Thursday, January 1, 2009

#39: Viva Vietnam

Week 39 - Lao Cai Province, Vietnam

AND SO: we made it to Vietnam. After resigning ourselves to our Back to Malaysia! Tour '09, we made one final assault on the Vietnamese consulate in Kunming and... got our visas in two days. So here we are, at the border town of Lao Cai, tired and hungry and cranky and forced to wait another seven hours before our twelve-hour train to Hanoi. Grand.

We meandered around Chengdu for our last couple of days, hanging out at lots of really nice little bars and taking full advantage of the first decent hot showers since - uh - since Australia, actually. Chengdu continued to impress even as it got colder, and we're making plans to move back here to work in 2010, when, hopefully, we'll be able to deliver on our commitment to make it through Tibet, Nepal, India and on toward Iran.

In the meantime, we headed back south, to Kunming. There we found another city suffering from extreme pleasantness - and this one with a bit more warmth into the bargain. I know - pleasant? Lots of words spring to mind when you think of Chinese cities, but "pleasant" isn't one of them, unless it's part of the phrase "as unpleasant as a colonoscopy performed by a student doctor with unsteady hands". But while I can't speak for the gargantuan colonies of eastern China, Chengdu and Kunming are both extremely nice places to hang out and cry yourself to sleep over how little money you have left.

But they are cities, and they are in China, so one still walks around to the musical accompaniment of men and women, young and old, spitting noisily onto the footpath or out the window of the bus, or (slightly less commonly) vomiting into the gutter. One still gets elbowed in the face by wrinkled grandmothers with bony elbows trying to get onto a bus that's half-empty anyway. One still gets run into by silent electric scooters speeding down the footpath. One still has to physically pick up old men in big hats who push in front of you in the forty-five minute queue for train tickets and then set them down gently somewhere where they won't bother you. Incredibly frustrating at first, it eventually becomes sort of fun: it's every man, woman and child for themselves in China, no niceties or formalities, biggest asshole wins. And I can be a fairly big asshole when I set my mind to it.

New Year's in Kunming was fairly low-key: we trawled the bars and cafes around the uni and then settled on our hostel balcony to watch the sky fill with Chinese lanterns floating slowly past like dead jellyfish. It was a great way to spend an evening, even if it wasn't quite sweatily-dancing-on-the-sands-of-Bondi-to-DJs-until-collapsing-at-10am level of awesome. But if New Year's Eve was lacking in energy, New Year's Day was a cranked-up adrenalin-fuck of epic proportions. People swarmed into the city from across the province; leaving the hostel was like joining in a rugby game with no ball, no teams and with points going to those who shopped for cheap household appliances with the most gratuitous violence. I got rammed repeatedly from behind by a young mother with a big trolley; Erin ended up fatally impaling a guy with a 30% off umbrella while laughing maniacally. Or thought about it more than was healthy, anyway.

We left that night on a sleeper bus bound for the border. The bus crawled along in fits and starts, stopping every twenty minutes before finally dying a slow death at about three o'clock in the morning on a lonely stretch of dirt road in the mountains. The driver and a couple of other helpful souls jumped out to fix it; we lay wide awake to the sounds of clanging and swearing til five o'clock, when the bus finally rumbled back to life.

But the damage was done. We would miss the only morning train to Hanoi, watching the clock tick as the Chinese border officials quizzed us endlessly on ridiculous questions about our passports (to Erin: "In this photo you have a piercing! Where is your piercing now? And why are the edges of your passport rough?"; to me: "In this photo you are wearing glasses! Why aren't you wearing glasses?", and so on). Then the customs official confiscated two of our books, claiming that they are forbidden in China. "But we're not going to China! We're leaving it!" we protested. "Doesn't matter," he said, and stood staring us down until we skulked away miserably.

So now, we sit and wait for the 6:45pm train, which will drop us in Hanoi at the enchanting hour of 4am. Good times. We are armed with some two and a half million dong, which is about enough money for a concert ticket back home. But wads of cash are always nice to fondle, regardless of how worthless they may be.

But tomorrow we will be in Hanoi; in around two weeks we will reach Saigon. And, looking around me now, at the quiet streets and friendly faces and speeding golf buggies (Lao Cai's tourist gimmick is replacing cars with electric golf buggies; go figure) I think that after a big sleep and a nice big juicy cheese and veggie baguette, I'll enjoy Vietnam quite a lot.

Hope you're all well,


ps, Episodes 1-11 are up for viewing, and our techniques get more and more subtle - just what does the Pink Elephant sequence in Episode 10 mean? That's some straight-up impenetrable David Lynch shit there. The next few episodes will trickle through slowly as we're all split up, but we'll get there. Oh, and we busted the video camera trying to film ourselves on Dance! Dance! Revolution! machines in Chengdu, so expect the quality to drop even further from that point on.

#38: Dead Goat Christmas

Week 38 - Szechuan Province, China

THE HIGHWAY: continued to beckon to us in Litang, where I last left off. Litang was a stunning little town, but the altitude of 4,000m was just too much - doing up our shoelaces became an Olympic sport; walking down the street a marathon of endurance; sleeping in our beds a cacophony of noise as our hearts beat furiously to keep up with the demand for oxygen. We would have adjusted within a few days, but lacking the time we decided to push on to Kangding.

The ten hour ride thereafter was the worst we have experienced on this trip. It wasn't just that it was dangerous in places (it was) or unspeakably dull in others (it was) but that we sat up the back under the air vent half a foot above our heads, which served the twin functions of giving us something to smash our heads against going over each bump in the road (and the road was pretty much one long bump) while simultaneously spewing clouds of choking dust over us constantly, so that our hair and clothes were thick and crunchy with the stuff after an hour or so. In the morning, with the road blanketed in ice and snow, the driver swerved around clifftops and left Erin staring fixatedly out the window with exactly the same expression on her face that you see on young children watching Bambi when the mother gets shot. In the afternoon, with the roads dry and dusty and the landscape flat and featureless, the driver slowed it down so that we could feel every bump, inhale every dust particle (as well as those tasty tuberculosis particles floating around from the other passengers), and get the maximum amount of enjoyment from the whole thing.

But we made it. In Kangding, a fairly large city squeezed into a deep valley, we met up with a Portuguese-American for a couple of nights of cheap Chinese liquor to defend ourselves from the cold - and oh my, it was cold. Kangding lies at an altitude of 2600m, but it was far, far colder than anywhere we'd been, higher or lower. It was so icy that even wrapped up in all our layers it was only possible to spend about twenty minutes outside.

Strangest thing about Kangding - remember this is a large, completely modern city - is that, walking around one day, it started to snow a tiny bit. This was pretty exciting, as although we'd driven through acres of packed snow, it had never snowed on us before. So we walked around feeling pretty Christmas-y, with tiny flakes falling on our faces, when we started to feel a stickiness under our feets. We looked across the street, where, on a bridge in the middle of the city, was a small herd of goats and yaks. People were picking the ones they wanted for dinner that night. They were being slaughtered and skinned, right there on the street.

We were walking in a flowing stream of goat and yak blood, quickly congealing and freezing under our shoes.

(apparently that was China's way of saying, "Merry fucking Christmas, foreign devils!")

From Kangding we started on the last leg of our journey, on our first proper-sized bus in China, to Chengdu in the northeast of the province. Perhaps it's the results of spending a while at altitude, but Chengdu seems like a perfect city. It's compact and clean, quiet (all the motorbikes are electric), choc-a-bloc with great bars, great food, and friendly people (well, friendly in the standard Chinese pushy-and-rude sort of way). Erin and I came within inches of deciding to stay and work here; in the end it was only our continued memories of working in Bangkok and the promise of an Australian summer that dissuaded us.

Adam left us in a puff of smoke; we spent our last couple of nights getting drunk and silly and then, early Christmas morning, he was gone. Off to Nigeria by way of Bulgaria by way of Hong Kong, Adam was an absolute joy to travel with for the last three months, an ace at keeping the energy levels up and the excitement flowing, and we're going to miss him a helluva lot.

Subsequent to that, Erin and I suffered a harsh lesson in the importance of planning your travels in advance. With Tibet out of the picture we'd planned to waltz across the border to Burma. But from China, permits to Burma cost more than permits to Tibet, so that was out. Vietnam was another option, but two weeks to obtain our visa is two weeks that we can no longer afford, money-wise. So instead we've planned a Great Railway Bazaar, travelling by train from here in Chengdu all the way to Melacca in Malaysia (with a bus interval in Laos, seeing as though that country has precisely 13.5 metres of railway track, all on a bridge in the Mekong, left by the French after their planned Vietnam-China railway fell through).

It's an exciting plan, as it gives us more time in Malaysia - the one country that it felt like we rushed through. We leave today, for a 19-hour journey on the 4:10 to Kunming.

Hope you all have a fantastic new year,


#37: From Here We Go Sublime

Week 37 - Szechuan Province, China

BIG NEWS: this week is that we have made the decision to turn back from Tibet, with not enough time on our visas, too much money for the permits, and too much general hassle. Plus, we're currently at 14,000ft and feeling a touch of altitude sickness - Tibet rarely drops below 18,000ft. So, instead, we'll be continuing north as far as Chengdu, which we should reach by Christmas. Adam will then fly out to meet some friends in Bulgaria while Erin and I will loop back south to cross the border into Burma. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It was about a week and a half ago that we left Dali for Lijiang. Both are stunningly beautiful cities, full of the cobblestone alleys and gushing canals that most people assume disappeared from China with the first Coca-Cola sign. To walk around in during the day, wrapped in sweaters, jackets, scarves and beanies, surrounded by cherry blossom trees, they were exceptional.

But they're also complete tourist traps. Lucky we were here in winter: we were told by a couple of people that Lijiang, in particular, gets so crowded during the summer that people are habitually shoved into the canals by the force of the mob. Even in winter, it was a little disconcerting watching the endless groups of Chinese tourists obediently trotting along behind a tour guide armed with a large coloured flag and a megaphone. And nightlife: forget it. Cheap beer in Lijiang ends at sunset, after which you pay a ridiculous $9AU for a small light beer. After a couple of nights we caved in and spent $27 for three; two minutes after finishing we were told to order something else or get out.

We got out. Dali and Lijiang are one-day towns; their appeal is reliant on you not having time to notice the shit between the cracks. So we pushed on north to Tiger Leaping Gorge, where, surrounded by snow-capped peaks of 20,000ft or more, we trekked for two days along the ridge above the gorge. It was spectacular; we were covered in dust and our feet ached from the long climb but reaching the peak of the ridge and staring out into a 16km long gorge framed by those mountains was indescribably beautiful. China gets more and more beautiful at every turn; usually there are enough annoying aspects to match the good things but not here: alone on the track apart from the occasional goat-herder or trader carrying his goods by pony (plus a couple of Swiss backpackers with whom we had a drunken, stumbling night of draining bottles of cheap Chinese liquor), we felt the kind of peace that we had assumed China was incapable of giving.

From there to Shangri-La, at 10,000ft, where Tibetan prayer flags strung from hillsides and temples littered the countryside; where yaks replaced the cows in the paddocks and feral pigs replaced the feral dogs on the street. Crested by a massive monastery filled with dancing monks, people swinging prayer wheels, and lurid hypercolour murals of the gods and spirits, Shangri-La marked a massive difference from the China we'd seen so far. And we had it all to ourselves; even the beautifully-preserved old town was a ghost town with the freezing weather. Unfortunately, we weren't really in the mood to notice it: we were cold, we were tired, we were nauseous and breathless from the altitude. Basically: we were lame. So we stayed indoors, chewing on Tibetan bread ('baba') and tea eggs and rice porridge.

Then we thought: Hey, why don't we go somewhere even higher and colder?

Which is how we ended up here. We set out two days ago on a road infamous as one of the most dangerous in the world, the Szechuan-Tibet highway, little more than a dirt track skirting narrow ridges with sheer drops of a kilometre or more on either side. For ten hours on the first day we tried to act manly and not whimper and cry "OhgodfuckI'mgonnadienopleasefuck" as the bus grunted its way through passes layered heavily with snow, surrounded by mammoth peaks in every direction.

I tried to pass the time solving problems (as in, "How many flimsy-looking pine trees clinging tenuously to the cliff face would it take to stop a 4-ton bus of screaming passengers from rolling down that cliff?", or, "How many times can the bus roll down that hill before one of those giant pieces of heavy jagged metal that they've loaded into the aisle is certain to fly around and decapitate me?"); and eventually made it into the town of Xiangcheng with my dignity intact and my pants comfortingly dry.

Our dignity didn't last long there, however. Xiangcheng is less a town than it is a bunch of people working a vast transport scam. Namely, the woman supposed to be selling bus tickets onto Litang refused (illegally) to sell them to foreigners (we had been told by an expat in Shangri-La that this would be the case; this woman also happens to run a far more expensive - and therefore profitable - taxi service to Litang). We then tried to wake up early in the frigid morning and bribe / blackmail / violently coerce the busdriver into letting us on the bus, but he was having none of it, and when Adam and I tried to kick some ass he quickly subdued us with the "Seven Dragon Fists Beating the Shit Out of Weak Crying White Men" technique. How were we to know that he knew Tai Chi? Our language was no help; Erin and I haven't come far enough in our Mandarin studies and even Adam's skills aren't good enough to say "Holy Fucking Christ why are you doing this to us?".

In any case, we eventually ate a big serving of humble pie (tasting a lot like rice porridge) and shelled out the extra money to share a minivan with a Tibetan man whose breath smelt like all your worst nightmares, a Chinese man who inexplicably whimpered on every third breath for the entire trip, and an irritating German who couldn't tolerate the locals smoking in the van and so opened his window to a -16 degree breeze that cut through us like a knife covered in thick poison which is, itself, covered in rusty steel barbs which are then cursed with infinite misery.

At least the road was paved this time. It wound over endless arid plains, looking more like the scenery you'd expect to see in Iraq or Jordan than here. On each side frozen rivers wound by like white ribbons threading across the boulder-strewn landscape. It was a breathtaking 5-hour journey (in more ways than one), and left us here, wheezing and dizzy in Litang.

If Tibet gets any more Tibetan than this town, I'd be surprised. It's quite rare here to see a Chinese face, or to hear Mandarin spoken (unfortunate, since we know absolutely nothing in the Tibetan language). Yaks wander the streets; the motorbikes are ridiculously pimped out with streamers and flowers and psychedelic mudflaps; walnuts and dried apricots have taken over as the market food item of choice, and we are continually mobbed either by friendly faces shouting "Hello! I love you!" or robed beggars (some with demonic face-masks) chanting something that sounds like the word "Ziggy" over and over again, like "ziggyziggyziggyziggy". The beggars here are the most prominent and persistent since Battambang in Cambodia, which seems odd as the Chinese government now gives welfare and beggars have been thin on the ground elsewhere in the country.

We go to some hot springs today for a bit of blessed relief from the biting cold, then we continue our meandering way down the highway to Chengdu, which with some luck we shall reach by Christmas. Hopefully there will be showers there (showers having disappeared somewhere around Shangri-La). I will hopefully write again by Christmas, but in case I don't: Merry Christmas to each and all of you, hope it brings all the peace and happiness and video game consoles that you just know your parents got for you.


ps Episodes 7 and 8 are now up, covering our last few trips around Thailand. We're going to try and push through as much as possible before we split up, so expect an onslaught of Ping Pong Ka-Pow-age over the next week or so. http:\\

#36: Into the Belly of the Beast

Week 36 - Yunnan Province, China

CHINA IS: everything you think it's going to be. It's loud, it's dirty, it's smelly, it's smoggy. It's crowded, it's beautiful, it's utterly frustrating. It's: scratched kung-fu movies on sleeper buses, it's: old communists sitting calmly with a cigarette watching the dream die, it's: young women on tiny mobile phones in expensive boots and scarves. It's: plump middle-aged couples playing mah-jong in the park, it's: grim-faced men spitting on the street, it's: families huddled around outdoor tables hosting a gargantuan banquet of every edible thing known to man. It's: neon lights. It's: traditional temples with endless whirrs and clicks of cameras. It's: stunning mountains and streets lined with cherry blossom trees.

What I didn't expect, though: it's all happening at once, one massive enthralling mashed-up stir-fry of cliches and surprises.

Our last few days in Laos passed in a rush - from beautiful Luang Prabang north to Luang Nam Tha, past innumerable villages of bamboo huts staring out across the valley. In Nam Tha we paused awhile to sit by the river and smile at the young children who approached cautiously with shouts of "Sabai-dee!" and then ran screaming when we turned and replied. A couple of nights in a Chinese-run guesthouse graced with large portraits of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin while I overcame a stomach bug, then onwards. From the jungle we caught a rumbling bus over a Chinese-built road that had completely collapsed in some areas, leaving gaping holes that tumbled over nerve-wreckingly high clifftops.

At the Chinese border I expected trouble - a bag search, a bribe, a full-body inspection. Instead, the official quizzed us endlessly on what each part of the Australian coat of arms represented - not because he was suspicious of us but just because he was interested. We made some stuff up - "Um, I think that thing represents our greatest poet, Banjo Lawson..." - and then we were in China.

From the border town of Mohan on to Jinghong in an air-conditioned minibus cloudy with cigarette smoke (I have never seen a people as determined to smoke in every place they can possibly dream up as the Chinese - and that's coming after "Of course you can smoke in the cinema" Cambodia. Adam reports that one can still light up on some Chinese planes.). We crossed the Mekong - the fourth country in which we have sat by that river - into Jinghong and wandered around town, taking in the smells of hard work and industry and then coughing it up later in black snot and phlegm. It's certainly odd being around people who are constantly working after the "Maybe tomorrow" countries we've been living in for the last eight months. China seems absolutely full with things and people doing things. Erin and Adam, hyper with the excitement of a new country, buzzed about the streets exclaiming "Look at that!" "No, wait, look at that!" while I dragged along behind, tired and cranky and struggling to breathe in the smog.

From Jinghong we took a seventeen-hour sleeper bus - a delightful cornucopia of smells and sounds, let me tell you - to the old city of Dali, towards the northwest of the province. To give you some vague idea of the size of China: we have been travelling in modern buses, on modern highways: we have had more than twenty-two hours of straight travel: and we're still only halfway through the lowermost province.

After a long period of travel you can feel like you've been living on a constant diet of spicy squid-flavoured potato chips and sleeping pills, so here in Dali we shall rest up for a few days. It is a beautifully-preserved old town, strung with restaurants churning out stunningly-good food and criss-crossed with canals and lines of cherry-blossom trees. It's surrounded by mountains and is perched on a large lake - the air is crisp and cold and the spectre of winter has kept it empty of non-Chinese tourists. But it is freezing - we've bought some cheap thermals, and gloves, and a second layer of jackets, but I don't know how well they'll last us - and it's only going to get colder from here.

Our Mandarin is coming along much more rapidly than I had supposed it would; after three days we seem to have most of the essentials covered - introductions, bargaining, ordering food, and locating toilets. Though the latter is something we try to avoid, since Chinese toilets are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the worst toilets I have come across anywhere in the world. Papua New Guinean toilets were generally nothing more than a hole in the dirt, but at least most people seemed willing to aim for that hole. Going to the bathroom here is like running into a burning building to save a child: cover your face and get in and out as fast as humanly possible.

But in both its good and bad aspects China is absolutely captivating. A lot of people I know - including myself, up until a couple of months ago - have no real desire to travel to China. It seems crowded and dirty and pushy and polluted, and whatever seems beautiful about it one can find elsewhere - in Nepal, say, or Mongolia, or Vietnam. But that misses the crucial element that one only finds by coming here, which is that you simply cannot take your eyes off the entire dirty, noisy, perfect mess. This is a mammoth country, larger than you can imagine, and yet it's entirely filled - things are constantly happening or on the verge of happening; there is always something to see or to do or to have done to you.

From here we travel north to Lijiang, from where we make the crucial decision to take the hard road through Shangri-la, across icy roads traversing the snow-capped mountains of Szechuan to Chengdu; or whether we retreat to Kunming, to the comfort and convenience of the Chinese railway. Are we mice or men? I'm hedging my bets.


ps, Episodes 1-6 of Ping Pong Ka-Pow are all uploaded; we'll try to churn another out over the next few days.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

#35: Guns, Babes & Sticky Rice

Week 35 - Luang Prabang Province, Laos

AS CAPITAL: cities go, Vientiane is pretty hard to beat. It's practically empty (less than a quarter of a million people), full of smiling happy faces, French gardens, good food, roundabouts that nobody here can seem to work out how to use, and the shimmering Mekong slithering around it in endless magnificence. We went out to the temple for herbal saunas and massages, took bikes out to the decrepit circus gifted to Laos by the Russians during the 70's ("Where is hot plate for to put dancing bear, Dmitri?" "We send hot plate to Laos already, Ivan, you son of a whore! Now make bear fight four dogs and a one-legged Chechnyan!") and somehow ended up at a shooting range.

That place was a little scary; they had a delightful selection of live ammunition, mortar rounds and explosives from the Vietnam war and the van outside sported a massive windscreen sticker screaming "KILL THEM ALL!" (we, meanwhile, pulled up on bright pink bicycles with baskets on the front that we had hired from our guesthouse). So we shot off some rounds into a target (Adam wanted to shoot a Colt .45, but the lady at the counter took one look at our skinny white arms and decided that we were far too sissy for anything bigger than a 9mm) while the lady held our hands in the right position - this place was literally in the middle of the city and had no roof, so a little caution was necessary, I guess. We were given the target as a souvenir, and rode off on our pink bicycles as total gangsterz.

From Vientiane we caught a bus over meandering mountain ranges to Vang Vieng, the party capital of Laos and easily the most surreal and ridiculous place I have ever had the mixed fortune to visit. But let's not get ahead of ourselves: first I have to say that Vang Vieng has perhaps the most stunningly beautiful natural setting of any town anywhere in the world. It lazes by a picture perfect river while jagged, monstrous limestone formations covered in thick green forest surround it on all sides. And, before the sun sets, there is a world's worth of things to do there - bicycles rides to little villages, motorbike rides into the nearby mountains, white water rafting, kayaking, all kinds of caving, swimming, rockclimbing, and floating down the river in the inner tube of a tractor tyre.

After the sun sets, however:

Vang Vieng falls in prostrate worship to six gods. Their names are Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe and Joey. Friends is not just a TV show on the main street of Vang Vieng. It's a way of life. Imagine, if you will, a row of bars stretching for a couple of hundred metres on either side of a main street. The bars are not large, but there are lots of them, competing for your business. Now imagine that every one of them - every single one - is playing Friends on several large screens. No games of pool, no live bands. Not even any goddamn Seinfeld or Simpsons. Every bar with a different episode of the same show, each night, all night. Welcome to Hell.

It doesn't end there.

Vang Vieng is freezing this time of year, especially at night, but wander down a side street away from the Friends drag and what do we have? Ah, bars full of half-naked eighteen and nineteen year olds dancing drunkenly around campfires in their bikinis, falling over logs and threatening to sue the bar owners, yelling at each other about how 'wicked' the Man U v Hull match was (these wild, beautiful, loud, stupid children being almost inevitably British), and just generally being young and boorish and tour group-y. This side of Vang Vieng reaches its peak on the river, where hundreds each day pick up their inner tubes and begin to float down the river, taking in the peace and tranquility.

Wait, did I just say "peace and tranquility"? Oh. What I meant was "giant motherfucking rave parties on each side of the river with techno music from 1997 blaring into the valleys below, copious amounts of Lao whisky being drunk from plastic buckets, mud baths and waterslides, massive cranes from which these pretty young things fling themselves into the river, and hundreds of other teenagers, just as drunken and horny and undressed as themselves".

And: it still doesn't end there.

Find your way past the Friends brigade and past the teenagers revelling in their Spring Break Girls Gone Wild-athon, and one comes inevitably to The Island in the middle of the river, which every night becomes a giant ship adrift in a sea of cheap opium, cheap magic mushrooms, cheap methamphetamines, cheap marijuana, and expensive beer. Here the people huddle around campfires muttering things to themselves and vaguely asking each other, like, what's the deal with, you know, stuff. We all tried out the mushroom shakes: I held a telepathic conversation with a tree for about an hour, Erin made friends with a skeleton who hid inside the wall and told her to burn things, and Adam composed a song on ukelele for a whale shark inside our room which was later revealed to be a broken air conditioner. Later, after an opium shake, I spent several hours with a stupid grin plastered to my face belting out "We Built This City (On Rock & Roll)" from my manically writhing hammock. It wasn't a pretty sight.

Out from behind the looking glass, we caught a bus over zigzagging hills and cliff-edge villages for six hours north to Luang Prabang, the great temple city of Laos. We had decided to stay only a night or two; Luang Prabang is a beautifully-preserved city ("and it's full of fucking hipsters," as we were told by 19-year old Jarred), but there doesn't seem much to do at first. Give it time though, and the city becomes vital and exciting; it is the top of the loop for most travellers on the Thailand-Laos-Vietnam-Cambodia circuit and thus functions as something of a gathering point - here we met up with people we'd met all over the place, most notably Canadian Ben and Christine from Chiang Mai, who dragged us along with a few more buddies to a sticky rice festival at a nearby Hmong village.

We drank and danced; we danced and drank. And then we were molested. Erin found herself cordoned off by a bunch of teenage Lao boys who rubbed suggestively against her hips as if it was a Year 5 school disco or something: one even tried to trap her with the old wrap-your-scarf-around-her-waist-so-she-can't-get-away trick. Meanwhile, a group of teenage girls dancing with me were getting increasingly close, and one kept pinching and pulling at my shirt. I backed away a little, and all of a sudden she sort of launched her face at my crotch. Which was embarassing.

And now we are finally ready to leave for our final destination in Laos - the jungle city of Luang Nam Tha. We face an eleven-hour bus ride tomorrow (to cover a paltry 200km) over what will invariably be more scenery which is so beautiful it makes me want to cry but which I will never, ever, be able to adequately describe for someone who hasn't been here. So be it. By the time I next write we will be inside the great red monster on our maps. Next week we will be in China.

Hope everyone's well,


#34: The Long Goodbye and the Stuffed Penis

Week 34 - Vientiane Prefecture, Laos


IT'S TIME. After eight months - thirty-four weeks - we have left Thailand for the very last time. An end to the heat and humidity and crowds and smells of Bangkok; an end to the mountains and beaches and parties and soft breezes of everywhere else. A final end to circling and backtracking; we are aiming ourselves on a straight shot to Tibet, through Luang Prabang, Kunming, Shangri-La, Chengdu, Golmud, a dozen names both mythically familiar and wilfully obscure. We are on the great north road and only poverty or frozen-to-death-ness will stop us.

Our relationship with Thailand has been a turbulent one; she flirts with us, showing us wild jungle and beautiful people and islands that you thought only appeared in dreams. She gives us food heaving with spices and flavour, mountains crisp with cold air, train rides full of light and wind. But Bangkok looms constantly in the background, that ominous vacuum, and she drags us through its smog-filled cesspits and recesses each time we get too close. But I could ask for nothing more of my experience in that country: I was amazed, I was frustrated, I was ecstatic, I was awakened, I was sick with Dengue fever, I was chased by wild elephants, I was thrown off a mechanical bull at a strip club. I shat on the trains, rode rings around the valleys, swam in the lush clearness of the ocean, bathed in the warm breeze as I hitched rides in the back of pickups. And just because I hated Bangkok does not preclude me from having loved it as well - the food and the action, the people and the noise. Thailand was our everything and now it is banished to memory. We do not leave her easily.

Kevin flew in from Singapore to visit us for our last week; there are few better feelings than seeing an old friend after many months adrift. And after some seven years of university the guy's full of sage-like wisdom: we spent most of the week listening with slack-jawed awe to his explanations of everything we thought we knew about the world. What can I say? Dude's a genius. He should change his name to GoogleKev, or, at least, use his brains to con elderly pensioners out of their life savings. He just knows everything about everything.

Together the four of us headed north to the river town of Tha Ton, where we had planned to commandeer a bamboo house-raft complete with a cook and a guide for three days. That turned out to be a little optimistic; we only had the money to jump in a long boat for the day as we floated down the majestic river through rocks and rapids, stopping at temples overgrown by jungle and hill-tribe villages surrounded by water buffalo bathing in the thick mud. Some ninety kilometres downriver we were dropped at a set of hot springs where we bathed in the heat under the incessant buzz of fluorescent pink dragonflies, ignorantly dropping their larvae into the pool where they quickly died and sank to the bottom.

We planned to stay with an Akha tribe in a nearby valley, and attempted to hitch a ride there with a friendly Japanese man who drove by. He drove us for several kilometres to the wrong village, whereupon it was revealed that he was actually a Christian missionary building a church for the heathens. Oh. So, basically, he was a fuckwit, and we wanted no more to do with him. Except: he was our only way out. So we spent a while chatting to the village girls (who spent a while trying in vain to get Adam to hold a chicken; Adam has a weird phobia about those kind of things) and watching with smug grins as a large crucifix brought to the village was thieved by a snotty three-year old and used to dig canals through the mud. And then we asked to be taken back.

We made it there in the end, to the Akha village in the valley, and spent a couple of truly amazing days bathing under ice-cold waterfalls, working up great sweats walking up and down the hills of the tea plantations, trading swear words and bad jokes with the tribespeople in a variety of languages, and just genuinely loving everything about Thailand. And then the comedown: we arrived in Chiang Rai, a blurred dullness of a city, all overcast skies and roaring traffic and glaring light. We had planned to spend a couple of nights there but after about three hours we were aching to leave; the next day we caught a bus back to Chiang Mai.

Which is where things got ugly.


SO LET'S: just say that Thailand's public transport system is not terribly forgiving to what we would consider normal bodily functions. Case in point: on a different bus to Chiang Mai (to pick up Kevin from the airport), I had what you could call a rumbling; I did precisely what I'd done for the previous eight months and put it to the back of my mind. An hour later, still without having stopped, it became a little more serious. A lot of clenching went on. Twenty minutes after that I approached the bus driver and, in sheepish, faltering Thai, explained that it would be really, really great if he stopped the bus soon so that I didn't shit all over my seat and the small lady sitting with her groceries beside me.

He looked at me gravely.

"Mmm. Five kilometres," he said.

I sat down with the look of a man who's been told the date of his execution, while the bus driver turned to the Thai women behind him and explained the situation in hoots of laughter while pointing with hands that should really have been on the steering wheel. I stared straight ahead as five kilometres came and then went. The Thai woman turned to me and said, "Ten minutes."

By the time we stopped I was tightening every muscle in my body with so much effort that I couldn't even walk. It was another half hour until the trembling ceased.

So, like I said, not very forgiving. This time, coming back from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai, I'll spare the buildup. Let me just say that all four of us were suffering from bloated bladders, and that, at one point, Erin turned around in her seat to the sight of me, seated in front of an orange-robed Buddhist monk (I swear, I didn't know he was there), desperately trying to stuff my penis into the neck of a plastic bottle I'd found on the floor of the bus while simultaneously trying to cover up the entire wicked deed with Erin's nicest sweater. Not my proudest moment; it didn't even work. I still had to wait the two hours to the rest stop.

SIDENOTE: I have no idea what I planned to do with the bottle after I'd finished peeing. It didn't even have a lid.

We arrived in Chiang Mai, one way or the other. We spent a couple of lovely days motorbiking around the province as we had on our last visit; we got the cheapest massages we could possibly find and then complained that they weren't very good; we got viciously drunk at a rooftop bar and ended up at a place called Mike's Burgers, where I only remember using my Cheezy Fries (TM) to scrape as much of the disgusting, goopy Cheeze (TM) out of my Cheezy Fries (TM) box as I possibly could and dripping it all over my mouth and shirt in what was possibly an even lower moment than the stuffing-my-penis-in-a-bottle thing.

SECOND SIDENOTE: We also ran into Gerard "Not-Gerard" the Belgian. This time, he was sporting a mysterious foot injury, he invited us to play World of Warcraft with him at 3am (who knew James Bond is actually a fat thirteen-year old with no friends underneath that suit?), and the Thai Boxing Stadium was promoting an upcoming bout with a picture that looked suspiciously like him. Mysteriouser and mysteriouser...

Kev flew back into the bowels of Singapore (and props to him - it was great fun having him out here for a week and we all enjoyed his company immensely); and we loaded ourselves up on beer and antidepressants for the twelve-hour bus ride to Laos.

And now we are here, back in perfect Vientiane, where we cycle the wide boulevardes to the gentle bubbling of conversation erupting from the cafes and spilling out over the streets. We drink wine, we eat fine French food (at $2 a pop), we watch the sunset over the Mekong (again).

Laos is the guy at school that nobody ever says a bad word about; he never dates your ex-girlfriends, he always brings beer to parties, he thinks that your taste in music is excellent and he covers for you in front of your parents without even having to think about it. Laos even does your homework for you when you're feeling sick. Basically, Laos is a total fucking dreamboat.

We love it here, but we've got to be going. Tomorrow we head to Vang Vieng.


#33: Don't Happy Be Worry

Week 33 - Mae Hong Son Province, Thailand

THE FESTIVAL: was a jubilant ejaculation of light and sound as hundreds of Thais, Burmese and various hill-tribes converged on the town to show their thanks to the Water Goddess by chucking as much plastic and styrofoam shit into the rivers and lakes as they possibly could. Then they shot off some fireworks, made the sky into a fiery sea of floating lanterns, bought some more plastic stuff, threw the packaging into the lake, and went home.

Job done.

By the way, "Water Goddess"? Um... I didn't know they had one of those in Buddhism. Er. Ahem. Well. Well, they don't, per se, but Thai Buddhism isn't so much "hey, let's study the Buddhist teachings and live our lives by them" as it is, "hey, let's use the most ridiculously superstitious parts of Buddhism, pile it in with some Hinduism, Chinese astrology, numerology and good ol' animism, and see if we can win the lottery with it". Hence: the commitment of most Thais to Buddhism is bringing eggs and flowers to the temple when they've done something wrong, and then putting more eggs and flowers in the dollhouse outside their home to appease the house spirits (every single building in Thailand, from the lowest shack to the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, has such a spirit dollhouse). Up north, the superstitiousness is strongest, and people continue to put scarecrows outside their house to ward off ghosts and make sacrifices to the Rice God.

Digression aside, Mae Hong Son was a perfect little town. The festival was fun and full of colour, and I got to throw my $1 bag of fireworks around like an eight-year old with a year's supply of red cordial coursing through his veins. The air was crisp and cold and excellent for long walks up the terraced walkway scaling the mountain to the temple to watch lanterns being launched into the night sky, and teenage monks clad in their orange robes surreptitiously gambling with their friends behind the cover of trees.

Wheeling motorbikes about the hills the day after, wrapped in beanies and sweaters, was something incredible. The road took us out along narrow ridges and across jagged ledges; we stopped at a cave full of sacred fish who are believed to be vegetarian - Thai families line up to throw them carrots and lettuce. Best of all was the English sign above the cave - "The cave is teeming with a crap species of fish" (presumably they meant "carp"). From there out past small villages full of screaming children to the last village on the map, Ban Rak Thai.

Ban Rak Thai was originally Mae Aw, and was basically a settlement of anti-communist Chinese soldiers arriving into Thailand as refugees after being booted by Burma several decades ago. The change of name (Ban Rak Thai means "The Village That Loves Thais") was probably a publicity stunt to save a bit of face. Nowadays it's the last town on the road before a sketchy dirt track leads out to a 'No Foreigners Allowed' border crossing with Burma. It remains a very Chinese sort of place, and we sat for endless cups of Oolong and Jasmine tea before the encroaching darkness and freezing temperatures sent us rolling back down the map. Past the screaming children, past Shan villages of solemn women in traditional clothes and grim-faced men with large knives strapped to their backs, past national parks of peaceful lakes surrounded by cliffs and forests of pine, back to Mae Hong Son and a warm bed before our morning ride to Pai.

Pai is the kind of town you get in every country - the Byron Bay, the Vang Vieng, the Queenstown - a drawing point for travellers of all kinds, where you trade great parties and food and nightlife in exchange for relentless Americans with bullhorn voices and all kinds of tacky, shitty merchandise being shoved at you from all angles (though the 'Don't Happy, Be Worry' climate-change-awareness t-shirts were a highlight).

Unfortunately, our trip unintentionally co-incided with the cremation of HRH the Princess, who died a year ago and whose body has been on display to the public since. Now, since she was getting cremated, HRM the King decided to declare a dry weekend across the nation. No alcohol. Enforced sobriety. In the town where the nightlife was the only attraction. Balls.

We did what we could. Erin and I enrolled in a cooking school and spent the days whipping up gigantic bowls of green curry, pad thai, kao soi, laab tohu, panang curry and mango sticky rice - Erin with her trademark elegant artistry, me with my hand held with increasingly frustrated force by the lady teaching us in her back kitchen. Adam hired a bicycle and set out to get lost among the rice paddies, finding his way to another ex-communist village and a waterfall in the jungle.

We got by. And by our last night, cracks were appearing in Pai; alcohol was slipping through, to great rejoicing and gnashing of teeth. Wandering the streets late at night, we were adopted by Pom and her sister, who had started a campfire in the middle of a frontyard that didn't belong to them in the middle of town and were busy drinking and cackling around it like wild children. Pom was excellent; she had emerged from a tragic past of dead husbands and divorce to become an awesome force of drunken destruction. She was a fantastic combination of the cool girl from Chasing Amy (her standard greeting was "Hey, fuck you, man") and some sort of Russian transvestite (addressing everyone as "honey" or "dah-link") and just sweated class as she stumbled about the campfire with a whiskey bottle in hand, complaining of how she couldn't see the stars and dreading going to work at her massage parlour the next day.

The night got out of hand. Adam went through a fence and fell five feet onto his back. We somehow ended up attached to a Thai rastafarian who couldn't speak a word of English but whom we knew as The Pixie Child; he passed out onto Erin's lap before disappearing in an explosion of fairy dust. Then an extremely drunken Irishman went to hit Erin on the head with a blue rubber flipflop after an impassioned argument about Catholocism; the thong made it within inches of Erin's forehead before the Irishman slowly and gently teetered over on his side, falling straight to the floor and taking several beer bottles with him. Then a Scotsman yelling at us because we hadn't heard of some religious lady named "Anoon"; eventually we worked out he was saying "a nun". He settled down. At some point, we went home.

And awoke, a couple of hours later, to a cacophony. Behind our bungalow, at the Muay Thai gym, pasty Brits with exaggerated fantasies of themselves as Thai martial arts superstars were throwing each other around the ring and making exaggerated grunting noises while the clanging of flab against metal echoed off our thin bamboo walls. Off in the fields, a symphony of roosters were competing for the title of "Rooster Most Likely to be Violently Strangled by Lachlan". And, just to add a touch of surrealism, a hidden man had set himself up in the reeds by the river with an alto saxophone and was shooting through his particular rendition of the classics with as much volume as he could muster.

It was time to leave Pai.

So. Soon: I will collect my friend Kev from Chiang Mai airport. Then: an adventure.