Canada and the USA,      Mexico,      Belize,      Guatemala,      El Salvador,      Honduras,      Nicaragua,      Costa Rica,      Panama,      USA, again,       Thailand,       Lao,       Vietnam,       Cambodia,       Thailand, again,       Turkey.      

Journal Index

New as of November 23rd, 2005 (Luang Prabang)

New as of December 7th, 2005 (Hanoi, Vietnam)

Amazing Lao

November 6, 2005

Luang Prabang, Lao

I like Lao. Maybe it is because I entered it via a land border, but it is nice and tranquelo here. I spent a few more days in Chiang Rai where I still didn't do much but was happy to run into Bel from Germany who I met down in Kanchanaburi. (We even played a game of pool, practically my first since Mary H. was teaching me on Monday nights.) But in the end, except for the excellent Hill Tribe Museum I didn't get much more in to Chiang Rai than I did Chiang Mai. Although I did find a café with a reasonable chocolate cake.

After a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Kong I checked out of Thailand and took a long tail boat across the Mekong River into the Lao town of Huay Xai.

Huay Xai is pretty good as border towns go. It's laid back and is mostly a one street town. I didn't end up seeing much of town but in the river crossing the whole atmosphere changed. This may have been a border town, but there wasn't any of the hassling or rush that marks it as an in-between place. This is not to say there was much there, but what was there wasn't awful.

After one night there I took the slow boat to Luang Prabang. It's a two-day trip on the Mekong River with a night stopover in Pakbeng. The boat has wooden benches and is pretty full. Many would say it was crowded but that would do a disservice to the Guatemalan chicken busses. And in reality although there were probably about eighty people on the boat, you had more room than on a Greyhound bus because you could get up and move around. Actually once we were under way, we (all backpackers) spread out all over the boat. The bow had nice space for a few people, the aft deck with the crew was a popular hangout out. Under the pilot's station became a nap room, and the roof was for sun and a mellow social space. The boat became a bit of a house party where you could move from one room to another.

That evening in Pakbeng we headed ashore and found guesthouses to spend the night. By then the groups had sort of bonded and it was a bit like a road trip. My group ended up at a guesthouse that, although clean, had the thinnest walls I have yet encountered. They were woven mats nailed to the studs of the walls. At one point in the night I noticed that I could hear my roommate's sleeping breath as clearly as Oliver's breathing in the next room. I had wondered if Oliver rolled over in his sleep if he would have come thru the wall. A different kind of privacy.

The town itself was a bit grim. Too much of its livelihood depended on the overnight boat stop and so in many ways it was more like a border town than Huay Xai was. My roommate Andy, who I had met down in Kanchanaburi petting tigers, was offered drugs something along the lines of 25 times before we left town. I was offered only about three times and oddly enough it was generally opium. It sort of spoiled what could have been a nice place especially as after ten o'clock most people turned off their generators and the stars shown beautifully.

The second day on the boat wasn't quite as fun as it was a bit smaller and you couldn't go on the roof. We did pick up a few locals along the way, which made it a bit less of the backpacker bus. A couple of the Lao women shared some of the local snacks, which the general conciseness was it took a remarkably large effort to get unshelled for what you got. Maybe that's how they can snack all day and not get fat. The real problem for over weight Americans is that our snack foods are too easy; if they had to peel a shell off of every potato chip (crisp) it might solve the obesity problem.

A girl whom I had met on the roof the first day and I played cat's cradle and figured out what we would do if we ran the boat service. Get rid of all the benches and put in beanbag chairs and temple cushions, a nice ladder to the roof, and a place on the back so you could do your laundry as we went along. After all it was almost sixteen hours on the boat and there is only so much river scenery you can take at a time. And for backpackers there is always laundry to do. Maybe have a cook making a few simple dishes to keep us fed along the journey.. (The crew had been cooking on the engine's head block so we were a bit envious.)

Catching up Lao

November 12?, 2005

Muang Xai, Lao

Oh my, I have been bad at writing here. Lao has been good. The boat ride was a nice laid-back way to start my trip in Lao.

Luang Prabang is a bit the Antigua Guatemala of Lao. It's a Unesco world heritage sight as well and it has much of the colonial architecture (this time French) mixed in as well. It's not quite as picture perfect as Antigua but as they were repaving the streets and gutters I think it is on it's way there. There are some very touristy shops and restaurants. In some ways I think the Unesco designation is a good way to know about places. If nothing else it means they don't have the hideous roll down mettle grates on the front of everything.

The town is full of Wats. So much so, it probably rivaled churches and ruins in Antigua. This means the town is full on monks and around sunset it is easy to stroll from Wat to Wat listening to the monks chant the evening prayers. Also in the morning, as I suspect much is true of this part of the world, you can get up and see the monks walking the streets receiving food from the people.

The morning I got up at 5:30 am to see the monks I had half planned on participating and feeding the monks as well. I had talked with people who had done it and I liked the idea. They said that there were venders selling rice out and about in the morning. They werenŠŖ—’ kidding about the venders. In the end I chose rather than buying rice and simply doing the very touristy thing of feeding the monks with the rice I would watch and maybe feed the monks the next day. I wasn't sure that the venders realy sold rice I would want to feed a monk either.

As it was I enjoyed watching. There was a section with people who were bus pilgrims who had a guide that arranged their mats set out their rice and made sure there was someone to take their photo at the right moment. There were also beggars that set out baskets along the route and the monks would put food back in their baskets. (I noticed that the banana leaf packets of rice invariability got returned to the rice sellers to re-sell the next day.) A few streets over it was just locals doing their daily giving of alms so there was quite a variety.

Three times lost.

I have a Nalgene water bottle I have been carrying for my whole trip. I got it in the hopes of using fewer disposable water bottles and so if I were in a situation where I was purifying my own water I would have something to do it in. It's the old style, cloudy white Nalgene bottle with the wide mouth and blue lid. The kind I remember from camping with my parents as a kid and the style they made when Nalgene was mostly only known as a manufacture of plastic ware for chemistry; the kind of Nalgene water bottle that looks like a Nalgene water bottle, not some fancy designer polycarbonate colorful thing.

It's been nice to have especially in any country with potable tap water. The lid screws on tightly and the loop that keeps the cap from getting lost is easy to clip to my backpack when walking. There was a period back last December where I couldn't get it clean and everything smelled and tasted funny. (I had tried to scrub it out for no particular reason and made it worse.) I tried scolding it with boiling water, soaking it with bleach, and hanging it out in the sun. Finally the fresh ozonated water at the Casa de Argentina in Xela, Guatemala got it fresh again. But all in all it has been a good companion.

I first nearly lost it back in Canada when I left it in the lounge of the Lake Louise hostel when I went for my bus to Vancouver. At the bus stop I realized my mistake and I ran back to the hostel, some distance away, and got it returning just in time for the bus.

The next time I nearly left it behind was in Nicaragua. I left the hostel planning to cross the border that day into Costa Rica. I went as far as buying my required onward ticket to Panama and even made it to the border. But there I decided that it didn't feel right and I had left my water bottle behind so I went back to the hostel where it was waiting for me. One of the guys had seen me leave it behind and had tried to run after me, but from this encounter I ended up meeting the group of people that I spent the next week living on the beach with out in the middle of nowhere.

And today was number three. After a five-hour bus ride from Luang Prabang I hulled my stuff and found a hotel. Sitting down thinking I needed a drink of water I realized I had left it on the bus. (Normally I try to keep it clipped to my bag to make sure I don't forget it.) I walked the kilometer or so back to the bus station. Of course the bus was long gone. I looked around the lot at the station because it didn't make sense that the bus would return tonight. A local gentleman asked where I was going. After a couple rounds he understood that I wasn't looking for a bus or a bus ticket but for something I left on my bus. He said he knew the bus driver and would ask him tomorrow, although I plan to be gone by then, and then pointed out the bus company's building on the other side of a wall. I figured that having put this much effort into retrieving an old Nalgene bottle I might as well go the whole way.

As I approached the bus company's building, which I think may also serve as accommodations for the drivers away from home, the people noticed this silly farang and came out to see what I needed. I told them, in English of course, while trying to mime holding something. They got the idea and we went back to the bus and found the water bottle.

After all this, I think I am starting to get a bit of a segmental attachment to my plan old Nalgene water bottle of all things.

ŠŖ°¶Sucked Dry by a Leach.

November 14, 2005

Luang Nam Tha, Lao

I've been bad keeping this up-to-date but I am just going to worry about what I am doing now and try to go back and patch things up a bit.

Today I got back from a three-day (two night) trekking tour in Northern Lao. It was quite fun. The first day we took a Sawngthaew, a pickup truck with sort of high toper on it and two benches running down the back, to the trail head. I had packed down to just my daypack and my main pack was at the trekking company's head quarters in Luang Nam Tha.

The first day was a five-hour hike, more like three hours hiking, two hours breaking, before we got to our first night stay at the Hmong village of Ban Samyod.

It's a village of about 150 people who mostly farm the surrounding area. They have a special house built for visitors. It's up on the shoulder of land dividing the village. After dropping our packs and a short sit we went off to see the town.

The village is used to having a few backpackers come thru every few days. (We were a group of six, and there is a maximum of eight.) And this trek had been running for about three months. The organization that was running its goal is to allow limited trekking in as low impact way as possible and to funnel the income from the treks back into the communities they visit. Part of what this meant is that although foreigners trapping thru their village wasn't altogether new, it wasn't old hat either.

Although we had been warned about appropriate behavior in the village and the people we saw were generally welcoming and friendly, it still felt a little like we were walking thru their back yard. Some of it probably was also because it is rice harvest time and the only people left in the village were the old ones and the children.

It was interesting to see the mix of traditional clothing and modern manufactured cloths. The people I saw normally had some connection to the traditional clothing but it was intermixed with practical machine stitched clothes.

Before dinner we met the number two chief and had a chance to ask questions about the village and he asked some of us, then he joined us for dinner. We ate local food prepared by one of our guides with the help of the local people and produce. Before settling down for a nice night's sleep.

The Day of the Leaches

The next day we were up for a breakfast of cooked greens and rice and on for the trek to the next village. This day our guide told us to be careful of the leaches. We had been warned back when we signed up for the trip that there would be leaches and I did check my guide book to double check that there werenŠŖ—’ any horrible diseases carried by leaches. As we walked on someone finally spotted a leach on the ground and we all gathered around to looks at. Wow our first leach. Then as the walk progressed a leach was discovered on one of the hikers and there was discussion of what it felt like. Even I who generally can't see the wildlife saw a leach on the trail.

Isn't it funny sometimes how something that starts out interesting and novel quickly just becomes annoying and frustrating? About an hour later several leaches had been pulled off of various hikers. Leaches were not hard to spot waving trying to get a grip on you, nor were they few or far between. I was liberally spraying my exposed skin and socks with bug repellent and at the start of the day had tried one of the other hiker's leach repellent. What ever it was it must have worked as I think I may have been the only one to escape getting a leach to attach. I had some in my shoes and on my pants but none ever latched on.

After fording a stream we had a short break. When we stopped the guide had pulled out a bag of white powder that he put on his legs to scare of the leaches. It felt like talcum powder and since our feet were wet we all put it on to prevent both leaches and blisters. As we finished getting our shoes and socks back on we asked what was the powder made of, expecting some exotic root that he could point out along the hike. After some clarification we figured out it was DDT. Not exactly what we wanted or would have chosen. The moral of the story is, before you use some traditional fix for something, make sure it is a traditional solution. Oh well, it didn't kill my parents, but we all did wash our socks that evening.

The second night was in a Khamu village. They had a similar guesthouse. We again had the chief over for dinner and traded questions.

This village was larger with about 300 people. One thing they also had were little water-powered generators they put into the stream to power lights and radio. Again there were few people around as they were mostly off in the fields tending their rice crops. One the way in we had stopped and visited one of the families harvesting rice and bathed in their stream, as the town's river was a lot dirtier. They had a second house near the rice fields so they would move back and forth depending on the season.

The second day's hike was short. We figured we were a pretty fast group as we did the seven-hour hike in about five and a half and got to where they normal do lunch on the last day at about 10:30 am. It was happily a leach free day. As we approached the last village we were to stay at a couple girls were standing by the door of a house watching all the strange people come into town. When she turned and saw me with my big beard she ran behind the door and all that could be seen was her peaking thru the crack by the hinges. She was probably about 16. Actually thought the trip all the locals stared at me as beards are not a common thing around here. I figure it showed that this village hadn't been too overrun with foreigners.

Happy New Year

November 16, 2005

Muang Sing, Lao

Today was the full moon of the 12th lunar month, according to some calendar, which here in Muang Sing meant it was the day for the festival. I hadn't meant to come here but the night before leaving Luang Nam Tha I met a New Zealander who was talking about this annual festival and how it was the next night. I check with someone who had the full sized Lonely Planet guide and yes it was time for the festival and that during the festival it was the best time to visit Muang Sing. So the next morning I was up early to catch the first bus to make sure I could get a room. The guidebook described this as a time of the year when all the hill tribes come down for the festival, so I figured housing would be a bit of a premium.

In the end there didn't seam to be much of a housing crunch although getting seats in the back of the sawngthaew (pick-up) was more so. I got practically the first ticket but a few people had to wait until the next bus arrived. The running joke was it was all the New Zealander's fault as almost everybody who was going seamed to have heard about it from him. If there wasn't going to be a festival, there was going to be one of backpackers.

Muang Sing is not much of a town. It has one paved street that is also the road to one of the border crossings to China. (This one is not the one open to foreigners.) A couple dirt side streets and some side streets that are just grass with a path running along. Most of its claim to fame, from the traveler's point of view, is the local trekking opportunities and this once a year festival.

The festival was held about 7 km out of town on top of a hill with the golden Chieng Theung stupa. In the end the festival wasn't all I really hoped for. Then again it wasn't much different than many of the summer festivals back home. They had loads of places to eat, mostly noodles and meat-on-a-stick; an area devoted to 'games of chance' dominated by Pum Pao where you throw darts at balloons from about five feet away; and a area devoted to selling either cheep plastic toys, mostly toy guns, or local crafts. If you were to throw in a bunch of community groups and a parade you would have May Day or Pride. There was a bit of a religious element involving walking around the stupa three times and leaving an offering of incense and flowers, but that was it.

There were hill tribes down for the festival and some of them wearing traditional clothing. I even saw a few men in traditional costume which I almost never see. (It seams that although in many villages the women still wear some form of their traditional costume, the men are always in modern western clothes.)

I spent all afternoon and into the evening up on the hill hopping that there would be some focus to the festival. As far as I could tell, there wasn't. On the other hand while I was waiting for something to happen I ended up collecting small crowds of my own.

Again, like on the trek my beard was something to gawk at, but here my sitting and reading a book was also an event to draw a small crowd. Once a young monk came and stood right next to me watching me read, and another time someone came over and turned my book over so he could see the cover. (I was reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne of all things.) The other thing that brought much interest is my weaving a mat.

I had been sitting on a bit of a hill whining to myself that everybody had brought nice little mats to sit on and I didn't have anything. But I saw a pile of palm leaves that had been used to pack something, now discarded, and decided I didn't pass elementary school art class for nothing. I pick up the leaves and wove a nice little mat, just large enough to sit on and keep my pants clean. Something about a falang doing craft was of out of their expatiations.

Not much else happened at the festival. At nightfall they sounded the stupa with lit candles which was pretty. Most of the venders were packing up when I headed back to town, but it looked like the beer area was still going strong. It seams that a large portion of Lao entertainment is derived from alcohol. (Not that this is that unusual. I could have said the same about Mexico half of Central America: even the backpackers guide book as a separate section devoted to the bars in towns.)

I have been enjoying the noodles here. I can tell I am near China, as they taste exactly like the ones we used to get at the noodle shop around the corner in Kumming twelve years ago. Also there is more smoking and hacking and spitting on the street. Ah the memoriesŠŖ°¶

The best lunch ever and how I got there.

November 22, 2005

Luang Prabang, Lao

To begin with I should point out that the following story is probably about one of the most unsafe, stupid things to do on this trip. I did know this at the time, but there are times when you do have to take risks or regret it latter. (This note is mostly so I don't have to get a letter from my mother telling me how stupid it was: I already know.) Not to mention I keep talking about everything I have getting lost or stolen and I figured it was about time. After all I just passed the sixteen-month mark so I am four months overdue on having my pack disappear. (Oh and to lower my mother's heart rate, everything turns out OK in the end.)

After the festival in Mung Sing I headed west to the little town of Nong Khiaw on the Nam Ou River. It is mostly a transfer point for travelers who want to take a boat down to Luang Prabang thru "the most spectacular mountain scenery of any river trip in Laos" according to the guidebook. Having already been to Luang Prabang I was just using it as a stop on the way to Sam Neua to see the caves the Pathet Lao leaders lived in during the American bombing. I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn't get to do the six-hour boat trip, but you can't do everything. This whole idea of knowing where I was going more than a couple days out was of course inviting change.

The town of Nong Khiaw is just a few houses stretched along the road. Actually until they put the road threw it was another hour up stream, but easy road access caused a new town with the old name to spring up. It's also a bit of a cross roads so there were travelers coming and going. While I was there people were taking the boat to Luang Prabang, the bus to Luang Prabang, busses to Sam Neua, and even a couple backpackers bought a boat and left to paddle down the river; a mixing pot of sorts.

While eating dinner with a couple people I had met up in Luang Nam Tha we talked about what our plans were, we hand already seen the Tham Pha Tok caves where the villagers hid out during the second Indochina War and that mostly left moving on.

(As a side note to this story, the caves were cool. They didn't have any spectatular formations, but it was neat to see caves people did hide out in. So many movies and TV shows have had a scene where the rebels or people have to take shelter in a cave. Generally in the movies the male and female leads have an argument as to wither they should just hide out in the caves or work to change things; or they make out. And now I have seen such a cave, sans bad acting. Also the 'Bank' cave was fun as it is just one long narrow path down to a dead end, so for my return trip back up I turned off my flashlight and did it by feel in complete darkness. Not as fun as by candle light in Guatemala, but still good. Any way, back to the storyŠŖ°¶

A Swiss guy stuck his head in and checked to see if we wanted to buy a boat. He and his friend had bought it upstream and had spent the last nine days paddling down stream. They had hopped to make it to Luang Prabang but it was gong to be another three days and their visas were running out. We didn't, but one of my dinner companions had met and Irishman who had mention that it sounded fun and we directed the guy down stairs to see him.

Eventually the Irishman Rory came up and joined us for dinner wondering if we had sent the Swiss guy down and we admitted so. He said the idea sounded fun but he wouldn't do it alone and any way he didn't really know anything about paddling a boat. Lilly sympathized with him and said it sounded like fun, too bad she couldn't do it. Well as the evening went on it came out that not only was Lilly and out-doors kind of person who had done a little kayaking on lakes and even a bit of white water rafting she was also a life guard and even had dry-bags. (The super waterproof bags you put your stuff in.) This being pointed out to her that it was fate that put her here with a boat for sale she had to go. She decided that she was just being "grandma" and signed on.

The Swiss guys came back and the whole group of us went down to see the boat. Some where along the line I went from wishing I could go, to being a one third partner in the venture. (My canoe background is a couple hours on a lake with my dad about twenty years ago and a couple years ago about three minuets in John Finkle's dugout before we rolled it.)

The next morning at 7:00 we the five of us, the two Swiss, Rory, Lilly, and myself, met at the boat to look it over and to buy it. 45 USD was set as much as because it was easily divided by three as for any good reason and I was a share holder in a boat, two paddles, a blue mosquito net and a linty blanket with a plan to paddle for three days down the Nam Ou with no map, guide, or much in the way of paddle boat experience. As I said it was about time to lose my pack maybe by having it float away from me.

We set about buying provisions and another paddle; an adventure in it's own right. By eleven o'clock we had packed up and were heading down stream on the 'Mary' or as we called her the 'Proud Marry'. We decided Rory was the captain, Lilly the first mate, and I was the chantey man. The river is wide and calm and not too hot so we were on our way.

The karst mountains jutting up were spectacular, occasionally punctuated by a little village. We planned to either camp on the beach or stay in a village when night fell. They Swiss guys had camped out about half the time and one night on a local villager's porch. We figured we would pick up food in villages as we went along, but we did have enough water for three days with iodine tablets in case that ran out.

The first couple hours were easy and good for us to start getting a hang of the boat. Soon we weren't zigzagging all over and probably making good time. (As we didn't have a map we werenŠŖ—’ going to know that we were there until we got there. I had see the area on the Ma Kong near Luang Prabang on my trip to the Pac Ou caves where the Nam Ou, our river, joined so we at least knew what it looked like.) I trust I need not point out the folly of traveling with out a guide, local knowledge, or even a map.

We ran into or first little rough spot. There was a nice long sandbar and on the left looked nice and calm and the right was a bit rough. We chose left and discovered that at the down stream edge our path was blocked by bushes, which we promptly got stuck in, broadside. After scouting out which way would be the best to get through this we dragged the boat a bit up stream and found a slightly rough, but serviceable way through. As the day went on the pattern of a period of nice glassy calm followed by slight rapids with a few bushes. We got better at choosing our path and were quite well off.

We ate lunch in route. Oranges and crackers and bananas were the plan. The only unfortunate part was that the bananas were what we came to call 'chunky bananas.' They had these black seeds like things in them from one to eleven over the course of eating the banana. It tended to make eating the banana a bit of a pain. I am currently looking for an explanation of what they are.

About 4:30 pm we started looking for a village or beach to camp at. About 4:45 pm we took a white water that gave us a good wave and soaked Lilly in the bow and Rory in the middle. I fortunately was up in the tail and stayed dry. We picked a sand bank at about 5:00 pm and set camp. (Sundown is at 6:00 pm more or less.) Dinner was a lot like lunch with crunchy bananas, some awful sweetened bread, a few more crackers and some Laughing Cow cheese that is popular here. Not great but enough to get us by. We built a big fire dried out what got wet and bedded down about 9:00 pm. It had been a long day and my hammock and the linty blanket was waiting for me.

The next morning was up with the sun and a breakfast of more crunchy bananas, crackers, the rest of the cheese, and a bit more of the sweetened white bread.

By eleven o'clock we were getting tired and hungry so we pulled into a pretty big village. The road had also rejoined the river so we figured between the road and the number of roofs lunch should be easy.

Pulling up with the rest of the local boats was easy with our new found boat skills and we headed up to find food and provisions for dinner.

Some how the concept of even a noodle stand had not penetrated to this little village. When we would mime eating (oh, did I mention none of us can speak the local language?) the reply was always 'bo, bo' meaning 'no'. They had little grocery stores, better than what we had when we first provisioned, but the idea of a hot meal sounded great rather than from cans on the beach. Rory and I went off in one direction to see if an eating establishment was to be found. We found lots of store ready to sell food, but nothing ready to eat. Meanwhile Lilly, worked on the locals. Finally she bought a package of Raman (pot noodles) figuring the worst-case scenario she could eat them dry. She went to one of the local ladies that had collected and mimed needing a bowl. Shortly the lady lead Lilly off to her home, heated up some water and prepared the noodles and added in some stick-rice and a few veggies. Meanwhile Rory and I had done a little shopping and returned to the corner where we left Lilly. We engaged a friendly shopkeeper and eventually did express our wanting a restaurant. They told us it was a long walk down the road. At our disappoint looks the shopkeeper picked up a packet of Ramen Noodles and offered to cook them up for us. We must have looked pretty pathetic, but you don't question food. I went to find Lilly, which I did easily as the villagers saw I was looking for something and directed me towards her, and checked in that meal plans were coming along.

Our friendly shopkeeper cooked up three packets of noodles, threw in some rice noodles and a few vegetables and a big plate of sticky-rice. It was the best lunch ever. The shopkeeper laughed at how fast we ate. When Lilly joined us she said she found us by looking for the crowd of locals staring at something.

Since Lilly had already found food, we split her part, ate all the sticky rice and were very happy. We bought the rest of the lady's sticky-rice for dinner along with some extra chocolate bars and returned to the boat restocked and ready to get on the afternoons paddle.

We had been swapping paddling positions around so I was back up on the tail, Lilly in the middle/bailer position, and Rory taking the bow. We had a nice couple of hours with a few easy rapids and lots of 'Sa Ba Dee'ing with the locals, and various gestures as to which way was best.

We finally came to a bit of rapids and brush it was not obvious which way to go. To the right was a narrow channel with a bit of white water and we couldn't see down it and along the left were small white water areas with fewer bushes. Since we had gotten caught in bushes before we headed left.

As we headed down the left side of the river we knew we were in for a bit of a ride. Not that we really had a choice, as our boat did not like going up stream. As we slid between rocks and over the worst white water yet, my paddle was pulled from my hands. I got Lilly's since I was steering and she went for one of the bamboo polls to fend of rocks. We were all busy paddling but Rory somehow got a chance to get Lilly the spare paddle from up forward. About the time she got it we struck a rock and suddenly had more water in the boat than we wanted just as we came clear of the rapids.

Lilly swapped over to bailing while Rory and I headed over to the first sand bank we saw. The leak we had sprung was faster than our wimpy water bottle bailers were able to keep up with so when we beached the boat we all jumped out and transferred the luggage to the beach and staked the boat.

We saw that clearly we had a leek that we could not keep up with. The Swiss guys we bought the boat from had sunk it once and had to swim after their luggage as well as chase down the boat, but actually having to repair something going to be harder for us. If this was our home, and we spoke the language and didn't have visas and other schedules to keep we might have kept going, but as it was we gave the boat to the first fisherman who came by. We figured it was at least positive reinforcement to come keep an eye on stupid farang paddling down the river.

We were near the road so we though about heading up and hopping local transit to complete the trip but decided that rather than getting into Luang Prabang late we would rather finish our adventure with one more night camping out on the beach. We collected firewood and took a walk up stream to see the rapids that sunk our boat. (Had we gone to the right it would have been easy going.)

The fisherman came by and after putting in a temporary patch on the seam that had opened up towed our Mary back to his village. He had had a good day and had the same smile a kid does when he gets to play with a new toy. We were sad to see our river trip end but glad everything turned out OK.

We built a fire and put our wet things around it to dry and ate a very large dinner of the provisions we had planned to eat for the next two meals. One last quiet night by the river.

In the morning we packed up walked up to the road. We found mile stone (Km 434) and figured we had made it half way. Not bad. We didn't know what we were doing and we pulled it off with only a little wet luggage and sore arms.

I don't think any of us were too disappointed to end a bit early, but we had wished we had been able to finish the trip. The paddling was hard and we hadn't trained or anything, but we did do it. How many other people have bought a boat and went paddling down a river in Lao all by themselves? And if nothing else, fate protects fools.

Happy T-day

November 25, 2005

Luang Prabang, Lao

Well yesterday was my second Thanksgiving while on the road. It's a bit hard to believe I have been traveling for over sixteen months now. I am looking forward to going home and being involved in my community again; belonging to a place. But there is still so much more I want to see and do, and there is no time like the present. Ah, the world is such a big place, even if well folded.

Yesterday also marks a special occasion for this trip as well. I finally ran into someone I met back in the first half of this trip. I was sitting having my chocolate cake (all that woman in Belize's fault) when someone called out my name. It was James, the English guy I met and spend a week at the beach in Nicaragua. He has finished his trip, gotten a new job and worked there long enough to be taking his first vacation and is here in Lao. I am, of course, still on the same trip he first met me during. I may have missed Ian back in Bangkok by a week (twice), but this has actually connected. It may be a big world when you are trying to travel it, but in the world of the connections between people it can be very well folded.

We went out for cocktails and chatted about where we have been. It's funny as I have been thinking about the time on the beach in Nicaragua while camping out on the sand banks during my river trip. The gathering of wood for our fire during the day, sleeping in my hammock, all we needed is our excellent cook. (Although the shopkeeper who made us the noodles for lunch that last day would be hard to beat, more regular, fine cooked meals would have been nice.)

So I had my reuniting with old friends for Thanksgiving. Earlier I even had my turkey dinner. It was turkey laap with sticky rice, a traditional Lao meal. This proceeded by some street snacks of little packets of noodles, spices, and nuts wrapped up in leaves that you eat whole. Quite a traditional Thanksgiving meal.

Actually I probably would have forgotten entirely that it was Thanksgiving if my parents hadn't reminded me. Thanksgiving is one American thing that just really hasn't penetrated the outside world. Maybe it is because there just isn't any finical gain in marketing a holiday celebrated without costumes or presents. Or the rest of the world already has their gathering of friends and family holidays. Or maybe for once American culture isn't bulldozing everything before it. Either way, I miss the people who I would be, or have been sitting around a table with. Take care and have a happy RATT (Right After Thanksgiving Thingy, the social holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving.)

Friends and shipping

November 27, 2005

Vang Vieng, Lao

Some times it's hard to remember that traveling is special and unique. Right now this is normal. Seven months ago I compared this trip to a freshman year at college where everything changes and what was new becomes old hat. A bit the same here. (Of course I am now into my sophomore year as well.) Maybe I am noticing it because Vang Vieng is sort of close to the beginning, and for some the end, of the more adventures tourists. It's a hang out town. The main street has several blocks of gringo restaurant after gringo restaurant. There are way too many people selling pancakes off the street, and there is at lest one internet cafͬper block. There is one restaurant which has the claim to fame of continuously showing episodes of the TV show "Friends". This is all day, every day. Not that this is all that unusual as most of the restaurants are set up with TV's and show movies, or when they don't have any better ideas more episodes of Friends. On my way back to the guesthouse there were at least three places running episodes of Friends. Weird.

My last day or so in Luang Prabang was spent shopping and sending the purchases off. There is a lovely night craft market there and so much of the stuff was cheep and lovely. I have to remind myself from time to time to buy stuff as I could see myself coming home wearing and owing the exact same stuff I left with. (As is my clothes haven't changed, although one of my pairs of pants and my two tee shirts are getting warn out.) So far except for crafts I have bought my pack is much the same. Except I have now lost three hats since I have been in Lao.

Actually part of what put me on a shopping spree was the fact that I found a nice office supply store and I was pretty sure I could get a box to ship it home in. If you remember from my past shipping experiences finding a box to mail stuff in has always been the real challenge. Phrase books and even some dictionaries don't include 'cardboard box.' And the locals often don't get the idea that you really want their garbage.

The day before shopping, I had wandered by a big office supply store and saw that they had lots of boxes, that most of what they sold came in boxes, and that they had a friendly staff. I guess this is a bit of how Andy shops, it's not the good deals or the bargains he is waiting for, it's the store with the boxes. Anyway I got a nice yellow box, reinforced it with lots of tape and shipped it out on a slow boat so it should arrive in the next three months or so. I may even beat it back! And shipping only cost fifty percent of what I paid for the stuff in it.

Stone Jars with noodles

November 30, 2005

Vieng Xai, Lao

It's been a nice couple of days. Yesterday I was in Phonsavan. It's a provincial capital but there isn't much in town to see. The thing I, and probably 90% of the travelers, was there to see was the Plain of Jars. It's one of those unsolved mysteries like Stone Henge.

Here are hundreds of carved stone jars most big enough for me to crawl into grouped together on hill tops. They are really big, really heavy, probably carved from boulders then moved there, and there isn't much know about them.

The first noted archaeology study of them was back in 1935 by Madeleine Colani. She published her results but the cultural artifacts and other discoveries are currently lost. I sometimes wonder if ancient cultures had some kind of e-mail list where they worked out big heavy confusing stone things to build and leave for us, just to mess with our brains. There is another one near here called Suan Hin (Stone Garden) which apparently has megaliths and big stone disks. Again, little study and not much information about it. I don't know if I will make it to it as my visa runs out on the 2nd and I am running out of Lao Kip (local currency.)

I took a break while writing this to go get dinner and have had a nice little walk around town. To begin with this is a small town, not quite a village but close. It is very dark on the streets as there are no street lights and you go by the light of the stars and from a few houses. (As usual if they have a porch light it is a fluorescent strip so everything has a weird blue cast to it.

Although I have only been one place in Lao that doesn't have 24 hour electricity, as I left my guest house I made a point to look at the stars and figure which way home would be if the power went out while I was gone. (I also carried my flashlight, but it is easy to get disoriented and not know which way to go.)

As I wandered down the dark streets I occasionally passed someone going the other way or a group chatting. It's dark enough that I am sure they can't tell that I am a farang. I probably cast an odd sillioet but not enough for them to know what is up.

As there isn't much to this town (two five room guesthouses) and I was looking for a place to eat I wasn't sure there would be anything to find. I though of approaching a group of girls I had passed but then the idea of lighting up my face with a flashlight so I could mime food made me thing of making scary faces with a flashlight and wondered if in the end I would cause a panic instead. I can be scary enough looking in the daylight and would probably be terrifying appearing out of the dark with a strong uplight.

As it was I ended up at doing somewhat the same thing as I did that wonderful lunch on the boat trip down the Nam Ou. As I looked around for anyplace that looked public with light on, I passed a little store that had a table in front and it looked like a charcoal stove and a few dishes. The store's owner popped up and asked, in English, if I wanted food. Excited I answered that yes I was looking for a place to eat. As usual my response was too complicated and after a couple go a rounds I retrenched down to, "I am hungry" with a big smile. She made me two packets of Ramen (pot) noodles which there were lots of added vegetables, lemon slices, and a few peppers. This served with a plate of bananas and some purple potato like things. All very good and filling. We chatted after a fashion. Miss Wu works at the government office and lives just a block away in her own house with her family. We didn't get very detailed but it was a little better than just "Are you married?" "How old are you?" "Where do you come from?" Anyway it was a nice meal and proof again that a big smile and looking pathetic enough will get you feed without language.

My other challenge here is that since I plan to leave the country in the next two or three days I am spending down my Kip. Before dinner I had 35,000 Kip (about 3.50 USD) and after dinner I have 25,000 Kip (2.50 USD), cutting it close I am this time. I haven't really worried too much as I figured everywhere would take US Dollars, but this is a very small town so the dollars may not be as welcome as most of the places I have been. I figure I need about six more dollars and it would be perfect. Oh well we shall see how it goes.

Stars and Caves

December 1, 2005

Vieng Xai, Lao

Well I wasn't expecting to be doing my journal entry by candle light tonight, but although we had electricity last night, we don't tonight. It is dark. Actually it's nice as there isn't any loud music and you can see the stars.

I'm relatively high here so it gets cold at night (not cold like back home in Minnesota, here cold means getting out the warm pull over.) You can really see the Milky Way and everything. That is one thing I will miss when I get back to the Twin Cities. I do wonder how much we have lost of the mysteries of night with artificial light.

The other thing here is just how gorgeous the area is. The karst formations and the cliffs and all the vegetation is just fantastic. They also do the living fence thing. I'm not sure if they plant the sticks and they sprout or if they plant trees as fence posts. The special thing there is that the plant they are using for the fence are poinsettia. They are in bloom so it is like and early x-mass, except that they are lining the road and guarding fields of banana plants.

The big event today was to see the caves where the local communist government hide out while being bombed by the Americans. These are real underground fortresses. These were full underground houses. Toilets, bathrooms, bedrooms for the staff and family, meeting rooms, the works. They had emergency rooms that were double fortified and had air purification. Some of the caves were natural ones they enlarged, others were entirely artificial. If the last caves I went thru is where the villagers hid, this is the rebel hideout on the frozen world in the Star Wars movies. More history I have to learn about.

Actually this is also very recent history. One of the cave / homes I went thru is where the current president.

More in the Vietnam page.

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