The 30-hour trip began by wandering the solitary back roads of Oregon and ended in the heart of crowded, congested, and polluted Bangkok. We were met by Syy and Jim in the airport and whisked away to our “hotel.” Outside of this hotel were the slums of the city… shacks built on sticks above a soggy marsh. Further down was a typical Thai market… selling typical Thai fare… lots of bugs, other foods such as pig intestines, tongues of some sort, stray dogs wandering around. Lots of live food as well… eels, turtles, cuttlefish, frogs, birds, etc.
A canal ran by the market, with long, canoe-like boats picking up traveling Thai. We took the canoe down river and saw the daily life of a Bangkokian. Shacks built on the river, women sitting on the edge of their teetering home nursing their kids, groups gathered to chat and watch the boats go by, people busily going about their lives, most selling foods. I can’t escape the smell of food here anywhere!
Within hours of our arrival I believe we utilized every mode of transportation possible in Bangkok… taxis, tuk-tuks (open, 3 wheeled carts), small boats, large boats, slow boats, fast boats, sky train and mini-buses. Needless to say some are safer than others. The tuk-tuks, for example, were an interesting experience. We were whizzed within inches of big buses and cars… dare to put your hand out, and risk the danger of losing it. No joke! Within an hour of our arrival I experienced the exhilarating feeling of being stuck in the middle of a boulevard with cars whizzing by on all sides, none stopping for the wayward traveler. Rules that apply to pedestrians at home certainly don’t apply here. Step a foot off the path and bus will come peeling by! Or some motorcycle, tuk-tuk, dog, what not.
Half of today was spent utilizing transportation and sitting in the worst traffic I have ever seen, and the other half was spent sandwiched among thousands of people, nose to nose, in a Chinese market, and visiting beautiful temples!! What an experience. Sampled fare included sizeable grasshoppers, delicious cockroach look-alikes (water bugs), and grubs. It has only taken a day to completely numb me to the experience of eating bugs! Now I am a savvy bug-sampler, aware of the nuances and subtle differences among them all! And the foods here!! My gosh… puts our country to shame with the so little variety of edible goods!! Every part of every animal and fish is eaten here, and thousands of fruits never before seen. I am absolutely bushed, and soaking wet (humidity here is exceptional!), so that’s it for now!!! Sawadee! Elizabeth
December 10, 2002
Greetings all from the 10th poorest country in the world!! We arrived by morning in Laos from the Bangkok night train into the capital city, Vientiane, after we paid the numerous entry fees that this communist country requires.
A few facts about the country’ Up until recently they had one phone line going in and out of the country. This country is also known in its recent past for keeping a close eye on all tourists and their whereabouts. There are just a few paved roads, potholes, dilapidated cars, lots of food (as is apparent in Thailand as well), and many, many tuk-tuks for travel. Laos accepts 3 currencies: Thai baht, kip, and dollars. Crazy and confusing when it comes to paying the tuk-tuk conductor with all 3 currencies at once!!! Just exchanged 40 US dollars for kip and came away with about 5 inches of bills.
Laos is also a war-torn country. During the Vietnam War, the United States spent more money bombing Laos to cut off the flow of goods on the Ho Chi Min trail for 9 years than it spent on World War II. Despite Laos’ painful past, the country is surprisingly serene and the people are amazingly friendly and gentle.
You cannot avoid the naturalness of life in travel like this!!! All the senses are awakened with the smells, the humidity, the dirt, the bathrooms, and the food. Simply in taking a train to the ancient capital city yesterday outside of Bangkok, I could see families sitting in the dirt on the side of the road eating their food with their fingers. Others were wading in marshes appearing intent on whatever they were doing… they had some purpose, of course. The people go about life amidst the barren ugliness of the cities, the crowds, the congestion, and the horrifying pollution in a very purposeful and natural, un-sanitized way. And I do the same… gotta enjoy it all… dirt, sweat, delicious food, beautiful temples, and “noisy, shaking, bumpy night train.” To enjoy a trip like this and appreciate it all, one must let go of everything western and revel in the moment!
Bathrooms: An experience in themselves. Ceilings so low that I bang my head, against the slippery wall, fall back, careening towards the hole, and then find myself sprayed by the woman in the next stall cleaning herself. As if my luck can’t get any worse I find myself without toilet paper.
I utilized the final means of transportation in Bangkok the other day, with an elephant ride through the crowded streets. Elephants I am told are actually banned in the city because too many cars were running into them, but somehow we were fortunate to find Ole, the elephant, lost and wandering aimlessly in Bangkok.
One of my favorite sites was the floating market outside of Bangkok. We toured on a canoe down a canal crowded with toothless old and young women selling just about any edible delectable that one can imagine. For breakfast at the market I drank two coconuts, one in each hand, savored some sort of delicious appetizer that I ate out of a plate made of banana leaves, slurped noodles and intestines combined in a delicious hot soup (soup is quite popular despite the 100 plus temperature), and ended my meal with the BEST iced coffee poured down my throat out of a plastic bag.
We now have 8 days in Laos and it only gets better. Lights out at dark. Blackouts are common. A three-hour trip may take 12 hours. There are just several things to remember for a safe journey: no melons, no fish, no speedboats, cover-up, saturate oneself with repellent, and pray to Buddha. Who knew that there would be an Internet cafe in Laos!! Wonders never cease. Arrivederci, Elizabeth
December 13, 2002
Greetings all from the heart of Laos! I’m writing from Vang Vieng, sort of a Gimmelwald of Laos… in other words the Laotian version of the Swiss Alps. I walk out of my hotel room onto a balcony that faces the most ethereal, exotic scene!! Mountains in the shape of fingers and hands and what not jet up towards the sky, covered by foliage, and below lie palm trees, the village, and the river.
The physicality of traveling here has been intense. We took a bus from Vientiane to this remote spot where we are now. As all three of us are rather laid back travelers we caught the bus with seconds to spare and found ourselves sitting on little plastic stools in the bus aisle, with traveling Laotians crammed on either side of us, and pouring out the windows. Our luggage stood on top of the bus. We bumped along on this brain-rattling, gut jarring ride for four hours. When we rolled through dusty villages, the natives charged our bus, forcing fried bats on a stick through the windows. The bats were complete with head, fangs, wings, and fur. I do bugs, but I don’t do bats.
I must admit I have a fixation with bathrooms over here. Perhaps because the western bathroom reflects all that we hold dear. We take them for granted and enter them in comfortable privacy and solitude to relieve and clean ourselves according to the sanitary standards we hold so close to our hearts. I am compelled to describe our hotel bathroom. It is 2 feet by 2 feet and holds a sink, toilet and shower. When the sink is turned on, the water pours down and through the sink onto one’s feet (interesting Laotian concept, I suppose). When the shower is turned on it floods the bathroom. Perhaps the Laotians enjoy multi-tasking for only in this bathroom is it possible to take a shit, wash one’s teeth, and shower all at the same time.
Today we spent the entire day kayaking down the river. We kayaked all day, held monkeys, explored caves, and swam. I have since learned that monkeys are quite wise little creatures. The six month little imp that I held refused to trust me until he grabbed my sun glasses and tossed them to the other side of the village. Clearly he had to see my eyes before he could sit in my lap. And then he tried to undress me, but I put my foot down at this.
We had the funniest couple, a Yugoslavian and Italian, on our tour group. They were completely in love and untangling them was difficult, but the Yugoslavian made her voice quite heard. She coined the term, Mr. Lao, for our tour guide, giving him the stature of the principle tour guide for the entire country. For hours all we heard was “Mr.Lao, are we really kayaking all day? Mr. Lao, there are bugs in the water! Mr. Lao, I’m famished. Mr. Lao, there is mud in this cave!!!” Finally, Mr. Lao had enough and smothered her in mud. She left the cave silenced.
I had one of my Laotian travel goals met, when I crossed a bamboo bridge hundreds of feet above the water below, secured only by metal railings that move with the wind. This bridge was a little precarious as much of the bamboo floor had fallen down below, and one had to gently leap to the next little bamboo and land right on it, just right, to continue the trip across the bridge. This was done as the bridge swayed precariously.
Rowing down the river was serenely beautiful – we saw Laotian life from dawn till dusk. Women from the hill tribes stood in the waters with a stick in hand fishing. Others waded in stooped over searching in the waters for something or other, their heads protected by their ‘teepee’ hats. Little children in the buff scampered around the edges of the water. Children no older than ten years carried their little siblings on their backs, wrapped in a blanket. By evening we rowed into town during the golden hour. Women, men and children were performing their evening water rituals, cleaning themselves under the golden sun. All was calm. The day was over, and I was tired!
December 14, 2002
The adventure continues, full throttle ahead! Today we rented motorcycles and traversed the Laotian outback, through remote villages, across rivers, up mountains and into caves. On this trip I have been fine eating water bugs, falling into bathroom holes, riding busses crammed nose-to-nose with people, but there are several things that have threatened my sense of well-being – one of them was caving and the other was learning to ride the motorbike. I have never experienced caves like these – once again the naturalness of life here in the tropics crept up and I found myself knee deep in water in a pitch black cave slowly creeping along, avoiding jagged rocks covered by water, escalating vertical mud walls, crawling for what seemed like miles through tunnels that barely fit me – slowly, one hand in the mud, pulling my stomach and feet along, and trying to avoid the numerous spiders, with their jewel eyes, gleaming against the walls. These spiders are the size of my hands. I felt like I was smuggling myself through an underground tunnel into China.
As for motorbikes, I had the entire village entertained as I lurched toward trees, walls, people, babies, and anything in the way. They laughed and ran away and then crept back. At least they were entertained since I certainly wasn’t entertaining myself. My first motorbike ride took me across a foot wide bridge over a river with no rails. If you have never ridden a motorcycle you might not be able to relate, but the thing is down right heavy and there are lots of gears and levers. In high stress moments I tend to forget all about the functions of each knob. Somehow I didn’t go careening over the edge with a 200 hundred pound motorbike and all. I need to thank Buddha for that since my talent riding motorbikes certainly wasn’t the excuse!
We landed in a village where all hundred children crowded around us. When Jim took a picture with his digital camera their eyes widened at the picture in front of them. Quite a novelty! They gasped, laughed, and practically smothered Jim in their enthusiasm. Each of us took the children for a ride on our bikes. Two little boys fought each other to ride on the back of my bike, so they both hopped on and with my newly acquired skills we zoomed down the rode. I then withdrew a Cliff Bar and shared it with the little ones. They slowly chewed it, thoughtfully reflecting on the taste. These children wander around bare feet or naked constantly chewing long sticks of sugar cane, so no doubt my bar tasted quite foreign!
Through every village we traversed, children bombarded us asking for pens. If I had only known I would have brought a Costco sized package of them to meet their yearning for an education.
December 18, 2002
Greetings from Syy’s village! Actually I’m writing from Syy’s cousin, Napa’s home. We just finished a superb dinner, sitting outside on the cement floor, while the mosquitoes swarmed and the rain fell. After dinner I chewed bettlenut with Napa’s mother’s elderly friend. Her teeth were rotted out and what remained of them were red from years of chewing bettlenut. Such teeth were once though beautiful until King Rama from a century past went to Europe and fell in love with white teeth. He outlawed the chewing, but the stimulant still persists. This friend insisted I stay in Thailand and live with her. I accepted her invitation wholeheartedly.
After about 3 days of transit we finally arrived at our Thai destination, a remote village of 25 people, all of whom are related to each other. We took trains, busses, tuk-tuks and any other mode of transportation that moved. On our first train we sat in what I imagine was 5th class. The rickety old thing was filled with the ailing, the crippled, the old, the young, and Pol Pot’s cousin. I had the “good’ fortune of sitting next to this man, dressed entirely in camouflage, wearing dark shades that he never removed despite it being night. He sat erect and expressionless through the entire trip. Since the Thai borderlands have for centuries housed guerrillas from neighboring countries (Laos, Burma, Cambodia), I’m sure this man was on his way to gather supplies for his guerrilla outfit.
The train also had a specially quarantined car specifically for monks. They must be separated from women. It is always strange when I walk by an orange-robed monk, and he furtively moves away. No doubt the monks are quite happy in their own car. As I have observed half of this country is openly gay. I have seen lots of gay guys, wearing make up, high heels, etc. Very odd!
Our trip took us to the most obscure towns in Thailand. We landed at midnight in one place and I was sure we would be sleeping under the local bridge. The natives stared at us “farang” in disbelief, laughing and no doubt wondering how we ended up in this ugly, barren wasteland of a city. Fortunately we found a hotel where the village idiot greeted us. This man, wearing handcuffs, was so proud of his 3-word English vocabulary that he constantly chirped “one-two-three.” Yes, we want 3 rooms. “One-two-three,” he chanted. Yes, 3 towels would be good too. When it came to counting the money, his 3-word vocabulary duly confused the poor guy.
Arriving in Syy’s village was an unforgettable experience! One dusty road leads through the family town. All homes are on stilts, some clearly more impoverished than others, but all were decidedly foreign. Corrugated tin served for the walls and roofs of many homes. All were sparse in “decoration.” Syy’s home for example… it is difficult to distinguish between the outdoors and the indoors of this home. Open spaces lead to the outdoors, taking one along a narrow cement pathway to the “outhouse.” We leave our shoes on the bottom of the stairs, climb a ladder, and enter the family room. The entire floor of the home is made of plywood. There is no furniture… thus no chairs, no dining table, etc. Staying in her home is a very grounding experience (no pun intended). Everything is done in a squatting position. The “kitchen” is an extension of the family room. Syy’s mother cooks sitting on the floor, chopping the vegetables on the floor, surrounded by big metal cooking bowls. After every cooking she vigorously scrubs the wood floors. There is no running water in this village. Thus big urns are found everywhere… underneath the homes, stone urns in the “outhouse.”
I take all I’ve said about bathrooms back! This one beats the cake. Hotels attempted to mimic western ways, but this… this is anti-western in every way!!! I thought it was bad taking a shower in the small, multi-tasking, flooded bathroom in pitch black during one of the many Laotian blackouts. At that time I was clinging to the last thread of western bathroom culture, with my desire for privacy, but I was about ready to go dump in the Mekong River, and do as the natives do.
Syy’s family bathroom takes some ingenuous, creative thinking to figure out. No toilet paper, no sink, no shelf. Dump clothes on soaked cement floor. Poor water from urn on rear. Poor water from urn to take shower. Unfortunately David thought the urn was a bathtub and he submersed himself. Squat hole for toilet. I washed myself last night at the outside urn under the stars, and then went to sleep on the hard wood floors under mosquito netting. Unfortunately I became quite sick that night, and was awake the entire time, playing with the toads that hopped across me. I spent the morning in the hammock underneath the home watching the sunrise and the village spring to life, while listening to the incessant sound of roosters.
David and I became quite sick from something we ate, while Jim mildly survived. We quickly learned how to use Syy’s bathroom. Today anything in my stomach came flooding out at all ends. I was like a limp rag, and totally weak, but I figured a trip to Cambodia couldn’t make things any worse than they already were.
I only realized that Laos was underdeveloped when I came back to Thailand and saw roads, cement buildings, and cars. However, we were never approached by pesky beggars in Laos. In the Thai/Cambodia border town, I was mobbed by naked children who followed me for miles. I was clutching my 5 roles of toilet paper and discretely hidden inside was a yogurt that I searched high and low for. Somehow they spotted it, and I had to aggressively fight for my meager food, since I’m sure at that moment I was equally as famished as they were.
Cambodia has suffered years of horrifying pain and cruelty. Poverty is horrific. In the 70’s the Khmer Rouge ruled, and thousands upon thousands of people were killed and tortured. The lucky ones escaped to Thailand. Now 3 governments are running the country. As of 1993 the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world was taking place in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge are also ruling a 3rd of the government. This is the equivalent of bringing the Nazis back to Germany to rule after WWII. The Khmer Rouge is still trying to take over the country.
Fortunately I’m now feeling much better and prepared to resume my sleep on Syy’s wooden floor. On a trip like this, my humor and sensitivity to all that is around me carry me through the rough spots. Hope all is well on the western flooded front!!!!!!! Good night! Elizabeth
December 19, 2002
Hello All!! I am writing just a few minutes from Syy’s village. I have spent the past two days like a limp rag laying on the plywood floors. (Everything is done on the floors here. Eat on wood, sleep on wood, toiletries on wood…) All 3 of us caught a bad bug from some Thai food. At some points, I was so weak I could barely walk.
So today, I took a vigorous stroll under the hot, glaring, blinding sun and spent the rest of the day on the floor of Syy’s ‘home.’
At some points on this trip I have felt like a tourist in an aquarium gawking at fish behind a glass wall. So much of our transportation takes us whizzing by Asian life. Just a few days ago, I had the good fortune of sitting on the outer stairs of a train and watched people go about their lives. I felt like I was in the movies, with a little bubble around me, sheltering me from the life beyond the train.
But today… today was different. I was immobile and very much a part of my surroundings. I laid on the floor, and my eyes followed Syy’s mother all afternoon. I watched her make lunch, creating the sauce with a mortar and pestle. I watched her squat in the kitchen and chop the vegetables on the floor. I watched her eat in solitude on the floor, seemingly in a world very much a part from the 3 “farang” who had only partially entered her life. We couldn’t communicate with each other, but my eyes followed everything.
Food here is a separate culture in itself. The entire notion towards food is the antithesis to the fast-food- loving Americans. Syy’s mother makes full-blown meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Soups, meat, squid, vegetables all for breakfast. The concept of processed foods is completely foreign! Unfortunately, my stomach doesn’t respond too well to such food right now, and my intake is quite limited! I am beginning to become a ghost of my former self.
Tonight we leave for the tropical island, of Koh Chang, at 3 a.m.. I look forward to some rest and relaxation to prepare me for the 30-hour trip back home. Goo’ night. Elizabeth
December 22, 2002
Greetings All!! After a trip like this nothing will ever again phase me!! I could probably sleep standing up against a wall, if the need ever arises.
So much has happened since I last wrote, that I’m not sure where to start. After a harrowing four days, mostly spent on the hard plywood floors of Syy’s village, I finally began to eat solid foods. Even the sight of Thai food churned my stomach and I had to make a mad dash for the outhouse. But now, I’m fully recovered!! Ahh…
We stole out of Syy’s village at 2 in the morning to catch the night train to this tropical paradise! I felt like we were secreting ourselves away under the full moon before the village could confine us any longer. Syy’s mother, and Syy’s nephew, little Farticorn, stood on the steps and silently and expressionlessly watched our departure. Little Farticorn is a cute little 8 year old… not too bright, but very well trained. When he comes home from school he hops off the motorbike, dressed in his white collared shirt and shorts, gives us a formal wai (hands together with a short nod of the head), runs to the urn, pours water over his feet, kicks off his shoes, and runs up the stairs to the house to change. Seconds later he is back and staring at the farang. Farticorn seemed sorry to see us leave, and saying goodbye to him as he gave us his little wai was a special moment.
Other special moments have been made on this tropical paradise island. What I love about this trip is that all I have is me, myself, and I. I carry the barest of amenities, rely on nothing, ditch western inhibitions, and find all I have is me. There is something quite special about that. A moment of just me was found swimming in the vast ocean, beyond the entangled lovers until I was alone with the warm water, the rock-skimming fish (who narrowly missed my eyes), and the setting sun. Today I swam two miles to a far off island and back. I had to make a beeline for land as the sun had set, and I was fearful of the man-eating squid that come to shallower waters at night.
This island adventure has provided me the opportunity to swim under waterfalls, snorkel, ride elephants through thick jungle, and trek. A memorable moment was swimming under the stars far out in the ocean, with my body glowing like a fairy. The sizeable plankton lighted my way.
I know some of you have asked “Why, why, why?” How can I eat bugs? How can I sleep on beds that are like marble slabs. How can I maintain humor when I am constantly sweaty and grimy? How can I thrive in conditions I have described? You cannot avoid life here. That is the marvel! While at home we try to valiantly recreate life, here you live life. Life is everywhere… in the air I breath, in the breath that cools my arm at night while the rest of me sweats, in the coconut juice I eagerly slurp as it dribbles down my face, in the unprocessed foods I eat, in the ocean I swim in, in the daily lives of the people I observe. Life is everywhere. I feel it. I feel my body in a way I never have.
At home, we have lost a bit of life. We work tirelessly to create fragrances that will stimulate our senses to buy certain products. We create new dyes to put in our foods so that they look more authentic. We buy lotions and makeup like they are going out of style, to recreate a period in life that we cling to, valiantly trying never to lose. We buy processed foods that are easy to cook. We do yoga to ground ourselves. Here there is no time or need for such things, because life is purposeful. Thai villagers wake up in the morning and do as they have always done. With more of the finer things in life, the more we work to recreate life.
Here people have a sense of time that is lost to the westerner. It takes time to wash the clothes in the urn, to travel to the next town on a rickety bus, and to care for the pigs. In that time, is a grounding sense of self utterly foreign to westerners who drive in their AC cars, chatting on the cell phone, on their way to the mall.
If I were confined to this life, I would go crazy, but I’m blessed with the opportunity to experience life in the way I believe were meant to live. On the other hand, I look forward to a luxurious bed, a chair, a western bathroom, and a clean self!
The story ends here. I hope you all have enjoyed my travel diary. Tomorrow we leave for Bangkok early in the morning. I have some serious Christmas shopping to do before we fly out the next day!!!!!!! Sawadee, Elizabeth