Thursday, January 24, 2008

Vientiane Laos and Coyotes are free! by Saigon Charlie

May 18, 2007 – Vientiane, Laos
by Saigon Charlie

Well here I am and there you are. Wonder which one of us is happy and not stressed?

Let’s see... I had my coffee again at 8AM as I have been doing for the last several days but this morning I am waiting for my visa to return from the Vietnamese embassy/consulate here in Vientiane so I can continue the next leg of my adventure.

Supposedly I pick it and my air ticket up at 5PM for an afternoon flight tomorrow to Hanoi on Lao Airlines (also known as “Crash and Burn Air”). The going rate for visas are $45 if you wait three days, $55 for two and $65 for “the police are coming for me and I got to get out town now!”

I say ‘supposedly’ as these things just don’t always happen as planned and until I land in Hanoi, nothing is written in stone. Not sure if Lord Buddha said that but if he didn’t, he was probably thinking it in his walk around Asia.

If anyone stumbles onto these ramblings and is interested, the visas here are more than in Luang Prabang. Go figure. Why would the visas in the capital, which is closer to Vietnam, be consistently higher by $5 than those in a smaller, more remote provincial town? More girlfriends for the humble civil servants from Vietnam to support in the capital I guess….

If you have been following my journal entries, you might get the feeling from me that Vientiane is a ‘mirror of its former self’, which is a nice way of saying it has turned into a real shit hole and with the Mekong looking more like a creek than a river, dying along with the river.

Strong words you say (and some might argue with me), but have you been here recently? This use to be one of my favorite places in Asia but now it has that ‘Chinese’ feel to it as business is everything and beauty is un-utilitarian.

Photo Gallery One - The City

Photo Gallery Two - The Mekong

Today however where the once elegant old French colonial buildings lining the wide, tree lined boulevards were beauty to the eye and soul have now turned into a 3rd world shanty town, encased with tin covered roofs and walls. The once brightly colored facades have faded long ago to what is now dim yellows and pale greens with large patches of black and brown mildew. Ugly is the operative word here....

In one of my favorite movies, ‘City of Ghost’, which is about Phnom Penh and Cambodia after the demise of the Khmer Rouge and a place that I once 'lived long time', there is a famous exchange about how shitty it looks with a response stating that “…. that’s it charm” and ‘…the whole country needs a paint job”. Today those lines fit Vientiane perfectly, as now Vientiane has ‘a lot of charm’.

I walked the city as well as rented a Suzuki motorbike again. I got up early with the sunrise and had my camera handy at sunset.

In former years, these events were spectacular as the sun rises and sets with the Mekong’s direction here but with no water and only massive sand bars with ever growing vegetation, it now looks more like a scene from the Sahara Desert than the tropics. Maybe one year soon that is what it will be called, The Mekong Desert?

I even did the morning market again. I went and looked at every shop and their wares and like the night market in Luang Prabang, more of the same but different. At least in Luang Prabang there was the illusion that these local folks were selling their own goods but you realized that after 3 streets of identical items there, that someone had to be giving these things to these people on consignment. Here in Vientiane, it looked pretty much the same but just a bit older and more worn.

The people though seem to have a smile left now and again. That was one of the wonderful things I remembered most about Laos was the ‘hello’ after ‘hello’ as I pedaled into the countryside and along the Mekong. Today there are seldom ‘hellos’ and people seem terrified to even look at you. What has changed over the past 5 years? What are these people scared of that they weren’t before? Same government, just older. Honestly, I don’t know but something has shifted but i don't know what it is.

Just outside the morning market and across from the post office there is a new, multi-storied shopping mall. At a distance it looks to be very upscale until you reach it and look inside, and discover that it is 95% empty for the most part and for those shops left, obviously slowing dying. Someone thought they would make a ton of money with that monstrosity but I wonder if they still have their new Mercedes or Land Cruiser now they got when they touted the projects to the big boys? Probably so, it wasn’t their money anyway I am sure, and it probably didn’t costs that many logs……

Evening Hours in Vientiane

I also went back to my hangout when I use to work up here which is a place called ‘Samlo’. Ouch! It use to be a dirty, filthy, smelly, hot bar (but quaint), with all the beer drinking, fat bellied, tequila swilling local ex-pats meeting there after ‘work’ to exchange lies and tall tales. The food use to be bad but now it has gone to horrific. I ordered something sold as “porkchops and apple sauce” with potatoes and peas. Yum! Yum! I thought, as that sounds damn good to a very weary traveler.

When "it" finally arrived from the Indian restaurant across the alley from the Samlo (which I discovered it had originated from), nothing on that plate could be described as food, and I surely would not give it to my dog!

But all this Samlo charm is now being lost to a new yuppie upstart place down the street of ‘mud and sewage’ to a charming sounding establishment called ‘Kao Chai Deu’. Wow, what a name. I guess simple country folk like me aren’t suppose to hang out in such fancy sounding places like the ‘Kao Chai Deu” as I butchered the name talking with a local and was promptly laughed at for my stupidity. Got to love French educated folks, they are just so patient and kind when others try to communicate with them. Maybe rubbing my stomach and pointing at my mouth would better communicate my needs and wants like we do in New Guinea. Trying to speak French never seems to work wherever I go and make an effort………

Anyway. I spent a couple of evenings at the Samlo with the boys Jay and Matt shooting pool, but after peeking my nose into the Asian/French sounding upscale boutique bar, I turned my collar up and sauntered in for a beer. Holy shit batman! The place starts to rock with happy hour and by 10PM or so, it is jammed with cocktail drinking, yuppie backpackers with Mai Tai and Daiquiris everywhere. What a scene!

After all these years in Asia, there has been a shift that makes me shake my head. We went from world travelers with a true yearning for adventure in far flung places to Daddy’s girl with an American Express card on a one year tour of the world after graduation. I have never in my life met so many spoilt, stuck-up, nose in the air brats, as there are now roaming the cities from Phnom Penh to Vientiane. If I hear one more lecture from an obnoxious cow telling me how disgusting I am, or this it, or that is; I am going to turn her over my knee and she is going to get a good spanking!

Anyway. The Frenchy sounding place was a real joy. Nice young ladies in very sexy dresses selling their wares (slap…get your head out of the gutter!). I am referring to the Carlsberg beer girls floating amongst the clientele in their green silk dresses with white sashes selling beer! (By the way, this is one of the places that has the sign advising you not to entertain ‘working girls’ in the establishment as it goes against the social norms and morals of the Laotian people. Cough…cough…right….)

So we established that the 100 or so women in this place in the evening are not ‘working woman’. Guess if they are unemployed I can talk to them huh.

Me.....“Excuse me miss, do you have a job?”

Her...."No. Why?"

Me....“Oh good...the sign says near the toilet that if you don't have a job I can talk to you.”

What a great opening line!

Of course, as you stumble home in the mud at closing time through this enchanted city, there is always the ever present lady boy to give you a quick blowjob for $5 as an added bonus to the evening’s festivities if you haven't managed to find the right, un-employed lady at a local club. Isn’t Asia grand and communist Laos even better!

There is another club in town which is making the rounds of the Novatel boys ($70 a night types) and that is the club called ‘Future’ just up from the Novatel. Now I had to laugh as I listened to the stories of these lads telling me about their erotic encounters from the young ladies they met there and they swore, up and down, that no money exchanged hands. Out of curiosity, I had to see this place where local girls took no money for favors given. So I tagged along for the cultural experience to see with my with my own eyes how Laos had supposedly changed.

Inside the number of women to men was about 10 to 1. Hmmm. Easy to see how one could score here but this sure had a familiar feel to it I though.

And where were all these local ladies getting the kind of money it took to stand around for hours, laughing and talking and tossing back bottle after bottle of Beer Lao that littered their tables? Were they all executive secretaries for large international law firms here in this cosmopolitan capital? Were they all friends of the owner? Were they waiting for their boyfriends to show up after late dinner meetings with important clients? Maybe executive assistants to the Mekong River Commission boys?

Oh yeah! I remember now. (Flashback to Cambodia…..)


Phnom Penh.

Martinis Bar.

Girls everywhere….hmmmmm

“Free lancers” as they were called by some.

Some might say ‘coyotes’ in Thailand.

In Laos, I don’t know the local expression….but wait a minute…….what’s this in the back? Let me take a look……hmmmmmm….12 small rooms on the right and left as you make your way to the toilets. What’s that all about? Naaaaaaaa. Can’t be! ‘Short time rooms’??? Here? In communist controlled, moral, no decadence allowed, Laos?

People here don’t have sex and they surely don’t take money for it as that would be sooooooo capitalistic. I was probably mistaken and in fact I missed the sign offering sun tanning booth services……but the boys still SWORE that this wasn’t a brothel! At 35 years old, you see the world through a different shade of glasses than at 50. But whatever gets your boat to float I thought………

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