Saturday, February 27, 2010

Two Trips To Cambodia

Before coming to South East Asia everyone I talked to would tell me that above all else I absolutely had to go tubing at Vang Vieng. It was for this reason that I was dreading the end of the bus ride to get there. It's not really my kind of thing but but I felt a sort of duty to at least be able to say I'd done it. I was imagining it would be full of hundreds of western bogans spending the day fluctuating between two high levels of inebriation. I was right. But I soon realised that that was okay because I was one of them.

For those yet to experience the psycho-weirdness of tubing at Vang Vieng, the idea is to float down the town's river in an inner-tube stopping at various crazy riverside bars full of pumping music, rhythmically-challenged dancing, free-flowing alcohol and people throwing themselves at the mercy of Laos' nascent medical system by 'zip-lining' into supposedly deep pools in the otherwise shallow river, all set amongst beautiful but barely noticed karst mountains. There are also landmines.

Turning up alone I soon ran into a couple of Irish buddies from the boat trip and suddenly I was in the mood to party. Skolling a few half-litre cans of BeerLao plus some free shots to bring us up to at least the lower quartile of inebriation we quickly got into the swing of things by joining a game of mixed mud volleyball. Surprisingly, we all decided to play the game seriously and my team ended up not only winning decisively but also avoiding serious injury resulting from the many sharp shards of glass nestled in the more viscous levels of the mud. By the time it was all over it was almost dark and the further three kilometres of rapids still to be negotiated by our inner tubes forced us to discuss the very real possibility of hypothermia.

Not to be deterred, later that night we ordered a large $1 bottle of whiskey over dinner that turned out to be only 20% non-alcohol and let the night of parties, dancing and buckets (the fluid goes out of them, not into them) fade into amnesia. I woke up suddenly at 8 a.m. and knew that I had to leave that place. Immediately.

The bus ride to the Lao capital of Vientiane was eventful only in that I managed not to throw up. Now when I hear that Vientiane is like something out of a Graham Greene novel I know it's not a joke. It's a bit like that previously mentioned sci-fi genre with the suspiciously quiet daytime and excitingly lethal night - but with the night instead also being suspiciously quiet. I sat on the Mekong's riverfront for a few hours trying to understand some inexplicable construction activity and consumed the occasional baguette (Oh ho ho! Baguette!). I soon made up my mind to move on.

And what a move! The eleven hour bus trip was one of the best yet: I realised here that I have the stomach to read on buses after all and was entertained by the enthusiasm of Richard Dawkins to the ambiance of an epic Mekong thunderstorm. I paused for a night in Savannakhet where I discovered the joys of being evil as I wielded an electric tennis racket in my hotel room and committed a mosquito holocaust that must never be forgotten.

A far less satisfying bus ride to Pakse introduced me through shared misery to another cool English couple and two Canadian blokes called Matt and Troy (who would definitely hit back if referred to as a couple) with whom I searched for a hostel and had some riverside beverages. The next day I hired a motorbike and rode 170 kilometres to explore the Bolaven Plateau.

This was the first time I'd ever (legally) ridden or driven on the right side of the road and it did take some getting used to. I kept thinking, "Hey, this feels kind of natural. Maybe that sinister Napoleon was right to have invented dexterous driving after all" and then realising that I was actually back on the left with a truck bearing down on me.

But the destination made it all worth-while. At Tadlo I was given directions to three spectacular waterfalls by an American backpacker named Amber which involved a lot of rock scrambling to get to an extremely tall fall, and information on how to avoid the annoying pleas for money from the local village children for two huge wide falls.

Another failed attempt to travel down the Mekong by boat rather than bus brought me to Don Det, one of the famed Four Thousand Islands. This island is an amazing gravity well of cool (and may I say extremely handsome) young backpackers such as myself. Here I rediscovered, bit by bit, my old friends Teresa the German beautician I'd met in Pai, Matt, Troy and the English couple from the Pakse bus and Morgan and Shane, my Irish buddies from Vang Vieng and the boat trip. We instantly became a cohesive group and a large subsection chartered a boat for the next day.

This trip was a spectacular tour of many of the eponymous four thousand islands such as beach islands, water buffalo islands and an over-excited school children island. This was all capped off by the usual Felix-generated beach bonfire (the best kind) on Don Det in which the utilisation of bamboo as fuel ensured an explosive experience. However, my satisfaction of these evenings was somewhat tempered by late-night calls for my Australian de-vermination skills (I knew that show 'Crocodile Hunter' was a bad idea). I was even contracted out to deal with a scorpion found in the bed of some French backpackers.

One of the many things I'm seeking on this epic trip of mine is a certain level of craziness. For things to go a bit out of hand. A pub night becomes a beach party becomes a tribal jungle festival and all of a sudden I'm leading a small colonising expedition to a long period comet (that's why '2001: A Space Odyssey' is so awesome - it starts off like a normal movie with apes and stuff and then goes psycho towards the end). The final day of Don Det was nothing like that, but it reminded me of it.

I and the group that had congealed around me (yes, I have that effect on people) all hired bikes to ride around the serenely rural Don Det and neighbouring Don Kong (Connected by an old rail bridge) to see a waterfall and have a swim in the Mekong. Afterwards we visited a hot-sand beach that required a zen-like trance to avoid feet burns by using levitation and decided to charter another small boat to see the endangered Mekong dolphins on the Cambodian border.

Having consumed a few bevos on the journey we stopped right on the aquatic border and spotted the snub noses of a fair few fresh water dolphins as they flaunted international boundaries. Miraculously, half an hour of broken Lao coaxing and eventually beer bribes convinced our pilot to land the three of us in my boat on the Cambodian shore. Here we watched the sun set over the Cambodian hills from a Cambodian beach shack drinking Cambodian beer and learning our first Cambodian words from the Cambodian family living there. The daring boat ride back up through the rapids (the somewhat tipsy pilot was showing off) only enhanced our excitement at having committed our first illegal crossing. Luckily, on the pitch-black bicycle ride home over dodgy dirt paddy tracks we weirdly bumped into Amber from Tadlo who escorted us home with her presciently acquired bike light.

The next day I went to Cambodia the proper way.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Crazy Laos

Pai for breakfast. It's a small backpacker village in the highlands of Thailand, north of Chiang Mai. The drive up was pretty spectacular with a lot of the mountainous terrain covered in jungle, despite there not being any national parks around - non-use of land is something I have trouble comprehending. It was here that I finished listening to all the songs on my four gigabyte iPod in alphabetical order. I started on the buses in Malaysia - the buses in Indonesia are too interesting for one to be incommunicado.

My first activity in this town was discovering an amazing and cheap bungalow right on the river. And then one of those great things happened that all backpackers secretly yearn for: I randomly bumped into my old friends Tom and Lisa with whom I'd shared many lazy days watching movies months ago in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. And this English couple is a great one to bump into twice so we instantly hit Pai's bar scene (a scene barred from a mere individual like me due to awkwardness, as in my Surabaya experience).

As a couple, Tom and Lisa tell me they find it hard to meet people while traveling as everyone around them doesn't want to impose on their symbiotic mind-meld of true coupledom (like pan-dimensional beings of pure energy). I tell them it's just as hard as an individual but I guess everyone just needs to be more socially engaging.

The rest of my time in Pai was spent drinking beer on the river watching the fire lanterns rise to their altitudes of equilibrium, riding a mountain bike to a waterfall and then on into the hills - waaay too far, as a thunderstorm caught me on the way back, and celebrating Australia Day with the only other Australian in town. I woke up covered in Australian flag stickers.

The next day was a work of timing genius. I got to the bus station at a random time in the morning, just making it for the trip back to Chiang Mai, where I walked straight into the dentist's for my second appointment without putting down my pack, then driven by the plush Dentistmobile back to the Chiang Mai bus terminal in time for the last bus to Chiang Rai. The Dentistmobile was so classy they needed two dental workers in the car - one to drive and one to open the door for me at my destination.

Now, my timing hasn't always been the best in Thailand - I arrived days after the full moon - the only one for about 280 years with a decade turnover in it - and left days before the next one, nicely bypassing the notorious Full Moon Parties. But there is one department in which my timing has been impeccable: milk. The very month in which I was inhabiting Thailand was the very month in which 830ml milk bottles were on special at 7/11 and I can tell you I spent a fair whack of my budget on them.

As an asside, I've learnt that tolerance to lactose is one of the most recent evolutionary changes in humans, or at least those with an ancestry of pastoralism. but there is an even more recent change: colour vision. After the dinosaurs died out our newly diurnal ancestors regained colour vision by making use of a parasitic strand of DNA that accidentally duplicated the code for our eyes' cone cells. But in the last few thousand years, due to the lack of selection pressure in the wild, colour blindness is increasing dramatically as this parasite is being removed. The upshot of all of which is this: as a colour-blind milk lover, I am the pinacle of human evolution.

I'll just wait for all the biologists to stop throwing up at this appalling evolutionary logic.

Okay. Chiang Rai is similar to Chiang Mai in name only. The town itself seems devoid of life in the metaphorical sense but is surrounded by beautiful hilly country all the way up into Burma. I didn't get that far but was close after having hired a motorbike to see waterfalls, hilly villages, lots of cool snakes, hot springs, tea plantations and French tourists on 4WD tours.

Now I had this big plan of getting to the border town of Chiang Kong and settling in for the night at an internet cafe to video in to the awesome party at my old share house, but I got swept along with this general movement to cross the Mekong into Laos, then onto a two day slow boat to Luang Prabang.

This boat ride was so incredible its ramifications have lasted several weeks into the future (as in 'right now' in Felix time). Almost everyone I met here I've come across again and again everywhere else I go. Laos is one of those long skinny countries taht funnels the backpackers into one main route. I quickly formed a group and we sat on the back of the boat drinking beer and playing guitar (not me, I've lost that ability) and admiring the river villages of the Mekong. When we stopped for the night in a small town it took a while to come to terms with the fact that it had no internet and I would miss my party at home. Unfortunately, I shared a room with an American guy and spent the next week running into him and forgetting to pay him my half of the room cost. For a while after that everyone I met I ask to look out for him.

Laos is a funny ol' place. For one thing they drive on the wrong side of the road, and I was disappointed I didn't get to see the crazy loop-over interchange they'd have to implement in order to link up with us lefties (I made the crossing by boat you see). The border also marked the moment I left the Free World for the last time until... do you count Nepal? On the plus side, it's my first fully landlocked nation I've ever visited (most have actually been sea-locked) - and my last until... Nepal? Hmmm. Cutely, the Lao people don't seem to be aware of their relationship with the sea, as they refer to their borders as 'coasts' and talk about going 'overseas' when they take the bus to Hanoi.

I've always thought of Laos as the bits that all the other South East Asian countries left over after they'd had their pick. It doesn't have any coasts, no famous mountain ranges, nor major rivers (whoops! The Mekong). But there really is something about Laos that's incredible. The place is stunningly beautiful, the people are all awesome and, most importantly of all, it's a massive backpacker hub.

I arrived in Luang Prabang after another day floating down the Mekong hanging out with world backpackers (sinisterly for me, we call ourselves 'Boat People') and instantly found myself in a situation of having to maintain my integration with too many social groups, all of which seemed to have crystallised from the super-saturated solution of the Boat People (I like to think I was the nucleation but I tend to think things like that).

During the day we achieved little - we went to an amazingly beautiful emerald-coloured waterfall, saw a temple and... er... yeah. This took three days. Weirdly, at the waterfall I again randomly bumped into Tom and Lisa for the third time and nation. But the nights out was what it was really about. On one night we found ourselves at a Lao club where even old women danced with leather-clad youngsters to the music of Britney Spears. That night later ascended into immaculately choreographed line dancing in which we ineptly took part.

Other nights focused on the age-old problem of beating the 11pm nation-wide curfew, usually by finding out-of-town clubs and er... bowling alleys?... that must have had Laos People's Party links. On one of these nights I spent over an hour stumbling randomly home lost in the darkness, and others managed to have even more extreme Odysseys that stretched credulity.

Now I don't usually like to whinge into my blog (whinging to fellow-travelers at least alows them to fight back), but I'll make an exception for one annoyance: banks. Every time I get money out I'm charged by [leading Australian bank] to the tune of $5. Then they charge me another few dollars because I'm doing it overseas. Then another 2% or so for an intercurrency conversion, and then, if I've survived all that, a $5 monthly fee. All so I can have to privalege of lending them money. But the worst part is that a lost of the ATMs over here also have a fee of about $5 to take money out, to a maximum of... $80. This means I pay about $15 to use an ATM, or up to %20 of my total expenditure. There must be another way! I mention this here because in Laos I accidentally typed 4 digits of kip instead of 5 and got socked with a double charge that took the fun out of the whole day.

Viang Vienne was next after fleeing Luang Prabang's banking nightmare on an impressive karsty bus ride. The town itself is beautifully set on a river amongst towering mountains, but it's really now only famous for one thing: tubing. I was actually dreading having to float down the 3km river on an inner tube stopping at all the crazy drunken bars on the water all alone, but like most places I've been I met some people I knew from the slow boat: Morgan and Shane from Ireland.

After jumping off the bus, hiring a tube and being dropped off up-river I experienced one of the most outragious and almost grotesque phenomona on the backpacker circuit... but that's anather story.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bangkok Nights

It's a lot harder to get off a moving bus than it looks - the main thing you've got to remember is that even though you jump out of the bus backwards the ground is still trying to push you over from the bottom at the speed the bus is traveling. Even at 15 kms per hour this is quite a push and I'd be lying if I told you I'd remained upright.

Arriving back at Patong Beach I was invited by my English buddies Paul and Karl to cram into their small but luxurious hotel room whose remaining floor space was almost entirely inhabited by their giant friend Will - but we made it work. All that remained was to hit the town with the reckless abandon only Phuket can elicit.

Now, when I progressed through the ascending stages of technological advancement of Indonesia, Malaysia and then Singapore I was half expecting to be transported next to a brightly-lit techno-utopia with skytubes and floating screens. Similarly, after emerging from Sumatra, my brain prepared me for an encounter with a post apocalyptic zombie wasteland. Patong night-life is a hybrid of both of those visions. It was a scene of pumping music, huge distracting LCD screens, arrogantly drunk white tourists lumbering through the streets (not us of course) and cheeky prostitute girls (or at least very good imitations of girls) whose recognition of our personal space eviscerated the crotch area.

After a few buckets - a litre mix of whiskey, coke and Thai red bull - and drinking games with some Australians who had congealed from the crowd, we rediscovered the ancient art of buying cheap beer from 7/11 and storing it in our stomachs for slow release during dry bar visits. My last memories of the night involved us sitting on the beach helping some Thai prostitutes improve their (already excellent) English skills - although I'm fairly sure now they were actually after some help with their student fees.

The next day the three of us took the bus to Khura Buri for our subsequent boat trip to Surin Island. This little town was at the time hosting what they called the 'Watermelon Festival', which was really just a huge food-fest (but with no watermelons).

Speaking of food, I've noticed that it's changed significantly since Indonesia, in gradations small enough not to notice at the time. In Java I basically just alternated between Mie Goreng and Nasi Goreng (which were delicious), supplementing my protein diet by grazing on nuts during the day. In Malaysia the cuisine is either Chinese or Indian, depending on which part of each city you're in. In Thailand things are more complicated (I'll refrain from mentioning that I think Thai food in Melbourne is better than in Thailand itself) and I've found it harder to avoid meat. I've always been a bit suspicious about a food that when not cooked in exactly the right way will turn around and kill you. Also, I swear that I expend more energy extricating bone shards from my tongue than I get from the nutritional value of the meat. But at this festival I found the perfect alternative: fried insects. They contain no bones except a crunchy exoskeleton and I've certainly never heard of anyone dropping dead from a salmonella-infected locust. We were all insectivours not too long ago, maybe we were onto something.

The speed boat ride to Surin Island was a nasty affair. We'd actually bought a slow ferry ticket to save money but it turns out there is no slow ferry - the proprietors just like to divide up the market for greater passenger numbers, almost like the manufacture of hard disc drives. This trip taught me that anti-nausea pills warning of drowsiness are actually sleeping pills with an anti-nausea side effect: those of us who had taken the complimentary pills all managed to fall asleep sitting up and flailing around. This knowledge would later come in handy.

Surin Island is a remote and spectacularly beautiful tropical island national park. Paul, Karl and I rented a tent right on the high tide line of the beach and spent three amazingly relaxing days luxuriating by the water. Here my activities included reading a Thomas Hardy novel, lying aimlessly in a hammock all afternoon and making some serious head-way in ameliorating my fifteen year long disappointment at having been born into an age lacking cities floating in the gas giants and space elevators flinging passengers between the inner planets. This is, after all, the age of beaches. Soon to end.

Another day-consumer was snorkeling. I have never seen so much amazing stuff under water: endless intricate coral structures, vast schools of large blue fish unconcerned by a human joining their number, a probable mating-ritual between two tropically coloured flat fish swimming around each other in impossibly tight circles and a vertiginous abyss whose depths could be fathomed by sight into receding blackness. I spent a lot of my time perfecting a technique in which depths of about ten metres can be reached: find a spot at the right depth, breathe out all the air in your lungs and stay as still as you can - you drop like a stone to the bottom and you don't need as much oxygen while you're not trying to fight against buoyancy (just remember to leave enough energy to kick your way back up again). Unfortunately, this caused extreme pain in my sinus glands from the pressure (I should have been breathing out all the way down) which can probably be blamed for my sudden development of a cold. I find it ironic that in this region of fearsome tropical diseases I contract the common cold (self-diagnosed) - the only other illness I've so far experienced is one severe hangover (two if you count the one I brought from Melbourne).

Returning to the mainland we all took the night bus to Bangkok - twelve hours away. I ended up being so concerned about missing out on the scenery that I got off at a town called Chumpon, walked most of the very long distance to the train station and slept the night there through the most unpleasant stage of my cold, attacked by a constant swarm of mosquitoes and woken up every hour an a half from trains turning up. This is where my new sleeping pill discovery came into its own.

But the train ride was worth it all - local of course (it took a lot of effort to convince the ticket office that I actually wanted to go slowly), sharing the seats with the real denizens of Thailand, watching the beaches and karsts fly by along the narrow spindly bit of the isthmus and, importantly, reading through a few more grams of the column of books I've now accumulated (I feel like a caryatid). Before Thailand I was reading at an average rate of three millimetres per day but here it's slowed to just over one millimeter per day - a mere seven times faster than India is crunching into China and only twice as fast as the top land-speed record for a continent - so I have a lot of catching up to do.

At last, Bangkok. A new world. Or at least lots of different worlds squished in together and forced to get along. I spent most of the diminishing daylight hours (I've traveled north a fair way now) navigating the Chao Phraya River by local ferry and visiting various wats (Buddhist temples) around the city. I also made an excursion to pick up several more kilos of books kindly donated to me by my Auntie Su through Poste Restante. From here I also undertook a grueling cross-city expedition to replace my purple-smearing camera, which I luckily retained for sentimental reasons as my new one turned out to be just as buggy in its own special way. The next day I managed to get myself all over Bangkok using almost every mode of public transport available: ferry, bus, subway and skytrain. One interesting encounter was a whole linear community built over a functioning railway line, using small rail carts as goods transport but having to disperse several times a day.

The evenings were a different matter. The biggest night involved my old re-acquaintances Paul and Karl and some of their new co-travelers in a Khao-San Road bucket-filled booze-up. I ended up mysteriously possessing a couple of buckets the next day but we put them to good use. Earlier on in the evening we witnessed a white guy being brutally beaten up and even repeatedly tasered by a bunch of bulky Thais in a popular restaurant, which was pretty distressing. I'm sure it was drugs related.

On my last night I met up with a mixed group of local Thais and Queenslanders I'd met on the bus and we went to a great club with a live band playing a jazz/traditional Thai fusion. I'd arranged to meet up with a young co-worker from the Westgate Project here but I must have missed him by mere minutes or metres.

Chiang Mai was next after a long but (sorry 'and') terrific train journey. After an epic quest finding somewhere to stay I wound up at a huge and central wood paneled hostel with bay windows overlooking the city. After a quick and, importantly, successful geohash (Thailand's first) I got down to the serious business of dental tourism. Here I got a few cheap and professional fillings and decided to one day have a wisdom tooth out. It's quite sad to abandon a seemingly permanent part of one's own body, particularly as a result of one's own negligence. I'll run it into the ground first.

The next day I visited some of the thousands of wats around the city. Fading tiles on crumbling stupas next to sparkling new gold-clad Buddhas. A sentence without a verb. Pretentious really.

I leave you on a sad note. Within the grounds of one Buddhist monastery - yes, inside a monastery - I left my hired single-speed bike unlocked outside a temple while I had a peak inside. Of course, returning after a few minutes I found it gone. Gone in that typical way a bike is nicked (I'm used to it now) where you're left wondering if you ever even had a bike in the first place. Now I know you're all going to say "Well you should have locked up your bike then, hmm?". But I actually remember thinking as I mulled over the decision to get the lock out, "I know the situations in which bikes are nicked. This isn't one of them. I'm an expert". Hubris I guess.

I quickly alerted the monks and they took me to room full of giant-screen audiovisual equipment to search the security cameras. I found the yellow-robed techno-monks (they were also the security staff) so incongruous I took a photo of them telling me they'd run out of free disc space just before the theft (see it on facebook!)

Well I could have easily left Chiang Mai, which I was doing in a few hours, without alerting the totally disorganised hirers but instead I handed over 3000 Baht for the bike. Although this is only about $100, to put it in perspective I could have stayed at my hostel for three weeks with that.

I was so depressed the other guests at the hostel took me out to the weekend night market and shouted me a few beers. I'm still getting over it.