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!


maeve said...

Hanoi is possibly my favourite city in the entire world. You should stay there.

And maybe consider teaching english, if you want to volunteer your time?
While it's not something we may think of as 'development work', English is a valuable tool that gives a lot of opportunities.

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August Flanagan said...

Very true about teaching English Maeve. I guess I had not thought about that before. I will take it in to consideration. I am also excited for Hanoi. What did you think of Saigon? I am in the south of Laos so I think that will be my first big stop, then I might fly from there to Hanoi to try to find some volunteer work, before working my way south to Saigon AGAIN.

AAHHHH what a weird travel schedule!! JB you had better appreciate that this is for you!

Does anyone know why am I getting spam postings on my blog? This one from barb michelen is the second in two posts!

maeve said...

for the spam, I think there is some way that you change the settings on your blog, so that spammers can't post -- like when you have to type in the words shown on the screen?

I liked Saigon, but loved love loved Hanoi.