Thursday, May 13, 2004

Fast track to the Golden Triangle

I made it back to Thailand. I am on the last mad dash down from the Golden Triangle to Bangkok in order to get my Tuesday flight. Cherish these! There aren’t many more Southeast Asian adventures left!

Vang Vieng: I decided to go trekking in Vang Vieng in central Laos. The mountains were high and rocky, set in verdant hills as the Mekong River flowed by. Beautiful country--so it seemed like a good idea. I joined a group led by a man named Keo. Let me tell you--Keo kicked my ass. His guy does this hike every day and has calf muscles like no one has ever seen calf muscles. So, the first three hours of the hike were up (emphasis on the up) and over a mountain into a valley. And this was “jungle trekking.” I was figuring a couple banana trees, maybe a vine or two. This was serious. It was the one and only time in my life that I have had a practical use for a machete. Thick growth, huge trees, tall and leafy enough to actually form a canopy in most places, humidity, and bugs.

Oh Jesus the bugs. Ants, of all shapes and colors, covered everything. There were mosquitoes big enough that they were required to file flight plans.

Lunch in the valley was nice. It was filled with butterflies, and marginally less ants. We swam in a creek and had lunch on an elevated thatched platform while children came out to see what the heck our deal was, and if maybe we would give them a gift or a pen or something. After lunch it was back through the fields and up and over another mountain, this one mostly down, but muddy. Let’s put it this way, it would not make a highlights reel of my most graceful moments. The fields were also filled with bushes at least six feet high, which is a problem when you are not. The only reason I am still not wandering around there is because of the sheer genetic quirk that one of the English guys in my group was tall and really blond. He made a good beacon if you jumped high enough.

After over-the-mountain we went tubing in a pitch-black cave, following a pull rope until it ended, and then following it back. There might have been something to see in there, but I don’t know because it was dark. It was also refreshingly cool and less refreshingly batty. Then it was through the fields to yet another ethnic village and yet another Buddha-in-a-cave. The only excitement on the way back to the pickup was when I found a snake in a drainage ditch. Ever curious about nature’s creatures, I asked the guy which one it was. By this time the snake had crawled out of sight (not keen on getting its picture taken, I guess), so I had to describe it to the guide, you know, bright yellow, with black markings… His face blanched a bit, then it was “hurry hurry, must go, very dangerous . . .” as he dragged us by our shirts away from the ditch.

I was exhausted by the time I got back to town and decided to relax by getting a beer and watching the sunset. The bar I chose, “Lucky Bar,” was on the river and required crossing badly lit rickety bamboo bridges and actually forging a small river to get there. I sat and watched the sunset over the mountains while the kids drummed, sang, and played in the water. The guys at the bar next door decided that it was too peaceful, so they decided to set off some fireworks to spice things up. (Editor’s Note: This is factually inaccurate. Actual fireworks as we know them are in short supply in Laos. Instead of the black powder-pretty color jobs we have at home, the guys just fired a shoulder mounted grenade launcher into the sky--US gave them plenty to fight the Commies. It landed across the river, where a suspicious “mist” started to rise soon afterwards. The author is covering up to keep with the peaceful theme.) After it started to get dark, I headed home to avoid any unpleasant mishaps with bamboo bridges.

Luang Prabang: Next morning it was an 8 hour bus ride through what appeared to be the set of The Lord of the Rings movies to Luang Prabang. The ride was through areas rumored to be terrorized by capitalist rebels, but the ride was uneventful. I attribute this mostly to the fact that every male over the age of 16 was carrying an automatic weapon. I checked into a guesthouse and hurried up the 329 steps to see the famed sunset from the top of Mt. Phoussi. The sunset was incredible, even though I shared it with various representatives of the League of Prosperous Nations. On the way down I decided not to follow the tourist herd. I found a sign written in Lao with an arrow. So I followed the arrow. And got lost. I found a monastery and a large statue of a reclining Buddha, but no way down. Eventually I came upon a group of monks and another monastery. It was dark by then. I asked which way to town and six different monks pointed in six different directions. The two youngest ones were appointed to take me to town. And off we went. (Where else in the world does a single unarmed woman readily follow two skinheaded teenagers down a dark path? It is all about those orange robes.) They were already late for prayers, so it was a pretty quick trip, but I arrived.

The next day I signed up for a tourist trip to the Park Ou, or the Buddha Caves. Eh. A bunch of Buddhas in a cave. No bats. But the leisurely two hour trip down on the Mekong was nice. That afternoon I went with a group of other travelers to swim in the Khouang Sy Waterfall. It was a seven tiered turquoise waterfall, the pool of which was perfect for swimming. I tried to hike to the top, which involved jumping more than one “No Admittance” sign, but the jungle got thick and there was no trail. The jungle view from tier five was nice though. The water in the pool was icy cold, but refreshing after the hike. A bunch of the guys were jumping off the rocks into the pool, but I declined, partly in fear of falling off the dangerously slick rocks, and partly in fear of what country my bikini would be found in after I hit the water.

On the way back to town we stopped to visit the endangered animals park. I petted a sun bear, which looks like a miniature grizzly but has the disposition of a lab puppy, but declined on the full grown female tiger. I was brave enough to get in the cage with her to take her picture, but she had a rep for course finger amputations for overly brave backpackers. We also stopped at H’mong village. It wasn’t a tourist village, so I was a little uncomfortable just walking around playing voyeur. (Can you imagine being in your kitchen after a long day, and have a pack of Vietnamese tourists staring in your window taking pictures as you were microwaving your Lean Cuisine?) Instead, I found a group of kids across the street playing a strange blend of soccer and volleyball. There was a net and rules were similar to volleyball, though you could double hit, but, like soccer, you could only use your head and feet.

Fast Boat: Any form of mass transportation that requires earplugs, a lifejacket and a motorcycle helmet as standard equipment is okay in my book.

There are three ways to get from Luang Prabang in Laos to the border to Thailand. 1) Fly. Too expensive. Next. 2) Slow boat, takes 3 days. No time, what else you got? 3) Fast boat. Insanely dangerous, but the right price and speed, so fast boat it is. These things have a bad rep because there is a serious accident about once a week and a handful of fatalities every year. But I’ve met some travelers who took it and they weren’t dead, and I was going to wear all my gear no matter what the rest of the people on the boat did, so I figured it would be okay.

Let me pause for a moment to describe this boat. It is the bastard love child of a really big wood canoe and a tractor. All the luggage is lashed to the front section, then there are three two foot by three foot wood boxes built into the canoe hull, with a thin cushion on the bottom. In each of these boxes, two full sized adults sit. You are already in the brace position because there is no other way to fit except curled up in a ball. On the back is a tractor engine with a prop mounted on a 5 foot slanted pole (to yank out of the water if it gets too shallow). The driver sits perched like a parakeet on this pole and steers. And the whole shebang is painted lemon yellow, red and teal. The racket from the engine is deafening, even with earplugs. And we do all this for 8 hours. So what, you may ask yourself, would be better than hurtling at Mach 1 down the Mekong River in a flimsy wood boat, smashed into a tiny ball with three Japanese hipsters and two arguing Spanish lesbians? Hurtling at Mach 1 down the Mekong River in a flimsy wood boat, smashed into a tiny ball with three Japanese hipsters and two arguing Spanish lesbians in the pouring rain! You’ve tilted the wind visor on the helmet as low as possible to protect your face and neck, but you’re arms are shit out of luck. It was like facing down a sandstorm of pissed off hornets. But strangely, when this happened somewhere in hour six, that made it all seem okay. You hit the point of absolute absurdity. What in hell are you doing? And you have to laugh. It is the same as if your commute was delayed for three hours because a green zebra with a cockney accent had decided to make crepes in the middle of the LIE (Long Island Expressway). You can’t stay mad. Eventually we arrived at the border, late of course. In my first 10 minutes in the Golden Triangle, I bribed a border guard to let me through. Then I didn’t have enough Lao money to pay for the ferry to Thailand, so I paid the boat guy in chewing gum. He respected my effort and, when it comes down to it, everyone likes Double Mint. I grabbed the last minibus out of town to Chang Rai and called it a day . . .

Chang Rai: ...or so I thought. The bus doesn’t actually go to Chang Rai. Dumps you off at a gas station about 4 km outside of town. After refusing a few drunk offers (to? LOL), I got a ride to the guesthouse. The guy was an absolute asshole, complete touchy feely balls-for-brains, and the bastard shortchanged me. The guesthouse was the dirtiest place I have ever seen, but I was so tired I just went to sleep. The next day I was up early to go motorbike trekking. Which means that I just ride around on the back and take pictures . . .

. . . or so I thought. The trip started out okay; we visited two caves with the standard bats and Buddhas. Then we headed off into the mountains. The motor bike turned out to be not strong enough to pull both of us up the steepest parts of the mountain. So, he rode and I followed, jogging, up 45 degree inclines in the brutal sun. This went on for about an hour. I was exhausted and completely soaked when the road finally flattened out again. The poor guy felt so bad. I was never going to accept his dinner offer now. (Which was a shame for him because I had “eyes like stars, hair like gold, and skin like silver.” I almost snorted a liche nut through my nose when he hit that last part.) The rest of the day went better though. Visiting ethnic villages, I got so many liche nuts as gifts because it was harvest season. Then I swam in a waterfall and later some hot springs, hiked through more countryside that looked like Lord of the Rings, climbed another mountain, sat down by the river. If they are still growing opium in these parts, I didn’t see any. Unless it was hidden under the bales and bales of liche nuts. It worked out well.

Tonight I walked through the night market (and got squid-on-a-stick for dinner--yeah for being back in Thailand!)

That’s all folks. Tomorrow it is off the Chang Mai for more trekking and then to Bangkok to fly out. As of now I will wake up Wednesday morning in Delhi, but I am trying to change the ticket to Katmandu. I’ll keep you posted.

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