Monday, June 30, 2014

Lao Trip 6.8 - Visa In

Day 5 of this 6th trip to Lao – my second day along the Mekong River banks of Savannakhet – I submitted my Thai visa application, along with required documents, to the Thai Consulate, conveniently located within view of The Khong and walking distance of the riverside vendors and my guesthouse.

Afterwards, I walked further into the city – to the area commonly called “The Strip.” There, I did some work at an Internet cafĂ©; checking email, communications with family in the USA and Tactical Gaming responsibilities.

In the afternoon, I ate, drank and hung out at the family vendors tables. The one that had the boom box tuned to Lao music got my vote.

Toward evening, I went back to the Savan Khaim Khong to watch the pretty girls coming home from school on their motor bikes and then watch the sun go down. The guys running the sound system were into Pongsit, so that was a real plus for me; I love Pongsit’s music and so does Thip.

I had some French fries and Beer Lao; didn’t stay too late. I was getting tired, overall.

Before leaving the restaurant, however, I thought long and hard about city people vs. town and village folk. It definitely has been my experience in Thailand and Lao that it is easier to get to know people in a smaller community vs. larger.

The song by Pongsit that was played a lot while I was riverside in Savannakhet:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Lao Trip 6.7 - Savan Khaim Khong

While at the Savan Khaim Khong, occasionally beggars would come in; usually parents with their kids. I always gave each kid some little money; not a lot, but something. I’ve never really thought that begging was a good idea and I’ve certainly seen more beggars who didn’t have to than those that were more or less forced to do it by their circumstances. While I’ve gotten pretty low in my time, I’m fortunate never to have had to beg, so my heart has to go out to those who feel they must.

One Lao woman came in with a pan suspended on a pole. The pan contained hot charcoals with a grill over it. Upon request, the woman would heat up some dried pah-merk (squid), which is a tasty treat that goes great with beer. I had several.

I had a good view of the sundown and then things started picking up. The karaoke singers gradually got it in gear and when they did so, I noticed what few other falang around, left for the exits.

It wasn’t long before I was pulled into a birthday party at the table next to me. The birthday boy in question – a young Lao man in his late 20s – just would not take “no” for an answer, so I celebrated with he and his buddies and a couple of their girls, contributing four bottles of Beer Lao. It was fun.

On my way back to the Nongsoda, I was again pulled into – this time a family celebration of some sort. One of the men (Konsing) spoke very good English, so, for the first time since meeting Miss Ott that morning, I had a chance to converse and fully understand what was being said. Usually, my conversations with Lao people are a mixture of guesswork, interspersed with words that I knew, laughs, and a good deal of apology from me:

Wao Lao nit-noy” (speak Lao very little)

Well, I guess this is an improvement from the days when I would say:

Wao Lao bo dai!” (speak Lao cannot!)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Lao Trip 6.6 - Smart Phones

At the Savan Khaim Khong restaurant my first night in Savannakhet, particularly interesting to me was noticing the difference between Lao young adults who had “smart phones” and those who just had cellphones. It was no news to me that those with the device that could do many things seemed to always be looking into it as if the Answer to Life would suddenly pop-up on their screens.

It’s kinda sad, in a way. I mean, I go back to the time when there were only land line telephones hardwired in buildings and the closest thing you had to a mobile phone was a phone in a telephone booth. When cellphones came into general use during the 1990s, I was a little shocked by girls and women who quickly got into them as some kind of fashion accessory; some even seemed to live their lives more on it than in the environment around them. It was then that it got to be harder and harder to engage females you wanted to get to know, when you discovered they were more pre-occupied with their cellphone conversations to pay you much mind.

Now that phones that can also give you Internet connectivity are spreading out across our planet, it’s even harder to get a girl’s attention. Guys don’t seem so addicted to their phones. There must be studies on the subject. If not, there should be. Yes, I guess I’m, in part, showing my age. I miss those days before smart phones and cellphones when we were all forced to interact with each other in the Here and Now.

By the Way, here's the route I took coming from Tha Khaek to Savannakhet: 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Lao Trip 6.5 - Savan Khaim Khong

Arriving in Savannakhet, I hailed a tuk-tuk and was driven to the Nongsoda Guesthouse, situated right along the Mekong. Like the Sooksomboon Hotel in Tha Khaek, there are nicer and cheaper options, but not with the added plus of sitting on the opposite side of the river road along the Mekong and only being two blocks away from the Thai Consulate. Unlike the Sooksomboon, Nongsoda lacked any notworthy history and was not even as nice. But, again, location is more important to me than quality and if I wanted both, then I would pay for it. I really only use the guestrooms for showering and sleeping, so it doesn’t matter to me too much if they’re a bit dumpy.

I was too late to submit my application for a one-year Non-Immigrant “O” (Other) Visa at the Thai Consulate. So, I kicked around the area of the “Riverside Vendors,” eating, drinking and enjoying the Mekong views. Mukdahan was right across the river and, like at Tha Khaek, the The Khong is very wide, here.

Although there were about a half dozen falang at the guesthouse, in various stages of visa application/renewal, they tended to stay off by themselves and I rarely saw them patronizing the riverside vendors. They did avail themselves of the nearby restaurant and so did I.

The Savan Khaim Khong is not only a restaurant, but the area’s center for karaoke. Unlike at places like PL2, however, the singing didn’t crank up until after sunset. So, while I waited for things to get more lively, I did a fair amount of people-watching.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lao Trip 6.4 - To Savannakhet

Tha Khaek has grown from a sleepy Mekong riverside town to a city that is increasingly known to tourists as a staging area for trekking and bicycle riding into nearby mountains. Since I was not planning anything so adventurous, Day 4 of my trip saw me heading out of town, southbound to Savannakhet city in Savannakhet province.

I was still smarting somewhat from last night’s rejection. Just before heading back to the Sooksomboon Hotel, I had had a last beer along the river and had mis-read signals from the girls at the table next to me. I inadvertently broke one of my travelling rules and showed a little too much interest in them without them first showing a lot more in me. I think I actually ran them off. I was reminded of the conversation I had had with Scotty just days before and chalked this loss as the city girls of Tha Khek being much like their counterparts across the Khong.

In a quick reversal of fortune, on the bus I met Miss Ott. She and her girlfriend got on the bus from her village along the way, heading back to college in Savannakhet. She took the seat next to me, as it being one of the few available. Her friend took another single seat not far away. All of maybe 18, Miss Ott was studying to be an English teacher and I think happy to be able to practice her vocabulary. For me, it was wonderful to converse with a beautiful girl, close-up. Her eyes were so clear!

Miss Ott – I had asked her her name and she introduced herself formally – was particularly surprised that I was travelling alone. She said she would never do that; meaning that that wouldn’t be fun for her. I quickly pointed out that if I was travelling with another person, I would probably not have had the chance to meet her. I think she got it.

Her college came up sooner than we expected, and it was her girlfriend who alerted her to the need to get off. In the rush, I was not able to get her phone number, which was another one of those missed opportunities. I was going to be kicking around in Savannakhet for a few days and it would have been nice for me to get to know her more and nice for her to have feedback on her English and learn some more. Images of “Travelling Man” come to mind, not so much for a girlfriend-in-every-port, but just in the sense of having female friends in far-off places.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Lao Trip 6.3 - Tha Khaek

Nakhon Phanom means ‘City of Mountains,” reads the 2008 edition of Lonely Planet: Thailand, “but the undulating sugarloaf peaks all lie across the river in Laos, so you’ll be admiring rather than climbing them.”

True enough, I got a good view of them the morning of Day 3. I was at the passenger ferry terminal when they opened and got on one of the first boats across. It turned out that I could not enter Lao this way and was turned back. My guidebook is either out-of-date or the information just wrong. That’s OK, I enjoyed crossing then recrossing the Mekong and had all day to get to Tha Khaek as a stamped-in visitor. Much later, when I told my wife about the mistake, she had a good laugh.

The only way to cross into Lao from Nakhon Phanom without an existing Lao visa is by bus, I learned. So, back at the passenger ferry terminal in Nakhon Phanom, I looked for a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the bus terminal. I don’t usually use the drivers who are right at populated areas, so I found one a little down the street, laying back in a makeshift hammock. I asked him how it cost to get to the bus station and he quoted me a price that I knew was four times as high as it should have been. I knew this both because I’d taken a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the Grand Hotel the day before and also because of useful information in the guidebook about how much such things should cost. I thanked him and declined, moving back to the front entrance of the terminal where I got a tuk-tuk driver to give me the standard rate (about $1.00 USD) and proceeded on.

Going the bus route was much more like cattle herding and not nearly as exotic as going over by boat, but Oh Well! From the Nakhon Phanom bus station, I took the bus to Tha Khaek, which stops at the Thai border crossing, goes over the bridge, and then stops at the Tha Khaek border crossing. It was a lot more convoluted than would have been the boat crossing, but I went through the process all in good humor. Fresh in my mind was how my fellow bus riders had responded to the air conditioning breakdown, the day before. Not that I felt it at all, but it’s important to note that throughout Asia, displaying anger or even obvious displeasure is considered a loss-of-face and embarrassing for the witnesses. So, don’t do it.

Again basing myself along the Mekong in Tha Khaek, I took up lodging at the Sooksomboon Hotel, which is actually a converted French colonial-era police station. There were cheaper digs in town and a bit nicer for about the same price, but, as I’ve told you before, I like to stay close to the center of where I consider the action to be, and definitely along the Mekong fits my style.

After washing the day's clothes, showering and then changing into clean clothes, I left the guesthouse (not really what I would call a “hotel”) and strolled along the road that runs along the upper bank of the Tha Khaek side of the Mekong River. Across the way, I could easily spot the ferry terminal in Nakhon Phanom and the Indochina Market, where I had been that morning.

 As the sun was setting over the Mekong, I sat down at one of the outdoor restaurants and had some chicken, sticky rice and cucumber with some Beer Lao. Watching the multitude of sparkling reflections of the sun on the Nam Khong, my mind drifted back to when I was a lifeguard for four summers, in the late 1960s, on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Those were exciting times for a teenager going into his 20s and I couldn’t help but compare then to now. Was I happier then than now? I used to think my lifeguard summers were the happiest times of my life. As I’ve gotten older, helped raise sons of my ownand have a wonderful life partner, I view happiness as something deeper than just having fun and excitement. Not to take away from the great times of my youth and afterwards, but I love being retired in Thailand and I believe I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lao Trip 6.2 - Nakhon Phanom

Day 2 of my sixth trip to Lao [aka “Laos”] was mainly filled by the bus ride from Udon Thani to Nakhon Phanom. As usual, I was the only falang on the bus and had the two seats to myself. I had lots of time to think: mentally planning the days ahead, double-checking my itinerary and maps, and thinking back on recent conversations I had with Scotty.

Scotty’s been in Thailand longer than me and had begun visiting the country even before I met my wife, 14 years ago. Of course, we all have our own perspectives about things, but what I mean is, the longer you’re in a place, the deeper your perspective becomes.

One of our most interesting conversations was Scotty’s take on the changes that had taken place of how Westerners are treated by Thais. When he first started visiting Thailand 20 years ago, he said falang were still considered a novelty and especially Americans were well received. Now, it seemed to him that while we are still respectfully acknowledged for the most part, we have become part of the landscape and no big deal.

I’d heard this perspective before, from other expats and, while my experience in Thailand is only about 15 years old, I agree with Scotty’s and others’ assessment of this. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy travelling in Lao, actually. Americans, especially, are still somewhat rare, there, at least in the countryside, and the people much more willing and desireous of striking up a conversation. That’s not to say I don’t get that in Thailand also, but to a much lesser degree. Of course, Scotty’s and my perspectives are governed somewhat by our aging and lessening of desireability. After all, when Scotty and then I began visiting Thailand, we were younger, single, and “on the hunt.”

View NBL to Tha Khek in a larger map

The bus ride took a lot longer than I expected it to, but I’m sure it was no longer than it regularly takes; probably another reason why falang tend to travel by vans and VIP buses. Me, I love travelling with the Thais. The last time I remember being on a bus where there was another Westerner was a year ago.

That all said, our bus’s air conditioning broke down just out of Sakhon Nakhon. Everyone took it in stride and with good humor, despite it being decidedly uncomfortable; good thing the back windows of the bus slide down and there are air air vents on top.

(view from Nakhon Phanom, looking across The Khong, to Tha Khek, Lao)

In Nakhon Phanom, I checked into the Grand Hotel which isn’t so grand, but it’s relatively cheap and close to the Nam Khong. I’d come into town too late to take the Sunset Cruise, but after a shower, I got some food off the street vendors along the Mekong, enjoyed some beer, and walked around the Clock Tower section of the city on its extreme eastern banks. At one point, I had sat down to enjoy a beer and a group of teenage girls came into the outdoor restaurant – regulars who knew the owners. They respectfully noted my presence and then proceeded to ignore me, pretty much. They also seemed to have the same kind of teenage angst not uncommon to American teenagers. I can’t remember seeing the same, in Lao.

When travelling, I do not venture very far from my lodging as I am always on foot. Consequently, I most always stay near the center of transit locations and/or the major nightlife areas. In this case, I was along the Mekong (which is also my usual) and close to the ferry to Lao. After my beers, I headed back to the Grand Hotel and, that night, developed a new strategy of putting mosquito repellant on before going to sleep.