Saturday, January 30, 2010

Happy days

Cycling along the dirt/gravel road linking the town of Vang Vieng to neighbouring villages at dusk today, I felt something I don’t often feel: carefree contentment. I was muddy from visiting a cave, a pedal on my bike kept threatening to fall off and, in the wider scheme of things, I’ve no idea what I’m doing with my life. And yet it all felt right, somehow. I felt vibrant, I felt alive, I felt the sun and the breeze on my face and I felt the friendliness of locals as they waved at me. If only I hadn’t felt every judder of that blinkin’ boneshaker.

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been doing since I last blogged.

1. Pinching food

Goodness me, Laos is expensive. I don’t mean in the traditional sense of costing a lot of money, I just mean that it’s more costly than Thailand, which surprises me greatly considering how poorly developed this country is. After my usual thorough research (looking on the internet) I’m convinced that it’s either because Laos doesn’t export much besides silk, and has to import everything else, or that prices have been pushed up by the large number of NGOs here.

Whatever the reason, my couple of days in Vientiane tore a hole in my budget that made me feel all faint for a minute. It wasn’t just staying in an upmarket hotel on the first night; it was also the fact that crossing the border had addled my brain and made me confused about how much the local currency, known as the kip, is genuinely worth.

There are about 8,500 kip to the dollar and about 13,500 kip to the pound. Naturally, then, all the banknotes come in huge denominations and this made my head spin. When I moved to a cheaper hotel and saw that having your laundry done there cost 30,000 kip/kg, I automatically correlated it with Thai prices and thought it would cost me in the tens of pennies. For several hours I thought my 2kg of shirts and smalls had cost me about 50p to wash. Then it hit me that it was closer to £5 and that moving there hadn’t saved me much at all.

Still, the hotel situation wasn’t a dead loss, seeing as Expensive Place From The First Night was in reality Expensive Place B, the new offshoot of Expensive Place A just up the road. If I wanted a buffet breakfast of cold fried egg, cold chicken in breadcrumbs, cold sausages, cornflakes in lukewarm milk, fruit juice and coffee, I had to have it in Place A. The same went for using the wifi. But the staff never asked for my credentials, which meant I carried on breakfasting and surfing the net even after I’d checked out.

2. Feeling sniffy about local transport

I stayed in Vientiane less than 48 hours, meaning the brekkie-theft only happened once. Then it was on to Vang Viang, three-and-a-half hours to the north (and again, stupidly, I thought this was costing me 50p at first). I booked a seat on a ‘VIP bus’ through The Less Expensive Hotel With The Extortionate Laundry Charge, the idea being that the bus would pick me up at 10am the next day.

At 10.15am a tuk-tuk driver showed up and took me to a bare patch of land where a battered old charabanc stood. I got onboard - there were a handful of seats left - and waited for the bus to leave. I waited some more. It was now 10.30am. Then about a dozen additional passengers turned up, most of whom had to sit on the VIP bus’s floor for a good 90 minutes until we transferred to something more salubrious.

3. Loafing around in my hotel room

This is partly to get my budget back in order and partly to avoid taking part in the adventure sports for which this area is renowned. I refuse to get involved with anything remotely risky these days following an unfortunate incident in South Africa eight years ago in which I fell off an ostrich I was attempting to ride and couldn’t walk properly for a month.

The big attraction in this area is called ‘tubing’, which my guidebook describes as ‘floating down the Nam Xong (river) on huge tractor inner tubes’. In the end I had to look up tubing on YouTube because I had visions of people floating down the river on giant tractor tyres from a monster trucks show, like hamsters in a wheel. It’s not like that at all, thank goodness, but it’s still not for me.

I do like my hotel room, although it took me a while to work out how flies could get in when all the windows are covered in mosquito netting. Eventually I noticed the large gap at the bottom of the door. I remain largely bite-free, however, thanks to the liberal use of repellent. Yesterday I found a small colony of ants on my toilet seat, reached for the spray and felt a little guilty for launching the insect world equivalent of a mustard gas attack.

4. Admiring the scenery

5. Absorbing the local culture

Coming back from the restaurant last night (it was full of gap-year kids talking shite and trying to act cool), my attention was drawn to an entertainment spectacle at what looked like a school or local government building. It largely consisted of traditional Lao dancing and not-so-traditional pop acts. Being in a People’s Democratic Republic with communist leanings, I still haven’t worked out whether this was all laid on by the government (which assumes a rather patronising view of the showbiz scene here) or whether it was a school gala night (which assumes great talent on the part of Vang Vieng’s teenagers).

6. Visiting the Phou Kham cave

The cave is about 6km from here, near the village of Na Thong. It's set quite high up a mountain and features a shrine with a bronze Buddha.

This is a child who came out and gestured for me to take his photo when I stopped to take a swig of water in Na Thong.

Here you can see him thinking about asking me for money using the single word “gift”.

Heh. You’ll be lucky, sunshine…

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