In the backseat of a tuktuk
PART 1: Laos, Luang Prabang region
After departure I was catching myself wondering if I had sent that last e-mail to the client, closed the door or packed everything. Luckily, some white wine I had until Bangkok airport made sure I would no longer give a flying fuck about it. The wine came particularly handy when after having enjoyed the comfort of two Emirates birds I had to switch to a cheap imitation of what the aviation industry is capable of nowadays, a wheelbarrow called an airplane heading to the region of Luang Prabang.
After being stuck in the world of airplanes and waiting lounges for approximately 30 hours, I finally arrived at the international airport of Laos. which is a daily jumping exercise for local grasshoppers. Arrival also meant becoming a “millionaire”, 100 us dollars bought me 828.000 kips.
My hotel was a tiny wooden jewel with a river view balcony right by the Mekong, it was idyllic for the beginning of a nice vacation. The first thing that touched me was the Mekong, the entire area looks like living in the captivity of a brown labyrinth. It may be a source of food, transportation route or even a place to take a bath (only in areas so designated). The river is the local lord, it generously provides for the Laotians during dry season but the Titanic feeling kicks in for them during monsoon. The Mekong keeps taking away and giving back their territory as it pleases, and year by year, slowly and gradually shapes the landscape.
As I was marching on the riverbank it soon became clear that many local families had transformed the hall of their own homes into a grocery store. While the mother was attending to the clients, the rest of the family were watching a local soap opera, playing video games or just simply having dinner. Life did not seem to stop for a moment there. They tend to wake up quite early, already buzzing around 4-5 in the morning yet the place becomes a yawning contest after 7 pm. This was becoming obvious as I looked at the people who were hindered by their mainly tourism related work from having the life the rest of the locals are usually having.
Everybody was nice and attentive. Whenever I was taking a stroll on a street, sitting in a forest, or entering any place, the locals always rewarded me with an honestly broad how-are-you smile and chirped to me “Sabaidee”, which means “Hi”.
Laos became independent in 1954, previously it had been a French colony for more than half a century. The French influence dotted the entire culture and it suits the place. It is not hard at all to bump into French people either, some are just traveling and/or working, some others had sold everything back home and opened a small bar or restaurant.
The Laotians have some difficulties speaking English, they struggle mainly with the pronunciation (no surprise in Asia), but they try with enthusiasm to make you understand them. Many just stopped me to practice a little English. They seemed to be dying to know a lot about Hungary. When I told them I was a lawyer they showed me the respect befitting a Nobel Prize physicist. The locals dream of becoming a waiter, a driver, a tourist guide or a teacher, or running a small grocery store. The majority have no real chance of going to university.
Of course, they, too, were always sharp enough to try to sell me something but they never became too pushy, the first ‘no’ was always sufficient and not once did they try to rip me off. It was love at first sight with their way of being. They have a happy and welcoming nature despite the fact that their lives are overshadowed by their empty pockets.
Not for a moment did I ever feel in danger, the area is safe and calm. You can only get in to trouble if you chose to be a prick. The streets are not polluted by pimps and hookers, and except for a couple of tuktuk drivers nobody tried to sell me any drugs either. There are only approx. 200 inmates in the region’s sole prison and that’s saying something.
My first target was the most famous attraction of the Luang Prabang region, the Kuang Si waterfall. I rent a motorbike and got there in less than an hour. All I had to pay for to enter the most popular national park of Laos was 3 dollars. The splash of water could be heard at the entrance already, yet it was worth delaying the sensation by taking a thorough look at the bear camp. LIFE. This is the word that pops in when trying to describe the place. Continuous humming, butterflies with the size of a bird, lizards, buffalos. The waterfall is a very touristy place, thus it is better to arrive early. No need to be an early bird but the place is expected to get crowded after noon. It was really a good decision to climb those hills before going into the water because when I was enjoying the caressing of the waterfall I never could have imagined myself going back up there again.
On my way back I met an elephant for the first time in my life, he was just a baby. It was heartbreaking to see that he was chained but I lost track of everything when he started to twist his trunk around my arm and ate the plants and banana I was feeding him busily.
The dark clouds eventually put an end to an idyllic day. The roads are in a catastrophic condition. Laos is way ahead of Hungary as far as the number of potholes is concerned and the remedy is spilling some tar into the potholes on a daily basis. On my way back from the waterfall I was approaching such a stain of tar and due to a minivan passing next to my left shoulder I could not avoid going through it. I slipped.
Fortune favored me enough to let me retain some of the control over the vehicle and I could dampen the fall with my left side. Thank God, I am alive and I broke no bone, I thought. Yet I was shocked to see my entire left side covered in blood and tar. Even though I had had the tetanus vaccine injected back home (together with the ones against typhus and hepatitis A+B), I did not feel calm at all. My stepdad had packed me a shit load of medication back in Hungary, so I could sterilize and bandage the wounds in an hour (though it was still the first day of the vacation). The cherry on top was an indigestion that started showing the symptoms when I finished with the bandages. The next morning I woke up feverish. At that moment I was not sure if the fever was just the result of the fatigue and the indigestion or it was the Laotian tar that had already started to feed on my body. I told the receptionist to call a tuktuk. That was the first time in my life that I had sat in a tuktuk. There and then, in the backseat of a tuktuk, I did not feel well at all.
The driver took me to the local hospital that looked like a luxury mansion compared to my expectations. After she had noticed my bandaged arm and leg, the nurse rushed to me with her eyelashes scratching her forehead and took me to the doctor’s room without asked any questions. Her command of the English language was just as good as my non-existent Laotian, ultimately resulting in having to play some “Activity”. Then the doctor came and said “Hi” in a firm manner, with such a beautifully authentic pronunciation that it gave me hope. But hope was born only to have an ephemeral life and quickly burnt into its ashes, it did not take much time to realize that his English was nothing better than that of the nurse. I could make them understand that I had had the tetanus vaccine injected back home, to which he showed his thumb up like he was a Californian surfer dude. Then I rephrased my question as simply as I possibly could: “No die?, No worry?” The reaction was a heated waving of hands, they just repeated my words like two parrots but in an affirmative tone. I paid the 4-dollar fee for the treatment and I took another tuktuk but this time I felt calmer.
Not long after returning to the hotel I went exploring the city, a series of Buddhist temples was on the table together with the national museum of Laos. At the very beginning of the walk I planned, I met a Buddhist monk, his name was Phet. My bandages were the pretext to start the conversation. He immediately offered me to follow him to their temple and check the view from there. We sat by the temple for half an hour and kept interviewing each other. Meal once a day, no alcohol, no women, no training, no climbing (e.g. tree or a house). Instead their life is filled with meditation and an endless curiosity towards the world we live in, this all being enriched by such benevolence and kindness that was completely unusual to me. Buddhist monks (mainly the younger generation) seem to be open for having conversations with tourists, this is a way of learning for them, helping them to understand the world. I told him about my job and hobbies, explained to him how the GOPRO camera worked. He was interested in taking a look at my pictures of Budapest, and seeing my then-current girlfriend on a couple of photos made him say with the typical Asian accent: “Niiiiiice”. You are only human after all, I thought. Unfortunately his superior signaled to him that their ceremony would begin, and I also moved on. What was surprising above all was that many Buddhists monks have a smartphone, I really did not see this coming.
On the hill (Mount Phou Si) towering over the city, there is a Buddhist shrine (Wat Chom Si) where both the atmosphere and the view can give you magical moments. The path leading up there on one side of the hill is like a tunnel covered with trees, the other way up is densely decorated with Buddhist relics. Reaching the top you can have a view over the entire area. Many tourists and buddhists visit the place on a daily basis. It gets crowded during sunset, nevertheless, you may find nothing but silence and peace during daytime regardless of the fact that you are not entirely alone.
Having marched to the top in a heat of 35 degrees it was pure redemption to curl up in a chilly corner of the sanctuary. I sat there and lost track of time, simply kept watching how the Buddhists entered, lit incense / candles, bowed three times, placed some donation, mainly flowers to the feet of the Buddha then they left but never without the usually broad smile on their faces and a polite nodding. My presence did not bother them at all, I just had to respect the basic rules (e.g. shoes off and shut up). I could have sat there for days, I even returned once more. There had never been any place for me in this world before where I had felt this calm. And there is this Buddhism thing but calm down, I am not going into it in details. Suffice it to say that it was an exhilarating experience to spend some time in an environment that seems to be less contaminated by greed and compulsive consumption.
In addition to the above, I went on a Mekong river cruise, visited the Pak Ou Buddha Cave and the whiskey village, and enjoyed a storytelling theatre and an elephant ride with feeding, bathing and teaching (the latter obviously being the biggest scam possible). Some of the above are very touristic activities but for example the storytelling theatre was magically authentic in the company of only a handful of spectators, the performer and his musician.
Prices are extremely friendly. I paid 3 dollars for shorts, the same amount for my favorite noodle soup in the size of a bucket, 12 dollars for the motorbike (plus 25 for the damage I caused), 25 cent for daily parking fee, 5-8 dollars for an hour massage, 2,5 dollars for Marlboro but 25 cents for a local cigarette. I had to pay approx 3.5 dollars for a wok food we are having for 10 dollars in Budapest. On the market a chicken fillet with two side dishes was 1,5 dollars. In restaurants I paid between 7-20 dollars but this was mainly due to the wine I had, a decently sized piece of Australian beef can land in your belly for 13 dollars.
Like all Asian countries, Laos is an open kitchen too. The indigestion made me careful, with one exception I avoided eating on the market. The most extraordinary food I had was a Mekong fish steamed in banana leaves with green spices and seaweed covered in sesame seeds.
I was planning to have just a peaceful dinner last night but the French waitresses of Sakura Bar gave me a flyer and recommended that I check the bar, also ensured me that I would get a welcome drink. Why not? I thought. Arriving at the bar I was already given my welcome drink that turned out to be a bucket filled with 0,5 l Laotian whiskey and 1 l of coke, some ice and straws. I could not drink even half of the bucket, then I changed to some blue booze that was a lot less tough than 1,5 l of whiskey-coke.
The story of the bar is as follows: a Chinese man opened this bar on the edge of the city, next to a bridge. The staff is a selection of young travelers from around the world, that night the staff included members from France, Sudan, Venezuela, Great-Britain and Germany. They do not receive a salary but instead are provided with accommodation and hot meal 3 times a day and they can drink as much as they want regardless of whether any guest is entering the bar. They have to distribute some flyers during the day too but they have no other obligations, there is local personnel even for doing the dishes. Their only obligation is to attend to the guests. There is high fluctuation at the bar, the members of the staff may at anytime decide to resign or come back. The Chinese owner was the exact replica of Chow from Hangover, frequently lighting his slim cigarettes, dancing crazily and getting wasted with the youngsters basically every night. The French appreciated that I could speak their language and introduced me to the boss, who did not hesitate a lot to extend to me a job offer with the same conditions. I played table tennis on a table that had bottles of beer as a net and I could have tried the fiery limbo too but the rod was placed so low already in the first round that I only could have jumped over it and I definitely had no intention to burn my face. Unfortunately, the bar closed completely by 1 am so I hopped on the first tuktuk I could find. There and then, in the backseat of a tuktuk, I felt just great.
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