Saturday, 29 March 2008

Destination Laos: Part 19 On the Road (again)

On the road to Luang Prabang - have heard some good things from travellers coming the other way, so i was definitely looking forward to seeing the city. Met up with the Canadian guy and Dutch girl i met in the Plain of Jars - who had so kindly went to the morning market to buy breakfast for our road trip to Luang Prabang - we had fresh, lightly sugared baguettes, oranges, bananas, and even doughnuts for the 10 plus hour trip.

The sawngthaew we shared to the outlying bus station (4km away) was 5,000 kip each, a fair price which our driver quickly agreed to. Another thing i've come to notice and love about Laos - there is little bargaining and while you are almost always quoted falang prices, it remains very reasonable and fair to both parties.

Our ageing Hyundai bus was a blast from the past - I absolutely adored it. So very 80s, retro looking, a jolly shade of light green with red, yellow and blue stripes, very psychedelic indeed. To top it off, aces had been painted on the tyre guards, with a freshly plucked bunch of bright yellow wild flowers tucked into the front number plate for good luck - not very helpful afterall as we soon had a breakdown after the engine had barely warmed up.

The whole experience was dripping with reminiscences of Kerouac's On the Road - a very road trip experience with the gang from Phonsavanh bouncing merrily along at the back of the bus, rice sacks, green beans and all, breaking out the bread and passing bananas until the engine died some way out of town, disgorging everyone to the roadside where we went for toilet breaks, stretched and then sat around along the ditches that followed the "highway" until some Einstein could managed to repair the engine - i could never figure out how they do it. Some minor touches and kicking here and there and muttered curses, and there ya go, the engine roared back to life just as we were contemplating the possibility of spending the rest of the day stranded by the roadside telling jokes and getting bored of playing new card games of which rules were invented, forgotten and changed arbirtrarily every few turns.

Left: The mountain in full bloom - bright cheery yellow flowers growing wildly by the roadside.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008


Its been 3 months or so since i left the Lao PDR. Already, i'm starting to miss the cheery sabaidees exchanged between strangers that so make your day when you drag yourself out of bed early in the morning to either catch the bus - travel in Laos involves waking up early, or to watch the very spiritual alms giving in cities like Luang Prabang.

Seeing as i don't have much time to completely jot down my Lao adventure here, ill just do a brief overview till i finish my exams end April. After Phonsavanh, i went up north to the regal, wat-lined city of Luang Prabang, where i spent almost a week, strolling its quiet, somnambulant streets and visiting many temples like the Wat Xieng Thong, the most grand of Luang Prabang's many wats. Personally, i really loved the temples across the Mekong - quiet, peaceful, with not a tourist in sight. The only people there were the local villager kids that follow you up on the crumbling stairways that wind up, and offer you flower garlands and flowers picked from the forest as offerings. A boat over and back is around 4 USD. Another place where i've spent a few nights walking through is the night market - really unlike anything else i've seen in my life. Very, very atmospheric, definitely up in my list of best markets ever - traders displaying their wares on mats on the floor, a myriad of coourful scarves, silks, carpets and more, and the neat tungsten lamps in rows providing a warm, orange, glow. Very otherworldly. And to add to that, shopping here directly channels money to local communties, so it's for a good cause too.

Luang Prabang, Luang Prabang. The name itself was magic. The most romantic city in the world, as a recent survey shows. Well it was not hard to see why. I had originally planned to spend 3 to 4 days there, but somehow, time seemed to slow to a stop in this past royal capital - i ended up spending nearly a week exploring Luang Prabang and its richness and beauty.

After Luang Prabang i took a bus north to Luang Nam Tha. A long ride through the mountains if northern Laos. It was here that i spent the most beautiful night of my life, in a Lenten village, population 82, on the edge of the Nam Ha NPA (National Protected Area), sitting with a few friends around a campfire, sipping hot cups of freshly brewed green tea in the chilly night air, gazing up at the nigth sky, the entire universe up there, the indescribable billions and billions of stars and galaxies. Lost for words -all we managed to come up with was "magnifique", repeatedly muttered in utter awe of it all. It was so quiet, and pitch dark, and beside us the Nam Ha trickled softly, tinkling as it flowed past eddies and the pebbles that line the river bed. On its banks, the chorus of frogs serenaded us.

We were graced by a meteor shower - lost for words as "the stars seemed to be moving", before any of us could comprehend that it was a meteor shower. Utterly, awe-inspiringly beautiful. No words could describe it - the most beautiful night of my life.

Above: The Nam Ha, flowing right beside our bamboo/rattan hut. In the morning we would rise and walk out of the hut to be greeted by it. It is, and i think will be a spot, a place that i will never forget. One of those secret places that hold such beautiful memories that will stay with you for a lifetime.

Left: Morning, warming ourselves by the ambers from our campfire the past night.

Monday, 17 March 2008

A personal constitution

On nights that i lie awake, unable to sleep, staring at the softly whirring ceiling fan, i think about my past - flashbacks of my life, from when i was a small boy, in my mother's kitchen, waiting for the school bus, all the things i have done in my short time here. Who i have been, and who i am. And trust me when i say that i've seen some pretty interesting ups and downs in life. Who i am today is a stark change from the playful boy waiting for the school bus, the rebellious youth growing up, almost being expelled from school with no prospects on the horizon, the cocky, materialistic young man, the prodigal son, harsh, with regret and pain, as i sometimes feel, sleepless in the early hours of the morning, again, staring at the white ceiling, looking back at all those persons i have been.

It almost does not feel like me - i don't recognise them, those people, today. I feel i have had many lives, many re-incarnations, been down all those long winding roads and dark alleys that this journey of life serves up.

My point is that, you can be who you want to be. Everything can happen - You can change if you want to, as i have, awoken from a long slumber, Merlyn the Magician, finally knowing who i truly am, and who i want to be. I have come full circle - i look down on those people, materialistic, arrogant, selfish, hurtful, deceitful, that was I, to return to my roots. Knowing who i am, and where i came from. For that i'm grateful.

This lengthy piece of prose is partly to inspire those kids out there, who like me, had zero prospects on the horizon, their lives spiralling out of control - i had contemplated suicide rather strongly, and running away - didn't know where, just that i wanted to leave this life behind and go up as far north as i can. But mostly to exorcise those demons that haunt me when i lie awake in bed, staring at the blank, white ceiling and listening to the soft whirrs of the ceiling fan, strangely hypnotic. I think, i have come a long way - now i'm happy, i spend more time with my family, i love them, more than anything in the world, and im in the midst of finishing a degree course. So life's looking up, and by any means a 180 degree change from the past. But do i regret who i have been? Maybe yes, maybe no. But what does it matter? Let the ghosts of the past dance with the ghosts of the past.

Let this be the cornerstones for a personal constitution. Who i want to be, who i choose to be, what i choose to do with my life. Your life is in your own hands - change it, go travelling, pursue your interests if you want to, make every decision a conscious choice. Will it make me happy? Note though that there is a world of difference between happiness and pleasure. Will it make me a better person?

This is what i have arrived at:

I strive to live life, as it is and should be, not perverted notions defined by material acquisitions.

I seek to be who i am, who i want to be, not what others want me to be. I have, in short, traded acceptance of the masses to be a social outcast, by choice. Where i am self dependent, and don't exist merely because i am part of a group, that i am one of them, that i am accepted because i share, or superficially exhibit their same beliefs, tastes and expectations.

That i shall not be swayed by material pursuits. I have traded the world for my life, and not my life for the world.

the Open Road beckons.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Taiwan: Tainan and beyond

Maobitou, the southernmost point of Taiwan brings up vivid flashbacks of windswept cliffs, treacherous trails that wind along and even at stretches descending into the tiny strip of sand at the foot of the cliffs, where the waves crash into the rocks and sand, sending up huge gusts of spray and flavouring the air with sea salt.

The area, being smack by some stormy seas, is rightly famous for its seafood - amongst which the more exotic include flying fish, wings and all, and the puffer fish, an interesting tasting, if a bit expensive delicacy. Tried this one, but the thing i remembered most was not the taste but paying loads for the small portion served in a paper box...

The Marine Park in nearby Kenting is also a fun day trip - the whales are so cute! Again, some great coastal views, strong crosswinds and the salty, tangy sea air thats a nice break from all the city slicking and mountain trekking of days before. I've always liked the coast and the sea, and find it liberating - Limitless, perhaps, in its vastness and continuity.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Taiwan: Tainan

I remember...

seating on a stone park wall, listening to a busker strum his guitar under the bough of a tree, with light bulbs strung from the branches, near the old fort at Anping, where only a few crumbling walls remain of the original structure - the rest is a reconstruction.

Like a troubadour of old.

Stopping at a dusty car park for a toilet break and to stretch my legs, after a long ride from Alishan.

Walking the night markets of Tainan, hawkers calling out to customers. One of those was a bit like a fairground - a vast open space where pushcarts were gathered and some restaurants hastily erected. I tried the escargot, Taiwan style, fried and spicy, with degrees of spicy-ness to select from - Mild, to "super" hot, shovelled into plastic bags for the customer, with a long toothpick to help you dig out the invertebrates.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

All systems go

So its pretty much confirmed India this May - got my visa, ticket and guidebooks. Been doing a fair bit of research too - so far Rajasthan looks really amazing, the barren desert, imposing fortresses of the Mughals of old, and the caravan trade that brought wealth to the area....

Its less than 2 months to go to 2 months (not a typo here =) in India and Nepal, and then some R and R on Thailand's beaches before heading home.... Sweet... Just final year exams and then its back on the road again.... Its not "just" final year exams, of course, but knowing that itll all brew over in a month and a half's time, plus the fact that i'll be travelling for (hopefully) almost double that time is rather nice...

Saturday, 8 March 2008


I enjoy....

Walking around campus at night, when everything is so quiet and unreal - the streetlamps casting off bright, orange light, diffusing through the boughs of trees, portal-like, another world, illuminating swirling dust and leaves in the night, like an old, rattling projector in an old movie house.

Just the night before, i was walking back from school at 2 a.m. - apparently im one of those people that inspires lively discussions on the 2 way radios of campus security. Walked out of the foyer and through the carpark, it felt as if i was in another world - so detached from this world i felt, floating almost across the vast empty space, just me, myself, I and the night. The incandescent, white, phosphorous glow from those bulbous, perfectly rounded lamps that light up the carpark partially - almost, in the darkness, floating in the night, a surreal, beautiful wonderland.

Is it that i have too wild an imagination, or is it i who am too detached from this world, yet paradoxically too entwined in it, ebbing and flowing like time and like all of mankind? Or am i just mad? These nightly strolls have become a source of many questions indeed.

That night i slept fitfully. A white, dreamless sleep. Or was I awake, and awakening a dream?

India, baby

Will be in India in exactly 2 months from now. Whoopee!!! Just bought my ticket to Madras today - 250 SGD, cheapest flight to India, on Tiger Airways. The only downside is probably having to sleep at MAA since it arrives at 2300 at night.

Chatted with this Italian in the lift - i seem to meet the quirkiest people - he owns a resort in Sri Lanka and was telling me about it, handing me a brochure pulled out from his pockets like it was a secret map leading to some hidden Paradise - i thought of Daffy Duck (the Beach, anyone??) - Giuliano, as i found out later, was dressed rather, um, unconventionally in greasy overalls, and opened the conversation with a taciturn "holiday, eh?" after i jabbed the close door button in the lift. The "lovely beach" was marked on the western coast of Sri Lanka, probably 3 hours or so out of Colombo.

Which brings me to the point that travelling is a mentality, not just an activity. A mindset that embraces and opens our eyes to what is new, refreshing, and beautiful in everyday life. The simple things that a lot of people seem to take for granted...

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Taiwan: Yushan

The day before Alishan i had trekked around Yushan - some vey beautiful scenery, the mountains were in full bloom, and from the trail, when you look down, it was just neverending fields of red and crimson. Very lovely. And the cold, crisp air that makes you feel so alive. One moment in time that i can remember, stopping by the trailside late afternoon to pull on my gloves, the air was getting cold, the light almost fading, before continuing on. I wonder why its this moment that i remember with perfect clarity, perhaps its the early evening coolness setting in that makes me feel so alive, invigorated.

Spent the evening at the observatory mid way up Yushan - billions and billions of stars on the velvety dark night sky - beautiful. It was so quiet and black as pitch at the observatory - i had to make my way down with a torch, following the well trodden trail carefully, watching out for rocks and holes along the way. Finally made it to designated pick up spot where a van ferried us along dark, winding moutain roads to a lodge on nearby Alishan.