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Friday, November 11, 2011

LAOS, INITIAL IMPRESSIONS

NARRATIVE

My initial impressions of Luang Prabang (Lao): It's a fairly quiet town. By that, I mean that there are no bars, night life or any of that sort of thing in evidence. The big game that people seem to play among themselves in side alleys and such - bingo. I am not joking. They play it with the concentration normally reserved to retirees in America who have nothing better going on in their lives.

I don't really mind a quiet town, however. It gives me more time to plot and scheme.

The French influence is very apparent in the architecture as well as restaurants which offer an assortment of crapes, baguettes and sandwiches - none of which I want. Fortunately, there is enough Lao food (as well as American or generalized Western European) to keep me fed.

When I initially got here, I followed a girl off of the boat who looked like she knew where she was going. She was a bit concerned but I explained about my navigating by zen. Her concern moved from 'possible stalker' to 'weirdo'. I haven't seen her since. The place she inadvertently led me to was OK. The price was only 50,000 KIP. It did have internet but despite their claims to the contrary, it didn't quite reach into the room. Because I like downloading more shit to keep me busy, I decided the next day to look for a better place.

Neither the initial place I stayed nor the place after that bothered to look at my passport nor even get my passport number. It is tempting to begin living under an assumed name but I know that is the kind of thing to bite me in the ass later.

The second place I sought out the morning after was nearly double the first place at 80,000 KIP but that is still only $10 per night. With my own room, own bathroom, a balcony, table, a hard backed wooden chair and internet that actually reaches into the room I am happy with it.

After spending a successful night I was able to negotiate the manager down to 70,000 KIP if I paid three nights all at once. It is not a great discount but that is the problem of not being able to deal with the boss directly.

So far the Lao folk (I don't know the plural) seem OK. I am rather neutral toward them. Some seem cheerful and nice, others like that until you do something they don't like then it jumps to bitchy with no give, others seem aloof. I am pretty neutral on them overall neither harboring good nor bad feelings toward them as a whole. Actually, I can't think of a country that I am overall positively or negatively disposed toward the people as a group. Interesting. This is up from my past where I 'hated everyone equally'. I must be mellowing with age.

The level of English spoken is slightly up from what I encountered in Thailand though there are still plenty of folks who will just throw up their hands and not want to even try to understand what you are saying.

By contrast, the driving safety is well elevated from Thailand. Here, they drive American style (as opposed to British) but they seem to que instead of the 'whatever you can get away with' strategy. There are still more than enough people who are more focused on hauling packages, holding up umbrellas and talking on the cell phone (sometimes all at once) while driving a scooter to keep the population from getting out of hand.

Like Thailand, the stores in Lao confuse me. It is like someone badly printed a book on capitalism and someone else ripped out some vital pages of it. People who decided to open stores were forced to read this book and believed it. Like in Thailand, the secret to success in business is to find a successful business then open up the exact same business next door to it. You sell the same shit at the same prices. The thinking seems to be that you will then be just as successful. I don't claim to be an expert in business but even to me, this is baffling and bazaar behavior. The stores are all the same and sell approximately the same things. They have less personality and individual feel than a row of Twinkies. You won't encounter a stationary store that also sells cold drinks, as an example. Sadly, even in American business you can still find many examples of the 'do what worked for someone else' strategy. Mainly in Hollywood. And MMO's.



LOGAN THE WHAT?

I decided to give teaching English a try. I went to two different places and got results with one of them. The first place I went to was an 'English university'. It really wasn't - it was a building looking like every other that was labeled as such. I missed it the first couple times I went by. I even bought a pen (that didn't work) from the business next door. When I finally discovered it, I heard Pete H's voice in my head chuckling dryly and saying "You're just not paying attention, Logan!" I have no idea how Pete AKA Sherlock Holmes wormed his way into my subconscious but I suspect he is monitoring me from afar with some sort of strange, eldritch device. However he is doing it, I find it odd that my subconscious has an Australian accent. They have no native English teachers at the school and the teachers they do have were astonishing only in that they are allowed to teach English. The first time I made an appointment the 'big boss' blew it off as something else came up. I went by later without an appointment but was told that they didn't have any use for someone to come by for a few days or a week to help out on a volunteer basis. What they really needed was someone who already had a work permit to come by and teach. This tells me that either it is like Thailand where you need a work permit to volunteer, or that the 'big boss' is pretty brainless.

The other place I had gone to, on an impulse, was a Buddhist temple (called a Wat). I am now teaching some of the monks English for an hour a day. I don't really have a curriculum or anything - we're just jumping into it. The first thing I learned is why teachers have a curriculum. I suspect that I'll be needing to learn a lot from this.

I thought at first I would just be teaching one monk (named Phon) but other monks seem to drift in and out to see if they can pick up bits. I think I've learned more about the monks than they have learned about English from me.

Thus far, I've learned that the monks pray, build buildings, study (I'm guessing religious and schooling), and live a far more worldly life than I thought monks would live. Until the age of twenty you are a novice. As soon as you hit twenty, presto, you are a monk. I don't know if they have further ranks up the ladder or not. You are also able to give up being a monk whenever you want. The monk Phon (yes, he is over twenty) joined the priesthood because his school was too far away. Being poor farmers, his parents couldn't afford to purchase him a bike to get there. He needed to join in order to get an education. His goal is to open a restaurant some day. He seems pretty bright - though very reserved. When I first talked to him about teaching him and anyone else who wanted to learn English, he asked why I would waste my time doing that. Yes, those were his words. I was surprised at his directness. I decided to give a direct answer back and tell him it was so that I could find out if I enjoyed teaching. If I do, then I could perhaps get a TEFL certificate and do it elsewhere for money. I've only worked with him for one day as of the writing of this and so far I really don't have an opinion. I also don't think what I'm doing is teaching so much as it would be construed as 'tutoring'. I also think that any actual English teacher would shit a football at what I am teaching them. Well, at least the English teachers I had in my youth. I've met a lot of English teachers that consider themselves to be more 'hip' than that. To wit, I point out "Hey, you're a fucking English teacher. Sorry, it is not 'hip'." But what else would you do with a degree in English other than Starbucks? [Yes, I'd take even a fake degree in English right now as it would make me money but I know better than to try teaching English in the states thank you very much.] It is real English but not proper/book English. I am working on more of the 'common usage' English.



THE ANGRY FRENCHMAN

I was sitting around watching a French couple who were stupid enough to order without looking at the menu. They were an older couple - fifties or sixties. The man was absolutely outraged at being charged 5000 KIP for a small bucket of ice. He was upset at the principle of the thing. He even made a threat to close the restaurant. I'm not sure if he knew how full of shit he sounded. I don't think they have 'tourist police' here but even had this happened in Thailand, you'd just end up paying it after they arrived. Eventually they stormed off. I don't think they had to pay for the ice. In the past, I would have been irritated at such a big scene and tantrum. Now, I just pull out my notebook and think "You go in blog now."



THE SHITTY BAG

So, I decided to go try out Lao whiskey. It costs about five dollars a bottle so I figured 'why not'. I bought a bottle and had made it literally five meters away from the shop before the bottom ripped out of the plastic bag and the whiskey within its box plummeted to the ground. Naturally, the bottle immediately broke. Just before it ripped, I had an odd premonition that it would. I decided to see how it would play out. I looked back at the guy who was observing this and spread out my arms in the universal 'would you look at this fucking shit' gesture. I brought him back the bag and box of broken glass. I was more curious to see what he would do than anything. He ended up replacing it for free as well as giving me a double bag. This gave me a warm fuzzy feeling about the people of Lao. It lasted until I tasted the whiskey.



TRAVELER'S TIPS

If a place doesn't scrutinize your passport, assume the security is shit and act accordingly. Not only can your stuff be stolen but it can be stolen completely anonymously.

Never order without seeing the menu unless you have extra money to burn. Personally, I like to demand my check with the food. If something is brought to the table, ask how much it costs and send it back if you didn't order it. Otherwise, you will get stuck will bills for rice, extra sauce, ice, etc.



KEEPING TO YOURSELF

I am still struggling to follow the wise words of Adam who told me to keep my cards closer to my chest. I'm still having problems with that but every day is a new learning adventure.

If, for example, you use a towel outside of it's intended use then ask for a new towel and present the old, you must be prepared to pay for the new towel. Better just to discretely steal a towel on the drying line at some point than pay an amazing 50,000 KIP for a new one and be threatened with the police if you do not.

Also, at this hotel I am politely fending off various 'when are you going to go do tourist shit that gives this hotel more money' offers from the proprietor. I have a built in excuse for the next couple days with my quirky stomach. I don't know what I ate but oh my god - and yes, sadly it is related to what I think of as the 'towel incident'. Whenever he asks about me wanting to do any of their over priced packaged tours, I always politely tell him I will consider it. Next I will move into looking at literature and such. Eventually, I will run out of time and be forced to move on without (so sad!) being able to indulge in this shit.

Yes, Adam, I can hear you shaking your head at me...



EXPAT COMMUNITY

I have been unable to locate the expat community here, other than some stuff on the internet. Sadly, the stuff on the internet I've found really sucks ass. I need to find a bunch of old gents sitting around and drinking beer to get the inside scoop. Unfortunately, this place doesn't seem to attract them. It could be something to do with the laws stating if you have sex with a Lao girl and are not her husband you go to jail you dirty foreign devil you. Not sure. Given the short duration of the visas and things I've heard, China or Vietnam may be a better bet. I'm planning on looking up more information but honestly, I'm not in a huge hurry to do so. I am still conducting my 'teaching experiment'. Note, I won't be able to get a Vietnam visa at the border. I've looked up the consulate for Vietnam in Luang Prabang. I've got to see if I can get a visa from them so I will be paying them a visit. If I can't, then I suspect (unless Julie's contact in China suddenly gets me a contact who will get me a visa and a job) it will be off to Cambodia when I am ready to leave.

Honestly, I'm beginning to think I made a big mistake in working my way through the north of Thailand and into Lao. I should have pushed east instead toward Cambodia. Well, I guess it's another country I've visited...



PRICES

Dark beer (not bad), 10,000 KIP.

Non functional ballpoint pen, 5000 KIP.

Vegetables with fried rice, not very good, 10,000 KIP.

1.5 liter bottle of water, 6000 KIP.

Trip from where I am (front door service) on an overnight sleeper bus to Vietnam. This bus supposedly has beds but I'm not sure if that is really true. 350,000 KIP (about $43). [Hell, yeah I am going to the bus station first to see if I can find it cheaper.] This bus supposedly goes all the way to Ha Noi.

Meals - generally 10,000 KIP (cold food in the night market, no meat, not very good) to 40,000 KIP + for restaurant dishes. Pretty much everything seems to be 10,000 KIP or 20,000 KIP.

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PICTURES

{{2011}} London, GB | Rail N Sail | Amsterdam, Netherlands | Prague, Czech Republic | Budapest, Hungary | Sarajevo, Bosnia | Romania | Chisinau, Moldova | Ukraine: Odessa - Sevastopol | Crossed Black Sea by ship | Georgia: Batumi - Tbilisi - Telavi - Sighnaghi - Chabukiani | Turkey: Kars - Lost City of Ani - Goreme - Istanbul | Jordan: Amman - Wadi Rum | Israel | Egypt: Neweiba - Luxor - Karnak - Cairo | Thailand: Bangkok - Pattaya - Chaing Mai - Chaing Rei | Laos: Luang Prabang - Pakse | Cambodia: Phnom Penh | Vietnam: Vung Tau - Saigon aka Ho Chi Minh City

{{2012}} Cambodia: Kampot - Sihanoukville - Siem Reap - Angkor Wat | Thailand: Bangkok | India: Rishikesh - Ajmer - Pushkar - Bundi - Udaipur - Jodhpur - Jasalmer - Bikaner - Jaipur - Agra - Varanasi | Nepal: Kathmandu - Chitwan - Pokhara - Bhaktapur - (Rafting) - Dharan | India: Darjeeling - Calcutta Panaji | Thailand: Bangkok - again - Krabi Town | Malaysia, Malaka | Indonesia: Dumas - Bukittinggi - Kuta - Ubud - 'Full Throttle' - Gili Islands - Senggigi | Cambodia: Siem Reap | Thailand: Trat | Turkey: Istanbul | Georgia: Tbilisi

{{2013}} Latvia: Riga | Germany: Berlin | Spain: Malaga - Grenada | Morocco: Marrakech - Essauira - Casablanca - Chefchawen - Fes | Germany: Frankfurt | Logan's Home Invasion USA: Virginia - Michigan - Indiana - Illinois - Illinois - Colorado | Guatemala: Antigua - San Pedro | Honduras: Copan Ruinas - Utila | Nicaragua: Granada | Colombia: Cartagena | Ecuador: Otavalo - Quito - Banos - Samari (a spa outside of Banos) - Puyo - Mera

{{2014}} Peru: Lima - Nasca - Cusco | Dominican Republic | Ukraine: Odessa | Bulgaria: Varna - Plovdiv | Macedonia: Skopje - Bitola - Ohrid - Struga | Albania: Berat - Sarande | Greece: Athens | Italy: Naples - Pompeii - Salerno | Tunisia: Hammamet 1

{{2015}} Hammamet 2 | South Africa: Johnnesburg | Thailand: Hua Hin - Hat Yai | Malaysia: Georgetown | Thailand: Krabi Town | Indonesia:
Sabang Island | Bulgaria: Plovdiv | Romania: Ploiesti - Targu Mures | Poland: Warsaw | Czech Republic: Prague | Germany: Munich | Netherlands: Groningen | England: Slough | Thailand: Ayutthaya - Khon Kaen - Vang Vieng | Cambodia: Siem Reap

{{2016}} Thailand: Kanchanaburi - Chumphon | Malaysia: Ipoh - Kuala Lumpur - Kuching - Miri | Ukraine: Kiev | Romania: Targu Mures - Barsov | Morocco: Tetouan | Portugal: Faro

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