Sunday, December 19, 2010

nowhere fast

When exhausted, sore, and frustrated there’s only one place in the world that can completely rejuvenate the soul: the beach. And luckily for Siobhan and myself, we arrived in Sihanoukville with the sun high in the sky and were eager to get a piece of it.

Located in the very south of the country, this backpacker’s paradise has grown exponentially over the years, most likely to its own detriment. Throngs of tourists pass through and faces around town change about as rapidly as new business open up and old ones disappear. Yet there is a constant abundance of guesthouses, restaurants, and bars; so much it becomes bit overwhelming. Basically, it’s a smaller, calmer version of Siem Reap…with a beach. Despite my obvious annoyance with the previous tourist packaged town, this place unexpectedly charmed me. Maybe it was the sea air or the quick and cheap moto escape to a secluded beach, but Sihanoukville (pronounced Sha-nook-ville) had a lot more to offer if you bothered getting off the main strip.

With a plethora of beaches to explore, I made it a personal mission to try them all. The obvious first one we ventured to was Serenity Beach, the main drag completely overcome with beach chairs, restaurants, and locals touting everything under the sun. Massages, books, jewelry, sunglasses, fruit, and hair removal were all up on offer and I wish I could say I never indulged. But newbies smell like fresh meat and the children surrounded us making us “free” bracelets, the gimmick being that out of guilt we’d buy something else. (It worked.) But probably the weirdest thing we purchased, really the weirdest thing I’ve ever done on a beach, ever, was threading.

For those uninformed on the pain that is beauty, threading is a hair removal process where dental floss is used in a way that rips hair from skin. It essentially is waxing without all the pain, or that’s how it was sold to me. Despite the gentle demo, threading turned out to be a painful and torturous activity, at least for me. Everyone else kept calm and quiet about the uncomfortable process, but I could not. Every now and again I couldn’t help but flinch and let out a yelp. Not only did the beautician ladies laugh it up, but so did Siobhan, the seller children, and the other patrons near us. The particularly painful bit was getting my armpits threaded. An odd mix of pain and tickling, I couldn’t stop laughing and screaming, thus confusing and entertaining the masses. “It’s all for the blog,” I whimpered as I vowed never, ever to submit myself to such torture again.

After we washed up and got ready, we headed out for a big night on the town. As it turned out, it was Saturday night and a New Moon, which meant day glow party, and Siobhan and I had yet to go out properly since reuniting. So we wore our worst clothes and prepared as best we could because with these nights, you never know what’s going to happen.

What’s day glow you ask? Any Southeast Asia backpacker knows this substance well and stays away from it, unless of course they’re drunk and it’s a moon party. Then you smoother yourself in the neon colored paint and proceed to scream, “woo hoo!!!”. It’s quite popular because you’ll then glow under a black light and it gives you great excuse to meet new people and draw on them. The downfall? The paint is painfully permanent, meaning anything it touches becomes fated as “moon party wear”, never to see the light of day nor the soil of your homeland.

So our first night we loaded up on paint, whiskey buckets, and had an absolute blast meandering back and forth between beach bars. It was only my first night but already found three different bars wanting to hire me in exchange for drinks and accommodation. While most that night has been erased from my memory, I had it together enough to realize I was going to stick around Sihanoukville for a little while.

One of the greatest and worst things about S.ville is the party always goes until sunrise, no matter what night of the week it is. It took me a few days to adjust, but I always thought it was a great idea to come home, change to my bathing suit, and then head out for some early morning rays. That is unless I passed out during the process.

After only a couple of days it was clear I needed a break and luckily for me one was already scheduled in. Siobhan is an avid diver and was eager to go out to one of the many islands for an overnight diving trip. I was excited to join her and be lazy on the beach while she was out being active. So we signed up with a dive company and set out for Koh Rung, a nearly deserted island 2 ½ hours out from shore.

Since my bad decision making skills are legendary, no one should be surprised to hear I stayed out all night partying only to come home with less than 10 minutes to pack and get ready to go for 3-4 days to the island. Of course Siobhan was livid as she was certain she wasn’t going to see me and was unsure what to do. I threw everything in together, still drunk and not answering questions, and off we ran to catch our ride. I was feeling fine, certain I would sneak some sleep on the boat, until that is I saw the pile of wood.

Not only was there no place to rest my head, but the waves were high, the wind strong, and it was obviously a bad day to be out at sea. No matter, we began our journey with spirits high. After a period of time I became intensely seasick and did my best to hold back the vomit. Some fun was poked at me until everyone saw just how awful I felt and began to show their concern. Suddenly I couldn’t hold it anymore and decided to make my way to the back of the boat so less people would witness the experience, or at least they would be downwind of it.

This proved another bad decision as I had no balancing skills with the boat rocking up and down, back and forth, and I was quickly thrown to the ground with my dress torn and my back scrapped pretty badly. With the wind knocked out of me and my back throbbing, I no longer had to vomit, but still had to endure another hour of tortuous high seas. And there went my theory I was a pirate in another life.

I have never been so happy to see solid ground and promptly laid down attempting to sleep off the seasickness/hangover I was stuck in. By the afternoon I was well enough to walk to the part of the island with the bungalows we were to sleep in. I was still sick, but completely able to appreciate the absolutely stunning scenery around me.

Nestled into the hillside and directly next to the beach, each individual bungalow had its own rustic bathroom and balcony equipped with a hammock and spectacular view. There was only one restaurant on the island and that was the one associated with both our dive shop and guesthouse, only a stone’s throw from our little abode. On our full day there together, after a solid and much needed sleep, Siobhan and I ventured to discover a secluded white sand beach. We walked along the water and through a mini jungle, ducking trees and jumping mud pits. We went until we reached the end of dry ground and even then we had to walk through chest high water to find our perfect beach. Eventually we made it.

Before us lay a long stretch of white super soft sand without a soul in site, the beach curved in a ‘U’ shape, meaning if anyone did walk past us we would see them from far away. It also gave me the absolutely secluded beach I had been seeking my entire time in Asia, or at least since I had read ‘The Beach’. So off came my top and out came my spliff, because I wasn’t going to miss a golden opportunity like this to utterly relax and tan beyond restrictive bikini lines.

Unfortunately, nature has to find balance and there was really only one catch, although it was a pretty awful one: sandflies. Now they sound harmless but truly these are the demonic cousins of mosquitoes. While mosquito bites instantly swell, if you don’t itch them, they go away. But sandfly bites are of another world. They leave only a tiny red dot and aren’t terribly irritating at first. It’s only after you’ve left the scene of the crime and showered that you realize how totally and utterly itchy you are.

While this might be annoying to some, it’s awful for me. You know those people with sweet blood who always get bit more than anyone else in the group? There’s always one and that unfortunate soul is me. While Siobhan suffered a few annoying bites, I was absolutely entirely covered in bright red bumps. The little fuckers preferred my legs to the rest of me, but still managed to get just about everything they could. Not only are these bites obvious and foul looking, but they seemingly never go away. They never stop itching and they itch so fiercely you end up creating scabs, which you will later scratch off as well, and eventually leave you covered in little white scars. Don’t worry, those will itch, too. It has officially been six weeks since the tragedy and I’m still itching. Really. (And yes, that’s how behind on my blog I am.)

So why are sandfly bites worth such a long tangent? Because for the following few weeks if I ever wore shorts I had to deal with people gasping and saying, “My God, what has happened to you?!?”. Their pitiful stares and apologies didn’t make up for the fact that I was now the leper on the beach. Nice timing for me to live in a beach town, eh?

And that was the plan. I decided to settle in S.ville for a week or so bartending while Siobhan headed towards Vietnam. We headed back the next day on a perfectly smooth and gentle boat ride that I could nap through (oh the irony), and spent our last full day together indulging it up with more beach and western food. We even splurged and went to see a movie, the second one I’ve gone to in eight months. This “theater” was simply a large room with papasan chairs that showed pirated new movies. Completely comfortable and relaxed, they offered services such as ordering pizza, free of charge, as was the added “happiness”. And with mini tables equipped with ashtrays, I knew I’d come back to this $3 a flick sweet spot.

Of course there was another night out with memories lost to the buckets we consumed, but it was all well enjoyed nonetheless. The next morning we parted ways, permanently this time, and I was ready to begin the next chapter of my journey. Bartending for bed is not unknown to me and has been something I’d been searching for my entire time in Asia. I resisted the tempting offer in Vang Vieng, but a bar on the beach is not something I could deny. And so I settled in for a week (or so) of complete and utter alcoholism.

Monday, December 13, 2010

black or white

Some people seek out electronics, some diamond jewelry, but I’m on the hunt for a new liver on the black market. Because after all the antics of Vang Vieng, even a detox can’t remedy the damage I’ve done to my body. But since that isn’t an option (at least not until I get back to Bangkok), I opted for rest and relaxation at 4000 Islands. Or so I thought.

Located at the southern border of Laos sits a maze of small rustic islands speckled throughout the Mekong. Up until very recently, even electricity wasn’t available except on the main big island. But as tourism grows on Don Det, the backpacker haven most flock to, everyday brings more modern comforts of home.

Yet despite the increasing number of tourists, there still lacks an ATM machine. This in turn determines a limited amount of time as money eventually runs dry. Of course there are ways around this annoyance as the locals will often sell bus tickets on “credit” and will take you to an ATM promptly when you cross the border into Cambodia or elsewhere. Luckily for me, I was aware of this problem (some are not) and brought an extra emergency fund which extended my four days into over a week. A week of more the same same shenanigans I’d been akin to. It’s not my fault though; I blame the various hooligans I’d been drinking with in Vang Vieng who showed up to “detox” as well, naturally.

While I intended on solitude on Don Det, the Universe had other plans for me. For starters, two girls I met in Vang Vieng showed up on my bus and it was clear calmness wouldn’t be around for the first few days. Luckily, we held it together in the beginning, but mostly because we signed up for an all day kayaking adventure. A tiny splurge I tried to resist, but in the end I was glad I indulged. A full day of exercise, fresh air, and natural beauty is exactly what I needed. Afterwards of course we did our best to resist temptation but truly, the three of us were not to be trusted with each other.

One would think the 11 pm strict curfew would curtail any shenanigans for foreigners, but alas, we always find a way. A porch and bottle of cheap whisky is really all you need. This curfew isn’t really enforced anyway; it’s more or less just the closing time for absolutely everything on the island. Annoying yes, but respectable as the all of the islanders had agreed that peace and quiet is worth more than any amount of money anyone can make from catering to whims of backpackers.

Life is slow on Don Det. There are no main roads as the rocky dirt paths are used by motos, bicycles, feet and nothing more. Water buffalos are trotted back and forth for new grazing and children pile on bikes far too big for them. Time does not exist in the specific form, rather in time periods as “dinner” or “morningish”. Corner shops are the extent of shopping and the only electronic entertainment available is the internet, and for such a steep price it’s best just avoided. Besides, that’s not what Don Det is about.

For some, the island is boring. For me, adaptation wasn’t even necessary as sleeping in, reading in hammocks, long strolls, and late night smokes are apart of my preferred life. I don’t mind not having a schedule or “accomplishing” much as life without obligations is more enjoyable for me. Essentially, this is the spirit of 4000 Islands. Virtually every bungalow comes with a hammock and the best ones are built right over the Mekong River so you can sit back, relax, and relish the beauty and serenity that surrounds you. Despite the peacefulness available everywhere, I did hunt out a particular favorite lounge zone, and it only took a couple of days.

Mama Rasta is the sweetest, craziest old lady on the island and if her joyful spirit doesn’t draw you in, then her cheap delicious food will. Her restaurant’s location is what brought me in but her hearty laugh through her black toothed smile is why I retuned. She has a charm that’s hard to describe and her laid back attitude and desire to please is undeniable. Truly, it is her family that runs the business but without her spirit, they would have nothing. Oh yeah, and they let you smoke freely on the back balcony.

Behind the restaurant is a row of only five rooms for rent but unlike all the other bungalows on the island, these are connected by a giant porch equipped with many hammocks and a table which lends itself to a much more social atmosphere. And with the freedom to smoke, food on hand, and lack of 11 pm curfew, this became the perfect place for me and the crew to hang out. What crew you ask? Why, my favorite alcoholics from Vang Vieng turned up the day the very same day the girls left.

As I was writing my last blog, I left a cliffhanger insinuating I would run into friends on 4000 Islands. The truth was, I hadn’t yet seen anyone other than the two girls, but something inside me knew I wouldn’t be alone long. Roughly 20 minutes after I wrote that last line, a couple of motorbikes drove past and I shouted at them as they were three of my friends from the boat crew: Hoover the plate licker and Ban and Death, my favorite British couple whom I inevitably run into every place I go.

They had rented motos and only had a few days on the island but before they left my favorite alcoholic boys showed up. Four of whom I had met way back in Thailand and two newbies picked up along the way. I quickly showed them to Mama Rasta’s and thus the base camp was set up. This was also the point at which I realized I wasn’t leaving, l wasn’t writing, and should no longer be held responsible for my actions.

Days became even lazier, nights more cloudy, and I couldn’t be happier. Opportunities to have a gang of good friends you’re super comfortable with while laughing at old jokes don’t come around often when one is on the road. And I’ve never been on such a tight schedule I couldn’t add a few extra days for good friends.

We had such a great time together on our last night that I managed to sleep through my bus to Cambodia the following morning. Luckily, people are so laid back on the island they barely batted an eye and simply said, “Yeah, well, go tomorrow.” That simple. No extra costs, new ticket, or hassle. Just an extra day to relax.

The next day I managed to wake up in time for my boat off the island and was ready to begin a new adventure in Cambodia. The journey from one destination to another is often used trying to sleep on an uncomfortable bus and hold your pee. This adventure was no different but involved several bus changes and a border crossing so naturally, some scamming would be involved.

After customs on both sides swindled everyone out of a few dollars for “weekend overtime tax” or whatever they said that day, the bus full of weary travelers bound mostly for Siem Reap was forced to wait an obnoxious amount of time for nothing in particular. During this time, a pleasant well spoken Cambodian made his way around selling tickets to upgrade the bus journey to Siem Reap. Being that this destination is one of the biggest tourist draws in all of Southeast Asia (Angkor Wat’s fault), we should have all seen it coming. Unfortunately, only six of us did.

Everyone else on the bus easily forked over the $3 to upgrade their ticket to a “more comfortable and faster” bus. The group of five Dutch girls sitting behind me and myself didn’t buy the ticket, nor the bullshit the guy was selling. He really tried with us as well, giving us a special discount offered to no one else. We insisted our already purchased tickets would get us to Siem Reap and even if it wasn’t until 4 in the morning, we were backpackers and well prepared for the adventure. I’m glad I stayed strong with the girls because when the bus stopped for dinner and for everyone to change to their comfortable bus, it became clear everyone had been bamboozled.

There was no special upgrade bus. The salesman had mysteriously disappeared with everyone’s cash and left them with nothing but useless paper tickets and a lesson well learned. We all piled on the same bus, everyone patting us on the back for seeing through his convincing argument, and arrived inconveniently after midnight and after 16 hours of exhausting traveling.

Being that I was already enmeshed with the Dutch girls, we stayed together in a hotel for a couple of nights while I located my friend Siobhan who I knew was somewhere in town. Pronounced nearly like ‘Shivon’, this English girl with the crazy Irish name and I had met months ago on my first day in Pai, Thailand. We clicked right away and had originally planned to meet up sometime in Laos. But as I move quite slowly and she bounded around constantly, I had assumed I’d never see her again, unless it was in her hometown of Manchester. But somehow it worked out that she bad been to twice as many places as I and was settling for one week to volunteer at an orphanage roughly the same time I’d be cruising through Siem Reap.

So I moved hotels as the two of us got on a lot better and I’m not akin to traveling in a large group of girls. (They move too slowly, can’t make decisions, and never bullshit as much as I enjoy.) So while Siobhan spent the days being helpful and productive, I slept in, relished the wifi access in the room, and explored the tourist trap that is Siem Reap.

Being that I just came from quiet, peaceful, and secluded 4000 Islands, Siem Reap was a rude awakening of poverty, dirtiness, scams, and an endless stream of people selling crap. From postcards to massages, all the children and legless men never stop hassling the continuous stream of tourists pile driving through town.

For those unaware, this is because the ancient ruins and impossible to miss Angkor Wat is located just outside of town. While this generates steady income for Cambodians in the area, it has also created an environment of ‘sell, sell, sell’ that I simply have no interest it. On my first full day I actually started to sprint away at one point shouting “no means no!”, and thus why I found sanctuary in our chilled out hotel.

At some point, I needed to venture out and actually visit these ruins I truly was fascinated to see. I hired a cheap moto driver for the day and hummed the Indiana Jones theme the whole day while flying through the seemingly endless ruins. Spread out over miles of flat terrain, this place is easy enough to navigate on a bike, but only if you buy the three day ticket. Time, money, and patience didn’t allow for this with me and I opted for the quickie one day tour of the most fascinating and beautiful temples.

The Temples of Angkor were built in the early 12th century and are spread out over a large area. These religious buildings were apart of daily life in this once bustling metropolis center of the ancient world. The most famous temple is Angkor Wat and while this is only one of many temples, it is the namesake for which travelers identify the entire area. It is indeed the most well-intact temple I’ve ever seen but most famous for being the world’s largest religious site. Time had forgotten other sites though as nature overtook what it pleased, the massive structures entwined with monstrous trees and vines.

Before visiting, I had conjured up images of Tomb Raider and Congo, yet there was nothing dangerously exciting about these ruins. Just hordes of old, fanny pack wearing, incessant picture taking tour groups blocking all my shots. I tried to borrow a couple of them to take pictures of me but they seemed to misunderstand what I wanted as my feet made the photo, but the ruins did not.

Don’t take my cynicism the wrong way: the Temples of Angkor are an overwhelmingly beautiful place I’d highly recommend someone traveling through Asia to visit. But the throngs of tourists and beggar children can’t help but ruin a bit of the grandiose splendor that is Angkor Wat.

While Siem Reap is the problem, it is also the cure. Achy feet soothed by cheap massages, weary souls filled by delicious western food, and an endless supply of 50 cent beer to cure just about any ailment. Despite the extremely obvious poverty, this is the place to indulge. And if you couldn’t be bothered to even think about money conversions, you don’t have to. Cambodia reales aren’t worthless, but they might as well be.

Dollars are the choice of currency and shoeless children pander whatever they can get (accompanied with a sad puppy face) begging for “one doll-aaar miss”. Sure it is only one dollar, but it also encourages these kids to skip school and not develop a craft or skill. It should also be noted the money never goes to the children directly because their parents are usually nearby with an eagle eye taking whatever they get as soon as they get it. If you want to help, you’re better off buying them some food or donating to an orphanage directly.

When the time came for us to leave Siem Reap, I was more than ready to go. I had been seeking the beach for a couple months and I was now only a bus ride away. With a final wander down tourist alley we regenerated ourselves with food and shopping and prepared to leave this oxymoron two faced town of Siem Reap. Siobhan and I had decided to stay together for another leg to Sihanoukville before inevitably parting ways again. We drove right through the gritty capital of Phnom Penh (ok, not drove through. Another bus scam left us with 4 hours to spare in the crack of dawn with nothing to do but try and sleep on some uncomfortable chairs. Somehow not surprised). When we finally arrived in Sihanoukville nearly 6 hours later than expected, we were tired and desperate for sand and sun. And of course, shenanigans. And shenanigans is what we got.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

rock and roll all night, party everyday

Time in Laos cannot be measured in minutes, hours, nor days. Weeks will flow by without any effort and you will wonder where your schedule has gone, along with your shirt. Most likely, both were lost while tubing down the river in Vang Vieng.

My introduction to Laos was crazy, yet merely a premonition of what was to come. I was taking the slow boat cruise from the border of Thailand to Luang Prabang and it would take two full days of sitting patiently on a long boat with about 100 other travelers. I chose this route specifically for this time schedule, and I came armed with entertainment equipment (namely booze and herbs). This journey was rumored to be the best way to get into Laos, particularly if you get a good group of people on your boat. And man, did I luck out.

After a lot of unnecessary debate if there were too many people for the boat or not, we boarded the jenky wooden vessel and I went straight to the back. I recognized one person from Pai, although we never got to know each other well. I took the seat next to him and within minutes, there were three of us loudly quoting Anchorman. To me, this is an instantaneous sign of friendship. That, and these English and Irish blokes were already on the bottle so I knew I came to the right people. Soon enough a group had been formed: the loud alcoholics in the back, and I, of course, fit right in. The long day seemed longer with substance abuse, but we were happy and having fun nonetheless.

That night we slept on a small island and created small havoc. The four of us rooming together was enough damage, I’m sure. There was the Brit, the Irish, and then the other American known as Hoover because he would lick your plate clean, whether you offered it or not. And you can’t forget Mr. Money, our host and apparent drug dealer as he was trying to pawn everything under the sun (and for a good price too). Of course we met up with the rest of the boat crew again and tried to hold it together.

The next day was more of the day before. Only this time we were already damn good friends using sign language to communicate and finishing each other’s sentences. It was all about taking the piss out of each other and for Rob, the legend from Manchester, it was about taking out his balls (or mangina….whichever he was in the mood for). That night we disembarked and it was sad to see our crew already separating, but luckily we had at least a few days together. And I was rooming with a couple of those ridiculous boys and acting as if we were siblings in another life.

Luang Prabang itself is a quaint, adorable town with good architecture, food, and a daily night market. Don’t forget, Laos had been conquered by the French long ago and they left behind good architecture and baguette sandwiches. (I have had a large, cheap, and delicious baguette sandwich nearly every day I’ve been here. If I missed a day, it wasn’t intentional.) The town itself had not much to offer but a temple with a good view, some waterfalls, and a great night market. But for our boat crew, it was more about hitting the bottle and having a good laugh. Soon enough, our crew slowly dispersed; some stayed behind and some moved on. Luckily, most of us caught up together in Vang Vieng, the next stop on the backpacker trail.

Vang Vieng is a black hole for those with addictions or who are easily tempted. The town is small, laid back, and set in one of the most gorgeous backdrops I’ve seen. At some point in time, bars filled with drunken foreigners overran the place and completely obliterated whatever culture was there before. It’s sad to see from a cultural perspective, but the reality is I participated (and thusly contributed) just as much as anyone else. And to be honest, I don’t regret any of it.

The most popular activity by far is to float down the river in an inner tube; something I’ve done many times before in Chico. But nothing like this. The river is lined with bars made from leftover planks of wood and spray painted sheets with signs urging you to drink free whiskey shots before you swing down their homemade zip lines. Just looking at these contraptions makes me feel the pain of breaking my face and scares me something fierce. Yet for some reason, foreigner after stupid foreigner marches up these towers to swing into the river, more often than not doing something stupid and creating a huge, painful splash accompanied by laughter from the crowd. I’m pretty sure an entire episode of ‘American’s Funniest Home Videos’ could be dedicated to these zip lines. And don’t forget the slides. They’ve been made with wood, lined with plastic picnic table covers, and a small hose lends itself as lubricant. Classy.

So to summarize, you get dropped at the top of the river, get free whisky, and then there is very little floating to be done between bars which makes it more of a day bar crawl in your bathing suit than a floating event. No less fun though. And at these bars, people get crazy. No sarcasm, no exaggeration; everyone is spray painted, playing drinking games, dancing, and partying like 18 year olds who have just been let out of the house for the first time. And no, the majority of people there were not 18. The average age is probably around 24. (And no, no one can ever guess my age correctly, Thank God.) With zip lines, mud volleyball pits, and spray paint, trouble is bound to ensue. I’m proud to say I’ve survived this event….twice.

When the sun goes down, and hopefully a shower has taken place, that’s when the real partying begins. Oh yes folks, it gets crazier. Sure there are some bars in town, great for warming up. Maybe play a game of pool or cards while drinking opium tea or a mushroom shake, just to start the night. But don’t forget to make your way to the Bucket Bar on bar island before 10 pm for your free bucket of whiskey coke. Yes, free, and there are a couple of places that promote this way so if you make your rounds just right, you’ll be sloshed for free. And if you miss the time limit, no worries, these buckets are dirt cheap anyways and pretty much anyone will let you drink theirs. There’s no formal greeting in Vang Vieng such as “Hi, my name is Stephanie”. It’s more like, “wooo hoooo!!”, drink from a stranger’s bucket, and then continue dancing. Yes, that’s’ more accurate.

The nights can easily continue until 4 am and without even noticing you’ll have been dancing for 5 hours straight. If you’ve built up an appetite (or simply have the drunk munchies), you’ll appreciate the army of women waiting across the bridge from the island bars. As you walk towards them (and there’s no way not to) they will begin shouting “Sandwich! Pancake!” nonstop and beg to cook some amazing cheap eats for you. There’s no difference in menu, quality, or price between these dozen women so just pick one and then decide if you want a giant sandwich for $1.25 or sweet or savory crepe for just as cheap. I’m not sure if I made it a single walk home without indulging, but then again I’m not known for my self control.

Despite all the intoxication and recovery, I managed to get out and do something not involving alcohol. Once. In need of adventure and exercise, I rented a bicycle and headed out in search of the infamous blue lagoon. Vang Vieng is surrounded by caves and lagoons, and truly the ideal way to see most of them is by motorbike. But because I love riding bikes, and because I was unaware how horrific and difficult the roads would be, I opted for the “leisurely” tour. The muddy, wrecked path would have been a bad decision if it were not for the friends I made along the way. Not long after I headed out, I was joined by a fellow biker and eventually a young deaf local boy who prompted our direction. Signs for various lagoons were abundant and we weren’t exactly sure where to go, so we inevitably followed his lead. Knowing full well this boy was looking for a tip, we couldn’t deny his endearing charm. Without a language barrier, since he spoke no language, he was all smiles and sweetness and we followed him all the way to his lagoon and cave. After a quick swim and then a treacherous climb, he did a fantastic job being our guide into the dark, watery cave. No other tourists were inside as we crawled and climbed through the slippery abyss. Eventually he asked for some money and I didn’t mind it so much as he made for great entertainment and photos.

Finally, we could make it on our own to real blue lagoon (of course the one he brought us to was a fake). The crystal clear blue water had a massive thick tree bounding up over it with not one, but two levels to jump off of. Naturally, a thick swinging rope was attached and thus created the most fun and beautiful blue lagoon. After a much needed sandwich and swim, a group of us teamed up to explore some more caves. At the end of this long and sweaty adventure, it was time to shower, relax, and prepare for another night out. And possibly fire limbo. Because fire limbo is always an option.

If this all sounds a bit too crazy, no worries, there’s plenty of ways to relax in Vang Vieng. The town is lined with TV bars in which restaurants have set up comfortable tables/beds facing towards the TVs at the front and then play movies or shows all day. Some bars are infamous for playing only Family Guy or Friends. Some will play only movies but you can ask them for whatever you want. The food is good, the fruit shakes refreshing, and the opportunity to veg out all day undeniable. If this wasn’t enough reason to waste time for me, then my hotel room alone was.

For a mere $5 a day, I had the biggest and most comfortable bed I’ve known in 7 months, a terrific hot shower and private bathroom, free drinking water, wifi in my room, and a TV loaded with English channels, including HBO. I could hibernate there all winter. And if all of this weren’t enough, I was completely surrounded by friends. From Pai to the boat cruise, I couldn’t walk down the street without bumping into someone I knew (and liked). It’s easy to get stuck in a place like this; something so familiar and comfortable. Life didn’t seem to get any easier or cheaper, but it was only a matter of time before my liver and lungs would give out. And after just over a week I left for the very same reason everyone leaves Vang Viang: detox.

Unfortunately my bus to Vientiane had people I knew on it so I knew I’d be in for trouble there as well. Not as dangerous though as the capital doesn’t seem to have much going on in the way of nightlife. But I was lucky to have roommates again and the entertainment never ceases when you’re with Jay and Silent Bob. Well, Jack was less inappropriate than Jay but the Russian was just as silent and creepy as Bob. He claimed he couldn’t speak English but understood everything we said as well as reacted with hand gestures and facial expressions.

The three of us were on a mission to get free two month visas for Thailand from the Thai embassy. (You only get two weeks crossing the border. But if you apply for it beforehand direct from their embassy, you get up to two months.) It normally takes two days, but for me it would take three. Somehow, I’ve managed to fill my passport up with stamps so I only have one page left and they refused to use it. This meant I had to go to the US embassy first, apply for more pages, fork out nearly $90, and then go back the next day and try again. It was a frustrating few days but after a long stroll I realized it’s nothing compared to my bad days at home. Because at the end of this day, I had some cheap wine, went out with some friends, had a good laugh, and remembered how lucky I was to be exactly where I was.

After I ran into more boat cruise members and made more friends off of random tuk-tuks, it was time for me to go. I’ve been aching, ever since I got to Pai over five weeks ago, to be on my own. To clear my head, focus on where I’m going, and hopefully get some much needed writing done. The last five weeks had been very distracting and since I also lack all self-control, it was time to put myself in an environment where there are no temptations. So I booked an overnight bus ticket to 4000 Islands in the south of Laos; a place of serenity, peace, and quiet. Or so I thought.

Vang Vieng Whisked by whiskey engulfed in psychedelic blended fungus smoothie the substance dependent blissed tourists stumbles and mumbles “hello”. He is a damp flesh figure masqueraded in spray paint patterns serving as a tribute to the farang cluster fuck celebrating “holiday”. Such beautiful lethal lead saturated paint designs advertising sinful adolescence convey messages of truth, beauty and meaning such as “cunt” or “too fucked to fuck” The later statement of which I question due to the sloshing of Tiger Whiskey, Hormones and Energy Drink concocted in a plastic bucket equipped with two straws for you and yours truly… a romantic get away accompanied with fire limbo, vomit and the more often then not plastered tourist physically stumbling into your conversation just to say “Because you HAVE to party!”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

bigger than my body

While Pai was beautiful and amazing for an endless list of reasons, the best one is you meet wonderful people there. Sure these travelers love a good drink, night out, and a bit of ridiculousness. But in general, they are laid back, fun, and good natured people who share the same sense of humor. Or at least the ones that I met were. And the best part is that those friendships have stayed with me for weeks beyond Pai as backpackers inevitably follow the same path around Southeast Asia.

Accidental run-ins are inevitable and luckily more welcomed than anything. One friend introduces another, then a recommendation given, and then a cool hostel discovery, and then you get an unforgettable experience, new travel partners, and a ton of great stories to take with you. These chain of events can be considered “coincidences”, but they happen far too often and are too interlinked to be left solely up to chance. At least I’d like to believe so. It seems the more you open yourself up to these opportunities and let go of a schedule, the more of these “coincidences” will come your way.

The morning I was meant to leave Pai, I got up early to help with a gardening project someone had convinced me to participate in the night before. But the leader had overslept and after awhile I knew I was better off just leaving. At the same time, a girl with her own bike, whom I never met, was going into town to leave as well and offered me a ride. When we reached Pai I asked if she wanted to have breakfast together and she (luckily) suggested my favorite restaurant, The Good Life. I figured it was fate since I could finally manage to catch the free meditation class I always slept through. But after she left, I became distracted, and even though I was 20 minuets early for the class, I
somehow missed it. Don’t ask how, just trust the Universe knew to distract me.

When I became visibly upset for missing the class (yet again) the owner of the restaurant starting chatting with me and as I said goodbye, she offered a compliment about my purse. I offhandedly replied, “It would look a lot better if it weren’t broken”, as the button snap had been destroyed for well over a month. She told me where to get it taken care of and in fact, Dr. Fix-it was standing right next to me. She explained in Thai, he looked at my purse, and then we hopped on his moto and drove to his shop aka bench on the side of the road. While sitting and waiting for this quick and easy fix, an old Pai friend strolled by. “I thought you left!” I exclaimed and he then explained he had, returned only for a couple of nights, but was leaving again that day.

It turned out we were going to the same place, Chiang Mai, and instead of taking the bus like everyone else, he and his mother had rented a car and offered me a ride. They weren’t leaving until much later than I planned, but then again, I never really have any plans. I had a gut feeling though that if the Universe offered me this ride, and through such a chain of coincidental events, I must take it. (If the gardening guy had woken up in time or if I had made the class for example, I would never have run into this friend on the side of the street.) And thankfully it lead me to one of the best mini road trips ever.

My South African friend and his mother were both laid back hippies who smoked the whole way there and cranked Hendrix nonstop. It was great conversation, beautiful scenery, and a million times better than any bus ride. They offered to take me to the hotel they would be staying at and even though I already had another place in mind, I was sure this ride was meant to take me somewhere specific. It turns out, their hotel was actually a reggae bar with some rooms to rent for cheap. Freedom Bar had Bob Marley and Rasta colors on every wall and I knew this rooftop bar would be my new home.

While my friend and his mother left early the next day, there remained a lingering spirit of Pai as it seemed people I never thought I’d see again all managed to find this sweet spot. There were also new people who were Pai bound without even knowing it. We passed along our recommendations and secrets and if the Universe brought me to Freedom Bar for anything, maybe it was to send certain people in the direction of Pai. Without any effort, I had a group of friends and never worried about spending an evening alone, even if I wanted to. With friends to eat with and shop at the market, I found surprisingly little free time to myself, every second relished nonetheless.

Chiang Mai is surprisingly addictive for such a large city; the food is delectable, the people kind, and the overwhelmingly large night market undeniable. Not surprisingly, I stayed longer than expected. First, it was an entire day’s mission to buy a new camera, as my old one had mysteriously disappeared months ago in South Korea (okay, less mysterious and more drunkenly left it in some bar….I think). That was a surreal and frustrating experience as it was like being in a mall back home, Auntie Anne’s and all. The overwhelming and frustrating day luckily ended with Freedom Bar, my new home away from Pai.

The daily night market in Chiang Mai is particularly large, yet the Sunday night one is disturbingly big. I have never seen anything like this and while I was ready to scream because of all the clusterfuck action, I managed to pull it together and get some shopping done. Part of me wished it was the end of my trip so I could go nuts and get gifts for everyone from there. Alas, the experience of endless stalls filled with beautiful yet cheap art and jewelry was enough to satisfy my consumer driven soul.

While Thailand itself is known for great cuisine, the north is in particular famous for exquisite flavor combinations. With influence from so many Burmese refugees and an inundation of foreigners setting up shop, delicious food is bound to be found on every corner, and everywhere in between. But even with all these unique tastes and local cheap eats, I couldn’t resist El Diablo’s Heavenly Burritos. Normally I balk at Mexican food around the world. After all, I am from California and my standards are unfortunately high. But something about the look of this place drew me in. The irony of the sign alone was intriguing. Then when I saw the sign for ‘free chips and salsa’ I knew something was right. (Californians take this gift for granted as I have never seen such an offer outside the States.) So I held my breath and ordered a burrito smothered in guacamole.

Most may not understand why I take so much time and energy to describe one meal of my life, but if you knew me and my adoration for Mexican food, you’d understand what a huge moment this was for me. This was, by far, the best burrito I’ve found outside of California and, to be honest, if it were home, it I would eat there regularly. Because of lack of supplies, everything had to be made fresh and from scratch, which beats most places from home as tortillas are cheaper and faster store bought. It was so good I had to ask for the owner just to shake his hand. The American born gentleman found my extreme love of burritos hilarious and we had a good chat while I entertained ideas of opening my own burrito shop somewhere in the world.

By this point, it became hard to leave Freedom Bar. Not only had I acquired a gang, but the locals who ran it were super generous and fun. This group of Thai hippie guys had one leader: Mama. The sweetest, tiniest old lady who lived in pajamas and drank and smoked like a champ was always making food and sharing with the guests, free of charge. To say she genuinely cared about people would be an understatement. And when they didn’t have any greens to sell, the “manager” just gave me his stash for free. When I didn’t take it all, he dumped it out on my table and said, “No, I said it’s all for you. Just take it”, as if not taking all of his supplies was rude. It’s hard to imagine staying there longer than a week because I would be straight up family by then.

But unfortunately my time was up. Giving myself not a single extra day on my visa, I had to get to Laos or face horrifying late exit fees. I had heard rumors of a free two month visa one could acquire from the Thai embassy in Laos, and I knew before I even left I had to get this. There was no way two weeks would ever be enough in Thailand.

And so I set out for Laos via an overnight bus to the border and then a slow boat cruise into the first main city. As I mentally prepared myself to be on my own for the first time, the Universe was busy planning something else.

Monday, November 1, 2010

life is a highway...

I’m a writer. That means I’m disorganized, messy, scatterbrained, and perpetually late. Okay, that’s a stereotype but at least that describes me. What this means is without deadlines, I’m bound to fall behind. Never mind the fact I’ve been attempting to write articles for other sources and have accumulated a large group of friends which has left little free time to myself, neither of which I can complain about. All I can use it for is explanation as to why my blogs are so late. And let’s be honest, they probably never will be anything else.

When I last left off in my journey, I was in love with Pai, the small hippie mountain town in the north of Thailand. Motor scooters were cheap and fun, so I rented one for a few days to get out on the open road. I headed toward Mae Hung Son because the journey was a winding, mountainous, and thusly scenic one, but also because the long neck Karen tribe was something I had been fascinated in seeing for many years.

Visiting this tribe is most commonly done with a tour group; the lone wanderer is rare and I was proud to be able to make it there on my own. The long neck Karen is a group of hill tribe people from the north of Burma who have escaped because of prejudice and genocide. They’re not technically granted legal refugee status in Thailand, and thusly are confined to tiny areas where tourists are ushered through so they can have some financial income. While strolling through, one is inundated with “saleswomen” offering the same same crap, yet knowing their story and taking a million pictures dictates I buy some things.

What makes this tribe unique is the tradition of wrapping the women’s necks with thick gold wire, starting when they are just young girls. Over time, the band becomes longer and as they reach their elder years, their coiled necks appear elongated and giraffe-like. In reality, the heavy metal is pushing down their shoulders and breaking those bones. After years of wearing these bands, the women become unable to take them off without having to hold their own head up. While this practice seems barbaric, it’s no different from the aesthetic surgery we do today in the western world: purposefully causing harm to one’s body under the assumption what they’re doing will make them more beautiful. And remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The truth is this tradition need not be continued, particularly since its main purpose now is to attract tourists, as that is their sole income. Oddly enough, I was both apart of the problem and solution (income they need vs. perpetuating the dilemma). What these people really need is refugee status, a home to call their own, and a return to “normal” life. One focused on family, community, and agriculture, namely, an ability to create their own wealth and responsibility for it. Regardless of all of the politics though, it was a life dream of mine to meet them in person and learn more about this unique culture.

Mae Hung Son has much more to offer though; scenic rolling roads, natural hot springs, mud baths, and picturesque waterfalls. And the best gems are the hidden ones. If there’s no sign in English, and it’s seems to be something, then it must be good. After taking some chances, I finally abandoned the beaten path in lieu of adventure. And I discovered an amazing hidden waterfall that coincided perfectly with the timing of my reading ‘The Beach’. (For those who have only seen the movie and haven’t read the book, you’re missing out.)

What was normally a climb I would have never attempted, I was filled with drive and desire to seek out the untouched and selfishly soak in the beauty for myself. I stripped down to my bathing suit, abandoned my shoes and bag, and began to climb up the slippery slope to the middle pool of the double waterfall. I’m not going to lie, I struggled. But with effort comes reward and I not only didn’t die, but I finally discovered an amazing off the beaten path spot that I could call my own. Am I the only foreigner ever to discover this spot? Probably not. But for that moment, I was the only one and that’s something to be appreciated.

The best part about my entire motorcycle journey was being so free. Without anyone else’s opinion but my own, I turned down dirt paths when I wanted, ate when and where I desired, and drove wherever my spirit called me. Nothing is quite as freeing as having the wind in your hair, the open road at your feet, and nobody but your own mind to corrupt you. In these few days I began to concoct my plan to buy motorcycle and travel the entirety of Central America. (This fantasy will become a reality….one day.)

My return to Pai was sad but enjoyable. Even though I was certain everyone I knew had left, somehow some returned, some stayed longer than expected, and then of course the locals and ex-pats are always around. I decided to spend my last day checking out an organic farm just outside of town I had only recently found out about. I took a bamboo course in which I made several kitchen items out of bamboo with a machete. It’s hard work but made much easier when your Thai teacher just shakes their head, laughs at you, and does a much better job himself and then gives you the near finished product. Nonetheless, it was the experience I appreciated.

The farm itself was a shining example of what a collaborative organic farm should be. The owner had the land in his family for many generations and he thought it necessary to preserve it the best way possible. Everything was used, nothing wasted, with purpose and appreciation behind it all. He welcomes help with open arms and offers super cheap accommodation and food in exchange for whatever work you wanted to offer. From gardening to teaching English, the hours and effort is up to you, yet a community of laid-back helpful people has grown. That night was filled with positive energy, wonderful people, and more stars than I’ve seen in far too long. It was the perfect end to Pai, and the perfect beginning of a new adventure.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

alright now

After sufficiently stuffing myself with noodles and spring rolls in Vietnam, I headed over to Thailand to continue stuffing myself with more noodles and spring rolls. Really, you would think I would get tired of the ‘same same’ meals, but no. Authentic food always tastes best in the country it’s made in and I never plan on taking that for granted. Lord knows when I’m back in the States griping about the lack of spiciness and paying eight times the price, I’ll remember fondly the street pad thai, made fresh and delicious for less than a dollar.

For no one reason in particular, Thailand has always been my number one destination. Since I first split off form convention and dedicated myself to discovering the world, I said I’ve wanted to go to Thailand more than any other place. But even at that time, I knew it had to wait. I knew I would go when the Universe told me to, and I knew I had to actively work on my spice tolerance.

Thanks to the Food Network, I learned early on that Thai food has been considered some of the spiciest in the world. I was unfortunately born with a highly sensitive palate and could rarely take even the hint of chili powder. But when Thailand became my top destination, I knew I had to work on that. I purposely tortured myself with spicy food for years, thinking “it’s all for Thailand”. It soon became one of the top three on my must-do list: to eat Thai food with the locals and as spicy as they eat it. And six years after I began practicing, I was ready for the challenge.

And damn is Thai food spicy and delicious! While cuisine from the north to south is widely different, it all plays with a mixture of tastes: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. What this means is everything you eat will be super tasty. But I’ve been insisting on spicy with every meal and have subsequently burned the taste buds off my tongue, meaning I now want everything I eat to be extremely spicy. Oops, overkill. But on the bright side .I accomplished my goal of eating like a local. And one papaya salad (the spiciest of all, yet continually makes my mouth drool like Pavlov’s dog just by writing it) was even finished without any water. None during or even after (I didn’t have access to it one time).

Luckily, pretty much every place in Thailand can make a mean pad thai. This means from 3 am street snacks to sitting at an actual restraint, cheap and delicious pad thai is nearly on call. And don’t forget the spring rolls, fresh fruit on a stick, or curries. Amazing food is so cheap and easy to come by, I have yet to eat a bad meal or break the bank. I suppose that isn’t a good combination for my waistline, but I’d rather blame the daily Chang beer.

I suppose before I indulge too much into the food (too late), I should continue with the storyline of my journey. The day we arrived in Bangkok it just so happened to be some Buddhist holiday (or so we’re told) which meant they were running a deal with the government tuk-tuk drivers. First, what’s a tuk-tuk?

Tuk-tuks are a cross between taxis and petty cabs; a driver on a motorbike pulls a covered cart that can hold approximately three people. They’re fun, cheap, and uber Thai. At first when the locals were coming up to us and trying to help without being prompted, we assumed there would be compensation involved. But no, the land of smiles has been running low in the tourism department; a combination of political strife and the world’s foul economy. Subsequently, both the government and the general population have tried their best to give tourists a great experience. And so far I’d agree that Thai people are a very warm, helpful, and friendly group of people.

So this first day in Bangkok we were aiming for a huge market that happened to be closed and all the locals were telling us about some holiday and a tuk-tuk deal. We had to grab specifically a government run tuk-tuk and for only 20 baht (70 US cents) we’d get a tour of the area, including all the temples we wanted to see. The only catch was we had to stop and look at a tailor’s and a tour agency, neither of which we wanted to see. The funny (and annoying) part was when walked out after not much time, we had to return later and agree to stay 20 minutes or else the driver wouldn’t receive his government funded gas money. (He had to get a signature from the agent we spoke with to guarantee he held up his part of the deal.) It was all some crazy scam, but not a scam at all really. Because we still got to see what we wanted to, had a personal chauffeur all afternoon, and all for super cheap.

That evening we were joined by the missing link friend, Dana, and our first night on the crazy Khao San Road ensued. Dana and I met in Malta and have probably spent more time together in different countries (four of them) together than in our own country. She is also a fellow Chico chica and that’s probably why we have so many hobbies in common.

Our night out though was nothing compared to the legendary craziness and drunken debauchery that is Khao San Road. During high season, it’s jam packed with lady boys, barmen shouting their drink deals, unending food stalls, and drunk farang (foreigners) having the time of their lives. It’s all a bit over the top, but something that must be experienced, that’s for sure.

During the day, Khao San is much calmer and great for shopping, but still a bit nuts. There food stalls remain as well as some crazies, but mostly the street is lined with vendors selling cute singlets (tank tops), jewelry, and kitschy stuff. But mostly great clothes and you can’t help but indulge in the cheap prices. But no matter how cheap something is, you always bargain for half, then work your way to the middle. It’s apart of their culture really, and if you don’t participate, you’re missing out. But there is only so much time I can spend at a market. Up and down endless isles of the same, same but different crap. People talking at you, pestering you to come over. It gets to be too overwhelming.

One of the night markets we spent some time in was interesting for another reason: the infamous ping pong show. What’s a ping pong show you ask? Well, you don’t really want to know. But since you asked…. There are these “sex shows” in which girls shoot ping pong balls out of their, umm, you know. Ho-hahs. Weird, right? Well that’s not all. These guys are constantly coming up to you in the street advertising “you want see ping pong show?” and holding out a (laminated?) list of everything his girl can do with their vaginas. I’m not even sure what they do exactly, because the list just read ‘cigarettes, fish, pool ball, razor blades, electric, etc.’. Electric? Electric what? And hamsters? Really? It gives me the creeps. Yet I’m not going to lie, I’m a little curious. I haven’t had the opportunity (or the stomach) to experience one yet, but wouldn’t cross it off my list.

The ping pong shows were at Khao San Road (obviously) as well as the night market, but oddly enough the market was set up on a street of strip clubs. And all their doors were open. It was weird, watching the girls lazily dance or just stand there staring back at you. I would wonder what they were thinking; what their lives must be like. And then I’d get distracted by a cute pair of earrings and continue along the market. It’s a crazy world, that is Bangkok. That’s why it was a good thing to get out of there in two days.

We quickly made our way to Sukothai, a town 7 hours north, chalk full of ancient ruins and oozing with charm. Maybe it was great because of the hostel we stayed in where it was quiet, comfortable, and had everything we needed. We were floored about the free bicycles to ride into town or out to the ruins, even though they were kind of jenky. Really jenky actually. In two days we used seven bikes, six of which broke down in some way or another. But if it wasn’t for that flat tire, we never would have had such a great encounter though.

After some Jimmy-guided off-roading, both Dana and I got flat tires in which we had to walk our bikes to town (not the most enjoyable task in the intense heat of the sun). But eventually after asking around, we found the bike fix-it shop where a wrinkled and hunched over little lady came out not saying a word. She directly put the bike on its side and ushered us to have a seat. She got to work right away, peeling off the tire, sorting out the hole, fixing it and blowing it back up. Even filled the other tire as well. The woman who fixed my bike was not as old, but just as quiet and mysterious as well. In a matter of moments our frustrating situation was fixed, and while I assumed they could charge us whatever they wanted, it was still only 70 cents. Amazing!

The ancient ruins of Sukothai were well worth the effort of getting there though. Stretched out over miles, a bike is best if you want see everything quickly. Plus, it’s part of the adventure. The monolithic Buddha statues have near but all crumbled down, yet their lingering grandiosity still leaves one with their jaw-dropped. Everyone who visits becomes mute as they individually wander around and snap as many angles as they can. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded so most of the shots are without people in them. Although, it did seem to be school field trip day… for everyone. All in all, it was an active, interesting, and fabulous day. But those don’t run dry in Thailand at all really.

On the last night in our new, sleek, and cushy bungalows, our roof started to leak. I was awake reading when I started to notice the foot of the bed sopping wet. It was storming outside and it must have been going for awhile. It wasn’t a big fuss; we just slept in another room for the night. But it’s the point that matters. Sometimes in life, a little rain must fall.

While traveling with Jim, Mandy, and Dana had been fun, it had also been at a much different pace and energy than I prefer. They had less than one month to spend in the whole of Thailand and I knew I’d be longer. So we parted ways after Sukothai, they to go camping, see Chang Mai, and then head south. I headed north to Pai, to figure out where I was going.

Now I already wrote a whole blog about the love that is Pai, but I could really continue into infinity. Now more than ever, being that I’ve spent two and a half weeks here. I find it frightening to think of leaving, so I just have to trust that I will be back. One day for sure, and two weeks won’t be enough.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

all the small things

A backpacker’s life is never dull. Everyone moves at their own pace; some find a new city every couple of days and some linger for months on end. No matter how fast or slow you go, everyday is filled with new and interesting things. From trying foods for the first time to observing strange cultural differences, one can write home everyday about the things they’ve seen and done. Keep this in mind as you think I couldn’t possibly write anything else about Vietnam.

Nha Trang is a growing city built next to a long stretch of perfect beach. The sand is soft, the sun is hot, and the nightlife is good. The beach was a three minute walk from our $10 a night hotel and the sun shined every day we were there. Of course it rained a bit too each day, but I’m getting used to this monsoon business and by renting a bungalow, you simply hide under it during the 20 minute shower. But the rest of the time was hot and gorgeous; perfect for sunbathing and relaxing.

Actually, you couldn’t completely relax because there were heaps of locals pestering to sell an endless pile of crap. They would pace in front of you, sit on your chair, touch you, and chastise you until you bought something or clearly pissed them off. Sometimes it was snacks, jewelry, or art, but there even was a constant stream of book sellers and masseuses begging you to buy their goods or services. If you dared buy something, you were going to have to bargain hard for it and endure their ridiculous comments. The younger the seller, the ruder and funnier they got. “Why you Cheap Charlie?”, one spat as we argued over a quarter for Mentos. Annoying yes, but it makes for great dinner conversation later on.

In an effort not to be entirely lazy, we took a day tour on a boat (hung-over nonetheless). It was a great day of island hopping that seemed to get better and more random as the day went on. I started off by buying some crazy colored sombrero party hats, because we were the only foreigners on the tour and if we’re going to stand out, we might as well have fun with it. The highlight of the day was the “musical performance” where a makeshift drum set and guitar were busted out and the center row of seats turned into a stage.

First, a young girl with sparkle jeans and her shirt tied up starting singing. Then came our male tour guide dressed in a women’s bikini, top stuffed and all. We couldn’t stop laughing as he pulled us on the “stage” dancing and rubbing his “boobs” in everyone’s face. Then came a volunteer from the audience to perform and somehow finagled me onstage to sing (God only knows why) Britney Spears. This man in his spandex flowered swim trunks was born for the stage. It was a total riot.

Nha Trang was the first place we found with legitimate nightlife. Jim and I could finally dance our hearts out all night long to good music. Well, dancing is a loose term. By ‘dancing’, for Jim, I mean, crawling in the sand, pulling down poles in bars, and elbowing people in the head; all in the name of Lady Gaga. No matter how embarrassing Jim could be, he’s more entertaining than anything and always leaves an impression. Especially on the Irish.

One night, while dancing at a club on the beach, a couple came up to us and starting showing us pictures on their camera. They were pictures of us in Hanoi at the beginning of our trip and suddenly we realized we knew these people. And this is exactly why you are never alone when traveling, even if you try to be. Because when I stayed behind Jim and Mandy for an extra day in Nha Trang, I ran into the couple yet again and my quiet self-reflecting night turned into a full-on bar crawl. (I’ll always have a soft spot for the Irish.)

The best night out so far though started out at the beach bar and ended with Jim screaming to be peed on.

I left him at the end of the night on the sand by the ocean where he was going in to snag a man who was skinny sipping with a few others. I didn’t think I would see him again until morning but low and behold only five minutes upon my return, Jim ran into the room. “Pee on me! Pee on me NOW!!” he was shouting as he stripped his clothes and darted for the shower.

Yup, he had been stung by jellyfish. Mind you, this is 3:30 in the morning and Mandy was sleeping for an early dive the next day, but was up in hysterics as this is the best entrance to a room we’d ever seen.

I quickly stepped up and offered my services and luckily we had glasses in our hotel room. But my pee in a cup was not enough for Jim (maybe because I had just gone). But then Mandy’s services were requested, which seemed to do the trick. And so it took 2 whole cups of pee to calm Jim down that night, but a lifetime of shame to live down.

The main form of transportation in Vietnam is by motorcycle. Sure people use buses and taxis, and others even have their own cars. But it is much more normal to have your own little motorcycle or scooter. It’s how the family drops kids off at school, how teenagers go on dates, and in every city the best hangout is where everyone can park their moped and simply hang out. Street corners often have old men sleeping in the most interesting ways on their mopeds. And with so many swift drivers on the road, it makes crossing the street for a pedestrian more than a challenge. Slowly though, the foreigner will learn to step out and keep pace walking through the hoards of crazy drivers trusting that they will see you, calculate your speed, and swerve around you. Hopefully.

Maybe it’s because mopeds are such an integral part of culture, or because they’re so cheap, but one of the most popular activities for travelers in Vietnam is a motorcycle tour. From one day to one month, you can create your own path by yourself on a rented or purchased bike. Or if you’re like me, hire a driver to show you the “real” Vietnam. I opted for the two day tour to Dalat while Jim and Mandy went for three, but naturally we ran into each other as all the Easy Riders (aka drivers) are friends and visit the same sites.

While we stopped a lot along the way, the best part for me was simply taking in all the beautiful scenery with the wind in my face and a sense of danger on my shoulders. I knew flip flops and shorts weren’t proper motorcycle attire but also, that rules from home rarely apply to overseas. Needless to say, I did burn my leg on the exhaust pipe pretty badly. But I still enjoyed the thrill and beauty that is all of Vietnam.

In addition to mountains, jungle, and rice paddy fields, we were shown where Agent Orange was dropped and where battles were fought and we proceeded to ask questions about the war. I assumed there might be some animosity leftover towards Americans for coming over near 40 years ago and destroying their land and killing their people. But there wasn’t as they were a nation that had been used and abused by many for thousands of years; we were simply another oppressor on the list. And even though children are still born with birth defects from Agent Orange and trees still won’t grow naturally, they welcome us with open arms and talk candidly about growing up in Vietnam.

Part of this interesting experience was doing a home stay in a minority village unlike any other culture I’ve encountered. First, all the houses are long and built several feet off of the ground. Generations of family live under one roof and in the same room no less, (unless of course the foreign tourists are paying for half of the house). These people were unique in that it was a matriarchal society, meaning that the woman had all the power and control. Men had to pay several oxen as dowry to marry and even more if they wanted a divorce. Mothers made the decisions while fathers carried the babies around. And to top it off, this rural village seemed to be more populated by giant pigs, chickens, roosters, and cows than people; and they all roamed freely. This was wonderful for me to see but annoying to listen to while falling asleep and waking up.

Being that it was still monsoon season in Vietnam, there was always a chance, neigh a promise, of a short and heavy downpour of rain, and usually when you least expect it. It happened when I was out for a short walk through the small town nearby and I was stupidly without my umbrella. When it began to sprinkle down I decided to wait it out under a tree, thinking this would be decent enough shelter for ten minutes or so of rain. Some time passed and just as I was getting up to walk the rest of the way back to my shelter I saw local children running for their lives. That’s usually a sign you’re screwed if you’ve got no where to go.

And then came the monsoon.

I have yet to be stuck outside in such heavy downpour and had unfortunately chosen a tree as my protector and was nowhere near public shelter. I cowered into a ball and began to get soaked to the bone. I kept wishing and praying for the rain to stop but when I realized that wouldn’t do me any good, I mustered up the courage to run to the nearest house and shout ‘hello’ from outside the gate.

A man appeared at the open window and motioned the gate was open. I kept under the porch awning though he insisted to come in (mostly because I was dripping wet). Eventually I gave in and went inside their home, finally truly safe from that incredible flash storm.

The couple who lived here was young and had a small child as well. And they didn’t speak a word of English. I tried to stay in the corner by the door, not wanting to get anything wet. But they came out with a towel, put me in a chair by the TV, and brought out tea and candy for me as well. I stayed there for maybe a half hour as the heavy storm outside roared on longer and more powerful than I ever expected. I began to thank myself for finally admitting defeat and turning to strangers for help. The experience was interesting in the fact that I began to think of this in terms of home.

What if during a storm a stranger who didn’t speak any English wandered up to your house and it was clear they needed shelter. Would you invite them in? Feed them? Make them tea? Would you feel completely comfortable or slightly on edge that this was simply a ploy to steal from you or even murder you? Something about our culture has taught us that danger is around every corner and never to trust strangers. Maybe it’s Hollywood’s fault or the news is to blame, (or just CSI); it doesn’t matter. In this sleepy village nestled into the mountains of Central Vietnam, no fear of strangers exists; only pity for silly foreigners who don’t know what storms look like nor carry umbrellas.

One of my favorite parts about this village was the elephants. Near the rice patties, in their own open field, were elephants roaming around and walking the streets. At breakfast, an elephant named Beatrice stuck her trunk through the window and I offered her a bread roll. Elephants are such giant gentle creatures I want to spend more time with.

Once back on our motorcycle, we sped along the road swerving around the dozens of cows that marched along the side of the road and worked our way up to the mountain town of Dalat. We only spent one night there, checking out the market and recovering from the many hours of sitting on a motorcycle. The next day we rolled into Ho Chi Minh City (formally known as Saigon) and were just in time to watch the fireworks in celebration of some holiday.

Mandy set off the next day on her own for Phu Quoc Island as she had been to HCMC before, leaving Jim and I to explore and go nuts on our own for a few days. We were logical in alternating days between sleeping in and lazily walking around town and taking entire day tours of the outlying areas.

First we did a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, the infamous narrow tunnel system that the local peasants held strong and aided the Viet Cong to their success in the south. Because the American army had insisted people from that area either move or be killed, the locals opted to live under ground while fighting to protect their land. An intricate system of tunnels was built with many levels and stretched over 700 km in length. They were dug in the exact size of the person digging the tunnel which means they were tiny and near impossible for any American to fit in. Although they did give us the opportunity to crawl through one, it was obvious we could never have infiltrated this system. They picked a tunnel they had made larger for tourists, yet it was still claustrophobically tiny, uncomfortable, and god awfully humid down there. I have no idea how they did it.

The next day, we went to the War Remnants Museum and let me tell you, nothing kills a Friday quite like a visit to a war museum. The realty of the Vietnam War was shown to us in facts and pictures, an unbiased account of the death and destruction that occurred on both sides. I never realized the support Vietnam had from all around the world; Americans at home weren’t the only ones protesting. It was also nice to learn about the American soldiers who aided the local peasants but were unfortunately jailed for such ‘treason’. I couldn’t help but leave emotional and confused by how so much hate and anger could constantly exist in mankind throughout time.

At least in the nights, Jim and I were able to escape such deep and tormenting thoughts as we drank and danced the nights away. Luckily for Jim, we found a swanky gay bar that was primarily for locals and had a great time working the dance floor all night long to amazing music. We went there both nights we went out.

Our final day in Vietnam was spent on a tour of the Mekong Delta, boating around with rice farmer hats and gazing at the beautiful scenery. They always squeeze in the kitschy tourist crap where they try to sell you products you just tasted; for example, visiting a honey farm or coconut candy making factory (or the same place). It was the perfect quintessential last day topped off with delicious local fare and shopping until we could buy no more.

In case you were wondering about the local specialties, pho (pronounced ‘fah’) is number one. It’s a noodle soup served with either beef or chicken and lots of lime and chili and eaten from early morning to late night. It’s served everywhere on the street for merely a dollar, slightly more if from a restaurant. Spring rolls are also available everywhere and I’ll never get enough of that fried crispy goodness.

One month in Vietnam was more than most had, yet it felt not enough for me. This country is rich in culture, cuisine, and endearing people. You must seek further to understand their lifestyle than simply coasting through major towns and scratching the surface. I have a lot more to learn and see there, and feel I will one day return to see how they’ve grown and adapted to time and politics. That, and I must return to Hoi An to get some more clothes made.

Friday, September 17, 2010

tomorrow comes today

I’m going Michael J. Fox on you. First, we’re going into the future. Then we’ll go back in time. The future is now, in Pai.

Pai is a small town nestled into the mountains made of jungle in Northern Thailand. I’ve been here nearly a week now, more than half of my entire time in Thailand. I didn’t mean to find a new home so soon, but I guess it found me.

After less than a week in Thailand I needed to roam free. I split off from my travel partners to find my own space and pace of journey. I had heard about Pai from an Irish couple I bonded with in Vietnam and knew before I even arrived I had a crush. But the second I laid eyes on this town I believed in love at first sight.

Artisans from all different arenas fill the streets with live music, beautiful jewelry, and tattoo shops. From street stalls to quality restaurants, cheap delicious food from around the world is very easy to come by. Everyone has the laid-back hippie mentality and moves at a slower pace of life I seem to agree with more. Yoga classes, motor biking, reiki, hot springs, cooking classes and trekking are the main activities people come here to experience. But every person I’ve met has stayed longer in Pai than they originally anticipated, from a few days to 14 years. No joke.

It’s hard to write about the vibe of a place, it’s just something you have to feel. And I feel at home here. It’s a place I knew instantly I would have trouble leaving but was grateful for opportunity to sink my feet in a little. And I already have a routine.

At 11 am (roughly) everyone out from the night before comes by The Good Life to check in and see who’s still alive. It’s a health conscious restaurant with amazingly delicious food and teas, swing chairs, and even has free guided mediation several days a week. It’s one of the best ex-pat hangouts I’ve discovered. Basically, this entire town oozes with natural remedies and charm.

It seems to rain more in Pai than anywhere I’ve been yet, but I don’t mind since the air is cooler and less humid and the landscape is so green. Plus my roof is so thin I can hear every rain drop which I find quite soothing at night. To be honest, rain has yet to hinder any of my plans yet. Even on a day we planned to motorbike all day, we still went out in the pouring monsoon and just took the corners more slowly. We were going to a hot spring so it seemed silly to be worried about getting wet. It was less annoying and more of an adventure really.

But when the sun is shining and you have a motorbike, the day can be quite full and exhilarating. There’s so many winding beautiful roads to take and hidden waterfalls to discover. A giant Buddha here, a golden temple there; there’s no shortage of interesting things to see. And to be honest, the best part really is just riding. Having the wind in your face while speeding through local villages; I have never felt more free. It feels refreshing to be in such a stunning environment and to know I have the time, money, and energy to explore it a bit.

I live in a bungalow with a decent bed on the floor and a private bathroom for just over $3 a day. Despite the bathroom reeking of urine (I think there’s a leak) and being slightly inconvenient and there is mosquito/ant/cockroach farm that seems to live here as well, I’ve found the perfect living spot. I get free wifi and a hot shower (my only requirements) but appreciate the bonus music here at Edible Jazz. While every bar in town (and there are quite a bit) offers live music every night, this place radiates with musician charm. The owner’s friends are here everyday jamming at some point which I can hear without even opening my door. And if not, she will put music on the speakers and it’s always been good. And they’re all really sweet and generous people as well so I not only feel safe, but comfortable. This place is so wonderful it draws in more people who aren’t sleeping here than are. Maybe it’s the good jazz or the good vibe, there’s always someone cool to meet if you just sit in the hang-out area.

Not that I even need a backpacking hostel right now, this has been the easiest place to meet people. Because of the hippie vibe, everyone is open and friendly and I know heaps of both travelers and locals without even trying. I like getting to know a place really well: to know inside and out where everything is, to have a favorite corner shop, and to run into people you know on a short walk down the street. And it’s already happening.

At night, the bars come alive with acoustic music and cheap drinks. It’s impossible not to bar hop and inevitably end up at one of the few sunrise bars for last drinks. Conversations start easily and everyone knows someone and groups collide and mingle not only for one night. Add in the fact that this is a small town and you can walk anywhere safely and maybe you can start to see how it’s so easy to get stuck here.

Honestly, everyone I’ve met has overstayed in Pai from their original expectations which was the first sign I’d be here more than a couple of days. I’m hoping to get out for a few days of trekking next week which will make departing that much easier when I really have to go, but the reality is life is good here and I don’t feel a pressing need to go as soon as possible. I can afford to just bum around, eat great food, drink a wee bit, take yoga classes, rent a motor scooter, and explore all this beautiful area has to offer. Plus there’s always someone to hang out with and it’s been surprisingly difficult for me to find a few moments to steal away for myself.

Despite the fact that I came here to be alone, clear my head, and find a direction on where I want to go next, I’ve quickly appreciated the fact that I had a group of friends my first night here and continue to grow my social circle everyday. (Namely, I’ve had one really good friend here I met on the bus and have spent every meal with since. It’s always the British I befriend and I still don’t know why.) It seems in my life no matter how hard I try to be alone, I never will be. But I don’t necessarily believe this to be a bad thing.

So I do suppose in a way I’ve done some soul searching while I’ve been here. The moment I gave myself to the Universe and went with every opportunity, everything has gone smoothly and been a wonderful experience. I have smiled more, felt more alive, and been surrounded by and exuding my own positive energy. Maybe the air is fresher here or the music is hypnotizing, but there’s something about Pai. Something truly wonderful and amazing about Pai.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

carry on

Life is fleeting. I live my life based on the fact that time doesn’t exist forever for one person. While I know this to be true, it’s a lesson I’m sure I will visit over and over again.

Minutes before I was to board a 13 hour bus ride I received an upsetting email about the passing of a good friend’s father. This is the only way I receive bad news on the road, by email, and it never comes at a convenient time. I’ve been friends with this girl since I was 12 and knew her family well. Her dad would pick us up from movies, let us borrow his car, and drank with us when we old enough. I’ve eaten cheesecake with this family on holidays and been scolded by them for getting into trouble with the law. Her father was apart of my life, but more than that, he was a damn good father to his kids, one of the best I’ve ever known. It was too early to be his time.

Within 20 minutes of my bus ride, I was a trying-to-hide-myself-from-crying mess when the bus backed into a tree smashing one of the windows. Luckily, no one was seated next to the window, but of course after a quick clean up and some cardboard they sat someone down later on. It was at this moment I was reminded just how fleeting life is. There could be a quick car accident and you’re gone. Or a cancer could be slowly creeping in your bones making you so sick there is no recovery. No matter how you go, we all have an expiration date. That’s why we must live for the moment and appreciate all you have around you. In particular, who you have with you.

This is dedicated to Jim Bressler. He was an amazing person and will be sorely missed.


I last left off before my tour of Ha Long Bay, one of those places you see pictures of and think, “I MUST go there!”. At least that’s what happened with me. We were sorted for three days and two nights, one aboard the ship we’d be cruising around in. It sounded adventurous and fun and still I never knew quite what to expect.

What stood out most about this tour (other than the breathtaking scenery) was the worst tour guide I have ever had. Ever. He was rude, angry, and downright mean to us all. From how he spoke to us to the rules he set, there were even fines we were to pay for disobeying him. (Seriously.) At one point, when we asked to go to our rooms, he said we couldn’t because “he couldn’t control us then”. Sir, we’re on a tiny boat with 6 rooms, it shouldn’t be that hard to lose us. And I didn’t pay money to be controlled by some self-righteous foreigners hating prick. (Bitterness much? I think not.) He literally yelled at me for being a vegetarian, at Jim for writing our names wrong on a piece of paper, and at some other tourists for asking for a glass with their water. Apparently, glasses are only for wine (regardless of the fact that it’s 1 pm and no one is drinking that overpriced crap, they couldn’t spare one of their 40 glasses). I really could go on and on about this douche bag but there is no need for so much negativity and I’m pretty sure you trust me when I say his rudeness never ceased to end.

Luckily he was only our guide for 24 hours but it seemed much longer than that. On the bright side, our group bonded on the fact that our guide was the biggest dickhead any of us had met in Asia so far. The booze and karaoke also helped.

Another downer to this trip was the fact that it was raining on and off the entire time. It wasn’t the worst thing that could happen (our guide was actually), but it did make our pictures less than National Geographic status. It also stopped us from lounging on the upper deck which consequently packed us into the dining area like exhausted sardines with a lot of luggage.

Our second day and night was on a large island where we were meant to hike around on but instead sat in our hotel rooms as the rain had been pouring all night and morning, making it a difficult and dangerous trek. Luckily in the late afternoon the sun came out and I rushed down to the closest beach, as did everyone else.

The next day not a cloud could be seen, just in time to go home. Nice. But first was a bus trip to the other side of the island where we needed to catch the boat from. Despite the sun shining and the high volume of tourists that visit here, the roads had not entirely emptied of the rain. Specifically, one stretch of road had turning into a full on river, no joke. There were a few minutes of “What the fuck?!?!” and “What are we going to do?” and “But what about all of our luggage?”. Then as the locals rowed up in their tiny hand made row boats it became obvious they knew what to do as this has obviously happened before.

So we piled our backpacks and ourselves two or three at a time into these rickety boats with water inside as well and were literally rowed down the road. It was hilarious. Mind you, there were several tour groups of people and even locals crossing, motorbikes and all, and it took a good hour or two to get the 50 people in our bus across. At the end of the rowboat tour, it became too shallow to row so we had to get out and walk (not too far) but still in water swimming with foot long worms, enormous crickets and spiders, and other creatures I care not to know what they were.

On the other side a bus eventually came to get us and we all piled in laughing because that’s all you can do in situations like that. This is stuff that the word ‘adventure’ was invented for. It means unexpected events that make for a more authentic experience. At least in my dictionary it does.

Our final day was spent soaking in whatever sun we could and chatting with our new Dutch friends. Because if there’s one nationality of people I will always make friends with, it’s the Dutch. They’re fun, easy-going, and speak perfect English. And no, I’m not giving up my dream of living in the Netherlands one day. (I also make great friends with the Irish and Germans.)

Despite hearing all about the tour, I have neglected to describe what Ha Long Bay actually looks like and why it’s so beautiful. You know that saying, ‘a picture says a 1000 words’? Well, it’s like that, so you’re better off googling it, but in the mean time I’ll attempt to paint a picture.

While cruising along the calm blue water you can watch the numerous green mountains jut directly out of the water all around you. It’s shocking, and the mountains are huge and have no beach or coast line; it’s almost as if they have sprouted out of the ground overnight. We were even able to walk around the inside of one because it is a large cave (I don’t know if they are all caves) and what was a naturally beautiful sight had become a Disneyland-like event. Mystical stories are told and true geological explanations are entirely ignored, even when asked about. Brightly colored lights are used to illuminate the magnificent stalagmites and stalactites, making you feel you are inside of a jellybean Matterhorn. The overwhelmingly beautiful part was just how vast this cavern was; I have never seen anything like it and wished that was enough for the Vietnamese tourism board rather than splurging on those Christmas lights. Oh well, to each their own I suppose.

Directly after getting back to Hanoi from this trip we were on an overnight bus to Hue located in central Vietnam. When we arrived it was raining all day which put a damper on our plans to see the not-so-many sights we had planned to see. But we weren’t wasting any days so we bought some hideous ponchos (and some road beers) and went marching out in the miserable sideways rain. Palaces and temples are never in short supply here and despite the whole ‘same, same’ reality, we were still going to visit all we could.

The next day was fortunately sunny so we set out to hire a personal boat tour to cruise down the Perfume River and visit a few more temples and pagodas. Our kitschy long boat was brightly painted, had a dragon head leading us, and was run by a tiny old woman. No different from all the other boats on the river. I would proceed to describe the sights we saw but it’s a lot easier to say, ‘same same, but different’. Yes, they were beautiful. Yes, they were worth visiting. But no, it’s worth blogging about. I’d rather talk about Hoi An.

Hoi An was the next town we went to visit, not too much further south than Hue, but this city has a purpose. Well known for their tailors, it’s impossible to leave this place without getting something made. It’s truly hard to resist the seemingly endless row of shops of women begging to make beautiful things just for you, and for damn cheap. Their work is meticulous and ranges in everything from bathing suits to wool coats. You name it, they sew it. And can do so in as little as 12 hours, it’s damn incredible really.

When I say you can get anything made, I really mean it. Flip through one of their many magazines or surf the internet for whether you want, pick one of their fabrics or describe what you want, and they will make it happen, no pattern required. And they can do this with shoes as well. The bottom line is I can’t wait to win the lottery so I can come back here and get everything I’ve ever wanted, designed and made just for me.

I went considering getting a wool coat (because I’ve always wanted a mustard yellow coat) but nothing more. I left with a coat, 2 dresses, shorts, a bathing suit, scarf, and sandals. The damage could have been a lot worse. Mandy and Jim came knowing they wanted to get a few things, and they got much more than that. The bottom line is we were all happy with our purchases but all needed to visit the post office and send boxes home (I’m sure we’re not the first foreigners to do that).

My favorite part of this whole experience though was chatting with the women. They speak great English (how else can you be such a good salesman?) and are constantly making cheeky comments that keep me laughing. From grabbing my boobs constantly to offering money to see Jim’s penis, we were always being sarcastic and having fun with these ladies. And arguing over the price is essential to the whole experience, regardless of how cheap you’re being. It’s the principle really.

It was essential we got out of town as soon as possible as every day we spent there we ended up buying more stuff. Plus our next stop was Nha Trang, a beautiful beach town with great night life and it was calling our names. But I’ll keep that for next time as I don’t like overwhelming my readers all at once. (Too late?)

Alright, one more story. You ever wonder what Wal-Mart must do with all those leftover Christmas things that sing songs? Well, the answer is they’ve shipped them to Vietnam and installed them into cars. I thought it was maybe just a few cars, but no, all over this country, cars, trucks, and buses have music that plays when they are in reverse. I suppose it’s handy because if you ever hear Silent Night you can assume a truck might be almost running you over. But it is odd how it’s almost always holiday songs. And most of the people here are Buddhist or non-religious. Strange, but I’ve slowly been considering getting one for my car back home. Just a thought.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

are you in?

It’s 8 am and the air is already thick with humidity leaving my skin unpleasantly sticky. The tiny female farm workers with triangular rice hats are quickly pacing the streets with their long bows over their shoulders and scale-like presentation of fruit and vegetables for sale. The street corners are packed with people sitting on tiny plastic stools hovering over their hot noodle soup breakfast. A swarm of motorcycles whiz past practically every second nearly taking a limb or two of mine with them.

Good morning Vietnam!

I can’t quite describe the excitement I felt my first day in Vietnam; it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, yet I felt completely comfortable. I was in a new world and eager to take on the roller coaster journey that is backpacking. With Mandy by my side, we awaited the arrival of our third partner in crime, Jimmy.

Before I begin to describe what we have seen and done, I need to (at least vaguely) describe the absurdity and brilliance that is our group. We’re all from the Bay Area originally, but all received drinking degrees form Chico State. And if you think I’m a loud ridiculous hot mess, you should see these two. I ain’t got nothing on them. So imagine three outrageous Americans who never travel without snacks, ipods and speakers, or miss a happy hour and I’m sure you’ll think Vietnam might not be able to handle us. I’m not so sure either.

Our first few days in the capital of Hanoi were slow while we waited for Jim. The standard aimless wandering, sorting through endless piles of the same souvenir crap, and tasting the local street fare. If anything could describe Southeast Asia (or South America for that matter) it’s this phrase: same same, but different. It may sound weird at first but there is so much truth to it for anyone who’s traveled here.

Basically, it means no matter how often you change location, seek out something unique to buy, or figure out what you want to eat, it’s all really the same from whatever you’re trying to distinguish it from. Whenever a vender decides to sell something, for some reason they set up shop directly next door to their competition and offer the exact same goods for the exact same price. Whether it’s purses or shoes, a noodle stand or bakery; no one bothers to differentiate themselves from their competitor. And even though restaurants boast their delicious and unique fare all over chalkboards out front, it’s pretty much the standard menu you’ll find all over the country. Sometimes neighbors even have literally the same exact menu. Even when you cross country borders, you’ll find pretty much the same stuff to buy and the same things to eat, really only vaguely different. I’m not saying each country and city isn’t at all unique. It’s just a phrase that encompasses the overall feeling foreigners get when they spend months criss-crossing all over the place.

Same same, but different.

(They even have a t-shirt with ‘same same’ on it. I would get it but it’s kind of ugly and while I’m holding out for something better along they way, I know it’ll be same same.)

This phrase also applies to tour operators and even though I know this, I still always scour cities for the best price and most trustworthy person. But in the end, it never makes a difference because they all work together and hire the same locals to do the grunt work of showing the tourists around.

First, it needs to be said that I hate tours. Well, not entirely. They’re convenient and mindless but really only acceptable in small doses. It’s often inevitable for the things I want to do most, which is what most tourists want to do most. I had gotten used to them in South America but like it less and less the more I do them. At least I have the main questions nailed down.

What’s included? What are the sleeping arrangements? How many meals do I get and are drinks included? And I’m a vegetarian. Will this be a problem? (They always say ‘of course not’ to the last question but what they mean to say is ‘fuck off, you’re not going to eat much’.)

The first tour we took here was a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda: a Buddhist temple nestled deep into a cave at the top of a mountain. It’s located in the countryside outside of Hanoi which is great for escaping the hustle and bustle of that dirty city. We had to drive a few hours only to clamber into a small boat rowed by a tiny local woman for another hour. The scenery was majestic though.

The wide river curved and bent a steady stream and tall, green mountains popped out of the ground and created a horizon designed for National Geographic. All the rowers I saw were petite women who covered their entire bodies in fabric to avoid the sun and topped their head with the quintessential cone shaped rice farmer hat.

Not only is Vietnam unfortunately hot and humid, but during monsoon season it’s particularly bad. And I swear this day was supremely worse than any other. All you had to do was sit in a boat and still you would sweat through everything you had on. My ankles even had beads of sweat sprouting out, something I didn’t know I could do.

After lunch we took the cheater’s way up to the top of the mountain with a cable car ride, mostly because of how ridiculously hot it was. Once up there, we walked around this marvelous site adjusting camera settings for the dark cave but inevitably having to settle for the mental picture. Without much time to waste, we were ushered down the mountain, this time Mandy and I deciding to walk (not bad at all really). The best part was running into a group of female monks all with their heads shaved and singing songs. Another mental picture.

The following day was the grand entrance of Jimmy: a loud-mouthed, over-the-top, extremely flamboyant gay guy who is far more effeminate than me. He has even been asked numerous times by locals here if he is a woman. (“Are you a madam?” or “”Are you a ladyboy?”) And there has even been a couple of times locals offered money to see his penis as evidence. You would think the chest hair is a dead giveaway but I guess they figured he was transitioning. Either that or they are used to some pretty hairy women. Eeek.

We saved our first couple of days together for catching up and abusing the cheap local beer. We signed up for our numerous tours and buses and even got hot stone massages. A very painful yet relaxing hour massage, the best part being we were all in the same room and Mandy couldn’t stop giggling. Seven dollars well spent.

Soon enough it was time to catch our night bus to Sapa where we were due for an overnight trekking trip to visit various hillside tribes. We were supposed to arrive at 5 am, but actually rolled into town at 10. We also had no idea what we had signed up for.

Sure there was some walking involved, but we took our entire backpacks thinking transportation would take us from point A to point B. When we got to our meeting spot, because of our lateness, we were hurried to gobble down our breakfast and brush our teeth. Jimmy and I couldn’t even manage to change out of our bus clothes. Ready to begin the day, we were informed to leave our packs as we were hiking 13 km (a little over 8 miles) and not returning for our things until the next day. Still in shock, I grabbed my toothbrush and a pair of underwear because that was all I could fit in my tiny purse. Had I known beforehand I would have rearranged my large pack to have my small backpack, with everything I needed, with me. All I could do though was laugh because no matter how much you read over the itinerary, you always seem to miss the key points.

As we set out for our adventure we were accompanied by a large entourage of hill tribe women and children. We were coached beforehand not to buy things from the children as it encourages them to ditch school and sell to tourists. Also, if at any point we decided to buy something from someone else not following us, the tag-alongs would proceed to dramatically cry and inflict supreme guilt. The moment we stepped out of the hotel, the flock of tiny women were upon us: “What is your name”, “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?”, “Will you buy from me?”. I assumed after a short walk they would dissipate. Boy was I wrong.

Soon enough we were outside of town and walking through the gorgeous countryside endlessly lined with rice farms. While the questions and short conversations did die down, they did not abandon us. Neigh, we were actually walking to their villages which means they were just going to walk home and guilt us into buying their useless crap. It was amusing at first, then annoying, but in the end utterly necessary.

Halfway through our first day it started to rain. Before the rain even started though, Mandy already managed the fall flat on her ass while standing still. She was in for a muddy and painful couple of days. The rain wasn’t bad at first, kind of annoying, but nothing unbearable. Eventually we ended the day at a home stay aka the upstairs open air loft jam packed with mattresses of a makeshift hostel. We had two couples on our journey with us and ended up staying with five other guests as well. As evening rolled into the night, and beers were accompanied by the free local firewater, we got to know each other pretty well. Even our guides, both local girls from the tribes, got involved. Eventually we passed out in our comfortable beds, but still in our hiking slash bus clothes. I was starting to get pretty damn dirty, even by my standards.

The next day we awoke to the sound of rain pouring down. Uh-oh. Rain or shine, this trek was to continue. My clothes really weren’t meant for hiking, let alone in straight downpour. Nonetheless, we set out with positive spirits and our helpful entourage. (While they eventually vacated the afternoon prior, they all magically reappeared in the morning. I wasn’t surprised at all really.)

Their presence was surprisingly necessary as the path had become incredibly muddy from the all-night rain. What was normally a slightly challenging walk became a treacherous hike of doom. I had abandoned my pathetic, broken umbrella for the use of all four limbs to maintain some stability and so I wouldn’t completely eat shit. Even if I did though, I wouldn’t have been half as bad as Mandy. While she had a few slips the day before, she was downright sliding down the mountain the second day. (Don’t ever wear Converse on a hike.)

These local hill tribe women, tiny, fragile, and a few with small babies on their backs, clambered to help us silly foreigners down the mountain. Personally, I had a woman with a 2 month old on her back, and umbrella in her hand, and cheap broken plastic sandals on her feet and she was far more stable than I was solo with my $100 Chacos and both hands free. I’d slide and her foot would be there to stop me from tumbling any further. She was a mountain of strength for which my clumsiness couldn’t stand a chance to overcome.

This is also how I discovered mudboarding: the next big thing in extreme sports. If you slide with intention implementing the same technique of snowboarding, it could be fun and challenging. Just prepare to get muddy.

While difficult and dirty, this was one of the best hikes I’ve done. By the time we made it to the huge waterfall, the crème-de-la-resistance, it had stopped raining and our hard work was rewarded with a well-earned view. By then, each helper woman from our entourage went to their clumsy foreigner to pester them to buy something. I had bought a bracelet the day before but needed to buy another, as there was nothing else I wanted and had to give something to this incredible woman, six years my junior.

After lunch we were given the luxury of a van ride back into town and finally were allotted time for the much needed shower. (It had been a solid 60 hours in the same clothes, sleeping and trekking included. Eww.) Before doing so we tipped our guide as she was better than we could have hoped for and felt she had much deserved it. It seems we were the only ones who did and what must have been a huge sum to her as she insisted on taking us to the market to give us a personal tour, even though her duty was over. She even bought us gifts, which was super endearing.

I’ll give a short background on our guide, Dao, mostly because I think she needs to be interviewed about her life and turn it into a book. (It’s very Amy Tan slash Oprah Book Club.) She claimed to be from one of the hill tribes, calling them her family, but also spoke of a husband she had run away from less than a year ago. Apparently she hated the family she had been forced to marry into and hated her life in China. “Everyday I dreamed of coming home to my family,” she said wistfully. One day, they had left her all alone and that’s when she escaped. Literally. She has been in hiding ever since and hopes they don’t find her. She is terribly afraid of what they might do to her, and her baby. That’s right, she has an 8 month old child we had the liberty of meeting for only a few moments. I didn’t ask too many involved questions as it wasn’t my place and it was obviously a time of her life that was painful. She speaks highly of the Vietnamese and Korean friends that helped her get across the border and start a new life. I assume the family she is with now is not of her blood, as it seems the first obvious place to look. I can only assume she was sold by her biological family. Was she beaten? Tortured? Forced into slave labor lifestyle? I don’t know; I only know her story would make a great plot for a book if she ever wanted to sell the rights. And she speaks wonderful English so I reckon she just might. (By the way, she is only 20 years old.)

By the evening we were back on another night bus returning us to Hanoi, this one far more miserable than the last. We arrived at 5 am, and had one day until our next tour. Ha Long Bay was our destination and the number one thing I wanted to see in all of Vietnam. Of course, tours are never what they seem but that story will have to wait. This is plenty of sweatiness and pestering old ladies for one blog.

“Why you no buy from me?!?!?”