Serpent Across the Mekong: Days Of The OK Family Here We Go! Let’s Enjoy Shopping For Your Exciting Life

Bangkok

With a little planned buffer time to kill, I headed down to the Magic Food Court down in Suvarnabhumi’s basement and had a perfectly acceptable (if hardly magical) meal of rice with pork leg stew — one of those ubiquitous Thai dishes that no tourist restaurant ever stocks, because the economics require a huge pot and dedication to serving this one dish alone. It’s fatty, it’s greasy, it melts in your mouth and it’s aroy maak maak. (And you don’t have to order the pig skin and intestines unless you want to.)

A good half hour ahead of time Z, having unintentionally abused her freshly minted Star Gold to go through Fast Track immigration, appeared fresh off her flight from Tokyo and we headed to the taxi queue. Our cabbie, smiling a little too toothily for comfort as we chattered away in the back seat, figured he could pull a fast one on us and he turned right (that is, to the east, towards Pattaya) at the junction from the airport to the Bang Na-Trat highway and then did a great big loop around the airport that padded the bill by a good 100 baht and added 30 min to our travel time. Not being too sure of the geography, I thought he was heading for some alternate route to the south (I usually stay around Sukhumvit, but this time we’d opted for the Hilton in Thonburi), but the penny dropped once the loop ended and we reached precisely the same highway — and he didn’t even drive onto it, just under.

On arrival at the hotel, the meter was showing ~450 and he cheekily told us it would be 600 with the surcharge and tolls (which in reality totaled 95 baht). I called him on the right turn after the airport, to which he tittered and made up some lame excuse about avoiding an accident… and then snatched the 500 baht we grudgingly gave him and skittered off. Welcome back to the big city!

But we didn’t have much time to mope, as we’d booked two nights at the Millennium Hilton. Back when I first lived in Thailand around 2003, the building was still a skeleton left rotting after the 1999 financial crisis (remember that one?), and it was a real pleasure to find out what they’d done to it. I’m not much of a Hilton man, and I was staying here primarily to dispose of some points I’d had sitting around, but this is one excellent hotel — even without any elite status at Hilton. Our room (and, as I understand it, all rooms) had great river views and the pool area downstairs had a little fake beach (less fun than you’d think) and recliners placed inside the pool itself (more fun than you’d think). Add in a large local market right next door, with an excellent array of Thai eats especially at dinnertime, and who needs executive lounges anyway?

Speaking of markets, though, Z had been converted to the religion of Chatuchak on her last visit to the Big Mango and the next morning I was somewhat reluctantly dragged along. Fortuitously, the March morning dawned unseasonally cool, and coupled with kinda-sorta-early morning start spending 3 hours poking around (me) and buying tons of stuff (her) at the Weekend Market was far less painful than usual. To counterbalance this surfeit of capitalism, we popped into the recently opened Bangkok Art and Culture Center just across from MBK, which even had a free coat check service where we could deposit our Chatuchak loot. If arriving by Skytrain, visitors are first greeted by Wit Pimkanchanapong’s brilliant If There Is No Corruption — unfortunately, it was pretty much downhill from there, with a mishmash of generic (read: largely incomprehensible) modern art that could have been from anywhere. Bah humbug, but points for trying anyway. (And it was, after all, free.)

The next morning, we decided to do something even more touristy, and visit the Grand Palace. We’d both been here once before, but ages ago, and I figured on getting a few new snaps since the last round didn’t turn out too good. What I didn’t figure on, though, was the crowd and (this time) the all too seasonal heat: the place was jampacked, with tourist buses disgorging their loads non-stop and slowly shuffling queues to get into the shrine of the Emerald Buddha. We took a breather by the Ramakiet murals, another in the blissful air-conditioned comfort of the Royal Regalia pavilion (top pick: the three clothing sets of the Buddha), and then escaped back to our hotel pool.

With that, the Serpent Across the Mekong has swallowed its own tail and come full circle in Bangkok, and our story has come to an end.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Thai Air Asia FD3255 B737-300 Seat 19E

Chiang Rai-Bangkok

Like most Thai airports bearing the tag, Chiang Rai’s “international” airport does not actually serve any international flights, and it feels rather too large for its modest volume of flights to Bangkok, Bangkok and more Bangkok (plus a daily hop to Chiang Mai).

As for Air Asia, it does what it says on the box. They’ve got a winning formula and they stick to it, so see this old trip report for the full scoop on the FD experience. Today’s flight was on one of the slowly-being-phased-out 737s, but still in perfectly serviceable condition with leather seats and tolerable pitch, and our flight departed and arrived precisely on time and in one piece.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Day of the No Killing Zone

Chiang Rai

Like most Thai provincial towns, Chiang Rai doesn’t look like much at first sight, but once I’d ventured out of the night bazaar and my Wangcomely confines to the local restaurants and markets I’d started to appreciate it a little more. With my flight at midday, I had a few hours to kill in the morning, so I decided to skip the execrable hotel buffet and head out on a walking tour.

First stop was Po Sai, apparently one of Chiang Rai’s best-known khao soi noodle joints and conveniently located right next to the Wang Come. A dish rarely seen outside northern Thailand, khao soi consists of noodles in thin chicken curry, topped with lime, shallots and pickled cabbage — and while this may not sound like a recipe for culinary nirvana, when done right it’s absolutely fantastic, and Po Sai’s is the best I’ve tried yet.

And then I set off on my temple tour. Wat Klang Wiang is your standard-issue northern Thai temple, deserted early in the morning, with some gorgeous statuary and a handy “No Killing Area” sign. Wat Ming Meuang impressed with a squat but stately wiharn and an intricately carved sign written in the ancient (and long-dead) Lanna script. But Chiang Rai’s top attraction is Wat Phra Singha (“Temple of the Holy Lion”). According to legend, this was just a fairly ordinary temple until one day in 1434, a bolt of lighting struck one of the chedis (stupas), splitting it open and revealing the Emerald Buddha, said by legend to date back to 43 BC in India (although archaeologists note that it looks suspiciously like 15th-century Lanna style). Adventures worthy of a comic book followed, with the statue moving to Lampang, Chiang Mai, captured by a Lao prince and taken to Luang Prabang and then Vientiane. Vientiane was sacked by the Thais in 1779, who brought it back. King Rama I finally built Bangkok’s famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha in 1784, and that’s where it’s stayed ever since.

Today’s Wat Phra Singha is royally supported and thus well funded temple overflowing with well-tended greenery and an excellent if compact two-story airconditioned museum, where a bored but amiable old monk likes to quiz visitors about Thailand. The museum contains a near-exact replica of the Emerald Buddha, although it was intentionally made 0.1 cm shorter than the real thing! The once-cracked (but long since repaired) chedi is in the middle and tucked away towards the back is the hall where real Emerald Buddha was once kept.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Day of the Yellow Surprise (A Special Brand Of Siamese Drinking Water) Exploited at Mae Sai by Tuptimkuna Ice Factory

Mae Sai-Golden Triangle-Chiang Saen

I had toyed with the idea of dropping across the border into Tachileik for the day, but somehow the appeal of passing through four more convoluted immigration arrivals and exits had decreased in appeal after doing just that between Thailand and Laos, and anyway, did I really want to get my first taste of Myanmar by visiting what is, by all accounts, a dusty border town with little to see? So I contented myself with attempting to peek across the border from Mae Sai, where the Thais have tactfully erected a series of monuments commemorating King Naresuan, who beat back several Burmese invasions and personally dispatched their crown prince in a sword duel. The most memorable of these monuments is a giant scorpion, angrily brandishing its huge claws in the general direction of any Maew hordes who might dare come this way. The peek didn’t amount to much (darn haze again), but hey, this was along the way anyway for my main destination of the day — the Hall of Opium. I grabbed a bottle of Yellow Surprise (A SPECIAL BRAND OF SIAMESE DRINKING WATER EXPLOITED AT MAE SAI) and hopped aboard a tuk-tuk to the Golden Triangle.

My hopes were not very high, since every museum I’ve been to in Thailand — and, for that matter, every museum I’ve been to in any South-East Asian country outside Singapore — has sucked. But once I hopped off the songthaew and strolled through the landscaped grounds of the Hall, it became clear that this was no ordinary municipal dust-collector, and I bit the 500 baht bullet for an entry ticket and ventured inside.

The first section of the Hall of Opium is also the strangest: a dimly lit and weirdly colored twisty tunnel, with (you realize with a start) outlines of wraithlike, tortured figures embedded in the walls amid admonitions to pay attention and learn what opium does to you. After a brief breather in a large open-air hall complete with a little field of poppy, opium latex oozing out a few sliced-open pods (was it for real?), you’re escorted in to watch a brief movie about the history of opium in the area and endless benevolence of their Majesties in putting a stop to it… and then the museum starts. And this was, perhaps, the most amazing part: hall after hall of pictures, objects and explanations, with life-size replicas, videos, headphones where appropriate. For most part, it was remarkably true to the facts even when those facts were inconvenient, with eg. thorough coverage of the Thai kingdom’s former opium excise tax system, the political motivations behind the original ban and the CIA’s dope-dealing through Air America. Only the very last sections on the unrequired evils of all drugs started to go a little overboard.

Somewhat dazed but quite thoroughly satisfied, I munched on some tasty poppy seed cookies at the gift shop and trekked the three km down to the Golden Triangle itself. This term has now been appropriated to describe the point when Myanmar, Laos and Thailand intersect, and since this isn’t really very much to look at, the Thais have gone out of their way to dress it up into an absolutely ridiculous tourist trap. The once modest temple has sprouted a giant sitting Buddha perched upon an even more giant ship-shaped buildings and there are elephant statues topped with palanquins where you can clamber and have your photo taken (in exchange for a donation, of course). Every inch of the riverside is taken up with hawkers pushing cruises on the Mekong and every inch of the roadside opposite is taken up with souvenir stalls pushing junk.

I shoveled down some rather tasty fried kuey teow phat siiu noodles and made my escape, first snagging the songthaew down to Chiang Saen. This is the place where I was originally supposed to stay, and which turned out to be low-key but fairly nice, with some intriguing, half-overgrown ruins along the road out — it was a shame that I had no time to explore. Another hour and a half by rattletrap local bus to Chiang Rai, and I was back in Wangcomeland.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Special Transport For You My Friend

Luang Namtha to Chiang Rai via Huay Xai/Chiang Khong

Next morning, the daily haze was augmented with mist so dense you could barely see across the road, and even with a jacket on I shivered while shoveling down my breakfast of eggs and toast, regretting not going for the little noodle shop two doors down. I’d booked a seat on a public bus through a little travel agency, but I was in luck: a plush Japanese-made 8-seater minivan was on its way to Huay Xai, and since they had seats to spare I was promoted on board.

Until fairly recently, this crossing would have involved a full day of bumping about potholed dirt roads in the back of a Soviet-made truck with a few Kalashnikov-toting guards keeping an eye out for bandits, but with Chinese money the entire highway is now paved and is now one of the best roads in Laos, two lanes and paved all the way. The van sliced through the mist and down the highway, twisting and turning its way up and down valleys, neatly bisecting little villages along the way. I’d been hoping to reach Thailand before the border closed at sunset, but we made it to Huay Xai in just over three hours, meaning it was still high noon when the van dropped me off at the Mekong pier over to Thailand. I celebrated with a plate of Thai-Hainenese chicken rice and my last Beerlao, then made my way to the Lao exit immigration hut and got my passport stamped. Au revoir, Lao!

Longtail boats were waiting by the riverside and I clambered on board, followed by a Thai guy from the van who was continuing all the way to Bangkok by overnight bus and a random bunch of vegetable-toting locals. After a journey of all of 5 minutes (you could probably swim it if you’re not in a hurry), we docked in Chiang Khong.

This is where things became complicated. I’d planned to hear over to the ancient walled city of Chiang Saen, some 30 km to the north of Chiang Khong, but to my surprise there was apparently no regular public transport there. Unless I wanted to take my chances on waiting for an indeterminate time for a songthaew that may or may not exist to appear, my only choice was to head to provincial capital Chiang Rai, a good 2.5 hrs away, and then backtrack from there to Chiang Saen, which would take another 2 hours. Neither option sounded very promising, so I improvised Plan C: forget about Chiang Saen and make Chiang Rai my base.

An hour later, I was aboard a rattletrap 3rd-class Baw Kaw Saw (“The Transport Company, Ltd”) non-aircon bus, poking its way towards Chiang Rai the long way at approximately 30 km/h through minor rural roads that were in considerably poorer shape than the morning’s Laotian highway. Unlike Laos, the terrain on this side of the Mekong was mostly flat, which proved a blessing as the bus had serious trouble grinding its way up the solitary (and not very impressive) hill we did encounter. Instead, the dominant scene was one which I was to see repeated again and again in the next few days: a vista of flourescent green rice irrigated paddies, framed by dried trees and scorched, sometimes still-smoldering vegetation, fading off to the hazy horizon in gradations of brownish gray.

Around 5 PM, we finally pulled into Chiang Rai’s bus station, which fortuitously (and quite unlike most Thai cities) is located smack dab in the city center, and it was time to make a decision. I could stomp about the city center in the lingering late afternoon heat (which seemed so much worse now after the brief respite of Laotian highlands), looking for a place to stay for two nights before I checked into the fancy hotel I’d booked for Thursday night… or I could head to the fancy hotel right away and try to cut a deal there.

Like most Flyertalkers, I’m quite particular about my hotels, but instead of worrying about brand affiliation, elite levels or even price, I pick mine based on the establishment’s most prominent feature: its name. With my attention already piqued by the Porn Ping Hotel of Chiang Mai, followed by Korean-style action in the Dong Bang Hotel of Jinju, it was time to complete the Holy Trinity, a climax for the journey if you will, and stay at the Wang Come Hotel, the finest place of lodging in all Chiang Rai (when it was first built at some time in the 1970s, that is). After all, there are plenty of massage parlours in Thailand that offer their clients the “Wang Come” experience, but this is the only hotel named for it, and they’ve got not one, but two mottos to describe how good it feels: you can pick from “Wang Come Hotel — The Centre of the Action”, or “Wang Come Hotel: The Ultimate Pleasure of Staying”.

After a little negotiation at the front desk, I got the price for two extra nights down to a tolerable range and settled into my overly air-conditioned but surprisingly plush room: the “Wanker”, as I’d already lovingly dubbed the place, has evidently gotten a nice interior renovation sometime in the last few years. The location within easy walking distance of everything was also convenient, but all things considered, that’s about the last positive I can give for the place. The depressing pool is surrounded by concrete on all sides and in the shade throughout the day, while the breakfast buffet was terrible in that special way that only bad hotel buffets can be — everything tasteless, overcooked, slimy or otherwise ersatz.

More ersatz, tasteless, overcooked and slimy surprises awaited at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, whose outdoor food garden looks quite inviting at first glance, but on closer inspection consists mostly of stalls hawking reheated deep-fried crap. Experimenting with the limited other options, I had the worst pad thai (fried noodles) I’ve tried in Thailand yet, some distinctly mediocre som tum (papaya salad), ultra-fatty muu yang (grilled pork) and rice that was more mushy than sticky. Gah: time to go to bed.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Suppression of Terrorist Bands In Mountain Areas and Villagers and School Children Shouting In Delight

Bright if not so early the next morning I set off towards the village of Mae Salong, about 50 klicks northwest of Chiang Rai near the Burmese border. This pipsqueak of a village has a more interesting story than most: after the Commies under Mao established their rule over China in the 1950s, one fragment of the losing Nationalist (Kuomintang/KMT) army made its way over to exile in Thailand. There the KMT trained its army for the day of return that was one day to come, and financed itself by growing opium and dealing in heroin, with notorious warlord Khun Sa living just around the corner.

The Thais weren’t entirely happy about this state of affairs, and the KMT head honchos started to have their own doubts about the probability of imminent return, so the two struck a deal: the battle-hardened KMT would help the Thais squelch their own Communist insurgency, and they’d get Thai citizenship and help for crop substitution. Somewhat surprisingly, the plan worked — the Reds got squished, the renegade Chinese became upstanding Thai citizens, and instead of opium fields, it’s now tea plantations growing Taiwanese High Mountain Oolong that dot the hills of Mae Salong.

And that’s where I found myself standing on a broiling hot April noon. It soon became clear that this was well off-season: the peak here is the winter, when the plums and cherries blossom and visitors come not just from Thailand but KMT’s main territory of Taiwan as well. My only consolation was that April is tea harvest time, so leaves were drying out next to tea factories and the smell of roasting tea filled the air.

Guidebooks try to paint Mae Salong as a little Yunnanese Shangri-La, where KMT cadres with wispy Ho Chi Minh beards smoke suspiciously opium-y long pipes, but no, appearancewise it’s pretty much a Thai town these days, complete with the obligatory Seven-Eleven in the little town square. I trekked up to the hilltop to see the Thai stupa and temple, detoured via the Mae Salong Resort (formerly a KMT training camp and still looking about as comfy as an army barracks), had a bowl of not very noteworthy noodles at the Yunnanist Noodle Shop and tried my hand at Chinese tea ceremony with an obliging if English-challenged tea shop hostess. And with the heat and the haze beating down, I felt I’d seen enough and took my leave. Maybe again someday in winter…

Serpent Across the Mekong: Evening of the Co-ed Wet Sarong Herbal Sauna

Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha is a podunk little town which lives mostly off tourists and trekkers on the trail from China (60 km away) to Thailand (150 km), which means it’s endowed with a fair number of places to stay and eat, and I handed over US$5 for a night at a more than acceptable guesthouse right on the main drag. Thanks to the higher altitude, it was cool enough that even the ceiling fan proved an unnecessary luxury. A tiny little photocopied and handwritten ad plastered on the wall of the guesthouse lobby caught my eye, and I set off to look for an authentically Laotian experience.

Down a little side alley was a rickety bamboo shack, one side of which was lined in plastic, dripping with water and heated with a fire in half a rusty oil barrel. It seemed precariously suspended between two elemental forces: the water stopping the fire for burning up the wood, and the fire stopping the timber from rotting away. I clambered up the ladder, played a short game of Charades with the teenager running the place, and in exchange for 10,000 kip was handed a sarong and pointed towards the changing room. Duly denuded, I tiptoed out in my wrapper, placed my stuff in a locker-cupboard and headed inside the door of mystery. (A minor faux pas, I later learned: you’re supposed to wash yourself before you enter. Oops.)

And what was inside? A dark, wet, steamy womb, where a tiny windowpane only served to illuminate the swirls of vapor. I stumbled my way to a bench and inhaled the amazing scent of lemongrass and what I could swear was oregano, so intense that my eyeballs tingled and my pores popped open. It was absolutely amazing, like a Turkish bath on steroids. I’d made sure that I entered the “MAN ROOM” side of the sauna, and was hence a bit surprised when the door opened and two wrapped-up Lao ladies joined me. But they ignored me totally, proceeding to gossip away about (I gather) a husband’s mia noi (“small wife”, or mistress), and I zoned out and felt the steam permeate my soul.

After the ladies left I took a breather as well, and the 29 degrees outside was now refreshingly cool. I sipped on my glass of weak tea (or “tea water”, naam chaa, as the Thais call it) and, within ten minutes, was dry enough to plunge in one more, this time prefaced by a token ladling of cold water from the communal water pot in the corner. And in the end, I spent the better part of two hours there, watching dusk turn into dark and realizing that the herbs even kept the mosquitoes away. Quite possibly the best $1.20 I’ve ever spent.

I decided to continue on the path of purification and opted for dinner at the aptly named Minority Restaurant, run by some Black Tai (Tai Dam) tribesmen and specializing in tribal food. Having sampled Akha cuisine a few years back in Chiang Mai, I pretty much knew what I was in for, yet the plain, somewhat bitter soup of bamboo shoot, herbs and pork, eaten with a portion of sticky rice, hit the spot. Obviously drawn in by the lone falang customer, a group of backpackers walked in… and ordered french fries, steak, Caesar salad and Pepsi. How long until the granola bars and salad wraps make their way here as well?

Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Lao Airlines QV601 Xian MA60 Seat 9D

Vientiane to Luang Namtha

Why Luang Namtha, you may ask? Good question. Indeed. the original plan was to go to Luang Prabang, Laos’s old capital, UNESCO World Heritage and the country’s top tourist draw, but the logistics of continuing onwards towards Chiang Rai without two days of put-putting up the Mekong in a canoe seemed formidable, and the wind was finally taken out of my sails by a glowing review on Wikitravel recommending the “best cafe in Luang Prabang, if not all Laos” for, and I quote, “Granola and salad wraps”. Let me repeat: Granola and salad wraps. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Now I know why the Hmong insurgents still fight the good fight in the remote jungles of northern Laos, and why my only chance was to escape in the same direction.

The online schedule said “MA60”, my e-ticket said “ATR72”. Which would it be? A Lao Airlines ATR-72 took off as I arrived, so I presumed the second turboprop waiting for us was another of the same, but nay: today, I would taking my first ride on the AVIC I Xi’an Modern Ark 60, a reasonably modern Chinese variant of the venerable Antonov An-26 cargo plane. It’s also easily the most obscure aircraft I’ve flown: outside China, Lao Airlines with its 4 planes is the MA-60’s largest customer, and second place goes to “Transporte Aereo Militar” in Bolivia!

Boarding couldn’t have been much simpler, as all pax trooped out the gate onto the tarmac, up the built-in stairs, and aboard the cramped two-by-two seater. Today’s flight was almost entirely full, all falang aside from myself apparently NGO types from a Lao-German forestry program, and the guy next to me their frazzled Lao handler. The garish decor was lifted directly from cheap Chinese buses, and in fact I would swear it’s exactly the same as that used by Sorya buses in Cambodia, causing flashbacks of endless Khmer karaoke. The seat pitch tight enough to keep my knees firmly jammed into the seat in front of me, and while my seat was notionally a window, I didn’t have much of a view since I was next to a propeller pod and its landing gear.

The MA60 noisily spun up its propellers, taxied down the runway and took off smoothly — oddly, this thing seems quieter in air than on ground. The wheels retracted with a clunk, improving my view a bit, and soon we were heading into the hazy clouds, the Vientiane-Luang Prabang road a thin strip amidst the rice fields.

Once in the air, the MA60 quieted down and the flight was uneventful. In-flight service consisted of a semi-dried banana “cookie” and one of those sealed plastic cups of water where the plastic is so rigid that it dents your straw when you try to poke holes into it. The vistas outside got hazier and hazier as we flew north — soon enough, there was naught by gray in sight. Just when I was starting to get worried about whether the pilot could find his way to the airport, the outlines of hills materialized and we U-turned in for a sharp landing.

Luang Namtha’s airport reopened only in 2008 after a total rebuild and the end result, while hardly opulent, is easily up to the job of handling 4 flights a week. It’s a squat little one-story building, with one door for arrivals and one for departures. With no bags to wait for, I stomped right through and hopped aboard a waiting crusty old tuk-tuk, where I was joined by a few backpackers and a Laotian guy in a suit, toting an HP laptop bag.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Laminated Fixed Price Menu Courtesy of the Vientiane Tuk-Tuk Drivers’ Association

Vientiane

It was Monsieur M’s first time in town, so we made the obligatory pilgrimage to Wat That Luang, the missile silo-cum-temple that is considered Laos’ national symbol. Another sign of fierce independence awaited at the ticket gate: Yankee imperialist dollars were no longer accepted, the gatekeeper demanding instead kip or baht. We scrounged up around 75% of the demanded sum, and he waved us past without giving us tickets in exchange. Look like the Laotians have mastered not just capitalism, but corruption as well…

And indeed, for a country where nothing supposedly ever happens, Vientiane is growing up at astonishing speed. Beaten-up bamboo shacks by the Mekong that a few years ago served only Beerlao and mosquitoes now have DJs and cocktail menus, hip cafes serving up quiche and organic muffins proliferate, the crusty old Morning Market has been torn down to make way for a shopping mall and shiny new Toyota Land Cruisers sit in every other backyard. Even the tuk-tuks have learned to maximize their earning power through collusion: any enquiring falang are promptly treated to a laminated menu of “fixed” (and, by Lao standards, outrageous) prices for trips in and around town.

Lest that sound too negative, there has been a lot of positive development as well: Vientiane’s once lethal sidewalks are now paved over through the city center, considerably decreasing the odds of tippling over into an open sewer, and street signs, previously rare as hen’s teeth, now decorate most road corners. Traffic remains far less murderous than in Thailand or Vietnam and even the few modern few green glass-plated temples of consumption that have sprouted up here and there are, by and large, far less hideous than the Communist-era concrete egg cartons they’re replacing. All in all, Vientiane right now strikes a pretty good balance between modern amenities and preserving the past — I’d like to hope they can maintain it, but alas, it’s unlikely they will.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Special Pork Sandwich with Salad and Everything

Vientiane

MORNING OF THE SPECIAL PORK SANDWICH WITH SALAD AND EVERYTHING

Take half a freshly baked baguette, kept warm on a bed of coals. Slice it open and smear a generous dollop of pate on the lower half. Add slices of Chinese-style char siew pork, a little ham, a fitsful of julienne-cut Vietnamese carrot, cucumber and radish pickles, a shot of soy sauce, a squirt of chili, a sprig of spring onion and a spray of coriander. Wrap the now-bursting sandwich up with a twist of paper and hand over in exchange for 8000 kip. Devour in culinary ecstasy.

Morning chores thus completed, with the mercury climbing towards 35 C by 9 AM in the morning, I lolled around my air-con hotel room for the rest of the morning before heading off to the airport. VTE has two terminals: a new, reasonably stylish international terminal with the swooping roof lines of a temple, and a domestic terminal with all the charm and panache of a Stalin-era Soviet orphanage. Much to my own amazement, I’d managed to book my flight online at Lao Airlines’ website, and this caused not a little amazement at the terminal as well: the check-in lady had a list of all e-ticketed passengers, consisting in entirety of me, and I was asked to sign this manifest, validate my credit card and get my passport copied before my boarding card was handed over.


(sorry about the crappy cellphone pics)

The landside holding hall is remarkably beaten up, a dusted-over long-closed restaurant on the 2nd floor and a few fans beating humid air in the general direction of passengers sweating rows of yellow plastic bucket seats. Not all were going to Luang Namtha: one announcement stated that passengers for another flight to Xiang Khoung were now asked to proceed to check-in! But our boarding started about half an hour before our flight, with a Commie-era passport and ID card inspection complete with a sign advising passengers to SHOW ALL WEAPONS. After this formality we were allowed to The Gate, where The Coffee-and-Beershop and The Giftshop awaited. Eventually the same lady who’d checked me in sashayed in to slot in blue plastic boards reading “QV601” “LUANG NAMTHA” over a wall lamp and switched in on: it was time to fly the champa-scented skies.