Friday, August 29, 2014

Feeling Not Quite Welcome in Laos - Part 1: Luang Prabang

A number of friends had enthusiastically told me about their wonderful experiences traveling in Laos a number of years ago - how incredibly friendly and welcoming the locals were, and how absolutely gorgeous the landscapes were around the country.  Unfortunately, with my time in Laos I believe I've witnessed what can be the ugly side of tourism - how packs of young rowdy backpackers, attracted by the non-stop party atmosphere of Vang Vieng, can breed (understandable) resentment in the locals, who depend upon the tourist dollars from these people for their livelihoods.  In Laos, to be loud, to be drunk, to be skimpily dressed, are all very disrespectful, and unfortunately, these are typical attributes of the party set.  I understood why they might feel resentment towards tourists, I just hated that for those of us trying to be quiet and conservatively dressed and respectful, the attempt wasn't much appreciated.  Granted, we didn't get that feeling everywhere - especially if we avoided the typical backpacker areas - and the natural scenery in Laos is indeed absolutely incredible, but it was such a shame to see the negative effects of the industry on the locals.

I'll start off with our time in Luang Prabang, and where I might normally cut out some of the minor annoyances or negative experiences, I'm going to leave them in this time.  As individual incidents they were all very minor and could be shrugged away, but taken in total is what left me feeling a bit sad for the effects that tourism can have on a local people.

Luang Prabang

Upon arrival in Luang Prabang, we set our for a small guest house that Kate had emailed in advance.  While the Wat That Guest House was nice and clean (lacking air conditioning, but it was cool enough at night to warrant just a fan), the lady at the guest house raised the price considerably from what she had quoted over email.  We quickly ran around looking for other options, but without seeing anything decent in the immediate neighborhood - one that caters more to backpackers - we reluctantly agreed to the price, with Kate and Lydia in one room and myself and Sheila in another.  We walked to the night market to find dinner, walking through a small alleyway where we found a cluster of buffet-style food stalls - for 10,000 Kip ($1.25), we each filled a plate high with rice, noodles, fruit, and veggies, and for another 10K, we added barbecued meat on a stick.  After filling up on the delicious offerings, we wandered around the market a while, bumping into a few of the guys from our longboat who were staying near our guesthouse - Darrell, Adam, and Felix.  We joined them at a bar called Utopia, an open air space complete with a sand volleyball court, until we returned to the guest house to relax on the open patio space and eventually get some sleep.

The following day we got up relatively early, and after a tasty breakfast at nearby Joma Cafe, Kate, Lydia and myself joined Darrell, Adam, and Felix for a trip out to the Kuang Si Waterfalls.  We negotiated a rate with a songtau driver (essentially a truck with long benches on either side of a semi-enclosed truck bed), and he began driving, except that he seemed to be driving all around inside the town, looking for additional passengers.  When we asked him to go directly to the falls, he tried to raise the price.  Frustrated, we climbed out and negotiated with another driver in an older truck, who finally agreed to take us.  We wound up giving this second driver more in the end, as we realized how far the drive was and as we stayed for quite a long time, but the first driver had left a bad taste in our mouth, being the second person to change an already-agreed-upon rate.  

Thankfully, the Kuang Si Waterfalls were absolutely incredible, and seeing them was almost well worth the entire visit to Luang Prabang all on their own.  As we entered the park, we passed a Sun Bear sanctuary - these poor bears have been rescued from being held captive in tiny cages and "farmed" for their bile, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine.  The small sanctuary rescues these animals and provides education to stop their mistreatment. 

We then reached the first section of the falls, with its bright turquoise water and tiered pools formed from mineral deposits.  We passed crowds of people in the lower pools, walking up to an enormous waterfall with a small bridge over the river below, providing a great viewing spot to take in the entire view of what was in front of us.  We continued, climbing up a slippery path to the left of the falls until we reached the very top.  Not only did we have a view of the spectacular landscape beyond, but we could also see a number of the tiers below, creating various sections of falls and pools on the way down.  The water at the top was surprisingly calm, and we were tempted to go for a swim.  We wound up spotting a bamboo raft, with the girls piling on to take it for a spin around the small river, with Lydia steering us with a long bamboo pole.  Finally we turned over the raft to the guys and swam in the cool, still, serene waters that were so different from the falls below.

Since we had seen people swimming in the pools one level below us, we worked our way back down the path, taking a turn and climbing up a small portion of the falls themselves, which would have been slightly terrifying except that the rock was so grippy on my bare feet from mineral deposits that I had no worries of slipping.  Where the pool at the top had been dark, quiet, wooded, this one was open and bright, fed by a rushing waterfall, the turquoise water bright, forming a natural infinity pool over the lower tiers.  We stayed for a while, just enjoying the refreshing water, perched on the edge of the pool as others jumped in, taking photos and playing in the falls, until we finally started working our way back down to our truck for the return to the city.

We had a delicious snack at a spot called Delilah's near our guest house, then regrouped later on for a massage at a spot in the night market.  We wandered through the market itself and returned to our buffet spot for another delicious meal - this time knowing the options well enough to heap only our favorites onto our plates.  This time I sampled some incredible pork from the barbecue skewers, a perfect accompaniment to fresh, juicy pineapple and seasoned rice and veggies.  We stopped by nearby Indigo - a hotel with a cafe/bar right on the edge of the market - for mango mojitos and conversation until we returned to the guest house for a quiet evening.

The next day, after another tasty breakfast with the ladies at Joma, Lydia, Kate, and I went for a walk around town, venturing towards the "peninsula", an area of land in the space created between the Mekong and Nam Khan waterways.  As we passed the night market area, we passed temples and tourist booking centers and bakeries, the streets reminding me of New Orleans in their distinctively French influence.  The nicer, non-backpacker area of town, it was full of small resorts, quiet cafes, and boutique shops, definitely a more upscale feel.  The locals in this part of town also seemed to be more welcoming and appreciative of tourists - if I were to return, I would definitely try to stay there instead of where we were.

Reaching the end of Sakarine, the main road, we turned right to walk alongside the Nam Khan, and stopped for lunch at a spot called Rosella Fusion right along the water.  I enjoyed a plate of pork laap, a traditional dish of minced meat with herbs, and Kate had a beef and noodle salad, while Lydia stuck to a mango smoothie.  The food was wonderful, and the view and atmosphere was so peaceful, and we were impressed with how clean the area was.  As we left the restaurant, I noticed another spot across the street called Tamarind, where my friend Jimmy had taken a cooking class.  Intrigued, I checked it out, and wound up signing up for a class the following morning!

It had been so cloudy during the day that we didn't attempt to go view the sunset from a major lookout point, except that as we sat out on the porch of the guest house later in the day, we looked up to suddenly realize the sky was exploding with color!  We rushed down to the river, snapping photos of the stunning pinks and golds through a break in the trees as they reflected off the water.

That evening, we met up with the boys in a failed attempt to find a recommended hot pot restaurant (we had been searching in the wrong neighborhood - there's supposed to be a good one near where we had had lunch!).  We wound up at a standard restaurant, but again experienced general resentment / apathy towards us from the owner.  We tried to be understanding of any mistakes in the order, until one of the guys ordered a hamburger by pointing to a photo of an actual western hamburger.  The owner took the order, later delivering a… ham sandwich.  When Adam pointed out the discrepancy, the owner just laughed and shrugged and said "hamburger finished".  He really didn't care that he had brought something different and was well aware of the difference.  Finally we gave up, returning to our porch with some drinks and played card games for the remainder of the night.

As I was leaving our guest house the following morning to catch my cooking class, the owner started yelling at me with accusations about my friends and how they had taken the key and lost if when they left and how she had stayed up all night worried about the door being unlocked.  I was completely taken aback, but then I asked her if it was still in the lock, since when we had arrived home from the restaurant that night, I had actually gone to tell her that she had left the key there.  Sure enough, there it was.  She didn't even bother to apologize, continuing to mutter things under her breath about begin awake all night because of "my friends". (I should note that the guys were actually staying at the same property… just across the street… so it's not like we were bringing over random friends from around the town.  They were staying in the section of the guest house managed by her father, but they had no common area or porch to hang out on.)  Frustrated by the continued accusations by the guest house owner, I made the long walk down to the other side of town for my cooking class.

I arrived at Tamarind just before 9 am, along with about ten other people.  We piled into a tuk tuk for a trip down to the local market, where we were given a tour by our instructor, going over typical vegetables and herbs, then walking through the meat section, where every part of each animal was on display.  We finished up by tasting some bamboo chips, and we loaded back into the truck to drive out to a gorgeous set of gardens with a beautiful wood pavilion, where we would spend the day cooking.

We started off with a quick overview of ingredients, then made a "jeow" - a spicy paste using for dipping balls of sticky rice into.  I made mine with an eggplant and a large pepper, both roasted over coals with shallot and garlic, then blended in a mortar and pestle with fresh herbs and fish sauce.  Next, we were shown how to make sticky rice, then we started our next dish:  steamed fish in banana leaves.  We ground up another mix of fresh herbs to marinate the fish in, including plenty of dill, basil, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaf.  After marinating the fish, we wrapped them in banana leaves and placed them in the steamer to cook.

Next, we made chicken stuffed in lemongrass…. which sounds completely backwards, but isn't.  We mixed up fresh herbs, including spring onions and cilantro, then we actually formed a sort of paste by mashing in some minced up chicken in the mortar.  We then scored stalks of lemongrass, forming a sort of basket for the chicken mixture.  Once we had stuffed both stalks, we dipped them in egg yolk and placed them in a fryer to cook.

Our final dish was laap, the same traditional minced meat dish I had enjoyed for lunch the previous day, which we made this time with buffalo.  We paired up to prepare this dish, and I joined forces with another American who liked her food a bit less spicy!  We also learned a couple of fun chef tricks - a method for slicing limes so the seeds don't fall out when you squeeze it, as well as a method for dicing ginger (we were technically using a similar root, called galangal), where you score the root repeatedly with a knife, then slice the scored area.  Once everything had been prepared, we took a break for a late lunch, devouring as much as we could of what we had just made, though unfortunately I think we wasted a bit simply because we had made so much!

After stuffing ourselves silly, we returned to make dessert!  We first made coconut milk by pouring hot water over shredded coconut and squeezing the water out of the solid coconut (which we tossed away).  We then brought that to a boil and added purple sticky rice.  once it was cooked, we had a variety of fresh fruits to choose from to top our dishes - I chose mango and some mangosteins on the side.  After we had finished, we piled back into the truck to be dropped back off at the restaurant.

That evening, our final in Luang Prabang, we finally made it up to the sunset view point at Wat Tham Phu Si.  After trudging up dozens of stairs in the high humidity, we were sweating buckets when we reached the top, but it was worth it for the incredible view of the town and Mekong River below. The sky was again an absolute explosion of color, even better than the previous night.  Paired with the clouds, the mountains, and the river, it was absolutely incredible.  We made our descent down the mountain in the dark, wandering over to the night market for a quick snack of spring rolls and delicious warm bites that were something between a pancake and a rice pudding, warm in the center and gooey where the batter hadn't fully cooked, tasting of sweet coconut.

The next morning, Kate, Sheila, and I awoke well before dawn to walk back near the area where the night market is held, to witness a famous morning ritual.  Here, the local monks make a pilgrimage around the town, collecting alms and gifts of rice from locals while handfuls of tourists look on, snapping photos.  The monks walk in complete silence, oldest to youngest, as I had seen around Myanmar a few times, though this seemed more specific, more quiet, as the locals waited for the groups of monks to pass.  Once the ritual was complete, Sheila returned to bed, while Kate and I had breakfast, eventually joined by Lydia for a long, bizarre journey down to Vang Vieng, our next destination.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Chiang Rai and the Long Boat to Laos

Chiang Rai became my last stop in Northern Thailand, as I needed to spend a few days there to organize my crossing into Laos, catching a long boat for a two day journey to the town of Luang Prabang.  While my minivan journey from Phayao was relatively short, I was left laughing at the absurdity of my height as the only westerner in the van, compared to all the other locals.  As I climbed in, there were two empty seats - an open window seat, and just behind it, an aisle seat where a lady had set a small bag.  I gestured to the aisle seat, and the lady gestured to the open window seat in response.  I smiled and pointed to the length my legs, and she smiled and moved the bag.  When I sat down, she started full on giggling, as my knees, when facing forward, were jammed against the back of the seat in front of me, while she likely had room for another person of her size to have walked through the space between her and the seat!

No, really.

I had booked a brand new hostel - Happy Nest - in Chiang Rai at the recommendation of my friends in Phayao, and I was delighted to not only find a charming cafe on the first floor, but also to discover I had an entire dorm to myself!  I spent the first day in town visiting a clock tower designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat, who also constructed the White Temple, enjoying a tasty cheeseburger at Hungry Wolf, booking both the longboat and transport to the Laos border, and finally exploring a bit of the night market, a short walk from my hostel.  

The following day I decided to see the major tourist site - renting a motorbike and zipping out to the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in the morning.  About halfway through the long ride, it started absolutely pouring rain!  I quickly pulled over under a shelter, pulling on a poncho over my rain jacket to cover my lap and legs, the plastic billowing behind me like a sail as I continued down the road.  Luckily I arrived not long after, and the rain quickly dissipated, staying away for the rest of the day.  

I was surprised at how close to the road the structure was, and actually, how small it was.  It was truly a bizarre sight, the modern white artistic elements outlined in reflective white mirror-like pieces.  I interpreted the outer sections of the temple to be a sort of depiction of hell (the artist describes it as being representative of the temptations we have to pass through), with the heads of recognizable demonesque figures from Hollywood hanging from a tree, and two pools of creepy, grotesque hands, reaching up from outside the entrance to the temple.  

A ramp led up over the "pools", past two typical Thai figures in warrior poses, over an actual pool of water to the small temple.  Inside, the walls were colorful, with modern, surrealist, and realistic details.  The back wall reflected more hellish and materialistic items, from demons swirling around the Twin Towers as they are falling, to a dancing Michael Jackson, Harry Potter, and even a minion.  In front of the central Buddha figure at the front of the temple was a wax figure of a monk that was just as creepy in its realism!

Outside the small temple, there were other buildings, clearly unfinished and some damaged from the recent earthquake (as was the temple itself).  To the side was a small gazebo with a wishing well in the middle, surrounded by little bells with metal leaves attached.  

From the White Temple, I rode back past town to a spot called Chivit Thamma Da Coffee House that I had seen featured in the Bangkok Airways in-flight magazine - it was a gorgeous little sanctuary, and I wound up staying for hours enjoying the calm atmosphere.  The house itself was full of eclectic furniture, with a large bar serving coffee, smoothies, and bakery items opposite a fireplace and a little sunroom.  Outside was a patio and garden, right on the water, surrounded by lush greenery and lanterns hanging from the trees above.  They had decadent brunch options, and I enjoyed a tasty eggs benedict and a cappuccino, chatting with one of the owners and meeting her very chubby shih tzus, all named after coffee drinks! 

Later that evening I finished up my time in Thailand with, appropriately, one of the best foot massages of my entire visit to the country.  The next morning, a minivan swooped by my hostel, and I piled in alongside three other women who were to become fixtures of my next couple of months on the road.  We were taken to the Thai border, then loaded into a bus for the five minute ride to the Laos side.  Crossing the Laos border was more complex, requiring passport photos and paperwork and fees and multiple lines, but there weren't many of us, and we made it through.  We loaded onto the back of a truck, taken to a spot where we were given our tickets for the boat and given the opportunity to buy sandwiches, and then we were finally taken to the boat itself.  

I had heard so many stories (good and bad) about the boat trip, that I had very mixed expectations, but I was relieved at what we wound up with.  Sheila, a Canadian woman who was taking a break from her job to volunteer in Cambodia and travel for a few months in Southeast Asia, and I grabbed a padded seat on a wooden bench with a small table in front of us.  Kate and Lydia, the two English friends we had shared the minivan with, took seats nearby which looked like they had been taken out of a bus and merely set inside the boat.

Our first glimpse of the boats.

Boat number one - not terrible.

Thankfully we had a cool breeze most of the day, especially when it started pouring rain for a large portion of the afternoon.  We passed tall, rolling hills, covered in greenery, sandy embankments with water buffalo lazily meandering along, and rock jutting out from the water. We made random stops here and there to let off locals, just as the buses do when pulling over to the side of the road to let off passengers.  Once the rain cleared up, were treated to a gorgeous rainbow, arching over the river ahead of us.

A couple of hours later, we arrived at our stop for the night, climbing out of the bus onto a makeshift dock of plastic jugs, working our way up the concrete stairs, as locals selling guesthouse rooms clamored for our attention.  Sheila and I had booked in advance back when we departed and quickly learned that we would have saved money if we would have waited!  But our little room wasn't bad, located very close to the river, with a large patio overlooking the water. We walked through the tiny town, enjoying Indian food for dinner as we escaped another massive downpour, and sampling local baked goods before getting some rest.

The following day, we actually had a different boat for the rest of the journey - this one was much more narrow, without the option of those convenient tables, and given the nature of the seats, felt like being on a very long, open air, wooden bus.  As we left, a number of local kids played in the river nearby, many of them stripping down and bathing stark naked right in front of us with absolutely no qualms.  

The ride on our second day was hotter and more humid, but the scenery was gorgeous, as we passed huge cliffs rising out of the water that reminded me a bit of Railey Beach in Thailand.  We also passed a small shrine built directly into the side of another cliff, just before arriving at our destination.  There was much confusion when we pulled over, as it was far away from the city and without even a real docking point, but we were eventually herded off the boat, up the steep hill, and into waiting tuk tuks who delivered us to Luang Prabang, about 10 kilometers away.  Our arrival in Luang Prabang would turn out to be just the start of a very interesting time in Laos, a place full of beauty, but where we didn't always feel welcome.

Boat number two - a little tighter fit.