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Sunday, 25 November 2012

LAOS - A PLACE TO LINGER



Votes & Views #29

Laos is not a well-known tourist destination. It is difficult to get information, both recent and accurate, and the People's Democratic Republic is neither particularly welcoming nor cheap for the tourist. We'd already gotten our visas in Singapore at a cost of abou R 1000 for the pair. There was nothing particular on our wish-list, but I'd read that Luang Prabang was a charming little mediaeval city. What more incentive did we need?

As we waited at Siem Reap airport for boarding orders, we suddenly became aware of the fact that there were only two planes on the apron; one an Air Malaysia A320 and a little blue job with two menacingly curved sets of propellers - our transport. With no messing about, some score passengers were hustled aboard, the doors shut and we were on the move. Five minutes from boarding to aloft is pretty snappy in anyone's parlance.

The flight was comfortable and particularly quiet compared to a jet, as we flew at comparatively low altitude over first the endless paddy fields, and then the ever more hilly country that was our target. Soon a mighty river twisted below us and we dropped down between the mountains to a verdant valley.

Our pilot may have only just woken up - he might only just have obtained his license - or there could have been a violent crosswind on this beautiful and calm day. Whatever, skyboy made a complete hash of putting us down. Touchdown wasn't bad, but he almost lost it when he tried to apply brakes, the plane yawed wildly one way, and when he overcorrected it, veered the other way. From my vantage point the wingtips looked only about a metre off the ground before pointing up at the big blue. It took an age - probably about ten seconds - to bring the plane under control and we could relax again.

A new airport building is under construction, so we had to be bussed off the bare landing strip to the old facility. Not many smiles here as the immigration collected your biometric data, but no hassles either. We were in. The pickup driver had no English, so we did not get a commentary. Town looked pretty bog-standard Third World South East Asian Economy, not as charming a Siem Reap, but uncrowded, with lot of building work going on as the nation is trying to recover from the unenviable epithet of the ‘most-bombed country on earth’. Many of the houses are half-timbered, that is to say the first storey is masonry, the second wood – which gives a curiously Alpine look to parts of the town.

Our guest house was not an iota less beautiful than its photo and website description. Their language skills were a little more precarious. The poor receptionist lad, Joy by name, was really keen to please - but he was giving me street directions to places I wouldn't recognize because I can’t read the Lao script, along roads with no names - on a map that lacked the full quota of streets, including the one we were located in. Their calling card, which gave their location among nameless streets, further confused matters in that the little map printed on the reverse, was entirely imaginary as even the river was the wrong one, which was actually on the other side of town. This was what they'd meant with 'Tourist Information' as advertised. In our preparations, we had also omitted to factor in the time of week, since we were under the misapprehension that in a Communist country, with strong Buddhist beliefs, the concept of 'weekend' would not apply - wrong. We would only be able to tap the local tourist bureau on Monday, the day we were leaving!

Our request for a tuktuk, taxi or other transport, complete with competent English-speaking driver caused Joy's pixie face to contort into an even more worried frown. ‘Ma’ was called in; a lovely lady, also sans English and a wild pantomime ensued in which I conveyed our great age, many grandchildren and frailty of health, which immediately required large quantities of Beer Lao, ice and a driver. They promised to dig each one out of the woodwork, and we inspected our very smart room upstairs and got settled in. The clink of room-service was not far behind and we were the proud owners of a half dozen large bottles of beer and some ice.

A balcony ran round the first storey, all timber, with massive beams, railings and posts. We had a good view of the neighbourhood, yet no landmarks were in sight except the spire of a small temple or large stupa, seemingly fifty metres distant. Our tuktuk man arrives. Kao Yang is his name, and he has a beaten-up little Chinese truck with a pipe-canopy and excruciatingly narrow bench seats, but at least a step at the rear to assist with getting up over the tailgate - and a little English. A very little English as soon becomes apparent, but beggars can't be choosers and we are forced into paying a fairly steep tariff for very little benefit. Still, we tell our charioteer to fire up his wagon and to take us on a ride through town.

There is a notable difference to Cambodia. The traffic, though still a matter of opinion as far as traffic rules are concerned (by our standards), seem much calmer; motorbikes are parked neatly, as are cars - the streets are cleaner, more buildings are better maintained. If I knew what a French country town with a large Asiatic population would look like - this could be it. All along the drive on the bank of the mighty river, the shaded lanes are lined with gracious colonial mansions, or copies of that theme. All seem to be hotels, restaurants and bars, for well-heeled tourists, mainly European. Kao drops us at an imposing restaurant. I recognise the name as an eatery of note, lauded in guidebooks. Their spring rolls are different and delicately spiced; the nori-like sheets of what is euphmistically called river moss, have an interesting flavour and are dressed with a very piquant sauce. I can disremember that I'm actually eating green algal slime scraped off the rocks on the banks of the muddy Mekong, which drains thousands of kilometers of Asia. The tempura prawns are just that, but the Mekong fish salad is a fiery concoction, indeed, so much so that I am forced to dilute it by generous addition of the local speciality - sticky rice. No misnomer that - try chipping off a mouthful with a spoon - like cutting glued-together rubber chips. Doesn't taste of much. either.

We let Kao know that this is not really what we're looking for and made plans to take a drive into the country, upriver to the shrine called Elephant Cave, or Tham Ting.. His vehicle is a far cry from what we were used to with Naga. The benches are excruciating, while the canopy curves down just enough to make you have to get a crick in the neck if you want to see the roadside scenery. Besides which, it was an ancient rattletrap, with a few necessary parts of the gearbox missing, a dicky engine, sans several doorhandles and it produced startling bangs, screeches and grinding noises from time to time, which didn't exactly engender confidence.

Still, the Model-T Chana truck deposited us in a vestigial village (for which pleasure we had to pay a trifle) on the banks of the Mekong. A crossing was negotiated by Koa for a further fee with an ancient in a low-slung scow, who had a young deaf-mute as a first mate, All went well though and we raced across the river in a few minutes. The steps into the cave we a tad more trying, and Fay had some bother with the varying heights and widths on the climb. Halfway up another dunner lurked to relieve you of a couple more thousand kip, as the local scrip is called. This piecemeal looting of tourists’ wallets is the common practice in Laos. Then upwards to a little platform ringed by chairs for the exhausted, like us. From there you could pick your view on the opposite river bank or some 2500 statues of Buddha in all stages of magnitude and decay, which extended far upwards into the dim cave. Apparently one could hack a further ten minutes up the cliff to another cave - but I've seen a lot of caves in my life and my desire to climb more steps was not strong on the sultry day. This was obviously a prime tourist destination, and boatloads of people arrived and departed continuously.

Our ill-matched boatmen brought us back in good shape, and after slogging back to our transport, we found our driver had evaporated. I made an effort to track him down by roaming through the ramshackle huts, but as it's considered the height of bad manners in Laos to shout, I desisted from roaring in wrathful terms, even when he did reappear half an hour later, Instead we had a civilised lesson in economics; ie, he was being paid to wait for me - he was not paying me to wait for him. Capiche?

Our ride back was a little subdued, but we asked him to pick us a lunch venue where the locals ate. He halted at a tatty thatched platform suspended on high poles over the riverbank. There was no shortage of gleaming Japanese 4x4's in the parking lot, so I was suspicious that we'd been led into another tourist trap. My fears were soon allayed. A large party of Chinese was having a four-generation family celebration of sorts, and there was not even a menu. The large, sweating bossman informed us that there were three dishes on offer, fish soup, fish salad or shrimps - and Beer Lao. I chose the latter two and we had some very ordinary, tiny prawns, some of that famous sticky rice, and with much difficulty I managed to get a touch of soy sauce out of the boss to, at least add hint at some flavour to the rubbery semisphere of rice that seemed to be following us everywhere. The view and atmosphere made up for the other shortcomings though. We had one of the great Asian rivers flowing past; while sitting on a thatched platform over space, and being drawn into a local celebration, with a bunch of toddlers having to be shepherded away from the gap-toothed railings that wouldn't have prevented their tumbling down the slope into the water, to great-grandmother mumbling her bowl of rice and slurping her soup messily.

Almost as an apology to the many reputedly splendid temples, or Wats, that the town is reported to have, we dragged ourselves onto our creaking chariot once more in the later stifling afternoon at the urging of Kao .The revenuers awaited us at the gate of the Wat Xien Thong and we were duly looted. On entry it almost immediately became apparent that it was a good investment. The main, reputedly 16th century, building, 'perched’ like a broody bird protecting her offspring with half-spread wings as a centrepiece of the scene. To the right an imposing, much newer temple vied for attention. This had a fully gilt-encrusted, carved front of splendid proportions and imposing craftsmanship. On inspecting the inside, we found a many-headed, gilded dragon boat of monstrous dimensions taking up almost the entire space, with a central enclosed glass casket, which had a spire atop that seemed to pierce the roof of the structure. Totally over the top. We peered behind the contraption, but found only a few dusty Buddha statues and some building gear. Obviously work in progress. Only as we exited, did we notice some heavy-duty truck wheels coyly peeking out from underneath the skirts of this gigantic vessel. So it could move! We read up on it later and found out that the vehicle was actually the transport for the last king's mortal remains to the funeral pyre. Some wheels - some garage!

Back to the main temple. We entered through a beautifully fretted portico, with alternating gilt or red on black - not just endless repetitions of the same themes of the Buddhist scriptures, as I, in my ignorance expected - no here were hundreds of cameos, each telling a piece of a riveting story, of war, death, punishment, love, salvation, sin and rebirth. The main temple was no less splendid, with double rows of great wooden pillars, girdled .with decorations which disappeared into the gloom of the ceiling. Just one youthful monk of a dozen years or so, stood watching us as we marvelled at the restrained splendour of this grand edifice. I beckoned him closer to a black, gilt encrusted wall, wanting to use his saffron robes as contrast, and he assented to being photographed quite unselfconsciously. Photo session over, he was quick to point me sternly at an offertory-box; funds needed for temple restoration, said the legend. After I'd dutifully inserted some dirty paper wearing an inordinate number of noughts, he nodded approvingly, but never smiled.
Fay had seen temples aplenty in India, Nepal and Leh, but even she was totally overwhelmed by the sheer taste, restraint, yet splendour and artistic flamboyance - all harmoniously combined in a way that touched perfection. A number of smaller structures still dotted the complex, as well as half a dozen stupas.. We looked into every one, and all at once a strange throbbing whine, almost like atmospheric interference would sound from a radio on steroids, started almost imperceptibly and increased over about a minute until you felt the fillings aching in your teeth. A patter of feet, and a bunch of boys in robes clattered up the steps as they shed their slops. Suddenly a drumbeat so loud and unusual in tone and quality, as I have never heard before. Then a staccato rattle of smaller instruments and again that whine and several crashing concussions. We stood closer to the side entrance of the temple and peered in to discover that both came from a huge bronze gong that was being used as a singing bowl and a drum. Some chanted prayers from the youngsters, another wild burst of percussion and a final boom ended the lesson. An unexpectedly profound and extraordinary sensory experience.
Our day was not over yet, as we were introduced to the night market. Sprawled along a street which was closed to traffic, traders had erected their gazebos under which they displayed their wares in three lines, creating two narrow walkways so that. two people could still pass each other. The goods on display were mostly textiles and jewellery, with a sprinkling of souvenirs and a few genuine collectables. Silk scarves, wraps, shawls and their lookalikes predominated. While not exactly cheap, they would be good value if the real stuff. Some of the ethnic hill tribe clothing was stunning in colours and varied design, but with our limited luggage room, we decided to give it a miss in that department. The silverware looked most inviting, but after having seen what could be done with a lot of copper and a breath of silver over the top in the Bali workshop which I’d visited, this was too risky for me. On the other hand, a couple of people had an eclectic mixture that spoke of cleared-out attics, grandma's old cupboards and maybe even the odd excavation. Among tigers' teeth and claws, boar tusk bracelets, tortoise shells and a few ivory objects (all illegal, .and you'd be nabbed when you left the country) there was stuff that made my heart rate soar.

I spotted a few motheaten canvas bags mouldering on the pavement. On top lay the remnants of a wad of pages, holed by rats, soiled by ages of neglect, but still, putatively, books. I paged through what was on offer; all were hand written, it seemed, and were crudely bound with cord and a rough spine of leather on the right. One was on well-thumbed cotton-rag paper, and the script looked different from the others, but on the other hand the condition was by far the worst. I decided to go for a middling copy, and expressed suitable disinterest in the lady-vendor’s wares. I love a fierce bargaining session; you ask for a price, recoil in horror, make a ridiculous counter-offer, to which she mimes the general hardness of the times and the numbers of her starving children. You are visibly saddened and gently put down the item, sigh and turn away with a last ditch offer. She refuses and shares in your sadness, so you switch tack and ask the price of a single old French Indochina coin for your collection. She brightens up and spreads her fingers - $5. I have her! I throw the coin onto the rejected book I had previously offered $30 on, while she wanted $2 more. '$32 for both' I offer. She agrees, and I have my antique book and coin for roughly the price of yesterday’s blockbuster paperback. Delight all round.

We meet Kao, coming from the opposite end, and he leads us off into an alleyway, lined with foodstalls. It's bedlam. Over a width of about four metres, you have rough tables and rickety benches jutting out from the left wall, a very narrow walkway, then troughs with glowing coals, gas fires and of course, trestle tables loaded with mortal remains of fish, chicken and pork in various guises, mainly cunningly skewered on or clamped between split bamboo spits. There were heaps of glistening sausages too, and on having been assured that they contained nothing more exotic than buffalo, pork and beef, I ordered a selection, Fay went for spare ribs and I loaded up with a huge plate of vegetables - none of which I was familiar with. For good measure the vendor lady chucks them all in a pan, gives them a quick stir about and a flash-flaming over the gas, and I go off with my dollar's worth to find a table.

We squeeze in, sweating shoulder to shoulder with tourist and local alike, with a solid queue of people still moving past, while the fires roar half a metre behind them. It's indescribably hot and uncomfortable, and so noisy you can hardly hear yourself think. Nevertheless Fay makes acquaintance with a blonde Dutch kid sitting opposite her. They manage to swap a few tips and tales, but I don't even try to get an ear into that conversation. Supper had been most satisfactory. Spiced anywhere between subtly fragrant to the sledgehammer effect of a mouthful of chillies. We returned to our home well satisfied with our excursion.

A slow-boat ride up or down the great river had been on my wish list, so Kao was given orders to find us a Charon who would ferry us around. In a trice the fair Soley was found willing and idle and in possession of one of those long covered boats with a dozen or two pretty uncomfortable seats in them. His asking price was horrendous for an hour's ride downriver - and two hours back. But here Kao intervened, as it turned out the guidebook had misinformed us - the Kuang Si falls were not a few minutes ride from the river village, but a good 37km on. Kao made an excellent suggestion; we could do our cruising down the river, while he drove to the village to pick us up there, then on to the falls and back home. Very good in theory, but that still left the boat at the wrong end of the journey without a fare. Soley said it cost money for petrol even if we didn't want the ride back - which was fair enough. So I knocked a hundred thousand off his asking price and told him that as it was already late in the morning, he could either take us and make a small profit, or sit on his rear for the rest of the day. He concurred, but needed the money to buy petrol, as there were no filling stations along the way. After a long wait, watching ferries crossing, loaded with locals, produce and jalopies, rafts, fishing skiffs with tiny one-lung putt-putts, as well as river steamers carrying hundreds of tons of cargo, we were finally under way in the broiling sun down the broad, brown Mekong. Altogether an enjoyable trip, until we landed. Luckily Soley got in touch with Kao by cellphone before abandoning us on a foreign shore. The latter was almost at our destination, it seemed. Our next goal meant that we had to hike up a steep and slippery bank. We were already pretty exhausted when we reached the so-called village, where at least we could get cold water (wonderful how you can find working fridges and satellite dishes in jungle bars, far from the beaten track, even in these parts). The solicitous Soley had helped and accompanied us as far as civilization. A further call elicited the alarming fact that Kao was presently stuck in the mud with his vehicle - so ‘could we start walking please?’ Not overjoyed with the idea in the 35 degree heat, we nonetheless set off trudging through the village along twists and turns we'd never have found without Soley.

Once in open country – actually on the main track through the jungle – our boatman phoned Kao for progress reports every few minutes, but the news only got worse. Now the latter was 'stucked in water, car dead'. Soley reckoned we might as well walk towards the debacle, so we plodded on while he ran ahead to see if he could help. It was a long couple of kilometers in the blazing sun until we reached the river to find that our transport was just in the last throes of being extricated from the watery grave it had landed in. Kao was quite distraught at our plight and kept apologising and berating himself, but for once I couldn't be cross with him - such things happen. We bade our new-found friend, Soley, a fond farewell and thankfully climbed into the tuktuk for the ride to the falls.

A looong time later we reached the falls, and recoiled a little, as it was not only crawling with tourists and locals alike (being said Communist holiday, Sunday) but it also had a parking lot that was ringed by all manner of stalls selling wares ranging from comestibles, through local handicrafts, to dross from Korea and China. Kao parked and promised to sleep on it while we disported ourselves at the falls. We paid our dues and set off once more in the steamy heat, albeit in the shade of the forest. No great distance from the gate we came to a bear conservation centre, sporting half a dozen miserable black bears in open enclosures, with a raised walkway running alongside the fence. We'd seen bears before, so the pleas to aid conservation fell on deaf ears and we walked on.

There was no great rushing or thundering noise, so it came as no surprise that these falls were really only cascades in a stream, but very pretty ones with tufa curtains and lovely blue-green pools, criss-crossed with seemingly fossilized trees that had fallen into the river. We were really tempted to have a swim, in spite of the crowds splashing about and picnicking in the forest all about us, but on dabbling my toes in the shallows, I found the going lethally treacherous over dissolving limestone covered with algae or calcium mud. We cast around for a place where Fay could get in without breaking a leg, but ended up sitting on a tree root at the water's edge with our feet in six inches of water and warm mud. Quite soothing for a few minutes but with limited long-term possibilities.

We strolled back and gladdened the hearts of a few foodsellers. As we ate, a short sharp shower first cooled things down, then made it even more steamy. Along the route home we were supposed to drive through some scenic ethnic villages where I hoped to get some photos of thatched palm leaf mat houses - but the weather played dirty for once. In no time we were driving through a full-scale monsoon downpour. Though the tuktuk had a top canopy, there was a hefty gap between the cab and roof, so the rain blasted in our faces through this. The side blinds, though unfurled, also helped little and in no time at all, we looked like drowned rats. I made Fay sit up front with Kao as she had a bad chest infection which did not need aggravating, but I had no choice but to grin and bear it. Those thirty or so km were very long, very uncomfortable and at the end, very cold. Not even the sights of bedraggled villagers, livestock and nut-brown kids dancing naked by roadside puddles, waiting for passing vehicles to give them a power-shower of muddy water - were diverting after a while. A hot shower and dry clothes was all I craved, and surprisingly, after an hour's lie-down in a cosy bed, all was restored and we were ready to have another go at the market.

Fay wanted a silk shawl, so that was the first priority - but what a range to choose from. Buyers were obviously in short supply, so the competition for her favours was fierce. Purchase finally made, we wandered through an aisle we'd missed on our previous visit. Now there were palm-leaf books, every thickness and length, with antique covers or without, all over the place. The bookseller in me just wanted them all - but I did resist temptation. Overall, this had been the best market yet, with a wide variety of goods, nicely displayed over the whole width of the street; well lit, with fruit-drink stalls at one end. Now we wanted something to eat, but for once we were completely disorientated and had different memories of the alley's location. Language problems arose and even mimicked queries gave conflicting answers. Our luck held and we bumped into our Dutch tablemate from the night before. She laughingly pointed us to the right alley just a few metres distant. The breeze had been blowing from the wrong quarter, or we'd have been lured by the aromas of roasting meat. Once again we had an interesting selection; squeezed in next to a Brit couple, with me sitting opposite a large Chinese with a big appetite for spare ribs and Lao by the liter. We finished off with some delicious fruit smoothie mixes and decided to call it a day, as the evasive early morning market awaited us on our last day.

This was in a different location, a much shorter street, but oh, what culinary treasures. As we were leaving the same day, we couldn't actually buy anything - but looking and tasting a bit here and there was great. There were a lot of greens on sale. Some obviously leaf vegetables that were fried or stewed, some herbs, not all for cooking either as we found out from the taste - though Kao's English was not up to translating medicinal uses for them. The sheer variety of mushrooms was amazing - on one table seven species were on offer - white, long-stemmed, dark brown, straw mushrooms over four inches long, oyster mushrooms, tiny brown buttons and a floppy purplish sprig of tree mushroom, which I'd never seen before. There was brown single clove garlic, the size of a thumbnail, green beans several feet long, numerous cucurbits and aubergines from pea-sized to almost that of a melon, that I wouldn't know what to do with, and a dozen varieties of rice, white, yellow, red and black - to mention but a few.

Among the fruit and veg were stalls of dry foodstuffs, neatly packaged in cellophane or plastic wrappers, but most bearing only Lao names, so we couldn't even guess what they contained. One item predominated though - rawhide - in blocks, sticks, strips and slices, as well as dark chips of what we would call biltong. For the life of me I couldn't figure out what one would do with all this 6mm-thick shoeleather in the kitchen. Kao was consulted. No, you didn't stir-fry it, nor cooked it in deep fat to turn it into crackling. You didn't make jelly out of it, nor stew. Somehow you did prepare it in the kitchen - and then ate it while on a beer drinking binge - with much effort, as Kao mimed gnawing and tearing at a strip of hide. As I am fond of spoonerisms, I had great difficulty keeping a straight face when Kao said the source of this rawhide were ‘fluffablows’. Laotians have some difficulty with their ‘p’s and f’s – thus ‘people’ can easily become ‘feefle’ in that part of the world. We had a good laugh when I suggested feeding the hide to a dog instead (as we might in SA) and then eating the dog - as they sometimes still do in Laos, but more often so in Viet Nam.

There was also a large number of fish from the Mekong on offer. Tiddlers, dried and looking like the kitten treats you buy for your cats back home, but also mean eyed monsters with wrestlers' necks, weighing in at 20-40 kilos apiece. Not much by way of jungle produce, but Kao assured us that if we came in early, there was plenty of wild fowl, hog and deer to be found. Both of Luang Prabang’s markets are fascinating places, which reflect the food of the region, customs and handicrafts of a large part of central South East Asia, especially since the trade highway of the Mekong passes through town.

We thought we might as well have a look to see how the royals fared before the revolution, seeing this was our last day, as the king's palace was also open on Mondays (and Sundays, not Tuesdays or Saturdays, mind you) From the outside the palace looked like any administrative edifice on a generous scale, but you were immediately ushered off to a small room where you could shed your shoes and other impediments. The moment one stepped inside one is blasted by the opulence of an oriental potentate; everything is gilt or solid gold, the furniture, walls, fitments and drapes just dripped with the stuff. Our last monarch must have fancied himself as a military man of note, as there were rows of cases of swords used by him or presented by powers ranging from all the kingdoms in the region, to many European powers. The further west the origin of the gift, the less gold encrusted hilt and scabbard became - until you got to the bottom shelf where a standard-issue ordinary cavalry sabre rested - presented by the French, who obviously held the monarch in the esteem due to him. The inner sanctums were closed to the hoi polloi, but one could peer in through the doors to view the royal bed, chamberpot, and the dining table complete with its Royal Doulton service.

The outer rooms contained more royal stuff, and more display cases with presents from the high personages and great nations of the world. A glittering display in the main, except for the crowning glory – the present from the United States – a plastic model of the Apollo Moon Lander! There was little of real interest until we chanced on a bunch of stelae, with different inscriptions from periods varying from 15th to 18th centuries. One such was a real Rosetta stone, with all of three different forms of script on it I would have given my eye-teeth for a rubbing of that, but a stolen photo had to be a distant second prize, cameras not being permitted; but smuggled in nonetheless. On leaving I located a dour museum official, who proved to be unexpectedly helpful when I asked him about the different alphabets. His take on this was that the aristocracy, the bureaucracy and the Buddhist church all had their own versions of script, a sort of closely guarded guild or class system.

Kao introduced us to a platform restaurant overhanging the steep bank of the Mekong, a fitting place to end our brief stay in Laos. We shared lunch and a beer with our man and the tiniest, most pregnant little squint-eyed tabby cat I've ever seen. Good to get some catty loving, even if it was table-based.

 We said our goodbyes to Kao and paid him off. He was not a patch on our friend Naga in Siem Reap, but still, as time passed and we got better acquainted, he became more of an aide and tried to please us, so we had warmed to this rather dour character with his paucity of language skills. The Rattanakone pack also, we were sorry to leave. The place was spotless, well-run and Madame and her brood and employees were always keen to help within their very limited English capabilities.

The airport departure lounge was about the most cheerless place of that ilk that I have encountered, but its one advantage was that the hard plastic banks of chairs were actually comfortable! Some minutes after seating ourselves I suddenly thought I heard my name mispronounced in a 'calling for...' announcement. I went back through security, who sent me to check-in, who in turn marched me off to a room which was littered with luggage and a busy bunch of customs officials and some red-faced tourists. My minder pointed to our smaller bag and asked if it was mine. To this I replied, yes, but there was another, bigger bag. He didn't care about the latter, it seemed, but wanted me to open this one. I told him I couldn't, because we'd used cable ties to secure the zips and I didn't have a knife. He duly obliged and I opened up. "Whiskey, whiskey ?" he asked, and then I remembered our supply we carried in two small plastic water bottles. I pulled them out, explained that, yes, it was whiskey, which we were in the habit of drinking, and for good measure, I pulled out the bottle of palm wine I’d bought in Cambodia as well. He was most intrigued by this one's label, but obviously couldn't make much sense of it. The bottle was still sealed, so he grudgingly let me stuff everything back in again. I did manage to elicit a friendly grin when I asked whether I could trust him with my luggage now it had been broached. The Laotians were thorough, but quite businesslike and neutrally friendly, to give them their due. Nearly all passengers boarding were called to open up and please explain something or other in their cases. To crown it all, I set off the beeper at security for some strange reason when I returned to the boarding lounge and had to submit to multiple scans and pat-downs before being permitted to pass. DON'T ever try to smuggle anything illegal out of the country - these people take themselves seriously.

When our call came and we were carted off by bus to our little plane, it was crammed full within minutes and since there was no reason to tarry, we left, ten minutes early - surely a miracle of modern aviation.