Wednesday, 15 January 2003

THE JOY OF TRAVEL - 13. VIENTIANE






11/01/03: Wally’s; check out of hotel; walk down by the river; write postcards over a cup of tea and a can of Mirinda; inspect emails; Wally’s for dinner; taxi to the train station to catch the overnight train to the Laotian border.

12/01/03: Arrive in Nong Khai and cross over into Laos; taxi to Vientiane; book into Santisouk Guesthouse; stroll about town; dinner at Xayoh Café; Samlo Pub for a couple – a quiet night.

Temples abound in Vientiane, yet the municipal architecture is strictly Francophile. Unlike Thailand's pseudo-European functionalism, these buildings look like they’ve been shipped in from Province, being as they are a hangover from French Indochina. Cafes and restaurants willingly perpetuate this theme.
Populated with a sparse and sombre collection of French ex-pats, various emissaries and enterprising Laotians, one is rarely reminded that Vientiane is actually a capital city.  Even the Mekong looks curiously sedate as its huge mass shifts steadily on its way towards the South China Sea.
The social scene is different here, the action tucked away out of sight. The bars are welcoming enough but on leaving you’re met with a curious stillness of the night that dissuades you from perpetrating any drunken antics on your journey home, should that be your bent. It could be said that Laos attracts a different breed of traveller; you certainly don’t come across many 40-something Bristolians in search of opium in Thailand. Or maybe you did but just didn’t know it?


I am faced with the overnight-voyage-complication again. There lies ahead a whole day to get through before we can make any inroads into our next project. What to do with it?
The Palace is kind enough to offer storage for our luggage (at our own risk), so we’re a bit more mobile than we were in Krabi. It’s a sunny day, too, so we bother about the waterfront for a while, buy some postcards, find a café in which to write them, and then eat heartily in preparation for the long night ahead of us.
The 12 hour overnight journey would certainly be a far more daunting prospect were it not for the sleeper train. In no way luxurious – or particularly comfortable – I still think it is worth the extra 200 baht or so it costs to secure the right to sleep horizontally.
The bunks aren’t visible at first. Instead there are two reasonably sized chairs facing each other, one of which is separated from the gangway by a metal ladder connecting the floor to the ceiling. When one is ready to sleep, the top bunk is folded down and connected to said ladder and a curtain drawn across for privacy. Below, the two seats are manipulated to form a second bunk, thereafter formed like the first. It’s pretty rustic gear, although comfy enough.
Our train leaves only a little behind schedule and starts its slow shunt away from the metropolis, something I very much enjoyed when we last left Bangkok in this manner, observing how the urban slowly mutates into the suburban. But the crepuscular gloom descends at an early hour this close to the equator, obfuscating the view.
And so, too early to retire, I decide to stalk the train in search of alternative entertainment, whilst my colleague contents herself with the reading of a book. I am pleased to report back that our train has a rudimentary bar on board and ask my companion if she might like to share in a few drinks, but whatever she’s reading has her firmly in its thrall (or maybe she just fancies a bit of solitude – it would be entirely understandable given the amount of time we are currently spending together). Already relaxed from the two Changs I had at the station, I decide to persevere alone, despite an abbreviation of loose change upon my person.
To the bar, then, but where to sit? With the three English blokes sat to my right and endure one, maybe two hours of drunken football-based talk? Or how about right there next to the kindly looking Thai gent sat opposite the young Thai bookish guy absorbed in his magazine? I decide to go native.
Gazing from the window, I could be almost anywhere were it not for the occasional palm tree thrown into sharp relief by the distant shimmer of Bangkok. Scenic distractions fading fast, I am in a vulnerable situation. Sure enough, it’s not long before The Thai Gent seizes at an opportunity to brush up on his English, except his broken command of my native tongue demands that the student, somewhat reluctantly, must be drafted in as our interpreter. It is tough going, what with the background noise of the train and the sash-style windows opened wide, because it’s too hot for them to be any other way. How long can I keep this up?  After three cans of Singha I am satisfied that I’ve demonstrated an acceptable level of comity and begin to contemplate my exit.
But wait, what's this? The Thai Gent is insisting he buy me a beer. Terrible waffle, now, as I struggle to understand this man’s raw pronunciation. Then another! I insist I pay and he insists I do not. Fortunately, he concurs that this drink will be our last. The Student has wisely left by now and the rest of our time is spent clumsily engaged in small talk, before we finish our Singhas and retreat to our respective bunks.

About seven hours later I am awoke by a strange innervation: my body feels cold.  Actually, I can only guess at how long I’ve been supine, but it is light, I can sense our destination is close, and I’m starting to feel a little anxious. I eviscerate my rucksack in search of the jumper I brought along, only to find that it is modestly damp, peppered with spots of mould, exuding a redolence to match – so I don my anorak instead.
To the bar for coffee, it's the only sane thing to do: mental space to sit alone and ponder the three Thai guys drinking Samsong Whiskey for breakfast – neat, no ice.
Which sets me up nicely for the bizarre transition into Laos:

Get minibus from train station to border, not more than a mile away.
Signed out by the Thai border authority and pay 10 baht for the privilege.
Pay another 10 baht for a bus across the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, over the Mekong River.
Leave bus barely 2 minutes later and fill out form that requires the same details that are on the visa I am about to give Laotian gentleman sat in booth.
Hand him form, visa and passport, and pay 30 baht this time.
Presented with ticket acknowledging completion of this charade to then give to Laotian man or woman (you have a choice!) sat about 10 yards beyond Laotian man in booth.
Now pay 200 baht, which you just know is too much, to some goon calling you 'mister' who takes you to a hotel in Vientiane that you hadn't even previously contemplated going to and end up having to pay an extra 50 baht for him to take you to the hotel that you had.

…but the air is beautifully fresh.

I am not convinced by Santisouk Guesthouse: an unspectacular build, something about it pleads neglect. The bedroom, with its furniture cobbled together in a multitude of styles, is room-locked, which creates an illusion of foreboding. The bathroom does have a window but the peeling ceiling is so cavernous that it strikes me as only mildly less disturbing than the bedroom. A huge metal water tank – the stuff of nightmares anywhere in the world – leers over proceedings and makes a mockery of the shower itself, which is hand held and distinctly lacking in any pressure. The whole vibe is rather unsettling, but it’s cheap and, according to the map, centrally located.
For a capital city, Vientiane appears curiously sedate. There are some exquisitely charming houses about town, with verandas and drooping trees sealed off behind wrought iron gates, but hardly an occupant in sight. Shops are conspicuous because of the sheer lack of them and traffic couldn’t be further from one’s mind. Even the French Embassy lies hopelessly vacant, as if its occupants had been evacuated at short notice, never to return. (I am to later discover that the reason for the proposed French residency’s dereliction is that an elevator was never incorporated into the design, rendering it ‘unusable’.) If I didn’t know better, I would assume that we had arrived somewhere along the same delineation as Prachuap Khiri Kahn. – a provincial hub doing its best to mind its own business.
Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing? The beggars and hawkers are marginally more persistent than their Thai counterparts, the waiters more formal in dress and the food more westernised. But there’s not a 7-Eleven in sight, let alone a McDonalds or a Tesco Lotus, and at first glance the cafes and bars appear to be more than equal to their Thai counterparts. There is a kitsch edge about some of these places: traces of a faded glamour that were hard to come by south of the border. Where a bar in Thailand might throw up a picture of Bob Marley, some sports memorabilia and the obligatory portrait of The King (often as a young man), here we have random, faded black-and-white photographs of who-knows-who, indoor pot-plants and antique furniture. (There are similarities between the two as well: bamboo, lanterns, monochrome paint jobs, exposed brickwork and the like.)
Laos must be at least 10 years behind its southern neighbour but might actually be all the better for it.






13/01/03: Mediterranean Deli for breakfast; check emails in bookshop/internet café; drink at Khop Chai Deu Food Garden; Colombo for an Indian; Khop Chai Deu for drinks – early night.

14/01/03: Miss breakfast at Xayoh Café; go to Scandinavian Bakery instead; emails; self-administered tour of the temples; dinner at Xayoh; drink at Cave de Chateaux and Samlo pub; meet S (Mk. 3) from Bristol and Al and L; go ‘clubbing’ at Future – very drunk.

At 16000 kip to the pound, cashing your traveller’s cheques is an amusing process in the Laos People's Democratic Republic. Converting $100 makes you, literally, a millionaire, and with 5000 kip the most common denomination, you're lumbered with a wedge of notes about 3 inches thick. It goes quicker than you would think but that’s not to say Laos is expensive.  On the contrary, at 7000 kip the pleasantly palatable Beer Lao makes Thailand's Beer Chang seem as reasonably priced as premium French lager. And a bottle of Tiger Lao whisky equates to about 40p a bottle.


Last night I had steak for dinner at Xayoh Café, on the corner of Nokeo Koummane and Samsenthai roads beside the Laos National Cultural Hall. Xayoh Café is painted red and almost manages to deliver a sophistication of sorts, although one should take into account the kind of places I have become accustomed to on this trip, where plastic furniture and random crockery are quite often the norm.
This morning I went to the Mediterranean Deli for breakfast, which wasn’t at all bad. I can’t say what else I’ve really done with the day, other than cower in the shower, check my emails, buy a few tatty postcards from a scruffy bookshop, walk around town a bit, before stopping for a drink in Khop Chai Deu. But so far I’m enjoying the food in Laos, and even more so when we go for a curry at Colombo in the evening.
There are a few food-stuffs I’ve started to covet of late: tomato soup; certain cheeses; salt and vinegar crisps, or any crisp that isn’t either tomato, cheese, red-pepper or onion flavoured, or a combination thereof; roast dinners; and curry. Pizza has been of an acceptable standard, however, and getting hold of good meat-based dishes has not been a problem. The American Breakfast has the fry-up covered, although I’m crying out for some decent bacon and bona-fide baked beans. The fruit is great, especially the pineapple, and I like the vegetables commonly found in the Thai curries (peppers, mushrooms, green beans, the shallots in Massaman Curry, etc.). But if there is one thing I’m missing above all else, it is agreeable BREAD.
The next day I am in for a delightful surprise. Intent on taking breakfast back at Xayoh Café, only to find it closed, we somehow stumble upon the Scandinavian Bakery (on Phangkam Road, opposite the failed French Embassy), a café that negotiates the obstacle of a foreign tongue by providing forms on which one ticks boxes against whatever filling one fancies in whichever bread-based receptacle is preferred. I have cheese, ham, lettuce, red onion and mayonnaise in a baguette, with both fresh orange juice and coffee to drink, and it is the best breakfast I could possibly imagine having right now.
Buoyed by our success, we go about the business of cashing in a few of our traveller’s cheques, a form or monetary exchange apparently suited to travelling but one that I was starting to think rather unnecessary. I have been protectively carrying around $500 worth of these damned things for two months, and it is pleasing to get shot of a few. Thai Baht will suffice in Vientiane, a more substantial unit of currency than the Laotian equivalent – Kip, in which we have been receiving our small change – but when we move north and exhaust our supply of baht we will be obliged to start trading in the native tender. It takes a while to make the transaction before afternoon closing, but I’m glad when we do; it’s always a nice feeling to have one’s pockets stuffed with the local cabbage.
Next we take an independent tour of Vientiane’s temples, which are legion, and then take tea at Xayoh again.

Despite the drinking I subjected myself to on the train, they were very small cans of beer I was imbibing – no bigger than a regular can of fizzy pop – and so I’ve not really been intoxicated since that first full day spent back in Bangkok, six days ago now. Actually, I had an attempt at inebriation the night just passed, but my companion experienced a melt-down of the digestive system that the squat-toilets in Khop Chai Deu were unable to deal with, prompting us to flee – I rather reluctantly. In any case, after our heavy curry I could well have been fighting a losing battle.
There are no such constraints tonight – my colleague’s constitution permitting – and we decide to make a night of it, before our departure for Vang Vieng tomorrow. We start off in Cave de Chateaux, a restaurant that does not begrudge those who wish to do nothing more than drink, and it’s a corker. It is a little sedate, though – a problem that seems to prevail in Vientiane – so we soon find ourselves back at the Samlo Pub where we sank a few beers on our exhausted first night here. It is a defining moment. Initially we strike up a conversation with S (Mk. 3), a bloke in his forties from Bristol who has come to Laos in search of opium. He in turn introduces us to Al and L, a young English lad from ‘up-north’ and a female New Yorker respectively. Al came to Thailand on a protracted holiday and spent most of his time on the islands partying (on Koh Samui, I expect) but had a few days to spare once his co-conspirators left, and decided to head north alone. L, on the other hand, had been hanging around Nong Khai – the town just across the border – teaching Thai English students, but is travelling, essentially. I’m not sure where or how they met, but they seem to be firm friends.
Samlo Pub is actually a bit of a dive; it models itself on the British pub, which means the football’s on. Because of this we are invited to join our new found company in Future, possibly Vientiane’s only real club of note. This doesn’t excite me as much as you might think. We have decided to leave the capital tomorrow and have to be up and out at a reasonable hour. Furthermore, I’m not enjoying the booze quite as much as I had anticipated – it could be all this meat-based western fare I’ve been stuffing down my throat since we arrived here. We tag along regardless, probably because Al & L are also leaving for Vang Vieng tomorrow and I suspect their company will have its benefits.
We last two hours, at most, before deciding to call it quits and hailing some homemade take on the tuk-tuk to get us back to our hotel.
(Tuk-tuk’s come in all shapes and sizes, and often the poorer the environment the more rudimentary the construction and more resourceful the design – as was proved here with what was basically a motorbike with a metal frame, two wheels, a few planks and some tarpaulin hooked up behind it.)






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