Eat, Pay, Leave

“Eat, Pray, Love.” I have neither read the book, nor seen the film but I understand that the book was a best-seller and that the protagonist ends up in Bali. The only thing I can do is comment on the title- and it is a good one. After all, food, spirituality and relationships touch everybody and some might claim that all three are essential for life. I would also add that this trinity can form an interesting mantra for responsible travelling. By that I don’t mean following the protagonist’s journey of learning to be a chef, spending months in an ashram and finding the love of one’s life abroad, but more about attempting to eat local food, visit sacred places (including natural sanctuaries) and be compassionate wherever your meandering takes you. Having said all this, trips usually tend to be more mundane, taxing and time-driven and this is what happened to us during the fifth week of our journey.

We were so looking forward to spending some time in Laos. We had been told that people were especially friendly, that the countryside was unspoilt and had even heard rumours of “Lost-World” jungles. Well, this was not going to be for us this time round. Delays combined with the fact that we had to be in Bangkok on a specific date – to process our important Indonesian visas – meant that we only managed to do a whistle-stop tour through the country and spent only one night in the capital.

We arrived in Vientiane late afternoon.  The bus terminal was only nine kilometres from the centre but sometimes short distances can be more challenging  than long journeys.  The sky was threatening and we had a bit more than an hour before dusk.  After a twenty-five hour journey, our aim was to find a roof for the night and a place to eat. Our travel guidebook had warned us about being careful at the bus station, so instead of taking a taxi or private motorised rickshaw, we got on the first semi-public tuk-tuk we saw.  It was a small ‘tinny’ pick-up truck with a canopy. We were under the impression that it was just about to leave, so hopped in the back with all our luggage, with the hope that we would be in a hostel before the rain.  The tuk-tuk moved but just to get out the way of an approaching coach. 

Vientiane

It took another twenty minutes to fill up the vehicle – we ended up being 15 with our large bags on our knees and cardboard boxes and suitcases to the roof.  We then were taken on a labyrinthian ride across a semi-industrialised suburbia. Everybody was deposited in front of their homes until it was just the two of us and a Laotian  man who had just gotten on and luckily for us spoke fluent french. We got talking and he suggested that we should get dropped off downtown instead of the place we had chosen from our guidebook. We had enough of being in that vehicle so got off not knowing where we were.

Looking for a suitable hostel, turned out to be harder than imagined. The first one was rather expensive, but we were tired and desperate to have a wash. We soon discovered however that there was an issue with a pump and that there was no running water. We packed our bags and left. The second place was more within our budget but a powerful smell of mould in the room and the state of the mattresses put us off, so we picked our bags and left. We got out our Lonely Planet guide and ended up roaming around in the night looking for a hostel that no longer existed. At that point the planet definitely seemed lonely. Finally we found a room in a somewhat upmarket hotel with a shower and a comfortable bed.

After washing clothes for the next day, our next mission was to find food. Here again most likely because we were tired, we could not easily find a restaurant that served vegetarian food and ended up going to a fancy yet soulless american style pizza place. We ate, paid and left.

The next morning we barely had time to pack our bags, eat, pay and checkout.  We changed more money, booked our train tickets, and bought some food for our overnight trip to Bangkok. We had done our road bit and we were happy to get back on the rails. The only train currently in Laos is an eight kilometre stretch to the Thai border along the friendship bridge over the Mekong river. The station is far from the centre of Vientiane and despite the fact that the journey, on an old two-carriage diesel train, takes only fifteen minutes, we were advised to be at the ticket office and border control one hour ahead of departure.

At the station we sat  on some plastic chairs and made some sandwiches with the food that I got in town. I had bought what I thought were boiled eggs. They were pink. I assumed that they had dyed the eggshells pink to distinguish the boiled eggs from the raw – something that I had seen in Switzerland as a child. Well it turned out the Laotian do it differently from the Swiss. When I opened the egg, to my great surprise the ‘egg-white’ was dark brown with black spots and the smell was out of this world. Unknowingly, we had opened a ‘100 year old egg’! Also known as black egg, we since discovered that it is quite a wide spread delicatessen in southeast Asia. 

Pink egg

As there were no bins in sight we put the bowl containing the egg far enough away, so we could continue eating. Our train entered the platform and we hastily packed up our bags – leaving behind one of our metal bowls and the two century old eggs!

Although I am somewhat of a slow-travel convert, I prefer the railway than the road. Crossing Northeast Europe and nearly the whole length of Asia was mostly effortless and very pleasant. We got a sense of the distances, the changes in landscape and architecture, from the rural view to the urban hubs, we travelled unhindered. Road transport on the other hand was much more monotonous and tiring. The view out from the windows was often much more limited: strip developments after strip developments, highways or narrow roads and continuous traffic. Even in less developed areas the main roads were usually lined with cheap concrete constructions on either side and very rarely did we see untamed places.

Railways have also their flip sides – they encourage people to travel greater distances, they cut the landscape in two and intensify urbanisation. We read that the Chinese were building a high-speed train that will cross Laos and eventually link Beijing to Singapore. The article stated that the line was currently under construction and would probably irreversibly change Vientiane for ever – bringing on board the captains of industry and more tourists. It is hard to predict the future and I hope that Laos will meet modernity without loosing its soul.

In Laos

We ended up seeing very little of the country and hardly took any pictures. It rained most of the time, and we were blown around like unseasoned travellers. The people we saw and met were always smiling and helpful. We had read that touching was very rude, especially someone’s head. That, however, did not stop people from caressing Yoel’s curly hair!

We hardly have any memories of Vientiane our stay there can be summarised in three words: eat, pay and leave.

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