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12 January 2006

a chaos that i'd forgotten

i only became familiar with southeastern asian geography after i arrived in bangkok. laos was not on my original itinerary; an amorphous mass of land which separated my two destination countries, thailand and vietnam, in the north. a land to be crossed and not explored. a culture to be bypassed and not experienced. initially an obstacle in my path, the notion of the obstacle has been melted away over the past twelve days by the vicious laotian sunshine and penetrating friendliness of the people. i now see laos in an entirely different light. a vicious light.

i keep returning to one memory of a woman in luang prabang. immediately after stepping off of the boat after a two day ride down the mekong from huay xai, the other passengers and i were all on missions to find accomodation, always a somewhat stressful event. my parents did a great job teaching me manners but i've found that it's easy to forget even common courtesy ('hello', for instance) and even basic polite phrases ('please' and 'thank you') when focused on an important task. i think i forgot all three when talking to a small smiling woman who came out onto the street to greet sam, rhia, and me and ask if we were looking rooms. after she'd shown us the rooms and we were discussing prices i became acutely aware that i was talking much more loudly then she... remembered that i hadn't even said hello to her... her soft-spoken demeanor exploded in the most calm and gentle way a wall to my face which crumbled over me during the conversation and made me lower my voice, put on a smile, and remember my manners. such a discrete event... a point in time... such a distinct memory... the explosion and the crumbling. ever since then i've consciously focused more on the laotian people... their smiles, friendliness, and gentleness... the laotian serenity had a grip on me and i was sad i'd be leaving laos today.

i'd set the alarm on my treo to wake me up at 0515 but a knock on my door at 0555 was the shocker which made me open my eyes. not sure why the alarm didn't go off but the technical investigation would have to wait. i'd packed 95% of my equipment the night before and scrambled to pack the remainder, pissed that i wouldn't get a chance to take a shower and make myself a little more presentable for the vietnamese immigration officials. the ride to the airport was quick; checked in, paid my 10 usd departure tax, passed through security, and walked up the stairs to wait for my flight. an hour and forty minutes later, the plane took off _ahead of schedule_, a recontour first.

i caught a couple through.the.window.of.a.moving.vehicle quality pics of the laotian and vietnamese countryside from the plane. i generally don't get anxious while flying but as the plane descended into hanoi through whiteout conditions i couldn't shake the memories of discovery channel 'moments from disaster' plane crashes and was gripping the armrests so tightly that all of the blood decided it no longer wanted to reside in my fingers. fortunately we landed without incident. passed through immigrations and customs without incident. hit the atm... ten beautiful plasticky green 100,000 dong notes which each featured a smiling portrait of former president ho chi minh... once again, i was a millionaire.

bypassed a guy trying to sell me on his cheaper bus ride for a 2 usd minibus ride. the minibus was the type which dropped passengers off at their guesthouse of choice; i fumbled through my guidebook and picked out a random guesthouse for the minibus copilot. grr, the copilot. we arrived in hanoi, the copilot called out the name of my guesthouse... i got out and was greeted by a man who confirmed the name of my guesthouse and quickly shuttled me inside. i was a bit tired from the early morning wake-up and the month of relatively hassle-free travel in thailand and laos had crashed my defenses... only after i'd decided on a room and checked in did i realize that this was not actually the guesthouse i'd chosen. supergrr. i was a victim of the commission fix quick switch... son of a bitch. but i was too tired to care and happy enough that i had a room. i listened while the guesthouse manager went through the expensive tour options. thank you, sir, but no thank you.

out into the city for some walking and food, my first impression of hanoi brought back memories of indian hassles... motorbike vultures waited on every corner, each asking if i was their next meal... a man by the lake tried to suck me into a several day tour of the north... their was an aggressiveness in hanoi which had been completely absent in thailand and laos and it became evident that i'd need to check the charge on the shock system: checked [reference entry]. i was in a new country. women wearing conical hats and carrying shoulder boards bounced around the streets, scooters dominated the traffic; the city had a chaos that i'd forgotten, but it did have street signs. amazingly excellent street signs, in fact, which matched up with the uncharacteristically accurate and complete map from my guidebook and i was able to navigate beautifully on my new city walk.

that evening i attended a water puppets show, a vietnamese tradition dating back centuries. what exactly is a water puppet? i had the same question. this 1.9mb avi video doesn't come close to the experience (in fact, due to my poor video skills it actually makes the performance appear somewhat boring), but it will give you an idea. the puppeteers stand behind a curtain and operate the puppets via long wooden poles. the most beautiful sound, one instrument in the band called the dan bau, or monochord. if you can handle a large download, listen to its sweet and somewhat supernatural sound in this 7.5mb avi video.

posted by paul at Thu 12 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

11 January 2006

in search of snow white

pritesh and mira had bumped into another vang vieng acquaintance, english shiv, on their way to the breakfast meeting point. courtney joined up shortly after and the five of us had a tasty breakfast. at the travel agency next to the restaurant i bought a plane ticket to hanoi departing tomorrow morning at [gasp] 0745. i'd need to return to the travel agency between 1400 and 1700 to pick up my ticket.

shiv was off on a mission and the four of us rented scooters and after some direction from the anarchy rental guy, we were off on our own missions. first to the buddha park; amazing stone statues [check out the gallery for more pics]. on our way home pritesh suggested we stop by the beer lao plant for a tour; a smiling woman gave us big stickers and led us around the bottling plant where mechanical monsters transformed empty beer bottles into wonderful clean relabeled and refilled beer lao [i could have watched those machines all day. check out this fairly large 5.9mb avi video to see the bottles moving on a metal conveyor belt]. we'd given up on mission two to see a temple in order to make it back into town in time to pick up my plane ticket. hit an internet cafe later that evening and did some war research; still later the four met up with shiv, walked forever in search of snow white and one dwarf before discovering that she was closed for the season. en route i had a tasty fruit shake; just a little concerned about the ice but not to worry. to another bar, 3000 kip pool, ladyboys, and a man with tattoos all over his face with an eclectic music mix. i returned to my room to pack for the early departure. my internet taxi friend would be picking me up at 0600. tomorrow: the socialist republic of vietnam.

posted by paul at Wed 11 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

10 January 2006

system sickness the night

transport day to the laotian capital, vientiane. i ran into swiss res on the way to breakfast and although he'd just finished eating, he joined me at the restaurant. we talked about our travel experiences and i told him how much i'd loved the swiss scenery. spent the rest of the morning chilling with pritesh and mira waiting for the bus to depart.

at 1330, a bus pulled up to the thamisouk, a load of passengers flooded out, we flooded in, and were off to our first stop... the nearby former american airstrip where we waited for about a half an hour for our driver to show up. finally off again. courtney had decided to join pritesh, mira, and i to vientiane after coming down with some type of digestive system sickness the night before. the sickness hit at some point during the bus journey south which required a pit stop at one of the small villages. from what i've heard, while foodborne illnesses may be most prevalent with foreigners, travel/motion related sickness resulting from bouncing buses and windy roads affects both tourists and locals alike and i've heard stories about locals sniffing some mysterious powder which apparently knocks them out for most of the journey.

we arrived in vientiane in the late afternoon and began the guesthouse search. i found a room first; we made plans to meet back at my guesthouse in 45 minutes for dinner. during the interim, i walked beside the river, watched a remote control jet [you can watch it too in this 2.26mb avi video], exchanged another amex check, got lost, and asked a tuk tuk driver for directions back to my guesthouse (no, sir, i wouldn't like a lady for tonight). the four of us had a great dinner at the rising moon cafe. for a capital city, vientiane served up the usual laotian chill.

posted by paul at Tue 10 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

09 January 2006

a hole in the side of the earth

vangvieng.jpg

during dinner last night, pritesh, mira, courtney, amanda, ed, and i made plans to go out biking to some of the caves around vang vieng today. we'd all agreed that 1000 was a realistic time to meet up, but then shortly after amanda had asked if we could push up the departure time by a half hour to 0930. the rest of us reluctantly agreed. smile bar, 0930. this morning, i arrived at the smile bar at 0935. no one else was there.

i walked over to the cabin where pritesh and mira were staying; they'd just woken up and apologized for the delay. no problem at all. i walked over to the nearby restaurant and hung with loren and his wife, cindy, while waiting for everyone to get ready. pritesh and mira woke up courtney and then checked on ed and amanda who apparently said they would 'catch up with us later.' blah. and after the 'can't we start earlier? 0930?' last night. i'm trying to think of an interesting word to describe amanda's behavior and i keep coming back to the slightly dull and monosyllabic 'lame'. i wasn't the least bit disturbed by the delay, only that amanda had asked for an earlier departure and then had completely abandoned the plan. lame.

after breakfast, the four of us walked into town and found some decent bikes, formed the vang vieng slow boat biker club, studied the hand drawn cave map, and biked down through town, across the toll bridge, through the toll booth to the cave whose name escapes me at this moment. we arrived at approximately noon, during the cave's lunchbreak, we'd need to wait. walked down to the staircase leading to the cave's entrance; dropped my sunglasses into the crystal clear water and courtney retrieved them before going for a short swim into the cavern. sticky rice before the long climb to the cave entrance.

the cave was handrails, electricity, and supporting cement and while it had most likely been very impressive when it was first discovered, it had evolved into an oversafe tourist attraction which didn't much excite me. the most excitement i experienced while touring the cave was the scare that pritesh gave me when he jumped out from behind a stalagmite and i screamed like a little girl (or so i was told... i prefer to remember it as a very manly scream... in fact, i don't remember screaming at all... i was merely clearing my throat). the view from an opening in the side of the cliff was postcard pretty.

we descended the stairs back to our bikes and were off to one of the other myriad caves which were scattered about the area. the dust and small rocks and holes slowed our progress and drained our enthusiasm and we eventually abandoned the farthest cave for a closer one, down a dirt road until we came upon two men. pritesh knocked off 1000 kip from the ticket prices, we donned headlamps and heavy batteries and followed the guide through fields to the cave. two minutes after we climbed the first ladder into the rocky opening i knew this cave experience was going to be far different from the first.

no well worn tourist path here, no electricity, no handrails, no supporting cement... this was a hole in the side of the earth and we were crawling into it. the rough surfaces gradually became soft and slimy, beautiful untouched rock formations, we walked, climbed, ducked, and slid into the cave for about 15 minutes before we came to the end and our smiling guide gently tapped some of the rock formations to elicit soft tones similar to those produced by a xylophone [avi video clip; 800kb]. courtney discovered a white cave cricket and as we exited the earth, we wondered if there were other creatures living within until the wondering stopped when we encountered the biggest spider each of us had ever seen. without exaggeration, the outstretched legs of this magnificent brown arachnid were bigger than the outstretched fingers of my hand. we tried for several minutes to capture an image of the spider; no one was brave enough to put their hand close enough so that a sense of scale could be captured along with it. courtney was deathly afraid to walk beneath it and our guide walked over to cover it with his hat and when he did, the long legged beastie ran a short distance with a quickness which shot blood through my body and made my skin tingle. given the size of the spider, i'd expected a slow lumbering and not a fast sprinting. damn. what an amazing creature. back outside, i gave the guide a 2 usd tip which made his eyes light up and gave me a great feeling.

i took this picture on the way home. smiling.

we made it back into town at around 1730, returned our bikes and then met up for dinner at one of the friends restaurants. later that evening, i hit an internet cafe. despite having to endure an israeli girl speaking at volume 10 in one of the indoor international call phone booths and an american girl having a very intimate conversation over an internet phone at one of the terminals with absolutely zero discretion, i was in a very zen mood. today had been a great day and i was really loving laos. unfortunately, tomorrow i'd be pushing on... the sand was running on my vietnam visa.

posted by paul at Mon 09 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

08 January 2006

wherein i'd blurred the night

i awoke the morning after as the desiccate dead with a mouth which cracked as if it hadn't been opened for one thousand years, a hurt that i hadn't felt before, a low tone pulsing in my head. i droned into the bathroom and the tone droned with me, it was there when i leaned over, turned on the shower to drown it away, and as i stared at the dry floor for the first five minutes not a drop of water fell, my skin absorbed it all like a sponge until i was full and the dead feeling fell away and my neck was able to lift my head, and only then i did i hear the water splashing. after the shower i floated across the floor [fortunately two rails had been set up on the floor and i was standing on a small cart equipped with wheels which rolled smoothly and silently across the rails. i was framed from the waist up. action. i stood still and two invisible people pushed the cart towards the door. and that's how i floated.] and i opened the door to the unexpected outside. if the door hinges hadn't been firmly bolted into the doorframe, the flood of bright laotian sunlight would have imploded the door and caused the cart with me in it to slide to the far side of the room; i quickly threw my arm up to cover my face. and then i stepped outside.

my room was on the first floor front, the noisy common area directly outside. the soft spoken thamisouk woman had told me there would be a room available on the second floor today. stopped into the reception area to drop off my laundry and check on the room; i'd need to come back after 1200. i walked down to the showdown street and had a slow showdown breakfast. damnit, i'd forgotten my revolver. over to use the internet, back after 1200 to a vacant reception.

'rambo!'

i turned and saw leicester pritesh and mira sitting across the street, lounging on cushions. i smiled a big genuine smile, happy to see them, and walked over. they'd gotten into town two days before, had gone tubing down the river the day before. i hung and had some tasty coca-cola and bruscetta while they ate and then walked with pritesh across the river to the riverside bungalows while mira went to catch up with friends. brought a book and wanted to see the crossbow he bought in thailand. we had a hard time stringing it, not without the wood cracking. it was a real weapon, one bolt lost, sliced through a branch and into the ground. we never got any reading in, the original plan, as we met his neighbor, canadian loren, who we talked with at length about the questionable cleanliness of the river until mira returned. apparently laotian kids came every day to hammer at a berry bearing tree with long sticks; loren and his wife had a plan to hang strings of candy from the tree for the next hammering. _that_ was a great plan.

we eventually split; meet up at half nine by the orchid guesthouse. i took a nap and then met up near a laotian wedding far before the orchid, met amanda and ed from england, courtney was there, we walked back to the bar wherein i'd blurred the night before, but tonight would be a slow nothing night. eventually elaine and ben and mike found us. res [swi] and shiv [eng]. another giant crew and more pool. i walked home and struggled with my door for five minutes before i was able to unlock the lock. the rails were no longer on the floor.

posted by paul at Sun 08 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

07 January 2006

no longer an option

today i'd be leaving luang prabang on a minivan bound for vang vieng. laos. a tuk tuk was scheduled to pick me up at 0850 and at 0845 i had to abandon the organized systematic recon repacking method which i've developed and honed over the past nine months and default to the random stuff and push method in order to get all equipment in one of the two packs in time to make my ride. i ordered a baguette from the phousi restaurant but my tuk tuk arrived before the baguette and i asked sam and rhia to apologize for me. at the bus station, we rendez-vous'd with the minivan crew, loaded all of our baggage on the roof of the van and tied it down, piled into the van, and departed luang prabang fifteen minutes ahead of schedule.

i'd envisioned a lazy drive down a long straight highway where bandits wearing zorro masks lurked behind piles of sand on the side of the road, but within a few minutes of our departure from the bus station, it became evident that the road was 01. not a highway and 02. not straight. the narrow road was some maniacal engineer's masterpiece of twists, turns, curves, loopbacks and whirlpool descents along the contours of the laotian mountains. as the mist gradually burned away over the next couple hours, the minivan traveled through one of the most staggeringly beautiful landscapes i've ever seen. i immediately began reevaluating my 'most beautiful scenery' list, juggling norway, switzerland, and laos in the top three without assigning numbers. one of the other passengers said she'd heard from a friend that this journey was hit or miss... if the weather were nice, the views would be amazing; if not, the mist would curtain the mountains and the journey would be hellish. i felt lucky that the weather was nice. i was too absorbed in the enormous landscape to be affected by the twists in the road; the man beside me wasn't as fortunate and discretely leaned down into a plastic bag two times during the trip.

i was sitting in the back row on the passenger's side of the van (in laos, vehicles drive on the right side of the road, as opposed to thailand, where they drive on the wrong side of the road. :) ) next to the window, and i broke out my camera and almost filled my 512mb card with shot after shot of giant scenery. wow. here's the gallery. the pictures don't come close. in fact, nowhere near it.

along the way we passed village after village of bamboo stilt huts hovering over the steep slopes beside the road. villagers seemed not to notice us. most were beating some type of long straight plant against a rock or against the road surface; we surmised that the plants were used as roofing material and the beating removed the seeds. hard to determine... i'd need to ask someone. i made eye contact with a young boy picking the plants... he saw my camera and gave a big wave and a loud sabaidee... couldn't catch the image in time.

we arrived in vang vieng around 1500 and i took the first room i was directed to by the smiling thamisouk woman. all set. out to explore. the town had a very 'american wild west' feel... a long dusty central khao san road which was missing two gunmen facing off while a tumbleweed rolled slowly between them. someone had mentioned to me that a number of the bars in town played 'friends' episodes all day long; as i strolled down the road i saw three bars which were playing the show while travelers lounged on cushions in front of calf high tables. canned laughter in stereo. it was time for food and so i sat down at one of the restaurants but before i orderd i spied the others of the slow boat crew across the road... they'd just arrived in a different minivan and were on searches for rooms. i walked over and hung out with rhia while sam, mike, ben and elaine went out searching.

a few hours later, we all met up near ben's guesthouse by the river shortly before sunset to get some food... then walked back up into town to get some drinks. we played pool and i downed a couple big beer lao's as well as a shot of lao lao (which i'd vowed never to do again after the fire throat experience in luang prabang). i saw the bottle _after_ i'd had the shot... more pool, more beer lao... a few hours later, pool was no longer an option. although my guesthouse was right across the street i remember a long arduous journey; when i finally arrived i couldn't unlock the door to my room. if the beer lao and lao lao had been subracted, i'd still have had a problem... the key was completely screwed up... it was one of those keys that was supposed to only go into the keyhole one way, but the keyhole was so chewed out that the key fit in either way... two israelis watching the struggle came over to assist and after hacking for what seemed like an eternity one eventually unlocked the door and i stumbled in. i asked her how to say 'thank you' in hebrew... todah.

posted by paul at Sat 07 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

06 January 2006

devolved into more or less a binary configuration

enough of transport and nothings, it was time to take in some lao culture. after breakfast, i walked over to the royal palace museum, dropped my shoes off on the shoe racks, dropped my pack in a locker, paid for an entrance ticket, and walked in wearing my tk2's (i'll explain the tk2's later). the former royal palace was now a museum, thus the name, the royal palace museum. the walls decorated with battle scenes. warriors, horses, elephants which seemed more like horses with trunks and tusks than elephants, each comprised of chunks of mirrored glass. several beheadings and random mirrored glass body parts. i followed the thirteen panels of a famous buddhist figure; interesting if not bizarre storyline. the library, the royal seals, the bedrooms. outside, i stood and gazed at the centuries old golden buddha figure, the pha bang, after which the city was named.

i ran into sam and rhia at the next stop on the day of culture, wat xieng thong, built in 1560. the familiar golden buddha figure amongst a uniqueness of dusty rugs and wooden beams. the glass tiles again. the dragon funeral carriage. sam and rhia had rented bikes; the third stop on the day of culture was rhia's ultraretro pink hello kitty bike.

at some point between the palace and the temple, i decided that i should be moving on in laos. stopped into a travel agency and bought a minivan ticket despite the potential bandit risk along route 13. mike figured a minivan would be better able to outrun the bandits than a large vip bus. i agreed.

in the evening i walked over to a decaying bridge that i'd seen from the top of phu si and then returned for dinner. the van would be leaving at 0815 tomorrow. i paid the guesthouse and then ended the day with some writing.

almost forgot... the global reconnaissance sock narrative. i left the states last april with five pairs of white over-the-calf length tube socks. i don't think the label on the socks said 'tube' per se; i think the term was 'athletic'. regardless of the term, they were tube socks. unlike most children of the 80's, i never outgrew the white tube sock phase. in fact, only a few years ago i spent a considerable amount of effort tracking down a store which still sold white tube socks with colored stripes (of course, by that point in my life, my wardrobe had devolved into more or less a binary configuration of white and black and so my stripe color of choice was black... not quite as awesome as the stripes i rocked in 1985 but every bit as tubular.). the socks i brought with me last april weren't striped, but that's not the point... the point is that they blew out in less than two months. holes in the heels. holes in the toes. by the time i returned to the states in june for jenn and jamie's wedding, i was down to only two pairs of holeless socks. i stocked up on another five fresh pairs... this time taking care to select the heaviest and presumably most durable brand. i'd switched out my combat boots for the just-above-the-ankle hiking boots (blech) and without the combat boots i'd be wearing the converse chucks more often, so i decided to go with the low profile cutting edge crew length model rather than the high rise over-the-calf model. these new socks lasted a little longer than the first batch, but by the beginning of october i was back down to only two pairs of holeless socks. white tube socks just weren't cutting it for around the world travel. it was time to upgrade.

before leaving for india, i bought two pairs of falke tk2 hikingshoe coolmax® performance socks at an outdoor store in amsterdam. that's right, these socks had a model number... the tk2. the socks cost 17 euro. per pair. i wish i'd saved the packaging that came with the socks because as i remember it expounded on the various features of the socks... the built-in graviton impulsion system, the hyperbolic resonance boosters, the ultrakinetic fusion generators... and if that weren't enough... they were labeled with a big L and R so that there was absolutely no way you could put them on the wrong foot (which is exactly what i did in chiang mai, thailand, after they came back from a laundry service bundled in homogeneous pairs. for two days i couldn't figure out why one foot was sore and getting blisters and didn't uncover the reason until i went to put on the second pair and discovered two R socks wrapped together. idiot.). anyway... the entire point of this narrative was convince myself that spending 34 euro on socks was a good decision... in fact, one of the best investments of the trip. i have been rocking the falke's for two and a half months so far with absolutely no sign of sock fatique. when i get back to the states, the blue jeans will revert to black jeans. the brown hiking boots will revert to the black combat boots. the socks will stay. i am a sock convert.

posted by paul at Fri 06 Jan 2006 at 00:00:01 EST (-05:00) | comments (1)

05 January 2006

dancing around a flourescent

my first viewing of luang prabang in the sun and the city has a charm that i can't explain. the shuddering palm trees, the city embraced by the splitting rivers and the slopes of phu si, with a familiar sit back in a chair and absorb the sun and watch the world walk by feel. i found the bank after one miss at an office which did not cash checks, directed down the street. the woman scrutinized my amex gift check while i watched anxiously. she showed it to another employee who looked at it quickly before muttering something quickly in lao. i assumed it was a negative until she pushed over a form for me to fill out. 100 usd = 1,075,000 laotian kip. i completed the form, countersigned the check while she watched, and slid it across the threshold. she pushed over a neatly folded stack of cash separated into six smaller chunks. five chunks held ten 20,000 kip notes. the sixth held seven 10,000 kip notes and one 5,000 kip note. i counted all of the cash carefully, examining each note for any type of defects (i'd read that some shops wouldn't accept notes with any rips or burns), and then tapped the thick stack on the counter in the way you would organize a large stack of papers, folded it in half, put it in my pocket, and walked away from the counter a millionaire. my money issues were behind me.

i didn't have much planned today... the temples and royal palace would be tomorrow, after four days of transport today was for nothings. the weather was the typical amazing and i walked a big loop next to the river, stopping at a riverside restaurant to sample the lemon ice cream which was tasty but not quite as tasty as florencian lemon gelato. onward along the river, stopping to chat briefly with sam and rhia who were walking the same loop in the opposite direction, to the splitting of rivers, passing tuk tuk drivers who appreciated my heathen beard. back to the guesthouse to pick up some postcards i'd written in chiang rai and then to the post office; i don't think she said one word to me. i picked up some more postcards and then found a restaurant for some writing and eating.

walked another loop on the far side of the phu si hill; then back to thanon phothisalat; up the long flight of switchback stairs through the old twisted trees to the top with a wonderful view. there i relaxed and traced a long trail of ants from a wastebasket holding several empty soda cans to the highest branches of a nearby tree, wondering what they were doing up there; i'd have climbed the tree to find out had there not been a temple nearby. met an american photographer who asked me if i was on school holiday [yes ma'am... yes i am.] she had interesting information about vietnam and new zealand and i would have asked her about her photography and her gigantic camera if her guide had not prodded her and her husband to move on to what he was calling the most amazing temple of luang prabang. descended smiling past a monkey, a reclining buddha, and two monks who i talked to briefly, to buddha's footprint, and then back to my guesthouse. processed some pictures i'd taken earlier today and uploaded them in my luang prabang internet cafe of choice before meeting up with the slow boat crew (pritesh [eng], mira [eng], sam [eng], rhia [fin], mike [eng], elaine [eng], courtney [can], and ben [eng] (a friend of mike and elaine who they had randomly bumped into halfway around the world) at 2000 for some indian food. lots of fun.

pritesh, mira, and courtney had decided to move on to vang vieng the next day and decided to head back to their guesthouses for the night. we said our goodbyes and then sam, rhia, mike, elaine, ben, and i continued on across an indiana jones bridge to a mysterious party where a large group of drunk locals were dancing around a flourescent light fastened vertically to a pole and listening to a two person band, one guy rocking... no, ROCKING, a yamaha keyboard and the other singing... no, WAILING, hideously. the party finished up about twenty minutes after we got there and so we moved on to the hive bar right up the street where we met matthias [ger] and monique [ger]. ben killed us all with a round of shots of a local evil spirit... fermented rice fire called 'lao lao'. damn. my breathing was lao lao flavor for the rest of the evening until the bar closed and sam, rhia, and i said farewell to elaine, mike, and ben and walked back to the phousi 3.

posted by paul at Thu 05 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

04 January 2006

trying to pull you in

mekong.jpg

up early for breakfast in the tiny village of pakbeng on the mekong. ded would only agree to eat this spider for 20k kip if he was able to cook it. and if i'd been stying longer he'd have cooked up a large pot of the local creatures. i told him i'd be back to sample the delicasies.

the same same but different boat didn't leave until around 1045 after a horribly long wait for the unknown and i was already sore. more muddy water. more grey rocks. more green jungle. but everything was just a bit more exaggerated today. some amazing steep cliffs on our right which plunged coldly into the water reminded me of my four day hurtigrute ride along the norwegian coast. truly beautiful. elaine introduced me to sudoku which helped pass a few hours; i completed the first level 5 in record time. impatience got the better of me on the second.

the boat slid up beside luang prabang around 1800. with light quickly fading, a boat packed with travelers all ready to storm the city in search of accomodation. [yes, that was a sentence _fragment_.] the guesthouse search still makes me anxious and then once a room has been found all of the feeling disappears. we followed a guesthouse tout up the ramp and were ready to check out his rooms until he told us we'd need to pay for a tuk tuk ride to get there. blah. we turned down offers for other tuk tuks at the top of the ramp. i'd looked at the city map in my guidebook but sam was more certain that the city was small enough to easily walk to the center. the crew which had grown close on the slow boat from huay xai had scattered and i followed sam and rhia to the phousi guesthouse. a sweet soft spoken woman led me from phousi 1 to phousi 3 to a seven dollar room. and the feeling disappeared.

i made plans with sam and rhia to meet at the guesthouse in about 45 minutes and then went out on a mission to find a bank to attempt the exchange, all were closed and i'd need to wait until the morning. the sun had fallen and the main street was lit by the lamps of a long line of vendors selling silk and crafts and shirts and food. all kneeling on the ground, some with sleeping babies, some men sitting on stools, all so patiently, none trying to pull you in, mostly just patiently sitting and waiting. narrow lanes and i walked on for a bit and then turned back and beyond, the main street filled with restaurants and travel agencies and internet cafes, catering to the tourists arriving daily by boat and bus. the darkness prevented seeing the full setting of the city.

back to the phousi, i met sam and rhia and we returned to the street for dinner. a young girl tried to sell me bracelets and i smiled and told her no thank you... she continued to come back and smile and joke with us. this was so far from a hard persistent sell that i couldn't help but smile and joke with her each time she came back even though she was interrupting our conversation. small differences from thailand, but similarly the people seemed so quiet and calm and soft and satisfied. it's common to take your shoes off before entering any type of residence, the guesthouses for example... and for some reason i didn't have a problem with it here... i didn't have the same annoyed feeling i had in the hostel in stockholm... the surroundings and people had such a powerful soothing effect.

i ran into the rest of the crew on the way back to the guesthouse and we all made plans to meet up at 2000 the following day for dinner. four days of solid transport had taken its toll and i slept well in the clean room.

posted by paul at Wed 04 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (2)

03 January 2006

through this strange green other world

the land of laos, separated from thailand in the north by the narrow mekong... i could already sense the differences between the two countries after only one night. the morning was a bit chaotic, the first chaotic morning i can remember since arriving in southeast asia, the thai mornings all a calming chill. i was at the bap guesthouse a little after 0800, as requested, for breakfast. i should have made a point of finding my guesthouse man to tell him i wouldn't be booking the inflated price slow boat ticket with him but my heavy morning eyes weren't ready for searching.

no international atm's in laos. i needed to get down to the bank to exchange one 100 usd amex check; should that fail my backup plan would be to try to stretch my current stock of cash which included 68 us dollars, 25 euro, 40 swiss francs, and a random assortment of eastern european and indian currency which would most likely be useless. at 0830 the bank, scheduled to open at 0830, was still dark inside; i ran back and fourth three times between the guesthouse (waiting for my food to arrive) and the bank (waiting for an employee to arrive) before a random told me that the bank would only be opening in the afternoon, half day due to a banking holiday. blick. i'd be operating on current cash until i arrived in luang prabang tomorrow evening and could attempt the exchange there.

back to the bap guesthouse; still no food. the woman had told me the previous night that a truck would be taking us down to the dock to get the boat at 0830, but as the crowd in the guesthouse common area grew, it became obvious that she'd given that time out to others in order to get everyone up and ready early (and eating breakfast at her guesthouse). the food finally arrived, i finished it and then paid for my breakfast with my remaining thai baht and then bought my slow boat ticket for 20 usd. the currency situation in laos is interesting. research in my guidebook (which should have been done _before_ i arrived) revealed that there are essentially three currencies in play in laos: laotian kip, thai baht, and american dollars. it didn't take much common sense to realize that if you used thai baht or american dollars to buy anything, you would most certainly be getting screwed on the exchange rate. and yes [sigh], the exchange rate... between 10,000 and 10,750 kip for each american dollar and between 250 and 260 kip per thai baht. it looked like calculators were a way of life in huay xai and assumedly all of laos.

chaos chaos chaos. finally, a truck came to pick us up a little after 1000. the waiting of us jumped in, bags on top, looking for absent courtney's canadian flag, a short ride down to the boat, a long wait for our driver to purchase the tickets for boat 056, this boat this boat same same, we walked the plank to the other and courtney and i found a seat. i was pleasantly surprised when i saw the cushions on the seats, but after more than a half hour of waiting for other passengers to pile in, i realized that the cushions wouldn't be as surprisingly pleasant as i'd hoped. the boat finally pulled out a little after 1100 and despite the long wait and morning chaos, i was smiling and happy and the weather was warm, the boat cut smoothly through the water, laos on our left and thailand on our right and i was in another world and felt like a real traveler.

the water was brown and muddy, the boat chugging through this strange green other world. unexpected grey rough rocks jutting out on the sides of the river sometimes in the middle. waving to villagers, stopping occasionally to pick up locals (and their speaker cabinets?) although the boat was heavy in the water with more than 90% foreigners, packed but not overpacked. i tried to read a bit but didn't want to miss the scenery although after several hours the muddy water grey rock green jungle landscape hadn't changed much. courtney moved to an abandoned seat and i slid down to the floor and was able to sleep for a little less than an hour.

during the journey we encountered (the high pitch scream first and then a tiny slicing spraying blur second) several speedboats, tiny crafts loaded with maybe eight to ten passengers wearing crash helmets (i thought that was a joke in the guidebook) and life vests, cutting swiftly through the water like angry insects. the engines were cranked and water was spraying so high that we guessed the passengers must surely be miserable... no talking, no reading, no relaxing. from what we could see through the blur, their faces betrayed a gripping irritation frustration fright and we were all happy that we'd chosen the slower option. at one of the the stops, we picked up two passengers who told us they'd been on one of the speedboats and had asked to be dropped off to wait for the slow and steady. with each faint scream, many would break out their cameras to try to capture the blur.

i used my gps to track our progress down the river. at 1700 we arrived in pakbeng about 50 minutes ahead of my estimate. a small village along the river which relied on tourism, directed to a guesthouse, check-in, dinner with chavi [spn], lucia [spn], sam [eng], rhia [fin], and courtney [can]. ded pushed a certain local plant at the top of the menu.

the boat would be leaving tomorrow at 0830. as we retired to our rooms at 2300 weary for the long boat ride, a horde of mice sat around a circular table planning their raid of sam and rhia's room to capture a chunk of bread resting under rhia's bed. they would execute their plan at 0430.

posted by paul at Tue 03 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

02 January 2006

flagged down by a mindreader

another day of transport to another chiang, khong, a small town on the thai side of the mekong river across from the laotian town of huay xai... an overland border crossing portal between the two countries. i woke up early and checked out of the mae kok villa and walked downtown to grab some breakfast. the guidebook indicated that buses ran frequently between chiang rai and chiang khong. i made my way over to the nearby bus station and scanned all of the signs looking for the words 'chiang' and 'khong'... nothing. in the bus stands outside i was flagged down by a mindreader.

'you are going to chiang khong,' he said.

'uh... yes... i am.'

he pointed at the windshield of the bus directly in front of me... giant letters... 'CHIANG KHONG' [the eighth wonder of the world]. 54 baht. he loaded my backpack into the cargo hold beneath the bus and told me it would be departing in 15 minutes. i ran over to the local 7-eleven clone and grabbed some snacks for the journey. i said thank you in thai to the checkout clerk and my words surprised him...

'you speak thai?' he asked eagerly.

ha! not even close. chiang rai was a typical stop for all travelers heading to the border crossing at chiang khong... certainly at least a few of those foreigners had muttered a few words of the local language. i recited the thai phrases i knew... 'hello', 'thank you', 'goodbye'. that's it, sir.

the bus wasn't quite as nice as the bus from mai to rai, but it was fairly empty and i had a seat to myself for the entire four hour journey. more beautiful scenery, more blue sky, more lovely country.

we arrived in chiang khong at about 1600 and after a quick scan of the area and a short discussion with a couple of danes who had been on the same bus, i made a quick decision to just continue right into laos. i typically don't make these types of decisions without at least a bit of research, but i was feeling lucky and with the clock ticking on my vietnam visa (valid only in january), i decided it would be best to keep moving. i waved down a tuk tuk and was off to the river where i'd catch a boat to laos. i knew laos issued visas on arrival for 30 usd... i had the tuk tuk driver pull over at an atm so i could withdraw 1500 baht for the visa.

passed through thai immigration... quick departure stamp... then down to the river to catch a 20 baht boat across the mekong... and pow! i was in laos.

the laos visa was payable either as 30 us dollars or 1500 thai baht (which, given the current exchange rate, worked out to be 37.5 usd). i've been carrying 50 usd cash in my money belt since i left, but i wanted to hang onto it for an emergency situation and this didn't qualify. i completed some paperwork, handed over a small passport picture, paid the 1500 baht, and a few minutes later i had a laos visa and an entry stamp in my passport. i was official.

i walked up the hill from immigration, was 'directed' to the friendship guesthouse, checked in, paid in baht, and was out to explore huay xai. it took all of ten minutes to fully explore the metropolis. again, i hadn't been sure about my travel plans... whether or not i was going to spend a few nights in huay xai or just continue on the next day... but after the ten minute tour i knew i'd be departing tomorrow. i walked back to the guesthouse and discussed boat options with the guy at the desk.

. slow boat to luang prabang: 800 baht. two day journey down the mekong with an overnight stop in pakbeng.

. fast boat to luang prabang: 1300 baht. six hour journey down the mekong, life vests and crash helmets provided.

i opted for the slow scenic two day journey. unfortunately i didn't have 800 baht on me... i'd need to hit an atm before i could pay him. back out to the street. a few minutes later i was at the far end of the town and hadn't seen a bank. i passed a couple of travelers on the street and asked them if they'd seen an atm in town.

'there are no international atm's in laos.' they told me.

[alert] the words hung in the air... no. international. atm's. in. laos.

shit. what an idiot. how could i have missed that in the guidebook? no freaking atm's in the entire country? that couldn't be possible.

i contemplated a trip back across the river into thailand where there were an abundance of atm's. what a pain. i decided it was time to try out my american express gift checks. i'd received several amex gift checks before i'd left for the trip and had always hoped that i wouldn't need to use them... they weren't exactly 'traveler's checks' per se... but they operated in the same way (i hoped)... sign, countersign, replaceable if lost. unfortunately the one currency exchange bank in town was closed for the day... i'd have to go back the next morning.

i ate dinner in the restaurant of another guesthouse and after i'd finished eating, the woman running the place asked me what i was doing tomorrow.

'slow boat to luang prabang,' i told her.

'have you bought your ticket yet?' she asked.

'well, i reserved a ticket at my guesthouse, but i haven't paid yet. i need to exchange money tomorrow morning.'

'how much did you pay?' she asked.

'800 baht.'

she seemed surprised.

'800 baht? i can't believe someone is charging you 800 baht. you can reserve the same boat here for 750 baht.'

i felt a little bad about backing out of the 'deal' with the man at my guesthouse, but he had obviously added a special tax for the ticket. i reserved a ticket with the woman.

'tomorrow... be here at 0800 for breakfast. truck will take you to the boat at 0830.'

i thanked her, hit one of the two internet cafes in town, met danielle [usa] and courtney [can], and then retired for the night.

chiang khong, thailand, as seen from huay xai, laos. darkness.

posted by paul at Mon 02 Jan 2006 at 00:00:00 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)

01 January 2006

with the mostly barren

the first day of the new year was a transport day for me... i'd be leaving chiang mai on a bus bound for chiang rai. i checked out of the pun pun without much time to spare and walked halfway to the bus station before i saw and flagged down a tuk tuk to take me the rest of the way. the bus was very clean and the staff was well organized; the four hour ride was very enjoyable. this was the first time i'd taken overland transport in thailand (i'd flown from bangkok to chiang mai) and i got to see the beautiful hills and forests of the northern kingdom. a combination of the beautiful weather, the beautiful scenery, and the friendliness of the thai people had put me in a smiling mood.

we arrived in chiang rai at around 1400 and after brushing aside some guesthouse touts i began my walk to the nearby pintamorn guesthouse, recommended by my guidebook for its good value. i found the correct street... found the correct cross street... couldn't find the pintamorn. i stopped and asked two women sitting right where it should have been and asked for directions. they managed to convey that the pintamorn had moved and pointed me down the street and to the right. i thanked them and was off again... down the street to the right... no pintamorn. i asked two other people for directions but they weren't able to help. after fifteen minutes of walking i was still in a very good mood despite the heat and the pack making my back heavy with sweat, but i was a little weary of the walk and decided to abandon the pintamorn for the next guesthouse on the list. i arrived at the mae kok villa about five minutes later. an older man sized me up as i approached.

'do you have any rooms available?' i asked.

'only expensive rooms. 300 baht. where are you coming from?' he responded.

'i came from chiang mai on a bus.'

'no, what country?'

'united states,' i said.

my mind had only registered that he had 'expensive' rooms available and had not completed the conversion of baht to usd. 300 baht is approximately 7.50 usd. i asked him if he knew of another guesthouse and he directed me to the chat house around the corner. i got the impression that he really didn't want me staying at his guesthouse. typically the accomodation management goes out of their way for business, sending scouts out to bus stations and airports to pull in travelers. this man seemed all too eager to send me on my way to the cheaper competition.

i lugged my pack away in a half-hearted attempt to find the chat house and after a cursory search decided that 300 baht was perfectly fine. i returned to the mae kok villa.

'300 baht is fine,' i announced to the man. he looked up with a grimace.

'i'll show you the room and then you decide.' on the way to the room he asked me what state i was from.

'massachusetts. boston,' i responded.

'ah, big irish population there. but you're not irish?'

'some irish. a mixture really... irish, italian. i didn't grow up in boston. i'm originally from pennsylvania.'

'ah, penn state. football.'

wow. his response really surprised me. this man was either well read or well traveled.

the room was perfect... one of the nicest ones of the entire trip. i checked in, did some reading, and then took off back into town for some recon. i still wasn't sure whether i was going to hang out in chiang rai for another day or continue on to chiang khong near the laos border.

the town, like chiang mai, was very laid back although i'm sure the new year holiday had something to do with the mostly barren streets. i wandered through the food markets... fresh fish still flapping, big chunks of fly covered flesh, the skin of a pig's head hung from a hook, and large stacks of fruit lined the tables. i continued my walk towards the bus station, hit an internet cafe, and then stopped into a restaurant to grab some dinner. evening had fallen and i headed to the night market... t-shirts, silk, massage stands. during the guesthouse search and the afternoon recon i'd covered a good portion of the town. i decided to depart the next morning and head straight for chiang khong, my third chiang of thailand.

posted by paul at Sun 01 Jan 2006 at 00:00:01 EST (-05:00) | comments (0)