On this day in 2011….Stuck at the Vietnam/Laos frontier #Otdi2011

15/01/2011

mistyWe woke up at the border gate, and looking past the snoring rapist (admittedly a bit unfair), I could see through the window it had rained heavily last night albeit visibility was limited due to a heavy mist. The digital clock at the front of the coach told me it was 6.30am and through the fog I could just about make out several other coaches parked up on the roadside.

We were ordered off the coach with our hand luggage and ordered to the border control which was about 200m up the mountain. No actually we weren’t ordered, as that would have been a good thing. We were actually just left there while the coach drove off, leaving us to advance into the deep mist on our own without any instruction. The outline of a distant mountain range was just about possible.

We eventually found the passport control and checked out of Laos. Once in the frontier, we took the 5 minute walk across to Vietnam. Everybody had their visa out and were showing them to the guards. Not us, we had done ours online and would pick them up at the crossing. We had it done two days in advance, as recommended, and all was approved. No worries.

At the Vietnam entrance, we waited in small tin hut, while the coach driver called our names from his list to present our documentation to the necessary authorities. When we were called up, we were greeted with a smirk and given our passports back. No visa, no entry. We tried to explain that we booked it online, but they didn’t want to know. They called another set of names up and ordered us aside. A lot of ordering around going on here. We went to the departure side of the border control building to find an empty office to print out our visa but had no luck. Panic was starting to set in now, as all the other guys on our coach were getting through and off continuing through to where presumably our coach was parked. Right okay, maybe we should find our coach and explain our situation. But where was our coach? Not allowed back into Laos, we walked around aimlessly in the fog and rain looking for it. It was nowhere to be seen. Even with no let up from the fog, it definitely felt like there was a lot less people around.

Except for a sole Argentinean lad from tubing, who was anxiously looking for his two other friends. Trading panic stories and predicaments in the cold mist had now replaced the Malvinas/reckless zipwire banter we’d shared while preparing for a trapeze swing on the sunny banks of the Nam Song River only a few days ago.

The three of us decided that we would go back up to the Vietnam border control gate. Walking across a wooden bridge, despite the intense fog, we could see all the locals running across. “Where are the coaches?” we asked, to the response of pointing and laughing. I fucking hate this place already. We managed to get past the first set of security guards and had a few steps in Vietnam when we were hauled up by a guard armed with a machine gun and two dark holes for eyes. We were thrown out instantly; the Argentinean guy said he was off to look for his friends back in Laos. We had now walked the entire length of the frontier without seeing a single coach or anybody who was on it and I can only struggle in conveying, the Microsoft Word thesaurus tool can’t help me here, the dread we felt when it dawned on us that not only were we not getting into Vietnam today, but our coach and everybody on it had. Them and our bags with all our stuff. It’d passed through the border, without us.

Our confusion was compounding. As far as we were concerned, we had the visa and were right to be bedding down on that bus on to Hanoi, not out here freezing our tits off in the rain and cold in no mans land. This was a holiday for fucks sake, not Northern France 1916.

We managed to look as confused and scared as possible to the guard who had kicked us out the first time, but emotions clearly didn’t work with them. So we played the hard game and begged to see our coach driver. Another more senior guard came over and told us he would “take you, take you, than need visa”. It’s important you know I’m not taking the piss out of his broken English, it’s 100 times better than my Vietnamese, I just want you to get an idea of what it was like. He took us into Vietnam, machine gun at the ready, and after a brisk walk we found our coach, the last one left, parked up on a muddy bank. We got on and I was actually very happy to see the Con-Air Rapist perched up in his seat as this was definitely our coach at least. His pock marked face the ever-reliable landmark. We grabbed our hand luggage and went to return to our seats when the Guard ordered us back off, “what’s going? I thought we were safe”. The coach driver was opening the baggage compartment underneath the coach and told us to find our bags. Once found, the driver was ushered away and we were told to follow the Guard back to the border. Which we did, listening to our coach rolling off into the distance, down into the misty magical mountains.

We were taken to the border and promptly kicked out again, with a stern warning. Kicked out of Vietnam twice, with no more than a nasty smile and the tapping of a machine gun. Muhammad Ali justified his refusal to enlist in the US Army as “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger”, following the party line of Private Hook in the film Zulu who argued “did I ever see a Zulu walk down the City Road”. Anyways unlike Mr. Ali, I do have a reason to dislike the Vietnamese, and there I was thinking travelling was supposed to make you less racist.

Though it’d be daft to write-off the Vietnamese just yet. Considering I came within a whisker of ending up on the receiving end of a kicking from a gang of bouncers when I was 15, after repeatedly sneaking into a over-18s nightclub back home in Colindale, violence is everywhere. There was a building site next door, and we would climb the scaffolding, jump over into the beer garden and then call somebody to open the fire exit for us. The risk of falling down and breaking your spine paid dividends when you got in and spent the last few hours drinking snakebite, shouting your heroic story to anybody who will listen over Fat Man Scoop. Problem is the Bouncers on the door would do routine checks and if you got caught, you were out. It’s now an Indian bar and restaurant.

The Laotian border guys weren’t too bad, giving the translator software on their Microsoft ’95 a good go, but with little prevail. A brief moment of respite came in the form of a Laotian Billy Mitchell lookalike, who came over to investigate, providing a welcome chuckle and brief distraction, although the rain and mist outside pretty much summed up our hopes. I tried sneaking a picture of Billy for the white pages of my future autobiographical travel book, but this only fuelled their suspicion. After 30 minutes of hoping the translator on the other side could help, the message was clear. We were on our own and we would not be heading into Hanoi tonight.

We had already spent our last kip (currency of Laos), so were going to have trouble getting back into Laos and back to the nearest town to print off our visas. We searched our bags and found just enough Thai baht to convince a truck driver to take us to the nearest town, Lak Sao, where we spent the rest of the morning looking for a place with a printer. Surprisingly hard. Also, as this place was not normally a tour date on the backpackers trail, we could not access any of the ATM. We were now officially broke. Our plan had been to print out our visas and than get the next bus back to the border, but now, neither of these options were open to us. We were pretty much fucked.

The mist had now cleared and it was about mid morning. As much of a stress this was, a little part of me was grateful for the experience. Trauma and drama is often at the heart of a good travel story. A fantastic example of this was when Me, Ben and our two housemates at University, Greg and Winters, headed to Latvia in January 2006 on a last minute whim.

Dancing with wolves, LATVIA 2006

<b><a href=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia1.jpg”><img alt=”Latvia walks” src=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia1.jpg&#8221; width=”604″ height=”453″ /></a></b>It was in the middle of exams, and by means of a break from revision at a nice old English pub near our halls of residence in Mossley Hill, Liverpool. After many great stories of travel, we decided that we should do one together and so when we got back we picked the most random country that we could think of (or one that Ryanair had capitalized on) and booked it for the day after our final exam, the following week. There had been a big gang of us originally and as well as the exams, we were all faced with the headache of sorting out houses for next year. We had placed deposits down for two 6-bedroom houses only a few doors away and the 12 of us were unsure who would live with who. When the rest of the lads responded with “why Latvia?” or “I don’t have a warm enough coat”, we knew there and then that the four us would certainly be living together next year.

Forget the bankruptcy of New Century Financial or increased LIBOR, if you wanted an earlier indication of the Credit Crunch, you only had to look to 2006 where any old wankey student could flake around Wavertree High Street, walk into a bank with a NUS Card and half-hearted promises to make it their principle student loan account, and walk out with a 0% overdraft of no small amount. Times were good for spontaneous capital and the resultant student travel.

Anyways, after a couple of nights in Riga, the capital city, we decided to go and search for the wilderness and boarded a train to Siguilda which is about 55km away. The home of Latvian winter sports, although at the time it was more of a ghost town. On the other side of town was a cable cart that crossed the valley, over the Gauja River and onto the other side. The Woman who operated it came out of nowhere and was the first person we had seen in this large but empty town. The purpose for crossing? As well as ‘why not?’ we had also heard that there was skiing over there beyond the dark snow covered woods. The crossing was amazing, looking down at our cable cart’s shadow on the frozen over river below and the odd spot of a wolf prowling amongst the forest. Once on the other side, we were warned that the last crossing back was as at 6pm. But we were too caught up in the trek through the woods, were we spotted several castle ruins lost amongst the trees and snow, to be worried about that. We found the small ski resort and it seemed like we were the only ones who had. A great day skiing all round, so good in fact we only realized how late it had got by 5.30pm. After returning our equipment, we raced back through the forest but were too late to catch the last crossing. Looking across the valley, we could just about make out the cart. The last train back to Riga was at 7pm and if we missed that, we really were in the shit. Winters, as usual, kept cool and decided we would just have to make our way down to the river and see if there’s a bridge or something. Time was against us, and we soon found the easiest way down the valley was too slide on our arses down through the icy paths that had been made by the prowling wolves of the forest. The day before, we had been in one of central Riga’s parks and had a load of fun sliding down the pathways that had been iced over, and now this practice was being put to good use. We must have been sliding non-stop in single file down this hill before we got to the bottom. Over to one side, we could see an old bridge, but given how old it was, we weren’t sure if it was still in use. Sod it, our only real option and as far as we could see it did make it across the river. Our problem lay in the fact that to get to it, we would have to cross some of the frozen river. We had already some experience in this from yesterday when we bought the official UEFA Euro 2004 ball and played football on the frozen Danube River. Which is perhaps one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done. But we had no other option. Normally I would be shitting myself, but considering I’m with some of the best people I’d ever met and people who will go on to be my friends for life I felt relatively calm. Greg and Winters scouted the ice and indicate where to tread. Our bravery (stupidity) is rewarded by the sound of a car bombing through the forest behind us. They must be crossing this bridge. And they do. Winters is the first there and flags the car down and once we’re all up on the bridge, we’re good to go. It’s quite dark by the time we get to the train station and we all conk out on the train, woken only by the ticket collector for our slips.

Point of that sorry was, it’s surviving the fear and overcoming your problems which make a good memory or a worthwhile story. Not to say that’s a worthwhile story to you the reader, but for me it’s one that will continue to give me joy when I wistfully look back on it, perhaps until my dying day. So here we are, in some foreign town, where nobody really has any good reason to help out a few backpackers who have unluckily landed here.

However, an old Woman on the other side of the road who had been watching us fish out our last Thai baht for the truck driver, could sense a predicament. When our cards did not work at the ATMs, she could sense panic. She was here to help. She offered us the money to take one of the buses back to the border, even going as far as taking out the cash and placing it in our hands. There was no ulterior motive here, and I even felt guilty when the thought flashed across my mind. She just wanted to help two guys, obviously in trouble. Although, we both felt like we needed a plan of action before taking on any loans, we thanked the woman profusely and turned down her offer. She would be around the market, so if and when we needed her help she would be happy to offer it. Not a single hotel, office or shop had a printer. Some guys from a local pool hall took Ben up to their bedsit, which consisted of one grotty mattress and a PC. After viewing our Visa, we still could not print it out. Again, we thanked them profusely. They were good people. Walking along the street, we saw what looked like a second hand repairs shop. There was a printer there, but by no means connected and probably no ink. We asked the guy on the till if we could use it to print something and not only did he agree, but also spent the next 5 minutes connecting it up and refilling it with ink. He happily fired it up and printed off our Visas. That was half the problem solved. The next one was how we would access our funds. Oh, but wait, no we had an even bigger problem. Reading the small print, our visas were only valid if picked up from one of four airports in Vietnam. We now had to fly in. That’s why the Vietnamese at the border had no record of us having one. This meant catching a ride back to Vientiane, where we would have to buy plane tickets and fly into Hanoi to pick our visa up from the airport. Alternatively we could buy land crossing visas, but we would have to wait for them to be approved first, which could take up to 3 days. Time wasn’t on our side.

If there’s one benefit of this detour, it was the invaluable insight to a part bit of Laos that is not normally on the backpacking conveyor belt. Along with this, we got to see the superb hospitality of this little nation (sorry guys to be patronizing). But like most things, economics can describe why your more likely see improved hospitality in the impoverished areas in comparison to the cities or tourist hotspots. One of my favourite economists (yeah, I have a favourite economist), Tim Harford explains this perfectly in his book The Undercover Economist. He compares the manners of people in both Paddington in central London and Preston in Lancashire. He argued that people in Preston were more likely to be polite and friendly, as their time was less costly. Whereas in London, people had choices and time was money, thus, would have less time to hold a door open for somebody or strike up a time consuming conversation as there were more alternatives for them to be getting on with. Why would you want and chat to your elderly and painfully lonely neighbour about the weather when you can go and see Priscilla Queen of the Desert in the West End?

This was a good example of this, as the people here don’t have to worry about getting more buckets for people to drink out of or ensure there are enough rubber tyre tubes for people to ride in.  Also backpackers are not as tainted by the locals here as they are perhaps in Vang Vieng. Again I can revisit that legendary 2006 trip to Latvia for an example. Back to Siguilda, me and Greg are at the top of one of the main slopes preparing to go down when we are approached by a Latvian couple. We get chatting and at first we are surprised they are Latvians, considering how friendly they are. Especially when the woman offers me her gloves to keep my hands warm. Reason for our surprise, was the fact that back in Riga, we had been tarred with the same brush by the locals that had tarred the stag do crowd, all of which had been dressed as Papa Smurf. Fair enough I suppose, and despite our best efforts, we often fell into our own loutish ways. But we also showed manners to the locals. One night, when we returned to our hostel after a boozy one, we noticed a strippers club below. Greg, the kind hearted one of our group, took all the girls out for a burger and chips after they finished their shift. Nothing shifty about it, he just did because that’s the kind sweet guy he is. Not a single one of the Smurfs would have done that. I wonder how we would be received by this nice couple if they knew the true extent of carnage happening in their capital city tonight and the night after, all perfectly orchestrated by my fellow countrymen.

<a href=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia2.jpg”><img alt=”Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006″ src=”https://orbiterlover.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/latvia2.jpg?w=300&#8243; width=”300″ height=”225″ /></a> Us in Riga the previous day, January 2006

Back in Laos 2011, we were now on a truck back to Vientiane, the capital city we thought we had left behind. How were we going to get money out? Find a place to stay? How expensive would the flights be? Was Vietnam actually worth it? Sitting in the back of that truck bombing down the dusty road, I began to sing the seemingly appropriate Long and Winding Road by The Beatles, while Ben opted for Why Me Lord? by Johnny Cash. I suppose the most fitting song would be I Got the Wrong Visa and Now It Looks like I’m Stuck in Vientiane For the Next 6 Weeks, if it existed. Maybe we should write it, first single for our ‘difficult second album’. Maybe we can make it again at next year’s BRIT awards following our success on that first proper night in Vang Vieng.

They say Vientiane is the ‘most relaxed city in the world’. Not really, it’s just boring. Saturday night everywhere is shut except for the sleazy bar we had scouted earlier as the place to catch the West Ham Vs Arsenal game, the one thing that had got us through the days events. Unfortunately now it was just full of ladyboys, prostitutes and degenerate western men. We called it a night after half-heartedly looking for an alternative.

Went to bed that night, with the horrible feeling only half the problems were behind us. Would we get a flight in the morning? Were they really going to cost $500, as listed on the internet? Would we have to get a land crossing visa and have to stay here for another 3 or 4 days in the process?

In times like this, I try and think about fate. I certainly believe in fate at times like this. Of course in times of victory I put the outcome down to my own hard work or luck. But not now. This was meant to happen, we are meant to meet somebody or experience something in the future and this experience only ensured that happens. How different is out trip going to be now? If we do get a flight tomorrow and arrive in Hanoi, we will only be one day behind schedule. And think of all the new people we will meet and all the adventures we’re going to have. I then thought about Latvia 2006 again……..

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On this day in 2011….Our headline performance at Vang Vieng #Otdi2011

13/01/2011

Today I think we saw the legend of Vang Vieng tubing at its best and we could now agree with everybody in rejoicing that it is “fucking mental”. We got the later bus up and instead of jumping off the first point, we continued walking upstream to where we’d been at yesterday. Along with Terry Bundy from Southampton and Dave from Melbourne, we were the only ones there except for a few others who had been in the truck on the way up.

images-1According to Ben, “Terry wouldn’t be too incongruous in a white coat and hat working at the cheese or fish counter at Asda”. With the other two lads (with Terry and Dave replacing Will and Jack as our new pair) our group of names were no longer members of a GCSE math’s question, but locals of the Nags Head.

We did a few jumps and swings before the crowds started coming. They came from near and far. We then headed a bit further up to were the official party kicks off, and again the cheap homemade whiskey came right into play, making an appearance knocking us for six. We even spotted Ernie, the suspected undercover DEA officer we’d met in Chiang Mai, but thought best to stay clear. I did actually call after him purely on instinct, but Ben quickly gave me the look to suggest I was making a terrible mistake.

The four of us spent the rest of the day lounging around on the river or at the swing ropes, and only busy when making lots of new friends. In particular, a group of Aussie girls who I’d seen riding around town the last couple of days on mopeds. They were a good craic. Also we met Augustine from Argentina and his friends who begged us to come visit them in Buenos Aires at a later date. We would be seeing a lot more of them over the next few weeks on the same trail, even if on those future occasions it would be nothing more than a nod of acknowledgment. We had a big crew together and times were good.

tubing

We drifted down the river in our tubes taking it all in, giving all the highest and most dangerous looking swings and drops a go. We lost Terry somewhere, but Me, Ben and Dave had seen enough by sunset and were now going through the woods looking for the main road, tubes in hand. I lost them and was wondering around on my own, slightly worried I was lost forever; never to be recovered from this state of mind, let alone a dark forest. I could hear their calls but just couldn’t see them. My heart lifted as I came into a clearing and saw them in the back of a pick up truck with a load of other westerners. In I jumped and off we went.

Dave was also staying at Otherside, and so after a shower and a change of clothes, he came round and we all headed into town for some grub.

Of course, we couldn’t quite leave the hut without one creative boost of bowdlerized hallucinogenic story;

Mr. Pear Face; can you see his smily face?

“Look, your bag has a face on it” – said one of us, pointing to the rucksack hanging up.

“Yes, yes it does. It looks like a pear. A smiling pear” – said the other.

Laughter ensured for quite a while. For far longer than necessary, actually.

***Before we go and meet Dave for dinner, I hasten to add that I still think to this very day it looks like a smiling pear***

“Whatever happened to Terry Bundy?” was the question on everybody’s lips that night. Not really, we were all lost in one way or another. I had one of the best Thai Green Curries since arriving in South-East Asian and Ben seconded my motion. Dave had the Pad Thai. We met another group of lads and all went off to the Bucket Bar for some buckets and a pool table. These little luminous buckets have perhaps taking over Cassia fistula flower as Thailand’s national symbol and come with a choice of vodka or whiskey along with a can of fizzy pop. Fizzy pop? I used to think this term was used in television programs to avoid breaching product placement laws or clubs that weren’t licensed to use the words Coca-Cola or Sprite. But I think it’s just used as an umbrella description of any fizzy drink. I normally went for the whiskey and sprite, which was served and mixed in a small plastic bucket. There was no real plan tonight and even less so now that the island and all its late night clubs were deemed under curfew. The party island had been shut down by the local police last night in a crack down on all the rowdy behaviour. I had much faith in the owners to have them bribed by now but whatever, this was Vang Vieng, and you make your own fun.

Leaving Dave and the others, Me and Ben said we would go and scout the island to see if we could find anything and report back any findings.

The island was indeed very quiet, and it was clear there would be no repeat of the scenes here from the last few nights. Maybe this was it. The locals had finally had enough. However, I was not disheartened as there was certainly mischief in the air of the night and upon further exploration we came across it’s source in a little clearing which had previously been the centre of one of the dance areas. There was a campfire burning and a group of people around it muttering away. We joined them and after hitting another Shake, the experience became all the better while the scene began to make all the more sense.

vang vieng headline

Not sure how it all started, but I came engulfed into a debate to the nationality of Alexander Bell with a Canadian who claimed that he was Canadian, and at that one of Canada’s finest exports. It was nice to have a friendly debate based on previous knowledge without some dickhead pulling out his smartphone and whacking it into Wikipedia and ending all conversation. It went on until the rest of the group confirmed my suspicions he was born in Edinburgh, but conceded he was one of Canada’s finest imports (he died there). He still didn’t believe me. He then stood up, hand on heart and recited a few lyrics from a Canadian Nationalist song that mentioned Alexander Bell in it, from which he had built his case, with not a shred of irony or pisstake.

“Is that some kind of rap song?” I asked him after he finished the whole thing, much to his fury at my attempt to mock his national heritage.

This was worsened by the laughter of the other campfire attendees, which in turn set everybody else off. Truth is I was actually 100% being serious. Ignorant too maybe, but these shakes were strong. As soon as my mushroom bucket began to remind me of a school caretaker’s mop bucket, I stopped slurping and tried to make amends with the broken Canadian by talking him through some of the zodiac signs that we were seeing up in the sky. All wrong probably, but it’s my interpretation so that’s okay.

We’d probably outstayed our welcome with “this bunch of honeymooners” (as stated by some of the Aussie’s present) and so the two of us and a couple of likeminded lads headed over to one of the hammock areas that encircled the campfire. We were seeing all kinds of lights now, it was awe-inspiring. I find it quite cringe worthy trying to explain side affects of recreational chemical intake, as it feels more like describing the short-lived results of a child’s kaleidoscope (“all these crazy colours man”) but just thought you ought to know. We hung out with another load of Aussies, and I like how within minutes they were all using the phrase “honeymooners” to describe boring couples that you so often meet travelling. One of them though needed to be in shackles, hence earning him the nickname ‘Shackles’ from Ben. They even began adopting that one too. He really did though; he was huge, bald despite being only 19 and was shouting all kinds of obscenities and raucous animal noises. He was like one of the evil monsters from Resident Evil that you have to slay in order to get to the next level of the game. Although, with our uncontrollable laughter and babble coming out of our own mouths, we were like his mini-bosses you have to defeat in the earlier levels of computer games.

We left Shackles and his gang of Pixies and with one of the Australian guys, headed back to the mainland to get some food. He had a broken foot, so we helped him across the bridge, although he was extremely reluctant at first with “I’m fine, I’m fine” in the stubborn way wheelchair bound Lieutenant Dan is too proud to let Forest Gump help him back on his feet when he falls over. But after nearly falling off into the raging river below, we grabbed him and pretty much carried him across. What with him finally succumbing and letting us help him, I remarked “this is just like a Disney film this”. He began to take a turn for the worse and began to trip pretty badly with “what do you mean this is like a Disney movie? Put me down? Get me out of here”. Too late mate, you’re coming with us.

He sorted himself out once on the other side and we got some food and sat on a bench over atop a huge cliff that took a sudden drop to the flowing river below. We were than approached by Lloyd Ingram, the guy who was personally putting one of the street seller’s children through college or rice school (is that racist? I’m not sure), by going through her hamburgers at an alarming rate. He’d actually helped make Ben’s dinner last night when the stall owner took a break to boil some more rice.

We were all chatting shit when approached by yes, another Aussie guy from Melbourne. I use the word ‘Guy’ sparingly here, as none of us knew what the fuck it was. At first, we just thought he was really pissed hence his struggle to talk. Than we noticed he had an extremely deep voice but with feminine undertones. Pretty sure he was a male, given his clothes and choice of footwear. He sat next to me and it was here in the moonlight that I saw it. His face. I was the first to notice.

He looked like Walt Disney’s 1996 interpretation of Quasimodo. He’d noticed our shock at who he really was (and yes, his physical appearance does determine who he really is, don’t give me all that ‘its what’s on the inside that counts’ bullshit), and instantly began trying to justify his physical features.

The story went…He was a crack addict back in Melbourne but would often shoot himself up with testosterone to boost both his body and his high. He would compliment building up the muscle in his arms by giving hand jobs to the boys at school – but he wasn’t gay. He was something else. He promised he could make all the lads in Vang Vieng come in a day if wanted to.

Thankfully the story was diverted as he went on to explain that he was doing really well in Australia, winning lots of weightlifting competitions and was number 1 in the country. In turn, his mum had placed his photo on her fridge, an honour he was very proud of. By the third repeat of this story, he was now the 3rd best in Australia. Now he was not on his Mum’s fridge, but his Grans one. At the time, I had this funny theory, or maybe more of an observation, that as he was sliding down the ranks in Australia, he was sliding down the ranks within his family members. His Mum probably kicked him out once he was no longer the champ, and now he’d turned to a life of handjobs and hypodermic needles. I stopped listening when he was now 24th best in Australia and I dread to think which family member has him on their fridge at this current stage of his flailing career. Maybe his old Uncle that gave him all those tips on building up those biceps?

I tried explaining this to Lloyd and Ben but I just couldn’t make them see my point about the relationship between failure at sport and its correlation with how many photos of you there are in your family members kitchens. Despite the side-splitting laughter, they still couldn’t get it. I don’t blame them really, I was talking and thinking a load of breeze

Sad to say, but in Vang Vieng he was known as the ‘The Monster’, according to a passing group who interjected to give us some backstory when he went for a piss. It did seem a bit out of order and especially with the talk of his Mother and Grandmother, as it would take a heartless bastard to ignore the fact that somewhere this guy is somebody’s Son and Grandson. Okay, I’ll admit. It was me who first labelled him The Monster but I did manage to atone for my unpleasant branding of the Guy by saving him from falling off the cliff face and impaling himself on the rocks below. He started to talk about killing himself and I was selfishly annoyed that he may start ruining my mushroom trip that was in full flow. My selfishness didn’t stop there. If he did plunge to his death, it would make one hell of a selling point for this story. “Somebody’s Son, somebody’s Son, somebody’s Son” I reminded myself as I grabbed him back from the ledge.  I better wash my hands was my first thought, after he’d shaken it and begrudgingly thanked me for saving his life.

Me, Ben and Lloyd headed back down the hill discussing what the name of that guy’s autobiography would be if he ever chose to write one. Monster: My Story was the obvious choice, but I think we’d a winner with “Have you washed your hands mate?”

The other question had been “what if he actually did jump and kill himself?” To which me and Ben agreed on the hypothetical outcome; “Lloyd, you’ll have to go and inform the Australian embassy and track down his parents. After all, he’s one of your lot”.

We bid our farewells to Lloyd with exchange of Facebook details and plans to meet up in Vietnam and crossed the bridge back to our peaceful oasis on the other side. Ben would later learn that Lloyd was best mates with his next door neighbour back in Townsville. Despite the dark, we could still make out the bridge and were it split off towards the Launderette. The dimly lit area where we’d picked up our BRIT award looked a far cry from the glitzy podium it once seemed, and despite our success we would now be joining past winners such as Lemar, A1 and Ms Dynamite into pop star obscurity. Our time had been and gone.

It had been a mystery the last couple of nights; where was the party that started up around 4am and lasted until dawn? Many people had heard it, but the problem was nobody had seen it. Almost after every night, walking across the bridge to our Bungalows just as day was dawning, we could hear whooping, laughter and cheering somewhere in the deep mountainous forest, as if Vang Vieng was calling us back. It’s hard to go to bed, even after a full day and night’s session, when there might be another party elsewhere. It could be my generations Spike Island and I’d never forgive myself if I missed it for the sake of a kip in a wooden hut.

It’s one of my biggest fears, turning down an invite which ultimately leads to me missing out on some life-defining event. I’m sure I would have done a lot better in my GCSE’s had somebody just told me in advance that I, nor any of my mates would lose their virginity before sitting them. For a start, there would’ve been a load of parties I would’ve been able to have rain checked on. When I was about 8 years, I stayed around my Nan’s house one week while my parents had gone away. She lived on a main road that happened to be the nucleus of the neighbourhood where most of my friends from school lived. Can’t remember if it was actually a nightmare or my imagination, but I seem to have this vision of looking outside, not longer after going to bed and seeing a big group of school friends walk past, all of which had snuck out from under their parents noses to get up to their midnight mischief. Me excluded. Also a bit like in the summer when you had to go bed at your usual time, but given the longer days it was so much lighter. Struggling to sleep in the heat, made worse by the sounds of kids outside in the neighbour’s garden having loads of fun. Although at least my Parents came up with a good excuse for my absence when the older kids knocked on my door to see if I fancied coming out for a kickabout. Also when they’d call me in for bedtime, they’d open with something like “Rob that action movie that was banned at the cinema is on now if you want to come and watch it” to disguise the fact I was actually being called for my bath and bed. Turns out the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side, especially towards the end of the summer when Lynch’s lawn was cut to shreds from all that football. On that point actually, I can’t remember the last time I heard kids out playing in the garden or out in the street in my neighbourhood. I suppose who wants to throw water balloons at passing cars or set fire to a dog turd after leaving it on somebody’s doorstep, when there’s Call of Duty to complete on the Xbox.

We bumped into the Weymouth Boys once we’d made it to Otherside Bungalows. After asking them about the noise, one of them said “That noise? That’s a cockerel isn’t it?” He was right, cockerels placed up in the hills by the locals to try and coax people away from their beds and back to the party town, just like the Pied Piper of Hamlin did with all those German kids? No, they were just cockerels. I felt silly at first, but then more reflective on the state of mind I’d taken up since arriving here and the things we’d indulged in within this town and along its river. All things considered, it was hardly surprising I’d mistaken the cry of a farmyard animal for something completely different.

And even if it had been people, did it really matter? We’d had our fun here and it was perhaps a good thing we were moving on in the morning. Saying that, I will miss this place dearly.

After a smoke with the Weymouth Lads, who’d taken advantage of their medical insurance and claimed a load of laughing gas canisters from the doctors on behalf of a mate who’d broken his foot on the tubing, we stumbled back to our cabin and recorded on my camera an advert for keeping belongings safe from burglars (aimed at households of 1960’s Britain), inspired by the fact that we’d all our valuables under our mattresses. The first place that every thief/burglar looks according to reconstructions on Crimewatch. It may have worked in the last millennium, but not now, so why do we still utilize the mattress as a safe haven for our things?

Yeah, reading that last paragraph, I don’t have a clue as to what we were trying to convey at the point in time either. I was now more sure than ever that we were making the right decision in heading to Vietnam tomorrow.

On this day in 2011….Kayaking in Vang Vieng #Otdi2011

12/01/2011

Kayaking today, although the real attraction for the trip was the chance to go tubing through a river that cut through a cave, with nothing but our headlamps and a rope guide to keep us on track. Which we did, and it was laugh. A nice bit of effortless fun before heading down river in our boats. It was only when we got to the first few populated spots on the river that we realized how much we’d missed out on our first trip down in the tubes and why it had been relatively quiet on our first day. Most people start up here around 2pm boozing it up until they have to make their way down at rapid speed. Or alternatively pay no attention to the 6pm curfew.

kayak

Our entrance into the melee from the stream was far from being a good one. We had done so well over the last few kilometres but as soon as we came in front of all the crowds, we got caught on a submerged shingle bay in the middle of the river. The instructor was calling at us, but we could not hear him for the jeers from all the pissed up onlookers leering at us from the bamboo platforms above on either side. This is a nightmare. One lad (American I think), a right proper fat fuck, jumped from the nearest ledge into the river. At first I thought he was on his way to help, and I gladly handed out my paddle for him to get on with us. But no, he jumped on our boat turning us over. Luckily all our belongings were safe and wrapped up, but he didn’t know. Once we got back in, slightly miffed at being bullied by a Sceptic (and one with ginger hair too!!), I looked for my paddle. While the oath clambered back up to his wooden throne (where he’d now be heralded a legend throughout the day), I gave the thumbs up to the crowd with big stupid ‘oh-you-got-me’ grin.

It was pretty funny, more so had it been somebody else, though I still dreamed of how good it would’ve been had I not responded with smiles but a crushing paddle knocking all his front teeth out, and then raising my oar in triumphant before cruising down the river to cheers from all the understanding onlookers. For the sake of this journal it would’ve been great – but of course I didn’t, that would’ve been totally unnecessary..

Would people blame me though? What if I told them I had lost or damaged my camera? I certainly could have won them over. God I hope there weren’t any Bainos up there. At the age of 23, you’d think I was out of the woods of being a victim akin to that of an episode of Inbetweeners.

Once safely drying off at a fire by one of the other bucket bars, we swapped mushroom stories with two Northerners. I exchanged my Brit awards experience for theirs, which involved staggering around Vang Vieng thinking they were both cowboys in the Wild West. It was a fare trade I think and as it was nice and warm, I threw in our humiliating capsizing ordeal.

The only river obstacle on the way home came in the form of a horde of swimming cattle that engulfed our tiny flock of kayaks.

It was decided; tomorrow we would come back up with our tubes and start from here. This is where it was at. Today was our Dunkirk. Tomorrow would be victory.

On this day in 2011….Rain Day in Vang Vieng #Otdi2011

11/01/2011

It was raining when we got up and it rained for pretty much the rest of the day and so a second consecutive day of Tubing was off the cards. Bumped into the Weymouth lads again, who were occupying the cabin a few doors down. Today would be a chilled one, and would consist mainly of eating and watching Friends and Family Guy on sofas and pillows in one of the many hangouts. What must the local people, with all their hardship, think when they see us Westerners sitting around all day getting stoned and laughing at a talking dog or sympathizing with a group of people in a coffee shop? What must they think of the Western comedy scene, when we’re still stuck watching quintessential 90’s comedy.

Though I actually don’t mind Friends, but would never let Ben know that. Though I do concede at “Well, it’s better than all them fucking other ones….Chandler’s pretty funny – only because he’s the only member of the gang who wouldn’t actually approve of a show like Friends in real life”. Ben meets me half way on this, but really he just takes my word for it.

Later that night went for a few whiskey buckets and games of pool hall. We didn’t stay long so didn’t crack on with any more Shakes, as we had the West Ham Vs Birmingham Carling Cup Semi-Final to look forward to. We had nowhere secured to watch it but luckily after much hunting, we found a Guesthouse down one of the side streets that were prepared to let us watch it in their reception area. The Hammers won 2-1 and it looked like I could start looking forward to watching the Final in LA in 6 weeks time. We walked back to our cabin with an extra spring in our step.

On this day in 2011…Winning a BRIT Award in Vang Vieng; an introduction #Otdi2011

10/01/2011

Leaving the hostel, we moved to our new headquarters and our home for next couple of days, Otherside Bungalows. For little under £3 a night we got our self our own private twin-bed bungalow, constructed of wood. There must’ve been atleast 10 other bungalows, but aside from them there was very little else except for the fields that stretched towards the mountains on one side, with the flowing river to the other. It was peaceful, but was also comforting to know the mayhem was only a few planks of wood away.

The bridge to The Otherside
The bridge to The Otherside

After dumping our stuff off we were keen to get going with some of this tubing malarkey. Back on the original side of the river, we walked through the main strip and saw the Chilean Girls (and their Mother), who were renting out kayaks for the day. We arranged to meet them later on the river, but never saw them again. Shame really, as I really thought we all shared something worth reconvening for. I won’t forget the sparkle in the eye of the eldest sister when I played the part of the affable fool. It’s been a long time since a girl gave me that look. A certain shared look, the odd glance, a reminder of true meaning in a region full of fake local salesmen with smiles and promises at a cost. Being from Southern Chile, they may even have a word for it; Mamihlapinatapai – “Two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do” (Urbandictionary.com). In England it’s known simply as keeping your head down and suppressing all feelings deep within.

But anyways back to the job at hand. Once we’d picked up our rubber tyres (commonly know in the West as ‘donuts’), we got ourselves on the next truck that was heading up the river to the starting point. Without delay, we grabbed a few beers and took to the stream in tubes that at one stage in their life cycle were inner lining of a tractor wheel. The first bar we jumped out at, or rather dragged into by one of the guys throwing ropes out for you to catch to be pulled in, had a selection of whiskeys in bottles with snakes and scorpions in. On the deck, we played table tennis and drank whiskey in the morning sun, while more and more people started pouring downstream. Afterwards, we got back in our tubes and drifted further down stream until we came to one with a trapeze and huge water slide (probably from the same former London council-run leisure centre as the Slush Puppie machines in Chiang Mai). This place really was the nuts and after a go on both, and a few more drinks, we set off on our way again. We were using this first day as a way of just getting a feel for the place and it was going well. It felt amazing being this pissed at 11am floating down the stream, beer in hand while Feel The Love, Generation played from one of the many surrounding bars. It’s a semi-shit song, but I think its release in 2005 was a much-needed one, as it was at a time when with all the terror and pessimism. This was of course, my drunken nostalgia kicking in but it felt good. Than disaster struck. Ben was calling up to me from downstream. He was out of his tube and walking towards the banks. He had lost his camera and with a helping hand from the locals was searching the water in the same way police search for dead bodies or criminal evidence. The search proved fruitless, and we were gutted. Although all the photos had been backed up on his computer the night before, it was the only waterproof camera we had. Well that was my selfish reason to be annoyed. Ben’s was perhaps worse as he had lost a very expensive camera.

After a good search, we had to concede defeat that it was gone, something neither of us took too kindly to. Oh well, it was lost now and without the tool that people rely upon to prove just how good a time they’re having on holiday gone from our possession, we could now concentrate on actually having a good time. No pressure to base our fun around getting pictures. After a few more whiskey shots, this more positive slant began to reign supreme amongst our thoughts. The local whiskey here, Whiskey Lao, is actually manufactured locally and by locally I mean in peoples bathtubs and sinks. I mean I’m sure it’s hygienic, but the problem is that consistency between brewers is rarely achieved and as a result alcohol levels fluctuate massively from shot to shot. You could be inadvertently necking 80% shots for fun before realizing you’ve shat your pants or worse, struggling for air on the bottom of the river bed.

Although we were having a great old time with some cool people, the River did not seem as packed as it had appeared on several photos and YouTube clips that I had been scrawling through on the internet at work over the past couple of months in anticipation. It was strange considering it was high season, and the town was overrun with backpackers. We had to be back by 6pm to drop the tubes off and collect our washing from a launderette before it closed so began our descent back down, stopping off for a joint and a drink at a Bob Marley themed venue with some Canadian girls. After this we jumped back in our tube, eager to make our deadline.

Although, we just simply had to make a visit to the Illution Bar, which appeared to be the last of the drinking dens before the long stretch back to town. The PA system, with the distortion on full effect, blaring out the incoherent promotions from the local owner gave the place some form of appeal. Plus, they had mushroom shakes. My only experience with mushrooms came a few years ago when me and a good mate sat atop an old Georgian town house just off Tottenham Court Road, watching planes coming into London’s City Airport, trying to analyze the motives of the people on board for taking that flight. The rooftop of a 6 storey building is no place to be experimenting with drugs, especially if making your debut with an infamous hallucinogenic. The Shroom Shakes were actually quite nice, and our party loving spirit was quickly noted by the owner who handed us the role of chief promoters, along with the microphone for the PA. We were heroes, bringing the crowds in. This is where I belonged, with the microphone to peoples hearts and minds. Making our 6pm curfew, time was not on our side, but the drugs were and that’s what came up trumps. For our hard work, we were rewarded with a joint to take downstream with us. So there we where, pleasantly stoned drifting down towards Vang Vieng, passing the smoke to and fro. Even in our state we had to be careful of river police. We had been warned of marijuana being handed out to tourists only for police turning up shortly after and detaining you until you coughed up $500. Similar to the warnings we received in Pakbang. This you could not haggle as they received almost as much for arresting you and getting a conviction.

Water and drugs are in my blood, even as we speak. They go hand-in-hand with each other. Right hand, water. Left hand, a perfectly rolled jigger. But the mushroom’s in my stomach are all new to me. I’ve several aqua-related experiences with other drugs.

I’ve heard that one of the big risks facing anybody on ecstasy, is drinking too much water, and effectively drowning themselves on the dance floor in Oceana (that’s the name of a club and a key date on the Peter Andre/David Hasselhoff/Pat Sharp tour – although the irony of drowning at Oceana was not lost on me). However, I have come close to drowning several times when high, and I am keen to explore the relationship between this self-inflicted artificial euphoria with H20. The first time I ever dropped a Gary Ablett was in the summer of 2006, Benicassim Music Festival. After scoring some with my dear friend who had discovered them a few months earlier at university, we paraded around the campsite meeting fellow campers as the sun set behind the mountains that sandwiched us against the sea. After exchanging our pleasantries with anybody and everybody, we gathered the rest of our group and headed down to the beach. It was our first night, and we’d only been there hours, but this was the best place on earth. The beach was littered with large groups, small groups and nomads all clustered around small fires and music systems (or the odd roving acoustic guitar player). We decided it was time for a swim and in minutes we had joined the dozen or so people in the Mediterranean, happily basking under the moonlight. It was a happy time, and we swore we could see Morocco.

“Well let’s go and find out” I said.

In retrospect, we both thought it and simultaneously decided the optimum outcome would only be achieved if we swam out to Morocco. Just in case you think this story ends with us washed up on the beaches of Morocco, it doesn’t. I just wanted to nip that in the bud, before you get your hopes raised. Besides, why would we go to Morocco when we had The Strokes doing their sound check about ½ mile inshore (it was the night before the festival and in my opinion the best). But we did swim out far. Really far. Far enough that we could no longer hear the music or the laughter on the beach. Just the two of us out at sea, with only the lights and campfires in the distance as our guide back. It was only when we started humming the jaws song that the attractiveness of our surroundings began to fade.

Fast forward a year and it is the night before the AC Milan vs Liverpool Champions League final 2007 and the city, Liverpool where I was studying, was buzzing. We had headed to a house party that was thrown by some friends of ours. Term had finished, and these were the last days of our second year of university. We decided the “night was still young” at 3am and we should “go to the 24 hour ASDA and pick up some more booze”. Clearly the night was still young. So young in fact, we needed to rely on ASDA and it’s anti-social opening times. After picking up booze, and the weed (which at 4am, for a student district, is harder to get than a Happy First Communion card or Frozen peas surprisingly) we all piled back to another friends house. Now really stoned, and with it offsetting the serotonin fueled buzz I had endured for the past few hours, I decided I needed to head upstairs. While pissing the remains of my night away, I stared dreamily at the bath. Dreaming of how nice it would be to get in. Now most dreams I have when asleep are just a jumble of images, where one minute I am speaking to somebody and then next, I’m speaking to the same person, but it’s somebody else. I’ve never dreamed of scoring at Wembley. I’ve fantasised about it of course. But dreamt about it? No. I’m positive Martin Luther King was being hypothetical when he made that famous speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in ‘63.

But this I could actually imagine doing, I was actually dreaming about having a bath.

Next thing I know, somebody is banging on the door waking me up instantly. I’m in the bath. Fully clothed. The water is pouring over the edges, the taps are running on full. Panicking, I open the door only to be greeted with “What the fuck is going on in here. The kitchen downstairs is completely flooded!” Yes, this is more like my dreams. The bathroom floor was submerged and the soapy water (I had even went as far as add bubble bath) was filtering through to downstairs, where there was now a gaping hole in the kitchen ceiling, with water gushing through it. I head down, and some of the other guests are standing, bemused as one of the housemates feebly attempts to catch the waterfall with a saucepan. Some cannot help but snigger, while pretending to look busy. “It’s not funny; the roof’s going to collapse”. Now when somebody says “it’s not funny” in these situations, it’s fair to say it most probably is. But this wasn’t funny, this was serious. Well for me anyways. We eventually stopped the flooding and cleared up the mess. Luckily all the other housemates were too whacked to get up and investigate what all the commotion was about.

The following day, the lads of the house invited me over for the Liverpool game. Yes, they invited me over. I was expecting to walk in and be given a kick ‘in, but it was cool. I spent half the time watching the game, the other half praying the Kitchen roof didn’t collapse under the damp rotting wooden floor boards.

Another year on, and after Man Utd beat Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League Final, me and a good friend again find ourselves at another house party. But this time struggling to find any magic dust, shamelessly resort to gobbling a whole pack of pro plus just “for a laugh”. After opening a bedroom door we discover a room full of prancing hippies out of their heads. I think this was the room of the housemate who was under strict instructions from the rest “now, when everybody arrives, it is imperative you and your friends stay in your room. You’re aloud a drink, but just remember, stay in your room”. We bought everything they had to sell. It was a great remainder of the evening. The next day was spent suffering the worst come down. Normally, you have the world of sleep to find solace in and live out your nightmare. The dozen or so Pro Plus made sure that didn’t happen. Maybe, Champions League finals have about as much of a positive relationship with reckless drug taking as does the presence of water.

After drifting for what seemed like hours (probably minutes) the charm of floating down a stream in a tube began to wear off and our satisfaction with novelty was being replaced by a mild, although good humoured paranoia, which led to “get us out of this” being the general view. As if by magic a little sign with the sacred words “Tuk Tuk this way” painted on it, came into view on one of the grassy banks. It pointed up towards the woods. Result! Next thing, we’re climbing this hill on our hands and knees (tubes around our necks), spurred on by the fact the alternative of tripping out in the middle of a river surrounded by nothing more than woodland and the odd shanty town. We get to the top and there is a smiling Laotian who has probably seen this scene a thousand times. We get in the back of his truck, while he puts our tubes on the top. Ben asks him if he “takes wet money?” but then stops. Given the guys niche market, its obvious that he “only knows wet money”. It was good to be riding back now, although we did feel somewhat like the village idiots being brought back after attempting to show off, but ending up requiring the help of the emergency services. It was a humbling experience, and I could somehow relate it to that guy who campaigned against the war but then was taken hostage and was only released after the British Forces rescued him and he had to make a grovelling statement of gratitude. I could have sworn he drove us around town several times, just so the public could get a good look at the two idiots in the back of his truck. His catch.

The ‘Shroom Shakes had taken hold now but it really kicked in as we crossed the little bridge back to Otherside. Halfway across the bridge split in two, one leading to our place, the other leading to another set of bungalows. It was this one we needed to head to as it had a launderette were we had left our clothes. It was hear the shakes really took hold, and all of I sudden I was propelled to the Brit Awards where me and Ben were going up to the stage to collect our award. I was taking long confident strides on the ramp (bridge) leading up towards the stage (launderette) while nodding in appreciation to all the smiling and cheering faces below (the rocks on the river bed) and saluting the guys who had won the Best International Group earlier in the evening (a group of Chinese lads coming the other way). I turned to Ben and hugged him. We had done it! Although shit, I hadn’t prepared a speech and there were far too many people to thank. Although, once up there was no silver statue, no James Corden or Chris Evans and no stage. Just a little Laotian with a plastic bag with my clothes in it. Just for effect, and irony, I attached it on a stick and hung it over my back like one of those tramps in cartoons. Had I had more time, I would have looked for a red pen to draw the red polka dots on it, just for maximum authenticity.

Looking back, I had all the time in the world, but for now we needed to go back to Otherside and start work on our ‘difficult second album’.

We got distracted by a little pill Ben found on his bed. What the hell was it? Were did it come from? It’s good that we were in such high spirits to find its mysterious presence hilarious. Had we not been as hyper, it could have set us off on a paranoid frenzy that we were being set up and nobody needs that. We quickly discarded it, had a shower and put a clean shirt on.

Really buzzing now, we crossed the bridge back over the river into town; I would love to remember some of our conversations as the only thing I can remember is us struggling to walk due to an infliction of rib aching laughter. Back on the main road, we heard a cheerful “Hey guys”. We spun round and saw Aussie Paul. Paul from the Mekong River trip. But than again we had met Kiwi Paul last night, so don’t get confused. Paul, from Australia, that will do. Better still, Aussie Paul. Anyways he’s called us over to his table for a drink. Why not? He was a sound guy and we had bonded with him over many subjects on the second day of the boat trip and so we gratefully headed over to him. We talked about a number of things, me and Ben really trying our best not to slip up and let on that we were comfortably on another planet in some galaxy far, far away.

At one stage, I was talking and half way through, totally forgot what I was talking about and then when I remembered, realized it was not relevant whatsoever to what he had asked of me. It was a shame really as he had liked us and now probably just saw us as a spin off to all the other head cases here which had often been the catalyst of his polemic on the boat. To be fair, he was probably in better position to judge our character now more than ever. It could have been a lot worse though, as I was only seconds away from asking him where he’d got his single dreadlocked ponytail from. But luckily came to my sense that this was the mushrooms vision of Aussie Paul and of course this bald guy did not have one dreadlock coming from the back of his head and over his left shoulder. But I tell you, I was close and that would certainly have been game over. On the boat trip he had wanted a photo with us and shook our hands and wished us all the best with great pleasure in his voice. Now as we departed, I wondered if he felt the same. To be honest, a meeting between a sober man and two lads on mushrooms could have gone a lot, lot worse.

After some food, we crossed another bridge to what appeared to be an island separated from the main river bank, connected only by a couple of bridges. We made friends with a few lads from Weymouth who were also on a mightily fine trip at Rock Bar were we listened to Red Hot Chili Peppers while also getting our first dose of fire throwing, something that would soon become as familiar, as well as tedious, as Pad Thai curry and Lady Boys. At one stage, Ben lost his flip flops and we spent ages searching for them (again, probably minutes, if not seconds) and after giving up, he looked down and they were exactly where he had left them, exactly where both of us had been looking. I know what your thinking, if this makes this bloke’s travel stories, he must have had one shit time. But the point of this little story is strange things turn up, as with the pill on Ben’s bed, when on such substances. We left the open air club and all headed to one of the many restaurants showing Friends, where we woke up on the comfy sofas, joint in hand, shortly after closing time.

On this day in 2011….Riding through the Laotian mountains to Vang Vieng

09/01/2011

9780099437338Up nice and early in time for our ride to Vang Vieng, the home of tubing and reckless river-based partying. Could easily have stayed and explored this mysterious little town but hedonism awaited. We had breakfast with a couple of Swiss girls, served by a waiter who looked vaguely familiar.

“That’s the guy who we spoke to yesterday” one us pointed out, in reference to the Waiter.

“They all look the fookin’ same to me” the other replied, again in our best Northern accent.

Picked up by the minibus driver at the Hotel, we were on our way to the infamous party river by mid morning. I finished The Damage Done while Ben began Dead Babies. He then got chatting to two cute Chilean girls who he sat next to at the back. They wanted to know what he was reading, so he told them in his best Spanish.

“Dead Babies? Right, what’s it about you sick fuck, get away from me!” I guessed were their thoughts.

They were good value, nice pair of sisters, and at one stage I was quite confident we may be able to crack on with them at some stage. With this thought my spirits were lifted as we drove through the lush mountains of Laos. Although it might just be the high altitude and lack of air to my head making me feel this giddy. Nobody’s ever miserable when they’re that high up. It’s not the view, it’s the oxygen deficit. I was really falling for this country and was getting the first signs that I was soon to be able to join the annoying boys and girls (girls especially) who you always find discussing travel experiences with vague phrases such as “Oh, I Love Laos” with particular emphasis on the o’s and h’s.

We arrived in Vang Vieng just after nightfall and the party was in full swing. Well, by party I mean a load of Aussies with their shirts off covered in body paint urging anybody in earshot to “get fucked up, cunt(s)” while traipsing from one backpackers hang-out to another. And that was just the girls. Along with the Chilean Girls (and their Mother) we went and found a hostel. We found one with a downstairs that housed one of the famous Family Guy bars, in which they played back to back episodes to the stoner faced masses.

Me and Ben went out to explore the town and after finding the only bar which was not a breeding ground for mindless Australians, we opted for one that was showing Manchester Utd Vs Liverpool and watched it with a Kiwi called Paul. Kiwi Paul. He was staying in some riverside huts across on the other side. He was paying half the price we were at our place and had a whole bungalow to himself! After the game he would take us to have a look.

During the game I noticed the group in front thrashing their hands needlessly at the screen. I didn’t think the ref was having that bad a game.

“What’s their problem?” I asked Kiwi Paul.

Turns out the four travellers were using sign language to communicate. Paul would often take his eyes off the game to communicate with them. He had been working at a deaf school in Singapore for the last year and knew the language well. Impressive stuff. But what was even more impressive was the fact that these deaf guys had all come travelling by themselves and through blogs and forums had all arranged to meet at various stages of the Banana Pancake Trail. Me and Ben had only managed to get here from Bangkok by talking English very loudly and slowly in the ears of a confused and often scared South-East Asian. I had to take my hat off to them. It was far more impressive than Steven Gerrard’s long ball or Wayne Rooney’s shot from just inside the box. You’ll hardly see pages and pages dedicated to these guys and their achievements in the daily newspapers. Not to sound patronizing but I really believe this is what people should be looking up to, not some bloke on silly wages kicking a ball about for 90 minutes a week. Although after a while it did get on my nerves and they were now having a full-blown conversation in front of the screen and I almost missed Ryan Giggs take on two players.

After the match, we headed across the river via a bridge consisting of just a few planks of wood to the conveniently named Otherside Bungalows. It was perfect.

 

On this day in 2011….Boat trip to Luang Prabang #Otdi2011

08/01/2011 – Boat Trip to Luang Prabang

We got up, took a few photos with the cute little baby from the hostel we were staying at, ate breakfast and then headed off down the hill to the boat pier on the river. Feeling rather tender from yesterday’s all day session we opted for the quieter looking boat, although the Brutish Aussies (all now donned in their teams football strip) looked just as bad as they pulled out on one of the other boats just as we were leaving.

Boat 2

“Look, its Dave Rowntree” Ben said nodding to some guy who’d just got on our boat.

I missed his face but could see he had short ginger hair, which was perhaps the only reasonable requirement for a lookalike, especially a ginger one. I didn’t have to wait long to see his face, as he stopped, took a deep breath, turned around and looked down at the two beaming faces turned up towards him, now trying very hard to conceal their laughter.

“The Drummer from Blur, right? Yeah, I hear it all the time” he said, taking it with good humour despite not really having a choice.

I had to explain to Ben that you always have to be discreet with lookalikes as that person has probably heard it a million times. This advice sailed out of the boat window and into the Mekong River as Ben then queried if one of the Laotian deckhands was in fact a Peruvian. Just as Dave Rowntree did, the guy stopped what he was doing and glared at us, although surely he didn’t understand that, surely? We sat with Aussie Paul for a while, before landing in Luang Prabang. A lovely gem of a town, we were escorted to a hotel near the river, everybody going separate ways again.

The Hotel we found, again via riverbank escort, was very nice and had I come with a missus, as opposed to Ben, I’m sure I’d have been more grateful for the swan shaped towels on our beds. Out in the kitchen I saw an old fridge magnet that read, “Nestle sponsors the SEA GAMES 2009 – VIENTIANE”. How the fuck does the capital city of a landlocked country host the sea games?

We went out after a few beers in search of some good food, and what we found exceeded our expectations tenfold. The town was very pretty with pastel coloured town houses and cream coloured holiday villas it “could’ve easily been Southern France or somewhere” we both agreed. This lead us to make the observation that the very nice parts of South East Asia are bound by how much they resemble the West and so why do we bother?

After walking along a tributary of the Mekong River we found an old wooden bridge that crossed over to a much darker wood. We crossed it, not knowing what to expect on the other side with the wood creaking below us and the water gushing below. The series of colourful lights in the trees on the approaching hillside were our guide, our northern star if you like. In the dark we found the hillside path and began to climb, flanked by hanging lanterns dangling from the trees. Our curiosity was rewarded with an amazing restaurant, constructed out of several little huts. Shower fresh and gagging for some peace and good food, we easily settled for this. We sat in our hut with its Turkish pillows and hot coals and ordered the Laos Fondue which comprised thinly cut strips of fine beef alongside chicken rice and vegetables. This place was perfect; there were even proper holidaymakers here. Sons with their Mums and Dads, that kind of thing. It was a really peaceful evening, and after a few beers we crossed back to backpacking world and hit another Hives Bar, a franchise of the place we went to in Pakbang.