The reason this site has been quiet for so long is because, on June 21 in Xam Neua, Laos, I had a motorbike accident and broke my collarbone.
It's stupid, since I wasn't going fast or being stupid, conditions were good, the road was fine and we weren't going far, but there it is. I had to wait three days in Xam Neua for the next plane out to Vientiane, then on to Bangkok, then Bangkok back to NZ. I'll fill in the details now, but suffice it to say for now that we're back on these frosty isles of the south pacific, I'm going back to university in Wellington in a week or two, and we're more or less here to stay. Email me if you want my phone number.
More technology drama. I suppose my next trip will have to be on horseback.
Vang Vieng - Vientiane - Luang Prabang
Not much more than 24 hours after my last rant about glasses being broken and such, I actually LOST my glasses. About an hour later I fell off a rope swing and broke my watch. Last night (days later) at 0147, while waiting for the Argentina-Cote d'Ivoire match to start, my watch STOPPED WORKING ENTIRELY. I do hope it's just the battery.
So, having no glasses, and having a World Cup to watch, on the morning of June 7 I went back to Vientiane, the only place in the country where prescription glasses can be made. After traveling with Deb (and Ossie, Ben, Jen) for so long, being alone was strange indeed, but I sat on the Mekong river and ate a Mekong River fish, grilled with crispy, salty skin. The next day Deb and Ossie had discovered that, once you've done what there is to do, Vang Vieng is boring as all hell - unless you count sitting around drinking, getting stoned and watching Friends. Seriously. Vanmg Vieng's main street is lined with open-air restaurants where you can lounge on raised platforms with mats and cushions and watch Friends (or the Simpsons, or MTV, or Family Guy, or whatever else, really) all day and night. You walk around at eight in the morning, and people are watching Friends. It's sick, and wrong, and bad.
Anyway, since they were off to Luang Prabang, I had to pick up my glasses at 1600 and get on the last bus to Luang Prabang by 1530, which is easier than it sounds. I got them to do the hurry up on my shiny new brass-coloured wraparounds with variable tint snazziness (for only $70) and got to the bus station by 1530, only to find that the last bus actually leaves at 1600. Luang Prabang is 10 hours away, and I was onle of only 16 people on the bus - the rest of the space, including most of the seats, were taken up by 50kg sacks of fertilizer. At about 2300 we stopped in the middle of nowhere and picked up a man wearing fatigues and carrying an assault rifle. He lit up a smoke and promptly fell fast asleep. Reaching Luang Prabang at 0200, the place was a ghost town, but I managed to find a place to stay, and found Deb and Ossie the next morning.
The rest of the last two days has basically been the World Cup, which is in full effect here. For some reason the last match of the day always seems to be the best one, so we've ended up staying up until 0400 watching the damn things. This can't continue much longer.
Curiously, in Laos, we've met more foreigners than on probably the rest of our journey combined. At the border we met the three gals I mentioned earlier. On the bus to Vang Vieng we met Shaf, an Indian-Kenyan-Londoner, and Toby, a Noo Yorker who'd just quit his volunteer job teaching english in THailand because they weren't paying him (?) Let me explain about Shaf: his ancestors emigrated from India to Kenya four generations ago; he lived in Kenya until he was 17, attending very English boarding schools, then moved to London, and has just gotten to Indochina from five months in India. That's a complicated life. Also in VV we met two nameless Canadians who'd also just come from teaching in Korea, one of whom is an anthropologist who wants to study human trafficking and the sex trade in asia. Here in Luang Prabang we've met Till, a German who looks like Legolas, except with dreadlocks; Filipo, an Austrian who's currently missing his university entrance examinations in Holland; Troy, an obsessive-compulsive, former tourette's syndrome case who worked with autistic children before becoming (at age 22) an oil rigger, worjking two weeks on and a week off for six months a year, then travelling the other six; Liam, a huge (he looks like a prizefighter) dubliner who reckons that the Catholic Church is a load of fookin' bollocks and that Northern Ireland should be pushed off into the irish sea - I thought Ossie was going to crack him one for a while, which would have been unwise given the size differential and Liam's incredible drunkenness. Also Bernardo, a mexican who looks like Zack de la Rocha and likes Superman movies, and others. It takes all sorts.
I have mixed feelings about Luang Prabang. On the one hand it's in a blessed location - the confluence of the Khan and Mekong rivers; I swam at the delta where they meet yesterday. The western side of the Mekong here is almost completely undeveloped, and the eastern bank of the Khan is given over to a few stilt houses and some corn and banana plantations - otherwise it's mountains and jungle all around. It's hot here during the day, but at night it cools down and is very pleasant. The city itself is small enough to walk around easily - an order of magnitude smaller than Vientiane; it wouldn't even qualify as a city in any other country of the world, but the probel is that because tit's Laos' historical capital, and is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it gets huge numbers of tourists compared to the rest of the country, and like Vang Vieng, there's a certain degree to which tourists have displaced locals, and tourist money has displaced local industry. I say a certain degree, because this is absolutely nothing like any of the major tourist attractions anywhere else in southeast asia - it's pure peace and tranquility compared with any comparable site in Vietnam or Thailand, or even Cambodia. Tomorrow we're going to see a bit more of the surrounding area - there's a village on the west bank and some abandoned old french-looking houses in the jungle, some caves and waterfalls around the area, and suchlike. In a few days we'll probably head out of here to Phongsali, way up in the northern mountains.
Reliance on technology, part two
I'm hereby officially giving up on all things high-tech. Bfore leaving Korea, my laptop died, so I got another one. Then, again before we left Korea, my camera went on the blink, which I then got fixed in Shanghai. In Saigon my second laptop died more properly, so I left it behind. In Bangkok, I foolishly plugged the power supply of my mp3 player into my speakers (it had a USB power-supply output!) and it burnt out and died. So now I've got my laptop hard disk in an external case, and my iKillah's hard disk (which works perfectly, it's the machine which is busted) in another external case. In Ban Lung, one arm on my glasses snapped, so using a lighter and superglue, I plastic-welded them back together. In Bangkok, one of the frames broke - somehow, I have no idea - so I used almost an entire tube of superglue to affix it back together. Yesterday morning, in Vientiane, i foolishly sat on my fucking glasses, thus snapping the whole arm in half and breaking the busted arm off entirely - all of which I managed to fix using the same techniques as before - judicious (or injudicious) use of superglue and plastic welding using a lighter and pliers. I suppose I should get some more, but damnit, I like these glasses. The good news is that now the only things I have which can break down are my camera and my two hard disk enclosures.
Another day, another country. Leaving Hualamphong station in Bangkok at 20:45, on a second-class sleeper, you can be in Vientiane, sitting on the bank of the mekong river drinking a cold glass of beerlao and eating grilled meat and french bread by lunchtime the next day, for about $20 in travel costs.
Laos is what Thailand must have eben like about twenty years ago, Vietnam ten years ago, and Cambodia five years ago - largely undeveloped and rural, low-key, relaxed and friendly. Part of this has to be to do with the Lao, who aren't as frantic as the Vietnamese, as damaged as the Cambodians, or as touristised as the Thai. Vientiane is their capital city, and it feels a bit like any other major asian capital must feel when 90% of the people have gone away to the countryside on holiday. It's flat and simply laid out, the streets are quite wide and mostly clean, there are trees and grass everywhere. The western edge of the city is the Mekong river, and its banks are lined with tables and umbrellas and people grilled food and soup and fruit. You more or less get left to your own devices - if you want something, wave a guy over. The inner cithyy itself is so quiet that you have to look quite hard to find anything to do - there area a few monuments and so on, but so few skanky foreigner bars, touts and hasslers that it's a very pleasant place indeed to walk about.
Which is what we did for two days; we arrived there on June 3 and wandered more or less aimlessly before settling down on said waterfront. We found the Black Stupa, mostly overgrown with grass and weeds, which supposely houses a seven-headed black dragon, Vientiane's protective deity. The Lao adopted buddhism much later than most others in this area - several hundred years ago, apparently, rather than a thousand years ago for the Vietnamese and Khmer and Thai; as a consequence the country's native animism remains very close to the surface. In the immigration queue (thus-far the busiest we've seen, an hour waiting in lines) we'd run into two New Zealanders and a USian, all young lasses straight out of university, and we ran into them again sitting by the mekong for talks and beers. There are indeed a remarkable number of New Zealanders out and about at any given time.
The following day we set out more purposefully, and visited the Vertical Runway, better known as the Lao Arc d'Triomphe - the first name is because it was built in 1962 using cement donated by the US army for a new airfield. I like this attitude - the foreign imperialists give you cement to build an airfield so they can use your country as a base to prosecute their impending war in Vietnam, and you decide "nah, fuck it ... let's build an Arc d'Triomphe instead". The world needs more countries like this. We also visited the only temple in Vientiane which wasn't destroyed by the Thai in their last invasion during the late 19th century - Wat Sisaket, with 6,400 buddha images and many more partial, frolittle-finger to much larger than life-sized. This is the fist functioning temple we'd visited since Quanzhou in China, when we stumbled upon one by accident, and it was markedly different in both design and atmosphere from the Angkor ruins throughout Cambodia. The last of the Things To Do on our makeshift sightseeing walk was the Lao National Museum, an extremely interesting place indeed. It's a museum of two halves - the bottom floor, dealing with ancient history - fossils, stone and bronze and ceramics, really old stuff - has all been curated here with money and expertise from the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and as a consequence it's of a very high quality, the pieces are well restored and cared for, and all the english is perfect, informative and simpl. Upstairs deals with Laos' more recent history, and primarily with the ongoing wars with the Thai, the French occupation, the Silent War (ssh - we're not bombing Laos, really we aren't) prosecuted by the USA in parallel to Vietnam and Cambodia, and the resultant communist revolutionary war, insurgency and counter-insurgency. The captions are vintage commie propaganda: a rack of rifles is labeled: "Arms used by the American Imperialists to murder Lao people". The museum also includes everything ver owned by Comrade Kayson Phomvihane, the founder of the Pathet Lao who, er, liberated the Lao people from their despotic monarchy and its capitalist running dogs. It's got his desk and chairs, the pen he used to write letters with, a bamboo bowl and spoons he used to eat his soup, a briefcase, sidearm, a pair of sandals he wore in the jungle, his hat, everything. It's even got the chest expander (two handles with a strong spring which you stretch apart to build up your chest muscles) he used to make himself strong enough to prosecute the revolution. One interesting part of this museum is the sheer amount of revolutionary source material they have - there appear to be plenty of documents and photos and bits and pieces which have survived intact; it's an unusually clear look at the people and artifacts of a communist insurgency. Bizarrely reminiscent of the mugshots at Tuol Sleng, there is also a wall with portraits of Laos' Revolutionary Heroes - everyone from old toothless women (wearing military medals), hardened jungle fighters (wearing medals), young teend (wearing medals), generals and police (wearing medals) and young, frightened-looking women (wearing medals, but who look like they'd rather be cooking dinner for their husbands than fighting a war). Like Tuol Sleng, there aren't any smiles or any looks of triumph- mostly it's exhaustion, fear, confusion, pain, sadness. But these were the winners.
The next day we got a local bus to Vang Vieng, a quiet river town and haven for lazy backpackers who've had enough of the big city life, or even of the relative bustle of Thailand and Cambodia. The local bus is $2 - the tourist bus is $5 and runs about the same time - for 2.5 times the price you get aircon which doesn't really work and you get dropped off at a guest house you don't really want to go to. Vang Vieng is a town which exists for tourism - it's set on two channels of a river (separated by a reasonable-sized island) and to the west are jagged karst peaks, the same in principle as at Ha Long bay. The river is currently in flood, which makes the usual pastimes in this area - floating down the river on an innertube while people pull you into their floating bars with bamboo poles so you can have a beer or smoke a joint or have an opium shake, and doing more or less the same thing but on a kayak - a little bit tricky. The river's very fast and apparently they get stoned backpackers drowning every now and again, mostly through their own stupidity. There are also caves and mountains to climb and such like - we'll probably go and do some of this tomorrow or this evening, but probably won't stay here long. I wanted to watch NZ vs Brazil at football - arguably the best and the worst team in the world - but nowhere was showing it. Turns out NZ only lost 4-0, which either means Brazil were going easy on them, or aren't going to win the world cup. We shall see.
Tomorrow or perhaps the next morning, we're likely off up north to - or towards - Luang Prabang, Laos' second city.
We visited Thailand once before; over chuseok in 2003, from Korea. We weren't here for long enough to do much more than learn to say 'sawatdee' and visit an angkorean temple up near the Cambodian border.
Bangkok is much as I remember it - big, noisy, dirty, full of fast and dirty livin'.
We managed without too much trouble to find Ben and Jen and Ossie and promptly went out for beer sna dinner to catch up.
Cut to the morning; Ossie and Deb and I have almost decided to abort our trip in mid-July to return to Korea for a month or so - summer camps in korea will earn us enough money to actually make it to Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, as is the Official Plan. Jojo, put the kettle on. Tim, you'd better be gone by the time we get there; we'll catch you in England towards the end of the year. We're all entirely resolved that it will only be for the summer camp period; come mid-august we'll head back to China and onwards west. We're now waiting on Lao visas and on a reply from Sarah, who (and whose Thai family) we're supposed to go and visit while we're here. We'll wait another week or so in Thailand and then head out to Laos, after which we'll return to Thailand to fly out. Or so goes the plan.
This afternoon we (excluding Deb, who seems to have a crook guts) went to Panthip Plaza - six huge floors chock-full of electronic gear and computers and such. Ossie bought a laptop here the other day; I bought some speakers for my iKillah, a headlamp to replace the one I gave Khoa in Sai Gon, and - best invention ever - an electric tennis racquet for killing mosquitoes and other noisome insects. It's awesome. Turn it on and hold the button, and if it hits anything, it crackles and arcs blue. Haven't tried it on Ossie yet; looks like it might hurt. Have great plans for electro-tennis-racquet fights.
Ben and Jen had to go to the Sony shop to replace a lead which was in Jen's pack; apparently it was just around the corner so we waited for them. Got talking to an old Thai geezer who lived in Patong, on Phuket island, before and during the tsunami, talked at some length about the effects of the economy and such. He's betting 30,000 baht - about $1000 - on Brazil winning the World Cup, which I think is a good bet. Last time he bet on Argentina, who were knocked out in the group stages, and his wife forbade him from betting on football again. This time he's going to make it all better, he reckons. Also talked to a tuktuk driver who claims to be from Laos - he explained the way tuktuk prices work in bangkok, and why tuktuks always seem more expensive than meter taxis - if you don't play the game, the tuktuk drivers charge you the 'not playing the game' price. What game, you ask? Tuktuks work almost entirely on kickbacks - they run you by an associated shop - gems, jewelry, clothes, etc - and you look around. They get a 5 litre fuel voucher worth about 150b just for bringing you in, whether you buy or not. If you don't stop and look, you get charged full rate. If you do, you get charged some minimal amount like 10b. Yes; from 100 down to 10b just by going and looking at some silk.
Ben and Jen didn't turn up, so we agreed to go with Mr Lao to his gem shop on the way back. It's a curious circumstance; in Vietnam or China or back home you'd be charged to take a tour of a gemstone and jewelry workshop, but here they basically pay you to do so. It was indeed interesting; we feigned interest and asked lots of silly questions, watched the jewelers at work, and left without buying anything. Mr Lao was happy because he got his fuel ticket, we got a look around the shop - the only people not happy were the ones selling overpriced costume jewelry. On the ride back to the hotel, another tuktuk driver, while we were stopped at a light, offered us a small bag of ganja for 1000b - about $25. Bollocks to that, we said. He shrugged and rolled himself a spliff then and there, and asked if we wanted any heroin, only 5000b. Not this life-cycle, thanks anyway. About 5 minutes later we saw him stopped on the side of the road, still smoking his spliff, explaining to a police officer why he was smoking a spliff while driving his tuktuk. Mr Lao reckons he'd be fined about 5000b.
Nothing much else to report from the day. Tomorrow evening we should get our Lao visas, hopefully a response from Sarah, and then we'll know what we're up to.