Saturday, September 3, 2011

Long winded and long awaited, but no pics yet, the internet is veeerrrryyyy slow here....


Ok, so the following is a long-winded and rushed account of the past 6 weeks or so, I haven't had as much of a chance to refine it as I would have liked. I know I've left out some things, and maybe spent too long on others, but thought I'd get it out there while I can, as at the moment I'm staying at an ashram in India where the internet connection is sketchy and I've got long busy days of classes, both theoretical and practical. 
I also won't be able to post pictures for a while, since the internet is too slow here. You'll have to check back after October, probably, for pictures! I'm actually crossing my fingers that I will even be able to post the text!
Enjoy!

After a SUPER! Adventure in Laos.
Wow!
What a great, amazing, fantabulous time.
I did exactly what I wanted to do, I pretty much stuck to the plan and very pleased it worked out pretty much as I wanted/planned/desired it to. 
There was no time to really write it all down while it was happening, and there was never really the right time anyway. It was an experience that just needed to happen, to unfold and evolve by the minute. I was making last minute decisions and hopping on buses and joining people, and leaving people, just by whim. Nothing was set in stone and yet it happened exactly as I planned.
It started in Cambodia, when I got sick. I think of it as my initiation, a trial by fire, a whole-body-encompassing event. Tear-stained and sweaty. But like a rock, with a smile on my face. I went through with the day trip to the silk-weaving farm with Kate, even though I was so out of it all I did was lie on a hammock while I was there! 
I sometimes think about how it would have been had I taken a different path at any point, had I stayed longer or left sooner from any place, and how different things might have been.  It’s firsthand destiny! And this is how is happened, and these are the people I met along the way.
First there was Lars, the German guy who came on the silk-weaving trip. I admired him for his open-mindedness and warm-heartedness. He was kind of short and stocky, with a full head of curly blond hair, and a great smile. He was a participater, he had no qualms and engaged everyone he met. He ate a cockaroach at the bus stop. He wanted to do the cooking class, he said he liked to cook. He didn’t have an attitude, or a “too-cool” persona, he had nothing to prove and everything to learn from the world and the people he met. He was young, maybe between 19-21, I don’t remember asking him. He took advice, and we both decided to get our Laos visas in Phnomh Penh and wait another day because of it, even paying more than we should have. But he took it all in stride and never had a regret. We got stuck at the border, not because of visa issues but because the bus got stuck in the mud. Our enormous, double decker VIP bus, mired knee deep in thick sticky Laos mud. (picture) The guys were called upon to help push. We were amazed that there were no steps taken to prevent this happened despite it probably happening quite often. There was a large building under construction (according to our “bus guide” it had been under construction for 3 years!)- it was being built right across the road, so that’s why the bus had to detour around it into the mud. (picture)

Check out this link- it should link to my fb photos...
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2175342697403.2120695.1061889054&l=ee727911bf

We landed in Don Dhet, of the 4,000 Islands in southern Laos. Our primary goal was to see the river rare endangered Irawaddy river dolphins. (picture!) We stayed at Ban Saphoun GH, owned by our bus guide, for I think 60,000/night, sharing a room so 30,000 each which is about $3.50. It was decent, we had an ensuite bathroom, two single beds, no mosquito net though, and relatively right on the river. We arrived on the bus with two German girls who also stayed at the same GH, and they will figure greatly into the story later.
My first thought on Don Dhet was “This place is dead!” A one-road “town”, with no one on it. Not even any interesting looking tourists. The first night we had dinner at our gh, and it was fairly decent. Lars liked it. We had some Beer Lao and went off for a wander. We found the Reggae Bar, and went in. We sat down with a bunch of Latinos, including a Chinese girl from Ecuador, pretty cool. I talk to the Chinese girl for a bit, she’s cool. I talk to a Swiss guy who strikes me as slightly odd, he asks me, “Aren’t you afraid, traveling alone? Someone could just… take you away…” He’s amazed that I would travel alone, and I wonder how he hasn’t encountered any of the multitudes of other single females also traveling alone. He tries to talk some s*** about Obama, but doesn’t have anything other than a tired argument about O being inefficient and unable to do anything. Yeah, I say, but what would you do? I’m frustrated by people not being a part of the solution. I tell him the world has enough whining mouths. We stay at the bar until we get kicked out at around midnight, they really close early around here. The owner is a pissy looking European, maybe Dutch, skinny with tattoos all over his arms, and not really friendly. I think he’s got short man’s syndrome. His assistant is a tall dorky fellow Dutchy-European, who is really nice but kind of a push-over/mini-me to the other guy. Not charming on the whole, but we do come back the next night as well, where I learn how to say “Asshole” in German and Dutch. Arschloch! Klootzak!
The next day we leave early on the same bus, me for Pakse, and Lars to transfer in Pakse and go straight on through to Vang Vieng. He wants to party before heading back home to Germany after a full year of travel adventure. The German girls are also on that bus, and we end up going to the same guesthouse. It smells like moldy mildew and my room has two beds (. My plans were that I wanted to go motor biking to Tad Lo and the waterfalls in the area, and it turns out, so do they- of course! We go together. Our adventure out to Tad Lo bonds us, we have a similar outlook on life and it’s a great time. I try to learn a few words in German, the language intrigues me, if only because I can’t understand what they are saying! We try to book a room at the fancy resort, but back out when the price quoted is around $40 per night each. Instead we head to another place further from the river where its around $2.50/night each...


Pics here!:
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2181563492919.2120849.1061889054&l=71778288c9&type=1

Anyways, the rain where we stayed in Tad Lo was amazing. We watched it from the patio at the resort restaurant, eating dinner late into the night, playing “Arschloch” and drinking Beer Lao… (picture) Then driving home down the hill to our meager accomodations and having more beer there, and finally passing out in our mildewy beds under the mosquito nets. I woke up to more light rain and dogs fighting each other at like 5am. Why do dogs always fight at the crack of dawn? Everything else is usually so peaceful! 
We venture out to ride elephants, which is a relatively tame experience compared to everything else that has happened this trip. They tramp up rocky hillsides and down muddy trails that would be immpassible for us. We leave on our motorbikes, roaring through the rain. Raissa had claimed this to be her first experience on motorbikes, but she took to it like a fish to water, or perhaps a bull to fighting, leading the way at 100km/hr, rampaging our way back to Pakse in 3 hrs, 2 of those through pouring rain, one hand on the bike, the other arm up shielding our faces from the stinging rain. Animal! Fera! Rwoar! Go my German girls!
They almost convince me to go to Vietnam with them, on a mission to get to the beach before they leave from Chiang Mai on the 24th. I also just love the instant change in mind that is possible when you are traveling alone, you don’t have to consider anyone else’s sense of propriety, of promise or compromise, or sense of safety or stability. You don’t have to worry about what anybody else thinks. But instead of changing my mind last minute (this time!) I stick to my guns and remain on the path to northern Laos. (It's quite long trip to Vietnam from Laos...) My choice is to stop at Thakek on my way to Vientiane, or go straight there on the VIP overnight bus. I choose Vientiane after talking to a few people. Thakek sounded cool but without a group of people, the main attraction, a cave that goes 8 km through which you can navigate by boat, is quite expensive, as the price always goes down with more people. Plus is was said to be less accessible due to the rainy season, although I will see that rain is not much of a deterrent for many things in Laos, despite an increase in accident and injury…
All this decision making puts me the the position of running out of town rather quickly, as the bus for Thakek would leave the following day, but the VIP night bus to Vientiane leaves at 8:30 that night, with the tuk tuk pickup at 7:15 from the bus agency, and current time being 6:30. So I run back to the hotel (literally!), pack my bags, order a couple of baguette sandwiches from the baguette sandwich lady on the side of the road, and get in the tuk tuk. Which then meanders up the road, the driver gets out and does something, we drive back past my pickup point, then goes back the same direction, picks up a lady, then drives back once again past my pickup point, and picks up some English kids. I see Raissa and Annike in the restaurant and wave at them- Sad to see them go!
On the songthaew I meet some English kids, also getting on the bus to Vientiane. Well actually they are going straight past Vientiane to meet their friends in Vang Vieng, (although the girl in their group wants to come back to Vientiane, for marmite, she says. Marmite! Ha- at that point I decide to tag along with them- I really don’t know what I would do in Vientiane except for see some temples and museums, and I’m really not keen on marmite!). I want to get on with the adventure! So again I make the last-minute decision to go with them, onwards to Vang Vieng. Woo hoo!
Note about overnight buses in Laos. You have the potential to share a double bed with a stranger. A double bed that’s actually the size of a twin bed. Yikes! I was scared, but I was lucky. Bed to myself the whole way! Thank god.

Pics from Vang Vieng- they aren't too exciting as I left my camera at home most of the time, due to rain rain rain...
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2187529242059.2121073.1061889054&l=a945d30527&type=1

I end up in Vang Vieng, sharing a room with Daniel Chipperfield, aka Chip. He’s a skinny bloke (his words) from south west London. They all went to school in Wales. James and Jay are a couple- James is in medical school and Jay is finishing in speech therapy. Chip was a journalism major and is carrying a small video camera. They are great people, responsible, sincere, funny and in general a good enough group to stick with for a few days, especially to do the tubing! They don’t drink excessively, and Chip is really polite, really taking care of me, which is really nice. The next day their friends show up, Rosie, a tall blond with an independent streak; little Jess, a petite brunette with a charming freaky side but so cute, and Nick her tall, large blond boyfriend who rarely makes a sound, Chris, a kind of anti-social/quiet type but not sociopathic, I decide later. And Naomi, also a medical student, earnest and mature for her age, who happens to be a lesbian.  
The room is cement, painted a medicinal green, and mildewy. The view from the balcony is fantastic though, a vista equal to any Chinese landscape painting, the high karst mountains in the background, wreathed in wisps of cloud. (picture!) I’m so happy I chose not to stay in Vientiane. I think from now on the right decision is to skip the big city in favor of village or nature. Of course, when we finally go to sleep that night, Chip finds ants in his bed, and there are little grey pod bug cases on the walls, and the little worms that come out of them crawling on my bed… At least we have an ensuite bathroom and (sort of) warm water in the shower. It's the little things, right?!
The next day we go “In the tubing!” I say it that way because that’s how it’s written on the shirts, in typical bad Asian grammar, and it just sounds funny. (picture)
We take a tour actually, which will take us through some caves you can tube in, and then tubing down the river. (Too bad I don't have any pictures from this day, as I decided to leave my camera at home.) So the cave is pretty awesome, one of the highlights but nothing really bad happened, so rather tame in retrospect. It’s the cave where you start out sliding in around a corner (in the tube), then pulling yourself into the cave using a rope and pushing yourself off the ceiling, which is suddenly right over your head. It’s rather claustrophobic and Jay doesn’t like it, and backs out. We go deeper in and it’s beautiful and scary, since you start thinking that rain on the other side of the mountain could fill this cave in minutes. I’m not sure if that could really happen, but given my latter thoughts on safety in Laos, it seems entirely possible. So I tried not to think about that and the ceiling lifted and we got out of the tubes and climbed our way through some tiny crawl spaces, and then waded through chest deep water until we reached the end, a little rivlet running at our feet, and then waded/ crawled/tubed back outside Lunch was fried rice in banana leaves then in the songthaew to go in the tubing. Tubing was also relatively tame and boring, as we didn’t get completely wasted and paint ourselves and dance around at the bars, or knock ourselves in the head jumbing off rope swings, or spraining ankles on river rocks in swift current, or drown. We did however, drink a bucket (only me and Chip though, and we shared it), and played mud volleyball, and mud tug-of-war. And we went down the giant tile slide (little Jess did knock her head against the side though). We watched other drunk people jumping and sliding and contemplated the many possibilities of danger and injury. Nevertheless we arrived safely back into town and spent the next day safely at a bar watching Friends, (I still don’t like that show) and not even really drinking. Very tame. Me and Chip were going to rent motorbikes but desisted when the rain started coming down like a madman, absolutely  pouring. So that was Vang Vieng.
The next day we left for Luang Prabang. It surprised me as being the adorable town I expected of it. Flowers, bouganvilleas, butterflies, temples, sidewalks. A change from the rough and ready rural style of Pakse, and the muddy shappy ramshakckle backpacker look of Vang Vieng. This was where the rich tourist flew into when they went to Laos.

This link is for pics from my walking tour of Luang Prabang...
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2187603883925.2121077.1061889054&l=419305a2d0&type=1

 I signed myself up for the “Chicken-run” mountain bike tour, touted as “Advanced”. I got lucky and went into the agency with the very people who I would go with, a Spanish couple , David and Viviana. David had experience biking, but Viviana didn’t, and she was mildly trepitive, but game , so we went for it. (I wouldn’t have been able to go on my own, as the price was much higher for a sinlge. It was around $26 US for the day with the two of them.)
So on the whole the trip was very exciting, starting off with a nice river crossing on a barge, another one right through the river (picture) and then a road completely washed out and watching a mini-bus getting towed through the mud on the side (picture). And us completely muddy and dirty, my favorite state!
The road was long and hot, passing through various small villages, but our guide was completely stone-faced the whole time. I got the feeling he might have been depressed, or really judgemental, or absolutely hated his job of riding a mountain bike through beautiful mountain roads with three friendly and open-minded tourists. Well maybe he was on to something, because after lunch we had a little accident, Viviana went right over her handle bars while going a little too fast down a steep and rocky hill. It could have been me, as the road was pretty bad and I remember going a little too fast at times, and thanking god that there were no big holes in my way. Well anyways she wasn’t in good shape after the fall, she stood up too fast and kind of fainted, and it was really hot, there was no shade, and to top it off the crazy guide told her not to drink any water, as in Laos if you drink water after an accident you will die. Ok, so we are in the land of eastern medicine??!! I had a little stand-off with him and agreed to disagree. We ended up walking to the next village that had a songthaew taxi that could take their bikes, and David and Viviana met us at the river bank. She couldn’t put any pressure on her wrist to ride, plus she was scared and in a lot of pain. Some people from Tiger Trail met us in a truck on the other side of the river, and the representative was drunk (it was only about 4:30pm), and there was some difficulty in getting them to just agree to take them to the hospital for x-rays. I felt bad for leaving them, as I felt I should go with them to the hospital, just for moral support and also a morbid curiosity to see how a Laos hospital would function. Also to maybe assist with diagnosis, as in I’m not sure what kind of medical beliefs they have in Laos. But I was exhausted, and figured they would be ok without me.  
That night was shopping and the last dinner with the English kids (picture). We had free shots of Lao Lao with dinner and went home. I decided last minute to stay another night and spend the next day walking around Luang Prabang, spending too much money and taking lots of pictures.


The mountain bike adventure in Luang Prabang, and my last night with the Brits
http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.2191344457437.2121196.1061889054&l=59e240e1ac

At sunset I climbed the mountain to the temple on the hill, meeting a guy from Portugal on the way, and then some girls from Slovenia, with whom I ate banana-chocolate pancakes and did some more shopping. They were really sweet girls, open and friendly. I hope to visit them in Slovenia one day…

We all left early the next morning. I was headed for Meung Ngoi Mua- got on a mini-bus for what turned out to be a relatively pleasant ride (I’d been lucky on transportation the entire way, nothing more serious than a half hour wait for a land slide to be cleared and getting stuck in traffic due to dragon-boat festivities and a Sunday market so far.) I would have like to get out and check out the festival, it looked, well, festive! And fun! Lots of people out, tons of food and helium balloons (picture).
Anyways, there were a couple of English speakers on the minibus, an American from Santa Barbara and an Englishman from Nottingham. The girl had been teaching in Pattaya for a few months, and was now on her way to travel around for an undetermined amount of time. She had been a social worker in the US, responding to crime scene situations with the police to take care of collateral damage during domestic disputes.
We all ended up staying in Nong Khiaw- oh but let me tell you!
It was a beautiful town, surrounded on all sides by tall karst formations, and on either side of a muddy river, the Na something… Smaller than a one road town, quiet and peaceful. We got rickety bungalows overlooking the view (picture). They were in rest and recovery mode, semi-traumatized by various experiences teaching in Thailand. We went on a hike to a cave, the hike of which turned out to the be the fun part, the cave being largely unimpressive. It was the site of a refuge, used by Laos people for everyday life when the Americans were bombing the shit out Laos in the 70s. (picture).
The exciting part was crossing the little river on the way to the cave, assisted by this man employed exactly for that purpose, lucky because the current was pretty strong, and might really have carried one of us away if we had tried it on our own. (Although maybe not, as my later experiences would later prove, crossing a river may be dangerous and not recommended under normal circumstances, sometimes it’s necessary and possible, especially when accompanied by intrepid and fearless German girls!) (picture) For this favor we paid him $5000 kip, and another $5000 to enter the cave, which was guarded by another Lao guy, this one also stone faced and miserable looking, wearing an extremely dirty shirt and looking like a street kid. The older guy helping us cross the river was more personable, and had a sense of humor. The Laos culture is mysterious in this way. I’m not sure what lies behind the inscrutable expression- some seem to take the onslaught of tourism in stride, and others just have no clue on how to relate.
Another thing was how not many people in the village knew how to speak English. Even a few words, even related to their business, as in the hotel people or in the restaurants. They would get stumped at the slightest thing, and run off for someone to translate, and failing that, would just stare questioningly at you, saying something in Laos, and both of us helpless.
So I love this town, I love this place, and want to stay longer, even though it’s eating into the time I would be spending in Chiang Mai later. But it’s a big city, and my previous resolve was to spend less time in cities and more time in the backroads, places like this, where there was adventure to be had.
I slept in the next day, had a lazy breakfast (picture) and then rented a mountain bike for exercise and exploration. I left Tom and the girl (what was her name?) sleeping in their hammocks and took off down the road. It was a good ride, and on the way back I detoured onto a trail which again, just breathtaking (picture). I rented the bike from the Tiger Trail people (she gave it to me for $20,000 for the afternoon, quit reasonablw) and I enquired about treks. There was a couple going on a homestay trek the next day that I could join. Another option had also arose, when I met a guy, an Australian-Sri Lankan, who had rented a motorbike and ridden from Luang Namtha. He had seen me way out on the road on my bike, and we had dinner with him. Turns out he is an emergency worker, had lived in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, among other crisis zones. He was also carrying all his rock climbing equipment with him and was thinking about exploring some routes the next day. I thought about joining him, but as there was nothing certain about it (The Green Discovery people pretty much had taken over the routes and were charging exorbitant rates for a “guide” , and anyways, Mil didn’t seem too sure about what might happen. Mil happened to be eavesdropping and knew that the girl at the next table was the one going on the trek (such a small town, you don’t need to go far to know everyone there). So at the last minute, as I had been too lazy to go across the bridge (picture) to let the Tiger Trail people know by 8:30, I went over to the girl and asked her about it. She was so enthusiastic about me joining them, “the more the merrier!” that I felt this was the right thing to do. I showed up the next morning and surprised the Tiger Trail people, but they were accommodating and off we went. It turned out Jason, her husband, was considering medical school, and they grilled me about "going back to school", and what it was like… They had just gotten married, and were constant travelers. They have a blog, peanutbutternomads.com, and a lifestyle pretty much designed to make everyone else in the world jealous. Or me, at least. They were such a nice couple, and might even settle down in LA, long enough for Erin to go to grad school in education, and for Jason to complete his pre-reqs for med school. It would be nice to know a nice couple my age, who are active and adventurous, to hang out with in LA!
Anyways, the trek was awesome. We had lunch in a Hmong village, in a house on stilts, with a little Hmong family, the grandmother taking care of the children while the parents were working in the fields. (picture). The kids were really fun, and we had enough time to get to know their little personalities, they just loved the attention. Jason played soccer with the older boys, and Erin played hopscotch with the girls. The food too was amazing, and it was nice to sit and eat with the Hmong people, watching the 2 and a half year old grandson showing off his toys and learning about their culture.
At one point the little boy runs outside, and we see him playing with a little girl about the same age. They take off each others’ pants and compare parts. The grandmother is not phased, and they are soon running around completely naked. The little girl’s name is Bia- or Bia-Lao, as the grandmother says, laughing. She seems really nice, soft and with a friendly, smiling face, just like a grandmother should be. (picture)
As we left, and were down the road a ways, and crossing a little river, we could hear the little boys yelling “bana-naaaaa!!! Ba-na-naaaaa!!!” It was sooooo funny, it was a sweet connection.
We walked on, through beautiful views, up and down hills and valleys. We arrived at the second village in the late afternoon, and toured a bit through the village, seeing the women bathing outdoors in sarongs, at communal faucets, and visiting the school, closed for summer.
Food again was amazing, we ate well. We got to watch food preparation, and a shy little girl came up and put her little hand on my shoulder as I was going through my photos on my camera, and I went through a little slideshow for her. In fact all the children were really shy, and had maybe never really been this close to Falang people before. In fact that’s probably why my camera batteries ran out, showing her the pictures on a near empty battery…
It was a nice homestay, very well set up. We had nice beds and mosquito nets (of course a little mildew), and packed dirt floor. The toilet was clean and easily accessible (I say this in comparison to the toilet at my next homestay, where there was a treacherous and slippery slope to get to the toilet, one which I fell on a couple times and got my slippers all muddy!) and also a nice spring-fed pump for washing.
There were clean, well-lit tables to eat at and huge meal… Squash soup, something with greens, a most-fabulous pumpkin dish, the secret of which may have been the palm oil, it tasted kind of like bacon, and heavenly… Sticky rice, of course. And corn on the cob, but slow roasted or something, so the kernels were dark yellow and chewy, almost to the point of being popcorn kernels but not quite, with a popcorn-y taste and chewy texture.
Breakfast was good as well, and then we went off to the fields. We were handed scythes and set to work, chopping weeds away from the crop plants of ginger, “oil plant”, and another plant that looked like corn but wasn’t. It was fantastic! One of my best experiences in Laos, chopping weeds next to the Laos workers. Physically tiring but satisfying. Exhausting, on a beautiful hillside, sweating and bent over. I’m not sure if I should laud it as much as I do, since I don’t have to do it every day, nor does my livelihood depend on it. But I really appreciated the work, and I wish I could work in the fields with villagers more often, as a way to help them and also to get the feel of what it is like. True organic gardening. But I come from such a priviledged position to be able to make these statements, sitting as I am, typing away at my portable laptop keyboard while I sit on a deserted beach on an island in Thailand… (picture)
Of course I had gone out to the fields in flip flops, not quite realizing where we were going at first. Communication usually never clear in Laos. So on the way back I just go barefoot, as the mud sucks my shoes every time and I can’t go quickly. Barefoot in the rainforest, yet again! (But no leeches, yet!)
On the way back we stop and stare into this little hut where there is equipment making going on. A man is hammering at a scythe, after making it hot via a fire that a young boy, probably his son, uses a bellows to pump air out. A toddler is also present in the hut, with a cute little bare booty (picture). Laos safety measures? None! The kid also had marks on his face like he maybe fell down recently… But wow, what a scene! I was fascinated.
We take off soon after that, and hike a few hours to the river, and are transported by river in a long tail the rest of the way. Again, gorgeous, drop-dead scenery.
I’m reluctant to leave, but press on to Luang Namtha, another trekking town in North Laos. My trepidation is based on fear that I won’t be able to find a group to trek with again, and also that I have a flight leaving from Chiang Mai in a couple of days, and if I trek even one day longer than my schedule allows, I won’t arrive in Chiang Mai until the night before my flight, leaving me with no time to spend there at all. Plus I’m happy here in Nong Khiaw, and I’ve had really good experiences here. However, I learned from my previous experience when leaving my German friends that another amazing experience may well be just around the corner. I don’t mind skipping out on Chiang Mai as it’s a big city, and I’ll just have to take my chances with meeting up with new people to trek with.
Upon getting to the bus station… (picture)
A beautiful bus station!
I find that my new traveling companions this time are two Spanish couples from Barcelona, friendly as well, but speaking mostly in Catalan (which I cannot understand!). My friends Erin and Jason get on a songthaew heading back to Luang Prabang, where they will spend  a few days before heading off to Nepal to do the Annapurna Circuit (I’m so jealous!). We get in a local bus, which is packed with people, even using little plastic stools so people can sit in the aisles. The road is in a terrible state, but we arrive at the halfway point, Oudomxai, without incident. I’m even falling asleep, my head lolling about. We are supposed to change buses here, but there doesn’t seem to be a regular service to Luang Namtha. Trekking may not happen after all- spending a night in this boring town, will cut out another day... But lo and behold, after an hour or so of exploring other options and almost leaving the bus station, a bus pulls into the LN spot, and we are waved over. Bus today! Leaving at 5:30.
We arrive in Luang Namtha at Zuela GH at 9:30pm, and take the remaining two rooms, a three bed room for the girls and a double for the boys. Tomorrow we’ll rearrange, when more rooms open up. It’s 80,000 kip for our room, and 60,000 for a double, and it’s the most beautiful GH I’ve been in since arriving in Asia… Brick walls, NO MILDEW SMELL! Clean bathroom, spotlessly clean and white, and nice hot water showers (no water pressure, but a small price to pay).
That night I check in on facebook in Luang Namtha, and a miracle happens! You see, I had wanted to trek in Luang Namtha as well, but was resigning myself to the fact that I might not be able to, or would have to go with the two couples, and they weren’t going on a trek right away, they were going to relax one day and leave the next, leaving me with just one night in CM. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to sacrifice my Chiang Mai time for that. I just wasn’t sure. But an hour later guess who comments on my fb status? It’s Annike and Raissa, my German friends. They are back in Laos and coming to LN too, and will arrive tomorrow. I write back for them to come to Zuela GH, and then I wait, wondering if they would get the message, wondering what time they would arrive, and wondering if it would all work out, but in reality trusting and just being sure that it would. The next day I relaxed, rented a mountain bike and went off on a muddy, rainy, thunderstorming adventure, a 35km loop around town to a touristy waterfall and down some backroads (picture). In the evening I waited for them at the night market across from Zuela, waiting and hoping. (picture).
And lo and behold! Two tall blonde heads, I couldn’t believe it! My plan was working out perfectly. We had some beers and went to book our tour. Coming along with us would be Roni and (dude’s name) two Israelis, not a couple, but who had all just met on the bus on the way into town. We had actually expected to be able to join the two Spanish couples on their trek/kayak trip as I had originally planned, but it ended up being full. So the tour company, resourceful as always, comes up with an alternate. This tour is new, they say. The guide explaining it to us is drunk already, as the tour company is also a bar, a nice spot really. He stumbles for the right words, and me and the German girls are basically in, let’s do this! No matter what. The Israeli girl is more cautious, asking questions like, “is it safe?” “do we get insurance?” and other probably sensible questions that we know just have no good answer, deep in Laos as we are. The dude doesn’t really seem to care, he just pays the money and looks self-assured, so I assume he’ll be allright. It’s supposed to be a two day jungle trek, with a homestay. 5-6 hours walking each day. It sounds like they haven’t really done this particular trail yet, and it almost sounds like the guide is making it up as he goes, but regardless, it sounds like a great adventure!
We leave at 9 the next morning. Roni is late (she is coming from another guesthouse), and we wonder if she really wants to do this. She insists on going back to Zuela to put her bags there, and the guide is impatient. But we end up waiting for the local guide for another hour or so anyways, so I’m not sure what all the rush was for.
The local guide is there to carry our lunch, and a machete.
And so the adventure begins. We start out jubilant and happy, excited and bouncing up the trail. It’s beautiful already, and we can see rubber trees being tapped on the side of the trail. Apparently the Chinese are investing a lot in Laos for their natural resources like rubber and oil (from a plant source).
And then… The leeches. At first I’m nervous and excited, as I don’t quite know what my reaction will be. I’ve been known to have a phobic reaction to slugs, however slow and harmless they may be, and here we have slug-like creatures but with a propensity for human blood. And quick! Ok but here we go. So we see one on the trail. It’s a large one, about half the thickness of my pinky and maybe just as long. I see it standing straight up, seeking a heat source. We go quickly by it and I’m ok, intrigued but nothing else, a little freaked out as I see it start to move towards us and we walk quickly away. But our guide turns to go up this steep hill, and I fall on my ass and slide down as I try to scramble up. “Hurry up!” They say behind me, “the leeches!” So I keep scrambling, and as I go to reach for a stump, I see another leech, standing straight up and I’m about to put my hand on it, so I scramble some more and then there are leeches on me! The guide is pulling them off his feet already, he’s not even wearing any socks. I’m half sliding back down the hill, it’s completely muddy, and squirming out of my skin, he pulls a leech off my shoes and puts it on a branch, and hacks it in two. Below me, everyone else is struggling up the hill, and around me, I see the leeches, coming closer, and SO FAST! Like a stop action horror movie, they stand up and wave around, sensing heat, then start inch-worming their way, and before you know it, they are on you, gross and slimy, squirming away from your fingers, sucking onto your skin, your socks, your shoes. It’s disgusting. So we jam up this hill, everyone stopping to pull leeches off every once in a while, stomping all the while to avoid new ones from crawling up.
We stop for a rest eventually, and to wait for the guy, who is having a hard time for some reason. It turns out that he’s really not a hiking type of guy, and isn’t really in the kind of shape you need to be in to hike quickly uphill while escaping leeches. We take off our shoes, and realize that it’s a leech party in our shoes! So we pull them off, and I’m just feeling so disgusting, hyperventilating, and talking myself out of freaking out. I mean, they are not poisonous, they don’t spread disease, and in fact doctors still use them on patients. So there’s nothing wrong with them! But really, they are so disgusting.
We stop for a rest on top of a large log, and contemplate our next move while pulling leeches off. Roni starts to wonder if they can crawl up your leg, and if so, how far do they go? She looks down her waistband and sure enough, finds two leeches on her upper thigh! UGH. Luckily I don’t have them that far up.
Our guide promises that if we walk just a bit further we’ll end up at a farm, a Lao “garden” as he calls it, where he says there are no leeches. (picture) And indeed! We are so happy, and sit down for a nice lunch, eaten off banana leaves with lots of sticky rice. We wash it down with water and a few sips of Lao Lao, a homemade rice whiskey that Mac is carrying with him. (picture)
There are no leeches the rest of the way and I am SO relieved, and also dreading the next day, when Mac says we will encounter plenty more! It’s a beautiful hike through jungle and rice fields, but as we get nearer, the skies darken and it starts to rain. It even gets cold, and getting to our homestay location is a welcome respite. Roni and the guy lie down for a nap and me, the Germans and Mac go out into the village to say hello and maybe find some Beer Lao for sale.
Unfortunately there is no beer in the village as the roads are too washed out for motos to get into town to replenish supplies. Apparently once rainy season starts the villages get really isolated, and rarely venture into town. We sit around a fire, warming up and chatting with the family. It’s a one room hut with a partition for a bedroom, and apparently 11 people living there. Little children run around, shyly glancing at us then running away. There are two teenage boys who are on summer break. During the school year they live in the town to go to school, and come home on weekends to work. School is not very good in Laos. There are small schools in the villages, with varying levels of quality of teaching. After kids get older, they outgrow the village school and have to go into town for high school. After that, they have to go even further, to Luang Prabang for university, and all of it costs money. So most students work on weekends. Our guide was lucky in that his family helped finance his education by selling two buffalo. He learned English and started leading tours a few years ago. Now he teaches English during the school year and leads trekking tours in the summer, both of which are really good jobs. I realize it’s very hard for these kids to escape a village future. (picture) Not many families have the money to send their kids away, and most have to work in the fields to help with day to day living.
We return to our lonely little hut on the outskirts of the village. The cook is there and has built a fire. We sit around and build another fire in the middle to dry our clothes out and get warm. Dinner is plain but good, a cabbage dish with meat, some green veg, and sticky rice. The entire place is lit by candles and the fires, it’s dark and smoky. The beds are set up with mosquito netting, but are rickety and dusty. Our guide falls through when he stands on the bed to adjust the netting. We all slide over so no one has to sleep next to the hole. The toilet is outside, down a slippery slope, which makes your feet muddy every time you go to the loo, if not your entire backside because you fell down. It’s like a freaky slumber party, where things are not so comfortable but really not so bad either. It’s not luxury though, that’s for sure! It rains into the night, and we wake up early. Clothes are still damp, and everything smells like smoke. Our water for the day consists of water from the village that the cook boils over the stove to purify it. It tastes like smoke from the fire too. We fill up our water bottles, put on our damp clothes and prepare to face the leeches once again, sigh!
Before we go though, some of the village men come over to show us some tricks. We get to shoot a bow and arrow, and on my second try, BULLSEYE! We also play an accordion-like pipe organ type instrument, and a harmonica/flute thing.
We set off through the forest, and this time I’m more acclimated to the leeches. They really aren’t so bad this time either, instead of being everywhere, they are just occasional, and I am much more calm. We pass through some amazing scenery, but before lunch it starts to rain, so out come the ponchos and backpack covers, and we slog through the mud. Lunch is at the Banyan Tree, but there is no shelter there, and the next sheltered place is a good 2-3 hours walk. So the cook lays down a plastic tarp and on the tarp he dumps out plastic bags of food- a tomato dish, green long beans with meat, and a delicious smoked eggplant mush, of which I eat most of. Oh, and of course there is tons of sticky rice. The dude sets his umbrella up over the food, but we all sit on our haunches in the rain and eat off the tarp with our fingers. (picture)
Continuing on, we keep going and going, through tall grasses and jungle underbrush, up and down muddy hills and over and under giant logs. When finally we reach the river, we are all relieved, as the sun was out and there were no more leeches. However we had another problem, which was that the river was really high, and really fast, and we had no idea how deep the it was. I already knew from experience that the currents were deceptively strong out here. We scoped out the river for the best place to attempt a crossing. Annike is the first to cross, and she wades in, almost getting swept away but makes it. Her and Raissa have their stuff in a dry bag, and Raissa crosses next. The rest of us put all our valuables and electronics in one bag, and throw it across to the girls. Next we throw our other bags, and then walk over. The current is strong and up to my waist, but we all make it across, relieved.
Ah, but there’s more! 4 river crossings total, the last of which is supposed to have a bridge. One down. We reach the next river, and it’s worse than the first. The river looks much deeper and faster. Raissa hikes into the underbrush and emerges next to a tree growing out over the river. It bends under her weight, and she jumps in, managing to swim to the other side. Great! Now to get our things across. Annike takes the bags and lobs them over to Raissa. Mine hits the water but everything inside stayed dry. She gets better with each bag. Next I jump/swim across, and it’s actually pretty fun! Roni does the same, and so does the guy. But now we find out the guide doesn’t know how to swim and is scared of the water. We spend about half an hour convincing him to jump in, and finally, finally, with a four man bridge of hands to catch him, he jumps in and we keep going.
The next river crossing is not so bad, as there is a local family who wades across with our precious bags, and we jump and swim across with all the locals. The last river has a “bridge” consisting of a couple of logs lashed together, barely skimming the top of the rough waters. But after the previous experiences, this river crossing was a dream. The rest of the way was done fairly quickly, but still taking about an hour and a half, getting darker all the while.  
Back to civilization!
It was the MOST adventure I’ve ever had, probably the most dangerous, most exciting, and most adrenaline pumping hike ever. There were definitely points at which me and Roni were discussing the phenomenon that occurs with traveling, when there are times that are maybe not so enjoyable while you’re going through them, but become the best moments of your life. This is defintitely one of those times. There was a moment at the beginning of the hike on the second day, when Mac suddenly told us that there was indeed another route that was possible to take, one that did not go through the jungle and leeches, but followed the road that the villagers normally take to town. He said it was easier and quicker, and with no leeches… But no, we all decided to push through, as we planned. I almost backed out but it is not my style to back away from a challenge.
We returned to Zuela Guesthouse and manage half a beer before passing out on the bed. Me and the German girls are leaving for the Thai border the next day, via bus to the border, a boat crossing in Houy Xai, and a mini-bus that will take me to Chiang Mai and drop off Raissa and Annike in Chiang Rai on the way. It will take about 12 hours. This time it’s really goodbye, as they are going back to Germany on Friday, so we make plans to meet again in Europe… For more adventure!
I arrive in Chiang Mai as scheduled around 9:30pm, and get a motorbike taxi to the hotel to meet up with May. It’s a happy reunion and we go for a walk to get some food and do some shopping. It’s a good time, albeit short. May is spending two weeks in Chiang Mai doing the Thai Massage course I was initially going to do, but decided to forgo in favor of more trekking and scuba. She was enjoying it though, and we were planning to meet again the following week in Bangkok for our flight to India.
So the next morning I start the journey to Ko Tao for scuba- it’s a quick flight at noon from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, about an hour on the MRT (Metro Rail Transport?) to the train station, waiting a few hours then taking the overnight train to Chumphon arriving at 4am, 1/2hr or so bus to ferry station, and ferry leaving at 7am for 2 hrs ride to Ko Tao, arriving Ko Tao at 9:30 the next day. Whew!
Along the way I meet another American girl traveling alone and we end up hanging together for the rest of my time on the islands. She was going to do her Advanced Open Water diving course, and I did my Open Water (beginner) dive course. After the courses were over we went to Ko Pha Ngan, which is where they have the full moon parties, but as this was mid-month, they were having a Black Moon party- which we didn’t go to anyways, for various reasons, among them being exhausted from diving in shitty weather for a couple of days, and also not being hyped by the crowd we encountered at the pre-party at Coral Beach Bungalows. Anyways! I really loved Ko Pha Ngan, it was a beautiful island, really not at all what I expected. It was deserted, wild and beautiful. Our bungalow was right on the sand, and we paid about $10 US/night for the two of us. (picture) I could have spent days there, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, diving more, exploring. On this trip, I decided the best way to do this island justice would be to lie in the sand and absorb the feeling. It’s definitely in my plans for the future.
Ko Tao was crowded with divers and partiers, a lively place. I dove with New Way, a smaller company, as I wanted more of a personal experience after the rushed and scary experience with Quicksilver Diving in Australia. This time around the diving was great- I really got the hang of it after playing around in the pool, practicing skills in a calm environment. I found the whole experience was what made it fun- swaying on the boat, setting up your equipment, feeling accomplished when you get out of the water. The diving itself was nice, rather unremarkable, other than a striped sea snake we didn’t see any spectacular animals or whale sharks… But it’s ok, I feel comfortable with it and will definitely go again!
My American friend, Julie, had an unfortunate experience when the dive boat she went out on broke down and they had a hard time getting another boat to come out and rescue them, including jumping from one boat to another in rocky waters. I guess that might be the downfall of diving with a small company, the boat they normally used was being repaired so they had to borrow and share with other dive companies. Also the weather wasn’t great on our 6am dive either, rather choppy, and I got a little seasick. But really, after my experiences in Laos, nothing was going to phase me anymore!
I wish I had more time to explore Ko Tao, as all I saw was the busy area around the dive shop. In fact, I need more time on the islands in general! I have to find a way to spend a couple of months being an island beach bum.
And the reason for all this hurrying is because I had to make a flight from Bangkok to Indore, India, on 31st August. Which is where I am as we speak, in the middle of a 36 hour journey from Ko Pha Ngan in South Thailand to Indore, Madyar Pradesh, smack in the middle of India. It started yesterday with a 12:00 songthaew from the beach to the port, a 1:00 ferry to Chumphon (3 hrs), 5:30pm bus to Bangkok (7 hrs), a 7 hour wait in Suvarnabami airport, a 9:am flight to Delhi (4.5 hrs), and 6:pm flight to Indore (2.5 hrs). Including a 6 hour layover in Delhi, where I am now, conveniently using the laptop charging station so I can both write this and finish watching Kill Bill when I get back on the plane.
Whew! 14 pages later, I’m finally caught up with my adventures in Asia. A beautiful, wonderful experience. I’ll have you know that what I have published here is the "editied" version, as I certainly couldn’t post every detail, nor do I wish to share it all! There are some things that must be left to the imagination, and I most certainly hope that the details that the reader might fill in would be more exciting than what I’ve actually left out. But I’ll leave that to your imagination! ;-)