New Years Eve In Laos, Thailand
A New Year's Eve in IV parts. Part I
It was strange to feel like a traveller again, being herded from guest house to guest house and then finally an hour and a half later than planned, to the illegally parked bus destined for Vientiane, Laos.
Thailand is the land of contradictions as much as it is the land of smiles. Even though I work for a government school, I do not have a work visa and so cannot work legally. The need for a visa run wasn't news to anyone. Although the Thai New Year is in April they still celebrate the start of the Western New Year enthusiastically and drunkenly. Many Thais take the opportunity to visit friends and family in their home provinces; subsequently the train to NongKhai was fully booked. The cost of a flight to Vientienne was prohibitive which left us with one option, a 14hr bus journey, the cost of which had been festively increased from 500 Baht to 700 Baht.
After an hour and a half wait at a seedy guest house down a dimly lit Soi off the Koasan Road, a panicked cry went out that our coach was ready, we were then hurriedly led through several Sois (side streets) to a double decker coach brightly adorned with colourful lights and chrome hubcaps.
The novelty of my first long bus trip created some excitement, but the novelty had worn off after half an hour. After exhausting the fun that can be had adjusting my reclining chair and repositioning the air vent to avoid the icy cold blast, I reaslied there were another 13 and a half hours left. It was then that I discovered the toilet was already blocked, sanguine anticipation of this journey evaporated, I returned to my seat and complimented my bag of crisps with two immodium tablets.
It soon became clear after we left the grinding traffic of Bangkok that the passengers were not the only ones eager to arrive as quickly as possible. I really quite enjoy the feeling of danger when travelling at speed, whether on a plane, motorbike or in a car. I can fondly remember a smile creeping across my face, as when a child my dad would drop the car down a gear and speed round the country lanes. But he always impressed upon me that driving quickly isn't the skillful part, it's the stopping in time that matters. And so as our driver frequently veered from the outside lane, across three lanes and on to the hard shoulder to pass traffic, I feared, I seriously feared, for my life. Sitting on the top deck I had a clear view as the driver continued to accelerate despite heavy, slower traffic in front. I lost count of the number of times I turned to Tanja and said "There's no way we can stop in time, this time", but once again the driver would swerve in front of the vehicle in the left hand lane, across another lane and onto the hard shoulder, the wheels kicking up dust as they struggled to maintain grip. The laws of physics and central-fugal force were rewritten that night and I struggled to understand how the coach remained upright. We approached sweeping curves on the highway, but these were again no indicator to the driver that he should apply a little pressure to that middle pedal, known to us sane drivers as the brake. A deafening roar sounded from the tires, as exhausted, they gave way to the rims in an attempt to keep us upright. Midnight approached and the nervous laughter dissipated, sleep became the only source of comfort. Spread out across two seats I tried to fall asleep, but the sudden sideways lurching and the crashing movement of the luggage as it was propelled from the hold, kept me from any meaningful rest, and my bladder was full. Gingerly I made my way from my seat, down the stairs, to the toilet cubicle. The severe leaning of the coach had served one purpose, the toilet wasn't so blocked, unfortunately the contents had splashed over the rim and onto the floor. Small waves of urine now broke from one side of the cubicle to the other in timely rhythm of the bus. The rest of the journey was spent taking alternative deep breaths, as we avoided another vehicle, and shallow breaths trying to avoid the foul stench of the urine recycled air.
At 5.00am we made an unscheduled stop at NongKhai, down a quiet residential street, 10 minutes from the border crossing to Laos. Bleary-eyed and bone-weary but grateful to be alive, we hurriedly exited the bus, stretched our legs and breathed in deeply the fresh, clean, night air. The driver drained the toilet onto the road, climbed into his driver's compartment and went to sleep.
Unsure of how long this unscheduled stop would take, and unwilling for our lives to be in this driver's hands any longer, we decided to make our own way to the border. I climbed into the rear luggage compartment, using the rear wheel as a step and retrieved our bags, as well as those of a Laos couple, who had also decided to make an escape for the border. The Tuk-Tuk dropped us off at Thai immigration and after exiting Thailand a mini-bus took us across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong River to Laos immigration. As soon as we passed over the bridge, all the stress of the recent journey disappeared. It was about an hour until the office opened to process our visas, but we were in Laos, and time passes differently here, so we enjoyed a Laos coffee served in a plastic bag and a complimentary bag of some deep-fried somethings.
From here on in, as can be expected when in Laos, the pace of our adventure slowed considerably. The air was cleaner, the traffic, when there was any, was slower, amiable, no longer did my life flash before my eyes, only smiles of passing people.
First stop was the Thai embassy to process another 2-month visa application; this went without a hitch this time. After breakfast we made our way to our guesthouse, a traditional teak house, albeit a house that would have been home to a rather well to do Laos family. As we settled in to our room I was a little alarmed at the number of mosquitoes in our bathroom, but I soon realised that they didn't actually bite me. Even the mosquitoes are less aggressive in Laos.
A New Year's Eve in IV Parts. Part II
It was necessary to keep reminding ourselves that this was a capital city. With a population of 500,000, and very low car ownership, the calm serene atmosphere belies that of a capital city. Only on a mission of suicide would I take to the streets of Bangkok on a bicycle; but the pace of traffic in Vientaine is that of 'what's the rush', and the flat landscape makes it an ideal city to explore by bicycle. The day was then spent at a leisurely pace exploring this beautifully tranquil city. Motorbikes far outnumber cars and I made myself chuckle by out-accelerating both at traffic lights. Meandering along the streets, not all of which were sealed tarmac roads, we took in the sights of That Luang, Patuxai (Victory monument), beautiful old temples and made a few stops for Laos coffee and cakes.
The French influence remains with many great restaurants, as well as the various examples of colonial architecture and after returning the bikes to the guest house, we waked back to the centre of Vientiane for dinner at one of the restaurants in the central square that surrounds the Nam Phu fountain.
Walking back from dinner we stopped at a small shop to buy some water. The shop consisted of a trolley stand on the pavement in front of a small house. The stand was unattended, but looking past the trolley into the open house we could see the owner drinking with some friends in the front room. "Cor sur nam song quart?", 'like to buy 2 bottles of water', we asked in Thai, which is fortunately fairly similar to Lao, and is understood in most parts of Laos. Little did we know that at 10.30pm, the evening was just about to start.
"Sabidee" They replied, "please come in, sit down, welcome, drink. The owner of the shop welcomed us into his home, pulling up two plastic stools for us. His house was a small, sparsely furnished, single story hut, with wooden walls and a low corrugated roof and a dusty bare concrete floor. There was little furniture: a sideboard, a wooden crate that served as a table, and a number of cheap plastic stools; along one side of the room was a low wooden bed, where someone, despite the loud talking, the background noise of the television and the lack of a mattress, was managing to sleep. Another two glasses were brought from an adjoining room to the back of the room that we were now were sitting in, separated only by a thin ill-fitting curtain. The two glasses were filled with ice and Lao beer, and the owner introduced us to his two friends and his son. The sleeping man remained a stranger. A lull in the conversation soon followed but was broken by a suggestion that we go to a disco. "Yes, disco" they all chimed. "No money from you", one of the men excitedly said, quickly standing and removing his wallet from his back pocket. The wallet was empty except for a single $5 bill, which he proudly showed us, " I have $5!", a toothy grin on his face. And so it was decided that we would all go to a local disco. Although there were confused, pained looks on their faces when I explained that I didn't drink, the other glasses were emptied and we left the young son and the sleeping stranger in the house and made our way to two parked motorbikes on the road. With Tanja sandwiched between two of the Lao men and me riding in comfort with only one other on my bike we were off.
A short ride later we pulled up outside a brick building that wouldn't have won any prizes for construction. About 50 motorbikes blocked the pavement and spilled onto the road in front of the building; this was the 'car' park, where we left the bikes and 'Phao', after speaking a few words to the man on the door, who was obviously surprised at the arrival of two farrang, led us inside. A large room with a concrete floor and exposed brick walls and a timber supported corrugated roof opened up in front of us. Our host led us past 30 or so tables, crowded with drunk locals and bottles of Lao beer, to a vacant table. At the far end of the room a dance area was swarming with merry locals dancing to the band set up on a small stage. "For tonight you enjoy Laos, please" our host said, before his friend took our drink orders and disappeared into the crowd to the bar.
The sight of farrang had pulled a few bemused stares from the locals and we were led around the disco to be introduced to several of Phao's friends and the head of Vientane police, who was also the owner of the disco. By the time we arrived back at our table our drinks were waiting for us on the table. Several glasses of Lao beer were poured out but my Fanta remained in its bottle. "That's womens' drink", our host shouted, quite forcibly, as he saw me start to pour my drink. "Beer Lao" he said banging a glass in front of me. "But I don't drink beer", I started to protest, a fact that had been true exactly a year to the day. I tried to overcome his confused bewildered look by pointing to the bottle of Fanta and then at myself. "No, for women" was his answer, knocking his glass of beer against the glass of beer that had been placed in front of me. I smiled and said thank you, I clinked his glass and put the glass to my lips, pretending to drink. He then drank his glass in one and motioned to me to do the same. I looked around for Tanja for help, but she had long been led to the dance floor, where I could see she was struggling with the finer delicate movements of Lao dancing. "Chok dee" I said, good luck, and downed my glass of beer, a cheer went up from our table as I did so, and my glass was immediately refilled.
After much dancing, including a brief dance with the Head of Vientiane police's wife and many glasses of beer Lao, I needed the toilet. One of our ever-hospitable hosts led both Tanja and I to a side alley to the toilet blocks. Despite the queue Tanja was led to the front and went into one of the two cubicles. I was left waiting outside with one of our guests and a woman who I suspected earlier to be a prostitute. I had been briefly introduced to this woman, and three of her friends, whilst dancing, I had suspected they might be ladies of the night, from their excessively made-up pinched faces and the way our host followed his introduction with 'You want, you need?'. I was a little put out, to be honest, by their lack of interest in me earlier; well if a prostitute doesn't show you any interest then who will? I needn't have worried. Whilst waiting for the toilet she threw her arms around me and kissed me firmly on the cheek. She then placed her hand very gently, and one might consider even politely, on my crotch. Surprised, I smiled in, I hope a non-committal type of way and removed her hand. She then placed her hand back on my crotch in a message not understood type of way. Again I removed her hand, thinking, well, jolly friendly of her at least, and again she placed her hand back on my crotch. With her hand on my crotch for the third time, our toilet chaperone turned round to see me removing her hand and trying to explain that I was with the girl in the toilet. Our chaperone seemed then to understand what was going on, and by grabbing my crotch himself explained that she wasn't to go around grabbing my crotch because I had a girlfriend. Then to make everything even he placed my hand on her crotch. That settled it and just as I was removing my hand from the last crotch that I hoped would be felt that night, Tanja exited the toilet, not a moment too soon I thought, thinking how I would have explained my hand on a complete stranger's private parts. 'Really Tanja, it's not how it looks. I can explain'.
The lady soon realised her faux pas when she saw Tanja and was extremely apologetic. We returned to the main room, danced a little more, and drunk a lot more. At the end of the night we jumped back on the bikes and were taken to our guest house.
A New Year's Eve in IV Parts. Part III
New year's eve arrived and after the exploits of the previous night I was surprised a headache didn't arrive too. This would be the first of three new years that we'll be celebrating this year, the Thai and Chinese New Year are yet to follow.
The open balcony of our guest house was a breezy spot to just relax and read and that was how we spent the last day of 2005.
Later in the evening we walked back into the city centre, to the Khop Chai Deu near the Nam Phou fountain, where we would be welcoming in the New Year. The $12 ticket included an all you can eat buffet, several bands and a free bar; back on the wagon, all a free bar meant to me was the possibility of developing diabetes from too many soft drinks, although not drinking would prove to be nearly impossible, again.
Considering this is one of the top spots in the capital city it was eerily quiet for most of the night, that was until people had their fill of the free bar and started to lose their inhibitions. The looks from the attentive bar staff when I tried to order a non-alcoholic drink was a mixture of disbelief and mild disgust. Several times, having ordered a lemon juice I would receive a lemon juice and vodka. One barman refused to serve me a lemon juice, claiming they didn't have any, 'Vodka and lemon juice, only' he said. 'Ok', I replied, 'Vodka and lemon juice, without the vodka please'. During the night I became convinced that the whole of Vientienne was conspiring against me, to tip me from the wagon. In addition to the bar staff either refusing to serve me soft drinks or serve me a soft drink with a generous helping of vodka, locals were now forcefully pouring drinks down my throat, frequent trips to the toilet resulted as I went to empty my mouth; a disgraceful waste of perfectly good alcohol some might say.
Approaching the hour of midnight the staff handed out sparklers which were all lit at different times according to the accuracy of the partygoers watches. We took our queue from the band, which hurriedly finished a song to wish everyone a 'Sabidee Pee Mai'.
We left the party at about 2.00am and took a leisurely stroll back to the guest house in the cool night air. Several 'private' parties were still taking place in front of peoples homes. Groups of friends slouched round tables crowded with empty whisky and soda bottles. Each party had an impressive sound system set up, blaring out popular Thai and Lao pop songs. As we passed, several parties invited us over to join them, 'Happy New Year', they cheered, 'Sabidee Pee mai' we replied, quickly followed by 'Mur le aw' - drunk already, so we could politely decline their offer to join them.
A New Year's Eve in IV Parts. Part IV
We had been told that trains to Bangkok were fully booked until the 4th of January. But we decided to take our chances and make our way to Nong Khai train station in Thailand. We considered, as this was New Years Day, some suffering souls may have only just found their way home and were in no fit state to travel.
Although our counterfeit 'designer' rucksacks had only cost us 200 Baht, we still cursed that after 8 weeks they were starting to fall apart. We bade our farewells to the owners of Thongbay guest house with promises that we would return.
The guesthouse was set back from the main road along a narrow, dusty, dirt track and it didn't take long until our feet were the same colour as the dirt track. The young neighborhood children, as they had done every time they saw us walking down the dirt track, came running up to us, 'Sabidee' they shouted, beaming smiles behind snot and dirt encrusted faces, their clothes, faces and hands the colour of the dirt track.
It was a short walk to the main tarmac road and it was along here that our friend Phao, who had taken us to our first Lao disco, lived. We had passed his house last night on the way back from our new year's eve party and had wanted to call in to say goodbye, but the wooden sliding door to the front of his home had been drawn shut and a note which read 'Very drunk. Sleepy now. Gone to bed' was pinned to the door, so we would drop-by now to thank him for his kindness and true Lao hospitality. We wouldn't make it that far
Along the street we could see several parties taking place. The first that we passed was in front of a shop that sold oil for the many motorbikes. An impressive sound system had been set up and was distorting popular Lao and Thai pop songs. An eclectic mix of tables and chairs crowded the pavement area in front of the shop and housed about 20 people, all singing and drinking Lao beer. There was Phao. He was pleased to see us and apologised for not being awake / sober when we had passed last night. We explained in a mixture of Lao and English, that we were heading back to Bangkok today and were on our way to the border. Although we think he understood, he disappeared and returned with two plastic stools for us. Someone else handed us a glass each and someone else filled them up with ice and Lao beer. 'Happy new year. Enjoy Laos for today please' said Phao. We had been officially welcomed to their New Year's Day party. Any hope that we could finish this one drink and continue on our way soon vanished. It is considered impolite to refuse the first drink and as it seems customary, you have to down it, in one. That empty glass was quickly refilled and we were introduced to the other people at the party, all of which seemed to be family of some sort. We had once again found ourselves kidnapped by Lao hospitality and Lao beer. Tanja made her way back to the guest house to check us both in for another night. If the guesthouse owners were surprised to see us again, they were probably more confused that this non-drinking couple were in fact drunk again.
Tanja rejoined me at the party and our glasses were filled with red wine; this too had to be downed in one. When our friends were not encouraging us to down drinks, they would clink their glass against ours, a sign that we should drink. I noticed that nobody took a sip, without clinking their glass against another person's glass.
I'm not sure if it was the beer or the 'winter' sun against my back, but my mind soon turned to food. Our ever hospitable host Phoa said 'Yes, food', and then refilled my glass. Thankfully the drinking pace slowed as the sun started to cast long shadows. We were invited to dance along to a few Lao pop songs, and more of Phao's family arrived.
I was sitting with my back to the road, so was only aware of the motorbike when it mounted the pavement. The rider stopped only to throw a blue plastic carrier bag onto the pavement, it landed to the left of an open charcoal fire, that had been recently lit, along with the promise of food. I didn't give much thought to the plastic bag until it started to thrash about. Startled, both Tanja and I jumped up. Whatever was in the bag was trying to get out. Finally it achieved some success and a duck's head emerged from the bag, to be joined shortly after by its friend, noticing the surprised look on our faces, Phao tried to reassure us, 'Dinner!' This took home delivery to a whole new level.
The ducks sat contentedly for a while, with just their heads emerged from the bag, whilst everyone carried on singing, dancing, drinking and working up an appetite. I was secretly hoping they would take flight and escape, but their wings had probably been clipped and someone was yet to inform them that they were dinner.
I had made the mistake of entertaining the small children at the party by pretending to be a monster; with my big nose and blue eyes, to them I probably didn't have to pretend all that much. I had grown bored of the monster game after five minutes, the children didn't tire so easily, so I was more than relieved when a tuk-tuk pulled up with four children already in the back and my tormentors climbed into the back and joined them, they cheerfully and noisily disappeared off down the road. 'Music school, get instruments' Phao told us. The language barrier would once again create more surprises and puzzles; the only way to understand what was about to happen, was to wait until it had happened and then more often than not, we still didn't fully understand.
Now that the children had left, everyone's thoughts returned to that of food, and the contents of the blue plastic carrier bag. One of the men, who had been introduced to us earlier only as Phoa's brother, returned from the room at the back of the house with a large knife. He pulled one of the now protesting ducks from the bag, held its body in the nest of his armpit and called for somebody to help. No one seemed too eager to help; Tanja and I were not even prepared to watch. Finally another man offered his help, whilst everyone else was happily distracted by watching Tanja and I standing as far away as we could, with our backs turned and our fingers in our ears. My timing was off, so I managed to turn round just as the duck's throat was slit and the blood drained and collected in a bowl.
We knew then that although our appetites were great, we would only be able to eat the minimum amount of 'Duck Blood Soup' to remain polite in the eyes of our hosts. We feigned some reason to return to the guest house where we ate something that hadn't been so recently alive. By the time we returned to the party the plastic bag was empty, and all that remained of the two ducks were a few loose feathers that the wind was playing with on the dusty floor, and a large pot full pot boiling over the open charcoal fire.
As the cooking pot continued to boil over the fire and other ingredients were chopped and added, the children returned. The tuk-tuk came to a stop with the children all singing and holding a piece of a drum kit. The stand in front of the building holding the containers of oil was dismantled and taken inside. I helped unload and assemble the drum kit. Tanja unhelpfully told everyone that I played the drums; 13 years ago that may have been true. A few of the men took turns playing the drums along to the pop music that had been playing continuously all day, whilst bowls of soup were handed out. Thankfully food is served in a communal fashion, with everyone helping themselves, rather than each person having a bowl each. Thankfully then, the bowl of soup in front of me, with a duck's claw partially submerged, wasn't mine alone. Dinner was a slow affair, and if they were surprised at how quickly I became 'Imp', full, they didn't show it.
The sun was setting now and the drinking pace was slowing. Activity was limited to a few people riding off on motorbikes and returning with amplifiers, microphones and guitars. Once all the equipment had been assembled and without a ceremonious sound-check, the band started, and they were excellent, that is until the guy with the funny dance moves and the monster like eyes and nose was persuaded to play, then the evening sobered up a little, polite nods and smiles descended all around.
After buying some beer, much against their protestations, we made our excuses for the need of a long walk in the cool early night air, and bade everyone a happy new year and thanked them all for their kindness and generosity and a promise that we would return to Laos and its beautiful people. We made a promise to ourselves that tomorrow we really did have to leave for Bangkok.
By Stratford Blyth