Hard Traveling: Exploring Southern Laos by Tuktuk

by Janet Brown, Apr 19, 2012 | Destinations: Laos / Thailand / Savannakhet

I was fuming in a taxi, cursing silently as the cab inched down a narrow, congested road that was far too small to handle the post-rainstorm traffic struggling to reach Bangkok's busiest bus terminal. I had missed my bus, was annoyed at the thought of buying another ticket, and was in no mood to answer my phone--but I did. A man's voice rattled out a long string of rapid and purposeful Thai that I couldn't keep up with. I handed the phone to my taxi driver, with a murmured plea for help.

His voice brightened audibly as he responded with information on our whereabouts and he smiled as he gave me back my phone. "The bus is waiting for you," he told me, and we both relapsed into happy shock as we pulled into the entrance to the bus terminal. A man grabbed my bag as I opened the taxi door and my cab driver wished me luck, too bemused to ask for the fare. I jammed a larger sum than the meter asked for into his hand before following my luggage into the night and onto the bus.

The woman who had sold me my ticket to the Thai/Laos border had asked me for my phone number as we completed the transaction and I'd thought it was merely another manifestation of Thai bureaucracy in action. I'd been tempted to make one up for her and now I was deeply glad that I hadn't. As the bus inched its way out of Bangkok and then began rocketing down the highway, I felt so happy and grateful that I didn't care that I was unable to sleep.

I'd been careful to leave on Thursday evening, before the flood of voters began their odyssey to their home provinces to cast a ballot in a crucial and highly emotional election. Although this year for the first time ever, people from other parts of the Kingdom had been able to cast absentee ballots in Bangkok, many were eager to go home for the weekend, especially since--as I discovered later--Friday had been declared a holiday and Thailand faced a three-day weekend. Buses that we passed on the road were packed with travelers and I was even more thankful that my bus had waited for me.

This was my last visa trip before I returned to the States, and I'd decided to return to Savannakhet, even though it had been less than enticing when I'd gone there several months before. This time I brought reading material, including two big fat police stories by Jo Nesbo, and my netbook so I could work during what I knew would be a long, lethargic Laos weekend.

I had a reservation at a place called the Sala Savanh, a French villa that had previously been the site of the Thai Consulate-General, At least I'd have a modicum of colonial grandeur to wallow in before I left town on Monday afternoon, unlike the stark and dirty surroundings of the hotel I 'd stayed in during my last sojourn in this unprepossessing little spot, I told myself. The online photos of the place had looked promising and it claimed to have free wifi. Given the wretched, stormy weather that had engulfed all of SE Asia and had my Bangkok Internet only intermittently useful, I wasn't counting on any wifi in a town that looked as though it had just received the blessings of electricity the week before.

By the time I dropped off my visa application, was found by a tuktuk and entered the Sala Savanh, I was soaked through to my liver and my shoes would never be the same again. A narrow, curving wooden staircase led to a little landing where double doors let me into my room. All I noticed was a bed and a water heater in the bathroom; stripping off my saturated clothes, I savored the luxury of a hot shower in a bathroom that had no urinal and a bed that let me stretch out at length. This is why I take buses, I decided, it makes me appreciate life's most basic pleasures. Then I fell into the silence that engulfed me and slept.

Not only was the Sala Savanh wonderfully quiet, it was within walking distance of the river, the Thai consulate and the city plaza, which was long, bare, and bordered with places to eat, including a sidewalk cafe that served comfort food with a strong French accent. A picturesque Catholic church sat at the far end of the square and in the afternoon rain, women wearing traditional Lao skirts drifted past on bicycles, steering with one hand, the other holding an umbrella. The sound of crickets and children's voices filled the cool afternoon air and I savored that as much as I did my frites and Beer Lao. Houses in soft shades of pistachio, mint green, pale indigo, sky blue, mustard gold, and fading cream were my view when I watched the approach of twilight from the Sala Savanh's covered verandah, along with a forest of vintage TV antennas sprouting from rusting tin roofs, silhouetted against the darkening sky.

I tucked the mosquito net to make a snug canopy around my bed, put my netbook on a little wooden writing table, and tried the wifi. Even though the rain still fell in relentless drips, the Internet was slow but sure and the small vases on my bedside tables held tiny bouquets of green leaves. When I reached out to touch them, I was amazed and delighted that they were real. I misjudged this place when I was here before, I realized just before I was caught up in another wave of deep and restful sleep

I travel to see how other people live their lives in places profoundly different from where I live my own. It's a form of voyeurism, as well as the most seductive kind of drug that I have ever experienced. My earlier stay in a hotel designed for tour groups on overnight stays had left me completely clueless about life in Savannakhet, but this time the town plaza was practically my front yard. As I sipped coffee in the early morning sunlight, a woman of my vintage came out with a tub of food scraps for a cluster of dogs and across the way another woman bearing food was greeted expectantly by a feline family. Small children swooped about on their bicycles like swallows on wheels as several monks filed past them rather cautiously. A young man pulled himself down the street near the sidewalk; sitting on the ground, he propelled himself forward using the only leg he had. He looked at me with dull eyes as I pushed a banknote into one of his hands.

At a lovely little refuge called Lin's Cafe, I had found a surprising selection of leaflets for travelers, in English, with thumbnail photos and clear, simple maps. Although sightseeing isn't my favorite diversion, I am besotted with Khmer ruins and the Savannakhet area had one, far enough away to let me see a bit of the countryside if I went to it. And, the young woman who ran the cafe told me, the gorgeous church near the plaza offered Mass every Sunday. I'd avoided Catholicism strenuously for almost fifty years but Mass in the People's Democratic Republic of Laos was too enticing to pass up.

It was hard  to tell what was making me more euphoric--the sunlight that had been elusive for months in Bangkok yet flooded the leaves of Savannakhet's trees with translucent light, or the privileged status of being the Sala Savanh's only guest? Or was it breakfast in the garden sala, coffee in a china pot and a baguette wrapped in a white cloth, two small bananas sliced with a mandoline to create elegant serrated edges and drizzled with dark honey? Or was it the small puzzle that was Savannakhet, a post-colonial river town with an affluent side to its decaying grandeur? New cars were parked in front of large, freshly painted modern villas; several stores had a profusion of refrigerators and washing machines for sale, and Cafe Chez Boune in the morning was filled with prosperous- looking men wearing white shirts, speaking Chinese and drinking leisurely cups of coffee.

On my second morning, I heard voices singing from within the church and took my place in one of the pews. Nuns dressed in white, beautifully groomed men, women and children, an adult male acolyte in white robes and a priest with green vestments sang the Mass in Lao, a symphony of prayer and response. Parishioners read the Gospels in Laos and Vietnamese, a nervous young teenage girl taking her turn at the lecturn. The line for Communion was headed by the nuns, followed by old women, then the younger, and finally the men. An echo of Buddhist and Hindu ritual pervaded the church at the beginning of the Mass, when the priest walked down the center aisle of the church, sprinkling water on the kneeling congregants from a bundle of green leaves dipped in a silver bowl of water held by the acolyte. A breeze wafted through open shutters from one side of the church to the other, keeping the interior cool and an open door tempted small children from the pews to play under the trees nearby.

When I walked down a small and quiet street back to the Sala Savanh, I passed a row of people on the opposite side of the street, in the shade of a decrepit building, each of them eating an ice cream cone. One of them greeted me and assured me that my sunny side of the street was too hot. "I like heat," I said and then asked if their ice cream was delicious. The overall assessment was that it was very good indeed. Not the sort of dialogue that Noel Coward would kill for, but nice and pleasant and for me completely Savannakhet--a place where I speak more Thai in three days than I do in three months in Bangkok, simply because I'm not politely ignored.

In Thailand when I say something in Thai, I usually get The Look, a mixture of incomprehension, boredom and condescension. In Savannakhet when I say something in Thai, I get a look of surprised delight and then a conversation, as basic as it may be. A crucial part of life falls into place for me here; I like this town, I decided.

How could I not love a town where a butterfly joined me for breakfast, flexing and flirting its pale green wings inches away from my coffee cup while I pondered whether I wanted to go exploring or sit near the Mekong all day to watch sunlight play with the river currents?  The day before I had taken a tuktuk to a stupa built in the sixth century, a spot so venerated that I had to wear a traditional Laos paisin to view it and was barred by my gender from going near it. The driver who had taken me there had been young and speedy; my right arm still ached from clutching the side of the vehicle, bracing myself for a possible collision.

Still undecided, I walked to the river, where local tuktuk drivers relaxed and waited for customers. "Two thousand baht," one of them said, when I asked how much to go to Huen Hin, the Stone House, the ruins of a rest house that dated back to the turn of the twelfth century, "It's fifty kilometers away."

Sixty dollars seemed a stiff price for a roundtrip of a little more than sixty miles, and the man's attitude was off-putting.

"Not today," I decided and went back to the Sala Savanh.

"How much would it be for a tuktuk to Huen Hin?" I asked the boy who had served me breakfast. He agreed that two thousand baht was exorbitant and made a phone call. "Is a motorcycle okay?" he asked, "One thousand baht."

I shrugged. I had resolved to avoid long-distance motorcycle travel after being almost immobilized for a week after a jaunt from Paxse to Champasak when I was a couple of years younger, but it was a beautiful day and "All right," I agreed.

Soon a motorcycle pulled up, driven by a man who smelled like six months worth of stale cigarette smoke. His smile revealed a scanty collection of teeth and he moved with the stiffness of an arthritis sufferer. He's old so he'll be cautious, I told myself and perched behind him, trying not to feel apprehensive.

His wife had no such qualms about revealing her doubts over our proposed journey when we stopped at the driver's house to pick up motorcycle helmets. Her harangue was echoed by her daughter, but the old man ignored them both. Handing me a helmet, he jerked his head toward the motorcycle and off we went.

But not very far—after a few kilometers, his phone rang and at the end of the call he turned to me and said "I have to go back, okay?" I thought he had forgotten some crucial requirement for our journey, but when we arrived back at his house, his wife led us to their garage and a huge farm truck that was easily of the same vintage as her husband. "This is better; go in the truck," she ordered. The old man moved toward the driver's side, looking as though he might burst into tears.

Back at the riverbank, I was now fully determined to go to Huen Hin, and was equally determined to pay no more than the fifteen hundred baht that Miss Darling at Lin's Cafe had just told me was a fair price for a tuktuk. None of the drivers who surrounded me seemed to agree with her so I resorted to passive-aggressive bargaining. "It's okay. I don't want to go today--maybe next time," and I turned to walk away.

"Okay, okay--fifteen hundred baht," the tuktuk spokesman agreed and called to a knot of drivers who were watching from across the road. One of them sauntered toward us, a man wearing clean but ripped Levis who looked a lot like an older version of Tony Leung. Nodding in agreement, he led me to his vehicle.

"Five hundred baht," he said when we pulled into a gas station and I watched him hand one-third of his prospective earnings to the attendant. After a quick stop at a house where he filled a plastic bottle with water from a tap, our journey began.

Soon we were on a road where the recent rain had battered deep potholes into the coarse gravel that had been strewn over red dirt. I could smell wood-smoke, sun-heated earth, the sweet, clean smell of grass and leaves, and as we passed an occasional farmhouse, the unmistakable odor of fresh manure. Once in a while, a sharp jolt of citrus hit my nostrils and I tried unsuccessfully to find its source as we bounced away from the scent.

Young men wearing ski-masks and shorts planted rice seedlings in paddies that escaped the precision of their counterparts in Thailand, taking on the outlines of trapezoids, rhombuses and shapes I'd not encountered in elementary geometry. As a breeze rippled the sun-dappled water, the rice shoots looked as though they were dancing in the heat--or perhaps it was our tuktuk that was dancing, manically jouncing past small craters in the road and over little bridges that provided painful bumps as we began and finished each crossing.

This road was very familiar to me. I had spent my earliest childhood hating to ride in the family Jeep because traveling in 1950s Alaska meant journeys as bone-rattling as this one was turning out to be. I clutched the side of the tuktuk with white-knuckled hands to keep from falling to the floor and the driver's body was in constant motion as he tried to avoid the holes that peppered the track that we followed. The tuktuk lurched and bounded over every inch that its tires hit; it rattled ominously and I wondered how it and we would weather the return trip. Fifty kilometers on paved roads and fifty kilometers on this exercise in masochism were completely unrelated in any way. I began to remember childhood trips of seventeen miles and back that took all day, and the time my father drove into a pothole that proved to be a ravine.

We stopped at a little roadside shop and the driver said, "No, you stay here," when I got up to join him as he walked over to it. He returned with two bottles of cold water and handed one to me; I held it in my aching hands as he rotated his shoulders and cracked his neck.

"Are you okay?" he asked and I replied, "Yes, but is the tuktuk?'

"We'll go back to Savannakhet on another road," he told me and I felt a surge of relief until he resumed our odyssey and we passed a roadside sign. We had traveled a little over ten kilometers and had thirty-nine more spine-crushing ones to go.

I was aching with every jouncing kilometer but I knew I wasn't the only one in pain. The man who sat astride the seat of what was essentially a three-wheeled motorcycle took the brunt of what I was beginning to think had to be a portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail. When he had stopped to buy water, he flexed fingers that had been poised in a deathgrip on the tuktuk's handlebars. He grimaced a little and then smiled.

By the time we reached Huen Hin, the tuktuk had stopped several times. What was an interesting trip for me was quite possibly a livelihood-jeopardizing experience for the man who had agreed to bring me to this place. Tuktuks weren't designed for this sort of journey and people we had passed along the way had gaped at the one we rode in as though we were ambling past on an elephant. There had to be a good reason why the other vehicles on the road were motorcycles or vans, and I began to realize the selfishness of what I had asked for. At the end of our time together, I'd walk away with a story and a collection of sore muscles; the man I was with could be faced with several days of unemployment while his tuktuk was under repair. Under the circumstances, a dollar a mile didn't seem an exorbitant price for me to pay.

As we walked through a battered gateway into a tree-encircled clearing, I said, "This is a bad road and it's not good for the tuktuk. I think two thousand baht is better than fifteen hundred." The man beside me looked at me and nodded, "Two thousand baht--I'll take you to That Phone before we go back to Savannakhet--and we'll return on a better road. It's longer but it will be better."

Huen Hin was a jumbled collection of the huge square blocks of rock that the Khmer had used for building in this part of their empire. Here they found laterite that could be carved from the earth in moist slabs that would harden to rock when exposed to the open air. Before the slabs became stone, holes were poked into them, which looked as though they probably held ropes that allowed men to pull them to the building site.

At least here the site was flat, instead of the dramatic hillsides upon which many of the temples had been built. Huen Hin was supposed to have been a resthouse for travelers, not a sacred place that needed the cosmology of Mount Meru. And yet the spot upon which it had been placed was peaceful and lovely, surrounded by tall, leafy trees that almost blocked out the sky, with the Mekong River flowing past the edge of the site. Clumps of stones dotted around the clearing indicated that once this might have been a large complex of buildings and the entrance to the surviving structure was marked by stones bearing carved naga, the seven-headed cobra.

Only one side of the building had steps that were easy for me to climb so I ignored the steeper approaches and walked toward an inner chamber. There was the man who brought me here, offering sticks of incense to a rather motley collection of mismatched Buddhas. Somehow they were more moving than any of the original statues would have been; it looked as though each had been presented to this spot by different sojourners who brought what they could afford. Quietly, so I wouldn't disturb the man who stood in front of me, I sank to the ground and offered an unvoiced thanks for my opportunity to be in this room, in this place.

We walked out to the edge of one of the steep set of rocks that jutted narrowly to serve as steps and I shrank back. "I'll go out the other way," I said but the man beside me shook his head. "You can, come on," he told me, and held out his hand.

We came down one rock at a time, and steadied by his grip, I felt not a flicker of the vertigo that usually assaults me on a downward climb. At the bottom, he went off to a pile of stones for a cigarette and I walked toward the river. I was beginning to wonder who I was with, this man who had swiftly poured some of the water from the bottle he'd purchased onto the road before he took a drink himself and who told me what to do without making my hackles rise.

I walked back to where he was and sat on a rock nearby. "This is a beautiful place," I said. "Yes, he agreed, "the trees are beautiful, the river too. There's nature here." "So much nature in Laos; it's different from Thailand," and he replied "Thailand has money. Laos has," he gestured towards the trees, 'This is good."

And as I looked at him, I knew that, given enough time, he was someone I could love. Or was it what he had made it possible for me to see that I was falling in love with? Was I in love with the long, curving boat that I saw men carving by the roadside, under a canopy, protected from the sun, shaping and hollowing the trunk of a very tall tree? Was I in love with the herds of bony cows, watched over by boys who lived in a different century from the one I inhabited? Was I in love with the houses painted in soft colors with contrasting trim, their porches encircled by a curving cement balustrade, or with the simple wooden houses with arched, shuttered windows and carved doors? Or was I falling in love with this man, not young, with a clear and steady gaze, the patience to talk to me in a language that belonged to neither of us, and the kindness to help me down a path that I was afraid of?

I muddle these things together all of the time; I often find it hard to know where my love for a place bleeds into my feelings for a man. This man?  This place? I will never know but I will always wonder.

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