Feb 23, 2007

The Road Back From Up North

Dump Truck Full of Crushed Rock Road to Huay Xai

My ride home began as a way to avoid a road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vien in Laos. My wife had called and asked me to fly and my embassy had asked all citizens not to use the road. I’ve always been aware that there is a risk associated with using this road even if somewhat small. Not able to book a flight from the town I was in I went down the road to Huay Xai where there are flights four times a week and boats down the Mekong as well as the border with Thailand and all of it’s modern transportation system.
Some day soon the Luang Namtha / Huay Xai road will be the best road in Laos, that day can’t come too soon for me. For now it’s a hundred and eighty kilometre long construction site. To be fair probably a third is surfaced and graded, another third is graded with crushed rock road base and the remainder is graded but two inches deep in dust. Dust drifted up through the floorboards and covered everything.
The new bus station is convenient for the taxi mafia fifteen kilometres out of town and near the airport. The next days flight was full. I crossed the river into Thailand and waited for a six pm mini van to Chang Mai. All the mini vans headed in the opposite direction seemed to disgorge at the guest house where I was waiting. The guest house workers graciously arranged Lao visas for all the arriving backpackers for no charge. I guess they didn’t count the extra ten to twenty dollars apiece they were charging, or maybe my calculator was malfunctioning. They were making an extra hundred dollars an hour while I was there. Slightly sleazy. They should have been up front about the commission and not lied.
The minibus driver wasn’t that great, kept playing with the gas pedal but at about a half past midnight we rolled into Chang Mai and without a how dee doo the driver parked at a guest house a half a block from the Tapae Gate in the old quarter. For a tourist it doesn’t get much more down town than that.
I’d given up talking to the other passenger a few hours ago. All he wanted to do was talk about all the wood he was exporting from Laos into Thailand for re export to Italy and Australia. I’m not real big on Laos being turned into a scruffy dry low canopy country like Thailand has become and he just couldn’t seem to drop the subject. Of course what he was doing is very illegal. It seemed as if half the north of Thailand was on fire. Not the big blazes from slash and burn but only the small creeping flames from leaves, all over the hillsides.
Sengthian and I left Chang Mai more than ten years ago on the first leg of our trip to the United States. I’m familiar with the city even when it’s a long ways past my bedtime. I told the tuk tuk driver to take me to the arcade bus station even though there weren’t any busses running.

I was now in a hurry. My youngest daughter had been having diarria and on my last cell phone call before I went out of range of Lao cell phone coverage in Thailand my wife told me she was taking her over the border to Thailand and a good hospital in the morning. My daughter Thipalada was starting to droop. The international clinic in Vientiane recommended she be put on an IV to rehydrate and so on, but they didn’t want to take the responsibility of doing so themselves. Our insurers help line had suggested we cross the border for treatment at a modern hospital. Our daughter is only fifteen months and I know for babies in Laos having the squirts can be cause for concern.

The big hotel at the bus station looked like a big massage parlour, all gaudied up with Grecian motifs and rooms for twenty dollars. The tuk tuk man took me around the corner for less than half the price and no hot and cold running girls.

Five hours sleep and a shower later I caught the first thing moving south to Pitsianalook, a major hub on the way to Bangkok with connections to Isaan. The route south should have been all familiar territory, I’ve driven it on a motorcycle many times but in ten years things change. One of the really nice parts was that the whole road is now two lanes in both directions and mostly a divided highway. We stopped in Lampang where I first taught English probably fifteen years ago.

Ticket taker in front of the bus at the Lampang Bus station

There were no buses out of Pitsianalook headed in my direction until six at night. The bus to Udonthani was an ordinary without assigned seats. I got a place to sit at around eleven thirty as people got off and the bus became less crowded. The first few hours were very hot, I couldn’t see well but I saw the signs for Lamsak and knew we were in my old stomping grounds where Isaan blends with central Thai. I could tell we were on the road to Loei just by the contortions the bus was put through over the mountain roads. I drove that road on a Honda crotch rocket my first trip to Laos making a visa run. I kept telling myself that what was taking one hour in Thailand often took six or ten on the roads of Laos.

I thought I was familiar with Udonthani, walk thirty yards to get out of the station and stumble rightwards to a cheap hotel. The walk out of the station at half past one in the morning kept seeming five times as far, I did it twice trying to figure it out. Nothing seemed to be clicking. A tuk tuk carrying a monk stopped and I got on before I even negotiated a price. I kept trying to remember if the bus station I was thinking of was in Udonthani, Nong Khai, or any one of a million other towns in Asia I’ve been in. Too little sleep and I had dozed off on the bus.

For the record there are two bus stations in Udonthani, I was at the other one. After another five hours sleep and a shower I wandered back into my familiar bus station and was immediately pushed onto an overnight sleeper bus that had rolled in out of Pataya, they didn‘t even give me a ticket. I was half groggy and no longer even attempting to speak Thai, I figure if they don’t understand Lao in Isaan well the hell with them. What the other passenger thought was funny was that my Lao sounds like I come from the country side. For Lao speakers of Isaan, the Lao from Laos sounds old fashioned.

Sengthian anticipating that I would be coming into range of Lao cell coverage had gone out close to where the elevators were in the hospital and there was good reception. About ten minuets out of Nong Khai she told me what hospital they were at and that Thipalada was fine. I was pretty happy to see them.

Both of my girlfriends

They were just about ready to go but had been waiting for me to get there. The Thai paediatrician hadn’t given Thipalada any antibiotics yet proffering to let her fight off the infection herself as long as possible. When I got there a nurse injected the initial dose into the IV and the doctor came in to talk to me and write a prescription for more doses so that I could pay the bill and buy the drugs downstairs all at the same time.

At the window for paying bills I quickly scanned the itemized bill looking for the grand total first. Baht 4,250, a little over a hundred dollars US. Of course I paid first then brought the receipts upstairs to get us all checked out as the nurse had suggested.

Later I looked at the itemized bill, it was in English. Three days two nights private room with extra beds for my wife, her sister, and my son. Six charges for the paediatrician, various IV solutions and needles, drugs, a long list of tests on urine and blood and stool I didn’t understand, friendly English speaking nursesI should cross the river more often.

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