Hill Child Pants

Our Lao guide’s name sounded enough like “porn” that he made a joke out of it and suggested we all call him Porn Star. Porn made jokes about green snakes spooking him while he squatted to pee, and shook with laughter as he delivered the punchline to our packed bus: he wet his pants. And I thought this was the land of conservative behavior and modest dress.

Rather, this is the land of naked children bathing in the Mekong. They scream at you from the banks as you float by in the slow boat, but when you look over, they’re all smiling and waving. These same naked boys are at least wearing t-shirts when encountered in the tiny roadside villages, but their lack of pants still jars my Western sensibilities, a learned discomfort at child nudity that compounds into self-consciousness of my gringo priggishness. Their screams become a high pitched repetitive “bye-byes” as you float closer, with the inflection of “hello”. Maybe they’re actually saying “bai bia”, whatever that means.

They are Hill People. Or more politically correctly, the “minorities”, Laos’ famed and diverse hillbilly population that has, for good or bad, emerged as a critical tourist draw. Trekking to a “hill village” on the back of an elephant is among the most common offerings you can encounter on Luang Prabang’s tourist strip, billed on every chalkboard alongside Mekong kayaking and regional bike tours. Dozens of distinct microcultures flourish in the weird sculpted hinterland, tribes that have retained their identities for generation after generation because it is precisely a giant pain in the ass to get to them. My ass endured this pain along “boom boom” roads that wind narrowly through the countryside, never wholly paved or uniformly dirt for more than a hundred yards. I’ve never been bucked so far out of my seat on four wheels in my life, let alone in a bus with twenty other people.

Even the Chinese-sponsored freeway (i.e., the fully paved stretch near the Thai border that runs to China) was so tortured and twisty that I can appreciate why the conquering empires of yore weren’t especially thorough when it came to the backwoods here. The Chinese connection runs deeper than a self-serving road project, though. Porn explained that a number of these highland tribes are the remnants of tiny vanquished Chinese kingdoms who fled for their lives into the Laotian bush to avoid certain doom at the hands of bigger, badder armies, in the days of yore. They settled down here and, while not exactly left in peace, were sufficiently marginal to the regional fracas going on all around them. They have held out in these rugged folds of jungle, at times hiding in the cave-riddled cliffs when necessary, when people dropped bombs on them “secretly” during other peoples’ wars.

Now, in peacetime, the ubiquitous rusty satellite dishes and rows of Honda scooters under the stilted homes prove they have survived into the modern age. Thus, they are all now members of a dwindling and exclusive club of cultural outliers, not quite the Kalahari bushmen, but definitely exceptions to the one-world rule. Creeping modernity may be transforming their lives in a way that the conquering empires of yore couldn’t hope to contrive. But they’re still here. And my guide wants us to bear witness.

Porn explained, in his animated if broken English, that the Laos government requested certain villages be moved closer to these barely paved roads, ostensibly for their own benefit. We were driving on one of these roads, and we’d be making a stop to say hi. The government evidently offered free electricity as an incentive to relocate their villages, admission to the grid in exchange for easier “access”. Whether or not this mattered to the village elders, the tiny hill town we visited was one of the moved.

I tried to appreciate the scope of effort involved. Dozens of families’ homes, farms, and routines uprooted, though something tells me this was not the first time. I tried to visualize the exchange between the government agent and the local Big Man.

“You’ve got to move.”


“Because if one of you gets malaria, we want to be able to get an ambulance out there easily.”

“This never mattered before. Why now?”

“We’ll give you free electricity. And the government needs you to move your village.”

Meaningful glance. Shrugged shoulders. Done deal.

It’s so hard to tell how long they had been in the “new” location, and I regret not asking Porn for dates or historical context. It could have been in the 70’s or the 30’s for all I know. I climbed to the top of a knoll and looked for indications of newness or ongoing development. It all looks like it had been there for ages. Cute baby pigs and chicken families running around freely in modest gardens and leveled dirt yards, weathered bamboo huts alongside timeless brick barns spilling over with cobwebbed crappola and broken equipment. There were bundles of hay hanging from thatched roofs and women beating tall grass on the road to thresh it free of the tiny green hayseeds. It’s hard to believe that this was not the same town they all had grown old and died in from time immemorial.

It’s hard to dispute the fascination. And it’s hard, for me at least, to justify being there. But it was part of the package, though, and was tastefully brief and surprisingly uncommercial. Porn showed us around a tiny, desperately poor village as if it was a craft fair, yet no one offered to sell me anything. We were introduced to some village women who wove the traditional clothes and made their own paper from local bark, but I was not given the option to buy any. Mixed feelings arose, part of me wanting to advise them about tourist economies and the practical availability of my easy eager dollar, part of me wanting to beg them to remain forever poor and precious in the name of cultural preservation. They probably just wondered what I could possibly think was interesting.

Except, of course, the children, who pantlessly waved bye-bye.

White Wat

Image of Wat Rong Khun

I was caught completely off guard by Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple. Brainchild of contemporary visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it is beyond a doubt one of the most singular architectural efforts I have ever seen, ancient or modern. It was like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, if Clark Kent were a psychedelic warrior and devout Buddhist. Uniformly stark white to symbolize the Buddha’s purity, this was a shocking departure from the typical Technicolor temples I’d encountered thus far. It’s hard to process the mad tangle of ornate tendrils, from the spire and the nested gables of the roof all the way down to the foundation. I’ve seen freezing rain encase the entire city of Olympia in Washington State, where crazy icicles protruded in impossible direction from pretty much every surface. It was kind of like that.

Visitors must first cross a long slender bridge to reach the doors of the main temple structure. Guarding the head of the bridge, a pair of fierce demons raise fantastic weapons, poised to strike down the those who would dare confront them. They had a slick, contemporary feel, like we’d stepped into a black and white manga comic. As we ascended the stairs to mount the bridge, we passed between two pits bristling with hundreds of tortured white hands groping blindly heavenward. The intent was to remind the faithful that one must rise out of this sea of suffering in order to approach enlightenment. Very creepy, very effective.

Image of hand sculptures at Wat Rong Khun

If the lead-up to the chapel was unconventional, then the murals on its back wall was practically beyond the pale. As you step through the doorway, you are confronted with a large, more-or-less traditional Buddha set against a tableau of serene monks and heavenly pagodas. It’s impressive and definitely exhibits Kositpipat’s style, but at first glance it is nothing out fo the ordinary. It’s when you turn around that the fun begins.

Opposite the representation of classical Nirvana is a depiction of pop culture hell. Instead of fearsome birds of diabolical origin, there are Angry Birds from Rovio. Instead of the prince of darkness, you get the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. This wall is crowded with references to Western icons, fictional and real, “evil” and “good”, from Batman to Keanu Reeves. These characters are set against a world in turmoil, earth in flames as seen from space. As you begin to take in more and more of the bigger picture, you finally notice the huge demonic face encompassing it all, with two haunted eyes staring you down. These eyes contain shadowy faces that are easily identifiable: George W. Bush in one, and Osama bin Laden in the other. The symbolism of the murals was explained to me. Inside the temple, the faithful seekers of truth are enjoined to turn their backs on the false heroes and endless phantoms of news and entertainment. I’m not sure Kositpipat is reaching the average Thai Buddhist here, but he certainly pushed my buttons.

The two opposing murals, transcendence versus insipid bullshit, are separated by nothing. Or rather, the two side walls are incomplete, mostly blank. Scaffolding and sketches indicate that work had clearly begun, but no one was working that day. This is where the great secret will be unveiled, the path from the back wall to the front, the way to redemption from earthly illusion and bondage. It occurs to me that maybe this is an installation piece symbolizing “work in progress”, a postmodern ellipses in place of traditional exposition. Oh Kositpipat, I hope this was on purpose.

Chang Mai is Perfectly Pleasant

Image of Night Market in Chang Mai

Chang Mai is a difficult destination to write about, I’ve decided, because I was so comfortable there. Other places have obvious stories — like when a rat unwrapped my chocolate bar and dragged it across the room in Puerto Lopez (I blamed Eric for leaving it half finished on the floor in front of a hole in the wall). Or when we were dumped out of a boat in open ocean in Fiji for snorkelling. It’s easy to write about these times, and it’s really not fair to places like Chang Mai.

In January, the weather in Chang Mai was perfect. 72 degrees and sunny. Not hot and humid like Bangkok. We’re on a Stray Asia tour and just getting to know our fellow tourmates. A great couple — Amy and Todd — got to know us first. We hit it off right away because Todd, though being frim Adelaide Australia, had lived in Seattle in the Grunge years. So we found him to be a real kimdred spirit. On mentioning places like “Greenwood” or “Ballard” he would throw his head back and shout “Yes!!”

Stray booked us into a very nice place where we had to remove our shoes in the foyer. This was a first for us. I was perplexed and consumed with the thought, “but I NEED my shoes.” They also gave us a tennis racket with which to electrocute all the mosquitoes in our room ala “The Green Mile.” Like in the movie, most bugs didn’t die right away and lay stuck to the racket burning and twitching for an uncomfortably long time. And without even a last meal.

Day one — I want to rush out and see all the sites listed on a hand-drawn map of Chang Mai that I bought on Ko San Road in Bangkok. Unfortunately, I have just started taking doxyclycline and Eric and I have become what he calls “doxy vampires.” Four minutes in the sun — with SPF 50 and we begin to sizzle like Angel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (season 3 when he tried to commit suicide by sunrise on Christmas Eve).

In addition to burning skin, I also have constant naseau. But we still decide to venture out and see a few wats. All are covered in gold and flowers and butterlies and are something out of a Persian dream. One temple is rigged with wires to its highest points and what I’m sure are New Year’s explosives on the wires. They’re set to come out of the mouth of the dragon.

On wat three or four, I come out of a public bathroom (feeling naseaous) and a very perky woman approaches me and asks if I would like to see the local sites. I’m still pretending not to be sick at this point and agree to a modestly priced van tour of Chang Mai.

Our first stop is Umbrella Village where they make, paint and display tons of lovely umbrellas. We had seen these umbrellas all over the city in front of cafes. Then we went to a lacquer store, where they showed us the many steps involved in making lacquered plates, vases, etc. Lastly, a stop at a rug store, because our driver admitted she would get a gas coupon. The rug store was interesting, though, because it was run by Indians from Kashmir. We told them we were soon heading for India and they gave us a chai and we had a nice chat.

We then requested a trip to the big attraction in Chang Mai: Wat Doi Suthep. A striking golden temple atop a mountain. I had fully intended to climb the stairs to the top, but the doxy just wouldn’t allow it. Instead we took the cramped “elevator” to the top. From there we saw the lovely temple and a great view of Chang Mai.

That night I was able to fet down a burrito at a nearby Mexican restaurant. We felt obliged to visit as, of all the folks in Chang Mai, we had seen Mexico the most recently. It was pretty authentic, with even muertos on a shelf next to our table. Like going anywhere in Thailand, we were handed a flier for a Muy Thai fight tonight. First men, then women, then children.

The other kids from our tou started reporting in. Shane and a friend had had massages done by female convicts (being rehabilitated). He had a thief, but his friend had a murderer. The murderer was better. Amy and Todd had ridden elephants.

We went with the group to the night market and we all found the same stall with crispy noodle soup. The staffers were completely overwhelmed. Eric found a stall selling fried bananas but he refused to eat any but fresh ones and waited patiently as they fried new ones.

Overall, Chang Mai was extremely pleasant. Maybe it’s OK nothing memorable happened.

Templed Out

“Templed out” is a phrase I encountered very shortly after our arrival in Thailand. It’s essentially a state of architectural exhaustion; a fatigue induced by overexposure to Southeast Asia’s most abundant cultural resource: the Buddhist wat. With a practically endless variety of sects, styles, and influences, any attempt to see them all is quite possibly an impossible endeavor. It could take a lifetime, yet so many tourists fall prey to their impulse to at least try. The sheer number of “must see” temples can create a certain pressure on the average schedule and many a hapless backpacker has found their days strung together with little more than temples and sleep … with no end in sight.

Keep off the lawn

Keep off the lawn

About Birds and Cages

The Lay’s potato chips out here might be Spicy Lobster flavor, but it’s still the taste of globalization, and that’s OK with me. This being my first time in Asia (southeast or otherwise), I didn’t know what to expect, and as a general rule, I’m always trying to keep my expectations in check. Various friends and acquaintances had sufficiently built up the image of Southeast Asia as exhilarating, chaotic, and alien. I did not come all this way to be disappointed simply because it wasn’t “oriental” in the romantic sense. That being said, I was not expecting the bird traps.

Precariously suspended by block and tackle, high atop an otherwise derelict-looking lamppost or flagpole was a birdcage. Both Rachel and I stopped and studied it for a hard minute as we were out exploring in the Banglamphu neighborhood just north of the Grand Palace. We found it along one of Bangkok’s many canals, right where it feeds into the Chao Phraya River, and for some reason it seemed conspicuous, even against the dense clutter that typifies the Bangkok side street. We had just begun to verbalize our curiosity when, at that very moment, a trap door snapped shut on the cage. I did a double take. A little bird had been snared by some industrious urban bird trapper.

On closer inspection via camera zoom, the trap turned out to consist of two compartments. The main cage contained one bird, it seemed, but there was a smaller apparatus hung off one side, and this contained another, more animated bird. I began to construct a theory of how it operated. The bird in the big cage was perhaps a lure. The smaller cage to the side seemed like the actual snaring device. A hinged door would be tripped when a passing bird, drawn to the company of its comrade, would unwittingly alight inside the snare. While I zoomed in with the camera to inspect it further, Rachel followed the trap-pole down its three-story length and identified a number of larger cages that appeared to be for staging the birds. Clever.

A week later we were in Laos. I was caught off guard again when I saw dozens of teeny tiny birdies in fist sized woven baskets for sale at an ancient Wat (Buddhist temple). Evidently, it’s common practice to release these birds to honor the Buddha in some way. You’re buying their freedom, essentially. I’m no expert on Buddhism, but if I understand anything, this is a marvelous example of a practice that is internally consistent and completely anathema to its own doctrine. Buddha likes it when you free birds, and there’s only one way to get birds to free.

In Luang Probang, we saw a striking mohawked black and white sparrows-looking bird with a red blaze on its head. It was hung in a rickety cage in front of a dingy gold and silver shop, darting from one side of the cage to the other. It was a beautiful specimen, and clearly not accustomed to captivity. I fantasized about freeing it, snapping the thin bamboo bars with a quick firm squeeze of my kung fu grip. The fantasy continued to its logical conclusion, a bi-lingual shouting match with the owner, me eventually getting tackled and tossed in the type of prison where the inmates alternate between rioting and making viral dance videos. Head hung low, I walked on by.

We’ve since noticed caged birds everywhere in Thailand and Laos. The abundance of butterflies took on a slightly ominous hue, the implication being that the birds would eat more butterflies if they weren’t in jail. It suddenly seemed natural that they would be for sale in the many markets and street bazaars (both day and night varieties). In the eyes of the street merchants I saw cunning and ingenuity. We passed a squirrel in a cage once and this took on a whole new significance. Little buddy, Buddhist offering, or lunch? Either way, it’s got my respect. Bangkok is a city built with money but encrusted with communities who survive by their wits — even live off the land. In the interstitial spaces, the hunter-gatherer persists in the metropolitan wilderness.

Dropping the Keys

I concluded my New Zealand experience with perhaps the most expensive mistake I have ever made. We had just finished unloading the camper van into our hotel room (our last lodging in New Zealand). Now we had to return the vehicle to Spaceships. I stepped off the elevator and, as I tried to shift my day pack from one had to the other, the van keys slipped out of my hands and dropped perfectly into the gap between the lobby floor and the elevator. They disappeared down the elevator shaft in slow motion as I howled “NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Rachel and the concierge rushed to my aid, unaware (as was I) that the problem was only just beginning.

Roaming Home

Roaming Home

It was a Sunday. The elevator service people were not available, and would not come out unless an extortionate fee was paid. I called Spaceships, who told me, to my genuine surprise, there was no spare key to that vehicle. They held out a vague non-committal possibility that there may or may not be a key hidden somewhere in the vehicle, then advised me to rent the car for an additional day so the elevator service folks could retrieve the keys on the following day. So I did, not really seeing an alternative. After confirming the extension, we wandered out to the van to check on the parking fees and timetable for Monday. To my horror, we realized it was in a “clearway”, which is a no parking zone during certain hours on specific days. Today was my lucky day. Tomorrow was not. The van would get towed first thing in the morning — hours before the elevator service folks would even consider taking a call.

After a brief, but public, expletive eruption on the sidewalk aimed at the clearaway sign, I decided to call a tow company to get the van towed to Spaceships that evening. It was dark by the time the truck arrived. There was still the off chance that there was a spare key somewhere in the vehicle, and I had my head lamp at the ready as the gregarious, sympathetic tow-truck driver jimmied the lock for me. I spent a good chunk of time combing every conceivable hiding place for a spare key, knowing deep in my heart of hearts there was no such thing. Exhausted, defeated, I shut the door and waved to the truck driver, indicating the van was all his. I didn’t stick around to watch the towing process, but rather trudged grumpily back up to my lovely, unobstructed view of the Auckland sunset.

Auckland Sunset

Auckland Sunset

The next day, the hotel called the elevator service folks, who promised to be there sometime in the afternoon. Coincidentally, one of the other hotel elevators was not working so they needed to make an appearance anyway. I took this as a good omen. Seeing as no one was willing to commit to a specific time, we headed out to do a little shopping for gear, in anticipation of Thailand and beyond. When we returned, we were presented with the keys and informed that we would have to pay for the service. I lost my cool and rapidly devolved into abuse and pleading. What was so especially galling about it, apart from the fact that I had been hemorrhaging money for almost twenty four hours, was that this was a discretionary decision by a petty manager to pass the costs of an unrelated service call on to me. Besides, I was never told I would be responsible for the service call either way. The injustice of it all rang in my skull for hours.

We proceeded to walk down the street to the Spaceships booking office, to hand off the keys. In a fit of spontaneity, we booked an overland tour through Laos with Stray Asia (a hop-on-hop-off excursion owned and operated by the Spaceships people). We left in high spirits, hoping to put the whole mess behind us. To this end, we made our way to the casino underneath Sky City (the Kiwi Space Needle), where I promptly won back, in a single pull, most of the hundreds of dollars I had dished out while desperately trying to return our rental van. I almost wept with joy.

The next day we were in Bangkok. I checked email for the first time in more than 24 hours and saw something from Spaceships. They informed me that they had not received the key and had ordered a replacement made. Evidently whomever I had handed it over to had not reported back to HQ, and I was being charged for the lost key. I lost my cool again, this time separated from the object of my ire by thousands of miles of ocean. In the comfort of my two-bit backpacker hovel, I carefully crafted a reply, explaining the misunderstanding, reminding them that I had just booked a pricey Stray tour, and embellishing the sob story to date. I held my breath for several hours before I got a response. They cheerfully refunded my money, and then I passed out.

Our Secret Room in Bangkok

Image of Mysterious Thailand

Lots of skin is peeling off of my neck, rolling into little beads when I run my palm stiffly across it. I suspect this was New Zealand sun at work, but at first I thought it was a small squadron of mosquitos lunching on my nape. The mosquitos are circling me like sharks, which makes me a touch nervous out here in Dengue country. Which is to say, Thailand.

We arrived in Bangkok after a full day commute. We woke up at 4am Auckland time in order to catch a 7:30 flight to Melbourne, followed by several hours layover (including a luggage snafu where our luggage was stuck on the other side of customs, the airline having neglected to issue the temporary Australian visa yet we were supposed to transfer the bags to the onward flight ourselves), followed by the long haul to Bangkok international and the overpriced (and hassle-free) taxi into the city. We calculated it was approximately twenty hours, and yet we went to sleep in our windowless air-conditioned closet at a reasonable 10:30pm local time.

The room itself was reasonably spacious. It was more like a secret room you reached from inside of a closet. The entry to the hostel was at the back of a nameless restaurant and up two flights of stairs. Through a non-descript door past the hostel bar next to the pool table there was a closet sized space partitioned by a tattered blanket hung from the ceiling. Behind that blanket, there appeared to be some kind of a living space, though I never peeked behind the curtain to look. I just knew there was a local kid living there by the inscrutable sounds of Thai television, the hazy outline of a bed visible through the fabric, and the occasional halting guitar strums of a novice (or terrible) musician. To the left of the partition was another door non-descript door with the words “Room #1” fixed to its surface with scotch tape. Behind that door was us.

The space consisted of a bunk bed (a non-standard tiered design with the bottom bunk queen sized underneath a narrow single-size top bunk mattress) and a step-up shower where you might expect a closet to be. No window or any opening other than a defunct fan duct opening above the shower. The actual air conditioner was a modern apparatus mounted across from the bed where the wall met the ceiling. It was highly effective, aided in no small part by the airlock-like quality of our closet-foyer. We fell asleep that first night to the muffled laughter of gap-year European co-eds and the soft, painfully inept strains of folk guitar.