Thailand / Bangkok:
Making full use of the butler service in our double suite at the Sheraton Grand in Bangkok.
Looking back on the three months we spent on the continent of Asia, we realised that there were several people who went the extra mile to make our trip special. While it is impossible to mention all of them here, a few modern day ‘Samaritans’ will remain in our memories for years to come. We wanted to share some of these experiences with our readers as a reminder that the one of the greatest surprises when travelling is the kindness of strangers.
We met Jeonga Lee, a Korean Architect volunteering at the local university, while she was buying a live chicken for dinner at the market in Rajshahi (little did we know that 24 hours later we would be tucking into the very same bird with her!). So rare are foreign visitors in that part of Bangladesh that although she had not used English in years, she generously invited us to dinner at her house the next evening. She patiently bore with our almost non-existent Korean, making a commendable effort to regale us with tales of the challenges of life in Bangladesh e.g. motivating unmotivated university students; tips on making an apartment less attractive to rats and her firm conviction that spending half a month’s salary on having a Western style toilet installed (to replace the two bricks either side of a hole in the concrete floor) was worth every Taka! Eating a homemade Korean meal including kimchi, bap (rice) and kim (seaweed) with her and a colleague was pure heaven!
The Nameless Driver at the Thai-Lao Border
Our first ‘Samaritan’ in Asia was the man at the Thai-Lao border, who was minding his own business when we knocked on the window of his van in the mistaken belief that he operated some sort of taxi service to the capital, Vientiane. After agreeing to take us all the way from the boarder, we were shocked to find that he absolutely refused payment for the lift. It was only at this point that we realised that this ordinary man had simply taken pity on two foreigners arriving in Laos late at night in the rain.
Deborah of Kayia House in Varkala, India
After a day on buses from central Sri Lanka to the capital and a night spent at Colombo airport, we flew to Trivandrum in India and took a train for 2.5 hours, followed by two rickshaws… and we still hadn’t found what we were looking for in Varkarla! Frustrated and on the verge of losing it with each other, we passed a building on the main road advertising rooms. When we enquired whether there were any vacant, Deborah the American co-owner told us that she was full. One look at our faces (and perhaps a whiff of our unwashed bodies), was enough to convince her to give up her own room for us. Thus began a wonderful 48 hour stay in the ‘African Room’ at Kayia House. Homemade Indian breakfasts, a free personal tour of the town conducted by Deborah herself, use of the library and lounge, Internet access a non-stop supply of tea and coffee and free filtered water made it very difficult to leave this home away from home.
The People of Bangladesh
Throughout our two weeks in Bangladesh we were helped by a changing cast of passers-by, shop keepers, rickshaw drivers, bus and train passengers. From Ahmed the jovial Immigration Officer at the airport who taught us our first words in Bengali, to the NGO worker who played interpreter during negotiations with a rickshaw driver in Pirojpur, we experienced nothing but the most genuine of welcomes everywhere we went. Time and time, again bearded Muslim men who fit the dangerous stereotype of ‘Fundamentalists’ so senselessly promoted in Western culture, came up to us to shake our hands and welcome us proudly to their country. It was with a sense of shame that we realised that men and women dressed in shalwar kameez, hijabs, abayas and niqabs would not receive the same open hearted welcome in many parts of Europe.
Finally we were on our way to Vietnam, some home comforts and a little warmth; however at 5 am we woke to find that the whole of Munag Khua was pitch black and a steady rain had begun to fall. Martin volunteered to go down the rickety staircase, made from scraps of wood, to find the man who was responsible for the ferry, which would take us 10 metres across the river to the bus.
A search with a head torch and a few calls in the dark woke the boatman, who had the monopoly on the pathetic ferry that, if the river were lower, and our baggage lighter, we would totally have crossed on foot. Once we made it to the dock with our baggage, we found that a few others were waiting for the rusty boat, which rocked alarmingly in the water as we boarded. Onboard we were hostage to the grossly inflated fare, which the boatman (who appeared to be a little hung over) demanded.
Once the motor was on, we travelled for approximately 30 seconds before being delivered to the opposite bank of the river, where the bus was due to leave at 5:30 am. We found a bus, but no driver and nobody on that side of the river seemed to be awake yet. We waited, as directed, outside the largest building there and sheltered from the rain, taking turns to go to the loo behind the parked bus.
Approximately half an hour later, the bus began to be loaded with all manner of mats, food, tools and building materials. This loading would continue all the way to the border with Vietnam; we stopped frequently to load yet more people, perishable, non-perishable and live goods throughout the morning. Surprisingly, some of the young people we picked up were wearing Diesel jeans and toting Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach handbags – of course none of them were real. The irony of the fact that these luxury brands had found their way here, to the north eastern corner of Laos, a place swimming in a sea of mud, where people live in depressingly basic conditions and signs such as the one below can be seen, was not lost on either of us.
The journey along the treacherous hairpin bends on the road to the border was much longer than we had anticipated. When we finally arrived, a large group of guards, who looked formidable in their smart uniforms, were waiting. As the only farangs (foreigners), we were singled out; a guard barked at us indicating that we had to sit down and submit to a temperature check with a digital thermometer. As I submitted to the gruff guard who inserted the dirty nozzle of the digital thermometer into my ear, I began to wonder if it was possible to catch something nasty from it.
After about 15 minutes, we were ushered into Vietnam. As we filed past the statue of Uncle Ho in the hallway, which was uncannily reminiscent of the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il we had to bow in front of last year in North Korea, we exchanged a knowing look. Finally we were in Vietnam!
“Let’s do something different. I don’t want to leave Laos saying that I only visited the tourist spots of Vientiane and Luang Prabang…” That was how Martin convinced me that we simply had to go north and experience what the Lonely Planet had talked up as two beautiful gems of northern Laos: Nong Khiaw and Muang Khua (pronounced like the Mmmmwa which fashionistas moan as they kiss one another plus ‘ng’. Repeat: Muang (‘Mmmmwang’), followed by the equally chic sounding Khua (pronounced ‘croix’, as in Christian Lacroix). I should have known…
Two consecutive days on boats fit for 4-6 people, which actually carried up to 30 people plus luggage! Travelling upstream along a river with numerous rapids (our motor straining against the current!), and not a life jacket in sight. Sharing boats with livestock, bare bottomed toddlers and tribes people, from the middle of nowhere, who spent the first hours staring at us like we had just landed from outer space. Sitting in one position unable to move because the human cargo was so tightly packed in. Sleeping in accommodation which now pushes the teahouse near Everest Base Camp out of 1st place as the coldest, most depressing and uncomfortable accommodation I have EVER experienced. It was certainly an experience to remember.
When I first saw the boat to Muang Khua, I felt like a participant on candid camera. I wanted to laugh, protest and get out my camera – all at the same time. Could this be serious? How on earth were we two going to fit into a boat which was already loaded down with cargo, more people than I could count and which looked like its final voyage was imminent?
Unfortunately, I was unable to snap a pic quickly enough before we were impatiently herded onboard. I spieed on small space, perhaps 30 cm wide, in the middle of the boat. Before I could get there it was taken. What were we to do now? Of course we had to do what everyone in Asia from Tokyo to Delhi, Bangkok to Beijing, learns from the youngest age – we had to MAKE ourselves fit. Swinging a muddy hiking boot toward the hoard of people who were already onboard, caused the crowd to magically part so that about 10 cm of wood became visible. I then eased myself between a man and a young girl, leaving Martin to do the same on the other side of the boat. The first rule in Asia: There is always space.
Once on the tired looking vessel, I thought it inappropriate for us to get out the camera, as we did not know whether the locals had any superstitions about lenses and did not want to get off to a bad start with the people we would be spending the next seven hours with.
With interest the other passengers surveyed us. We two foreigners were like TV to them. Every move, sneeze, gesture and word was eagerly devoured. I must admit that watching the other passengers was also quite interesting for us too.
Once we had paid the hefty $40 dollar visa fee to enter Laos, Martin and I needed to find transport to Vientiane. It was dark and a light rain was beginning to fall, so avoiding the tuk tuk touts, I walked over to what I thought were minibuses waiting to pick up locals. Walking up to two men seated at the front of one vehicle, I asked the driver if he could take us into town. He shook his head and responded in a way that was unintelligible.
I took a few Thai Baht bills out of my pocket and then proceeded to ask again. He and the other man looked nervous – I realized that they had not seen Martin, and that perhaps they were nervous about taking a lone woman into town at that time of night. Motioning Martin over, I repeated the request to be taken into town only to be told “No taxi.”
Finally the driver relented and it was only when we were pulling way from the border that we realized that he was not a taxi driver; we had actually scored a lift with a local who was just minding his own business, talking to his son in the front seat of their family van.
“Where you go?”
I was having trouble remembering the names of any landmarks or roads from the Lonely Planet, but as I had been in Laos less than a year before, I thought I remembered the name of the big shopping centre in the middle of the city.
“Please take us to Talat Sao.” I said.
“Ah Talat Sao.”
He started up the car. Martin and I were on the edge of seats, realizing that we were entrusting ourselves to these two men, in a country we had only entered minutes before. We watched impatiently, fearing we might be robbed, or that the guy might demand double the money he had been shown. Did he really know where we wanted to go? Had I pronounced it right?
Half an hour later, we arrived at a building festooned with blue fairy lights, which was in fact Talat Sao. The car stopped, the driver got out to open the boot, so that we could get our luggage. I tried to pay the driver and instead of grabbing the money, he shook his head humbly to indicate that no money was necessary. He didn’t want any money for his efforts, he had simply taken pity on us and done what we had asked. In the end we forced him to take the money, departing with numerous thank yous. We stumbled, jet-lagged, toward the backpacker part of town, discussing the amazing welcome we had received reflecting on the fact that this would never have happened in our home countries.
For more pictures please check out the link “Pics – Laos” in the upper right hand corner of the page.