Monday, May 18, 2009

Laos 1

Laos is beautiful. The pace of Laos is just as beautiful. The endless gentle hills provide enough food to fill the skinny Loatian frames and enough bamboo and wood for shelter. Store owners commonly leave their stores unattended, and guest house workers would make an extra move on their board game before attending to your need. Nothing is urgent in Laos.

It was refreshing to not be viewed as a money $ign. Instead, I was constantly invited over for customary lao-lao (the more incredible horrible tasting rice whisky) shots, and approached out of curiosity, not as a ploy to extract money out of me (this never happens in Vietnam).

On top of this, the setting is surreal. Laos, with only 6 million people, is about the same size as its neighboring countries, but has signifigantly less people, 85 million in Vietnam and 60 million in Thailand. This leaves most of it natural beauty untouched.

After a quick jaunt in Vientiene, the most unassuming capital city I’ve seen, I settled into Vang Viene. My bungalow, on the other side of this bridge, was spaced out on a big grass field. Commonly, water buffalos, ducks and chicken would venture past me as I lounged on my hammock. In all directions limestone karst mountains jutted out of the ground, catching a layer of morning fog as it blew past. When the tropical rains came (it was monsoon season), the mountains acted as ping pong paddles, volleying the thunder sound waves back and forth, taking a full 30 seconds to slowly fade out. The week after I left, sudden heavy rains raised the water level, washing away a bridge, along with a few of the makeshift bars upstream.
The main draw of Vang Viene is not the scenery, (although it should be) it’s the tubing. At around noon each day, everyone takes tuk-tuks 2 miles up the river. Every hundred meters or so there are makeshift bars blaring music. As you float by they throw ropes out to latch onto so they can pull you in. Everyone has ambitions of floating all the way back to town, but no one ever stumbles past the 5th bar before dark. Also, every bar finds the closest highest tree and attaches a rope swing or a zipline. Most of them are 20-30 feet high. A shot of lao whisky and a shot of rope swing adrenaline will easily cure yesterdays hang over.

34 kilometers (21 miles) from Luang Prabang is a beautiful cascading waterfall. After a few days in Vang Viene, we decided to pass on the tuk-tuk ride and bike. In typical Jesse style, we got a late start, riding through the rolling hills in midday Laos sun. At the 12 km mark, a local slowed down his motorcycle to inquire about me. Him and his friend on the back were on their way to a lake, but decided to be my pace car for the last 22 kilometers. After I told him we were headed to the waterfall, he changed his whole plans and joined me. Between my raspy breaths and over the humming of his machine, he proudly told me all about his family and town, and wanted to learn more about the falang on the bike.

After our ride in the humid SE Asia air, I didn’t want anything more than this

The above pic is the bottom of the cascade. After a cold dip and 5 grilled plaintains, we hiked to the swimming hole above the main fall. The views were sweeping. Untouched and green. Really really green. … yes, I am the sunburnt one. The price we had to pay for this view: another 34 kilometers back.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Laos 2

As I headed into northern Laos, things got more and more remote. I went a week without seeing a car. Nong Khiew, and everything I saw afterwards was real Laos. Vang Viene was a backpacker bubble. Vientiene and Luang Prabang were cities, with roads that had street signs. Nong Khiew had women skinning chickens outside their store, 8 year-olds fishing with a stick, a mesh bag and weights. 60 year old ladies were carrying more than their body weight on their head and back.

Watch This - There are no roads from Nong Khiew to Muang Nhoi, only a longtail boat. On board I struggled to use the laws of physics to find a reason why the boat wouldn’t tip over from the tiniest obstacle. The boat was 3 feet wide by 40 feet long, the driver sat up front, controlling the rutter with pieces of string pulled back and forth. Everytime someone got on or off, we had to readjust the weight as the boat wobbled. The wakes of the passing boats made me worry about the security my backpack - all my possessions on this side of the world.

the reward for the boat ride was a few days of sitting on hammock in Muang Nhoi. Everything was cheap and the pace of life was slow. Everything in Muang Nhoi was on the main street. The dusty road took about 5 minutes to walk from end to end (even at my pace).

My next destination was Ban Na village. Walking past forests and workers laboring on rice paddys, I left my hammock, with all my 30 pounds of belongings. 2 hours later, I was greeted with a Laotian smile and a menu. I gladly sat down and massaged the part of my shoulders supporting my pack. The menu was quite extensive considering where I was. “I’ll take a mango shake and barbecue beef” “baabeque beef no have” replied the lady, holding her 3 year old son. “How about chicken curry” “No have” “Chicken chow mien” “No have”. This game went on for a while, until I asked what they DO have. My pancake and vegetables would have been mediocre, but I had to wait an hour and a half for her to walk (or stroll) to the other side of the village to get fire wood, light up the grill etc. My pancake and vegetables were fantastic.
Ban Na was tiny. And removed. Every water bottle, every toothpaste bottle, every bag of cement had to carried from Muang Nhoi. While the men worked in the fields, the woman walked back and forth. Old fragile women, walking 2 hours, carrying more than I was.

On my third day at the village I decided to walk to the next village over to check out the waterfall. 3 hours there. 3 hours back. One second I walking down the steep muddy trail. The next second I was on my back, on the steep muddy trail. Lying on the ground I realized how I was from medical care. 2 hours walk back to Ban Na. 2 more hours walking to Muang Nhoi. An hour boat ride to Nong Khiew. A windy 4 hour ride back to Luang Prabang. Then a plane ride to Vientiene or Bangkok. Sometimes I write things to make my parents nervous.

When I got back to Ban Na, everyone was in a good mood. A guy shot a water buffalo, and for the first time in a while there was meat at the village. I got my BBQ beef.

To get to Luang Nam Tha, I had to take a bus from Nong Khiew. Above the ticket shack, there was a faded sign, well actually it was a 8 ½ by 11 piece of paper taped to the wall, that said “NK to Luang Nam Tha 40,000” (1 dollar=8600 kip) Of course, since it was a slow day and there were only 3 westerners, they tried to charge us 70,000. Only when they started loading the minibus with rice, wood, and locals, did we get the price that they advertised. We switched buses halfway through, this time we fit 40 people into 25 seats. I had a 4 inch stool in the aisle. I felt all 4 hours of bumps in the road. I don’t think Laotian buses are built with shocks. Also, it was funny how they didn’t try to charge us less if the bus was more than capacity.

On our trek to an Akha village our guide let us in on all kinds of local knowledge “we make tea out of this root when you get sick. We use this tree to dye your clothes red, and eat this bark to stop constipation” We were constantly eating different berries and leaves. We even saw a tree that smelled like tiger balm "icy hot"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bangkok - Koh Phangan

Welcome to Thailand - We arrived to Bangkok during the water festival. Anyone who stepped outside during the water festival was fair game to get drenched in water with super soakers, hoses, or buckets or water. I was too scared (smart) to take my camera to the main part of the festival - should have bought the waterproof camera. I also saw an elephant in the middle of the street.

Haad Rin - After 2 months of city after city travel, Andrew and I were relieved to make it to a beach. Ahhhh

The viewpoint from bottle beach - After a few days at the crowded beach, we moved to the most secluded beach the island. The"road" to this beach (and I use that word loosely) has 2 foot trenches on super steep hills, making it difficult to get to. Instead, tuk-tuk drivers take you to a neighboring beach and from there you get a boat in.

Fresh Desert - On the way up to the viewpoint there was a pineapple field. I brought a few back for desert for the people staying at the bungalow.

Hot Entertainment - At the Half moon party, they had Thailand #1 reggae band, Job 2 Do, and lots of fire spinners. Great party.

The famous full moon party - 20,000 people on the beach. As the sun comes up, there are about 100 passed out people on the sand. Instead of 1 massive sound system like the half moon, every bar on the beach has their own system, so there are 10 different types of music playing.

Diving - Some of the best diving Ive ever done at Sail Rock, near Koh Tau. The coral was incredibly live and vibrant, and we swam into many schools of fish. Also, there is a chimney, or a vertical tunnel, where you enter at 18 meters, and swim up to daylight, and exit at 6 meters. Amazing.

Shanghai - Hong Kong

Parks - Overall, Shanghai is a very livable city. There are all kinds of parks with locals sipping on boba and playing badminton in the grass. Also, they spend a lot more time designing their parks. I didn't see a flat area for sports and picnics, but zen gardens, ponds with fish and ducks, bamboo forests, etc.

Above the Clouds -Pudong, the financial center of Shanghai has the tallest buildings Ive ever seen. I went up to the Cloud 9 bar on the 87th floor of the Jinmao building (the tallest bar in the world). China is the only country in the world right now that has the ability to keep building. Shanghai is all under construction, every sidewalk is being uprooted. They are giving the whole city a face lift as they prepare for the 2010 World Expo. Like the Olympics, when China has the opportunity to go all out, they do, and they are using this as an opportunity to revamp a city like they did for Beijing with the Olympics.

The bar scene is China is quite odd. The whole staff is female while the customers are male. When Andrew and I stopped in for a beer, a guy next to us bought a bottle of Absolute, and poured himself a drink, and one for each of the staff so they would pay attention to him and play dice games. The staff looked bored.

Buildings as Art - Even the train station in Shanghai is an architectural gem. The architects must have a filed day in China.

From the station, we took an 18 hour train to Hong Kong. Hong Kong, is the most western city in Asia, and is full of fast food chains and expensive western clothing shops. I couldn't believe how commerical it was.

Chungking mansions - There are probably over 1000 dingy rooms in this place.This is where we stayed in Hong Kong. Our room had no windows, and didn't smell too nice. I heard there are live animals living in this building. I would not want to be in this place in case of any natural disaster. This place is definitely not up to US fire code, luckily for them, there is no fire code in Asia.

I don't have a picture, but the fountain in the middle of Hong Kong was one of the funniest sites I've ever seen. All the Persians in Hong Kong came out to have a giant flirt session around this fountain. Everyone looked like they were on their way to an A-list club - leather shoes, designer jeans, too much make up. Except it was 3PM.


Terra Cotta - To protect himself in the afterlife, a Chinese emperor built an army of over 7000 terra cotta warriors. To the current world, they were unknown until 30 years ago, when a farmer unearthed them digging a well. Since all the warriors were smashed and burned when Emperor Qin was conquered, they are still restoring the clay army. Its like the worlds biggest game of humpty-dumpty

Hot Springs - For Andrew's bday we
stayed at a condo with a hot spring. It was amazing to have our personal 25 foot sulfur bath. When we closed the vents, the room got so steamy you couldn't see across. Louise and I walked around trying looking for a cake for Andrew. We found a cake decorator (with the help of our local guide, a college student who guided us around the city all day to improve her English) who spent an hour decorating our cake. I'd never seen such precision with frosting. It came to $3

City Walls - Andrew and I walked the city walls of Xian, it took us 4 hours. Now the city has sprawled outside the walls, but it was cool to imagine a whole self sustaining city protecting itself from invaders. Pingyao is also a walled city, but much smaller. Xian has high rises inside the walls where Pingyao kept the same architecture from hundreds of years ago

Great Wall - The size and scope of the great wall is hard to grasp. 4000 miles of wall, wide enough to have 4 horsemen riding side by side. Guarded posts as close as every 500 meters. I guess if anyone had enough manpower to guard the wall, it was China.

Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square- The enormity of these 2 sites is unbelievable. The Forbidden City is over a kilometer wide, lined with gold and the most expensive gems. Its a microcosm of China to see beggars and poor outside these "over the top" palaces