Updated August 16, 2007
home Steve Paylor
Two months of travels
April 2 to June 4, 2007
Photo Highlights 12 favorites. Others available below in manageable chunks
Obligatory temples and palaces
Homestay, elephant show, ruins
Sick, Khmer Rouge museum
Tombs along the
Muang Ngoi Neua
Trek to minority villages
Bike to minority villages
Mae Hong Son
Base for Myanmar/Burma day trip
Rained out trip to ruins
Great flight over, plenty of empty seats. Stopped in Incheon for real Korean food at a restaurant during a layover.
When my pre-arranged ride to a hostel failed to materialize, I found a
The next couple days I checked out some local sites (
My next stop was the best part of
I left soon after that for
I ended up getting a weekís pass for plenty of time there, and stayed four days. My first day at the ruins was interesting as I biked in a downpour and got to Angkor Wat before the crowds. So I had plenty of time to see the temples, and got out one day on a hired tuk-tuk to three of the notable remote temples (Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea), one in original pre-restored condition.
I switched guesthouses to get closer to the center of town and had a bed bug experience. I woke up after sleeping about an hour bothered by bugs and after turning on the lights, decided that there were never just a dozen or so bugs that you could kill and move on. I had to be adamant at the checkout desk, and several clerks successively up the line were woken up, but I got another room and back to sleep. Later in the trip I would meet someone with a nasty patch of welts she blamed on bed bugs so Iím really lucky to have gotten out of that.
I got into town and saw a few of the sights were turned out to be less
than inspiring and started to get the blahs.
Things improved with a sunset river cruise and some antics from little
kids while I was reading my book (a very depressing work on the Pol Pot era, First
They Killed My Father). But
early the next day I became sick, I suppose from that innocent looking
breakfast. I didnít get out too much
after that, but did see the S21 Torture Museum, a school that had been turned
into a torture facility during the Khmer Rouge era and the
My visa for
Here are two things that happened to me in the first hour that tell a
I went to the
I took a one day tour to the Mekong Delta and saw some floating markets and the manufacture of rice candy. The story for this day is the lunch. I turned out to be the lead bicyclist as we rode from the boat to the restaurant. I was told to turn right after the bridge. It turned out that no one was ahead of me and no one was at the restaurant to wave us in. So I kept riding, with people behind me, way past the turnoff. I got to a T intersection and stopped to wait for the leader, who I thought was behind me (turned out to be a Korean tourist in the group) and was waved to the left by an old man standing there who must see this happen twice a day. So I biked for a while there and finally stopped, this is way too far. Yep. We started back, at this point just two of us, and were finally overtaken by the tour leader on a motorbike. We made it back in time to still eat and it was a great lunch too.
On this trip, I met a Welsh couple who had horrible stories to tell
I took a cyclo to the
For the first and only time in my trip, I had trouble finding a
room. I broke the rule of always finding
accommodation first to have dinner at a sidewalk vendorís shop and the girl
next to me found me a spot with a phone call to some place where she had stayed
earlier. She was from
I also want to say that the Old Quarter in
I signed up with a tour for a 3-day/2-night trip to
Also something we got to see was the phosphorescence in the water. (We were invited to swim by the guide who seemed to not notice the condition of the water.) The second day we went to an island and saw another cave, this one less developed. Some of us actually went spelunking (none of us had proper gear so it must have been spelunking and not caving) down a narrow tunnel to see some formations. Another cave treat was the music that the guide could create by rapping rocks on some of the formations. Itís amazing what you can do when you disregard all of the Western conventions of what to do inside a cave.
After checking into the hotel, we took a second boat over to
I try to leave
With my last day in
A Buddhist monk was in town on a speaking tour. He was well known among Buddhists, but now that I am home I am unable to figure out who he was. But on the streets and in the vegetarian restaurants such as the one where I ate dinner, there were plenty of his supporters. He later came to Chiang Mai.
Had a little trouble staying awake until the overnight train to
I had a brief stay in
Hoi An was never bombed during the war and has retained a historic
section with many colorful temples. In
fact there is a Heritage ticket for entry to the
I started the official walking tour but stopped in the middle with
someone from the hostel where I was staying invited me for a trip to
I finished up the walking tour the next day and then ran into a couple
Banana pancakes and ice cream for dinner. Itís such a hard life.
I saw someone the next day who had taught in
I took a boat taxi over to a nearby island to see something new, enjoy
more Vietnamese coffee and learn more about the two tier system in which
foreigners must pay more than locals. It
cost me 10,000 dong to get over on the ferry, suspiciously expensive but some
other people on the boat backed up the ticket taker. On the way back (after a scenic if hot walk
around the island to see people threshing rice), I asked a guy on the ferry
with a bicycle how much he paid to bring a bike. One thousand for me and five hundred for the
bike was the answer and he showed me a sign with the prices. So I was obstinate about paying just one thousand
dong for my return trip and the ticket taker wasnít about to bargain either. At one point he motioned that he was going to
throw me overboard. After we landed we
went through another show of them yelling things in Vietnamese, me offering pay
1000 dong and them refusing. The
Vietnamese guy with the bike (also staying at my hotel) even gave me exact
change for me to try to give them and they refused that too. They would rather curse at me and let me ride
for free than accept the posted fare. I
talked with this guy a bit more, I think he felt sorry for what had happened
and bought me lunch. He was born in
Saigon and escaped to
Despite the rain, I still got to see a couple sights, like a giant Chinese checker game and eat some new foods.
Then a return to
Then off on the
In the evening, I used up most of my money on more postcards and some more delicious food.
Savannakhet, Lao PDR
I had some trouble at the border, but this was my favorite country.
I met up with some Westerners taking the bus from
We rode up to the border and then switched busses. Here the guy from SF had a great point, we
might be stranded here, with no bus on the other side. I could accept this, because it at least
there were options on the other side and it wouldnít be like my trip into
But after that unpleasant experience,
I had the lightest pack of the bunch (the guy from SF, a Brit and his Vietnamese girlfriend Ė and by the way, I donít think I ever saw anyone else with a pack as small as mine, finally I am the light-weight hiker) so I opted to walk the 2km from the bus station to the hostels. And it was great. People obviously selling things ignored you. I was able to walk out of bus station without any hassles from tuk-tuk drivers. Bought some baked banana and found a great deal on a room in a colonial building.
Walking around later, I found some tourists who advised me to leave the next day as there was nothing to do in town. What about the dinosaur museum? Only a five minute experience. I canít remember anything else I thought was there, but figured Iíd just relax a bit, maybe check out the trekking. I ate a meal that the traveler recommended, found the others from the bus trip at the same restaurant, and went to bed early.
Then I woke up sick. I got to
the trekking spot, but just wasnít ready to backtrack 180km to trek, gambling
that I would be healthy the following day.
So hard to be sad about that when there are pineapple
pancakes for breakfast. I did
find something fun to do in the town, in that serendipity vein again, with a
chance meeting with an NGO worker also from
And the next day I felt great and was ready to get on the bus to
Under construction. Not this
site, the city. A main road was torn up
and that made getting around town fun.
Donít forget that the ubiquitous Asian sandals arenít as good as
tromping through mud as boots! This is
the capital of the Lao PDR and has only a quarter of a million people. If there is an antithesis to
Indian food for dinner sickens one of the Frenchmen and the election of Sarkozy takes care of the other.
Most of us are ďwat-ted outĒ from seeing so many temples, but the guidebook recommended Wat Si Saket, known for itís thousands images of Buddha in niches in the walls. I check it out, but, well I am wat-ted out after all. The city also has an ďArc de TriompheĒ, Patuxai, that is described by its own plaque as ďa monster of concrete.Ē
Here (the city not the Arc) I went to an herbal sauna and massage affiliated with one of the Buddhist temples, surely a great way to spend a rainy day anywhere.
Some chores were taken care of here, I traded two books and $1 for The Three Musketeers, hit the countryís only ATM machine twice, and asked around about malaria treatment. I started hearing that many tourists were taking medicine to prevent malaria and I had none. I made the decision to not take anything and to just be on my guard for the symptoms. Hitting the ATM was a strategic decision as itís possible that itís the only ATM machine in the country that will accept a foreign bank card.
Saw some group aerobics as we went over to the river for sunset. Itís not much of a river in the dry season,
but it sounds nice though. Ran into a drunken ex-refugee who escaped to
Iím glad we didnít take the night bus to LP. I suggested it because the ride from Savannakhet to
The next day I walked around and was a little disappointed in the town. I donít know, it was built up so much for me by other travelers and then just looked like expensive restaurants. I got back to the hotel in the middle of the day and found out the water was turned off so instead of a shower I decided to go ahead and take the trip to the waterfall. The power was cut as well so others also had the same idea. I found a really good price (lucky, the tourist agent managing the trips said his rides were full, but I could go with a friend of his for a discounted price) to go out on one of the trucks with like-minded tourists. The waterfall was nice, and a refreshing swim, but also not very Lao. Just a vacation from the vacation. I also got to see on the site a caged tiger and bears that had been rescued from poachers.
The next day I biked around the area, making the mistake of going out in the heat of the day, but had a delightful time with some school kids, who rode with me (and on the back of my bike) to no place in particular where we throw sticks at mangoes until they fell and we ate them. One the way back, I had a haircut where they throw in a shoulder massage. I mentioned to my barber back home, but he didnít feel like trying out a new business model.
Checked out some restaurants. One had great coffee in a perfect setting, a
restored building with period furniture.
But then the prices were in dollars, guess how many locals were there. I did meet someone fromÖ
Had an easy experience getting the tuktuk to the bus station; there was a driver hanging out in the lobby and he took me there for a fair price.
Oh, to keep you up to date; one French guy got sick on the Indian food
Muang Ngoi Neua
I didnít expect to get here in one day, but followed the others. We rode out in a very full săwngthăew (the pickup truck with two narrow benches in the back for passengers), carrying ten extra people. The people at the bus station liked me so they told me to show up an hour early and I got a seat on the bench. Two other tourists were not so lucky and they shared time squatting in the floor of the truck. The woman who did this for a couple hours and wasnít used to it was sore and unable to do anything the next day. Given the option, I would have preferred to just stand on the bumper and hang on to the roof rack for dear life like four others did.
Oh, and luck would have it, the next bus was fairly empty and an actual bus with seats, not a pickup truck with two benches in the back.
Anyhow, we got to Nong Khiaw and found out that (a) it in itself was more lame than quiet and (b) we could still catch the boat upriver to the next destination, Muang Ngoi Neua. So we did. I had initially wanted to take the scenic boat ride from Luang Prabang to here and was told that it wasnít available (unless I rent the whole boat, $100) but this boat ride turned out to be just as scenic and a whole lot easier to bear. Not very comfortable, squatting in a narrow boat with a low roof. I arrived with my bag soaked as well, but no real damage. I was grouchy, but recognized that I was, so I stopped trying to find the best place in town and just hired a room so I could eat and relax.
This town has no cars and just one path that could be considered a road. No motorbikes. The noise is pretty much just the roosters. There are plenty of bungalows for $1.50 a night with a hammock and a view of the river, and plenty of restaurants ready to serve you halfway decent food. There was also self-guided tours to the minority villages. Since I was here, bloom where you are planted, I decided to go ahead and take the time for this trek even if it took time away from the place where I really wanted to trek later. And Iím really glad I did.
I was inspired to do this by a group of people who met whilst trekking and had wonderful stories. At one spot, there were about eight of them, and the village chieftain had a party in their honor, including killing a chicken for their dinner. This group had split up a little bit since, but six of them had just bought a boat from the locals in this town and were planning to float it down to Luang Prabang themselves. They made me a map of the villages, I found myself a hiking partner and I was all set to do it.
Well my hiking partner bailed on me, but she had valid excuses of not having a pack. We hiked together for a hour or two and then I headed off to a village, well perhaps the village, I was actually lost and these delinquent-looking kids claimed the village was in their direction. So I followed the kids and she went to another village for a look-see. There were paths all over this cow pasture and it was hard to tell which was yours. The kids were, despite throwing stones at cows, entirely trustworthy, took me right to the village, stopping only once to retrieve some mangoes (how mangoes stay in a tree long enough to ripen I donít know, there seem to be eager kids everywhere). I had an expensive lunch at this village, since I wasnít sure about the next meals and wanted to support my local Hmong village anyhow. Then got my directions and sort of made my way to the next village. I have to say, I wasnít always sure I was going the right way, but I was lucky and whenever there was a serious fork in the path, there was someone who happened to be there to give me the proper directions. And no one ever gave me bad directions, well not really.
I made it to the destination, Nam Tap, in early afternoon (this was an accomplishment thought impossible by the ones who wrote me a map and I love a challenge) and wasnít quite sure what to do. I was told with hand signals that I could stay there and sleep there, etc., but where exactly? No real spot in this village to sit. I walked around, found the stoned dude with the opium pipe, and finally some kids beckoned to where I should go. A boy took me to a hut that I assumed was for storage and backpackers and made me a snack of honey and cooked bamboo shoots. I took note of the fact that he conscientiously washed his hands before handling the food. Then we both napped. It turned out that this storage hut is his house, oops. Sometimes itís a good thing that you canít speak a word of Hmong and thus canít put your foot in your mouth.
Now Iíve been to villages in Africa and
I should move on the next day, but Iíll also add that the kids read their study books voraciously. I think they contained propaganda about the Thai integration, judging from an illustration whose details currently elude me. Later I would find a place that sold kidsí books to tourists for distribution (better than candy) but hadnít seen them yet.
So I hiked on, found some tasty spring water that I just had to drink, and did get misdirected once. But by an angry-looking peasant woman. I didnít go far going back before I ran into a family out hunting with a home-made rifle and they corrected my path and there were no turns after that, just a great path through beautiful scenery. I took many pictures through here, looking for that lonely cabin along in the folds of the mountain. Often the pictures would include the fields newly burnt for rice harvesting that isnít as picturesque, but authentic of course. This was just touristy enough that there is a place to stay without being touristy enough that it is easy to find oneís way. I made it through the other villages, including one with a satellite dish (yes, but there is no terrestrial TV, so itís satellite or nothing. Where the electricity itself comes from, I donít know, perhaps a generator thatís only run at night) and back to town in time for that strong Lao coffee and a nice meal. I think it was banana pancakes. Oh, the coffee was a great treat in this town, but it was odd to notice that they heat your water on a wood fire. Almost feel guilty that itís too much trouble for one cup of coffee.
One of the guys here, a German named Felix, had his iPod stolen from his bungaloo while he was out trekking. He got the impression that everyone knew who did it, but decided in the end not to do anything about it. He took it very well.
I later met someone who spent four days in this village, just reading in a hammock and eating in his guesthouse. Really, itís how to relax.
I left the next day with some others. Itís odd, the Westerners all show up plenty early for the boat ride, and board promptly, the boat sits there, fifteen minutes later some locals show up and then the boat leaves.
I strategically did not get on the boat first so my bag stayed dry (wasnít at the bottom of the stack where water leaks in).
I found out that the girl I was talking to from the States is a niece
of one of my neighbors in
Three of us were going to Udomxai and knew that the bus left soon after the boat arrived, got a little nervous when the boat was late, but the bus was late as well. But, hey, itís just three people for the bus, so unless we buy all of the seats, the bus stays where it is. Seasoned traveler Steve throws out option B instantly, and we ride the local truck out to a junction point. The others change their minds and head back to Luang Prabang to rush to the Thai border that way, so I am alone at the junction.
They point to the truck, that I am to get in it, and then say it leaves in an hour. A bit confused, a prank? So I head over to eat lunch with my hour, meet a couple of bicyclists going around the country. Iím back and am still the only passenger. I lack the English to say ďyou want to leave at two oíclock but only leave with ten passengers, okay, do you expect other passengers to arrive soon?Ē After all, we all learned with the boat that the locals arrive late. The driver and his cohort seem to be insistent that I need to pay for all of the seats, but thatís breaking the rules, so I wander off to look for other options. I canít find a cargo truck or anything thatís going my direction and canít hire a scooter to take me. Finally, I hear the good news that there is a bus later that night that is sure to stop here. Relief. And just that minute, a bus that looks oddly like the one I left behind a couple hours ago, pulls up with an ďUdomxaiĒ sign in the window. Only one seat left too. So I ride along, next to a worker for some of humanitarian organization. I hope for the offer to stay at his house, but it doesnít happen. He does tell me how hard it is to raise his family on $50/month.
Not much happening in town, but
My introduction to the town was a group of three women dressed in authentic native outfits that tried to sell me trinkets as I came into town. Then one walked really close to me (scary close, could be a pickpocket sort of concern) and tried to sell me opium. And wouldnít take no for an answer! Such persistence. I took their picture.
I found out that I would need to pay twice the rate for trekking with 2 people at uh, whattamacallit, trekking store, and declined. It looked pretty much like what I had just done for free.
I kind of thought of leaving the town the same day, it being the dead
period of tourist season (nice that itís not crowded, but the previous
paragraph teaches that solo travelers in dead season cannot count on getting
into trips that require groups), and not much to do.
Eventually people did show up. One of the restaurants did turn out to have a great menu and became the Westerner hangout, with someone there just about all the time.
I walked around to the minority villages nearby, and saw monks in the saffron robes playing volleyball. One gets used to the monks being regular people after a while; they smoke cigarettes and use cell phones too.
The next day I mountain biked to the more distant villages, having a splendid time. It was great scenery. I biked until the trail became really challenging singletrack (a hiking path) and stayed in that village. The first such village was show-and-tell, kids and adults interested in the bike as if it was one the first they had seen, and practicing riding it downhill. Most had trouble with the height of the seat though, just as well, I think I was expected to return that bike. I photographed things that seemed odd and then turned out to be the spirit gate and other things that made this a village of the Akha tribe.
The next village was even better. I was waved up into one of the huts by someone and since he wasnít smoking an opium pipe I went up and ended up having lunch with him and his family. How cool was that. Of course we had no words in common.
I biked back to town and found the restaurant full of Westerners
drinking beer and having snacks. No
contrast there. I found out that had I
been there the day before, I could have gotten on a trek with a large group,
but it sounded like all they did was hike and arrive in the village too late to
do anything except for the guy from
It started to rain while I was in the museum, but I decided to head out towards to Chinese border and hope it would stop. It did for a little while, but yeah, I got soaked. It was worth it. Here I took a photo of some rice paddies that everyone likes. And the skies were amazing too. I found the village that is promoted in town as the place to go to see traditional garb and I saw some, butÖ Well, as I got into town, I heard this loud ruckus in one of the buildings and eagerly went up to seeÖ a chicken fight? I had no idea. It turned out to be some sort of bar. Perhaps the restaurant that I was told about, but it was full of local tribal people getting smashed. I tried to duck out but was invited over for shots of their lao lao whiskey. Fortunately, no one gets angry when I refuse. And yes, thatís what itís called. There was BeerLao which was the national beer and lao lao was their whiskey.
I left the next morning, with four Akha (with golden teeth) and an AK-47 owner on the săwngthăew. I explored about LNT for a bit checking out the outdoors activities, as it known for that, being so close to some wilderness areas and got my hotel room. I went for a walk about with a map from the bicycle rental store (who wouldnít cut me a deal on a Ĺ day rental so I opted for a foot tour) into some villages. Here I walked through a earthquake and barely knew it. I heard some noise, looked up to try to see thunder and noticed the trees shaking, but I assumed it was from wind. Had I looked at the huts, I would have noticed them shaking. It was a big deal locally as little happens there, but no damage. Not much to see in these villages that I havenít seen already. I learned not to walk through rice paddies; I got lost and it was the shortest distance between two villages, but itís a damned maze. You have to walk on this narrow piece between the flooded areas, which means you watch your step constantly, but you also have to look up a lot to route yourself strategically to the other side. I did get some curious looks, but no problems.
Found a great little restaurant here and spent a few meals here. The cookís husband works for NGO groups and speaks pretty good English, although the only conversation I remember is their campaign to get people to use brown rice, which is associated with poverty in the area despite its nutritional advantages.
I noticed that a group had signed up for kayaking but decided not to go at the time (since a group was going the price was affordable). I lay in bed and decided that I really wanted to do that, but when I walked past the outfitters they were not only closed but displayed a sign that they didnít accept additional people on a trip in the mornings. Well, it wasnít meant to be.
Or was it? I walked past them again after breakfast and they were open and willing to take new people. So my day would be more than just bumming around on a bike hoping to see something new. I was so happy.
It turned out that the kayaking was in 2-person inflatable kayaks, and all of us were disappointed. It was three Swedes and myself and two guides. It was as scenic as you could want, and then we stopped in some villages. Beautiful cool ride, out of the heat of the town. Well part of that was from the rain. I thought I had seen it all, but I saw a kid with a bee on a string. Yes. Iím not sure how it is done, or why. We got to play with some of the kids at one village where a bunch were out swimming by the dock. I got a really bad sunburn on my legs. And we had a great lunch, provided by one of the gourmet restaurants out of town. It rained a lot, but really only as we left. Our truck bested the mud on the road home and we saw a big rainbow at one point.
At the morning market in this town, I saw bats, grilled rats on sticks, live frogs and roasted frogs.
I also met James here (mentioned earlier as the guy who hammocked for four days in Muang Ngoi Neua), who was out for eighteen months so far. He would read a lot and didnít go on expensive trips like kayaking, so his expenses were really low. I kind of like the idea of doing that. A link to his blog is at the bottom of this page.
The Gibbon Experience
In a packed bus, I set off west for the Gibbon Experience. Two others on the bus were going on the same trip and also stopping in the small town along the way. We could take the bus all of the way to the Thai border where the outfitter for the GE is located, but thatís a lot of extra time in the bus and not much time at this tiny outpost on the road.
It wasnít a town as much as some buildings along the road, but there were also some farms about. We walked around and encountered some shy kids who followed us until we turned out to notice them and then they fled.
So not a whole lot to do, and some rain outside, but we managed to get some coffee out of the bed & breakfast. Make your own with hot water, a jar of coffee and a filter that made out of old linen and a piece of wire. We were in heaven. An old man appeared and requested Ovaltine, we had some fun showing him a digital camera. Some other kids showed up, but the Ovaltine requests (on our tab, we supposed) didnít get out of hand.
Had a good nightís sleep despite a large spider who lived inside my mosquito net. He wasnít so hungry that he had to attack me.
The next morning we found out that our coffee tab was more than the price for lodging or meals. Ha! Starting to look like we drink too much. I guess I expected a bulk discount since it was make-your-own.
Now Kirsten had investigated the Gibbon Experience thoroughly on the Internet and found the remark, ďdisorganized and donít expect to get your moneyís worthĒ or something to that effect. That turned out to be sage advice.
A Land Cruiser showed up full people who were pleasantly surprised to see that they would have to make room for two more. But we only drove about another twenty meters to a stream crossing which had turned into a river crossing. We would have to continue on foot. I had a grievance here because the one hour hike just turned into an all-day hike but the two of us who just joined werenít told until about 30 min into the hike when it was far too late to buy more water for the trip. Kind of slipped the severely hung-over mind of our Australian guide. This hike had its ups and downs. The up was the nice jungle shortcut; the down was the sticky clay from the road-walking that added several pounds to your shoes.
We made it to a small village, the original destination for the Land Cruiser, when we found out that our food was back in the Land Cruiser.
I was getting a little cranky by the time I got to the town. I had gotten some mud in my
After they barely managed to scrape together some water for us to drink, the last thing we wanted to hear was that there was no dinner. We were promised leftovers from the last group and told that it was too late to send out the horses to fetch the food. There were no radios or even cell phones, yes there was service here somehow, that the company could have used to communicate this problem. And also take note that there were also no communications in case of an emergency (assuming you donít consider famine an emergency).
And it sure would have been nice to have a horse-drawn cart waiting for you on the other side of that river, but this is the second part of the warning, donít expect to get $150 treatment for your $150. We tried to figure that one out, we were told our money went to support the armed rangers who patrol a small portion of the wilderness, but it was hard to account for all of the money that comes in every day.
But some of that money was justified as soon as we got to the kitchen. Our guide was somehow the first one there and was already eating in front of the fire. Well you need a well-fed guide to show you around, pity there wasnít any food for the rest of us and good thing none of us got lost on the way.
But thatís not what I meant about the justification. As I was getting my harness on for the zip-line (aka flying fox for you British readers), this animal crawled past me. A pig, I thought. No, a dog. Well it was an Asiatic black bear cub. That was extremely cool and not in the brochure at all.
The first zip over was pretty cool too.
Oh, I should have give some background.
This is a three day two night stay in tree houses in a nature preserve
Since we were late, we only had time for a trip out to next tree house, which involved spectacular zip lines through gorges. One was long enough to stop at this giant tree in the middle for a switchover. Weíd call this a circuit of the zip lines, since the other lines were to enter tree houses that were down long trails from here. We all crowded into one tree house and had a dinner that was pretty good. The tree houses were well equipped with a small kitchen and a bathroom, but we were overcrowding it so it wasnít really comfortable (9 in the space for 6, supposedly since we arrived late, but also because no other treehouse was ready to receive guests).
The next day was pretty much just spent on the zip lines. It rained in the morning so there wasnít any point in a hike with the guides to try to hear the gibbons, so we just went on the zip lines. This is when I learned that a wet zip line sprays grease on oneís shirt. Good thing I didnít change into clean clothes. I have a picture of me at the end of the experience with a shirt I would later throw out.
I went down to the kitchen for my bear experience, great fun to play with him. He was just getting big enough to be a nuisance, biting a bit more than youíd like and not knowing when to stop playing.
In the evening three of us chose to go to another tree house, seeking peace and quiet from the crowd. And this tree house was worth the leechy walk through the woods with its great views and feeling of being even more remote (no noise from the kitchen). Oh, it was filthy btw, remember that remark about not expecting your moneyís worth; the food and muddy linens had been left out from the last time it was used.
Anyhow, three of the people we were trying to avoid decided to make a social call, so after some failed attempts at reading, I left and found that the middle tree I mentioned earlier was a great spot to relax. You can keep your safety engaged to the cable and just sit and watch the clouds. Except for the cables, you are in a tall tree in the middle of the jungle, not a bad place to meditate. I zipped around some more when the bugs found me and caught up with some others who were trying to make a zip line video worthy of You Tube and then it was dusk and time to return to the tree house.
Dinner that night was poisonous. Several of us came down with diarrhea, but survived.
The next morning we did hear the gibbons singing. A bit strange, the staff started to arrive to the hut while we were there. The man took a shower, drank tea and sang to us (even though I think we would have all preferred to just soak up jungle noises) while they women fetched the linens and did actual work. After we were more awake, we did some farewell tours on the zip line. I declined breakfast. Just a long crowded uneventful ride to the border town Huay Xai.
Not much going on here. I enjoyed a $3 hour massage that benefited the Red Cross and me and caught up on some sleep. Still sick. I stayed with Kerstin, from the Gibbon Experience.
The next morning we crossed over to
From the border town on the Thai side, we took a minivan into Chiang Mai. Kerstin and I rejoined Hans from the Gibbon Experience. We were the three who chose to move out to the other tree house so it made since for us to share a room in CM. I also met James there at the hostel; so it did seem like the place to be.
Although I didnít think that much of Chiang Mai. I was still sick so I didnít want anything
too adventurous. CM has a Starbucks and
is full of tourist restaurants. According
to the guidebook, many tourists head here directly from the
I did get invited to a meditation session and tried that. I had trouble keeping my mind clear, but thatís the point I think, working on that.
I left about the time I got over the diarrhea. I did break down and eat some pizza there. It wasnít very good, but I craved it so I ate it.
Pronounce this town ďbuyĒ if you are speaking to a Thai or ďpieĒ if you are speaking to a foreigner.
The point of this town is just a quiet place to relax. Itís said to be full of hippies and I met one. Mostly that just meant that the conversation was about how to live off of the grid when the oil runs out. And the expatriate life there seemed a bit boring for me. I asked one expat what they did there and the response was ďnothingĒ which really meant loaf about and then spend a couple hours drinking tea with the other expats. I guess one manís relaxation is anotherís boredom. I stayed for one night in a little hut out across a bamboo bridge across the river, with some great scenery there, even if a lot of it was clouds.
For a town that was so touristy, it was also short on free water,
probably the worst town for that in
Had dinner with some other tourists (one from
Mae Hong Son
The ride to this town was in a wonderful old bus, with wooden plank
floors and a lot of open windows. Very
cheap, great scenery and just Thais as passengers. This route is along the mountainous border
I got into town in the hot part of the day and settled into a teak
hostel just in sight of the lake. This
was going to be another slow day in a small town without tourist
attractions. I was glad to get away from
the touristy places like Pai and Chiang Mai, but it
was still a bit quiet. I got into the
mode of my trip when it was ďbeing in
I spent a couple hours in a travel agency. After looking at the offerings (guided trips to minority villages, especially those where the women wear multiple rings around their necks that appear to stretch the neck (they actually push the shoulder blades down). Since you paid admission to the villages, I decided not to go. It might have been an interesting experience, especially if I rented a motorbike to drive, but I felt like staying in town. I spent the time watching a movie with the travel agent Ė who spoke no English Ė and ate some fruit (not lychee but similar, maybe rambutan?) that his wife brought from the market.
I climbed up to the Buddhist monastery, a steep climb with great views and a gift shop at the top.
I also found a restaurant with a large library and put a deposit down to borrow a book and read it. I wasnít sure if this was crossing the line into too much isolation from the trip since I normally just read on the bus, but went with it.
At night I had a dinner along the lake at the night market and then checked up on email and Skype.
I had a good time at the morning market as well, finding a tea shop. I forgot that the coffee was just Nescafť, but drank it just the same, and just tried to be still and let myself be absorbed into what was going on. And I took a picture of the giant spider on the wall, that was sort of a break from -- well anytime you pull out a camera itís a break from being still, but it was as I left.
Met a sort-of bitter woman who aspired to
work in a refugee camp in the area. She had just arrived from a month in
This was a long ride. I was
assured that if I took the early bus I could make it in one day. And I did.
The bus dropped me off in Mae Sariang where I found
the pickup truck that was going to Mae Sot.
None of us (some Thais and myself) were able to rouse the guy who sold
tickets though. I found out that it left
in about an hour so I settled into some lunch during the hot part of the
day. I was a little confused about the
truck because when I went over, there was a crowd of people under some shelter
from the sun and they all pointed to the truck as if I should go ahead and get
in, but I was in no hurry to be the first one, when I could stand in the shade. Well it turned out that I was the only
passenger, so they were actually ready to leave right then. No extra charge, like my experience in
Passed by a refugee camp of Burmese who escaped
At some point I got transferred to another truck (with a vomiting baby) and into town. It was a little hard to find the road with the hostels, usually one can ask a local and heíll know, or it will be obvious, but I managed and then walked about thirty miles, or so it seemed, to the hostel.
Not a bad place, the management was low-key and only one person spoke English, but it was cheap and I was the only one staying there, so it was also quiet. Just a long walk from everything else.
I wanted to volunteer at a refugee camp, but only for a day. I thought perhaps my IT skills would come in
handy, but the problem is finding the contact person to get in. The guidebook gave me the impression that one
could easily find that sort of arrangement by going to the right restaurant,
but that restaurant closed and then the replacement was sold or burned down
during a tornado or something. So I
bailed pretty quickly on that idea, and went with attraction#2 of Mae Sot,
which is its proximity to an international border crossing with
I hoped to walk over, but it was so far that I needed to catch a
ride. ďWalked to
As I was told, on the walk over the bridge, you are approached by a Ďvolunteer translator.í At first I thought they were government agents who watched over you and made sure you didnít cause trouble in their dictatorship, but now I think they are just people who speak English and need the money. Anyhow, I declined his services and made my way to a tea shop.
People were very friendly inside and it was somehow different than
Breakfast was okay, the food was nothing to rave about, but okay. A little more expensive than I would have
thought, given the low price of the tea and what I would have guessed the meal
would have cost in
I walked around and found a temple.
I didnít have much of a plan because I didnít know much about the
town. I walked around the temple and
then made my way to the market. I had
read about markets in
I didnít try the stuff they chew, some sort of drug that might contain tobacco. Itís interesting and traditional, all wrapped up in a leaf, but I just wasnít sure I needed to try it. I stuck with their tea. I found an outdoor tea Ďhouseí outside the market and became popular there quickly.
I wrote a letter while I was there and found the post office to mail
it. People were friendly once
again. I was surprised that a few people
didnít know where it was, but I got there after someone took me on his motorbike. Isnít that cool, dropping what you are doing
to give someone a lift to where he is going?
Mailed the letter to the States for six baht, thatís about fifteen
cents, pretty cheap, although I havenít gotten confirmation that it
arrived. Then hired a bicycle taxi to
show me the town, in case I missed some parts.
I didnít miss much, but was glad to see more and know I had seen
it. In fact, although I hired him for an
hour, he stopped after about 40 min. because he was finished. A monk interpreted what was going on for me,
so I paid him almost all of the money for an hour, and ended up with someone
else who learned English and wanted to show me a temple. Not a bad temple and I enjoyed the
conversation. Was he the true government
agent? He told me that he plans to sneak
While taking pictures on the bridge, I noticed that my camera was making protest noises when extending the lens. I saw some dust on the telescoping parts are tried to wipe it off, as if it would solve the problem. I feared my camera didnít have long to live.
That night I ran into some Westerners in one of the restaurants and
caught up on my English conversations.
These were English teachers, actually, so they were good at that sort of
thing. Apparently they can do pretty
well for themselves here, maybe not save a lot of money, but afford apartments
and a pretty good lifestyle on their earnings, especially if they get into
private tutoring. One of the teachers
had deliberately left that to come out here away from the big city because the
income gap was bothering him. I did get
to hear bluegrass music for the first time in
Before I left, I had some samosas and tea in the market, the townís #3 attraction.
You know, sometimes you think youíve got a cheap comfortable ride to your destination and then it turns out that you really are just going halfway there. But no problem, transferred easily enough from the van to the pickup truck in Tak. At each spot, which doesnít seem to get many Western passengers, someone had to be fetched to guide me to the right spot, even if I had my destination written out, sort of like a child with a ďmy name is billy, if I am lost take me to 123 elm stĒ tag around his neck.
The ride from Tak to KP was kind of interesting because I almost died, other than that it was the same as anything else. I was reading my book when there was a noise and we skidded to a stop. I thought it was just a flat tire, had seen plenty of those in the past few weeks, and finished my paragraph but the others got out of the truck as if it were on fire. It looked like the tie-rod broke, but it turned out that a suspension part failed. At any rate the tire was askew at a pretty dramatic angle and the weight of the truck on that side was on the suspension and not the tire. I took the last pictures of the trip of that tire.
It got confusing here. From the
cell phone activity, I assumed we waited for the next truck, either the next
one scheduled or a replacement. But the
others negotiated a ride with another pickup truck, not a taxi, just one that
stopped. It might have stopped because
it was a friend who had been called by a passenger, or might have been hired on
the spot. I never found out, but it took
us to the next town. I didnít know what
to do here. Some of the passengers
disappeared and I couldnít tell if the others were coming with me to my
destination or elsewhere. I was hungry
and it was hot out. I found some snacks
to eat, but nothing filling. Finally,
after I happened to meet someone who spoke English (sort of, we had a round of,
ďwhere are you goingĒ ďkamphaeng phetĒ
ďno, thatís where you are from, where are you goingĒ) I found out that busses
stopped here on their way from Mae Sot heading to Bangkok and I was able to buy
a ticket to take me from that store to KP.
Although the bus was so comfortable, with air conditioning and a
stewardess, that I was tempted to just go to
But I got off at KP. I made use
of my phone card to call the local hostel for the free pickup and waited around
in the heat and flies. Here was a spot
that needed thirty cent fruit shakes, but this is what happens when you get off
the tourist path. KP had some ruins that
appealed to me a bit, but wasnít anything special as far as anything else, and
thatís sort of why I went. Also, it was
about halfway between Mae Sot and
I found the hostel to be much more expensive than most of my earlier lodging but also more luxurious and pretty much the only spot in town. Despite being the only one there, I wasnít able to cut a deal for free bicycle rental so I went off on foot to find the ruins. I didnít have much luck finding them, even with a barefoot guide who managed to be casual about always having to keep one hand on his shorts to keep them from falling down. Part of me wanted to buy him new clothes, but there wasnít an opportunity for that. He did try to show me a shortcut where you bypass the front gate of the ruins by sneaking right past Ė get this Ė the prison and crossing a stream without a bridge. Yeah, let me sneak in to the park with a reminder of a prison next to me, Iím sure no one is looking my direction.
It wasnít long before it started to rain and since all of the ruins are outside and spread out over many kilometers, I sought shelter. Fortunately, I had finished my fried ice cream at this point.
In the first shelter, there had been something going on, tables set up, people sitting around, but I found a spot and was approached by a little kid with her pet bird in a tiny cage. I played with the cage until I released the bird and made an oops face. I mostly did this because it didnít seem right for little kids to capture birds and keep them in tiny cages. But it turned out that it is common for people to buy these birds to release them after saying prayers. The bird escaping out of the cage (like a shot out of a cannon) is supposed to be evocative of the personís feelings after the prayer. Or something like that. We wonít follow it through to the little kids snagging the birds out of trees with a net and the bird returning to a prison.
In the second shelter, I just laid down on a bench in some sort of portico and tried to nap to the sounds of the rain. Some kids on motorbikes pulled up a few minutes later and we chatted somehow with five words of English or something like that. It struck me how important these motorbikes would be to a teenager, such freedom to whiz about town, see and be seen. And these kids gave me a ride back to the hostel, just to do a good deed. The rain didnít stop for a long while, so that was appreciated.
By the time it did stop, I was ready to go out for dinner and I got lost once again trying to find the restaurant part of town. I wasnít starving yet so I had a mission to find their local delicacy, but asking for it only got me sent all over the place. Iím not sure if they thought I was asking for a restaurant by name rather by menu item. But after I was given a ride someplace I decided to just eat what was available, and found something to eat. I then walked to a market I saw on the ride over and snacked there and then, getting past the attack dogs at the tourist information center, got directions to the night market, which was where I should have gone in the first place. Not just the produce/meat market that I crossed through first, but a big enclosed place full of people and restaurant stalls. I walked about to see all they had and then settled on something. Spied a small kitten who was adapting to the noise and commotion of the market at a young age and ate as much as I could with my reduced appetite. I also got some very cheap freshly squeezed orange juice, but didnít make it home without drinking it all.
When I got back, I was pretty tired, but the owner was there and he
wanted to talk. Although he works in a
bank, his passion seems to be hostelry and he showed me all of the pictures of
the places he is building on some land in the country. He was able to answer all of the questions I
Breakfast was pretty expensive though. I like to know about the prices when someone asks ďoh, would you like some fresh fruit and yogurtĒ so it that plate doesnít cost as much as, well I canít remember, but it seemed expensive at the time.
I did kind of want to try out one more Thai massage before I left town,
but it turns out that I arrived in
At the bus station I had the friendly taxi driver who runs up to
Westerners tell me that there is no public bus service to the largest
university in town (right, I believe that one), but there were several more
honest people there. And a cat which
managed to sleep in the middle of a very busy hallway. I saw bugs for sale in the snack market, but
ate fried banana instead. As I write this,
I sort of regret that choice. After
waiting a generous amount of time for my bus to arrive, I found out that oh,
that is the direct bus to the university, but it isnít running anymore. Finally I got some alternative busses, at the point where I was about to just get that
taxi. Iím glad I did too. It took a long time to get there, but Iíd
rather wait in an almost free bus than in a taxi with a running meter. And despite the delays, unlike in
So I made it to the bustle of
I was looking forward to see the university and staying in a foreign dorm, but it turns out that he lives off-campus in an apartment. We didnít leave that apartment for the rest of the night either. After I got settled we had, surprise, pizza and ice cream for dinner. At US prices. I was a bit shocked at this expenditure; this was about two days of spending for me, but just accepted it. Iím not used to someone making a fuss over me, but just resigned myself to letting him spend a fortune on me. Later we rented three movies, despite his need and my understanding that we were going to sleep soon.
Oh, this one bedroom apartment was shared by Mick with a friend of his. It wasnít a bad amount of space for one person, but I can see it being cramped with two.
I think we were all pretty tired the next morning. I took a bus into town to see the Jim Thompson house, now a museum of the collected antique furniture and artwork of an eccentric American businessman who disappeared as an eccentric should, in a mysterious Malaysian jungle. Hereís something I found about that for you on Wikipedia. I spent as much time here as I could, and was one of the very few who returns after the tour to look at things in more detail (with a chaperone). I found that, in all of those antiques, there was one novelty coffee mug which we couldnít quite read. I am sure that the mug holds the clue to the whereabouts of Jim Thompson and the buried treasure.
I had accidentally left my guidebook at the apartment, but at least my
pack was now five pounds lighter. Although
this was my last day in town, I thought I remembered enough of what I wanted to
see today that I didnít need to break down and ask another tourist to see his
copy. I found a wonderful food vendor
who sold great coffee at local prices.
And I thought this country drank only Nescafť. Happy with this find, I wandered to an iconic
hotel whose name I have forgotten (
I asked for Thai food as my last meal (trying to pre-empt a trip to Burger King), and even offered to just grab the cheap eats downstairs, but naturally we took a taxi out to a restaurant and had food there. And it was delicious. I can see how locals would eschew cheap eats for the real thing if they lived there and became more discriminating, just as I wouldnít take someone from out of town to a lunch truck in Philly.
Then it was to the airport, all of us. They had never been there before, but we found our way there and then Mick took some pictures of us. (My camera hadnít given up the ghost yet, but I had decided to only take A-level pictures like broken down trucks and not B-level pictures like little girls with captive birds to conserve the camera life. Epilogue, I was able to send it back to Canon and they sent me a new one.)
I thought it was interesting as I waited for my plane to board that I met two people who had very different ideas of their trip. One had come to volunteer as a teacher and was disgusted with cultural misunderstandings and had decided to leave the school and come home. Another had a blast volunteering at an elephant wildlife center.
I watched five movies between
It was a good trip, but itís good to be home.
Blogs of people I met on the trip