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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Biking Laos

Luang Prabang is giving Hoi An a run for it’s money as my favorite city thus far. There’s a tranquility and peacefulness here, a pace of relaxation that envelops you the second you land in this quaint little town and doesn’t let go, even after you leave. I’m in Vientiane right now, and on a larger scale, Laos, as a country is awesome, there’s a Zen charm to it, an authenticity of place. If I had the time, I’d stay in this country for a few weeks (or months).

Luang Prabang sits right on the Mekong River, and every night at sunset you could find me at one of the many riverside caf├ęs, a BeerLao and my journal in hand, watching the amazing sight in front of me. I spent four nights in LP, and all four of those sunsets were fantastic. My days were filled with lazy bike rides through the town – which is really comprised of two main streets, one bordering the Mekong, the other a boulevard, if you will, of open-air restaurants, internet cafes, silk and wood shops and tour companies. In between ran little alleys lined with guest houses and lodging for the many tourists that come to Luang Prabang, another UNESCO World Heritage site that’s having it’s tourist hey day (which detracts a little from the experience, but not TOO much). The Laotians are the kindest, gentlest people I’ve met yet. They all smile as you go by, saying “Sabaidee!” which is a greeting in Lao or “Hello Miss!” with these huge grins on their faces. I’ve been to so many poverty striken places at this point and it NEVER ceases to amaze me how happy these people are, regardless of their lot in life. It’s so refreshing. Sabaidee! (I’m such a loser…)

I arrived to my guest house, Le Calao Inn, in the early morning to be shown to the only room they had left, a super-large, super-luxe family suite on the downstairs level. Right, me and my three kids are staying here, did I mention? PERFECT. Three beds, a foyer, an outdoor patio as big as my apartment in Manhattan overlooking the river – why argue? “I’ll take it!” From there, I went to explore the town. Being past dark on the night of my arrival, I merely walked thru the Restaurant Boulevard, I’ll call it (since Laos has been occupied by the French, the Burmese, and the Thais, depending on who you ask the streets all have different pronunciations. Maps – depending on the client they’re catering to – Asian, European, American -- all have different spellings so “Restaurant Blvd” is just easier) and into the Night Market, which is basically the sidewalks of the main street, on both sides, lined with vendors selling silks, paper lamps, silver and wood trinkets, CDs, BeerLao t-shirts (yes, I bought one), and other assorted souvenirs of Laos time. The city, being small and devoutly pious, shuts down at around 11:30 PM – LATEST – and the only place to go is the Laos disco, a $.50 tuk-tuk ride outside of town. At dinner my first night, I met a group of six people, who had all met the night before – Swedes, Danish, Brits and Canadians. I added American into the mix. We, obviously, headed to the disco, anyone looking in from the outside would think we’d know each other for years…

My next days in LP were spent seeing the various wats (I must confess, I’m getting “watted out” at a ferocious speed…there’s just TOO DAMN MANY WATS over here in Asia), hiked Mount Phousi in the middle of town, toured the Royal Palace, and got a Lao massage (not as good as Thai massage). Everywhere you go in Laos (as in the temples in other cities), you have to take your shoes off to enter. I always worry about coming out to stolen flip-flops, as someone I met in Hoi An was wearing the nappy shoes of a stranger (the only “choice” in his size), after his were swiped while inside a wat. How un-Buddhist, right? Meanwhile, since you have to take off your shoes everywhere, I’ve noticed that I have freakin’ gorgeous feet, comparatively. I know you’ve all made fun of my potato-toes, but lemme tell you – these Asians are funghi-friendly folk when it comes to toenail cleanliness. I cannot tell you how many nasty ass feet reign supreme here in the Far East, tap dancing through the temples. And it makes me and my potatoes feel just gorge…sans pedicure and all.

Of course, the other thing that stays with you about Laos is the monks. 60-80% of Laotians are practicing Buddhists and any faithful male Buddhist must serve as a monk to complete his duty to the Buddha. But, the monks in LP are different than in other places, they are so friendly and talkative and just looking to learn from you, as you learn from them. You sit and shoot the shit with them at any hour of the day. The LP monks have to serve six years in a monastery, (continuing after that is their choice) living in the wats and off the generosity of the town. So, every morning at 7 AM, the 500 monks, who only eat one meal a day, at noon, make their daily alms, collecting food from the people that they will eat for their meal. They cannot buy food, it must be given to them. So, at dawn, you see the barefoot, orange-clothed monks each day, being handed rice, cakes, food, for the day’s meal. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. A parade of men, living off the kindness of others, every day. It blew me away.

One of the attractions of LP is also the waterfalls that are about 25 miles out of town. Everyone in LP rides bikes around the area, so on day three, I took my rented bike to get in some exercise, y’know – feel productive. So, about 30 minutes into my bike ride, I see a sign that says “waterfalls” (or some Lao variation) and decide I’m going to take my pink bike with basket up to the ‘falls. How hard (or far) can it be…? About an hour later, without any water, roadsigns or paved roads, I sweat through my first village where I say “Oh, I’m FINE” and continue past the huts of the Laotians without buying a bottle of water. Who I was proving what to, I’m not sure…. About another 30 minutes later, I smell and drip my way into village number two, stop for water, where the ladies of the village start cooling me with makeshift fans and admonishing me in Lao amongst themselves. I’m sure they were saying things like “You fool of a girl – nobody basket-bikes to the falls!” And, they would be correct in that I hadn’t seen one other BIKER along the way. After my water-break the ladies help me get the bike back to pedal-position (it had a weird kickstand that seemingly confused me) and send me off with a whole lot of “Tsks, Tsks” as I went. At this point, I pass two or three tuk-tuks carrying foreigners, with flat tires (!!), on the sides of the roads. People yelling and asking me if I was crazy in English. I’m dirty as hell, the trucks that pass me on the unpaved are kicking mountains of dust and gravel into my face, nevermind the lack of proper exhaust systems they drive with over here. My contacts are dry as the desert, my knees are cramping, I’ve finished my water, there’s no new town in site, I can’t read the Lao street signs that are telling me (possibly) how far I have left to go, the tuk-tuks are all breaking down and I might as well have showered in the Mekong to my right, I’m so damn mud-drenched. Two hours – time to turn around. And bike home. I still feel semi-satisfied at my efforts.

The next day, curious to see both the falls and how far I got on my ride, I hire a tuk-tuk to take me there. The same ladies that fanned me and giggled at my idiotic attempts wave as I pass, beaming like the Laos just do. I am QUITE proud to say that I probably went ¾ of the way, the last part being all uphill at an impossible angle. At this point, I’m feeling that Lance Armstrong couldn’t complete the trip. So, I get there, and after seeing waterfalls that had beautiful aqua blue water (but urination-strength volumes of actual “falls”) I start to head home and am flagged down by a 65 year old, 200 pound, New Zealand woman . . . . . .

Yeah – SHE biked all the way to the falls. Was looking for a ride back.

I’ve decided I’m sticking to beers and sunsets. ;)


Monday, January 30, 2006

The art of Sangsom

Chiang Mai is a city that is getting it’s share of air time in the world right now. Any trip to Thailand seems no longer SOLELY about the islands, but also a trip north to Chiang Mai and the surrounding region. Rightfully so. Different than modern Bangkok, Chiang Mai’s center is the Old City, surrounded by a wall and moat, with four “gates” or entry points. There’s a certain feel of authenticity inside the Old City, as the surrounding city of Chiang Mai has started to modernize, filling the streets with good shopping and restaurants. The contrast, though, works.

My first night in Chiang Mai was a blast. First, I walked around the Night Bazaar, which is on ChangKlan Road every night from 6-midnight. The street lines itself with vendors, hundreds of hundreds of them, selling silks, bags, trinkets, CDs, jewelry, etc… for pennies. Like in Bangkok, you just wander and watch it all go on around you. Believe it or not, I’m not REALLY tempted to buy too much out here (so far, I know myself better than to never say never about shopping…) so, more than anything, all the bazaars are just great people-watching time for me. Then, Reiter put me in touch with her friend’s brother, Andrew, who’s been living in Chiang Mai for about five years. He was great, so helpful accommodating in planning my trip, so we met for dinner and immediately hit it off. He took me, by motorcycle (love the motobikes travel out here in Asia, it’s all so Cool-Rider-esque), to dinner on the Ping River, which at night has a good scene, restaurants are big, serve great Thai food, and local bands cover American music with uncanny ability. It AMAZES me how by day, these people ONLY speak Thai, and by night, they’re Bob Dylan complete with the Minnesota twang on random syllables.

Indeed dinner became an extra special night, for I was introduced to "the" Thai whiskey, which is really a rum called Sang Som, which we proceeded to kill two, yes two, bottles of (I’m since hooked…). Everyone drinks it out here, you order bottles, albeit small bottles, not glasses of the stuff and hope for the best. Then, we proceeded to a local Thai club called Bubble and danced our asses off. I mean…. Meanwhile, the Thai people, while they can party, have NO rhythm. I’ve noticed this in Asia. No ability to clap, kick, step-ball-change, or shake to the beat. It’s all off, and if you’ve got rhythm (and I KNOW I’ve got rhythm…), you’re a little upset at the lack thereof. Someone should open a chain of dancing schools out here, call it ‘Johnny America Dances’ or something equally Western, and make a fortune….

I woke Day Two of Chiang Mai a MISERABLE rummed-out bitch. So, I hired a car to take me to out of town to Wat Doi Suthep (the premiere temple in Chiang Mai that overlooks the city) alone, because I really couldn’t deal with having to be anything but quiet and hungover. Buddhist hospitality, though, couldn’t even do the trick. I was snappish and cranky to my ever-sweet driver, who finally got pissed off and duped me into seeing the Sam Kaempang Road “tourist trap” local factories after the temple (which was beautiful, but after the Grand Palace in Bangkok, little can compare), and wound up buying a silver bracelet that I’ve probably seen about 10 renditions of for a quarter of the price in various marketplaces since. Asshole. But, likely serves me right for my attitude. I guess even Buddhist are allowed revenge sometimes.

The third day in Chiang Mai was the best day, as I took a cooking class. It’s a big thing in Thailand to learn, assuming you like the food as much as I have, how to cook Thai. So, I signed up for the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery school, a one-day class taught by the “Emeril” of Thailand, Sompon. A great, great, day. We learned how to make 6 traditional courses (Marisa, mine were: chicken in coconut milk soup, fish with red curry, fried wide noodles with brown sauce, stir-fried mushrooms and baby corn with chilis, papaya salad with sticky rice and banana (I subbed pumpkin) cake in banana leaves), first going to the market and picking our ingredients, then eating every morsel of what we made. Parting gift: Thai cookbook. So, when I get home next, I’ll cook y’all some curry, k? Of course, I went a little overboard on flipping the wok all around and “tossing” my food in and out of it, that I scalded my foot with about a 1/3 cup of boiling oil when it slopped out of my wok. Now, I have a discolored left foot b/c of the burn. Yeah. But, a true champ (read: embarrassed), I didn’t tell anyone. I suffered silently. Maybe I’ll check into a 5-star hotel in the next city for “successfully battling the oil….”

Day four’s trek was supposed to start at 8 AM, but getting downstairs for the bus, the very polite Thai lady at the Tour Desk realized she booked me for the wrong day. BUT, I WAS SUPPOSED TO GO ON A VILLAGE TREK AND RIDE THE ELEPHANTS TODAY… “I sorry, I sorry, Miss Marie.” Swallow, breathe, does this really matter? You’re in Thailand, trekless. Big freakin’ deal. YOU’RE IN THAILAND, Marie. THAILAND. No, it doesn’t matter one bit… Sometimes, you just need to check yourself. So after kicking around town, exploring more of Chiang Mai, I signed online and got a nice surprise ~ Adam from Nha Trang and his friends arrived today, looking for me. So fun! The best part of SEAsia travel is that everyone is on the same route and the paths cross over and over again. So, you’re continually able/bound to see the people you enjoy. That became Day 4 in Chiang Mai, meeting up with Adam, Sang Som-ing it, obviously... He taught me a different way to enjoy my Thai whiskey. Buckets. Basically, you get a bucket of ice, a Coke, a Red Bull, and a bottle of Sang Som. You dump them all into the ice bucket. Voila, your cocktails....drink up.

So, as you might've guessed, considering I learned buckets last night, I almost didn’t make it to the rescheduled, now half-day, elephant camp tour, but luckily my Thai Travel desk friend woke my Sang-Som’d ass outta slumber at 8:15 with a “Miss Marie…you sleepy?” I felt awful, but knew that I had to go. Who goes to Chiang Mai and doesn’t see the elephants? And, I was flying out to Laos in the afternoon, today was my last chance. I jumped unshowered and exhausted into the van, begging my stomach to hold on just a little longer until we got to the camp. Well, as we arrived, I lost it. I had to sit down on the side, work out of my nausea and light-headedness. A rush of Thais, all looking confused at my behavior, could be seen offering me Mentos, baguettes, smelling salts, water, juice, anything to get me smiling again. I wasn’t sure that was going to happen… After a circus-like performance by the 77 elephants in the camp (They paint! They dance! They sing! They give rides!), which made me a little sad over the way they’re exploited for the idiotic tourist population, I decided to take a ride on an elephant. Yeah, not the best move. Has anyone ever ridden an elephant? Very slow, up-down, move-one-big-fat-elephant-leg-at-a-time bumpy ride that is cake with a good night’s un-alcohol-fueled sleep, I’m SURE. Not for me. I had to be taken OFF the elephant, all the Thais talking in Thai to get me (quickly, ha!) back to the loading-unloading dock where I could disembark (you can’t just like, jump off) mid-way through. Loser loser loser, Marie, So, there I was, sitting in like, the sick-bay infirmary, of elephant camp while the rest of my group got to play and frolic with the animals. What a morning….

Off to Laos, but after a fun five days in Chiang Mai. Wonder when I’m next drinking Sang Som….? Yeah, right.

More soon…


MAYBE, it was just Bangkok...

Everyone warned me about Bangkok… (except Sarah, yes…)

“Get in, get out.”
“I guess you have to SAY you’ve been to Bangkok, but it sucks.”
“It’s a dirty, gross city. Stay overnight. You’ll hate it.”

In my opinion, they were all wrong. I loved Bangkok. From the minute I landed to the minute I left, I just felt the energy of the city and knew it was going to be a place that worked for me. I actually will get back there a few more times, once before the Thai islands, and then, I fly home from Bangkok. I couldn’t be happier it worked out that way.

Why, you ask? Well, let me tell ya a few things….

Now MAYBE I was just a little tired at the end of Vietnam, you know, working off like one lung and all… MAYBE it was that in 15 degree winds blowing off Momma China in Sapa, I was stuck in a hotel room with no heat for two days and a refilled thermos (yes, a bring- your-coffee-to-work-THERMOS) of hot water to make tea, or MAYBE I’ve decided that my max in ONE country is two weeks. Whatever it is, when I got to Thailand, I felt whole again. Just invigorated and refreshed.

Now, MAYBE part of it could’ve been that my intro to Thailand started off a little more “right” at the Banyan Tree Resort/Spa that I booked on AmEx points to reward myself for successfully ‘fighting the bronchitis.’ MAYBE it was my suite on the 47th floor overlooking the whole city, or possibly, the state-of-the-art gym and spa on the 21st floor WAITING for me to indulge in them. I can’t say that didn’t HELP the situation, but…more than the temporary luxury, I really fell for the people (so sweet and good humored – everyone just laughs at themselves, aiming to please but not killing themselves over being unable) and the culture. From the stewardesses on the Air Asia flights to the taxi drivers, to the street vendors, to the shop owners, all the Thai people are just adorable. Adorable is the right word because they’re tiny and cute and loving. Adorable people, the Thais. And they all evoke this Buddhist, live and let live, aura about them. Very laid back, happy, relaxed people, just loving up the Buddha. Love them.

Then, you knew I was going here, the FOOD.
Ok, I have NO idea what rock I’ve been living under never having been exposed to Thai food. I’m sure at points, because I merely didn’t KNOW what it was all about, I asserted to a good many of you WHY I didn’t like Thai food, assorted made up reasons, all convincing, blah blah blah... (Translation: because I didn’t know it…) Well, while I was happy under my Thai-food-less rock, I’m MUCH happier under my new I eat Thai food rock. OH MY, Pad Thai, spicy beef salad, squid prepared any way, the curries – oh the curries, the soups, the prawns. Coconut, peanut, and cilantro everywhere. And….the chilis. Hollow your head out, burn your stomach apart, chilis. I literally cry through every meal, begging for more spice. I love it. The food is cheap as hell ($.50 from the street vendors, which is the BEST food in Bangkok, bar none), and delicious as anything you’ve ever tasted. I’m hooked.

Then, as previously mentioned, the Thai massage. A most sensual, relaxing, mind-blowing experience. I’ve been in Thailand for 5 days at this point and have already had three massages. Tonight’s was 3 hours with a scrub and a body wrap. I can’t get enough. They’re SOOO good. And, again, cheap. You can get them for as little as $3/hour or as much as $80/hour. It’s wonderful. Because I’m so stressed and all…right. Cherilyn, you would LIVE for them.

Anyway…Bangkok. On first look, a very modern city filled with tall glass and chrome buildings. Thriving Western business logos litter the bill boards, the busy streets are filled with taxis and tourists and tuk tuks by day, and the bustle of the night bazaars selling every knock-off of every item from DVDs to Dior bags to diamonds begs travelers to buy buy buy after the sun goes down! “Pretty lady, you buy now, I give you good price. How much you want to pay?” Looking past the sellers world of Bangkok, you see a city of sex filled with a bit of trash, and a lot of sleaze – the red light district of Patpong where clubs like “Super Pussy” hold court. Ladies holding poles and step-touching to the beat in bikini bottoms and pasties on the stages. More than anything, looking bored as hell. You can catch the women powdering their faces with white face make up to make themselves appear more fair skinned, catering to the Western consumers that raucously loiter in the doorways. You can overhear the haggled deals for “anything goes” being transacted in the glow of the fluorescent lights of the bars. And, it makes your skin crawl. BUT, if you get past all of that (which, by the way, makes for GREAT people watching), Bangkok is also a city of history and Buddhist piety, the Wats of Bangkok rising up against the skyline, mixing old with new, modernity with the culture of an ancient civilization. The result is, as far as I was concerned, a fantastic city with a mix of Thai cultures and traditions, all easy to embrace and interesting to be a part of.

The Wats along the river, which are best viewed by boatride, stopping along the way to walk each wat, are phenomenal. As I made my way through them, I couldn’t help but sing the soundtrack to Aladdin in my head. It’s all like a magical Disney movie. The temples, the colors, the jewels and golds of the architecture, the buddhas, people praying on site, the surrounding grounds, it’s all astounding. Pictures cannot convey these places with accuracy, you have to see them, be inside of them, to get the sense of importance, the sense of worship that the Thai people place above all else. Magnificent. I found myself just wandering around Bangkok for two days, in a dumb stupor, inhaling sights and sounds (and pad thai) at a furious rate. It’s no wonder Thailand claims many off the Khao San Road backpacker circuit (a street that is a literal jungle of people under 30, getting dreadlocks, eating street food, walking barefoot and chatting it up with other travelers, buying cheap wears from the boutiques that front the hundreds of hostels that line the street). There’s a reason Thailand is able to mesmerize people. It mesmerized me, for sure.

And that’s only after two nights in Bangkok…I cannot wait to come back. I feel like I just scratched the surface.

More soon from Chiang Mai...