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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Smashing Pumpkin

So it was a toss between a slow two day boat to Laos, a fast speed boat with a reported 10% mortality rate or fly in with Laos Airlines (no published safety records and most western embassies advising against flying with them). Tough choice, no doubt about it!

In the end Laos airlines won the game of Russian Roulette and before long we touched down in Vientiane. Almost immediately we knew that we'd left the western world of Thailand behind and were in for a real treat of traditional backpacking.

Although Vientiane is the capital city of Laos you'd never know it for the large amounts of tumbleweed drifting across the quiet country lanes. The only grandiose avenue in the entire town is a copy of the Champs d'Elysees finishing in a mound of concrete destined to be an airport runway but, due to a mistake on the shipping address invoice no doubt, ended up being a rather funky Arc du Triumph.

We rented some bicycles for a day and visited most of the temples to be found in and around the centre. Most of them came complete with snoozing attendants. One even had a resident team of football crazed monk novices who continuously hammered a football, squash style, off the temple; using some spirit houses for goal posts.

The following day we set off to see the 'Bull Whipping French Colonials', the 'Japanese Fascists' and the 'Imperialist Americans and their Puppets' in the Vientiane Revolutionary Museum. The museum has two floors; the first takes you from the dawn of man and his eternal struggle with the cave woman stealing tyranosauruses and what not to the end of that period. From there the tours jumps to the second floor and immediately to the late 19th century (nothing much seemed to have happened in the meantime!).

Here the museum goes into quite a lot of detail on how the Lao people suffered immensely under the various foreign powers that arrived to try (ab)use the country. You come away from the exhibition a little overloaded with information, but with a good feeling for the injustice and plight of the people.

After some fairly sobering information in the museum we decided that it was time for some more fun and funky things, so without further ado we commandeered a Tuk-Tuk and set off for the 'Buddha Park'!

The park was created in the late 1950s by a self-styled holy man who claimed to be a disciple of a cave-dwelling Hindu hermit in Viet-Nam! And after visiting the garden one can only imagine that '60s drug induced experimentalism arrived early in Laos!

The park is home to a staggering number of weird and wonderful concrete creations - my favourite being a huge pumpkin shaped representation of hell, earth and heaven. The pumpkin plastered monstrosity houses three internal floors that are discovered by entering through the mouth of an ogre! After making your way past skeletons, demons, serpents and all kinds of grisly ways to meet an unfortunate end you pop out on top of the pumpkin through another demon's mouth!

Standing on top of the 20 metre high pumpkin gives a great vantage point to take in the pure weirdness of the rest of the park. Unfortunately for our enlightened friend he was forced to flee to northern Thailand after the revolution and never managed to complete the complex.

Within The Woods

The 4x4 shuddered to a stop, a small trail of white smoke issuing from the engine. We shouldered our backpacks, tightened our shoelaces, checked our bush-knives then hastily dumped it all in the jeep, threw on our flip-flops and rambled the 100 odd yards over to our first stop - the long neck and big ear tribe!

Unfortunately, although it was really interesting to see the women, the 'village' felt all to much like a human-zoo of some kind. The village simply consisted of a single line of stalls where the women wove their shoals and wraps. There was definitely a sense that the village existed solely for the tourist market and that, perhaps, without it the tradition of wearing all the jewelry would simply fade away.

Feeling a little weary from our 100 yard trail walk we all sat down for a good feed which turned out to be a rather yummy mix of fried vegetable rice and some fresh pineapples! After which the real trek began ... doo, doo, doooooo ...

We spent the rest of the day slashing and burning a path through the thick rain forests of upper Thailand. Chainsaws in hand, well bamboo sticks anyway, we quickly carved a route through forest, tea-plantations and streams to the first of our village stop-overs : The Blue Lahu.

Upon approaching the village we were passed by two local youths on a 50cc motorbike wearing Adidas silkas shell jackets and brandishing some mobile phones - I was beginning to think that the remote, simple village life described in the Lonely Planet may have been a little romantic!

A few moments later and we were shown to our accommodation for the evening - a rather funky wee stilt-supported hut overlooking the village piggery. Although the villagers led a comparatively simple life to that which we had left behind in Chiang Mai, they by no means lead the Amazonial life the guide books would lead you to believe.

Coke Cola, Oreos and all manner of goodies were freely available from the local shop and in the end I guess the hill tribes are really more a collection of people who have chosen to continue to live a rural way of life; away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

We awoke to the quaint sound of pigs gently squealing their God darn ... Anyway! Another solid day in the saddle ensued, by which, of course, I mean walking. Up, up and some more up before a wee bit of down. But that was really just nature's excuse to give us even more up!

Luckily though our mysterious guide, known only as M, was a bit of a dab hand at the old cooking and had been busy while we'd been snoozing whipping up some yummy lunch and wrapping it all up in some palm leaves! A short rest to munch our way through this feast and we were back on track for our second stop: The Black Lahu.

Now, it turns out that, as was the case with the Blue Lahu, the Black Lahu aren't actually painted black from head to toe. They do, however, make some rather funky bamboo huts for their visitors to stay in, complete with a kitchen in the corner and a bundle of cooks to boot!

After a mighty feast the evening before and some well deserved snoozing we began our third and final day - The Neph Day! Our agenda for the day was simply to race our fellow trekkers around on elephants and rafts! By nitro boosting our neph with bananas we were able to tear away into the lead and hit the rafting section ahead of the rest.

Some careful splashing of the opposition on the way down the rapids allowed us to hold on to the lead and we hit the lazy bamboo raft with plenty of time to spare. A wee bit of lunch and it was time to motor back to Chiang Mai ...

Friday, March 10, 2006

Monkey Planet

Back on the Khao San road and upon discovering a trail of trinkets, a copy of the classic album "Looking For Freedom" and a hastily sellotaped credit card stashed beneath our bed I knew it was either bigger blinkers or time to head north!

North it was and in no time at all we found ourselves in Ayuthaya, an ancient capital city of Thailand. The architects here, who had obviously studied at the Tower of Piza University for the construction of Gravity Defying Structures, have managed to create an amazing array of wobbly and wavy chedis, temples and Buddhas! I didn't find a Buddha in Quiksilver shorts with a surf-board tucked in under his arm, but I'm sure he's there somewhere! You could easily spend a few days exploring the city by foot, bicycle or (most likely) in a Tuk-Tuk with your bicycle mangled somewhere half way beneath the suspension.

After a relaxing day or two we decided to hop on a bus and continue northwards. A wee while later as our bus slowly came to a rest an eerie howl rang out in the bus "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God ... damn you all to hell!" - we'd arrived in Lopburi : Planet of the Apes to you and me!

Although I could see neither Charlton Heston nor a toppled Statue of Liberty on the horizon there was no doubt that the monkeys were in charge here. With at least 300 of the little swinging pick-pockets about and no feelings of Mowgli-ism we opted for maximum security accommodation complete with bars on the windows!

We awoke in the morning to find thirty odd monkeys staring at us from outside our window. A thorough check of our belongings revealed that they hadn't managed to make away with our wallets or any other goodies! Although the 'Boss' monkey had an evil grin ... hmmm ...

After visiting the various wats and chedis (including a rather funky three spired one) we reckoned that aside from monkey-poo and monkey kung-foo dodging there wasn't too much happening in Lopburi; so before long we'd gathered our things and were rattling away on another rickety train hollering "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" at every monkey we noticed eyeing us up!

Sukhotai was the next place on our list, another of Thailand's ancient capital cities. Sukhotai is very much like a miniature version of Ayuthaya with all of the ruins closely packed together. We rented some bicycles for the day and played chicken with the local Tuk-Tuk drivers as we moseyed to and fro between chedis, wats and Buddha statues.

But our feet were getting itchy and we knew the only scratching that would help was to be found in the misty jungles around Chiang Mai ...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Bridge Over The River Kwae

Feeling a little tired from the flight and more than a little disoriented by the well below legal-limit of passengers chattering away inside the bus we found ourselves rumbling across Bangkok's skyline. We were edging our way slowly towards the Khao San road weaving in out amongst the towering buildings lining the 'Autobahn of the Sky'.

Within a few moments of landing on the Khao San road I knew it was time to hide all of our cash and slice up the credit cards for it looked like the next episode in our Asian Adventure would be called : "Myra (and Graham) in Trinket Trouble"! It took only a minute or two and they had us completely surrounded - "Tuk-Tuk?", "Bracelet?", "David Hasselhoff CD?" - before I knew it a Net and a Trident had been hurled in and a strange chant had begun ...

Having made good our escape the previous night we decided to visit the "Bridge Over The River Kwae", a short bus journey away. As the bus station was a wee bit too far away to walk to with all our gear we flagged down what we thought to be a Tuk-Tuk but which in actual fact turned out to be a Speeder-Bike! Carving an unbelievably insane path through the traffic I can only assume that the Force was strong with this one (stronger than the state of our stomachs by the end of it anyway!).

Another quiet bus journey (boy I'm missing those Sri Lankan sardine tins!) and we were rambling along a rickety pathway across the river to our stilt-supported cabin complete with a hammock swaying lazily in the evening breeze. A little way upstream we could see the bridge itself spanning the river; umpteen metal and concrete legs sprouting from the river bed to form enormous arches with a central connecting walkway.

Waterfalls, railways, trains and minibuses were the order of the next few days. Along with Deuce Bigalow, our minibus gigolo, we bumped and grinded along the dusty tracks from one venue to another.

Erewan waterfalls, an amazing seven tiered waterfall, was our morning ramble. Each tier is separated by a couple of hundred metres (mostly horizontal!) with most of the falls offering an opportunity for swimming, diving, fish nibbling and dragonfly swatting!

Our bus then took us from heaven to hell, or more precisely, to the Hellfire Pass. The Hellfire Pass is a 75 metre section of the Thailand-Myanmar (Burma) railway line that was carved from the bed rock to a depth of 25 metres by prisoners of war under the 'supervision' of the Japanese army. Using only the most basic of hand tools the men worked around the clock to complete the railway (estimated to take five years by a previous British survey) in just sixteen months.

A museum has been erected by the entrance to the Pass which exhibits a wide collection of period artifacts and personal accounts of the extreme cruelty suffered by the P.O.W.s under the Japanese army. Unfortunately Mr. Bigalow needed an audience and our driver needed to bump and grind the mystery van a little more and so we were on our way all too soon.

Our time in Kanchanaburi concluded with a little tightrope walking across the rail tracks on the bridge where we met Sir Beaker Guinness re-enacting a long lost deleted Nephelump scene!