Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog: January 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012

Free Whiskey Buckets (Thailand/Laos #3)


In The Tubing
Twelve years ago, Vang Vieng was a quiet riverside town surrounded by stunning karst peaks on the dusty, rough, winding road between two of Laos' major destinations. A quirky old Lao man named "Mr T" had an organic mulberry farm a few kilometers outside of town, where travelers would stay to volunteer milking goats, picking mulberries, and teaching english in local villages. One day Mr T patched up some old inner tubes from farmers, and gave them to his volunteers after the morning labours to float a few hours down river to the town. Fast forward to today and this simple concept has inadvertently created the monster that is now Vang Vieng: "An atmosphere of lethargy by day and debauchery by night. Hedonistic backpackers sprawl out in the pillow-filled restaurants, termed 'TV Bars', watching re-runs of Friends and Family Guy episodes until the sun goes down, and then party heavily until the early hours." It's the only place in Laos where drugs are not just available, but on the menu: Choose from "happy shakes", or "happy pizza" with a variety of happinesses to suit. And a few kilometers up river, beside Mr T's once-tranquil organic mulberry farm, "the pulsating music, drinking games and drug-fuelled partying of the increasingly lively riverside 'tubing' bars starts at lunch-time and goes until sundown." 

The shirts and singlets available in town, reading "In the Tubing, Vang Vieng" -- which I can only assume is meant to read "Inner Tubing" -- are up there with Bali's "Bintang Beer" shirts as trophies for those tourists drinking their way around the world. One could also consider Vang Vieng as a contender for the Darwin Awards capital of the world:  Most tubing bars have hacked together obscene slides, ziplines and rope swings, some of them with intersecting trajectories. (the Big Slide is more commonly known as the "Slide of Death"). The high season for partying coincides with the low season for water level. And by late afternoon many patrons can barely stand, let alone swim. Last year twenty tourists died here. So far this year, two. 

Back on the farm, Mr T can't even benefit from the tubing rental income of the craze he began, because a cartel controls it all. He can't stop the thumping music overlapping from all the illegal riverside bars either, because the bar owners are either bribing the local policemen, or are the local policemen. Tired of fighting, Mr T started a drink stand too, with delicious mulberry cocktails. All the profits go to fund nearby village schools. A large sign ironically encourages you to "Drink for the Children". They say if you can't beat them, join them. Cheers. 


Like Red Wine
With nothing much to do during the scenic two-day slowboat ride to Laos' UNESCO heritage town of Luang Prabang, people's options were limited: read, sleep, chat to fellow travellers, or drink. When I visited the "men's toilet" (aka the back of the boat, where some heavier drinkers were congregating) I met an exceptionally friendly ginger-haired Irish lad named Sebby. He was wearing a custom printed t-shirt, featuring an actual sized, grinning self portrait. Bright orange letters beneath his face proclaimed, "Support Your Local Ginger". Fortunately for me and everyone on the boat (most of whom he was already acquainted with) he was a brilliantly happy drunk. On the second morning of the trip when everyone was boarding the boat, Sebby lurched past us dragging a garbage can, filled with beer and ice. "I ran out of beer yesterday," he explained when he saw me laughing. When Sebby reappeared around at 9am with a beer in each hand, my doctor friend Jan explained to us, "I'd hate to see his liver. I've seen people suffering alcohol withdrawal. It's as bad as heroin, except that heroin withdrawal can't kill you." 

Several weeks, and hundreds of kilometers later, I was photographing the drunken riverside chaos of Vang Vieng, and saw a grinning ginger, his body covered in writing. He had sunglasses drawn on his face. Even though Laos' tourist trail is varied, with little offshoots and side trips, I can't say I was surprised to find Sebby here. He shook my hand enthusiastically, and told me a serious story that nonetheless made him laugh (he was still drunk of course). "Last week I got alcohol poisoning, I think I could have died. My pee looked like red wine!". I was wondering to myself if it changed his outlook on life, when he offered me a free bucket of whiskey and coke. He had a job at the bar. "They pay us with free accommodation, food, and unlimited drinks. I think I found my dream job!" He had been there a week already. He explained quite frankly how he knows he won't last long at his pace. "I'll die a young man," he said smiling with his arm around me, "But I'll die a happy man!" 


VIP (Very Ill Passengers)
I had traveled in crammed minivans, stairwells of rickety buses, and on rooftop luggage racks of pickup trucks. So I thought I'd try a VIP aircon bus, which included a free lunch. As it turned out, that the only thing as advertised was the 'bus' part. When I was laid out with food poisoning in my hotel room for the next 24 hours, unable to even keep water down, I chuckled as I thought of that old adage, "There's no such thing as a free lunch". I was also chuckling because the icing on the cake, as it were, was that it was my birthday -- yet the only cake I could consider in that sorry state was metaphorical. 

I swore off so-called "VIP" buses that day, and for my next journey, hopped on the locally preferred transport option: a beat up old pickup truck with a broken handbrake. Every time the driver got out, he had to quickly throw a rock behind the wheel before we rolled away. Joining me on the wooden benches in the tray were half a dozen Lao, a sprightly rooster in a cardboard television box, bags of vegetables the locals were taking out and comparing like westerners would smartphones, a couple children suffering badly from motion sickness, and a live pig in a bag -- with a hole just large enough for its snout to protrude-- that gave me such a fright the first time it squealed, that it made me squeal, and everyone howled with laughter at me. During the five hour trip, we passed the VIP bus to arrive before it. Now that's what I call VIP.



If you'd like to see the very best of the photos I've been 'making' (as the Germans say), check out my Flickr set for the trip by clicking any of the thumbnails above. 

- Mike

Monday, January 16, 2012

Elephant Gods and Gibbon Songs (Thailand/Laos #2)


The Thais worship elephants (called 'chaang' in Thai; also the name of a delicious beer) as gods, and it's not hard to see why: They're amazing animals, intelligent and calm, many tamed as workers by their lifelong keeper, the mahout. But since Thailand's ban on logging, many elephants and mahouts are out of work, and some have turned to illegal Burmese logging, or begging in cities for money. Others have turned to tourism, running mahout training classes in the forests around Chiang Mai, teaching foreigners about elephant handling. I spent a few hours riding on the shoulders of my own elephant; my feet tucked behind her enormous leathery ears, my hands on the coarse bristles of hair on her head. There's something about riding an elephant that just makes you laugh, almost continuously. While washing her in the river at the end, the water behind her began to violently bubble. I soon realised I was witnessing one of the greatest farts in the animal kingdom. It was followed by three floating poops, the size of basketballs. Truly godlike creatures indeed.

Maximum Capacity
After an extended stay in Chiang Mai I was on the road, standing in a crammed local bus that stopped frequently to deliver parcels to roadside villages, and for anyone with an outstretched arm. After an hour of bending my neck awkwardly to avoid a haircut from the ceiling fan, I found a comfortable seat in the stairwell, knees and feet hanging out the open door. It was much more legroom than a seat afforded, so I happily took in the sights and smells of passing village life. Our destination was a town we knew nothing about, except a rumour that a once daily boat runs (or ran) from it downriver, towards our eventual goal of Laos. 

We exited the bus near the river and saw a full boat untying ropes for departure. We sprinted to it, and the Thai captain seemed to indicate it was the boat we wanted. I asked the English girl on board where the boat was headed, to double-check.  "You need to buy tickets up on the hill over there," she replied quite unhelpfully. Clearly, she hadn't been in this country very long. The driver urged us onboard, into the unshaded nose of the boat in front of the other 12 passengers. From the back of the boat came the unhelpful English girl again, twice yelling, "maximum 12 passengers!".  We laughed heartily as the boat took off: At the situation, having barely caught the once daily boat out of town; and at the girl, who thought that tickets need to be purchased from booths and that vehicles have maximum capacities. Not in Thailand, honey.


Furrier Guides
We decided to splash out and do the three day Gibbon Experience, which is up there with a safari for one of the more expensive things I've ever done in a developing country. The Gibbon Experience is an (almost too) successful project to protect the rainforest by turning poachers into forest protectors, and giving nearly 100 local villagers a sustainable income from tourists so they can preserve their ecosystem. (It is debatable whether you consider tourism as sustainable income, but Laos is a stable country).

So how do they attract tourists? By tapping into all westerners deep-seated desire to live in treehouses, and fly through the jungle. (ever seen Return of the Jedi? Our little Lao guides only needed to be furrier, and we'd have our ewoks too). We began our trip into the jungle after a short instructional video helpfully explained how to step into our zipline harnesses like we're "stepping into a diaper", and to make sure we tie up any "crazy hair".

All the seven treehouses of the project were unique in location, view, design, size; but they were all entered and exited by zipline. We were fortunate to get the biggest, closest, newest* and best treehouse: a four-tiered treemansion in the canopy 40m high. It could comfortable sleep a dozen people, but ours was a rad and diverse group of nine people from six countries. This made the three days of hiking and epic ziplining -- some over 40m high and 500m long -- even more enjoyable. The "Treehouse nine", as we named ourselves, got along so well we actually stayed together for a total of a eight days!

Though many jungle tourist attractions have ziplines and even treehouses, few have gibbons to look and listen for (their songs were described as quite beautiful). These apes eluded us for the first two days, and though none of us knew what a gibbon sounded like, when were woken at sunrise on our final day by a call like nothing we'd ever heard before, we all knew immediately we were listening to gibbons. We sat in total silence for nearly an hour, focused on the haunting, eerie songs. They echoed through the morning mists rising through the jungle, the songs lifting and falling as one gibbon was joined by others for their crescendo chorus, before the decrescendo back to a single gibbon. The only thing I can compare it to are loon calls echoing over dead-calm Ontario lakes at sunset.

The second evening in our tree-mansion we heard noises on the roof and before long discovered we had two more occupants, of the rodent kind. The daring critters must have tightrope-walked the 50m zipline cable to reach the treehouse. After dinner, with light fading and none of the usual distractions from alcohol, electricity or technology, it wasn't long before our attention turned to how we could catch and evict the free-loading rodents from our exclusive treehouse. We tried chopstick bridges over water buckets, dangling rice baskets, and slingshot snares on precarious railings. The rats always managed to get the sticky rice bait, either through creativity, speed, or waiting until we were laughing too hard to notice them approach. Eventually the rats were full of sweet sticky rice and went to bed.  It then dawned on us, hilariously, that in over an hour we -- an engineer, a computer scientist, and a brain surgeon -- couldn't outsmart a rat.



What is better than 25 photos? How about 25 photos per second! With sound.  
Experience some of the jungle ziplining madness and take a short tour of our treemansion on my Youtube channel. And as always, there are new photos and micro-stories at my Flickr site 

Pop gan mai,

*we wondered how the closest treehouse can also be the newest. Our guide told us a harrowing tale about the original Treehouse #1 catching fire in the middle of the night, full of six sleeping tourists. One of them had left a candle burning (against the rules), which torched a mosquito net and quickly spread. The occupants were just able to save their harnesses from the flames, and zip, three at a time, into the darkness as the treehouse burnt down behind them. Bloody tourists!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Lèse Majesté (Thailand/Laos #1)


As the tuktuk crossed the bridge, coming towards me, two plastic bottles flew out and landed in the river. I gave the two backpacker passengers my best look of disappointment. The locals litter enough without us farang (foreigners) contributing. After this, and some other encounters with the touts and tourists in the infamous Khao San Road area, it wasn't difficult to say goodbye to Bangkok (or as my friend calls it, the "den of sin") after a day. As lovely as some areas probably are.

I boarded a sleeper train and awaited my three cabin mates. Would they be Thai or foreign? Old or young? Traveling or working? Then, a tall, muscular, and tanned fellow about my age appeared with his bombshell blonde girlfriend. They could have both been models. And then a greying middle-aged man. We all shook hands and introduced ourselves, though the older man didn't return the favour, mumbling an awkward 'hi'. The young couple, from South Africa, turned out to be interesting and insightful conversationalists over the next few hours, contrasting the nonspeaking and unnamed older cabin mate, whom someone decided we'd call 'Evgeni'.

One of the topics we discussed was the incredibly popular Thai king, reigning now through eight decades. But we only said good things, since many Thai and foreigners alike have been jailed for insulting His Majesty. The country is packed with photos of him, mostly decades old, and Thai people say he is a really nice guy. But we thought: Of course he is! Why shouldn't he be? He has lots of spare time, tens of billions of dollars, and a job for life. It shouldn't be hard to splash around some cash, kiss some babies, and smile for the cameras.

Throughout our conversation the temperature was steadily dropping in the car. We were on a frigid air conditioned car, chilled to about 16 degrees, because I didn't know I could have had the non-AC fan car instead. For cheaper! What a rookie mistake. With our regal discussion concluded, I shivered myself to sleep.


Chianging it up
In past travels I have often moved too quickly between destinations to develop any feeling for the rhythm of a place. This is usually because either me or my travel partner have very limited vacation time, and we get carried away with trying to see all the most amazing things before returning to the "real world". Since this trip is longer, and I am alone for most of it, I was able to spend over a week in Chiang Mai. By the end I had discovered an awesome pad thai vendor, coffeeshop, vegetarian restaurant, and hostel with garden hammocks. I also built a little circle of lovely yoga friends; and learned how to use the machines on the street to dispense filtered water to refill my bottle, saving a heap of plastic bottles from the landfills! (one of the most annoying aspects of traveling in the developing world is how many plastic bottles you need to consume)

Pai in Love
I spent New Years in a mountain town called Pai that has grown massively in popularity among Thai people after the release of a film called "Pai in Love". So I was lucky to avoid the crowds in town at New Years, by staying outside of town on an incredible permaculture farm run by a brilliant Thai man. (Permaculture is a method and philosophy of designing settlements based on relationships found in nature; i.e. self-sustaining and interrelated systems). Many of the dozen other travelers there had stayed for weeks or months, and some had returned for multiple stays over the past few years. Nearly everyone had their own bamboo bungalow in the forest to sleep, and shared in the work of cooking, cleaning and building. Even though my time was short I learned about sustainable building techniques by getting filthy making mud bricks all afternoon and watching some others build a bamboo bungalow. Sadly I wasn't able to stick around because my friend was arriving from Perth, but it certainly opened my eyes to this sustainable way to live, and I plan to return for a long stay to learn more in the future.

New Years was also unforgettable. My fellow permaculturians and I went to a concert in an art gallery courtyard. Everyone lit paper lanterns and set them floating skyward, creating an amazing scene with hundreds of floating lights filling the sky like stars. Plenty of lanterns got caught in the trees, which created a wonderful glowing ambiance of burning branches and potential forest fires. It was magic.



And for some more photographs and mini-stories, visit my website.

I would love to hear how you are all doing, and how you spent New Years. So don't be shy to write me a short, or a long hello.

Until next time,