A beery game of boules, realising the growing pains of middle-aged backpacking and a flight to the deep south of Laos.
Savannakhet | Savannakhet Province | Laos
This post is part of the series called 90 Days in South East Asia and was written on-the-road.
We took a short 3 hour bus ride south from Thakek to Savannakhet. It was slightly chaotic, being ferried from bus to tuk tuk to tuk tuk to tuk tuk (yes, you read that right), lugging our baggage each time.
Everything about the buses is lethargic except for those food girls who jump in to the bus at every stop, whooping as they arrive, brandishing sticks of eggs and meat like light sabres, they really know how to make a raucous entry and sell.
We came to Savannakhet, the 2nd largest city in Laos, because it has an airport and we can avoid an 8 hour bus ride with a 30 minute flight to the south.
We ambled its side-streets by the Mekong, went inside the simplistic St Therese church, and watched monks paint their wat using 10 litre pots of golden paint.
Savannakhet is dotted with old French-style buildings, now just a nod to their former glory days with their flaking plaster, shabby louvred shutters, spilling roof tiles and cracked brickworks.
It’s like a grand old dame who was once beautiful but now alludes to that time in little hints. Luang Prabang is a supermodel, but here the beauty is in glimmers of potential. A side street decked in plants and flowerpots. A church. A market square beside a tree-lined river-front boulevard. Beautified vestiges which were in their flamboyant heyday over a century ago.
A very beery game of boules
We came across people playing boules in a semi open building with sandy floors, plastic furniture for spectators and a fridge of beers.
A group of guys invited us in and the lead guy sat us down and got us beers. It was quite a merry atmosphere and we sat there watching them play, drinking beer with ice cubes, contemplating their tactics with long white cigarettes hanging off their lips. No one could speak English except the main guy so we spent some time chatting to him.
When I asked him what was his profession he just pointed to his crotch and said ‘policeman.’ That didn’t follow. I was later informed he was pointing to his olive trousers.
He asked us which hotel we stayed in, and I most probably shouldn’t have told him; Sarah’s been on a travel security course and your hotel should always be confidential.
The police officer downed a few more beers and said he’d give us a lift home home afterwards. I said thank you, I’d have a think about it.
They invited me to play and instead of just a few throws, it lasted over an hour. Every time the policeman won a point he’d dance a small jig and high five everyone. It was all very good and amicable.
One of the older guys, the quiet one with the smiling eyes, was a really good boules player; he was able to decimate the field with a single throw, or sneak in next to the jack, with a cunning, last-in, spinning move. He was the Leo Messi of Savannakhet boules.
Our time playing boules with them went quickly. It took a surreal turn when I started to see bunny rabbits hopping about the boules court.
Some of the other guys were finishing up their beers because they said it was it was time for them to go to work.
But when it was time for us to go the atmosphere changed. Our hosts appeared really disappointed that we were leaving, so we stayed an extra half hour and bought them all beers and then when we finally said goodbye they still looked really sad, distraught even.
That evening at the hotel Sarah was worried that I had told strangers our hotel and that he might just turn up and arrest me. ‘For what? For not playing boules?’ I asked.
At 4am I heard a bell and for a momemt thought it might be him waiting for us at the door, boules and beer glass in hand, cigarette dripping in mouth, inviting me for the next game: but it was just my mobile notification telling me that there were delays due to a signal failure on the Northern Line.
Just as well really. We had an early flight in the morning to Pakse, gateway to the south of Laos.
The growing pains of the middle-aged backpacker
In prior posts I had complained about the buses being too hot, having no circulating air and complained about the plane for having propellers.
This is a symptom of being a middle aged backpacker.
I was okay with this stuff when I was 18, when I was able to take a 36 hour train journey sitting upright with no food from Athens to Zagreb without even a murmur; I could sleep like a baby in ferry car parks; I have blown ants off toast, eaten it and kept quiet; I have flicked bed bugs off a bed without so much as a strongly worded letter to the management; I guess my travel needs just changed with me.
But taking a flight instead of 9 hour bus ride to Pakse was most likely the right thing to do; travelling in the south of Laos is time-consuming, and some of the buses have been tardy not to mention hot and enclosed.
And the plane will definitely have air conditioning, “so I don’t want to hear a peep out of you,” said Sarah before reminding me that in London I had said we should travel just like the locals, on buses. I just laughed it off as one of my throw away comments; I’m still travelling as a local but one that flies.
Savannakhet had the smallest airport I had ever seen. The airport building is like a large cricket pavilion (but one you might see in a posh private school rather than a local council amenity).
Small airports have their advantages we realised. Just walk in, no need to show your passport to a guard. No need to check long flight boards (there’s only one flight). There’s more staff than passengers. If you lose your boarding pass there’s only a few places you could have lost it. There is also a common sense attitude to letting drinking water on flights.
The flight lasted just 30 minutes. Laos in May is at the tail end of the dry season. From high above, the land looked like a close-up of elephant skin, all wrinkled, brown and mud-caked. Next month, the monsoon will have transformed this place in to a lush green paradise. The river Mekong in contrasts to the land, will change from green to brown when the rains start.
We had landed in Pakse with a jolt and the time saved by the flight would give us half a day to explore the little known, 900 year old Khmer ruins of Wat Phu.