Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Thailand And Laos 1998: Day Nine

The Road to Laos was rough and unpaved for much of its length and we bounced along it uncomfortably for several hours, with only a very brief stop to buy drinks and stretch our legs, before reaching the border post at Chiang Khong. Here we went through the rituals of getting our exit documents stamped before the tiny ferries took us over the river and into Laos where we disembarked at Ban Huay Xai which was another border town, not unlike the one we were leaving. We went through the rituals of getting our entry documents stamped. These formalities were a little more time consuming. Laos has only a short history of allowing tourists into its borders and the communist government still likes to keep a reasonable check on who they are and where they are going. This means that every time you pass from one of the seventeen provinces into another your documents must be endorsed on both sides of the 'border'. Those of us who managed to get through the queues quickly said goodbye to Wit and hello to our new guide, the remarkably named Lamb Pie before wandering down to the tiny window where the local money changer was struggling to cope with this sudden rush.. There were a large number of backpackers about, the first independent travellers I had really noticed and we chatted to them for a while until everyone was ready and then hauled ourselves up the hill to the nameless thoroughfare that forms Huay Xai's only street and along it to the most flea ridden and disgusting hotel that it has ever been my misfortune to encounter.
As we entered the 'lobby' - which was open to the street as were all of the buildings along the road, words failed almost everyone. It felt like being in a film about a group of ill-matched forsaken characters meeting in a shabby hotel at the ends of the Earth. There was a wooden desk upon which the room keys were scattered like dead leaves. In the corner a television set flickered without sound, its picture breaking up and reforming in random cascades of static. A threadbare and torn leather sofa sat at the bottom of a wooden staircase. I could imagine Sidney Greenstreet sitting on it mopping sweat from his brow with a grimy handkerchief as the wind from the street stirred the dust up around his feet. It simply oozed with the feeling that we must be real travellers because no tourist would ever put up with this.
If the lobby made us into travellers then the rooms made us into explorers. I was sharing with Robert. Entering our ground floor room was like entering a prison cell in a third world gaol. The only window was boarded up with a piece of dirty wood and covered by an ineffectual metal mosquito mesh admitting a minimal amount of light through a gap of only a couple of inches at the top, too high for us to see through. The furnishings consisted of two beds that were both dirty and uncomfortable and a small metal table. One corner had had a wall built separating off the 'bathroom'.
"En suite, I see". I commented with what I deluded myself was a world weary and sardonic tone.
The 'bathroom' consisted of a toilet bowl and a sink both of which would have been considered a health hazard by the dirtiest rat in the filthiest sewer in the world. The walls in there were even filthier than the ones in the bedroom. I would have suggested that even the bugs would refuse to live there if not for the fact that so much of the wall was covered in spiders' web.
I entered and prodded at the bed.
"I wouldn't sleep in this if I could boil it in disinfectant first."
Robert, who had had more foresight than I, was already digging his sleeping bag out. I had no bag but my plastic rain cape formed a suitable insulating barrier and I determined immediately that I would rather sleep in my clothes than risk the blankets.
Having made our preparations for later we went out for lunch. Across the street was the restaurant. This too was a dirty and fly blown establishment. I joined the unenthusiastic group already there and ordered Basillic Chicken. While I was waiting I examined the bizarre array of condiments on the table. These consisted mainly of pastes and sauces. Each newly opened jar or bottle revealed an even more disgusting concoction than the previous one. One proved to contain a thick brown paste with probably the most revolting smell on Earth. This I decided was most likely Naam Paa Daek, a disgusting concoction made from fermented anchovies. A similar smelling bottle of a thick clear liquid was Naam Paa which is the most commonly used condiment in the country. By the time my food arrived I had lost all appetite.
Ban Huay Xai is described by the Lonely Planet Guide as

'...a bustling riverside town whose main commercial
district centres around the passenger and vehicle
ferry landings for boats to Chiang Khong.'

I noted with interest that it was boats to Chiang Khong not boats from Chiang Khong.
After my unappealing lunch I went to see how far I agreed with the rest of the assessment and was surprised to find that it was not all that far from reality. Although it consisted only of one main street running parallel to the Mekong it did boast a fairly large school and a post office and a market. On the other hand as it bore only the vaguest resemblance to the map in the guide I wasn't sure that we weren't actually in some completely different town with a coincidental name.

I watched the volleyball game at the school for a while, then went up to see the obligatory Wat before heading back to the hotel to read and to position my camera ready for the 'sunset over the Mekong' photograph that was just screaming out to be taken.
We all reassembled for Lamb Pie to give us the run down on the exciting prospects for a night on the town. They amounted to exactly two. As we had already sampled the delightful bistro across the road we ventured north to the town's other restaurant. On the street were dozens of people selling various roasted meats from grills over hot coals. Although the source of the meat was probably better imagined than known they smelled delicious and soon we had an appetite. The restaurant turned out to look surprisingly good and we sat down, ordered our drinks and consulted the menu. Nothing was very appetising and we all chose our own strategies for dealing with it. Robert took the bold gamble strategy and ordered Sukiyaki. I chose the cowards route of the vegetable omelette. The most amazing strategy of all though was Frances'. She read once through the list and decided, not unreasonably, that she didn't like any of it. She summoned a waitress and with Lamb Pie's help explained that what she wanted was for the waitress to go down the road to one of the food sellers and buy her half a roast chicken. Ellen, having seen that this was going to be successful asked for the same and the waitress duly trotted off. I was amazed. It struck me as like going into MacDonald's and asking for them to nip next door for a thin and crispy pepperoni from Pizza Hut. When the food arrived my opinion altered. While their Chicken looked delicious my omelette was pale and bland and the condiments included nothing at all that I would be prepared to eat with which I could spice it up. Robert's Sukiyaki though was the piece de resistance. It bore no resemblance to the usual version of the dish, indeed it bore scant resemblance to anything usually defined as food. It was a bowl of grey greasy water with assorted unidentifiable bits floating in it. He dipped in the fork and fished out something green and vaguely organic. A second attempt speared something that might once have been alive but left strange strands of an almost transparent slime dangling back into the liquid. These may or may not have been the clear noodles that are usually a part of the dish but, if they were, they had been cooked to a very unlikely consistency.Bravely he tried to eat it but after only a few forkfuls pushed it away. I could imagine the waitress in the back saying quietly
"Got somebody with the old Sukiyaki gag again"