Friday, August 29, 2008

Two nights in Bangkok...

"Time flies - doesn't seem a minute
Since Luang Prabang had a Kiwi boy in it
All change -- don't you know that when you
Stay with my hosts there's no ordinary venue"

I flew from Luang Prabang back to Bangkok. I was about to use the phrase "my kind hosts" again, but by this point in proceedings I need a stronger phrase.

Okay, so my benevolent guardian angels invited me to stay on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper with a balcony overlooking the river. With a view a bit like this:

View from the bathroom window

In the evening, lightning would flash around the horizon.

They took me to see the flower market. We went at night, because the market runs 24/7. It's a legitimate market - not a tourist event - so there are very few farangs (foreigners) around.

Bag of flowers

No idea. Fruit, veg, alien?

Chili peppers

Flowers in a row

If you're a photography fan, go to the Bangkok flower market at night. The colours are fantastic. And take an overloaded tuk-tuk through the traffic at night. That's good fun right there.

So, that was about it for South-East Asia. I don't know if it was the best holiday of my life, but it was pretty close. Magic.

Sukhothai (vs Ayuthaya)

(This blog is starting to adopt the chronological flow of the movie Memento. I know I mentioned Sukhothai already, but I wanted to expand on it a bit.)

Shortly after I arrived in Chiang Mai, my kind hosts drove me down to Sukhothai, to stay for a night. Sukhothai is about 5 hours south of Chiang Mai. I was impressed by the roads - they were almost entirely dual lanes in both directions, and considerably better than we would get in New Zealand.

On my previous trip to Thailand, I visited Ayuthaya, which is an hour north of Bangkok by train. There are strong similarities. Both are ruined former capitals, with buildings that date back centuries. Both span quite large areas. And the ruins look similar.

So, which is better? I can't really say - they're both a good visit. The grounds at Sukhothai are prettier, but Ayuthaya has elephant rides. I think I got better photos of actual ruins at Ayuthaya, but more pleasing photos overall at Sukhothai. Basically, either one is worth a visit.

We hired a tuk-tuk, which took (took) us around the various sites. It rained a bit, but it doesn't matter much in Thailand. You may get wet, but you don't get cold.

A ruin across a lake

Buddhist statue in an alcove

Another ruin

Old pillars in silhouette

The path up to a shrine on a hill. Why do they all have to be on hills?

A cow (from the tuk-tuk). Moooove it!

Child with umbrella (also from tuk-tuk)

My hosts showed their usual canniness at finding a good place to stay. The little boutique accomodation that they found had circular holes in the ceiling where there were large paper umbrellas with lights behind them.

Backlit umbrella recessed into hotel ceiling

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is the second city in Laos. The capital is Vientiane, but all reports are that it's not as nice as LP. In addition, parts of Vientiane were underwater due to the flooding, so LP definitely seemed like the right choice.

When I arrived, the power was out across the city, but after having experienced a prolonged blackout the previous night in Pak Bang, I gave the raised eyebrow of the knowing world traveller, and then sat in the gloom waiting for it to come back on. Because it's hard to look purposeful when it's 30 degrees and darkish.

Incidentally, if anyone is reading this because they're going to Laos, I stayed at the Sala Prabang, which I recommend. Great service and a very nice room.

I really liked LP. I repeatedly ate spicey papaya salads, spring rolls, and delicious banana or pineapple smoothies. I don't care where in the world you are - that's a tough combo to beat.

There are prominent tourist attractions that everyone sees in LP: Giving alms to the monks at dawn, the temple on the hill, the waterfall. I left the waterfall until too late in the day, and the drivers wanted too much money. And I guess the monks didn't want the alms badly enough to wait until early afternoon. I mostly just roamed around with my camera.

I continued my practice of scaring the crap out of myself by walking across a wooden bridge, only to have one of the boards pivot away underfoot to show the water below, like Indiana Jones crossing the old bridge in Temple of Doom.

The river, taken from the rickety bridge

Woman with baskets

Faded communist insignia on a building

Statue heads in a fountain

I love the orange robes of the monks. They're so vivid. I really wanted a good photo of a monk, maybe carrying a sun umbrella, but I was nervous about being offensive. There were signs on the streets warning you to keep your head below those of the monks and to keep your distance from them. I'm no fan of religion, but it's their culture, so I'll play along.

I thought this was a general rule, so whenever a monk walked past me I would kind-of stoop down so I was lower. But nobody else was doing that, and I got confused about whether that was correct or not. Eventually, I settled on a policy of pretending to do up my shoelace whenever a monk went past. But then I came to a street that was just crawling with monks - it must've been monk lunch hour or something. I eventually turned off that street because I was having to pretend to do up my laces every few paces. Anyway, through trying not to offend, I never got a really pleasing photo.

Monks walking down the street (I bought the red shirt at left)

LP has a night market that goes on for miles. It was interesting as an experience, but the problem is, the stalls all sell the same things. If you don't want a strip of woven cloth from one of them, you probably don't want it from the next 49 stalls either.

However, there were a couple of occasions where I saw products for sale that were unique. On the climb up to the temple on the hill, women were selling sparrows in basket cages. I think the idea is that you release them to get karmic points, but doesn't that merely offset the karmic debt you owe from causing a sparrow to be stuff into a small box? This was another stall on the street:

Exotic fish for sale in bottles

On the flight from Luang Prabang back to Bangkok, I sat next to a Canadian woman who had been in LP for 5 weeks. I don't know how you'd fill in that much time, but LP was great and I'd like to see more of Laos. Recommended.

Laos vs Thailand

(I know I'm lagging on the entries here, but I promise I won't do anything interesting in the UK until the blog's caught up. Just hold your horses.)

A quick quiz:
Is the currency of Laos:
A) the Glob
B) the Kip
C) the Bag

The difference between Thai and Lao culture is surprisingly profound.

Rubbish bin in Luang Prabang

This is a picture of a public rubbish bin - Lao style. Laos is a former French colony, so everything is tinged with a Western flavour. In LP there are rubbish bins, but (as shown) they're made of woven flax and bamboo poles. Western infrastructure, but with a south-east asian slant. This extends to the food (restaurants selling schnitzel, crepes, etc), most people speak English, and life moves at a slow pace.

Laotians play boules (or petanque) on the waterfront

Thailand, by contrast, has always been more or less independent. There don't seem to be any rubbish bins at all, dented vehicles fly around at insane speeds, no one speaks much English; it's a country where frantic chaos reigns. If you travel to Thailand and find it too much, try a jump to Laos. It's much easier for a Westerner to cope with.

The Thai currency, the baht, is pretty low. You get about 25 baht for a single NZ dollar. It can make you feel rich. Well, for the Lao Kip (correct answer) you get about 6000 to an NZ dollar. For my 2000 baht, I got about half a million Kip. I suspect that if you have $100 US, they just give you the whole country. I offered a beggar 2000 kip, and he said "No. 5000".

When you have that quantity of currency, it's easy to go a little silly. I don't normally believe in buying souvenirs, but I was buying all sorts of stupid stuff. 50,000 kip for a bracelet from some cute kid? Sure, why not. I'm a gajillionaire!

My wrist. From right: Buddhist bracelet, string bracelet, woven bracelet, sandelwood bracelet, septic mozzie bite. Absent: Clean skin.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Landslides in Laos

A piece of advice. If you're:
1) Standing face to face with a Lao porter, and
2) He is holding out his hand for money, and
3) You have your wallet out
- if he then suddenly turns and runs for his life, that is not the time to say "Um... what?" or to turn around and see what is going on. That is the time to run like shit. Let me explain how I know this.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Mekong was flooded. The Chinese had drained water out of their series of dams upriver, which caused flooding in Laos. One of the locals said it was the worst flood since 1965.

It wasn't too bad on the water. The river was wider than normal and it was a swirling morrass the colour of chocolate milk, but the boat handled it fine. We sailed down the river for about 6 hours. I was surprised at the lack of variance. There weren't many villages, and the terrain didn't change much. Mostly, I read a couple of novels.

The excitement happened when we reached Pak Bang, which is the stop for the night. As they brought the nose of our boat in among the other boats, the wake brought down some of the bank and a house collapsed into the water at the front of the boat. This created a wave that washed all the boats sideways. They were all wedged together, and we were on quite a lean. The locals ran around screaming, trying to dislodge the boats. We were trapped in ours. The sides are open, but with boats wedged in around us, there was no actual way to escape if we tipped over. It was all fairly dramatic.

Houses in the water at Pak Bang

The town is built on a road that rises along the shore from the boat dock. Because the river was so high, the first part of the road was under water and the locals were ferrying us across it in narrow, unstable canoes. With 30 kgs strapped to my torso and mud everywhere, it was precarious to say the least.

I got out of my canoe, only to have my porter -who was demanding money- disappear up the road. The second slow boat had arrived, and the wake from it had caused another house to collapse, again causing a large wave. People went flying from the canoes. I legged it up the hill with all my gear, not much ahead of the wave.

I got a room at a guest house, where I sat in the dark for 15 minutes trying to un-freak out. Of course, there wouldn't have been any power even if I had wanted it, because they didn't fire up the generator until more guests arrived. They shut it off again at about 10 pm, meaning no fan, lights, or warm water.

I had dinner with two interesting Americans. After an uneventful day, it was a pretty exciting evening.

Pak Bang township (rush hour)

Day 2 on the boat was a test of endurance. We were packed onto the boat like sardines, and the seats were hard wooden benches. Even with the cushion I bought, it was unpleasant. I was seated on the left side of the boat, so I got burnt down the left side of my face. I ended up looking like Twoface from the Batman movie. It was quite a relief to finally reach Luang Prabang. Overall, I can't say that I would recommend that boat trip. The scenery didn't change for two days, and it was quite physically punishing.

The highwater mark (the yellow flowers are juvenile teak trees)

Boats moored along the river

Another Wat

One of the few changes of scene

Slow boat to Laos

My time in Chiang Mai was fantastic. I was taken to the best restaurants, chauffeured around, helped with Thai language and bargaining - generally treated like a king. It couldn't have been better. But living the life of Riley isn't entirely what this is all about. I needed to challenge myself to cope alone. Let's try a several-day boat trip along the Mekong River to Luang Prabang in Laos. And throw in a ropey tum on the morning of departure and a flood to make it interesting. Deal with that, independence boy.

On the first day, we spent 5 hours in a minivan travelling to the Thai/Laos border. It was crammed, and fairly unpleasant. The town where we stayed was pretty rough. After dinner, I went to a pub with an Italian lady and a British guy. I must say, there was a good international mix on the trip.

First view of Mekong river, at dusk

You can travel up the river by slow boat or fast boat. The slow boat takes 2 days. The fast boat is a small speed boat. On it, you crouch down wearing a crash helmet, because they have a record of frequently flipping and killing tourists. I opted for the slow boat.

The next morning, we were ferried across the river to Laos, and went through immigration. This took hours. They then gave us the hard sell about how much better it would be to take the bus than the boat. It would only take 10 hours, and then we would be in Luang Prabang by midnight. It turned out that they had sold too many tickets and there were too many people for one boat. They kept hounding us to take the bus until one of the Americans got angry and shouted at them. Then they backed down. This was excellent, because they squished nearly everyone onto the first boat, and those of us on the second boat had heaps of space to ourselves.

A Wat along the river

A riverside village

The other slow boat

The other slow boat again

A small boat

Incidentally, two guys from our group chose to take the bus, to get to Luang Prabang quicker. Instead of taking 10 hours, it took them 24 hours and was reportedly "torture".

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A couple of pics


I don't have long here, but here are a couple of pictures from Chiang Mai.

The pandas turned out to be one of the best things I've ever seen.

More soon...

Note: I moved to Picasa for photo storage, so that link no longer works.
- JM, 4-12-12.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I'm in Thailand - Chiang Mai, to be specific.

My arrival in Bangkok was a little gruelling. My pack was full to bursting, so I did indeed have to wear my boots and a thick sweatshirt. The taxi driver didn't know where my hotel was so he dropped me near Pat Pong street. This is my second trip to Bangkok, and the second time I've ended up in the red light district through no fault of my own. I swear!

I had the name of the hotel and directions, but the directions were designed for a (competent) Thai taxi driver so they were written in Thai. My Thai is a little rusty. I stumbled around in my hot clothing for about an hour and a half, with 30 kgs on my back, begging people for directions. Although it was night, it was 29C and very muggy. I don't remember it very well, but I'm pretty sure I was crawling on hands and knees by the time I found it.

The next morning I walked along Silom Rd to the river and back. There's no way to get around the fact that Bangkok is a crazy, frantic city.

A little side note: According to Lonely Planet, Bangkok is short for Bang Makok. To me, the shortened name doesn't really solve the problem.

That afternoon I flew to Chiang Mai. I watched the opening of the Olympics with my kind hosts.

The next day, they took me to an elephant show. I got elephant spit in my hair. Actually, it might not've been spit. It was whatever dribbles out of a moist trunk.

On Sunday, we drove down to Sukhothai - the Thai capital in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is well worth a trip. I'm pretty pleased with my photos. My hosts bought me a foot massage. I have issues with that. Apart from the fact that I've spent the last 6 months walking to work in thin business socks and old shoes so my feet are munged, there's something else that bothers me that I can't quite articulate. I think it's that once you're the kind of guy that gets a Thai woman to rub any part of you with lotion, you're on a slippery slope. Anyway, the lady entered the room, looked at my feet, left the room, and then returned with a stick that she jabbed at my toes to see if any would fall off. I'm pretty sure she thought she was on an episode of Fear Factor. Overall pleasant, but not something I'd repeat.

So in 3 days, the major theme of my trip has been new experiences, but the sub theme has been larger mammals violating my personal space. The reptiles are playing along too, because a lizard jumped me from behind the dresser and a frog was stuck to the outside of the window. We returned on Monday.

Today (Tuesday), I roamed around Chiang Mai. It's still hectic, but so much smaller than Bangkok that it seems manageable. There is a computer mall where a disreputable person could -theoretically- buy software for ridiculous prices. I can't understand how Microsoft can have made so much money, when they sell Vista for $4.

I've managed to set up a boat trip up the Mekong to Laos, so I'll be off the radar for a few days.

The backpack that was full to bursting? It burst.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Why

So, why does someone quit their job, sell their possessions, and move about as far as you can possibly go without NASA's help?

If you're reading this in New Zealand, all I have to say is "OE".

But for anyone else: In NZ there is a tradition called the O.E. (Overseas Experience). The typical OE involves a student-age person moving to England for maybe a year or two. You can go anywhere for your OE, and be any age, but going to London in your early 20s is the norm. It's estimated that perhaps a quarter of all New Zealanders are overseas at any time.

Why is this so culturally ingrained? NZ is extremely isolated and it can feel like a very small place. Wikipedia reports that the London Metropolitan area alone has over three times as many people as our whole nation. The UK has interesting and diverse countries all around it, while New Zealand has the culturally similar Australia.

So Kiwis flock to England, mostly on a Working Holiday visa. The Working Holiday visa enables Kiwis under 31 to spend 2 years in the UK. There are conditions - you can't work in your field of expertize, and you can only work for 1 of the 2 years. In essence, it ensures that you're young enough to survive the rigours of living on the poverty line while in the UK.

However, current statistics suggest that increasing numbers of Kiwis are waiting until later in life for their OE. Friends of mine did their OE straight after university. Because they had little work experience and skant savings at that time in life, they ended up living with maybe 5 people to a bedroom in a rough area on the outskirts of the city. It sounded a bit grim at the time, and sounds even worse now that I'm a little older.

But I do find myself envying the adventure they had. So now, as they drift home, buy houses, and have families, I find myself wanting to play catchup. Well, to be specific, I'll pass on the boozing and living in a slum, but I do want to check out the history. I'm fascinated by the European history.

List of Lasts

Just over 1 day to go before I leave. Everything I do is tainted with the nostalgia of "this is the last time that I'll..."

I think I've driven a car for the last time, I've seen my friends for the last time, I've had my last pie. I've had my last meal out and my last haircut. Tomorrow I'll have my last home-cooked meal and my last cup of tea. I hope you can get tea in England. I'll be a grumpy bunny if you can't.

This evening I did a practice pack. My original plan had me taking such luxuries as my touring bicycle and my tent, but the list has gradually been whittled down to a more limited and manageable size. Compounding the issue is the fact that my pack is quite small, so I have an airline-imposed weight limit and a pack-based volume limit. Tonight my carry-on luggage is about 8 kg, and my pack is around 15 kg. I just managed to fit most of the items I had gathered, but every time I turn around I find something vital that I had forgotten. A few minutes ago I realised I had forgotten to pack my shoes. It seems increasingly likely that I'll be wearing my boots, two polar fleeces, and a jacket on the plane to Thailand.

I did some searching on packing lists and turned up the following one at I defy you to find a longer article dedicated to the concept of minimalism.

I gave away a bunch of stuff today, so my leave-behind possessions are down to a few boxes. I'm pretty pleased with how that has gone. I won't exactly have all my worldly possessions strapped to my back, but I won't be far off it.

I'm beyond stressed and into a sort of zombie-esque state in which I wander round the house without a goal, or sit staring at nothing. Tomorrow is going to be ugly.

Finally, there is a bellbird singing near our house. That seems unfair. I've lived here for maybe 25 years, and I don't ever recall hearing a bellbird in this area. But now that I'm trying to leave, there's one chiming melodically outside my window. The little sod.