Thursday, May 19, 2011

True love is three days, six bus rides and zero showers, and still being attracted to her scent.

"Courage is the fear of being thought a coward."

~Horace Smith

True love is three days, six bus rides and zero showers, and still being attracted to her scent.

While hiking in Nong Khiaw, Laos two little local girls--'One and 'Loon'--led me a quarter mile into a cave, giggling as my head and knees struck limestone and sent echoed thuds up and down the narrow passage. If alone I would have turned back after crawling through and feeling the reverberation of flapping wings. Nothing brings courage quite like having one six year old drag me along by the arm with another pushing from behind.

Now a fearless explorer, when returning to Vientiane I seek out the Konglor Cave, a 7.5 kilometer long waterway cavern cutting under a mountain. It's grandeur requires a Lonely Planet guidebook excerpt. "This 7.5km tunnel... is unlike anything you can imagine, and in the words of an Aussie traveler: 'I've done loads of caves, but this is the creepiest and the best I've ever seen.'"

The cave takes me over two days and six bus rides to reach, including 200 kilometers of backtracking, partly because I'm one of those fearless explorers that doesn't need directions, partly because of misinformation, and partly because my subconscious is intent on teaching the life skill of patience.

Real-Time Travel Tip # 7: The smaller, more difficult to reach the village, the more interesting travelers you'll run into, or: the more out of the way one goes the more one is rewarded.

This time I meet a Canadian couple on their third year-plus odyssey together, the travelers' travelers, carefree and refreshingly philosophical on intuitive exploration and material matters. I'm not one for talk of 'soul mates', but if you've been schlucking around backpacks for six months together on a third multi-country trip, no less, and you're still laughing and enjoying the other's company then 'thy love is true', comrades.

The Konglor Cave, it's vast, it's erie, it's never-ending. In many places the flashlight's beam can't find the ceiling. I exit thankful my sight was limited. If I could have seen the entirety of the cave and all that lurking within evolutionary protocol would have have kicked in. A half billion years of adaption gave this amoeba legs for good reason.

If I could have seen everything I wouldn't be one of those brave explorer types.

Keep drifting.

Picture: Inside a cave outside Nong Khiaw, Laos.

Picture: Inside the Konglor Cave.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Cyclops? You mean the sissy that whimpers at the sight of a leech?

“We need more cowbell… really explore the studio space this time.”

-Christopher Walken, playing a music producer in a Saturday Night Live sketch

Cyclops? You mean the sissy that whimpers at the sight of a leech?

If you’ve engaged in the ancient art of hula dancing while sipping a Long Board pint on draft then you know that on ‘Hawaii time’ everything runs a half hour late. Generally, in Southeast Asia modes of transport tend to run thirty minutes ahead of schedule or two hours behind. In Laos the bus or boat will probably show up sometime that day, but if not just come back tomorrow, okay?

It’s a country where the day can be enjoyably passed watching Caucasoids go bat s##t with their western sense of urgency.

With the religion of Thailand (Buddha statues outnumber people), the political structure of Vietnam (communists have been in power since 1975), and a poverty exceeding Cambodia’s, Laos is quite capable of confounding. The Laos National History Museum in Vientiane houses exhibits containing artillery and pictures of artillery with captions like ‘Slaughtering Tools of U.S. Imperialists’ and ‘What U.S. Imperialists Used to Butcher Innocent People of Laos and Vietnam’. During the conflict the United States devoted resources to train Laos guerrilla fighters and improve infrastructure, like in 1969 when cement was donated for the construction of an airport. Pataxui, an Arc de Triomphe replica, built to honor the Laos that died in wars prior, was erected instead. Expats refer to it as ‘the vertical runway’.

Crossing an international border can bring a tectonic plate shift in priorities. Since when do faith and tribute take precedence? The Laos people, they’ll spend their last kip note on lotus offerings for their favored Buddha figurine over the bowl of rice to soothe the empty stomach every time. After all, it’s not this lifetime that’s of concern but the thousand after. Crime is nonexistent in a country where the perpetrator is punished for the next twenty-seven life cycles.

Vang Vieng, Laos is a town of twenty-five thousand situated on the Nam Song river, known by young degenerates as ‘the place to get hammered while floating down the river on an inter tube.’ Only true veterans in debauchery have the stamina to continue past sunset. So it was an evening spent observing, and only observing, mind you, the drunken antics of Caucasoids from both sides of the meridian. During which time I realize that even after seven years of college life I still have no idea how to go about seducing a woman dancing--more like stumbling about--on tabletop in her bikini. This brings an acute sense of shame when noting I graduated from a state institution and retraction of my degree with this admission would come without shock.

As I walk back to the guesthouse the techno beat transforms into something tribal. Through a construction site’s bamboo fence comes chanting, palms slapping snares, and cowbell. We need more cowbell.

It’s near midnight. A short walk up the street Caucasoids are, or are in the process of getting, stupid, swash-buckling drunk* to celebrate the Monday night after Easter or the Tuesday morning after the Monday after Easter, and here’s this beautifully earnest haven of indigenous music. The only logical explanation: during the last 20 meters I traversed a wrinkle in time, traveling back to an era when music wasn’t synthesized. Even before the days of the music video, the dark ages when the ear judged the tune and success wasn’t based on the depth of cleavage ba-ba-bouncing behind the “musician’s” own ba-ba-bouncing chest.

From one realm to the next, from the slurred shouts of Euro-hooligans to a live percussion that goes straight to the left ventricle. From the bikini-clad tabletop dancing masses to a midnight mass, of sorts. Try as they might, when the sun goes down in Vang Vieng the white devils own the night.

Mountain biking around Vang Vieng brings one to small villages. One becomes an intruder. It’s not that there’s hostility from the villagers, it’s simply that you’re a bicycling voyeur with no business in these parts other than smiling and waving and saying, ‘sabadee’ (hello). The people are pleasant enough to put up with you, they return the gesture, but in the next two minutes of silent smiling you begin to grasp the vast disconnect that exists between your fragmented western mind and their simple--far too simple for you--way of life. You may have the patience of a snail, the ego of an ant, but you’d go bat s##t yourself if the most exciting part of your day was saying ‘sabadee’ to smucks like you.

In Luang Prabang the bicycling hurts. The thirty-five kilometers to the Kuang Si Waterfalls are pushed through in pockets of sweltering heat. You wise up on the way back, leaving at dusk. The ride is supremely pleasant, but the locals are just as clever as you, the insects sharing your strategy, your chest feels like what a car’s grille must in the early evening. The small bugs smacking into it attack like BB pellets, the larger ones analogous to beanbags shot out of a canon. You’d slow down but the bike’s back break does nothing more than squeal and your not about to apply the front one at forty kilometers an hour downhill. Your face knows what it is to be a car windshield.

Three hours later, as your brushing your teeth prior to bed, you spot bug bits in your tear ducts. A leg and a wing in your swollen left eye. The next morning there’s more. Your eye, it’s puffy and bloodshot and can see half as much as it could the day prior. Notre Dame has its Hunchback, Luang Prabang, with its Unesco-protected peninsula of ancient wats, has its Cyclops.

Man, I need a vacation from this, uh, vacation. It’s time to slow down from the slowdown.

I head north to the hammock-above-river bungalows of Nong Khaiw, a village situated between two magnificent limestone mountain karsts. It’s beautiful, but a bit too busy. In two days I spot five or six cars passing along the road and at least three bicyclists.

So it’s a boat trip upriver to Muang Ngoi Neua, a village inaccessible by land vehicle where generators supply electricity from twilight to nine or ten in the evening. It’s another hammock-above-river bungalow with a background of saw-toothed mountain karsts. It’s a setting so tranquil, so serene, that as I’m trekking past a herd of wild water buffalo the animals kneel and wai as we cross paths.

I mean, they would if their bodies could contort in such a way.

While ‘off the grid’ I bathe in the river. Kids swim to me, shout ‘sabadee’ before climbing atop, and use my shoulders and head as multi-tiered diving boards. Yeah, this is fun and all, but my earlobes aren’t ladder rungs. My lower jaw isn’t a spring board so you can practice your back flips.

Well okay then, I guess it is.

In the village I meet a new master. Sam from Australia has been traveling continuously since 1985. He’s 74 and plans on dying on the trail, whenever and wherever that may be. I forecast at least another 26 years of travel, for after walking to a nearby village together I notice my shirt is saturated from collar to waist. Even my shorts have a sweat line. Sam’s shirt is lightly damp around the neck.

We head to a waterfall after eating lunch, I probe his travel expertise, I discover that he’s the Yoda of drifting.

Learn much, this vagabonding padawan did.

“Ah, got a leech on my foot, mate.”

An Aussie just called me ‘mate’. Awesome.

In the process of checking out his leech I notice I have a half dozen of my own. They’re attached to my ankles and calves and I’m far more generous than I’ve ever given myself credit for. A blood donor superstar, a Red Cross wet dream.

Every five minutes we stop to pull a few more off. Their greed runs red down my legs.

In Vietnam I read several books about the War. A story comes to mind, that of a soldier being medevaced out of the bush after a leech crawled up his penis. He couldn’t urinate, the field medics were considering incision to relieve the pain from the buildup. It was so excruciating the soldier began screaming for them to “cut off my dick.”

Um, Sam, I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you, mate, but I’m not interested in facing the decision of how many inches to take off the ‘ol rifle barrel. When it comes to firing accuracy every centimeter counts.

“What was that, my man?”

Turning back, this sissy is.

Keep drifting.

*definition: so drunk impromptu sword fights are started even though the challenger and target are without swords, without anything remotely resembling swords, and yet without the wherewithal to end the imagined hostility so three friends and twenty-seven strangers are required to intervene, after which the two make up with an embrace that lasts uncomfortably long--two Kesha tracks and half a Britney Spears ballad.

Kuang Si Waterfall, outside Luang Prabang

Nong Khiaw

Hiking outside Nong Khiaw

Inside Pha Tok Cave, outside Nong Khiaw

A new friend made hiking outside Muang Ngoi Neua

Water buffalo around Muang Ngoi Neau, right before they waied me (or would have if physcially able).

Traveling upriver between Luang Prabang and Nong Khiaw

Pak Ou caves outside Luang Prabang, home to various Buddha images.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Your illegally downloaded Laos smile isn’t fooling anyone.

“All over Southeast Asia there are American men who never go home. We simply can’t. Because when we look into the eyes of your people, we see something, call it what you like. Soul? The human mind before fragmentation? Something sacred we farang habitually amputate like tonsils because we don’t understand its function? Maybe its your damned Buddhism. But we see something. Now tell me this, Detective. When you look into the eyes of farang, what do you see?”

-Tom Burdett, Bangkok Tattoo

Your illegally downloaded Laos smile isn’t fooling anyone.

The country of Laos (the ‘s’ is silent) has a landmass similar in size to Vietnam, yet a citizenry equal that claimed by the city of Saigon. The nation’s grand ambition is to escape its status as one of the world’s twenty poorest countries by 2020; a nation can dream.

You wouldn’t know of the grand goal once within. There doesn’t seem to be ambition of any sort. There’s poverty, but it’s not the desperate Cambodia kind, even though the country is supposedly the most impoverished in the region. It’s more of a we-live-off-the-land-anyway kind of poverty. A you-worry-about-money-while-we-concern-ourselves-with-Buddha’s-Eight-fold-Path sort of poor. A poverty that makes you wonder if the Laos people, with their languid smiles, with their indolent grins, are laughing at you and all the kip (Laos currency) in your pocket, knowing any joy the paper brings is impermanent, is dukkha, is just fueling your ‘thirst’, your craving for more experience, your greed for sense-pleasures. The Laos people know all that kip in your pocket, it’s pain, it’s suffering, and it doesn’t really exist anyway.

I’m confused.

Better leave the Buddhism for the ordained. I just want to see the pretty temples and dragon carvings and the silly looking men wearing the tangerine robes humming and banging on drums all day. Talk about enlightened, I grew out of that stuff shortly after growing out of diapers. Yes, it’s been at least three years.

From observation one might conclude that the Laos people spend the majority of the day idly lying about even when ‘on the job.’ One might also conclude the majority are pleasant, patiently good-natured, and radiate a tranquil joy. One of the New-Age might comment on Laos chakras being incredibly soft and excessive, a morning mist to the typical tightly constricted bolt of American energy. New-Aged, old-aged, any-aged, what you’ll notice is Laos people, they sure smile and laugh a lot. Not split-second stiff upper lip smiles, like when you say ‘good morning’ to your wife, but big beautiful grins that could melt Osama’s heart. Even if it was buried in the cold, cold sea pursuant to some Muslim tradition when it should have been sent to Texas for the Bush family barbeque.

You mean to tell me these ambition-less Rambo extras are rewarded with sublime states while us nose-to-the-grindstone Caucasoids can barely contort are facial muscles into feigned grins for the clerk while purchasing the morning cup a’ Joe? Now that, that right there, is funny, I don’t care who you are.

Now that you know the Laos are Buddhist and beam, you should also be aware that the country was bombed to oblivion in Vietnam’s ‘Secret War.’ It’s okay. The damage, it was dukkha, as impermanent as you are as you change from one moment to the next, your cells dying and replenishing every second, your cells as fleeting as your thoughts. The forest erases all, and rather quickly, but the stubborn UXO--unexploded ordinance--must be arhats, sitting in rumination so long they allude transformation. They’re not leaving. They’re not going anywhere.

Between 1964 and ‘73 the United States conducted over 580,000 flight missions, about one every eight minutes, over Laos, declared a neutral nation, dropping two million tons of bombs to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Thirty percent, or 78 million bombs, failed to detonate. The country is littered with UXO. While The British Mines Advisory Group has engaged in clearance work since 1994 only a small percentage have been removed. At the current rate completion will take well over 100 years.

In Vientiane, Laos’s sleepy capital, one can visit COPE, an organization dedicated to supporting the more than 12,000 people that have fallen prey to UXO and survived, many of them children. The Vietnam War, the war that keeps on giving.

Not privy to the moment, I am without opinion as to war time decisions, but was taught, shortly after growing out of diapers--yes, it’s been over three years--that when one litters one should clean up after oneself. Or get a Brit to volunteer to finish the task within the next 150 years.

Despite UXO Laos is outdoor recreation bliss, greener than a room full of leprechauns with rivers and waterfalls around every turn. This statement is quite staggering when you realize what the bag is for. It’s plastic, it could hold a liter of milk and a box of Oreo cookies, and it’s given to you as you get on the bus. 230 kilometers separate Vang Vieng, Laos from Luang Prabang, about 140 miles, yet due to the route’s serpentine nature up mountains and down what’s billed as the ‘express’ bus takes seven hours to complete the journey. During which a liter of milk and a box worth of Oreo cookies bids my stomach adieu, takes the esophagus express to my tonsils and visits the bag given to me when the bus’s engine started. Another destination reached, more sense-(un)pleasures experienced, and still I ’thirst’ for more.

If you just lost a liter of milk you’d be parched too.

Keep drifting.

Pha That Luang, in Vientiane, containing a piece of Buddha's breastbone.

Biking outside Vang Vieng.

Inside Luang Prabang's Wat Xieng Thong funeral chapel.

Outside Luang Prabang, on the bike ride to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.

At Kuang Si waterfalls, 35 km away from luang Prabang.

View from my room over the river in Vang Vieng.

Wat at the Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang.