our last missive left you somewhat in limbo – a hurried flight (metaphorical – the season was ending) from ko lanta to praduap khiri khan was followed by a sedate 7 hr bus ride to bangkok on the government bus,which doesn’t include lunch as it used to. once in bangkok we hightailed it immediately to the laos embassy to secure right of passage there, and then endured the interminable house hunting that each new city brings. we ended up on sukomvhit rd, one of the major thoroughfares in bangkers and purportedly one of the main reasons why the US state department has placed thailand on it’s “priority watch list” (for IP infringements) – due to the fendi prada and gucci facsimiles. as least that’s their excuse. thailand’s proposed provision of off-licensed HIV retroviral drugs for the rural poor would have nothing to do with it whatsoever, of course. following the wallet- and pain-free laos visa experience, we hightailed it to the vietnamese embassy, where the price of a visa has your VISA gagging for mercy, or would do if you didn’t have to fork over a massive wad of thai baht, emptying out local ATMs for miles around.
after 2 days of bangkers, we were on the next sleeper train to chang mai – a pleasant 16 hr train trip up through central thailand. accompanied by a massive storm, suffusing the atmosphere aroundwith eerie pink and purple pollution aurora.nothing much to do in chang mai unless you want to go and ogle “hilltribes”, although we did find a great little textile sweatshop where the local handicapped kids are shown how to weave sarongs and t-shirt designs. cute kids who couldn’t stop smiling, despite the evil overseers with whips and bullhorns.
from changmai we declined the 2 day slow boat trip (sitting on hard wooden benches for 6-8 hrs each day, with only english monkey and swedish nymphette backpackers for company – ugh) and instead opted for the 1 hr twin-turbopropped luxury of a laos airlines flight to luang prabang – organised on 1 hrs notice. try doing that at tullmarine! luang prabang was simply fantastic. crumbling french colonial architecture, 40 or so wats (buddhist temples) within walking distance, and a national museum boasting recent collaborative artistic endeavors between laotian and foreign artists, including a great photographic exhibition by a german fellow hans something or another who shot novice monks learning to meditate in a forest with his ’blad. standing kneeling sitting and lying. and that was me looking at the pics. they can be found here. food in LP was also a revelation, eating fried mekong riverweed with buffalo skin chilli chutney, minced chicken/herb salad and various stews of fish and beef, all washed down with the elixir of life, beerlao. breakfast was equally as blissful, croissants, baguettes and coffee. delectable.
lots of eating lots of temples lots of architecture and lots of eating. did i say that right? yep. although one of our favourite stops in laos, you don’t get any more detail than this. you’ll just have to go yourselves, or wait for the pics to appear on flickr (whenever that may be. apologies for the delay, it’s out of my disk drives however…). from LP we headed down the beatiful road to vientiene. said road descends out of the highlands and were it not for the emetic sounds being emitted from the cheap seats, the journey would have been most pleasant. as it was, some judiciously applied headphones (L – jo, R- me) attached to one ipod served to drown out half of the most liquid sounds. thanks mr jobs, you’ve done a good one. no matter about those nasty rumours of crass materialism.
vientiene was a muddy hole in the ground, and the less about it the better. we only stayed 2 nights because teh tuk tuk out got bogged. well, not really, but almost.
from VNE to tha khaek, a welcome change of weather, scenery and fortunes prevailed. an eco-trek was undertaken, in which we sured up the flagging fortunes of one endangered “walletus guidus”, but managed to see some proper laos jungle, eat local market food (inc dried buffalo liver – liver jerky), and have the baci ceremony of friendship and good wishes performed in the fluorescently lit buddha cave. although i think jo may have preferred the italian baci ceremony of chocolate and luurve, the 200+ buddhas rescued from marauding french colonialists, hidden away, forgotten about and since rediscovered in 2004 were pretty cool. can you imagine the scene? honey, where did you hide those sacred buddhas when the french couple came to dinner? oh, i put them somewhere safe, and now for the life of me i can’t remember where! oh well, they’ll turn up when we need them.
we spent another night in tha khaek before heading south to savannakhet, which i fell in love with. the faded french colonial architecture combined with grilled chicken and icy cold (as in, ice-in-the-beer-cold) beerlao by the mekong absolutely made this stop. i took heaps of photos in the mornings and afternoons, and we pretty much just ate and drank the rest of the time. not much else to tell really.
from there to pakse, which was just a pit stop on the way to the bolaven plateau – home of laos coffee, and waterfalls. we hit the waterfalls first followed by the coffee. both came off second best after our voracious appetites for destruction had kicked in. the plateau is signinficantly cooler than the surrounding plains, as evidenced by the mist that obscured the view of one of the largest falls we visited – 120m of which 20m was visible – and the drizzly rain which dripped down the backs of our necks as we sat in teh back of the truck. oh, said truck also blew a tyre, which was soon (1hr) fixed with the efficient and knowledgeable aid of a german a brit and an aussie (no joke haha), and several passing laos jeerers i mean helpers.
back to pakse, then up to savannakhet for a final peace hit, although we’d run out of money, the ATM (singular) was broken and it was a sunday. throwing ourselves on the mercy of a funny (weird, not haha) little dane who ran a burger joint, we ate like kings because we were honest. allegedly some german dude rode 230 km on his motorbike to get one of these burgers when he heard about them. man that guy must be hanging out for the maccas invasion….
from savannakhet we left at 12 noon and hit the vietnamese border bang on 5pm. crossing it on the 3rd attempt (papertrails…) we couldn’t manage any further and collapsed in a ripoff “luxury” hotel in lao bao. 2 bucks for a beer!!! can you imagine my outrage? anyway, calming myself we chowed down on our first vietnamese meal, and weren’t to be impressed for a good couple of days. in fact, we’re still waiting. there’s a viet fusion place here we’ve been told is the business, so fingers crossed hey. (and no terry fekkin durack, the pho here is just the same as in melbs. i don’t know what you’re on about you boob.)
thence to Hue (2hrs), Da Nang (2 hrs) and finally Hoi An (45 mins). and here we are, and here we’ll stay until it’s time to hit the real world again. what can i say – pool, beach heat and beer. and shopping.
so, hoi an – a previously quaint little town (apparently, when jo was here 5 years ago) but is now a thriving community of 400 (!) tailors and cobblers. all lining the streets and entreating “hello you come see my shop?!” still, today we discovered it’s ridiculously easy to duck into the sidestreets lanes and alleys where you’ll see nary another white face, hear not call or cry of commerce, and can peek into the backyards and living rooms of the locals (cause i’m “oh you so tall!”). growing up in melbourne has it’s advantages i suppose – we denizens of the lanes and byways don’t seem to be as cautious of them as some of our american cousins. even the europeans seem to think you might be mugged drugged and fucked if you wander off the main street? how else to explain their total absence? feeding their faces in the cafes is always a possibility…
we have reached the conclusion that there exists a correlative relationship between the proximity of local air transport facilities and the corpulence of the visiting population. witness: laos, median tourist tonnage welter to lightweight. hoi an; tourist tonnage on the order of the famed german battleships and destroyers. if the bismarcks had been bedecked in pink speedos that is. no wonder the rag trade here is so profitable, there’s more acreage of fabric being harvested than vietnamese mint.
then again the vietnamese have made an artform out of the free-market. the regime here still claims 99.9% of the population turn out to vote for their local party congress members, but i think it’s fair to say the country is a weird mix of capitalism and communism: communercialism!! even the disabled (maimed legs and cerebral palsy, mostly) paper sellers mark the papers up from 7000 to 30000 dong, so after a while you stop feeling guilty about haggling with someone who’ll never be able to to swear intelligibly at you.
the food here, again in direct response to free-market capitalist drives, is horrendously expensive. it does have the advantage though of coming from all 4 corners of the world, mainly the acland st junction and the napier hotel. fish n chips steak n gravy are the orders of the day, hoi an becoming the new old bali. terrorists take note, there are more australians here than earl’s court, or islington now is it not? some other london borough than i can’t place my eye on.
sartorial pleasures are easy to come by, as i have mentioned. surprising perhaps no-one but myself, 3 mysterious pairs of shoes have found their way into our hotel room, as well as 2 shirts, 1 pant and 3 shorts. this olympian line-up came at a price, my sanity, but should hold up well under the febrile conditions endemic to our future abode. “singapore?, ahh, we make light for you”.
anyway, i won’t bore you all (especially you paulie B, i know how tedious you find these things…) with more of this kernel of groupie-dom, other than that we’re having a great time, relaxing by pool reading shopping and urban exploring. i’ve also managed to squeeze in a couple of dives a tour to some 12th century ruins and some photostrolls through the backstreets, all mostly while jo was still asleep!! ;))