Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Southeast Asia (page 1 of 2)

On the road to Pakxe

Tonight I attended a ceremony and dinner to commemorate an honorary Lao Consul on the Woosong University campus. During dinner, when it was learned that I am the author of four books, I was asked when I was going to write a book about Laos, which got me thinking. I really should at some point. I’ve already written a short story, “Lemongrass” which is featured in Damaged Goods.

This photo was taken in July 2007 when Aon and I went to Pakxe and Wat Phu. This photo was part of the inspiration for “Lemongrass.”

When you stop in town, whether in one of these songthaew-like (a pickup truck converted into a bus) modes of transportation, or a bus, vendors immediately surround the bus selling their food and beverages. It happens from one village to the next.

Picture of the Day: Buddha through the doorway — Siem Reap, Cambodia 2006

Cambodia 001

Look closely–yep, that’s the Buddha through the doorway at Bayon in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ferry ‘cross the Mekong

One of my first trips in Laos was back in July of 2007 when Aon, her family (her mom, younger sister, and Bia) and I visited the famous Buddhist temple and Khmer ruins Wat Phou Champasak near Pakxe in southern Laos.

Getting there was quite an interesting journey because to get to the temple and the ruins one has to cross the mighty, magnificent Mekong River on a ferry.

For those who are vaguely familiar with the Mekong River, the name alone conjures up all sorts of images whether it’s the Mekong Delta from the Vietnam War or if you are much of a Thai whiskey drinker, Mekong Whiskey. However, for those who live along its winding path, the river is an important waterway and natural resource.

The river itself can get quite wild during the rainy season (last year in the capital city of Vientiane it rose above flood stage and flooded out streets that run along its banks) but when I crossed it in the July of 2007, it was simply magnificent and peaceful.

The ferry is a couple of boats lashed together with a makeshift platform to accommodate a few cars and a bus or two. It might not look like much, but it serves its purpose well ferrying people and vehicles across the Mekong.

It takes no more than thirty minutes to cross, and when the weather is gorgeous like it was the day we crossed it, the scenery is breathtaking.

One night in Bangkok

One_Night_In_BangkokImagine this scenario: a man travels to Bangkok on vacation. One night, after too much drinking and debauchery, he tries to get back to his hotel, but with all that alcohol he has consumed he loses his way. Unable to get his bearings, he sits down on a pushcart outside a busy 7-11 and passageway between two busy Soi (Thai for street) and passes out. A few good Samaritans try to wake him up but he is too drunk and unreceptive. At one point he rolls off the cart and continues to sleep; perhaps he is even dreaming that he is back at his hotel room.

In the meantime, he’s become the subject of many curious onlookers who are coming in and out of the 7-11 as well as customers stopping in at Jimmy Wong’s tattoo shop next door. A few take photos which will be uploaded and plastered on blogs and websites the next day.

The man eventually sleeps off whatever amount of alcohol he did consume, regains his bearings and makes it back to his hotel. He probably thinks nothing of the ordeal or maybe he is just too embarrassed about it and tries to forget about it.

A few weeks later, back at home he’s surfing the Internet and comes across one of the photos that someone had taken of him passed out near the 7-11 in Bangkok.

These days, such events are much more prevalent thanks to digital cameras, cellular phones with cameras and now even Apple iPods with video capability. Everyone can be a photographer and everyone can be subject to paparazzi. You don’t have to be passed out on the street either; it can be as innocuous as picking your nose or scratching your butt in a comical way that will be a hit on someone’s blog or Facebook profile.

Although you can’t control what photos someone might snap of you and upload to their blogs one has to be careful what they blog about, one also has to be careful what kind of photos and videos they upload on blogs or social networking sites like Facebook.

In cities like Seoul, citizens walk around with digital cameras and video cameras to capture people doing illegal acts like motorists driving in the bus lane or people littering. And whenever there is an accident, a fight, fracas, or any other criminal act, the event is immediately captured by amateur photographers and videographers. These images may or may not be uploaded to someone’s blog or YouTube but if they are controversial enough there’s a good chance that they will.

Not long ago in Seoul, some drunken expats made fools of themselves singing and dancing on a crowded subway that was captured by someone with a video camera and then later uploaded to YouTube. It created quite the outrage and even made it to the nightly news in Korea.

It doesn’t have to be something controversial or even criminal for Big Brother, or in this case many little Big Brothers watching you and ready to document something embarrassing or perhaps something you don’t want too many people to know about (like that tattoo you have on your arm). To be sure, you never know who is out there with a camera or iPod ready to catch you in the act on a Jpeg or Mpeg/Avi file.

The night I narrowly escaped a terrorist bombing

Hat_Yai_Sept_16_2006.3My vacation to Hat Yai in southern Thailand in September 2006 started off with a bomb when about an hour after I checked in the Novotel Hotel a car bomb exploded in a crowded shopping area at the end of the block from the hotel.

I had arrived in Hat Yai a little past 7:00 and had gone directly to the Novotel Hotel located in the downtown area near a busy market. Although I had often read about some terrorist attacks in the region as well as some other violence, I figured the downtown area would be safe.

After checking in, I decided to walk around for a while and find some place to have dinner. The streets outside the hotel were crowded, most likely typical for a Saturday night in this section of town with a lot of department stores and restaurants. I heard about this popular restaurant that was a favorite among foreigners and tourists; however, I was more in the mood for some Thai food, so I decided to go back to the hotel.

Later I would find out that the car bombs that exploded were in the same area I had just walked in 30 minutes earlier.

I couldn’t find a decent Thai restaurant to eat in, so I decided to have dinner at Fuji (a very popular Japanese restaurant chain in Thailand) located right across the street from the Novotel (in the basement of a small shopping complex).

I had no sooner sat down and ordered food when all of a sudden some shops outside started to close for no apparent reason. Then I heard some people shouting outside and saw other people running. Most of the staff at Fuji run outside and then run back inside the restaurant talking excitedly on their mobile phones.

When I asked one of the waiters what all the commotion was about, he told me that there was a bomb in a department store at the end of the block. At this point, no one had told me to leave, but we were not about to stick around waiting for someone to tell us. Then, no sooner had I decided to leave when another waiter comes to my table and tells me that a bomb had just exploded near the restaurant.

I was unable to leave the shopping complex from the main entrance and instead had to walk out a side exit. As soon as  I reached the ground floor, I could smell smoke and hear sirens wailing. Outside, the street had already been closed off as a number of emergency vehicles raced to the scene of the bombing. Hundreds of curious onlookers lined the streets. Police officers, firefighters, as well as some military personnel already on the scene were shouting wildly on cell phones trying to coordinate this emergency response.

One tourist who was also staying at the Novotel (and who had arrived from Bangkok on the same flight that I had taken) told me that he was going to check out of the hotel that night.

In the Bangkok Post the next morning, it was reported that there had been a series of bomb blasts all occurring around the Novotel Hotel that killed four people (including one foreigner) and injured over 70. The first of the six bombs went off around 9:00 just about the time I was sitting down to dinner at Fuji restaurant and the other five exploded about five minutes apart.Hat_Yai_Sept_17_2006_001

After I had breakfast that morning, I decided to take a walk over to area where some of the car bombs had gone off the night before. Most of the debris had already been cleared away, but the streets were still closed to traffic as hundreds of curious onlookers walked past the Odeon Shopping Center where one of the bombs was exploded.

How close had I gotten to becoming a statistic? Close enough according to one eyewitness.

While looking at the damage, this guy walked up to me who I recognized from the previous night (he had been sitting outside a café that I had passed when I was looking for some place to eat).

“Man, you are so lucky,” he said. “You just missed the bombing.”

He wasn’t so lucky. The café he was sitting at was right across the street from where one of the bombs exploded. Some shrapnel from the bomb had hit him in his fingers and shoulder. Two of his fingers were bandaged and he was still wearing a hospital shirt stained with blood. It looked as though he hadn’t slept at all and judging from his pale demeanor and sunken eyes, still seemed to be in shock.

“Yeah, I saw you walk by and I was checking out your tattoos,” he continued, “and then about 15 minutes later the bomb exploded. I saw this guy stop in his car in front of the café and the next thing you know, I saw his head blown off by the bomb blast.”

A few people who understood English gathered around him.

“Yeah, that’s right. I saw his head blown off. Glass and debris were flying everywhere. I was lucky that I got down when I did. If I hadn’t I probably wouldn’t be talking to you now.

That was more information than I probably wanted to hear.

Later that afternoon, the Prince of Thailand visited the area to inspect the damage and to assuage people’s fears of more trouble occurring in the region. He was accompanied by a large group of government officials including former Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai who passed where I was standing. When Leekpai saw me, he broke away from this entourage and walked up to me and we both exchanged a Thai “wai” the customary greeting in Thailand where both hands are clasped together accompanied by a slight bowing of the head by the person who is younger or of lesser social standing. I figured some oHat_Yai_Sept_17_2006_002f the officials who went to Hat Yai after the bombing were there to assuage any foreigners’ fears about violence in the region.

I stayed in Hat Yai for another night before heading to Bangkok. Then a few days later, there was a military coup in Bangkok-but that is another story.

On the streets of Luang Prabang — Looking both ways

On the streets of Luang Prabang

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham — “New Monastery of the Golden Land”

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham

What’s an AK-47 doing on a VIP bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane?

AK-47 on VIP bus in Laos

Good question. 

First I asked, “What’s a Korean bus doing in Savannakhet?” 

Then, I asked, “What’s up with more Korean buses in Laos?” 

Now, I want to know what’s an AK-47 doing on the VIP bus On and I took from Luang Prabang to Vientiane? 

I didn’t notice at first when On and I got on the bus, but later, when the bus stopped for everyone to get something to eat, that is when I noticed it. 

AK-47 on a VIP bus in Laos

From what I have read and heard from some people, some robbers have held up some buses from the Hmong hill tribes that you pass along the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. And in the past, there have also been a few murders.

That’s probably why there was an AK-47 behind the bus driver’s seat.

“Combat” on the bus to Vientiane

Combat TV series

When you take a VIP bus or similar bus for long distances in Laos there’s usually a television mounted at the front of the bus. If you’re lucky whoever is in charge of entertainment for the bus might play a decent movie (unfortunately it is probably going to be dubbed in Thai).

On the other hand, you might get stuck having to endure some Thai Karaoke Pop favorites like the ones playing on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong. 

On the return bus from Paksong to Vientiane though a Charlie Chaplin movie was played. Interestingly, some Thai dialogue had been dubbed into the silent film that was quite surreal. Nonetheless, I could at least enjoy the film if I tried to shut out the Thai dialogue. 

The Chaplin movie was followed by three episodes of that 60’s war drama Combat. I wonder if whoever was in charge of entertainment on this bus tried to choose something that would be interesting to the only foreigner on board. If that were the case, it was kind of cool watching these episodes of Combat even though the dialogue had been dubbed into Thai. 

Maybe it was all the shooting and explosions in the episodes of Combat that caused the right half of the windshield on the bus to break.

Tuk-tuks in Vientiane & Luang Prabang — Let the rider beware

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

One thing that there’s definitely no shortage of in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are tuk-tuks plying the streets. You can’t walk down the street (at least in Vientiane) without a tuk-tuk driver inquiring where you are going and if you want a tuk-tuk. 

If you have already been to Thailand you know all about tuk-tuks (called tuk-tuks because of the sound they make, or so I have been told) and that they are a cheap form of transportation for short distances, not to mention a practical mode of transportation for weaving in and out of Bangkok’s notorious traffic gridlock. 

In Laos, it’s a different story though when it comes to taking a tuk-tuk. First of all, unless you have to go somewhere far—like the bus station or airport—in Vientiane or Luang Prabang you don’t really need to take a tuk-tuk and you are better off walking or renting a bicycle (or motorcycle). Most places in Vientiane (and to a lesser degree Luang Prabang) can easily be reached on foot.

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

Lao tuk-tuks are generally of the Phnom Penh style (I had no idea that tuk-tuks had different styles). They come as tuk-tuks or Jumbo tuk-tuks. Jumbos have a larger 3 or 4 cylinder 4 stroke engine, many are powered by Daihatsu engines. While the smaller tuk-tuks carry similar loads to Cambodian tuk-tuks, and are geared similarly. The Jumbos’ larger engine and cabin size allow for greater loads (up to 12 seated people at a squeeze) and higher top speeds. Jumbos are almost without exception only found in Vientiane. A few Thai tuk-tuks (fully enclosed cabin) have also made their way to Vientiane.

(Phnom Penh tuk-tuks are one piece—the front end of a motorcycle comprising of steering, tank and engine/gearbox with a covered tray mounted at the back. The power is transferred by chain to an axle mounted to the modified rear fork which drives the two rear wheels. Suspended upon the rear fork is an open cabin with an in-line seat on each side. This arrangement can carry 6 people at ease, with their luggage in the leg space.) 

Most of the tuk-tuks you see on the streets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the smaller ones; the larger ones are found around markets and the bus stations.

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

If you are not in the mood for a lot of walking you can hire a tuk-tuk for the day (the drivers have a price list for the fares to all the major attractions in Vientiane.) The fares are a little pricey, though. For example, the fare from Patouxai to That Louang was 100 Baht. Unless you really want to be taxied around Vientiane be ready to shell out a few hundred Baht.

If you are lucky though, you might come across a tuk-tuk driver who will give you a good rate for a few hours. On and I found such a driver who only charged us 500 Baht to go to Buddha Park (23 kilometers outside of Vientiane) and would have taken us all around Vientiane to all the major sites for the same price. It pays (pun intended) to shop around when it comes to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day.  

However, for those farther distances you have to rely on a tuk-tuk to get them. And when it comes time to take a tuk-tuk you have to be careful with how much the driver tries to charge you. For example, when On and I wanted to go the bus station from the Inter City Hotel, the tuk-tuk driver said it would cost 200 Baht when it normally costs 150 Baht. Also, if you are in Vientiane, the tuk-tuk drivers that ply Fa Ngum Road (the road that runs parallel to the Mekong River) tend to ask for more than if you catch a tuk-tuk on a side street. 

Tuk-tuk in Luang PrabangNow, I know what you are thinking—what’s a few hundred Baht for a tuk-tuk especially when you have just traveled halfway around the world and spent a thousand or more dollars to get to Laos, right? After all, that few hundred Baht you shell out for a tuk-tuk is probably not going to make too much of a dent in your budget but it could make a big difference for the driver.

On the other hand, I think some tuk-tuk drivers start off quoting a higher fare to see what you will do, if you are in the mood for a little haggling or if you simply don’t mind paying a little extra. They are not out to rip you off or anything. It’s all part of the travel experience and if you do pay a little more the next time you might get a better deal. 

Still there are some tuk-tuk drivers who give the whole tuk-tuk driving business a bad name and those that you have to watch out for—like the one who took On and I back to the Inter City Hotel in a jumbo tuk-tuk after we had come back from Luang Prabang. This tuk-tuk driver was definitely a hustler and almost got into a fight with another tuk-tuk driver over some passengers.  

We had just gotten off the bus and were looking for a smaller tuk-tuk when this driver came up to us, grabbed my suitcase and asked where we were going. On had no sooner answered Inter City Hotel when the driver tossed my suitcase into the back of the jumbo tuk-tuk and went to round up some other unsuspecting passengers. Within a few minutes the tuk-tuk was full (including the Swiss couple who didn’t want to give up their seats on the bus) but the driver wanted a few more fares and tried to steal a “fare” from a rival tuk-tuk driver. 

At this point we hadn’t even talked about the fare. On and I were thinking that it would be 150 Baht. At least that is what we thought. Fortunately the driver got our destination right and we were the first passengers to be dropped off and it turned out that the fare—40,000 Kip—was about right; however, the tuk-tuk driver said he had no change and made another 10,000 Kip because On only had a 50,000 Kip bill to pay him. 

If you do want to take a tuk-tuk when you are in Vientiane or Luang Prabang be prepared to haggle a little. If you do end up paying a little more when you think you should have paid less, just think of it as part of the travel adventure you are on in Laos.

« Older posts

© 2019 Jeffrey Miller

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑