Thursday, 28 February 2008

Destination Laos: Part 18 Final notes from Phonsavanh

I had the opportunity to drop by the new, concrete monster which is the Chinese market on the way back from the Plain of Jars. And just to make doubly sure that it was the Chinese market, numerous red flags were put up to trumpet the fact.

While China is becoming the world's newest superdonor, i can't help but feel that such "aid" cannot be too healthy for the developing economies of countries such as Laos, especally after you've seen the Chinese presence in places like Udomxai and Nam Tha. The second language there is Chinese, really.

After circling the various shops and stalls and climbing the odd stairs up into more stores and stairs in the heart of the not-so-neat market, ive come to the conclusion that you would only be interested in the market if you fit into one of the following groups.

A. The trucker. This must be their one stop repair shop with thousands of spare parts like salvaged conveyor belts, fans, and more menacing looking metal parts

B. The housewife/househusband. Shopping for a new mop,broom or exercise books for junior. One of those with the shiny Pha That Luang on the cover almost became my new journal - until i discovered that it was formatted in boxes - for maths, no doubt. Not so good for writing in... Or maybe just checking out the newest innovation in detergents and soaps from China.

After an icy cold shower back at the guesthouse, a 20 minute walk away, on one of the coldest winters ever - apparently it is a bit of a freak cold spell, global warming i guess, which really took guts and blind faith to just walk under the shower tap, i gladly threw myself back under the covers of my bed (a thin mattress masquerading poorly as a thick blanket - but what the hell, it kept out the cold just the same) and prayed that the bus would show up tomorrow at the bus station, again some 8 or so km out of town. Whats the rationale i wonder? Maybe the pragmatic city planners were expecting Phonsavanh to turn into a sprawling megalopolis sometime in the near future...

There is precious little to do in this town, which is basically 2 main drags and about 5 eateries, majority of which are Chinese restaurants complete with red lanterns, 1 bar and nothing much else to do after the party goes home at Crater's Bar - the liveliest spot in town any night but sleep. 3 days or so its fun to just kick back, explore the markets, watch the locals going about their lives, buy the odd Lao lottery ticket and chill. But more than that in the middle of Xieng Khouang province, one of the most bombed places on our small planet does get a little drab and depressing.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Destination Laos: Part 17 Sawngthaew tales

Sawngthaew are a common form of transport in Laos. Literally it means 2 rows, referring to the benches at the back of the pick up truck where the people, vegetable and animals are seated as they zip around the Lao PDR, picking up more people, bags of rice and chickens along the way.

Those were journeys that promise a peek into the real Laos, and that many a traveller had an interesting anecdote to share about, and more often than not it was of his affable companions that couldn't stop licking his trouser legs or the one that showered him in feathers all throughout the ride, raising much concern about avian flu - Seriously i've met people who wouldn't touch chicken at all in Southeast Asia because of the flu. That aside, other amusing tales of the sawngthaew that ive heard from travellers include:

" We boarded the sawngthaew at the market, and then i had to lean to one side to avoid someone's chickens, and then halfway out of town someone forgot his stuff and the truck did a huge U turn in the middle of the road and we went back to his house and waited for him to get his things."

And another one:

"We stopped by the fresh market for some Lao woman to pick up some stuff and waited for 45 minutes while she did her grocery shopping and came back with huge bags of veggies in each hand."

To add to that my own tale in Luang Nam Tha, being unceremoniously deposited very late in a suburb after the last passenger had mustered her whole extended family to haul all her stuff back home, rolling them off a small slope that led to her home.

Destination Laos: Part 16 Making Lao-lao

Making Lao lao
1. Steam sticky rice

2. Wash, mix with yeast (1kg for 20 kgs of rice)

3. Leave for 1 to 2 weeks in a rattan basket for it to ferment

4. Heat in distiller

The lao lao evaporates, touches the cool lid (it is kept cool by constantly pouring cold water onto it - every 8 minutes) condenses and then flows down a spout into a collecting container.

This is what a distiller looks like. I really should start a lao lao factory of my own =)

The lao lao tasted really smooth, didn't burn too much (despite the 50% alcohol content), and had an aftertaste of rice.

There are other variants as well, from the clear, fiery white lao lao (happy water as the people call it) to the syrupy, sweet yellow ones that are made by using other plants along with the rice.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Taiwan: Alishan Forest Railway

The next few days were a whirlwind tour of Taichung City, and later some trekking at Alishan and Yushan. Perhaps what i could remember best was taking the forest railway at Alishan at 5 in the morning to catch the fabled Alishan sunrise. The ride was atmospheric, the traditional fire engine red train passing by forests where tendrils of the early morning mist still lingered amongst the bamboo groves and trees. Dropped off at the railway station, a short ride away, which was just as well since that the train was packed and i couldnt get a seat.

Stepping off the train into the large spacious railway station, with the first rays of sunlight seeping through the high roof, was like going back in time to Europe in the industrial age, where train travel was all the rage following the invention of the steam engine. Railway stations always have this effect on me, and what more with people standing around in the stations with trays hung over their front, hawking stuff like watches, and in this case eye protectors of sorts for you to view the sunrise. Again, another weird parallel to industrial age Europe, where quirky science inventions like Radium pills (really, im not kidding) for an extra energy boost sold like hot cakes.

We were welcomed by the booming voice of the highest chief in Taiwan. A pompous title, a correct one at that, if misleading - He was, geographically, the highest chief in Taiwan. And joining in the electoral fever, declared himself higher up than Ah-Bien, old President Chen, to much laughter from the people gathered around him as he boomed welcomes and introductions, perched on a rather large boulder.

It was really a matter of luck if the sun was out or not. Umm. Actually had not meant it in an apocalyptic way. What i meant, ahem, was that whether we would have a view of the sunrise was a matter of luck - it might just be obscured by a passing cloud. Supposedly the best view of the sunrise in the world, the rationale being in Japan, the land of the rising sun itself, the sunrise was obscured by industrial smog from China.

Well we weren't disappointed. The sun rose that day to much gasps from the gathered crowd, which by then had swelled to a considerable size. The sunrise was not as spectacular in itself. What made it so was the gorgeous view from that lookout point on Alishan - the mountains below, the marshmallow clouds, being warmed by the gradual rising sun, painting everything in warm hues of red and orange. The sun had risen, and the silent anticipation and awe soon gave way to chatter and talk as travellers moved around, embarking on their treks or headed downwards to sample some of the mountain tea or the wasabi that Alishan is famous for.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Taiwan: Driving at night through a foreign city

Taipei. What else i remembered was the rather fabulous night markets, great, cheap food and all, and the mega malls that weren't my cup of tea at all. The Taipei 101 area was fun though, a road junction with wide sidewalks for pedestrians, lined with alternating red and yellow flowerbeds, in full bloom in the cold, crisp morning air. The Taipei City Council was nearby, and at that time every night you turned on the TV it was political debate after debate, talkshow after talkshow -elections were just around the corner.

I remember beautiful highways, lovely night journeys that sped down the island, heading southwards, the lights of the city a blur, then once out of it, gave way to streaks of lights from cars coming from both directions, and the uniform rows of streetlamps, with the intention of flying out from the port city of Kaohsiung. The cold sometimes misted out the windows - it was a lovely experience. I felt so detached from the world, all my worries faded away, left behind, like the streaks of lights, zooming into the future, what was to come, and the anticipation.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Republic of China Taiwan 2005

In a sense this was my first backpacking experience - it was obvious from the stuff i could fish out from my luggage, most embarassing of which was a mess tin, resulting in a pack that weighted around 12 kg when i checked it in at Changi Airport flying into Taipei.

Taipei was brilliant. It was cold, it was noisy, it was bustling. First few days were spent wandering around Taipei city, the popular Ximending area, night markets, like Shihlin, and checking out a few temples and the Taipei 101, at the moment, the tallest building in the world. Funny, these accolades - Last time i was in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, the Petronas Twin Tower, dominating the KL skyline, had the title. And now i was again looking at the tallest building in the world.

What i most remember of Taipei, almost 3 years down, was the bright neon lights that lit up the chilly night sky, and the smells and tastes of roadside eateries that greeted you when you stepped onto the streets of Taipei at night, and of course the game arcades that are almost everywhere. A quintessential city of the Far East, one could just feel Taiwan, its vibes, and what it stood for, on the streets of the capital city of the Republic of China.

One thing that always made me think of Taiwan was their 7-11s. They had everything you could wish for, and on a cold, hungry night, it was almost like heaven. Reminds me of Ernest Hemingway's A Clean Well-Lighted Place. Hearing the welcoming, automated chimes as you pushed the door open, to be greeted, first by the warmth, then by the array of food and other comfort items, like magazines and newspapers (to me, peculiarly, having a dinner of small, instant packs of food like pudding, sandwiches on the bed, while flipping through the pages of a magazine or newspaper, at the same time changing TV channels every 5 minutes, was strangely comforting, even if i don't do it much at home. Perhaps, im thinking on hindsight, its the cosiness. The security of being huddled up in thick blankets, everything you ever need a hand length away, safe, warm, and with food and drink i could spend the whole night like this, until i eventually doze off)

Now saying you eat at 7-11 when backpacking is like confessing you eat Mickey D's while overseas. Cardinal sin of backpacking. But i confess. To me, the 7-11s in Taiwan, with its mouth watering and culinary creativity inducing array of food such as pudding, all sorts, gourmet coffee, and all sorts of wonderful desserts was as much a part of its modern popular culture, the clean well lighted place where people on the road, or working executives pop by for a quick bite before heading home. A 24 hour city, quick, on the move, pushing towards new frontiers, breaking old boundaries. The pace of Taipei. Not exactly Hong Kong frenetic, but busy, bustling with life, definitely not just "a nation of engineers" as the western media so often likes to pan it. To me, the 7-11s in Taipei had a very on the road feel, like th traditional American cafes that serve hot coffee, strawberry ice cream and apple pies to passing motorists. It reminds me so much of travel, and of Taiwan.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Destination Laos: Part 15

I like this picture. Very zen like, tranquil. A feeling of being at peace with the world, of flow and continuity. Never fails to make me think, this is what life is and could be if we so chose to believe and were not so deluded and determined by wealth and material pursuits. Me, a hot cup of tea, and bread with cheese and i feel so blessed. Blessed with each sunrise, each day that i have on this beautiful planet. Truly, its up to us to find the beauty in our surroundings, in life. For me, i like how simple life can be.

Like Kerouac's semiautobiographical self, Ray Smith in the Dharma Bums, meditating in the woods, experiencing the rush of truth, the "diamond cutter" of silence, his dreamless, undisturbed sleep in the arroyo in the New Mexican desert, one of my favourite paragraphs ever from Kerouac.

There is no title for this post - i cant think of one. Nothingness is as good a start as any. Perhaps as good an end as any.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Destination Laos: Part 14 A simple life

The Plains of Jars were incredible scenic, not quite the Stonehedge of Asia, but definitely one up when it comes to location. Spread over a large area, the paths to get to the sites (2 and 3) wound through paddy fields, now dry and yellowed because of the recent harvest, with buffaloes grazing around lazily.

It also saw us walking past wooden huts, the accompanying smaller shack, balanced on stilts to house the rice and keep it away from foragers and water, and vegetable gardens, moist and brimming with life, emerald green due to the charming irrigation systems put in place - the beauty lying in its simplicity and effectiveness, wheels, pipes and chutes, fashioned from wood and the rattan that grew in abundance in the jungles around northern Laos.

Left: An example of a "bridge" in Xieng Khouang
Balancing precariously while crossing rickety bridges made completely of rattan, often just a pole of rattan across the gap and accompanying scaffolding, and happily walking along the rice paddy dykes, more for the fun of it that the need, since the fields were dry.

A beautiful day, where the journey was more exhilarating than the destination, completed by a brilliant heaven's gates arching across the mountains and reaching the paddy fields below. It felt good to be alive.

The people were really great too - the kids that smile and wave at you while you pass really brightening up my day. Im in love with the Lao PDR. =)

Monday, 11 February 2008

Blu-List 2008 - ?

A few trips that i am looking forward to making, conceptualised partly to relive the history, the myths that these routes have created, and are steeped in, and for some, like Route 66 and the South American loop on a motorbike, their role in popular culture.

1. Going to London, overland. The hippie highway cutting through Malaysia, Thailand, China, Tibet, India, Nepal, Pakisan, Iran, then to Europe through Greece, passing by Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Italy, France and finally reaching the United Kingdom.

2. The Pan American highway, starting from Argentina and ending off in Anchorage, Alaska

3. Riding down the Route 66, the classic Jack Kerouac road trip

4. South America on a motorbike, trying to retrace Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries

5. India and Nepal, backpacker rite of passage for me, after having seen most of Southeast Asia.

6. The Silk Road

7. Circumnavigating Australia in a camper van

So, if things go as planned, i can probably cross 5 off my list this spring/summer. May will be the departure month, i think, 3 and a half months away as i write this. And as i write this i realise how lucky i am, to be able to take time off to travel long term twice a year, and to know what i seek from this life, and what to me is important and what is not...

Friday, 8 February 2008

Destination Laos: Part 13 Plain of Jars

Spent the morning wandering around the fresh market next to the post office, quite interesting, the sellers sitting on mats on the floor with their wares laid out in front of them. Definitely very colourful. The highlight, apparently, of it among travellers was looking out for the exotic animals on display in buckets, tubs and boxes, destined more for the dinner plate than as pets. I spotted 2 furry hamster like creatures, but much larger scrabbling about in a wash basin. Cute.

Grabbed some freshly baked, lightly sugared baguettes (khao jii) here for breakfast (1,000 kip, 25 US cents), before going over to Simmaly's for hot coffee with a huge dollop of condensed milk to warm myself up, but succumbing to the freshly made rice noodle soup that is always served with a plate of fresh greens for the diner to add according to his tastes. All in all it cost me 12,000 kip, little more than a dollar. Amazing value for money and i can really agree with people who say, dollar for dollar, dining in Lao is the best in the world. True enough. In Vientiane/Luang Prabang, a French meal with wine would only set you back around 5 -6 US dollars, more if you go for the more upmarket stuff.

After breakfast it was a stroll back to the guesthouse where I waited for the van to pick us up for the tour of the 3 Plains of Jars, with a pitstop at a lao lao making village and a broken Russian tank - what remained was just the chassis, which presumably the enterprising villagers couldn't cart away.

The Plain of Jars were a photographer's dream, and with its vague history and unknown origins there was also nothing much to read about. Yay. Local guides do, however, say that these massive urns, each hewn from solid rock, serve a burial function, and showed us the urn with a human figure carved onto it.

Peering into the jars was one thing everyone did once. Like we expected to be enthralled or make a new historical discovery hitherto unnoticed by experts. Nothing too interesting, stagnant water and the stuff that thrives in stagnant water - algae, reeds, and the odd piece of rubbish. I expect this place is a breeding ground for hordes of mosquitoes, if those little critters can survive this high up into the mountains.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Destination Laos: Part 12 Crater's Bar

Was thinking, at night in my room sorting out the stuff ive come to accumulate in my travels, tickets, old copies of the Vientiane Times, journal notes, the odd quirky souvenir, that i must have travelled at least 600 km overland by now. Not a remarkable distance by any means, but really long and winding roads weaving slowly through the mountains of northern Laos. Most times a beautiful ride through small idyllic villages and clear flowing streams, but long hours on the road, still.

Had a shot of the lao lao (rice whiskey) at the Crater's Bar. Would have been uneventful except for the card that read, something like this: The management takes no responsibility of anything that might happen if you drink this stuff. Thats right. Within the lao lao was a menagerie of reptiles like a dead snake, a gecko, and some other smaller creatures, fermented with wolfberries and ginseng.

"no one drink before" the girl said as she poured me a shot of the stuff. Was having some second thoughts, but i thought i might regret it more if i didnt have a taste than if i did. Nietzschean moment here - "regret not what you have done but what you have not done"...

It tasted normal, the aftertaste was a bit strong (snake/gecko, i couldnt make up my mind). And like all lao lao, strong (at 50% alcohol), but not too fiery.

Another interesting and heartwarming thing that happened that night at the bar - you guessed it i spend most of my nights in Phonsavanh in Simmaly's for dinner before dropping by the nearby Crater's Bar, was that there was this kid, who looked in through the glass all the time while we were eating in the bar, smiling shyly at us and declining our invitations to join us inside, pointing all the time to the sundry shop next doors where we supposed his mother was. So remembering the books i bought in Vietiane at Big Brother Mouse i handed him one, and the Austrian couple gave them some ballpoint pens. He said thank you and smiled, before long he and his friend were sitting outside on the steps happily reading away.

It filled my heart with so much joy and warmth, i never had expected i could make someone's day just like that, by giving him a simple present, a pictorial book to read. It turned out that buying those books in Vientiane and hauling them halfway across the Lao PDR was not such a bad decision after all...

Monday, 4 February 2008


Finally i'll be there, at Kathmandu, come May. Thats the plan, at least, and as far as plans go, nothing is fixed/confirmed.

A sense of deja vu and uncanny coincidence as it feels really that i am retracing the journey of the old man i met recently in Luang Prabang Laos who started his journey in Madras, after taking a ferry from Penang Malaysia, some 40 plus years ago.

This is going to be one heck of an adventure, i can just feel it... from Madras all the way overland to Nepal, and then hopefully (fingers crossed) the Everest Base Camp trek. And then to Bangkok before taking one of the many cheap flights home after ive spent every cent i have on beach huts and long bus journeys.

Also i am entertaining thoughts of crossing to Pakistan (partly just to get the passport stamp - Ill admit, im a bit of a collector, and to experience a place where few tourists go but was part of the hippe highway of old where the beat generation with rucksacks travelled through on their way to London, or at the other end, Australia.) through the India gate. Heard the visas a pain to get, but we'll see. A Malaysian passport should prove its worth here, being a "negara Islam"...

So things to keep me gainfully occupied now include:
1. Getting an Indian visa
2. Getting my hands on the LP India guide
3. Getting flight tickets on Tiger Airways to Madras - that reach at 10 at night =(

Sunday, 3 February 2008

The Big One

Major change to my travel plans this May...

After checking up some guidebooks, ive come to realise that the Philippines is actually quite costly, especially around Manila, Boracay, and the Cordillera Mountain area... Perhaps this is because of the type of people who go there i guess, which are more honeymooners and package tourists than the conventional young budget traveller....

So I've decided to go to India. Yup. From Madras to Nepal overland. Sounds like an adventure.

Thinking of flying into Madras (cheap flights on Tiger airways) then going to Pondicherry first, then to Kerala and Goa. From then on, itll be a northward journey into the Western deserts, Rajasthan, then drop by Agra and Delhi before going to Varanasi and into Nepal...

And a Yeti flight to KL =) Or maybe ill take the Silkair one to Singapore. Or fit in a few days of R and R in Bangkok and Southern Thailand, if there are any cheap flights to Thailand...