Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Thanks mummie! =P

haha, my mom just linked me to a very enlightening website on train travel in India. It's here for all you train junkies who're headed my way. Really excellent and some hard-to-find info about train travel in an amazing range of countries. To be precise, from Andorra to Zimbabwe, literally not figuratively. Plus recent pictures on what the trains and carriages really look lie. Just that the text is a bit on the small side - well at least it looks small on my laptop...

My gear is sorted - same old trusty 30 litre Deuter backpack, basically the same kit as Laos, minus a few shirts and pants, more socks and with one more money pouch (the decoy) as i'm carrying more cash now. And (hopefully) one more ATM card from my friendly local bank that i'm gonna process tomorrow.

So that leaves planning. lol. I'm going to have to start putting it out on paper real soon (7 more days!) - right now its bits and pieces swimming around, somewhere, in my mind. Roughly Chennai to Pondicherry and back, then by train to Kochi in Kerala, then a pitstop at Mangalore before continuing upwards to Margao in Goa. Detour to Hampi after that, and then back on the west coast up to Mumbai, don't know if i can fit in a sidetrip to the Ajanta caves here, we'll see. After Mumbai it's to the desert state of Rajasthan where mughals once reigned in mighty fortresses, with a pitstop at Ahmedabad before taking a bus to Udaipur then Jaisalmer. From there i'm making for Delhi, and a quick jaunt up to Attari for the border closing and maybe spending a short time at McLeod Ganj.

It already seems like a lot to cover in a month and a half. Think i might have to cut down on some sights already.... But on paper at least, after going back to Delhi i'll be heading to the Taj Mahal at Agra, then Khajuraho and Varanasi before going north and crossing the India-Nepal border at Lumbini.

Crossing into Nepal what i have in mind is going to Lumbini for a few days before making for Pokhara and possibly doing an apple pie trek there (Annapurna on the mind) - it's a toss up between this and EBC (Everest Base Camp). Pokhara to Kathmandu by bus, flying into Lukla still on the cards if doing EBC, and maybe scheduling some paragliding or white water rafting nearby. Royal Chitwan if possible, heard this one is rated quite highly by travellers. Then it's another adventure in sunny Thailand =) flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok and possibly get beached out/spend the last of my rupees/baht before getting on that plane home.

Sounds like a great time.

Destination Laos: Part 23 Misty Morning in Luang Prabang

Misty morning in Luang Prabang, looking across the Mekong Nam.

French baguette spread with Laughing Cow cheese, stuffed with canned ham, strips of carrots and cucumbers and finished off with a dollop of ketchup before it is packed tightly with a rubber band in paper and plastic bag. Breakfast, sitting on the pavement's edge right in front of the night market in the middle of Luang Prabang, next to the post office, another French colonial leftover. Watching frangipani trees shed their blooms onto the floor - no surprise its the Lao national flower (named Champa) as i later found out back home surfing the net, and the odd tuk tuk and moto going by, mostly carrying the local women going to the market this early in the morning, with rattan baskets of vegetables balanced precariously on their vehicles.

Above: Moving out of the Phakam, a nice quiet place to stay tucked in a residential suburb

I enjoy watching package tourists, from my seat on the pavement across the road from some hotels which obviously i would never afford. At about 7 a.m. the deluge of them came down hunting for food. They remind me of the follies and petty grievances of the life i all but left behind the moment i got off that plane - trying to bargain and "show who's boss" when buying a 9,000 kip baguette, for instance, and rudely shoving their cameras into everyone's faces as if they were but exhibits.

Above: Rain-drenched alley that comes to life at night as a local market selling an amazing array of food and snacks.

The reason i was up and about early that day was due to my eviction from the Phakam, as rhey were already fully booked for today. Did make a reservation at the Oudomphone for the night, the elderly owner promising me a choice of rooms 4 or 10 - either one would do perfectly, but when i got back from the caves and waterfall, they "forgot" and i went room hunting for another night, this time with company though. 2 Canadians who spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese and an Israeli fresh off the Pak Beng boat formed the rather irritable foursome who skulked through almost all the alleys of Luang Prabang and, because of "contrarian theory" decided to look at our collective guidebooks to find the top listed places to stay and give those a miss to better our chances.

It wasn't much better. In the end, we split ways, me and the Israeli heading one way off Thanon Sisavangvong while the Canadians went the other, wishing each other good luck in our increasingly futile (and desperate) bid not to sleep on the streets of Luang Prabang, pretty though it was, for the night.

Finally, 17 dollars got me the last room at a restaurant-hotel. Le Tam Tam, i think it's called. Easily the most expensive place i've ever paid for in my travels (i'm cheap). Moving out tomorrow, and pre-emptivity and a better understanding of the mad scramble at 6 when the boats pull in from the Golden Triangle made me book (and damn well doubly triple confirm it) a bed at Levady's for the next 3 nights, where walking in i bumped into the Israeli, Amid again.

Above: One of the small joys of travelling - breakfast! It's always exciting and fun to wake up, wash up and then go downstairs looking for breakfast, seeing where the local people eat and occassionally joining them for a hot cup of tea/coffee and a chat. Or just sitting on one of those little plastic toy-like stools or nearby steps and benches to sample that exotic-looking, new food that you have never seen, much less tasted before, watching the world go by, your newly adopted country going about its daily business.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Destination Laos: Part 22 Luang Prabang at night

Finally found a room at the Phakam Guesthouse after much walking around the riverside of Luang Prabang, where an eclectic mix of quaint old shophouses, local residences and dimly-lit eateries line the Mekong river, now draped in darkness, with the quirky odd guesthouse or chi-chi restaurant sandwiched in between, or even within these enclaves, with small wooden signs leading you into a narrow alley and up random flights of steps before you find that hidden place.

The whole effect was fantastic, surreal. It didn't feel like a tourist hub (which it is) at all, but rather very intriguingly and mysteriosuly beguiling, promises of finding some hidden place, some nice restaurant or a welcoming guesthouse aroud the corner, or in the midst of the cluster of Lao homes, if you would brave the barking dogs and follow the signs that seemingly lead you on a wild goose chase. All part of the fun - the journey, not the destination indeed. Very bohemian feel to it all. No crazy traffic, no ugly concrete monsters.

Also i'm thankful that Luang Prabang is not as cold as Phonsavanh - where else in Southeast Asia can you hear Canadians complaining about the cold? Leaving the frigid frontlines of Phonsavanh behind for 12 dollar a night, artistically and tastefully decorated (i'm tempted to call it boutique) rooms at the Phakam, with swoon-worthy spacious and spotless bathrooms and "no fail hot showers" as LP promises (ok alot of alliteration and feminine rhyme going on here - i noticed its a bit of a tongue twisting effort saying the above sentence but seriously it was that impressive), it was love at first sight. Ok, strike that. It was a very welcome change from the sand, cold and more cold which you would have noticed are the main adjectives for Phonsavanh.

Went wandering around the UNESCO World Heritage listed city after dumping my stuff at the Phakam. I remembered walking right past the Museum to go like - wow. The night market was really something really unexpected. I thought Luang Prabang was another of those over-hyped, tourist packed Disneylands. Boy was i wrong.

It was amazing. Tranquil and scenic, the neat rows of tungsten lamps running through the middle of the street providing the only illumination and a nice touch of surrealism. The quiet also made it otherwordly as traders sat cross legged on the floor beside their wares, whilst visitors strolled through the street market under the stars. The food is great too - had some cold, but nevertheless very good spring rolls from a side street vendor, with a few bags of condiments thrown in and really great coffee at 5,000 kip, served fresh in a bamboo cup with a cute little blue/pink/green plastic spoon.

Booked a tour to the Pak Ou caves followed by a trip to the Kuang Si waterfalls tomorrow, which from what i've heard from this South African dude in Phonsavanh was pretty amazing. The guy who sold me that tour - really friendly and wanted to learn some Mandarin Chinese from me. I ended up writing him his name in Chinese - Mr. Ah Loon, which he seemed really pleased with and he taught me some Laos in return - i can count from one to ten now! =)

So, first night in Luang Prabang. Hectic, finding a room at last, but fun nevertheless, and Luang Prabang really blew me away. Charmed. I haven't even seen the city by day yet - it must be stunning.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Random update 2: Neverending summer

India is right around the corner - 15 days, around 2 weeks before i will be in Chennai man, Madras. Can't believe it. On the road again, this time an almost neverending summer of 3 months - Seger's Kathmandu and my eclectic mix of travel songs (Simon and Garfunkel does bring back a lot of memories) getting me through...

2 more days to freedom - i can almost smell it =) That day i was making a list of things to do after the exams - where to eat, where to get my gear, maybe head back to my old school, meet up with a few friends i havent seen in half a year...

On the horizon - Spanish and Southeast Asian history papers - my fav! a result of flipping through the history section of Lonely Planet for like the hundreth time on those huge, kickass 12 hour rides across rural Southeast Asia. Finally seeing a tangible benefit of those long, bone rattling, butt breaking jaunts. Wednesday and Thursday evening papers, then i'm done. Free. Liberated. Emancipated. Right. =P

Monday, 14 April 2008

Random update 1

Sorry no updates for a while... Busy with exams... which will be over in exactly 241.5 hours as we speak.

Been watching the situation in Nepal, hope things will turn out ok. Also getting my pills for India - diarrhoea stopper, rehydration salts etc... A few long nights studying, aside from that surviving and just looking forward to going off in about 3 weeks.

Will have to sort out the travel insurance and money issues soon, and getting some stuff i.e. a flashlight that was confiscated by Singapore immigration and a money belt to act as a decoy, which i will stuff with many small notes and weird, fantastic stuff to make potential robbers think they've stumbled on treasure. And then, while they're bedazzled with their loot, make my getaway. Yeah =) Travelling breeds resourcefulness, no? Like a certain Irish acquaintance who went around Romania (and much of Eastern Europe) with a syringe of Ribena (which was actually HIV infected blood, really) and waved it at any shifty characters that attempted to, ahem, separate him from his possessions when camping overnight outside the city.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Destination Laos: Part 21 Luang Prabang Weed

It's a Luang Prabang specialty, and no, it's not what you're thinking.

My weed is taking hours to arrive, and when it does i'm greeted by the sight of several pieces of dried, lightly fried pieces of weed, topped with sesame seeds. They're dry, slightly rough in teture, crispy, and taste, naturally, like grass. Interesting taste, but as i was keeping an eye on the budget (running a bit low), it was my main dish and quite naturally also, i got rather sick of it halfway through the enormous platter.

Weed, in case of any disambiguation still, is just that - weed. As in seaweed, but instead, in Luang Prabang, my first dinner is foraged from the depths of the Mekong River that flows right beside the eatery - which might explain the long time they took in serving up the dish. I highly suspect a recent voyage down the Mekong under the moonlight, to ensure the freshness of ingredients used in their food. Right.

Really though, fresh is an understatement of food served in the Lao PDR - I have had instances when i ordered food only for the cook to despatch her son/daughter to run to the nearby market to get the ingredients. Wow. I know i've gushed about Lao food before, but it really is all so sep lai (very delicious) and fresh and healthy.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Destination Laos: Part 20 Road trippin' to Luang Prabang

After a while you'd find it amazingly funny that buses in Lao generally abide by a few rules - number one of which is never fill up before picking up the passengers, even if, in this classic example (parody) the kew lot mei (bus station) was right smack beside the petrol station.

Number 2 - expect, and be prepared for a lengthy breakdown by the roadside, more often than not in the middle of nowhere, mountains on one side and wild grass and trees growing untamed on the other. While it might be a very welcome toilet break at times, the moral of the story is still to bring some food and water on board, especially after dragging yourself, semi-awake, onto the bus after spending the night drinking Beerlao. Travel in the Lao PDR involves getting up early.

Number 3 - expect loads of stops to pick up people, animals and other things along the way to, um, maximise returns.

In accordance to all 3 rules, (picking up bed frames (!!!) this time - well, at least that's new) we finally rolled into Luang Prabang in the evening, sharing a sawngthaew into the city, dropping off near the JoMa bakery, where you'll find half the backpacker population of Luang Prabang in the morning.

Friday, 4 April 2008

More songs to travel to!

Kansas - Dust in the Wind
Steppenwolf - Magic Carpet Ride
Steppenwolf - Born to be Wild
Whitesnake - Here I Go Again on My Own
Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
Led Zeppelin - Kashmir
John Mayer - No Such Thing
John Mayer - Route 66
Status Quo - The Wanderer
Green Day - Time of Your Life
Iggy Pop - I am a Passenger
Marty Robbins - King of the Road
Bob Seger - Kathmandu
Suede - Everything will Flow
Ricky Nelson - Travelin' Man

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Meeting the Gods of Poverty in a Dream

"The timbre of their flutes were quiet and calm, without a hint of envy and, contrary to what might have been expected, seemed richer than all the amusements of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune.

We are the Gods of Poverty, but why should we be ashamed in front of those Gods of good fortune? We, and they, all of us, have our own fates.

... Settle yourself into poverty, and not lose its pleasures, the gods of poverty will be joyful along with you.

Then what is the Greatest Happiness? To be without desire, and to know what is enough, to be perfectly fair and selfless, to entrust life to life and death to death and to be content in that return.

Not to envy wealth or honour, not to loath poverty and low birth, not to be obsessed by thoughts of the differences between happiness and anger or likes and dislikes, but rather following good and bad fortune, or prosperity and decline as one meets them, and calmly enjoying oneself in the midst of creation and change: This is the Greatest Happiness under Heaven."

"I envelope the Universe by means of my mind; and by means of the universe, there is nothing that obstructs my mind. Riches and honour, good luck and calamity are elsewhere.

When you seek after such things, you may obtain them or you may not - this is not something that is guaranteed. The Greatest Happiness is within yourself. If you seek your mind wholeheartedly, you will obtain it for sure. Simply, do not seek after illusion. "
- Issai Chozanshi, The Discourses