Tuesday, August 26, 2008

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.

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