06 December 2005

Chapter 8: Mudpuddles and Other Outrages

Dearest All-

On the highway from Chang Mai in Thailand to Lao, we stopped at a rest stop where they were selling Burmese Army Trekking Sticks. The sticks them selves looked about completely useless (as are most things bought at a truck stop), however, the story behind the inventor is priceless. Sir Jeffery Hillpig-Smyth invented the stick while serving in the Queen's service in Burma, after an unsuccessful attempt for Parliament in 1934, two bouts of alcoholism, and a brilliantly titled but failed series of essays entitled "Mudpuddles and Other Outrages". He seemed to feel that life was, somehow, out to get him. While generally disregarded in his day and age, history has proved him right, seeing as he got lost INSIDE his regiments 3 acre parade ground and has never been heard from since. I feel his pain. And if you have nothing better to do than read this, so shall you. Although your pain might be derived from my writing. But whatever, you will rue the day. Rue it!

Mudpuddles to most people do not seem outrageous. But maybe those people have not seen mudpuddles that form in Laotian roads. We are talking hot-tub-sized mud puddles here people, large enough to lose a VW bug into. Josh, Guy, Chris, Vicki and I entered Lao on a boat that was about the size of a loaf of bread, crossing the Mekong River that forms the border between the two countries. The difference between the two was immediately apparent- Lao is simply much much less developed. Lao is Thailand in 1975. Lao is Thailand without roads. The trip from the border to Luang Nam Tha, our first stop, was a seven hour ride in the back of a pick up through the mountainous countryside. It was as incredibly beautiful as it was uncomfortable. Which means it was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen- green mountains receding into the distance, covered with palm jungle, backed by darker green mountains, backed by purple, backed by mountains still visible, but just a grey smudge against the brilliant blue sky.

In Luang Nam Tha we went hill tribe trekking. We waited to do this until Lao, thinking that because there were fewer travellers we wouldn't be contributing to the tour culture that has sprung up in places in Thailand, where whole villages survive off the proceeds of handicrafts, picture taking charges and begging. We were right in a way, it was much less affected, but there is no real answer to the question of not interfering with these people's way of life- just by showing up you alter their existence. And why shouldn't you? If they want an aspirin, are you not to give it to them? Besides moral questions, I realized that carrying heavy things up mountains through the tropical heat was stupid. Josh and I renamed trekking "schlepping". Yes, yes, beautiful scenery blah blah physical exertion natural high blah blah blah. It was so worth it, but the leaches made me not want to repeat the experience. When we returned, Guy and I decided we should record how we smelled- a mixture of woodsmoke, sweat, rotting vegetation and cooking grease- and sell it as a new fragrance, marketed as "Village Elder". An outrage if I ever smelled one.

On our way down south we passed through Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Lao, and an important town during French colonial times. The architecture is beautiful there- a mix of traditional Buddhist inspired curves and french colonial whitewash. It was in Luang Prabang that we learned the French colonialists were in fact the most lazy of all European colonizers, which makes sense in a place like Lao. It's a joke that the official name of Lao (Lao PDR) means please don't rush, and you can see it in this town. It's very beer at 11 am, french cigarettes, baguettes rolling by on bicycles, ennui and all that, "oh the torpor of living in the tropics"/ french films from the 50's, Camus over coffee, slowly going insane in Paradise. I know that makes absolutely no sense, but neither does Lao. We continued down to Vang Vien, which much like mudpuddles, was an outrage. It was great fun, but if Luang Prabang is Colonial France, then Vang Vien is Fort Lauderdale at Spring Break. There is nothing in this town, except a continuous stream of twenty something backpackers watching Friends, eating pizza, drinking too much and tubing. I am not judging here, because I was happy to do all of those things, but it is strange that there is nothing else to do in this town- that's it. We made a slogan for my favorite activity in Vang Vien, tubing (if you are not from the Midwest, tubing is putting an inflated tractor tire in a river and floating on it). "Tubing: the opposite of learning." sums it up nicely. On the river, every hundred meters or so is a little bar set up on the bank selling cold Beer Lao (possibly the best beer I have ever had in Asia, Japan included). So that's what you get: girl's-gone-wild meets frat-party-on-a-floating-tube set in the movie Apocalypse Now, sans shooting and death. It might be an outrage, but it's strangely seductive.

We finally exited Lao by kayaking down the Mekong river from Vang Vien (that's right- kayaking), past the island of the naked children (local kids who attacked our kayaks, possibly out of malice, but most likely because it is fun to see foreigners freak out), and finally finished by bus to the border. Ahhhhh... Thailand. Why are you so delicious? Maybe it's your food, maybe it's your people. Who can know?

In Bangkok our happy gang of five had to split up- Guy to Malaysia, then Singapore and finally back to London, Chris and Vicki to Cambodia and then to Indonesia, and us to Bali via Singapore. Breaking up is hard to do. Instead of breaking up we should have been making up...

Singapore: WHAM! WELCOME BACK TO THE FIRST WORLD! THAT WILL BE $49.50! Singapore was fun, but all the sudden our artificial wealth disappeared and we were all poor again. Well, that's an outrage. It was great fun to discover the city that was once the key to Britain's Asian Empire- the influence is everywhere. The trains run on time, everything is spotless, they execute everyone who disagrees with them... OK, so it's not quite like that, but Singapore has had a tricky time weaning itself away from a system in which the Governor-general held absolute power within the colony, slowly transforming itself into a nanny state- don't chew gum, stop spitting mister, no horseplay on the swings! But remarkably, it has also transformed itself economically, raising the standard of living to a level not enjoyed anywhere else in South East Asia. It's also used wealth to blend together a tricky mixture of Chinese traders, Indian laborers, indigenous Malay and European citizens into a stable city state- who said money couldn't buy togetherness? But damn people, 2.50 for a hot dog? Laters.

Indonesia: ummmmm... where's the beach? I wish I could say that I made a thorough examination of Indonesia's interesting and tricky social fabric, but people, please. My efforts are lagging seriously here- it can't be all learning and social awareness, can it? I did nothing of the sort. I flew over the entire western part of the country, scarcely even looking down, until we landed in Bali. We headed out directly to Gili Trawangan, a coral atoll north of Lombok, the next island to the east of Bali, not stopping to pass go or collect anything, simply kept going until my bag was locked in a room and I was roasting nicely on white sand and swimming in clear blue water the color of candy, thank you very much. The Gili Islands are amazing- blah blah, imagine an amazing beach blah blah, then understand that you will never understand how cool this water is, it's the best, you know nothing...roll your eyes...skip ahead...that's right... OK enough. It's very pleasant. Josh and I had come to this island and learned to scuba dive three years before, and had always wanted to come back. We ended up spending three weeks there, scuba diving, hanging out at the dive shop, and meeting some really nice people. Chris and Vicki joined us about 10 days in, and we had a great time with them. The scuba diving is amazing in Indonesia- sharks, turtles, rays a-go-go... But paradise is defined as what you do not have, so the siren call of cheap internet access, new places to see and putting more miles under the feet won out. We crossed over to Bali and spent a few days with Chris swimming and mocking other travellers (as most of them are ozzies, it's pretty easy ;).

Dear Kuala Lampur Airport,
Die. I hate you. I don't know what idiot designed the airport so that all the waiting areas are INSIDE security and passport control, while passengers are made to wait OUTSIDE.
Love, The Smartest Man Alive

We flew from Bali to Manila via an overnight stop in Kuala Lampur- a stop just short enough that leaving the airport wasn't an option but long enough that I had to spend many uncomfortable hours sleeping on the marble floor. We flew on Air Asia- SE Asia's version of easyJet or Southwest. We also learned how they keep their prices low- by blaming all things on being a low cost airline. It's really quite incredible- very conversational Dali.

Josh: "Could I have a blanket?"
Flight Attendant: "I'm sorry, sir. We're a low cost airline."
J: "Oh, ok. Well, it's freezing in here... could you turn the air conditioning down?"
FA: "I'm sorry, sir. We're a low cost airline."
J: "You can't control the cabin temperature?"
FA: "We're a low cost airline."
I'm sorry- can you steer the plane? Does this aircraft come equipped with engines? What about wheels? No? Oh, I understand... low cost airline. "Ladies and Gentlemen, in order to continue being a low cost airline, we are going to depressurize the cabin...."

But I digress...

We arrived in Manila on Dec 1, and immediately found possibly the worst hotel on earth. Alright, well it's not actively burning down nor filled with radioactive gasses, nor does anyone stab you in the shower a la psycho, but that would be the only way to make it worse. We have a resident rat the we find some days on the stairs, some days in the trashcan in the bathroom, other days sitting on the lobby couch. Maybe the rat works there. We have spent five days in Manila now, and let me tell you: this city likes to take it's pants off. Maybe it's just our neighborhood, Malate, but something we read in the newspaper the other day makes me think not so much. "Mr. Ninoy has built a successful restaurant by catering to his market- reporters, pimps, police men and prostitutes- and many other night workers happy to put down money for good food." Wait-let me get this straight- this is a good business strategy? The rest of our time in manila, when not fighting off whores, has been spent in the most adolescent way possible: going to the mall. In summary, so far the Philippines has been all about: the underground economy, the mall, and the internet. An outrage. Let's hope week two is slightly more productive.

This has gone on so long it has become an outrage. So I'll leave you here... remember people, only 19 days till Festivus...a Festivus for the rest of us. ( http://festivusbook.com/essentials?PHPSESSID=fa2d8cfd18bd58943e7fb574115e8b67)
All my festivus gifts should come wrapped in this, please:

Hope to hear from you all soon... I can't believe that shortly I'll be leaving Asia after living here for three and a half years....