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Nong Khai and Vientiane

This is the first time I have written anything for the Pattaya Trader. Now my old writing mucker Duncan Stearn is at the helm, I’m delighted to contribute to what I know will be a publication that will go from strength to strength under his experienced, ink-stained hands.

I am writing this in Vientiane, at the start of a month long research trip to Laos for a novel I am writing, which requires me to research sites and sights of the Vietnam War in Laos, and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. I’m doing the trip with my wife, which means communication difficulties in Laos caused by my appalling Thai will be minimized, hopefully.

To get here we took a bus from Jomtien to Suvarnabhumi airport, then a decent overnight (’First Class’) bus from the airport to Nong Khai, as I couldn’t be bothered crossing Bangkok to catch a VIP bus from Morchit during rush hour.

I don’t sleep well on buses, and last night was no exception, in a standard-sized bus seat, accompanied by the sound of a small child vomiting into a plastic bag behind us (three times), and loud but fortunately un-smelly farting from a smartly-dressed young woman opposite (she was asleep), who would have been mortified had she known. Add in some burping, coughing, snoring (including mine which woke me twice), the rustle of plastic bags, people making and receiving telephone calls into the early hours, SMS’s being received, and occasionally crying children and that just about sums up the trip. But the journey is always worth it once we arrive.

I always enjoy being in Nong Khai, where my wife’s family live, right next to Wat Pochai in the centre of town, and a couple of minutes’ walk from the morning market.

One of my daily highlights is to accompany my missus and her mother at 8am, when they go to the market, where I buy strong, local iced coffee and they buy food for the day. I usually stop to photograph some of the weird and wonderful Mekong fish, or the ones that aren’t being de-scaled alive, thumped on the head, drying and dying on the fishmongers’ stall or fighting for breath in crowded buckets of warm, de-oxygenated water. As most people who live here know, Thai markets aren’t for the faint-hearted…

After a couple of days in Nong Khai, we arrived in Vientiane, crossing the border at 9am, and hiring a tuk tuk which dropped us at the Mixay Guest House, in one of the small side streets leading down to the river, where I booked into its best room, costing a princely $15 (450 baht) a night.

This is the description of the place on the Laos Airlines website, which I just looked up, The Mixay is one of the few places in Vientiane firmly aimed at the budget conscious. The guesthouse now looks rather shabby and rooms are really basic and uninspired…”

You may wonder why I wanted to stay here, and the answer is, I want to put the characters of my book into real live places wherever possible as they backpack through Laos.

I have been surprised by two things since my last trip to Vientiane eighteen months ago. Firstly, pressure on space in downtown Vientiane means the backpacker district is now disappearing fast. Boutique and expensive hotels and posher restaurants and shops are springing up everywhere on the same streets as hostels, internet cafes and cheap travel agents, which is a trend I suspect will continue.

I have also noticed lots more independent backpacking older people, retirees and the like, and not just those in organized group tours. These older backpackers are staying and eating in the same budget locations as their much younger counterparts, but I suspect they have a lot more disposable income, being at the end of their working life rather than the beginning.

I always like to spend a couple of days in Vientiane, as it makes me desperate to leave.

Next stop: Phonsavan.

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