‘Free bananas!’ Mr guesthouse owner gestures at the rainforest shower, the pretty scatter cushions, the lovingly buntinged balcony, as if these are the things I should be extolling. I nod appreciatively. ‘Yes, all lovely, but free bananas!’
Unlimited fruit supply aside, Luang Prabang has three big plus points, four if you count the coma-inducing honey toast kicking around on most bakery menus (a doughy bread stack, scored like a Rubik’s cube, toasted, laced with golden honey and mounted with vanilla ice cream and sugared almonds. Oh God.) One such draw is Kuang Si waterfall – huge, green, thunderous. There are black bears playing picnics nearby too. The view from Mount Phu Si is another; buttercup, periwinkle and dusky orange slate roofs are broken up by leafy Catherine-wheel jungle palms and a big golden temple sat in the hills beyond. And then there’s the night market. All kinds of silk scarves and wall hangings going for token sums. Being about 15 years behind Thailand tourism-wise, haggling isn’t quite the same shrewd game:
‘My lucky price is four dollar but we start at two and get lower.’
‘Umm, okay. Err, one dollar?’
Walking along the Mekong, there are vendors lighting lanterns and barbecuing all sorts of deliciousness. You feel almost drunk on the smell of incense, coconut oil and smoky sweet basil sausages. Or maybe it’s the plumy Lao Lao whiskey, which at 38% minimum proof and 30p a glass is a ticket to happy land and an absolute steal.
Further south, capital Vientiane is where I went to traditional weaving school. After nursing cauldrons of indigo dye, threading shuttles and four long hours at the loom, I’d managed a 20cm piece of material. If you ever need a scarf for a smurf, come to me.
A trip to 4000 Islands brought with it my first experience of a sleeper bus. Ever been on a night bus home from London with a host of addicts, eccentrics and unnecessarily talkative strangers sat at your side? Now just imagine your stop is 14 hours away from Piccadilly. In fairness I’d been warned. ‘You’ll meet some nutters,’ one seasoned traveller at the bus terminal told me. Her mate chimed in. ‘Either way it’s an interesting ride…’
Stopping at my ticketed bed and seeing a shy-looking Thai teenage boy lying in it, I realise it’s a two- man boat. He glances over at the couple in the bunk opposite. They stare at me, mutter ‘we’re his parents’ and begin jabbering away in fast Thai, every so often pointing at me and shaking their heads vehemently. Eventually mother and son swap beds and 4’10’’ flatulent matriarch comes to sleep by me. They don’t explain why but it’s fairly clear they don’t want this vest-top wearing western hussy corrupting their first-born.
Half way through the journey, they, along with a few others, disembark and I get a new bed buddy. Johan is a dentist from Denmark. Johan seems pleasant enough.
‘Would you mind if I did some sit-ups before I go to sleep – it’s a little night time routine I have.’
‘Um no… How many do you have to do?’
‘Three hundred with a clap in between the last twenty.’
Ahh. Johan has OCD. Sleep proves elusive.
Three hundred sit-ups and two hour later we stop again in darkness to drop passengers off, and, seeing as the toilet is broken onboard, the driver ushers everyone off for a ‘restroom break’. We are at a makeshift bus stop surrounded by mountains with no facilities in sight. ‘Where do we go?’ someone asks. Driver laughs and points to the side of the road. There’s already a factory line of people – men, women, children – squatting down doing their thing. It’s another six hours until we stop again.
I honestly did not know I had it in me. Nice of the driver to keep his full beamers on for that extra touch of class.
On the bus once more, I have a new friend. A tiny, non-fidgety smiley girl from Laos. I’m confident about this one. Third time’s a charm. I go back to dose mode. Half an hour later she taps me, pulls my ear incessantly, calls my name. I mutter something unintelligible followed by ‘Fire? Crash? Storm?’ She leans in, beams and stares at me full in the face:
‘I make my own shoes.’