Sunday, March 02, 2003

Jo's written some lovely mails about the last couple of weeks, so I'll post them here as well:

I have a feeling this is going to be a long one, so you might want to
save it for a rainy day...

Well the last time I wrote we were in Bangkok and had just been to Ko
Chang. Since then we caught the overnight train to Chiang Mai in
Northern Thailand. The train was really cool we had bunk beds and
around bedtime a little man came around and made up our beds with
clean sheets and a blanket. 15 hrs later we arrived in Chiang Mai -
the second largest city in Thailand. Chiang Mai was a lot smaller
than Bangkok and way cheaper which was a relief because Bangkok was
starting to get very noisy – and generally a bit ‘in ya face!’. While
in Chiang Mai we had a walk around all the main temples and got
chatting to some teenage monks. They were sitting outside their
university near the temple and asked us if we would like to join in
Monk-chat!! They got us to help us with their homework and wouldn’t
stop staring at my boobs, which was a bit embarrassing! They were
novices – all monks are novices until they are 20yrs old. Most men
spend some time as a monk at some point in their lives. A bit like
military service in other countries, Buddhist people have to do some
religious service! They are homeless and have no belongings. So they
go round doing their alms every morning where the local people give
them food. While we were in Chiang Mai we also took some time out for
a Thai massage. It was quite relaxing if only for the fact that we
were laid on a soft mattress under a fan and we had been sleeping on
mattresses like rocks for the past week or so! But the next day we
had a couple of bruises where they had overdone it! We also visited
the Night markets, which were absolutely amazing – you could come to
Thailand for the shopping alone! We also visited a local market that
was part of a big festival in Chiang Mai where they were selling
fried cockroaches, beetles and maggots – hmm nice!

We also went on a one-day hill tribe trek from Chiang Mai. I already
had my reservations about going because this area is very over-
trekked and has become more like a human zoo. So we decided to go on
a one-day trek as opposed to the 2 and 7-day treks offered.
Nevertheless when we finally trekked through the mountain to visit
our first hill tribe, (Hmong people) I was horrified to see a little
market, houses selling coke and a guy who had given up his house &
turned it into a museum labeling everything in English, all for the
benefit of the tourists. I felt like an intruder. The Hmong people
are from china and are semi-nomadic because they move from
mountaintop to mountaintop slashing and burning the foliage staying
wherever the conditions are best for growing opium. After the Hmong
Village we bought tiny bananas from them to feed to the elephants we
were about to ride. It feels a bit like feeding a wet vacuum nozzle!
And a particularly intimidating elephant chased me. We had a bumpy
ride up and down through the forest and through a river and then had
lunch at a local eatery. After that we visited a village of White
Karen people. There are four types of Karen tribe, and the more
familiar long- necked tribe lives in a different area. The white
Karen people live in lowlands and practice crop rotation, so they do
not need to live on the top of mountains. The Karen village was a
lot less touristy, and there were piglets, chicks and puppies running
round everywhere. They build their houses on stilts and for hygiene
they keep all their animals underneath. This means that if
mosquitoes come and bite the animals in the night, they get itchy and
scratch themselves on the stilts supporting the houses and this lets
the people know that there are mozzies about! After the Karen Village
we went to an ice- cold waterfall and I was the only person to jump
in apart from the tour leader who was busy having a shower and
shampooing his hair! After the waterfall we went bamboo rafting down
the river, which was fun. We got a bit wet going through the rapids,
and our driver told me that he could see by my eyes and smile that I
have a good heart – which was nice!

After Chiang Mai we took the bus to Chiang Khong on the border of
Thailand and took a little ferry over the river/border to Laos. Laos
was already amazingly different to Thailand. Totally unspoilt and way
less developed. The only traffic tends to be pushbikes and the odd
scooter. Its a bit like an Asian version of new Zealand – with only
5 million people in Laos compared to 60m in Thailand and 78m in
Laos has not had an easy time. It is basically a massive area of
hundreds of different tribes that have been unified into one country.
When the Thais and Vietnamese were not ruling or fighting over it, it
was colonized by the French. Then after they finally gained
independence in 1953, the US began bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in
Eastern Laos as part of the Vietnam War in 1964. By the time a
ceasefire came in ’73 Laos was the most bombed country in the history
of warfare. To be here and see how gentle these people really are it
is truly saddening. In 1975 a guy called Pathet Lao took over and
created a communist state - the People’s Democratic? Republic. He
exiled the king and his family to a cave somewhere in Northern Lao
never to be seen or heard from again, and 10% of the population left
the country. They turned his palace into a museum. We visited it
yesterday and it was very spooky. Strangely though, Laotians are not
used to living in an anti-monarchist society and so they have started
giving portraits of the Thai king pride of place in their homes. (In
Thailand there are pictures of the King everywhere, down the streets,
businesses – you even have to stand in the cinema before the film
starts while they play the national anthem and images of the King).
Fearing Thailand breathing down its neck the Lao government is not
very happy about this, so even though it is communist and anti-
monarchist it has started paying tribute to a notoriously bloody
Khmer-trained 14th century king. It has erected a statue of him in
the capital Vientiane and created a national holiday, all by way of
redirecting its people’s affections! Very strange... Currently Lao
citizens do no have the right to change their government. By the
early ‘90s the economy had reached a new low with 500% depreciation
in the Kip so they decided to open up the country to tourism. Its
unbelievable, you need a brick sized wad of cash to get through the

Our first journey in Laos was to take a two-day boat journey down the
Mekong River to the world heritage listed city of Luang Prabang. We
took a slow boat and chugged down past beautiful mountains and
villages. There were herds of buffalo in the water. The first day
took six hours. The toilet was right at the back of the boat and you
had to climb over people and bags and then tip toe over a plank past
the uncovered engine. The toilet was a hole in the floor in a little
cabin 2ft square and 3ft high! A bit of an awkward affair when you
have to crouch down and the door’s flapping open every time the boat
sways! At the end of the day we reached a tiny village of Pakbeng. As
the boat docked chaos ensued as herds of tiny 7yr old children rushed
onto the boat to drag off our rucksacks. Some of them had one on the
front and one on the back! We were met by a nice young lady who took
us to her family house that had guest rooms upstairs. It was probably
the most basic place I have ever stayed. But I just thought of it
like camping and I think its good to live like they do if only for
one night. In our room we had a bed made of bamboo, a corrugated iron
roof and a few scraps of lino on the floor. At 3.30am we got woken up
by cockerels and the cafe playing music at 6am to wake up the
westerners. The toilet was down a ladder into the muddy backyard
where there was a bamboo cubicle with no roof (I later discovered it
was viewable from upstairs!!). There were chickens running around
everywhere and they had lit a fire on the stove to cook breakfast.
Most bizarre. The boat left again at 8am and it was bloody freezing
because of the morning mist blocking out the sun. I don’t know how I
am going to cope with the cold when I get back to England! This
journey took about 12 hours and we stopped off on the way to service
local villages picking up rice, monks and old ladies etc. We also
stopped at a place called Pak Ou caves where the Laotians hid
thousands of Buddhist images to protect them during the Vietnam War.
We had a bit of a palava here because some American show off had been
up on the roof and the driver demanded that he paid US$100, which of
course he wouldn’t pay. So then the American asked everyone on the
boat to pay US$1 each for stopping at the caves. The driver got
commission for this and would have stopped anyway, but he was so
angry he was at bursting point and he wasn’t leaving until he had got
as much money as he could out of the situation. Then the boat driver
next door saw what was going on so he ordered that the American get
on his boat and ask all those passengers for money as well!!

Jo's next mail continues...

The last time I wrote we had just caught the boat to the sleepy
riverside town of Luang Prabang. We spent a very relaxing week there,
our routine mostly consisted of getting woken by noisy chickens,
having a mooch around the beautiful 15th century temples and French
colonial houses, having a massage at the red cross, eating out and
watching movies in the evenings while chilling in hammocks in a bar.
Originally the Kingdom of Laos was called ‘Lan Xang’ (Land of a
million elephants) and Luang Prabang was the capital of this kingdom
until 1545. Even after this time it was considered the main source of
monarchic power – until the king was booted out of his palace but the
current communist prime minister Pathet Lao in 1975. One day, we
visited his palace – now a museum – and it was quite eery as there
was no mention of where the king is now or what happened to him.

One evening we went to see a ballet performed by Lao ethnic minority
groups. It was very bizarre with Hmong people rolling around in the
mud doing roly-poly while playing some kind of flute. Another group
danced around while they lifted up a clay pot in their teeth that was
filled with 2 buckets of water – I couldn’t even lift the pot with my
hands! At the beginning of the ballet we were welcomed with a ‘Baci
Ceremony’. This is a ritual performed in phii (spirit) worship found
in Laos, which is now illegal, but is the dominant non-Buddhist
religion. In this ceremony the 32 guardian spirits of the body are
bound to the guest of honor by white strings tied around the wrist.
We didn’t think much of it as it was only string, but the next day a
tiny old hmong woman stopped dead in her path starring at us because
the wrist bands came from a pagan ritual. On the way home from dinner
that night we were also offered Opium on the street. (Don’t get me
wrong, its really not a dodgy place, I just thought it was strange
that we could buy it if we wanted to). Luang Prabang always seemed to
have a smokey air too, due to the Hmong people in the surrounding
hills practicing ‘slash & burn’ techniques – used to prepare the land
for opium crops. In the long term this is not good for the land
because it causes soil erosion and flash flooding.

On valentines day, Mark said I could have anything I wanted, so much
to his disappointment I decided we should hire a motorbike. I had
never ridden a motorbike with gears before and I was really pleased
that I managed to ride around the town and surrounding countryside
afternoon. (Luang Prabang is really quiet – rush hour is when the
kids come out of school on their bicycles). However we had had a
torrential downpour that morning and the place we had to return the
motorbike to was on an unsealed road and we had had a torrential
downpour that morning…. Yes, we ended up in the mud.. I was only
doing 5mph and we slipped. The only thing hurt was my pride, when
were covered in mud and got laughed at by the locals. Felt a bit
guilty too because I bent the wing mirror a bit, and the guy just got
his screw driver out and everything was fine. But its not like a big
multinational hire car company that can afford a few scratches. Laos
is still one of the poorest countries in the world with an average
annual income of US$260. 80% of the country lives of the land
working in agriculture, fishing and forestry. It really makes no
sense for Laos to be a communist economy, as it still just a lot of
tribal groups living off the land with no real need for a currency.
Most of the manufactured goods here, are imported from Thailand
untaxed and traded freely on the black market, as is foreign currency.

After Luang Prabang we flew to the capital Vientiane. On our way
through the top of Laos we discovered that an incident had occurred a
few days before on the road we were planning to travel on. Hmong
bandits came out onto the highway and shot everyone in the area and
stripped them of their belongings. They killed 10 people and at the
time we were about to go there the army were still looking for them.
So we flew. It really was 6 of one, and half a dozen of the other
because Lao Aviation doesn’t publish its safety record. Apparently
they fly by sight, so if they cant find a hole in the cloud, they go
back down and land and refuel, wait a while and then give it another
go! Needless to say there was no flashy safety demonstration before
take-off and my seatbelt kept undoing itself, but apart from that I
was fine! Unfortunately, flying meant that we were then stuck in
Vientiane for a week. We couldn’t go to Vietnam before our visa
started. Vientiane was pretty boring really, about two days really
would have been enough. We did go to Buddha park though, which was
great and made our stay in Vientiane worthwhile. Its basically a
meadow full of cement sculptures of Buddhist and Hindu figures. Some
were a bit spooky and there were lots of monks around again, winking
at me, touching my arm etc – they really are a funny bunch. One monk
took us inside this massive bowl shaped building, inside there were
different levels full of figures representing heaven or hell. There
were loads of cobwebs and it was pretty spooky, we climbed out
through a tiny hole in the top and could see over the whole park. Our
monk guide was getting a bit weird though, insisting that I climb up
before him ( I had a skirt on!). We left Vientiane and flew to Hanoi
in Vietnam with Lao Aviation. This flight was a little more shakey
than the last and I vowed to stick to land from then on! I will spare
you the details but when we got on the runway, where in normal
circumstances aeroplanes fire up the engines in reverse, this didn’t
happen and it felt like we were still doing 200 mph on the runway!
Luckily the runway was pretty long.

Hanoi was VERY different to sleepy Laos. Since the 2nd Century BC,
Vietnam was dominated by China for 10 centuries. The Chinese
influence is very apparent and Vietnam feels much more Chinese than
Asian. There are no more Buddhist monks wondering around everywhere,
lots of beautiful green rice paddies and people wearing conical
bamboo hats. The temple architecture appears to be very Chinese too -
as oppose to the Thai temples we have seen in Thailand and Laos.
(Temple fatigue has set in quite heavily). There were motorbikes
everywhere. 90% of the traffic is scooters and it never stops. You
just have to walk into the road and they all drive round you! Takes a
bit of getting used to. There are lots of very narrow tall buildings
everywhere because the government used to tax houses according to
their width on the street. So we had to go up and down 8 flights of
stairs to our hotel room. It is probably the best place we have been
so far. For once we have had communication problems, and have had to
resort to sign language and pointing at maps. The food is the best we
have had so far too, and I have finally had to get used to eating
with chopsticks. However, I should note that we have seen a few
strange additions to the menu, such as: - spicy pork ears, roast
pigeon, chickens’ feet salad, fried tortoise. Just outside of Hanoi
there are also 60 or so dog meat restaurants – apparently its
particularly auspicious to eat dog meat in the second half of the
lunar month. Although they only breed these Chinese looking dogs for
their meat. But you never see dogs roaming the streets – in Laos they
were everywhere. At the markets they also sell delicacies such as
fried dragonflies and boiled rats. Cat meat is now illegal but many
families sell their cats for the money ( poor kitty!), then they have
to go out into the rice paddies and catch the rats themselves (which
they also bring to market to sell). After working for WSPA (World
Society for the Protection of Animals) we both notice animal cruelty
much more. It is endless, I have seen ten pigs in a cage, squashed
and piled on top of each other snorting through the cage, while being
carried on the back of a moped. I saw another woman with twenty or
so live chickens tied to the handlebars of her bicycle by their feet.
Anyway moving on…

We stayed in the Old Quarter in Hanoi, which is 1000 years old. There
are 36 streets and each street sells one item. Of the more
interesting of the streets were Buddhist Statues & Alters street;
Herb Street – selling bags of dried seahorses, dried starfish,
lizards on sticks, fried caterpillars and snake wine containing dead
snakes; Ghost money street – used for burning at Buddhist ceremonies
& funerals. The shopping is amazing. Mark and I both had a new pair
of Gucci eyeglasses made for 20 GBP! And they were expensive, you can
get them for 8 pounds! They are really nice. They rip anything off
here! You can buy photocopied books, DVDs that are only just in the
cinemas, you name it they copy it!

While in Hanoi we also visited the famous Water Puppets (Punch & Judy
in a pool). They were really cool. 11 puppeteers stand in waist deep
water behind a bamboo screen and operate the puppets. The art form
is about 1000 years old and was started by rice farmers in flooded
fields. The puppets look like they are walking on water. There are
fire breathing dragons with fireworks, and a little fisherman sat on
his boat smoking an opium bong with real smoke! We also visited the
Hoa Lao Prison which was built by the French to house Vietnamese
patriots and insurgents during the colonial period. There were
guillotines and exhibits about French cruelty and repression. Then
after the Vietnamese communist resistance gained independence from
the French, it was used as an American POW camp during what they call
the ‘American War’ (not Vietnam war). The Americans used to call this
place the Hanoi Hilton and they were treated very well, given
adequate food, shelter and clothing and then returned to America
after the war despite the untold crimes committed against their
people. I think this has to do with Buddhism.

We also took a two day trip from Hanoi down to Halong Bay (another
World Heritage Site). Halong Bay is one of the natural wonders of
Vietnam and is famous for its 3000 limestone formations, caves and
grottos rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. Halong
Bay covers an area of 1500 sq. km and is comparable to Milford sound
in NZ but on a larger scale. We went to an Amazing Cave, so called
because it is amazing and probably the most impressive cave I have
ever seen. Not that caves are anything to get excited about. We
cruised around the bay till it got dark – our headlight was a guy
sitting on the bow with a torch. And we had a nice cabin and slept on
the boat overnight. There are lots of floating villages, and we
visited the largest, where 700 people live in 90 houses (floating
beach huts). If they are rich that is, if they are poor they live on
their fishing boats. These people had a floating school, and dogs! (I
said they probably got fatter for eating through lack of exercise –
poor doggies!). The bay was stunning and sooo peaceful, a much needed
break after the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.

When we got back to Hanoi, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
Luckily for us it was closed – I didn’t really want to see his
embalmed corpse anyway! We saw his house and rushed around his museum
in half an hour before they shut for their standard two hour lunch
break. We hired a guide and the poor boy was sweating under the time
pressure and language problems! Then last night we caught the
overnight train to Hue. So I am a bit tired… With that in mind I
think I’ll leave it there.

Take care, Jo x

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