Wednesday, May 13, 2009

So long, farang...

I am sitting in the air-conditioned, cavernous sterility of Suvarnabhumi International Airport, far removed from the dense din of Bangkok. Compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, it is an oasis of order and semblance. I am waiting for an 11 p.m. flight that will take me to Seoul and Seattle before landing in Denver. I am going home.

It has been nearly impossible to digest in the moment all that I have encountered in my travels, in that I didn't really understand Thailand until I'd been to Laos; I wasn't able to fully appreciate Laos until I'd spent a month in Cambodia; and I will perhaps never understand the many complexities of Cambodia – even after returning to the (relative) sanity of the West.

Traveling does strange things to the traveler. It breaks him down, builds him back up, and then dashes him back against the unforgiving wall of cultural exposure. This process might best be described (if not slightly in the extreme) in the words of an older Cambodian who described to me his country thus: "War. Stop. War. Stop. War. Stop." Not war in the sense that I have been fighting or defending against externalities, but war in the sense that I have struggled against myself: my preconceived notions, my ignorance of the world at large, my expectations of Southeast Asia, and my ever-shifting evaluations of all that I have seen, heard, felt, smelled and tasted.

Bittersweet would be the most apt description of my current mood. I have experienced elation being surrounded by beauty and the warmth of the people I have met. But I have also felt the sting of contempt for my presence (in the general sense of being a foreigner) and the frustration of being alone in a strange land – a land overripe with history and culture that pales in comparison to the West's.

Asia, I have decided, is not something one prepares for: better just to dive in. One may emerge mentally ragged, choked and sputtering, as if from a near drowning, but stronger for the experience, perhaps even eager to test the waters again.

As a checklist, my trip would look something like this:

1. Shaved by Bangkok barber
2. 36 hours on three trains
3. 52 hours on eight buses
4. Six days on three motorcycles
5. Cuddled with tigers
6. Snuffled by elephants
7. Really sick for a day
8. Slow boat ride on the Mekong River
9. Tubing on the Nam Song River
10. Visited a Vientiane cabaret
11. Saw 10,136 Buddha statues in one hour
12. Hung for three hours off the back of a truck
13. Swam, bathed and did laundry in the Mekong River
14. Swallowed (inadvertently) about a half gallon of the Mekong
15. Played petanque with the locals in Laos
16. Ate snails, Mekong mussels, fried cockroaches, grilled dog and raw river clams
17. Drove to the top of Cambodia's Bokor Mountain on a motorcycle
18. Worked as a "senior sales executive" for a Web company
19. Went to a Cambodian wedding and danced with the bride
20. Walked the ruins of Angkor Wat
21. Watched the sunset on the Gulf of Thailand
22. Became a formidable street bargainer
23. Beat the "number one" snooker player in Kanchanaburi
24. Spent the night in a small village in Issan falling asleep to Thai soaps

The list could certainly go on – and it will, in one way or another. Select stories will dribble from my memory – or spill in a rush of revelation – moments I have tucked away for another day.

I feel as if I am not leaving Southeast Asia, but simply taking a bit of it with me – only crumbs of the whole cake, to be sure, but enough to feed me for a lifetime.

They have no power

When I arrived in Phnom Penh, the bus dropped us off in the parking lot of a neglected mosque on the edge of Boeung Kak Lake, a divey backpacker haven about a ten-minute motorbike ride north of the city proper. Boeung Kak has for years been a hangout for backpackers in Phnom Penh. The area, which is commonly called Lakeside and is located behind the relatively upscale Phnom Penh Hotel, is a collection of skinny alleyways lined by bars, guesthouses, travel agencies and Internet cafes.

But soon there will be no lake. The area was recently sold for $79 million and the lake is being filled in to make way for shops and high-end apartments for foreign workers. During my month-long stay in Phnom Penh I watched a sandbar grow from the south side Boeung Kak into the center of the lake. All day a pipeline pumped sand from the Tonle Sap River on the other side of town and sent water back out the other way. Bulldozers and tractors rumbled around on the new finger of land pushing sand from one spot to another.

Many of Lakeside's longtime residents will be displaced by the development; many will be made homeless. Those with land titles are supposed to be compensated $8,000 by the government – hardly a fraction of what their buildings and businesses are worth – but no money has been paid out yet. It would not surprise anyone if the government never paid; after all, there is precedent.

In early January approximately 400 families in a small neighborhood near Phnom Penh's Independence Monument were forced by government troops from their homes. An entire apartment complex was leveled, the rubble from which still remains – an ugly reminder of the lengths the government and its corporate partners is willing to go to perpetuate development. The families were only allowed to grab what they could carry and were never compensated for their homes or lost belongings. Most of them now reside at a camp outside of town where children are malnourished, clean drinking water is scarce, there is no sewer system and disease is rampant.

This fate will more than likely be shared by many of the squatters who now live on Boeung Kak. One longtime expatriate, who runs a guesthouse on Lakeside, estimated that 80 percent of the area's residents don't own their land and will probably become homeless when the bulldozers roll in.

On the deck of a guesthouse at the south end of the lake, I spoke with the owners about the project. It was nighttime and moonlight rippled on the lake's surface; a small palm tree stood like a tattered flag, growing from a clay pot in the corner of the deck. The owners, who declined to be named for fear of reprisal, are convinced it is a Chinese or a Korean company that is filling in the lake. Other rumors, of which Phnom Penh has many, say that the developers are actually Cambodian and use a foreign company as a front. Either way, the government is complicit.

Since the plans for the lake were made public a couple of years ago, residents have complained, protests have been held and NGOs have advocated on behalf of the soon to be evicted. But still the pipeline gushes sand and the finger of land continues to grow.

"The people knock," one of the guesthouse owners told me, rapping his hand on the table, "but they have no power."

Remember to forget

A torture room at S-21, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison. Prisoner's were electrocuted on the bare bed frames, kept chained to the floors and made to confess their "crimes" against Angkar. Before it was used for killing, the prison was a school and many of the torture instruments were fashioned out of old desks. Photo by Simon Whistler.

On April 17, 1975, columns of Khmer Rouge soldiers – overwhelmingly made up of children – rode into Phnom Penh in commandeered trucks under a banner of revolutionary rhetoric. For years Cambodia had been a victim of its stronger regional neighbors, a pawn under French colonialism in Indochina, and had recently sustained heavy American bombing in the U.S. effort to "win" the Vietnam War (During a several month period, the United States dropped more bombs on Cambodia that it dropped in all of WWII). And so when the KR arrived many people actually welcomed the change – under new leadership that was fiercely nationalistic and opposed to any foreign intervention perhaps the country could find a little peace and stability.

But the KR soon kicked everyone out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside. The people were now expected to work in the fields and would form – at least idealistically – the classless foundation of a new utopian agrarian society called Democratic Kampuchea. One of the central tenets of this new society – a tenet that proved to be its ultimate undoing – was a broad rejection of religion, technology, modern medicine, education and the arts. The KR declared intellectuals, artists, monks and other "elite" enemies of the state and sent them to secret prisons where they were tortured, made to confess their "crimes" and then killed. One of the KR's initial ploys was to convince people think that there were jobs for them – that they were needed for the revolution – and to come to Phnom Penh.

"When they say Angkar needs you to study they mean you go to die," my guide, Pon, at the Tuol Sleng prison museum told me.

All the destruction was done in the name of Angkar (from the Chinese word for "organization"), the vague hierarchy under which KR leaders operated. This hierarchy simultaneously implicated and absolved all who killed in its name. During four years of nightmarish horror, Pol Pot ("Brother Number One") and his lieutenants eradicated, whether through starvation, sickness, torture or execution, at least four million Cambodians, or roughly half the country's population. Babies were bashed against trees. Heads were cut off with rough palm bark.

"You die or not die according to Angkar," Pon explained. When people arrived at Tuol Sleng, a.k.a. S-21, which was the most notorious of the KR torture centers, they "understand already that everything is over," he said.

As tragic and needless as all this death was, the real destruction – and the darkest irony – of the KR years is that in "saving" Cambodia from the corrupt influence of foreign interests, the KR nearly destroyed Khmer culture. The country is a skeleton of its former self and it is questionable whether it will ever be fully fleshed again. As Cambodia struggles to rebuild its society, it does so in a cultural vacuum: traditional Khmer music is more readily found on CDs than in the countryside; a vast majority of monks have no knowledge of the old teachings; and what passes for education has left Phnom Penh not with a new intellectual pool to draw from but with thousands of recent graduates poorly trained in business management and marketing who vie for not nearly enough jobs.

The Cambodian birth rate at the moment is one of the highest in the world and the streets of Phnom Penh are filled with adolescents and twenty-some-things. They are generally happy and their only knowledge of the KR years is that someone, or often many people, from their family died. I asked a 25-year-old if he learned about the Khmer Rouge in school. He said no, but that he didn't want to learn about them. Like many Cambodians, he has no interest in that dark past. There is only the future.

Economy of fake

Phnom Penh's economy is built in large part on the manufacturing and sales of counterfeit items: reverse-engineered cellular phones, knockoff Rolexes, pirated movies and music, cheaply imitated designer clothes – even cash. When I went to pay my bill at a guesthouse one evening, the owner preferred that I give her two $10 bills instead of a $20, because she couldn't tell at night whether $20 bills were fake. She said she could wait until morning or – in the case of a counterfeit – until a few months later when the ink would begin to rub off.

Pirated movies were my favorite black market item. While the general selection at most corner bodegas consisted of straight-to-DVD releases and a ton of B-quality action flicks, there were also the occasional blockbusters and recent Oscar winners. Less than a month into my stay in Phnom Penh, the new "Wolverine" movie was readily available for $2 – packaged with cover art and all – two weeks before its cinematic release in the States.

But no matter what latest hit or timeless classic with which one whiled away an afternoon, it was always the English subtitles that stole the show. I don't know who is translating for these movie pirates, but it might as well be a parrot. Their meager efforts result in comedy for native English speakers. But for foreigners who depend on subtitles to follow along the experience can be frustrating. Take for example these translated lines from "Juno":

1. "My dad used to be in the Army" becomes "Daddy swing on me"
2. "Intercourse" becomes "into the cause"
3. "Particular" becomes "ridiculous"
4. "Penny saver" becomes "Pennsylvania"

These selections barely do the off-translations justice. Much of the phrasing was so divorced from what was happening on screen that it was often far more entertaining to just read the subtitles instead of following the movie.

Despite the prevalence of copied material, the country is starting to clean up its act and beginning to protect intellectual property rights. For example, a couple of years ago it banned the import of pirated movies from China. Realizing, apparently, that it was subsidizing another country's illegal manufacture of copyrighted material, Cambodia took a stand: now it pirates its own movies.

Such is the endearing blatancy of Cambodia's black market. Amid the piles of Levi's, stalls of Nokia's, cases of Citizen's and a myriad of other "brand name" products, one wonders – quite earnestly – if anything in the country is real.

Enter Cambodia

The Laos-Cambodia border crossing is stark: a long shimmering strip of asphalt sidled by desolate, leafless woodland that stretches back and disappears into brown horizons. To make the scene even more dire, I had to walk 200 meters in the heat of the high sun from the Laos border station to the Cambodian visa checkpoint. A Frenchman, Fred, who I was traveling with to Phnom Penh, didn't believe me when I told him we had to walk. He laughed and continued sitting in the sun while I shrugged and hefted my bag. Vans and buses continued to dispel passengers who ambled refugee-like across the mirage of no-man's-land.

The Cambodian checkpoint was little more than a ramshackle outpost of a half dozen clapboard buildings and a cluster of bleating goats. After an excruciatingly slow visa process, we boarded the next bus and set off for Phnom Penh, eight hours to the south. Along the way we passed lush palm-studded fields and sturdy red-dirt villages, while plumes of rubbish smoke in the distance acted as visual orientations across the otherwise flat terrain. In the northern provinces wood fuel is a big business – a business I later found out was illegal – and several roadside stands were populated by locals hacking logs into various sizes: some too big for fire pits, others as small as wood chips.

In what proved to be the highlight of the trip, a bat flew in the open door of the bus and flitted to the back where it caused fits among a group of Western girls who were chatting in the back seat. After a dinner break at a roadside noodle house, a large smiling Cambodian boarded the bus and squeezed into the seat next to me. He held a small covered cardboard box that turned out to contain two baby parrots that the man fed orange slices to and water from a small syringe.

Only in Cambodia.

Friday, May 1, 2009

One last stop before leaving Laos

Sunset on Don Det. Photo by Simon Whistler.

Si Pan Don, or 4,000 Islands, in southern Laos is one of the most beautiful, relaxing places I've ever been. I planned on staying three or four days but ended up leaving – the day my visa was set to expire – two and a half weeks later: in love with the islands, heartbroken to leave, but glad I had experienced – if only for a moment – paradise.

Of the 4,000 islands there are only three that welcome tourists: Don Khong, Don Khon and Don Det. Don Kong, the biggest island by far, is for not-so-adventurous adventurers who prefer their electricity on demand and their distance from the mainland minuscule. Don Khon is the getaway for those who want a little luxury with their seclusion; its pricey air-conditioned digs tend to keep the seedier backpacker elements at bay.

Then there is Don Det.

Connected to Don Khon by a narrow, colonial-era railroad bridge, Don Det is the backpacker haven of Si Pan Don – and with good reason. It's one of the cheapest places to stay and eat in Laos and the island's vibe is all about perfecting the art of doing nothing. But the island is also on the verge of being spoiled by tourism, motorbikes and television, and I soon came to the conclusion that I had arrived on Don Det just in time and entirely too late.


Si Pan Don's water is a ruddy, glistening blue and is probably the cleanest water anywhere along the Mekong: I swam in it, bathed in it and did my laundry in it. If it's possible to have a relationship with a body of water, then this is where I fell in love with the Mekong. Bathing was an everyday ritual for everyone, but for the children it was more like a giant pool party. From my bungalow porch I would watch kids pull up in boats, call to their friends, strip naked and jump in. Foreigners on tubes drifted lazily in the river's eddies, soaking in sun and slowly paddling their way to tiny islands in the middle of the river. Small boats threaded the calm blue water, their fisherman casting nets from skinny prows.

Everyday the sun made its inexorable trip from one side of the island to the other, and at midday there was nothing to do but sit in the shade and wait it out. Local boys played petanque in the dirt, the dusty pattern-etched balls shining silver in the afternoon light.

Conversation among the locals was an all day affair – like any good gossip – and banter bounced between yards across the island's main dirt path, a rising and falling chatter I couldn't understand but which always had the air of nothing in particular. Smiling women leaned on fence posts, their teeth stained red with the blood of the betel nut, the dirt at their feet spotted with spittle.

Clusters of palm trees dotted the landscape, while dense vegetation ringed the rest of the island. In the middle of it all, a solitary wat was surrounded by acres of rice fields that were barren during my visit but in the rainy season would fill with tiny green shoots. Unlike most of Laos, which benefits from basic irrigation, Don Det is solely dependent on the rain to grow its rice, so there is only one growing season, from which the harvest is not even enough to last the year (an average family on Don Det consumes hundreds of kilos of rice each month).

The island teemed with life: black and red ants, earwigs, butterflies, hairy wasp-like bugs, jumping spiders, white spiders, water striders, frogs, chickens, ducks, roosters, pigs – huge pigs that looked unable to pick themselves up out of the mud they wallowed in – cows, small birds, monkeys, myna birds, cockatoos, dogs and cats. It was like living on a giant farm with nothing fenced in or tied down, except for the smaller pigs confined to ropes tied to palm trunks waiting for the coming slaughter.

In the evening the shadowy hills of Cambodia, visible beyond the lush density of the islands, seeped into the muggy night as the sun made its final dip into the clouds and Laotian haze.


Everyone's stay on Don Det turned from three days to three weeks and the most common declaration was, "I'm leaving the day after tomorrow." In my first week on the island, I changed my departure ticket three times. Eventually the tour bus agent just wrote me a blank ticket and told me to fill in the date when I was ready to leave. I filled it in once and then changed it two more times before I actually left.

Even the locals used the word "tomorrow" loosely – it usually just meant soon. In fact things progressed so slowly on the island that, according to one farang who had lived on Don Det for a couple of years, simple project might take months or years to complete. Piles of wood, concrete and bamboo that I first assumed to be discarded junk were actually works in progress. Most everything was under perpetual construction.

The biggest project on Don Det – connecting the island to the surrounding electrical grid – has been moving at a river snail's pace for several years now. Last year, concrete pylons used to string the electrical wiring started arriving at the main dock, but the crane broke and the locals couldn't upload them off the beach before the rainy season hit; when the water level rose the pylons became buried beneath silt, sand and mud.

While I was on the island, there was a scramble to unearth the pylons and get them off the beach before the rainy season hit again. But the process was slow and the truck that came to haul them away could only handle two at a time. It trundled its way down the middle of the island up and over the low runnels of dirt that broke the rice fields into brown patchwork.

Every business and most houses on the island depended on some kind of gas-powered generator. The generators typically ran from 6 p.m. to midnight; the exception being restaurants that needed to use their generators during the day for the occasional fruit shake order, which required the use of a blender.

According to several locals the electricity will be good for some on the island and bad for others. Many of the already established businesses and guesthouses have enough money for the initial installment and the bills. But many families cannot afford the large upfront fee and the steep monthly rates (electricity is far more expensive in Laos than in the United States). And what will the juice bring? Loud music? Televisions? Lights on all night?

"Don Det is dead," a French traveler named Fred told me. "Electricity is coming."


In my two and a half weeks on the island I also had the pleasure of getting acquainted with a family who ran a restaurant and a set of bungalows called Peace & Love. They often invited me to eat at the family table and we conducted informal English-Laos lessons while sopping up delicious soups and dipping sauces with sticky rice. One morning I had snails for breakfast. The next night I ate fresh mussels from the river stewed in a pungent ginger and green onion broth. One afternoon I was treated to fresh green papaya served with a simple spicy dipping sauce – dried chilis, sugar, garlic and vinegar – that we were told was "spicy number five" on a scale of seven. Spicy number one was for Laotians only.

Papa Kai and Mama Kam headed up the family. Papa Kai was skinny and quiet and had an easy smile. He had short gray hair and was enthusiastic about learning English. One morning I watched him cutting yellowed tobacco leaves with a machete in the shade of the house. Mama Kam was slightly stooped and talkative; she had an animated, nasally voice and became quite silly after a couple of Beerlaos.

They had seven kids in all. The two youngest daughters were going to school in Thailand but the rest of the family lived on the island. The oldest son, Vilay, ran a restaurant and guesthouse down the road. The next oldest, Kampai, was married and had two daughters who lived with his wife in Pakse. Kampai was struggling to start up a tour business but his English was limited and business was slow. Posai was the family's handyman, and he ran Peace & Love's bungalow operation with his wife who was quiet and stern. Sesai was the most Western of all the children. He often wore a blue basketball jersey and attended school in Pakse where he was studying to be a banker. The third daughter, Mai, ran the restaurant with her fiancee, Mikao, who was a competitive jokester and spoke mostly in bursts of English slang.

In general it was easy to mix with the locals on the island. Most of them didn't speak English and so they depended on friendly tourists to bring in other friendly tourists. Who are the farang and what do they want? This is the question the villagers were asking themselves. Businesses tried desperately to pull farang in, and they each followed the other's lead, with one business watching another when, for instance, fans were installed in a restaurant or a new drink was introduced on a menu.

Tourism was, for the most part, still a mystery on Don Det. And while most of the time things happened slowly, when change came it often came overnight.


Unfortunately, four days after my arrival on Don Det, my livelihood was stolen from me. I came home one night and settled into my bungalow's hammock and fell asleep. I awoke in the middle of the night and moved into my bungalow, neglecting to bring my bag with me. When I woke up a few hours later it was gone. My bag turned up later that morning at a restaurant down the path, emptied of all but my passport, a notebook, a couple of video tapes and some pens. My cameras, voice recorder, Blackberry phone and everything else – even my harmonica and the book I was reading – were gone.

I spent a frustrating half hour trying to explain to one of Papa Kai's sons, Kampai, what had happened. Since he was one of the only locals I really knew on the island I figured he could help. When Kampai realized what I was saying he took me on his motorbike into the village and found the only two people on the island who could speak passable English. I explained to them what happened and they called over a local authority. A conference ensued under the awning of an Internet café at the village's main crossroads.

I sat on the back of the motorbike while Kampai and the three men discussed the situation. The conversation went on for 45 minutes or so while I tried to follow along. The whole time little black ants kept falling on me from the awning and I kept brushing them off while trying not to act like they were bothering me. At one point I made clear that there was a U.S. dollar reward for the return of my belongings, but the men seemed to think that it had been farang, not locals, who had stolen my stuff, which meant there was little they could do. The ants kept falling, the men kept discussing and I tried to be patient. Then they started noticing the ants too, and everyone began animatedly brushing them off themselves, looking up to the awning to see where the ants were coming from. The group soon disbanded and Kampai and I headed back down the dirt path.

I never saw my gear again or heard anything more about it, but I refused to let the incident ruin my trip. They were just things, I kept telling myself. Shedding them turned out to be one of the best things to happen to me in Asia. I began seeing things in a fresh light: I no longer had to worry about whether or not my electronics were safe; the palm trees were greener and the water was bluer. I became free to pursue my travels.

Learning to live with less has been the lesson all along, and I learned it big on Don Det. I still wish I had my camera, and I lost a lot of good interviews on my recorder. But it was almost worth it just to say, "Meeting adjourned due to ants."


The day before I left Don Det, I woke up early. The sun was just beginning to creep across the eastern side of the island. The sounds of families gathering in the morning and beginning their work drifted out over the rippled murk of the Mekong. A breeze blew through the slats of my bungalow.

Throughout the day clouds converged over the island and by afternoon thunder was rumbling across the rice fields. Eventually the sun was completely obscured by darkening storm clouds and the Mekong reflected the graying slate of the sky. Rain was foretold in the lifting of three white gulls from the water's rough in search of another roost.

Dust began to blow up from the path and the island became hazy with dirt particles and the smell of earth. Palms swayed in the wind and sand blew off the smaller islands in wispy threads. As the rain began, leaves and chicken feathers swirled up the dirt path; the Cambodian hills were almost completely hidden, reduced to opaque ridges of geographical proximity. Papa Kai's family scurried around battening down the house and collecting items from the dust-blown yard.

In the end it only sprinkled and the commotion passed without event. Two tubers could be seen drifting in the cool shower, their pale bodies bobbing in the rippled water, the only color against the rain darkened expanse of Si Pan Don.

It was time to move on. One can only take so much paradise.
A fisherman trolls the placid Mekong at sunset on Don Det. Photo by Simon Whistler.
The main village on Don Det consisted of some basic markets, a couple of Internet stalls and some restaurants. But what more could you want when the Mekong is your swimming pool? Photo by Simon Whistler.
In Laos' Si Pan Don. The idyllic setting of Don Det was perfect for swimming, tubing and just generally doing nothing. Photo by Simon Whistler.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No boat to Pakse: an interlude

While the similarities between buses and boats are minimal, it is important not to underestimate the potential confusion between the two, particularly when traveling through a country like Laos where everyone's English is broken at best.

For instance, when your desire to take a boat south down the Mekong River appears to be on the verge of realization, it's probably too good to be true.

There are many boats to Pakse? Oh, that's fantastic! We'll just get on the bus then and not ask any more questions. Thank you so much!

It was thus that we ended up on the night bus to Savannakhet, a crumbling colonial town in central Laos where there is not one boat to Pakse. When we arrived at 5:30 a.m., the town was dead and dark. We sat for a bit under a couple of strips of fluorescent tubing, which threw a diffuse pool of institutional light onto the black pitch of the bus station's parking lot. To add to the surreal circumstances, we wound up chatting with a couple of bubbly, spaced-out American girls who had been traveling non-stop for three days and were headed across the Laos hinterlands to the Vietnam border.

We smoked cigarettes and contemplated our two options: we could either stay at the station until daylight or take a tuk-tuk into town. We jumped on the next tuk-tuk with three local guys who were probably wondering why two backpackers were heading into town an hour before daybreak.

The town square – a couple of blocks from the Mekong – was a cobbled rectangle scattered with weeds and surrounded by small shops and a couple of extinguished lampposts with a small church at one end. We set our backpacks down, attempted to rally some optimism and hoped faintly that a coffee shop was just opening its doors. We found only the blank stares of shopkeepers and the incessant barking of neighborhood dogs that roamed the darkened streets with impunity.

We walked toward the river and found a bench on a corner near an abandoned set of amusement rides. In the fading darkness we could make out the eerie faces and animal shapes of a small train and the peeling paint of a miniature merry-go-round. As the silver horizon slowly loomed over the graying stucco buildings, we began to see people jogging and old men starting in on their morning bottles of Lao Lao. Clouds of mosquitoes converged on the street near the river. Wood smoke from breakfast fires smelled of banana leaves and burnt rice.

I set off in the direction of the nearest dock to find out about boats to Pakse, which was still a couple hundred kilometers to the south and the last big town before Si Pan Don (4,000 Islands), our final destination in Laos. There were boats available to Thailand, which was visible across the relatively narrow expanse of the Mekong. But a boat to Pakse? Laughable. I returned to tell Jen the bad news. We wandered Savannakhet's wide streets, along the river and past a large wat, occasionally followed by yet more barking dogs.

By the time we made it back to the town center, the sun was visible above the church and monks were beginning to make their daily rounds. Locals waited on street corners to fill the monks' simple begging bowls with rice.

We found a restaurant that was serving a breakfast buffet and we settled at an outside table and ordered coffee and fresh juice and waited for the hot tables to be filled with croque monsieur's, fried noodles, scalloped potatoes and steamed vegetables. I also ordered fried eggs, which turned out to be the best eggs I'd had in Laos, and I sopped them up greedily with crusty triangles of white bread.

We were tired, dirty and hot, and wanted to get moving again, so I walked back up to the river where I had seen a group of tuk-tuk drivers lounging in the shade. I found a driver I recognized from earlier when he had offered me a glass of Lao Lao, which I politely declined. He was excited for the early business and greeted me with a toothy smile. I could smell the acrid liquor on his breath as we haggled over a price to the bus station. We swung by the restaurant, picked up Jen and left the dusty streets of Savannakhet behind.

At the station a local bus was just leaving for Pakse. We purchased tickets and stowed our baggage underneath, while a group of boys loaded up the top of the bus with chairs, bags of rice, boxes of electronics and assorted luggage. Once on the road – windows wide open, the wind in our face and Savannakhet falling fast behind – we breathed a sigh of relief and settled in for what we thought was a three-hour ride.

But on the way to Pakse the bus stopped every 15 minutes, picking up and letting off, and more and more cargo was brought on board. Bags of sugar lined the aisle, and seating – dictated by a young man who possessed only a semblance of authority – became a constant game of musical chairs, with people being shifted arbitrarily up and down the aisle.

Also during the ride, I decided that while the mosquitoes might be bad it's the chicken-on-a-stick girls that really test one's patience. At every stop the bus was surrounded by a small army of food vendors who pushed unrecognizable items through the windows of the bus, while a contingent of children would actually board the bus and make their way slowly to the back, offering bottles of water, chips, chewy donut holes or – the most aggressive of them all – chickens-on-a-stick. A simple no was never good enough. The sticks of meat would just get shoved in closer, as if upon another inspection the foul birds would suddenly become appealing.

The soft sell hasn't made it yet to Laos.

By the time we arrived in Pakse, nearly six hours later, all I wanted was some non-stuck-through food and a shower and to move on past our strange little adventure – which was entirely my idea – looking for a boat that didn't exist.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Vientiane: Home of 10,000 Buddhas

Sawngthaew rides can be "more intimate" than bus rides and a great way to interact with locals, an expat guesthouse owner in Vang Vieng told me. He was recounting a ride he took to Vientiane years ago, where he witnessed a gaggle of village women get taken for their gold jewelry by a group of bean-game con men.

"Of course, it could just be boring and uncomfortable," he added.

Our sawngthaew ride from Vang Vieng was certainly intimate – perhaps slightly boring and uncomfortable – but no bean-game con men got on board. A sawngthaew is essentially a covered, open-air pick-up truck outfitted with two padded benches. In the back of ours, over the course of the four-hour journey, various characters got on and off: a monk with a slide-top cellular phone and a pack of menthol cigarettes; a farang in camouflage cargo shorts and his Thai girlfriend who wore hot pants and a pair of oversized sunglasses; an older woman with a baby and a blue plastic bag of tamarinds; a young man with bleached hair and a blingy bracelet; three schoolgirls in matching black-and-white uniforms; a stern-looking boy in green military fatigues; a middle-aged man who wore a dusty blue-and-white Adidas track jacket, a pair of knockoff Oakley's, and a white-patterned ball cap with an embossed dollar sign and a faux Major League Baseball emblem. At one point there were 16 people in the back, two in the front and the driver.

About an hour into the ride I opted for some sun and some breeze in my face, and ended up clinging to an iron bar on the roof of the truck for about two hours, unable to reclaim my seat. The red and yellow of communist hammer-and-sickle flags were ubiquitous along the road as we passed, and were passed by, convoys of green tarp-covered Chinese transport trucks. We had to change vehicles outside of Vientiane when the sawngthaew broke down, and we rode in a tuk-tuk the rest of the way into the city.

Vientiane sits just north across the Mekong River from Nhong Kai, Thailand, and its riverfront strip is a lively mix of French restaurants, business buildings and reggae bars. At first sight the city is hardly picturesque, but we soon found it had a character all its own, its people friendly and welcoming, and its streets pleasantly navigable.

We settled into a guesthouse in a quiet neighborhood a little bit out from the river near the National Stadium. The guesthouse had large rooms with vaulted ceilings and walls painted institutional green, and the beds were little more than elevated planks with tired mattresses, but we managed to sleep nonetheless.

The next day we headed out for some sight seeing. We first visited the 458-year-old Sisaket Wat near the city's center. The wat has a museum that houses Laos' largest collection of Buddha statues – 10, 136, to be exact. Some of the statues have been unearthed and rescued from construction sites and road projects, and many of them are damaged and burned relics from the Indochina War. The museum's curator, Mr. Soy, welcomed us to the wat, tying colored-thread bracelets to our wrists and wishing us good luck, good health and happy lives.

Mr. Soy told us about a man who visits the museum every day and cares for a particular, non-descript Buddha statue, which he believes is the Buddha. The man burns incense for the Buddha, keeps it covered with an orange cloth and leaves it little presents. Mr. Soy didn't know why the man felt that this Buddha was the one, but he said the man has been coming to the museum for years.

Later in the day, on our way to the massive memorial golden stupa north of downtown, we stopped off for an ice cream at a small roadside restaurant and ended up playing Chinese poker with a group of young locals, a couple of whom spoke quite good English, which is a rarity in Laos.

At the stupa, bands of Asian and Western tourists, led on by the monotonous drone of their tour guides' rambling, milled about the main square, snapping obligatory photos before dribbling back into their party-theme painted VIP buses on the way to the next cultural highlight – a phenomenon I've come to call "checklist tourism."

That night we found the Anou Cabaret, where a live band complimented stiff and tentative table service while singers crooned and the lead vocalist belted country western tunes in broken English. An informal ballroom dancing contest – waltz, salsa, tango, samba, fox trot – concluded with award certificates for the winners, and afterward simple improvised line dancing opened up to the public. Aware that we were the only farangs in the joint, we stayed seated.

It was in Vientiane that I began to theorize that there must be a massive industrial bakery somewhere deep in the jungle in Laos, churning out these little baguettes that have been on almost every menu we've seen in the country thus far. I picture the bakery operating 24-hours a day, employing brigades of scooter-driving kids who shuttle the light chewy loaves around the country.

On our last day in the city, we spent six hours at the southern bus station waiting for our bus to Savannaket, a small crumbling colonial town halfway to Si Pan Don (4,000 Islands) in southern Laos. At a small restaurant near the bus station we ate a quick meal of fried chicken – more bones and gristle than meat – with a bowl of rice and some clear broth with watercress floating on the oily surface. The waitress, pretty and bitter, sulked the food to our table; a towel was draped over her shoulders and her hair – in the middle of a dye-job – was pinned above her neckline. On the television a Thai soap opera played, in which a victim haunted his killer, while a half-dozen patrons sat glued to the screen. Two lethargic fans oscillated on the wall above our table.

At the station, I gave a small, shy boy a baseball I had been carrying since I left Denver, and we rolled the ball back and forth between us across the tiled floor of the terminal. My traveling companion, Jen, took out her green Frisbee and began tossing it to the locals. Soon, our little corner of the station was a pocket of gaming frivolity. A Thai boxing match played on the lone television, young men exchanging baht at the bout's conclusion. For dinner we ate cheese and, yes, baguette sandwiches, while dusk settled on the departing buses.

My. Soy, the friendly and informative museum curator at the Sisaket Wat in Vientiane.

Monks' robes drying in the sun as seen through a fence at a small wat in Vientiane.
Offerings at a wat in Vientiane.

A shy monk at the Sisaket Wat in Vientiane allows me to take a picture, but is unwilling to look at the camera.

The massive memorial golden stupa north of Vientiane's downtown.

Vientiane's busy riverfront avenue.
One of the 10,136 Buddha statues at the Sisaket Wat in Vientiane, Laos. The statues have been collected from all over Laos, and the wat's museum claims the largest collection of the statues in the whole country.

A decorated Buddha at the museum at the Sisaket Wat in Vientiane, Laos. A man who believes this statue is the Buddha came everyday to bring offerings and burn incense for the Buddha.

Buddhas at the Sisaket Wat in Vientiane, Laos.

Golden Buddha statues at the Sisaket Wat in Vientiane, Laos.

A guide at Lusi Cave stares wryly at the camera. There were few attractions around Vang Vieng that didn't have an attendant waiting to collect a few thousand kip for admission.

Vang Vieng – dusty, hot and dry – during the day. For the most part, if people weren't tubing on the river, they were hiding out in their hotel room or bungalow – or holed up in a Friends bar – recovering from the night before. It was common to see tubing-injured Westerners limping down the street.

One of the main intersections in Vang Vieng, lit up at night by the glow of streetlights, fluorescent tubing and the glare of Friends on television sets.

Inside the Lusi Cave, located a couple of kilometers south of Vang Vieng, under the karsts that overlook the Nam Song River. We walked for half an hour into the cave with just a flashlight and a local guide. At the end of the cave, which was hot and dry and cool and wet all at once, there was a large pool of water that we stood beside and turned off our flashlights to enjoy the utter darkness.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where's Laos now?

Vang Vieng, Laos, located 400 miles south of Luang Prabang on the road to Vientiane, is a boisterous nook nestled along the banks of the meandering Nam Song River. Towering karsts overlook this fast-growing backpacker haunt, where Friends bars, banana pancake vendors and a vigorous tubing industry fuel the local economy.

Our VIP bus (read: glorified Greyhound) crept down the thin wheedle of twisting mountain road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, passing thatched villages clinging to crumbling red earth, bamboo and banana trees sprouting from the precarious ridgeline. Half-clothed children played along the side of the road, while squatting men with cigarette lips stared at the passing bus. The vegetated cliffs and hillsides were a brown-and-green patchwork of flattened, stalk-strewn earth, evidence of widely practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. Dissipated smoke obscured the choppy horizon.

As we descended into the valley, the smoke from Vang Vieng's two concrete factories – the first of which is pictured on the Laos 5,000 kip note – was visible to the east of town. Sheer cliffs to the south dwarfed its few dusty streets and threatened shadows over the river's wide lazy bends.

Vang Vieng's tubing operation used to be more communal, but it has since been consolidated into a kind of cartel, where tubes are rented out by only one place in town and the tuk-tuk ride upriver is included in the rental price. On the river, mop-haired, tanned and tattooed farang swing from ropes and zip lines, leap off of diving platforms, drink buckets of booze and avoid, for the most part, any serious paddling.

There are injuries, as well. Rope swings break, zip lines snap, people land wrong in the water, and rocks exposed in the dry season cut and scrape reckless tubers' legs and arms. Dozens of people limp around town with bandages and splints. When once the common accident in Southeast Asia was motorcycle spills, now it is tubing in Vang Vieng.

At night, along streets lined with eerie fluorescent lighting – like a border town in a Quentin Tarantino film – tubers and other farang gather cult-like to watch Friends, Family Guy and the occasional The Simpsons episode, the televisions' glare turning their blank faces skeletal under the bars' dim lighting. In most of the restaurants, festive tinsel hangs from walls and small fake Christmas trees still stand decorated. Between January and April, the Western, Chinese, Thai and Laos New Years are all celebrated, so decorations are kept up for at least four months.

Away from town on the other side of the river, across the bamboo footbridge and along the cow-dung dotted riverbank, is a quaint cluster of thatched bungalows surrounded by a well-kept garden. The guesthouse is run by man from Ireland, whose accent has been erased over time by stints in Australia, London, Thailand, and now eight years in Laos, and who asked not to be named. But for this posting I will call him Michael.

"I've fallen out of love with Asia," Michael told me one afternoon while we were sitting in the shade under his elevated, dark-stained wood house. He has grown frustrated with the town's willingness to sell itself out to farang, and he has dealt with his fair share of local corruption. He is tired of his neighbor's burning rubbish piles near his property. He finds it difficult to find reliable labor, and he described his general attitude as "weariness." MIchael is even contemplating petitioning the local government to pass laws regulating loud music, which can be heard drifting across the river late into the night.

"I'm all for Laos developing a good tourist industry, but this place seems to attract now a dumb sort of individual," he said. He fears the serene paradise he moved to eight years ago has been corrupted beyond repair. "The thing that really ruined this place was the electricity … you'd think (the locals) would've gone for refrigerators and fans, but no – it was karaoke machines."

To make matters worse, he said, there is no "community culture" and no activism on behalf of the environment, so his efforts to petition the government are more than likely in vain. Also, he says doesn't want to stir up trouble.

Michael has bags under his slate blue eyes, and a graying scrabble of dark brown hair. He is a consummate viewer of Fashion TV, a habit he described as "titillating yourself with horror," but he said it is the Thai soaps – "everybody slapping everybody" – that are corrupting Laos culture. From his point of view, Vang Vieng was once an idyllic setting – "I used to be able to see blue sky" – that has been run over by development interests and a disregard for the environment.

Vang Vieng is one of the most beautiful areas I've seen in Laos. There are caves to be explored, blue lagoons to drift in, and mountain biking is the preferred method of transportation. But this paradise of easy living has already developed a reputation among more subdued travelers, and for some this den of frivolity has seen its day. Vang Vieng is your place if you are young and on holiday from school with a taste for loud music and no real desire to immerse yourself in local culture. But if you fancy a taste of real Laos, Vang Vieng is more like, as Michael put it, "paradise already spoiled."

Vang Vieng is undergoing an explosion of development, with new guesthouses and bungalows going up all over town. Many of these places look to be catering to wealthier clientele, but with Vang Vieng's wild backpacker reputation preceding it, it may be hard to pull in top dollar travelers amid the tubers and Friends fanatics.

Karsts south of Vang Vieng, as seen from the top of a small hill, the top of which was reached via bamboo ladders rather than a dirt path.

Boy in a field across the river from Vang Vieng on the way to Lusi Cave.

A swimming lagoon – which is owned collectively by a local village – half an hour south of Vang Vieng.

The mangostine: quite possibly the world's most delicious fruit.

Jagged karsts thrust up from the lush, hazy hills of north central Laos on the way to Vang Vieng.

Village children stare at our tour bus on the way to Vang Vieng. Tiny, dust-caked villages – often little more than a couple of huts – populate the mountain road that climbs out of Luang Prabang and leaves the Mekong River far behind.

A sleeping traveler reflected in a television screen on the bus from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.

A buffet of simple chicken noodle soup, with fresh herb garnishes and plenty of chilis, provided with the "VIP" bus ticket from Luang Pabang to Vang Vieng.

Same same, but different. Many Western products are available in Laos, but often their packaging is changed to make them more accessible to local palates.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A crumbling temple at an abandoned wat across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang.

Luang Prabang: life in the slow lane

Situated on a small peninsula at the confluence of the Mekong River and one of its smaller tributaries, Luang Prabang is a seemingly idyllic town: brick-lined streets, colonial architecture, shade trees overhanging quiet lanes, tuk-tuk drivers napping between games of Chinese poker, and the smell of French culture wafting down the main avenue.

But below this pleasant façade – according to the Lonely Planet guide to Laos, Luang Prabang has been declared the most beautiful city in Asia – lies a lackadaisical muffle of do-little-eat-much charm that is alluringly mundane.

In the morning there is mist in the streets; in the evening there is mist in the streets. If one were going to write a murder mystery based in Laos, it would be set in Luang Prabang – the town's eerie lamp-lit streets at night the perfect backdrop for a shocking crime – and, at the end of the book, who but one of the innocent young monks could be capable of such a depraved act?

In the evening children gather along the river, jumping from limestone rocks, peering under river rocks looking for minnows or frogs, while farangs idle near the shallows, smoking cigarettes and reading tattered second-hand novels acquired through trade at one of the town's sparsely yet eclectically stocked book shops.

On the second day of our stay, a two-hour ride on squeaky bicycles took us through the town's dusty outskirts, past a crumbling stadium, fresh fruit markets and rice vendors, and back along the shady banks of the great Mekong, its muddy banks exposed in the dry season. The next day a short ferry ride across the river took us to a footpath where we walked through small villages and explored wats in various stages of disrepair, orange-robed monks flitting about the paint-flecked structures and ancient carved stones protruding from the tall grass.

Luang Prabang's main tourist attraction – aside from Pusi, a wat built high on a step-studded hill in the center of town – is a waterfall. At every corner tuk-tuk drivers promise a "good price" for a ride to the waterfall, which is 26 kilometers outside of town. The call for rides is so insistent – we were propositioned at least 20 times during our four-day stay – that we decided one of our missions in town was to avoid the waterfall at all costs, to stay off, as we've come to call it, the "conveyor belt."

Staying off the conveyor belt is particularly difficult in Laos. Unlike Thailand, where one can hop on a scooter and take oneself just about anywhere, avoiding the pre-planned tourism packages, in Laos there is little chance of doing anything without dealing briefly with the local tourism industry. Men in sunglasses and short sleeves linger at the entrances to caves and waterfalls charging a few thousand kip for admittance, while swimming lagoons have been appropriated by village families selling sandwiches and beer and tickets to take a dip in the murky blue water.

(Side note: It has been slightly difficult and surreal adjusting to the exchange rate between Laos and Thailand. Items that cost 40 baht in Thailand are suddenly 15,000 kip, and one has to pause before a purchase to figure out whether one is getting a good deal or getting got. In general, Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand, in part because the country has no direct access to the ocean and therefore must import the majority of its goods.)

Conveyor belt aside, it is pleasant enough to simply shuffle the streets of Luang Prabang, saying hello to the friendly locals, or posting up at a riverside restaurant playing cards and getting impromptu language lessons from the staff.

And then there is the mangostine. A fruit vendor at a market stall pressed open one these strange delicious fruits for us, and we were soon on a bit of a binge, our hands and lips sticky from the fruit's sweet pulp. The best way to describe the flavor of a mangostine – about the size of a plum with a thick red rind and a soft white core – is a cross between an orange and a peach: the white orange-like sections juicy, fleshy and slightly more tart than a peach. A bit difficult to enjoy without making a mess, the mangostine is easily the finest fruit I've had so far in Asia.

One night we elected for a little local culture, a traditional play and dancing put on by a troupe at the town's museum now housed on the grounds of the old palace. The performance began with a benediction of sorts, a round of low tonal chanting after which the chanters tied small lengths of white string to our wrists, wishing us all good luck, good health, love and a long life. The performance consisted of two rounds of traditional dancing – one by the men and one by the women – followed by an installment of a serial play, the plot of which – despite a provided written summary – was nearly impossible to figure out. There were armies of monkeys, and two god-like rulers battled over some long-standing quarrel, while another attempted to rescue his kidnapped wife.

The dancing, however, was incredible. The women twirled in synchronous groups, all smiles and fluttering eyes, bending and twisting their arms and hands to the rhythm of the hypnotic music. The musicians beat drums, tapped at xylophones and plucked at the necks of simple string instruments. I was soon lulled by the ancient melody, my mind drifting beyond the modern hall.

They say that if it is Thailand that eats the rice, Vietnam plants it and Cambodia threshes the grain. But it's Laos that listens to it grow.

In Luang Prabang, there is little to do but listen.

A typical street corner in Luang Prabang – white-picket fence, well-kept yard, immaculate home and a Mercedes parked out front.

Thai toothpaste – "It's black because of special herbs" – which seemed like an interesting cultural purchase at the time, but leaves a funny taste in my mouth. Still, my teeth do seem to be getting more clean...

A local boy searches for minnows and frogs in Luang Prabang.

Local actors perform an ancient play in a colonial hall at Luang Prabang's cultural museum. In the play, which was part of a serial, two deities warred, a king searched for a kidnapped princess and purple-suited monkeys battled.

A temple at Luang Prabang's cultural museum, housed on the grounds of the town's old palace.
A temple structure at a wat in Luang Prabang.

Rice vendors pass the time in Luang Prabang.

Hot peppers drying in a shallow reed basket in Luang Prabang.

At the aptly-named Big Tree Cafe.

An ice cream vendor stands straight for the camera after welcoming me with excellent English and military efficiency – a litany of good luck and good health – to Luang Prabang, proudly declaring himself a 35-year resident of the town.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A girl sells flowers to give as tribute to Buddha outside a wat across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang.

Kids pause from playing kick-the-can to pose shyly for a shot. The kids in Luang Prabang were up early, playing, and up late, playing, with a bit of time in between for school.

Alms bowls washed and drying in the sun at a wat across the Mekong River from Luang Prabang.

Tuk-tuk drivers pose for a picture on Luang Prabang's main street. It took me five minutes to convince these guys that, No, I didn't want to go to the waterfall.
A brilliant purple flower blooms from an overhanging bush on one of Luang Prabang's side streets. There are beautiful flowers and secluded gardens hidden down every alleyway in this quaint, most-European of Laos towns.
An old Land Rover parked outside a row of shops on Luang Prabang's main drag – read: only real street. Remnants of the European influence here manifest themselves in these old cars – Mercedes sedans, Volkswagon buses – and the town maintains an air of civilized restraint.