February 02, 2005
(Again I apologize for taking so long to post a new blog! Finding a computer with all the things I needed in Europe was surprisingly difficult. Plus, my iPod charger got burned up in India and I couldn't access mt pics!! I'll try to post the last few entries over the next two or three weeks. Anyways, read on!!)
Ahhhh! How could I have forgotten the black bone chicken?!! Heather was right. I must make a slight addition to the last entry. In my hurry to post a scandalous picture of me and the lady-boy I forgot to mention an amazing meal we had in Hualien. After we spent a day or two playing at the Wenshan Hot Springs and cruising Taroko Gorge we drove into Hualien for another meal with Steven Wu, our Taiwanese guide and new found friend. Mom had briefly mentioned her training as an acupunturist and curiosity about how Traditional Chinese Medicine often uses healing foods instead of just teas or herbs. She kept talking about black bone chicken does this, black bone chicken does that. It turns out that Steve found a place that serves up this famous concoction! Finally, we got a chance to slightly repay some of his kindness with a unique Chinese-Taiwanese meal. We hadn't really eaten well up in Taroko Gorge and we left our table manners at the door. Sorry Steve!
Now, on to India. [Deep, deep breath] What can I say about this place? I've heard all kinds of attempted descriptions of India: "Yeah, it's dirty but it's soooo magical" or "I found myself in India". Well, I don't know about all that. All I know is that even after a few months of travel in some of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia we were still culture shocked once we stepped off the plane. I thought places like Saigon were crowded. Delhi is in a class of its own. We arrived at night and ended up in the local crack house for the night - well, it would have certainly been a crack house in Atlanta. In Delhi it was considered "decent". It was 5 times as expensive as any room we had in Asia and 10 times more disgusting. I could go on but that could apply to most of our India trip. We got up early and headed out to catch a visiting lecture by Roy Davis from CSA before heading off to see the sights. You may happen to remember me mentioning something about black boogers in Bangkok. I take that back. Those were nothing. The smog in Delhi is atrocious. Black boogers might have been nice. The things we pulled out of our clogged noses after a day in Dehli could be authentically certified toxic waste. Thousands of auto-rickshaws speed around the city spitting out dark clouds of slow-to-dissipate fumes. We rode from Roy's lecture out to the main mosque of Delhi with red bandanas tight across out faces. Jama Masjid was built in 1656 and is still the largest mosque in India. Its huge courtyard was mainly full of pidgeons when we visited but holds up to 25,000 people on major religious Muslim holidays. It was an elegant Mughal building compared to its dilapidated, human clogged surroundings. Just getting up the stairs from the street was a terrifying exercise in claustrophobia. The view was worth it though. Until then we had no clue as to just how crowded and crumbling the neighborhood! From Jama Masjid we stupidly decided to walk the kilometer or so down the street to the famous Red Fort, braving thousands more auto-rickshaws, old Ambassador taxis, and fume pumping buses to show up ever so slightly frazzled at the gate. This mammoth fort was built in 1638 under the sword point - uh, ah direction of our love bird Moghul ruler, Shah Jehan. (Recognize the name? More on that later.) In India, we discovered that foreigners get to pay 2 to 300 times the entrance fee as locals. We can pay more I agree. 300 times the amount is rediculous. So, we fought off the wannabe tour guides and went inside to the warm welcome of the Indian Army. These guys were really nice. I didn't even mind the 50 or so pictures they wanted to take with us! At first chance we slipped into a corridor and found ourselves in a royal courtyard surrounded by the rooms of the royal harem. Man oh man, those were the days! Some 60 odd women at your beck and call. I wonder if I was a Moghul ruler in a previous life. I certainly can't rule any women this lifetime. I can barely get Amanda to carry half the crap she buys in all these places! Our jet lag and all the noxious fumes had taken its toll for the day. Another few minutes walking around and then we left, arriving safely back at our hotel a half hour later. The car, bus, rickshaw and person our driver hit on the way back may not have been so lucky! No joke.
When Amanda was home she discovered that her best friend's parents were also going to be in India at the same time. Leela and VD Sharma invited us to spend a few days travelling with them to visit relatives and friends. We jumped on the opportunity. We met them at their hotel in South Delhi and they let us know we'd been "kidnapped". We all piled into a taxi and were off to see more Delhi sites. This time it was off to Qutab Minar, another Indo-Islamic architectural wonder of the early 1300's. This thing was impressive. Standing at over 200 feet tall its a wonder how hey even built the thing. The tower seems to have worn well though and the Islamic inscriptions on its exterior are still quite clear. We played around with the Sharmas and headed off to the world famous B'Hai Lotus Temple. If I ever end up preachin' somewhere (other than to Amanda) I want a church like this one. The inside of this flower building has the most excellent acoustics and natural lighting I've ever seen. It is an inspiration to come pray in itself. Back in the taxi we were off again for a quick stop at a colection of religious complexes that included what looked to be a replica of an Angkorian Temple and of all things, a giant, red Hanuman statue in the distance. That probably wouldn't be found at Angkor Wat.
The next day we were off to Bikaner, the hometown of the illustrious VD Sharma. After the first of many an overnight train we showed up to meet the Indoor family and their beautiful children. We had our first Indian breakfast and were off to see some ofthe local sights. It turns out that one of VD's other relatives used to be a superior at the local Mughal Fort, Juganarh. After passing through some of the elephant proof spiked doors we got a royal tour of the compound including a few rooms that are normally off limits to tourists! That was a treat! We toured the harem courtyard and the royal armoury. This was followed up by a fantastic donkey cart ride! Our time in Bikaner flew by in a blur of home cooked meals and visits to the local markets with Amanda, Leela, and Nehru. Amanda started her collection of heavy gifts I was blessed to carry. Good thing we were so well fed. All that amazing Indian food made me less cranky as the kilos started piling into my bag.
From Delhi we were off to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Our 2 hour train ride was rather uneventful except for our introduction to Indian curiosity. At the time we weren't sure if we were getting unfriendly stares because of where we were or if it was just the Indian way. We have since learned that travelling in India is probably similar to being caged in a zoo. Everybody stares at foreigners. And they will stare for hours at a time not caring if you stare directly back. Those 2 hours were a bit unnerving. (They were nothing compared to the 24 hours of stares on the ride to Mumbai!) We left the station, found a decent, less crack-house-like tourist hostel and then discovered to our dismay that the Taj is closed on Friday for religious reasons. All that after paying for a ride across town and getting hassled by souvenir touts the whole way. This includes an offer by a local resident to let us stand on his roof for a good view of the Taj at only $20 dollars - EACH! Yeah, no thanks buddy. Little did we know this was just the beginning. There is no respite in India from the hassle. If you are a foreigner you will be taken advantage of at every opportunity. The next day this was proved by yet more outrageous entry fees to the Taj. Locals pay 20 Rs. (50 cents). Foreigners pay 750 Rs. ($20). But it was worth it!! We showed up for sunrise and a bit of Taj semi-privacy before people started pouring in. We caught a glimpse of this illustrious tomb through the gate. Then suddenly, there it was in all its glory at the end of a long reflection pool, the the Taj Mahal! I've heard all that jazz about the Taj being a tribute to love secured on the dying breath of Empress Mumtaz but never gave it much weight. When I saw it in person I had no doubt that this story was probably true. Shah Jehan, yep, the same guy who built the Red Fort in Delhi, had the Taj built to be "a beautiful mausoleum the like of which the world has never seen". He started in 1631 and finished 22 years later only to begin work on his own mausoleum across the Yamuna River. His plan to build an identical all black Taj was interrupted when his son Aurangzeb took power and imprisoned dear old Dad. Talk about issues! It might have been amazing to look at a twin Taj across the river but this one will do just fine. Besides, 2 Tajs means twice the number of hawkers!
January 13, 2005
Ok. So I don't think these blogs full of happy smiles are able to acurately show how tired I was (and am) from travelling. When I got to Taiwan I think I spent most of my time eating and sleeping. Or it could have just been Heather rubbing off on me. I'm still trying to figure that out. Being on the move for months on end can really take a toll. When Heather and I did go out on occasion she showed me her favorite little back alley restaurants. Remembering Heather is a food afficianado I knew I was in for a treat when she couldn't stop talking about duck baodzu, dumplings and noodle soup. We headed over to "the alley" and she proved her worthiness as an amature food critic. I'd have more pictures of all this except that I was really tired of carrying the dern camera everywhere.
Mom's flight was delayed 24 hours and instead of showing up on Christmas Eve she stepped off the airport bus Christmas Day just in time for dinner! We found a hotel room with one big bed, ate and all went to sleep dreaming of Mexico. We decided to save the exploration of Taipei until after we'd seen more of Taiwan. We booked train tickets and headed off to Hualien and Taroko Gorge.
I'm not sure what happens when Mom gets on the scene but Heather and I suddenly slip back into hating each other for brief periods of time. I spent most of my time on the train to Hualien tired and annoyed. We got to the train station with no idea where we were going or where to stay. In the midst of our confusion we were approached by a local Taiwanese named "Steve". He came up to us and offered to give us a lift to a nice hotel. "For free, for free. I just want to help," he said and images from southeast Asia started popping up in my travel weary brain. I was thinking: "Yeah, whatever buddy. We'll take your ride but we ain't payin'!!" As it turned out he was serious. All he wanted to do was help people out. In a world full of distrust and fear, Steve is proof that some people are still kind to strangers. In fact, after dropping us off he agreed to take us on a tour of Taroko Gorge! He drove us to the park gate and insisted on taking a picture of us. What a place!! Taroko Gorge has got to be one of the most beautiful places in Asia. It makes Tallulah Gorge look like a ditch in someone's back yard. A glacier blue river flowed through the bottom as steep mountains hemmed it in. I'd have needed a big wide angle lens to even capture part of the scenery we saw. Our own eyes couldn't see from top to bottom of the gorge! Little pagodas or gazebos were placed in stategic positions for enjoyable picnics with great views. We were amazed to say the least. Steve took us for a quick hike down to his favorite swimmin' hole before driving us back to Hualien. We wanted to at least buy the guy dinner. We agreed to meet again later that evening for some grub. Steve took us to a great little restaurant and before we could get to it he paid!! And we'd only met the guy that morning! After dinner he dropped us off and said good-bye asking for nothing but our friendship. It was a true example of kindness that we must pass on.
Next day we decided to rent a car of our own and head down the beautiful coastline. We stopped on some unknown beach for a lunch and a sniff of seabreezes before heading off. An hour or two later we stopped again to check out some locals fishing off the rocks. We played around and Heather let it be known how to style in the wind.
Taiwan has some strange (but interesting) tourist sites. We stopped off at a local cave for a quick genuflection to Buddha and QuanYin. We wanted to push our daylight before heading back and continued south all the way to the Tropic of Cancer. How did we know it was the Tropic of Cancer?! Didn't you know there is always some large, white phallic symbol on the side of the road that celebrates the demarkation of the Tropic of Cancer? Well, there is! We went inside and chanted aum with the great acoustics. Then it was back up the coast to Hualien and a taste of yummy shabu-shabu. Before turning in the rental car for good we decided to visit the Wenshan hot springs. Taiwan is full of these volcanically heated bathing ghats (oh wait - I'd better save that word for India). We climbed down to the water and ahhhhh - it looks like we'll have to spend another day in Taroko. The water was amazing!!! 3 pools of varying temperatures emptied out into the river where you could also sit and relax if the heat just got to be too much. Wow! What a place! Alas, you can't come all the way around the world to Taiwan and only see one place. We booked tickets on the train to Taitung and were on our way.
On the train we met an American who'd been living in and out of various places in Asia, including Taiwan, for the last 10 or more years. He seemed to know Taitung quite well and agreed to help us get situated. Once we got our hotel, and ate he took us out to a local bar where he had been invited to sing with the band - in Chinese! He sang a few songs much to our enjoyment and sat down before the main entertainment of the night came out to dance and sing. I don't remember seeing the pole when we came in but it sure completed the feeling that we had mistakenly gone into a strip club. Heck, they even gave lap dances! Uhh did I mention these women were uhhh well, men!! Yep. Sadly enough. These fine men were post sex change Thai lady boys. Yes, yes way!! Please refer to the picture with attention to the tears in my eyes and the uncomfortable hand placement. I didn't enjoy it that much!
After our night of excitement and being pressed for time we decided to just head back up to Taipei. Perhaps next trip we'll see more of the island. Anyways, there was still alot to do in Taipei. We got back to town and kept pretty busy. Our first stop was the Longshan Temple where it seems every Japanese tourist decided to meet us. Mom doesn't like crowds, especially loud ones. Locals tried to pray amidst the noise. I hope Buddha heard them! We couldn't take it and had to leave in search of some special Chinese tea for Mom. We not only found the tea but probably, also found the only chiropractor in Taipei! I got a much, much needed adjustment and the next day felt that unshakable cold start to slip away! I felt energized for a visit out to the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial. This place was huge. Its probably one of the biggest monuments in Asia. The Taiwanese loved their leader I guess. We played in the courtyard doing our best China hat impersonations before getting our pic snapped by a local who cracked us up by plainly letting us know "all foreigner look same!"
Our time with Mom absolutely flew. Before we knew it was time for her to go! We were all really sad to seperate. Its not often that the 3 of us get to spend time together and in general, enjoy ourselves! But in the end it was another fantastic experience. Momma cried on the way to the airport after we left Heather at her dorm to rest. She cried again when I dropped her off at the immigration gate. So did I. It was emotional day for sure. Two days later I had to go to through the same thing when I left Heather. She took me to the airport bus stop and we said our good byes. I couldn't help but cry as her bright red cordoroy jacket slipped away in the crowd. My sister, my friend. Who'd have thought we would ever miss each other? So I caught my flight to Hong Kong slept in the airport and am waiting to meet Amanda in Bangkok for the last leg of our journey. 4 weeks in India, and 4 in Europe before I make my one week re-entry with my uncles in NYC. Man oh man the time just flies.
See you in India!!
(I am now in India and the internet connections here are the worst yet. It may be a while before I get to a decent internet to work on the blog. I'll keep you posted.)
January 07, 2005
As a kid I used to joke with friends that if we tried really hard we could dig through the ground all the way to China. Little did I know that if we'd accomplished our task nobody in China would have given a crap that we were there! Luckily, we didn't have to learn the hard way. These days all you have to do is put the shovels down and just show up.
After getting hassled by street vendors in Thailand and getting poked for change by amputee stubs in Cambodia I was hoping China would be a relief from the stress. Little did I know that tourism in China is a foreign word. Kunming is probably one of the largest cities in southwest China and it only had 1 hostel. Budget accomodation in hotels was sparse if it could be found at all. Heather looked to me for a little expereinced travel know how and I realized how useless I was when people don't speak a lick of English. Heather's mandarin saved the day! After a day exploring the local markets of Kunming we made our way down to the train station and booked tickets to Dali. Easier typed than done. The Chinese must think that the ticket window at bus or train stations are the pearly gates themselves because pushing and shoving is considered appropriate line etiquette. I'd like to see them try that in New York City!! The next day we were off to see a how country folk acted.
Despite all the train horror stories I've heard our ride was excellent. I fit the sleeper bed, nobody smoked, and nobody spit!! I was gratefully shocked. And to top it off Dali seemed to be worth the effort of a long ride out there. So far the trend in China hasn't really been towards preservation but Dali is an exception. The walled and gated old Dali has become one of the rare pockets of domestic and foreign tourism in the region. People come from all over to buy the cheap, probably out the back door, North Face, Mountain Hardware, and other brand name clothes. I got a killer fleece that retails in the states for $150! I wasn't looking forward to carrying it but being cold sucks! And Dali was cold! For some reason the Chinese refuse to close their doors and windows to keep the heat in. 10 guys might be huddled around a small, cast iron fire pit in the middle of the floor but if you make to close the windows you'd have 10 guys ready for a fight. It doesn't make sense to me. Then again, I think the fork is easier when it comes to putting rice in my mouth and they eat with two little sticks.
I got up the next day - did you notice the I in "I got up"? Heather doesn't get up anymore. She has completely renounced any daily activities that occur before noon. I'm not much better these days either though. Snooze is my new favorite word. I figured I would let the animal sleep and I'd explore the countryside by bike until she could be roused. Agriculture seems to be the normal occupation for most people here and I felt like I was in some modern day caligraphy painting as I watched people work their fields. Later, I met Heather for some unbelieveably good pizza and chicken burritos at Stella's Pizzaria off the main western food alley. Heather is the food afficianado and I'll let her tell you of the goodness in our recurrent Stella's experiences. While she was in a good mood scarfing down the grub I convinced her to get up early the next day and go with me to a market a few towns over. (Heather Tip #234,331: If you want cooperation with it, feed it!)
I'm glad she came with me because it turned out to be another great experience. I've seen quiite a few markets in SE Asia but none have been so authentic. Locals came here to live, not to buy trinkets. Old ladies sold everything from veggies to spices to Chinese sweets bringing it all to market by tractor-car. We took advantage of the few tourist items up for grabs and walked away with some killer hand-made batik for 30 Yuan ($3.50 US) thanks to xiaojie Heather! She later tried to use her Chinese to bargain for some kind of rediculously over-priced shawl and ended up getting hounded out of the market by a lady determined to give her a good price!!
After a few days developing matching head colds we decided to move further north to Lijiang. Dali was cold but Lijiang was freezing! At least, we felt frozen. The open door policy seemed to apply here as well and no respite from the chill could be found anywhere but in our electric blanket warmed beds. Its a wonder we got out and saw anything. If Lijiang wasn't so amazingly beautiful I'm sure we'd have been bed ridden the entire time. Especially since I added a nice ear infection to the head cold problem. I later realized that it probably had alot to do with being at such a high altitude. In the meantime, we explored the "Venice of Asia" with as much excitement as we could shiver. Goldfish swam in all the streams bordering the city streets often lined with weeping willows. Locals use the city streams for washing in the mornings. We got lost in the labyrinth of alleys and had to ask for directions back to the tourist district. This little guy looked surprised to see us out there.
Lijiang definitely deserves its UNESCO title and again, it is another pocket or serious tourism. Lots of great souvenirs were to be had and gave us all the more reason to brave the cold. After much deliberation Heather and I passed on the dried Yak meat and bought some stone seals with our Chinese names engraved underneath. We would have spent more time shopping but my ear infection was getting worse. Heather did a great job of taking care of me. Let it be known I have given her "iCredit and recognition". The greatness that is Heather did an excellent job mediating the entire visit to a local hospital where I had my ear examined - except for the pulling on it to show the doctor she was talking about ears and not shears or some other unrelated item! Pulling on an infected ear kinda hurts but no matter!! She braved the wiles of mandarin Chinese for my benefit! Xiexie Heather, xiexie. Soon after, my ear started feeling much better.
Before we left Lijiang for our marathon trip across China by bus, train and airplane we jumped on bikes for a ride out to Baisha. What may you ask is out in the middle of nowhere next to nothing? A world famous Chinese herbalist of course!! We had lunch at the local cafe before visiting the good doctor and getting some special herbs for various people back home. If you want to find out more about Dr. Ho from Baisha just type it in Google! You might be impressed.
This is turning into a long entry huh? Well, it was a long day or two of travelling. Heather and I showed up in Guilin and decided on heading out to Yangshuo straight away. Guilin looked just like any big city in China. Heather says these cities are "for livin', not for playin'". Once we got to Yangshuo we found a cheap hotel room and went out to have a look around. The town is surrounded by karst mountains and mist (or smog - we're still not sure). We were pretty tired and decided to take advantage of the local bootleg DVD market, bought a few, rented a player and spent the rest of the night, and most of the next day watching movies. What a great way to waste time in China - well, not really but if you were as tired as we were then you wouldn't have done much either. Plus, our butts were still sore from the bike ride out to Baisha! We found that out later when we rented bikes again and explored the countryside. We painfully rode through the town and got lost before a local agreed to show us some cool spots in the area. He wanted us to go bamboo rafting but I just wanted to draw. And draw I did while Heather chatted away with all the sweet old ladies that would come up behind me to see what I was doing. Once I finished we headed back to the main tourist street in Yangshuo. We realized yet again that the tourism here was mainly for the Chinese. The Chang Gang made that clear enough! At some point we got talked into doing a boat trip up the river. We really got to see all those karst mountains up close and personal from the river. We even got our picture with the same background thats on the 20 yuan note!!
Yangshuo was great but our time in China was drawing to a close. And so is this entry so hang in there. From Yangshuo we were off by overnight bus to Hong Kong. Heather left for Taiwan the same day we arrived in Hong Kong. I got to spend a two days exploring the city and sleeping with rats at night. Since it was the holidays the rat less hostels were full. Lucky me. I didn't spend much time there at night. I went to Victoria Peak for views of the city after dark. Hong Kong is a place where you have to have alotof money to have alot of fun. I couldn't wait to get out of there. So as the sun set in Hong Kong the sunset on my journey through China with Heather. We had a great time and I now feel like I've got a new friend instead of a bratty sister. I guess sometimes it takes about 24 years to realize that sisters are people of their own. And I'm lucky to have such a beautiful, unique, amazingly intelligent, "connected" one! I only wish I could have realized it sooner!
I love you Heather!
Now, on to our journeys with Mom in Taiwan!!!!!!!!!!
December 16, 2004
Wow. I seem to be developing a bad habit for putting a few weeks - or months between each blog entry. Sometimes it just can't be helped. The internet connections in Vietnam were abominable and just about all the pull down menus on computers in China are in - you guessed it - Chinese!! Who'd have thunk it?!
After Amanda and I tearfully parted ways until mid-January I found myself all alone on a train headed to the beauty of SaPa in northern Vietnam. After travelling with such an excellent person for the last few months it was overwhelmingly lonely and intimidating to be on my own. Somehow, little ol' Amanda made that big, bad world a little easier to deal with. The ride from the airport back to Hanoi was a blur of kleenex and honking - and curious stares at the red eyed foreigner.
When I got to actually got to SaPa the place was covered in a freezing fog. Those great views I'd heard about were not to be seen. I attempted to explore the town but only got as far as the church before spending the rest of the day freezing in my hotel room trying to warm my feet by the tiny hole of a fireplace. The heat of the last few months left me with few warm clothes. The fog lifted the next day to reveal grand vistas from my balcony and a wish that I had more time to spend here. The hill tribes in the area walk around town in their traditional garb and I tried to snag a few photos of them from the balcony at breakfast. I wasn't being as sly as I thought and was caught by a little Hmong girl named Zu who asked me to come read some of the English letters people have written her over the past few years. Her family puts up foreigners when they go on treks out of SaPa and she seems to have found some excellent penpals. I read some of the letters she'd been keeping though her own English was very good. We chatted for an hour or so until I had to catch the bus for the border to China. If you are ever in Vietnam be sure to go trekking in SaPa. If you're lucky you may just get to meet Zu and her friends. I bought some vibrant oranges from the local fruit market, caught this kid peeing, and was off!
From SaPa I travelled to the border and crossed into the China, a long hassle of a story cut short. With Mandarin phrasebook in hand I pressed on into a world where English words only exist on Coke cans and just barely at that. It was weird to go from a world of tourism where even the lowly moto driver knows enough English to help you find a bank to a world where foreigners pretty much don't exist. Getting enough Chinese Yuan for the bus ride to Kunming was in itself an epic journey in Chinese bueracracy. Lesson 4,345,351: Don't show up to China without cash!
Whoever thought of an overnight bus with beds instead of seats should be given a Nobel Prize! My first comfortable journey on a bus. It must be noted. What also must be noted is my introduction to the Chinese national past time of hocking up flem. And incessant smoking. Luckily I didn't have a top bunk and a majority of the smoke stayed up there! The bus pulled into Kunming when the city was still asleep. I stumbled off to the bathroom where I immediately decided to hold it after watching Chinese men in line watch other Chinese men take a crap! Wouldn't they just love to see a foreigner use a squatter!! Not this whitey! I stumbled through the city as it slowly came to life while trying to use my Lonely Planet map to find the hostel. Again LP proves how much they suck. The map was crap, a phrase I should copyright. I called a cab for a quick ride to the hostel and was in a gloriously hot shower in no time at all. This was followed by an amazing lunch of handmade noodles in a special soup that was my first introduction to the excellent food in China. Finally, Chinese food the way it was meant to be! With my belly full of food I was off yet again.
Heather and I made plans to meet in Kunming but had to wait for her China visa to come through in Hong Kong. To my great surprise her visa came through faster than usual and she booked a flight for that night!! I met her at the airport and watched in amazement as she told the cabbies that we weren't paying their rediculous prices - in mandarin!!! She was chatting with these guys like she was born speaking Chinese. And to a decent degree she can read it!! Next time you see her you'll have to drag her to your local Chinese restaurant. Then again, they'll probably speak Cantonese and it will all be for naught. Unless they have good spring rolls. Good spring rolls are a rarity.
The next day I took Heather back to the handmade noodle shop where she thouroughly enjoyed a bowl of her own! When Heather is full she speaks better Chinese. Its true. You ahve to feed that animal! We spent the day exploring little back alleys and markets that I never would have ventured on my own. Heather found a hole in the wall dumpling shop and ordered us up a killer dinner later that night.
Now that my personal Chinese interpreter had arrived we could make plans to leave Kunming and really explore China!!
Sorry this blog took so long to get posted. The blog is NOT dead! Read on!
November 29, 2004
Well, well - wouldn't you know that when the brochure says it only takes 6 hours on the bus to end up in Dalat it always takes about 9! 9 hours of sitting in small seats on bumpy roads listening to the driver honk his horn 500 times a minute. Errrgg. If you ever decide to go on a worldwide trip make sure you save enough money to take the damn train!!
So we showed up in Dalat on our way up the coast to the pleasant surprise of an excellent, cheap hotel room with free internet access--a rarity of rarities, especially in Vietnam! Despite the draw for a little mind numbing computer access we forced ourselves to actually go outside and have a look around. I'm glad we did. Dalat is a mountain town retreat from the rush of Saigon and the heat fo the south. The air was cool and clean. As it turns out Dalat is an example of colonial French architecture. The houses lined up in rows and built in such a way that its easy to get lost in the imagination of actually being in the south of France. To top it all off the city has even built its own Eiffel Tower and uses it for telecommunications!
The next day Amanda and I took a local ride out to the Valley of Love, a park-resort of sorts. Famed as the honeymoon vacation spot for Vietnamese we just had to see what all the fuss was about. Our love bird nature wasn't really keyed up by the fiberglass cartoon characters but the scenery was nice and worth a quick walk before heading back to town. In Saigon we met a girl on our tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, Emily, who is the exact clone of my beloved sister Heather. Too our surprise she showed up around dinner and decided to hang with us for a few days. It turned out to be good practice for my upcoming travels with Heather in China. Not to dwell, though I did the entire time she was with us, Emily talks, writes, acts and even leaves dirty towels around just like Heather!! It was really weird!! Ok ok. We all spent another day or so exploring in the cool climate. As usual, where you'd least expect it, we found a mark of the west in a Swiss made, brand new skylift just outside of town. Not knowing what exactly was on the other side we paid our fee and went for a ride. It turns out that the cable leads to a very well endowed monastery surrounded by beautiful gardens and a lake. It seemed welcoming enough though they made it clear that western fashion is not appreciated. We strolled the grounds and headed back to town before making plans to jump back on the [shiver] bus for Nha Trang.
After all that cold we were in need of some fun in the sun. Nha Trang is in the middle of a hotel and restaurant building boom to help answer the tourist call. Still, the town was enjoyable and boasts one of the only decent Mexican food joints on this side of the Pacific. Plus, the beach is excellent. For about $1 you can get a big shade hut for shelter from the sun. After a few days (and a big hassle with a music store there, The Groove Shack) we were back on the [double shiver] bus. This time it was an overnighter to Hoi An that at some point during the night had me laying in the floorboard with my feet in the street praying for an hour of decent shut eye. No luck.
Hoi An, however, was worth the pain of a lousy ride. Its a small town with extended history dating back to trade with ancient China and beyond when it was as an important port as Melacca, Malaysia. Anyone looking for an excellent read about world history that is actually interesting should check out Gavin Menzie's 1421. Traders would bring their wares here and have to stay the winter season until the winds changed to carry them home. Japanese traders built a cool foot bridge and a look at the nearby river shows what it once might have been. The real draw to Hoi An though is not so much all the history but all the cool things you can buy. The whole city is full of quality art, gongs, lanterns, lacquerware and best of all tailored clothing!! Amanda took advantage of $6 button down shirts and $35 suits while Emily egged her on. Luckily, we found a good tailor in Vy at Cay Da and she made sure we were happy with everything we bought. I bought several shirts and a few pair of pants, 3 of which were from another tailor who couldn't fix them the way I wanted. Vy came through in a spot and fixed the other tailor's shoddy work. If anyone is interested in sending measurements to Vy she said she could whip something up and send it to the US in no time flat. We'll let you know how our stuff holds up once we get a chance to really wear it. That is if it all makes it home. Amanda went hog wild when I wasn't around and bought a whole new wardrobe for everyone and their brother! We ended up walking out with like 100 pounds of new clothes! If you aren't sure how much that is then you can take my word for it. I now have one less vertabrate than I did in Nha Trang. In the midst of ordering clothes we took a day trip out to My Son, the ruins of the ancient Champa kingdom. Known for making their buildings out of red brick it looked like a very, very small Angkor Wat. At least, the parts that survived the Vietnam War looked like Angkor type structures. The good thing about hanging with Emily is that we get a few more pics of Amanda and I. You might have seen that it was a little dreary that day. We headed back to town and chilled in a local cafe.
We stayed in Hoi An for about 5 days. Amanda and Emily did a cooking class together while I explored. I could have stayed longer but the road was calling. We parted ways with Emily who had visa issues and had to head off to Laos. It was great to travel with Heather- I mean Emily- and we missed her when she left. Especially because I could have really used a 3rd hard for that big bag of clothes (no joke). Luckily, we only had to go up to Hue.
Hue was once the imperial capital of Vietnam and home to the Imperial Emperor. The Communist regime brought and end to the royalty issue and the past few decades of war have almost brought an end to any remaining architecture. The old quarter now boasts a former communist stronghold and huge Vietnamese flag. Instead of joining the throngs of other tourists visiting the palace we took a cyclo around the remains of the walled city. It was a great ride until we got into a nasty argument with the driver after he tried to overcharge us for the lift. Before I knew it he had a crowd of Vietnamese around him staring while he yelled another few hundred dong out of us. Jerk. There's always a bad apple I guess. Otherwise, the people were friendly and though the town is busy its pleasant. Old ladies ride bikes laden with flowers as people on motorbikes whiz right past with an annoying honk-honk. Eventually we made it inside the palace. Its another one of those places thats a testament to how things can go from being so good to such crap. The complex was probably quite a sight in its prime. Huge bronze cauldrons sit in the courtyard as a testament to the skill of artisans living there in the 13th-15th centuries. It must have been a wild place.
When we were done with Hue we decided to just splurge on a cheap train ticket since it is by far the longest we'd have to travel between cities. I think I'm jsut to frikkin' big for this continent. Still, I'd trade the train any day rather than take the bus if I can help it. After an enjoyable 16 hour ride sprawled out in the train we pulled into Hanoi but we didn't stay long.
We immediately booked a trip with Kangaroo Cafe and headed off the next morning for Halong Bay, the jewel of Vietnam. This area is known for its countless limestone formations sticking out of the water as obelisks or entire mountains. We got paired up with an excellent group and made many new friends as we sailed along the bay. Our first day included a visit to a huge cave with ancient formations including one that has been referred to as an aphrodisiac. It was a popular tourist destination and all the tour groups stopped there for at least an hour. I felt like I was in a pirate movie looking down at all those ships. We all left the cave and spent the night onboard after watching the sunset across the water.
The second day was mainly spent on Cat Ba island to our chagrin. Cruising around on the water would have been much nicer but hey-that's life. We did get to cruise over to Monkey Island to feed the natives -- I mean the monkeys. Please excuse our Finnish friend. He's not used tothe warm weather. After the feeding a few of us decided to play a vietnamese school game instructed by our guide. Apparently one side lines up against the other side and races for a stick propped up between them. The trick is getting the twig and getting back to your side without getting tagged. The punishment can be quite hard work depending on who loses! Thanks Florian!! After the exercise the group went back for some dinner and a few drinks before heading off our seperate ways to bed.
Our last day was spent with one final cruise from Cat Ba back to the mainland and a long 3 hours journey back to Hanoi. I'll miss passing those cool junks and enjoying that amazing scenery. Some people speak of the Grand canyon with a fire in their eyes. Halong bay will always be that way for me.
Since then we've been pretty burned out with the tourist scene. Amanda and I have done almost nothing since we've been here in Hanoi. An effort was made to see the famous Vietnamese water puppet show since it was so close and that turned out to be a killer performance. Who would have thought that water could help make puppets look so alive?! If you are ever in Hanoi, check it out. I can't say that for much else except the pagoda on Hoan Kiem lake and the outside of the Opera House we saw in passing. It looks like a great place to catch a show if one happens to be on. I guess avoiding all the sight seeing means we'll have means something to do when we come back!!
For now, its off to the grand ol' US of A for Amanda. She will touchdown in Atlanta on Dec. 3rd so if you're in town come take her out to dinner - cause she is going to be broke. Maybe she'll trade you for some good stories or a pair of cool chopsticks!
I'm off to China where I'll be meeting my sister, Heather, in Kunming-if she doesn't miss the flight. If you know Heather you know she has a tendency to miss the bus. Lets just hope she realizes that a flight is a bit more important! After 2-3 weeks in SW China we'll head to Taiwan for the holidays. I hear that internet is not always available in rural China so I'll keep you posted when I can!!
November 15, 2004
NOTE: A guy at a lousy net cafe in Vietnam messed up the memory card with pics for the blog on it! I'm hoping to salvage them when Amanda gets back to the US of A.
It looks like I've been falling behind on my blogs. That last one on Angkor really took the steam out of my sails when it comes to sitting in front of the computer for several hours. At least it gives me a chance to keep in touch and at least think that I still have a life somewhere out there.
From Siem Reap and the stair climbing at Angkor Wat we decided to head east to Battambang where we discovered yet again that Lonely Planet doesn't really know how to describe some places very accurately. Battambang was definitely NOT a well preserved example of colonial French architecture. I don't care what it says! It might have been French at one time in the past but it wasn't quite what we had in mind. The upside is that we finally got to see how Cambodians lived without a million tourists walking the streets. Besides the constant stares, we enjoyed observing Cambodians - well, observe us!! We passed a Chinese Boy's school where a few kids were playing basketball. I couldn't resist the opportunity to show these kids some mad skills. I'll have to admit - they were impressed. Ok, ok, so that was the only decent picture (when I get it) of me playing. After I missed the next 10 jumpers their boyish cheers died down once they realized white men really can't jump!! After that the only cheer I got was when I pointed to the MVP on my team and shout N-B-A, N-B-A!! That must have been the only thing in English they really understood.
After the night in Battambang we added 7 hours to our "We HATE the Bus" column and found ourselves in the mad rush of Phnom Penh. It wasn't the biggest capital towns we'd visited but it was alive. Two days before we arrived in Cambodia a new king was put on the throne and the major parts of the city seemed to have a sqeaky clean shine. I guess they figured it might be nice to tidy the place up for all the media attention it was going to get. The Royal Palace was in especially good shape. I thought the Thai had it good but the Cambodian palace is in a class of its own. Immaculate murals adorned every square inch of the treasure room that wasn't already painted with gold leaf and Cambodia's national treasures, the royal crown, sword and throne, were all on display though pictures were strictly forbidden. In a moment of stupidity I thought it might be ok to snag a quick pic from the outside looking in. Right before I started clicking away an old hand reached out from behind the door and tried to grab my camera. After a brief struggle I had to show that I did NOT indeed take any pictures and there was no reason to call the palace guards! A nerve wracking expereince to say the least. Before running out of there we visited the famous Silver Pagoda (again, pictures were not allowed - and this time I knew better!)
The next day we decided to scope out the whole genocidal history of Cambodia by visiting Tuol Sleng. Also known as S-21, this holocaust style torture prison housed any Cambodians that may have posed a threat to the Khmer Rouge after the Americans withdrew in 1975. In a bizarre act of self-destruction between 1975-1979 the Khmer Rouge killed any and all Cambodians who were skilled or educated. If you wore glasses it meant you could read and that meant you were off to the chopping block (they sometimes used the guillotine so kindly left behind by the French). If your hands were soft it meant you were wealthy enough not to farm and off you went. Most of the killing was done in nearby fields across the country at an estimated loss of some 2 million lives, 1/3 of the total population. Bullets were too valuable so you were either buried alive or bludgeoned to death by some sharp tool. For some reason we felt the need to see where the people of Phnom Penh were taken for their execution and rode out to the famous killing fields of Choeung Ek. There are still several mass graves yet to be disinterred but the few that were unearthed produced skulls that are kept in a memorial pagoda at the center of the grounds. Several skulls showed obvious signs of a hoe to the head or spike through the eye. Genocide is never fun. Still, it happens and the world watches. Currently, Darfur seems to be the center of attention where the death count is already reported at almost a million, not to mention some 40,000 or more raped women and children.
We followed our day of death with a less depressing tour of the city. We scoped out the sites and did the tourist thing but were really looking to hit Vietnam as soon as we could. After a brief hassle at the Vietnamese embassy we changed our visas, booked a bus, and were off to Ho Chi Minh City the next morning at 5 am! Ahhh, you just haven't lived until you've spent countless hours on Asian buses! The only upside is that, at least, you get to see the countryside roll past as you try to find a comfortable spot in the barely working A/C. After crossing the border in sweltering heat we got on another bus and started pulling into Ho Chi Minh about 3 hours later though you couldn't tell. The urban sprawl is unbelieveable! And talk about busy!! HCM (formerly Saigon) is a mass of motorcycles and people that deafens the most honk- honk hardy of travellers!
We didn't stay too long in Saigon with only a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels and a cheesy little city tour that took us around to a few obscure temples or slightly touristy sites. Somehow, for some reson we decided to book an open bus tour up the coast of Vietnam. It was alot cheaper than the train but did I mention how much we hate the bus? After yet another sleepless night counting the motorbikes go by we got up early and hit the road again...
November 01, 2004
Patience Disclaimer: You might want to settle in for this one.
(And make your screens a little brighter. The pics are somtimes quite dark.)
Travelling in Asia is an interesting balance of avoiding scams and still getting to see what you want. This is, of course, in addition to never really getting completely accurate information about where you can go and how you can or cannot get there. While in Bangkok I heard from a fellow traveller that you can't easily get into Cambodia from Laos using overland travel such as a bus or train. The only feasible way to get there by bus would have required a return trip to Bangkok from Vientiane and then another 15 hour (or more) journey from Bangkok to Siem Reap. From there you can head off to explore Angkor Wat, a true wonder of the ancient world! We decided to skip 20 or 30 hours in a bus and splurge for a cheap flight. Little did we know that our tickets were for standby only at Vientiane airport which services Siem Reap only once per day! That was quite a wake up call at 6 in the morning! Luckily, a few people cancelled at the last minute and we got seats! Alas, that would be the end of our luck for the day.
After an hour flight to Pakse and a quick, hour jump across the border we made it to Cambodia. Siem Reap exists for the sole purpose of feeding and housing tourists visiting Angkor Wat about 10 kms. out of town. We didn't want to waste a day there and took off for the complex. Angkor Wat is actually a collection of over 100 temples that once comprised a huge-- no, no a humongoid metropolis and capital for a people that ruled what is now southern Vietnam to Yunan, China and from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal! No wonder this place is so huge. (For more, brief info click here) Its impossible to see all the temples unless you have a few weeks to kill. Even then its hard to really study them. The Cambodian government certainly realizes this difficulty and charges a whopping $20 for a one day, $40 for a 3 day and $60 for a 7 day pass! (Considering the average Cambodian makes $20 a month few ever get to see a major part of their Khmer heritage.) These passes are of course non refundable, non extendable, and worse, non replaceable. We snagged our 3 day passes and 5 minutes later entered another world! Angkor Wat is one of those places that you have to see before you die. In fact, you have to see it before you get too old. Its not a place for the physically challenged as most steps up the temples are steep and slippery making brittle bones a shoe in for hip replacement. Oh and you can't be too afraid of heights.
Our guides dropped us off at Bayon, the temple that named a style. All those bigs heads are what is lovingly known as Bayon and is seen other places around the complex like Victory Gate. The pictures don't really show the true size of all these temples but just imagine bigger! We hiked around this temple for a good hour and took this PHOTO just before we forgot to pick up Amanda's purse from the ground where it was promptly stolen! We walked around the corner and ran back but it was gone. Uggh. Its hard to be on guard for 24 hours a day. One screw up and that's that. We did find the actual purse on the lower side of the temple but it was empty. It could have been worse. Fortunately Amanda had her passport and all credit cards in her secret money belt! Shhh! We did lose $52 bucks, a new cell phone, our address book and worst of all, our Talkabout Radio! :( Feel free to send lots of these! Only kidding Gramma! :) We spent the rest of the day with the tourist cops filing a report and hoping to catch the guys who did this. The worst part of the whole thing is that the park refused to replace the 3 day pass we lost even though it has Amanda's picture on it and had only been used for an hour! After much pleading they decided to give us a one day pass for the next day but refused to let us finish out the current day! What a rip! Commie bastards! That was irritating. We rode home and hitthe sack, totally drained.
Next day we got up at 4am and made it to the park by 5 for sunrise. We were going to make the most of our pity pass! Our first stop was Angkor Wat temple where the park gets its name. Sunrise here seems to be the big morning draw because the tourists were out in full force. We got there when the moon was still out and it was crawling with tourists. Once the sun peeked over the horizon the crowds thinned up and we could really enjoy the place. This temple is unique to most of the other temples in the park because it is a small city in itself. It is surrounded by a mind bogglingly huge moat that essentially turns it into an island with good deal of land for animals for grazing. I'm not sure but the moat had to have taken thousands of people many years to finish. Like most of the temples it has a library but much bigger than others. And of course, it has 3 huge spires that create a sanctuary-courtyard for religious ceremonies at the highest area of the temple, 3 levels up. It was a great way to start the morning.
From Angkor Wat we headed out to Banteay Srei 35 kms. away in what is now farmed countryside. This orange-red temple is styled after the other temples in Angkor but is a miniature version and extremely well preserved. Imagine all the temples in the complex covered in deep carvings like this as they once were!! It must have been amazing. Most of the temples are Hindu tributes to gods like Shiva or Ganesh and the carvings are normally pictures of stories from the Ramayana or other Hindu texts. When Buddhism came to dominate the region ol' Buddha certainly got his fair share of tribute as well. By now the sun was out in full force and we were trying to take cover wherever possible. This may be the reason why the rest of the day is such a blur.
From here we got back on the bikes and visited about 10 more temples before the sun started heading for the horizon. We hiked around the mammoth Preah Rup among others whose picture I cannot match to the right name. I took about 200 pictures and won't bog you down with all the boring ones (until later). Here are a few from Ta Prohm one of the only temples they have decided to leave untouched. The jungle is taking over and this is how the early explorers might have found it except for a bit of structural supports. Trees grew out of the walls or over them like this tree featured in Tomb Raider (I think). This of course caused severe foundation issues and many collapsed structures were never rebuilt like they were in other temples. Restoration is an ongoing process here as temples are analyzed and preserved according to the best guess of their original design.
By the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted. I was looking forward to sitting for a few minutes with some of the locals and watching the sunset over this magical place. If you ever get a chance to see it in person I suggest you jump on it!! Its worth every penny, even if you lose your purse -- well, maybe.
October 28, 2004
Starting these blog entries is always an exercise in attempted creativity. When I think of the experience I am trying to share with you it is something totally different than what ends up on screen. Entries like this one are especially difficult because no amount of eloquent descriptive banter could accurately describe some of the beautiful things I've seen in the last few days.
We hopped into our mini bus for the journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and I settled in for a bumpy ride. Since Laos has the reputation of being the most bombed country in history I figured all the potholes (craters) in the road just had to be courtesy of the US government and I refrained from complaining. Instead I enjoyed the scenery. The drive was all down hill, hemmed in by jagged mountains and steep hillside farms. A thick haze obscured the view but added to the mystery.
A few hours of wide eyed sight seeing through the mountains we made it to the valley where Vang Vieng hides out near the Nam Kong River. I wasn't feeling too good since I think I'd picked up another intestinal friend and had to chill out the rest of the day. Next morning we explored Vang Vieng - in about 5 minutes. This one street town exists for the sole purpose of providing backpackers with beer, drugs, and tubing opportunities. Needless to say it wasn't the nicest of places in the world but just outside of town was another world. The river has beautiful mountains on one side and green rice fields on the other. I felt like I was looking in on a place that could be the Earth but probably wasn't since these places don't really exist. It was just then that I was reminded of reality as kids got out of school. With all those happy kids its hard to remember that the serious reality of Laos is not just amazing views. It is a land of smiles but also of abject poverty. Millions live in substandard housing with no running water or electricity. I'm not quite sure if everyone enjoys the view when you have to live in a bamboo hut on the floor.
We celebrated Amanda's Birthday (October 25th!!) in small town style before making plans to get up early for more exploration. Next on our itinerary was the Mines of Moria!! Ok, I wish but really, it was the closest thing I've ever experienced. A few kilometers out of town and across the river is the Chang Caves. I don't know how far back into the mountain the cave actually goes but we walked several hundred meters before getting barred off and I could still see much further than that. I wanted to climb over the broken gate and explore but I didn't want to tempt fate by disobeying the boundaries in a place where goblins lurk - I mean, is slippery -- and stuff. We climbed through the cave to an opening with a lookout over the valley before heading back to town.
We only spent a few days here but were ready to head out. Instead of taking the bus to Vientiane we decided to kayak most of the way and enjoy ourselves outdoors instead of being cramped up in another mini bus. I'm glad we did! More great views and an exhilirating experience jumping off a 30 foot cliff. We took the waterproof camera for that so I'll post a pic if one comes out. I was only jumping once for that photo op!! After a few hours on the river and another hour on the road we made it to Vientiane!
From here we're headed to Cambodia and the world famous Angkor Wat. More UNESCO and I hear its great. I'll keep you posted!
October 27, 2004
Throughout our journey we've encountered several monuments or natural landscapes that are listed with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as World Heritage sites but Luang Prabang is one of its few cities. Since our first step off that miserably long boat ride down the Mekong we could tell that Luang Prabang was a unique place. With over 30 wats (aka Buddhist temples) we expected the place to be a huge city. Vientiane, the capital of Laos doesn't even have that many temples but to our great relief Luang Prabang is relaxed, smog free, and ever so slightly French enough to drink cafe au lait at lunch or have baguettes for breakfast. The main mode of transport here is by bike or by foot and the main street is the only place with any sense of chaos if you could call it that. The side roads are deserted and quiet. If things just get to be too much to handle you can always relax under a tree by the Mekong (once your butt forgives you for the boat ride). If I ever had any ideas of what I thought Asia would be then Luang Prabang is the place I imagined. Nothing is rushed here and it seems unchanged from the days of old. Rice Cakes are still dried on screens while strolling monks shield themselves from the sun.
Despite the easy pace of things there is still alot to see and do. After a day of jusut exlporing the city we decided to climb Phousi hill for good views of the area. Amanda rang the bell up top before we hiked back down and visited the royal palace museum. The Royal Family disappeared in 1975 and haven't been heard from since. Too bad because their house was pretty cool. Once the sun goes down a whole other world springs up on the street outside the palace in the form of a beautiful night market. Handmade quilts, pillowcases, clothes and other knick knacks are sold under 75 watt light bulbs strung across the road. Old women fawn over you in the hopes of a sale and little girls show their needlepoint purses that took "3 month" to sew. Holding Amanda back from buying the entire market we finally made it back to our guesthouse.
A chilled out environment is always welcome but after a few days we needed to find a little excitement. Next day we decided to rent a tut tuk and drive out to a local waterfall. Yeah, I know. I am sick of silly little waterfalls too. After an hour drive on a dirt road and a quick stop at Hmong village where we were the main attraction we made it to the falls. What a surprise! Now this was a waterfall!! You can't really see it well in the picture but the first tier is an additional 30 feet above, recessed a bit into the cliff. After it pours over the tier and falls an additonal 100 feet to the deep pool below before flowing away to join the Mekong. We made advantage of this on such a hot day! Amanda followed shortly after. This worked up an appetite but since not much was on the menu we headed back to town. After a quick snack we visited Wat Xieng Thong.
For a little more excitement we took off the next day for the Pak Ou caves we'd passed on the boat ride down the Mekong. These caves are supposed to house several thousand buddha images though many have been removed over the years. The caves once enjoyed royal patronage and seemed to have once been much more majestic than the tourist trap it is now.
We spent a enjoyable week here in World Heritage Luang Prabang but had to move on despite our desire to sit in the side street cafes all day. This is one town I'll definitely come bak to if I ever get the chance!
October 19, 2004
As our friends from the jungle trekking slowly started to drift away towards their next destination we made plans for seeing Luang Prabang in Laos, properly spelled Lao - silly frenchmen! (Haw haww hawwwwn!) We left Chiang Mai and headed north to the border via mini bus. Little did we know that it was just the beginning of another overly crowded adventure. At least we had excellent scenery to entertain us once we got an hour out of Chiang Mai. Small villages met rolling hills covered with rice paddies and occasionally, limestone karst obelisks would pop up through the Earth reaching for the heavens. (Dramatic ain't it?) After 6 hours in the bus we made it to our guesthouse for the night with Laos just across the river. Rather than risk our necks on the speedboat (more on that later) we decided to book a ticket to Luang Prabang via slowboat, a two down journey down the Mekong with an overnight stop in some village (in the middle of nowhere) that isn't even on the map. I'd heard the views made up for lost time.
Early the next morning we jumped in a local longtail boat for the 5 minute journey to Laos for our immigration stamps and a ride to slow boat pier where they advertise the easiest way to enjoy your journey. After about 50 backpackers climbed across the gangplank and sat on various parts of the floor or 6 inch wide wooden planks (remember-2 day journey) we were on our way down the mighty Mekong River.
The Mekong begins in the Tibetan Himalayas and slices down from China through the heart of southeast Asia to the South China Sea. It forms the border between several countries in the region including Thailand and Laos. Since we're traveling during the dry season the flow of the river is north-south towards Luang Prabang making our journey much faster. During the wet season it reverses its flow!! I don't really understand the mechanics but this is apparently a rare feature for a river that ranks as the 10th largest in the world. Ok. Mekong lesson over.
Whoever said the views made up for lost time wasn't kidding. Excepting the lackluster brown of the river itself beautiful green mountains rose up and away with little huts or bamboo villages hiding in the overgrowth. The only time we saw any of the inhabitants was when we stopped to let kids sell us "cheps, cheps, cheps!! Pringle! Petsi!" I'm not sure if they appreciated us being there but I think they enjoyed the distraction. Except for this boy. He looked dangerous! As the boat pulled away I left Amanda and took my fro out onto the roof for a little fresh air. What a place! As the wind whipped by I couldn't help but be amazed at how people find ways to live in every corner of the planet. I used to think Buford was out in the boondocks! The Mekong makes the Mall of Georgia look like the "Capital of the World". A few more hours of weaving around the river's currents and we made it to PakBeng for the night. I never really thought sitting for 8 hours could be so utterly exhausting but once we got our room and the guesthouse turned off its generator around 7 we blew out the candle for bed.
Another early morning saw us back on a slowboat. This time the boat was twice as crowded. Floor space was a commodity and only got more valuable as we picked up locals down river. Their huge bags of rice didn't help the situation much either. Stuff was on the roof and this time the captain wasn't took keen on us hanging out up there. We had to enjoy the views from wherever we'd staked a claim. To make matters worse I was having to step over 25 people every five minutes to get to the bathroom. I think I picked up a little bug in the middle of nowhere. Unfotunately, that bug found somewhere to be my intestinal track. The thought of having taken a speedboat didn't seem so bad. Even those crash helmets and reports of several deaths didn't darken the thought - well, maybe a little. Again today my only comfort was the passing jungle, the fishermen who live on the riverbank and the view. An hour north of Luang Prabang we passed the Pak Ou caves and the whole boat gave out a muffled cheer. I knew we were almost home free. Now, if I could only wait to go to the bathroom again...
Luang Prabang is great! If I ever had any notions of what Asia would look like this is it. Too bad its a rarity. I'll post another blog before we head down to Vieng Vang and Vientiane.