Friday, 28 December 2012

Vang Vieng


Vang Vieng - the most touristy place in Laos. The landscape is absolutely gorgeous, with rice fields and limestone pillars surrounding the town and a river running through it. The main draw to the city is tubing. The tracks pick you up at the city, and drive you around 6 kms up the stream from where you tube back to town. Well, actually it's not the tubing which attracts people, but all the bars along the river which serve dirt cheap alcoholic drinks, usually served as buckets. Lao whisky is so cheap, about $1 for a bottle, that these buckets are 50% alcohol, and even though they taste disgusting they're enough to forget your name, or to be amazed at how did you get home last night and what is this pig doing on your pillow! There aren't too many laws in Lao, and tourist money is really good. Since people get that drunk and later go on a tube, or swing and jump into the river or miss and head dive into the deck, about 20 people die each year. I'm not surprised at all by that. When you look at them, it's like looking at an alien, their eyes look in different directions, they can't keep balance, and they speak a language which slightly resembles English. If people didn't get that drunk, it would've actually been fun (at least for me). There are guys who throw an empty bottle attached to the rope at you, you grab the rope and they pull you inside the bar. There is good dance music playing, water fountains, drinking games, like ping pong, where you're supposed to get the ping pong ball into the cups filled with beer. If the ball makes it, the losing team drinks that glass. There are prizes to be won. People draw things on themselves with a marker and paint, it's a lot of fun ... again, if not everybody was that drunk, or ... on a school holiday. This city is filled with 20 year olds, which is really not my scene anymore. One day I went tubing, I didn't go to any bars, just cruised down the river enjoying the fabulous views and dodged the bottles that kept flying at me.
This town is also filled with mushrooms and other kinds of drugs restaurants. People take them, but the police patrols the places, and if they catch anyone, the fine is usually USD $600!!, and you can't really not pay, because 1. drugs are illegal in Laos, and you'll go to jail, and 2 if you don't pay and they will take your passport away, I don't think your country would love to hear the reason for it.
There are also a bunch of restaurants that show re-runs of friends and family guy. I love friends, and since I've been travelling pretty fast, and I'm always up to date with all the monuments, I don't feel bad spending hours and hours lying down on the mattress with a bunch of pillows supporting my head, ordering mango shakes and watching friends ... aaahhh ... I'm in heaven :))
One evening in my "friends" restaurant, Oliver found me. I've just seen him a day ago going tubing with another guy who I knew. He sat beside me and made me go out.... but what about friends???? Not that I enjoy a drunk as my company, but it was an interesting experience. I can't really respect people who get that drunk when they stumble while they walk and make no sense at all. I was very surprised to hear that he's actually a helicopter engineer, and another girl that we've met in a bar does a PhD in Chemistry in Oxford ... I would assume they have more brains than that, or is there something that I don't get. Can someone explain it to me please?
I asked Oliver why did he get so drunk, and he said that he starts a very difficult job in 2 weeks and will lead a group of people, and now it's the time to party, but isn't it good to party when you'll actually remember the party and not the hung over days in the bed?? Also, guys should really have some rules, such as, if you're drunk and the girl isn't ... leave her alone!!! Even if I was interested in a guy, and he approached me when he was drunk, I would NEVER go for him!!
I didn't drink anything that night, I didn't feel like playing the catching up game. When I met him the next day (randomly on the street), he asked me if I'll go out tonight and I'll be drinking this time. Why does he care so much if I drink or not? Is it something to be proud of? It seems to be an object of pride "I woke up fully clothed and not even in my cloths, I don't remember anything, dude, can you tell me what kind of crazy sh*t we did?, and I have no idea how I made it back or at what time" ... and why is that a good thing exactly?? "Sooo ... you're gonna drink today?". It's not something that I usually plan!
Most of the people in Laos ride scooters or bicycles usually in winter jackets and under an umbrella, not to get tanned. That makes me think. In Western societies everybody wants to get tanned, tan looks good and healthy, and "I'm so much prettier when I'm tanned". But in here, it's the opposite! We have this perfect image of ourselves in our heads, of what makes us look good or bad that doesn't concern anybody else. Everybody has their own taste, and everybody likes something different. We try to be what we are thinking is pretty, which could be something ugly to someone else. If there were no mirrors, and there wouldn't be anybody to tell you how you look. Would you care how you look like? We're all moved by media, which is moved by money, not our interests, and they only make our lives more complicated by constant worrying of us not being good enough. In my personal experience being 10 kgs over and under my normal weight, having short/long hair cuts, makeup/no makeup, dressing up very nice/ok, didn't influence anybody except myself and my troubled mind. It's good to know it, but it seems that every time I forget. When I got a haircut a week ago, I didn't like it how the hair falls. I would've straightened the edges in Canada, but here I have no hair styling equipment. That was until I asked a guy in the hostel how my hair looks, and he said it was fine. When would I ever learn how to relax and not to care?!?
Next day I took a tour to have fun and to meet not tubing kind of people. We drove to a very cool cave. The water is very high right now, and pretty much you take a tube, sit on it, and pull yourself through the cave on the rope with ceiling being only a few centimeters above the head. Sometimes the ceiling would be so low that I had to lie on the tube to pass. Super cool! Except one part where there was a gigantic spider, and really not too much space to go around it. I closed my eyes (after squeaking for a while), and pulled myself through :) When we ate lunch I asked our guide to translate to the bar owners that birds are much more happier in the wild than in the cage ... but they laughed at me :( We then saw a cool talking bird. When you talk to it, it really listens, it moves the head side to side to try to learn the sounds, moves some flaps up and down and then repeats it!! Apparently it wants to be a cat more than a bird, since it really mastered the meeeaaauuuu sound really really well, and was constantly repeating it. We also taught it ku-ku and hello. What an amazing creature! In the bar there was a board attached to a long rope, you can stand on it, and almost wake board. It took a while to get used to it, and near the shore I was just going left and right and left and right, but then I got the hang of it, and boarded to the middle of the river doing one hand, backwards, jumps and flips ... just kidding :) Why didn't anybody else try it??
We finished the day with kayaking back into town going through small rapids, but mainly relaxing and splashing each other.
In the evening we all went to a dinner together. 1 couple was on a tight budget and we went to a local restaurant where they only served chicken, pork or beef noodle soups. It took the waiter 10 minutes to take the order, making sure 3 times that we got the right kind of soups ... seriously?? At the end, he didn't have change, and I was waiting for him to give it to me. Then his phone rang and he was speaking on it completely forgetting his job. Everybody was waiting for me to go, but he turned his back on me and kept on talking. His sister came, and I told her that I need 35 kip in change, but she started recalculating everything, who ordered what and how much money she has. That was the first time in Thailand and in Laos when I blew up. Jeeeeeez, I told her, just a soup and a water, and I need 35 kip in change! The waiter just in time finished his phone conversation, patted me on the back, said that it's ok, it was his brother on the phone. I don't care who that was, didn't you hear of customer comes first? He tried to calm me down and said that he'll see me next time ... um ... I really doubt it!
I started reading this really boring book right now "A year to live", I don't think I'll finish it. But it's an experiment of a guy who's gonna live his next year as though it was his last one. In one of the chapters he starts off saying that if we were to die right now, most of us will have huge regrets about things that we haven't done. I started thinking about myself, and I don't think I regret anything, or would be very upset about things that I haven't had a chance to do. I lived in 3 countries, I lived in a beautiful Bermuda, I've learned 4 languages, finished university, I've travelled the world, I experienced extreme love and happiness, I learned how to forgive, I stuck to my principles, I've been honest with people ... if I had a year to live, what else would I want to do??? Nothing much comes to mind ... but I think I would do something that makes a difference.
Philosophy aside, I rented a bike and went for a ride in the country side. It was a 60 kms circuit, and an hour later, I only covered 15 kms ... yep, that's how good the roads are. There are more potholes and muddy baths than roads, but my bike carried me thought them every time. The landscape was as always so beautiful with green rice fields and limestone mountains all around. I stopped at a blue lagoon, but it wasn't too blue, what was much cooler than the lagoon is a cave which completely blew my expectations to pieces. I thought it would be a small Buddha cave, like all the rest of the caves, and at first it's exactly what it was. Although still a pretty big open space, I thought to myself "Is that it?", until I saw a sign in red with an arrow "Cave ->" ... what? If the cave is there, then where am I? Thank god I rented a flash light at the entrance. I hid my beg which was annoying me, and getting in the way of climbing the rocks, and boulder climbed into a black hole. The flash light was very powerful, and the cave was gigantic. It's pitch black dark, and you can barely see where the flash light hits the wall. I was baby walking in it, since at times I would come across a deep hole in the ground and a small sign next to it "Danger!". I was so happy that I went there by myself and not with a group or a guide, it definitely made the experience more spooky - just the way I like it! :) My only concern was that if I'll fall, will anybody find me?? Now that I'm thinking about it, I want to go back in and explore some more :)
At the lagoon I met Matt from Canada who is one of the coolest people I've ever met on this trip. He's in the middle of an overland tour from UK. It took him a year to come to Laos, and then he'll go back through China and Central Asia. We've shared our frustrations of India how everybody's incompetent, and to do anything, no matter how little it is, requires a huge amount of effort. He told me a story which was funny to me (now that is, and now that I'm away from India). He ended up in this expensive hotel and went to a restaurant. It's boiling hot outside, but in the restaurant is arctic cold. Indians always push for the extremes to show how rich they are. He had to go to the room a few times to put more and more layers. He was the only one in the restaurant with about 8 waiters sitting there staring at the wall (they just love to do it!). He ordered room temperature water (since it's freezing in there!) and a meal, and meanwhile skyped with his brother. Half an hour later, there is still no meal, not even water, and in his picture of himself on the screen there were heads popping up from all directions. Um ... do you want to say hi??? And where is the water? Finally they brought him a bottle which sat at the sun, and was boiling hot. At that point he exploded, like we all do. Is this room temperature?? Why are you bringing me boiling water?? Don't you have any ice?? And that's in an almost 5* hotel. Where is the common sense? And why things can't be done right from the first time??
We've hung out for 2 days and had the most interesting conversations on philosophy, psychology, travel, politics and the problems with the world and how to fix them. Next day we went to a waterfall, and where it broke, it sent out all that water outwards with extreme force, and to stand in front of it, felt like being in a hurricane. I kept thinking to myself, why am I enjoying this, and if I were caught in the middle of the street with such a rain and wind, I would curse everything around me? Does our happiness depend on choices we make, or in an ability to have a choice at all? Or are we just stuck up and want everything to be the way we want it to be? :)
On the way out I tried a corn flavoured iced tea, and fried bats. They were ok, not my favourite meat so far, and actually I felt quite bad eating them. Why do I feel bad about eating bats, frogs, birds when I feel nothing eating chicken/pork/lamb??
Matt left, and I spent another day going to yet another cave (apparently north of Laos has the largest cave system in the world) and then chilled in a restaurant watching friends :)
I also heard that there is a baby bear in town and went to search for it. I had to make my point again and again that I'm looking for a bear, not for a beer, and at the end the only thing I could find was baby Sofi, or Susi or something. The mom was curious why I have such an interest in her baby, and why I didn't want to hold her. "You want to hold her?" ... "Nooooo, thanks, I'm ok!". I didn't have the heart to tell her that her baby looks nothing like a bear :)

https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/VangVieng


Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Tham Kong Lo & Vientiane


I met a girl in the hostel who was going to the same town, and she suggested that instead of making it closer, we should stop here and go to the recommended guest house which has a lot of info about the area. The guest house was super cool, very big, sitting in a huge garden. Completely unexpected for a non-touristy town like this. It would've taken us 3 days to get to Vientiane from here, which is too many days to spend to only see 1 sight (due to too many bus changes), so we all took a pretty expensive tour, but at least we've saved precious time.
All the morning the 5 of us who were going for the trip were discussing how we all were getting ripped off. After India, I think I could talk about it all day long, without taking a lunch break! The guys said that in Cambodia there is a problem that they don't tell you what the tour includes. When you sign up, pay and go, you find out that there is all this extra stuff that you have to pay for. I read in LP that to take a public transport between Laos and Vietnam, there is a common scam of drivers (sometimes of big buses) stopping in the middle of nowhere and demanding more money, and even though I'm a fan of public transportation (common, half of my India blog would be missing without all these fun train rides!), I think I will take a tourist bus to get from Laos to Vietnam.
We passed very beautiful landscape of green rice fields, lush jungle, and lime stone pillars which rise vertically out of a flat terrain. Laos is extremely undeveloped and beautiful with green green green stretching from south to north, east to west. Most of the flat terrain is being used as rice fields, and I wonder how different Laos would look like when rice didn't grow. Would it be brown brown brown from south to north, east to west? I also wonder about their lives. Lao people don't work, they only work in rice fields. They don't have any money, and they're poor by Western standards. Although I wouldn't say that they're poor, they're all self sufficient. But what happens in years when monsoon doesn't come on time or there isn't much rain for the rice to grow, or when they buy Western pesticides of GMO seeds and their crops die? How would they survive that year, what would they feed on??
We arrived at Tham Kong Lo cave which is a 7 km cave underneath a mountain through which a river flows and you go through it on a motorized canoe. Outside the cave, local kids were playing volleyball kind of game but without the use of hands. They were so athletic, jumping so high and kicking the ball with their feet. They should be in Olympics! :)
The cave was very nice. It's pitch black dark, and I have no idea how the driver navigated it with his small flashlight. We stopped for a walk through stalactites and stalagmites and drove through to the other end. On the way back we came too close to the wall, and I was thinking why does he drive that close, I imagined the boat crashing into the wall, just like other few "accidents" that I had when they come out of nowhere. We didn't hit the wall, but the motor hit the rocky beach and the canoe almost flipped. I guess we were lucky and the driver's brain got reset for higher alertness.
I found the experience nice, and that's it, I asked the 4 other people who I went with, and they all said it was amazing! I think I got immune to excitement. Maybe that's why I'm an adrenaline junky. I did so much that I always need to out-do myself, to out-top my previous experiences.
We went to a local restaurant, and like in many Asian restaurants, we were served in a 10-15 minute intervals between plates. It's not considered to be rude to start eating as soon as you get your food, cause otherwise it will either go cold or moldy.
As always, they don't know any English, so you just point at an item, and get it served. There are no alterations, there are no questions, you're not in control and you have to accept it!
Our driver dropped us off at a bus station, where luckily the bus arrived 5 minutes later, new, clean, double decker, 70% empty, blasting 80's Lao music. Maybe and probably not 80's, but it definitely looks like it. There are "video clips" where the band "dances" in some park. All 10 songs are alike, all dancing is alike, the camera is shaking, zooming in from person to person, trying to do some tacky visual effects ... 80's visual effects. I remembered watching this kind of TV in Africa. These countries just started developing after being suppressed or bombed for years and years, and are very much behind, so behind that at first it looks funny, but really, it isn't.
Arrived at 10 back to Vientiane, and except the 3 hour break at the cave, we spent 11 hours on the buses getting to and from the cave. It's alright while travelling, but can you imagine in normal life, on a weekend saying to your friends ... soooo ... do you want to go to this cave that is 11 hours away?? That's further than Quebec!
I found out that I need to do a pre-arranged visa for Vietnam... bummer! What's even worse is that I need an ASAP visa to Vietnam, because I don't plan to get stuck in Vientiane for too long. I rented a bicycle and went off. I barely filled in a quarter of an application where I put my name, date of birth, visa duration when he took my application and said it's enough info, just pay $60 (Vietnam better be worth it!!), and then told me to come back at 1pm. At 1??? Awwwww ... I made a sad face, when I turned around, he told me, ok, ok sit. I barely had the chance to sit and put my stuff into the bag, when he called me again. What is it I thought, come here, go there, sit, come here? When I came to the counter, my visa was ready! What?? Why did he tell me to get back at 1??? That was like 3 hours away!
I saw the most important temple in Laos, which wasn't impressive at all, and for the most important temple, it's in a desperate need of a face lift.
On my way out, I got a little bit lost. I think U2 wrote the song "where the streets have no names" in Laos for sure! Even the major streets have no names. Even LP describes bike routes by kms. "So, when you rent a bike, make sure the odometer works, cause you'll need it! About 13 kms from that monument there will be a sign less turn to the left. Make sure to take a pen and paper with you to write the distances!". It took me a while to get back to the hostel, I think I got a small heat shock, and needed a cold shower and an AC room. I waited till 3 for it to cool off ... it didn't really, but it was much better than 12. I tried to find a shooting range which I think moved, and then I drove to a traditional spa. Again, I missed the turn and when I looked at the map, I was certainly not where I was supposed to be. I only rode about another km, so it wasn't too bad. It's a temple spa, a temple with no name, a spa with no name. Common! If LP recommends the place, put a sign!!! The setting was very nice in a green garden full of blooming flowers, on an open 2nd floor of a wooden house. They also had a herbal sauna, but I think I sweated enough toxins out on the way to the spa, so I was ok. The massage was ok, not great. It depends on the masseuse so much, while I was having it, I looked at the girl next to me getting an hour long foot massage ... uuuuu that looked gooooood, the masseuse seemed to be in love with her feet and enjoying them like ice cream :))
When I rode back, it was after 5, and it was still hot. I think I chose the hottest day to cycle ... not that I had a choice though ... At the hostel, all the members of the room decided to have dinner together. 1 guy I met at the cave, he was ok. The other guy had Phd and was a tad annoying and whiny for me, another guy was 20 from Germany and barely talked. We went to a dinner at a local place where nobody approached us, not even to clean the table, because nobody spoke English and Asian people are very shy. They would ignore our waving hands up in the air, and it wasn't until a waiter passed by our table when I stood up in front of her and turned her to our table that we were finally served. We just pointed our fingers at the pictures of unknown stuff, and crossed our fingers for good luck.
We ended our evening listening to a live jazz music in a very upscale bar, ordering cocktails and martinis, martinis and cocktails. The reason why I write it, is that I just had the most amazing day of riding around on a bike, seeing the most important monument, having a massage, and feeling like a star in that bar, and all this day (with accommodation and food) cost me less than $30. I can't even imagine what would happen if my daily budget was $40, I'd feel like a queen :))

https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/ThamKongLo
more pics are added to: https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/Vientiane4000IslandsAndChampasak

Friday, 14 December 2012

Pakse, Tat lo and Don Kho


Took a tuk-tuk all the way to Pakse, I feel so bad about it, as though I'm too lazy, and I don't get to experience the real Laos, but I tried to persuade myself that I'll still have the chance. Sometimes though these tourist tuk-tuks and tourist buses actually save you time and money than the local transport. It would be a bit more expansive than the local buses, but they usually have much better hours, with a pick up and a drop off at the hotel, thus saving you a bunch of money on tuk-tuks which you'd have to take to and from the bus station.
There are so many caged birds in Laos, they're so beautiful, and I hate seeing them in cages, trapped there all alone till the rest of their lives. Who created cages anyway?? These people should be sued. And why would people put animals in cages, can't they imagine what the animals feel? I'm very tempted just to open the doors of the cages and let the birds free, and maybe I will. I don't see any harm in it, maybe also put a note saying "Would you like to live in a cage?"
I went to an Italian restaurant, and had the best pasta Bolognese, mango shake and chocolate balls. 3 items ordered, and all 3 are super yummy. I'm definitely coming back! I'm so backwards when travelling. In Toronto, every time I try to go to a different restaurant, but while travelling, if I find a good place, I'm sticking to it. Good places are hard to come by, they might have a Western menu, but they have no clue how to make it, for example serving pizza with carrots and lettuce as toppings doesn't make the best pizza for me. Why can't they google stuff and just follow the recipe?
I missed getting massages, and went to a first massage place near the guest house. I was lying on my front, and it felt very awkward, strange pressure and the guy was climbing on top of me, I really didn't like it, when I turned around and told him to use less pressure, I was surprised that I was massaged by some 10 year old boy!!! Is that even legal??
Went to a tourist information center to ask how to get to some town. They're so friendly, answered my every question, and gave me all the prices and times and bus station locations, offered me foods that they were eating. It made my day and I was in a great mood smiling from ear to ear. While I was there, a group of "backpackers" came in, and asked how to take a VIP bus to a town that's 3 hours away. The girl at the counter said that there are no VIP buses, and they'll have to take a local bus. Local bus??? Their facial expressions showed disgust ... are they ok? Are they safe? There is no way to get VIP bus?? I couldn't believe it. They're not going for 24 hours on a local bus, 3 hours are very manageable, and what's the point of going to a different country, only to be in tourist guest houses, taking tourist buses, booking tours, and eating western food? Stay at your own country if you want everything to be exactly the same. I smiled at them and said, "Common, it will be an adventure!" trying to encourage them, I mean, where else are they gonna see chickens in buses and more scooters on the roof than on a parking lot?
In the morning went by a local bus to the village of Tat lo. It took us 3 hours to cover 80 kms, but the ride was nice, full of locals, and sadly only 1 chicken. I was very surprised though to see a very old woman getting in, and nobody in the front offering her a seat :(
We went to Tat lo the 3 of us, Melina a German girl who I met the evening before in the guest house, and Ann, a French girl who we met on the bus. She took the 6:30 bus, only to wait at some town in between, and board our 9am bus. This is Laos, and I don't know which one's worth for unknown waiting times, India or Laos.
We took a home stay kind of option that had 5 big mattresses on the floor for $1 each, there were only the 3 of us and 1 girl who never talked to anyone, but it was so funny, and felt like I'm in a summer camp :)
All 3 of us feel really bad when we don't get enough sports, and while travelling, I have this feeling every day. We decided to go for a walk, a waterfall later, another waterfall later, another village later, and we ended up hiking for 5 hours. It wouldn't be so bad, except that we didn't expect it, and run out of water. We saw 2 villages on the way where there were more pigs, chickens and ducks than people. All the kids are running around naked and yelling sabadee. It's very strange to see so many naked kids, but they don't mind it yet, and why buy and wash cloths if you don't need to. We got lost somewhere, not really lost, but we couldn't find the way to the big waterfall, and came across a naked man taking a shower in the river, we said sorry and started to walk back when he quickly put his pants on and started yelling at us. He broke a branch and on the ground was drawing us a map of how to get to the waterfall (since everybody who comes to their village is on the way to the waterfall), and then he wrote a price, and said that for that amount he'll take us there. We didn't really need a guide, but thought that it would be fun. We jumped across mud, and practiced our balance on rock bridges while crossing streams, went through beautiful rice and corn fields, passed peanuts plantation, apparently peanuts are a root of some plant, who knew? I thought that all the nuts grow on trees.
When we got back, we followed the local way of life, and went to shower in the river. The guest house lady gave the 3 of us a sarong to shower in, cause it's impolite to shower in a bikini. I was walking to the river angry. Why can men shower naked, and I have to be covered head to toe in a stupid potato bag?? We stood there like 3 idiots not knowing how to tie this sarong around us. It's pretty much a big bag but without a bottom, so it could fit many body types (traditional skirts are the same as well). Melina wrapped it around and secured the excess under her armpit; I tried to twist it and tuck it in the middle, Ann tried to make a knot, but nothing really worked and after a few steps it all came undone, and in the water with a fast current we had no chance at all.
In the evening we went to a restaurant with 2 more German girls, and saw a big gecko eating a big grasshopper (10 cms in length). The gecko took a while to swallow it, and the poor grasshopper was still jerking his legs every time the gecko took a bite.
It rained so hard in the morning that we decided to leave even though we wanted to stay another day. It would be impossible to hike around, and just to sit and do nothing all day long is a waste of a day. The owner gave us a big hug with a big kiss when we left :)
The bus station was 2 kms from the town, and the bus was supposed to come there at 12. Of course it didn't come at 12, and I realized that I forgot my bikini in the guest house which was drying from yesterday's "shower". At 1:30 a woman who knew good English told us that the bus will be leaving another town at 2, and will be here around 2:30. Yeeippiii ... that gives me an hour to pick up my bikini. I decided to get some exercise out of it and run the 2 kms till the guest house. Of course 5 minutes after I left, the bus came! Luckily at that moment a guy who we talked to the previous day for 5 minutes passed on the bike, and Melina jumped on him, and asked him to pick me up at the guest house. It was funny when I came out, he's waiting there for me with the bike, "Hurry up! The bus is waiting for you!". It waited 15 minutes with the girls standing in front of the bus not letting it pass. No wonder they never come on time! ;)
We missed the last bus to the next town, and had to stay the night in Pakse. Melina and I went back to Delta Coffee, the same Italian restaurant where I had spaghetti Bolognese with mango shake ... again, but instead of chocolate balls, we ordered ├ęclairs. We talked there for hours waiting for another rain to stop, if you haven't guessed it yet, yes, it is a rainy season in SE Asia. Melina is a computer scientist like me, and we immediately had a very good connection. I haven't met 1 computer scientist in my years of travel, and missed using some of the IT jargon. She said that she would never go anywhere for a month if it's not in Europe, because there is too much pollution from a plane, and even now that she's gone for 2 months, she will plant 3 trees when she'll come back. How nice is that?? I met another German guy in Brazil who never took internal flights in Brazil which were faster AND cheaper than the bus, saying that he already feels bad enough to fly to Brazil from Germany, and that's the least that he could do.
In the morning, waited for 2 hours for the big tuk-tuk to fill up with 10 people to only cover 15 kms! When one of the passengers decided to get a pedicure from passing salespeople, I realized that it would be a while till we'll hit the road. That was a bit annoying, but I had a book with me and I survived the wait. Arrived at an island called Don Kho, In the last week, I've been to Don Khon, Don Khong, and now Don Kho ... I wonder how efficient is the mail system in here, and reminds me to be more careful when taking buses ... who knows how many other places have these same sounding names. On the island I went for a home stay which I was very excited to experience. But after half an hour of unsuccessful pantomime with people who don't even know the word for "toilet", I got bored. I wanted to experience the local way of life, see how they live, help them cook. But they made me instant noodles for lunch, so no much helping. Men were gambling the money away with card games, and women were serving them food, looking after animals and cleaning the property. There were 2 more French girls staying there, and the 3 of us were the only foreigners on this island. We went for a walk, and found some women weaving. I tried to clumsily weave some scarf looking thingi for 5 minutes, but understanding that there is nothing better to do on this island, I decided to weave the whole scarf. The pattern was very boring checkered white and red, and I started to weave my own designs, which at first they found very shocking. No no no, they told me, this size, now use white, now red!!  Naaah ... I'm buying this scarf, so I'll make my own designs, and at the end, they were very entertained and invited their neighbours to look at something that doesn't make much sense to them. But besides the checkered beginning which I don't like at all, and rest of the scarf looks very pretty :) Now I just have to think how I can use it. It was supposed to take me 4 hours to finish, but I was done in 2, I learned how to do it very fast and they looked at me very proudly, showing me their thumbs and saying that I'm a good weaver. One boy was always sitting next to me, helping me to change threads, and to bring the scarf closer to me when it got too long and too far away. He was drawing something for a very long time, and I was wondering what he was doing. After a while, he turned the page, and he drew me. It was very funny, but I hope I don't look like that :)
Note: when I write "say", it's usually not "say" at all, it's all pantomime, people in Laos don't speak a word of English outside very touristy places. I'll probably be very good at a game of Charades after travelling in here :)
Back at the home stay I ordered fried rice with stir fried vegetables (I read it from the small phrase section of my guide book), and was immediately served steam rice with steam veggies ... ok ... I guess that would do too :)
At 9pm everybody was already asleep, and before 6am, I was woken up by an animal symphony outside my window. I had tea and left back to Pakse. Right across the river, a girl on the bike asked me where I'm going, and gave me a ride to Pakse. She was studying English in University, and after 4 years her English was still not too good. I could understand maybe half of what she was saying, and she could barely understand me. She said that she's very happy to meet me, and even wanted to invite me to her house, but I don't have that much patience to repeat myself 5 times and to speak 1 word at a time with no grammar so she could understand me.
I got a haircut :( My hair has been completely ruined, and it's falling out a lot. I'm not sure what it is, climate change, stress, diet change, sun, but it's very dry and split, and got much lighter than my natural color. When I was sitting at a chair, I just told her, shorter, shorter, shorter, she didn't want to cut it short at all, because long hair is considered to be very beautiful in Laos, until she reached shoulder length. When I asked her for the price, she told me 20 ($2.5) in Lao, and that's the only number that I didn't learn. She didn't have a 20,000 Kip note in her purse to show me, so she had to write it to me, when at the end I told her "khop chai" (thank you), there was no end to her delightment. I then bought an egg, and put a yolk in my hair ... there, I hope it helps! :)
Took a bus up north which went in a turtle speed, stopping for everything and everybody, and then it stopped for 1.5 hours for no reason at all, at least nobody seemed to know the reason. The buses here act not only as passenger carriers, but also as goods carriers, stopping along the way to pick up or drop off parcels and packets. This bus was full of cabbages. The entire roof, and pretty much the 4 seats at the back were cabbages. On another bus, there were 2 tons of pumpkins on the top, they even put bikes up there! At every stop, the bus gets full of people selling food, mostly roasted chickens and eggs on sticks. There are 10 people who make it inside the bus, and 10 people outside the doors and windows. Then they run from bus to bus with their food trying to compete with each other for their customers. On this bus stop (too bad I didn't take a picture), on the street, there was an endless chain on stores, all carrying the same commercial - BeerLao, I think the sign is for free if you're gonna put it in your store, and then the name of the store, which was "name" grilled chicken! 20 restaurants in a row, all look alike, all sell exactly the same stuff. If you want competition, try selling something new!!
I tried to ask them what time we'll reach the town, but nobody speaks English. But I mean, how hard is it to understand (name of town -> pointing at my watch)?? They just shake their head in "no" and walk away. That pissed me off! I know that you don't know English, but at least tryyyy to understand, it's not that hard!!
The bus took way longer than it should've, which means that I couldn't get to the final destination that day, but oh well, at least I finished most of the book I was reading :)

https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/TatLoAndDonKho

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Vientiane, 4000 Islands and Champasak


I've been reading LP where it says that in Laos there are no lines, it's whoever can shove the money first into the ticket window wins! Oh no, here we go again, India #2! :S After a whole month in Thailand, I haven't been irritated not even once, and with my built immunity and renewed strength, I think I can tackle it!
I left the guest house in Nong Khai and 2 hours later, I was in the capital of Laos - Vientiane. Don't worry if you've never heard of Laos, and its capital, I didn't know about it either before I started travelling. As there is a saying: Vietnam plants the rice, Cambodia watches it grow and Laos listens to it grow. Nothing is ever happening there, so it just doesn't make it to international news. Could've been there sooner, but the only "Visa on arrival" counter, could only work that fast. From what I've read, Laos is one big village, with the majority of population being very poor, non existing roads, and constantly breaking chicken buses. The first high school opened by French was only established in 1947! Indeed the education is not valued in Laos, what is valued are your skills at the rice fields. Hopefully the money from this $42 1 month visa would go for a good use!
I started talking to a couple who were behind me in a line, and we shared a taxi together to town. The taxi driver said 300 baht, and I said 200. He asked how many people, and I said 3. He was holding his stomach laughing, but when we kept on walking, the price went down to 250, we kept on walking ... ok, ok 200. Oh, look who's laughing now! Although after half an hour ride in a very new, clean, leather-seat minivan, I started feeling bad for bargaining.
Vientiane is a very nice small capital of only about 200,000 people on a bank of the Mekong river (which passes through most of SE Asia). The touristic center is filled with all kinds of yummy cafes and restaurants from all over the world. Everything has 3 sets of prices on them, Lao kip, Thai Baht and US dollars. Exchange rate is 1 to 7500, and everybody has a chance to be a millionaire with 1,000,000 kip being only $130. I find myself converting Kip to Baht to Dollars to make sense of the prices. So it takes a while to order anything :)
Absolutely every hotel, guest house, restaurant and a hole in the wall establishment has ads about all the buses that it can arrange for you, mostly with the pickup at the hotel. I have to check how these compare to regular buses, but can things be any easier than that? The list of destinations is very comprehensive. The buses go everywhere in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and if it's an island, they include a boat too! All the buses are equipped with washrooms, they serve food, snacks, and wet towels. I wonder if I'll feel like a backpacker in this place! :)
I sat myself in a very modern coffee house where they serve coffee and tea from around the world, opened my Lonely Planet and started making the route of my journey. I only covered about a quarter of the country and I'm already at 2 weeks. What to skip, what to do ... this is the question.
Couldn't sleep at night because had coffee at 6pm :S It's rainy season, the sky is grey, and it constantly drizzles. If the sky is grey, I'm grey too. My head hurts, I feel down, and I want to sleep, so I had the coffee, and I didn't want to sleep anymore ... at night either :) Ok ... try #2! Had a coffee in the morning, this time it worked right :)
Went for a sightseeing tour. First was some arc Patuxai dedicated to those who fought in the struggle for independence from France. Construction was completed in the late 1960s and it was built using concrete donated by the USA for building a new airport, hence its other nickname: Vientiane's "vertical runway". It's compared to the "Arc de Triomphe" in Paris, but like a plank on its side says "From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete", they don't even believe in it themselves :) There are still lots of signs of Laos being a French colony. All the streets in the center have French names and most of the restaurants are French featuring a French menu!
I ordered noodles and pork balls at some local restaurant. When it was time to pay, the woman told me 30,000 (~$4), it seemed kind of expensive for noodles, and thank god I didn't have enough Kip. I asked to pay in Baht, and it came to $2. That's better :)
The market was strange. There were shops selling miscellaneous small items, locks, chargers, pens, and then guitars and badminton rackets ... random! Right beside the market, there was I think the biggest mall in Laos. But they even couldn't fill in 3 floors. The 3rd floor was completely empty, and half of the other shops were closed. Revlon and Rado shops seemed to host only the sellers. I went to a few supermarkets, but they're under stocked, and have no variety at all. If that's happening in the capital, what will be in other towns?

4000 Islands
(LP) There must be some rule in Laos that says the further south you go the more relaxed it becomes, because just when you thought your blood pressure couldn't drop any more, you arrive in Four Thousand Islands and the few you are likely to visit on this scenic 50km-long stretch of the Mekong are so chilled you're liable to turn into a hammock-bound icicle.
I don't know how much the public buses cost, but I decided this time to take the whole package. It included a pick up from the hostel, sleeper bus, minivan and a boat to any island you'd like to go to. Seems pretty easy! But how will I feel the real Laos if I'll always be on these tourist buses?
They took a few of us to the wrong terminal, and after they checked my ticket, they shook their heads, made a few quick phone calls, put my suitcase in the car and we speed across pot holed roads in the rain to the other terminal. I wasn't scared after India, and not even twice when we came so close to throwing someone off the bike. We barely made it to the other terminal, and I got into the sleeper bus. I've never been on a bus like that before. It's 2 floors, and on the 2nd one you almost have to crawl to get to your spot, which is a double bed, but the size of a single bed. It has a mattress on the floor, 2 pillows and 2 blankets. My bed was the only one that had 1 person in it. Thank god for that!! I can't imagine sharing a single bed with an unknown person! It was also very cold, they really put a good use of an AC, and without 2 blankets I would've frozen. I tossed and turned all night, but I was so happy, I don't know why ... these beds are way too cool ! :) In the morning, they put us in different minivans, and drove us for breakfast, then 2 hours later we made another stop for ice cream and washrooms (how smart!) and took us to the boats. When the boat was in the middle of the journey, it started to rain very hard, we were all soaked along with the entire luggage. Some of us waited in the restaurant for the rain to stop, and when we were in the middle of our fabulous food, it was bright and sunny as though the rain has never happened. Of course it did happen, and the walk to the bungalows was a very muddy one. I couldn't roll my suitcase in the muddy pave less roads, and I pretty much took the 1st bungalow that I came across. It's a nice room with a mosquito net, a fan, and a huge balcony right on the river with a hammock for $2.50.
I was tired from the sleepless night, but I didn't want to waste a day napping, especially not on a 1 month visa. So I got my rain coat and set to walk around the island among vast rice fields, cows and buffalos. People here love their buffalos, they help them plant the rice, and you see many kids playing with them, riding them, and picking the ticks out. A few times I was scared to pass them, because they roam around free, and then they just stare at you and don't move. I swear these buffalos have an Indian heritage! :) And after that cow that run at me on the hike in India, those are not just cows anymore, those are sri sri cows! :)
Why don't lesbians shave their legs? I understand that there is a feminist side of being a lesbian, and if a guy doesn't shave, why should I? But isn't it prettier to not have a forest on your legs even for yourself?
I signed up for a kayaking tour, and the 12 of us listened to pseudo English instructions asking each other if anybody understood anything. We didn't, and we just decided to paddle ... I mean, that's what you do in a kayak, right?
The first part was beautiful, in a very narrow part of the river with jungles on both sides. We didn't even need to paddle because the current was so strong. We stopped to look at wild waterfalls. The shaking wooden rope bridge above it, made the experience that much more exhilarating. I don't think you could even raft in these falls, the water had so much volume and speed, it was scary to look at, I can't imagine what would happen if you were to fall of your raft in there! We then saw other falls from a distance, and walked through a jungle to a spot where they brought our kayaks. I wonder which way they went?
According to all countries except western, nobody tells you anything about what's going on ... ever! We reached a big part of the river, which almost looked like a lake, and just followed the guide to the shore. Our kayak was last, and we stopped to ask the parked boats what are they waiting for. They said that it's the spot to watch for dolphins. We knew that we have dolphin watching on the trip, but the guides didn't tell us, and there were only us and another kayak enjoying the experience. When we got back, they all wondered, did we get tired or lost? They didn't even understand why we got stuck in the middle of the river for so long. Such a shame :(
Only the first part of kayaking was beautiful. The rest was in open water, and it was more for a workout (and god knows I need it!) than for a scenery. We parked, put the kayaks in the track, got squashed in the space that was left, and went to see more falls. They were beautiful and powerful, but the ones on the bridge were still my favourite. Back in the car, we were all exhausted, only to find out that we have more kayaking to do. On the bank, we watched a monkey in the cage, very sad sight to see such big monkey in such a small cage. He looked at me, and gave me his hand, 3 times, on the 3rd time, I slowly outstretched my hand to his, when out of nowhere, he grabbed it, and jerked me to the cage, then let go, and went to sit in the corner to laugh. He didn't scratch me, or hurt me, but everyone was shocked, and my heart was pumping. Those monkeys, they're smart ... and cruel !! :)
Back in the kayak, we had to paddle across a wide river. We saw the end, but for some reason we went up on the opposite side. I figured out that the current is so strong, if we'll set out to cross the river directly opposite the exit, we will never make it. And oh man, it was some hard peddling. We were so tired from the whole day of kayaking, and the hardest part was this last one, and there was no stopping, and no giving up. Peddling hard for good 10 minutes with energy reserve way low on the red line.
I was tired that I was contemplating whether to go to sleep at 5pm ... but pulled myself through it :)
Next day I rented a bicycle and went to the next island. I saw many more animals than people throughout the ride, chickens, ducks, water buffalos all gazing by the side of the road, and occasional people with Vietnamese hats working the rice fields. At the occasional houses or restaurants, you share the table space with cats and dogs and sometimes monkeys! At one restaurant when I was lying next to a table (in a lot of restaurants you can lie down on the mattress on the floor near the table), when a cat went by, climbed on top of me and fell asleep.
It rained sporadically. Sunny, sunny, then a big black cloud comes right above you, and it starts pouring rain. There is nowhere to hide, but you look up and you know that it will stop raining in less than 5 minutes. Then just as everything gets soaked, it gets dry in a matter of minutes with the blazing sun.
At one of the waterfalls, the sign said "For your security, leave the bike with the guard. Do not leave the bike anywhere else unattended!", and then a little girl comes running with a ticket, which is the cutest thing ever, it's either that or "Khop chai lai lai" which means thank you very much, which I think is the cutest thank you in any language.
Going to a next place ... this 1 month visa thing does not make things easy. At the boats nobody tells you anything, and people come and ask and ask just to be told nothing or to wait 5 minutes. Then everybody gave up and sat down. When an empty boat came, the organizer was saying in surprise, why are you all sitting? Come aboard the boat! :)
At the mainland, there were so many buses, and again, no directions. I remembered Lonely Planet tip #1: Pack a lot of patience with you, you'll get to where you need to be, but nobody knows exactly when. I told a few people my destination, and waited. Everybody around me was running, looking for the correct bus, some were losing their temper with the organizers, I just kept quiet knowing that they'll eventually call me. Half an hour later, they did, and I boarded a bus to go to Champasak which only 30 years ago was a seat of royalty. I don't know why they chose Champasak, because it's a 1 street town, with absolutely nothing to do in it, except see a nearby temple. Here I go, giving a temple another chance. I have a need for exercise, so I walked back and forth along the street for 2 hours, greeting all the smiling and waving kids with sabaai-dii. It's not rare to see kids helping parents in a store or a restaurant, doing house chores, going to a store (or riding a scooter) to buy something.
I need help. I need different ways to say 2 phrases:
1. Thank god
2. god knows
As I think everybody's already aware that god is not on my top 10 list of beliefs, and I feel like I'm betraying myself and others for using these phrases.

I haven't seen that many geckos in my life on one ceiling. There was a single light in the evening in the guesthouse's restaurant, and 1000s of small bugs flying around it. I tried to count the geckos, and I reached 60. I'm sure there were more. And they were just sitting there quietly, occasionally making their move for the kill, but it looked to me like they could be like Wales eating plankton, just open your mouth, and run through the cloud of bugs :)
The checkout was at 12, and I had to see the wat (Buddhist temple) before that. I woke up at 7, I'm still rubbing my sleepy eyes, and already cycling 10 kms to the wat. The temple was ok. It's a world heritage site, but I think it just got this title because there is nothing else to see in Laos, so they think, we have this one temple, let’s make it count! There wasn't much to see, but again, I was glad for the exercise, and the location was beautiful.

https://picasaweb.google.com/100036016632387453128/Vientiane4000IslandsAndChampasak 

Monday, 10 December 2012

Nong Khai


While I'm travelling through Thailand, I'm seeing these doll houses everywhere. They're different colors, and are either for sale by hundreds or are everywhere I lay my eyes on. Is there a doll invasion happening in Thailand?
(LP) House of the holy. Many homes or inhabited dwellings in Thailand have an associated "spirit house", built to provide a residence for the plot of land's guardian spirits. Based on animistic beliefs that predate Buddhism, guardian spirits are believed to reside in rivers, trees and other natural features and need to be honoured. The guardian spirit of a particular plot of land is the supernatural equivalent of a mother in law, an honoured but sometimes troublesome family member. To keep the spirits happily distracted, Thais erect elaborate dollhouse like structures on the property where the spirits can live comfortably separated from human affairs. To further cultivate good relations and good fortune, daily offerings of rice, fruit, flowers and water are made to the spirit house. If the human house is enlarged, the spirit house must also be enlarged, so that the spirits do not feel slighted.
On my way to Nong Khai, I read half on the lonely planet since now I'm on a strict schedule. This schedule doesn't give me any time to relax, and every day I feel tired and a bit anxious about my plan. I don't just read about the cities and sights, I also read a big section in the book dedicated to the history, food, manners, culture, way of life, to get a better sense of the country I'm in, and I guess to try not to be too ignorant. A bit more about sex tourism: The industry was there before, but it really exploded in the Vietnam war when the American soldiers were based in Thailand. There is a lot of money in sex tourisms and many people don't even mind doing the job. The salary that they make (about $600/month) is the salary that you would get through high education, a few years of experience and special connections. The families sometimes send their kids to the city to earn some money and just like in a lot of poor countries, most of the money is sent back home to the family. The family then buys more land, better houses, appliances, cars, thus teaching a new generation the value of such work.
& funny thing about rice: Thailand is the world leading exporter in rice, and in 2010 exported 9 million tones of the grain. Rice is so central to Thai food culture that the most common term for "eat" is gin kow (literally, "consume rice") and one of the most common greetings is Gin know reu yang? (Have you consumed rice yet?). To eat, is to eat rice, and for most of the country, a meal is not acceptable without this staple.
I arrived at the cutest guest house ever, overlooking the river with English speaking staff, a trust system where you write what you eat, or take out of the fridge and a floating restaurant. No wonder LP says that people who's intend to stay in Nong Khai for one day, end up staying much longer. They probably found this guest house :) While talking to Mike the manager, the subject of visa came up, and he told me that to renew it, I have to go to Laos, pay Laos entrance visa which is $42, return back to Thailand, and I will receive only 2 weeks extension. 2 weeks for $42??? And I'll have to do it twice or more! That's insane! I was lost there for a minute. My plan was to do northern Thailand, then go to Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and re-enter Thailand to do the beaches and on to Malaysia and Indonesia. I'm seeing my plan getting shattered into pieces yet again. I came up with a new plan! If I'm crossing into Laos, might as well stay there, then I'll go to Vietnam, Cambodia, do a proper Thailand visa in Cambodia which will give me 90 days, and do Northern Thailand then, which is not too bad, because it would be the end of the rain season, and I could do trekking, which I wouldn't be able to do now. And hopefully it will be time for some awesome festival ... hopefully !! :)
What do you know, there is a festival in town! The festival of candles. It involves big 2m candles being paraded down the street on a track with a music playing and a dancing school dancing traditional Thai dance behind it in traditional costumes. It was very pretty, they all moved in unison, the movements were precise and sensual, with all the intricate hand movements. It started raining like crazy, but their smiles from their faces continued to radiate.
The 2 women who were leading the festival said some weird things like: Nong Khai is the best city in Thailand, it has the warmest, the best, the friendliest, and the most beautiful people in all of Thailand like us! And then one woman turned to another and said, why are you so happy lately, oh, I get it, you got yourself a white boyfriend! :/
When I moved into the room, there was a huge spider on the wall, about the size of my hand. I didn't want to kill it, so I asked the manager to shoo it out. Man it's fast! Thailand is a jungle, and the wildlife is everywhere ... too bad mostly insect wild life. Ants just attack anything that's edible, there are 100s of geckos who hide behind pictures as you walk by, there are huge centipedes, gigantic grasshoppers, and the spider has returned! Although he made his home on the door next to mine. First it sat near the lock, then it went under the lock so that only the legs were sticking out (didn't take a picture of that). I don't think that room was in use, otherwise someone would've had a heart attack! I looked at my room, and it seemed like the only way to get in is under the door. So I built a barricade out of chair pillow and my shoes to cover the crack :)
Next day I rented a bicycle to go to the sculpture garden. It was cool, but then again, nothing too exciting. There were mainly Buddhas and Indian gods. Buddhism, finally a religion that makes some sense as opposed to people walking on water, parting seas and flying cows, but even here Buddha is sitting in a protection of a Naga - a mystic creature that resembles a 5 headed snake. It was protecting Buddha when he was meditating. Why when something is a little bit believable, they had to ruin it with fairytales?
I enjoyed cycling around much more than the park. I went through lovely and quiet villages, overgrown with rice paddies as far as you can see. Friendly locals, but not too friendly dogs. 2 of them were barking and running beside my bike, while I was paddling as fast as I could. They didn't bite me thank god. On the way back, I stopped near a market, and went to take a look. I love speaking Thai, even though my conversations end up always being the same. Sa wa dee ka. Tao Rai? Kop cun ka!
Hello. How much is it? (Followed by a long pause to process the price) ... Thank you. I went through fish section, and my heart just stopped. There were dishes of small still live fish, which were jumping around the plate suffocating. There were big flogs sitting in the bucket, and then the guy picked it up, and skinned it, and put in on the plate with all its insides all over the place ... it's heart was still beating ... Why are people so cruel? Ok, if you eat animals, but have a decency to kill it first. I left the market with a heavy heavy heart :(
I'm still eating all the bizarre food. I have no idea what it is, I'm just pointing at things and eat/drink them. And!! I ate a cricket! It's actually not as bad as it sounds. It tastes just like a potato chip. The only problem is when you stop chewing, it still remains in your mouth, and oh, here is a leg, here is a whisker :) Then we went to another cricket station, but the guy who tried it first said that it has a "cream" filling ... ok ... I'm gonna skip that one then :)
Next day Mike only started work at 2, so we thought to go to a historical park together. I didn't sleep the whole night because I accidently drank green tea at 10pm, and got up at 6:30 only to find out that his bike didn't start. No problem. I went and rented my own bike, but at that time it was already too late for him to go and I went on my own. It was 70 kms one way, and after 140 kms, my butt hurt and my back hurt and I got a sun burn. But the ride was awesome. It went through green beautiful country side, with barely any traffic. The roads in the middle of this hell knows where location are in excellent condition, not something that I can say about Canadian roads. I got scared only twice on the ride. Once was when I drove through a big pothole. The road is silky smooth, and then out of nowhere there was a pothole, I slowed down in time, but still went right into it. The bike handled it fine, and after driving in Ko Samet, I know that the bike can handle much more than we think it can. It's very well suited for off the road roads, and all these advertisements about Hammers and Jeeps make me laugh, just give me a scooter and I'll go anywhere the fearless jeep would! :)
The park was very nice. It was big, signs on every road cross, nice trails, and seeing some cool rock formations on the way. It was my first time when I saw prehistoric paintings that date back 3000 years. You can crawl all around those rocks, and there would be just a sign saying "Please don't touch the paintings". If it were in Canada, there would be a barbed wire 10 meters around it with security guards patrolling the perimeter :) Things are sometimes so much better in 3rd world countries. Although I wouldn't call Thailand 3rd world at all.
On the way back I stopped at a noodle town. LP says that you can see people making noodles, drying noodles, cutting noodles, it's all about the noodles! When I got there, I was walking in circles, back and forth, but for the life on me, I couldn't find any noodles. All that I found were overpriced fruits. I was hungry and picked the only restaurant that I could find in the market. It had pork skin, cartilage, pate, pork balls and guess what they served with it?? Rice !!! Where the hell are the noodles??!! :))) This town was not touristic at all, and people were looking at me, but unlike "popping your eyes out" India, these were just polite curious looks, and I didn't feel the need to tell anybody to shove it! :)
I've been to Nong Khai for a week. Out of that week I only made 2 day trips. I'm too tired to go anywhere or do anything. I decided to catch up on the blogs since I'm way way behind - 4 months now! So I thought to write it on a daily basis, and since each blog takes about 10 hours, I have no time to sleep. I don't want to wake up, and keep telling myself excuses to stay in bed. Finally in Nong Khai I had some time to catch my breath. Also, Thailand so far didn't impress me much, I guess nothing would impress me after India, everything's too easy, relaxed, but at the same time not very interesting. Also, since it's summer time, the kindergarten is on the loose, and it bothers me. I'm waiting till September so they all go back to school.
There was one party at the guest house, and I met a guy from China. I asked him what he thinks about Chinese invasion of Tibet, he said that the government brainwashed everybody to think that Dalai Lama is evil and wants to split the country, until he made his own research and found no truth in it at all.
That's true. Everybody believes what their government tells them without doing any research on their own. Are we just a bunch of donkeys? Haven't we smartened up?
Fluoride is good for your teeth
Vaccines make your baby healthy
GMO has no adverse effects on you
Support the war in Iraq/Afghanistan against terrorism
Are we all living a lie, or we just don't want to find out the truth?
I was very sad to leave Nong Khai. I think it was more the guest house though than the town itself, although everybody I met, and everybody who moved to live there said that Nong Khai is the best city in Thailand. The social, beautiful guest house is one of the best guest houses that I've been in. Every evening, all the tables would be full with people talking, laughing, singing, playing. The owners/managers/staff make you feel like you're at home, and when travelling for a long time, sometimes it's all you need ... a warm feeling of home.

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Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Khao Yai & Khorat


LP doesn't really say how to get from a train station to any of the guest houses, no map of the town, no info at all. I have no idea what to do, but trusted that it will be ok. Tuk-tuks will know travelers guest houses, or will take me to a tourist agency from where I could book a trip. Still, I was a little bit anxious. The moment I got off the train, there was a woman passing by with brochures about the guest house, and all the tour options. This guest house is the most recommended one in LP! Free taxi to and from the train station is included! Can anything be easier than this?? The French guy who was on the same train as me said that India and Thailand are 2 opposites. In India you don't trust anybody, have to check and double check everything, if somebody offers you something, most likely it's a scam, while in Thailand you trust everybody.
We arrive at the guest house and 10 mins later I'm on a tour. We went for a swim and then to a bat cave. We saw bats flying, all 3 million of them(!) come out of a cave like a small twister flying in a cyclic motion. They hunt on insects and hawks hunt on bats. We stood there for half an hour and the stream didn't stop at all. Would've been cool if they all came out at once and spread out, but nope :(
I can't wake up again even though I slept for 8.5 hours. I'm trying to look for excuses when I glance through the window hoping it would rain. But I drag myself out of the bed and head for breakfast eating my eggs with toast while sitting across an arguing Belgium couple. In the jeep there was another French couple and they started talking in French between themselves. The awkward Taiwanese guys casually asked - "What language are you speaking?", they replied French. He's said "Oh, I don't understand anything you're saying" :) The jeep went quiet, and I was smiling to myself ... but I'm sure they could see my grin :) We arrived at a view point where we were given leeches socks. They're beige color, and come up to the knees. Oh leeches, awesome! We then saw 2 big toucan like birds, although through 5 telescopes that were set out for us. Seeing animals in the jungle is a myth. You're lucky if you'll spot one, and most likely you'd need a telescope to see it. LP describes this park as "up there on the podium with some of the world's greatest parks. It incorporates one of the largest intact monsoon forests remaining in the mainland Asia, which is why it was named a Unesco World Heritage Site". Even though it carries a Unesco World Heritage title, nobody of us was impressed. It's a jungle like any other jungle with no animals in sight.
At the next station, we saw a big Komodo dragon kind of lizard. One guy asked: what the difference between that thing and a crocodile is. I laughed at him, saying that this one is a lizard. Then I thought to myself. They're both prehistoric, look almost identical, swim in the same manner ... seriously, what's the difference ... suddenly it wasn't so funny anymore :) We then saw a yellow snake. It felt so smooth and rubbery to touch. Very cool. One little snake, and 20 people around it. It got quite an audience :)
We went for a walk in the jungle, but saw no animals, and I wasn't surprised. I'm thinking though, if we would've seen animals, as there are quite a lot of jungle walks, and say we bump into a tiger or a wild elephant ... what to do? How to act? We saw some spiders though. Oh man, these were huge spiders, the size of my hand, and it blends into surrounding so well. Every time I took my eyes off of it, I had to relocate it and to refocus my eyes again to find it. Too bad spiders are not camera friendly, and just as my eyes couldn't, the camera couldn't focus on it either. It blurred it, and focused past it. Other than that we saw mushrooms and big banyan trees. That's all :( It's a monsoon forest, and it gets quite a lot of rain. The path we went on lead to a valley, and we were sliding and falling while trying hardly to avoid the mud. It all went to vein because we then reached a place with knee deep mud and no way of getting around it. A few times, I thought that I'd lose my shoe in it, it just sucked my foot in, and it required a lot of strength to pull it out. I was very surprised that no buckles broke. All the way during the walk, we had to stop and check for leeches, I pulled out maybe 10, but none of them made it past the socks height :)
We stopped at one non impressive waterfall, where I spend most of the time cleaning my shoes. I could see its original color again, yeeiippiii :)
The rest of the trip we were driving around looking for more animals, and I didn't mind it at all because the road was absolutely beautiful. Deep deep jungle with endless lush greenery. We found a gigantic scorpion on the road. It was so beautiful, greenish blue in color and luckily non poisonous, or at least that's what the guides told us. Good for us, because they put it on their arm, and then asked if anymore wanted to take pictures. At first everybody hesitated and thought that it's a crazy idea, but then after the first girl tried it, a line formed. I was very hesitant, but at the end I agreed for them to put it on me as well. Where else will I get a gigantic scorpion picture with it sitting on my shoulder? :) What a rush ... my heart was beating fast ... very very fast :)
We then stopped to watch a family of monkeys monkeying around, checking for fleeces, ticks, mothers carrying babies. We were all spread out when we heard a call that an elephant was spotted, and to get into a jeep quick. It didn't even take 10 seconds for all the jeeps to fill up and to drive off with a maximum speed towards the elephant location. Earlier, the jeeps were crawling on the speed breakers, now it felt like we're gonna break the speed breakers. And forget about the speed limit, I think these cars just found out what their maximum speed is. Not very comforting when we're sitting in an open jeep with an open back, but luckily nobody fell out :) The elephant was like an elephant ... yeah ... :)
In the evening it rained hard and was very windy, and the mango tree that was growing on the property swung from side to side, dropping many many ripe and delicious mangoes which I of course collected and feasted on them for dinner and breakfast :)
The next day I arrived at a strategically good town of Khorat to see the nearby temples. While at the bus terminal, I had to find out the schedule of my next bus. I went to the ticket counter where they spoke no English. She wrote me on a piece of paper the time for the next bus. I asked her that I need to know all the times throughout the day, she didn't understand. When is the first bus? She didn't understand ... complicated. I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and flipped to a small dictionary section. I flipped through pages back and forth looking for the words I need. I found "Wednesday", pointed it to her, found "First" pointed it to her, and "Bus" ... success accomplished, she wrote me down all the morning buses :)
The hotel I went to is right near the street where all the intercity buses pass and stop to pick up passengers on the way. The lady in the reception was helping me for like half an hour, drawing me the map of the bus station, calling Tourist Police to find out the times and number of buses. I felt uncomfortable to bother her so much, and tried to leave, because I already had all the information, but she kept helping, and then asked me where I'm going tomorrow, and started to plan my day again. I realized that being bothered is more of a first world phenomenon. Here they'll help you till the end, till you get all the information, and be happy that they helped someone in need.
At the bus stop, all you need to do is stand there when someone will approach you and ask you where you're going in Thai of course, but the meaning is clear, they then will flag the right bus for you, because all the destination names on the front window are written only in Thai, and the bus number is only on the side which you'll see when the bus will be passing you by. The town with the temple was an hour away, and the temple wasn't that impressive. It's one of the must see sights, but actually since I left Bangkok, I would've happily missed all the sights I've seen. These temples don't stand a chance near Indian temples anyway, and I've already seen hundreds of them. I wasn't impressed by the temple, but what I liked more was just the experience of submersion into the Thai culture. I'm in a non touristic place right now, and the only tourist in the city is me. I love to feel the local way of life, and I don't mind to travel for an hour just to experience that. I also like trying new foods, and going into 7-11 grabbing a bag, and filling it with all the exotic things which I never tried before. Dried baby clams, tamarind candies, dehydrated longan meet, anchovy with fancy nuts, different candies and chocolates, yogurts, juices, jellies, teas ... So far so good, I just didn't like dehydrated longan meet, everything else was great! Oh, and the chocolates are not good :( I don't think they're good anywhere except Europe, so if I crave something sweet, I always get snickers, or M&Ms or Hershey’s :)
I'm practicing my Thai whenever I can. I'm trying to learn numbers now, but it took me the whole day to remember 1-5 :) Whenever I buy something I ask how to say it in Thai. One woman selling fruits tried to teach me the word for banana. Kloo-ay. I repeat, kloai, no klooooooai - kloowai? She's laughing, not a water buffalo, a banana! :)
Next day I went to another temple. This one was 2 hours away. If I had a chance, I would've skipped both of them, especially the 2nd one. They look almost identical. I had no idea how to get there from the next town, and LP says that it could be a little bit tricky. I asked the ticket checker how to get there? But he didn't know any English. Luckily one guy behind me started talking, they talked between themselves, and when the bus stopped, he motioned me to go with him. He pointed at himself and said the temple name. Great, he's going there too, and I can go with him! :) I thought that while we were at the bus station, we were waiting for the bus, but then a car came, and he told me to come inside. He pretty much dropped off a girl who was in the car to some university, and then gave me a ride to the temple which was half an hour away!! After we reached it, he gave me a low bow, a huge smile and drove away. I couldn't believe it. I hope he went somewhere near the temple and didn't go half an hour out of the way just to help me out! When I finished sightseeing, I had no idea how to get back. There was one Swiss couple and I asked them how they got here, they said that they have a driver, why? I said that I have no idea how to get out. They talked to their driver, and gave me a ride to the bus station. What a great way of getting around :)
I saw on the news that India has a 2nd power cut in 2 days, and now 600,000 million people are left without power. I wrote to Andy to ask him if he's ok because the power cut happened in his region. He said that he hasn't even noticed it. There are so many power cuts constantly that it felt completely normal :) Thank god that because of a very unstable electricity most of the places have generators, so in reality, unless the power is out for a long time, you wouldn't even feel it aside from the constant buzz in the air from the generators (I'm sure there isn't a generator big enough to power the whole subway though :) )
When I checked out of the hotel, the lady who owned it asked me if I had any comments about it. I said that it's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in (for $10/night). It has a good location, it's super clean, nothing's broken, it's functional, the rooms are cleaned every day, there is a TV, mini fridge and a balcony in the room. She asked me if I had any suggestions for improvement, and I scratched my head in a response. She said that she's constantly upgrading and renovating it, and is always trying to make it better, because if guests feel well and welcomed in her hotel, it makes her happy. What a big contrast to India, where they'll just make their hotel get rotten over the years, and still charge the same price.

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