Thursday, 5:45 pm
We flew into Laos on a prop plane. Not a tiny one, mind you but still not my scene. Apparently, Air Laos has a pretty bad track record and refuses to share its safety reports. We flew into Pakse before heading to Vientiane. Jason read that the planes are flown by sight rather than radar and often it is too difficult to land in Pakse so the pilot has to circle around until he can see.
The flight was full of hot stale air and stinky Frenchies. Upon arriving in Laos, we had to buy our visa. Unfortunately, I didn't have a passport photo so I was told to go to the small photocopy room to have my passport copies. There was a Canadian girl with her friend also in the same boat. The airport worker photocopied my passport on the same page as the Canadian. When the worker told us that it would cost a dollar each, she started bitching. "One dollar? One US dollar? At home, it only costs ten cents. Why isn't it fifty cents each then?" Rather than being happy that she wasn't being shaken down for 20 bucks, she was being completely obnoxious. I tried to hand the airport worker a five to get change but she didn't have any. As the Canadian continued to make a big show, the worker smiled at me and waved me away, free of charge.
While in line to get the visa, the Canadians were behind me complaining about how inefficient the system was - it took about ten minutes or so. They wouldn't have known what to make of the Cambodian border that we had entered a few days before. After leaving the airport, two other Canadian girls asked if we'd share a tuk-tuk with them into town and then lowballed the driver on the price. Man, Canadians are cheap.
Vientiane is a nice, super mellow town. The place is littered with French cafes to kill lots of time in. Jason describes it as the SoCal of SE Asia. The people are incredibly nice and we weren't hassled much at all. Tuk-tuk drivers take a no and often will smile or laugh back. French seems to be much more en vogue here than in Cambodia and there are many French tourists here.
The crushing poverty of Cambodia is not evident in this area of Laos. People don't seem rich but there are many more cars around (some nice Mercedes too) and not many of those shacks we saw everywhere in Cambodia. People live in apartments or real houses from what we've seen. However, one problem in this town is that many of the main roads are not paved (including the one in front of the nicest hotels) and that there is an innumerable amount of open sewers in the sidewalk. It has been much more humid here than our five days in Cambodia. The architecture is an interesting mix of French colonial and Soviet uniformity.
In the evening, we went to On the Rock Pub. It is a fun rock club where we were welcomed with open arms. The house band all wore matching Pub On the Rock t-shirts did a nice mix of Western covers (Lionel Ritchie, anyone?) and the latest Thai pop hits. It was packed with locals and there was a sweet high school dance vibe to it.
As much as we were digging the town, we were realizing that it definitely had a "Phish broke up so now what do we do?" kind of vibe amongst the Westerners. Plus, we realized that if we really did Laos right (at least five days or so) that we would short change Vietnam. So we decided to head to Vietnam sooner rather than later. It was going to be too difficult to leave this town for the next one in Laos and then have to come back to it to fly out. In the afternoon, we bought tickets to head to Hanoi on Sunday night which would give us a total of three days in Laos.
After buying our tickets, we had an amazing day. First up, the National Museum. Housed in the former French governor's mansion, it was built in 1925. It seemed like the last time any maintenance had been done was 1954 when the French originally left Laos. Painted in pinks and blues, the museum had a wide collection of artifacts. The most interesting stuff was the stuff about the past one hundred years. First off, the French torturers. Followed by the U.S imperialists and their puppets.
The pictures all had English desciptions printed out and taped directly onto the frames. It was definitely a low budget operation. The best parts were artifacts such as "Comrade So and So used this knapsack while planning his escape." The main exhibit ended in 1975, when Laos' current gov't was created. There was a brief display near the exit on the past 30 years. Basically, the current gov't continues to be great and to "lead the Lao people into the future."
After lunch, we went to the National Stadium right nearby. I'm not sure when it was built but it was pretty great. There must have been plenty of Soviet era propaganda stuff at this place back in the day. When we entered, there wasn't much going on. There were a few kids in the stands watching the neighboring tennis club action. There were three or four soccer players there too. Was there a game coming? The soccer players graciously invited us in. Within the next ten minutes, two full teams arrived. Soccer time in an empty stadium. We had no idea what sort of league this was but we quickly made friends with the visiting team from Thailand.
Many of the players and a few of their girlfriends (?) asked us to either pose for pictures with them or for Jason to take their pictures. They were very excited that we were there to see them play. Soon enough, the game was on and it was quite an interesting experience. It began to pour so everyone, including the bench players, headed for the stands and cover. The coaches stayed in the rain and simply covered their heads with protective plastic.
The sound of the rain and the thunder mixed quite well with the loud pops of the shooting range right next to the stadium. There was also a pool and a taekwondo club right nearby. Jason dubbed this town a "communist country club." There were also a number of kids scavenging for water bottles for the deposit money. The players had to hide their water until they were ready to cede the bottles over to the kids. Our Thai friends lost 2-1 to the home team.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant on the Mekong right across from the amazing Soviet era hotel. We decided not to get the menu item described as "money bag" but we did opt for frog legs (incredibly spicy, I have not felt the same since), and crickets which were surpisingly pretty good. As we ate our cricket and frogs, it was amusing to watch a few of both of those creatures cavort around the floor of the outdoor establishment.
After dinner, it was time for the Lao Bowling Centre. Everyone was having a great time there until a family of three generations of French trash came in like they owned the place. The owner was Korean and had Korean World Cup stuff ("Reds Go Together") on the walls. I bought a shirt and he was quite pleased to hear who I was married to. It isn't everyday you can go to a bowling alley and see a hammer and sickle flag. The price list differentiated between "Lao Student and Women" and "General People."
And the day kept getting better. We headed to the majestic Lao Cultural Center where we had seen advertisments for some huge pop spectacle. We got there a little before 11 and it was almost over. I talked us in for free and the ticket guy was super excited to let us in. The place was teeming with excited teenagers and their moms. There was some fancy dancing to recorded music and then... and then ... Dreams II (they were the headliners) came out for one more song! I wish we had seen more but what we saw was great. Three Thai women. Pop idols. The kids rushed the stage. And so did we. There were roses. There were pictures. There were quizzical looks directed our way from the crowd. It was perfect. More Thai pop is what I need! As we left, the ticket guy who shooed us in was quite pleased that we had such a good time.
Our last day in Laos, or so we thought began with a trip to the market. Not the tourist market, but the real people market in the mud where one can find the hippest, latest t-shirt fashions. We spent the rest of the day lounging around and then headed to the airport ready for Vietnam.
Unbeknownst to us but Jason's visa was only a single entry to Vietnam, not a multiple entry. We were not allowed to leave Laos. Dejected, we headed back to town. Luckily, there was another soccer game we were able to see the end of. Not quite the same warm feeling was directed our way by either of these squads. But we did get to see penalty kick action to end the game. For dinner, we ate again on the Mekong but this time amongst the little stands that the locals set up all along the riverfront.
Then the rain came. A perfect capper on the annoying day. We tried a few clubs that we read about including a jazz club called Snow White and One Dwarf (the doorman is the dwarf) but it was shuttered. We also tried some bizarre cabaret club in some hotel but it seemed awfully sketchy and no one was there.
The day began on a promising note. There was kickboxing on the TV and a ceasefire in the Middle East.
We went to the Vietnamese embassy and Jason got his Visa problem cleared up. They told him to contact the DC embassy upon going back home to get his money back from their screwup. We walked around and to the side of the Nat'l Museum we found some barracks. This is remarkable only because we found a number of soldiers playing petanque - a French game very similar to bocce. I miss me some bocce. I asked if I could take some pictuers while they played. Not only that, but they let me play a frame. Later in the day, I saw two other petanque games being played outside. Nice.
After lunch, we took a tuk - tuk 25 km out of town to Buddha Park - basically Outsider Art heaven, Lao style. One man's vision in the late 50's. Buddhas everywhere. Hundreds of statues. Climbing allowed. It was truly a spectacle. You'll have to wait for pictures of this one.
On the way, we noticed an interesting about the dogs in Laos. They all know how to cross the street. They wait patiently by the side of the road until there is an opening and then they saunter across. None of this darting into the streets American dog bullshit. Another thing about dogs in Laos is that they all look normal unlike the skinnny, sickly Cambodian dogs. All further evidence that Laos might not be as impoverished as Cambodia. Also, no one honks as they drive - the complete opposite of Vietnam. Laos is one relaxed place.
Then we headed back to the bowling center to buy more shirts. The gracious Mr. Kim sold me two for the price of one because my wife is Korean. Thanks Youthlarge for saving me five bucks! After that, we gathered our stuff and made our way back to the airport to try to fly standby (we had a definite flight on Tuesday just in case. No dice. So we hopped into one of the many 70's Toyota cabs and went back to town.
And, of course, we had to make our way to the stadium again. No soccer on this day, just rec time. Kids playing, a track team practicing, dogs, families, it was nice. The stadium is so much fun and we noticed that people live there as well, in apartments furnished out of old offices perhaps? The parking lot was a hanging out area for a number of the families.
After dinner, we decided to head to the Futures club. Not our scene. Too much makeup, too much bad karaoke, too many minutes of a Stephen Seagal movie, too much bad DJ time, and too many (two is two many) asshole Westerners with their hookers showing off their herky jerky dance steps. Embarrassing. Since we weren't hitting on women, it was made clear by our waiter that we should leave when he brought us our check without us asking for it. No loss. We ended our evening with another night of On the Rock Pub. A gentler night for the house band - it was a Monday night after all.
Our last day in Laos. Jason went back to the market. He ended up there five times in four days. Everyday there were new great shirts. He plans on starting a business of coming to Laos to buy shirts and then mark them up to 30 bucks and selling them in Williamsburg.
Some of my favorites of the shirts he bought:
1. Frei Stil Surf (Free Style Surf)
2. Announcing the vibrant color and simple pleasures of Tm Cool." Surfing Gang. On the back - First and Folk
3. The most adventure wears made by 100 percentage cottonable smooth style for comfortable and successfull always
Jason says, "I see everyone in Laos wearing shirts like this. None of the phrases really make sense. They're my people now."
In Cambodia, the popular t-shirts were of wrestlers. In Laos, surfer and skaters.
While Jason was at the market, I got a massage. Strictly legitimate, mind you. I've never had one so I decided to try one since it was only six bucks. Pretty nice. But not worth what they charge in NYC. The gay laundry guy told me I should go out dancing with him that night and that he loved me as I waited in the lobby. Um ...
My favorite sight of the day was a sewing shop with a middle - aged woman working and singing into a microphone hooked up to speakers outside of her shop.
Then a flight beckoned.
The airport scene was much different than Saigon. Very mellow and not so third world. Cabs on the other hand ... We took a crazy cab ride to the city. Our cab driver spent the entire 45 minutes flashing his lights at other drivers to get them to move over. Then he took us to the wrong hotel - the Lucky Hotel, but the wrong Lucky Hotel, not to be confused with the Lucky 2 Hotel. The best sight on the way was a guy text messaging as he rode his motorbike. Our hotel is okay but both Jason and I think that it just might be haunted.
Wednesday and Thursday
It rained most of Wednesday. We spent most of the two days just wandering around. This is a great city. There is so much going on and it feels very safe. We are in the Old Quarter near the lake. The architecture is amazing. We both love this city.
Last night, we went to Minh's Jazz Club. It is good to be Minh. He rules the roost. Last night, he'd play a song with the band then go back to his friends to drink and smoke for a bit before coming back up to play another jam.
The most interesting thing about today was walking around with 3 million dong (less than 200 bucks) in my pocket for a spell.
Some odds and ends:
- Jason's description of the movie on the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap.
"There was a village. The mother turned into a snake because of a witch's spell. The people in the village didn't know who the witch was though. They tried to find her to kill her. Her head would float around with stuff hanging out and it would just cackle at people. There might have been more than one witch. There were snakes coming out of the wife's stomach. The husband tried to kill the wife by stabbing her. Then he went crazy. Some old lady stabbed him in the head and it was like the whole Steve Martin with an arrow in his head thing."
- I still crack up everytime I think that the money in Laos is called kip.
- The sleazy guesthouse owner in Siem Reap also had this to say, "I can't go back to the U.S. because I'll probably end up getting arrested for touching some 15-year-old's ass in IHOP."
- On the way to the airport in Siem Reap, we must have passed at least half a dozen hotels with Asian tourists posing in front of the signs for their respective hotels.
- My favorite sign in Laos stated, "Love of cleanliess is shown in the manners of civilised people."
- In Laos, many kids love to call out "hello" to you from their houses.
- There are a lot of scary looking mannequins (think Chucky) in shops all over SE Asia.
More Youthlarge food writing -
1 day ago