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Beware the manager and the ceiling fan

LAOS | Wednesday, 22 April 2009 | Views [2174]

There are various strategies to finding a guest house and most of ours involved avoiding the hawkers as much as possible. We had liked the sound of Mekong, a place by the river mentioned in both LP and RG. A For Sale sign greeted us outside. One person mind the bags, the other go and look was the chosen approach for Louang Phabang and it was my turn to do the minding. I sat down and read for a while when one hawker after another started to compete for custom. They were all persistent but I clearly couldn't do anything till Claire came back. Nothing caught her fancy so we said to the hawker with the best English and the calmest approach that we would go and have a look at his, much to the vocal disapproval of his competitors. When we got to the Sok Dee guest house the room was nice but he suddenly raised the price to 100,000 kip from the 80,000 he mentioned originally. he said they did have 80k rooms but they were full. I started to argue and eventually got him down to 95k (a reduction of about 50p – the principle irking rather than the amount) but only after speaking to the manager. Never a great start to a stay somewhere. Plus at 12,553 kip to the pound the currency was a bit baffling.

As we left the room to go to the ATM it was a great surprise to see that the whole gang of slow boat people had randomly chosen the same place – all eight of them, and now Louisa had moved from being a solo traveller to sharing with the Canadians. We arranged to meet for dinner and had a look around.

Louang Phabang oozes tropical charm and the main street bustles in a sleepy, sultry kind of way, lined with tasteful souvenir shops, trendy restaurants playing mellow chill out music and inevitably tour companies. I made my first cash withdrawal in Laos from the Banque Exterieur du Commerce Laos: 700,000 kip, the maximum amount – about £60. It came out in 20,000 kip notes so I now not only had I a proper gangsta roll but was almost a millionaire.

We met up with the guys (who I will now refer to as the slow boat people) for a tasty bbq dinner and street crepes (merci les francais!) The following day we looked into our travel plans and into getting our Vietnamese visa. It takes a few days to happen and as we were planning on doing some trekking would be a good place to organise it without having to waste time waiting somewhere else. A few handwritten notes about the guest house said to speak to reception for a Vietnam visa so we did. Not sure who to ask I spoke to the oldest man and he pointed at a guy who was asleep on the floor. He shot up and started talking very fast and very enthusiastically. He showed me an application from some Irish guy and named his price. We said we'd maybe speak to him later and left to shop around – he then called after us “I match any price! Give you best price. I manager here – speak to my staff later and ask for Mr Noy!”

We looked into treks. I wanted to do some biking and we were both keen to avoid traditional village homestays - not wanting to take from the Mr Pooh experience. Eventually we found a 3 day biking, trekking, kayaking one with 2 nights camping. We booked it and decided to go with the clearly excitable Mr Noy for the visa. At least we were staying there. I asked for him at reception and he said he would drop the forms up to the room. Once he had we tried to complete them. They were complicated partly due to the bad translation and partly due to the fact that it was very hard to tell where to put the information even if you knew what it meant. We also needed to predict the date of arrival in Vietnam so had to plan ahead. Just as we had decided to travel south through Laos instead of heading straight across, there was a knock at the door.

Laos is very much in the tropics so we would cool down during the afternoon heat under the ceiling fan wearing as little as possible. I threw a blanket at Claire so she could cover herself up and answered. It was Mr Noy – he smelt of alcohol. I said we would come down in a few minutes but he pretty much barged in to the room. And talking unintelligibly, grabbed Claire's form. We had just picked the 11th May as our arrival date but hadn't filled it in and there were a few blanks left for tricky bits like proposed place of residence in Vietnam. Mr Noy said it was fine and urged us to fill in the date of arrival quickly. He was very hectic and it felt strange for him to be in the room. I had read in a book that the concept of personal space isn't the same in Laos so just put it down to that.

He took the passports, photos and half completed forms and then got down to money – it would be 500,000 kip each. Still getting used to the notes, I started counting out. 12 crisp new notes. “300,000, I count”, he said and grabbed the money from my hand, rushing out the door. It took a second to register they were 50,000 kip notes I had counted meaning he had grabbed 600,000 kip not 300k. Smelling a large rat, I followed him and caught him outside the bedroom door stuffing notes into his pocket. Claire couldn't move, still under the blanket. I asked him what he was doing, raising my voice and told him to give me the money back. He gave me back seven crisp notes. Agitated I said “What about the ones in your pocket – why are you putting the rest of my money in your pocket?” He had no excuse and gave me back the other five, now crumpled from his attempt to literally pocket them. He stammered and said he needed light to count the money so he went out to the window. Then the wind blew the money out of his hand. He was picking it up when I came out of the room. I grabbed the passports and forms out of his hand saying he was trying to steal from me and that I could go to the police. I said enough and closed the door in his face.

At this point he changed and started to lose it a bit, knocking furiously. The concept of “face” is crucial in almost all Asian cultures. People should never lose face in public or else all hope of a reasonable solution will be lost. I judged that this was the tipping point and stated to be calmer. The completely fictitious fabrication of events he had just told was his attempt to save face out of the situation.

He was all apologies (why would he apologise unless I'd just caught him in the act?) and blathered away. Claire had no idea what was going on, only hearing the shouts so when I looked at her seeking some advice she didn't have any. Eventually, just to get rid of him I gave him the passports and forms and both he and I counted the 600,000 kip out and backed down, apologising myself for the “misunderstanding”. We justified this to ourselves later - seeing as he had been caught red handed he was far less likely to try anything else. Was it worse that a drunken thief had our passports and a fair chunk of cash, or that the hotel manager was the same person too?

Over dinner we ran over the events again, trying to make sense of it, trying to see if there was a way to have better handled it. I couldn't think of one. A voice at the table behind us kept saying “Hello. Hellloo!” I turned around and it was a blond guy and as asian girl – they had been beside me in the bus from Chiang Mai but hadn't said a word but now they wanted to invite us to a special disco, pissed as newts. We had to decline due to a prior engagement.

We met up with the slow boat people at Hive bar and over bitter-sweet cocktails recounted the events of the day. Soon enough we were laughing and swapping stories and after Hive closed, all jumped in a tuk tuk to, of all places, the bowling alley. The bowling alley is the only place in Louang Phabang which serves alcohol after 11pm. It was bizarre going bowling in Laos of all places, especially as we were the first there.

But not for long – hordes of mostly foreigners arrived soon after and the place turned into huge party, the revellers getting worse and worse at bowling as the night wore on. There were a lot of gap year types, some of whom didn't seem to be my kind of people. An aggressive Latvian and an English guy jumped off the tuk tuk to avoid the 10,000 kip fare - about 80p.

We were all supposed to meet up again at 12 the following day, to visit the Pak Ou caves and a nearby waterfall but everyone was hungover and running late. It was after 2 by the time the troops gathered. A boat man said it was too late to do both - being in water was the priority, so we jumped in . A minivan took us to the waterfall, a rendition of various national anthems keeping us entertained on the way. As we walked to the waterfall a bear sanctuary suddenly appeared with a fence separating us from about a dozen big black bears who looked like they would rather be somewhere else.

The Koung Si waterfall consists of about 6 levels of crystal blue cool water with different pools where swimming is allowed. We all dived into the first one and stayed, refreshing. The next level had a swing rope and a big water jump which made for some great photos – Vincent looked like he was flying, superman style in one of them. Finally up to the main waterfall, about 30m high which, despite the signs clearly stating “NOT SWIMMING” , a group of bearded westerners insisted on jumping off. Eventually a green uniformed man came up and called a halt.

Our minivan was waiting below so we left. I wasn't feeling the best on the way home. Possibly due to my maternal grandmother (or nanny the girls, she bore 13 children, 9 girls) who used to smoke in the car when she came to visit, I find smoke in a car difficult to deal with – Vincent beside me smoked the whole way home. I had been feeling a bit green all day but suddenly the urge to vomit became uncontrollable. I just managed to find a plastic bag in time.

Our trek was booked for the next day but I really didn't feel in the mood so we postponed it to the day after. Melissa was having a birthday dinner that night which I passed up but Claire represented us while I convalesced. They sent me up a piece of the delicious cake too. Very nice of them. Was too tired to watch “In Bruges” by the time Claire came back.

Feeling much better the following day we reconfirmed the trek, glad to have the day off and to have staved off the packing up for a few hours. A day of chilling was called for. “In Bruges” was on again so we settled down for a cheeky day time movie. The window was open and Claire was closing it over when she managed to get her hand caught up in the ceiling fan rotating at full speed. I saw her teary face and the gash on the top of her hand and wasn't sure if it was really bad or not too bad at all. All remnants of my feeling shitty were instantly wiped away.

Unsure what to do and with Claire in shock I ran out to get some ice to reduce the swelling. At one point Claire was in so much pain I thought we would have to go to the hospital. All the guidebooks say that if you have a medical problem in Laos fly back to Bangkok. We didn't have our passports as I had given them to a madman.

Thankfully none of that was necessary. After a few hours of ice treatment the swelling subsided and the wound turned out to be superficial. It did however mean that a day of off- road mountain biking would not be the best idea. For the third time, and the second time that day we went back up to the trekking office to see what could be done. We arranged to sack off the biking on the first day and replace it with a trek. Fine. No more surprises please Louang Phabang! We had one more meal with the slow boat people and bade them farewell – they were heading on down the gringo trail to Vang Vieng in the morning.

A statement like: “don't stay at Sok Dee Guest house” may seem harsh - surely our experiences were one off or coincidental. Well a few other things happened during our stay which leads me to believe that the issues are more deeply embedded than meets the eye. We got laundry done at reception. It was weighed and the presumptive close “4 and a half kg” made. I just happened to look at the scales before agreeing. It was closer to 3kg than 4kg. Ok no biggie that one – could have been a mistake. We returned from being out one day to an English guy arguing with reception about how many days he had stayed. Again nothing crazy there – he just seemed so sure he had only stayed 4 days not 5.

One promise made at check-in was for free wireless internet. They tried to charge us. Even as we were sitting there waiting for the painfully slow internet to work a hapless Asian-American couple were being guided in. Moments later the husband stormed out shouting. He had been promised an $8 room and was being shown a $40 room – just like we had except more extreme. They left without “upgrading” saying “you can't do that – promise one thing and then not have it”. I knew exactly how he felt.

The second time we got our laundry done we went elsewhere, around the back of the guesthouse. Actually it was the same family – she said we would get it for one price and weighed it. When Claire went to get it back they tried to charge another price at another weight. When we checked out the first time they tried to overcharge us. Just to cap it all on our last 2 nights the power came on and off intermittently and blew the bathroom neon tube. So maybe I'll reverse the statement – stay here if you like but haggle hard and watch them like hawks whenever money is involved. They'd have your guts for garters.

Tags: attempted robbery, injury, sok dee guesthouse, visa, waterfall


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