Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part Two: Large Jars and Long Bus Rides

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Touring in style in Phonsavan

In Luang Prabang I was finally able to eat again and what a joy to do so.  Two days on a slow boat while recovering from the mumps can do funny things to one’s brain.  I had begun to imagine Luang Prabang such a paradise on earth, at least in Laos, that we would be greeted off the boat with Laos women carrying steaming plates of pizza with real mozzarella or spaghetti or lasagna.  (For some reason I confused Laos with Italy.)  While no one welcomed me from the boat with fresh pasta, once I found a place to stay, I did find pizza that only caused my still recuperating jaw just a wee bit of trouble.  Apparently, there was a bit of a scandal when this Italian place opened on the Luang Prabang main street as the town is a UNESCO world heritage site.  I also found myself a bookstore, thank goodness. 

I must confess I don’t remember much of what I did in Luang Prabang.  It is a lovely laid-back town on the banks of the Mekong, with the dusty colonial architecture amongst dozens of Buddhist wats and temples.  Luang Prabang lies between the Mekong and a tributary, almost an island.  I did go to the former palace, now a museum, which was small, but enjoyable, though the opening hours were challenging.   The first time I arrived just before it closed for lunch, later just before it closed for the day.  My persistence paid off the third time.  I did not make it to the famous Pak Ou caves or to the Kuangsi waterfall.  Though I tried, I always called at the tour operator at the wrong time, too early or too late.  After all that time cramped on the boat, I was just happy to wander the streets, sometimes talking with novice monks. 

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Hanging out in the Plain of Jars

The bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan was nine hours.  NINE.  A friend of mine told me he had taken the trip a few years before me and at the time it took him two days in the back of a truck.  I suppose nine hours was an improvement.  Funny though, weeks and even years later, it is the boat ride and the bus rides that stood, and stand out.  And though we were well into the digital age I traveled a bit more old school.  While I saw younger travelers with electronics – Kindles and iPods – I still had just paper books and my own imagination to while away the hours.

There were twenty seats in the bus, excluding the driver seat, and yet we had 25 people including the driver and three bus attendants.  I am not sure why this works like this, but there was the driver, and another guy who I assumed was the relief driver, whose primary job seemed to be either to sleep or amuse the bus driver.  Then there is the guy who gets of the bus at official check points and hands over paper and puts people on the bus.  If we pick up other people, he hangs out the bus door and yells at these people we pick up along the way, to check their destination and hurry them on the bus.  Then there is the woman who collects the fares.  I had heard the departure was 8 AM, another passenger said it was 8:30, while another insisted it was 9:00, though we were all told to arrive at the bus station by 7:30.  We were full by 7:45 and just sat there.  We left at 8:30, drove 10 minutes to the gas station, then drove a few meters down the road to have the tire fixed, and then another five minutes to the police checkpoint.  Surely there is another way to do this?

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Early morning at a Laos bus station

It was a long trip.  Though I slept at least half the journey, it was not easy. Whenever I began nodding off, the driver would blast Lao pop music.  The second half was through the mountains–around and around and around curves.  I am talking about curves with drops down hundreds of feet without a guard rail in sight.  We went through many hill tribe villages — their front yards the road, their backyards the hundred foot drop.  When we sped through these tiny villages we laid on the horn so anyone on the road would scatter.  Besides people, there were also many animals on and alongside the road: chickens, turkeys, pigs, dogs, cattle, and goat.  Once we even passed an elephant! 

Like my arrival in Luang Prabang, I was extremely happy to arrive in Phonsavan. I secured a room, ate, and went to bed.  Electricity at the time ran only five hours a day, from 6 to 11 pm.  Reading that now, it sounds rather generous.  I was in bed long before 11.  The following day I had a tour of the Plain of Jars.  It was really just a guy in an old Russian car who drove three of us foreigners around to the sights.  And by sights, I mean we visited plains with large and small stone jars littered across them.  Then I knew it only as a place of unknown purpose – though now I read it is one of the most important prehistoric sites in Southeast Asia.  It was a good day; I was fascinated.

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Hmong girls lined up to play ball

While in Phonsavan I also happened to stumble upon a Hmong gathering.  It was the Hmong New Year’s and Hmong tribes from Laos and even Southern China, were gathered to celebrate.   Young Hmong women, between approximately 14 and 20 years of age, dressed in their finest, lined up to play a game of catch.  My guide informed me this was a way for the girls to find husbands.  Though many of the girls were tossing the balls to each other, a man could step in and begin the ball toss with the girl.  He might toss the ball and say “I do not have much money.”  The girl would throw the ball back and tell him “That is okay.”  He would say “You will have to work in the fields.”  “That is alright,” might be the answer.  And back and forth they toss the ball until some decision is made.

I had planned to head to Vientiane the following day, but the thought of another ten-hour bus journey was more than I could bear; I chose instead to take a detour to Vang Vieng.  This ride was worse.  The bus to Phonsavan had been small, full of foreigners.  On this larger bus, I was the only foreigner.  Though it was to depart at 9:30 AM, it was full by 7:45 AM.  The passage in front of the door already blocked with sacks of rice that everyone had to climb over to get on or off the bus.  I watched two motorcycles being loaded onto the top of the bus.  We all sat there, or walked around the bus, until it left, half an hour early at 9 am.  And we promptly drove to a gas station!

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Vang Vienh, a good place to stay awhile

Most of the Laos seemed inexperienced in bus travel.  Perhaps they made the trips only rarely?  As a result, most passengers were sick.  The bus assistants passed out plastic bags – they served the same purpose as the bags found in airplane seat back pockets.  As we passed over the hills and the narrow roads with steep drops, the Lao people would ooh and aah and stand up and lean over to that side of the bus to examine the drop.  I thought it would surely tip the balance and down we would plunge.  The woman in front of me and a man behind me were sick out the windows, making it hard for me to look outside and try not to be sick myself.  We had one pee break on top of the hill in the middle of nowhere, where each person ran off to find their own peeing bush.  There was more Lao pop music– I was getting thoroughly sick of it.  I was extremely happy to get off the bus at Vang Vieng seven hours later.

I meant to stay only a day in Vang Vienh, to break up the long journey to the capital.  However, I ended up staying a three.  I took a tube down the river with an Irish girl named Claire.  I am fairly sure Claire was high as a kite for the duration, and though I do not generally relish being trapped alone with strangers for hours on end, I had not laughed so hard in ages.  We made a game of our 3.5 HOURS float down driver, paddling furiously with our flip flops to maneuver around obstacles.    The following day I was aching from a bad sunburn, a sore knee where I had hit a rock, and a huge scratch I received from a submerged stick.  I signed up for kayaking the next day, but it poured rain and the trip was cancelled.

Then I headed to Vientiane and what a relief it was to spend only THREE hours on transport after so many marathon long trips.  I spent two quiet days in the quiet capital, resting up for the travel to come, often enjoying a dinner looking across the Mekong to Thailand as the sun set.  Then I crossed the Friendship Bridge back to Thailand and returned to Bangkok for the next phase of the trip.

Vientiane Victory Arch

Patuxai – The Victory Gate of Vientiane

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Golden Triangle Travel 2002-2003 Part One: Mumps in Thailand, Boat Down the Mekong

From July 2002 to July 2003 I was in graduate school in Singapore.  Over the winter break I took seven weeks to travel solo in northern Thailand, Laos, and Burma.  I sent out fairly regular email updates to my friends and family during my trip and these are the edited stories – a combination of email and diary excerpts, reminiscences from my admittedly faulty memory, and thoughts from today.  I find it curious, with the passage of time, what I wrote and took photos of, what I have remembered and forgotten.

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The border crossing

I had plans to stay only a few days in Thailand before heading to Laos.  I meant to spend 3 weeks in Laos, starting with a Mekong river voyage, some two weeks in central Laos, and then a third week down the slender tail where the Mekong hugs the border between Thailand and Laos to the Si Phan Don (Four Thousand Islands) area.  But things did not go at all as planned.  As so often happens with travel—and really one of the key reasons to do it—I could not have anticipated the people I would meet and the adventures, including coming down with a serious viral infection for which I had been (supposedly) inoculated against as a child…

On Friday, November 23 I flew from Singapore to Bangkok, Thailand to begin the first phase of my journey.  After checking into my guesthouse, I notice the right side of my jaw is swollen; it looks like a gumball is lodged in there and it feels tender and sore to the touch.    I write: I appear to have a minor bout of the gout.  The next day I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Rai.  My jaw hurts even worse; I feel ill and uncomfortable on the flight.  As I disembark at my destination it takes nearly all my energy to drag myself from the plane through the airport to transportation to take me to my Chiang Rai guesthouse.

At the guesthouse I can barely drag myself from check in up the stairs to my room. I know I should see a doctor and ask at the front desk.  The man informs me there is a clinic just 300 meters away, within walking distance.  I tell him I cannot make it.  He insists it is not far.  I walk a few steps, my knees buckle, and I vomit.  In an extraordinary show of kindness from a stranger, the man gets his motorcycle and takes me to the clinic.  He waits with me there and afterwards takes me to a pharmacy, then back to the guesthouse.  With medication and some beverages, I hole myself up in my room and fall asleep.

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The slow boat — aka, my ride

The doctor told me I had Mume.  The following day I head to an Internet café to see if I can learn more about my illness.  Since my face is so swollen I grab a hoodie so I can wear it to mask my face.

I type in my symptoms and what should pop up but mumps!  I almost laughed.  That is if laughing were not so painful.  Both sides of my jaw are completely swollen.  It is very painful.  I cannot eat.  The day before in a fit of desperation I bought a bag of potato chips.  I ate about 10 and was sorry for over two hours, my jaw throbbed horribly from the effort.  I stood in front of a restaurant yesterday staring at the food through the window, then went to buy instant ramen at 7-11 which I gobbled up with great glee back in my hotel room.  I carried the little cup with boiling water the three blocks back to my guesthouse like it was my most precious possession. 

I spend two days in my room.  I read a book.  I play solitaire.  I write in my journal.  I nap.  I think about eating but do not dare because it hurts too much.  But slowly I begin to feel better.  I make plans to move on.  I buy some supplies, check bus times, and prepare to collect my passport with my visa to Laos.  But the next day was not to be.  I could barely drag myself down to the travel office and when I did it was closed.  I gave up and went back to my room.  Later someone brought my passport to my room—I merely rolled over in bed, unlocked the door, took the passport, closed the door, and went back to sleep.

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One of the few times I saw people along the way

The next day I wake at 6 AM and head to the bus station to catch the first bus to Chiang Kong, the Thai border crossing.  The slow boat down river departs at 10:30; the bus should arrive on the Thai side at 10 AM.  But it arrives at 10:15. I quickly catch a tuk-tuk to the boat landing, but then the immigration official takes a short break.  Then shoots the breeze with his colleague.  10:30 comes and goes.   The slow boat has surely departed.  I head up the steps to Laos immigration and then wander in to town.  I went into a guesthouse to ask a woman about the boat.  She told me “It already leave.  Stay here.  Stay the night.  You are tired, right?  Don’t you want to rest?”  And she lured me.  Because I was tired and I did want to rest.  My first day in Laos was not off to a good start.

The Laotian town of Huay Xai is a one road town.  A road into town and a road out, a single intersection.  There were a few guesthouses and restaurants catering to all the people who “missed the boat” (literally!) and that is about it.  Seemed a nice enough place to rest up for the two day boat ride commencing the next day.  There were speed boats, but the riders are strapped in, immobile, with life vests and crash helmets, their baggage pinned against their feet as they hurdled down the river for six hours with the deafening motor in their ears.  While I thought for adventures-sake this might be fun for all of maybe 5 minutes, and interesting for maybe an hour, but with my stiff neck, swollen jaw and extreme tiredness, I could not think of subjecting myself to that torture.  It was to be slow boat torture for me.

The next day the slow boat departed at 11:15 AM.  I could have made it the day before.

We were packed in like cattle, sixty of us, sitting on hard wooden benches.  I left my book in the hotel.  Few people were in the mood to talk.  Looking around every available space filled with a person with a book balanced on their lap; I was so envious.  I would try and look out the window for awhile, to give my bum a rest from the plank, and within fifteen minutes my knees felt as if they were welded to the wood and moving them was extremely painful.  The muddy river, the green banks, slid by minute after minute, hour after hour with little change in scenery.

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Colonial building in Luang Prabang

After six hours the boat arrived at Pak Beng, where we stayed the night.  I still was not 100%.  I had some soup but I could not sleep.  Under a mosquito net I felt too hot.  I thought a shower might help.  There was a huge cement cistern.  And a shower head.  In the corner a huge spider sat on the wallI had my glasses off so I could not make it out very well, though I kept my eye on it as well as I could.  The water was so cold I felt unable to stand and found myself squatting on the floor, shower head in hand, my mouth gaping open and closed like a fish out of water, just to brace myself against the icy coldness of the liquid running down my scalp and neck. Shampooing up, I didn’t know if I could stand to run the water over my head again to rinse, but again in silent screams I washed my hair.  I was certainly cooled off then and fell into a lovely slumber, despite the sound of rats scurrying overhead…

I thought the day before as I got off the boat that someone would have to drag me kicking and screaming to the boat the next day, with me screaming “no, not the boat, not the BOAT!”  But I walked on of my own accord the next day.

The second day on the boat was much like the first, except that I managed to procure myself a book.

I am on the boat again – we have been going for four hours, though I do not know what that means in terms of the journey as there is a debate over whether we are to travel six hours or eight today.  I sincerely hope it is only six.  I inherited a book from another person and read the whole thing before noon…The boat meanders lazily down the Mekong.  The water a muddy hot tea with milk color, on both sides thick green jungle.  Only rarely does a house appear, and even more rare, people.  It always surprises me when there are people because they appear smaller than I expected, dwarfed by the scenery around them.   I cannot even begin to explain the mind-numbing boredom of those two days.  Nor how much my bottom hurt from sitting on the wooden plank for so many hours.  And I paid for the experience.

We pulled into Luang Prabang 7 hours later and I gratefully got off the boat, scrambled up the bank at a sprint, and never looked back.