Monday 6th December

Wind, so another cancelled flight. I feel sorry for Mr. Nigs, as Ratchasak and Pantip call him. Thai society being highly socially aware, the form of address is important. The rest of our party are referred to by our first names because that is how they were introduced and the Thai find our surnames as hard to remember and pronounce as we do theirs. As Ratchasak and Pantip work out who's who they automatically refer to them as Mr. Nigs, Mr. Yutakit. To my slight embarrassment I'm now Mr. Geoff because of my role as tutor of English to Pantip. As if that wasn't enough, our Thai friends have now decided that some of us should be given Thai names. Robert is "Mam Khow" (King of the Rice), while mine is "Charoen" which you might translate as "successful". Well, we shall see.

Today we travel across the Mekong River to Laos for the day. Our Thai departure documents are removed from our passports and on the other side we fill in two more forms for Laos immigration. Our expensive visa stamps seem to be in order and we board two minibusses for an hours tour of the city of Savannakhat. Laos is still under socialist influence as evidenced by the hammer & sickle flags flying alongside the Laotian ones outside public buildings, although not so much as before the Russians pulled out taking much of their equipment and expertise with them. It is a poor country compared to Thailand and apart from some minerals its main assets lie in its hardwood forests. It's a difficult and delicate job to make the transition. For example, the local city population is divided more or less equally between farm workers and government officials. These latter earn the equivalent of about 400 baht per month (8,000 kip or £6 sterling). By way of comparison this sum would buy perhaps 15 bowls of rice noodles: a pair of trousers would cost about 500 baht. So you see that it is not possible to live on this salary without taking on other outside work. Most workers, were were told, travel outside where food is half the city price to eat with their families. For all that the people reckon that things have improved vastly over the last ten years and are generally happy although, like the Burmese, quite a few of them would rather be in Thailand. Here on the border the Thai immigration police have to mount regular raids and roadblocks (we passed one last night on our way to the Snake Village) to try and keep the levels of illegals to an acceptable level. The Laotians are regarded as trouble when in a group and a significant proportion of stolen Thai vehicles of all types often reappear in Laos.

There are two famous Wats here and we visit the more important one first. The principle stupa, or tower, is Laotian Buddist and is more properly called a chedi. This one contains two vertebrae of Buddah. Behind its wall the complex is like a small town with monks of all ages from about 6 years (protomonks?) upward. The abbot here is second in the Laotian heirarchy and is 102 years old. He graciously agrees to give (the men only) an audience and we are greeted by this frail and saintly-looking man sat on his prayer mat beside his bed in a modest room which he rarely leaves now. He has two younger monks to look after him. We kneel respectfully in a semi-circle around him, being careful not to point the soles of our feet towards him - considered most disrespectful in Thailand. No, he doesn't object to pictures, so I take a digital one and hand the camera to him via his assistant for him to see the result. He inspects the small image carefully and hands the camera back gravely, but his eyes are twinkling. He must have read our thoughts because he tells us via Yutakit that despite his great age his hearing and eyesight are still keen. I notice that he neither wears or appears to need glasses, so he's one up on me in that respect. He calls for a receptacle and blesses the contents and then us. We each receive directly from his hands a small bronze medallion of Buddha. I say each, for the women are not allowed here and are waiting outside. Robert ventures an opinion concerning this for which I'm sure the girls will exact their revenge later.

A very agreeable lunch in a restaurant follows, which we are concious would be well above the means of the locals, followed by a trip outside the city to another Wat, where the men burn joss-sticks at the main shrine in the chedi. The Treasury is opened for us to inspect, where I commit a faux pas by telling Pauline that it's OK for her to enter as long as she takes her shoes off. Wrong move. Mortified, she is waved out, the pair of us scarlet with embarrassment. The view of the images from the door is perfectly adequate, however. On the return to the ferry a spot of retail therapy is taken in a large produce market built, we are told, with Japanese money. Bananas and mangostenes are bought for consumption. The later is a type of hard-cased fruit about the size of an apple which peels open with some difficulty to reveal soft white segnments that taste like a cross between a mandarin orange and a lychee. Delicious.

Back at the river border we lose our departure forms and board the Thai ferry, the Laotian one having stopped for the day at 1500. We think this is to make sure that all farang are safely out of the country before dark, but are less sure of the reasoning behind it. On the other side, guess what, another set of Thai immigration forms to complete. At least Mags and Nigs have left and re-entered the country legitimately to extend their permits to stay longer than the standard 30 days. There is a 1000 baht per day fine for breaking this.

Back at the hotel for a rest before the evening meal which is taken at the same restaurant as last night, an indication of the level of satisfaction with the cuisine. The cause of our strong winds is revealed - a high pressure system over mainland China and an equally massive low over the South Japanese Sea. There are many cyclones spinning off to the west from this and one such has just dumped 50cm of rain overnight over the Vietnam coast, already suffering from extensive flooding a month ago. Given that we're only 250 km from the it's not surprising that it's a bit brisk. This might well mean no more flying, but we'll have to re-assess the situation when we reach Ubon Ratchathani which lies 150 km to the south. A large frontal system running North/South has passed over the hotel this evening and the clear skies behind it look encouraging.

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