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.