A taster – the last post from Laos 2015

Morning from Luang Prabang and my last day…well, half a day…in Laos. I’m sitting in the courtyard of the hotel listening to the bustle of the morning market outside and pondering on why I bought another bedspread last night. Hibiscus daiquiris are a dangerous menu item it appears. Thus it looks as if I’ll be paying the price of the special cocktail with a visit to the Chiang Mai post office as my textile acquiring beacon was on high alert here and my luggage excess will be costing more than my flight home from India. Luckily I managed to avoid buying the ubiquitous Laos traveller garb, that of the elephant print troos – not hard – I have, what is commonly believed to be ‘taste’ when it comes to travel gear. To be fair I’ve seen worse but when people turn up en familie all clad in the same print it brings the thought ‘what cults are these.’

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The night market is a huge affair with stall after stall selling mainly Laos textile, tshirts and paper items. It’s also weirdly quiet, no music, talking mostly muted (unless it’s a screaming Chinese person saying ‘I only pay 50,000kip, no more’) and a lot of business conducted via the passing backward and forwards of a calculator as people bargain.

I arrived yesterday morning in the drizzle and mist, after a 11hr ‘sleeper’ bus ride from Houay Xai. That hadn’t been the plan, spending a night wedged into a sleeper seat designed for a minute Laotian with no arse, hips, or height over 5ft, instead I was all set for a mattress, clean sheets, a room alone, not being stuck next to a pissed off Chinese girl who insisted on rowing with her boyfriend in the pitch dark as the bus lurched around the mountainside with random Laos music videos playing, or AC starting up noisily and unaccountably at varying intermittent times of the night. The plan was to get on a boat for a few hours from Pak Tat and arrive into Luang Prabang early evening and relax, instead it was a night clenched rigid to avoid rolling over onto my sleeping buddy (seatbelt was wedged down the side of the seat) or into the footwell of the seat. However it turned out Pak Tat to LP was a two day boat ride, a bit of miscommunication between Lara and N’Zoua meant my lovely plan was caught in the crossfire and squashed like the mosquitos that insist on attacking me every night.

I’d arrived into Houay Xai from Chiang Rai without issue, into the chaos of Daauw House, carrying my 12kgs of pretend cheese (another story involving cash and carry out of town, taxi drivers abandoning me and me then standing on the roadside like a cheap hooker (albeit one with a rucksack full of cheese) awaiting a replacement taxi driver for 40mins.

The stay was its usual madly disorganised self, slightly worsened by a)being in a bungalow with no hot water and THE coldest shower known to man, and b) a mattress so hard you’d break your arsebones if you sat down too hard, but at least be assured the floor would be softer as you fell toward it.

The project was overrun with snot faced children, as it was the weekend, and they were running riot, screaming, falling out, wailing, misbehaving and generally behaving in a way that would have had me reaching for Calpol for all of them if I’d had it. The youngest all have a habit of screeching if they don’t get their way, so your eardrums bleed, as do your eyes and your hand raises up in a pose that threatens to beat the living shit out of them if it continues. I retired to ‘town’ (the stretch of restaurants and guest houses that runs parallel to the Mekong) to drink coffee and breathe deeply. At least the next day they didn’t start up till 6am, and even then at restrained levels, not sure if the Noise Abatement team had been in and literally applied a gagging order or what, and the monks didn’t have any 4am drumming practice till the Monday . This was a very spiritual experience as remarked by a German women staying there overnight, or ‘a very fucking noisy one’ as thought by the tired Brit who’d had a week of it during a previous stay when it’d been a monks on tour stay at the temple and morning drum-offs were de rigeur.  Getting away to the village to visit Baauw, her 2week old twins and new family was going to be the break I needed…..wrong……

The trip aht (not aht aht, just village visiting aht) was a heady mix of ‘we’re leaving at 9am with N’Zoua and Lara with Baauw’s daughter Siiwa’, to ‘N’Zoua and Siiwa will go and we will also take Baauw’s parents so we will leave about 9 /10am’ to the actuality of leaving without N’Zoua and having Pa-ow driving Siiwa, me and Baauw’s parents (riding in the back of the truck like mad max outriders) at well after 11. What followed was a very bumpy ride across dirt tracks full of potholes nominally called roads, that threw up massive dust clouds when anything drove past us. We passed through villages, and huge Chinese owned banana plantations where the bunches of bananas were dressed in paperwork and plastic bags so it looked as if a dry cleaner had decided to say fuck it to the business and threw all the cleaned clothes out amongst the banana trees.

Partway through the journey N’Zoua overtook us on a motorbike, his dark hair full of orange red dust, looking like he’d been horribly hennaed. Ahhhh so he was coming with us after all. We stopped, after 3 hours, for a noodle lunch by a river and were quickly joined by flies who wanted to hang out and share our lunch. 2hrs later bumping down yet another dirt track we finally arrived to Baauw’s village where we were met by even more children than at the Daauw house all bearing their own snot trails down their faces, their clothes and over the dogs and puppies that ran around.  Said canines were waiting, invariably, for what came out the kids bums – that seemed to be lunch for the critters. Funnily enough, after witnessing that my lunch revisited itself to my mouth but I managed to get back to where it belonged so the puppies missed out on a second course. Weird really as everyone is pretty obsessed with cleanliness as I can attest when I went to the community water pump for my shower I was followed by EVERYONE to see how I’d get clean whilst wearing all my clothes (answer – not as well as I’d like).

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However my tumble arse over tit at the wrong end of the water pump area went down pretty well, I managed to break the fall into the built up scum with my nice clean clothes so it looked as if I’d had a turd accident on them even before I put them on. This was followed by getting dressed in open plan (eg a large room in a hut filled with bags of rice and a platform on stilts that’s your bed) whilst being observed by staring children and is off putting to say the least – moreso for them – no trauma therapy for those critters having to see this getting dressed. Still, everything appears to be conducted with everyone else in attendance – there is no concept of privacy or keeping your voice down at midnight or 4am or any other time or leaving the light off so others can sleep…hell no, it’s ‘I’m up, we’re all up!’.

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I appeared to have an allergic reaction to the oversharing, with wheezing, itchy eyes and sneezing on the second day and after taking an antihistamine conked out at various times throughout the day. I was all headachy and bleurghy – although that was also probably shock after climbing up a cliff in Birkenstocks, shuffling over edges with sheer drops and no hand rails available and generally being in fear of plunging to my death so early in the day. I therefore decided to forego the climb all the way up to the top, leaving everyone else (including grandparents and grandchildren) to scramble up a sheer rock face either barefoot or in flip flops. I meanwhile headed back down with a lady companion and then promptly swung off the edge of the cliff and would have gone over it completely if I wasn’t holding onto a branch at the time. Doh. No idea what she said to me but gathered it was along the lines of ‘thank fuck you were holding that branch because if you’d gone over that edge you’d be dead and I’d be having to explain to everyone how the hell I lost the big white portion’.

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Still, I made it to the evening and after another shower al fresco with more towel and less clothes (equalling better cleaning) we then had the naming ceremony for the twins, which took place in my bedroshom /the rice storage area with c40 people present for the grub. The food had all been prepared over an open fire in the kitchen area – chicken, rice, morning glory – all rustled up by the ladies of the household, including Baauw, during the day.  Earlier we had walked up to her restaurant building which is under construction and where I hope she will be serving up more of the same in due course.

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At this point I developed a pounding headache, and then nearly lost it when I found out that my trip to Luang Prabang wasn’t going to be the day ride on a boat I was assured it was but was instead the two full days on the bloody slow boat (this explains why all the photos that night show me both red eyed and red nosed). It meant I’d turn up in LP just after I should have left. Not helpful….and not a great use of the flight I’d booked out and the two nights accommodation at the hotel which had proper beds and mattresses that supported not repelled you and were not corrugated iron under fabric purporting to be a mattress or bamboo slats under fabric likewise attempting to lure you into a false sense of sleepy sleep night nights. Argh. I could not wait for the leaving the next morning although returning to Houay Xai was not tippy top of the agenda.

Baauw offered to massage my head to help with the headache. After a liberal application of tiger balm she then proceeded to drive her fingers into the bone structure of my skull, I think it’s a new shape now. Whilst recovering from that pain (which did distract from headache pain, so kind of worked) she then pinched me so hard between the eyebrows and down my neck I now have blood blisters come up there and it looks as if someone attempted a hickey right between my eyes. Goyjus. She then pulled my hair, a lot. It hurt. A lot. When she asked if I was better, I decided it safest to lie and say ‘A lot’, as I was worried I’d start to flinch involuntarily if she came near me with her pincer grip again. Mr Spock and his death grip has nothing on her, that’s for sure.

Up at 6, awake since 4 due to everyone else being up, and letting everyone else know it VERY loudly and headache still there and expecting to leave by 7, we set off at a reasonable 8:30 after hugs, tears and photo ops.

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It started to rain, which meant my rucksack came into the cab of the truck but the grandparents and Siiwa were left out to get soaked. Not my decision…there must have been a rule that I missed about who could be in the cab, and who couldn’t. Meanwhile the brakes started to smoke and luckily we were distracted from that by N’Zoua’s phone being used as the sound system. What this meant was that every 30seconds a track would get randomly switched to something else. I learnt that Laos has a wide array of bastardised music genres that they overlay onto their own traditional style, and that they do love a love ballad but they don’t love it enough to listen to it all the way through. Still, 4hrs of that passed pretty quick, all things considered -random weather, smoking brakes being cooled by us driving through fords, the small amounts of road with tarmac followed very quickly by potholes and dirt, blind corners with music blaring so you had no hope of knowing if a car coming the other way was warning you of its locale, or the variety of potential roadkill up ahead – be it dogs, ducks, children and chickens and then the banana plantations complete with dry cleaning adrift in the bushes and before we knew it we were back in Houay Xai, brakes practically on fire, everyone slightly deaf in the front seats and the passengers in the back slightly windswept and damp.  5hrs later and I was on the bus ready to set off pretty much back the way we’d come although with less off-roading and more horning. Joy…

Getting into Luang Prabang at 6:15am the next day in the rain and mist was bliss, even having a tuktuk driver not have a clue about where my hotel was ok too ‘Ban Pakham, you know?’ ‘Ban Pakham?’ ‘Yes, Ban Pakham’, ‘Only Ban Pakhaaam’. ‘Ok Ban Pakhaaam, yes.’ ‘…’Silence. He dropped me close enough and pointed in the right direction to the new bed and breakfast that was converted from a beautifully traditional wooden Laos house. I had a proper bed, a shower that I didn’t need to share with the local poultry, a flushable toilet and all to myself inside, with a door that locked and best of all –  filter coffee. Sorted. S’all an experience and nothing a lime and mint juice won’t fix. After this, Chiang Mai and Mumbai and home. Nearly done, innit.

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