Sunday, February 27, 2011

Escape from the Grinder

A handful of us managed to escape the meat grinder yesterday. That's the alias I'm giving to Vang Vieng, since that is what it is. You arrive there all fresh and ready to party, and after a few days of it it spits you out as a ragged, disheveled mess. Brent, Isaac and I were originally the only three that were going to leave, but when we were all in the lobby of our guest house waiting to be picked up, Bob and Terry out of the blue decided to pack their shit up within five minutes, buy a bus ticket and come to Vientiane with us. A couple of stragglers were still there, and I'm curious to see what they look like after a couple more days of partying on the river.

The bus ride there was full of the typical worn-out partiers, us included. I was worn out from the constant sickness (alcohol and gastro-intestinal), as was Isaac. Brent was sick with the flu, has a nasty infected burn from an exhaust pipe and had been walking around with a cane the past few days from a sprained ankle. Bob completely lost his voice and was in a zombie state. Terry was the funniest of all, he was going hard until he hit rock bottom that day, part of the reason he jumped on the bus with us. The funniest part of the bus ride was listening to him (he's 18) all stoned on Valium (you can buy it over the counter here), talking with Brent about his sexual exploits of this trip, which amounted to a near hookup in the shower with this Aussie girl. All this was said at high audibility, enough for the whole bus to hear and laugh at, mostly from the phrases "I had a raging hard on" and "I should be more forceful with women from now on". I love that kid.

So now we're in Vientiane, where I'm going to start my mission of getting a Vietnam visa tomorrow. Last night we went out for a finally dinner since Brent had to leave to go meet his parents in Bangkok today. It was a splurge hard meal, a feast for kings. Fresh prawns, pork spare ribs, noodle with squid were on the menu. And I can't forget the frog, we each ate a whole one. It was actually pretty good, the meat is almost exactly like chicken.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


I finally felt well enough to make a successful attempt at tubing yesterday. It's a pretty crazy time, basically you head to the river in the early afternoon to start the day of insanity. Basically there's three main bars that everyone hits up, all within sight of each other. So you don't really need a tube, all you have to do is jump in the river and swim about a minute to the next bar. Or you can use the zunga (rope swing), your choice. With every bar the zunga gets way more intense, ending with a huge zip line that rockets you into the water. Since I've heard (and seen evidence of) a ton of horror stories about people that hurt themselves on these unregulated adrenaline tools, I decided to skip them. Usually the party wraps up around six or seven pm and everyone heads back to town to keep the party going at the bars there.

After that wild day and the stomach bug that keeps lingering around, (oh yeah and the late night bed bug wake up call) I am right out of it. I'm taking it pretty easy in one of the lounging bars here. Lots of them have big screen TV's that play episodes of Family Guy and Friends. Since I think Friends is one of the worst sitcoms every filmed, I chose Family Guy. Although since finding a place that plays South Park last night, I may have to change the venue soon. All in all Vang Vieng has been fun but the stomach bug I've had and the rude bedbug problem have soured my experience a little and I'm thinking it's going to be time to move on tomorrow. Yesterday was my last hurrah for partying, I've decided. After going hard in Thailand and Cambodia for so long, I'm worn out from living the life of a high-functioning alcoholic. I've had my fill of partying lately, and I'm not too into it anymore. It's time to tone it down for a while, the only foreseeable party being Halong Bay in Vietnam, which is over a month away. Plenty of time to allow my liver to heal from the beating I've given it.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Woes of the Gastro

This marks the first day I've had to break out the severe travelers diarehha medication, a going away gift from Phonsavan. Really the only bad thing I took out of that place. I knew the ton of flies on the meat meant that restaurant we stopped at for lunch the last day was no good, but everyone else was ok with eating there and I rolled with the crowd, and now I'm peeing out of my hind end, just in case you wanted to know how bad it is. Next time I'll follow my gut instincts, for now they are in disorder. The worst thing about it is that I have to use toilet paper, as there are no bum guns in Laos...

Vang Vieng so far reminds me of a typical Thai island: a giant party scene with little of no sense of local culture in it. I made an attempt at the infamous river bars today, but my stomach and gastrointestinal problems sent me packing early. Basically everyone comes to this town to float down the river, get drunk and fly off the various rope swings at the river bar. Hopefully tomorrow I'll feel good enough to make another attempt at the party thing. The scenery here is amazing, the town is surrounded by huge, forested limestone karst mountains that look surreal at sunset.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Why Hello, Mr. UXO

Today was the closest to a bomb I've ever been in my life: roughly two meters. We headed out to the Crater Landscape, a big field of craters from American air strikes. While we were there we asked a local tour guide about where was safe to walk, because obviously anywhere there are bomb craters there's likely ones that didn't explode. He told us the trails were safe, but pointed out a black rock that was there as a warning marker for an unexploded cluster bomb munition. A little background on these things: hundreds of them drop from a larger bomb casing to basically blow the shit out of everything in a huge radius, and about one third of them fail to detonate. They basically have a kill radius of twenty-five meters when on the ground. If you look in the picture below, it's the rusty, tennis ball-looking thing in the middle. The craziest part of that location: the explosion of UXO we heard from far down the valley as we were about to leave...

Then we hit up another couple cave systems in the surrounding area. One of them was the Tham Xang Caves, where revolutionary communist guerillas operated out of. We only got to see one of the caves however, since the other was gated off, we think due to the biggest bee hives I've ever seen, probably about one million bees in total in honeycombs clinging to the cave ceiling. The other cave, Tham Piu Cave, was really cool. It was also used to shelter refugees from the bombing campaign in the countryside, until a single aircraft fired rocket landed straight inside and killed three hundred and seventy four people. Their bones are still buried beneath the rocks. It was a really deep cave, we hiked all the way to the end of the line and extinguished the lights for a few moments of silence, and to experience the pitch black and tranquility of the cave.

And that be it for Phonsavan. Tomorrow we head to Vang Vieng in the morning to do some of the infamous tubing. I loved this town, and would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to experience the Lao countryside or any of the war history.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Quest for Jars, Craters and Highway

I've found a new found love for motor-biking. The last couple days we rented motorbikes and ripped around the Laotian countryside. I'm proud to say I've graduated from the easy automatic scooters to the higher cc semi-manual bikes that are common here, and all of my newly acquired skills have been self taught! I'm eager to actually try a bigger bike, one with a clutch and manual gears. For now, I'll stick to something in my experience bracket. Riding around the Laotian countryside is nothing but amazing. The scenery is beautiful and seems to be ever-changing; parts of it reminded me of the Okanagan Valley back home, then we're cruising down dirt roads and around limestone cliffs. Riding through the local villages is cool too, you get so many friends waves and smiles from the locals.

So far Phonsavan has been incredible. The first night here we went to the Marha Puha festival and mingled with the locals. The festival commemorates a speech given by Buddha to 1250 monks during the full moon this time of year. It started out as a simple affair, we ate some popcorn and shot off some roman candles. As the night went on (and probably as the locals got drunker) things got better and better. People would come out of nowhere and offer us glasses of beer because we were the only Farang (foreigner) there. Then we got to join the locals in hoisting up these bamboo-framed towers (used for shooting fireworks the next day), encouraged by an old, drunk Lao man. Then we marched around in the crowd behind some monks, shot off some more roman candles, and called it a night. It was a great experience, and I'm sure will be one of my best in Laos.

The next day we jumped on the bikes and headed out to see the Plain of Jars Sites one and two. It's basically a field of these giant stone jars that were used to facilitate the major trade routes that ran through this part of the world. The coolest thing about them is that nobody knows where or whenst they came from. The second coolest thing is that during the Vietnam War, the Americans repeatedly pounded those areas with air strikes and managed to destroy only a few of the jars. We also hit up a local waterfall near the jar sites. Unfortunately the water was too dirty to swim in, but it was still an amazing site. Then we headed out to Bomb City, the unoffcial name for the old Lao capital that the Americans did manage to destroy during the war. The sheer amount of craters littering the countryside is amazing, they dot the landscape like chicken pocks, and are even visible on the furthest of peaks.

Today was also a good, lengthy bike trip. We headed out to a cave a ways out of town that has a Buddhist shrine in it. This was easily the coolest cave I've ever seen before, with a huge statue of Buddha inside, plus a ton of artifacts buried in the deep bowels of the cave. We also got into adventure mode and ventured into the deep bowels of the second cave, which was completely undeveloped and required some rock climbing, spelunking and squeezing to get inside the depths of it. Then we headed back to Phonsavan to an old war memorial on a hilltop overlooking the city and watched the sunset.

All in all Phonsavan has greatly exceeded my expectations, and even entered into the mind blowing realm. My planned one day of staying here has turned into three, and tomorrow we head out on the bikes again to see the Crater Plains were a B-52 strike scarred the land years ago and to some more caves and hopefully end the day at a hot spring. And still not able to load up pictures yet, the wifi here sucks.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Last Days of Luang Prabangage

Yesterday was a disaster averted. We all grouped together, about ten people in total, to get a tuk tuk to the waterfall outside of town, which everyone I met raved about. When it seemed like we had finally hashed out a deal with one of the drivers, they split us up into another tuk tuk. Didn't seem to be a good idea at the time but we rolled with it; the people in the other tuk tuk got scammed for more money. Although we didn't fare much better, ours broke down half way to the waterfall and we had to wait to be picked up by another one.

It turned out to be all good though, the waterfall was amazing and we the continuous shooting feature on my SLR was put to great use making action shots of all of us on the rope swing and jumping off the waterfall (pics will come with wifi). All in all, Luang Prabang was mediocre in my opinion. The city itself is very nice, with a great Wat and museum in the center, but the inhabitants themselves, not so much. We were constantly involved in attempted scamming, and the accommodation wasn't cheap. One of my friends even had his wallet pick pocketed the first night.

Today we jumped on a bus in the morning to Phonsavan, a city in the eastern part of Laos, a UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) hotspot and home to the Mine Advisory Group, an organization for the clearance of unexploded ordnance. We took a look at the information center today. It was pretty grim to see the statistics on how many bombs and submunitions they clear out of this country every month; in January alone over six hundred bombs and submunitions were cleared. Just walking around this city gives you an idea of how many bombs fell here; there are old bomb casings and scrap everywhere! One restaurant, Craters, has two one thousand pound bomb casings and four other smaller ones as its entryway. Being a war history buff, I'm stoked to get out into the countryside tomorrow and see some of the fields of craters.

Also, something that cannot go unmentioned is the powerful moment we had at dinner today. All of our dishes came with quite a bit more food than expected, so we were happy to give some to three young kids that were obviously homeless and hadn't eaten all day. It was pretty powerful to watch them mow through those plates of food in seconds, and even more powerful when they put their hands together and gave a big, polite thank you. I saw a lot of poverty in India but this one hit home tremendously more so. It really makes a person be thankful for what we have, and especially thankful that I never had a day in my life where I had to go to bed hungry.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To All My Fans

So I just looked today and my page view count is up past six thousand views, so I think this is time to acknowledge all of the people that have been following my blog. Occasionally I check out where the views come from, a feature that Blogspot has, and there's been views from countries where I don't know anyone that lives there, particularly the US and I even had a view from Latvia. I think it's cool that I have an audience outside of my friends and family, and I hope I'm doing a good job of keeping you all entertained with my stories, and informed at the same time.

To all my friends and family that follow this blog so religiously: you guys rule, I love you all. I appreciate every page view I get, it really makes me feel like I'm doing something right and I'm happy that I can share all my experiences with you all. And who knows, maybe I'll inspire one or two of you to travel! Which you all should, it's the greatest thing a person can do.

Let's Slow This Boat Down, To Luang Prabang That Is...

I've heard some people say they hate the slow boat, and some people say they love it. I'm with the latter on that one, it was a great way to get around, better than any bus I've taken. Although running into my Pai crew, a case a beer and a bottle of scotch we're definite bonuses to the ride. The slow boat trip is a two day affair, about eight hours a day, with a stopover for the night in the riverside town of Pak Beng. The first day was definitely a highlight, with a lot of socializing and fun times had by all. Also present were some friends I met on the Gibbon Experience. The boat trip itself is a social experience, and everyone is heading to the same destination so random future encounters are guaranteed.

The scenery of the Mekong River is amazing. Because of the dry season the river is low, revealing the huge rock formations it normally hides and creating a ton of cool looking currents and whirlpools that make the river surface look pretty gnarly. The boats themselves are pretty comfy, the first one was half car seats and half wooden benches, but nothing a 10,000 Kip cushion can't fix. The boat the next day was a little more posh, completely made up of seats from cars. Very little food is available on the boat, so you stock up with fruit, banana bread (not as good as mom's) and sandwiches from the riverside towns you start in. Pak Beng itself is a pretty shitty place, I found the people there to be overly rude and pushy, it almost felt like being back in India.

So far Luang Prabang is great. We had a hard time finding accommodation last night after we arrived, but changed it up for a cheaper option this morning. I ended up running into the Pai crew again and chilled out with them on the riverbank with some beers, a campfire and some guitar and singing. Today we checked out the museum and a couple Wat's, which was pretty cool. The museum had some pretty neat Buddhist and royal artifacts, and generally made for a good afternoon. Tomorrow will be spent at the supposedly awesome waterfall near town, post to follow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Experience of the Gibbon Experience

That was the closest to becoming Tarzan I've ever been. Zipling through the jungle at 60 km/h was nothing short of great! I was worried that my fear of heights might become a problem during this two day zip fest, but it wasn't at all. The first set of cables we used were'nt a problem at all since the platforms were on level spots on the hillsides. By the time we got to the real precarious ones, ie the small step off the edge of our one hundred and fifty meter tree house, I wasn't too nervous about it. I even managed to jump into the line on the third day. It was a great way to see the jungle, cruising upwards of one hundred and fifty meters above it.

The trekking was pretty good too, we pounded out some steep hills and got the blood flowing into these almost mummified legs of mine. One of my favourite things of the whole three days was just being in the actual, full on jungle; hiking through palm fronds and bamboo thickets. And there were surprisingly little misquitos!

The tree houses themselves were pretty cool, our second one was about one hundred and fifty meters off the ground, only accessible by zip lining into it. The one highlight of it for me was showering that high off the ground with a amazing birds eye view of the whole forest valley. I'll never set foot in that cool of a shower again, I'm sure of it. Every night they zip lined dinner in for us, with tea and coffee as well. I was with a great group of people, and we kept ourselves busy at night with charade games.

Unfortunately we didn't get to see any of the famed Gibbons. We did hear a few at night and in the morning, but they never made an appearance for us. I'm still not that disappointed, the rest of the Experience was amazing! And tomorrow I head out on the slow boat to Luang Prabang to start exploring the south of Laos.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Limbo in Laos

After a shitty bus ride and an equally shitty nights sleep, I made it across the border in Laos. The visa control at this border crossing (and I imagine all others) is quite the disorganized rabble. Everyone 'lines up' at one window to deposit your passport and visa forms, then you wait thiry minutes and fight back through the crowd to pay your visa fee and collect your passport, visa stamp and evytang! After that adventure I was actually glad I wasn't joining everyone on the slow boat to Luang Prabang; having to endure a crowded four hour journey would have been icing on the crap cake.

For the past day and a half I've been in limbo in the border town Huay Xai, waiting for my scheduled Gibbon Experience tour on the 11th. In hindsight I should have overstayed my Thai visa by one day and paid the five hundred Baht fine so I could stay another day in Pai, but live and learn I guess. There's not much going on here in Huay Xai, thankfully this is my last full day here. I took a long walk around the town today, which actually turned out to be pretty cool, taking my up into the hills to a hilltop Wat and past an old abandoned military fortification. Laotian architecture is very appealing to me, some of them have some pretty top shelf houses, resembling a kind of Italian villa (picture to follow later). The walk also made the brute introduction between Lao rice whiskey and I. Some Lao guys hanging out under a canopy offered me a shot, and it was pretty damn potent stuff; my mouth felt like I had downed a shot of paint thinner.

Tomorrow morning I head out on the three-day Gibbon Experience to zipline and trek through the jungle. Expect a adrenaline-fueled post when I return.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Yesterday was a mixed bag for me, starting out with a rude awakening at 5am to puke my guts out, thanks to the sketchy donair I ate the night before. With my stomach doing hula-hoops around my body the whole day, some friends and I rode out on the scooters to some caves about an hour and a half away from Pai. The ride was awesome, the scenery just seemed to get better and better the further from Pai we were, starting out with hills and a great viewpoint, then to jagged limestone mountains, and ending with a beautiful ride through a dense forest.

The Lod caves were amazing, the biggest caves I've ever been in in my life. There were amazing stalagmite and stalagtite formations, and massive cathedral like crystal formations, all made more beautiful by the soft kerosene lantern our guide was leading us with. Some of the caves even had an ancient burial area inside, with old wooden coffins scattered around the tomb. The tour included a ride up through the caves on a bamboo raft, with a ton of huge fish following us, begging for food. All in all, a great day, one that will go down in the books as one of the coolest natural things I've seen in Thailand so far.

This is nearly the end of my Thailand adventure; I'm going to spend today tubing down the river in town with some friends, then catch my bus at 8pm to the border, where I'll cross into Laos tomorrow morning to start a new adventure. Stay tuned for more.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Another Great Day of Scootin'

Scooters are the best thing for the Thai countryside, as far as the Farang is concerned. I rented one today until the 8th, and it cost me about $6.75. A Canadian friend and I hit up the countryside today to go check out some waterfalls. It was a great day, even though we didn't see any waterfalls. The one listed on the road sign seemed to disappear on us or isn't properly marked in the back roads. Instead we cruised to a Thai village where we swam around in the river (and when I say swam it was more like a thigh-deep floating, trying to keep sand out of our shorts) and ate some delicious Pad Thai, straight from rural Thailand. All in all the drive was great, an awesome way to spend a hung over day in the Thai countryside, getting in the real thick of the forest and soaking in some awesome scenery. And I can't forget to mention the gem of a restaurant we discovered here in Pai. It's called the Witching Well, and so far I can vouch for the apple pancake, the carrot cake and the C2 shake.

The bummer part of the day was booking my bus ticket to the Lao border, when I realized that I'll have to leave a night early on an 8pm bus on the 8th, getting to the border town at 2am. That is going to suck.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Deja Vu In Pai

First off: Pai is amazing. It should at or near the top of everyone's destination list when visiting Thailand. This amazing little mountain town is giving me flashbacks to Ton Sai, that favorite little beach/rock climbing community I always rave about. As soon as I rolled into town yesterday afternoon, I instantly had a good feeling about it. Everything just radiates positive vibes, and gets better at night when the reggae music starts blaring out of the multitude of reggae bars in this town. And there's even a couple bars with fire pits in them, which I think is an absolutely brilliant idea! I was lucky enough to meet a huge crowd of travelers to hang out with, all of which are great people to be around.

And since I'm in the right frame of mind, I'll do a quick little travel review of my thoughts. I've been traveling for a total of 155 days so far, or 5 months and 2 days. This has absolutely been the best decision I've ever made for myself, and I'm glad I had the balls to make it. It had been too long since I've said the phrase 'I love life', and I'm so happy I can finally say it. I've gone through thick and thin so far, and I'm still eager to see the world. While I do miss my family and friends, I'm not ready to go home yet. There's too much out there left to experience. On my travels I've met so many people that are out here to search for themselves, to find their inner soul. Not me, I know myself, I'm right here. This is about developing the person I already am, and I can't wait to see what the next eight months does for me. Life is great, and I'm glad I'm finally living it properly.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tour Day

Well I survived. Yesterday was a pretty awesome day. We had a pretty jam packed itinerary, starting off with a visit to a butterfly sanctuary, where I got some really decent shots thanks to the mellow types of butterflies I found there, a very uncommon thing so far. Then we headed to do a ride on an elephant, or banana eating machine, if you will. After that we had a wicked white water rafting ride, my first time at it, and I am definitely a fan. We then headed to the biggest joke of the tour, a visit to a 'hill tribe', which I had been looking forward to. It turned out to be a short stroll through a village with sattelite dishes mounted on the roofs of the village huts, then being hoarded to their shops to buy souvenirs. I wouldn't have minded that so much, they have to make a living like everyone else, but there was absolutely no culture behind it. All I wanted to do more than anything was talk to one of the villagers and find out why they had come to settle here from southern China, and get a feel for their way of life. Sadly not even my tour guide could tell me that.

After lunch we headed out into the jungle to do a walk, which was about as uninformative as the hill tribe tour. The guide scared off a snake though, so at least we had some form of excitement. We finished the walk at a waterfall (with a resort next to it) and swam around for a bit. I can't wait to do that again, it was definitely something I'd like to make a day out of, with a few friends and some beers, and hopefully something not as developed and more secluded. The day was finished off with a tranquil river ride on a bamboo raft, which was an absolute perfect, relaxing way to end the day.