Monday, January 30, 2006

Vientiane

The Palm Pilot and the portable keyboard are working out well, now that I have figured out the finer points of uploading our files to a computer at an internet cafe. It's so much nicer to be able to whip out the keyboard anywhere during a quiet moment to write these blog entries than to always be doing them in a noisy internet place days later.



We spent a couple of nights in Vientiane, which seemed a bit sleepy, and were kept awake on our last night by a very heavy rat thumping about in the false ceiling above our bed.



The Pha Tat Luang monument was a bit souless in my opinion, but we had a great time visiting Wat Sok Pa Luang where we had a herbal sauna and massage in the forest surrounding the temple. It was early evening by the time our massages started, and every minute or so, my masseur would pause for a couple of seconds, I would hear a loud slap as he swatted a mosquito on his leg, then the massage would continue.

After much hand-wringing and poking around on Lonely Planet's website, we have decided to try and cross into Vietnam from Northern Laos - border crossings that have opened relatively recently to westerners and they are not served by any reliable transportation. So it will be an adventure and a half getting there.

The 50,000 kip question

We layed low in Luang Prabang for 3 days, sampling its various restaurants and poking around a few Wats in town and across the river.





It's a pleasant enough place, but on its fringes you notice the glaring gap between those who are benefitting from the tourist economy and those that are not.

Laos doesn't feel like a communist country so far - more like a remote province of Thailand. On the street, free-enterprise appears to be alive and well. In fact you can pay for anything in Thai baht (or dollars) in addition to the local currency which is kip. There are over 10,000 kip to the dollar, and the largest bill we have seen is the 20,000 kip note - the largest note is 50,000 kip, but these are practically non-existent. When I cashed $60 in travelers checks at the bank the other day I was handed a 1-inch wad of 120 5,000 notes wrapped in a rubber band.



To make matters worse the 1,000, 2,000 and 10,000 notes look very similar and you end up with so many notes in your wallet that it quickly becomes impossible to figure out how much you really have left short of removing it all and counting it out carefully.



We caught a minibus out of Luang Prabang and drove through the mountains to Vang Vieng, a dusty little collection of dirt roads and wooden buildings by the side of the river, seemingly entirely populated by young backpackers.



The streets are filled with guest-houses, internet cafes and rustic restaurants with raised seating platforms with pillows and low tables usually with one or more large televisions.



Walking down the street you see dozens of westerners reclining by tables watching back-to-back episodes of Friends or various blockbuster movies while sipping away on a Lao beer and munching pizza. It's an incongruous sight having just passed through villages 50km away that were full of thatch and bamboo huts and children running around in dirty rags.

Each restaurant also offers most of their dishes in a 'special' or 'happy' version which means prepared with pot or in some cases opium. There's even a little disco. It's the quintissential backpacker party town - cheap, convenient, with all the backpacker amenities, and a beautiful setting.



Vang Vieng is surrounded by craggy mountains with crumbly, sheer limestone cliffs clothed in a tangle of jungle. During the day you can take your book down to the river and plonk yourself down on a bamboo platform by the water and sunbathe for as long as you want so long as you buy a drink or two.







Alternatively you can rent an inner tube and have a tuk-tuk drop you off up-river and spend the day floating back to town, stopping periodically at makeshift bars to buy another beer.



Many of these have constructed elaborate swings or jumping platforms out of bamboo (some 10m high) to increase business.



Of course, I had a lot of fun on these.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Slow-boat down the Mekong



With our Laos visas in hand, we bussed up through progressively more rural countryside to the border crossing at Chiang Khong, on the bank of the Mekong river. With just enough time to spare, we had our passports stamped and jumped on a narrow ferry boat to cross the river which beached itself in the shallow water and we stepped off onto the wet, muddy shores of Laos - fortunately we were wearing flip-flops. We paid our 'overtime' fee of 50 cents to the Laos immigration official and found ourselves a room at a basic guest house in the sleeping border town of Huay Xai.

We gradually grew accustomed to the glacial pace of things in Laos - the internet cafe, at twice the price of those in Thailand, was using a dialup connection (the horror) as we searched in vain for tips on how to revive Katie's iPod that suddenly refuses to switch on. We went out for dinner and waited half an hour before I tracked down our drinks, and then another hour before my food arrived whereupon we realized that Katie's order was still a complete mystery to the staff. And the food... well, I guess we're not in Thailand anymore.

In some ways, Laos reminds me of Bolivia, in being a country where poverty is such that for most of the population the main objective each day is merely surviving. There is little money to spare for the luxuries of creative cuisine.



In the morning, after much confusion about our ticket, we boarded the slow-boat to Luang Prabang with 100 or so other travelers (and a handful of locals). For the benefit of other travelers I will mention that even at this time in high season there was absolutely no need to arrive the night before to buy a ticket - one could simply buy a ticket at the office by the dock in the morning an hour or so before the scheduled departure.

As the boat filled up, a comedy ensued as a German couple insisted that their seats (as indicated by a number on their tickets) were being occupied by a large Dutch woman. They had arrived two hours early and then both gone off to buy supplies for lunch, confident that they had assigned seats, and in the meantime the boat had filled up with most of us assuming it was free-seating, with guides and the boat operators confirming both points of view. The Germans held to their principle of correct seat assignments (in spite of the fact that any move at that point would necessitate that half the boat changed seats), and the Dutch woman stubbornly refused to bow to pressure (with moral support from a gaggle of heckling Dutch girls across the aisle). The showdown ended with the worst possible outcome, when a boatman produced a plastic chair which he placed in the aisle and all three of them had to sit next to each other for the rest of the day.



The Mekong starts its meandering path in Tibet, then passes through China and Myanmar, and outlines the border between Laos and Thailand for a while before entering Cambodia where it spreads wide enough to embrace thousands of islands as it finally turns East into Vietnam and empties into the sea. Where we began our trip it was as narrow as 150 feet in places, but usually about a quarter of a mile wide. There were rock outcrops everywhere and powerful, swirling currents of reddish water and occasional little rapids in places where the water was shallow. It was clearly not a trivial river to navigate in a long, overladen, lumbering boat at this time of year (it was clear that there was no limit to the number of tickets sold, and after the first 80 were seated on the cramped benches, the remaining passengers found plastic chairs, floor space, or perched themselves on backpacks wherever they could fit).



The alternative to the slow-boat (which takes 2 days with an overnight stop in Pakbeng), is unsuprisingly, the fast-boat. These are brightly painted, slender speedboats with a high-revving engine and a long propeller shaft sticking out the back producing a rooster-tail plume of water. A small handful of brave, helmet-wearing passengers crouch in pairs, leaning into the 30 knot wind as they are pummelled by the light chop. Occasionally a fast-boat hits a submerged log, or a rock and disintegrates - recently, two tourists were killed when this happened. Occasionally a slow-boat fails to maneuver around a rock outcropping and sinks too. It was all very easy to imagine, especially since it was clear that the waterline during the rainy season was 10 or 15 feet higher, with a completely different set of obstacles.

We passed a rather sleepless night in Pakbeng, after more difficulties ordering food at dinnertime, and after a very long second day on the river, we arrived in Luang Prabang where we treated ourselves to a nice clean bedroom with comfortable beds, private bathroom and hot-water.



Apart from being woken at 4am by the rooster outside, we both had a glorious night's sleep.

Elephant ride

Rebelling a little against the cliché of doing a hill-tribe trek from Chiang Mai, I finally agreed with Katie to sign up for a 3-day trip arranged through our guest house while we waited for our Laos visa to be processed (which it turned out could be done most cheaply by sending a courier back down to Bangkok on our behalf).



This kind of thing is a bit overdone in Chiang Mai, and I think there are more authentic experiences to be had further north in smaller towns near the border with Myanmar or in Laos. Indeed, the hills seemed to be swarming with other groups doing exactly the same thing, although the guides did a good job of orchestrating things so only one group was staying at a particular village at any one time.





The hiking during the day was sweltering, and then after sundown the temperature plummeted, and we lay under a thatched roof on straw mats over a hard wood floor, swaddled in blankets trying to keep warm. The first night was at a camp in the jungle next to a beautiful waterfall where we all had a brisk but refreshing wash, and watched as our guides prepared a vegetable and chicken stew with rice over an open fire.







After dinner we sat around a roasting campfire of dry tropical hardwood and we tried some local moonshine (rice spirit) while being alternately entertained and tortured by our guide's guitar playing.



The second night (after a hot climb) was in a village on a ridge-top. There were a couple of motorbikes that managed to get up and down the path to the village (that was otherwise a 2 hour walk), although it would have been a challenging trail on a mountain-bike, and during the 5 month rainy season it must be unridable.



The villagers were clearly used to having us as visitors, and although appreciative of the financial benefits to them, I didn't feel that they had completely shaped their lives around 'performing' for the tourists - many villagers casually wandered up to the campfire we had gathered around and warmed themselves for a while before slipping of into the dark without a murmur. After dark, the villagers showed us a series of visual riddles using little wooden sticks - some we mulled over for minutes before giving up, others we solved in a few seconds to roars of applause.



The trip also included a brief river-float on a bamboo raft - a pleasant, but superficial experience - and an elephant ride. It's hard not to appreciate the magnificence of the elephants and the strangeness of the ride with their slow, undulating gait. It was like being on a bulldozer traveling across a waterbed.



When the elephants spotted a good-looking bush or tree in the jungle they would just wander off the path into the trees, grab a branch with their trunk and rip it free or bend it down so they could step on it until it snapped (sometimes demolishing an entire 20 foot sapling). This they then carried in their trunk, munching away at it, as we might a carrot, until it was gone in less than a minute.



It was clear that there was very little in the jungle that posed any obstacle to them - nothing less than 10 feet tall or as thick as your arm had any noticeable effect on their pace - they simply ploughed through it and as riders we escaped most of the bushwhacking as long as we ducked the branches above us. It was a slow, but majestic way to travel.



Most of these elephants used to be working elephants in the logging industry. I have read that between 1939 and 1991, the original forests of Thailand have been reduced from 80% of the land area to just 19% - a statistic that finally prompted the government to ban most logging efforts in the country. As a result, hundreds of elephant-owners have turned to tourism as a means of making ends meet.

I can't say what the conditions were like for the elephants in the logging business, but it was disturbing to see how they were treated during our visit. They had pink spots on their ears and feet which I am told is an indication of poor health, and our particular handler (who rode on the elephants head in front of us, steering with his feet behind the elephant's ears) was a short-tempered teenager who would impatiently jab the elephant with a metal pick when it refused to obey him. It was hard to stomach, and although it appears that now the elephant's livelihood depends on tourist rides like this, it is difficult to endorse them based on our experience.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Cooking in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is famous for its night bazaar which is pretty extensive. We wandered around it our first night in town (after dumping our bags in a hostel and swatting about 40 mosquitoes in our room). We past touristy t-shirts, fake watches and pirate DVDs, artists drawing portraits, tailors making silk suits, fabulous wood-carvings, and even a Thai kick-boxing match.

The next morning we switched hostels and booked ourselves on a full day of Thai cooking classes (the Pad Thai Cooking School) that turned out to be a wonderful experience.

First we went to the market to identify the ingredients we were going to be using.







Then we got to see each dish prepared and then had a bash at making them ourselves. We learned how to make pad thai, fried spring rolls, green curry chicken, ginger chicken, curried chicken with basil and finally sticky rice with coconut and mango for desert - and we ate it all as we went along.











The finale was the ginger chicken which involved flamble-ed onions, of which I have a little video.

I'm looking forward to trying these dishes out again once we're home.

Bicycles and ruins

Thailand promotes itself as the land of smiles, but to me the more striking characteristic is cleanliness. The countryside has a purposeful, well tended look to it - each rice padi field carefully delineated by its irrigation channels and walkways; all the land accounted for. Roadsides are, in general, relatively free of rubbish (although you do see some pretty awful garbage in waterways).
In the city sreets vendors offer carefully stacked pyramids of fruit and orderly rows of fresh clean vegetables. There is a pervasive attention to detail in presentation: dozens of identical, steaming food parcels wrapped up in banana leaves and tied with a straw ribbon; my green curry served with an orchid garnish or a piece of cucumber carved into a flower.

You can see that the Thai people are also careful to always look clean and presentable however humble their clothing.

All of this is in stark contrast to a lot of Central and South America, in my opinion, where the countryside can look ravaged by overuse in densely populated areas and derelict elsewhere. In Latin America I had the sense in many places that the relationship between man and his environment was in a downard spiral, whereas in Thailand there appears to be a guiding sense of stewardship which gives me more hope for its future.

Having said all that, I have to say that I am not a big fan of the Asian squat toilet, which suffers all the same plumbing issues as in Latin America, without at least the comfort of a seat to relax on. After the athletic event of using the hole in the ground, there is the challenge of cleaning oneself with just a bucket of water and a cup with no toilet paper in sight. I've read that one gets used to the Asian method of wiping clean with water and one's left hand, and that one might even grow to prefer it instead of using toilet paper, but I remain skeptical. However, there is plenty of opportunity left for a breakthrough in this department. As we head north from Bangkok, the standard of our acommodation is getting steadily more basic.



We took the train to Phitsanulok where we spent the night in a sleepy old youth hostel and had dinner on a floating restaurant on the river. It was a very civilized way to travel (air-conditioning, lunch incuded) and although it was a bit slower than the bus, it avoids all that stopping and starting and lurching around in traffic. As we passed each little train station, a station master would step out and wave a green flag to give the all clear. It was like traveling in a bygone era.



The following day a group of us from the hostel caught the bus to the ruins of Sukhothai (an ancient capital). Whilst the buildings themselves lack the grandeur of Angkor Wat or the splendour of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the setting of the temples in a large, beautiful, peaceful park makes it a wonderful place to leisurely explore by bicycle.







It was possible to roll aimlessly along the different pathways in the shade of the big trees, stopping at whatever striking Wat we came upon, without the press of hundreds of other visitors or interference from touts and guides looking for business, and the tranquility of it was wonderful.













The next morning we headed north again to Chiang Mai.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Thai food, temples and traffic

The first few days here in Bangkok have been dominated by a jet-lag-induced stupor. This morning I woke up at 3:30am and read until 9am, had some muesli for breakfast and then took a nap and fell fast asleep again until 3pm. The nap was refreshing but of course means that I will be awake again at 3am tonight.

So our initial forays into the bustle and grid-lock of Bangkok have not been very extended. I was happy to get a new strap for my Bolivian watch made for me from the watchmaker's spare parts jars, and I found a snug leather camera case for my new camera at a 5-story electronics plaza chock full of vendors selling every gizmo under the sun.

In the early evening we strolled down to the Khoa San Road to check out the street vendors and watch the world go by over our Penang curry chicken and Singha beer.

The next day, we caught up with Angie and Edmund, family friends who have lived here for 5 months now, who introduced us to a fantastic vegetarian restaurant tucked away in an alley and then we walked over to the Golden Mount to enjoy the view of the city and a bit of a breeze.





They are heading up to Laos in a couple of weeks as well so we are hoping to cross paths again.



We visited a Wat at the end of our street and the monks, explaining the details of the temple in their saffron robes (one sipping a can of Pepsi), were the friendliest Thai people we had met so far (the tuk-tuk drivers being intrusive and belligerent and the hostel staff somewhat disinterested).

The best scam we have stumbled across so far was a well dressed (I thought he was uniformed but Katie claims otherwise) man outside the grand palace who introduced himself as the first officer of the palace and helpfully explained to us that the palace was closed that morning for prayers until 1:30pm. When I suggested that in that case we would walk down to Wat Pho, the reclining Buddha temple just around the corner, he pointed out that that temple was also closed to visitors for the same reason. In the meantime we should visit the Standing Buddha and the Giant Swing and perhaps take a look at the Thai crafts show over here (he scribbled on our map). A tuk-tuk driver could take us to all three for 30 Baht (75c) and bring us back to the palace at 1:30pm. By this time I was starting to doubt his story and I definitely wasn't going to jump into some tuk-tuk he had waved over. So we thanked him and wandered down to the palace entrance just to check out the situation - and behold! Open every day from 6am-6pm, and we breezed right in.

We had come to the palace dressed to impress, having read that long trousers and closed-toe shoes were in order and shoulders should be covered. Katie had a shawl that she wrapped over her tank-top, but that apparently didn't meet the requirement of having the shoulders covered by the outermost garment - a cardigan by contrast was acceptable. A couple ahead of us were rejected for having slight holes in their jeans.

Fortunately, after some confusion, we discovered that Katie could borrow suitable, albeit frumpy, clothing from another office at the entrance to cover up, so it all worked out in the end.



I guess about 20 percent of their visitors were turned away at first.

The palace itself is simply spectacular.







Incredibly intricate and ornate - every surface peppered with glittering inlaid mother of pearl and gold mosaic. The entire inside wall of the palace boundary wall is a fresco depicting hundreds of Thai legends and historical events. Several hundred feet in length.







The craftsmanship of the sculptures and the details in the structures is breathtaking and you can stand in the middle of the main courtyard with a small forest of gold leaf pagodas and arched roofed-temples all pressed up against each other in every direction.



We had arrived at the grand palace by river boat, which is by far the most enjoyable way to travel around Bangkok. We walked back through town (our map is pretty useless since Bangkok roads seem to have several different names and the road signs, when they have them in English, rarely match the map).





So it was with some sense of triumph that we stepped out of a warren of back streets and canals to find the serene Standing Buddha right where we expected him to be, apparently unperturbed to now be hidden and surrounded by apartment blocks on all sides.

In the evening, we ventured over to Suhkumvit road for dinner and to take in the spectacle of the go-go bars. We had a couple of drinks at the Nana Entertainment Center - 3 storys of bars packed with working girls and the whole spectrum of tourists pairing off and heading back to hotels in taxis or disappearing upstairs somewhere.

We are looking forward to moving on tomorrow to Ayuthaya, where we hope to find somewhere to sleep away from the shrill whine of the tuk-tuks and the car-alarm that reliably goes off several times each night.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

New Year in London

My niece, Isabelle, wrote me a poem for Christmas.