Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Hemantha Kalam - 47 - 'Good, Bad, Sad - Dunno What to Say'

I hardly, if at all, wrote a travelogue via a blog and I guess this is the first time I am attempting it, though in my own form and style.

Ever since I went to Laos PDR for the first time in 2011, I have been visiting Laos frequently either on work or for a quick but pleasant leisure to be with friends there. Laos PDR is a beautiful and idyllic country with a comfortable pace of lifestyle. Many say that PDR should stand not for People’s Democratic Republic but for “Please Don’t Rush”!

The way I see, the Lao people are mild mannered and always try to be happy within their means. They are not argumentative and shouting is almost unheard of except when they are over-driven by happiness, perhaps. Many people, especially the Indians may learn the 'art of living' from them in many respects. Generally they mind their business and are quite likable. Reason enough for me to keep coming back regularly to meet those friends in Laos.  

But, over the past couple of years I couldn’t find any excuse to visit Laos and had to abstain. But it was good that since February, in 2018 I have been visiting Laos and also had occasion to stay there for a considerable time between July and September and reconnect with the hinterland more.

The trip in February started from Bangkok, at the Asian Institute of Technology’s Conference Centre (AITCC) where I teach twice a year, and as always, the stay was good there. It was good that I was bestowed with a room that had a pleasant view of the Golf club that begins from just under the row of rooms where I stayed in.

It was so good that there were nice rain showers during February and I could spend some quality time in gazing at the rain, which I enjoy much in life.

It was bad that on the second day of my stay, I tripped and fell and in the process, managed to get my left elbow dislocated, the pain of which is still being felt by me eight months hence. But the good thing is that I had the experience of the treatment in Thai hospitals and it was very good and quite economical too. They attended to me pronto and discharged me within 40 minutes after taking three X-rays and administering medicines. The cost? Just around or less than 800 Thai Baht or around Rs.1,600.

After about a week’s work at AIT, I went on to Vientiane, the capital of Laos PDR by a day train that I boarded from Don Muang Railway Station which is located in the middle of the Road. And people, co-passengers, were really good to help me with my luggage, as I was now incapacitated temporarily by being one handed.


While it was good that the sitting compartment was air-conditioned, it was bad that while into its third hour of journey, the AC developed some snag and it was getting stuffy and slowly suffocating. It was good to see that the Attender / Conductor / Travelling Ticket Examiner removed his shirt and when the train stopped next, he crawled under the carriage and after fiddling for some 20 minutes, he got the AC on track and made it work.  It was also good to see that the compartment is swept and kept clean, at regular intervals of every one or two hours, all during the journey time.

The good thing was despite this delay, the train arrived at the destination ‘Nong Khai’ in the evening at the scheduled time. Hmm…dunno what to say!

From a travel site, I had booked a room in Mut Mee Garden Guest House, in Nong Khai, the border town on Thai side. It is virtually on the banks of the great Mekong River and the other side, if you cross the river, is Laos PDR’s Vientiane. While the guest house itself was good, I felt bad that I hit it rather late in my life, as the place was quite romantic and would, perhaps, be quite good for honeymooners, and younger couples, indeed! J




It was intriguing to note that kitchen opens at 07.10 am. But then, on the evening I arrived, though the kitchen already had been closed, the cooks were kind enough to make something of a vegetarian meal that I had requested for and oblige. Couldn't really understand why the precise 07.10 am to open up! 

The rooms were in cool cottages and the bath room is 'Organic' in the sense that they left the shower portion of the ground natural by filling it with pebbles so that water will not be wasted but will sink back into earth.

The day I checked-in, I dumped my things in the room and went around in the evening to see the night shopping and the shows a bit,


and the next morning I was crossing over to Vientiane. 

At the Laos immigration, the lady at the counter exclaimed, with a smile though, about the thickness of my passport (Jumbo passport) and flipping it open and seeing the stampings, her eyes became wider. She quickly stamped and got rid of me. Dunno what to say!

This time around in Vientiane I saw a few major additions - a nicely built swanky market on the reclaimed bed of River Mekong, adjacent to the old and existing Anou Vong Night Market; the good thing of the market is also the presence of clean toilets.

And - a Brazilian Churrascaria (Pronounced Chuhascaria by the Brazilians) right in the middle of the city’s downtown – Samba Churrascaria. The good thing about it is that they don’t stop with just serving the steaks in Brazilian style, but also supply ‘Caipirinha’ with authentic (?) Cachaca! Hmm.. Good to see and hear.

They are now having more Indian Restaurants like Roti House, Flavours and Spices, Delhi Durbar and so on. Old faithfuls like Asifa, Fatima, Noor, etc., have folded down. But the grand oldest of all, Nazim’s, Mumbai Masala and Taj Mahal restaurants all are still going on, full throttle.

Taj Mahal restaurant gave an indirect hint on the increase of crime in the city by chaining their advertisement board to the nearest lamp post – a typical Indian cautious move! Had to congratulate Roshan Bhai of Taj Mahal Restaurant on his foresight, but after I noticed this interesting piece, I couldn’t meet him. Maybe next time, I have to make an admiring remark on this. 😀

And then the newly built National Convention Centre is such a beauty, especially by night.

The second time I went to Laos in 2018 was in July and this time also I began from staying at AITCC. This has been the first time I was not picked by one of the AIT’s fleet of cars that enjoy diplomatic status.

Well, the advantage is that an AIT car can be parked just at any of the entry / exit gates of the two Airports, Railway Stations et al., so that you don’t need to walk miles to go from / to a parking lot.

So I lugged my baggage and went down one level at the Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, to the cab parking lot. The system is wonderfully organised.

All cabs waiting for a hire would occupy a bay with a number. The sensors at the bay apparently can read the vehicle registration number of the car in the bay and feed the information to a token vending machine. You take a token and a vacant cab registration number, and the number of the bay, it is waiting at, is printed on the token. You go to the bay and occupy the cab to go. No hassles, no refusals and no haggling over fare. Just polite and courteous service, in luxury cabs. For people like me the experience is like hitting an oasis after walking for ages in a desert! That good the system is.

As I had already informed earlier, quite often I travel between Laos PDR and Thailand by train since it is good, comfortable and quite economical, but most importantly, fun. I tried various trains and classes to and fro – the evening trains by II Class Air Conditioned (AC), the day train by AC Chair Car. But this time I wanted to try the I Class AC. It cost me Thai Baht of 1,357 just about Rs. 2,800 for a distance of around 628 Kms. Trust me, it was not just good, but a wonderful experience.




It was one of the most comfortable train journeys I did in my life time.

In Laos this time around I was on an assignment and so the visit made it a ‘Breisure’ (Business, Pressure and Pleasure) for me. I had to visit the provinces of Savannakhet, Khammouane and Vientiane provinces on work, which also took me into the interior districts and villages and do I love that? Oh yes, I do!

It is rainy season and rains, though intermittent, could be heavy. It was while returning from Savannakhet to Vientiane that we heard the disastrous dam burst at Sanamaxay village in Attapeu province. Bad! But the good thing I observed is that there were no wailings or chest-beating by the people because of the disastrous times. Instead, people started bringing in their nets and fishing rods to catch fish from the flooding waters. Hmm… fishing in troubled waters? Bravo!  

During August-September, I could see water flooding steadily in several parts near Thakhek, of Khammouane province and as I understood, it flooded the Vientiane Capital City at least four times during those two months of my travels in Laos. And the real bad and sad thing is that the newly constructed market on the bed of Mekong was flooded completely; upto the roof tops.

While the main province linking roads are above average, on international standards, the interior roads and in many places just motorable approaches were down-right bad and the rains didn’t help any but to make them worse. Every day we had to drive at least 75-100 kms interior, from the main towns where we are staying, on badly broken roads filled with pot holes some of which are like craters on the moon! My sides were aching due to the continuous jolts we had to suffer during the three to four hours it used to take to cover this distance of 75 kms.  

During one of these ‘travails’ we passed across a Monkey forest, dedicated to wild monkeys in Ban Don Meuang (not to be confused with the airport in Bangkok), of Champhone district, Savannakhet province. The good thing is that the road leading to this ‘Monkey Forest’ is good and comfortable but the sad thing is that the roads leading to the ‘Man’s forests’ are still crying for attention!

Now the problem is that no one seems to have bothered to tell the monkeys that this forest is given to them fully and they can monkey in a lot, in there, on the trees. But then the monkeys, not knowing the geographical limitations or the jurisdiction, are everywhere, in, out, right, left and middle and mostly on the middle of the road and parking lots.

The tourists visiting the Monkey Forest also indulge in monkeying with the monkeys around, on the road than in the forest, forgetting that ‘a wise monkey is a monkey which does not monkey with another monkey’s monkey’ unless that another monkey's monkey wants to monkey with you or not remembering Johny Paycheck’s 'don't monkey with another monkey's monkey’!

Food was an issue for me being a strict vegetarian that I am. One day when I wanted to buy some bananas from a roadside shop, they were looking at me as if I went bananas to buy the bananas, than the delicacies being displayed. Sigh…!

For most of the time, especially during lunch times, for almost 3 weeks, I was starving or having just liquid food that by the time I returned to India I had achieved that much desired shedding of 7 kilograms of weight.

Yo weight watchers and dieters, here’s my prescription for an effective weight loss programme. Go to a country / place for three to four weeks, where even if you have money you cannot get the food you love, like and can eat. Check out after the sojourn. Results guaranteed.

The people here seem to be not only exotic but also a bit extremist. Agreed, that they like to eat anything that moves. So, apart from the insects which move when alive, they also eat raw leaves and vegetables and legumes. After all they too move, you see!

And while talking of food, I have to say that there was a time when I was hosted a quick ‘lunch’ in a small house. I was surrounded by all women with Beer Mugs in hand. And me, useless me, was the only one having a Tetra-pack of Soya Milk branded ‘Lactasoy’ which in Laos no one prefers to have after they cross the magic adulthood threshold of 12 years of age, period! Dunno what to say!? Good or bad you say, please!

While returning to Vientiane, we travelled by a Bus from Thakhek in Khammouane. It was good to see that the bus, bringing us to the capital, was owned by a family of a husband, wife, kid and a couple of helpers. It was good to see a full family engaged in an enterprise alright, but bad to see that the shift rod was operated simultaneously by the driver and the helper too! Of course, the driving was quite safe and comfortable! 

Once in Vientiane, I was taking a stroll one day on the streets and this board in front of the ‘Comma Café’ made me do a full-stop.

Enticed, I went in to celebrate and a cup of coffee and a tiny portion of a banana cake later, I knew that I was conquered and the actual celebration was for the Café – I was lessened by Lao Kip 59,000, the equivalent of the Indian Rs. 508 for the adventure. Dunno what to say.

But I now know how the Chinese are silently conquering all countries. They don’t seem to leave nothing to chance and flow like water into every crevice and crevasse – Period; even if it is at ‘Comma’!

Talking about the Chinese, I strolled into the Home Ideal Super Market which used to be my daily ritual when I was working here in 2012. I was astonished the way the Chinese materials are stocked in this Laos Shop. Excepting the Lao coffee from the Bolaven plateau, nothing seems to be of Laos’ origin, anymore. But we have to give it to the Chinese for their innovation. Even the smallest products reek of innovation. We, Indians, are eons behind on the innovation side, when compared to the Chinese.
It is good to see that the economy of Laos is strong and growing on the lines of expectations and projections. There are more cars on the road too. But the bad thing is parking spaces are getting clogged and traffic jams and yes, accidents too are increasing. When I saw pavements being reserved for parking the cars of VIPs, it was interesting!

For a day, I couldn’t trace my favourite and regular barber and wondered where she went away to. A closer scrutiny resulted in my finding that she had been smart enough to move into a nearby and smaller place and rent out her spacious place to a new and suave electronic show-room.

The day I stepped out from the Bari's Serviced Apartments, for the bank for changing my dollars into Lao Kip, Siddique bhai inquired what I was going out for. Siddique bhai is from Bari Jewellers, the largest Jewellery shop in entire Laos established some half-century ago by Indians and from Tamil Nadu who eventually migrated to Laos. Good to note that they continue to lead the business in the country.

Good of Siddique bhai that he asked. I told him that I am going to the bank for Lao Kips and he took me to a licensed foreign exchange agent who gave 5% more Kips than a bank did. He took me through the Khua Din market neat Tahlat Sao (Morning Market) and thus gave me a glimpse of how it has evolved over the past 5-6 years. What used to be a murky approach path is now a pathway of concrete.

Good that he also introduced me to Siang Pure Oil which helped me to be relieved of a bad, stabbing, neck pain in minutes.

This time around I could meet Mr. Vamshi Krishna, who was the only Telugu speaking guy in Vientiane in 2012, till I joined him in the country and later we both were to be joined by the Indian Ambassador to Laos. It is good to note that Vamshi is now an edupreneur in Laos being a part of 

It is wont of me to visit two Buddhist Monasteries – Wat Sisaket and Wat Ho Phra Keo - whenever I visit Vientiane. So this time around too, I went on to Wat Ho Phra Keo on a Sunday morning when it was a pleasant surprise to see 20 contestants of the Miss World Laos Pageant, lining up to seek blessings from the Lord. It was good that they were all friendly and even their accompanying officials allowed other visitors  to interact and take photographs of them and with them.

I not only had the darsan of The God but also of 20 Apsaras!☺

This time around it was bad that I could not meet the present Indian Ambassador to Laos as I was given to understand that he was not in the country and travelling.

It was bad that, during all my trips this year, I could not see anyone playing that national pastime and my favourite game of Petanque (Boules in France, apparently). It’s a game where the balls (of just a little lesser in weight than the Shot Put) move slowly and the Beer Lao flows faster! For every point scored by a player / team fetches a bottle / can of Beer Lao.

    (from file photos)
All the years, whenever I passed the Mixok Inn corner, I used to be solicited by the prostitutes and the lady boys who were trying (unsuccessfully) for some fun at my cost and money. Interestingly, the entire corner was conspicuous by their total absence. I was given to understand that the Police have been quite strict and moved them away, or elsewhere.

It was good to see dear Sasi of Lao Ford but bad that I could not meet Denis Fischer, as now he has moved out to Nigeria. But this time around I could make some new acquaintances too.

In 2012, the fountain and now the city centre called ‘Nam Phou’ (Water Fountain) was less than about 100 meters from my office. The place was the abode for a guy who was a little mentally disturbed. He always remained in my memory, not only because he was iconic in that area but because he was having a moustache, a rarity among the Laos males.

During my few trips in the year, I could not see him and unknowingly I started missing him. Involuntarily my eyes were always searching for him. I even inquired about him with some of my contacts. But just two days before my leaving for India, I saw him; walking oblivious of his destination and destiny. He was almost similarly dressed but a bit more aged and I was filled with a surge of happiness, to see him again and at last.

He is not related to me; I could not hold a conversation with him. I was not even conscious that he had a place in a tiny corner of my life. But that he did. It was good that I could see him, again.

But one important person, missing, was my dear colleague and friend Bandit Sisoukda (Bandit here should not be read as the English Bandit, but the Indian Pundit. The Laos language is a bit nearer to Tamil, wherein they too don’t have much difference between P and B).

Right from the day when I went to Laos in 2011, for the first time for my job interview, he was with me in Laos, on all my official movements. When I went to join my new job, he came to the Wattay International Airport, along with dear Ni, with huge bouquets. He was my mouth in Laos because I could not speak the language and he was my ‘Anna daata’ (Food Provider) as he always used to source vegetarian food for me even in the remotest corners of Lao. He used to inquire ‘Ajaan, kin khava Bo?’ (Teacher, finished lunch?). These words would forever echo in my ears.  He was my Teacher and I, his. Along with him I have seen most of Laos. And I cannot ever forget my first ever speed boat journey with him for over a couple of hours covering a distance of about 80 kms on the deep Mekong River, between Bokeo and Xayaboury.

Whichever place I went in, in Laos, I could see his face, but alas I won’t be able to meet him again physically. He had succumbed to Cancer in 2017.

My dear Bandit Ajaan, I shall truly miss you always. Be happy, my dear friend, wherever you are now and keep that smile on you! Bless your soul! Pai kon until we meet again!

During these times, every time I was returning I was doing it by Thai Smile flights. In the first two flights I was offered only Non-Veg meals which I could not take as Thai Smile offered just one choice of food. But persistent request for the Asian Vegetarian Meal (AVML) apparently made Thai smile relent and on the third trip they served AVML to me. The good thing when you order special meals is that you are always on the first list to be served!

I returned back to India with such rich memories and new acquaintances, only to immerse fully into work and noticed that sometime during August-September, 2018 Gmail seems to have initiated new support services like nudging etc. The idea is when you write a mail to somebody asking something and they don’t respond, Gmail prompts you to write a reminder. But I think Gmail should actually be nudging the recipient to respond and I hope it does that. If not, I dunno what to say!

What do you think of it, yeah? Please, do let me know.

Till then, 

Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Dhanyosmi (Sanskrit), Thanks (English), Dhonyavaad (Bangla), Dhanyabad (Oriya and Nepalese), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic and Sudanese), Shukriya (Urdu), Sthoothiy (Sinhalese) Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai), Asante (Kiswahili), Maraming Salamat sa Lahat (Pinoy-Tagalog-Filipino), Tack (Swedish), Fa'afetai (Samoan), Terima Kasih (Bahasa Indonesian) and Tenkyu (Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea), Malo (Tongan), Vinaka Vaka Levu (Fijian),

Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy
Chennai, India