Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kong Lo on a Jankey Scoot

  In case you are wondering, I recovered after Vang Vieng some how, though I have a bruise the size of a frisbee.  We had some fun in that town.  A few hours down the river was the capitol of Lao, Vientiane, one of the sleepiest, chilled cities I have ever had the pleasure of traveling through.  We were only there for a couple of days, but both Nima and I could see staying there for a while.  Old temples and crumbling French villas are an ongoing theme in Lao, as are great street food stalls.  We made our way through a killer night market, offering truly exotic and strange foods, along with some carnival games, on our way to the Lao Bowling Center, which looks deserted till you step around the tarps and through the side door.  The only thing this place was missing was his Dudness himself. 

  Next on the list of things to do and see was Tham Kong Lo cave, a seven kilometer river through a mountain.  The best way we found to get there was to go to Tha Khaek and rent scooters for the 200 km ride to the small village near the cave.  We were recommended Mr. Coo, but he was out of scooters, so we got a deal from Mr. Andy, who had bargain scooters, and we soon found out why.  This was the first time on an manual scooter for me, well semi manual; gears but no clutch.  The ride there was smooth, but I could foresee problems in the future for our scooter that was held together with rubber-bands, especially when it failed to button start, then failed to kick start, and we were forced to push start it from there on out.  We  had a good night with our little motorcycle gang, and caught some shut eye at a great little roadside place.  The cave was really like entering the underworld.  We paid our boatman the 115,000 kip for the three of us, our old pal Dominic included, and took off motoring our way through Hades.  We watched the light at our backs fade to nothing, and the ceiling of the cave grow to cathedral heights.  Our little wooden boat slowly filled with water, and as we ascended deeper we had to get out and walk through a stalactite forrest as our boatman took our boat out of site around a corner.  We were all relieved to find him again.  This place was like the cave in Pirates of the Caribbean to the tee, minus the pirates and the gold.  It was great watching our guides force the little canoe up the rapids, looking like cave gnomes with there little lights on their heads.  When we emerged into the light of this new world, it was raining, but worth it as we saw the mist climbing over the peaks of the mountain we just passed under.  A few minutes break, then it was back.  This was a killer experience.

  Our gang decided that 120 miles in the rain was a bit much with our close consisting of shorts and tee-shirts, so we opted to stay for another night.  Then, with our gang bidding us farewell early, Nima and I embarked on the journey home solo, with our jankey, rubber band bound scooter.  We could feel the transmission slipping as we wound through the mountain pass in 1st gear, the foot break hit the ground on left turns, and we discovered a strange clunking sound that continued non stop, till the chain broke.  Man it was fun.  Next we got to flag down a truck, hoist the scooter into the back, and get dropped off the nearest mechanic, who found my pink bandana and beard to be the funniest thing ever and spent the entire time fixing it laughing.  They overcharged us, but I straitened them out, to the laughs of all the towns people who had gathered around to see the new clown.  We spent the next 50 miles nursing the transmission which was bound to crap out at any time.  At one point, with 30 miles left to go, it did just that, but with Nimas last push start, we made it all the way back.  I really feel like I know a lot more about these machines now, thanks to Mr. Andy.

  We spent Valentines at our guesthouse in Tha Khaek, drinking Lao Lao and beer with some new found friends.  The next day we hauled our sore butts to Savannakhet, home of the Lao Dinosaur Museum.  This town offers the best busses to Hue, in Vietnam, and other than that, not a whole lot else.  This museum, though, was one of the coolest I have ever seen.  It reminds me of a junior high school gym, and is home the the bones of a stegosaurus, which they found without having to dig, just right there in the surface.  When we asked them why they didn't hang some bones on the walls, our guide said they were to heavy, we asked how heavy, then he took us into the back room to just, ya know, pick up some 200 million year old dinosaur bones, so we could feel for ourselves just how heavy they were.  Our guide was digging them out since the beginning and we saw him in the video about the excavation.  So like I said it was one of the coolest museums ever, I picked up dinosaur bones for under a buck.  Tonight we head to Vietnam on a night buss, so I must bid you farewell, and khawp jai lai lai for reading.  Happy bleated Valentines Day to everyone and remember if you kiss someone, your kissing everyone they kissed, which is only like 3 steps away from Keith Ritchards, so what do you think about that?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Buckets of Fun

Laung Parabang is where matt left us so thats where I'll begin.

Perhaps a few of you have been wondering why you call Lao Laos, or vise versa; we can all hold the french responsible for that one. The country was under french rule up until 1953 and we all know the french have an insatiable appetite for extra T's and unpronounced S's so the poor Lao people now have been recognized world wide as the Laos people, which is horrible close to the plural of lice. So now that we have that cleared up it'll makes sense why Laung Parabang is a beautiful little city full of crumbling old french villa's and the more modern traditional bamboo and teak houses. Laung Parabang is one of the Unesco World Heritage sites because of  this beautiful collision of cultures and of course the 15 or so temples (Wat's) that have been standing on the river peninsula for decades. The streets are lined with very sheek cafe's and restaurants full of mostly french tourists, ex-pats, and a few back packers; and some where in the mix of all this there's 100rds of tangerine robed monks from ages 5+ going to and from the Wat's. Matt and I woke up one morning at about 5:30- 6:00 to see the procession of monks with bowls in hand, collecting rice offering from the towns people.

In Laung Parabang we had  collected quite a possie of Flight of Gibbon friends so, as you do with friends, we spent a few too many nights drinking a few too many beer-Lao's, good times. One terrific thing we did learn about from our crew was of the Korean BBQ. A wonderful way to enjoy a BBQ, I've never seen one in the states so i'll give you a quick idea of how it goes down... perhaps it too hard to explain completely but there's lots of pictures of our wonderful dinner. The Idea is your cooking a noodle soup and a bunch of pieces of very thinly sliced meet in the same pan... It's already getting complicated isn't it! This is one of those situations where the picture is worth 1000nd words so just check out the pictures and get yourself one if you are lucky enough to find a vendor.

Laung Parabang was not easy place to leave with it's wonderful crumbling cafes but sooner or later we had to step out of the fairy tale land and back to what we were hoping would be reality.

After a long journey south through the most stunning mountain range we found smack in the middle of Sodom, or Gomorrah, or maybe something like Tijuana; Vang Vieng is a city brimming with  belligerent hooligans. The restaurants are not only trying unload a hamburger, onion rings, and a large beer-Lao but then they hand over the "other" menu. The "Special" one that is hidden behind the counter that offers all kinds of mind altering substances; from ganja, to mushrooms, to opium, and perhaps you want it all blended up in "Happy shake." Upon our arrival I though 'oh lord what am I doing here groveling amongst the hordes of intoxicated foreigners?' But we had come with a Purpose! We wanted to drink yes... but we also wanted to do the infamous float down the Nam Song River in inner-tubes. We found our self a room, the hardest town to find a room in i think, and we holed up for the night.

I have to say my experience here turned around very quickly. Vang Vieng is not really Lao at all, perhaps like vegas isn't America, or Tijuana isn't mexico, but all of the above can be a great way to spend a few days, and this one is certainly a Adult Theme Park of sorts. We hoped in our tubes about noon, 4Km up rive and came to find bungalow bars lining the way along with an assortment of rope swings, water slides, Zip lines, and anything else extremely fun and potentially lethal... this of course depends on how much you've drunk and where you manage to land. It's funny you know, in south east asia you find yourself buying and drinking "Buckets" of alcohol, literally. They have taken the idea of a simple cocktail, something along the lines of whisky and coke, and instead of a glass you get it in a bucket! With the handle and everything. So a few buckets in your toasting in the sun watching what might as well be a circus act. There's people swinging and jumping in the river in every direction and your just crossing your fingers for the poor guy with a pink bucket on his head you has floated into the line of fire. You do this tubing from bar to bar as they try to lure you in with free joints and such, when you find a place that tickles your fancy you wave enthusiastically that the rope man. He's the guy who sits there lassoing tubers all day and pulling them in. I think you can imagine what state people find themselves in at the end of the day and i am also sure that it will not surprise you that we didn't make it the 4Km back. We were unable to carry on about 2Km down. We waved down tuk-tuk driver who was lingering by the river bank hoping to bring in some easy cash. It's even more embarrassing to admit that our failure that day drove us to madness , so much so we made a second attempt. Time two i stayed a bit more sober, Matt on the other hang got to drinking 'Lao Lao' (rice whisky) with the local fisherman so i can't say the same for him... but either way, drunk or not we made it our second time.

Quite an achievement in Vang Vieng. We did have a wonderful few days on the Nam Song looking up at the absolutely stunning mountains as we drifted along, though i looked a bit like a lobster and now I'm left with some awful tan lines. Aww well.
Ciao, Amore Con i Baci!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Treetop Flyer

  As we make our way through the thick jungle, hacking our way through vines and bamboo trees, we come to a clearing that's more of a hole out of the canopy, with a thick cable wrapped around the massive strangler fig tree at your back.  You hook on, check your straps, and fly out over the forest as the ground disappears fast....   Welcome to Lao.
  We left Thailand, and Pai in particular, with heavy hearts and made a two day journey through Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong and across the famous Mekong river on a longtail boat to Lao.  This put us in Huay Xai, and rite away we knew we weren't in Thailand any more.  This country is one of the poorest in the world, though they manage to keep their standard of living surprisingly higher than some countries I have seen.  Their money is the Kip and its about 8,000 to the dollar, which makes for a strange exchange rate, we're paying 60,000 for a room and it is cheap, and our standard meal is around 45,000.  You really feel like a high roller, you know what it feels like to take 1,000,000 out of an ATM, I do. 
  After our first few minutes we found the office for the The Gibbon Experience, which we have been looking forward to since Dharamsala, India, but haven't, for the life of us, been able to make contact, even though your suppose to book 6 months in advance.  They 'just so happened' to have two more spots to fill for tomorrow, but we had better book it or they will be gone, so we went for it.  This is the most expensive thing we have done at $290 per person for 3 days and 2 nights, but after months of thought it was easy to part with it, I mean when are we going to be here again.  Also it's for a good cause.  It's kind of like poacher rehab in the way that your guides are reformed poacher, making more money for their families by taking tourists on treks than they ever did killing the animals.  So here's the game...
  We meet up with our crew of eight, one of whom is our Irish / German buddy from Pai, Dom, and cram into the back of 4x4 Toyota truck and head into the mountains for about two and a half hours.  An hour and a half of this is on a dusty highway, and the rest is rugged mountain roads, through rivers and what not.  We get off, well dusted, and hike through a village, some farms, and finally to the Jungle for three hours over thin bamboo bridges.  You can imagine the scenery if you have seen any movie about Vietnam.  They hand us our sandwich wrapped in a banana leaf, and point us to the waterfall where we can swim in the aqua blue water and cool off.  As the fish nibble at our feet we catch our first glimpse of what we are in for.  Looming 180 feet above our heads is a tree fort, the likes of which I have only seen in movies.  After our swim we are suited up with harnesses and marched up the hill to to our first attempt of flying.  There is a platform attached to the base of a tree as well as a cable that stretches out over the canyon and out of sight to the trees on the other side.  Our guide gives us some safety tips, lets us know the stats of the line; its 380 meters long (about a quarter mile) and is sitting 180 feet up, and zips off into the distance.  After a minute we here a 'clear' and we are off.  Really there is nothing like it, I mean treks are one thing,but getting to jump from one side of the canyon to the other to continue your hike is really something else.  The best part was that, after a few more zips, our guides led us to our tree house for the night, and took off giving us freedom to explore the canopy on our own.  It was great.  That night we ate a great meal, drank the wine that was provided; though we were told not to, and fell asleep to the sounds of the jungle far below.
  Day twos' accommodations, reached after a few hour hike and a beer in a village, was even more mind blowing.  I can safely say that most of us felt like ewok from Star Wars.  The tree itself was something to be reckoned with, but adding in the two story tree house and the three entrance / exit points to different parts of the ridge line surrounding you, its just a recipe for wickedness.  It was this day we got to try the biggest line at 430 meters long.  It was here that I learned a neat trick from the guide.  He chopped a two and a half foot piece of bamboo, cut a little hole in the top and in the side, added another little piece of bamboo, and within minutes I had an awesome bamboo bong!  He said, 'later we use bamboo bong.'  So I said, 'OK!'
But it was a tobacco use only kind of situation, but another story for the stoner archives.  I don't think there was one complaint about the food, the beds were great, and we had drinking water on tap in the house.  Wow the spiders though, they were fun. 
  Day tree was another new set of zips, along with the hike there, and all I can really say about these was that the view from the line was the best this day.  You could see for miles.  All in all we must have done about 20 zip-lines,  hiked maybe 8 hours, and really had a blast.  The biggest animal we saw was probably the spiders, unfortunately, but no regrets doing this trip.  After the hike back, and a couple of beers at the village we took the dusty trip back to Huay Xai, where our new crew went out for drinks, already reminiscing the good times.  Nice to meet all you guys and we hope to see you in Cali.
  Nima and I are headed to Laung Parabang now where we hope to kick it for a few days before floating on down to Vang Vieng.  Stay safe back home and remember you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but nosey friends are best unpicked.