A curious dusty town in the desert full of contradictions - holy cows eating plastic bags, a sacred lake with no water, and a priest who's more Dell Boy than Dalai Lama... welcome to the madness of Pushkar.
A camel safari? What a great idea! When reduced to trudging through the desert under a baking sun, we started to wonder what we had let ourselves in for...
Lao Lao with the locals
Step across the border into Laos and suddenly the pace of life drops dramatically. In both Vietnam and Cambodia, local entrepreneurs are hungry for your money – whether it’s Vietnamese moto drivers honking for your business or armies of doe-eyed young girls at Angkor Watt, shaming you into buying three mangoes and two pineapples in one go as they recite a long list of facts about your country: “Where you from? England? England capital city London with population 9 million, Prime Minister Gordon Brown…”. In Laos, more often than not, a restaurant owner will happily point you in the direction of his competitor, that is if he even acknowledges you at all, or if in fact you can even find him and then wake him up. It seems in Laos money doesn’t talk, but clearly a lot of time and patience does. Whether they have more money than their neighbouring countries, they simply have other priorities, or whether they have just consumed too much Lao Lao (more on this later) is not quite clear.
When it comes to getting around in Laos, transport is much of an – at times frustrating, but usually interesting – adventure. If you’re not riding a clapped out bus piled high with rice, pigs, goats and chickens, you’ll be bouncing along in the back of a pick up truck with 30 others and a few on the roof. You may have thought you bought a bus ticket to a particular destination, but don’t be surprised if you get dropped off 5km away and have to pay pay for a boat or another bus at the end. 6 hour bus journey? Give yourself 12 hours, as the bus will no doubt stop every 10 minutes for no clear reason. You need to leave your London head behind and readjust your brain permanently to Laos time.
Communicating with the locals is an entertaining but challenging experience. With only a limited vocabulary at our disposal, we’re often reduced to pointing at things and saying the words, accompanied by actions and hysterical laughter. It’s only when you imagine the situation in reverse that you realise how sublimely ridiculous you have become. How would we react if some random tourists from Laos came up to us in London and started mispronouncing ‘cat’ ‘chilli’ ‘beer’ etc, whilst pointing at each item and then bursting into fits of laughter? We’d probabaly edge away slowly. Bizarrely, the word we have used the most has been ‘beard’ – as the locals seem most entertained by the Turk and the Italian’s facial hair. In Laos, they clearly don’t do beards.
Something that always seems to help the conversation flow a little easier is Lao Lao, the ubiquitous homemade ‘whisky’ (although I don’t think any self-respecting Scot would accept it being classified as such). Usually made from sticky rice, it bears a striking resemblance both in look and smell to the petrol sold in old pepsi bottles at the side of the road – and probably isn’t any better for your stomach.
One cycling trip around the island of Don Khong in the Mekong Delta ended rather less healthily, as one of the bikes broke down, and within minutes we were urged to sit down and a plastic bottle of Lao Lao appeared as the bike was repaired.
It was clearly not the first bottle of the day, altough it was only 2pm – certainly at least for one chap, who claimed to be a French professor in the local school, despite only being able to repeat the phrase: “Madamoiselle… Donnez moi l’argent pour acheter le Beer Lao” (translation: Miss – give me money to buy Beer Lao) whilst practically foaming at the mouth. A bizarre hour ensued with wild hand gestures, numerous episodes of counting to ten, attempts at speaking English, Laos, Italian and French – at times turning into an incoherent babble as all the languages combined in one chaotic crescendo. For some reason, one fellow was particularly interested in a bar of soap we had just purchased. After 15 minutes of some rather lewd gesticulations, we finally understood that he was suggesting the soap be used in the manner of a ping pong ball in a Bangkok lady show. Quite why this came up in conversation (if you can call it a conversation when you can’t actually understand each other) I have no idea, but it made for a highly amusing game of charades.
One hour and one bottle of Lao Lao later, we wobbled our way back on our bikes in considerably higher spirits than before. It’s amazing how a bottle of home brew can allow you to communicate with complete strangers with whom you share no common language. Such is the beauty of Lao Lao. From that day we took to carrying a bottle with us at all times, to serve as a helpful conversation opener. People’s reactions when you produce a bottle seem to be mixed – some reluctantly swallow with a grimace, others (usually Tuk Tuk drivers) slug it back with gleeful abandon. Either way, at only 5,000 kip (about 50p) a bottle, a little Lao Lao goes a long way…