And now for something completely different

The summer has come to an end, meaning that it is time for jackets, thick socks, and hot showers. And as a student the changing seasons also means that it is time to hit the books. Only this year (semester, really) I will be studying in Oxford! I have made another blog for this chapter of the journey, which can be found here if you feel so inclined: https://mskellyfitzinoxford.wordpress.com/ . No promises on the frequency of postings, but I may get to it now and then. And if I post pictures from this past summer here, I will throw in an update on the new blog as well.

 

Happy reading!

Advertisements

Bangkok: The Ultimate

Bangkok is quite the sprawling metropolis, a fact best driven home by riding the skytrain or, if one is lucky enough, going to the top of one of the tall buildings. From the train you can see flashes of golden temples, parks, tin housing projects, gated communities, and, in the city, building after building. The population of Bangkok is over 8 million, whereas Chicago is closer to 2.7 million. It is a big place.

 

I have been in Bangkok before: for AFS orientations, transit between north and south Thailand, and I even stayed with Anouk’s auntie out in the suburbs. On the eighteenth anniversary of my birth I found myself here, and two years later I am drawn back again. This time to find my cousin Jake and lay low for a bit before the next phase of the journey begins. As I write this, however, the next phase has already begun. I have safely made it to Oxford and am writing in retrospect. As things happen I always feel like I have so much to say, but for now only a couple highlights:

 

– Jake and I did end up meeting up. He didn’t have a phone, so we relied on serendipity to bring us together. It was a system that worked pretty well. The first night we went out for Indian food and a drink on Soi Cowboy, where Hangover II was filmed. The street had plenty of neon lights and girls in skimpy uniforms, but it wasn’t too crazy. Maybe you have to go inside to see the real shows.

– Shopping! I always tell anyone who is coming to Thailand to come with an empty bag. Despite the fact that my bag is already stuffed, I bought more stuff. A new pair of pants and a shirt or two (bought at the maddening mess that is the Chatuchak Weekend Market), plus a mild shopping frenzy at a — want to guess? — large 7/11. In the States, usually you don’t shop at convenience stores because they are more costly, but in Thailand this is not so, generally speaking. I spent what felt like the outrageous sum of 856 baht (almost $30) on soap, batteries, a new toothbrush, a loofah, and all that good stuff in preparation for a stay in England.

– I dabbled a bit in medical tourism, if you can call it that. Jake gave me the idea when he said he and his friends got some vaccines at a travel clinic in town. He said it was done at a clean, well-run travel clinic and even pulled up the website to let me browse. (It is here: http://www.thaitravelclinic.com/) The prices are unbelievable. I wanted to get anything and everything that I don’t have already, but after consulting with a doctor at the clinic I ended up getting only Yellow Fever and Japanese Encephalitic vaccines. (The other ones I wanted, like rabies and cholera, are part of a series. Next time I come through I will try again.) In the States, these vaccines cost roughly $120 and $400 respectively. The Thai price? $40 and $16, plus a total of 170 baht in hospital/injection/consultation fees. (This would be $170 if done in the States. Seriously.) The clinic was only a little hard to get too, but once I was there the process was easy and painless. Even the needles hurt less than in the States. So now I have another recommendation for travelers in Thailand: do your vaccines here and save heaps of money!

 

Well, those are the highlights I can think of for my three or so days in Bangkok. Much love to my Yasothon family and the country that I love so much; I’ll miss you!

Moon Fever

On September nineteenth, a lot of people somewhere in Thailand where collectively preparing for an epic hangover. The nineteenth was the full moon, and Thailand is famous for Koh Pha Ngan’s full moon parties. This time around I skipped it and stayed in the North, where it seems I was no less affected by the lunar cycles. A few nights in a row I couldn’t sleep. Not that I had a hard time getting to sleep — I just could not. I spent the night staring at the ceiling, the windows, the ceiling again, rolling to face the wall, sometimes putting my face under the pillow. For some reason I was just wide and by five I decided to listen to some music (my old iPod is turning out to be handy after all) and do Sudoku. By around 6:30 I maybe dozed off for an hour. It was strange business, especially since I usually have no problem sleeping. I attribute it to the lunar cycle and my own monkey mind that was in overdrive, swinging through the dark forests of the future and making my pulse quicken with anticipation and ambition.

The sleepless nights aside, the rest of my time in Pai passed pleasantly. Most days I pottered around town, patronizing establishments with names like Earth Tones, the Sun Hut, World Tea House (which could give Oxford Exchange a run for its marble-tiled money), Om Garden, Art of Chai, Starbucks, and so on. … Totally kidding about Starbucks, by the way. Pai would cease to be the place it is if Starbucks were to move in. It would be like the next Ubud: used to be a cool place until the yuppies moved in so now you can use your Visa or Mastercard to buy “accessories for the soul” and have a rendezvous at, yes, the Starbucks. In fact, Pai installed traffic lights only recently, amid some protests from locals. But so many tourists rent motorbikes that the lights have become a necessity.

This whole trip I have been tempted to rent a motorbike, but given my lack of experience and the dicey way people drive here (Thailand is better than Vietnam but still) I let caution prevail and rent a bicycle if a grueling day of slogging through the nearby sights takes my fancy. In Pai, there is a one-day route that takes in views of the Pai River, the Pai Canyon, a WWII bridge, and a hot springs. These are all marked on a readily available tourist map, but one must be observant and would do well to take note of the “map not to scale” disclaimer in the corner. This I discovered when I tried walking to the Mae Yen waterfall my first day there. The waterfall appears to be just a hop down a squiggly road that branches off from the main one, but as I was walking on the squiggly road I asked a local person and they said it was another good seven kilometers to get there. Ooo-kay. So with this experience in mind, I rented a bike and set out with some reservations.

Riding through town is nice. There are shops selling all kinds of clothes and trinkets. Everyone is wearing either a tie-dye t-shirt or baggy pants, and the dreadlocks per capita is the highest I have seen since February’s rainbow gathering. There is even a shop on the main walking street where you can “make sad dreads happy again” or have new ones started. People are friendly, and many smiled when they saw me pedal by, chanting the Batman theme song to myself.

First stop: some Strawberry-themed rest stop that seemed to be an homage to the kitschy nature of Asian tourism. People (all of them Asian) wearing floppy hats and wielding cameras the size of newborn babies were taking pictures of anything and everything. The tackiness was almost unbearable, so I paused only briefly to take in the view (of both the valley and the chattering tourists) before pressing on. The hills were endless, which doesn’t come as a surprise being in the North. Going down was fun, but going up extracted the usual tirade of grumbling. The bike was heavy, the gears didn’t work, and the hills went on and on. I ended up walking up most of them. No doubt some of those baby-size cameras were aimed at me along the way.

Panting and sweaty, the sign for Pai Canyon appeared around the bend at the top of a hill. At last! I parked my bike (no need to lock up here; the guy who rented the bike out to me didn’t even mention a lock (or the replacement fee) like most other places do. He also didn’t ask for my passport number, where I was staying or, tell me when to bring the bike back. He just took my fifty baht (less than two dollars) and gave me directions to the canyon. In fact, most of Pai seems to be founded on a level of trust. At many restaurants you order at the counter, sit outside or wherever, and just need to remember to come back inside to pay. So what was I saying before this parenthetical diversion?) Ah yes, I parked my bike and hiked in. As I heard other travelers point out in a bar later that night: Pai Canyon is not the Grand Canyon. Well duh. It doesn’t advertise itself as such, and the Grand Canyon is a pretty big expectation to live up to. No, the Pai canyon was more like a series of ridges where you could walk along the top and get lost in what seemed to be a maze of trail. I followed on track to the end, sliding down sandy ravines and getting caught in spider webs made by yellow and black creatures the size of the lenses of the Asian cameras. Talk about the heebie jeebies! Luckily no bites, at least not that day. Since then I have found a particularly nasty welt-like bite on my upper thigh. It is starting to fade a bit and at least doesn’t itch so much.

At the end of the trail, I took in the view, which was a pretty nice panorama of the area. And I did something that I like to do when I find myself in the solitude of nature: I aired out my birthday suit and took a commemorative (and tasteful) photo. Or tried to. My camera decided at that moment to come down with Moon Fever itself and refused to let me drag one more second of life from its batteries. Bummer! I did at least get one, but it is not, shall we say, the full view. Entirely unfortunate. If someone came along it would have been a good picture for them: me doing the third-world squat in the dirt, fiddling with a camera, naked as the day I was born except for the glasses. Such is life.

Next stop: the WWII bridge. More Asian people with Asia cameras, and a plaque explaining the bridge’s origin. Apparently, in WWII the Japanese made the locals build a bridge, which they then destroyed before leaving the country. The locals, now used to the convenience of the bridge, built a new one out of bamboo, which was washed away by floods. This happened a couple times, so finally in the 1970s the people of Pai petitioned the government for a fund to build a metal bridge, which still stands today so people can take pictures on it. Another bridge for cars was build more recently.

The hot springs was mercifully nearby, but ruthlessly expensive. 200 baht for a foreigner to enter, 40 baht for a Thai. Bogus, man. Especially since most other hot springs are free. I sat at the front gate, mulling over parting with 200 baht in order to put my feet in some hot water that smelled like eggs. I decided that if I could get the price reduced I would go in, and if not I came out here for nothing. I explained that I was a student (in Thai, of course) and got in for the child’s rate of 100 baht. 50% discount. Not bad, eh? I am thinking maybe while I am in Bangkok I will get an international student ID made with dates for when I graduate. Just a thought. (Funny thing is that I can almost guarantee that the international student ID that AFS gave me on arrival was made in some illicit workshop in Bangkok. It was pretty shoddy but did the job.) The water was pretty nice, and the egg smell actually reminded me of home. I stayed awhile, and was pleased to find that I can read enough Thai to be able to fill out a review/reaction form presented to me at the end. Yeah!

After the springs, the ride was a more or less pleasant pedal back to town. At one point I saw was looked like a pretty good elephant statue, and let out a squeak when it moved. Elephants! There were camps along the road where you could feed the beasts or go for a ride. I had to keep an eye on the road to dodge the dung. A place called the Treehouse Resort caught my fancy, but when I went to the tree lounge for a coffee (it also had nice views) no one was there, so I was able to loiter on a swing for free.

Back in town, I worked on catching up on my scrapbook. I was woefully behind, with my last pages covering Cambodia. In two sessions I caught up on my time with my family, Laos, and the boat trip back to Thailand. The first session I had at a place called Edible Jazz, which had live music and the vibe that it was a hang-out for people who live in Pai. Isa, a ten-year-old girl mature beyond her age, came to sit with me, giving advice for what to do in town and drawing me a map of the best spots. Her family has lived her for two years, and before that she was in Sweden for awhile and spent her formative years in India. What a childhood she is having; no wonder she is so mature. Her mom is Italian and does music (she was singing at Edible Jazz that night) and her dad is Swedish and does tattoos. She had a younger brother too, who joined us and interrogated (that is the right word) me about why I was putting things besides pictures in my scrapbook and why I didn’t watch Disney Channel. Isa and her brother are each allowed one hour on the tablet per day, and he referred to the thing as his “baby.” Ah, kids and technology. Where will we go from here? (People said the same thing about the television fifty years ago, didn’t they?)

On another day in Pai, I was wandering in the fields out of town and was picked up on the way in by Jerry, a young guy from China traveling abroad for the first time. He was heading out to see the sights north of town, so I joined him. We went to a viewpoint with a terrifyingly steep ascent (the automatic bike almost didn’t make it), saw a Chinese settlement, went to a waterfall, checked out the airport (the only flights are on weekends and they only go to Chiang Mai), and drove around the backroads. It was a nice and unexpected day, which is part of the joy of travel. You never know what you will find when you step out of your front door.

Alas, all good things come to an end and it was time to say bye bye to Pai. I was hoping to take the night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, but will have to save it for the next trip. Something new to look forward to, right? So I took a minivan from Pai to Chiang Mai (150 baht, 3.5 hours), a local bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (485 baht, 11 hours), another local bus from Mochit station to the nearest BTS (sky train) station (11 baht, six minutes), and from there I went to the stop nearest my hostel (45 baht, thirty minutes). What a journey! Most notable not for its duration but for the lady that sat next to me for the longest leg of the journey. Her name escapes me, but she was from Japan and talked nonstop. Apparently she had been in Chiang Mai for three days and couldn’t find anyone that spoke English or Japanese. She called her consulate about the problem, and they told her to go back to Bangkok. So there she was, and she was chattering like she hadn’t spoken to a soul in weeks. If I tried to get a word in edgewise she would grab my hands, push them down with some force, and say “please” with a forceful smile before continuing on. Ever polite, she at least apologized for continuing to talk but didn’t stop until I hadn’t said anything for an hour and sensed that maybe it was time to take a stab at sleeping. Thankfully, she noticed that the bus was fairly empty and moved to another seat so we could spread out. I was free! Thank goodness for a blindfold as it makes a nice barrier in situations like these.

And so here I am, back in Bangkok. And, can you believe it, I fly out tomorrow! Hopefully I will manage another post between now and then but for now I have some business to which I must attend. But before I go I will share some exciting news: I got an email with my housing assignment at Oxford. Each day part of the mystery is revealed. I will be on Woodstock Road (only mildly ironic given my chosen field of study) but was unable to read the address. In any case, I made a little map for myself of how to get from George Street (where the OSAP office is) to Woodstock. Cheers!

Having Pai, and eating it too

This morning the damn kid was crying again. For two nights now, a woman and her child (who I would guess is maybe two or three) have been staying in the room adjacent to the dorm room I have been occupying in Chat House. The building was originally a regular house and has since been converted into a guesthouse, meaning the walls are super thin and there are some gaps — more like cracks, small but present — where the interior walls meet the exterior of the house. In the mornings, there are usually rooster calls and monks beating drums somewhere nearby at around 7:30 in the morning, which is entirely forgivable and even enjoyable due to the novelty. But a kid in the next room whining day and night? God help me. His mom talked to him in that baby-voice, cooing “I love you” through his tantrums in a way that reminded me of Mishka. In my bed, I muttered a long-held mantra that gets me through moments like these: neverhavekids neverhavekids neverhavekids, ad infinitum.

But the kid wasn’t the only reason I left Chiang Rai. Since yesterday, the itch started to make itself known. There is a feeling that comes on in any place, no matter how nice, after you have been there about a week, maybe less. It is the call of the road, the promise of new adventure in a new place. I really enjoyed Chiang Rai, and there are a few spots I marked on my map that have yet to see, but it was time to move on. I decided this while taking a quick morning walk, and returned to find that the guy sharing the dorm room with me had the same idea. Was he leaving because of the kid too? I didn’t ask. In fact, we only ever said hello and good-bye. (Plus I said sorry once when he found me on the stairs, stuff spread out as I searched for the room key that always seemed to find its way to the bottom of my bag.) His pack was light, which made me feel mildly embarrassed as my pack is fit to burst. But I have to commend my pack and defend my logic here.

A) The pack, which I got when my dad and I did our Grand Canyon hike during my last high school spring break (good memories, dad 🙂 ), has proved its worth many times over by now. It is like a magic bag: uncomplainingly accompanying everything I can think to shove in it. I thought after Luang Prabang I would certainly have to start using the last-resort collapsible duffel bag, but – alas! – with a little strategy, I was able to fit in all of my new purchases in Chiang Rai. And I didn’t even have to start using my black backpack or wear layers of heavy clothing! (That will come later, in the airport. I can almost guarantee you I will be frisked with the get-up I’m planning.) Good on you, pack. This is another chapter of a beautiful relationship.

B) Though all my shopping makes me look more like a giddy tourist than a stoic, minimalist traveler, I think my logic is sound. Right now, I am in Thailand. In a week, I will be in England, where I will be staying autumn and the start of winter. Everything is cheaper in Thailand, including clothes. Therefore, I will buy clothes (and some other things, like notebooks) while I am in Thailand and bring them to England. Genius! So what if I look a little silly with my pack full of winter wardrobe? I’ll be the one laughing when I get to Oxford and already have a snazzy wardrobe in tow. Sure, things may need to be ironed, but the uniqueness of my goods are worth it.

Speaking of this wardrobe: I am going for patterns and colors, conscientiously seeking out what others may call “hippie clothes,” with great success. Which means, much to my mother’s chagrin, that nothing matches. If/when I layer up, I’ll look like I went through a garage sale with a color magnet and put on everything that came to me. My Uncle Dave Fitz once told me that if I wear thirteen different patterns I’ll really freak people out. I don’t know if I can manage thirteen patterns yet, but I am probably somewhere on the “Why, she’s rather odd” scale. Then again, wasn’t I there already?

But I digress. Getting to the bus station was easy at this point, and I still managed to find a new way to get there. I meant to have one last meal at the vegetarian restaurant (30 baht for a heaping plate of guaranteed vegan food! Best deal in town because it is meant for locals.) I have been frequenting, but it was closed on Mondays. There actually is a large number of these vegetarian restaurants (identifiable by the word jay (เีีีีั้ิิจ) and lots of red and yellow banners) in town, but I took the closure as a sign that I should give into my craving for salted peanuts in the shell (I eat the shells too. It’s good roughage.) from 7/11. With peanuts, water, and black sesame soymilk in hand, I found a bus that was conveniently leaving for Chiang Mai in twenty minutes. The bus was immaculate, air-conditioned and presided over by a severe woman with too much make-up. She enforced seat assignments in the stringent manner of a Victorian governess. I settled into 12B, and aisle seat at the very back of the bus, and tucked into my peanuts just as other Thai passengers were eating their snacks (green mangoes, meat kebabs, chips, etc). For most of us, the food was gone before the bus even left the station. There is an opportunity to buy more snacks and go to the bathroom halfway through the journey, and all garbage is left on the bus when you alight for the final time.

We pulled into a station marked called “Bus Station Terminal 3,” and I waited for a few minutes on the bus. Other passengers did the same, but eventually everyone got off. This was the end of the line. I collected my exceedingly bulky bag (which I insist on handling: if you can’t handle your own luggage then you shouldn’t bring so much stuff) and wandered uncertainly around the terminal. This seemed like the long-distance station as every bus was going to Bangkok or Phuket or Ubon Ratchatani. There was no apparent info desk, so I asked a lady in a uniform if I could find a bus to Pai. At first she didn’t understand since I said it as other foreigners say among themselves: pie. In Thai, the p is more of a mix between b and p and the vowel is longer: Bpaai. Now having the correct pronunciation, she directed me to the bus station across the street, where I repeated the name to enough people to make me remember as well as get directions to the buses to Pai, located in the back. Buses left every hour on the half hour; it was 1:40.

With an hour to kill, I set off in search of a fruit stand and was shocked that I didn’t find one. So I patronized the second 7/11 of the day, choosing from one of three in the immediate vicinity. I got a Thai iced tea from a machine that would sell syrupy fruit drinks in the states. Wandering the aisles, I sipped it furtively before getting a modest refill and paying eighteen baht (60 cents) for the whole shebang. Do I have questionable morals? Maybe. But 7/11 makes plenty of money, and this isn’t as bad as when I eat a quarter pound of grapes while shopping in the grocery store in the States before making it to the register. (Just try and stop me!)

Time passed pleasantly in this fashion, and it was time to board before I knew it. The bus could seat eleven passengers in reasonable comfort. There was a Swiss couple, the woman had a most impressive girth; a flustered Asian tourist (from Japan?); and everyone else was Thai. I was tempted to sing this song, the opening line of which means “Do you want to go on a trip?” but decided to hum it to myself instead. (Side note: the song is an innuendo, asking if the listener wants to go eat dab, which is cooked intestines, but the dabdabdab refrain is referring to a certain noise that can result from intimate contact between two people. The song gets most Thais grooving and is easy enough for a foreigner to learn. I forgot about it until I heard it on a bus trip in Laos.)

On this bus, there was no music. As we left the urban sprawl of Chiang Mai, I continued to read Notes From A Small Island and watched for my Chiang Mai host family’s village. A word about each:

First: in Chiang Rai, I found Orn’s Bookshop (courtesy of a flyer taped to the wall next to my bed) and traded another book for this one. It is an account of Great Britain and British life by American travel writer Bill Bryson. I have been nibbling at this book for a few days, and if I am in a particularly jovial mood will laugh out loud. The hope is that this book will get me excited for my upcoming spell on said “small island,” and I must say it is doing a good job. However, he had less than positive things to say about Oxford. In fact, he went on a bit of a tirade about the place, saying that there are many beautiful buildings but it is being ruined by ugly new installations. I’ll just have to see an judge for myself, though I am poised to like the place immensely.

Second: during my year in Thailand, I stayed a week with a family in Chiang Mai. This came about when I was told that I had to take the SAT (which I had previously declined to do since it was not required for admission to UT) in order to fully qualify for the National Merit Scholarship. It was a bit of a bother taking the SAT in Thailand, but I found an international school in Chiang Mai that was offering it. I contacted the school, and they took care of everything. A bus picked me up from the station, I was given an absolutely lovely apartment to stay in for the weekend, and I was allowed to eat in the cafeteria. The English headmistress met me personally (if her accent didn’t give it away, talk of a cricket match that weekend did) and was proud to inform me that her institution taught the best and brightest, including twenty of the children of the Bhutanese royal family, whom she had met personally. Around the school there were posters about not showing off how expensive your clothes and accessories were since not everyone can afford them. What a place. But I took the test, did well enough to get the scholarship (with no preparation besides a twenty-minute internet search the hour before to see what exactly I was going to be tested on), and then spent the following week with a local family, found courtesy of AFS Thailand. I think they lived in the outlying time of Meh Rim, which we passed through today, though I didn’t see anything that looked familiar. Warm thoughts to them, wherever they are.

After navigating the urban sprawl, we made it to the mountains. My precursory internet reading warned me that people who get motion sickness should take adequate precaution, which proved to be sound advice. If I were keeping a gratitude blog (which I think I will do someday as an exercise in writing, gratitude, and habit), today’s entry would be that not only do I not get motion sickness, I am able to read, sleep, and enjoy the view with relative ease and enjoyment aboard pretty much any means of transportation. Others in the car are not so fortunate. The climbing and sharp turns had barely begun when I heard what sounded like the Thai word for vomit — OO-ahk — coming from the seat behind me. My head turned toward the sound, and the Thai lady sitting in the middle, wearing her hair in a ponytail and a purple floral polo, was emptying the contents of her stomach into a plastic bag as unobtrusively as possible. (Something to love about the Thais: they don’t make a big deal out of things since the extra attention would just make it worse.) It smelled like chicken and looked like corn sunk below some clear yellowish liquid.

Thank goodness for a window seat! Much to my delight, the window opened and I spent the entire ride with some body part sticking out. Usually it was just my left hand and maybe some forearm. On occasion, my whole head would thrust out, grinning and panting in the cool mountain air like a dog. I gripped the van from the outside on sharp right turns, preventing myself from tumbling backwards into the guy next to me (no one was wearing seatbelts), and was thankful I wasn’t leaning into a door on the sharp left turns. On and on we went, S-curve signs around every bend, as if the serpentine nature of the road was news. The driver was pretty good, passing another car on a double-blind curve only once, and in general I didn’t feel like my life was in too much danger. Plus the road was velvety smooth for the most part (as far as roads go) and we even made a rest stop just as I was thinking “Gee, it would be nice to pee.” Thailand’s perfect potty timing record remains untarnished.

And the view! All that climbing wasn’t for nothing. Much of the land we drove through was national park (a word I learned under humorous circumstances involving a mass gathering of AFSers, a party on Koh Phi Phi, and a hotel mix-up; but I won’t get into it here) and was duly untouched. Low-lying clouds drifted through the mountainside forests like the train of a giant invisible bride. Rain spat on us occasionally. Nature was doing her duty to keep the land lush. While I watched the beauty, ooing and ahhing appropriately (I swear I enjoyed the ride significantly more than anyone else), I was also thinking about the future. I have Oxford to look forward to, then another year and a half at UT, with a college summer thrown in between. And then… graduation. The deadline for entering the real world. Or is it? There are so many options out there, and no time like the present to gather information and start planting seeds that could come to fruition two years from now. Whatever happens, it certainly will not be a 9-to-5 in some box somewhere. Youth shouldn’t be spent like that. This trip has opened my eyes to many new possibilities, and I am eagerly contemplating my options.

But for now, I am in Pai, Thailand. Once upon a time it used to be an outpost for hippies, and has since turned more touristy but retains some of that hippie vibe. Upon alighting from the bus (the poor sick woman held up remarkably well) I checked out a map and was approached by a motorbike driver. He said the cheapest rooms were 300 baht, but was friendly about it and pleased that I could speak Thai. He was called away to drive some other people (I am adamant about walking to get to new digs since I want to know I am in walking distance to the bus station and other important places, like internet cafes and restaurants) and was replaced by a woman driver. She offered to walk me to cheap accommodation. I followed her, apprehensive until I asked her if I would have to pay. She said no, but winked and followed up with “But if you do, mai ben rai.” Another use for the ubiquitous Thai “never mind.” We both laughed and then were at the place immediately. The owner was a middle-aged, cheerful, impeccably polite man. I asked for the cheapest room, at which point the driver lady said that I could stay at Auntie’s house (Thais often speak in the third person, which mercifully eliminates the need to navigate complicated pronouns) for free. “Really?” I asked, and we laughed again. It was a kind-hearted expression, but I wasn’t going to take her up on it. She went with me to check out the room and reminded me to keep the door shut and locked at all times before leaving, even calling me look, child (used as a term of endearment) a few times for good measure.

What a room! For 150 baht ($5) a night, I have a bed, working fan, working TV (finally I can catch up on my Thai soaps and K-Pop!), two towels, and complimentary soap and water. There is even soap and toilet paper provided in the shared bathroom! This is above and beyond for what I usually get for this price or more. I think I like it here. To sweeten the deal, a guy on the street outside was handing out pamphlets for live music at a nearby bar tonight. Actually the music is set to start in five minutes…

Chiang Rai

Enough days have passed while being here in Chiang Rai that I have lost track, allowing them to dreamily flow into one another like they did during the summers of childhood. If I had to stop and count, I would say that I have been here for… six days? Consulting my hand-drawn ledger would let me know for sure. 

In any case, I thought I would share a few anecdotes from the past few days. To start with: arrival. The minibus pulled into the local bus station in town, and left with luggage still on top. This incident was more easily rectified than when the border crossing bus from Thailand to Laos pulled the same stunt. A guy in a soldier uniform’s bag was also on top of the van, so he told the appropriate person, who made the appropriate phone call, and after a minute of chuckling the van was back. The young driver laughed and said he was forgetful (kee leum, a phrase I know well and use often in reference to myself) and thus it was resolved. 

Pack in hand, I set about finding accommodation. My luggage makes me easy pray for tuk tuk drivers, and one immediately approached me with a couple ragged brochures for different places to stay. I was looking them over when he got a phone call, during which time I studied the map for one in particular and decided to try and walk there. Walking is more of an adventure, makes the city more familiar, and, best of all, it’s free. I thanked him (he was still on the phone) and went off to ask the nearest person which way to the river. 

En route, I found an outrageously cheap internet cafe — just ten baht! That’s about 35 cents for an hour on a fast, modern, no-problems-loading computer. I have been back several times since. So I stopped there for an hour on the computer to check on my destination online, then kept plodding along. Soon I found the tourist police (dial 1155 for your first friend in Thailand!) and the tourist information office, where I got a most excellent map and brochure of activities and sights in the area. Chiang Mai has plenty to offer, which is why I have been here for so long, and has all the facilities for tourists, though it isn’t touristy. Only rarely do I see other farang in the street.

So I found the place I was looking for: Chat House. It was next to Overbrook Hospital, as the map said, and is in an alley next to a coffin-maker. (Thais cremate their dead, but they put them in coffins first.) It is a little ways away from the bus station and main part of town, which is fine by me. More exercise, and I am not in a rush to get anywhere. 

Now the first full day in Chiang Rai… It was one of those days. And I mean that in the best way possible. It was one of those days when, before it is even over, you feel like you are living your life just as you want. Like you have seized the day — carpe diem! — and would have no regrets if it was your last. That of course doesn’t mean that I wish life would end, but it was just such a great day for no reason in particular. I got up early, walked to a viewpoint marked on my map, met some horses on the way, and enjoyed the sunrise at the “city navel.” Cities are thought to be living beings, and as such are given the mark of a living being: a belly button. Although I must say that the navel looked looked more phallic than anything; or perhaps Chiang Rai has a prodigious “outie” belly button? As I saw it, there was one big lingam in the center, with smaller linga radiating out in a circle around it. Fifty-something in all. I took the appropriate goofy pictures and moved along.

Later that day, I took a local bus heading for Pa Yao, literally bouncing with excitement for no particular reason, and got off at Wat Rong Kuhn, or the White Temple. It was perhaps the most photogenic building I have ever seen. I have my own pictures, but here is one from online:

It was a stunning place. Even the bathrooms are located on the first floor of a palatial golden building. You could buy a silver ornament to write prayers on and hang it in a tree with hundreds of thousands of others. (Ironically, the ornament says “Rooai Rooai Rooai” at the bottom, meaning “Rich Rich Rich.” Thai people may be Buddhist, but they are still people. There was a museum with other work by the designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, including paintings and metal work. Photos aren’t allowed inside, but I had to sneak one of some of his more recent political ones. Notably one painted in 2009 titled “Bye Bye Bush,” which had Bush clinging to a rocket with a goofy grin, already heading into space. Another one in a similar style had Bush and Osama Bin Laden (who was carrying a machine gun) riding a rocket together, straddled like riding horse, both looking equally in awe of the universe around them. 

The best part of the White Temple was that a) it was free and b) it was wheelchair accessible, which is incredibly rare for Thailand. They even had a couple of special “For the disabled and elderly” stalls in the bathroom with the appropriate side rails and space. AND I only had to wait three minutes for a tuk tuk heading to Chiang Rai to pass and pick me up. It was an unusually great day.

The next day, my mission was to go to the Golden Triangle and visit the museums there. For fifty baht (about $1.60) I enjoyed the hour and a half ride in an air-conditioned van. The Golden Triangle is where Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand meet, and is historically known as a hub for opium. The two museums are both dedicated to opium. I found one with ease, as we passed the enormous “Opium Museum” sign on the way in. It was privately owned but well done, with plenty of paraphernalia and accompanying explanation. And for some reason you could buy all the pipes, bowls, and bongs in the museum store. (Bong is actually a Thai word adopted by the west, according to the museum. Go figure.) In the comments book I wrote a nice review, thought about writing “Samples?” in another line, but thought better of it. Looking back, I should have done it. It might have made someone else laugh. 

Afterwards, I wandered around, consulting my map frequently, looking for the other opium museum. I ended up on the side of a road, with jungle on my left and the river on my right. Outlook was grim for this path, and I was getting tired of looking. I decided to get to the next bend and, lacking evidence of a museum, would have lunch at a riverside restaurant before calling it quits and heading back. At the bend and… more trees. Okay. Time for lunch. The mama-san was pleasant, making me an egg and fried veggies, which I enjoyed while watching the tiny border post in Myanmar. No one entered or left. It was a border crossing for locals anyway. After lunch, I showed the mama-san my map and she said that the museum was just 100 meters ahead. Nit dieow eng! Just a little further! 

Around the bend after my “final” bend, there was a sign. Finally! I’m glad I made it, as the museum ranks with the best museums I have seen on this trip. (Among them: the Neka Art Gallery in Bali, the Textile Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art in Kuala Lumpur, and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.) With the 200 baht ($6.50) entrance fee paid (student discount only if you are a Thai student; foreigners are SOL) you start the tour of the spacious museum with a walk through a blue-lit tunnel that seemed like something right out of Universal Studios. I get the impression that it was actually underground. Then there is a woman at the other end to welcome you in front of a display about the growing process of opium, after which there is a video about the museum. Then another woman opens another door and the tour begins. I was alone in these enormous museum for much of the time, which was cool but also kind of creepy. It had information about the history of opium in the region, as well as plenty of info about the history of the tea trade (the Boston Tea Party had it’s own snippet), beautiful collections of paraphernalia, information about drug laws today, and a room of reflection at the end. The museum is a royal project with the goal of educating people and reducing drug use. Pretty well-done, I’d say, if only more people made it there to see it.

Today, I hopped on another bus to check out Baan Dum, or the Black House. I was on one of those local buses that is standing-room only, with the doors (there was a backdoor on this one too) always open. After awhile, the porter/money collector, a nimble old man, said “youyouyou,” in reference to mememe. My stop was coming up. I squeezed towards the door, and he pointed at a rapidly-approaching side street. The bus pulled over and slowed somewhat, though I was wondering if I would have to jump out and roll. At the last second he slowed, and I took the chance to hop out of the still-moving bus. The porter followed me, pointing down the alley, before swinging aboard through the backdoor. That’s one way to stay young, I guess.

Turns out the system works once again, and I found Baan Dum with ease. It was a contrast to the White Temple, with more simple (but still elegant) architecture and, of course, a black motif. There were a number of buildings on this compound, and each one was a vegetarian’s nightmare. Animal skins (including leopard and zebra) served as rugs in the closed-off houses, to be seen only through windows. Animal skulls were a recurring motif. Chairs were made out of leather, thigh bones, and buffalo horns, which was admittedly kind of cool but… In one open-air collection of instruments and grisly chairs, I had to scoot around an object, brushing against a hanging skin. The bristly fur still on the hardened skin gave me the shivers. A building shaped like a whale, with the entrance being in the mouth, was locked, but through a crack in the door I could see a forest of antlers, with an American Buffalo head staring back at me from the center of it. Here is one room in the Black House compound: 

Also in the compound there were rock gardens, several groundskeepers cutting the grass with edgers (the racket was almost able to rival UT in the afternoon), and fat moss-covered demons that made me think of Bali, which made me subsequently think “I’ve been to Bali?” All the carnage aside, it was a pretty cool place. My favorite part was the enormous hall, the roof of which I could see from the main road, which had one super-long table and four tables on the side. It was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings or some other other-wordly story, like a table for a pagan king long ago. It was simple wood with snakeskin runners, and buffalo horn chairs at each end.

The side tables were smaller and more intricate, one with enormous shells (for the River King) and one with more skull decorations and bundles of hair (for the Mountain King — shown below). I decided that the long table was for the Forest King. (What can I say, the place sparked my imagination.)

Besides using public transport for day trips in the province, I have been enjoying wandering the city. It is a good size, large enough to take a new route each time I go to the bus station but small enough to cover everything on foot. And the people! On long stretches I have been offered the backseat of a motorbike, which I accept. Random people will smile at me. One old lady gave me a thumbs-up as she drove by. Children will wai politely and encourage their younger siblings to do the same. No one points and says Farang! Farang! No one calls after me, trying to sell stuff. It is a peaceful place, tolerant of tourists and not overrun. Love it.

Thai Homecoming Pictures

Happily, this post was written before the SD-USB converter went AWOL so there are a few pictures for your enlightenment and enjoyment. I am back “home” in Thailand, but won’t be making it back to Yasothon in the last week (week in the singular… less than two before I leave!) so I wanted to put up these pictures of my last visit before I leave again. End of one chapter, start of another.

~~~

Image

One of several tanks on the compound where Meh works. I still think it is funny that they encouraged me to climb in a fully functioning tank. Now I wish I would have asked to go for a test drive…

Image

Kao Pan Sa, or the start of Buddhist Lent/the rain retreat, was only a week or so before my arrival. Part of the festivities include different temples making elaborate wax candles floats. This is part of one of many floats. The structure is wooden, but all the fine detailing in the wax takes months to prepare. This float was just for show, but Ubon is famous for its real candle that is meant to burn for the entire three months of the rainy season. During this time, monks are meant to stay in their temples and devote their time to religious study. They are not supposed to travel for fear of stepping on any new life that grows in the rainy season. Of course this is loosely followed in practice, but the principle is good.

Image

Nong Pete is on the right and Nong Chip is on the left. Don’t let Chip’s innocent smile fool you; he is a rascal of the highest order.

Image

Somehow Paw knows all kinds of interesting places to visit that are less than an hour from home. One day we (Meh, Paw, Mackey, P’Pat, Nong Pete, Nong Chip, and me) piled in the family car and went to a few different places. A horse stable was one stop. No one was at the stable when we pulled up, so we let ourselves in and had a look at the horses.

Image

Later that same day, we went to a temple on a hill. Paw led us kids (and I really do feel like a little kid when I am in Thailand) around on some trails and through some really narrow crevices. There were tons of mosquitoes, but it was a fun little adventure.

Image

At the end of our day trip, we went to a restaurant on a river. Each table has its own floating hut, and there was a larger space with karaoke. Everyone got in on the action, and I even (attempted) a song I know that has some English lyrics, but I butchered the Thai parts. Meh (the one with the microphone) picked a slow song that I was able to read fast enough to sing, so after this picture was taken we did a duet after a bit of protesting on my end.

Image

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has decreed that a certain level of proficiency in English be reached in its partner countries by 2015. Thailand is taking this pretty seriously, so one day Paw invited me to his work to take some photos to make it look like a foreigner is teaching English at the Yasothon police department. It was all about appearances for the big bosses and everyone knew it, but it was still kind of fun to do. And hey, it actually looks like something is being done.

Image

I moved in with my host family in October 2010, so I wasn’t with them during the rainy season. This time I made up for it and learned how to “dum na,” or replant rice seedlings. My aunt (wearing the umbrella hat) was much faster at it than me, but that’s what happens with years of practice. It was tough work and I wasn’t even out there that long.

Image

Paw got bread so we could have a breakfast “like foreigners.” Berry jam and pineapple jam with sweetened, condensed milk (so bad for you but tastes so good) were the spreads on offer. The toaster also branded the image of a bunny face onto one side of the toast, ensuring a cheery morning.

Image

Ajarn Ratsamee, the teacher who was a guide and temporary host for me, invited me, May, and Mackey out to dinner. May in in orange, her friend Am is in pink, and my friend Nikki is in red. Nikki has been to the States twice, and was most recently there working at a restuarant on Daytona Beach for her summer. She had to answer the phone in the restaurant, which is not a job I would envy. After her experiences, she says that Americans are crazy. Can’t say I’ll argue that one much since we are louder and more demanding than most Thai people.

Note: Thai schools have summer break from mid February to early May, though this is slated to change with ASEAN. From now on they are going to synch up with the Western time frame. Bummer for upcoming foreign exchange students since when I was there I had three months at the end of my exchange year to travel and enjoy being in Thailand before coming home for another summer break.

Image

My last night, May and I went to a secondhand clothing market. I don’t know how else to describe that jacket other than saying its pretty groovy, man. I got it for 20 baht (about 70 cents) and am dreaming of wearing it at Oxford. At the moment, it is sandwiched between books and dirty laundry in my pack and due the warm climate here won’t see any action for awhile. But when the chills come on, watch out world!

The hat is the same one that is worn by monks in the winter, and I enjoyed putting my hair under there and wearing it around. Meh made it herself and gave it to me to wear in England. Aww!

Image

Family portrait! We never seem to get a good family portrait until it is time for a) food and b) me to go. The last meal was eaten at the kitchen table, which we have never done before in all the time I lived there. At least this time I didn’t cry the whole time, but I did express my love and made sure to get pictures with everyone.

From tubing to temples and (almost) everything in between

It has been over a week since my last post, and quite a bit of ground and water has been covered since then. So, what have I been up to? For ease of discussion, I will go chronologically. Below is a map of my location, with purple lines indicating travel by minivan/bus, the 90s-esque teal color indicating travel by boat, and red squares showing where I spent at least a night. 

Image

As it turns out, I ended up spending a week in Vang Vieng. I hadn’t anticipating staying so long, but it had that “oh, come on, stay one more day” atmosphere to it and I did little to resist. (There actually is a campaign in Laos called “STAY One More Day,” which I first saw in Savannakhet and warmed up to in Vang Vieng.) For one, I met a fellow American on a visa run, Sean, and we contributed to each other’s extended stay in town. It was nice to have someone to talk to in a way beyond just the standard “Where are you from? How long are you traveling? Where have you been? What do you do for work?” and so on. (Actually, I don’t know if the last question is polite but I ask anyway in an effort to gather information of ways to fund future travel. I am keeping a list of ideas for after graduation, but that is a separate post.) Good conversation is something I really miss while traveling, so thanks Sean for filling that void.

Besides having someone to talk to, Vang Vieng is just beautiful. In the last post I included a couple pictures, but they don’t really do the place justice. (Speaking of pictures, I seem to have lost my USB-SD card reader, so no more pictures until further notice. Sorry. 😦 ) Vang Vieng is great for just chilling out, which I did, as previously mentioned. And the tubing! It was so nice I went twice, getting back both times just before 6 pm, after which point you are charged a ludicrous five dollar late fee. But I made it, and had time to enjoy the ride. 

A couple years ago, the river used to have somewhere on the order of twenty bars lining the three kilometer stretch, plus jumps and slides that ended up killing a number of (likely) inebriated tourists. Since then, the government has cracked down on the bars, reducing their number and removing the deadliest of the attractions. Now there are about seven bars, though only the first two or three really get bumpin’. Most offer free shots of lao lao, or locally-made rice whiskey (it’s not as foul as it sounds! Says the soon-to-be-twenty-one college student…) and give you a brightly-colored string bracelet with each drink you order. Top 40 songs plus some older classics are played, depending on the bar. One place organized “musical tubes” on the basketball court with a hose spraying over the whole proceedings. I didn’t participate, but enjoyed watching others strategize and claim tubes. Each person that was left standing got a conciliatory free shot, and the winner got a t-shirt and free bucket of alcohol with mixer. 

But after you leave the bars behind, it is just like a lazy river in astounding surroundings. The rugged limestone karsts are on the right (starboard?) and all around there are trees with only the occasional trace of human existence. At one point I noticed what appeared to be a bundle of sticks drifting across the river, perpendicular to the current, but once I got closer I saw it was actually a raft supported by water bottles, following a guide rope to the other side of the river via a system of propulsion that I still have not figured out. Two old men waited on the other side. It was a scene seemingly as old as the river, though I have to wonder what they used before plastic came on the scene.

As the sun was setting, three-person motorized longboats cruised up the river, with a driver and some Asian couple in front. Everyone waved, and some people took pictures of the lone farang in the tube. I hope I make it in someone else’s scrapbook.

So Vang Vieng was nice, but once I realized that I had been there for a week I decided that it was time to get out. I booked a ticket for Luang Prabang (travel offices are everywhere, making getting anywhere easy. You can even book buses as far as Ho Chi Minh City, though why anyone would want to endure a forty-hour-plus bus ride is beyond me.) and, after a seven-hour drive through mountains and more stunning scenery, I was there. 

 

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its charm and cultural importance — it has over 30 temples in a small area and used to be the capital of Laos — and it did not disappoint. Granted, it was a little over-touristed, but it was lovely nonetheless. When I got off the bus, I got my bags and resisted the touts offering cheap guesthouses and walking in the drizzle with little clue as to where I was going. I wandered the streets, finding only expensive ($15+) places. I was looking for the night market area, where my prior research said there were dorm-style hostels, and ended up asking for directions to the post office, which was supposedly near the market. En route, the rain got harder (I also lost my umbrella in Vang Vieng… My mind is likely to go next if this keeps up) and I spied an Indian restaurant across the street. Masala chai, anyone?

Another girl, Sandra from Austria, was finishing her lunch and, after asking her where the cheap accommodation was, we got to chatting. She was in Luang Prabang for a month to teach English to monks, and her stay was almost up. Afterward she was going to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal. I dutifully noted the organizations she used for future reference, and then followed her to her guesthouse. Turns out it was one street down from where the bus dropped me off. (In the future maybe I may listen to those touts; this isn’t the first time this has happened.) But the place was nice enough — free bananas! — and there was a boat racing festival going on that I was just in time for. Leaving my bag and Sandra behind (she teaches in the evenings) I went off to observe the festivities. 

The road by the river was lined with tents selling food, drinks, toys, and clothes. I was surprised by the number of copies of US Army jackets on display as the latest fashion, and even more taken aback by the toy of choice: fake guns. From pistols to shotguns to rifles, children had their pick of firearms. Some even had red laserpointers, just like real snipers. Even though the guns were fake, it kind of freaked my out to see all these kids playing with them. Now I get why my mom never let us have anything that could even be used as a gun: it is an upsetting sight to see children playing like that. Books, dolls, and action figures are more appropriate toys. Or give them kites, airplanes, blocks, anything but guns. Happily no one pointed a gun at me (I had a brat in Savannakhet do so with much glee) and I was able to enjoy the fest in peace. Unfortunately the races were over by the time I arrived on the scene, but the festive atmosphere was still very much in swing. Warm welcome to Luang Prabang!

The next day, I went to the Museum, which used to be the Royal Palace, and was pleased to finally make it to a proper museum. The most memorable parts are the throne room, which is a deep red and covered with glass mosaics depicting life in Laos; the gift room, where gifts from other countries are on display (I thought there wouldn’t be anything from the U.S. given our past together, but lo and behold there was a moon rock and and a note from Nixon expressing his desire for peace on Earth. What a joke: at the time we were dropping more bombs on Laos than we dropped in all of WWII. Never trust a politician.); and in a separate wind the golden Buddha for which the city is named was housed. All in all a nice museum. 

That night, I went back to the Indian restaurant to sample the food (it was okay) and ended up joining a table of people who had just arrived from Thailand via slow boat. They were a lively group, and, even better, they were speaking English! Three were from the States, one from Italy, and one from the UK. They seemed to know every other person who walked by the front of the restaurant. Apparently, they all came via the same boat. More people joined us, and it turned out to be another nice night of conversation and company. 

I ended up staying in Laos for four nights, and in the intervening days I met up with some of the Boat people for different activities. One morning we tried to attend a yoga class, which was cancelled, and decided to do some freestyle yoga anyway. It was a lovely way to start the morning: stretching out and breathing fresh air, with the Mekong River and mountains beyond as the immediate scenery. Another night we went to the Night Market, where I ended up every night. The colorful, handmade goods are so beautiful and literally made my pulse race with desire. (How can a Buddhist country strive so hard to create desire? Just a test, I guess. I failed.) I ended up doing some shopping with supplies for England in mind, and had to leave some old clothes behind in order to accommodate my increasingly bulky pack. At least I managed to trade off The Count of Monte Cristo for Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia by Lucretia Stewart, a more compact and relevant choice. I have since finished it, and enjoyed reading about places I have recently been as they were twenty years ago. I got a thrill of excitement every time I recognized a place she visited and cultural differences (the author is British) differences I have experienced. 

On the last day, I joined with some of the boat people and rode passenger on a motorbike to see a waterfall. (Yes I wore a helmet, but there is no way helmets here would pass the Department of Transportation’s security evaluation.) The ride was hilly, green, and gorgeous. It rained for part of the trip, and as we went uphill we passed some semi/fully naked kids using the potholed road and dish soap to make a slide. They laughed and waved as we rode past. It seemed like innocent fun, though they were playing where oncoming traffic was coming around a curve and may or may not have time to avoid them. Such is life: say a little prayer and move on.

As we neared the waterfall, the rain stopped, the roads got steeper, and I got stung by a wasp. Because of the wind I didn’t notice until the bugger’s stinger was in my leg, and by the time I swatted its segmented black body away the deed was done. Elena, from Italy and the person I connected with most, stopped for me and asked if I wanted to turn back. Two of the three other bikes stopped too, and after I shed a couple of tears (can’t help it) I climbed back on and to the waterfall we went. And I am so glad we did! There was a bear sanctuary at the bottom, and the falls themselves stretched on and on. Dave, who had been there before, showed us the “adventure trail” to get from the baby falls at the base to the big mama at the top. Everyone but me had those strap-on-and-practically-gym-shoe sandals, while I had just my flip flops which, at this point, have a hole the size of a nickel in the heel of the left foot. (That’s why rocks always felt like they were hitting the same spot: because they were!) I ended up carrying them and slipping through the mud, pausing briefly to wonder how on earth I would get down. Sit down, push off, and hope for the best? Dave assured me that there was another way down, which indeed there was. But what an adventure! That’s the point of this, right?

And the falls were beautiful, perhaps the most majestic I have seen in Laos. We got pictures, splashed in the water, and one by one did the climb to the top. I trailed behind, but due to my lack of proper footwear I opted not to try for the top. Sliding downhill through rocky mud barefoot is not a recipe for fun in my book. So I waited at the bottom, watched Asian guys take pictures of western women in bikinis, and appreciated the beauty of the surroundings. No love lost at not getting to the top as I was happy with where I was at, which is a feeling I had in Laos and still feel being in back in Thailand.

The following day, I had a ticket for the slow boat to Thailand booked. The journey took two days, about nine hours on the boat each day, and it was lovely. Going up the mighty Mekong, the ninth longest river in the world, through virgin mountains and forests was a great experience. Most tourists go from Thailand to Laos, so there were mostly Thai and Lao people on the boat. This was fine by me, and I enjoyed the long hours with reading, eating fruit, and napping. Once in awhile I would look up and take in the scenery, which was marvelously unchanged through much of the journey. 

We stopped for a night in Pak Beng, the halfway point, for a night and then continued on the next morning. There were three other girls from Germany on the boat, and I shared a room to cut down on cost with one of them. At the end of the trip, they decided to stay on the Lao side while I went with a group of nuns and a monk to race for the border before it closed. Check-out of Laos was easy, and in the boat on the way across the river to Thailand I chatted a bit with the nuns and monk. They asked where I was staying, and when I said that I didn’t know, they offered for me to stay at their temple. So after checking in to Thailand (with another charming and funny customs agent — why can’t entering the US be so pleasant? I always get the old freedom fondle) I hopped in their van and went to their temple, Wat Prathat Pha Ngao in Chiang Saen. En route one of the nuns forget my name and started calling my Kay-lot, which is how Thais pronounce carrot. The name stuck on from then on I was Kaylot, aka Carrot. We got in after dark, and I was showed to a private room in the nun’s quarters. They brought me a sandwich and wished me a pleasant sleep.

And… That’s where I woke up this morning! The temple has over forty monks and turned out to be a place of interest in and of itself. It was beautiful, and the head nun said I could stay for as long as I liked. It was tempting, and maybe someday I can come back and become a nun myself, but at the moment I politely declined and made my way to Chiang Rai. One of the nuns was going home, and she and her husband took me to catch a bus, bought the ticket, and fussed over making sure I had snacks for the ride. Now I have another family in Thailand… Welcome home!

So now I am in Chiang Rai, with less than two weeks left until the end of the trip (and just two minutes left with the computer!) and I am going to stay here and likely visit Chiang Mai before leaving for Bangkok and then London. Onward!

Vang Vieng

At long last I am out of Savannakhet and have found myself in the town of Vang Vieng. Vang Vieng is about a four hour drive north of Vientiane, the capital, and is a popular backpacker destination. The reason is obvious: the confluence of water, mountains, and forest is stunning. This town is known for being a party town as well as an adventure destination. Both reputations are deserved, I suppose.

The party element stems partly from tubing on the river, which was once lined with bars. Tubers would stop, drink, and continue tubing. A lot of tourists died over the years, and recently the government has cracked down, though a handful of bars are still on the river and hordes of tourists can be seen in tuk tuks, huddled next to their tubes, going upriver to participate in this backpacker “right of passage.” Relatively easy access to drugs also feeds Vang Vieng’s party reputation. From opium tea to mushroom shakes to pot pizza, you can pick your poison and its administration. And of course, alcohol is cheap and abundant.

All that said, there is plenty to do in Vang Vieng that doesn’t involve stepping out of your gourd. Tubing/kayaking down the river, which is surrounded by lushly covered limestone karsts and rice paddies, is plenty relaxing if you are sober. There are some waterfalls nearby, caves, local villages, trekking opportunities, a rock climbing school, and a hot air balloon. I asked about the balloon, hoping to tick something else off my bucket list, but it only operates during the dry season. Bummer! I’ll just have to come back.

Still, I have been enjoying the other adventures on offer. Two days ago, I did a kayaking/caving tour. One cave was filled with water, and we had to sit in a tube and pull ourselves along a rope strung along the inside of the cave. Each person was given a headlamp, and off we went. My tour group included an extended family from Malaysia in Laos for a week on holiday, but there were tons of other people on the same route, pretty much all of them Asian. Going into the water cave was like stepping into an ASEAN meeting held in a Chinese swimming pool: it was absolutely packed and the babble of different Asian languages bounced off the walls and the water. But we were all equally helpless, lounging in our tubes, and we could only get through the traffic jam by pushing and bouncing off other tubes. It was a pretty funny experience and had me asking “who thought of this?”

After the initial crush the crowd thinned a bit, and it was just one line of tubes following the guide rope. At the end of the rope, we were able to stand and walk hand-in-hand through the strong current to reach a dry cavern with an impressive stalactite formation. The next cave was barely more than an opening in the rock, with some Buddha statues inside and a rock that maybe kind of looked like an elephant, giving it the name “elephant cave.” From there, it was a twenty kilometer kayak downstream back to town. Some rough water kept the ride interesting, and the scenery continued to be beautiful. I didn’t take my camera for obvious reasons, but below is a picture taken from the main street in town of the karsts. The river lies between the town and these towering rock formations.

Image

Yesterday, I got up early and rented a bike with the intention of going to a couple waterfalls marked on a map I got from the tourist information office. The bike was a town bike, with no gears, shoddy brakes, and a basket on front. It cost 15.000 kip for the day (about $2) .Mountain bikes are available for twice the price, but I figured the street bike would do the job. It did, but that bike wasn’t really meant for the ride I took.

I started out by heading east, away from the river and across an airstrip left over from the Vietnam War. You could still land a plane on it. The cement and gravel is still solid and there is not much activity on the strip besides the occasional wandering cow or dog. Mornings are pretty foggy here, making for a dramatic (if somewhat gloomy) view of the rocks:

Image

Shortly after the airstrip, I hit a sign (courtesy of the remarkably well-done Tourism Department) directing me to the waterfalls, which were six kilometers down a hilly and unmaintained road. You name it and the obstacle was there: mud, rain, sand, water, rocks, livestock, the occasional motorbike careening around corners at dangerous speeds. The hills were steep, and I had pity on the poor bike that was clearly not meant for 45% inclines, whether it be up or down. With practically every incline, I was forced to walk the bike up, and going down I had to say a little prayer and ease on the brakes. The brakes squealed with the effort, and got their revenge by locking up a few times. It was slow going, but absolutely necessary. The one time I did let off the brakes, I flew downhill and up the next incline so fast that I hit some rocks the wrong way and had to lay the bike down. By that point I was going pretty slow, so my injury was limited to a scab being torn off my big toe, which led to some blood that made it look worse than it was. Otherwise, I was fine.

But the scenery! I endured about 15 kilometers of abominable road conditions on a sub-par bike for the gorgeous nature. Greenery was absolutely everywhere, a pristine river followed the road in a gorge below, there were zero human sounds, and the couple villages I did pass through seemed to be a decade or two behind. They had electricity, but it was still pretty primitive.

And of course the waterfalls were lovely. A tourist bus nearly pushed me off the road so it could arrive ahead of me, which was a bit of a bummer. The tourists were Laotian/Thai, and a number of people asked to take pictures with me. OMG, a foreigner! And she’s traveling… alone? Yes, yes, and yes, you can take a picture. At least tourist buses are on an agenda so the don’t stay for too long.

Getting to the falls from the entrance was a bit of an adventure in and of itself. This view was from the trail of the main falls:

Image

This one is from the observation deck when I got closer:

Image

A highlight of the day was the abundance of butterflies by the falls. I just can’t believe the variety! Someday I would like to come back and go butterfly-watching with a guide to the butterflies of Southeast Asia. Some trekking in Laos would let me check a good number off the species list, that’s for sure. One butterfly in particular was attracted to me. It fluttered around me for a few minutes before landing on my elbow, where it stayed for about a half hour. I got some nice shots of it with a waterfall in the background, and then waited for it to fly away. It didn’t. Instead, it rode on my elbow, licking at my sweat, while I walked across wooden bridges and climbed ladders. It didn’t seem bothered in the least by all the movement, and in fact other butterflies came to land on me when I took a seat after some climbing. In that moment I had three on my and more fluttering around, and I felt like the butterfly whisperer…

Image

So today is the first day of September, and it has been a pretty lazy day so far. I slept in, started reading a new book (The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac), watched a documentary on the application process for Cirque du Soleil, wrote this post, and next… more reading? Some tubing? We’ll see, but I am determined to enjoy the last three weeks of this trip. Love to all!

If it’s not one thing…

… Then it’s another. Take two! That last post was yet another passionately crafted comminique lost in the oblivion between when I hit “publish post” and when the post is (supposedly) published. I didn’t learn my lesson last time about copying what I write before publishing, so the words are gone forever. So here goes another attempt…

This trip hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park (though I have been to some nice parks in Asia). It began with and continues to carry a bit of heartache, which is joined intermittently with stomach bugs and divested of debit cards. Yesterday yet another chapter unfolded. Before writing the optimistic post that preceded this one, I checked out of my guesthouse and left my bags with reception. That happened around noon, and I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the town, sitting by the river, hanging out in Chai Dee, and writing in the Internet cafe. At around seven I went back to the guesthouse to get my bags and then went off to the bus station. It is a bit of a walk with a heavy pack, dogs barking at you the whole way, and pieces of gravel biting me through my flip flop in the same damn spot on my left heel. But it beats paying a tuk-tuk (if you can find one) a night rate for one person.

Just as predicted, the VIP bus was full, but I was pleased to discover that the local bus was also air-conditioned. It was just in a little rougher shape and the aisle was filled with rice sacks and a stack of plastic chairs in the back, but there were no livestock and no people climbing on the roof of this bus. I got a ticket and wedged myself into a window seat towards the bus. There were still a few minutes left before departure, so I took advantage of the light and stillness to dig through my backpack to find the inflatable neckroll and blindfold that I find to be essential for these trips. During the digging, I came across the money belt that I keep buried under books and clothes that is used to carry my passport and cash stash. And… it was light. Too light. And thin. Too thin. Shit. I opened it, and the blue Turkish wallet that has served me for years was gone. The Evil Eye zipper bead wasn’t enough this time. “Shit. Shitshitshitshit. Shit,” or something along those lines was my reaction. Things got frantic fast, and I dumped everything in my bag onto the seat next to me. Tissues printed to look like hundred dollar bills (a gag gift from mumzie) spilled out last, like some kind of joke. My hands were shaking as I threw everything back in the bag and stumbled off the bus.

The porter, a young guy not much older than me, met me at the door. I managed to communicate that my wallet was gone, and asked if he could call the guesthouse for me. Thank goodness I have a local phone and the business card of the guesthouse. He called and got through, and explained the situation in brief. The other side handed the phone over to someone who could speak a little English, and the porter handed the phone to me. I tried to explain what happened in English, but the guy on the other line pulled the “what? What? I can’t hear you” routine and hung up. No tears yet, but I was on the verge of panic. That money bag held pretty much all the cash from my emergency Western Union transfer and was meant to get me through Asia and settled in England. Now it was gone, and I still didn’t have my ATM card. Shit.

The porter got my money back from the ticket and directed me to the security post in front of the station, the same post where I met my wannabe Lao boyfriend. He wasn’t there. Instead, two guys were sitting inside watching a rabbit-eared television. As I approached, I counted no less than five fat cockroaches scuttling at the edge of the light of the tiny building. The guy in the sweat-stained wife beater got up to talk to me, though he stood on a stoop and literally talked down to me. I tried my best to explain the situation, but all he wanted was to see my passport. I gave it, and he spent a few minutes examining each page. He asked the usual questions: my name, my country, my business in Laos. (Thankfully he didn’t ask if I had a boyfriend.) Then he asked a few questions about what happened, though I didn’t understand most of what he said through his heavy Lao accent and vocabulary. The one that I did catch was “where is the thief now?” “How the hell do I know? If I did, I would be doing something about it besides standing in front of your cockroach-infested shack!” is what I would have liked to say. Thankfully, my language skills are not that advanced.

A tuk-tuk driver pulled up during the proceedings, and he turned out to be much more direct. “What do you want to do?” I said that I wanted the security guy to take me back to the guesthouse to ask about the missing money. It was agreed that the tuk-tuk driver would take me. My bags were loaded, but before I climbed in I asked him how much. Baw ben yang! Nevermind. Free ride. Let’s go.

Actually, he did me one better than going to the guesthouse. He took me to the police station. There I explained the situation again and was taken into a room where a one of the officers got all my info on paper, including copies of my thankfullly unstolen passport, and wrote down a description of what happened. I have never filed a police report before, but there’s a first time for everything. Maybe I should have gotten a copy of it (after all, copies of my birth certificate and SS card were with the money and a report could be helpful in case of identity theft down the road) but at the time I was just happy to feel like something was being done. I was even happier that I had the language skills to communicate. Without that, I would have been seriously SOL.

With the report and passport copies in hand, my transcriber, two older guys, one guy actually in uniform, and myself climbed a pick-up truck en route to the guesthouse. We were off to crack some skulls! Or at least find out if anyone saw anything. The owners and the police talked it out, and I tried my best to understand. Basically, people come and go all day. I knew that. It could have been anyone. I highly doubt it was the owners, but all kinds of Laotian help pass through plus all the guests. Foreigner-on-foreigner crime is actually quite common. Whoever it was, they are gone now and richer for it. The older lady in charge of the guesthouse kept saying I should have been wearing my money belt, a piece of advice repeated by two different American guests that I have talked to since then. They are right, of course, and I was foolish to leave my valuables as such easy pickings. Things have been fine for months, but it only takes once. I have never been robbed before. Talk about learning the hard way.

Talks concluded, the cops shook hands with the owners, said by to me, and went on their way. The guesthouse let me stay another night for free, and my room even had a TV. CNN = nothing but the raging wildfires in the American West and news about Syria. Talk about more downers. I hope that we don’t send in missiles but violent voices are usually the loudest so I am guessing that we will. And what’s all this business about sending missiles to “maintain our credibility?” What credibility? Our credibility as a meddling, war-mongering nation? Hell, look at what we did to Laos and still deny. There’s some credibility we could work on: help clear the bombs we dropped here for no other reason than we couldn’t land the planes with them on board.

American policy aside, I am still happy to meet other Americans on the road. Martin, a Californian who has been traveling/living in Asia for twenty years, gave me genuine sympathy and some sound advice about traveling when I met him at the guesthouse this afternoon. Namely, keep your valuables with you. Wear your money belt all all times and sleep with it. Don’t trust anyone. Have copies of everything in various places. He also encouraged me to be more aggressive about my MIA new debit card. He suggested I check the post office and go to the FedEx office in Vientiane. At the least he said I should make some phone calls to keep my priority and the system moving. After our chat, I did the first thing he suggested and guess what? It was there! My debit card has probably been here for over a week, so now I feel doubly stupid. Why did I let myself get robbed? And why didn’t I think of this before? But what has happened has happened. Ning, the girl I gave shoes to yesterday sums up the Lao philosophy: You can always make more money, and at least you aren’t hurt. No problem. Baw ben yang.

IMG_2125

So tonight I will try going to Vientiane again, and hopefully fate will agree that I have had my fill of nasty surprises. In the last draft of this post I moaned a bit about how I kinda want to go home and how I miss having a purpose, but I think getting on the move again will sort out those feelings. Plus my cousin Jake is in the air coming over to Thailand as I type, so there may be a bit of a family reunion pretty soon here. So now I will leave you, my dear readers, with a picture I found that shows kind of how I feel and may serve as a bit of an inspiration:

i-fixed-it-4

If it’s not one thing…