Sunday, February 10, 2008

Thailand: From Bangkok to Luang Prabang, Laos

Wednesday January 30th Bangkok, Thailand
We arrived to Bangkok yesterday morning at 4:00am. The bus we took was a ten hour overnight bus that was supposed to arrive at 5:00am but the driver was driving like a maniac. I was completely lifted out of my seat a few times due to the poor roads and velocity at which the bus would hit the dips and bumps causing me to wake up throughout the ride. We checked into the Novotel Siam Square when we got there and went back to sleep until 10am. For lunch, we went to Jim Thompson's old house where I had sweet and sour snapper and a fresh greens salad. I was so happy to eat a normal meal, something that I haven't done in quite sometime due to the lack of selection. Many places where we've been in the South just offer noodles or soup dishes. Jim Thompson was an American architect that moved to Thailand after WWII where he started a silk company. He mysteriously disappeared in the Cameron Highlands where he was never heard from again. Last night we met up for an Italian dinner with out new friend John, an American guy we met in Khao Sok who's working for the WWF in Laos. After the dinner, Cary and I went to see the movie Eastern Promises, the most violent movie I've ever seen. It was a good movie but entirely way too bloody.
This morning we went to get our visas at the Vietnamese embassy. It was pouring rain outside and we were soaked my the time we got there. The streets here are poorly designed and maintained and everything just flooded even though it only rained for a couple of hours. The visas cost more than we were expecting, about $80 each. We have to go back to pick them up tomorrow or Friday. The entrance to the embassy was completely flooded. We had to walk through what looked like a small pond just to get inside. When we left, we saw dozens of roaches crawling all over the walls which we almost backed up into. That would've been disgusting and I of course was completely freaked out.

February 5th Chiang Mai, Thailand
We arrived to Chiang Mai two days ago and decided to spend the day walking around the city. At one of the many temples here, we met a Thai man who is a driver. We had been looking into tours for the next day, all of which seemed really expensive. One of my friends who has spent several months in Thailand recommended that we get a driver here for the day. His prices seemed fair, just $9 each for the whole day, he had a nice car, was polite, and well dressed. He offered to drive us to the elephants where we would see a show and then ride them through the forest for an hour, see the long neck women from the Karen tribe, and take us to the tribal museum among other things. We asked him how much the entry fees would be for all of those places but he said he didn't know. I figured it would be cheaper than the tour that was going to cost around $40 per person since we'd be buying our tickets directly at the places instead of through a travel agency as we would've had to do otherwise since the places are far from the city. So, Cary and I agreed and he picked us up at 8:30am yesterday at our hotel. At first everything seemed fine but, when we arrived to the elephant center, we were told that the ticket would be even more than it would've been for a tour with everything included. We realized that we had made a mistake but there was nothing we could do. At the center, we saw an elephant show where the elephants were extremely skilled. They could play the harmonica in unison, kick a soccer ball in the goal, and paint pictures among other things. They were really cute and I hope they are treated well. I'm not big on zoos or animals in captivity but I had never seen what elephants were capable of like I did yesterday. They are brilliant animals. After the show, we went for an ox cart ride. I think the oxes or something smelled so bad that I could hardly tolerate it and the wooden cart in which we were riding seemed that it would collapse into pieces at any moment. However, the scenery was pretty once I got past the smell and I don't think I had ever seen oxes in person before. We got dropped off at what was supposedly a Lisu tribal village but I honestly think it could've been Thai people dressed like up them in order to make money off of the tourist appeal. I'm not sure but, it was very touristy, I didn't like the feel of it and everyone working there kept hounding us to buy things. From there, an elephant came to pick us up and Cary and I rode in the seat together on the elephants back. There was a Thai guy riding on the elephants head somehow directing him where to go. We were so high up there and we had to really hold on to the bar in order to keep from falling out of the seat at some points. We rode the elephant for about 40 minutes maybe, we even rode through to little rivers with him. He was trying to eat along the way just like a horse and while we were crossing the river he sucked up water through his truck and was blowing it out all over the place. Lucky for us, he blew it in front of him and not directly up in the air where it would've fallen all over us. After the ride we had lunch, which wasn't anything memorable. From there, we proceeded to the river where we took a little bamboo raft down the river for about 30 minutes. The water was low so two Korean men guided the raft with bamboo sticks that they used to push off from the bottom. After the raft ride, our driver, Long, picked us up and told us that he would take us to see the Long Neck Women of the Karen tribe. Then, he told us that it would cost 500 baht each ($15) to go and see them. I wasn't under the impression that we would have to pay prices like that and we were so frustrated. Cary and I then realized that Long had lied to us the day before when he said he didn't know the prices. We had already paid too much for the elephant center and although the it was fun, it was very touristy. We didn't want to pay $15 more, which is a lot of money here, just to see people put on display as a tourist attraction. I wouldn't have any problem buying something from the women, or donating money to education or a good cause for them, but the idea of paying a fee just to see what a Long Neck Woman looks like didn't sit well with me or Cary. I would think that they would want to share their culture with people and be proud of who they are. To me, the idea was just as absurd as an American char foreigner, you have to pay money to come into my neighborhood for a walk. We told Long that we would skip the Long Neck Women and just go to the tribal museum, which was free, before heading back to town. That's when he said, "You don't want to go shopping?" We said no and he said, "Oh, but you should see the handicrafts that are made here." We said we'd go look at them but that we weren't going to buy anything. The tribal museum was nice and informative with translations of everything in English. There was also a room dedicated to the King, Rama the 9th, and his works with the various indigenous groups of Thailand. I will talk more later about the king but there is some serious propaganda all throughout Thailand that reminded me of that large fallen statue of Saddam Hussein that I saw on TV right after the US entered the country. It's intense to say the least and I wouldn't dare say anything in public against the king. People have been jailed for it. After the museum, Long dropped us off at a store where they make precious gems. I didn't want to go but he seemed really eager for us to visit the place. We looked around as two people were watching over us like hawks trying to persuade us to buy something, which of course, we didn't. Then, he took us to one more store across the street that sold carpets and souvenirs and Cary and I had a talk while we were inside. We said that we were going to tell him that we wanted to go back to the city and drop us off at a restaurant there so we could eat dinner. We had to have a plan because Long was persistent about us visiting the places. So we told him and he said, "Just two more stores." We told him again that we didn't want to go and made it clear, but he repeated his words again. He told us that the stores we visit give him gas money and that it didn't matter if we bought something or not, but that we went there to look a bit. He basically wasn't going to take us back and we weren't about to fight him on it, although, maybe we should have demanded to go back or not get back in the car. He drug us to the next store where Cary and I walked through in less than 5 minutes and then we went back to the car. Long wasn't there. We waited outside for about 10 minutes before he came back out and told us that we had to stay in the store for 10 to 15 minutes and pretend to look at things or else he wouldn't get his money. I was so pissed off by that point and really couldn't have cared less whether or not they paid him gas money because he had lied to us, and then drug us around on a shopping trip that we didn't want to go on. Then, he took us to a place and said we had to stay in there for 10 to 15 minutes and then he would take us back to the city. We went into the empty store where a man greeted us and asked us what he could do for us. Cary and I just looked at each other not knowing what to say because we realized that the man was a tailor and there was nothing to look at. The entire thing was so ridiculous. We basically had to look at books and pick out patterns and pretend to be interested in buying stuff or else this man wasn't going to take us back to the city. It was such an uncomfortable situation. I thought for sure that Cary or I would tell the man what was going on with our driver but for some reason, neither of us said anything. After that store we said, "OK, now take us back, we did the two stores." But then, he came back at us with an offer to lower our fee for the day by 100 baht if we went to one more store. I told him for a 150 baht discount we'd go. But honestly, the whole thing was crazy. We were so annoyed by the end of the day that all we wanted to do was leave Thailand. We went to the last store where an Indian man tried to sell us carpets yet again. When we were in there we saw other tourists in the same position as us. I heard a woman say, "But I don't even like carpets!" It seemed that their driver had put them through the same ordeal. I heard so much hype about Thailand before coming here but it honestly hasn't met my expectations.

February 7th Chiang Kong, Thailand
Today we took a mini-bus for about 6 hours to this city that's on the border with Laos. Tomorrow we will wake up early to start our two day slow boat trip on the Mekong River. We will cross the border tomorrow and then we will arrive to Luang Prabang the next day, Saturday. I've heard great things about the city so I'm really looking forward to it. It'll be a nice change to get out of Thailand and hopefully away from the masses of tourists. Today on the bus I was reading a book by Isabel Allende in Spanish. The girl sitting next to me saw my book and at the next rest stop came up to me and asked me in Spanish if I was from Spain. It turned out that she was from Barcelona but is living in Belgium at the moment working in a Spanish library there. We talked for a long time about many things and it was nice to meet a Spanish speaker along the way.
As for Thailand's king, Rama the 9th, it is my understanding that his sister apparently died about a month ago and the whole country has been in mourning ever since. There are billboards of her picture all over the place. It seems that there are just as many of her as there are of the king himself. A Thai woman told me that when his sister died that the whole country had to dress in only black and white clothes for 7 days. When we went to the Grand Palace in Bangkok where the King lives, I saw dozens of older women dressed in black and white going to a restricted area of the palace to pay their respects to his sister at a lying in state ceremony. Apparently it's been going on for the past month and people keep coming. Someone told me that it could go on for 100 days before they cremate the body. I guess 100 days is standard for someone in the royal family. I don't understand how they can preserve a body for that long though.

Sunday February 10th Luang Prabang, Laos
I am so happy to be in Laos. I already love it and think it might be my favorite place even though we just got here last night. For the past two days we were taking a slow boat down the Mekong River in order to travel from Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos. It was the craziest boat ride of my life. On Friday, we traveled for 6 hours in a boat with about 100 other people. They tried to pack it even fuller but so many people were complaining about the amount of people and the fact that there were many other empty boats just sitting at the docks so, they finally allowed many of the people to switch to the other boat. I met a Chilean rock group that has been traveling around Asia for a year. There were 4 guys and 1 girl. I was so surprised to meet Chileans over here but I recognized them immediately by their accent. They were moved to the other boat that I wasn't on so I never saw them after the departure; however, I was told by some friends that they continued to sing and play songs for hours on that boat. I sat in a plastic chair for the 6 hours which seemed to me to be a lot more comfortable than the floor where Cary was seated or the uncomfortable wooden benches. The trip was OK, not the greatest, but the scenery was nice although, it never really changed much. I sat next to Vicky and Marie, two British girls we met in the van from Chiang Mai who are traveling together for about 3 months. The annoying thing about the boat ride was that it turned into a party boat as soon as we got on. They were selling endless amounts of beer, of which they finally sold out of and people were smoking all over the place. There was one really annoying smoker in particular, a European guy with a mullet. I don't know where he was from but he was a chain smoker for sure. He just kept smoking one cigarette after the next and my allergies were going crazy. There was no way for me to escape the smoke because people were smoking everywhere. Then half way into the trip two Lao guys with a rifle boarder out boat which made everyone a little nervous since they came out of no where. They immediately went to the front of the boat where they stayed for the remainder of the trip. As we arrived to the little village where we had to spend the night, we realized that they were most likely there to protect us and our things. Cary was standing at the front of the boat as we pulled up to the beach and one villager immediately tried to board our boat in order to rob us. One of the guys at the front of the boat kicked the man and yelled something at him and when he wasn't dissuaded, he pulled out a pistol which got the point across. I was shocked when Cary told me what had happened because I didn't see any of it but, we had been warned when we left Thailand that people might try to rob our things there in that village. As soon as I got of the boat, I almost fell over with my heavy backpack because we had to walk up a steep hill covered in sand. A little Lao boy grabbed my arm trying to help me up but as soon as he saw I was OK he started making motions with his hand so that I would give him things from my bag. I felt sorry for the boy that he had learned at such a young age to act in such a way. We quickly found a hotel since it was starting to get dark and ended up staying in the same place as Vicky and Marie. As soon as we accepted the room, the guy who worked there and showed us the room who also happened to be the son of the hotel owner asked us if we wanted marijuana. We said no and closed our door. I had never been offered drugs like that by a random person before and wondered if his mother knew about his little business. That night the lights went off at 10:30pm because the village is so small that it is run on generators that get turned off at night. The next day, we met at the boat at 8:30am to finish the remainder of the trip, a boat ride that would last for 9 hours. Cary wanted to take the other boat so that's what we did. Unfortunately, the mullet man ended up sitting right next to me and smoked the whole day yet again. What a surprise! He was ashing his cigarettes all over the place and many times the ashes landed on me. I said something to him twice but he didn't seem to care. I was so angry. One time the ashes even landed on my lips. It was so disgusting and I felt so sick from all the smoke. I actually have a sinus infection now, mostly like because of the mullet man and one of his friends. I sat in the front of the boat yesterday because I thought it would be nice to be able to stretch out there since there were no plastics chairs on that boat and I didn't want to sit on a bench. It was great until the boat made a stop soon after we left and let about 30 to 40 more Lao people on their boat with their massive bags of rice, motorcycles, and who knows what else. Everyone decided to pile their things into the front where I was sitting. We looked like a boat of fleeing immigrants. One woman who decided to practically take a nap on top of my legs had no respect for personal space. Half of the people who got on our boat didn't have shoes and she was one of them. After she finally sat up from her nap she kept rubbing her dirty feet all over me and my things. It was such a miserable boat ride. The boat finally stopped again and some of the people got off with their things but the majority stayed on and even more people got on at that stop. Two young monks who were probably only 18 years old got on the boat and sat next to me. People kind of cleared out for them, I assume out of respect, so I had a little more room after they got on. The foot lady however, continued to put her feet wherever she pleased and one of the monks even moved a bit in an attempt to avoid her touching him. To top all of this off, we saw a speed boat crash that we stopped at in order to rescue the people from the accident. Cary and I had read in our guide books not to take the speed boats because they often crash into rocks. I really can't even believe they have speed boats because there are so many rocks throughout the river and you can see small rapids along the way. I was so thankful that we had read about that in our book or else maybe we would've taken a speed boat as well. The people were only slightly injured and they all got onto our boat with their wet things that the driver was able to cut out of their boat. I didn't see the wreck happen but some people on our boat saw the whole thing. I guess they just hit a rock and the whole thing went up in the air and back down leaving only the tip of the boat sticking out of the water. When we pulled up to the accident many people started to take pictures which is a horrible thing to do. Two of the girls who were in the accident yelled at our boat to stop taking pictures and then when the people continued with the pictures they started to flick us off and yell obscenities. There was one guy on our boat who was the most obnoxious of all with the pictures. I think he was Italian but I'm not sure. He was jumping all over the boat getting in people's way trying to take pictures of every square inch of the trip. It was annoying and uncalled for. It was a crowed boat and he made the whole trip worse by stepping into people's space. Unfortunately he was on my boat both days. He would put the camera in the Lao people's faces and take their pictures as if they were some kind of an exhibit. At the end of the trip when I couldn't take anymore of the mullet man, I went to the back of the boat to stand up for the last hour when I met two more Chilean guys. I had heard them come onto the boat at one of the earlier stops and knew they were Chileans immediately when I heard one say the word, "Jeuvon," an overused Chilean slang word that means man. They were from Santiago and had been traveling around Asia for the past 3 months. I was so happy when we finally got off the boat at 6:00pm last night. What a disastrous boat ride! We tried to find a place to stay but almost everywhere was booked full so, after checking at about seven different places we just decided to stay at the first place that had a room for us. It's a nice hotel. It's actually brand new so it doesn't even have a name yet and we have no mirror in our room since they haven't arrived yet. It's really nice though and everything is clean since it's so new. It's within out budget but we may move to a cheaper place tomorrow. I guess we're going to see how we feel in the morning. It's kind of a pain to move since we just got settled in there.

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