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January 18, 2005

The Beginning of the End: Ton Sai to Bangkok

The week I spent in Ton Sai was a fine way to complete my journey. The atmosphere there is so chill, and the community of foreigners and locals is so devoted to climbing that this beach may actually be a little paradise. The place is very developed for tourism (there are hundreds of bungalows) but, much like Muang Ngoi in Laos, it has a good feel to it. Perhaps that impression is due to the fact that there were few visitors for the high season since the Tsunami caused many to change their plans, but also it may be because the majority of visitors are climbers, many of whom stay for extended periods of time (I didn't meet anybody who had a shorter stay than mine). As a result, I think the climbers tend to socialize more with the locals, and treat them as equals. It helps that the Thai climbers are true monkeys on their home turf, and the climbers from the rest of the world are respectful of their skills. It is very common for Thais and visitors to hang out together.

I spent some time on the rocks which was a nice feeling after so much time spent on horizontal ground. I also drank a lot of beer with my dreadlocked climbing guide while listening to Bob Marley in an open-air bamboo bar. In fact, the entire town seems to have a fascination for "Bob", and for Jamaica by extension. The green-yellow-red tricolor is more visible than the Thai national flag. It's a little disconcerting at first, but it fits well with the town's attitude.

A hang-out. Notice the T-shirt colors.

Cliff and longtail.

Going climbing in these parts sometimes means getting in a boat first.


Afternoon beach scene.

View from top of climb.

On Sunday afternoon I stepped into the warm blue water, and heaved my huge pack over the rail of a wooden long-tail boat. I clambered aboard with marginally more style than the Lowe Alpine, and sat facing the golden beach, the jungle, and the high cliffs beyond. The engine banged to life and the stunning panorama slid to my left as the boat driver maneuvered us away from the beach.

I was very conscious that this was the beginning of the end of 4 months of travelling for me, but I didn't feel a pinch in my heart. The day's destination was Bangkok, and two days later Southern California.

I took a night bus to BKK, accompanied by another Ton Sai climber. We arrived at the lovely time of 5:30 am in this crazy city. I made my way to my favorite hostel by a combination of city bus and subway. I found out the next day that the metro had an accident that same morning. It happened two hours later and three stations away from where I got off, but I got emails asking if I was onboard that morning. Well yes, I was onboard, but it goes to show how close one can be to a news-making incident and not suffer any consequences. I think I can draw a parallel here with the way people perceive SE Asia after the Tsunami, but I am a little too rushed to get into that right now.

Being in a town that lives to Bob's rhythm was a fine thing, but Bangkok moves to a tune that is ear-piercing and head-ache inducing. If it existed, a CD of this music would actually deserve the "Parental Advisory" warning label.

After claiming my plane ticket I enjoyed shopping and visiting tourist hotspots on my last full day.

This afternoon I head for the airport...

Posted by piegu at 10:12 PM
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January 13, 2005

Ton Sai

I attempted to volunteer at the morgue for a second day but there wasn't enough to do, so I left after two hours. This was no bad thing since the experience was truly depressing, and I didn't feel like I was helping that much.

I made my way to Ton Sai, a small village that is only accessible by long-tail boat. The beach-front here was damaged by the big wave but nobody was lost to the sea. Like most people, I have come to Ton Sai to rock-climb and to help the locals deal with the aftermath if I can. Few have stayed in the area since the tsunami, so the businesses here have lost most of their customers. What is a greater concern for the locals is that many have canceled their plans to come here. The result is that the next year is going to be a difficult one. With damages to repair and the high season cut short, there is no doubt that some of the businesses will not survive.

The truth is that there is no reason to cancel plans to come to Ton Sai (and many other places, but I will only talk about what I experienced first-hand). Those who only have the media as a source of information might get the impression that all of SE Asia was wiped out. While the devastation in some areas is staggering, it does not mean that every region mentioned by the media is like a war zone. Like I said, a few businesses in Ton Sai were damaged, some even destroyed, but the Thais are resilient and they could be back on their feet swiftly. The only problem is that there are not enough customers to help them fund their recovery.

Currently, it is said to be impossible to find accomodation on Ko Samui or any of the Gulf/Eastern beaches of Thailand. So many would-be visitors to places like Ton Sai are sunning themselves on the beaches that the tsunami could not reach. While I don't blame those who witnessed the tsunami first-hand for leaving the area, I am saddened that many other tourists are turning their back to the Thais who have had the misfortune of being on Nature's path.

Some argue that it is not right to be a tourist at the site of a disaster. For one thing, there is disaster and there is DISASTER. I can't talk about Sumatra or Sri Lanka, or even Ko Phi Phi, because I have no idea what things are like there. But in relatively lightly hit areas, like Ton Sai, I think it's a question of attitude. For example, although there are many vacancies around town, high-season rates still apply. Bargaining for a lower rate on the basis that there are no visitors amounts to taking advantage of the situation; I don't think that's right. However, being understanding that things aren't running very smoothly and still paying full price with a smile is a real help to the locals.

Posted by piegu at 12:28 AM
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January 07, 2005

A Day At The Krabi Morgue

This morning a woman in my guesthouse mentioned that it was possible to volunteer at the makeshift morgue in town.

I decided to head out there after breakfast but I found myself procrastinating. It is very easy to say "I am going to volunteer at the morgue" but it's quite hard to actually do it. I had seen some pictures of the bodies in the Bangkok Post so I had an idea of the gruesome sights that lay ahead. But I had never been to a morgue before. I have never seen a dead body (I had seen motorcycle accident victims in Mae Sot, but I could not know if they were dead). So I knew this was going to be a harsh day, but I was not going to turn away from my commitment to help.

The morgue is set up inside the high walls of a Buddhist temple. Outside that perimeter there are tables with foreign affairs officials, police, and the military who coordinate the volunteer force. There are also message boards that are covered with pictures of the bodies, and computers to allow people to search the database of deceased. A sign gives step-by-step instructions for people who are searching: find likely candidates by looking at the pictures and going through the database; if you think you have found who you are looking for, you may choose to enter the morgue accompanied by a doctor to identify the body directly. Then you can get a death certificate from the Thai officials and make arrangements to have the body transferred.

I was received very warmly by the Navy Captain. He explained the operation was winding down and that there may not be much for me to do. I sat and chatted with other volunteers and the Thai military for an hour. The stench of rotting flesh, carried to us by the gentle breeze, grew stronger as the sun climbed into the sky and heated Krabi and its dead.

I took it upon myself to go around the picture boards and make sure the prints were well secured. A few had fallen off and were drifting in the wind. Such a piece of litter would not be a pleasant sight for the residents who are trying so hard to get over the tragedy. This task made me spend a lot of time looking at gruesome images, but some part of my brain had thankfully separated the real meaning of the images from the fact that there was paper that was falling on the floor, and I needed to fix that. The emotional stuff was sent to some grey-matter black-hole and I expect it will not resurface until much later.

As I sat again, I wondered how people could actually look at these images with the goal of identifying someone they knew. To me it was incomprehensible that they could go through with it. I figured their brains must have been working so much harder than mine to allow them to function in these times.

Later in the day I was given an actual task: I was to stand in front of the gates of the temple and stop the press from entering. I walked inside the walls of the temple to get specific instructions from a Canadian forensics expert who was apparently the boss. He introduced me to some of his crew (all covered with decomposed flesh) and explained that I should find any one of them if a camera crew asked to enter the morgue. As he talked my gaze was drawn to three bodies that were laying on the pavement, wrapped in plastic.

I guarded the entrance to the temple and questioned anybody who tried to enter with a camera. I didn't have any real customers until a Singaporean photographer showed up. I presented his business card to the Canadian boss who agreed to let him in. He said: "Stay with the photographer. He can take general pictures but nothing up close and personal." I interpreted that as meaning that no picture should be able to reveal the identity of a victim.

At first the photographer wondered why he should listen to an American tourist while he was at the site of a Thai tragedy, but he ended up being fully cooperative. I explained the rules then let him shoot. As I shadowed him, I was spending the most time that I had been inside the morgue walls. The sights were unreal. Body bags were going one way, coffins in the other, all carried by military figures in ER garbs and gas masks. Just a few meters away from me a bag was being unzipped, revealing a grotesquely bloated figure. My brain worked extra hard to send the emotions from the visuals into a black hole, but unfortunately it could do little for the odors that attacked my stomach. I buried my face into my T-shit and closed my eyes.

When I recovered I was approached by a UK doctor who asked me what I was doing inside. I explained I was a volunteer and I had been given the task of escorting the press. "Well I don't think the press should be in here" he said, visibly upset. I claimed I was not the one making that decision, but by then he was walking off, and threw his hand up at the sky in response. Another guy had mentioned he thought the Thais had forbidden all press from entering the morgue. I asked the Canadian boss what the deal was. He explained very slowly, as if I were a baby, that noone should be allowed inside after 4pm. This did not explain why various people were claiming that no press should be allowed at any time, and anyways I wished I had received these instructions sometime before 4:15.

I was frustrated. I told the Singaporean that his time was up and walked him out. As I pondered over the situation, I realized that I could not blame the docs for being impatient and giving me conflicting directions. They had been opening body bags for days in the tropical heat. Still, I wondered who should make the decision of letting photographers inside the morgue. As I sat there I realized the Thai military who were organizing the volunteer effort were gone. Their assignment was over; they were on the road to Bangkok. As if things weren't bad enough, from now on the volunteers would be unsupervised.

I walked back to my guesthouse unconvinced I would return the next day. I had a depressing dinner; the beer partially dissolved the dam that held the emotions back. I fixed the problem in part by bumming a cigarette (a very rare thing), and though I realized the irony of calming my morgue-anguish with a death-stick, I was not in the mood for such thoughts.

Posted by piegu at 05:02 AM
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January 06, 2005

Vientienne to Krabi

Last night I received an email from a friend who was staying in Krabi, Thailand during the Tsunami. He mentioned that he had not left the area, that this part of the coast was not very heavily affected, and that he had been able to volunteer his time to help others find their loved ones.

I had originally intended to make Krabi one of my main stops during my SE Asia journey, but the Tsunami wrecked my enthusiasm. I had thought of helping outas a volunteer in any way I could, but I was not able to find an outlet for that in the few minutes of internet time I could devote to that while in Laos.

I had effectively given up on going to Thailand's Southern beaches, but 24 hours after receiving Winston's email, I am here in Krabi.

While hitch-hiking in New Zealand I had gotten used to the idea of packing my bags in the morning not knowing where I would open them again to spend the night. Today felt very much the same, except I was catching airline flights, not trucks and farm rides.

I started off by exiting Laos by bus and making my way to the Udon airport in Thailand (where I figured I may have to spend the night if all the flights are booked). I will miss the Lao P.D.R., it was the site of some wonderful and enlightening experiences for me. Thailand felt stinking rich compared to the former country. Most roads are paved, most vehicles are not beat up, and even in the countryside very few buildings are made of bamboo thatch.

I bought a ticket to Bangkok on THAI's discount airline NokAir, then hustled through BKK's Don Muang and managed to catch a flight to Krabi. Although I had landed in BKK prepared to spend the night there because I didn't have a ticket to go onwards and it was getting late, I was aloft again in an hour. As I expected the flight South was mostly empty, which lent an eerie feel to the ride, not helped of course by the fact that I was reading the Bangkok Post's articles about the disaster (there are no newspapers in Laos, so I was catching up).

I have been in Krabi for a few hours, only long enough to see the main parts of town, and to realize that I would not be able to tell that a tsunami hit here 11 days ago if I had not read it in the news. This is a superficial observation of course that I may or may not regard as foolish after I have spent more time talking to locals and visiting different areas. But for now I look forward to discovering an area that seems ready, if not eager, to welcome a tourist.

Posted by piegu at 07:25 AM
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January 05, 2005

Luang Prabang to Vientienne

Luang Prabang gave me the opportunity to do a lot of nothing. The last time I felt so lethargic was in Chiang Mai, which is no surprise since the two cities have a similar feel to them. Luang Prabang is a cultural center in a pleasing setting, with good food and plenty of low energy activities. Because it is a top destination among tourists the main drag is full of restaurants catering to western tastes, although I continued to eat all-lao meals.

Thanks to the sprawling night market I was able to fill the last few cubic centimeters of my pack, which, judging by the grunt from the bus drivers who heave it up to the roof rack, now weighs more than the largest bags of rice.

The only "active" thing I did in LP was renting a mountain bike and struggling to keep up with a Canadian friend who is cycling through Laos. Our day-trip to a nice waterfall was enjoyable, and a clear indication to me that using a bicycle to get around SE Asia is a very good way to go.

I managed to extract myself from the comfy grip of Luang Prabang just before the end of the year. I took a bus down to Vang Vieng which is another top destination among tourists. The setting of limestone karsts was joy for me, but many of the visitors seemed to be more interested in watching an episode of "Friends" at one of the many restaurant/lounges that play DVDs. Thankfully I met my Canadian friends again and we all celebrated New Year's eve together.

I hiked out to one of the many caves that can be found in the limestone. I got there early enough in the morning that I was alone in the huge natural structure. I had brought my flashlight so I was able to explore the various linked "rooms", each like a hollow 3-storey building. After a while I realised that there probably was no real end to the passageways so I returned towards the distant glimmer of light that was the entrance, then back to the village. The timing was good since a dozen other tourists arrived just as I was leaving.

Deciding to leave Vang Vieng was very easy, and the perfect antidote to the place was to spend a couple of nights on an island on the Nam Ngum reservoir. The Canadians and myself were the only guests at the only guesthouse of the island. Incidently, the guesthouse and its restaurant are the only buildings on the 500 meter long strip of land. There are no roads, not even hiking trails through the jungle.

We explored the area by following the beach, but quickly gave up on our Robinson Crusoe ambitions and settled for activities such as reading, writing, and in my case, photography.

Continuing south, we arrived in Vientienne. The Lao capital feels more modern than the rest of the country. For better or for worse, most Lao here have dumped their traditional garbs and wear Western-style clothing. It is the first time since arriving in the country that I saw a street light, an actual underground sewage system, proper sidewalks, and a "hot" shower that is actually hot.

I visited the ragged National Museum, which serves as an outlet for communist propaganda. Visitors use the guestbook to debate whether such an outrageous display of false claims is better or worse than what the biased media does in the Western world.

Soon I will return to Thailand, and shortly after it will be time to head home.

Posted by piegu at 02:12 AM
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December 25, 2004

Up to Phongsali and Down the Nam Ou

Early one morning in Oudomxai I wedged myself into an overly packed bus and wondered how I was going to survive the nine hour journey to Phongsali as several more people packed and crammed themselves onboard. I shared my seat with someone who thought it was more comfortable than sitting on the bags of oranges (he was using me as a backrest), and I let a little girl who had no seat take the last few square centimeters of my bench. We started out of town but not before picking up a few more people and cargo along the way. It got to the point where closing the door became a problem, but you can always fit more. In the first village we picked up still more people until finally, when the driver had to use his window to enter and exit the bus, and my bottom and my back were aching, we really took off on the dirt road.

Phongsali is perched like an eagle's nest on a ridge among the mountains of the far North of Laos. The town itself is not of great interest, but the setting is like nothing I had ever seen before. In the morning the fog blankets the valleys below, leaving residents with the feeling of being high above the clouds onboard an airplane.

Flying high in Phongsali.


Not many tourists bother to come this far North, which allowed me to see an authentic Laos, but I realized that I was far out of my comfort zone while walking around the town. Not being able to communicate with anybody made me fel lonely and vulnerable, but I still managed to enjoy myself taking in the scenery.

It took me all day to figure out how to get to Hat Sa where I would get on a southbound boat on the NamOu. The hour-long journey down the mountain to the riverside village involved more cramming and jamming, but in the back of a truck this time. The guy coughing down my neck made me wish I had been one of the late-comers who had to stand on the tailgate breathing the chilly (but germ-free) morning air.

Although I was the only foreigner in the truck, I met a couple of French travellers at the boat landing. It was nice to chit-chat but we were directed to separate boats for the ride South. In fact I ended up with a boat all to myself, or so I thought, for I had been put on the "local" service. For five hours I sat on a plank of wood in a hull barely wide enough to fit two side by side, but 10 meters long. We motored from village to village, picking up locals who were on their way to the market, or to their hunting grounds. In this section of the Nam Ou, the river provides transport, food, and a shower to the villagers. If this wasn't interesting enough, our fragile little boat had to pass through a number of mild rapids on its way downstream. I got soaked.

Boat riding.

The magic of the trip stopped at Muang Khoua, where there is a road. I spent one night there before parking my rear on another plank of wood for another few hours' journey downstream. Locals prefer to use the roads when they are available so the boats South of Muang Khoua are mainly there for tourists. I teamed up with the other three westerners who were heading South that day. After a game of patience and bargaining with the boat drivers and ticket salesmen we were slicing through rapids onboard a giant motorized toothpick.

Couldn't resist the Communist flag. (Muang Khoua)

A few villagers were picked up along our way, including a pair of terrorized pigs. Towards the end of the journey the scenery of jungle-covered hills became more dramatic. We were amazed by the sight of huge limestone cliffs reaching for the skies along the river. The boat stopped at a beach between two such giants and we were told to get off. We had reached Muang Ngoi.

I hadn't even set my backpack down in my bungalow-bedroom-by-the-river-with-a-hammock that I had decided to stay for a few days. Muang Ngoi started off as a normal village, but its pristine location and lack of roads (and lack of motorcycles, tuk tuks, trucks and all other noisy things) make it a perfect backpacker destination. In the last 5 years the village has transformed itself into a tourist destination, which means that a visitor is not experiencing an authentic Lao village, but is experiencing a delightful and inexpensive place to spend a few days. Muang Ngoi is a backpacker resort, which felt great after the hardships of the last few days.

During the three days that I spent there I teamed with an athletic Canadian/Italian to hit the trails and visit other villages. Our ambitions of climbing one of the peaks went unfulfilled.

In the evenings it seemed that everytime I sat down to dinner somebody would put a glass of Lao Lao under my nose. As it is impolite to refuse, I drank the fermented sticky rice, and wished the bottle would empty before the next round. That was rarely the case.

Muang Ngoi main drag.

Morning by the river. You can see the bungalows in the background.

After the fog clears.

Women carrying huge piles of wood.

The first wave of American visitors to Laos left some baggage behind.

Finally on the fourth morning we had decided it was time to keep moving. It was very easy to find a boat to Luang Prabang since many tourists just come up from there for one night then return South.

I spent Christmas eve with two Canadian women I had met in Muang Khoua. We were all quite happy to be done with sitting on planks for a little while and looked forward to wandering around this city, and go shopping at the spectacular night market.

Posted by piegu at 04:23 AM
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December 16, 2004

Hill Tribe Trek from Luang Namtha

From Luang Namtha I signed up for a 2 day trek that would take me to hill tribe villages. Seven Europeans, myself, and 3 guides set off by Tuk Tuk to the trailhead. We would be using trails cut by tribespeople for their own trading purposes, so the route was from village to village.

After a traditional Lao lunch, which might have been the best mid-hike picnic I've ever had, we descended the ridge towards our destination. To enter the village we had to pass through the Spirit Gate, which is said to protect the village from evil. It would be of no protection to us unfortunately, and not much of the other hill-tribe magic would be of much help either.

We dropped our bags inside the hut built for visitors and wandered about the village, which receives some income for welcoming tourists. Walking around felt surreal. I could have been in the early pages of a history book. Pigs, dogs, roosters run freely about the village. Everybody contributes to the survival of the village: women pound rice grains, kids carry water from the river, elderly women sew crafts to sell at the market.

In the evening we were invited to have dinner with the chief of the village. Through the interpretation of our guide we were able to ask many questions. The chief was serving up Lao Lao, an alcohol made from fermented sticky rice, so the questions flowed freely.

This wonderful experience was ruined when upon returning to our accomodation we discovered that some of our belongings had been stolen. One girl lost some cash, another her passport, and as for myself I got my sunglasses ripped off.

The chief announced to the vilage that there had been a theft, and that all dwellings would be searched if our belongings were not returned to his doorstep by the morning.

After a cold and sleepless night I walked through the village. Even before dawn the sound of rice being pounded out of its shell could be heard. Small fires were lit everywhere to keep women, children, pigs, dogs and roosters warm.

The thief had not returned our belongings, but the chief decided to try something else. To give the thief one more chance at anonimity, everyone in the village was to make a package out of banana leaves and present it to the chief. I was invited to witness the opening of the packages. Evidently the foreigners had missed something in the explanation of the procedure. All villagers offered rice grains, or green lettuce, but the eight packages that contained rocks and dirt drew laughs from the onlookers and shame from us. Still, no package contained sunglasses, passport or money.

The village shaman had been called upon to help clear the mystery. The previous night he had said it was impossible to help due to the dark, but in the morning he declared the thief was married and had two kids, and was still in the village. Next, he cut a piece of bamboo very evenly then split it in 160 pieces (!) of equal length. Everybody got one of these pieces. Apparently a magic word was embedded into the wood, and the guilty one would cause the wood to grow. As an engineer I had a bit of a hard time with this one, and all westerners agreed it would be a bad idea to drop our wood in the water. All pieces were returned to the chief and measured: none had grown.

But the shaman had a few more tricks up the sleeve of his coat. Villagers prepared a bowl containing rice, an egg, some greens, and a bamboo string and told us to present it to the shaman while pleading for his help. We managed to keep a straight face while our begging was being translated to the shaman. He took our bowl and polished the egg, then whispered to it for a minute. After placing the egg vertically in the bowl, he threw rice at it. At some point two grains stuck to the top of the egg and animated discussions ensued. People looked worried, and we followed suit until our guide explained: this meant that our belongings had left the village.

Another bowl was summoned, empty this time, and without us begging the shaman broke the shell of the egg and poured the contents. The string from the first bowl was passed below the yolk. Somehow, the orientation of the egg indicated the direction we would have to take to find our belongings. I figured the tilt of the table determined where the egg rested in the bowl, but I am no shaman.

Before our departure the Chief apologized again and wished us well. It seemed to me that most villagers were genuinely saddened that something like this could happen. We continued our trek as planned and filled out a police report when we returned to Luang Namtha, or rather, I wrote it and it was then signed by all concerned. We asked the police not to search the dwellings of the villagers. It seemed to us that the thief would conceal the goods in the forest anyways, and we didn't want to subject our hosts to unnecessary discomfort.


After the trek I took a bus to Oudomxai. Where I rested for a day before heading North to Phongsali.

Posted by piegu at 03:10 AM
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December 11, 2004

Thailand to Laos

This is going to be a speedy entry because the internet here is a little pricey.

I crossed into Laos by taking a flimsy longboat accross the Mekong. A large number of travellers were crossing over as well, but more than 90% of them hopped directly on slow boats headed for Luang Prbang. The "Slow Boat on the Mekong" is a coveted tourist badge. The few travellers left in Houaixai after the morning rush were of the more adventurous kind.

The next morning I rode out on a capricious tuk tuk to the bus station and bought a ticket for Luang Namtha. It took 9 hours to cover a couple hundred km or so on the poorly maintained dirt road. The bus was packed, and not designed for 6 foot frames. We drove through many villages that could have been used as an illustration of how our people lived 1000 years ago.

The town is not far from Myanmar, but it is its proximity to China that is felt the most. Everyhing is written in Chinese script as well as Lao, and Chinese guesthouses, trucks, and people are as present as the native kind.

It is cold here, people pee on the street, spit out of windows, and drive continuously breaking contraptions that would lose to the machines built on Junkyard Wars.

Cheers from Laos...

Posted by piegu at 08:04 PM
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December 07, 2004

A Chiang Mai Vacation

After some intense touristing in Sukhotai's ancient city I was on the bus for Chiang Mai, Thailand's Northern "big city" and major westerner hang-out. I have been here 6 days now and I can't say I have done much: it was a relaxing week full of socializing.

I learned to make a red curry and other Thai dishes on Friday when I took a cooking class. Joining me was Erica, whom I had originally met in Bangkok and met again coincidently aboard the bus to Chiang Mai. I befriended one of the cooking instructors who took me to an art and fasion show.

A day later the Aussies I had left behind in Mae Sot showed up at the guest house having given up their quest to visit Thailand's tallest waterfall (the coincidence was not that huge: I was at that guest house on their recommendation).

As a growing group we socialized with friends of the guest house owners who were opening up a business nearby. One of them had just completed his year of military service as a sniper.

Sunday was the King's birthday which was celebrated with a street market, music and fireworks. In particular there were fireworks-dropping unmanned hot air balloons powered by fire-bricks that would drive western safety-authorities absolutely nuts. (if the burning fire-brick falls on top of a house...)

I spent two days shopping around for a new camera. This was a success so I hope to have improved pictures up next time.

Besides that I read a lot, and aimlessly wandered about the town. This was all quite uneventful, and therefore the write-up is dull, but I decided that I was on vacation. Tomorrow I am taking a bus to the Lao border, so things should get interesting again.

Posted by piegu at 11:43 PM
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December 01, 2004

Mae Sot

Tailing behind some Aussies I met in Ayuthaya, I hopped on a night bus to Mae Sot, a small town by the Burmese border. Although we arrived too early in the morning and after too little sleep in the bus, we managed to check-in at a guest house and attempted a last-chance doze before the sun came up and the town came alive with two-stroke screams. I didn't sleep so I was expecting a really rough day.

After a marvellous breakfast I strolled around the multi-cultural town. My Thai phrase book wasn't much use as most shopkeepers were burmese, and I wished I had a guidebook to traditional South East Asian clothing. It seemed like every different part of this continent was represented, and even beyond as I had no problem realizing that India was on the other side of Burma simply based on people's appearance.

In the afternoon I ran into a character who was wandering the streets when we arrived that morning. He showed me pictures of a school and asked me if I would like to help the kids with their English. Although I was feeling fatigued, I wouldn't pass up this opportunity so I hopped on a tuk tuk with him and we headed out of town.

Before we got very far our tuk tuk slowed due to commotion on the road. What I feared the most was confirmed: it ws an accident scene. Two motorcycles had just run into each other, and helmet-less riders lay inert about the pavement, blood pooling underneath their broken bodies. As we navigated through the crowd of shocked onlookers my guide let out his anger at the fact that this community did not have an ambulance. In a teary thought I wished I had my brother's skills or that he were with me in the tuk tuk.

Witnessing the accident scene made me feel uncomfortable. I was fatigued and was not prepared to deal with such emotions. The event set my mind on downward spiral which would be accelerated by the events to follow.

After 20 minutes of rattling along in the three-wheeler we turned onto a small road and headed up a hill. The reassuring english subscript had disappeared from road signs, All the people who caught sight of me did a double take, and I often heard the word "farang" (foreigner) as we passed people. Unsure of my situation, I kept smiling and observed people's reactions: most smiled back so I relaxed.

We bounced our way deeper and deeper into the settlement, straining the tuk tuk's engine on shallow uphills,and wobbling downhill with little use of brakes.

Finally we arrived at the school. The residents of the area were all burmese, and although they were shy at first a frank smile on my part quickly unlocked theirs. I took off my shoes and started up the fragile steps to the classroom. The school building was nothing more than a raised floor and a roof and one wall. It was made entirely of the vegetation they gathered locally, except for a few wood planks brought to them by a western religious group. I was surprised to see a young boy hard at work killing who knows what evil in a game on the computer.

I sat down with a few students, aged 8 to 28. Their English was very minimal, about equivalent to what I can say in Thai. Conversations didn't run long though that may have been the result of being completely overwhlemed with the situation. The accident scene had started me downards, and being dropped off in the poorest community I had ever seen except on PBS Specials kept me sinking. However the hospitality from my school friends warmed me in ways I haven't often experienced. These people have nothing, yet they were cheerful and happy and they wouldn't allow a visitor to be without tea. Still, compounding the mix of emotions was the fear that I felt everytime my hosts talked anxiously among themselves when a motorcycle was heard approaching. Were they afraid of the police? Was I not supposed to be here? Would they get in trouble if they were found talking to a farang? Clearly something was bothering them. Using an English that I could not properly understand my guide tried to explain. All I got was "don't worry."

We left the school for one of the teacher's home. Along the way we grabbed the headmaster. We found the teacher's dwelling at the end of a maze of dirt paths. It was another raised floor with one wall and a sloping roof, made entirely of vegetation. Here I was given the place of honor while we sat on the floor and attempted to communicate. Fatigue was overrun by a stampede of emotions, but I wanted to stay a while longer to try to understand better their situation and I also wanted to leave and go hide among other farangs at my guest house.

The teacher fed me a bowl of peanuts with spices and... other stuff. Apetite-less, I forced down as much as I could but barely made a dent in the bowl's contents. After washing it down with extremely sweet coffee I ceased to wonder why their teeth were in such a bad shape. When finally night fell we were on our way back to town.

I drowned the emotions in beer. After all I had just stepped out of my guest house to pick up a couple of things from the pharmacy and ended up being taken so far out of my comfort zone that I lost all reference points.

I had too much on my mind to sleep so the next day I did essentially nothing.

The day after I joined the Aussies on their morning trip to the border.

Burma/Myanmar behind us.

Three guys. The one in red said he was from Burma. I pointed to the bridge to ask if that's how he got accross, but he waved his arms like he was swimming. Whatever works I guess.

I decided not to follow the Aussies on their trek to Thailand's tallest waterfall. I was too wiped out to do any hiking. I took a van to Sukhotai, Thailand's capital before Ayuthaya, and indulged in relaxed Wat-viewing.

Posted by piegu at 05:05 AM
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