Another arrival in Bangkok, and another new Prime Minister in Thailand. It’s getting repetitive. This time the new leader is Abhisit, and the difference is that he is from the side of the yellow shirts with the hand-clappers. These are the people who blockaded the airports in Nov., and his selection should mean an end to paralyzing protests in Bangkok. Now it is the Red Shirt party with the foot-clappers who are disgruntled and it remains to be seen what kind of pressure and disruptive tactics they will be able to exercise.
It’s always a relief to be back in Bangkok, but our unfinished business from India continues to dog us. I didn’t want to leave India before our orders were completed, and packed, and sent, but the assurances we received from our suppliers have repeatedly turned out to be misleading, and things are starting to fall far behind schedule. The astrologers promise all that will change. We are on the cusp of leaving the fiery Rat Year, in which things are bound to go haywire, and enter into the stable, if un-dramatic, Year of the Earth Ox.
The place to be for Chinese New Year in Bangkok is Yaorawat Road. Yaorawat is a blaze of neon signs advertising its two famous businesses: restaurants which serve badly, badly incorrect food such as sharks’ fins and bird nests; and gold dealers. I expected it to be busier. Even the shrines and temples on Yaorawat and in the surrounding alleys are conspicuously quiet. Partly this is bad timing: it is mid-afternoon the day before the biggest celebration; and partly it’s the economy. Many businesses are doing poorly, and the price of gold is so volatile that for the first time ever, on the Sunday that the markets are closed and the merchants can’t get minute by minute updates, the gold shops shut their doors. Despite this, it is colourful and crowded, and strings of fireworks are going off, and in a striking parody of the world-wide government rescue plans for the economy, piles of worthless paper money are being burned on the street.
Back down in the tourist-ghetto of Khao San Rd., three elephants and a troupe of lion dancers are competing for the attention of a small forest of photographic equipment. The announcer for the elephants is trying to generate excitement: ”This is the first time three elephants have ever appeared together on Khao San Rd.!” he shouts, and the elephants, giving the people what they want, stand on their hind legs. Even so, they are getting stiff resistance from the dancers, who have drums, fireworks, lions, and a spectacular 10-man dragon who solicits donations in its jaws from the shop keepers. I position myself for the real event: when the dragon entourage meets the elephants, who, freaked out by the noise, will charge wild-eyed into the sea of spaghetti-strap tops and zoom lenses. Fortunately (I guess) , when the fateful moment occurs the elephants remain aloof and detached, putting it all down to just another day of degrading work for The Man. And what do they get for it? Just peanuts
LAOS: SLOWLY UP AND DOWN THE MEKHONG
Laos is a wonderful country; so far I’ve only met one person who didn’t like it, and he was Austrian, and bitter. Usually we justify a few weeks here by traveling up to Luang Prabang, and buying as many hand-woven scarves as we can carry from our friend Sukhsavanh. Laos is entirely landlocked, with a long, relatively-skinny neck in the south supporting a star-burst head in the north that reminds Katheryn of the profile of Side-Show Bob. The star-burst head part has the topography of a crumpled ball of paper, and is stunningly beautiful. The long neck follows the wide vein of the Mekhong River, with the eastern border being a spine of mountains separating Laos from Vietnam. In previous trips we have crossed through Savanakhet and Lak Xao in the middle of the neck, coming and going from Vietnam, but we have never been in the far south.
A 5:45 am train from Bangkok gets us effortlessly to Ubon in eastern Thailand by 2:30 pm. The plan is to do it the easy way, and take the last “Friendship Bus” of the day at 3:30 straight to Pakse, Laos, in time for a cold sunset Beer Lao on the Mekhong. Within moments of leaving Ubon station, the plan has gone awry. I am expecting some motorcycle-based form of taxi to take us the ten km to the appropriate bus station. Instead a lanky cowboy solicits us, and agrees (too readily) on a good price and hustles us out to his pick-up. A few minutes later we are at a place where transportation leaves from, but it is definitely not the station I had clearly insisted on. Its a songtaew stand, home of the very-local pickups with two wooden benches in the back for passengers. There is a lot of commotion, and negotiating, some recriminations, and finally we accept that resistance is futile, and we are crammed into the back of a songtaew heading to some place half way to the Laos border. There we are met by a larger, rougher vehicle doing the next 40 km to the frontier at Chong Mek. This is a 5-ton truck with wooden benches, and its excruciatingly slow. Still, the locals are friendly, and school kids are riding on the roof, and eventually it get us close enough that we can walk the rest of the way to Laos. As it turns out the “Friendship Bus” and its load of much smarter travelers then us arrive just as we check through immigration, and I am able to slip the driver a few baht to take us the last 40 km into Pakse.
Pakse has the last reliable and affordable communication with the rest of the world that we will have for some time to come, and we have to stay a couple extra days making phone calls to India and sending off emails done in caps lock titled URGENT RESPOND IMMEDIATELY or some such variation of attention grabber. When we are satisfied our goods have been set in motion we head south to Champasak, a small town 30 km away on the other (west) bank of the Mekhong.
Back in the time when huge snake-kings ruled in under water realms below the river, a prominent natural rock formation on top of a mountain here was believed to be the linga (penis) of the god Shiva. Even before the Khmers to the south were building Angkor Wat, Champasak was the capital of a powerful Hindu kingdom. Nothing is left of it now except for one extraordinary temple, now a ruin, from the 10th C.
Lovely hand-built ferries ply back and forth across the river. The smaller ones take motorcycles and passengers, and the largest, like the one our songtaew is on, can hold around 6 vehicles. Boarding and landing is done straight from the beach, with a couple of heavy planks the only help for drivers on the sandy slope. The modern village of Champasak, 8 km from the temple, is a charming little place. Almost everything is spread along one paved road beside the Mekhong; whatever didn’t make it there is on a parallel dirt street. At the center of town is a forlorn fountain, which hasn’t worked for decades, the project of a governor whose grand mansion was also never finished, and is now a sprawling ruin on the dirt street a block away. Maybe this is where ambition goes to die, but it certainly doesn’t bother the owner of the Vong Paseud guest house, where our songtaew drops us. His contagious good nature earns him the nickname ”Mr. Smiley” and his open-air restaurant right over the river is the ideal place to relax with a Beer Lao in the evening. We hire bicycles and take a spin around town in the afternoon. There are a couple of old French mansions, and a pretty wat, and not much else, but people always wave and smile and shout Sabai Dee! (Hello. Lit: Its going Good!).
The next morning we take the bikes along the flat river valley towards the ruined temple and the sacred mountain. It’s a quiet, beautiful ride to a quiet, beautiful site. The temples architecture and lay-out reflected the cosmic order, and its alignment is on a axis from the rising solstice sun towards the sacred knob on Phu Khuai (Penis Mountain). A magnificent avenue of large frangipani trees lead us up a stone stair to the main temple. The sanctum was converted to Buddhism centuries ago, and the current trio of bland-faced Buddhas inside are out of place next to the spectacular 10th C. carvings on the lintels and on the front of the structure. More unusual, and more beautiful, is a rock-cut trio of Brahma, Vishnu, and Maha Shiva on a boulder nearby. This four-faced icon represents Shiva as the ultimate, eternal creative and destructive demi-urge, but I cant help seeing a likeness of John Lennon in the face on the right. Close by is another mysterious figure: a life-size crocodile carved deeply into a rock. Local guides will tell you this was where human sacrifices took place. The crocodile, however, is also the vehicle of the goddess Ganga, and since according to its metaphysical geography the Ganges river is channelled here this would be a more probable explanation.
From Champasak our journey continues down the Mekhong to the most southerly point in Laos, called Si Pan Don, The 4000 Islands. Here the river braids into innumerable channels and courses, growing to a width of 13 km. It also plunges down into Cambodia in a long series of cascades and falls, the only major navigational obstacle on the Mekhong between China and the delta in Vietnam. When the French were in control they envisioned a railway to bridge the gap, but they didn’t get much farther than a short bridge between two of the principle islands Don Det and Don Kon, and a couple of locomotives now rusting on Don Kon.
At one time, maybe 5 years ago, Det and Kon were oases on the back-packer trail. There was no electricity, and accommodation was in a scattering of palm and bamboo huts on the waters edge. When we arrive on Det, after our low-key small towns and ad hoc transport, it feels a bit like Martin Sheen getting to the American’s R + R base in Apocalypse Now. All of a sudden there are hundreds of tourists, from the didgeridoo crowd to the Tilleys hats with rolling luggage to the very drunk Thais disgorged from their garish air-brushed mega-buses. We disembark from our boat on the northern tip of Don Det, where most of the development is, and I leave K in a restaurant with our bags while I look for somewhere to stay. The options are so close together and unappealing that I am almost all the way to Don Kon before I even ask to see a room. Things are so far below the minimal standards for security, comfort, privacy and value that we are used to that I end up getting a bicycle, and going across the old French railway bridge to Don Kon. There, at the very last place, is a room that is less than a disaster, and I take it. We can still hear neighbours zipping luggage next door, and they might as well be using our bathroom when they use their own. But there is a deck overlooking the river, and with a cold Beer Lao open, K tries to assure me it’s not so bad. And in fact, when I do manage to look around, the place is frighteningly beautiful. It’s much greener and more tropical than anywhere else we have been in Laos, with huge tamarind trees hanging over the water, and palms lining the dirt paths by thatched houses. There is still no electricity, but everybody has a generator, and during the designated power hours of 6 to 11 pm, the thumping is incessant . Still, the beauty is enough to keep us on Don Kon for another day, where we take bicycles to one set of the famous Mekhong cataracts, and further onto a quiet beach where we could literally swim to Cambodia.
Our last destination in the 4000 Islands is the largest of them, Don Khong. As soon as we leave Don Det the transformation is almost magical: all of a sudden we are sitting with locals again in the back of an old truck; and on Don Khong everybody is still interested in everybody else, and all say Hi and Sabai Dee to each other.
I have to be honest: we came to Laos looking for a lovely place to stay, in a beautiful spot where we could put up our feet and relax. No hard travel to the ends of the earth; no great discoveries unsullied by a Western face; no gut-wrenching moments you can laugh about later. Champasak and Don Khong were very pleasant, but still not exactly the ticket. Don Det and Don Kon could have been, but are now, sadly, finished. There is only one more place to try, one more blip on our radar.
TAT LO: SOMEWHERE UNDER THE WATERFALL
To get to Tat Lo we have to go back to Pakse and head east from there. Although not the most interesting town in Laos, at least Pakse offers a bit more culinary variety than we have enjoyed in our southern swing. Being veg doesn’t help, but whereas anywhere we go in Thailand we can find delicious food, in small-town Laos it has been pretty dismal. It also seems to be an article of faith that people with white skin don’t eat chillis. Even when we say, in Lao, “I like it spicy”, the standard response is “Not spicy!” and it arrives bland. And since ”vegetable” generally means “cabbage” we’ve had a lot of disappointing meals.
Our transport from Pakse to Tat Lo is a real bus, with doors and seats. And a video. As usual, the DVD that is popped in is Thai karaoke, and pretty young actors and the boy band of the moment play out tales of heartbreak while the little bean jumps across the words on the bottom of the screen. It’s saccharine and formulaic, but for rolling through Laos villages on a local bus it’s not a bad sound track. Besides us and the Laos, there are three young Australian back-packers on the bus, with the dread-locks, the djembe, the guitar, the talismans around the neck - badges of a counter-culture even I missed out on travelling in Asia 25 years ago. Thai pop is not their thing, and one comes to the front to offer one of his CD’s to be put on. Before we know it, we are surrounded by droning Hindu devotional chanting. The general reaction, from the bus driver to the wizened 80-year-old granny with gaping betel-stained gums, is to turn around and get a better look at the Aussies, and start laughing. The conductor good-naturedly puts up with 10 minutes of the names of Shiva, and puts the karaoke back on. The Aussie makes his way up with another CD. This time it is Bob Marley- a better choice - but the CD skips, and the conductor isn’t going to try to make it work. The karaoke comes back on. The Aussies sense defeat, and sullenly plunk away on the djembe in the back.
It is fairly short ride in a samlor a three-wheeled version of a songtaew from where the bus drops us to the village of Tat Lo, along a dirt road. First impressions are certainly positive: we cross a long wooden bridge below the multiple streams of a cascading falls. A handful of guest houses have been built around the falls and along the river, next to a pretty little village where cows account for most of the traffic, and almost all the houses are traditional teak-on-stilts architecture with photogenic stacks of wood for cooking beneath them. After a bit of a search, we find the hut we are looking for. The walls and floor are made of hand-cut teak planks, roughly joined, and the roof is thick stacks of thatched teak leaves. Perhaps the best thing about it is the setting: at the top of the gardens at the Sayse Guest House. The restaurant of the Sayse is in a prime position at the base of the waterfall, set in lush and beautifully-landscaped gardens. We walk up to our rustic hut on a stone path under sweet-smelling jasmine, climbing Dieffenbachia vines, flowering bananas, and a host of other tropicals.
Almost everyone, local and foreign, swim in the pools above the first falls. I guess that’s as far as most people get. We explore a little further and come to a second falls. A very rough track descends to the pools at the bottom, and the entire time we are in Tat Lo - 4 days – no one else (except for a few kids the last day) makes it to this beautiful spot but us.
Your Foreign Devil Correspondent
As usual, only a few of our photos are included in the blog. Sit back, open a Beer Lao, go to http://www.kebeandfast.com, click EXPLORE choose a set ( Tat Lo, 4000 Islands and Chinese New Year for this blog), and find the slideshow button. We’ll take you there.