Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Tamer Pursuits

Melbourne, Victoria

I've been having really good luck with airplane seating arrangements.

From Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne, Alex and I were seated next to Stephen, an energetic man of about fifty who owned a decorating company in Victoria. I'd had the audacity to ask Stephen a lot of frivolous, covetous questions about how he managed to get a brownie from the flight attendant even though they weren't on the menu; this had proven to be a good move on my part, as he was awesome, and we spent the rest of our flight rambling at each other about the cultural and political absurdities of our respective countries.

He offered us a ride--which was fantastically lucky for us, since we'd arrived at around 2:00 a.m. and were thinking our only option would be to hire a cab--then, after a rather amusing series of trivial setbacks, handed us a card saying to let him know if we wanted to get a coffee or wound up needing an alternative place to stay, and warily left us in front of a dark and unassuming warehouse facade in Coburg as per our request [and repeated assurances that, yes, we were at the right place, and yes, we knew the people who lived there].

Since then, I've gone on one other flight, from Adelaide to Melbourne [having previously taken the train from Melbourne to Adelaide--aboard which I was probably the only passenger under sixty, and wound up making a throng of very sweet and inquisitive octogenarian friends who were completely intrigued by this girl dressed in fluorescent clothes she found in Thailand, and was subsequently offered well-wishes and blown kisses and vague grandma-esque insistences that I ought to visit their town by about fifteen of them upon disembarkation], during which a flight attendant handed me a flirtatious the-seat-next-to-me-is-empty-if-you-want-to-come-take-it note from a spiffy admirer about whom I knew nothing except that he was tall, dark, and from Texas, but regrettably didn't wind up rewarding this admittedly charming gesture [sorry, bro] because by that point I was already enmeshed in a fantastic conversation with a one of the most interesting guys I've met in a while. We talked about Burning Man [a given when you both realize you've both been], travelling adventures [including his experience playing music and doing a peyote ceremony up in the foothills near a remote Mexican village, and being working with locals to open up a restaurant in Indonesia], a new wave of surreal, transcendently immersive "performance art", and so on. The one-hour flight suffered a two-hour delay; the two of us drank airplane wine and carried on, not minding a bit, and once again I was spared the necessity of transit fares and offered a ride home.

Anyway, back to that dark warehouse in Coburg.

Getting in required stepping gingerly through a hole in one fence, ducking under a hole in another, and heading up some stairs sprinkled liberally in broken glass, which had recently occupied the now-broken pane in the door of the loft we'd get to stay in. I was delighted--something about having to sneak in in the dead of night just pumped my nads.

Inside was a large bed [which, after the cheap-as-shit-but-consequently-shittily-uncomfortable three-day journey from Ko Tao, rendered me almost psychotically excited even in my exhaustion] with a cheery note from Alex's friend Tim, pointing out where we could find a clean towel and sheets hanging to dry, and that there was a particular surprise for us hidden in the room [which we found--and which I'm keeping a secret]. The room was strewn with boxing gear and an assortment of books that demonstrated [in my opinion] very good taste on part of their owner. On one wall hung a large, aquatic-patterned sheet to encourage privacy and insulation. It was perfect.

Funnily enough, that was two weeks ago, and I still haven't met this guy whose bed we're staying in.

As for the place, Reclamation Artists Warehouse is still in its infancy--mostly an empty space, though intended to become something of an industrial arts workshop/party venue [not unlike the Generator near Reno, which I also got to see--and help fix up--during its bare-bones infancy and which is now one of the coolest places in America, if you ask me].

Ever since reading Down Under I've been on a mission to overload myself with information and see how much I can manage to remember. Combine this with how expensive Melbourne is [particularly compared to Thailand], and with its saving grace of free museums, and you can easily guess where I've been spending a sizeable chunk of my free time. I visited the NGV International alone on three different days before deciding I'd had enough of looking at really old things.

Otherwise, there's nothing too crazy for me to report just yet, as I've spent much of my time here focused on freelancing and haven't been able to cut loose and go on a real adventure [outside the bounds of conventional wandering, academic tourism, gastronomical overindulgence].

There've been some good nights with new friends.

On one of our first nights we were invited out by Adrian, the first photographer I've shot with in Australia, and treated to drinks on a rooftop bar rife with some really personable, easygoing people exhibiting varying degrees of artsy-fartsiness [I went home with an illustrator's drawing of a fish that had been inspired by a face I'd made], Alex and I left with a couple of art models, for a free Cat Empire show at Federation Square, and eventually we wound up drinking wine under a bridge by the river amidst several hippie types, all seeking refuge from the sudden rain [and all being barked at by rather unimposing cops as soon as the rain cleared].

From my shoot with Adrian in Melbourne
Similarly, last night we successfully located what is undoubtedly the best ice cream place in Melbourne, followed by a contender for best cocktail bars I've been to in my life [which we only sought out because its name is also my Chinese name--we didn't even know it was a bar], followed by the swank apartment balcony of a lovely and hilarious Kiwi couple whom Alex had met a couple years prior in New Zealand, and who kept giving us wine and shots and making us laugh. The next day we nursed our consequent hangovers by seeking out the best pies in Melbourne.

Rooftop bar with Theresa
In case you haven't gathered by now, Melbourne's full of good things to put in one's mouth.

And so on. Presently I'm not inspired to play storytime-dress-up and give some of my nights here the fully quixotic narratives they truly warrant...but I'm okay with that.

Instead, you can have a storytime-dress-up iPhone photo taken by Theresa, a fellow American model/traveller/etc. Lately the only photos I have are the ones other people take...which is something I probably ought to remedy...

Disoriented in an exhibit at the rather eclectic NGV Australia. Not to be confused with the NGV International, where I essentially lived for three days.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Recap from the Land of Oz

Melbourne, Victoria

All right. Hi Internet, it's been a while.

Oh, also, yeah. I'm in Australia now. Surprise! Will stave off going into why for now, but so it is. Assuredly it's a good and happy thing, though.

I'm going to try an exercise in brevity [which is clearly not my strong suit] by summarizing the rest of my journey up using one sentence per change-of-sleeping-space [rather than change-of-place, as Koh Tao deserves more coverage seeing as how I spent weeks there], probably cheating a bit via the use of em-dashes, parenthetical clauses that've I arbitrarily refused to put in actual (parentheses) since someone told me I had to--and possibly also cheating thoroughly and unambiguously through the use of semicolons--in usual sloppy-overkill fashion.

Vang Vieng, Lao PDR >--bus--> Vientiane, Lao PDR

Everyone who claims this city is in any way particularly worth visiting is either being paid to do so or has no semblance of taste [or was lucky enough to stumble into experiences uncommonly serendipitous for the area--granted, I've got a soft spot for places like Fargo, ND for such reasons], and at any rate is likely engaging in some twisted form of anti-libel, as Lao's capital is essentially just as soulless and culture-less as any American capital city, only Asian--in the vein of Albany or Sacramento [though, again, I have reasons to visit both places, those reasons mainly being friends who can't or befuddlingly won't relocate to greener pastures]--rife with palpable tones of universal resentment and mistrust, as illustrated by guesthouses' flamboyantly paranoid policies, and an excess of devoutly ethnocentric fellow travellers who beg the question, "What are you doing so far from home?" or otherwise travellers irritatedly biding their time until the next available flight/bus/train/wheelbarrow could deliver them from this trap that their usually-handy guidebook or Google search results betrayed them into thinking was worth a stop.
Instead of putting up a photo from Vientiane [because I didn't bother taking any], here's a random back street in Luang Prabang, a place that doesn't know how to be ugly anywhere.
Vientiane, Lao PDR >--train--> Nong Khai, Thailand >--train--> Bangkok, Thailand

In a surreal homecoming that showed me just how much I'd adapted and learned in a few weeks, this same city that a month ago completely overtaxed my senses suddenly feels comfortable, laden with ass-corrodingly clean bathrooms [particularly in Terminal 21, which, despite being a mall, is definitely a place worth a poke-around if you're holed up in the city during a long break between trains], and almost ludicrous in its ease of navigation.

Bangkok, Thailand >--train--> Chumphon, Thailand >--bus--boat--> Koh Tao, Thailand

A. The Campsite

After a first night of socially-oversaturated partying, [which involved a lot of incredulous laughing and belligerence on my part: "Where ARE we? That's not really the ocean right over there--it's just a hokey backdrop. Fucking two hundred baht for one goddamn ripoff balloonful of hippie crack?!...ehh, I'll take three,"] spent my many days high above the populated corners of the island, hanging out at a campground-slash-bar-slash-festival-ground in the making [or would-be-in-the-making if not for interpersonal politics] wandering aimlessly and endlessly around the island, snorkelling through what was likely pulverized human excrement [the better to see benign-albeit-still-intimidating sharks--a fair trade-off in my opinion], reading, examining critters [most notably giant geckos, ant lions, and whip scorpions], and having psychologically-arduous-but-not-entirely-unproductive conversations with Alex about our morphing goals and dreams and consciences and self-concepts and all that shit.
Home up on a hill. Incidentally, the girl in the photo is not me [she's a Swede named Sandra] but serves as an apt placeholder [as I own an identical-looking shirt], anyway.
B. Baan Suan Ta

Opted to get my Advanced Open Water scuba cert on the cheap and found that, in this instance, you definitely get what you pay for: i.e., an instructor who waves you off when you let him know you're almost out of air because he's too busy tinkering with his GoPro and not getting paid enough to give a fuck, then being made the butt of sexual jokes by all the other instructors on the boat who assume that just because they're speaking in Portugese or French that you can't understand mimed hanky-panky--granted, it's hard to stay grumpy after days of diving around reefs rife with schools of great barracuda, pufferfish, fluorescent parrotfish, butterfly fish, wonky-looking trigger fish, blue-spotted rays, and bioluminescent plankton at night.

C. Save Bungalows

My last, and best, leg of island life--quirky and consummate and dense, but strangely wholesome--staying in an odd tile-lined basement room across from the beach in Ban Mae Haad owned by a guy who makes reusable condoms, full of chance run-ins with Europeans who instantly felt like long-time friends [and some less-relatable-but-unaffectedly-hilarious characters who seemed almost to have come into my life purely for my amusement], getting ravaged by territorial fish while snorkelling incognito-nude around a huge shipwreck, my one and only traipse around the infamous Sairee [Mae Haad wins, in my book], vignettes of absurdity [e.g., being heckled late at night by taxi drivers using three-foot traffic cones as megaphones] and kitschy reminders of home-or-somewhere [e.g., watching Kill Bill 2 projected on the wall of a cafe while scarfing after dinner waffles and getting chewed on by a beagle puppy], culminating in a last night on the beach playing ukelele, spinning poi [and taking obligatory long-exposure photos] and speaking in broken-English-turned-broken-Thai-turned-animal-noisemaking-contests with a couple enthusiastic and snarky Thais.
One of about twelve squillion identical-ish photos gleefully before a crowd of ethnically-heterogeneous drunkenly-enthralled spectators
Koh Tao, Thailand >--boat--bus--train--taxi--plane--[an irresistible aside: found begbugs in the waiting lounge seats of Kuala Lumpur's airport, in broad daylight no less, scout's fucking honor]--plane--> Melbourne, Victoria 

Will go into more detail later, but for now: modelling, enjoying very serendipitous airplane seating arrangements, holding koalas, feeding kangaroos, opining and feeling alternately awed and indignant at free art galleries squashed into loudly modern buildings from here to Adelaide, South Australia, and back.
Tourist Photo #1
Tourist Photo #2 [also showcasing ten pounds of post-shoot make-up]


Additionally, I've been reading quite a bit more lately [thanks to lots of time spent on beaches and on three-day-long commutes]. Unqualified-letter-grade-reviews-with-no-profferred-reasoning:

-Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: A
-Oblivion stories by David Foster Wallace: A or F [depending on my mood]
-Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: C
-Down Under by Bill Bryson: A and C, alternately
-Vagabonding by Rolf Potts: B

Next up:

-The Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
-At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
-Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tim Robbins
-Whatever's next given to me--or at least recommended vehemently to me, especially by some compelling and devilishly good-looking man encountered in passing, and then serendipitously on prominent display in the next bookstore I visit.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Post-Euphoria Uncomfortable Truths

Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

It's now been a month since Alex and I first set off from San Francisco for Bangkok though, predictably enough, it feels like it's been ages. This morning I woke up from a vivid dream of being back in my hometown, driving my own tuk-tuk through a blizzard [though in reality my hometown rarely gets colder than 70° F] to enroll in an intensive curriculum at a Hogwarts-esque school with the most incredible bookstore I'd ever seen, where I met an awesome girl who was an equestrian stuntwoman, hitchhiker, and organic chemist and we quickly fell into an enthused conversation about traveling, self-sufficiency versus [or in conjunction with?] love...Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I woke up, completely disoriented. Why am I in a small, dark wooden box?

...Oh yeah. I'm in a bungalow. Somewhere in Asia...Lao. That's right. What the fuck.

 It's unsusprising that I'd be in such a funk. I've just gotten over about twenty-four hours of what I suppose must have been my first bout of really vicious food poisoning [though Alex and I have been sharing all our food, and he was unaffected, so who knows where I got it from]. For about eighteen hours Alex said I was barely human, just kind of a feverish, cramping zombie; in moments of coherence I suspected somewhat dramatically that I might be dying.

Anyway, in all honesty, Vang Vieng sort of creeps me out, but over the last couple days being here has led us unexpectedly to our first major revelations on this trip. Of course, our brains have been working this whole time, trying to make sense of where we are and why, and what impacts we're contributing to by being here. Being in this city has crystalized a lot of those incubating thoughts and questions.

In stark contrast with the shiny and etheral Utopia of Luang Prabang--full of happy, healthy, and educated locals, philanthropist-conservationist-entrepreneurial ex-pats, volunteer opportunities that required very little time or money from well-meaning passers-through, and so much natural and manmade beauty it almost hurt to look at [not to mention the fucking food, which I already gushed over in my last post]--Vang Vieng appears to have become a sort of wasteland since the time when most articles we've read about it were published.

Coming here, it's easy to see that this place was once an innocuous little village, set right by the river against a beautiful backdrop of sheer green cliffs, huge natural caves, but otherwise not too different from any of the other small towns in this country.

Then with the onset of tubing it sprung up a facade of debauchery and the sort of tourism that would appeal mainly to that particular class of sheltered, spoiled spring-break-gap-year kids who feel "invincible" and ever-deserving of whatever they want--a rather ugly facade considering how poor of a town it still obviously is.

Then, when enough tourists started dying of drinking-drug-or-recreational-thrill-seeking-related mishaps, a whole shitton of the bars and rides were shut down by the powers that be, leaving a sparse sprinkling of bars that had us thinking, after a handful of crazy nights in Thailand and Luang Prabang, "So...where's the supposed nightlife in town?" Going tubing and seeing about five operating bars the whole way [and tens of shut-down establishments that obviously used to be bars, slides, and rides that were shut down for being unsafe] was similarly disillusioning. And now the locals who made their living off tourism are now still having to deal with its ill effects [arguably even more ill effects than other, similar places, considering the crowd Vang Vieng seems to attract] but are hard-pressed to find nearly as much business. While a few ex-pat bars thrive each night, the adjacent locally-staffed bars are pathetically vacant, even the ones offering free drinks for ladies before 10pm and other such no-strings specials.

It feels like a dwindling amusement park I visited as a kid, with floundering business due to a few freak accidents [and the resulting bad press, shut-downs, and lawsuits], now devoid of families or young things and primarily full of sheisty thirty-year-old trashbags who'd wander aimlessly and hit on eleven year old girls [such as myself, at the time]. Or, as Alex put it, "it feels like Burning Man on Monday, after the temple's burned down...all the theme camps are still up, or partially up, but almost everyone's left."

Before I pontificate any more, I might as well back-track to the route we took to our present dis-ease.

Disneyworld Veneer

The bus ride into town was a charming but strange look at the countryside which brought back the feelings I had on our last, much longer, much more uncomfortable ride into Luang Prabang. Natural beauty, lots of domesticated animals and savagely happy kids running around and waving, but weird icons of darkness: on a food stand at one of our stops was a water jug full of clear liquid and several dismembered bear paws, with a tap at the bottom [what could that possibly be for?], and every so often we'd see older people broken to the point of deformation or paralysis due to working every day of their lives, walking around on their arms, their atrophied legs shriveled up into their bodies, or hunchbacked to the point of being folded entirely over, looking jaded [possibly doped up on opium, which is legal for older citizens, broken by a lifetime of work, to smoke in order to ease their pain]. Even the knowledge that the gorgeous, perfectly-preserved mountainous countryside all around us was probably in such pristine condition largely due to the fact that the undeveloped parts of the country are literal minefields made its beauty feel a bit sinister.

Upon arriving, our first few couple days consisted mainly of vignettes of "paradise" that effectively distracted us from our deep-down feelings that there was something wrong with this place [and made us reluctant to admit these feelings to ourselves and one another].

We arrived, and almost instantly found a lovely bungalow, much nicer and more accommodating than any room we'd stayed in so far, for half the price we'd been paying anywhere else.

On our first night, we ran into about eight different people we'd seen before previously on our travels, and an unintelligibly drunk Londoner insisted upon buying us tequila shots before we slithered on our way. Several bars hand out free drink vouchers and have free Ladies Night specials every night where I can just walk in, order a mixer, and walk back out, and several bars will proffer free shots of lao lao if you ask. However, what little nightlife there was along the main drag seemed pretty fucking trashy and sad and full of overdrunk douchetools, so we'd mainly just go hang out back at our guest house, which was complete with a garden hammock hang-out spot where we had several nights of long conversations with other passers-through from New Zealand, Germany, England, and an unlikely eighteen-year-old Sacramento stoner who worked for two years in order to leave the country for the first time and travel solo around the world for a year and a half [or longer, depending on the work he could find abroad].

The next day, we walked right through a massive herd of cows and a couple miles out of town into rice paddies and virtually empty countryside, scrambled up Pha Poak [small but rather steep, with no clear route except for some jenky-ass wooden ladders--we only saw one other tourist headed up on our way down, and he looked like he was halfway dead from exhaustion] for an incredible view of the town, the fields, small villages on the other side, and the towering cliffs nearby.

A mile or so more of walking through lush jungley forest past water buffalo took us to Lusi Cave, the largest and prettiest natural cave I've been in so far, which has a lagoon you can swim in in the pitch-dark about an hour's walk in from the entrance [though it's currently dried up, so we didn't wander in that far].

Several dogs roam about freely [as they seem to all around Thailand and Lao], but here they seem especially friendly despite having no obvious owners. A group of four puppies followed a few Germans back to our guesthouse and wound up frolicking around the garden all night. On one evening we encountered a random, unsupervised cage with two monkeys on the street; the smaller of the two made grabs at my fingers and skirt [eventually he nabbed a bit of my hair, examined it, and put it in his mouth before getting bored of it and tossing it aside] and we couldn't quite figure out why they were in there, nor how we felt about it--amused but sympathetic and a bit disgusted.

Of all days to bring our camera with us, our first couple here easily would've yielded better photos than any we've taken so far...but we decided not to bother, and figured we'd rather just remain present, as we've done throughout most of our stay in Lao. Something about lugging around and pulling out a camera here feels kind of cheap.

Then we decided to go tubing, since that's sort of the obligatory "thing to do in Vang Vieng", which is where we really started noticing how much of a wasteland this place seems to have become. We made a point to head out early enough so that it wouldn't be too crowded...on the contrary, almost no one else was around. About five bars were in operation [with fit Lao boys throwing ropes out to fish for tubers, which we'd then grab in order to be pulled into shore--a procedure I found hilarious], several abandoned buildings nearby indicated where other bars once were, and several ladders and ropes indicated rides or jumps that had been shut down as safety hazards. The river was so slow that we spent most of the time paddling ourselves in order to move at all, and despite getting started before noon, we struggled to make it back by the 6p.m. deadline in order to avoid a fee from the tube rental shop. Additionally, it suddenly became freezing fucking cold [granted, the river being cold, slow, and deserted may have had more to do with the time of year--despite this being high season].

The one more-than-redeeming highlight of the day [the highlight of being in Vang Vieng, in general] was when we stopped over at one deserted bar and wandered further back when we saw a steep set of stairs and ladders leading up a cliff to a platform about a hundred or so feet up. We walked past a see-saw [which we were terrible at, since I'm half Alex's size], a bunch of tame baby bunnies that didn't seem to mind being pet, and several domesticated birds [geese, ducks, turkeys, chickens, huge tanks of hatchlings...and one of the weirdest, ugliest birds I've ever seen in my life, which I could only describe as a Durkey], clambered up the ladders and stairs to the platform, which yielded an incredible view, and then noticed a small cave entrance that would've been all too easy to miss. We clambered in and it was gorgeous, with natural bridges we could clamber across and a lower pit we could get to down a ladder, sunlight filtering through in such a way, illuminating shimmering mineral deposits and lush green mosses, that it looked like a fucking Dwarf Palace.

Looking Backstage

After a few hours of paddling our arms frantically through frigid stillwater and increasing winds so as to make it back by 6 p.m. we realized aloud: there's nothing to do here except the standard "adventure tour" drag [mainly treks, or trips up to caves, most of which charge an entrance fee and some of which, that we'd previously read could be explored alone, require going with a guide--probably after enough tourists fucked up and died, as the trend here seems to be] or get wasted, and neither of those things aren't all that worth the trip compared to other places where they're better. The town at least isn't so much a real place where one can just be, relax, learn about, and appreciate; it's a broken-down Adventuretime facade. The natural geography here is really magnificent [which is probably how all the tourism cropped up here in the first place] but it's being exploited for cheap thrills.

We walked back home where we were intending to just get changed out of our wet clothes before heading out into the night, but both inadvertently passed out, exhausted. A few hours later I woke up at the onset of a fever, severe cramps, and delirium. Yay, food poisoning [or whatever].

A little over twenty-four hours later, as I was lying still and becoming a human again, Alex began a monologue that I've transcribed below. A bit later, when I felt well enough to speak fluently, turned into an extended conversation we've been ironing out ever since.

You know, when we first got here I just thought, 'Wow, this place is so much more wild and 'authentic' and rugged, I'm really enjoying this, blah, blah, blah.' But after a while, after the egocentric thoughts kind of dwindled, I'm realizing what I really think of this place.

We got here, hating on Thailand's full moon parties and easy access and shit, but now I feel like...that's kind of where we belong. On some developed island, drinking cocktails rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we're doing something more "dignified" and "earnest".

At least in Vang Vieng, the locals look at us with this ugly mixture of hope, bitterness. Especially some of the older ladies here who've obviously worked hard their entire lives, too old now to figure out a way to adapt to our presence here. We walk by, I'll smile and offer a 'sa-bai-dee,' and they'll just stare with this...indifference. But not just a fly-by not-noticing, but more a profound, conscious dismissal.

Even those who benefit, the tuk-tuk drivers and the vendors who smile and call out next to all the competing stands next to them that look exactly the same, beseeching us, "Please give us your money, you have so much of it and we need it," are basically bottom-feeders--here they're too desperate to brush off the tourists who decide to be assholes, or who insist on haggling harder than is fair, when it's inappropriate. They're not prospering off tourism. Here they still kiss all our asses no matter what bullshit we put them through or how dehumanizing we are...they may be benefiting more, but they still seem like slaves, just 'house niggas'.

Other tourists have been making me mad, and embarrassed, even for small transgressions. Ignorant jokes. Making cracks about hooking up with the prettier local women, like that's all they exist for. Getting angry when an impoverished Laotian--who might be illiterate in their native language--doesn't speak English, French, or whatever. Cultural insensitivity--even with signs in English asking them politely to wear shirts while they're in town. Throwing their cigarette butts and trash in beautiful places just because they're above keeping the place nice. Getting indignant when the cheap-ass comercial tour they paid for--that might cost the equivalent of a Lao person's wages in two months of working seven-day weeks--isn't "authentic" enough, or when everyone seems to be "trying to sell them things". Feeling entitled to 'local prices' and then not even realizing when they're already being offered those 'local prices'.

It's all pandered to them, too. Like the narco-tourism. It wasn't shut down because it was harming the was shut down when enough tourists died that it was making people hesitant to visit.

This facade's been created. Other tourists here are so detached. We were detached, too, when we first got here. No one comes to Vang Vieng to learn about the history or culture of this place. What history or culture? All you can see here are the detrimental effects of a failing tourist industry on a small third-world town that had the misfortune of being located in a beautiful place. And we were originally going to look into volunteering here...but volunteering around this town is SO much more expensive than being a tourist, even a somewhat extravagant one.

And here we are, falling asleep in this cozy tourist bungalow designed to look like the real thing while actually being much more comfortable, in a country built on fields of opium poppies, land mines, skeletons of war, and a nebulous government that everyone's too scared to even talk about.

We're invincible, coming here with our money, even if we're middle-class back home. Even across the world, if we get sick or get hurt, we'll be taken care of. For a pittance we can get private rooms, clean water, showers, and stuff ourselves with food. 

People come here and pay to ride abused elephants or dehumanize and gawk at the hilltribes, who are some of the last strongholds of cultural isolation in a globalizing world. Then they complain that it's not "authentic". You don't need to hire a guide and go take photos of them to realize what's happening or to sympathize with them for being exploited and rendered as impoverished by outside forces. Even though we're not participating in those things, to a lesser degree, we're not exempt from that either. Even with less money than most people bring here, even by making an effort to learn and do no harm, we're still living it up, we've still got nice backpacks, and are still monetary miles above the standard here. I think it's important to understand this.

If you want an "authentic" experience, fucking go home and buy a sandwich at Subway. For the people here, it's just life, and it's harder than just about anyone comes with would ever want to subject themselves to--or would know how to handle. Some of the volunteering costs so much money because even the well-intentioned people who come to volunteer don't have the grit to do it without some of their first-world creature comforts, and don't have the skills to actually be all that useful. They come with philanthropic ideals molded more around their egos than around a true ability or willingness to be helpful.

Now I remember why I do this: to try and make a bit more sense of what's happening in the world. It'd be delusional to think I could get some simple, clean, final answer--that'd be impossible without knowing the history, goings-on, secrets, and interactions within and between everywhere in the world, which in itself is impossible knowledge.

But we just come into the world--poof!--as another consciousness. Here we are. Why? Why do I have what I have? What does someone over there have? What's going on? Over here, over there? Are we all puppets, is there Free Will, is it beneficial to think there is even if there isn't, blah, blah, blah...?

And I don't know what to do, what I can or should do--if I should do anything. But I can travel, and learn. I don't know what else to spend a lifetime doing. Or at least this part of my lifetime, while I might have so much time and still know so damn little.

He voiced my own solidifying thoughts and feelings at least as well as I could have, so there they are.

And, duh. Luang Prabang and the major hubs of Thailand we've visited so far are, of course, also touristy as fuck--but there seems to be more of a symbiosis there between the locals and tourists. It doesn't seem so toxic.

In most places we've been there's some semblance of mutual respect and appreciation, and even a lot of social crossover--we spent a good portion of a night in Luang Prabang playing music on the street with some Laotians, one of whom unwittingly led me to my gnarliest hangover ever when he kept offering me shots of lao lao and ignoring my laughing pleas of, "No more!" Similarly, the nightlife and partying and narco-tourism is rampant there, but it doesn't feel dark or thoughtless, rife with stories of overdose or exploitation--it feels more like what partying should be.

And Thailand, while overrun with a different sort of ex-pat [i.e., perverted old men with young Thai girls, or people who just wanted to retire somewhere cheap, irrespective of where it was] and some other unpleasant variables, seems less tainted in that it decidedly isn't a third-world country the way Lao is, the people there aren't so desperate and taken for granted by entitled tourists flaunting their wealth here in a third-world country by wearing impractically decadent designer clothes, trying to haggle for set-price wet market items for the sake of saving an extra twenty-five cents because they're fucking idiots and don't know better and mistakenly think that no items are above haggling or that everything is dishonestly priced, knowing that sooner or later one of the reluctant food merchants will relent because, after all, beggars can't be choosers. In Thailand, when someone tries to do that, the vendors just laugh them off, and rightly so.

I didn't feel dirty for being in most of the places we've been so far [though coming to terms with "being a tourist", not deluding myself into thinking I could be something more dignified by trying to "avoid the tourist stuff" or "rough it" more, and embracing my role as an inescapable fact took me a second], whereas coming here has wrought us with an uncomfortable sort of guilt...a feeling that we really don't belong here, that our presence is doing a lot more harm than good.

Anyway. Time will tell what we might actually do with our evolving thoughts and attitudes, but for now we're still learning, trying to stay humble, to "see with eyes unclouded" and not delude ourselves into thinking we're "above" all the bullshit...while also not being too hard on ourselves.

For now, I'm excited to get the fuck out of here tomorrow: the general plan is Vientiene, hop over the border to Nong Khai, then on to Southern Thailand via Bangkok in order to visit a few people and get scuba certs.

Of course, as usual we've been playing by ear a lot and our "plans" have been changing every two days or so, so fuck if I know whether that's actually what we'll end up doing [or, if so, how long it'll end up taking us--two weeks or six].

One side effect of all the Bangkok protests we've just found out about that's proved very serendipitous for us is that Americans entering Thailand by land can now stay visa-free for thirty days. A week or two ago, it was fourteen days--we would've had to fly in in order to stay the full thirty for free, so we'd resigned ourselves to hunting for as cheap a flight as possible from Vientiene into Bangkok and skipping Nong Khai, which would've been a shame since it's right there from Vientiene and was recommended by a "credible stranger" who didn't really tell us anything about it except that we should go there. I tend to prefer following random and vague suggestions than well-defended ones, which is probably why we didn't bother going to Pai when we were in the neighborhood-ish--too much hype from too many backpackers either yammering about how amazing it was, or about how overrated and overrun it was.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

More Schoolgirl Rambling

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

Baby chicks and goats. Bamboo scaffolding. Happy kids eating shit on bikes. Women gathering river weed from the Khan and Mekong to sell at the market. Leaves bigger than I am. Families cooking their dinner in quiet back alleys. A dissolving of status and borders impossible to find in Thailand.

Leaving this place tomorrow morning. Our guts today said, "Move", and so we must obey.

I'm sad to leave. This place is more magical than I could ever bother trying to convey in words or photographs. The best, most ridiculous, most enriching experiences are--as usual, when life's at its best--the ones I can't even begin to write about, that'll have to be on reserve only for my closest friends, and only in person in the right setting: over a beer or a long drive or food on a subdued night in.

However...there are two things I will allow myself to talk about.

Gastronomical Nirvana

The food. Holy shit. Here, you can experience some of the best and most interesting fine dining for the same price you'd spend on a meal at In'N'Out at home.

For instance, Tamarind, our favorite restaurant [definitely here, and possibly everywhere].

We got dinner there, seated outside, right over the Khan River. Friendly waitstaff excitedly explained all the food to us. Water was served in glass bottles to reduce waste [there is a lot of plastic waste from packaging all over the place here--especially since everyone buys bottled water] and drinks came with bamboo straws that could be washed and reused.

Anyway, we'd gotten a fixed-price meal, which had included:
-Chilean wine and a ginger/lemongrass drink
-A soup with bamboo shoots, pumpkin, mushroom, basil, green onion, aubergines...
-A platter of dishes including local river weed [my new favorite thing], tomato dip, eggplant dip, chili and buffalo skin dip, the best pork sausage I've ever had, buffalo jerky and, of course, a thing of khao niaw [sticky rice]
-Chicken wrapped in lemongrass, local Mekong fish grilled in a banana leaf, served with a tart/herby peanut sauce
-Stir-fried pumpkin with onions, spices, and mint
-Purple sticky rice with coconut meat, amazing Lao cookies that sort of taste like a cross between rice crackers and french toast [colloquially known by Laotians as "cat poo" because that's what they look like], and sweet/sour tamarind sauce
-local coffee with condensed milk and ground tamarind seed, and smoked green tea

ALL of that...for two people...for a TOTAL of about $30. [Also, it was some of the best food we've had, ever--we tried a couple of other fancy restaurants in the area and they didn't even come close.]

We went back for the "Adventurous Lao" set menu, which you have to book a day in advance and put down a deposit for [because they shop for ingredients at the local market, just for you, that same morning, based on your preferences, allergies, and "how adventurous" you are, and then create a custom menu for your dinner]. They warned us that sometimes the menu might contain bat, or pig blood, or whatever--it all depended on the morning markets. We told them to go nuts.

This was our dinner:
-Bael fruit cinnamon drink and tamarind cooler
-Platter of eleven dishes: sour unripened red plum mash, barbequed plum with chili, rice powder with ginger and sugar, pig skin pork crackers, steamed local bitter greens and mushrooms in herbs and fermented fish sauce, oyster mushrooms in coconut milk, barbecued water bugs with chile [the bug dishes actually wound up being among my favorites, and this one was really fucking spicy], pumpkin leaves, baby jackfruit with long beans, grilled and seasoned river leaves at the banks [this was one of the only things I had trouble with--it tasted more like mud than food], river weed paste with chilis [one of the strangest textures of any food I've had--almost like pudding, but a lot slimier...basically, it's fresh green sludge from the bottom of the river].
-Platter of ten more dishes: fermented fish sauce with chili/lemongrass/eggplant/bamboo [this was the only thing we couldn't stomach], fresh river weed powder with garlic, raw baby ant eggs with herbs [sort of like spicy ceviche?], bamboo worms fried in garlic and kaffir lime, snails with oyster sauce, buffalo and pork meatball, pickled raw fish, a sweet dried pork thing I recognized as one of my favorite Chinese foods when I was a kid [called ro sung in Chinese], barbecued pig brains, pickled raw pork in a banana leaf.
-Grilled pork stuffed in zucchini flowers, and two soups: sour local fish tomato soup [where you ate the whole fish--bones, head, and all], spicy frog soup with chunks of pepper wood [you'd chew the wood without eating it to get the pepper flavor, and the thing basically contained a whole frog, skin and all, in frog broth].
-Six desserts: more purple sticky rice with coconut, more cat poo cookies, these incredible sesame/palm sugar/peanut wedges, pumpkin custard, grilled rice powder and coconut sugar things, and sticky rice banana balls.
-Also, they gave us shots of their own honey lime lao lao, on the house.

We couldn't even come close to finishing, though we tried [minus the fermented fish sauce, everything was actually good as well as interesting]. For BOTH of us, the meal ran $32 total. A custom fucking meal.

Anyway. We'd be there tonight, but they're closed on Sundays.

As is Saffron Cafe on the Mekong side of town, also worth a mention, and also a place we'd be today if it were open: easily some of the best coffee I've ever had. I'm not really into mochas but their Luang Prabang Malt Mocha

The founder, David, an American ex-pat, worked out a deal with some of the local hilltribes who'd been reduced to slash-and-burn agriculture [which is both highly inefficient for those practicing it, and detrimental and unsustainable for the land upon which it's practiced] after their former livelihoods of opium production became outlawed. Since then, the hilltribes have become extremely impoverished [not to mention that they're made a spectacle of by "treks" to their villages so that tourists can photograph them and basically act like they're at a human zoo]. These hilltribes live in areas ideal for coffee production, so basically, David gives them coffee trees, which they cultivate and hand-harvest, and then he buys the beans back from them. The resulting coffee is fantastic.

The street food here is noteworthy, too. Surprising, delicious...and healthy [the only possible criticism I could make against Thai street food is that it left me feeling sick after chronic indulgence]. For instance, today I got a tomato and lemon shake. Gross as it sounds, it was fucking incredible. Lao style sandwiches on baguettes have also become a favorite thing--they're big enough to split between two people, fucking delicious, healthy, and round out at about 10,000 kip [$1.25].

Some of the street vendors are hilarious. The other night, a lady who sold us some noodles kept offering us sips of Beerlao [even before we'd agreed to buy anything] then cleared a space for us to sit down on a foam mat behind her booth. A lot of others make sassy jokes at our expense rather than brownnosing. It feels much less classist here, much more laid back.

Also, the best donuts we've ever had. And they're not at the famous French bakeries in town [we've tried them there, too]--they're on the street, for a fraction of the price.

Versus Larger Cities in Thailand

I loved Thailand...but there's little comparison. This place is cleaner and prettier. Despite being a much poorer country, on average the locals seem to enjoy a much better standard of living, both in town and in the countryside, whereas we saw much more of a wage gap between the rich and poor Thais.

Yammering on...

There, the ex-pats are largely fat old white men in Hawaiian-print shirts with teenage-looking Thai wives; many of them show up to live like kings on their pensions with the locals in segregated servitude, never bothering to learn the language or customs. We'd come across people who lived in Thailand for decades and were married to Thai wives...and they'd know less of the language than we did after a week of casual studying.

Here, the ex-pats tend to be philanthropists, conservationists, or entrepreneurs of businesses that mostly employ Laotians [thanks to a law that for every foreign employee at a business there must be ten employees from Lao--a law I think makes a hell of a lot of sense for this country]. [Plus, there's a law against foreigners hooking up with Laotians unless they're married...which is actually rather refreshing, as it keeps out the pervy old men out to score a really young Asian wife].

There, the tourists often seemed grumpy and detached, as if they were at a theme park and were owed good service, getting indignant at really pathetically stupid things [like portion sizes at street vendor carts, or at the fact that not everyone spoke English].

Here, the tourists seem more adventurous, appreciative, respectful, and present, aware that they're in a developing and wild country.

There, the tuk-tuk drivers seem desperate to pull you in for a rip-off ride to a gift shop that pays them a commission, or to a happy massage. They're often aggressive, invasive, and indignant, simultaneously seeming to resent the presence of tourists and to depend on it.

Here, the tuk-tuk drivers good-naturedly joke and cat-call, they seem to enjoy their jobs and don't appear desperate for your cash...possibly because the vast majority of them moonlight as dealers of all manner of illicit substances.

There, the street food was plentiful and good. I never ran out of interesting things to try, and it was damn cheap. So what if it was mostly sugary and fried and made my stomach complain? The restaurants were either all the same, or expensive.

Here, the street food is just as good, nearly as varied [and the restaurant food definitely makes up for it--fine dining at dirtbaggy prices], is even cheaper, and feels healthy. For the first time since coming to Asia, I don't feel slogged down in fry grease. And, all the fancy French bakeries in town notwithstanding, the best donuts I've had [ever, in my life] are available for 2000 kip in the street [about twenty-five cents].

There, the locals were polite and helpful for the most part. Friendly, but somewhat reserved. Most of them had reasonably good English [or refused adamantly to speak English, which I think is understandable]. Main pastimes seemed to include shopping and eating. There was a segregation perpetuated both by locals and visitors that made it hard to break into local culture in any sincere way--it was impossible to feel like anything but a customer.

Here, the locals are rambunctious, childlike, excitable, self-sufficient, and eager to make jokes whether at their own expense or yours. Most of them speak three or four languages [Thai, French, and English--better English than all the upper-class Thais we met]. Main pastimes seem to include drinking, playing music, and getting up to weird games and shenanigans.

There, there were thousands of mangy stray dogs, cats, and a lot of beggars [many of whom were blind or amputees and several of whom appeared to be affected by different diseases].

Here, there are thousands of domestic [or at least clean and tame] dogs and cats [as well as goats, chickens, and so on], and I haven't seen a single beggar in Luang Prabang, and the poorer villages seem to thrive on self-empowered participation so everyone can fend for themselves effectively.

There, temples often looked more like kitschy tourist attractions than places of worship. Full of plaster restorations, garbage, concrete, plaques, and souvenir booths.

Here, the temples are breathtaking and force you to stop and look--they're works of art, with intricate mosaics or other minute details, and give you a real sense of their history. Many of the monks are young boys who came from rural areas and joined monkshood in order to receive a good education.

OH. And in Thai cities, restaurants can be stingy as fuck with water. Even if you go to a nice place and buy a meal, they usually won't provide water unless you're willing to buy it [and will mark up the prices accordingly]. Here, you're given water with any sit-down snack or meal, or even with coffee if you stop by a cafe.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Someone Else's Dream

Luang Prabang, Lao PDR

Finally, I've found a bit of what I didn't realize I was looking for.

The last few days have been slow-motion mayhem, like a bunch of inept drivers steering their cars through snow for the first time--chaotic and uncontrolled, but slow enough to buffer any true danger. A stew of misadventure and serendipity.

I didn't see it while in Thailand, but with this new contrast I understand what I've been missing:

Thailand felt like a vacation. Everything was shaped around tourism. It was all easy, required little imagination, and something about it felt very false and Disneyland-esque. The main pastimes for locals and tourists alike seemed to be eating and shopping [with the secondary options of getting massages, partying, and sightseeing]. It's a place where I felt I either had to make an "itinerary" or else ambled around placidly, wondering what I was doing there, trying to figure out my "role" as a "tourist", feeling vaguely uncomfortable and embarrassed to be affiliated with some of the other tourists there, many of whom were behaving rather disgustingly: stomping around with a sense of entitlement, dehumanizing the natives, being indignant just for the sake of being indignant. Several ex-pats there, with pasty bellies covered with Hawaiian shirts and little Thai wives in tow, spoke less Thai than I did after being there for only two weeks, let alone read any.

In contrast, in Laos I feel like I'm actually living. I haven't been uneasy about being a visitor here. The tourists I've encountered seem more childlike, adventurous, flexible. Even the rich kid spring breakers who are just here to get wasted on lao lao whisky basically seem happy and playful and basically like real human beings.

The Laotians themselves are a sharp contrast to Thais [who comprise many of the tourists here, as well]. They seem a lot more rambunctious and easygoing--whoop-whooping loudly when a power outage strikes at night, playing weird little hop-scotch games and acting like kids, singing or laughing raucously and at random, giving less of a shit and just having a good time. They're easygoing and friendly, but don't kiss our asses or seem to care much that we're here [unless they're trying to make money from us, understandably]. And not only do they have really good English [much better than virtually all the Thais we met], but many of them speak Thai and French as well [I've spoken more Thai here than in Thailand].

In contrast, most Thais we met, while very likeable, seem more like your average first-worlders: more polite and "civil" [at the expense of being a bit stuffy or insincere at times], and certainly more materialistic.

The hundreds of small children we've seen have all been really self-sufficient and healthy: kids as young as six pushing their bikes up a steep hill a couple miles out of town, waving to us as we pass by, wandering through the mountains on their own, helping the adults with manual labor, playing with bugs.

Everything's gone "wrong" or has otherwise been "unexpected", but it's all worked out perfectly. In Thailand I felt like a grown-up on holiday--here I feel like a Lost Boy in Neverland, laughing deliriously at how absurd life is, much more present in the moment, disinterested in checking my email or researching "things to do" or "things to know" online.

While I really enjoyed Thailand...Laos is way, way more my bag. I haven't stopped giggling incredulously since I got here. If Alex and I were to pigeonhole our views on life, we'd probably both call ourselves outlook Laos seems to amplify.

The countryside is breathtaking, and Luang Prabang feels like being in someone else's dream. We want all the people we love to get their asses over here. If we had more money, we'd buy plane tickets for our closest friends and family in a heartbeat. Someday.

Chiang Rai

We left Chiang Mai for Chiang Rai [after leaving the lady at our guest house a thank-you note in Thai that was more likely than not full of mistakes, though we figured she'd find them amusing], which we thought might be a bit of a smaller, more rural version.

Not quite.

Chiang Rai, while half the size of Chiang Mai, felt distinctly more "industrial urban" when we first rolled in. Our bus passed several car dealerships and wove through a lot of slummy looking shops an office buildings before arriving.

When we got off our bus, we had our first unpleasant interactions with Thai natives.

The tuk-tuk drivers were pushy as always, but with less good humor--several of them gestured as if to grab me and made animal noises at me, laughing and saying things like, "get in tuk-tuk or you don't know where you're going, backpack too heavy for farang girl."

We kept walking and found an Internet cafe with the pushiest restaurant staff we've ever met. As a sharp contrast to the friendly and laid-back establishments in Chiang Mai, everything was very calculated: the moment we stepped up to the entrance, we were chivvied forcefully to a table [even though we said we just wanted to check out the prices outside], stood over and stared down by a notepad-equipped server before we even had a chance to peruse the menus, even when we asked to be given a few minutes; the bathrooms cost 20 baht for non-customers; the wi-fi was only available to those who made an order of at least 50 baht; the food was all Western [pizzas, Caesar salads...] and extremely pricey [about four or five times what we've been paying for meals].

We shrugged and ordered a small dish in order to get Internet access, and when Alex tried to plug in the tablet [which was dead], he was stopped abruptly by a staff member who said it would cost 20 baht to plug in his phone.

"Well, we just made an order so we could use the Internet."

"Yes, you can use Internet free with your order, but you have to pay to use the power."

"But we can't use the Internet unless we plug in our tablet. It doesn't cost you anything to let us charge it, and no one else is using the outlets, so why do we need to pay to use one for ten minutes?"

"It doesn't even matter why! It's only twenty baht! For you, twenty baht is so little, it's practically nothing."

"Hey. Look. No one owes you money just because they have it, you still need to treat them fairly and give them a good reason to buy from you--good food, or at least friendliness. Your prices are already much more than a local would pay, but we were still going to eat here. I'd rather give two hundred baht to someone else who was honest and respectful. Or at least good-natured." I gestured to Alex to leave.

"Should I cancel your order?"

"Probably. We won't be here to pay for it."

Even the scammers and pushy vendors we've met have been fun to interact with, smiling and joking their way into our pockets.

Look, I fucking get it--we're tourists, and the fact that we're even in Thailand means we're well-off by Thai standards, even if we'd be paupers in the States. We're coming here to visit your town, often quite disoriented at first, and you're being adaptable and resourceful by capitalizing on it.

I don't even mind being ripped off [for instance, when it's obvious I have no other option but to hire the one tuk-tuk at a remote bus station, so he overcharges me]--I can understand it, and I've laughed it off when it's happened. It's fair--the ride is still worth paying for, and in his position, I'd do the same thing. But at the end of the day, it's still an interaction between two human beings.

I try to be receptive...but I'm a bit proud. I'm not going to shell out to someone who treats me with scorn at my presence and entitlement to my money before I've even had a chance to cause offense, even if it means walking an extra few kilometers with a heavy pack, or settling for a lesser option.

Soon we found a cheap enough guest house to settle for [Chook Dee, 250 baht for a private room]. The place was a bit alienating--super rasta-ed out, with black lights and Lisa-Frank-meets-stoner murals on the walls, the lower floor cafe full of Europeans with dreadlocks that looked like pythons [five feet long and as thick as my arm--I'm all for dreadlocks, but those were a bit much to see on skinny little French pretty boys in designer clothes], reggae music in the background. 420-everything. It was owned and run by a few Thais, most of whom seemed rather wary of their tenants.

"Do you think the owner is genuinely into this scene, or is this his conception of what'll appeal to the tourists who come through here?"

"Moreover, if this is his he right?"

Our room itself had a weird under-the-floorboards-seedy-bordello feel to it. Dimly-lit, dark wood. A picture of Bob Marley hung on the wall [which made me laugh]. The one small window opened out to a tiny tucked-away balcony with a bamboo bench and table you had to clamber out through the window to get to and a low roof that made you feel like you were in a secret hiding place looking out onto the street below. I absolutely loved this feature; the balcony was completely littered with other people's beer bottles and cigarette butts, but if anything this almost added to the appeal. The whole place was a bit crusty; the comforter obviously hadn't been washed in a while [jizz stains, human hair, dirt...] and we wondered if there might be bed bugs, but we resolved to embrace the whole thing.

"It's nasty. It makes me kind of uncomfortable. The other tourists staying here seem washed up and kind of creep me out. But I kind of like it...because I don't like it. Besides, every other vacant guest house is twice as expensive."

One big difference in Chiang Rai was the blatant segregation between the Thais and the ex-pats/tourists. In Chiang Mai, there was a bit more intermingling--the town had embraced its status as a tourist destination, and there seemed to be a symbiotic relationship between Thais and foreigners, for the most part.

Chiang Rai was a lot less touristy, but still full of tourists. The ex-pats seemed to be there simply because it was a cheap place to live, and not because they actually liked the place. There were markets specifically catered to tourists, and ones specifically catered to locals, with little mixing of demographics. The foreigners were cold, deadbeat. The locals were dismissive.

We figured it'd be worth sticking around a couple days to see if our attitudes tot he place changed, and decided to look into things to do [because we'd run out of ideas after one night of exploring]. Online, the main attractions listed were the night bazaar [which we went to on our first night] and the clocktower [which was right next to our guest house]...other than that, there were temples to see, a couple uninteresting-sounding museums, and some natural sites to explore out-of-town [some of which were only really open to tour groups rather than self-guided adventures]...many of which were described as "once pristine, but a bit trashed now thanks to inconsiderate tourists."

"...Well, you know, we could just spend a few days studying the hell out of Thai, and playing ukelele, spending next to nothing. If we were somewhere more interesting we'd be less motivated to study."

We were a bit homesick for Chiang Mai, but were surprised at what things we missed. The two things we missed most:

  • The 1 baht water filling stations, some of which were very hidden [at the ends of back alleys, obscured behind marketplaces, etc.] that made us feel like we'd stumbled across hidden treasure when we found them and, overtime, saved us several disposable plastic bottles and hundreds of baht.
  • An adorable lady with a coffee truck that had a counter under the window just big enough for the two of us to sit, struggling to spell out titles on Thai-language magazines she provided, while she laughed at our broken Thai and made us the best iced coffee and tea drinks in town [for 25 baht each]. Every time we went, she'd make us an extra free drink even better than whatever we'd ordered [a shot of special Thai coffee, or milky green tea with tapioca pearls]. We both regretted not saying goodbye to her before we left town, and she's the first person I'll look for if I go back.
However, Chiang Rai had its good points: 
  • The disdainful attitude to tourists was kind of a blessing in disguise: it made our interactions with Thais more rewarding [since we had to prove ourselves a bit first before they'd pay us any mind] and gave us more opportunity to practice our Thai [since a lot of them didn't bother learning English or putting English names on their menus--and a lot of the ones who did know English would pretend not to when approached by foreigners]. A lot of the natives would stare coldly and silently at me as if to say, "I don't sell hamburgers here. Are you lost, little girl?" Then I'd read something off the sign or eke out a few sentences, and they'd smirk, visibly surprised. I'd ask to get something extra spicy, and they'd laugh incredulously, clearly thinking I was ignorant, but would throw in an extra chili. Then, when we successfully ate the food without dying and thanked them for it, they'd warm up to us, and the next time around would have a completely different attitude: they'd help us read the menus, teach us new words, or correct our pronunciation, and encourage us when we made efforts. There was something kind of American-east-coast about it all that we kind of appreciated: our interactions felt a lot more genuine, a lot less "customer service"-y, and in that way actually made us feel a bit more a part of the community.
  • A lot more varied merchandise than in Chiang Mai [where you see the same few products in every booth, much of which is sweatshop-made]. Some higher quality goods. Much better prices on the cheaper/generic products.
  • Distinctly different food. Also cheaper. And the best som tam I've ever had, made by a brusque but awesome Thai woman on the street.
Anyway, another blessing in disguise:

A couple nights in, I woke up at about 4:30am to find Alex collecting bed bugs in a plastic cup, looking disgusted and amused.

I blinked at him for a while. "...I told you so."

"Meh. Ew. Shall we find another guest house tomorrow?"

"Actually, why don't we just get the hell out of here? It feels forced, like we're holding out to find reasons to be here. We both keep trying to convince each other that it's worth it, but neither of us really wants to."

"...Yes. Where to?"

"How about Laos?"

"Sure. What's in Laos?"

"Who knows? We're idiots, we don't know anything."

"Laos sounds fantastic."

The next day there was no one at the counter to inform about the bed bugs, so we just left the cup of bed bugs on top of our key and went on our way, following a route we'd found online that would get us to Luang Prabang by the following morning [...or so we thought].

In Limbo

From Chiang Rai, we took a bus for a couple hours to Chiang Khong, a tuk-tuk to Thai immigration, a shuttle to Laos immigration, which was a clusterfuck of paying fee after fee for who-the-hell-knows, and then were crammed into a songthaew with several other backpackers from different parts of Europe who--we were relieved to see--seemed just as confused as we were ["Okay, so we're not the only suckers here, that's nice"] at the fees, at being made fun of by the snarky bureaucrats, at the locals offering scalped tickets.

By this point, Alex and I were so delirious that we were reduced to cackling at everything: the fees we kept having to pay in three different currencies without knowing why ["Forty baht because it's a Saturday! One dollar for smelling funny!"] going to the ATM for kip and entering a withdrawal amount of 1,000,000 [we counted the zeroes several times to make sure we had it right since we couldn't stop giggling], the fact that we hadn't encountered food for several hours, the fact that the songthaew driver knew that none of us were really in a position to haggle with him [we were in the middle of nowhere, and no other drivers were around to compete with him], then the fact that we all got packed in with our backpacks like a bunch of sardines with no room to spare. 

Everything was hilarious. In a backwards way, we were having a fucking blast. The other backpackers seemed a bit less delirious [and a lot more grumpy with the situation].

The two of us were dropped off at the bus station, which was also in the middle of nowhere. We went to go buy tickets for that night's sleeper bus...only to find they were sold out.

This made us crack up more, which seems to have become our default reaction to everything ever since crossing the border. Everything is absurd; everything is funny. A lot of Laotians we've encountered seem to feel the same way, and laugh loudly at everything [and nothing]. Maybe there's nitrous oxide pumped into the air here. Seems like it would keep the peace...and eliminate the need for social programs. Hahaha.

The sun was setting. We'd finally gotten some noodles in our system and could sort of think properly.

"Well...we have a mosquito net. We could set up the hammock somewhere."

"There are no trees. Or poles. We could sleep on a bench?"

"Beer first. Decisions later."

Facing off on either side of the bus station were two identical-looking narrow strip buildings. One contained a row of shops; the other turned out to contain a row of rooms [presumably for people like us who'd been stranded]. Instead of a lobby, we simply walked up to a window in the middle of the building. 

It's difficult to describe what that place felt like--but it reminded me of being on the outskirts of Joshua Tree. Sort of an eerie, haunted, portal-to-hell-at-the-edge-of-the-world feeling that I nonetheless really liked. 

The room seemed out of place--we walked in and instantly felt like we were inside of a motel in the states, rather than a guest house in Southeast Asia. On the far wall was a small Alice-and-Wonderland-esque door, which we opened, only to see find that it was actually a window that looked out onto nothing. ["Probably a portal to an alternate universe."] There was a TV in the room--it had been at least a week since I'd seen a TV--and we turned it on out of curiosity. A Thai-dubbed version of "A Walk to Remember" was on.

We wandered out to explore. At this point, we appeared to be the only people there, and it had grown dark. Still, we heard some dancey music coming from nearby-ish. Past a thicket of trees, we could see the flickering of LEDs.

"No fucking way. Is there a bar out here? No one is here."

We followed the blinky lights and noise, which felt reminiscent of Burning Man, and discovered where the music was coming from: on one side of an empty, lonely road, flood lights lit up a huge inflatable Angry Birds bouncy slide, which a bunch of kids were climbing up and rolling down unsupervised. What sounded like Thai salsa music was blaring at them from speakers. 

We stood there for a long time, uncomprehending.

The blinky lights, on the other hand, were coming from a small bar about a hundred feet away. It was half-hidden by the trees, completely dark and silent, and looked closed except for the ropes of neon lights all around it. We walked inside, and after a moment or two a woman rolled up on a motorbike, sold us a couple beers, and led us to the back patio. A few seconds later, music came on--an alternation between Thai pop, and Justin Bieber covers.

Still giggling and delirious, we gave up on trying to make sense of anything. A small orange tomcat snuck up on us out of nowhere [I'd thought he was a huge rat at first] and stepped into my lap, meowing beseechingly at us every once in a while. He stayed there until we left, at which point I'd gotten rather attached.

To further exacerbate the feelings of "this place is fucking eerie/haunted/otherworldly", that night was a bit odd, as well:
  • We woke up in the room at the exact same moment, both completely alert and under the impression that it was morning. Alex glanced at the time and said it was 8:50 a.m. We started packing up, and then I opened the door--it was pitch black and deserted outside. We checked the time again, and it was about 2 a.m. Eventually we fell back asleep.
  • I realized during a dream that I was dreaming [having only had one lucid dream before]--but instead of being able to take control from there, the dream turned into a mind-fuck nightmare, hit me with a crazy intense body-high that lasted after I woke up, and left me in a weird in-between state where I was still stuck asleep but could see our room, hearing freaky dream-voices of people asking to be woken up. I still remember the whole thing as vividly as if it had actually happened, but won't bother going into further detail. Then I woke up, experienced sleep paralysis for the first time [which was fucking terrifying] and, after I could finally move, had a conversation with Alex--only to realize a few moments later that the conversation had only happened in my head, and that I'd dreamed/hallucinated it, as well. He woke up, and then we had the conversation--in reality--that we'd already had in my head a few moments prior [which I also told him]. In the last year I've been experiencing some rather fucked up and terrifying dream-related phenomena for the first time ever [successions of false awakenings, for instance], but this was new.
We stayed up for several more hours having decidedly morbid conversations about dreams and death and how much credence, as self-proclaimed skeptics, to give the metaphysical. And about Laos: how enclosing of a place it seemed to be. As the most-bombed country in history, it's still unsafe to go bushwhacking in remote parts of Laos due to unexploded bombs. Also, in addition to being an extremely poor country, it's illegal for Laotians to hook up with foreigners, and outside of Laos, kip [an unstable and inflationary currency] are completely worthless and can't be converted to foreign currencies. Many Laotians working full-time with families live on about $1-2 a day, and even college-degree-holding Laotians may make just over $100 in a month.

" seems like, if you were born in Laos, you're pretty much stuck here, whether you want to be or not. It'd be hard to get out--no way to save up enough money to leave, even if you get a degree, and not much chance of marrying a foreigner."

"You know...I've met a lot of Americans whose families were from everywhere else in Southeast Asia, but I haven't really come across anyone from Laos. Well, or Myanmar. I don't think it's that common."

"But the people we've met so far all seem so happy. Minus the border officials, but border officials never seem happy."

"Maybe that's why. They don't have as many choices, so they figure out how to be happy with the choices they do have, and the decisions they make. We're lucky enough to have the paradox of choice, so no matter what we choose, it's hard not to wonder if we could've chosen something better."

The bus ride the next day was hilarious and a bit terrifying. We were crammed into little upper-bunk capsule-recliners without enough room to sit up or straighten our legs. There were cheap little helmet-strap seat belts to keep us in place...but they were broken. So, we had to hold onto anything we could find in order to avoid rolling or bouncing out of our bunk. For fourteen hours, the bus wound around mountainous roads that were curvy, steep, sometimes unpaved. At points, it looked as if we were going to drop straight off sheer cliffs. We kept our shoes in plastic bags and had to enter the bus barefoot. Every once in a while, we'd stop, and everyone would stumble blearily out of the bus and go pop a squat at the edge of some magnificent canyon. We alternately slept [I'm amazed we could sleep], continued to laugh deliriously, and watched movies like Mulholland Drive [after our weird night at the bus station, we were in that sort of mood].

The scenery was incredible. We passed small villages of stilted huts and busy people, many of whom waved and grinned as we passed by, wild and lushly overgrown mountains, huge green valleys--scenes that nothing we saw on the several buses we took in Thailand could hold a candle to that left us in disbelief ["Where the hell are we? Is this a real place?"]

We arrived at the bus stop around midnight. A solitary tuk-tuk driver was there, and took us and two other backpackers into Luang Prabang.

It was silent. For about an hour, the four of us wandered like lost children from guest house to guest house, waking up the proprietors only to be told there were no available rooms. We were exhausted, but couldn't stop grinning at how gorgeous the town was, even in the dead quiet dark. After checking at about thirty places, Alex and I settled for a room about twice what we were hoping to pay for, eager for a bed. The other two continued on, determined to find a cheaper place. 

I'm Completely Fucking Infatuated

If I ever find a place more beautiful than this one, I'm moving there, no question. I might move here, eventually, if it doesn't change for the worse.

Luang Prabang is beautiful and strange and enchanting. Being here in and of itself feels like falling in love. 

I'm at a loss. I haven't taken a single picture in town. We don't want to pull out the camera because we'd rather be fully present, immersed in this place, without the distraction of taking photos. Any pictures we took wouldn't do the place justice, anyhow.

And there's too much. We could take photos of everything. The whole town almost feels like an interactive museum or art piece [but also feels like much more of an "actual place" than, say, the more touristy parts of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, even though Luang Prabang is also a heavily-traveled area]. I guess that makes sense--the entire town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

There are the Mekong and Khan rivers, the gorgeous Secret-Garden-meandering-alleyways, colonial French architecture, stilted huts, the jenky-as-shit bamboo footbridge across the Khan that looks from town to be so much further below and so much longer than it actually is [since it's so thin]. Not a single part of this town isn't enchanting--even the poorer areas, the residences, the back alleys. And, whereas many of the temples in Thailand almost looked fake and Las-Vegas-y, with tacky restored facades, souvenir booths, and signs, the ones here have stopped us in our tracks and compelled us to stare, or to walk in [or up hundreds of stairs] to get a better look at. They feel like real places--the impeccably-maintained ones give you a sense of having traveled back in time, and the ruins gave you a sense of their history. 

I'm at a loss to go into further detail, though my mind's been reeling with taking it all in. Crossing the footbridge last night, after several hours of aimless wandering, Alex put it well, "It kind of feels like we're in someone else's dream."

If I had more money, I'd buy plane tickets for everyone I love most to come here, right this second.

We woke up in the morning and, before we'd even left our guest house, had been asked by a couple girls from the Netherlands to go with them to Kuangsi Waterfall, which we'd never heard of. We agreed, grabbed breakfast on the way, and spent the next half hour gathering a group of eight people and haggling with songthaew drivers until one would settle for our price. On the way we passed incredible terraced rice fields and so on and so forth, which made most other "countrysides" I'd seen look, in hindsight, like barren wastelands.

Kuangsi was the only place in Laos we've bothered with picture-taking, so far. Once there, we passed a bear rescue center with several moon bears [which I'd never seen or heard of before--weirdest looking bears I've ever fucking seen], then jumped off trees and small waterfalls into into bright turquoise water that didn't look real. There were several tourists here, but of a different ilk--it was a lot of adults acting like kids, making friends with strangers despite language barriers [you don't need to speak the same language if you're just jumping off waterfalls together and laughing at one another's belly flops], excited to be there, and the site was clean despite the large number of visitors. After that, Alex and I climbed up to the top of the enormous falls further along--an uphill climb very few visitors seemed to want to bother doing.

When we got back, we only had to walk for a few minutes before a Laotian guy on a scooter asked us if we needed a room and told us he ran a guesthouse, handing us business cards/maps and asking us to follow him. I recognized the name of the place as one of the guest houses we'd tried during our late-at-night-asking-around, so we followed him, and he showed us to a really nice room at the cheapest rate we'd found in town so far. I kept waiting for a catch, but there didn't seem to be one, and we're still staying there.

I might as well stop here. It's really a place that defies description.

Last things:

  • Utopia Bar [which we stumbled across at the end of our adventures last night] is easily the most insane bar I've ever seen. "Bar" doesn't even seem like the right word for it. There's a volleyball court and a deck right over the Khan river. It's swanky, full of floor seating on Thai mats and tables tucked away behind a dense garden of trees. The drinks are strong, and while pricier than the cheapest drinks you can get in town, are still damn cheap [a few bucks for a bucket of booze, or a couple bucks for a strong cocktail]. Sort of feels like an obscenely ritzy, permanent theme camp. Anywhere else, and this place would have a steep cover charge, minimum drink quotas, and the cocktails would be about $30.
  • To demonstrate how cheap it is to get drunk here: in about an hour's span last night, when passing by the nightlife-y part of town, we saw maybe ten people in the act of throwing up in the gutters [not to mention several vacated puke piles].
  • I haven't seen a single beggar here, nor anyone who appears poor, or otherwise destitute or unhealthy. It's almost suspicious. It looks so clean here [front-of-bar puke piles notwithstanding].
  • Lao-style baguette sandwiches. Holy shit.
  • In addition to all the great street/cheap food, there's fine dining here [legitimately fancy], for the equivalent of a low-to-mid-range meal anywhere else.
Not sure how long we'll be here...currently wishing we'd gotten longer visas [we've only got a month], but we're running out of money anyway.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Groundhog Day

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I'm nostalgic, sometimes to a fault. Every now and again I catch myself maneuvering through the slippery slope of attempting to document [and, thus, remember] fucking EVERYTHING.

This is unsustainable, distracting, and defeats the point of living--embracing and appreciating each moment partly for being ephemeral.

"This too shall pass." The incantation that can render a sad man happy, and a happy man sad.

So, these posts are going to have to be shorter for my own sake [and, I'm sure, for the sake of anyone reading them].

We're leaving soon. Chiang Mai is starting to feel like a very pleasant, easygoing Groundhog Day.

The merchandise in the night markets, day markets, and stores seem to all come from the same two or three suppliers--I've seen the exact same clothes and artifacts at a hundred different booths each day. The heady music played at the backpacker bars consists of the same few songs every single night. On cue, I'll hear "Summertime Sadness" followed by "Give Me Everything" followed by Katy fucking Perry.

The people are mostly repeats, too. We keep running into other westerners at cafes or food carts; initially we'll always be excited to share a table and conversation with someone who is also traveling and speaks our language. Inevitably, we'll realize [sometimes not until after we've exchanged information and committed to spending a day together] that we have nothing in common and find each other's worldviews completely alienating.

It's so easygoing not becoming a bit listless requires an active effort. I feel like Alex and I are Baloo and Mowgli, lumbering around the jungle eating ants and fruits at our leisure. Consequently, I'm beginning to bore myself.

Where to next? Deciding between Chiang Rai and Nong Khai [leaning heavily towards the former].

Tourist Binge

We decided to spend twenty-four hours doing standard "touristy" things, which we'd been avoiding. In general, I think tours are a way to preclude living: to be a spectator rather than a participant, and to possibly learn about other things in a very packaged way while making sure you don't learn anything about yourself. Tours are a way to focus more on taking canned photos that say "look how much fun I'm having" than on actually having fun.

However, when else am I going to get to pay a few bucks to hug a tiger?

After reading about several unethical animal tourist attractions in Thailand where animals are abused or drugged into sedation, we were wary of Tiger Kingdom and initially set on avoiding it. However, after scrounging around a bit online for information, and talking to a few people who'd gone, we decided to give it a shot. At least as far as we could see, the tigers didn't show signs of being drugged and seemed pretty healthy, and seemed to have pretty trust-based bonds with their caretakers. Additionally, which tigers were open to be pet by tourists seemed to rotate around, so that individual tigers would get breaks and days off.

As Alex put it, "Well...they're definitely being patronized, which is kind of embarrassing to look at, but they seem pretty content and healthy."

I mean, we're guilty of patronizing them, too, as the photos above indicate [with the tiger trainers instructing us on how to pose, "Do mustache tail!"]...granted, the tigers didn't seem to give much of a shit, except for one adult female who either wanted to play with, or eat, Alex.

It was awesome but we left with a bit of awkward ambivalence.

The Siam Insect Zoo, on the other hand, was far less ideologically complicated [and also cheaper].

Then we went on a tour of handicraft factories. This basically consisted of being picked up by a quirky guy who'd drive us somewhere, then hang out while we poked around and asked questions [and, of course, were coaxed into gift shops]. The factory workers would go about their business, seemingly indifferent to our presence.

The cost for a group is 300 baht. So, $10 for the two of us to have a private driver for the morning take us to eight factories and an awesome and decently-priced lunch spot.

First stop: paper umbrella factory. A couple guys near the entrance asked to paint waterproof designs on our t-shirts for 50 baht, so we let them. I got a butterfly doohickey that went with the shirt I was wearing, and Alex got a couple of elephants humping.

The factory itself was really impressive--every little part of the umbrellas is completely cut using hand tools. Little knives and so on. Nothing is mechanized. The umbrellas ranged in size from a few inches to over six feet in diameter.

Next we visited a jewelry factory, which was far more intimidating--a huge building flanked by really uptight-looking and smartly-uniformed employees, following us watchfully. We weren't allowed to take photos, which is a shame, as the factory and showroom were pretty impressive.

Third was a lacquerware factory, with all sorts of charming wooden doodads, all intricately hand-painted.

Fourth was a silk factory, and possibly my favorite. The silkworms are raised until they form cocoons, which are then boiled and spun to extract the silk--it takes 50 cocoons to make one thread, and each cocoon yields about 500-800 meters of silk. They're then washed and tinted with natural dyes before they get strung up on the looms. One of the women there showed us how to spot real silk from imitation silk [which is all over the night markets].


Fifth: A jade factory. In the display cases along with the jade pieces were glasses of water, meant to help regulate humidity. There was an enormous pirate ship complete with jade chains that I wasn't allowed to take a photo of.

Next was a silver factory, where we were shown how to test for silver purity in objects...

...followed by a couple "factories" that were mostly just shops. The first of these was full of Kashmir goods, including a really impressive teak elephant--all one piece, with a hollowed out interior containing sixteen baby elephants that had been carved through small holes in the big elephant's body--and hand-stitched tapestries made of silk and cashmere. A smooth-talking Indian salesman handed me a carved wooden box and told me he'd give us 1000 baht if I could open it [since it was a puzzle with a secret lock, which he didn't tell us] and I figured it out in about ten seconds, which left him pretty embarrassed [but not enough to stop trying to sell us expensive scarves].

The final stop sold leather goods, though the "factory" itself seemed to only focus on stitching the already-processed leather into items. I would've liked to see them actually making leather, but we were burnt out by then anyhow.

So, our mission complete, we put the camera away and resumed normal living.

Re: The Anti-Monk

We've spotted him again several times, a couple of them right by our guest house, which is on a rather nondescript little soi and not much of a destination unless you're staying there.

We spotted him at one of the vendor booths run by a couple of little ladies selling typical tourist trinkets [noise-making wooden frogs, wristbands bearing phrases like up butt no baby and i heart rape], counting out cash. Excitedly, I ran across the street and tried to get a photo, but was so nervous/ambivalent the whole time ["Man, it is really creepy and maybe a bit dehumanizing for me to be doing this right now...oh-shit-I-think-he-saw-me..."] that I dilly-dallied and not only failed to take a decent photo before running away guiltily [the grainy, unfocused piece of shit below is the best one I got] but seeing him there under the light, which gave his face a rather eerie glow [he's got an eerily calm look about him, anyway--like a Guy Fawkes mask, sort of serene and smiling and sociopathic--which is largely why I wanted a photo of him] made him look like some sort of mobster-of-the-underworld, and I started making up all manner of possible scenarios about what he could be doing with the ladies at the booth.

I really have gotten somewhat obsessed. Kind of glad no good photos came out--both in respect for the guy's privacy [really was kind of a dick move on my part but, hey, I got excited...and was possibly a bit drunk] and because my memory will embellish the image and make it seem more dramatic and exciting over time, whereas a photo would keep the memory in check and prevent me from romanticizing it.

Sometimes it's best to toss out the empiricism in the name of deluded aesthetics.
Also, I've realized that I probably don't want to solve the mystery. He's probably just a scammer/street performer in a robe...but not having this confirmed as a fact allows my imagination to get the better of me, which is much more fun. Sometimes knowledge isn't everything.


Before heading on this trip, we'd read several warnings [on sites like Wikitravel that are supposed to serve as guides] about Thai people--to look out for scams, or possible threats.

Since we've been here, the only unpleasantness we've seen is from other tourists [and holy shit can they be nasty, especially to the Thai natives...probably because they've read all the same Doomsday propaganda about how Thais are all trying to fuck them over].

The other day, we went out on a scooter to find that flower restaurant again. We wound up in a strange back alley by a corner store that was closing up, so I went in and asked the old couple in charge if they knew where the place was. They didn't speak English, but the tiny little Thai man gave a huge smile and gestured for us to follow him--then ran out, hopped on his scooter, and led us there. It was a good mile or so out of the way, too.

When we got there, it was closed, even though we'd shown up at their business hours. The man gestured for us to follow him again, and took us through a shortcut to get back on the road for the Old City, waving at us from his motorbike when he figured he'd taken us far enough and turning around to go home and we continued on, grinning.

"You know...even though the place was closed, I've got this sense of closure. I think it just made my day how nice that man was."

"...Meh, the place was a bit pricey, anyway. Almost three bucks a dish!"

As another example, the lady who runs our guest house. She works seven days a week managing three guesthouses and a restaurant, and renting out scooters. Her English is good and we've also heard her speak to guests in French and Mandarin. When our scooter got a flat the other day and stranded us outside of town [a misadventure I'll get to in a second], she told us not to worry about getting it fixed or paying for it even though it was technically our bad, she's not a stickler if we pay after check-out time, and she's changed our sheets even though we told her not to worry about it.

Every day, we see several douche bags--usually young and trendy Americans, Australians, or Europeans--come up with an absolutely disgusting level of entitlement.

"I'm sorry, all the rooms are full today except our luxury suite on the top floor--it's 700 baht. You can look around and come back if you can't find another room--I'll be here for a few more hours. If you need a place to stay just for the night, you can always find a cheaper place tomorrow, since it's getting late."

"...And I have to go up fucking stairs to waste my money? Uh, yeah, no thanks, you've wasted enough of my time." And off huffed yet another pretty and wealthy-looking brat with a backpack. Incidentally, 700 baht is still just over $20.

Sure, a lot of locals will quote you higher prices, but worst case scenario just means you get duped into paying more than you might've gotten away with had you known better; the only reason they succeed is because even the "rip-off" marked up price sounds cheap to westerners. If you don't know better, you might wind up paying $7 for a cab ride that should've been $3, big fucking deal.

It's understandable, too--even if you're a poor American, if you're in their country to begin with, you're probably rich by Thai standards. Their minimum wage amounts to the equivalent of $10 total for a full workday. If we had aliens coming to our country who were comparatively as loaded, we'd be trying to snag their money, too.

And even when they're trying to "rip you off", it's sort of a game--they do it good-naturedly, not with any true ill will. Alex and I have gotten considerably better at haggling, which is kind of a sport. You smile, you shit-talk, you act shocked and affronted, but always while smiling. A woman will pretend to be angry, turn to Alex, and point at me, saying, "She want for one hundred baht! She make joke for me--beautiful, but no very smart." A man will plead desperately that our asking price is lower than what he himself paid for an item...but eventually he'll budge, because, after all, he was lying, and knew that we knew it.

Another reason I want to get out of Chiang Mai is because I'm starting to become unfairly cynical towards the other tourists here--at least the ones I perceive as belonging to the same category of tourist as the rich kids pouring into our guesthouse lobby each day.

So many people here seem to want an experience that is "authentic", but also easy. We've met people who will complain of all the tourists, or how the hill tribe treks aren't "authentic" and are "commercialized" and designed to get you to buy stuff [ shit, you're paying money to go point and stare at a bunch of people in their "natural habitat" like they're zoo animals]...and will then complain, "Yeah, I went to Myanmar, but over there there's like, no Internet and it's hard to find ATMs. And no one there spoke English."

Dude, fuck you.

Last night, after hanging out for a while eating chicken hearts and livers with Nathan [whom we'd met earlier] and a couple who'd recognized Alex's shirt from Burning Man, Alex and I got legitimately drunk for our first time in Thailand, which served as a good release valve for me to let off some of my frustration. I went around, sneaking up to trashed Euro bros pissing on fences, spitting beer into their pee streams from the other side, yelling "Bpen ngai bang?" and running away as they squealed in surprise, and otherwise fucking with people and being a twerp, albeit a harmless one. I predict something similar happening tonight.

All in good fun?

One conversation we had left me feeling a lot better about everything. Over kao soi we overheard a white guy [who may have been a Kiwi, but we couldn't tell for sure] reading one of the menus in Thai, and struck up a conversation [since I'm at the point now where I can slooooowly read pretty much anything in Thai, as long as the font isn't too weird]. He was an odd character: he seemed like he would've been in place in Silicon Valley, a mildly outdoorsy nerdy engineer type, but had spent much of the last couple decades wandering into random small Thai towns and hitchhiking.

He was very friendly, but avoided talking about himself. When we asked him why he was here, whether he was working or living or traveling, he'd said, "Oh, you know, it's easy to live here," and changed the subject.

But he took an approach to Thailand more simple and organic than any other travelers we'd met. "I haven't been on one fucking trek, I haven't ridden an elephant. I just talk to people, eat, and wander around, see what there is to do. I trained in Thai massage for a while and practiced at a couple temples. It's just living--like living anywhere else. This isn't some 'other' place--some fake world, or theme park, as many like to treat it."

After a long chat by the cart, he introduced himself as Matt, got up and went along on his merry way, matter-of-factly. It felt a lot more genuine than some of the awkward partings we've had with others, sprinkled with, "Oh, I need your contact info," or "Yeah, I'd love to hang out again," that aren't so much sincere as they are ways to make the goodbyes a bit smoother. Having one great conversation with someone can, but certainly doesn't always, mean you'll have anything to talk about given a "next time". Figuring out how to tell the difference between what should be a one-time encounter and what could be a life-long friend is a bit of a challenge, but I've been getting better at it.

Spirit house in Your House's lobby
One of my favorite experiences so far has actually been of a completely failed plan to visit the quarry, a sort of obscure local secret-ish, supposedly a great spot for cliff jumping and swimming.

We rented a scooter, got about twenty minutes or so out of town, and got a flat. The next several hours consisted of us pushing the thing along the side of the highway, looking for gas stations, filling up with air, and driving another 3 k or so until the tire flattened out again, then continuing to push it.

 An ex-pat on a bike came by and helpfully went off to investigate where the nearest gas stations were [and check to see if any of the repair shops were closed--they all were], and we found a few cool knickknacks lying in the sidewalk, and had our antics laughed at good-naturedly by passing locals crammed in the back of pick-up trucks.

Eventually, we managed to spot, and hail, a songtaew that could take us back into town--though, knowing we were desperate, she wouldn't budge from 200 baht. We really had no leverage, though, so we shrugged and laughed this off.

It's the conversations and revelations we had, and the dumb shit we laughed about, during those few hours that I think I've gotten the most out of.

...Uh, so much for shorter blog posts. Chiang Mai's slow-going like that.