Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Almost Finished

KUALA LUMPUR: It feels like ages since I've updated the blog - it has been - and I've been thinking that this will be one of the last times I do it. I fly home tomorrow night, then it's Sydney for Anna and Joe's wedding as well as catching up with Flo and Lou, then off to the Blues Fest for a couple of days then it's back in Brisneyland. And I don't know how much I've got to add to this Bogan tale, or indeed who is still reading, after that so I'll probably shut it down.

I'm full of trepidation in this internet cafe. I've spent the last couple of days browsing around the city, eating as much food as possible and watching films in the upmarket mall at the foot of the Petronas Towers. I also hooked up with my friend Apple from Luang Prabang and she showed me some of the sites of her lovely city.

Prior to this I was on Paulu Perhentian, an island in northern Malaysia where I drank too much rum, talked about the recent election with the guesthouse staff, swam with sharks and turtles, bemoaned the weather that was far from perfect and lay around the beach with one the best crews I've had in my travels.

Getting down to KL was an adventure. They'd sold out of tickets so we had to (I was with a group of about five tourists) get on without tickets, pay a $3 fine and spend the night trying to sleep in the hard seats in the dining cart while the lights shine d in our eyes. It wasn't the best way to travel but we got here.

Before Malaysia I lazed around on Ko Jum in Southern Thailand where the weather was similarly average. I did get to go snorkelling a lot though and even saw a Moray eel. Actually I startled it at one stage so I had a chance to watch it unfurl itself and swim into a little nook in the rock. I also got out to Phi Phi on one day but unfortunately all the tourist crowds are back. Evidently my post-tsunami visit in 2005 was the best time to go.

So that's the last couple of weeks in a nut shell. I'll add a little bit more in a couple of days and then that will be this bogan signing off...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Human Beings Do Horrible Shit to Each Other. Regularly.

CHIANG MAI: What else did I do in PP? Shopped around, which was difficult given that it was Chinese New Year, walked around, saw an elephant drinking coffee in a cafe (seriously), enjoyed a quite beer at the Foreign Correspondent's Club overlooking the river and visited the Royal Palace which was, at best, ok.

I also did the genocide highlights including Tuol Seng prison where people where tortured during the Khemer Rouge regime. It's a converted school that's been largely left in it's original condition. I also visited the killing fields where several thousand skulls have been arranged in a memorial stupa. Their are numerous mass graves littered around the grounds. Great photo ops for tourists.

It was horrible stuff but I couldn't quite sink to the levels of despair of my fellow tourists. I was actually talking to my mate Shaun about it and we both agree that just generally traveling through Bosnia is a lot more traumatic. The reminders of war and genocide in that country are unrelenting. And while it was upsetting I've seen memorials and museums dedicated to this kind of shit in Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz, Mostar, Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Riga, Talinn, Moscow and St. Petersburg, amongst others. Human beings do horrible shit to each other. Regularly.

What fate befalls our young hero?

CHIANG MAI: Another week in Asia, and another week spent in one place not doing too much of anything. This time it's Chiang Mai, enjoying the hospitality of Soi 3 and Paul and Marissa. Haven't really done anything of note other than wander the city, look at fish in the moat, meet up with a few travellers from along my journey, read, eaten and watched films. More or less what the doctor ordered.

On Monday I'm off to Bangkok and then on to Krabi before arriving at Koh Jum for my first beach spell since... god knows when. Properly I suppose since St. Sebastian or Sitges back on the first Spain trip in 2006. What a long time ago that seems. Will our hero still remember how to swim in the ocean?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Eight Days on Sunrise Boulevarde

KHAO SAN: So the greatest gap in my blog so far would be the eight day odyssey that was Don Det, one of the islands in Si Phan Don (4000 Islands) in Southern Laos. The place is so named because the Mekong fans out dramatically at this point creating, well I didn't count them, but something like 4000 islands. Some of them are huge and inhabited while others, like some of the islands in Thailand, are little more than rocks with a tree growing on them. Don Det, is the backpacking mecca.

It basically consists of two streets, one Sunrise Boulevarde, and the other the Sunset Strip, lined with bungalows that face the river. In the hinterland there are rice paddies and abandoned stupas which provide a reminder of the island's simple past as a farming community. The two streets actually ring their way around the entire island, a six or seven k round trip if you're up for it.

My daily routine was simple. Wake up early. It's Lao, nobody sleeps in. Eat some breakfast and navel gaze for a little while. Wander up Sunrise Boulevarde and choose a bicycle. After two days I had this sussed. Every shop on the island has identical bikes but I found the place with the newest ones which meant brakes, no thrown chains and no flat tyres. With my bum in the saddle I would cycle back to the bungalow, collect my shit and then ride down the end of the island and across the old railway bridge to Don Khong (another island). Taking a detour through a wat, I headed down to the big waterfall for a look at the churning water and then on to "the beach".

The beach was a little sandy cove carved out, I guess, from the churning seasonal rains that dramatically transform the landscape. The place provided ample opportunities for swimming down some gentle rapids, rock hopping and jumping. But best of all was swimming out to the rocks that protected the cove, clambering over them to the other side and then swimming alone in a vast, open section of the Mekong with only the very occasional fisherman for company. There is something incredibly eerie about being fifty metres from shore, surrounded by cliffs on all sides, and being completely and utterly alone. I could have actually swum to Cambodia, but I got halfway there and then started to think about this picture of a giant eel held aloft by about fifteen marines and got spooked and swam back.

The other great thing about the beach was watching the fisherman, who also act as impromptu tour guides, touting for customers to see the 'rare' Irrawaddy dolphin. "Dowfin, dowfin, you see downfin?" was the standard pitch. But the guys spoke virtually no English and spent most of the day drinking and playing cards. When there were no girls sunbaking on the beach they would sit up under the shade but when there were girls around they would sit down by the beach leering at them, speculating on their ages and nationalities. Priceless.

Another outstanding element of Don Det was the food. Three nights we ate buffallo steaks with mashed potato, another night a French chef I befriended cooked for all of us while on still another night we had an entire duck and chicken barbequed for us.

It was also the first time I've really had a group of guy friends to knock around with since arriving in Laos. Other than the Japanese crew that is, but this was different. There was Shaun, an engineer from Sydney, Mike, a cynical Texan English teacher living in Taiwan, Matthieu, a French chef in search of a restaurant, Andrew, an American viticulturalist living in Melbourne and Jeremy, perhaps the biggest wanker I've met all trip. It was a good crew to hit up the nightly beach parties, complete with a resident water buffalo, in style.

I mean that's not all I did in Don Det. One day I hired a kayak and explored the treacherous currents of the Mekong, including the numerous, massive rocks that are submerged everywhere and dramatically alter the flow of the river. There was a whole lot of nothing on Don Det. Just sitting around watching the sunrise or set.

Oh and I also visited the preperations for a Laos housewarming. This involved a group of women sitting around, working well past midnight, butchering a water buffalo. When I arrived there was only a thick cord of spine, like a bloody lump of 4X2, left but about eight women were eagerly clevering away at various parts of the animals anatomy. In another part of the compound we watched some guys shave a dead pig before hacking off it's head and dragging it's entrails out. Delicious.

So that was Don Det. But it was a whole lot more...

Henna Tattoos or Hair Braiding: What Do I Need for Southern Thailand?

KHAO SAN: So I am back on the strip again. Fighting my way through the throng of Diesel knock offs, hair braiders, drunk Northerners and Bob Marley t-shirts in search of a cheap internet cafe. Still I'm only here for less than 24 hours and last night wasn't too bad. Went out with an American girl who I met on the bus from Siem Riep. She was a bit of a dick but her two friends were pretty cool. We ended up cruising to Chinatown at about 1:00 in the morning. Clowning around buying beer and food and then cabbing it back to Khao San to watch two idiots get pummelled by bouncers. Drinking more beer and then walking back to our guesthouse in the rain. Tonight I'm off to Chiang Mai on a bus. The train was sold out, but I've got a week of relaxation, DVDs, possibly cereal and books awaiting me.

Oh and if anyone is interested, the bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok is a piece of piss. Nothing like the nightmare Lonely Planet makes it out to be.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Heading South Along the Mekong

PHNOM PENH: Okay I just re-read some posts and realised I'm repeating myself, however, I thought I'd try and drag this blog into the twentieth century with a recount of my trip down to Don Det. Leaving Vientiane I endured an hour or so of karaoke as I tried to get comfortable with the little Laos man sprawled out in the bed next to me.

The next morning I arrived in Pakse and had to wait around in a hammock for a couple of hours until somebody left. There are no actual sites in Pakse so I just walked around the blissfully quiet transport hub, shared a drink with a girl I met who was looking for a room (it's always hard to find accommodation in Pakse)then went back to the hostel and slept the sleep of the dead.

The following day I trekked out to the public bus terminal for a bus down to Champasak, site of the famous Wat Phu. The bus was crowded and uneventful except for the makeshift ferry that took me across to the other side of the Mekong. Champasak is another one of those sleepy towns on the Mekong that Laos seems to specialise in. I found a room, got some lunch and then hired a bike for the 8k cycle to the ruins. Unfortunately I didn't check my bike adequately and my metal steed proceeded to turn the leisurely cycle through the Mekong Valley into a cross continental marathon.

The ruins themselves were interesting enough. Not particularly big but featuring some good carvings and the views across the valley are stunning. A nice little warm up for Angkor. After the horrible cycle back to the guest house I spent the rest of the evening watching the sun sink over the Mekong then just watching it flow by quietly in the dark.

The next day I got up. Went to Don Det and watched as my itinerary was cruelly massacred before my eyes.

Dazed and Confused

PHNOM PENH: This is one crazy, crazy town. Haven't really had too much time to do any sightseeing yet. Been busy looking for a new camera though it's difficult since most of the shops seem to be shut for Chinese New Year. But then I keep getting conflicting stories about when Chinese New Year actually is. Last night we had a rather large party in the guesthouse next to mine and then kicked on at Heart of Darkness, a bar that Lonely Planet considers one of SE Asia's classic night spots. Whatever that means... Still got wankered and had a great night.

The night before I had to sleep out on the deck smothered in mosquito repellent. Then I was up early enough to get a room and a decent sleep. Tomorrow I'm off to do the tourist things and then head up to Siem Riep for some Angkor action.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Happy New Year

PNOMH PENH: So I finally made it off the island and now I'm sleeping in PP in Cambodia. In fact I only made it out of Laos, despite planning to stay a week-and-a-half, with only a day left on my 30 day visa. Trekked all the way down from the border last night, it was sad to fly through some places I would have liked to stop at but 4000 Islands in southern Laos claimed all the spare time I had left.

When did I finally arrive it was almost 10 and I must have checked a dozen different guesthouses before somebody finally offered me, and as it turned out four others, a spot on a verandah overlooking the hideously polluted lake fringing the backpaker district. But I got some dinner, drank some beers, played pool and cards until I was good and drunk and then collapsed into a deep sleep. Today is Chinese New Years so who knows what excitement that will hold. I'm trying to hook up with Paul so I'll probably have to drop into an internet cafe later and I'll add a little more on my 4000 adventures.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Goodby Vientiane

VIENTIANE: So I guess that's more or less a full recount of my upriver adventures. I think I still have one day in Luang Prabang to recount where we had a particularly interesting discussion with a monk outside a wat but all in all I'm satisfied to say I'm just about up to date. Tonight I leave on a sleeper bus for Pakse in southern Laos. Visit a Khmer-era temple in a day or two and then on to Si Phan Don for some relaxing.

Vientiane has been good. Had a few fruit shakes by the Mekong at sunset. (Off the beer until I get well). It has shady streets, a nice mix of Asian shambles, shady trees, concrete buildings and Communist concrete. It gets hot but then catches some of the most delightful breezes. And it's oddly multicultural with a huge population of expats (mostly NGO's and dipolamatic staff I guess), random Africans and Chinese businessmen. Wont be sad to leave - kind of down the town to death - but it was a nice place to linger.

Four Children on a Kayak

VIENTIANE: Much of the rest of my time upriver was spent swimming, watching the sun skulk behind the mountains and generally just lounging about. However on my final day I did get a little active and rent a double kayak to take upriver with another of my many new friends, Paula. Obviously paddling a heavy plastic double kayak upriver isn't exactly the easiest thing but we did eventually make some headway when our progress was confronted by a difficult but not, at least we thought, insurmountable grade one rapid.

But lacking the expertise and the skill to get her upriver we were forced to beach her, before carrying her into the beyond. With the kayak beached and our arms aching, I started to weigh up the possibilities of bodysurfing on the surging water. It is indeed possible. While I was mucking around in the water another boat appeared, piloted by four village tykes who managed to navigate it upstream without difficulty. I helped them get their boat onto the bank and then they promptly produced a small tyre tube. Running upstream they took turns throwing themselves onto the mercy of the water while we watched on. After a while they tyred enough to take out a pair of machetes and start hacking away at oranges which they kindly shared for us.

Then it was our turn: "Falang, falang, you go." The eldest handed me the tube pointing up river. It looked like fun until I was ankle deep in the shallow water. I lay down on the tube and then suddenly all four children piled on top of me. On a tiny tube, in shallow water, it was gathunk gathunk gathunk on the rocks for my ankles and knees all the way to the rapids. Their fun wasn't over though. After convincing us to carry our kayak up past the rapid all four of them jumped on, two of them still standing up. Like true river rats they made it down successfully though we did get a little scared when they started to drift almost out of sight but they managed to, almost effortlessly, return our kayak to us and after a while we were able to continue our own, very relaxing way upstream.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Staying with Gil

VIENTIANE: So after meeting Gil on the first day we decided to hike out to his guest house to see what joys a village stay presented. I kept my room in town and let Nadine stash her gear so all we had to take was too light tracks. It's not the nicest walk to Huay Bo - the slash and burn to make way for a soon-to-be-built road takes the beauty out of it - but after an hour or so we reached the conflicting signs that mark the way to the village and its competing guesthouses.

When we located Gil he was only too happy to have us and we dumped our stuff in the last two rooms (he only has three) then tried to follow his directions off through the jungle - on well trodden paths of course - to find a fabled waterfall. It was not to be, though our efforts were rewarded with a scenic climb through some hilly farmland before we decided to turn back two hours later. Apparently we didn't miss much. Marketing has caught on in a big way. The Laos have decided, quite rightly it seems, that falang love waterfalls, so in the best snakeoil traditions, they'll sell anything as a waterfall. Apparently this one was a little trickle down about four metres.

Back in the village we met John, a Welsh guy who'd been staying with Gil for a couple of days. We chatted for a while until our host presented the dinner options: chicken or duck. He was only going to kill one. We settled on duck and I went off to join some of the village kids for one of the most surreal games of football I've ever partaken in. Played on a pitch formed by the dykes of a dried rice paddy, with a couple of bamboo sticks as posts, the field of play actually curved like an elongated kidney bean. Rather than employ an kind of tactical sophistication, the kids belie their interest in takraw with a neverending series of unsuccessful kung fu style attacks at the ball that would leave Jet Li shaking his head. It soon became evident that playing with a cigarette and beer probably wasn't the best tactic so I retreated into goals where I put in a performance worthy of Buffon with only waterbuffalo, infants and limestone mountains to watch me. Seriously, my keeping kept my side in the game, that's how bad the kids were.

After dinner I sat round various village campfires, listening to the sounds of the animals, trading shots of lao lao and smiling at the locals. The next morning I was awakened before dawn, as I was every morning up river, by the chickens, dogs, roosters and pigs who sounded like roosters. We spent the rest of the morning wandering around the village playing with kids, watching mats being woven, knives being forged and animals being farmed before we bid Gil good well and walked back to town; a long river swim being my reward for a hard day's work.

Meeting Gil

VIENTIANE: My second day in upriver I walked out into the rice paddies to visit a couple of smaller villages. Crossing a few streams we emerged into a vista of dried rice paddies, broken up only by looming limestone mountains, as far as the eye could see. Watched by water buffalo absentmindedly chewing cud we tramped across the top of the dried dykes of rice paddies towards the first village, Ba Na. Occasionally when we thought we were getting lost we stopped to ask village kids returning from school or lone hunters and eventually we found our way to the tiny little village. There we watched the villages go about their daily lives, including a couple of guys building a bamboo enclosure for some pigs, played some games with the local kids and sipped a Coke at the restaurant attached to the tiny guesthouse in the town.

Then we tramped on to Huay Sen. This trip was much more difficult though luckily we befriended some local kids who took us all the way to the village. It probably helped that Nadine engaged one of the guys in a whistling/yodeling/blowing through grass contest. I just bought them off with cigarettes. Hey they were 17!

On the way I had one of my best experiences in Laos. We stopped to chat with some local boys who were frying their freshly caught fish on a barbecue. After some conversation and a shared packed of peanuts, which were spilt all over the riverbank, I worked my way over towards the spear and the mask they used for fishing. They were only too eager to let me dig deep into the upturned tree in the river in search of the fish. But these kids were experienced and could contort themselves into all sorts of positions, digging ever deeper underwater into the tree roots. It wasn't something I was so keen on, so despite my best, and repeated, efforts, I was unable to spear a fish. An older guy showed up later though and gave us an impromptu lesson in net fishing and later in the day we also got a chance to watch fishing with bamboo traps.

Anyhow after the fishing our guides eventually delivered us to Huay Sen where we had the chance to watch some more traditional village life, eat some food and, most importantly, meet Gil. Gil is a guesthouse owner in the third of the troika of villages fringing Muang Noi, Huay Bo. He was reclining in a hammock at the little restaurant attached to the village's guesthouse. He introduced himself then told us: "Eight o'clock, go to Muang Noi, my friend say drink lao lao. Four people, three bottle of lao lao, two beer, not good. Four people, three lao lao, maybe okay. I tell my wife, ten o'clock be home." It was now after four and we were at least two hours walk from his village.

Soon afterwards I realised I had a leach on my foot which he helped me pull off. Then he told us about the guest house he had in Huay Bo. Best guesthouse in the country, nay the world, if he was to be believed. Then he stopped talking, went to the edge of the village, threw up, came back and repeated his spiel about too much lao lao. Nevertheless Nadine and I were both intrigued and vowed to head back for a visit the following day.

We eventually made it back to Muang Noi near dark. I had enough time for a quick bathe in the river before a night of drunken revelry with a variety of new found friends.

PS: Lao lao is Laos rice wine. They call it whisky. It's not bad. But it is lethal gutrot.

Arriving at Muang Neu Noi

VIENTIANE: So while I've got some time and a reasonably cheap internet connection I should probably try and recount some of my experiences upriver in Muang Neua Noi. The town, a former fishing village, was hurt badly when many of the villagers moved downstream upon completion of a new bridge. They figured that the increased trade would boost their bank balances. What they didn't figure on was the huge boost that tourism would eventually deliver. Now the town, still a one street job, is wall-to-wall with guesthouses, ad hoc tour guides and restaurants. However tourism is still largely in its infancy and the town maintains what must have always been its charm.

Set on a riverbank it takes a four hour sangtaew ride from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, where you change to a long boat for an hour long journey up the river. Perhaps my journey was somewhat fated as I ran into Lauren, one of the Australian girls I had last seen at the Kunming train station, by the boat ramp. The cruise up river was interrupted somewhat when we all had to get out and tramp through the jungle for about fifteen minutes. The dry season meant the river banks were particularly low.

Arriving at the town I managed to fluke one of the three cheapest rooms in town, a bamboo bungalow with a hammock and a balcony overlooking the river. Outdoor cold water showers, squat toilet, two faulty lights and four hours of electricity a day. But then the Hilton never knew such views... The first afternoon I meandered down to the river for my first river swim since I left Australian and ran into Nadine, a Swiss veteran of the Laos disco/houseparty night in Luang Prabang. Whoever knew that making friends would be so easy? And that was more or less the scene for the entire week, a small group of like minded tourists in a very small place made it an incredible place to meet people and make friends.