Monthly archive for August 2012

On the rainy season

There’s a popular theory among treksperts* about the rainy/monsoon season that goes thus:

“It doesn’t rain that much. It’ll be sunny and blazing hot all day, then an unbelievable torrent of water will pour from the sky for an hour or two in the afternoon, then back to sunny.”

This is often true, monsoon rain against the backdrop of beautiful sunny days. However, as we discovered in Northern Laos, this is also possible:

“It rains more or less constantly. It’ll be grey and drizzling all day, then an unbelievable torrent of water will pour from the sky for an hour or two in the afternoon, then back to grey and drizzling.”

The downside of this is the frequent cancellation of plans, particularly those taking place on a river – kayaking, boat trips, &c. Our first attempt at booking a kayaking trip was cancelled not because the river level made the river too fast/rough, but because the water level meant that there wasn’t enough room between the river surface and the tree-tops to maneuver a kayak through. This was reported to us by a fairly tired looking fellow who later told us that he’d been up since 3 am evacuating a riverside guesthouse that had become signicantly less ‘side’ and significantly more ‘river’ overnight.

So yeah. It rained.

The upside of this is that when you can steal a few hours between downpours, you get views like this (click to embiggen):


Which, I think, is a more than fair trade-off.**




* to be defined in full later. For now, use your imagination.

** Though you do start to run out of superlatives for ‘green’.


Here’s a map of the places we’ve been so far (maybe, if it works). Obviously a work in progress, one day I might fix the colour coding by mode of transport, dates, more pithy comments etc.

Annoyingly, Google maps lists the various lines, markers etc as ‘results’ so you only get so many per page before you have to hit ‘next’ at the bottom to see the rest (like Google results ja?). First page is roughly NZ to Luang Namtha (Laos). Page 2 gets you to Cambodia.

Anyway, clicky. 



Ben’s top 10(ish) Laos tips

Being mostly a list of petty annoyances that have festered inside me on account of the general non-confrontational nature of New Zealanders.

1. Dark Beer Lao is better than normal Beer Lao (which is still pretty good). It is also stronger (6.5%) beware.

2. If you are taking a local bus, you do not have an assigned seat. I don’t care what your ticket says or what long-faded number may once have been sharpied onto the vinyl of that seat. Your ‘reservation’ is your arse. Put it in a seat and wait til the bus leaves. We aren’t going anywhere until you sit down and complaining to the woman in the ticket booth isn’t going to get anyone anywhere so please just shut up. You know who you are.

2a. Your bag does not have a seat on the bus. If it’s bigger than a handbag, it goes on the roof. Don’t worry, they’ll cover it and tie it down. “But what about that spot in the aisle” you say? That isn’t an aisle. That is where another row of plastic stools will go. “How about under my feet?” Take a look. There are already three sacks of rice there. “But what about…” No. If there is a flat surface within the vehicle, 1 or more people will soon be sitting on it.

2b. None of the above applies on the significantly more expensive VIP busses. Get the hell out of my seat.

3. The bus timetable is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to bus services living or dead is entirely coincidental. The bus will go when the driver is good and ready. If at all. This is doubly true in the off-season.

4. There is no correlation between the distance of a journey and its duration. 100km can easily take 6 hours. Any estimate of time you are given should be taken with a 2 hour margin of error either way. This still applies to journeys of less than 2 hours.

4a. “Road quality” is strongly correlated to “distance from things the Chinese want”. This is why you can be cruising along a broad, smooth, well marked highway on your way to a village of 200 people one day, and having your internal organs rattled out on a muddy trail on your way between the two largest cities in the country the next.

5. Getting mad/frustrated at any of the above will get you nowhere, except maybe further from your goal. I watched a Lao official take a full 5 minutes to write the date on  a form, I suspect just to see if he could make the increasingly frustrated falang he was dealing with actually explode. It was a close thing.

6. Where and whenever you can, hire a bike and peddle about.

7. The tubing scene in Vang Vieng is the domain of boorish, indecent, priviliged westerners; it is destroying the local way of life, the stunning beauty of the surrounds and encouraging petty thievery and drug use amongst local children. That said you’ll probably still do it and have a ball (and get pink-eye). We hired bikes and peddled about and got to enjoy feeling morally superior AND awed by the surrounds.

8. Not every attempt at salesmanship is a ‘scam’ or an attempt to rip you off. Feel free to bargain but you likely will be overcharged. You will pay ‘Tourist price’. YOU ARE A TOURIST. Bitch about the 75 cents that that guy ‘totally screwed you out of’ elsewhere please.*

9. Eat Street Meat. You won’t die.**

10. And please – do not pronounce the S. I will fight you.

* this one is controversial amongst my fellow travelling folk and may be expanded upon at a later date.
** well you might. But you’ll die happy and greasy.

Mission of Burma


Before moving on to parts Laotian, allow me to expand a bit on our trip (almost) to Burma.

About 2 hours drive (~50km) north of Chiang Rai you’ll find what is known as the Golden Triangle. Named for the being the intersection of Thailand, Burma and Laos and probably for the large amounts of profit made in the areas by heroin traffickers over the last century or so.

Having a weekend off from our brick-making duties, we decided to pop up and see what it was all about. The plan was to pop on Friday afternoon, check into our hotel, see the Friday night market, then get up early Saturday, pop over the border in the morning and tootle about on motorcycles in the afternoon, perhaps popping over to see the nearby Chinese town or some cavey/buddha-ish type stuff.

Pretty much none of this happened.

Before even reaching Chiang Rai from the foundation, we realised we’d forgotten our passports. Not wanting to miss the bus we scratched the idea of entering Burma, figuring we’d just admire it from afar (spoiler: it turned out to neither be that admirable or that far).

Next hitch was finding the hotel. Trusting Google maps to see me straight, I leapt off our tuk-tuk within spitting distance of the pulsing blue dot that indicated it was. In theory. In fact our hotel was about 2km further down the road* (fortunately Mae Sai is almost literally a single road). A soggy hour and some terse conversations about my reliance on technology later, we found the Piaporn hill hotel (not to be confused with the Piaporn Hotel, or the Piaporn Inn, both within a 100m radius), dumped our bags and headed out into the rainy dark to discover that they’d cancelled the night market on account of the weather. So scratch that.

We settled for grabbing something to eat from a roadside stall, hunting for one with a recognisable dish or at least a picture, eventually zeroing in on a place that looked to be making Khao Soy. We did our best Khao Soy impression, reached some kind of agreement with the cook and went to sit down. Not entirely sure that we’d made our order clear, we were at least confident that whatever arrived would be a welcome change from our previous week’s diet of rice and stir-fried vegetables. I think you can see where this is going. It was tasty all the same. 

The next morning saw a continuation of the rain theme, and an accompanying reluctance to head out on motor bikes. Instead we took a stroll through the markets, resplendent with the latest and greatest in Chinese knock-offs, fresh from over the border. We did actually manage to find a passable Khao Soy.

Eventually we wound up at the border itself (probably 200m from our hotel as the crow flies, about 2km via the labyrinthine markets). Given the Burmese junta’s reputation for being a secretive dictatorship, ruling over a closed country with an iron fist, I was expecting something along the lines of barbed wire and guns and stern looking men in uniform scowling at orderly rows of prospective visitors. The actual scene is a lot more informal. You stroll up to one gate, pay your money, get your stamp and walk about 30m across the Mae Sai river. At the other end – another payment, another stamp and you’re in. Granted you aren’t supposed to leave that town, Tachileik, and by all accounts it’s more or less exactly the same as the Thai side (but more so) but you are in Burma. When you’re done having fake Johnny Walker and fake Marlboro’s and fake Nike pitched at you, you turn around and reverse the process, with the customs agents on the Thai side theoretically scrutinising your luggage. The picture is less of a tightly controlled border than of a market with a river down the middle, people streaming across each way for most of the day. About mid way along the bridge you’ll see children leaping into the swift Mae Sai, seemingly letting the current decide which country they’d hop out on. From the restaurant where we ate lunch I could’ve pelted several river facing burmese houses with eggs (should I have felt so inclined) and I throw in the style anachronistically known as ‘like a girl’.


So yeah, Burma! You can go there if you want. There’s probably not much reason to.

On the bus back to Chiang Rai we crossed several police check-points tasked with stopping the flow of illegal goods and workers into Thailand. This was accomplished by hopping on the bus, poking the nearest bag with a disinterested toe a few times, scanning the collected faces to make sure nobody looked too illegal, grunting and disembarking.

In unrelated news, Thailand is awash with illegal Burmese workers and goods.


*As an aside I have since had the folks at Google correct this and I demand recognition from you my readers for this selfless act, as nobody else will ever know.

Laeo phop gan mai Thailand, Sabaidee Laos





So now I’m only say, one month behind what we’re actually doing.


Possibly Worth Learning Thai

Just to read what is sure to be a deep and moving tale of a cyborg lawman, a ninja, an ‘urban’ mummy and a toddler piloted mecha-suit.

The pictures inside did not clarify things any further.

Some Other Stuff That Happened in Thailand


Building stuff! (and subsequently living in it and wishing it had been built by somebody who knows more about that sort of thing)


More bricks!


Mud concealing unknown horrors!


Burma! (Sarah forgot our passports so we couldn’t go in but it looked more or less exactly like the Thai city from which it was separated by a 3 meter wide stretch of shallow water.)


Various foods, flowers and fish!


Cooking Course! (that’s 50 green chillies, 10 dried red chilles and a healthy dollop of chilli paste, on it’s way to becoming a jungle curry)


Weird stuff!













Somewhat baffling signage!








Wacky White temple! (I’ll have to scan an upload some photos from the inside of this later, photography isn’t allowed but I bought some postcards. Easily one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. Like angry birds knocking down the twin towers while Neo from the Matrix watches Darth Vader shooting a rocket being ridden by George Bush and Osama bin Laden weird).


Creepy Black House!

More food! (This the famous aforementioned Khao Soy)


This is Ultraman. A few days before this picture he was mauled by Spiderman, his father. Hence the iodine. He was not a well dog.

Vistas, Rural and Urban!

The city I think is Bangkok, the rice paddies are in Northern Thailand. Somewhere.

That’s (more or less) it for Thailand. Next up the thrumming 22nd century neo-cyberscape that is Laos.

24 hours in Ban Yafu

In pictures. And words. Lots of words. Some possibly exaggerated a wee bit.


1900:     Return from waterfall, sweaty, footsore, hungry.

1930 – 2000:     Eat a lot of rice. Then some more. Maybe some vegetables and pork/chicken (indistinguishable).

2000:    What are you going to do now? I guess you could buy a warm beer from the lady who runs a ‘store’ out of an old cooler.

2030:    Getting dark. Solar panels should’ve grabbed enough juice to power a single malevolent fluorescent bulb for an hour or two. You   could crawl under the mosquito net you’re sharing with 3 other guys and read.

2030 – 2100:     Check for bugs and spiders inside the secure perimeter of your mosquito net. Find some. Realise that the bamboo floor you’re sleeping on basically lets crawling things come and go as they please.

2100 – 2200:     Read something. If you remembered to bring a book. That guy has a laptop. Jerk. Your body will start going to sleep round this time, not so much  ‘lay me down to sleep’  as  ‘a blanket on a bamboo floor provides very little cushioning and I can’t feel my legs anymore.’

2200 – 2300:    Fall into a fitful sleep, despite the noise of the insects that seem to have equipped themselves with microphones and the PA  from Wembley Stadium.

2300:     Wake up. Realise that the although everyone is in bed nobody has got up to turn off the light.

2301 – 0230:     Sleep, periodically waking up to massage blood back into your hands/legs

0231 – 0235:    A small skirmish between two dogs. Some snarling, snapping, a yelp. Silence.

0300 – 0330:    The yelper from the previous scrap when and got some buddies. Now it is ON. Every dog in the village (and possibly a ringer or two from the village over) is now involved in an battle to the death. The snarling of the combatants mingles with the sounds of rending flesh and the terrified howling of dogs bleeding their last into the muddy thoroughfare. What I assume are dog body parts slap messily against the pilings of the building below us.

0330 – 0400:      The pigs get involved. Whether enlisted by an enterprising dog faction, unwillingly dragged in as collateral damage, or simply going for an Orwell thing, they add their soul-wrenching squeals to the fray. This only fuels the wild bloodlust of the surviving dogs and the sounds of tearing flesh, spurting blood and mortal agony escalate further.

0401:     Instantaneously, the cacophony stops. The now total absence of noise causes everyone to awake with a start, kicking the brain back a 100,000 years or so to caves and fear and shapes in the darkness.

0401 – 0500:      ???

0501: Roosters. First one. Then all of them.

0501 – 0600: More Roosters. They’re competitive.

0600 – 0700: The displaced owners of the house shuffle in to start cooking breakfast at the indoor firepit. Some smoke, but less than you’d think. A nagging thought that you’re lying under a very flammable nylon net in a dry bamboo structure while a small fire spits sparks less than a meter away is buried in the fog of sleep deprivation and lack of blood to the extremities.

0701: Stagger outside on deadened legs, blinking against the morning light. Register momentary surprise that the ground is not strewn with minced pork and dog limbs and that in fact all animals seems to be present, unharmed and snoring lazily in the morning sun.

0730 – 0830: Breakfast! Probably the same as dinner. Eat more rice than you would previously have thought was possible in the knowledge that there’s work to be done.


0830 – 0930: Ablute. There are several concrete and bamboo buildings around for this purpose, offering varying takes on the them, bucket, tap, hole in the ground. Probably annoy the villagers no end by tying up all their sources of running water for half and hour or so.

0930: Work begins! Make your way down the slippery gully at the rear of the village to the rice fields below. Grab a hoe if you’re quick, a bucket if you’re not, and stand around getting in the way and generally being useless if you’re especially tardy. 20 or so bodies matched with about 10 tools does not for efficiency make, but it provides plenty of extra bodies for when you discover…

0945: A rock! Dig around it! See how big it is! It’s bigger than you thought isn’t it?! Argue endlessly with those around you on the feasibility/necessity of digging it out. Decide to do so anyway. Grunt, flex, generally interrupt the flow of useful work to participate in a group display of machismo.

1000: Eventually haul the rock out of the hole you dug and roll it down the hill, Victory! Back to digging!


1000: Eventually give up when you realise that a hoe and a prybar are no match for a boulder the size of a small car, Concede! Back to digging!

1130: Stop for lunch. Realise that you’ve probably poured about 6 litres of water down your throat but have no desire at all to pee. Idly wonder if you should be concerned about that at all.

1130 – 1330: Rice. Meat. Vegetables. Bananas and whatever else you can knock out of a nearby fruit tree. Sweaty, insect harassed nap.

1330 – 1630: Repeat from 0930 to 1130 above. Probably with more rocks and increasingly lacklustre hoe and bucket work. Feel inadequate next to the tireless efforts of the villagers who only stop digging to light a fresh filterless roll-your-own cigarette.

1630 – 1700: Trudge slowly back to the village. Decide you won’t go to the waterfall this evening. It’s too far away and you’re knackered.

1705: Get talked into running to the waterfall before dinner.

1745: Arrive at the waterfall after a spine jolting downhill scrabble.

1746: Jump in the cool water and wonder why you ever even considered not coming down here tonight.

1747 – 1830: Soak. Try to shed the accumulated sweat and dust of the day. Lie back under the cascade and imagine being pummeled on the back by the pudgy fists of a thousand irate toddlers. Relax.

1831: Get out of the water and contemplate the hike back to Ban Yafu. Remember why you considered not coming down here tonight.

1900: Return from waterfall, sweaty, footsore, hungry.

Repeat for a week. Do not rinse or lather. Derive immense satisfaction and joy from riding the twin highs of manual labour well done and sleep deprivation.