Vientiane on the Quick

Friday, May 30, 2008

I found myself standing on the streets of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, wondering where I was and where I was going. Generally, a bus trip is ended at a known locale or with everyone else at the bus station. This trip ended with a quick turn from a rather majestic looking building into a small side street. It was hardly dire straits. First of all, I knew that we were close enough to the tourist area. Just before our abrupt side-street park, I had seen several places with signs in English for massage, food, and internet. And that majestic building had to be something important: it would surely be on my map. So with a close investigation, I discovered I was at the foot of the Lao Culture Hall and that there were several guesthouses in the streets ahead. I found a pretty decent one for 50,000 kip, the cheapest I was liable to find in the capital, and wandered around. I found myself on the Mekong river again. The Mekong and I had been on a parallel course from the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos down to where I crossed from Thailand to Laos in Huay Xai, sailing two days together to Luang Prabang, and now here. Unfortunately, none of my friends had washed ashore in the capital with me, so I sat on the river having barbecued pork from a food stand, the two of us reflecting on the setting of the sun.

I’m often asked, especially in Asia where such a thing is unheard of amongst locals, how I can travel alone. Who will take my photo?? It has its ups and downs. Ups include a completely selfish itinerary. Where do I want to go today? OK, done. No conferring, no guessing if the other person is being nice or straight, no compromise with anything but your wallet and timetable. You avoid the occasionally awkward, “I want a day to myself” admissions, you meet new people a lot easier (you HAVE to), and if something really goes awry, you can twist the story however you like to anyone back home or simply never admit to it happening. As I enjoy laughing at myself as much as at others, this latter bit almost never happens. The pitfalls are that there are times when it is just you and you don’t want it to be, that you have nobody back home who will enjoy a travel story as much as you, and that things like rooms and transport are invariably more expensive. Vientiane is a place where it is good to have a travel friend, and I was without. I wandered the streets but found nothing social happening. At all. For the first time since… Chiang Mai, I spent the entire day and night without anything more social than a bit of time on Facebook and with Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman creating a Bucket List.

My main plan for Vientiane was to spend as little time in it as possible, so I went to the Chinese Embassy the next day to apply for a visa. First, however, I’d decided to see about changing my flight. As much as I didn’t want to get home in the autumn, I wanted to see the Philippines more, so I spent the morning on the phone with Air Canada and then STA Travel, whom I lovingly consider the most useless travel agents on the planet. Air Canada insisted I had to change flights through the agent, and of course they insisted I had to do it through the airline. I can’t believe I was foolish enough to lump a horrible airline with a semi-sentient travel agency. I managed to get both – after far too much cajoling – to check about changing dated and both reported there was nothing through until September. My own internet check revealed a flight on the 14 of August, but hardly worth the change fee. I am definitely coming home August 5. By now, it was afternoon and I went to the Chinese Embassy, negotiating a return tuk tuk trip for 20000 kip. I was told that even with a ticket out, I would be refused a visa without a ticket in and hotel accommodation booked. What with the Olympics, earthquake, and Tibet, they can’t be too careful this year, I suppose. Luckily, Dan, an American friend from Singapore and Luang Prabang had gone through all this already and had some web links ready for me when I came back from the embassy and started on the flight and hotel bit. It appears my first stop in China is to be Kunming, which should be a good base for exploring Tiger Leaping Gorge and hopefully a good jumping off point.

I came back and had an early dinner at an Indian restaurant that, somewhere, I’d heard was good. There was a German girl sitting alone and I asked to join her and we had a great meal and both took some travel tips with us. More and more people are telling me not to bother with Vietnam, and my new thought is to whirlwind it (unless I like it a lot), get a couple weeks in the Philippines, fly from Manila to Hong Kong and then to Kunming. Borneo is sadly off the list. Maybe. Again, traveling alone, I have nobody to commit this to. We parted ways after dinner and I spent the evening finishing A Darkness at Sethanon, the last book of the Riftwar Trilogy, and doing an awful lot of nothing. I actively looked for a nightlife again, but came home empty once more.

The next morning I was at the Chinese Embassy first thing. To get my visa in one day would require $62! Generally they cost around 20, but whatever, I just wanted it done and I’d heard Vientiane was one of the easier places to do it. Afterwards, dropped off by my 20,000 kip tuk tuk which I had to negotiate rather fiercely even having taken one the day prior, I went to look at the next step. Get out of Vientiane, that much was clear, but then? Pakse was the logical choice. It was where I was originally going to meet up with James for a kayak/canoe trip down the river to the 4000 Islands, again along the Mekong. But it turned out that all the busses there left at night and flights were expensive to say the least. I’m not much of a night bus or sleep en route person, though I’d like to be. But the thought of another day in this town didn’t fill me with excitement. I admit this judgement unfair. I had done no sightseeing; no temple gawking; no excellent food missions; no photography expeditions. But I wanted out all the same and it was just coming up on noon.

I rushed back to the guesthouse and managed a late checkout, went and grabbed lunch, and then the rain began. Deluge is a more accurate word, and I was running late for four o’clock, when I was to pick up my passport. I braved the rain in my poncho and stood getting soaked anyway trying to negotiate the proper price – 20000 – to go to the Chinese Embassy and back again. Standing in the rain and playing this game for the third time only to have him tell me such a thing was impossible and all but call me a liar when I told him this was my third such trip was too much. 20000 – yes or no? I’m getting soaked. No. OK, thanks, bye. Walking away, “OK, OK”. Fine. I walk back the 20m and he waits until I start crawling in before he says 35000. I am too livid to do anything but give him my most evil look and trudge off in the rain after another tuk tuk. Finally, I found someone who would do it for 20000 and we were off.

Getting stamps in passports is always an exciting part of entering a country. But getting a visa in advance – my first ever – is far moreso. A pretty piece of paper granting access to a fairly restricted country not only gives a rather ludicrous sensation of importance, but it also leads to thoughts of future travels: The Great Wall, Three Gorges Dam, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Hong Kong, sometimes thinking about places far away gets the travel bug going again. I’m thinking about the excitement of this and of being on a bus this very night to the south of Laos as I get back to the tuk tuk. Where do I want to go, he asks. I think this very polite as generally they just drop you where they got you, which, this time, was all I wanted anyway. 20000 more, he says. Ah! This old scam. Change the terms after you’ve started your business, but we had definitely agreed on a return trip price. The Chinese Embassy is in the middle of nowhere and why on earth would I book one way?

We argued back and forth for awhile where I not only made clear that we had already agreed on a return price, but that I had only paid 20000 for a return trip the two previous times I’d come. I’d had enough and walked away without giving him a cent. He wants to cheat tourists, he can foot the bill for the trip here or try to find another customer. My certainty in his dishonesty was affirmed all the more by the lack of resistance he gave when I started walking. No trying to get money for the one-way fare or anything, he just drove off. Of course, that could be because he thought I had no idea where I was and would never find a way home or a tuk tuk to take me. He was only half right. Since this was my third trip, and each time the driver had come a different way, I had a pretty good idea of what was where. I walked towards some markets and had a bit of a snack, some sort of rice/fish balls and satay, and walked some more. I ran into another tuk tuk driver that spoke very little English and had his friend negotiate. His English was great, and I explained my three trip story to him and he to the driver but still no budging. I said I didn’t think it was a fair price, thanked the interpreter, and was about to walk when they invited me for beer.

Now that’s a new twist. How much for the beer, I asked with a wry smile, wondering at their game. No, no, I buy the beer. So I sat down with Mr. Air (the interpreter) his girlfriend, and two tuk tuk drivers and between us we had four large Beer Lao and some snacks. Mr. Air was very friendly and chatty, also an engineer, and we got along quite well. He offered me a lift back since he was going that direction anyway, and then ended up giving me a bit of a tour of the city. Walking away from that scamming tuk tuk was the best thing I ever did. Exploring Vientiane more, I began to regret my hasty ticket out that very evening. The city is more like a collection of villages with a commercial centre at its heart, and I feel like with a bike I could’ve seen that side a bit more, not to mention had a good guide in an awesome Russian jeep quite possibly. After looking at Patuxai, the Laos equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe (built out of American cement donated for an airstrip), they dropped me off and I was soon on the bus with a familiar face from tubing, the Aussie girl who’d given me a lift on her tube, Hanna. As well, a Dutch girl named Sacha and a Polish couple.

The bus was beds, not seats, which I thought the greatest thing ever until I learned I’d be sharing it with a stranger. And then, when they boarded, it was two strangers, an older man and his grandson. Luckily they made a big deal about it and I wasn’t especially excited looking, and I got my own bed with probably the most legroom of all. Considering that no Asian trip is without breakdown, we made it uneventfully to Pakse at 7 AM, our only stops were to repair the air conditioner (it got quite hot quite fast in there) and in a couple cities. I wasn’t sure whether to spend the day in town or not, so I just tagged along with the Polish couple to go up the Bolaven Plateau to a town called Tadlo. I was going to go up there anyway, might as well keep on moving and get there today.

Although I had friends this time, it was a quiet place with little to do. We settled in at Tim’s Guesthouse and I wandered up along the river past some waterfalls and into a small village with goats and chickens and pigs running everywhere. I didn’t mean to get here, but as I walked up the riverbank I heard a giggling and some kids were running away at the sight of me. I stopped for a bit and they curiously looked around the corner and when I turned to look at them, off they went again. Then back once more to look and I thought it’d be funny to chase them so I pretended to start and they took off laughing. So it was I ended up in this quiet village with nobody that spoke English, kicking a wicker ball around with the kids, taking their photos and letting them take mine (none turned out) and so on. As I was leaving I noticed that one kid hadn’t run after me, he was still working on pounding rice into flour in a mortar and pestel. I took up the other one and helped him for a bit, mostly making a big show of it for the other kids. I made a sort of game of it and when I left, all were crowded around for their turn grinding.

And this is where, for now, the story grinds to a halt. I enjoyed my evening among the clouds on the plateau, and a nice swim in a waterfall after crossing what has to be one of the scariest bridges I’ve ever crossed. The evening was quiet which suited fine because it had been a long two days. Plus, the next morning I would be heading back down to Pakse, back down to the Mekong, which is starting to feel like an old friend. Maybe James wasn’t around, but I was still interested in a trip down the river to the 4000 Islands, 3 day trip or not. Either way, my fate and that of the Mekong would be the same. We would both flow through Pakse, down to the 4000 Islands, and from there into Cambodia before going out to sea. What lay downstream precisely, one never knows, but adventure is sure to be found.

Vientiane and Bolaven Plateau Photos

SE Asia by Innertube: The Vang Vieng Story

Monday, May 26, 2008

As most of these stories start, I stepped aboard some form of transportation; in this case, it was a minibus. The trip du jour was from the Laotian city of Luang Prabang, a world heritage listed city of temples, to the Laotian town of Vang Vieng, a Lonely Planet listed town of tubing. It may not sound like much of a tradeoff, but tubing is consistently one of the things backpackers talk about when they rant on the wonders of southeast Asia. Just a six hour trip and I, too, would be among those floating down the Nam Song river. That should be enough time to make a serious dent on a new book, or so I thought. Instead, my eyes would be glued to the windows the entire trip, which lasted closer to eight hours than six. Stepping on the bus, I was comforted to see that I knew pretty much everyone – in varying degrees – aboard. A Swiss couple that had been on my slow boat from Thailand, three Germans I was supposed to have drinks with last night (they were late and I wound up having drinks with other friends, assuming they weren’t coming). Perhaps my situation would’ve been helped had I had a drink or two with the Germans, instead I was tired, slightly off-balance, and about to do some of the most winding roads in all of Asia.

Nausea, sleep-deprivation, uncomfortable seating, winding and narrow roads, none of that really mattered in the end. It was hard to dwell on anything besides the breathtaking views on all sides once we got out of Luang Prabang. Minibus experiences vary with driver and vehicle. They are usually packed full (even if they must delay extensively to do so) but some may have air conditioning or comfortable seats while others might have a broken seat requiring a volunteer for the floor. Our van was great. Sometimes drivers fill the van with their smoke, are perpetually grumpy, crank the bad music up (and/or sing along), or drive as though in training for a new land-speed record. Our driver was great. His name was Doi, he was very friendly (even making photo stops!), and he played good local music at reasonable levels that we all agreed was very apt to a road trip. So it was a great trip with breathtaking scenery and good company. Aside from photo stops, we did stop at the usual snack points. The first was largely a collection of fruit and sandwich stands, and I bought a bit of each. There were a bunch of local kids around, not begging, but definitely wandering from person to person looking sad and hungry. While I’m not really up for giving out money, I gave each of them some fruit and saw a few others doing the same. The rest of the stops were ordinary, which, if I didn’t mention, was fine, because the scenery was anything but.

Yes, it was a beautiful trip. I’d heard good things about Laos, but never the beauty of the country. So it was a surprise bonus. Maybe now I’ve ruined it, maybe I’ve oversold it, but I don’t think so. Maybe it was one of those days where you just wake in the right frame of mind, where you see miracles everywhere you look: in your life, in your fellow man – family, friend, or perfect stranger – and out every window. Yes, maybe it was just one of those days where you shake your head, put your problems in perspective, and appreciate what is good in the world rather than worry about what’s not. I can’t decide if I’d rather believe this was and would forever be someplace magical that I could always come back to when my perspective needed correction. What I do believe is that this perspective adjustment shouldn’t be necessary in the first place, that there is certainly a way of training ourselves to accept things as they are. I suppose I’ve been hanging around in Buddhist countries too long, but I do wonder if unhappiness is the result of seeking happiness. And following that line, I guess I’ll have to disturb some meditation to ask the difference between seeking happiness and contentment.

Philosophy and scenery (and did I mention perfect skies) behind us, we made it into Vang Vieng and the adventure drive was over. Until we got on a tuk tuk, that is. We’d all agreed we’d pay no more than 5000 each and they wanted 10, so we walked. 20m later, they came after us and had agreed on the already over-priced 5. I’d had Champa Lao guesthouse recommended to me by a neighbour in Pai, and when he asked where we were going, that’s where we asked to be taken. Why he asked is beyond me, as he took us to a completely different guesthouse that was expensive and doubtless paid commission. We insisted that we’d paid to go to Champa Lao, however, and he was pretty good about taking us there without argument. Finally. The guesthouse overlooked the river and was quite reasonable at 35000 per night ($4). It looked very relaxed and was quite well located and I definitely recommend it. They had a room for me and a room for Nicky and Micha (my German friends).

The three of us wandered the town and looked for a place to have dinner that wasn’t playing Friends. Really, you can’t walk around the town centre at all without hearing the guitar riff at various points in the show (commercial breaks, intro, etc). Almost every restaurant is playing it, though a few are trying other shows like Family Guy. You have to be here to experience the all-encompassing spectacle of it. We found it difficult to find decent food places anywhere near or around the town centre, and while walking back to our guesthouse in defeat, I noticed some locals having a very Laos-looking dinner and thought that whatever they were eating, we wouldn’t have found it in any of those restaurants back there, and to me that was a shame. I must have been staring a bit as I tried to figure out exactly what they were eating, for they smiled as only people from Laos or Bali do and bid us a good evening. We returned the greeting and by way of explaining my gaze, I told them their food looked “seb lai” or quite delicious as we kept walking by. They invited us over to try their food, and I wondered if I’d sounded like I was hinting instead of just passing a compliment. We didn’t want to eat their food, but we did take a closer look at it and they insisted that they were finished and wanted us to try it. Instead, we asked where they’d gotten it (mostly from a lady across the street) and went and grabbed some food to join them. BBQ fish, various spicy vegetables, we all shared some food, drink, and conversation.

The next morning, I had breakfast at my guesthouse – sticky rice with mango! They did a great job of it that rivaled Thailand. Yum! And of course, a fruit shake, apple-mint. Micha (I called her Michelle) and I went tubing at around 10:30 that morning and hopped a tuk tuk with a few assorted others… a Canadian, Irish, and three Canberra Aussies. The number written on my hand was 10, which meant that I was only the tenth person on the river that morning. I would later discover that the bulk of the crowds come around 1-2 PM, so we pretty much had the river to ourselves. So there I was, finally, tubing in Vang Vieng, one of the deciding factors in my trip to Asia. And let me tell you, it’s nothing like what I expected. First of all, it is actually anything BUT tubing. Yes, you get on a big tractor inner tube and float, but literally 50m down the river, you’re off and grabbing a drink at the first bar. We actually missed it this morning, but were pulled into the second by staff on hand to help tubers escape the current. There were drinks (by the bucket as needed) and there was, in this case, a flying fox dumping you unceremoniously into the river.

Every bar has its gimmick. The first bar has the highest swing (trapeze style) into the river. Get a good go at it, and you’re looking at a 10-15m drop at the highest point. Of course, if you don’t drop at the highest point you’ll have a good deal of horizontal velocity when you hit the water, so a high drop is usually a good idea. Other bars have volleyball, badminton, free shots of Lao Lao (local moonshine-whiskey), anything they can think of to get you off your tube and off your wagon as well. As we were a small group (which wasn’t so bad, as they were friendly) occasionally joined by other drifters, we didn’t have to wait at all for drinks, swings, jumps, badminton, or anything. It was a quiet, relaxed, journey back into Vang Vieng from where the tuk tuk dropped us and we enjoyed the scenery as we made our way down. The trip itself take two hours floating it, but with stops, we spent about 6 hours floating home. Back at the guesthouse, I had dinner – Massaman curry. It was as good as any I had in Thailand, and perhaps even better! I would have this dish several times more before leaving. Then, in contrast to our quiet day, a night out at the Smile Bar, the big club across the river that closes every night with the “Na na na nas” of Hey Jude. We had ourselves a hut there and, with Nicky back among us, finished a great day.

Nicky and I went rock climbing the next morning with Adam’s. We found a cheaper price at Green Discovery, but we thought we’d get more climbing time with two of us and support a local guy rather than a chain. A mistake, and I suspected as much, but Nicky was fairly adamant and I do like the idea of supporting the locals. In this case, however, the locals brought us to the same place as GD (we knew this in advance) and because we had a joiner in the morning, we had as many climbers per guide as they did. Not that it mattered, both of us were too out of shape to climb straight through the day. Plus, the others had a more fun group and in the end we all hung out together. I made pretty good friends right away with James (English) and chatted with Molly (Sweden) and Grace (English). As for the climbing, it was a beautiful place for it. Not only is the view over the valley quite pretty, but the rock is littered with handholds. That didn’t make it a cakewalk however, not by a long shot. The entire wall is an overhang, which sheltered us from rain but took its toll on our upper bodies. And the handholds were not always where you’d want them to be. So we did a 5C, 5A, 6A, 6A+, and a 6B. I couldn’t do the 6A but finished the 6A+, which was a thrill. But I was too far gone to even attempt the 6B so only four climbs in the end and soon we were all out sitting at a Friends bar. I’d simply meant to meet outside the Green Discovery office with everyone, but the first arrivers decided to sit. Fair enough, I’ll have dinner and drinks at the Friends Bar. Part of the VV experience, I suppose.

It was a good night and people trickled out, leaving James, the German girl I’d been chatting with, and myself at the end. She was a bit of an enigma. I thought her quite unfriendly climbing, talking to nobody except James unless directly queried and then a short answer, but as I was at one end of the table and segregated from conversation by a talkative English-Indian girl on my side and the German girl sitting quietly on the other side, I struck up a conversation as best I could. She turned out quite friendly to my surprise, and even though she had a boyfriend (who was traveling separately for a month?) both James and myself left thinking that their separate trips were perhaps more separate than we had imagined. Nevertheless, the three of us had made a plan to meet in the morning for kayaking if we awoke in time and if not, to meet at 11:30 for tubing.

I was beginning to feel the constriction of my timetable. How I was to do the rest of Laos, Cambodia, Borneo, Philippines, Vietnam, and China in two months was beyond me. I knew I’d have to cut countries from the itinerary, but I still didn’t want to waste a day doing something I’d already done. So I dragged myself out of bed for kayaking, but the other two did not. I tried to go anyway but I was too late in the morning to join their group so my decision was made for me. Then I thought to rent a motorbike and explore, maybe go to the Organic Farm for some mulberry pancakes, but they drain the gas from the bikes before they rent them, leaving only enough to make it to the gas station. And the power was out again that morning. I passed the remaining time in the Friends Bar (without power, it was just a quiet place to have a fruit shake and wait) and met up with James – no sign of the German girl so perhaps we were victims of wishful thinking. The power came back, as did Friends, and breakfast too. Then a bit of internet and we were on the river around 1:30.

What a difference from my first round of tubing! First, we had to wait in line to get a tube and then again for a tuk tuk. Secondly, I was now 178 on the river. Thirdly, I had a drinking buddy instead of a German girl and a loose confederation of tuk tuk crew. We went to the first bar and I ran into – for the third time – Naima, a French girl I’d hung around with in Pai. We sat with her and her friends for a bit but they didn’t seem especially interested in us joining and then we ran into Molly, the Swedish girl from climbing and her friend. They were much more amicable and we finished our Beer Lao together before James and I took the biggest swing on the river; High, scary, and good enough fun to do again. I don’t advise running off the edge though. If you don’t lose your grip as the rope tightens and plummet straight down face-first then you’re in for a LOT of height at the other end. I recall yelling “It’s too high” to the many spectators as the swing hit its peak and begun moving backward. And then deciding I wanted to let go on the first pass and dropping. Not a pleasant landing, though James had a worse one. You can always tell a bad landing by the fact that the jumper swims in with his back to you. Don’t let them see you cry or something to that effect.

We had our next drink at the next bar, I a vodka-watermelon-banana shake, James a rum and coke. Everytime I went to this particular bar they tried to short change me, I should add. We met up with Molly again and then also ran into Grace and Jenny from climbing. As well, two girls we’d seen denied a tube for some misdemeanour the previous go-round (their 6th, apparently) magically appeared, I suspected on their own via tuk tuk. Which meant that there would be a shortage of at least two tubes by the night’s end. Still, we had another round of vodka shakes, which we toasted and chugged while flying down the flying fox, each with one arm on the handle. An Aussie girl and her friends were impressed with our coordinated cheers and we chatted with them for a bit before realizing that the slowly dwindling crowd had turned into noone. We were last left and two tubes short. So floating down was the order of the day, though I hung on to the Aussie girl’s tube. I owe her one and I can’t even remember her name. I actually don’t think I saw her again after the next bar, but we did receive a warm reception for our method of navigation and made some new friends as well as running into old.

It was now James’ turn to buy. He came back holding a bucket of tiger whisky (ugh!) and coke. We resolved to finish this crime against nature quickly so that we could drink something palatable again. And I don’t remember quite which stops we hit after that. I do recall that James, myself, and the Swedish and Norwegian girl visited for quite some time. I’m pretty sure we stopped at the volleyball bar and I lost James and Norway. And I know that I got back after dark because I remember thinking that I didn’t at all care for floating down the river in the blackness. At least that way, nobody could see just how little my stomach liked the Tiger Whisky, and I had the river to wash away the evidence. A baguette and some water and I awoke laying sideways in my bed at 2:30 in the morning, unable to fall asleep as the hours marched their way towards 7:00. Yes, I didn’t feel great, but I was going to go kayaking today and I could pay my penance properly for being an idiot the day prior. I got there at 8, booked my kayak trip for 9, and went to the Organic CafĂ© to finally try one of these mulberry pancakes with honey. Good. Really good, I’m sure, though my stomach was indifferent at best, but not so amazing as I’d heard. Clearly, all these people raving about them have yet to try Saskatoon berries.

I made my way to the kayaking place and sat to wait. There were a few others sitting, but I recognized noone so I sat on my own and waited. About 30 seconds later, I recognized Grace and then Jenny as the ones I’d kind of looked right at and then sat down away from. Oops! Explain that one, and now they were in the middle of a conversation with two people I’d passed in the street uttering, “Disgusting!” and the like. Such was my state that I wondered and worried that they were talking about me and regretted not looking more carefully in the mirror that morning. Honestly. Maybe something on my trunks? In my hair? Anyway, we were all on the same trip together and I’d soon put my mind at ease that they were not discussing me at all. Because they spent the entire rest of our trip complaining about food and, well, everything. And they wouldn’t shut up. The guide couldn’t even introduce himself at the beginning of the trip because he didn’t want to interrupt their ‘conversation’ and they didn’t stop to breathe.

No, I’m convinced they had some sort of special lungs that allowed them, by speaking negatively, to convert all that discontent to oxygen. As long as they were whining about something, breathing was not necessary. And now I’m in danger of whining about them, but at the risk of hypocrisy, I am hoping you can understand just how hard they tried to ruin a beautiful day. In addition to food complaints (and the woman was a bit larger, but not large enough to merit food discussion every 30 mins), they allowed no one else to really speak unless through them. I was hoping to chat a bit with Grace and Jenny and apologize both for not recognizing them instantly that morning and also about tubing the night prior, but then SHE’D butt in with her opinion on tubing and then turn to ask her really dumb (well, he’d have to be to marry her) husband his opinion which he would then expound and she would harshly critique. There was no room for entry at this point. They pirated conversations! It was quite ingenious actually; because they’d made themselves a part of your conversation, you felt rude ignoring them and starting or resuming your own, so you were stuck sitting and listening as she somehow turned the conversation back to bad food and sending it back to the kitchen and how her palate was so much more refined. WHAT THE ARE YOU DOING HERE?!

Anyway, there was nobody to rant to, and if a guy can’t rant in his own journal, then where? So the kayaking trip passed with the guide and I exchanging bemused glances at times, a constant source of noise from them (we always kept a good distance), and little chat with or by anyone else. But I wouldn’t let it ruin the trip, it just required effort (a lot) to put aside and focus on what was good. The scenery, for one thing. Sure, it’s the same VV scenery I’d been surrounded by for a couple days, but in the morning the clouds wisp across and there’s something about being in a kayak on the river viewing it that is magical. We also did two hikes into caves, which were just challenging enough to cease conversation. And the caves themselves were pretty cool, we lit candles and swam through and looked around. Lunch was also decent; shish kebab and fried rice. I finished my first spear of vegetables and beef quickly so that I would be ready to spear one of the loudies should the food complaints arise, but instead they remarked in an uncomplimentary way that it was probably the best food they’d had in Laos. And then the food complaining started and evolved into complaining about Laos in general. I secreted apologetic looks to our two guides who were polite enough to sit there and endure all this farcical criticism of their country.

In the afternoon was our second cave, hidden between bars on the tubing circuit. As well, we stopped at the Organic Farm and had a look around. Goats, tropical fruits (especially mulberries), and a mud house greeted us. Then we were done and walked back. I came across a few locals at a stand having some soup that looked quite nice and sat there for forty minutes chatting with the two ladies that ran it while eating my soup. The conversation was about many things, but turned to children and family as the one woman who was mostly listening started feeding her baby. She was bottle feeding and as they brought up the topic of breastfeeding first, I felt it okay to wonder aloud that it must be difficult to do so in a country that lives on spicy foods. And this got the quiet woman talking about just how difficult it was and telling stories of back in the village and also the things she’d have to do to maintain decent nutrition while staying away from spicy foods. And she also talked about others who thought it made the baby stronger and just ate what they ate. This was one among many topics but I think it underscores how the conversation was not just the usual tourist-talk stuff.

I still didn’t feel great that night and it was an early one. I’d meant to pack but couldn’t find the energy. I’d do it in the morning and catch a bus out to Vientiane. Except that I slept in. OK, so the afternoon bus. I packed, showered, and went outside for brunch, a shake, and to sit in the hammock and read, something I’d still not done in this wonderous guesthouse. I ordered breakfast and my shake and grabbed a hammock but wound up chatting with a Dutch girl who looked Spanish and admiring the view rather than reading. I did get the hammock though. Then my breakfast came, I ate, and I returned to the hammock where we talked a bit more. Another fruit shake later and I moved to the triangle mats on the ground then James randomly showed up (he had no idea where I was staying and was just looking at the view from our guesthouse). I decided to just sit and enjoy the day. This was Vang Vieng, relaxation central, and I hadn’t just sat around and done nothing yet. James ordered the Massaman curry for lunch at my suggestion, then I had some chicken and veggies and yet more shakes. We sat and discussed the tubing for some time and then philosophy and travel and were rejoined by Evita, the Dutch-Spanish girl with a name from Argentina. And the day was one of relaxation and eating, and a night of dinner in a quiet restaurant where the family slept in booths and took turns being ‘on watch’ for when customers like us arrived for late dinners. It was a beautiful dinner, a beautiful day, and we said our goodbyes as I wandered back to my room to sleep a last night before continuing my journey south to the Laos capital and the Chinese Embassy.

Vang Vieng Photos

I'm in Laos

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dean grabbed his rucksack from the floor of the thatched bungalow and headed for the door. Pai had been so good to him, the small Thailand town had developed an identity and then proceeded to befriend him and almost ensnare him with its wiles. It was a difficult place to leave and many never did, but the door swung closed and he walked one last time across the rickety bamboo bridge to the minibus that would whisk him away to Laos. It would not be a short journey. The trip today would be at least eight hours on the road, finishing on the Thai-Laos border in a town called . The two days after would be spent on a slow boat down the Mekong River, always straddling the border but never returning to Thailand, to a Laos city called Luang Prabang. A three-day tour, if you will. And he was not looking forward to it. Reports had come back that the scenery was beautiful on the boat for a while on the first day, but that it quickly became a bunch of backpackers crammed onto a boat and stuck their for two consecutive eight hour days. The upshot, even the most dire reports admitted, was that this bonded the travelers together in a way that only trauma can, and you left the boat with many new friends on the backpacker circuit. The minibus chugged up the mountain leading out of the valley where Pai is situated as Dean pondered the 1750 baht ($60) fate he had purchased himself.

Pai’s hills and valley faded into plains as the minibus wound its way to Chiang Mai. The travelers were not so unlikely a grouping. Dean, a Canadian, an English couple off to do the Gibbon Experience on the Laos-Thai border, and three Thai off to Chiang Mai for a bit of business. Dean was upset to learn of yet another couple that had no problem corresponding with the gibbon people, and they were delighted to talk with someone even if his contribution to the conversation was mostly half-yawned oh yeahs. It was an early morning and had been a late night for Dean, who had spent a good part of it chatting with his Irish neighbours and then watching a movie. On the halfway stop, he announced to the English couple he was going to try to sleep the second half of the voyage. And indeed, getting in, he closed his eyes and tried to get comfortable. The English couple, having forgotten his decree moments earlier and eager to be friendly, talked to him anyway. This half-awake state made their parting in Chiang Mai all the more confusing; after all, they were going to the same place, but the driver instructed Dean to disembark while the others stayed on. Lunch and a new mostly North American minibus crew awaited and the confusion was forgotten as the new minibus sped its way to the Thai border.

The crew were not especially impressed with their most recent addition. The Canadian that stumbled on was bedraggled and looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Further, the one little bit of empty space in the van was now occupied by his bulk. Still, he seemed friendly enough if not especially talkative and soon was adopted as one of them. There were now five Canadians, two English, and one Aussie. With a group like that, it’s no surprise that when the minibus finally reached the border they all reached for a beer, though the stillness of the town kept them to a low-key chat. They also had to be up early for the border crossing in the morning, which left at 8 AM. For some reason, it costs Canadians more money than any other country in the world to enter Laos, but $45 later, the entire group was in Laos, crammed into a tuk tuk, and herded into the slow boat that would serve as their home for the next two days. That is, after purchasing a pillow for the hard seats and floor and recruiting an Australian girl named Kylie into the fold.

The slow boat is a long contraption with moveable benches that truly define the term half-assed. It was only a matter of time before some benches were shuffled and pillows were put to floor. The trip is a long one, sixteen hours spaced over two days cruising on the Mekong River amongst beautiful hills, misty and veiled lightly in cloud, stopping from time to time in local villages where occasionally locals would jump on or off and more often children would jump along the rail and go up and down offering fresh fruit. There was also a bar on the boat and of course we left equipped with a sandwich for lunch, but the fresh fruit is one of the best parts of traveling the tropics and many of the group picked up green mangos, pineapple, and melon. As the kip is quite weak (8500 kip = 30 baht = $1), locals are all too happy to take money in Thai baht or US dollars, especially at their exchange rate. So, beautiful scenery, small villages, a winding river, and sitting around watching it all go by over a drink or two and some conversation with yet more newfound friends (including a Californian girl named Rachel who is probably secretly related to Julia Roberts) added to the crew, most of whom were American.

The first day ended in a town called Pak Beng, where most of the group roomed (for 300 baht per night) in the ‘recommended’ guest house. Unused to paying so much, Rachel, Erin, and Dean found another room for the three of them where they paid 50 baht each staying with a funny and delightful woman named Mama Shute. After some much-needed showers, the group rejoined for dinner; most tried a Laos dish called Laap/larp, which is essentially minced chicken, pork, fish, or beef, which has been marinated and then barbequed. There is no electricity after 10 PM which led to an early night which, in turn, led to day two of the trip. There is a rumour passed along the backpacker circuit that only the first day has much in terms of scenery, but this is a flagrant lie. The second day holds scenery that is as, if not more beautiful than the first. Hills turn to mountains which occasionally turn into limestone cliffs and karst. Even if this weren’t the case, half the reason for the boat ride is the people to be met along the way. The emphasis on ‘the crew’ is not an accident, nor is the rather awkward third-person narrative. Travellers on the same path meet, make friends, and perhaps depart, but inevitably cross paths again and again. With so many in the same place for two days, this means that a lone wolf will likely find at least one or two to form a pack with along the way. Or at least play a good game of telephone pictionary, where everyone alternates drawing and captioning as interpretation and poor artistic skills morph innocent (and not so innocent) sentences into twisted messes.

Luang Prabang arrived just in time for most, neither too soon nor too late. As the crew disembarked, Dean was surprised to hear his name called out and see Dan, an American he’d met in Singapore, waving at him from shore. The crew split here, in a sense, as everyone went seeking guesthouses; Dan had a second bed in his room and so we shared one of the cheaper guesthouses in the city (Namsok 3, 25000 each per night) and then went out. Dan had business to do and so didn’t join in the crew that night as it reunited at the excellent night markets, but he did leave some good advice on a bar of choice, the Lao Lao Garden. The group met for drinks and Stuart, one of the English fellows, bought bucket after bucket of alcohol with only 20 minutes to curfew. Yes, everything shuts down at 11:30 here and locals are mostly expected to be home by midnight. There are exceptions however, mostly tourists, tuk tuk drivers, and, for some reason, a bowling alley, the last refuge of the drunk.

So it was that the crew crammed into a tuk tuk with two Swedish girls, making the total 12, and they bowled a few rounds. It was a fitting end to the complete unity of the crew, a fun night out with some making plans for tomorrow and others content to do their own thing and run into whoever they might along the way. Dean was in the latter category, especially since many of the others were planning a boat trip back upstream; he had no interest in either the cave they were planning to visit (and its 1000 buddhas) nor in sitting on a boat again. The next day was a rainy one without electricity, which seriously limits options in a small city like Luang Prabang. Dean and Dan drained their laptop batteries working on photos and while Dan went looking into options for procuring a Chinese visa, Dean grabbed lunch and explored the town. Dan had booked an overnight trip to Vientiane that day to get his visa (hopefully) there, and Dean was on his own for the first time in almost a week. A quick wander into the night markets turned up Christian, the quiet Aussie of the crew, and they had a beer before ending a much-needed quiet day.

The next morning, Dean was following Dan’s advice and setting off for the waterfall via tuk tuk in the morning (rather than taking a tour there in the afternoon). Tom and his wife, neighbours in the guesthouse, were doing the same, so the three decided to split a tuk tuk. At breakfast, they overheard four Americans planning to do the same and the seven paid 25,000 each for a big tuk tuk to take them there, wait three (which then became four) hours for them, and return; A new crew for a new day. Kuangsi Waterfall is an hour’s drive from LP and probably one of the most beautiful falls out there. The water is milky blue, crisp, and cascades relentlessly. Many photos and hiking paths later, everyone had converged at the top of the falls looking down at some lovely pools high up in the falls and wondering how to get there. The path was never found (though attempts were made), and descent back to ground level revealed that the swimming places were further downstream. It was some beautiful swimming, the group jumped from waterfalls into the crystalline waters below, off trees, everything that could be safely jumped was jumped. And their early start meant they had it mostly to themselves.

Dean also met a German girl, Michelle, rather randomly by asking her to take a photo of him jumping the falls. All his group was in the water and she was standing and admiring the waterfalls. Through her he met her travel companion, Nicky (a guy) and thought they seemed a nice pair as they wandered off. The Americans likewise agreed and plans were made. They were a really cool foursome, mostly engineers though Megan was an anthropologist. That didn’t stop her from becoming involved in geekly activities and specifically EWB, Engineers Without Borders, of which she was president for their university. They were here to do some volunteer work bringing running water to a Laos village, checking a Thai village they’d helped several years back, and of course travel.

Dean wandered the town, straying from the tourist area when they returned to LP. He found two restaurants filled with locals and decided to join them in dinner, whatever it was. Outside the tourist areas, English speaking isn’t exactly common and the menu is in Laos script, scribbled on a piece of cardboard. But upon sitting down, he was instantly offered a shot of whisky and some food from the neighbouring table. Then he shared his beer with them and later his food and it was a good experience if not a good meal. The meat was tough and, according to the owner’s gesticulating, was horse. More pleasant fare was to be had in the markets, where Dean was reunited for dinner with Michelle and Nicky from the waterfall. More market exploration separated the threesome, but they had agreed to meet for drinks after dropping stuff at their guesthouses. Dean took his time and some photos of the full moon over Luang Prabang and was surprised not to find them. He had been called from a different bar by some people he couldn’t quite recall having met… until it dawned on him they were the Americans he’d spent the day with at the waterfall.

Very embarrassed, he apologized for having asked what now seemed some really stupid questions and joined them for drinks. Hayden, a very soft-spoken Englishman and part of the crew, overheard Dean’s voice and joined the festivities as well. We were allowed to stay and finish our drinks well past curfew and Hayden and Dean wandered back to their neighbouring guesthouses to find a girl panicked about losing her purse. They tried to help as best they could, going to the police and everything, but nothing could be done until morning, which, given that it was 4:30 already, was not far off. Yet another road trip was about to start in a few hours to Vang Vieng, south 6 hours. The cycle was complete as the trip to Luang Prabang both started and ended with an overtired Dean on a bus with people he would come to know and spend some time with.

Luang Prabang Photos

The Life of Pai

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

So. I just arrived in Bangkok, flying out of Krabi like Dengue fever was in a Spitfire hot on my tail. Aside from distancing myself, I had two other exigencies. Firstly, my Thai visa was quickly running out; I had to cross a border in nine days. Secondly, I was now two weeks behind my unscheduled schedule. I had time to make up. I was toying with the idea of going to Myanmar to experience something entirely different and get off the well-trodden Thai tourist trail, but I was still not feeling 100% and my adventure bone was a soft, gummy mess. Besides which if I added Myanmar, what was I going to take off my to-see list? Thus, Bangkok, a decision that would prove fortunate, as two days after I arrived in Yangoon I would’ve been caught in the middle of one of nature’s fury once again in the guise of a tempestuous fellow named cyclone Nargis. While I would love to see nature in all her fury (from somewhere safe), and while I think it would’ve been very rewarding (and probably traumatizing) to lend a hand to rescue and help people, I would probably have been a victim like everyone else there to dirty water, no aid, and who knows what else. Plus, I felt like Dengue was enough of a show of nature’s fury. So. Bangkok. Khao San Road. May the first.

Off the plane and onto the shuttle bus, wandering around, dodging touts and transport offers, I found a place not far from Khao San. Cheap as chips at 150 baht, and life everywhere. It was so vital and so different from how I’d spent the last two weeks and so different from the company I’d kept. Fighting for life and living it are so different. Myself, most of my fighting was done, but apparently I was not finished recovering. I wound up sleeping most of the afternoon in my room with no energy to get up at all. When I woke up I, for the first time in a long time, felt the very faint pangs of hunger, and oh how excited I was. Off to sample local food in food carts. Off to explore. Night did not quiet the street, quite the opposite. It did affect the disappearance of all the suit tailors, and believe me, there are many, but in their place, food carts, DVDs, watches, the black market laid bare for all to see. Want a fake ID? Press badge? Drivers’ license? No problem! They’re all set up and ready for you. While I didn’t procure any fake ID, even for old-times-sake, I did stop at the DVD market where I bought 27 DVDs for about 2000 baht or about $60. New movies and old, some TV episodes, you name it. And then I sat and did what a single traveler does best. People talking, flirting, walking by, watching the watchers, trying not to show too much interest in the market stalls while still taking it all in. I watched them all over a crisp Thai beer (Singha), the first I’d had since hanging out with Carrie and Lori, and took it all in.

There is more to Bangkok than markets of illicit goods, however, and I intended to peel back the cultural veneer a little before leaving. For you see, it was now May 2, leaving me one week to get to Chiang Mai, do a cooking course, the three day trek, go to Pai, and cross the border to Laos. That’s 1, 1, 3, 2, and 1 days respectively, totaling one more day than I had to spend already, not to mention looking around Chiang Mai. So I had booked another plane to Chiang Mai to shave one of those days off and cover the ground I needed, giving me one more day to explore Bangkok. This second day I could not get up, I guess I overexerted myself the day prior, so when I finally did get going and make my way to the golden palace, it was closed for the day (3:30). I met a couple Dutch people on the street and we split a tuk-tuk to see some of the Buddhas around the city, only 10 baht (33 cents) each. First the giant Buddha, probably about three stories high. He was thin and I was impressed to see something so large so unattended. Only some locals selling birds in a cage that you could set free for good luck (and a fee), no doubt only to have them ensnared again. If it’s good luck to set a bird free, and I can see reason why it might be, surely it’s bad luck to trap them in a cage for profit? I pondered this as I walked away; certainly I was not about to risk misfortune by financing such activities. I think I’m pretty lucky overall anyway, no sense being greedy.

The next stop was the sleeping Buddha, which was yet another Buddha statue in a different pose – there are apparently 80 such poses all with different significance. Sleeping Buddha would be sleeping, you might think, but no, he was reclining on his side with both eyes wide open. I guess that’s less poetic. What was great about this temple was not Buddha but the monk tended him. He was just about to lock up for the day and when we arrived he reopened a few doors and brought us on a personal tour. He gave us incense – three sticks each – and had us light it, on our knees, clasped in our hands which we then pressed to our foreheads. Buddha may not have closed his eyes, but we did, and we were to wish for what we wanted. I guess this is something like prayer, I felt pretty uncomfortable basically praying to something/one that’s not God, but I suppose if it’s not my belief then it’s kind of like throwing coins in a well, drop it in and hope that it somehow works but with no real faith attached. Not to take anything away from Buddhists of course.

Well, I couldn’t leave Bangkok without a stop at the Grand Palace that I have unconsciously and irrevocably decided to dub the Golden Palace. I believe this is the first time I’ve gotten it right. Marking the second miracle in a young paragraph, I managed to wake up extra early and make my way there. It took a solid hour to weave through the palace and innumerable people and that was rushing it. The palace itself beautiful with so much to see in terms of buildings, art, and religious iconography. And did I mention people employed solely to get in between you and all of these things? So my hour there and getting back and forth from Khao San Road meant I was cutting it quite close. My flight to Chiang Mai was at 12:50, which meant check-in finished at 11:50, which meant I should aim for being there at 10:50, which then meant leaving around 10:00. If security gets much worse, it will soon be faster to rollerskate to distant locales. By the time I got back to my guesthouse and sorted everything out and was on the road with my backpack, it was 11:00. Forget the shuttle bus, forget the trains, I took a taxi for 300 baht, which he promised me would take less than 40 minutes. I’d be cutting it close but away we went. And then, for the price I negotiated, he was going to take the slow way. I didn’t let on during the negotiations that I was in a hurry, of course, and I didn’t want to let on now, but I wanted him on that expressway. Oh, for that 400 baht. Riiight. I managed to convince him to get on and moving and I’d pay the toll, which was only 20 baht and so at 11:35 and I was at the Air Asia terminal only to find boarding was delayed until 1:35. I still don’t know if I should have been relieved or angry.

Our puddle hopper bumped and wobbled its way to Chiang Mai (a city of the north in which the old town is entirely surrounded by a moat) without incident and the tiny airport had one thing worth noting. A Dairy Queen. I had found one at the MBK shopping centre my first night in Bangkok in the cinema on the fifth floor (so I grabbed an oreo blizzard and went to see Ironman), but I hadn’t gotten my fill. For some reason I’d been craving blizzards all the way back in Australia. This does not bode well for my food craze when I return home. So much to eat, so much I’ve been missing, which is no commentary on local food, just of extended periods away from home. Even here, I feel like I’m at the fair half the time, just eating and sampling and it’s all so good and interesting and different. But DQ is not. There’s something to be said for the devil you know, and I got an extra large helping served upside down with a pitchfork in it to pass the time en route to Banana Guesthouse, a place that had been recommended highly. I don’t recommend it so highly. While it’s only 120/night ($4), there was nothing going on there. Were I to go again, I’d recommend Julie’s Guesthouse. That place was wafting atmosphere several streets away.

After I ditched the cab and checked in I realized that I had energy. Not just the beginning ebbs, but a full store of antsy, eager energy. I found that I was excited and wanted to get out. It was May 3, 13 days after first being struck down by an insect smaller than my pinky fingernail, and I felt good! I went out, I got lost in the sidestreets, I stumbled on the Sunday markets which just kept going and going in all directions. I ate BBQ Honey chicken (yum!) fresh off the grill, I took a ticket for one food cart that had a 20 minute line… fresh spring rolls, not deep fried with a beautiful sauce. I grabbed a crab claw or two, and some fishy concoctions, watched one man BBQ omelettes in banana leaves fashioned into boats, and soaked in the culture. Hill tribe folk wandering around selling the wares they’d spent last week producing with their unique traditional clothes, and people pretending to be hill tribe people trying to avoid them. Clothes, carvings, jewels and bracelets everywhere. Bangkok had whetted my appetite for travel again slightly, and my first day in Chiang Mai had me starving for it. I’m back, baby! It was so great to be here in northern Thailand.

I somehow found my way home accidentally in the maze of streets – I was genuinely surprised to see the big peace sign that marks my home when I turned a corner – and spent the next day wandering that same maze. I tried going out that night and found a place finally, but it was not easy. All the bars were full of Thai girls – or at least, most of them appeared to be girls, one can never be too sure here – trying to get you in. Some work there and that’s their job. And some want to take you home to work their job. They don’t announce this up front, however, though I feel it’s generally pretty obvious when they want SOMEthing from you… you just don’t know what. But they’re not above death-gripping your arm and blocking the sidewalk to slow your progress. I had dinner somewhere much more tourist populated, quite the opposite of what I try to do ordinarily, and then decided to brave one of these bars for a drink. Sure enough, I had a 36 year old woman sitting across from me within minutes of getting my beer, telling me she was my age (ha!) and so on. Whether she worked for the bar or herself I never did stick around to find out but we had a bit of a chat before I took off. At least I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a ladyboy.

The days in Chiang Mai were a blur. I believe it was the next day, May 5, that I took a cooking course. We started at 7 AM in the local markets and got a crash course in Thai ingredients, what to look for, and what was what, including a small dissertation on rice. From there, we drove out of town to the headquarters of Master Thai Cooking Course, a place with a few assistances, lots of woks and gas burners and ingredients waiting for us. The course was great, we made Phad Thai, rolled our own spring rolls, made Green/Massuman curry from scratch, fried up some thai veggies, and stirred up some tom yam soup. We also discussed and watched mango sticky rice being made. And then we ate and it was delicious. For 600 baht, the meal was worth it alone. Fresh, delicious, and we all had a great time making it. That said, I feel like we should’ve been doing more in that we got a lot of help with what I felt were the mission-critical aspects like the mixing of the oyster sauce, fish oil, coconut milk, and sugar. Only the curry was all us, and that was the highlight for me. As well, I discovered that Massuman curry is my favourite. As soon as I saw them grinding cinnamon (while those of us making green curry were working our basil in) I knew I’d chosen the wrong curry. But both are delicious and I’m hoping I’ll be able to find the ingredients to make some at home. I’m almost tempted to try to find a mortar and pestel here, go to the markets, get the ingredients, get some jars, and send a bunch of paste home. It apparently keeps forever in a fridge, even months sitting out in the open.

So that was another day and now I had three days left in Thailand. It soon became obvious that I was going to have to sacrifice Pai or my trek to do it all and either way I’d be rushing around. Walking around after the cooking class (we finished around 3), I saw signs for trips up to the Golden Triangle, the meeting place of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, so named because it forms a triangle in which opium trading, once huge here, made everyone except the users a lot of money. Thailand no longer allows poppy growing (in fact, police have permission to shoot drug dealers). I don’t know about the other countries. But anyway, it was a trip up to the border and I thought, great, I can do this trip, see some hill tribes and the golden triangle, and get another 30 days for Thailand. So I did. It was a lot of driving, stopping at a ‘hot spring’. Now, it was hot, and I presume it came from the earth, but it was more of a single fountain surrounded by markets on all sides. But it broke the trip up a bit. We stopped at a temple which was a much better way to stretch our bums, and then got on a boat and cruised along the Myanmar border. You could see the mountains of China in the distance as we turned back and docked in Laos for yet another market full of snake and scorpion whiskies. The boat ride is not recommended. Lunch, then we crossed the Myanmar border. Literally, we made it as far as the passport office on their side of the river, I did a little jig on Myanmar soil, and then back, but time pressures were off.

Seeing the hill tribes was, aside from the visa run, what I was there for. It was the bonus to extending my stay in Thailand. And it was our final stop on the way home. We stopped at a place with three tribes, all Karen tribes I believe. The first is distinguishable by their clothes and particularly their hats, studded with all sorts of things, generally black clothes with colourful stitching and, well, look at the gallery. From there we passed down into a village of people whose tradition it is to stretch their ear lobes. You’ve probably seen a few people doing this today, putting in ever bigger things into their ears to make a large hole. One of the ladies took her earring out for me to examine and I hope I didn’t make my revulsion to apparent. She seemed happy enough to have a photo taken of her. Then, finally, the long neck tribe. They are refugees of Burma and the Thai government is letting them live in the hills; they have no Thai ID or ID of any kind, so aren’t allowed to leave except by applying for special passes. The ones that have been here roughly twenty years or more have generally been given a special ID – they don’t pay tax or get the schooling, but they can move freely in Thailand. And yes, they have long necks, stretched from age 4 with a slowly increasing number of rings. They sleep with them on and do not remove them except to add another ring, which is a big celebration – after all, the longer the neck, the more attractive the woman. The current record in this village is 26 rings. To dispel a myth that I myself was unsure about, their necks are not perilously weak when they remove the rings and don’t snap. It was fascinating to meet people living this way.

It was late when we got back, well after dark, and so I took the next day to relax and wander Chiang Mai some more. The day after, May 8, I took an elephant trek for two days into the hills. Everyone went in twos on the elephants but because we had an uneven number of people, I actually got to ride alone – alone with the guide, that is. But he was very laidback and apparently my Australian hat inspired confidence in him that I could rustle animals like a pro; so it was that within five minutes of departing, I alone was sitting on the elephants neck. It is a strange place to sit on an animal, and of course there’s no saddle. You just keep one leg on either side and watch your balance, leaning on its mushy head if needed. I loved it! We all bought some bananas to feed the elephants, and as soon as one of the others started feeding it, I had a trunk probing me. We passed through some mud, which the elephant sprayed to cool itself, and then that muddy trunk left elephant tracks all over my clothes and I decided it was time to give him some food. Far too soon, we were back at base and off to lunch before our trek.

Then, we went into the hills, along a stream, through some farms and villages, to one village where we had dinner and stayed the night. There was little interaction with the villagers, which was disappointing, but I suppose what did I expect? They get tourists every day, it’s probably better that they go about their day to day life and ignore us rather than putting on a show. We stopped in some waterfalls on the way back and then grabbed a bamboo raft, really just maybe ten bamboo logs roped together at either end. That’s it. No real structure besides that and we were making our way down the river. Because I sat at the back, I got to captain our raft (well, assistant captain) for a while before I passed on my duties. What this means is I had a long bamboo rod that I pushed off the bottom, rocks, and so on to keep the raft straight and on track. Again, it was fun however touristy it may be. But overall, I think that perhaps I would trek next time somewhere less touristed, especially now that I’ve done the elephant/bamboo raft. Just in case anyone is reading for ideas. But I had fun and met some nice people, so if you have your heart set, I wouldn’t change my mind.

May 9 and back in Chiang Mai. I don’t know where the time went aside from a bit too much in Betrayal at Krondor, a trip to the nightmarkets, and another to a shopping centre for some supplies. Then May 11 found me on a three hour (read: one hour late and one hour extra to make five hours) minibus trip to Pai. My instant reaction, in spite of the degrading weather, was delight. It was set in a beautiful valley, along a river, it was quiet, and the minibus company lends out a scooter for an hour to let people suss out accommodation. I got to drive again! I took a scooter and went into the hills after looking at some bungalows on the river which I’d pretty much decided on. Bamboo hut, attached bathroom, 100 baht ($3), sold! But I did go look at the places in the hills, nice, but a bit more expensive for the view and scooter you’d inevitably need, and got some sunset photos of the countryside. I went to one place quite out of the way and my scooter died there and would not start. We had three Thai people gathered around for 20 minutes trying to start it, looking at gas and oil levels, kick-starting, etc. It seemed like something had just switched off the electrical system, and, after a phone call to the scooter people, I discovered something did… the kickstand! Oops. We all had a good laugh, I put up the kickstand, and brought the machine to life then sped back to town (after dropping my daypack at the bungalows) and dropped it off.

I ran into a really nice French girl I’d spent some time with in Chiang Mai on the street (Naima), and an Israeli guy (Michael) who had been on the trek with me. The three of us actually closed out several bars before going our separate ways only a few nights before. And I met several other very friendly people here. Everyone is friendly, and it’s extremely easy to meet people. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much chance to do this aside from the first night, as my website was hacked and I spent two days on the internet getting things fixed and working properly again (and, hopefully, hacker-proof for the moment). Though that was a definite downside, it feels good to have things back in order. And it’s not like I didn’t get out for dinner and chat with people over a drink at night, or a fruit shake in the morning. Even the locals are really pleasant. I really enjoyed just wandering over to a stall and eating and visiting with the owner(s). It’s a very laid-back, slow lifestyle here, and though I’m far from burnt out, it is enjoyable just for the atmosphere that this lends the town. I had been warned it was just a drug hangout, and indeed I’ve seen my share of hippies (and my bungalow neighbour passed by me eating on the street and told me a story about how her friends were just arrested for possession of marijuana leaving the waterfall one night as I was eating) but I have not seen much of it. So again, fellow adventurers, put Pai on your map.

As I said, the first day was just running into people and getting to know the place. I went out that night to Ting Tong, one of the local clubs, but was too early, so I wound up having a beer with Mao, Pao, and Chewie who worked there. Then I went back up the street to a pub with live music and met a bunch of people there. The second day I met some people trying to organize the Gibbon Experience, a pretty highly recommended thing to do in Laos. I’d tried twice to contact them with no response, and indeed they are pretty unprofessional. I tried a third time with the email he gave me but still nothing. So I’m not going and am more than a little unimpressed. The third day, I grabbed a shake in the morning and chatted with the woman who made my mango-banana-pineapple-licious shake for about half an hour. I had another beer that night and watched somebody tear it up on the harmonica and someone get a special birthday song. And an Australian-turned-Canadian girl gave me her scooter to use that day as she was leaving to Chiang Mai, so I zipped all over the hills, villages, and countryside. It really is beautiful up here. And between that comfortable feeling that you’re among friends, the beauty, and the more cool climate, it’s no wonder there are so many ex-pats here. So many that came and never left. My ticket out of here to Laos leaves tomorrow, May 16 (already!) to the Laos border. And then two days on a slow boat south into Luang Prabang in the heart of a new land with a new language, new foods, and new experiences. This is the Life of I, after all, and neither a Yann Martel novel nor a story of settling down in small-town Thailand. The Life of I shall resume in Laos shortly.

Bangkok Photos
Northern Thailand Photos