Thursday, May 28, 2009


Ok, I'm really stretching these name jokes aren't I. So I am safely ensconced in the Lao People's Democratic Republic. My hotel is neither the five minutes from the city center it promised nor does it have wifi, and the train was late so I couldn't get the Visa I wanted. Fortunately I can get the minimum Visa I need (30 days) and get an extension to last me until Ho Chi Minh City, where I can get a 3 month or (God willing) my one year multiple entry.

Coming from Bangkok, Vientiane is definitely sleepy like the guidebooks describe it. It is a fascinating contrast, I think. The taxi broke down on the way to my hotel, further guaranteeing I wouldn't make the cut off time for passports, and we waited an hour while he tried to fix it for another cab. In Bangkok I can be reasonably certain of walking no less than a block in most places and finding a cab more than happy to take over. In touristy places they are even playing my favorite game of 'Honk Honk', where I see how many taxis and tuk-tuks will honk at a white guy standing there in hopes of taking his money.

I'll post more about my Laos experiences when I get back to Bangkok Sunday morning, and post some pictures. Just wanted to let everyone know I am safe, and happy for varying definitions of happy, in Laos.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Look Out Be-Lao

By the time most of you read this Rontu and I will be on a 2nd Class Sleeper train bound for Nong Khai, the Thai town across the Mekong River from Laos. It is a 12 hour trip to Nong Khai approximately, taking us to the North-East of Thailand. From there I take a bus to Thai Immigration (Exit), then to Laos Immigration (Enter), and then take a tuk-tuk (three wheel open air taxi) for about twenty minutes into Vientiane. All told this costs me about 27 dollars (23 for the train ticket, 2 for the bus, 2 for the taxi). So...54 dollars round trip, plus another thirty for the hotel. My total cost for board and transport is then about 84 dollars to get to a foreign country and stay for a couple of days. Not too shabby.

I'll post info about Laos either when I get back or, if possible, while I'm there. Until then,


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lao-nging Around


Travels, Expected or Otherwise

Visa Run. The words are exciting and dynamic, they bring to mind vivid imagery of guns and women and fast cars and women and climactic kung fu battles on moving trains. And women. And now, once more, I get to take part in this wild adventure. So I provide, in case you wonder about my adventurous international lifestyle.

One suitcase, second hand.
Three pairs of underwear, fortunately not.
Three shirts, black red and purple.
Three pairs of pants, long. Since I have two legs, not suitable for shorts.
Two books, highly fictional.
One laptop, non-sartorial.
One AK-47, Russian made.

True story. Except for the gun. Yes, my Visa expires next Friday and so I am out to the charming Lao People's Republic next week, a Communist paradise amidst Communist paradises. Where the Mekong laps lazily at the river banks, the women are off limits to foreign men and the money is terrifyingly worthless (1 USD = 8,500 Lao Kip. They pretty much only take USD and Baht).

I am actually looking forward to my unexpected vacation, as Laos is one of the countries that I was looking to visit in my time here. Laos and Thailand have a long history of beating the tar out of each other, the kind of history only an almost shared language and background of marriages can produce. Vientiane, the capital, is also supposed to be a remarkable counterpoint to Bangkok, sleepy and quiet with remarkably little traffic as compared to Bangkok which is neither sleepy nor quiet, and can never be said to have little traffic.

So I am going to seize this opportunity to explore, even though it is spending money that would be going to my Vietnam trip. An opportunity to wander strange and exciting new streets is an opportunity to explore strange and exciting new streets, and I do not intend to look this gift horse in the mouth but ride it all the way out of this silly metaphor.


P.S. So I will post pictures of Malaysia this weekend, and take pictures of Lao next week. I am going to try to be better about posting them, rather than waiting months and months. Which means my New Years Eve pics, the Semi Fabled Quasi-Mythical Second Picture Post, is forthcoming as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

I am not sure that I can ever really have sympathy for the homeless people on street corners in America any more. Sure, they look scruffy and needy, some of them even manage to look thin like they haven’t eaten (or are living on a liquid diet). And so they stand there with signs proclaiming they need work, or they’re disabled, or that they just want to drink so we will give them a dollar. And we pass them by, with this little thought in our mind that it doesn’t get much worse than that, how humiliating.

Going in to the mall at Seacon Square today I passed a man with one arm begging on the street. I don’t mean he was missing an arm, I mean that was all he had: One arm, and zero legs. He didn’t need a sign, in any language, telling us what his problem was. I watched him taking the money from his cup and carefully putting it in his fanny pack, which rested on stumps just below his hips. He didn’t need to tell me what was wrong with his life, it was pretty obvious as I put 5 baht in his cup that he had issues that even drinking wouldn’t solve. Like getting back down the stairs; I’m not certain, he may sleep there.

We don’t have a comprehension of what poverty is in America, not the same way they have it out here. We think poverty and we think of the homeless people out on the streets, of shelters for women and children, of the occasional story buried in the back of a local newspaper about a hobo freezing to death. It is out of the way, we know where to avoid so we don’t have to see it and we avoid it. But there is no avoiding it out here.

It is the great paradox of Asia, or at least South/Southeast Asia, that you can walk five minutes from the gleaming metropolitan towers of Central World (Bangkok’s Mall of America, on crack) and see poverty the kind we really like to look away from. A ten minute drive can take you from shining spires of modern or post-modern elegance to veritable shantytowns by the riverside, where people live under sheets of metal that can only be called a house out of a sense of pity or a very loose definition of the word.

Ask someone what they think of when they think of Asia and they’ll likely think of spit shined opulence or teeming masses of sweltering humanity. And the people in one category want to go to Asia, and those in the other don’t want to go to Asia, each thinking the other is foolish. And each, in their own way, totally correct. It struck me first in Hong Kong, but then more than anything it came home to me in Bangkok and Malaysia. There is the true culture shock, where not just one city but one block can hold such a study in whip lash as you walk from a super modern hotel to someone crawling on the ground with their palsied legs trailing behind them begging for help, see children standing next to their aging grandparents in rags.

It is eye opening to walk from one end of the city to the other and go through these different zones, because more than anywhere I’ve seen in the United States they really do seem to be different worlds. The financial district, the Broadway, the slums, the tourist areas, the areas where tourists dare not tread…how can they be on the same planet, let alone the same city? These images get burned in to your mind, one next to the other until it leaves you struck with the wonder of human experience; that this is not something you see in Europe or America, this jarring jam of contrast. It is too dirty, too unplanned, too wild and unpredictable. Too much of a paradox to see in a world of people who like their rich on one side, their poor on the other, and their middle class uncomfortably keeping the two apart. You can’t put all of those things together and have it come out anything resembling sane.

And yet because of that, because there is no distance except for the distance away from the super ordered regimen of the West and the rest of the supposed ‘first world’, because of that paradox and because of that insanity…it seems, in the end, that much more a human experience.