countin' the days

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Luang Days

Luang Prabang is Laos' former royal capital, and during French colonial rule was a favorite spot of colonalists looking to escape their duties and live the good life. These days it's an expat haven, and it's easy to see why. The city has a feel all its own, blending supreme peacefulness with an often hip & artsy vibe. It's located right on the banks of Mekong River, where it meets up with another river, the Nam Kha. The whole entire city was deemed as a prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its purely unique blend of French colonial & Laos architecture, its lush gardens and abundant coconut trees, and it's 32 gorgeous wats (temples), all of which have managed to hold up remarkably well despite Laos' recent disastrous history that seemed to destroy nearly everything in sight except this city.

One of the best things to do in Luang Prabang is wander around checking out the temples, which seem to pop out of every corner. Each one is a little different from the other, but distinctly Lao. Wat Xieng Thong was particularly impressive, and it was easy to spend an hour there in awe of its beauty. All the walls are covered in gold
paintings, diligently executed to depict scenes of both Buddhist legends and village life. Hundreds of Buddha statues dwelled on the insides, some reclining, some smiling, some meditating; some are only an inch-high, while the biggest is about 10 meters tall. Even more remarkable were the colored glass mosaics shining on the outside of the buildings, where artisans painstakingly constructed everything from trees, to farming and fishing scenes, to elephants, lions, tiger, cattle, and birds.

Every night from 5pm on, eight blocks of the town are closed off and a handicraft market is set up. I have never, in all of my travels, seen a craft market so spectacular. The sheer size of it is staggering, with women setting up their stalls on both sides of each block, right up next to one another. Walking the whole thing takes about 45 minutes (I do this pretty much every night), and is a visual overload of rainbow colors and staggeringly beautiful patterns. The variety of items available is equally amazing, ranging from silk scarves to quilts, handbags to fisherman pants, silver jewelry to slippers. But the real kicker is the exceptional quality of the items; I have seen plenty of handicrafts all over the world, but none so well-made as these.

And there's the food. Because of the French, every morning I consume a delicious fresh baguette, with or without eggs depending on how gross they do or do not sound. In addition to finding yet more stands to devour som tam (papaya salad a la Laos) and Lao noodle soup for under a dollar, there is a completely vegetarian buffet available for only $.50! Every night I load up with locally-grown bamboo shoots, tofu with mung beans, fried noodles, peanut cucumber salad, squash, green beans, and whatever else can be piled onto the small mountain that is my plate. Accommodation is running me about $1.50 a night, so if I manage to avoid spending money at the craft market, I can get by on around $4 a day!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rolling Down the River

Things are different out here in Laos. Time just moves a little slower, I think, or maybe there's just something in the air that makes everything super chill. And no, I don't mean THAT certain something, because the cops seems to be after every trace of skunk in the air. I've never been to a more relaxed country than this one, and that's saying a lot after visiting Indonesia and Malaysia! I have to say it's not quite as cheap as I'd heard, mostly due to the erroneous "fees" and overcharging of tourists that runs rampant, but it's still pretty easy to stay under $10/day. Plus, being the experienced backpacker that I now am, there are ways around these sorts of things.

For example, there is always (always!) a local bus, even when everyone insists that there isn't just so you will pay twice as much for their fancy, special, elite, VIP, I'm-a-far-too-important-white-tourist-who-can't-deal-with-no-air-con buses. Getting out of Vientiane to the village of Vang Vieng was a little tricky at first, but as soon as we arrived at the bus station, we found a local bus and off we went. This was the very first ride I'd ever taken where a motorbike was granted passenger status, and rode among us cheapies inside the bus. The ride turned out to be quite lovely; who needs air con anyway when both doors of the bus are flung wide open?

We made it to Vang Vieng in under 5 hours (woo hoo!), and there I stayed for the next week. Despite its very serious downsides -- way too much concrete, dozens of bars playing "Friends" reruns on maximum volume all at the same time, loads of British wankers drunkenly stumbling around the town, its somewhat strange resemblance to Bangkok's Koh San Road at night -- I found plenty to enjoy. It's a prety small town nustled in amongst absolutely epic limestone karsts with a sizeable river offshoot of the Mekong running through it. We snagged a "luxury" bungalow down on the river, for us a seemingy outrageous splurge at $5/night, blissfully away from the raging stupidity of the main drag. To clarify, the definition of luxury is: a newly built bungalow, towels provided (real towels that don't smell like mold!), a functional and level porch, plenty of floor space to put down all of my shit, something hung on the wall as an actual decoration, and a very clean bathroom with hot water!

Vang Vieng is also home to Laos' famous tubing adventure. You rent a tube for $4, get tuk-tuked up the river 3km, and spend the next however many hours floating downstream. All along the way are makeshift bamboo bars on the river's edge, which you paddle over to and subsequently buy and drink as many $1 Beer Laos as you may need. But that's not all. Almost every single bar has a huge trapezee that you swing out on and then drop into the river below. It is so, so, so, much fun!!! I haven't been on a trapezee since I was a kid, and I can't say I've ever been on one DRUNK, let along swinging from 15 meters up and dropping into the river! I was pretty freaked out at first, but became a full-blown addict once I got over my fears and clung for dear life to that trapezee! Joe left his Chacos at the Last Bar, so we went tubing again the next day and had a completely sober but equally fantastic time. (Sadly, in the effort of not completely destroying my camera, I do not have any of my own photos of this adventure... however, I've stolen some from the internet to illustrate how awesome this was!)

When we weren't lounging around with the butterflies at the bungalow or nursing our tubing hangovers, we would cruise across a bridge, down the road, over some fences, and through the rice paddies to reach a climbing crag! That's right, I was back on the rocks again. There were about 8 bolted routes, of which we climbed 4, and all of them had sweeping views of the peaks and valleys below. I even managed to cruise up a 6a+, twice, and totally loved it. I am happy to say that Laos is both the fourth Asian country I've visited, AND the fourth Asian country I've rock climbed in! And, just for the record, it's officially the 20th country I've been to in my life! (not including the US of A of course)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

How Now, Pow Wow, No More Mao, Laos

Last stop in Thailand was Nong Khai, a peaceful little town right on the banks of the Mekong. Since I'd extended my stay in Khorat a little bit, I had literally one day left to explore the place before my one-month tourist visa was up for Thailand. After playing an unusually active tourist role in the last few days, and enjoying the heck out of it, I decided why not see what kind of things little Nong Khai has to offer. It turned out to have one of the strangest tourist attractions I've ever seen: a park filled with several dozen absolutely ginormous Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. And it was awesome! I'm still not quite sure what the point was, other than to exhibit the oh-so-much-larger-than-life qualities of Asia's most revered deities. I was cool with the gigantic smiling Buddha, but it was pretty frightening to see Shiva 3 stories up surrounded by 7 huge angry serpent heads... glad I wasn't on any substances for that excursion.

The next day I caught a bus across the Mekong and, pow!: welcome to Laos. The border was pretty mellow, but slightly frustrating. I ended up paying for my Laos visa in Thai Baht because I didn't have any American dollars on me, and then walked 5 feet and saw an exchange bureau where I easily could have bought some dollars and saved myself 10 bucks. Thanks for letting me know, Sneaky Immigration Man. After getting my passport stamped, I was warmly welcomed into Laos once again by the Entry Fee booth, kindly requesting that I dish out yet some more Baht before officially crossing over. Quite the exercise in patience, but I've come to learn that every border crossing has its share of demons, and this one wasn't so bad. Thankfully we dodged the tuk-tuk drivers and caught a $.70 bus to Laos' capital city of Vientiane immediately...

In case you're reading this and wondering 'Where is Laos?', well you're not the only one. Here's the rundown. It's Southeast Asia's least visited country, and famous for being one of the most bombed nations on the PLANET. Hard to believe, considering its neighbors are China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand... Officially, it's the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, having arrived there are decades of disgraceful French colonial control, shameful carpet bombings by the US during the Vietnam War, and frightening communist revolutions and civil uprisings. The history is a sad and depressing one, but Laos (silent 's' ... you can thank the French for adding it on) is a beautiful place with fantastic people. The vibe is so relaxed, and I'm still kicking it in Vientiane. It's Laos' biggest city but, to me, barely feels like a city at all. So far I've managed only to visit one lovely old Wat (temple) and tramp around in the mud of the delightful shantytown everything market, and -- you guessed it -- eat my way through the vegetarian delights of the city.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Real Deal

Suffered through my first overnight train trip getting from Suratthani to Bangkok, and surprisingly there wasn't much suffering involved. The second class cabin was a little cramped to say the least, and the fans provided didn't do much to keep the air cool, but I made it through the night OK and woke up to find myself squinting at the morning sun in the middle of Bangkok. Fortunately, I stayed in Bangkok for exactly 15 minutes and caught yet another train straight out of there. That ride involved quite a bit more suffering. It was brutally hot in the third class cabin, and the ride seemed neverending as the train police shuffled us around to different seats (in the same cabin...?) and some senile old Thai man puked out of a nearby window.

The destination, Khorat, turned out to be a surprisingly fresh breath of air. Quite unexpectedly, Thailand's second largest city has turned out to be a very likeable town. It's full of plenty to see and do, and overflowing with charming Thai people and delicious Thai food. But it's also the kind of place where tourists don't matter so much and aren't catered to; it's all about the Thais here. Hardly anyone speaks English, which has been great for both practicing my disasterous Thai phrases and providing the locals with some comedy. There are permanent markets set up in sidewalks with Thai ladies sitting at makeshift wooden tables selling every conceivable fruit, veggie, and animal flesh I could dream of. Dozens of sewing machines are set up in a row on the other side of the street every other day to mend and create clothing. The night markets are completely free of tourist souvenirs and are instead full of T-shirts with ripped-off and/or nonsensical English slogans on them, the kind of clothes Thais seem to love most. Oh, if I only had a Baht for every time I've seen a shirt that either made no sense at all or, unbeknownst to its owner, was shockingly inappropriate...

Obviously, most of my time has been spent eating, eating, and eating some more. It's significantly more challenging to be a vegetarian here, as the local dishes all contain a whole lot of duck tail, chicken feet, pig ears, cow liver, and other frightening animal body parts I would rather not be able to recognize. But, markets abound, full of vegetables I could never dream of, as do food stands hawking nearly flammable renditions of papaya salad (som tum).

Aside from stuffing my face and chuckling with Thai ladies at my perfectly shitty Thai language abilities (hey - I can count to 99!), I've taken day trips to two different sites nearby. In general, I've been pretty burned out on the whole sightseeing thing lately, but these places were just begging to be explored. Each are temple and shrine complexes originally built by the Angkor Empire in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries and later converted by the Thais into Buddhist temples. My first outing was to Prasat Phanom Rung, which has been extremely well-restored and sits atop an extinct volcano with superb views of the countryside all around. It took a long bus ride and some serious negotiating with a motorbike driver to get there, but it was worth it. The restoration has really cleaned up and brought out the elaborate designs carved into sandstone walls, pillars, and blocks. Some of it is even hilariously risque; as a new friend from Bangkok said of this photo: "not so nice! ha ha ha!" There also happened to be some kind of celebration going on, with guys playing out-of-tune trumpets, ringing bells, tying white strings across buildings, and lovely Thai ladies dressing up... though I couldn't tell if it was Buddhist, Hindu, or some mixture of both.

Today I hit up the other nearby attraction, another Angkor temple complex in the town of Phimai. This one was way easier to get to, and despite what I'd read, a lot more interesting. Phimai is in ruins, ie no one has paid for the restoration yet, but it is a much larger complex and has a much more impressive 28 meter-tall shrine tower. Tourists are free to roam all over the ruins, which can get pretty tricky as the sandstone and laterite they used to build these things has endured some serious weathering. But around every corner are gems to be discovered: smiling Buddhas, intricate carvings, gravity-defying arrangements of sandstone blocks, strangely Roman-esque pillars, and guardian spirits. In fact, today I learned that Singha is not just the name of my least-favorite Thai beer, but is also an ancient guardian protector that symbolizes heaven. So there, Chang!

All in all, the last five days have been the most "real" Thailand I've ever experienced. It's been blissful wandering around the less-trodden paths out here in Northeast Thailand, far away from the obnoxious farangs (that's us white folk) and the Tourist Trail that claims so much of this country. I've even had the pleasure of seeing the Thais themselves play tourist at the temple ruins. We make new Thai friends everywhere, and get pretty stoked when random Thais of all ages stop to say hello or wave at us from passing buses. Whether it's been cramming into 3rd class trains and buses, walking down city streets, checking in at the hotel, eating at food stalls, bargaining at the night bazaar, gaping at the obscene cell phone displays in the mall, or chatting with American-loving tuk-tuk drivers named Mr Cookie, it's been nothing but huge giant Thai smiles and great Thai vibes.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Som Tam in Paradise

My first week back in the island paradise of Koh Phangan was spent at The Sanctuary, a little haven of peacefulness on an isolated stretch of east coast beach. I went a little over budget for a few days as I filled up my time with yoga classes and delicious vegetarian cuisine from their lovely but painfully overpriced restaurant. On the day of the full moon party, I attempted to leave the Sanctuary, to go to another beach and skip out on what I'd known to be the stupid debauchery of the full moon party. However, the boat to the next beach sped on by without picking me up, a clear sign that I was not going anywhere that day. Instead, I decided to go to the party with some of my new friends and ended up having one of the most fun nights of this entire trip. I boogied my behind off for about 10 hours, even staying to drink a final beer and dance to the Stones as the sun came up. Gotta love when fate works out like that...

Next stop was the insanely beautiful beach of Thong Nai Pan Yai. It's the kind of beach you dream about but think might not really exist. Most of the days were nice and leisurely, with hours on end spent lounging in the shady white sand or swinging in the pink tye dye hammock on my porch. Occasionally some Chang drinking occured, when it was just too hot and sunny NOT to have a cold beer, or when the tunes from the Funky Buddha Bar called us to come and dance. But far and away the highlight was wandering the little Thai village, and eating. A lot. We were spoilt for choice as far as delicious low-key Thai Mama cooking goes, but managed to find the gem among gems: Som's. Som cooked us unbelievable Thai meals 3 times a days, and I can now safely say hers is my favorite Thai restaurant in the whole world. Mmmmmmmmmm.....