The final chukker (for now)

Hi all,

Here I am. Back home again. This is the last installment in the (until recently ongoing) saga of my latest trip. It is mostly about Laos (9/10 – a jewel, to steal a phrase from a friend), Thailand (8/10 – world-class beach-sitting), Singapore (8/10 – simplicity and old friends), and Auckland. From France (kinda), through an ex part of England to New Zealand. From unhustle and unbustle, through high-tech-air-conditioned-never-buy-cheaper, to home-cooked, pure-bred, down country perfection.

The short story, for those of you who did not have this email on your list of things to do today, is as follows:

* I exited China almost on foot (pretty close to walking pace, and just about as cheap) for the joys and wonders of Laos. These include (in no particular order) the friendly Laotians who welcomed me in, tiny villages where pens are still pretty neat, rooting for the orange boat with a couple of friendly dutchmen, an exhilarating (if dangerous, damp and masochistic) speedboat on the Mekong, excellent coffee at minimal prices, wondering what I would say to the rebels if I were be held up along stretches of dangerous road, and the feeling that you have left the real world behind.

* I raced (comparatively speaking) across Thailand, pausing just long enough in Bangkok to renew my acquaintance with Khao San Road and to score a ticket on the hottest bus in the world. Destination south and the overnight (sleepy Hayden) boat to a beach (where even sleepier Hayden caught up with an excellent Israeli and slept off the accumulated disorders of several months en the route).

* Then Singapore lulled me into a sense of security (possibly false, but do I care), and I got excited about being close to home. Things that I have done many times before (zoos, taxis, shops, shoes, frisbee, food, beaches) seemed all the sweeter and more novel for the unusual places that I had been in the meantime. I bought stuff. I caught the MRT. I sat out in the heat and drank expensive beer.

* And finally to home. To a reunion with a beautiful girl. To surprise at how little things have changed. To reorganise. To throw things up in the air. To throw things out. To throw some things in a bag and move. To Auckland even. To a new place to live. To a significant other. To a job search, a new domestic balance, to all the joys that domesticity allows. Craziness. At least by contrast.

Something else exciting happened when I reached Thailand. Well, actually, something exciting did not happen. No one asked me for a visa. The first country since Georgia, so many months before, where I needed no special permission to enter. No particular document or stamp. No processing fee. No queue. No mysterious rules and time limits. That little sentence in my passport imploring foreign governments to let me pass freely and help me out if I need it starts to look a little less tarnished. Definitely closer to home.

For sure Azerbaijan has the most permissive visa regime of any I encountered. Don’t worry about the form. Just tell the big besuited man outside the consulate what you want, hand over the cash and come back later in the day. Kyrgyzstan wins prizes for helpfulness (wait five minutes, pay $80 – you do have to fill in the form though), and for best border service (border guards ask if you actually need a visa at all, and they don’t stamp you in or out). Plaudits also to the Georgian consul in Turkey who was so keen to get rid of me he bent all the rules. No, no. No invitation is needed. No no, just sign the form. Forget the rest, it is all crap anyway.

Russia is one of the most difficult (secure an official invitation by email, print it out, take it to the embassy, stand in an enormous queue, get a form, fill it in, get let inside the embassy just before closing, get told they accept only roubles, run down the road to a money changer, run back, get let inside again, pay up, settle up, come back tomorrow, stand in an enormous queue). And Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are tricky too (mostly because the consulates are hard to find and open for only three hours in the morning and one more late in the afternoon).

The helpful border people in Turkey called us a taxi to get us across (after apologising that it was illegal to walk). The unhelpful Mongolian consul in Irkutsk had to be convinced that I would not starve and that I would be safely accommodated before I could even be allowed an application form. The excellent Chinese embassy staff follow rigid rules (be sure and fill out all the boxes) but get it done quickly. The Laotians tell you it takes at least three days and then process it in five minutes when you come to pick it up.

I have been home quite a while now. The calendar measures it in months. My instinctive reaction is disbelief. But it does seem a long while ago since I was anywhere but here. The present so quickly becomes history. Laos, Thailand, even Singapore seem far far away again. Something that might have happened to someone else sometime. And finishing up a diary, an enjoyable diversion that takes less than an hour, is one of those things that is so easily put down to do tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after. Sometime anyhow, not now.

And so yes. New places (Ponsonby), new challenges (jobs and credit and assets and living with someone neat and sewing circles – okay, so not sewing circles). People ask me when I am going next. As if I am best understood as the person who goes away rather than the person who stays around. I am not sure I am cured of the travelling bug yet (although I do seem to be in some kind of remission). But perhaps something a little less extensive (shorter periods, fewer places) or a new format (work and travel in the same place, even), maybe even go with somebody else (I even have someone in mind). We shall see.

In any case, if your travels should take you near to where I am, drop me a line. We can do lunch.

Stay safe and I guess a merry christmas is in order as well, wherever your travels may have taken you,

h

(in Auckland)

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The most beautiful woman in the world

Early in the post-bus-ride gloaming. The bright light of a new day is just starting to glint on the tops of the stupas. The hard-core drinkers are just starting to think about hitting the hay. The streets are as quiet as they get. Even the banana pancake people have gone home, or whereever it is that they go when they are not making banana pancakes for backpackers and other banana pancake devourers. The begging children are sleeping on their cardboard mattresses next to their heart-rending signs and their pitiable wordly possessions.

I am sitting (wanting to be sleeping) at my favourite backpackers’ haunt, waiting for breakfast to arrive. Actually, it is not my favourite. Or it was not. It was someone else’s and I stayed here because she was staying. So now it is my favourite, I guess. But not on any rational basis, like that I have tried out other backpackers and chosen this one as having the combination of high-quality features but realistic price that I prefer. Because I have not. Tried others, that is.

Anyway, waiting for breakfast. It won’t be long. And they always bring the tea and orange juice (or coffee, if you prefer) before the food. So I have a cup of tea to try to drive away the shakes and the general sense of confusion that is engendered by having had far too little sleep and too many noisy bus-ride mates.

There are a few other customers here. Two young guys in the table closest to the road. Their backpacks are sitting down beside them but they don’t have the general sense of expectation and curiousity that would suggest they have just arrived. I figure they are just about to leave. Breakfast prior to bus. How organised to have got up so early and in time. Or perhaps they are hard-core drinkers who left off a little earlier than the others. And three or four staff members. Desultorily awake. Some with things to do (like bring menus, and tea and, soon, breakfast). Others with nothing much to do except make conversation (listlissly), read the hotel register (it hasn’t changed since last time they looked), and watch the day begin as it has so many times before (slowly).

On to the scene comes a really badly dressed man. The entertainment, as it turned out. Normal sort of height. Enormous belly that prevents his dirty once-white singlet from reaching the empty belt loops of his dirty pants, however much it might try. Don’t look when he is facing away – the waistline of his dirty pants is somewhat lower than the waistline of his (apparently dirtly) body. His receding hair is light brown and very curly and unkempt. His face looks ravaged – a life of too little comfort, and, perhaps, too much alcohol, a fact that is confirmed by the rather pungent odours wafting from the vicinity of his mouth.

He is carrying a broom and even making a fairly tragic effort to sweep the steps up to the restaurant and the street below. But he has not come here to sweep. He has come here looking for conversation. The two young men in the corner, perhaps alarmed by his appearance, are incommunicado. He soon loses interest and comes my way. Maybe he detects a kindred spirit, a fellow streetsweeper in some sense, in my gravity defying bedhead, puffy lack-of-sleep face, and generally unkempt demeanour. Who can say?

So he sits down. His accent (a little nasal, a little harsh) betrays him for Australian. His conversation (articulate, sophisticated, perceptive) proves education. It is unlikely to be chance that has made him a Banglamphu street sweeper. But why would you choose this life? Perhaps because no one is going to look twice at such a man (except in revulsion, perhaps), and it suits his particular lifestyle choice to have time on his hands for reflection.

He tells me a story, after a few preliminaries of no importance. He just had a terrible experience, one of the worst of his life. Judging solely from the state of his singlet, I figure this must be an extremely bad event. Not that my thought is of any great significance, since I can see that he came here to tell me this, and nothing I can say at this point (not even criticism of his fashion sense) will deter him from that course.

He has just met the most beautiful woman in the world. He is an artist, he says. He paints. He has painted many beautiful women. But until today he had not seen her. A vision. A dream. An impossible fancy. A woman in white (Danish? Swedish? Norwegian?) on the steps of a hotel, waiting for a ride to the airport and a flight too much money away from him (to steal from a poem I once got sent). She too had had a vision, apparently. A man on an island in Thailand. The perfect holiday. A precursor to a future together. But also a dream. An impossible fancy, or so it turned out. Why she was telling this to a streetsweeper was unclear. Perhaps it was something that she just had to say.

This woman was so beautiful streetsweeper just had to talk to her, of course. And he had to say how beautiful she was and how perfect and wonderful, and how fantastic it made him feel to just share the steps with her, even if he came to clean them and she was just passing by. So he sits, warming himself by her beauty and hoping that her taxi might be late. But it is not. And all too soon his vision fades away, framed in the back window of a cab. Not before she consents to a kiss on the cheek (is this part true? is any of this story true?), he tells me.

And my garrulous breakfast-mate (I hope he does not mind me eating my toast while he talks) holds it together while beauty is driven away. But then he cries. Partly he cries because life seems a little colder without her around. But mostly he cries because he realises the cruel reality of the unachievable. Even if you know your dreams can only be dreams, it doesn’t help to be reminded of it from time to time. And you must get brought back down to earth a lot when you are a day-dreaming streetsweeper in Bangkok.

I didn’t like to say that he couldn’t have just seen the most beautiful woman in the world. The timing was not right. I just saw her in Laos (tending to her child and her business at a roadside drinks stop). She could not have travelled so fast, I don’t think. And she didn’t look Scandanavian to me. Well, okay, perhaps not the most beautiful woman in the world. But it would be a close contest.

Then my streetsweeper embarasses himself by asking me for money. He thinks I am English (“do you have a spare 10p”). When I say “no” (I want to give him money but just not a lot and I don’t have any spare small notes), he assumes I want him to go away and stop bothering me and berates himself for asking me. Perhaps it is all part of the pitch, so maybe I will give him a larger sum. I don’t get that feeling. Successful beggars don’t work the streets at 6 o’clock in the morning. I like this guy. In a strange kind of way I feel better for the fact that there are destitute Australians wandering the world, pretending to be artists and aspiring to greatness while pretending to sweep the streets. Diversity makes me realise that my choices are not so strange, even as I get closer to a home filled with people who think they are.

An hour or so later I find a cab. The driver speaks enough English for me to explain which bus station I want. But he seems rather disinclined to actually take me there, despite me showing him on the map how short a distance it is, and repeating numerous times (punctuated by vigourous nods of the head and echoes from him) what I am trying to do.

Eventually (after the obligatory 30 minutes spent sitting in bumper to bumper Bangkok traffic) we end up at a train station, outside a ticket office. I am somewhat perplexed. This does not seem much like a bus station to me, and it has taken a lot longer and cost a whole lot more than it should have.

So we have the “where I want to go” conversation for the 10th time that morning. I accuse him (with a smile, you don’t get anywhere without a smile in this part of the world) of just driving around and around so as to pad out the fare. He accuses me of not explaining where I want to go. But suddenly, on the 11th recitation his eyes light up. “Ah!”, he says excitedly, “bus station”, with even more animation than he has used the previous 10 times. Some kind of epiphany has clearly come over him. I wonder if his name is Saul and he is suddenly going to repent all his meter-padding sins. We race off down the street again, meter ticking all the while, and sure enough find ourselves at the south bus station about 10 minutes later.

The fare is a very inconvenient amount (curse this countries that do not round to the nearest 5). Fortunately neither of us have change, so I manage to convince him to take rather less than he demands. Still three times what it used to be. The perfect face-saving solution. I let him get away with his daylight robbery without getting too upset, and he lets me have my face by cutting the price by 30%. Happiness is found in strange places.

It’s past last call for Lao Lao

I wasn’t expecting much from Vientiane. Reviews call it “quiet and dull”. A woman I met who had been here and had otherwise demonstrated her exceptional judgement said she was here a half day and was bored.

My first impressions were not good. They dropped us at the center of town, by the fountain you see, on one of the two main roads. I thought they had left us a million miles from the city in the hands of the tuk-tuk mafia. But no, in fact, this quiet, unpeopled, under-trafficked spot was the centre of town. My guesthouse was only 50 metres away.

I have since discovered that there is never anyone around the fountain. The shops always have lights on but no one in them. Perhaps they are fronts for Lao intelligence agencies. Perhaps there is some local custom about avoiding that spot. Perhaps it is bad luck. Who can say, but you can not argue with the emptiness.

Then you start wandering around town, and, speaking from personal experience (as always), your expectations are low. So you see the bizarre street that is like the Champs Elysees and the (unfinished) Arc de Triomphe look alike at the top end. And you wander a little more and see the golden stupa that is Lao’s most famous religious symbol and the black stupa whose purpose no one seems to quite understand.

And Vientiane becomes a little more interesting.

And then you spend a morning cruising out to and around the Bhudda Park, you take a whole roll of film of the wondrous and bizarre mix of Hindu and Bhuddist statues, you feel like Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft) wandering around inside the claustrophobic insides of a kind of giant hollow stone tomato filled with statues of all kinds of things, and you start to think that there is clearly a lot of stuff going on in this park that you do not understand.
And Vientiane starts to grow on you. You find yourself looking in your guidebook to see what else there is to do.

Then you find the cafe that sells excellent bagels with cream cheese, and the bar that is open late (till midnight – nothing ever really gets going in Laos) and you discover that both of these places are within two minutes walk of your guesthouse, and you find the internet place right next door for about one dollar an hour.

And things in Vientiane are okay. Now I won’t say it is not quiet. It is definitely quiet. But, as you might have picked up, Laos is quiet. You want noisy, don’t come here.

Vientiane is cheap cheap too. The waterfall outside of Luang Prabang (a main attraction and well worth seeing – especially with the tiger, I won’t spoil the surprise) costs 15,000 kip. About one dollar and fifty cents. The same as one night’s accomodation in a dorm bed anywhere in the country. Or two beers. The main attractions in Vientiane cost one or two thousand kip. Now the difference is minor. But still significant if you think of it in terms of how much additional time you can spend in Lao if you go to see one thousand kip attractions and not fifeteen thousand kip ones.

It seems like they are still finding their way with tourism in this town, even relative to the lack of tourism in the rest of the country. They are only just starting to realise that there is no necessary relationship between what things cost, what locals will pay, and what tourists will pay for them.

Of course they do have some parts of the tourist trade down pat. You can not go anywhere without being offered tuk-tuk transportation. Turn down that and just about every driver will offer you girls, opium or cannabis under his next breath. Tourism is coming to Lao. But not in any great rush.

Overall I really like this country. Mostly because it has perfectly suited my state of mind – almost catatonic, as I said. Don’t come here expecting amazing scenery, outlandish local customs, or hustle and bustle. Don’t come for the nightlife, the cities, or the buzz. Don’t travel by speedboat. But do come here for the speed, or rather the lack of speed, and the simple basics of decent coffee and friendly people, and slow boats, and lazy days, thrown into a relaxed Bhuddist framework with some occasionally seriously spicy food. It’s the kind of place where nothing seems really terribly important. A day or two can go by without you really noticing. Home? Work? Real life? Do these things exist?

They say that the Lao government is following China’s example of breakneck economic development within a tightly-controlled political environment. They have some way to go, he says, understatedly. The contrast between the noise of China and the quiet of Lao or even Thailand could not be more noticeable.

My cellphone is a source of constant wonder. We are close enough to Thailand here that it has started working again. Contact. The world is still there, it seems.

A state bordering on Catatonia

So it is just about time to be leaving Laos. I have reached the capital. Collected backpacker wisdom says it is a boring town. We shall see.Not that it really matters to me. Cafes in which to sit and write postcards and daydream, busy streets on which to watch the daily spectacle of human life being played out, a cool dark spot in which to sleep, some water to brush my teeth. More than this I need not.

I think I have already plumbed the depths in terms of tourist impulses. Just before tourist death (the point at which all tourist-like behaviour stops). Laos, of course, is the perfect country to feel like sitting around and doing nothing much. There is a lot of nothing to do in Laos, and lots of excellent coffee and fresh French bread to sustain you while you do it.
Maybe it is just a dead cat bounce but I feel motivated to actually see some things in this town. No reason to rush it though. Let’s see what happens once the sun comes up tomorrow.

Bizarre to think that I will be back at home in less than a month. September seemed like a long way away in April. Or for that matter in August. I must check the snow report.

Any colour you want

The more time I spend in Lao the more it seems to me that there are no tourists here but backpackers. I can understand why that might be, since backpackers tend to have higher tolerances for the poor roads, basic hygiene, lack of air-conditioning, small but serious risk of getting killed by random attacks on buses, and general lack of tourist infrastructure that characterises travelling in Lao (and in lots of other places – although not so much the random attacks).

One reason that backpackers have this extra tolerance is because of one of the key tenets of backpacker philosophy: discomfort is good. Challenge your limits. Explore your edges. Off the beaten track is bound to be uncomfortable. Deal with it. Pain is a purifier. Unpleasantness is a key characteristic of “real” travelling. If it is easy, how can it be genuine?

Discomfort is, of course, a consequence of the real backpacker aim: the search for aloneness. The idea that there must be one place in the world where no one else (or at least no other traveller) has ever set foot, and I will be the first. The first to speak English to some remote-dwelling villagers. The first to visit this post office at the end of the earth and try to call home. The first to eat this local food. To travel on this river. To see the sunrise from this point of view.

(Parenthetically, the search for aloneness is also the source of that most unpleasant phenomenon where backpackers will not say hello to or even look at each other in the street – they are all busy pretending that they are the only ones in town).

Every backpacker is motivated by thoughts of him/herself as some modern day Gulliver, Marco Polo or Robinson Crusoe, marooned for shorter or longer, better or worse, in some remote part of the planet, and responsible for collecting as many outrageous stories as possible for leisurely retelling back at home around the proverbial fire.

Long journeys in uncomfortable seats, bone-chilling cold, mind-melting heat, ravenous mosquitos on unprotected skin, horrible food or, worse, starvation, disorientation, diarrhoea, dengue, dysentry, dispepsia, a total inability to communicate with the locals. These are all the bread and butter of the hardened backpacker. And everyone aspires to the same basic goal.

Standards vary. Some travellers (as Pico Iyer says much more eloquently than I – never call them mere tourists) are horrified by the thought of a journey longer than four or five hours. Others happily recount spending 44 hours in a seat. One couple I met took a 90 hour bus journey from Tibet (although they also said they would never do it again).

But the pull of the unpleasant is powerful. Just last night I met a guy who was pondering whether to fly to Hanoi from Vientiane or whether to take the bus. The former costs $90 more but takes an hour. The latter saves you some money but takes 24 hours. No doubt, $90 in Vietnam is serious money. Six days or so on a moderate backpacker budget. But 23 extra hours imprisoned in an uncomfortable bus is no joke either. In backpacker-land though, the 24 hour bus journey is good, precisely because it is uncomfortable. And the plane ride is bad precisely because it is so simple. So he decided to take the bus. Real travellers only fly across oceans or when they are in a serious hurry.

As more and more backpackers arrive somewhere, though, discomfort levels drop away. The first ten people to arrive in some remote Lao village have a really hard time getting there, they have to organise accomodation in a local house without speaking a word of the lingo, and they have to find something to eat that doesn’t make them physically ill. Then they spend their time enjoying being out on the edges of human civilisation, seeing entirely undeveloped natural sights and laughing at the naivete of children who are afraid of them.
The next ten backpackers find that some enterprising boat pilot is available to take them directly to the village. Once there, the driver, who speaks a few words of English, puts them in touch with the headman who has organised some extra quilts and mosquito nets against their arrival. His wife has learned how to make scrambled eggs, and shows off the collection of postcards from the first group. The second group smile at the cute children who have learned to ask for pens as presents.

And so it goes on. A guesthouse pops up. The village appears on bus timetables. Soon it is a place to stop on the way somewhere. Someone builds a trail to the waterfall and sets up a stall selling souvenirs. And so on and so on. And what was once uncomfortable and simple and basic and new is suddenly perfectly comfortable, like everywhere else.

So the backpacker explorers go further afield. And further. And further and further and further. And the process starts again in all these other places. The search for aloneness and the cult of discomfort will eventually make everywhere more comfortable.

But there is a tension in the backpacker ethos. Because backpackers like things to be comfortable too. You can’t always be out no the bleeding edge. You don’t always want to spend all your time searching for loneliness. Often they crave each other’s company (at least because you have to have someone to tell your stories to). So the places that have been colonised stay populated by an almost permanent but always changing population of people on their way somewhere else.

And the amazing thing is that the highly-developed backpacker colonies almost always take the same form. Backpackers, regardless of their origin or destination, obviously have very similar tastes. So hangouts in China are similar in form and function to those in Laos, in Russia, in Europe or in New Zealand. Cheap accommodation, cleanish toilets, travel agencies with everything, internet joints, book exchanges, restaurants selling local versions of western food and an appealing selection of local cuisine appropriately standardised, cold beer, movies at night, the feel of local colour.

Vang Vieng is an excellent example. Three streets in a valley a couple of hundred clicks north of Vientiane. A great place to break a journey between the capital and Luang Prabang (about six hours further north). Tube down the river. Explore the nearby caves. Hire a bicycle and bike about the nearby villages.

Every street is lined with restaurants that even look the same. All serve the same breakfast dishes (eggs, toast, coffee, bacon). There are three pizza joints right beside each other serving identical recipes (for $1 more you get dope with any dish). Every identical bar serves the same beer, and while they are lit up at night in different colours, the music pounding from their sound systems could not sound more similar. There are guesthouses everywhere you look offering the same combinations of comfort, convenience, cleanliness and cost. Choose your own adventure. But just make it almost exactly the same as every other backpacker who has ever come to town.

This is not to say that it is not a pleasant place to hang out in. Of course it is. Perfectly pleasant. The collected choices of everyone who has ever been here ensure that what Vang Vieng provides is exactly what everyone wants. Except the aloneness of course. And the discomfort. But you can get them anywhere.

Hanging with the nose pickers

Society in Laos does not seem to frown on picking one’s nose in public. Although I must admit to having picked my nose in the past, I never inhaled. And I have never been so gauche as this latest succession of men, women and children who pick away while walking down the street, while tending roadside food stands (best avoided, me thinks) or while standing in the crowd passing the time.

I can not think why nose picking is not socially disapproved here. By the same token, I can think of no reason why nose picking is socially disapproved back in New Zealand. I guess the reason has to be something to do with hygiene. Who can name anyone who died from anything contracted from someone else’s nasal secretions?

Kids with guns are everywhere here as well. Big, small, in all different colours, noisy, quiet. All the same basic game. And the endless arguments about who shot whom and who is dead and who is immune. It is a wonder they get anything done. Tragic in a country so riven with conflict that guns are still harmless and fun. I didn’t see any kids with plastic landmines or unexploded ordinance. Perhaps that is too close to home for the toy companies. Or maybe it is just that kids can’t be bothered waiting around to see if any of their friends step on them. Far better to leap out and shout “blam blam blam”.

Lots of backpackers too. Weird to see them all gathered (herded?) together in one place. In China there are lots, but they are spread out across an enormous country and vast cities. So you don’t really notice them. Here things are small and the proportion of backpacker experiences to local experiences that one has (as a backpacker) is much higher. Still, they seem a fairly quiet, sober, “real”-Lao-seeking bunch. I guess they have to be since Luang Prabang is lights off and go to bed at 10:30.

I have to wake up the guy at my guesthouse every night because they lock up at 10pm. He sleeps outside to make it easier. Not sure why they don’t just lock the front door and give me a key. Still, if everything were the same as at home. Not quite so crazy as the hostel in Ulaan Baatar where the secret door after-hours access code is written just above the door. I guess they figure that spies can not read English.

Laos has an appealing lack of tourist infrastructure (like decent roads, settled prices, cellphone networks and internet places) and tourists (backpackers are here in droves, but other sorts seem somewhat limited). And sometimes there is an endearing lack of experience with tourists that makes me smile. Like occasionally people don’t know how much to charge for things because they sell so little. Or there was one place with jam, butter and toast sold separately. Bundling, versioning, volume discounts, group tourism and mass marketing have yet to make it to this side of the Mekong.

Luang Prabang is a great town. I highly recommend it. Pleasantly slow, slightly Frenchified (to the extent of fresh baguettes and excellent cafes), if a little over-populated by noisy motorcycles (although one is welcome to hire one and add to the furore).

But don’t come here if you are in a hurry (you would disturb the mood), if you are a tick tourist (for there is little to see – unless you like temples), or if you don’t like to just sit about and watch the world go by.

Today the world about here engaged in its annual boat racing on the Nam Ka river. An excellent thing to watch, at least for a while. One street along the shore was devoted to the festival. Music, food, bars, teams parading in bright uniforms, crowds in team colours on both sides of the river egging on their chosen squad. Teams in black (ugh! too hot), red, white (lots in white), and even a team in orange. The Dutch guys I was with immediately began to support the orange team, of course. In fact, they ended up winning and marched through the streets in triumph, their boat carried amongst them.

They raced in heats, one against another. It was pretty unclear on the exact rules, although by the time they passed us it was usually clear who was going to win. The huge number of white teams made it particularly difficult. The boats were different sizes and had different numbers of crew, but they all seemed to be in the one division. I guess the confusion is part of the joy. If I could speak Lao all these questions would be answered, but then what use would our imagination be?

Every night in Luang Prabang there is a market in the main street. No traffic (well at least no non-pedestrian traffic). Just lines of people sitting under light-bulbs selling shirts and bags and lampshades and other miscellaneous Lao souvenirs, and a bit further down a food market, more frequented by the locals (except for that one stand that always seemed to have all its seats taken by foreigners – some kind of magnetic attraction, or perhaps it is listed in the guidebook).

It is one of the sights in my personal guidebook to wander down market street a little later in the evening when the number of customers is low and see the lines of lights on either side of the road. Like will o’ wisps, I always think. Although in this case summoning me to buy a Beer Lao t-shirt rather than to drown in the fens, I guess.

Quick and dirty, or at least wet

We should have realised. It must be some kind of affront to the laid-back divinity that controls human affairs in Laos to travel by speedboat. Quite apart from the fact that it is dangerous and uncomfortable and not recommended by the guide books.

Nevertheless, the prospect of spending just 90 minutes on the Meekong and finding ourselves in Pak Beng (from which it is just one more day to Luang Prabang) is just too enticing. And so we sign up.

There is no room at all in the boat, which looks more like it was made to break water-speed records that to carry passengers. A cushion under bum, and a wooden partition that marks the space for the next seat far too close. Bags get attached under netting (but with no rain protection) up front. The driver perches at the back, rudder in hand beside the incredibly noisy engine (which looks for all the world like a Toyota car engine – can’t think why they don’t have a decent muffler). Lifevests? Check. Helmets? Check but decide against. If we crash things will be unpleasant, helmet or not.

Once we are going all conversation becomes impossible. Even shouting would not avail you. I have toilet paper in my ears and they still ring for the day afterwards.

Three of us are tall (I understand that Dutch people are the tallest on average in the world, not that I am Dutch, but the other two are), but the seats are apparently made for people who have lost their legs below the knee. So passengers who sit in front of me have to sit between my feet.

Which present no problem at all to the first passenger, who gets in and out without incident. If you want to get on just stand on the shores of the river and wave something visible. If you want to get off just wave your hand towards the shore and the driver will deposit you whereever your heart may desire.

But then the second passenger gets in. And I have one foot out of the boat in the cool water when she does. So then she sits down and there is no way I can easily put my foot back in the boat. No problem, I think. I can hold it on the outside of the boat, resting on a little rail for the rest of the journey. And the noise is unpleasant, but bearable. And the wind likewise, with sunglasses on to make it possible to look around. And the occasional jets of water that leap out to make me wet. In fact, the whole thing is more like an amusement ride than a means of transport.

All goes swimmingly (I shouldn’t use that word in these circumstances) until my foot falls off the side of the boat. I pull it back in instinctively, but not before it has fallen in the water and drenched me, the woman in front of me, the person beside me, and the driver as well. I find another spot for it, a little more secure and wonder why my foot is still attached. If it had hit the ground at 80kmph out of a car I should think I would be rather the worse for wear.

But that is all okay-ish too, until it starts to rain. At this speed (they say it is up to 80kmph) rain is like hail. So my hat comes in handy to protect my face, and every passenger in the boat is huddled down trying to avoid as much of the stinging water as possible, and starting to wonder whether 90 minutes in this rather damp and cold version of hell is better than a few leisurely hours watching the river go by from the gently rocking deck of a slow boat.

Eventually we arrive. Before it really starts to rain. The monsoon is not done with yet apparently. Exhilarating? For sure. The fastest way between A and B? No doubt. But a slow boat tomorrow all the same. By unanimous decision.