Thursday, April 28, 2011

They've Got that Something!

There is something about the Laos people that make them incredibly cool. I don’t mean cool in the same way we do in the west or in a Fonzie sort of way, but I mean cool in a “Yeah that dog just peed on my leg so what, dogs need to pee!” kind of way. I’m not saying every single Laotian is cool. That would be like saying all American’s are loud and all Canadians are polite. There are several mute American’s and I’ve flipped several people off on the highway in Canada. I’m just saying that collectively they seem like a pretty cool bunch. This coolness also seems to be transferred to the animals. Seemingly feral cats climb into your lap the second you sit down and happily sleep away while you drink your tea. Dogs that in another part of the world may make you think twice about putting your hand down to give them a pat nudge you and run off ahead as if to lead you to a secret place or a drowning child ala Lassie. Even the chickens have a coolness to them that makes you feel kind of bad about that chicken burger you had for dinner last night but then you remember how delicious it was and think “Yeah these chickens are cool but so what, I need to eat!”

I’d like to take a bit of this coolness back home with me but I think my neurotic tendencies are too, as Yoda would say “Strong with this one.” Also I truly believe that the Laos cool could not survive the literal cold of a Canadian winter! No one would be able to say, “Yeah it’s April, it has been snowing for 6 months straight and it’s -20, so what it likes to snow here!”  No, no, no we all turn into depressed miserable SOB’s, especially when all the summer clothes have come out as if the stores are purposely taunting you with things you COULD be wearing but wisely should not be wearing.

Anyway what was I talking about… oh yes Laos people! So in conclusion they are cool, their animals are cool and after it rains it’s kind of cool!

(Mom and Dad I have actually never flipped off another motorist… I’m never fast enough!)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nothingness on Don Det

If there is anything I have learned on this journey it is this, roosters are huge assholes, and I have way more than I need to be happy and despite what I have told myself for years, I just may be one of the “lucky ones”.

Our time in Laos is rapidly coming to an end. Our last destination is the 4000 Islands in the south. But before we could get there we had to get from Ba Nah Hin to some kind of bus station in some place we’d never heard of! Our friendly guesthouse matriarch told us that a tuk tuk would arrive at 9:30 to take us to the bus. Low and behold at 7:45 the next morning she was tapping on our window telling us the tuk tuk was actually arriving at 8:30. A fact that she was afraid to inform the Spanish couple of and so she begged me to do it for her. I’m happy they were so nice because not everyone would be happy to hear they only had 15 minutes to pack, dress and get out of their room.  We jumped awkwardly into our packed transportation and headed towards some unknown location. In the end we easily survived our 3-hour tuk tuk ride with a large group of lovely small town Laotians, who marveled at our height and the whiteness of our skin while a small boy covered himself in the Canada stickers I had given him as a consolation for having to sit beside the scary falang (foreigner).

*side note*(You’ll be sitting in a tuk tuk with locals who stare and at times rub your “white” skin in amazement while trying to express that their skin is different, sometimes I get the feeling that they are trying to rub the paleness off me and onto them. Go right ahead my friend you’re more than welcome to take the colouring of a corpse that I have been “blessed” with. You’ll probably be happy to learn that this skin does not brown like yours it remains the perfect camouflage for a blizzard! I’ll leave out the part about having to wear spf 75 in order to keep from turning into one big scorch mark because that’s what any good sales pitch would leave out!)

So after our tuk tuk ride we arrived at the bus station in Thakeat and purchased our tickets to Pakse, the jewel of Laos. No no I’m totally kidding, Pakse is merely a layover kind of city like Minneapolis or Baltimore before heading somewhere better. For the record I have nothing against Baltimore, I hear the crab is quite delicious there and I love crab. Minneapolis… well there isn’t enough space on the whole of the internet for me to go into why I included it… but I’m sure it’s not as bad as its airport!

Our bus to Pakse cost us a whopping $6.50 (7.5hrs) and it offered luke warm air con, seats that went all the way back by just sneezing at them and an interior that had obviously been the training ground for drug dogs before it was shipped from Korea. Still we weren’t complaining we got 2 seats each, which makes everything tolerable! Oh and to boot a mix CD of Thai, Khmer and Korean pop songs! It is times like these where you look down at your iPod and think, thank-you for being invented!

I don’t have much to say about Pakse… there are some large hotels, several ATM’s, some restaurants and guesthouses… people live there, drive there, work there and probably eat there too. We arrived late and left early and stuck to the same route both ways. At 8am a van arrived to take us down to the 4000 Islands. It was a pretty comfortable ride. There was great air con and I was able to sit back, listen to some music and read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants (Perhaps the funniest book I’ve ever read, if you read it and don’t laugh out loud at least 50 times you clearly have the sense of humour of a deflated inner tube!) So there I was enjoying my time, happily being entertained audibly and literarily when I looked up just in time to see a dog crossing the street and then BAM…BUMPH… BUMPH and GASP/AAAHHH. All I could do was stare ahead with my hand clasped over my mouth; my body replaying the feeling of the wheel beneath me as it hopefully quickly ended a life. Every passenger sat slightly traumatized as the driver continued forward at the same pace before pulling over to fix the front bumper that was now rubbing against the right wheel. Still I sat in a bit of shock, thinking “OMG our driver is clearly a psychopath, get out of the van, get out now.” A little while later we came across some cows lazily crossing the street and what did our driver do… well he honked. In the half an hour between the man had committed 2nd degree dog slaughter and the cow crossing the genius powering our 2 ton vehicle had managed to find the horn.

When we arrived at the “port” we got our “ferry” ticket and headed down to a beach that resembled a landfill and climbed into a teetering boat that would take us across the Mekong to Don Det. When our boat nudged its way onto shore we hopped out to collect our bags and I promptly sliced my hand open on the edge of the boats rusty aluminum roof. Bravo me! If you’re looking for something pointy, sharp and crawling with disease I’m the girl to find it for you! No worries though I sprang into action with some antiseptic wipes, iodine stuff and a band aid and I’m happy to report that each side of the cut agreed to a reconciliation and has since called off the separation! Who needs a doctor when you’ve got yourself a mom knows best first aid kit! (I do not condone performing a major procedure on your self with or without a mom knows best first aid kit)(The kit I was using was not in fact called Mom Knows Best so please don’t get upset if you can’t find it at your local Walmart or Canadian Tire.)

We managed to find ourselves a pretty sweet bungalow perched on the river with a nice deck equipped with hammocks and a cozy cat and dog infested café. One of the cats chilled out with us for our entire first visit and after removing several fleas (yeah I’m one of those people) from his body I named him Marty McFlea. So Ally, Marty McFlea and I sat and enjoyed each other’s company while lunching on delicious tuna and egg salad sandwiches. We threw our crumbs into the Mekong and watched as fish of all sizes… ok not all sizes like 3 sizes, tiny, small and small-medium, fought over them. Just a small side note, the fish do not like tomatoes or lettuce but seem somewhat fascinated by onions. And also monkeys may in fact prefer coconuts to bananas.

The bungalow itself cost us 30,000, 15,000k each that’s like… $1.78! It has a mosquito net, a fan and a great view. To say this place is luxurious would be stretching the truth well past its breaking point but describing it as rustic and the embodiment of easy living would be adequate.
Don Det, despite its “party island” description makes the rest of Laos look a bit hectic! It is the Laos equivalent of Ontario cottage country… before the rich got wind that cottaging was a good time and turned it into one big country club! During the dry season there is a sharp contrast between the lush green banks of Don Det that gently slope into the Mekong and the islands parched brown interior.  It presents itself as a good place to relax but there is something scary about a place with not a lot to do! I have really begun to notice more of my mother in me especially when it comes to downtime. I’ve always been really good at doing nothing when there is a lot to do but when there isn’t much to do I don’t know how to do nothing!

We have ample time to explore Don Det and some of the surrounding islands and we are desperately hoping to see the elusive and critically endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin. For now it’s island walking, island sleeping, island biking, island writing, island reading and sunning ourselves on a tube as we participate in island gazing while we float lazily down the mighty Mekong!

Monday, April 18, 2011


Ba Nah Hin, a good place to stay when wanting to head out to THE CAVE is… well you know those pictures you see of very northern communities where it looks like helicopters came and just sort of dropped a settlement in a permafrost laden dirt patch. That is what Ba Nah Hin looks a bit like minus the permafrost and plus some very red arid dirt. It’s a quiet little place littered with guesthouses that you can only guess exist for the purpose of housing those brave enough to enter THE CAVE. There may also be trekking opportunities as the mountains that surround the town are quite beautiful. The locals shout hello in Laos at you as you walk by, goats and dogs roam freely and kids buy BeerLao from guesthouse fridges. Regarding that last one I can only assume that the beer was for an adult although I don’t know how lax Laos is on drinking age! It’s kind of a weird place but not Toyabungah, Bali weird more like… well I don’t even know how to describe it just a bit weird!

The bus ride to Ba Nah Hin is dramatically different than the ride to Luang Prabang. The ride to LPB is a bit tiltawhirly, I describe it like that because trying to sleep on that leg of the journey was like trying to sleep on a tiltawhirl. You snake your way up and around mountain after mountain trying to will yourself not to let the nausea get to you as the bus teeters on the edge of every other cliff. The ride to BNH on the other hand is rather straight and otherworldly at times. There are many areas that reminded me of Bali, if Bali was suffering from a severe draught and had turned brown and dry. Then there were gorgeous green mountains that cooled the hot bus off and filled the air with the smell of freshness and vegetation. It’s a bit like driving in Alberta. You’ve got flat and boring, flat and boring, flat and BAM the Rocky Mountains!

I know what you’re wondering and have been wondering since the beginning, what about THE CAVE? Well THE CAVE it would seem is a little known world wonder. It is certainly a bit off the usual traveller path but every piece of information about it includes accounts of the brilliance that is THE CAVE. 7.5km long through a dark river cave reveals ancient stalactites protruding from the at times 100m high cave ceiling. Our first night in BNH we met a very nice Spanish couple who seemed just as interested in discovering THE CAVE as Ally. I on the other hand had my reservations. It wasn’t so much the darkness of it, or the rickety wooden boats it was more the prospect of falling into the water while inside the blackness of the cave and not being able to see anything. I’ll admit that I am somewhat terrified of things IN the water! It is a fear that began late in childhood and has evolved ever since.
Anyway so along with the Spanish couple we booked a tuk tuk for 10am and so we were officially heading to THE CAVE.

We had an hour ride with some charismatic old ladies and a few kids before we arrived at THE CAVE’s entrance. The pool of water in front of the gapping cave mouth was blue and green and begged to be swam in but that would have to wait. Our guides led us into the opening and we wobbled our way into our just calm riverworthy boats. It wasn’t long before complete darkness embraced us and we were floating slowly with only our weak headlamps “lighting” the way.  We stopped once to check out some of the impressive stalactite formations and at various times had to hop out so the guides could push the boat through the shallow areas or up tiny rapids. It was a place where you could easily let your imagination get away from you and end up curled up on the boat floor in the fetal position but I’m happy to report I did not allow this to happen and instead enjoyed the sheer magnificence that was THE CAVE.

When our adventure was over we all jumped into the small lake and splashed around happily until it was time once more to get into the tuk tuk and head for our guesthouse.

In the end I’m very happy that Ally talked me into getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, getting into a wooden boat that required bailing out every now and then and entering THE CAVE! 

Friday, April 15, 2011

This Means War

One must be on their guard at all times while walking or driving around Luang Prabang during the month of April. There’s a war going on between the residents of this sleepy city and it’s easy for a traveler to get caught up in the epic fight. To survive the first weeks of the month it is important to protect yourself by leaving valuable electronics safely in your room and carrying a gun or bottle full of… water. Yes it’s the annual water fight in Luang Prabang and no one is safe! I liked the city straight away and this fun festival has just made me love it even more!

Every time we ventured outside the walls of the hostel we risked being soaked to the bone, covered in flour, dyed several different colours or… a combination of all three. All three of course turning into a sort of colourful wet paste.

I can’t help but think there was a time when people were driving around this part of the world standing in the back of pickup trucks with something other than water guns. But then a bucket of water would meet my face and all thoughts of the past would be washed away… literally!

Few are safe from the assaults. Show that you have a camera, they don’t care you’re getting wet. Plead that you just changed and dried off, they don’t care you’re getting wet. Hold up your newborn baby… well I don’t actually know if they’d soak you as I’m not in possession of a newborn! To put it into perspective it is not uncommon to see people desperately gripping their wet pants to keep them from falling off! Water flows down the side of the streets in mini rushing rivers resembling streets after a heavy rainfall. Foreigners purchase Super Soakers in bulk and form militia’s of their own and at the end of the day everyone is wet, exhausted and above all, happy!

If you don’t like to engage in water fights because you obviously have an aversion to fun stay away from Luang Prabang and the rest of Laos during April and Laos New Year celebrations. Otherwise DEFINITELY head to Laos for the celebrations! 

Luang Prabang A Love Story

Have you ever arrived somewhere and immediately gone "YES YES! I LOVE THIS PLACE!" and actually meant it? I hadn’t. Sure I have left a place thinking "Nooooo I don’t want to go :(" But never has a place captivated me the way that Laos and more specifically Luang Prabang has. I’m sure much younger travellers would disagree with me. This is a place that closes early (city curfew is 11:30) and rises early. There are no full moon type parties or drugs on display, in fact a lot of the young people who find themselves in sleepy LPB are in transit to the famous tubing in Vang Vieng or various other adventurous locations. I’m pretty sure the thought of staying in LPB for them is a bit frightening! For me though this is a place I could stay for months at a time and be quite happy. It’s absolutely beautiful. Luang Prabang is a town where you can just imagine great writers penning their greatest works and philosophers pondering the mysteries of life while watching tangerine robed monks walk along the banks of the Mekong River. It is a town of classic French colonial architecture; traditional villages peaking out from behind palm orchards and long-tail fishing boats slowly drifting down the river. Kids pass by weary of foreigner’s, that is until you smile and then they smile and wave happily before skipping off to join their friends. There is no one desperately trying to sell you sunglasses, transportation or crafts, even though you wouldn’t blame them for doing anything they could for some money.
The food in this town is awesome! Whether it’s Laos cuisine or French baked goods this place does it and does it well! The streets are lined with little ladies selling French bread sandwiches, fruit shakes and at night alleyways turn into Laos buffets. For 10,000 kip ($1.50) you can pile a plate high with an assortment of vegetable, noodle, rice and fruit dishes. While at dinner one night I opted to not get the buffet and while I sat waiting for my travel companions to fill their plates I watched a little boy picking through someone’s discarded takeout bag. My heart broke instantly. Here along this street of more food than will ever be eaten by all the “rich” gluttonous travellers sat a skinny child picking remnants of chicken off of 2 burnt skewers. I did what seemed logical, I went up to the buffet and piled a plate with the buffet’s bounty and handed it to the kid. He accepted shyly and said a quiet thank-you before diving in.  What I did wasn’t unique, many people probably would have done the same thing but it was really the first time I’ve helped someone firsthand myself and damn it felt good… I think I’ll do it again!

About an hour outside the town centre you’ll find the Khangsi Waterfall the main draw to the area. Beautiful doesn’t seem like quite the right word to describe the attraction. Imagine coming across quiet waterfalls connecting aqua lagoons amongst a greener than possible forest dotted with wooden bridges and bamboo groves. It’s the perfect place to cool off after being in the heat of the Laos sun. Whether you chose to sit under the falls and allow the water to work sore muscles, fling yourself off a rope for the enjoyment of spectators or just float in the cool water you’ll certainly leave with an urge to turn around and go right back for more! Besides the waterfalls the park is home to the Moon Bear Conservation Park. Bears have been rescued from traditional markets and black market traders and now live in an enclosure that allows them to be almost like normal bears!

Luang Prabang is quiet, quaint and quirky. It is not everyones cup of tea or rather Lao Lao whiskey but it won me over!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Intimate Moments with Mangoes

Intimate Moment #1 – My first mango experience came after nearly 1 month of traveling. Mangoes were out of season in Bali so it wasn’t until Jakarta that I finally got my first taste of the delicious perfect fruit! And how was it you ask… MAGICAL!

Intimate Moment #2 – Dinner in Singapore. Well Mangoes are certainly in season in the rest of South East Asia. At dinner I ordered a mango lassi and it was OUTSTANDING!

Intimate Moment #3 – Lunch in Kuala Lumpur.  Fresh mango juice… YUM!

Intimate Moment #4 – On the Kuala Lumpur International Express train platform. Ally bought me a mango and I ate it while waiting for the train and it was AWESOME!

Intimate Moment #5 and beyond – I think it’s safe to say that the mango moments are just going to keep getting better from here on out! I just have to remember not to let Ally carry them in her bag after she committed Mangocide! They are everywhere here in Laos, including 2 perfectly ripe ones sitting beside my hostel bed, well away from Ally’s murderous bag!

I really REALLY like mangoes! 

Singapore and Kuala Lumpur

Singapore is a place I have wanted to visit for a long time. Not because of a specific culture or specific attractions but because it sounded like a place of the future and I wanted to see it for myself!

I certainly was not disappointed. It’s a nation of only one city, millions of people all of whom seem to hail from a different corner of the world and buildings that test the imagination. It’s clean… almost too clean! This is the result of heavy penalties for littering, chewing gum and eating and drinking on public transport. I certainly have nothing against these restrictions, especially after Indonesia and watching people through their garbage out of train windows and bathe in rivers that could pass as garbage dumps. Pristine Singapore was the breath of fresh air we all needed. Sadly we only really had one full day to explore and there was a couple hours where I thought I may have less than that as the big bad bug I had picked up in Yogyakarta made a big bad comeback.

Lucky for me I woke up feeling much better and pushed myself to head out with Ally and Mia. Where did we go? Well the zoo of course! Singapore Zoo is by far the nicest I have ever seen and after seeing other Asian zoo’s it was great to see one that worked, one that seemed to be more for the animals than the homo-sapiens and one that made the spectator jealous of the creature comforts the animals were exposed to! I went off on my own and just soaked up the atmosphere. Although there were clearly thousands of guests mulling about (it was a Saturday) I never once felt crowded or like I had to strain to see something. If you ever find yourself in Singapore don’t miss the zoo!

After the zoo we cleaned up and headed out for our last big meal as a group. Naturally we hit up Little India and all ate until we nearly exploded. It was my first non-toast based meal in sometime and although perhaps Chicken Tikka wasn’t the best choice it was still a delicious one!

The next day we boarded a bus to Kuala Lumpur, but not just any bus, a luxurious, first class bus. This bus was extreme. We each had a message seat that could lay nearly flat and a VOD screen with movies and old school Nintendo games like Mario Kart.

Once in Kuala Lumpur we headed to our hostel. I was in Kuala Lumpur in 2009 with another friend and we had stayed at Backhome Hostel so I had booked it for the girls and I again. It was strange because the first time I was in KL I wasn’t too impressed. I mean the towers were amazing and I could have spent hours just looking up at them but KL itself wasn’t much. The second time however I found myself with more of an appreciation for the city. I felt completely comfortable even when I went out walking alone. It was still incredibly familiar! I could totally see myself living in Kuala Lumpur or Singapore in the future!

Before we knew it though it was time to board our flight to Laos and begin the last 3 months of our South East Asian adventure! 


I’ve now had a few days to reflect on my time in the country of 17,508 islands and the conclusion I’ve come to is I’m glad I went but from now on I will keep my enthusiasm about a place in check until I have at least made my way out of the airport!

There is absolutely no doubt that Indonesia is a beautiful country. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking. There were actually times I found myself searching the green terraced hills for dinosaurs and other extinct creatures as we wound our way across Bali.

After Bali we headed to Java, an island we didn’t expect to like all that much but ended up enjoying quite a bit. We spent time in Solo, Yogyakarta and Jakarta. All three had their perks and I would definitely recommend them. We spent the most time in Yogyakarta and visited Borobudur a magnificent Buddhist temple. Sadly while there I fell quite ill and after spending one night violently ridding myself of any sustenance Ally and I boarded a train for Jakarta. Now it wouldn’t have been an overly pleasant trip had I done it healthy but doing it sick made it that much more difficult! Getting sick away from home reminds us that we are not unstoppable! We are very much stoppable!

Our time in Jakarta was lazy partly due to me not being able to kick whatever bug had entered my body and our collective exhaustion from the past couple weeks. We didn’t get up to that much other than visiting the post office and the old Dutch quarter which was a great area full of character and a fabulous old café, Café Batavia. Walking into the café is like walking through a door and being transported back to the 1930’s. Stunning! Jakarta didn’t scare me or make me want to run back to Yogyakarta and we had heard that it likely would. To each their own I suppose. If people are telling you to bypass Jakarta shrug your shoulders and go anyway at least for a couple days.

Snake Curry in Yogyakarta (Cobra and Python)
What I really wanted to get out of Indonesia was a strong dose of culture but I came away knowing as much about Indonesian culture as I had arrived with.  I’m not sure we ever met a real Indonesian, someone who wasn’t trying to sell us an experience, transport or merchandise. That is perhaps my biggest regret. I walked away from that gorgeous country with the impression that Indonesians live to sell and scam and make the lives of travellers one of frustration and stress. I know that is not the real Indonesia but I would hesitate to try and find it again.