Saturday, August 27, 2011

Travels South

The old city of Luang Prabang, a slender peninsula overlooking the Mekong and Nam Khan River, is an elegant, quiet and absolutely charming city. The streets along the river are lined with fancy restaurants, wide banyan trees and coconut palms. French-inspired architecture, jewel-encrusted temples, and monasteries (where orange robes worn by monks hang outside to dry in the sun) meet narrow side streets where locals sell Mekong fish, river crabs, moth larva (fresh from the cocoon!), eels in buckets, bamboo shoots, live chickens and overripe fruit. The city's hybrid culture is so interesting - a Lao envisioned by the French - that's tropical, sophisticated, hot and packed with personality. We spent four nights and five days in Luang Prabang, walking leisurely through the streets, sampling delicious market treats, listening to the monks chant at sunset, watching bright mid-day skies swell with rain. Each night, on Sisangvong Road, locals from surrounding villages set up shop in the street, selling amazing textiles, scarfs, blankets, handbags and much more, which are all handmade and exquisitely beautiful. Each vendor offers an unbelievable array of fabric, so bright and stunning, so intricate and delicate. We learned a little about the different silks available in the country, and about the art of weaving, perfected and passed down from one generation to the next. Ethan bought a truly breathtaking blanket, hand stitched with tan, gold and blue tread, made of silk. A white silkworm shell hangs from each tassel of the blanket (a feature that I especially adore). The pattern (as we learned about later from a trader in Vientiane) is that of two nagas, "protective snakes," looking into a lotus blossom. Ethan treasures this blanket, and will for a long, long time. While in Luang Prabang we also rented a motorbike and drove into the countryside seeking waterfalls... Kouang Si Waterfall was raging, with water tumbling to the ground with such amazing force that it created a cloud of mist. We splashed beside the surging whitewater and admired the power of water over stone. The next day we traveled to Tad Se Waterfall, which spills and stretches through the forest. Tad Se was, despite the physical beauty, a slightly sad scene: two elephants stood in a small shelter beside the falls, their legs chained to a wooden post. Tourists rode on their backs as they walked in and out of a pool at the last tier of the waterfall. All I could see was the repetitive motion of their job and the blood running down their foreheads - open wounds caused by "the hook," a tool used to ride and guide them. That night, in Luang Prabang, we met a local man named Mr. Pawn, who has just finished college. He studied in the city for five years and was about to return home, to a small isolated village in the north, to work as a math and English teacher. He told us that he hopes to share what he's learned. We sat together and talked, grateful to hear his story, congratulating him again and again on his accomplishment. It's no easy task for a local to get a collage education in this country. It's so expensive for a local, and it's hugely time consuming.

We pulled ourselves away from Laung Prabang, drawn to the unexplored south of Lao, and booked a "V.I.P. bus" (which was labeled "King of Bus") heading for Vientiane. After four hours on a bumpy road, our bus pulled over behind a long line of trucks, buses and vans. "What's going on?" "There's been a mud slide." "Mud slide?" "Everybody out!" We grabbed our bags, tightened them around our waists and began to walk. In the intense mid-day heat (and feeling weary and sluggish from the motion sickness tablet I took just an hour before) we walked over an amazingly intense mud slid. The road was simply gone - vanished beneath a thick layer of mountain mud. Along the road, Lao locals sold boiled eggs, green papaya salad and cold BeerLao to the hungry, dehydrated tourists. As soon as I opened my mouth to complain about the unexpected hike, I was silenced by the sight of a man carrying two crates of eggs (both suspended on the ends of a wooden stick and perched on his shoulder); by the sight of small children carrying filled boxes on their backs; and by women carrying wood in baskets that hang from their head. At the other side of the slide I sat, utterly exhausted, and waited for Ethan. I waited and waited and waited and then began to freak out. I worked myself up, and began to search for him in every single bus on our side of the slide. "Have you seen this man?" I asked, slightly crazed and holding out a picture of him on my camera. "Have you seen him? I've lost my boyfriend!" "No, no, so sorry." "Have you seen this man???" "Yes, we saw him on a motorbike." "A motorbike!" "Yes, umm, he was a traveling that way by motorbike." "Are you sure?" "Oui, I think this is him." I found him, eventually, three kilometers away (at the very end of the traffic jam, and yes, he was carried there by motorbike) drinking a BeerLao and not worrying at all. I was pissed and sweaty, but we were reunited. We got into another King of Bus, which was waiting on the other side of the slide, and continued traveling over breaking, winding, pothole-covered mountain roads. Six hours later, we decided, spur-of-the-moment, to get off in Vang Vieng (instead of traveling another four hours south to the capital, as we had intended). I couldn't stand the thought of spending another minute on the King.

Vang Vieng is a strikingly beautiful place filled with obnoxious tourists. It's known as "tubing capital of the world," and hoards of tourist descend on the small town to party, float lazily down the Nam Song River, get totally trashed and make an absolute scene. What's most strange about Vang Vieng is its downtown collection of eateries and bars playing "Family Guy" and "Friends" on large screen tvs all day long, on repeat - nothing but "Family Guy" and "Friends." Literally five bars in a row were showing different episodes of "Friends," it was surreal and disturbing and utterly bazaar. Tube-crazy tourists walk around half naked, donning bikini tops and bottoms at all times of day, despite the fact that Lao is a modest country where showing off skin is a sign of disrespect and considered rude. But, there is far more to Vang Vieng than the strange downtown party scene. The amazing mountains and limestone karsts surrounding the city are simply gorgeous. Ethan and I decided to boycott the tubes, found a quiet guesthouse with an picture-perfect view of the mountains and spent our time exploring. Central Laos is painted with beauty beyond words. It's like a fairy tale, a "Lord of the Rings" inspired landscape of towering blue-green mountains that stand tall, sharp and proud as far as the eye can see. We rented a motorbike (Ethan is the driver and I cling to him from behind) and we traveled north of Vang Vieng and into the most dramatic scenery I have ever seen. Arriving at a village on a mountaintop we wandered on a well-worn path along a ridge, looking out into a simply-constructed village overlooking jagged mountains. On our journey home, with the sun setting behind us and rain gathering in the distances ahead, we chased a rainbow for miles on end, completely enchanted and grateful for such luck.

After our three-day detour in Vang Vieng, we traveled to Vientiane, Laos' bustling capital city. We arrived in the capital in the early afternoon and we walked through the city, breathing in dust and exhaust, shocked to find ourselves in a true city setting. Nowhere else in Lao has felt so much like a city, nowhere else in Lao has been packed with tall hotels, book stores, Honda dealerships, traffic and eateries galore. Seven hours seemed to be enough, though, and we jumped on a sleeping bus bound for Pakse. The sleeping bus was an experience. Ethan and I were in the very back of the bus (a double decker lined with wooden booths and thin foam cushions). After eating an obscene number of steamed dumplings for dinner, we snuggled up and fell into a wrestles sleep. I was jolted awake many times and woke with an outrageous fear that the bus would flip over, and that we'd be crushed to death in the middle of nowhere, helpless and trapped in the very back of the double decker bus. It, thank God, did not flip over, and we slept as best we could, curled beneath mildew-scented blankets. So, once again, we are recovering from a long day of traveling, both blogging (like the massive geeks we are), both sleepy and road weary. Pakse is a newly constructed town, a small city along the Mekong River. I look forward to seeing the market (I love markets) and to admiring the textiles of the southern region. Today will be a day for writing, walking slowly and just being here...

Monday, August 22, 2011

"A Continuing and Retrospective Journey"

Ethan is such a talented photographer and writer! Check out his amazing blog (I know, I know, we make a dorky, blog-crazy pair) titled "A Continuing and Retrospective Journey" at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Lost in Lao

Lao, beautiful Lao. Adventures in the "land of a million elephants" continues, and as I sit to share and reflect I find myself at a loss for words. ... How do I describe this place?

I'll begin with this: In Muang Sing Ethan and I embarked on a two-day trek through the Nam Ha Nationally Protected Area, a long drag of jungle in the far north of the country. The jungle itself, filled with wide trees, with birdsong, cicadas, leeches and ferns, was so stunning. The lush forest, however would abruptly end and  suddenly we'd be in a clearing, chard, ash-ridden and burned. The local tribes who live in the mountains (mostly Akah people) are exempt from the laws protecting the forest, since they've lived in the forest for years (and long before the NPA was established). To make a living and to fed themselves, they slash-and-burn the forest, clearing the sloping land in order to plant rice. The rice can only be grown on this burned land for one year, after which land is needed. The forest in monsoon season is slick with mud, and we all fell on our butts over and over again while climbing. Our destination? A remote Akah village nestled in the deep jungle. Our translator, Kia, told us about his experience leading tourists through the country while Mong, our guide, cleared the trail with a machete. The trail was terribly overgrown and thick with thorns, weeds and fallen bamboo, all of which tackle. After seven hours, we finally made it to the village.
"It's beautiful here," I said, leaning over the deck off the chief's small wooden abode.
"What's beautiful?" asked Ethan.
"The mountains, the people, the animals everywhere."
"It's easy to romanticize this life," he said, scanning the wood and bamboo homes, the dirt path weaving a muddy trail through the village. We sat and watched women carry water on their shoulders and watched children running after pigs. "The mountains are beautiful," Ethan said, "but I don't envy this life."
There is no plumbing in the village and everybody (about 200 people) shits in the woods surrounding it (a horribly unsanitary practice, especially in the wet season). The women in the village have no say as to whom they marry and have children with. When a man is interested in taking a wife, he has to bribe the chief with whiskey, beer or opium. Then, the women of the village are lined up and the man "picks the one he wants." That's their tradition, and the women never refuse for the shame it would cause their family. The women are so beautiful, with dark, bright eyes and shy smiles. I sat on the porch, while Ethan took pictures, surrounded by women. They looked at me, laughed, gave me a comb for my hair, laughed when I encountered fierce tangles, and showed me their beautiful babies. I cooed and smiled, combed and tried to communicate with my hands. I told them that Ethan and I were together, and they eyed him from afar, smiling. I told them I was grateful to be here, and grateful to see their home.
The wooden houses of the village stand on stilts, and huge-fat pigs, goats, chickens and ducks live below. The Akah people are animalists, and believe that all creatures have a spirit: Mountain spirit, goat spirit, house spirit. The village is marked by two gates, distinguishing the human world from the animal world. Everyone showers outside at a fresh-water source at the edge of the village. The children run free and naked. They were scared of us and ran away when we waved. We slept on a cushion on the floor, breathed in the sour smoke that boiled our water clean and woke sore and exhausted- with another seven-hour journey to go. On our way down the mountain, we encountered a group of people living in the forest, sheltered by only a thin sheet of plastic. "They are workers," Kai told us, pointing to their blades. "They are hired to clear the jungle for rubber-tree farm."
"Rubber-tree farm? Who owns the rubber-tree farm?"
"This land is leased by China," Kai continued, "and China hires these people to cut the forest for rubber tree."
Lao is a Communist country, a one-party ruled nation modeled after Vietnam. Socially, however, the country has close ties to Thailand and to the Buddhist community there. The forest is protected by law, but the law is unenforced. Hunters are prohibited, but we encountered three and heard three gun shots. China's border bleeds into Lao because the Lao government is indebted to China. The people of Lao are caught somewhere in the middle of all this, between law and power, pushed and pulled by a government that doesn't ask for their opinion. As we walked through the forest, through rice fields and across brown-running rivers, we glimpsed the many contradictions and challenges facing this country.
After the trek we ate a huge meal and promptly passed out. The next day we journeyed from Natham and then to Oudomxai. Oudomxai is a strange town. It's filled with elaborate concrete homes, all owned by Chinese construction companies, and is an amazingly unfriendly place. We slept in a horrid guesthouse, woke and left as soon as possible. The journey southeast to Mong Khiaw is set along the Nam Ou River, and nestled between dramatic limestone outcroppings cloaked by clouds. We spent two night there, watching the river roll by, watching clouds condense and rise off the mountains. The river serves many purposes: It's a bathtube where people wash, it's a vital source of food (providing dark catfish, crabs, strange river fish that look alien to me, eels, "seaweed" and much more). The river is also used as a communal trash can. In the early morning, E and I watched as the guesthouse managers dumped trash into the river. Plastic bottles, toilet waste and rubbish galore floats downstream. Out of sight and out of mind. I'm no longer interested in eating river fish. The Nam Ou is beautiful though, and we traveled downstream on a narrow wooden riverboat bound for the Mekong River, and to the historic city of Luang Prabang, where I am writing from now. Luang Prabang is quiet, filled with French-style buildings and guesthouses, lined with palm trees and overlooking the wide Mekong River. We have only just arrived and it's raining. I adore the cool rain, and can't imagine traveling in the hot summer season. Rain, rain, rain, and a rest day...

Friday, August 12, 2011

Border Crossing

In Chiang Mai, Ethan and I took a Thai cooking class with a wonderful woman named Mae. We learned to make green and red curry paste, cashew chicken (the best dish of them all, we thought), coconut chicken soup with lemongrass, spring rolls and mango sticky rice. Mae was fun and would shout at us as we peered into our woks. "Chicken NOW!" she screamed. "Now, move, fast, timing! Chicken NOW!" Here is a recipe from Mae's cook book:

Stir-fried cashew chicken:

50 g boneless chicken breast, or tofu
1 tbsp cashew nuts, roasted
30 g baby corn
30 g carrot
30 g large onion
30 ear mushroom, thickly sliced
10 g spring onions, cut 3 cm in length
1 bell chili pepper or red chili pepper, diced
1 tbsp chopped garlic
1 and 1/2 tbsp oil
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp fish sauce (buy at an Asian market)
1/4 cup water

fry garlic until fragrant, then add chicken (chicken NOW)
add cashew nuts
baby corn, carrot, large onion, ear mushroom, red pepper and stir well
add water \ and season with sugar, oyster sauce, fish sauce and stir
add spring onions
turn off heat. Serve on white or brown rice!

After exploring the remarkable city of Pai (pronounced "bye"). In Pai, we spent our days chasing waterfalls with an Israeli couple that we meet in Ton Sai (Guy likes to jump from high ledges and Shaket loves mango shakes, they were wonderful company). Pai is a stunningly beautiful town in a valley surrounded by mountains. It's a hippie-Thai town filled with Asheville, maybe? Then, we crossed the Mekong river by boat at Chiang Khong, a sleepy little town on the northern border.

Houayxai, we traveled to Luang Akah women selling their handicrafts: small beaded bracelets and seed necklaces. They covered the table with their works. These Akah women, half a foot shorter than me, are so small and so amazingly persistent. I asked them to sit and to stop hovering over me. They sat, moved in close and said, "Katcha!" "What?" I asked. "Katcha!" The woman next to me smiled, exposing a mouth full of cavities. She began rubbing her hands together saying, "Chi-chi-chi," and then pinched her forefinger and thumb together, taking in a long, slow breath. "Smoke?" Katcha! She smiled, laughing at my cluelessness, and nodding. She offered me a small, stamp-sized brick of opium, carefully hidden beneath a bracelet. "No, no, Kap Chai," I said. "No, no." ...I still ended up with four bracelets...

We rented a motorbike the next day and explored the farmland. Hill-tribe villages - over a dozen different ethnic groups in all - make up the majority of the population in the north of Loa. We drove through a Lanten village and spotted a woman stirring a pot of black-indigo dye, used for their traditional clothing. The Lanten are called "Lua Houay," "stream Lao," because they live by rivers. Of course, we found the village by driving to a nearby waterfall. We passed an Akah village and waved at the children that ran after us, smiling and shouting "Saba di!"

Now we are in Muang Sing, a small town engulfed by mountains near the Chinese border. As soon as we stepped into town two older Akah women came bounding towards us, offering bracelets and "Katcha, Katcha!" It seems the elder tribal women are the country's drug dealers. They are grabby, touchy and try to pull me to the side, winking, tugging at my sleeves, saying, Katcha!

Muang Sing is cradled by mountains, mist, rice fields, and protected forests - home to hundreds of small, remote villages. It's raining now, as it does everyday at dusk, and I am watching dragonflies dance over the rice paddies. A cloud of little-black helicopters zig-zagging about. It's peaceful here. So still it seems time does not exist at all. We have only been in Lao for three days, but I love this country already. I love the kind, gentle faces around us. I love the naked children who splash each other with mud. I love the ducks who stop the buses, the water buffalo lingering beside rice paddies, the old ladies who pull on me and grin, the slowness of life in these cloud-clutched mountains.

Friday, August 5, 2011

From the sea to the northern mountains

It has been a while since I turned to my travel blog to reflect and share. I've had a lot on my mind and I've enjoyed a break from the computer, turning instead to spill my thoughts onto paper.

First: Tonsai, made of limestone cliffs, carved from wind and rain, graced by green jungle, tree frogs, by a still, clear ocean, became home for two weeks. Ethan spent his days climbing, foot to tiny ledge, arm out and reaching, traveling up and up and up. He is a strong climber, so infatuated with his sport, with the technique involved in scaling mountains. And I spent time with Dad, though it didn't go very well. Despite our best intentions, communication between us seemed to swell and gray, gathering a dark force that rivaled the monsoon clouds on the horizon.    We became wind and rain, elements that only enhanced each other's unrest. Long story short, he left, after ten days, disappointed in me, eager to be on his own and focusing on his health in Bangkok.  Following his departure, I spent most of my time walking along Tonsai's white-sand beach, processing, collecting seashells, sketching an ending to the book. It is, like our time together, a tumultuous and sad ending, but hopeful too.    To clear my mind and focus on physical well being, I joined Ethan and climbed the cliffs that engulfed us (with far less grace then he, but with determination). I felt I worked through difficult emotions while climbing; I found courage and reassurance about my own strength and about my willpower, fuel that helped me to push past the experiences I had with my father. Climbers say, 'trust your feet, learn to rest, keep breathing,' advice that applies to many aspects of life. And the book? Well, it's shape shifting. I have a lot of feedback to work with. My ideas and relationship with it seem to be changing everyday...

We left Tonsai- as we arrived- by longtail, a slender boat which carried us away from the secluded southern valley. In Krabi town we sampled delicious, chili-infused treats at an open-air night market, pointing and guessing at the vats of curry, stew, grilled meats, fruit and sticky sweets displayed before us. We sucked on lemongrass leaves (which float in coconut curry soups), slurped red dragon fruit (kiwi-like and absolutely amazing), walking slowly, smelling the many flavors that mingled in the air... That night (our only night in Krabi) we also climbed 1,200 steps to a temple at the top of a mountain, "Tiger Cave Temple," and sat in awe of the limestone mountains that decorate the horizon. So unusual and so completely stunning.

 Now, we have traveled north to Chiang Mai, to an old city filled with temples and open-air markets. We have been here for eight days - but today was by far the best. Today we fed, bathed and learned about Thai Asian Elephants at Elephant Nature Park (, a rehabilitation center and sanctuary for abused and mistreated elephants. Many of the elephants have lived through and endured the most terrible abuse (stepping on landmines, being drugged by logging companies so that they will work around the cloak, horribly overworked in the tourist industry). The Park was established by a hill-tribe woman named Lek, which means "small." Her heart, however, is larger than the creatures she serves. The elephants we met were wise and slow, powerful and peaceful. Though elephants are sacred, carved into the walls of each temple in Chiang Mai, they are, in reality, totally mistreated. People like Lek give me hope for the domesticated elephants in this country. Her elephants have persevered and, somehow, have learned to trust humans again. We watched them (many scared, wounded, blind, with broken hips or legs), swimming in the river that cuts through the sanctuary, resilient, floating, weightless and oh-so playful. We fed them copious amounts of food: green bananas for the ones with parasites or overactive hormones, pumpkin and yellow banana for the rest. Though there was great sadness in this day, in the elephants themselves and in their strange and contradictory situation in this life, there was also so much beauty. 
I wish I knew how to tie this disjointed entry together, but I don't. I'm just glad to be sharing, writing about the many experiences this journey has enabled. ... Thank you, for reading, listening, and being patient with this sporadically updated blog. Sending so much love, and a big, wet elephant kiss, from Chiang Mai.