Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 391: Laos PDR .. Posted - 27th November 2013

I arrived safely in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos PDR. The bus journey to the North East of Thailand wasn’t great, but at just $15 it was difficult to justify the additional expense of flying. At Nong Khai bus station the Sam Lor, a three wheeled taxi-bike, whisked me to the Friendship Bridge and crossing the border into Laos had been easy. Given the early hour, I’d expected the Mekong crossing to be quiet, but it was far busier than I’d expected. Crossing the bridge with me were large groups of Thais, traders heading to the markets of Vientiane to buy stock for their respective stores back in Thailand. That didn’t surprise me at all, but what I found coming in the opposite direction, well, that was slightly unexpected. Small groups of sweet painted ladies, girls heading home after a night or weekend of commercial activity in Laos. Their shorter skirts and broader smiles set them apart from the locals, and a certain understanding of the laws in Laos, well, that kind of confirmed that the girls were Thai. I’m not here to pass judgement, but if there is an adult entertainment market in Vientiane, then it’s thankfully underground and discreet .... mai pen rai kap  
Over the years I’ve developed certain personal rules for travelling, and one of those rules involves a Country’s approach to the provision of electricity to its people. Basically, if a country can afford to bury its electricity cables, then it’s probably a little too expensive, and quite frankly a little too dull, for Poor Circulation. Thankfully, despite massive economic and structural development over recent years, Laos and Vientiane Capital have made absolutely no attempt to break that rule.
For a capital city that’s home to almost a million people, Vientiane still has a village feel about it. The atmosphere is gentle and relaxed, the people seem not to rush and although traffic volumes are rapidly increasing, walking or cycling is still the best way to explore.  
The influence of the French is obvious, and everywhere. The old colonial buildings nestle comfortably in the growing shadows of modern office buildings, the language of visitor’s seems to be French and the food is a cultural mix of East and West.
 Today, it’s almost impossible to visit any capital city without being overwhelmed by advertising for McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks et al. But, you won’t find any of that here. In Laos there are very few Super Markets selling convenience foods and Fast-Food outlets simply don’t exist. Along with the absence of McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut, there’s also a visual absence of obesity and a statistical absence of diabetes. I wonder if those things are in anyway related?

Post 390: Leaving Thailand ... Temporarily - Posted 19th November 2013

 I’ve no idea where the time goes. It seems that I arrived in Thailand only yesterday, but already it’s time to leave. Ironically, in order to remain in Thailand, I first have to leave. I’m heading to the bus station, the start of a journey into Laos. It’ll take ten hours on the overnight bus, and then another hour to cross the border at The Friendship Bridge that spans the Mekong River between Nong Khai on the Thai side and Vientiane Capital over in Laos. 
I’ll visit the Thai Embassy in Vientiane and hopefully, receive a double entry 60 day visa for Thailand. It means that after I come back into Thailand, I’ll be able to stay for 60 days before crossing another border, probably into Cambodia. It’s an administrative headache, but it’s not optional, so I’ll make the most of the opportunity and do a little more exploring in Laos. 
Last night in Thailand, it was the festival of Loy Krathong. I’ve written about the Loy Krathong Festival before, so I won’t bore you with details, but this year, well, things have moved on slightly. 

When you gently launch your Krathong, a decorated float made from banana trunk and leaves, into the canal, it carries away the ‘bad’ parts of your person and the coins placed on the float are meant to bring you good fortune for the coming year. In previous years, enterprising young kids would swim in the filthy waters of the canal and taken the coins out of the boats. This year, those same kids have become more enterprising. 
The young girl in the water charges 20 Thai Baht to launch your Krathong into the middle of the canal, far away from the other swimming money collectors. It sounds like good value because after all, the coins in your Krathong are going to bring good fortune. Good Fortune yes, but probably not for you.  From the shadows, a small boat emerges, a boat containing other members of the girl’s family. In the central waters of the canal a hundred yards downstream, they meticulously remove every coin from every Krathong.
Maybe that's why I'm destined to remain poor? ... mai pen rai kap 

Post 389: Home Sweet Home? ... Posted 3rd November 2013

I should really start riding. The Tiger Retro’s ready to go and the roads are calling, but something’s holding me back. I’ve been here for a week and the truth is, I’ve been absolutely nowhere. Okay, I’ve ridden to the market at Chat-u-Chak, and that’s a hell of a place to visit, and I’ve been to Chang Wattana Soi 14 for some amazing Street-Food, but apart from that, I really haven’t been anywhere. For the first few days I’d thought jetlag was holding me back, or laziness, or even that I’d caught some God awful disease, but maybe, maybe it’s actually worse than that.
 It seems that I’ve spent my entire adult life in a hurry, usually racing motorcycles from one destination to another. Sometimes that was for work, the way that I earned my living as a Despatch Rider in London, but more recently, it’s been overland travelling for pleasure. It’s been fun, and I’ve visited some amazingly wonderful places, but the process of racing between those places means that I’ve totally bypassed a lot of the really good stuff. The funny thing is, it’s only now that I’m beginning to realise just how much I’ve missed. Now that I’m on the wrong side of fifty, the life that once seemed eternal must be approaching its twilight, or perhaps it’s already there. Who knows?  Anyway, the truth is, I’ve changed.

When I arrived back in Lak Si, it wasn’t jetlag or laziness that stopped me from hitting the highway, it was roots. I swore that it wouldn’t happen, but it has. I’ve found a location and a community that I care about, a place that I could easily call home. Sure, there are lots of places that I love, places that I’d like to settle down, Boonville for example, but here in Lak Si I feel that I can actually make a difference. I’ve certainly spent time with less privileged people than I find here in the Northern district of Bangkok - the displaced people of the Hmong and Karen on the Northern borders of Thailand for example - and I’ve witnessed atrocities that can’t be mentioned in this blog, but here in Lak Si, well, things are different.  
I’m no richer than the average resident here so I certainly can’t help them financially, and aside from a knowledge of English I’ve no skills to share that they don’t already have, but there seems to be something that I can contribute. That something is basically, Time. I take time to stop and talk with people, and fleeting as it is, that seems to make a difference to their lives.  
Within a square mile of my apartment, there's enough to occupy the mind and soul of any traveller. It’s difficult to explain, and maybe in the coming weeks I’ll find the right words, but the truth is that I’m in no great hurry to ride away from here .. mai pen rai kap