Friday, December 30, 2016

Lao Trip 15.2b - Xaysana's Students

I never really know what’s coming next. This is another reason why I love vacationing in Lao so much.

When I had arrived in PL2, I messaged Dao that I was here. She is my contact to teacher Duangtar; herself a former student of his who had just graduated from Palisard Business Administration College in Pak Lai. She had married Luy shortly afterwards and now had an administration job somewhere in the town; possibly at the school.

Dao was the girl who, two years ago, had spotted me looking a little down at Heuan Phair and had called in Duangtar, as his English is good. That’s when I first met them and their friends K’Kong and Samneuk. It was a time when I was finally reconciling myself to probably never seeing Nuey again. That was the reason for my long face that afternoon.

Anyway, I wasn’t surprised when she messaged me today, asking what I was doing. Through her, I was hoping to link up with Duangtar again. She told me she was drinking beer with friends at Thavekhoun Restaurant in Houaysaykhum village about 15 minutes away. So, I hung out in the shade of the river road and waited for a tuk-tuk to come by.

Another reason I love traveling in Thailand and Lao is that local people will look after you -- like I had those French off roaders. The owner of Khem Khong and Sayadeth noticed me and asked if I needed a samlor. I replied that I did, thanking her. A neighbor I’ve ridden with before came and picked me up shortly thereafter, taking me straight to where I needed to go.

Thavekhoun is just a private home with some raised and roofed platforms in the backyard; a very local scene.

Dao had left, but teacher Xaysana was there with some of his students who were graduating from Palisard. I saw Samneuk again and greeted him. Xaysana invited me into their group; a little surprised to see me, I think.

We all had fun mixing Lao and English. The girls were especially interested in my wife, our ages, children and what color skin does my wife have? I said same as Xaysana’s and they all laughed, as he is much darker than Lao in Xaiyabuli (aka Sainyabuli) Province.

Lao girls and women -- like Asian women generally -- value white skin highly. Most who can afford it apply whitening creme to their skin daily. When out in the sun for any length of time -- including riding a motorsai -- they will either use an umbrella or wear a hat or cap. Actually, baseball caps are getting more and more popular because of this reason. Although it looks cute and picturesque, riding a motorcycle with one hand on the accelerator and the other hand holding a small umbrella is a lot more work. Whenever I see girls riding this way, it always reminds me of how, as lifeguards back in the USA, we worshiped the sun and proudly displayed our deep tans.

One of the girls -- Tae -- has eyes that light up. Young people have clearer eyes than those of us who are older, but some have a brightness -- a twinkle -- that is beyond the norm. Tae has it and it is beautiful to watch. She caught me watching her more than once.

Tae's the one with the baseball cap.

Just before sundown, we broke up. The girls would not let me pay for any of the beer. I got a ride with the main group of them and told Xaysana I’d see him again. Later, I ate dinner at Khem Khong and then had a beer over at Banna; first with the French guys before they left for dinner and then by myself.

The woman who runs the restaurant -- I’ve known her for a couple of years. Last time I was in town, we even drank together with a group of her middle age women friends. Now, she had a younger friend join her and when her friend wasn’t looking, made gestures to me that I should sleep with her. Her friend was attractive; maybe late 20s. I declined with a smile, thanking her for thinking of me.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Lao Trip 15.2a - Dirt Bikers

Last night at the Khem Kong restaurant, I had a very tasty meal of pad ka pao kauai (fried beef and basil) with jasmine rice and a bottle of Beer Lao with ice. The food was really excellent. I remarked on more than one occasion to the owner that it was “sap lai” (very delicious). She responded as any proud owner would do that everything they offer is superb. Well, I doubt that only because I’m always suspicious of “everything.” For sure, I’ve only tasted a very small fraction of the menu, so I really couldn’t verify. No matter the place, I am always careful of what I eat and usually stick with bar-b-que of some sort.

In the morning I was able to call Thip around the time we usually wake up when we’re sleeping in the village (4:30-5am). Then, after that, my Lao cellphone data sim crapped out on me -- or so I thought. I later found out that I had just run out of minutes was all. Anyway, the guest house wifi was reachable on the bottom floor, so I had coffee down there and got done with my Internet stuff (writings, communication, world news).

After the fog lifted, I went to the BCEL in Pak Lai, got kip and then relocated to that restaurant that overlooks both the port and the newish floating restaurant.

They have really prospered since the time I first began visiting about five years ago. They are mostly geared to big groups and tour buses, with an ample parking lot and lots of bathroom urinals. The inside has also been upgraded and is still a scenic spot to hang.

Here I did some writing, drank some beer and ate/drank a coconut. I had noticed the large size of coconuts (mak pow) in a basket by the kitchen and had commented on them. The proprietor asked me if I’d like one. I nodded right away with a smile, asking her to include the “meat.” When drinking coconut juice straight from the nut, I always request the inside coconut, too. It makes for a meal, if there’s enough, and doesn’t cost you any more.

When I left the restaurant and began to pass the port area, I noticed a few Falang dirt bikers (aka “off roaders”) lounging around and struck up conversation with them. They were French who knew English. I was able to recommend a good guest house for them (the former Seng Chalerm, now renamed Banna) and shared some intel with them on the area.

(Banna on the right; Khem Khong just beyond it)

It was a group like this that first taught me how to make the most of it in Lao. It was my first trip to Lao on my own. They had shown me not only respect, but how they engaged with the locals. There was a birthday party in progress and they took part as honored guests even though they didn’t know anyone and couldn’t speak the language. After they left, I was recruited to fill in and... I’ve been the “roll with it” kinda guy ever since.

The Frenchmen invited me to drink with them, but I declined. A little later, some young Lao guys did the same and I accepted. What was the difference? I have some ideas, but it really only comes down to what you are feeling at the moment. As you “roll,” you also trust your instincts.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lao Trip 15.1c - PL2

The southbound Pak Lai bus station changed locations; not sure why. But, I was glad to see my friend Lu the tuk-tuk (samlor) driver had easily made the transition. I told him I was going to PL2 and he set me up with one of his drivers. My guess is he’s trying to build a fleet, which is smart because there’s also a northbound bus station (of sorts). He can’t be in two places at once.

PL2 is my somewhat “secret spot.” It’s within the Pak Lai zone of influence, but is its own thing and, in fact, unique. I haven’t run across another place quite like it in Lao or anywhere. I am fortunate that I found it with a little bit of research and reasoning early in my retirement in Thailand. With only around ten trips to PL2 to date, I already have a bunch of neat stories of what’s happened to me there. Significantly, I’ve also established friendships and am remembered by some.

After checking into my favored guest house and getting my favorite room (sunny room, Mekong river side), I did some laundry, showered and headed straight for Koun Ten. This floating restaurant/bar/karaoke spot has been the scene of some of my best times in the past five years.

I arrived shortly before the light faded and stayed through sundown. There was only one or two other tables occupied. The owner remembered me and I believe her husband had hailed me from his moving motosai while I had been en route. It had been two years since I had seen them both or even stepped foot on the floater. This is because, back in early 2015, the barge had been hit by a local tornado and most of the roof torn away. It had taken them a while to rebuild. When they reopened, they had a grand party (I had missed that) and renamed the restaurant to Vardsanar (koungtent).

Nothing much happened while I drank my two bottles of Beer Lao with ice. I shot some nice pictures and video and had fun remembering all the times I’d been here before and what had happened.

Afterwards, on the walk back to the guest house, I stopped in at Heuan Phair. Nobody was around except for the gay guy. I’ve often wondered how this family stays in business. The owner’s daughter was in and out. I had visited here a year ago, but this time I almost didn’t recognize her. She’s growing up fast!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Lao Trip 15.1b - Tailgating

When I crossed the Thai/Lao border along the Nam Heuang bridge, I noticed a change to the procedure on the Lao side. They checked my passport number before sending me over to get my one-month visa. It makes more sense than getting the visa and then checking to see if letting me into the country was a good idea. For sure, a list of all the dates and locations in and out come up on the computer one way of the other. Of course, I checked out OK!

The Ken Thao cut-throat tuk-tuk drivers on the Lao side still hadn’t changed their ways. They charged me a ride from the border to the Ken Thao bawkawsaw (Lao: lot) that was all of 10 minutes and four times what the two hour trip from Muang Loei to Tha Li had cost me -- and over twice as much as what Lu would charge me in Pak Lai. In part, this is just part of the economy. Fuel is more expensive than in Thailand (and much of it is imported from Thailand), but I think it’s also a local thing. These guys have locked-in their trade and taken advantage of the situation. They’re all nice and friendly, but their prices definitely are not.

On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was an afternoon sawngtheaw going to Pak Lai this day. That meant that I would not have to lay over in Ken Thao -- a delay and added expense.

While waiting for the passenger truck to Pak Lai to depart, I purchased a data sim card in the market. This gave me Internet access on my cellphone while in Lao and also solve the communication problems I’d been having the last few trips.

It was a beautiful, sunny November day for traveling; air clear and crisp. The ride from Ken Thao to Pak Lai (aka “Paklay Town”) is even more beautiful than the ride from Loei to Tha Li. I always hang by the tailgate to get the backwards view; handkerchief mandatory due to the exhaust.

We stopped at the sawmill south of Pak Lai and unloaded a bunch of slabs of thick-cut mai doo -- the same kind of wood as our steps at Bann Nah. While there, I had a good view of the new bridge being built across the Mekong. In a year or so, that ferry trip Thip and I rode back in 2012 will be a thing of the past, unfortunately for those of us who like variety and a slower pace.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Lao Trip 15.1a - To The Border

Adhering to the provisions of my one-year multiple entry Thai “O” (for “Other”) Visa, in mid-November 2016/2559, I left Thailand and journeyed to Lao for my 15th trip to that beautiful country. I’ve technically been in Laos 17 times, but -- like my last one -- two were just mere border crossings -- over and back -- so that I could get another travel permit and keep my Thai Visa current.

I’m not a fan of the return same day border crossings. I much more prefer to make better use of the opportunity to take short vacations. The break from my normal routines is good for me and I haven’t had a bad trip yet -- including the time I got Traveller’s Diarrhea for a couple of days in Southern Lao.

A bit unfortunately, I left Thailand in the middle of our family’s yearly rice harvest. It is important for me to be around during this most important time -- not so much in the fields as the provider of beer, soft drinks, energy drinks and food... and, of course, general moral support.

I did this for a couple of days and then left. The pending expiration of my travel permit (90 days in length), forced my exit. But, I timed it as best I could. Importantly, I made sure the 9 rai road, that had been washed out by the recent flooding, was smoothed out. This not only made it possible for family to drive all the way in to Bann Nah (our farm house: center of pumped water, electricity, kitchen, bathroom and hammocks), but also made it possible for the thresher to get in, once the rice was cut and dried in the sun.

On the day of my leaving, Thip rode me on her motosai (Honda Wave 110i) about seven kilometers to the provincial bus station in Nong Bua Lamphu city. Although sleepier than most provincial bus stations, the Nong Bua bawkawsaw is laid out pretty much the same as most of the other ones. The administration office, information booth and bathrooms are centrally located with a long stretch of concrete bays assigned to certain bus routes. This roofed structure is surrounded by a cement road circling it, with shop houses in a “U” shape surrounding it. The shops sell various things and are not always traveller-specific. People who own the shops generally live in the apartments above them. You can always tell who’s doing well financially by seeing who has new paint and windows on their section of the block.

I always enjoy the ride to Muang Loei. I remember when the road was all two-lane highway, only 6-10 years ago. Now, there’s sections of four and even six lanes. 

From Muang Loei, I caught the sawngtheaw to Tha Li and then another passenger truck to the Thai/Lao Border and Nam Heuang.