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A Helicopter Ride to Nowhere

up, up and away CHIANGMAI IS A GREAT starting point for exploring the surrounding Mekhong region comprising Myanmar, China and Laos. Direct international air connections go to all these places which can bring a new dimension to a holiday. Chiangmai is also a wonderful center for businessmen, whether they be traders, writers, consultants or financiers. Our roving reporter is one of this group who choose to live in Chiangmai and use it as a hub to travel the region. Here he tells us of a recent visit to Sayaboury Province in western Laos.

I was asked to go to Sayaboury by an old friend in Europe to do a little job for him. "Where" I asked him "on earth is it?". It turns out that Sayaboury is the bit of Laos that lies west of the Mae Khong River, and next to Thailand's Nan Province. Easy to get to, I thought, but I was wrong. Sayaboury can be reached overland from Luang Prabang, or even through Loei in Thailand's Northeast. It can even be accessed by river downstream from Luang Prabang, or upstream from Vientiane. The river ride is great, either a slow cruise relaxing on the roof of one of the sedate ferries, or at breakneck speed on one of the long-tail flyers wearing life-jacket and crash hat.

But "No," my friend told me, "you'll have to go to Vientiane first. It's a tight schedule and you'll need to take the domestic flight from Vientiane, and then go back there to finish the job."

I settled myself into the cramped confines of my seat on the Lao Aviation flight to Luang Prabang and Vientiane on board the trusty old S7 twin-prop at Chiangmai airport. There were only 10 other passengers and in fact I could spread myself out until joining passengers boarded in Luang Prabang, and I spent the rest of the flight with my knees squeezed up around my chin. A bit of work in Vientiane and then next day off to the airport with my Lao colleague.

Our flight was finally called and out we went to the apron. There's some mistake, I thought, as we neared our transport for there was an elderly Mi 8 military transport helicopter all done up in Lao Aviation livery. From the crowd around the door I guessed that a lot of relatives had come to see their kinfolk off, but I was wrong. This hoard of humanity were to be my travelling companions. My arrival on the scene caused great consternation as I listened to the chirpy Lao comments. "Is our overseas friend going to fly in this?" one said. Another wondered whether I might be afraid, and I wondered why they had said it. Eventually I swapped my boarding card for the in-flight service package, a can of a certain cola beverage, a face towel and a sick bag, and boarded the craft.

Inside the "helicop" was enough seating for about 17. All 33 of us squeezed into these seats, and I then caused great mirth by looking for a lap-strap. Once it was clear that such things were not part of the fittings of ex-army helicopters, I then relaxed and took in my surroundings. I came face to face with my travelling bag crammed in with all the other luggage that one expects to find - a motorcycle, gently dripping fuel from its gas tank, a dozen enormous plastic bags filled with water and hundreds of fish fry - you know, routine stuff. Dominating the whole scene was a bright yellow cylinder about 2 metres long and 80 centimeters in diameter, with hoses leading from it. Of course, it was the fuel supply for our journey.

Helicopters rise smoothly up from the ground and drift like thistledown across the sky. Not this baby. With all the weight it had to take a run along the runway to get enough forward way for lift-off and then racketed and clanked at tree-top height all the way to our destination, over the ridges and into the valleys. It was a terrible flight. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

At Sayaboury airport we then went through the process of reconfirming our return tickets. No record, but it doesn't matter we were told, and then waited for transport to go a further hour south of the town. A venerable 4-wheel drive of Japanese make eventually arrived and off we went, after a fashion. Radiator caps, it seems, were in short supply, and our truck had missed out, so our trip was punctuated by stops at every stream on the way. But we had a pleasant night in the wilderness, with a superb meal of fresh river fish washed down with ice-cold Lao Beer, illuminated by paraffin and accompanied by mosquitoes. Overhead were the power-lines coming up from Uttaradit, but with nothing yet in them.

Back in Sayaboury, we had to spend a night and then off to the airport for our return flight. The main item on the menu of all the restaurants as we toured the city center seemed to be noodles, though some had got into the heady realm of Khao Niao, sticky rice, with dips of this and that. All this great stuff came of course with a plate of fresh greenery which was dominated by, of all things, in the back of beyond, watercress. Sayaboury is the watercress capital of Asia and, love the stuff though I do, it was overdose time when I left - eventually.

Off we went to the airport to wait for the morning flight, and waited, and waited. The helicopter couldn't come, it was raining somewhere along the route. It will come later. By the end of the afternoon, it was clear that it wasn't going to come. "Maybe tomorrow," the Lao Aviation representative told me, "if it doesn't rain again. Then there is always the next day." I should care, Sayaboury is one of the most relaxing places on earth, there isn't anything to do. There's no power, except in the evening, so no TV, no fans, no high-powered stereo, it's marvelous.

Delighted at this unexpected break, I called the waitress in the airport's next door cafe, and decided to order the meal of the day, anticipating another great feast of river fish and beer. "What's the special?" I asked her. "Can we get fish and some icy beers?"

"No," she replied, "fish is off and the beer's warm, but we have got something else instead." All agog I asked her what they had instead.

"Noodles," she told me, "with watercress."

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