The backpacking portion of the trip has been interesting so far. This is the easiest place in the world for young people to travel, and as near as I can tell, to not have to worry one bit about attempting to integrate into the local culture. It is mindlessly safe, which might explain the number of parent-funded gap-year white people. The scenery is stunning though, and the people friendly, and if you try real hard you might meet an actual local, instead of more westerners.
I went back to Chiang Mai only to resume my linear journey. Once I found a place I had been I went straight to the bus station and grabbed a local bus to Chiang Rai. The bus ride was fun, it was the local stop-at-will collectivo style pervasive throughout the less developed back countries of the world. I was the only westerner on it, so I thought I might be going someplace special, or that the season had ended. But naturally I was wrong. When I got to Chiang Rai I found all the other westerners had taken mini-buses. The only place I found to check in was a reggae hostel, good thing this was only for one night. I headed out for some food and a massive thunderstorm rolled in. I ran to the nearest row of bars only to find they were lady-bars. Old white men beckoned me inside for cold beer. The reality though was they all had one or two Thai girls young enough to be there grand-daughters clinging to them. No! I won’t help you legitimize your behavior by having a beer with you. I ducked into another reggae bar right as the wind front came in. I had a beer with the owner and watched signs blow down, tree branches break off and the streets flood from the rain, all in less than an hour. First time this year, welcome to the rainy season. There wasn’t much else in town so I grabbed a local bus to Chang Kong, ferry landing to Laos.
The whole reason to come here was to take a boat down the mighty Mekong river. I crossed into Laos, and procured the visa at the border. Wow, what a difference from coming by boat, I mean I took a ferry, but it wasn’t my boat, so stamp stamp “Welcome to Laos.” I met only a few other travelers who were also taking the boat and we had dinner. I chanced to take something random and unreadable off the menu and luckily got a table top bar-b-que with lots of meat, much to the other traveler’s envy. The new friends would be my traveling buddies for a few days so we spent the rest of the evening getting to know each other.|
In the morning it was time to catch the boat for a two day boat trip down river. We thought we would be the only westerners since we hadn’t seen any others out, but in the morning the streets were full of them. I am not even sure where they had all come from. It was overwhelming. Once on the boat, there were about three locals and 60 backpackers. The trip was nice anyway, a fast motored drift, stopping at numerous villages to get supplies, drop off villagers and the occasional animal or motorbike. We stopped the night at Pak Beng, which is really just a street with guest houses, and all the free crap-Lao whiskey you can drink. Off the next day, a large portion of the boat was hungover. I passed the time playing cards with my two Canadian travel mates making some fun of the other, very young, travelers.
|Arriving in Luang Probang was a bit of a pain. See everything in Laos is designed to strip money away, all for the good of the Lao people of course. In this particular instance, we were told the boat would drop us off downtown, but instead it dropped us 6 miles out of town and then we had to catch tuk-tuks to get the rest of the way. With that out of the way, we found a guest house and set out to enjoy the town. Outside of town are some really nice waterfalls. They flow through huge limestone karsts and the water is turquoise and filled with little fish that clean you. The calcium deposits coat everything so the whole area gets a smooth rounded finish. It was a fun day of trekking and swimming. Even if it was filled with gap year kids trying not to cash in on their travel insurance, it was still a nice time.|
In the morning we caught a rather excruciating (complete with puking children) bus ride down from the mountains to Veng Viang, tubing capital of Laos. To be fair, it is really beautiful here and it is no wonder why it is the most visited city in Laos. That aside the main attraction is to tube down the river, getting as drunk as possible. I felt a bit ill so I did not participate, however I don’t think I missed much. Strangely every restaurant in town plays an endless loop of either South Park or Friends to a vegetated-horizontal audience who are not inclined to stand up thanks to enjoying one too many happy-shakes. What there is also to see are tons of young Europeans flaunting the conservative Lao culture about town. So much for gaining cultural insight on your gap-year, and put some pants on.
|Next stop – Don Det, all the way down on the Cambodian border. This was only a 26 hour bus ride away. Good thing I managed to get food poisoning. They have interesting night buses here, they are designed with a bed meant for one person, about five inches shorter than me. When they sell you the ticket you see pictures of the beds and think you will get a good night sleep. But then when you board the bus, you find you actually get to share the bed with a complete and random stranger. In my case, I was lucky enough to have a small English lady, but some beds had two guys my size in them. This is the strangest thing I have seen in awhile. It is even more odd considering how conservative the Lao people are.|
If a man is interested in a woman for example, he won’t ask her out, that would be disrespectful, he instead would offer her some small gift, like chocolate or something. If she takes it, he can talk to her, otherwise, better take his chocolate some place else.
In the morning, we had to change buses. But we asked the conductor about it and confusion ensued. Does this bus go where we want? “Yes, yes, same, same,” but he was pointing elsewhere. He spoke English fine for a Lao, so we asked again. “Same, same.” he was still pointing, so we asked why he points to another bus – “Same, same, but different.” This is a common expression in this part of the world. Same in the sense that both are buses I guess.
I came to Don Det to see pink river dolphins. I don’t know why, since I have seen so many dolphins, but never endangered pink ones. They were not pink, so I left the next day for Siem Reap. This bus ride was a killer. First we had to catch a small ferry, but a massive rain storm rolled in. I went to the bus station, but all the other white people stayed behind. I was almost to the station when I found a shop umbrella to hide under. A very young backpacker wearing a poncho walked by and asked why I wasn’t with the rest of the group. I told him I was going to the bus station, and besides, he was not with them either, he gave me a confused look and told me he was just going to the ATM but that I should wait with everyone else. But the bus comes here, I explained, they are just afraid to walk in the rain. It was useless, so much for gaining independence in thought while traveling on your gap year, I am not sure why parents bother? When the bus finally came we made our way to the border, where we had to wait four hours. They told us it was because the second bus for the day had broken down so we had to wait for all the passengers, I think really they didn’t sell enough tickets. Crossing the border was easy, so easy. When the bus finally filled, they pulled out little plastic chairs, clearly meant for children, and put them in the aisle, this was for the remaining five passengers. Finally, after the bumpiest dustiest roads I have ever been on, we arrived in Siem Reap, at 1 am, it was pouring down rain.
The one thing that I refused not to see is the Angkor temple complex, especially Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom. It is practically the whole reason I came to South East Asia. Another traveler and I hired a tuk-tuk for the day to drive us though the massive complex of temples that were left to ruin and taken over by the jungle for several hundred years. This place is amazing, and the driver did a great job of taking us to the right temples at the right times to avoid the crowds. This city was the first metropolis on earth, it had a million residents at a time when London had only 50,000. First it was Hindu, then Buddhist and you find both in the carved sand stone temples. They are each massive in size and intricate in detail, and you can pretty much go all over and through them. The most amazing thing though, is the way the jungle has taken much of it back. Huge banyan trees grow over and through walls, bushes split vine covered ten foot heads and the forest canopy covers all but the tallest structures. I have seen many old things made by man and this is certainly one of the best. I was worried that my high expectations would lead to a let-down (they usually do) but I could not even begin to anticipate the massive nature of Angkor.
We ended up getting stuck in the tower of Angkor Wat during another huge rain storm. It was the last stop of the day, before we were to climb a small hill and watch the sun set over the temples. We went back to the hostel instead, as there would be no sunset. It was a great day though, and an ideal way to see something that I have wanted to visit for 20 years or so. The truth is, I am not even in Siem Reap right now, but Hue, Vietnam. Both are cities in South East Asian countries. It doesn’t matter though because as they say around here – “same, same, but different.”