In Praise of Crap Towns

9 Mar

Here we are, in Savannakhet, Laos, the third-largest city in the People’s Republic, as all 120,000 inhabitants would, I’m sure, be pleased to tell you, if they gave a shit, and loving every minute of it (although I am slightly mystified by my son’s ineffable instinct to seek out the single most expensive restaurant in any one-horse dorp he hits).

The bus was a bit crap, as buses should be, and late, c’est-la-vie, but full of local people, also present and correct. When we got off, there was ONE (count him!) tuk-tuk driver.

“You want tuk-tuk?” he says, after a decent pause.

“No, thank you,” I say, for probably the hundredth time in the last three weeks. “I’d rather walk. We walk.”

He shrugs. Disappears to the shade. Chills out and awaits a new fare.

End of!

I would like to say we pootled off. However, Z is carrying 7 kilos, or thereabouts, I’m carrying north of 20kg (each time I finish a book I buy a bloody new one, don’t I?), so waddle would probably be a more appropriate verb.

If I could see us from the outside, I’d piss myself at what we’re carrying. But it’s either that, ditch laptops, ditch books, ditch medikit (not a good idea given the amount of comedy injuries we accumulate every day), or do laundry every other day.

Sumus, ergo waddle(us).

Plus, backpacks are designed in one of two ways. For kids as school bags — right size straps, but no padding, and not designed to take weight, so they cut into the shoulders — or for adults as daypacks — great webbing, very soft, could last all day, but the straps and webbing are the wrong size, so they pull away from his back, doubling the moment.

I am not sure quite what to do about this. But Laos is obviously the wrong place to address it, and I just couldn’t face the haggling in Vietnam.

Anywise, we “walk” to the Mekong entirely unmolested, bar the odd mutual eye contact/wave etc..

There are kids doing handstands in the street, a cul de sac of Chinese laundries, temples, churches, stores, the Mekong. If we wanted to stop and talk, we could. If we wanted to just stop, we could.

It’s not that there’s no tourism in Laos. We’re staying in a really sweet guesthouse. Old colonial villa, grandmotherly lady owns it, tiled floors, courtyard, staircases, marble tables, peeling paint, knackered wardrobe, kooky bathroom, generations of school certificates on the wall, utterly tranquil (at least till we arrived) and five dollars a night.

She has some leaflets about stuff we could do (most of it still in development), but hasn’t offered us any.

Plus, her grandson(?), who is ten, has a skateboard and a football, and Z is definitely chuffed.

There’s an ecoguide place here. You can hire bikes. There’s a dinosaur museum (they’re very proud of their dinosaurs in Laos, they’re on the border gates and roundabouts, and after the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap, Z no longer expects animatronics or interactive touchscreen guides). They have even thought to signpost the river.

But nobody is trying to sell us anything!

I’m trying to think whether my instant affection for people who are nice and don’t treat you as a cashpoint is neo-colonial, or similar. I don’t think it is that “lovely friendly simple locals” patronising tip.

I think it’s how we are in London. People wander around. You let them be. They ask for help. You help them out. You want them to have a good time in your city, and your country. And to do that, most of the time, you let them be.

Which is probably why some people find the Lao, like Londoners, Germans, Parisians and Israelis, quite offy. It’s that combination of a respect for personal space with a bawdy, pratfall sense of humour, and an apparent quietness that could, I guess, appear not simply disinterested but rude.

Whatevs. We like it here.

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