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.

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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.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Day of the 45th Anniversary of the Establishment of Lao PDR-People’s Republic Of China Diplomatic Relations

Vientiane

We were somewhere around western Vientiane on the edge of the Mekong when the chili began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should go sightseeing by yourself…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around me and the street was full of what looked like a tour group of retirees, all swooping and screeching and diving around the bus, which was parked in front of our hotel and not going anywhere. And a voice was whispering: “Sacre bleu! What are these animals?”

Then it was quiet again. “What the hell are you yelling about,” Monsieur M muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s your turn to head out.” No point mentioning those retirees, I thought. The poor buzzard will see them soon enough.

Shortly earlier, the table of our restaurant had looked like a cooking class. The larb had two massive orange chillies, 75 pellets of chopped long bean, five coarsely shredded springs of mint, a shotglass half-full of fish sauce, and a whole galaxy of unidentifiable herbage… and also a liter bottle of Beerlao Dark, a mug of Beerlao Original, a lethal bowl of green papaya salad dressed with fermented crab, two tip khao full of sticky rice and a wine glass of orange juice, with a straw. All this had been rounded up after we finally reached the hotel, crossing the street in a frenzy of hunger — from appetizers to mains, we picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we needed all that for lunch, but once you get locked into a serious Laotian meal, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

The only thing that really worried me was the orange juice. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man who drinks orange juice in the land of Beerlao…

(with apologies to Hunter S. Thompson)

Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Water Producted by Honey Industries

Nong Khai to Vientiane

Roused from an uneasy slumber around 7 AM by a preordered, plastic-wrapped, garlicky and tepid yet rather tasty bowl of khao tom muu (rice porridge with pork), plus an even more welcome piping hot cup of tea. I perform my morning ablutions at a stunningly unfilthy toilet (even my precaution of stealing toilet paper from the Paragon’s loo proved unnecessary) and start scanning the Isaan countryside for clues of our whereabouts.

It was fairly obvious by now that it would be way past 8:30 by the time we reached Nong Khai, and doubling the previous day’s delay, I guesstimate that around 10 might be right. There is no sign of Udon Thani, 55 km from the border though, but around 10 AM, we finally stop at a larger station, and I check my cellphone to see if we’ve finally reached at least this waypoint. But nay, the cell indicator proclaims BigC-KhonKaen — a town we were supposed to have reached around 5 AM. Oei laew

Three hours of monotony later, choo-chooing across the heat-blasted plains of Isaan half a year into the dry season, I spot a giant Thai tricolor limply attempting to flap in the distance and the train pulls into Nong Khai station, 5.5 hours behind schedule. An unmanned immigration booth sits in the middle of the platform, separating it into two halves. The notional 10 AM shuttle to have been operated by this very train is obviously out of question, but perhaps there is still hope for the 2 PM train? We join the thronging queue of hopefuls, but my stammering Thai enquiries produce a swift and crushing reply in English: “No train to Lao today. Or tomorrow.”

Only a week later did I find out what had happened. Earlier on FT, old Thai hands had questioned whether the service would really start on time, and I’d answered that yes, it would, since not only had the inauguration date been set, but the Thai princess would be attending as well. Turns out we were both right: the inauguration was held as scheduled with HRH Sirindhorn and the press in attendance, and one train ceremoniously crossed the bridge and back. But the very next day, the Thai and Lao customs authorities promptly resumed their squabble over splitting up duties, and service was immediately halted. At time of writing, the shuttle is back in operation, but the underlying squabble over the more lucrative cargo operations remains unresolved and visa on arrival is not available on the Lao side.

Baw pen nyang (“Not is problem”), as they say in Lao, so we join the hordes hopping on tuktuks for the short haul to the border, laughing at the few deluded backpackers humping their bags the 3 km to the border in the midday heat to save US$0.50. B747-437B covered the Thai-Lao border crossing experience admirably in his Laos-y trip report, so I won’t flog that dead water buffalo again — but I will note for posterity, though, that hanging around the station for a while before heading down was not the smartest of moves, as this translates to crowds out the wazoo on both sides, meaning plenty of comradely socialist solidarity with fellow border-crossers, an upstanding group of hirsute backpackers and sketchy visa-running English teachers with a shared aversion to deodorant. In one token concession to sanity, though, the fine folks on the Lao side have merged the “apply for on-arrival visa” and “get it stamped” steps, so in exchange for your US$35 you can now bypass the longest line of them all and just walk past the stamping counters.

On the other side, ladies with 1950s haircuts and uniforms colored that offputting shade of moldy green exclusive to Communist military personnel signify that we’ve left the royally capitalist Kingdom of Thailand and entered the notionally Communist People’s Democratic Republic. In the spirit of Marxist-Leninism, tuk-tuk drivers selflessly offer their ability of mobility to fulfill our need of mobility, asking only for a few green pieces of paper with dead American presidents in exchange. We select one and gun down the highway.