Laos / Vietnam

Trip Start Oct 31, 2003
Trip End Jun 30, 2004

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, December 12, 2003

Woah Nelly! She's a long one. Normally I would read back over what I wrote, but it's too long... I fear I may bore myself to death, so instead you are being given the exciting task. It may take you more than one sitting.

Hope all is well.

moi. : )

Sabaidee! (That's hello in Lao)

Laos seems like a long time ago now... but it still deserves recognition all the same.
Kay, where to start...? It's been an adventure to say the least, and I swear every day gets more and more random. First of all, kudos to "Gap's Guesthouse?Ein Chang Mai for their Laundry miracles... I could not believe how clean my clothes were when they came back ... unbelievable. It's amazing how stained and disgusting some of my stuff was? But it was perfect upon return. Of course, it will probably all disintegrate in a week because they bleached the shit out of it, but whatever. As long as I have a week's worth of clean underwear, I'm laughin?E The How dirty is it? game has taken on a whole new meaning... let me tell you.

I am starting to talk to myself in broken Thai, Lao and now Vietnamese sentances... My inner monologue goes something like this... Maybe I stay longer? or Today I go tour?E Good thing I will be in Australia before I have to dazzle any potential employers with my stellar vocab.

Before I left Thailand I fell pray to a few more Tuk Tuks (for anyone who hasn't been here - they're Scooter taxi's that pull a cart for the passenger, sort of a motorized rickashaw). Do I have sucker on my forehead? Is it because I'm a chick or what? They feel like they can take me wherever they please? - Like for instance the stores that give them commission for bringing foreigners to their lair. The worst part of it is,.. most of the time I end up buying something anyway. I'm such a hardass eh?

The trip from Chang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos was interesting to say the least.. in that fearing for your life sort of way. When I bought my ticket I innocently
opted for the "Fast" boat, thinking that much like its name, it was simply a faster boat. I mean why spend two full days on the water when you can get there in 1...right? Not the case. As we got closer and closer to the river (had to stay over one night in Chang Kong ( my tolerance for slum is getting progressively higher by the way) I kept hearing more and more horror stories about the quote/ unquote "Fast" boat. So I get there and the fast boat is literally this tiny little jet propelled speed boat that barely sits out of the water where they cram 9 people into the space for 6. But it gets better... you have to sit with your legs bent up so your chin is resting on your knees, on the floor of the boat, wearing a mandatory life jacket and helmut... HELMUT! Because the boats sometimes hit rocks and flip when they are flying mach 20 down the Mehkong River. And let me tell you, they fly. Wonderful. Oh, and did I mention that the trip was just a short little jaunt... six hours. Some people took one look at it and turned in their tickets for the slow boat. I figured I'd give it a shot. It was crazy. I can't wait to show people the pictures, noone will believe it. Totally surreal. But memorable none the less. One guy lost his bag. It fell overboard. The driver didn't seem to care. He lost his shit. I got there in one piece. Such is life.

Laos is substantially less developed and more rug-ged than Thailand. If it is authenticity you are looking for, this is the place. The infrastructure is shit and the people are pretty much living in squalour. But damn they know how to milk the tourists. Everything is very expensive, well, by SE Asia standards anyway. $3 American dollars per minute for a phone call! One night I went to call London and I couldn't because the phones just weren't working that day. Not one phone in the entire country. Imagine if that happened in Canada?

The food was awesome. Like Thai, but not as spicy. Perfect for me : )

Security is always an issue of course. Spent one night with my room key left in the lock all night... oops.

Thigh muscles are getting exponentially stronger by the day. Partly from carrying my pack, and partly from using "Squat" toilets?E

One of the stranger phenomena I have seen since I've been here was the "feeding of the monks?Ein Luang Prabang. I was up early one morning (7:30 AM) on my way to see a cave wat and a water fall when I turned the corner to the main road and was hit with a sea of orange wading through the streets. Literally as far as you could see there were Monks. Big ones, little ones, young, old. Every size and shape of Monk you could imagine, walking in the same dirrection. Hundreds. It was so bizzarre. Of course I exploited this photo op to the max. Hopefully a few will turn out. I can't explain what an odd sight it was. I was so fascinated by the spectacle that I got up even earlier the next day to watch the whole thing over again. Anyway, it turns out this is the daily Feeding of the monks?E At 6Am they emerge from their various temples with these buckets and walk down the street. People (mainly tourists) buy food from the vendors (conveniently waiting for a buck) and drop the food in the buckets. Like they're zoo creatures or something? Totally strange, but intriguing all the same.

And speaking of Monks, I don't know what it is, but the Lao monks are particularly chatty. They would just pop out of the woodwork and strike up a conversation. Literally, if I set foot within a 50 meter radius of their Wat, they would flock to me. But I did have some pretty interesting conversations. One Monk told me he liked English music. Oh yeah??EI asked, "like what?"?E"White Snake?Ehe replied proudly. Uh... O.K. Didn't know Buddah was down with 80's hair metal, but that's cool.

I was going to go to Vang Viang by bus after Luang, but then we got word that the problems that were once a severe issue on the road between the two towns were getting bad again. Hmmm, which to choose? Option A) 9 hrs of armed gunmen and windy, pot-holed gravel road, or Option B ) Sketchy avaition. Another tourist bus was held up by armed bandits while I was there, so I opted for the safer option (and I use the term "safer"?Eloosely as I found out later that both the U.S. and British governments had advised their citizens NOT to use Lao air because they use no radar?Ethey only fly by sight!)and flew to Vientiane instead. In fact, a year and a half ago an entire busload of tourists were killed on this stretch. I talked to some people that had just come that route and they said it was pretty freaky. Dudes with guns everywhere. They have guards on the busses now, but shit still goes down. Incidentally, I, and the 5 other people on the flight (that could facilitate about 200) really enjoyed our pizza and spaghetti with Coke at 8AM for breakfast. Our luggage was sitting on a table for us when we got there.

Other random stuff:
I'm convinced that John Lennon and Yoko Ono doubles are following me. I see this couple everywhere! And the resemblance is truly uncanny.

I sunk calf deep in concrete with my flip flops on in Luang after walking across some freshly paved sidewalk that countless locals easily trod over. I felt like I was in a bad episode of the Sopranos or something. The women watching made me immediately come inside and wash my feet in the tap before it stiffened.

I Saw Santa and the seven dwarves the other day. They sorta butcher a lot of Western holiday traditions. There they were, Santa and his happy dwarves, Sleepy, dopey, Sneezy, Doc, etc. I can understand the mix-up : Dwarves/ elves - they're all little people... made me laugh. I also saw Santa's sleigh being pulled by huskies? That's also a new one.

A fat, buck-naked, middle aged white man greeted me in the communal washroom at 6AM in Vientiane with no shame. Lovely.

On Cat Ba island I saw two guys on a scooter dragging this poor ass (literally - a mule) down the street on a rope. It was a sad sight to see this pathetic lag trying to keep up with the motor-bike, clippity clopping down mainstreet as they yanked the lead. But it was a losing battle : ( It might not seem that odd but I wish I had pulled out my camera because it really was. This area wasn't rural at all. It might as well have been Queen St.

Every time I witness one of these peculiar events I often look around for another Westerner so I can exchange a What the hell was that??ELook.

The garbage trucks in Vietnam play this weird carnival music as they're coming down the street? Like an ice cream truck or something. Maybe it doesn't happen that often so it's a real event when they come? I don't know. Also, most of the garbage truck people are women, which you don't see a lot at home.

Hanoi , Capitol of Vietnam. Awesome city. Love it. Culture, Clean, efficient, cosmopolitan - superb shopping! Head and Tails above Bangkok in every way. The silks and artwork are utterly fantastic. If I ever become a homeowner (circa 2030) I swear I will come here to decorate. Fabulous.

You feel rich when you go to the bank. I took out 1 million dong today ($100) So funny.

Went to the Women's Museum?E There were full on combat troops of entirely women in the Vietnam war. Super cool to see the history documented. Lots of photos, very poignant.
Vietnam named the first woman general in the world, in the 50's.

Halong Bay. World Heritage site. Beautiful green clear waters with enourmous rock formations and cliffs jutting out. Only pictures will do it justice.

There are more scooters in Hanoi than I've seen in a lifetime. 50 times that of Bangkok. Pretty much all that's on the street. And people DO NOT lay off the horns. The traffic is Insane. I haven't decided if the honking is haphazard and they really are that obnoxious, or if there is actually some sort of code communicated by honking because there seems to be patterns.

People here wear the quintessential conical Chinaman hats for everything. Even construction workers?

For a while I was starting to wonder if I had some sort of eye-level sight impairment because I would crank my head off of 10 things a day. Now I've realized that things (lamps, ceiling fixtures, rooves etc.) are Asian sized?E which somehow manges to sit right in my blind spot. Good thing I wear hats and bandannaa a lot or I'd be losing some serious brain cells.

Hanoi is hosting the Sea Games?Eright now which is basically the Olympics for South East Asia. It's the only thing on EVERY station EVERYWHERE, ALL THE TIME. Vietnam's men's Football team (soccer) won the final the other night and it was nuts, NUTS on the streets. I think the Toronto equivalent would be if the Leaf's won the Stanley Cup. It was that magnitude of party chaos. I innocently went to try and see the circus that night. I got there and they were just screening the game on a giant screen in the circus tent. I was literally the ONLY westerner in a sea of rowdy adolescent Vietnamese Football?Efans. I stayed for a while but it started to get a little out of hand. Cops with Billy sticks etc. I thought great, all I need is for one of the mob to decide that Americans suck (and there IS still a lot of animosity, understandably so) and I'm toast. So I excused my self for the second half. Pretty cool to witness though.

I must say I've found myself in this situation a few times now. Slightly sketchy.. not entirely, but somewhat. Where do you draw the line as a female travelling alone (In a society that has much less regard for females in general) between seeking out genuine experiences off the beaten path, and just being stupid about your safety? Today I wandered down this dirt path trying to find a Pagoda. I obviously took a wrong turn and found myself in this incredibly vast landscape of rice paddy's for as far as you could see. It was amazing and I ventured out into them. After a while I ran into a few locals, all men. Some kinder than others. Probably harmless, but it's tough to tell. Are they following me for a reason? Or are they just curious. One guy demanded money after I took a picture of his geese. Another guy wanted to hold my camera (I didn't let him - He was satisfied with taking my pen instead) What do I do? They don't speak my languange. I'm in THEIR world. I think it's good to leave your comfort zone. But how far? I don't want to be paranoid, but I can't be naive either. I'm grappling with this daily. And needless to say I haven't shared this little quandry with my father.

As I write, a gecko is running up the wall and a giant beetle the size of my thumb is crawling by my foot. One of my guides in Vietnam told me how nature helped them to win many wars. It's true. It really is Jungle?E I can only imagine some of those poor 18-yr old Americans dropped over here in some rice patty swamp during the rainy season without a clue. It must have been hell. They wouldn't have known which way was Sunday. Because I can tell you with total assurance that Michigan and Oregon do not have the zealous wildlife that I have seen here by any stretch. Man, the Vietnamese have had a rough go of it. People invading their country left, right and center. Their history is incredible. I am so impressed at how well they have re-built their country in such a short period of time.

Final observation about Vietnam: the people are very aggressive, too aggressive. I have friends who said it ruined their trip. It hasn't gone that far yet for me, but I'm reaching my breaking point. You get completely bombarded as you walk down the street for ANYTHING. To the point where people are grabbing you and touching you,
almost hanging off you. You get swarmed (this is in the smaller, more rural sections, not AS bad in the cities) - poked, prodded, pawed. And seeing as I have a big thing about personal space to begin with (Strangers don't fucking touch me!) it's not cool. It really wears on you after a while.The only refuge is your guest house (Which every place has been complete luxury by the way - beautiful accomodation for $7-$8) Nicest yet. But Im excited to return to the solace of Thailand if you can believe it.

O.K. Wild Kingdom... The afforementioned gecko on the wall just ate the beatle. Don't tell me that this place ain't happenin?E...

I watched Paul Martin's induction ceremony on the BBC. Kind of cool I can watch it in Vietnam. Who would have thought that anyone else would care? I guess it would be Britain if anyone.

Anyway, I must bid you adieu as I can't stand to subject myself any further to the Aladdin soundtrack blaring in my ears.

Oh my god, they're now playing Ace of Base?E That's my cue.

Peace out.

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