Hiyo. There are so few certainties in life that it’s nice when you find some things that can still be counted on. For instance, karaoke. If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that the singing will always get steadily worse as the night progresses. It’s not just the alcohol, although that does play a large part. The other major factor is that there are inevitably dozens of bad singers who are, at first, unsure about going up for reasons varying from shyness to plain, old common sense. Unfortunately, once the first truly horrible voice makes its debut those petty concerns are swiftly set aside. Suddenly, these fence-straddlers (who are, of course, getting a buzz on by now) start telling themselves, “Hell, I’m not that bad!” Oh, how often they are wrong. And so begins an excruciatingly painful decline toward the lowest common denominator. That, in a nutshell, was our last night in Thailand, spent in the border town of Chiang Khong. Our room was a mere twenty metres from the town’s weekly Saturday night karaoke free-for-all. Luckily, we didn’t have to get up early (boy, I bet that one’s a shocker).
Now that I think of it, it reminds me of the “karaoke mall” in Chiang Mai. I’m not sure if that was the official name or not but it consisted of one movie theatre, five or six different karaoke bars, some with private rooms, and, inexplicably, one yarn store.
Huay Xai, Laos. Its main industry is to serve as a transport hub which connects Thailand and Northern Laos to Central Laos. The vast majority of that travel involves boat trips down the Mekong River (hence my weak pun in the title. Actually, is that even a pun?). The final destination point of these trips is Luang Prabang, which is far and away the most popular tourist stop in the country. As a result, basically every hotel, restaurant and travel agency (I’ll admit there’s not many) in Huay Xai exists almost solely because of the business generated by these boat trips. The “slow boat” (as opposed to the kamikaze river-roar types they also have) leaves once per day. Now, I ask you, does it not seem reasonable that somebody in town would know what time the boat leaves?
“Ten tirty” – “That late?” – “Ten tirty”
“Slow boat?” – “Yeah” – “Tomorrow?” – “Yes” – “Nigh oh cock”
Nine fingers held up – “So it leaves at nine o’clock?” – vigorous nodding, now eight fingers held up – “Eight o’clock?” – more nodding – “The slow boat leaves at eight o’clock?”, this time I hold up eight fingers – a final, definitive nod
To be safe we showed up at eight. We left at 11:15.
The first day of our river cruise was long, and a bit uncomfortable, but the scenery was outstanding. And, as impressive as it was, you could tell that fairly recently the water level had been as much as twenty metres higher. It’s hard to imagine just how fast and dangerous (much like the Lao hookers, I’m told) it must have been then. The lower water level has left large patches of sand along the banks that look like miniature deserts leading up to rocky cliffs and tropical jungle. After six or seven hours we stopped for the night in Pakbeng, a small village halfway to Luang Prabang, where Laynni waited for the bags to be unloaded (i.e. tossed from the roof to the ground) and I joined the mad rush of people scurrying up the hill to find a room. It seemed hard to imagine that this little shantytown could possibly accommodate all fifty or sixty of us but, sure enough, we all managed to put a roof over our head of some sort. In our case, I believe it was paper mache, to match the walls. It was called the “Boon-Me Guesthouse”. No, really. While we were attempting to check in, I found it amusing to watch a Japanese girl, ahead of us in the ever-lengthening “begging for shelter” line, fiercely attempting to haggle the room price down from 75 baht ($3) to 70 baht ($2.80). Apparently, she didn’t realize that she was not exactly bargaining from a position of strength, or that nobody in their right mind cares about five baht in that situation. The manager just glanced over her shoulder at me, the two others waiting behind me, and the line of backpackers still trudging up the hill, and said, “Yes or no?” Very Clint Eastwood. She sullenly accepted his terms. The other factor to remember here is that 75 baht is already awfully cheap. These guys could have extorted triple that from us, considering our lack of options. Later that night, we saw her in the restaurant arguing that she shouldn’t have to pay for rice because she didn’t order it. The fact that she ate it anyway was seemingly irrelevant.
The following morning we were on the river, and moving, by 8:40. I was suitably impressed. We actually left so early that one of the crew hadn’t even had time to attend to his personal hygiene had to settle for plucking his “beard” right on the boat (I thought nostalgically of Clint). The rest of the trip went smoothly, especially after I began pissing off the back of the boat. I had proven myself less than agile while trying to squeeze into the three-foot high crawl-space/bathroom, straddling a hole in the floor while on my knees, only to piss straight into the water anyway. I found accidents to be practically inevitable using that system.
The city of Luang Prabang is basically a massive cluster of dozens and dozens of wats, with a town built around them. That’s why it’s a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wats aside, though, it’s an extremely relaxed, friendly, and overall enjoyable town. We also ended up hanging around with a pretty strange and interesting little assortment of people who added some spice to our stay:
Jerome: a socialistic Swiss politics student who always wears the llama-hair fedora he got in Bolivia.
Barbara: an obsessively hardcore Trekkie from Chicago, who decided after two days that Laos “wasn’t a very good country”, and if it didn’t “get better” soon, she was going to leave.
Robin: an English bloke with several crooked and broken teeth who speaks quickly, quietly and with a strange (Cambridge?) accent that makes him nearly impossible for us to understand. He also carries a five-foot long “dijeridoo”, a narrow wooden horn used by Australian Aboriginals. You couldn’t pay me enough to haul that around.
Laynni: a skinny Canadian girl that is an obsessively hardcore “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” fan and grinds her teeth at night. She decided immediately that the bread in Laos “was incredible”, and from then on she wouldn’t stop eating it, or talking about it.
Not surprisingly, some of our conversations were pretty strange. Our discussion about movies, in particular, did not produce much in the way of agreement. Nonetheless, a decent bunch, and we all went out to the Kuang Si Falls, about an hour from town. They turned out to be the most impressive waterfalls we’d seen yet, despite the fact it was the tail end of the dry season. We swam in some of the pools and then hung out in a large picnic area filled with clapping, singing, drum-banging Lao women boozing it up in celebration of Women’s Day. The few men that were allowed to attend sat a safe distance outside the circle getting quietly drunk. In Thailand and Indonesia, women rarely drank, and almost never in public, but apparently good ol’ Beer Lao is just too damned irresistible, even for women. Admittedly, I haven’t met many beers I couldn’t learn to love, but I have to say that Beer Lao is definitely the class of Southeast Asia so far.
Now for the bad news. Just as we were leaving the falls it started to rain and hasn’t stopped for any real length of time since. That was almost three days ago. I think I may have brought it on when I so foolishly uttered, “It’s so dry here; in some ways it would be nice to see how green everything would be in the wet season”. Even a “dolt” (as Jamie called me last e-mail) like myself should have known that a comment that inane would be guaranteed to curse us to torrential downpours. Oh well, during the small intervals when the rain lightened up we managed to walk around town, visit some wats, and do a little souvenir shopping to boot. Boy, I sure am glad we didn’t miss out on all that stuff.
In any case, we’ve decided it’s time to move further downriver to Vang Vieng. “Caves, river-tubing, VCD in the restaurants, lots of grubby backpackers.” Can’t wait to see if all the hype is true. Aloha once again.