The report card on Vang Vieng turned out as follows:
1) Caves: check; hiked to one in the rain, pretty cool, and very Flintstones
2) River tubing: no check, unfortunately; it looked fun, but the weather was way too ugly (still raining) for pussies (i.e. us)
3) VCDs in restaurants: partial check; restaurant, singular, with an apparent requirement that they only show movies that I had seen at least three times
4) Lots of grubby backpackers: emphatic check, in bold red ink; the majority were even grubbier than usual (yours truly included) thanks to the mud and rain
5) Timm, our friend from Pulau Weh: check; he was right there when we got off the bus, albeit extremely unaware that we were on it or, for that matter, that a bus had even pulled up. It turns out he’d acquired a bit of a taste for the local poppy products since we’d seen him last.
We had fled Luang Prabang to get away from the rain and even though the bus ride down got our hopes up with the sun shining the entire way, Vang Vieng still had shitloads more waiting for us. Apparently, the rain only stops in transit. Very peculiar. The really annoying thing was that it wasn’t like sporadic downpours but instead we got twenty-two, maybe twenty-three, hours a day of constant drizzle in order to ensure that the total available moisture could be spread out over as long a period as possible.
The bus ride itself, at least, was notable for reasons other than the weather thanks to some of the weakest stomachs this side of the bulimia ward. The road was slightly hilly and windy (as in why-ndy), but really only average in those respects, and far from being the worst we’ve seen (sorry, in the future I’ll try to refrain from indulging in the “been there, done that” syndrome that comes up so irritatingly often when people discuss their travels. As in, “This isn’t so bad. When we were in Indonesia………”). Nonetheless, even though Laynni didn’t even get a twinge, and usually these rides make her “queasy” almost immediately, it was plenty rough for this bunch. After an hour it was starting to resemble the Monty Python scene (Meaning of Life?) where the fat guy eats that final crumb that puts him over the edge and blows up. It was also appeared to be eerily similar to Jaime’s report of a recent Costa Rican bus ride. After a few hours we started running low on plastic bags and when we stopped for lunch, a questionable idea at best, Laynni and I circled the bus admiring the streaks of bile decorating its sides in all the colours of the rainbow. One theory: I had personally noticed that Beer Lao, although tasting great, did nothing for the, ahem, intestinal situation. I began to suspect that we had just received a glimpse of the long-term effects.
One other curiosity: when buying our bus ticket that morning we had to fill in our name, and nothing else. Yet, just before we left a guy came on and asked, “Are
there Canadian?” Confused, I tentatively raised my hand (still holding my breakfast loaf of French bread), while glancing around at the other half-dozen tourists, most of whom looked just as baffled as me. Then the guy noticed my hand up, nodded knowingly, and left. Big Brother, anyone?
So, after a couple days in Vang Vieng we started to get bored and decided to make our escape from rainy Laos a few days before originally planned, even though our relatively expensive visas hadn’t expired yet. We later learned that it had been raining everywhere in Southeast Asia throughout this time so it really wouldn’t have mattered where we were. We were told they are called the “mango rains”. This was never confirmed. Either way, unless I return someday, which I hope to do, I’ll always think “bloody rain” when I think of Laos. I never claimed to be fair. Correction; bloody rain, and great French bread. How’s that for some cherished memories?
We then took the always lovely five AM bus on to Vientiane. Upon arrival we made sure we took a good hard look at the bus terminal so as to have an answer when people asked us, “How was Vientiane?” Now we could honestly say, “Lots of buses”. Then we hopped on another bus heading for the Thai-Lao border. Just before it pulled away a 40-something couple crashed their way into the already jam-packed little bus/van, scattering the aisle-dwellers who had been unfortunate enough to arrive before these obviously important newcomers. The man, a straw hat shading his very red face (sun? exertion? Big Mac blood pressure?), jubilantly exclaimed, “Well, we made it!” Unable to suppress my prejudice, I immediately thought “American”, slightly distastefully. Fair or not, I soon found out that I was right. As a rule, somewhere in their first three sentences among strangers every American (all right, let’s say 8 out of 10) must find a way to refer at least once to “the States”. Acceptable substitutes include: “back home in the US”, “in the part of California where I’m from”, and “at my place in New York”. This guy was more than happy to hit his cue – “In the States I…….” – before repeatedly offering up the same clever witticism in a loud voice, “Yeah, the only reason they tolerate us is for our money, heh, heh.” Luckily we made it to the border just as I was beginning to think I might be done with tolerating him.
After spending a night in Nong Khai, on the Thai side of the Mekong (which represents the border), we rented a(nother) scooter and headed out for a four-day journey north along the river to see some villages, towns, and national parks. We passed through Sri Chiangmai, supposedly one of the world’s largest producers of spring roll wrappers. We didn’t see a one.
In Sangkhom we stayed in a nice little hut with a beautiful view over the river. The view to the side wasn’t quite as impressive, however. Staying in the hut next to us was an elderly lady dressed in orange shorts, an orange tie-dyed t-shirt, orange plastic high-heeled sandals, and, of course, matching orange accessories, namely earrings and a handbag. Her hair was dyed, as well. Yup, you guessed it – bright orange. The final, particularly creepy, straw was the incredibly tiny orange thong hanging out to dry on the deck. The next day it was gone. Shudder.
In Loei, it took us an hour to find any hotels that were still in business, so we quickly accepted a large, but grimy, room in what turned out to be a salesman stop-off. Every time I swept a freshly-killed cockroach out the door I would notice another truck, cube-van, or some combination of the two in the parking lot. My favourite was a very beat up, thirty-year old Dodge, powder blue with pictures on the side that ranged from cans of corn to laundry detergent to jars (?) of motor oil. Installed on the roof were two massive house speakers, two concert-sized tweeters (2ft wide), and two megaphones. What do you suppose this guy’s marketing approach is? I’m willing to bet it’s not, “Let the customer come to you.”
About twenty-four hours and several beautiful mountains, valleys, villages and back roads later we were moving back in the direction of Nong Khai. We set up camp in Chiang Khan in a friendly little guesthouse once again on the Mekong. Management provided a book of Thai do’s and don’ts to help the unsuspecting traveller appear less obnoxious. The list of impolite “don’ts” included everything from standing while speaking to a seated elder person to touching children on the head to not giving money to a Thai girl that you’ve had “intimate relations” with. Apparently, stiffing hookers is considered to be in bad taste. Laynni pointed out that, not surprisingly, there was no mention of it being rude to piss helter-skelter all over the public domain. Bladder restraint is not a widespread practice around here. Back in Canada we’re far more civilized; it’s only acceptable to piss in public if you’re drunk.
While in Chiang Khan I found out that there was a place that held cockfights every Sunday morning at ten. As luck would have it, it just happened to be Sunday morning. Laynni, it turned out, was not the least bit interested, and still wanted to leave as planned. We worked out a simple solution (in my mind, anyway): I saw my first cockfight, and now I “owe her one”.
Needless to say, she didn’t join me at the big event. That was probably just as well as it seemed to be very much a men-only type of event. If I had to guess I’d say that it was less because women weren’t allowed to attend than that they weren’t interested in such a low-brow form of entertainment. In either case, I was enough of a spectacle on my own. The crowd was surprisingly varied, with everyone from clean-cut, Sunday-off types to grimy little chicken-men covered head to toe in tattoos. At first they all just kept glancing at me curiously and nobody was saying anything. The wait for the fights to start was a little longer than expected (big surprise, they didn’t get going until after 12), and eventually a couple guys came along that spoke a bit of English and then the circus began.
“Where you from?”
“What your name?”
“You Thai lady?” – “What? Mai (no). Mai.” – “No like Thai lady?” – “Oh,
yeah, like, sure. Khrap (yes).”
Of course, everyone was already laughing hysterically by this point and then the “leader” motioned toward the man next to him while saying, “He number one children”. Then made the screwing motion with his right index finger and his left hand. I sincerely hoped that meant that he has lots of children. I also began to wonder why the “screwing motion” seems to get used almost every time there’s a language barrier. Anyway, that comment really cracked everyone up. Meanwhile, a different guy was desperately trying to get my attention by yelling, “Khao kaeng, khao kaeng”. I smiled (I think I know this one!) and nodded, “Khao kaeng, khrap, rice” because I knew it meant some sort of rice dish. Well, that seemed to please him because he nodded and started talking to someone else. I was left to wonder what the hell the point of that was. I didn’t wonder long, though, since two of them were apparently having a good laugh over my leg hair, specifically the amount of it, and eventually couldn’t contain their curiosity and started tugging on it. I fought them off, trying to be as inoffensive as possible until, mercifully, some roosters were finally brought out and everyone (OK, most of them) forgot about me and focused on the ring (a circular fence about three feet high and maybe eight feet across). A bunch of guys began to take turns weighing the roosters by hand. They would lift them up, stare studiously into space for about ten seconds, then nod wisely and spout a number which would then be loudly disputed by the group. I’m not sure if they only let cocks of similar weights fight or if they use the weight to set the odds. Either way, I’m reasonably sure that a scale would have been a worthwhile investment. When that was done they oiled the feathers, taped down the spurs and, just like that, the first fight was underway. Wow. Who could have imagined that chickens could be so fierce? I was impressed (and maybe even a little afraid). One guy asked me which one I thought would win. I just shrugged since I couldn’t even tell them apart. The men were soon going wild, and the betting was going fast and furious. Actually, the betting was just about the only part of the whole thing I understood (I know Thai numbers and very little else). As the fight went on people yelled out different odds and how much they were offering and other members of the crowd would holler out how much they’d take him up for. And there might have been some sort of scorekeeping system because every once in a while, usually after some type of spectacular knockdown or something, one guy in particular would come out with a bunch of numbers that didn’t appear connected to the betting. In the end, the fight reached its twenty-minute time limit, the cocks were taken away scarred and bloody and with far fewer feathers than they started the day with. And that was it. I have no clue who won, although I have to assume that one of them did. This didn’t seem like a “draw” kind of sport.
There you have it, my first cockfight. Quite entertaining, if a bit cruel and violent, but I don’t see it becoming something I follow on a regular basis. Not like the guys you see on the cover of the dozens of different cockfighting magazines around here, all smiling broadly while tightly holding their………oh, never mind.
Now we are back in Nong Khai and are honestly looking forward to taking the twelve-hour night train to Bangkok in a few hours. Viva la sleeper car! Then we’ll be meeting Mike and Jamie at the airport two nights from now. I’m gonna go out on a limb and predict a slight change of pace after that. See ya’ll later.