Monday, June 28, 2010

Nong Khai

The border crossing back into Thailand was pleasantly uneventful. It was just a matter of being scrutinized by Laos' border patrol on the way out, and by Thailand's on the way in. Apparently we were cool, cause we ended up on the Thai side pretty quickly, hopped back aboard our bus, and continued on to Nong Khai. Nong Khai's bus station was as typical as a Thai bus station can be, complete with tuktuk solicitors offering you a ride to your hotel for slightly inflated prices. However, there was one noticeable difference between the tuktuk drivers here and every other place we'd been: half of them were women. This was the first time I had ever seen a female tuktuk-er. I had even unconsciously made the assumption that women weren't allowed to drive a tuktuk, so when I saw a lady trying to get us to choose her for a ride I was quite happy to go along. Of course, we still did some haggling before she whisked us off to our guesthouse. The woman at the guesthouse who checked us in didn't speak a lick of English but managed to communicate how to get in after hours, how to use the check-sheet to purchase food, where to leave our shoes before going upstairs, etc, all by using hand signs and pointing. I was impressed. For dinner we headed out to the river (the very same Mekong we had walked along in Vientiane, but now we were on the Thai side) and found a BBQ place. I was hoping it would be like the BBQ we had in Laos, but it was nowhere near as good. I mean, it was good, but not like the place in Laos. We cut the night short after dinner and headed back to the hotel for bed. Sleep was not easy to come by though, because it was so incredibly hot. Our room had no AC and there wasn't any sort of air movement through our little window. The fan that was mounted on the wall only managed to blow hot air around the room. The only thing we could do was lay very still on our backs and hope sleep would come quickly. Ugh.

On the 1st we woke and headed downstairs for breakfast. It was even hotter during the day than it was the night before, so we weren't too excited about our planned trip to the Buddha Park. But that was the whole reason for coming to Nong Khai, so we figured we may as well get it over with. We walked towards one of the main roads through town, stopping for a few pictures of a Chinese temple along the way as well as grabbing some cash from an ATM. Finding a tuktuk was pretty easy and within 15 minutes we had arrived at the Sala Keoku. Pulling up in the parking lot we were met with a towering, unfinished statue of a woman who was looming over the entrance. An impressive start to an impressive park. Once we had paid our dues to the gate keeper we wandered inside. The statues housed there are really very interesting. Many of them are quite bizarre, some surrounded with a sense of violence nad others with a sense of...hallucinogenics to be honest. There was an elephant being attacked (at least that's what it looked like) by a pack of dogs. At least two of the statues of multiple-armed women had some sort of prostrate, sacrificial figure in one set of hands and numerous weapons in all of their other hands. There was a heavy serpent theme that popped up in a number of statues, most notably in the huge statue of Buddha sitting atop a coiled serpent and guarded by seven hissing serpents perched over his head. It's a rather intimidating statue. And the intricate details worked into the armor, faces, and pedestals of all the pieces were pretty intense. While walking around we met an older couple from New York who had hired a Laos guide to show them around. They were really nice and invited us along on their tour for a bit. It was all quite enjoyable and interesting except for the heat. The heat was brutal. My face was bright red as it fought back the rays of the sun. I had to keep my eyes squinted wherever I looked. Sweat was dripping down every available crack on my body. My clothing was wet anywhere that it touched me. The heat had us ready to leave even before we had gone into the park. As we were walking along I commented on it, to which the woman from New York responded "Oh really? You're hot? I'm not hot at all." I was all "Wow, really?? I guess I just don't handle heat very well." It took me a moment to realize that she was being sarcastic and then I felt silly. But really, it was hot enough that we only managed to walk around with them for 15 minutes before excusing ourselves and booking it out of there. It's not like it was any cooler at our hotel, but at least we could take off our clothes. Our tuktuk ride back had to be one of the slowest we've ever taken, and at the wheel was this incredibly old man. But you got to do what you got to do, I guess. I felt good about handing over our money to him. Having cooled off a bit during the drive, we had him drop us off at a lunch place near our hotel. The food was awesome and we got to play with a kitten who had an inner ear problem and his half blind mama. They were in poor shape, but at least they were being fed and sheltered by the restaurant people. After lunch we walked through the markets set up along the back alleyways of the city. It was the typical market set-up with everything from clothes to knives to pots and pans available. We managed to pick up a new electrical adapter (our stupid adapters are always breaking, although that might have something to do with the fact that we buy them for less than $1 a piece) and some headphones (the $0.30 pair we had bought during Chinese New Year having broken, go figure). We were sweltering again after exploring the market and hurried back to the guesthouse to cool down as much as possible. Flopping onto the bed straight out of the shower seemed to do that job the best. At dusk it started to cool down, so we ventured out to walk along the river. We were shocked to find a sort of upscale stretch of sidewalk lined with nice looking restaurants running along the water. We never would have guessed Nong Khai had such a comfortable, communal area as we had found. There were quite a lot of people out and about as well. Some were jogging, others walking dogs, teens playing soccer and kids riding bikes. We walked the length of it and then took a seat to watch the people pass us by. A huge mastiff puppy and a smaller retriever pup were playing with each other which was quite cute. As the darkness settled in we took a seat at a deserted bar/club for a drink and a snack. The music was really loud and we could hardly hear each other without yelling, but we stayed anyways. Since we couldn't really do much talking we watched the few people who were in the club. One was a 10 year old boy who was doing what looked like homework. After a while he put his work away and got himself a soda from the very same fridge that housed the beers, Chuck and I couldn't help but wonder at the laws we're sure are in place in the other parts of the world to keep kids out of establishments like this one. I suspect the owners not only worked there, but also lived there. Although his life will undoubtedly be tough living right next to a joint that plays music until late at night (probably no later than midnight or 1:00 AM though, thanks to Thai laws that force businesses to shut down by then), at least his family will (hopefully) be able to provide him with food, shelter, and maybe a few luxuries in life. I guess I just thought that although he's doing homework in a bar, at least he has a roof over his head and a soda in his belly. Things could be worse. And if the family's business is doing well, things will only get better. After a couple of drinks we headed back to our little hell-hole of a room to suffer through the night.

On the 2nd we decided to sit inside just about all day. We did get out for some lunch, and walked down the road for a bit trying to find a fruit vendor. Fruit vendors were sparse there in Nong Khai. We came across an antique shop while we were out that had some really interesting little bone and ivory knives. They were called mitmor knives and were created and used by Buddhist monks. I really don't know much about them, as the internet was being stingy with it's secrets about the mitmor knife. But as far as I could gather they're more a spiritual sort of weapon, and that there are a few that are very famous and powerful due to being created and blessed by a very important monk. I kept thinking of my Dad as I looked at them. I didn't know whether he really would be interested in owning one, but the more research I did, the more it seemed to be right up his alley. I didn't buy one just then though, as I wanted to ruminate on whether or not I should go ahead and spend the money.

The plan for the 3rd was to leave Nong Khai and head to Udon Thani. We had until noon to leave, and having decided I would get a mitmir knife we headed down to the antique shop again. I would have loved to get the ivory one, but it would have had to have been a certain age (100 years old or so) to legally bring it back to the States, and I was fairly sure that it wasn't that old. So I went ahead and got the bone one, which was still wicked cool. Noon rolled around soon enough and back we went to the bus station. All the bus attendants were super-helpful and with newly-bought tickets in hand, we boarded our bus and took off for Udon Thani.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Vientiane II

As I mentioned in my last blog, the bus ride to Vientiane was pretty interesting. Or horrifying. Maybe that's a better word for it. It started out okay. We were the only Westerners on the bus, which was nice. I always like traveling in the style of the locals. No one seemed to pay us much mind either. We were just some people on the bus, like everyone else. It was a cool morning as well, making the ride rather comfortable. In fact, it was cold enough that we had to keep the windows closed for the first half of the ride, otherwise we'd all have frozen. So we had been going along for a bit, winding back and forth through the slightly treacherous mountain roads, when I realized that there was an awful lot of hacking and coughing going on around me. The woman behind me would bust a lung every 10 minutes or so, and a few rows in front of me a woman had such a bad coughing fit that I think she actually threw up a bit. Other people throughout the bus would occasionally snort, or go through some gnarly coughing. The worst offender though, was seated across the aisle from us, next to the window. No less than 5 minutes passed between each bout of wet, throat-clearing. If we were lucky, she would pop open her window and let loose her goober onto the road. If we were unlucky, she would open her little clear baggie and drop a wet loogie into that. She had apparently been at it for a while because her baggie had about a half pint worth of phlegm in it. Dark yellow and thoroughly disgusting. When I first saw her special little bag and realized what it was I had to fight down my urge to vomit. My stomach literally heaved. And then, thanks to the wacky way the human mind works, it became difficult to not to look over at her and her phlegm collection, just out of disgusted curiosity. Each time my eyes caught sight of it I would quickly shift my attention to the scenery outside my window and sing annoying childrens' songs to myself to banish the image. All I could think about for a few hours was her and her phlegm. God it was gross. On top of this, the man sitting next to her seemed to be having problems with the winding roads, leading him to throw up in his clear baggie. These baggies were provided to everyone on the bus, courtesy of the bus attendants - a clear indication that many people do not survive this ride through the mountains unscathed. No one else seemed to be phased by all these bodily functions surrounding them, though. This led me to realize that mine and Chuck's disgust were quite obviously culturally influenced, and that some cultural differences are apparently very, very hard to overcome. Another interesting sight - and not so disgusting - was when the bus pulled over in a random road-side stop for everyone to take a pee break. There were no bathrooms - just green jungle. Everyone wandered off into the brush and did their deed amongst the leaves, men and women alike, with no toilet paper or water for rinsing. I have to admit that I was a bit relieved (no pun intended) that I didn't have to use the bathroom just then. We also made a quick stop so that the driver could check out some squirrel furs that were being sold by some kids on the side of the road. I can only imagine what he would use the skins for, although he didn't end up buying them. The ride was incredible in terms of scenery. Those mountains really are one of the most beautiful places I've seen. We had some really nice views of these jutting, pointy, tree covered peaks thrusting up into the sky that I found particularly impressive. Eventually we wound our way out of the heights and back onto the flat lands that led into the city of Vientiane. The bus station we were dropped off at was quite a ways out of the city, but luckily there were some songthaews hanging around. They wouldn't leave until they had a full truck, so we had to wait around for the next bus to arrive before heading off. On the bright side, we had some ice cream while we waited. Actually, it was more like rice cream, tasting like ground rice mixed with some milk and flavoring. It was pretty good. And it only cost us 5000 kip ($0.60 US), although it should have cost only 4000. Our ice cream scooper must have thought he did such a good job scooping that he deserved to keep the extra 1000 as a tip. How generous of him... Our songthaew had filled up in the meantime, and there was barely enough room for me, Chuck, and the older Laos couple who was coming along, to sit. There would have been plenty of room if the backpacker-hippie cool-kids had scooted closer together, but for some reason they seemed loathe to actually take up any of each others precious personal space. The Laos couple, on the other hand, squished together like factory packed sardines in order to clear a space just big enough for Chuck to squeeze in. The songthaew made its way into town and we hopped off close to our hotel, only paying part of the agreed fare because they wouldn't take us to our street like we had agreed. They didn't argue about this which was nice. We went back to the same hotel we had stayed at during our first visit to Vientiane and were happy to find that they had a room available. We didn't do anything exciting that evening - just relaxed and had a simple dinner.

In fact, we didn't do anything interesting for the next 3 days. We kept talking about how we should go down to the famous 4000 islands in the south of the country, and looked at where we could stop along the way to break up the trip. We talked about stopping in this small town in central Laos and visiting a mysterious cave river that spills out into a beautiful valley. We kept talking about how long it would take, how many days we had, and how we would get back to Chiang Mai in north-western Thailand from the 4000 islands. In the end it turned out we were all talk and no action. To our credit, it would have been completely out of our way to go all the way to southern Laos only to have to go back north again. Not to mention that it would have been an incredibly long trip from there to Chiang Mai. Since our Chiang Mai hotel was booked for the 8th we decided that visiting southern Laos wasn't really practical and that it would be better to visit a few cities in Thailand as we made our way to Chiang Mai. With that finally settled, we made plans to leave Vientiane on the 31st and head to Nong Khai, Thailand. The only mildly interesting thing we managed to do between the 27th and 31st was find a gourmet road-side burger stand with one of the best burgers I've ever had. Otherwise our time was spent being super lazy.

On the 31st we checked out hung around the hotel until it was time to go to the bus station. Since Nong Khai was only two hours away, we could afford to wait until early afternoon. Our tuktuk driver to the bus station was a hard sell and we had to walk away before he agreed to our price. Once at the station we got ourselves a bite to eat: a baguette and an orange. We had to haggle for the orange and it still ended up costing more than the baguette... Oranges are rather expensive in SE Asian for some reason. I would think the area would be perfect for oranges, but no one seems to be growing them. Maybe it's a soil issue? We sat around in the heat, along with the other traveling locals, waiting until it was time for the bus to leave. Women, middle-aged and older, would wander by with random assortments of good for sale, and younger women who looked to be in school uniforms of some sort made their way to their respective buses with a sense of purpose. Men and women sat on the benches all around us, each waiting until it was time for them to leave. Eventually our bus came along and we handed over our luggage and climbed aboard, ready to cross back into Thailand.

Friday, June 18, 2010


The bus ride to Phonsavan was quite interesting. First, after about an hour of driving we turned around and backtracked for 30 minutes to pick up another passenger. Soon after this we stopped to pick up three Laos passengers. This made the van quite full and every seat was taken. Somewhere along the way we dropped our Laos friends off (in a small village with a bunch of children who stared at us with blank curiosity) and an hour or so later picked up some new people. It went on like this the whole way. The scenery we drove through was incredibly beautiful. Phonsavan is located up in the mountains and those mountains are just gorgeous. When you imagine a lush, green rainforest, you are imagining the scenery we were driving through. Swaths of banana trees were nestled among the more typical trees of the forest with vines hanging over top, so thick in some places that it looked like a bouncy net. The jungle itself, vines and trees, were all so thick that I can imagine trekking through it probably requires a machete. And because of the mountain contours we frequently had these great views overlooking deep valleys that rose up into rounded mountain tops before disappearing in the distance. It all looks so remote and untouched, but as you might imagine, these mountain jungles were definitely inhabited. We passed by village after village, each made up of a collection of wooden and bamboo houses topped with large, palm fronds. Some houses were stilted and others not. Some were falling apart and others looked pretty nice and sturdy. Children and dogs could be seen playing or relaxing throughout the villages while the adults tended to be busy setting out chilies or roof-leaves for drying, washing clothes, or burning their fields. The burning fields really did a number to the air quality - not just during our drive but all over Laos. Our trip coincided with the annual slash-and-burning of the fields to prepare for the crops. This made the skies gray and dirty. We passed by a few big blazes, each being controlled by a collection of Laotians wearing long sleeves and pants, with a cloth wrapped around their heads to cover their mouth and nose. One fire was quite big and I could feel the sudden heat through the door of the van as we passed by. Eventually we arrived in the city though, where we were greeted by representatives of the various guesthouses sprinkled through the town each trying to convince us to stay with them. We chose one we had read about online and knew had wifi internet. Since we had been chatting with a German guy and an American girl who were traveling with us in the van, we all made plans to meet up for dinner in town later on. We parted ways to our hotels from there, although the American girl ended up at our hotel with us. The hotel was a nice wooden building that stayed cool naturally, meaning we didn't have to pay for AC which was nice. We just relaxed for a few hours before meeting up with our new friend and walking into town. We made a quick trip through the market, which was shutting down with the setting sun, and continued on down the main road to see what restaurants were around. The town seemed quite small and reminded Chuck and me of India, with it's concrete, garage-like buildings. When we finally met up with the German guy we all decided it would be fun if we went on a tour to see the famous Plain of Jars together the next day. The guy who had driven Chuck and me to our hotel had done a fairly good job of convincing us that he had a good tour package, so we went to the little tourist shop that he had pointed out along the way where we found him singing along with his buddies, bleary eyed and a drink in his hand. He was more than happy to explain the tour and prices once again, though. His five friends were hanging out ten feet away drinking, singing, playing guitar and drumming on the table. One of them came over with a big bottle of beer and poured out a small glass for the German guy. After a few sips and some encouragement we figured out that he was meant to down the whole glass quickly. So he drank it all down and handed it back with a "Thank you" and a smile. The glass was refilled and handed to the American girl next. She downed it like a champ and the gesture was next extended to me and then Chuck. Once finished, the guy went back to his drumming and singing. Our guide moved into other stories, telling us with genuinely wide eyes about the time he went into a dark cave that had been used as shelter for a bunch of refugees back during the Vietnam war. He had a nice camera with infrared capabilities along with him and swore up and down that he had videoed a ghost man. An Asian ghost man. With half his face torn away. He could tell he was Asian because he had long hair. He was quite serious (if not a bit sloppy) as he told us this story. After a good 30 or more minutes with him we had managed to book ourselves a tour and get a recommendation for where to go for dinner. We easily found the restaurant he suggested because it was on the same main road that ran through the center of town. It ended up being quite good and the company of the other two travelers was a nice change of pace. Before long we were tucked away in bed getting rested up for our long next day.

On the 25th we woke up nice and early for our tour. The van ended up being 20 minutes late, but since we were in Laos it was all good. Laos' official name is Laos PDR, the PDR standing for "People's Democratic Republic." There's a popular joke throughout the country that the PDR actually means "please don't rush" though. The late van fit this philosophy perfectly. When it arrived I saw that our tour guide was a different fellow than the man we had organized the tour through. At first I was a bit worried that maybe he would be no good, but as the day wore on I was happy to have him as our guide. He was quite a good guy - not just a good guide but a good guy. That's always a nice quality in your guide I think. First stop on the tour was the tourist center where they had a bunch of old bomb casings and other old war stuff (for lack of a better word). We learned that Laos is officially the most bombed country in the world and that the area we were in up in the mountains was the most bombed part of Laos. That's quite an accomplishment. And can you guess who did most of the bombing? Ding ding ding! That's right. America. I mean sure, it was during the Vietnam war and Laos was being used by North Vietnam to send supplies around and attack the south, etc, but it's still a bit embarrassing, being an American myself and all. Although, I wasn't even alive during that time so I have nothing to be embarrassed about personally. Either way, it's left the country with an awful lot of land mines, even still today. There are quite a few orphanages throughout the area devoted to children who have lost parents to old land mines while working fields, or other support groups for kids who have lost limbs to land mines themselves. After learning some of those basics we piled in the van again and headed out to the Plain of Jars. This area is the site of an an ancient...well, they're not 100% sure what it is. The most accepted idea is that it's an old burial ground. The dead would have been buried in the big stone jars that are scattered across the plains, half sunk into the earth due to their massive weight and the passage of time. Some are pretty huge (the biggest weighing 9 tons) and others are just big enough to fit a small adult. Although a lot of them are broken or tilted over, there's still enough that are upright and unbroken to make it interesting. I think a lot of that damage is from the bombing that occurred in the area. There were a few bomb craters here and there as well as a number of signs indicating where trench lines had been located. In fact, there were signs warning us to stay on the trail that ran through the fields because of the possibility of old land mines still inhabiting the scrubbier parts of the land. I suspect the whole area is mine-free now, but it's probably a good idea to stick to the trail, just in case. I read that at least one land mine a day is triggered in Laos. I'd hate to find the daily land mine. The Lao people have a few nice stories to explain the Plain of Jars though. My favorite was that the land was inhabited by giants and that there was a big giant battle. When the King giant won he made the jars in order to brew a bunch of lao lao (the national wine made from rice - a potent drink) in celebration. Another is that caravan travelers used them to store water for when they passed through the area. That doesn't explain how they were made, though. Our guide told us that the stone quarries that match the make-up of the stone jars were quite a few miles away. It's pretty impressive that they were able to transport the huge vessels that far. I know it can be done (I mean, take a look at the Pyramids in Egypt) but still. Impressive. After walking around the jar site we took a rest at the little cafe by the entrance. Although it was a comfortably cool day, it was nice to get out of the wind for a bit. In fact, it was a lot cooler than I would expect for March in SE Asia. Thank goodness for that. We had some watermelon and discussed with some British folks who were on our tour how they were weird for pronouncing certain words the way they do (debris, privacy) and they in turn claimed we were weird for numbering everything (superbowls, presidents). After some extended Laos PDR time we finally headed off to our next destination: an old landmine site. I have to admit that I found the yellow bamboo trees to be the most interesting thing here. We all got a scare though when our guide stepped into a roped off area with a sign saying "Live Land Mines" in order to better point out the specifics of the contraptions. I don't know if they really were still active, but somehow I doubt it. Next we went to a typical small Lao village with simple wooden houses on stilts. The best part was that every house had a four foot satellite dish out front. Even in rural Loas people can't get by without their cable TV. I've also noticed this same trend with cellphones - almost everyone seemed to have one. Strangely contrary to what my mind would expect from a Lao village, but kinda cool that they are able to have some of those "luxuries" that we find important in our lives as well. He showed us a barn and some fences that had substituted wooden planks and beams with the 5 foot long shell of a bomb or an old plate of metal from a plane. The best part about the village was that our guide's grandfather lived there and we got to visit him. His home was pretty large, but very bare. There were no divisions of the inside space save for one 10 x 10 foot room next to the front door. I took it that that was the bedroom as I didn't see any other place that a person might sleep or store their clothing. There was only one significant piece of furniture in the house: a weaving loom. Our guide laughed as he tried to show us how to use it, but he wasn't quite sure how it worked seeing as weaving is more of a ladies thing in Laos culture. The loom belonged to grandpa's second wife (his first had passed away). After checking out the loom we sat in a circle on the floor and his grandfather brought us a pitcher of slightly brown, boiled water. We drank and asked our guide questions about Laos and whatever else we were interested in. His grandfather didn't speak any English, so if we had a question for him our guide had to translate. I asked about the small TV and a DVD player in the corner, the only electronic devices in the room. He said that the village had gotten electricity the previous year, and with a bit of extra money he was able to get the small entertainment set-up. We also learned that most village folks own some cows or water buffalo that wander the nearby country side by day and come home to their daily grain-feed in the evening. People might also eat pigeons and use a bit of opium in water to keep them addicted and coming back to their house day after day. Opium is no longer legal in Laos, though, so it's not as common these days. Eventually the conversation led to lao lao (the rice wine stuff) and whether or not we had all tried it yet. Since some of us had not, our guide asked his grandpa if he had any lying around. At first he thought it was locked away in the bedroom out of his reach (apparently his wife had a tendency to lock the room and take the key - we all had a laugh at that for some reason) but he found a bottle tucked away in a pile of stuff in the corner of the main living area. The bottle wasn't what we expected. It was an old Pepsi bottle filled with a clear liquid - loa lao. Our guide laughed at called it Laos Pepsi (you may have noticed me switching between using Laos and lao so let me give you a brief history lesson: back when the French came in and colonized Laos it was three separate kingdoms. Under the French rule they came together and France, in their infinite wisdom, thought that it would only make sense to call this unified group of the three kingdoms Laos, or Lao pluralized. So Laos tends to be used in reference to the country, whereas lao is other places I suppose. I'm no expert though - I could be completely stupid in my reasoning on this one). So, the Laos Pepsi came out and we all took turns taking a gulp from a little shot glass. It was certainly strong stuff, reminding me of tequila, but with a bit better flavor. It burned as it went down and made your chest feel all warm and tingly. When everyone had had a taste, our guide proceeded to pour another shot! We were all a little "Woah, let's not get crazy now - don't want to get carried away," but he won us over with the oh-so-logical argument that we have two legs, so we ought to have two drinks. How can you argue with that?? After another round of Laos Pepsi and some more chatter it was time to move on. We said thank you to his awesome grandpa and shuffled outside. Mr. Guide led us along a trail out of the tiny village and across a shaky, bouncy suspended bridge (it was like a trampoline) where we sat by the stream and had a lunch of fried rice. Our guide was missing his plastic spoon, so he borrowed someones pocket knife and cut himself a spoon out of his empty water bottle. I thought it was pretty bad ass. I obviously need to get out more. Which is funny... Anyways. After lunch we moved on to another village, this one bigger than grandpa's. There were more examples of how people had incorporated old metal scraps from the war into the building of their barns and fences. The coolest use, I thought, was the old airplane door that was being used as a gate. We visited a couple of houses, whose owners were down with the whole tourist thing and happy to let us poke around their yards. One woman had an old, split-open Bomby (I have no idea if this is how it's spelled), spilling its load of little bombs all over her yard. Apparently her husband used to like deactivating them or something. She also had a few deactivated land mines that were being used as ash trays. I embarrassed myself at this part of the tour. We were all standing around in a circle just after being shown these old ashtray mines. I picked one up and suddenly the focus of all eight people were on me. I examined the little thing, flipping it around in my hand, wondering how it had worked. I slowly pulled back a little metal plate on the side. When it suddenly hit its release point, the band holding the springy shape of the mine together popped off and it sort of exploded in my hand. Well, because of it's nature as an old land mine, my mind interpreted it as an explosion. It really just popped open. Everyone was startled, especially me. I'm sure my face was a funny sight. But as quickly as it happened we all chuckled and I attempted to put it back together. Luckily, it did go back together, although it didn't quite look as nice. I felt bad. I ruined the old lady's nice little land mine ashtray... Another person's back yard had a cool, mesmerizing water wheel made of bamboo. It slowly spun around and around, dropping load after load of water onto a bamboo waterway that ran in the big pond in the backyard. We all stood there staring at it for about five minutes before moving on. Along with all the old war relics and water contraptions, I enjoyed the ducks and chickens that wandered around everyone's yards. The ducks were especially cute when there were 20 ducklings faithfully following mama duck around. After all this, we moved on to our next stop: the Mulberry Silk Farm. This wasn't originally included on the tour, but I sort of insisted that we stop by when we were making our booking. It was very cool of the guide to be able to so easily include it. By the time we arrived, the wind had gotten noticeably chillier and anyone who had brought long sleeves with them was now putting them on. Our guide at the mulberry farm was a lady who explained that the whole place had been set-up in order to help village women to be able to contribute to their families via income from weaving. We were first shown the mulberry fields, where all the mulberries are grown. If you're like I was when we first arrived, you maybe don't know exactly what a mulberry is. It's just another raspberry, or blackberry. A little bundle of fruity, flesh-wrapped seeds. Since the fruit wasn't actually used in the silk making process (beyond dying the silk perhaps), we were encouraged to go ahead and taste a few. This left me with a red mouth and finger for a bit. Actually, for the sake of getting a good picture I went ahead and squished a berry on my teeth, which turned out not to be as good an idea as I had originally thought because it left me with a particularly frightening smile. While gorging ourselves, the guide explained that the fruits that aren't eaten by hungry tourists are turned into jams and wines, while the leaves are used to feed the little mulberry worms. She led us to the worm house where we got to look at, poke, and pick up the wiggling worms. There weren't as many as I would have expected, but as I quickly found out, it wasn't just the wiggling worms that were being housed there. Hanging from the ceiling were these wooden frames, each one gridded into 200 little squares, and each square containing a rough looking cocoon. There were over 20 of these frames, and even more cocoons being created by maturing worms in what looked like a table-top maze. Some were yellow and others white. We were told that this difference was as simple as different hair color in humans. There was also a tray of tiny white eggs, waiting to hatch and join the bigger try of writhing worms. I'm not exactly sure what happens to the moths when they pop out of their cocoons, but there's an obvious cycle of life that thrives in that warm, temperature controlled little building. Next we headed to the spinning room where there were all sorts of wooden, hand cranked contraptions and a few larger, electric machines. From what I could gather, they boil 100 little cocoons and when soft, pull a tuft of the coarse silk from each into a little bunch. They attach this bunch to the...giant bobbin (for lack of the actual term) and spin, spin, spin until all the cocoons have been pulled into one long strand of silk. Then it's spun and washed a few times using the various other equipments in the room in order to soften it. I was surprised at how un-silky it is to begin with, but after a few rounds of treatment it looks pretty nice. We moved on to the dying area, which at this particular silk farm was all done with natural products: indigo plant, mulberries, turmeric, dried yam, some sort of red rock, etc. They didn't have any fancy sinks or vats for dying - they just dumped dye and silk into a plastic garbage can and let it do its magic. Across the sidewalk was the drying station, where a few beautiful hanks of pearly white and pink silk were blowing in the chilly breeze. There was a giant mortar and pestle here that was so heavy it could only be operated by standing on the foot lever. They used it for grinding some of their tougher dye materials. The weaving room was the inevitable next stop. There were only a few women there that day, but it was still impressive. Each loom consisted of a wooden frame about the size of a single bed, hung and stretched with what looked like a tangled mess of silky strands. Each one seemed to belong to a particular woman, her current weaving project permanently attached until it was finished, which could take up to a month or longer depending on the complexity. Some designs were repetitive and simple (although the weaving process looked anything but simple), while others were swimming with colors and shapes. The women worked quickly, tossing the shuttle (I think that's what it's called) between the separated strands of silk, switching the strands positions with the wooden foot petals, tossing again, switch, toss, switch, toss, etc. The most complicated patterns required the weaver to stop between each toss in order to add in the extra colors manually. It all looked really confusing, and I can't imagine the amount of forethought and planning that must go into setting up the loom for a particular pattern. But they obviously know what they're doing and are quite good at it. And using that natural silk, naturally dyed, it looks really beautiful! We got to see examples of the finished products in the little shop. One scarf was particularly beautiful, made more so by the small imperfections of the silk and hand weaving. I would love to have bought it, but at 650,000 kip it would have cost me $75. I'm sure that's a great price for the quality of product, but still too much for me to be able to spend at that point. Instead, we bought a bottle of mulberry wine for something like $6. Everyone piled back into the van and we made one last stop at war memorial on top of a hill. It was pretty boring, the sun was starting to disappear, and it was cold. I think we were all ready to just get back to our hotels by this point. Upon finally being dropped off we made plans with the American girl and German guy to meet for dinner again. Chuck and I opted to relax at the wooden shack-of-a-restaurant across the street from our hotel with a few beers and knock-off bugle chips. Seeing as we were both decked out in sweaters, we were astonished to see four or five kids trekking through the mud-hole (it was a dried up lake) behind the restaurant in just t-shirts and shorts. We never quite figured out what they were doing, but I think they were catching fish that were unable to hide in the mud. How any fish had survived up until that point, though, I don't know. After our drinks we met up with our new friends in town and all decided to go to an Indian place that we had heard was good. It ended up costing more than any of us would have liked, and wasn't quite the best Indian food we'd had, but it wasn't bad either. Chuck and I were happy to fall into bed at the end of all that.

We had no plans for the 26th. Chuck and I walked into town and ate at a Lao restaurant that we had been eying two days previous, but had been closed. It was open for lunch, though, and we had some tasty soup and noodles. We wandered around town for a bit trying to find dental floss. We never did find any. On the way back I decided the mangoes being sold at various fruit stands looked good and stopped to buy one. In the end, I came away with eight mangoes some how. That whole language barrier can really make things confusing. How could I refuse when she only wanted $1.20 for all eight? I mean, I would have paid $1.20 for just the one mango! But she bagged up all eight. Looked like we would be eating mangoes all day. Back at the hotel we sat on our computers in the lobby, enjoying mangoes and mulberry wine. There was no internet because the signal had gone out for some reason. Hey, it's Laos. Can't expect perfect internet up in the mountains in Laos. The mulberry wine was tasty, the mangoes were juicy, and the weather was cool and overcast. It all seemed to fit together perfectly in my head. For dinner we went back across the street to the wooden restaurant. We ordered some Laos BBQ which ended up being one of my favorite meals ever. There was a hole cut out of the center of the table, into which went a thick clay pot, topped with a sloped BBQ grill that had a little moat to catch juices around the rim. Then came a plate of veggies and a pitcher of hot broth. We weren't sure what we were supposed to do, so after some whispered deliberation we started to add some veggies to the hot broth. Apparently, all we were supposed to do was wait for the waitress to come back. When she did, with a plate of delicious raw meat, she giggled at us and took over. What she did was lay some meat across the sloped grill, add some veggies to the moat, fill the moat with broth, and had us wait until it was all steaming hot and soft. The juice from the meat flowed down into the moat, flavoring the broth to epic proportions. We had a big tub of this peanut-y sauce that we could dip it all in and oh wow, it was so very good. I was in heaven. And once again, the chilly weather made this whole grilling thing even more perfect. After dinner we sat around talking and scaring the crazy kittens that lived at the restaurant. Ah, good times.

The morning of the 27th we packed our stuff and checked out super early. The girl at the front desk helped get us to the correct bus station by talking to our tuk-tuk driver and negotiating a price. Once at the station, getting tickets for our bus back to Vientiane was a simple process of shoving myself into the crowd at the ticket window and doing my best to get the ticket sellers attention by waving my money around at her. I felt rude doing it, but that was quite obviously the way it was done here. I had lost my "place in line" a few times to other people using this technique before I went ahead and tried it myself. I have to say, I think I did a pretty good job. I got us our tickets and we hopped aboard our bus. It was a public bus, which meant no AC. Let me tell you, thank god, FSM, whoever, over and over, that there was a cold spell that day. Otherwise the bus ride would definitely have been the worst one of our lives. But I'll save all that for my next episode. Stay tuned!!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Vang Vieng

Our bus ride to Vang Vieng was blessedly uneventful. We were all dropped off in front of some hotel in the hopes that we'd just cave in and stay there, but most people were upset enough at not being dropped in the middle of the town that they grabbed their stuff and took off in a bit of a huff. I have to admit, Chuck and I were part of the huffy group. I guess we all felt we deserved to be dropped off at a central location, but whatever. We started walking but really had no clue where we needed to go. We tried to ask an older man working in his convenience shop where the Babylon Guesthouse was. He assured us that we had arrived and it was just upstairs. For a moment I thought What luck, we found it! Then I realized he was just trying to get us to stay at his guesthouse. The locals would apparently be no help in the matter. We resorted to waving down a tuktuk who was generous enough to take us just around the corner for 5,000 kip. Per person. He didn't mention it was 5,000 per person until we had gotten around the corner. Psh. We checked into the guesthouse and then went next door for some food. We took our time eating and watched the people going by on the street. Quite a few ladies went by on their motorbikes, one hand on their handlebars and the other holding an umbrella to keep away the sun. I was impressed at a man who drove by with a big box of beers wedged into the space between his knees. We even saw a procession of monks and other devoted worshippers walking down the street followed by music and parade floats. Not sure what that was about but it was neat to see. The rest of the evening was spent watching movies (The 5th Element, oh yeah) downstairs and playing with the guesthouse cat. I tell ya, I have gotten to play with more kittens and cats in our time traveling than I did for years back in the States. This is good for me because I love me a cuddly kitten, but maybe bad for kitty populations who grow too large to accommodate everyone. Also, they probably are a nuisance to someone.

We walked through the town checking out breakfast joints on the 21st. When we finally picked one, the food ended up being very mediocre. I had a suspicion that much of the food throughout town was mediocre, given the fact that the town is only alive thanks to the tourism from drunk college students. After eating we walked down to the rivers edge to see what all the fuss was about. Maybe I should give you a bit of background on Vang Vieng here. Vang Vieng is well known amongst SE Asian travelers as a crazy town where you get drunk and go tubing on the local river. Or get high and go tubing. Or in many peoples' cases, get drunk and high and go tubing. Along with the tubing there are also rope swings hanging from the trees and people break bones frequently enough that the river is known for being dangerous. It seems that you'd be lucky if you came away with only a few scratches. We weren't near the tubing part of the river, but all the same, I wanted to see this famous river. Let me tell you, it wasn't exciting from where we were standing. It was quite shallow, full of algae covered rocks, and flowing with brown water. The surrounding scenery was quite pretty though, despite the haze of smoke in the air. The smoke was due to the slash-and-burn farming technique that is used to prepare the fields at that time of year. I can imagine it's really spectacular when the air is clear. So after the let down of the river and a few pictures we headed back to the main street. We strolled through the town, following the road through the main central part and to the outskirts on the other side. There was a temple there that we had a quick look at, and then headed back towards the guesthouse via a different path. It was a calm day of simple exploration, although there wasn't really all that much to explore. It's a pretty tiny town. And being the tourist-tubing town that it is, most of what is there is based on that fact. Just about all the restaurants served Western food and any building that wasn't selling food or lodging was selling souvenirs. That's not to say anything bad about Western food, though. Western food is good sometimes. For example, I indulged in a slice of apple pie that night. It was pretty good too.

After breakfast on the 22 we put on our bathing suits and flip flops and headed down to the center of town to rent us some tubes. When we got there and found out how much they were charging we laughed and said "No thanks." Looking back, I don't know why we were so put off. I think it was only $7-10 to rent a tube for the day. $10 for all-day tubing really isn't that bad a deal. I know there was a deposit fee of another $7-10 dollars on top of that, and maybe that's what put us off. I just don't know!Whatever it was, we decided we wouldn't bother with tubing. Besides, it had turned into such a cliche activity and we were okay with not doing the cliche backpacker thing. Although I'm sure it would have definitely been fun. Instead, we walked down to the rivers edge on our own again and I waded around with my feet in the water, just to be able to say that I had actually “gone in.” There were these bright pink and purple dragonflies flitting about that were really pretty. We were right next to one of the rickety, narrow wooden bridges that crosses the river and eventually we decided to go on across and explore the other side. The crossing was a bit scary due to the fact that it wasn't just pedestrians that used the bridge. Bicyclists and even motorcyclists used it as well. Passing a motorcyclist was a bit of a thrill. They had to stop in order to let us shimmy by, otherwise one of us was bound to fall into the water. Did I mention there's no rails on the bridge? Yeah, so falling would be pretty easy. Once safely on the other side we explored. We wandered through some well-maintained fields where some workers were digging in the ground or taking a lunch break. Heading past them and towards the distant hills, we found ourselves in some not-so-well-maintained fields. There was a cryptic sign posted implying something about following yellow flags to get to a cave. Caves sounded fun, so we tried to follow any flag that looked remotely yellow. We found a few that might have been yellow at some point, but had long since turned into a translucent cream color. We tried to walk on the raised ground that sectioned the entire field into 20 x 20 foot squares, but some spots were so overgrown with scrubby bushes and ground cover that we had to traipse through them anyways. Once we ran out of flags to follow we just walked towards the hills in front of us. At some point we noticed that the rocky formation ahead of us had a yellow flag up at the the very top. We decided this must be the cave and headed for it. As we approached we were greeted by a few local men asking if we wanted to see the cave. Yes, we wanted to see the cave. It would cost us 10,000 kip a person to see the cave. We decided what the hell and paid our money. One man grabbed a flashlight and handed it to me, then led us up a series of bamboo ladders nailed and strapped to the rock face until we came to a cave of sorts. Then he conveyed using hand signs and gesturing that we should look around the cave and then climb to the top if we wanted. And to be sure to bring back the flashlight. He then left us on our own. So we looked around the cave, which was open on both ends with a few crevices that one could explore if they were crazy. We're not that crazy, so we just shone the flashlight in these cracks and imagined evil demon monsters springing out at us (it might have been just me that imagined this) and then left to climb the rest of the rock. It was a rather frightening climb. I mean, it wasn't Mt. Everest by any means, but I wouldn't call it safe and easy either. It was basically a big pile of jagged rocks precariously balanced against each other with trees snaking out here and there for handholds. But we made it to the top, despite aching hands and tired legs. We took a breather and listened to the cows mooing in the fields below us for a bit before getting up the willpower to make the trip back down. Because we were already worn out it was a little bit scarier. It also just looks scarier when you look down a mountain rather than up it. We were glad to be back on solid ground once we were done. I handed over the flashlight (which I had somehow managed not to lose during the climb) and we wobbled back towards town. Back at the guesthouse we had to shower with our clothes on because they were so dirty. We didn't really do anything else that day. The climb was good enough for us.

We were sore the next morning. We also had a few bites and weren't sure if this was from bed bugs or if it was just bugs from being outside and climbing a rocky hill the day before. Our day was very lazy with us hanging out downstairs at the guesthouse most of the time. We managed to get out long enough to buy tickets to the town of Phonsavan for the next day, but that was it.

We woke on the 24th to find a few more red bites on us. We were pretty sure it was bed bugs, although not a bad case of them. Not as bad as in Switzerland at least. Even so, we were happy to check out. We grabbed some baguettes and waited for our pick-up van. Once it arrived we climbed aboard and waited for some more, for a few others who were supposed to be coming along. When an older couple came along i knew right away they were Australian because the man was dressed just how my Grandpa Geoff used to dress. He made a beeline for the unopened door on the near side of the van and began yanking. It was only a "dummy" door though, and wouldn't budge. Neither would the man. He faithfully continued to pull until the driver hurried around the van to let him know that actual door was on the other side. I thought it was pretty funny and endearing. Especially since mine and Chuck's seats were right next to the dummy door and we got to watch his expressions as he pulled. And his wife was so elegant-yet-rugged looking and didn't seem at all embarrassed or distressed by her husbands mistake. When he climbed in he said “Hello” to everyone happily, as if he hadn't just tried to open the wrong door repeatedly. I don't know if he was unaware of the fact the he might want to consider being embarrassed or if he just didn't care. Either way, I thought his attitude was a good one. After they were tucked in their seats we took a short ride to the bus station and all parted ways to our separate buses. Our bus was actually a minivan. The driver and his friend strapped our and the other passengers bags to the roof and covered them with a tarp. I would have been nervous about them falling off but he strapped everything down so tight that I was sure they wouldn't be going anywhere. Somehow, Chuck and I managed to pick the two worst seats in the van. Too bad for us. Off we went on the long journey to Phonsavan.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Vientiane I

We woke up on a moving train on the 16th. We still had a bit of a ride to go, so we sat around eating some Oreos and chatting. Within a few hours though, we had arrived in the north-eastern Thai city of Nong Khai. It's right on the border of Laos and it's where passengers have to switch to the international train. The name "international train" really made me chuckle because the train was, literally, a 10 minute ride. We paid $1 each for a 10 minute ride across the Friendship Bridge. That's the bridge that spans the Mekong River, which is basically the border between Thailand and Laos. It was an uneventful trip, as you might imagine. Once on the Laos side we had to wait around while we got our visas. It was a simple matter of filling out some paperwork, paying our $30 and waiting until they decided to give us back our passports. And after that was done we had to deal with getting a ride into the city of Vientiane (the capital of Laos). Although the train station was in the middle of nowhere, there were plenty of vans out front, their drivers accosting us tourists with offers. Their offers weren't very good, either. After a bit of haggling we realized that they were probably part of one of those taxi "gangs" that has fixed prices. Since it was a fixed price per van rather than per person, we managed to get another single traveler to come along with us. He was a nice Canadian guy who was living in India and visiting his vacationing parents in Laos. We chatted for the half hour trip into the city and then parted ways once we arrived. Chuck and I got a little bit lost while trying to find our hotel, so we resorted to a tuktuk which got the job done. Finally, we found ourselves tucked into a pretty nice little room in the heart of Vientiane! The first thing on our mind was food, and the infamous Beer Laos. Beer Laos is praised throughout Southeast Asia, so we were excited to finally get the chance to try it. We walked down one of the more touristy roads and chose a somewhat upscale restaurant to eat at. Beer Laos was ordered along with some sauteed pork and banana flowers, and chicken steamed in a banana leaf. Both were very good. The banana flowers looked a bit like sauteed onion, but had a slightly more springy texture and a mild flavor. Pretty good. And the Beer Laos was - well, it was just beer as far as I could tell. A decent beer, but still just beer. No complaints from me, I guess. Oh, we also ordered a "Laos-gria." That's what it was called on the menu. It was Sangria, but possibly made with a regional type of alcohol rather than wine. They packed it with chunks of fruit, so it was kind of like dessert. All in all, a pretty good start to our trip through Laos. As you might imagine, we didn't get any sight seeing done that day. We relaxed at the hotel. Chuck ran down the road and got us baguettes for dinner. Oh, baguettes, that reminds me. You will find lots of baguette shops in Laos. Why? Because they were colonized by the French up until around 1950. Along with some French architecture, they have quite a bit of French food. In the big cities you can find fancy French restaurants, and in smaller towns you're sure to find, at the very least, baguette vendors. It's actually rather strange... Baguettes in Southeast Asia. Who'd'a thunk?

The 17th was a day of rest for some reason. All we did was have breakfast at the hotel - which i thought was really good: pork and rice porridge, fried eggs, and toast - and relax all day. We drank quite a few Beer Laos that day, but it's such a weak beer that we weren't even effected. As dusk fell the town was swarmed by a mass of flying bugs. We were sitting downstairs in the restaurant area enjoying a drink, when a bug decided to crawl along my arm. I flicked him off and thought nothing of it. Then another one landed on me. I flicked him off and a few moments later one was bothering Chuck as well. We began noticing there were a few bugs on the tables around us. And then the front desk guy came in quickly and shut all the windows and turned off the lights. We finally noticed that the street lights outside were teeming with flying insects, trying to get as close to the light as they could. I never understood that - why are they attracted to light when it does them so little good? Do moths try and fly to the moon? Do flying ants fly right into fires? The answer is out there somewhere... After quickly finishing our drinks we headed up to our room, where the hallway was filled with the nasty little bugs. We flipped off the lights, which actually dispersed most of the crowd pretty quickly. Even still, I felt a few of the critters bumping into my face as we dashed down the hall and into our room. Ick! We tried to keep the lights turned off in the room as we got ready to go out for dinner because we found the bugs crawling towards it from under the door. Walking down the street to dinner, they were at each street light. Even though they were thinning out, I was still amazed at how many there were. We ate at a street cart with portable tables, and it was delicious, as we have come to expect from street carts. By the time we were finished the swarm had disappeared. So we walked along the Mekong River where all the night vendors had set up. I got a little stuffed elephant for one of my oldest friend's unborn baby. He's cute. The elephant, that is. Although, I'm sure the baby will be cute too, of course.

On the 18th we actually took a look around the city. We started by heading to the ATM for some money - ATMs are kinda hard to find in Vientiane, by the way. I heard that a few years ago they literally didn't have any ATMs though, so I guess we should have been glad to be able to find one at all. We got about 1,000,000 kip out. Yeah, you read that right. One million. It's about 8,500 kip to the US dollar, so the 1,000,000 kip was only about $120. That's the most you could get out of the machine at one time. Next we got a tuktuk to the Thai Embassy. Out front were a bunch of people with the visa forms for us to fill out, etc. We figured that we should be able to get the forms inside the embassy so we passed them all by, ignoring their persistence. Just as we thought, the same forms were available in the embassy. We filled them out without any hassle and waited patiently for our number to be called. We turned in our forms, paid our fees and that was that. They told us to come back the next afternoon to pick up our visas. After we were finished with that particular obligation we took some time to see the city. We did this by walking back to our hotel rather than hitching a ride. We stopped into a temple - nothing too fancy - where a young monk came up to speak with us just so he could practice his English. I know this because he asked "Can I practice my English with you?" He was nice and showed us around the temple grounds a bit. I made sure to keep my distance from him, out of respect since they have the whole no-touching-a-woman thing and all. As we were leaving the temple the most pathetically helpless little black kitten stumbled over to us, meowing piteously in his tiny voice. He was quite starved looking. The only thing we could do for him was to give him some gentle pets and then leave him behind. I wished we could have taken him with us, though. We made our way to Patuxai, or as we took to calling it, the Laos Gate (because it reminded us so strongly of the India Gate in New Delhi). We should have been calling it the Arc de Laos instead though, since it was apparently supposed to be a local rendition of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Yet another effect of French colonization. The big arc is surrounded by a lovely park scattered with palm trees. Continuing past this we walked down one of the main roads towards the river, watching people as we went and making a quick trip through the morning market. The market had a lot of stalls filled with colorful fabrics that could be used to make a traditional Laos skirt, or maybe a top or whatever else they'd be willing to create. The Laos skirt is worn by a large portion of the ladies throughout Laos. From school girls to old women peddlers, most of them wore the skirt. It's just a large tube of fabric that you step into, fold the excess fabric over in the front and tuck it in. They look quite comfortable, but I'd be worried mine would constantly fall off. Maybe you can pin it down. And the fabrics they are made from ranged from colorful and intricate to muted and not as intricate. Very pretty. Outside the market we got a photo of two girls playing with a younger girl that was cute. I found myself frequently struck by how lovely many of the girls and women were. Our walk took us past the presidential palace, surrounded by a high fence and looking very comfortable, another temple that was under construction, and the US embassy. I tried to take a picture at the embassy but the guards told me I wasn't allowed. Since they had big guns I put my camera away. Just past the embassy was an ancient looking chedi, or stupa, that made up the center of a traffic circle - I liked the contrast of the worn, dull stone against the bright yellow VW bug parked next to it. We passed by the famous fontaine (which was really disappointing - I don't know why people would go out of their way to see it) and stopped into a temple that was just down the street from our hotel. The temple itself was closed, but I was interested in peeking, from a distance, through the doorways of the school that was located on the temple grounds. The kids were noisy and talkative and it didn't seem to be too different from an average school in the US in that regard. We were fairly exhausted when we got back to the hotel and some relaxation was in order. This undoubtedly involved beer and computers, cause that's how we roll. The only other interesting observation of the day was at dinner. We ate at a restaurant that was also a home. We sat in the front, and in the back was a couch and coffee table with a TV and various other homey trinkets set up around it. There were two kids were sitting at a table nearby doing homework, while a younger child ran around the place in a pair of sparkly shoes three times too big for her. The family dog wandered lazily around the restaurant trying to avoid too much attention from the little girl. It was like we had just decided to drop in to someones home for dinner. A lot of restaurants throughout the city were set up this way. It was nice though, I liked it. The little girl waved goodbye to us when we left.

We had to go pick-up our passports from the Thai Consulate on the 19th. We gave the tuktuk driver 22,000 kip instead of the 20,000 we had negotiated for, just because he was nice and hadn't given us too hard a time in regards to the price. The passport pick-up was fast and easy, and inside we each had a shiny new Thai visa. Once again, we walked back to the hotel rather than get a ride. We went a different route though. It wasn't as nice as the day before but at least we got to see different things. Mostly closed temples. We walked all the way down to the Mekong River even though we knew it was all under construction. It certainly wasn't a pretty sight. Everything was dusty and barren and I could barely even see the water of the river from the edge of the construction area. We got to people watch as we walked though, so it was alright. I got a kick out of a couple of kids on the playground. They were on a seesaw and the bigger boy would bear down on his side, leaving the smaller boy helpless up in the air. They seemed to be having fun. We eventually crossed the road and began looking for food. Somehow we ended up in a Belgian restaurant having a Laotian meal. It was a set meal for two that consisted of four traditional dishes, sticky rice, and Laos wine. I had my doubts, due to it being a Belgian joint, but man was it good! We had fried morning glory, which I never would have chosen from a menu on my own, and was shocked by how tasty it was. And the salad dish was topped with boiled eggs and fried banana flowers, which was delicious. The Laos wine was very strong and tasted more like tequila or vodka than wine. It certainly warmed you up inside. On the way back to the hotel we saw what we thought was a dead cat. We had seen him the day before, actually, and were sure then that he wouldn't last the night. He was the skinniest cat, by far, that I had ever seen. When we came upon him again, lying there sleeping we wondered if maybe had hadn't fallen into his eternal sleep. We stopped at stared at him for a few moments, trying to see if his chest was moving with his breathing, and then he twitched a whisker and we sort of exhaled. Poor thing - he can't have lasted much longer after we last saw him. I thought about going and getting him some food, but I thought perhaps I would just be prolonging the inevitable. He obviously isn't fit enough to manage taking care of himself on the streets, where he lives, and my help would give him a one-day boost of strength only to be followed by starvation again. If I was able to take him somewhere and nurse him back to health, that's another story, but I didn't really have that option... As you might can tell, I had a bit of guilty anxiety about the little kitty. I managed to bury my guilt in the purchase of a new purse/bag later in the evening, though. The purse I had been using was bought in England, almost a year previous, and it was pretty gross and dirty. There was a silk shop near our hotel that had a particular bag that I had been eying whenever we passed by. Since we were planning on leaving the next day I decided it was now or never. It was expensive for Laos, but it had a nice story and I liked the lady selling it so I went ahead and got it. When I say expensive I mean it was $14, or 120,000 kip. But she had a lovely little shop and claimed that all her bags were handmade from fabrics made by remote groups of village people throughout Laos. That she would buy their old fabrics, cut them up and make them into purses, clothes, laptop bags, etc. There are various reasons I think she was telling the truth. One: she had a rack of bags that weren't yet completely sewn up. Some still needed linings or a zipper, etc. Two: Many of the bags had worn or dirty marks on the fabric, making them look like they may have indeed been used by someone for a while. Three: she wasn't particularly pushy with me to buy. I got her down from 150,000 to 120,000 kip and happily walked away with a colorful new bag. Woohoo! Oh, apparently the fabric used in my bag was from the Meo people in north-western Laos. Very cool. After my hefty purchase we needed money for our upcoming trip to Vang Vieng, so we stopped into one of the few ATMs and got 1.5 million kip. Yes. 1,500,000. That was a big enough number that we just had to spread it all over the bed and take a picture. Man, it would feel nice to hold that much money in USD... Or better yet, in British pounds. Roll around naked in it. One can dream.

On the 20th we packed, had breakfast and checked out. A songthaew full of college-party-type tourists picked us up right from our hotel and took us to the bus that would take us to Vang Vieng. We were curious to see what this next city would hold for us.

Bangkok IV

We ended up back in Bangkok on the 11th - just in time for the Red Shirt protests to start. Chuck was a bit more concerned about this than I was. He checked the newspapers and online to see what to expect. Reports were claiming that within a few days there could be nearly 200,000 red shirters in Bangkok, and who knew what they would do. Meanwhile, we went about our business as usual as we made our plans for a visa run (that's when you leave the country in order to get a new visa because your current one is expiring).

The protests officially began on the 12th. We watched a bit of the news as we putzed around the hostel, seeing what was going on and how crazy it might be. The hostel assured us that things would be fine at our location - just don't wear any red shirts. There was a group of French kids who got all excited about the demonstrations and tossed on some red shirts to go join them. I don't think they really had a clue as to what the red shirts were protesting for or about - they just thought it would be fun to join the masses and pretend to be supporters I guess. The owner of the hostel very seriously told them not to come back to the hostel wearing the red shirts. That she didn't want any trouble following them back there. I told them to be safe out there. They came back later on, after having changed their shirts, unscathed and pumped up. I guess they had an exciting time mingling with the protesters. It was probably a pretty interesting experience. I would have liked to go out and see the crowds (and boy, there certainly were big crowds), but I was too nervous about the possibility of violence, etc. So instead, Chuck and I spent the next two days eating at and visiting our favorite Bangkok restaurants and shops, most notably sushi and BBQ at Sukishi, and buffet hot pot soup at the Sukiyaki place.

On the 14th we purchased our train tickets to Laos, and on the 15th we packed up and headed down to the station to catch the train. It was an overnight trip to the border, so most of the ride we were asleep. On that same day, the day we left, we heard some Red Shirt news about how they were threatening to over-run a military building in Bangkok, and even collect the blood of the protestors to spill on the Parliament House. I suppose we were glad to be leaving after we heard that. That sort of determination is something we thought it would be best to avoid.