Friday, August 14, 2015


On the bus to the border I meet a German guy who is heading in the same direction. This is what happens when you backpack. You meet someone who seems decent who is going to the same destination and you then share a room to save costs, eat a few meals together or go on an excursion together. It does not matter that much how profoundly you really like each other. Being on the same wavelength with your plans is enough (this one is friendly, but lacks a sense of humour). Goodbyes will follow when your itineraries demand different directions. You will then meet new travelers or unexpectedly bump into the old ones a few weeks later in a different place. Solo travelers I meet are barely a few years older (early twenties) than my school students, nice, decent people, but they take themselves quite seriously and I feel the agegap (what is it? Not yet cynical?). The somewhat older ones move around in couples and we all know three is a crowd. Most are on a six months to one year trip and after two weeks I grow a bit wary of every single conversation being: 'where are you from?' 'where are you going?' 'where have you been?' All quite self-indulgent. Everyone feeling so authentic, but aren't we all doing the same? I regularly ask the locals what they think of these odd westerners that come and stay in their places and have changed the face of towns quite a bit. The locals mainly think about the money they are making, traveling themselves is not an option, most have barely seen more than two cities in their own country.

The bus stops and no explanation is given and we see hardly any people around. We decide to get out and realise we are at the Thai border. We almost feel like we are in a  bad comedy. The border people have put out loud speakers and are in turn singing Thai karaoke into a microphone. I can barely hear the man at passport control....
The first village in Laos has a different feel than Thailand. It is calmer. It is a promising start. The next day we take the slowboat. A boat with seats taken from old busses for pretty much just tourists where after two days on the Mekong you arrive in Luang Prabang. I enjoy the beautiful views. The night we sleep in another village, which is similar to the one described above. Here we are, in a sleepy, tiny, poor village, where every evening a new group of foreigners arrive, who in the evening gather in one bar, try to get drunk, are very loud and leave the next morning. I don't quite get this concept.
I decide to leave the boat and opt for another direction. There is one ramshackle bus with not enough legspace going north, so I take it. I am aiming for Nong Khiao, as I have been told you can kayak from there in three days to Luang Prabang. Quite a few hours later, I end up sitting in a busstation of a village, while it is getting darker and darker, trying to understand whether there is a connection further on or not. Nobody speaks any foreign and vegetarian food is not available (except for some wilted leaves). The other people waiting in the station (cement with some wooden benches, an island in the mud) do seem to be OK with me, but I do not manage to get any communication going-gesturing does not get me anywhere. After a four hours wait a van shows up that then drops me off at the edge of a road, close to midnight. Pitch dark, I follow some men that get off at the same time who then all enter a house and I just keep following a dirtroad, now and then startled by dogs or loose cows. I am lucky to find one guesthouse open where I subsequently stay three nights. Here I relax. A touristy town, but due to the rainy season not so busy. I fail to find other people to form a group to go kayaking for three days, but after doing an afternoon of it in the pouring rain, I am more than happy to let go of that idea. The highpoint here is a two hour long climb up a mountain which results in stunning views. Going down takes me twice as long, due to the mud and my fear of falling.

The receptionist speaks a decent amount of English, so I make sure we have an evening together in which I can finally fire off the many questions I have about life here, He tells me he used to be a Buddhist monk; his parents could not afford his studies, so he joined a temple. Up to 21 years old he was a novice, after which he became a monk. Once he finished his studies, he left the temple and he recently got married. He tells me he still goes to temple when he has negative feelings and by concentrating on Buddha, he feels better. I ask him about other religions, he says he can talk about it, but I cannot talk about it with anyone, as the police could get to me (I look this up: proselytisation is forbidden and some protestants have been stopped from gathering and asked to renounce their religion). I generally leave other religions and politics out of the conversation, as it seems a difficult topic.

At my next stop Luang Prabang I do the tourist bits; visit a fantastic waterfall, a few temples and stroll around town. Here, I have a few more chances to chat to locals, as I go to an English class ( big brother mouse), where they are happy to practise their English on tourists. All participants are young lads ("where are the girls?" I ask. "Too shy," they tell me). It turns out that most are Hmong (one of the many minority groups in South East Asia). They are animist (believe in the spirits of their ancestors) by religion and have their own language. Because they fought against the communist during the Vietnam war, they suffered afterwards, as they had come out on the losing side (SEA is still mainly communist. Some of them emigrated to America). When I ask what they do when not studying they say "nothing" as they would not have money for it. I ask what kind of girlfriend like would like. "Chinese. Korean" I hear. As it turns out that is a different answer to the question who they want to marry "Hmong" is the answer here.

The next day I meet a 17 year's old novice monk on the bank of the river. He asks to take a picture of me, but I cannot sit too close to him. He is happy to speak English with me, an opportunity I grab with both hands. He comes from a large family, all living in a bamboo house ( consisting of one room) in a village one hour away with no asphalted roads. His father died a fee years ago (he then tells me it is different for men and women; women are not supposed to remarry). He left home three years ago and only once has had the opportunity to go back, but he did not like it, as nothing has changed. His mother pays towards his education and food is provided by the community. Every morning around 6 AM the monks walk through the streets collecting alms. I participate in this the next morning; I buy a pot of cooked sticky rice and the monks shuffle by and I deposit a handful in each of their foodbaskets until I run out. Amazing how people get up so early every day to help them get their two meals a day. As for me, I manage to get a few pretty pictures. The novice monk tells me he is now used to eating only lunch and breakfast and whenever he has distracting thoughts, he thinks of Buddha. They have strict schooling; first to learn all the prayers by heart, and to learn about Buddhism, languages and other school topics. Discipline and purity are important. Most, like this one, have joined to be able to study, but his future plans lie outside the temple. He would like to study to become a doctor. Preferably abroad. And who knows, he might be able to help his family one day.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015


        South East Asia somehow never appeared on my 'to travel to' list. Not that I ever doubted its beauty or interesting culture, but I felt it was a little too far removed from mine and was not sure if I could connect with its people. On all of my trips I have always met plenty of local people more than happy to show me around, host me and helping me out with my million questions about their country and personal and national history. This has always taught me so much, while enjoying good company.

For the first few weeks of this trip, this has come true. Both in Bangkok and Northern Thailand I did find people to stay with. Foreigners who do not speak the language, have no local friends and who both say that Thai people just keep to themselves. Most Thai do not speak a word of English and I can just about remember the three words I learnt: 'hello', 'thank you' and 'vegetarian'. Gestures don't seem to help much and overall there is a strong reservedness. It is a new and almost alienating experience to be somewhere where I cannot understand anything and I am not understood either...

But let's not run ahead of myself....A four day journey through Dusseldorf, Zurich and Abu Dhabi had me finally arrive in a hot and sticky Bangkok. A lot of time was spent on the underground, in between the high rise buildings, I visited my first temple there, the stunning Wat Pho (wat = temple) with a massive golden reclining Buddha. I met two older British gay men on the boat and one of them read my hand, something he does for a living. An elderly Thai Tarot reader did not appreciate that and started saying all sorts of things in her limited English, while holding a knife. Well, you can all rejoice, as I will apparently be around for a long time.

Leaving Bangkok is not as easy as it sounds. Finding a bus to get me to the busstation and actually then getting there takes over two hours in crazy traffic. I am off to the north: Chiang Mai. Not sure what to make of this place. Tourists love it, and like to chill there for weeks. To me it feels very little authentic; just travel agencies, tourist shops, hotels and so on. I meet up with someone I had gotten to know a few weeks prior in Bristol, but decide against joining her on an excursion, as it involves elephant riding. An industry in which elephants are mistreated. Instead I opt for going to an elephant sanctuary where they look after abused and sick elephants. We feed and wash them and take lots of pictures. In the evening I find my aforementioned friend and we wander over the Sunday market at night, which has a nice mix of locals and tourists. That is what I call a good day!

 The following days are spent tracking in the jungle, where we endure the rain and mud for two full days (and no, nothing dries). It is tough and I push my boundaries on a few occasions (climbing over rocks out of a cave, while the dark abyss awaits me and being pulled against the stream into a waterfall), but I enjoy it thoroughly.

Moving on to Chiang Rai to see the white temple. On every corner there is a temple and since I have already seen a bunch of them, I am not sure how this one would add anything to my experience...oh it does. A massive modern construction that totally impresses me, even though you probably cannot get 
more kitschy than that. This is an interesting note to leave Thailand on and to start heading for Laos....