Monthly Archives: November 2010

Laos Journals

I spent about ten days traveling from the north all the way to the south of Laos.  Most of the time I was alone, except for some cool English guys I met in Vang Vieng.  Laos is the most peaceful and quaint country I’ve been to.  Time seems to slow down when you’re there and the people are very humble and kind. 

 

Luang Namtha Bus Station – July 23rd, 2010

Left Jinghong at 6:40 this morning on a bus going across the border into Laos and arriving in  Luang Namtha.  While waiting for the bus to leave I met a man from Singapore named Roland that was also taking the same bus, but he was heading to Huayxai, and then on to Thailand.  He was telling me that the food sucks in Laos, but the people and scenery are great. 

The road to Mengla, a sleepy town on the Chinese side of the border was more like a wash since it was downpouring the whole time and there were some areas where the cig-smoking driver had to swerve to miss a fallen rock slide.  On the television, he was screening back to back Jet Li flicks for the duration of the seven hour trip.  There were only two other foreigners on the bus who were French, but they were in the back so I nodded off, sometimes being jolted awake by the blare of the driver’s horn. 

Outside my window, we passed heavy jungle vegetation with big groves of bamboo, palms, and thick undergrowth.  Rice terraces marked the hills like green steps leading up to the gray sky.  We finally arrived at the border town of Mohan to go through the checkpoint and as soon as I stepped off the bus, there were older Chinese women holding folds of Laos Kip (money) saying, “Take your money!  Take your money!”  Yeah right.  When have you trusted a complete stranger who says that?  I went through the Chinese immigration smoothly and caught an 8 yuan taxi to the Laos border-check.  It’s important to point out that the Chinese side was a brand new, high ceiling, tile floored building that looked as if it was just built.  Yet the Laos side had much more character.  The building was more like a glorified shack and as I was filling out my Visa on Arrival forms (37 USDs), the man behind the counter was busy typing away on a dusty computer that looked like it was from the mid-nineties. 

 

Luang Prabang Restaurant on the Mekong River – July 24th, 2010

I was sitting at the Luang Namtha bus station as I was writing the last entry but was cut-off when my bus to Luang Prabang pulled up.  I decided to skip the stay in Luang Namtha because of my deadline to get to Siem Reap to meet my buddies Jay and Gibby, who were coming in from South Korea.  So it’s going to be a mad dash to get there and I’d asked for advice from two different veteran travellers I’ve met on the way.  One, an Irishman named Brian, told me I could get stuck for weeks in Laos trying to get down to Cambodia because it’s the wet season and the roads in Laos can be pretty treacherous, causing the buses to stop if it rains heavy enough.  He suggested cutting through to Thailand via the border in Vientiene because the roads in Thailand are much better, then crossing from outside Bangkok into Siem Reap. 

On the other hand, I asked a Frenchman at the Mekong Cafe in Jinghong about my dilemma and he said going the Laos route would be much better.  In his words, “If the roads are flooded, they’re flooded.  It doesn’t matter where.”  He reckons I could get from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap in 7 days.  Who do you trust?  An Irishman or a Frenchman?  Besides, I already paid $37 to get my tourist Visa for Laos (which I might say is the coolest looking Visa I’ve seen so far: full-page, complete with handwriting and a signature from the official himself) and I think it would be a waste to only stay a few days.  Plus, I’ve already been to Thailand and as of now, I can say I prefer Laos over it. 

There’s also the adventure factor to think about.  Going through Thailand will probably not be as exciting as going through Laos because here, there’s the unknown and that’s what makes me want to travel most.  So, in the end, it’s not a question of trusting either man, it’s a decision of instinct.  I’m going through Laos.

Now, I just went through a ten-hour bus ride from LNT to LPB and it was awesome.  I took a VIP bus, which is merely a regular coach bus but is a luxury compared to the retro jalopies that most locals take, and hauled through the mountainous jungle.  Through hair-raising turns and bumpy dirt roads, we passed small grass huts with children walking beside the road looking up at the bus as if they’d never seen one before.  A younger local girl sat beside me the whole way and kept falling asleep on my shoulder.  At first, I tried to push her away but after many attempts to no avail, I gave up and fell asleep too.

 

Barely in Vang Vieng – July 25th, 2010

Crazy day today.  Caught the 2pm minibus (van) from LPB to Vang Vieng.  It was only supposed to take 5-6 hours, but about two hours into the trip we came upon a long succession of cars backed up along the mountain road.  After not moving for about 20 minutes, many of us got out and started to walk up to see what was happening.  It rained heavily the night before and there was about 2 inches of mud all along the road.  When I finally reached the beginning of the traffic jam, the problem came into view.  A semi-truck was stuck in a large mudslide that came down off the side of the mountian.  Now I knew what the Irishman was talking about.  There was also a backhoe trying to dig out the mud from under the truck while hundreds of other people, locals and travellers, looked on.

After about an hour of watching this, the truck backed up and tried to plow through the mud, but again became stuck.  Then, the backhoe started to come around the back of the truck and put its arm down to push it through from the rear.  To the side of the truck was a cliff dropping about 50 meters down into a ravine and the only image I could think of was the truck tumbling down the side.  With luck, the backhoe successfully pushed it through to everyone’s applause.  We went back and piled into the van to start moving again, but since we were so far back in line, it took another two hours to get up to where the truck was.  Every car, bus, and van had to try and gun it through the half foot of mud that was still across the road.  When it finally came to our turn it was well past dusk and there was about 15 or so local men who were pushing each vehicle through the mud to get to the other side.  We all watched in anticipation as each car weaved and slid down towards the cliff, barely making across to safety.  Finally, we were up next. 

The driver floored it and we immediately started swerving towards the cliff, everyone’s knuckles white from gripping the seats.  We came to a stop, shortly relieved, in the middle of the muck and all the local men surrounded the vehicle.  It was a bit terrifying having all these strangers looking into a van full of tourists, and I couldn’t help but think they might try and get some money out of us.  On the count of three the driver gunned it again and the men started heaving and pushing as mud sprayed in their faces; some of them even slipping and falling down.  This is it! I thought, We’re going down!  The van moved even closer to the edge and everyone was screaming, C’mon! C’mon! Go! Go! Go!

Breathing sighs of relief, we made it to the dry side.  The local men didn’t ask for anything, they just smiled and turned around to help out the next vehicle in line.  They were completely caked in mud from head to toe.  Amazing.  Like I said, complete hospitality.  All in all, what was supposed to be a 5 or 6 hour trip, ended up taking about 9 hours.  It was a perfect example of the unknown happening.  I didn’t care, I was just grateful I wasn’t at the bottom of the cliff.

 

Pakse, Southern Laos – July 29th, 2010

I had to get the hell out of Vang Vieng.  As one guy described it, “A Disneyland for twenty-somethings.”  It truly is and I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.  I met five British guys who I ended up staying and partying with.  Went tubing down the Nam Song river which is probably one of the most insane/ridiculous things I’ve ever experienced.  Free shots of whiskey in bottles stuffed with dead King Cobras, rope swings from trees flying off into the rushing river, and drunk backpackers straggling down the river on tractor tubes.  Since it’s wet season, the river was flowing fast and strong and I believe anywhere else in the world jumping into, let alone tubing, a river would be unheard of in this situation.  It is also said that if you don’t get off your tube at the right time, there is a waterfall near the end where you could kiss your wet ass goodbye.

Supposedly a couple days before I arrived, a Laotian man, whom owned one of the riverside bars, swung off one of the swings and never came up from the water.  They found his body a few kilometers downstream.  I guess on an average year, 5 or 6 people meet the same fate.  So, with that said, yes, I did partake for two days in the outrageous mayhem.  My body was bruised and beat up, the soreness begging me to catch a bus and get the hell outta dodge.  I left on the third day and never looked back.  My advice, do it once and you’re gloriously stupid.  Do it twice and you’re swimming with the grim reaper.  Although there were a few backpackers working there who swore they had been tubing for over 300 some consecutive days.  Whatever floats your tube, dude.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Travel

Professional Procrastination for Southeast Asia

These are the words of the world’s worst procrastinator when it comes to writing.  How long has it been?  Almost 8 months?!  You could probably say that’s long enough to drop my account, but here I am, back and ready to do some much-needed back peddling on Living in the Red.

Where to begin?  First, I’ve got some handwritten journals from my summer trip to Southeast Asia that I’m digging to share.  So, without further ado and haste, here you go.

I started the 6 week journey in mid-July and had a very loose itinerary for wearing out my shoes from Yunnan province, South China, down to Laos and on to Cambodia, then back up through Vietnam and across again into China through the Guangxi province.  For only six weeks and that much ground to cover, I should’ve known it was going to be far too much to handle.  And it was my first time travelling alone for an extended period of time, although I was never without friends and fellow travellers.  Here’s my first journal entry.

 

Dali, Yunnan province, South China – July 17th, 2010

I arrived in Dali yesterday with my friend and fellow Aussie co-worker Bernie.  We flew from Shenzhen to Kunming instead of taking the originally planned 26 hour bus ride.  Needless to say, the two-hour flight was much more comfortable than 26 hours of smelly feet and disaster driving on the smoky sleeper buses (yes, you can smoke on some).

After getting to Kunming, we took a five-hour, 138 yuan ($20) bus ride northwest to Xiaguang.  All along the highway we passed small farming villages scattered throughout a long valley.  The houses were painted on the sides with various pictures of cartoon-like dinosaurs, mushrooms and potatoes.  The first leg of the trip were the dinosaurs, then, after about 70 km or so of the reptiles, the mushrooms came with their bright red and whites.  I started to ponder the meaning of these designs and I couldn’t help but think the inhabitants of these small houses were known to each other as the “Mushroom People” or “The Potato Gang”, something to that effect.  There were also houses with circular emblems painted with bright blues, reds, and yellows that reminded me of Central American art.  These villages belonged to the Bai, an ethnic minority who dress in traditional blue clothing that is as simple as it is sharp.  The women wore various styles of wrapped hats with embroidered flowers.  The men also wore blue hats that reminded me of the workers’ hats commonly associated with communism.  Between the highway and their small homes, you could see them tending their corn and rice fields which were dotted with water buffalo and scarecrows. 

After about six hours, we finally came up Dali.  The old town of Dali sits between a steep range of mountains and China’s second largest lake Erhai-hu, which is long and stretches out for 50 or so km.  The town itself is surrounded by a square wall with one traditional styled gate on each of the four sides.

Almost forgot, even though our bus said Dali as the destination, it actually only took us to Xiaguan, which is also known as New Dali.  Bernie and I got off the bus wondering how the hell to get to Old Dali because in his edition of the backpacker’s glorified brochure, Lonely Planet, it didn’t show exactly how to get there.  I asked the clerk at the bus station and she said to take the local bus #2 and pointed us in the direction of the stop.  We found the bus stop, but the sign didn’t list a #2 bus.  Bernie and I, in our broken Chinese, tried to ask some locals where the bus was and they told us to stay there at the same stop.  Finally, after some wild body-language attempts and laughter, a woman in her thirties came up to us and asked if we needed help in clear english.  Turns out she was also an english teacher from one of the local schools.  She said we had to transfer from bus #4 to bus #2 at a different stop and even got on the bus with us to show us.  The more I travel around Asia, the more I’ve learned that if you’re lost or aren’t sure where to go, the best thing to do is just look as completely stupid and lost as you can and eventually help will show up (may not be wise in certain areas of Cambodia).  The Chinese are very hospitable to foreigners, which makes it easier in spite of the language barrier.

Back to Dali.  We checked into a hostel called “The Hump,” which is one of the nicest I’ve stayed in and for only 30 yuan a night for a dorm ($4).  I met my other co-worker and fellow American Blake there too. 

 

Jinghong, South Yunnan, China – July 22nd, 2010

Ended up staying five nights at The Hump because it was such a chill place.  The main bar area even had a band stage with a drum kit.  The first night I stayed there, there was a musician playing named Nevada (John) who was originally from Minnesota.  He played a few country and blues numbers and I asked the manager if it was cool to play a few songs.  “Of course,” he said.  “It would even be encouraged.”

So, after a couple more songs, Nevada invited me up on stage to play.  I ended up peforming another night there and filled out a six-song set including a couple of my originals and Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World” and Dylan’s “Stuck in The Middle With You”.  The only kind of dissapointing thing was I later found a sign posted at the hostel that read you could play and stay for free, yet I didn’t even get a free drink while I was there, let alone get a night knocked off the bill.  Oh well, can’t complain at $4/night and it was a pleasure just playing for a completely random audience of people from all over the world.

On the third day in Dali, I rented a mountain bike and rode half-way up Lake Erhai, then slowly meandered my way back through a long row of old villages that hugged the water’s edge.  The villagers were mostly traditionally dressed in their light and dark blue simple styles, with the women wearing flower embroidered sashes around their hips and a tartan/flannel styled matching blue and white head-dress.  The narrow winding streets were mostly car-less, with children playing and shouting, including some young boys carrying a plastic M-16 and unloading a few, fake lip-blattering rounds into me as I rode by.  I laughed and clutched my ribs; they got quite a kick out of that.

Although the village along the lake appears to be one big town, I found out it was actually a string of small villages lined up along the water.  Every 10 or 20 minutes of riding south along streets, I came across a village center: a crowded intersection full of farmers and the elderly selling and bartering green onions, cabbage, corn and a lush and colorful variety of other produce. 

As I was riding east towards the lake, I found a dead-end where the road led to a trail ending in the water.  I stopped to take a few pictures (I lost all my Yunnan photos on my separate flash card somewhere in Laos) and I noticed this short, hunched-over old woman with a cane lurching towards me.  I couldn’t help but stare in amazement because she looked to be at least 90 or so years old.  She kept coming with her head down the whole way and as soon as she was close to the corner, she reached down and tried to move a brick cinder-block with her free hand.  I was frozen in the moment and thought to myself, Should I help her? But for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to go over to her.  I thought maybe I would scare her, of course because she probably doesn’t see too many white faces, and I was mesmorized as she ever so slowly, inch by inch, moved this cinder-block around the corner of the building to a different spot.  Then she carefully turned around and slid her feet back down the walk-way to her door.  It’s still a lucid memory in my mind, the image of someone who would normally be in a nursing home somewhere hooked up to a few tubes, staring mindlessly at afternoon talk-shows, yet she was out here scooting around with her cane and doing some “heavy” labor.  Actually, it’s something I’ve noticed about China: the elderly really get out and do activities or they hang out with other older people in the parks, playing card games or 麻將(Mahjiang).  Their children  take care of them and live with them, so a nursing home is nearly impossible to find.  – End Entry

 

DALI STREET RAIN – July 20th, 2010

The following is a kind of poem I wrote while waiting out the rain after I rode back from the lake villages.  I sat under a store awning on some steps and for about 5 minutes, wrote down everything I could see and hear, trying to connect the moment into a narrative.  I also recorded a reading of this along with field noise/music here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxywKEkvca4

It is as follows:

Square stones wet drops reflections trees in the grey wheels of umbrellas held by wooden bridges blue apron motorbikes walking in high heels tight black jeans we shared a stare down the road keep your yawn under chinese Erhu melodies rain coats riding hands in pockets walking the poodle like a smoking bus passing the gate of history through the eyes of a fart chewing gum and the desire to piss on a fire hydrant beauty scratching its head as the sound of pistons cuts the afternoon chatter and wears a cowboy hat with eyes wearing seatbelts cut the onions and wonder where the cross walk begins to ponder why I’m sitting here on the stained concrete yellow pen still looking for a load image of a tree yawning for the sake of standing still as matter rushes between straddled sandals she’s marked the mole and passed the sun pointing to the grey north of Coca-Cola corn on the cob hips in the street of little red walking hood 1.4 i see the grey and chins count the baskets of white books killing black bugs I got stripes and bowling shoes because my glasses don’t need eyes to see the smile of beautiful wives carrying fruit over their brown shoulders while their babies look left to the tourist future of fake history covering the tragedy of cultural curiosity.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Living in China, Travel