Thursday, January 29, 2009

Northern Laos

Since my last post, I've had some of the most intriguing travel experiences of my life, to date! The journey from Chiang Rai to the Laos border at Huay Xia was uneventful. Upon arrival in Laos, I was struck by the distinct change in architecture from Western style of construction to bamboo (on the Lao side of the Mekong). Many dwellings were elevated (on posts) as if to avoid flooding, but I think that they actually use this "basement" for storage or cooking. I had lunch near the bus station, which consisted of the ubiquitous meat broth soup with chunks of meat and cabbage. Accompanying this on the side is a huge pile of vegetables, including lettuce, mint, and a few other greens that I believe grow near the rivers, but I don't know what they are.

The road from Huay Xia must have been a tremendous engineering challenge and I cannot say that it was an ecological success. The bedrock in this region varies from highly oxidized mudstone to completely disagregated gruss. When combining the rock type with the consistently steep and sinuous hillsides, any attempt to contour a road results in tremendous cuts in the hills (as no tunnels were attempted, for very good reason). These cuts in the hill slope create tremendous scars in the landscape and result in mudsides which had taken out parts of the road and further down slope during the wet season (May to October). That said, the road was impressively smooth and we made good time to Luang Nam Ta, a large village surrounded by hilltribe towns, known by pharangs (foreigners) as an ecotourism destination, which encourages tourism to this region in a sustainable manner (proceeds going to local guides, English speaking guides, and the hosting tribal villages).

The first day, I was reluctant to make use of guided tours, preferring to create my own interactions with the local people. I rented a bike and toured around the valley. The most remarkable thing that I saw was a pig being gutted in a river. Approximately 8 young men were surrounding the pig. Some of them held the legs of the pig, while one pulled out its intesties and stomach, leaving its heart visible. When we returned to the village, it was clear that a celebration had ensued, but we didn't have an excuse to join. During the course of this day, I only picked up one word of Lao, which is "Sabaidee" and it means "hello." The children here were so enthusiastic to see us and would say this word in an extremely endearing, high-pitched voice, which I would repeat back to them. This enthusiasm of the children and the unspoken communication between us continued to be a highlight throughout my stay in Lao. The people in the plain of the valley farmed many things, including rice, while nearly emaciated-looking dogs, fowl (turkeys, chickens, etc), boars, and water buffalo roamed freely in the towns.

As I made my way deep into the hills by bike, rustling in the thick vegetation at the side of the road initially startled me as I expected charismatic megafauna. It turned out that the people living in these villages were scavenging and farming. The principle item extracted were these fan-like plants which are used to make brooms. The formation of the brooms involves manual thwacking of the plant against a stone in order to extract some seeds. Many of the brooms are exported to China. By the time I'd made it as far as daylight allowed, I encountered a large group of children, who swarmed me and my bike. The experience made me want to spend more time in towns, so I signed myself up for a 2-day trek to the Pouban, Akha village.

Our group for the trip consisted of five people including myself (2 other Americans, an Israeli, and a Canadian). We started the trip with a trip to the day market, which featured a wonderous variety of food, from river fish 2-3 feet long to the traditional lau prepared dishes with bamboo, minced meat with mint and other greens prepared in seviche style (gaab), green and clear lau lau (the local moonshine whiskey which would later be foisted upon us in the Akha village), spit-fire-roasted bananas, and many other items. Once the guides had picked out the food for us, we drove about 20 minutes and set out into a thin jungle. We hiked slowly and the guide let us sample edible plants (most were sour and pointed out plants used for medicinal purposes (one for curing a stomach ache, another for relieving stress, another to make old men "strong"...aka herbal viagra, and a few others). We heard birds, but saw very few.

In the late afternoon, we made it to town and were all impressed by its size (66 houses) and it was centered about a high ridge. The most striking aspect about the town was the non-Orwellian Animal Farm appearance of the town. The farm animals were everywhere, constantly in search of some sort of food (which was in scarce supply). The elder villagers nodded their heads in greeting as we walked through the town and once again the younger ones were fascinated by us. They were playing with bamboo poles and at one point were making use of the elasticity of these sticks to perform some sort of pole vault. When I video-recored this, they couldn't get enough. I dropped my camera while showing them the video and the screen went snow white. Fortunately, the battery removal trick brought the camera back to life. Bamboo was once again used in all forms of construction in the village. In fact, the only balls in the town were made out of bamboo. We engaged some children with the ball, which they preferred to hit with their sticks than to kick. A few of the houses had recently-installed solar panels (the sole luxury in the town), providing enough electricity for a single light, I presume.

Dinner was prepared in a hut by a local villager and our guides Sing and Kong. Although our lunch had been served on large banana leaves, this was served on the table with plates. The ubiquitous sticky rice is used to eat the chunky tomato dish, the cabbage soup (with or without thinly sliced buffalo meat), smoked buffalo meat strips, and a delectable cabbage dish with some local veggies. The village chief ate dinner with us and after our bellies were satiated, we got to ask him some questions about his village. It turns out that he is one of 3 chiefs and he was chosen because he has the language and writing skills to be the liason with the Lao government. The village used to be located elsewhere, but about 3 years ago it was rebuilt in its current location. I asked about fires in the village as cooking occurs within bamboo huts. He said that before the village moved, two houses had caught fire. The village is growing (as evidenced by the plethora of very young children). It turns out that the village is even larger than we'd thought (over 600 people, meaning that the average dwelling holds ~11 people!). To the amusement of my comrades, I asked about contraception, which is not used in the village. However, the chief claims that they "follow the moon" and people cannot get pregnant when the moon is full...perhaps this explains the burgeoning size of the village. One oddity within the village are elevated mini houses large enough for two people in a horizontal position. These are used by "a young man and young woman" to sleep together only after a festival and we saw some sort of structure that had been erected for the purpose of the festivals. Village decisions are made communally (for instance, the decision whether or not to create another dwelling). Lastly, there is one dirt road to the village, but the villagers seldom go into town.

That night the villagers put on their best clothes for us (which I knew was to put on their best face and therefore bothered me slightly) and then we were all given Lao massages by some of the local girls. Once they departed, we went to sleep to the sounds of the village animals and awoke the next morning to the same. People were showering in the open village shower and heading out to the hillsides to collect and harvest while some others would head into the Nam Tha jungle to hunt (we heard several gun shots).

The departed the town and headed back a different way, this time into the depths of the jungle along a stream bottom. Our guide had asked whether we brought sandals. I thought we just had a stream crossing, but it turned out that we would be walking down river for about 1.5 hours. The water was cool and refreshing. We stopped at the end of the stream section and several of my companions pulled leaches off themselves. I had the largest leach and was able to flick it off, but blood came out of the wound for hours, due to the anti-coagulant.

That evening, we went to the local karaoke bar with our two guides. Sing tried whole-heartedly to sleep with one of my trekking companions, including inviting himself to watch TV in our guest-house hotel room. At one point, his proposition line was "just give me five minutes." And when that failed, he said "ok, half an hour." In spite of this, we enjoyed our guide, and his English was serviceable.

The next day was a long bus-ride on very bad roads to the beautiful, riverside town of Namb Khiau in the karst region north of Luang Probang. The next day, I set out on foot to a village about an hour walk north along the river. We were immediately accosted by somebody who clearly wanted to guide us. We ended up hiring his student to take us to a waterfall and back to the town to see the school. The student's English was minimal, but we saw what he was up against as his teacher's English wasn't much better. The guide took us by boat up river and we took a nice swim near some people who were river-"snorkeling" for green algae. We saw this algae drying on mats in the next town. I found a vendor in Namb Khiau who sold this green algae, fried with sesame and some oil...between us we placed four orders of this stuff it was so tasty! I enjoyed watching this same vendor make pad thai from scratch (in Laos it has another name, which I forget). The wonderful thing about this day was observing a Canadian teacher interact with the children. He would absolutely captivate the children, just by asking their names and repeating them, or simply by teaching them how to say hello and good-bye in Englsh. He would keep a completely straight face and the children were just enraptured.

Today, I took the boat down the Ou river to Luang Probang through scenic karst terrain. We went through numerous small rapids in this sleek, wooden boat and were lucky not to hit rocks which destroyed the rudder of the boat going down-stream the previous day (I only learned this AFTER my trip). My advice to the adventurous canoists out there. Paddle the Ou river from its northern end to Luang probang. You can buy a small vessel for $120 and stop at towns and explore. The river is peaceful and beautiful and the rapids are tame. There was a couple doing this and we passed them. It seemed like a wonderful adventure.

Well, here I am in Luang Probang enjoying a bit of French flavor and the full-blown assoult of tourism. I'll be heading south from here toward Cambodia during the next five days wishing my time here were weeks/months not days. My best to all of you!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thailand: Bangkok and Chiang Rai

I'm in Thailand!! And things are well! Thanks to friends and family for such a nice send-off in Seattle and San Francisco. So, my first few days in Bangkok were rough. I won't go into the details, but the Japanese Encephalitis vaccination that I received the first day took my breakfast and lunch for a solid 24 hours. I was really fortunate to meet up with John Campion, a friend from Apple Hill. going way back! John's volunteering in the Peace Corps, where he had training and was staying at a very nice hotel on the river. We hung out with the volunteers for a few days and then spent a day at Chattuchat weekend market (definitely unlike anything I've seen back home) and at the Siam Paragon Mall where we saw a movie and experienced the traditional homage to the King of Thailand at the outset (everybody stands up). The overnight bus to Chiang Rai was really nice, so I actually got some sleep.

John headed up to his site (~30 km from the city) and I joined John's friend, Ashley to visit Chiang Rai. The first day, we went to the White Temple, which I have come to realize is truly unique compared to the traditional temples featuring a buddha in some posture and not much else. The architect and mural painter is the same person and I truly admired his work. One wall of the interior featured "good" and the other was probably "bad" -- the latter seamlessly integrating all kinds of things including, including the images of Bush, Bin Laden, airplanes involved in the 9/11 attacks, snakes strangling the burning twin towers, fed by the greed of the masses and their thirst for oil. I could have watched this for hours because I just kept seeing new things!

The next day, I took the bus up to some border towns (Chiang Saen and Mae Sae) along the Burmese/Laos borders, passing through the steamship prow temple at the "Golden Triangle."

After meeting two new friends, Galaad (French) and Chris (British), at the local hangout, we decided to rent motorbikes and head for the hills. The plan was to make a loop (about 190 km total). I had one map which showed the necessary roads and one that didn't, so we were rolling the dyce. By about 2PM, we were about half-way through the loop and in some really fascinating country. Our route went from wide 2-lane road to a small, windy road, which quickly turned to dirt as we started to enter hill tribe towns surrounded by terraced countryside. The people we saw were friendly and we passed one boy with a bat...he was sitting next to a leashed pig...your guess is as good as mine on this one. Well, we were just digging this road, until it suddenly was blocked with no way around for our bikes. We back-tracked and found an english-speaking man in the previous village. He told us that we could get to Chiang Rai along this river valley, but we'd have to take a boat to get to the road. He introduced us to some locals who we could hire to take our bikes across for us. After contemplating the risks of this crossing (to our bikes which were the keys to regaining our passports!), the point of no return, and the complete inadequacy of any map we had, we decided the rewards were too great to pass up and as Chris put it: "never have the Americans, French, and English made good decisions when together." After significant manoevering, we managed to get our bikes onto the opposite bank and continued onwards. The road became single-track and very slow going. Small stream crossings became frequent (good thing this was the dry season!) because we had to extract Galaad's bike from some drink that was trying to eat his wheels! Several times we walked our bikes (with motors on for power) up steep hills and coaxed our way down steep descents. At times, cows slowed progress as well. Daylight was beginning to wane and we had no idea how far we had to go. The low point was when Chris' bike slipped off the track and dropped about 5 feet down into some dense vegetation. After some serious effort, we got his bike back on track. We passed a few locals who consistently pointed the same direction when we mentioned Chiang Rai, so we had that going for us. We finally got to a village and local kids ran up and started playing with our bike horns. We played them a simple three-note song with our horns (the intervals were surprisingly close to 2nd's!). Well, I think I've painted enough of a picture of this adventure. I hope to post photos soon! We did get our bikes returned after dark, although when they saw our bikes caked in dirt, we were concerned they wouldn't pass the inspection, so it was a great relief when they put passports in our hands!

I've consistently enjoyed Thai ingenuity, which ranges from using tree branches to replace traffic cones, patches of jeans as coasters, etc...The Thai people have been incredibly friendly, I wish I had a bit more Thai, so I could effectively converse. I'm lucky when I have John around because he speaks well! I'm heading to Laos, tomorrow.