Originally published: 12th June 2008
After 5 ½ months in the Indian subcontinent we have finally moved to South East Asia! Better get a cup of coffee and settle in, cause this one’s a biggy.
We spent a brief night in Bangkok, then flew to Chiang Rai and took a bus along the deadly road, lined with Buddhist New Year Celebrants anxious to douse anything and everything in large volumes of water, to the border town where we would leave Thailand, cross the river and enter Laos (pronounced Lah-ow – not Lay-oss). Leaving the dripping wet bus, we hopped in a little tuk-tuk which, unfortunately, had no sides and we were therefore thoroughly soaked by an exuberant young Buddhist on our way to the immigration checkpoint. A quick, damp ride across the river and we arrived in the impossibly relaxed Laos.
The next morning we went to the office of the Gibbon Experience, where we were driven a few hours into the jungle which was followed by an hour’s hike up a large hill, pausing only to devour our tasty baguettes. One positive result of Laos’ colonial rule by the French was the abundance of tasty baked goods everywhere – no small mercy for two vegetarians trapped in a country where meals are, if not made of dead animal, then at the very least cooked in its juices.
We continued our climb and, having been fitted out with our harnesses, proceeded up further to our first zip line. Nervously, and with cameras and guitars hanging down by our sides, we clipped on and jumped off.
It really is hard to describe the feeling of zipping along a chunky metal cable, attached only by a simple little wheel, up to a 100 metres above a thick canopy of very tall trees and arriving at a treehouse so high up and with a view featuring such a straight and direct drop down that it would have given Hilary and Norgay vertigo.
I considered using the adjective ‘exhilarating’, but it doesn’t sufficiently encapsulate that moment of abject and very profound terror I felt when I landed at the next stop, a kind of half-way platform between two of the treehouses set at a high point between two deep gorges covered in thick jungle. This platform had no hand rails, and was barely a metre wide and, to switch cables, you had to unclip your wheel from the end of the first wire, move around the tree to the beginning of the second and reclip.
All this while treetops rustled deep BENEATH me.
My heart set up shop next to my tongue and the butterflies residing in my stomach turned into bats as I considered the none-too-small fact that the only way off this platform was this actually-not-that-thick-after all steel cable and this really tiny, extremely flimsy looking plastic wheel. It was totally and indescribably awesome.
Every time we zipped (and we zipped a lot – it was the only way to and from our sleeping accommodation), it felt like an intravenous shot of a quadruple espresso mixed in with a litre of Red Bull. The ‘concept’ behind these wires and treehouses was to get us high enough up in the trees to see gibbons doing their gibbon-y thing and we were advised to use the zip lines only for transport and to sit quietly if we wanted to see these crazy little marsupials but adrenaline is addictive and we spent the rest of the first day and most of the second zip zip zipping around, exploring the many treehouses and platforms that had been set up across this massive forest.
When we did finally stop and rest for a couple of hours at our fairly-well-equipped treehouse, it turns out that the organisers were right cause, sure enough, when the metallic whizzing sound of wheels on wire ceased for a moment, out came the elusive black gibbons. Watching them jump from branch to branch with a kind of self-assured ease was an absolute delight and a peaceful counterpoint to the insane junkie-like pursuit of our non-narcotic high.
Luang Nam Tha
These things must end and, after surviving a violent, stormy night 50 metres above the ground, we left our wires and headed up to Luang Nam Tha, next to a Laos National Park, along a a brand new pristine and empty highway (a relief, as we had heard that the roads in this region were windy, pot-holed gravel tracks) where we found a really nice Alpine-style hotel with a private bathroom and hot water for only $5 a night.
We spent our days in the tranquil Luang Nam Tha cycling and walking through the lush green forests and fields and the lovely picturesque villages with buildings that looked like a cross between a mountain lodge and a Wild West saloon. On stilts. Quality.
One of our walks was a guided two day trek to a local Akha village which was…er…weird. We had signed up to this ‘eco-trek’ on the basis that it used people from the villages it visited as guides and that a large percentage of the trip costs went straight back in to the village’s hands. We had been led to believe by the tour operator that there would be some meaningful interaction between us and the village people which was important to us as we didn’t want to just walk through the village, gawking at and taking photos of the strange people in their strange costumes living their exotic lives. We wanted to learn about their customs and traditions in some sort of meaningful cultural exchange and, reassured by the ecological and cultural credentials of the company, we signed up.
On the first day, the 6 hour walk took us through some dense, damp jungle where constant vigilance against leeches was required until we climbed up to higher, drier ground. Upon reaching the edge of the village, we were shown our accommodation – a large wooden shed, with a wide raised platform along one side marked as our sleeping area by thin mattresses. This was fine and to be expected, really, given how remote we thought we were, but everyone of our group of eight was slightly disappointed not to be staying in the actual village.
Our hopes of getting closer to the villagers were buoyed by the discovery at our lodge of a laminated card listing all of the activities that we could do with the locals, such as a traditional tea ceremony or spinning class, but these were quickly dashed by the sight of our guide reading the list with a look of mild surprise, as if he was reading it for the first time. It quickly transpired that our guide was not from this particular village and could not speak their Akha language. The village had sent a representative to meet with us, but he was quiet and shy and his Laos, the language our guide spoke, was limited at best.
The afternoon was therefore spent walking through the village, gawking at and taking photos (we made a point of not doing this) of the strange people in their strange costumes living their exotic lives. It was horribly, painfully awkward as we made our way through the free-roaming chickens, pigs and children. We tried to make contact, but our guide rushed us through the medieval-style village without saying a word, pausing once to describe a local custom, the one thing that he had hastily learned about this particular tribe.
The next morning we walked the 6 hours back without water as the only water available was undrinkable river water and then found out that we had walked twelve hours through hot and humid, leech-infested jungle to a ‘remote’ village that was, in fact, 15 minutes away from the main road. D’oh.
For all of its good intentions, this tour operator has got a long, long way to go.
The rest of our time in Laos was an extremely relaxed affair; it’s hard to over-emphasise how chilled out and (mostly) friendly this country is. All of the villages we stayed at were by one of the many rivers that traverse this land-locked country, and most of our days were spent in simple bamboo huts relaxing and watching the world go by. The countryside is unspoilt, with vast stretches of thick forest, large craggy hills full of interesting little caves and lush green fields stretching out as far as the eye could see.
In the midst of all this hard and heavy relaxing, we took a one day weaving course in Luang Prabang which was exceptionally good fun. In the morning they explained how silk was made and the two different types of silkworm: a vegetarian friendly one – where they let the silkworm emerge from the cocoon into a moth; and a non-vegetarian friendly one where the silkworm is killed before it emerges as the emergence of the moth irreparably damages the silk filaments. Unfortunately, the vegetarian friendly flavour produces a rougher, less desirable texture so, at this weaving centre, they used the murderous method.
We considered the implications of this, but we had already paid for the course so we let it slide, promising ourselves that we wouldn’t buy any fine silk ever again after this (though we later learned with interest that clever boffins somewhere had found a way to allow the silkworm to complete its life cycle AND keep the filaments together to make the fine silk – there are such clever people in this world!)
Following our talk on history of silk material which, like gravity, was discovered by someone loafing under a tree (thanks Mr Eugenides for that one), we got on to the natural dyeing, where we heated up roots and pounded leaves (most of the ingredients of the natural dyes were grown in the garden) to make some impossibly beautiful and bright colours.
After a lunch of boiled vegetables and sticky rice (yay.), we moved on to the weaving loom, where we discovered that weaving detailed textiles is an incredibly laborious and time-consuming task. It is also, however, intensely satisfying and, after 4 hours of intense shuttling, we emerged with a small 60x30cm silk decoration each which we are both incredibly proud of cause it was hot and hard, but rewarding and honest, work.
The easy pace and relaxed way of life in Laos was bliss after the rush and hustle of Kathmandu, but it made the return to intense city living all the more difficult and the surge and speed of Bangkok shocked us wide awake again.
After reeling from the craziness, we gathered our senses and set out to enjoy the best that big, Western-style cities can offer – good food and AC shopping malls. We were staying near the Backpack Centre of Khao San Road which, it has to be said, is a decadent, vice-filled hole. Watching a preacher standing at one end, his face bright red and his shirt dripping with sweat under the intense summer sun, screaming at the road, begging them to save their souls, we couldn’t help but think that he couldn’t have gotten any closer to Satan’s dominion without actually being in it. He had, it seems, chosen the most difficult place on Earth to minister.
Excessive drinking and drug abuse was obvious and everywhere, Thai prostitutes wandered freely up and down as the Western, mostly British, contingency did its best to prove to South East Asia exactly how disgustingly and pathetically drunk, high and violent it could get. It made us so proud.
After the first day, we resolved never to venture down that ugly road again, not least cause the food was, as you can imagine, absolute rubbish, and went in search of decent grub. Being a large and industrious city, we found it. In spades. Deep in the centre of Bangkok, by the skyscrapers of the business district and the ½ mile long malls, were a slew of world-class dining establishments at (relatively) rock bottom prices.
We left Bangkok on an overnight, 22 hour train, which broke down at 5:00am and we were required to leave our expensive private first class cabin (it was the only thing available when we booked. Honest!) and board a bus that proceeded to play really horribly bad karaoke videos brain-searingly loudly (it was 7am, for God’s sake!) for three hours until we were put on another train (complete with security guards carrying M16 automatic rifles) in order to complete our journey. It took us 28 hours all together. Hurrah.
It was worth it, though. The Perhentians in Malaysia are amazing examples of tropical islands. The long, white beaches lapped by a clear, aquamarine-blue sea and orbited by colourful coral reefs. Given the trauma of our karaoke hell, we decided that now would be a good time to take a holiday from our holiday, and we checked in to the Arwana Resort complete with AC, a sofa, a comfortable desk and a large pool, all for the princely sum of $60 a night. We were really spending now!
Our main reason for for going was to get some more diving in, so we signed up for our Advanced Open Water, which included diving a wreck, a deep dive (25m) and a night dive and was awesome. The wreck especially was an incredible diving experience – seeing nature take back this old, humongous cargo ship was incredibly interesting. The coral and the fish life was colourful and contrasted with the huge ghostly hull and the decaying fabrics that swayed languidly in the gentle ocean currents.
The night dive was disappointing in terms of wildlife, but was an incredibly trippy experience none the less. The disorientation that you feel in the deep blackness was kind of overwhelming at times – it became really difficult to tell which way was up.
Following our course (we are now, officially, Advanced Divers), we did three more fun dives with Alu Alu Divers which were, well, fun and some snorkelling where we saw 9 (count ’em) reef sharks, about 1 – 2 metres long. At one point, there were three of them swimming together and they kinda looked like they were circling us which was pretty nerve-racking as we had swum out to the site from the shore so there was no boat to jump up on to. Awesome, though: such sinister but majestic creatures they are.
Then it was time to move on. Armed with my new EeePC – a Linux laptop weighing less than a kilo and the size of a paperback novel (but fully featured – WiFi, OpenOffice, 3 USB ports, 512Mb memory, 4GB solid-state SD ‘drive’) – we arrived in Kuta in Bali which is, well, damn ugly. It’s the Costa Del Sol for Australians – all high rise hotels and overpriced average restaurants, a real tourist ghetto. Unfortunately, it’s also the best place in Asia to learn to surf, so we took a deep breath, braved the tourist tack and brash Aussies and got in the water.
We signed up for a lesson with a recommended surf school and learned more in 30 minutes than the days we had spent way back in Sri Lanka battling the big waves. They had us standing up and turning by the end of day one which was enough for Erin, but no where near enough for me, so I spent the next two days getting all sorts of friction burns and bruises as I put in to practice what I had learned. Painful but worth it. Indeed, surfing is gnarly, dudes – I was ridin’ out radical metre-high greenbacks, attempting switchbacks and looking for barrels – totally rippin’ it up. It was tubular.
Once I had beaten my body into submission, we moved on to the much prettier artistic centre of Bali, Ubud. We stayed in an amazing little guest house with a large, tiered tropical garden that led down to a small swimming pool and a beautiful little pond.
There were galleries everywhere, really great restaurants (including the Deli Cat which had such an amazing variety of quality world cheeses – something that Asia just doesn’t do well – that I almost wept) and white water rafting, which was kinda meh (only class II/III rapids) and only 2 hours long – we intend to get some more exciting foam-based action in Fiji.
We are now in Amed, on the beautiful, much quieter East coast of Bali. We have just finished another two dives, the first was at another wreck – the US Liberty, a supply boat from WWII – which was insane. There were thousands of fish, huge schools of jackfish, bright orange pipefish, angelfish, bumphead parrotfish using their big bony heads to break off coral and a huge, 1.5 metre long, mean-looking barracuda with inch-long teeth and a steely gaze. Excellent.
We’re now getting ready to cross the hemisphere and head into an Aussie winter, hopefully in our own little camper van.