Sunday, August 06, 2006

Vang Vieng

The only thing that made it possible to leave Luang Pabang was knowing that some day I will return there. Hopefully to stay. It is everything Vang Vieng should be. For one, there are scores of places to eat French pastry, drink cappuccino and read the Herald Tribune. It seems like the perfect place to grow old. The city is full of tiny brick lanes which absolutely make it impossible to get a car down them. Lush gardens everywhere compliment the colonial French Architecture.

Vang Vieng on the other hand is a dirty little party town and I can tell Sasha hates it. She is being brave though. We need a rest after the harrowing trip here.

We came in on a mini bus. We had tried to get a public bus in Luang PaBang but they didn't seem to want to sell us a ticket. They offered it to us at the same price as the van. We were packed in 10 to a car. As we wound through the mountains everyone held their cameras out the window trying to capture the wild rugged mountain-scape that dwarfed our tiny vehicle.

We have booked a one day trek that includes hiking, caves and rafting. It's a little bit too organized but with only two days here its about all you can do. We have to make haste back to Bangkok if we are to catch our flight to Suri Thani on the 10th. That means two nights here then another day of travel to VieneTiane. We will spend two nights there then cross the border to Nonghai and catch the sleeper train back to Bangkok on the night of the 9th. We will arrive at the train station in Bangkok at 6am. From there we will take a local bus to the airport.

The sun is setting now and the spectacular mountains that surround this tiny town are disappearing. There are scores of new hotels going up just as the jumble of old guest-houses appear to be crumbling into the red earth. They are repaving the entire city and dust is every where. You have no choice but to call these tiny towns cities, because besides the jungle that is all there is.

The bars here are filled with the reincarnation of the Woodstock generation. Instead of tables and chairs there are railed in platforms about a foot high filled with pillows. They lounge around stoned out of their minds watching re-runs of Friends. In every bar we passed there they were, Monica and Joey and Rachel and uh, uh... Rick? Brad? Squawking on blue screens. The contentment here is made possible by something called a happy shake. A mixture of opium, mushrooms and alcohol. The police, costumed like sadists from a Lina Wertmuller film, look the other way.

I spotted Boz from afar. He was wearing his yellow pants, grinning from ear to ear. I was happy to see a familiar face. Especially one that was sober. I told him that Sasha and I were going to book a one day trek and if he and Dom came along we could all get the same one for 13 bucks each. He and Dom exchanged glances and then looked around at the stoners.
"I'm in." They said in unison.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Luang Prabang

We were jostled around on the back of a Tuk Tuk truck on a mud and rock filled road heading out of the main drag of Luang Prabang. Along with two Brits we were heading to the Kwang Sy waterfall. The star attraction.

There was an earthen parking lot where we arrived filled with the usual collection of vendors selling food and trinkets. We hiked in and right away saw the bears in their cage. They danced about on their hind legs like clowns for the pleasure of bananas tossed to them by spectators. I had to turn away. Across from them was the tiger cage. When I saw this cat and how it prowled about its jungle pen, I was convinced the sleepy beasts in Kanchaniburi had been drugged. I had never seen such a large and agile beast. It moved like lightning through the dense brush jumping from branch to ground in muscular leaps.

Like all great theatrical personages the waterfall teased us before its appearance. Streams of milky emerald colored water splash over the large boulders and pool up into the swiming hole. Any ten year old would have been delighted by the jungle vines and the low hanging tree one could jump from. We enjoyed diving into the water and swimming hard against the stiff current toward the crashing waterfall, but I was left wondering if that was all there is.

As we squeegeed the water off our bodies I saw Boz and his friend Dom heading down the trail. We were about to head back when they advised us to keep going.
"It gets much better." Boz grinned his mysterious grin.
We climbed up a little further and there was a large round boulder plunked in the middle of the stream. water pooled to the left and right of it. People were swiming out to it and diving in. It was perfectly arbored by the jungle canopy, like an advertisment for romantic getaways.

We climbed on further and rounded the bend. There was a decaying resort there, filled with spiders and snakes, caving in with rot. Just beyond that the river made a spectacular leap heavenward. It crashed down in torrents onto the boulders strewn below it. Vines and moss and trees clung to the cliffs surrounding it. A small patch of blue could be seen floated above the canopy like a crown. I struggled with my camera turning it left and right. I tried to make a little video, but like all things grand it was unphotographable.

The next day we rented bikes and visited the temple of happiness on the outskirts of town. It took me a while to decipher why it had been named that. It is an octagonal shaped shrine on the crest of a jungle covered hill. Inside there are two pictograph murals, one set on top of the other. The top row depicts scenes of heavenly virtue. There are rolling hills and blue skies, verdant rice fields and pilgrims glowing with divine radiation.

The bottom mural is filled with graphic renditions of avarice filled sin. The artist took his opportunity to make multiple studies of near naked women frolicking in the heat of lustful abandon. The were juxtaposed to scenes of warlike carnage which included the beasts of the wild tearing out the organs of the fallen. I could imagine that late at night the monks took advantage of this mild pornography. Furtively groping beneath thier orange habits in a bid to make their spiritual solitude more endurable.

We then headed out on highway 13 around the enormous mountain that dominates the vista of Luang PraBang. The guy at the bike rental had called it a highway. This was one of the most optomistic and generous things one could have called this road. It was muddy and filled with rocks. The ground slid away beneath us as we struggled up the hills. At every turn there were rice paddies where little had changed in hundreds of years. A muddy river spread out below us and huge kharst formations filled the vistas like ancient kings. We passed a man harvesting pineapples. Speaking badly in Thai I managed to buy one. It was crisp and juicy with just the right amount of sweetness and a hint of pine. I finally understood why they had been named such.

We made it back to the one real road in Laos. Highway one connects Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng and Vienetiene in the south. We headed up an endless hill until we could pedal our bikes no longer. We walked up the final curves that crested the ridge blocking our way back into town. Trucks overladen with Laotian workers roared by. They smiled and waved to us cheering us on. We reached the top and roared down the other side. Children ran to the side of the roads holding out their hands for us to slap as we zoomed by.

In town we treated ourselves to a dinner at a luxury resort. I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror as we entered and I truly looked like a mad man. We were mud splattered and sweaty with our hair completely blown out. They sat us anyways in the elegant dining room. After a meal of Bison stew and a garden salad. Then we had a fusion desert that consisted of one of the many tiny pumpkins we had seen at roadside stands roasted and filled with coconut cream. We dove into the pool after eating. Sasha passed out on one of the lounge chairs. Soon other patrons of the hotel appeared. They looked like cadavors clad in black bathing suit. I tried not to judge but I felt out of place. I enjoy the crafted beauty of these places but prefer the wildness of a public pool like the ones we have in Harlem. Anybody can come in. Filled with noise and little bodies hurtling themselves into the water.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The River

It was three hours of bad roads in the pouring rain from Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong. We were the only foreigners on the bus. We rarely passed another vehicle. The little towns quickly gave way to mountain jungle.
"Do you feel like you are getting farther and farther away from civilization?" I said to Sasha.
"You are." I teased.
Later in the day as we got closer to our destination the driver began letting passengers off in front of any place they seemed to want. People jumped off with sacks of rice at little primitive villages of straw huts and dirt floors. By the time we got to Chiang Kong the bus was half empty and it was coming down in buckets.

We found a tuk tuk to take us to a guest house. We hadn't prepared much so we took whatever place he offered us. Typically they work with a family member or friend bringing them customers. It was a sad little place but ok for a night. Red ants were massing just outside our door. We scoured the town looking for bug repellent and a place to make us a bag lunch for tomorrows journey across the river into Laos.

That night we met Michael. He is a little German man from the former east with belly that expressed his love for beer. He was sitting in the open dining area of the guest house. The jungle was all around us. I noticed him reading a copy of Hitler's Volksstaat. A book that is always a conversation starter. He had grown up in the former east of Berlin. I got to quiz him about communism to which he gave elusive answers always punctuated by a smile. He is a school teacher and is wise about what he says to whom. There was an open deck near the row of rooms and tiny kittens wandered everywhere. Later he and Sasha and I watched American Beauty with the house dog curled up against me. It was nice to watch Kevin Spacy perform to a background of Cicada and Geko's.

In the morning we loaded our luggage onto the tuk tuk and headed for the boarder. The guesthouse manager, who had booked our passage had put a big sticker on each of us that read: Slow Boat. We got to the landing and had our passport stamped by one of the few unsmiling Thai people in the entire country. There was no dock to speak of. We had to hold our bags over our head and walk in the mud to get on. We boarded a longtail boat and crossed the river into Laos.

On the other side of the river we had to get our visas stamped again. Everyone was changing their denominations into kip and then stuffing large wads of money into their wallets. A man approached our group and asked for our passports.
"Don't worry, don't worry." He assured us. I was worried.

We were then led up the street into the dirty little boarder town of Houexai. We were told to wait again while something happened. Nobody seemed to know what. Then they came back and took us in small groups away and back down to the waters edge. They came for us and we did as we were told.

We boarded a long mahogany boat. It was covered and somebody had made pink curtains for the open spaces on either side. We waited there for two hours. They led group after group to the boat. Soon it was overloaded with Farang, foreigners.
"If the boat breaks up." I said to Sasha. "Leave everything behind. Kick off your shoes and as much clothing as possible. Don't fight the current. Let it take you down stream and deposit you on one of the sand bars." I could tell by looking at her eyes that this did little to reassure her.

The last to enter were two Americans. An older man with grey hair in a floral shirt carrying a video camera and his wife. Her hair was cut short and dyed red. Her pink pants were the only thing louder than their voices as they complained endlessly.

The boat pushed off two hours late. We traveled down the muddy Mekong river. The water swirled and eddied around barely submerged rocks. It had rained hard the night before and the banks were full. Sasha was pale.
"Are there any life jackets on board at all?" She asked, deeply pained.

The valley was green with large coconut trees on either bank. We rarely passed anywhere and when we did it was a tiny collection of grass huts. After seven hours we reached Pak Bang.

Pak Bang was a little hamlet with a few new luxury hotels miraculously sprouting up and a score of backpacker guesthouses. The children ran barefoot on the dirty main road down the muddy embankment to greet the boat. They hoped to grab our bags and carry them for us in exchange for tips. They swarmed over the boat and one had to fight with them to regain ones luggage. Sasha stepped onto the narrow gang plank and plunged into the river. She crawled up out of the milky water onto the shore her determination intact.

I guarded our belongings as Sasha ran ahead of the crowd to get a hotel. She secured us a room in the best of the lot. It was a concrete building with a big veranda and a panoramic view of the river. We stashed our things and then decided to go for a swim. We had seen a group of boys playing in the water on the opposite embankment. We made our way through a Wat where Buddhist monks prayed. Then we went down a steep bank and Sasha got her first close up view of the grass huts with mud floors where most of the world lived. Women held dirty babies in their arms as they swatted away flies. A soiled towel with Bugs Bunny and the Tazmanian Devil hung from a window. The little boys hid while we bathed in the river. The coffee light water was warm and soothing on our limbs cramped by the long journey.

That night we had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had anywhere, including New York. The meal was prepared with fresh homemade yoghurt, garden vegetables and juicy bits of chicken. As we sat at the table Boz appeared. I had met him on the boat, just outside the engine room. He is Dutch and has classic good looks. He smiled a wide smile like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. A pair of sunglasses pinned back his red hair. His pants were four alarm yellow. He inquired about our wet hair and we told him that we had gone for a swim.
"In the Mekong?" He scowled. "That's brave."
He went on to describe a mysterious parasite found only in those muddy waters. It swam up ones urethra then extended large hooks into the walls. Incurable, it slowly ate up your insides.
"I saw it on the Discovery channel." He said. Sasha stared slack jawed.
"Well, that's the last time we do that." I said.

After dining we headed home as the generators were cut and the town went dark. There was no electricity in Pak Bang and by mutual consent generators were cut off at 10pm. Several restaurants and shops on our way back were lit exclusively by candle light. The stars above provided the only illumination for the street.

The next day we boarded the boat early. We were determined to get the best seat possible. We were lucky. We grabbed the last "first class" seat on the forward deck and a plastic chair in the bow next to the captain. Our plan was to switch places every two hours to give each other a break. Then they proceeded to cram even more passengers on board than the day before. They had come down from the jungles looking for the only way out of Laos. The river. Passengers were crowded into the engine room in front of the huge diesel engine that powered the craft. There was little ventilation. The noise was deafening. We headed down river for another seven hours of rock dodging by our fearless captain.

I traded places with Sasha and sat next to the loud Americans we had seen the day before. The floral shirt guy video-ed everything yelling out descriptions for the sound track. I did my best to avoid looking at him but eventually I relented and let him lead me into conversation.

He blew my mind. His name was Ted. He mentioned that he had lived in upstate New York when he was younger. I asked him where.
"Millbrook." My eyes grew wide. I prodded him to elaborate and he proceeded to tell me about his life on the legendary commune there founded by Dr. Timothy Leary. He knew the whole crew, Billy Hitchcock, Baba Ram Das. He had been one of the original members. He told me of the warring factions. One faction wanted to just get high and chant and let god take care of them. The other faction to which he belonged wanted to create an alternate sustainable community. They had set up a printing press and pottery shop. He told me of the police raids. He described how the community churches had rallied around them during the months of endless police harassment. He told me about the bitter dissolution of the community and their flight to Nevada. Since then he and Pink Pants had traveled around the world. It seemed there was no point on the map where they had not set foot.

Listening to Ted was like listening to a movie and the time flew by. Soon we were in Luang Prabang. The boat pulled ashore and we were greeted by the usual army of Tuk Tuk pirates. They are in every bus station and port ready to take advantage of the anxieties of new arrivals. The Kharst formations we had seen as the boat descended the valley surrounded the town. It was full of tiny streets and luxurious gardens. There were rows of neat structures in classic French colonial style. We rolled our suitcases down the dusty narrow streets searching for a place to rest as the moon rose in the east.