Friday, 29 June 2007

Communism makes bowling easy

Bowl for your country, comrade

Laos is a kind of hybrid, somewhere between communism and capitalism

The Marvirak Chey Mutrea Buddha. Depicts Buddha as he meditated under the Boddhi tree, hoping to attain enlightenment. (Sometimes I accidentally learn something)

The Laos Arc de Triomphe

A cave used during the secret war to hide in from the bombing. There were probably less Japanese tourists thirty years ago. Probably

A bit of a stroll through the rice fields

Site 1 at the Plain of Jars

Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the American Imperialist and his puppet soldiers! HAHA! Ok, so it's not actually a funny joke, barely even passable as a joke if it weren't for the time honoured 'why did the chicken cross the road'. But then communism isn't known for producing the comedy greats. Although Stalin's moustache was quite funny. Then again, if you met him and laughed at it he would probably have you killed on site.

We went to the Laos National Museum yesterday, in Vientiane. It was, until a few years ago, known as the Laos Revolutionary Museum, a source of pride for the Laos people, illustrating their heroic struggle against the tyrannical west and highlighting all that is great about communism. Well, they may have changed the name, but the inside retains it's revolutionary 'charm'. Many pictures depict the many heroic battles fought by the people, first against the French about 100 years ago and then the "puppet forces" of "the American Imperialist". By the time you come out of there you are calling each other comrade and have a strange craving for vodka.

One thing to be said for Communism though, it does make you get a ridiculously good score if you go bowling. I managed 180 on our first game, aided by a lane that would give you odd extra pin here, maybe a spare there. Perhaps it is good for the morale of the people to score well and be happy. Having said that my score did drop to a more realistic level with each game we played.

Before reaching the capital we spent a few days in a town called Veng Viang. Known mainly for it's river tubing, this is exactly the reason we went there. River tubing involves sitting in a large inner tube (of say, a tractor tyre) and floating down a long section of a river. But with bars dotted all the way down. And each bar has a giant rope swing or zip wire for the progressively more hammered backpacker to throw himself into the water from. It's a winning combination! Needless to say, it's probably the most fun you can have with an inner tube and a river as long as you don't do what one guy did and launch yourself into water less than 6ft deep, whilst trying to somersault and end up biting through your own lip. Then you need to find the nearest hospital in a country not exactly world renowned for it's top notch health care. No injuries here though, if it's not an aborigine curse I'm just not interested these days.

After Veng Viang we made a detour to the Plain of Jars, an area of Phonsavan covered in three separate sites of large stone jars that date back thousands of years. Nobody is exactly sure why they're there either. One theory is that they were used to distill rice wine and whisky in. If that were the case then ancient Laos was party town.

Sad news for anyone that knows how much time me and Dan wasted at university with a quick game of Pro Evo (a football game for the playstation) every now and then: Slightly lost the other day after a trip to the Cambodian embassy, we stumbled across a shop full of kids playing Pro Evo and all kinds of other games. The lure of playing a cheeky game of Pro Evo in the middle of Laos was too much for mere mortals to handle and so we scuttled sheepishly in there and had a couple of games. We shouldn't have been proud of this but we were. It should have remained a dirty secret but hey, we're all adults here.

P.S. We have been reliably informed that in Laos the word Tom means 'gay'. You can imagine our joy at being told this and the subsequent crap jokes. Maybe we're not all adults here...

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

The "Secret War"

Before deciding to go travelling I didn't really know where Laos was. Now, as I am in the capital Vientiane, I do. From one day to the next you can discover the existence of something completely new to you, something you were totally unaware of before. Like America's foreign policy in this part of the world during the 60's and 70's. Everyone knows about the Vietnam war but many, myself included, had never really heard of a "Secret War" against Laos. A bombing campaign which drops the equivalent of a ton of explosive for every person in a country seems a little excessive, even by U.S standards. "Secret" because, somehow, it was more or less hushed up at the time. How you keep something like subjecting a country to history's most intensive bombing campaign is beyond me but then so is the success of Pop Idol contestants (shudder)...

Not going to go on, the pictures explain it better anyway.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

I love it when a plan comes together

I could have showed you a picture of the hot springs but this sign that confused me is great. I could explain why it says "Eggs and Drink". I could.

Last picture in Thailand (Changland), just under the gate to Indo-China

The slow-boat from North Laos. Not all that slow actually. The seats were so uncomfortable that the floor was the better option.

A snippet of the scenery that surrounded us along the way

Luang Prabang, a French/Buddhist town

Check out rule number 3. From our hotel in Chang Mai.

Permpoon, the man that taught us to cook the dishes we will all wow you with.

I'm a "flaming" good cook. Hahaha. No? Well, I tried.

Faces of joy upon receiving our certificates.

Immature but oh so funny. The day I don't stop to to take a picture of a sticker announcing the existence of 'Radio Tits' is a long way off.

Another week, another country - now we are in Laos which so far has proved to be a pretty beautiful place. I suppose when you are the second most sparsely populated country in Asia you can afford to have the occasional bit of jaw-dropping scenery.

The last blog left us in Pak Chong I think. Well from there we found our way up to Chang Mai, courtesy of a 3 hour train ride. Followed by a 13 hour, overnight train ride. It just doesn't seem like you're going anywhere these days unless it takes at least 8 hours... (Actually I've just re-read my last blog and I did already mention that. Well in case you weren't concentrating the first time there it is again).

So, Chang Mai. It was meant to be the chilled out antidote to a few days of cheeky Chang consumption in Bangkok. Who knew that the hotel we checked into was going to be selling large bottles of Chang for 40 Baht? It wasn't our fault, the Chang made us do it! The prime example of this excuse is that Nick decided to get in the ring with a Muay Thai boxer. (Kind of like Kickboxing, or as the Thai's say, "same same but different"). The result wasn't pretty. Very, very funny but not pretty. To be fair the Thai boxer did let Nick charge at him around the ring for two rounds until he decided enough was enough. (or in Swiss "a monkey is a monkey" - I don't know why either). When that fateful time came, Nick went to get in close in response to the drunken cries of "GO FOR THE UPPERCUT!", and the Thai guy swiftly lifted his knee squarely and accurately into Nick's ribcage. To his credit, Nick did get up after the first tonking but was swiftly sent back down with another, this time more decisive knee. That was game, set and match. Very strong painkillers, perhaps some kind of mysteriously strong Thai horse tranquilizers have since been relieving the possibly cracked ribs of aforementioned Chang fiend. Moral of the story: Thailand is a silly place that makes you do silly things on an alarmingly regular basis and we are better off for the sake of our physical and mental well being, in Laos.

But Chang Mai did provide us with plenty of entertainment that didn't involve watching Nick get kicked in the head too. We learnt Thai cookery, we can now all honestly say that we can whip up a mean Pad Thai Noodles. Or perhaps you would like to try our green curry or we could even crack out some spring rolls? Then, on another day I realised that Team Canada, as we are sometimes collectively known had become the A-team. This realisation came when I had rented a scooter for the day and rode about 40km out of Chang Mai to see the Hot Springs. There I met some Hawaiians who were there on holiday with there mother, who was Thai, and by coincidence had a brother-in-law born in Southampton. Anyway, I digress, "why the A-team?" I hear you cry. Well, I'm there on my own and have explained why I have a Canada patch sewn on my bag, and they ask where the rest of Team Canada is today. So I tell them, one is jungle trekking for a couple of days (Laura) one is rock climbing (Tom) and the other is having an easy day because he is too doped up on painkillers after Chang made him get hurt in a Muay Thai ring. As the words were coming out of my mouth I realised this must make us sound like the most action-packed set of backpackers ever. I liked this.

Now we are in Laos and it is a calming place, the anti-Thailand if you like. Not that we didn't have a great few weeks in Changland but sometimes you just need to be taken away from temptation. The day after crossing the border into Laos we took a 2-day boat ride down the Mekong river from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, where we currently preside. There was a stop off along the way in a town called Pak Beng so it wasn't 2 days solidly on a boat but still, travel in Laos is not the fastest known to man. Not that it mattered because for 2 days we were surrounded by some of the greatest landscapes I have seen anywhere. You could be looking at it all, maybe read your book for two minutes, then look up again and there would be a whole new postcard-perfect view to gawp at. At the end of two days, many arses were utterly numb, but it was definitely worth it. And besides, the other option to get to Luang Prabang offered was a speed boat trip which was not exactly recommended by our guide book: "Fatalities are not uncommon". Hmmm.

With all the photos and all that I've just written, I imagine a good many of you have skipped to this penultimate paragraph by now. I would have. But if you managed to hack your way through, I applaud you. Few people would show such dedication to such a worthless cause.

Until the next installment of our adventures, I have been Hannibal, Murdoch was played by Laura, the part of B.A. Barracus was aptly acted by Tom and Face was brought to life by Nick. Paul was one of the poor landowners that the A-team used to help fight against some mafia lowlife or drug dealing pimp.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Step away from the Chang

Downtown Bangkok

Having a hookah in an amazing bar in Bangkok called Gazebo. Strawberry shisha - tasted so good it must almost have been healthy

Khao Yai National Park

Look closely at the biggest, scariest looking bastard of a spider I have ever seen. This is the female, the male was also on the web near it and he was about 1/20th of the size, the poor guy.

A big millipede. Kind of tickles when you let it crawl up your arm

If we didn't have a guide we would probably have been utterly lost

The waterfall from the film The Beach. Not a bad place to go for a swim

Just your everyday roadside elephant

A video of the first wild elephant I've ever seen. (Normally, I upload videos through youtube but in Thailand that isn't possible as youtube is banned for showing derogatory images of the King. They like their King a lot. I haven't met him personally but he looks firendly enough...)

We're now in Chang Mai, Northern Thailand having spent a collective 16 hours on trains yesterday and this morning. A 3 hour train out of Pak Chong followed by a 13 hour journey North to Chang Mai. I really needed a shower by the time we got here. To say I smelt a little bit would be like saying that Hitler was a little bit naughty.

Bangkok was fun, almost too much fun, we could have stayed there longer and become full-time alcholics if we'd wanted to. Luckily we recognised our weakness for a cheeky Chang or four and hotfooted it out of there in time. We are now all the proud owners of Thai Fisherman pants. They are amazing, like really baggy trousers that you could really only get away with wearing over here, kind of like the khaftan I bought at Glastonbury and only ever wear at Glastonbury because it looks like something Jesus might have found de rigeur.

We also went to see the lucky Buddha and a giant Buddha, all part of a cunning ploy by our tuk tuk drivers to take us to a tailors afterwards where, they hope, we will all buy suits (because I obviously need one for backpacking) and they will get a nice comission for taking us naive travellers there. Well I don't own a suit and the owner of the shop was less than amused as we played along, walked round the shop once and staunchly refused to buy anything. We also saw the Grand Palace although I don't have any photos of it because my camera battery decided that was the day it was going to die. Always happens at the most convenient time.

As hinted to earlier we may have had one or two nights out while in Bangkok. "Highlights" in a nutshell were Nick and Laura nearly getting arrested as part of a scam by a large bar to con more money out of backpackers/tourists. Having a beer on a rocking horse outside our hotel would be up there too, as was finding the bar called Gazebo, having a strawberry hookah whilst watching a live band for a couple of hours.

The day we left for Pak Chong I awoke a touch the worse for wear. Luckily the journey to Pak Chong wasn't too taxing and once we were there we were politely kidnapped by a guesthouse that could also offer us a guided tour of Khao Yai National Park the next day. When I say politely kidnapped, we didn't really know what was going on other than we had been shown a leaflet of a nice looking hotel, said that we would like to go there and so a 4WD taxi is called and turns up. Only when we get there does the guesthouse look suspisciously different to the one we were shown. But, as far as kidnappings tend to go, this one worked out fine and our tourguide, Jeep was excellent. We saw monkeys, gibbons, spiders, birds, an elephant, lots of wierd bugs and exotic flowers and plants. We even met the now grey-haired man who had killed two tigers that had each killed a couple of people 20ish years ago. He waved a revolver at us that would have made Dirty Harry proud. Did he ask the tiger if it could remember if he had fired five bullets or six? I hope so.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Paint me green and call me Humphrey

How could we not have a good night with all that neon green paint? We also had it all over our backs. It was partly meant to help us find each other easier when drunk but cheap Thai whisky is a powerful enemy.

Having never ridden anything like a motorbike or scooter in my life, a random island with many a sketchy road seemed like a great place to rent a bike. If 3 children can bomb along on one, then surely a backpacker can...

Sometimes we're just a blur of frenzied activity

Tributes to the lucky Buddha in Bangkok.

Ko Sahn road (probably spelt wrong), near where we're staying

Before I start I would like to make an apology for some of the past few blogs. It has been noticed that there was an increasing air of smugness, the kind of which could get a man lynched on his return home. So I'll tone it down a smidge in the hope that I don't drive away readers by making them all want to come out here too, thereby negating any reason to read my blog. If no-one was reading this, would it present the same problem as the question 'if a tree falls and no-one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound?'

Obscure ramblings aside, we've made it to Bangkok! Needless to say, we went out on our first night for a few cheeky Chang's (Thai beer, which amazingly can be anywhere between 3 and 12% because of the way it is made. So the 6% on the bottle is just a rough guess. Brilliant!) which may be why a few of us are feeling a little fuzzy today. We're back on the mainland after a good couple of weeks on beachy islands, namely the Perenthians in Malaysia and Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao off the coast of Thailand. We all kind of felt the urge to be somewhere where you can't just pass most of the day sitting in a hammock reading/sleeping (as expertly demonstrated by Nick above) and get a bit more pro-active again.

Some of the time on Ko Pha Ngan was enforced lazing to be fair, having been to the Full Moon Party required at least a day recovery time for all involved. My personal experience of said party finishes in my memory a few hours before it actually did; I have a bit of blank patch that starts somewhere around 1am I reckon. Being woken up on the beach was the first thing I knew about having fallen asleep, still clothed, luckily not robbed. When I was woken several things confused me. 1) It was daylight, the last thing I remembered it had been dark. 2) I didn't remember falling asleep so waking up seemed a bit odd 3) I was still very drunk 4) There was a guy in the Borat body thong (you'll know what it looks like if you know what it looks like: hideous) wandering about. 5) The blank in my memory.

I'm sure that wasn't all that confused me but you get the idea. When we all got together the next day, everyone had their own little story to tell, but I'll leave them up to the individuals in question to regail you as it would take forever to tell them all here. Also, we played A LOT of scrabble the day after. Maybe because it was the only board game the guesthouse had but it was still somehow soothing when coupled with lying around on small Thai sofa thingies in gradual recovery.

So at the moment we are riding tuk-tuks round Bangkok. Yesterday we managed to get all 6 of us in one. There are currently 6 of us as we've picked up another couple of English guys, Paul and Chris, I should know where they're from by now but I've forgotten. Either way, it's good to be back in a city briefly before we head up towards Chang Mai and then on towards the Laos border. I'm also starting to get an idea together of when I might be back. Money allowing, when we all split at the end of July/ start of August, I'm probably going to have a go at getting to Dehli overland through China, Tibet and Nepal. How much of that will be overland I'm not sure but it should mean me reaching Dehli sometime in September and possibly flying back from there. But who knows, I may end up joining a traveling group of ladyboys in the next couple of days and seeing the world that way...