Favourite Quotes

"Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away." — Maya Angelou

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The 4000 Islands

Sunset or Sunrise? This was the "unfortunate" fork-in-road situation we'd have to choose from when we got to Don Det island. We'd just arrived after the 20 minute long tail boat ride from the docks of Ban Nagasan (and by docks I mean lines of long tail boats pegged into the pebbled river bed). Once you choose which root to take, the second choice is now where to stay? Guesthouses galore is what you're abound with. Prices ranging from 40,000 kip a night to upwards of 80,000 your options are endless. Shared toilets, functioning hammocks, mosquito nets and fans are all things to consider.

The 4000 Islands, or Si Phan Don, are a collection of islands in the Mekong River, in the far south of Laos. A chill place that is arguably one of the most interesting places to relax. Located right on the Cambodian border the Si Phan Don which were until recently Laotian backwaters - many submerged in the rainy season the permanently occupied islands were and still are dedicated to coconuts, kapok, sugar cane and fishing. Today they offer the traveller a real look at village life.

It had been suggested to us from a Shanghainese cafe owner in Pakse to ask our guesthouse family if we could join them on their morning visit to the local wet market.We'd wake up early and take a long tail boat in with the mother and two of their four children. Back to the port of Ban Nagasan from whence we came, we'd explore the fresh vegetable stands, meat chopping tables and little clothing and accessory shops. Looking down one alley way we'd spot a man with a chicken in one hand and a machete in the other. This was as fresh as fresh could get. The mother picked up a toy car for the little boy along with some fresh herbs, melons and some sweet purple sticky rice. Hopping back in our boat, we'd see merchants out on the pebbled banks with several live chickens being flipped through by ladies like they were scoping out the women's shirt selection at Winners. 

The best way to explore the islands of Don Det and Don Khong is by bike. Walking over from Don Det to Don Khong you can follow the dirt path that leads you to the connecting bridge. You have to pay a toll to cross, but it's a must even on a short visit. Renting bikes on the other side, we'd wheel around and check out a wat or two, the Kohn Phaeng Falls and the famous Tat Somphamit falls said to be South East Asia's largest falls. 

Walking the island of Don Det is full of surprises and interesting encounters. Not only did we stumble upon a plethora of random livestock in ditches and in pathways, we'd also come across an old, dark coloured man who's sun worn skin made him look more like a California Raisin; the Lao edition. I don't know how we ended up getting sucked into it, but he ended up mapping out our fortune's right there on the dirt path with a piece of coal. He'd mutter, sketch, point at his work, then at who it referred to and smile, a decaying and toothless smile. Sizing up my second toe he'd say boy and pantomime a pregnant belly and then writing down a date that left us both cringing at the thought (2012). Numbers, circles, lines and arrows later, we'd establish that we'd both live into our 90's and that we'd have a couple of kids. Oh, and Mr. had to watch out for his stomach. My first time having my fortune told and by far the coolest, 20,000 kip ($2.50).

Trying to spot the Irrawaddy dolphins that live in ever-decreasing numbers in the Mekong is a highlight for many 4000 island visitors. Downstream of Don Khon, at the border between Laos and Cambodia, freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins frolic in a protected area of the Mekong. Although the Lao insist that anytime is a good time to spot the dolphins, the best times are in the early morning or in the evening when they feed. We'd hop in a long tail boat out with an expert boats man who wound us through the whirling river rapids and brought us to giant jutting boulders in the middle of the middle where we could perch and wait. While waddy watching, letting your feet soak in the river water can be a major distraction as feet-nibbling fish will be updating your pedi. For some of those who would be too busy giggling and watching the mini fish at work, they'd miss a few Irrawaddy sightings. Paying 70,000 kip for the boat trip into the murky Mekong waters to catch a glimpse of the rare dolphins that are a close relative of the Orca (killer whale) doesn't guarantee you a sighting, but you'll most likely catch an awesome sunset.  And yes, we were lucky enough to spot some. More on the Irrawaddy and efforts being made to help save the endangered species at http://www.savethewhales.org/MekongDolphin.html.

Mrs. Excellent Adventure 

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Rice Bus, A Knock on the Door and Some Pee Stops

Go where the locals go. A good rule to live by when exploring a new country. Asking a proficient English speaking hotel manager in Luang Prabang where she'd recommend going in Lao, the response was Savannakhet (in southern Lao; Savanh for short). She said that Savanh is today what Luang Prabang was 20 years ago.We were sold, but would the getting there would require another bad luck bus trip? Fingers were crossed.

Sorry...Bus Full, reads the lip pushing sign as the bus blows passed you. Transit goers shan't be disheartened. There's a bus seat for all in Lao since the full concept doesn't apply there...well to buses anyway. After one bus breakdown after another, from the VIP buses to the mid- range kind, we'd vouch for the regular bus, and by "regular" I mean a milk-run-public-transit bus, and it would make all of the stops.
Getting into the bus we'd hand over our bags to a guy who'd take them to the back where Bag Mountain had already started forming. We'd then walk across bags of rice to our seats where there
 were two more bags of rice on the floor where our feet should go. With our knees up to our chins we'd watch as the already packed bus would continue to get fuller. And with no AC on the bus, the constant stopping was torture. Now the aisle of rice bags doubled as seats for passengers, but that wouldn't stop the bus from picking up more people. Tiny Lao bodies were climbing over top of others making room for all.

With the weight of the stacks of food and other goods on the rooftop plus all of the people and luggage, the bus was scrapping along the gravel road. The engine would over heat and we'd have to make yet another stop. Back on the road again it wouldn't be long before we'd stop yet again. This time there was a bunch of kerfuffle with the driver, some passengers and a cop. I smiled to myself thinking, finally someone's putting a stop to this over loading of public transit, but it had nothing to do with the size of our load. We had hit a truck.

By the time we'd roll in to Savannakhet it was pitch black. The bus had stopped outside of the main town that we needed to get to, but the lady whose groceries made up the second deck of the bus said that our ticket included a tuk tuk ride. So we'd load up with a tuk tuk and then we'd wait...  The driver would get friendly and speak some English, but then when we'd ask when we could go he'd pretend like he didn't speak any English...then start up the truck...then go back to doing nothing...Tired and with patience dwindling, we'd ask to leave in a more heated manor. It was then that the driver offered to go now if we'd each pay 20,000 kip ($2.50 US). Of course we'd been told that this was a free ride, so we refused, but Rene (our Swiss friend who was the only other foreigner to brave the public bus) was quick to get on board. Morgan and I decide we'd walk. The driver then turned on his flashlight and held it up in my face to say 20,000 kip again. Well now walking was happening for sure after that move...This is a typical occurrence. The bus won't want to reroute 30 minutes off its course for a few people so it will stop outside the city center somewhere usually abandoned and let you get there yourself. After midnight there's a 10,000 kip ($1.25 US) surcharge in Lao for transportation, but no one tells you this...not even Lonely Planet. 

Rene, Mr. and Mrs. set out on our walking mission to prove a point. Not knowing exactly where we needed to go or how far it was, we'd head in the direction that the city center had been pointed in. Walking along a creepily quiet and dark roadway we'd quickly realize that we were about three hours of walking away from the city center. Road markers read 32 km. Mrs. was about ready to call it a night right there on the side of the road when Rene noticed a tuk tuk parked in the driveway of someone's home. He'd all to easily decide to knock on the door to see if the residents would drive us into town, of course with money on offer. Knocking a few times and with no response but a little dog yapping, Rene turned back. Almost making it off the property we'd notice the front door open and a man's head pop out, then another head, and another. Sure enough, the whole family of nine had gotten up to answer the door... at one in the morning. After offering 100,000 kip ($12.50 US) along with some pantomiming for driving and pointing into town to deliver our message of urgency, the family still surprisingly turned us down. Back to the side of the road.

The time of night meant fewer taxis on the road not to mention the desertification of the situation. A full van soon pulled up and when the driver looked at the three of us and began to shake his head, but his wife was already out of the van trying to pack our big packs into the trunk. We'd cram ourselves in like a smooth game of Tetrus, but we'd make it into the city of Savannakhet, finally... hoping that was all worth it.

Savannakhet is a province of Lao .The name Savannakhet derives from Savanh Nakhone, which means "city of paradise", the province's original name. An odd choice given its lack of beauty and excitement.
Savanh has 12 different ethnic groups; the city is a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. Savanh is also a major trading route in the southern part of Laos. Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese-made goods pass through Savanh daily. And that's all it seems to be...a trade route. Of course, once we'd get to Savanh and the only people around were a pack of stray dogs, it would make more sense to us that the place the hotel manager may have meant to recommend was Pakse. A place with French flare, neat architecture and much more going on for visitors; there were just more travellers IN Pakse, period. We'd see no other foreigners in Savanh the next day. Rene, our Swiss friend who'd also ridden the Rice Bus, had spotted one solo girl, but that was it. Savanh was dull and desolate; even the architecture was boxy and plain. We'd be buy a ticket out of Savanh that day.

Seeing the bus to Paske, and Rene, we were relieved to be leaving Savanh, and the emphasis on happy couldn't have been greater since we'd sit in the station for a half hour with the engine running and fumes seeping into the bus. We were off, and there was even enough room to even get comfy in the 70's style leather sofa seats...then bus would even make it Pakse without breaking down, overloading or crashing. It would make multiple potty stops though.

PS - Besides having breaking down in common, all Lao buses make frequent stops for bathroom breaks. In broad daylight or pitch black of night, the bus pulls over and the driver and locals scamper off the bus making for the closest bush. There's no time to waste worrying about having T-P before the bus's horn sounds to signal you'd better shake or blot and head back. At one stop, Mrs. squatted down for relief when a loud bell scarred it away. She'd find herself in the middle of a cow paddy.

The Limey

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Buses, Bombs and Really Big Jars

From Vang Vieng we'd head backwards to Phonsavan in Northern Lao PDR. A visit to the Plain of Jars was a must... if we could only get there. We'd travelled all over Europe, Turkey and Thailand with transportation luck on our side, but Lao would put a sudden end to our green light coasting. Our bus ride out of Vang Vieng to Phonsavan was late due to technical problems. Three hours late. By dusk we'd be en route in our VIP air conditioned bus. An hour into our journey the bus broke down. The driving crew of four broke out their kitchen utensils to try and fix the problem. We'd be waiting in the dark of night for five hours before the engine was fixed. Finally we'd make it to Phonsavan bus station in the wee hours of the night. It was probably the most remote station we'd ever seen. Not a foreigner in sight let alone transportation. Not one lurking tuk tuk either. Walking around looking completely lost, one of the locals working the eating spot must have called one for us because a lone tuk tuk would eventually roll up. We had some mammoth jars to visit in the morning.

Over 500 jars, thought to be c.1,500 to 2,000 years old, dates that are still unclear, are scattered across a pin-cushione landscape known as the Plain of Jars. Averaging 272 lbs (600 kg), the jars are behemoth ranging from 3 to 10 ft (1-3 m) in height. The largest jar weighing 14 tonnes. Their origin and function remain a mystery, but Lao legend tells of giants that once lived there and an ancient king named Khun Cheung who built the jars to brew his own batch of lao lao rice wine. No scientific explanation as to how these jars found their way onto the plain, nor what purpose they served, exists. Archaeologists have come up with some inspirational theories, among them a claim declaring them brewery cauldrons. There is speculation that the plain was at the connection point of old Caravan Routes coming from India and the jars were simply unloaded here, but forgotten in time. Archaeologists and Historians are still baffled regarding their origin. No one knows for sure their precise age, who built them, or why and why they are all left at this plateau and nowhere else.

From the mid-1960s through the early 70s, the Plain of Jars was the scene of heavy fighting between the Pathet Lao and U.S.-backed troops. During the US forces' nine year bombing campaign of Lao, thousands of mines were dropped by plane in a vain attempt to close the Ho Chi Min Trail. What is less known is that the US systematically bombed northern Lao in a failed attempt the disrupt a Communist government takeover in Lao (achieved in 1975). Lao is the most bombed country in the world. Making light years of destruction, the Lao people have learned to embrace their balmy history. Old bomb shells now make decorative planter boxes.

 It has been estimated that over 2 million dollars' worth of bombs were dropped each day during those nine years. Each day over 70 people are killed or injured by anti-personnel mines. That's around one person every 15 minutes.

Before taking to the plains of Phase I, a very big warning sign welcomes you from MAG (Mines Advisory Group) warning you to stay within the marked areas. Small red and white stepping stones mark the sub-surfaces that have been cleared of all Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) and are safe to walk (white), and areas where only the surface has been cleared (red).  MAG's clearance of unexploded ordnance in Lao PDR means previously contaminated land can be used for agriculture, schools, access roads, bridges, irrigation canals, toilets and water supply. 127 UXO have been cleared from Phase I so far.

You know when you see an unattractive person and someone makes a comment about how they look like 10 miles of bad road.Well, we found that road in Phonsavan, Lao. We'd spend something like two hours in search of an abandoned Russian tanker motoring back and forth along the brutal terrain. When we complain about western bumpy street roads and pot holes, this was straight gravel, fractures and pot holes for miles.

The Limey

Monday, July 18, 2011

In the Tubing and Mr. Adventure's Colourful Cock Chase

In Chiang Mai we'd heard rumors of a magical place that played Friends and Family Guy episodes on repeat. I have never been that excited to see the familiar faces of Phoebe Bouffet or Peter Griffin and seeing them in the middle Laos was surreal. Famous for its happy menus and its tubing, Vang Vieng gets messy for Mr. and Mrs...and for the first time in my life I could have used a life jacket...or water wings.

Sticking out like socks and sandals, it was easy to spot the days tubers.  Worn off neon paint, head bands sporting some blasphemy, little to no clothing and the famous “In the Tubing” Vang Vieng, Laos tank. Heading into a bar that night we’d see a video someone had filmed of the day's tubing, swinging and slide rides. There looked to be a lot of catapulting and rag dolling through the air as well as a lot of drinking and good times.  Tubing four days straight and one guy hadn’t once made it to the finish line yet.  Someone else said that a tube wasn’t even really needed. The Mekong's spring waters were drying up leaving shallow waters low enough to wade from bar to bar. We found some slow boat friends from Luang Prabang and decided to meet the next morning for some tubing action. Little did we know that the day would leave some of us bruised, too "happy" to tube, chasing cocks and never making it to the finish line...not even close.  I actually think we ended up making it back to where our tuk-tuk originally dropped us off. We had been told that the drivers don’t drop you off at the very top of the tubing channel and charge you extra if you want to go there. Walking instead is possible... and interesting. You’ll have to trek through a cow farm and over some janky nail protruding ladders. Good thing we updated our tetanus.
We’d spot the twirly slide and made that our first stop. Instead of the friendly Sabaidee and the notorious offer of “something something?” we’d be greeted by a Laos guy with a bottle of lao lao fixed with a pump nozzle. We tilted our heads back and prayed that this “something something” would get us at least past noon. Then we spotted the famous zip-line water swing that had made it into the video clip we’d seen at the bar the night before. Hopping into the water and floating over to it in our tubes we’d get stuck find ourselves preoccupied here for hours. The getting there was memorable as it would nearly leave some of us toothless. Like bar street promoters, Lao boys hang out in front of their bar with a rope and buoy ready to lasso and toss out to potential partiers, towing you in.

Not only did the zip-line provide for much amusement, there was also the high board. As graceful as he tried to be, Morgan would end up with a ballooned out elephant elbow. No matter. Another bucket of lao-lao and it was go time. If you weren't zip-lining or high jumping you could indulge in the one of the best things...the fine art of people watching. Dancing on the bamboo mat dance floor or dressing up in hand crafted head bands sporting personalized phrases custom made by bar staff to you...I believe mine said "I have a dick". Morgan was too busy chasing a rooster around one bar’s back yard saying repeatedly  “What a colourful cock!” with arms t-rexed out in front like a little kid. 

Getting back in the water posed a slight problem. Like a little kid on her first day of swimming lessons, I'd have to be assisted into my tube. The shallow waters became far too deep and definitely drownable to those of us who'd partake in the happy brownies on offer as a welcome gift.

The Limey

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Laos Groceries, Blessed Shopping, The Bike Crash and No Lady Love Allowed

How do the Laos people go grocery shopping? They take a trip to the market where other locals sell the freshest fish, meat, fruits and vegetables...and by freshest I mean still alive. At the Morning Market in Luang Prabang everything is ultra fresh. Fish still flapping about on damp banana leaves. 

Laos, ladies fry up some of the tastiest little fried bean balls; crouched down and almost motionless they're easy to trip over. Delicacies like ox and pig's hooves, crab wreathes and the stinky-sock-smelling durian are also on offer by the plenty.
Cruising the colourfully tarped stalls of the night market where hundreds of locals tent up and display their handicrafts to sell. While baby sleeps, local women work their sales skills on shop-happy tourists to earn their living. Bartering and haggling in Luang Prabang is nothing compared to that of other parts of Asia. I thought Thailand was bad, but it wouldn't be until I'd get assaulted by a vendor in Hong Kong that I'd recognize the very serious business that is haggling. The Laos ladies in Luang Prabang hand make everything they display and it really seems sad to even haggle with someone of a third world country; we're arguing over a few pennies here. The Yank prides himself in being the supreme barterer, attributing the quality to genes. I on the other hand have a problem with figuring out an appropriate price...my logic is simply, if I like it...I'll buy it. Things are just so much easier when there's a price tag. When you do purchase something you are taking part in your first blessed shopping experience. Before pocketing the cash, vendors will fan their money out and proceed to tap and sweep the cast over their crafts, blessing them. It's a ritual done for good luck to the vendor.

Laos has one of the highest vehicle accident rates in the world, and considering the size of the country, it equates to a rather high incident rate per capita. All accidents involve some combination of motorcycle, car, tuk-tuk or bicycle. Strolling back to our guesthouse we'd  notice a motorist come barreling out from a side alley without stopping. We'd notice him, number one because he'd whizzed past use without flinching and second, because he'd then nook a cyclist. Like many tourists do in Luang Prabang, this guy had rented a bike to get around. For one US dollar, it's a splurge everyone indulges in here. Of course though, this doesn't include a helmet. Helmet? Asking for one will leave your bike rental guy looking at you like you've got a boog hanging out. Mr. Biker came cruising down the very open road while Mr. Moped did the same from his side alley. BAM! Mr. Biker did a mid air double sow cow over Mr. Moped. This was about to get very interesting. What do you do? Again, like Thailand, Laos people are known for their non-confrontational demeanor. And there was a good chance Mr. Biker didn't speak any Lao. So, here's the breakdown of what happened. Mr. Biker landed flat on his face, but luckily momentum propelled him to his feet. He'd rush over and grab Mr. Moped's bike to show his upset and then began to pantomime his frustration. With no signs of blood or protruding bones, he brushed himself off and then in slow and irritable English that was loud, but decibels still not reaching a yelling category, Mr. Biker said simply "You. Stop! You. Look!"

There were rumours circulating of a bowling alley was open till the wee hours, but sadly it had been closed down. Instead we'd head to the town's only nightclub. After a few buckets, we'd end up cramming 15 people into a 7 person tuk-tuk. When the driver saw how many we were trying to cram into the little cubby he waved up a hand and said no no no, but we flashed some extra George Washingtons at him and he'd get on board. The nightclub clearly wasn't catered to heavy tourist drinkers and the function of  what a "bar" actually is evaded them. There was indeed a bar, but that's not where you'd bought drinks. Instead you'd order off a very minimal menu list at a take-out window next to the bar...but still inside the nightclub. It's still foggy what was ordered, but we'd hit the dance floor where a random Laos girl found it amusing to use a white girl as her stripper pole and began bumping and grinding all up and down my leg. I guess the girl-on-girl thing doesn't make pages in the Laos gentlemen's dirty magazines because the girl's boyfriend was none too pleased. I guess it was the hate stares I was getting, but maybe this was Laos love? Either way Laos Lady Love scampered off. Utopia bar was a favourite with its indoor volleyball court that more than made up for the sketchy bamboo constructed deck with no railing.

The Limey