Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Postcards from Laos

Chris plays with some locals (who all show him up in diving ability) at a swimming hole north of Vang Vieng.

We are in Bangkok right now, having just returned from spending almost four weeks in Laos. There is very little internet access in Laos and when we did find connections, they were pretty slow. I felt time was better spent playing cards, drinking BeerLao and watching life go by. Consequently, I have to figure out how to summarize the past four weeks in a reasonable length blog post, while adequately describing the amazing time we had there. I'll be honest - I can't.

There were countless amazing specific experiences I should start by describing. We slept in tree houses accessed by zip lines at The Gibbon Experience , a nature reserve in northwest Laos that is working to protect a population of Black Gibbon previously thought to be extinct through community based eco-tourism. It was too cold to hear the gibbons sing, but we awoke each morning to a symphony of birds feeding on fruit from the tree our tree house was set in.

In Luang Nam Tha, further north, we hiked through beautiful dense forests of the Nam Ha conservation area and visited Hmong, Lanten and Khmu villages. "Eco-toursim" is a buzz word indiscriminately used all over Laos and Thailand, but we found in in Luang Nam Tha, the authorities have had success in setting up a business model that provides monetary benefit to the villages and meaningful experience to travellers without resorting to "ethno-tourism" that shamelessly exploits villages and turns them into little more than a costume circus.

We travelled by boat to a town called Muang Noi in central northern Laos. The town is accessible only by boat, has no motor vehicles and only has electricity from dusk until about 9 p.m. We spent several days lazily hanging out by the river or paddling up it and admiring the dramatic limestone karsts.

We spent almost a week in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage city, admiring the architecture, marveling at the diversity of tourists, enjoying coffee and bread, taking cooking classes and buying far too many textiles.

I think, however, our experience in Laos is better described by many non-specific incidents that happened over our four weeks. They form indelible pictures in my mind - personal postcards if you will - that I wish I could fully describe with words.

Roads in Laos aren't just for cars. Sitting on a bus you will watch the driver dodge a cow, dog, chicken, small child, motorcycle, all manner of modified utility moped/truck, or rice drying on the road, usually by swerving to the other side of the road and honking repeatedly, which means there is a requisite swerving back into the "correct" lane when oncoming traffic, cow, dog, chicken, etc. is encountered on the other side of the road. In Luang Nam Tha, there is a long flat road that parallels a runway. You can see for miles in either direction. On it you will see schoolgirls in uniform riding six abreast on their bikes, kids walking, men and women hauling produce or firewood in baskets and all manner of vehicle ranging from a street food stand that is little more than moped with a small kitchen attached, to a several ton dump truck. Along this road there are people playing soccer, doing laundry, showering, cooking dinner or simply standing and watching life going by. I'm sure accidents happen, but it's amazing how much life seems to peacefully coexist on this two-lane stretch of pavement.

In the evening campfires are built in the yard. Dinner is cooked over it and the whole family hangs out around the fire until bedtime. The valleys fill with smoke and the smell of campfire in the evening which doesn't burn off until around midday the next day. All our food has a slight smoky barbecued flavor to it as most of our food in Laos has been cooked over the fire. Most of our food also freely wanders around town - no matter the size of town - and we probably very well walked past the chicken or pig that became our chicken or pork laap (a Lao minced meat salad eaten with sticky rice) for dinner. I mean this in the most endearing way, but Laos feels like one gigantic barnyard. Chickens, ducks, goats, cows, water buffalo, pigs and of course thousands of cats and dogs all freely wander around. For someone who grew up in a city and longs for goats and chickens of her own, it provided countless hours of amusement. Of course, I think of all these animals a little less endearingly when the roosters begin crowing at 4 a.m. - and this happens everywhere, regardless of the size of the village or the city.

Kids are very adept with knives. A machete is standard issue by at least age three or four as children in the village accompany their parents or grandparents to gather food products in the forest. I've seen a two year old wandering around the yard with a 8 inch chef's knife which was only mildly noticed by her mother. The funny thing is that it little girl looked quite comfortable carrying the knife instead of the usual tottering-around-about-to-fall-on-their-face way that most two year olds look. Children carry younger children and babies in order to free up their mothers to do heavier work. It gives them all the appearance of being small adults. There is an almost unnerving wiseness to their face that makes them appear much older than their size indicates they are.

Laos is a very poor country. People live in straw and wooden shacks. And while I think most people are well feed since in general the majority of the population grows their own food, they have little extra to cover for an illness, crop failure or flood. Chris and I had a lot of debates about the ethics of us just wandering all over the country if we're helping or causing harm. It's a good debate to have and travelling here also opened our eyes to the poverty we ignore in our own and other first world nations. These past four weeks have definitely not been a vacation, but the warmth of all the people we encountered, the scenery and the food have left it's mark and we look forward to returning to Laos in the future.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Northern Thailand

Our time in northern Thailand flew by. A waning visa gave us about two weeks to explore the north, although we could have easily spent two months there. The mountains, people and the food were all amazing, and I don't have the energy to sufficiently do any of it justice, so I'll let the photos do most of the talking. Liz has many other choice photo selections, but she chooses to spend less time in front of the computer that we left home to escape than I. A constantly morphing itinerary ended up looking something like this.

Phitsanulok and Sukhothai

Phitsanulok is a small market town where we took a deep breath to enjoy normal life and then visited nearby Sukhothai to take in the ruins of one of Thailand's ancient capitals.

Chiang Mai
The cultural center of the north, Chiang Mai was a surprise to me even after having heard so much about it. Art galleries, new world coffee shops, markets running day and night, and delicious food of all origins and for all budgets. It was hard to grasp what exactly was going on in Chiang Mai for me, but it was certainly an entertaining place to spend four days. But alas, we are mountain people and the peace and quiet of the hills called us further north and west to the remote province of Mae Hong Son.

Soppong & Cave Lodge

Soppong is a small yet surprisingly busy market town high in the hills where many of the surrounding hill tribes come to sell their produce and handmade goods. We rolled into Soppong on a bouncy orange bus, spent one night and day checking out the little town and then headed for the fabled Cave Lodge. One of the reviews we read said that Cave Lodge was more an experience than a place to stay, and no words were ever more true. From the moment we arrived, staying at Cave Lodge was different than any place we've stayed in three months of traveling. The large open air communal area--inside which nightly camp fires were hosted by the Australian owner--was a great place to meet others, and that we did. The lodge's location in the rural woods just 30 km from the Myanmar border also allowed for many exploring opportunities. We kayaked through a 500 meter long cave, wandered through dramatic limestone karst cliff formations, and biked to a nearby Karen (hill tribe) village where we hired a local guide to take us into the forest and into yet another cave. There is so much to see and do in this small area that we are certain to return, and I would highly recommend a stay here to anyone looking for adventure and fun in northern Thailand. Check out the website in the link above for more.

Mae Hong Son
Mae Hong Son is a small Thai town nestled in the mountains of the northwestern corner of the country. We spent several days here enjoying the town's market, peaceful daily ongoings, and exploring the surrounding mountains and villages on motorbikes and on foot.