On the Mekong


164_6445-4.JPGLao is not very developed. Paved roads are not very extensive, nor are the transportation networks. Getting from the far-flung border town of Huay Xai to Luang Prabang involves several days of riding buses along unpaved roads. Thus, it wasn’t a difficult decision to buy tickets for the two-day boat ride to LP. We got to the pier (if you can call a bunch of boats lined up on a muddy shoreline a pier) early and were actually the first ones on the boat. We did have to wait two and a half hours, but it was worth having “good” seats for the next eight-plus hours. I put good in quotes, because all the seats were closely-spaced hard wooden benches with upright backs- we just picked a bench closer to the front and moved the bench a bit to give us plenty of leg room. I really enjoyed the boat ride. The river is brown and green gentle slopes rise away on either side. The banks alternate between rocky banks and outcrops and sandy flood banks that would be beaches. I say would be because the sand is cultivated with vegetables- sweet peas, corn, etc. I didn’t know you could grow much in sand, but I guess the Mekong nourishes the crops. Besides these little plantations there were other signs of life. Men check their fishing lines and cast nets from their small boats, women wash clothes, and kids swim in the water or jump and flip off the rocks. In the mornings and evening, the banks are filled with groups of men and women bathing in the river. There wasn’t really any wildlife, unless you count one watersnake we saw slithering across the rivers surface. The boat stopped every few hours to let some Lao off at their village.


our boat


sandy banks with crops planted


rocky banks showing high-water lines
Last night we stopped and spent the night in Pak Beng. It’s a one-street village and owes its economy to the fact that its halfway between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. The small place was only guesthouses, restaurants, and dry-good stores- without the daily boatload of travelers, it’d be no better off than any other village. We ate dinner with a couple of Americans on holiday from teaching in Shanghai and then returned to our guesthouse for an early night. We woke up early again today; Joylani to secure some good seats and I to buy provisions for the day’s journey. We left a bit late, but the motor stopped only a few minutes after departing. We just drifted with the current for a few minutes, while the crew was shouting amongst themselves in Lao. The rudder was useless in the strong current and it became apparent that we were going to slam into a rocky outcrop on the right-hand bank. While they all yelled at one another, two of the crew ran up to the bow and began stripping all their clothes. The first one down to his briefs grabbed a rope and dove into the river. He swam perpendicular to the boat, although the current was moving him downstream at the same speed as us. When he reached the rocky bank 20 or 30 meters away, he climbed up on the rocks and pulled the rope tight against a pillar of stone. Just in time too, as we watched the slack rope rise out of the water and snap tight. It stopped the front of the boat and the back swung around until we had done a 180. Stopped against the current, the crew pulled us in to the riverbank and worked on the engine for an hour or two. I passed the time reading, before I decided to hop out and take a few pics of our stranded vessels. When I saw another boat like ours coming down the river, I scrambled down from the rocks and onto our boat in anticipation of the chaos I could see about to erupt. After two mornings of claiming and defending seats, people went crazy when this new boat pulled up parallel to ours. Everyone on our boat migrated to the side next to the new boat and began throwing their bags in. No need for planks or ropes to get across, people were climbing out of the windows to step or jump across; old ladies, kids, even Joylani :) Scarcity of anything can make people selfish or territorial, but I’d never seen it like this before. The other thing was that our new boat didn’t have any benches, so people were jumping in, sitting down to claim their floor-space, and then strategically arranging their bags or stretching their legs to defend it. Once all in, we looked like a boat people.


crew member that jumped, swam, and roped us to a rock


our new boat
Except for the occasional rapids, the portion of the Mekong we’ve been on yesterday and today has been extremely flat. Although debris in the water indicates that the water is moving quite fast, the surface is glassy and smooth. But the glassy top layer hides the turbulence beneath. Circular ripples and swirls appear from nowhere, giving the water the appearance that sometimes follows a waterfall or a boat’s wake on a calm day. But one of the coolest things are the many whirlpools we pass. Besides the thin vortexes that peel of my kayak or canoe paddles, I’ve never seen anything like them and certainly never naturally occurring like these. Joylani says the ride is kind of boring, but I’m content to stare out at the famous Mekong or admire the green hillscape of Lao. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do now, until we get to Luang Prabang.



Chiang Mai to Huay Xai


164_6445-4.JPGTired of being lied to, cheated, and overpaying for everything, I was determined to make the journey from Chiang Mai to the Laos border for less than the 2800B (1400B x 2 people) that was being charged universally by tour agencies. We began this morning by taking a tuk-tuk several kilometers to the bus station (50B). When we went to buy tickets, we were told the morning bus to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong was sold out. Not wanting to arrive in a new country after dark, we paid 200B for tickets to Chiang Rai where, we were told, we could catch another bus to Chiang Khong. It was a four hour ride to Chiang Rai, and luckily, a bus to Chiang Khong was getting ready to leave just as we pulled in. We hopped on and paid 114B for the ride. It was a little over two hours until we were dropped off in Chiang Khong. The border was still another 2km, which we decided to walk. We didn’t walk out of cheapness, but just wanted to stretch out and walk after a day on the bus; we regretted this as I think it was a bit more than 2km. Eventually, we arrived at Thai immigration and got stamped out. We walked down to the river and took a small boat across the river to the Lao border town of Huay Xai (60B).

There were two observations that I think may be interesting about the border. One is that I could immediately tell we were entering the third-world again, because we had to pay for our visa. The fact that we had to pay an extra “overtime” fee since it was after 4pm, was even more enlightening. The second thing I noticed was that, despite being a communist country, Laos full name is The Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Why do communist states and dictatorships always have ridiculous pro-democracy names? As a sidenote, here’s a few misnomers about Laos. Its actually written and pronounced “Lao” here. The French added the ‘s’ which has become the accepted Western spelling. Laotian, as used to describe the people and language is also a foreign creation. In Lao, people refer to themselves and their language as Lao (like Thais speaking Thai in Thailand). Obviously, I will be using Lao for everything rather than Laos and Laotian.

Stepping into Lao was a big change after Thailand. For one, it looks dilapidated like the third-world. Its dusty and things are made out of wood and cement. The vehicles are old and the buildings falling apart. The little traffic that there was was driving on the right. This was very, very odd for us to see. If that doesn’t express how long we’ve been traveling, I should say that without looking it’s difficult for me to envision the steering wheel on the left side.  We also became millionaires many times over as the exchange rate is just above 9930 kip to one dollar. Not that that mattered though, as all the prices in Huay Xai were quoted in dollars or baht. Am I the only one that finds is ridiculous that an obscure Communist country in Asia uses dollars? Anyways, after exchanging some money, we bought tickets for our two-day boat ride to Luang Prabang, which cost us 1230B. That brought the total transportation cost from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang to 1654B, which is approximately half of what we would’ve paid a travel agent for the exact same thing. The journey wasn’t just about the cost obviously. It was an interesting bus ride from urban Chiang Mai through hours of agriculture and then eventually mountains. Spending our first evening in Lao has been fun and interesting as well. And although we glid across the Mekong from Thailand to Lao today (photo above), we’ll spend the next two days on it.

Political Economics

164_6445-4.JPGWhile I was on my trek, Thailand held much-anticipated national elections. The elections were very important and highly publicized as they were the first since the military’s coup in 2006. I’m not sure if they do this for all elections, but Joylani said that no one was able to sell alcohol on the day of the election. Anyways, the electorate voted overwhelming for the PPP, which was the party that was sacked during the coup. The results look pretty good with the exception of three PPP members who were caught by the election commission with large amounts of cash and lists of registered voters. Unsurprisingly, with his party back in power, ousted former PM Thaksin Sinawatra immediately announced he would now return to Thailand to face the military’s corruption charges.

Regardless of the Thaksin fiasco, free elections to install a civilian government and the military’s promise to respect the result is good for Thailand. Personally, as an investor and an international traveler, I have been disappointed in the failure of the generals’ economic policies. Their coup pummeled the Thai stock market and their inept policies further battered it, all this in addition to the volatility that results from military rule. Their monetary policy was a failure and they let the baht rise out of control, which has wreaked havoc on Thai exporters. The baht has risen to 30/dollar from the mid forties! It has risen so much that the military government regulates domestic exchange rates, setting the (current) ceiling at around 33.6/dollar, about a 10% premium international spot rate! As a traveler, the baht’s appreciation has increased our Thailand expenses by about a third, although the fixed domestic forex rate presents some interesting arbitrage ideas… The rise of the baht has, of course, benefited Thai importers and ultimately Thai consumers who have become significantly richer, so to speak. I think this partly explains why there seems to be so many brand new cars in Thailand.

I was going to keep this post solely on Thailand, but I cannot help but draw comparisons to Nepal. On paper, they look somewhat similar; medium sized nations (25m and 45m people, respectively), tourism is the number one industry in each, and both are engulfed in the latest of a long history of political turmoil. Yet things could not be more different in reality. Besides superficialities like Nepalis hate their king and Thais practically worship theirs, its two different worlds. Despite having undergone a dozen coups and just as many constitutions, Thailand is a growing economy. And when there is a political hiccup (which Thai coups have become), the country continues to function. Contrast that to Nepal, where a single party of ignorant ideologues can jerk the nation around. They use a guerilla war to get every single one of their demands met, including elections. When they realize they’ll lose any such election, they cancel it and make more demands (accompanied, of course, with threats of “renewed armed struggle”). And even in times of peace, they enjoy calling arbitrary transportation strikes, shutting the entire country down for days on end. I would say the Nepalis should take some plays from the Thai military’s playbook, but since Nepal is a poor country the military and law enforcement is ripe for bribes and corruption. Anyways, I just think its interesting to compare the differences in these two states that are in somewhat comparable situations.

Chiang Mai Thoughts


164_6445-4.JPGWe’ve been in Chiang Mai for over a week already. It has been a nice place to hang out and do some different things; Joylani took a 4-day Thai massage course and I went on a 3-day trek. It’s a large city by Thai standards at 1.4 million inhabitants. The north is supposed to be generally less touristy than the south, but the old walled city that we’re staying in is still quite touristy. The cheap western-oriented accommodation, the preponderance of Thai food prepared for Western tastebuds, and plethora of tourist services are convenient, but they almost take away from the experience. We could have our laundry done for us, have “VIP direct mini-buses” pick us up from our guesthouse, and pass our afternoons at expat cafes, internet cafes, and western bookshops, but we could do that anywhere; Khao San in Bangkok, Thamel in Kathmandu, Dharamsala in India, Sultanahmet in Istanbul, Plaka in Athens, must I go on? The only thing different about Thailand’s tourist hubs are there’s prostitutes everywhere. Anyways, its not that sending laundry out is bad (we often do) or getting door-to-door minivans to drive you around is terrible (we took one in Khao Sok), but it insulates travelers. Its much more interesting to eat real Thai food where locals eat it, travel in Thailand the way Thais do, and meet people whose sole interest in me is not to sell me something or get a commission.


lanterns for King’s bday


park in Chiang Mai


Wat Phra Singha

Despite it being the Thailand’s northern tourism capital and it seems we see as many Westerners as Thais, we have had a good week. We’ve spent some time just hanging in the gardens at wats and local parks, have explored the larger city a bit, and tasted some great local food. And although it’s been a good week, I am happy to be leaving. Chiang Mai, like most of Thailand, is a destination for both upmarket tourists as well as shoestringers, which makes it perhaps the most trodden part of the SEA “trail.” I realize that this post is a bit of a rant, but after a month in Thailand, I’m really ready to get on a less beaten track.

Hill-Tribe Trek


164_6445-4.JPGOn Christmas Eve, I returned to Joylani and Chiang Mai from a 3-day trek. Rather than write a few paragraphs about what we did (touristy things like ride elephants, fun things like hike and swim, interesting things like visit hill-tribe villages, and adventurous things like rafting), I’ll write very little and let the photos describe the rest.

The only thing I really want to express is how much I love trekking. The scenery on this trek was amazing, from vistas of the rolling green mountains to walking through the bamboo jungle alongside the river. In addition to the scenery, the physicalness of trekking is fun. Being in the outdoors, in the trees, in the fresh air, experiencing the earth. Rock-hopping across rivers, balancing on logs across them, and sometime just splashing through. Even experiencing how rural villagers live is an education in and of itself; cold nights in bamboo huts with plenty of gaps in the floor and walls, no insulation, and certainly no electricity. I hate the sounds of squealing pigs and choruses of roosters in the mornings. But, on the other hand, there are few things I enjoy more than relaxing in the evening to the smoky smell of a wood stove and hot food. I wasn’t really expecting much, assuming that anything after the Annapurna Circuit would pale in comparison. Although it was different, it just reinforced my enthusiasm for trekking, experiencing the outdoors, and being in totally undeveloped totally foreign places.


we started of at a Karen “long-neck” village


then we did the ubiquitously touristy elephant rides


went across a river in this cage on a pulled thing


hiked over some really high hills with awesome views


most of the hike was through bamboo thickets/jungle though


we did pass some gardens growing cannibus (Chiang Mai is near the “golden triangle” opium-growing region)


saw some waterfalls


slept in rooms like this…just bamboo frames with flattened bamboo for walls/floor


and built a fire on our last night to keep warm

Chiang Mai


joylani 130pxChiang Mai is one of the main destinations in Northern Thailand that tourists head to. Although it has a sizeable population, Chiang Mai is definitely more laid back than Bangkok, and the touristy area is significantly more low-key than Khao San Road (as well as spread out over a larger area). I really like the guesthouse we are staying at. Not only is it SUPER clean, but the location is really great. It is set back from the main road and even back from the soi (lane) that it is on making it pretty quiet at night. The entrance to our soi is actually one of the local markets and we get to walk through it each day. I love passing by all the fruits and vegetables in the morning. Some I recognize, others are new to me. There are also people selling meat. The most interesting is the lady with the fish and frogs in big tubs. Throughout the day the supply lessons as she cleans them out and grills them on her bbq to sell to the shoppers. That’s the other great thing about the market—in addition to raw goods, there is plenty of prepared food. This has lent itself to us trying more new foods. One of my favorites is this sticky rice and red beans cooked in a bamboo tube. Another time I tried some noodle soup with meat and an egg that came in a series of plastic bags. It wasn’t so good, but might have been easier to eat (and perhaps tastier?) if I had a bowl to transfer the contents into. One morning I brought some fired chicken back to our room for breakfast. It was delightfully crispy and really good. Some oldies but goodies are available at the market too—mangoes and sticky rice (sold by the fried chicken lady), and kettle corn (buy the bag with the green writing, the yellow one is butter). At night the produce and fish vendors pack up their goods until the next day, but along the main street a whole new set of stalls are being set up—street food! Our favorite stop for dinner has become the red pork lady, followed by a banana crepe from the pancake ladies. For drinks, we head to the 7-11, also a convenient place to buy my daily intake of yogurt. It’s always nice to be near the food.

In addition to the abundance of food, there is also an abundance of wats. The city hosts over 300 wats, each one different from the others (at least of the ones we’ve seen). The general structure is similar from wat to wat, but the embellishments on the outside make each one distinctive from the others. Some are covered in glass-tile mosaics in just one color, or painted in just red with gold, some have elaborate ceramic tiling, and others sport simple clay relifs. My favorite is an all white wat that exudes a sense of calm in the moonlight. The wat complexes are relaxing places to hang out for part of the day. Many have benches, trees, and some shade.

Beyond site-seeing, the city is unique as a destination in that many people come here to take a class. There is a range of courses offered from language, cooking, jewelry making, Muay Thai (kick boxing), and the popluar Thai massage courses. I decided to take a short Thai massage course while I’m here. It’s been interesting. My instructor only speaks selected English phrases, making small talk about the city or questions on the ideas behind Thai massage not just difficult, but basically impossible. The class consists of a notebook with pictures of each step and my instructor showing me how to do it while I try my best to write down notes. This isn’t always easy because, since I am the only student, she shows me how on myself. Laying on my side with her foot on my back with one arm and leg being stretched isn’t exactly the best position for taking notes. After she finished a section (arms, legs, back, face) it would be my turn to practice. In general, I knew I was doing ok if she started to fall asleep. If I did something wrong, she would make a face and show me the right way, this was followed by an affirmative grunt meaning, “Yes, that’s right.” I tried to ask a lot of questions to be sure I was doing it right. Usually I was answered with a series of grunts, mms, and facial expressions. I have to admit, I got a little resentful by the end of each day because not only was she the one receiving the massage, but she seemed to be sneaking in little naps. And I was paying for this? My knees and fingers are sore at the end of the day—I’m not used to giving a massage for 2-3 hours a day! I came to the conclusion that taking a massage class isn’t so much for yourself as it is for others, and was encouraged by the thought that at least if I learned how to do this, Matt and my family back home could benefit from it (so far they seem very willing). Yesterday and today I actually left class early; I just couldn’t take it anymore. It gets boring practicing all afternoon. Plus, I think I got it down. We’ll see when Matt gets back tonight. He’ll be my first guinea pig.

You may be asking, where’s Matt? Well, while I have spent 5 hours of the last four days (ok, almost 5 hours…) in class, Matt decided to do the other thing people come to Chiang Mai for—to leave. On day trips and mini-treks, that is. The surrounding areas are home to jungle, waterfalls, rapids, hill tribes, orchid and butterfly farms, even an elephant sanctuary. So rather than do something like take a cooking class, Matt went on a three day trek. This is the first time we’ve been apart for more than a few hours in the last five months, but so far it’s been going well for me. I’ve been able to catch up on some writing and emails that I wanted to do, as well as start working on getting together some photos for our long-overdue album updates. Hopefully Matt has been having a good time too. We’ll see…!

Merry Christmas!


joylani 130pxI saw Santa the other day. He was a haole. I guess the sleigh broke because he was riding a bicycle down the street. He had on a white pants and a woven red shirt with frog closures. How Asian of him.

Besides the Santa sighting and a few brightly lit Christmas trees around the touristy area where we’re staying, there’s not too much to remind us of the holiday. So even though I missed being with my family, spending time with friends, and the fun things that happen this time of year, I didn’t miss the holiday as much as I thought I would. Perhaps it helped to not have all the “holiday triggers” so everpresent at home–decorations, music, shopping for that perfect gift, the food…It’s interesting actually, thinking about all the things back home that contribute to the “holiday spirit” and the things that shape the way we view the holiday–from both a secular and religious standpoints. For one, many people see Christmas as a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But it’s interesting how it is often focused on “the savior” and “God’s gift” but not so much as a reflection of his life–which is what we usually do for regular birthdays. Not that Christmas is necessarily Jesus’ birthday anyways. But hopefully you get my point.

Merry Christmas. We miss you all.

December 2006_094

Productive Day at the Park


joylani 130px We went to the park today to figure out our schedule for the next month and a half. As Matt mentioned before, we were originally going to head south and go through Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. However, in [my] excitement to head straight to the beach after our trek, we both neglected to consider the effects of the monsoon on the places we planned to go. Luckily, before we headed too far south, we realized it would be a much better idea to go through Laos and Cambodia first, then return to southern Thailand and countries south at the end of February. So that’s our new plan. It felt nice to sit down and work out all of our stops in Laos and Cambodia, giving us an outline for the next 7 weeks.

The VIP Bus

joylani 130pxWhat Matt neglected to say about the buses was that we ended up taking VIP buses between Surat Thani-Bangkok and Bangkok-Chiang Mai. A VIP bus is the local bus equivalent to first class on an airline. First of all, there is an amazing amount of leg room. This is great for people with long legs like me, but the extra space also came in handy when I reclined my chair all the way back without having to worry about squishing the person sitting behind me. As I leaned my chair back, a little leg rest popped up from under the seat. In addition to the comfy seats, the blankets and pillows provided matched the décor of the bus interior (seat upholstery, flowered light fixtures, curtains and valences. Yes, a valence). Our bus stewardess came around every so often with things like breakfast rolls, drinks, even a moist towelette to freshen up. Those two VIPs were the best 20 hours I’ve ever spent on a bus.

Khao Sok to Chiang Mai


164_6445-4.JPGFor some reason, I always find myself posting these short posts on our long journeys. Here we go. Yesterday morning, we took a minibus from Khao Sok back to Surat Thani. From town, we took a local bus over to the long-distance bus terminal, bought, our tickets and spent the waiting ours in the restaurants and internet café across the street. At 7pm, we departed and woke up in Bangkok, where we arrived at 5am. From the Southern Bus Terminal, we took a local bus across town to the Northern Bus Terminal, where be bought another pair of tickets and departed for Chiang Mai at 7am. After another nine hours, we arrived in Chiang Mai, where we caught yet another local bus from the bus stand into town. We took the first room we looked at and spent the remainder of this evening exploring (by foot, thank God) and sampling the food (a theme for us so far in Thailand).

On another note, Thailand is putting some of out Nepali experiences in perspective. Perhaps I was too harsh on Nepal, in particular. I say this because we’ve had a fair amount of bad experiences with Thai people lying and trying to cheat us also. Not a lot, but several times. I think lying and cheating is just a reality in touristy areas- the number one industry in both Thailand and Nepal is tourism. Its goes along with my grandfathers parting advice to us: Don’t let anyone know you’re Americans; they find out you American and they’ll nail ya!