Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How do we get to Siem Reap?

Greetings from Siem Reap. This is part one of our adventures to and around the home of the ancient Angkor ruins and so much more. Part two will be an unexpected start to our SR visit and part three will be our two cents on the various Angkor temples. Enjoy.

Upon our arrival to Pakse, we realized we needed to get transport to Siem Reap in time to meet the group we were touring the ruins with. We worked with our guesthouse owner (the seemingly always right Mr. Vong) to get a plane ticket. Fairly painless it seemed; his cousin worked for the airline and he seemed pretty confident we'd be able to get a ticket for the date we wanted.

With that taken care of, we headed up to the Bolaven plateau. We stayed for two nights at the Tad Fane resort as a present to ourselves. Man, we need to get better at giving presents. Ok place but not worth the "treat". We headed back to Pakse for a day to check in and see how our ticket was looking.

The answer? Not good. The best Mr. Vong could do was the day after we were supposed to be there. After wrestling with a number of options, we decided to tackle the overland border to Cambodia. This border crossing is the source of all sorts of good stories; of the water boat mafia, corrupt border officials, no ability to get visas, etc. After doing a little research online and another trip to the Bolaven (this time finding a winner with Tat Lo), Becca and I were convinced it wasn't going to go well.

Bummed and not looking forward to the next day, we headed back to the guesthouse and struck up a conversation with the previously mentioned musician David and his magician friend Steve. They mentioned that they'd found a company that would take them as far as Strung Treng (across the Cambodian border) in their efforts to reach Phnom Penh the same day. From there the adventure began...

8:30 pm We convince Steve and David to go with us to convince the company owner (an English guy named Alex) to sell us two tickets. The idea alone of avoiding the boat mafia made us giddy with excitement.

9:00 pm Alex arrives and we are able to get two tickets for the next day. Properly stoked we hang out for awhile and then head to bed.

6:20 am Our alarm goes off. Moving day. The alarm ends up being a unnecessary item as we'd suffered through a fitful night of sleep that had kept us awake since 2am. Mr. Vong informs us that Alex is not to be trusted and will most likely leave us 6-7km from the border and to our own devices.

7:00 am Talk with Steve and David about it and decide we'll just make sure Alex takes care of us. Contemplated strapping Alex on to the back of the car for insurance but decide against it.

8:30 am Pile into mini-van with 15-20 late middle aged folks all headed down to the southern islands of Laos. Alex is not in the luggage hold but we feel confident. Ride itself is pretty uneventful.

11:30 am Mr. Vong is finally proven wrong as our van takes us all the way to the border. The slightly sketchier Cambodian half of the company picks us up. I'm leery at first and then realize it's probably due to the fact that instead of picking up the folks with real money, these guys have to haul four backpackers and a slightly insane Belgian named Josef (who appeared out of nowhere at the Laos border) to Strung Treng.

12:00 pm Clean checkout through the Laos border. Our "departure tax" is set when Steve pays the border guard $2 without the requisite haggling. Given the rumors we'd heard was that they normally started at $5 we're ok with it. Evidently the "tax" is beer money for the guards. Can't say I blame them as we are firmly out in the middle of nowhere with what I'm convinced are minefields on each side of the road.

12:15 pm Arrive at the Cambodia border. Becca and I have smooth sailing with our overpaid for yet very valid visas while Steve, David and Josef all decide to test whether the just recently announced visas on arrival is still going strong.

12:45 pm We're clean through the Cambodian border. No worries for the three guys as they all sail through and Josef even saves us all a buck with the following exchange:

Friendly Border Guard (actually friendly): Your tax please?

Me: How much?

FBG: Same as Laos border. $2.

Josef (as my brain is trying to figure out what to do): We only paid $1 at the Laos border.

FBG: (stutter) Oh. Yes. It's Tuesday. $2 is the weekend rate. I'm sorry. $1.

Me: (hands the FBG the $1 and grab my passport gleefully)

Seriously Jedi mind trick by Josef. We're starting to warm up to him.

1:30 pm Bumpy trip gets us to Strung Treng. Kind of. We're actually dropped off on the other side of the river from Strung Treng proper. We thank our drivers and we're off to negotiate our way across. We get a decent fare and then are descended upon by Richie.

1:35 pm Richie (of the world famous Richie's guesthouse and restaurant of Strung Treng Cambodia) has us seated and ordering lunch at his place. Crafty little bastard. We inquire into potential taxis to Kratie all while having zero negotiating power and momentum.

3:30 pm After nearly two hours of negotiating, woe stories of being overcharged by poor Richie, the indifference of most Taxi drivers, etc. we've negotiated a car to Phnom Penh (typical midsize car whose six(!) passenger seats we've had to buy out to fit the traditional four. Josef bids us farewell as he patiently waits out the taxi drivers with a beer in hand. By his slightly crazed looks he's prepared to wait weeks to get his price.

3:35 pm Mr. Fish, the brother of one of the people hanging around the restaurant, has us in the car and we're off.

4:30 pm Mr. Fish asks us if we want to watch a movie. It's then that I notice that instead of a rear view mirror we've got a 7 inch flat TV. Our movie? Assassins. My guilty movie pleasure? Antonio Banderas. Who can't love his over the top "acting"?

6:30 pm We've all enjoyed the movie as it ends. This include Mr. Fish as while he's done his best to avoid large rocks, constructions trucks, pigs and the like he's kept one eye on the riveting complex narrative presented.

6:35 pm Right about dusk Mr. Fish pulls over for a rest stop. He uses it to convince us to spend an extra $5 to go an extra 100km instead of over the dirt rock filled road he's currently got us pointed to. I'm game for the dirt road but there's no other takers.

8:00 pm Having just gotten back on the road from dinner, we listen to David's CD. Good bluegrass that had my toe tappin. Shameless plug for our fellow traveler here. After the CD we get another movie to pass the time.

8:05 pm Assassins is Oscar worthy compared to our next movie, Hard Boiled. Mr. Fish does his best to keep an eye on the action while avoiding more livestock and an actual person who raises his ire enough to roll down the window and yell at them in Khmer. Becca's head is about to explode at this point at all the potential accidents she's had to watch from the middle back seat.

9:30 pm A thankful movie break at Kompong Cham where Mr. Fish tries pathetically to convince us to end our trip there. He's tired but so are we and we're ready to be in PP (still two hours away) and there's no way in letting us off on the price. Onward ho!

10:00 pm Mr. Fish realizes he's nearly out of gas and pulls into the station. Bad luck as it's closed much to his surprise. Surprise?! It's 10pm in Cambodia! If it's anything like Laos everyone has been asleep for hours now.

10:05 pm After driving a bit further down the road he is able to get some emergency gas at the local gas baron's house. This is accomplished though only after waking him up via car horn. The baron comes out tastefully dressed in a towel and a three button suit jacket. The emergency gas gets us far enough to properly fill up awhile later.

10:30 pm After a body count of 230 and finding out it is currently banned in Sweden, Hard Boiled comes to a painful end. The good news though is that no babies were harmed in the making of the film. Mr. Fish asks us "Do you want to watch Iraqi soldiers kill Americans?" Even our NOOOOOOOO!!!! still gets us 20 seconds of Faces of Death before our protests finally break the language barrier and he shuts it off. Ugh.

11:30 pm Exhausted and ready for bed, we arrive in Phnom Penh. The driver tries to get us to go to the guesthouse Richie recommended (i.e. gets a commission at) but we have him plow through to an area Steve is familiar with.

11:40 pm We finally arrive to the room in our guesthouse after avoiding the typical lakeside Phnom Penh gauntlet of touts, tuk-tuk drivers and drug pushers.

17 hours of traveling and despite the length, dodgy road, narrowly missed obstacles and the like the trip itself was pretty painless. Or so it seemed. Guess we're getting used to traveling in Asia.

The rest of the trip to Siem Reap was a piece of cake. One day scouting out the Wild West town of Phnom Penh and a painless bus ride up to Siem Reap. Now where's a guesthouse that has room during Chinese New Year?

Part two soon.


Friday, January 27, 2006

A quote that reminds me why...

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Mark Twain

We survived traveling overland from Pakse, Laos to Siem Reap Cambodia (more on that later) without getting massively ripped off or having to bribe the border officials too much, and we got to travel with a professional musician and magician. We're now in Siem Reap having met up with a childhood friend of Becca's and a group from Oregon and Washington. As a result, much temple visiting is going on for the next few days so it'll be awhile before there are any major updates.

Check in next week for an update on our visit to the Angkor temples and the very heartwarming way we spent my dad's birthday (HAPPY BIRTHDAY POPS!).



Friday, January 20, 2006

Even monks need to do their laundry

Some more thoughts on Laos after almost a month of traveling here.

-- The Lao people are super friendly and helpful. Even when they're trying to sell you something, you still feel like there is goodwill involved. Plus, as I have been sick and had other incidents over the past few weeks, I've been overwhelmed by the caring and kindness shown to me by the guesthouse owners and others. It's nice. It makes you feel not quite so alone and on the other side of the world from your family.

-- One thing we can't figure out. Lao people are not big. By and large they are significantly shorter than westerners with short little legs. Yet the steps on their stair cases are HUGE. Whether it be in a modern guesthouse or up ancient steps to a Wat or down clay foot steps to the river we are struggling to stretch our legs enough to manage these steps that our Lao guides are just blithely running up and down. We can't quite figure it out..

-- The currency in Laos is the Kip, and it is pretty much worthless. Even banks in Laos won't necessarily let you change kip back into dollars, euros, baht, or other hard currency. Forget trying once you're outside the country. Because of this, the people here are happy (and eager) to get their hands onto hard currency and there is a healthy shadow (can you even call it shadow when it's so blatantly, officially, out in the open????) economy. Anything can be paid for not only in Kip, but also in Thai baht or US dollars. In fact, you often can get a better price if you DON'T pay in kip. (Laos Airlines, the NATIONAL airline, for example is requiring us to buy our plane tickets in dollars).

-- Surprisingly, given all the opportunities for shaving a cut off of these transactions, we've actually found the conversions at restaurants, hotels, markets, etc. to be extremely straight forward. They use the same exchange rate in both directions (unlike at a bank or money change place, for example) and are pretty flexible. But you do occasionally get a headache doing the math when you are paying a bill quoted in US dollars with Thai baht, and getting whatever change you are owed back in Lao kip.

-- Two other financial challenges in this part of the world. 1) The biggest bill that the kip comes in is equivalent to $2. So not only is it an unwanted currency, to pay for anything of any value, you would have to pack a wad worthy of a Rockefeller. 2) The other challenge for us is the fact that there are no ATMs in Laos and travelers checks are only accepted at banks in major cities. (Cambodia, while potentially having a few ATMs in their capital, is supposed to be about the same) That means that we had to move away from our previous monetary strategy of minimizing the amount of cash we carried and regularly refilling our pockets in local currency from ATM's. Instead, we loaded our moneybelts up with baht (75%) and dollars (10%) and dollar travelers checks (15%) and tried not to feel too conspicuous being walking piggy banks in countries where we were carrying the equivalent of a few people's annual wages. Luckily, we've been careful and have never felt at risk and things seem to be moving smoothly. But we're looking forward to getting back to more stable economies again with more easily accessible cash.
-- So far in Laos we've taken a 9 hour truck trip from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha (120 miles) , a 11.5 hour ordinary bus (i.e., aisles full of people and rice bags and people riding on top) trip from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang (~200 miles), an 8 hour VIP air con bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiene (230 miles), and an 8 hour VIP air con NIGHT but from Vientiene to Pakse (400 miles, with the airconditioner's condenser periodically pouring water on me. fun). Amazing to think that growing up we thought going places more than 2 hours away was way too far.

-- Evidently Lao people don't believe in soft beds. The floors of the huts we slept on had more give than some of the guest house beds. And the bed at the last place we stayed was SOOO hard (how hard was it?) that a) Brian was easily able to do his push-ups on it instead of on the floor and b) you had to shift about every 20-30 minutes because your body parts would literally (no exaggerating) fall asleep from lack of blood flow and start to tingle. I can't tell you how much I miss my pillow-top mattress at home right now.

Back to catching up on email and getting organized for our trip down to the southern Laos islands tomorrow.


This made my day...

After a free ride of 30km in the back of a pickup truck full of rice back to the Pakse we hit the southern bus station. Like most bus stations in SE Asia, they're away from the actual town themselves so that the thriving tuk-tuk and sawngthaew industry can make a few bucks (Becca disagrees with me on this but this is my blog entry damnit).

Once you get off a vehicle, the tuk-tuk jump on you as per usual. Where are you going, mister? We mention Pakse and the person quotes us 25% higher than we're supposed to pay. We tell them the number we're supposed to pay and they just laugh at us. During our time here we've found that our best method of negotiation is to name a price and then just wait. Don't say anything. They keep coming back at us: "(high amount), you go now yes!" and we just keep shaking our head.

Just when we think this might actually turn into a proper stalemate, the negotiator of the bunch runs up to us says "(our price), you go now!" We agree and while we're throwing our stuff in, what do we hear?

The unforgettable sounds of a rival tuk-tuk sidling up to us and saying those words I'll have ingrained in my brain long after this trip:



Monday, January 16, 2006

Maybe you can be a Mahout!

Adults Only: Ok, this post is for the kids. You know, the one's we've been ignoring most of this blog? The ones who probably think the pics are cool but don't want to read our latest missive about Thai cuisine?

Most of our friends (especially in MN) have kids of ages newborn to 5ish and we promised most if not all of them a picture of us riding an elephant. To accomplish this goal, instead of doing the typical tourist elephant ride we signed up for an experimental two day mahout guide trek Tiger Trails in Luang Prabang was running where you get to work with the Mahouts (definition below), spend the night with them, learn a little more about caring for the elephants, etc. And kayaking back to town was a nice side benefit :-) So here it goes; don't have any idea how writing directed to kids will go, but hope it gives them something to enjoy... And for you adults wanting a little more interesting fare, Becca has included some adult worthy comments in the post below.

NOUN: The keeper and driver of an elephant.

Hi, Bonjour and Hej to our friends around the globe from Becca and Brian. If you have any questions about anything you read or see, ask Mom or Dad to help explain it to you. The picture you can see is Becca riding an Asian elephant from the country of Laos. Laos is located in SE Asia, next to Thailand and Camboida. Becca and I spent two days playing with the elephants and learning how to become a Mahout. A Mahout is the keeper and driver of an elephant. They drive the elephant when people ride on it, feed it, wash it, etc. They take care of the elephant just like mom and dad used to do for you when you were little.

We had to wait for the elephants at the Tat Sae waterfall. The other people were riding the elephants to the waterfall and then we and the mahouts had to take them back to their camp for a snack and a shower. Our two elephants were named Mae Son and Uae . Mae Son is female and Uae is male.

We climbed onto a tower that let us sit in the chairs in the back while the Mahouts drove. Elephants are very slow but it was fun to be so high up in the air. After a little while, the Mahouts let us ride on the neck of the elephants. It is very hard to balance because you are sitting on their shoulders, just like you do when Mom or Dad carry you around. Their ears are very big and protect your legs from trees that might hit you. Their skin is rough so it's like sitting on a carpet or a really old chair. When you're riding an elephant, you have to use a loud voice so the elephant knows you are the boss.

We then got to feed the elephants. They like bananas and rice and eat sugar cane as dessert. They use their trunk to take the food from your hand and put it into their mouth. So their trunk is just like your hand and they use it to eat. They also were very warm and threw dirt on themselves to keep themselves cool. This only works for elephants though so you shouldn't try it.

We rode the elephants to the river to clean the dirt off. The elephants use their trunk to suck up water and then pour it into their mouth. They also use the trunk to spray water all over themselves to clean up. Just like mom and dad use the bathroom to give you a bath or shower.

After dinner and a shower, it's time to go to bed. We and the Mahouts rode the elephants out to their bedroom. Their bedroom is a big piece of jungle where they can walk around, eat more or just sleep. The Mahout puts a chain on their leg so they don't run away or get lost. We put them to bed and then we went to our house and ate some food and went to bed. It is very tiring being a Mahout.

Morning for a Mahout and the elephant comes very early. We went to wake up the elephants at 7:00am. They wake up early so they can go have another bath and breakfast. Back to the river for a shower and then more rice and bananas for breakfast. After that, the Mahouts put the pads and the chair on the elephant so that people can ride them again. Only people who work with the Mahouts get to ride without the big chair.

After that, we had to go back to town so we said goodbye to the elephants. The Mahouts have a very good job. They are very nice people and do lots of good things for the elephants and keep them healthy. If you want to learn more about elephants, have mom or dad look at the websites below.

- Some Elephant facts
- Problems that Elephants have in Laos
- Elephant Diet and Habit

Becca and I hope you enjoyed seeing the elephants and hoped you learned about being a Mahout. Maybe you could be a Mahout some day if you work hard!


Now for the rest of the story...

While Brian nicely covered the basics of our Mahout experience for the kids, I thought I'd throw in a few more anecdotes. As we've mentioned before, we try to get a feel for the culture when we can and we have a horror of contrived or overly packaged tours. So we were cautiously optimistic when we saw this new "test" package. Basically, you go and hang out with the mahouts for a day, including all the elephant feeding, washing, handling and sleeping on the floor in a mahout hut, bookended by a visit to a pretty waterfall and kayaking back to town when it was all over. Though it could have been contrived, it sounded better to us than trekking to waterfall (on foot or on elephant) with all the other tourists and then heading home.

Things that didn't make Brian's story for the kids:

-- Riding an elephant is more difficult than I thought. I grew up on horse back and kept expecting that muscle memory to kick in. But it actually took me a pretty long time (much longer than Brian) to get comfortable on the elephant. I think part of it is that you are sitting on the elephant's neck up against its front shoulders so the entire motion is the side to side of the front legs. This made it easy to overcompensate and lose your balance. Whereas on a horse, you are on its back between its sets of legs, so while the motion is side to side, it is also back and forward and diagonal and is easier to adjust to.

-- Elephants are SLOW. (that is, except when they're being fast...which we had NO desire to experience.) The trip back from the falls which took 1.5 hours would only have taken 50 minutes if we had been walking. And when the mahouts would walk next to the elephants they had to walk pretty slowly, unlike walking with horses who are trail riding, for instance.

-- About 40 minutes into the walk back from the falls, we came to yet another fork in the path. These elephants respond to vocal "left" and "right" commands (like sled dogs) and the mahouts barked out a "left" ("sai"). Despite this, the elephants turned right and headed down the other path. Things like this had happened already, and the mahout would just bark it again/louder, tap the elephant with a stick and/or tug on its ear. However none of these actions had any effect this time and both elephants started speeding up down the trail. So picture this: Brian and I are sitting on the elephants' necks, hanging on not quite for dear life, but certainly with enthusiasm, the mahouts are stuck behind us between us and the seats, and they're yelling at the elephants, reaching around us trying to get the elephants' attention, and generally laughing with that sort of 'oh shit' nervousness. Eventually they were able to maneuver so that both Brian and I could climb past them back on to the seats so that they could get serious with the elephants. At which point the elephants said, oh right, the boss, and turned around. In the end, probably not much danger but it DID get the heart rate up and moving. (And made us hesitate just a bit when they wanted us to switch back onto the neck again. Let's just say I was pretty happy when we eventually pulled up into camp.)

-- Going in the water with the elephants was fun. The first time it was just to give them a drink of water before putting them to bed. While Uae mostly just drank, Mae Son seemed to alternate drinking with spraying down her sides and back (and therefore Pan and me). We got quite wet and given how hot it was, it was quite refreshing, as long as you didn't think about the fact that your shower just came out of an elephant's nose.

-- We also took the elephants in to the water to give them a bath on Friday morning. We had been warned that we would get wet, so we both zipped off our pants legs. Mae Son went in to drink for a while, then Pan urged her farther and farther into the middle of the (admittedly pretty shallow) river. She seemed to be turning the wrong way (against what he was telling her) then all of a sudden she sat down in the water, so that only her heat and neck were out. Pan was hollering, so I couldn't tell if she was supposed to be doing that are not. My first thought was "oh god, she's going to roll around in the water" followed by "oh well, it's easy enough to just push off of her in the water and float/swim away." Evidently though this is what Pan was telling her to do and they just like startling the tourists. So though sadly, sadly we have no pictures of this, you can imagine me hanging on to the top of her head and trying not to slide into the water while Pan used a long scrub brush/broom to clean her off. Then when he wanted to clean her head, he had me move back so that I was standing/crouching on her back while he stood on her head and scrubbed that. Once she was clean we got back to normal positions and headed back to camp.

-- Thursday night was really neat because we just sat out under the stars and had dinner with our guide and talked and talked. He is Hmong, and we were able to ask him all the questions that we had from our trek that we couldn't communicate to our guide on that trip whose command of English was a little shaky. We talked a lot about life in Laos and learned a lot from him.

-- As we made sure and tucked our mosquito nets under the mats that we had laid on the mahout hut floor, we had to laugh at the futility of it, as there were pretty big gaping holes between the bamboo floor slats themselves.

-- We discovered that we ended up not having the FULL mahout experience Friday morning when we headed out to pick up the elephants from their night-time tethering. Evidently the guys had been hitting the Lao Lao hard and heavy in the village the night before and Brian's mahout mentor had barely helped him up onto Uae when he disappeared into the brush for a noisy and extended bout of puking. Brian decided he'd pass on that part.

-- After we had helped bring the elephants in Friday morning and get them clean and fed and ready to carry tourists on a new day, we said goodbye and thanks to the elephants and their mahouts, then headed over to the lodge to get ready for kayaking. We spent the next 4 hours paddling down the Nam Khan past villages and villagers. It was relaxing and refreshing, especially when Brian and I discovered how bad we are at steering a kayak at the top of the only class 2 rapid (the rest were class 1 since it's the dry season) we faced. We toppled out after the first drop and experienced the rest of it from a slightly lower and wetter perspective, trying to remember to keep our feet forward and legs bent, to hang on to our paddles, and to avoid as many of the rocks as possible. Dong gathered us and our stuff up at the bottom and we continued on the rest of the way.

All in all the experience lived up to our hopes. While it's impossible to be completely untouristy, this was different and bare bones enough to make us feel like we had to work to earn it, and it was nice to just be one on one with the elephants and the mahouts.

Looking forward to our next outdoor adventures in southern Laos.



Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Prelude to a trip...

(NOTE: Parts 2 and 3, the pretty picture and national geographic sections of the show, aka the hiking and the villages are now up below. More exciting blog entries to come. About as soon as we stop saying "I am a Mahout" to each other...)


Our main reason for heading to Luang Nam Tha was to have the opportunity to visit some of the remote hill tribes located in Northern Laos. You see plenty of advertisements promoting visits to various minority hill tribes that populate the mountain ranges of SE Asia. Becca and I were both excited about the opportunity to visit some of these villages but wanted to go with a group that made us feel comfortable about imposing ourselves in someones home. Someone who partnered with the tribes themselves and did their best to minimize the impact the felang (that's us) have on the area. After not really finding anything that fit the bill in Thailand, we decided to try our luck in Laos having heard that they've learned from Thailand's mistakes (mainly exploiting the tribes, turning the areas into a 'disneyland' atmosphere and in one case even moving the village 70km to be closer to town).

Our experience in Luang Nam Tha and the protected area was amazing and one of the best we've had on the trip. It's very difficult to get all of it into one post without getting all "and then this happened..." on everyone and no one, especially us wants that. I mean if you're spending your company's dollar checking us out, we might as well make it worth your while, no?

As a result, we've split the trip into three parts; the hiking, the food and the experiences with the tribes. We're posting the food one now, and the other two should soon follow. Read one of them, read all three, read none of them but we figured it would be a different way to share our adventures from an amazing three days.

And for the kids (and parents who have kids) in the crowd, we'll be back in a few days with a much promised present.

Until then...


A short glimpse into a different life

This trek afforded us the opportunity to visit and interact with three different ethnic tribes: Hmong, Lantaen, and Khmu.

I'm having trouble thinking of an interesting or coherent way to write this as a continuous piece, so instead I will just leave you with some of our observations, experiences, and impressions. (We have far fewer pics of the people and their surrounding than we would have liked, as we were trying to be respectful and most of the time a photo seemed inappropriate. So you'll have to settle for descriptions)

HMONG Village

--Because the Hmong were in the middle of about 10 days of new year's festivities, we got to observe them wearing their ceremonial clothes (especially the women and girls) and participating in traditional new year's activities. One of these was a game where boys and girls use the excuse of tossing a ball back in forth in two single sex lines (which they only do for the month of January) while they talk and get to know a potential marriage prospect that they fancy. They let us join in on the fun, though Brian almost started an international incident when he unknowingly approached his partner too close.

-- One of the things we liked here was the fact that except for allowing us to participate in some of their games and smiling at us a lot, the people pretty much just went about their daily lives. You in no way got the feeling that they were on display for us or performing for us which is what we had been afraid of. (Our house was separated from town a bit too, which kept us out of the way while still providing us with good views on both halves of the town)

-- After dinner we had a Q&A session with two of the men from the village. It was really interesting and a nice and open give and take (especially after Brian had the brilliant insight to ask them what questions they had for us.). One of the parts that struck me the most was when the man said that until a year ago (which is when this organization started bringing treks through town), no one except for the elders in the village had ever seen a foreigner, they'd only heard stories from the grandparents, etc. Cool

-- We were also struck by how incredibly clean the village was (especially compared to the ones we saw later), especially considering how very many animals were running loose around the areas. We lost track of the numbers of pigs, chickens, dogs, horses, goats, and cows...but trust us. It was like Old MacDonald come to life.

-- On the morning before we left, we watched the villagers butcher and clean a pig for a wedding celebration that evening. One of the young men there asked Brian and me how many pigs we had killed for our wedding. Besides for the (unstated) obvious religious difficulties that might have created, we had to explain that we didn't own any pigs and so had to find other ways to feed our guests.


-- The Lantaen were also celebrating their new year's (Lantaen belong to the same tribe grouping as Hmong), but unlike up on the mountain where things were relatively sedate, here it was clear that there had a been a party going on for since morning. Pretty much all of the men (and some of the woman) had been enjoying their Lao Lao (Lao whiskey), which was mostly just interesting/amusing, but made us a little nervous when we saw 4 young men with submachine guns walk through town. (Turns out they were soldiers from Luang Nam Tha who had hiked in to celebrate with their families for the day and were returning to town the next morning).

-- Sophie and Cat even got waylaid into a hut and forced (in a nice way) to down many Lao Lao shots while listening to incomprehensible New Years speeches before our guides came in and 'rescued' them. (Though even the guides were unable to extract themselves without 2 or 3 shots)

-- The kids here, like in the Hmong village were all playing and having a great time. Their laughter was fantastic to see and hear as was the way they looked after each other (older kids minding younger kids, even if it was a 5 year old hanging on to a 2 year old) and the way they used such simple toys. (Like these girls jump roping with a thin strand of bamboo). The camera was a great draw too. The above photo happened when I was practically mugged as soon as I brought the camera out and started showing them the pictures I was taking of them.)

-- The woman were beautiful here too, and wore the traditional blue robes and leg wrappings (like you see on the pictures of the girls). It appeared that they shaved their eyebrows and they did their hair up with a very high hairline, which disconcerted a few of the group.

-- As I mentioned in the food entry, we were made very at home in this village and enjoyed our brief stay there (despite the momentary terror).

KHMU Village

-- This appeared to be the biggest village we visited, and had more infrastructure (fenced gardens, generators, 5 or 6 hydroelectric generators), etc.

-- We didn't get to see as much of this village as the others because we came in just as it was getting dark, thanks to our detour to the Lantaen village and our relatively early departure the next morning.

-- There was some interaction though, as after dinner the chief and a bunch of the folks came up to offer us a drink of their traditional rice Lao Lao, drunk out of a clay jug through long bamboo straws and then we joined them in a dance with bamboo sticks accompanied by their singing and music. This was the only time during the three days where I felt like people were having to "perform" for us (or with us, as the case happened to be) and it did make me kind of uncomfortable. Later though as some of the adults left (and Brian and I, the old farts, went to an early bed), the singing and music and drinking continued a little more genuinely.


We really treasured this opportunity to get a look into life of a totally different sort than ours that (mostly) was continuing on unaffected by our progress. It's really hard to talk about it without romaticizing things inappropriately. (Our guide today in Luang Prabang observed that all the tourists talk about how beautiful the undeveloped forests and mountains are when what that meant to him growing up was a hard long hike down to the river to fetch the cold water to clean and feed themselves with. It's easy to enjoy it when you are just visiting and you go back to your guest house with electricity and hot water...)

That being said, and with full appreciation (or at least as much as one can have without doing it) of how hard these villagers lives were, we were struck over and over by how happy and content people seemed, especially the children. Coming from a place where we bemoan the loss of childhood innocence due to sex and violence on TV or video games, where childhood inactivity has led to a huge obesity threat and where there is constant peer pressure for more more more, it was both refreshing and depressing (in reflection of our culture) to see children being children and running and playing with rocks and sticks and pieces of bamboo and being happy. It'll make me think a bit when Brian and I start our family...

Enough philosophizing. Enjoy the three entries from this trek and get ready for some hot elephant action to come!


Where's the trail?

Leave it to Becca to leave me with the manual labor. Isn't that how it always works?

Three days of hiking with the folks on the left made up the trekking portion of this little adventure. The first two days gave us definite flashbacks to our hikes in Norway (aka The Billy Goat Files) as we hiked up some seriously steep hills while the final day had us trudging back and forth through streams about the last half of the trek. Thankfully not many of them were deep and for the most part, we all made it through fairly dry.

Some highlights from each of the days:

Day 1:
A three hour hike to the top of Sam Yord (Three Peak) Mountain was a quick but hot and grueling start to the trip. Pretty much just three hours straight up, mucho sun and not a lot of scenery for us heading to the Hmong village. No super highlights except a lung burning reminder that we'd spent too much time hibernating in Denmark before heading to Asia.

Day 2:
Six hours going from the Hmong to Khmu village, complete with four ascents and descents (no hors categories for you Tour de France fans but potential a few category ones and some nice views). A long day of hiking, compete with a few adventurous bridges and just basic climbing over stuff, much like a lot of the "trails" we encountered in Poland. My overriding thought for most of the hike was in regards to going off trail. You're warned not to in Laos and Cambodia due to the number of still live landmines floating around. My brain instead was focusing on "Is this really the trail?" Not the worst, but not a whole lot of room for error in places. Plus I think we had one branch in the road all day. I also highly recommend not trying to walk between rice paddies and a town's sole hydroelectric source after 7 shots (granted falang shots I think) of Lao Lao. Happy Birthday to me.

Day 3:
Final day. Most tours that would mean a meandering easy hike complete with leisurely lunch and then a mid afternoon arrival back in town. Not here baby. Despite a slow start (our guide was a little er... hungover from the Lao Lao) we had three more peaks to climb and a bunch of streams to climb over/around/through. Beautiful start to things though the clear skies meant warms temps. Thankfully most of the time we were in the jungle. Even if it doesn't give you a true sense of how you're on just one of endless string of hills. A long day of hiking but with filling meals and plenty of breaks, we made it through all in one piece. All in all an adventurous journey and beautiful landscape, both in the infrequent views of the horizon and in the constantly changing detail of the jungle.

A bonus for reading about our three days of hard hiking? Water buffalo sighting!

I aim to please.


Lunching Lao-style

Now we really weren't sure what to expect when it came to the food on this trek. Others we had talked to who had done treks before hadn't always had nice things to say. Mostly I was just hoping that it would be safe and not incur the wrath of my stomach gods...I didn't bother worrying about things like tasting good.

When we took off the first day they handed us each 3 bottles of drinking water to carry. This seemed like a good start. At least they were going to keep us hydrated. Wait, unless that was supposed to last for all three days and be just a bottle a day. Yikes! Properly paranoid we started off...

After a couple of hours of climbing and sweating we stopped at a little rest area with a thatched roof over a raised bamboo platform. One of our guides disappeared and then reappeared a couple of minutes later with an armful of large banana leaves. These were layed down upside down and overlapping across the platform, effectively creating our table and plates in one fell swoop. As we watched, they then took little plastic bags full of yet-to-be-identified, goopy food, and poured them out directly onto the banana leaves in little piles along the middle. Then we were each handed a smaller, dense, banana leaf-wrapped package of sticky rice and voila: a Lao picnic smorgasborg. Day one featured a pork and cabbage, a mixed vegetable dish, and a bamboo shoot-based dish, and of course some homemade chilli sauce (and a banana for dessert) and it was all delicious! The technique was simple, you just took a small chunk of sticky rice in your hand, squished it together to make a Lao version of a scoopable nacho chip and reached in and used your fingers to push some food up against the rice. Presto, eat. Day's two and three lunches featured similar meals, with only the content of the dishes (they added my favorite: a spicy green bean dish) and the village who prepared it changing. We really grew to like eating this way, though by the end we couldn't eat another grain of sticky rice if our life depended on it.

Dinner and breakfasts were eaten at the Hmong and Khmu villages and prepared by the villagers and our guides from village produce and meat. We had some fanstastic squash soup, some chicken soup, and really good eggs in the morning. So we quickly learned that our fears had been completely misfounded.

However on Day Two, we had the kind of cultural and culinary experience we had been simultaneously looking for and dreading. We were almost all the way to the Khmu village after a long up and down hike from the Hmong village on Day 1, when we passed a Lantaen village. One of our guides had a friend there and arranged for us to be able to stop by. Like the Hmong, the Lantaen were celebrating their New Year, but unlike the more decorous attitude up in the mountains, the party had clearly been going full swing here since morning. (more on that in the village section).

We were led up through the village and into a large house at the end of the path. Ducking in through the door and squinting in the dusky light inside, we saw an energetic, attractive Lantaen woman telling the lump on the bed platform that appeared to be her passed-out husband what we could best translate as: get up, get up, the falang (foreigners) are here!

We all sat down in a semi-circle on the dirt floor perched on little wooden benches and waited to see what would happen next. After some discussion with our guides (in Lao) the woman grabbed a banana leaf to use as a counter, a cutting block, a knife, and something round and brown hanging from a string. I was closest and my first (wishful) thought was some sort of fruit or something but as she sliced it it became quite clear to me that it was actually liver, a large one of unidentified species, and she was slicing ALL of it. Besides for the fact that random organ meat is something I'm a little wary about, liver happens to be one of the few foods that I absolutely can't eat...it makes me retch. So this was not looking good for the home team and a couple of us were shooting worried looks at each other.

After she finished slicing the liver, she walked to the back of the room and came back with what looked like a raggedly, chopped up piece of pork with bits stuck on. A second look and the scent while she sliced it made us realize that actually it was meat that apparently had been tenderized someway and marinated in something tasty smelling. So that was at least more promising, but we were starting to feel daunted by the size of the pile of meat in front of her. The worried looks continued. She was obviously using quite a lot of meat to make us a meal to honor our visit and the last thing we wanted to do was insult her by not eating it but 1) we were afraid it was too much and 2) we were just plain afraid of it and what it might do to our stomachs.

THEN she got up and walked over to a large, tall wooven basket (think large laundry hamper). When she took off the large banana leaf that served as a lid we realize that the ENTIRE thing was full of cuts of meat. She picked up several pieces (including hooves and a tail) but put them back down as they were clearly not what she was looking for. Finally she stuck her arm up to her elbow down into the pieces of pork and came out triumphantly with another large cut which she brought back to the cutting board.

At this point i think the semi-hysterical, semi-panicked giggles were about to come bursting out of the group. This felt like hot summer to us (even though it is the Laos winter) and that was a giant laundry hamper of meat just sitting there. Oh. my. god.

Of course, as such stories usually do, this one ends with the city folks getting an education from the country folks. The meat came from the three pigs which had been butchered that morning for the New Years festivities and so was fresh. The three dishes, which our guide had helped our hostess prepare, were tasty and full of flavor. (Well, except for the liver...that is pretty much gross no matter how you package it). They had even made eggs for Sophie, who couldn't eat pork. All of us, who had planned on making a few token tastes, ended up piling more and more of the meat onto our bowls of rice and there were a lot of smiles and "mmmms" to be heard.

(Of course, like any good thriller just when you think it's safe something happens to make you jump out of your seat. In this case it was the hostess walking around the group of us with a chipped tea cup and a bottle of Lao Lao (Lao whiskey). I think she made the circuit 7 times with shots before our guide was able to extract us so that we could stumble the kilometer or so in the dusk to the Khmu village where we were spending the night (and supposedly eating dinner).

The adventure continues...


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

One Traveler's Eating Rules...

...brought to the forefront after having the worst fried rice EVER today. In Asia. It's like some small god wanted me to get sick again. And that includes 8+ years of midwestern asian cuisine::

1) If there locals are eating there, it must be good. Or at the very least authentic. Goes from everything from Lao cuisine to the truck stop slingin' biscuits and gravy.
2) No more than one continent per restaurant. Please. Special dispensation for fusion places as long as there is a strong immigrant contingent (northwest/asian being a perfect example).
3) If there are supposed to be sides to a traditional dish, they better be out on the table. I call this the "Malt Vinegar damn well better be at the table for my Fish n' Chips & Guinness" rule.
4) If you're in a foreign country, start with the markets/food stands/family run shops first then work your way up the expense food chain.

With some careful looking, there's bound to be a tasty treat at a cheap price. Our biggest disappointments in Asia have been the more expensive places. Tailored WAY too much for tourist taste and nowhere near the real thing.

That's all. End of public service announcement. Time to go stalk some locals for some tasty food. Any additions/comments are welcome.


PS Random piece of humor for those ro-sham-bo fans out there...

Send Chicken Soup!!!

Sorry for the delay in posting pics or details of our trek. I'd like to say it was because we were so busy living the high life in Luang Prabang, but that would be an untruth. Instead we have been staying close to our beds and our toilet as the fevers and unhappy tummies make their will be known. We seem to be coming out from the other side now though, so hopefully we'll be able to see more of Luang Prabang than a two block radius around our hotel and also be able to post some new material.


ps from brian: easily the lowest moment on the trip occurred Sunday night. Becca was in full fever sick mode and I was headed quickly in the same direction. Knowing we needed to eat something but with no energy to go exploring for food, we bought food from the place across the street from our guest house. Food in question? Spaghetti Carbonara and a Cheeseburger and fries. (This was only the second time we had ordered western food in a month of meals in Asia) Not local, expensive (about $10 total, quite spendy for here) and even the owner of our guesthouse gave us the disapproving 'silly tourists' face when we told him how much we paid. If there has been one time we felt like the dirty American tourist in this trip, that was it. Just wish the food had actually been good; would have at least justified our behaviour a little bit. Instead our desire for comfort food left us feeling even worse than whatever the bugs inside us were producing.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Happy Birthday Elaine!

Just a quick note to let everybody know that we made it back from our trek in the jungle with nothing worse than colorful stories. The trek was UNBELIEVABLE. It was like nothing we had ever experienced and definitely rewarded our decision to skip trekking in Thailand and instead do it here in Laos. We look forward to sharing stories and pictures with you soon.
Off to either Luang Prabang or Nong Khiew tomorrow. We need to decided between now and when the buses leave EARLY tomorrow morning.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Road Warriors

The next morning (see previous entry) it was time to face the music. We took a sawng-theaw the 2+ km south of town to the bus station to start our trip to Luang Nam Tha. We had been warned over and over that this was one of the (if not the) worst road in Laos. Evidently the route is sometimes done by bus, but when we got there all they had were trucks. (Effectively sawng-thaews, except even smaller than the one we had taken to the bus station.) It's just a small sized toyota pickup with benches and roof built in (and just open railings on the side). At least the bench was kinda padded....

We gulped a bit and then climbed in as our bags were strapped to the roof. We were okay with the 6 adults and one baby in the back, but then they added two more adults and two more children. (There was one other farang along with us; the rest of the 11 people in the back and 6 people in the cab were Lao). Along with the spare tire and a couple of sacks of rice it got a LITTLE bit cozy, if you know what I mean. Actually, it would have been fine except for our knees on down, which were bent in very uncomfortable positions with no place to move them.

The journey was a trip. We had two flat tires (right rear and left rear (notice the color of the road!) within the first hour, got to commune with the other roadside inhabitants while the tires went to get fixed, and we also stopped at one point to help fix another truck. With those stops and a lunch break, it was a 9 hour trip. We were good for about 6 hours of it, then the pain in our knees, calves and feet started to really bother us. The road was only paved in two parts (maybe for a couple of miles total), but a lot of the 195 km (117 miles) had been graded and flattened (we think in preparation for sealing/paving it), so there were only a couple of stretches where we were all quite literally bouncing off the roof and each other. If the whole road had been like the bad patches (which I think in the past it was) I don't know if we would have made it. We certainly would have been more bruised than we ended up being.

We had been warned how dusty it would be (since most of the road is just red clay/dirt/dust) so we had come prepared with masks. I wish I had gotten a pic of us with our masks and sunglasses...it actually worked pretty well to keep us comfortable. Since our heads were higher than the cab of the pickup, so we got the full brunt of the dust clouds. It certainly showed in our faces and hair.

Despite the length and leg discomfort, it was a great ride. We passed through more than 20 small villages along the way, with pigs and chickens running across the road and villagers peering out of their thatched houses. (Brian and I so wished that we had a video camera in our eyes so that we could share these villages with you (and with us later), but pulling out the camera in the bouncy, jostling, dusty back of the truck just seemed like a bad idea, as well as potentially rude. So we'll just have to remember it and you'll just have to trust us that it was educational, eye opening and quite scenic).

The drive was also a great way to get a feel for the jungle landscape and to see how little of northern Laos is developed. I don't think we'd be jumping at the chance to do it again tomorrow, but we're happy we chose to come up here this way instead of flying to Luang Prabang and then taking the better road north. (Besides, we'll get to drive that road on Saturday when we leave Luang Nam Tha for Luang Prabang).

An added bonus (and 3 extra wise traveller points) was the reaction we got from all the Lao people when we mentioned how we arrived. They all would get wide eyes and say "oh, that's a TERRIBLE road". No wussy tourist routes for us!

Heading off tomorrow for 3 days of trekking in the mountains and jungles and staying with hill tribes. We purposely didn't do any trekking in Thailand as we had heard over and over about how destructive and exploitive it had been to the native hill tribe people there and how touristy the whole thing is.

Laos is a recent arrival to this sort of tourism and it appears to be learning from Thailand's mistakes. So all of the organizations talk about eco-tourism and detail the steps they take to minimize the impact on the minority villagers and the environment. We feel much more comfortable about it.

So we're off, and Brian gets to celebrate his 31st birthday trekking through the jungle....not a bad way to kick off another year.


PS any of you think you are drinking bigshots for eating the worm in the tequila? Let's see you try this.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Crossing the Border in Style

Sawbaidee from Laos, the second country on our Southeast Asian tour.

The whole "how to get to northern Laos" question consumed a lot of our time in Chiang Mai, as we bounced strategies off friends and family and asked any other traveler we could find who had been through Laos.

The quandary was that the most direct way from Chiang Mai was to go up through Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong on the border, cross the Mekong, and then take a bus from Huay Xai up to Luang Nam Tha. The downside was that it was supposed to be 120 miles of the (or at least one of the) worst road in Laos, taking 8-10 hours. (You could also take a boat from Huay Xai, but a) those took 2 long days instead of one, b) they were much more expensive, c) they were open to the sun and relatively uncomfortable and d) slow boat rides of more than 1 day just make me nervous and stir crazy.) As we were a little intimidated by this trip, Brian also looked into an easier option: flying from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang and then taking the bus 8 hours back up to Luang Nam Tha on a slightly better road.

After much back and forth, we decided to go for the full backpacker experience and headed north early on new years' day.

We started out on a nice Thai bus (complete with air con, snacks and drinks, and a Thai movie (a tense psychological drama about a player of traditional wooden xylophones)) from Chiang Mai 6 hours to Chiang Kong on the Mekong. You get dropped off at a bus stop 3 km away from the border so you have to take a tuk tuk the rest of the way.

Unfortunately, the tuk tuk drivers here were very organized and coordinated so you couldn't negotiate price or play one off another. They also would only take one passenger per vehicle. While they did seem a little smaller than the tuk tuks in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, I still think that was a minor scam. Plus they dropped the three sets of tourist couples off at a tourist agency trying to sell visas and boat/bus tickets for the other side instead of at the border, which was another 300 meters down the road.

We earned a negative experienced traveller point by letting the tuk tuk drivers go with their money (they said the tourist agency would drive us the rest of the way) instead of insisting that they took us to the border as we were paying for. However, we earned back a point by quickly figuring out the score and not buying any tickets from the agency. It appeared that they were trying to sell us a ticket that Lonely Planet said should be around $7 for $11. While that might not seem like a big difference to you all at home, it's a 50+% surcharge ripoff here and not what you want to fall for. So we just said thanks, but no thanks and trudged the last 300 meters to the border in the sweltering sun.

Thai immigration was easy, and then we headed down to the bank of the Mekong to be ferried over to Laos. Ironic that our first 'overland' border crossing in Asia was actually over water! It was a cool feeling to be out on this tiny boat piloted by a wizened old man so close to the river level and watch Laos approaching. Once there it was cake to get through immigration (as we had already gotten our visas in Bangkok) and find a guesthouse room.

Before we knew it we had found a place with a riverside cafe and spent the late afternoon and evening drinking (we're in Beer Lao country now!) and eating and playing cards and journal writing and watching the sun set, twilight arrive and stars come out over the Mekong. It was amazing how abrupt the transition to a slower pace was as soon as we crossed the border into Laos (see photo at the top of the entry).

I think we're going to like it here.


btw...on flickr I've also added some pictures from new year's eve in Chiang Mai and some market pics (which should also be under the Cuisine tab) for those of you who like to see those sorts of things. They'll be after the Laos photos that are up so far.