Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The good Australian

It’s the peak season for tourism in southeast Asia, which means hotel rooms are sometimes scarce. In Bangkok I just about managed to find a cheap one and hold on to it for dear life, but the situation generally hasn’t concerned me that much. Until tonight.

See, prior to a couple of hours ago I’d had several very easygoing days. My time in Ayuttayah ended with a return visit, after five years, to Wat Yai Chai Mongkol, which looks like this.

And to think I’d considered giving the temple a miss on the basis that it was a long cycle ride, the weather was scorching and I’d seen it before. It’s strange, the way I forget how gobsmacking these places are.

From Ayuttayah I took a sleeper train to the northeastern city of Khon Kaen, picking up a visa from the Lao consulate while I was there. I also bought a new rucksack/daypack to replace the cheap piece of crap that fell apart a fortnight after I bought it from Bangkok's weekend market. *Sigh.* Will I ever understand the concept of ‘a false economy’, I wonder?

Anyway, my plan was always to bus it from Khon Kaen to the Lao border and make my way independently, via tuk-tuk and bus, to the capital Vientiane, 24km away. But yesterday I saw a swanky air-conditioned bus leaving Khon Kaen station with the city’s name marked on it and thought: “Ooh. That’s handy.”

So I checked out of my hotel at 8.30am today and bought a ticket, only to learn that the service didn’t leave till 3.15pm. “No worries,” I thought. “I can kill time listening to my mp3 player and hanging around that shopping mall with the free wifi.”

The upshot is I got into the city at 6.45pm and couldn’t find a hotel room.

At first I wasn’t too worried. I’ve always said to myself: “If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll just splash out £20. That buys a lot in this part of the world.” But to my growing consternation, £20 rooms weren’t available either.

Eventually, following an hour of traipsing, I spotted a bus passenger I’d swapped pleasantries with in the immigration queue.

“Have you managed to find a room?” I asked. “Because I can’t.”

“Oh, I come here a lot and always stay at the same place,” said the guy. Turns out he’s an Australian who’s worked on various agricultural projects here and speaks fluent Lao. He told me where he was staying. I’d already tried there, but we decided to have a quiet word with reception anyway.

As luck would have it, the hotel had just expanded, opening a new business just seven weeks ago - and that place had a $35 room. Reduced to $30 as a favour to this bloke. That’s about £20. So I’m writing this from what, by my standards, is somewhere very posh.

There’s one more thing: I’m losing weight rapidly, as tends to happen when I go travelling. Thai 7-11 shops always have electronic scales outside and on my way to the temple the other day I found I’d lost 5kg, or 11 pounds, in two-and-a-half weeks.

I don’t know if it’s healthy to shed weight that quickly but I simply can’t help it. It’s all that walking and cycling in the heat, eating natural food (I’m getting quite partial to the Asian diet) and drinking bottled water every day.

If this hotel‘s free breakfast is a buffet I’ll be stuffing my face tomorrow, (a) to get my money’s worth and (b) to slow my progress towards Skeletor status.

I’ve also had… wait for it… a hot shower!

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