Southeast Asia Journal 20: June 1, 2010


Looking back on the troubles of transportation that I endured in Laos, they seem more humorous now that I am looking back on them.  So perhaps this journal will be a bit more lighthearted than the previous one.

View from the hotel window at Vientiane

At any rate, I left off after the first day in Vientiane:  The next day I attempted to purchase a ticket for the slow boat up to the Thai Border.  I was pushing my timetable back quite a bit and the boss back in Bangkok was beginning to send me some eerie vibes of dismissal if I was to not show back up on the predetermined date.  I knew that he was more worried that I would do to him what many before me had done and simply wait until the last minute before jumping ship and thereby getting as much of my salary as possible from the company before springing the news on them.  The news would probably sound something like, “Hey, I have a family tragedy and need to return to the states.”  That line (and many others) has no doubt been used since the beginning of this type of profession.  Not only does the international job hunt invite some interesting characters to the trough, it also has its share of excuses to high-tail it when the paychecks come in.  The translation to most of these excuses probably goes a little something like this:

I have worked for you just long enough that I have made the money to travel elsewhere.  No hard feelings and sorry for providing you with fake transcripts and dodgy resume references.  But I had a nice time and now that I am finished sponging up the last of the funds you’re willing to dole out, I will be on my way.

I am not naïve.  I am dedicated to my job and I have long will no longer surrender my integrity for money.  But I know that there are people that come here just to support their travels and then they are off to the lands of elsewhere.  The company I work for happens to be one of the better ones at spotting these types of individuals – albeit there are a few that slip through the cracks.  But I work with an office full of guys that have either been there for the last five years or are married with Thai children and are established here.  So I don’t really see a lot of drifters.

At any rate, the edge waters and aquatic thoroughfares of the Lao terrain are not to be missed, so I have heard.  And I wasn’t aiming to miss any of these.  The Mekong has been a long coveted waterway that I have wanted to navigate for some time.  I was to take the five-day ride through what I was hoping was as moving and enlightening an experience as the Songkhla River to the Tonle Sap in Cambodia.  And if you have kept up with my journals, you’ll have an idea of just how monumental and eye-opening that trip was.

Once at the boat dock, though, I was met with an impasse – the dry season had already started and the mountain runoff had been too little to bring the waters to a navigable level and river and so no boats were running.  I had to take a bus, the ferry guide said, but that may prove to be fortuitous because I would skip the longest leg of the river and might even have a better chance of catching the higher part of the river at Luangprabang.  The bus, a short jaunt of about 18 hours by, you guessed it, a sleeper bus, would have me there and ready to ferry the rest of the way to the Thai border.

It was late in the morning, so I wouldn’t make it to the buses leaving that day.  But later in the day I could kill two birds with one stone by taking the night bus, sleeping on the bus and save myself the hotel fee.  And since the Lao infrastructure was such that ATMs were scarce, this would help me out even more.

I went sightseeing through the city and took my time making it to the bus terminal and left later that afternoon.  This worked out well, I thought, but I was soon met with more Lao letdowns.  The man at the ticket booth gave me a horrible exchange rate for the last of my Vietnam dong (VN currency) and as he handed me the change for this horrible transaction, he just then happened to remember that the sleeper bus had broken down and my bus ticket had been changed to a local service bus.  That meant that instead of spending 18 reclined hours on a slightly bumpy but air-conditioned transport captained by a tour agency professional, I would be sweating non-stop aboard a tiny, rickety rust box where I would likely eaten alive by mosquitoes while losing the feeling in my cramped, pretzeled limbs.  But this was the good news.

About halfway through the trip – give or take a few hours of bobbing consciousness – our bus broke down and we had to wait roadside in order to board a larger bus filled with other passengers on their way northward.  So I went from a most uncomfortable cushioned seat on which only half of my ass fit, to a completely uncomfortable ride where I found myself on a tiny stool on which about a third of my ass fit – and having to twist sideways and lean on the chair of the poor, tiny Asian next to me for the rest of the ride in order to hopefully drift off long enough to trick my body into thinking it was quality sleep.

I never thought I would make it.  But I did.  I am sitting here now thinking back to how laughable the situation really was.  And if I think hard enough back, I can actually remember myself chuckling a few times at just how ridiculous the situation actually got.  I would not have done it a few years ago.  I would have stomped into the terminal and demanded my money back.  But I have grown very patient under trying times in the past few years.  And I am thankful for my lessons with each new hurdle.  It has proved inestimable time and time again.

In Luangprabang, I was faced with more defeating news; the river was still unmanageable for larger transport boats.  I again found this out at the boat dock and it again delayed my bus travel.  But this time it was a real blessing because I got to see the most amazing waterfall and had the most fun I think I have had in a long time.

I trekked through a small bit of jungle and saw some wild Asiatic black bears to make my way to a multi-tiered waterfall with a rope swing.  It was a welcomed retreat.  I had a few hours to kill before I was ripped off, lied to and forced aboard another tiny bucket of bolts.  So I figured I would treat myself to a nice, cool, glacial-fed dip.

It was truly magnificent.  The ride is about an hour outside of town.  This beautiful waterfall traversing lush foliage in northern Laos was called Kuang Si.  And it was just like Disneyland.  The water was cool, the grounds were kept by monks at the nearby monastery and you could take the half-hour hike to the crest of the mountain and see the entire waterfall and all its sparkling blue tiers that look like lily pads down on the ground.  Walking up the trail, thick with trees, the sun-speckled water shimmered and writhed as it made its way down into each new, little waterfall.  It was a great hike.  And once I finished the hike I was rewarded with a nice, cool dip.  The chilly, restful soak was like a fresh start.  And looking all around while wading, its emerald-blue hue and strikingly cold temperature contrasted the thick, hot air above the water, I could see wildlife everywhere also enjoying this magical place.

To be honest, it was hard to believe that this place existed.  I hadn’t heard about it in any of the books I read or from any of the accompanying travelers.  But that was probably because they were as travel-fatigued as I was from their own particular mobile disasters.  But there I was, swinging my big, tattooed self off a tree trunk and into an icy, blue brew.

I climbed, swam, snapped a few shots and headed back to my underhanded driver.  He drove me about halfway to the bus and stopped to tell me that I needed to pay him some more money.  So I swiftly hopped out, turned and stuck out my thumb.  He changed his story and said that he could bring me back but I had already had enough of his antics.  Besides, it was no time before another vehicle happened by and I climbed aboard for the ride into town.  It was a pickup truck and to my surprise the back was filled with Spaniards.  So I spoke the first Spanish that I have spoken in a long time.  It was an interesting turn of events and I made it back to the bus just in time to run alongside it and throw my things aboard and dive into the swung-open door.  It’s really anybody’s guess as to why he didn’t just stop.  He seemed to have no problem with stopping more than a handful of times to relieve himself during the trip.  But nevertheless, I was on my way to the last border before Thailand.

I touch down on the Thai border from the Mekong River

At that point, I would have to sail the Mekong.  It was the only way to get to Thailand.  And though it was only a five minute ferry ride, I enjoyed all five of them as though to also say goodbye to my Lao troubles and welcome back the smiles and simple life of the Thai people.

‘What a relief to be back,’ I thought, as I stepped off the boat onto the coarsely dry soil of the Kingdom of Thailand.  I would spend a day trekking through Chiang Rai before heading to the latter of the mountain destinations; Chiang Mai.

I have never been to Chiang Mai since being here but it was great.  I got a bedroom next to a fellow international bicyclist from Ireland and we swapped stories for the two days I was there about our travels.  It was nice to have a good return on that perspective again.  It was also nice to have a massage, a beer and an ATM.

Chiang Mai is just like my town, Surat Thani, in many ways.  Firstly, it’s very slow and low key.  However, it is very liberal and hippy-ish.  That’s a sharp contrast to the wealthy, conservative atmosphere to which I am akin in the south.  I liked the night life.  I don’t do much bar hopping anymore.  But I went out with my new Irish friend and had a hell of a time.  We made our way to a place where there were several music bars playing all manner of western music.  It was the first time that I had experienced a live band doing a good job of playing American favorites since I have been in Asia.

The next day I checked my email, showered, packed my things and boarded a train headed to Bangkok.  From that point all the way to the bus that dropped me off in front of my friend’s house (where my other belongings were stowed while I was away) there were really no issues of note – or at least there weren’t any that stick so far out in my memory that they are coming to me at 11:00 p.m. while I am writing this.  So I should say that this last leg simply went smoothly and I made it home safe and sound.

The next day I donned a suit, tie and shiny, leather shoes and headed off to teach a new batch of kiddies for the term.  I was actually looking forward to a regular schedule again – even if that meant sweating under a shirt and tie.

More updates are on the way as I plan my new classes, edit my newest photos, build my website (cyleodonnell.com), enter photo contests, write, take photos, experience my expat life here in Asia and generally live the life that I love living.

Thanks so much for being there on this journey with me.  It’s meant a lot to have had your comments, your support and most of all your friendship.

Until the next journal,

Cyle

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