(Continued from The Visa Run and an Expat Informant)
Free from obligations for the day, I set off to explore the capital city. One of the more interesting spots was the night market by the Mekong. It’s an extensive strip full of counterfeit clothing and appliances, perfumes and snack trolleys, and fake antiques originating from Thailand and China. Every shop shared floor space with three carbon copies of itself, each with stereos playing identical and simple electronic loops. I noted that things like food and accomodation were often a bit more expensive than in Thailand. Much of the food is imported into Laos, people have told me. On a previous visit to the north, I was struck by the abundance of rubber tree plantations. It could be that export crops such as those have largely replaced subsistence farming and crops meant for domestic consumption, which would contribute to higher food prices.
As the sun set, I walked along the Mekong and absorbed the atmosphere. Young couples sat by the platforms that lead down to the riverside. There were two groups of pedestrians engaged in group aerobics, each facilitated by someone in tight clothes on a stage. The music they danced to made me laugh, and I eventually joined one of them.
I smiled at pretty Laotian women as they walked by, they scowled back at me. It could have been my imagination, because the trip from Thailand had left me in a rather rotten mood. Realising that, I reminded myself that Vientiane can be a thrill if you’re with the right people and have a positive mindset.
I checked in to the first guesthouse that looked alright. Cannot recall the name, only the orange sign and rows of bicycles, the collection of shoes at the doorstep, the young travellers in their tank tops drinking Beerlao by the outdoor table. Upstairs next to the dorms was an arrangement of plastic flowers, and I had to stop and marvel; It was so hot in the building that the faux flowers had wilted.
There was an old vagabond in the bunk next to me. I don’t know if he’d been chewing his dentures or eating ice, but it was quite distracting. Later I noticed an empty skewer. He may have been eating sausage balls, but dipping them in what? Water and soda were the only things he had available. He was always fidgeting with his bottles, talking to himself, making strange noises. I couldn’t recognise his language, it sounded Scandinavian. He had many thermoses. He opened and closed them repetitively, and they seemed to have multiple lids, which he fidgeted with. Routinely pouring something into his tin cup, he talked out loud to himself, as if praying.
I shifted on my bed to look at him. He kept turning in the direction of the night stand, as if there was something novel or surprising there. I could tell by the look of his living space that he’d lived in the guesthouse a long time. Doing what, I couldn’t imagine. There was nothing to do in Vientiane. He traveled with a power bank and external battery, his head was covered with nappy white hair, like that of a goat. He wore common backpacker tourist garb, the kind that derived from something like fisherman’s pants. He pulled a mess of notes from his backpack, crumbled up like discarded candy wrappers. Again he checked the nightstand and mumbled to himself.
The room was full of older men, all from different parts of the world. I thought my neighbour was Chinese. He’d been turning his phone on and off repetitively for half an hour. The vagabond said something to him in his unidentifiable mother tongue, the Chinese man nodded and grinned. Another man was there twenty minutes ago, sprayed himself with cheap cologne and left, but his cologne was the most present thing in the room thereafter. Chinese man picked up his phone and began loudly grunting “Oay, oay, oay” and waddled out of the room. He could still be clearly heard through the door, just as the motorcycles on the street could be heard growling through the walls there. The vagabond loudly grumbled in his mother tongue. The man on the bunk above me was active. Every movement shook my bed aggressively. I prayed that none of them would snore, but the chances were out of my favour.
The vagabond fell to sleep like some people die. He put in his earphones and instantly lost consciousness. He took short, exhausted breaths, as if losing oxygen. His snoring was restless, uneven.
. . .
22 April, 2016
The following morning I went down to reception for the complimentary breakfast. Toast, jam, butter, Nescafe, rice and a fried egg. I sat at a table and looked around. There were some interesting characters in that guesthouse. A lot of oddballs, older travellers representing rare nationalities. One of them dressed like Sinbad, with a white turban that draped to his knees. There was a sculpture of a smiling fat Buddha in the reception hall, but half of it was unworked, giving the statue an expression of deformity or mutilation. The vagabond was in the corner with one of his thermoses.
I picked up a magazine to learn that there is now food delivery in Vientiane. The article listed some of the finer selections around town. My mood getting the best of me, I imagined plastic bags tied with rubber bands, styrofoam and staples.
There was a duel of shouting going on at the nearby mosque. Sipping my coffee, I listened. Within the hour I checked out of the guesthouse and hailed a taxi.
Strapped for time, I didn’t spend anther night in Vientiane. There was nothing there that interested me, to be true. I ran into Info-man at Immigration. Unlike me, he took one look at the crowd and decided to go somewhere for a drink until it cleared out. I stayed the whole time and meditated in the heat.
I was granted a tourist visa, valid for sixty days, single entry. Info-man came up to me afterwards and we began to talk about work.
“Why don’t you go over to the U.N. and see what opportunities they have available in Southeast Asia?”
“I don’t think they cover anywhere other than Laos,” I replied.
“You don’t know shit. Just go over there and ask.”
We left the premises and stood next to the road.
When a taxi driver offered a one hundred baht ride to the Friendship bridge (drivers often accept Thai baht in Vientiane) I refused, thinking I’d find an empty rickshaw on the street that would charge half the price. Info-man asked me if it was worth saving two dollars after everything I had to go through to get there and back to Chiang Mai.
He had a valid point, but I didn’t take the taxi. I didn’t go to the U.N., either. Info-man told me he would stay around Vientiane with his Laotian friend for a few days. They like to ride around the countryside on her motorbike when they get together. That was the last I’ve seen of him.
I went to a shop to buy water, then stepped out to look for a rickshaw, walked two hundred metres in the heat before hailing one down, and his offer was three hundred baht. “Oh, too far!” he said. I should have taken the taxi earlier.
I walked all the way back to Immigration, it was locked up and the taxi drivers were still there. Now they offered three hundred baht. The discount had been for a full vehicle, not a single person. I was lucky to get one for two hundred baht by a bored driver. It was pleasant to bask in air-conditioning and have a smooth ride all the way to the Friendship bridge.
At the border crossing, I rushed into a public toilet to change into formal attire — to impress Immigration — and bypassed the departure point, thinking I’d save myself time and money. That was unwise. I made it all the way to Thailand and they turned me away because I hadn’t collected a departure stamp in Laos. That cost an extra two bus rides and six checkpoints, plus another ten dollars for my stupidity.
An hour later, the bus reached Thai customs and I was given the stamp of admittance. I was tremendously relieved to be permitted to return, though I was returning with a heavier conscience than before. I stared at the stamp and the expiration date for a long time, as if it would suddenly change. It was a healthy dose of reality, the trip to Vientiane. I learned something about prioritisation, and a bit more about taking calculated risks.
Within a few minutes, the bus pulled over in the border town of Nong Khai, Thailand.