Observations about Laos

November 27, 2009
  • Laos is a communist country, but like most communist countries today, capitalism is alive and well. Communist flags fly from the front of many buildings.
  • The major tourist locations are quite developed, providing most of the services of Thailand.
  • There are far more tourists in the northern part of Laos than we ever would have imagined.
  • Luang Prabang is full of expensive guest houses and older tourists on packaged holidays.
  • Most travelers stick to the north, often as a side trip to Thailand.
  • Laotian people are lovely – mild mannered, even tempered, and quick to smile and laugh. When Patrick asked for a discount on a hotel room recently the woman looked at the floor at said, “My boss would get mad at me”.
  • Laos is a bit more expensive than Thailand. The currency is the ‘Kip’, with 7,500 Kip per Canadian dollar. We changed about $300 US recently and received 2.5 million Kip! A nice meal for two costs about 50,000 Kip ($7 Canadian). Large ‘BeerLao’ (650 ml) costs $1.5 Canadian.
  • Good food is plentiful. The staple here is sticky rice, which is eaten by rolling a small ball with the right hand and dipping it into the sauces of your dishes. Noodles, curries, and barbeque are common. No part of the animal is wasted. Would you prefer the ‘tripe on a stick’ or a ‘chicken head to go’?
  • It isn’t as warm here as we expected. Cooler than Northern Thailand. Last night we actually used sheets!

Spelunking

November 27, 2009

We rented a scooter and headed north out of the popular backpacker hangout of Vang Vieng in Laos. Thirteen kilometers later, after passing through several poor villages, we turned off onto a dirt road. We were following the hand drawn map provided by the young woman who had rented us the scooter, sans insurance or helmets. After about 800 meters of red dirt road punctuated by mud puddles we arrived at the bank of the Nam Song River. Here we found a man willing to watch our scooter for 5,000 Kip (under a dollar). This wasn’t really necessary, but we felt it a wise investment at that point, thinking that paying money might avoid an unfortunate ‘accident’ from befalling our only transport home. Diane thought it was a ‘parking fee’, but there was no shortage of space to park along the river bank, so it seemed more like a protection racket to Patrick, who begrudgingly paid the fee. We crossed the river on a small bridge covered in woven mats.

Using the bridge cost us 5000 Kip each (death by a thousand cuts!), but one used to have to pay a boatman before the bridge was built, and the return trip across the bridge was included.

We arrived in a small village, home of Tham Sang. ‘The Elephant Cave’ is in a small rock outcropping at the end of the village. There is a large Buddha statue inside and a rock formation that really looks like the front of an elephant, tusks and all.

We walked on, picking our way through the rice paddies and following trails through the jungle, heading in a generally north westerly direction, looking for another cave called Tham Hoi. We started following some locals that we thought might be going in that direction, but they stopped and sent us back. Tham Hoi is a long thin cave that goes three kilometers underground to a lake. It has a generally level floor of mud, not smelly, but slippery in places. It didn’t have the smell of bat guano which is now familiar to us. The interior of the cave was filled with stalactites and stalagmites, and many formations that looked like melting candle wax. The cave is completely dark once you progress away from the entrance and we were all alone. We went in a few hundred meters using our headlamps before Diane decided that it was time to turn around.


Nearby Tham Loup is a cave reached by climbing up the lower reaches of the cliff then descending some wooden stairs into a cavern in the darkness. There were two guided groups deeper in the cave which we could sense from their distant voices and lights. At the rear of the initial cavern it was possible to climb through some tight squeezes to another cavern behind. Diane was a bit freaked out because this cave had a slippery floor with occasional jagged holes waiting to swallow us up. Tham Loup was very pretty inside, but had sustained some damage from previous visitors. We followed the faint lights and voices of the other groups, but we struggled to keep up. Patrick was concerned we’d get lost and Diane was just about to panic. Fortunately the rear chamber had another exit that looped back to the first cavern, and we found our way out unscathed.

Our final cave, Tham Nam, known as ‘The Water Cave’, was about half a kilometer away and was a bit of a surprise. It has a wide, low opening with a tributary of the Nam Song running from it. For a small fee we rented inner tubes and waterproof headlamps from a young woman who lived nearby. Each headlamp looked like a torture device, with a large, heavy battery worn on a string around the neck, and wires running up to the light attached to the head with a tatty old bit of elastic. The batteries had exposed contacts with bare wires twisted around them, which was disconcerting because they lay balanced on our chests as we pulled ourselves on the tubes through the low entrance and into the darkness.

We made progress against the current by going hand-over-hand on a rope. The cave was about fifteen meters across and one meter high, cut from the rock by the water over the eons. Diane led the way as we tugged ourselves upstream and into the unknown.

Eventually Diane reached the end of the rope. We thought perhaps that we’d missed something, but found that the water was now shallow enough to walk. The cave roof was not high enough to stand so we splashed upstream bent over at the waist.


We found a small piece of dry ground to leave our tubes on, hoping that they wouldn’t wash away before we returned, which would result in a rather scary swim. The roof gradually lowered to the level of the water, and the river rushed from under the wall, so we turned around. On the return journey we just floated downstream, waiting for the sunlit opening to appear. Diane thought that she’d be most freaked by this cave, but it was the one that she enjoyed the most.

Overall, we had a very enjoyable day. Diane recently said that we haven’t had as much ‘adventure’ on our trip recently. Her comfort zone must surely have expanded on this trip if this isn’t exciting enough for her! Perhaps she just recovers quicker.


Elephant Training

November 27, 2009

We’ve been looking for the right opportunity to get up close and personal with elephants. We wanted to find a place where the elephants were not there just for tourists to sit on like an amusement park ride, and we wanted to go only where the elephants were well cared for. We found such a place outside of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, an elephant camp where elephants that used to work in logging, a practice which is no longer employed in Thailand, are given a new home and something to do.

Elephants are revered in Thailand. They are a cultural symbol for the country. All elephants in captivity are licensed. The Thai government has an elephant training school and a hospital where any elephants can be taken, and also traveling veterinarians because it’s tough to transport an elephant! Elephants with certain physical characteristics are considered ‘royal’ and are turned over the King.

Elephants were commonly used for logging in the past. Because of their great size and strength, they would literally push trees over with their foreheads and then drag them around with their trunks or with chains. Logging is a tough life for an elephant though, and these elephants typically only lived to about 40 years of age. If they are well cared for, elephants can live to be up to 80 years old, and so there are many of them (and their trainers called ‘mahouts’) who need work now that they are no longer logging.

The elephants here are of the Indian variety and are found in the wild throughout south Asia. Indian elephants are smaller in stature that African elephants, with bigger heads and smaller ears. It is because of their larger head (and brains) that they are highly trainable and have their famous memories (‘an elephant never forgets’).

We drove for an hour out of Chiang Mai to reach the elephant camp. There we changed into denim ‘mahout’ clothes, not only to keep ours clean, but to protect both us and our clothes from the equally abrasive elephant skin and stiff bristly hair.

On the day we visited there were six guests including us and five elephants, one of which had a baby that was six months old. We each fed all of the elephants bananas and sugar cane to that would become familiar with us and like us (yes, they do remember you and the fact that you’ve fed them).


We then received a lot of information on the lifestyle of the elephants in the camp and their behaviour, before being given detailed training on how to ride an elephant. We were here not just to get a tourist ride on the back of an elephant, but to actually sit on the elephant’s neck and to direct it like a real mahout, so we needed to learn the basic commands to mount and dismount, go forward, stop, back up, and turn left and right. Riding an elephant is done with a combination of voice commands (in a mix of Thai and local hill tribe languages), foot and leg movements, and pressure from a small bamboo stick with a hook on the end. The hook is not used to hit or hurt the elephant, but to apply sufficient pressure so that the elephant can feel it (their skin is about 2 inches thick).

Here, in a nutshell, is how to steer an elephant. To go forward, say “Pie” while resting the stick across the top of the elephant’s head and squeezing with your legs behind its ears. To go backwards, say “Toy” with a rising pitch. To turn, hold the ear opposite to the direction you want to go with your hand and also hook the top of it and pull, then kick behind the other ear. And most importantly, to stop, say “How” while resting the hook in the indent in the middle of the top of the elephant’s giant head.


Equipped with our newfound knowledge, we each took turns getting on and off an elephant. In response to a verbal command the elephant raises its right leg which we step up on while holding on to the top of its right ear. Repeating the same command get the elephant to raise its leg higher, like an elevator to the vicinity of the head. From there you kind of fling yourself leg-first over its back, and then slide forward on the neck until your legs are tight behind each ear.
A key point is that even the smaller Indian elephant is way bigger than it appears from a distance, especially when you’re scaling it or perched on its neck! We each made some turns left and right and walked forward and back to get a feel for the ride.

After lunch our plan was to ride our elephants up and down a nearby mountain. We each rode our own elephant except one couple who shared (one riding on the neck and the other on the back). Given the opportunity to share, Patrick was impressed that Diane elected to ride her own elephant. Patrick was assigned the elephant with the 6-month old baby, which seemed a bit risky. Who knows what she would do if she lost sight of her baby or if something happened to it.


We rode out of the compound and started up the hill into the jungle with Diane leading the way. The path was very narrow, and cut diagonally across the steep hill, so the downhill side was very, very far down. Patrick’s elephant was apparently hungry and was eating anything that she could get her trunk on. Unfortunately the best food was on the downhill side, so she would turn sideways on the very narrow trail and reach out over the edge as far as she could. This while Patrick was teetering at least 10 feet above the drop off! She particularly enjoyed bananas and bamboo, and not just the leaves or branches. She ate a banana tree by ripping the entire thing right out of the ground with her trunk, then dragging it along until she could consume it all. She did the same with bamboo. The 20 foot long bamboo in her mouth made it difficult for her to walk down the narrow trail as it kept snagging on trees! During our walk she ate two entire banana trees and a small forest of bamboo. Despite this feeding frenzy, she was always looking out for her baby, who usually ran along in front, but did end up behind occasionally, causing Mom to turn around and look back with Patrick on her swinging head.

Despite their size, elephants are afraid of small things that move quickly. They can startle if they see a little animal or snake, and may run quickly. We were told that if our elephant decided to go on a rampage that we should stay on it as long as possible. It’s way too high to jump, plus there’s some risk of being trampled.

Considering their size, riding an elephant is surprisingly unstable. Because the shoulders alternately rise and fall (a considerable distance) with each step, its important to sit high on the neck, just behind the huge head. The ears are like cowboy chaps, protecting the legs from passing trees. Staying on is difficult, and Patrick almost came off a couple of times. He was determined to stay mounted because he’s fallen off both a horse and a camel recently, and if he fell off an elephant too that could appear to be a bit of a bit of trend and people might start to talk…

After surviving the steep descent from the mountain we walked along a road briefly, as cars drove by. We’re not sure who was more scared — the drivers of the cars going by, vehicles much smaller than our pachyderms, or us, praying that our elephants wouldn’t startle.

We walked down to the river, and quickly doffed our hats and cameras, because the elephants weren’t stopping and were looking forward to a bath. We rode down some stairs and straight into the water, and were told how to get the elephant to sit down. It involves reaching as far back as possible and smacking the elephant on the back (their ass is way too far out of reach). Hopefully they sit just long enough for us to jump off before they start rolling in the water and crushing us.

Elephants love the water. We splashed them and they sprayed us with their trunks. We had a water fight by pointing our elephant’s snouts at one another, pausing between blasts to reload by dunking them under the water. A water fight with 2 tonne squirt guns.

In the interest of self-preservation, we needed to constantly be aware of where the elephants were and what they were doing. We were standing in the midst of a tight pack of elephants that were standing, sitting, and rolling, and it would have been easy to get squished. At one point another elephant sat on the baby, who got trapped beneath the water, and started to thrash. Although she’s only an infant, she weighed at least 700 pounds — more than enough to cause some serious damage. It was also important to stay away from the murky water and giant elephant turds that would occasionally belch to the surface!


On the ride back, within sight of the camp, Diane’s elephant started to run for no particular reason. It may have startled because a coconut was rolling on the ground. Perhaps it just did what Diane does when she’s running, which is to speed up on the home stretch (within sight of the barn!) Diane hung on until it settled down again, yelling “Ho” to no effect (the stop command is “How”).

We had a fun day and a great experience at the ‘elephant training camp’. We think that’s a bit of misnomer though, because the elephants are already trained, and it’s the tourists that need the lessons!


First Impressions of Bangkok

November 10, 2009

Bangkok is a very different place than when Patrick traveled here twenty years ago, and very different than the other large cities we’ve been to on our travels.

  • The city is very modern looking. There are a lot of sky scrapers. The shopping area looks like a futuristic version of Epcot Center. Overall the city looks more developed and modern than Vancouver, London, or New York.
  • Public transit is excellent. There is a Skytrain which is wider, nicer, and more elevated than the one in Vancouver. Overhead walkways are common at major intersections (like on the Las Vegas strip). There is a large, modern subway, efficient buses, and a high-speed water taxi on the river.
  • The city is very clean compared to those in Africa and India.
  • For the most part, drivers follow the traffic rules and signals.
  • There are street food stalls almost everywhere serving cheap and delicious food. We’ve only eaten in a restaurant a couple of times. Soups, noodles, curries, vegetarian dishes, and bar-b-qued chicken and duck are common.
  • There are a couple of bars located on the roofs of skyscrapers, something not found elsewhere due to the obvious safety issues.
  • You can buy fried insects on the street including larvae, crickets, grass hoppers, and scorpions.
  • Many sidewalks are lined with street vendors. Common items are food, clothing, and jewelry. You can still buy pirated CDs and DVDs, and copies of designer clothes and watches. You can also have music and movies loaded onto your iPod.
  • You can buy brass knuckles, switchblades, throwing stars, and tasers on the street, all of which are illegal Canada.
  • You can also buy Viagra and Cialis on the street, which may or may not be real.
  • Vendors are polite and not pushy. Negotiating is a friendly process.
  • You can get a fish pedicure here. For a few dollars you soak your feet in a tank of small ‘doctor fish’ from Japan that eat the dead skin from your feet.
  • We ate bird’s nest soup in Chinatown. This is a gelatinous ‘noodle’ soup made from the boiled nests of sea birds. The nests are made from bird saliva and are harvested by men who climb high in seaside caves.
  • Beer is sold almost everywhere, even at street stalls. It isn’t clear if premises need to be licensed.
  • Foreign fast food is commonly available including McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Swenson’s ice cream parlours. McDonald’s serves beef (unlike India) and hot pies, but instead of apple they are filled with broccoli or corn.
  • Coffee shops, including Starbucks, are common, contributing significantly to Diane’s enjoyment of the city.
  • There are 7-Elevens everywhere. Apparently there are almost 4000 throughout Thailand, and they sell cheap beer!
  • There are large, modern shopping malls filled with international stores, luxury products, and luxury prices.
  • It is still common to see foreign men of all ages with beautiful, young Thai women (some of whom are also men). Some foreign men retire here for this reason.
  • There is a visible police presence, especially in tourist areas. They appear to here to assist and protect the tourists, rather than extort them as in many other countries.

Observations about Nepal

November 10, 2009
  • The majority of people in Nepal are Hindu rather than Buddhist as we had expected. In the mountains, the majority are Buddhist. Prayer flags and prayer wheels are common.
  • Almost the entire Nepali royal family was killed in a murder suicide by one of the crown princes in 2001, leading to the downfall and elimination of the monarchy.
  • Many villages in Nepal don’t have road access. Most things are carried on trains of ponies, but large or fragile items are transported by human porters.
  • Nepal is a very poor country. Outside of the cities and trekking routes, most people live a very basic existence.
  • The Himalayan mountains are really big. They make the Rockies look small.
  • The city of Pokhara is an adventure seekers paradise. Mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, trekking, mountain climbing, canyoneering, and paragliding are all done against a backdrop of spectacular mountains.
  • Pokhara also has a great streak house. Surprisingly the steaks are imported from India, where it was virtually impossible to find beef. In most other places in Nepal, you can only get buffalo.
  • The streets in Kathmandu fold up at ten PM, including most restaurants.
  • We couldn’t get enough ‘momos’ — small dumplings filled with vegetables or meat that are steamed or fried.
  • Trekking in Nepal is better than going to a ‘fat farm’. Two to three weeks of walking in the mountains will take weight off anyone.
  • The menu at all trekking guest houses is almost identical. The only difference is that the prices get higher the further you get away from the road.
  • On average, all the trekking in Nepal is flat. There is just a lot of up and down in between.

Things we’ve learned in India

November 10, 2009

We’ve learned a lot in India. Yes we’ve learned about India and its peoples, but we’ve also learned about ourselves. Here are some of the things we’ve picked up…

  • Indian people that know about Canada think that it’s a good country.
  • Indian culture, religion, language, and food are far more exotic and varied than what we experience in Vancouver, which originates mostly from a single state in India called Punjab.
  • People in India basically want what we have in North America, but it doesn’t seem feasible or sustainable for a billion more people to live like we do.
  • India appears to be on the verge of an environmental meltdown. The average person doesn’t appear to have any understanding, appreciation, or care for their environment. It is the norm to dispose of garbage on the street or ground (even in parks) and out the windows of vehicles and trains.
  • It’s much easier to be a vegetarian if you live in India.
  • Even though we’re not fit right now, we’re fitter than most Indian people.
  • If you’re down to two pairs of underwear, don’t lose a pair on a bus.
  • Don’t play solitaire on a moving boat if you want to keep all your cards.
  • Just because you’re next in line doesn’t mean that you’re next.
  • Sometimes four showers a day isn’t quite enough.
  • A family of four can ride on a single motorcycle.
  • Not all towels are created equal.
  • Just because a man sells Patrick some underwear, doesn’t mean that they are men’s underwear.
  • Just because an Indian transvestite isn’t looking at you, doesn’t mean that he/she won’t grab for your crotch.
  • Every day spent traveling in India is interesting.
  • Three months isn’t long enough to really see the country.
  • Three months was the right amount of time for us. We are ready for our next adventure.