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A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving - Lao Tzu

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Final words...

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand eachother, we may even become friends - Maya Angelou

I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list - Susan Sontag

End of the road for now

Well, the three-legged flight from Bangkok to Salt Lake City went off without a hitch – starting with a curbside drop off and heartfelt good-byes at Suvarnabhumi airport (the same airport which had been, up until a week ago, brought to a standstill by anti-government protesters). According to plan, the airport terminal was mellow on New Year's Day. Towards the end of my flight to Taipei we paralleled the entire island of Taiwan providing amazing views of the country in the late afternoon sun. When the temperature inevitably dropped a few degrees, I had to swap out my shorts and t-shirt for a pair of jeans and fleece jacket in a bathroom stall (shoes were mistakenly packed away so it's flip flops all the way home). After a two-hour break, I boarded my flight to San Francisco – still mostly Asian faces around the cabin, but now English dominated conversations and it seemed as if everyone was packing the familiar dark blue passports. Once again, not much excitement during the ten hour flight over the Pacific – unless you count the woman with vomit-bulged cheeks who shoved her way past the flight attendant just as (I swear) she was handing over my breakfast – an omelet in some sort of warm, creamy sauce. Several hours and one TSA interrogation later (it seems that taking a three-month vacation in developing countries makes you "suspicious") and I was officially cleared for entry into the United States. Of course, if I had the choice and none of my upcoming obligations, I probably would have turned around right then and there.

Somewhere over frozen Nevada, I started getting a little depressed at the thought of returning home. Jumping, un-acclimatized, into the depths of a cold Utah winter aside, I started feeling those inevitable pangs of sadness – even loneliness - at the thought of my trip coming to an end. It seems like only last week I was scrambling to finish off a river season, pack, say goodbye to friends, pour over maps, highlight guidebooks, and tie up all the other loose ends before flying off to Hanoi. Suddenly, I find myself at home, bundled up against the cold, typing away and wide-awake at 4:13am as I fight a seriously losing battle against jet lag. A case of the post-trip blues is to be expected - a small price to pay for such an amazing journey, I suppose - but already I'm starting to miss the experience of being on the road, of just traveling. I suppose if I have any really serious character flaws, the inability to satisfy my wanderlust ranks way up there. One journey always leads to another and another and another. A curse, I suppose, or a blessing – depending on your point of view.

But I did it – woke up in Bangkok this morning (according to the calendar) and will, hopefully sometime soon, go to sleep in Utah. What a trip.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

สุขสันต์วันคริสตร์มาส - Bangkok

It's been two very quick weeks since I arrived at Bangkok's Hualampong train station and as I finally sit down to pound out another journal entry, I'm almost ashamed to admit that I'm cruising comfortably at an altitude of 37,000 feet somewhere above the Pacific and just to the right of Taiwan. For whatever reason, over the past couple weeks I've fallen prey to a severe case of blogger's block. No reflection on the city, of course – Bangkok is, after all, one of my favorite places in the world – but I think that once I unpacked my bags at my mom and dad's place downtown, especially in a city that I've visited and explored several time before, the "adventure" part of my adventure came to an end. No more scrambling for beds or hunting for a semi-edible meal. No more waking up to a completely foreign cityscape or countryside. No more concerns about being blatantly ripped off by market vendors and taxi drivers. Instead, I could let down my guard a little, re-visit my favorite corners of Bangkok, and best of all, at the end of the day I could head back "home" to enjoy the company of my parents (even if - especially if - that meant getting inexplicably sucked into a couple of episodes of "So you think you can dance" with my mother). Life is good.

Bangkok really is a city like no other – and certainly unlike any other place I've visited on this particular trip. With a 20th floor home base in the middle of downtown, I split my days by catching up to speed with the "real" world after three months on the road and setting out to explore the temples, neighborhood sois, markets, khlongs (canals), shrines, parks, forts, and tourist ghettos. With a sky train pass and access to the city's subway, river ferries, and khlong taxis most of the city is wide open to anyone willing to traverse shitty sidewalks, dodge crowds, street dogs, motorbikes (and the occasional elephant), and sweat a little in the tropical sun. Of course, any attempt to convey just what it is that Bangkok "is" within the confines of a blog entry would inevitably come up short. Instead, I've decided to describe each of my Bangkok highlights in a sentence or two:

Just down the street from my parent's building, Lumphini Park (Bangkok's largest green space) is the place to be for early morning local-style exercise, the occasional monitor lizard sighting, and hosts an annual street performer festival – bring your cardboard periscope! Khao San Road forms the backbone of the world (in)famous backpacker ghetto. A great place to buy pirated cds, crappy t-shirts, fake dreadlocks, get a tattoo, or have lunch with your Mom. How many other people can say that? Need to buy something (I mean anything) – head to Chatuchak Weekend market. I usually end up with a dehydration headache, sore feet, and a lame squeaky toy or two. Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) is beautiful 82-meter tall prang towering over the Nonthaburi side of the Chao Praya river. The temple is covered from top to bottom with pieces of broken pottery originally used as ballast in Chinese trading ships and by climbing about half way up you get an amazing view across the river to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho. My favorite high point, however, is the Golden Mount – a manmade hill and temple complex just down the Khlong Saen Saep from Thanon Withayu (Wireless Road). Next door to the Golden Mount is the Monk Bowl Village where three families of artisans continue to produce the hand-made metal bowls traditionally used by Buddhist monks to collect alms. You should see the look of joy on the faces of the shopkeepers when my Mom walks down the alley – she apparently funnels a lot of business their way, myself included. Phra Sumen fort on the Chao Phraya is my favorite park in the city – it's the place to go when the Khao San freak show (a couple of blocks away) gets a little too freaky. The best foot massages in the Kingdom can be found nearby at a secret location. Enough said. Shooting blanks? Barren as the Mojave? Just want to see something weird? Check out the Lingham Shrine ("Pecker Park" to my Dad). It's tucked behind the Hilton on Wireless. Of course. Need a lucky charm? Take your pick from zillions at the Amulet Market next to Thammasat University. Like ping pong? Head to Patpong. Once again, enough said. China Town and Little India combine all the sights, sounds, smells, and chaos you would hope to find in a city like Bangkok – avoid the alleys if you are at all claustrophobic and watch out for the busy streets. I was saved from an indefinite curbside holding pattern by a sweet old lady when she grabbed my arm and pulled me along side as she lunged into traffic. Maybe she figured the traffic was more likely to slow for a sunburned and obviously confused farang. They weren't, but we survived. Those soi (street) dogs that look unusually well-fed are "rice puppies" and you'd look that way too if all you (over)ate was rice. But, at least they're cared for, if not well cared for. A drive out to Kanchanaberi is a great way to spend a Saturday (especially if you're not the one in the driver's seat. Thanks, Dad). Just avoid squashing certain coins on the train tracks that cross the River Kwai. Lese majeste is no joke. Gawking at another man's rented girl is no joke either – I just missed what was shaping up to be a pretty good farang brawl on the sky train the other day when, due to horrible timing, the train arrived at my stop before the fists started flying. Christmas in Bangkok is always surreal – even more so when you see how deep this Buddhist city dives into the holiday spirit. After a series of deflated New Years due to the tsunami, random bombings, and political unrest, this year's celebration was amazing – the city sounded like a war zone as a dozen different firework displays simultaneously lit up the night. On a sadder note, nearly 60 people were killed in a nightclub fire shortly after midnight. Bangkok just can't seem to catch a break.

Yeah, Bangkok is quite a place. If you come for a visit – which I highly recommend – you'll likely be overwhelmed, intimidated, and possibly disgusted.....but you certainly won't be disappointed.

Finally, I want to thank Mom and Dad for everything – staying with you two in Bangkok was the icing on an incredible cake. I love you both.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Riding the rails to Bangkok

I love riding trains. My interest probably began as a kid - when I would go to the local amusement park and ride snail paced loops around a small lake full of carp - but I think it truly took root on a couple dusty long haul trips I took as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania. My friends and I would book an entire berth for ourselves and ride, for days at a time, the beat up Chinese trains down to Victoria Falls or up to Lake Victoria for holiday. After watching my first African sunrise from the "comfort" of a rickety dining car I was hooked. Since then, in every county I've visited, I've made an effort to get myself on a train for at least a small portion of my journey. But here's the thing, I ruined myself by unwittingly picking such spectacular trips so early on in my train riding career. After East Africa and an extended trip (with lots of rail time) across northern India, I've found that nothing else quite compares. Be that as it may, I keep looking for train schedules and rail stations whenever I travel, always hoping that I'll stumble into another one of those magical trips.

The Chiang Mai to Bangkok run wasn't bad but it certainly wasn't magical. Hoping to see some of the countyside as I zipped across half of Thailand, I decided to forgo the overnight train that I might have otherwise taken and ended up on an "express" train - twelve hours to Bangkok, 8:45am to 8:30pm. The train itself was just.....bland. Only three cars long, it looked more like a subway than anything - no real engine, no caboose, hermetically sealed cars, and a less than friendly staff. Half the fun of train travel is watching (or better yet, participating in) the railside commotion that erupts at each stop as vendors storm the train selling food, drinks, and other necessities. Sadly, none of that on this trip. We did stop at a half dozen stations throughout the day but were sternly forbidden to leave the train for fear of throwing off the scheduled timetable, and besides, the stations seemed to be mostly deserted. Anyway, even if there were vendors clammoring for our business, our windows were sealed shut to keep the conditioned air from escaping. Very businesslike, very efficient, very boring.

That's not say there wasn't some excitement. I'm not sure whether it was due to having a very short train (like I said, only three cars) or being in the last car, or both, but every time the engineer found a straightaway and hit what seemed to be our top speed, the train would bounce, buck, and sway like mad - and watching the crew attempt to carry on (pouring drinks, sweeping the aisles, etc.) in this earthquake as if all were normal was a riot. Going to the bathroom became an adventure to avoid, especially if you valued your dignity and after a while I had pretty much resigned myself to an inevitable, and horrible, death by derailment.

In the end, however, after passing through some beautiful scenery (especially the mountains due south of Chiang Mai), watching the sun set over the rice paddied horizon, and creeping through the bloated sprawl surrounding Bangkok, we arrive precisely on time. I'll admit, I took a bit of sick pleasure in watching the anxious travelers who were - after dark and maybe for the first time - arriving in big bad Bangkok as they frantically flipped through guidebooks......knowing full well that Mom and Dad had come down to meet me at Hualampong Station. After a quick subway and skytrain ride, I'd be "home" and in my own bed for the first time in three months. Perfect.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Back to the real world? Chiang Mai

My gradual reintroduction to the "modern" world suffered a giant shove forward (backwards?) with my arrival in Chiang Mai. A beautiful and very live-able city (just ask the 20,000 or so Westerners who live here full or part-time), Chiang Mai is a sort of the artsy-university-mountain town antithesis of Bangkok, hence its runaway popularity with Thais and foreigners alike. I was here about four years ago and, while I haven't noticed much of a change in the downtown old quarter - more coffee shops, maybe - I've heard that the sprawl and accompanying traffic headaches are getting worse. At any rate, I have to catch the southbound train to Bangkok at the Chiang Mai station, requiring at least one night in town. I stretched my visit out to a couple of days which, given my general distaste for knicknack shopping and suffering from the early symptoms of "temple fatigue" (common in this corner of the world), seems to be just about right.
Chiang Mai has a fascinating history - founded in 1296 by three regional kings (Mengrai, Muang, and Ramkhanamhaeng, for those keeping score) near the banks of the Ping River, it was the royal capital of Lanna (northern Thailand) before being conquered and ruled by Burma for 200 years. Eventually the King of Bangkok fought off the Burmese and merged Lanna into the newly formed Kingdom of Siam - the predecessor of today's Thailand. One result of such a long Buddhist history is the sheer number of temples that were built in and around the city - rumored to rival the number of temples in all of Bangkok. They're literally everywhere you turn and include everything from large active monasteries to random, seemingly abandoned chedis (brick towers) dotting alleyways. The most impressive of all is Wat Chedi Luang - a huge tower in the city center that was partially destroyed by a 16th century earthquake and never really repaired.
Of course, the Chiang Mai of today has more to offer than just old temples. Art galleries, bookstores, coffee shops, yoga studios, cooking schools, cocktail bars, cinemas, tattoo parlors, and sidewalk cafes all jostle for attention. For the big spenders there are luxury hotels, spas, and nine (yes, nine) area golf courses. And finally, for the tourists who just can't bring themselves to cut the cord and dive into the local culinary scene (tragic), there are plenty of McDonalds, Burger Kings. 7-11s, and Starbucks.....always Starbucks.
Yeah, it's official - after all the weeks enjoying (ha!) the little surprises and frustrations inherent in developing-world travel, I seem, for better or worse, to be back in the modern(ish) world....... and I'm not quite sure that I'm ready for it.
Next up, Bangkok!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

An afternoon in Burma

I'll be the first to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Myanmar, other than prior to 1989 it was known as Burma and that its military dictatorship has been creating misery for its own people, and neighbors, for decades. So, when I heard a rumor that you could actually cross into Burma (the name preferred by the country's democracy movement) from Thailand, my curiosity was piqued. Turns out that the border between Mae Sai, Thailand and Tachilek, Burma was open to foreigners on the condition that you pay a $10 fee, leave your passport with the Burmese immigration officials (ostensibly to keep you from wandering off and stirring up trouble), and leave within 24 hours of your arrival. Realistically, this limits you to Tachilek although, I had also heard that two-week visas are occasionally available depending upon the whims of the government - but even then you are severly limited as to where and how you can travel. On top of all that, the entire border is occasionally locked down depending on the security situation of the day. Rebels operate in the area and Burma has even lobbed shells over the border into Mae Sai when fighting erupts.
After checking to see whether a crossing was possible this week (it was) I jumped a local bus for the hour and half ride north of Chiang Rai. Mae Sai is the northernmost town in all of Thailand and, it turns out, a pretty hopping place thriving on the legal and illegal trade in goods coming from nearby China (via Burma). Thousands of well-to-do Thais walk across the border everyday to shop in the markets of Tachilek and the whole city has been made into a sort of free-economic zone with huge duty free shops and just about everything...and I mean everything....you can imagine for sale.
Knowing full well that I wouldn't see anything remotely related to the "real" Burma in this border town, I decided to go anyway. Yes, I felt slightly guilty about giving my entry fee to the dictatorship, but I also hoped that once inside I could spread a bit of baht to others in genuine need. The border crossing was surprisingly efficient - Thais had their streamlined procedure - and I was pulled aside into a small office where I gave up my passport in exchange for a small, computer generated "day pass" complete with my photo. My 10 US dollar bills were completely unacceptable, however, because of some small ink stains, so I had to fork over 500 baht instead - a $5 penalty. After being ticked off for a few minutes, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I hadn't provided the government with hard US currency. And with that, I was off, free to roam for the day.....sort of.
I may have imagined it, but Burma - even so close to the Thai border in Tachilek - has a very strange, disconcerting feel to it. A lot of that likely has to do with the fact that it is a sort of wild-west border town where I'm pretty sure anything goes, if you look hard enough. But I also felt like I was being watched closely. The locals were friendly enough - several exceedingly so - but it wasn't long before I was being yelled at by a uniformed (police? military?) guy for walking down the wrong street. Likewise, in the market, a young woman screeched at me for taking a photo of her shop - lined, as it was, from wall to wall with animal parts (9/10 of which, I'm certain, violated CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). She demanded that I delete the photo and when I asked what would happen if I didn't she replied that her boss would "abuse" her. So I made a big show of erasing the photo, which seemed to make her happy - of course, I had actually taken two photos.
The market itelf was a madhouse - shoulder to shoulder with shopping Thais and selling Burmese. Loads of junk and knockoffs of designer labels from China mixed in with the dead animals mentioned above. Monkey skulls, tiger skins, bear claws, turtle shells, and some sort of dried up testicles seemed to be in high demand. I got the feeling that if I had only known who to ask I could have found an AK-47 or rocket launcher, as well. The biggest headaches were the roaming vendors selling decks of girlie cards, contraband cigarettes, Viagra and Cialis. Everywhere I went I was being offered Viagra at cut rate prices.....after a while, you start to develop a bit of a complex concerning your manhood. And then, as always, there were the whispered offers of opium, heroin, hashish, and hookers. Since Burmese prisons sound even less appealing than their Thai counterparts, I obviously passed.
However, once I broke away from the scrum and walked a few blocks off the river, everything changed. Tachilek became just another small, dusty Southeast Asian town. The locals, many of their faces smeared with thenaka (a powder made from tree bark - initially worn as sun protection, now apparently a fashion statement), seemed a little reserved, possibly just not used to seeing many white-skinned foreigners. The men all wore longyis, a type of wrap-around skirt, and I noticed more Muslims - given away by skullcaps and veiled women - in this small town than anywhere else on my entire trip so far. Makes sense when you consider the huge border Burma shares with both Bangladesh and India. I was also surprised to see so many Christian-denomination churches. Apparently the Catholics and Baptists have been in Burma for a while, and allowed to stay by the current dictatorship.
But the hightlight of my trip was running into "Barak Obama" (I've never felt the need to make up an alias for someone I've met before - that's Burma for you). As I was walking, I was a little apprehensive to see this disheveled, obviously poor guy come up along side of me. But then he started talking to me in perfectly fluent English. It turns out that yes, Barak is poor and completely down on his luck - no wife, no family, can't afford to see the doctor for his latest bout of malaria (he's sure that's what he has) but he's also a college educated engineer who traveled the world working on ships until something happened 10 years ago. Given the government's orders against talking politics with foreigners, I didn't push the issue but I have the feeling that Barak was (or is) a part of the pro-democracy opposition. He even appologized for not being able to discuss the current regime, although a few curses here and there made it obvious how he feels. Anyway, Barak took me around to the few "sights" that Tachilek has to offer and told me all about his take on religion (born a Buddhist, he converted to Catholicism), the history of Burma (in a politically-correct way, of course), the places he's traveled to (including New York and San Francisco) and the philosophy manuscript he's written and hopes to publish in Thailand someday. He just laughed when I suggested he publish it in Burma. He also described the travel restrictions he has to deal with in his own country - going to visit his sister in Yangoon proves to be such a red-tape nightmare that he hasn't been in years.
After a few hours, it was time to run the gauntlet of viagra salesmen back to the border if I wanted to catch the last bus to Chiang Rai. I handed Barak a small wad of cash and said goodbye, wishing that I could have learned more about this bizarre and troubled country - and that Barak would have felt safe in speaking freely about Burma. But that's not the way it works, and for his own good, we had to leave it at that. If nothing else, my very quick glimpse at the country has persuaded me to learn more and, oh yes, the cogwheels are turning in my head. I'll be back someday.

On to Chiang Rai

Visa formalities on the Thai side of the river were fairly straightforward, except for a minor glitch requiring that I leave the country on Christmas Day - a full week before my flight back to the States. Oh well, mai pen rai, as the Thais like to say. I'm sure it will all get straightened out long before my expulsion from the Kingdom. At any rate, the border town of Chiang Khon seemed pleasant enough, but as soon as I had my passport stamped I was whisked to the bus station by a motorbike taxi (driven by a woman - not all that unusual in Thailand, but the first I had met in the last three months). With no time to change dollars into baht so early in the morning, I had to convince her to take American - no problem. The local bus driver was harder to convince, but after I agreed to pay a slightly inflated rate for my ride to Chiang Rai (three dollars instead of two - highway robbery!) he let me board. Riding shotgun with my new friend and his ticket-taking sidekick, a cheerful middle-aged woman I took to be his wife, we pulled out of the station on time and arrived in Chiang Rai a couple hours later.

Without any sort of Thailand guidebook to refer to (mine is safely holding down a stack of papers on my desk back in Utah) I stepped off the bus feeling a little helpless. I had the name of a guesthouse that someone in Laos had recommended and found a tuk tuk driver who was suprisingly eager to take me there. Turns out the guesthouse was literally two blocks from the bus station, a distance I could have easily walked - crawled, even - if I had known where it was. Oh well, he did do me the courtesy of driving around the block a few times on the way there in order to make it seem like my money was being well spent. The price you pay for arriving in a new town blind, I suppose. I happily paid him the buck I had promised and took a room at the Baan Bua Garden Guesthouse, a very nice place centrally located, I found later that evening, in the Chiang Rai redlight district. Ahhh, Thailand.

After a month in (fairly) sedate and (definitely) modest Laos, Chiang Rai was a bit of shock to the system and it took a day to get back into the "Land of Smiles." One of my favorite countries - and a sort of second home by virtue of my parent's Bangkok residence - Thailand is a little difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, it is developed, modern, and "first-world" in many ways (7-11, anyone?). The people are generally outgoing, exceedingly friendly, and for better or worse, completely used to foreigners. In fact, one of the things I like least about being in Thailand is the impression I'm afraid I give by traveling as a single male. I find my introductions to the people I meet on the road inevitably including the information that "I'm going to see my parents in Bangkok for the holidays" - in an unconscious attempt to show that I'm NOT a sex tourist. Yeah, the creepy dudes and their beautiful rent-a-girlfriends are everywhere, as are the go-go bars and massage parlors. My little guesthouse was at the end of a pretty, tree-lined alley "guarded" by a well-placed massage parlor manned (woman-ed?) by a handful of very enthusiastic girls. The first few times I walked by, I was fresh meat and fair game - but after a few "mai ao's" (no thanks) they realized I was just staying down the road and not cruising. From then on, I was magically off-limits and free to say hey, flirt, and joke around with them whenever I went home for the night. That's Thailand.

Back to Chiang Rai. It's a nice enough city, mostly quiet with a decent night market that draws hundreds of Thai tourists each night. Really not a whole lot to say about the town, although the highlight seems to be a horribly gaudy clocktower in the center of town (looked like a royal gift to me, but I'm just guessing). The owner of my guesthouse had kept telling me that I MUST go to the clocktower at 8:00pm sharp. One night I walked the few blocks up to the intersection and there were dozens of people gathering on each of the streetcorners surrounding the clocks - all Thais, I was definitely the only foreigner for this show. At exactly 8, the clock started slowly flashing different colors, playing music, and then, from bowels of the golden tower, a strange sort of metallic lotus flower rose and "gave birth" to an egg-like object. The lights kept flashing, the music kept playing, and at 8:05, the whole process the reversed, the lotus swallowed up the egg, and it all sank back into the clock. The Thais loved it and I loved watching the Thais, so I guess we all won. That's Thailand.

In the end, I was able to check Chiang Rai off of my must-see list. A nice city and perfect place to begin weaning myself from the mellowness of Laos, but nothing too exciting. Up next is Chiang Mai and then the big one.....Bangkok.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Slow boat to Thailand

The plan is to travel two full days up the Mekong, fighting the current all the way to the Lao city of Hua Xai just opposite of the Thai border crossing at Chiang Khong. Traveling from sunup to sundown each day still requires an overnight stop at Pak Beng, a small town whose entire existance seems to revolve around accomodating river travelers. Our boat is the typical stretched out, wooden, Lao-style cargo boat that moves people and goods up and down the Mekong every day. This particular run consists of Lao villagers, who hop on and off the boat at random settlements along the way, a half dozen foreigners who are, like me, headed to Thailand, and a cargo of hundred pound bags of rice and wood flooring packaged for export. No food on board - we were warned to bring our own - but plenty of beer and soda sold at a small bar located towards the back of the boat by a mostly sullen and/or extremely bored young woman.

The first day of easy motoring was passed with lots of reading (I'm trying to knock back a third-hand Hemingway book I found in Vientiane) and chatting over drinks with the other travelers on board - a couple of Aussies (always Aussies), a couple of Kiwis (never confuse the two), a German on his way to India to practice yoga, and a mute, bald-headed, ukulele strumming guy dressed all in black. As he never really said much, I can only assume he was a Bulgarian nihilist. He was nice enough, though.

The Mekong itself was beautiful - a wide, muddy river winding through jungle covered mountains. Here and there were thatch-roofed homes built high above the high water mark, a more substantial village every so often, but no roads that I could see. The Mekong appeared to provide the only real modes of transport in this corner of Laos, boats of all sizes including a few big barges hauling heavy loads of teak logs to upstream to Thailand or further into Yunnan province in China.

After spending so much time on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, I was excited to travel on a large, silt-laden, mostly undamned (for now.....and yes, the pun was intended) river. Except for the surrounding topography, this is what the Colorado would look like without its own monsterous dams: massive beaches of freshly deposited sand and sediment lining both banks (most of it recently planted with corn by local villagers....just like the Anasazi would have done) and a high-water zone stretching 30 to 40 meters up the bank devoid of any vegetation, native or otherwise. Looking at all that beautiful Mekong sand, I couldn't help but curse Glen Canyon Dam, or the dams currently being considered for construction further upstream in China. Anyway, the river itself has a fairly strong current, but no real rapids to speak of on this stretch. A very good thing considering that the few tricky pockets of eddies and cross-currents that we encountered caused the skinny boat to list quite a bit - even tossing some cargo around at one point. Of course, none of this was helped by the foreigners' refusal leave the sunny side of the boat in order to evenly distribute the weight, even against the (weak) admonitions of the crew. They (the crew) just shrugged, lit more cigarettes, and kept chugging along.

We pulled into Pak Beng after dark and had just enough time to to find rooms, dinner, and take hot-water bucket baths before the village generators shut down around 9pm. My cruddy little room, cramped and cell-like as it was, was perched on a balcony fifty feet directly above the river and, under the full moon, I had the most amazing views of the Mekong and its river gorge as the stars came up for the night. Another one of those moments that makes any of the previous hassles or discomforts all worth while.....or mostly worth while.

The following day was more of the same. Shoved off at 8am on a different, slightly less sea-worthy boat and by mid-day, the country was opening up to the west. Now the left hand bank was all Thailand and just before sundown, we arrived in Hua Xai. The border posts were closed for the day, as I figured they would be, and I found a cheap and grotty room not far from the boat ferry. The next morning I went straight down to immigration to get stamped out just as the office was opening for the day and although there were a dozen backpackers lined up to enter Laos, I was the only one heading the other direction. Consequently I had the ferry boat all to myself as it went back across to the far bank and, after blowing my last 40 kip on a latte (these border towns are so sophisticated), I jumped on board and bowed goodbye to Laos - five minutes later I stepped off the boat and officially entered the Kingdom of Thailand.

Leaving Luang Prabang

Five minutes into my two-day journey up the Mekong to the Thai border and any regrets that I may have had about multiple scarf purchases at the Luang Prabang night market vanished. In fact, I was beginning to wish I had bought a shawl or something with a little more coverage - maybe swiped the ratty wool blanket out of my room at the guesthouse. As we pulled away from town, gray clouds hung low over the surrounding mountains and the boat, while plenty comfortable, was wide open to the cold morning breeze blowing downstream. It seems - confirmed by several shivering locals onboard - that winter had officially arrived in northern Laos. And, as if to mark the occasion, Luang Prabang was hit by a city-wide power outage on my last night in town. I woke up to a dark and cold wood-floored room, packed my bags by headlamp, and settled for a cold water face splash in the sink instead of a hot shower. Still enough hot water left in the thermos downstairs to whip up a cup of instant coffee and, with an hour to kill before departure, I dragged a chair out on to the second floor balcony overlooking the little alley below. Munching on a fresh-baked pineapple muffin from the market around the corner, I sat back and enjoyed one last sunrise in Luang Prabang.

Set back off the main drag in the old silver-smithing district, my guesthouse balcony has been the perfect place to watch the city come alive each morning: an old woman from the modest house across the way taking her grandson by the hand to the market at the end of the alley, returning with a bag of vegetables and small bundle of firewood for the morning fire; backpack clad girls scrambling out the door to school; young men warming up the engines of their motorbikes and tuk tuks for another day of taxi driving; women sweeping the alley with thatched brooms; and the crippled dog - back leg bent and withered - that I've taken a liking to, twisting and rolling in the dirt with the other well fed neighborhood dogs (they're not all destined for the dinner plate). I feel as though I've had, from my little morning perch, a privileged glimpse into a very small corner of "real" Lao life over the past few days.

Warm thoughts for a cold boat ride.