OK, it wasn’t *exactly* a brothel

For the past week I’ve been holed up in the delightful Thoulasith guest house, situated in downtown (so to speak) Luang Nam Tha, Laos. LNT is a wonderful base for trekking to the surrounding hill-tribe villages, some of which lie in the nearby Nam Tha National Protected Area. At least that’s what I’m told.

I and 12 other tourists arrived by private minivan last Thursday. On the bus I met Raquel, an inquisitive and serene young Peruvian psychologist. She was in the middle of a multi-month, rather humanistic backpacking trip during which she was indulging her every curiosity. A few months ago she participated in an international entrepreneur’s seminar in Delhi, India, where she met Thon, a Laotian tourism professional from LNT. She was eager to reconnect with him, and I was eager to tag along – hoping for an insider’s itinerary instead of a pre-packaged tour.

“We will go have some drinks with my boss,” he commanded, after exchanging just enough great-to-see-you’s and nice-to-meet-you’s to be polite. Yes, we were puzzled that he offered us drinks at 2 pm, and before he had even *tried* to sell us any tours, but we shrugged it off as lack of experience. Still, we insisted on talking tours before drinking booze. After an hour of his vague and disinterested responses, we gave up being tourists and decided to be travelers instead. Thon seemed bent on showing off his western “friends” to his boss, even at the expense of a sale. “Sure, let’s go meet your boss,” I said, hopping into his company pickup.

He drove us 10 kilometers out of town to the “shop” where his boss would meet us. It turned out to be the Laotian version of a honky-tonk bar. Three other pickups were parked haphazardly in the weed-choked gravel lot out front. The saccharine screech of SE Asian pop music blared from the speakers. Inside, at a rowdy corner table, sat the all-male glitterari of the Luang Nam Tha tourism scene: directors, assistant directors, managers, founders. All were exceedingly drunk on Beer Lao, and on each middle-aged lap perched a 20-something girl, whose job it was to keep the ice bucket and glasses full and to remain within easy squeezing distance. Some squirmed more than others.

Raquel and I were introduced all around, and in great detail: we were given the vitae of every man at the table, and struggled to act suitably impressed. After much drunken chair-swapping we were finally allowed to sit down…each in front of an ice-filled glass of Beer Lao. It seems Lao custom dictates that if you’re late to a party, your penalty is to drink two glasses immediately. If you’ve come from a different province, you must drink four glasses. And if you’ve come from a different country, you must drink eight glasses. I suspect this last rule was made up on the spot, but we did our best to comply.

Suddenly the much-revered boss, a diminutive fellow whose name I can’t recall, staggered over to our end of the table to be sociable. He was by far the most drunk. His “girlfriend” was by far the most uncomfortable about his attentions. In short, he was the most seamy of them all. Then he started shouting in my ear.

I can’t remember what he was shouting about – trying to explain something to me, or to ask me something – but my pleas for him to step back and stop shouting fell on deaf ears. Leaning away from him and looking annoyed didn’t work either. In the end I had one hand on his chest, holding him at bay as he leaned in to try to shout directly into my eardrum, as the other hand wiped his spittle from my face. You’re not allowed to lose your temper in SE Asia – it causes your host to lose face and always ends badly – so I stood up, smiling, and said I needed some air.

As I paced in the dark outside the bar Thon came out and sort of half-apologized for the boss. There was a clear hierarchy at play at the table – Thon had to ask permission to do anything – so this admission of inappropriate behavior was surprising. I finally agreed to go back inside, if only to spare Raquel. But the whole scene was just gross. The men got drunker, the younger men waxed poetic to us about the obvious importance of the older men, and the women grabbed and cuddled or were grabbed and cuddled by whoever happened to be sitting next to them. We needed to escape.

At long length we got Thon to convince the boss to let us leave – Raquel actually had to invent an illness and overdue medication.

Our escape vehicle, driven by the sober Thon, was the boss’s luxury pickup. One member of LNT’s tourism A-list jumped in beside me to catch a ride back to town. “He’s too drunk to stay out,” Thon explained. I just hoped he wouldn’t puke in my lap.

“Why do you go to a bar so far from town?” I asked my neighbor, whose crooked grin and droopy eyes swam in his beer-soaked face. “So we don’t see our families,” he replied, his eyes briefly sharpened with surprise at his inadvertent honesty.

The next day, Raquel and I just rented bikes and rode through some area villages, exploring on our own. I’m sure the treks, kayaking, rafting, and other tours on offer from the dozen or so operators around town are just great. But somehow I’ve soured on official Luang Nam Tha tourism.

Bagged my first peak

I never would have imagined myself going to a place called “base camp” by my own choice and on my own dime. Base camp means cold, and I like warm. Base camp means mountain, and I like sea. Base camp means uphill, and I’m more of a coaster.

But there I was, trudging along the top a 3000-meter mountain pass, head down against the icy gale hammering hailstone pebbles into my forehead. I was about 130 km and nine days into a 168-km, 14-day test of my physical and mental endurance. I had passed all the stages of exhaustion and had entered absurdity and resignation. I started singing ““”We’re Off To See The Wizard.”

We were headed to Tavan Bogd, a group of peaks in Mongolia’s section of the Altai mountain range. Tavan Bogd means “five peaks,” and the itinerary from Mongolian Expeditions had us climbing Malchin, at 4051 meters the lowest of the five, the following day.

Gundei, our guide and one-third of the “us,” didn’t know that I had already decided to beg off the climb. “I don’t have proper climbing shoes,” I would say. “And my legs are too fatigued to haul my khushuur-enhanced butt up there.” The best laid plans…

About two weeks earlier I had sent an email to Batbayar, owner of Mongolia Expeditions, asking if his company had any trips to the west that I could join. He called about 30 minutes later. “You’re in luck,” he said. “We have a trip going in a few days, and all except one of the confirmed guests canceled at the last minute.” He was willing to give me a big discount on the price – after all, any money I paid would be money he wouldn’t be losing on the trip. I reviewed the itinerary. “I’m not exactly a mountaineer,” I said. “No problem,” he assured me. “There’s an easier hiking option if you don’t want to climb the peak.” I agreed to go.

A few days later I was standing outside the Golden Gobi guest house at 3 am, waiting for my ride to the airport. Donna, a remarkably fit 50-year-old Canadian and experienced climber/trekker/mountain-sports person, and I would take a three-hour flight west to Olgii, the low-slung capital of Bayan-Olgii province.

BO is home to a large Muslim Kazakh population stranded here during one of the many sudden border changes in the area over its history. They live in perfect harmony with Mongolians as well as Tuvans and other minorities. The Kazakhs look like…well, Kazakhs. Their hair, eyes and skin are lighter than Mongolians’. Their cheekbones aren’t quite as high. They are taller and bigger – as are their gers.

I’m not going to give a day-to-day travelogue, cuz that’d be boring and too long. The heavily edited version:

– drive west from Oglii to Khurgan and Khoton twin lakes. at a petrol station, meet two cars at the tail end of the Mongol rally. stop along the way to meet a family who hunts with eagles in the winter. hold an eagle. they’re very heavy and have sharp, sharp claws.

– camping and easy hiking along lakes. go swimming in freezing water. vodka, beer and singing by a bonfire. (37 km in 2 days)

– hike to the mouth of the White River valley. from here our driver and Russian van will be replaced with two Tuvan camelmen and their camels. (23 km)

– hike up the White River valley. go over a 3500-meter steep mountain pass during a brutal 8-hour hiking day. consider throttling guide, who rarely chooses the trail in favor of difficult “short cuts.” come up with the idea for “steppe aerobics.” (40 steep km in 2 days)

– arrive in camp 7 early enough to attempt a “shower” in (believe it or not) a shower tent. the hair wash was great, but the sudden winter gale that sprung up as soon as Donna finished her shower kinda ruined the overall effect. woke up the next morning to the remains of overnight frost and hail. sat through a snow squall during breakfast. made snowmen. it was cold.

– hike to camp 8, near our camelman’s ger and the entrance to Tavan Bogd Nat’l Park. enjoy a much-needed rest day. share a liter of fermented cow’s milk (the local spirit) with our camelman, named Olonbayar. “Olonbayar” means “many celebrations.” (16 km)

– hike 17 km to camp 9, Base Camp

Which brings you up to date.

As we started a long, gentle decent toward base camp we saw the peaks glowing in the distance. The clouds over them had parted, revealing a bright blue sky and shockingly bright sunlit snow. Hail was still falling all around us, collecting in the depression of the path. (This pic doesn’t do it justice.) I was reminded of a scene in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her companions had fallen asleep in a field of poppies – a trap by the Wicked Witch. But the good witch Glenda made it snow, waking them up. In the distance shone their destination, the Emerald City.

They ran through the snow along the yellow brick road towards the glimmering green spires of Emerald City.

We walked (no energy to run) along the white hailstone path towards the glowing blue and white of – let’s call it Sapphire Mountains.

Did I mention that I was a bit out of my head by this time? (I blame altitude sickness.)

By late afternoon the sky had cleared and the sun was shining. But clear skies mean cold nights, and that night was freezing. Worst of all, we were out of vodka. Thank god for Gundei, who had been rationing beer.

In the morning we woke up relatively early and started for the peak. It was an hour-long hike to the base of the mountain. And somehow during that time Gundei and Donna convinced me that I could, in fact, summit. No problem. Feel free to quit anytime. Just see how it goes. Etc.

Halfway up Donna almost quit. The climb was *very* steep, and there was no path. We were scratching our way over rocks that often moved or slid down as we scrambled over them. It was irresponsible and dangerous – at any time I could have loosened a boulder that would crush my finger or break an arm or leg. But by that time my competitiveness had reasserted itself. “I’m gunna bag this peak!” I declared, glaring up at yet another false summit. I may as well have scratched my balls and spit. I was being a dumb man.

Happily, Donna found a path (still very tough, but safer) and we followed it to the top.

We spent about 30 minutes at the peak (not the actual peak, which was a further steep, snowy 100-meter climb – too dangerous for our lacking-in-equipment selves, but close enough). Then I sent Gundei and Donna down ahead of me. I had to pee, and was determined to cop a squat with my butt facing China. Gross? Not really – we had spent 2 weeks relieving ourselves behind rocks. Immature? Probably – but not nearly as gross or immature as, say, pressing your bare penis against monuments and large buildings. (You know who you are.)

The descent was like skiing, but on rocks instead of snow. The technique involved stepping with your heel and letting your foot slide down as long as possible. It was kinda fun. I had to stop twice to empty my shoes.

We rolled back to base camp around 5 pm. Our prize for summitting was marmot – shot by our camelman the day before and boiled up by our cook. (Marmots, by the way, are carriers of Black Plague. Gundei assured us that care was taken to ensure that this was a healthy marmot. Besides, Malchin hadn’t killed us. Why would a marmot?)

A few days later we drove back in to Olgii, where we were promised a hot shower and a *bed* in a ger. The shower was more of a trickle, but it felt so good to wash off a thick layer of accumulated shit – we felt sure that over the previous 14 days our panting mouths had inhaled cow, sheep, goat, yak, horse, camel and human shit, and that it was also embedded in our hair. We *smelled*.

As for the bed, it was wonderful – though after the two bottles of vodka with dinner, I could have slept – well, in an icy tent in a place called “base camp.”

What the hell….? #2

Hello! I’m safe and sound, back in Bangkok. My flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia leaves at 15:15. I’m crouched over a pubic interrnett kiosk, paying 10 baht/20 mins to use the crappy keyboard, no seat, and a very low keyboad height. 50 eet away there’s a proper internet cafe that charges an outrageous 300 baht ($10!) per hour. I refuse to legitamize them by paying that, so I’m going t suffer throuugh it here. Plz excuse the typos.

I think I left off at the end of the first day of trekking. We stayed thhe first night in a family home in a Karen villge. As I said, wee arrived very early, and had time to walk around. But Ii was compleely wiped out from the fast pace and my sickness, which began to feel like the flu. So Marjan and I just lounged by a low table with tea and papaya, our backs propped up by 50-kilo sacks of rice. Marjan doesn’t like the tea and hates papaya (as well as bananas), and I felt nauseous, so we just watched the occasional fly land on the fruit and chatted. Eventually I got up the energy to take a…well, to wash up. The outdoor “shower” consisted of a plastic tub of water pumped from the well (two young girls gladly helped fill it) surrounded by a few slats of wood with large gaps in between. Lucky, I had bought a huge green plastic rain poncho in Chiang Mai, anticipating rainy season in Myanmar. I took off my clothes, put on the poncho, wrapped my large travel towel around me for good measure (anotherr clever purchase – thx for helping pickit out Michele!), slipped into my Tevas, and went out there. The slats were a good height for a hill triber – that is to say, just above my navel. So I bathed by squatting next to the plastic tub, using a smaller bucket to pour water over myself while still wearing the poncho. A local grandma clicked her tongue and shook her head at me, but the girls giggled with delight. Marjan took pics, which I’ll upload soon.

The cool water made me feel better, but when dinner was ready I still had no appetite. I picked at some rice. Too bad, as the huge chicken curry and tofu salad that Te made looked delicious.

We were in bed by 7:30, our alarms set for 6:30 breakfast and 7 am departure. Tthe 11 hours of sleep did me good, b/c I awoke feeling  thousand tiimes better – energetic even. Marjan, however, had caught what Ii had annd had a terribl day. the first day we had walked abbout 18 km, though a good portion was uphill. The second day we had to go 26 km. To make matters worse, it rained a good part of the day, causing the hard clay earth to morph into the goopy, heavy, sticky mud I described in a earlier post. Marjan (unlike me) was anti-imodium,so we had to stop extremely often for her to jump behind soe bushes. Sorry for the gross picture, but that’s how it was – me in my huge poncho and Marjan with an umbrella in one hand and her toilet paper in anotherr, slogging through thhe mud and rain. It souds awful, and Marjan was indeed pretty miserrble, but it was actually a lot of fun (in hindsight!).

OK can’t take this effing keyboard anymore. Nnext post from Cambodia!



What the hell have you been *doing*?

Now that all my political blustering is done for the moment…

OK. Myanmar! Believe it or not, there’s a country that exists in addition to the typhoon, absurd repressive government, and sham elections. And I’ve been visiting it!

Ages ago, the last time I blogged about my trip, I said that we took a bus north to Kalaw, the so-called trekking center of Myanmar, on the afternoon April 30th. Our bus was scheduled to arrive at 6 am (18 hours), but arrived 3 hours early…at 3 am. So Marjan and I were quickly shuffled off the bus in teh dark (Kalaw wasn’t the final destination) by a gesticulating and grunting Burmese boy, who also got our backpacks from under the bus. We sleepily gathered our things from the side of the road and trudged to the nearby Lilly Guest House. We woke poor Lilly up, but I think because of her sleepiness we managed to negotiate a good rate for the room – $8 for a double (with hot shower!), I think. Marjan and I fell into our beds, slept until around 9, had a quick breakfast, and then hurried off to meet our taxi driver for the day, who was driving us to the village of Pindaya.

Sure, it was market day in Pindaya – local markets are always an interesting sight. But the real attraction was the surreal Pindaya Cave. According to local legend, seven “maidens” were trapped in the cave by a giant spider. A passing prince heard their pleas for help, killed the spider with his bow & arrow, and thereby saved the maidens. For some reason all this made the cave sacred. Anyway, Burmese and people from other countries have donated and installed hundreds of Buddha figures of all shapes and sizes in this limestone cave. For its part (and *this* is where the surreal part comes in, believe it or not) the wise Burmese government installed a *glass elevator* to bring tourists up the “mountain” to the cave, instead of having to climb the like 100 steps.

To review: Road from Bagan to Yangon: unpaved and a pox on your ass. People in the delta region: relying on resourceful and brave Yangon youth to feed them. Pindaya Caves: well-served by glass elevator complete with bored elevator operator.

After the caves we stopped at a paper and umbrella-making shop. No, not the kind sold by enterprising African immigrants on the streets of New York at the first hint of rain. I mean traditional umbrellas with bamboo frames covered with handmade paper dyed with natural dye and then rainproofed using some sort of natural process (details hazy). They also happen to be quite beautiful. Pathein, a town in the typhoon-ravaged delta region, is the most famous umbrella town in Myanmar. But Pindaya comes in second. Perhaps the local umbrellas are overshadowed by the absurdist caves.

The next day we were up early to begin our trek: 62 km through the hills from Kalaw to the western shore of Inle Lake. Our guide was Robin, Lilly’s brother and a longstanding and well-known Kalaw guide. Lilly and Robin are Punjabi Indians whose grandfather, like many other Indians and Nepalese, came to Burma with the British army during WWII. Their father stuck around. In the ’60’s, an earlier version of the absurd Burmese government kicked all rich foreigners – mostly Chinese and Indians – out of the country. But Robin’s father was allowed to stay because, as Robin says, “He wasn’t rich.” Well, Robin (a bachelor, as far as I could tell) and Lilly (who’s married and has a few children) seem to have made a pretty good life, between the guest house and Robin’s trekking. I wonder how long it’ll last.

We left our guest house at 7 am, carrying only our small backpacks with a few essentials: change of clothes, umbrella, poncho, camera, and toothbrush. We had arranged to send our larger packs on to our guest house Nyangshwe, our destination, by car (or, more likely, a cart pulled by a tractor engine.) Robin set of at what I’ll call a brisk pace. We managed to keep up, though Robin always seemed to be about 200 meters ahead of us. After a bit we asked him if there was a reason to rush – we were practically running up the hill – and she said no. “Some people like to walk fast.” He told us about a Scottish man he had just taken on the same tour, who wanted to run the whole way. We assured him we were happy to walk quickly but not jogging…and he didn’t quite get the message. We basically spent the day shouting, “What?” as he turned to tell us about a plant or animal or the history of the region from 200 meters up the road.

I can now say from personal experience that trekking uphill all day at a very fast pace really sucks when you’ve got the big D.

A brief interlude – something that’s been nagging at me and my delicate ego. A few weeks ago I posted that, during my trek near Chiang Mai, a guy had to carry my backpack for me up when I described as a “45-degree slope.” Noooo no no no. The hills on the Kalaw trek were 45 degrees, and I successfully scaled them all day with no problem. The ones in Chiang Mai were more like 65 or 70 degrees. So fail me in geometry, but please let me redeem myself a little by pleading steepness.

Back to Kalaw: we stopped for “lunch” (we arrive at 9:30!) at the Overview – a rest area/guest house on a hill overlooking Kalaw run by a Bangladeshi guy. His daughter cooked us delicious chapati with vegetable curry, which we ate looking out over the valley. Nice.

The rest of the day consisted of learning a lot about the natural history of the area from Robin, while running up hills after him. We made it to our camp for the night by 2:30 pm! Te, our cook for the trip, later asked Robin if Marjan and I do sports at home, because we arrived in the village so quickly. Ha.

Ooops gotta run. Internet cafe’s closing. More tomorrow from Bangkok airport, if all goes well (and it will!).

Safe & hot w/aching butt in Mandalay

Here we are in Mandalay after a long (9-hour), bumpy bus ride on painfully hard seats. For the people here, it’s as if there was no cyclone/typhoon. It’s hot and sunny and there’s electricity and (painfully slow yet working) internet.

As I mentioned in my brief post yesterday, we really had no idea how big the cyclone was until yesterday morning. Saturday night was the last night of our trek – we stayed in a Buddhist monastery. The head monk told us that he had heard on the radio that there was a large storm in Yangon, and that about 300 people had died. I figured such a small incident wouldn’t even make the news in the US. To be honest, at the time we were much more interested in the storm’s effect on the rest of our trek. Saturday had been an unseasonably wet day, which meant we had to walk 24 kilometers in huge ponchos with heavy sticky clay mud collecting like concrete blocks to our Tevas. In fact, I did the last few kms barefoot like the locals. Squishy and slippery, but at least I didn’t have 5-kilo weights attached to my feet.

On Sunday we arrived at Inle Lake and stayed at the friendly Remember Inn in Nyangshwe. There we found that the typhoon had knocked out electricity in the area, and this time the casualty count was 3000. Again, we were more concerned with its effect on our much-needed hot shower…though of course we were also sad and curious about the extent of the damage. Of course, no electric and no internet meant no info. And there’s no English-language paper for sale in Myanmar outside of Yangon and Mandalay. So we were informed only by the rumors we heard from locals. We didn’t know if their source of info was the unreliable Myanmar media or the BBC. So we took the growing numbers with a large grain of salt.

Monday we spent the day mostly in our room, recovering from the exhausting trek and the nasty diarrhea Marjan (we had it much worse) and I had been suffering since Friday. (Yes mom I’m drinking plenty of fluids.) By Tuesday the news of casualties had risen to 9000, so we started to worry that y’all were worried. But again, we had no way to get in touch. Then yesterday morning we heard almost 100K dead, so we were eager to get to Mandalay and send word that we were fine. But we managed to luck out – I poked my head into a “Cyber Cafe” in Nyangshwe and saw a woman using the internet. I asked if we could use it, but she said “it’s on a shared generator that they will turn off right now.” I begged her for just 10 minutes, she agreed, and that’s the story.

As for the typhoon itself, I’m still going to try to read up on it on the internet – the newspaper I bought today is from the 5th, before the extent of things was really known. We know the elections scheduled for the 10th were postponed (at least down south) so we’ll keep an ear to the ground about that. Marjan’s leaving a few days before me, so I might try to spend my last few days in Bago, near Yangon, because I hear UNICEF is looking for volunteers. But of course I’ll make sure it’s safe first.

As of right now, here’s our itinerary:

Thursday – Mandalay

Friday – day trip to ancient cities around Mandalay

Saturday – either Mandalay or the nearby town of Pyin U Lwin

Sunday – boat to Bagan

Monday – Wed – Bagan

Thursday – Marjan takes the bus back to Yangon, arriving Friday, to fly out Saturday. I may take the bus to Bago and stay there until I leave on Tuesday the 20th. But that bit is still up in the air. I don’t know how safe it is down south, and if I’d have access to safe water and food. So I’ll get more info before making that decision. If it’s really unsafe, I can always stay up north here and then just fly from Mandalay to Yangon and then out to Bangkok. But I don’t think it’ll come to that.

In any event, it seems that the internet is working up north here, and that most internet cafes have various solutions to getting around the govt’s attempt to limit access to email, etc. So I won’t be as cut off as I feared. So I’ll keep everyone informed about my plans as they come together.