Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Death of Gore-Tex

In 1954 the French military commander in Vietnam, General Henri Navarre, sent 12 battalions of elite French soldiers to block the Viet Minh army from attacking the then capitol of Laos, Luang Prabang. The French occupied the area surrounding the town of Dien Bien Phu. With this strategic position and a serious of intricately ringed defenses the French were confident that they could stop any Viet Minh force that came through the valley. However, the French had relied heavily on the assurances from Artillery Commander Pirot that the Viet Minh would not be able to get artillery into the high mountains surrounding the area. For the French this was the beginning of the end. Under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap (who would later command the Viet Minh forces against the U.S. Army during the American War) 33 battalions of infantry and six battalions of artillery, which were transported in against all odds by thousands of porters, took up positions around the French encampment. When the 105mm cannons of the Viet Minh finally opened up on the French position Artillery Commander Pirot drew his service weapon and promptly shot himself in the head. He knew that, with the backing of artillery, the French did not stand a chance against the Vietn Minh forces. Over the next 57 days the fighting was relentless. The French dropped supplies and an additional six battlions of paratroopers to reinforce the position, but as the weather worsened and the artillery continued to rian down from the hillsides the French began to run out of supplies and suffered heavy casualties. Eventually, despite the fact that these were some of the worlds most elite soldiers, the French were forced to surrender, thus marking the end of French rule in Indochina. During the battle over 3000 French soldiers were killed and an additional 10,000 were wounded. Viet Minh casualties were estimated at over 25,000.

The events of Dien Bien Phu were on my mind yesterday as I trekked thru the rain soaked mountains surrounding Sa Pa (about 180 km east of Dien Bien Phu). I still find it hard to believe that there has been so much death and destruction in this area. How could such a beautiful country, with such a diverse population, suffer so much in it's recent history. The signs of war have disappeared from the Sa Pa area, but as I walked down the impossibly muddy paths with rain constantly hammering down on me I was reminded of the fierce determintation of the Vietnamese and why they have continuously defeated some o the worlds best armies (the Chinese, French, and Americans). I passed several men and women wearing knee boots and planstic ponchos carrying back breaking loads of firewood out of the forest and down to their villages. Like the Viet Minh forces who transported the 105 mm cannons into the hills around Dien Bien Phu these men and women labored relentlessly in the cold, wet conditions. I stood watching them struggle under the loads of firewood, cacooned in my Gore-Tex and feeling utterly spoiled. That was two hours into my hike...

Four hours into the hike the rain, which, like the Viet Minh forces at Dien Bien Phu, had been hammering at my defensive layers of Gore-Tex, finally broke through my defenses. As I reached my hotel I was soaked from head to toe. My thermometer read about 6C but given the fact that I was wearing several layers of warm synthetic clothing and was still absolutely freezing I decided it could not be an warmer than 1 or 2 C and with the humidity it felt like about negative 10. I reached my hotel and started a fire for Pat (an Aussie travel buddy that I recently met) and myself. We stripped off our soaking clothes and laid them in front of the fire, praying they would dry soon. For the next three hours we lay in our beds shivering and wishing we had either a bottle of whisky or a joint to take our minds off the frigid conditions. Unfortunately, we had neither, and simply resigned ourselves to waiting for the clothes to dry. This never happened but after three hours we dressed in our damp clothing, and made our way to the closest restraunt for some food and a bit of warmth. After dining on a cheeseburger (my first in ages) we made our way to the local pub where we spent two hours shivering but still trying to drink beer, while playing pool with a couple of Vietnamese guys, who clearly have devoted their lives to pool because they were fucking good!

So that was the death of Gore-Tex. Even my expensive clothing could not protect me from the rain, which, like its Viet Minh brothers, attacked relentlessly all day and all night. To be fronzen and wet is a terrible combination. I am out of here. Next stop... somewhere else cold and wet. Shit. The entire north is socked in, and, despite the fact that this is the dry season, I have not had a dry day since Hoi An two weeks ago. warming sucks. I have loved Vietnam, but Jesus! I cannot wait to flee to a warmer climate on Feb. 9th. First stop Thailand. Then on the 14th I am off to the Phillipines, which will be a welcome respite from the frigid conditions of northern Vietnam. Nine days and counting...

Thursday, January 24, 2008

$5.00 Boom-Boom

Yup, the Vietnam war films accurately portray the way you get solicited for sex here. The only difference being that instead of prostitutes propositioning me I am being constantly harassed by cyclo drivers. It is not an exageration to say that anytime past 10:00 p.m. I probably am asked if I want a "five dollar boom-boom" twice a block for the entire duration of my walk. The other night I went for a walk along the Perfume river. I probably covered about 2 km so imagine the number of solicitations I got then! And, just to go on record, NO, I have not accepted any invitations.

Vietnam continues to exceed my expectations. I know that I keep ranting about the natural beauty of this country, but WOW, it is just that incredible. Equally important are the amazing experiences I keep having with citizens of Vietnam. Last night I sat down for my usual dinner of pho at a typical street stall. Seconds after sitting down a middle aged man at the table next to mine asked if I would like to join him for some duck. I was quite surprised at how clear his English was and happily accepted his invitation. He was 55 years old and worked as a safety engineer in Saigon. He was spending three months overseeing the construction of a new building here in Hue, and informed me that he was quite lonely most nights (thus he was incredibly enthusiastic to have a converstaion with me). He has a large family back in Saigon, but will not be seeing them for another two months. Our conversation quickly turned to his English abilities and he informed me that he had worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the American War (as it is known to the Vietnamese). Because of his role in aiding the U.S. Army when the war was over he was imprisoned for three years. He was quite willing to talk about his experiences in jail (perhaps due to the entire bottle of Vodka that he consumed during our chat), which left me struggling to find something to say to him. The conditions he described were terrifying, and the routine torture he was subjected to left me shuddering. After discussing this for a while the conversation turned to our families before finally landing on current world events. His English was so good, and his knowledge of American politics, the Iraq War, and the Israeli/Palestine conflict so astounding that I completely lost track of where I was and who it was that I was talking to. Somewhere between chatting about Bush's new plan for peace in the Middle-East and Dennis Kucinich's odds of recieving the Democratic nomination I realized; Hey, I am sitting on the street in the middle of a downpour talking to a 55 year old Vietnamese man (who is REALLY HAMMERED by this point) about world affairs, and not only are we having a coherent conversation he probably knows more about these issues than I do! Crazy! As is becoming par for the course he insisted on buying my dinner, but after a great deal of protest he settled on paying for one of my beers before I headed home. Another unforgetable night in Vietnam.

My Vietnam Experience (as I have taken to calling it) continued today as I toured some of the VC tunnels in the DMZ and Khe Sanh, the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war. From my perspective as an American it is quite fascinating to see the manner in which the Vietnamese portray Americans. In the museum at Khe Sanh there are numerous photographs of American soldiers. What is interesting is the captions on these photos. A generic example would be something like this. There is a photo of Americans ducking down as mortars hit their base or firing artillery from a fortified position. The captions read "The look of fear is quite obvious on the faces of the American occupiers as troops from the Liberation Army close in on their position." Captions beneath pictures of South Vietnamese soldiers refer to them as "puppet soldiers of the U.S. Army". The museum is also quick to point out that Americans sustained heavy casualites at Khe Sanh (about 500 Marines were killed before retreating from Khe Sanh), but does not mention anything about the North Vietnamese losing over 10,000 men during the assault.

After visiting Khe Sanh I visited the Voc Minh tunnels where hundreds of villagers and fighters lived for six years during the heavy bombing that took place in the area from 1966-1972. The conditions were utterly shocking. Looking on the map you can see what are listed as family rooms where four to five people lived at any one time during the bombings. Upon arriving on this level of the intricately dug three level system I was shocked to see what was considered a room. Essentially there was enough space for a twin sized bed and that was it. To think that over 300 children were raised in these conditions and that 66 babies were born in these rooms was truly chilling.

I had a lot ot think about on the return journey to Hue, and as I stared out the window thinking about everything I had just seen I suddenly became aware of the obscene number of graves that we were zipping past. This was a three hour journey and during this I time I saw no less than four massive graveyards (I estimate that each had somewhere between 1000 and 3000 graves) including some that were quite clearly of a military nature. I had just spent 8 hours learning about the battles and living conditions during the war, but it was here in these graveyards that the real stories were. Each grave marked the end of a life. The loss of a father. A mother. A husband. A wife. A son. A daughter. A friend. Thousands and thousands of lives lost. Millions and millions of lives forever shattered.

Why do we seem incapable of learning from our past? Why must more men and women lose their lives. The war machine keeps on rolling...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

It was OK because I had grown tired of living.

Life is a bit boring traveling around to all these different countries. I mean the bus ride to Qui Nhon was kinda exhilerating, but let's face it, when you are on the road everyday meeting new people, seeing new things, and eating new foods you really just lose your zest for life. Figuring I was SOOOO bored with life I might as well just finish myself off I rented a motorbike and took to the crowded highways of Vietnam for a death defying 150 km ride through Danang to My Son.

My Son, a UNESCO World Heritage Sight, is a set of ruins from the late Champa kingdom that are about 35 km from Hoi An. The problem with getting there was that there were no road signs and I didn't have a map. Luckily, I was armed with a small 150 cc motorbike and just started cruising the roads stopping to ask directions along the way. This method seems to have been quite flawed because at some point I ended up in Danang 35 km north of Hoi An, while My Son is 35 km southeast of Hoi An. When I arrived in Danang and realized the error it was too late. I had already been directed onto Highway 1A, the major north to south highway in Vietnam, and was now navigating a motorbike through the same tangled web of traffic that four days earlier had scared the living shit out of me. And that was when I was in a bus!!

I quickly learned that the best defense was a good offense, and that if I wanted to live I couldn't just cruise down the side of the road because then all sorts of buses, trucks, and other large vehicles try to pass you, and when they do they certainly are not concerned about giving you a wide birth. Realizing this I quickly shifted into fourth and opened up the throttle as far as it would go. The small bike responded with amazing speed and within a matter of seconds I found my self whipping past everyone on the road at 100 km per hour! It was quite a rush, though not one I necessarily enjoyed. When I reached the turn off for the road I originally needed to be on I slowed to a much more reasonable 60 km and enjoyed the slow meandering cruise through the beautiful bright green rice paddies.

After viewing the ruins, which were nice (though thanks to American bombs no where near their original glory) it was time to head back to Hoi An. Somehow I missed the turn and ended up back on 1A speeding through the frantic traffic and praying to the gods to get me off the road in one piece. After another long exhausting ride, which was more than twice the distance I actually needed to go, I arrived back in Hoi An. For a town that I really have disliked (mainly due to the overwhelming number of obese western tourists being shuttled around in rickshaws) I sure was happy to be back!

Better to die on your feet (or in this case sitting on your ass) than live on your knees.

Quick thoughts on Vietnam.

The people here are pretty great. I do get a bit tired of having to haggle for absolutely everything (including bottled drinking water), but nonetheless the people here are interesting, and quite friendly.

Vietnam is beautiful! Look out Guatemala and Nepal, Vietnam could easily unseat both of you as the most beautiful country I have ever been to. The colors of green that you see at any given time are absolutely breath taking. There must be like 20 shades of green alone in this country!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Goooooood Morniiiing Vietnam

Phew! Made it! It took two full days of boats, buses, and vans, but at last I am in Vietnam.

I left Don Det on the morning of the Januaray 15th. I have never had so much difficulty leaving a place. My three days there stretched into nine and I knew that I needed to get on the road again despite the fact that I could have been quite content to stay there for the rest of my trip! Establishing a daily routine and having friends for more than three or four days was so nice that I did not want to give it up. Above all else saying goodbye to Bong was the most difficult thing I had to do. We sat on his porch feeding some sticky rice to the chickens and looking at a TIME magazine that I had given to him. Finally I said goodbye, and went to collect my things. Of course he followed me, and when I put my backpack on he grabbed my Camelback and threw it over his shoulders, dead set on accompanying me on the rest of my journey. I let him walk with me for about 100 meters and then we walked back to his house. His mom was not around so he just started coming with me again. I felt so sad that I was leaving and he definitely was not making things any easier. Finally Mama (as I came to call her) came out and took his hand and they waved as I walked away. The whole boat ride back to shore I could not shake the fact that this was yet another person whose friendship I charished greatly, and yet I may never see him again.

I tried to shake these depressing thoughts by turning my attention to the urgent matter of figuring out where I was going. As I saw it I had two options.

1. Go to Savannaket by bus and cross at Lao Bao into Vietnam. This would take two full days, but would be quite easy as Lao Bao is a large border crossing with lots of bus services. The drawback would be that if I wanted to go anywhere south of Hue once I hit Vietnam I would have to go down, and then turn around to head north again towards Hanoi.

2. Go to Attepeu and try to get a bus through a much smaller, recently opened border crossing. From there I could go to Qui Nhon and work my way north. The downside being I didn't have much info about the border crossing, or any real idea where to go once I hit Vietnam.

I elected to go with option two when I ran into a fellow traveler at the bus station, who happened to have a Vietnam guide book on him. I planned my route and then I was on the road again.

Day 1 consisted of a twelve hour bus ride to Attepeu, which meant that I was going to be arriving in a town that I knew nothing about (and that is a bit off the beaten track) well after dark, which typically means it will not be easy to communicate or navigate. I finally arrived and, due to the fact that there were no tuk tuks or taxis at the bus station, started walking the two km into town. When I finally got there it took me another 45 minutes just to locate a guest house. Any guest house. At last I found a descent place and dropped my bags off before heading to hunt down some food. Luckily, I didn't have to go far before a guy called out to me in English, "Hello, how are you?" I smiled and said "Fine, how are you?". "Do you want eat?" he asked. I was starving and immediately accepted his invitation to join him and his friends.

It turned out that they were a group of Vietnamese who had just arrived the week before in Laos to work as accountants for some company whose name and business I could not discern. The man who had called me over was the only one who spoke any English and so he translated for the rest of the group. We chatted for about five minutes and then shortly after my food arrived he told me that they needed to get going, and that they had paid for my meal. Before I could protest he shook my hand and they walked out the door. I sat back down and enjoyed my delicious meal before heading off to bed.

I started my journey to Vietnam early the following morning. The ride was uneventful, and the border crossing much easier than I had anticipated it to be. I arrived in Kon Tum at around 2:30, from there I could connect to Qui Nhon, my final destination of the day. The bus to Qui Nhon was not leaving for another hour and since I had exactly four dollars left on me I took the opportunity to go find an ATM. And that was when I got ripped off for the first time in Vietnam. I needed a motorcycle taxi to take me into town but did not firmly establish a price before we left. Now, I know that was stupid, but I was getting frustrated with the language barrier that I was facing and finally after trying to ask about the price for a couple of minutes I just gave up and crossed my fingers that he was not going to fleece me. Ten minutes (and my remaining four dollars) later I was back at the bus station with enough funds to continue my journey, despite the fact that I was charged the same price for that excursion as I was for my ensuing five hour bus ride.

While I waited for the bus a middle aged man came over, introduced himself, and invited me to join him for a cup of coffee. I was on guard at this point and politely refused his first couple of offers, but he was relentless and soon we were sitting in a nearby cafe sipping coffee and working on his English. About ten minutes later the bus driver showed up to inform me it was time to leave. I went to pay for my coffee, but the man insisted on paying and for the second time in two days a Vietnamese man was picking up my tab. This isn't exactly weird other than I had been warned by so many people about always being on guard in Vietnam, and always watching out to make sure that I was not being taken advantage of. With a warm fuzzy feeling in my chest I hopped on a bus for what would become one of the most memorable bus rides of my entire trip.

I like bus rides. I always have. Sometimes they are short and scary, other times they test your endurance. My first real bus ride occured when I was 18 and decided to do a 44 hour journey from Phoenix, AZ. to Great Falls, MT. with one of my best friends, two sets of golf clubs, and a duffle bag. It was quite a journey. Definitely not enjoyable, but certainly memorable. Because of that bus ride I was anxious to have so more grand adventures riding buses all over the world. From the Chicken Buses of Guatemal to roof riding in Nepal I have been through an awful lot of crazy bus rides over the last 6 months, but none as scary or spectacular as yesterday's adventure.

So, after all that I have been through, what was it about this ride that left me praising every diety known to man when I finally disembarked in Qui Nhon? The answer is quite simple. Population Density. There are over 82 million people living in Vietnam, and as a result daily life seems to just spill onto the streets. So while we were still passing on blind hills, and whipping around hairpin turns we were doing so while sharing the road with not only other vehicles, but also: motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, chickens, and last but not least children. Dodging all this traffic was nerve wracking and on more than one occasion our tires were squealing as we swerved to avoid old women on bicycles, or dodged children playing soccer. The ride also happened to be one of the most beautiful rides I have ever been on. Vietnam is unreal beautiful. Thick, lush hillsides surrounded even lusher rice paddies. In some areas the coffee plantations filled the surrounding country side for as far as the eyecould see. And that sunset? Phenomenal! More colors than I have ever seen and somehow the sunset took up not just the western horizon but the entire sky. Despite this beauty I remained white knuckled during the entire ride, keeping myself prepared to jump out and administer first aid to whoever our first victim was going to be.

Fortunately, that moment never came and I arrived in Qui Nhon around 7:30 p.m. It was pouring as I hopped out of the bus, and as luck would have it the only taxis around were moto taxis. Great!! I negotiated a much higher price than I would have normally paid, but was ready to do anything to get on the road and out of the rain as soon as possible. I have rain gear buried somewhere at the bottom of my bag, but knew that I would not be able to get it out without getting everything in my pack soaked so I just sucked it up and hopped on the back of the bike. The 10 minute ride was hellacious. I was soaked and shivering when, at last, we arrived at a hotel. The problem was it was a nice hotel. A very nice hotel, and certainly not the guesthouse I had asked him to take me to. According to my driver that guesthouse no longer existed despite the fact that it had been recommended to me earlier in the day by a Dutch couple I had met at the bus station in Qui Nhon.

As an aside. This is a very popular scam not only in Vietnam, but in other areas as well. Taxi drivers will tell you a guesthouse is full or that it has closed down and then deliver you to a different (and usually more expensive) hotel, where they recieve a small percentage of the room charge for taking you there.

Despite the fact that I was frozen and exhausted I was not about to give in to this scam. I was burning on the inside and wanted to do nothing more than pick up this little four foot nothing Vietnamese guy and hurl him across the room. Instead I some how managed to smile and explained to the gentleman working at the hotel that I wanted to go to a specific guesthouse because I had freinds staying there, and therefore knew that it existed. After a hurried conversation between the clerk and my driver we were back on the bike and ten minutes later I was standing in the guesthouse bathroom stripping of my soaking wet clothes and jumping into the first hot shower I had had in at least three weeks!

So that was day one in Vietnam. Day two is just beginning and it is also shaping up to be just as intense and chaotic as day 1. Qui Nhon is not really on the tourist path through Vietnam, and everywhere I walk heads are turning and people are calling out. A lot of them are quite friendly just saying hi, but I have also been cat called relentlessly by Vietnamese teenagers. And on top of that, for only the second time in my life, I had a gun pointed at me this morning. Now, it actually wasn't a big deal, but it was unsettling nonetheless. I was walking down the street and three Vietnamese teenagers were walking towards me, each one carrying two AK-47 assualt rifles. They were cat calling me a bit, and I was actually in a bit of shock that they were just walking down the streets with these old rifles. At first I thought they were fake, but as we neared each other I could tell they were the real deal. As we passed each other one of them leveled the rifle at his hip and pointed it at me while saying something to his friends. We never stopped walking, and there was no confrontation. I also suspect that the guns were either non-functional or at the very least not loaded. Either way it still wasn't a pleasant experience.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Aftermath

Who is to say whether it was the soup from breakfast yesterday morning, or anyone of a number of assorted dishes that I had yesterday, but as of 3 a.m. I knew I would be staying in Laos for at least one more day. Oh the horror!

Saturday, January 12, 2008


My morning routine was interrupted again today when, on my way to my favorite little balcony breakfast bar, Bong and his family waved me into their house to have breakfast with them.

The island is in a bit of a party mood right now due to the fact that a very respected elderly man passed away a few days ago. There is a week long celebration occuring on the island in honor of his death and last night the villagers decided to sarifice a goat and then BBQ it. Now, I should mention that while this does sound almost set up, no travelers are invited to the celebrations. Therefore I only know what I hear from Bong's family. At any rate, there was a BBQ last night in honor of the recently deceased, and Bong's family had a bunch of the left over meat and sticky rice left from last night. So I sat down to feast on goat meat and sticky rice. And then there was the soup...

The soup seemed to be comprised of all the left over parts of the goat. There was chunks of flesh with fur, intestines, parts of organs, and other assorted treats. Now, I'm basically a vegitarian due simply to the fact that I don't enjoy the taste of meat very often. In some instances I will put aside my dislike of meat in order to enjoy a meal with company or to dine on a pork chop with a beautiful chef. However, one look at this soup and I know I don't want to even taste it. But what am I going to do? Finally after a two or three minutes I take a spoon full of the broth and suck it down.

This soup tastes worse than it looks, and I quickly stuff some chili coated rice into my mouth to mask the taste, and that's when it happens. Bong's father (a new character, introduced to me at breakfast this morning) starts going through the pot looking for choice pieces of the meat to hand to me. The choice pieces being flesh with fur, intestines, pieces of organs, and other assorted treats. I slowly take the first piece, and then the second piece, and then the third piece. All of the various body parts taste the same. Putrid and slimy. I start to stuff my self with sticky rice quickly saying "mi li, mi li" I am full, I am full.

After breakfast I hunted down one of the thick sludge like cups of coffee that I have come to love and tried desperately not to think about what was being digested in my stomach at that very moment.

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Friend Bong and The Island of Don Det

I have a friend named Bong. Now, unlike other friends named bong that I have been acquainted with in the past, this bong is not made out of glass or plastic. Bong is 16 years old and lives on the island with his mother, brother, aunt, uncle, cousins and other assorted relatives whose relations I have not yet begun to understand. Bong has Down Syndrome. Very characteristic of children with Down's, he is incredibly warm and affectionate. I am greeted with hugs every time I see him (which is becoming more and more frequent). This morning my meditation was interrupted for the first time in days when, at 7:30 a.m., Bong showed up to play cards. Unfortunately, I had given my cards back to my neighbors so we had to make do with writing the mathematical equations for sin and cos.
After that it was time for breakfast. Bong has been making breakfast (and any other meal I will eat) for me for the past couple of days now. He makes breakfast with the only toys he has, which he shares with all the other kids in his family, some bottles filled with dirt and some coconut shell bowls. Meticulously he measures out the proper amount of dirt from each of the bottles and fills my bowl. Sometimes gently sprinkling on a little seasoning, other times dumping large portions, It's hard to believe that he is actually just mixing dirt and not making an actual meal.

My days here are starting to become a peaceful routine. While part of me is anxious to hit the road soon and see new places (my Vietnam visa started two days ago), another part of me is stuck in this idyllic routine. I start my day with 45 min to an hour of meditation followed by some pre-breakfast hammock time. Then, it is off to breakfast where I will consume two glasses of thick Laos coffee (their motto could be "Each sip is like a line.") to really JUMPSTART the day. I usually follow breakfast with a little bit of time on a friends porch, then head for a walk or a bike ride. By noon I am back in my hammock or playing guitar (Yay for hippie neighbors who you will be hearing more about shortly). At sunset I can be found sitting on the deck of the aptly named Sunset Bar with a LaoLao mojito in hand, watching as the fire red sun sets behind the Mekong. After dinner it is off to a friends porch for a night cap. Bedtime is somewhere between 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. A few meals, and the best donuts I have ever had (Top Pot is for suckers) are scattered intermittently throughout my day, but that is about it.

Now, about my neighbors. They are from Nashville, Tennessee though they are currently living in Colon, Germany. They are in their late fifties or early sixties and are huge hippies (yes they are both folk musicians). However, unlike your typical hippie, he is some weird cross between Jerry Garcia, Ned Flanders, and Clint Eastwood. He'll pass you a joint one minute, and will be engaging you in a deep discussion about religion and politics the next. He also regulates the our neighborhood. Since we are about 1 km from the small town on the island our bungalows are a bit isolated, and he has taken it upon himself to ensure that everything is runnig smoothly. Having become friends with the owner of the bungalows he goes to the dock every morning to bring in new people that he hand picks for the bungalows. A couple of nights ago when some drunk Finnish guys were making a lot of noise at 4:00 a.m. and told him to "fuck off" when he asked them to be quiet, he went to their bungalow at 7:00 when they were passed out in their hammocks and started shaking them until they got up, confronted him, then apologized and packed up and left. Who is this guy?!? She is just as wonderful, offereing me fruit in the morning, and passing joints across the balcony. Throw in that he has a guitar for me to play and, well, I guess the only thing to say is that I LOVE MY NEIGHBORS!

So that's about it. Life is easy right now. I understand how people can just be sucked in to this environment for a long time. I love it, but I also want to get on the road again. Though this morning, as with the last couple, I again decided to postpone leaving for at least one more day...

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Laos Bus Experience

For those of you who have traveled solo I know you can appreciate what I am about to say. Sometimes you have a few week period where things just are not going your way. You are either not in the right place, or your not meeting the right people, and you are really starting to wonder what the hell you are traveling for. For me that period was the last three weeks. I never found anywhere that I really loved. Actually, I never even found a place that I found even moderately appealing. I was lucky to have some good friends over New Years (Here's to my Crazy Canadian friends! Enjoy Bali, and I'll be joining you guys on the vineyard in no time!), but aside from that I really was not to pleased with traveling at the time.

So what do you do when you are frustrated, lonely, depressed, and feeling none to warm towards the country you are in? Well, I decided to take a twenty four hour ride on a public bus to the very southern tip of Laos. Now had I known the journey would take twenty four hours odds are I would not have hopped on that bus. But, true to my nature i just showed up at the bus station when I was ready to leave and hopped on the next bus headed in that direction without asking any questions. I should have known I was in for a long ride when I was charged 100,000 kip ($10.00) for the journey to Pakse. Instead I sat there and decided that I had been ripped off. "Damn", I thought "first time that has happened in Laos." I wasn't to upset so I just settled in for the usual uncomfortable ride on a public bus. About seven hours later we pulled in to a bus station, which I discovered was the half way point between Vientienne and Pakse. OK...I guess I will get in to Pakse at like one or two and figure it out from there.

Two hours later we are making yet another prolonged stop at a bus station, and this time the entire bottom hold of the bus, which was filled with boxes of tile needs to be unloaded. I don't have anything better to do so I jump in and between three of us we unload all the boxes in about 15 minutes. We worked up quite a sweat and a few minutes later one of the workers comes up to me with a bottle of water and a pack of smokes to say thanks. I gratefully except the water,but decline the smokes. Fifteen minutes later we are underway once again. Somewhere in the neighborhood of midnight I finally succumb to my exhaustion (it had been three days without a proper nights sleep) and sprawl across two seats wrapped in a blanket that one of the Lao guys had given me. I wake up around 2:30 a.m. to find that we are parked in a gas station parking lot, the engine is shut off, and find that the driver, three Laotian guys, and myself are the only people on the bus. I hop off, take a leak, and wander around the deserted gas station for a few minutes wondering what's up. Deciding that I don't have a lot of options I just hop back on the bus and drift off to sleep. At around 5:00 a.m. the bus driver gets up and we are back on the road again. At 6:00 a.m. we finally hit Pakse, where I am told that the bus I was on will be continuing on to Si Phon Don, which was my intended final destination. I had been planning on spending a day resting in Pakse, but since the bus was going there anyway why not hop back on and just get the ride over with!

Five hours and a short boat ride later I am standing in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet. WOW!!! I really needed a place like this to snap me out of my traveling funk! I don't know how to describe this place, like Nepal words and pictures would not do it justice. I am on an archipelago of "4000" (I suspect 200-300) islands on the Mekong River. There are guest houses and restaurants here, but aside from these local run places this really is village life as usual in Laos. I can't even believe that I am here! That's how surreal this place is. I have rented a private bungalow for a dollar a night, am directly on the Mekong and have TWO hammocks hanging on my private porch. Is this heaven?!?! Yeah, I think so.

Yesterday I rented a bike and went for an unbelievably aggressive ride with a Norwegian guy I met that morning. We rented the standard cruising bikes, but took them down trails I normally reserve for my full suspension bike back home! I was pretty timid at first, but within 30 minutes I was rediscovering the joy of whipping down some tight single track, hopping over logs, and going really fucking fast! Boy did I miss that. Now that I got some good exercise in I think I will take today to read a book on my porch in one of my TWO private hammocks! Hmmm...which to choose from? Maybe I will split the day and do half in each!

I have been introduced to a local fisherman who is going to take me out in his boat tomorrow and show me some of the other, mainly deserted, islands. AAHHHH...this is the life! No tours, no aircon vans, gas generated electricity from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m. only, and Laolao mojitos for fifty cents a pop! Woohoo, I really am in Paradise.

I guess the lesson is when you are having shitty time traveling there are two things to do. Be mopey and just kind of move around waiting for a break to come your way, OR you can simply say, as one of my role models, Jeffery "The Dude" Lebowski, would "Fuck it." and go have yourself an adventure. For me that was 24 hours on a cramped public bus with some friendly people, loud Laotian pop music, and tasty dumplings. Follow that up with arriving in paradise and you cannot really ask for much else out of life.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

No More Monking Around

I'll get to why I'm no longer in the meditation retreat in a minute. For now let me quickly update the last couple of weeks travel story. It all starts in Chaing Mai with me walking down a highway on my way back into town from Wat Ram Poeng (about an 8km walk). I'm hot, tired, and the blister on my right foot is killing me! Unfortunately there are no tuk tuks or sawngthaows anywhere. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, a guy on a motorbike pulls off the shoulder in front of me and asks if I want a ride into town. Woohoo! I jump on and introduce myself. When he hears that I am from the States he tells me that he is on his way to meet a friend for coffee who just returned that morning from studying in English in Washington D.C. He invites me to join them, and I suddenly find myself sitting in a cafe with three Thai guys enjoying a delicious cappuccino. It turns out that my new Thai friend, Pad Thai (that was seriously his name), and one of his other friends work for an NGO educating gay and transgender men on HIV/AIDS and other sexual diseases, as well as overseeing the operation of a free clinic for these men. They invite me to join them that evening for a transgender cabaret show to be followed by an educational video on sexual health that their organization, Mplus, puts on once a month for the men in their community.

The cabaret show was interesting to say the least. Those guys/girls were HOT!!! It was pretty weird knowing that these slim vixens in lingerie were actually guys! The evening was quite fun and I promised to meet up with them in later in the week to visit some of the Wats in the area and for lunch before my meditation retreat. Following the video I may made my way to the local Muay Thai matches and watched as these highly skilled fighters assailed each other with kicks, knees, and elbows for the next four hours. The fights were quite the change from the cabaret show I had been watching only three hours earlier!

The following day was spent lying in a hammock engrossed in a wonderful novel (The Shadow of the Wind), and recovering from a Muay Thai induced hangover. At around six that night I made my way to a little market where I had some dinner and walked around a local park watching young Thai couples shared noodles, play badminton, and, of course, take advantage of the romantic atmosphere. It was at this point in time that I decided to go find a movie theater. Now I had not been to a real movie theater for the duration of my trip (though the one in Manang, Nepal was pretty cool!) I walked about six km before I found what I was looking for. Walking into the theater I was blown away by how incredible it was. Hands down it was the nicest theater I have ever been to. I purchased my reserved seat (Yes, I did say RESERVED seat!) and headed into the theater. Five hours and two (yup, TWO!) movies later I was walking down an empty road on my way back to town. Around midnight I walked into a small market, sat down, and feasted on curry and noodles before heading off to bed. It was a truly wonderful day!

The following day I visited Wat Doi Suthep with my Thai friends and then had a yummy lunch of vegetarian Thai food, something that I had been desperately searching for. Then the following day it was time for the meditation retreat to begin...

The retreat was not what I had expected it too be. It immediately became clear to me that I was not going to stay there when, on the first day, I learned that I would not be receiving any instruction or teaching of any kind. I was shown to my room (where I was instructed to spend the majority of my time in meditation) and changed into my white clothes before touring the rest of the monastery. One of the first things I noticed was the massive construction project that was underway. All throughout the monastery trucks were dropping of concrete, hammers were pounding, and saws were buzzing. I would be sitting in my room meditating when a table saw would suddenly start up, or at one point in time, and you can't make something like this up, a jackhammer started going off! Not the greatest environment to meditate in. Nonetheless, I stayed to see what it would be like. I meditated for two days, but the lack of instruction and the continual distractions of the construction caused me to leave the evening of my second night. I was disappointed to leave, disappointed that I had quit, and disappointed with my current travel situation.

From Chaing Mai I fled north for the border with Laos, where my travel situation continued deteriorate. I met some German guys on the bus and they seemed pretty cool. As I was feeling really lonely since I had basically not met anyone in over two weeks, I was thrilled to meet some fellow travelers who seemed to have common interests. We split a hotel room at the border and went to grab a bite to eat. That was when it all went downhill. These guys were on a real tight budget, but as I also try to spend as little as possible I did not think it would be a problem. However, as we were paying for our dinner one of them flew into a rage at the supposedly being overcharged five bhat. Now, our meal cost a dollar and 5 bhat is around 15 cents, so even if he was being overcharged, which he wasn't, you would think that he would just let it go and save himself the hassel of arguing with a woman who does not speak a word of English. But oh no, that did not happen. Instead he hasseled her for about five minutes and clearly upset her before finally letting it go. I was shocked. These guys seemed pretty nice, so I chaulked it up to just a weird situation and tried to forget about it. Upon arriving at out guest house after dinner my travel state continued to decline as I met THE MOST ANNOYING TRAVELER EVER!!!!! Her name was Mariana and she was traveling by herself through Thailand and Laos for three weeks. She was super nice, but would not stop talking and was one of the ditziest people I have ever met. Now this is the first time I have bad mouthed anyone in my blog and I feel kind of bad about, especially because she was a very nice person. Nonetheless I wanted to pull a Van Gogh and slice off my ears every time she started talking, which was basically ALWAYS. Now this might not seem like the worst situation in the world, but here is the best part. When you cross the border from Thailand to Laos you then hop on a slow boat to Luang Prabang. The slow boat takes TWO DAYS!! So I was stuck with them for TWO DAYS! Then, when we got to Luang Prabang I could not really just walk off so I ended up splitting another room with Mariana for two nights, and staying next to the two German guys. So there I was, losing my mind, surronded by travelers that I did not wnat to be with, and to top it off I was in Luang Prabang, which I was told is an amazing city. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and...a complete hell hole! If there is one piece of advice I can give other travelers this is it. DO NOT EVER, EVER, EVER GO TO LUANG PRABANG. Second worst place on my travels after Antigua, Guatemala. Everywhere you looked was a luxury hotel filled with old Europeans who were zipping in and out on their private air-con tour buses. Everything cost a small fortune and, on top of all that, there was nothing to do in the town at all. I visited several Wats, which were a far cry from any of the places I visited in Thailand. I have never been happier to leave a place in my entire life!

Phew! That was a lot of negativity. Luckily for me thinks started looking up. I met three really cool Canadian girls who were just as anxious to get away from there as I was, and we hopped a bus down to Vang Vieng for New Years. I had been told that Vang Vieng was not a nice town, and that it was just loaded with backpackers who were there to party (which didn't seem like a bad way to spend New Years). Instead I found a very laid back town, which, despite the number of travelers, still offered reasonable accomadations, was quiet, and had an assortment of activities all within a few kilometers. I rang in the New Years at a huge party with my new friends, and then spent the next two days enjoying the beautiful countryside, floating down a river, and exploring some cool caves.

Well that about wraps up the last two weeks. I am now in Vientianne and just dropped a small fortune on my visa for Vietnam. I either had to pay for expedited service today, or wait the entire weekend to get my visa. As I do not want to be stuck in yet another expensive touristy town for any longer than possible I decided to fork over the extra $20 dollars and be ready to leave in the morning. The only problem is that I have no idea where I am going...

I have been desperately searching for a place to stop traveling for a couple of weeks and to volunteer my time. I can no longer continue traveling without at least giving some of my time and money to the people of these countries. Therefore I ask anyone who is reading this to send me any information they may have on volunteer opportunities in Southeast Asia. My Internet searches have been fruitless. If anyone has any information that may be useful please help!