Saturday, May 27, 2006

Back in 'Nam:

(As my first two weeks in Vietnam saw me arrive in Hanoi, travel North, return to Hanoi, travel North-West, then return again to Hanoi and finally start the journey South, I have compressed all of my time in Hanoi proper into this writing).

Things that I've been tempted to start this post with:

"Gooooooooooooood morning Vietnaaaaaaaaaaam"

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning, and banana pancakes..."

" back in 'Nam..."

Instead, I'll simply start with "Hello everyone, I'm in Vietnam now." Not as interesting, but sure is informative!

Since I'm sick and tired of describing my times on buses (much as i'm sick and tired of being on busses) I will merely relate the statistics affiliated with my travel between the capitol city of Vientiane in Laos and the capitol city of Hanoi in Vietnam.

Time bus scheduled to leave: 7PM
Time bus scheduled to arrive: 7PM
For those not keeping track: That's 24 hours on a bus
Time that I had two seats to myself until: 7:28pm
Time bus actually departed: 7:29pm
Time bus arrived at border: 4AM
Time border opens: 7AM
Amount of time spent wondering why we just didn't leave at 10PM: Lots
Time spent sleeping on a loading dock near border and getting left behind by bus: 2 hours Amount of time to get through Laos border, walk to Vietnam border, get passport stamped and pay the special 'foreigner weekend fee": 2 hours
Size of woman sitting next to me on bus: Quite large
Temperature outside of bus: Warm
Temperature inside of bus: Broiler
Length of time A/C worked: 8.3 minutes
Amount of phyiscal contact that is preferable in these conditions: None, just none
Amount of physical contact I was forced to endure due to womans size: Extensive
Size of seat, and amount of leg room: tiny, negative (respectively)
Number of beers that I drank when I finally arrived in Hanoi: Around 10
Hangover: Awful

First view of Vietnam, just over the Laos border

And that's all that I'll say about it. It was miserable, I survived and I got where I needed to be. Can't ask much for for 12 dollars. Well, you can, but you won't get it.

Boy, that was a fun 23 hours

Vietnam is amazing. The blatant and in-your-face communism, the colors and the speed, the motos (mopeds) of which there are said to be some 5 million, the tragic history and the unbelievable pace of development, particularly in the toursim industry, it's all so different from where I'd been that for the first day, I just wandered around in a daze trying to take it all in. This actually was not such a bright thing to do, as crossing a street in Vietnam requires the prescience of Nostradamus and the agility of Batman and Catwoman's adolescent gymnast daughter. What I'm saying is that you need your wits about you.

Yay! Communism!

During my more than 7 days in Hanoi (non-consecutive, explained in top parenthetical), I spent most of my time in the "Old quarter" and around Huan Kiem Lake, which was South-East of that area. The Old Quarter of Hanoi is what you would get if a group of people thought to themselves "hey, we'll never need more than two horses to pass each other at one time right? Okay great, lets make all the streets 6 feet wide, have sidewalks just wide enough for our tiny feet and lets have those streets have the appearance of a grid, but really meander aimlessly back and forth so that anyone not familiar with it gets hopelessly lost within 10 seconds." I'm not sure if this conversation actually happened at a city council level, or if they just let a child draw with a piece of charcoal and went with that. Either way, it's a cramped, tree-overhung, loud, wonderful area and you could easily spend much longer there than I did

My cyclo driver. His name was Hank. Those are my sunglasses he's wearing

What is particularly unique about the Old Quarter is that if you take a moment to collate the overload of sensory input, you notice that each street has its own unofficial trade that everyone on the street is engaged in. For example: you may be walking along and realize that on either side of you, everyone is fixing motos (which, by the way, seems to be a national past-time, there are so many that everyone has one, and everyone knows how to fix them). There is banging and yelling and brilliant blinding blue sparks shooting up from welders torches and happy little red and gold firecracker colors exploding from grinding wheels. As you walk further, you realize that there seems to be no end to the noise, so you turn right. Ahh better! It's quieter and you can hear yourself think. Then (if you're me) you get excited, because this is the toy street.

Yes, thats right, a toy street.

This is a street on which every stall, store and child on a bike is selling plastic dolls, big wheels, Legos, strange anonymous looking robot things that come as part of a set of 8 million complementary parts and a 4,000 year old backstory. It's a veritable profusion of playthings and I spent a great deal of time there. There are also stationary streets, pants promenades, tank top tunnels, ball game boulevards, and underwear alleys. At each corner, there are the small plastic stool and table combinations (always blue or red) on which sit dozens of people around steaming bowls of pho (noodle soup) with everything from chicken to dog inside of it (yes, Vietnamese people eat dog, and it is not like a "once in a while" kind of thing). This is a city as vibrant as any I've ever been in, and I was never far from someone hawking icecream and noodles and photocopies of popular books and wanting to change my money and take me on moto and cyclo rides and just speak English with me.

These kids were real dissapointed that I can't break dance. I promised them that I'd learn and come back to teach them my hip-happenin' moves. They looked puzzled and left

Of course, Vietnam is not all about fun and games, it's also about learning something (i.e. being subjected to ridiculous propaganda) and Hanoi provided a number of such activities. Most striking were a visit to the former "Hanoi Hilton" and to Ho Chi Minh's mauseoleum.

The Hanoi Hilton gained infamy during the Vietnam war for being one of the most brutal POW camps in recent world history. Going in, I didn't exactly expect to find a bastion of impartiality. Nor did I particualrly expect to be bowled over by their honesty at the treatment that American prisoners of war received at the hands of their captors. My lack-of-expectations were not exceeded.

Hoa Lo prison (its formal name) was originally built by the French, back when they did all of South-East Asia a big favor by colonizing it.

Weren't the French nice?

By no means was this prison anything other than awful, as the French used it largely to perfect newer and more terrible forms of torture, coerce confessions and ultimately to make sure that their guillotine never was lacking for company (sound familiar to anywhere else in the world...Iraq....). As such, while wandering through, a visitor is witness to any number of awful photographs, recounting of statistics and full sized mannequins chained to walls who have painted blood dripping from their chafed feet. Quite a sight. Still, as I walked around, I couldn't help but continue to glance up above me, waiting for that enormous, god-sized "other shoe" to drop.

Have you ever been around a guillotine up close? The thing still had blood stains. Not too pleasant

And drop it did. It fell upon me like some great winged boot of irony cast down from up on high, right from the very top of Mt. Revisionist History. The "American Pilots" section of the museum occupied two rooms, two rooms stuffed full of the accountrements of American POW's lives in the camp. Most prominently displayed were Senator John McCain's entire flight suit, survival kit and even pieces of his plane. This exhibit thrust out into the center of one of the rooms, so that it was literally impossible to miss it, and it's implied message: "Even the mighty fall, we, in our benevolence had one of your people who is now a US Senator and we released him back to you safe and sound. Aren't we powerful? Aren't we kind?"

Not exactly a bright cheery smiley face

Aren't we full of s*#!?

I feel that it is worth reproducing, in its entirety, the sign that was posted outside of these particular exhibits. The picture is a bit tough to read.

"From August 5, 1963 to January 24, 1973, US Government carried out two destruction wars by Air and Navy against North Vietnam. The Nothern Army and people had brought down thousands of aircrafts, captured hundreds of American pilots. Part of these pilots were detained in Hoa Lo prison by our Ministry of Interior. Though having committed untold crimes on our people, but American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead, they were well treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter according to the provisions of Paris Agreement, our government had in March 1973, returned all captured pilots to the US Government. Pictures in this exhibition room show how American pilots had their life in Hoa Lo Prison (whole quote sic)."

To give the benefit of the doubt, maybe whoever translated this just put a really biased view on it. So it's the translators fault. Uhh huhhh...

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight...the pictures all over the rooms portrayed the pilots playing ping-pong, cooking fresh food, writing in journals and, in one picture that was horrifying in its out-of-placeness, a group of five pilots apparently laughing uproariously at something that a Vietnamese soldier had said. The soldier has his rifle pointed vaguely in the direction of the pilots, and the boots of several more people can be seen around the periphery of the picture.

It is of course the perogative of a country to remember their history however they wish, as well as to portray it in the light that is most beneficial to them. Certainly the "history" that most American school children learn during their formative years, as well as the museums they attend, and the movies they see are heavily influenced by what our country concieves of as "the truth." Without getting into a metaphysical conversation about the historical context of "truth", suffice it to say that one would be hard pressed to find as extreme a bent on the history that we present to our yearning masses. Partial and biased it may be, but out and out lying is harder to find. I think that we prefer subtlety.

Anywho, the museum left me feeling a bit out of sorts (a feeling that I would later come to experience particularly strongly in Saigon) and inexplicably upset about the treatment that both our soldiers, and our history had recieved at the hands of this communist government. What tempered that feeling was largely the knowledge that it was not a war that had much to do with us, that, if given a moment to think about it, it would be very easy to see American pilots as great and terrible criminals raining down death and destruction on innocents. If this was the point that was presented, I think that I would have felt more sympathetic, however it was the notion that "the Americans were so evil and we were so good" when any number of substantiated accounts point to just the opposite having been true, that left me unsettled.

Moving on, I found myself at the Ho Chi Minh Mauseoleum.

Yup, understated and subtle, that's exactly how I'd describe it too!

What is rather ironic about the place, is that in his will, Ho Chi Minh specifically requested that he be cremated. Not one to be deterred by the final wishes of their most beloved leader, the government instead decided to erect an enormous, grey structure, an edifice dedicated to ..."austerity, plainness, communism and humility." I'm not sure what a three story high, solid granite and marble building and roughly 12 acres of surrounding land, all to serve as a shrine to a single, annually re-embalmed body says about "humility and austerity" but it was interesting nonetheless. As you enter (and when I say "you" I mean me and about 1000 Vietnamese schoolchildren, I was the only white guy that I saw the whole time), you are passed through three different security checkpoints, where things such as car keys, pens and pins on hats are summarily removed by stern-faced guards. You then get into a line. This line stretches on and on and as they are apparently used to the crowds, there is a little canopy that runs over the length of the line. After about 20 minutes, the line moves enough so that you can get into the mauseoleum proper. Then the real security begins. Vietnamese soldiers, dressed in that particular shade of green that defies my ability to describe it except to say that it is a violent, frightening green, line the walls, one every 10 feet or so. Each has a gun on his hip and a very firm stare. As you pass, your pockets are stared at, your hands are watched, and should you falter or even pause, a voice reminds you to keep moving, sometimes with the assistance of a little push. A man in front of me (Vietnamese) had 5 separate guards stop him on the way up, as they had noticed a very slight bulge in his front pocket. This turned out to be a pacifier for the baby in his arms.

There is no way to take a non-awkward picture in this setting. For the record, this photo was snapped by a very accomodating soldier, who had to set down his rifle to take it.

Ol' Ho himself was quite a sight. He didn't look so much human as like a terrifying mannequin, albeit a very lifelike mannequin. There were probably 15 to 20 guards in this room, and during the 45 seconds of time in which I was herded through, not one of them moved a muscle. You can't stop to look, and you certainly can't take a picture as your camera was appropriated long ago. It was a very strange experience, looking into the dead face of a man whose picture hangs in nearly every home and business in the whole of the country. The rumor is that they re-embalm him every year, and that eventually there just won't be anything left to work with.

Morbidity aside, it was quite amazing to see how much this man is still revered by his country-people. They love him. It would take a truly brave soul to speak out against any thing that the man ever did, be it run over a frog on his bike or spitting in public. To the Vietnamese, the guy can do no wrong (well, in the North at least).

Hanoi also boasts quite a night life, with a profusion of establishments serving "Bia Hoi." Bia Hoi, for lack of a better description, is disgusting. It tastes like what beer would taste like if you gave a home brewing kit to someone who has never had a beer and told them to get to work. The catch is, it costs 2000 dong per glass. In Vietnam, 1 US dollar is equal to 16,000 dong. Thus, 8 beers for a dollar.

8 beers. One dollar. Shocking idn't it?

Given the above description, why would anyone subject themselves to this nonsense? Well, the price is certainly enticing, though you're probably overpaying for what you get, however the setting in which Bia Hoi is served is its main selling point. As previously described, people sit out on corners nearly 24 hours a day, on small chairs and around small tables. Thus, at every intersection, an elderly couple (not sure why this is, but thats the case) is serving Bia Hoi in dirty glasses to dozens of people sitting on the curbs. Since there are four curbs, four mini-bar areas, there are tons of people and a big, convival festival atmostphere about it. Vendors circulate among the crowds, selling lighters, pastries, amazing reproductions of Lonely Planet books and, of course, the ever present drugs. A typical interaction goes something like this:

"Lighter? Lighter"


"(much quieter voice) Something? Maree-wanaa? Oopium?"

"No, really thanks."

"(mutter somthing nasty in Vietnamese and walk to the next table)"

I met a number of excellent ex-pats, and with them, was able to explore some of the...ummm...stranger places around the city. After 7 days, it was time to move on, but this bizarre city and it's pre-war/post-war, old world/new world split personalities will carry on for me as one of my favorite places to visit.

Special bonus picture: The Temple of Literature. Very cool.

Next: The mysteries of Halong Bay, a return to the Mountains, and some reflections on being an American in a place where that isn't something that you advertise.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Laos: Leeches! Mud!, Norm and the hill tribes, and a city that I'm all done with

Our antagonists were everywhere, surrounding us. They closed in, shimmering brown in cool morning air, rising up off the floor of the forest, reaching out with hungry intentions


puff puff,wheeeeze

The bright green of the bamboo and the sun reflecting off of it all seemed so beautiful yesterday, but today is oppressive and dangerous. I desperately swing the only weapon that I have to ward off the ever-advancing evil, flinging back only a few at a time before the attack is reinvigorated.

"You must keep running, come on, they're all over!"

hurghhhhhhhhhh, puffpuffpuff, splat!

Trudging up-hill, the sun permanently fixed in our eyes, limbs burning like brands being pressed into deep muscle tissue, we continue our hysterical ascent. The air feels close among the bamboo and thick patches of muck slow us down on the few flat places that are teasingly interspersed with the near vertical wall we are climbing.

"Please! Hurry! We must keep going!

ker-thumpkerthumpkerthump, puffpuffpuffpuffpuffpuff, "argh!!!"

Relentless, unfeeling, uncaring, our aggressors close ranks for hour upon hour, mercilessly advancing without knowing the signal for retreat.

Yes, leeches can certainly be terrifying.

As I clomped and clambered up the steep Northern-Laos hillside, occasionally stooping down to brush the homemade leech repellent/killer of tobacco, whiskey and raw salt on my feet with a feathered bamboo brush, I was struck by how quickly circumstances can change. Not three days before I had been sitting quietly under an umbrella, enormous bottle of Beerlao in one hand, The Great Gatsby in the other, contemplating the easy flow of the Mekong. Now, exhausted only one hour after waking, muddy, covered in bleeding wounds from sucker-mouthed leeches and sweating through the long sleeved shirt that I had, in a veritable orgy of poor decision-making chosen to wear, I began to wonder at the sanity of my undertaking.

Northern Laos, not much to see...

Jumping back a few days in time to the end of my stay in Luang Prabang, as everyone who I had been spending time with decided to go South, I ventured Northwards. This wasn't for lack of fellowship, as these fellows of mine from the ship (ouch! pun!) were certainly wonderful to be with. However, my occasional and seemingly bizarre need to be alone for a while had manifested itself and it was time to, as the kids say, "split."

This involved taking a (say it with me now) "local bus" which added a new twist to my previous conception of exactly how uncomfortable you can make a bus ride. I bought my bus ticket, and arrived at the station what ended up being 2 hours early. "Great" I thought "I'm definitely getting a good seat." Gods of travel feeling grumpy that day, when the bus arrived at the station, it was completely full, every seat taken. This particular bus had originated in Vientiane, the capitol, and had spent the last 10 hours acquiring passengars, bags of rice, coconuts, etc. The sight that I was greeted with then upon setting foot on the bus was that there wasn't a seat anywhere to be had. A bit confused, I stopped moving for a second to try and figure the situation out. Big mistake. Immediately, I was pushed from behind by one of the drivers and told to "get to the back." Thoroughly confounded, and with freedom rider-like thoughts, I motioned that there didn't appear to be anywhere to sit. That was when he handed me a small red, molded plastic stool, you know, the ones that they have kindergarteners sit on when play time is over, and gestured into the aisle.

Ohh okay I get it. 12 hours on a red plastic stool touching everyones elbows around me. Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaamn....

Then I realized that I could put the stool on my chest and sleep on the floor, and that is how I spent the night, waking up every 10-15 minutes to allow people to get on and off the bus. I arrived in the Northern Laos province of Luang Nam Tha at 6AM and lurched away from the bus, feeling a lot like a grumpy zombie. It is useful to note that I was heading to an area that is largely undeveloped tourism-wise, so it's not like there was any really helpful (if annoying) little men with cards for guesthouses that I could simply rely on to get me somewhere, anywhere, that I could sleep.

at 6AM, this hut seemed like a fantastic option

Did you know that it's hard to read a sign that is written in a language that you can't read? And that this is made more complicated by the fact that it was an hour before sunrise, and that my eyes were crusted over and bleary? Well, even though I've been in this situation before (with Yeah Yeah in India) it never gets any more fun. By the time that I had found a guest house, dropped my bag and passed out, the sun was shining and the flock of roosters that were kept behind the guest house were arguing over when dawn was. I tried to protest that everyone was awake so they could shut the $#*@ up, but my objections met with no response.

Vaguely rested, I set out to try and book the much talked about trekking in the region. As I canvassed the town, I learned that there was only one trekking company (or "outfit" as one super-too-cool-for-school American informed me) so I had to use them. Being an incredibly small town, on the Burmese border which had only recently (4 years ago) opened any areas to commercial trekking as a kind of ecological experiment, it was not hard to find what I needed. As with any double edged sword, I got cut two ways by being alone. The treks that were provided could be quite reasonable in price, provided that you traveled with at least one other person. As there was practically noone else in town, I ended up spending a real lot-ton of money. But I got to trek alone, just me and the barely-English speaking guide, for three days.

Ket and I got acquainted as completely as we could with sign language shorthand. After a night spent in town in which I learned that absolutely nothing was open past 10pm and that you were expected indoors by 11, as that was when the guest house was locked, I managed to get some sleep.

Bright and early the next day, Ket and I started off, on the first leg of our journey; a 10km walk through a brief lowland area, followed by lots of hill climbing. Our itinerary was to hike for the day, then sleep in a village of native Hmong villagers.

Yes, yes, I know, I look like an idiot in this picture

As I have spent a fair amount of time describing the beautiful and amazing landscapes through which I have ventured, I will not try your patience by expounding on Laos at length. However, failing to do so entirely would be doing it a massive disservice.

" leaves no step had trodden black..."

Like all of South-East Asia, Laos' topography varies hugely, between long low valleys and, more frequently in Laos than in Thailand, enormous forest-encased rolling hills. Passing through them, particuarly at a low point, they rise above you like a great moss covered dolphin fin, row after row not glistening with water in the sun, but absorbing all light into a cool darkness beneath the canopy. The only way through is the very definition of windy and getting to the top of one hill affords you neither rest, nor much of a view, as the thick stalks of bamboo and conifer trees obscure any distance that may be look-at-able, and the way down is often more treacherous than the way up.

This hill is named "flipper" me

As Ket and I began walking, the sky turned gunmetal, a dull grey and blue and he urged me to increase my pace. Rain, when walking straight up hill, is not particuarly fun. We made it to the first village where we stopped to eat. Ket dissapeared for a few minutes with his machete, and returned with two enormous bamboo leaves. I then learned that most hill tribes use bamboo leaves as a kind of makeshift table when they are out hiking, and also to wrap food in as they grow high above the ground and are generally very clean. Lunch consisted of eggplant and sticky rice, and was, despite my previous distaste for eggplant, quite delicious. The fun began when the rain started and we weren't more than a little bit past the halfway point to the village in which we were to spend the night. Going up a muddy hill is one thing, you can sort of dig your feet in and push. Coming down a near vertical slope, while it is still raining and the path has been mutilated by passing cattle, is close to impossible. Add to this difficulty the fact that bamboo is the primary construction material in the region, and you find that much of the stalks near the trail have been cut at an angle. If you have never been around live, growing bamboo, it is not so much interesting as necessary to remain alive to understand that falling on a cut piece of bamboo can easily wound you deeply, if not impale you. At the grade of descent that we were attempting, falling on such a staff would be a very serious issue indeed. However, in a superb example of a problem leading to a solution, Ket hacked off two huge pieces of bamboo and together we edged our way down the slope with our improvised walking sticks. Each step necessitated reaching far out in front of your body with the stick, driving it with all your strength into the soft soil, and then trusting it enough with your weight to get your feet to a stable position.

Funny story: I walked into this spiders web, and rather than breaking through it, it was so strong that it snapped my head back. Then Ket pointed up while taking big steps backwards, and I screamed like a little girl

As exhausting a practice as this became, it was also incredibly rewarding when, at the bottom of one of the hills we looked up and saw arcing high over the greenery a brilliant rainbow, a rainbow that even as we watched was shot through by sunshine as the clouds cleared for a few moments. A unique expereince in many regards, not the least of which was feeling a sense of accomplishment upon reaching the bottom of a hill.

Me and Ket, best friends 4eva

Near sundown, we arrived at the village. Dropping our soggy gear, and sitting down inside the special "visitors hut", many of the locals came by to stare at me. Then they offered me a Beerlao. We were 10 hours of hard walking from anything resembling a road, I saw no particuarly easy way for them to transport in goods, and here they were offering me a beer. When I said in an earlier post that Beerlao is an institution in this country, I was not understating the fact.

These kids did not think that the joke that I told them was funny.

Anyway, the beer was sitting out warm and covered in cobwebs, so I elected to pass.

After a dinner of fish soup, fried fish and some more fish things that I can't remember (sensing a theme?), I went outside to see what the village people did at night. In short, they go to sleep. The town did not have any electricity (although they had a very small generator operated off of the running water of a stream that I was told was just installed and had enough power for two light bulbs for a few hours...whoppeee!!) so after the sun went down, the families ate by lamplight and got some shuteye, to be awake bright and early to fish the river for the next days food.

In my wanderings, I came across a shallow dock that hung into space a bit over the river. On the dock were a number of young boys from the village, eagerly crowding around a cheap radio, scratchy music coming out of the tinny speaker.

"Sittin' on a dock of a, uhhh...river"

When the aerial would get jostled (which was frequently as everyone was elbowing each other to get closer to listen) the sound would dissolve to a low static hiss and the one holding the radio would have to realign it with the heavens to get the signal back. I sat with them for a while and occasionally acted as a kind of antenna extender, standing at full height and reaching as high as I could into the sky to perhaps better the reception. I think that I was at best, moderately successful.

The long wondered about boys who the movie "3 Ninja's" was based on. They asked me to keep their secret, and I said that I would, but I had my fingers crossed behind my back.

I wondered about what they hoped to find when they tuned in each night. I caught snatches of what sounded like the news, some pop music and maybe a talk program. Did these kids care deeply about world events? Would the croonings of the big pop singer of the moment be a necessary fix for them after a hard day of net fishing? How would they even know who to listen for, as the tabloids only were parachute dropped in once every month, leaving them hopelessly behind (I mean, they still thought that Brad and Angelina were a rumor for chrissakes!).

My musings carried on past the time when they were called in to bed, after which I decided that they could be listening for anything, but that mostly, the radio served as a kind of reminder, even proof that there was something going on beyond their little stretch of forest and river, and that maybe they could come to that brilliant something one day. Maybe it is something that sustains them, or terrifies them or is only of enough interest to warrant a few minutes stolen each night. But no matter what, it betrayed a curiosity that I found endearing and hopeful.

The next morning saw us awake at dawn and engaging in the jungle warfare described above. The trail was covered in fallen leaves, and since apparently leeches can spawn spontaneously when only given a leaf and some moisture, they were everywhere. More an inconvenience than anything, it was still a challenge to hold the small glass bottle with my improvised "leech-off" and try to struggle up an increasingly muddy hill. As mentioned before, inter-village commerce necessitated the transport of large animals along high narrow paths, and the passage of even one cow over a muddy trail is enough to render it nigh-on impossible to get through without getting seriously dirty.

This days hike was to take us even deeper into the hills, then down to a river where we would begin a day and a half of kayaking on the Nam Tha river. For some background information, the region that I was trekking in is known as "Luang Nam Tha" meaning "The big river Tha." Similarly, "Luang Prabang" (where I been previously) means "the big Buddha."

Etymological roots aside, the trekking this day was particularly strenuous, for the abovementioned reasons of leech killing, cattle freight and intermittent periods of very heavy rain. Of course, it was wonderful. The only sounds were those of the cicadas in the trees and the bamboo growing (and yes, at anywhere from 15cm to a meter a day you can actually hear it growing). It is a strange experience hardly speaking at all for 3 days (and one which I'm sure many of you are astonished to hear I was capable of) but it allows a lot of the clamor in your mind to calm down and, when not focused on edging your way down a hill, you can get to thinking quite clearly.

One thought that remained persistent throughout my time in Laos (Authorial intrusion here: I'm in Vietnam as I write this where the feeling pervades) is that I was an American traveling through what was, up until the war in Iraq, the most heavily bombed country by the United States. Ever. Occasionally, Ket would point out a region of forest where there was simply nothing growing.

"Bomb here" was his only comment but it resonated with me for some time. Later on, I learned that Ket was a field medic in the Laos army during that war. I didn't get into particulars with him, but he surely had to deal with casualties caused from American bombs and that thought sobered me throughout the trek. It's not as though I had never had a social consience before, but being confronted so directly with the results, even 50 years later, of a sustained bombing campaign brought certain facets of my resolve into sharper focus.

We arrived at another village, got our kayaks and took off down the river. The Nam Tha river winds its way through much of Northern Laos, originating somewhere in Burma. The shores are steep and sandy, giving way to the same vertical walls of forest through which we had been hiking. I regret not having pictures of this, but pretty much every where that I've been in rice producing countries, you will see huge swaths of burned hillside, completely barren and deserted-looking. However, far from being something negative, this burning is intentional, as the ash from the fire serves as a perfect fertilizer for the rice crop that is later harvested. I don't really get it, but it seems to work.

Kayaking for 6 hours straight, especially when you haven't done so in a very long time, is hard. Really hard. But, going along with that quietness theme of before, I managed to get myself into a rhythm that sustained me throughout most of the ride. Then I utterly collapsed when we reached the next village and slept for the few hours before dinner.

It is continually fascinating to me the range of responses the arrival of a "white guy" has in remote villages. For the most part, it can broken down into 3 categories, and these three categories are almost always based on age:

First category: Old people. The've seen white people before, are vaguely skeptical and have more important things to be doing. Usually you'll get a head nod of acknowledgement, occasionally a smile. Not much else

Second category: Teenagers. Of course, teenagers are a weird sort no matter where you go, but in these villages there seems to be a great amount of cognitive dissonance when I first show up. They vascillate between "oh cool! someone different who has information about the oustide world and trends and stuff, lets talk to him!", and "but I'll just remain aloof and kind of glance over a lot because, well, I'm a teenager." This group is usually friendly right off the bat, then goes away for a while, comes back, and then dissapears for the rest of your time there. They want to ask loads of questions, but feel constrained by, well I'm not really sure what.

Third category: The kids!

...these are the best because they go back and forth between laughing out loud at everything you do, running away in fear every time you stand up, trying to climb all over you when offered the chance, posing for pictures, watching you while you sleep and being generally interested in everything about you. It's great.

So I awoke from my nap surrounded by a group of perhaps 15 kids between the ages of 1 and 12, standing over me and watching me while I slept. A little weird. As soon as they saw my eyes open, they all screamed and ran for the door of the hut, where, just like in the movies, a few moments later you could see a vertically stacked row of heads, peering around the corner to continue their vigil. I spent the night teaching and being taught. For instance I now know that "mu" means "nose" in Hmong, which is the extent of what I recall. For my part, I taught them "head, shoulders knees and toes" with the acompanying melody, how to count to ten and that cake is delicious. I'm really hoping that last one stuck.

We woke up the next day nice and early, set out kayaking and thinking, and arrived in the afternoon at the tour pickup point. I was smelly and sweaty and pretty dirty and leech-bitten and sore and I felt great. The truck ride back to "civilization" was a 4 hour shock absorber free-for-all over the rained out roads and mud puddles that passed for roads, finally arriving back in Luang Nam Tha just in time for me to bolt down whatever food was placed in front of me and to pass out.

The end of the line

I rode the crappy bus back to Luang Prabang, stayed the night, caught a bus to the capital city of Vientiane and stayed for 2 nights. If that sounds like a pretty dull description of travels, it's because nothing really of note occured and Vietniane is pretty much just a big ol' captial city, albeit one where nothing every appears to happen. The real highlight there was that I went bowling at 4am with a bunch of Laos people and had a lot of fun. There really isn't much more to say about the place. So have a look at the pictures.

Those silly monks and their weed-whackers

It's like the Arc de Triomphe in France, except...not

Next: Vietnam!, Further travel-related superlatives, and the terrifying sight of a swarm of mopeds

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Laos: Long lazy days, too beautiful waterfalls, and everyone is getting "happy"

After our little adventure with the vagaries of Mekong River transport, myself and the small group of friends that I had made on the boat (difficult circumstances serving to accelerate friendships...also beer) needed a few days to get our wits back about us. Fortunately, when the boat finally arrived where it was supposed to, our disembarkation in Luang Prabang, the second largest city in Laos, was greeted with a loud yawn from the locals and the occasional haranguing from a tuk tuk driver, who seemed about as concerned with giving us a ride as he was with the lint in his belly button.

Buddhist temple, in front of which I was offered opium. Strange country...

Due to the former French colonization of much of South East Asia, there have been certain residual effects on the cuisine, those effects being fantasticness. Restaurants serving pan au chocolat, baguettes, croissantes etc., yet on the opposing menu page serving noodle soup with fish, fried everything with ginger and spring rolls. Eclectic doesn't even begin to describe it.

After removing the feedbag from my face, I ventured out into the town to see what it was like. 20 minutes later I found myself on the outskirts of town wondering what had happened to all of the people. A few traversals later, I realized that the entirety of town could be covered on foot in roughly 45 minutes, allowing for the occasional stop for ice cream along the way.

A temple?! In South-East Asia?! No way!

So what is there to do in Luang Prabang? Pretty much nothing, which is largely the attraction of the place. An interesting phenomenon which may have been unique to our boat or perhaps just occurs every time a new load of people arrive, is that I knew pretty much everyone in town by Day 2. Because it is the low season, there were very few travelers there who hadn't come at the same time as me. Given our peculiar circumstances, everyone who had arrived together at least recognized each other on sight and after a day knew everyone by name and an interesting fact about them. I wrote them down on note cards.

Thus I would find myself walking down the "main street" and being greeted by loud yells from both sides from people alternately 1. booking onward travel 2. sitting at internet cafes or 3. eating. This is what you do in Luang Prabang. It felt exactly like my first year of college, during which time I could barely get 10 feet down the sidewalk without being engaged in conversation about whatever it is that I was thinking about when I was 18. Probably girls.

However, the continuation of that phenomenon is that inevitably, another boat arrived. This was more analgous to my final year in college. I didn't live on campus, couldn't be bothered to meet anyone new, and all of the formerly familiar faces were replaced with those of a vaguely sinister and menacing nature. Who are these new people? What are they doing in my town? They're eating there? That place sucks. Et Cetera.

Aside from being the geographical equivalent of valium...

A whole day in Luang Prabang...guitar, beer, umbrella

...the town has a certain charm that makes it quite pleasant to hang out in for a while. As one walks down the street, the constant chant of "waterfall, waterfall?" from hopeful jumbo drivers (a jumbo being a pick up truck with a roof over the bed and some uncomfortable benches to ride on) who want you to go see a waterfall...apparently, follows you wherever you go. As I had not much else to do, I decided that it might be worthwhile.

What do you think?

No comments really necessary here...

So yeah, this is essentially the most perfect grotto/waterfall/paradise that you could ever hope to get on film (or memory card). The water is exactly as blue as it looks and warm enough to suggest that a recent swarm of little boys had just vacated the premises grinning mischeiviously. After flinging ourselves off of the waterfall and taking turns playing Batman on the rope swing, we walked up to what we then learned was the "real" waterfall there.


I hadn't showered in weeks. This was insisted upon.

After gaping in awe and nearly breaking our necks trying to see the top of the damn thing, we learned that there was an easy path up the right side to some of the pools, or a more difficult path to the pools near the top that ran up the left side.

The easy path, though inviting, was clogged with people milling about, so we decided that despite our fairly easy-going day, we'd hoof it up to the top pools and have a look about.

Jumping off, even though noone else was...

More perfect waterfalls...yaaaaaaaaaaaaaawn.

View from the tippity top

After 45 minutes of rugged climbing, that involved caribiners, harnesses, a helicopter and 10 tons of explosives, we found ourselves at a completely deserted set of pools, the space above them soon filled with our shouts as we hurtled through the void and splashed in the (thankfully deep-enough) water. From this pool, we were able to swim to the edge of the waterfall and look over. Scary, but awesome-scary.

I returned the next day since I had had so much fun, and in my enthusiasm, after dozens of people had swung into the pool on the rope swing, I gripped it tightly, kicked off from the branch while giving my best Tarzan yell, then heard a *snap* followed by my an immediate arrest to my forward progress and a loud drop into the pool. When I surfaced it was to catcalls in no less than 5 languages, and a number of exhortations that I eat less before I come next time. Since I don't get embarassed, lets just say that my pride was very slightly bruised.

I feel that the following sign is ironic enough to warrant its own paragraph break. Seriously, how ridiculous is this...?

After a few days, most of my traveling buddy-folks had made the decision to head South to Vang Vieng, a town renowned for harboring huge groups of backpackers who huddle around televisions everyday to watch Friends. No I am not kidding. The other reasons to go there are that there is a great river upon which to tube and drink, and at night you can have a "happy shake" or "happy pizza."

The whole gang, spending lots of money to see each other off in style

For those who aren't up on their South-East Asian-drug-euphemisms, allow me to enlighten you. A "happy"-anything is a food product that contains varying quantities of highly potent marijuana. Should one feel so inclined as to have an "extra-happy" pizza, it would involve a fairly significant amount of marijuana. To date, I know of at least 5 people who have ended up in the hospital as a result of getting too "happy". I also didn't hear from a single person who didn't regret having had one. I think that this functions a lot like peer pressure in high school to drink. Someone hands you a beer, you've heard that beer is great, everyone else is drinking one, you're excited, you crack the can open, it foams all over your hand, warm and fizzy. You drink it and it tastes like an old shoe, but you keep going because everyone else is having so much fun. 4 years later when you finally acquire the taste for it, you spend your time convincing everyone who hasn't already started drinking that they are missing out. I suppose that it should come as no surprise that this type of activity carries on in to any sort of large grouping of impressionable, herd-minded individuals (as many backpackers tend to be), but as nearly everyone who is backpacking at least ostensibly has survived certain rigors up to that point, you would assume that they could reason things like that out for themselves...but...well...not so much.

I just realized that writing any further events will require a massive posting, and as such, I will be cutting this one short and putting up the rest of my time in Laos later in the week. Stay tuned!

Next: Argh! Leeches!, Making friends with the hill tribes, and a capital city that didn't feel so capital

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Laos: That sinking feeling in your gut, an impromptu concert, and Beer Lao!

So...our boat was sinking.

5 hours into an 8 hour-a-day, 2 day trip, the "navigator" of the S.S. Uncomfortable decided to swing his vessel wildly into the middle of the Mekong while covering his eyes with his hands. At about that time, God (or Buddha in this case) decided that we weren't having quite enough fun, so he put a very large rock right in the path of the boat.


"Whatthehellwasthat?" asked Mike, my seatmate and new-ish friend. He had been dozing painfully against a wooden bulwark (arr! aren't I nautical?) and the vibrations ringing through the wooden hull startled him awake.

"Umm, I think that we hit a rock."

It was at that point that the owners of the boat, about 20 Laos' (quick aside: I don't know how to refer to anything in Laos. I thought perhaps "Laotian" would be a way to refer both to the language, and the people, but I have been informed that this is not correct. Therefore, apparently the word "Laos" is at once a proper noun as the name of the country (Laos) , a language (Laos), and an ethnicity (Laos). This is really quite confusing) who all seemed to be members of the family which owned the boat, started screaming at each other. As the 150 or so passengers watched in befuddlement, the whole family jumped off of the boat, grabbed a huge 2x4 and propped it up as a plank upon which we were all to walk to shore.

I literally "walked a plank".

So where were we? Superb question. Unfortunately, not one person on the boat who was in charge of our safety spoke English. The best that we were able to manage was that we were somewhere that was not our final destination, and that it would be a very long time before anything happened. That's fine, I've been stuck waiting places before, no worries right?


It was when I saw them patching the hole in the boat with a bag of concrete that I began to have the sneaking suspicion that this was not your average "breakdown and wait a few hours and then go again." At this point, someone (a Thai girl named Nook) determined that the boat would be remaining there overnight. Woohoo! More adventure! Being the adventure-minded ex-boy scout that I was, I was all aflutter at the prospect of sleeping on the beach, in my nice summer sleeping bag and under my mosquito net. Finding myself alone in my excitement I realized that not everyone else on the boat was so well provisioned.

Backing up a day or so here, let me explain how it was that I came to be on this forsaken beach, in the middle of the sweating, steaming Mekong river, stuck for an indeterminate amount of time and loving every minute:

After the madness of Songkran (see previous post), I hung around Chiang Mai for a few days, knowing that I had to move on. It is simply not possible to take a bus from Northern Thailand into Laos. Roads don't exist that run this route. Instead, the popular (and only) way to go is by boat. Many travel agencies in town sell tickets, and they always give you two options; the fast boat, which is a one day, 7.5 hour rocket-hell-sled ride of fear and terror (I'll get to that in a moment), or the leisurely, meandering peacefulness of the slow boat, which takes two days and (theoretically) stops at a small town along the Mekong that is rife with overpriced guesthouses. As the fast boat costs nearly 3 times as much, I of course took the slow boat.

It is of course the perogative of each traveler to choose their method of transportation. However, more often than not the ironclad "Law of Financial Do-ability" is the primary arbiter in such decisions. That is to say, whatever is cheapest, backpackers do it. This leaves the less explored, and more expensive option to those with the means, who would be disinclined to spend 2 days sitting on wooden benches on an overcrowded boat that doesn't move fast enough to generate a breeze to cool you down. Unfortunately for these rich-type folks, the rules of logic are far more rigid than those of finances. Therefore, if the slow boat is cheaper, then it is less comfortable and safe than the fast boat, is really not a tenable syllogism.

I was unable to take a picture of a longboat, largely because they move so fast as to defy normal refractory properties of light. Instead, I will describe them for you. Imagine a shallow wooden craft, heavily warped, with three rows of wooden benches spaced approximately 5 inches apart. When you sit down in the boat, you are given a helmet. They assiduously avoid using the word "crash" helmet. Since the helmet looked like a plastic mixing bowl with a piece of plastic wrap over the front, I understood it to be primarily to give the naieve and safety minded a strange peace of mind. What make these boats "fast" is at once so unique and so bizarre as to nearly defy explanation. The enterprising people who run the boat companies must have access to a junkyard, as the back of the boat is weighted down with a full V-8 engine, with the drive shaft still attached. For propulsion, the drive shaft is fitted with a propeller. Appropriately, they call these "long tail" boats. One steers by simply pushing and pulling on the entire engine block. These things are not exactly cutting tight corners.

So the people who were in a rush and had money found themselves hanging on for dear lfie as they were rocketed over the river at upwards of 50 mph. If you have ever gone this fast in a boat, you will know that it may be 50 but it feels like Mach 10. Add to this the fact that at least one of these boats either flips, or nearly flips every day, and we can see that the though the hare got near the finish line first, the turtle wil be the one going across (or limping in our case).

I arrived at the border town of Chiang Khong...

Laos! From Thai side

...and spent the night, then had a moment of panic when I got in this boat...

...sincerely believing that it was going to be my ride for 8 hours. A too-hasty sigh of relief later, I was in Laos.

View from the Laos side

Before entering Laos, it is important to acquaint yourself with the legend and history of the lager there served...namely, Beer Lao. How can I describe Beer Lao? Hmmm..well, if I am your average backpacker-Lonely-Planet-writer, I think that it would go something like this:

"Oh sweet nectar of the Gods! Oh most opulent of pleasures! When the heavens bequeath'd upon Earth all the beauty that were to reside there, surely at the end of their labors they were rejuvenated with this most delectable of ambrosias. As sweet as manna, like licking the sweaty back of mighty Zeus or drinking the spit of Athena, Beer Lao will restore your health, regrow your hair, maintain month long erections, remove suspicious moles, cure your polyps, clean our your constipation, de-freckle the freckled, de-blemish the teenagers, cure strep throat and the common cold, boil water without the presence of oxygen and disinfect your septic tank. Oh Beer Lao! We worship you!"

I think that it is a capital crime to drink any other beer in this country. To be fair, Beer Lao is quite tasty. If I had to compare it to something, it is a bit like a Sam Adams. However, as it is pretty much impossible to get ANY other kind of beer here, one does tire of it. But that is not allowed. Every single restaurant is sponsered by them. Guest houses have cases of it stacked everywhere. When I was trekking in the remote Northern regions of Laos (next post) staying in villages 14 hours from any road, without running water or electricity, the first thing that I was offered when I dropped my muddy pack on the ground was a "Beer Lao?" which I declined, as it was warm and covered in spider-webs. This stuff is an institution here.

That being said, while waiting for the boat to leave (at 9am) about 30 people all decided to have one, me included. Quite tasty.

This picture couresty of multiple Beer Lao's and a REALLY long boat ride

So we beat on, boats against the current, though unlike Mr. Gatsby, we were headed forward into the future, instead of back into a green-lit past.

The boat was a bit...overcrowded. There were people sitting on the floor, people on sacks of rice, people hanging out the sides and anywhere else that they could find a corner to squeeze into. For our part, Mike and I shared a very small cushion on the seat and traded off leaning out the window to try and relieve the painful hardness that the benches wreaked upon us.

That's Mike on the right. And that's his "man was that seat uncomfortable" face

In short, the Mekong river and the Laos countryside that surrounds it are incredible. The river is a fast-moving brown, the color of weak coffee with milk. It bends and ebbs around deep curves. Rock studded and treacherous, each shore shallows to a narrow strip of sand and boulders quickly from the middle, allowing little navigational latitude. The hills rising up on either side add new resolve to my definition of "verdant". The word "lush" kept roaring around in my head as well, though this is less accurate. As in Africa, the lushness is largely a facade, with huge palm fronds covering large portions of the hills and pencil-narrow trees shooting up in-between them. Most interestingly, from each of the boulders, sprouting like the doubled antennae of some fantastic insect, were enormous bamboo poles, all in pairs, that after some careful examination revealed themselves to be supporting nets. The primary source of food in this region is the river, with the fish that navigate its earthy bottom more often than not feeding everyone in a village. As we passed, great scores of men could be seen performing incredible feats of acrobatics to get down to check these nets, and, upon finding some squirming river fish, would haul up their lot to take for the next meal. All of those that we passed were sun-browned to the deep permanent copper of people who labor all day beneath a punishing sun. The workers muscles were sinewy and hard, accustomed to long, arduous tasks of consistent strength, instead of short bursts of increasing power, as to be found in weight rooms the world over.

And as we passed, a friendly wave and a shout were our main means of communication.

Fast-forwarding back to the beach upon which we found our erstwhile hero still stranded...

Members of the "boat-owning" family. I think that the baby was driving

I was in a fine mood, as it seemed to me that instead of "being stranded" we were instead "saving money." Sleeping on this beach would be free. Having resigned myself to staying the night, I fondly waved goodbye to a number of people who had literally flagged down a fast boat and would be traveling on to the comfort of a guest house up the river. For my money, these people missed out.

As the sun set against the rising haze, smeared spots of light appeared in the village above us. Where we had disembarked, there appeared to be a small village about 1.5km away up on top of a hill. Wanderer that I am, I began asking around to find out if anyone had a torch (flashlight) that I could borrow to go look around. A few other people decided that it might be worth a visit, and, torch acquired, we began the short trek up the hill.

Sunset on the Mekong

That was when we heard the singing. It is a well understood phenomenon that sounds carries well, and far, at night. It does so especially well near water (for a story with a very different outcome, check out the night that Yeah Yeah, my India traveling companion, learned this very lesson here). As such, the singing came to us very clearly, and it sounded happy and glorious. I resolved to find it. As we muddled our way up a very muddy slope and into the town, the wisdom of my plan began to seem a bit suspect. However, as I had now led (despite my assertions that "I'm going up there, anyone that wants to can come along, but I don't know what I'll find and I'm not in charge") about 10 people up into the village, I felt somewhat obligated to soldier on.

Imagine, just for a moment, the following scenario:

You are at home. Your whole family is there and you are eating dinner. Someone has cooked up a bunch of food and everyone is sitting around and enjoying it. Then the doorbell rings. Everyone looks at each other wondering who it could be. The doorbell rings several more times. Finally, someone gets up to answer it. When the door is pulled back, it reveals a large group of Chinese tourists, gesticulating wildly and speaking v-e-r-y- s-l-o-w-l-y in Chinese. Since you don't speak Chinese, you try to communicate with them through hand signals. When this doesn't work, the tall, blue-eyed one simply walks up the steps to your house, sits down at the table with your family (the 10 or so people behind him tramping up the stairs as well) and immediately requests that you sing for him.

Songslao! Songslao!

That is basically what we did. We found the house that the singing was coming from, got the attention of those inside who were singing by candlelight, and after a few minutes of confused jabbering, we were ushered inside, given sticky rice and vegetable soup, and then we sang.

We made it understood that we had heard their singing and wanted to hear more. The family obliged us for a few minutes, then one of the rascally younger ones insisted "now you song!" which I interpreted to mean that it was time to fulfill our part of the unspoken bargain.

I believe that it is a fairly well known fact that I do not have a "great" singing voice. Nor do I have a "good" singing voice or even a "passable" singing voice. No, instead I have a bad singing voice. Nobody cared. As I launched into "Let It Be" none of the 9 other people who had chosen to come with me also excercised their adventurousness by singing. So I sang solo. Then I sang "Puff the Magic Dragon," "River of Dreams," that song that goes " the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight" at which song everyone in the room actually did manage to sing on the "ah-OOOOHHHHHHHHHHH a-wee um-um-ba-waaaaaay", capping it off with a crowd pleaser; Happy Birthday. I don't know if it's the simplicity of this song, the reptitive nature or the festive implications, but EVERYONE knows happy birthday and so, sung along.

The rest of the choir, though a silent choir they may be...

I then requested more songslao (which was my primitive way of saying "songs in Laos") and thus we traded songs back and forth for a good two hours.

I fit right in...

At this point, I was thinking about getting back down to the boat in enough time to claim a good spot on the beach. It was not to be.

"Okay," said one of the younger family members, thinking hard "7 (holding up seven fingers) sleep here, 2 (more fingers) there." When I looked where he was pointing, I could see that the mother (I think) of the family and some of the daughters had set up 7 thick mattresses on the floor of an empty room a short ways away. There were also blankets and pillows. I didn't know what to say.

Who even has this many extra mattresses?

These people, none of whom spoke more than the most basic of English pleasantries, upon whose hospitality we had massively imposed, were now insisting that we sleep in their home for the evening. After ascertaining the eager smiles and nodding heads of my companions, I agreed.

As we 7 lay down to sleep (the two girls with us were led to another house by two other girls from the village, apparently despite their remote address they knew a thing or two about how to keep everyone on their best behavior) the family brought in pitchers of just-boiled water for drinking and several glasses.

We spent the night in wondrous comfort, the humid evening air blowing through the open room (which only had 3 walls), the sounds of pigs grunting below us and dogs out baying at, what I imagined, was a full moon. We woke with the roosters (annoying damn birds) and found our way back to the boat. We listened patiently to the stories of those who had slept on the boat and beach, sympathized with their sore backs, cramped knees and bleary eyes, and inwardly grinned at our comfortable night of repose.

Where we spent the night as seen very early in the morning. Damn roosters.

The girls were able to divine an address for the village from one of the women there, and as I don't have it with me, I'll write my letter here:

To: Family that Sang with a Bunch of Farang,
7th Stop of the Slow Boat on the Mekong River,

From: The tall one with the blue eyes and the terrible voice

Dear family,

Thanks for the food, drinks, songs and beds. If you ever get electricity, computers, and internet, please book a ticket to Minneapolis, Minnesota so that I can attempt to repay your hospitality


The tall one with the blue eyes and the terrible voice.

Next: Luang Prabang is just like they say it is, the perfect waterfall, and a decision to break with the crowd.