2008: The Conclusion

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It’s just about three years to the date I quit my job and trotted off round the region for some major travelling. I’ve come back, snagged a new job, started dating the guy who would be my husband and finally, finally finished blogging about each trip. It’s been a big project: first taking a year and a good chunk of my savings to go travelling, then documenting all of it – some of it before I started work again and most of it while juggling a new and challenging job.

Friends asked if I’d write a book and I seriously considered it for a month or so. After writing a few drafts on gmail, I realised that I had neither the vision nor the perseverance to turn it into a book. I already have another personal blog and figured why not just blog it. After all, I wasn’t out to make money with publishing a book. (Neither did it help that I didn’t want to spend even more of my savings on what I feel is a vanity project – I simply didn’t know what to say, aside from “look at me, look what I did!”) So I started this blog and plonked in the first gmail drafts as a start.

The biggest thing I learned from this project was that I could make things happen. I had the resources and capacity to step right out and do what had been pent up within me for a while. I came from the point of being burnt out and exhausted from my previous job, full of resentment at the system. I needed a time of calm, of being by myself and of doing what I wanted whenever I wanted for a few good months. I needed this break, and I made it happen.

I eased into gradually. Don’t ask me how things came together, but they did. I started off in Laos with the really chill and laidback Siamesecat for two weeks. We sat in neverending bus rides, stumbled into bus stations at ungodly hours in the morning and swung like monkeys from tree to tree. We explored various food options, flirted with other travellers and got really comfortable being on the road together. She was the calm to my uptightness, she stayed awake while I passed out and slept at the Ungodly Hour bus station at 4am. All I needed to do was navigate (running joke between us that she’d never get anywhere without me) and occasionally communicate with sign language, grunts and shy smiles with the locals.

Then I went to the Philippines. I strung several trips into one, starting out diving with a bunch from my usual dive group and going snorkelling with the whalesharks with them, followed by a visit to a community that my church had been sponsoring, some time travelling independently, then more diving with another friend. The stretches of independent travel interspersed with fully planned activities helped me ease further into independent travel.

The next jaunt was to Thailand. I was fortunate to have the lovely and ever hospitable Dee open her home to me as a (very swanky) base in Bangkok. From there, I went to Kanchanaburi and suddenly found myself, for once, truly on my own with no particular aim nor date to return by. Again, the stars aligned and I fell in with Tom. We travelled the rest of my Thailand trip together and again he was the laidback foil to my go-getterness and pretty much went with the flow of whatever caught my fancy.

Vietnam was the rude shock to my system. I was well and truly alone, not having any long-term travel companion. It was there that I toughened up, practised being super assertive and learning to protect myself. I think I matured as a traveller then, doing all sorts out risky things like stand up for myself to an exortionist bully in a dark street at midnight, fend for myself in all sorts of odd situations, and learn to deal with the crap travelling threw at me (like being knocked over – ever so gently – by a motorbike while crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City and jumping right back up cussing at the hapless, wide-eyed rider).

And that was pretty much the learning curve for me. Following that, China was incredibly, unbelievably smooth sailing and eye-opening. It exceeded my expectations tremendously and delivered none of the negative stuff I thought might come following my Vietnam experience. Then it was Bali and Komodo for some of the best diving I’ve ever done and experiences with incredibly warm people.

All in all, I think I did pretty well: getting through it all in one piece. I watched out for myself and also learned when to let go, relax and trust people. I soaked up little tricks like keeping exact change in hand beforehand so that I could close negotiations quickly, and counting the number of bags I had whenever I left a bus or train or plane. I learned how to assess situations and get out of them, like how I avoided the prophylactic-wielding tour guide or  knowing that having several very strong drinks with a bunch of friendly Canadians on Canada Day is cool, but going to their room to smoke pot for the first time while high on said strong drinks isn’t.

After 200 days of travelling in 8 countries and 3 years of documenting it here, I’ve achieved the goal I set out in the travel section of this blog.

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March in Laos: The Real Monkey Business

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Did you figure out how we got from tree house to tree house? Check out the picture below and see if you can now.

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There were cables strung up across different parts of the valley and also to each tree house. We were all kitted up with harnesses and a pulley and we were all set to go across the zipline. After a few zips across picturesque valleys and a couple of treks on foot, we went across the final cable to get into our tree house.

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It was loads of fun because of the incredibly high speeds. It was hard to appreciate the scenery while going past really fast. I think it was also less scary seeing the river coursing down the valley so far below when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll crash into a tree on the other side.

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But you do slow down in the end. Occasionally if you don’t build up enough momentum you end up slowing down too fast and have to climb the rest of the, thankfully, short way back to the receiving platform.

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There were some problems with rats at another tree house and this cat was despatched to get rid of them. Of course it didn’t have its own harness, so into a sack it went. It wasn’t too happy about the disrespectful treatment and gave its ride a good scratch when freed. At least it must’ve been in cat heaven hunting all the rats on the tree.

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It’s a pity I didn’t get any good pictures while on the zipline. Most of the time I was going to fast to frame the picture well, other times it was unfocussed and most time I was just having too much fun to even want to consider marring the experience by watching my camera fall hundreds of metres into the river below.

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Nonetheless, the dusk views from the tree houses were pretty amazing. It was good enough seeing this, it didn’t matter that we hardly saw any wildlife.

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Except this lizard that one of the local guides gamely displayed on his shirt.

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It was a lovely two and a half days running round the forest ziplining like rabid monkeys across the cables over and over and over and over again. It was great getting to know the others in the group swapping stories by candlelight at night, then going to sleep and waking up to another day of ziplining again. It really was worth coming all this while to Laos for this.

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March in Laos: Tree Houses

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As I mentioned earlier,  Siamesecat and I were up to some monkey business. We’d booked a couple nights’ stay in what was touted as a gibbon sanctuary. To cut the suspense, we didn’t see a single monkey, gibbon or not, in our three days and two nights in the forest. It was probably because we made so much noise tramping along the paths that we hardly even saw birds, let alone simians.

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Anyhow, it was lovely being right in the thick of nature. After being dropped off from the van that took us to Ban Toup from Huay Xai, it was a good two-hour walk from the little dot of a village to where we spied the first sign to our accommodation for the night.

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I’d never stayed in a tree house before and this excited me to no end. Seeing the first one looming ahead in the distance filled me with awe. It amazed me to think of how the first plank had to be hauled up to the top and painstakingly assembled, of course by hand, plank by plank and nail by nail.

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As we approached one by one, we were amazed by how well-made the tree house was, and how much space there was inside.

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The view from the top was lovely. This particular tree house had a stream running below it. It was great just leaning against the railing and doing nothing except enjoy the scenery.

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There was plenty of space for the six of us. The tree house turned into a bit of a tent city at night as each pair of mattresses had a thick mosquito net strung over it. We were definitely glad to put up the nets so that we could escape from the incredibly lot of insects at night. It was the jungle after all. In fact the only entertainment at night ,given that there was no electricity, was chatting in the candlelight. That until Discovery Channel came on, live mind you, as someone spied a large spider champing in its prey in one of the webbed alcoves.

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Meals were lovely. It was mainly plainly cooked vegetables with rice, but they were always skilfully cooked with a deft hand that I couldn’t help marvel that none of us particularly missed meat nor did anyone complain that the food was monotonous. There was plenty of fruit and occasionally one of our guides would swing by and ceremoniously cut up a pineapple or mango for us to devour.

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Smoking was not allowed in case of forest fires and drinking was only possible if we’d paid our guides an exorbitant sum to go out to Ban Toup for a warm beer. It was worth the hassle at all, so all the exercise in the day, healthy food and early nights going to bed soon after the sun went down, coupled with the fresh, fresh air made it feel like we were on a health camp. It was lovely.

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We didn’t have electricity at the tree house but we certainly did have running water. It was a bit of a pleasant shock to come into a tree house and see the sink and tap and use it to wash my hands. They’d rigged up a series of pipes and pumps to get filtered water running to each tree house. It was fantastic. There was a toilet and shower in the tree house too. Toilet paper had to be disposed of separately because it took ages to break down and having squares of toilet paper litter the ground below wouldn’t do at all in an eco-sanctuary. It was lovely taking a shower in the open concept bathroom, though standing on the slats and seeing how far one could fall was a tad frightening. However,  looking out at the valley from this height really took singing in the shower to a new level.

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One thing you may wonder is: if we were so high up in the tree, how did we get there? Well, we certainly didn’t climb up, that’s for sure. Believe me, nobody in their right mind would walk under a tree house with this kind of toilet system. It wasn’t quite a boot camp. Guess, I’ll tell you in my next post.

March in Laos: Exciting Eats at a Sleepy Town

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Siamesecat and I certainly weren’t going to stay idle as we cooled our heels in Huay Xai. We immediately set off to eat. The first thing we saw was a little stand selling tam som AKA papaya salad. It’s not commonly known, but Thai papaya salad (som tam) really originated in Laos. It’s made by pounding green papaya shreds into, among other things, cherry tomato, cucumber, dried river prawns and fermented river crab paste. The river crab paste made me slightly worried as I peered into the container full of tiny crab carcasses in gloopy brown goo. My venerable guide book cautioned that food made from such fermented pastes, especially in this area, could give one liver fluke.

Nevertheless, the tam som was made by such friendly people Siamesecat and I just had to pull up a chair at the stall. It was reassuring how locals in mopeds kept pulling up for their tam som fix but not so when they took over the mortar and pestle and tasted the salad as they made it (double-dipping as usual). Of course the mortar and pestle wasn’t washed in between salads. We resolutely ignored hygiene concerns and plucked up the courage for our own order. Like most Lao food, it looked awful but tasted really awesome. We slurped it up in double-quick time as more people DIY-ed their salads, then tried to pay the man who made our salad. He gave us a puzzled look and then it dawned on us that he was another customer and was doing us a favour to make the tam som! He called out and a young girl appeared from nowhere. She accepted money from us but put it down somewhere behind the containers of ingredients, then scuttled off somewhere else. The funny thing was that we never found out who the owner really was. In case you’re wondering, we never got sick eating Lao food. Having said that, I haven’t specifically checked if I’ve got liver fluke!

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Salad obviously wasn’t going to fill us up for long. A stroll to the edge of town (not very far away) took us to a rickety makeshift stand with quite a few people having their share of some kind of spicy noodle. We did our usual mime of sitting down, looking pointedly at the other noodle bowls on the table, then grinning expectantly at the proprietress. She smiled back, pointed at the same noodle bowls and then starting scooping out broth of some sort for us. Contentedly, we sat back, expecting something like this to appear in front of us:

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We were shocked to find that all she placed in front of us was tomato pulp in plain water. First I sniffed at it, then took a little taste (it was slightly sweet and tomato-y), looked up in horror at Siamesecat and then arched a quizzical eyebrow at the proprietress. She apologetically pointed out a large container full of a sambal chilli paste on the table and gestured at the toppings. It was the usual DIY till you get the perfect personalised taste approach so common in Laos. We added some of the incredibly lethal chilli paste, probably about a tenth of what the locals added, some shredded coriander and spring onion, then salt, sugar and msg. The proprietress kept signalling to us that we needed to add more of the msg and was rather puzzled when we demurred. “Crazy tourists,” she must have thought.

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Only after we’d mix-mix-mixed to our (her?) satisfaction did the proprietress retrieve our bowls from us and add in the noodles. The result was cold and a very refreshing burst of hot, spicy and salty with hints of sweet and ferment. The noodles were probably made by shaving a block of steamed rice flour (think something along the lines of Singaporean chwee kuey). They were so good that Siamesecat and I decided to try another bowl of a variation: not shaved noodles but the same cut into cubes. The best part? It cost us next to nothing for each bowl (about SGD0.10, I kid you not).

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We were so pleased with our good cheap eat that we asked for a photo with the proprietress and here we are below. She wrote down her address in Lao for me to send her a copy. I hope she got it.

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As we wandered back into town, Siamesecat spied this lady making egg omelettes on a bamboo fire. Despite Siamesecat’s egg allergy, we went ahead and had one each (bad girl!).

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This omelette was filled with kang kong (some kind of water spinach) and bean sprouts, and eaten with a dipping sauce of fish sauce and garlic. Simple but gratifying.

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We didn’t spend all day eating. My intermezzo was heading to the local Red Cross where for about SGD5, I had a massage and a session in a traditional steam room. The wooden stilt house was built such that a massive wood fire under the house heated a vat of water steeped with local herbs. I don’t know how they managed not to burn the house down. The herbal steam was shunted into a steam room. In a provided sarong, I sat there for as long as I could, apeing the locals by rubbing the condensed steam (and sweat??) onto my arms and legs. Then I sat outside for a while, sipping hot herbal tea, before going in again. Repeat three times and I was relaxed, zenned out and ready for dinner.

With such a name, we couldn’t resist going to Nutpop for dinner. The English menu was a nice change from our usual order-by-gesticulation routine.

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We celebrated making the 15-hour journey in one piece with some local ginger whisky.  I don’t know how it was made, neither do I want to find out. It didn’t taste as good as it looked in the swanky wine glass. We both had difficulty finishing it!

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Thankfully, the food was far better. In our usual greed, we ordered enough for a family. The food was really good as was standard in Laos. What stood out was the pork larp, a meat salad of minced pork, fish sauce and green beans finished off with lime juice; and the steamed river fish. The fish was a lovely departure from the norm of saltwater fish and was done “Thai-style” (whatever that meant). It helped that the lime and lemongrass made it refreshing and thus easier for us to eat more than we should have!

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March in Laos: Along the Mekong in Huay Xai

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Unlike most travellers who were using Huay Xai as a transit point between Thailand and Laos, Siamesecat and I made our way to the border town for some monkey business. (More on that next time.) We spent a little time cooling our heels here at this tiny strip of huts along the Mekong. I wished “Visit Laos” year would come round more so they’d get a new sign. While the town appeared fairly nondescript, it was so laid back that it was almost worth the couple of days spent here.

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The streets were tidy and well-kept, lined by lots of pretty flowering shrubs.

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The main focus was of course the river. The slow boat from Luang Prabang ejected its passengers, grubby from the two-day journey, along Huay Xai’s banks. Everything in this town seemed to point to the river.

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Even the local temple, with its so-tacky-it’s-cool dragon balustrade, pointed to the river with the long flight of stairs up to the shrines themselves.

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The stairs undulated their way down to the river, reminding devotees returning from prayer exactly where the source of life was for this town.

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Strangely enough for a riverside town, this place was incredibly dusty. Even this cutie-pie of a dog had its fur messed up with brown. It lived at our guesthouse and at the end of our stay we still couldn’t figure out whether it was a white dog or a brown one.

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March in Laos: A Long Bus Trip

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Our next stop was Huay Xai, right on the border with North Thailand. By plane, it was only an hour away but the schedules and prices just weren’t suitable. Our next options were either to take the slow boat up the Mekong that would take two days or the bus that took a third of a time, just 15 hours. That’s Laos for you: when they do slow, they really show you what slow means.

To make things hopefully less painful, we took the overnight bus that was scheduled to leave Luang Prabang at 4.30pm. Lord knows why they even bothered with the precision of :30 because we sat around in the bus till 6pm before it finally pulled out of the terminus.

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The funny thing about Lao buses is that they are never full. Siamesecat and I were thankful that we arrived in time for the bus as we got a double seat to ourselves. Slowly the bus filled up, mainly with locals and some rowdy backpackers at the back. No chickens yet. Then there weren’t any seats left. Still, the bus wasn’t full. To our amazement, the conductor whipped out some plastic chairs to line the aisle, so more people squeezed on. They started tying to the roof big sacks of what was probably rice and after a while, we headed off.

As we trundled off, it dawned on us why the journey would take so long. The bus seemed to stop every hundred metres or so to pick up more passengers. The bus was never full. Soon, even the plastic chairs in the aisle were filled up and there were people standing in between, hanging on for dear life as if on a 15 minute commute rather than a 15 hour one. We gradually dropped off the sacks of rice. They landed heftily on the ground with muffled thuds as the night turned pitch black. At one point, a motorcycle putted up and there was a bit of commotion and grunting on the roof. Soon, the rider squeezed his way on board, helmet on head to free up his hands for holding on. At the only dinner stop, we all trooped off the bus and gawked at the amazing sight of the motorcycle lashed to the roof of the bus. We hurriedly grabbed some dinner, looed, and rushed back to reclaim our seats, thankful that we were kiasu-Singaporean enough to “chope seat” by leaving our packs on it.

The bus started to pick up speed as we drove through the mountainous, truly sparsely inhabited area of the far north. It felt like we were the only ones hurtling through the dark lonely night. A few hours after the dinner stop, the driver flipped on the tape deck and loud Thai remixes of 90s boyband songs came on. After a couple of turns on repeat, the rowdy backpackers at the back started heckling and demanding that the driver switch it off. Siamesecat and I kept quiet, we agreed that it was  better to be deaf and alive than just dead if the driver needed the music to stay awake. We were glad when the driver simply ignored the heckling and kept going.

The cheerful Thai boyband pop became a bizarre counterpoint as lightning started flashing around us. For split seconds, we saw the trees and slopes lit up in dark grey-green around us. Then came the thunder and the accompanying driving (!) rain. Siamesecat and I were now doubly thankful that we decided to keep our bags with us instead of putting them on the roof. It was worth the lesser discomfort of having to fold ourselves into a semi-crouching position with feet on bag on floor than to discover our possessions sodden beyond salvage the next morning. Music still blaring, we drifted off to sleep. The closed windows misted over as we continued on our way.

I woke intermittently and as dawn crept up on us, this lovely sight greeted me:

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There was more. The valleys were clouded over and in the morning sun was nothing but stunningly beautiful.

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We were firmly in the hilltribe area. Curious kiddos did the usual, stopping their play to stare and wave. We saw villages slowly come alive as the doors to stilt huts slowly opened and tribespeople emerged on their daily business. Some went to work on the mountain slopes, others took goods to the market and still more laid out their wares on mats along the road.

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Exactly 15 hours later, we pulled past the Red Cross building at Huay Xai. We made it in one piece! I(n any case, true to Lao-style, the place was shut.)

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Knees creaking, we went off in search of a guesthouse.

March in Laos: Up the Mekong

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Siamesecat and I took a trip up the Mekong to visit the Pak Ou caves, famous for its retired Buddha statues. We took one of these wooden boats and put-putted slowly up the river.

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On the muddy banks grew the occasional pair of majestic banyans, roots entwined in a charming embrace.

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We passed by typical idyllic scenes of daily life, here appearing to be quite authentic and not a show for the tourists.

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Ours was the true blue experience as we pulled up alongside a petrol shop-boat to top up the fuel tank.

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We stopped at a flight of cement stairs leading up to a little village that specialised in local whisky.

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Glutinous rice whisky (lao lao) of all sorts of interesting flavours was laid out for sale.

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There was the usual scorpion one for virility…

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… and snake too for the same. There was also the less common centipede which was so big we wondered how it got stuffed into the bottle.

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They gave out samples of the regular version. We tried out shots of the mild stuff that was quite pleasing as it was sweet and light, then progressed on to the full strength (40%) stuff that was smooth but not quite worth lugging around the country, especially considering the makeshift distillery it was made in.

We were somewhat taken aback when the villagers proudly showed us their distillery shack. This setup is it: three barrels, a wood stove and a bunch of earthenware jars. We soon moved swiftly on.

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Spirits of another sort awaited us at the Pak Ou Caves where old Buddha statues were deconsecrated and put out to pasture. It was behind an amazing cliff face, looking rather like it came out from a movie set.

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Inside were Buddha images in various stages of age and wear. Some didn’t look quite that old and others, well, had seen far better times.

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There really were hundred and hundreds of these images. I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count.

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There were statues in every nook and corner of the cave, all of them crowding even to the edges of the rock shelves. I think that was the most Buddha images I’ve ever seen in one place. Crazy stuff.

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