last call

Posted: March 28, 2008 in Uncategorized

Hello all,

It’s been some time since I rapped atcha, but as I am now sitting at Incheon airport in Seoul with an 8.5 hour layover (grrrr) I’ve finally got a damn second in this world to spill some true facts on the last 3 weeks. I’ve condensed some stuff, to say the least… hey, what can I say — it’s hard to sit down sometimes.

After escaping Vietnam and Dengue fever (no, it wasn’t the clap — I swear), I made my way into Laos with a new friend. The decision to head north or south was to be decided over BeerLao whenever we got into the Savannakhet bus station, and we eventually concluded to bite the bullet and head north (backtracking ahoy!)

26 consecutive hours of 3 bus rides later (the horror… the horror…) we arrived in Vang Vieng. I had been warned/waxed on this place by many a backpacker, some claiming it was their favorite spot in Laos, but most saying it was just a tourist trap for drunk adolescents of all ages.

It’s both.

Basically, the town has developed to tourism at a much different pace and atmosphere than the rest of the country (much of which is not really developed at all in terms of tourism, at least compared to Vietnam or Thailand). In a country where there’s (technically) an 11:30pm curfew, somehow all the right people got (get?) paid in Vang Vien and every place is open all night. Most of the main streets are littered with bars, shitty bars, bars that play — get this — non-stop re-runs of ‘Friends’… it’s as if some douchebag showed up with the DVD box set 10 years ago, and somehow it spread around like the plague. I never watched it when it was on TV, and it sure looks about as awful now as it did then. Some bars show other juvenile television programming like The Simpsons or Family Guy (which, to be fair, are shows I kinda like, or at least tolerate) but the principal is the same: you came halfway across the world, to the jewel of SE Asia, you’re surrounded by scenery unmatched and unmolested, and you’re gonna sit in a bar and watch TV? Madness…

Luckily, Vang Vien has alot more going on, and if you just stay off the main streets and stick to the great outdoors, it’s a marvelous place. After 26 hours on buses, you don’t really feel like doing jack shit, and this place has the perfect remedy — tubing down the river. Of course, this particular river has a bar about every 7.5 feet, and instead of TVs, they have rope swings into the river. This, admittedly, is awesome. Perfect pace for a lazy day; drinkin’, swingin’ into the river, floatin’, drinkin’ some more… it was pretty lovely. The following days were filled with rock climbing, biking, caving, kayaking, smokin’ out of papaya branches and bamboo twigs ’cause we’re running out of papers, a bit more drinking, and generally getting tanlines in the oddest of places.

Time was a factor, however, so after a few days we headed north to Luang Prabang. This particular city has a very interesting history (actually, all of Lao has a pretty fascinating history to it), as it was a base for the French in the mid to late 1800s while they were offering mafia-style protection to Lao from the Chinese. It’s a really beautiful place, and the people are quite lovely… after a few days, we went trekking into the mountains, which was both shocking and shockingly beautiful. In the smallest of villages, mostly Hmong and Kammu, the vibe is quite different from anything else I’ve experienced on this trip… there are kids, so many kids. These are some very tribal places and public education is just starting to reach them (and when I say “reach”, I mean a kid might have to hike for 2 hours to another village where there’s a 1-hut schoolhouse), and things like running water (and irrigation), electricity (one village had a generator) and concrete are pretty new concepts as well. They’ll marry off at 15 or so, so by the time they’re 24 they’ve got like 6 kids per couple… I mean, one village we stayed overnight in (in the chief’s house, no less) has 72 families but almost 300 people… all kids. They’re plenty of fun, and some of them showed me a game that’s kind of like a hybrid of hackey-sack and volleyball, played with a wicker-like hollow ball about the size of a cantaloupe. The isolation of it all is pretty intense tho… it’s so immersing that you feel like you walked into a time machine or something… but it was a most welcome diversion to the city-hopping I got a little too stuck to.

After the trek (and some nifty kayaking down the Nam Kong), we resorted to a bus to get back to Vientiane. This particular ride was standard fare on the ridiculously uncomfortable accommodation and lack of legroom, but every other aspect of it was just top-notch godawfull… see, in Laos, the buses are never full (sort of like the subway in Beijing), so they just… keep… selling… tickets. No more seats? Oh, we’ll just put some stools in the aisle. No more people can fit in the aisle because they’re packed in knees-to-back like some kind of twisted sardine can orgy? No problem; we can get 5 or 6 or 10 more to just stand at the front! It gets a bit tight, to say the least… Okay, I can deal with that, but no, we had to have the one bus with a working tape deck and the one bus driver sadistic enough to use it with reckless abandon, irregardless of his passengers’ ears (and sleep — did I mention it was a night bus?). It’d be 2:00am, and he’d stop for a piss break, and we’d get back on… just enough time to start dozing off… back to precious unconsciousness… and then… BAM! The Laoatian Jimmy Buffet, full fucking blast… at some point after this, the stereo seemed to be dying, or at least cracking, popping and hissing a lot, and a surge of relief swept over me when it went quiet at 2:40 or so. We made it to 4:30am before he figured out the problem and then it was back to the deafening scraw… there were also multi colored disco lights on the ceiling that he’d be sure to flip on at random intervals, y’know, just to keep us on our toes. I was a tad on-edge by the time we got off (at 6am), to say the least. To recover, we found a health club/spa that let us use their showers, then got Lao massages for 2 hours — which are, as Ace told me before I came here, “totally worth the $3”. The boarder crossing into Thailand was relatively uneventful, save for the chance to polish off the bottle of Powers I’ve been lugging around for 3 months (I’ve now managed to sip Powers in 7 countries — just 190 or so to go). God bless Irish whisky…

Bangkok is sort of hard to describe. It’s like, you hear all this stuff about how it’s the most unabashedly raunchy place on earth (which is half-true) but then you show up and there are a bunch of tourists with kids milling about Patpong road and such among all the ping-pong shows and ladyboy bars… sort of puts you off your equilibrium for a second. Thai people are incredibly friendly, though… Had some great conversations with random folk on the streets and such, and these are some seriously happy people — again, it’s hard to describe; they’re just plain so fuckin’ happy. Honestly, the worst vibe comes from (once again) all the goddamn Europeans… which I’ve noticed (as of late) seem to be travelling mostly in pairs or in small packs, sort of like sith lords (coincidence?  I think not). The Temple of the Emerald Buddha is mind-numbingly awesome, though — gotta check that out if you go there.

It’s after much consideration and with mixed feelings that, after 3 short months, I’m coming home… yes, it’s back to the states for wine and roses at my brother’s wedding (I tried to get him to do leisure suits instead of tuxedos — no dice) and to start plotting and scheming the next journey.

Anyway, now I just want to come back. See some new stuff — southern China, Nepal, India, Malaysia, maybe the Philippines…

…and I’m pretty sure I need to bring a bicycle. Screw these buses…

some pics:

up in the clouds on the bike from Dalat to Nha Trang

the sunset over Vang Vieng

life on the Nam Kong

a dish of questionable intent on a menu in Luang Prabang

and a bad joke: an Aussie, a Brit, a German, a Vietnamese guy and three yanks walk onto a boat… but why isn’t the Vietnamese guy smiling? I gave him a beer and everything…

…and one of Jason fuckin’ around with a statue in Hue


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