30 January 2011

Oh The Places You'll Go

(Published 25 September 2010)
“You can get so confused
that you'll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place...”

The message of “Oh The Places You’ll Go” is of course to take the good with the bad because all will work out in the end.  The wise and enlightened Dr. Seuss clearly never experienced bus travel in South East Asia.

I am typing this now, but it was originally scribbled and scrawled long hand into my journal on a 16-hour bus journey from 4000 Islands, Laos to Siem Reap, Cambodia home of Angkor Wat the Eighth Wonder of the World.

I checked out at 8am on Friday morning and double-timed it to a longtail boat that sputtered across the jungle encased Mekong River.  This ten minute boat ride was a rushed affair, we clearly had places to be.  Where we had to be was a food stand directly across the river.  After a sweat drenched 90 minutes we finally had enough people to fill a minivan.  (Yes, like a soccer Mom minivan.)  Mind you this minivan was supposed to be a “Super VIP” bus with A/C and a bathroom, but no need to stress, it was only an hour ride to the border where we would surely transfer to the Super Duper bus we paid for?

We helped our driver load several bails of rice noodles (he was multi-tasking) and our bags onto the roof and bumped and dipped our way to the Cambodian border where we were legally, bureaucratically and comically robbed.

Laos departure station – Departure Stamp - $2

Walk 4ft to…

Quarantine Station – Completed Paperwork - $1

Duck beneath an iron parking gate and walk 200 yards in the stifling heat feeling like an escaping refugee, you know if refugees had laptops and Lonely Planet guides…

Visa Station – Cambodian Visa - $23  

Walk across the street…

Arrival/Departure Station – Completed Paperwork - $1

Then we waited.  And waited and waited and waited.  With bags loaded and bus sitting idle we waited for over two-hours.  The excuse was that three tourists got delayed and were on their way.  But, I am pretty sure our driver just wanted to chill in a hammock and chat with some of his Cambodian vendor friends before making the long drive.

During the wait, wait, wait we met a French family; Mom, Dad (the French John Gruden) and three young sons who were traveling the world for a full two-years.  Their itinerary included; Spain, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Bali, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and America.

We also learned that the German equivalent of the phrase “hair of the dog” is “Kontabier.”  Derived from the word “Konta” which refers to the moment when a retreating army rallies the courage to fight back and turn the tide.  Leave it to the Germans to use an awesome war analogy to describe a hangover cure.

But, I am getting WAY ahead of myself.  We need to rewind the clock to Tuesday when I took this weeks first horrific bus journey.  Vang Viegn to 4000 Islands.  Twenty hours.  I loved Vang Viegn and was excited to explore more of Laos.  Was.  From Vang Viegn I got the Laos standard minivan to the local bus station where I switched to a mid-sized bus with no air-con.  That bus rumbled and bumbled for close to four hours across pothole lined Laos roads to the capital of Vientiane.  I had an hour layover at the Vientiane bus station.  Watching a local mother and daughter laugh and dance and chase…adorable.  Watching the mother strip her daughters pants off so she can squat and pee into a grate…Laos.

And then came the big tease.  After the layover I boarded a large, spacious sleeper bus with rows of bunk beds lining either side.  Each bed was about 6-feet long and 3-feet wide.  I thought, “This will work!  It’s a little small, but I might actually get some sleep!”  Imagine my horror when I realized that each tiny bed was meant to be SHARED!  That’s right Ladies and Gents I spent the next 12 hours in bed with an overly polite Chinese man.

The view inside was mocking me so I switched on my iPod and looked out at the passing Laos countryside with the Rolling Stones playing in my ear. 

The scream of the ambulance is sounding in my ears
Tell me sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here?

The running lights from the bus illuminated the nearest features of the rice paddy terra, darkening into deep blue silhouettes of thatch roof huts and lazy palms, fading into the curved charcoal line between mountains and sky.

Well it just goes to show
Things are not what they seem

The sky shone bright with stars, and in the creeping distance black tendril clouds and ink stained skies flashed cream and swirl beneath the sheet lightenings reach.

Please, sister Morphine, turn my nightmares into dreams

The space between bus journeys was filled by a one day, two nights stay on Dondet Island (4000 Islands) in Southern Laos.  Laos is land locked so by “Island” I mean sizeable chunk of dirt between channels of the Mekong.  My first agenda on Dondet was to find a place to crash.  I rented a private room and bath for $2 a night at Mama Thanon’s.  Dondet is Dondet so by “room” I mean a tool shed with a shitter, a fan, and a sweet Mekong River view.

Dondet is not ready for the tourism wave that is likely to hit Laos in the next few years.  It feels like an old west boomtown, an off-the-map destination struggling to build and sell and prosper from the sudden wave of strange and wealthy invaders.  I could not help but feel that its people do not want any of it, but they know its coming, and they know they have to prepare.



“Sabaii-dee!” (hello)

“Where you go now?”

“We’re going to lunch”

“Here.  Here.  Lunch here!”

Every place on Dondet serves food…or at least claims to.  My movie set façade theory proved eerily accurate.  Each time we ordered food we saw someone sneak out on a scooter to get baguettes, fruit, or my personal favorite a blender to make our drinks.

It is easy to the dislike the "not yet ready for you" corner of Dondet.  It is just as easy to fall in love with "the way it was" outer areas of the island.  A small dirt path leads around the circumference of Dondet.  If you follow the path past the thrown together restaurants and guesthouses you’ll reach its past and its heart.  The people of Dondet are a people of the Mekong.  They bath in it, wash their clothes in it, fish from it and water their crops with it.  The river is their provider of life.

On the outer island it is not uncommon to see naked children swimming in the Mekong waters next to their mother doing waist deep laundry next to the family Ox lying nostrils out to avoid the heat.  Coming from the developed world your first instinct might be to Angela Jolie the children, raise them from the Mekong and give them a better life, but take a moment to notice the smiles.  The island is filled with children and they all seem supremely happy.  Everywhere you turn children are waving and laughing and “Sabaii-deeing” and smiling, always smiling.

Walking the island I saw a small boy holding a bamboo stick with ropes tied to either end that lead to the collar of a hulking horned Ox lazily munching grass.  He pulled and strained as hard as he could trying to budge the massive beast.  I scrambled for my camera hoping to catch the moment.  I missed it, but seeing my camera his little sister bounded up smiling and posing.  That picture I got.  She held onto my arm as I knelt down to show her the photo.  As soon as she saw herself on the screen she giggled and clapped and raised her hands in the air.  “Yeah me!”  A universal known.

Later that day we went on a kayak trip down the Mekong.  As we were getting back in the water after stopping to take pictures of a waterfall we were besieged by swimmers.  A dozen island kids swarmed our kayaks doing cannonballs over the front, hanging from the back, and climbing aboard until the receding shore looked too far.

And returning from dinner one evening Mama Thanon excitedly pulled us into the backroom of the guesthouse to show us her soundly sleeping grandson who had been home birthed just 7 days earlier.  “Later.  Later.  Awake later.  You come back,” said a beaming Mama Thanon.

Children are the smiling, shining stars of Dondet, but their future is a paradoxical one.  Tourism, money and opportunity are coming.  As they do more and more of Dondet will be swallowed up by guesthouses, ticket services and bars.  As tourism creeps, innocence will be lost.  At a younger and younger age these children will be pulled from their Mekong swimming holes into the tourism machine.  They will be wealthier adults than their parents before them, but will their success be worth the years they will lose?

Picture I Wish I Had Gotten – On the return kayak trip I saw three long tail boats approaching at full throttle.  I quickly paddled out of the way and looked back to see who was tossing wakes my direction; Monks, six orange robed monks, one of whom was smoking a cigarette!

You'll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You'll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.
Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life's
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

I know what your thinking, “Seuss was right! The bus trips sucked but look at everything you learned and experienced.  Success!”  I get it alright, Seuss was a genius, that doesn’t mean his words of wisdom don’t sting like a bitch when they are jabbed and plunged at the scorching hot border of Cambodia, the Waiting Place.