I asked the coin, "Where to next?"
The coin said Vang Vieng.
Until recently Vang Vieng, a humble town nestled at the base of Karst mountains on a picturesque section of the Song river, was largely ignored by the army of 20-somethings that travelled northward along well-worn backpacker's trail between Vientiane and the historically significant town of Luang Prabang. But five years, a few travel guide write-ups and thousands of travellers later, the sleepy town has been awoken by the heady smell of tourist dollars and has gone about reshaping itself into the ultimate eco-tourist destination.
Laos' national icon towers 45 metres over the capital, covered entirely in gold paint and near impossible to stare at directly under the blinding glare of Laos' midday sun. Enlarge »
The one or two guesthouses that were operating in the mid-nineties have been joined by three dozen others, the nearest Internet cafe is never more than five steps away and foreigner-oriented restaurants, complete with English menus and serving the ubiquitous backpacker's staple of banana pancakes, seem to outnumber the number of actual tourists.
But when you visit Vang Vieng, or any of the dozens of other small towns like it I've passed through on my Asian travels, you can't help but feel a little uneasy at the degree to which tourism impacts these small communities. In pursuit of hard currency the younger generation of Vang Vieng are abandoning the subsistence farming traditions of their parents in order to cater to the whims of foreign tourists, be it with bacon and eggs, e-mail access or guided tours. Locals put on 'cultural dancing shows' in their own living rooms and farmers offer 'hands on' working holiday packages to photo-snapping German retirees. Walking down to the morning market and seeing a British girl arguing angrily with a stall owner over a 2,000 kip (AUS $0.40) discount on an incomprehensibly large bag of pot - which, thanks to the backpacker boom through the region, has become something of a cash crop - or a toothless hill tribe mother dressed in traditional costume and posing with her baby for an authentic photo (that'll be 2,000 kip please), you begin to feel like a modern day colonialist. You may wield money rather than guns but the exploitative relationship, and the destruction it wreaks, remains the same.
Using my trusty coin to decide between the smorgasbord of guesthouses, I checked in, dumped my bags and as the sun began to set over the limestone mountains in the distance, went out to explore. Strolling down a back street I was entranced by the sound of awful Thai pop music blaring out of a PA system and followed it to a rather large house where a party was evidently being held in the backyard. I tried to look inconspicuous as I peered through the fence for a better look, forgetting that in Asia a fair-skinned foreigner has about as much chance of being inconspicuous as Yasser Arafat has of being awarded a Gillette razor endorsement contract. I was inevitably spotted by a middle-aged Lao man and he walked up to me, smiling.
"Sabai-di," he greeted warmly, "you come in?"
Feeling a little guilty, but curious nonetheless, I introduced myself and followed the man, who called himself Philavanh, to the back of the house where a sizeable marquee covered a live band playing on a raised stage and a buffet table running to at least eight metres. Around two hundred people were milling about, chatting and gorging themselves on the mountains of chicken, laap (a minced fish and mint salad), spring rolls and noodles that surrounded us on wooden tables. And at the center of everybody's attention were two gooey-eyed teenagers who were being doted over by an army of smiling relatives.
... in Asia a fair-skinned foreigner has about as much chance of being inconspicuous as Yasser Arafat has of being awarded a Gillette razor endorsement contract
I'd crashed rich wedding, Laos style.
Philavanh, who turned out to be the bride's well-to-do father, wasted no time taking me around and introducing me to his guests as "Ally, very good friend from Australia for long time". Content to be used as a show-and-tell toy if it earned me a free feed, I spent the rest of the night at the wedding eating far more than I thought I was capable of, drinking much more rice wine than I knew I should and trying in vain to Lao-dance with a dozen incessantly giggling girls who didn't want to miss the apparently hilarious opportunity to dance with a guy that had hair on his legs, two left feet, and no obvious clues on the art of traditional Lao booty-shaking.
Unfortunately I had to be up early the next morning to catch a bus, so at 3 a.m. I tracked down Philavanh, thanked him for his gracious hospitality and prepared to make my exit.
As he saw me out, Philavanh turned and said, "You come tomorrow night as well?"
"But tonight is party," I reminded him, "tomorrow is nothing."
He smiled, "No, yesterday night is work friend's party. Tonight family party. Tomorrow night is Vang Vieng party. Then we have everybody party. Then we have last party."
"Your wedding reception is over five nights?!"
"Of course," he said with a puzzled look on his face. "Not in Australia?"
You've got to hand it to them, the Lao sure know how to throw a party.
The next morning I jumped on a bus headed across the lush mountains of northern Laos to Luang Prabang, a quaint French-colonial town sitting at the junction of the Mekong and Khan rivers that's filled with temples, palaces and gorgeous colonial architecture.
The biggest piece of news making its way through town - and passed on to me by Miles, a University friend I happened to bump into in the local bakery during a rather strange "What on Earth are you doing in Laos?" / "What am I doing in Laos? What are you doing in Laos?" moment - was that Australia's own scantily-clad pop-nymph Kylie Minogue was on holiday in Laos and had been last spotted touring through Vang Vieng.
Now while the divine Miss M - a title bestowed by her legion of pink spandex-clad male fans from Sydney - requires no introduction to Australian and British readers, the rest of you will probably be scratching their heads and asking, "Who?" Suffice to say that Kylie Minogue, once a successful teen soap star in the late 1980s, pioneered the now well-trodden path from the cheap sets of Australia's daytime soaps to a London recording studio for a make-or-break recording session. Known for her unoriginal but infectious brand of pop and wearing gravity-defying strips of clothing in her video clips, Kylie is something of an Australian institution, despite the fact that she's now living in London and raking in millions of pounds from European record sales.
But I digress. Ignoring the intriguing but ultimately pointless question of what the writhing starlet was doing in Laos, after a few days I decided to move on. The only decision was how. Although my next port of call was the Lao-Thai border town of Huay Xai only a few hundred kilometres away, there was no cheap and easy way to get there.
The option favoured by most cash-strapped backpackers is an uncomfortable two-day slow boat journey up the Mekong, crammed in rickety wooden tubs captained by young men with a fondness for the local brew lao lao. Every few months one of these ageing ferries chugs its last chug and sinks in the middle of one such journey. While some people manage to escape, most on board are trapped by the human gridlock of panicking passengers and dozens of travellers and local drown.
For those with less time and a little more cash, there is the option of an eight-hour speedboat journey. Packed along with a handful of other passengers into six metre long speedboats that have had oversize drag racing engines grafted onto their rears, you are handed a pair of earplugs and more worryingly, a crash helmet, and advised to hold on.
Packed along with a handful of other passengers ... you are handed a pair of earplugs and more worryingly, a crash helmet, and advised to hold on.
The low waters of the dry season expose rocks and hide countless others beneath the surface, making the journey a game of high-speed Russian roulette. A bemused Lao dutifully informed me that every other week a speedboat slams into a submerged rock at full speed and flips over, killing an injuring most people on board. I'm not sure what he found more funny, the thought that affluent foreigners would travel halfway around the word to subject themselves to such risks, or the fact that they paid extra for the privilege.
I finally decided to treat myself and book a ticket with the national airline Lao Aviation, which would set me back almost US $40 but would get me to Huay Xai in an hour. On what was to be my last night in the country I went out with some newfound friends for dinner and an unwise number of Beer Lao before retiring to my dorm room, where I found six Japanese guys and a trio of Brits engaged in a lao lao drinking session. Realising that I'd never get any sleep while they were awake, I rather foolishly ignored my already rather intoxicated state and decided that since I couldn't beat them, I might as well join them. This was, in hindsight, not the smartest of moves…
The next morning I was woken by an empty plastic bottle being thrown at my bald head (the result of a slight communication breakdown between a street side barber and me the previous day) from across the room.
"Hey coin boy," Sam (one of the Brits who I didn't really like) was calling from his bed, "time to get up or you'll miss the bus."
Desperate to get back to sleep before the inevitable hangover ambushed my body, I threw the bottle back and mumbled, "I'm not catching a bus. I'm taking a flight to Huay Xai."
The bottle bounced off my head again as Sam laughed, "No you're not mate. You're going back to Vang Vieng. Don't you remember last night?"
Last night? Given that I was having a surprisingly hard time trying to remember my own name, picking up the pieces of last night's conversation from the alcohol-clouded pool of memories at the base of my now-throbbing skull seemed like an impossible task.
Let's see, we'd talked about travelling. No surprise there. I'd spent a good while proudly extolling, and defending, the virtues of coin-flip travelling. One of the Japanese guys had spent half an hour trying to tell us a Japanese joke in English, before realising that he couldn't remember the punch line. The Kylie Minogue rumour had been discussed, which had somehow led on to a debate about the best method of 'lady boy' detection. Nothing about Vang Vieng, though.
I returned fire with the bottle one last time, "What are you talking about? Go back to sleep."
And that's when Sam proceeded to tell me what I'd done. The very, very stupid thing I'd done.
Apparently - and I'm relying here entirely on the recollections of Sam and a handful of other dorm residents because Heaven knows I can't remember any of it - while the topic of Kylie's appearance in Vang Vieng was being discussed, one of the British girls had suggested that it'd be a strange diversion to try and track her down and get an autograph. Everybody had laughed the idea off, but I piped up on her behalf (she was, after all, very cute) and had said, "It's a kind of a cool idea, in a kitschy-campy kind of way."
"Go on then," Sam had challenged me, "why don't you do it? Flip for it."
Still trying to convince the skeptical group of the benefits of coin-flip travelling, and admittedly thinking more with my pride and groin than my head, I foolishly took out my well-used Hong Kong dollar and announced, "Fine, heads I go to Vang Vieng and track down Kylie Minogue for her autograph, tails I don't."
No prizes for guessing which side the coin landed on.
"So," Sam concluded his story, "after ranting on about The Coin for God knows- how-long last night, are you going to go, or what?"
I really didn't like Sam.
This was ridiculous, I couldn't go ... I had a plane to catch. I couldn't just delay my entire trip and backtrack to Vang Vieng for God-knows-how-long because of a drunken bet! I didn't even like Kylie's music! But on the other hand, the thought of welching on the deal in front of this British knob was not an option. I just couldn't give him the satisfaction.
"Fine," I mumbled, gagging as my body began what would be turn out to be an official ten hour protest against the previous night's excesses, "I'll go."
You live by the coin, you die by the coin.
Vang Vieng was much the way I'd left it. Wasting no time, I started my search in the company of Dore, an Israeli guy I'd met on the bus who had absolutely no idea who Kylie was, but thought my story was so funny that he decided to help me out ("And hey," he'd confessed, "I have nothing better to do."). Armed with a photo of Kylie I'd printed out from her website, we sprinted to almost every cafe and hotel in town, asking if anybody had seen the pint-sized blonde.
For the most part it was a rather pathetic wild goose chase. Kylie, it seems, had temporarily dethroned Elvis as the object of people's celebrity-spotting delusions ("Yeah man, she was like, making out with a monk in that temple over there… I think"). And the locals, well they just stood there patiently giving me the trademarked Laos "let's just humour the crazy foreigner" look before smiling and shrugging their shoulders. Finally, at about 4 o'clock, we got our first solid clue. When shown our now-tattered print out, a local tour guide confirmed he'd seen "lady in picture" this morning as she'd left with a tour guide to explore the area's caves. Twenty minutes and tuk-tuk ride later, we were sitting in the mouth of the cave we'd been told she was visiting, hoping to catch the group as they made their exit. We waited there impatiently for at least half an hour before the sound of echoed footsteps and conversation leaked out from the inky darkness behind us. Finally!
I stood there, feeling a little guilty for preying on our young Kylie like a parasitic paparazzi hack, but happy it'd all be over and I could get on with my trip. The conversation grew louder until eventually three figures emerged out of the darkness: a local guide, a tall blonde guy and ... his black-haired girlfriend.
Suddenly very weary, I showed the group the picture and asked if they'd seen my elusive prey.
"Ah yes," said the guide, "we see before. My brother her guide. She is going today to Vientiane." "What time today?" I asked nervously, thinking I might still have time to race back and catch her before she left the town. "Aaah," the guide studied his watch for a second, "now."
Resigned to failure, Dore and I headed back to town. I briefly flirted with the idea of asking the coin whether I should continue on to Vientiane to continue the search, but quickly dismissed the idea. The coin had caused enough trouble for one week.
Back in Luang Prabang, I chartered a tuk tuk to the airfield. After that rather unexpected and pointless detour, I was finally making my way out of the country.
As we made our way over the ten-kilometre road to the airport, I was pleasantly surprised to see thousands of Lao children and their parents lining the streets and waving to me and cheering. I knew I was likeable, but please, you shouldn't have. For me?
According to the tuk tuk driver the Vietnamese president was flying in to Luang Prabang today on the first leg of a goodwill visit, so the local officials had declared a school holiday so that the kids could come out and cheer the presidential motorcade on its way from the airport into town.
Ignoring his remark, I sat back content to live in my fantasy world where cheering throngs of children lined the roads to wish me farewell, and the crowd of top military brass waiting at the airport were there to shake my hand and thank me for visiting their beautiful country. It was a pleasure, I'd insist as they rolled out the red carpet to my opulent private jet, I'll be sure to come back soon. Just as soon as I visit Harem Island where hundreds of naked Nordic beauty queens are waiting to ...
"OK," interrupted the tuk tuk gruffly, "here airport. You give 10,000 kip."
Despite being the second largest in the country, the airport itself was, in typical Lao fashion, a rather humble affair. After 'checking in' with the flight engineer (a guy in a bomber jacket who glanced at my ticket), I threw my bags in the back of his ute and then clambered in the front for the short drive across the airstrip to the waiting 6-seater Cessna. The worryingly young pilot, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, was leaning against the nose of the plane, picking his nose and sucking the last gasp of life from the butt of his cigarette while joking with his mate who was standing on a ladder and pouring a bucket of water over the cockpit window.
Now call me old-fashioned, call me a snob, but there are only two situations in which I find it exceptionally reassuring to have a professional dressed in uniform: any time a neurosurgeon's standing over my skull with a buzz saw, and when a pilot is about to take me thousands of feet above sea level. Where was the brisk, knowledgeable manner and immaculately pressed suit I'd been spoiled by western airlines into expecting from my flight crew? Where was the confident, fatherly pilot and his trusty, eagle-eyed assistant?
Sensing my concern, the engineer tried to reassure me. "Don't worry," he said with a broad smile on his face, "pilot is very good friend. Very good pilot." And then, as if to reinforce this praise he added proudly, "He train with Russian airline."
"In Russia?" I asked in an understandably nervous voice, "Not with Aeroflot…"
"Aaah," beamed the engineer with a nod, his smile broadening even more, "you know?"
Aeroflot? The Russian airline that's averaged five crashes a year and has killed thousands of people since it began operation? The same Aeroflot that crashed a plane in 1994 because the pilot had not only let his 11 year old son sit at the controls, but had then taken the opportunity for a quick constitutional around the cabin to stretch his legs? The same Aeroflot that encouraged its pilots to take a swig of vodka before take off for 'good luck'?
Yes, you could say I'd heard a thing or two about them.
Now petrified, I resigned myself to the prospect of being scraped off a stretch of Laos countryside with a spatula at sometime within the following hour, boarded the plane and pulled my seatbelt strap like a tourniquet around my waist. My legs may have fallen off by the time we crash land, and my future Father's Days may be a card-less affair, I thought to myself, but at least I'll be alive to tell the tale.
It was a shame really. I barely noticed the spectacular scenery that rushed past as we took off: the dry rice paddies that seemed more like golden yellow jigsaw puzzles from the air, poppy plantations on rolling green mountains or the cotton wool clouds that sat patiently on their peaks. No, I was too busy clutching my hand rests in white-knuckled concern and constantly scanning the cockpit for any sign of an eleven year old wannabe pilot glancing mischievously at the throttle. Each time the tiny plane was rocked by turbulence, or the pilot engaged in a mini virtual nosedive, glancing over his shoulder and asking "Fun, yes?" I would quietly pray to God, the Pope, Jesus and Allah to beg forgiveness for a lifetime of atheism, blasphemy and that unfortunate incident with the ferret and castor oil, and then close my eyes in preparation for impact.
Needless to say I survived. Within twenty minutes of landing, in fact, I was putt-putting my way slowly across the Mekong on a motorised canoe crossing the border to Thailand.
And what a difference a border makes.
It's amazing to compare the two Thai and Lao border towns of Chong Khong and Huay Xai. Although separated by only 250 meters of shallow river, the differences are staggering. In Huay Xai, as with all of Laos, goods are scarce, people are reserved and life is slow and humble. Chong Khong, on the other hand, is pure Thai. Supermarkets stocked with anything your heart desires dot the busy sidewalks, the more confident and outgoing locals harass you for conversation, money or just a brief moment of novelty in their day, and the wealth and pace of life leaves you stunned and confused.
Struggling with yet another case of culture shock, I boarded a bright red and chrome bus with twenty young monks and headed to the large northern city of Chiang Mai, still trying to grasp the wealth gap between this beautiful, brash country and its quiet next-door neighbour.
If I thought towns like Vang Vieng in Laos had buried their dignity in order to lure the tourist dollar, then it's fair to say that Chiang Mai has shot it, quartered it, left it to rot in the open and then danced the can-can over its carcass. In this city, where tourism is the most lucrative cash cow, catering to the every whim and desire of cashed-up foreigners is the only business that matters. From English-language screenings of The Lord of the Rings, to fake Gucci bags on sale at the night market or just a good ol' fashioned rub'n'tug massage after a night of drinking at a go-go bar, if you're foreign and in possession of a credit card, the Chiang Mai motto seems to be "you want it, we got it."
But there is a reason tourists flock to Chiang Mai. Compared to the insanity of Bangkok, it's a temple-filled, tout-free, oasis of calm sitting amid mountains of lush jungle, impressive waterfalls and quaint farms. While locals are eager to get at your wallet, they don't hound you day and night, and although tourism has infected most corners of the city, it's not hard to find the odd street where Thais go about their day-to-day lives in ignorance of the thousands of falangs leading a gradual invasion of their city.
Being far from the beaches and islands that are the usual motivators for a Thailand holiday, most backpackers come to Chiang Mai to book rather contrived hill tribe treks throughout the region or to take classes in anything ranging from Thai cooking to 'Qi' aura detection. As usual, I had to be different. I'd come for a slightly more sombre mission: for the next month I'd be volunteering with the Rejoice Urban Development Project, a local Chiang Mai charity providing medical support and assistance to HIV/AIDS sufferers in the villages and hill-tribes surrounding Chiang Mai who had neither the money or the ability to visit the city's doctors.
Gareth and Steve, the two British nurses who founded Rejoice, came to Thailand in the mid-nineties to volunteer for a short time in a Bangkok AIDS hospice and then return home. But once they'd witnessed first-hand the devastation that HIV was wreaking across the country - especially its poorer north - they realised that they had to do something more. Seven years later they're still here, ministering to the sick, counselling the needy and helping to educate a new generation of Thai about the joys of safe sex.
My first day with Rejoice was a baptism of fire. I was bundled into a minivan with Steve, three local social workers and a motley crew of volunteers from around the world as they headed off on their daily 'rounds' to get a feel for the work they were doing.
Their work, as it turns out, is a very humble, grassroots affair. Within minutes a wooden table in the center of a tiny village becomes an impromptu medical clinic at which HIV/AIDS sufferers, young and old, sit and detail their varying ailments before receiving the most basic of treatments to try and relieve some of the symptoms. Unable to afford the costly anti-retroviral drugs that would actually slow HIV's spread through patients' bodies, Rejoice are left to dole out age-old remedies like aspirin and cod liver oil to help treat the secondary infections that exploit an AIDS-weakened immune system, and then sit back and hope for the best.
And 'the best' for the 1 in 7 northern Thai adults who have contracted HIV/AIDS, and their inevitably infected children, is about five years of fragile life after infection (give or take a year) before their bodies finally succumb to the virus and they leave yet another lone elderly couple to contemplate the cruel twist of fate that saw them outlive both their children and their grandchildren.
Given the misery and suffering we'd seen that morning, by noon the mood in the van was a surprisingly upbeat one. We were on our way to visit Banc, Rejoice's ten year old poster-boy and a regular patient for over five years, in which time he had clearly emerged as the staff favourite. Valerie, a long time French volunteer, gave me a brief rundown on Banc's story as we drove.
Since his birth, both of Banc's parents had died from HIV/AIDS, and his young siblings hadn't fared any better. As the only member left of his family, Banc was now the responsibility of his nearly-blind and financially-troubled grandfather. Money was scarce, and the local schools and government didn't see the point of expending money and resources on a terminally ill child, so Rejoice was left to monitor and treat Banc's yo-yoing health while trying to give his grandfather whatever financial support it could.
But as we pulled into the dirt track in front of Banc's house, the mood in the van instantly grew tense. Instead of Banc's smiling face greeting us from the straw mat in front of their house, it was Banc's grandfather, wearing an expression of sheepish sorrow that stood waiting. After a hushed chat, Steve returned to the van and confirmed what we'd all privately concluded: Banc, whose health had been deteriorating slowly over the past month, had passed away only a few days previously.
I turned to Valerie, who'd clearly taken the news of Banc's death badly and was now staring blankly at the linoleum floor of the minivan, and asked her how often their daily rounds brought the news of yet another child's death.
Continuing her linoleum vigil, she simply uttered in a dull, flat voice, "Too often."
And so now, after over four months on the road, I find myself on unfamiliar ground as I settle down in a city and begin the daily grind of a working man. I've even rented out a rather plush hotel room with a private shower, TV and daily sheet changes that I'm sharing with Christina, another young Rejoice volunteer from the States, for the oh-so-affordable price of 90 Baht (AUS $4.50) per night. After the endless stream of bedbugs, scungy sheets and ecosystem harbouring dorm-room mattresses that have played host to my sleeping form over the past months, I'd forgotten what clean linen even smells like.
But as each day wears on, and the wounds of my rather painful, but oh-so- embarrassing motorbike accident begin to heal (Ally's Motorbike Driving Tip #29: Slow down when approaching a 180 degree hairpin turn at 50 k/hour on a motorbike, your right forearm will thank you), I've started to feel a little restless. I can't stand sitting in one place, I want to move on. There's an entire country out there to see!
Will I cave into temptation? Stay tuned to find out.