I think this entry might just top all previous ones....
Enough people have laughed and commented on the whole Kiki incident (and continue to do so - update: I've been offered employment [yes, paying] to be their marriage councillor) and keep offering questions about whether I have since got married or am about to to some poor unsuspected fool, that I figured i should add a small side story for everybodies amusement.
A couple of weeks ago, Simon, a cheery Aussie we had met in Hanoi, and a few others happened to be on Don Det. This was barely a week after we had left there after New Year. There was a few of them around, and as happens, you pick up people as you go along. One afternoon whilst in a bar on the island, a Danish girl they had met and wasn't entirely free of the influence of chemicals, happened to notice that the menu of the bar included "weddings". Curious, the question was asked to the staff. When told that it did indeed mean that, she was somewhat enthusiastic and said that she was having such a good time that she wished she could get married there and then. Opinion was canvased of the assembled males, and Simon said he'd be delighted do it. After spreading the word in full, the next day in front of virtually the entire islands population of travellers, and a good 30 or so locals, they tied the knot. And you all thought that I got into strange situations?!
For those now sniggering people who actually know my life history, lets leave certain previous incidents out of this, shall we?
Sadly, it didn't work out, and they divorced about a week later.
I love Lao, I really do. It's an amazing country, and despite so many people saying how great and unspoilt it is, it does actually live up to it, and then some. It is great to be back, although I am admittedly somewhat depressed that it is only for such a short time, out of necessity. Better make the most of it.
In Vientiane, I met up with Troy. Couchsurfing's only Lao based member, and somebody who had been highly recommended to me by Kevin and Solene. In a slight twist, since they finally stopped stalking me, I've more or less been following their route and dropping by all the same people that they did. In this case, I'm glad I did. Troy is certainly one of the most interesting and intelligent people I have met in a good while, and I only wish that I could have stuck around for longer. After all, anybody that has lived in Yemen and Azerbaijan is bound to have a tale or two to tell.
Travel in Lao, at least North of Vientiane invariably means long daytime bus journeys, and with that I returned to Luang Prabang, 10hours and barely a few hundred kilometres later. It was another one stopper between transport, but entirely randomly and barely 30mins after arrival, I randomly bumped into Chevy (he of the fecked-up beer fish night in Yangshuo, ice hockey in Hanoi and the circuit in Nha Trang) and Mick Jagger (who's an old short guy with a young girlfriend who sings in some band). It was from Chevy that I got the Simon wedding story, and as they were still travelling together, later that evening I heard Simon's version as well. And met a curious Swedish tattoo-ist. I hadn't met anybody I know by accident since I was last in Lao (The French guy from HCMC) so I was definitely due.
A good 7 or so hours of standard wonderful Lao scenery the next day took me to Oudomxay. Admittedly the also standard 2hour or so delay on departure meant It was too late for me to continue northwards when I arrived. And I did spent most of the journey being vomited on by an extremely cute, if admittedly slightly sick seeming young child. And being a local bus meant that we stopped once for a guy to get off and buy three large bags of salt, once for everybody to buy courgettes from a roadside stall (although one passenger somehow managed to buy a dead monkey instead) and numerous times just because they felt like it.
Reasons I love Northern Lao numbers, whatever the heck we are up to now - The gorgeous hilly great mountainside, random roadside markets on the tops of hills in the middle of nowhere on virtually empty roads, and the ubiquitous black pigs that can be seen wandering unattended around every village
Many people get stuck in Oudomxay. It's in no way unusual, despite everybody desperately trying to avoid it. And all known guidebooks offering about a paragraph saying that it's boring, but you are likely to get stuck there at some point. Most of them seem to be German speaking. Those that aren't are either French Swiss, or Chinese. They only ever stay a night. It just is the way that Lao works. And as I discovered from talking to two German's who worked at the tourist office trying to encourage growth (Read: Bang heads against the wall in frustration of not being able to achieve even tiny things), until they come up with a way to take advantage of that, and get the locals excited (meaning they actually prepared to do something, instead of just take free money), that's how it will stay.
We also pondered the fate of a night bus alleged to have disappeared during a night the previous week (but being kept very quiet by authorities) and also an American, Ryan Braben Chicovsky, who had disappeared in Northern Lao a week or so previous. And as it's just one of those fairly mundane and standard travel things that just happen, there's no need to explain how I somehow ended up sharing a (tiny) double bed with a middle aged German lady who's name i didn't (and still don't) know. Not entirely related, I suppose, but more or less at this point my camera died. Grrrr.
What follows should probably come out of a work of fiction. In fact, its possibly all just too bizarre, and any author trying to pass it off (Carlie, believe me, i don't recommend it) would have been laughed out of their publishers at light speed. Sometimes, however, truth really just is so strange that you can't make it up.
Some days just defy all logic and expectation and it was simply one of those days. And with the possible exception of one of the days spent trying to leave Vladivostok, it certainly now tops my list of most memorable days on this trip. Curiously, 4 different people have mentioned that my blog is being serialised in a provincial Ecuadorian newspaper. What 4 different friends were doing reading provincial Ecuadorian newspapers, I'm still unsure. And have as yet not been able to confirm or deny these rumours (if anybody comes across an article from here, please, PLEASE save it and post/give it to me as i want to see if its true or not), but if they are oddly enough true, they may like the following. Or not. I don't really care.
After waking up slightly freaked (i hadn't remembered that there was an old German lady in the same bed until I was awoken by snoring), i had a strange twist, whereby I couldn't get on the bus as it was alleged to be "full". This is an interesting - and unusual - concept in a country where people and goods can be packed in with amazing skill, and for a bus which almost inevitably would then stop and start picking up more people of the roadside within 200m of leaving the Bus Station. If I'd have thought, I'd have jumped a tuk-tuk to the edge of town and then hailed the same bus and got on without a problem.
But the same delay meant that by the time I got to Luang Namtha, happy to return to the site of my first (and brilliant) Lao experiences, plus some evil looking clouds and thunder noises ahead, it was too late to make renting a motorbike any sense. A shame because in the short time I'd been away, all the the roads which had been dodgy - part of the fancy Chinese financed and built highway running from where the Kunming - Boten expressway will eventually end through Northern Lao and Thailand to Myanmar - had been fully completed and were stunningly smooth and tarmacked, like the stretch in from the border. The Chinese don't mess about. Things happen quickly, and the result is unquestionably the best road in Lao.
Instead I hired a mountain bike. At half a dollar, it was significantly cheaper than a motorbike, i love bikes anyway and in honesty i needed to work out some of the pain in my legs caused by being squeezed on the minibus for so long. I made it to the Luang Namtha museum, which had been shut when Erin and I first passed through, and was happy I did as it has some very interesting stuff especially about the local tribal groups. I then headed out into the country with no plan except just to ride quite hard for an hour or so, see what happened, and then probably turn back. I was on a fairly quiet road north towards the National Park, when what i hope will be the final of my 3 transport mishaps (think Cambodian minibus and Thai pickup) occurred. Without anything nearby, i went over a slight pothole and the rear triangle of my frame snapped. Both at the same time, and sheer. Obviously, the back of the bike gave way somewhat and I landed on the ground in a heap. No damage to me, but It really didn't take long for me to realise that I was about 10km north of the town with an utterly fecked bike. With the storm rapidly approaching. Bah. I hoped to catch a lift, but wasn't passed by anything in any direction for 20mins, so hung the bike over my shoulder and was about to start the walk back towards Luang Namtha.
The reason that I'm not convinced that it will turn out to be the final incident in my accident trilogy is that it was right at that moment that I got the most amazing and stunningly unexpected piece of luck. My eye was caught by movement round the corner, so I stopped expecting a motorbike or something that i could flag down. Instead, 3 elephants with riders came along. They stopped. The lead man got off and in a perfect Midlands accent asked what I was doing. I explained that I had no choice but to carry the bike and walk back to town. He - his name sounded something like Mwaaauy - asked why. I said because no cars or motorbikes have come past that i could hitch with. Mwaaauy asked why I wanted a car or to walk when there was an elephant right there. It took my brain a few seconds to register, and then i believe I may have had a large grin on my face.
Yes, I managed to hitch-hike with a bicycle on the back of an elephant.
And yes, you did just read that correctly.
I've had a lot of great moments on this trip, but it's going to be damned hard to top this. Admittedly, elephants are not quick animals, but no slower really than a pedestrian at Lao speed, and the time passed quickly. And the storm clouds broke off without more than a quick splattering, and thus we wandered under the most amazing rainbow I have seen in years. Deep colour and shine. I can't think of anything better. I was also treated to several gasps of delight and looks of awe from other travellers as we wandered into town. It was great! I was dropped outside the rental shop after agreeing to meet them a little later for food and to buy them a drink.
They wandered off to park the elephants or whatever you do with elephants, whilst i embarked on a long, calm and reasoned discussion with the rental owner. He wasn't overly surprised when I refused to pay him 500usd (!!!) for a replacement, and we continued a relaxed and open discussion as to what to do next. A few others appeared, and things started to get a tad more animated as two of them also got involved and seemed to want a cut of any money for unknown reasons. I had paid a 10usd deposit that I was happy to let them keep, but stood my ground refusing to pay anymore for something that blatantly wasn't my fault. What swayed me into giving them another 25USD was the guy who ambled over to see what the fuss was all about and had a machine gun swung over his shoulder. I'm not overly fazed by guns, but he seemed somewhat agitated, utterly reeked of alcohol, and was waving the gun in my direction, with rather more intent that I would ideally like. Especially when I noticed that the safety was off.
In cards, as in life, always know when to fold. I will gamble with the best of them, and can often bluff my way through, but a drunk guy pointing a live machine gun in my direction seems a good enough reason to fold. I meekly apologised, handed 25usd to the renter, apologising that I didn't have more (if he's have realise I had a money belt, i could have had a problem), and left pronto. I was a good 300metres away when I turned around to see another local waving a large sword in my direction and group of people watching the guy with the gun.
It can sometimes be useful having a good grasp of local geography and being relatively fit, although I admit that being a white guy in town meant I wasn't overly inconspicuous and had visions of the motley duo touring every guest house that evening, demanding to see all white people, and then me being dragged away to who knows what. If you are reading this, it didn't happen.
This is where the levels of credibility really start to get stretched.
I no longer have my passport.
Or rather, I do now again, obviously, but for a while that evening I didn't. Let me explain. Or at least vaguely try, for I'm really struggling to grasp this one as well.
After a very pleasant couple of hours with the elephant guys in a locals restaurant, they took their leave and headed off. With a few kip left over, and not enough to make exchanging it worthwhile, I decided to have another beer. An hour or so earlier, a very strange group of people had entered and occupied several tables near the back. Two were quite polished looking and white (i pegged them as Russians) and sat alone in the middle table, whilst those around them were locals but a tad ominous looking. But as they left us alone and I had my back to them, i had ignored them. About 30minutes after Mwaaauy and his friends had left, one approached me and asked in thickly accented English if I would like to join them for a drink. I politely refused, saying I was about to leave (I was as well) and had no money (also more or less true). He, erm, "suggested" that it might be rude to decline their hospitality and that I should at least stay for a drink. Looking back over my shoulder, the local guys seemed a heck of allot more ominous than I had remembered. So out of a lack of reasonable options, and in fairness, with absolutely nothing better to do, I accepted.
I discovered that my Russian guess wasn't entirely correct, and they were actually Turkmeni's. And allegedly not irrelevant ones either, although how true this is, I don't know. Turkmenistan is somewhere few people know much about, and fewer still visit. Having said that, I have actually been there in the past on more than one occasion (long story), and know a bit about it. In a nutshell, it can be characterised by Saparmurat Niyazov. Mr Niyazov is the President and essentially Turkmen dictator and is generally known as "Turkmenbashi the Great". In 2002 (i think), he renamed the month of January after himself, and amongst many other idiosyncrasies has also come up with a new system for dividing people's ages (which are not, as you may possibly guess, children, teens, adults, middle aged and elderly, or words to that extent). He's an interesting man leading an interesting country.
Oddly, they seemed to know at least a bit about me, which was a bit freaky and unnerving (especially as I had now quickly cottoned on to the fact that the ominous looking people were the heavies/security detail) although i am fairly sure that they had just overhead the previous conversations I had been having with Mwaaauy. Anyhow, one thing led to another and whilst I am aware that nobody will believe any of this in the slightest, but there I was in a locals bar in an obscure town in Northern Lao, being offered the job of chief strategic and planning officer to the Turkmenistan army and presidential advisor on foreign affairs.
..... I need time for that one to sink in, let alone you .....
I've always said that life is never boring.
My passport was whisked away for some kind of check of some description (i don't believe that there is a Turkmen military attache to the province of Luang Namtha, but on the last few days experiences, i really wouldn't bet against it) without my having any say or choice in the matter, whilst all manner of business was discussed. I believe that I managed to decline on the grounds that I already have a commitment to my current employer (Sten, the things I do out of loyalty to you and the company. I really think that I deserve a large pay rise for my loyalty here in the face of adversity....).
Long story cut short, but a couple of hours later, my passport was returned. They thanked me, i thanked them, they said they would be in touch, and I took my leave, wandering straight out of the bar and into two guys loafing against one of 3 jeeps who just happened to be the guys with the machine gun and sword from earlier. They gave me a drunken grin and wave. I started walking in a random direction at a fairly high rate of knots whilst desperately trying to work out what the f*ck had just occurred.
I am expecting an email from somebody at work within the next few days asking some very strange questions about why I am consorting with such people, and what the situation is. Plus potential correspondence from assorted Turkmeni's.
I have a feeling that this one is could run and run, although I doubt Kiki (or any of my normal crazy bet and strange situation - and that is one I'm not even going to try and explain to all those that have no idea what I'm talking about, except to say that these guys are so good that I once spent 8months trying to prove that I wasn't married. Which sounds easy enough, but when they can produce a wife, photos, and even get assorted random friends and family members swearing it was true and had happened, you get the idea that this is not an entirely conventional betting ring - group) is involved....
Despite being perhaps slightly unconventional by many peoples terms, and this pass sadly only being 4 nights, Lao has more than lived up to my memories, and I leave with it still being a top my list of favourite places on this trip. It's been utterly amazing, and on this brief transit, stupendously surreal, unlikely and just plain weird. I like that.
It's a wonderful country, and I really can't wait to return.