Night Bus to Bangkok   

DSC_0061       

They told me that the trains were all fully-booked, but I had heard that before in Thailand.

It usually just means that you have to go out the station and down a side street to an agent who will – for a price – get a ticket biked over from goodness knows where. But the crowds who had flocked south to spend New Year’s Eve on the beach were now going home and, this time, the trains really were fully-booked. All that the fast-talking agents could offer was a seat on the VIP Bus.

A minibus collected me from Nopparat Thara in the middle of the afternoon and dropped me at the interchange in Krabi Town, where a confusion of travellers sat hugging their backpacks with fluorescent dots on their singlets.

Buses came and buses went. The staff shouted, flung their arms in the air and darted about. Travellers got up, looked around uncertainly, and hurried to the bus, but most were turned back because their fluorescent dots were not the right colour.

Orange was the wrong colour several times, until, eventually, a bus came to take me as far as Surat Thani on the opposite coast, where I arrived in a tropical storm. The rain drummed on the tin-sheet roof as I waited; water advanced across the floor. Travellers lifted their feet and hoisted their backpacks onto spare seats.

The VIP bus was a big six-wheeled, double-decker coach with luridly airbrushed flanks, similar to the one below. There were no frills beyond reclining seats and curtains to pull across the windows.

Thailand_-_Night_Bus

I could no more sleep on a bus than compose a piano concerto, but that was okay because I had a pile of books for the journey. Then the driver turned off the roof lights and I flicked the switch for the reading lamp and nothing happened. Twelve hours, then, of lampposts, signs and crash barriers.

It was sometime around midnight, I think, when we pulled into the services with dozens of similar buses, all heading north to Bangkok and beyond. I threaded between them and went inside, then realised I had no idea which bus was mine. I had a feeling it was red, but it might have been blue, unless that was the one I had taken to Surat Thani, and I thought it was somewhere around halfway down the third, or fourth, or possibly fifth, line of buses, but several had come and several had gone in the meantime. I blundered from bus to bus, looking for clues, and found mine largely by chance. It was yellow.

Hours later, when I was about the only passenger still awake, we pulled into a lay-by behind a van, and I could see people milling about and hear conversation and lockers being opened and shut but could not work out what was happening. I thought it was the police, then I thought it was hijackers, then we set off again and I thought no more about it.

At something to five, I spotted tuk-tuks and temples and then the roof lights came on and the woman doled out hot towels and we stopped and the doors hissed open.

The bus was supposed to run to Khao San Road, the main street of the backpacker ghetto, but the place we stopped looked alien to me in the pre-dawn gloom through the fog of a sleepless night. I was mobbed by tuk-tuk drivers clamouring for business when I tried to get my bearings, so I ducked down an alley between rows of closed shops and came out into another road and tried again to work out where I was.

What street’s this?” I asked another traveller.

Khao San Road, man.”

I had walked down it dozens of times, but from early in the morning to late at night, it had always been crowded with travellers and hawkers and tuk-tuks and taxis and big neon signs and bustling bars; and now in the silent early hours, with everything shut and the lights all off and the travellers sleeping and tuk-tuk drivers busy with buses arriving a block away, it was an altogether different street.

I checked into a guesthouse and opened my backpack and saw that the string I never bother to fasten had been neatly tied in a bow, and I worked out, then, why we had stopped in the lay-by.

© Richard Senior 2015

Bus image: By Flying Pharmacist (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating up Vietnam #1: Saigon

Flickr4062448221

There was a phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse with open sides and wobbly tables on the pavement outside. I sat at one and ordered phở tái, which the menu translated as “beef soup noodle with half-done beef,” and a Bia Saigon and watched the street vendors pushing carts and carrying yokes and the xe-om* riders hustling for business and a guy slowly pedalling around the block and shaking a rattle which sounded like a maraca. It puzzled me what he was trying to sell and I stopped him, later, and asked. “Lady massage,” he said, “you want?”

The beer came first, then a big plate of herbs, another of bean sprouts and a third with sliced chillies and quartered limes; then a tray of condiments: hoi sin and chilli sauces in squeezy bottles, dark soy sauce in a jug and thick chilli paste in a ramekin. Then came the phở: a great steaming bowl of broth extracted from beef bones, ox tail, flank steak, charred onions and ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, poured over flat rice noodles and strips of rare beef, and garnished with sliced spring onions.

I ate phở often as I travelled through Vietnam, elsewhere in Saigon, in Hoi An – where I learned how to make it – and finally in Hanoi; but it is different and better in the South and best at the phở shop on the corner down the street from my guesthouse.

On every other street in Saigon, in the Phạm Ngũ Lão backpacker area, to the north around the museums and to the east in amongst the modern corporate blocks, there are vendors selling bánh from carts. They are sandwiches, in essence, French in inspiration, Vietnamese in execution. Take a classic baguette, but made with rice flour and lighter than normal, slather it with mayonnaise and hot chilli sauce, then stuff it with shredded, pickled carrot and daikon, sliced cucumber, coriander leaf and some combination of pâte, roasted belly pork, fromage de tête and Vietnamese sausage. I had bánh again and again in Saigon and never got bored of it because each vendor does it differently.

If not bánh for lunch, then spring rolls. That can mean one of two things in Vietnam, and neither is much like the stodgy, finger-sized snacks served in Anglo-Chinese restaurants. There are gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls, with shredded carrot and cucumber, chopped mint, onion flakes and cooked prawns rolled in a moistened rice paper and served as it comes; and there are chả giò, or fried spring rolls, with minced pork, shitake mushrooms, diced carrot and cellophane noodles wrapped in a moistened rice paper and deep-fried to a texture like filo pastry. Both are served with a dipping sauce with lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, chilli and garlic.

Noodles soups, rice papers, an abundance of herbs, sharp flavours used judiciously. The menu changes as you travel through Vietnam but the same themes recur: always the same freshness, always the same lightness.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Motorcycle taxi

Image: By Hiển Chu (flickr user “chuhien”) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Scambodia

DSC_0529

There was hardly anyone on Soi Rambuttri that early in the morning, except the taxi drivers who doorstepped me as usual:

You wan’ taxi? Where you go?”

“Cambodia.”

That shut them up for a minute, but no longer than that; one of them followed me down the street:

“I take you Cambodia. Fi’ thousand Baht.”

But I had already paid 250 Baht for a seat in a minibus driven by a lunatic. On the motorway, driving as if getting away from a bank job, pulling right up – just inches away – to the car in front, then lurching out to overtake. On a single-track road, about to overtake a pick-up when it pulled out to overtake the truck in front, then overtaking the pick-up while it was overtaking the truck. There was another truck in front of that and a third speeding towards us, but somehow squeezing between them.

Once, a barrel fell off a trailer and bounced straight towards us, but the driver swerved round it with an unconcerned flick of the wrist. Once, he lost control, briefly, on gravel and had the minibus sideways but opposite-locked it back into line like a racing driver.

A few hours of this, punctuated by gasps and screams, then waiting forever and forever and forever: to get a visa, to be checked through the Thai border, and then checked through the Cambodian border down the street.

The agent warned us not to trust Cambodian ATM’s. “Maybe it give you cash, maybe it keep your card, and it take you one week minimum to get it back.” No, he said, “My advice, get the cash you need for one week, two week, however long you stay, at Thai side then cross over Cambodian side and change at the border. Best rate in the country.” I wondered why none of this was in the guidebook, but everyone else went to the ATM and withdrew a bundle of Bahts and, like a dull-witted sheep, I got in the queue behind them: I fell for it too.

The bus to Siem Reap would be there in an hour, maybe longer. It would then take three hours to get there. “But if you want I arrange taxi.” I fell for that one too, along with a bunch of girls from Lisbon.

The whole border crossing is a racket. I should have realised it was. Everyone is in on it; everyone gets a piece of the unsuspecting travellers, from the agents through the money-changers to the taxi drivers. But I had not yet finished being ripped off.

I have a hotel, very cheap,” the agent said.

Course you have, I thought: a favour for a mate at best, an outright scam at worst. But I glanced at the brochure he thrust at me, out of politeness.

 “Aircon, WiFi, just 400 Baht one night.

I looked but could not see the catch I expected. It was £7 and the place looked fine and even if it was nothing like the pictures, I thought, I could put up with it for three nights.

Where you from?” asked the jolly man from the hotel.

UK.”

“I am from CK – Cambodian Kingdom. Which area in UK?”

“London.”

“Lavly jabbly.

That’s quite good. Is Jamie Oliver on TV here?”

“Who?”

“Where did you hear ‘lovely jubbly’?”

“That is what they say in London? Lavly jabbly?”

My room was not ready yet, he said, but they were putting me up in another hotel and he would pick me up in the morning, lovely jubbly. It was a characterful old colonial villa.

There was no coffee at the hotel and I was half asleep when he came to collect me. He told me they were still getting my room ready – still? – but I could drop off my bags and he would take me to the temples so I did not have to hang around waiting, lovely jubbly. That’s nice, I thought, and shuffled sleepily around Angkor Thom, dreaming about coffee. Then I finally got a cup – filthy stuff – and my brain woke up and told me that I had been stupid again.   

The two-day temple tour I had somnambulantly agreed to was costing me 500,000 Riel, or 4000 Baht, or £70, or ten nights’ accommodation. The agencies, I saw later, were charging 100,000 for the same tour in a minibus. Like Cambodian coffee, it left a very nasty taste.

I had booked three nights but could not wait to leave Siem Reap and as soon as I got back from the second day of my exorbitant temple tour, I checked out and got a bus to Phnom Penh. The hotel tried to say I had overstayed and had to pay more, but I told them they had screwed enough out of me already.

Then I discovered that evening that, while I was on my temple tour, they had stolen all of my Riels, most of my Bahts and a lot of my emergency Dollars from the pouch I left in the safety deposit box. Lovely fucking jubbly.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Typical Ko Tao Day

DSC_0675

The beach is empty in the early morning, although the sun is hot enough to enjoy. Coconut palms stretch over the sand to the sea. Longtail boats are anchored in a line a little way out from the shore and, beyond them, more randomly, are the bigger dive boats. Fish writhe in the shallows. An eagle circles overhead. You claim your spot and open your book.

Sometime around ten, a guy wanders out from the dive school, barefoot and shirtless, cracks up a Marlboro and starts to set up for the day. He is a farang but he has been there long enough to synchronise to the local pace. He does everything casually, as if it is not really work. But then why should he rush? Why should anyone rush? He wades out to the boat, grabs the anchor chain and drags it ashore, then loads it with oxygen bottles.

The instructor arrives with a class of laughing students. They try on their masks and startle themselves when they experiment with the oxygen tap. They assemble in the boat and motor out of sight.

DSC_0686 e

You go back to your book and stay on the beach and colour evenly on each side. The divers come back around six in the evening, still laughing, and repair to loungers in front of the beach bars and balance bottles of Singha on the sand and fuss with Rizlas. The bars play muted dubstep or reggae until the sun has gone and they crank up the volume and the BPM’s and start the fire show.

You stay on the sideline with a bottle of Singha and watch as they set up a limbo pole, douse it in petrol and set it alight. The Thais from the bar, shirts off to show off their tattoos and six-packs, duck under it easily and invite the farangs to have a go. They start a raggedy, giggling line and lurch towards the burning pole and stagger and stumble under it, except one guy in Ray Bans at midnight who slides a cigarette into his mouth and pauses to light it on the pole as he slips underneath.

You’re crazy doing that,” you tell him. But he insists that he only smokes five a day.

© Richard Senior 2015

Vang Vieng: The Town Travellers Conquered

DSC_0319

I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.

When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.

Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.

There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.

Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.

DSC_0256

There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.

Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.

I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.

Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.

It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.

This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.

© Richard Senior 2015

Thank You for Flying with the Bangkok Helicopter

rsz_dsc_0008

It was evening rush hour in Bangkok. The offices emptied of workers and they swarmed on the transport hubs. Motorcycle taxi drivers sat in a line on their bikes at the ends of the sois. Meter cabs worked the main streets. The queues for the buses at the Victory Monument were as long and unruly as they are in London when the Tube drivers strike and there are dozens of applicants for every place on each bus.

I didn’t know which bus to catch to get back to Banglamphu, so I shuttled between stops, and forced my way to the front of each queue in the hope of finding a route map or someone who could tell me where to go; but there was never a route map and no one told me where to go, or at least not in a good way.

I waited to see if the crowds would thin out, but they swelled instead and I gave up on the idea of catching a bus and walked to the main road and flagged down a taxi. “Khao San Road?” I said, and he abruptly drove off by way of reply. The next two ignored me and drove past, and several after that already had fares, so I gave up on the idea of taking a taxi, as well.

That left what is known locally as the Bangkok helicopter: the fastest, most dangerous way to get across town. I approached a knot of drivers and interrupted their sniggering conversation and asked the one who had a spare helmet clipped to his bike if he could take me to Khao San Road. He quoted an inflated price and I tried to haggle but it was a waste of time so I agreed and got on the bike.

I asked for the helmet but he waved a dismissive arm and roared off while I tried to insist. It is illegal in Bangkok to ride without a helmet and I would have been the one to be fined if we were stopped; farangs are easy targets and assumed to be good for the money. I had more immediate anxieties, though, than the risk of being handed a fixed penalty.

I held onto my hat and bag with one hand and gripped the handle with the other. I have no idea what speed we were doing on the expressway, and nor had the driver because the speedo was broken; but it was comfortably above the speed limit. Everyone busts the speed limit in Bangkok if their cars or bikes or trucks will go fast enough. It is so widely ignored the police barely try to enforce it.

The driver kept up the speed as the streets became narrower and busier, ducking through traffic, overtaking a bus, undertaking a truck, carving up a taxi, mounting pavements, weaving to the front of queues at the lights and setting off shortly before they changed, ignoring the horn concerto which the other drivers performed. It seemed to me to be more of an adrenalin sport than a mode of transport. All it would take is a car to swap lanes without warning, a passenger to fling open a door at the lights, a pedestrian to step out between buses.

But locals, as ever, seem relaxed. It is, for them, just a convenient way to get to the office, or school. You see kids of ten or eleven on the back of motorbike taxis, and office girls side-saddle, using the time to finish their make-up. Only the cost would deter them from using the Bangkok helicopter: not the danger.

© Richard Senior 2015

Phnom Penh’s Ghosts

 “Phnom Penh city wakes up early to take advantage of the cool morning breeze before the sun breaks through…. Street vendors push food carts piled with steamed dumplings, smoked beef teriyaki sticks, and roasted peanuts along the sidewalks and begin to set up for another day of business.”

Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father

DSC_0574

Phnom Penh is still recognisable, forty years on, as the city which Loung Ung so vividly recalled from early childhood, before the horror began. The architecture the French left behind is mostly still standing, although often close to derelict. There are still the apartment blocks built in the optimistic first ten years of independence in the Bauhaus-inspired Modern Khmer style. Street food vendors still congregate on every corner. Locals still breakfast on Phnom Penh noodle soup. Motorbike engines still echo through the streets; and cyclos still pedal round looking for custom. The old Olympic Market which Ung wrote about – in disrepair then – has since been demolished and replaced with a concrete monstrosity. But the street markets are still what they have always been: meat and vegetables laid out on mats on the ground; fish swimming in washing up bowls.

The French installed Norodom Sihanouk as king, because they imagined him to be malleable; but he ended up leading Cambodia to independence, and tacking to the right or the left as events seem to demand. He was ostensibly neutral in the Vietnam war, but instinctively anti-American and worried about a South Vietnamese invasion; so he let the communist North build sanctuaries in Cambodia. The US secretly carpet-bombed them, with much collateral damage among the peasants. Sinahouk allegedly approved the bombing in private; and the CIA allegedly approved the coup by General Lon Nol which deposed him.

rsz_dsc_0612

Sihanouk, in exile, made an ally of convenience of a Maoist insurgent group known as the Khmer Rouge. His endorsement lent them popular support and they controlled the country by 1975. Sihanouk was nominally head of state again, although in reality under house arrest. They killed much of his family.

The Khmer Rouge cleared everyone out of the cities – even patients from the hospitals – and sent them to work on the land. The five year-old Luong Ung and her family joined what was, for many, a death march. Her parents and two of her sisters were killed.

S21 was a school when the Khmer Rouge arrived. They closed it down and turned it into a political prison. It is preserved as the Genocide Museum. Two rooms are filled with photographs of some of the victims, mostly Khmers, but a handful of Westerners too: an Englishman, an Australian, a couple of Americans and Frenchmen. All were tortured horribly until they signed preposterous accounts of how they had been recruited by the CIA or KGB (the two were much the same to that paranoid regime). Then they were taken away and killed. But not shot. The Khmer Rouge did not want to waste money on bullets. They used anything heavy or sharp which happened to be to hand.

DSC_0614

There are no captions at the Genocide Museum. None is needed. The facial expressions of the victims are as eloquent as a page of text. Many betray the terror which all of them must have felt. Some look beaten in spirit; but quite a few look defiant. One even managed to smile.

Further out of town are the Killing Fields, where the victims were forced to dig their own graves. There are still mounds of earth where the bodies are piled. Human bones sometimes wash up in storms. Few, if any, of those killed had done anything wrong. They might have worked for Lon Nol’s government, like Luong Ung’s father. Or been ethnically Thai or Vietnamese. They might have been monks, or intellectuals, or just looked like intellectuals. Wearing glasses was enough.

The West was wary of getting involved in Southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon. It was, ironically, the Vietnamese who intervened and toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. A quarter of Cambodia’s population was dead, by then.

rsz_dsc_0565

Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot, died peacefully at home in 1998. Sihanouk returned as king in 1993. He reigned until 2004. I was in Phnom Penh in January 2013, between his death and cremation. The country was still in mourning.

© Richard Senior 2015   

On Planning Trips … and Not Bothering to Plan Trips

image1 (5)

The How To sites are full of advice about planning trips, some ingenious, some questionable, some straight from the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious. I read none of it, though; and I ignored the advice from my friends. I arrived in Bangkok with nothing but a back-of-the-fag-packet list of countries, cities and islands I might want to visit.

My plan – half idealism, half naivety – was to book accommodation a night at a time, then decide each day whether to stay on or to go somewhere else. Where to go would depend where the buses, the boats, or the trains might run, and how long it took to get there. I had plenty of time. I was relaxed.

I stayed in Bangkok for longer than I should while I pondered whether to go north to Chiang Mai, south west to Phuket or south east to Ko Samui, and ended up going nowhere. Then I found out by chance that I needed to get my Vietnam visa in advance and had to stay longer while I made some hurried arrangements. The embassy wanted dates, and I had to guess on the spot how long it would take to get through Thailand and Cambodia, and I was too optimistic by several weeks, and wound up having to cut short the journey round the coast and forget about Chiang Mai. But that worked out okay, because I had time enough left after Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos to see the rest of Thailand.

rsz_dsc_0639

There were a few times, as well, when I had to move from a guesthouse in which I could have stayed if I had booked two nights in the first place; and times when the trains were all fully booked and I had to wait until the next day, or settle for a long, uncomfortable journey on a bus. But the guesthouses were always clustered together, and there always was a train or a bus I could take without reserving.

The setbacks were small, and I have rarely felt as free as I did then, in the knowledge that I could, at any time, pack my bags, check out and get on a bus to the next town, the next country. I chanced upon amazing places that I had never heard of and would not have picked out of the guidebook if I had spent days going through it with a highlighter pen. It was a lot more fun than working through a detailed itinerary and knowing where I would be every day for the next six months.

It worked all the way through Southeast Asia; but in Australia I had to compromise. I paid several times more than I wanted to pay for the only place I could find in Sydney with vacancies, and trudged round until almost midnight to find a hostel bed in Byron Bay. (I was lucky – a friend spent the night on the beach there.) I was still reluctant to book any more than a night at a time, but now booked it online the day before, at the same time as I booked my bus ticket. I got as far up the East Coast as Hervey Bay, then found that the bus to Airlie Beach left at five in the morning and took fourteen hours to get there. It was a discomfort too far for me, so I backtracked to Brisbane and flew. No worries.

DSC_0206

Eventually, though, I ran out of time and never saw Alice Springs or Uluru, nor drove along the Great Ocean Road. Unlike in Southeast Asia, there was no chance to catch up later.

I moved on to New Zealand and got stuck in Auckland, puzzling over where to go next. I had not even come with any scribbled down ideas, this time. When I had eventually mapped out a route, I had no time to spare and could leave nothing to chance and had to book all my buses and hostels upfront.

I have never quite managed to get back to the carefree, spontaneous travel of those months in Southeast Asia. Either I have been too short of time, or the hotels and hostels have been too far apart and booked up too quickly for walk-ins to be at all practical. But I still only book as far ahead as I have to, and try to leave room to plan as I go along.

And I have never had to sleep on the beach, as my friend did in Byron Bay.

© Richard Senior 2015

Rapids Response

SONY DSC

We were rafting a 10km stretch of the Mae Tang River in Northern Thailand.

They told us at the briefing that the rapids were Grades III and IV, but that meant nothing to me at the time. To give it some context, though, a kid in half a barrel could traverse Grade I, while a very lucky maniac in a kayak might survive Grade VI. I got a better sense of what to expect when they said that the river fell sixty metres in a kilometre and a half, sometimes over a metre in one drop.

We were four to a raft – the others were strangers to me – with a professional skipper to shout out instructions, “paddle forwards,” “paddle backwards,” “get inside,” “over to the left,” “over to the right” and “jump,” when we snagged on rocks and had to bounce ourselves off.

It was as leisurely at first as a punt on the Cam as we drifted down a calm stretch of the river, and the sun was hot and the landscape was lovely with mountains and fig trees and thatched huts along the bank.

Then we entered the rapids and the skipper’s instructions became urgent, and we tumbled and twisted through rocks, over ledges, like a spider being washed down the plughole. I turned away from the guy next to me and when I turned back he was gone: he was over the side of the raft. The skipper grabbed his life jacket and held him fast, but his head bobbed repeatedly underwater and the raft ran right over him.  I had a sudden horror that I might be watching him drown. But when we were out of the rapids and we hauled him in with a bust lip and grazes, he was laughing like a kid who had come off his bike and wanted to pretend it did not hurt.

SONY DSC

Then another fast stretch, crashing against rocks; spinning one way, then the other. “Jump! Jump!” Plunging forward. “Get inside!” Gripping the safety rope tight, paddle tucked against hip, foot locked under the tube inside the raft. The roar of the rapids overwhelming. Two inches of water in the raft. My trainers soaked. A cut on my knee. But I stayed in.

Spinning anti-clockwise. “Paddle forward! Paddle forward!” Slamming into another rock, peeling off, and over the edge, spinning in the other direction. Flashback to the time I lost control of a car and pirouetted across the road and bounced off the barrier. Still in, though.

Toppling over another drop backwards, just hanging on. Rocks palpable underneath as the raft scrapes over them. Then another drop, a bigger drop; the raft bending in the middle. And just as it seems that it will tip end over end and catapult us out, we are through.

SONY DSC

And then we were floating peacefully again, past a group of elephants whose mahouts had led them down to the river to drink. Some looked up; most ignored us.

I relaxed then, elated that I had managed not to end up in the water; and the skipper capsized the raft.

© Richard Senior 2015

The Morning after the Lao Lao Rice Whisky

DSC_0269

I peered at my phone and saw that it was time to get up, and then found that I was already dressed. I jammed my hat on my head instead of brushing my hair, grabbed my backpack and checked out of the guesthouse.

I slipped my sunglasses on as I went outside – although the morning was overcast – and took a motorbike taxi to the stop. I was the only falang (Westerner) on the bus, so I knew exactly who the driver and his friend were talking about when they kept using that word in a sniggering conversation. I hid behind my glasses and looked out the window.

It is only a couple of decades since the mountains surrounding the road to Luang Prabang were riddled with bandits; but only the cows which ran into the road at intervals held us up, and the only other people we saw were the women from the villages of subsistence farms who threshed the corn by hand at the side of the road, and the tiny children who ran out and held up dead animals for sale. One girl had a hare barely smaller than her and a boy had what looked like a rat. I turned away, though. Nausea had been hovering in the background all morning, as it was.

It is a glorious, breathtaking route through the mountains. The road struggles up and spirals round with a surprise after every corner, be it soaring peaks, a snaking river, a deep, deep valley, or a big, honking 16-wheeled truck.

The bus pulled into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and I shouldered my backpack and struggled off to look for a guesthouse.

© Richard Senior 2015