Day XVII – April 4

I just dragged myself out of bed as late as 11am, but I think I’ll try to catch a few more in the hammock; there’s something wrong with my head.

So yesterday I had a big stroll around town. I just ment for it to be a morning walk, but wandered all the way until 3 o’clock, getting lost every now and then in LPB’s cozy streets.
I guess this was my first all alone adventure, and a very comfortable one at that. I mentioned this town’s sweetness. It’s inhabitants are just as friendly. I felt in no way scared to be leaving all my posessions at Spicy, or to be walking around in strange surroundings with noone to guard me and my 600-euro camera, or to loose my way.

When I came back I just hung out at the Spicy balcony, reading my book, chatting with some new friends, until we left for the market to have dinner.
People had been talking about this ’10.000k to fill your plate’ deal, and Dave [27, USA] showed me to this alley where you’ve got lots of different tables -or stalles- to choose between. Each table is run by a lady and her –guessing- daughter, and is laden with all sorts of super tasty looking goods; fresh, steamed, cooked or fried vegetables, noodles, rices, meats and fruits. And all smelling like a million!
You pick one of these tables, take the plate she persistently hands you and start piling. When you’re done she’ll charge you 10.000k for the plate -extra for meat- and another 10.000 should get you a large beer, or 8.000k for cans.
Then each ‘shop’ has their own set of picknick tables, 4 or so, on which you have to find a seat, and sitting with another is not allowed. So some are rather empty, and others are completely stacked. Cramming in next to a stranger gives another opportunity to hear more of the world.
I Love this alley and I’m definitely going back tonight!

After stuffing our bellies we walked down the market, a little further down the street and sort of got lost, when we found a bridge crossing the river and leading to a very adequate beach. We sat for a while, talking, concluding place this needed a beer and a spliff.
A few hours later we found ourselves outside of Utopia again after closing time.

Sidenote on closing time: it’s at 11.30pm. Laos law dictates a curfew, so staff has to get hom before midnight. It doesn’t apply to tourists though…
Just outside of Luang Prabang there is a bowling alley that stays open until late; staff ‘lives’ there. I haven’t been there yet so I can’t tell you much about it. And I guess the tuktuk drivers who make their money off drunken tourists that do go, take the money in with the risk.
Anyway, they’re not shy at taking risk; the rest of their money they make by selling all kinds of drugs, which are highly forbidden in Buddhist countries. The ambush of drivers outside of the bars, all go: “Boling alley? Marihuana? Opium? Cocaine?”

A few of the guys got it in their heads they want to buy a tuktuk, so they engage most of the drivers. But Dave and I start our own negotiations with one of them.
I pose as the grass-expert-Dutch and tell him his askingprice is way too high for this sht, and we talk him down to 50.000k, doing the whole “no nevermind, we’re not taking it” walking away and back again haggling dance.
No tuktuk was bought, but back at Spicy the nightguard lowered the balconyblinds so to allow us smoking all the stacks that were laid out on the table. Most of it sht, except for the quite supreme weed Dave got. I rolled a small one for the two of us with no more in quantity than I’d put in a hash joint; the haze-like smell warned me it might be strong stuff. And no doubt 20 minutes later we were both high as a kite.
The perfect state to be in when watching Junglebook. Another night in the movieroom but with a much more fun bunch this time.

So I assume today’s payday…
Time to treat myself on an expensive breakfast at Joma’s Bakery. Although my stomach doesn’t seem to agree at the sight of the counter. I’ll go for safe and just order some oat cookies and a chocolate muffin, and make my way back to crash on the balcony and just listen to the sounds of the hostel.
I had plans to go to the waterfall, but I don’t think I have the strength in me today…

Up to Chiang Mai

Next destination:
Chiang Mai: population: ± 160.000

Day III – March 21
We’ve all been up for about an hour now, beds packed away, sun up, great view out, rolling into Chiang Mai any time soon.

We’re travelling in a group of nine; guided by the always smiling Sit, 39, that loves to joke. I told you of my roommate Claire, 29, who is French but now lives in Liverpool and has another week down south after this trip in her little vacation. Then there’s Najmija, 22, from Afghanistan but moved to Hamburg when she was 4, my fellow ‘jukebox’. She’ll spend another month in Malaysia when this trip is over. Katie, 23, from UK, now in her 10th and last traveling month and spend most of her time in Australia. I love to hear more of her experiences. Kate and Richard, thirstysomethings, from UK, our honeymoon couple, will have two more weeks on the southern beaches. Moon, 29, from India but Canadian since she was 14, has a job to rush back to right after we get back from the jungle. And Daniel, 21, Aussie, with about the same travel ambitions as I have for this whole trip. A nicely mixed group of lovely people to be spending this first week with.

A minivan is waiting at the station to take us to Chiang Mai Gate Hotel, that looks even more fancy than the one in Bangkok, but has a much friendlier vibe. As does Chiang Mai, compared to Bangkok.

Today’s tour takes us up a hill just outside of Chiang Mai in the back of a pickup truck, where we visited Wat Prathat. Pretty, but all that gold is just blinding. There would have been an awesome view if the smog wouldn’t have been in the way…
Nice thing about having a guide is getting that little bit of extra background story, like how this temple was build on the advise of a white elephant who was set free to walk and decided on this place to die.
Sit also took us inside to one of the temples to be blessed by a monk and receive a white string good-luck-bracelet. Different for boys and girls of course, and another guy has to come in to put on ours; the monk isn’t allowed to touch us girls. Claire get’s a little upset by the sexism interwoven in the Buddhist religion, but as long as in daily life it’s limited to not sitting next to a monk I can’t be bothered to mind too much, and go with respecting the local culture.

It all feels very touristy so far; the fancy hotels with pool and hot shower, the tours, being driven around like that, just like every other tourist. I don’t feel much like a backpacker yet. But I guess it’ll be nice to ease into it slowly, so I’ll just enjoy the ride for now. I’ll be on my own by the weekend.
On the way back we go by a place called The Tiger Kingdom, but there is nothing royal about it. Hordes of tourists are led into the cages with these so called kings, that seem so heavily sedated they don’t even notice their prey coming in. The caretaker has to slam them on the head with a stick to get them to move around at all, while the amused tourist get’s their picture taken hugging this majestic hunter. Luckily everyone in our group holds the same ground and it makes us all sick to the stomach so we leave quickly, and agree to ban this place.

Right as I make my way to the pool for an afternoon cool down, there it is; my first encounter with gravity this close to the equator, due to slippery stairs and flip-flops. Result: a big blue spot on my bum.* Just what I need right before a few days of serious trekking.

In the evening Sit takes us to the night market outside of old Chiang Mai, and it’s HUGE! We stroll around for an hour but see no more than a quarter of the whole thing. At the central food court we buy some coupons to get a super tasty meal: I got fried veggies and fresh springroll; lettuce, carrot etc rolled in a thin sheet of ricepaper. Topped it off with a lovely fresh pineapple shake; the best ever!
And now the time has come to have a beer. Those who know me, know I don’t drink beer. Or I didn’t, anyway. I tried to, every now and then, but could never get passed that second glass. So I was always that girl, ordering a dry white wine when everybody else was having beers at the bar. I figured I’d have to learn to drink beer, coming to Asia, but it’s still a bit scary. Luckily Richard goes ahead and buys me a big one right away, trying to sell it to me like they didn’t have small ones. Sit has a small one though. But yeah, he’s a local… And he really can’t hold his liquor very well. Halfway I trade my bottle for Daniels nearly finished one.

I still can’t believe I’m actually here! It still feels like a dream or just a weekend away, like something I’m going to wake up from any moment. Back home still feels so close, yet so many hours and miles have passed, so many things have happened and impressed me and it’s impossible to describe in the time I plan to spend behind this screen.
I did finally get over those first waves of “What the hell am I doing here?!”s and got myself to believe I will be fine.

After the market Sit takes us, at the request of the girls, to a ladyboy-bar and, at request of the boys, to a fighting arena. Chiang Mai conveniently houses those two together in a big hall, with many bars to the side with dubious couples of fat white men and pretty local ladie(boy)s and a boxing ring in the center.
We were lured in a by a very nice young ladyboy with a very charming, outgoing character, but then again, they’re all very party party – part of the façade I think. They all seemed to be having a whole lot of fun anyway and trot around very fiercely.
There are some elder ladyboys sitting at the bar with a beautiful bright yellow pet snake. Richard went to pay his bill at some point and didn’t notice. He screamed like a girl when he came back and we pointed out the creature to him.
All of it was an impressive experience, but as I’m not a fan of fighting and don’t think women should exploit themselves or their bodies, and don’t agree with children being up this late, to work, at places like this, especially not to be fighting a little person… Well the place made me feel quite sick after a little while.

* A month later, after turning purple, black, green and yellow it’s finally gone. That’s how strong gravity is over here!

[this was day 3 of my personal experience with G-Adventures: Northern Hilltribe Trekking, a 7 day trip starting and ending in Bangkok, taking you up to Thailands beautiful North and into the homes of the Karen tribe, which I booked through Kilroy Travel]