Archive | February 2005

Tsunami? Where?

Well, after Bangkok, I hopped on the train to the south. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do in the south, or even if I would do anything other than cross the border into Malaysia and so I figured I’d have the whole train journey to decide. I got an email from a buddy in which he said that I was missing out on a lot here in Thailand by zipping through it like I did Vietnam. Yeah, I know I’m missing out on a lot – but you have to if you’re going to travel the world. I decide on where I will visit based on a few criteria.

1) How much it costs
2) When I need to be in the next destination (mainly due to weather)
3) How many other backpackers there are at a given place (I’ve already mentioned how much my kind annoy me)
and
4) How easy it will be to come back to a given place when I’m old, have two kids and a wife. And a dog. Maybe even a cane.

So let’s expand on this last one. If you were my wife (if there are any ladyboys in Thailand reading this, don’t get any ideas), which would you rather hear?

“Hey babe, I was thinking we could go trekking in the Malaysian jungle for a few weeks. Pack the mosquito repellent and some salt. The salt will keep the leeches away. It’s hard to tell when the leeches get you because you can’t feel anything. They get in your boots and when they get their fill of blood, then plop off to the bottom where your feet squash them. You only know they were on you when you take off your boots to find your socks drenched in blood and leech guts. Don’t worry though. They can’t give you any diseases. It’ll be fun!”

Orrr….

“Hey babe, let’s go to Thailand and lie out on a desolated, white-sand beach and do nothing but drink beer, swim in the ocean, eat seafood and relax for two weeks. It’ll be fun!”

Case in point.

I can always come back to Thailand. And Vietnam. This is also why I probably won’t be going to Europe this trip either. I’m broke and it’s not going anywhere.

Soooo, on the train, I met a Thai guy in the dining car with whom I chatted for a while. He had a bottle of whiskey so he opened it up for me and the dining car staff and we all had a great time. That night I decided that I would go to the beach in southern Thailand. But I didn’t know which coast yet. Songkla to the east was supposed to be okay, but nothing spectacular. But the west coast (Ko Tarutao) was supposedly hit by the Tsunami. Decisions decisions.

When I got to Katya, I hopped off the train and after talking to some Germans headed to Ko Lipe (on the west coast), I decided that I would go to the west coast and check it out. Tarutao National Park is a series of stunning tropical islands off the coast that have very few tourists. With the tsunami, they had even a fraction of the previous number, so I thought it would be nice and quiet. My plan was to find a desolated beach, set up a tent and hammock and call it home for a few days.

After wandering around Katya for a few hours, I made it to the bus station and eventually Pakbarra only to find that the last boat to the island had already gone. So I would have to spend the night there. No worries. I got a bungalow for 5 bucks and spent the night playing chess, cutting open coconuts, and drinking beer with an English guy I met at the next bungalow over.

In the morning, I caught the ferry to Ko Tarutao. Everyone seemed to be going to Ko Lipe (it was the most developed and commercial of the 5 islands) and it was only me and two Thais that got off. I arrived at the park office, rented a tent and set off to the furthest beach I could find. After a few hours of walking through the rain forest, I arrived. There was no one but the park staff there and I set up my tent.

“You have food?” they asked as I passed their house on the mountain on my way to the beach (their house is a fair distance from the beach where I was to camp).
“Yeah. I brought bread and instant noodles,” I replied.

“Good. No have food. Maybe tomorrow.”

From what I gather, there was supposed to be some semblance of a restaurant there, and when I got to the beach, I saw that there was a deserted building that was supposed to resemble a snack bar / kitchen. But, as we all well know now, “No Food”.

I picked a spot on the beach and set up my tent and hammock. I was ready. It was almost getting dark so I went exploring on the beach. I got my bearings. After watching a beautiful sunset over the beach, I came back and gathered up some firewood and started a fire using pages from last week’s edition of The Economist (is there anything that magazine CAN’T do??). I never knew how incredibly satisfying it was to start your own fire and cook your own food over it until I did it in New Zealand. I guess it taps into that primal hunter instinct we all have. I drank tea, ate soup and relaxed in my hammock while I watched the stars and the ships far out at sea with my binoculars. This area was supposed to be devastated by the tsunami but I saw no sign of it. None anywhere. I talked to a lady and she said all they got was a swell and black water. She cried, she told me, but I guess it wasn’t too bad. I couldn’t see any damage, even on the west coast of the island facing the ocean.

In the morning, I got up, started a fire, made some tea and had some bread. It was going to be a nice day. The park staff came down and raked up some leaves for 20 minutes then went back to their house. God, they have a rough job. I’m sure they get compensated well for it though.

I rented one of the staff member’s kayak for $2.50 and set off into the ocean. My plan was to go a little of the ways around the southern tip of the island. A real adventure-like. I got about a kilometer out when I realized that I despised sea kayaks. I sat there drenched in sweat, bobbing up and down and getting nauseous from the surf, getting scorched by the merciless sun and unable to put on sunblock because I was so sweaty. And I was exhausted. I went back to the shore and tried to walk back but it was too hard to do knee deep in water, so I just rowed back using all my will power to continue on and not throw up. When I made it back, I collapsed into my hammock and cursed sea kayaks and whoever it was that invented them. I found comfort in the fact that he was probably dead (God rest his soul) and that he wouldn’t be able to unleash any additional equally horrible inventions upon the world.

After a while, I decided that I wanted a coconut. The only problem was that there were none on the ground and they were only in a few really really high palm trees. I tried throwing stones at them but to no avail. I imagined that I was trapped on a desert island and needed to make some sort of device to get the coconuts so I could survive. I wandered around looking for long sticks and poles along the beach and found a few – none long enough to reach though (it was maybe 35 feet up). So then I went in search of some rope along the beach. I found a variety of sizes and lengths and spent two hours constructing a 35 foot long pole from four small poles and a whole bunch of rope – and !ALAS! my creation was complete! I went to test it out.

Two inches too short. Damn. I found a chair and stood on it. I could touch the coconut but not with any force. I was getting nowhere. I tried throwing more stones. No luck and my arm hurt.

I had to think this one out for a while. I went for a swim in the ocean (the water was soooo warm!) and relaxed on the hammock for a while while I listened to Jack Johnson – perfect music for relaxing on the beach and formulating a plan.

After another swim, I had another go. There was a tree next to the palm tree and I climbed into it. From there, I could hoist my pole into the air and reach the coconuts. YES! I jabbed and jabbed for 5 minutes and finally, a coconut fell.

You know – that’s how I am. If I want something, I make it happen. That day it was a coconut. Tomorrow it will be fame and fortune. Maybe even a yacht.

About that time, a delivery of beer, coke and food came from the main park headquarters. I celebrated my coconut victory with an ice cold coke. Then I set out cutting open the coconut.

Many of you may not be aware of the fact that coconuts are actually really big and have a good 3 inches of bark like padding around them. You have to hack through it to get to the shell, then crack that open. Well, I hacked through it and eventually got to my prize – only to find that the milk inside had fermented and tasted horrible. Oh well. That’s life. Next challenge!

I went for a walk on the beach at low tide and watched all the sea creatures go about their lives. Crabs, birds, fish, snails, etc… scurrying about. It was great. When I got back, I realized that the *$@#ing monkeys had gotten into my food and eaten all of my bread, sugar, tea and even had stolen my knife sharpening stone.

“YOU GOD DAMNED MONKEYS!” I yelled as I ran back to my food.z

They laughed at me from a distance, sugar and bread crumbs in their stupid monkey beards.

Those god damned monkeys.

About that time one of the park rangers came back and asked me if I wanted dinner made.
I told him that I indeed would, seeing as the monkeys had eaten all of my food. He thought that was pretty funny. I wondered if he was in on it. After all, it was conceivable that a man that worked 20 minutes a day raking leaves had time to befriend the monkeys and train them to eat campers’ food and then “coincidentally” show up and offer a meal. But “Fried Lice” with chicken (which I assume was actually fried rice with chicken) was only 50 cents and I would think that a man who went through all the trouble to train monkeys would demand more for dinner so I ruled it out.

That night I made another fire and wrote in my journal. I listened to the waves and pondered life’s great mysteries – like why the monkeys stole my knife sharpening stone. Did they perhaps have a dull knife that needed sharpening? Would their next heist be at knife point?

I may never know the answer to that question. I left this morning, caught the ferry back to the mainland and then a bus back to Hatyai. And so here I am. Goodbye beautiful white sand beaches and warm blue ocean water. Tomorrow I head to Malaysia and the jungle.

Honey, pack the salt!

Dude looks like a lady!

So I crossed over into Bangkok. It wasn’t much of an event. After staying in a pretty nice hotel for a mere 4 bucks (which Zach and I split), we hopped on the ferry to Thailand. It is always interesting to see a completely different country on the other side of a little river. We wondered why they didn’t just build a bridge – but then realized that that would cost money and the ferry boat drivers wouldn’t have jobs. So I guess that’s why.

On the other side, we got stamped into the country then headed into town. There we hit up the ATM and then caught a bus. I can’t tell you how weird it was to see ATM’s in the street after traveling through Cambodia and Laos where there are none. It was just really really weird. The bus was spectacular, as well. No blaring music. No people on the roof or livestock in the aisle. Straight flat roads. Air conditioning. We were in dismay. We went directly to Chiang Mai and spent a few days there while we acclimated to Thailand. Chiang Mai is called the Bangkok of the north, but it’s not really. It’s a big city with a few million people but it’s way more laid back and the people are much friendlier. The city is really nice, as well. I can’t say that I really did too much. I was traveling with Zach, Jean-Michel and Ellen (with whom I did the trek in Laos) and we went out to some nice restaurants and generally relaxed. Zach and I rented some motorbikes and rode through the mountains – and visited some orchid gardens and a snake park on the way. It was beautiful, although hazy because there is so much fire everywhere.

One takes note of a few things upon entering into Thailand. First, there are fires everywhere. It seems like half the forest is on fire at any given time and while you drive down the road you can see the flames devouring the dry bush in endless lines as they progress through the forest. There is smoke everywhere in the north and in the forest it can really burn your eyes. The next thing is that people are incredibly friendly here. They really know how to treat people and you always get a huge smile and maybe a compliment or two. That being said, you can also see the extreme opposite. In heavily touristed areas, you get some of the biggest jerks I have ever encountered on this entire trip. For example: At the tourist market, Ellen wanted to try on a top she wanted to buy. The guy said no. She was confused and asked again, politely (she is a very nice and polite girl). He angrily said that it was his store and his rules and she could not try it on. We were all stunned. I smiled and said, “Well, if he doesn’t want your money, we can go to the store across the street. Simple as that!” He started following us and telling us to get the hell out and mocking everything we said. I couldn’t believe it. Adam Smith’s invisible hand will make short work of his business, thank god.

And of course, last but not least: I have never seen so many MEN DRESSED AS WOMEN in my entire life! Jesus Christ! In Chiang Mai, they are everywhere and it’s crazy. I can’t understand why it’s so rare in all other SE Asian countries (that I’ve visited) but it’s so blatant in Thailand. You are afraid to even check out girls here because upon examination you realize that you are checking out a man – and the moment you realize this are forced to look away in shame lest your sexuality be questioned.

“Ohhhh my god! You think a man is hot??!! YOU FAG!”
“Dude, but I swear – She…he looks like a woman!”
“Yeah right. You are so gay. So that’s why you wanted to move to Hawaii, huh? It all makes sense now.”

I haven’t seen so many in Bangkok, but perhaps that’s because I’ve learned to keep my eyes averted. Or maybe I have – I just didn’t know it. Welcome to Thailand!

I split off from Zach, Jean-Michel and Ellen and headed toward a really nice northern town called Pai. Once there I found a little bungalow for $1.75, although there was also a rat living there and the mattress was on the floor. I could see his droppings all over the bungalow and my backpack was chewed when I awoke. Bastard! I spent the evening wandering around Pai, eating some sticky rice with mango (which is really good) and ran into a Dutch couple I met over a month ago in Cambodia. It really is crazy how you run into people like that. We didn’t have much to talk about because we didn’t even know each others’ names but they explained to me how they both got sick for three weeks with fever, chills, diarrhea, vomiting and exhaustion. But they didn’t go see the doctor yet. Riiiiighhhht.

In the morning, I rented a motorbike and headed even further north to a town called Mae Hong Son. The ride over there was a motorcyclists dream. The roads were sooooo sharply curved it was incredible! I had so much fun. I got pretty high in the mountains and the views would have been spectacular if not for the smoke everywhere. There were bright green rice field terraces everywhere and the weather was excellent. Dense forest surrounded me everywhere and I really enjoyed it. I visited a cave (Tad Lod) and paid for a little boat trip through it which was cool. There were thousands of huge fish in the little river going through the cave and my tour guide (you have to pay for one) was pretty funny. She pointed out the formations in the cave in single word quick shots.

“OK! ICE CREAM CONE!” she said as she pointed at a ice cream cone looking rock and looked at me for approval.
“Yeah…that does look like an ice cream cone!” I would say.
“OK! CROCODILE!”
“Yeah…that does look like a crocodile!” Rinse, repeat.
At some points she thought I should really take a picture so she would command me to do it.
“OK! PICTURE!” she would say.
Not wanting to displease her, I would.

I met an English group who were visiting the cave right behind me and we hit it off and grabbed lunch together after. We had a good chat and then bid our farewells.

After that I visited a Buddhist temple in the forest and that was really nice. I find it really amusing that in some of the beautifully decorated temples, they have carvings and designs of people vomiting on each other and stabbing each other. This one was no exception and it actually had a life size replica of a man lying on the ground while a dog ripped his intestines out and some sort of a claw came up from the ground and gouged out his eyes. Sucks to be him. From what I gathered, they would actually welcome you into the temple for free if you wanted to learn about meditation. You would live with the monks and do everything they did. That would be pretty interesting.

I continued on and finally arrived at Mae Hong Son. There wasn’t a whole lot to do so I got a 2 dollar all you can eat dinner where you had to barbecue your own meat (of which you could get as much as you liked) on a little grill at your table. The thing is that it’s so much work that you work up an even greater appetite while eating. I nearly exploded after I misjudged my stomach’s capacity.

From there, I headed back to my hostel and after chatting with some Canadians, called it a night.

The English guys I had spoken with at the cave told me they had went through Malaysia in January and it wasn’t too rainy. I was planning on going there but cancelled my plan because it is the rainy season and I thought it would suck. They said it wouldn’t so I opened back up the plan and dynamically adjusted my itinerary to fit 2-3 weeks in Malaysia in. In the morning I headed right back to Pai, where I immediately caught a bus going to Chiang Mai and then went straight to the train station where I immediately caught a train going to Bangkok. How’s that for fast? Everything worked out perfectly and before I knew it I was in the second class car heading south. I thought I was going to be stuck in a chair for 14 hours until I realized that the two chairs facing each other actually turned into a bed and another bed folded down from the roof. I was amazed! I would be able to sleep in a bed! There was air conditioning, a dining car and the service was world class – true to Thai fashion. I loved that train. The lady facing me was from Australia and we spent a while chatting. She was just recovering from breast cancer and I gathered that she had realized that she didn’t see enough and was too young to die – and then decided to see the world. And so there she was. She was a really nice woman.

In the morning, I woke up, caught a taxi to Kao San Road and found a place to sleep. Kao San Road really has to be seen to be believed. Somehow this area became THE tourist area with tons of budget accommodations and shops selling anything you can imagine. It’s crazy. There are thousands of tourists wandering around everywhere and loud music thumps in all directions. Taxi drivers vie for your attention and beggars point at their cups when you walk by. Women get their hair braided in the streets and people cook banana pancakes and Pad Thai on the sidewalk for 25 cents – the aroma of which makes you hungry, even if you just ate, every time you walk by. Men dressed as women try to trick you into looking at them and then ask if you want a massage and shop keepers beg you to enter their stores. The heat is almost unbearable both day and night and after an hour of walking around you are drenched in sweat. It’s quite an experience.

The real shame though is how jaded all the shop owners become. They really are jerks, which is understandable seeing as they deal with so many tourists all day. I walk into a travel agency and they don’t even look at me. Or they look up and then go back to eating. You try to bargain and they tell you to go away. It’s incredible. But everywhere else, the people are so friendly. I wandered around the streets yesterday night taking pictures with my new (7 dollar) tripod and I had so many people come up to me and chat – offering directions or advice (and wanting nothing in return, as far as I could gather). I had a few Thais talk with me for 20 minutes and then we would go our separate ways. This has happened to me several times today even. People really are quite friendly here.

What is interesting is how many weirdo foreigners there are here. You see all sorts of people in the streets. Goofy German tourists, crazy hippies, stinky homeless bums (who are from abroad), hot college girls, frat guys, old women walking around talking to themselves, nice old couples, families, and they are all taking this place in like it’s wild. For me, Thailand is a pretty normal place. I had one person tell me that it was like “Asia Lite”, which I think is appropriate. My theory is that when people think of Thailand, they think exotic and then come. They know it’s pretty developed and that they are generally pretty safe on the streets. There are western toilets and electricity. You can buy hamburgers. In my opinion, going to Thailand is like walking up to your ankles in the ocean and then saying you swam in it. It’s nice that it gives people the chance to see “crazy”, even though it’s not really. But relatively, I guess it’s pretty crazy compared to home.

As for me, I’ve speeded here to Bangkok and I leave in 2 hours on a 20 hour train to the Malaysian border where I will head to Taman Negara and do some trekking in the worlds oldest rain forest. I think it’s going to be pretty awesome. After that, I’ll catch a plane back to Bangkok and then off to Nepal. It’s going to cost me 20 bucks for the train to Malaysia, 30 bucks to fly back, then 200 bucks to fly to Nepal. How’s that for budget? Time is flying and I can’t believe how quickly I’ve covered ground. True, everything is a blur, but I think I got a good feel of SE Asia. I would rather spend more time in Nepal, Malaysia, Tibet and China.

So that’s what I’ll do.

More Trekking!

This past week has been the most action packed week of the trip, I think. Let’s see if I can recap…

So after talking to some guys in an Internet cafe, I decided that I would head up to northern Laos instead of going directly to Thailand. I’m really glad I did because it has been incredible. I got up in the morning and went to the travel office to wait for the tuk tuk to take me to the boat and I found out that two of the Australians I had gone to see the waterfall with the day before were also going with me. We ended up being the only three people on the boat which left plenty of room for us. The only problem was that the seats were horribly small and you couldn’t sit on them for 10 minutes without getting a sore ass. Then I remembered my hammock. Within 10 minutes, I had the hammock strung across the boat and was relaxing in style. It was an incredible boat trip and because the hammock put me at the perfect height, I was able to enjoy the spectacular views the entire trip (unlike the Aussies who, in a desperate attempt to get comfortable, were forced to lay down and miss it all). All the boats that passed pointed at me and smiled – “That lucky bastard…” And I was. When we were nearly there, we got caught in a torrential rain storm and all the chairs and supplies for the boat people fell off the roof and into the river. We ended up letting down the plastic shields for the boat to protect us from the rain and wind and then spent 30 minutes cruising the river and looking for our lost supplies. And then we arrived.

Meng Keau is a really cool place. It’s tucked away in a river valley and there is a huge bridge built by the Chinese (for trade) across the valley. I found a bungalow for 2 bucks a night (it is soooo damned cheap here) overlooking the river and me and the Australians chatted the night away, played a bit of chess, made fun of the menus and waiting about 2 hours for our food to arrive (everything runs on Lao Time here which requires you to multiply the time something should take by about 10). We chatted with a few medical psychologists from England and it was great fun.

In the morning I headed up to Meng Ngoi which can only be accessed by boat. The boat trip through the valley was incredible and we arrived just after the last bit of fog had burned away. Meng Ngoi rests up on the base of a mountain overlooking the river in the valley and it is quite a bustling little town. Tiny villages like this always have a hundred kids playing everywhere you look. They have a river so there is always someone doing something there and it’s quite fun to watch. People do laundry (including my laundry which I gave to the hotel to clean I later found out as I saw my shirt sitting in the sand on the river bank), clean food, fix boats, fix, swim, even rinse rice to make Lao Lao whiskey. It’s CRAZY!

The Aussies and I went on a day hike to see some caves and visit some hill tribes. That was really cool. The next day, we went kayaking through the valley for about $2.50 each and that was pretty awesome as well. That night I met a Dutch girl and two Israelis and we decided to do a two day trek through the forest the next day. We got up early and headed off with a little hand drawn map I had made from the wall of a tourist agency. We hiked through the valleys and visited some of the villages far out in the forest. There are lots of ethnic tribal villages without electricity that are only accessible by little trails though the forest and we tried to visit a few of the different tribes. There are of course kids running all over the place, accompanied by countless pigs, chickens, ducks, cows, buffalo, cats, dogs and anything else you can imagine. The people all wave as you walk though and most of the kids come up and ask for pens (for school). After quite a hike up a mountain, we arrived at a village deep in the jungle and it was quite entertaining trying to negotiate a place to sleep for the night seeing as we had no guide and didn’t speak any Lao. The chief of the village spoke a bit of English though and he ended up renting his own bungalow to us for $1.50 for the night. We spent the night chatting, watching the life of the tribes people, eating, laughing and being observed by countless kids sitting around watching us and feeding us bamboo shoots. After playing with the kids for an hour of so, I made an English menu for the chief for the wall of his little store and he really liked that. It was Lao New Years and so at about 8:00PM, half the village piled into a hut and they fired up the town generator for electricity (which is also used to simultaneously de-husk rice and feed the husks to the animals by spraying it out the back of the shed). We spent the next 3 hours in a hut packed with Lao tribes people watching cheesy karaoke videos and a kung fu movie dubbed in their tribal language. It was GREAT!

The next morning, we had our breakfast and got ready to leave. We added up our expenses for the night and the bill came to a whopping $2.50 for the night’s accommodation, three meals, candles, tea and sleeping in the chief’s home! It also happened to be one of the best experiences of my entire trip. It was great to see a life so incredibly different from my own. I don’t have the time to put the experience into words, but it was incredible.

So we set off to another village near the river and had to follow a stream through the forest (sometimes there was no trail, only the stream) past some minor villages and places where they were cutting down trees and bamboo (we just heard lots of cracking and people yelling HELLO! at us from the forest), we arrived at the river. Once at the river, we negotiated a price to Meng Ngoi with a guy for a boat and were soon off, until the boat broke down and we had to spend 45 minutes waiting for the guy to come back (he had hopped into another guys boat going back to the village) and telling riddles to each other.

When we got back, Saskia (the Dutch girl) and I headed back into Meng Keau where she caught a bus back to Vientiane and I stayed the night. In the morning, I tried to catch the “8:00AM” bus, but was quickly informed that it was actually a 10:00AM bus which suddenly changed to 10:45AM at 10:00. Zach and Mica (the Israelis I had done the trek with) arrived from Meng Ngoi along with a few others (the bus station was waiting for 10 people who want to go to Luang Nam Tha and wouldn’t leave before that time which is why the time kept getting later. So the next thing I knew, we were all in the back of a pickup truck (which has benches installed and a roof) to Udomxai where we would catch another bus to Luang Nam Tha. The ride was rough, although beautiful, and we had people even hanging off the back of the truck. A few Lao people threw up. At the bus station, we waiting around for a few hours while the bus filled up and then were off to Luang Nam Tha. After several hours of that, we arrived and found a hostel. Our actual destination was Muang Xing but it was too late when we arrived and so we caught the first bus out the next morning.

The bus (pickup truck) was supposed to leave at 9:00AM but it was full so we had to wait for the next one and didn’t get out until around 10:30. While we waiting, we fended off the tribes women walking around selling bracelets (and opium). They are dressed in traditional clothing and try to coerce you into buying their crafts (and the opium hidden below them). Opium is a main source of income here in Laos and you can get it for dirt cheap (from what I gather). Anyways, the two benches were packed, two people were laying at our feet and people were hanging off the back…and they still tried to get more people in. The two-hour ride down the bumpy dirt road was (again) rough and dusty, but we arrived in one piece. We arranged a trek and Zach and I spent the evening playing chess and chatting.

The next morning, we set off for our trek which consisted of two days, one night, with a group of 8 plus a guide through the jungle to visit the various hill tribes there. It was a great walk (although not very demanding) and we had a stay in a village for the night. UNESCO set up a protected forest here and they also set up this trekking program which was put in place to foster low impact tourism. You can only trek with a guide and both the group size and tour frequency is limited to have a minimal impact on the tribal people. It was of course cool to see all the people doing their own things and lots of little kids loved having their pictures taken. We visited two different types of tribes (the Muon and Aka) and they were quite different. It was interesting to learn a bit about their culture and religion, and it was quite surprising to see the women walking around with their breasts hanging out of their shirts (which they do after they’ve gotten married).

That night, we got a massage from the women, which consisted of them pushing on our backs and legs for an hour and then we spent the evening chatting and relaxing. I was lucky because there were two people from Spain on the trip, so I got quite a bit of practice with my Spanish. It was a great group and we had a great time.

After arriving back in Meng Xing, we immediately took a pickup back to Luang Nam Tha where we ran into the Australians again and got dinner together (they just got done with a 3 day trek). After a few beers, we hit the sack and the next morning, we headed off together to the Thai border at Huai Xai. I had heard bad things about this bus trip but nothing could have prepared me for the ordeal. It was absolutely the most entertaining bus trip ever.

It basically consists of 10 hours in a rickety bus on one of the most incredibly bumpy, dusty and winding jungle roads in the world. Half the time you are nearly thrown from your seat from the huge bumps in the road and the other half you are trying not to slide off the seat from the bends. It was supposed to leave at 9:00, but then 10:00, then 10:30, then after it left, we spent an hour getting a tire fixed and when we thought we were then leaving, we ended up back at the bus station where we waited another 30 minutes. We left at 11:30. The bus broke down half way there and we had to get out and wait for a few hours while they screwed with the engine (at which time I took my hammock out and strung it across the inside of the bus and played Zach’s Gameboy – god bless Super Mario Brothers) and that was pretty funny. There was no air conditioning so we had to keep the windows down, but that meant that the dust came in and we all were covered in dirt (and by covered, I mean like, you pat your head and dirt flies up from it into the air). We stopped every hour for no apparent reason and the poor guy’s seat behind me broke early on in the trip and he spent the rest of the time sitting on a metal bar. The worst thing about Lao buses though is the atrocious music. They blare it on the buses and refuse to turn it down. Us foreigners had control of the back 3 rows in the bus and that just happened to be where they had hooked up a home stereo speaker for the bass and force of the music and they had to blare it at full volume so that the people in the front of the bus could hear. We put up with it for about an hour before we just couldn’t stand it any more. I don’t think I can put the horror of this music into words. Lao music consists of the same cheesy beat and the same cheesy guitar chords and solos and some guy or woman moaning in a unendingly monotonous cacophony of shit. I don’t like using profanity in these posts, but I don’t think any other word is more suitable. It’s horrendous. It sounds like exactly the same song, over and over and the speaker is always blown out so that it makes that blown speaker noise the entire time. It cuts right down to the soul, and when you combine this with 10 hours of winding roads and dust, it can make one want to put his head through the window. Or cry. Most likely both.

During a break, I followed the cable to the speaker beneath the back seat and gave it a good tug. I think it could be the most satisfying thing I have ever in my life. Not only did I no longer want to put my head through the window (and cry), but I also received cheers from the back half of the bus. It was a great moment in Lao history.

We finally arrived though and after negotiating a price with the tuk tuk driver to town (lao bus stations are always conveniently placed 5k’s out of town so you have to take a tuk tuk from the station) we ended up in Huai Xai. I grabbed a shower and rinsed the inches of dirt from my body. While I waited for Zach, I watched the Hugh Hefner story on TV dubbed in Lao. I was amazed that they blurred out all bottles of alcohol and even Hugh Hefner smoking! When he put the pipe up to his mouth, his head became a blur. Gee…I wonder what he was doing. What an incredible length to go to for censorship when nearly everyone in this country smokes and drinks. I don’t get it.

So the next day, we ended up crossing the border to Thailand, which is where I am now.

But that is a whole other post in itself 🙂

Tubing down the river in style

Ok, ok, ok. So I haven’t been pushing myself so hard. Give me a break. I’ve been in Luang Prabang for several days now and really like it. What have I been doing? Well, I’ll summarize some of my adventures. I made a date with the German couple and some other people I had met on the trip to the waterfall (see last post) for the evening for checking out a pub. We split up after dinner and I never saw them again (I later realized that we never really said where we were going to meet!). No worries. The next day, I headed out on a mission to find out about how to make a call to the states at 2AM (when it’s 10AM back home). No one had any ideas. I found some payphones and eventually figured out that I had to go to the post office to get a card, but they helpfully informed me that they, “no have.”

“So, no one can use any payphones in the whole city?” I asked.
“No.”

Welcome to Laos.

So I eventually found out that upstairs I could buy a phone card that I could use from my hostel’s phone. I bought it and headed to the hostel to try to explain to them that I would need to wake them up at 2AM to make a phone call. It was pretty entertaining seeing as they don’t speak English. So anyways, I met an Australian girl and two American guys and we chatted for a while. I’ve got quite a few random stories and so I can usually entertain just about anyone for quite a while nowadays, “So, you studied Chinese in Bolivia, but the classes were in Spanish?!” and I ended up making friends with Holly and we spent the next few days together. She is a really cool and relaxed girl and we got along great. After walking around town, we saw a bunch of kids in the river tubing and playing and just having a great time.

“Let’s do that,” I suggested.

So we set out trying to figure out how to get a tube. They don’t rent them here, so we had to find some random kids and convince them to rent us theirs. $4 later, we had a small tube and a big tube and we were soooo tubing down this river, with hundreds of kids staring at us in disbelief. I think we were the first two foreigners ever to tube down the river. They waved at us and swam after us, and we decided to do it again the next day and convinced some other kids to rent us two big tubes the next day. That evening, we went out to the only cool pub in town and had a few beers and met some new people. The next day, we got a massage at the Lao Red Cross (we justified it by saying that the proceeds were going to charity) and then picked up our tubes at the prearranged meeting place and the 17 year old girl there (who looked about 12), gave us a ride in her bus a few kilometers up the river. To make a long story short, we had about 13 kids latch on to our tubes and float down the river with us. We had a flotilla of about 6 tubes in all and we floated for quite a while before heading up in a huge group back through the town and up the river. All the other tourists were staring at us because they were jealous that we had tubes and they didn’t. We actually spent several days explaining to random people that came up to us that we just paid some kids for the tubes and you couldn’t get them at any tourist office. We were (are) famous.

It’s pretty cool. There must be several hundred kids in this river at any given time. They have tubes, and bags filled with air and Styrofoam all doing back flips and throwing stuff and swimming and laughing in the river. There are monks floating by on boats, women and families bathing, little naked boys and girls running around. They just float down the river, then run back up river and do it again. It was cool to be a part of it.

We tried to go to the museum, but when we got there (the second attempt because the first attempt was thwarted by it being 4:30 when they closed at 4:00) and realized that they weren’t open on Tuesdays (of course not). We ate a bunch of deep fried bananas and had a few fruit shakes and then went to the waterfalls (the second time for me) and I got some killer photos and swam in the river, jumped off the top of a few waterfalls and swung off the swing into the water. It was great and loads of fun. Our tuktuk driver ended up stopping for another broken down tuktuk and they took apart the axle before leaving us all and heading back to the waterfall for spare parts so we just hitch hiked back to town.

That night, after having some incredible bbq’d fish at the night market, we all went to the pub again and chatted. Alex and I got into a heated discussion about US foreign policy and the Iraq war and it was fun. It was a bit of a challenge but I won (he in a nutshell said I was right and we changed the subject). It’s always kind of disappointing when I win a debate because I don’t learn anything. It’s kind of a let down, but hey that’s how it goes. Debate is certainly an art form though. I love it.

Today Holly and I bid our farewells and I spent the day on the computer and finished the DaVinci Code on my hammock that I set up on two trees by the river before it started raining, at which point I went to the coffee shop and bought a new book, “Don Quixote,” which is in old time Spain Spanish so it should be interesting.

Tomorrow I either head west or north. I’ll think about it for a little bit more and make my decision. It’s supposed to rain here in the north of Laos for the next week, so I might as well head to Thailand.

Decisions, decisions, eh?