Archive for February, 2007

Farewell to Laos (country #6!)

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

Our last week in Laos was one of the more exciting weeks of our entire trip.  After I got over being sick, no doubt due to one of the cornucopia of pills I took, (see picture below) we spent a few days doing some more biking and visiting a dinosaur museum.  Then we splashed out and flew back to the north of Laos to participate in something called The Gibbon Experience.  But before we go into that, let us talk about Laos Airlines for a minute.  So, most airlines now go by the handy ‘e-ticket’ idea, especially good for people like Seth, who like to leave tickets and things behind in guesthouses!  Yup, underneath the flooring of our place in Don Det, someone is going to find some airline tickets which we were hiding for safety.  Turns out we hid them a little too well – we totally forgot about them!  I’m sort of off the hook because I was pretty sick, but I am not saying I would have remembered them even if I had been healthy.  So at 4:30pm we went down to the Laos Aviation head office, where we had purchased the tickets in person two weeks previously, and tried to get replacement tickets for our flight at 9:30am the next morning.  Apparently it was not going to be simple.  At first, the woman helping us announced that we would have to get our guesthouse on Don Det to mail them to her by the next morning.  Keep in mind Don Det has no phones or electricity.  When we pointed out that her plan wasn’t going to work, she told us we had the 15 minutes until they closed to get a ‘police report’ or else we would have to repurchase the tickets.  We went to the police office, and they sent us on a wild goose chase to 3 additional police and tourist stations.  No one seemed to know what these mysterious ‘police reports’ should look like, or maybe they were just wanting to go home as it was now 5:30pm.  Either way, we ended up solving the problem the ‘Laos’ way, by going back the next morning and padding the pockets of the Laos Airlines office with some counterfeit American dollars (we got them from the bank!) and being sent on our way with only minutes to spare.

imgp2309.jpg  imgp2317_resize.JPG

Three hours later we had travelled back to Houay Xai, a trip which would have taken us 26 hours by bus, and were ready to check into the Gibbon Experience.  It is an ecotourism project which was started to help protect the Bokeo Forest in Laos from excessive logging and poaching, by introducing alternative ways to employ the local people.  A French man decided to act on his childhood dream of living in treehouses, and created a network of 5 treehouses about 40 metres off the ground, a maze of hiking trails, and a bunch of ziplines up to 1km. long to travel around the jungle in style.  The project is only in its infancy, and has been taking guests for under three years, but is a pretty incredible idea.  It now pays a team of forest rangers with full arrest authority, and these rangers are the only paid forest staff in all of Laos.  It also uses local food to feed the tourists, employs mainly local people as guides, cooks, and builders, and has a strong committment to avoiding ‘ethnotourism’, something Seth and I had a real problem with here in Southeast Asia.  By ethnotourism, I mean the business of selling ‘authentic tribal culture’ to tourists as part of package treks.  See the photo below for a sick example of this.

dscf1910_resize.JPG   dscf1936_resize.JPG

Anyways, we went trekking and zipping in the jungle for three days, playing with monkeys and an orphaned baby bear, and watching the wildlife and natural world.  Unfortunately we missed out on seeing the gibbons themselves because a huge storm came in while we were there, putting them into hiding.  However, whatever excitement we missed out in not seeing the gibbons, we certainly gained riding out three thunderstorms 40 metres off the ground in a treehouse, trying to decide if the massive gusts of wind and lightening strikes were reason enough to evacuate down the metal ziplines to safety.  We evacuated the first time, but as the second and third storms hit (in the middle of the night) we started to wonder if it was worth leaving a warm bed, and we became more used to the peals of thunder and rocking treehouse.  Our guides told us to stay the second and third times, but were terrified enough themselves to evacuate.  Needless to say, we were not impressed and I think the company will be doing some more evacuation drills with their guides in the very near future.  In retrospect, I think the risk was probably pretty low, and the treehouse was safer than it felt, but it made for a very exciting and somewhat sleepless night.

dscf1922_resize.JPG   dscf1943_resize.JPG   dscf1955_resize.JPG

We are now back in Thailand, making our way south to the islands for some R&R before we fly home…in two weeks!  See you all soon.

Hospitals here are much better than India!

Monday, February 19th, 2007

It’s been a while since we last wrote on the blog, so it’s tough to know where to begin. I think that I will start with the most recent event as it is the title of this post! Last night Claire had a visit to the Pakxe hospital. After 4 days of off-and-on fever and two solid days of a high temp it was time to find out if I was going to get to collect on her trip insurance! Needless to say, her blood test for malaria (at a total cost of US$1.60) was negative, but in good developing world fashion she is now taking eight pills twice a day (and two at lunch). Much like our experiance in Mumbai, the doctor here is treating her for pretty much anything she might have! Rest easy though Barb, she is feeling better today and is sitting right here next to me.

This is kind of just another facet of a two-week bad health spell for us… After our bike ride in northern Laos both of us started to feel low energy, unmotivated, and both suffered cramping in our stomachs. Doing some of our own investigating (what would you tell a non-English speaking doctor for those symtoms?) we self diagnosed and treated intestinal parasites. In only a few days we were back to our normal selves, so we are guessing that Dr. Internet was right!

While that may sound like we’ve been having a pretty loathsome time here, that’s not actually the case. We have been traveling happily in the south of Laos and really enjoying ourselves. After a hellish 8 hour bus ride from Luang Parbang to Vientiane which included highlights of 4 hours of linked turns in the mountains with a family of locals next to us filling a leaky puke bag, we moved quickly on to a 13 hour bus ride to Pakxe in the south – thankfully on a straight road.

We used Pakxe as a base and took a trip to Tad Lo waterfalls. Getting off the bus, we were so enthralled at making another new friend that we ended up walking right past the town and taking a 4km detour, with our full packs, in the 3pm afternoon heat! Oops. But once we found the town we were quite pleased by the unpretentious feel. It’s a small village that has not been highly developed yet, but still has all the services you could want or need. We stayed in a riverside bungalow, took walks and swam in the river. I know what you are thinking, we probably got more parasites swimming in the freshwater, but remember that most, if not all, shower and cooking water in these towns come straight from the river, so there is no escape unless you want to go for weeks without bathing! Most times we just relaxed on our balcony and listened to the sounds of kids playing in the water (apparently they only go to school in the cool mornings) and the sounds of the baby farm animals. Especially the little piglets…in fact, they were so cute we got to thinking, can one own a pig in Vancouver? Just until it’s big enough to eat, of course. We’ll be looking into that when we return.

One thing that we really appreciated about Tad Lo was the civil engineering. We have a couple of photos to explain what we mean, but you can get the feeling that your days are numbered if you spend too long here…


From Tad Lo we moved onto Champasek, where we stayed in another lovely riverside hotel, and checked out the ruins of an ancient temple. In the video below, I try to ride my bike, avoid traffic, and explain the brief history of Wat Phou, and it comes out sounding like something Bush would say, as I talk about ‘those guys’. What I meant was that both Ankor Wat and Wat Phou were built by the Khmer Empire. We only stayed in Champasek for one night because we were looking forward to checking out the islands farther south, but we did get a chance to briefly meet up again with a guy from Vancouver we had originally met in Luang Prabang, and had a nice Valentine’s Day dinner drinking Lao Lao with him and a couple of others. We also had a fun time that night trying to figure out if the person serving us dinner was male or female – we saw several of these ‘what’s that? It’s Pat!’ people in Champasek during our 24 hours there, and wondered if it was a part of Laos that was more accepting of cross-gendered people or maybe a new social movement. Either way, ‘Pat’ sure was a fan of Seth, and gave him a large, toothy grin every time it saw him! last picture below is of the ferry system across the Mekong…another great example of the superior engineering here. The most exciting moment was when our truck stalled on the ferry and had to be push-started as it rolled off the ferry over those sturdy looking planks…

Finally we arrived in Si Phan Don, the 4,000 Islands region that lies just north of Cambodia. We weren’t really able to count the islands, but I figure there were about 10 big ones, and a lot of little tufts of grass sticking out of the river (image). We stayed on the biggest island for two nights and Don Det, a smaller island without electricity, for two. I think we would have stayed a little longer if I hadn’t been sick and had to restock our tylenol supply (there being no pharmacy or doctor on the island), but as it was we still had enough time to get into the lounging swing of things down there. The people are, for the most part, really friendly and the days consist of riding around on bikes, checking out waterfalls, swimming in the river, or relaxing in a hammock with a book. Or, in my case, it’s more like lying in bed sweating with a fever and cursing the lack of a fan or a/c!
It seems for the most part that life on the islands still continues as it did before the nearby Laos/Cambodian border officially opened to foreign tourists three years ago and tourism grew exponentially in the area. However, I found that the fact that most tourists end up spending the equivalent of a month’s wages (in Lao terms) each day there is having a dividing effect among people on the island. There are, on one hand, the people who work in the tourism industry who grow wealthier, and on the other, the people who don’t work with tourists, who are still subsistence fishing and farming and don’t benefit much at all. When I think about the amount of garbage created and the stress on the ecosystem that the large numbers of foreigners have, I really hope that these people don’t end up losing their way of life.

Ode to Noodle Soup

Thursday, February 8th, 2007

During our first week in Thailand, Seth and I had to get used to a whole new kind of food. We had become so good at ordering food exactly how we wanted it in India, that it was frustrating to try to convey our orders in a new language (one which we didn’t know!) Through the weeks, we have gotten marginally better, but just yesterday we grabbed some boiled eggs at the night market for our bus ride lunch, and when I cracked one of them it turned out that they were fertilized eggs, and I was peeking in to see a fully developed infant chicken, steamed to perfection. I was about to lose my breakfast anyways on the windy road, and so I didn’t try it, but I thought I’d post up a poem I wrote about a week ago to illustrate the excitement of ordering into the unknown.

Noodle Pot

Spicy, sweaty, sticky, hot
Scooping from a noodle pot.
What is that? Too late! It’s bought!
The battle is lost before it’s fought.

Swimming, slimy, in my bowl,
In my brain a loud drumroll
The spoon sneaks nearer to the goal,
One chew is all…then down the hole.

Time stops. All senses are on high
Waiting, hoping not to die.
And then my tastebuds begin to fly –
It’s great! I relax and let out a sigh.

The tourist roller coaster

Tuesday, February 6th, 2007

For the last four days Claire and I have been doing our best to get off the tracks of the tourist roller coaster. We thought that it would be difficult, but in the end we found that it was actually quite easy! Our plan was to head out from Luang Prabng and take a dirt road that started 21km out of town to a town called Pak Xeng.

After enlisting the help of the locals to find the road, we started the long, 64km climb to our destination. This is when we found out that if you are not on the tourist trail, you are in the middle of nowhere! For the next 16km we climbed up a dusty dirt road with large trucks trundling by going from one impossibly small village to the next.

The villagers along this road apparently had not seen a tourist for many weeks if not months. The children would come running out of the houses yelling “Sahbadi!!!” (hello/goodbye in Lao) and their parents would rise to their feet and wave as we passed. Most were probably looking at us with our small backpacks thinking “What the hell are they doing?!?”

So, as I was saying before, the road was perpetually uphill and the traffic, although light, was of a particularly unsavory size. After a steep, 2km climb Claire and I sat down and considered our options. 1) Continue up this road to a destination that we know nothing about for another 48km, and probably have to beg a local family to take us in for the night. or 2) head back to the paved road that had light traffic, no dust and a sizable towns every 10km or so… Humm…

So back on the main road we road about 10 more kms and started looking for a guest house. As luck would have it we happened to be in Hatgna, a riverside town that had a resort which was basically abandoned! Claire and I settled in for a night in our own cottage on the river and both had nightmares about the crazy caretaker breaking into the room! Ha! We end up in one of the nicest places that we have seen in weeks and neither of us slept! Always on guard…

imgp2224.JPG dscf1802.JPG

(Hanna, yes that is your sister wearing socks with her shorts. She was horrified that I might post this photo, but I just couldn’t help myself…he he he)

The next morning we got up early. We had talked to the crazy caretaker the night before and discovered that the next guest house was 80km away! Good thing we stopped when we did. The mornings here are cool, about 10 deg C, and misty. Slowly the fog rises and reveals what would be stunning scenery. Unfortunately, the local farmers practice yearly field burning and this season is particularly hazy from it. Still, the landscape (even in the near ground) is amazing. Emerald green rice paddies as far as the eye can see rise into steep mountains with the jungle spilling into the slow rivers like green glaciers.
dscf1793.JPG dscf1796.JPG dscf1791.JPG

The towns on the main road were also small and rural. Most of the tourists bus from one destination to the next, never stopping to see the locations between. These small town are composed of bamboo huts that create an incredible sense of community. As you ride through town you can hear each villager’s music and see the families gathered around fires in front of their houses. Men, women, girls and boys all sitting and eating together – a sight you would never see in India (women and girls didn’t eat until the men and boys did, so they never really sat together).

It was along this section of the trip that Claire began to have knee problems. I know that many of you reading this have suffered joint ailments before and know how frustrating they can be. I’m not quite sure if it was a high pain threshold or stubbornness that kept her going, but she refused to even look at all the passing passenger trucks and just kept going without complaint.

We arrived in our destination town, Pak Mong, about 4pm and started looking for a guest house. To our surprise and horror the only options were VERY dirty (one of the worst we’ve seen) with a hot shower, or clean with NO running water at all! We ended up going with the clean one and, after a day of biking and no shower, were sure to leave it pretty dirty!

The last day of the trip took us down hill (thankfully – especially for Claire) for 30km. Nong Khiaw, the town at the end of our road, was a delightful find. Back on the tourist roller coaster, this town was filled with guest houses and bungalows on the river. We found one with hot showers and took a walk to watch the sunset over the river. After two trying nights we had finally arrived in a place that we could craw into bed clean and sleep soundly – for 11 hours straight.

imgp2231.JPG dscf1806.JPG dscf1809.JPG dscf1810.JPG

Today we were faced with another decision. We could take the slow boat for 7 hours down the river for US$10/each plus extra for the bikes, or take the passenger truck for 2.5hours for US$5/each including the bikes… Having already endured one slow boat ride we decided to go with the truck. When we got to the truck they proceeded to cram about 20 people into the back of a compact pickup and we sat cramped and cold for the entire ride. Three days of biking covered in only 3 hours of driving…

Back in Luang Prabang we helped ourselves to americano coffees and are looking forward to stuffing ourselves at the all you can eat buffet… Ah, the impact of tourists!

Elephant MAYHEM

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

In addition to the last post that we put up earlier today I wanted to show some videos of the total elephant mayhem in Thailand.

This one is of the elephants playing harmonicas and dancing:

And this is one of them shooting penalties:

Pretty fun stuff!

The Slow road (river) to Laos

Friday, February 2nd, 2007

Our last few days in Thailand were wonderful and we’ll just include the photos, since I’ve already gone on about the elephants! In the photo of me in front of the elephants, notice where the elephant on the left (the baby) is looking. Just moments after I stupidly tried to take my self-portrait, the baby almost managed to rip my hair out of my scalp in the quest for my sunglasses – the scamp! Too bad his trunk is already so strong! And we also managed to find some classy Thai farmer hats for about 30 cents, and now we are the most Thai looking tourists around…sort of.
dscf1712.JPG dscf1722.JPG imgp2200.JPG dscf1727.JPG dscf1733.JPG

We signed up for the 2-day, 14-hour slowboat ride to Luang Prabang, on the recomendations of a few friends (thanks Laura and Erin!). However, we weren’t quite prepared for how SLOW it would feel. The first day was lots of fun, as we ended up on the party boat, but the second day dragged on a bit, helped on by quite a few games of Soduku. They really packed us on like cattle and there were probably up to 100 people on the boat – not the most comfortable situation, especially with church pews as seats. But the scenery was breathtaking – thick jungle and isolated Lao villages. Both of us feel like we’d do it all over again if we got the chance.
dscf1746.JPG dscf1754.JPG dscf1766.JPG

Luang Prabang is a pleasant, if extremely touristy town. It has a wonderful night market and a very busy currency exchange office that will only give out the unstable ‘kip’ but won’t take it back! We’ve found it quite frustrating to figure out how much things are actually costing us, considering they quote and accept in baat, US dollars, and kip, and there are 9,300 kip to the dollar – not an easy thing to wrap our minds around. For instance, every night we spend about 50,000 kip on our hotel room! The pic below is of the food section of the night market, which has everything from freshly bbq’d fish to freshly stuffed entrails…maybe on their way to becoming sausage? We’re not entirely sure yet…


Tomorrow we head out on a 3-5 day cycling trip up north to Nong Khiaw, hoping to catch another slow boat back to Luang Prabang (we just can’t get enough of the bruises on our butts). We are armed with a map but it isn’t topographical so we may be turned around or rerouted by some steep terrain!