Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Laos/Thailand trip - Chapter 2

As I sip on my pineapple shake and watch the sun set behind the mountains across the Mekong River, I reflect on the last 36 hours and the road that brought me to Luang Prabang. I arrived in Vientiane, Laos around 10 a.m., 2 hours behind schedule. I told the tuktuk driver to take me to Buddha Park but when we arrived the park was about a meter deep in water, an aftermath of the recent floods. Determined to not see any tourists turn away disappointed, two locals had their skiff boats sitting at the entrance ready to give a unique tour of the park. The park was amazing. A man trying to offer a different view on the history of Buddhism and Hinduism and their teachings constructed the sculptures in the 1950s.

After the park I checked into a guesthouse for 5 USD. A few hours in Vientiane left me feeling unimpressed with the capitol city. It was the typical big, dirty city with a few touristy temple, same as the hundreds of temples I have already seen with a slightly different design. As such, I decided to ditch the room I had already paid for and catch a bus heading 11 hours North to Luang Prabang. The cheap accommodation prices are a perfect fit for my spontaneous nature. Besides, Vientiane is not the Laos I had dreamed about; from what I’ve read, Luang Prabang is. After all, that is the place that molded my expectations of this country.
The bus ride was an interesting one with locals and Laotian music blaring on the radio for most of the night. Out the window I could see the simple villages of the local people. Each hut was raised on stilts to avoid flood damage and there was no electricity. The atmosphere was dark with one or two flickering candles every few hundred meters. With no lights the silhouette of mountains in the background began to paint the picture of the Laos I have read about – a lush landscape of villages hidden in the trees and surrounded by mountains.

Around 11 p.m. the bus suddenly stopped in the middle of the jungle, miles from any sign of civilization. My first thought was, “oh no, a landslide from all the rain must be blocking the road.” As people began to alight I realized it was just a bathroom break, and where better than in the middle of jungle brush?

The next eight hours were spent struggling to sleep, much worse sleeping conditions than the train. My soft laptop case rolled up was the only makeshift pillow I could concoct to cushion my head on the hard plastic armrests. After a rough two hours of continuously interrupted sleep I woke with the sun. The surrounding landscape was ripe with scenes meet for any National Geographic magazine cover. Majestic mountains covered with the greenest of green trees stood tall in the background. Thatch-roof huts constructed of bamboo sat meagerly in the foreground. The few people on the roadside smiled as I waved to them from my window. “What do people do here?” I thought to myself. In my travels I have found it intriguing that people with such simple, humble settings seem to be some of the happiest people I have ever met.

We pulled into the Luang Prabang bus station at 7 a.m. Seven of us crammed into a tuktuk for the 10K ride into town. The streets were lined with groups of monks in their bright orange robes walking to the nearby temple for a day of prayer and instruction. Other bystanders would stop and stare at the white guy hanging off the back of the tuktuk passing by. The same lush green mountains built a wall around the town. It seems as though that wall is impenetrable by Western influence. There are no billboards displaying products or models from America, no foreign cars, not even a McDonald’s or 7-11 on the street corner. Yes, this is the Laos I was looking for.

Sitting by the “Mighty Mekong” now, I am already beginning to reminisce about the things I have experienced. I can tell I will miss it when the time has passed. I’ll miss the elephant riding, swimming in waterfalls in the jungle, sharing life experiences with monks I meet at the temples, talking with locals excited to practice their English, and the laid back atmosphere where the locals seem to be void of a care to keep track of the time (nobody seems to wear watches). I still have a good week and a half of traveling left before heading to China. I hope I can make the most of my time.

Laos/Thailand trip - Chapter 1

I have never been to a country where I didn’t know the language well enough to get by. A few hours after touchdown in Bangkok I struggled with and failed at trying to explain to a local hairdresser that I wanted the sides a little shorter than the top. I could tell this was going to be an interesting journey.

For the last two months I have been planning to tour through Laos and Thailand. My “planning,” however, does not involve making plans. All I know is a starting point and date, a final destination and date, and a few places of interest along the way. The starting point is Bangkok, Thailand on August 16. The first leg includes taking a train from Bangkok into Laos on the day of arrival. After making my way through Laos the final destination will be Chiang Mai, Thailand on August 23rd where I will spend a few days touring the area on a scooter. Then I need to be back in Bangkok on the 28th so I can catch my flight to Lanzhou, China where I will spend a year attending school. So far so good – other than the humbling realization I cannot communicate with the locals.

Trying to get around for the short time I was in Bangkok was an adventure all on its own. Tuktuk drivers would take me 100 meters and then stop and refuse to take me any further unless I agreed to visit and buy something from one of his friends’ stores. At least that’s what I understood from the combination of hand gestures, pile of business cards, and shattered (not just broken) English. My next attempt was a “metered” taxi. I emphasize metered because although the words “Metered Taxi” are lit up on top of the car, the first few taxis I tried refused to turn on the meter and instead tried bargaining prices with me. It was an interesting few hours.

Right now I am making sweat puddles in my bed on a sleeper train to Laos. I have the top bunk next to a fan, but for privacy and safety purposes I need to pull the curtain closed next to the bed which blocks any flow of air into or out of my windowless 5x3x2 hot-box. Comfort aside, I am excited for the trip. Laos is supposed to be a beautiful place free of Western influence. UNESCO has rated it a world heritage destination because it has held so closely to culture and traditional ways of life. What will make it even more interesting is that last night before leaving Hong Kong I saw on the news that in the past week Vientiane (my train’s destination) and Luang Prabang (the city I want to spend most of my time in) had the worst flooding they have had since 1966. It will certainly be an adventure.
The steady 2/4 rhythm of the train on the tracks is soft enough to lull me to sleep; yet the jolts of the car every few beats are hard enough to deprive me of slumber. After a three-hour battle I decided to give up the fight: one point, jostling coffin from hell.

Unable to sleep, I moved to the ground level where I could look out the window. Through the glass I could see one of the clearest canvases of stars I have ever seen. The complete lack of light pollution in Eastern Thailand allows a brilliant night sky to show itself to insomniacs such as myself.

I enjoyed God’s gift to this restless being for a while before deciding to clean up. I noticed a showerhead over the toilet earlier in the night, but there was one problem: I have no soap, no shampoo, and no towel. I quickly devised a simple solution: use the hand soap on the sink for body wash and shampoo and use my pillowcase as a towel. The shower wasn’t the best, what with the cold water and the swaying cars throwing me off balance, but it feels nice to be clean again. More tomorrow.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Simple Man

I saw the end of a rainbow, today, sitting Southwest of Chiang Rai, Thailand. There was no leprechaun and no pot of gold; only a lush green field lying at the feet of majestic mountains to the West. Now that I think about it, maybe the leprechaun was camouflaged against the greenery and the gold is in the earth below. Should that be true, somewhere in the outskirts of Chiang Rai is one lucky man sitting on a fortune; though, his meager lifestyle would make one believe he is anything but lucky.

His bed is the bamboo floor of a thatch-roof hut. The frequency of his showers is determined by weather patterns of each season. The calluses on his hands have calluses of their own, an inevitable result of his sixty years on the farm. Since the age of eight, when he first stepped into the fields, up to now, the dirt on his clothes has never seemed to fade. How could it when each day's labor is tended to with the entirety of his wardrobe? When he smiles, it is hard to distinguish between the dark gaps where teeth are missing and the dirt-covered, cavity-filled teeth that somehow still fulfill their role of breaking down his daily serving of rice, bread and the occasional piece of fruit.

Yes, this humble man, like many of those I have met along the way, still smiles. There is no questioning why years and years of hardships were laid on his plate instead of juicy steaks and fries. He does not ask why survival is solely dependant on his own will to fight. The simplistic story of his life has bred the philosophy that "that is just how things are." What rationale has he to frown when his viewpoint of life stands true in his eyes? He has it figured out. He is happy.

Like I said, somewhere in the outskirts of Chiang Rai is one lucky man sitting on a fortune. I hope he never finds that fortune; it is not the root of his luck and happiness.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chiang Saen, Thailand

Yesterday I woke up in a village town called Pakbeng located on the Mekong river in Laos. After a three hour speedboat ride north I arrived in the Laos/Thailand border town of Huayxay where I had to take a ferry across the river and enter Thailand. As the day was trailing into late afternoon most buses from the Thai border town, Chiang Khong, were already gone, but there was one heading to Chiang Rai. I had heard of Chiang Rai and knew it was about half-way to Chiang Mai (my next destination where I would meet my friend in two days) so I decided to jump on the bus.

In Chiang Mai I was surprised to see a few 7-11s in town and HBO on the guesthouse lobby television, two things I saw nowhere in Laos. The night was a relaxing one, but after reading up about Chiang Rai it didn't seem like there was much to do other than visit some temples or go to the night market, something I have done numerous places throughout Asia. When I woke this morning I decided I have one day left before meeting up with my friend and if I wanted to do anything new I would need to leave Chiang Rai. I packed my bags and went to the bus station, not sure where I would go. I saw a bus to Chiang Saen, a town just next to the Golden Triangle in Northern Thailand. The Golden Triangle is on the Mekong River where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet. The place sounded interesting so I planned to go for the day. When I arrived I walked around the streets trying to find a place to stay but nobody spoke English. Finally I found a guesthouse on the Mekong River that charges a little under 5 USD a night (expensive compared to the 1-3 USD places I have been staying for the past week). I rented a bike and cruised around town for a bit and headed down to the Golden Triangle which is about 8KM away. I read in the traveler's book on Thailand that in Chiang Saen one should allow half a day to visit the sites and then plan a few hours to go to the Golden Triangle. That estimate must have been if one was planning on walking slowly. It is now 3 o'clock, just 3 hours after stepping off the bus. I probably spent half an hour to an hour finding a guest house and the bike shop and then rode around on the bike for a little while. I have already seen all the places the lady at the bike shop pointed out to me on a map.

I might head to Chiang Mai if my laundry gets done soon and I can find a bus heading that direction. If not I'll just kick it here for the night. I'll write more on my whole trip later and put up the many many pictures I have taken, just wanted to post something while I had the time. Lata'!

Monday, August 4, 2008

Routine - the Assassin of Fascination

"Finally, the bus is here!" I think to myself. Even at six in the evening, standing outside in Hong Kong can seem unbearably hot. Not to mention the car exhaust blowing on you as the endless chain of vehicles ease by in the rush hour traffic jam. The extra heat and fumes only add to the discomfort and misery of the situation.

I dig into my pocket and scrounge up seven dollars for the fare. As I step onto the 16 passenger mini bus the Beijing Opera singer on the radio sends chills down my spine. If PETA had a "Recognizing Suffering Animal Sounds" CD I swear you would think we were listening to "Track 17: A severely beaten seal." I take a seat and pull out my MP3 player to drown out the wretched sound. After all, “Mask irritable sounds and voices” is iPod use #33, isn't it? If it's not officially stated, it's certainly universally understood.

Thoughts from work run through my mind. "What do I need to pull together before my trip to Australia? What will I need to discuss with the contractor in the Philippines? What am I going to report about my trip to Indonesia?" The tasks seem endless; though, the recent daily routine seems redundant.

The routine begins each day around 6 p.m. when I leave my 20th floor office at Pacific Place in Admiralty. I descend to the underground where I fight my way into a spot on the subway only slightly smaller than my own stature. Two stops and a few close encounters with accidental moral degradation later I alight in Causeway Bay.

Resurfacing behind SOGO, one of the largest department stores in Hong Kong, I am met by the same sights as the day before. The "Chocoolate" clothing store with a huge Burger King logo is directly in front of me. And if you're asking…yes, that's how "chocoolate" is spelled; yes, it has the Burger King logo but is, in fact, a clothing store; and yes, I am still confused about the whole thing. Yet, they do have nice clothes.

As I turn left down the street, the short walk to the bus stop graces me with more familiar scenes that remind me I am in Hong Kong. I give a nod to the street vendors selling DVDs of movies that are still in the theatres. I wave my hand at the massage parlor customer recruiters on the right and the porno magazine stand workers on the left to let them know I am not interested in their services. Then, after playing a quick game of hesitate-and-go with the taxis crossing my path, I arrive at the #5 mini bus station.

Safe on the bus now I sink into oblivion, completely unaware of my surroundings. The various languages spoken by other passengers, the advertisements and store signs covered with Chinese characters, the driver nearly side-swiping pedestrians in his mad dash for a break in traffic he can barely manage – all are nothing short of customary to me. At this point I would be more startled to see a baby in a diaper rather than a kid in crotch-less pants relieving their self on the sidewalk.

As we begin to traverse up the North side of Hong Kong Island’s mountain range I hear a loud beep. “Oh no!” I think. I forgot to re-charge the battery on my MP3 player and it is about to abandon me to abhorrent singing and obnoxious passengers yelling, “有落,” at the bus driver indicating they need to get off. I guess I’ll have to suffer the consequences of my own negligence.

Without music to distract my thoughts I begin paying attention to my surroundings. I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed the thought of being immersed in Asian culture. Everything is so different, yet the monotony of my daily routine has desensitized me to the fascination. To my left the skyscrapers line both sides of the harbor. The unique structure of the buildings adds to the wonder of the city. In Central District is the IFC tower, the tallest building in Hong Kong where Batman kidnapped Mr. Lau in his most recent movie. Nearby there is the HSBC building, a more than life-size Lego structure. If needs be, the building can be pulled apart piece-by-piece and reassembled in a different location. Across the harbor in Tsim Sha Tsui I can see the Peninsula Hotel, which has been cited numerous times as the world’s best hotel. Many other buildings are just as spectacular and interesting.

At the crest of the mountain, the beautiful metropolis below fades into the background as we meet the luscious landscape of Hong Kong Island’s Southern region. The vast contrast leaves me feeling as if we have teleported to a different place and time. Two seconds ago I was looking at the largest cityscape I have ever seen and now I see a nearly uninhabited forest with the exception of a few buildings reaching to the sky from the green base below. Beyond the trees sits the ocean dotted with outlying islands and fishing boats heading back to the docks. The reflection of the setting sun on the water’s surface enhances the splendor of the view.

“有落,” I yell to the bus driver. As I step off the bus the questions running through my head are significantly different than at the beginning of today’s journey. I ask myself, “How have I not noticed the beauty of the South side of Hong Kong Island before? When did I become so disinterested in the unique characteristics of the Asian culture? What else have I missed out on during my distraction with work?”

What caused the change? There is only one answer: routine. Routine is the assassin of fascination – an unobtrusive creature eradicating beings from their enjoyment of daily life. One can only hope to be reminded of the excitement in little things. Kids can do it, why can’t I?