March 2007


Lisa over Sapa Lisa in Halong Bay Lisa at Wat Pho

Lisa and Ma Yai, our guide Lisa on Bia Hoi corner, Hanoi Lisa with ladies in rural Vietnam

Lisa: (top tow, left to right) overlooking Sapa, in northern Vietnam; at Halong Bay, southeast of Hanoi; giving alms at Wat Pho in Bangkok; (bottom row, left to right) with Ma Yai, our Hmong guide, in Sapa; on Bia Hoi corner, Old Quarter, Hanoi; with group of clam diggers on Cat Ba island, Vietnam

It’s hard to believe, but some people go their whole lives without coming to Laos.

It’s hard to describe Laos. It’s a wonderful, relaxing, friendly place almost top to bottom. There, I just did it.

Everything is negotiable. Everything is lax. When the weather is nice, as it was for the two weeks we were there, the place is paradise.

Marc with Beerlao
Marc with the best beer in SE Asia, Beerlao

We’re not there anymore. We’ve moved on. By plane. Because we’re flashpackers now.

Asia has turned us into flashpackers. That is, mid- to high-end backpackers: the older set: the ones who don’t mind shelling out a couple extra dollars if it’s the difference between, say, a bathroom or no bathroom, or clean or not clean. The ones who don’t mind flying over taking the bus if the prices are at all reasonable.

Flashpackers: that’s us. Not terribly ashamed of it either, despite our good hardy self-abnegating start in New Zealand and Australia. Are our backpacker bona fides in doubt? Nah. Six months on the road and counting.

After Vientiane we spent a few days in Luang Prabang, a very nice town with a great Hmong night market, before meeting up with Tamar and Christine, from Lebanon; we headed north with them for some trekking and boating down the Nam Ha River.

The tour company that arranged this (it must be arranged; there’s no other way to get up into the hills) screwed up the details – there was, for example, no boat trip – but in many ways this proved beneficial. In the end it was a great trip, for entirely unexpected reasons.

Lisa and moth
Lisa spotted this huge moth in Luang Prabang

We wound up with a local high school chemistry teacher who brought along his students as porters. We still carried our own bags – not bragging, just regretful. We brought too much. I am a mere flashpacker after all. Khammanh, our guide, was a last-minute replacement by the company (which shall remain nameless) that booked our tour, so he had no set agenda except a long-planned visit to a local Akha hill tribe, some five hours’ walk outside Meung Kwa – not far from Vietnam, China and Myanmar, as the crow flies.

Unfortunately we aren’t crows so to get there we’d have to take the crazy roads. The drive to any of those borders would take many long twisting bumpy hours.

Anyway, there aren’t any crows. They get eaten, I think.

(Really, there aren’t many birds in the Lao countryside. You don’t hear them anyway. For centuries villagers have been capturing them with simple but ingenious traps. They sell them by the basketful from roadside stalls.)

Bucket o birds
Bucket o’ birds

The roads were bad enough just to get where we were going. Anyone headed this way should know that the road south of Udom Xai is particularly awful.

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Pakha’s folks weren’t sure what to make of us

Khammanh took us to Pakha, a village of 153 people, mostly children from the look of things, some two hours’ walk from the nearest road. Unlike the usual “village homestay” that has become a cottage industry across SE Asia, this visit was unplanned – and unexpected. Pakha, we were told, had only welcomed falang – foreigners – a few times before. Khammanh, born in an Akha village, pays regular visits but rarely brings tourists.

Also with us: a German couple, Volker and Hannalora. A few years ago they worked with nearby villages on water projects.

Pakha is a very poor village and as Volker and Hannalora would tell you, the first problem is lack of water. The women haul muddy bottles of it up a steep slope all day long. All the children are sick, with pink eye, with rasping coughs. Many of the adults have the same cough, due partly to their habit of smoking coarse tobacco through bamboo water pipes. Barnyard animals wander freely: chickens, potbellied pigs, puppies and kittens, cows. It’s the dry season, but it felt especially dry.

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Pig; puppy

The children were amazed and a little frightened of us, at least at first. We won them over with goofy faces and big smiles. Self-deprecating humor is always a winner.

Khammanh and rice wine operation
Khammanh surveys the rice wine-making operation in a Laos village

The people of Pakha were beautiful people, very welcoming, gracious and friendly. And smart and engaging. The women wore brightly beaded traditional black garb: they glibly deflected our requests for photos. Except on a few occasions.

Late in our stay they brought out a single-stringed instrument that sounded like a wavy violin and gave an impromptu concert. The village gave us a going-away ceremony, the first time they’d done so with visitors: a chicken was killed, its remains studied for portents. Several elders tied a piece of black or white string around our wrists, then placed parts of the unfortunate chicken, with a little rice, in our hands. Volker and Hannalora were veterans of this ceremony in other villages, they had wrists positively wrapped in strings.

Rice wine, real foul moonshine-type stuff, was amply distributed. We ate, we hugged, we gave the village schoolteacher some books and pens. We left.

We visited a Khmer village later, one helped by our German friends’ efforts, and the difference was stark. With a clean steady water supply they have wide, clean streets, and irrigated gardens growing fresh vegetables. Tall strong houses on stilts. Healthy children in the streets. Laundry on lines. Plenty for everyone. But not a monopoly on cheerfulness, or kindness.

Back in Luang Prabang we said goodbye to Tamar and Christine, headed for Burma, and Volker and Hannalora, headed for southern Laos. We were headed for Hanoi. And oh what a tale that will be.

Chicken head Group shot minus Lisa
Chicken head; group shot, from left: Marc (with broom), Hannalora, Volker, Tamar, Christine

In Laos the sugar packets you get with your coffee are plastic, not paper. Humidity.

We’re in Asia at the right time however. Nice and cool at night, dry and hot in the day but bearable.

It got better as we went north. We headed out of Bangkok in Pat’s car – with Pat – to Khao Yai, Thailand’s oldest and some say best national park. We spent the better part of two days there looking for but only hearing elephants. But we saw a big brute of an alligator as well as a hornbill, lots of monkeys, deer and the elusive yeti. No, we didn’t see a yeti, just checking if you’re paying attention. We did see a Wookiee. Turned out to be an Australian hippie.

Naughty monkey stealing from truck
Naughty monkey, not Wookiee

For more details about this amazing adventure, click this link. Click it, fools!

Our Khao Yai visit, and in general our road trip to Vientiane, where none of us had been, was charmed with good karma from the start. Entering the park we accidentally paid the gate attendant 40 baht (a little over $1) too much; she chased after us several hundred meters to correct the mistake. We thought it fitting to donate that money at the park’s resident spirit house.

Spirit houses are usually dollhouse-sized edifices on raised platforms, erected near dwellings, businesses, offices, anywhere man has set up shop, so to speak. They house and comfort the spirit who lived on the land that has been temporarily borrowed by humans. Invariably they are festooned with flowers and other decorations and littered with incense and food and drink – rice, beer, candy, anything. Spirits get hungry too. When they get hungry they get irritable. Doesn’t do any good to offend your local spirit.

The bigger the spirit house, the more important the spirit. Even gas stations have them. Some places have more than one.

Spirit house at 7-11
7-11’s spirit house

Giving “good karma” money at the Khao Yai spirit house gave the rest of our adventures, I think, a sense of cosmic favor. Without question we had mostly good fortune the whole way.

The rough hilly country of northeastern Thailand slowly flattened and dipped into the valley of the Mekong River as we approached the border of Laos. We crossed over on foot, for the first time touching Communist soil, to the imagined strains of La Marseillaise … it was a remarkably bureaucratically smooth process, given expectations. Where we got those expectations I don’t know. After a short tuk-tuk drive we were ensconced in a trim little room in downtown Vientiane, near the Nam Phu fountain and the famous Scandinavian Bakery, purveyor of delicious delectables. Mmmm.

We stayed in Laos’ capital for four days. We saw the justifiably famous Golden Stupa, Pha That Luang. Lovely.

 

golden-stupa.jpg Pat and Marc at Golden Stupa
Golden Stupa in the sunlight; Stupa-fied

We saw the Arc de Incomplete, also known as Patuxai, also known as “the vertical runway” because it was made with concrete donated by the United States for the construction of a new airport. Even the Lao call it “a concrete monstrosity.” They call it that on the side of the structure itself. Check it out, they really don’t like the thing. It was started in the Sixties, modeled on the Arc de Triomphe, but almost constant war and depredation and deprivation – Laos is very poor – forestalled its finishing. Now it’s just a grey, weatherstained protuberance squat in the center of Vientiane’s Champs Elysee-like main drag, an object both of derision and resignation. But from afar it doesn’t look so bad, and the views from the top are terrific.

Patuxai View from Patuxai
Views of (left), and from Patuxai

We hung out by the river and sampled the excellent cuisine. Vientiane has some great restaurants. We sampled Beerlao for the first time. That’s 8,000 kip, or about 80 cents, for 640 mL. Then Pat went home.

Last photo with Pat
Last photo with Pat

We hopped on a bus for Luang Prabang, in central northern Laos. And then our adventures really began.

It just occurred to me that we should be uploading some photos with a post title like this … but we’re not, because we’re in a web cafe and it would be a pain. So just a quick update: we’re in Pai, and it is very nice, but very dry, and there are small bush fires all around the town so there’s a constant haze and a smoky barbecue smell to everything. Some of that is due to the actual smoking barbecues they have on the street, cooking up savory meats on sticks and what-have-you, but even so it’s a little smokier than usual here in northern Thailand. We still love it, we just have to love it with a bandanna tied around our faces.

Here’s a link to a riveting account of our adventures in Khao Yai National Park, which we visited with Pat just after leaving Bangkok, now oh-so-many days ago. Weeks, even. Hole in narrative filled. After Pat left us in Vientiane we went up to Luang Prabang and then farther north, where we had some unscripted interaction with local villages that we’re dying to tell you about. Soon.

Hope all is well with everyone and winter is coming to a close … it’s very cool in the evenings here but well into the 30s in the afternoon. Ciao!

We clacked groaned chugged bumped into Thailand via Hat Yai, a dusty little metropolis near the border. It’s not much of a town really but it has a certain appeal for some.

Young Malaysian men, it is said, take the train here to enjoy the comparatively lax moral atmosphere … sometimes even bringing their girlfriends and wives. They leave the girlfriends and wives in guesthouses while they go “get a haircut.”

A few of these guys were our neighbors in the sleeper car, I think. No girlfriends or wives though. A clean slate.

We spent a sweaty afternoon in the Hat Yai train station, becoming occasionally falsely alarmed over whether this train or that was ours: for the first time since coming to Asia we were without the benefit of bilingual PA announcements. The machine gun-toting uniformed men marching up and down the platform were no help at all. But we worried too much. We made our train. We clacked groaned chugged grinded out of the station and into Thailand proper.

karst.jpg

The pointed karst shoulders frowning over the watery plains of southern Thailand are spectacular. They flew past our windows and the light of the afternoon faded. We crawled into our sleeping berths and passed out, waking up the next morning to the brisk bustle of Bangkok. Train odyssey complete.

Bangkok, for anyone who’s been there, needs no description. For anyone who hasn’t, it’s beyond description. Hanging out with our friend Pat, who kindly put us up in his family’s apartment for several days, gave us a real advantage over other people who come here for the first time: we learned the city quicker and better and saw much more of it than we otherwise would have: and we overcame what might otherwise have been an extended period of anxiety and insecurity, if not outright fear and loathing, at the complete uniqueness of our new surroundings. Bangkok is just that crazy.

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Crazy, insane, mad, maddening – and electric, eclectic, fun. The range of activities is mind-blowing. The spectrum of people – travelers and locals alike – is stupefying. The gamut of sights and sounds and smells and tastes, staggering.

Anything is possible in Bangkok. It’s the kind of city where you can literally do, or find, anything.

(Even a pair of size-13 sandals for your ponderously large American feet. For me this became sort of a quixotic quest: my beloved Chacos are in a bad way. After procrastinating the purchase of backup flip-flops through Australia – forgetting that as a lumbering barbarian I have ridiculously large dogs – I started hitting markets in Singapore, to no avail. A woman in Singapore’s Little China summed up the prevailing amused sentiment: “Your feet too big. Go back to your country maybe.”

But realizing the difficulty of the mission turned it into a fixation and by Bangkok I was obsessed. It took four days of hopelessly scouring night markets and day markets and vendors and malls but finally an Adidas store came through: and I walked away knowing that, indeed, I have the biggest feet in Southeast Asia – and possibly the only size-13 footwear on the continent.)

A good spot for a Wat, and whatnot

It may seem so sometimes but Bangkok is not all about food, drink and shopping. No sirree! For one thing the city is lousy with Wats – Buddhist temples – of every size and description. The most spectacular and famous of these, Wat Pho, is near the Golden Palace, where the king once resided.

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Lisa at Wat Pho

Wat Pho is the residence of the famous Reclining Buddha, depicting Siddartha’s dying moment. The Reclining Buddha is a 46-meter-long, 15-meter-high gold-enameled colossus with pearl-inlaid feet depicting in minute detail the 108 “auspicious characteristics” of the Buddha. It is an imposing, impressive idol.

lisa-at-reclining-buddha.jpg pearly-inlaid-buddha-feet.jpg

The best way to get to Wat Pho and the Golden Palace (shoes and pants required) is by water taxi. For the equivalent of a buck you get to ride the churning green waters of Mae Nam Chao Phraya, enjoy the light breeze and watch the fish snap at the surface, and see a more serene side of Bangkok transport. Less traffic to dodge, for one thing.

You then get out of the narrow flat-roofed boat and run a gauntlet of vendor stalls, dodge a couple motorcycles and buses – back into the rhythm of the city – and finally enter the serene confines of the temple. It is more of a compound really. You wander in a haphazard fashion past stone gatekeepers – creatures out of fairy tales with long beards and axes and spears – into tiled courtyards, past cairn fountains and shade trees and into a tiled pogoda with gabled roof and orange, green and blue minarets that houses the Buddha. And then you are stunned, so you don’t say anything for a while.

In outer buildings throughout the 20 acres of Wat Pho you find 1,000 more golden statues of the Buddha, all festooned with flowers and offerings. These also leave you speechless.

Wat Pho is Thailand’s largest Wat. It is also probably the oldest, as far as anyone knows. It is indescribably ornate: a structure of sanctums within sanctums: scripture cabinets in gilded alcoves … stone benches and basins with lilypads … miniature statues of monkeys clutching coconuts, leering out of corners. Varicolored shrines everywhere, spewing incense.

And a school, a basketball court, and makeshift soccer goals. And a student brass band.

Porticoes, pavilions and milling, agape tourists. A good spot.

Wat Pho was our first real Wat in Asia – a good start. We’d see many more in the days to come.

marc-on-bangkok-river.jpg

We said goodbye, temporarily, to Bangkok shortly after Wat Pho. On the way out of the temple grounds we walked past a lady selling plaintains on the street corner. She had a cat on a leash: the cat sat watching a pack of dogs sunning themselves on the sidewalk. The dogs paid no attention. The cars zoomed wildly by.

We thought the whole scene was metaphorical somehow, but we couldn’t quite make it out.

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