Sunday, March 1, 2009

Go Thou... to Laos!

It seriously took me at least five minutes to come up with that title. I must say, that I am very disappointed with it, but I am not going to spend five more minutes trying to come up with something even cheesier. So, yeah, Laos rhymes with how, not house... Just so you know.

Right, so, repairs to the house on hold, I needed to head to Laos to do some vetting at the Sunshine school - if you've read any of my older posts, you'll know that I wanted to do that some time ago, but had to head back to Ban Phe before I was able. This time, as that was my expressed purpose in going, not so much.

Kia and my friend Joe's girlfriend Kelly needed visas, so they tagged along and we three merrily made our way to Rayong's 407 bus. (I think it's called the 407 bus.) Anyway, it was the same bus I took up to Nong Khai last time, the one with famously comfortable seats. This time, on the tuk-tuk ride to the border, our driver tried to stop at one of the various "pay for the form you get for free at the checkpoint" stalls, and I told him not to stop. The throng of other foreigners was not as lucky - I saw them later at the border as the realization dawned on them that they'd been ripped off. I had been tempted to jump out of the tuk-tuk and reveal the scam, but I also had had a feeling that if I were to take away a bunch of Thais' means of living, I might not make it to Laos with all my teeth.

Sadly, I did not meet up with Bibi again, but I did stay in the same guesthouse as before. It is still popular with French ex-pats who wear shorts that are incredibly short.

On remembering how much of a pain it was to try to get around Laos without a motorbike, and not even knowing where exactly the Sunshine school was other than the fact that it was in Vientiane, (Pronounced anywhere from Vee ehn tee ehn to Wang szchjen - I believe that the correct pronunciation rhymes with vision.) I decided to rent a motorbike. This was my first long term experience with a much hated "semi-auto" transmission, which I will hopefully never have the displeasure of riding on again. Seriously, no clutch makes for some... shifty riding...

God, I am sorry. That was awful.

After arriving and settling in, I met up with Didi, the manager of the Sunshine school. She was showed me around the grounds, and I saw a number of children having their PE class which at the time seemed to involve a lot of running for how hot it was. She also brought me to sit in and partially teach one of the English classes. The students commented that I looked like Peter Parker, which was a new one for me, but they were very cooperative, eager to learn, and looked very fresh in their Laotian standard school uniforms. (Complete, from what I recollect, with a red communist party scarf.) They also commented that they knew how to spell my name, despite the fact that it can be a tough one for Asians just learning English, and I soon found out why: Sean Kingston had just recently played in one of the local venues and the kids were rabid about him.

At lunch, I sat down to have some of the school's touted vegan fare. The Sunshine school, like Baan Unrak and Baan Dada in Thailand are associated with the Neo-Humanist foundation. At first, I was a little tense about this because I don't really want to be entangled with any religious organizations. NGOs and governments can be a little strange if your organization is directly linked with something religious, particularly in Communist countries such as Laos, Vietnam, and China. As it turns out, the Neo-humanist organization is not really religious, but perhaps spiritual - they didn't seem to mind my sort of Prussian terseness on the subject of the metaphysical. After all, a lot of our views are the same anyway. I don't eat meat (though I do love cheese and eggs) but accidentally imbibed some pork when one of the teachers brought some into the school from outside. I had thought that it was some sort of vegetarian meat substitute like tofu, quorn, or seitan. (I love seitan! Ha ha ha! Always get a kick out of that.) I took one bite of it and the texture revealed its true nature. I hadn't said anything to them about being a vegetarian because I figured that I wouldn't need to. After seeing the look on my face, I didn't need to. They took the pork, and I continued eating my rice porridge with veggies. Not exactly the best fare for a hot day, but it did the trick.

After showing me around the school and having lunch with me, Didi invited Kia and I to come with her to inspect some land that their outreach project was trying to develop. The places was a little ways down one of the Mekong's tributaries, and I thought it would be a great experience to see a bit more of Laos, so I said yes.

Everyone got started out very early in the morning at Didi's place, near the school. We piled a lot of groceries into her Landrover and started out of Vientiane. Practically a few feet out of the city, the roads cease to be paved and the red clay soil that so typifies Southeast Asia is the road of into the country. We got to visit an eco-lodge (where everyone seemed very keen on telling us "it has a bar!") and see the stadium where the ASEAN games will be. Apparently there are some ghosts on the loose near the stadium, and they prevented the bulldozing of a grove of trees. Local rumors said that every time the machines got near the grove they would start to malfunction and eventually stop working altogether. Whatever was planned to be built in that particular grove had been relocated elsewhere.

Eventually, we arrived at a river junction with a rickety bamboo bridge that crossed a deep gorge above a stream. Kia was not thrilled about the prospect of crossing it, but after seeing a guy go before us with a motorbike, she calmed down a bit about it. The view above the river was spectacular and the temperature probably dropped several degrees as we descended the banks to the pontoon boat below. Some kilometers downstream we stopped to see the land that they were developing, but due to a recent fire there was very little there except some cows grazing. It was exceedingly hot, so everyone hopped into the fast flowing river and immediately exchanged remarks on how incredibly cold it was.

While being exceptionally refreshing, I must say, the water was a tad fast for my taste. It took me nearly three minutes to swim the length of the pontoon boat against the current. I reached the other side completely exhausted. Eventually, Didi told us that she was planning on staying at the eco-lodge a few kilometers back, but that we could get back with her friends in the Landrover.

Over the next couple of days, I checked out areas around the Sunshine school for local amenities, lodging, and the general fact-finding I do wherever I vet a volunteer site. I found a few interesting gems, but most of them are pretty well-known if you spend more than a day or two in the area with a Lonely Planet. Disappointingly, I didn't have time to make it up to Luang Prabang, as there was a site or two that I would have liked to have seen up there. So, I eventually bid Didi adieu and Kia and I headed back to Nong Khai.

Our train ride back was one of the least comfortable experiences I have ever had, but during our border crossing we met an interesting young Brit who lives in Bangkok. He and his friends had produced their own kung fu movie and were promoting online in a number of places. We exchanged numbers and I agreed to come see him the next time I am "yoo krung thep." (in Bangkok)

He caught his train, and Kia and I caught ours. Third class train seating is rough no matter how you slice it, but a sixteen hour trip on it is downright brutal: the seats are made of wood so hard that after a half an hour you need to continually poke yourself in the derriere to make sure that you still have one. There are fans that oscillate with the regularity of Halley's Comet and even when they are on you, it's difficult to tell. Couple all that with the fact that the windows are kept open for air-circulation, thusly allowing every winged pest in creation could find its way into your facial cavities, along with dust, etc from outside of the train. Then toss in more people than there are seats, and you've got yourself a train ride you won't soon forget.

Sixteen hoursish later, Kia and I were disgorged, somewhat frazzled into Hua Lamphong station in central Bangkok. After meeting up and handing off data to our company IT guy, we decided to see a movie at the fancy theater at the upscale Siam Paragon. Benjamin Button was playing, and I figured it would be cool to see in an actual movie theater since I don't usually do that (closest one to where I live is in Pattaya, and I've never actually seen a movie there.)

I was thinking about how much our tickets cost a little after we bought them and realized that they were the most expensive movie tickets I'd ever bought. It puzzled me, but I chalked it up to the obscene elitism that is Siam Paragon and thought nothing more of it other than how I could make up for a little over twenty dollars missing from my budget.

Then I saw the movie theater:

First off, we had the place to ourselves and all the chairs were bigger than those you'd find in first class airline seating. All of them had buttons to call attendents over for popcorn, etc. and electronic massage machines built into them. All totaled there were probably twenty seats in the whole movie theater. Still, it was an insane price to pay for a movie ticket and if I'd been thinking more quickly in baht (just having converted from kip) there's no way I'd have gone for it. Still, it was an interesting experience, as so many things are in Asia, to have just once.