A Travellerspoint blog

Hitchhiking the Tibetan Back-Door on a Bum Leg

sunny 10 °C

Unfortunately, the Chinese make it virtual impossible for penniless travelers like myself to enter Tibet. In order to obtain a permit, one must find five others of the same nationality and book an expensive organized tour. Luckily, several of Tibet’s bordering provinces contain areas which still lie on the Tibetan plateau but are not officially within its borders. Thus, the culture, architecture and people are Tibetan but the land is not off limits. These areas are commonly referred to by travelers as the Tibetan Back-Door. They allow budget travellers the opportunity to get a taste of Tibet without the permits. One such area is western Sichuan, an ancient province in the far west of China. In fact, until quite recently the government would not even allow foreigners into this area. Fortunately, the ban has recently been lifted and I was able to plan a route through the plateau on my way to ChengDu.
The Journey began in Shangri La where I was hanging low and waiting for a visa extension. For anyone who thought Shangri La was just a fictional place described in the book 'Lost Horizon', well you're right. The Shangri La in northern Yunnan is actually a city called ZhongDian. The Chinese renamed it Shangri La ten years ago to attract tourists. It worked. ZhongDian hosts tens of thousands of Chinese tourists every year. The ridiculous side to the story, however, is that ZhongDian is nothing like the Shangri La described in Lost Horizon. I read the book on my way to Northern Yunnan. The plot is built around the idea that a group of plane crash survivors are marooned in an impassable Tibetan valley, a majestic paradise surrounded by mountains so high that they are unable to leave. ZhongDian, however, lies in the middle of grassland with just a few rolling hills surrounding. It is certainly a beautiful area but in no way impassable. In fact, the terrain is quite easy to navigate. I guess not many Chinese tourists have read the book.
I arrived in ‘Shangri La’ during Golden Week, one of China’s two major holidays. The place was overrun with domestic tourists and prices were soaring. The day the holiday began, the fee for a single bed in my dorm went from 25 RMB ($4) to 100 RMB ($15). I managed to find a great little family run hostel in Shangri La for a decent price but I was desperate to escape the crowds. My solution was a trip up to Deqin, a mountain town straddling the Burmese and Tibetan border. The area was supposed to provide stunning views of Yunnan’s most majestic mountain, Meili Shan. The town was an eight hour drive from ZhongDian by means of a windy mountain road. I thought surely this would be a good place to avoid the holiday migration. I was wrong.
Upon arrival, I quickly realized that Meili is actually one of the most famous mountains in China. The town was tiny but busier than Shangri La. Once again I had to pay $15 for a three bed dorm that usually costs $3-4. To make matters worse I had to share this small frosty room with three sixty year old photographers who snored louder than ban saws. The room only had three beds but these guys were so desperate for a place to sleep that two of them shared a tiny single. Earplugs and a valium were a necessity that night. Due to bad weather, I only got a few glimpses of the mountain. It was indeed beautiful and majestic as the name suggests but continually shrouded in a thick fog.
While warming myself next to the stove in the guesthouse lobby one evening, I met a very nice local Chinese couple, Aibo and ManMan. They were shocked to find a foreigner wandering through northern Yunnan alone and even more surprised to find one who could speak a little Chinese. They treated me to hot pot and insisted that I join them on a glacier walk the following day. This was becoming a common trend in China. When locals noticed that I could speak a little Chinese, they began lining up to buy me dinner and take me somewhere interesting.
The guidebook described the trip which Aibo and ManMan spoke of as a simple thirty minute walk which afforded fantastic views of a large glacier. It was too cloudy to see Meili Shan from the guesthouse so I decided to join the trek.
I met Aibo and ManMan for breakfast early the next morning. They were quite surprised to see that I was wearing only a sweater, had no raincoat and had not brought any snacks for the trip. I was surprised to see them so over prepared for such a simple walk. After all, my guidebook described the trip as ‘short and easy’. I assumed they were just being overly cautious when they rushed off to buy me a disposable poncho and a few bags of chips for the journey.
Once we started on the trail, however, I began to understand why they were so concerned. It was not a relaxed walk. It was a four hour hike up a steep and muddy path covered in donkey shit. Ten minutes after setting out on the trail, it started pouring. It was only late September but we were hovering at an altitude near four thousand metres so the rain was bone chilling. The disposable poncho could only do so much to fend off the relentless downpour. By the time we reached the trail’s summit I was drenched.
The toe of the glacier was immense and beautiful. A sheer cliff of ice stood in between two steep mountainsides. Even though I grew up next to the Rockies, I realized that this was as close to a glacier as I had ever been. As we sat admiring the giant river of ice, we heard a thunderous crack and witnessed a large chunk break away from the glacier cliff and tumble into the valley below. It was exhilarating to watch.
At the base of the glacier was a colourful Tibetan monastery where we were able to warm up with a hot bowl of noodle soup. The hot noodles fought bravely in the battle against the damp cold invading our bodies but soon we had to begin the return trek down the mountain for fear of catching pneumonia. Once back in town, ManMan, Aibo and I sat next to the fire for a good two hours before we were warm and comfortable again.
The following morning, once the holiday had finally concluded and the hoards of Chinese tourists had returned to work, I shared a minibus back to Shangri La. I checked into a cozy hostel called ‘The Long Journey’ on the outskirts of town. It was a large colourful space with sixteen beds scattered throughout. As I laid in bed sorting through recent photographs, a young German backpacker settled into the bed next to mine. We were the only two only foreigners in the dorm and, naturally, we began chatting. He introduced himself as Sascha. He had been floating around East Asia for the last seven months and recently stumbled into China. His travel resume was full of interesting destinations and he was full of interesting travel stories. He was quick to tell me that he had not only spent a month traveling with a German playboy cover girl in New Zealand, but also spent a month traveling with a former Ms. Jakarta in Indonesia. Lucky bastard.
Like me, Sascha was a no plan traveler. He went wherever the wind took him and was undecided as to where to go next. He seemed friendly and easygoing so I invited him to join me on a tour through the villages of Western Sichuan. I told him quite honestly that I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that the area was remote, fascinating and would be a lot more fun to travel with a buddy. A few beers later, he was not hard to convince. Bright and early the next morning, we were on a bus bound for Tibet.
Fours hours into the journey, the paved road leading away from ZhongDian became a rocky trail as we began our ascent onto the Tibetan Plateau. The bus chugged up the sides of mountains, hugging cliffs and manoeuvring around landslides. At three thousand five hundred meters, it was clear we had entered unique territory. From the bus window, we could see large, castle-like homes built of stone and adorned with various colourful patterns. These estates were organized into small plateau villages perched above blue rushing rivers and surrounded by small fields where crops were grown and yaks roamed. On shop fronts and signs was a strange script which looked more like Sanskrit than Chinese. Villagers wore colourful traditional clothing. They had dark complexions and distinct facial features. Many held colourful prayer beads between their fingers. This was Tibet.
It was not until we reached XiangCheng that we experienced the region’s more modern edge. The town was small but had a newly built main square, a couple fresh white apartment blocks and a reception tower in its center. On the periphery were more traditional buildings and farms. On a hill overlooking the town was a large gold and red monastery complex. In the late afternoon, it acted as a second sun reflecting rays down onto the town.
As we took our first walk through the streets of XiangCheng I was taken aback by its imposing police presence. The town could not have had a population of more than twenty thousand and yet the streets were littered with men in uniform. This is something that we would encounter in every town we visited along the SiChuan-Tibet Highway. When I was living in Yantai I very rarely saw a police car. In western SiChuan, even the smallest towns had large vans equipped with CCTV cameras and police roaming the streets. It looked like an occupation. I guess in many ways it was.
As expected, Sascha and I were the only foreigners in town. The locals were both surprised and happy to see us. We found an old Tibetan guesthouse near the bus stop and settled into our beautiful decorated room before heading out for dinner.
After sunset, XiangCheng came alive. The streets were full of locals, both young and old, eating and drinking well into the night. Sascha and I found a small curb side restaurant and downed quite a few beers ourselves. Curious passers by often joined our table for a drink. Although they all spoke mandarin, the Tibetan accent was too difficult too decipher and I had trouble holding a conversation.
At about midnight, we were stumbling our way back to the guesthouse when we heard the distant thud of a techno beat pulsating from a dark alley. It sounded like a club. Could this remote little hamlet actually have some sort of discotheque? We entered the dark alley to investigate. As we delved further, the music grew louder and louder. Eventually we found ourselves outside a large steel door which thumped to the beat of powerful speakers behind it. Sascha swung the door open and, much to our surprise, before us was a small club complete with tacky decor, a disco ball, two large speakers and a dance floor. Positioned around the dance floor were several tables filled with Tibetan youth laughing and drinking the night away.
Everyone stopped what they were doing as we entered. Some looked pleasantly surprised by our presence, others just looked horribly confused. The bartender struggled in English to inquire what we were doing there. I told him that we wanted a drink, of course. He grabbed two bottles of lager from a cooler at his feet and set them on the bar. Before we had even reached for our wallets, a young Tibetan woman approached us, told the bartender to put the beers on her tab and invited us to join her table. She was with a rambunctious group of young locals. Some were siblings and some were cousins, but they all seemed to be related in some way or another. No one looked older than twenty and I got the feeling we had crashed a high school party. Regardless of age, these locals knew how to drink. They would not be satisfied until their new foreign friends were plastered. They ordered beers by the case. A fresh beer was already waiting in one hand before we had even finished the one in the other. Once we were sufficiently smashed, they ushered us out onto the floor to dance to Tibetan techno.
As if to embarrass us, the DJ put on a traditional Tibetan song. Costumed dancers joined the stage and everyone took part in some strange circular line dance. Sascha and I tried to keep up, but it was not an easy routine. Eventually, we had to retire to the sidelines.
Back at the table, we continued pouring back the drinks. The opportunity to make a toast circled the group. The Tibetans did their best to say something in English but usually failed. When it was Sascha’s turn, he stood up and yelled out “Free Tibet!” thinking it would go down well with our new friends. While no one spoke English, everyone understood this slogan. The crowd immediately went silent and began looking worriedly from side to side. Woops… touchy subject. Nobody knew who could be listening. The mishap was quickly forgotten, however, when the next round of beers arrived. It was about four in the morning when we finally emerged from this strange cultural experience. The street side vendors were still open so we grabbed some spicy barbeque before bed.
The following morning, Sascha and I contemplated our next move. We wanted to reach a national park called YaDing. The only way to get there, however, was through a town called DaoCheng. It was not far but the buses were unreliable and infrequent. Since Sascha had done some hitchhiking in New Zealand and I had heard that Tibetans were quite sympathetic to travelers, we decided to hitch a ride. We searched the market for some cardboard and a thick black marker. I found the translation for ‘DaoCheng’ on my phone and did my best to copy the characters onto the cardboard. Then we gathered our bags and found a comfy spot on the side of the highway. It was about an hour later that an empty minibus pulled over and waved us aboard. Since it was a domestic tourist bus I assumed the driver was going to ask us to pay, but he told us he was on his way to DaoCheng to meet a tour group and we could tag along for free.
The ride was comfortable and the scenery was amazing. The bus passed through three biomes in only a four hour drive. We began the journey in rugged mountains, soon found ourselves in a marshy wetland and finally arrived in a highland plateau full of green rolling hills. The driver dropped us off at a hostel before meeting his tour group. We thanked him profusely for all his help. My first real hitchhiking experience could not have gone better.
DaoCheng was more modern and clean than I expected. There were quite a few Chinese tourists around since it acts as the jumping point for reaching the nearby YaDing National Park. Indeed, this park is the reason why almost everyone makes the trek to this secluded Tibetan town. I had never read a guidebook which mentioned YaDing national park and I had never met a foreigner who had been there, however, I had heard from several locals that this area was one of the most beautiful in all of China. If you could stomach the journey, it was supposedly well worth the trouble.
The following morning, we shared a minibus with a few other tourists to YaDing village, the gateway to the park. Our driver was eighteen years old and had a death wish. He drove ridiculously fast with complete disregard for road blocks or construction. He sped through accident zones where trucks had recently collided and blindly passed on sharp corners. We were all terrified.
He forced us to stop at his friend’s overpriced restaurant in a small town along the way then, in YaDing village, he dropped us at his brother’s hotel and began aggressively selling us a room. When we refused, he became angry and increased the price of our journey by twenty yuan. That was the last straw. Tempers flared and an argument ensued. He even threatened to get physical. Eventually, we threw some money on the ground and left. We were a little worried about the whole situation. The village was tiny, there were not many other options for accommodation and this cowboy was clearly off his rocker. I recalled the large hunting knife he kept wedged between his seat and the gear shift in his minibus. We decided it was best to find accommodation outside of the village. We had heard from a Chinese tourist in DaoCheng that there was a monastery in the heart of YaDing Park which allowed overnight stays. It was a risky proposition. If we couldn’t find the monastery we risked sleeping outside in sub zero temperatures. Nonetheless, we aimed to make it our destination and set out into the mountains in the early afternoon.
It was cloudy and the beginning of the trek was not particularly exciting. After a couple hours on the trail, however, the fog cleared and the beauty that is YaDing Park was revealed. The scenery was unlike anything I had seen before. Grassy valleys were surrounded by massive snow covered mountains and dissected with crystal blue streams. The forested areas were a mishmash of vibrant reds, yellows and greens. Various trails led to secluded glacier fed ponds and frost covered fields. I was in awe.
We found the monastery in the late afternoon. It was a small white brick building perched on a mountainside overlooking the valley. Inside, several monks sat around a fire stove reading and meditating. I politely asked if it was possible to stay for a night but the monks simply smiled and shook their heads. I was confused. As far I knew, monks were obligated to offer a bed to those without a place to sleep. Apparently this was not the case in Tibet. Unsure of what to do next, we walked out with our hearts quickly sinking. Before we reached the trail, however, a monk met us at the outer gate door. He spoke mandarin in a thick Tibetan accent and I found it difficult to understand exactly what he was saying. I gathered that he wanted us to return after dark. He kept motioning to a video camera which sat on one of the temple walls. I soon began to appreciate the situation. This was a Tibetan monastery and Tibetan monks are typically denied contact with foreigners by the Chinese authorities. Even in this isolated monastery high in the mountains, the government was still watching. It was clear they were taking a risk by hosting us. We just had to avoid being seen by the camera and hope for the best. When we returned later that evening, the monks had arranged a couple beds for us in what appeared to be an old storage room. They charged us ten dollars a piece for the accommodation and a dollar each for a bowl of noodles.
A couple hours after sunset, the temperature dropped significantly. We were, after all, over four thousand metres up. There were plenty of thick blankets in the storage room but blankets can only do so much in sub zero temperatures. It was a long cold night.
The next morning we woke up before sunrise and went into the prayer hall to warm up. Standing in the middle of the room, admiring the artwork was a mountain goat. I assumed he was a Buddhist. He stood there, unconcerned by our presence until a monk chased him off.
As the sun began to peak over the horizon there was not a cloud in the sky. The snow capped mountains surrounding the monastery were on full display. Overnight, a thick frost had covered the landscape which now sparkled in the morning’s first rays of sunlight. While Sascha warmed himself by the fire, I hiked up to a glacier fed lake to watch the rest of the sunrise. I had the entire lake to myself. Mist settled like smoke on its glass like surface. Small creatures began to stir in the surrounding woods. The sun slowly turned the side of the snow white mountain before me bright yellow. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
When I returned to the monastery Sascha was ready to continue the trek. I assumed that we had already experienced the best YaDing had to offer. The area around the monastery was simply stunning. Nonetheless, as we followed a clear blue river into the woods, we soon descended into another even more alluring grassland valley. It was flagged by jagged snowy peaks and brightly coloured forest. In the distance, there was a giant white triangle shaped mountain. The locals named it NiuNaiShan or ‘milk mountain’ since every inch of its steep slope is covered in bright white snow. It looked like an apparition. I found myself constantly checking to see if it was still there. It was not until we reached its base that I was convinced it was real.
We sat in NiuNai’s shadow admiring its beauty for well over an hour. Once the sun was directly above us, we began the trek back to YaDing village. The journey out of the valley was just as spectacular as the journey in. The only difference was that we had to look behind us to reaffirm NiuNai’s existence.
Six hours later, we were back in the village, sitting in a hole in the wall restaurant and still buzzing from our experiences in the park. It already felt like a dream. The cook brought us a plate of spicy shredded potato and rice. We chatted with a Chinese couple who were sitting opposite us as we ate. They offered us a cup of tea by lifting a large thermos full of recently boiled water onto the table. I graciously accepted by pulling it towards me. As I lifted the giant thermos of the table to pour water into Sascha’s cup, however, I heard a sudden crack and the bottom of the thermos broke off. Scalding hot water poured out of the bottom and onto my leg.
I was shocked at first. I did not realize what had happened. Then the pain struck like a hundred needles in my thigh. I jumped out of my seat and tried remove my pants and left shoe, both of which were full of the scalding liquid. But by the time I was finally able to remove the affected articles of clothing, the damage was already done. I still wasn’t sure what had even happened. All I knew was that I was in intense pain and I needed to see a doctor. The cook quickly ran out of the building to look for help. She returned only a moment later with a pale of ice cold water and a tube of toothpaste. YaDing village was tiny and there was no clinic, no doctor and no medical supplies. The best burn ointment available was toothpaste.
The pain quickly worsened and it was clear I needed to get to a clinic. With my pants in Sascha’s hands and me in nothing but my underwear, we walked out into the road to flag down a ride. A group of local men stopped and agreed to take us to DaoCheng for $5 each. The pain was intense and I was not sure I could stomach the three hour journey back to town. I begged the driver to take me anywhere close by where I could get some type of medication. He detoured to a larger village which had a clinic.
The clinic was a small two level building right off the highway. Inside, the doctor took a quick look at the burn but concluded that he did not have the proper ointment for a water burn. All he had to offer was a topical anaesthetic and recommended I see a doctor in DaoCheng. I told him to give me anything that would make the pain go away. He spread three tubes of transparent cream over the burn with q-tips. Ten minutes later, I could not feel anything on my thigh at all. It was a welcome relief.
Although the pain was gone the appearance of the burn only worsened. By the time we reached DaoCheng my thigh and ankle had turned purple and developed big yellow blisters. The Tibetans dropped us at DaoCheng’s only hospital but it appeared to be abandoned. The front door was open but there was no one to be found in the lobby. Unsure of what to do, Sascha went searching for a doctor while I searched for a toilet. The building was filthy. The lobby stunk of urine and rotten food. Trash cans were overflowing with medical garbage and strange fluids were scattered about the halls. I found a bathroom but its floor and walls were smeared with shit. I decided to hold it.
Sascha soon returned with a man in a white coat. He said he was a doctor but he looked younger than me. I was sceptical but let him look at my burns anyways. It’s not like I had any alternatives.
The young doctor popped and drained my blisters. Large amounts of yellow liquid poured out of my thigh and onto the ground of his office. This attracted a group of locals who randomly appeared at the doctor’s office door. He provided me with a Chinese herbal medicine and advised me to apply it four times daily with q-tips. He warned me to never wrap or wash the area as this could bring on infection. He offered me a bed in the hospital but, considering the state of the place, I decided to try my luck at a hotel.
Since most of the nerve tissue had been destroyed, I was in little pain. However, I was very worried about the possibility of infection. Unaware of how much more susceptible westerns are to bacteria than locals, my young doctor did not give me anything to combat it. If a burn of such size had become infected, I could have been in big trouble. I knew there was a seventy two hour danger zone in which I had to be extremely careful.
We really had no option but to stay in DaoCheng. The closest airport was a twelve hour drive back the way we came via a bumpy, unreliable landslide filled road. Unless someone sent a helicopter, Daocheng would remain my recovery zone. Sascha found us a clean double room just off the main strip. It became my sanctuary. I rarely left to avoid being exposed to too much bacteria. The room came with a DVD player and a few English movies so I spent most of my time in bed watching them over and over. Unfortunately, the power supply in DaoCheng is temperamental at best. At times, I was left for up to fifteen hours with nothing to do but lie there, play tic-tac-teo, or eat the snacks which Sascha brought.
The burns had to remain exposed so I did not want to risk too much outside contact. The few times when I did exit the room to revisit the hospital, I had to wear sandals and bright blue short shorts to avoid contact with the burns as well as a thick toque, gloves and two sweaters to keep myself warm. I looked ridiculous. Locals in the streets would see my white face and smile, then my blue short shorts and laugh, then my leg and grimace. Thankfully, the guesthouse was a family run business and had a home cooked dinner prepared by the resident granny every night. Thus, I was treated to some excellent meals without having to leave the building. During one of these meals, the old granny told me it was the first time she had ever eaten with foreigners. This brought a much needed smile to my face.
Two days passed and the burns showed no signs of healing. It was clear that I would have to wait at least a couple more before moving on. This put Sascha in a difficult position as he was stuck waiting around for me to improve. I told him I would totally understand if he moved on without me. He had already done more than enough. Nonetheless, being the stand-up guy that he is, Sascha simply shrugged and said 'I'm a German, this is what I do.' He spent much of his time in DaoCheng fetching me water, food and medicine. I really couldn't have thanked him enough for sticking around in such a tough situation.
The morning after my fourth night in isolation, the burns were showing a few signs of healing. We trudged our way to the hospital to see if it was possible to wrap the leg and continue on. The doctor was hesitant but gave me enough medicine and gauze to last me a few days and sent us on our way. I carefully wrapped the leg in the gauze, threw together another cardboard sign and dragged my bag onto the highway to flag down a ride.
Hitchiking on a bum leg may seem a bit unwise, but given the circumstances it made sense. The buses in western Sichuan are very dirty and are easily stuck behind landslides. Cars, however, are usually more comfortable, cleaner and easier to navigate. The catch is you need to find one willing to take you aboard. I sat on my backpack, tending to my leg while Sascha did most of the hitchhiking work. A few cars stopped with one space available, but we were forced to wave them on.
We waited for over an hour before a van full of Tibetan youth stopped and offered us a ride for a few dollars each. It wasn’t exactly the clean, comfortable and free ride we were hoping for, but it was better than a bus so we hopped in. The scenery was, once again, spectacular as we climbed further onto the Tibetan plateau towards our next destination. We passed grasslands, wetlands and strange rock formations. Eventually we arrived in Litang.
At an altitude of over four thousand metres, Litang remains one of the highest human settlements in the world. However, upon first glance, I never would have guessed it. The town sits upon a barren grassland plateau surrounded by golden hills. It was more like a prairie town than a mountain town.
The streets were dirtier than DaoCheng’s but felt more authentic. I enjoyed the more traditional Tibetan atmosphere. The dusty main road was flanked by shops and noodle joints. Conventional painted stone homes were scattered around the town center. On a hill in the north of town was an imposing golden monastery. Since Litang was the birth place of no less than two Dali Lamas, this monastery is considered quite sacred.
We found another comfortable albeit chilly room just off the main road where I spent a couple more days in isolation. During this time, I managed my first shower in over a week. I was not supposed to get the burns wet but I stank something terrible. I had been wearing the same shirt, sweater and pants since the accident and my deodorant had run out in XiangCheng. With my burnt leg wrapped in plastic bags, I balanced it on the sink and washed all the essentials. It felt fantastic to be clean again.
Once the danger period for infection had passed my burns began to protect themselves with scabs. I was able to leave the room a couple times a day to fetch some noodles or wander the streets.
The healing which afforded me increased mobility, however, came with a price. The nerves in my thigh and ankle were reconnecting themselves to my brain. This meant that I my nervous system was finally becoming aware of the damage that was done to my body. It responded by sending shooting pains through my leg whenever I moved too quickly and a chronic throbbing soreness developed on the surface of the burns. Thus, my travels were often short and full of breaks.
On one of my more ambitious days, Sascha and I took a cab up to the imposing monastery. In the hilltop courtyard, young curious monks sat with us and played with our cameras. Inside the main building, older monks meditated in the prayer hall. As we approached the congregation, one middle aged monk welcomed us with a bow and asked what we were looking for. When I responded in mandarin his eyes seemed to light up. He immediately asked me to follow him to the roof. It was the best place, he said, to watch the sunset. Once on the roof, he began to tell me of his troubled life in Litang. He told me that the monks are often harassed or beaten by the police if they leave the monastery. Just a few years ago, several monks were shot dead at the monastery during a protest. His brethren are constantly subjected to violence and oppression. In fact, he had taken me to the roof because he could not be seen communicating with a foreigner. If the police saw us together, he said, we would both be arrested. I think he viewed our conversation as a rare opportunity to relate the story of the monks in Litang to an outsider. He wanted the rest of the world to know of the troubled situation faced by his people. It was risky, but it was his duty. Our conversation was brief as he was fearful of being seen by one of the many Chinese police officers wandering the area. As I left, I promised to relate his story to my friends and family back home.
When Sascha and I returned to the hotel both the power and water were out. The desk clerk told us they would not to return until the following morning. The lobby was better heated than our room so we sat at one of the tables, enjoyed a bowl of yak noodle soup and played cards. We also took the opportunity to ask the clerk about if it was possible to witness a Tibetan sky burial in Litang. It was one of the main reasons we had traveled to this remote settlement.
The sky burial, we were told, is the most sacred of four funeral services practised by Tibetan people. The other three, from most significant to least, are river burial, cremation and ground burial. The sky burial is reserved for only the most revered in the community. The Tibetans see this custom as a way to unify the souls of recently passed with nature. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure what a sky burial process entailed, but I had heard that the experience was quite unique. The clerk informed us that there would be a large funeral ceremony at sunrise the next day and we were welcome to attend.
At five thirty the following morning, we took a cab out to a large frost laden field on the outskirts of town. The sky was still black and the air was dry and icy. The cab dropped us on the edge of town and we were forced to walk through the dead of night to the funeral grounds. About a hundred people had congregated around four large fires by the time we arrived. At first glance, I assumed the fires were there to keep people warm. But upon closer inspection, we witnessed families placing bodies wrapped in white sheets into the flames. The atmosphere was quiet and sober. No one was breaking down in tears. Most just sat and stared in silence while the bodies slowly burned in front of them.
When the sun finally peaked over the horizon, it illuminated a large golden hill to the right of the field. As if on queue, a flock of about twenty hungry vultures gracefully sailed over the horizon and congregated on the top of the hill. This was a tradition for which they were clearly well accustomed. The vultures were much larger than I expected. There wings were long, their hooked beaks were sharp and there bodies were a midnight black, as if they were dressed for the funeral. They had not come to mourn, however, they had come to eat.
Three figures emerged from the crowd. One was dressed in thick colourful clothing, a helmet, gloves and boots. Behind them, they dragged the bodies of a two recently diseased males wrapped in white sheets. Once they were high on the hill and away from the crowd, the protected man was left alone to unwrap the bodies. The vultures stirred with excitement at the sight of the dead flesh. With an axe and a saw, he began dismembering the diseased, cutting them into small enough pieces for the birds to easily manage. The flock inched closer. When he rose and stood back from the carnage, the vultures moved in. The funeral became a feeding frenzy as the bodies disappeared behind the montage of black wings, beaks and talons.
Onlookers sat and watched patiently. Ten minutes later the vultures dispersed to reveal nothing but bones and blood stained soil. The man in protective clothing returned with the axe and began chopping the skeletons into smaller pieces. He offered the last parcels of bone and flesh to the birds as if he were an old woman feeding bread crumbs to pigeons in a park. Eventually, every last bit of the bodies were consumed by the vultures. When they had there fill, they soared up into the sky, bringing the recently departed with them. The diseased had been returned to nature.
After the ceremony, we made our way back to town, numb from the cold and speechless from what we had just witnessed. Although it may sound disgusting, there was something very spiritual about the whole experience. It seemed to make sense in its own unique way.
Once back at the guesthouse, we debated our next move. Our goal was to reach KangDing and eventually ChengDu. However, there was only one road from Litang to KangDing and it was notorious for its unreliability and instability. A recent earthquake had levelled many parts of the trail and we had heard from a few local travelers that the ride could take anywhere from ten to seventeen hours. Hitchhiking was not a good option as few people risked traveling the highway for such a long distance and we did not want to risk being on stuck the road after dark. There was one rattling old bus which left Litang for KangDing once every two days. It was our only option. We booked our tickets that afternoon leaving early the following morning.
The journey was not an easy one. It was not a great distance but the road on which we travelled was hardly a road at all. At best, it was a rocky mountain trail peppered with landslides. The ride was so windy and bumpy that we averaged only fifteen kilometres an hour. Every knock and turn shot sharp pains up my still recovering leg. We endured a few delays while landslides were cleared but, all things considered, we made it to KangDing in pretty good time. Eleven hours after leaving Litang, we were descending into the large mountain settlement.
KangDing was modern, beautiful and set in a dramatic gorge amongst sheer cliffs and powerful rivers. With eighty thousand inhabitants, it was by far the largest town we had visited on the Tibet-Sichuan highway. It was also the town with the most Chinese influence. Depending on which street you visited, you could hear both Tibetan and mandarin being spoken. Next to Tibetan shops selling prayer beads and wrangler’s hats were Chinese shops selling dragons statues and red lanterns. As much as I enjoyed experiencing Tibetan culture, I must admit, the Chinese cuisine was a welcome relief from the mouth dulling yak meat and potato dishes we had endured in most other Tibetan towns.
Our stay in KangDing was short and we spent the majority of our time in our hostel playing board games with young Chinese travelers. Although it was healing well, the burn on my ankle had become quite painful. I found it difficult to walk for longer than twenty minutes. Thus, beyond a few visits to the town market, I stayed in.
Sascha and I were both anxious to reach the warm showers and clean beds which awaited us in ChengDu but one more hitchhiking adventure stood in our way. Eventually, we made our move. Bright and early one morning, brandishing a large cardboard sign which read ‘ChengDu’, we found a comfortable spot on the side of the highway.
There was plenty of traffic leaving the city, but it was a good two hours before the driver of a small sedan waved us aboard. He was a friendly middle aged teacher traveling through KangDing to visit friends. He was also the slowest Chinese driver I had ever met. He putted along the highway at half the speed limit while reciting to us his life story. I only understood about half of what he said but I did my best to maintain small talk. Upon receiving a phone call he decided to stop directly in the middle of the highway to chat while other cars whizzed by honking their horns in disdain.
After only two hours on the road, he received an urgent message from a friend in a nearby town. He apologetically informed us that he would have to detour to LuDing and would not be going all the way to ChengDu. He left us on the side of the road still several hundred kilometres from our destination.
We sat in that spot inhaling truck exhaust for another two hours until a black SUV screeched to a stop in front of us. The car pulsated with beat of heavy Chinese techno music. The man in the passenger seat rolled down his tinted window and, without saying a word, motioned for us to jump in. Both the driver and his friend wore dark aviator glasses and slick leather jackets. To be honest, they looked like Chinese gangsters. Nonetheless, we were desperate for a ride and were in so position to be picky.
If our first driver was a little too cautious, our second was absolutely nuts. He weaved his giant SUV in and out of traffic, blindly speeding past trucks on sharp corners and frequently using the ditch on the side of the road as a passing lane. He nearly rear ended a semi, twice. Half way through this roller coaster ride, a police van took notice of our driver’s antics, pulled him over and gave him a six hundred renminbi ticket. But nothing fazed this guy. He simply shrugged, tossed the ticket into the glove compartment and slammed on the gas.
Driving aside, the two guys were actually much friendlier than their rough appearances suggested. Not only did they drive us all the way to ChengDu, but they also bought us lunch and covered all the toll gate costs. Their unique driving style also meant that we would reach ChengDu much faster than expected.
The moment we merged from the windy mountain trail from Kangding onto the ChengDu express way, broad smiles formed on Sascha and mines’ faces. It was the first time we had seen a smooth multi-lane highway in over three weeks. I had forgotten what it even felt like. Our smiles disappeared behind nervous looks, however, when the SUV’s speedometer passed one seventy. Our new friends were obviously in a hurry.
Since they were not going directly to ChengDu, they dropped us off on the edge of the city. I must admit, I was a little relieved to be exiting the vehicle in one piece. We thanked them for all their help and caught a city bus into town. More than twelve hours after hitting the road in KangDing we arrived at the clean and stylish Lazy Bones hostel in downtown ChengDu. We had successfully hitch hiked the ‘Tibetan Back Door’. Now, it was time for some much needed sleep.
Our dorm was small, comfortable and quiet. We slept for more than ten hours. Upon awaking, we took a little time to walk the city. ChengDu was not as dazzling as Shanghai, or as beautiful as Beijing. We rarely saw the sun as the surrounding mountains keep all of the clouds and pollution trapped above the city. Save for the panda reserve, there are not many attractions. However, for having a population of almost thirteen million people, Chengdu maintains a much more relaxed atmosphere than most other major Chinese hubs. The downtown core was not particularly built up but was quite modern and clean. The weather was mild and the people friendly. It felt like a nice place to live.
When we returned to the hostel, a much needed ‘clean up’ was in order. After three weeks in Tibetan Sichuan, there was much to do. We shaved beards which had been left unkempt for far too long, took thirty minute hot showers, ate McDonalds, bought deodorant, got haircuts and washed our filthy clothes. By the time the evening rolled around, we looked brand new.
We dragged our newly manicured bodies to a dumping party in our hostel lobby that night. They may be dirt cheap, but those little buggers are not easy to make. Ten attempts were required before I successfully completed one. They were delicious nevertheless. After dinner, an exploration of ChengDu’s night life scene was in order. After all, we had not gone out drinking since our random clubbing experience in XiangCheng. In the dorms, we met an interesting Korean girl name Jasmine who had been living in a small Tibetan village for the last couple years as part of her thesis research. Like us, she had just returned from the plateau and was craving a night out on the town. Jasmine had spent some time in the city before and spoke of a club where foreigners drank for free. I was sceptical but she was adamant.
The cab dropped us off in the middle of ChengDu’s vast nightlife area. I was taken aback by the sheer number of posh clubs and karaoke bars which lined the riverside district. It was Friday night and we must have passed a more than a hundred bumpin’ late night joints before we arrived at our destination, the CC club.
Jasmine alleged the club would provide us with all the free alcohol we desired. I assumed we would just be given one free drink ticket or a shot of bad whiskey on arrival. I was pleasantly surprised when the waiters ushered us to our own table, placed two 26 ounce bottles of Chivas Regal in the middle and left us without a bill. Foreigners not only drink for free in ChengDu, they drink well. Not that it would have mattered anyways. As is typical in China, we were offered more than enough free drinks from local patrons. We returned to the same club three nights in a row.
All the free boos, however, made for some tough mornings. We rarely made it out of the hostel before two in the afternoon. When we did, we rarely ventured far. The exception was our trip to the Panda Sanctuary. “You cannot visit ChengDu and not see the Pandas!” the hostel staff would often remind us when we emerged from our dorm in the late afternoon, too lazy to make the trip. To be honest, I was not terribly interested. I had seen plenty of bears before. What so special about these ones? But missing the Pandas in ChengDu is paramount to skipping the Louvre in Paris. You just don’t do it.
I was hungover, the cab ride was long and the admission price was high. When we arrived, we were told that the Pandas were taking a nap and would not be viewable for another four hours. I considered returning to hostel but when the pandas finally emerged I was glad we had made the trip. There is something special about those lazy black and white beasts. They just lounge around, eat bamboo and scratch themselves all day. I was content observing them in these rituals for hours. They are immediately captivating and lovable. No wonder they are the face of wildlife conservation. I left the sanctuary with a furry panda hat and a desire to return the following morning. Nonetheless, after five days of laying low in sunless Chengdu, it was due time for me to move on. There was still so much to see in Southern China and I only had so much time left on my visa.
Unfortunately, ‘moving on’ meant saying good bye to my good friend Sascha. He was heading north to Beijing while I continued east to Huangshan. We had covered some difficult terrain and witnessed some amazing things together. I couldn’t thank him enough to for sticking with me in a tough situation. Many other travelers in his place would not have had the heart or the patience to do so. I certainly felt unlucky to be injured so while traveling, but lucky to have a friend like Sascha at my side. We had made it through in one piece and now it was time for us to part ways. We said our goodbyes out front the hostel before I caught a bus to the train station. It was a sobering moment. Nonetheless, we both knew we would see each other again some day.
Our journey through the Tibetan Back Door was challenging to say the least. The roads were treacherous, the locals were difficult to understand, the electricity and running water were unreliable, the food wreaked havoc on my bowels and clean beds were hard to come by. If that wasn’t enough, I was forced to deal with painful third degree burns covering a good portion of my leg. Nonetheless, this area afforded some of the most rewarding traveling I had ever experienced. The landscape left me in awe, the culture was unique and interesting, the attractions were mind-blowing and the traditional villages and towns full of surprises. Thus, even though it did some damage to my body, the Tibetan Back Door will always hold a special place in my heart.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 00:38 Archived in China Comments (0)

A MI TOFU

Kung Fu Training, Trekking and Chillaxing in Yunnan

all seasons in one day 22 °C

From the sun soaked and relaxed atmosphere of South East Asia, I returned to a more rigid social system and white wash skies of China. I had spent some time in tropical Sanya, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, however, I had never really travelled the south of this giant country. This was my new mission.
Since I entered China from Laos, my first stop was Yunnan. This province is one of China’s most ethnically diverse. Countless small hill tribes each with their own distinct language and culture call this region home. Many of these tribes do not even know how to speak mandarin. In addition, Yunnan shares a border with and is heavily influenced by Tibet. Tibetan people, architecture and culture can be found throughout the North of the province adding another interesting dimension to travel in the region.
For outdoor enthusiasts, Yunnan has plenty to offer as well. From the lush rain forests in the south to the snow covered mountains in the north, there is no shortage of breathtaking scenery and outdoor activity to keep adrenaline junkies entertained. I became somewhat of an adrenaline junky myself while traveling through.
The striking contrasts between Laos and China were no more apparent than on the trip across the border between the two. It was amusing to say the least. The Laos border control consisted of a dirt path and a shack where patrollers in raggedy outfits took turns sleeping through the day. The guard whose turn it was to stay awake quickly glanced at my passport, stamped it and told me to be on my way. Across the road from this small shack, however, was a large intimidating glass complex built between two cliffs and surrounded by dozens of men in uniform. Before we even reached the gates of this complex, we were forced to drive through a disinfecting apparatus which sprayed the exterior of our bus with god knows what. I was just glad all the windows were closed. Soon we were all forced out of the vehicle to have our bags searched by small soldiers with big guns.
When my bags were cleared, I proceeded to screening where a straight faced man in uniform studied the picture on my passport for a solid two minutes then left me in suspense for another five while he furiously typed into his computer. I assumed he was writing some sort of description of my belongings. He paused from time to time to shoot me disapproving looks. Since my previous Chinese visas were not exactly credible, I was a quite anxious about passing through customs. I think the guard noticed this but was unable to find anything wrong my paperwork. After a ten minute wait which felt like an hour, he finally stamped my passport and sent me on my way.
When my two Aussie friends were cleared, we jumped back into our disinfected minibus and continued the journey north. On the Chinese side of the border, Laos’s little dirt road was replaced by a recently built smooth running highway, its untouched virgin forests were dissected by dense power lines and its beautiful natural terraces were replaced by rice patties and bamboo farms. Welcome to China.
With plenty of time to spare before our arrival, I got to know my new travel mates a little better. Rosa and Ami were both Australian high school grads who had spent the last six months volunteering at a school in Yunnan. They were both blonde haired, blue eyed and beautiful. I could only imagine the kind of attention they received in the small Chinese city in which they were living. But beneath their bubbly appearance, they were clearly rugged travelers who knew how to take the road less travelled. They could speak a little Chinese and knew Yunnan province quite well.
Our first stop together as a traveling unit was a small city called Jing Hong in Xishuangbanna. This region is famous for its wild elephants and excellent trekking. We were all a little trekked-out after traveling through northern Laos so we spent most of our time in Jing Hong watching movies at the hostel. One night we celebrated Rosa’s birthday by hitting up Jinghong’s only club. The smoky bar was packed full of young locals getting trashed and dancing wildly to intense techno music. By the reaction we received when we walked through the door, it was clear that we were some of the few foreigners to have ever frequented the establishment. I don’t think the local Jinghongians had seen too many blonde Australian girls pass through their small city. We had more free drinks thrown at us than we could handle.
It is drinking tradition in China for friends to each fill each other’s glass, yell “ganbei!” (dry glass!) then take it all down in one big swig. I assume this behaviour is drawn from long held traditions which ensure everyone receives an equal share. You see similar customs with food in several parts of the country as well. These customs, however, are taken from typical family restaurant or small gathering settings and do not transfer smoothly to a club environment where you have hundreds of people ordering drinks.
Within ten minutes of entering the club, locals were lining up for a chance to ‘ganbei’ with the foreigners. We were pushed and pulled from one table to the next as party goers competed to keep us with their group. Since it’s quite rude to refuse a drink in China, we were forced to drink glass after glass. The bathroom was our only refuge from the onslaught of cheap Chinese beer. By the end of the night we must have ‘ganbei-ed’ with close to a hundred people. It was exhausting but great fun nonetheless. I’m pretty sure the birthday girl enjoyed herself and that’s all that really matters.
The next morning was rough to say the least. We had to wake up at six to start our journey to the YuanYang rice terraces. There was no direct bus so an overnight stopover in a mountain town called LuChun was necessary. Not only were we hungover, but the thirteen hour bus ride to LuChun was one of the most disgusting I had ever experienced. There was so much spitting and vomiting going on that the bus aisle quickly became a river of bodily fluids. Half way through the journey a farmer boarded with a large bag of manure. I had my head half way out the window but the stench was unavoidable. At least the stunning green mountainous landscape acted as a distraction from the means of transit.
LuChun was, in true Chinese style, much bigger than I expected. The snake-shaped city was built at high altitude atop a long mountain ridge. As we drove down the main strip, the city seemed to go on forever. When we reached the bus station at the opposite end of town, we quickly found accommodation nearby.
Our guesthouse was nearly as disgusting as our bus. A shower was not possible. I slept fully clothed to minimize the risk of a skin infection and didn’t dare use the bathroom. Early the next morning we caught the second bus of our two leg journey. Thankfully, bus number two was much cleaner than the first. We arrived in YuanYang mid-afternoon and found a quiet room with a TV, a clean bathroom and a fantastic view for about $2.5 each. The warm shower was fantastic.
YuanYang is one of China’s most photographed areas. Although it is difficult to reach, many famous photographers have braved the tough conditions for a chance to shoot its majestic hill side rice terraces and remote villages. The terrain is steep and mountainous but the local ethnic minorities have managed to build an intricate network of terraces in order to make the land productive. They began this work hundreds of years ago using simple tools. Now, almost every mountainside and valley for miles around is farmable. It was built to be functional but the result is sheer beauty. Thousands of bright green contours follow the natural patterns of the slopes creating a surreal site. The whole area is simply spectacular.
There are four viewpoints in particular which are especially striking. We chartered a tuk-tuk and left early in the morning to see all of them in one day. At sunrise it was cool and misty but the rolling fog made for some fantastic shots. In the afternoon it warmed up and we got to spend a little time in the small farming villages. Some had clearly been renovated by tourist dollars but others were more authentic. The locals still dressed in traditional colourful clothes and lived in straw roofed homes. In the evening we returned to town to taste the local cuisine. It was spicy and delicious but made for a bit of a difficult night.
Since Ami was in a rush to reach Kunming we caught a bus early the next morning to Yunnan’s capital. This city is considered to be one of the most liveable in China. While it did not have much in the way of tourist attractions, it was easy to recognize the reasons why it would be a nice place to spend a year or two. The weather was temperate, there were more than enough western niceties to keep a foreigner entertained and the city was much cleaner and more developed than other Chinese cities of a similar size. We stayed in a trendy downtown hostel which sported a great bar that was popular with travelers and locals alike. Unfortunately, the dorms were a lot less appealing. In my twelve bed dorm, some guy was snoring so loud that I had to take my blanket and pillow into the lobby to sleep.
I spent most of my time in Kunming just walking the city and chatting with locals. During the evenings, I sampled some of the city's famous nightlife with a few other travelers from the hostel. Through a couple long nights on the town, I came to understand how Kunming acquired its reputation as a party city. The music was loud, the lights were intense and the clubs remained busy until after sunrise.
After a particularly long night on the dance floor, I was woken up bright and early by what sounded like a large protest outside the hostel. I climbed up to the hostel balcony to see what was going on. From this vantage point, I could see thousands of people marching through the streets loudly chanting indiscernible slogans. Soldiers and riot police surrounded the crowd but refused to intervene. I didn’t understand. This was China; a place where protests have always been brutally crushed whenever they occurred. Why was this one being allowed? When I looked closer at the crowd, however, I began to understand. The angry protesters were carrying old anti-Japanese propaganda posters from the Second World War and chanting “down with Japan!” I quickly checked the BBC world news on my iPhone. The top story was Japan’s annexation of the disputed DiaoYu islands in the East China Sea. The move had sparked protests all over China and Taiwan. Pictures of Chinese nationalists flipping over Japanese cars and destroying their own Japanese made cameras made headlines all over the world. I imagine Chinese branches Aijisen Raman lost quite a bit of business. The protest in Kunming lasted only a day. By sunset, everything had returned to normal.
The following morning I said goodbye to my Australian travel mates and caught a bus north towards my next destination. As the bus climbed into the mountains of Northern Yunnan, the climate cooled and the landscape became more rugged. We chased rushing rivers and straddled steep cliffs until, eventually, the ancient city of Dali was revealed.
This antique city and its surroundings were simply beautiful. Dali was set upon a shallow lake at the bottom of a deep valley surrounded by forested mountains. The old town center was built almost completely of stone and wood. Walking along its cobblestone pedestrian streets along side its shallow stone carved canals was like stepping back in time. That is if you were able to ignore the hoards of Chinese tourists wielding around DSLR cameras like baseball bats. I am typically quite bothered by that sort of thing but Dali was so beautiful that it was impossible not to enjoy its relaxed atmosphere and ancient ambience. I didn’t travel there to peruse the old town anyways; I went to study Kung Fu.
My old kindergarten partner Amanda had been to Dali several months before me and spoke of a monastery an hour outside of town where one can pay a small fee to study martial arts with the monks. This was my goal and I only spent one night in Dali before making the trek up to Wu Wei Monastery by means of a rocky dirt road. The monastery was high in the mountains tucked amid dense green forest. It took more than an hour to reach it. I arrived just before noon.
The temple grounds were clean and well kept but there were no monks to be seen. The place appeared to be abandoned. I wandered aimlessly admiring all the beautiful wood carvings until, eventually, an orange robed monk emerged from a dark doorway and bowed. He motioned for me to follow him into a small dining hall where there was three tables filled with his peers. All were silently waiting for their lunch. At a smaller table in the corner, a group of foreign students sat quietly. I received only a nod of the head from a couple students as I entered. Clearly, they had been instructed not to make any noise.
Unfortunately, since I was not given the opportunity to read the monastery rules before entering the dining hall, I made several mistakes during lunch. I did not bow after the master rose from his seat, I reached for food with my own chopsticks, I crossed my legs under the table and I did not finish every grain of rice in my bowl. Luckily, since the master knew I had just arrived, he was forgiving.
After lunch, one of the monks gave me a contract clearly stating what was expected of students at the monastery. At the top of the page read a warning: “This is not a hotel! This is a place of study. If you are unable to abide by our rules, please leave now.” Indeed, most of the rules involved table manners. During meal time, one should not begin eating until the master has said ‘A Mi Tofu’ (praise Buddha), one should not pick up a communal plate unless they are serving another, anything that one places in their bowl must be eaten, this includes every grain of rice, one should not leave the table alone, one should wait for others to be finished and leave in groups of two or three saluting every other table before departing, each student is given one bowl and one set of chopsticks which must be cleaned after every meal and stored in the student’s room. Other rules maintained a respectful and peaceful setting in the monastery: One should not make excessive noise during the day or any noise after nine in the evening, one should not consume any animal products, drugs or alcohol on the temple grounds, one should not wear shorts or sandals in the monastery nor during training, one should not play any games except for Chinese chess, one should not laugh during training. I was given permission to play my guitar but only if I was far enough away from the temple grounds to not disturb the peace. The temple had a small library and the monks encouraged students to read and study during their free time instead of chatting.
The complex consisted of several beautifully decorated traditional buildings. Each served its own purpose. The main hall was the largest structure and acted as a sacred area of worship. The monks spent much of their day chanting and performing various rituals behind its closed doors. Students watched from a distance but didn’t dare enter. The main hall overlooked a small courtyard which was lined with sleeping chambers for both students and monks. The rooms were small and basic but comfortable enough. From the courtyard, a carved gate led to a large stone terrace where training took place. On either side of the terrace were various shrines, temples and statues. A stone path led from the terrace down the mountain towards Dali. The path was lined with various pagodas and shrines. It provided a nice stroll during the day but we were advised to avoid the path at night since dangerous creatures lived in the forest.
A short walk from the temple grounds there was a basic washroom. The faucets were fed from a nearby stream and the squat toilets did not flush. The master had a small generator which he used to charge the monastery’s one cell phone, however, there was no access to electricity for anyone else. After sunset, all activity was done by candle light. Since the complex was built almost completely of wood, all the open flames were a little unsettling. Nonetheless, with no electronic devices within a twenty kilometre radius, the atmosphere was always peaceful and relaxing.
When I arrived, there was already a group of six Israelis living at the monastery. Five of them had been there only for a few days. The sixth, a friendly character named Dor, had been studying there for over two months. Dor had over six years of kung fu experience under his belt and was full of interesting tidbits of information. During training, he often explained things the monks were unable to due to their very limited English abilities. While we were learning the basics of kung fu, Dor was often wielding swords, staffs and nun chucks in the background.
On our first day of training I was introduced to our training master, Xing Yun (Happy Cloud). He was both an incredible Kung Fu artist and an interesting character. At first, he seemed naïve and innocent. At the sight of a squirrel, he would jump to his feet with amazement and follow it around the courtyard. He often took long walks in the forest to collect chestnuts. I never saw him eat one. He just enjoyed collecting them. During training, however, Xing Yun transformed into a hardened drill sergeant who would not accept anything less than his students’ best efforts. On one occasion, he brought a girl to tears with his relentless ‘encouragement’.
Xing Yun and I got along very well. Since we were both interested in expanding our language abilities, we began a sort of language exchange. He often turned to me for translations during training. After class, we would reconvene in the library to chat in either English or Chinese. We got to know each other quite well over the course of the week.
Xing Yun’s assistants were all younger monks aged twelve to sixteen. Some had clearly been studying for years and could easily perform even the most difficult manoeuvres. Others seemed as though they were just beginning their training. One of the older kids wore grey robes signifying that he was being groomed to be a master. He was more advanced than any of the others and could perfectly execute anything from a spinning back kick to a handless cartwheel. But even the best trained of the young monks were still just boys. Outside of training hours you would often find them goofing around in the forest outside of master’s earshot.
As new students, we followed a strict daily schedule. At 5:30 AM we were woken up by a large gong which signified the commencement of morning prayers. These would last for about an hour. At 6:45 AM we would jog to a river about a mile away. From the riverbank, we would take a large stone, balance it atop our heads, briskly walk back to the monastery and deposit it on the terrace. The purpose of this exercise was to strengthen and align the spine. Most of us foreigners required a hand to keep the stone steady. The monks, however, were able to jog with stones twice the size as ours balanced perfectly with no support whatsoever.
At 8:00 AM we would gather for a breakfast which usually consisted of either spicy noodles with tofu or baozi (rice buns stuffed with mushrooms and tofu). I was never disappointed. At 9:00 AM, training would commence with stretches, lunges, push-ups and a group massage. After the warm up, we would form a line and practice fifteen to twenty basic kung fu moves moving from one side of the terrace to the other. The moves included anything from basic punches to reverse spinning kicks. None of us beginners could pull off the more difficult manoeuvres but Xing Yun and the monks made it look easy. Once we had worked up a good sweat, we were paired off with one of the monks to learn a simple kata routine. This was a set routine which had to be memorized and perfected over the course of the week. It included several basic and more advanced moves.
It was an exhausting morning ritual and by noon we were always dead tired. Lunch consisted of a vegan selection of spicy tofu and vegetable dishes along with soup or rice pudding. The food was always outstanding although it took some time to adjust to the small helpings. We were burning a lot of energy during training and consuming fewer calories than usual at mealtime. By the end of the week, however, I was well adapted to the regiment. I no longer felt hungry and had far more energy than usual. It was as if my body had learned to work with what it was given.
After lunch we were allowed a three hour break during which I typically walked down to a pagoda to practice guitar. At around two in the afternoon, Xing Yun would request that I teach a short English class. Using a makeshift wooden chalkboard and limited mandarin abilities, I taught the young monks basic verb conjugation as if they were my kindergarteners back in Yantai.
At three sharp, the sound of a small bell signified the resumption of training. The afternoon routine was similar to the morning except we spent less time on warm up and more time on kata training. Each pose and move had to be practiced over and over then put together into what felt like a dance. The trickiest part of the routine was making one move flow smoothly into another. The monks constantly stressed form and flow. They told us to remain loose and let our body do the work. Even though his movements were powerful, Xing Yun would often demonstrate how his muscles were almost completely relaxed. He used his body and momentum to ‘throw’ his first at his opponent. This saved energy and resulted in a more forceful blow.
The dinner bell was always a welcomed sound. After seven hours of lunging, punching and kicking we were usually pretty beat. After dinner I would go for a walk in the woods or read by candlelight. Now and then Xing Yun would challenge me to a game of Chinese chess. Once they were finished with their nightly prayers, monks often approached me to help them with English pronunciation. They were certainly dedicated learners.
Around mid week the monastery had an unexpected visitor. The master enthusiastically greeted a middle aged German man who showed up at the main gate with his gorgeous Chinese girlfriend. The man had studied at the monastery for two months eight years previous. Soon after completing his training, he wrote the movie ‘Kung Fu Panda’. He had become somewhat of a legend at the monastery. I could see where he had gotten the inspiration.
At the end of the week we were given the option to return to Dali for a night before continuing with training the following day. I took the opportunity to take a desperately needed shower and recharge my flashlight.
When I returned to the monastery the following morning, I was very surprised to find thirteen Israelis and a couple Austrians signing up for the next week’s training. The monks were unsure what to do as this was clearly the largest group they had ever handled. They scrambled to organize enough rooms. The girls had to share.
Unfortunately, many of the newcomers were quite rude and disrespectful. Immediately after reading through the monastery rules and signing their contracts, some began yelling obscene jokes to each other from across the courtyard. The girls quickly formed a gossip circle out front the main hall and began chatting loudly. Even after nine in evening they had difficulty staying quiet. The monks were clearly becoming agitated.
Some of the Israelis showed up to training in sandals and shorts. I was unsure from where such people heard about Wuweisi, but they were clearly unprepared for monastery life. They complained during training and often slacked off. Only a day after paying for an entire week, four gave up and returned to Dali. Another two left on their second day and three more in the two days that followed. This parade of coming and going was detrimental to the peaceful environment. I spent a lot more time in the woods to avoid all the increased commotion. The newcomers that stayed, however, eventually came to understand that they were not in a hotel and had to follow certain rules. Things had returned to normal by the time my training was complete.
After my final session, I thanked Xing Yun for his assistance, cleaned my rice bowl for the last time and began my trip down the mountain. In one week, I had practiced some basic kung fu moves, memorized a decent kata routine and had gained strength in muscles I did not know I had. I learnt a lot about the life of a dedicated monk in which perpetual devotion to self-improvement seems to be paramount. I felt both physical and mentally refreshed as I descended the mountain. Living in the monastery was one of the most interesting things I had ever done.
Upon returning to Dali, I checked into the same hostel. I wanted to spend a little more time in the old town before moving on. That night, while enjoying my first beer since beginning training, I met an interesting young Yunnanese girl. Her name was Zhu Qi and she was a twenty year old Bai (Chinese ethnic minority) from a small village near the Burmese border. We sat and chatted for several hours during which I learnt a lot about her life.
Her parents were both public school teachers and pushed her to study from the time she could walk. At eighteen, she made it into a hydro-electric engineering program at one of China’s most prestigious universities. However, after a year of studying, she was not happy with the direction she had taken. She dropped out to take some time to travel during which she hitchhiked through Tibet, volunteered in India and backpacked around Laos. All this was accomplished on her own and before her twentieth birthday. Since it would bring too much shame on her family, her father kept her adventures a secret and forbade her from returning home. As far as her cousins were concerned, she was still studying in Wuhan. When I met her, she was living in a hostel in Dali where she studied all day everyday in hopes of passing an English proficiency test which would allow her to apply for arts colleges in America. I found her story unique and interesting. It was not typical of a young Chinese girl.
She had been in Dali for a few months and knew the area quite well. In between study sessions, she took the time to show me around the town and its natural surroundings. It was not a typical tour. Sights included a Buddhist restaurant / learning center where we paid eighty cents for a delicious selection vegan food and access to a large Buddhist library, a tailor specializing in kung fu clothing and a walk along the town’s ancient wall in the wee hours of the morning. Since she had a tent, we spent a day hiking into the mountains and spent the night on a natural terrace overlooking the city.
There are few people in this world who I both mentally and emotionally click with. ZhuQi was one of those people. Whether the topic was relationships or Eastern philosophy, there were never any dull moments in our conversation. She was a girl that I would not soon forget. But after spending almost two weeks in Dali, I had to move on. There was a lot more to see out there and my Chinese visa was running out. It was hard to say good bye to Dali and Zhu Qi but the Tiger Leaping Gorge was waiting.
I took a seven hour bus ride from Dali to Jane’s Tibetan Guesthouse at the base of Tiger Leaping Gorge. This guesthouse was quite famous among foreigners. Its dorm rooms were a good place to meet other trekkers and its kitchen served a hearty western style breakfast which provided weary trekkers with the energy necessary to conquer the obstacles ahead. I had heard several accounts within China that the mysterious Tiger Leaping Gorge was the deepest in the world. I was also aware, however, of the Chinese tendency to exaggerate so I didn’t get my hopes up to high. No pun intended.
I began trekking just after sunrise the following morning. The first stretch was difficult but not particularly interesting. Once I made it over the first pass, however, the immense beauty of the gorge was revealed. In the early morning hours, the serrated peaks of the tallest mountains were shrouded in cloud and mist but by mid afternoon I could see these colossal formations in their entirety. The view was unreal. Giant jagged mountains rose near vertically from the tumultuous river below. As I climbed higher and delved deeper, the gorge’s immense peaks all contended to be the most majestic and surreal. The variety of colourful plant life which clung to the shear rock faces only added to the beauty.
I shared the rocky trail with donkeys and local farmers. These ambitious old men had carved out tiny strips of land near the river bed to grow meagre crops. I guess it was worth the trouble to live in such a beautiful place. The path was undeveloped and treacherous. My eyes were glued to the scenery and I nearly fell off the edge a couple times.
It was a two day hike so I stayed in a small trailside guesthouse along the way. The lodge was precariously balanced on a steep cliff overlooking the gorge. The rooms were chilly but comfortable. The bathroom stalls were built on a terrace with a deep drop underneath. The owner had removed the outer walls to allow for a stunning view while one relieves oneself. It was perhaps the best toilet view in the world. I remember doing my business with nothing but sheer cliff below and fantastic scenery before me.
There was an interesting collection of backpackers staying at the guesthouse. After dark, a large group of us convened on the rooftop patio to drink beer and exchange stories. A fun mix of Europeans, Canadians, Americans, Australians and Brazilians dominated the group. There were a few Chinese trekkers, however, the Tiger Leaping Gorge is not particularly popular among locals, likely because the trail is quite challenging. Until someone installs a bunch of cable cars, the gorge will remain backpacker territory.
After a chilly night, I awoke early from a drunken slumber to begin day two of the trek. My mission was to reach the tiger leaping stone at the base of the gorge. Legend has it that a tiger once leaped from this stoned clear across the gorge, hence the name. In order to reach the stone, descending countless make shift ladders was necessary. The locals who built these ladders waited at their base to collect a ladder ‘usage fee’. I must have paid a dozen farmers just to get down to the river. The stone was nothing special. It was just a big stone. But the river was swift and powerful. Several dead cows which had made the fatal mistake of stumbling on a nearby mountainside could be seen floating by.
I was charged several more ladder ‘re-usage fees’ in order to ascend mountainside and reach the main road. From there I caught a bus out of the gorge. A recent landslide had taken a big bite out of the highway so we were required to disembark from the bus, climb over the landslide and catch another bus on the other side. It was a makeshift solution but we made it back Jane’s Guesthouse eventually. From Jane’s, I collected my backpack and quickly caught bus further north towards the Tibetan plateau. In the rear view mirror, the colossal peak of the gorge slowly disappeared behind the late afternoon fog. My bus climbed higher and higher as we approached Tibetan Sichuan. This is where the next leg of my journey through Asia would begin.
From the rainforests of the south to the mountains of the north, Yunnan was a place that kept me in constant awe. In terms of sheer wow value, this one Chinese province has more to offer a backpacker than many of its surrounding countries. A month was not even close to enough time to see it all. Both the Yuanyang terraces and the Tiger Leaping Gorge were spectacular. Dali allowed me to explore Southern China’s past while Kunming provided a look into its future. The culture was diverse, the food was unique and the people were friendly. What more could a traveler ask for.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 18:16 Archived in China Comments (0)

Relax.. Its Laos

The land of the whole hearted people

all seasons in one day 35 °C

After a short fling in Cambodia which didn't end in the best of ways, I entered Laos in rough mental state. I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was muddled and I was driving Dana nuts with my sobering demeanour. But there’s nothing like the beautiful landscapes and warm hearted people of Laos to set one’s mind at ease. As soon as I crossed the border, Laos’ good vibes began working their magic. Before long, my worries were gone and my head was clear.
Leaving Cambodia also meant leaving behind two travel mates. The Dutch trio was dissolved as Lara and Naomi went back home to the Netherlands. Dana and I were continuing the journey into Laos as a duo. However, only a few days after parting ways with two Dutch girls, we were joined by another. On the bus to the Laos border, we met Mendy, an interior designer who is responsible for designing the sets on Holland's most watched TV program. Mendy was energetic and high spirited. Her positive attitude spread like a disease to those around her. Dana and I were quickly infected.
We crossed into Laos late in the afternoon and soon arrived at our first destination, Four Thousand Islands. While encompassing about three thousand nine hundred and fifty islands less than advertised, this large twist in the Mekong River is home to some of the most laidback riverfront havens Laos (and likely all of Southeast Asia) has to offer. The islands define relaxation with only a few small slow moving villages, lots of palm trees and some fantastic yet not overpowering scenery.
Our daily schedule consisted primarily of reading next to the river, eating, and taking long hammock naps. However, we also managed to fit in a few activities. On our first day we rented bikes and rode out to a large nearby waterfall. We then set off towards the end of one of the island to catch a sight of the Irrawaddy river dolphins. They are a rare animal which can only be found in this small area of the Mekong River. On the way to the viewing area, however, the tire on the bicycle of a South Korean guy who had joined us for the journey popped and we were forced to turn back. Dana, being Dutch and naturally an excellent cyclist, dragged the broken bike behind her while she rode her own. Mendy jumped on the back of my bike and we started a gruelling trip back up the hill to our bungalow.
The next day we took a boat across the river to check out what the locals claimed to be the biggest waterfall by volume in Asia. A couple moto drivers picked us up at the dock and shuttled us to the attraction. Along the way, my driver taught me how to count to ten in Laos. Dana's driver tried to get her to touch him inappropriately. At one point, our bike broke down and I had to push it at a running pace to get the engine started again. We made it eventually but discovered that the waterfall was not actually a waterfall at all. It was just a large area of brown rapids.
We returned to the island and rented bikes for another try at catching sight of the irrawaddy dolphins. This time, we made it to the riverbank without any mishaps but were told that the dolphins were on the Cambodian side of the mekong. Renting a boat and paying for a ‘Cambodian visitor pass’ was necessary to get there. We were sceptical but the price was reasonable so we coughed up the cash.
We waited on the opposite bank of the river, cameras set and eyes peeled for more than a half hour. We soon began to loose hope. I started to wonder if the whole attraction was just a scam. But as the sun approached the horizon, a bizarre dorsal fin broke the surface of the thick brown water. Eventually, a dozen or so dolphins began taking turns surfacing for air. They were funny looking animals. Like a cross between a dolphin, a shark and a fish. The boatman told us that they are some of the only remaining river dolphins in the world and there is very few of them left. I guess it was worth the trouble to see them.
Early the following morning we began our journey to Vientiane with a stopover in Pakse. The small town had a decent riverfront setting but not much else going on so we decided to grab an overnight to the capital instead of spending the night. Our sixteen hour overnight bus was equipped with a small musty mattress that Dana and I had to share. It was a cramped space and smelled a bit foul but we were comfortable enough. That is until rain water began trickling through our window and into our bed. We arrived in Vientiane tired and damp at around 6 AM, met Mendy who had arrived a day earlier, checked into a hostel and took a long nap.
Vientiane is considered to be the most relaxed capital city in the world. With only a quarter million inhabitants who seem to sleep in their shops more than work, the city is worthy of this reputation. Many travelers must pass through Vientiane in order to reach Laos’ more popular tourist attractions but few stay for long. There are some European style cafes and restaurants but you don't see many foreigners on the streets. I quite enjoyed the atmosphere. It was different from any other Asian capital I had been to yet and even if the city was lacking tourists, it still had a few tourist attractions. The most famous sight was a green Buddhist park set on the Mekong and filled with many bizarre Buddha statues. It was designed by some eccentric religious nut back in the 1950s. One could call him the Gaudi of Laos. Some of the statues were beautiful, some were interesting to look at and some were downright weird.
Our hostel was small but full of characters. We had a good mix of Europeans, North Americans and Australians. The hostel manager was a Canadian business consultant who had been nabbed by the hostel owner while traveling through. He took a big group of us out to a local restaurant for Laos style lemongrass grilled river fish. It was delicious. One bite and I was instantly addicted. The dish probably accounted for half of my solid food diet from Vientiane onwards.
After dinner, a few of us were interested in grabbing some drinks but were informed by the hostel manager that Laos has a countrywide midnight curfew. It was half past twelve and Vientiane’s few bars were already closed. Luckily, there was an alternative available. He spoke of a bowling alley tucked into the hills west of the city that served cold beer Laos until the wee hours of the morning. A group of us made the trek there for some drinks. I can’t say any of us were stars on the lanes, but the cold beer Laos was worth the embarrassment of throwing all those gutter balls.
After our brief stint in Vientiane we caught a bus to Vang Vieng; a riverside town that has become one of South East Asia's staple party capitals. Vang Vieng used to be a small climbing settlement frequented only by a few adventure seekers. Now it is overrun by drunken post-graduates who come from far and wide to float down its notoriously dangerous river in a flimsy home made tube. I had heard a lot about Vang Vieng throughout my travels. Everyone coming from Laos proudly wore an 'In the Tubing' wife beater and most had a tale to tell about the place. Some stories were funny and some were disturbing. Many warned me of the town’s dangerous reputation. Apparently, every year around fifty tourists die tubing down the river, pulling drunken stunts or overdosing on random drugs. I met a few travellers who sported minor party injuries and many who had anything from cameras to passports stolen. I had the feeling this was a place I had to be more cautious than usual. I would soon see why.
Upon arriving in Vang Vieng I was immediately taken aback by its draw dropping beauty. Those that described to me Vang Vieng’s many dangers had failed to mention its giant karst limestone mountains and crystal blue lagoons. The landscape was stunning.
After we checked into a guesthouse we were joined by a few friends. All in all we had a great group. There was Dana and Mendy, the two Dutch girls, Nick, a South African who joined us on the bus as well as Jambo and Julian, two British guys we had met in Sihanoukville. Jambo and Julian were two of the funniest guys I had ever met in my life. They were a twenty four hour a day British comedy duo. There was never a dry moment when they were around.
As is tradition in Vang Vieng, before hitting the river we hit the market to adorn ourselves in cheap techno color tank tops, short shorts and fake Raybans. We also bought cheap waterproof pouches that did little to keep our valuables dry.
I was a bit sceptical about the tubing as we made our way to the tube rental office. After all, I had heard quite a few disconcerting stories. Nonetheless, our first day on the river turned out to be a lot of fun. Since it was low season, only three of the seven river side bars were open but there were more than enough people to keep them packed all day long. The drill was simple: jump in your tube, float down the river, stop at a bar, buy a bucket of redbull and vodka, dance yourself silly, play some ridiculous drinking game, use a rope swing to jump back into the river, find your tube, float down to the next bar, repeat.
I was being careful not to get too intoxicated for fear of doing something too stupid. After all, a stupid mistake here could cost you a lot more than a funny story. The bamboo platforms on which we drank were flimsy and unkempt, the current was swift and sharp rocks loomed below the surface of the dark brown water. I quickly came to realize how Vang Vieng acquired its reputation. Some people were totally smashed by noon, falling off the platforms into the river or off tables they were dancing on. I saw one guy fall so bad that I am sure he broke a rib. He refused to return to the town until his friends abandoned him to follow a group of Swedish girls down the river.
No one seemed to care about the well-being of anyone else. If someone was injured, few offered a helping hand. Most would just laugh and return to their drinks. But I guess that’s the way it is in Vang Vieng. Someone has to pay for all of that fun and I, must be honest here, it was a helluvalot of fun.
This was the highlight of the day was floating down the river at sunset. We formed a giant raft and belted out various famous tunes at the top of our lungs. The playlist included anything 'Three Little Birds' to 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. The 'Riverband' was officially established as a seven piece vocal group that sings drunken covers of classic hits.
We reached the drop off point just after sunset and returned to the hostel for a quick nap and a shower. We didn’t have much time to spare. We had been drinking all day and without a fresh supply, we were dangerously close to going from drunk to hungover. It would take at least a full day to recover from that dark abyss.
An hour later we were at 'Bucket Bar', Vang Vieng’s most famous late night spot. This large open air club consists of a splintered wooden dancing platform surrounded by bamboo huts and hammocks. Overlooking the platform was a precarious looking tower outfitted with giant ear thumping speakers. Perched on top was a glazed eyed DJ who looked as though he had been spinning tracks since last Thursday. The space slowly filled as tattoo covered dudes and body paint laden girls came to replenish their blood alcohol levels with all sorts of strange concoctions. No matter what you ordered from the bucket bar, you never knew exactly what you were going to get from the bartenders. As midnight approached, every other establishment in Laos was forcing its final customers out the door in time for the curfew. In Vang Vieng, however, the party was just getting started. As midnight passed, torrential rains began to pour. The crowd responded by storming the platform to dance wildly in the downpour. Everyone seemed to be competing to be the craziest party animal Vang Vieng. It was a long hard fought battle in which there was no clear winner. By two in the morning the battlegrounds were stained with body paint and liquor. It was a strange, unique and wonderful atmosphere. Unfortunately, as is often the case in such situations, it was not to last.
Eventually someone got too drunk and started picking fights. One of the Laos bar workers was amusing himself by pushing people off the dance floor. Everyone could see him doing this since he was wearing a Spiderman body suit and was easy to pick out of the crowd. Eventually, a drunken British tourist took offence to his antics. He grabbed an umbrella and started threatening the bar worker. What he expected to do with the umbrella nobody was really sure. Nonetheless, Spiderman backed down. That is until, a couple minutes later, Spidey returned with a thirty inch machete. Another Laos bar worker pulled a pistol from his pocket and held it casually by his side as he leaned against the bar smoking a cigarette. Vang Vieng’s dark side was making itself known. The party ended abruptly as everyone quickly made for the exits. To my knowledge, the drunken Brit escaped unharmed.
The following day we soothed our hangovers in one of Vang Vieng’s big blue lagoons. We swam, we relaxed and we sang 60s rock anthems. Even the Riverband has band rehearsals. A couple hours later, we were back in the guesthouse for a nap before hitting the town once again.
The bucket bar was our first order of business. As we ordered our first drinks, Jambo and I joked about creating ultra-egos for the night. He wanted to be a movie director so I agreed to call him Jared Steinsteele and pretend he was my favourite Jewish documentary producer. I jokingly promised to set him up with a girl by acting as his biggest fan. A couple hours later, we were drunk enough to actually go through with it. Steinsteele had been chatting with a girl for a good twenty minutes and it was time to put my years of improve training to the test. I apologetically interrupted him and his new friend by yelling "Has anyone ever told you, you look like Jared Steinsteele?" "Yes, I am him, you know my work?" Jambo responded. "Yeah, of course! Im a HUGE fan.” The girl already looked impressed… "Really!? What's your favourite one of my movies?" This question was not part of the script and caught me off guard. I just said the first two words that came to mind... "Monkey's Grip!" What did I just say? It was an absurd response but Jambo didn't miss a beat. He turned to the girl, "Oh of course, it’s about the rare Laos gibbon. That’s why I am here actually, I am shooting a sequel." We went on like this for a good ten minutes. Eventually, I couldn't contain my laughter and had to excuse myself. I returned to the bar to watch from a distance with Dana and Julian. I told them how ridiculous our story was. We all doubted Jambo could make anything out of it. Nonetheless, as the girl drew closer to him, it was clear he had somehow made it work. They soon disappeared. That was the last we saw of Mr. Steinsteele for a while. Later that night, when our crew reconvened on the roof of the hostel, we laughed until sunrise over how such a ludicrous scheme had actually worked. Only in Vang Vieng.
The next day we hit the river once again. This time, however, our tubes were stolen and we never made it past the first riverside bar. We had to pay a boat man to shuttle us back to town before sunset. I quietly wondered if he was the also the one who stole our tubes.
With our feet dragging, we all stumbled back to the bucket bar again that night. However, it was quite clear that we had reached our party limits. We were tired, cranky and unable to fight off hangovers which had been chasing us for three days. As I was ordering my third beer I saw a Laos worker loading a pistol behind the bar in plain site. When I asked the bartender what was going on she made some joke about how someone had not paid for their drink. I took my beer to go, went back to guesthouse and decided I had my fill of Vang Vieng.
This place really does have a dark ugly side which made me not want to stay for more than a few days. I expected to see the occasional tubing injury but I was very surprised to find so many weapons around. In East Asia, guns are generally few and far between and Laos is supposed to be one of the most relaxed countries in the world. I also did not like the lack of care shown by travelers towards fellow travelers in Vang Vieng. It was unsettling to see people abandoning their injured comrades to continue a battle for party supremacy. With that said, I had a great group of friends and a fantastic time that I won't soon forget. The place produces an atmosphere that is unlike anywhere I have ever been. Dana had so much fun she decided to apply for a job at the bucket bar.
I think we spent the right length of time in Vang Vieng; long enough to witness its dark side but not too long to get swallowed by it. We caught a bus out of town towards Luang Prabang with a head full of good memories and little more than a lingering headache. The journey north was spectacular. Our minibus winded through dense jungle, bizarre limestone formations and remote mountain top villages. We arrived in Luang Prabang after dark and found a comfortable room with air conditioning and a TV. It was the first time I had been allowed such luxuries since leaving Saigon more than six weeks earlier.
The UNESCO world heritage sight of Luang Prabang is Laos’s visitor hub. It’s what people from far and wide come to Laos to see. Unfortunately, it’s often all they see. The reasons why everyone wants to visit Luang Prabang are clear. The ancient capital is beautiful, full of history and surrounded by beautiful scenery. There is plenty to keep a visitor entertained for at least a few days. However, the town is quite touristy and does not accurately represent Laos’s friendly and welcoming people. I felt as though most who live in Luang Prabang are only interested in capitalizing on its constant influx of tourist dollars. I found the people elsewhere in Laos to be much friendlier and much less concerned with my wallet. Nonetheless, Luang Prabang’s ancient temples, riverside cafes and mountainous surroundings are well worth a few days visit.
After four days in Vang Vieng, Danna, Mendy and I were in need of a long sleep. We did not even make it out of our guesthouse until the late afternoon. Even then, we only managed to see a couple temples and grab a snack in the night market before retiring to our rooms once again. But the following day we got a good taste of what L.P. has to offer. We awoke early at 5:00 AM to watch the daily offering ceremonies. Orange robed Monks marched through the streets with shiny metal bowls. Locals and tourists waited on the periphery to fill these bowls with sticky rice and other goods as the monks passed. This long held tradition is common in strong Buddhist countries since monks are forbidden from spending money (although I could have sworn I saw one of them with an iphone). I got some great pictures of the monks but, to be honest, the whole spectacle was pretty ridiculous. With the amount of pictures being taken you would have thought the monks were on a catwalk not upholding a religious tradition. Aggressive sticky rice vendors worked the crowd charging tourists a premium for the chance to give a monk some food. It was rather sad and I returned to my room before it was finished.
After a quick nap we organized a tuk-tuk to take us to a famous waterfall an hour outside of town. The ride was uncomfortable but the towering falls were an impressive sight. We undertook a daunting climb to the top of the biggest waterfall which included a precarious walk along the water’s edge supported only by a flimsy bamboo pole. At the base of the river were some sun bear enclosures and large natural pools. We were enjoying a relaxing swim in the warm water until little man eating fish started attacking out feet. That was a queue to head back to town.
Upon returning to the city we climbed to the top of the central hill to catch the sunset with a sea of Korean and Japanese tourists. From this vantage point we could take in all the green rolling hills and deep blue rivers which encircle Luang Prabang. The rooftops of town’s countless temples turned gold in the waning sunlight. The view was outstanding.
After dark we joined a few other tourists for dinner at a riverside restaurant. During the meal, a tall young German sitting at our table collapsed and began vomiting. He told us he had been biking all day in the heat and had not drank enough water. We assumed he had heat stroke and got him to a clinic. It was only several months later, after I was struck with a similar episode, that I realized he had many of the tell tale signs of Dengue fever. Nonetheless, he seemed to be feeling a bit better when we brought some electrolytes to his room later that evening.
The following morning I was enjoying some B-list movie on my twenty year old TV when Dana burst into my room spewing Dutch swear words. Dana only swears in Dutch when she is truly pissed off so I knew something bad had happened. “Vang Vieng was closed down by the government today.” She said, practically yelling. “The tubing, the bars, the parties, it’s all being dismantled.” She had a job lined up at the Bucket bar and was planning to return to Vang Vieng that evening to work. Clearly, that was not going to happen now. I felt bad for her but was not terribly surprised by the news. After all, Vang Vieng was an enigma in Laos. One of the craziest and most dangerous party towns in the world located smack dab in the middle of a communist country full of Buddhists. How long could it last really? If it stays closed for good, we were likely some of the last tourists to ever have had the true Vang Vieng experience. This is probably not a story to tell my grandkids.
With her plan to return to Vang Vieng thwarted, Dana decided to continue into Thailand with Mendy as I continued north towards China. This meant that it was time for us to finally say goodbye. We had travelled together more than six weeks, a lifetime in my books. I am a solo traveler at heart and a couple weeks of joint travel is usually more than enough for me. I think Dana would probably say the same. But there was something special about our relationship. We often disagreed but never argued. We kept each other company but never got on each others nerves. We simply got along well. I felt the same way about Mendy. She radiated so much positive energy I can’t imagine someone not getting along with her. I was lucky to meet them both. But with conflicting travel plans, it was time for us to finally part ways. To avoid anything too emotional, our goodbyes were short and sweet as they boarded the afternoon river boat bound for Thailand. While I watched them sail away, I remember hoping I would see these friends again one day. This was a feeling that was becoming all too familiar.
I returned to the guesthouse to pack my bags and continue the adventure alone. I was looking forward to it. There is something so liberating about venturing through Asia solo. However, as soon as I boarded the bus to Northern Laos I was joined by another group of travelers; Dario, Melissa and Marie. We all got to know each as our bus winded its way north to Nong Khiaw. Dario was an American from New Orleans who had been teaching in Bangkok for a year. He had taken a week off work for his birthday to travel Laos. Marie was a Belgium woman in the midst of a trip around the world. Melissa was an Aussie arts graduate who took off to South East Asia days after receiving her diploma. We had plenty of time to chat since our bus broke down about three times. We finally pulled into Nong Khiaw’s bus station in the early afternoon. The station consisted of a broken sign, a run down shack and a dirt road. If I had blinked I would have missed it. As was typical in Laos, the landscape surrounding Nong Khiaw was outstanding. Giant limestone cliffs sloped steeply into a lazy river. Lining the hillsides overlooking the water were a few basic bungalows and mom and pop restaurants. The village had no more than a thousand residents. They seemed quite happy to see us. We rented a few river side bungalows for a couple dollars apiece. Electricity was only provided for half the day but who needs electricity when you have a river side hammock and a neon coloured sunset. I slept well that night.
The following day was Dario's birthday. He convinced us to join him on a trek into the jungle. He had heard about a trail near Nong Khiaw on which you hike up a series of waterfalls. It was aptly named the One Hundred Fall Trail. A guide in the village offered to take us for about $35 each but we decided to hire a boat to the starting point and pay a local farmer to show us the way. This turned out to be a good alternative as we only ended up spending about $10 apiece. After my experience in Four Thousand Islands, I was expecting the ‘Hundred Fall Trail’ to consist of at most ten or twenty waterfalls. However, by the time we had made it to the top of the trail, we had surmounted much more than a hundred. Some were only a meter high, others towered metres above our heads battering us with warm jungle water. There was no trail next to the falls. The only way up was through the river itself. It was treacherous and challenging at times but a very unique experience. It took us over three hours to reach the summit. As I gazed out over the mountain slopes and cascading waterfalls below, I felt completely euphoric. I had never done anything like this. Little did I know that the trip down would be far more difficult than the way up. The trail down the backside of the mountain was like a waterslide of mud and leeches. We struggled to keep our balance on the steep slippery slope, pausing every few steps to remove bloodsucking creatures from our bodies. When we finally made it back to the river, our guide gave us all a shot of lao lao to celebrate a successful hike. Lao lao is a type of rice whiskey that tastes like what I imagine nail polish remover tastes like. Upon returning to Nong Khiaw, a few beer Laos were definitely in order. At dinner I bought Dario and myself another larger glass of lao lao to celebrate his birthday. One glass and we were tipsy. A couple hours later we were left with churning stomachs and horrible headaches.
The following morning our small crew travelled two hours up river to Myung Ngoi, a tiny vehicle-less village that is only accessible by boat. This mini paradise quickly became one of my favourite places in the world. Perched on the hillside above a winding river, the village had a small Buddhist temple at one end, a giant limestone formation at the other and one dusty old path connecting the two. Lining this path were rundown shacks, small shops and mom and pop restaurants. There were two small generators which provided electricity only from six to nine in the evening. After nine you needed a torch to get around. It was the kind of place where one could simply sit in a hammock and think about nothing for hours. We spent most of our first day doing just that. Our basic bungalows afforded stunning views of the sunset over the river.
After dark we found the village’s only ethnic restaurant. It was owned by the town’s only Indian man and he served us some fantastic curries. From where he got the ingredients I have no idea. We returned to the bungalows with bellies full and wide smiles. My smile disappeared, however, when I realized that I had left my camera at the restaurant. I sprinted back to find the doors chained shut and the owner no where to be found. My heart sunk. Theft is quite common in the small villages of South East Asia and I had the feeling I would not be seeing my camera again. I didn’t care about the device itself but the thought of loosing the hundreds of pictures saved on its SD card was sickening. Everything depended on this one little Indian man. The restaurant was empty when we left and he was the only one that could have found the camera. The fact that he quickly closed shop and disappeared was certainly not a good sign. To be honest, I wouldn’t have blamed him for keeping the camera. The money earned from selling it would be equivalent to a couple weeks income from his small restaurant in low season. It was enough to feed his family for a month. I was sceptical to say the least. If that wasn't enough, the Indian meal left me with stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
After a difficult night I awoke early the next morning and went straight back to the restaurant. The doors were still chained shut. I asked a local shop keeper where the restaurant owner had gone. I was told that he had gone to Nong Khiaw for the day… probably to sell me camera. I would have to wait until the evening to find out if this was the case.
I joined Dario and Marie on a trek to try to avoid thinking about my precious photos. Of course, the trail was full of beautiful scenery. Being unable to snap any pictures was driving me nuts. We hiked through rivers, caves and across precarious bamboo bridges eventually arriving at Ban Na, a tiny little village surrounded by a valley of electric green rice fields and steep limestone cliffs. This was the worst place in the world to be camera-less. Fortunately, Dario and Marie took plenty of pictures. The place could not have had more than a few hundred inhabitants. Curious eyes peered out at us from the windows of basic bamboo shacks built on stilts. On the ground below these shacks, monkeys chained to their columns harassed the local chickens and pigs.
The town had a small eatery and, much to our surprise, the old woman who invited us in produced an English menu poorly written on a napkin. I guess we were not the first foreigners to venture into this neck of the woods. The food was basic and overpriced but we were paying for the scenery.
As the sun began to set, we rushed back to Myung Noi to avoid hiking in the dark. I went straight back to the little Indian restaurant to see if the owner had returned from Nong Khiaw. He had finally unlocked the doors and was sitting at a table counting dollar bills. I walked in, looked him dead in the eye and politely asked whether he had seen my camera. He gave me a fake dumbfounded look. "I clear the table but I don’t see no camera…" I could tell he was lying and my blood began to boil. When he saw the anger in my eyes, I noticed a small smirk beginning to form on his face. He threw his head back and began laughing loudly. I didn’t understand what was so funny. He reached beneath the table and pulled out the small black case containing my camera. "I know how horrible to loose pictures, be more careful next time" he said. I was so relieved that I gave him a hug. I was truly surprised. I had left my camera at a mom and pop restaurant in one of the poorest regions of the world and had it returned to me by the owner. The story epitomizes my experience in Laos. Anywhere else, I probably would never have seen that camera again. Laos, however, truly is a country full of honest and friendly people.
The following morning our small crew disbanded. Dario was returning to Bangkok, Melissa was heading south to Vientiane and Marie was on her way to Vietnam. My mission was to reach Oudomxay, a trade city near the border of China. The town was not far and the journey seemed simple enough, however, the trip turned out to be far more challenging than expected.
It started on a boat from Myung Noi to Nong Khiaw. The boat was so over booked that I was forced to sit on a steel sheet next to the rumbling engine. The ride was not much more than a couple hours so I was not terribly concerned. I just put in my head phones and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. When I arrived at the bus station, I was told that the usual daily bus from Nong Khiaw to Oudomxay was not running because there were not enough travelers to warrant its departure. The bus driver had gone drinking instead. I was directed to take a bus to Pak Mong about an hour down the road and transfer. When I got to Pak Mong I was told I had to wait two hours until the bus running from Luang Prabang to Oudomxay made its stop at the station. Transfers and long waits were something I had become accustomed to. In fact, I had come to enjoy the time to myself. I got some noodle soup and delved into a book. Four hours later, however, I was starting to get a little worried. Another hour passed before the ticket vendor came to fetch me. “Bus here!” he yelled. I followed him into the parking lot but there was no bus in sight. “Where is it?” I inquired. “There!” the attendant pointed at a small steel caged tuk-tuk. “Big bus stuck, must go tuk-tuk.” I gave him a look of disbelief. For anyone who hasn't been to the country, Laos’s tuk-tuks are some of the most uncomfortable forms of transportation in the world. This particular vehicle was basically a mini two door truck with a small cab attached to the back. The rear was enclosed in steel bars and has two steel planks running down either side where people were meant to sit. It’s the kind of vehicle you would expect to see transporting bushels of wheat, not people. Typically these things can hold eight people at most. For this journey, they managed to pack seventeen of us in there. Many succumbed to sitting on the hot aluminium floor or on top of each other. I had a little girl sitting on one leg and a grandmother grasping the other steady herself on the bumpy road. I was quite surprised to see another foreigner on board. There was an older Japanese man sitting opposite me who was clearly as dumbfounded as I that we had been sent out onto Laos' treacherous pothole-filled dirt mountain roads in a tuk-tuk. We were traveling over as bumpy and windy a road as you can imagine in a vehicle which had the suspension of a go-cart. I was being thrown around like a rag doll.
Of course, after only an hour on the trail, the tuk-tuk broke down in a cloud of smoke and steam. The driver’s solution was to pour water on the engine. This worked for about forty five minutes until the engine cut out again. The driver crawled under the cabin and fiddled with the transmission for a while. Eventually, the small beast roared back to life in a cloud of thick black smoke. We were back on our way. The tuk tuk broke down four times in total. Each time we were forced to wait for a half hour on the side of the trail while the driver performed another mechanical miracle. I was frustrated at first, but after a while I started to find it all quite comical. The broad smiles on the faces my Laotian travel mates certainly helped ease the tension. Nobody appeared irritated or in a hurry. Everyone seemed to be content getting to where they needed to go. The means did not really matter. This was Laos.
Six hours after we left Pak Mong, I emerged from rear of the tuk tuk bruised and battered. It had been a long day. Since leaving Myung Noi, I had covered no more than a hundred and fifty kilometres and yet it took me almost twelve hours to get to Oudomxay. A cold beer Laos was well deserved upon arrival.
Oudomxay is a trade town near the border of China. There is nothing particular special about the city. It was simply a place I had to stop for a night in order to reach the Chinese border. Upon arrival, I quickly found a cheap room and ventured out to find some dinner. Curiously, I was hard pressed to find a restaurant that sold anything either than noodle soup. As I perused the streets in search of a hearty meal, I heard a foreign voice calling to me from a hole in the wall restaurant down the road. It was a young German fellow beckoning me to his table. He seemed friendly enough so I joined him for a few beers and some noodle soup.
He was a recent high school grad who had just begun a contract volunteering at a UN sponsored drug rehab center in Oudomxay. For a young high school grad, he really did know a lot about world affairs. We spent most of the night drinking beer and discussing the world’s woes. When the restaurant closed he took me to Oudomxay’s only club. It was a smoky Chinese style karaoke bar with a dance floor, some lasers and a disco ball. Drunken locals and Chinese traders took turns singing sappy Chinese love songs. After I had downed enough drinks, I found ‘Black Magic Woman’ in the song catalogue and decided to give it a try. I sang it with all my might and, while I am certainly not a good singer, the locals seemed impressed by the effort. I was given a round of applause and a few free drinks.
Early the next morning I caught a bus to Luang Namtha. This area is famous for hill tribe and wildlife treks. Since it was raining heavily when I arrived I didn't bother booking a trek into the park. Instead, I found an internet café and caught up on my reading and writing. In the evening, I walked the town’s main drag in search of some food. I ended up at the town’s only foreigner hangout. It was guesthouse with a small restaurant/bar. I found a quiet table, ordered a plate of fried rice and finished the last chapter of ‘Life of Pie’. Before I left, I offered my finished book to a couple of Australian girls who were sitting at the table opposite mine. This was a habit I had gotten into since I know how difficult it is to find English books in Asia. We got to talking and soon discovered that we had coincidently booked tickets on the same bus leaving for China the next day. They were waiting at the bus station early the next morning when I arrived. It turned out we were the bus drivers only patrons. The trip to the Chinese border was a long one and we had plenty of time to chat. Like me, they had been living in a small Chinese city for the previous year. They were on there way back to China to fly home to Australia after a short foray into South East Asia. Since we all had the ultimate goal of reaching Kunming within the week, we decided to stick together.
As the bus approached the Chinese border, my time in Laos was coming to an end. I was sad to be leaving. Vietnam was beautiful and Cambodia intriguing, but neither held a candle to my experience in Laos. I spent a month in the country and I easily could have spent one more. The people were so kind and laidback. I was rarely hassled or forced to bargain. The landscape was stunning and diverse. There was enough going on to keep a traveler entertained and yet the atmosphere was perpetually relaxed. The travel was a bit rough at times but, even in the midst of the most challenging journeys, I just couldn’t help but feel content with life. That’s the wonderful thing about Laos. It’s the kind of place where you are happy to be uncomfortable. Where the restaurant takes two hours to deliver your food and you enjoy every minute of it. Where, despite many frustrations, it’s impossible to stay frustrated for long. What a gem of a country.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 20:44 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

The Cambodian Womens Crisis Center

A quick look into the inner workings of a locally run NGO

While attending university, I took a course on poverty and inequality which included a community service learning component. To fulfill this component I chose to work with a NGO named Lotus Outreach. Lotus raises funds in Canada and the U.S. for projects which alleviate poverty in Cambodia by providing opportunities to disadvantaged women. Their primary partner is a Cambodian run NGO originally established by UNICEF called the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC). Since I was planning to travel through Cambodia I wrote to Brian Pollard, a director at Lotus, to see if I could visit a village where CWCC is actively working. I hope to one day work closely with NGOs and my aim was to further my understanding of how they operate 'on the ground'. Brian set up a day trip for my three Dutch travel mates and I to go visit two young women who were receiving support in countryside near Siem Reap.
I was greeted early in the morning at my Siem Reap guesthouse by a local director of operations at CWCC. She was a middle aged woman who grew up in Phnom Penh and had been working with organizations in the region for most of her career. I was happy to see that she was Cambodian. When I commented on this fact, she explained that many small NGOs in South East Asia are making strides towards local management. Even though the locals often do not boast the same qualifications as foreigners, organizations are finding that locally managed NGOs are simply running more efficiently. Locals possess the knowledge necessary to not only better understand the issues facing impoverished populations, but also to implement projects in a cultural sensitive way. Being someone who wants to work with NGOs overseas, this is not the easiest truth for me to swallow, but it is a belief I have held for a long time and I am glad to see that a trend towards local management is active in Cambodia.
We drove a pickup truck donated by UNICEF into the countryside. The Dutch girls sat in the back while I spoke to the director about CWCC’s work in the area. She explained how the organization battles poverty by providing four types of support to young girls seeking a proper education. A recipient is categorized based on their living circumstances. In type one, the recipient receives money for school supplies and a school lunch. Type two receives this support as well as a daily dinner. Type three receives room and board at a local school residency. This is important since students often live several hours walk from their schools. Type four receives all of these benefits plus a 'lost wages' stipend for the family. This stipend is vital to the success of the program as a major obstacle keeping Cambodian children out of school is the income a family looses by not putting their child to work in the rice fields or selling trinkets. Of course, you can't blame any impoverished family for doing this. Often times, the small amount of income received from a child selling trinkets amounts to the food necessary for the child and family to survive.
As we followed a dirt road through rural villages, she recounted some horror stories from her experiences working in the area. The most typical story was heartbreaking. When parents leave their children at home to go work in the fields, they are occasionally raped by those passing by from other villages. She explained that rape and domestic violence is common place in these rural households. This is something which CWCC is fighting to prevent.
The first girl we visited lived with her mother in a small hut about an hour outside of Siem Reap. (Unfortunately, I cannot remember the names of either recipient that we visited. They spoke too quickly and the pronunciation was too foreign for me to catch). The mother and daughter were very welcoming. As they invited us into their yard, several curious villagers gathered around house entrance. Their house was no bigger than a backyard shed and built on rickety stilts. They had no electricity and no bed nets. Nonetheless, they were grateful that the village water pump, donated by a Japanese businessman, was right on their doorstep. They had one pig and two malnourished chickens roaming the yard. Beyond that, the lot was barren.
The recipient was an only child and her father had died long ago. The family survived by selling whatever small crops they could muster. Since they owned no land, they were facing very difficult circumstances. She was eighteen years old and just finishing grade ten. She had started school two years late since the family did not receive support until her eighth birthday. The mother appeared to be quite sick but the young woman looked healthy and well fed, likely as a result of the two meals she receives per day in her school residency. She was receiving type four support from CWCC in order to complete her high school studies by her twentieth birthday. When I asked if she would like to attend university, she hesitantly said yes but told us that scholarships are difficult to obtain and she was a 'middle of the pack' student. She quickly changed to subject by making a point of showing us her bicycle, donated by CWCC, which allows her to commute between school and home to visit her mother. She told us that the bike is very important since her mother lives alone and needs her daughter’s company.
The image of this small family was one of present desperation and future hope. If this young girl finishes her studies, she will likely be able to get a job which will support both herself and her mother. The difference a high school education can make for a young Cambodian woman seeking employment is paramount. If she is accepted by a local college, she may be able to obtain employment which allows her family some measure of financial stability. Perhaps she can provide the savings necessary for her and her mother to build a better home in a safer neighbourhood. That is the goal which both the family and CWCC are trying to attain. The organization has already had much success in helping young women achieve such goals.
As we left the small home, we thanked the two women for their hospitality and wished them the best of luck. They waved goodbye from the side of the road as we drove off to our second destination. While on route to the next village to meet another young beneficiary of CWCC’s work, the director advised me not to ask about the recipient’s father as he was an alcoholic who rarely returned home. When he did, he would often beat both the mother and children.
As we approached the front gate of the home, a young girl and her mother greeted us with wide smiles and a plate of bananas. The house was quite large and built on very high stilts. It was nice in comparison to the first house we visited boasting both a separate cooking area and a solid wood floor. When I commented on this, however, the mother admitted that this was not their house but the house of a friend. Later, the director guessed that the family was perhaps ashamed of their living space and did not want foreign guests to see it. When driving through a Cambodian village it is very easy to see who is poorest by the size and makeup of a house.
The young girl was eighteen years old and very excited to have us as visitors. She was also receiving type four support from CWCC who provided her accommodation and meals at a school residency ten km away. She had returned to her village on this particular morning specially to meet us. She told us she was very grateful for the support she was receiving. Out of several brothers and sisters, she was the only child in the family lucky enough to receive a high school education. Her other siblings had been forced to move to different cities to find work. She said that we had visited her at the perfect time. She had just finished her last high school exam and had essentially graduated. Once her marks were posted, she would find out if she was to receive government support for university. She was confident that she would be able to study accounting at a local college. Her plan was to work for a local company to support herself and her mother while she studied. She stressed the importance of well paid work as her mother survived by selling bananas. The income she received from doing so was barely enough to feed herself. It was clear that the father was not offering any support.
She expressed her love of studying and told us that her favourite subject was Cambodian literature. She had performed well in her classes and it was clear that she was a very bright and confident student. Her attitude was optimistic and endearing. It allowed me to believe she could accomplish anything she wanted. This girl was standing up to her circumstances and pursuing a better life for her family. CWCC’s support in this endeavour was clearly invaluable. We wished her the best of luck and thanked the family for having us as we left.
On the way back to Siem Reap we stopped to buy some sticky rice with beans. As we ate, the director provided us with more information on various CWCC projects in the area. Most involve promoting female enrolment in education, but the organization is also involved in counselling for victims of domestic abuse, infrastructure development and microfinance projects. I was very impressed by the scope of the organizations activities in the region.
As the director drove us back to at our guesthouse, I told her how grateful I was for having been given such an eye opening and valuable experience. She received an urgent phone call as we exchanged contact information after which there was no more time for small talk. She was off to help a victim of domestic abuse.
My CWCC ‘in the field’ experience was somewhat heartbreaking but gave me reason for optimism. Listening to the stories of disadvantaged youth first hand offered a very different perspective on poverty. These young women placed so much emphasis on family. They were working hard to ensure that both they and their mothers were taken care of. They were so grateful for the support they had received and felt lucky to have received it. Despite the great obstacles they faced, they were confident a better future awaits them. It was clear that CWCC had not only provided them with financial support, but also moral support. Through this experience, I came to understand the significance of such moral support in situations of extreme poverty.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 02:44 Archived in Cambodia Comments (0)

Cambodia

Temples by day, parties by night... Dutch style

all seasons in one day 35 °C

I met the first of the Dutch trio in a back alley Saigon hostel. The desk clerk had given away my reservation and was forced to put me in a female dorm. The room was empty save for one young traveler reading on her bed. As is natural in dorm room situations, we got to talking. Her name was Dana and she boasted an impressive travel resume. She had been on the road for several months and had already backpacked through Russia, Mongolia and China before buying a motorbike in Hanoi and driving it to Saigon. She was laidback and easy to talk to. Even after just few minutes of chatting, it was clear we would get along well.
I had not eaten dinner at the time so I soon left to grab a bite. Dana and I agreed to meet later for drinks. She left a note and a small map taped to my bedpost illustrating at which bar I could find her and her friend Lara later that evening. Before I even had a chance to see the note, I ran into the two girls by chance on Saigon’s fresh beer street. I assumed that on this particular night, we were destined to drink together. Sitting at a tiny table on the side of road, sipping fifty cent glasses of beer, I met the second of the Dutch trio, Lara. She looked innocent enough at first glance, but I would soon come to see how Lara is an expert at finding, attracting or creating a party. Lara had already spent a couple months travelling Laos and Thailand and had just arrived in Saigon to begin her second stint in South East Asia. The fresh beer flowed like water that night. It was cheaper than water after all. We bar hopped, danced and drank until the last of the bars kicked us out before sunrise. As we stumbled back to the hostel, Dana and Lara convinced me to tag along with them as they made their way to Cambodia. The next morning, Dana and I were on a bus to Phnom Penh. Since Lara’s girlfriend Naomi was still on her way to Saigon, we agreed to meet them in Cambodia a few days later.
Many travelers I met in Vietnam had not spoken fondly of Cambodia. I had heard that the Cambodians were pushy, that there was not much to see beyond Angkor Wat and that the topography was flat and boring. Thus, I left Vietnam with the impression that I would only stop in Phnom Penh and Ankor Wat as I scurry my way back up to China. However, when you meet people, plans change and the Dutch girls were in no hurry. As we slowly travelled through Cambodia, I came to realize that the country has a lot more to offer than most realize.
Upon arriving in Phnom Penh, I was relieved to find that the city is not as touristy as any city in Vietnam. After leaving the riverside promenade where you find the majority of Phnom Penh’s hotels, we were hard pressed to find many other foreigners. The city was not very developed and had a relaxed atmosphere. As much as I enjoyed the craziness that is Saigon, Phnom Penh was a welcome relief from the chaos. There is not much to see in the way of tourist attractions, but the central market is a great place to waste an afternoon and the streets are full of interesting cultural displays. For a capital city, the people were quite friendly and welcoming. The young Khmer men and women who worked in our Hostel (the Happy 11) always greeted us with a smile and a beer.
We rented motorbikes one day and took them out of the city and into the countryside. Since this was my first attempt at riding a motorbike, I was anxious about learning how to do so in a South East Asian capital city. From the sidewalk, the river a mopeds flowing down the streets looked hectic and dangerous. But after a little instruction from Dana (who rode a moped from Hanoi to Saigon) and ten minutes on the streets of Phnom Penh, I felt a lot more comfortable. Once I was inside the torrent of traffic, the system became clear. The trick was to go with the flow, not make any sudden moves and stay out of way of anyone in a hurry. We rode the bikes to a lake fifty clicks away to relax in hammocks next the water. The lake was nothing special but it was more about the journey than the destination. The small villages, Buddhist temples and smiling locals along the way kept us interested. Unfortunately, I forgot to put on sunscreen in the morning. While I already had a protective tan on my arms and face, the highway wind pushed my shorts up into my groin exposing my upper thigh. This section of my body had not seen sun in years and got badly burnt. It took close to a week for the skin to recover. Nonetheless, the day was worth it. It was my first taste of the freeing experience that is traveling by motorbike. Compared to traveling in a bus... well… there is no comparison.
When we returned to Phnom Penh, Lara and Naomi were waiting for us at the hostel bar. The third of the Dutch trio had finally arrived and the team was complete. Lara greeted me with a slap on the thigh, ouch… Naomi was a little shy at first but soon warmed up. She was a friendly girl and, like Lara, always up for a good time. Later in the evening we were joined by a British friend of Dana's named Sophie who had just finished a six month spiritual quest through India. Sophie had some great stories from her adventures. Most of them revolved around her new life philosophy: do only what the universe tells you to do. I guess the universe told her to party because that night we went out on the town hard. First we hit a local club where the DJ played ridiculous remixes of western songs at four times their normal speed and then hit an expat bar where the DJ played the same ridiculous remixes but at their regular tempo.
The next day the girls went out motor biking. I decided to give my legs a rest and check out the Royal palace. The palace was big and fancy but not worth the entrance ticket. The main square next to the palace was much more interesting. Families gathered to line dance, skateboard and watch lady-boy lip-syncing performances. Spending an afternoon there was like watching a documentary on Cambodian city culture.
The following morning, we delved into Cambodia’s deep dark history. First we spent a couple hours at Toul Sleng prison, a former high school turned Khmer Rouge detention center where thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed. Classrooms had been transformed into torture chambers and the courtyard turned into a gallows. It was an eerie place full of horror stories and chilling images. We then caught a tuk tuk the killing fields, one of around two hundred walled fields where more than one and a half million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge regime in the 70s. Throughout the field, grassy knolls represented spots where innocent men, woman and children were bludgeoned to death and buried by the thousands. Some trees had deep indentations from where babies were once hurled against them. In the center of the field was a tall three story monument full of the skulls of thousands of victims. The small walled area spoke to the depths of horror that the Cambodian people had to endure during the three years of Khmer Rouge rule. A sobering attraction to visit but something everyone should see. We stayed in that night and watched movies on the rooftop patio of our hostel. We were all still taken aback by the experiences of the day. The next morning we were off to Sihanoukville.
Sihanoukville deservingly receives some scathing reviews. Its beaches are dirty and there is not much to do beyond party. Nonetheless, the party is deserving of reputation. The mishmash of dance floors that flow into swimming pools, late night beach side bars packed with both locals and backpackers, fire dancers covered in body paint, one dollar vodka redbulls and laughing gas balloons made for an interesting few days, especially when you’re traveling with a group of Dutch girls who are bent set on having a good time. Beyond Naomi winning a wet t-shirt contest, I don’t remember a whole lot from those nights but I will do my best to recount the days.
Much of our time was spent on the beach playing guitar and recovering from hangovers. We had some meals of freshly caught fish and generally took it easy. One cloudy day we took a tuk tuk out to a local waterfall to do a little swimming. We ended up getting covered in leeches and ditched the waterfall in favour of catching the happy hour at our hostel. We spent a day touring some of the islands surrounding Sihanoukville. The tour began with snorkelling in water that was so murky that I bashed my foot on rocks I couldn't see below. The tour improved when we arrived at a deserted island beach. The crew fed us fresh barbequed barracuda, one of the best meals I had in Cambodia. We capped off the tour by doing flips off the top deck of the boat and returned to the hostel, once again, in time for happy hour.
On our last day in Sihanoukville, some locals invited me to a quiet beach called Otres. It was much nicer than Sihanouville’s main beach. I stayed covered in the beach side bar playing pool all day to allow my sunburns to heal. I returned to the hostel later in the afternoon and, of course, in time for happy hour. After five nights of partying we decided to get the hell out of Sihanoukville for fear we might be lost in the belly of this alcoholic beast. The beach side town was a ton of fun but after almost a week of partying we were in need of a more relaxed environment.
We found just the place a few hours up the coast in Kampot, a little riverside village with a fairly large expat community and the gateway to the beautiful Kep national park. We stumbled upon a large hostel owned by a friendly American expat with voice of Casey Kasem. He was selling us his hostel as if it was a used car. When told us a room includes free access to a 9-hole mini-golf course we were sold. After a couple games, we got a good night sleep then woke up early the next day for one of the hostels delicious breakfast burritos. The cook used a crepe as a tortilla shell. Brilliant. After breakfast we rented motorbikes and made a limestone cave our destination. The area was not easy to find but refreshingly tourist free. At the mouth of the cave we were greeted by nine rambunctious thirteen year old boys who were, apparently, going to be our tour guides. The cavern was more impressive than I expected and the boys did an alright job of telling us about the various Buddhist carvings nestled inside. In fact, the tour leader was strangely professional. That is until he told us to scale a wet five meter wall with only a thin vine for support and scurry across a precarious stone bridge in order to exit the cave. It was no easy feat.
Our guides told us about a spectacular 'secret' lake nearby where we could cool off. The lake did not end up being very spectacular nor much of a secret as it was surrounded by hammocks and a restaurant but the swim was nice. We gave our tour guides a good tip for keeping us entertained and made our way back to Kampot.
The next day we took the bus to Kep then chartered a boat to Rabbit Island. The boatman left us on what appeared to be a deserted island. There was no beach, no trails and definitely no rabbits. The place was not supposed to be developed but it was supposed to at least have a couple bungalows and a food shack. We aimlessly walked the coast for a while until we eventually found a path which led us to back to humanity. The boatman had dropped us off on the wrong side of the island to avoid docking fees. The beach was beautiful and the water clear. We spent a relaxing day swimming, lying in hammocks and reading. I got a one hour Khmer massage for five bucks. Crab and double gin and tonics were on the menu for lunch. Our waiter literally took our order, walked out into the sea, pulled a trap up onto the beach and selected a few crabs. The smell of curry paste wafted from the kitchen to our table as we sat the sipping gin and tonics. The perfection of this moment propelled us into a conversation over how we are ever going to survive going home to real life and real responsibilities. When the waiter interrupted us with a delicious bowl of fresh curry crab, the conversation was dropped. We decided not to worry about it.
The next morning we took a minibus back to Phnom Penh (the transportation connections are so bad in Cambodia that you generally have to go back to Phnom Penh to get anywhere) then an overnight to Siem Reap. We arrived early and checked into a pretty depressing guesthouse to get some much needed sleep. Early the next day we moved to a more backpacker friendly hostel which had a chill rooftop patio, a pool table and tiny kitten who would come sit on your lap if you ordered a plate of fries. We called her French Fry.
Siem Reap is just a jumping point for visiting Angkor Wat but I was expecting the city to have at least a little cultural character. I was wrong. It’s the perfect example of a small city that has been destroyed by tourism. As a backpacker, I felt like a minority in the tourist demographic. The streets are dominated by western restaurants selling mock Khmer food, pushy tuk tuk drivers and large clubs that play only American top40 songs. Worse still, there is a massive volun-tourism network there which allows unskilled tourists to pay to play with ‘orphaned’ children for a day to up to a month. This has fostered a network of fake orphanages to which parents rent there children for a small fee. This is one of many examples of how volun-tourism is doing more harm than good in the developing world.
If Siem Reap was not as nice as I expected, the Angkor Wat temple complex certainly exceeded my expectations. Dana and I spent three days going temple to temple by tuk tuk and bicycle. Angkor Wat is imposing and detailed beyond belief but the main temple is only a small piece of what there is to see in the complex. There are several other massive temples and monuments. The one which made the biggest impression on me was Ta Phrom where many large trees and vines have grown through around the temple. It is an ancient structure which is now at one with nature. Three days was not enough to see all there is to see in the complex. I doubt a week is even enough. But we covered a lot of ground in the time we had and were ‘templed-out’ by the end of it.
With Angkor Wat crossed off the must see list, a decision had to be made regarding what to do for Lara's birthday. She did not want to stay in Siem Reap and two more of her Dutch friends were on their way to Cambodia for the event. Eventually Lara decided she wanted to spend her birthday back in Sihanoukville and the other girls followed suite. I originally decided to just carry on towards Laos without them but Dana persuaded me to come to the coast for just a couple more days so that we could travel Laos together after Lara and Naomi returned home.
Sihanoukville was more of the same. Another big crazy dutch party. Some of other people we had met in other parts of Cambodia even showed up for the event. It was a nice way to say farewell to Lara and Naomi. After the birthday bash Dana and I continued our adventure two Dutch girls short. We caught a bus up to Phnom Penh where we stayed one night before taking another bus North across the border into Laos. Cambodia was now in the rear view mirror.
Cambodia will not go down as one of my top destinations but it’s far from the worst. It certainly exceeded my expectations. I think it gets such a bad rap because people don't really give it a chance to begin with. Most travelers we met were spending a couple days in Siem Reap and a couple Days in Phnom Penh then leaving. To be honest, this was my initial plan as well until I met the Dutch trio. While Cambodia is not naturally as beautiful as Vietnam, it is less developed for tourism and more laidback. With the exception of Siem Reap, most tourist destinations in Cambodia are still backpacker dominated and there are countless untouched areas to explore. Of course, the Dutch trio certainly added to the experience. An important lesson I learnt in Cambodia is that travel is more about the people you meet than the places you go. I will always remember the good times I spent in Cambodia with a great group of travelers.

Posted by bradenelsewhere 01:04 Archived in Cambodia Tagged landscapes lakes beaches buildings parties night Comments (0)

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