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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 22, August 1, 2002
Koh San Man, Hot Wet Monks, In-Toilet Massage.
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Photos: Jon Redding in the Big Jars Galley:

 

Kho San Man

I was worried. By the time we came to leave Indonesia
in a sort of culinary equivalent of Stockholm syndrome - Iactually started to like the foodmmm monotony. I donreally know what happened, but somehow, in our last few weeks in ndoI started to crave the bland stuff Ibeen railing against. Morning, noon and night would see me queuing at the warung, desperate to eat exactly the same fried rice-based meal.

But Bangkok quickly cured me of this. The Thai devotion to matters gastronomic astounding, easily up there with that of France and Italy. Food vendors are everywhere and selling everything: from donuts to savoury rice puddings to excoricatingly hot curries. After the vapidity of Bali Bangkok also had real life: what energy! What animation! This, I thought, is where we should have come instead. Even the Kho San Road (so often dismissed as Backpacker Benidorm) seemed to have an agreeable bustle and purpose to it. Perhaps, I thought in my star-stuck state, it even represented a genuine sociological phenomenon; whatever, it certainly deserved more of a chance than most gave it.

Well, it got it. On our second day there, we both developed mild food poisoning. No really big deal, you understand, nothing like the week of oyster-induced evisceration that had crippled me a few Christmases back. But enough to ensure we had neither the energy nor the inclination to leave the area of our hotel, some two streets back from the Kho San. Thus, we had the chance to examine the environs Kho San in far greater depth than we would have otherwise done.

And, my God, it is an awful place. Once upon a time it must have been OK. But nowadays the people who throng it are now largely a sort of traveling pond life. Initially, I fought this thought
youe one of them, I told myself. But I soon realised I had no more in common with most of this lot than I have with the kind of wankers who ask you if youe staring at them in Home Counties pubs. Sad to say, but Thailand has become a mainstream destination and the egg 創・chips brigade are there to stay.

Kho San Style.

Actually, there
quite a distinctive ho San lookAnd you too enjoy the sense of style and savoir-faire it conveys by following these simple steps. Get a tattoo a really, really bad Celtic design is nice and, of course, bigger the better. Get some piercings (not in your ears, stupid), but in clever places like your eyebrows, lip, chin, etc. (If youe a girl) have your hair dread-plaited - this is particularly effective if you have very pale skin and dark hair for maximum scalp-contrast. (If youe a boy) buy a hang Beeror ed Bullvest and wear this no matter how ill defined your physique; better yet wear nothing at all on top, allowing the world to appreciate your ag of spudstorso. And, a relatively recent innovation: donwash! How clever, original (and cheap) to define yourself with your own distinctive odour. Above all, make sure that no matter how you choose to express your individuality, there are at least 20,000 other people doing exactly the same thing.

Right, you
e got the look. Now you need to apply the same thinking to your thinking. If you talk to anyone, make sure that what comes out of your mouth is the same identikit travellerbabble. When someone asks you a question, spend 20 minutes talking absolute crap about all the amayyzing places youe been. Just make sure you dongo anywhere off the beaten track; if the Lonely Planet gives it less than a chapter, itreally not worth your while. And, if anyone you meet tells youe theye been somewhere you haven, politely ignore them and move the conversation on to how stoned you got up in Chang Mai.

But if I had expected dullness and the conformity of nonconformity, nothing prepared me for the kind of shape the denizens of travellerville were in. I was expecting everyone to be a bit like us
sort of lean, skinny and like they could do with a good meal. Nothing could have been further from the truth - huge numbers of them had that fat, pink puffy look you get from drinking plenty of booze in the sun and doing no exercise. And this was especially true of the girls. Jesus, they looked terrible. I remember starting a conversation and after the usual banal pleasantries, one of them asked Jane how old she was. Jane replied that she was 29. oue eight years older than methe girl said. She looked an out of shape 35 and she was by no means exceptional. I don't know how many of them would get the reference but they all look a bit like the boozy ex-pats, all flabby minds and flabby bodies, of a Graham Greene novel.

As well as confining us to Kho San Road, food poisoning also limited our diets somewhat: instead of tasty Thai dishes, I had to spent my time eating crappy, gut-blocking quantities western fast food, thus ensuring, I had a pretty authentic Kho San experience. So all in all, Bangkok was a complete washout. Had I not had a spectacularly liquid large intestine, I don
doubt that I would have enjoyed it more. But even so, what little I saw, confirmed my suspicion that Thailand is rapidly becoming the new Spain.

Frenchies

After this, Vientiane was a delight. For starters, the second you leave Thailand 80% of the Brits (and a far higher proportion of the grottier ones) melt away. As I have said before, the British are unbelievably conservative tourists and, clearly, even taking an overnight train to Laos is too adventurous an undertaking for most of them. What you do get, however is a lot of French. Which is fine with me. The French may be considered rude and obnoxious and generally get a fairly bad press. But at least they are interested in culture and don
turn anywhere they visit in large numbers to shite.

Of course, the reason that the French come here in numbers is that Laos used to be a French colony. And they left a useful legacy. For along with the indigenous food which is fine and fiery stuff, the city has a profusion of decent French restaurants; this despite the fact that it
a sleepy little place somewhat smaller (and far less frantic) than Cambridge. It is interesting here to note, that everywhere that was colonised by the Brits has good railways and curiously smooth bureaucracy while all former French colonies have good bread and coffee.

For us, Vientiane also had the plus of a ready-made social group. Jethro, a bloke I know from home lives there, his brother Dan was visiting and Jon Redding and Mallice (friends from Letchworth) were also in town. After Indonesia (where no-one speaks English) and the Kho San Road (where everyone speaks it but no-one is worth talking to) this was a fabulous prospect indeed. So, the first night we were there we went to a party got well and truly sloshed on Beer Lao in true ex-pat style. Nothing wrong with this, but it set my intestinal recovery back a good three days. The next day, I compounded my problems by ordering a laap (a sort of spicy salad) hot. You should never order anything hot in Laos: this had so much chilli in it that my lips changed colour and doubled in size and I almost cried; as you can imagine the effect on my still delicate digestion were nothing short of devastating.

Hot wet monks

Apart from my ongoing need for lavatorial proximity, we had another problem. Laos has a rainy season that runs from July to October. And while many other countries have pathetic, nancy rainy seasons, in Laos, the rainy season means business. Everything I have done in Laos takes the suffix
n the pissing rainwee still talking about a rain-shine ratio of about fifty to one. Still, in such inclement weather being British is an obvious advantage. So, the next day, we ate breakfast in the rain then spent the afternoon at a temple in the rain. Quite a special temple, actually, as it came with a sauna attached. I heartily approve of this arrangement, since as everyone knows (but no guidebook will ever admit) temples are actually rather dull. But, if you can go to a temple, get your culture fix and relax in herbal steam with Buddhist monks, well, that puts a slightly different complexion on things. So we spent the afternoon as happy as pigs in steam, although, in the fog of the sauna, one of the monks did get a little fresh with Jon.

Toilet Massage

On our final day in Vientiane (and the day before we had to get up for a 12 hour bus journey), we went out clubbing, Laos style. First we drank plenty of Beer Lao (Lao: one government, one beer) then we watched a Vientiane version of the police, a sort of Laotian ska band, after which we experienced some Laos mixing. Then, I noticed the weirdest thing: a girl on the dance floor, boogying away clutching her copy of the Lonely Planet, the backpacker equivalent, perhaps of a handbag. It truly was a beautiful traveler moment and we all saluted her for keeping it so real. But there was a far bigger surprise in store. In the boys
loo, I was there at the urinal, disposing of my Laos beer and the toilet attendant was suddenly behind me. Then he was massaging my head. I looked at the bloke in the next urinal and he too was having his head massaged and having a good laugh at my obvious surprise. And apparently this is quite the done thing. In many respectable Laotian establishments, rather than hand you a towel and demand a quid, the attendant offers you a head massage, gratis, while you piss. Goodness knows what you get if you go for a dump but I certainly intend to find out. Watch this space.