No sightseeing today, just chores like getting cash, getting my ticket to Laos, etc. I'm definitely not going back to the same guesthouse, the Sak Guest House. Last night when I had to go to the toilet downstairs, the cockroaches were so bold I couldn't scare them away, even flicking the lights on and off. I'm not a big fan of 2 inch long brown insects with big wiggly antennae (who knows but that they might jump up and nip you on the leg), so I hesitated for a little while. But eventually my stomach told me that certain things needed to happen, so I stared to cockroaches down while sitting on the toilet. Then when they do scuttle away, behind you, while you're on the throne—honestly, it's almost worse, because they could very well be attacking from behind.
On the way to the Merry V Guesthouse this morning, a dog bit me on the back of my thigh. It was freaky—I was just walking past a group of mangy dogs, like I do all the time here without giving it a second thought, and one of them slunk behind me and bit me. It didn't break the skin, but it was scary. Now I look at the dogs very differently—through narrowed eyes, keeping an eye on them.
The bus over to the airport that I took was a private one, and it was a mistake, I should have waited for the public bus. It was actually just a van, cramped and with non-existent bad air-conditioning. But I did chat with the driver the whole time in pidgin English—seriously, stuff like "you go airport every day?". Otherwise he would not have understood, he had a hard enough time understanding as it was. He was in prison once overnight for driving the airport van (it's illegal), but it wasn't bad for him because he has a friend who's a hot shot in the prison Mafia. He studied English in a private course once, it was very expensive for him so he hasn't done it since then.
Okay, I'm now in the Lane Xang hotel in Vientiane, Laos. What a great place! I'm on a travel high again, up from the depths of smelly hot Bangkok. The wait in the Bangkok airport was long, lots of sitting around. A Pakistani guy tried to chat me up, and get my address in the US for immigration purposes, he said. First he came over and sat 2 seats away from me, then he actually came over a seat, and started leaning over in my direction. As I said something about my flight (which he wasn't even on) probably leaving soon, that's when he asked me for my address. I said no, somewhat indignantly. He said "Oh, that's okay, it's no problem". Darn tootin', it's no problem. It strikes me that maybe 10 years ago, when I was more innocent/silly, I might have said yes.
The plane to Vientiane (on Lao Aviation, which is not very highly regarded) was something like a ADR 70. Apparently it's a French plane. Not Boeing or Airbus. It had two seats on either side of the aisle. A shaky take off, with lights flickering on and off when taxing out, all in all not very confidence inspiring. All kinds of funny noises, too, and then we'd turn first in one direction, then the other, seemingly just by chance.
I started talking to the woman opposite me, Titta, a Finnish woman working for the UN in Laos. She's been here 2 years, but is married, with her husband in Finland. She's just coming back from a vacation in Finland. I asked if her Finnish was rusty, because she didn't get a chance to practice it very often, but she said that they talk every night. We had a very nice talk, about life, investments, Laos, different places to live, taxes, etc. The stewardesses gave us some food which was very weird—it came in really cheap little thin plastic cases, like the plastic salad containers you get in the deli section of supermarkets. In it (it was shut up with tape) was a banana, a little triangles of sandwich with cheese and ham, a weird neon yellow piece of cake which I didn't eat, a roll, and some tea. Exiting the plane when we landed in Vientiane (it's very easy to tell if you're flying over Laos or Thailand—Laos has about 10% of the lights of Thailand) was very informal. There were all kinds of people milling around the plane not doing any work, just chatting.
The new airport was very nice, it had only opened in June or something, and was an outright gift from the Japanese. It appears that they get massive amounts of foreign aid here. I did the visa on arrival thing, they gladly took my $30 .
Then out into the actual arrival area, with some relatively low pressure taxi drivers except for one guy who spoke passable English but who lied to me. I told him I needed a telephone to call the Lane Xang hotel, and he said that there's no phones. He was very persistent. But I went over to a uniformed woman, made the international phone gesture, and she pointed them out to me. It was a card phone, and at a booth next to the phones there was a stand that sold flowers and phone cards (lucky coincidence?). There were four smiling 12 year old girls there waiting to help me with the card. I called the hotel, the Lane Xang, and they said they'd pick me up. The girls were very helpful, put the card in for me, dialed for me, held my guidebook open, etc. I tried out the phrases in the back of the Lonely Planet Laos guidebook, (How are you? What is your name?) and they got a real kick out of my pronunciation.
All kinds of people working for the airport came around, wanted to help me out. I gathered that they were closing the airport since that was the last flight of the day, and I needed to wait outside. I tried to exchange a couple words with one woman, but her English was just too limited, and then a guy came up who had studied in Russia (Laos was previously in the Soviet sphere of influence) and spoke very good Russian (according to him, anyway), but he also knew a few words of English. I told him that the airport was beautiful, exchanged some info about where I'm from, how long I'll be here, the basics. The taxi guy was still persistent, asked me if he could take me, etc. The airport guy wished me a very nice trip in Laos in well thought out English when the hotel van finally arrived, how sweet! I was on the "new country, people are really nice" high. An entourage of 5 people from the hotel came to pick me up. One drove, one spoke some English, and I assume the others were there just because there wasn't much going on at the hotel.
What a strange thing to do, getting in a dark van with 5 men you don't know, in a country you've never been to before. It feels like it should be a risky thing to do, yet I don't feel at all apprehensive—I feel very free here. Based on all reports I shouldn't have any problems.
Cars are driven on the right again here, unlike Thailand
My first impressions were that lots of people were walking and biking in the middle of the road, with only maybe 5% of the motorbikes and cars you see in Thailand. The signs, stores—all are much more primitive than Thailand. The road to the hotel was quite bad in sections—it turned into gravel in some places, and we had to practically stop in others to get around the potholes. Checking in, I didn't even have to leave my credit card, just signed in. Service is really unlike the US, where it's hard to find people to help you—here, people hover waiting to make themselves useful. I was given a class of watermelon juice while I was checking in, but I only drank a little of it, because of my upset stomach. They gave me a choice of 2 rooms, one overlooking the Mekong, the other overlooking the city. I chose the Mekong side.
The room is definitely of another era—with old Soviet style plumbing, really poorly made. The cold water tap, when you try to turn it on just a little, continues turning itself on as if with an invisible hand, with screeching noises, until it's on full blast and is splashing your pants. There's a huge entryway in the hotel room, about 9 by 3.5 feet, and the bathroom is also very large. Very high ceiling, air conditioning (sweet relief!), TV. The TV supposedly has 2 channels of Lao TV, but #2 doesn't work, and #1 has a very serious ghost image problem, it's like 2 pictures in one. It turns out that the ghost image is actually of the first Thai channel, channel 3. The only commercial I saw on the Lao TV station was some strange UNICEF cartoon about children having the right to be protected against abduction. I really wondered about that—is it seriously a concern here, or is the UN just placing the ad to give money to the TV station and thus the Lao Department of Communication?
Nifty hotel. It is kind badly in need of renovation, by American standards, but so much better than the Sak guest house, plus it's such a treat with fruit trays, breakfast included, free soap and sewing kits, that I'm really happy to be here.
In the national library now. There's only two rooms and only a few old magazines and papers such as the Bangkok Post. I wish I could take a snapshot of this in my mind forever. It's not nearly as hot as Bangkok—yippee! License plates only have 4 numbers here.
At breakfast this morning there were about 7 hotel employees hanging around. Also when I left my room and had some problems locking the door, immediately 2 women were there helping me out. There was a good selection of foods for breakfast (eggs, something like bacon, toast, fresh tropical fruit, the traditional rice soup, and oddly enough, sushi), but I stuck to toast (had diarrhea last night again) and tea.
For the first time, I saw water buffalo this morning! They were along the path by the Mekong. I went to see two old wats, and met a young French guy who was practicing a Lao instrument (actually probably more of a southeast Asian instrument). I chatted with him a while in French, but I definitely didn't pick up everything that he said. I should have asked him to slow down. It's a good reminder to me of what it's like when I try to speak to people in English that's too fast for them.
I bought some bread at a bakery where there was a young man who spoke English really well. His parents had moved to Fresno CA, and he went to junior high school and high school there. A Japanese guy was there as well, and the Laotian was really putting down Laos, said it was nothing, and Japan was so great. The Japanese guy was protesting, talking about how wonderful Laos was. Then to me the Laotian said he likes it here in Laos, because you can walk the streets at night without danger. He said he was almost kidnapped by black or Mexican gangs in California. I guess his family probably lived in a dangerous neighborhood in Fresno. Funny—he wasn't nearly as friendly as other Laotians. He actually started playing a Nintendo Gameboy while I was talking to him. I think spending big chunks of time overseas takes away their native friendliness, which is part curiosity. Just like Joe, the owner of the White House in Chiang Mai—he wasn't nearly as smiley as other Thais.
In the afternoon I rented a bike from a woman by the main fountain. It was a pretty miserable bike, and riding on the streets here—with so many motorbikes zipping around, plus me just having gotten used to cars driving on the left side of the road in Thailand—it's a challenge. I'm constantly looking around, and my adrenaline level is at a high. Which is probably a good thing here because alertness could save my life. I drove to the morning market, which lasts all day. It's a surprisingly huge place, you could really loose yourself in it. As a matter of fact, I did more than once. There's lots of gold jewelry vendors in the second level upstairs, also selling the chain link belts the women wear round their waist. It goes to show that they trust gold for a lot of their wealth. I bought a "Let's Speak Lao" book for about 30 cents (paid in Lao kip)
Oh yes—I changed money on the black market! Very exciting. As soon as I got to the market and parked my bike (it was hard to get into the market, there was a deep and wide muddy ditch that you had to maneuver through) a woman came up to me, said questioningly "kip?". I said how much, and she showed me 8500 on her solar calculator. I indicated that I'd look around first, then come back. However, that's what the guy at the bread store told me was being offered for dollar. Later another woman came up to me and asked to exchange money, but then offered only 6500. When I walked away she said 7500, then when I walked away again said (actually she says "Madame, Madame" to get my attention, then shows me the numbers on the solar calculator), shows 8500 on her solar calculator. I almost started to exchange with her, but then talking to her (or rather, inputting in the calculator, about how much I wanted to exchange, and the rate) got too complicated. Plus then I thought—this woman has tried to offer me a lower than market rate twice, why should I give her my business? I walked back to the area where the first woman was. She was chopping up vegetables at a little food stand. She motioned to me again and sat down with her. We were remarkably open about it for a black market transaction. So I gave her a 20 dollar bill, and she gave me a whole stack of paper—170,000 kip. About 2 inches in 1000 kip notes.
Later I found out that I should have demanded 5000 kip notes, or at least 2000 kip notes, but I didn't know they existed at the time. They must have been printed relatively recently, because in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which is only a year or so old, they specifically mention there only being 1000 kip notes. I went completely on trust about there actually being 170,000 worth of kip there—there's no way I could have counted it. It was folded in a really intriguing way—they had effectively created a 10,000 kip "note" by putting together nine 1000 kip notes, and folding the 10th 1000 kip note over it. It was fascinating—I've never traded like that on a black market. Later I found out that some people who exchanged money on the black market had been arrested, and they confiscated the dollars of the Lao black marketeers, and maybe the foreigners spent the night in jail (she wasn't sure).
Back to the market—there were tons and tons of places selling cloth, where they actually sold thread for weaving as well. I haphazardly negotiated for some cloth, thinking I would come back later and really get it, but maybe I should just buy it tomorrow. There must be lots more selection here than in Luang Prabang. All in all there were very few customers there—not at all like in Thai markets, where there's tons of customers, Thais in the local markets and tourists in the tourist markets. Really remarkably few customers. Dr. Scholl sandals (they look like Tevas, but have Dr. Scholl written on them) are a very popular rip-off. Actually I'm not 100% positive they're a rip off. I wouldn't have thought Dr. Scholl is a popular enough brand to be ripped off. Nike, I can see, but Dr. Scholl? The Laos don't seem nearly as interested in selling as the Thais were. The Thais were all over you, but these guys are pretty casual about it.
After the market I walked to the Patuxai. It's a monument built in the 70's, and looks like a Lao-style Arch de Triumphe. I asked 2 Lao girls if they would take my picture, with one of them in the picture with me and the other taking the picture, in front of it. They were pretty shy but friendly. Hope it turns out. The Patuxai was in the middle of a huge roundabout, but since I was on the right side, I didn't dare go towards the left, so I just went straight and turned around later. That's where I met Titta again. She was on a bright yellow motor scooter, without a helmet—hmm. I was really psyched that she invited me to a UN party the next evening. Back at the hotel, took a quick shower (I almost didn't need it though, it's so much cooler than Bangkok). I had arranged to meet Steve, a Canadian guy from Calgary that I met in the market, at the restaurant across from the hotel. We met there and had an enjoyable evening, chatting and watching the Lao dances. There were 2 men and 2 woman who did about 5 dances, very graceful and beautiful to watch. Some Laotians in the audience came up and sang too. Had a clear chicken ginger soup, hopefully it won't be too bad for my stomach. Steve and I talked about travel, work, etc. He's a good conversationalist. When we got the bill, it was given in kip (at 6000 rate of exchange, which is very bad), baht, and USD. I wanted the bill to keep it as a souvenir, of being in a country where effectively 3 currencies are used, but when he gave it to me he had taken that piece of paper, showing the 3 currencies, off the receipt.
Damn, I feel like I'm not writing so many things. Everything is interesting, all that I look at and touch and smell.
I went to the revolutionary museum, housed in an old colonial building. I was the only tourist in there, other than me there was the woman selling tickets, and three women trying to sell trinkets at the exit. It was a weird experience. First there were some exhibits that weren't labeled in Lao or English, pottery shards and such like. Upstairs is where the real fun started, with all kinds of history about the Lao communist party. Makes you realize you're in what's still a communist country. There was all kinds of memorabilia of the leaders of the communist party, including old weapons, their eating utensils (no kidding, they had bamboo plates , wooden spoons, and drinking flasks made of bamboo) They also displayed their trousers, shirts, binoculars, parts of a bed, etc. They're poor quality old photos, blown up, showing the Lao communist party army when they were fighting in the hills, and paintings showing the French repression against the people. All in very bad English, using the old familiar communist slogans (i.e.; imperialist oppressors, etc.) The entrance fee was a whole 500 kip (about 6 cents). Later I went by the US embassy, thinking I'd pop inside and say hello, but unfortunately it was closed on Sunday. I chatted a little bit with the Lao guard. I was surprised at that, since I thought they would have US Marines, but they're all unarmed Lao guards. He was in a refugee camp in Thailand for 10 years, and studied English, hoped to go to the US, but couldn't for various visa/immigration reasons.
Then to the post office, which was opened on Sunday (the airmail section, not the parcel post section). They had little glue pots for you to stick the stamps on, because the stamps don't have glue on them. I sent a postcard to dad and Judy. I've been seeing more foreigners around, travelers-before it seemed like every foreigner looked like an aid worker.
The morning market really intrigued me, so I went by it again. They had Singer brand manual sewing machines, I think they even had manual sergers. I went by the goldsmith area—fascinating! I think there were about 20 of them, all in a row in the same area. They goldsmiths have a torch thing they pump with their foot to heat the gold. They pound it, then dip it in chemicals to get the black off it ( I think). It was everywhere, beautiful soft yellow gold. Nobody asked if I wanted to buy kip today. A girl was helping her dad, dipping the gold in some chemicals, and I asked if I could it (it was a bunch of rings and bracelets strung on a string), it was so heavy!!!
I bought set of nesting covered bowls, with a very nice abstract kind of design on them, plus a woven cloth, for 13 us. She had to run around to get change for me, because I insisted on change in dollars (it's amazing how much you can do with gestures. One of the dollars she gave me was very worn, so I didn't take it, gestured for a newer one. Mediums of exchange are so funny—because yesterday they wouldn't take a torn dollar from me, I didn't want to take a old worn out one. I also bought a Lao music CD for 25000 kip. I had lots of fun picking it out, drawing pictures of the native instrument here, having them play it for me. Also a big rattan ball, the one they use for that hackey sack like game, for 3000 kip.
Then lunch at the PVO, which is a Vietnamese place in town. I met Steve for lunch, the Canadian guy that I had dinner with last night. PVO was pretty good, but the food here in general is more expensive than in Thailand—8000 kip (about 1 USD) for a plain fried rice dish. We sat at a table with an Australian woman with a nose ring. This was the kind of nose ring that only needs to be extended a little bit to form a solid ring that you could attach a cord to and lead her around by the nose, like people do with cattle. It's amazing the kind of people you meet. Her name was Jo, for Joann, and she was a long term traveler. I believe she was going to be traveling for about 6 months. She's a waitress and barmaid in Australia. She had a Thai boyfriend, a hippie type, in Chiang Rai, but it didn't work out. The only reason she was continuing to hang out in Vientiane was that she was waiting for a pair of sandals to be repaired. Apparently she had bought a pair of sandals in Australia for $180 US (??!!) 2 months ago, and the soles had come off with all the humidity. It's amazing how some people stick to their guns on purchases that they've made—$180 for a pair of leather sandals which came apart after 2 months of humidity seems like a miserable deal, but she was telling me what wonderful sandals they were. They must have been a fancy handmade leather pair, but still, that's obscenely expensive. Mine for $5 are holding up fine, although they are a little smelly. We talked about places to go, southern Lao, etc, and also prices and black market. When Jo found out that both Steve and I had changed USD for kip at 8500, she was really pissed at herself, because she changed 100 USD at the bank rate, which is about 5800 or something.
I told them about a fruit that I'd seen, the one that they pronounced something like mang koen ( I have the Lao written down in my "let's speak Lao" book). Steve and were going to buy one at the market, and I invited Jo to come as well. So we walked over there, and checked it out. Steve and Jo were also talking about what it's like in Vang Vienne, how there's a really friendly guy there who sells opium. We found the fruit (the "shopping" section in my "Let's Speak Lao book came in really handy—it translated "Where can I buy fruit?" for me) and bought the fruit, which was reddish on the outside. It was 4500 kip for one. We cut it open right there at the stand. It was the most beautiful fruit inside I'd ever seen—it had clearish white flesh with tiny black seeds in it, plus the inside of the rind was a bright neon red. The taste was unfortunately somewhat bland, but in terms of looks it was a definite winner.
Jo left us after pointing us down the right path to go to the great sacred stupa, another big wat on the outskirts of town that's supposed to be symbolic of Lao. Steve and I walked there. He's on a very tight budget. He said he laid awake last night figuring out how we'd paid for the meal last night, which was 4.4 USD apiece for the meal and a very nice dancing show as well. He figured we would have been better off to pay in kip, because they were offering a rate of 6000 k per dollar, and we got our kip at 8500 k per dollar. While walking there, I chatted with Steve. He's pretty anti American, like lots of Canadians, has a big chip on the shoulder regarding the US. It was all in good fun, though. I said the best and the brightest are leaving Canada for the us, he said good riddance, etc. We were exchanging barbs, and I said one thing, he said another, and I said "That probably counts as a good comeback in Canada". He appreciated it.
The great sacred stupa, 500 kip admission, was not all that fascinating. You walk up it, but can't go inside. We did speak to a monk for a good long time, he'd come there specifically to find foreigners to practice his English on. The monk (and his brother) left kind of abruptly, then Steve and I bought some water, and sat down for a while.
Steve had a technique of relaxing/meditating for 10 minutes, after which he said he would be totally refreshed. We tried to bargain for a tuk tuk back, but Steve was really hard-nosed. They started at 12000 k, we said 1000 k for both, which is what—.15 USD, they said 5000 k, we went up to 2000 k, and that's where we stood. So we walked. It wasn't a bad walk, but I definitely would have paid the money if it hadn't been for Steve.
On the way back we tried flagging down another tuk tuk, who wasn't interested because he was going to work at the Australian embassy. He was very friendly though, and said he'd take us for "no pay" as far as he was going. It was one of those motorcycle tuk tuks, with a motorcycle front welded to a little seating area in the back. We got to the Australian embassy, and Steve and I got off. I really wanted to give the tuk-tuk driver something, so I sacrificed my Microsoft pen. I tried to tell him that I worked at Microsoft, but I'm pretty sure he ended up with the impression that my name was Microsoft. Steve and I looked at each other, thinking what it would take in gestures to convey that it wasn't my name, it was just where I used to work, but shrugged our shoulders, smiling. Oh well. I guess it's not a hot topic of conversation here. Got a picture with the tuk-tuk driver and me, but I don't think it will turn out. We also went to the Patuxai again, and this time walked up it and got a view of the city. There were hordes of little kids, nothing but kids less than 10, all of them yelling "hi", occasionally one of them will know how to say "how are you". Cute kids. They play hide and seek the exact same way we did in the states.
Back into town, we went to western style grocery store. It was very small, just about the size of my living room, but it was very cool to see things like Doritos, ice cream, Nutella, canned butter (which I've actually never seen before in the US even). Very fun. I bought a pastry which turned out to have a salty cheese filling in it—it was rather strange. Steve liked it though. He bought an ice cream, 4500 kip, which he really enjoyed. The bulletin board in front of the store was like a foreigners classified section for Laos, people trying to get positions for their servants since they were leaving, buying and selling cars, and houses, etc. Then we ate at the pvo again. I had the spring rolls, and when trying to open my water bottle (they're a bitch to open around here, the tab always rips off and you have to cut the top off) I upset the bowl of oily condiments all over the table and myself. It was funny.
Steve told me the story of how, despite the warnings in the Lonely Planet guidebook, he nearly got taken in by some people trying to sell him fake or low quality gemstones. Apparently they were incredibly smooth. The con lasted the entire day, they were sucking him further and further into totally believing that he could make big bucks by buying gemstones in Bangkok, and then reselling them in Australia. It was a great story—I hope to get it from him in email. He got to the point where he was actually about to buy the gemstones, he'd already cashed in 1000 Canadian dollars of travelers checks. Then he saw another westerner in the store, went over to talk to him. Apparently the other guy he had the exact same story, the same guy told him the same story about being able to turn a great profit selling the stones, so at that point the lights went on, they figured it was a scam, and took off. Very, very close, though.
I said goodbye to Steve then. I wished I could have asked him to the party that Titta asked me, but of course that wouldn't work. So back to the hotel—had a bit of a problem finding my way, since it was completely dark, but I know my way around pretty well now. Showered, felt much better. I actually have all kinds of nasty heat rash things, and weird red spots on my legs. Even though it's not as hot here by a long long shot compared to Bangkok. Titta had left me a note, saying she'd pick my up at 8.30, so I was reading a paper in the lobby when she came. She has long blond hair, and is very well dressed. We took off on her bright yellow motor scooter, I was holding on to the handle on the back. It doesn't feel like it gives you a good hold at all. It was a little scary, driving through gravel, potholes, etc. She was slow and safe, though, much slower than the rest of them. It was a beautiful full moon, and we were chatting back and forth. The ride itself was a very fun experience, just sitting on the back of that thing and speeding through the night.
At the party, Titta was very friendly and kind in introducing me the people she knew there. She shepherded me around for about half an hour. Then we parted ways. I talked with all kinds of people, all of them working in development projects. Talked with Nokia, a tall beautiful Japanese woman, Ulrike, a super friendly Austrian woman—she held my hand and led me to the dance floor (I left because it was way too loud), John, an American from the Seattle area, or has family there or something, we were talking about Microsoft, etc. He kind of pissed me off in that when I met him I said "There's not many Americans here, it seems like," and he said "That's probably a good thing."
Lots of Danes. One really good looking man, with the most beautiful eyes. One Danish girl visiting her sister for 4 months, seems like a long time to spend just in Lao. I couldn't believe she'd just graduated from high school, she was only 19. She spoke English very well although she never lived in an English speaking country—those Scandinavians must have some very good English classes. She thinks she'll study law, but also loves children. Very sweet face, she was quite shy, pretty easy being only 19 years old in a group of 30 year olds.
I met another American guy Stuart, married to this American woman whom I didn't really like too much—I didn't like him either. She was doing something about training development people to think about the impact on women of their development projects, he was just staying at home doing nothing. I pushed a little about how he filled his time, which I don't think he liked, and he started talking about if you rent a video, you might have to run it through some cleaning thing a couple times—basically just saying that everything takes much more time here. He didn't seem like a happy man. I asked him what he had done back in the States too, because he said he lived there for 25 or 30 years, and grew up all around because his parents were in the diplomatic service. He said "this and that". He was probably thinking I was a typical American, always asking "what do you do?" immediately upon meeting someone. Whatever. I'm interested.
Spent some more time talking with Titta, relationship talk, I told her I'm about to be divorced, etc. She was really great to talk to, it was a little bit of a deeper conversation after days of relatively superficial talk. Two Laotian guys came to sit one on either side of us. I thought they were just trying to practice English. The one on my left had the most adorable friendly smile, but he was so small and slight I only thought of him as a boy, not as a man, even though he said he was 21. When Titta and I left, they actually followed us in their motorbikes. I was worrying a bit, Titta said it was okay, that they were protecting us, but also that they wanted to be in a relationship with foreign women very badly. She wanted to say things to me without them understanding, so she asked me if I understood Spanish, and we started speaking in Spanish. I felt so very international. I found out later that she speaks Finnish, Swedish, and English really well, then some German and French (not much) and decent Spanish. Her husband is a diplomat. We somehow got on the subject of the French. She said the French contingent wasn't at the party, even though they're normally at parties and are huge partiers, so it was a big loss, but lots of them do lots of drugs (opium). The UN apparently doesn't do anything about it. I mentioned something about how the French don't tend to speak other languages well, particularly English, and she agreed wholeheartedly. I bet there's all kinds of little conflicts and troubles with the nationalities and personalities in the expat community here, which is huge—200 people in the UNDP alone. The Japanese GEICO (which is like the USAID) has about 100, I heard somebody say.
What else. We left the party at maybe 1.30 am, and stayed up talking till 3 in the hotel lobby, partly because she wanted to get rid of the 2 Laotians who were "protecting" us, but she really likes to chat, too. I really, really liked her. She's not the outdoorsy type at all, said she only stays in nice hotels, dressed really well, etc., so isn't very similar to me in that way, but she was great. We talked about men—I mentioned the Danish guy I found really good looking, she said "Oh, you should have mentioned it to me there, he's very single, he complains to me all the time about meeting women, you could have easily had a nice one night fling." I just laughed.
She said her mother is Russian, and escaped from Russia as a little girl in 1937. She and her mother had a hard time going back to Russia (come to think of it, she probably speaks some Russian as well) and getting a visa, because they knew that her mother's parents had escaped from Russia. What else did we talk about. Refugees—she's not at all in favor of closed borders. We talked about Spain, and how she was held up at knifepoint and robbed in the lobby of her own apartment building. I told her all my violent Spain stories, plus my Morocco story as well. We exchanged email addresses. I'm going to send her a package of something from Seattle.
This morning I had a big breakfast and typed up yesterday's notes. Ah—nice and relaxing. The TV isn't working anymore, which is probably a good thing otherwise I wouldn't have written up my notes as extensively as I did. It turns out that buying the ticket at the airport will work, even though people at the party last night were kind of doubtful about it. I just bought one to Luang Prabang, a city in Northern Laos, Laos, for $55. Everyone tells me it's a beautiful city, very much worth spending some time in. The hotel drove me out here to the domestic terminal, not the fancy International one. This place looks like a small town bus station, with long wooden benches along the sides. I'm the only foreigner! I walked into the terminal and didn't see anything that looked like a Lao Aviation ticket office, so I asked around, they pointed me here. Pretty haphazard. I used the little phrase section in the back of the Lonely Planet guidebook to ask for a ticket. The ticket itself was written all in Lao.
Later a ton of foreigners showed up, maybe 25 percent of the flight. Talked to a Canadian from Burma, who told me his whole history—escaping through the jungle from Burma, living there in the jungle for 7 years (was he a guerilla?) then Thailand, and a Thai jail because he was in the country illegally.
The flight was very low, mostly below the clouds. I hope it isn't because they have to fly by markers on the ground. I can see the Mekong below me, incredibly serpentine like ribbon candy. It's the same kind of plane I flew in before, from Bangkok to Vientiane. Scattered about in the hills are little huts, connected by trails. I also see lots of terraced rice paddies.
Once out of the plane you're on a gravel walkway to the airport. The airport is a decent place, quite clean and almost modern looking. I had found a place where I thought I wanted to go, based on the lonely planet guide book. It was called the Maniphone guest house. However, the tuk-tuk that I went with stopped first at another one for some Japanese women (one of whom is a volunteer nurse in Vientiane). It was an old colonial building called the Ban Lao Guesthouse. I took a look at it, and the upstairs is just beautiful—all wood, a really comfortable huge upstairs hallway with a set of intricately carved wooden chairs and the wooden couch—not comfortable, but certainly very beautiful. I looked at the downstairs rooms as well, for $7, but they were like little dungeons, so I took one of the upstairs rooms for $12. Wonderful furniture, all solid wood. There's a headrest which has a traditional hand-woven fabric pad in the middle. The room is really bright as well, it a corner room and has 2 large windows. Plus there's a veranda outside, with chairs and tables. Doesn't seem like there's too many people here—I think only the Japanese women took one room, and one other room might be occupied. I'm sure other places are cheaper—maybe I'll look around.
This place is wonderful, though. The rooms are absolutely huge. Plus I've chit-chatted with the owner, an older woman, in French, which is quite fun. I don't have to worry about her speaking French too fast. Slow and simple does it, and she spoke quite well, too. I took a walk around town, as the sun was setting. It's a great town, with many fewer cars and motorbikes. The streets are quite a bit better too, no huge potholes, and they're mostly paved. In general people seem to be more prosperous than in Vientiane. I walked around a bit, and went to a restaurant to eat—nice, with covered tablecloth, woman was very friendly and could have passed for American—she had a short haircut and shorts—but didn't speak much English. She must have had mixed parentage. 7500 kip for fried rice with pork and a liter of bottled water. I was feeling a little lonely, longing to talk to someone. I started walking back to the guesthouse, almost but not quite scheming in my mind about how I could chat with people.. There was one guesthouse that I walked by, I decided to take a look at the rooms, and see how much they were, and if I wanted to change rooms. I asked the woman to show me the room, which was okay, but mine is definitely much nicer. 30,000 kip a night it was—which is maybe $3.50. They had much cheaper rooms, too, for half that.
Anyway, after checking out that guesthouse, I asked some people sitting at the benches and tables outside if they knew about a black market here in down. As I got to talking to them, they invited me to sit down, and we ended up chatting for about an hour. They were an Irish couple, Martha and Peter, under 26, and this will be a 7 month trip through Southeast Asia, Australia, Malaysia, etc. Laos is the place they liked the most. Martha seemed a little tired of traveling, she said she was bored with it. Peter said he was tired of eating in restaurants all the time, having to find places to stay. They had a lot of negative stories to tell, although they hastened to assure me that it wasn't all bad. But they said in Malaysia people would be friendly to them at first, then when they said they didn't have money to spend on a boat ride or whatever, they would take off. Plus once they had arranged a tuk tuk for 200 in the local currency, then the guy wanted 300, and they had to pay it because people started crowding around and they felt uncomfortable. Another story they told was that at a restaurant on a place in Kao San road, they were eating with a group, and got an undercooked hamburger. They asked for it to be cooked more, and apparently a woman came over and dribbled saliva on it (?!) and then they said no, we won't take it and won't pay for it, and a huge scene ensued. Big hassle.