First off, I want to continue showing my shameless appreciation for the political movement that is taking place and wish to openly congratulate Barack Obama for finally securing the Democratic Presidential nomination--I was fortunate to be staying in a place where I was able to see both his acceptance speech and Hillary's "campaign suspension" speech. I was moved by Obama's remarks and look forward to seeing him elected in November. I was also very impressed with Hillary's concession and endorsement speech. I too look forward to living in a country that is focused on, as she said, "...peace, prosperity and progress....after lost opportunities of these last seven years...". Hopefully we will see real, positive change in the coming years. Maybe I'm crazy, but an Obama/Clinton ticket doesn't seem like such a bad idea?
So, it's been a while since I put out any substantive commentary or tales of my journey. I know I've said it before, and I feel it more and more as I go along, it is difficult to focus my energy on putting the amazing experiences I've had into written form. It is really satisfying when I do (it acts as an extended journal for me) and I often think of things that I want to write as I move through my days. However, as you probably all experience too, when I sit down to write the inspired stories or lessons that I had intended to write seem to disappear from my head...
I'll go ahead and start writing now, okay?
The first thing that comes to mind is my final week in Laos and, mostly, my trip to the Si Phan Don (literally 4000 islands) area in the far south. I cannot say enough about the beauty and serenity of this amazing area. It is, by far, the most spectacular area that I have seen in my travels, so far. It is essentially the final stretch of the Mekong river as it leaves Laos heading into Cambodia and finally, Vietnam. As implied by the name, it is a vast area that is comprised of thousands of islands and islets studding the milk-chocolatey (is that and adjective) waters of the Mekong.
I stayed on Don Khong, the largest island at about 34 kilometers in circumference. It is a sleepy island with only one area that is developed for tourists. It seemed as though I was one of only a handful of westerners who decided to stay on this island, as opposed to the back-packer haven of Don Det and the lessor Don Khon. It was a pleasure to be in a beautiful teak-wood guesthouse that overlooked the river for several days of relaxation. My decision to stay on Don Khong was based on two critical factors. First, I had been traveling through Laos with a group of people (which was great) and had been, essentially, staying on the fairly well beaten path--I had a desire to break away from the main back-packer scene for a bit. Second, and probably more selfishly important, Don Khong is the only island that has electricity 24-hours a day (Don Det & Don Khon run generators from about 6-10:30PM each night). What can I say, I like having a fan while I sleep in the hot and humid climate--crazy idea, huh?
The first full day on Don Khong I rented a bicycle and decided to take a self-guided tour around the island. It was a beautiful day, sunny with large, cumulus clouds slowly drifting through the blue sky. After about an hour of riding, I realized that it was going to be a long, hot ride on my one-speed, women's cruiser. Thoroughly soaked in sweat, I decided to forgo Laos social mores and took off my shirt (I figured it would ultimately be okay, as I had seen many Lao men shirtless on hot days).
As I continued my journey I was constantly greeted by calls of "Hello" & "Where you go" by some adults, but mostly children. The kids were especially keen on making sure that I acknowledged their greetings--they seemed to light up whenever I made eye contact and greeted them with my best "Sabadii!". By the response that I received from the villagers I have to assume that not many Farang make the trip around Don Khong.
I made the mistake of not bringing enough water with me (idiot that I am thinking that a liter of water will get me through a 34km ride in 90+ degree weather (that's about 32 centigrade for the non-Americans reading this)). Fortunately after about an hour of being ridiculously thirsty (two hours into the ride) I came upon a small village with a "restaurant". The kids there were enthusiastic about my visit and took pains to step in front of their mother and grandmother (whose teeth were black from Betel nut addiction--yes, Ginger & Kevin--I've seen and even tasted the real deal) to provide service for me. I sat down and had the best, ice cold Coke that I've ever had in my life!
I grabbed another liter of water and continued on my way, hoping that I'd made it more than half-way around the island. I stopped periodically to take photos (see the link from my last email for pictures) and take in the scenery. The island is fairly expansive and the terrain is comprised of large swaths of farmland, (mostly rice, banana, pineapple and other cash crops) a fair amount of forest and a few large hills that have abundant rain forest vegetation. I wound up completing the loop and returning to my guesthouse a little less than four hours later. It was a fantastic way to see the island, interact with the local populace, and get a bit of good physical activity in as well.
That night I signed up for an all-day "guided tour" of the islands and waterfalls. I had been told that it might not take place, as I was the only one interested (and paying), so I didn't put a lot of hope into it working out. In the morning I wound up heading off to an early breakfast and making my way back just in time to see the boat that, apparently, I was supposed to be on, head off down the river. The owner of the guesthouse called the boatman (on his cell phone--gotta love the first world influence on the third world) and convinced him to come back and pick me up. I hurriedly grabbed my things, paid the owner for the trip, and made my way back to the riverside for pick-up. And waited. And waited.
Finally, in the distance, I spotted what looked like my boat. When it arrived, about fifteen minutes after my spotting it and almost an hour since my rush down from the guesthouse, there were about eight people in it besides the boatman. Six westerners and two older, hippy looking, Thai guys. I clamored over the bow of the boat and made my way to the only empty seat. I was genuinely happy to be on my way out to explore the surroundings that I had heard so much about. We made our way down-river for about an hour and a half before reaching Don Det. It was a gorgeous journey past an untold number of mini-islets, riverside villages and many Laos women bathing themselves and their children on the riverbank on a beautiful morning.
When we reached Don Det I attempted to exit the boat as everyone else (the westerners, at least) was. I was pulled back by the boatman who said roughly, "you stay". I didn't argue and said goodbye to the group of French folks that I had shared the ride with (they weren't especially friendly, so I wasn't terribly disappointed to see them go). Now it was just the boatman, the Thai hippies and myself. I asked the boatman about the tour and he basically gave me a blank look. One of the Thai guys spoke a bit of English and he let me know that they too were on the "tour". I sat back and put faith in the system--it seemed to have always worked before.
After another half hour or so of cruising through the stunning narrower channels heading south from Don Det to Don Khon we arrived at our destination--the north shore of Don Khon. We scrambled off the boat and onto shore. The boatman followed suit and, through the Thai guy, let me know that we should meet back at the boat at 1pm. I was confused as to what the "tour" included and asked him (again, through the Thai guy--who, have I mentioned, barely spoke English) where to go. While I was asking this he was talking to a lady who appeared to be getting bikes ready for the three of them (Laos guy & Thai hippies). I grabbed a bike as well and he demanded that I pay him an additional 10,000 kip (a little over $1) for the bike use. I protested vigorously, at least as vigorously as one can when there is no actual understanding of each others language, that the 150,000 kip that I paid for the tour was supposed to be "all-inclusive" with the exception of the entrance fees for the waterfalls. We went back and forth for a few minutes until he finally digressed and headed off on his bike with the Thai guys in tow.
I cracked open my Lonely Planet and decided to spend the next several hours (it was only about 10am) cruising around the islands exploring. No sooner had I figured out my route and made my way to the old French railroad bridge connecting Don Khon to Don Det the Laos "guide" and Thai hippies came across my path. The "guide" seemed miffed that I had "disappeared" and insisted that I follow him!!! I acquiesced to his demands and for the remainder of the time on the island followed along, with no real benefit, as he "lead" us from sight to sight. The trip around the island's was really fantastic though. The raging power of Somphamit/Li Phi Falls is unbelievable. It is at a spot on the western side of Don Khon where the Mekong river funnels down to a channel were it is savagely tumbled over sharp rocks in a viscous spray of churning violent water. Really amazing--you can see a picture of it in the last group that I posted on Facebook--the picture
doesn't do justice to it in any way.
After we wound up lunch (or should I say, I wound up lunch--for some reason Thai and Laos people don't seem to get hungry as easily as I do) we headed back to the boat for our journey to, maybe, see the Irrawaddy dolphins (endangered freshwater dolphins--no luck seeing them) and then to visit Khon Phapheng Falls (the largest--by volume of water--waterfall in Southeast Asia). After another forty-five minutes, or so, we arrived in Ban Thakho--a small riverside village where we would be escorted to the massive waterfall.
When we arrived in Ban Thakho our "guide" walked us to the main street (there is really only one street) and proceeded to borrow one of the Thai hippies cell phones to call for our "escort". While waiting around I had the good fortune of being able to assist some locals in loading a number of portly pigs (hogs really, probably 200-300 lbs. each) onto a truck (destined for greener pastures, right?). It was fun, and a challenge to wrestle these, extremely hefty and uncooperative swine up into the truck-bed. The guys I was helping were very thankful for, and got a huge kick out of, my assistance. After loading the pigs I watched as they grabbed handfuls of chickens (tied together by their feet) and loaded them in with the pigs--really different world out here.
Eventually my "guide" grabbed a hold of me and gestured to a kid on a scooter. Now, when I say "kid" I mean just exactly that. This kid could not have been more than twelve. I checked again with the Thai guy to translate that I was, for sure, supposed to hop on with this kid for a ride to the waterfall. Sure enough, this was the plan. I threw common sense out the window and saddled on the back of the 100cc scooter with no helmet and a driver that was not only half my size, but nearly a third my age (that statement makes me feel old). It gets better.
So, we're riding along and I'm becoming somewhat comfortable balancing on the back of this scooter (no, I didn't hold the kid around the waist) doing about 60 kph on the mostly good Laos road. Then, it starts raining. I don't mean just a sprinkle or a shower--it starts dumping down buckets of monsoonal moisture. And we keep on riding, slowing to about 40 kph, or so. I am a bit nervous at this point and suggest to my young chauffeur that we should maybe pull over and wait it out. Of course, he doesn't really know what the hell I'm saying but gathers that I'm not especially comfortable. He mimes to me that it might be a good idea to use an umbrella! At this point I've come to the realization that he doesn't want to waste time by stopping so I reach into my bag and grab my umbrella. Up it goes and I carefully hold it out in front of both of us (with one hand on the handle and the other on the front to keep it from flipping out due to the high wind) to shield us from the constant deluge.
We carry on like this for another fifteen minutes before we finally reach the visitor's center for the waterfall. I step off the scooter with a real appreciation for being alive. My young guide indicates that I should follow and he leads me down a hill and into an amazing view of the incredible raging Khon Phapheng Falls. The rain that had been so deafening for the last half hour is completely drowned out by the roar of the water careening down as it pours over the falls. I have never seen anything so powerful aside from the massive, storm driven swells of the ocean. It was worth the terrifying ride.
After about a half hour of climbing around the rocks near the falls I decide to grab my wee guide and head back to town. We have another ten minutes of hair-raising rain on our ride back (I see the Thai hippies pass in the other direction) before the clouds part and the sun shines through. By the time we near town we are actually both completely dry from the warm air and wind of our journey. As we approach the center of town we come across a procession of dozens of chanting monks, followed by a funerary stupa (stupa style coffin) on a decorated flat-bed with people dressed in traditional outfits throwing rice at the people walking alongside. We pull to the side of the road and solemnly watch as the bulk of the town passes in the long funeral procession. It was a beautiful outpouring that I feel blessed to have witnessed.
I thank my chauffeur for getting me back alive and walk down to the riverside to find my "guide". He manages to tell me, as I already knew, that the others would be a little while. At this point I'm pretty mellow and wind up greeting this group of Laos guys sitting around playing cards and drinking Lao Lao. They are ecstatic to interact with me and invite me to join them. I've got nothing else to do so I sit down and begin to share Lao Lao (Lao rice whiskey-strong s***!) and some card tricks. We spend the next half-hour (could have been an hour--I was drunk quickly) flipping through my pictures on my digital camera and attempting to communicate using the crappy Laos-English dictionary that I bought at a street vendor in Luang Prabang (really useless). It was good fun and made the waiting time seem like nothing. Needless to say, when the Thai guys returned I was pretty liquored up and was only too happy to hop back on the boat for the journey back to Don Khong. It was a beautiful and intoxicated ride back that I enjoyed thoroughly.
I spent another day or so in Si Phan Don just relaxing and enjoying the solitude before making my way north to Pakse and the amazing Angkor-era ruins of Champasak. Champasak gave me a thirst for what lies ahead on my visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia--it was a beautiful and mysterious place that stands as testament to a civilization that thrived over 1000 years ago.
Okay, this is getting really too long. There were other things I wanted to talk about but I need to get going soon to catch my train (I'm heading to Bangkok tonight to connect with a bus tomorrow for Southeastern Thailand on the way to Cambodia). I'll relay this one last, shortish story.
I spent the last week staying in a ridiculous resort that I exchanged one of my timeshare weeks for. It was luxurious and nice but left me feeling somewhat disappointed and disconnected from the experience that I am trying to have here. It was kind of lonely. Anyway, yesterday I checked out of the resort, hopped on the scooter that I had rented for the week to make my way to Patong Beach, to drop it off, and catch a bus to head out of Phuket (yes, I think that was a run-on sentence). After a week of perfect weather I was used to riding around the island enjoying the wind cooling me from the hot sun. Well, yesterday started off gray and, as I made my way a few kilometers south it started to rain. I pulled over and sensibly put on a poncho that I had purchased for my trek in Chiang Mai many weeks ago. I continued on my journey (it's over 40 kilometers from the Marriott to Patong Beach) safe in the knowledge that I was the smart one on the road with a poncho.
Another ten kilometers go by and I notice that the poncho has started to tear. I pull over again and go ahead an tear off the hood, which is hanging by a small strand of plastic, and turn the poncho around to the more sturdy back-side. It's really raining hard now and the drops are painful as they hit my bare face, arms and legs. I continue on, knowing that I'm better off getting there and getting out of this as soon as possible. After another ten kilometers the poncho disintegrates around me (yes, Sam, Simon and Kieran, my beautiful silver poncho is no more) and I pull over once more to attempt to place the remnants around my backpack to protect the contents from the bitter rain. I carry on and, as always seems to happen, just before arriving in Patong the rain stops. I am thankful for the dryness and in the few kilometers left manage to air-dry significantly before reaching town.
Nearly forty kilometers in the rain on a scooter, whether driving or being a passenger, is not a fun way to travel--FYI.
Gotta Go--Love to you all!