Monday, January 11, 2010

Four Days, Four Countries

We left Perth, Australia last Thursday afternoon, overnighted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew early in the am to Bangkok, Thailand and in the afternoon flew to Udon Thani later on Friday. Saturday morning we cycled a pretty easy 69 kms to the border town of Nong Khai and on Sunday morning cycled 30 kms across the four kilometer Friendship Bridge, over the Mekong River, to Laos and on to Vientiane.

Travelling in general, but so quickly in time and space, makes me not only sleep deprived but very conscious of the subtle and not so subtle differences in countries, not that we got a great sense of Malaysia from sleeping for about five hours in an airport hotel, but even the degree of humidity and the sense of colours were a considerable contrast to Australia, not to mention all the variety of foods offered in the morning breakfast buffet.

Thailand, and its our fourth visit to the country and the second to their new airport, is clearly the most advanced of the countries in south east Asia, but still retaining its exotic flavours, no more so than the food, which at the airport at least, is slowly being crowded out by the international favourites, sushi, pizza, burgers, Starbucks, while I crave the subtle and not so subtle spices of its national cuisine.

As I elected not to carry the guide book for Thailand, (the ones for Laos and Cambodia are heavy enough) and the one I read from an earlier trip was now about seven years old, and as such, the border town of Nong Khai turned out to be a delight. While not the sleepy little village that I expected, based on my reading, or fading memory, or perhaps just an image I conjured up in anticipation, it still retained a great deal of charm as the town continues to grow and develop about 5 kms along the wide expanse of the Mekong River due to the increased trade that resulted from the construction of the Friendship Bridge about 15 years ago.

We stayed in lovely, nearly new guest house just far enough away from the center to feel that we were in Thailand, versus another touring mecca and got good practice using sign language to convey the fact that the room did not have towels and toiletries, which were graciouscly provided. We also managed a long walk and view across to Laos in the setting sun and the mystical foggy dawn. Had some authentic food and after an American style breakfast headed to the border crossing.

For me, such crossings are a mix of dread and excitement. Dread because I hate bureaucratic procedures and excitement since crossing borders always has its anticipation of something new and different, even though in this case we were going to Vientiane, where we ended our trip through the northern part of Laos less then two years ago.

To enter the country it took almost an hour, not the least of which was getting the right form at window #2, submitting the completed form and the fee at window #1 and then waiting patiently at window #3 for the document itself and then going through two more check points and when finally on the road getting used to riding on the right, rather then the left, as we had been doing for the last two months.

Given the alloted time, I could not help but notice that the Visa fee for Canadians was US$42, for Americans $35 and for the rest of the world its was almost uniformly $30. Why?? To add insult to injury there was a surcharge, of one dollar in this supposedly communist country for processing the documents on the Lord's day, Sunday. The visa is only good for 30 days which is not a great deal of time, and at the same time Laos is promoting a campaign of "stay another day". Why not like India, allow multiple visits over a four month period?

I could also not help but hear the anguished pleadings and yellings of an elderly woman in French and English to be provided a visa only to be told repeatedly NO No NO! And after about twently minutes of heated exhanges and tears, I thought I saw another exhange, but this may have been my poor eyesight, and the woman was issued the document.

Speaking of documents, what do governments do with all the information they collect, often asking the same questions on two or three different forms, including the address and telephone numbers of the places you are staying, people one knows, profession and sex.

Speaking of which, in Thailand the entry and exit forms ask for sex, (as opposed to 'yes' or 'no please), on entry and leaving, I guess to determine the number of people having sex change operations in the country?

Approaching Vientiane, I was reminded of a quote from Nelson Mandela, something along the lines that "going back to a place that does not change through time, allows us to reflect better on the changes in ourselves". We did walk through the town, full of charming old French buildings and numerous colourful Wats and monks in orange robes which are the constant and found most of the restaurants that we had enjoyed two years ago are still here and to our good fortune we found a beautiful, brand new boutique hotel, with gleaming hard wood floors and a top floor corner room, which only appeal to the physically fit, with great views of the city. And as luck would have it, on one of the side streets, just around dinner time, a new Japaneese restaurant was offering a 50% discount in their five day old, ultra modern eatery, to "train staff"! We also had a great massage at a price that again seems to stand still, albeit, even here, the US$ has depreciated by some 12%.

Given our fabulous digs at Vayakorn House, we decided to enjoy the city an extra night which alas will only add to the midsection, since this will be the last opportunity to explore the French influence on the food and the general charm of this city. Once again, I am feeling less pressured to move on and see every monument so carefully described in our guide book, but rather just enjoy the time we have, for who knows if there will be a third time for us in Vientiane?

I am also carrying two pocket books, which I bought used, and on the cheap, with a view of donating them to the first English speaking local who happens to come along, and hence they are not great literature, but do provide a different activity, and sure beats watching the news, with its staple of violence, reports of cold weather etc.

In Wilbur Smith's African saga, there is a quote attributed to a Zulu warrior which resonated with me. "when a traveller gets a thorn in his foot, if he is wise he plucks it out. The fool who leaves it in and says I will keep this thorn to prick me so that I will always remember the road which I have travelled".

As a cyclist, I recall my early days when getting a flat, just fixing it or installing a new inner tube, only to have another shortly thereafter, teaching me the lesson that its important to remove the thorn or more likely a piece of glass, the caused the puncture, to not have the puncture repeat itselt.

As a metaphor for life, what would all the therapists do, if we dealt with our emotional hurts at or soon after the time of the trauma, and moved on, and how much happier would we be rather than carrying our pain with us?

happy travelling and to leaving all our thorns behind,



Laura said...

Sounds like fun. on the topic of border crossing I'll never forget going into the USSR and wondering what happened to the third piece of paper. There was on part of the visa for going in, one for leaving and the third one?

Julia said...

Andrew, all of my senses were heightened as I read your words - tongue, ears, feet were all tingling with anticipation of the new adventures facing you. Your last insight about how we deal with the thorns in our lives, however, will be what occupies my thoughts all day. It is what I will make sure that Jess sees as he prepares to go on his big adventure. Much love to both of you.

David in T.O. said...

Good advice. Takes courage though.

Max said...

Will you be visiting the magical falls in Luang Probang?