Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Getting there. Staying there. Getting back.

Practical information about the trip. This is stuff you have to know if you don’t want to go crazy.

I always buy bus and train services at the same travel agent, RD travel, just down the street from the Benetton, right downtown. The staff there is efficient and speak perfect French or passable English. When they tell you the tuk-tuk will be in front of their agency at 7 PM, it will be in front of their agency at 7 PM.

So, to get to the Bolaven you have to either fly or take the night bus to Paksé. This is a ‘VIP Sleeper Bus’ and your seat is a bunk which is already reclined. The problem is that there are two bunks, side by each comme on dirais en Québecois, and your individual space is very narrow. My heart sank as the bus filled with Chinese workers desperately in need of a wash, smelling of stale tobacco and each other. This time I lucked out and managed to get an entire berth, but next time I will certainly invest in reserving both bunks. Price for one bunk is 160,000 KIP (20$US). You get to travel in relative comfort for 320,000 (40$US).

Coming back is a different story. I caught the VIP Sleeper Bus out of Tat Lo as it wound its way from Saravan to Vientiane. I bought the ticket from the old guy at the crossroads but he was as helpful as a toothache. Be that as it may, the people who designed that bus deserved to fail engineering school. There were no double bunks; everybody had their own single bunk but it was so narrow you couldn’t even place a hand bag on it. Your feet are trapped into a plastic tank at the bottom of the bunk and your weight plus the angle of the bunk are continually forcing you down. The television plays Lao hits – the singer sings and the dancers dance – at a splendid volume and the overhead lights blare on and off at unpredictable intervals all night.

In both cases, Charlene was stowed with the baggage.

Arriving in Paksé I headed straight for the buffet breakfast at the Hôtel Paksé, a French-run establishment where the coffee is fresh, the toilets are clean and the internet connection is fast. The latest edition of The New Yorker downloaded effortlessly onto my Kindle and off I went, a new man. (Presently reading “La Guerre d’Indochine”, by Lucien Godard, by the way…)

The ascent to Paksong is not horribly difficult. You go up about 1,400 meters over a 50 kilometer stretch. The problem is that it simply never ends. On the sides of the roads are fruit stands. Fresh durian and mangosteen. The durian hang one by one in the shade of the fruit sala; customers come and tap the fruit, listening for ripeness. Between visits, the sala owners drowse or sit staring at the floor. I am amazed by the Lao ability to simply sit, and do nothing, for hours. No-one reads a book or a newspaper. Riding through the countryside I see the same scene over and over again: if people are not working they sit staring at ants on a table, finger steady on the off switch.

Of course I never cycle in Vientiane – I don’t see the point in it, and at km 35 I was paralysed by cramps. Look, if you want to give up, then give up. But all it really takes is a rest and a walk using the bike as a cane and soon enough you’re back in the saddle.

The afternoon sky was darkening and my goal was the Tat Fane Resort at km 38. Paradise – a waterfall, a comfortable bungalow with fresh sheets and a goodly breakfast. 20$ brings you the silence of the jungle and the roar of the water. Excellent restaurant.

Paksong itself is absolutely nothing to see. Many thanks go to Mr. Coffee Dick who provided me with a lot of information about the Plateau on his website ( We never got a chance to meet, however.

The sealed road from Paksong to Thateng is easy and rolling. There is also a dirt road that sort of goes in that general direction but a Korean coffee plantation manager I met in Paksong told me it would be a very muddy affair. Next time, perhaps. How he sat in that restaurant, his feet on the chair in front of him, throwing his cigarette butts on the floor and screaming instructions in “Engrishi” to his workers on the plantation was sickening. How can one man leave so much waste behind him I do not know, but his advice was good.

The traffic on that road was scarce and in the villages that lined the road people called out their sabaidee with that smile and bit of laughter that says, “You’re another crazy falang and we’re glad to see you’re having a good time”.  The children see you coming: falang! falang!

In Thateng there are guesthouses and whorehouses. It seems that the life of the young in rural Laos, especially along the sealed roads is all about wearing tight jeans and spiked hair and listening to horrible music at high volumes. Anything they can do to be passive receptacles of whatever noise someone else has manufactured is OK by them and they seem willing to pour whatever money they may have in perpetuating this slavery.

In Saravan I stayed at the Phoufa Hotel. The gardens are magnificent and the rooms are comfortable. On this trip I was able to make my acquaintance with satellite television. Emmanuel TV is a treat: Africans with leg ulcers line up to be healed by ‘wise men’ who tell them they are healed and they limp off raising their hands in Halleluiah singing ‘I am healed’ but not once did I see a post-blessing leg ulcer disappear. Another case was a woman who began bedwetting after she got married who was saved by The Grace Of The Lord. Her husband was relieved, as well. Many women were possessed by evil spirits and they would roll about on the ground and foam at the mouth as the spirit was exorcised from them. But my favourite was a pregnant woman who was past term and visibly suffering. The wise man prayed and placed his hands and she shook and Praised The Lord and stood up saying she was healed but as far as I could see she was still very pregnant and not healed at all and I wondered just how credulous people could be. All the while, a voice off in Parisian French narrated, “Et maintenant le Sage va lui soigner du mal qui lui habite…”. Is there no limit to what people can be made to believe, despite the evidence before their very eyes?

Yes, the hotel grounds were beautiful but no thought was given to the guests’ comfort. In the morning there was no hot water for me to make a coffee and the tight-jeans-wearing-punk who ran the place just sat there with a cell phone dangling from a cord around his neck. The cell phone was open and playing a pop song. No have hot water!

Dinner was BBQ fish at the Hong Lek restaurant on the river. Fabulous fish, great service and a lovely place to sit and watch the rain beating down on the countryside and admiring the bend in the river; the sound of the pre-monsoon rain on the thatched roof was all the dinner music I needed. The air turned ochre as the rain threw the soil up into it; the river was red and blasted with the pinpoints of raindrops. Like all rain here and in this season it was over by the time I wanted to leave.

I am getting lazy. There is no doubt about it. After my last trip up to the Golden Triangle when I thought I would die from the effort I really just wanted an easy ride. A pleasant au revoir to Laos before the monsoon kicks in and we would be out of here for the summer. And so slowly, ever so slowly I rode to Tat Lo.  My pace was turtle. I wanted to go no faster and I could hear the chain on the teeth of Charlene’s gears.

Slowly. Inching. PDR means ‘Please Don’t Rush’.

In Tat Lo I stayed at the Saise Resort, the one just beyond the bridge to the left. Terrible and unfriendly welcome: I was shown the most ratty bungalow in the place and spotted by myself a really beautiful one. For $20 I had a fabulous room with a bathtub (!) and a veranda overlooking a high-altitude tropical garden. Clean, comfortable, quiet – only slightly within hearing distance of the waterfall and so I was gently lulled into sleep and back into dawn wakefulness by its continual chant. The restaurant, right on the waterfall, was excellent.

I arrived back in Vientiane in the early hours of the morning and rode home from the station near the University. The sleepy city shook off the dreams from its eyes as I rode – restaurants were opening and cars were beginning to fill the streets, shop shutters were being opened. I was home.

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