The River Is The Road

View From The RiverSomewhere in Laos: October 29, 2008

It was a boat trip for the ages. The first day, as we all boarded the boat the excitement in the air was palpable and the young backpackers certainly got their party on. Amidst howls of “BeerLao!” in clipped English accents and young Irish brogues the slow boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang pushed off from the pier and slowly made its way downriver. On the first day we made three stops at riverside vilages, straight out of a National Geographic special or an old movie about Swift Boats in Vietnam. There was ample room on the wide and even longer boat, my seat reasonably comfortable and the conversation with the Austrlaian couple and the American next to me was good. The hours passed by under a veil of emerald jungle-clad peaks, blue skies and the muddy brown Mekong. All the while, T.S. Eliot’s memorable verse kept running through my mind:

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river/Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,/Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;/Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;/Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges./The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten/By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable./Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder/Of what men choose to forget. Unhonoured, unpropitiated

Here the river is the road. The sun is bright, with a few scattered and pregnant clouds dashing across the blue skies in a cool breeze. Farms come straight down to the banks of the river and pointy boats, as if they were carved out of a single teak log are everywhere. There are few conical bamboo hats, but thatched huts abound watching over rice paddies and cabbage fields.

We stopped in Pak Beng, a small village on the steep Eastern bank of the Mekong for the night. I had little energy but to eat and sleep. I awoke to a fried egg and baguette sandwich and a delightful banana pancake, walked down to the river and climbed aboard.

But this boat was smaller–and hence–more crowded. The revelers of yesterday, except for a hardcore group from Newcastle and Ireland who started drinking at 9am, were much more sedate. The seats were smaller, harder and much more uncomfortable. And yet, even as we stopped at more villages to gather more passengers for the journey south the day was wonderful. I saw two elephants, countless water buffaloes (one of my favorite animals), lots of goats, a few birds I was unable to identify and little else except the ever-present muddy Mekong. I sat with the American again and a wonderful couple from Rotterdam.

Swiftly, but slowly did the days pass, for river travel is on an altogether different clock–one that knows no seconds, no minutes or even hours, just the constant thrumming of the engines, the turning of the screw and the wide sweeps and timeless vistas around the rocky bends of the Mekong. This is not Western time, nor is it timeless: it exists only in itself, in the moment, the swirl of muddy brown water, that unpropitiated god, the delicate flight of herons, rice paddies and fields of bok choy, thatched huts and children waving from the banks at the falang (a Thai and Lao word for foreigners). And not least the silent but always present eyes of the water buffaloes just watching, always watching.

Final Thoughts On South East Asia

ReflectionsI just had duck rice for dinner, which will no doubt be my last duck rice for a while. I’m in my hotel room and the usual packing ritual awaits. I can’t bring myself to do it, just yet.

First things first: this will be my last post for at least a week. I will be on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I doubt I’ll see an internet cafe floating by.

I’ve been in South East Asia for almost seven months now, three of which were spent in Singapore. I’m not ready to leave. And I’m not sure why. Is it because I’m not prepared for India? Or is it because South East Asia exceeded my expectations? I would imagine it is a combination of both.

I remember that first Saturday, July 5th, 2008 when I took this shot of Singapore’s Central Business District and it seems like an eternity has passed since then, both chronologically and emotionally. Have I put the time to good use? Yeah, I have. Seeing the things I’ve seen, doing the things I’ve done and most especially meeting the amazing people along the road have made this leg of the journey special. I never expected to enjoy, much less find a facsimile for paradise in South East Asia. If Lake Toba was the highlight, these last two and a half weeks spent in Malaysia have been eye opening and extraordinary.

(Today’s photos can be found here.)

More after the jump.

I mentioned before that most South East Asian countries are very homogeneous–at least the ones I visited on this trip. But Malaysia is the very antithesis of homogeneity. What makes Malaysia work is its diversity. Take a look at the shots from today, especially those labeled ‘faces of Kuala Lumpur.’ There are Tamils, Malays, Buddhist monks, Westerners and Chinese. They are old, young, men and women, covered and not. But what’s most impressive about Malaysia isn’t its dynamism, it’s that Malaysia has done it Malaysia’s way. No ‘Washington Consensus‘ here. Their economy works for Malaysians and the common good, something it shares with Singapore, although Singapore is all about an open-economy, Malaysia’s is just different. And that’s one of the reasons the country didn’t slump as hard and as long as so many others did during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Indonesia has never recovered.

Malaysia is relatively clean, cleaner than Thailand, but not yet up to Singapore’s exacting standards. The countryside is gorgeous, palm plantations, wild jungle, tea farms and many, many mountains. All of it is green, tropical, wet and humid. ‘Tropicalness’ is much more pronounced in Malaysia than it is in Vietnam, or Laos or Thailand–but not as strong as Indonesia, although I didn’t get to see Malaysian Borneo–next time I hope.

And Malaysian food has distinct differences between those of the other South East Asian states. It’s much more Indian and frequently ‘halal’ food is de riguer in most places. Sure, you can find bacon in Chinatown, but that’s about it for pork and other haram foods here. However, the Malay’s aren’t hardcore Muslims. They aren’t Saudis, for sure. Women seem to get on well here. I imagine a part of that is because there is such a significant minority of non-Muslims in the country that hard core sharia law wouldn’t work here anyway.

It’s funny to think that I blew right through Malaysia when I left Singapore, heading strait to Chiang Mai. It’s probably a good thing too. I might have wasted a bunch of time here. There is still so much to see. I can’t believe I missed Pulau Perhentian! It’s the one beach I was willing to travel to in South East Asia, mostly because it’s not like Phuket and filled with a bunch of beer swilling hoodlums, or Bali, which is just too overdeveloped for my taste. I found Toba, and for me that is enough.

All the South East Asian countries have their charms. The frank honesty of the Vietnamese, the sweet smiles from lovely Thai girls, glorious Angkor and the mellow Mekong in Laos are but a few. But if it were my choice, I’d recommend Malaysia for the three reasons: prices are excellent, you can see just about anything that South East Asia has to offer in Malaysia and the multi-cultural diversity is just impossible to beat. One never knows what one will see in Malaysia.

Alas, of all the places in South East Asia I loved the most, well, that’s a no-brainer: Lake Toba was simply astounding. But I’m grateful I saw them all, or at least all but two: Burma and the Philippines. Next time, I keep telling myself, next time. And now I am going to go engage in the ritual of packing up, preparing to move on in the hopes that I’m ready for India this time, that I’ll not be too overwhelmed, or get too sick.

I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious. And I’d be an even bigger liar if I told you that I won’t miss East Asia. I will. I’ll miss hearing the languages and the amazing (and sometimes awful) smells. I’ll miss the smiles and I will miss the food. But the first leg of the journey ends tonight and the second begins tomorrow. As the Spanish say, “Traveller, there are no roads. Roads are made by walking.”

Photos of Vientiane

PatouxayPhotos of Vientiane, Laos’ very strange and sedate capital are up at the link. I made it ti Vietnam. Many people had ‘warned’ me that the Vietnamese were an intense group of folks. And I have to admit, they were right. But wrong at the same time.

I had this amazing lunch–I was one of four Westerners on the bus from Vientiane to Da Nang–with a group of Vietnamese on the bus. While the backpackers were stuck eating stale baguettes from Vientiane the Vietnamese I shared the table with were busy playing me with freshly steamed squid and shrimp and tasty fish and noodles and all kinds of other goodies.

It was one of those travel moments where you just ‘dive in’ and live the moment. It was brilliant. No one spoke English and I didn’t speak Vietnamese but the kindness was communicated on an altogether more sophisticated, but more elemental level. It was a good reminder to spend less time in the backpacking enclaves and more time following my own travel instincts. I know I’ve been on the road for a full month now, but it takes time to relearn old lessons, like letting the journey take me, instead of taking the journey. So, I found a small hotel here in Da Nang away from all the backpackers and I’ll be forced to immerse myself and communicate with the Vietnamese. And that is all to the better.

More soon.

Random Musings About The Road

Hmong GirlSo, I hated the idea of getting up at 530am to catch a bus to Vientiane (I bought my ticket way too late last night for the 900am bus) so I slept in. So, maybe I’ll catch one tomorrow. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter in the slightest, the bus ticket can be exchanged, so no worries. Except for the fact that today would have been an excellent day to take the bus as it is raining like banshees and it’s the kind of rain that lasts. Today isn’t one of those short, brief tropical showers. This is rain. It’s also been one of the longest rainy seasons on record in Southeast Asia. It started early in the year with Nargis, the hurricane that slammed into Myanmar. This was in May. The rainy season is usually over by late September. And yet, it’s early November and the rain has dogged me all the way up the peninsula. And, to be honest, it’s getting a little old. But, I have zero control over the weather and all I can do is wear my poncho.

I wanted to talk about a few things that have been cropping up in the comments. There have been some interesting conversations, to say the least. The first, most important one is this: women and independent travel. As I wrote in one comment, East Asia in general is one of the safest places on the planet for independent women travelers. There are countless European, Australian and a few American women traveling in pairs and even alone here. So, if you have the slightest inkling to come visit this part of the world, please do so. You will be safe. As one commenter noted, by a Lonely Planet, read what it has to say about women travelers and then ship out! Really, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos are wonderful places for independent travel. I can’t speak to Vietnam or Cambodia yet, but as I have read they are the same. So please, don’t be afraid, just go.

Second, how does it work not speaking local languages? Well, I speak Russian (passably), a smidgen of Mandarin and workable Spanish. But, for the most part I rarely speak anything other than English. Nor does anyone else in the world. Even here in Luang Prabang, really, look where it is on a map, the level of English speakers is impressive. Mind you, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but still. In Thailand I had no problems, nor in Malaysia, or in Laos at all. Even in that tiny village we spent the night in on the river ride, our guest house owner spoke English. So, if you are worried about going somewhere they don’t speak English, don’t worry. Other than Russia, parts of East Africa, the souther states of the Arabian Peninsula, portions of China, and of course France, you’ll be fine.

Don’t get me wrong, I usually try to pick up a little of the local lingo (my mind seems to work well that way) but not speaking a foreign language is no excuse not to get up and go. If I sound like I’m trying to infect you with the travel bug, well, I am! These days there just isn’t any excuse, other than lack of funds, for not traveling outside of the well trodden paths of Europe. Just go. Half the fun is trying to communicate and crossing that huge cultural bridge that separates us. But really, it isn’t that big a gulf as long as one is patient.

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest you read John Carter’s comment on ‘chicken buses.’ It’s priceless. And he is right in every way.