Before my brain could register where I was and what was going on, the front of the bus bounced a good foot off the ground, jolting my fellow passengers awake. I braced myself for the bounce to hit the back of the bus, which it duly did, throwing me up in the air.
We had hit something.
Statistically, I was possibly due a crash, so I’m glad this was a tremendously minor affair. The strange thing was that the driver kept driving – and driving fast. Maybe it was a hit and run. But passenger discontent forced the driver to pull over and a group of us shuffled off the bus to inspect the damage.
The panel near the left headlight was a bit smashed up, but aside from that, there was no damage worth writing home about.
“What did we hit?” I asked.
Nobody seemed to want to answer me. It could have been an animal, but I would have expected more blood and guts. Maybe it was a massive pothole which appeared without warning, but then why the damage to the front of the bus? It was all a little odd. One thing was for sure: I was now wide awake. I looked at the time. It was 4.30am.
By 9am we were pulling into Chiang Rai bus station, a good few kilometres south of town. I jumped on the back of a moto-taxi and had him take me to the city centre. I legged it into the first tour place I could find and asked about the Golden Triangle Tour.
I had done this exact same tour several years ago and it’s possibly what sparked my interest in border hopping. It took you to the Lao island of Don Sao in the Mekong River where you could mooch around for an hour in the country of Laos without the necessity of buying a visa. It then took you to the Burmese border and after you dropped your passport off at the gates, you were allowed to grab a swift half in Myanmar before returning to Thailand no questions asked.
Kinda what I thought they would let me do in Libya and Algeria, only without the beer.
I knew these tour left early, that’s why I ran, but it was too late: the tour left at 9am and it was now 9.20am. Not that that really mattered because there wasn’t a tour today anyway.
Oh well, in the spirit of independent travel I’d just have to do it myself. I threw my backpack and my Odyssey bag (containing my laptop and my latest camcorder tapes) into the left luggage area (it wasn’t even a room – it was just an open-air counter) and jumped on the departing local bus to Chiang Saen. I then spent the rest of the day fretting about all the stuff I’d lose if my Odyssey bag wasn’t there when I got back.
The Golden Triangle takes its name from the bit of the Mekong River where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. The ‘Golden’ bit probably derives from the same place as the ‘Golden’ in The Stranglers ‘Golden Brown’ – that rather useful stuff that seeps out of a scarred poppy head – opium, heroin, morphine: whatever the hipsters are calling it these days. Back in the day (who am I kidding?) this place was famed for poppy production and what would become the staple crop of the British Empire in the East Asian area: Opium. Yup, that stuff what’s very naughty and illegal even for grown-ups. That stuff we fought not one, but two wars against China for the crime of making it illegal in China. That stuff which (together with cocaine, cannabis and ecstasy) funds 99% of all the world’s crime.
Yup. That stuff.
But I wasn’t here to chase the dragon, I was here to chase my dream of stepping foot in every country in the world without flying. By midday I was in Chiang Saen bartering my way over the river and back. I thought the price was a bit steep until I realised that I would be in the riverboat on my own: so there I was, chauffeur driven over the Mekong into Country 176: Laos.
Laos isn’t as well known as Cambodia or Vietnam, I guess it needed a war or a massacre to put it on the map. The sad thing is that Laos had a war and a massacre, only it was kept secret for many years by the Americans who had merrily carpet bombed the place for the best part of the Vietnam war. So they endured all the needless slaughter, but didn’t get the publicity or the Oscar winning movies. A bit like the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 90s.
A hangover from the Vietnam War era is the vast number of landmines and unexploded ordinance left behind to this day. Woe betide any hapless backpacker who goes wandering off the beaten track. Or small child for that matter. I am quite startled that the American government hasn’t cleared them up yet. Must have better things to do. Like start daffy unwinnable wars in the Middle East.
Stepping foot in Don Sao brought back great memories of doing this same trip eight years ago, only that time I continued on to Laos and spent an absolutely awesome week there trundling down the Mekong and hanging out in the remarkably laid-back capital, Vientiane. Not this time though, but I was here now and saw no reason to rush. I ambled around the village: overflowing with tourist trinkets and tat, and managed to find a little spot for some lunch – spicy pork noodle soup – delicious!
One of the things that all the shops sell is snake whisky, or should I say snake and scorpion whisky – no, it’s not a brand name, it’s a local spirit with the (hopefully) dead body of a snake plopped inside, and in the snake’s mouth, a scorpion.
Dare me to try a tipple?
Oh, go on then…
Urk. Tasted like watered down whisky with some mud from Glastonbury thrown in for good measure.
“What’s in that one?”
“Oh – that’s tiger penis.”
“That’s what I thought you said. Oh dear. You put the willy of one of the most endangered species on earth into an alcoholic drink?”
“Yes. Wanna try?”
Hmm… another fine concoction of low quality whisky and mud. Don’t look at me like that – from the looks of things, the thing in question had been in that jar for a long long time. They’ve probably been using the same one since 1973. It was supposed to make me more ‘virile’ (whatever that means) but as (at this rate) I’m not going to see Mandy for another six months, any magical properties the mystic tiger penis possessed was somewhat wasted on your humble narrator.
But if I were you, I’d stick with the Viagra, nature boy
After food and whisky I headed back to the Thai side of the river and from there attempted to jump on a – let’s hope I spell this right – sawngthaew – a small van with two wooden benches in the back facing each other. Annoyingly, the last sawngthaew to the Burmese border left fifteen minutes before I got there. Pondering whether there is another profession in which you knock off at two in the afternoon (teaching…?!) I was left with the only option of getting the local bus over halfway back to where I started from and heading to the border from there: this was turning into more of a Golden L-Shape.
I didn’t get to the border until 4pm, and by this time they were gearing up for shutting the bloomin’ thing at five, so I had to get my skatey skates on. This border is quite a cute one and they do something I SO SO WISH they did elsewhere: you wanna see a bit of Burma? Fine: hand over your passport and a bit of dosh and you’re welcome to stay for up to 14 days, as long as you don’t stray too far from the border. Oh and we’ll keep your passport in this drawer for safe keeping. Have a good day y’all!
SO THEN BURMA: Ah yes I hear you cry from the bottom of your wishy-washy liberal hearts, I’m not supposed to go there am I? Well, tough: I’ve got to visit every country and that’s what I’m going to do, and I didn’t hear any objections when I visited the similarly brutal backwards dictatorships of Saudi Arabia, China, Haiti, Congo, Guinea, Comoros, Iran, Mauritania, Libya, Angola etc: you know, all them countries where any form of protest will wind up with you most likely labelled and ex-parrot, pushing up the daisies and joining the choir invisible.
I actively support tourism to all of these places cursed with gruesome and ridiculous governments for two simple reasons: 1. carefully spent money helps local businesses and people and 2. your very presence shows the people there that there is another way… and possibly light at the end of the tunnel.
Incidentally, does anyone know the capital of Burma…? If you said Rangoon you’re WRONG… it’s called Yangon now. But if you’re a smart-alec and you said Yangon you’re still just as WRONG. The potty junta that runs Burma moved the capital to a Countdown Conundrum in the middle of nowhere called ‘Naypyidaw’ a few years ago. True! Naypyidaw! Look it up!
Anyway, I’m no moral relativist: I think what is shitty and horrible for one person on this one planet would be shitty and horrible for most other people on this planet too. AND YES I THINK WE HAVE ‘IT’ RIGHT IN THE WEST AND PLACES WHERE LIFE IS NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT HAVE GOT ‘IT’ VERY WRONG. End of. Others disagree, but then they probably see their fellow humans as a fascinating but separate sub-species whom the gods have deemed it necessary to suffer their way through life in order to serve the greater good of ‘culture’ (ah – that old and wanky lie). I say f— that, ‘culture’ is a transient amoral happenstance that should never EVER trump universal human dignity, freedoms or rights. The next time somebody rabbits on at you about respecting other people’s beliefs or cultures (usually whilst defending some daft barbaric practice or stone-age justice system), after you finish laughing you’d do well to point out the strongly held beliefs of the Nazi party in the 1930s where not ones that any decent human being would ‘respect’.
In the end, beliefs are not, and should never be held up as, sacrosanct. That’s what I believe and if you don’t like it or respect it, GOOD FOR YOU!! Now we’re getting somewhere!
So I bought a Myanmar beer and damn well enjoyed it, moreso since I had now knocked 177 countries off my list of 200… with just 23 more to go, maybe I too was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
I was in Burma for all of half an hour, and by now I was experiencing a tremendous sense of deja-vu. Possibly because I had done exactly the same trip and drank a Myanmar in exactly the same café (get to the roundabout and turn right) eight years ago. It feels nice to be on familiar terrain again: with the exception of The Philippines and East Timor, I have been to every country in South East Asia before.
So then it was a race back to Chiang Rai in Thailand to get there before the last overnight bus left for Bangkok at 7pm. I flew on the back of a motorbike-taxi (losing my hat on the way – had to stop and get it back) to the bus station for the 5pm bus, only to find it had just left – the next one would be at 6pm. “Unless you want to run for the 5pm one” said the helpful chubby lady, pointing at the 5pm bus that was just leaving the station gates.
On the rickety old local bus I managed to blunder into Chiang Rai town at 6.50pm, which didn’t give me much time to head over to the main bus station (a few miles away): what gave me even less time was the fact that, much as I worried all day, my bags were not in the cloak ‘room’ when I returned. But I didn’t have to worry so much as I figured the reason for this was that the cloakroom was closed. I would have to come back tomorrow.
Quite why you would close the cloakroom before 7pm when the bus station was still being used I’ll never know, but after a frantic few minutes, not helped by the hyena-like laughter of some annoying teenager who thought this the funniest thing he’d ever seen or heard of (don’t judge too harshly, Graham – Mr. Bean is unfathomly popular around these parts too), I was shepherded by a helpful guy with the most f—ed up looking skin condition I have ever seen into the main ticket area (just closing) and the guy behind one of the desks handed my bags over amidst a huge sigh of relief from this hapless adventurer.
With that I jumped in a nearby tuk-tuk, waved money about and asked the driver to get me to the main bus station pronto-forthwith-quickquick-and-don’t-spare-the-horses. He told me I had got in the wrong tuk-tuk – there was some kind of queuing system (which looked nothing like a queue). Gathering my bags I darted over to another tuk-tuk and hoped that this guy would actually take me somewhere, which he did (for a price).
Arriving at the main bus station at 7.05pm, I prayed I wasn’t too late for the last bus to Bangkok and low-and-behold I wasn’t: There was one at 7.10 and another at 7.30.
But they were both full.
This was doubly rubbish and annoying as my bus last night in the reverse direction was all but empty. Why I didn’t buy my return ticket this morning I’ll never know.
But if there is one thing that The Odyssey is all about, it’s making the best of a bad situation, so I elected to take a another bus a fair chunk of the distance towards Bangkok: to Chiang Mai (not Rai), a good few hundred kilometres south of here.
It was just before midnight that my bus pulled into the magnificently SQUARE city of Chiang Mai and as there were no buses to continue my stupendously quick jaunt around Indochina, I pulled into the local backpackers for the night. A cosy affair filled to the brim with crusties and globetrotters: my kinda place. Met a bloke from Old Swan in Liverpool who used to walk past my house every day on his way to Cardinal Heenan high school on Honey’s Green Lane and managed to upset, offend or amuse my fellow wayfarers until the wee small hours.
It was a good good day.
Attention novice backpackers! The country of Laos is pronounced ‘Lao’!! Just so you know. I crossed the border at Boten at first light, a golden temple welcoming me into the land of a million elephants. Laos is the unsung hero of South-East Asia, a shooting star-shaped country that straddles the Mekong River all the way down to Cambodia. Like Afghanistan, Laos is an artificial construct, a buffer zone between two empires – Laos being invented to keep the French at arm’s length from the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand). It didn’t work, and before long the French had annexed the country and the various tribes (including the Hmong, the people next door in Clint Eastwood’s excellent film Gran Torino) fell under the tyranny of The Tricolor.
Although in the grander scheme of things that was nothing compared to the suffering meted out by the Japanese during WWII and the subsequent thumping from the Yanks between 1965 and 1973 when the place was carpet bombed day and night in a vain attempt to weed out the perceived North Vietnamese hiding there. Walnuts and sledgehammers come to mind. To this day, Laos remains one of the most heavily landmined areas in the world – a clean-up job the American government still refuses to carry out.
This would be my third visit to Laos, the first being on my round-the-world trip in 2002 and the second being the quick border-hop I did from Thailand in the October of 2010. The first time I was here I took a two-day boat ride down the Mekong. It was great. This time, as though making up for my cheeky Odyssey border-hop, I would be travelling down from the northern border with China all the way to the capital, Vientiane.
It’s maddening the amount of time and money I wasted visiting these places first time around, only to come back again a year or two later. And here was me dreaming of a nice straight line connecting Uruguay and New Zealand, hitting all the countries of the world on the way.
At the border I met a couple of Israeli backpackers who were hoping to catch a bus to Vang Vieng, a town a hundred or so miles north of Vientiane. I told them that my bus was going that way, and they ended up catching the bus with me. Apparently, I was the first backpacker they had met who didn’t have a go at them for the Israeli-Palestine situation. Yeah well you don’t visit every country in the world without broadening your mind when it comes to the vast scope of world politics, and I can’t help but feel that the microcosm that is Israel has been used as a whipping boy by closet anti-Semites and tyrannical middle-eastern dictators and rabble-rousers for far too long.
Anyways, the drive through the mountains was spectacular and much more pleasant than the last time I did the trip from Luang Prabang to Vientiane on a coach – that time there was a guy constantly being sick out of the window and HACKing up at the top of his lungs all the way to Vang Vieng. I recall there was a cheer when he finally got off.
The bus got into Vientiane even earlier than expected – at around 3am. Nothing to do but wait in the tatty old bus station until the border opens. I tried to get some shut-eye, but ended up chatting with a backpacker called Arin. She asked me if I could guess where she was from and my first guess was South Korea… which was right! Oh yeah! Slam dunk! Man of the World, you better believe it! Arin joined me in a taxi from the main bus station to where the buses leave for the Thai border, but she got out at the airport from where she was flying home to Singapore. I wish I could bloody well fly…
The buses to the border didn’t start until 7.30am, so I took a shared Tuk-Tuk, which was so painfully slow it was painful. He even stopped to get petrol. Consequently, it was around 6.20am before I got stamped out of Laos. Unfortunately for me, the courtesy bus over the Mekong River had either just left or hadn’t started. As a consequence I was left waiting until 6.45am before I crossed into Thailand. After passport formalities, money change, tuk-tuk haggle and all that jazz, it was 6.55am. I raced to the bus station. It was 7.03am when I arrived. The 7am bus to Bangkok had just left.
There was now little hope of me getting to Bangkok in time to subsequently get down to Kuala Lumpur in time to subsequently get on the Gold Star Line ship that was leaving for Sri Lanka tomorrow night. I paced up and down, fretted and squished my forehead between my thumb and index finger. There was nothing for it, I’d just have to buy a ticket for the next bus at 8.30am and see what happened. Well, I’ll tell you what happened. First up, it didn’t leave until 9am (why couldn’t the 7am bus have been late?!). Secondly, the bus proceeded to stop at every village, hamlet and off-license to pick up more passengers. Or just hang about needlessly.
By midday it was obvious that barring some kind of miracle (the bus from Bangkok to KL takes AT LEAST 24 hours) I would be missing the boat. Then my phone beeped. It was Mandy. Gaby, my friendly contact at Gold Star Line, had written to tell me that the ship wouldn’t be leaving tomorrow evening… it would be leaving tomorrow morning. As I don’t own a Bugatti Veyron, I figured the race was over. Gaby said he’d try to sort me out on a ship leaving at the end of the month.
So then, Bangkok for the weekend?!
Why the hell not eh?
I’m glad that the ship did leave early, otherwise I would have been having kittens as the bus driver wasted six hours of the thirteen hour journey sitting around waiting at bus stops. He even stopped for half an hour on the outskirts of Bangkok to fill the tank. I don’t know if it’s a superstitious thing, but I have noticed that coach drivers all over the world are incredibly reluctant to turn their engines off. Even while getting petrol. Of course, I got off the bus and stood a good few metres away, ready to dive behind another bus lest our one blew up.
Arriving in Bangkok I had the strangest feeling. Here’s me, Graham Hughes, the backpack king, coming to Bangkok – the city of a million backpackers. But would anybody know, much less care, about my travels? I felt like an exile returning long after everyone had forgotten the hoo-hah that got me exiled in the first place. Would the old magic still be there, or would I have become that very same jaded old cynic that I’ve been fighting against all my life?
The first signs where not good. I negotiated for a moto-taxi to take me to Khao San Road – Bangkok’s backpacker central. But less than halfway there, the heavens opened. The driver and I sought shelter on a train station platform and for a good hour I tried in vain to hail a cab. In the end I paid the driver half the cash and headed over the footbridge to get a taxi from the other side. There a friendly Thai lent me his umbrella to stand at the side of the road – I mean, this rain was Monsoonal. I eventually got a cab to stop, gave the guy his umbrella back and tried desperately to explain to the driver that I wanted dropping at the top end of Khao San, not the bottom. Of course he took me to the bottom and so it was a good 40 minutes before I reached where I wanted to be.
Then I started the thankless task of wandering around in the rain with all my bags looking for hotel that wasn’t full. I tried my usual haunts up Soi Rambutri, just northwest of Khao San, but the first seven places I tried were fully booked. Then, finally, I tried the Wild Orchid hotel on Soi Chana Songkhram – they had a single room with fan for 300 bhat. That’s about five pounds. I’ll take it!!
Dropping my stuff off in my room and after three consecutive nights sleeping on coaches, I headed down to the restaurant bar downstairs and ordered a much-needed Chang beer. I think it cost about a quid. As the crisp cold foam hit the back of my throat I felt for the first time in ages like I was home. I ended up chatting with some Canadian backpackers until dawn. Yes, I still love Bangkok.