Northern Thailand and Laos

22nd March 2010
I am in Vientiane. After crashing the car in the jungle in northern Laos, I am laid up here waiting for it to get fixed. This is a quiet place. The nightlife is limited to one rooftop bar, Bor Pen Yang, and some excellent French restaurants. I spend my time reading, sleeping and getting systematically milked of cash by taxi drivers and local coffee shops.

To celebrate the dawning of the year of the tiger, I have splashed out on a new wide angle lens. It now fills my life like sweet music.

It’s a few minutes before midnight. I'm sitting in a rickety wicker chair on the balcony of my guesthouse watching the moon over the Mekhong. The crickets are talking to each other down by the river. I have somehow forgotten to have dinner, so it looks as though my 2000 calorie lunch is going to have to carry me through til tomorrow.

I have been meaning to attend to the blog for a few days now. Air conditioning, Wifi and a beer fridge are the abyss. This entry will cover Northern Thailand and Northern Laos.

Laos is slightly larger than the UK, with a population of just over 6 million. The locals are an exceptionally tolerant and relaxed bunch. The Buddhist philosophy of acceptance is ingrained in the national psyche and children are taught the importance of “Jai En”, taking it easy, and “Kreng Jai”, selfless acts.

It is a poor country. The guidebook paints a picture of an agricultural paradise, but in practice there are plenty debt-ridden families living entirely on soup and rice. All of the work appears to be done by women, while the men get wrecked on Lao-Lao, the local moonshine.

  • Vientiane: Laos is a nation of villagers and Vientiane is merely its largest village. It is busy and hectic in comparison to the rest of the country but comatose compared with any other capital city in the world. The population is a mere 200,000. The town retains a very French character, with romantic colonial villas, French bakeries and bougainvillea lining the streets.

    The mosquitoes are vicious here. I have been forced to buy a huge range of chemical insecticides to fight back. I am not unreasonable. I don’t mind sharing my room with the little bastards, but they’re not content to hang around and enjoy the air conditioning. They want my blood.

  • Luang Prabang: The town is a maze of Wats. It is just as serene and beautiful as its reputation but there is a sterile quality about the place. The old city has very high property prices (for Laos) so absolutely no locals live there. The buildings are beautifully restored, but every single one is a restaurant, shop or guesthouse. It feels like a picturesque little tourist village.

  • The north: Northern Laos is all mountains and jungle, populated by subsistence farmers eking out a living on the most inhospitable gradients imaginable. I drove around a fair chunk of it, suffering through hours of stomach-churning switchbacks. River travel is by far the most practical means of getting around, but it is currently the dry season, so the water level is too low in many places.

    I was pushed for time coming downriver near Nong Khai, so I hired a longtail speedboat. This is frowned upon by responsible travellers because it disturbs the river’s ecosystem, but needs must. This is the way to travel – sitting at the tiller, a martini in my free hand, silk tie fluttering over one shoulder, yelling "out of the way you filthy peasants!" as the massive wake swamps the canoes of local fishermen.

    I chose the wrong time of year to visit Laos. In the springtime, farmers do extensive burning, which fills most of the country with an impenetrable haze. This irritates the eyes and takes away from the beauty of the scenery. It is abysmal for photography.

    Laos is known for being one of the most pristine environments in Asia. This is partly true and partly not. There is currently lots of bickering between China, Cambodia and Laos over who is most responsible for destroying the Mekong with hydro power projects and pollution. Also, much of the country is dusty and denuded, which is the fault of the Americans for carpet bombing the place during the “secret war”, and of the Laos government for giving logging rights to the Chinese in exchange for building roads. “The great nations have ever acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes”.

    I spent a few days trekking in various jungle areas. My main goal was to see this fantastic little creature – the spectacled leaf monkey (not my photo). No luck though.

    It is worth pointing out that you barely see any birds or small animals. This seems to be down to the fact that the locals kill and eat anything that moves - bats, squirrels, small birds, you name it. Hunting is still an important source of protein for poor Laos families. Despite it being far more developed, you actually see more wildlife in Thailand.

    Crashing The Car
    The story in brief. I decided to take a jungle shortcut heading south from Phonsavan. As I was rounding a sharp bend, a small boy sprinted out in front of the car and forced me to swerve hard. I would have been OK but for the fact that the edge of the road subsided, sending the car rolling down a bank into a small stream. It’s amazing that the first thing that went through my head was – “damn, I’ve buggered up the car”. It took me a little while to fight my way out from under the mound of stuff that I had piled onto the front passenger seat that morning. The car was on its side, and the upper door was bent shut, so I kicked in the broken windshield and crawled out.

    After briefly shaking my fist at the sky, an inventory revealed a gash on the top of my head and one non-working arm. Not too bad. With the help of some ropes, two buffaloes and a dozen children, I managed to right it and get back on the road. Remarkably, it still drives fine. The damage appears to be almost entirely cosmetic. I spent 8 hours driving back to Vientiane with one door open and no windshield. I must have swallowed about a ton of dust.

    The first doctor I went to see was a caricature of third world medical incompetence, like Nick Riviera on the Simpsons. He that sinneth, let him fall into the hands of the physician. I have since found a much better guy and all is well. I can console myself with the obvious fact that I am storing up a tremendous Karmic surplus that will be useful when I get to Bali.

    My Mechanic is an old-school expat from Canada who has been in Laos for 25 years. I can honestly say he is the least politically correct individual I have ever come across. As I arrived at the workshop, he was having what he called “a meeting” with his team of Laos mechanics, who were all squatting on the floor. "I want you off the floor, you f*cking monkeys," he bellows. He turns to me: "Jesus! You can take them out of their caves but you can’t civilize them”. It turns out he's livid because he spent two grand on benches for the mechanics, who aren’t using them.

    The mechanics endure all this placidly. Finally, one climbs up onto one of the benches and squats down on it. The Canadian looks like a blood vessel is about to go. At no point did it cross his mind that he could have consulted them about whether they wanted or needed benches.

    Buddhism in Laos
    The atmosphere in the Wats is not what you would expect. There is none of the solemnity you find in western churches. People talk in normal voices and children run around shouting. Monks smoke cigarettes, drink tea and lounge about outside.

    This informal atmosphere does not mean that there are no taboos - I saw an oblivious Italian lady pat the arm of a senior monk. He looked as though he might pass out. A woman touching a monk or his clothes is absolutely taboo and will involve elaborate purification rituals for the poor guy.

    Every morning at dawn the monks in Laos set out on the Tak Bat, a procession to collect alms. Luang Prabang is famous for this alms procession - the longest in the world. Ordinary people kneel in silence by the side of the road and place gifts (mainly sticky rice and bananas) into copper bowls proffered by the passing monks. The ritual is an expression of generosity, a cardinal virtue in Laos, and confers considerable merit to the giver. It symbolises the monks’ intentional poverty, humility and dependence on the community.

    Vang Vieng
    This tiny town, clustered around the north end of a dusty road, was originally a mecca for people visiting the beautiful limestone karst formations and caves in the surrounding area. Now it is a kind of backpacker Gomorrah. The nightlife here features the kind of all out, food-optional carnage that we pioneered in the UK.

    “Tubing” basically means renting a tractor inner tube, taking it upriver in a Tuk Tuk and then floating back downstream past a series of bars into town. No-one makes it that far. If you want to stop at a bar, you signal a local who will throw out a rope with a weight attached and pull you in. Like planes stacking over Heathrow, there are sometimes so many people that you have to paddle frantically to stay in range until they chuck you the rope. The bars provide pumping music, free shots of whisky all day (?!), and a slide/ramp/rope-swing so that the drunks can hurt themselves.

    On my first day I was drinking in Mojito’s Bar when two guys went on the rope swing simultaneously. They clashed as they hit the water and one of them was knocked unconscious. At first everyone was laughing, but that soon turned to rising panic as the guy didn’t surface. Bad situation. The water is murky as hell there. Luckily someone had a mask and was able to find him. He wasn’t breathing and there were a tense couple of minutes while someone performed CPR and he came round. An investigative reporter who was there told me that a backpacker a month is dying in Vang Vieng in similar circumstances. The official number is one a year, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The heavy drinking, drugs and minimal focus on health & safety is a dangerous combination.

    After a day on the river, you head back into town. You cross a bridge to a small island, where the late night action is: three or four ‘clubs’ full of drunk girls falling over and travellers dancing about, whipping innocent bystanders with their dreadlock extensions. Local touts scream and wave flaming torches like medieval villagers at a witch burning.

    I had two rather large nights out in Vang Vieng. Here is a picture taken fairly early on the first night. It was downhill from there. I was mostly on the dance floor with the paddle that Gary (in the spiderman outfit) is holding. I was finally subdued with a tranquilizer gun and helped back to my guesthouse.

    I’m really not used to this kind of drinking any more, so the following morning was misery. I swore blind that there would be no more of that. Somehow, two days later I was back on a tube up the river. Tsk tsk. I read somewhere that scientists believe gazelles that are constantly threatened by predators quickly forget the worst episodes lest they become so thoroughly traumatized that they dare not return to grazing.

    As usual in the $3 cells that pass as backpacker accommodation, you can hear everything going on in the adjacent rooms. You may as well be in a dorm. Having four American nineteen year-old girls next door for a day was enough to drive me out of Vang Vieng altogether. Exhibit A:

    Sarah: “Oh my God, I just like went down to that gross old woman’s food stand and had noodles.”
    Brenda: “No way! You’re gonna get swine flu!”
    Sarah: “Yeah, I know. I’m like totally roughing it. She doesn’t speak like a word of English!”
    Brenda: “I know!!”
    Sarah: “It was totally like the spiciest thing ever. It was ultra authentic. It was crazy. I’m getting like so awesome with these chopsticks… awesome.”
    Brenda: “Yeah, I know. It is so, like, I dunno. It’s just like…It’s so... like totally…Just like…”
    Sarah: “I know! She’s always got that kid with her. He never goes to school or anything.”
    Brenda: “Maybe he’s a child prostitute.”
    Sarah: “Oh, and I met that skanky German girl from Q Bar. She was all – Hey, let’s meet up later.”
    Brenda: “I can't believe she got with that guy last night. She’s such a skank.”
    Janet: “You tried to get with him too.”
    Brenda: “I did not. Shut up!”
    Janet: “No I won’t shut up, you shut up!”


    This is not a good advert for America. Neither was their enormous friend, Rani, a sofa-bound manatee who spent her days sucking down chocolate milkshakes and watching reruns of Friends. Perhaps people should have to pass some sort of exam before being issued a passport. I just throw it in for debate.

    I actually had a great time in Vang Vieng but three days of this nonsense was enough.

    I was joined for three weeks in Thailand by Christer, a friend from home. We were lucky enough to be shown around Bangkok by Tanny, a Thai friend of his. This got us out of the traveller ghetto around Khao San Road. We stayed in Bangkok for quite a while getting the car through Thai customs, so we did pretty much everything - the temples, the markets, roast suckling pig in Chinatown, drinks at the sky bar, Thai boxing at Lumphini, shopping at MBK. If you’re going to be stuck in a city in Asia, you could do worse than Bangkok.

    Thai history is the usual register of emperors, temple-building and catastrophes. By the 13th century, the first Thai kingdom, Sukhothai, began to make inroads against the crumbling Angkor empire. Sukhothai was itself overthrown by Ayutthaya, which emerged in the central plains north of Bangkok in the mid-14th century. I visited both. Sukhothai is especially nice. A German traveller and I arrived at 5am and cycled round the deserted site at dawn, before the haze and package tourists arrived.

    The Thais are inordinately proud of the fact that they were never colonized. King Chulalongkorn effectively bought independence for the country by ceding huge tracts of land to the French, which later made up the bulk of Laos and Cambodia. Actually, the main reason for Thailand’s continued independence appears to be the fact that the British and the French realised that a buffer zone between Burma and Indochina was a good way of avoiding outright war.

    Modern Thailand is clearly going places. Change is everywhere. The roads are excellent, shopping centres are springing up all over the place, the iron buffalo allows double cropping in the countryside and Bangkok has a spanking new monorail. This is no longer a cheap country. It is said by fund managers in Emerging Market Equities that you can call the top of a market when a nice dinner for two costs more than $100. By that measure, the Thai market is poised for collapse.

    The Thais
    The most significant social action in Thailand is the Wai, a nodding bow with hands held together in prayer pose. Since it shows that the hands are empty of weapons, it probably shares a common history with the western custom of clasping sword hands.

    It can be a greeting, a sign of respect, a thank you or an apology. People regularly Wai inanimate objects, such as Buddha statues. You often see foreigners inappropriately Waiing children or waiters.

    Thailand is known as the land of smiles, which I suspect is an invention of the tourist board. In any case, Thais do smile much of the time. A visitor will get the impression that these are either the most contented people on earth or a nation of imbeciles. In fact, the smile is also a multi-purpose gesture. They use it to thank, to show embarrassment, to avoid conflict and to save face.

    How Thais position their bodies is governed by the basic rule that status should be reflected in height off the ground. Thus the head is the most important part of the body and the feet are the least important and dirtiest. This has numerous implications: Thais spend much of their time sitting on the ground. There is a temptation to step over people who are in your way. This is not acceptable. You must ask them to move and even when they do, you must bend down as you pass them to minimise the height differential. By extension, you can’t touch anyone on the head or put your feet up on furniture. Thais meeting the king will prostrate themselves in such a way that their head is below his feet.

    Thais are fairly relaxed about contact between the sexes but social occasions are generally segregated, with the women engaged in preparing food and the men clustered around the booze. Family planning is being pushed by the government, which has given rise to a number of charming Thai-isms such as monks blessing piles of condoms.

    Thai Brides
    You meet a huge number of Farangs married to Thai women. Why is it that so many men fly halfway across the world to marry Thais? The cliché is that the men are all losers who can’t get a woman in the west, and that they want Thais wives because they are pretty, subservient and half their age. This is often, but not always, the case.

    From what I’ve seen, the marriages mostly don’t work because two people with vastly different ages and cultural backgrounds are unlikely to have much in common. Also, the stereotype of the oriental woman as a delicate little rose petal, bowing and twirling a parasol, is profoundly mistaken. They are much tougher than they look. In recent years, there has even been an epidemic of Thai ladies chopping rather important items off their cheating husbands. So much so that Thailand has become the world’s leading destination for penile reconstructive surgery.

    World cup fever has taken hold in Thailand. I actually happened to catch part of their qualifying campaign while in England. The Thais took on the footballing shepherds of Bahrain and sent them scurrying back to their desert gulag with a devastating 1-1 humiliation. Although they didn’t technically make it all the way to the world cup, expectations in Thailand are so low that no one cares. There is no sense of entitlement like there is in England. Everybody just adopts a team, usually Brazil or Italy, and enjoys the tournament.

    The King
    Veneration of the king is a big thing in Thailand. I went to the cinema to watch Avatar and even the teenagers all stood for the national anthem. Remarkable. He has considerable political influence, although he rarely uses it. It is understood that any regime, even after a coup, needs his blessing to govern. He certainly looks better on currency than the Queen. A Thai pilot I met was amazed when I explained that the royals in the UK are all about talking to plants, wooden teeth and swan eating.

    Thai Boxing
    Tanny took us to Lumphini stadium for a night of fights. Ringside! This is my kind of entertainment. The fights were mostly between up-and-coming fighters but were well matched. There was one particularly vicious knockout started by a series of elbows to the temple and finished with a flying knee. Not for the faint hearted.

    A couple of weeks later, I was training jiu-jitsu at a Thai Boxing camp and thought “What the hell, why not have a go at Muay Thai as well”. Oh dear. They spar for keeps in Thailand. In jiu-jitsu, if you are outclassed you just do your best until your opponent traps your arm, leg or neck in a submission, at which point you tap and start over. In Thai boxing, there is no escape until the end of the round. If the guy is better than you, he will shove you into a corner and knee you in the stomach until you collapse in a heap on the ground, The Thais start training at the age of five and all have the kind of relentless conditioning that seems to defy fundamental laws of human physiology.

    Thailand is packed with westerners. In some parts of Bangkok, the 'ghosts' are so numerous that it feels like being in London. Call me a philistine, but the great thing about the number of Farangs is that you can get decent steaks and burgers. This makes a nice change from the endless Tom Yum soup, green chicken curry and Pad Thai. The main varieties of Farang are:

  • Business Farangs on expat deals: Most of them are greatly persuaded of their own importance and still feel it is their sacred right as white Europeans to order the natives around as though they were children. Their only contact with Thais is with their nanny, gardener or poolboy.

  • Traveller Farangs: They always seem to be getting themselves into trouble here. I met an American in the Austrian embassy, who had been drugged and robbed by a gang of ladyboys. He had been living on a park bench for a week. Although a friend had wired money to him, he was unable to collect it from the bank as he had no ID. The Americans had told him it would be a month to get a new one, so he was appealing to the Austrians for a passport on the strength of having an Austrian mother. This kind of story is common and sometimes involves missing kidneys.

  • Package tour Farangs: The package tourists vary from the adventurous oldies getting bused around the temples to the pointless non-travellers, who may as well be in Corfu, who fly straight to Pukhet, can only eat western food and start crying at the sight of unfenced grass.

  • Sexpats: Older men, mainly British and German, who have retired to Thailand for the prostitutes and good weather. They usually run a small bar and are distinguished by their tattoos, sunburn and lager-saturated moustache.

    Best/Worst Food
    There is no need for me to go into the ins and outs of Thai cuisine. I notice that since I was last here, Khao San Road has sprouted a number of stalls selling fried cockroaches and snakes to the “first time abroad” crowd. In most countries I have traveled in I have been willing to try the twitching grubs, dog penis and other revolting local “delicacies”. There is a limit though. The bottom line is that people in pre-modern times ate peasant food because they were peasants. Frogs and insects are food for people who have nothing else. I refuse to buy into the reinvention of such food as “gourmet”.

    This is what foreigners think Thais eat:

    This is what Thais actually eat:

    Dark lord of all gateway drugs thy name is Laos iced coffee. I drink about five a day.

    The two things that form the foundation of Laos cooking are Laap, a kind of sour coriander salad with minced meat, and Foe, noodle soup with bamboo shoots. Both are variable in terms of quality, but generally pretty good. Taking life is one of the things prohibited by Buddhism, but both ordinary people and monks use a series of rather implausible rationalisations to eat meat while still technically adhering to the rules.

    Lonely Planet Gripes
  • The LP curse. No matter how good a place is, the minute it gets recommended in the Lonely Planet, the prices double and the service goes down the toilet. This is natural enough, but it means that it is always worth going “off-piste”.

  • I met the guy who wrote the LP Tunisia while on a balloon ride in Cappadocia. Unsurprisingly, given the meager amount that they are paid, it seems that it has become standard practice for travel writers to receive free rooms and meals, on the understanding that they will praise the hotel/restaurant to the rafters, no matter how garbage it was.

    Best Moments
  • Chiang Mai.
  • Watching the Thai Boxing at the Lumphini Statdium.
  • The tiger temple near Kanchanaburi. The monks look after orphaned tigers there.

    I didn't want to grab the poor thing's tail but they insisted.

  • Speedboat down the Mekhong.
  • Drinks at the Sky Bar in Bangkok, looking over that endless city. Possibly the most spectacular bar I have ever been in.

  • The sunset over Nong Khai
  • Chinatown in Bangkok for Chinese new year celebrations.
  • Biking round Sukhothai.
  • Thai massages. Must have had 20.
  • BJJ in Bangkok.
  • Tubing in Vang Vieng.
  • The Tak Bat in Laos.
  • Mahout training in Luang Prabang. I spent the day learning the commands to control a working elephant. Logging is thankfully being phased out in Laos, which has resulted in a large number of unemployed elephants. Many of these are abandoned, or reduced to begging in villages with their mahouts. This project allows them to support themselves. I’m not sure whether this skill ever come in useful but it was a great experience.

    Worst Moments
  • Getting the car through Thai port customs.
  • Crashing the car.
  • Sitting on my heels. Man, I had forgotten how uncomfortable that gets after thirty seconds.
  • Muay Thai sparring.
  • Vang Vieng rip-offs. Thefts and scams abound, including one where a guy steals your camera, then his mate comes and tells you that he can get it back for you for $100. I am not the right person to play that game with.

    Having been well out of the loop for several months, I am keeping up with the news. A recent incident has been making headlines over here. It seems that during the hullabaloo about the Israelis building new homes in East Jerusalem, only one man has lost his life. A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip killed, of all people, a Thai farmer in a Kibbutz. What a strange world we live in. No wonder the aliens are hiding.

    The EU is creaking, I see. People have finally cottoned on to the self-evident fact that a single interest rate for countries with vastly different structural characteristics and growth profiles was unlikely to be successful. It now appears that the Greeks told a number of porkies to gain entry in the first place. No surprise there. Although the country is basically bankrupt, Greek public sector workers are striking in protest against proposed austerity measures. Not satisfied with their current 4 months of annual holiday, 3 hour lunch breaks and retirement at the age of 45, they are demanding that Nubian slaves fan them in their offices as they recline on Roman couches.

    It's been fun coming back to Thailand. I am not saying the country doesn't have negatives, the non-working taxi meters, the used toilet paper staring at you out of the basket, the inability of locals to give basic directions or read a map, people clearing their nose by snorting onto the pavement etc, but there is a reason so many people visit - stunning beaches, very nice people and good food. Life is easy here.

    I have some loose ends to tie up in Laos. The plan is to drive down through the country, do some trekking on the Boliven plateau and end up in Si Phan Don for some hammock time in the 4000 islands. After that it’s down into Cambodia, across into Vietnam and up the length of the country into China. It looks like I am stuck here for another few days. Now if I could just speed up time.