Posted in Photography, travel

Koh Samui

After a relaxing two weeks in Koh Phangan, I encountered a bit of a problem. My Thai visa was about to expire. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, but it did. You see, when British citizens travel to Thailand we are given 30 day visas on arrival. However, this does not apply when you travel overland from a neighbouring country… like, say, Cambodia.

Vera and I looked at our options. We loved Koh Phangan and didn’t really want to leave, but I could either extend my visa or we both had to leave the country and go elsewhere. It would have been nice to visit Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, or Cambodia… but travelling with a Chinese passport is rather difficult, and indeed expensive. It would also have taken time that we just didn’t have, given my own visa situation.

Looking at our options, the cheapest thing to do was to head from Koh Phangan to Koh Samui, where there is an immigration office in the town of Maenam. Vera’s visa was set to expire not long after mine, and we could extend both there, squeezing as much time out of our summer holiday as possible.

Soon, we hopped in a taxi to Haad Rin, at the southeastern end of Koh Phangan, and from there took the Haad Rin Queen ferry over to a place aptly called Big Buddha, on the northeastern end of Koh Samui. The journey took just 45 minutes and cost only 200 baht each.

Koh Samui was immediately very different from Koh Phangan – or, for that matter, from nearby Koh Tao. It is a lot bigger and much busier. Several planes zipped in low over our boat as we approached the harbour, and there was heavy traffic right outside the pier. We quickly felt regret at having left behind peaceful little Koh Phangan.

I had expected the immigration office to prove a tedious challenge, but in fact it was very simple. We filled in a set of quite basic forms, had our passports photocopied, and handed over a large amount of cash. I wasn’t too happy about the money, but it was cheaper than flying to another country. From various online sources, I got the impression that this might have taken up a whole day, but altogether it took less than an hour.

We found a little hotel five minutes’ walk uphill from the immigration office, on a quiet little dusty road. It was beautiful, if a tad expensive compared to what we were used to in Koh Phangan. “Oh well, we can stay one night and go somewhere cheaper,” we said.

In fact, the hotel was so comfortable, with such lovely staff and a nice 24-hour swimming pool, that we stayed a full week! The location wasn’t great (aside from the convenient proximity to the immigration office), but it certainly was quiet compared with most of the island.

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The oddly named, but very pleasant, Wazzah resort on Koh Samui.

At the hotel, we rented a little motorbike and set out to explore the island. First we headed counterclockwise to the town of Nathon, and inwards to the mountainous interior, where we found a stunning waterfall in the jungle. We had the place to ourselves for an hour, and spent that time swimming in the cool waters.

Next, we ventured clockwise through Chaweng to Lamai, in the southeast. Chaweng looked pretty awful – a big, busy tourist trap. However, Lamai was a little nicer, and we had a delicious meal at a Jamaican restaurant. Yes, that’s right – a Jamaican restaurant in Thailand. The food was very expensive by Southeast Asian standards, but still only totaled about $20 for an incredible meal with drinks. Not too bad, all things considered.

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A storm moves quickly in from Lamai beach.

Our other ventures around the island took us up and over the middle, exploring dangerous little mountain roads on the trusty scooter. Some roads were so astoundingly steep that I was left genuinely baffled that the bike’s breaks managed to hold out, and on more than a few occasions it looked like the engine was going to die when hauling us both up rocky roads. We ran up hundreds of miles just zipping around, and found some more beautiful waterfalls and spectacular views out over the Gulf of Thailand.

Vera’s favourite part of the holiday, though, was the walking markets. In both Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, we found ourselves spending our evenings eating at street food stalls where you could get food for two for just US$3, and it was fantastic! She became somewhat of a curry snob after consuming several dozen massaman curries. Our regular market was by the pier at Nathon, but the best was in China Town, where I had a wonderful mango cocktail for about $2, and a whole pizza for just $3. Bargain! (As an odd sidenote: China Town contains two Austrian restaurants, a Swiss restaurant, a Swedish restaurant, several French and Italians restaurants, and a host of others… but not a single Chinese one.)

 

Time flew by and soon it was time to leave Thailand. I had spent damn near an entire summer there – exploring Phuket, Krabi, Ao Nang, Chumporn, Koh Phangan, and Koh Samui. All I am familiar with Thailand, these were all places I hadn’t really gotten to know until now, and I’m glad I did.

Our last day was spent on a series of ferries and buses headed back to Bangkok, and the next morning, at 3am, we were going to the airport to board a direct flight (thank god) to China.

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Posted in Photography, travel

From Bangkok to Koh Phangan

As recounted in previous blog posts, I spent most of July and early August travelling alone through Thailand and Cambodia. However, after four or five weeks’ solo journeying, I undertook a long and painful bus ride to Thailand’s vast capital, Bangkok, to meet my girlfriend, Vera.

I arrived first, a day ahead of her. On my first visit, some weeks earlier, I stayed at the ultra-cheap Khaosan Art Hotel, but this time elected for the comparatively pricey Rambuttri Village Plaza, a place I’ve stayed before. I had a whole night and a day to wait for Vera, and as I’m not particularly fond of Bangkok – or cities in general, come to think of it – I chose a hotel with a rooftop pool so I could spend my time reading a book and soaking in the sun.

Of course, I did manage to fit in a little sightseeing:

Vera’s flight was meant to arrive around 8pm but it was delayed and she didn’t arrive until after midnight. That gave us about three hours’ sleep before we had to get up and hit the road, as I had booked bus tickets with Lomphraya for the following morning. Alas, bleary-eyed, we ventured out into the darkness before sunrise and off on a day-long journey to Koh Phangan.

The journey was actually not bad, as we were so tired we slept through most of it. By early afternoon our bus had decanted us at the Chumporn ferryport and we were soon skipping across the pristine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand, headed for a tropical paradise.

When we arrived, I walked about looking for a hotel, and stumbled upon the oddly-named but rather pleasant Lime ‘n’ Soda, where we spent a few pleasant days. After that, we moved to the nearby Hacienda, to a much cheaper but much better room.

Our time on Koh Phangan was spent mostly on the southern coast, looking out at Koh Samui to the south. We awoke each morning to stunning views over the waters, and long walks on the empty beaches. There were a few kitesurfers on the waters but it was exceptionally quiet.

Sometimes we rented a motorcycle and ventured to other parts of the island, but nothing really matched the loveliness of the area we had randomly stumbled upon that first day. The hilly roads provided an amusing bike ride with stunning views, but we didn’t venture off the main roads onto the rather intimidating-looking dirt roads leading to remote waterfalls and other sights. Instead, we went to little beach areas in the northwest and northeast, including Haad Mae Haad and Haad Yao.

After almost two weeks on Koh Phangan, it was time to leave. My visa expired and the immigration office was on nearby Koh Samui. I had never really wanted to visit Samui, but it seemed like the thing to do – a quick jaunt across the water and then a day at the immigration office, followed by some time exploring the largest of the three main islands in the Thai Gulf.

Well, that’s where I am as I write this… I’ll post more next week.

Posted in travel

Final Stop in India: Varkala

My trip through India took me from the east coast (Chennai, Auroville, and Pondicherrry) through the temples and hill stations of the central south, to stop finally on the west coast at Kochi and then Varkala.

Along the way, I had many adventures. India is a great country and I saw some incredible sights. I also met many very cool people everywhere I went. However, it is an exhausting place to travel, especially when you travel – as I do – very cheaply, going by local bus and staying in hostels. Although I had enjoyed seeing the country, by the time I  got into my final week there, I had lost the interest to venture further. I had had my fill of temples, of mountains, of culture. I was ready to sit by the beach and relax.

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Varkala Beach

Fortunately, the beaches on India’s west coast are far nicer than the ones on its east coast. On my journey, a few travellers suggested I visit Varkala (emphasis, contrary to what you might think, is on the final syllable). I took my last long bus journey south from Kochi to Varkala, and holed up for two nights at Pagan’s hostel, not far from the beach. It was very nice but I soon switched to a private room at Sunrise Guesthouse on the cliffs.

Varkala is a tiny town on a series of cliffs, with a few small beaches dotted here and there. Getting down to them means finding the steep steps, if there are any, cut into the sides of the red cliffs, or walking until the land naturally slopes down to meet the sea. The main part of town is located above a nice white sand beach and  divided into North Cliff and South Cliff. Most of the businesses there are run by Tibetan exiles and a few folks from Kashmir or Nepal. Stretching out along the eroding coastline are rocky beaches and little fishing villages that meet stagnant backwaters – a famed type of scenery in Kerala state.

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The backwaters.

The wildlife captivated me from my first day to the last. Where in Scotland you might see seagulls or pigeons, in Kerala there are huge brahminy and black kites swooping overhead. They are majestic animals, yet common enough to almost be pests. You simply can’t go anywhere without seeing them. I spent much of my time shooting photos of them along the cliffs:

In addition to these huge birds of prey, I saw a number of other cool animals. While watching the birds one day, a dolphin jumped clear out of the sea in front of me! I spent the next days hoping it would happen again so I could shoot a photo, but it never did. I did, however, repeatedly see up to 15 dolphins swimming near the beach. While swimming at a beach five kilometers north of town, I also saw a small shark being washed onto the beach by a large wave. Thankfully, it managed to wriggle back into the sea without my help.

Mostly, though, I walked around town meeting nice people, admiring the scenery, watching the fantastic sunsets, and reading my books.

I also enjoyed big breakfasts looking out over the sea each morning:

Although it was tempting to push on and explore further, once I arrived in Varkala I realized I would be there until my time in India came to an end. India is a huge country, just amazingly vast in physical size as well as cultural diversity. I’d only seen a small part, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to get about. Besides, as I’ve said in previous posts, sometimes when you travel, you need to leave things behind for your next trip.

And so, early one morning, I set off in a taxi (no more buses for me) to the airport at Trivandrum, heading for my next destination: Sri Lanka.

Posted in travel

2 Weeks in Koh Tao

I spent two weeks in Koh Tao in 2015 all by myself. I enjoyed it enough that this year, while looking for someplace to visit with my girlfriend, I decided to return. I didn’t initially intend to spend two weeks on the little island as it really is a small place, but we enjoyed it enough that we stayed the whole time. We’d planned on island hopping over to Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan but never got around to it. In the end, Koh Tao was more than enough.

Arriving and Finding a Hotel

After two days in Bangkok, we took a bus to Chumphon and then a Lomprayah catamaran over to Mae Haad Pier on Koh Tao. From there we got a taxi down to Chalok Baan Kao Bay in the south of the island, where we spent most of our fortnight. During the first night we stayed at Big Bubble, but we didn’t enjoy walking up hundreds of stairs to our room – although the room was admittedly nice. So the next morning we moved to OKII Bungalows, where I’d spent much of my time in 2015.

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The view of Shark Bay

OKII is located pretty much at the very bottom of Koh Tao, on a little peninsula jutting out to towards Koh Pha Ngan. It’s right on Shark Bay and has the most beautiful views imaginable. I made this gif with my GoPro of what I could see from my balcony:

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Exploring Koh Tao

From the very beginning, we were stunned by the wildlife. On the way up to OKII we were stopped by a huge lizard (most likely a water monitor) crossing the road immediately in front of our bike, and when we arrived we saw a large green snake on the rocks below the balcony. As the name suggests, Shark Bay is also home to a number of sharks. You have to know how to find them, though. I figured out in 2015 that your best chance is before 7am. I saw a few during my morning swims, including one occasion when several sharks gathered for a moment before going their separate ways. Sadly, though I got close to the sharks, I never managed to get a decent photo. The bay is also home to a number of turtles who feed on the coral – or rather, the remains of the coral, as most of it is now dead.

While staying at OKII we had to rent a motorbike to get around the island, as the hotel is quite isolated. The peace and quite is nice, but you’re limited in many ways. With a set of wheels, we managed to explore much of the island, getting to Sai Daeng Beach, Tanote Bay, and up to Mae Haad, Sairee, and Dusit Resort. We wanted to visit Hin Wong and Mango Bay, but the road was too badly damaged to get over the hills in the middle of the island on our little bike.

After a few days at OKII, we moved back to Chalok Baan Kao Bay and into the lovely Tropicana Resort, where we lacked a view but had a more comfortable room. We were also in walking distance of a few good restaurants, including one we can to eat at regularly, called Fishy’s.

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The view from Tropicana Resort

Although Vera couldn’t swim at the beginning of the holiday (and had indeed never been in the sea), by the end of our time she was swimming fearlessly with the sharks. We returned to a number of beaches, but Tanote Bay was definitely our favourite. This was unfortunate as it is rather a scary road that leads there. Certainly I have never seen a paved road more frightening to drive. Travel tip: check your bike is powerful enough to get up the hill, and the brakes are good enough to get you down safely!

Stranded on Koh Nang Yuan

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Two of Koh Nang Yuan’s three beaches

On our final day, we took a taxi boat to Koh Nang Yuan, a small island to the northwest of Koh Tao. The tiny little boat left Sairee Bay and bounced over big waves, soaking us completely as we made our way towards the smaller island. At times it felt like the boat would capsize, but finally we made it to land.

Koh Nang Yuan is famous for its “triple beach” – a stretch of white sand between three rocky islands that give this tiny place three connected beaches. One of these has a lovely coral reef that is known as the Japanese Garden and is where many people go to learn scuba diving. On Koh Nang Yuan we found ourselves laughing at a group of Chinese tourists waddling about in giant life jackets right by the water’s edge, shouting unnecessarily as the always do, and some even carrying umbrellas into the sea.

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One of the most hilarious sights in nature – Chinese people at the beach

When it came time to leave, we went to the little floating pier and waited for our taxi boat. One by one, all the other tourists left the island, but our boat never came back. We were stranded on Koh Nang Yuan. After a few hours, though, the taxi boat operator sent another boat to pick us up – a large vessel owned by a diving company. When we finally got back to Koh Tao, she was waiting on the pier and explained that the sea was simply too rough to risk picking us up. We weren’t angry – it had been an interesting adventure.

Leaving Koh Tao

The next day we were on a ferry back to the mainland, then a bus to the capital, and finally a plane back to China. It was a long journey with little in the way of sleep, and lots of rude Chinese to deal with, but finally we made it back home in time for the new academic semester.

Posted in essay

Fanciness with Chinese Characteristics

When I was living in South Korea, there used to be a joke which wasn’t really a joke – more of an astute observation offered as a lament of inevitability – about Western restaurants. People laughed through their frustration at the process whereby Western restaurants invariably declined in quality following a set pattern. It went something like this:

The quality would start out high as the owners maintained their ideals. Soon, foreigners would flock to get the good food and enjoy the unique atmosphere. This would cause the restaurant to be noticed by locals, who would see the international customer base and suddenly consider the restaurant as cool. Soon, the locals would begin to eat there partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to be hip themselves. It wouldn’t take long before they started to complain about the food because it didn’t suit their palette, and the quality would begin to decline pretty rapidly, eventually leading to an exodus of foreign customers, and all the items on the menu being replaced by local foods or pale imitations of the originals.

In China, and particularly in lower tier cities, this process has been sped up to an absurd degree. In fact, theoretical scientists would need to postulate new units of time to describe the speed with which the Chinese can ruin something nice. In Huainan, where I live, a few idealistic souls have attempted to introduce entirely alien concepts like cleanliness, ambiance, and taste, and these efforts have severely punished. I shall now present a case study of three such businesses.

 

The Italian Restaurant

We shall start our culinary tour of Huainan’s international side with the greatest restaurant ever to open its doors in this backwater town. Its owners were Chinese people who’d lived abroad and learned of the finer things in life. They opened a sprawling restaurant in the middle of Huainan, where they endeavoured to keep things authentic – genuine stone-baked pizzas, fine wines, beautifully-presented side dishes, the highest-quality imported ingredients, and impeccable service.

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Blueberry and Durian “Pizzas”

Alas, the denizens of Huainan are not wooed by such things. They would venture into the restaurant, complain that the food wasn’t Chinese enough, steal the silverware, let their children run riot, and act rudely towards the staff. Typical complaints include:

  • Can you make a pizza with durian and blueberry?
  • A real pizza should be thick like the ones I saw at Pizza Hut.
  • The pasta sauce doesn’t have enough sugar in it.
  • This steak isn’t charred to a crisp; how am I supposed to eat it?

The owners refused to lower their standards enough for the locals, and quickly went out of business.

The German Restaurant

The success of German beer throughout China in recent years has prompted the opening of a number of German restaurants throughout the land. They mostly sell a mix of inauthentic European cuisine and grossly-overpriced Chinese fare. This allows Chinese customers to visit an international restaurant without having to actually eat something unfamiliar.

Such a restaurant opened in Huainan, offering a very hit-and-miss menu. They had some genuinely impressive Western food and a range of exciting beers that could be found nowhere else in this tier 310 city. They even did very non-Chinese things like cleaning the bathrooms and providing soap at the sinks.

The owners were not as idealistic as those at the Italian restaurant, and happily compromised on quality by allowing for normal Chinese behavior:

  • Spitting on the floor
  • Putting feet on the table
  • Allowing tuhao customers let their kids and dogs run freely around the restaurant

Over time, the items on the menu became harder to order. The beer supply was seldom restocked, and only the items the Chinese wanted (fried rice, fried noodles, etc) were usually available. They would begin substituting important ingredients and switching cuts of meat, and eventually the service degenerated to the usual Chinese standard – the staff all playing on their phones and orders routinely forgotten.

After a little over a year, the German restaurant closed, and few people noticed or cared.

The Japanese Restaurant

I had the highest of hopes for the Japanese restaurant. It was, after all, part of a chain of restaurants, meaning that it would be forced to stick to a set menu rather than bow to local demands. Moreover, Japanese food is not so alien to Chinese palettes, and therefore less likely to offend the delicate sensibilities of the locals. Alas, it was to suffer a slow and steady decline.

This chain store provides a menu of mostly noodles, in a pretty peaceful, clean setting. As they serve Japanese food, a healthy dose of nationalist hatred keeps most of the locals away, and ensures mostly a younger, more open-minded crowd. However, it has never proven popular, and it is a mystery why the company even bothers funding this branch as it could clearly have never turned a profit.

As the months and years have passed, the staff has gotten lazier and the food blander. Getting served is only possible if you can shout really, really loudly – even when the restaurant is completely empty – and while the dishes are made to a strict formula, the quality of the ingredients has declined so severely that it’s like eating paper. Complaints are met with typical Chinese customer service skills: “So what?”

 

Conclusion

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“No Pooping in Public”

Perhaps it is absurd to expect nice things in a place where the government has had to put up signs that say, “No shitting in public.” After all, this is a town that is made fun of by even hicks from the most backwards burghs in the province.

Yet this process is a story that is true throughout the Middle Kingdom. People want to appear adventurous, but only within their own predefined boundaries; they want to walk outside their own comfort-zone, but only if they can act the same way as they do at home; they want to be international, but still thoroughly Chinese. And that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with importing an idea and adding local flavor (although I still maintain that putting durian and blueberry on pizza is among the vilest crimes of humanity). China long ago imported communism, calling their style of governance “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Now they are doing the same with the fancy things they import from abroad.

All across this country, expensive new buildings appear overnight, and foreign ideas are introduced every day. A few months ago, a big mall opened in Hefei and my friend reported that he walked in and saw dozens of brand new stores and restaurants selling expensive things, shiny decorations everywhere, and signs proclaiming how advanced and international the city had become because of this cosmopolitan, international mall.

“That sounds pretty fancy,” I said, over the phone.

“No,” he replied.  “There’s an old woman helping a baby to shit on the floor.”

The mall will probably make billions of RMB, and as China grows richer, more malls like it will be built in every town in the country, but there will always be someone taking a shit on the floor right there in the middle of it all. In many ways, China is just developing too fast for the people who live there, and if you’re looking for something nice, the best you can really hope for is “Fanciness with Chinese Characteristics.”

In the bigger cities, where people have been exposed to a bit of culture and taste, things are improving, and will probably continue to improve for years to come. Yet out in the sticks, where public defecation is the norm and where social mores haven’t changed since iron was invented—despite the proliferation of iPhones and blunt government propaganda to “Be More Civilized”—it might take a while before people can be expected to sit down to food that doesn’t still have its head and feet, go two minutes without spitting on the floor, or leave the restaurant without swiping the cutlery, crockery, and a few rolls of toilet paper for good measure.

As the country grows wealthier, the Chinese look west and decide what they want based upon what we have… but they want it on their own terms. And that’s fine. It’s their country. They want flashy malls and bars and cafes and theme parks and high-speed rail, but they want the right to spit and piss and poop in public because that’s their culture. I just wish they just leave pizza alone.

Posted in travel

Arriving in Lao

I crossed the border into Lao late this morning. It was the first time I’d set foot in the country for exactly five years, but only my first time in the south of Lao. Last time around I crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, and then saw Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This time, however, I’d crossed from Ubon Ratchathani by bus into Pakse, down in the far south, near the border with Cambodia.

It started with an alarm clock at 3:30am back in Chiang Mai, where I’d only just completed my intensive month-long CELTA course. Soon I was flying across the country to Ubon with Kan Air – a company I’d never heard of until I found their ridiculous discounts on Skyscanner last week. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the border on a Nokchaiair bus. Sadly, though, this seasoned traveller was foolish enough to fall for the Oldest Scam in Siam. At the border post, I agreed to pay my visa fee in Thai Baht instead of US Dollars, and consequently overpaid by $6. It’s hardly a crippling financial loss, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By midday I was at Pakse Southern Bus Station, getting fleeced by a tuk-tuk driver for $12 just to get into town. But there was little I could do. I was too far out and too tired to walk. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Pakse and began looking for hotels and bus tickets to the next place I was feeling like a novice on the road once again.

Pakse is an odd little city spread out across a stretch of land squeezed between jagged mountains and might river. There’s a sleepy little centre to the town where the Xe Don River converges with the big muddy Mekong as it slowly rolls towards the Cambodian border. Here, the European influence is felt in the colonial architecture along the veranda-lined streets of cafes. Elsewhere, the city more closely resembles other parts of Southeast Asia in its mix of traditional Asian and modern cement buildings. Overall, Pakse is markedly different from and more modern than the towns and cities I’d seen in the north.

After walking around a while I settled on the Lao Chaluen Hotel, which offered filthy but air conditioned rooms for about $15 per night, and then had lunch across the street at Xuanmai Restaurant, where I tried the lap lap (or laap?) chicken and a Beer Lao. Beer Lao has long been one of my favourite Asian beers and here, naturally, it is ubiquitous and inexpensive.

After lunch I took a walk around Pakse in the blazing 2pm sun. There was no one else foolish enough to be on the street at this time, and I had the city to myself. Along the banks of the might Mekong, cars had pulled up under the shade of large overhanging trees and drivers awkwardly slept with their feet dangling out of windows and doors flung open here and there. I stopped periodically to stare out over the enchanting brown waters to the mountainous jungle on the other side.

I considered staying another day in Pakse and renting a motorcycle to explore the surrounding countryside, but instead elected to move further south. Although Pakse is small and quiet, it is still too much a city for my provincial tastes. I booked a bus/ferry ride to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) for $7, with an alleged 8am start. After four weeks of relentless CELTA studying, I’m looking forward to relaxing in the sleepy environs of remote rural southern Lao. Besides, although Pakse isn’t without its charm, there isn’t much here to keep someone sticking around more than strictly necessary. It’s economy, for one thing, seems centered around transporting people to other places.

After an afternoon nap to escape the remainder of the heat, I ventured out for dinner and found a small hole in the wall called The Lao Restaurant, where I tried a beef and ginger dish that was simply described as “tradistionional Lao food.” I enjoyed it thoroughly, and several Beer Laos, before retiring to my hotel for the evening. On the way home I stared up into the stars, which were far more visible here than they had been in Chiang Mai, and tried to pick out a few constellations. It feels good to be in a place where a man can meander in the streets at night, staring lost into the depths of universe, without reprise.