Thailand and Laos

Trip Start Jul 16, 2004
Trip End Jun 16, 2005

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, February 13, 2005

Chang Mai, Thailand
Feb 13, 2005

See update at bottom...

After an uneventful 16 hour train ride in India, a 5 hour flight to Thailand, a 7 hour layover in Bangkok, and another 1 1/2 hour by plane I made it to Chang Mai just in time to take a 2-day Thai massage class.

It was an intensive class, packing 5 days worth of material (and body parts) into a weekend. The massage school was impressive and clean and well organized. Unlike anything in India! They sent a taxi for the students in the morning and issued each of us a simple top and pants to wear during school. The classroom was as clean as a western doctor's office and had two massage tables in the center. There were only four of us in the class. Me, Menno (you remember him from my India trip) and a mother/daughter team from Australia. During the first day of class I fell asleep several times but managed to stay awake long enough to get the basic principles of leg, foot, and arm massage. The second day we tackled back, shoulders, face and head. The instructor, a tiny Thai woman with very strong hands, would show us the routine for each body part and then we would practice on each other. We were each given a book, as well, with detailed instructions and diagrams.

At the end of the class on Sunday we were given an open book test and then issued an official looking certificate! Not bad for a gal that had never even received a thai massage before! Today it's Monday and I'm recuperating from a little too much Thai wiskey. I hope to book a ticket to Burma/Mayanmar for later this week and will once again be travelling with Menno. Since Myanmar is supposed to be a challenging country, we thought it best to travel there together.

After that, I'll head to Cambodia to teach, and Menno will head to Laos.

------Brief Update----
The two flights to Burma from Chang Mai are sold out this week. So, we are heading to Laos instead. I'll hit Burma in May/June. After China.

Here is the new travel itinerary (Subject to Change!):
Feb 16 - Feb 23 | Northern Laos
Feb 23 - March 3 | Northeast Thailand
March 3 - March 30 | Teach English in Cambodia
April 1 - April 10 | Southern Laos
April 10 - May 18 | China (Yunnan to Beijing)
May 19 - June 8 | Burma/Myanmar
June 8 - 11 | Work my way to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for my flight home
June 11 - September | New York, Maryland, D.C., Connecticut, Monroe, Montauk etc!
September - December | Israel, Egypt, Jordan, etc.

Luang Prabang, Laos
Feb 20, 2004
Luang Prabang, Laos

After three days of travelling I finally made it to Luang Prabang - a city deemed worthy by UNESCO to be called a World Heritage Site. I chose to take the more scenic and wallet-friendly approach from Thailand into Laos. Thus, the three day approach! The journey included:
- 6 hour van ride from Chang Mai to the border of Laos
- 1 night in a basic guest house at the Thai/Lao border
- 1 morning to sort out visas and get luggage and self settled onto a wooden bench in a long...slow...filled to capacity...boat down the Mekong
- 1 night in Pakbeng, Laos, in a guest house which ran out of water (and apparently electricity) around 9 p.m. But, unfortunately, did NOT have a shortage of mice in the middle of the night
- Another 8 hours on a wooden bench in a long...slow...boat...enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Mekong River go by

I could have saved a day by taking a speed boat down the Mekong rather than a slow boat but rumours about injuries and fatalities (in spite of the crash helmets and life vests) scared me away. Now I'm in Luang Prabang, Laos. It's a wonderful little town with a stunning collection of Buddhist and French colonial architecture clustered together along the Mekong river, surrounded by mountains. By renting a bike I was able to explore the entire town by noon, including a few magnificent Wats dating from the 1500's, and the Royal Palace Museum which used to be the palace of the King.

I'm a little disenchanted by the number of tourists here. I think we outnumber locals 2:1. The town is so user-friendly for tourists that it's hard to imagine having a 'genuine' experience here. It feels more like Disneyland. The main street is a scattering of delicious restaurants serving local and Western food. There are shops catering to tourists with stuff we need, as well as souvenirs we want. Every other block has an internet shop and/or a travel agent selling packages to see hill tribes, waterfalls, or caves. It's a little bizarre after India. But, in it's own charming way it's wonderful.

Tonight I'm going to a local Wat (temple) to listen to the monks nightly chanting. There are monks everywhere here in Luang Prabang. In their orange togas (for lack of a better word) they are hard to miss.
I'm planning to do a 3 day trek in an attempt to get off the beaten path a little bit. I want to see the "real" Laos but right now I'm surrounded by travellers. Not a single local in sight! Might as well be on Main Street, USA!

===heading to a small town in Laos on Tuesday, so don't expect an update for a week or so===

The real Laos
Feb 27, 2005

After three days of trekking 'Laos style' I was exhausted and in desperate need of both a shower and a meal without sticky rice! The trails of the trek reminded me of Nepal with dusty, narrow, footpaths along mountaintops with stunning scenery. Much like Nepal, the narrow paths were the only way to get from point A to point B. Roads, motorbikes and even bicycles were not an option. We shared the path with the villagers, water buffalos, cows, chickens, and a stray falang (foreigner) or two. But, mostly the paths were empty. Three weeks of trekking in Nepal couldn't have prepared me for the three day trek in Northerern Laos to see the small hill tribes near Muang Ngoi Neua.

- - - -
Muang Ngoi Neua (MN) is a three hour bus ride, followed by a one hour boat ride from Luang Prabang. The small village is like an oasis, nestled amid a long deserted stretch of the Nam Ou River. Arriving at MN by boat is surreal with small wooden bungalows seeming to appear out of nowhere along the deserted shoreline. Bungalow after bungalow pop up out of the jungle - yet 50 meters before the town, and after, there is nothing but unmanaged forest and mountains. The half mile stretch of bunagalows and open air restaurants (wooden decks) over the river reminded me of Goa, India. Muang Ngoi was once like any other Laos village - dependent on the river for its livelihood and largely cut off from the outside world. Now it divides its efforts and caters to tourists who want the "real" feel of Laos but don't want to give up the creature comforts of home like toilets, electricty and running water. Thus, the bungalows and makeshift restaurants. There are even little bodega-style shops selling toilet paper, local cigarettes, pringles potato chips and oreos.

There are no vehicles in the dusty one-path town but your feet can get you quite a long way into the "real" Laos. We stayed only one night in MNN before setting out with a Dutch couple, a chain-smoking Brit, and a Lao guide named Kong Keo on a three day trek to get to know the tribes of northern Laos.

The views on the trek were stunning. As we walked up and down the steep hills, we noticed the layer upon layer of mountains taking shape around us. For as far as they eye could see, there were mountains. The narrow dirt path was a little unforgiving when the shadey trees had been cut away to make room for future sticky rice farms, but we forged on. Three days of hills, three days of hill tribes, three days with no sign of toilet, telephone or running water. But, an abundance of sticky rice!

The first town we hit was dusty little Bam Seng Sauang but I came to call it "Land of the Lost". It was a sad little town with a school but no teacher. Kids but no smiles. People but no life. The 30 small wooden make-shift houses were on short stilts (presumably to discourage the livestock from entering the living area) along a dusty patch of ground. We stayed the night in the house of the tribe leader sleeping on his floor under mosquito nets, side by side by side. The town is halph-hazardly situated on a low hill about 5 hours from MN. The nearest running water is out of a bamboo pipe a 20-minute hike away. The one pipe, with trickling water at best, is used by all 100 villagers for drinking, laundry, cleansing and cooking. The villagers of Bam Seng are considered Nomads but have lived in this area for over 30 years. I hope that the next time the tribe moves they consider locating themselves nearer to water!

Dinner in Bam Seng Sauang was more memorable than the luke-warm welcome we received from the local children - who simply stared at us as if we were from another planet. They never smiled. Not even when the chain-smoking Brit broke into his rendition of "I'm a little teapot short and stout" or when the five of us put on a show of "hands, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes". Anyway, after trying to get a rise, or at least a smile out of them, we went inside for our first traditional Lao dinner. We sat on the floor by candle-light, and inquired about the food set out in front of us in small bowls. In one there was squirrel stew (paw and all), in another a soup made of river weed, and in the last a mango leaf salad. There was also a more than ample supply of sticky rice - the staple of every Lao diet. And something that I'll probably never eat again after having it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, three days in a row.

We ate with our hands, sometimes using a fork or spoon only to fish out the 'good' food from the bowls. After dinner the tribe leader pulled out a bottle of the infamous Lao Lao and the real festivities began. Shot after shot after shot we downed the bottle of 40 proof homemade liquor in less than a half hour!

Luckily Lao Lao doesn't lead to a hangover so we were all able to wake up relatively early on day two to continue the trek to the next tribal village - Ban Phone. Ban Phone was the complete opposite of Bam Seng. Here the kids were warm, and curious, and welcoming and wonderful. Menno and I taught them to play the matching game with a deck of cards, and I taught a few of the young girls how to play "patty cake". When we weren't entertaining them, we watched them play their own games - a rendition of dodge ball where the ball is replaced by a pair of underwear; jump rope with a make-shift string; high jump over anything they could find; and marbles. They were quite a resourceful group of kids. Later that night, after a trek into the woods to pee (there are no toilets or outhouses in town) we heard a loud TV blaring from a nearby house. A TV?! We looked around and noticed several satelite antennaes nearby! Quite a shock. We curiously walked up to the loud house and opened the door to find the entire village, almost 110 people, crammed into a small wooden room watching Thai soap operas! And, for only 1,000 Kip (10 cents) we too could join in the fun! So, we paid our kip and sat on a plank of wood which served as a bench in the back row. After a while it was time to return to outside the village limits to find a nice tree to pee behind. Finding the tree was the easy part. The hard part was holding a long stick, while squatting, to keep the feisty and hungry pigs at bay until you were finished. Seems that one person's waste is perhaps one animal's feast. Sorry. I know it's gross. But doing one's 'business' while holding a stick and throwing stones is surely a skill I won't need when I return to the U.S.

The next morning, after yet another meal of sticky rice, we set out for the third village - Ban Na. When we arrived in Ban Na a few hours later a local wedding was in progress under a makeshift tent. I jumped right in, learning the traditional Lao dance which was nothing more than two very slow moving conga lines with each row passing Lao Lao shots back and forth. I don't think they would actually classify it as 'dance' in the west. It was more like a really gentle hawaiian hula with the hands, and no body movement other than feet.

After the wedding we returned to MN and enjoyed running water, a toilet, mattresses, non-sticky rice meals and electricity (at least until 11pm). I even treated myself to peanut butter on a baguette. Yummy! We ended up staying in MN an extra day to chill out and enjoy the small stretch of 'beach' along the river. We had the beach to ourselves except for four young monks who decended upon us to practice their english and show off in their orange robes - which they wrapped around themselves like diapers so they too could cool down in the water.

All in all, I have to say trekking in Laos was much more challenging than trekking in Nepal. At least in Nepal you knew you would have running water every night, outhouses would always be available, you could always find a guest house with a bed, and you could choose what to eat from a well established menu. Trekking in Laos we frequently ran out of water, never had a toilet or even a hole for squatting, and had to fight off the pigs and livestock at every turn. Guess that's what I was looking for when I said I wanted to see the "real" Laos! As they say..."Be Careful What You Wish For"!

Leaving Laos
Mar 3, 2005

Tomorrow I'm leaving Laos via "The Friendship Bridge" between Ventianne and Thailand. From there I plan to work my way south through eastern Thailand and over the next border into Cambodia. The trip will probably take me from one to three days. I'll let you know once I'm safely in Siem Reap.

Once I arrive in Siem Reap, I plan to stay in the house of my Dad's acquaintance. He (Jed) is lending me his home while he is helping a friend rebuild from the Tsunami in Thailand. I'm going to attempt to teach english for a month in a local school near Angkor Wat (the most amazing tourist destination EVER). Wish me luck!

==========A little update=====
Yesterday, after tooling around the outskirts of Vientiane on bicycles, Menno and I went to a local "must see" in Vientiane called Wat Si Saket. We enjoyed our walk through the Wat and took loads of photos of the 2,000 6-inch tall silver and ceramic budha images within the many small niches of the Wat and it's courtyard. After touring the Wat we went outside the main walls to see the the area where the local monks live. As soon as we entered the compound we ended up enthralled by an orange-robed monk named Khanthong. We ended up sitting at a small picnic table with him for almost an hour, chatting about life as a monk and his life pre-monk.

It was the most interesting and honest conversation, and Khanthong managed to gracefully answer all of our basic questions about Lao monks. In brief, Khanthong was going to study to be a monk for 5 more years (he had already studied for 4). He was not following a 'calling' but saw monkhood as his only way of receiving a decent education - and his only way of escaping from his family's home deep in the mountains of southern Laos. A home with no electricity, toilets or running water. Sounds just like the villages we visited last week.

Khanthong has no money, not even from his family, so the local villagers in Vientiane feed all of the monks by bringing them food every morning at 6:30 a.m. The monks study in one local school but the education, per Khanthong, is very poor. He hopes to somehow get more money (by begging I presume) to go to a better school someday. As our time with Khanthong drew to a close, we exchanged e-mails (yes, even monks can use the local internet cafes!) and gave him the oranges we recently bought in the market. He didn't ask for anything more but I really wanted to give him the shirt off my back (so to speak)!
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