2007- Entry 5: Savanakhet, Laos

I’ve woken from my nap. I’m feeling groggy, but I can’t decide if it is due to lack of sleep thanks to the long overnight bus ride to get here; the heat of the day and walking all over the main roads and lanes of this city; or the anti-malaria medication I just started. I’m lying here in room 103 of the Mekong Hotel. The parts of my body blessed enough to receive a tepid, yet comparatively mercifully cool breeze, from the old Russian-made air conditioner are in opposition to to parts feeling the blistering effect of the afternoon sun blazing through the one window in this room.

I go to change the settings, but discover that there are no knobs on the machine. Not that they would have helped me decipher the faded Russian lettering to try and cool down this room. The thermometer built into my travel alarm clock is registering 91 degrees— up from 88 a half-hour ago… uhhhhh… make that 92. My sweat-soaked clothing, removed a brief hour and a half ago, is  already bone-dry.

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The trip here from Bangkok was fairly good, but I missed a lot of sleep with the constant interruptions of the trip—- stops to drop people off and the required snack-stop at midnight. The ten-hour trip was tolerable, but the bus was rather cramped.

We got to Mukdahan, Thailand acrose from Savanakhet, Laos at about 6am and had to wait at the bus station for the Thai-Lao International Bus to take us through the new border crossing and over the new bridge, Friendship II. Processing on both sides went swiftly and courteously. Got my $35 visa and then the short ten minute ride to Savanakhet .

I opted to stay at the Mekong Hotel because, well, it is located along the Mekong River and was tooted as a former French villa—– recalling the wonderful experience of the old French villa in Luang Prabang, Laos last year at Le Calao. A brief 5-minute tuk-tuk taxi ride and I was there. I was greeted by the young, smiling bespeckled manager, Boontha, who told me that a room was available. Whatever colonial charm remains here has been left to the rapidly deteriorating exterior. I checked in, quickly dumped my things and left to see about a bus ticket for Vietnam.

It wasn’t long before I realized that there are few street signs in the whole town! I had a map, of sorts, but it did me no good!  I finally asked a young girl how to get to the Savanbanhao agency. Fortunately, it was only a block further up the road. The clerk at the agency/ guest house was very helpful. The buses go to Dong Ha, Vietnam on the coast– which is better than being left at Lao Bao, a border town. Dong Ha is on the bus, highway and train route. The trip should be 5-6 hours and then an additional 1-2 to Hue when I get to Dong Ha. As the bus leaves at 8am on Thursday, I decided to move over to the Savanbanhao for Wednesday night.

Savanakhet is an interesting city. It is spread out over a fairly large area, but I have yet to see any building taller than 6 stories. It has a very home-town feel to it and with the remnants of the French colonial architecture, the charm is only enhanced. The main commerical road, Thanon Ratsavonseuk, runs in a north-south direction. It has a lot of restaurants and small shops. It does not cater to a tourist trade as far as I can tell. The people are genuine, friendly and pretty honest with you. In fact I have not seen one T-shirt stand or shop– a sure sign! Laos, like Thailand, really is the Land of Smiles. Nearly everyone here gives you a smile and a cheery, “Sabai dee!” (Hello) wherever you go. It really is infectious! You really find your self smiling all day long despite all else.

Searching for the bank on the first day, I asked a man on the street where one was. When he told me, I asked him if it was far away. (Last year in Vientiane I asked the same question and translated it to mean “not far,” but in fact it was! The problem is that in Thai the word for “far” is “gly” (long. flat tone), and “near” is “gly” (short falling tone). Throw in the differences for Lao tones and it is anyone’s guess as to whether it is really near or far! (I usually rely on the “more-exacting” distance indication where you jut out your chin in the direction of the destination and say, “Yuu noon!” The longer the chin stays extended and the longer the person extends the “noon” part, the further you can expect it to be! So, “yuu noon!” can be relatively close, but “Yuu noooooooon!” Well, get your feet ready for a hike! And if they sort of roll the head and squint the eyes, well, just give it up and get a taxi. ) This time I was prepared and, indeed, it was far. The airconditioning of the bank revived me somewhat from the near heat-stroke I had getting there.
Changing money is a very easy process. Unlike in Thailand, you don’t need your passport and fill out forms. You just give them the money and they change it, very easy! I changed 400 Thai baht (about $12) for over 113,000 Lao kip. You can eat a very decent meal for only 21,000 kip (about $2).

It was stiflingly hot, but I found myself walking everywhere I could. It seemed like the only people who were out at all in that scorching sun were a few people who had to be and every western tourist in town! Even the dogs had the good sense to find some shade. I ended up at the promenade along the river at sundown to take some pictures. People were out enjoying a meal by the river. It is largely “snack food,” BBQ-ed corn, various meats on a stick, spicy raw mango salad (som dam) and sticky rice. of course! As I sat there waiting for the sun to go down, I was approached by a guy named Muan who asked, “Excuse me, may I sit here and practice my English?” with such great diction and politeness that I couldn’t refuse! Muan is a nurse at the local hospital. He is extremely motivated. His dream is to learn English so that he can find international funding to start a health clinic in the countryside to promote community health. I hope he succeeds.. Laos can use all the help it can get right now. Evidently, typhus is a big issue in the area now.

I spent my last day walking all over the city —– down as many side streets as I could. Found an old plaza– long fallen on hard times. It was built by the French when they were the colonial masters here. At the head of the plaza is the Church of St. Catherine. I’m not sure if many people attend there any more, but it did look well-maintained. A lot of the interesting shop buildings surrounding the plaza are sadly falling down or slowly being chipped away with the weather.

The best fun of the day was visiting the Dinosaur Museum. Not much to see there. The French made some discoveries here before independence, and there hasn’t been any real money since to continue the research. The scientists there are all too willing to use their limited English to answer any questions or make a joke or two.

Back at the hotel after dinner and I was confronted with bathing using the regular hot-water shower or the Thai/Lao style big jar of water and the dipper– I was so hot and sticky I opted for the dipper. The water was just the perfect temperature.. before long, I was revived and ready to prepare to leave for Vietnam the next day.

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