Triplogue - Laos I

18 June, arriving in Laos, 28km (f)

Frankly I was a little bit nervous to leave our last bastion of western influenced civilization. Two factors left me uncomfortable. First, though it had made considerable improvement, was the condition of my right eye. The swelling was down substantially but there are still two itchy little lumps in the upper lid. And, second, I still hadn’t found new spokes for the broken and damaged ones in the rear wheel. I don’t know if I’ll be able to trust Laotian eye and bike doctors, we will see…

In advance of our departure we didn’t manage to leave our elegant $20/night Thai hotel until well after the standard checkout time. And although I'd cleared our late checkout with the front desk everyone in the housekeeping staff had come by to find out if we were ready to leave every few minutes after noon. Something told me that they were ready to be rid of the BikeBrats. We started to wonder what hotels think of us, especially the ones that house us as we frenetically put together our website. On those days we usually lock ourselves in the room for two nights and a day or more, ordering room service. The maids usually have to fight their way in to clean the room while we type away and bicker over which pictures to include. God forbid one should stumble in while I have the telephone in a hundred pieces while I try to connect to our ISP.

We finally loaded up the bikes and got on the road about 2:30, plenty of time to ride 24k, cross the border, find a hotel and meet our friend Ly and her sister Caroline. After just a few cranks we reached the Thai border. There seemed to be a general confusion as to where bikes should go to exit Thailand. We were pointed in one direction and then the other until we finally found a booth with no on inside. A bored looking Thai-guy in uniform finally shuffled over, stamped our passports and waved us through. Just as we were about to pedal off another complication arose. This time a non-uniformed customs officer raced up and said "bridge not for recreation like bike." We looked at one another and back at him and told him this wasn’t recreation, this is transportation and started off. More insistent this time and with the back up of a small army of uniformed and non-uniformed border officials, he told us that we must take the bus. We’d have to exit the border, cross into Thailand, go to the bus station, buy a ticket, load the bikes, cross the border on the Thailand side and ride over the "Friendship Bridge" on the bus to Laos. This sounded too inconvenient to us so we paid the next bus driver a bribe, loaded the bikes on his bus at the border crossing and boarded the sweltering tin can for our ride to Laos.

Upon reaching the Laos border crossing we wondered why we had needed to get a visa in Bangkok. There, at the border, plain as day, was a sign that said "Visa at Border", next time we’ll know. Before we knew it we were in Laos and I was mugging for the camera in front of the "Welcome to Laos" sign that looked as though it had seen better days. The Laotian border guard had a chuckle when I demonstrated that there were huge holes in the sign by putting my arm through it. We were a little surprised at the lack of activity on both sides of the boundary. This was, after all, the primary land entry point to a nation. There were only about ten people crossing over at the same time as us and there was virtually no traffic on the Laotian side.

As we rode towards the Laotian capital people waved and smiled seemingly more ingenuously than in Thailand. There were a number of immediate differences between here and our last destination. First of all the traffic seemed to move like a very viscous liquid slowly and steadily towards its objective, oozing around obstructions and never in a hurry. Another subtle change was in the text of the signs for businesses (and there were very few until we reached the city limits); all had English and Laotian --unlike in Thailand where Thai was king and queen. Perhaps an even more important cultural indicator was that the stores sold Pepsi almost exclusively whereas in Thailand Coke ruled the fizzy soft drink market. Was the owner of the Pepsi bottling company in Las a party member?

The streets got progressively more busy as we reached the center of Vientiane. Complicating matters further, paving was still just a concept on many of the downtown avenues. Still there wasn’t enough activity to evoke the image of a capital city. What few vehicles there were traversing the city were moving at speeds that betrayed the hour. It was five in the afternoon on a Monday. Before long we’d negotiated a room for the night and were ready to set off to meet our friends. While I was waiting for Andy to check out one of the potential hotels I sat on the street and watched naked little kids play in mud puddles across the street. Imagine that in Paris, Washington or any other capital city in the central business district?

We’d set a rendezvous for 6:00 in the swankest hotel in town, the Westin-equivalent-unit of Vientiane, the Lao Plaza. As we waited in the cavernous, elegant (compared to our modest digs) and empty lobby Andy sipped a Mai-Tai and I slurped an ice cream sundae. We grew a little worried as the time passed and it was suddenly well after six. Andy and I both knew Ly to be especially prompt so we were more than concerned as the clock ticked on to thirty past. Just as we were about to give up, Ly and her sister Caroline arrived and all was well.

Our first priority became dinner and we sought an appropriate place to sate Andy’s hunger (he hadn’t eaten anything all day). I wasn’t so hungry, my stomach was just settling down after a few days of twitchiness. Caroline was suffering from the same, so we were a little overwhelmed when Andy ordered one of everything from the menu. At the end of the meal there was more left on the plates than we had eaten and the bill was a whopping 36,000 agoutis (nearly ten dollars). After dinner we decided that drinks were in order so we adjourned to the cocktail lounge and restaurant of the nearby commie Lane Xiang hotel. In a rattan-lined dining room a cheesy Lao lounge act performed traditional dance and music. There were two dancing couples in Laotian drag and we had difficulty distinguishing the boys from the girls for their attire and movements. After the show one of the band members began to croon in accompaniment of the orchestra. The rotund leader beckoned for some audience participation and a Japanese man headed for the stage to sing a number. He nearly fell over on the way to the stage, tripping over everything in his path before belting out a rather blurry tune. A Chinese man was the next victim, but he had stage presence and talent and closed to a hearty round of applause. The mistress of ceremonies kept him on stage and the two entertained the largely Asian crowd as though the Sonny and Cher of Laos. Soon we were all ready to call it a day and head for our respective beds.

Arriving in Laos


Buddha niches in Vientiane

We can't remember what wat this is


General View of Luang Prabang

19 June, getting to Luang Prabang (f)

The next day we rose early and met the girls for breakfast. We ate in a restaurant where the waitress had yet to take her course in breakfast. Even the simplest request or concept seemed to elude her, like coffee being a beverage one might consume. Somehow we finished our morning meal and went to find airplane tickets for our flight north. It was a shockingly simple task and soon we and the girls parted ways to take care of our respective errands. Ours brought us to the Chinese Consulate to get our visas. It seemed like a simple task, and it was until I said the forbidden word, "bike". Andy had forgotten to coach me against using that word in the presence of Chinese officials.

It was with that mention that the conversation suddenly shifted. "Let me give you some advice," said the Chinese bureaucrat in a tone that expressed that this was not a recommendation that could be refused. "You cannot travel in China the way you would in any other country. Independent travel is not looked upon favorably, though a bicycle is better than a car or motorcycle." I felt the hair bristle on the back of my neck, I wasn’t to be told what I could and couldn’t do. Just as I was about to lash out I felt a wave of Laotian serenity come about me and I said, "Well, if we can’t cycle town to town we’ll train or bus, is that o.k.?" He smiled and shook his head, "yes." I caught Andy swallowing his heart out of the corner of my eye The first Chinese travel crisis had been averted.

Despite his outburst, this was a pretty cool consulate worker by any standard. We didn’t have our passport photos with us, but he was willing to process the application regardless. We just had to promise to bring them with us when we returned from Luang Prabang. Soon we were on our way to the airport to fly north, stopping at a few temples along the way. We thought we had tons of time and would have had a disaster not occurred. It never struck any of us that we’d need our passports to travel within Laos. It seemed to us that a copy and the receipt from the Chinese

Consul would do in any situation until we reached domestic passport control at the airport. Our copies wouldn’t do, nor would any other identification. Andy and Ly raced back to the Chinese Consul while Caroline and I waited. I decided to teach her backgammon in order to avoid looking at my watch the entire time. The minutes passed quickly, and before I knew it the hour was 3:27, just three minutes before our flight when the two returned with our travel documents. Just in time to make the flight. Rushing out to board the flight, Andy and Ly told tale of banging on the gate of the closed embassy and begging and pleading for them to find the passports.

It is really a joy to travel with Ly, especially in her country of origin. Everywhere we go she has contacts through her travel agency and everything seems to always work out. We had one bad moment in the Luang Prabang airport. The Police began to insist that Caroline was a Laotian despite her French Passport and she would have to go with the police to register in town. Ly confidently told them that she was French and that we’d have the passport sent to the police in town and that by no means would there be any difference in plan. I like her forcefulness and ability to make her way happen.

19-23 June, Luang Prabang (f)

We started our hectic tourist activities within just a few moments of arriving. Leaving our hotel we walked down the main street of Luang Prabang. The last few hundred meters of the street served as the "night market" where you can purchase foodstuffs. We stopped and grazed on our way to the side of the Mekong. Munching on a grilled chicken and little rice and coconut cakes we descended the riverbank and walked down to the water. As the afternoon progressed to early evening the vast brown waters become the bathing spot for riverside dwellers. Kids the same color as the Mekong splashed, washed and did dangerous acrobatic tricks in the shallow water.

A restaurant up the bank suspended on stilts seemed like the right place to spend the sunset hour with drinks and dinner. The sky turned from gray to pink and the mosquitoes began to bite. The pace of our off-the-bikes vacation had been set. Strolling down the Champs Elysees of Luang Prabang we were taken by how our meter matched that of the city. Here it seemed sleepy even when compared to the comatose capital of Laos we’d left behind.

On our way to find dessert we spotted a shop renting bikes. Not able to spend a few days of vacation off the bikes, we secured four beauties for our stay. It came at a dear cost, nearly three dollars for five days each. Andy and I got big black Chinese numbers with spring mounted leather seats and brakes operated by metal bars like old Dutch bikes. Our handlebar baskets came adorned with the Playboy logo made us feel somehow macho while the girls’ flower-seated jobs had a cutesy floppy-eared bunny on their bags. The shop operator was frightfully skinny. He looked like a brown leather sack of bones and his eyes had the glazed and distant look of someone whacked on opium.

We immediately tested out our new wheels by taking a ride down the main street of town past lounging Laotians, monks, wats and occidental tourists and ex-pats. After a drink on the terrace of a place that advertised ice cream but had none we glided back to the hotel on our shiny new black bikes. I couldn’t help but wonder if Siegfried (my bike) would be jealous of my newfound affection for another.

The next day we arose at what we thought was an early hour. Ly had been up for hours and had taken a city tour on her bike just after dawn. She’d found a morning agenda for us and we’d be heading off to a Hmong village after breakfast and the museum. The museum was housed in the former residence of the king and queen of Laos. The grand home is furnished in much the same way as it was when they occupied it. Grand public rooms have marvelous paintings and weavings on the walls. The finest hall in the house is the throne room. There red lacquer walls are studded with Japanese colored mirrors broken and formed into a glorious mosaic that tells the story of Laos --which included a shocking number of beheadings and battles. The sleeping quarters of the Royal family were surprisingly austere. They did not live in the grand style of the public part of the house. Legend has it that the last heirs to the throne died un-crowned. They were held prisoners in a cave and died of starvation and lack of medical attention during the dark early days of the communists.

Next we felt our way towards the Hmong village, stopping to ask directions every few hundred meters. We were ushered to a big covered market sporting the textiles of the area. We saw weavings of every sort, ranging from the finest silks to the crudest woolens and cottons. There were fifty some-odd vendors all competing for our eight eyes and meager souvenir budgets. Despite our limited funds each of us left with a bag full of goodies.

After shopping, our wallets empty, we headed for the village and walked through it. The houses, all wood and mounted on stilts, seemed very prosperous. Apparently more shoppers like us had made it out here from Luang Prabang. The village was well off enough to sport a pretty impressive wat and the requisite set of monks attending to it. Just as we were about to loop back to the bikes and head to town for lunch we spotted some sort of a community event. Most of the village had converged on a riverside house and a huge feast was being laid out on tables under a tent in the yard. Just as we were asking what was going on we were whisked into the gathering, escorted upstairs into a house on stilts and seated in a room full of elders. It was only there that we understood that we were to be witness to a Buddhist wedding.

I felt, well, like an uninvited guest at a marriage. Not because the folks weren’t welcoming, just because it seemed that they hadn’t expected any foreigners (falangs) at the event. Still we sat next to the wall on our feet, being careful not to point them at anyone (for that is a grave insult) and we were served cool glasses of water. A little low-lying table covered with two flower arrangements/offerings stood in the center of the room filled with the aged of the village. People grinned and nodded at us and they pantomimed for us how to make an offering to the happy couple with flowers and kip notes. Someone found the one person in the village who spoke a little English and sat them next to us. He explained a little more about the coming ceremony. I became restless and a little uncomfortable about crashing the wedding and convinced the others we should head to Luang Prabang for lunch. We got up to leave, making a last offering on the way to the door before the room stopped and all but tackled us imploring us to stay and have our wrists bound.

We sat back down in the back of the room and more people began to stream in. Soon a cleric arrived and sat behind the altar of flowers. The groom (whom Andrew surmised must be rich, because he wasn’t attractive) and exquisitely lovely bride followed along with their respective families. At this point the room was becoming crowded and they could have used the space we were occupying. Still everyone seemed almost as fascinated by us as by the wedding. One interesting question that everyone asked is whether Andy, Ly, Caroline and I were couples and if we were married.

This confirmed my assumption that everyone assumed that we were two "whities" on vacation in Laos and had picked up a couple of trophy brides. Further reinforcing my theory was the rather lengthy lecture I received from the man next to me about the difficulties for a European to marry a Laotian and the permits and approvals that must be obtained. Andy and I had seen our share of ugly old Germans (and others) with hot Thai babes in Thailand and had expressed disgust at the practice. We’d also wondered if it wasn’t in some ways good for the Thai? Whatever the case I wasn’t ready to be lumped into that category and we explained that we were but friends.

The ceremony itself was a simple and short affair divided into four logical parts. First, is the request for the permission from the parents for the marriage. Next a villager reads the local administration’s formal permit for the wedding. Next the monk/cleric chants the ceremony that culminates in the two being joined by being tied together to form one. The ceremony closes with each wedding guest taking two pieces of string and tying one on each of the brides and grooms wrists while wishing them well. Finally the monk/cleric gives the happy couple advice on how to live well as a couple. (and, fifth, I dispute that this was really part of the wedding, the wedding guests tie strings to the wrists of the falangs so that they don’t feel left out.)

Following the marriage we walked downstairs and were asked to join in the celebration. We already felt like we’d been treated to too much generosity and excused ourselves, but not before they insisted we each drink a glass of Lao-lao, the local rice alcohol. Afterwards we pedaled back to the village. My path back to Luang Prabang was less direct than the trip there. I felt the effects of that little glass of booze after having none for some four weeks.

Our daily afternoon triathlon began. Lunching, napping and coffeeing were featured every day we stayed in the sleepy monk-ridden town. An afternoon excursion took us to a few of the dozen or-so wats in Luang Prabang. A one hundred-meter hill towers over the riverside town. On the top are a stupa and a view of the countryside. One surprise on the hill is the enormous machine gun that still remains there. It is not so shocking because of the gun but because it sits on a dangerous mechanism that allows it to turn rather quickly and violently and could easily crush a little kid or send him flying off the side of the hill.

Our featured outing for the next day was a trip up the Mekong to see caves that house some four thousand images of the Buddha. We’d met our captain the night before near a wat that featured mosaics like those in the royal palace. For but ten dollars he’d take us two hours upriver and one hour back on his long-tailed boat. We’d contemplated taking a speedboat but couldn’t imagine an hour on the noisy and dangerous boats. Our boat turned out to be nearly as loud and probably just as uncomfortable. As the speedboats buzzed by, occupants wrapped in life preservers and heads encased in helmets, I figured we made the right decision. We were treated to a two-hour look at riverside life. Water buffalo (some of which were pink instead of gray making them look like enormous pigs) grazed the banks and wallowed in the mud, men fished, loads were hauled and, of course, people bathed and washed their clothes. It was Sunday, so our captain’s young son joined us, spending most of the misty morning dozing on the back of the boat next to the droning motor.

When we finally arrived at the tourist site we were besieged by little munchkins vending offerings for the Buddha images in the caves. It was hard to refuse them, and there were, after all, four thousand images to make offerings to. We bought nearly enough little bouquets, candles and sticks of incense to make an offering to every one of them.

On the way back we stopped at two little Mekong-side villages. The first was truly a tourist trap. Each home had a little display case selling faux-antiques and other useless knick-knacks. Still Ly managed to find an antique portable opium scale and purchased it and we met the oldest monk we’d ever seen, so all was not lost. The second village sported a pottery and brick making operation that was very large-scale. Here we saw the industry of Laos. Another afternoon triathlon followed seeing a few wats and meeting monks. We wondered why there were so many here?

Our last day was sort of a bust. It involved a one-hour tuk-tuk ride over the roughest unpaved road you can imagine. I was so tired and jostled when we returned I’d almost forgotten why we went. We’d set out to see the waterfall some 27 kilometers from town. It was impressive. Huge umbrella shaped domes of calcified moss formed over grottos of ferns. Green water poured down the face of the falls and collected in great pools that would have been great for swimming had the temperature not been so cool due to the rain. We broke with tradition on our last afternoon. Following our riverside lunch we did errands and got our hair cut. There was no nap this afternoon for me, though Andy got a few moments rest while I wrote this passage.

Perhaps the most exciting moment of the trip to Luang Prabang came as we boarded our flight back to Vientiane. We found our flight to be on the oldest and ugliest Chinese prop-plane you can imagine. Besides looking poorly maintained the cockpit was filthy. One Lao woman was so uncomfortable with the flight that left 30 minutes early she barfed during the entire time we were airborne. Our return to Vientiane reinforced how much busier the capital is than the town of Luang Prabang. We found ourselves put-off by the busyness and dirtiness in contrast to the quiet calm beauty of the countryside.

First mate, Agouti


Swarm of vendors at Pak Ou Cave


Wierd waterfall

Buddha Park warriors


French colonial legacy remains, baguette breakfasts in Laos


The Rice Girls

25 June, Vientiane to Pakxan, 160 kilometers (a)

Route 13 is Laos’ main highway, running roughly parallel to the Mekong and linking virtually all of the country’s main towns. Built by the French (and originally called "Route Coloniale 13"), it has been very recently upgraded (i.e. paved) by a Swedish concern and is considered by all to be by far and away the best road in the land. And at nearly any given time you could stretch out in the middle of this grand thoroughfare and have a nice long nap, undisturbed save for the occasional water buffalo mistaking you for a saltlick. The mere thought that we’ll be spending three more days on this road as we make our way south to Savannakhet gives me goosebumps of pure joy.

Our day and a half in the capital had passed pretty much without incident. After arrival we hired a cab to take us out to "Buddha Park," thirty kilometers outside of town on the banks of the Mekong. A gift of Vientiane’s Indian community, its huge concrete sculptures owe more to Hindu mythology than to any Buddhist teachings. Almost nightmarish in their garishness and hyper-abundance, these sculptures attracted our attention only long enough to snap off a few shots before loading back into the decrepit Toyota taxi. ("Thirty-eight years old! Older than me!" enthused our slightly whacky driver as we gingerly placed our feet on the vehicle’s decaying floorboards.)

Back in town we discovered the epicenter of the ex-pat community during a walk with Caroline –the Fountain Square. Here we had iced coffee and Danish pastries in a sanitized, air-conditioned environment, surrounded by NGO workers of various stages of cynicism and crustiness. They pull up in their sparkling new Land Cruisers, nearly running the place down with them, have a cursory glance around the place and distribute schmooze selectively. As tourists, of course, we were completely invisible.

Walking along the river in the fading light of the day, we came upon a raucous game of foot-volleyball (I don’t know the actual name of the sport) being played on the premises of a particularly decrepit wat. The set up is essentially volleyballesque, except with a lower net and only three players to a team, each with a clearly defined role. After a successful foot-service, the wicker ball is carefully set up to the "spiker", who hangs in the air upside-down as he kicks violently into the other team’s court. The role of the third player (i.e. the non-serving, non-spiking one) is to block this final kick, also while upside-down. The quality of play here was high enough to attract a sizable crowd (among which Caroline was the only female not hawking snacks) and was nothing short of mesmerizing. We rushed back to get Ly so she could watch too.

After a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant, we made our (temporary) farewells to the Phouthavy girls, who had an early bus to catch the next morning. It would feel odd negotiating Laos on our own after having our hands held for so long…

The next morning we successfully obtained our Chinese visas, paying only $20 extra to have it processed on the spot. I spent the afternoon at the pool of the Lao Plaza hotel, listening to an employee practice his English. He told me how tourists see much more of the country than native Laotians ever do, mostly due to economic restraints, and how he was going to Luang Prabang for the first time in his life with an American "friend" of his next month. "His name is Simon Taylor; maybe you know him?" came the inevitable question, which I’ve learned to answer as politely as possible.

I found Fred back at the Scandinavian bakery, and we took another sunset walk, further up the Mekong this time. We were surprised to discover a whole string of very animated hostess-style bars built on bamboo platforms. Dinner was at a popular Italian place, on the Fountain Square of course, packed with members of the NGO set loudly discussing available monies and possible alliances.

Our bellies were still full of pasta the next morning, allowing us to forgo breakfast and hit the road earlier than ever. The light was still quite dim as we pedaled out of the wakening town, past begging monks, slow-motion cyclists on their way to work and countless roadside baguette vendors. We eventually gave in to temptation and tried this traditional Lao breakfast, a faithful replica of a French baguette smeared with rather dubious luncheon meat and hot spices. Not a bad BikeBrats breakfast, if the truth be told, and one easily consumed while straddling a bike.

The traffic grew increasingly sparse as we put distance between ourselves and the town. Two friendly agriculture students rode alongside me for nearly a half-hour, practicing their English and providing me with information on the road ahead. They turned off towards their school at kilometer 24, plunging us into silence.

For the remainder of the long, long day, the deserted road led through rolling scrub forest broken here and there by irregularly shaped rice paddies. Most of the peasants we saw were engaged in the various steps of planting rice, and we were slightly shocked to see children joining in. Shouldn’t they be in school? We looked for schools in every village we passed through and saw none. "Village" is actually an overstatement here, for what passes for a ban in these parts is seldom more than a tiny concentration of ramshackle bamboo huts, often spaced hundreds of meters apart from one another. The evident poverty was a bit alarming after the relative prosperity of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and we were impressed by how everything in these people’s lives comes from the land. Aside from the occasional mud-encrusted tee shirt, these people live without any of the consumer goods that we take for granted. The "seven-elevens" that are so ubiquitous in Thailand are nearly absent in Laos; when we did actually find a place selling bottled water it usually sold little else, maybe some packets of washing powder and a couple of odds and ends imported from across the Mekong. The glaring exception to this general rule are the highway rest stops (clearly designed for passing buses) spaced at fifty or so kilometers apart, each featuring a whole string of dirty little restaurants and shops on both sides of the road. We stopped at the first of these and ordered some truly nasty chicken fried rice from the local queen, who added insult to injury by overcharging us grossly. I knew we were in for it when I asked him how much ("Thao Dai?" is one of the few Lao phrases we’ve picked up) and four girls hovered around a nearby table as the bill was prepared, giggling wildly between consultations of our queeny friend, now engaged in hacking up yet another rubbery chicken. With a coy, expectant look, the bravest of the girls deposited the ridiculously padded bill before me. Rather than complain overtly (my Lao skills being too deficient to do so), I paid the full sum, all the while grumbling to Fred with just a touch of theatricality, and wondering if we’d have to ask prices in advance of ordering from here on in.

At kilometer 100 we found something resembling an actual village, and stopped to soak in the novelty of it all. The café we had chosen had the usual band of slackers hanging out in front of it, only these boys were in their twenties or so and all were wearing luridly colored polish on their long nails. They hung on each other with more than the usual amount of demonstrativeness, and we wondered if they considered themselves queer. It’s so difficult to tell in this part of the world… I hypothesized that the nail affectation was more a display of being somehow superior to fieldwork than a gender statement, but the linguistic barrier made an interview impossible. Even capturing a photo was difficult; whenever I’d pick up the camera they’d retreat into the shadows or thrust their hands into their pockets.

The terrain grew hillier here, and the villages looked increasingly poorer. Whenever we passed through one of these we caused enormous commotion, especially among the younger set. "Sabai Diiii" they screamed over and over. Fred reflected that he preferred being greeted in the local lingo than with "Hello Mister" and I agreed whole-heartedly.

Pakxan appeared with little fanfare. The huge dot representing it on the map had made us expect an actual town, but it’s little more than a dusty little crossroads. Utterly exhausted, we limply examined our two accommodation choices (neither very savory) and sought out something to nibble on. Apparently food is not something normally consumed in Pakxan at three in the afternoon; the only thing we could find was a little straw-roofed hovel selling pho, a noodley soup I’ve always associated with Vietnam (and mispronounced, for that matter, before Ly set me straight the other day). While hot food hardly sounded appealing to us in our sweat-drenched state, the soup was delicious, and the woman serving us was friendly, gracious, and fair in her pricing.

We pedaled back to the outskirts of town, where the first guesthouse we had looked at had a better feeling than the filth-encrusted "hotel" near the alleged town’s alleged center. The family running the place was incredibly friendly, and we had difficulty averting our gaze from the amazingly buff son shoveling dirt out in front, a sheen of sweat covering his compact brown body. After a necessary splash in the shared mandi (or whatever they call the in-house mosquito breeding centers here), we collapsed onto our hard bed, luxuriating in the oscillations of the electric fan. Just as I was about to nod off, a knock was applied to our door. Fred got up and answered it and I thought I heard a woman’s voice speaking English. Was I hallucinating? What could another falang possibly be doing in Pakxan?

My curiosity got the best of me and I dragged myself out of bed to look out the door and check out Sarah, a thirtyish Scottish girl burdened by an enormous backpack. After a cursory chat ("7000 kip for a room here (that’s two yankee dollars to you and me); I can’t believe how expensive it is down here in the South. You guys must be saving lots of money using the bikes, though…") we made plans to meet her later for dinner.

Our hostess indicated that food could be had next door, in a cavernous highway-side restaurant/convenience store/multi-family home. Sarah proved to be agreeable company. We learned that she’d been living in Hong Kong for the last few years and had been travelling on her own for a few months already, and was now on her way to Vietnam. We were especially interested in the fact that she knew how to play backgammon. When I retreated to our room to get our board, I found that our hotel had been transformed into a bordello during our absence. Several heavily made-up girls hung around outside, very curious as to my relationship with Sarah. "Madame?" they asked inquisitively, to which I responded in the affirmative. Later that night on my way to the toilet I noticed that the action outside had heated up even more. Several army jeeps crowded the mudpatch out front and more giggly girls had materialized. Clad only in my underwear, I slunk stealthily through the hallway, unnoticed by the carousing brass and their consorts.

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