Saturday, January 21, 2012

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang is ready to whisk you away from the dirty road and riverside poverty you witnessed on your journey to this French Colonial capital. The charming streets are well laid out along the Mekong and connecting rivers. Bursting bogunviallias and elegant, aging, two story buildings converted to cafes with rooms above line the streets near the river. The smell of fresh croissants tempt tourist for a European break during their South East Asian adventure. Sit at one of the riverside restaurants and eat a fresh, organic, green salad, and steamed fish. Luang Prabang's modern use is like a theme park of beauty waiting for European dollars to buy the pizza, the hand made bag, the died textile, and the over priced room. The formula has worked, and you can see the dollars circulating rapidly in this magical facade. I certainly gave them plenty of mine.

This post sounds cynical, but truthfully I enjoyed the city. I did all those beautifully indulgent things and took in a few temples for good measure. I drank wine, ate bread, pizza, mojitos, coffee cake, and gelato. I bought beautiful, cottage industry, hand made things from the night market. I peddled along the lanes on a vintage push bike taking in the flowers and the river scents. We ate giant baguette sandwiches on the sandy banks of the Mekong and watched monks tend organic gardens in the fertile soil. I bathed in the cool, green, calcium rich waterfall outside the city. Then the spell was broken and I boarded the night bus

Authentic when looked at through a modern anthropological context, the city juxtaposed to the rest of Laos hints at the difficulties in the post-colonial state. The city prospers on a tourist economy thanks to the French influence of beauty, food, and pleasure. These are hardly gifts of sustainable development. The bus ride to Vientiane, the modern capital, reveals a more true impression. It takes 13 hours to travel just 250 kilometers along rough paved roads over mountains and through dusty towns. Are the tourists suppose to be so charmed by the fresh baguette that we would look away from the poverty, the rotting infrastructure, and the con artists? I did not have the time or energy to discover the real story. I'll have to be satisfied with the glimpse for now.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Slow Boat Down the Mekong

We are 75 white and ready backpackers sitting for 17 hours over two days on a wooden river barge down the Mekong. Three months ago the department of tourism upgraded the boats with minivan style bucket seats. So we are spared the a aching from days on a wooden bench. The first day is bright and warm. Blue sky meets green jungle, to sand banks, and finally greets the brown, low, river. The hum of the engine, the mumbles of passengers, and the hours of nothingness hypnotism me into a state of comfortable boredom. I listen to music and let my mind wonder as miles of brown river pass beneath us.

A slow life of agriculture beat into the hilly land scape, water buffalo napping in the sand, small children waving with dogs running at their feet reveals itself along the banks. Sometimes we feel like the zoo as groups of locals stare at the crowded boats of western tourist pass by the isolated villages. Sometimes it feels like safari where we stock glimpses of the poor and capture their image with cameras costing more then a year of education for those school-less children. Barbara and I sit next to each other gorging on sandwiches, Oreos, and Pringles. We spend the night in a river village existing and thriving because of the hundreds of foreigners appearing and disappearing daily as they cruise along the river. Hours give way to days until we reach the port in Luan Probang, battle for our bags, and walk the streets until we decide to splurge on a room with real, hot, water pressure to wake us from our slow boat commas.

The aging roads and busses make travel down the Mekong the more comfortable option to travel into Laos Northern interior. I appreciated the two days of nothingness and the small windows into life on the Mekong.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Gibbons Experience

The Gibbons Experience
After reconnecting with some friends from New Years in Chang Mai on Friday, Barbara and I took a shaky local bus ride from Chang Rai to the Loas boarder on Saturday. At one point the driver stopped at a house party and took a long swig of whiskey before reboarding and navigating us around switchback turns up a mountain. The boarder crossing was easy and we grab a room and did a little dance when we saw beautiful baguette sandwiches everywhere. Two months of rice have me craving bread and we ate two of them that night.

The next morning we watched a very short video on how to zipline safely and piled into four wheel drive trucks for a the two and a half hour trip along bumpy roads avoiding dogs, kids, pigs, cows, motorbikes, and all those other unexpected things. Then we forged a small river and took a red dirt road deep into the private reserve. After a quick regroup we headed up a rocky path to base camp where we dawned harnesses and did the mandatory trekking hurry up and wait before setting out for our tree house. A few Jump Now!! zip lines and a downhill trek brought our group of ten to treehouse number one.

Our tree house was three stories sitting 70 meter from the ground supported by beams and tensioned cables within one beautiful, ancient tree. We took our meals here, slept beneath heavy mosquito nets, enjoyed an open air rain-shower with a view, and woke to misty jungle mornings.

A mountain to your left, a stream bellow you, and a painting of green in every direction, you are flying and the prospective is a thrilling mixture of serial and completely natural. My words and pictures struggle to describe the freedom and grand sense of scale and respect the beauty in the trees gave each time I zipped across. Barbara and I spent the next day alone wondering through the trails and zips. We took our time and felt free to backtrack and take it in again. We returned two hours before the other 8 people in our group. Those were beautiful hours suspended in silence among a rainforest teaming with life if you dare to be silent and open your eyes. I saw one Gibbon high in a near by tree and just like a ghost she was gone again. The next morning we enjoyed their haunting musical calls and the surrounding fog before zipping back to base and made the long drive back to town.

I'm not entirely sure about the details of the organization, but it's goals are to raise money to purchase more land and extend the scope of the private nature reserve. The experience provides jobs and steady income to the villagers within the reserve and offers an alternative to slash and burn agriculture which eats away at existing rainforest. By backpacker standards the price is high, but I viewed the money as a donation and accepted the experience as it came.

For the next two days I will be on a slow boat up the Mekong river on my way to Luang Prabang.

Amanda Mar
Huey Xai, Loas

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chang Mai to Thaton

Chang Mai
I spent the week leading up to New Years exploring and playing tourist in Chang Mai. I took a full day cooking class which brought me to a market in suburbia and a farm in the country. I ate, learned, napped, and cooked some more. I booked a white water rafting trip and enjoyed the cheap natural thrills of rushing water. I wondered by bike through alleyways, gazed at the shrines of half a dozen temples, got lost and drank coffee. I stayed at a very social guest house and made lots of fast friends to share the holiday with. We danced, lit off paper lanterns, hugged, celebrated, consumed local rum until early in the morning. We relieved New Year hang overs on comfortable cushions and in soothing cafes. I was mesmerized by Sunday walking street, a market of beautiful hand made things with every purpose and style that went on for dozens of city blocks. Chang Mai is a young, student centered, creative town. There is beauty and a laid back atmosphere around every corner. It is mesmerizing, easy to manage, and easy to be captured by. After a week I dragged myself away and sought refuge in mountainous Chang Doa.

Chang Doa is a little visited mountain town attracting bird watchers and cyclist. I needed to return to nature and step out of the twenty something backpacker scene after Chang Mai. I spent my first afternoon climbing to a mountainside monastery which offered me time to sit and breath the cool clean air. I wondered down and discovered The Nest, a French fusion restaurant in the jungle and 6 foodies to shared a meal with. They were expats making a living writing and web developing in Chang Mai. I ate perfectly cooked duck, beet soup, and fresh bread. The female Thai Chef went to culinary school in the UK and runs the resort with her British husband. Beautiful conversation and a gift of intellectual curiosity found in an unexpected place. My second day was spent reading, exploring a large cave by gas pressure lanterns and eating loads of barbecued chicken with sticky rice.

The next days I traveled to Chang Rai. First by local bus to Thaton and then a three hour long tail ride down the Mekong. I met some fellow backpackers to find a guesthouse and a meal. Chang Rai is just as low key as Chang Mai but smaller with more ethnic diversity. Lots of Chinese influences here. I enjoyed regrouping in coffee shops and spending some time writing and reading. I felt at ease, happy, and experienced moments of clarity in Chang Rai. On my last day in town I reconnected with Barbara, who I planned to travel to Loas with, and randomly ran into two friends from Chang Rai New Years. We had an excellent night out. I tip handed to "the Dutch Boys" brought us to a beautiful riverside restaurant off the tourist beat. We shared roasted cashew nuts with chile and lime, a mysterious and delicious shrimp salad, young coconut in oyster sauce, mourningly greens, and squid steaming over fire on the table dosed in lemon, chilie, basil, and so much more goodness. We followed dinner with bottles of rum at a funky bar near the city center called TeePee. We enjoyed solid, old school rock and roll videos playing on mismatched mounted tv screens. The bar is covered in the owners collection of odd objects.... Guitars, wigs, rhythm instruments, glowing sculls, cages, a beer bottle suspended platform, two living bunnys occupying the second floor.. We had a blast!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Thai high fashion

He laid across the road with his head in the gutter. His graying, ripped, t-shirt had a bright yellow smiley face on it. His tale wagged under my gaze. The street dogs of Chang Mai wear sweaters gifted by their adoring fans. Pampered miniature poodles model the latest hand made doggie high fashion on the Sunday walking street. This phenomenon seems to be rooted in the Thai sense of humor instead of over consumption. Doggie sweaters and street dog threads make everyone smile. Thank you Thailand for your love and sense of humor.