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.