a break too, inspired by the experience imparted to them by their yoga teacher during the week they stayed here prior to leaving for Laos.
The bar in question also overlooks the river, so the quickest way there is to follow the waterfront; only a gloomy, empty market stands in our way. A maze of corrugated iron, it isn’t the route I would have taken, but I assume L knows what she’s doing. All is well until we come across a serious looking dog guarding its territory. Formed like a ripped Doberman Pincher, it just sits there waiting for us to make our move. L reckons the best approach is to simply walk straight passed it. Is she out of her mind? I feebly suggest that we retrace our steps and go back around the houses, but L assures me that this would add an extra 15 minutes to our journey. My pride ensures I acquiesce.
To my relief the dog allows us to pass unhindered. I cannot say whether or not it does so with much grace, because I avoid eye contact in an effort to appear as nonchalant and unthreatening as possible.
The bar, when we arrive there, displays little in the way of visual imagination, but it is pleasant enough. We are there to meet an English girl and a Dutch girl who L met whilst teaching in Nong Kai, some of her former Thai students, and O, and American chap who somehow knows this lot (he may have taught too, I don’t recall). I feel like I’m intruding on a reunion of sorts, but I like the students, who I suspect come from fairly comfortable backgrounds, and I like O, who seems quite keen on having a bit of a drink. I don’t get particularly drunk but the walk home back through the empty market isn’t half as disconcerting as the one there.

We decide to spend a day in Nong Kai before catching a night train the following evening, effectively allowing us two days to explore the place. On the Thursday my colleague and I amble into town. I’m after a pair of shades to replace the ones I damaged at that bus station in Prachuap Khiri Khan, which have since completely fallen apart. I don’t find any to suit, but I do acquire a white T-shirt – adorned with an image from the Ramayana – for the knock-down price of 40 baht at the local outdoor market (not the one with the scary dog). It’s just as well because my yellow Wrangler T-shirt doesn’t look long for this world.
            It’s pretty hot (I can’t remember the last time it rained) and by day Nong Kai isn’t actually too bad a place to hang out. Mut Mee’s grounds in particular are proving the perfect environment in which to relax. Come the evening and everybody seems to be hanging out there: there’s myself, my colleague, Welsh L & K, L, O and those girls we met last night in that average bar. On top of that, people seem to be in the mood for drinking. I still feel like I’m intruding on this group a little, but some of the anecdotes we’re treated to are top rate.
It turns out that one of their number is presently recuperating in a nearby hospital after receiving a severe beating from the local “mafia”. She (she!) became involved with some local lad, but that wasn’t the issue. In a bar where the foreign teachers from the nearby English school readily mix with the locals, this English girl intervened when some Thai guy started intimidating a girl who may or may not have been one of her – the English girl’s - students. In Thai society one is expected to turn a blind eye to this sort of thing, but some of the foreign teachers couldn’t help but get involved. This caused a scene that obliged a local lad, who’d been seeing the English girl, to step in, which in turn caused a bigger scene. Ostensibly the matter was resolved, but hell hath no fury like a Thai humiliated. Some days later, the English girl and her local boyfriend were intercepted whilst out driving their scooter. She was beaten up. So was the young lad, but he also had an eye gouged out for good measure, his vile jelly serving as example to us all: don’t interfere in customs that are not yours to interfere in.
This was all second-hand news, you understand, and I can’t verify any of it. But apparently there is some sort of local Lao/Thai organised crime thing going on, and you really wouldn’t want to get involved with that. One would be wise not to mess with the Southeast Asians whoever they are, for beneath their serenity lies a ruthless capacity for violence.
Taking a slightly different tack, L has an anecdote concerning the in-house masseur, who, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger John Malkovich. Using the pretence of massage, she asserts he persuaded her to take off all her clothes before proceeding to manipulate her in a weird way. She’s at pains to point out that this wasn’t as indecent as it sounds, but it left her feeling rather violated. Again, I cannot verify any of this. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the spectre of John Malkovich’s face hanging about the scene, I’d have filed this tale alongside the one about M (Mk.2) being a bit “creepy”.

It’s Friday and Welsh L & K are taking me and my companion to the local Buddha Park. The Buddha Park, or Sala Kaew Ku as it is known locally, was the brainchild of an eccentric cove named Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat. The story goes that sometime during the 1970s Luang Pu was wandering the countryside when he suddenly stumbled into a deep ditch, only to find a preying monk at the bottom of it. For some reason or other, this monk persuaded Laung Pu that it was his destiny to create statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities. Completely untrained in the mixing of concrete, let alone the infra-structuring of these giant sentinels, Luang Pu proved himself to be very adept (I do not know whether or not the monk had been material specific) and built a whole park of these things, first in Laos and then, to escape the communist regime, in Nong Kai across the border.
And they really are a joy, if a little bit bonkers. The craftsmanship is quite astonishing considering the self-taught circumstances. Although Luang Pu died in 1996, his minions continue building to this day, which allows a glimpse of the process involved. They start off with a crude construction of bricks built up into the rough size and shape of whatever form they’re assembling – it might be a 40ft seven-headed serpent, a Buddha the size of a two storey house, a squat toad or something equally as random. Then, twisted metal is used to form the more intricate parts. On top of this framework the concrete is sculpted, and voila!

There’s quite an exodus headed for the capital. As well as Welsh L & K and our American friend, L, we also have O and one of the faceless extras from Mut Mee.  This turns out to be of real benefit because there’s been a mix-up with the train tickets and we don’t have the beds we thought we’d booked. Instead we’ve reclining leather chairs. There are far more rudimentary versions somewhere on this train, so it could be worse. Only L seems particularly bothered, citing a hitherto unspoken about back condition as the cause of her consternation. She hobbles off in search of an empty bed while the rest of us play cards and drink beer well into the night, O now proving a most welcome addition to the team.
I think I’m probably the last to fall asleep, the soporific nature of booze finally getting the better of me just around midnight.


Wednesday, 29 January 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 15. LUANG PRABANG







21/01/03: Colleague still ill; miss early bus to Vang Vieng; get later bus to Vang Vieng, which takes seven hours; book into French place; try yellow curry with colleague L, M and the mysterious R; go to Hive Bar.


And so to Luang Prabang, a town some way north, accessible by way of Route 13 – at least that’s the plan. My colleague has other ideas, as her torpor continues to prevail.
On her way to catch the early bus, L kindly pays us a visit to petition for our company. We are forced to decline on account of the six hours the journey is scheduled to take: my companion has not the confidence her metabolism can hold out for that duration. If we notice an improvement in her constitution then we might gamble with the later public bus, we tell L, otherwise we’ll try again tomorrow and hopefully meet up with her in Luang Prabang then. L shows understanding, provides us with an approximate address and bids us farewell.
My colleague isn’t interested in eating so I have breakfast alone. I’m not sure how I feel about spending another night in Vang Vieng now, but have resigned myself to it being the case. So when I return to our hotel to find my colleague willing to make the push for Luang Prabang after all, I’m ambivalent. It’s for the best, I suppose, but it gnaws that we’ll be travelling alone, without the protection of any familiar faces. Actually, the people of Laos have generally been so casual – so unthreatening in every way – that, lest I speak to soon, I don’t really know what it is that so concerns me.

The bus, when it arrives, appears to have no room for us, having come all the way from Vientiane with its capacity already pushed to the limit. Not that this is considered a problem: there are brightly coloured plastic stools put aside for just such an eventuality, on which my companion, myself, and a stray Italian will be obliged to perch upon for the whole of the journey.
It’s a back-breaking seven hours that follow, immured in this vehicle. This is Public Bus: cheaper, slower, over-crowded and devoid of air-conditioning. Fortunately, the absence of any controlled ventilation is of no concern because almost all the windows have been opened, possibly on account of the abundance of vapours. Apart from the many cages containing fowl stowed away under much of the seating, there is a very small child on board suffering from something like dysentery – emitting an audible lugubriosity worthy of such impairment – and two middle-aged gentlemen smoking what I can only assume is opium through what appears to be quite a substantial home-made wooden bong.
In fact, the first couple of hours of our journey are a joy, tracing the valley floor through some spectacularly lush scenery. Then the terrain starts to shift upwards and, accordingly, Route 13 adopts a more serpentine strategy. A different sort of view presents us from here – a haze-tinged, vertiginous type of spectacle. It’s a bit like being on board the coach that finishes off The Italian Job, but without the cockneys or the burglarized gold.
When we make the occasional stop, our Laotian travellers disperse in all directions to relieve themselves within the privacy of the surrounding woodland. Nobody’s too proud, woman the same as men, although I think better of it in case it takes me too long and the coach pulls away, leaving me at the mercy of the local Hmong militia.
These genuine insurgents are thin on the ground, most Laotian Hmong having either assimilated or emigrated, and aren’t supposed to be particularly active anyway. The very visible military presence along Route 13 suggests otherwise, although they do look pretty relaxed, hanging out in roadside cafes and smoking cigarettes for the most part.

By the time we reach Luang Prabang, dusk is in full effect. Luang Prabang reveals itself to be larger and more vigorous than I was expecting, although the incurious placidity of the Laotian people continues to put me at ease. The Southern Bus Terminal (with public lavatories!) lies on the city’s perimeter, so it’s still another half hour before we reach Sisavangvong Road – by way of a tuk-tuk shared with the Italian guy – where L assured us she could be found.
It’s about 21.00 by now and, rather fortuitously, we run into L almost within minutes of our arrival. Less fortuitously, it is too late to book ourselves a room in the same guesthouse, but she very kindly walks with us for 30 minutes until we find somewhere with a berth to spare, albeit slightly over budget and riddled with lace and teak, where French is the default language. It’s just for one night – L will reserve us a room at her gaff for tomorrow – and, accommodation arranged, we accompany L to meet M (Mk.2) – another member of L’s ever increasing network of travelling chums – to have something to eat.
I think I’m starting to develop a kind of traveller’s guilty conscience. The buying of coffee and beer aplenty can be justified, because these things are reliably cheap, and I think we’ve opted for more than our share of public transport. Where food has been concerned I’ve probably been a little more extravagant. It’s not like I haven’t taken to the local fare either, but too often I’ve ordered meat and potatoes where I’d be better served ordering rice and vegetables. I have decided to expiate for all those pork chops I ate in Bangkok and make a firm effort, when faced with any given menu, to go native, or even to avoid altogether the sort of establishments where the local cuisine plays second fiddle to more western-style cuisine. Tonight I’ll be having the yellow curry, which will not disappoint.
I instantly take to M (Mk.2). He’s from Greenwich in London, a handsome lad and another one of those well-travelled types, although he’s only been on his current tour of duty for a couple of weeks. This is M (Mk.2)’s second night in Luang Prabang and he’s now sharing his room with L, purely for economically practical purposes – a common practice amongst hardened travellers. He knows of a place called the Hive Bar just the other side of Mount Phou Si. It sounds like a bit of a hike but Mount Phou Si is nothing more than a hillock (all be it an impressive one) in the middle of town with a monastery clambering all over it. Dinner finished, it takes about 10 minutes to circumnavigate this holy knoll through Luang Prabang’s suddenly deserted streets.
Hive Bar itself is basic in build but has been designed with a degree of imagination. In the low light, the exposed brickwork, minimal wooden furniture and red-painted walls are quite striking. It’s not too dissimilar from that Belgium-run place in Trang, but with more customers. I’m surprised by the amount of people drinking here, and I even recognise a few from being in Vang Vieng. We don’t stay out for long because it has been a long and arduous day, but suddenly the move to Luang Prabang is looking like an auspicious one.


22/01/03: Move to Phoun San Guesthouse; walk up Mount Phou Si; Kwang Si Waterfall with colleague, L and M (Mk.2); food with same plus R; Maylek Pub plus Welsh L & K, who have just arrived from Vang Vieng; Hive Bar with colleague, L & M (Mk.2).

23/01/03: Scandinavian Bakery (disappointing); boat up the Mekong to Tham Ting with L & M (Mk.2), and Welsh L & K; stop off at a whiskey distillery on the way back; Organic Bakery for coffee; emails; Nazim for curry; Hive Bar with all, plus ‘Yam & Sasha’.

What majesty the Mekong! A wide murky brown deluge of water breaching China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, not compromising in mass – or so it appears – along the way. Almost as wide in Luang Prabang some 300 clicks upstream from Vientiane, the river is aesthetically utilised to an impressive degree. A result of geography, for sure, from Mount Phuo Si the surrounding hills channel wisps of smoke from up high, a feature of the slash and burn agricultural methods practised by the surrounding tribes. A place of profound 'Laoness' Luang Prabang oozes character. Not as nonchalant in manner as Vang Vieng, and over three times the size, it still possesses the same stoicism that makes Laos the endearing country that it is.
The days can be spent enjoying the finest coffee in any one of the sophisticated cafes dotted around town. Feeling more active? Then why not take a boat up the Mekong? In the evening, travellers regale at the Hive Bar, a joint far classier than merits the modesty of this easy-going country.


Phou San Guesthouse will do. It’s an older build a bit like the guesthouse we stayed in back in Vientiane, but without the scarier elements. Crucially, it opens out onto Sisavangvong Road where the bulk of the cafes and restaurants are, and the close proximity of Mount Phou Si begs its ascent. After breakfast, I walk up thing to take in the view and have a look at the two working Buddhist temples housed there – Wat Tham Phou Si and Wat Chom Si – and the vista is impressive.
As is the insouciance of the young monks who live and work there. Becoming a monk in Southeast Asia is a bit like entering into National Service: it is expected that all boys ordain as a monk for at least a couple of months, to earn merit for their family and to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of Buddhist teachings. Although not compulsory, to avoid doing so would be frowned upon. Besides, for those too poor to attend school – or from families too poor to spare them – becoming a monk allows them a basic education they might otherwise lack.
(Theravada) Buddhism isn’t as dogmatic as most religions, and so I don’t get the feeling these young men see doing their time as any sort of chore. They seem quite a jolly bunch, keen to interact with foreigners, generally hanging out, some even smoking cigarettes.
            I’d be quite content to spend the rest of the day getting to know these surroundings, walking up more hills – if there are any – looking at more Wats and drinking copious amounts of Laotian coffee. But L has other ideas and we’re very much part of them. Given that we sort of owe her our company in return for arranging our accommodation, the ineluctable reality of situation is that we’ll be accompanying her to Kwang Si Waterfall.
M (Mk.2) is going too? Maybe it’s not such a bad idea...

I’m jealous of M (Mk.2), for he is hiring a scooter to drive himself to the falls, while the rest of us will take a songthaew. It’s that old insurance conundrum again, and I’ve never taken charge of a motorised velocipede in my life. What’s more, one hears tales of unscrupulous companies who charge customers for extant damages, holding their passport to ransom, or whatever it is they’ve been obliged to leave as security. Even M (Mk.2) seems slightly hesitant, providently inspecting his bike for any potential blemishes that might later be ascribed to him. And what if you take a wrong turn and get lost, or run out of petrol? Still, I’m still sorely tempted.
The journey takes almost three quarters of an hour, which is longer than I had anticipated. The falls are only 18 miles out of town but the negative condition of roads slows us down considerably. The corollary of this is the bucolic landscape we pass through: paddy fields, woodland and the open road. And when we finally arrive, even the car-park connives to perpetuate some sort of pastoral idyll, with perfectly formed trees protecting us from the midday sun.
The falls themselves operate on a number of physical levels, forming a number of shallow travertine pools at the top of an almost sheer hill, before cascading – there’s no other word for it – 50 metres and collecting in turquoise blue terraces at its base. I guess it is worth seeing, although to really make the most of these terraced pools one should probably bring a swimming costume (I still don’t have one). I break loose at one point and climb up the side of the falls, ending up in a field that resembles any other field. And then I descend in search of coffee, only to find that they don’t offer the Laotian kind here, only instant.
As is often the way, the journey back seems much quicker than the journey out. We’d left for the falls late in the morning, so it neither is nor feels as late as it otherwise might, given the productivity of the day. Despite this – or maybe because of this – people are quite willing to take dinner sooner rather than later, allowing for an hour to freshen up beforehand. This pleases me because I like to get my evening meal out of the way early, allowing plenty of time to drink, unencumbered from the restraints digestion can often impose.
But there are other reasons to expedite dinner, too.  L has arranged to meet up with R (I don’t know where she picked this one up, but he is a middle-aged Englishman) and after that she’s supposed to be meeting Welsh L & K at some place called the Maylek Pub. I have no idea when or how this was organised but can only deduce that emails were involved. Does this woman ever stop?
Actually, the night turns out to be a bit of a damp squib: R is running late but eventually shows up at the Maylek Pub, accompanied by a rather young and bashful Laotian “man”, and Welsh L & K are suitably tired after their six hour journey from Vang Vieng. After a few drinks, it’s left to me and my colleague and L and M (Mk.2) to wind up the evening back at the Hive Bar.

You can imagine my delight on discovering another branch of the Scandinavian Bakery in Luang Prabang, and so you can probably also imagine how disappointed I am when it turns out this particular wing doesn’t adhere to the same formula. They don’t use those little forms here, and so choice is restricted, and I’m sure the juice is concentrated rather than fresh. But it makes do as a rendezvous, for L has roped us into another one of her excursions, although this time Welsh L & K have been added into the mix. Pak Ou Caves is our destination, about two hours by boat from Luang Prabang, depending on the currents, and with six people to share the cost it’s a steal.
            The craft that will take us there is long and narrow – a bit like a gondola on a diet, but with a roof. As with the fishing boats we observed in Thailand, its propellers are fixed to the end of a long piece of scaffold, allowing the vessel to navigate shallower waters. This is just as well because it is dry season and the Mekong is not at its deepest, giving rise to bizarre currents ebbing this way and that.
After about an hour or so it doesn’t feel like we’ve made much progress at all, although there’s little in the way of landmarks with which to accurately gauge, save for the odd fishing boat. The terrain is a little bit of a let-down, in fact, until we approach the Pak Ou Caves themselves. Beyond, the river dissolves into tantalisingly steep gorge, but we’ve come as far as we’re allowed on this trip.
Pak Ou Caves is actually a pairing of two: Tham Ting (the lower cave) and Tham Theung (the upper cave), situated directly opposite where the Ou River confluxes with the Mekong (‘pak’ meaning ‘mouth’). Tham Ting itself is a sort of hole carved – or eroded – into the side of the overhanging rock face that borders a large portion of the Mekong’s west bank. In this orifice resides thousands of effigies of Buddha, of varying dimensions and in various poses, put there who knows when by God knows who. Tham Theung offers more of the same but with a better view.
On the way back we’re cajoled into stopping off at a whiskey still, responsible for the God almighty stench that we cut through on our way upriver, wherein we’re given a free taste of some of the pokey blends distilled there. In the unlikely event that you find this stuff potable, you can actually buy a bottle.
And then swiftly back to Luang Prabang with the flow of Mekong firmly on our side.

Later that evening a large group of us (the same who I had spent the day with, plus Yam and Samya – a double act who were slowly creepy up the bill) sampled the curry at Nazim. I opted for the Tikka Massala, which proved to be a good choice. I’d normally go for something a bit more aggressive but they don’t hold back on the spices in Southeast Asia. In fact, the curry at Nazim was so good that on any given night during our stay in Luang Prabang, at least one member of our growing entourage could be found dining there.
After dinner, we all bowled down to the Hive bar. There were to be no heightened levels of intoxication, though; it had been too civilised a day for that. Besides, everyone was stuffed.






24/01/03: Power cut; random café with L; Xieng Thang with colleague and L; tea at Nazim with M (Mk.2); Hive Bar with all.

25/01/03: Emails; Scandinavian Bakery on my own; walk around town on my own; Nazim with colleague, L, M (Mk.2), Welsh L & K, Yam & Sasha; party at Yam & Sasha’s; Hive Bar with companion, L & M (Mk.2).

26/01/03: Scandinavian Bakery on my own again, and back later with my colleague; see photo exhibit by Henri Thenard; coffee/stroll/beer with colleague, Welsh L & K; bookshop and Hive Bar with companion; a new bar for tea; drink back in Welsh L & K’s room.


I had to put a stop to L’s tour operations. I enjoyed our trips, and I appreciated her efforts, but Luang Prabang had so much to offer of its own that one just had to spend at least a couple of lazy days there. I managed three.
            The next day we had a peek at Wat Xieng Thang – replete with smoking monks – possibly the most impressive temple in Luang Prabang, if not radically different from all the others. For high tea, I hooked up with M (Mk.2) for a second visit to Nazim, before meeting up with the rest at – wait for it – the Hive Bar.
I shunned the invitation to join ‘the gang’ for a return visit to Kwang XI Waterfall, and to swim in the lagoon there, and seized the opportunity to spend some time alone. I took breakfast at the Scandinavian bakery – for despite it not living up to the Vientiane branch’s precedent, it was still one of the better cafes in town – wrote some postcards, and then wandered aimlessly, taking photos of this and that, trying hard to appreciate how far flung a place I’d found myself in. I made good progress before the midday sun beat me back; the nights may be cooler than in Thailand and the humidity lacking, but at two in the afternoon it can still get pretty hot in northern Laos.
Yet Luang Prabang was far from being off the beaten track. It had hotels and European styled cafes, and gift shops selling local art at exaggerated prices. It had ex-pats and it had an airport. The rich and famous have been known to holiday there, and what I was getting out of it wasn’t really very different: I may not have had a pool to lounge beside, or petals spread across my freshly made bed – or even a freshly made bed – but I was looking at the same things, breathing the same air and eating the same quality food – to my uninformed palate, at least. Further, I had the protection and the good company of the biggest entourage since my time spent on Koh Phangan. What could be better?

On their return, Kwang XI Waterfall has everyone gushing – they’d even been allowed to stroke some dopey tiger. (I allude here to rumours that such beasts are, more often than not, tranquilised for your pleasure. In this case the tiger was a young orphan, possibly mollified by trauma, and my colleagues had been informed that nothing could have been further from the truth.) The day’s success begets another visit to Nazim and a low-key party at Yam and Sasha’s, who, like L and M (Mk.2), are co-habiting for financial reasons.
But there is agitation amongst the ranks. L is quietly casting specious aspersions as to M (Mk.2)’s character, making out that he’s been giving her something of the creeps. In turn, I’m not sure how thrilled Welsh L & K are about L’s company. The signs are there that Welsh L & K could be the most convivial people we’ve met yet – K and my companion seem to be hitting it off, in particular – but I feel our association with L might be getting in the way of this incipient comradeship developing any further. Yet, when the party finishes prematurely, L and M (Mk.2) accompany me and my colleague to the Hive Bar with no apparent ill feeling between them. Is L two-faced or merely fickle, I wonder?

Anywhere else and I’d be thinking of moving on. I think L already is, but Welsh L & K are a day behind our schedule. What’s more, they feel that they rushed Vang Vieng a bit – not realising fully what it had to offer but hearing all about it since – and fancy stopping off there again on their way back to Vientiane. This makes good sense if only to break up the journey, which would take about 10 hours, if taken in one hit. Welsh L & K have not made definite plans from there, but I gather that whatever they decide to do will involve returning to Bangkok first.
            My colleague and I had originally intended to head east from here into Vietnam, possibly stopping off at The Plain of Jars along the way. This strategy had run into problems when we’d tried to obtain the requisite visas back in Bangkok, on account of the Chinese New Year, its hold as national holiday in Vietnam and the subsequent closure of its embassies. We’d been led to believe that purchasing a visa at the border was a viable option, which kept open our options when we’d struggled to find anywhere in Vientiane to acquire one (in retrospect, this may also have been an option when effecting one’s transfer into Laos). Having said that, I’d heard some murky stories relating to Vietnamese Customs, of people becoming stuck at the border, possibly being refused entry for not having a visa, and of finding the locals less than honest when one they eventually settled down there. Whatever the truth behind these tidings, I have now become very wary of the idea of going to Vietnam – or at least towards the journey into its interior – but my colleague is still keen, as it transpires is L.
Fortunately for me, though, an imposing poster in the local internet café has piqued my companion’s interest. It is advertising some place in Cambodia called Angkor Wat, “where you interface with God,” which L has actually been to and cannot recommend highly enough. I say ‘fortunately for me’ but I know nothing of Cambodia, other than the starving children my grandmother demanded I consider whenever I failed to finish whatever food she’d prepared for my younger self. It is, in truth, a poorer and more alarming country than Vietnam, but if we decide to go there – and it looks like we might – then geography dictates that we must first return to Thailand.
I would actually suggest we stay in Laos, cut the rest of Southeast Asia loose, go see those jars and then maybe cross back over the Thai border to the west and move onto Chiang Mai – everybody raves about the place. There is a problem, though: our Laotian visas expire tomorrow. There are a number of ways to approach this situation. We can head for the border NOW – be it the border with Thailand to the west, or the opposite eastern division with Vietnam – take our chances and pay the fine for overstaying our visa if we are unable to make it there in time. Or we can submit our current visas for extension in one of the local travel agents and pick up our amended passport in Vientiane within five days, where someone will have driven it for the extension to be granted. In Luang Prabang we’re stuck in the heart of Laos, so a run for any of Laos’ border crossings is going to take the best part of 10 hours, whichever direction we take. I think I quite like the sound of Welsh L & K’s stopping off in Vang Vieng scheme.
After gingerly handing over my passport to a woman who assures me that all will be well, I look forward to a final day’s relaxation within the environs of Luang Prabang, our next major move pushed safely to the back of my mind. Alone, I stumble upon a gallery run by a French photographer called Henri Thenard, exhibiting photographs he’s taken of the local hill tribes, pretty much untouched by modern civilisation. Then I re-join my colleague to explore the town further. Later, we hook up with Welsh L & K. After a few drinks, they invite us back to their hotel room for more drinks. It is a pleasant evening and I decide that, if forced to choose, I’d be more than happy to follow their trail, rather than the pro-Vietnam L’s.






27/01/03: It’s Monday; get the 10.00 bus to Vang Vieng; book back into Amphone; food by the river with colleague, Welsh L & K and a few Germans; Xayoh café with Welsh L.

28/01/03: Breakfast at Sabaydee Restaurant; hire bikes and head north with my colleague, L, Welsh L & K – colleague has a crash; beer at sunset bar; drinks on guesthouse balcony; Pizza Falconi; Xayoh Café + Yam (but no Sasha!); more drinks on guesthouse balcony.


I’ve resisted the temptation to sleep in of late, and the more civilised pace of drinking has ensured I have succeeded. I am glad of this because the mornings in this part of Laos are something to behold. Night-time temperatures typically dip as low as 15°C and induce a strange morning mist that one doesn’t see in the country’s more southern provinces. Then, come about 11.00, the low lying cloud very quickly burns off to reveal the sun and the temperature quickly rises by about 13°C. It’s another reason to catch the early bus, because there’s not much worse than hiking your luggage around town and having to find taxis when the sun’s battering you about the head.
            Everyone is present and correct: myself, my colleague, Welsh L & K, and L. Being a fairly organised lot, on arriving at the bus terminal I’ve enough time to stroll across the road and inspect Luang Prabang’s local stadium. It’s a modest affair but a continuous concrete structure low enough in aspect for me to take photographs that do it justice.
            Our coach is in far better nick than the one that brought me and my companion here, yet only marginally more expensive. It’s also populated by a mere smattering of passengers, most of who are travellers (although we will pick up a fair few locals along the way). The journey is far less strenuous than before, and we even stop off at a relative service station of a café in a small town by the name of Pho Koun (I cannot verify the precise location). This is in stark contrast to some of the villages we pass through, which are completely subsistent and more representative, I should think, of the way the majority of Laotians live.
            No longer hampered by the aisle, I get to better appreciate the scenery this time around, although the heat haze obscures the view somewhat. We’re at least 1500 metres above sea level, and it could be significantly more. We pass the odd cyclist, presumably engaged in some sort of charity bike-ride, and I wonder whether they knew what they were letting themselves in for when they embarked on this ‘Tour de Laos’.
            We arrive in Vang Vieng at a reasonable hour, book back into the same hotel and are even given the same room. My companion and I nip out for a quick drink and then meet Welsh L & K for dinner down by the river, joined by a few Germans they’ve bumped into somewhere along the line. Everybody is tired but I manage to persuade Welsh L to join me for a few drinks in Xayoh. It’s not a foolishly heavy night by any means, but one could argue that it shouldn’t really be any sort of night at all.

Despite insisting on celebrating my return to Vang Vieng the evening before, I’m in relatively fine fettle today and, after breakfast, very up for hiring more bikes. Our destination is a winery four miles north of Vang Vieng in the village of Phoudinaeng, and everybody who caught the bus yesterday is involved. Their speciality is Mulberry wine, and they serve food as well, the organic and vegetarian slant appealling to Welsh L & K. None of this particularly moves me, but I like exploring the countryside and I could do with the exercise. The wine isn’t great but the tea is good and the plantation has a nice vibe about it. It makes for a relaxing hour, sat outside talking, those karst outcrops providing the perfect backdrop.
On our way back towards Vang Vieng we decide to take a detour towards the river that runs through it. I find a suitable dirt track and take the lead. About 20 metres along, I meet a field rampant with hairy, horned cattle. Aware that cycling into said field might not be the best thing to do, I hit my brakes and command my entourage to do the same. The inconsistently feeble nature of our bikes’ breaks ensures our party decelerates at varying rates, which precipitates a collision with my companion’s front wheel and Welsh L’s rear one. As a result, my colleague is thrown beyond her handlebars and face-butts the ground. Everybody pauses in macabre anticipation. Inspection of her face reveals grazes of varying severity to her chin, nose and mouth. My primary concern is the one to her mouth; has she split her lip or, even worse, broken any of her teeth? Fortuitously, there seems to be nothing serious amiss, but the expedition is curtailed and we make our way back to the establishment that hired us the bikes.
            Yet my colleague’s accident is not without its benefit: it seems to bring the group together and there’s no question that we’ll not be spending the evening in each other’s company (I felt my last night in Vang Vieng deserved this sort of send-off). Everybody is keen on the idea of eating out at the excellent Pizza Falconi, and the suggestion that we have a few pre-dinner drinks on our guesthouse balcony is met with real vim. Sure, the pain to my companion’s mouth prevents her from eating solids, and she can only just about manage to drink her vodka through a straw, but the alcohol serves as an emollient and eases her pain.
Later after dinner, we’re joined by Yam (no Sasha) at Xayoh Café for a couple of rounds, and we finish off with a few more beers on our balcony. My colleague may not concur, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my second stay in Vang Vieng.


Tuesday, 21 January 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 14. VANG VIENG







15/01/03: Scandinavian Bakery; go to catch bus but end up getting a songthaew with Al, L, a well-off Israeli and two girls from Halifax; book into Amphone; take tea at Xayoh’s sister café and return there later for drinks with Al and L; drinks somewhere else with Canadians; back to said Canadians’ room for a nightcap.

No show of Vientiane’s neo-colonialism in Vang Vieng. Maybe the French deemed the place to have insufficient “Je ne sais quoi”, or perhaps it was simply too physically constricted a location. Whatever, they missed out because Vang Vieng is a place of perfect beauty. Surrounded by cave-ridden mountains and a refreshingly diverse range of deciduous flora, it provides welcome relief from the palm trees that so characterised Thailand with their ubiquity. 

Physically, the Laotians are not as delicately pretty as Thais but are none the less a handsome people, although their dress sense can be just as flawed. Maybe less assured of themselves when dealing withfelang’ than the denizens south of the boarder, they are still a warm and welcoming culture. In an odd sort of way, their whole approach seems a lot less contrived than it might in the more predictable tourist destinations of Southeast Asia. Only the pimping of opium casts aspersions on this serene idyll.


‘Future’ was almost as bad as any club/wine bar in Britain trading under any similarly desultory appellation. It recalled the old Ritzy chain of nightclubs, except without the threat of spontaneous violence flitting about the place. An experience, I suppose, but one I am now paying for. 
Which is why we’re running late for our rendezvous with Al & L at the Scandinavian Bakery. Not only that but they – the bakery – have run out of my preferred choice of bread. It’s a rushed job on a hot, sunny mid-morning that punishes me for my condition. But we do manage to catch up with Al & L and are very quickly re-assimilated into their plan – for it is they that are leading the charge – and in very little time we’ve waved down another one of those knocked up tuk-tuks to take us to the station.
In stark contrast to Vientiane’s general state of being, the bus terminus is a hive of activity. Across the road is an outdoor market, which goes some way to explaining this, but there are a lot people in attendance for the buses also. It takes a while to find the vehicle bound for Vang Vieng but we soon establish its whereabouts and set up camp on the back-seat.
Then a strange thing happens. A corpulent Hebrew in expensive sunglasses approaches Al and presents him with some sort of arrangement. The Israelite will front 500 baht out of the 900 needed to pay for a songthaew to Vang Vieng, which he has ready and waiting, if the four of us collectively fund the balance. Individually, this will cost marginally more than the public bus but should supposedly shave about an hour off of the journey time. Nice arrangement, but we've just invited two young and slightly lost looking English girls to join our troupe, and it would seem almost perfidious to agree to this now.
A songthaew can comfortably seat eight people – ten would probably be of no great inconvenience – but for some reason the Israelite steadfastly rules out the possibility of bringing them in on the deal. We are not sure if this is because he thinks the comfort of the journey will be compromised or for the reason that we’ll now be dividing 400 baht between six persons instead of the originally conceived four – he’s vague about it when confronted. Al and L are suggesting that we could all pay the individual rate that was originally offered to us, meaning he’ll only have to subsidise his newly acquired coterie to the tune of 300 baht, to which the young girls from Halifax more than readily agree.
I get the feeling that the Israelite could afford the whole songthaew to himself, if that made him happy, and was merely looking for some auxiliary company for the three hour journey to Vang Vieng. Now, considerably outnumbered, he’d feel like he was subsidising a trip for very little in return. I can see the potential in this point, but if this is indeed his position then how can he possibly articulate his objection without looking horribly needy? So he doesn't, but doesn’t do a bad impression of throwing a tantrum either, plugging himself into his CD player for the first hour of the journey, communicating with no one.
I wonder if it was worth all the bother. Without any humidity wrapped around one’s form, songthaews can get a little parky in the back. Not only that, but the public bus visibly trails us for much of the journey, overtaking us momentarily when we stop for our comfort break, although falling behind again when it stops for theirs. But it is possible that we arrive with just enough of an edge to reserve a free room in a more conveniently located guesthouse.
Talking of guesthouses, ours – Amphone – is not what I was expecting. It’s obviously a fairly new build, in a similar vein to the apartments we rented in Krabi Town. This is to say the floors are tiled, the fixtures and fittings are clean and modern (no squat toilets here), the walls are painted one colour, and there’s even somewhere to file away your clothes: eminently practical and reasonably priced. They do laundry, too – which is not completely unexpected – so now I can think about introducing that mould-ridden jumper into the fold.
            First impressions are good, then, but it’s the view from the second floor (our floor) balcony at the front of the building that really puts a spring in one’s step: a vista comprised of corrugated iron rooftops, home to many cats; a shallow, sleepy crystal-clear river running parallel to our building’s frontage; sharp karst outcrops wrapped up in lush green foliage, their depth far exceeding my field of view; and a subtlety of sound to match.
Yes, I very much like it here, but it is the lack of bustle that is impressed upon me the most. I am vaguely aware of Vang Vieng’s formidable reputation as somewhere to cut loose a little, and, as I've outlined, the physical attraction is immediately obvious. What is missing, however, are the hitherto attendant sounds of Bob Marley or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and televisions showing Friends on endless rotation and the shops selling fake gear and the general sense of permissiveness about many of these sorts of places. There’s not even a 7-Eleven (fast becoming the gauge by which all things modern and potentially ruinous are judged).
A walk up the main drag to check out the local scene introduces Xayoh’s more modern and minimal little sister. With the state of things apparently this good, I know that I’ll want a drink at some point, and I know that I need to eat before I do so. I order the spare ribs, which comes with chips, a bread roll (with real butter) and a salad on the side. Across the road they’re playing The Beastie Boys and later they will play Curtis Mayfield, all of Rubber Soul by The Beatles, and Wild Horses by the Stones. When we return that evening, conditions are equally propitious; even the Israelite appears more convivial. We play some pool, make friends and, once the bar has closed, end up back in some Canadians’ room for a nightcap.


16/01/03: Hire bikes and cycle to Tham Phu Kam caves, stopping at smaller caves along the way; tea at Pizza Falconi; meet Al and L at Xayoh Café; go to another bar where we’re joined by Scandinavians folk; my colleague retreats early.

17/01/03: Feel a bit unwell; colleague goes ‘tubing’ with Al and L; fish at Tanketkham; Xayoh Café and hook up with friendly Americans; back to Americans’ said room; Full Moon Party on island – colleague ill; chat to Scandinavians and some guy called Will.


Turning right out of our guesthouse, the dirt-surfaced high-street rises steadily for about 30 metres until it bends dexter to meet the main concreted drag, where one will find the majority of cafes and restaurants of Vang Vieng. Bend sinister instead and there’s an undercover market peddling smells to affront the senses – it’s the desiccated fish that does it. The Laotians trade away as if you weren't really there, their raw produce of little use to the passing tourist.How alive it all is, and intensely stifling under the corrugated metal carapaces that cover this collection of stalls. (It’s not all foodstuffs – you can buy pots, pans, toilet rolls and a whole host of minor domestic appliances.) Beyond that that there is a riverside bar and steps leading to a footbridge connecting the mainland to a small ait.
Before hitting the drag, there is Xayoh Café, the vague notion of a bank, and a few pseudo 7-Eleven type establishments, useful for buying bottled water, postcards, cigarettes and savoury snacks. Throughout, one will also find smaller cafes and bars, some of which run a side-line in bicycle hire. These shabby velocipedes are a handy way to explore the countryside, and my companion, Al, L and myself are keen to exploit this mobile method of inquiry and inspect a few of the local caves. All this is covered in our guidebook, with recommended destinations and the timescales to reach them. Than Phu Kham is the cave we are advised not to miss, and we can slip in one or two others along the way if we have the time.
Our journey is not without peril. The bamboo footbridge we have to negotiate to travel west out of Vang Vieng has not been designed with bicycles in mind, although the locals don’t seem fazed; a motorbike with a large sow strapped across its back confidently makes the crossing before we do. One is required to pay a small toll, too. Then there’s the poor quality of the roads and the consideration that our bikes aren't really up to the job, and the fact that it’s a good 6 km to our final destination – but these are minor quibbles.
The first cave isn't much of a cave at all but delivers a very pleasing view from its opening. A bamboo pole with an orange rag attached to its end (in all probability, a scrap of old monk-robe) protrudes from this crow’s nest. I try to search this marker out from ground level but fail to do so. Maybe we climbed higher than I thought?
We’re about 4 km into our 6 km journey and we stop at a barely existing village – Ban Na Thong – for liquid based refreshment. It’s an overcast and humid day, although I've endured worse. We take a wander around some of the local fields, in amongst the limestone protuberances pushing up through the crops, and I am struck by how less ‘tropical’ the flora is compared to that found in southern Thailand.
Our destination reached, we start the long, arduous scramble up the side of the outcrop that supports our chosen cave. The path – if one could call it that – struggles, like a thwarted helix, up the side of the rock-face, offering nothing more than bamboo staves and minor footholds as aids. Another fine view greets us from the top, although not as unblemished as the last. From there we start out descent downwards into the cave itself, the target being a supine golden Buddha taking shelter under a small canopy. It is late afternoon, which means the sun puts the Buddha under its gaze via a conveniently located opening in the cave’s mantle. (There’s nothing convenient about it, really: it’s why the icon was placed there.) We wander off into the gloom as far as we dare – or as far as our cheap torch will allow us to dare – before starting our re-ascent, followed by our re-descent.
For those who have brought their swimming costume – I don’t have one – there’s a swim-hole to play in. Whilst my cadres are busy doing that, I will introduce myself to the pleasure of Laotian coffee (café pakzong). The Laotians ship their Robusta south of the border, where it’s made into instant coffee, and save the superior Arabica for domestic consumption. This ground bean is filtered through a kind of muslin cone and then sweetened with condensed milk. Unless one has an exceptionally sweet tooth, there is no need to add sugar. Served in a short glass, it makes for a pretty strong blend, and maybe the best coffee I have ever had the pleasure of tasting; within 20 minutes of finishing my first I will have ordered a second in preparation for the cycle home.






That night we went for pizza at Falconi with Al and L, and got talking to the various faces that some of us could place somewhere, or were in the process of placing. There was a real communal feel to Vang Vieng. It was if everybody knew each other by only a few degrees of separation. The proprietor of Falconi made every effort to interact with his clientele and referred to Koh Phangan by name when predicting the future he thought this serene little town might have in store for itself. A shame, one might think, although this potential was still a long way off, as evinced when the town’s electricity supply was shut down at about 23.00. A generator swiftly booted into action but only to supply enough energy for a single bar, where everybody who was still up for a bit of action subsequently convened. Even then it was made clear that there was limited time at our disposal and anybody looking forward to an all-nighter had come to the wrong the place – for tonight at least.

Al and L had another outdoor excursion lined up for us the next day: tubing. Our Japanese friend in Samui had expounded on the subject somewhat, as had J (Mk.2) in Bangkok. My antipathy towards water put me on my guard, although the shallow river running through Vang Vieng conjectured I could cope.
Alas, it was not to be, as I suffered something of a faulty digestive system that confined me to my room for much of the day. By evening I had made a full recovery – so much so that I ordered fresh-water fish for dinner – and hoped that the positive reports I heard back from my companion, Al and L might motivate a repeat performance on any of the coming days.
Such disappointment aside, the evening was a very active one. Another visit to Xayoh Café precipitated a meeting with some of the friendly Americans who had been out and about the night before, a trip back to their hotel room for light refreshments, and then a walk down to a Full Moon Party taking place on the previously alluded to ait.
Now it would be my companion’s turn to fall foul of whatever was troubling stomachs around these parts. Ordinarily, one might have assumed the fish to be responsible, but if this was true then surely I would have been doubly aggravated. Whatever she had picked up, it punished her far more severely than it had I (assuming our conditions shared an ancestry), and she spent a brief time feeling very unwell before disgorging her stomach of its contents in a spectacularly oral manner. Such manifestations can often bring relief, but it was not to be.
And so I took my companion back to our guesthouse to convalesce and re-joined the party alone. But I was not alone because there were people there. I sat myself down, in front of a conflagration of coals, next to a seven foot Swedish man, and together we babbled away into the early hours of the morning.


18/01/03: Colleague is still unwell; check emails; process colleague’s camera film to cheer her up, then go for a walk; eat at bar by the river with Al, L, Sasha – the giant Swede – and Yam(?) – a Welsh scaffolder – and others; back to Xayoh; return to the ‘generated’ bar and drink with Al, L and ‘Will’; check out local club; end up back on the air, the scene of last night’s Full Moon Party, with Sasha.

19/01/03: Breakfast at Tanketkham; process some of my camera film; drink at Xayoh; tea at bar across the road; watch some football.

20/01/03: Breakfast on the main drag; temples with colleague and then walk to riverside café; attempt another cave but it shuts early; tea at Xayoh; internet; a few drinks at Xayoh.


You should have seen her last night – she looked almost choleraic. I was a little concerned by the ghostly visage before me, skin turned green, lips purple. My companion had reassured me that she did not feel as bad as I assured her she looked, and with that I’d rolled over and fallen asleep.
            She doesn't feel too good today, though, so I offer to develop some of the disposable cameras she’s accumulated, as some sort of recompense. [My colleague had actually brought a camera along with her, but it seized up in Prachuap Khiri Khan. From then on she had little choice but to rely on disposable cameras, which are a far sight bulkier to carry around than rolls of film. To make matters worse, on our return, the store from which the new camera had been bought refused to issue a refund. Instead, they said they would need to send it back to the manufacturer, which they duly did only for the offending item to become lost in transit, whereupon the store in question was obliged to replace it with an equivalent model, the original having since been discontinued.] I think the gesture is appreciated, but it also gives me free reign to wander around the town’s perimeter in a manner that might not interest my colleague.
When the films are developed an hour or so later I also return with crisps of a neutral flavour. The photos are quite good, far better than one would expect from such an impromptu photo-lab in the middle of Laos. On the way back I run into Al and L who invite us for dinner at a restaurant down by the river. This will be Al’s last night, for tomorrow he must leave to catch his flight back to England, a flight he’s already postponed once so as to allow him to accompany L to Vang Vieng (I think they've been having something of an affair). Sounds great, I say, but warn that my companion’s restricted appetite might preclude her attendance, which it does.
It’s just as well. Al’s last night is a strange one. It involves some of us drinking in the street after chucking-out time at Xayoh, trying out a club called the Full Moon (very much a locals’ affair), before then returning to the scene of the previous night’s debauchery with this Scandinavian guy called Will, who to this very day I struggle to remember. Who was he, where was he from, who was he travelling with, and where did he go?

My colleague feels no better the next day, and again I am left to my devices. So impressed was I with the quality of my colleague’s photographs that I decide to develop some of my own, if only as something to do.
            My colleague’s appetite is completely shot, so I take brunch alone, again at Tanketkham but this time avoiding the fish. I anticipate having to dine alone a second time but bump into L, who invites me to dinner to meet a few friends of hers who have recently arrived in Vang Vieng; Welsh L and his girlfriend K have just come from Nong Khai – by way of Vientiane – across the border in Thailand, where they were on something of a yoga focussed retreat. L vaguely knows them from her time there and spoke well of the pair when we met earlier, and there is no obvious indication to the contrary. Also in attendance are the seven foot Swede – Sasha, and the same I’d talked to at the Full Moon Party – and a Welsh scaffolder named Yam, and they too have formed something of a travelling bond, although I'm very sure it’s not of the romantic kind. Dinner goes well and inspires everyone to reconvene at Xayoh Café a few hours later.
I successfully persuade my colleague to take leave of our room and join the party, but it is to Welsh L I now find myself doing most of my talking. Naturally, the conversation turns to how long and to where we've been travelling. For some reason or other, I conjure together an anecdote built around the dread-locked hippy who had threatened the canine-hassled Thai fisherman back in Koh Phangan. Welsh L has dreadlocks, and he’s a vegetarian too. This needn't be a problem but the change in atmosphere suggests that it might well be: that I've made a bit too much of a big deal about the Island Hippy’s proclivities for all things ‘new age’, rather than let the aweless threats speak for themselves. Fortunately, Welsh L recognises that my point is neither personal nor political. Indeed, he is rather amused when I try to clarify my position, positing that the dreadlocks were incidental, that I was simply adding colour to the narrative. For those listening in, the persistent excavation of one’s own hole must undoubtedly come to mind.

Not because it was a Sunday and a Monday – for the days of the week have only the vaguest of implications when one is travelling – but the following days were more tempered than those anterior: my colleague endeavoured to make a complete recovery; impressed with yesterday’s results, I decided that I too would process some of my camera film; the two of us chanced upon a few charmingly modest temples and attendant Buddhist casts; we hired bikes again but failed in our attempt to explore another cave, finding that they closed early on a Monday; and we generally went about our business, like we were waiting for something to happen. Such indolence didn’t particularly bother me but I noticed how some of my fellow travellers were becoming restless. It was if we were all following some cosmic timetable that forbade us from putting down roots for more than five days at a time – and even that might be pushing it. Except, when I found somewhere that grabbed me, I quite liked bedding down indefinitely and taking a more capricious approach to when I might elect to move on again. So it was with Vang Vieng.
This wasn’t the first time that my relative apathy had revealed itself. L and H had made the decision to push on by the end of our first evening in Hua Hin, and M and E always seemed to know when their time was up and made arrangements accordingly. S, on the other hand, had been more in tune with what my companion and I wanted to do – or what we didn't want to do, which none of us were always very sure of. And when my companion and I had cut ourselves adrift in Krabi we had taken it very easy indeed, only the impending expiration of our visas and the appropriation of new ones determining our movements. As a result, it was not actually unreasonable that we’d exhausted another four days in Bangkok, in addition to those eight we spent there on arrival, but I suspect a good few travellers would have taken the opportunity to jump on a bus and spend a couple of nights somewhere else (like Kanchanaburi, for example, which is no more than a three hour drive out of the capital, and a damn sight more convivial). I can honestly say that the thought didn't even occur to me at the time.
Now it was possible we were entering our third epoch, considering our journey down the east coast with S as defining the first, and then our time on the islands representing the second (we’ll regard the journey from Trang back to Bangkok as something of an incongruity). I had enjoyed the sodality of our extended company of late, so when I sensed there were plans afoot to move on I was quite prepared to follow. Because although I was very fond of Vang Vieng, I had to concede that we had pretty much exhausted all that it had to offer.