More Chiang Mai, including: Weird Food!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Previous blog to the contrary, I did not spend all my time in Chiang Mai lounging around the pool and having massages. As I mentioned, I did go see a big temple, and I hashed, and I even did a bit of shopping. And of course there was weird food. Read on for the details.

The old part of Chiang Mai is a tidy square bounded by a moat and the remains of the city walls that once surrounded it. Both my posh hotel and the not-so-posh-but-still-damned-nice-for-$23-a-night place I moved to were within this area, and it made for easy navigation – both of them were on the main road running from Tha Phae Gate, right in the middle of the eastern side of the moat.

The moat near Tha Phae Gate. There were fish in that moat. Big, big fish.

The Chiang Mai Hashers are a well-organized bunch. I’d been in contact with them ahead of time, but even if I hadn’t been it wouldn’t have been hard to find them. Their website is decent, and they have a fixed pickup point (well actually two) that never changes from week to week. All you have to do is find the closest pickup to your location on the handy Google map provided, and show up at the appointed hour. And it doesn’t hurt that the pickup point I chose was a bar called the Hash House, and was conveniently located on the moat near Tha Phae Gate. There was also a big notice board on the wall too, so there was no chance I could think I was in the wrong place.

The CMSH3 notice board. Damn, I just realized I forgot to sign it!

I rode out to the run in a sawng thaew - a local mini pick-up with bench seats and a canopy – that had a weekly gig just for the hash. Along with me went a couple of local hashers and two gigantic coolers full of water, beer and big blocks of ice. The run was set in a rural area, but unfortunately there’d been a big downpour in between the time the trail was marked and when were were to start. This washed away a lot of the markings, and made the first half of the run a muddy mess, but that’s what hashing is all about, so off we went. Luckily, the hares had the foresight to mark the trail not just with flour but also with small bits of paper weighed down by rocks, so all was not lost.

Once we were through the muddy bit and across a small stream (which served nicely to wash the 7.3 pounds of mud off my shoes), the run turned into a forested area that must recently have been the subject of a controlled burn, because we ran over a lot of charred remains, and even a few bits that were still smoldering, which was a bit eerie. And once again, I chose to run the “Rambo” trail instead of the “Wimp” trail, and once again I regretted that choice almost immediately. I haven’t been feeling in top form for a while now, and had been slow and wheezy for the first half of the run, so in an uncharacteristic fit of lucidity I actually changed my mind and turned back for the Wimp Trail. But of course there was a load of other people heading towards me, Rambo-bound, and I couldn’t really go backwards past all them… So back I went, Rambo all the way. I will not learn.

The scenery on trail. Not exactly Hyde Park.

The circle after the run was pretty standard – lots of beer, lots of in-jokes, and lots of people going on too long about lots of things. Much much later we went off to a seafood restaurant and had food and more beer, and it was all lovely. The Sunday “Happy Hash” was much the same, though the run was shorter and the circle was more relaxed. All in all, the Chiang Mai hashers were as friendly and fun a bunch as I’ve met so far, and I was happy to chalk up hashes #22 and 23 with them.

After that Sunday Hash, I got dropped me off right at Tha Phae Gate for the short walk back to the home. (Yes I do think of the hotel, any hotel, as home. Not Home, mind you, but home, at least. You’ve gotta have somewhere.) On Sundays that area is transformed into what’s called the Sunday Walking Street, which is essentially another night market. There are lots of different foods stalls, and people selling local handcrafts, t shirts, knock-off Rolex watches, you name it. (Strangely, there always seem to be a lot of stalls selling men’s underwear in these kind of markets. Call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t think I’d want to buy underwear on the street at eleven o’clock at night on a Sunday.) I wandered happily through the maze of stalls, generally heading in the direction of the hotel, when I had one of those long-term travel weird coincidences - I ran into a load of Danes! Two from good old Tree House 7, and two from way back on the China tour! It turns out that the Danes from TH7 – Christina and Cecilia – were friends with two of the Danes from China – Ditte and Simone – and they’d found each other by chance there in Chiang Mai. And then they found me. It was bizarre and fun, so I wandered with them a bit, and also met up with Todd from the tree house, who was bargaining for a cheap knock-off Rolex for his mom. Very odd, but also fun.

After my weird encounter with the Danes and Todd, I continued towards my hotel. Ever alert for the possibility of weird food, I knew I’d found it when I saw this sign:

Don’t you just say to yourself sometimes, “Damn, what I really want is some vegetable jelly made by Chinese plant. I hope they have black. And throw some sugar on that baby!”

I lingered long enough in front of the stall that eventually a young couple who were sampling the product urged me to try it, so I did. My normally immaculate financial record-keeping has let me down here, but I’m pretty sure it was about ฿20, so less than a dollar. And it was… well, it was definitely weird. There were three parts:

  1. Black jelly. A very very firm jelly, black, that was scraped off a big sort of disk of the stuff yielding spoon-sized shavings that went into the bottom of a styrofoam dish.
  2. Ice. In large chunks – bigger than crushed, smaller than cubed, placed on top of the jelly
  3. Sugar. Very coarse dark brown sugar - sprinkled on top of the ice
Some assembly required

The friendly couple told me you were supposed to mix it all up, so I did that with the spoon provided. Well I could have mixed that stuff until I got off the plane in Winnipeg on Day 350 and I don’t think it would have helped. The sugar part was ok – sort of like blackstrap molasses in crystallized form. The ice was great; ice never goes amiss in Southeast Asia. Nope, it was the jelly that soured the deal. I’m not sure how to describe the flavour… it was sort of… black. Not blackberry. Not black currant. Just… black. I didn’t realize black had a flavour, but I guess that was it. And rest assured that black is not set to take the flavour world by storm. Do not look for Ben & Jerry’s “Burstin’ Black Beauty Ripple” in your local grocer’s freezer case any time soon. In fact, the whole concoction was so distasteful that it brought on a brief relapse of the vague stomach trouble I’d been having for days. I’ve just started to compile a few “Top Five” lists for the trip – most and least favourite cities, hashes fondly remembered – that kind of thing, and it only took a few spoonfuls for black jelly to secure a firm place on the “Bottom Five Worst Weird Foods” list along with pig ears and worms. And that’s enough said about that.

But fear not! There is also good news on the Weird Food front, because on Monday afternoon I found the Holy Grail that I’d been seeking since Luang Prabang. Yes, kids, I found the eggs-on-a-stick!

See what I mean? They’re eggs. ON A STICK! Am I the only one who finds this whole concept bizarre and fantastic at the same time? I mean if you had to name one food that manifestly does NOT lend itself to being skewered with a stick, wouldn’t it be an egg?

Ok, yes, the eggs are hard cooked, but I don’t think that detracts from the pure brilliance of the form, which revealed itself when I got back to the hotel room and cracked open my first skewered egg, still warm from the vendor. As you can (I hope) see in my crummy photo, the interior of a skewered egg is not like that of a regular hard cooked egg. There was no separation between white and yolk at all, leading me to guess that the egg had somehow been scrambled inside the shell before it was cooked. (PPon, these are just made for you!) Tasting further strengthened this determination, because I could swear that the eggs had also been seasoned with salt and pepper. Or perhaps these were just some kind of magical egg that never had a yolk to being with, laid by a creature with salt and pepper running in its veins (anyone who knows anything about these eggs, please chime in). Whatever the source or method, the result was really tasty. Definitely Top Five material.

Crummy photo, but you can see what I mean. And yes, they were that sort of greeny-bluish colour.

My last evening in Chiang Mai was spent doing something I haven’t done much of on this trip – shopping! I walked all the way to the main Night Market (not the tetchy Sunday variety) which turned out to be absolutely massive, running for blocks and blocks and blocks. I had my eye on some table-top lantern/lamp thingies that I’d noticed the night before, so it was fun to wander the stalls knowing that eventually I was actually going to buy something, for myself, to keep! After I scouted around a bit I zeroed in on a place that seemed as good as any other. I’m total rubbish at bargaining, but I did manage to get two matching lamps for ฿220 (less than $7.00) not including the light socket. (I figured I’d rather do my own electrical work than rely on potentially dodgey weirdly-plugged, oddly-socketed stuff). I think I got a good deal.

One of the many many many stalls selling the type of lantern I bought

Then I wandered around some more, and had a nice mango shake, and wandered some more, and even thought about buying some more electrical stuff, because I these were really neat:

They’re covers for twinkie lights that look like little multi-coloured balls of string. I thought they’d be fun to string up out on a deck, if I still had a deck…

And that’s about it for Chiang Mai. On Tuesday morning I was off to the airport for my flight to Siem Reap, which was a bit of a balls-up because Thai Airways took the liberty of canceling the flight I booked and rebooking me on a flight that arrived in Bangkok too late for me to get my connecting flight to Siem Reap. However they cleared it up when I checked in, and got me on a later connecting flight, so I was left with a few hours to kill in International Airport Land (Bangkok), which was just fine. I did some more shopping to replace my headphones, the last half of which had died on the four hour drive to Chiang Mai (great timing). And I bought a hard copy of the LP Japan, and the LP Japanese phrasebook. It’s the last LP of the trip, folks; the end is coming fast.

But not before I see Angkor Wat, which is next on the list, so don’t touch that dial!

Aimless luxury in Chiang Mai

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I’ve reached an odd but, I suppose, inevitable state. When I got to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I asked around about what I should see and do there – locals, other tourists, hotel staff – anyone who might have an opinion about what wonders Chiang Mai had to offer. Well it turns out that what Chiang Mai can boast a reasonable list of interesting things that I have already done. There are Buddhist temples in abundance – done that. There’s a highly recommended zip-ling day trip – obviously that was out. There’s a well-regarded elephant sanctuary – remember Nepal? How about white water rafting? Uganda. Cooking class? Jungle trek? Night Market? Check (x2), check, check. Stifling heat? Friendly people? Spicy food? I could go on and on. I realize this sounds sort of ungrateful and jaded, but it’s honestly what happened.

Errr… another temple (Actually, Wat Chedi Luang. I think.)

So what did I do? Well, I finally decided to use the money given to me by the Winnipeg Hashers when I left town lo these many months ago and splash out on a really nice hotel. I know it was intended to be used in an extreme circumstance, when I really needed to retreat and regroup in total luxury, but I think I may have waited too long. Also, the trouble is that most of those moments of despair came when there really wasn’t an upgrade possible – like, for instance, that rainy Christmas morning in Africa. If I’d had the chance I certainly would have strolled down to the Serengeti Hilton, but it turns out there were all booked up (the holidays, you know). So instead I decided I’d treat myself after the sweatiness and rusticity of Tree House 7. Also, I stretched the rules of the game a bit. Rather than one night in the best place in town, I opted for a 3-night package deal at a really nice boutique hotel in the old city. I figured the most relaxing thing would be if I didn’t have to up sticks and move to a new place just as I was getting used to the good life.

And that’s how I ended up at the Tamarind Village in the old city of Chiang Mai, on their 3-night “Simply Lanna” Package. It included:

  • three nights of boutique accommodations
  • breakfast buffet every morning (with omelet bar!)
  • a dinner of traditional Thai food
  • two 90-minute massages (Well, it was actually a package intended for two people, so I just booked one person twice!)
  • a private temple tour
The view of the pool, from breakfast

It wasn’t cheap, but the Hash money added to the amount I would have spent on food and accommodations anyways meant that it was still in the budget, so off I went.

Ha! Did you see how I said, “off I went” as if it was a simple thing? Nothing is simple in Southeast Asia. In reality, this is what happened:

Woke up in Tree House 7 and made the sweaty one and a half hour trek to get to the village. Waited in the village. Got into the back of a tuk tuk for a trip that seemed eleven times longer than it was on the way in. Arrived in the bustling metropolis of Huay Xai and checked at the old guest house to make sure my pre-booked, pre-paid minibus to Chiang Mai was all still fine. Found out that only one other person had booked the minibus, so the minibus was about to be cancelled. Had small freak out. Asked how many people were needed to ensure the departure of the minibus. Press-ganged Todd, Kat, Christina and Cecelia into taking the trip with me on the promise of an half-empty minibus with air-con (they were going to Chiang Mai anyways, honest). Checked email. Raced over to Narlene and Marcus’s hotel room (other gibbon buddies) and used their generously-offered shower to become human. Started sweating again before I’ve even walked out of the bathroom. Ran around gathering some food for the trip. Waited with the gang for the 4:00 pm minibus. Checked with the weird old guesthouse lady the confirm the bus was really coming. Was told that we were supposed to meet the bus on the other side of the river in Thailand, but don’t worry, it bus wasn’t leaving until 5:00pm. (We were supposed to know this…?) Race to Laos customs to get stamped out of the country. Pay ridiculous “overtime fee” for arriving and expecting service between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm (Ok, it was only $1 USD, but still). Get into a small canoe-like boat and cross over into Thailand. Pass through Thai customs. Try to find the minibus. Get found by a tuk tuk driver who says we are to get in the tuk tuk and it will take us to where the minibus is. Obey. Arrive at a guesthouse that is, apparently, the jumping-off point for the minibus. Check at reception only to be told the bus actually leaves at 6:30 pm. Speak strongly to the guy behind the counter to no avail. Resign self to 6:30pm departure, and also discover our half-empty minibus that had been in danger of not going at all for lack of passengers now has eleven people booked on it. Wait more, sweat more, fret more, feel bad about getting my TH7 buddies into all this, wait a bit more. Pile onto minibus at 6:30 pm, which miraculously turns out to be as advertised – comfortable, clean, modern and blissfully air conditioned. Ride for four hours through the dark and arrive in Chiang Mai at about 11:00 pm. Take yet another tuk tuk to Tamarind Village Hotel. Check in. On the way to the room, notice a six inch long scorpion scuttling across the floor of the open air reception area. Get to room. Drink beer. Reflect on the interesting and fluid nature of travel and life in Southeast Asia. Collapse.

So like I said, off I went.

Tamarind Village was great. You saw the pool. Here’s my room:

Many pillows! A choice of bathrobes!

It wasn’t over-the-top opulent, but there were the bathrobes, a well-stocked minibar, a basket fruit fruit, very nice toiletries and big fluffy towels. And of course there were the massages… On Friday afternoon I booked a Thai massage, on Sunday morning I had an aromatherapy oil massage. Each was done in the hotel’s spa (of course), and started with a cup of cold tea and a cold towel. The cold towel is a fantastic thing that I ran into a few times in Chiang Mai – a damp, tightly rolled and very chilled towel is presented on a tray and you unroll it and use it to wipe your face and hands. It feels AMAZING.

The cold towel. Genius.

Each massage started with a ritual where the massage therapist washed my feet. There was a brass-lined tub of warm water, and into that she crushed slices of orange and chunks of lemongrass and salt. Then she scrubbed my feet with a mixture of oil and salt and rinsed them and dried them off. Needless to say, it was very nice, though it was a bit weird having my feet washed by someone else – too much symbolism there for my tastes. (Naturally, more pictures of my feet are at Flickr. I should start a Flickr set of pictures of Pam’s feet.)

My aromatherapy massage lady, with the tub and accoutrements for foot washing.

The massage rooms were really nice – dim, cool, and nicely decorated in subdued colours and rattan and such. They had full bathrooms and showers, and closets for your clothes. The Thai massage was done dry – I wore a loose top and pants that were provided. The aromatherapy massage was oily, so they actually gave you a throw-away set of underwear! Friday’s Thai massage was sort of like therapeutic massages I’ve had in the west, except that I could tell the therapist wasn’t just using her hands – she used her elbows and her knees and her feet. And she’d grab an arm or a leg and move it around and stretch the muscles and well as massaging them. And I’m pretty sure she was using power tools when she got to my neck and shoulders because: Ouch! At the end she strongly recommended I come back for a long session just to concentrate on my neck, back and shoulders. Yeah, right. Sunday’s oil massage was much more gentle, and very thorough. Front and back, arms, legs, feet, hands, neck, shoulders, head. I was pretty well-noodled by the time it was over.

Other than the massage, I had a really excellent dinner on Friday evening. There was a brief problem with them having taken my reservation for dinner without realizing it conflicted with a wine-tasting event that had booked the whole dining room, but eventually they made up a table for me in the corner, and were excellently fawning about the whole mix-up, so that was kind of cool. And the food was worth the wait.

The final part of the luxury package was the included temple tour. I did this on Saturday morning in the hotel’s minivan with a driver who took me up the big hill outside of town to see Wat Suthep, one of Thailand’s most famous temples. On the way up we stopped at a scenic overlook, though the skies were so hazy you couldn’t see much. And of course the driver offered to take my picture, because he was worried about what Rob H might say if I didn’t get one.

Me with hazy Chiang Mai in the background.

Once we got to the top I got the luxury treatment again. When the driver dropped me at the bottom of the steps up to the temple he opened up the back of the van and gave me a cold bottle of water from a cooler full of ice (I could also have had pop or beer). And he told me to give him the receipt from my entrance fee so the hotel could reimburse it. And he waited for me while I toured around the temple at a nice leisurely pace. Nice.

The temple was pleasant enough, but my favourite part was the staircase leading up to the main entrance. Each side was decorated with glazed tiles that looked like scales and the railings undulated up and down like a dragon all the way up.

Dragon stairs!

The neatest part was how the colour of the dragon changed to yellow when you looked at it from the top down. Because of how the tiles were glazed it all looked predominantly green from the bottom and predominantly yellow from the top. Very clever.

See how clever?

Of course I also did enjoy having a look around the temple area. It’s a very popular tourist destination, especially for Thais, so there were quite a few people around, but it didn’t feel crowded or anything. What did seem crowded was the space around the outside of the temple – a sort of covered walkway that was completely crammed with lots of Buddha statues and zillions of donation boxes of every shape and size soliciting money for anything from temple upkeep to education for monks to support for the aged to sports complexes for hill tribe villages. There were so many I decided to do a complete circuit and count every one. One hundred and eighteen.

Well if they don’t need a donation, I don’t know who does.

The main stupa of the temple was being renovated (obviously, the donation boxes work) so I did get good photos of it. Though I was pleased to see that the shrouding they used to cover the scaffolding and work area was all bright, shiny gold cloth, so it blended in quite nicely.

The golden top of this stupa is quite famous, but not really shown to best advantage here.

The temple tour was nice, but perhaps the nicest part about it was that I got back to the hotel in time to have a beer, a quick dip in the pool, a longish laze reading on a poolside lounger, and a short nap before I ventured out to meet up with the Chiang Mai Saturday Hash House Harriers. But the Hash and my other adventures in Chiang Mai don’t really have anything to do with my three days of luxury living. For now let’s just remember me with my feet up poolside, muttering quiet but profound thank yous to the Winnipeg Hash House Harriers. I’ve said it before, but you guys are the best. Thanks.

The Gibbon Experience

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two things right off the bat:

  1. I did NOT see any gibbons while I was on the Gibbon Experience.
  2. It was still pretty cool anyways.
I wasn’t at all sure about the Gibbon Experience. It definitely sounded cool – live for two nights in a tree house, navigate around the jungle canopy on a series of zip-lines, and see gibbons. How could you NOT want to go after reading this in the LP?:
“The Gibbon Experience is essentially a series of navigable ‘zip-lines’ criss-crossing the canopy of some of Laos’ most pristine forest…. Guests stay in fantastical tree houses perched 200 ft up in the triple canopy. The communal lodges, admitting a maximum of eight, are complete with cooking facilities and running rainwater showers! In between spotting wildlife, the zipping is life affirming. Your safety harness with a wheel on the end of a cable is attached to a zip-line; all you need is a little faith and an adventurous spirit. It’s a heart-stopping, superhero experience.”

And you don’t just get to zip around the jungle and sleep in a tree house like you’re living out a Boy’s Own fantasy. You get to do all that, and contribute to the preservation of the forest at the same time. So you can be a carefree kid and a responsible grown-up at the same time. I’ll let their own website explain:

The Gibbon Experience works closely with the local people in Bokeo Nature Reserve, to transform their economy from one based on slash-and-burn farming, logging and poaching, to one based on long term, conservation focused activity.

The Gibbon Experience currently employs 40 full time workers from the Lao Loom, Lao Theung and Lao Soung… The funds received are reinvested to protect the forest…Villagers can make a non-destructive living from their unique environment, by protecting the forest and farming the lower altitude flat lands.

All the funds from the participant fees (€180 for three days/two nights) go to continue the project, employ local people, and steward the forest. The Bokeo Nature Reserve receives no money from the Lao government, but now makes enough to fund the employment of enough rangers to patrol about 25% of the Reserve. It’s really a win-win-win thing. Tourists get to experience an exciting environment in a unique way, local people get sustainable employment, and the forest and its inhabitants get some protection.

Getting to the Gibbon Experience is no easy thing. First you have to get to the tiny border town of Huay Xai. Huay Xai doesn’t have much to offer beyond a strip of hotels and guesthouses, interspersed with restaurants, small shops, internet cafés, and one used bookstore with a fantastically crappy selection. It was not a great place to spend three nights, but I think I made the right choice to delay my departure until I was healthier. On my third morning in Huay Xai I packed a few essentials into my day pack and trudged to the Gibbon office down the street where I could leave my main bag in storage.

There were eleven other people in the office waiting to depart. We watched a short safety video about how to use the ziplines, and then piled into two tuk tuks for the long ride to the village where our trek would start. The tuk tuk was not bad – at least it had a canopy to keep off the sun, but it was a bit cramped, and the ride was long. Well, at least it seemed long until we came to a stop because we could go no further. The intense rain the night before had toppled a large tree, which fell right across the road, blocking it completely. This would have been bad, except that there was already a group of people there and there was a chainsaw, and so it seemed like it would all be taken care of in no time.

No way through

Ha! That might be true in some western country, but in Laos things take time. Especially when the chainsaw won’t start properly. Or at all. There was a lot of fiddling around with the chainsaw, but to no avail. Then, alarmingly, the whole thing was disassembled and the motor went west in a black truck, while the blade and chain went east on a motorcycle. We settled in for a long long wait. Luckily, the people in the group were all interesting and friendly, so the conversation was good. And naturally I had my book of crossword puzzles, so it wasn’t too bad.

Eventually the various bits of the chainsaw returned and were reassembled into a functioning device, and we were back on our way. We arrived in a very tiny village not too much later, and started walking from there. The documentation about the Gibbon Experience said we’d have about an hour and a half of walking before we got to the tree houses. The walking was not too bad at first, but there was a lot of uphill and the temperature and humidity so it got very sweaty very fast.

The walk from the village

After about forty minutes we made it to a sort of “base camp” where the volunteers and staff of the project live. Here we were fitted up into harnesses and divided into three groups, to live in three different treehouses. Treehouse 1 was reported to have better access to zip-lines, but Treehouse 7 was supposed to be the nicest of the lot. I ended up in Treehouse 7, with five others – Todd, an American; Christina and Cecilia, more Danes!; Kat, German; and Steve, British. We also had two local guides who were with our group the whole time. What we didn’t really understand was that Treehouse 7 might be pretty, but it was also the most remote of the houses, so we had a lot more trekking to do before we’d make it to our home. A LOT.

Luckily, first we got onto some ziplines! The zipping was really great. You’d come to a zipline where a heavy wire rope had been wrapped around a tree and you’d clip on your safety line and roller, sit down and let go. The lines were all slightly angled down so gravity carried you the whole way, and the rollers had a rudimentary brake to help you slow down if you needed to, in case you were going to crash into the platform at the other end.

The roller device. The chunk of bicycle tire on top is the “brake”. Squeeze that with your hand and it clamps down on the cable, slowing you down.

It was INCREDIBLY FUN. Some lines went from one side of a valley to another, and some went from ground level to a tree house or a platform, where you’d connect right to another zip-line. In fact, the only way in our out of the tree houses was by the zip-lines. We had four or five zips to do on the way to Tree House 7, and it was fantastic the whole time.

Here’s me, on the zip-line. F.U.N.

The walk to the tree house was long, and involved at least one long long hill, so by the time we got there we were all exhausted. Luckily, the place was great.

Tree House 7, home sweet home

There were three different levels. The lowest level had the platform you’d zip into or out of. (There were two different lines – one angled slightly down from the house, for exiting, and one angled slightly up, for entering). That level also had the bathroom, including the best shower EVER.

Video! And talking! I’ve figured out a better method for getting video onto the blog, so this post is video-mania!

The main level had folding chairs and a table and sleeping mats and a kitchen, including a sink with potable water, a burner for making coffee and tea, and… a refrigerator! That’s the big advantage of Tree House 7 – the fridge. No other tree house had one. And though it was not the most enthusiastic fridge I’ve encountered (run on solar power with a battery that died every night it didn’t have much chance to achieve optimum coldness) but it was total bliss in the middle of the jungle to be able to pull a cold bottle of water out of the fridge after a long day of trekking.

A view of a bit of the tree house main level

The upper level of the tree house was small, and had just enough room for a hammock and two sleeping mats. All in all, the tree house was perfectly excellent. The view was amazing, there was lots of room to spread out, and, you know, it was a TREE HOUSE. It was like living the fantasy you have when you’re a kid, all “Swiss Family Robinson” and stuff. Great.

And the food was pretty good too. There was a separate kitchen on land, not far from where the tree house zip-lines ended. At every meal a couple of Lao women would cook us up a big vat of sticky rice and four different hot dishes, which they packed up into one of those stacking towers. Then they’d hook onto the zip-line and deliver our meal. Later, they’d come back, pick up the dishes, straighten things up and zip away again. I admit I got a bit sick of sticky rice by the middle of day two, but others in the group couldn’t get enough.

The sleeping arrangements in the tree house were basic – big mats that were meant to sleep two or three people. The mats each had a large tent-like canopy over them to keep out the mosquitoes. We just shared the sleeping space, and it seemed to work out fine.

On our first morning in the the tree house our guide, Tjia Lee (pronounced sort of like “Charlie”) zipped over early to wake us up so we could hear the gibbons singing. It was about 6:00 am, and very misty, so there wasn’t much to see. But there was definitely something to hear. The gibbons sounded like… I don’t know… they started out softly, but then the sound grew into a real chorus of weird, almost alien sounds. Luckily, I have video! There’s not much to see here, but turn up your speakers and have a listen.

The gibbons singing

After the singing, and a nice hot breakfast (including more sticky rice…) we set off for a day of zipping. It’s a really agreeable way to start the day – zip-lining. If everyone got to commute to work by zip-line instead of stuck in a car in traffic, or jammed into a crowded metro car, we’d probably all be a lot happier. We trekked back up the damned hill and then got into some serious zipping, including a trip on the longest line – about 400m. And yes, I have MORE video!

The long zipline. The video ends before the zip-line did, because this was one of the lines where I didn’t quite make it to the end and had to pull myself, hand over hand, to get to the platform.

It was a good morning. We visited a few of the other tree houses and confirmed that, in fact, Tree House 7 is the nicest of the lot. We also did a lot of walking. This is something that I wish I’d been more prepared for. The information you get going into the Gibbon Experience is scant. I was expecting a very different ratio between walking and zipping (more zipping, less walking) so there were times when I got a bit cranky about how much sweaty trudging there was to be done. To be fair, if we’d been in Tree House 1 things would have been different, but that’s just another example of the lack of information available. It also would have been really nice to see some kind of map of the area so we knew where each tree house was, and where the paths and zip-lines were between them all.

The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was the lack of beer. When we first arrived at TH7 I asked Tjia Lee if there was beer and when he said no I thought he was kidding. I mean they could charge triple the market rate for a bottle of cold Beerlao in a tree house and no one would bat an eye. It turned out they used to stock beer in the houses, but of course some jerks abused it, got pissed up, got on the zip-lines, and got hurt (Note: no one fell to his/her death or anything, but I heard that there was a broken leg, probably from slamming into an arrival platform without lifting up the legs). So no more beer is provided. However, that did not stop the intrepid residents of TH7, because on the afternoon of day two, after a nice lunch and a suitable interval of napping in hammocks, we went on a beer run. Our guides couldn’t quite believe we were really going to do it, but they came along to show us the way anyways.

It was insanity. The guides told us it would be 40 minutes to the village, and 40 minutes back, which didn’t seem to tally with what we’d experienced on the trek in, but they were the guides… so off we went – me, Todd, Steve and Christina. Well of course you know what happened. It was a hot and sweaty 40 minutes just to get to the volunteer base, then another 35 minutes to get to the village. By this time we arrived we were all exhausted, but had little choice but to load up on vaguely chilled bottles of Beerlao and turn right around for the trek back. Three hours and fifteen minutes after we set out, we finally made it back to the tree house. Sweaty, stumbling, and almost delirious, it was certainly the most demanding beer run I’m ever done. Then again, there was the world’s best shower as a reward, not to mention a few bottles of Beerlao to make it all better. Tjia Lee told us that sometimes people in Tree House 1 will walk to the village for beer, but no one from Tree House 7 had ever done it before. So yay for us!

The next morning we had the option of getting up at 5:00 am, trekking back up the hill and heading to a spot where we might see gibbons. However by this time I was so sick of walking that even if I had been promised that the gibbons would perform excerpts from “Hamlet” I could not have been convinced to join in. Steve went, and he did end up seeing some gibbons very far in the distance. And people in the other tree houses reported seeing gibbons too, often quite close. I simply had to content myself with hearing them sing, zip-ling a lot, and being part of the only team of idiots ever to make a beer run from Tree House 7.

So, if I were to make a few suggestions to anyone planning to go on the Gibbon Experience, it would be these:

  1. Try to get into Tree House 1, unless lack of refrigeration is intolerable for you. TH7 may have been picturesque and well-equipped, but the trek in and out was daunting.
  2. If you’re going to Tree House 7, take beer with you when you leave the village.

And that was the Gibbon Experience. Despite the lack of gibbons, I had a great time, mostly because I was with a wonderful group of people. I’ve come to realize that the odds are that anyone you meet who’s out traveling the more far-flung corners of the world and who signs up for something like the Gibbon Experience (or white water rafting, or cruising Halong Bay or blah blah blah) is almost certainly going to be interesting, easy-going and fun to be with. It’s just really hard to be fussy and stuck-up in a tuk tuk or a tree house. So thank you to the gang of TH7, and to the rest of the group. It was great gibboning with you.

Christina, Kat, me, Cecelia, Steve and Todd, after the last sweaty trudge up the hill from TH7

Pick of Pics: Luang Prabang

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Well you KNEW it was going to be monks, didn't you? These are some more young men watching the Pi Mai celebrations in the streets of Luang Prabang.

The Town of Luang Prabang

Sunday, April 18, 2010

That’s how UNESCO lists this place in its roster of World Heritage Sites: “Town of Luang Prabang”. Most places on the list are things like “The Great Wall, China” or “Canterbury Cathedral”, so you’d think they might have singled out one or another of the lovely spots in the town: “That Chomsi, Luang Prabang” or “Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang”. But nope, its just the town. The whole town. And I can understand why, it’s really a gem. The sad thing is that you can tell that the tourism that is the town’s livelihood is also part of what’s causing the death of the things that make the place so lovely. There’s no McDonald’s on Sisavangvong Street yet, but you get the sense that Starbucks may not be far off. And I’m painfully aware that my visit contributed to the problem, but what’s the alternative?

These young monks were watching the Pi Mai water fight in the street below, not without a bit of envy, I think.

One of the most evocative things to see in Luang Prabang is the morning procession of the Buddhist monks through the town. Every day, starting at about 6:00 am, all the monks from the different wats walk through the town collecting alms from the local people. They walk in single file, robed in the various shades of orange that make them so photogenic, each with a large vessel slung over their shoulder. The local people sit at the side of the road and give each monk that passes a small ball of sticky rice from a container they’ve prepared. My understanding is that the food the monks collect each day is all they have to eat – they are completely dependant on the local people.

Some of the monks, collecting their alms. The procession passed right in front of my hotel. And it looked like some local people were being extra generous for Pi Mai, because some monks were carrying plastic bags with other kinds of food and drink in them.

There were little notices up around the town asking tourists to please be respectful of the monks during their walk. It’s a real, living thing this daily event, not a show for the tourists, and there are rules to be followed. Chief among these rules is that you must position yourself lower than the monks, as a sign of respect. You must not talk – the ritual is a silent one. You are also discouraged from buying rice to give the monks from street vendors, because the quality is often poor. And of course if you want to take photos you must not get in the way of the monks or the local people. It was all kind of common sense, so it was a bit sad to see that it had to be spelled out. (Then again, I suppose I was technically breaking the rules by being up on the balcony of the hotel to take photos, that being much higher than the monks. But I think there must be a range beyond which the rules do not apply, and I was being quiet and respectful.)

It’s hard to believe how young some of the monks are. Apparently many are sent to the monasteries because it’s prestigious to have a monk in the family, and while there the boy gets an education and is fed and clothed, so it’s a popular option for a family that might be struggling.

After watching the monks on my first morning in Luang Prabang it was still only about 7:30 am, so I had a leisurely breakfast and then trooped off to see Wat Xieng Thong, what the LP claimed was Luang Prabang’s most magnificent temple. By this time in my trip I’m definitely suffering from Temple Fatigue, but I did have a nice wander around and ended up chatting a bit with a French tourist who was trying to talk to one of the monks in French, with little success. I actually ended up speaking more French in Luang Prabang than I have anywhere outside of France, though it was all to other tourists.

A monk, working on the restoration of some part of the “sim” at Wat Xieng Thong.

It was a nice enough temple, and pleasingly full of photogenic monks in their orange robes. I wandered around the various buildings for as long as I could stand, but it was still only about 10:00 am when I left and started walking through the town some more. It was hot, and though there were many more wats I could have visited, I started to get the sense that an entire day of wat-hopping in the tropical heat might make me insane. On a whim I ducked into an LP-recommended travel agency on the main street and a few minutes later I walked out having booked a half-day trip to see the Kuang Si waterfall. Leaving at 1:30 pm in an air-conditioned minivan, we’d drive about an hour to see the famous waterfall, go for a dip, and then drive back. It seemed a nice way to spend a steamy afternoon, and for 50,000 Kip ($6.00) it was a bargain, too.

And it turned out to be a very lucky decision because in that mini van were Rob and Linda, a very fun and friendly Dutch couple that I ended up hanging out with all afternoon and evening. Being Dutch, they spoke flawless English. “Why do the Dutch speak such good English?” I asked. Their answer? “Because nobody else speaks Dutch.” Fair enough. It’s also because English television is shown in the Netherlands with the original English sound track and Dutch subtitles. And many companies do business in English. And Rob told me that anyone doing post-graduate work will write his or her thesis in English. So yeah, the Dutch speak good English.

The waterfall itself turned out to be fairly small and unimpressive, but we all went in the water anyways, wearing all our clothes. That seemed to be the done thing – all the locals were hanging around soaking wet, in jeans and t-shirts. Even though I’d brought clothes to swim in, there was really no where to change into them, so I just dove in with my shorts and shirt on.

Linda and me, in an artfully off-kilter shot by Rob

It was incredibly refreshing, and sitting around in wet clothes is a really good way to keep cool in hot weather. The water evaporating off the clothing actually has a cooling effect, so I was happy and comfortable for the first time in days.

After the drive back into town I stuck with Rob and Linda to go see the sand stupas and the beach party you’ve already heard about, and then we decamped to one of the many many many bars along the main street to have a beer and watch the Pi Mai mayhem. Even though we were right alongside the action, there seemed to be an unwritten rule that anyone who was actually sitting at at bar or restaurant was safe from the water fight, though I did notice that the restaurant had taken the precaution of covering the seat cushions in plastic.

While we were sitting we struck up a conversation with the couple at the table next to us. It turns out they were Thai, though both spoke really excellent English. That’s how we met them – Linda heard them speaking English and said something back. They said they always tried to make an effort to speak English for the sake of their small son, who was also with them. They wanted him to learn it from as young an age as possible. We talked with Nil and Rachel and played with baby Keith for quite a while, and learned about all kinds of things. Nil even gave us some interesting opinions on the current unrest in Bangkok. But the most interesting part of the conversation for me was when he talked about the Buddhist monks.

It turns out that being a Buddhist monk is not an all-or-nothing thing. Many young men will try it out for a short time – as little as two or three weeks. Sometimes, as I mentioned before, families will send young boys to live in a monastery so they can get an education or so that they can be fed and clothed if the family is in trouble. And all men are encouraged to do a stint in a monastery some time before they marry. Nil told us he’d gone to be a monk for two weeks and found it really helpful. He’d had to shave his head and eyebrows, and wear the saffron-coloured robes, and live off alms and everything. Apparently there are 300 rules a Buddhist monk must follow (though the very young ones are required to adhere to fewer than that). The oddest rule that Nil mentioned? Buddhist monks are not allowed to pee standing up. This has something to do with modesty, and peeing in rice paddies where if you stood up you would be noticed, but if you squatted you would not. It was a really interesting conversation. As I was sitting there with Rob and Linda, chatting away with this couple from Thailand I couldn’t help but think, “This is what the trip is about. It’s not the things you see, it’s the people you meet and the connections you make.” It was a great night. (And no, Rob H, I do not have any good photos or Rob and Linda or Nil and Rachel and baby Keith, so just get over it.)

The next day was the day of the first big parade, which you’ve heard about. What you didn’t hear about is that I actually ran into Rob and Linda again, after the parade was over and I was good and wet. That afternoon the three of us walked up the 100m high hill in the centre of Luang Prabang, Phu Si, to check out the temple and wat at the top. The climb was nothing for one who had scaled the lofty peaks of Emei San, but in the afternoon heat we all thought it would be much nicer to get sprayed with water at the top of the hill than at the bottom. The view was pleasant enough, though the air was hazy from smoke and dust. Linda had heard that the next big rain would clear the air nicely and let us see the mountains in the distance, but it was the end of the dry season, so all we got was haze.

A view of Luang Prabang, looking sort of east. You can’t see it in this picture, but from the top of the hill we could spot the areas where the Pi Mai celebrations were most festive because the streets were all wet.

The other fun and unavoidable thing to do in Luang Prabang is to wander in the market. It springs up on the sidewalks of the main street during the day and expands to fill the whole road, which gets closed to traffic, at night. It was mostly touristy stuff like Beerlao t-shirts and local handicrafts. I was particularly taken with the patchwork stuffed toys on offer – my favourite was a crocodile; I think I liked it so much because it reminded me of Alligator Al from Mr. Dressup. If they’d been a bit smaller, and my suitcase had been a bit less overstuffed, I might have bought one.

Of course there were also food stalls set up at the market. A lot of them sold baguette sandwiches with meat and veggies, though they also had ones with peanut butter (!) and Nutella (!!) and I even saw one being made with a good helping of sweetened condensed milk (!!!). Looking back on this, I wonder how I could possibly NOT have tried a peanut butter, Nutella and sweetened condensed milk sandwich. And for a mere 15,000 Kip ($1.75)? What was I thinking?

I guess I was probably thinking that I wanted to save room for another fruit shake. The vendors for these were everywhere. They’d display plastic cups full of various local fruits and you’d just pick the one you liked the looks of and it would get blended up with ice, sugar syrup and coconut milk. They were fantastic. I’m sure I had at least one a day while I was in Luang Prabang. Mango and pineapple, apple and lime, mango and watermelon… yum. And only 5,000 Kip ($0.60). Fruit shakes and sandwiches made out of Nutella… why did I ever leave?

The many flavours of fruit shake. Choose from the ones on display or request your own special combo.

On my last night in Luang Prabang the rains finally came. I was happily relaxing in my hotel room when the skies grew dark and the winds picked up and we had a positively biblical downpour. It put a stop to the Pi Mai festivities pretty quickly, and not too much later it also put a stop to the power supply in much of the town, including my hotel. I’d been planning a return trip to the Night Market because I had my eye on an Alligator Al and a Beerlao t-shirt, but it really didn’t seem to be the kind of weather one went out in. Instead I made it to the end of the block where there was an excellent French restaurant with a generator, and where I was seated at a table with a couple of other “orphan” diners. One was a young American guy who left after a short time, and one was a Frenchman who I ended up chatting with for the rest of the evening. I sensed that his English was better than my French, but he seemed happy to listen to me blunder along, so blunder I did. It was a nice last night in Luang Prabang, except that near the end of the evening I started to feel the unmistakable signs of a nasty head cold coming on: a pounding headache and an increasingly sore throat.

My plan was to fly to Houay Xai (“Hway Sigh”) the next day and then take off for “The Gibbon Experience” the following morning. But by time I made it to the guesthouse in Houay Xai after a rough night, two delayed flights and short tuk tuk ride, I felt like I’d been run over by an elephant. I checked in with the incredibly friendly woman at the gibbon office and she said it would be no problem for me to postpone for a couple of days, and even went next door to the pharmacy to help me buy some cold meds. (They look exactly like yellow M&Ms without the Ms, and seem to be about as effective.)

And that’s how I come to be sitting in the boring little border town of Houay Xai, relaxing, napping a lot, watching Dr. Who videos and getting over whatever dreaded lurgy befell me in Luang Prabang. It’s a shame to lose two days out of the schedule, but I think I made the right choice. The gibbon thingy is supposed to be an incredible experience, but it involves trekking and other strenuous activities, and I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it if I’d been sniffling and snoozing the whole time. So having lost a bit of time in the schedule, something has to go, and it’s going to be Bangkok. I just figure there are a lot of places I can go in this part of the world where there aren’t people being killed in the streets. Yes, I know the areas where the trouble is are isolated, and it’s unlikely that anything would happen to me, but I need to skip something so Bangkok is it.

The view from the balcony at the guest house in Houay Xai. That’s Thailand across the river!

I’ll be offline for a few days while I live in the treetops with the gibbons. After that I’m off to Chiang Mai, where I hope to hash and see the sights before proceeding to Phnom Pen, Siem Riep, Angkor Wat, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Japan. It hardly seems believable that there are only six weeks left in my fifty week adventure. But at the same time I’m starting to think about going home more and more, so maybe it’s time.

Sabidee Pi Mai Lao!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Happy Lao New Year! May you and yours enjoy a safe and prosperous 2553! Confused? I was too. It turns out that my arrival in Luang Prabang (“Loo ONG Prah BONG”), a place I’ve been looking forward to for about a year, coincided exactly with the busiest part of Lao New Year, called Pi Mai (or Pimai, or Pii Mai or Pee Mai… and pronounced “Pee My”). I did not plan it this way, but when I look back on earlier posts about Laos, I realize that I did know that New Year was celebrated in April, but that knowledge must have slipped out of my mind long, long ago. (Aside – my TTNY blog for Laos was posted on April 14, 2009. And my first full day in Luang Prabang? April 14, 2010. How’s that for some pretty slick planning/traveling?)

I’ve been a bit whiny about how places like Hanoi and Vientiane haven’t quite lived up to their write-ups in the LP, so I’m happy to report that Luang Prabang is actually all it’s cracked up to be. Quiet, leafy streets, charming architecture, Buddhist monasteries (called “wats”) everywhere you turn, and orange-robed monks all over the place. It’s no wonder UNESCO declared the whole town a World Heritage site.

For some reason I find monks’ laundry very picturesque

Unlike western New Year’s celebrations, Pi Mai goes on for days. Technically the holiday lasts three days, but in popular spots like Luang Prabang the festivities can stretch to a week or so.

“The first day, known as Maha Songkran, is considered the last day of the old year. Lao will clean their houses and villages on this day, and prepare water, perfume, and flowers for the days ahead. The second day, the "day of no day", is neither part of the old year nor of the new year. The third day, known as Wan Thaloeng Sok is the official start of the Lao New Year.” (from

I spent my first afternoon in Luang Prabang just wandering around the streets of the oldest part of town, but before I went out, I had to do a bit of preparation. I wrapped everything important in individual ziploc bags – wallet, books, iPhone, camera – because one of the main ways that Pi Mai is celebrated is by throwing water on people passing by in the street. The later it gets in the day, the more gangs you see on the sidewalk with hoses, big pans of water, pitchers, scoops, buckets and water pistols. When you walk by you get doused, and there’s really nothing you can do to stop it.

This is a small group, on a side street, early in the Festival

It was kind of fun, but could also get a bit tiresome. In the right frame of mind it’s a huge party, and a lot of the people on the main street are clearly backpacker types who’ve come here mostly for the water fight. They invest in a super-soaker water gun and a lot of Beerlao, and have a great time. I’m not really in that category so sometimes, especially when I was hot and tired and had just had to wrap or unwrap my wallet or phone or camera or map for the 947th time I just wanted to shout, “Would you all just please go home so I can see this town properly?!” Then again there were the times when it was so hot and humid that it was really refreshing to get hosed down, and the party atmosphere was infectious.

Here’s what it looked like late in the afternoon on Day Two. Total, drippy, drunken chaos. So much water was used on Day One that when I got back to my hotel late in the evening I was told I couldn’t have a shower because there was no water left in the whole town.

On the first day of Pi Mai I got out of chaos for the afternoon on a short day trip I’ll tell you about in another post. When I got back I took a little riverboat canoe across the Mekong with Rob and Linda, a couple of friends I’d met on my day trip, to check out another local Pi Mai tradition. On a sandy spit of land that juts into the Mekong river the local people had set up a huge beach party and spent the afternoon making sand stupas along the shore. (Quick reminder: a "stupa” is a mound-like structure, normally very big, containing Buddhist relics). We were expecting these sand stupas to be huge, but it turned out they were just like sandcastles at home – about two or three feet across for the most part. They were decorated with flour and painted banners, and there were hundreds of them.

The sand stupas

By the time we got there, though, the stupas were mostly forgotten and people were busily engaged in eating, drinking lots and lots of Beerlao, listening to loud music and dancing. Rob’s trenchant observation was that teenagers are the same everywhere – they just want to hang out with friends, listen to loud music and get drunk. We could have been anywhere in the world, except for the fact that most of the people were still drenched and many were covered in flour. (The later it gets in the festival, the crazier it gets. By Day Two it’s not just water getting thrown around, there are also people walking around with bags of flour who merrily fling handfuls of the stuff on you. And then there are the gangs of people who put coloured dye in the water. The gutters were running bright green at one point, I swear.)

A small part of the party on the beach, under a couple of decidedly down-at-heel parachute canopies

On Day Two of Pi Mai, “the day of no day”, I did not leave town. How could I? I had to stick around for the big parade! At 1:00 pm (or thereabouts, this is Laos afterall) there was going to be a parade down the main street in town. The woman who had been crowned Miss Laos a few days earlier would proceed from the south end of town to the oldest temple in Luang Prabang, Wat Xieng Thong, at the tip of the peninsula formed by the fork between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers (and conveniently close to my guest house). Of course she would be accompanied by loads of other people, including lots of monks and local people in traditional dress and people banging on drums and wearing masks and such.

And even though it was a parade it seemed that everyone was fair game when it came to the water fight. I’ve read that it’s considered respectful to gently pour water onto your elders and monks, but you’re free to douse anyone else with impunity. This rule seemed to be applied somewhat haphazardly, though I did notice that the monks in the parade got fairly respectful treatment, at least until they got into the real war zone areas of the street where no one was safe (or dry).

Some of the parade of monks, one being watered down quite calmly by a local woman.

Eventually Miss Lao passed by, reclining on a large papier maché horse. She was facing the other way, though, so I didn’t really get any good photos. Once the parade was over I was hot and tired and sweaty, so I walked straight down the middle of the craziest part of the street. It didn’t take long before I was drenched to the skin, mostly thanks to a guy wielding a pressurized hose, who was clearly upping the ante on the whole water fight business. If this kind of escalation keeps up we can expect to see fire hoses and water bombers in Luang Prabang for Pi Mai 2554.

Me, wet, refreshed, and in the swing of things for Pi Mai

On Day Three of the festivities there was, you guessed it, another parade! Naturally they could not leave Miss Laos stranded up at the Wat Xieng Thong, so on the day after the south-to-north parade everyone saddled up again for the trip north to south. I decided to skip the second parade because by that time I was suffering from a bit of Pi Mai fatigue and starting to grow moss between my toes from being wet all the time.

There was another Pi Mai tradition that caught my attention – I noticed women wandering around with bundles of tiny wicker cages. Inside each cage was a pair of live birds! It turns out that the birds are for sale, the intention being that you gain spiritual merit by releasing them from their captivity. (Nevermind that it would seem that greater spiritual merit might come from not imprisoning the birds in the first place…). On my first morning while I was having breakfast, I got approached by one of these vendors, so I went ahead and paid my 20,000 Kip ($2.40) for a pair of birds.

My birds. I have no idea how they get the birds into the cages. There were no doors - you just had to pull the sides apart far enough that the birds could find their way out.

I think that local people take their birds to a temple to release them, but I didn’t bother with that. I just let mine go right away, making sure to get a few photos from some friendly Alaskan tourists who were sitting at the next breakfast table (with an empty bird cage next to them, so clearly they knew the drill).

Me getting ready to release my little birdies (and my hair even looks ok!)

Later on I saw little boys who had gathered up the abandoned, empty cages, so I suspect there’s some recycling going on there. I think the birds may actually be recycled too – someone told me they’re trained to come back, probably because they get food from their handlers. Some of the people selling the birds were also selling fingerling-sized fish swimming around in little bags of water (of course they were in bags!). I assume you were meant to release the fish into the river. The whole thing was really interesting.

Of course Pi Mai is about more than just dousing passers-by. And of course there's actually a reason for the water-play. My understanding is that it’s about cleansing yourself and others for the New Year. When I got watered down by Lao locals in the side streets (as opposed to the crazy gangs on the main drag) you could tell they were doing it with a sense of playfulness, but also with respect and genuine good wishes. I was told that they also wash the Buddhas in the temples at this time every year and on Day Two of the festival I discovered a quiet temple just off the main street and saw evidence of this very thing. The monks had set up a long serpent-shaped downspout arrangement, and were using it to pour water over a Buddha at ground level. I’d seen these serpent thingies in other temples and always wondered what they were for, so it was very cool to see one in use.

The little guy at the bottom was collecting the run-off water in a plastic bottle. I assume the water that has washed a Buddha on Pi Mai is very special indeed.

Pi Mai in Luang Prabang was definitely an experience, but there’s still a lot more to say about my visit to this beautiful, ancient town. Look for another post soon where I’ll report on all the touristy stuff I did that wasn’t part of the crazy Pi Mai celebrations, because despite the week long party, I still managed to get some proper sightseeing done and meet some interesting people that you’ll want to hear about. Stick around.

Steve’s Weird Food Laos Buffet

Thursday, April 15, 2010

It seems like the weird food is everywhere here in Laos, so here are a bunch of weird food related thoughts.


I think the first thing that would qualify as Weird Food (capitalized, therefore referring to Steve’s Weird Food, and not just some random, undocumented weird food) is the dried squid I had with Jim on the banks of the Mekong. These were small whole squids that were flatter than a pancake, hard, and chalky looking. Women were wandering along the riverbank selling them from baskets. They came in several sizes, and when you ordered them the vendor would pop them onto a little brazier she carried on her other shoulder to warm them through. It was a perfectly self-contained operation. Squid in the basket, hot coals in a pan, tongs to handle the product, and baggies to package it up. The smell of warm, dried squid is not one that’s going to take the Paris parfumiers my storm, but the taste was not bad. Well, when I say “not bad” what I really mean is stringy, fishy and chewy, but acceptable with a cold bottle of Beerlao alongside.

The squid on the portable BBQ, warming up for maximum smelliness


I’ve also noticed something in the Weird Beverages department. I’ve seen a lot of vendors selling different drinks that are made up of scoops of… stuff… from different jars. I have no idea what most of the different ingredients are. Some of them look like seaweed, and some like mud, and some like normal stuff – coconut and lime and such. The really weird bit comes when you order one - the guy selling them will pick up a small, heavy plastic bag and pour in ice and seemingly random scoops of this or that noxious-looking liquid. Then that bag goes into another plastic bag, this one with handles, like a mini grocery bag (a.k.a. carrier bag for our two U.K. readers: Anne and PT). Then they pop in a straw and hand it over. Drink-in-a-bag! It’s a bit odd. I tried it myself, though I got a very tame orange drink, and it turns out to be a pretty good system. There usually so much ice that you can actually set the bag down, contrary to what you’d assume, because the ice gives it some structure. And the large amount of ice means your drink stays really cold. And as an added bonus, you can hold the bag up against your forehead like a cold compress, which feels really really good.


Edited to add: The liquid-comestibles-in-a-bag phenomenon is not restricted to drinks. I've had spring rolls from street vendors who package the accompanying fish sauce in a small plastic bag held shut with a rubber band. And I've seen other places with noodles or other soupy stuff for sale that gets ladled into bags. You could have a whole meal in bags - starters, mains, drinks...


More Weird Food you say? Well how about that old favourite – organ meat? After gnawing on

dried squid for a while, I went up to Vientiane’s night market. Night markets are always a good spot for finding weird food, and this one was no exception. There were stalls lining either side of a short stretch of street, and most of them were selling meat on bamboo skewers. There were whole fish, and lots of unidentifiable bits. I spotted a likely candidate and asked the woman selling what it was. “Chicken” she said, though it was clear this was nothing you were going to get at KFC. I had my suspicions, so I put my fist up to my chest and made little pumping actions with it. She nodded. And that’s how I came to order a skewer of chicken hearts.

Chicken heart kebabs, next to a pile of something else that was also described as chicken, along with a finger pointing to the neck…

All of these kinds of things are normally cooked beforehand and then put back on the grill to re-heat through thoroughly once you order them. So I waited around for my skewer and paid the woman the grand sum of 1,000 Kip. That’s about 13 cents, so I think that the chicken heart kebab has the distinction of being the cheapest weird food so far. And it was also one of the tastiest. They were sort of chewy (I suppose any muscle that works as hard as a heart is bound to get a bit tough), but the flavour was great. So great that I almost went back for another one, except that I was still quite full of dried squid and chicken lap and papaya salad and, of course, Beerlao. So I contented myself with the one small skewer and wandered back to the hotel, secure in the knowledge that another weird food was in the books.


In brief bit of non-Weird Food related news, how about a little local Lao sport? During the Vientiane Bush Hash we ended near a small village, and ran right past a group of guys playing… something. I think it would best be described as “hacky sack volley ball”.

Volleyball Hacky sack, out of focus, but you get the idea

There were two teams on either side of a net, and they were kicking a large wicker ball back and forth. I say it was a wicker ball, but I think it was probably woven rattan or bamboo. It looked like the kind of thing that would be purchased for an outrageous sum at Pier One Imports and then artfully arranged in a pyramid formation with many of its fellows on a large square white dish. The dish would then, of course, be displayed in the middle of a glass coffee table by Martha Stewart.

Apparently not actually intended to be an item of home decor.


Another odd things about dining in southeast Asia. Remember how there were very few proper paper napkins in the Middle East, where they used boxes of kleenex instead? Well here that practice is taken one step further. Instead of a box of kleenex on restaurant tables, you get a roll of toilet paper in a little dispenser. The more posh the place, the fancier the dispenser.


Finally, it’s time for a Weird Food fruit course. It’s pretty much guaranteed that whenever I wander through a market in Asia there will be at least one fruit or vegetable that’s completely unrecognizable. In Luang Prabang, it was this:

Hands up if you know what these are. Ok, everyone with their hand up can just keep their mouth and stop feeling so smug.

Lately I’ve been getting a bit more adventurous in asking about these things, which is how I ended up with some nice little red plums in Hanoi. In Luang Prabang when I asked about the item in question the woman at the fruit stall just grabbed one, cracked it open with her fingers, and offered me the flesh inside. It was fantastic!

The inside of mangosteen

All you hands-up people are probably now saying, “Yeah, it’s a mangosteen you idiot. They’re common as dirt,” which may be true. In fact, when I mentioned my discovery to a Cambodian couple the next day they laughed at me. I suppose this would be like someone walking into the produce department at Safeway and gazing in wonder at the magical and exotic… Mackintosh apples.

Regardless, I’m a total fan of the mangosteen, which actually does taste a bit like mango, and is juicy and refreshing. Tip: they’re easiest to get into if you run a knife around the whole circumference and pop the top right off. And beware that thick purple rind – it stains.


That’s about all there is to say about Weird Food for now, except to tell you about the One That Got Away. On the way to the Kuang Si Waterfall (which you’ll hear about later) I ran into a vendor selling eggs. Not so weird? Well these were eggs on a stick! They were the most unlikely things. The eggs had a hole in the top and bottom of the shell and were threaded onto skewers, three per stick. Honestly, eggs on a stick! It was bizarre. I asked around a bit and it turns out the raw eggs are carefully drained through the holes in the shell and then cooked up with other things, and then the mixture is stuffed back into the shells and they’re put on the skewers. I really wish I’d at least taken a photo because, well, EGGS ON A STICK! Need I say more? I’m on the lookout for them in Luang Prabang, but no luck so far.


Dried squid, organ meat, drinks in a bag, eggs on a stick… Laos is Weird Food paradise.