We got picked up at 7:30, an ungodly time of the morning when it was still fleece and trousers weather. On the plus side, it could be worse: our friends Paul and Fi who are also travelling have just left Russia, which is considerably colder. Too cold for my liking. I'm definitely a sun bunny.
We didn't actually need to get up so early as it happened, since the bus took us to the station to pick up more people, and then back again...right past our guesthouse. That's an hour's sleep missed. Ah well. The promised 9 hour drive took 10 hours but we're used to Laos time now, and it didn't come as a surprise. We had a stop for lunch and fried fish was once again on the menu, but unfortunately not spicy. It filled a gap, however, and with the fruit, Pringles and chocolate wafers we'd brought, we didn't go hungry. The road to Sam Neua was much less winding than the road to Phonsavan, and whilst the seats weren't as comfortable I found the drive more bearable for reading.
On Rob's Bookshelf
Since starting out on our trip I have ploughed through a few books:
- A Clash of Kings, George R R Martin:The second book in Martin's excellent series "A Song of Ice and Fire". The first book, A Game of Thrones was adapted for TV earlier this year, whilst the second is coming out in 2012. Any fantasy fan worth their salt should read Martin's work, he is utterly peerless. This was my second read through and was as rewarding as the first. He's up to book 5 of a proposed 7 book set, and I've only read the first 4 previously so I'm looking forward to getting on to the fifth in due course.
- The Damage Done, Peter Woolf: Bought at Orn's Bookshop in Chiang Rai, this is a true story of a professional London criminal and drug addict who turns his life around after trying a new type of rehabilitation. Gilly bought this and I wasn't particularly keen on reading it at first, but it was actually very interesting and not the kind of "misery memoir" it may have been if the author had been more sentimental and less matter-of-fact.
- The Accidental Time Machine, Joe Haldeman:A straightforward and enjoyable time travel tale from the author of the excellent "The Forever War", this was my choice at Orn's Bookshop. Both of us read it, and both enjoyed it. It isn't hard sci-fi by any stretch, and is a quick, fun read.
- The Simulacra (S.F. Masterworks), Philip K Dick:I'm a big fan of Dick's work, but this was a little disappointing compared to some of his other offerings. All of the author's staples are in place: political commentary, satire, fascination with smoking, oppressed alien race, WWII anachronisms. However, the underlying story itself isn't particularly coherent, and the governmental structure isn't explained well enough for the denouement to be satisfying.
- Breakdown at Tiffany's and other stories, David Braga: This is a collection of short stories by my good friend Dave. With an eye for making the everyday interesting, a great sense of humour, and a consistently enjoyable knack of turning a normal story on its head in the closing paragraphs ("Shadows", "Death in the Village", and "Shopping" immediately spring to mind), this e-book is well worth 69p of anybody's money.
We arrived at Sam Neua, took a sawngthaew to the centre and checked into what we thought was a guesthouse recommended in the guidebook: Khaemxam. It turns out that we'd actually gone to Sa Ne Khaemxam and the guesthouse we were looking for was just around the corner. We took a look at this first one anyway, and were pleasantly surprised: comfortable bed, en suite, and even a TV. It looks to be run by a husband and wife team, and seemed pretty empty. Carolyn and Brian, two Canadians who we'd got to know on the bus were with us, and Carolyn bargained the completely nutty wife down to 60,000 kip per night, which was a complete steal. After dumping our bags, we wandered around the very small town and came across some sort of telecom-sponsored event happening in the town hall. It looked like a pop concert of sorts from the cardboard cut-outs, posters and stands selling CDs and DVDs - we asked at the door and they told us that we could go in for free, despite Laos people having to pay. I guess being a farang has its benefits occasionally. Inside we were treated to a packed auditorium of around 400-500 people, mostly kids, with more cut-outs of Laos or possibly Thai pop pin-ups on stage with funky haircuts and names like "Tan" and "Fresh". We couldn't tell if it was an ensemble of different artists, or a Laos version of S Club 7. We stayed to hear a girl and then a guy sing, with mixed ability, whilst the kids in the audience screamed and pleaded to be given free merchandise from the two MCs who couldn't have been older than 20. It was certainly a surreal experience.
Afterwards we ended up at Chittavanh restaurant. Gilly ordered "Pork noodle soup with roll" which turned out to be noodle soup with balls of ("rolled") pork meat. At least, that's what we assume - it was grey and fairly unappetising. I ordered fried rice with chicken which came, inexplicably, with a fried egg on top, as well as Fried Noodle Roll which I expected to be spring rolls but were delivered as the spring roll filling without the corn paper wrapping. Language translations aside, it wasn't a bad meal.
We have a day to kill tomorrow before we can cross into Vietnam, so we will likely mooch around, check out the tourist information centre, and catch up on some reading. There doesn't appear to be any places with wi-fi in the town, and my Kindle can't pick up any sort of mobile 2G or 3G signal, so it looks like internet cafes are our only option for trying to book ahead for accommodation.