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Friday, February 29, 2008

Luang Prabang, Kunming and Beyond (Or: Requiem for a Journey)

Luang Prabang, for all intents and purposes my last stop in Laos, my last stop on this amazing trip. A beautiful old colonial French town, a tiny calm pocket of old-world charm on a green peninsula jutting into and bisecting the Mekong, the green mountains forming a kind of half-hearted basin-edge. It was a town for walking, for observing the sleepy wats and the shaded alleyways littered with UNESCO-protected buildings and links to a simpler, slower time. It was a great way to end the trip, until I had to take a thirty-three hour bus ride from Luang Prabang to Kunming, China.

Stop for a moment. Take a breath. Say that number aloud. "Thirty-three." Thirty-three what, you ask? Surely only certain things are measured in such terms, small things, insignificant things. The number of seconds it took for the popcorn to burn, the change in your pocket ... these things and more are often cited in the thirties, thirty-three even, and people don't pause.

Thirty-three HOURS. On a bus.

But to be fair, it was a sleeper bus, and a remarkably empty bus, by Chinese standards. We left Luang Prabang around eleven in the evening, and awoke in time to cross the border into China that morning.

Back on the bus, for more than a whole day of travel, and I tried to sleep as much as I could, off and on, music and sleep, the ceilings too low to sit and read or do anything other than lay down and try to sleep through it all. And so it was that I found myself waking up in Kunming, approximately thirty-three HOURS later, asking in half-asleep Chinese, "Kunming ... arrived ... ma?" I stumbled down the street and checked into the nearest (cheap) room I saw, showered, and for some reason decided to go explore Kunming. One last city for the road.

And now I'm in Hong Kong, ready to leave in just a few minutes to cross the border into the mainland, and from there, fly up to the great frigid wastes of Jilin and northeast China.

I remember thinking this time last year, after first dipping my toe in the "backpacker" pool by doing two and a half weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam, that long stretches of travel would be good things, maybe even great things. How the wanderlust was burning bright, and the flames were only fanned by a successful trip, not squelched. And how I could have gone on, maybe a solid month of travel, and while I thought that I might have become listless, unhinged after month on the road, but I knew it I could, should do it.

And here I sit at the end of nearly eight weeks of life on the road, a life of border crossing and bus riding and sight seeing, and I can't help but think: this is only a beginning. I thought crossing into Laos from Thailand that this would be it, this trip would scratch that travel itch for a while to come, and yet before I even arrived in Kunming, I was making plans on where to visit next: I cannot leave China without seeing Sichuan province, that mystical place calls to me, and hey, Tibet is practically next door ...

Travel. It seems like a way to rediscover yourself. You throw yourself into new places and things without much more than your instincts and, maybe, a guidebook with a lot of useless trivia but a few good maps and bus schedules. And that's the allure, I guess, of seeing what you can do and see on your own. It's easy in a backpacker ghetto where people order from English menus and mindlessly absorb repeats and Friends, but it's something different when you make your way overland from Singapore to China.

So the trip is over, the dream is ended. Further rumination is forthcoming, like it or not. For now, I gotta catch a bus into China, and then fly back to Jilin.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

One More For the Road

Vang Vieng: as much Khao San Road as it was Ko Surin. A beautiful borderless green countryside, and the only bad part is you have to stay in Vang Vieng, this giant plastic tourist camp where nothing is more than ten years old and people mindlessly wolf down Western food while watching constant reruns of "Friends." Thankfully I spent as much time out of town as possible and saw some truly fantastic scenery, climbs limestone mountains, went spelunking in underground caves, and biked my ass sore through the lush mountain valleys.

Where I was staying ... a glimpse of tourist blight in front of green mountains.

Ah, outside of town ... that's better.

Nice flag! Where's that?


A view from up there.

Nice hikes with friendly strangers.

Let's go spelunking!

Inside the caves.

Hero pose.

Biking 26km is easy when its through landscapes like this.

And now I'm in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage sight that is as beautiful as it is old. French shophouses line the streets alongside an old royal palace (now a museum) and ancient Buddhist wats, the long peninsular town comfortably nestled within the mountains with two rivers on either side. The whole scene is typically Laos: slow and comfortable, interesting yet low-key, old and traditional, beautiful and budding with new. I've been here for a couple of days, and I've even met up with fellow Jilin'er James. Tomorrow evening I leave, for a (hopefully painless) twenty-four hour bus ride back into China.

And so I stand on the precipice of the end: this trip, at long last, is coming to a close. It's been fantastic, unforgettable, fun and relaxing and awe-inspiring and, in every sense of the word, truly awesome. But more on that later; more Vang Vieng pics here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Vientiane, Round Two

It's a lovely little city, that's for sure, but with a heart that feels no bigger than a square mile, it's pretty easy to see all there is to see here, and in a short period of time. It's a quiet city, by any measure. I climbed to one of the city's highest views, atop the four-arched Patuxai, and was amazed at how tiny, compact, and, well, green this city really is. But there's enough sights around Vientiane to show the pride and exuberance of the Loas people even after years of war and revolution.

So, yesterday on foot, and today riding a bike, and now ... well, I kind of feel like I'm done. So tomorrow I'll head north to Vang Vieng, a place renowned for it's natural beauty, be it rivers, caves, rock climbing, or just rolling green hills that look like they belong on an ancient scroll somewhere. We'll see how it holds up; here's hoping it's more Ko Surin and less Khao San Road. And if you don't understand that sentence, you haven't been paying attention to this blog.

That's what I mean, baby: Laos pride.

The pace of life here can generously be called "relaxed."

Ah, Beer Lao. The first genuinely good Asian beer.

Love this photo.

Love that Laos style ... architecture clearly influenced by the Khmers (Cambodians) and Thais (take a guess), but it has it's own distinct features: gently sloping roofs, simple clay scales, intricate but not overly-ornate.

Patuxai, Laos' own Arc de Triomphe.

Climbing to the top ...

View from (near) the top.

The symbol of Laos, Pha That Luang.

More here!

Monday, February 18, 2008


No, that's not some perverse Lao-language come-on, it's the capital city of this lovely little country, Laos. So far Laos is quiet and relaxed, lazy slow hours spent in a cafe (with fresh Lao coffee) or on leisurely strolls around the grounds of a wat or two. Tomorrow I guess I'll rent a bike and really see the sights, but for now, it's slow and simple, and that's what I like about it.

Few too many foreigners, though. Like Bangkok, only this city is so damn small ...

Going into the National Museum this afternoon, there was the interesting, predictable stuff on show: exhibits explaining what was up in the land that is now Laos during the stone age, the bronze age, and all that; Laos history as a former vassal to the Khmers (Cambodia) and the Siamese (Thailand); a brief flirtation with the Dutch East India Company and contact with the west, and on until today. But there's also a lot of vivid images of the fight against French colonialism, as well as the "secret" war America undertook against Laos while we were fighting in Vietnam.

You mean you don't know about this "secret" war that has offered Laos the distinction of being the most heavily bombed country, per capita, than any other in the world? "Between 1971 and 1973 the USAF dropped more ordnance on Laos than was dropped worldwide during World War II." And the best part is, the war wasn't even real! Which means the money to drop those bombs didn't appear on any budgets, the Laos body count never appeared on anyone's tally of the war dead, and the Geneva Convention didn't apply, meaning American and Laos pilots could (and did) target schools and hospitals and other civilian targets with those bombs! Hurray for American Imperialism. And people wonder why I don't trust this government in the Middle East.

Anyway, in addition to all of that horrible shit, there was also a sense of a young country proud of it's nearly sixty years of independence. And I mean really proud, because it seemed that nearly every inch of current Laos progress made it into the museum in some form or another: large bundles of illegal drugs on display to show the might of the drug enforcers, pictures of farms and the bountiful Laos produce (read: framed images of cabbage in a museum), a display of what looked like the exact same medicine you'd see in the local pharmacy, only here proudly displayed to show the pharmacological progress of the Lao People's Democratic Republic! It was kind of hokey, but also interesting to see a country whose past is so mired with violence so proud of its progress. They were closing the exam and I didn't get to see a good chunck of it, but I'll probably go back tomorrow, it only costs 10,000 kip (just over a single US dollar) to enter.

So, yes, that's my first impression of Vientiane. Tomorrow should reveal more.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

On the Border: Nong Khai, Laos, and a Bizarre Sculpture Park

So here I am, on the border with Laos (and that's a silent French "s," for the record, so it should rhyme with "wow"), the Mekong River lazily, neutrally sliding past. I've been following this river, off and on, for over a year now: I walked along it in Cambodia, I sailed on it in Vietnam, I'm looking at it now in Thailand, I'll see it tomorrow in Laos, and I'll soon be following it to its source in Yunan, China.

But anway, I don't know what any of that means, so, moving on: I intended to blow through this Thai town, Nong Khai, and just go right to Laos. But I lingered, because it's a cool little town with a slow pace of life, some nice cool weather, and a really strange sculpture park. Behold! (Stick around/skip forward to the big sculptures, they're really cool!)

So tomorrow I'll cross the bridge into Laos. Should be fun! I'll be crossing over the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, a bridge that goes from Thailand to Laos (or from Laos to Thailand), built by Australians for (American dollars here, folks) $15 million. So it's a bridge international even in its contrsuction!

More, later, from Laos!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ruins in Ayuthya

So I was in Kanchanaburi, seeing the River Kwai and hanging out with tigers and such, and I just got tired of that town. After five in the evening, there was nothing to do but roam the streets and pass by loud bars blaring muzak and watch rich fat white men sit in a table with two or three Thai "lady-friends" who'd always give a chorus of "hal-uoh" and "well-come." So friendly! I guess I needed some Bangkok decompression, too, because I found myself sleeping a lot, which wasted a lot of daylight, but I also didn't feel like dishing out for the overpriced trips to waterfalls or other parts of the Death Railway, so I ended up doing a whole lot of not too much.

So I left. On a whim. Just woke up, hopped on a bus, and plopped myself down on a seat and rode. I knew I was heading generally north, then generally west, and when we came to the end of the line, I saw a bus for Ayuthya, which I knew was a city with some interesting ruins, and used to be a Thai capital, so I figured, what the hell?

So here I am. Ayuthya. I spent the day on a rented bike, driving around the city and seeing a whole lot of impressive (but not quite Cambodia-impressive) old Thai ruins. It was a great day of sun and biking and temple-spelunking.

And then I got an elephant kiss. I hope you can hear it.

More photos - temples and elephants - here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So What Did I Do Today?

I hung out with tigers.

And then visited the famous bridge over the River Kwai.

More photos here. God I love traveling.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Slideshows, anyone?

By the gods, I love what Picasa can do. How about a little slideshow of Ko Surin?

No? How about a slideshow of Bangkok, then?

Bangkok has gotten a lot cooler recently, but there's still a lot yet to see ... and I've got the rest of the country and Laos to think about as well ... and, well, money! Travelin' ain't free.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Ride 'em, Soi Cowboy

Bangkok is pretty big on the whole sex thing. Selling it, that is. I know it's there all over, in New York and Hong Kong and hell, my hostel was in the red light district in Singapore, but Bangkok seems to make it a spectator sport, a kind of open-air flesh market. So tonight I ended up making my way to Soi Cowboy, "Cowboy Road" or something similar, one of the gaudy strips of bars that promises untold naughtiness behind their red-glowing doors, scantily-clad beer touts that hold their signs upside down that promise "hundreds of beautiful girls plus two or three ugly ones."

I don't know why I went there, or maybe I do, and I just don't want to admit it (especially not here), but I don't have the money for beer, let alone drinks for two or three "friends." I guess the place is as harmless or harmful as you want it to be, you can walk and just take in the spectacle, or you can grab for your piece of the flesh pie. I turned into the neon-saturated alleyway and started to walk.

Left and right, there's subdued insanity, beer, tired-happy men, fake-happy women, and signs proffering poorly-punned promises of promiscuity. The openness of it seems to be a kind of thrill, inviting more ribald goings-on and giving confidence to the meek or the married, and as I walked I wondered if the people there are the kind of guys that go to strip clubs, the kind of guys that visit hookers at home, or if they're just passing by Bangkok and (like me, right?) figure, what the hell?

For the most part, I guess I was ignored, because you can get the feel for the clientele pretty easily: mostly foreigners, mostly older men (but let's not discount the locals that really keep this place running). So a young(ish) guy like me making his way down the street seemed to fall much more in the voyeur category. Or maybe they smelled the smell of walking in Bangkok heat all day and saw the well-worn t-shirt and jeans and backpack and guessed my budget. As I made my way down the street, noting beer specials and soaking in the lurid noise of it all, I was distracted by ... an elephant. Just right there, in the middle of the street, patrolling up and down, handlers on each side. And I couldn't stop looking at the thing, all sad-eyed and huge, shaking hands with his trunk, walking with him down the sidewalk, patting it's back and legs because, hey, it's an elephant!, and ignoring the tugs on my sleeve by brave little beergirls, and I followed my pachyderm without realizing it to the end of the street, where I bought a bag of fruit, fed him pieces one by one, and patted him on the head and gave him a kind of Eskimo kiss, my head against his massive skull, his brown sad eyes seeming to say "now you be good" as I left.

My Jesus tonight was an elephant, and he saved me from temptations of the flesh with a bag full of bananas.

On my way out, I ran into a group of young European Christians doing anonymous surveys about HIV/AIDS, the stark reality of forced prostitution in Thailand, and all that. They were in groups of two, clipboards and random pairings of Finnish and Swedish and Norwegian, and I chatted with them a bit, probably the only person who voluntarily talked with them the whole night, and they were doing a couple weeks all over Thailand, teaching and doing AIDS volunteering and all that. I asked how the survey was received by the sex tourists; they said it varied, sometimes they just ignored them, other times they got angry, still others talked and talked. "I'm here because I like sex," one guy said, girl in hand, strange accent (the "sex," the "x," was emphasized). We chatted about China and their time in Thailand and language and I said it was good work they were doing, even though the pamphlet they gave me came off a little too Jesus-freak.

Bangkok has certainly grown on me, after a good day of sight seeing and hoofing it all over. The public transport is a nightmare, a combination of slow boats, subways and skytrains the don't actually take you where you want to go, and taxis and tuktuks that just try to rip you off by hundreds of baht until you find one that will use the goddamn meter. But the city has a kind of raw appeal that the fully-suited squeaky-clean Hong Kong and Singapore seem to have lost. I think it's a good city to return to, because it can have highs, and it can have lows, and coming back to the perpetual Spring Break of Khao San and the backpacker ghetto is pretty damn low.

But even Khao San can't suck so hard that it robs the locals of just being such good people. Wading through that cesspool, I managed to buy two hand-painted cards from a young deaf man, and I was able to sign "I am American" and "thank you," thanks to James and his mom. I saw a local artist with some really intriguing paintings, and while I didn't have 700 baht to blow on one, it was nice to talk to him and let him know I dug his stuff. And before I came here, to this aircon netcafe with PCs you slide ten baht coins in like they're arcade machines, I found a bookstore that had just the book I wanted, it was run by a second-generation Chinese immigrant, and I was able to chat in Mandarin for a good twenty minutes, and only had to switch to English twice!

So yeah, Thailand, even Bangkok: it's good. I'll get some photos up, as well as photos from Ko Surin (the island with the amazing snorkeling) as soon as I have a PC that isn't fed on coins.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Growing Hostelity

So this is Bangkok. If you look really hard, you might even see someone from Thailand.

That's my first impression of the place. It's raining outside, the umbrella that's been useless since Singapore sits dryly in my room while the rain comes down. It's been a slow, strange morning.

I took the night bus in, and arrived at some bus terminal in some dark corner of the city somewhere between four and five in the morning. Didn't know where to go, didn't know what to do, so I sat on a stone bench with piles of garbage underneath and ate two tangerines. At the time, it was the best option.

I followed the only stream of people I saw, made my way to a taxi line, and then saw buses, running even this early, and I got on the bus and a helpful ticket lady asked "Khao San Road?" the backpacker ghetto where all travelers seem to find themselves. I nodded, not really knowing what else to say. I rode the bus a little in the predawn blackness, guessing at passing snatches of the city, and was quietly tapped on the shoulder and told this was my stop.

I got off the bus and saw nothing but street, food stalls being rolled down the road and a late night/early morning scramble of people, workers and revelers and hookers, oh my. I ran into a friendly Australian girl, Jessie, who's just returning to Bangkok after a year of traveling, one of those round-the-world plane tickets that saw her to North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and now, just shy of a year later, a flight on Sunday back to Oz. We walked a bit and found Khao San Road, and the entire spectacle, barely a pulse at that ungodly hour, reminded me of some kind of faded MTV nightmare, drunks with beer-stained t-shirts and dig-this hippies with identical faces and tattoos and up-to-the-elbow meaningless bracelets doing the same shit on the sidewalk. I walked, head down, looking for a room. Nothing, all full.

Well, shit.

We walked farther, chatting and good lord the rain is really coming down outside now, and we found a secondary road off of Khao San, another road whose purpose is to make foreigners forget as much as possible that they are actually in another country. English signs and promises of sandwiches and "European food," and, already sweating in the predawn heat, Jessie and I sat down at an outdoor cafe, and decided to take turns stalking up and down various roads, looking for a place to sleep.

Jessie left her bags with me, I ordered a bottle of water and discovered a half-drunk bottle of Johnnie Walker Red under my seat, and after two failed trips up and down various roads, Jessie decided to sit down and just wait till noon, when everyone was due to check out and vacancies promised to appear. I got up and found my way down a back(ish) alley, and found a room, a double bed with aircon and it's own bathroom, a place that looked like the goddamn Ritz compared to the tent filled with ants and sand and clothing-for-pillows I'd been using for the last couple of days. 550 baht, which seems and is high, but screw it, I was overtired and dirty and sweaty and needed a place to sleep NOW, not tonight.

I went back to the cafe, a block or so away, and told Jessie. I'll take it if it's too pricey for you, I said, knowing that rooms can be had for as cheap as 150 baht if you're OK with a fan (no aircon for you at that price range), shared bathroom, and questionable hygiene. We made our way back to my room, I turned on the aircon, and we just collapsed in the cool air and quiet. I was a week's worth of beach in my hair and on my body, so I showered and we just sat there talking about traveling and her time at a Tiger Temple west of Bangkok that I have to go to now. We both took overnight buses into Bangkok, and it was the nerves of finding a place and getting settled, for a day at least, that kept us awake, but soon enough we both just slept.

She went and found her own room, I went out and explored what little of the city I could between then and now, getting out of this downpour. From what I can tell, Bangkok, or at least this tiny little part of backpacker Bangkok, is just a sea of crap, a bunch of tourists who come and dip their toe in Asia here in Bangkok, get the massage and the cheap t-shirts and DVDs and braid their stupid me-too dreadlocks and obsessively check MySpace or Facebook. I've seen both in pretty much all the languages of the West, and they're all equally stupid. I know there's more to Bangkok than this one tired tourist ghetto, but so far, the only Thais I've seen have been trying to scam me, and everyone else is just hovering around this plastic version of a foreign country.

Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm just another tourist. I know living in China doesn't give me any special insight into Asia, I know I'm as much a member of the mob of travelers and gawkers as I am disgusted by them. C'est la vie, I guess, but that doesn't mean la vie can't be disappointing.

When the rain lets up, I'll get the hell out of this bubble and try to see what Bangkok really has to offer.

Back from Ko Surin

I'm in Bangkok. Made it safely from Ko Surin, from some of the best snorkeling and clear blue water I've ever seen, a kind of beautiful parody of beaches and brilliant water and sun.

So I got a night bus into Bangkok and here I am. More later.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Behold the Raffleisa

I guess I'm the only one excited about this dumb flower. Oh well.

Yesterday I finally saw what I came to Khao Sok National Park to see: the rafflesia, the corpse flower. I had heard tales of it being a meter-wide, foul-smelling monstrosity of a flower, I heard stories of people taking a hike on a whim to see it and suddenly coming upon a giant one, people who weren't even really looking for the flower, who didn't really know anything about it or care that much, people who (with the help of a guide, of course) stumbled upon a postcard-perfect specimen.

I was wanting, lusting after this flower, trying to see it since Malaysia ... and when I finally got there, it was dying, wilting, a tiny pathetic little thing.

At first I was angry. 500 baht for this?! An hour and a half of trekking in the hot jungle with a guide that spoke no English and going uphill, a steep kind of uphill that normally you wouldn't even think is uphill, you'd think it's just a wall, impassible, not an option for navigation ... all that, for this dinky little rotting flower?

It's some kind of poetic justice, some kind of luck or fate or karma, I guess, that the person who seeks so relentlessly for this thing comes upon a tiny withered dying one, whereas the people that don't really care too much find a record-breaker.

But the more I thought about it, thought about the reasons that I still can't explain, the reasons behind wanting to see this flower, the less angry I became. Here I was, in thick hot Thai jungle, clamboring uphill and over streams and seeing signs of wild elephants along the "path," and my reward is a glimpse of this impossibly rare flower that few people will ever actually see. So what if it's not a specimen worthy of National Geographic? So what if it's a dropping, rotten-salami ghost of a full-bloom rafflesia?

I got over my disappointment and just went up to it, smelled it and looked at it and just enjoyed it for what it was, seeing it with the young eager eyes of curisoity and wonder and awe that made me want to come all the way out there to see it in the first place.

I saw it, I touched it, I smelled it for myself, I took this idea and image of this exotic and bizarre thing and internalized it with sensation and memory, with touch and smell. That's all you can ever hope to do when you travel, to see a flower, to see a city, to see anything.

So I took my photos, I took my video, and I was happy to see what I could see of this one small strange part of this world.

More photos of the flower, hiking, elephants and jungle and my time in the park here.