Saturday, May 8, 2010

Back to Laos and Thailand

Ah, I left you last in the shadows of Angkor. Spectacular for sure and definitely worth the $25 Cambodian visa and $25 exit fare (Yes, they actually charge you to leave the country). This entry includes a bit more of travelogue because the experience and intention of this last section is markedly different than those previous.

My plan was to hop up to Savannakhet, Laos to check on the school built with my beer money. In deference to my time left (and not to my budget or carbon footprint) I opted to take a flight to Savannakhet from Siem Reap. Now, if you were to walk into a Lao Airlines office and look at their flight map, there is no flight from Siem Reap to Savannakhet, but after some sleuthing via Google I found a website that let me purchase said ticket. Upon inquiry at the airline office, it turns out that this flight is a Siem Reap to Vientiane (farther north than Savannakhet) flight, that will stop in Savannakhet to drop off a few passengers. Yes, that's right. It's like a bus that will drop you off when you ding the bell. Oh, you just want to go halfway? No problem, we'll make an extra landing and takeoff for you. I arrived at the Siem Reap airport an hour-and-a-half early (it's an international flight afterall) and much to my astonishment, we boarded the plane a full hour before takeoff. Turns out there were only 6 of us on this flight and since we (myself, a British couple, and 3 Chinese businessmen) were all there, the plane was there, and the crew was there why not go ahead and leave? I arrived in Savannakhet (luckily, they did actually make the landing on my behalf. For a brief moment I wondered if they would just shove me out of the plane with my bag and a parachute) 10 minutes after I was supposed to leave Siem Reap. Not bad service for an airline with a dismal reputation.

Once in Savannakhet I called Mr. Big, the guy I'd been told coordinated the school project, and he came to pick me up. A little background: Big (who is approximately 5 feet 1 inch tall and can't weigh more than a buck-ten) is a young guy, about my age, who runs a little shop and after-school language training center in Savannakhet. He applied to Kamal Foundation (the bar's official nonprofit entity) for money a couple of years ago to build a secondary school in Pakua Village, 80 km outside of Savannakhet. After the completion of the school (this past winter) he talked Commie (the bar proprietor) into helping fund the building of a medical clinic in another village, Pha Phuea Village. This second project is still in the works.

On the first day Big took me to see the school, which looks great and actually survived a recent windstorm that devastated the village. Their "clinic" is now a heap of wooden boards and tin roofing. Their primary school lost its roof. At least a dozen houses collapsed. I arrived 3 days after the storm when the village was waiting on the government (Laos is Communist afterall and you don't do anything without them) to come help clean up.

On the second day we drove an hour-and-a-half to Pha Phuea Village to meet with the village leaders about the clinic project. The clinic will be in Pha Phuea, but will serve a total of 6 surrounding villages. Currently they have a dismal looking cinder block structure and 2 nurses. With the completion of the new clinic (100 sq. meters), they'll have 2 doctors and 4 nurses. After the meeting the village women cooked us a big meal of beef lab (cooked, thank God), sticky rice, soup, and a shot or two of Lao Lao whiskey.

I stayed in Savannakhet for an additional 3 days, with Big as a generous and attentive host. On his work days I would walk about town, stroll along the Mekong, or bike out to the "lake." There isn't much to do or see in Savannakhet, but it was surprisingly nice to just chill out. People are remarkably friendly and I found an awesome little Japanese cafe with delicious food and a spare guitar. After 5 nights, I decided to move on to Kohn Kaen, a city in the northeast of Thailand, to see a Bowdoin rugger friend who is currently studying abroad there. From here I head to Ayutthaya and then to Bangkok. I fly back to the States on May 12th, which will be the longest day of my life (38 hours of travel).

A few more observations/comments:
  • With a lack of copyright laws you can get just about anything over here. That includes, of course, a copy of any book you'd ever want. And by copy, I mean copy. They have bound photocopies of all the Lonely Planet books and any other book that might be remotely interesting to a backpacker.
  • It seems to me that if you include the word "Coffee" in the title of your restaurant you should serve coffee, not instant NesCafe. You know you've returned to Thailand when there isn't a decent cup of coffee in sight...
  • While in Savannakhet, Big took me to his friends' house who recently had a baby. A slew of family members were there, helping the new parents out with the newborn. Apparently, the tradition is that some people stay up all night so that the parents don't have to tend to the baby alone. They stay awake by playing cards all night near the mother's bed. I have a feeling I have some friends back in the States who might take a liking to this Don't-worry-about-the-baby-there-are-approximately-100-family-members-outside-waiting-to-help kind of tradition.
**WARNING: if you are a vegan, vegetarian or squeamish just stop reading now. The next comment will not be pleasant to read.**
  • Big ensured that I be exposed to all sorts of Lao delicacies. What I managed to avoid in the last 6 weeks was immediately thrust in front of my face, and as a thankful visitor to a gracious host I obliged in eating the following: cow esophagus (tastes like calimari), goat liver, duck blood, some sauce made with the stuff inside the bowel of a cow (does it count as excrement if it has yet to be excreted?), and duck fetus (fully cooked, inside the egg). Perhaps it is my digestive system that has had the greatest adventure of all! Actually, I've been pretty fortunate with the digestive-issue stuff. Very few problems that a dose or two of some Pepto won't take care of.
Not sure if I'll blog again before I depart for the states. I'll be back in Jackson the evening of the 12th and then heading to the Gulf Coast (oil-slick and all) for a bachelorette party. The blogging will continue once I'm on my East Coast adventure (first stop: Memphis).

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