south east asia on a shoestring

vietnamcambodia4

Well, I am back in Vientiane after a whirlwind trip.  It feels like I haven’t slept in years.

Quickly, this was my itinerary:

Ho Chi Minh City to My Tho, Vietnam, by AUNILO bus

My Tho to Chau Doc Vietnam by Vietnamese van, 7 hours of HELL, including a ferry crossing of the Mekong and going through Sadec, formerly the hometown of Margeurite Duras.

Chau Doc to Phnom Penh Cambodia by Boat

Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus

Angkor Wat by Bicycle and tuk-tuk

Siem Reap to Vientiane, Laos, by airplane.

Then I cam back friday, taught a class, went to a wedding, and have been going non-stop since.  Back to work today!

angkor4

More pictures coming soon!

hello from ho chi minh

Holy shit.  Ho Chi Minh City is a chaotic frenzied mass of motorcycles, all perpetually honking.

Anyway, I shall write more about Vietnam later.  First a quick summary of my travels for far:

After a grumpy start at the Vientiane Talat Sao bus station, when at 9 in the morning the lady told me I couldn’t buy a ticket for the 4 pm bus to Udon Thani, and I missed my bus to the University.  After waiting an hour for the next bus to the University, which never showed up, at 10:15 I called my boss and told him “I give up on the bus.  See you in Vietnam!”, then I went home and sulked.  At 12 pm I rode my bike back to the bus station and bought the ticket for the 4 pm bus, 22,000 kip (about $3).  Then at 3:30 I went back again to actually get back on the bus.

At 4:00 we left Vientiane, about 30 minutes later we arrived at the Friendship Bridge.  After 2 HOURS of standing in lines, we were finally in Thailand, and then another 45 minutes to Udon Thani.  In Udon Thani I went to the “Ruangsoupraeth” VIP Bus company and bought a ticket for the 9:30 pm bus to Bangkok, 443 Thai Baht (about 15 dollars).  Then I went to the mall and ate KFC, 100 baht ($3), which was really exciting.  At 9:00 I went back to the bus station, got on the bus, and while some science-fiction horror movie starring The Rock dubbed in Thai played, I tried to sleep.  Actually the bus was quite comfortable, but I always have nightmares the driver is falling asleep and we are about to careen off the highway so sleeping on night busses is alwasy a challenge for me. Anyway, at 6:00 am we rolled into Bangkok.  This was the first time I had ever been to Bangkok, even though it’s only a $15 bus ride away…

I argued with a tuk-tuk driver for about 10 minutes and convinced him to take me to a guesthouse my friend Dani recommended for 140 Baht (about $4).  Bangkok traffic, even at 6 in the morning, is also pretty horrendous.

I went to this guesthouse, and asked if I could have a room for 6 hours.  Anyway, to make a long story short, the woman was an asshole, she ripped me off, and I highly do not recommend Tavee guesthouse in Thewet, Bangkok.  Anyway, after paying too much because I was exhausted, I fell asleep for 2 hours, then found a tuk-tuk who I told to take me to “Pratunam market”, where I have heard all the cheap shit is.  An hour later (yes, Bangkok traffic is horrendous) we pulled up in front of PLATINUM shopping center.  At that point I didn’t want to be on the road or in a tuk-tuk any longer so I got out. It turned out Platinum is like heaven, actually.  Shoe and handbag and clothing heaven, all reasonably priced, and no need to bargain for 20 minutes per item!

After dropping a few thousand baht, I went back to the guesthouse to get a bite to eat and grab my bag before heading to the airport for my flight to HCMC.  As I was walking past a cafe around noon (11pm Chicago time), I noticed a bunch of people with their eyes glued to CNN.  Obama was giving a speech.  Until that point I had completely forgotten about the election, since I sent in my absentee ballot months ago.  As I stumbled to take off my shoes to walk into the cafe I said “Did he win !??! Did he win !??!”.  I got a very bland “Yes.” in response.  “Hooray!!  Hooray!” I shouted.  Then everyone looked at me strangely.  I guess they had had more time to digest the news and we’re as excitable as me.  Anyway I just put my shoes back on and ran away from all the un-excited people.

I got my bag, and after listening to the lady at the gueshouse try and convince me for 10 minutes to take a taxi to the aiport for 450 baht ($15), and refusing to tell me where to take a bus from, I finally just left and decided to take a tuk-tuk to Khao San rd where I was pretty sure some bus or van to the airport must leave from.  I arrived, bought my ticket at a little kiosk for 130 baht, plus 20 for the tuk tuk ($5), and arrived at the aiport around 2:15, checked in for my 3:55 flight, and then hit the duty free shops.  I probably should have just spent the $400 to fly directly from Vientiane to HCMC, considering the loads of cash I am dropping on the way, but at least I get more than crappy airline food as a souvenir.

I arrived in HCMC around 5:30, and a lovely young lady from the University of Vietnam was waiting for me to escort me to my hotel.  However, due to the aforementioned chaotic frenzied traffic in this city, it actually took over 1 hour of mostly stop-and-go traffic to get to the hotel from the airport.

This hotel has more than it’s fare share of funny anecdotes, mostly due to the extreme lack of English comprehension of any staff member here, and my zero knowledge of the vietnamese language. I have to write a paper right now but I will share them later.

ending radio silence

I just got back from a 4 days trip to Luang Prabang, and I have lots of news!

Firstly, I went to Luang Prabang to celebrate my 29th birthday.  Just thinking about it makes me feel old but I had a lovely time in the former royal capital.  I took a bus Saturday morning from Vientiane, and the route took us through the mountains and jungles of central Laos for 12 hours, around twisty curving narrow roads and through tiny villages.  Despite being extremely remote, I actually saw a full-sized drum kit through the doorway of one of these wooden shacks perched on the top of a mountain somewhere between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.

My impression of Luang Prabang: the contemporary city, is that it exists solely as a tourist destination.  It is now “Low season”, yet the town was absolutely crawling with tourists.  The overwhelming majority of them were dirty, smelly, loud, obnoxious, drunk young europeans and americans.

Maybe I’m just getting old, and jaded, but I felt extremely disdainful of all the half naked tourists walking around Luang Prabang.  Visiting there made me really remember why I was never all that interested in visiting Asia in the first place – I find the whole “Backpacking around South East Asia” thing to be just a big cliché, involving little more than drunkenness and sleazyness in most cases.  I’ll admit that I did meet a few nice people who were doing everything in their power not to perpetuate that stereotype of the dirty, smelly, drunk, ignorant, culturally insensitive tourist, and I really like those people.  But I’m still really worried about the overall impression Lao people must have of all these tourists, and therefore their respective countries, considering some of the behaviour I witnessed.

Sunday was my birthday. Thanks for all the kind birthday greetings from everybody!

This day I climbed to the top of Phu Si, gazed out over the Mekong river valley in the rain, and discovered that my camera was not working.  I spent the rest of the day at the spa, and then ate a huge and delicious and extremely expensive dinner.  The family sitting next to me was also celebrating their son’s 8th birthday, so then they even let me share their chocolate mousse cake with them!

While in Luang Prabang I also visited a few Wats and took a boat to some caves.  It was mostly rainy the whole time I was there.  The Mekong kept rising higher and higher each day.  On Tuesday I participated in a cooking class at Tamarind Cafe, which I would highly highly recommend.  Our group included two really funny guys from Britain, a young British lady doctor who had been traveling around India for the past thee months, and a couple from Philly.  We learned to make Mok Pa, fished steamed in banana leaves; Buffalo Bile Laap (yum!); Luang prabang stew; lemongrass stuffed with chicken; sticky rice; jeow; and probably some other stuff I am forgetting.  It was really fun. I made plans to spend some time with the British folks when the pass back through Vientiane.

I took the night bus back, 12 hours which where mostly horrific, and sleep was nearly impossible.  I woke up from a strange dream about being in a bicycle shop where there were millions and millions of bicycles arranged by colour; like a rainbow of bicycles; to find I was back in Vientiane.  And it was still raining.

Other than that, Luang Prabang was quite lovely.  It certainly has a lot more charm and is much more attractive than Vientiane.  However I don’t think I would want to live there.  It’s very tiny and bursting with 19 year olds in thai pants and beerlao wife-beaters.

However, before I left for my jaunt up to Luang Prabang, the folks at the library threw a little birthday party for me.

We had lunch on the 2nd floor, and the ladies brought out a huge feast, including Lao Lao and Laap and sticky rice ball salad, and some of my other favorites.  I baked a cake, and everybody said it was “sep lae”, which means “very delicious”.

most of the library staff, and me!
most of the library staff, and me!

To the left of me is Mr. Chansy, the library director.  In bright orange is Sisavanh, one of my best pals.  Mrs. Bounsalome is on the very right, poking her head out.  She is my Lao teacher.  Next to me on the right is Mr. Vay, the only person at the library around my age.  He speaks almost flawless English and is going to Australia next year to study Information Science.

ucl staff singing happy birthday
ucl staff singing happy birthday

They all sang me happy birthday in english and then I blew out some imaginary candles.

me and my library ladies
me and my library ladies

It was a lovely lovely day.  I don’t know who that tall guy is though.

The big news of the moment is that the Mekong is on the verge of flooding the entire Vientiane area!  The library has created some kind emergency-action plan that involved shovels and sandbags and I also volunteered to help if needed.  If the river continues to rise… it will be bad news.  My house is about 200m from the Mekong so I will probably be in a lot of trouble if there is a massive flood.

why i love taking the bus

Monday through Friday I leave my house at 8:20 to get to the Talat Sao (Morning market) main bus station by 8:30.  I bring my bike to the bike parking area, where they give me a ticket, and then staple the other half of the ticket around my brake cable, and then I walk the bike to very back of the most foul-smelling, dirty, disgusting hovel, while I maneuver around motorcycles and helmets and people washing dishes and sometimes themselves, men in speedos covered in soap, men in military garb pissing the corner.  I try to do this as quickly as possible because, it smells in there, and also because I am usually running late for the bus. The official time table for the bus informs me that it leaves at 8:10, 8:40, and 9:00, among other times.  This timetable is essentially useless.  I generally arrive at the bus station at 8:30, sometimes the bus may leave at 8:25, sometimes at 8:35, sometimes 8:45, sometimes 9:00, sometimes 9:30.  There is really no way of telling.  Sometimes, after waiting for 30 minutes, I may try to ask some one where the bus is.  Usually this is futile because a.) they don’t speak English, or b.) they also have no idea.

Assuming the bus leaves between 8:35 and 8:50, I generally arrive at the University around 9:15 am.  I usually keep myself busy working on something or other for a few hours, eat lunch with the director at 11:30, and then mess around for another few hours, and at 3:45 I leave and walk to the bus stop, where I wait for some kind of transit back to Talat Sao.  Yesterday I took a jumbo – which is basically a small pick up truck with benches in the back, and I was the only passenger. I still only paid 3,000 kip, but the ride was only about 20 minutes long.  There are also smaller buses that are privately owned that go to Talat Sao from the University, each of them takes a different route, some a lot bumpier and longer than others.  I haven’t figured any of these out yet, but basically whatever the first vehicle that passes heading towards Talat Sao, I take it.

Normally there are a few monks on the bus.  The monks wear bright orange robes, with one sholder bare, and have shaved heads.  Usually they are quite young – between 12 and 18 years old.  Sometimes you see older ones.  If you are a lady, never make the mistake of trying to sit next to a monk on the bus, or anywhere else for that matter.  They are not allowed to touch women.  If you go to the temple, and you see a monk, don’t try to hug him, or say “Koy hak hoy” to him, which means “I love dick”.

Speaking of koy and hoy, apparently for the last month I have been saying “penis” every time I meant to say “I”  the difference is much more subtle than a k or an h sound, I think it has something to do with the tone.  I read in a book that even if you are using the correct word in Lao, if you get the tone wrong, people will have no idea what you’re talking about.I have had multiple experiences of this being true, and also of saying the exact same words over and over again, and having it mean different things, apparently.

This morning on the bus I was sitting, reading Proust and hating it, like I normally do, and I started hearing some strange noises coming from the seat next to me.  It sounded like there were birds in the bus.  But I didn’t see any, so I assumed I had imagined it. A few moments later, I looked over again, and saw the man next to me had put his backpack on his lap, opened it, and was feeding some baby birds that were inside it.  He carefully dropped little bits of food into their mouths as they put their heads back and opened up their beaks.  I couldn’t tell if it was insects of seeds or what, but it was amusing in a way I had never before experienced on a bus.  Except maybe the time I saw some girl fellate a man on the greyhound, but that was more horrifying.

This is why I love taking the bus.

Yesterday I ate bugs and frogs.  I will post pictures shortly.

buying a bike, taking the bus

So, I bought a 2nd hand bike from my landlord’s sister. I will take a picture of it soon. It looks like somebody puked tie-dye all over it, it’s a one-speed, chinese, cheap-ass-bike. But it’s nearly new and gets around decently, though the seat really hurts my bum. I tried in vain to find a road bike, the only one I saw was about 3 inches too big for me, and had a seat designed to look like an eagle. I may keep looking. I may also just buy a moto. Then I could actually ride it all the way to the University instead of a 5 minute bike ride  and then a 40 minute bus ride. But actually I like taking the bus. And this morning went pretty smoothly for the first time doing so in a country where I can barely communicate with anyone. The best part about taking the bus?

Sitting next to a monk.

I think all of the folks at the central library were pretty surprised when I actually showed up for work this morning, and manged to get there all by myself. Al though I have to admit some of the past few days on my own has reminded me of my first few days at post in Athiémé, where I didn’t eat anything but bananas for 3 days because I didn’t know how or where to buy food and I was too scared to ask. And I’m constantly afraid I’m paying the yovo price for everything, but I have absolutely no way of knowing, or doing anything about it, so I just try bargaining to the best of my non-Lao-speaking ability. I did eat a good sandwich yesterday though.  It was cucumber, some weird spam-like luncheon meat, hot sauce, and some weird dried stuff that looked like rope fibers but tasted salty and maybe vaguely fishy?

Maybe it’s the events of the past month, this whole whirlwind adventure, my unrequited missed connection love affair, my mom’s surgery, pre-menstrualness, culture shock, I don’t know but I’m feeling a little lonely and miserable. Also a bit useless, I don’t know what I came here to do, or how I can help at the library. I feel really intimidated by what they are asking/expecting from me. I’m not a computer programmer! I hardly know how to catalogue! I can’t read Lao and I don’t even understand what half the people who work in the library do. But I did manage to fix one computer that had a virus today, my first day at work.

They want me to learn how to use this software:

PMB

It’s an open-source Integrated Library Software (ILS), made in France.  Somebody at the French cultural center here is working on translating it into Lao, and so, for some reason I didn’t quite understand, the University Library also had to switch.  I guess this is a good project for me because I am in the unique position of being able to understand all of the user guides and documentation, which are in a strange melange of francais and english.
Anyway, I have to do a lot of trivial things like buy a bike lock, open a bank account, buy some dishes, etc. within the next week that probably don’t seem very interesting, but each represent huge ordeals for me that I’m not really looking forward to. I’m sorry I’m in a bad mood.