This city is in North Central Laos, where the Nam Khan River meets the Mekong. Built on a peninsula, it actually feels like a small island, and a large central hill dominates, crowned a top with Wat Chom Si, a large Buddhist Monastery.
The town is quite small, and you can easily walk around the main central area. The riverbanks are full of local touts offering boat trips to waterfalls and caves. Been there, done that. There are also plenty temples. Been there, done that. So, we were quite happy just to wander about and get out bearings on the place.
Michelle likes to chill out with a fruit shake and read a book, while I tend to look for a place with good coffee and WIFI. The coffee in Laos has been exceptionally good, thick, strong and full of flavour. Not surprising, as some of the best coffee comes from the Bolaven Plateau in East Central Laos, Champasak Provence, where the french introduced the production of both Robusta and Arabica coffee beans.
At night, there is large street market selling all types of arts, crafts and textiles. It is a very colourful market, and surprisingly, the stall holders are very low-key. There is virtually no hassle, and you can just browse at your leisure. We stumbled upon a great little food market, in a small lane. Here, you could chow down with the locals for any type of food that takes your fancy. All freshly made, and cheap as chips, from Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Noodle and Stir Fries, to freshly caught large Mekong Fish. The fish is mounted on skewers, stuffed with lemongrass and scarred, ready to be chargrilled on makeshift grills. We had the fish on night, it tasted it out of this world, especially with the lemongrass that permeated throughout the flesh. Whole cuts of pork, chicken and what can only be described as various animal parts were also in full view, ready to hit the grill.
Once fed, it is beer o’clock, and this usually means the chess set comes out, but this time not before scouring the Laos Lonely Planet Guide for some form of plan. I have apologise to Julien from the Mut Mee Guest House over in Nong Khai, as the book was borrowed from a shelf containing about 20 such torn and battered guidebooks. This tends to happen at guest houses close to any border, traveller’s don’t need them anymore and are loath to carry the extra weight. If the books cannot be traded anywhere, they tend to just leave them in the hope someone else will get the benefit. I had planned to borrow the book, but somehow it was still in my small rucksack after crossing the border. You want to have seen the look on Michelle’s face when she spotted it, and I felt like a wee boy who had been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Sorry Julien. The book will go to a good home, I promise.
We moved hotels the following day. Although central, we really just wanted to chill out for a few days, and our own balcony with river views, perhaps a telly, and definitely a hot shower were the priorities. We found on quickly, about 10 minutes walk from the Old Town, and got a bargain for about $10, a huge tiled room, with everything we were looking for. The place was run by a lovely Laos family, set on the banks of the river down a small residential lane. You could tell that all the neighbours were really good friends and maybe had been for a number of years. The kids were all great friends and hung around the lane laughing and giggling and just having fun in the sunshine. We could lounge around in the comfy chairs on the porch, just watching the boats sail down the river, and across to the other bank, where children were playing on the river’s edge while women would wash the family clothes. We also had sports and movie channels, all in English, what more could you need? We stocked the fridge with goodies, beer (obviously), water, juices, a couple of baguette’s (for any late night munchie attacks), as well as crisps and nuts. We could hole out for an afternoon, avoiding the midday heat, and venture out when the temperature dropped.
We had found a cosy little bar called the Ikon Bar. It stood out from the crowd with it’s bohemian quirkiness. The walls covered in art and cool black and white photographs of iconic film stars from yesteryear. The music being played was pretty cool too. There was a nude body cast of the owner on the wall, a Hungarian girl called Lisa, and she was very warm and friendly. As we sat down and had a look at the drinks menu, we were both a bit dumbfounded to see beers at double the normal rate, and cocktails at european prices. There is quite frankly no need for this type of carry on, I just find it quite greedy and exploitative. Granted it was a nice bar, but it was empty, and it seemed other travellers were also failing to see any added value for the premium prices.
I was just about to vote with my feet, advising Lisa, that we could not pay those sort of prices, but was stopped in my tracks as we advised that there was no problem – it was Happy Hour, and all drink were half price. Time for a beer then.
There was a large Chess Set sitting on one of the tables, and we were encouraged to use it. We set it up, and Lisa would chat away with us, her only customers, while we played. Well, we all getting on famously, and Lisa would jump out from behind the bar offering another bottle with a smile, and casually placing some complimentary peanuts on our table. After about 4 beers between us, I casually asked Lisa when the Happy Hour finished, and was told it actually finished 45 minutes ago. We had only been here for about an hour, so basically, our kind hostess with the mostess had hoodwinked us into paying for the premium priced beer. Now, normally this wouldn’t be a major issue, but given we had already hesitated with the prices at the beginning, I felt it only fair that we should have been at least been given notice when the promotion had finished. I lost it, stood up and asked for the bill, threw the money on the counter and marched out. I was more than slightly wound up. Michelle thought I had overreacted, the girl was clearly upset, but I didn’t care. I just thought the whole thing was wrong and out of order.
I soon calmed down and we found somewhere else to hang out for a while. I can’t resist it sometimes, on the way back home, I bought a big bag of sweets for the kids, and happily handed them out to their obvious delight. Can you imagine doing that back home? You’d be lynched by an angry mob of parents.
Michelle went up to the room, and I grabbed on last beer and sat on the porch. Across the lane, some sort of party was going on, with really bad karaoke. One of the parents came out, looked up and signalled for me to come down. Realising it was me who had bought the kids the sweets, I was welcomed into the party like a long lost brother. Everyone smiled and gestured hello’s and welcome’s and I was brought a glass which was immediately filled with Beer Laos and a 2nd glass for a nip of whisky. A microphone was pushed into my hands while they searched for a song me to sing – anything but CelioneFookingDion please I was thinking. As the open chords of Bryan Adams’ “Everything I do” kicked off, one of my favourite songs of all time – not! I could do nothing but give it a bash. On closing to a round of whoops, cheers and applause, the young lad in charge of music selection was busy getting another song for me, while the microphone was pushed back into my hands. Salted grilled fish and other tasty nibbles were placed in front of me. I can’t remember song number two, but probably something easily as cheesy, this asian firewater was taking affect. Michelle had thought I was sitting on the porch, and we had to giggle when she told me she was reading her book, and trying to blot out the sound of the wailing karaoke, until it suddenly dawned on her who was singing. I can imagine her rolling her eyes at that specific point.
The mother of all hangovers next morning, and with the taste of that whisky still hanging about my parched mouth, I suddenly had a bad feeling. I was feeling guilty about my behaviour in the Ikon Bar. While we sat in a bar for some juice and much coffee, I suddenly spotted a large pineapple on the bar. The peace-offering I thought. I bought the pineapple, and we headed along the road. Lisa did a double take as we walked up to and into the bar. I apologised, handed over the fruit as a small token gesture, and received a massive hug. We were asked if we would like a drink. I asked when Happy Hour started, and made a point of specifically asking when it ended. We were told that from now on, every hour would be Happy Hour whenever we were here. Result! We made our excuses as we were needing food, but promised to come back later. We never did, too much beer had been consumed the night before, so we feasted in the market, and made a plan to head next day to The Plain of Jars.