Along the Way: New Years Eve in Pakse, Laos

The taxi driver sang to me the entire drive from Suwannaphum to Yasothon (about 30 miles). As a female farang, I was given the passenger seat, like first class in this type of travel, sitting next to the squatty, happy man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice. I didn’t mind it either. It was a nice alternative to the broken radio.

His songtao – a multi-purpose vehicle in Thailand, essentially a pickup converted into a bus with two, long bench seats in the back and a luggage (or excess passenger carrier) rack on top – was quite full, with people hanging off the back. I was lucky to have a cushioned, air-conditioned seat up front.

The cab was adorned with photographs of the young King and a few famous monks. The driver wore several religious charms around his neck and appeared to be quite a holy man, until I looked down and saw his steering column.

Around it hung a variety of wooden penises, one in every shape, size and color of wood. The dangling man parts appeared out of character for such a dedicated worshiper, so I expected him to be shy when I asked to take a picture. Instead, he proudly showed them off and explained in Thai that they mean good luck: Sabai dee be mai. Fittingly, this expression also means “Happy New Year,” which is exactly the reason I was headed to Laos.

We arrived in Yasothon just as my bus to Pakse was leaving the bus station. Mai pen rai, my driver said. He flagged down the bus driver, parked in the middle of the four-lane highway and ushered me into the V.I.P. bus that blocked an entire lane of traffic when it stopped. This was definitely going to be a good (and interesting) trip.

In Ubon Ratchathani, I changed routes again. Boarding the international bus, I had my first glimpse into what life would be like for the next four days: Lazy. I didn’t think life could get much more slugglish than the pace in which I’ve become accustomed while living in northeastern Thailand, but I’ve been proven wrong. Everything in Laos is slower and less organized.

At the border, the driver let us out and signaled us to walk across. He would meet us on the other side, after we escaped customs. Back on the road, everything seemed different. We were now driving on the right side (which felt weird after so long in Thailand), and he used the horn for everything. We slowed just enough to let the passing water buffalo cross our lane. A few miles later it was a cow, then a chicken, followed by a pig. In Thailand, these animals are usually tied to the side of busy roads, but in Laos, you might actually get a gourmet meal from road kill.

Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) was my destination, but when I finally arrived in Pakse, I had missed the bus to go there. I was trying to avoid spending New Years Eve in one of the sleepiest towns in the country, according to Lonely Planet, but I didn’t have a choice. I checked into a hotel and headed out to find some dinner.

I walked, and walked, and walked. It was 8pm and nothing was open, but I continued walking down a long, dark stretch of road toward city lights when a local girl about my age and her family invited me to join their sidewalk party. The beer was flowing and the celebration was in full swing. I happily accepted.

Using my very basic knowledge of Thai (the languages are very similar and they usually understand both) and lots of hand signals, I managed to explain that I was a teacher, and I was hungry. Shortly after, food appeared on the mat we were sitting around, and two men, who were studying English in university, joined the party to practice with me.

When 11pm rolled around, the party was over and everybody headed for bed. It was a late night for them, explained Mr. Vic, as he wanted to be called, and more often than not they are in bed by 8pm to be ready for the next workday. It’s a nationwide law in Laos that bars must close at midnight, though many people nod off well before. Mr. Vic offered me a motorbike ride back to my hotel if I would go take a tour of the Pakse Hotel, where he works.

It was gorgeous. It is one of the tallest buildings in Pakse, boasting a spectacular rooftop bar. It’s probably one of the best in the city. We had a drink (on the house) and watched the fireworks (one every ten minutes), as I promised Mr. Vic I will stay at his hotel the next time I visit.

While there isn’t much to see in Pakse, my stopover proved as a reminder that getting to your destination is sometimes the best part of a journey, and that travel is much more about the people you meet along the way than the places you see. I had already had one of the best weekends of my life, and my vacation had yet to start.

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