27 April 2011

The time I ate a live beating snake heart

Two Vietnamese men pulled a bright green and yellow snake taut with its lined belly facing up.  Another man stabbed a three inch blade into the beasts neck and sliced downward.  Muscle and fiber burst out dark and purple and pulsing.  The man squeezed the wound exposing the beating heart.  I knelt down, put my mouth to the wound and ripped the serpents heart from its body.

Gross right? 

I knew I was supposed to eat the snake's heart when we booked the dinner, I just assumed the little marble sized thing would be fried up with some crispy onions and soy sauce.  Instead we got all primal.  A snake dinner goes something like this:

  • Rip the heart from the body and try not to puke
  • Drink a vodka shot mixed with snake blood
  • Wash that nastiness down with a sip of Bia Ha Noi (Bia = Beer)
  • Sample a surprisingly tasty snake appetizer
  • Take a shot of rice wine.  Tradition dictates that you do this before each course.
  • Sample snake meatballs
  • Another shot of rice wine
  • Try to eat tiny pieces of meat between snake ribs
  • Another shot of rice wine
  • Eat some slimy snake skin thing
  • Take a shot of vodka mixed with snake bile that you have been eyeing with dread
  • Chug half a bottle of beer and wipe your tongue with a napkin like that's going to help
  • Order another bottle of rice wine and talk drunk politics with a French dentist who has about a gallon of snake blood smeared on his face
I took video of everyone munching on snake heart.  Shane almost pukes, Mike digs in deep and comes up with crazy eyes, I'm comically nonchalant about it.  I will edit it all together when I'm done traveling.  For now you have to watch Blake's video.  It's pure gold.

28 Hours On A Bus

Luang Prabang to Hanoi. The bus company said it would take 24 hours. They lied. I have the journal entries to prove it.

6:08pm - The bus is pulling away. Shane and I are wedged into sleeper seats. I think they went with the name "sleeper seats" because "painful dentist chairs for anorexic people" seemed a little wordy. There is a metal bar running across my shins that I am definitely going to kick the living hell out of in middle of the night. There is no bathroom on this bus. This is going to suck.

6:10pm - I just cracked open The Kite Runner. I have heard it's a good book. I have about 20 minutes of light before I have to start reading by flashlight. Shane has the window seat. I am all up in his personal space trying to get to that light.

6:42pm - I figured out what the shin bar is for, these roads are really rough. The shin bar is there to keep me from plummeting into the aisle--a roller coaster harness basically.

6:50pm - Yes! The genius bus operators just starting playing a god awful music video. The volume is cranked up to 100. Books are being closed. iPods are being turned off. The only thing I can hear above the video noise is WTF!! in seven different languages.

6:51pm - The people have spoken. The video is off. It's getting dark. Flashlight time.

7:45pm - Ugly ass gold drapes and Shane's head are blocking any view I would have through the side window. I can see through a small section of the front window however and that shit is scary. It's all road bushes road bushes road bushes. The driver is charging through these mountains. I'm ready to get off this ride and get a churro. Or maybe a funnel cake.

8:15pm - I think the girl in front of me is going to hurl. Please don't hurl girl in front of me.

9:23pm - We just concluded a 30 minute pit stop. I ate a bag of BBQ flavored peanuts and a Kit Kat for dinner. I want to fall asleep soon, but not too soon.

9:23 and 35 seconds - One Valium. Two Valium. See you on the otherside.

3:29am - I am awake. Well my brain is awake but my body is still in Valium land. You should see my handwriting. Four year olds would judge me. I am awake because we stopped in the middle of no where to pick up two ASSHOLES who don't seem to be aware that everyone else on the bus is SLEEPING. I would tell them to shut the f--- up but turning my head sounds like a lot of work.

3:30am - 7:00am - This lovely chunk of time was filled with tossing, turning, bizarre mini-dreams, muttered F-bombs about the shin bar and revenge plots against the aforementioned ASSHOLES.

7:30am - We got off the bus and walked a couple hundred yards to the Vietnam Immigration Office. It was pretty painless as far as these things go.

9:00am - We are back on the bus. The driver is playing shitty Laos music. An Aussie dude behind me loves the sound of his own voice. He is currently taking an over/under bet on what time we will arrive in Hanoi. He is asking every passenger on the bus and logging their times in his phone. Boredom does things to a man.

12:05pm - I just bit my tongue. It woke me up. How did I fall asleep with all the twisting and turning and Aussie dude talking you ask? Bus sleep is like a coma, it's your body's way of saying, "This effing hurts, I'm out."

1:10pm - We just finished lunch at a typically sketchy roadside stand. My options for Vietamese meal #1 were:
Rice with fish
Rice with beef
Rice with chicken
Rice with meat

Meat. Woof woof.

1:45pm - Have I mentioned how terrible these roads are? We are going so slow we just got passed by a kid on a bike.

2:48pm - My peek-a-boo view of the passing countryside is really beautiful. Rice fields of vibrant green are being tended by people in traditional dress. They are carrying large baskets full of harvested rice on 50's era bicycles.

2:53pm - Hey driver. STOP HONKING THE HORN!!!

3:00pm - Imagine going down a slip-and-slide that was layed over rocks and branches and sharp little kid toys. That is what this bus ride feels like.

3:25pm - I am awake. My ass cheeks are not.

5:27pm - The road is starting to look like something made for cars not cows. Almost there?

6:13pm - It has been 24 hours and 5 minutes. I just saw a sign that read "Hanoi 120 km." Hit the gas liars!

9:35pm - We are off the bus and sitting in a cab. Hanoi looks cool. I am starving. Food is priority number one. No woof woof meat.

20 April 2011

Tuk Tuk Smoke Smoke

I began writing this on the slow boat to Luang Prabang, Laos. It is not the fastest way to get there. It is not the cheapest way to get there. It is the slow way, the beautiful way. When your travel time is limited you want to get from place to place as quickly as possible so that you can be there for as long as possible. Air travel is great for this. It is like a magic tragic. You board a plane in Los Angeles, have a snack, watch a movie and land in New York. The fact that you missed the Rocky Mountains, the red bluffs of the South West, the heartland and the Appalachians is irrelevant because you didn't have time for in between. There is a lot to see between here and there and when you have the time to take your time it is worth it.

The boat I am on is a 60’ green and red barge. It is piloted from the front by a Laotian man who handles currents and narrow passages calmly and effortlessly. As is usually the case there are way too many people on this boat. I don’t believe the word “capacity” translates into any of the South East Asia languages. There are no seats on the slow boat. I am sitting on a blue and white pillow decorated with pictures of cartoon puppies that I bought for 40baht before crossing the border. In total I will spend 15 hours crushing these puppies with my bony ass. I know what you are thinking, being crammed onto an over-capacity barge for 15 hours with nothing to sit on but a cheap pillow sounds like a slow boat to hell. It’s not. The boat is traveling up the Mekong River into the heart of Laos. Laos is untouched. There are no housing developments or restaurants or gas stations lining its shores. The Mekong is a brackish brown green path into the depths of the jungle. During the monsoon season the Mekong dissects the jungle foliage perfectly. The browns of the water meld seamlessly into greens of the shore. This is the dry season. The waters have receded leaving a belt of sand and shale. The seasonal shoreline gives the rivers edge the look of bombarding climates; desert sands that erupt suddenly and shockingly into deep green jungle.

We docked for the night at Pakbeng village. The sun was setting and insects the size of small birds were on the attack. For the first few hundred yards up the hill Pakbeng is tourist equipped. It has a handful of guesthouses, restaurants and shops selling water, beer and chips. There are no 7-11s, no ATMs, and no Wi-Fi. Pakbeng is more than happy to feed and shelter passing strangers but it’s not about to put on airs. It will how ever sell you weed. We looked at four guesthouses before settling on a place that offered two rooms with gorgeous views of the Mekong. On our way up the hill we were approached by six different Laos men and a kid asking if we wanted weed, ganja, tuk tuk smoke smoke or high yeah? We were also asked by our waiter at dinner, by the doorman at the town's only bar, by the lady that sold us toothpaste and just for good measure by the guy that made our coffee the next morning. The room with the gorgeous views cost us 30,000 kip a piece ($3). Later that evening when we asked for towels the proprietor refused to lend them. We had been the first up the hill. She didn’t know that four boats had docked that night. She wasn’t happy when she found out. She charged everyone else four times what she charged us. We had the best rooms in the house. She could have gotten even more for ours. I showered the next morning and dried off with my bed sheet.

I went for a run before we got back on the boat. It was early and the surrounding jungle looked exactly like you would expect it to look. Dew hung heavy on everything, mist crept down the slopes, bird calls echoed through the foliage and the morning sun shone soft and hazy as it burned the clouds to whisps and vapor and nothing. The image was everything you expect from pictures of the exotic. Yet when you are here you are shocked by how real it is. As I passed through the village with droplets of salty water and Beer Lao beading on my skin I caught the attention of a group of village kids. They started running along with me waving and saying “Sabai-dee!” I returned their hello and then sped up a little challenging them. They laughed and raced forward to catch me. I sped up again. They caught up again. The villagers took notice. The tallest and strongest of the kids noticed them noticing and decided to test me. He took off. The kid couldn’t have been more than twelve but he was quick. I raced to catch up with him. We ran neck and neck. Villagers on both sides of the road “Ohh’d” and “Ahh’d.” I smiled at the kid and burst ahead. Safely in front I turned back and clapped. I gave him two thumbs up. He narrowed his eyes considering the distance, considering it a challenge. I waved him off shaking my head no. I jogged away slow and out of breath. Moments like this are what living abroad is all about. In this place I am different to them and they are different to me. Abroad I can have a foot race through a village with a twelve-year old Loation kid and we can both get caught up in the “Look at you, look at me” joy of the moment and we can both remember it fondly even though our lives will never again be in step.

Luang Prabang is beautiful. Nestled against the Mekong the city has a palm lined river front, meticulously maintained French architecture and a quiet romantic atmosphere. This is not a place for activity it is a place to read, nap, sip and savor. It looks like a something Disney built minus the falseness. Most tourist stops in South East Asia are a gauntlet of sights, smells, colors and temptation. Luang Prabang is different. The mixture of Laos and French influence here is oddly at ease. Here an orange robed monk walking past a boutique hotel with a name like Au Fil Du Mekong makes perfect sense. The one thing it's missing is good eats. In other parts of South East Asia the cheap food is the best food. Not in Loas. In Loas the food looks like Thai food and tastes like nothing. With three exceptions, baguettes, Lao coffee and Beer Lao are all excellent.

We leave for Vietnam tomorrow. The bus ride takes 24 hours. Im going to need that puppy pillow.

15 April 2011

Trekkin - Like the Doodah Man

Rain poured over the dense green mountains. The day had been stifling hot.  The rain was a surprise.  Low lying clouds nestled into the crevices of the mountain gave the appearance of rising steam.  It was a beautiful tableau.  I was terrified when I witnessed it. Traveling by minivan in Thailand is like hurtling down the death shoot from The Running Man.  I had to concentrate on the pretty stuff outside because inside our driver was gunning it through the rain and around a blind corner while passing a barf bag to a girl in the back.  The girl in the back barfed three times.  I don't know if it smelled I was in the front with the seat pulled so far forward the air freshener was more or less dangling from my nose.

On this particular minibus ride I was hurtling away from Pai.  Pai is a tiny mountain town in Northern Thailand.  I had heard nothing but good things.  My experience was decidedly mixed.  Pai is stunning; flat pastures surrounded by rising jungles, canyons brimming with bright green foliage and blooming flowers, quiet bungalows along a lazy river.  Pai is the perfect escape...if you're a goddamn dirty hippy.  Pai is overrun with dreadlocks and fisherman pants.  Your chances of interacting with a Thai person are slim.  Your chances of seeing six white people sitting in a circle with guitars singing "Let it Be" are all but guaranteed.  I imagine Pai is quite distressing for some hippies.  Imagine if you were the only hippy in Corn Cob, Iowa.  No one else had Adam Duritz hair or a hemp hat the size of a cargo net.  You were different, man.  Then you got to Pai and discovered that you were indistinguishable from everyone else who fancied themselves different.  In Pai you were the same.  I don't have anything against the hippy crowd.  Outside of hair and clothing and mad hacky-sack skills I have many hippy tendencies.  If this was my first trip to Thailand the demographics wouldn't have even registered, but I live here, I see Thailand differently now.  In Pai I felt like a perfectly nice Thai town had been displaced by a high school clique and that made me a little sad.

With Songkran still a few days away Shane and I decided to go trekking.  Three days and two nights of hiking, elephant riding, white water rafting and drinking beers around a campfire.  Our first stop was the Karen Longneck Village.  The Karen Longneck people were discovered thirty years ago living deep in the jungle near the border of Thailand and Myanmar.  They had no contact with the outside world.  They believed in a form of spirtualism akin to voodoo.  And their women all wore heavy gold rings around their necks.  The rings were not merely ornamental, village chiefs inisted they be worn to defend against tiger attacks.  That's hardcore.  I feel like a gentleman if I offer a woman my coat on a chilly night. You must be wondering how long it took to hike to such a remote and ancient village.  It took about 14 seconds, a tuk tuk dropped us off.  You see the Karen Longneck tribe was discovered by Christian missionaries.  The lucky longnecks were given the gift of Jesus, led away to the edge of town and allowed to sell trinkets and wave to white people.  These jungle cats got franchised!  Sure its exploitative, but it's better than a tiger dangling from the larynx right?

Coming soon...Elephant trekking the movie!  I kept the video camera running from my seat atop a paciderm.  Uphill, downhill, bathing in a river, another elephant taking the biggest pee ever recorded, you'll see it all, just as soon as I'm done traveling and have time to edit it.

Our guide for this trek was a Thai man named Khai.  Khai had a beer gut, smoked a lot of cigarettes and wore a Harley Davidson American Flag bandanna around his head.  If he were American he would have introduced himself as "Road Dog" or some other roadie cliche name.  Khai belived in taking it slow. Real slow.  I lost count of how many times I rear-ended the person in front of me.  If we moved any slower we would have been standing still.  Yet, somehow we managed to hike our way to the Lahu (top of the mountain) village by the end of day one.  The Lahu village is home to 30 families and a bunch of scraggly cats.  We were assigned a village century, we called him the Cat Whisperer.  He sat quietly in our hut at all times.  Occasionally a cat would try to sneak in and the Cat Whisper would wave his Florida hat, hiss and stomp if necessary to chase it away. 

The second day of trekking took us through dense jungle trails where we visited two beautiful waterfalls.  We stopped to swim at the first waterfall and had a cannonball contest with a local kid.  He was about four years old, butt-naked and full of personality.  He knew how to say two things in English, "Hello!  You...one more" and "Hello!  Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola."  Anytime we stopped paying attention to him he would wad up a moss ball and lob it at us.  At one point he rubbed moss all over himself like he was soaping up, gave a primal yell and plunged green and gooey into the water.  He was a funny kid.  That night we camped in a hut alongside a river running through the jungle.  The sounds of nature echoed.  The stars shone bright.  It reminded me of camping as a kid.  I loved it.

On the final day we hiked down the mountain to the river below to go whitewater rafting.  It's the dry season so the rapids were minimal but it was still fun.  We also got to try bamboo rafting.  I stood at the front of the raft and steered by pushing a bamboo pole against the river bottom.  I knew when to push off because a our river guide yelled, "Captain Jack more right" or "Captain Jack more left" anytime we needed guiding.

We arrived back at the hostel dirty and tired, but didn't have a moment to rest.  Blake, a friend from Surat had arrived to join in on the adventure.  First there were two in our wolfpack then there were three.  Also, it was the start of Songkran (Thai new year).  Songkran is a three day water fight.  As I type this thousands and thousands of people are dancing in the streets soaking wet, throwing water, drinking beers and loving life.  I need to get back out there.

Visit my FB gallery 6-weeks to kill if you want to see more pictures.

05 April 2011

Out of the muck and into the mire

We didn't leave Surat Thani--we escaped. The night we departed the rains hit hard and bad turned to worse. The flood waters moved from inches to feet. Running water was shut-off. A navy ship was sent to rescue tourists from the islands. Army trucks were sent to get them to the airports. The city areas were sunk, and the rural areas which are most areas were drowned. Thirty-five people died in our province. The Thai people will wait for the waters to recede.  They will sweep and mop and re-open with their trademark smiles and Sawasdee-kas. The Thai people will do that. I'm from California. Where I come from rain is nature's smog mop. I got the f--- out.

Shane (my fellow traveller this trip) and I boarded the night bus to Bangkok. We peered out at the muck and the mire of the watery south until curiosity gave way to sleep.  We waited for the big bad city to wake us. Most of Thailand is sleepy and slow and content with a Mai Ben Rai attitute towards life. (Note: Mai Ben Rai can most closely be translated to the stoner's "Hey man, it's cool.") Bangkok is different. Bangkok is a huge, fast, global city with Thai distinctiveness and unrivaled variety. You can buy, do, find anything in Bangkok, all depending on how deeply you want to scratch. During the day we skimmed. We rented bicycles and tried (mostly failed) to ride around the old part of the city. We took a long tail boat ride through the ancient canals. We even did a little shopping. The days were touristy, cultural, safe.

At night we scratched. Bangkok after dark is a multi-level vile of poison. There are sidewalk cafes overflowing with shabbily dressed backpackers, upscale clubs catering to impeccably dressed Thai rich kids, seedy neon joints with naked girls dropping down from the ceiling. If you open a beer in Bangkok a hooker will magically appear. Open another and a ladyboy will test the fuzziness of your goggles. It doesn't have to be, but if you want it to be Bangkok is just as wild as you have heard.

With this in mind it was probably ill-advised to start Saturday night off with a bottle of Thai moonshine. (Note: Don't drink Thai moonshine. Imagine washing nasty week-old dishes with a crusty sponge, leaving the sponge out for an hour, then sucking on it.) With a moonshine glaze we walked out to the main road to hail a cab. As we were giving the cabby directions two gorgeous 6-ft blondes sauntered over. They were Dutch. This is what they said:

Dutch Hotness
Are you going to the ping-pong show?

No. We umm...well

Dutch Hotness
No. No. Get in. You will come to the ping-pong show with us. You have to, this is Thailand!!

(That was enough for Shane, he was already getting in the cab)
A ping-pong show? You girls really want to see that?

Dutch Hotness
Of course. We are Dutch!

I didn't know what that indicated about the Netherlands or her people. I didn't care. I just got in. If you don't know what a ping-pong show is I can't explain it to you. This is a kid friendly blog. But know this, the odds of two statuesque blonde European girls inviting Shane and I to go to one is about as likely as God inviting the Devil to Christmas dinner.

Let's skip ahead a bit. Exterior; the glitzy part of downtown Bangkok. Interior; the high-rise apartment of a Finnish man named Ante. Shane knew the Fins. This is where we wanted the cabby to take us before plans got rerouted. The apartment had a beautiful view of downtown, pretty people were socializing inside, it was a great atmosphere, it was only the beginning. We had big plans for a big night out. Bangkok wakes up when most cities go to sleep. We left the luxury digs at 1:30am. The night ended at 5:00am when I left 7-11 intermittently eating wasabi peanuts and a Snickers. The time between was brilliant. At that time of night things speed up. Secret entrances, clinking glasses, jokes, revelry, dancing, little black dresses, music, it all intermingles and records in an undulating blur. Time becomes overwhelmed by experience. "Dude you should have been there" isn't a cop out, it's just what you say when you just can't explain.

"It's time to get up. The time is 11:30. It's time to get up. The time is 11:30." This is what the alarm on my phone sounds like. It's a woman's voice. She has a British accent. I hate her. Especially when she has fallen behind the Hostel bed and I can't find her. Bangkok was great, but once again it was time to get the f--- out. We boarded a bus for Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Siam.

In the mid 1400's the armies of Siam invaded the Khmer Empire razing and plundering as they drove toward the holy temples of Angkor. The great temples were abandoned and the Khmer capital was moved to its modern day home in Phnom Pehn. The Thai armies left the temples intact because they deemed them too glorious to desecrate. The Thai King wanted to emulate and improve upon the temples in his wealthy and prosperous capital city Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya became the crown jewel of South East Asia and an important trading partner for China, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. In 1767 Burmese armies invaded Siam razing and plundering as they drove toward Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was abandoned and the capital moved to its modern day home in Bangkok. The Burmese armies didn't have the same reverence for Ayutthaya that Siam's armies had for Angkor. They burned Ayutthaya to the ground. Bricks were taken from Ayutthaya to build the wall surrounding the Grand Palace in Bangkok. A small but important connection between ancient and new.

Today, Ayutthaya is a sleepy, slow Thai town in the shadows of the city that was. The temples and ruins of Ayutthaya are still beautiful but clearly pail reflections of what they once were.