The Misty Mountains

Laotians have this vocalisation they execute all the time. It’s just a little exclamation; meaning much the same as, I do suspect, “Sheeyit.” But it slays me every time I hear it (which, when in Laos, is quite frequently indeed). They also do it some in Northeastern Thailand; but the imitation pales in comparison.

And so? Well, nothing, really. Just that I’d kind of forgotten how fucking much I love this country; and this sort of silly little example is one reason among dozens illustrating why I find the place so alluring.

Funnily enough, I feel this way even though it’s a bit like I’ve not even been in Laos these last days: Vientiane is more like a no-man’s land, floating somewhere between Laos and Thailand; while Vang Vieng is more like a no-man’s land floating somewhere between Laos and David Lynch.

But with the two combined, there’s quite a bit of the old Laos magic; and the rides to and fro’ more less seal the deal: the down-home temples, the broadly smiling locals, the mischievous kids running around barefoot, the roadside village huts with only the one apparent modern amenity (the satellite dish and concomitant teevee), the lousy Internet connections and even lousier inter-city roads, the villagers out working in the rice paddies or wading into the rivers to fish, the buffalos and chickens roaming freely around, the bus drivers climbing atop their coaches like monkeys, and of course the impossibly beautiful mountains.

Laos is just…the best.

But to start from the beginning: on Sunday, I was still in Thailand. A tip-off from a guest-house staffer had alerted me to the existence of a Sunday evening Night Market in Nong Khai. Now, I won’t attempt to speak for all y’alls; but for me, the draw of the Thai Night Market is nothing to do with finding rock-bottom prices in little plastic trinkets — but rather in seeing something weird and/or goofy and/or piquant and/or strange and/or unnatural. That’s the Thai magic, one might say.

And Nong Khai’s Market did not disappoint in this regard. What is the dude saying? Does he know that nobody’s listening to him? If he does know, does he care? And why are the vendors dressed in camo gear? Hells if I know.

Meanwhile…

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And, of course, it just wouldn’t be a Thai Market without a stray wiener with which to contend.

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Monday morning, I walked from the guest house to Passport Control and the Friendship Bridge. Took a bit longer than I’d estimated; but, no biggie. The line to get in to Laos was a little longer than I’d hoped; but, again, no biggie. Changed some money, got the city bus into Vientiane (about twenty kilometres distant), and made a beeline for the hostel here at which I like always to stay.

Didn’t think there’d be any chance, still quite early in the day, of its being full; but didn’t want to risk it. So then…it was already full. Damn and blast! Found another place for very cheap – pretty sure, in fact, it’s the least I’ve yet paid for lodgings.

Kind of get what you pay for, though. Narrow beds with sunken-in mattresses, no Internet access, noisy street. Well, at least the staff were friendly, and the lockers were enormous. And this one Swissman was there, from the guest house in Nong Khai, back in March; so it was fun catching up with him again.

You might recall, he had showed me the dreaded notice in his passport — courtesy of the Thai Embassy here in Vientiane – warning him that he’d got too many consecutive sixty-day Visas at this same Embassy, and that they couldn’t guarantee that they’d in future continue to grant them. And he was all losing his shit and shit, wondering what to do.

He ended up getting a new passport from a Swiss Embassy (I think maybe in Bangkok); so now he’s in like Flynn, at least until he returns home in March of next year.

There were a few odd characters there as well. In particular, this one big fat Albanian-looking guy. My bed was closest to the balcony door, and I kept shutting it tight, to guard against mosquitoism. Then this fat guy kept going out onto the balcony, looking around for a few seconds, and heading back inside, each time leaving the door ajar.

I thought he’d been doing it absent-mindedly, and so just kept shutting it tight. But finally he confronted me, saying that “we” liked to keep the door open, otherwise the “negative energy” would blow back into the dorm and fuck everything up. I think that, by “we”, he was referring to this one rasta-looking guy who was up all night working on his laptop. He, too, kept going onto the balcony, looking around for a few, then returning back inside.

Dunno what they were doing. Maybe lawman’s on their collective trail, and they needed to periodically give the air a sniff or two to keep apprised of latest developments. When he was ready to turn in for the evening, the Albanian-looking guy shut the door up tight.

Wouldn’t have mattered, though, as the dorm was far from mosquito-proof even still. Or, I don’t know whether it was mosquitoes or just what; but somebody kept biting my dimpled ass every hour or so, not letting me get a good night’s sleep at all. I even wondered, at one point, might it be bed bugs?, and moved down to the floor – to no avail.

Whatever. It had begun raining Monday, shortly after lunch, and had never let up. Tuesday morning it was pissing down harder still: I got soaking-assed wet just walking the couple of blocks to where I was to get the minivan to Vang Vieng.

During a break in the rain the evening before, I’d had a chance to walk around, and had popped into Wat Mixay in time to hear some of the evening chant. Er, well, kinda hesitate to say it; but…really the only two words I can think to describe their singing are “heavenly” and “divine”.

Had some time to kill before heading back to Bangkok, and thought it might be fun to scoot up to VV for a stretch, to visit Arne – the crazy Norwegian — and the also-crazy characters who always seem to be in his orbit.

But when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was still raining; and the guest house at which we’d been dropped seemed pretty cool, and this Irishman with whom I’d been chatting on the minivan was wanting me to stay there too, and I was worried that Nam Song might already be full for the evening. So, I decided to stay at Nana for the night. In fact, everyone from the minivan did so.

Wasn’t a typical rainy-season pattern, with the sunny mornings, cloudy afternoons, and stormy evenings. What it was, apparently, was the remnants of this big-assed typhoon what’d just finished smacking the daylights out of Hong Kong and Vietnam. We weren’t getting any wind, but just this persistent rain. It’d alternate between drizzle, mist, a steady light rain, and a heavier soaking rain. And every once in a while, it’d stop for just long enough to run around looking for some food before it started up again.

So, I ended up just hanging around on the nice little rooftop deck with the wonderful view, chatting with the Irishman some more. We talked mostly about travel; and also music, and some other shit. He even did his yoga up there, while I did some juggling.

In the morning (Wednesday), it wasn’t raining too hard, so I went up to see if Arne had any vacancies. He had exactly one room coming vacant for the day – a cliffside bungalow down a precarious flight of stairs — so I quickly laid dibs, and then went back down to Nana to eat some food, and the grab my bag and move over to  Nam Song.

When I returned, he told me, “I remember you…but I don’t remember you.” I reminded him that I’d given him a bunch of Robert Plant and Rolling Stones albums during my previous visit. “Ah! So that’s where all those Robert Plant songs came from.”

His Laotian wife, on the other hand, immediately remembered me as the sumbitch who’d been eating so many bananas during my previous visit. Guilty as charged. She’s a pretty fun character in her own right. Accent’s a little indecipherable at times; but she’s always so enthusiastic that you can’t help but love her.

At one point, I was the only person sitting out in the garden area; and she came out carrying an oscillating fan and explained to me that she’d fixed some problem with the plug — but wasn’t sure she’d fixed it properly, and so was afraid to plug the fan in. I said I’d be happy to do the honours. She made me to stand on a wooden chair, I assume for grounding purposes; and was then terribly thrilled to find that not only did I not get my dimpled ass zapped dead onto the floor, but that the fan fired up just like a champion.

Then this morning, Friday, her and Arne were arguing about something, in Thai; and she explained to me that she’d seen some small tiger somewhere, and that she wanted to buy it.

“A tiger???” I bid her to confirm – which she did do, to my rather confused delight.

Anyways, Arne was on great form. He’s nothin’ but a crazy Norwegian class-clown motherfucker who drinks beer all day long, talks shit about people who done him wrong, talks good about people who done him right, gossips about the latest goings on around town, and just generally loves life. And he’s funnier than Hell.

Plus, he’s super-nice to his guests, as well as anybody else passing by. He’s been in the same location for nine years now, and is always able to give out tips and advice and the like; and just generally try to make sure that everybody’s happy. He even, when he seen this one girl with a foot injury so bad she was forced to hop on one leg, went and dug out an old pair of crutches and took them over and gave them to her.

Foot and leg injuries are legion in Vang Vieng – a consequence of drinking while innertubing. So practically everybody who walks by the joint is in some or other state of limp. The “Vang Vieng Walk”, Arne calls it.

And, much like Rata at De Talak, the people who end up staying at his place are almost as funny and wild and crazy as he is. (Present company excepted – I just sit there being endlessly entertained by them all; and piping in with some Rock music arcana whenever they can’t remember the name of a song or a band or an album or whatever.)

Probably the craziest story I heard was from this Canadian, who’d just arrived with a friend from Luang Prabang. I asked if they’d visited Kuang Si (you’ll perhaps recall this is the amazingly awesome waterfall there). They had indeed, and had loved it too right.

But in hiking up to the brink of the falls, he’d gashed his head on a low-hanging tree branch. Quite deep one, apparently. He said it hadn’t been hurting much, but that it had been bleeding like a magicus – just streaming down his face in rivers. So he’d gone back down to the base area; where his friend had been waiting for him — and whom, upon seeing him, had begun freaking the fuck out.

But then some American guy, name of “Mike”, had “sewed” it shut with Krazy Glue! He’d said to never worry, as he’d done the same to a gash on his arm, and had showed that there was hardly any scar at all. So there you have it.

Another memorable story was told by an Englishman, name of “Marcus”, who wasn’t staying at Nam Song, but had just stopped in to visit for a while. The night before, his friend had, at 2:00 in the AM, brought a soaking-wet street-dog into their room and thrown it onto Marcus’ bed. So Marcus had gotten up and, “beat the shit out of him”. Too funny! (Though, probably doesn’t scan as well in print – try to imagine it with a British accent, if that helps.)

Well, y’all know well how much I love De Talak, and keep saying it’s the best hostel ever…but Nam Song Garden is right up there as well, nipping at its heels. A lovely little gem of a place, in a knockout location.

This morning, Friday, when my bus arrived to pick me up to head back to Vientiane, I got up to say goodbye, and Arne told me that next time I return, he wants me to run the place so that he and his wife can take a vacation for a month or so.

“But,” I protested, “half the reason I want to come here is to hang out with you!” (And his crazy guests, too, of course. But they’d never show up there if it were me running the show in place of the Impresario himself.)

Okay then, he relented, they’d only take off for a weekend or two. I happily accepted his offer, somewhat flabbergasted he’d made it in the first place. I’ve only stayed there a total of seven nights over two visits – not exactly as though I’m a fixture. Well, maybe he’s impressed that I’m a juggler (his son is too), and that he’s been unable to get me to give in to his constant offers of free Beerlao and/or Whiskeylao.

But, yes, the other half of the reason I’m so drawn to Vang Vieng is the outrageously gorgeous scenery. True, though the omnipresent rain washed away any thoughts of hiking or swimming (not that the innertubers cared about it), the low-hanging clouds admixing with the stunning mountain views just made it…a sight to behold.

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After almost three solid days of rain, it finally held off long enough, yesterday afternoon, for a quick jaunt over the footbridge and onto the island to sit by the river, and skip stones, and watch the local kids messing with the tubers. (They’d wait on the shore ‘til a group of them showed up, then swim out and splash them, and hang onto their tubes, and follow them on down to the finish of the course. Most of the tubers were delighted by it; though some were more like, “Hey, get the fuck out of here, kids.”) The sun even made a welcome appearance or three.

Surprise surprise, shortly after I arrived, the yoga-practicing Irishman came floating by, hailing his friend from Seattle! Helluva nice guy; hope I see him again some time.

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While I was down there, the clouds and the mountains and the river and the light got theyselves together in such a way as to present quite possibly the most beautiful scene ever have I laid my eyes upon. Try as I might to capture the it, I just wasn’t up to the task. Here’re some pics, for the record (some more over Flickrside). But please believe me: the real scene was at least fourteen million hundred times more thrilling that the images would suggest.

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Laos, man. I’m fucking telling you: it’s some kind of a something.

Back in Vientiane, now, and had a pretty monumental scare upon my return. No problem getting a bed at my fave place this time (even though arriving later than I had last time), so perhaps I was just a bit giddy and careless.

But I’d been rooting around my pack to find my little sewing kit so’s I could dig a sliver out of my sole. Got that done, then crammed everything back into the pack, and set off to find some food. Not too far along, I realised that I’d not, in fact, managed to extract the sliver (or whatever it was) from the underside of me foot. So I sat down on the sidewalk, and got the needle back out for another try.

Got to the Market and scored an poopload of Lum Yai, and took ‘em back down to the Park to eat. Sat down, and casually reached into my pack to grab my MP3er and headphones to listen to a podcast during lunch, and…what’s this…where the fuck are my headphones?

My fucking Sennheisers! Where the fuck did my stupid ass leave them? Oh, fuck, not again! How many pair of my beloved Senns will I break and/or lose over the course of my miserable fucking lifetime? Why does it have to be my beautiful wonderful headphones? Can’t it be some stupid shit, like some clothes or money or whatever? Do I love my headphones too much, is that the deal? Do I need to take a page out of the book of all these damned Buddhists running around everywhere over here, and just leave go all cherished possessions?

These thoughts, and more, were spinning through my head. But also one other: maybe I left them at that couch back at the hostel, and somebody turned them in. Since I’ve been in Asia, all I’ve been hearing about is careless travelers getting their phones and wallets and shit stolen (including by guest house staffpersons in many cases), not turned in to fucking lost-and-found. But, worth a try, I guess.

Asked at the desk, and the dude sleepily reached into a drawer and held them up for ID. I wanted to hop over the desk and embrace him. But instead, I just freaked out in delight – I think, freaking the staffers out a little bit in turn. So, I now officially love this hostel even more than I already had.

By the way, Vientianese? They’re even more nuts for Lum Yai than are the Nong Khaians. Offered some to a group of guys sitting around on the corner, and they started grabbing way more than I’d thought prudent. I at first made to protest a bit; but finally just started handed them out wily-nily ‘til everybody was satisfied.

One guy cried out in gratitude, “Lucky day, man!”

So I bought even more; and then when I was in the Park eating them, a chubby-but-very-happy guy sat down beside me to eat the few I’d offered him. Then he got up, picked out a bunch more, looked at me to make sure it was okay, and when I’d nodded my assent, held them aloft as though they were Lord Stanley’s cup (or some shit like that).

A while later, he showed up again, and grabbed some more. Yeah, man: it’s fuckin’ Lum Yai Love down here on the Mekong!

Which, remember when I was here at the end of February? When you had to walk out for twenty minutes through a, like, desert, between the floodwall and the river? Well, the water ain’t no twenty minutes away now, I can assure you:

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Here’s how it looked back then (still a few months before the onset of rainy season, no less):

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But guess into whom I bumped heading up onto the wall to look the river? The Canadian guys from Vang Vieng; with the Krazy Glued noggin’ and all. They were just on their way to get a night bus to Cambodia. That’s one thing I’d forgotten about, travelling in Laos: one always keeps bumping into the same people in different towns. It’s pretty cool.

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