March 10th, 2005

Laos travels- from 3 Mar to now in Thailand

This is now the evening of 10 Mar with me in Cheng Rai typing away in an Internet cafe here. It is almost a cultural shock even though I spend slightly over a month in Laos. I even got myself a brand new pair of reading glasses made to my prescription which I am using to great delight now.

Laos almost seem to have stood still with little trappings of the life that we are used to. Especially if you were at the little villages linked by roads. If you were at the little villages beyond the roads linked by footpaths or rivers, even less of the little trappings of current life, changed and altered for the worse by touches of our commercial encroachment such as us travellers, into their lives. You still see them rushing up with their trinklets made for us.

I felt sorry that their pride could not stand the onslaught of us and the more commercial world we created. Yet not that long ago, I had been to and stayed in places when CocaCola were not sold. In those places, you stayed at inns created long time ago for their own people. In those places, time stood still, alomst eternal, like they lived that way since ancestral memories. Monetary wise, they have even less personal wealth than the village folks I saw in Laos. Yet they retained the pride of their culture and heritage that touched me deep. That was one of those strong moments that touched the rest of your life after that. When I was looking on at time as they were coming back to their village, the way they laughed and joked struck me that if measuring by the quality of happiness, those folks stood more than us so called civilised folks. Perhaps it is only arrogance that we arbitarily chose to measure other folks in economic terms and find them wanting in comparison with us.

But back to Laos and when I last updated as having to prepare for that 5 day trip and had to sign off that clicker training piece that I wrote. I wrote too fast and found a couple of points I missed out on touch target that I should add.

The first time you show your parrot the target and when she, out of curiosity, touch the target, you click and treat. Then you should add in the verbal cue. Show her the target, waggle it to get attention. As she approach the target and you know she will touch the target, you add the verbal cue "touch target". When she touches the target, click and treat. Remember that you do so with happiness in your heart and telling her what a good girl she is and how clever she is etc etc etc. The timing of the click is important. At the first contact with her beak, you click, turn that target away from her so she cannot continue to bite it, and reward her with treat. The rest will be a major rant I write later.

2 Mar evening

After I signed off from that last rant to you, I had dinner and eventually, I was back in my guest house sitting on my balcony overlooking the VH parrot and reading a book at 1130pm. Sometimes, I heard chittering sounds from the direct of the cage and I would then rush over curious if the other VH parrot returned. Later, I found out some ducklings and chickens were kept on the other side of the fence, but still, I rushed over in hope of seeing the other VH. At that time, a new guy was resting on that end of the balcony and I felt strange vibes from him as I rushed over and behind him. I felt I had to explain my strange movements that I heard strange bird sounds and I wanted to see if the other VH parrot returned. I guess my explanations were even more strange than my movements and his eyes crossed over. But him being a nice guy, he swung his hand over and said whatever my explanations he was most happy to meet me.

So that was how I met Stevens from NZ, but now staying in Australia. It was a painful aspect of travelling, that you can meet such nice people that you love to spend a week but you know you have only a few hours. My resolve to sleep by 12 to wake up by 630am was abandoned in hope that the landlord would remember his promise to wake me by 645am. Travellers exchange travellers tales with each other. He impressed me with his being stationed in Antartica for 6 months at one time. He told me in detail the warm clothings he was outfitted with such as double insulated boots and more. He was in turn, impressed by my having to sleep in -20C off a road in Tibet with tarpaulin wrapped around me.

3 March

This trip started with a boat ride leaving Luang Prabang in the morning for me and the other two and a guide. The trip required 5 people, but the 3 of us decided to pay up a bit more to proceed on with it. The boat started up the Mekong river until the Pak Ou cave that I talked about earlier. Shortly after, we left the creamy brown waters of Mekong and turned right into the clearer translucent waters of Nam Ou. I had looked forward to this boat ride after 3 sweltering warm days. However, a cold front moved in and clouds hide the sun for the whole day. The temperature dropped. Knowing that the boat ride will end at about 6 pm at Nong Khiaw, I grapped a thick long sleeved shirt to wear. The wind chill with occasional spray of water urged me to wear my jeans for the first time. The boat purred on. From time to time, the engine had to be revved up to pound the boat up white water rapids to calmer sections. More forested areas appeared, very much more pleasing to the eye than the clear cut burned slopes encountered. I dug into my bag and found a Taiwan rain coat that my dear wife Joy included. I was glad for that, a cheap disposable rain coat that I could wear as a wind breaker.

With the worse of the cold warded off, I relaxed and enjoy that boat ride , alternatingly looking at the view and reading a thriller that I bought. Now and then, the boat stopped at villages for us to pop over and have a look. Then we came to this bank with a whole bunch of kids waving at us. We got down and found it was a break from school and followed them up to the school. Their teacher was about to end that day with a flag ceremony and us three visitors looking on. It was windy then, and I noticed the flag flapping away caught itself on a nail. After an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the flag, the bamboo flag post had to be lowered down to unsnag the flag and the flag post lifted back in place. Then when the ceremony was about to resume, the flag lanyard was blown from the hand of a boy weaving itself horizontally from the ground. The flag post had to be lowered once more to recover the lanyard to lower the flag. It was not the best day for that teacher. But they sang the Laotion national anthem and went on to lower that flag. We continued our boat ride up more and more beautiful country finally reaching Nong Khiaw. We found ourselves rooms for the night in one of the many guest houses sprung up for foreigner travellers.

4 Mar

The next morning, we found the mini van (part of the tour package) with a driver for the rest of the trip. We got on the road to Udomxai winding itself on mountain ridges passing periodically the Hmong villages that straddle the road. After lunch in Udomxai, we continued on to Luang Nantou passing by a section of road upgrading carried out by China. It was at a particularly bad patch when the van shuddered to a halt. The van could not go forward but could only reversed itself. We got out of the van to find the leave spring on the left rear wheel had sheared off. That was a tiring moment as evening was rapidly approaching with us in the middle of nowhere. After a bit of banging around and the three of us sitting ourselves on the extreme right of the van, the van managed to move forward at snail pace speed. Not knowing exactly where we were, but we had to trust the driver knew enough to get us to Luang Namtha for the night. I had been on other trips earlier in China where twice the entire engin had to be lifted out of the truck for rehaul by the side of the road. I have a kind of respect for the resourcesfulness of drivers. TW had been edgy and I tried to lighten his worries but to be told of that essentially he is a clever brilliant planner and that I am an idiot in comparision to him for not worrying. I wonder for all his brilliant planning, why was he not having a good torch relying on mine torch and many other things. His wife Susan was a much better person.

After an hour of hobbling on the road, I was glad to reach LNT and the van suspension could be fixed and we got rooms for the night.

5 Mar

The driver found a workshop and got a piece welded on the spring. All was ok again.

We had our breakfast and wandering about the little market when I saw in a little mechanic shop, an owl the size of a chicken flapping around. I was drawn to her like a magnet. The man there was pleased with my interest in that owl. I smiled, and lifted out the name cards I had which have photos of Tinkerbell flying to me, on the bike, eating sashimi to show him. He looked and smiled at me. The lack of language did not prevent both of us from communicating the love we have for our charges. I got her to step up, I talked to her, and had many photos taken. That owl could fly and was very gentle. With regret we continued on the road, this time to Muang Sing at the edge of the border of Laos with China.

I thought with the spring fixed, it would be smooth for the rest of the trip.

Then shortly after we left town, we headed up the mountains and primodial forests came into view. That was a magnificent sight to me. Except I needed to go to the edge of Laos before I saw them. The driver looking out of his window with a worried look stopped the van to have a look at the rear left tire. I came out to look. He was tightening the nuts. Then I saw two of the five bolts holding the wheel had sheared off and the wheel was helped in place by 3 bolts only. The road was windy and bad.

(continued on evening of 12 Mar, after limping here with a sprained left big toe. Wished it was the right big toe instead as it is painful to change gears with that left big toe on the scrambler motorbike I rented)

I did not know what to say or think at that time. The driver felt he can get that repaired at Muang Sing town that we were going to. The other guy was muttering about calling and getting another van (which I thought was very far fetched). We got back on the van and the van slowly crawled. The admiration of the view was tempered with the thoughts that the wheel had only 3 bolts. Then half an hour later, smoke was coming from that rear left wheel. Apparently, the hand brake cable was hit by that broken spring yesterday and jammed that rear left wheel. That wheel had to be taken out and the brake drum forced opened but still leaving the brake pedal controls intact.

We limped on again and with a great relief, Muang Sing came into sight and we got ourselves into guest house and that van packed off with the driver to get fixed.

At dinner, a couple that I was with in Vang Vieng saw me and I was so happy to meet up again with David and Maria, both from Canada Toronto. We caught up with each other of the places we been to since we parted. They had gone on from Nong Khiaw by boat further up Nam Ou to the next town reachable only by river and they said the view furhter up was even more breath taking. They did some white water canoeing even further up. David was a very experienced white water canoeist, and he said his skills were fully needed. Since I have done canoeing only at sea, and that was some time back, I was glad to hear from him as I had thoughts of trying that, but not after David told me how tough it was. David said that they were staying at Alimar GH, about 8 km from town. Around the GH were some tribal villages within easy walking distances. However, he said that perhaps too many travellers passed through those villages and their own experiences were quite negative. However, he said that a couple who stayed with them went to Muang Sing and engaged guides from MS and they had a much more memorable time. That was why they were in town as they hoped to get guide to other villages.

6 Mar

The next morning, our guide with the repaired van drove us out of town. The van stopped and he lead us on what he said was a trek towards the hillside. I already had some misgivings as he told us that he spoke Laos and not a word of the local tribal people.

After passing one village where I felt very intrusive and we were taking a drink break, a couple of travellers passed us. They told us that they were staying in Alimar GH nearby. My heart sank and I recalled what my friends told me just the night before. I felt I have been had. I questioned the 'guide' about the 50 times that he claimed he been to this place which turned out to be a 'misunderstanding'. We had no more time to retrieve that situation after a 4 hour wild goose chase he taken us. If I had known, I would have engaged a local guide that morning from Muang Sing for myself.

I can only blame myself for not checking it thoroughly. I should have connected from the beginning and gone on my own as I could have easily done instead of joining up with that two who 'arranged it'. While the lady was nice, that man needed the limits of my toleration. He gave the impression that he enjoyed that make-believe trek that he arranged. He took pride on the times he 'pulled' my leg with jokes that were funny only to himself.

In my earlier travels, I have been to truly tribal villages and stayed there. I was seeking for similar experiences and was disappointed at what was supposed to be the highlight of the trip itself.

7 Mar,

We stayed the previous evening at Luang Namtha. The day was spend in getting back to Luang Prabang by van.

This was also the day my visa expired. I arranged to get back to Thailand by the 2 day slow boat up Mekong River to Huay Xoi. I stayed the evening back at Nam Jith GH so I could have a last look at TieuTieu.

8 Mar

It was a much bigger boat this time that I got into at 830am that will take us to PakBeng, a halfway point, to stay for the night.

(will continue on tomorrow as the Internet cafe told me they will close by 930 pm so they can go and party)