Sunday, March 26, 2006

Midnight tribute to Bill Holden

As you might imagine, it can get a little weird staying in a different hotel room every 3-4 days. Beds change. Room layout changes. Sometimes you use the mosquito net, sometimes you don't.

But of course the big deal is being able to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. An embarrassing secret I will admit is that I have often slept with my headlamp around my neck, just so that I could safely light my way to the john should the need arise.

Well the other night, we'd gone to sleep for the first time in our beach-front bungalow here in Mui Ne. As our room has no screens, we rigged up our mosquito net to hang over the bed before retiring. It's really kind of cool to crawl inside - kind of turns an ordinary bed into some combination of 4-poster masterpiece and cool secret hideout.

Now I remember reading for a bit then turning my head lamp off and putting it inside my book (The Great Shark Hunt) as a bookmark. At some point I wake up and need to use the restroom, but I don't really wake up quite completely enough to get the job done properly (while I'm not a sleepwalker, this sort of thing has happened to me maybe 4-5 times in my life). I somehow get out of bed, can't see a thing (are my eyes open? I don't even know now), trip over the 3" threshold that divides the main room from the bathroom (keeps the shower water from running out) and smash my forehead into a tiled corner of the bathroom wall that just out next to the sink.

I distinctly remember that (though it took some reconstruction of events the next morning to determine where it was exactly that I smashed my head). And then I have some memory of thrashing around trying to get back into bed (did I even pee?) and then didn't wake up again until 6:00.

Michele on the other had awoken to me thrashing around on the outside of the mosquito net, blathering on and on about how "I'd broke my own rule". She had no idea that I was hurt and though I was just being my usual weird self. She told me to knock it off (I have no memory of this), pulled the mosquito net apart so I could get into bed and went back to sleep.

In the morning there were several big streaks of dried blood on the net, where my head had rubbed against it.

Michele says it doesn't look to bad, but to me it's kind of like a combination of Harry Potter's lightning bolt and the poorly sewed up seam on Herman Munster's forehead.

And of course the "my own rule" that I broke was in not sleeping with my headlamp. Even in the midst of bloody delrium, always time for a little self criticism.


At least I avoided old Bill's fate.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hello Madame! Hello sir!

So much has happened since we last checked in. I think Michele is going to do the more general run down of places and events so I might just ramble here a bit about some general observations.

It has been fantastically interesting to travel through three different countries - all sharing a land space of (I'm guessing) about the size of California - that have long historic interconnections with each other, yet are so completely different culturally and economically that it's been a big shock every time we've crossed a border.

The striking thing for me about Thailand - after you get over the huge, obvious differences that come with being on a different continent in a country where you can't even read the alphabet, let alone say the simplest of words (we mastered "Hello", "Thank You" "Delicious" and "Two" - that's it (not even yes or no))- was how completely normal it was.

The highways were excellent as was the general infrastructure. The streets were fantastically clean (even though we could never find a municipal trashcan). 7-11's and other western stores were everywhere. Traffic was dense but orderly and nobody ever honked their horn (the Thai people in general were very laid back and friendly, and obviously very used to having western tourists in their presence). The ever present motorbikes and "Tuk-Tuks" were all 4-stroke, no stinky 2-stroke mix of burnt oil and gas fouling the air. Perhaps we missed them, but we saw no sprawling slums, children begging on the street, or any of the disturbing things one often encounters in "developing countries".

And most telling of all - when you purchase something in Thailand, you actually pay tax on it (7%). I can't think of any country outside of Europe or North America where I've actually seen taxes collected. Amazing. And they're obviously being put to good use.

I'm sure there's a back story to all this that as a tourist I completely missed (like perhaps how Thailand deals with the flood of illegal Burmese and Lao immigrants that pour over its borders in search of work), but (in a very complimentary way) I would almost liken Thailand to being the Canada of Southeast Asia.

Crossing over into Laos was quite a shock. Landlocked and with a tiny population (just 6 million), Laos is decades behind Thailand in terms of general development. New York city has nearly the same miles of streets that Laos has in the entire country (and only 20% of them are paved - including many dirt streets even in the major towns). The first town we stayed in - Pakbeng - has electricity only 2-3 hours each evening. I saw a man and his son cutting up firewood with a 2-man bucksaw just like my grandpa used to use. In fact, everywhere we went in Laos except the most "western" restaurants (the ones that give you food poisoning), all cooking was done over wood or charcoal (whereas propane was always used in Thailand). Most of our trip down the Mekong was through essentially uninhabited hill country. You'd probably have to go pretty far out in Alaska to float a river and see so few people or settlements. And unlike Thailand, where the hills have almost been completely deforested by logging and agriculture, the hills in Laos were for the most part green and untouched as far as the eye could see.

That being said, parts of Laos are changing very rapidly and will probably be very different in a few years. Luang Prabang - the lovely colonial town where we spent five days - was completely engulfed in a renovation boom. Streets were getting paved. Sidewalks rebuilt. Etc. Etc. I doubt it will seem quite as rustic and quaint in a few years time.

As for the people, the Lao were even more friendly and laid back than the Thais. You simply did not pass anyone on the street without saying "Sabai Di" (hello). And it wasn't just to us westerners - it was universal. We sat in Luang Prabang for hours, drinking Beer Lao and watching people cruise around on their motorbikes, never ever going faster than about 15 miles an hour.

One of the real treats of the trip was when we were standing outside one of the temples in a Buddhist "Wat" (monastery), listening to some teenage monks do the most beautiful chanting in Sanskrit (Balinese Sanskrit - we were informed) when one got up, came out to us, and asked us if we'd like to come in. We sat with them for about 20 minutes (carefully keeping our feet pointed away from the Buddha)while they finished their chanting. It was quite magical. Afterwards we had the interesting experience of explaining to the monk who had invited us in (and who spoke excellent English) where we were from. While he knew of America, he did not know of New York City - had never heard of it.

And it was very refreshing to meet an obviously educated person who was not aware of a place called New York City. With all the westernization you see here (almost every product you purchase has some bit of English* text on it, almost every store or shop has some sign written in English, the video you watch on the VIP bus is inevitably an American** movie, the music your taxi driver plays is some weird cover version (in English) of The Carpenters Greatest Hits. English is omnipresent here as is American culture. Consider if every bottle of beer or shampoo you purchased there in the good ol' USA had something written on it in Thai or Lao on it, or that your favorite pop singers perform songs from another country in another decade in a language you can't understand, and that you didn't find any of this either weird or annoying.

It's something Michele and I are both still trying to get our heads around.

As Michele has already reported, Vietnam took us quite by surprise after laid back Laos. There is nothing laid back about this place or these people. Everything is go go go and there is not much time for niceties. We gave up trying to say hello or thank you in the first few days as it was obvious that nobody here said it to each other either (doubly disconcerting for us, as these were the only two words we'd mastered in Thai and Lao, and so we'd spent a fair time in the days before our arrival here memorizing the Vietnamese versions thereof, only to have all that mental effort prove to be a waste).

While not as developed and certainly no where near as orderly as Thailand (Michele says the traffic/driving here is nearly as insane as in India (sitting on the right hand side of the bus is advised, lest a sideswipe occur with some ancient Chinese truck (honking it's horn) while the bus (honking it's horn) is passing a cluster of 20 or so stinky 2-stroke motorbikes who have swerved to the left (honking their horns) to avoid a woman walking down the side of the road balancing an entire portable restaurant (food, cookstove, utensils, tables, chairs, everything but a horn) in two baskets hanging from her shoulders), construction is booming everywhere we've been. We watched iron workers (in flip flops***, an no hard hats) on the building next to our hotel in Hue put in 12 hour days right straight through the weekend that we were there. In Hoi An, along a fairly desolate section of the beach (just a few fishing shacks & small houses) outside of town we came across a brand new section of paved road with wide sidewalks, street lights and all the trappings of a brand new American subdivision under construction. When we saw the billboards for the two new mega-resorts that were going to be built where those fishing shacks were, it all made sense.

If they approach this development with the same tenacity they display when trying to sell you a foot massage or a pineapple on the beach, or to convince you to purchase a third set of beautiful, custom made silk pants because buying just two pairs is not enough (and oh the sad sad faces when you refuse), this country is certain to be an economic powerhouse in the years to come.

Nepal will be an interesting transition from here. It's about as far physically as you can go from here yet still be in a Buddhist/Hindu culture. I'll be very curious to see how the similarities and differences play out.


* If you were a tourist in any of these three countries and did not speak either the native language (Thai, Lao or Vietnamese) or English, you would have a really really difficult time. Being tonal, none of these languages are even remotely pronounceable from a phrase book. So as a workaround, everything tourism related is done in English. Menus are in English. Shop signs are in English. Travel Agents speak their language and then English. It's quite amazing to hear Russian and French and German tourists struggle through ordering food off a menu, trying in their broken English to reach some base level of understanding with the broken English of the person that's serving them. As you might imagine, mistakes do occur.

** Ironically though American culture is here everywhere, there are absolutely no Americans here. Believe it or not, there is actually a huge contingent of people in the world doing exactly what Michele and I are doing. There are whole industries built up to serve us and almost every major town we've visited has its "Supertreker Ghetto" of western restaurants, Internet cafes, travel agencies, and budget guesthouses (and the inevitable Irish pub). The travelers that pass through these places tend to be younger than us (not by much), but are almost exclusively English, Irish, French, German, Israeli, and Australian (with a smattering of Italians and Canadians popping up from time to time). For whatever reason, Americans do not travel here.

*** If haven't spent much time traveling in the tropics/subtropics, you may have a bit of a difficult time getting your head around this one, but the plain fact is that when most of the people on this planet put on their shoes to go to work, they are putting on flip flops. Think about that the next time you're swinging a machete at the coconut you're holding in place under your right foot, arc-welding some steel railing, or balancing an entire pig carcass on your motorbike as you work your way through the public market.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Yee Haw, Back in Action!

We can't seem to figure out why we are suddenly able to post to the blog again and have no idea what will happen when we reach Saigon (or even Nepal for that matter).

We escaped being run over by motorbikes quite successfully in Hanoi, although some woman clipped my elbow as she squeezed by on her bike and yelled at me. Go figure.

After being in chilly Hanoi (40 degrees colder than when we were in Laos!), we flew to Hue (which Paul just had to remind me about--it wasn't even that long ago--March 16th--but feels like an eternity ago).

Hue is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was heavily bombed during the "American War" as it is known as here. Hard to believe there were people fighting in the streets there, and it makes me sad to think about it. The Citadel is the main attraction of Hue; this is where the Emperor lived. It is a massive place, and very beautiful, heavily influenced by Chinese art and architecture. I didn't realize that Chinese characters were used in Viet Nam at one point, which explains why there is so much written in Chinese at historical sights.

Hue is way more toned down compared to Hanoi--you can actually cross the streets without risking your life. More bicycles and less motor scooters, which was a nice change.

We rented a private boat (all of $15 for the day) to take a trip down the Perfume River and first visited the Thien Mu Pagoda, famous residence where the monk Thich Quang Duc lived before his self immolation to protest the policies of President Ngo Dinh Diem (if you recall the famous photo of the burning monk who was sitting in the street, completely ablaze). After that the boat dropped us off on the river bank, where we had to negotiate prices with motor scooter drivers to take us where the boat could not--the tombs of previous emperors. The drivers got to wear helmets, and when I enquired where ours were, they just laughed. Great! Seeing as they were the only game in town, we each hopped on the back of one and drove through narrow dirt roads that went by neon green fields of rice paddys (paddies?) before heading onto a paved road. It was so uncomfortably hot that the breeze from the ride felt incredible and I no longer cared about wanting a helmet. We visited the tombs of Emperors Tu Duc and Minh Mang; both were pretty impressive. The latter had 105 wives and concubines, with tombs to hold them all. He had no children, apparently, as he was sterile due to having smallpox.

Viet Nam specializes in custom made silk clothing and we couldn't resist getting some stuff made. I could really go crazy with the enormous variety of fabric out here if I had the room to haul it around. Actually, we purchased a bootleg North Face bag to mule around our purchases. Bootlegged brands are huge out here. Our cheap plastic shower curtain in one of the hotels actually said "Versace--Paris--Italy"--ha! Give me a break.

After Hue we took the bus for 5 hours to Hoi An, a really cute town with a beautiful beach. We finally felt safe enough, street traffic wise, to rent bikes and cycled and easy 5km out to the beach every day. Thanks to JJ and Phil for recommending Hoi An; so far it has been my favorite place in Viet Nam. We felt really comfortable there and there are so many little streets to poke around in and get lost on. Locals seemed to enjoy messing with us on our bikes; that is one thing I will say about the Vietnamese--they are real wise asses. Twice we had people pull up from behind us on motor bikes and blare their horns, startling us. When we turned to look at what the commotion was, they just passed by and laughed. Other than those experiences, it is pretty apparent that they like to mess with each other and be pretty obnoxious, but in a friendly way. Not like I could understand what was said, but just by their body language and voice it seemed kind of obvious.

We took a day trip from Hoi An to the Cham ruins in My Son (pronounced MEE son) which took an hour to reach. The Cham people traded between Viet Nam and India, and through their contacts adopted Hinduism. The ruins were built between the 9th-12th centuries, but unfortunately the Viet Cong used them as a base to hide from American forces, and much of My Son has been destroyed. I wish I could have seen what it looked like in its heyday, and plan on researching it when we get back to the states to see if there are photos of it from before the war.

After Hoi An we took a taxi to Danang where we caught a train to Nha Trang. Not the most comfortable train I have ever taken, and after 9 hours I was pretty much ready for a cushy hotel room. We found one a block from the municipal beach for the whopping sum of $20 a night--and it was a suite--in our first hotel with an elevator (much appreciated when you are on the 5th floor)!! One and a half bathrooms, cable TV, a balcony overlooking the city, fridge, two beds, a make-up table of sorts, several chairs with a smaller table, A/C, and plenty of room to spread out. Nha Trang seemed like spring-break central for college-aged Australians, so we avoided that scene after our first night there. We spent the next day there on the beach and left the next day on a bus that took us to our current local, Mui Ne Beach, which is off the major tourist track. It is a one highway town along the beach and we really scored with a bungalow that is 5 steps from the beach--only $10 a night! Mui Ne is apparently renowned for its Asian kite surfing competitions. Today there must have been at least 30 people at any given time kite surfing, which looks like so much fun that I wish I had the patience to learn it out here. Some French guy I asked said it took him weeks to learn it, and the 10 hour lessons they give you here (which are actually really expensive--if we weren't already shelling out for the Nepal trek, I would do it) are not enough.

The hammock we have been hauling around since Thailand has finally come into good use again, as we strung it up right outside our door. It is easy to be lazy out here. Not much to do (if you don't wind or kite surf) but swim, read, eat and snooze. A constant breeze blows all day and it feels wonderful after the baking hot weather we were just experiencing in Hue and Hoi An.

Just to back track a bit here--ever since that crazy boat ride we took from Thailand into Laos down the Mekong, we have run into several people from the boat, whom we now practically consider family after being squeezed together for so long. It is really fun to run into our boat friends and we always stop and update each other on where we have been. In Hanoi, we ran into these 4 Irish women who were travelling together. Apparently they took some absolutely horrendous bus ride that was supposed to be 24 hours and ended up being 28 hours--the same trip that took us one hour by plane (going from Laos to Viet Nam--see, this is what I meant about the crappy roads in Laos!!). The bus broke down for 4 hours in the middle of the night; no one could communicate with them about what was going on due to language barriers; a man with a crocodile on board the bus was escorted off by police at the border (I am not making this up, and neither were they!), and some man with a broken leg was taken off on a stretcher. They seemed pretty relieved to be off the bus, to say the least, and called it "the bus ride from hell".

One week left in the heat and we are off to a new adventure in Nepal. I am welcoming the cold at this point and will probably eat my words in two weeks when my teeth are chattering.

Testing, Testing

This is a test of the Viet Nam anti-blogging network. Please do not contact the authorities if this can be published. If posting is successful, further postings will follow. Again, this has been a test. Thank you.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Pictures from our trip (up to Luang Prabang) can be seen here:

Check it out!!!

Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Viet Nam

Since we have left Louang Prabang, things have really cooled off significantly.

We flew from LP to Vientiane, the capital, and spent 2 days checking out the sights. It is a shame we didn't spend more time in Laos, but a lot of what we want to see is in the south where the temperatures are high and the water levels are low. Returning someday after the rainy season would be more interesting, I think. That and 80% of all roads in Laos are unpaved. Call me a wuss, but I really don't want to spend a half day to a full 24 hours on a bus going down a lumpy dirt road. Originally we were going to fly to Pakse in the south and from there, fly to Hanoi. However, the heat was already as much as I could stand up north and going into hundred-plus degree weather sounded kind of rough.

Two days ago we boarded the plane in Vientiane in t-shirts, flip-flops and thin pants and felt pretty foolish stepping off the plane in Hanoi in 50 degree temperatures! I had no idea it would be so cold. We had a taxi waiting for us and drove 45 minutes to the Old City in the center of town. What a culture shock from chilled out Laos--loads of horn honking, fast driving and thousands of motor scooters. Cars and scooters are oblivious to pedestrians here. We felt like country bumpkins visiting the big city for the first time when we stepped out of the cab and had to dodge moving objects from all directions.

I kind of like the chaos here--you really need to pay attention and have your wits about you at all times, way more so than being in NY. It's fun to sit on a street corner and watch the traffic action whizz by--very entertaining, to say the least--especially when there are near-crashes every 10 minutes. So far we have only seen one, surprisingly enough.

The food here is outstanding--noodles for every meal! There is some odd looking street food specialty we saw today that neither one of us will dare to try: soda cans with the tops cut off and a small, whole bird with head and claws still attached stuffed into it. They are then dropped into a vat of hot oil and cooked, still in the can. Some turn out pitch black, some are brown. If anyone out there reading this has tried it and/or knows the name of it, please tell me!

This morning we woke up early to see Ho Chi Minh's tomb, as the last entry is at 10:15 a.m. The line was pretty long but moved fast; we even got to see the changing of the guards outside of the tomb. After moving slowly through the line for a half hour, we finally got to enter. There he was in a glass box in an air-conditioned room with police standing on all corners keeping watch. You can't stand around and look at him as the line has to keep moving around the tomb slowly. He looked exactly as he does in photos, long white beard and all. The poor guy wanted to be cremated and now he is stuck in a glass box, sent to Russia for 3 months out of the year to be re-embalmed.

We are flying to Hue later on today, which is in central Viet Nam. The weather is going to get hotter and it will be nice to go to the beach again.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Houeixi to Louang Phabang via the Mekong River

We have not quite melted yet, but have certainly started to.

The last we left off I think we were in Chiang Mai enroute to Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai is a small city that people use as a jumping off point to explore the various hill tribes that surround the region. My former Park Slope Food Coop-er, Havilah, got us in touch with her brother, Caleb, who lives in Chiang Rai and works for an NGO out there. It was great to have him show us around for the weekend, and he speaks Thai which is pretty helpful, too. He took us to an Akha village where one of his co-worker's lives with his wife and baby and it was pretty fascinating to see how the village is set up and learn a bit about their history. There were also Karen and Hmong tribes living in that region as well, and I think I would have passed out from wearing the heavy clothing and head coverings some of the women were wearing due to the heat, but I can only assume they are just used to it. Regardless, it was quite intricate and colorful.

We hired a driver to take us from Chiang Rai to the border at Chiang Khong, where we would purchase our Lao visas. It was sort of a package deal, as he drove us to various sights enroute to Chiang Kong, so we made a full day out of it. First we visited the Monkey Caves and hiked up steep steps to some dark caves full of bats and Buddha shrines, but no monkeys. The monkeys were hanging out at the bottom of the caves by some water and didn't seem too interested in people, nor did we get too close to them to avoid being bitten. After that we drove to Maesai, a big shopping town which we did none of since there isn't much room in our packs to buy stuff, but there were some great viewpoints above the city with temples and shrines. After Maesai we drove to the famous "Golden Triangle" region where you can look out and see Burma, Laos, and Thailand come together by the Mekong River. Our driver took us to this overly touristed Opium Museum, which was filled with old opium pipes, opium scales and weights and other paraphernalia, in addition to information in English on a brief history of opium. Somehow the museum staff thought it would be helpful to include a section upstairs on catfish, marijuana, bamboo waterpipes, and photos of Karen "long-necked" women. Go figure.

Kitt, our driver for the day, drove us through some really pretty countryside areas while we sweated our butts off in his "air conditioned" jeep, and in the afternoon, arrived at Chiang Khong. He found some guy, whose name and actual job description I never got, to secure us visas and tickets for the longboat journey on the Mekong into Laos. We handed over some money and our passports, and assured us he would see us at 8 a.m. the next morning with our visas and drive us to the dock.

Chiang Khong is a one-road town that is quiet and peaceful. We stayed in very modest accomodations (I think $5 a night) that served food and beer. That night we met Lynn and Andrew, she from Ireland, he from Wales, who met while travelling in New Zealand. We drank and chatted with them that night and learned they were also going on the boat the next day to Laos.

Next day, 8 a.m. we are ready to leave and no sign of the man with our passports. 8:30 comes and Paul sets off down the dirt road to find him (it is a small town, remember?). Five minutes later a motorbike comes down the road with the man with our passports and Paul on the back!! He forgot all about us, our passports, and our visas, and hurried to get them. He returned with a friend who is on a motor bike and I get on the back of one and Paul on the other, with our semi-heavy backpacks mind you. Off to the docks! Visas get stamped, exit fees from Thailand paid, we are rushed onto a longboat and away we go. Minutes later we are on the Laos side of the river in Houeixi, Laos. Paul and I are talked in to paying for a room in a guesthouse in Pakbeng, where the boat is heading to on the first leg of our journey "because it will be too dark for you to find a place when you arrive, so it is best to secure one now". Yep, we are scammed. But more on that later.

Who do we see in the restaurant before boarding the boat but Lynn and Andrew! They also purchased accomodations for the night in the same place that we were talked into, so at least we weren't alone. We board the boat and sit in front of them. Off we go with about 100 other people down the Mekong for the next 7 hours. We were pre-warned that the benches make your butt sore so we laid our yoga mats on them for some comfort. The scenery was incredible and I can only imagine it is more so after the rainy season when the water level is higher and the trees are lush and green. It was a long day on the boat and we were relieved to know they sold beer which came in quite handy after the 4th hour or so.

The benches, by the way, were not very stable and were in serious danger of collapsing from under us. I tried my best to tell this to a crew member, who only shrugged and seemed uninterested in this information. Paul lashed a daypack to the bench and connected it to a post in hopes this would prevent a disaster. When Lynn and Andrew moved temporarily to sit on the floor of the boat in front to stretch their legs, I took over their bench to have some more room. Sure enough, their bench collapsed from underneath me and some other passengers took photos of the now in pieces bench, as it was pretty hilarious. A crew member carried the pieces off, no questions asked, and didn't seem surprised in the least.

Finally we arrive in Pakbeng and loads of children race to the dock in hopes of earning some money for hauling bags up the steep steps. The four of us had none of this and grabbed our own bags and followed the guesthouse worker up the street to where we would spend the night. Mind you, it was not dark out and there were PLENTY of places to stay. Regardless, we were shown our room and it would have been ok except for one thing--the bathroom was so unbelievably disgusting that no amount of incense we lit could remove the foul stench. I actually dreaded having to use the toilet and preferred to hold it in, much less take a shower. I wish I could say I am exaggerating, but I am not. Lynn and Andrew paid a bit less to have a shared bathroom and instantly wished they had shelled out the extra buck or two to have their own, as they were pretty disgusted as well. The beds looked ok, until you sat down on them--I think they were made of wood or concrete, no joke. Despite all this, the village itself was quaint and lit by candlelight as electricity was scarce. We had a good dinner and basically called it a night.

Everyone complained of sore hips the next day from the awful beds and were pretty eager to get out of town. We ate breakfast and headed down to the boat and lets just say that was another experience all on its own. The stairs headed down were very steep and covered in sand and I had images in my head of tumbling down them while wearing my 30 lb. pack and breaking my ankle. To top it off, you had to literally walk a narrow wooden plank to get on the boat. Luckily everyone made it just fine and Lynn and Andrew nabbed some seats for us in the back where we would have more leg room.

At some point the boat pulls in to bring on more passengers and we all seemed shocked--where would they sit?? There are no seats left! There went our leg room. I'll tell you right now, if you have issues with personal space, don't take the slowboat down the Mekong! People thought nothing of squeezing in between others and just plopping down at their feet. Live roosters and baggage get piled on top of the boat, and then the boat just won't start. You can hear the engine struggling to start as someone is banging on the engine. People suddenly begin to theorize: Will we have to get off and wait for another boat? Will we get stuck here? Where are we, anyway? Someone paddles out on another boat to try and help. Next thing you know, a group of men are holding onto a heavy rope that is attached to the engine's flywheel, they start counting in Lao, do the heave-ho move and yank hard a few times until the engine roars to life again. Everyone cheers loudly and the boats takes off.

No one seems to know what time the boat is due to arrive in Louang Phabang (I see different spellings on the name--sometimes it is Prabang, other times Phabang)--some are told it is shorter than the first day and will take 5 hours, some were told 6, some 7. In all, it takes 9 hours, a total of 16 hours in two days. I have a meltdown of sorts on the last 2 hours of the trip due to a wave of pre-menstrual depression and people try hard to cheer me up, but nothing seems to work. I just stood in the head and cried, how pathetic. I hate when this happens, and luckily it does not happen every month, luckily for Paul.

Paul and I feel we have earned a night in an expensive hotel at this point after sitting for so long on a 2 day boat ride and take a tuk-tuk to a place we read about; they are fully booked and reccomend another place called the Merry Lao-Swiss. Everything there is written in German and English, and I'm not sure if I understand the connection, but there you have it. It is a lovely place and we check in, take a shower, and head to The Apsara, a swanky, New York-priced place for dinner. The food is delicious, and we both wake up around 2 a.m. feeling horrible. We have food poisoning! The next day is spent in bed but at some point I manage to make my way downstairs to let the staff know the A/C is broken, we are sick, please fix it! Within 10 minutes 3 guys come to the door to replace the relay in the A/C, and we are relieved to be spending a sick day in a comfortable guesthouse and not on the boat or in Pakbeng.

The next day we finally get to see the sights of Louang Prabang and have been here ever since. It is a cute place with friendly people and a laid-back atmosphere. LP is an early to bed, early to rise kind of town and there isn't much going on after 10 p.m. We have been to several Buddhist Wats, or temples, as there are loads of them. There are also many young (by young I mean at least 10 to 15 years old) "novice" boy monks with shaved heads all over town, who are here to study. They carry parasols to shade them from the hot sun and I think they look adorable.

Tonight we are off to the capital, Vientiane via Laos Airlines. More updates to come from Vientiene before we head off to Viet Nam.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Heat Wave Coming

For those of you tracking our meterological progress, things are looking a bit grim.

After abandoning our shoes for flip flops the moment we got off the plane in Bangkok, we've been enjoying some pretty danged hot weather. Temps were probably in the upper 80's in Koh Phangan - where we had frequent rainstorms that cooled things off nicely in the afternoon. Ocean temps were proably around 80.

At Haad Beach Koh Island (off the North Coast of Little Rangoon) things were definitely hotter. Daytime temps were well into the 90s and the sea had to be well into the upper 80s - some of the warmest water I've ever swam in.

One night the tide came in quite high - waves maybe 15 feet from our bungalow as we were sleeping and the moist heat from the water was palpable.

Chiang Mai has been much dryer and cooler in the evenings, but afternoon highs have been in the low 90s.

As we head north we were hoping to cool off a bit in the hill country, but it looks like this part of the world is going to be pretty hot next week. Chiang Rai (our next stop) and northern Laos both look to be in the low 100s next week - temperatures we thought we would be avoiding by not going to India this time of year.

If you don't hear from us, assume we've melted into some fancy hotel with AC, a pool and a large bottle of the coldest Chang beer.

My 30 Seconds of Fame

And let's just say that when a 175lb (more or less) lady decides to jump into your arms while you're simultaneously trying to get your sideways flip-flop back on straight and also boogie-down in a fashion that will be remotely entertaining to your newfound throng of cheering fans, you better be ready to catch.

Needless to say, I was not.

I was laid out flat - with her on top of me.

The crowd went wild!!!

Chiang Mai enroute to Chiang Rai

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second biggest city after Bangkok and we have been here for 3 days. Paul and I stayed in a modest hotel on the bank of a river, while Frank and Rebecca, the honeymooners, stayed at this hotel called The Chedi; it is the swankiest hotel I have ever seen. Our jaws dropped when we walked in, then dropped even further when we went up to their room--they were assigned their own butler, if you can believe that. We were more than happy to live vicarously through them during cocktail hour on their terrace every evening.

Chiang Mai is a really cute city that is easy to get around. The area we stayed in was not heavily touristed and on our first day of adventuring around we looked for a place to eat lunch. Everything on the menu was listed in Thai, which gave us little choice but to wing it and see what we ended up with on our plates. I have to say that I am pretty thankful at this point I have falled off the vegetarian wagon, as it is practically impossible to avoid meat if you want to be adventurous and eat in local joints. It turns out that many restaraunts specialize in just one thing, so there is essentially one dish on the menu with a choice of either pork or chicken with broth and vegetables added in, with rice on the side. It feels odd to order hot, spicy soup in 95 degree weather but there you have it. I haven't had one bad meal yet, regardless of how much I sweat while eating it!

The other night Frank suggested this cabaret/Vegas style show at "The Simon's Dream" and it was pretty hilarious. Think extreme schlock and drag queens mixed up with traditional Thai costumes and dancing, with jungle motif. I don't know how else to explain it. The costumes were outrageous and glittery and the stage sets changed with every dance routine. Of course, the gay national anthem was played at the end--"I Will Survive"--and this fabulous trannie yanked Paul out of his seat and dragged him on stage. We were laughing so hard that I almost forgot to pull out the camera. He wound up with glowing red lipstick marks all over his face by the end of it.

We couldn't board the 10:00 bus to Chiang Rai so we are currently killing time in an internet cafe, awaiting our 12:30 V.I.P. luxury bus with toilet and air conditioning -- only $12 for two one way tickets.

We keep spacing out on bringing the USB cord out with us to upload recent photos and hope to have some up on the next post.

After Chiang Rai, it is off to Laos! Just in time for the heat wave. Wish us luck.