Saturday, 17 September 2011

Flying South


Pati and Oisin wait for a pineapple in Luang Prabang 
Luang Prabang’s lazy charms kept us entranced for a good few days, but with the clock ticking for our onward flight to the great family reunion in Australia, we knew we had to get a move on if we wanted to see more of the region. Our consummately ad hoc approach to planning means that by the time we sit down to arrange the next part of our journey it usually transpires that the time necessary for the journey has already been spent, carefree, doing anything but planning. After savouring the delights of Bangkok for an unconscionably protracted spell of ten whole days, Vietnam now had to be struck off the agenda. Ever since I had laid hold of the Lonely Planet guidebook (approximately seventeen weeks ago) I had nurtured an urge to see Halong Bay. This was no longer going to be possible. I’d seen the Bangkok metro and I should count myself lucky. On top of this, we had met several travellers who all told remarkably similar stories of rude treatment that bordered on the physically hostile in Vietnam. I’m perplexed. What possible historical reason could the Vietnamese have to harbour resentment against the West?

The urge to see more of the region was also slowly morphing into the urge not to see it all from the window of a “luxury” bus endowed with bottomless seats and a suspension assembly freecycled from the Wright Brothers. Sloth got the better of the argument, and we opted to fly out of Luang Prabang to Siem Reap in Cambodia. That and the fact that the trip overland would have taken at least three solid days of travelling through the rural south of Laos. Given that the guidebook’s advice about any potential health issues was “get over the border into Thailand as soon as possible for treatment”, it was easy to use the boy as an excuse not to explore the more remote reaches of the country. It also warned that you would be fleeced as a matter of course by the Cambodian border guards on the way into their country by land.

So with a strong sense of wanting to return to this little gem of a town, with its somnolent streets, lanterns swinging in the Mekong breeze, monastery roofs that sweep down near to the ground, traffic that rolled gently past at walking pace and smiling inhabitants, we packed and headed for the tiny airport. One short flight later, and we abruptly realised that we had been on an all-too-brief leave of absence from the capitalist west, and in Cambodia it returned with a vengeance.

Laos is one of those few countries where you belatedly realise that on Planet Earth there are still some places where not every last inch of public space has been devoured by the advertising industry. This was something that I had never even contemplated until I visited Havana in 1997 – the idea that you could walk the streets of a city without being bombarded by endless idiotic entreaties to purchase a limitless amount of superfluous garbage that did nothing much but shorten the lifespan of our planet. The fact hit me with such force that I felt like some redneck woken from a bad dream who was walking through a William Morris landscape. Siem Reap airport brought the capitalist bad dream back with an instant array of billboards and a cash machine that dispensed – the horror – US dollars.

Flying the Flag!
Laos has one of those irritating currencies that employ an enormous number of zeros. 50,000 kip sounds like a lot of money until you realise it won’t buy you dinner for the night. A typical trip to the cash machine left my wallet stuffed with something like two million kip. And the smallest denomination note, 500 kip, is worth about four pence. What on earth are they thinking of, printing four pence banknotes? Then my brain rouses itself from its millionaire stupor: it’s probably cheaper to print those notes than mint coins. Cambodia, on the other hand, has surrendered itself to the Evil Emprire. For reasons that elude me, it runs on a dual-currency set up where both local riels and US dollars are accepted nationwide. The local riels tend to be used in place of cents, as there are no American coins circulating, so your change from a ten dollar bill might be seven dollars and two thousand five hundred riels. Managing one exchange rate is bad enough, but having to do twice the work simultaneously is a recipe for financial mismanagement. Nevertheless dollars were procured, not least because that is all they accept as payment for their tourist visa. The visa official at the airport did a double-take at my passport photograph, the one where I look like I’ve just been released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and scowled. My pulse began to quicken as I blanched at the prospect of the negotiations ahead of me now. He laughed and handed it over, and as the rain started to come down in biblical quantities, our tuk-tuk driver produced two umbrellas and jammed them into the canopy of the taxi to shield us from the spray. We had no view whatsoever of the road ahead, so fingers crossed the traffic was light. The only thing we could see was an astonishingly large illuminated billboard for a hitherto unknown to me brand of “quality blended [!] Scotch whisky”. Followed by another billboard. And another one. We had arrived in Cambodia but we were having troubling spying it between the gigantic hoardings plastered in images of suave, sub-James Bond, “quality blended whisky” drinkers. As a single malt aficionado Cambodia was bringing me unexpected problems.