Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Things we've done in the Lao PDR

Just the pics, for the lazy people.

You will all recall that a few days ago, I posted about a 2-day trek we did from Louang Phabang. I posted some pics then, and a few more today, but I wanted to post our journal entries from the trek for more insight than just the pictures. Some of this is written by me and some by Justine (see below).

After the trek, we returned to Louang Phabang for two more days (see the pictures of the wats, Buddhist temples/monestaries) before going to Vang Vieng, a crummy town alongside a river, known for it's TV bars and drunken parties. We didn't really know this ahead of time, and several people we met made the outdoors stuff sound cool (including tubeing down the river, passing numerous bars along the way). There's gorgeous scenery there, but the town is a total dump. Every bar and restaurant is blasting episodes of Friends or the Simpsons, and there's these pasty-faced 20-somethings all oogling the TV and ordering dope and opium straight off the menus. We looked for the one restaurant without a TV, and it happened to be a Chinese place all the way at the end of the road (though to be fair, after dinner we got a beer and watched the Family Guy for a bit, hating ourselves the whole time for being hypocrites, but there was nothing else to do!). Inside King Dumpling were a bunch of Chinese people celebrating the new year's eve, so we popped in and had some delicious food. The next night, we did the same thing, but at a different Chinese restaurant on the other end of town (which is just two parallel roads that go on for about 5 blocks). There we met a cool Spanish couple living in China (Enrique -- British descent -- and Aga -- Polish), who we spent the evening with. We all couldn't wait to leave Vang Vieng as soon as possible, so we took a bus south to the Lao capital of Vientianne, and they went north to Louang Phabang. Now on with the journals.

13.Feb.07 - After a 90 minute drive through teak plantaions, small villages, and some sparece natural areas, we arrived at our starting point at a very small village. We followed a river (the Nam Ou, I think) for about an hour, making at least 4 crossings without even falling in! After the last stream crossing, we took a break where 3 unhappy goats were tied to a trailer that was attached to some kind of motorized puller. A handful of young women carried huge bags of rice while the 2 men around did pretty much nothing. The hike from here went straight up a steep hill in the hottest part of the day (naturally), but at least it had some shade. Ater 20 minutes, we had to take another break (!), along with some local girls and young women (the rice carriers) who were walking back to their village. Then began a hot, sweaty 40-minute hike up the rest of hill in open sun through a razed landscape. Dusty, dry, hot! The sides of the path slanted downard to ashy dust, just the dead stalks of grass from the last slash and burn session remaining. Very sad. The dire landscape continued for most of the rest of the hike. We reached the first village (Khamu) at 1pm and ate lunch before leaving at around 2:30pm.

The saddest thing about the first village is that when we finished our lunch, the kids seized upon our garbage: 2 water bottles and an empty pepsi can. They used these for toys and sucked the last few drops out. The shack where we ate was also a shop, but clearly it's only a tourist/trekker shop, with a few cans of soda, water, and chips, etc. Nobody in that village eats snacks and soda... they probably can't afford it! We both felt a bit ashamed, because this is exactly the kind of thing that caused us to hesitate to do this kind of trek in the first place: The owner of that hut is now entirely dependent on tourists to buy junk food, which results in trash that is left behind because most people don't bother carry theirs out (we would have, but didn't have a chance to collect it before leaving since the kids took it as soon as we finished). After this experience, we made sure to carry out EVERY piece of trash we made.

The trek continued over a ridge and we reached a primary school (see pics), which is shared by the Khamu village we ate in and a nearby Hmong village. The teachers live in Louang Phabang on the weekends and live in the villages during the week! We walked more, through the Hmong village, and into a more wooded section of the hills... finally SHADE! After tackling 2 more small hills, we hit the top of a ridge around 4pm and came out of the woods suddenly looking at another freshly-burned landscape at our feet. Shortly after, we reached the village we would spend the night at (Khamu).

Our shelter was a rickety bamboo hut with 3 raised platforms, enough space for about 8 adults (with mosquito nets), situated outside the village chief's hut (complete with the one light bulb in town and a satellite dish TV system blasting Intel commercials into the still night...). [Quote of the day: "I saw the pillows from afar and they didn't look too savory." - J, after seeing our bedding for the night.] The place was adequate for us, since we had our sleep sheets and they provided blankets (it got quite cold at night). The toilet was an enclosed dirt pit witha 4.5 ft. ceiling, making it difficult to gety anything done (plus a HUGE brown spider right above the hole!).

Before dinner, we walked the dirt streets a bit, this village was quite large, and saw more kids playing a game with two bamboo sticks that we had seen in the earlier villages. Dinner was traditinoal Lao food (cooked by our excellent guide, Vang Thong), which consisted of sticky rice, green beans, fried veggies, and some kind of tomato sauce thing that was truly amazing! Definitely the best food we've had in a while. After dinner, we passed the time singing songs and playing hand-slapping games with some of the girls (aged from 2 to 13 years) and we even taught hem a new game, one we had learned from the girls at the orphange in Nepal.

14.Feb.07 - Day two of our trek started with many fried eggs and Nescafe coffee a baguette. We spent the early early morning hours, though, staying warm and cursing the multiple rounds of rooster crowing around the valley. After b/f, we killed time by rolling hoops and drawing in the dirt with the kids (see pics), Nuan, Xi, and their sister (?). At 930 am, we took off towars a rather large waterfall, passing cool riverside scenery and bamboo forest landscape on the way. Another hour on after that (passing farms and villages along a wide dusty road that's slated for paveing later this year), we have arrived at a small village for a break, where the shop keep is playing Hotel California (acoustic), appearantly for us, since everyone in Asia assumes white people love the Eagles (blech!!).

At noon, lunch is served, consisting of an excellent noodle soup and scrambled eggs. The rest of the hike was through farm lands and absolutely scorched land following a river. We walked mostly along a wide dustry road, waded across one shallow river crossing and leapt across a rather deep one, arriving suddenly at a paved highway that will take us back to Louang Phabang. We're waiting at our guide's "second family's" home, consisting of 3 generations of a family from Udomaxi, Laos (in the North), where Vang is from. He's told us all about Lao New Year and also about how the Lao people celebrate Valentine's day (basically the same as in America, but it's a bit more social with huge parties and clubbing going on). He invited us to drink with him and his friends this evening. The bus is late picking us.

(9pm) After enjoying a nice hot shower and a pizza dinner, we took up the offer of the guys from Green Discovery Tours and went over for drinks. A group of 10 or so (including our Van's sister, another worker named Pang, and a few couples, two with babies) were eating dinner in the office when we showed up. They all welcomed us heartily and sat us down with them, offering us food (mostly fish and chicken, so we declined), and then the beer started to flow. Huge bottles of Beerlao were poured into a single cup, which each person at the table must finish before it gets refilled and passed on to the next person. This went on for a few hours! Later, kap pan was brought out for us all to enjoy, which is Mekong river seaweed (riverweed?), dried and pounded into flat sheets and flavored with garlic and tomato.... delicious! We were regaled with stories of the prowess of Lao men and the beauty of Lao women (as well as a few lousy jokes) before heading off to bed before the midnight curfew ($5 fine for locals, who knows what it is for falangs). Ban lo fan dii (Sleep well)!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Thailand and Laos Adventures

Just the pictures.

These pictures cover a large expanse of time, from early January to yesterday. For those who have forgotten, in early January, we left Singapore and the comforts of my Uncle's home for the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. We took a forever-long bus ride to Phuket Island to visit my sister and her palatial suite at the Sheraton Le Grand resort, where we enjoyed the full treatment for the cost of nothing per day. After that, we took a boat to Koh Phi Phi Don, and after travelling in southern Thailand for several more weeks, we flew up to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. We took a day-long over-night trip to the small town of Pai, about 3 hrs. bus ride away from Chiang Mai, and last week we flew to the UNESCO world heritage town of Louang Phabang. These pictures cover those places and a few of the activities we've done. For more on those places, see the relevant posts by clicking the links below this entry, e.g.: Phuket or Phi Phi.

Hope you all had a great V-Day! We spent the evening drinking Beerlao with our trekking guide and his friends at the trekking office. We ate dried Mekong seaweed (flavored with sesame seeds, garlic, and tomatos... MMMM!), too!


Lovin' it in Laos!

Quick update, today, which is V-Day here in the Lao Peoples' Democratic Republic (which is neither the Peoples', Democratic, nor a Republic, since the gov't. here is strictly communist). We came to Lao PDR on a twin-engine prop. plane from Chiang Mai, Thailand on Feb. 9th, landing in the UNESCO world heritage city of Louang Phabang. It's MUCH more mellow here than in Thailand, and the cost of living is half what it is in Laos' neighbor to the west. We're staying in a super nice guesthouse with hard-wood floors and a hot shower for only a few bucks a night, and we usually have dinner at one of the many vegetarian buffet dinners set up in carts on the street for $0.50 each! Today we came back from a two-day trek into the hills around LP, where we visited several rural villages of the Hmong and Khamu people, two Lao minorities. We slept at the Chief's house at Ban Pha Thueang (a Khamu village), though we didn't really get to talk to him. Our guide, Vhang Tong (from the northern Lao city of Udomaxi), cooked us an excellent Lao dinner at the chief's house, too! It was the best food we've had in some time! After dinner, we sang songs, played games, and entertained with our pictures the many kids (from age 2-13) who came to observe the foreigners at the Chief's house. It was a great experience, but one tempered by the massive deforested areas we walked through to get to their homes.

Khamu village where we stopped for lunch.

Khamu kids watching J draw.

Beerlao and Justine... a match made in heaven!

Khamu kids outside the Chief's house. They played games with us, sang songs for us, and drew pictures with us in the dirt. Adorable? Absolutely!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Khao Sok National Park and Pictures

From Ao Neng (see previous post), where we did our visa run to Malaysia, we went to Khao Sok National Park, which is supposedly the only remaining lowland rainforest left anywhere (or maybe just in Thailand... I don't remember), and is a sanctuary for over 350 bird species (many rare or endangered), hundreds of different plants (including the huge flower, Raffelasia, the largest stemless flower in the world with 2-ft. bloom!), thousands of (uncharted) insects and lizards (new species are found regularly in the park) and has big wild mammals like elephants, tigers, and sun bears. The park also has several cool waterfalls, but remains relatively untouristed and badly kept up by the Thai government, who have carelessly let dozens of bungalow operations and crummy bars playing loud music spring up around the park H.Q. in the last 5 years.

We stayed at the long-established and well-run guest house, Art's Riverview Lodge, which is keen on preservation of the rainforest and the creatures inside (but unfortunately has terrible food, even though their staff is excellent). We spent four awesome days there relaxing, reading, and doing a few day-long hikes. One day, while we were resting at a nice waterfall with nobody around, I kicked off my shoes and decided to dip my feet right into the cool, clear waters of the pool just above the falls. A minute or two later, Justine (who was near the bottom of the falls) started screaming bloody murder, and as I turn to look, I cought a glimpse of an enormous creature swimming in the water just across the river, about 5 feet away. Upon closer inspection, I realized I was staring at a 6-foot long King Cobra (no joke... he was massive), swimming down the river, DOWN the water fall, and into the pool where J was watching (from the shore, I might add). I sprang into action, leaping down the rocks bare-footed to snatch my camera as J was filming the whole fiasco. She cried out "OH MY GOD!" and the snake turned, looked at us (no joke... it's on the video which is too large for me to upload from here), and made a giant u-turn in the water, probably realizing for the first time that other large creatures were stirring in the river besides him. So up he goes, straight back up the cascade he had so gracefully come down seconds before, slithering up a 2-ft. drop and then off to the side to some rocks, and back into the pool where my feet were resting when we first spotted him. He swam a bit further up before disappearing under a rock, never to show his gorgeous mug to us again. Shortly thereafter, we continued down the trail and some long-tailed macaques (a kind of monkey) started barking at us and threatening us. A large male came down from the trees to just above our heads and began pounding his fists and shaking a branch in front of him. It wasn't too scary b/c even that large guy was only about 30 lbs., but still... I'd never been threatened by a wild monkey before. Guess we were too close to the feeding grounds and the babies (who were super cute, by the way).

Anyway, the park was great, and we saw some amazing creatures, and I even spotted a HUGE hornbill as he was flying overhead (see pic below). At this time of year, the females are literally holed up in a tree or cliff wall, while the males look for food to bring and feed the girls as the incubate the eggs. He passes the food through a tiny hole in the nest for several months to his life-long partner. So cute, and really a beautiful bird. I would guess his wingspan was something like 3 feet!

Enjoy the pics!


Macaques in the mist.

Blue ferns in the forest.

Tall, buttressed trees.

Bang Leap falls.

Great Hornbill flying fast!

Giant centipede about 8-in. long... ick!

Flying lizard, biting our excellent Night Safari guide, Dam, who showed some Harvard botanists around the park a few months ago and claims to have a walking-leaf insect (which he pointed out to them) named after him.

Cute frog on a leaf, blending in.

View from our room at Art's.

Our trusty sleep sheets covered by a mosquit net.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Northern Thailand's Capital, Chiang Mai

We've been in Chiang Mai for a few days now, having arrived on the 30th of January from Ao Nang, where we were after our excellent trip to Koh Jum. There was little to do in Ao Nang, we stayed at the Laughing Gecko (which is really at the beach to the west of Ao Nang called Hat Napparathat and is owned by a Canadian ex-pat and her Thai husband), except watch crabs at low tide, which seemed to go out for several hundred yards. The guesthouse was kind of a hippie hangout, with several long-term guests and regulars, plus a bunch of rugrats that demanded too much attention. We didn't do anything in our 4 days there except make a run to Malaysia to get new Thai visas (the process consists of driving for 6 hours to the Malaysian boarder, checking out of Thailand, walking into Malaysia and checking in there, walking around the Malay immigration office to check out of Malaysia, then walking back to the other side of the Thai immigration office to get a new 30-day visa, and finally driving for 6 hours back) and enjoy the Laughing Gecko's excellent nightly buffet dinners (the only redeeming thing about Ao Nang).

So, we next booked a bus to the Khao Sok national park (the only remaining low-land rainforest left in Thailand, more on that place in another post) for four nights, and then on to the Surat Thani airport about 2 hrs. away and flew up north on the 30th. We first stayed in a crummy but cheap guesthouse called Eagle 2 and on the 31st, we went to the last day of the 3-month long Royal Flora Expo at Ratchaphruek, about 30 minutes away from the center of Chiang Mai. This expo was huge and we spent all day there... probablyAt the Royal Flora Expo something like 8 hours... and the best part was seeing the flower exhibits put up by 40+ nations. The Japanese one, for example, had a miniature Mt. Fuji, a zen rock garden, and beautiful bonsais... it was like being there again! Of couse we also enjoyed the Chinese garden, which housed a huge 2-story Chinese temple and a 4-story pagoda, the Nepali garden, which featured stairs (of course!), and the Indian garden! The show also had several competitions and shows, including rare orchids, trees, and other flowers, as well as exhibits on bio-fuels, sustainable agriculture, bugs, fruits, tropical and temperate flora, and loads of overpriced food! It was an excellent day! There was even an operating rubber plantation on the grounds, which was an educational experience for us both and I even got to harvest some. The Toyota bio-diesel exhibit was handing out free hats, hence the bright yellow hat on J's dome (with a green leaf shaped like a camry). (J's note: no I didn't become a soccer mom since coming to Thailand. In case you were wondering. It was bright out!)

Yes, that bug really was blue... From the bug pavillion at the Royal Flora Expo.

Orchid with a bug's face from the orchid competition.

Driving a biodiesel truck at the Royal Flora Expo.

Hugging the rare "bottle-shaped trunk" palm tree.

Cutting the bark of a rubber tree to collect the goods.

Kenya's garden at the Royal Floral Expo... this one's for Sarah.

Welcome (back) to Nepal!

On Feb. 1, we sort of took a day off to plan our next adventures, which included talking to a trekking company (turns out it's really expensive to do it here "the right way"... more on that if people want to know what we mean), a jewelery-making school, and a rock-climbing school. We found all of these and decided that on 2.Feb, Justine would go make some silver and Mike would try to conquer nature.The Final Product

The day began early, with a hearty breakfast consisting of a veg. omlette on a baked baguette (very nice, indeed!) before we parted ways for the first time in nearly 6 months! It was not as strange a feeling as I might have imagined, but of course I was wondering the whole time: "I wonder what Justine is doing right now?" Turns out, she was flatenning, polishing, and cutting silver, in addition to soldering her original design together into an awesome pendant.

I, on the other hand, was learning how to tie knots and belay my amazing and funny climbing instructor, Muad, who's on the Thai national team and has participated in the X-Games. Not only did I make 4 successful climbs over the morning, but after lunch I also learned about rapelling and dropped into a 60-m deep limestone cave on Crazy Horse Buttress! It was so much fun, I'll have to take up the sport when I get back to the States, but for today, I need to rest and recover, as my entire body is sore from climbing and I have more than a few cuts and bruises. Since my day (830am to 4pm) ended earlier than Justine's (1030am to 5pm), I ran over to her shop and watched as she finished making her masterpiece. We completed the evening with two dinners: Thai food with two South African girls J met at the jewelery shop, and a Greek dinner a few hours later. We watched Anchorman (again) and hit the hay. It was one of the best days we've had in Thailand. I only wish Justine was there to climb with me, but I don't think she could have swung out over the open cave for the rapelling!


The only proof that I went climbing.

Stamp on the leaf.

Soldering with her teacher.