Dinner in Vientiane

Lao_laab

It was around 9pm and, at that time in London, the restaurants are bustling, and in Madrid they are just starting to open. But in Vientiane they were already closing.

The lights were off in the first two I passed and, in the third, the waiters were stacking chairs on tables. There were still a few customers in the fourth, and I went in but was told that the kitchen was closed. After a couple of blocks, I started to wonder if I might have to go hungry that night.

But all over Southeast Asia – even, it turned out, in Vientiane – there are pop-up restaurants on patches of waste ground with grubby old picnic tables and grills made from half an oil drum. They have the look of a roadside cafe aimed at truckers and people with hangovers, but the worse they look, the better the food tends to be. It was very good at this one.

I had laap – the national dish – made with finely-chopped Mekong River fish ‘cooked’ with lime juice, as in ceviche, and tossed with sliced chilli, lemongrass, cucumber and an abundance of herbs: coriander, mint and Thai basil. It came with a bowl of sticky rice, as almost everything does in Laos.

I sat out until late in the warm night air with a couple of Beerlaos until a storm passed through and sent everyone scurrying under canopies.

The next night’s restaurant came recommended. Some reckoned it was the best in Vientiane, one of the best in Laos. It was French, but neither a relic of empire, nor made to look like it might be with a menu of cumbersome heritage dishes in a room a little too French to be real.

Tinay Inthavong learned his cheffing in France, at the Lycée Hotelier in Nice and the two-Michelin-starred Michel Sarran in Toulouse. His restaurant, L’Adresse de Tinay, would have worked well enough in either city, but instead he opened in Vientiane, reportedly after visiting on his honeymoon and deciding to settle there.

It is a bistro moderne, stylish without being snobbish, minimalist without looking corporate: white walls, big mirrors, designer chairs and a glass-fronted wine store. Front of house staff are friendly and efficient; there is no embarrassing fawning and they don’t give a damn what you wear.  The menu is a reassuringly short list of Modern French dishes cooked and presented as well as you would expect from a chef with Tinay’s CV.

An amuse bouche came with the aperitif: a tiny bowl of gazpacho with baguette croutons. Starter was a tuna tartare, main was « cassoulet ». As the quote marks implied, it was not the Languedoc classic but something much lighter and cheffier, complete with a fashionable foam, made with the same key ingredients: confit duck, a Toulouse sausage and white beans.

Much as I enjoyed discovering the local food of the region, the noodle soups, the chilli-spiked salads, the fish cooked in banana leaves, it was good to have a change, for one night, from street food carts and ramshackle restaurants, and while dinner at L’Adresse cost a lot more, it was still a bargain by European benchmarks.

© Richard Senior 2016

Laap image: By Basil Strahm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Fall of Saigon, Revisited

DSC_0700

“Twenty years ago,” reckoned the far-left polemicist John Pilger in 1995, “Hanoi was a Trappist monk and Saigon was a whore with a hangover”.

Saigon, on 29 April 1975, was – as Pilger sketched it – a city of bar girls, street hustlers, opium-addicts, gamblers and black marketeers, but it was also a city of high-rise buildings, Western fashions and a comfortable middle class. Next day, it would fall.

The images of that day – forty-one years ago tomorrow – are among the most iconic of the late twentieth century: the overloaded helicopters struggling from the roof of the US Embassy, the desperate crowds outside, the tank busting through the fence of Independence Palace.

DSC_0755

The old embassy building, at 4 Lê Duẩn Boulevard, up past the colonial-era Notre Dame Cathedral and round the corner, was demolished in the late 1990s, after the Clinton administration restored diplomatic relations and the site was given back to the United States. The planters which used to surround it are still there.

After the years, the months, the weeks of anticipation, and the days of frantic withdrawal, the fall, when it came, was an anti-climax. No shots were fired, no resistance was offered. The demoralised soldiers of the ARVN, the South Vietnamese Army, stripped off their equipment and went home. Rows of helmets and boots lay along the side of the road.

The cameras were not even rolling when the tank burst through the fence around Independence Palace. It had to reverse out and do it again so the photographers could capture it for posterity.

DSC_0754

Independence Palace was a disingenuous name. South Vietnam only came into being as an attempt by the French to regain control of a colony over which Ho Chi Minh had asserted independence. The original palace was what had once been the colonial governor’s residence, but that was bombed in 1962 by dissident pilots in the South Vietnamese air force, sympathetic to Hanoi, who ironically destroyed its left wing.

President Diệm, who had come to power in a free and fair election in which he secured 150,000 more votes than people entitled to cast them (despite advice to keep the result around 60%), commissioned a new building, but was assassinated before it was finished in one of the coups which punctuated South Vietnam’s short history.

From the outside, it could be a municipal swimming pool in a little-known provincial town; on the inside, it might be the headquarters of SPECTRE in one of the early Bond movies. It is open to the public and preserved much as it was on that morning in April 1975 when tanks bust down the fence. All that has really changed is the name. It is Reunification Palace now. That day, forty-one years ago tomorrow, is known here as Reunification Day. They refer to it as the Liberation, not the Fall. Since then, the city has officially been Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, but it is still, informally, Sài Gòn.

DSC_0776

The Fall did not lead to mass-executions, as the Saigonese had feared, although many were forcibly relocated to the countryside. ARVN soldiers and others associated with the old regime, over a million according to some accounts, were sent to re-education camps where most were ill-treated – some abominably – and over a hundred thousand died.

The old men you see peddling cyclos – tricycle rickshaws – around modern Saigon are likely as not to be ARVN veterans. I asked one and he confirmed it, but he did not want to talk about the war or re-education camps: he just wanted to talk about ‘girly bars’.

Vietnam is still nominally communist, but it is a long way from each according to his ability to each according to his needs. Saigon is the economic capital and still feels dramatically different from Hanoi. There are familiar names on the plaques outside the most impressive office blocks, names like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas, Allen & Overy, Mayer Brown, CBRE, Deloitte and Ernst & Young. There are Porsches and Ferraris parked nearby. There are men in sharp-tailored Armani and women in sharp-heeled Louboutins, and sharper than both is the contrast between the rich and the rest: sharper than I saw anywhere else in Southeast Asia.

It is hard now to think of Saigon as having fallen, or if you prefer, being liberated.

© Richard Senior 2016

A Railay Nice Place

DSC_0058 (2)

I jumped out of the longtail boat at the West Beach, where the luxury travellers stay, and walked through the jungle to other side of the island.

I had hoped to get accommodation here, in Railay, a small peninsula cut off from mainland Krabi by limestone cliffs; but there was nothing left at the cheaper end, so I had to settle for a bungalow in Nopparat Thara at the other side of Ao Nang. It was only a short boat ride away.

It was a peaceful walk through the jungle with the sound of the birds and red and black butterflies, as big as my hand, flashing by, and the occasional cave to nose around. Cicadas of some sort way up in the trees made an unworldly metallic sound, pa-poing, pa-poing, pa-poing.

It was trippy as hell, and that suited Railay East, where the trail emerged. There is still a hint, there, of the semi-mythical hippie retreat which grizzled old travellers reminisce about when they complain of how Thailand has been ruined in the last 20, or 30, or 40, or however many years have passed since the first time they went.

I felt overdressed, there, in a Beer Chang singlet and fake Havianas. The other travellers wore nothing but faded fisherman’s trousers and tattoos. Several had dreads and most had luxuriant beards – even the girls – and this was at least a year before everyone had a beard.

Hip hop and reggae wafted from the bars; ganja smoke wafted from everywhere. There is usually a subtle but strict segregation between travellers and Thais, unless they are working in the tourist trade or dating farangs; but in Railay East they all sat and smoked together.

It might have been a backpacker paradise, had the beach not been a disaster of mud, mangroves and pipes.

photo (1)

walked through the jungle again to Phra Nang in the southwestern corner, where there is a lovely squiggle of beach framed by limestone karsts of bronze and grey overhung with trees.

It has supposedly been ranked among the top ten beaches in the world, but that is a bit meaningless because no one has been to them all. “The Ten Best…” is usually just the ten the writer knows about.  It was nice enough, though, to persuade me to stop, sit down on the sand and take it all in.

There were climbers on the karsts out in the bay, without ropes. It was a long way to fall if they slipped off a hold, but the sea below was deep enough to catch them. There were more climbers upside down on overhangs above the beach with instructors shouting encouragement from the ground. The more I watched them, the more I wanted a go.

But there was not much left of the afternoon by then. The sun slipped down and the light began to fade and I made my way back to the West Beach.  There was a long queue for the longtail boats, but a guy tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out into the surf to a boatman – presumably his mate – whom he said was going to Ao Nang and would give me a lift.

I jumped the queue and waded out until the water was up past my waist and grabbed the rail of the boat with both hands and vaulted in.

I planned to go back to Railay the next day but it was New Year’s Eve, and on New Year’s Day I didn’t feel like doing very much at all, and the day after that I left for Bangkok. I eventually went climbing in Laos, three countries later, and – much more recently – took it up seriously. I am at the climbing gym twice a week, now, when I am not travelling, and all because of that afternoon in Railay.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating up Vietnam #4: Huế

 

Copy of DSC_0079e

Mr Cu is an excellent photographer. The walls of his restaurant, the Mandarin Café, are crammed with his shots of the people and places of Vietnam. He is a sociable chap, speaks good English, and makes a point of chatting to his customers. He gives them all a postcard of one of his photographs.

I stayed next door, in the cheekily-named Google Hotel, and stumbled into the Mandarin Café each morning for coffee and a bowl of the city’s famous noodle soup, bún bò Huế.  It is made with beef shank and pigs’ trotters simmered with lemongrass, onion and shrimp paste, then flavoured with fish sauce, sugar and a wallop of chilli powder, poured over round noodles and sprinkled with herbs.

Huế was Vietnam’s imperial capital, until the last emperor abdicated at the end of the Second World War, and there are restaurants across town offering elaborate, expensive, banquets of dishes which they claim were traditionally served to the imperial family, all arranged into the shape of peacocks, elephants and such like. It is impressive enough, but not really what I was there for. The street food interested me a whole lot more.

On the banks of the Perfume River, in the shadow of Eiffel’s Trường Tiền Bridge, there is a bustling night market with food carts and picnic tables crowding the pavements. The grills smoke, the prawns sizzle, the vendors shout, the customers jostle, and the aromas fill the air. I ate banh khoai – happy pancakes – as I nosed round the stalls.

The batter is made with rice flour, a good pinch of turmeric, which turns it yellow, and sugar and carbonated water which help it to crisp up on the hotplate. It is stuffed, then, with prawns, pork belly, beansprouts, spring onion and shredded carrot and folded like an omelette.

DSC_0038

I happened upon a restaurant, the next day, a few blocks from the river, which looked run-down enough to be good and ordered nem lui, ground pork and pork skin mixed with garlic, sugar and fish sauce, shaped into sausages, skewered with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal.

It came with a pile of rice papers, lettuce leaves, herbs and cucumber slices and a deceptively complex dipping sauce made with hoisin and fish sauces, chopped pork liver, toasted peanuts and peanut butter. The idea is to force the meat off the skewer with your chopsticks, roll it and some of the leaves and vegetables in the rice paper, then dip it in the sauce.

I got so engrossed in poking about in the ruins of the imperial citadel that I forgot all about having lunch, but bánh bèo from a roadside stall kept me going until evening. These delicate steamed rice cakes are topped with a mixture of chopped prawns and crumbled dried shrimp, pork crackling and sliced spring onions and dressed with nuoc mam sauce, made with rice vinegar, fish sauce and sliced chillies.

Dinner, then, was cơm hến: a bowl of rice topped with tiny clams, sliced spring onion, julienned apple, crispy pillows of fried pig skin and a handful of herbs, served with a jug of clam broth to add to taste.

I had eaten well in Huế but could not help thinking, as I continued north, that I had only tried a small sample of its regional dishes. Never mind. There was Hanoi still to come.

© Richard Senior 2016

Eating Up Vietnam #3: Hội An

DSC_0981

We went first to the market to pick up ingredients. Women in silk trousers and conical hats sat surrounded by baskets piled high with limes, spring onions, garlic bulbs, leafy herbs and turmeric roots. Shoppers weaved between stalls on their scooters.

Back at the cooking school, Hanh gave us each a booklet of recipes and a job to do. I started shredding the unripe papaya, Scott did the same with the carrots and Melissa assembled a dressing sauce with the familiar blend of lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, garlic and chilli.

Every country in Indochina has a take on green papaya salad. The Thai version, som tam, is well-known in the West: the others, not. Vietnam’s món gòi đu đu, is similar but simpler and lacks the conflagration of chillies. Just coat shrimps with paprika and pan-fry fleetingly, then toss with shredded papaya and carrot, mint and sesame seeds in the dressing and garnish with peanuts and onion flakes.

Once the salad was prepped, we started on gỏi cuốn, or ‘fresh’ spring rolls. It was just an assembly job after we had shredded a cucumber and carrot and squeezed the liquid from each. Soften the rice papers briefly in water, dry them off, and roll them up with the shredded vegetables, shrimps, chopped mint and onion flakes, then serve with a dipping sauce.

DSC_0968

Richard, did you say goodbye water,” said Hanh, “because the rice paper still look wet”. I stopped, patted it dry some more, and continued.

We cooked aubergines, then, with a technique more commonly used for fish. Peel, quarter and briefly deep-fry the aubergines, then roast them in a clay pot with spring onions, paprika, sugar and soy sauce until it caramelises. Garnish it with chopped coriander and serve with rice on the side.

The phở was just about ready by the time the aubergines were on the heat. We made a simplified version of this well-known noodle soup with the stock extracted from beef bones furiously boiled for twenty minutes – it is better simmered for an hour or more – with sugar, ginger, coriander, star anise and shallots. We coated a beef fillet with chilli paste and sugar and left it to marinate while the stock was cooking, then sliced it and served it with beansprouts, mint and peanuts and the stock poured over the top.

Hội An has a noodle dish of its own which I like even better than phở. Cao lầu is made with pork shoulder marinated and roasted in the Cantonese way, flat noodles, a generous handful of leafy herbs and pillows of deep fried pork rind. They will tell you in Hội An that it can only be made with water from an ancient well in the town, which is obviously not true, but I never saw it on menus elsewhere.

Cao_Lau_Hoi_An

There is a story, too, about bánh bao vac, or white rose as it is called on English menus. They say that the recipe is a secret, known only to one family which has handed it down the generations and supplies every restaurant in Hội An. It sounds to me like something they have made up for tourists. Surely any good chef could work out what was in it and try different quantities until it was right. But, again, I never saw it anywhere else but Hội An.

White rose is half a dozen rice flour dumplings, stuffed with shrimps, onions and seasoning, topped with deep-fried shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. They are much lighter than the Chinese-style dumplings you find all over Asia, and made me think more of tortellini. They are not exactly white and they look nothing like roses.

Cá kho tộ (fish in clay pot) is not a local dish. It is on menus throughout Vietnam. There are any number of variations but the basic idea is to roast snakehead fish, or similar, in a clay pot with a counter-intuitive caramel sauce. I ate it throughout Vietnam, but it was never quite as good as it was in the courtyard of a lovely restaurant overlooking the river in Hội An.

© Richard Senior 2015                     

Cao lầu image: By Dragfyre (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eating Up Vietnam #2: Nha Trang

photo (2)

In Nha Trang the hawkers were always there but I did not notice them anymore. They sold friendship bands, cigarettes, playing cards and everything else I could manage without.

But as I sat on the sand and gazed idly out at the South China Sea, I noticed a lady in a conical hat with a pot of cooked lobsters hanging from a yoke on her shoulder. I got up and followed her across the beach, caught up and asked her how much. “Hundred thousand Dong,” she said. Just under three pounds; four and a half dollars, US.

She segmented the lobster, so the meat was get-at-able with chopsticks, and halved a lime and squeezed the juice into a pot and stirred in pepper to make a simple dipping sauce. It was as much as the lobster needed.

I wandered over to the fruit vendor later in the afternoon, just as she was about to pack up, and I only wanted a pomelo, but she stuffed a bag with two of those, a dragon fruit, a couple of bananas half a dozen mandarins, and nearer a dozen rambutans. “No, no,” I said; “I can’t eat all this”.

Okay for tomorrow,” she insisted and forced the bag on me. I did my best with it that afternoon and finished the rest in the morning, sitting on the beach and peeling fruit with my Swiss Army knife.

Somewhere around midday, an old lady arrived and laid down her yoke and began to set out her stall. She lined up four pots, one filled with spiny lobster, a second with crabs, a third with tiger prawns and a fourth with sea snails, then shook ice onto platters and topped each with a little of the seafood and placed them on top of the pots. She lit the charcoal in a cast iron pan suspended from the yoke, laid a grill over it and let it burn until the charcoal glowed red and grey.

This time, I got a lobster, a crab, two tiger prawns and sea snails dotted with curry paste for my 10,000 Dong. For the same money in London, I would get a miserable sandwich from one of the corporate chains and the mayonnaise would splat on my shirt and ruin my mood. Even an old, small, cooked-from-frozen lobster would cost twice as much back home.

There are too many tourists in Nha Trang for the restaurants to be reliably good, but I found one on a quiet street a few blocks back from the beach, which was as dark and ramshackle as good restaurants tend to be in Southeast Asia, and had a menu of un-touristy dishes like stewed frogs with aubergine in turmeric broth. I ordered miến lươn trộn, which is sliced eel stir-fried in a hot wok and tossed with beansprouts, glass noodles, shredded mint and chilli then sprinkled with onion flakes.

I was done, then, with Nha Trang and went back to my hotel, collected my bag and got an overnight train heading north.

© Richard Senior 2015

Vientiane: the Small-Town Capital City

DSC_0174

Vientiane’s not exactly your giant metropolis, old boy,” said a repellent character in John Le Carré’s classic novel, The Honourable Schoolboy. The city is always there, in the background, referenced throughout, and a central character even spent time there, but somehow it never acquires three-dimensional shape.

It is much the same in real life.

Vientiane passed largely unnoticed by the outside world through the tragic, tumultuous history of Post-War Southeast Asia. It has none of the resonance of Hanoi, Saigon or Phnom Penh and little of their heritage, beyond the occasional colonial building, often derelict, overgrown, forgotten.

Even the familiar soundtrack of the region, the howling scooters, the cacophony of horns, the too-loud music, the shouting vendors, is strangely muted. The tuk-tuk drivers let you pass without hustling for business. No one follows you down the street, revising their prices for the trinkets you have already declined. You are not constantly offered sex, drugs and spring rolls.

There is a handful of splendid temples, but I am not sure they would have merited more than a polite glance if I had gone the other way round and seen Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang first. There is, as well, the notorious ‘vertical runway’. The United States, desperate to keep Laos from going communist, sent funds and materials to build an airport, but instead the royalist government built a massive triumphal arch: a Buddhist Arc de Triomphe. Laos went communist anyway.

I was out at eight to explore the city. I had run out of things to see by lunchtime. Once I had reserved a seat in a minibus out of town next morning, there was nothing to do but to go to the National Museum. It is in one of the best of the surviving colonial buildings, once the French Colonial Governor’s residence, and – with depressing predictability – it is due to be torn down any day soon to make room for a hotel.

DSC_0217

It had the forlorn air of small-town museums run by old ladies, with a few real treasures bulked out with maps and models and the sort of stuff which clutters up garden sheds.

The first floor is devoted to modern history, which here – in one of the few remaining Marxist-Leninist states – is weaved into a coherent narrative of revolutionary struggle. The bitterness is undisguised, but understandable too.

Laos has spent much of its history having indignities done to it by more powerful states. It has been sacked, invaded, colonised, administered, bullied, propped up, used as a proxy and had 270 million cluster bombs dropped on it by a faraway superpower for fear that another superpower might acquire it as an ally. Forty years on, Lao children still routinely lose arms and legs when they happen upon one of the 80 million which failed to explode.

French colonial rule is represented by paintings in the style of First World War propaganda, showing snarling soldiers clubbing women to death with rifles and dropping babies down wells. Rusting guns and faded flags commemorate “The fighting to liberate the connty [sic] against the American Imperialists and the puppet soldiers from 1954-63”.

The tabloid language might have been copied straight from the museums in Hanoi and loses the story some of the force it would have if it were just told straight. It is probably for the good that a lot of the captions are along the lines of:

“The weapons with which the carbon farming was Imperialist US.”

And

“The weapons caron farming as you guard leader in the time from.”

With this as a benchmark, you have to applaud the tuk-tuk drivers on the street outside for advertising trips to the “Fendship Bedge,” the “Fiendship Brege” and the “Freshdip Brig”.

None is quite Friendship Bridge, but you can at least understood what they mean.

© Richard Senior 2015

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

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