countin' the days

Monday, October 29, 2007

... Do It!

It's been a long time since my last post, but for good reason: upon arrival back in Thailand, I headed straight for Chiang Mai, a fantastic Northern Thai city and longtime favorite with expats and weary backpackers like myself. And there I stayed for the better part of the last month. Chiang Mai is the kind of place that sneaks up on you. At first, it seems like a fairly busy Thai city, full of motorbikes and shops and markets. But within days, you find yourself awfully comfortable... wowed at the gorgeous wats hiding in every block, smiling at your new tuk-tuk driver friends on the corner, shaking your booty to the live music going on all over town, and practically in love with the lady who makes your out-of-this-world som tam every night at the market for 20 baht. Not to mention, paying only $1.75 a night to stay in a room up on the rooftop of the best guesthouse in town, with hammocks lined up right outside your door.

There's also absolutely fantastic climbing just outside of town, at the Crazy Horse Buttress. I spent a good two weeks alone heading out to this crag with Joe and various climber friends we met along the way, steadily improving my own climbing ability and helping teach a few new friends the ropes (literally). We'd heard a lot about this crag from climber friends in Ton Sai, but it far surpassed both of our expectations. In addition to having loads of great, fun routes on high quality rock, the area itself was exceptionally well-maintained, complete with manicured trails, signs, route & crag information, and comfortable belay areas. I've never seen anything like it! In Chiang Mai, we met back up with two friends from our Laos trek, Taylor & Brandon, and brought them out to the crag to teach them how to get up the rock. We also made sure to take plenty of rest time away from the rock, playing games of 98, asshole, and drinking buckets of booze at the reggae bars.

Due to the arrival of two lovely ladies from my Davis days -- Jen & Caitlin -- I left the North of Thailand for one last hurrah amongst the limestone cliffs of Railay. This was my third visit of the year, but my only one not centered around climbing everyday. Fortunately, there were no lack of ways in which to spend my time with the girls, and our days & nights were full of wine drinking on the beach, beer drinking in bamboo bars, watching Jen completely rock out her first day of climbing ever, eating delicious Thai food, and talking sh... errr... catching up. Caitlin's friend Brooke, currently a resident of Bangkok, also joined us on this excursion along with her new interest Jeff, and the three of us spent many an hour enjoying playing the role of the intoxicated, not-so-subtle, raucous cupid. This is where Jen also christened the theme of the trip (and the title of this posting): DO IT! Such an apt phrase for so many reasons... but, I've also discovered, a good little mantra to repeat to yourself when trying to make decisions while traveling.

This week down in the south taught me an important lesson: nothing is ever the same as you remember it. And especially true for Thailand is: things change mighty fast. Railay, only 2 months after my last visit, was full of tourists and steadily increasing. Worse still, my beloved Ton Sai was not only full of tourists -- a strange thing to see after spending 10 days there with about 10 other people -- but my one and only Chill Out Bar had been torn down (gasp!) and moved to a big, totally non-chill-out structure next door. Farewell to the beautiful longtail boat/driftwood/treehouse/lost-at-sea Chill Out Bar of the past. Then, after saying a somewhat bittersweet goodbye to Krabi, I stopped over at Koh Lanta. I'd spent a week on this little island on my last trip to Thailand, nearly 2 years ago. I was horrified to discover that the quaint, quiet little travel haven that used to be Koh Lanta was quite literally bulldozed, and in its place are piles of rubbish, construction sites, concrete buildings, frighteningly overpriced bungalows, and bad vibes. Bummertown.

So, after a few moments of consideration, I turned around and headed back up north to spend my final week in Thailand back in Chiang Mai. Jen & Caitlin were cruising that way anyway, so I had a good excuse to go back (as if I needed one). Once again, I spent a pleasant week eating, climbing, partying, and chilling in the lovely Northern capital of the lovely Asian country that I love so much. And I don't care what all the stuck-up so-called backpackers have to say lately about Thailand becoming too touristy; it's still wonderful Thailand, full of Thai people, Thai food, and Thai culture. Sadly, it's also full of Thai immigration laws that don't allow a foreigner like myself to acquire more than 3 months per year of free 30-day visas, so I had to leave and can't go back for a while. And it's okay, because it's time to move on anyway. Time to just... you guessed it... DO IT.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

So Much To Say

My final big adventure in Laos -- if you don't count the ride to the Thai border when the bus fishtailed on the muddy, unfinished, winding mountain road -- was a 4-day ecotrek through the jungle-covered hills of Northern Laos to visit three different hilltribe villages. It was probably the best thing I've done on the whole trip.

We had the great fortune to meet our trekking partners on the bus ride out of Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha: 2 fellow Californians, and a French couple. We all visited the local ecotourism project office, decided on our 4-day adventure for the amazing price of only $58, and set off. Together with our very cool & knowledgable guides, we made up a fun little group of nine. There is no doubt in my mind that the incredibly great vibe maintained throughout the trip had everything to do with the incredibly great people that made up our group.

Hiking through the various jungle ecosystems was stellar, especially when we passed through towering bamboo forests, stopped for a rest at cold mountain streams, ate delicious homecooked Lao cuisine for lunch, or caught a view of the surrounding hills through a clearing in the jungle thicket. But it paled in comparison to the beautiful villages we arrived at after hiking all day.

In Northern Laos, the ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population, and the many different tribes fall into 4 different ethnic groups. We had the pleasure of visiting three of those four: the Hmong, Lanten, and Khmu. Each day we stopped at a different village, where we would spend the afternoon walking around making friends with the locals and learning about their tribe, followed by a scrumptious dinner cooked by the villagers. Each night, the village chief joined us for dinner and a back-and-forth question & answer session. Via the translations offered by our guides, we were able to ask questions about village life, traditional customs & dress, and their feelings about local tourism. The chiefs had many questions for us as well, but the pressing one was always the same: Are you married? If not, when will you be?

There were so many amazing things that happened in the villages, it would be impossible to try and list them all here. But perhaps the most amazing part of the journey was the trek itself and what it represents to the locals we visited. This trek is part of an ecotourism project, started only two years ago in Laos, that aims to provide community-based tourism that preserves, respects, and benefits both the environment and the villages and their traditional way of life. ( All of the villages were offered the choice of hosting tourists or not, and all are partners in the project, and receive profits from our visit. The very basic accomodation we stayed in was built by the villagers in the local style, so that we would be part of the village itself, rather than playing the role of disconnected observers with cameras in hand.

All three of the village chiefs raved about the project and how beneficial it has been for the villagers. One chief said "Before the tourists came, life was very hard. Now, life is not so hard anymore." Another pointed out the visible positive changes the tourism revenue has brought, such as tin roofs (rather than rattan which needs to be replaced every 3 years), new schools, and ever-growing libraries for the children. They all mentioned how respectful and lovely the tourists had been, and along with bringing some money into the village, people like us had also brought many smiles and friendly faces.

In the Khmu village on our last night -- during a game of team karaoke instigated by our guide Coom Seng (team USA sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") -- the village chief improvised a deeply beautiful melody in his Khmu dialect. The translation spoke for itself: "Before, when the foreigners came, they brought war and everyone was sad. Now, the tourists come and they bring peace, everyone gets along, and everyone is happy."

But with all good things come a little bad. There was only one real downside to this journey: leeches. These little bloodsuckers flourish in the floors of the bamboo forests we hiked right through, especially in the rainy season. Unlike the stereotypical image of huge, slug-like, swamp-dwelling creatures I had in my mind, these leeches were tiny and frighteningly sneaky! But a small price to pay for such an amazing experience.