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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.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Thailand And Laos 1998 Day 10

Note - this is a reprint of a chapter from an earlier memoir.

Day Ten, Wednesday 11/02/1998

    By morning- aching, cold and feeling as if a month of showers wouldn't get me clean - I was wishing that we had got straight onto boats and headed off down river as soon as we arrived. I  washed as best I could with two fingers under a dripping cold tap and skipped breakfast completely on hygiene grounds. A little later Lamb Pie arrived with two large tuk-tuks to take us on our morning excursion to a couple of villages. The first of these was a fairly large place and though impoverished by our standards quite rich by local ones. It had the district school where it seemed to be playtime. All the students, ranging from very young children to late teenagers, were out in the yard playing games. Two teams of fifteen year olds were engaged in a strenuous game of what I dubbed anti-volleyball where the object was to get a hard ball about the size of a large grapefruit over the net by hitting it with any part of the body except the hands and arms. Some of them performed quite spectacular leaps and kicks and I needed a rest from just watching for two minutes. I looked briefly into the schoolrooms which would have been recognisable instantly to anyone anywhere in the worlds. They had neat rows of small wooden desks, blackboards, poorly executed children's paintings. Apart from size it was similar to the one we had seen back in the Thai village. But this was no one-roomed building. Rather it was a a long brick and wood structure with about six classrooms and a block of school offices.
    Just down the 'road' from the school a family pulled up low benches and invited us to join them. The elderly bald and toothless matriarch fetched out a photograph album containing perhaps a dozen photographs clearly taken by tourists in the past. It was as treasured as any album by the keenest enthusiast in the west. She invited us in to look around her home and although the interior was dark with a row of cured meats hanging from the rafters it was clean and looked comfortable.
    I am giving the impression that everyone in the village enjoyed our presence. This is not completely accurate. Many of the adults were amused by us and friendly, providing we obeyed the restriction on not photographing the children which was, we were told, definitely not allowed. There were however others, particularly younger adults, who while not openly hostile definitely made it clear that they considered us unwanted intruders in their lives. They gathered on corners and glowered at us - impotent in view of the fact that we were invited guests but oozing resentment from every pore.
    We drove on to another village. Here everyone was friendly and there seemed to be about ten thousand kids about the place. Again we were invited into someone's house. There is a thriving cottage industry in bootlegging insanely alcoholic rice drinks which technically speaking are illegal but no-one seems to care about this. In this house the version known as Lào Hái was distilled. This is supposed to be weaker than the usual fire water but tasted pretty strong to me. First the lady of the house brought out a large earthenware jar and placed it in the centre of the room. She eased off the lid and a cloud of flies emerged. This she decided was a bad sign and hastily fetched a second jar. This one proved to be fly free and she went back into the other room and came out with a dozen long plastic drinking straws which she pushed into the jar handing the opposite ends around. Then she added a bottle of water to the mix and invited us all to drink. It tasted like a very strong very sweet sherry. We all murmured our appreciation politely and declined a second round.
    In the next village we were there primarily to see the service in the Wat, the only authentic Buddhist ceremony of the trip. Before that though there was more hospitality. As we walked up the dusty road villagers came out with unmarked bottles of a clear white liquid and handed cups of it to us. This was Lào Lào the stronger Rice Whisky. I was the only one that liked it. It too had a slightly sweet taste and an even higher alcohol content. It tasted like cheap tequila. They seemed astonished when I accepted a second shot and on my way back from the temple later pressed a third taste of it onto me. I do so hate to give offence by refusing.
    At the Wat things were considerably different from all previous such visits. Whereas those temples had been clean, pristine and empty this was a noisy chaotic place filled with the smoke of incense and people bustling about and  praying. It was more like a market. Respectfully we took off our shoes and entered. At the front there were various monks leading the ceremony and while none of us had the faintest idea what was going on it all seemed very jolly. A monk offered us votive candles and, seeing what others were doing, we dropped a few low denomination notes into his bowl and lit them, allowing a few drops of wax to drip onto the floor to hold them upright.
    Afterwards it was back to town to find that our previously packed luggage had now been taken from the hotel to the speedboats which we would be joining in about an hour  I went back to last nights restaurant and had a meal of fried egg and pork. It seemed much more appetising than it had before and soon, feeling better with the world having had such a good morning, we went off to the jetty. They hadn't been kidding about the speed boats. We sat, life-jacketed and crash-helmeted four to a boat with luggage roped precariously in front while our drivers competed for who could provide the fastest bumpiest ride down the river. As the boats were very low, shallow draft affairs and the river was about an inch below our seated  position and the speeds were up to sixty miles an hour it was an exhilarating ride. Every time we crossed the wake of one of the other boats we would bounce in and out of the water like a stone skipped by a child. Had it lasted half an hour it would have been terrific fun but after four hours of it we were all saddle sore and weary and virtually unable to stand as we disembarked at Pakbeng.
    Pakbeng is essentially a stopover point for people travelling south along the river and we soon discovered that it was back packer city. The town consists of a few hundred wooden buildings up the hillside from the river and, certainly in the first half a mile or so, it is almost impossible to move for western women in long loose dresses and sandals and thin western men with suntans and bandannas with all of either gender carrying enormous rucksacks piled high with sleeping bags and bedrolls and hung with accessories. Many of the buildings along this stretch are cheap restaurants and hotels and the whole place is really quite picturesque and romantic. You can imagine seasoned backpackers meeting up here to swap tales of peril in Viet Nam or Cambodia before separating to head up or down river.
    We had taken over one complete hotel and although its facilities were primitive it was clean and appeared brand new. No-one had any qualms at all about staying there and by sunset we were all settled into our accommodation and washed and changed and ready for a meal and a beer. Down at the nearest of the restaurants business was slow but service was slower. We ordered our food which was good enough when it came but took so long in arriving that we had  played half a dozen games of Four-In-A-Row on a set that Don produced from his pocket after we had exhausted our conversation. Will sped up his order slightly by eating the spicy potato soup intended for some backpackers on the next table. They didn't seem to notice or care. For the rest of us it was a long and hungry wait but the food at the end of it was marvellous and at least it meant that we didn't have much time to kill before going to bed.