Laos, Cambodia & Thailand 2007

Saturday, December 22, 2007

12 Hours in Bangkok

After traveling all morning, we arrived in Bangkok in the early afternoon. I left all of my heavily laden bags at the airport - I've never enjoyed the freedom of not having a bag more than today. I was carrying all of the sandstone in my daypack & bamboo bag. There was no longer room for my SLR in my daypack, so it was now strung around my neck. Ten minutes later, it was securely stored at Suvanabumi airport luggage storage.

It was nice to be back to a modern city, but at the same time all of the crowds were definitely not as serene as Laos or Cambodia. James got a room (since he was leaving a day later than me), and then we had lunch. Afterwards, we walked to the tailor to pick up the clothes that I had ordered 4 weeks earlier. We did a bit more shopping ('what the hell am I doing! My bags are already overstuffed!' I thought), had dinner, and went to a bar. However, it was the day before elections so no alcohol could be sold anywhere. Bangkok without was ironic. I can't imagine if the US tried to impose a similar regulation in Las Vegas...

I headed back to Take a Nap hostel to say hello to Air. I hung out there until almost 11:30, when I needed to grab a taxi back to the airport. My flights back to Seoul & Chicago were wonderfully uneventful, and the flight from Seoul --> Chicago had personal entertainment units in each economy seat! I had a Bloody Mary, watched a couple of movies, and drifted off to an Ambien sleep. I was looking forward to being home for Christmas, but I had strong hestitations about returning to the snow & ice.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Last day in Siem Reap

My goal for today was to do nothing. I was sick of temples, and I was one day away from the end of my holiday. I had a few must do items for the day: souvenir shopping, food, and a massage. I went to Artisans D'Angkor, which started as an internationally-supported non-profit organization & eventually made enough money to support itself. The site is a school where they take impoverished youth, teach them certain skills (such as carving, painting, and chiseling), and then provide jobs. The course length is 1 year in length, and the students learn how to carve wood, shape sandstone, and paint. There were a group of deaf and/or mute girls that were learning how to paint Angkor souvenirs while we visited. When I walked through their store, I was shocked by the prices, but impressed by the beauty of their work. I decided that cost wasn't as important, and that I would buy sandstone carvings from the school instead of the markets in town. $300 & 40 pounds later, I lugged my things back to the guesthouse.

In the middle of the afternoon, James & I were looking for something to do. He mentioned that he saw a sign for a casino, and wanted to go check it out. I obliged since I didn't have any better ideas, so we headed to the fanciest hotel in town. I had some personal reservations about going to the casino - I was on a backpacking trip and gambling with more money than people make in a week or month seemed preposterous. However, I went with James and had a good time. We taught me how to play roulette, and each wager was $.20 so even I could handle a bit of the gambling. I made $15 at the end of the day, and James was up $5. We met the Prime Minister's helicopter pilot, who was in the casino with a bunch of the government cronies.

After an hour massage & dinner, the day had come to a perfect close. Tomorrow I'd be headed back to Thailand.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ruins & Landmines

Buntay picked us up at 8am and we darted northeast towards Banteay Srei. Since this site is about 35km outside of town, I was expecting to see small crowds today. As soon as the first set of tour buses roared past the tuk tuk, I realized that I would need to change my expectations. When we finally pulled into the site, there were a lot of people here. The amount is very relative, because this was a small fraction compared to Angkor Wat or Bayon visitors.
My first impression of the site was another feeling of awe. The tops of the walls & doors were much more flamboyant; the stone top of the inner entrance whisked towards the sky like flames. The building was in pristine condition. When we were visiting, there was not any restoration happening, but the center of the temples had been roped off to restrict visitors from entering. I haven't done any research to determine if it had been restored at some point - it didn't look as though any stone had ever been moved after the temple was constructed. After seeing Banteay Srei, I added it to my list of top sites in Angkor Archaeological Park. For anyone going to visit, my top five favorites are:

1. Angkor Wat

2. Angkor Thom

3. Banteay Srei

4. Ta Prohm

5. Bakong

After we were finished at Banteay Srei, James & I decided that we didn't want to spend the remainder of the day visiting mediocre temples. On our way back from Banteay Srei, I asked Buntay to stop at the Landmine Museum. The museum is not gigantic, but it houses information on landmines & their effects on Cambodia. In addition, empty munitions rounds are housed in the museum with information about what country they were produced in.

The guy that runs the museum, Aki Ra, has one hell of a life story. He was pulled into the Khmer Rouge during the rein of Pol Pot from 1975 - 1979. The Khmer Rouge period was one of Cambodia's darkest hours: a quote from provides a succinct summary:

The Khmer Rouge is remembered mainly for the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million people (estimates range from 850,000 to 3 million) under its regime, through execution, starvation, and forced labor. Following their leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge imposed an extreme form of social engineering on Cambodian society—a radical form of agrarian communism where the whole population had to work in collective farms or forced labor projects.

Aki's job while in the Khmer Rouge was to plant landmines. After some period of time, he realized that he wanted to clean up a mistake that he participated in, so he began clearing landmines & started a museum to educate people. International funding also helps to run an orphanage for young kids who are victims of landmines. They teach the kids in a building adjacent to the museum and can often provide more than the children's families, in terms of both economic & physical aid. After a sobering tour through the museum, we climbed back in the tuk tuk and headed back to town. We ate lunch and then decided the rest of the day would best be spent visiting Siem Reap's museums. We had two to visit - the War Museum & Angkor National Museum.

The war museum was a collection of (mostly) US military equipment that had been left over from the Khmer Rouge period. They had a helicopter, airplane, several pieces of artillery, a tank, and plenty of guns, grenades, and landmines. The admission was $3, and a guide was included in the cost of the admission. The guy that was guiding us around was an old war veteran. Before we even started the tour, he made sure that we were aware of the suffering that he had endured in the past - two gunshots and several ball bearings as a result of a mine. While we were walking around, he was explaining what the items were and what they had been used for. Every 5 minutes, he would describe some more of his ailments, followed by "sorry friends, but these are my problems". After the 3rd time, I was starting to get really annoyed. I hadn't come to the museum to walk around with a beggar, as it was clear he was trying to get a donation. Sure enough, towards the end of the tour he pitched a wonderful story about losing some appendages if he couldn't have an operation in the next two weeks. When I looked at him, he was in decent health. There's no doubt that his war wounds probably caused him prolonged, acute pain each & everyday of his life. However, my heart wasn't bleeding that day so I passed up his offer to give him money.

We spent a few hours at the Angkor National Museum, which is absolutely worth the cost of $8. While we were exploring the ruins the previous days, there were always many statues, Buddha heads, and other large carvings removed from the ruins. In an effort to protect the ruins from looters, the government removed much of the work that could be carried off. I'm not sure how long it had been locked up for, but they finally completed the museum this fall. It's a very modern facility; so much so that it feels out of place in Siem Reap. After spending several days wandering around the ruins, the museum really helped to bind all of the things that we had seen. The different Khmer eras were laid out, followed by descriptions of the mixed Buddhist/Hindu religious pieces that make up every piece of the Angkor Archaeological Park. Not knowing much about Hinduism in the past, the gods were described and suddenly many of the bas-reliefs that we saw at Angkor Wat were explained.

On our way out of the museum, one of the women working in the museum gift shop asked where we were from. We proceeded to talk to her for at least 30 minutes about all sorts of things. She was saving money for university and was working two jobs - at the museum during the day and at a restaurant during the evenings. She worked six days per week at each job, allocated herself 4 hours of sleep per night, and spent about 16 hours working each day. After hearing about her strenuous schedule, I asked how much university cost per year. Her answer made my stomach drop - about $300US per year. This young woman was busting her ass for over a year so that she could get the money together to go to university. As I've seen in many other developing nations, she wanted to be a tour guide. It's a good paying job, and one of the jobs that is closest to the influx of tourist cash. I stopped by her restaurant that evening for dinner, as it was supposed to be one of the better restaurants in town. Regretfully, we didn't much time to talk and I never got her contact information. I've been thinking about it ever since, and I've pledged to myself that I will try to contact her again and provide some funding so that she can attend school.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Khmer Empire Day 2: Bakong, Sras Srang, Ta Prohm, and Pre Rup

We started the day with an hour ride to the Bakong complex, which is southeast of the main Angkor site. On the way, I decided that I needed to start a photo collection that showcases all of the items that people carry on their back of their motorbikes. Unfortunately, I should have started this long ago since I would have a lot more material. However, I thought even a few photos would make a good set. On our way back & forth to Bakong, we saw dead pigs, dead chickens, coconuts, 3 family members (for a total of 4/motorbike), logs, and misc. crops.

We pulled up to what we thought was Bakong - at first glance it didn't look like much of a site. There were 5 towers that were in various amounts of disarray. As usual, there was a crew of people working on restoration. While I was walking around, I was starting to regret not hiring a guide to talk about everything that we were seeing. It was too late for that today, as we had already left the city. We jumped back into the chariot when we were finished looking around; both James & I weren't very impressed by this site. We had several recommendations that it was a great place to visit, and we started to wonder the criteria using to define a 'great' temple.

When we were leaving the site, we didn't go back to town. A few minutes later, Buntay announces that we are arriving at Bakong. James & I looked at each other and laughed - our disappointment was wrong since the first temple wasn't Bakong. As we approached Bakong on foot, this was a much more impressive temple. A moat surrounds the compound, and there are several large outer buildings that surround the main site. The main structure has stone elephants on each of its tiers; looking out at the corners of the square temple. Due to environmental wear on the stone, all of the elephants had lost their trunks and also their tails. This appeared to be a working temple, as monks had living quarters adjacent to the temple's outer walls.

After Bakong, it took us about an hour to return to the main Angkor Wat area. We visited stopped for lunch before heading onto Ta Prohm, which is where we spent most of the afternoon. The ruins were just as splendid as the other temples, and the site had more of an ancient feeling to it. Huge banyan trees grew on top of the walls, and around the corners of buildings. There were many sections of the outer walls that had fallen down - maybe they'll be restoring those walls in 10 years...

Sras Srang is a gigantic square lake. When I first approached it, I was disappointed. There were no gigantic stone towers or meters of intricate sandstone carvings. At the entrance, there were a few hydras that had been well-weathered. As I stood there trying to search for a better grasp on the site, I imagined one million people using this as a bath. Suddenly the site didn't seem nearly large enough to accommodate that many people. Another thing I noticed was that there were 4 sections of stone steps that led down into the water. My description will not do it justice, but just transporting/laying the stones would have taken a crew of 10 people probably over 1 year to complete.

We headed over to Pre Rup to catch the sunset. We arrived at 4pm and were done exploring the site within an hour. James didn't feel like sitting around for another hour to watch the sunset, but I can recommend the site as a nice place to watch the sun plummet back to Earth.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

In Awe: Angkor Thom & Angkor Wat

Last night we found a tuk tuk driver, Buntay, who agreed to drive both of us around for $12/day - a savings of 50% over our motorbike taxi drivers! We arranged for Buntay to pick us up at 8:30a the next morning. After breakfast, our first task was to dismiss the motorbike taxi drivers. They were early - they were waiting for us when we returned from breakfast. I had to tell them about our new driver, and that we wouldn't be needing their services. I felt bad about making them come to the guesthouse in the morning, expecting to make some money for a day's worth of driving. However, I didn't have either of their mobile numbers so there was no way that I could contact them. I told them that we had a different driver who was half the cost of their services, and that we would not be going with them today. I apologized for making them come to the guesthouse, since I didn't have a way to contact them. Neither of them said anything - my driver was shaking his head, explaining (in Khmer) what I had just said to his friend.

After walking away from them, we had to move to another guesthouse. The Red Piano didn't have any vacancies, so we moved to Bun Seda Angkor Villa, which was one block east. Buntay was also punctual, so we climb in the back of the tuk tuk and set off. The tuk tuk was different from Thailand & Laos though - James & I thought of it as more of a chariot. It was a two-wheeled cart with a roof that was pulled behind Buntay's motorbike. It was a great way to travel, and it kept the sun from roasting us as we moved from one place to the next.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is very dispersed; I don't have the exact figures, but I think there are ruins within a 60 sq. km radius. Neither James nor I had a good understanding of just how large the park or the ruins were.

As we headed for the park, we needed to stop at the ticket booth and purchase a 3-day pass. The pass cost us $40US, which may be the most expensive thing that I purchased all trip. However, every dollar was well worth it. The ruins themselves are inspiring, and there is an indescribable amount of restoration work happening at each one of the temples. I had heard that Angkor Wat was one of the largest tourist attractions in Asia, and that assessment was exact. As we drove toward the park entrance, bus horns blared as the bus loads of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese tourists swerved around us. The environment here was much different from Laos, but the ruins are so impressive that the hordes of tourists didn't detract from our experience.

Our first day would be spent exploring to temples - Angkor Thom was first, and then we'd visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon and watch the sunset from its lawns. Angkor Thom contained the famous faces of Cambodia - all of these sculpted faces are part of the Bayon group, which was our first stop. As we approached the site, it started to tower above us. As I got closer to the stone, my eyes diverted from the entire site and focused on some of the walls & stone columns. Each one had figures, pictures, or script carved into the sandstone. As I began to wander through the site, I realized that every wall was covered with some type of carving - there were no 'flat' stones except for on the ground. The Bayon was being restored by a project team from Japan - they had been working for years on the restoration, and had most recently completed the library.

The process was painstakingly detailed. The archaeologists would take photos, draw each stone, and label it before dismantling a wall. After they had exact photos & blueprints of the walls (including the carvings on the faces of the stone), they would begin the work of removing the outer layer. There was another layer beneath the sandstone which provided additional support. This layer was also photographed, blueprinted, and labeled. After this was done, some of the repair work could start. There were rules about how many 'new' stones can be put into the ruins. The 'new' stones can never outnumber the originals, and have to be made from the same type of sandstone. Many of the temples were built on sand, so there had been some shifting over time. In the past, previous teams had tried to restore some of the temples using crude techniques with steel bars and/or concrete. The irony is that these techniques destroyed the original integrity of the stones - the concrete didn't resemble the original carvings in any way, and the stones held together with metal rods had to be drilled. The new accepted method (supported by the government and archaeologists) is to only use the same type of materials, and to remove any 'preventative measures' that had been applied to the temples in the past.

For the number of tourists who were at the Bayon, there were still places in the complex that didn't have anyone. The tour groups (which made up the majority of the people) made a beeline through the complex, which probably explained why there were not people in the lower levels. The faces that make up the upper levels of the temple have hard-to-describe faces; the faces are very peaceful, and they have the slightest resemblance of a smile. We spent about 2.5 hours wandering around the temple, and we took a ton of photos. We stopped for a bit of fresh pineapple & water before moving onwards to the other temples. We spent some more time in & around Angkor Thom, which contains several other temples (although the Bayon faces are one of my favorites). As we walked further away from the Bayon, the crowds started to dissipate.

Buntay took us to lunch after a hard morning of temple exploring; we had lunch across the road from Angkor Wat. This was a huge mistake - it's the worst food that I had during my entire trip. And the worst part is that I paid $4.50 for a plate of fried rice. I was shocked at the Cambodia prices after being able to get a plate of more flavorful fried rice for $1 in Laos. I realize that this is all little money to us Americans, but I get used to certain prices when I travel. This occurs when I leave a really inexpensive country to go to a more expensive one - I find myself looking for cheaper food, even if it takes a bit of extra time. Then I need to stop myself and realize that it's only a few dollars, and the time that I'll waste searching for something else is more valuable than $2 or $3.
Angkor Wat lives up to its reputation - the complex is enormous. I found myself being humbled before even reaching the main complex. The moat & walkway to the temple are so large that I felt small when I saw it from a distance. I assume this is exactly what the architects of the 12th century had intended. Before I forget - this temple is still standing after 900 years. The majority of it is intact, although some of the reliefs & carvings have begun to wear due to hundreds of years of exposure to the elements. There has always been a lot of restoration, but it's difficult to notice after the sandstone discolors.

The most impressive part of Angkor Wat was the bas-reliefs that lined the four outer walls of the main temple. They depicted several different items; one was a tribute to King Suryavaram II, who was the builder & ruler of the Champa empire when Angkor Wat was built. Another depicted the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which led to the beginning of the universe. A serpent by the name of Vasuki winds himself around Mount Mandara, and agrees to act as the implement to churn the milk. There wasn't a fulcrum, so Vishnu turned himself into a sea turtle and acted as the fulcrum to Mount Mandara. The bas-relief depicts gods grasping one end of the snake and demons holding the other end of the snake, trying to churn the Sea of Milk. The myth must be true, since I'm sitting here in front of my computer on Earth, location: universe. (If I have my Hindu mythology wrong, please leave a comment so that I can correct this information.) We stayed until sunset to watch the sunlight fade from the western face of Angkor Wat. A few hundred other people had the same idea, as there were people all over the approach & front lawns outside of the temple.

I was determined to get back onto a massage-a-day schedule, so I walked around for 15 minutes until I found one that looked suitable. The cost was $5 for an hour body massage - I REALLY wish these were available at home for the same price. The massages were always an event in cross-cultural communication. After tonight's massage, I was having a conversation with the only woman who could speak a bit of English. All of the sudden there was a stinging sensation coming from my left arm. When I looked over, one of the girls was pulling my arm hair - I have no idea why pull I politely motioned for her to stop. After the massage, we moved onto food & drinks in the Psar Chaa area of Siem Reap.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Next stop: Siem Reap, Cambodia

As soon as I opened my eyes, I knew that I was feeling better. All of my stomach aching had passed, which I was thankful for as I needed to catch two flights before I would be in Siem Reap. After breakfast, we headed over to the airport with our bags much more full than when we had arrived in Laos. Maybe Ibought too many handicrafts, t-shirts, and wooden carvings... The security at the Luang Prabang airport consisted of one x-ray machine at the entrance to the building. After we entered into the building, it no longer mattered if we were checking our bag with liquids or if we were carrying it on the plane. James was carrying 3 machetes that he purchased for his brothers & himself; no one would have known if he carried those onto the flight.

We had two legs of the flight; we would make one stop in Pakse prior to heading onward to Siem Reap. The flights were thankfully uneventful, and when we touched down in Cambodia, I knew we were back in a well-traveled area. The Siem Reap airport was fairly new, with large wooden columns to help support all of the stone. The floors were polished marble, and there was even art. A plethora of cameras & security systems tracked incoming visitors - it was quite different from the Luang Prabang airport.

We picked up motorbike taxis into town for $1; which I was extremely surprised about considering how modern this place was. Our first pick for a guesthouse was at the Red Piano, which had received good reviews from several travelers on and related travel sites. Our luck could not have been better - they had a room, albeit only for one night. We didn't have to slog around the city looking for a place to stay. Our taxi drivers wanted to discuss being our drivers for our three day trip to the Angkor Archeaological Park. We came back to discuss costs after checking in; my driver wanted $50 for 3 days of carting me around to the ruins. After I scoffed at the cost, I told him that I didn't want to pay more than $10 per day, and we eventually settled on $12 for the main temples on Day 1. James & I were intent on finding better costs, but this is as good as we could do within 15 minutes of arrival. We agreed to meet them at the guesthouse the next morning at 8am.

We headed out to wander around the city to try to get our bearings. The heat seemed oppressive, since we had just came from Laos. In reality, it was probably only about 90F during the day, but the humidity made it seem much warmer. We found a place to eat some lunch, and then we continued to wander around for a while. For the remainder of the day, we planned for our visit to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, using recommendations that we found online. Here's what we came up with after much discussion:

Day 1: Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat

Day 2: Bakong, Banteay Kdei, Sras Srang, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup

Day 3: Banteay Srei - we thought also about visiting Ta Keo, East Mebon, and Ta Som

See the following link for some information about the Angkor Archaeological Park - I didn't know too much about it before I visited, and I had absolutely no clue the colossal & intricate the ruins are.

At dinner, we got back into the swing of a modern city. With dinner, we weren't drinking rice whiskey that had been fermented in a 30 gallon plastic barrel in a farmer's field - we had a few $1.75 cocktails!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Laying low in Luang Prabang

I woke up at 7:30a, feeling slightly better. I dared not venture too far from the guest house today, but we needed to check out and switch places. We ended up going back to Silichith; and we had the same room. I worked up the courage late in the afternoon to go with James to Phousi market in search of machetes and bamboo holders. We strategically made our way over there, stopping at cafes to have a drink and use their toilet. I ate some food in the early afternoon, and I was able to keep it down so I knew the medication was working. We had to fly to Siem Reap the next morning, and I didn't want to travel being ill on a plane that didn't have a toilet.

I spent the remainder of the day not doing too much. I went to buy souvenirs before we had dinner, as I knew this would be one of the last places to buy some Beer Lao paraphernalia. I had some dinner & then went to sleep.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Return to Luang Prabang

The Luang Nam Tha bus station was crowded. We piled onto the bus, along with 40 other people about an hour after it was supposed to originally leave. As we started our journey southward, the passengers that we picked up along the way sat in the aisle on small plastic chairs. There was a guy at the front of the bus that was sick, so every 30 minutes I'd hear him vomiting out the window as the bus cruised up & down the switchbacks. I felt really bad for the guy - a local bus in the middle of Laos has to be a bad place to be sick. All of the bouncing, swerving back & forth, and the sudden breaking must be stomach-wrenching.

An hour into the journey, the bus suddenly started making a really loud exhaust-type of sound. The driver pulled the bus over, and opened the engine to inspect it. He ended up pulling off the head, and finding a snapped rod on the inside of the engine. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but it was sheared in two pieces. Luckily, we had broke down near a place with a welder. After 45 minutes of screwing around with the electricity, the welder was powered up. There was more work put into the reconstruction of the metal rod. It needed to be straight & smooth enough to fit inside the engine, and strong enough to carry us back to Luang Prabang. After a total of two hours, we were back on the road again. As we continued to pick up more people who had to stand in the stairwell at the front of the bus, I wondered if we would stop picking up more passengers. Nope - we picked up anyone who was looking for a ride.

We stopped for lunch in Udomxai around 3:30p, where we had noodle soup and a chance to stretch our legs. We still had about 5 or 6 hours before we would arrive in Luang Prabang. I read The Reindeer People during the remainder of daylight, and then I had to resort to staring out the window once night fell. We finally arrived in Luang Prabang around 9:15, and James and I wandered around trying to find a guest house, which is fairly difficult at that time of time. We settled on an expensive one - $40/night. I tried to find some food, but we had arrived too late and everything was closed. We went out for a drink at Hive, but I wasn't feeling really well so I went back to the guest house.

About an hour later, I was vomiting & had the worst diarrhea of my life. It lasted all night; luckily James had some medication left from his trip to the hospital, so I took it and tried to keep it in my stomach as long as I could. I finally was able to fall asleep around 4am.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 7

The next morning was a slow one, for obvious alcohol-induced reasons. Pon had a bad hangover, and our hosts were also stirring about a bit slowly. We left camp late - sometime around 10am, but we weren't worried because today was a short and easy day of hiking. We followed the Nam Ha river all day long, so we had the relaxing sound of running water beside us all day.

We had a quick lunch before setting across the Nam Ha on a bamboo raft. Once we reached the other side, we had about another 1.5 hours until we reached a village where a tuk tuk would be waiting for us. Today was fairly uneventful; I think that all of us were tired from all of the trekking and sleeping in huts, so we weren't that talkative. It wasn't easy to find new topics to discuss, since we had been spending every waking moment with one another. I had a quick thought of how nice home would be when I got back...solitude, music, and hot water.

It took us about an hour to get back to Luang Nam Tha. I asked Pon to drop us off at the Boat Landing so that we could take a shower, before we came to the office to fill out a feedback form. The solar-heated water was wonderfully hot - I felt 100% clean for the first time in a week. We headed to Green Discovery to fill out the surveys, and then walked around town for a while. The town is extremely small and relatively quiet. We found a place to eat Western food (Banana Cafe), as James was getting really sick of rice. He had a chicken sandwich and I had some fried rice, which I hadn't eaten in over a week. Afterwards, we wandered into the night market (still really small and really cool - the locals outnumbered the 25 tourists). We went out for a beer to pass some time, and by the time we finished and tried to find a tuk tuk back to the Boat Landing, then town had basically shutdown. I looked at my watch - 8pm. Green Discovery found a driver for us, but we paid the extortionate rate of $5US to get back to the Boat Landing. Although the Boat Landing is a great guest house, I'm not sure if I'd stay there in the future since it's so far from the center of the new town.

However, I was looking forward to the ultra-comfortableness of a normal bed...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 6

No hot coffee today - only hot water. Luckily, the baguettes had run out. I had also voiced a strong concern to Pon over having baguettes for breakfast again. It went something like 'bread bad - not healthy like eggs'. Our hosts made a delicious breakfast; we had sticky rice, chili paste, omelet (eggs & onion), and some pork. They even upped the ante with one apple that had been cut into slices!

After breakfast, I ate half of a protein bar. Over the last 3 days, I've been feeling very lethargic, and I'm absolutely positive that 8 - 10 hours of sleep per night is enough to recharge my body. I decided that my protein levels had been inadequate, and that my only source of carbohydrates were simple; either from a vegetable or rice. (That might explain why I was eating so much food...there may have not been enough calories to keep my metabolism content.) After eating the protein bar, I instantly felt better. Like I had some energy. Thanks for the supply of protein bars James - I left mine at The Boat Landing Guesthouse in an effort to minimize the weight of my pack.

Today's trek was relatively easy; the morning consisted of a hard climb up & down a mountain, but the afternoon was fairly flat and easy. Immediately after lunch, we had the unfortunate luck of seeing a live snake. Pon was ahead of me, and he shrieked. I looked up to catch the back end of a snake slivering across the dirt path. Pon was tapping his chest with like hand, willing his heart to begin beating again. The snake wasn't all that large, but it doesn't have to be huge to be dangerous. I laughed at Pon's fright; two days earlier he had been trying to scare me by yelling 'snake!!!'. At the time, I didn't realize that he may have been as scared as I am of snakes.

We picked up our Lantan guide along the trail; he would walk back to the Lantan village with us during the course of the afternoon. About an hour into our trek, we came upon a house with about 10 people outside of it, eating lunch. Our guide knew these people (several were from his village), so we sat down. The men decided that the Americans needed to try cha, which was the Lantan equivalent of beer. It was made in a large ceramic container that contained fermenting rice that sat in the sun for two weeks. The top of the container had 4 pieces of plastic tubing coming out of it, and it was filled to the brim with water. The 'rule' was that 4 people would drink at once. Someone would refill the top of the container with water, which I believe percolated to the bottom of the container to dilute the booze. The drink actually tasted decent; a bit like beer and it was a bit sweet - it was a great change after drinking the toxic lao lao for almost a week. We appeased them by drinking 4 cups among 4 people, but they wouldn't let us leave, because each person had to do two rounds. James and I told them that we were finished, but it was obvious that we were not leaving until another 3 cups of cha were drunk by Pon, James, and myself. While we were on the second round, I learned that the eldest man had served in the French army when Laos was still a French colony. At one time, he knew French. I said a few basic things to him, but he didn't remember enough French to reply.

As we left, I was cursing ourselves for stopping in the first place. I was now trekking with a decent buzz; I'm a firm believer of separating alcohol and exercise. Luckily, we only had about 30 minutes before we would arrive at the Lantan village. When we arrive, the local handicrafts were brought out. Today, it was an assortment of small bags that were embroidered. I bought a couple of them, thinking that they would be good presents for Kristin & Katie, as I usually buy something for them on each of my vacations.

I desperately wanted to take a bath, but since we stopped for over an hour at the house along the path, the sun was now setting. I mustered up some courage to go down to the river. The water was freezing, but I managed to wash myself before losing all of my body heat. I air-dryed for a while before putting some clothes back on.

Since tonight was the last night, and Pon's friend was teaching in the village he wanted to get wasted. James and I weren't really feeling it, so we avoided the insults after our dinner of duck, duck blood soup, rice, and pumpkin soup. This was the worst meal that I had all week - I'm guessing it's because Pon was adamant about having his favorite dish, so the efforts went into the duck/duck blood soup combo. As I laid down on my mat, Pon pleaded with us to drink for several minutes. At some point in time, I fell asleep, only to wake up to Pon pleading us not to tell his manager. As I assured him not to worry (I didn't care...he was having fun w/ his buddies), all I wanted to do was go back to sleep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 5

This morning started off well, but I became really annoyed within 30 minutes. The same children that were hanging around last night, came to visit us again this morning. They were just screwing around with the fire & each other most of the time while James & I sat around the fire. The kids didn't do anything directly to make me upset, but I just stopped talking (which is what I do when I'm angry). James asked me what my issue was, and I couldn't explain it right away.

As I thought about it more, I realized that I was upset at the children and the villagers. This village is one of the few that are partially supported by tourism dollars. The adults & village elders didn't make a point of ensuring that the children were in school. All I saw was a huge opportunity being wasted - they were gifted with tourists a couple times a week. Not that the tourists do good things for the community, but their dollars help the village purchase items that westerners think of as basic needs (such as clothing, food, etc.). All I saw was these damn kids thinking that we were more fun than school. I think the thing that put me over the top was that several adults had walked by or stopped by our hut. They saw that the children weren't in school, but no one instructed them to go. The teacher didn't come to re-enforce that they should be in the classroom. One of the kids pulled out a pen & a flashlight - I can only assume that they received it from a tourist at some point in time. Putting myself in the kids' position, I can see how cool gifts from foreigners is much better than sitting in class and doing something that isn't fun.

This morning was had another mediocre breakfast - a damp baguette with sweetened condensed milk. I ate about half of it; I couldn't force myself to continue eating it. I reminded myself that I had been eating for two people all week, and that a small breakfast was probably a good thing for my stomach.
My feet were tore up today - I had two places where skin was starting to wear away, another place that had a blister, and several places that had red wear marks. I covered all of the spots in large swatches of moleskin, hoping that it would keep my feet from becoming any worse. My feet weren't in a lot of pain on flat ground, but the straps on my sandals dug into my feet as we were trekking down steep hillsides.

My mood improved after we left for the morning; it was an 'out of sight, out of mind' sort of thing. I tried not to think about it after we left, as there wasn't anything that I could do. When I brought it up to Pon, he gave an indolent response.

Day 5 was to be another hard slog up & down the mountainsides. I welcomed the exertion though, mostly because James and I had become somewhat slothful. We were walking many hours each day of our trip, but we lacked cardiovascular exercise. After 5 days of hiking through this national park, I understood why it had become protected. The landscape was beautiful; rivers ran along each valley floor, birds lived throughout the tree tops, and there were a lot of different plant species. I wish that I could have seen more animals, but it's difficult to see animals in the wild at any place on Earth that I've visited before. We (humans) make a lot of noise, and the animals are alert to our presence long before we come within seeing distance of them.

After lunch, we stopped for a break. Pon pointed out some thick tree vines that we could climb. Having talked about climbing vines earlier in the week, James and I both jumped on separate vines. James easily surpassed me - he had climbed to nearly 15 meters while I stopped somewhere around 3 meters. Pon took some photos, and then we continued onwards.

We reached camp at a reasonable hour - we stayed with a former village chief & his wife. His children had been lucky enough to go to secondary school, so the house was pretty quiet. This village was fairly modern; everyone had solar panels which provided enough power for a few light bulbs, and an occasional radio. The chief and his wife made a wonderful meal for us; there was bamboo salad (made from the core of young bamboo plants), fish (not sure if it was tasty - ask James), sticky rice, chili paste, and ginger green beans. They even had a lime cut up and placed in the water bowl where we washed our hands. The exquisiteness of washing our hands in lime-laced water it seemed very out of felt like something that would happen at a 5 star hotel. Regardless, my hands were zesty fresh for a few seconds after washing them.

After dinner, we sat around talking. The chief gave us some berries (that Pon assured me were good to combat hangovers) - it was probably the most curious food that I ate all holiday. The fruit was about the size of a blueberry, green like a granny smith apple, and as hard as an uncooked potato. There was a seed in the center, that you had to gnaw around. The berry was extremely sour - more sour than a lemon...until you drank water. There was some sort of chemical reaction with the water - it produced a smooth, sweet taste in my mouth. I was flummoxed by the fruit - I had never had anything like it. I ate another one, puckering the entire time I was eating the flesh. Afterwards, I had a sip of water, and instantly the inside of my mouth turned sweet. I wish the fruit had an English name, because I don't remember what the Lao name was...

Afterward, the chief also served us pickled tea leaves. I took a leaf, put a hunk of ginger in the center, sprinkled the ginger with salt, rolled up the leaf and chewed it. Pon mentioned that you could chew the same leaf for hours if you wanted to, but he warned against doing so because of the caffeine. I wanted to sleep tonight, so I swallowed it after a few minutes of chewing on it. The leaf had a slightly sour taste (from whatever is used to pickle it), but the salt and ginger made the tea leaf savory. It was a nice flavor that I hadn't had before.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 4

I woke up today feeling reasonably well, considering all of the rice whiskey we consumed last night. After several ounces of water, I was feeling even better. We muddled around the village for awhile, but we didn't have too long to wait until breakfast. Last night, Pon had called Green Discovery and asked them to drop off some more food supplies. I think he told them that we were getting sick of eggs & omelets in the morning (which is the opposite of how I really felt), because a guy showed up with baguettes, sweetened condensed milk, and apples. When I asked Pon about this later, I realized that he must have been fiending for something sweet. So with a hungry stomach (but not a hungry appetite), I ate the baguette & the apple. These were to become our worst meals during the trek. The guy from Green Discovery had brought several of eat, so we were assured of a bad breakfast on day 5.

Uncle Mai & the chief's granddaughters showed up at our bamboo house for breakfast, and to also bid us farewell. I wished that we didn't have to move on today - I would have liked to spend an additional day in the village. The village is actually part of a program from the Laos Tourism Authority. They are the only other people (besides Green Discovery) who have permission to run trek within the Nam Ha Protected Area. After we left, I found myself hoping that we would visit more of the Laos Tourism-supported villages than the Green Discovery villages. When I asked Pon about tonight's logistics, he informed me that we were staying at a village that only hosts Green Discovery guests.

Today was a long day of trekking. We had a lot of ascents & descents; constantly walking up mountains only to walk down into their valleys. My feet were beginning to show wear. I was worried about this from the onset of the trip, as the last time I was in Vietnam and wearing my Chaco sandals, my feet developed blisters in a few areas. I wasn't too concerned yet; my feet only hurt a bit and I had packed plenty of moleskin for these situations. The scenery was beautiful today; we would start on the valley floor, which was covered by a tree canopy and surrounded with jungle types of plants. The valleys would have a cool breeze running through them, probably caused by the temperature difference between the bottom and top of the mountain. As we ascended, the plants would turn from wet, green leafy plants into more and more trees. We passed through several bamboo forests, until we were near the top of the mountain and the flora turned into deciduous trees. We repeated this over & over again, until I was at the point where I actually yearned for lunch.

I consumed enough food for two people at lunch. Since James got sick in Luang Prabang, his appetite was about as big as a toddler's. Mine, however, made up for his lack of eating. We always joked that I was eating James' share of the food. After lunch, we mustered our energy to set out again; knowing that the afternoon would be no less brutal than the morning. As we panted up the hills, I heard more & more gunfire. I remember one hunter was hunting near to our lunch spot. As we got closer to him, I could feel the shots getting louder. At some point, we must have passed his hiding spot, as the decreasing volume of his gunfire put me more at ease. I really didn't want to catch a stray bullet on my eco-friendly, nature preserve trek - that would have been laden with irony.

We arrived at our bamboo long house around 4:30, and were welcomed by 20 children yelling 'sa-ba-dee' (hello) at us. It's funny - the children use this word to get the foreigners attention, as they know it's the only word that all tourists know. I found the children cute at first - I was taking photos of them and they were entralled to see themselves on the LCD screen. I used the zoom feature to zoom in on a child's face - he must have been about 3 or 4 years old. He started roaring with laughter as I zoomed into his eyes & nose. The other kids also busted up laughing. I did this with a few of the other kids, and they would turn away from the group momentarily (maybe in embarrassment) when I made the small parts of their face take up the entire LCD screen on my camera.

Pon had mentioned that we would be getting traditional Akha massages after dinner. After all of the massage in Luang Prabang, I was excited but I also knew that the quality may not be great. We ate dinner - (more sticky rice, chili paste, and pumpkin soup) and followed it by another bottle of rice whiskey. All of us were tired, so we laid on our straw mats while we waited for the village masseuses. Three young girls (maybe 18 - 22) showed up, dressed in traditional Akha clothes. I thought that it was great, even if it was only for show. All of us stretched out in anticipation for the massage, not being able to communicate. Even Pon, who doesn't know much Akha, couldn't communicate with them. I had a mediocre massage (it was better than nothing), but the whole experience was definitely ... an experience. The girls were all chewing betel nut, so every 10 seconds, the women giving me a massage would stop, lean over, and stop betel nut juice on the ground. She was also slurping (like she had too much juice in her mouth) and all I could think of was 'please don't drip that shit on me'. After about 10 minutes, she spit out the entire wad of betel nut, which made me feel better.

They finished up the massages, and then posed for some photos. James' camera was a huge hit - the red-eye feature on my camera blinks like 6 times before it takes a photo, and they weren't feeling it. The good news is that the one photo I did take turned out well. After everyone left, all three of us crashed until the next morning.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 3

After waking up, I sat around for awhile by the fire to kept warm until breakfast was ready. This was the only night where we were not located close to a river, so there wasn't an option to wash my face in the morning. In some regards, I didn't regret it because it was the one morning when I didn't have to splash ice cold water on my face, causing a pseudo-ice cream headache. However, I wasn't clean (which is as annoying). Our meal this morning consisted of steamed rice (the Akha people traditionally do not eat sticky rice), an omelet (eggs & onion), and some chili paste. Pon had picked up some instant coffee at the market before we left Luang Nam Tha, so having a cuppa every morning in the cold was a luxury. (The instant coffee was Nescafe; even in the northern reaches of Laos, Nestle has customers!) Since James doesn't like coffee, he was served hot water each morning (tasty!).

After breakfast, our Akha guide took us on a little bird watching trek. I brought my camera along, figuring that if I didn't bring it I would see something cool. Well...I was right. I brought my camera and I didn't see anything. Our guide was calling birds for over an hour as we walked through the forest, but to no avail. The best sighting was a squirrel! We heard birds all around us, but none of them were close enough to see. The reason for this is the trees in Laos are at least twice as tall as the trees back home. I'm not sure if it's the species, or if it's attributed to Laos year long growing season. Regardless of what it was, if the bird was in the canopy, there is no way that you could see it well without binoculars.

When we got back to camp, Pon had cooked us lunch for the day (hard-boiled egg, rice, chili paste, and the 'empty heart' vegetable. We packed our bags and set out for the day. Today was another moderate day of trekking - we walked for about 5 hours in total, but it was fairly flat. We ate lunch at another Khmu village, in the village chief's hut. It was one of the best lunches of our trip. We had plenty of food that we shared with the chief & his friends, and in turn they shared their omelet (eggs & onion again) & rice whiskey with us. We were careful not to have more than a shot, since we had another couple of hours to walk in the afternoon. The chief was very gracious during our short stay, so I dropped off one of the books I had purchased in Luang Prabang, hoping that they could put it to use in the local school. James also left some paper & pens for them.

As we bid everyone farewell, we came across some women planting rice. James snapped a few photos, since this was new to him. Looking back on the trip, this is the first time that we've seen someone planting rice during the dry season. They were irrigating the rice fields using a bamboo pole to divert some water to the field. As the field became filled with water, the water naturally ran back down to the field. We passed through several Black Thai & Red Thai villages on our way to evening camp. We were walking along a dirt road after lunch, and Pon had pointed out snake tracks. It was apparent where the snake had slithered across the road; there was a narrow 'S'-shaped line from one side to the next. I was counting my blessings that I hadn't been there for the snake crossing. I have a phobia of snakes - I absolutely hate them. They make my skin crawl. You may wonder why the hell I'm going to a place in the world that is known to have a plethora of snakes - I'm not going to let my fear of snakes stop by, but I do occasionally think about where those scaly demons are hiding.

We arrived at a Black Thai/Red Thai/Lao village around 3pm. This was one of the earliest days of our trek thus far, but I was thankful for it. The sun was still out, so after lounging around for 15 minutes, I decided it was time to take a bath. I picked a great time, because when we got to the river there were about 6 ladies also bathing. (Most women bath in their sarongs, while the men usually bath in a pair of underwear.) James & I were definitely the objects of attention. I heard giggles as we stripped down to our underwear and waded into the center of the river. While I was washing my hair, I turned around to see 5 women staring at this hairy, half-naked white guy. No one was pretending not to look...I felt uncomfortable for a few seconds before I realized that I had everyone captivated. Although I couldn't communicate with anyone, I could do something funny to make them laugh. I've found that when I can't communicate, one universal medium is a smile or laughter. It puts people at ease, and is a good way to check out people without just staring at them.

After my bath, it was time to wash my t-shirt, which had become salt-stained from sweat. I was determined to make use of all of our sun time today... After I took a bath, the ladies of the village had laid out their silk scarves on a bamboo fence. Pon had mentioned that if we were interested in buying them to go look, but that there was no pressure to purchase anything. I do have to say that the buying experience was very pleasant. I didn't have ten other people yelling at me, saying 'mister, you buy 1' or 'mister, you buy now'. I bought a couple of scarves for my female family & friends at home.

We met 'Uncle Mai', who was one of the village elders. The chief was supposed to come visit us, but he must have been busy that day. We did meet his granddaughters, who ended up cooking dinner & breakfast for us. Pon informed us that tonight we would have a special meal of duck & duck blood soup. He really knew how to get a vegetarian salivating... At some point in time, dinner came. Uncle Mai and both granddaughters came to our bamboo hut. Someone brought a bottle of lao lao (which was a nightly occurrence). The granddaughters served as our food, and sat a bit away from the mat where the food was laid; waiting for us to eat before they ate. I had to insist that they join us (for several minutes) before they actually came to sit with us. The custom in Laos is that the women will serve the meal, wait for the men/guests to eat, before they have the opportunity to eat. I think that's absolute shit, and I thought about what would happen if we brought the chief's granddaughters to America - they probably wouldn't know what to do with all of the freedom... Another custom that I learned about was that the women usually do not drink with the men. I was also convinced that I needed to change the system. Via Pon's translating, I asked them to join us for both food & drink as this was the custom of my country. It took some convincing, but they finally joined in the eating & drinking. After dinner, the bottle of rice whiskey continued to be passed around.

At some point after dinner, we received another visitor. This 17 year old student wanted some help with her homework, as she had an English exam the next morning. She had about 6 words that were scrambled; the object of the exercise was to make the words into a meaningful sentence. Soon after we started going through her homework, I realized the state of her English teachings. She was very good at the alphabet & pronouncing some easier words, but she had very low comprehension when it came to understanding what the words meant. She was supposed to put together sentences that used a past tense verb, but it seemed like she hadn't learned past tense yet. While I was helping her, the local cop came to join us and (of course) brought another bottle of rice whiskey. By this time, we had all had about 8 shots and everyone was getting buzzed/drunk. Mon (the student) also had a couple of shots, urged on by Uncle Mai. It seemed like she was there for about 15 minutes, but I guess it was about 1.5 hours. After we finished with her homework, all of the sudden the booze hit me. I glanced at the 2nd bottle and it was almost finished...and I was wasted! I remember laying on the floor on my back and telling Pon to give me his guitar. I played the guitar for awhile, and at some point I rolled under the mosquito net to go to sleep.

Now that I look back on the day, this village was the best one of the entire trip. The people were the nicest & the most fun. Even if we hadn't drank as much, I'm certain that I would have had a great time. James agreed so I knew that my opinion wasn't entirely formed under the fog of lao lao.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 2

When I finally pulled myself out from under the mosquito net, I had been laying there for 12 hours. This isn't because I was tired, but more so as a result of not having anything to do at night besides go to sleep. One thing that I have noticed now that I'm forced to sleep so long: I can remember more of my dreams! At home, I never remember my dreams. After I started to think about it, I think that I need to make myself go to sleep earlier at home. I would consider dreaming to be normal, and the abnormality of not having dreams may have to do with the lack of sleep or work-related stress at home. Once I return home, I'm going to try to sleep more each night as I think a prolonged period of little sleep destroys my dreams, but also has a toll on my body that might not be readily apparent.

After a lazy breakfast of eggs, rice, cabbage, and chili paste we packed our bags and set off for the day. Our trek was fairly easy today - about 5.5 hours over gently rolling terrain. Pon kept assuring us that we would face more difficult days - James & I were thankful for the promise of something more grueling, as both of us were starting to get soft from sitting around beaches & eating all day long. About 30 minutes before our night camp, we stopped by a river to take a bath. This was my first day of bathing in a river, and it was beyond cold. What I discovered though is that if I didn't think about it, washing was much easier. After I had bathed, I noticed that my legs & feet were entirely numb, which made it difficult to walk back up the river bank.

I started to notice more & more hunters while we were walking. By the middle of the second day, I think that we had seen about 6 hunters. We heard countless other ones, as their guns fired at animals throughout the day. If I haven't mentioned it already, Nam Ha is a protected area. That means that Laos doesn't allow hunting; the habitat has been set aside for the preservation of the flora & fauna. For more information about the project, please visit see the Boat Landing's webpage ( I was growing more upset with every gunshot, because I knew that something was being killed. I'm supportive of normal hunting practices, but not of hunting endangered animals. As I continued to hike, I thought more about all of the hunting & realized that I was being ignorant.

The situation is similar to any country that has had trouble stopping their drug trade; Laos included. The coca in Peru & poppies in Laos serve the same purpose - as a premium cash crop for villagers. From an economic perspective, it's much easier to grow drugs than corn, potatoes, or rice. Drugs have a much higher margin; why grow vegetables when you can make 5 or 10 times as much money growing something else? If Laos wants to really protect it's endangered species of plants & animals, they need better options for providing their citizens with jobs. Instead of being hunters, I bet that those same people could serve as park guides and/or rangers. Bolstered by tourism dollars, the job would pay better than producing agriculture. Another incentive is that the same people that used to hunt the animals may strive to protect them (if for no other reason that to assure that they continue to have a job). And who is better at tracking animals than a hunter?

I'm not naive enough to believe that they can stop all illegal hunting, but I think they need to do something. On average, I heard about 10 - 15 gunshots echo across the valleys each day. Even if 1/3 of those hit their targets, that is a fair amount of animals being lost each day.
We spent the evening with an Akha tribesman and his nephew. He could dinner for us, which consisted of steamed rice, chili paste, and green pumpkin (aka squash). I think that James also had some chicken to eat, but I don't remember. He pulled out the Lao Lao, and started pouring drinks. The custom is Laos is to take shots of rice whiskey. Whoever is serving the rice whiskey must take the first shot, and everyone engaged in dinner is expected to participate. There is one cup, which is passed clockwise. It's not good sense to take an odd number of drinks, so you always need to ensure that you keep your number of drinks even (2, 4, 6, 8, etc). I found one exception to this rule - if you're too drunk to remember how many drinks you've had. The rice whiskey is extremely strong, and it cannot be distilled more than .5 or 1 time because it tastes like I imagine gasoline to taste.

After we were finished eating, we sat around the fire. We finished the bottle of lao lao (served in a re-used dirty plastic bottle), and Pon played the guitar. I needed to remind myself to look up each night - the sky was ablaze with small fires of white light. On certain nights, you could see the galaxy, and tonight was one of those evenings. Pon and our host wandered off to bed as I started into the night sky for 20 or 30 minutes, wishing that I could see the backdrop of light back home.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Nam Ha Protected Area - Day 1

We awoke before the sun had fully risen - today was the beginning of our foray into the jungle and simpleness of village life. Our guide arrived an hour later than what we were told, but we were nevertheless happy to be on our way. We met Pon, our guide, and then set off north in a tuk tuk to a Khmu village, where we would begin.

When we pulled up to the village, it wasn't anything special - a village along a modern highway. We took a walk through the village of 15 homes. Some of the kids were playing Bocce ball, and the eldest was wearing a shirt with Osama Bin Laden's face on it. I had to laugh - Osama had his own t-shirt like a superhero. I'm sure that these children may not have known who he is, but nevertheless I found it funny.

After we finished, we set out with 2 of the villagers. They walked ahead of us, and didn't really say anything. During lunch, I fell in love with something new - chili paste. It serves as an excellent compliment to my sticky rice & cooked cabbage. I would fall into the routine of having chili paste with every meal for the next week.

We walked for another 2 hours after lunch until we came to our camp for the night. My first impression of the camp was basic. It consisted of a bamboo building on stilts, with a bamboo picnic table, and an outhouse. I think I was more worried about what we were going to do all afternoon - we had arrived really early and had hours to kill before dinner. I decided to try out the river for bathing, and my body was shocked by the temperature of the water. I stayed in long enough to wash my face, hair, and body before scrambling to the river bank to grab my towel. Even though the water was cold enough to give me a headache, the feeling of cleanliness was wonderful.

After dinner, we sat around the campfire playing songs on Pon's guitar & talking. I think it was one of the latest nights of our trek - we went to sleep at 9pm. My synopsis of the first day was that the surroundings were great, but I wasn't learning anything cultural from the Khmu people or my guide - one item that Green Discovery had marketed for their Nam Ha trips. This is the only issue that would resurface through the remainder of the trek.

Friday, December 7, 2007

9 hours on a bus

Today was uneventful - we needed to travel by bus to Luang Nam Tha, the location of our 7 day trek into the Nam Ha Protected Area. I was expecting a crazy bus ride that was overcrowded, noisy, and had some animals. I was sweetly surprised - the bus was only half-full, and it must have been the nicest bus in Laos. We made a few pit stops & one lunch stop in Udomxai on our way north.

When we arrived in Luang Nam Tha, all of the travellers were puzzled. The bus was supposed to take us into the middle of town - we were standing at a bus station that was no where near a town. Upon asking the driver 'Luang Nam Tha?' and him nodding yes, people motioned us to pile into a tuk tuk. When we were seated, we realized that the bus stop had been moved to the outskirts of town for some reason. We would soon find out.

On our way into Luang Nam Tha, we passed a long tract of land that was being made into an airport. The runway seemed to go on forever...this place will be capable of handling large jets within a year's time. For the second time within a few days, I quietly thanked my luck for having visited here before mass tourism set upon the town. Life in Luang Nam Tha will be shocked into capitalism as soon as the airport is finished. The airport will make it easier to travel here, and therefore hordes of tourists will come. I can't complain, as I'm sure it will be great for the local economy, but I wonder if it's really what the people want. In the future, people will not be able to go about their days without being gawked at by visitors.

The Boat Landing Guesthouse is beautiful & quiet - I can't wait to sleep. No traffic noise, no loud music, no loud travellers (lights go out at 10pm).

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Cookin' Lao

James woke up around 6:30, and the doctor came in around 7am. There was nothing more that he could do for James after the two IV bags. The nurse removed the IV, the doctor handed James a couple bags of pills with instructions 'white, twice per day. blue , three times per day with food'. James paid his hospital bill of $30US, and we set off to find a tuk tuk back to town.

I was secretly hoping that we left early - I had a cooking class lined up at the Tum Tum Cheng restaurant at 8:30, and I desparately wanted to go. I dropped off James at the guesthouse, took a shower, and headed out. There were 5 of us in total - a retired couple of New Mexico and a 30-something couple from Austira. We were served tea before we started, and then we headed to Phousi Market. We spent a couple hours wandering around the market, learning about the local food and having the opportunity to take photos and ask questions. There was an array of produce - chilis, lettuce, herbs, ginger, banana flowers, garlic, galanga, eggplants, oranges, limes, and dragonfruit (to name a few). I was exicted that the farmers were selling directly, and I was content to know that everything had been raised by hand. After a long time reviewing the produce, we moved onto the dry goods & meat sections. I don't remember the dry goods being too exciting, but the meats definitely were. Like many cultures outside of the US, all parts of the animals are used. Not only were the normal parts on dispaly in the open air, but I also saw things like pigs legs, cow lungs, brains, faces, bile, and coagulated blood (cut into squares). I took pictures of it all -the colors were splendid.

After the market we headed back to the restaurant to learn how to prepare the food that we had chosen. The most important spice was galanga - a cousin of ginger that is not known outside of Southeast Asia. It has the same texture, but has a spicy hot flavor that is more sharp than ginger. We reviewed several types of basil, corriander, mint, and chili wood. I found the chili wood the most interesting - the wood is edible & has a slow burn. It is used in soups where is can get fully saturated & soft enough to eat. After we spent some time learning how to cut the spices, our teacher pulled back a cloth from an adjacent table. Underneath, a plethora of prepared ingredients awaited.

Like back home at Andy's parent's house, a nice drnink is essential to the cooking process. We were served some sort of sweet alcohol, prior to cooking our dishes. The menu for lunch included:
  • Beef soup with tamarind
  • Luang Prabang beef stew 'aw lam'
  • Sweet sticky rice with mango
  • Fried spring rolls
  • Fried tofu curry with vegetables
  • Steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves 'ho mok pa'
  • Tofu soup with tamarind (cook for me because I was vegetarian)
  • Gingered tofu (another 'free' dish because I was vegetarian)

We cooked over Lao stoves - the same type that James had purchased yesterday. I wish he could have been here, because not only was the food exquisite, we cooked old school. The only level of heat from the fire is !@#$ing hot, so once you started cooking, constant attention is needed to keep the food from burning.

After cooking, I sat down to the best meal of my holiday. My guidebook had comented on teh quality of this restaurant, but it was definitely for real - all of the ingredients were of the best quality, resulting in superb food. My favorite was the tofu soup with tamarind that they had made for me. With a squeeze of lime juice, the sour flavor blended perfectly with the spice. We ate for about an hour, all of us fully stuffed after lunch. We sat around for another 30 minutes after lunch, until each of us felt like we could walk.

I lumbered back to the guesthouse to check on James. I ended up taking a nap - I guess the exquisite meal really wore me down.

As a part of my normal routine, I went to Spa Garden for a massage. After an half and a half of semi-consciousness, I picked up James for (what else besides) more food! He was feeling better, and had spent part of the day shipping his $3 cooking pot home. Cost of shipping? $90US.

Before heading back, I stopped by Big Brother Mouse. The company produces children's books in both Lao & English, and its mission is to educate children. I bought a stack of books, as they would be useful to hand out during my trek in Nam Ha Protected Area.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Visiting a Lao hospital

We had scheduled a kayaking trip with Green Discovery today - the same company that we would spend 7 days with in Luang Nam Tha. We had some extra time in Luang Prabang, and wanted to do something active besides walking around the town. We showed up at their office, met two other people who would be joining us, and then piled into a tuk tuk. The ride to the entry point was 1.5 hours north of town. We picked up an additional 3 people along the way; they were finishing a 2 day/1 day kayak trip.

Overall, the day was enjoyable but it was rather short. I remember two decent sets of rapids, and a handful of smaller ones. We had 2 or 5 kayak overturn, but thanks to our (James & my) mad paddling skills, we avoided capsizing. I jumped out of the boat at one point for a quick swim and the water was extremely brisk. I was used to the warm waters of Thailand - the water in Nam Ha river was much colder.

Two hours into our trip, we mad an abrupt lunch stop. We had a nice picnic lunch of sticky rice, vegetables, beef, chicken, and fish. After devouring a fair amount of food, we jumped back into our kayaks and set off down the river. If the morning had been exciting, we reached the doldrums in the afternoon. The pace of the water slowed to a crawl, and there wasn't a rapid to plunge down. After another couple of hours, we had already reached our take out point. I think that all of us wanted to go longer, but our guide said that there wasn't another suitable spot to pull out for several hours. When I got out of the boat, I realized that I was a bit sunburned. I had put sunscreen on my face & arms, but not my legs. As a result, I had a sweet burn on the inner part of both calves. I would regret not using sunscreen during my massages over the next few days.

After getting back to town early, James & I set out to find him a Lao stove. It's basically terra cotta in the shape of a bucket, with a thin metal heat shield wrapped cemented to the back of the pot. The top has 3 raised areas with holes in the center, and a small tray in the lower portion of the bucket. Wood is put on top of the holes & burned - the ashes fall once the wood burns. I steel pan is seated on the top of the bucket and voila! Lao cooking at its finest.

James had some issues getting to Phousi market - he vomited twice along the way. We quickly found a stove and grabbed a tuk tuk. We got back to the guesthouse & he continued to vomit. I had a massage appointment, so I left him with some water and a small block of banana bread that I bought last night.

I had my favorite masseuse, so the massage was great. At several points during the massage, I'm not sure what she was doing because there is no way that her hands could rub that my spots at once. After my 1.5 hours of bliss, I headed to the night market for dinner. I assumed that James wasn't feeling good, so he wouldn't want to come to dinner. I went to my favorite vegetarian stall to get some spring rolls & fried vegetable noodles. While I was in line, I ran into a guy from San Diego. We ended up talking about motorcycles for awhile. After dinner, we decided to go to Hive, the trendiest bar in town.

I showed up drunk, at the guesthouse, at 12am. The room was a mess - there were water bottles strewn around the room, and it looked like animals attacked James' backpack. There was one thing missing though - James. I finally noticed a note on my bed from James:
Suddenly, I felt like a big jerk. I was out having a good time while James was in the hospital! I sat down on the bed, and searched through my brain for the next action. I needed to go to the hospital. I needed a map. Lonely Planet book. I looked up the location of the hospital, and went downstairs. I asked the guy at the desk if he had seen my friend, and he confirmed that he went to the hospital. I mentioned that I was going to walk to the hospital, and the guy tried to assure me that it wasn't possible. My clouded judgement made it hard to concentrate on what he was trying to say - something about it being far and having no lights... When he realized that I was leaving anyways, he offered to give me a ride on his motorbike. The town was basically closed down for the night, so there was no way that I was finding a ride to the hospital.

He was right - it took us about 15 minutes while speeding on his motorbike to arrive. The Lonely Planet map had been outdated - the hospital had moved since the book was published in January. Thanking the driver, I wandered inside to try to find James. I found him writhing in pain on a basic bed with an IV in his arm. Another one of the guys from the guesthouse was there, as was their tuk tuk driver. James recounted the story of how he was in so much pain that he crawled down to the front desk to ask them to take him to a doctor. The doctor told him to go straight to the hospital - he couldn't help. James was dehydrated from 7 hours of vomiting & diarrhea, and he couldn't hold anything in his stomach. The doctor gave him a shot of some pain killer, some pills, and walked out of the room.

There were two beds in the room, so I slept on the other bed. It was as comfortable as lying on a steel truck bed, and about as cold because I didn't have any blankets. We were in Laos - there was no form of central heat and the cold spilled in through the glass-less window. I had one blood-stained sheet that I shivered underneath for most of the night while James was sound asleep under a warm blanket. I couldn't ask for a blanket, as the nurse disappeared & couldn't speak any English. I guess this was my punishment for abandoning him at the guesthouse when I went to get rubbed & fed.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Kuang Si Waterfall

We started the morning with a late breakfast before we found a tuk tuk to drive us out to Kuang Si waterfall. The falls are about 35km out of town, and the cost to hire a driver for the day is about $15US. The drive to the falls was great - it consisted of an endless series of turns, which turned the 35km drive into an hour ride. While the wind was blowing against my face, I was wishing that I had my motorcycle or at least a motorbike to drive these roads under my own hands. However, Luang Prabang no longer rents motorbikes - something that changed since the last time that I visited the city. James & I must have looked in 8 different travel places/guesthouses to see if we could rent motorbikes.

There were plenty of people at the waterfall, and rightfully so I guess. It is the largest waterfall that I've seen in Laos, and it was well worth a visit. The hills on either side of the waterfall were steep & slick, but it was nice to walk in the water at the top of the falls since the weather was warm. Several streams converged to form the column of waterfall that pounded the rocks below. Our our way back down, the wet clay was treacherous. I slipped & cut my foot, which would be annoying for the next several days.

The park also houses Asian bears & one tiger. The bears & the tiger were all rescued from poachers, and they now live at the park. The bear gall bladder & paws are prized in Chinese medicine, so it was uplifting to see these animals housed in a habitat that was both natural & protected. The tiger was feasting on a goat leg when we walked up to it. The tiger was a bit far away from the fence, and a warning sign had been posted to tourists.

After our visit to the waterfall, I started a new Southeast Asia tradition - daily massages. I have no clue why I didn't seek out a massage earlier - my only excuse is ignorance. My massage was pure bliss - and really cheap. My massage parlor of choice was called Spa Garden - it was located along a quiet lane in the old town of Luang Prabang. I had a Lao body massage two nights, an oil massage another night, and a foot massage another evening. I found that the massage was a good way to break up the day - it was relax me prior to going out to dinner.

As with most of the other nights in L.P., we headed to the night market for dinner.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Luang Prabang is a busy place

After our flight & tuk tuk ride into town, I was surprised by how busy the town was. I had been here for 5 days in 2004, and the town was more serene. Good luck had shined on the town, as there were many more tourists & guesthouses, which must have resulted in all of the motorbikes & cars that were driving around the town. All of the streets & buildings looked a bit more polished as well. I learned that Luang Prabang was getting ready for a huge airport project, which would lengthen its runway to allow Airbus-size jets to land. I secretly thanked myself for visiting one last time before the town would undergo a huge change that may make it similar to Chang Mai.

On the way into town, we met a French woman (Eleanor) & a Canadian (Sean), who we agreed to meet up with for dinner. After a day spent wandering around the tourist sites in the old town, we met up with Eleanor at 7pm. (I had seen all of this previously, so I walked James around to the places that I deemed to be the best temples to visit.) We ended up running into Sean, who was staying elsewhere in the town. We headed to the night market for some cheap food, and spent the rest of the evening chatting & eating large quantities of food. I was loving the prices here - I spent about $1 on a plate of vegetarian food and $2 of several large bottles of Beer Lao.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

James finds love...he doesn't want

I was starving by the time that Olay & Jouktouk showed up on their motorbikes. I hadn't gone out for food, as we had agreed to go to the market for breakfast. After a short ride to the market, we walked through endless stalls of merchandise before we found the food market on the 3rd floor. We bought 60,000 kip worth of tickets, and set out to find breakfast. Olay ordered veggie fried rice for me & a fruit shake. The fried rice was absolutely the best fried rice that I've had on my trip - it had a flavor besides oil! James had started to become infatuated by meat on a stick, so he ordered skewer after skewer of shrimp & pork.

We had intentions of visiting Si Saket, Vientiane's most famous temple that was built in 1818. When we arrived, we found that it was closed for some sort of national holiday. We went to his friend's restaurant for a while and sat in the shade. About an hour later, his friends showed up with their vehicles & we piled in the back, in search of a special place for lunch. The girls rode with Phoeui, and the guys rode with some guy (whose name I don't remember). We drove for at least 30 minutes north of town, only to find that the restaurant didn't have any available bungalows. The food is served outside, and each party has it's own bamboo hut. The huts are separated by fish ponds, so you get a really great sense of seclusion. The servers walk from hut to hut, taking orders for food & drinks. When we were leaving, I was really disappointed that they didn't have anything available.

Someone in our party knew of a similar restaurant. After driving for 15 minutes along deserted dirt tracks, we arrived at a deserted restaurant! There were cattle grazing in between the bungalows - this place hadn't been open for sometime. Getting more disappointed with each stop, we finally found another similar restaurant, although it was a bit rundown. I was appalled by the amount of food that we ordered. It seemed like there was 3 times as much food as all of these people could eat. And like the rest of Asia, the Lao folks are much shorter & thinner than your average American. Lunch included the following: 3 grilled fish, 2 pots of chicken soup, countless bowls of rice, several plates of herbs (basil, mint, cilantro, etc), spices (garlic, onion, lemongrass, peppers, ginger), and lettuces. We also had two gigantic plate of papaya salad and an armful of giant Beer Lao bottles. The papaya salad is the most spicy thing that I've ever eaten in my life. The name sounds tame and rather sweet, but the spice of the dish dissolved the inner lining of my mouth & esophagus. I ate about 2 tablespoons of papaya salad, and my mouth was on fire for over 30 minutes!
Needless to say (but I will anyway since the former phrase is cliche), we had a lunch that lasted 2.5 hours. During lunch, Olay's friend was now openly hitting on James - telling him that he loved James. He was taking it well, and I was laughing my ass off. I was teasing James about leaving him in Laos with his new friend, although I'm glad that I created the boundary between myself & his friends when we were at the disco the previous night. I didn't know if the tab for the meal would fall onto James & I (like the previous evening's disco), so I made sure that each of us had several hundred thousand kip. In the end, we split the bill of 340,000 kip evenly among the entire group.

After lunch, Olay needed to head back to town as he couldn't avoid work any longer (he had called in sick earlier in the day). They dropped us off at the guesthouse & we bid them farewell. James & I needed to figure out where we were staying in Luang Prabang, so we hit up an Internet cafe, got some fruit shakes, and hung out before dinner. At dinner, I went to an Indian restaurant, as I was craving Indian food. I ordered samosas, banana lassi, naan, and baigan bharta. I thoroughly gorged myself to the point where I felt uncomfortable walking back to the guesthouse. Although I felt like I was pregnant, I was satisfied after having a delicious meal.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A night with friends in Vientiane

We had to catch an early morning tuk tuk, a boat back to Ko Samui, and a flight back to Bangkok. Our flight to Vientiane left Bangkok around 5pm, so we had a few hours to piss around the airport. I found some Tiger Balm for my mosquito bites, which were starting to itch like mad. My ankles were covered in bites; probably from wearing my sandals.

Once we landed, it took about an hour to get our visas & get through customs. After I exchanged $200US and became a millionaire (in Lao Kip), my friends were waiting for us in the arrivals lobby. I remembered Olay - he had given me a ride to Athith & Phouvieng's house in 2004. I didn't remember Phouvieng's daughter Jouktouk. Two of their friends had also come to the airport. Phouei - one of the girls gave us a ride to our guesthouse in her car. I'm not sure what her parents did, but for a 22 year old to have a car was extremely rare. After we dropped our bags off at the guesthouse and Olay made sure that everything was in order, we went to Phouei's house for oranges & donuts. We were sitting outside and her mother brought down a few oranges & a box of donuts. I wasn't hungry, but I was obliged to eat something so I had an orange.

Afterwards, I thanked the mother for the food and we went to a party. Some of Olay's friends were having their 5th wedding anniversary, so there was a group of people who were congregated in a driveway at a couple of tables. There was also a band playing under a tin roof that looked like a car park. As I sat down & took in the surroundings, I was wondering what all of the neighbors thought of the really loud music. Food was pushed in front of James & I and we were expected to eat. After finding something without meat, I ate & drank Beer Lao with Olay's friends. Everyone seemed happy to have us, which put me at ease. I would have hated to be a burden on their party, but we seemed to be under the most attention once we arrived. After every song, someone else would go join the band to sing a song. We were pulled out of our seats to go dance. After we were done, James commented that a few of the guys seemed very feminine, but I dismissed it saying that maybe they just had a bit of extra estrogen. James would find out later in the evening that he was right.

We stayed for about an hour at the party, and then headed to the Don Chan Hotel, which looked like the most expensive place in town. I remember Athith telling me that the hotel was built in 2004 for the purpose of hosting the Asean Summit meetings that occurred in early December of 2004. I paid for 9 people to get into the disco, which amounted to 200,000 kip (or about $24US). In addition to the entrance fee, this bought us 8 large bottles of Beer Lao once we got into the club. The place was fairly deserted when we first arrived at 11pm, but it quickly filled by 1am. The music, which was a mix of western electronica & hip hop, throbbed throughout the room.

After we had some drinks, the behavior of Olay's friends became apparent. The guys were grinding on one another, which I thought was comedic until they wanted to dance with me. I quickly avoided the situation by going over to dance with a table of Lao women, leaving James stranded with Olay's friends. I stayed over there for the remainder of the evening, having short conversations in broken English with the women. I tried to get James out of the action, but he wasn't having any of it.

After some time, I went to restroom. It's only the restroom, but this deserves its own paragraph. After I finished pissing, there was a restroom attendant who turned on the water, gave me some soap and a towel. While I was washing my hands, he proceeded to give me a shoulder massage. I told him to stop, but it wasn't working. After I finished, I walked out - not leaving the guy a tip. I think he was a bit pissed, but I absolutely hate bathroom attendants all over the world. I don't need any help washing my hands, and I just find them annoying. Trying to be helpful to scrap together tips, I usually do my best to avoid them. Upon talking to James when I got back, I learned that he had received a massage while he was pissing. I busted out laughing at his luck, and inwardly being thankful that didn't happen to me. Once you're in front of the urinal, you really can't stop or turn around to tell the guy to bugger off.

We stayed until almost 3am. Olay's friends started dropping around 1am, and I begged him & Jouktouk to leave several times. James & I could walk back to the guesthouse - it really wasn't a big deal. However, being the wonderful hosts that my Lao friends are, they felt responsible for getting us safely back to the guesthouse and stayed with us until we were ready to leave.