Let me introduce my guest blogger, Paul Murphy, an Australian Vietnam Veteran and author of ‘The Quiet Australians Saints and Sinners’ . Paul was kind enough to provide a chapter from his book which describes his tour of Laos in 2007.
Chapter 4. Laos and Wat the? 2007.
Living in Vietnam has some advantages, not many but one is that Vietnam is located as a hub for the rest of South East Asia. Within hours you can be in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Hong Kong, China or in fact one third the ways to the USA or Europe. So it was on the 14th February 2007 that I put my pen down and took a break from my writings for a week of exploration in Laos.
Traveling with a good friend Wal Sharp, we flew to Vientiane and being led by a popular travel guide publication, checked out the recommended accommodations. Being recommended by the author of the guide, you naturally find that all the recommended guesthouses and hotels are fully booked by like minded readers of the same publication. We soon discovered that the book would come in very handy as toilet paper and kept it nearby at all times. After an hour and a very expensive tuk tuk ride, we located our own non-recommended hotel which turned out to be central to most things on offer including food stalls, restaurants and the odd night club, all located along the bank of the Mekong River.
Upon departing Saigon for Vientiane via Phnom Penh in Cambodia I noticed that the Vietnamese ground staff had pulled the incorrect stub off one of the two boarding passes required for the flight. She had pulled the Phnom Penh to Vientiane leg and I drew this to the attention of the flight hostess who radioed thru to ground control and had the correct stub returned. I mention this for it would have been an absolute nightmare to have arrived in Phnom Penh and tried to board the plane to Vientiane with a Saigon to PP boarding pass. A minor problem? Not in Indochina. With three Communist over-governed bureaucratic and officious countries to travel through I would have finished up on bread and water for a week till they sorted it out. The poor inefficient ground-crew would have been shot at dawn.
After a quick shower and donning our best rags we ventured out and eventually found the Sticky Finger Restaurant owned by two intrepid Australian girls. The beer was cold, the food great and the information unparalleled. We soon found one of the recommendations and apart from the fourth floor location without a lift; we entered an establishment not unlike a famous upstairs bar in Phnom Penh. Both bars are well stocked with members of the opposite sex.(Prostitution is illegal in most of these countries and many establishments, the bars and clubs do not employ the ladies directly but welcome them on a freelance basis so as they can work the punters at their own cost and time. However in Vietnam, all of the recognized ‘girlie bars’ do employ the women where they encourage punters to buy them drinks on which a commission is earned. What happens after hours is up to the woman and how much her ‘John’ is prepared to pay.)
We had no sooner sat down when I became enthralled with the pool competition that was in progress on two tables. Here the local ladies usually take on the gullible Expats to a game of pool and the local rule dictates that the winner of each game stays on and plays the next punter. The losing punter has to pay the bar around US20cents for his embarrassment. In the meantime the local girls play on till she is beaten, usually by another local lady who knows the tables intimately.
A lady did manage to catch my eye and offered me a game of pool which I lost in about 5 balls. During the course of the game she was able to convince me that she was interested in me and that we should sit down (when she finally lost) and have a drink. Thirty something Miss Van was beautiful from the chin up to her hairline only, as I was soon to find out. (Wal actually made the comment that she had ‘lucky legs’ When quizzed by me, he stated that ‘they were lucky to hold her up’!). Within a short period, I had agreed to her advances and we were set to depart for our hotel when a Lao lady named Ban Mi and her French fiancée’ Patrick arrived at the bar. Introduced to them as friends of Van, we discovered that they were due to depart in the next few days for Luang Prabang, the ancient former capital of Laos located some 400 km up north, up hill.
An agreement was reached and being Wednesday night, we planned to depart on Friday as a group. That night, we went back to our hotel feeling a little trepidation for it is widely published that local women and foreigners are not allowed to co-habitate unless they are married or intend to marry. I suppose a lot can happen in four hours but a proposal to Van was not on my agenda. Reassured by the night clerk (and Van who was obviously experienced in local matters) I adjourned to my room for a night of unbridled passion, at a cost of course.
Van did have a beautiful face but after childbirth some 8 years prior had started to lose her figure dramatically. She had no waist, no hips and no bum and all were covered in a road map of stretch marks. Her breasts were like Jell-O to the point that they had started to fold over and she was hairless from the top lip down. During the evening at both the club and in the hotel room, her mobile phone rang incessantly. Speaking mainly in Lao, she occasionally took a call in English and politely excused herself to the bathroom or balcony to take the call. With this I confirmed in my own mind that Van was not the girl I was to take home to meet my mother and I would have been quite happy had she fallen off the 4th floor balcony whilst taking one of her calls. But no, she hung on like a limpet mine and accompanied me and Wal to breakfast the next morning.
Getting a tad fed up with her false affection, Wal and I convinced her that we wanted to explore the city by ourselves and we were to hire two motorcycles to do so. Being experienced riders in Vietnam, the slower pace of traffic in Vientiane was not a problem and a good map would guide us through our day. Van pouted and finally left with instructions to go home and pack her bags and return to the hotel around 6pm ready for the next day departure to Luang Prabang.
After guiding Wal around Vientiane looking at various temples and WATS I was insistent that we drive out of town and view the historic Friendship Bridge that now links Laos with Thailand. Wal agreed as we had had our fill of WATS and even ‘WAT the Hell’ was no longer on our itinerary.
Driving under an overpass, I did not realize that it was in fact the ramp to the Friendship Bridge so we continued on looking for what we assumed must be a more impressive structure. With Wal about 300 meters behind me, a local goat decided to do a dash across the highway in front of me, resulting in the Goat 1, Murphy 0. I hit the goat at about 40 kph, tearing off the front mudguard and plowing into the hard sharp gravel verge in a horizontal position. Fortunately it is compulsory to wear a helmet in Laos and with a thud, my head bounced off the tarmac into the gravel. In disgust, I kicked the bike off me, stood up and checked for broken bones. A few of the locals had seen my mishap and came over to assist. If it had of been in Vietnam, my wallet and camera would have disappeared and I would still be under the bike. Wal had seen the cloud of dust rise and pulled up seconds later. I went looking for that fucking goat and found it grazing none the worse for wear. Again if it had of been in Vietnam, the goat would have been demanding compensation, or be eaten on the spot.
Fortunately we were able to locate a local district hospital where for $1 the English speaking doctor cleaned and dressed my considerable and deep gravel rashes to my left arm. I had also fallen heavily on my left chest which aggravated my rib cage and the presumption of mine that I had cracked a rib a week prior back in Vietnam during a very harsh coughing fit… This injury was to stand me in good stead as an excuse when warding of the amorous advances of Ms. Van over the coming days.
Sore and sorry we headed back to Vientiane and awaited the arrival of Ms. Van at 6pm. A quiet night was had by all.
Up at 0600 hours, a quick breakfast and then off to catch the bus to Luang Prabang, I was not looking forward to the 10 hour bus trip. The so called VIP coach was a pleasant surprise and offered aircon, lay back seats, free drinking water and it even had a loo and a downstairs lounge, albeit the headroom in the toilet and the lounge was less than 1.3 meters.
The road to Luang Prabang is an engineering marvel. It passed fairly flat country till the town of Vang Vieng which is surrounded by very large monolithic rock structures and boasts some of the finest caving in SE Asia. Stopping in the main street of Vang Vieng to allow several passengers to disembark, we took the opportunity to grab a quick cigarette and a cool drink from local vendors.
What struck me about the place was that it was reminiscent of a Mexican border town of old. Dust blew as did the tumbleweed against ramshackle buildings and guest houses. I expected to see a cowboy ride past at any moment but was taken aback when a Lao passenger disembarked from the coach with an AK 47 rifle slung over his shoulder with the barrel pointing down. I had noticed this passenger who sat at the front of the bus and kept a leather jacket over one shoulder. As it turns out, this was in an endeavor to hide the weapon from the happy go lucky passengers off on an adventure of a lifetime.
Back in early 2002, local freedom fighters of ethnic minority who possibly and rightly so had/have a grudge against the Communist Lao Government took umbrage and decided to draw attention to their plight, by ambushing a coach on the very same road. They killed two foreign tourists and wounded several more. From that date it became obligatory that all public transport between Vientiane and Luang Prabang to carry armed guards to protect its’ passengers. Unbeknown to us, an event must have occurred whilst we were in Luang Prabang for on the return journey several days later, we had two armed guards who made no attempt to conceal their weapons. A very loud tire blow-out on the way back to Vientiane gave some the impression that we in fact had been hit by enemy hostile fire. But no, we were safe apart from being stuck in the middle of nowhere whilst the coach crew, excluding the guards, struggled to change the blown tire and wheel in the quick time of over two hours.
During the tire fix, Van explained to me that she had been shot in the back under similar circumstances as described above. She too was on a public bus on the same route when trouble struck. From the size of the two wounds near her spine, I suspect that she was hit by a far-off shotgun blast. No permanent damage appears to have been done and her supple spine was in fine condition when I left her.
Beyond Vang Vieng the road commences a gradual climb culminating in reaching the summit at well over 1000 meters above sea level over the most spectacular mountain range then gliding down to Luang Prabang which lies at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers.
En-route, Ms Van again showed her true colors by blowing her nose on the curtain that covered a panoramic window and by disposing of her rubbish out the window. The roads sides are littered with all kind of debris that will in time create an environmental nightmare. Thanks to Van and her like minded Lao, she is not concerned that from an international viewpoint, she is polluting her own country. Even the loo on the coach flushed directly onto the road.
Accommodation in Luang Prabang was arranged by our new found friend Patrick. Patrick wears a permanent pair of rose colored glasses and speaks highly, passionately of not only the town, the temples and WATS but also of the guest house we were to stay. At US$10 per night per room, you got exactly that. The 90% empty green water small swimming pool was a breeding ground for the most vicious mosquitoes in a country where malaria and dengue fever is endemic. Needless to say Ms Van spent most of her night (thank god) killing the beasts and wiping her hand against the already stained wall of our room. Towels, changed daily, were grey in color and stained with body fluids from every orifice. The guest house was in fact just 100 meters from Police HQ which augers well for Loa/ foreign co-habitation. We were not arrested.
If one is into history, WATS, WATS and more WAT the hell, then Luang Prabang is a goldmine. Admittedly the town is quaint, rustic, and historic with excellent handicrafts available of unbelievable quality and value for money. Food is also very inexpensive and of fair quality. (I am sad to say that the guide book did in fact come in handy.) During our visit we did take a look at a beautiful but not spectacular waterfall and drove another 30 km to visit yet another but the water had been turned off by the gods. The entire region was under the influence of a severe drought which is obvious by the state of the countryside.
By this stage of the trip, my attitude had developed from ‘Wat the hell’ to ‘Wat the fuck’! This is obviously not a common occurrence for like Vientiane and the rest of Laos, it does survive on tourism from all over the globe.
Luang Prabang is a delightful town but it must be debated whether the 10 hour bus trip is worth it. Unfortunately, due to heavy demands on flights, we had to make the return journey also by coach. This one was not a true VIP version and it appears that as is the case in most of developing SE Asia,’ If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ The tires were bald, hence the blow-out and the brakes had developed a screeching metal to metal anguished cry by the time we hit the flat ground around Vang Vieng. En-route to Vientiane, we stopped at a Mon village. Poor by any standard, each house had a makeshift stall outside set amongst the chickens, the dust and the squalor. Here, mainly little girls of 3-4 years of age begged we tourists to buy cheap gaudy embroidered cloth bracelets, bags etc. They begged us to buy something, anything. Most of us obliged but it was commercialism at its worst with what appeared to be of little benefit to the village. If that is all they make to live on, then God help them. The village was a disgrace and the skepticism in me thinks that the village maybe maintained at such a low level in the hope that passing tourist may just stop and buy. I asked two little girls in rags if I could take their picture. They said yes, but only if I bought something. I did.
Safely back in Vientiane, ensconced in a different hotel with Ms. Van in tow, we set about to enjoy the rest of our sojourn and were able to secure two seats back to Saigon on Air Vietnam the next day. We had intended to travel from Vientiane by train to Bangkok but this was fully booked for days in advance as were the overnight coaches. Leaving Ms. Van with her bags on the steps of the hotel, we boarded a tuk tuk and headed for the airport. Van did not wave us off; obviously disappointed at the US$100 I had given her for her company. Maybe ‘cheap Charlie’ is still alive and well?
Prior to departing, Ms. Van gave me a printed sheet with her email address. It also contained the pass-word to her email account.
Having been asked by Ms.Van to give her US$2000 to finance a soup kitchen she wished to open and the fact that her telephone rang incessantly, I did what any self respecting gent would do, I accessed her account. Sure enough, there were currently four other gentlemen corresponding with her. Xavier from Spain wished to marry her and apologized for ‘boxing’ her with his fists when he discovered she was cheating on him and feigning orgasm. Another gent, John from Japan had sent her US$360 so as she could attend English classes each day (I thought that was pretty unoriginal); yet another was from Sweden and was due to visit her again soon. The fourth gent was simply making a fool of himself.
Apart from Ms.Van, several things stick in my mind about Laos. The first is the intriguing construction of hamlets or villages on the main highway to Luang Prabang (and I am sure in every other similar location). Anywhere a road verge is wide enough to accommodate at least the front of a thatched hut; a house is built with the rear of the structure supported by angled poles on which it sits above a void of several hundred feet to the valley floor below. This obviously makes for a fine dry drop toilet unless you happen to be working below the string of houses that line the road. (It is as if the houses hang on by the fingertips to a ledge, knowing at some point they will have to let go.) Legal tenure to the land is not possible for no self respecting local authority would allow such dwellings to be built literally on the road. The eves of the thatch huts overhang the highway and are brushed by coaches and trucks alike. Below the village will be slash and burn agriculture with small footpaths weaving their way around mountain sides. In many places, a temporary thatch hut is built by the farmer to overnight as the field is too far away and the country too steep to make daily journeys to and from home. With a bag of rice and a bottle of water, he will spend days tending his crops and at some point will have to negotiate the climb back up with his produce on his back.
These villages are not rare and can be counted in the tens between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Massive relocation and disruption will occur in the future when sufficient traffic demands that the roads be widened. At that point there could well be more attacks on the public transport system in protest. The reason for this is that the peasant farmer simply cannot afford to buy land to farm, nor a building block. Hence land grab and squatting is widespread as is the slash and burn agriculture on what appears to be either State land or National Park
Pollution was a surprise. Dust pollution was horrific in Vientiane; the entire city appears to be under road construction; all secondary roads in the capital are dirt roads and simply add to the burden. The pollution was most evident at night where bike and car headlights pierced the dust as if it were fog.
Also evident when you took a shower was the remains of day’s outdoor activities. Red brown water flowed from your body. The local water being so hard that it was near impossible to lather up using the local soap.
The most astounding conclusion I came to was that there must exist all around the world, Ugly Shops for Guys and Girls and Ugly unisex hair salons. Prior to departing their home country, the average tourist to Laos must spend hundreds of dollars on the most ugly, miss-matched, miss-fitting wardrobe money can buy. Age is not a deterrent for many a Granny was witnessed wearing something from her local tent maker or slacks that looked like a before shot from a weight-loss program. The women in particular must demand the ugliest hair cut available with the view that they will not have to wash it for their entire journey. Shaving under the arms is also prohibited and the pulling out of a thong from between ones bum cheeks has developed into an art. Guys get away with T shirts and shorts and sandals and the occasional Rastafarian hair job. In general, the guys look well dressed in comparison to their obligatory bra-less partners.
Chapter from the book ‘The Quiet Australians Saints and Sinners’ written by Australian Vietnam veteran Paul Murphy. The book is available at AMAZON in hard copy or KINDLE in ebook format. Also available at Apple ibooks and other formats. Please go to www.thequietaustralians.com or contact the author direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
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