Friday, January 29, 2010

Slow Time in Tad Lo, Laos

At times I seem to forget that I am on a bicycle journey and that some people might be interested in the details of where we have gone, things we have seen but at each juncture, I seem to come back to the joys of traveling, especially on two wheels.

We are now back in Pakse, having done a triangular detour of about 220kms to the Bolevan Plataeu. The first leg was the most challenging climbing steadily to about 3,600 feet and for the first time having to do a constant, but moderate climb of about 40kms.

But it was all worth it. First night we stayed in a true, tropical lodge set amongst the trees within hearing distance of a couple of waterfalls at Tad Fane and within a short walk from the actual falls which consisted of two small streams, cascading quite dramatically over the escarpment of about 400 feet. Since the lodge is at the end of a short dirt road, its truly in the wilds of the plateau with virtually no development nearby affording a true get- away experience. As I noted earlier, there is something very basic about the sight and sounds of water, and it certainly kept Alison and me captivated as we had dinner in an open air restaurant, with brilliant stars and a near full moon to accompany the water music.

The next day we rode about 90 kms to Tad Lo, which as a place may not exist, since there are no signs of any description when one approaches it from the west, and only one sign indicating that Tad Lo Lodge is 1800 meters off the main road. But the fact that there was a one lane paved road, a small market and a few stalls alerted me and inquiries confirmed that indeed about 2 kms away, were the falls and the place, which consists of a couple of dozen frame, thatch roofed dwelling and a handful of places to stay, is indeed an entity on the land, if not marked on any map that I have seen.

We first went to the Tad Lo Lodge, where laid back is an understatement since it took me some considerable efforts and strenuous "sabaidees" to rouse a very disinterested young woman off a couch, who tried hard not to understand that I was disturbing her slumber mid-afternoon, to inquire about a room. She did find a key, and handed it to another young woman, who flipped flopped me to a very nice looking cabin but on further inquiry it had not amenities and hardly deserved the US$45 price the first person quoted me.

At this point I produced a business card that says I am Andrew Jacob, Chief Explorer, Andrew's Bicycle Tours, as an entre to negotiating a discount. As she did not seem to respond, I asked for the manager, who she pointed vaguely as being in the gardens.

He seemed like a more professional person and was willing to reduce it to $38 but fortunately for me, I had no intentions of staying there under any cirumstances, he did not have a room for two nights that I had wanted.

The Lodge did have one compelling feature, two beautiful and very tame elephants that Alison instantly loved, but they were on public show and we got to enjoy them freely over the next several days.

Given our relatively late arrival, we ended up at the other lodge, on the other side of the river and falls for which the place is famous, paying about half the discounted rate and staying once again the a raised cabin, looking into a forest of trees and a tropical garden, with a location that was closest to the falls and yet still in view of the river and the narrow bridge that we crossed. A true tropical paradise with windows on all sides and since for some reason they damn up the river during the day, the increased flow at night makes a tremendous roar thats somehow seems to facilitate sleep.

I call this piece "Slow time in Tad Lo" since we ended up staying three nights not only to recuperate from the extended cycling we have been doing, but also to soak of the lifestyle which is like living in a local village where time has stood still existing in full harmony with a few dozen tourists who seem to do nothing but laze about.

The highlight of our stay was, and yes again it is about food, "Mama Pap" and as her simple sign says, "Big Eats, Small Kip". For once this is an understatement and indeed we had more food than we could handle, coming from a tiny outlet of four small tables, where "Mama" as she is called by everyone, dishes out food of gigantic proportions: the banana pancake is on a platter, her fresh Lao coffee is served in small beer mugs, her rice and noodle dishes overflow the bowls, but she also dishes out warm welcomes in Lao, French and English and some philosophy and advice as well, all from a giant of a person standing well under five feet, who seems to do everything herself.

Since our late arrival for breakfast at about 7:30 meant that the place was "full" with four or five other fans of her food, we spent nearly two hours enjoying that extra mug of coffee and watching the village life roll by.

We saw the kids, mostly under five, with hand made sling shots, spears and small motor cycle tires heading toward the river, and we later saw them frollicking in the waters and playing by themselves, not an adult in sight, laughing, giggling and having a good time jumping from a ledge and then rolling in the sand.

Then there were the vendors, carrying fresh picked vegetables stopping at each small stall and the handful of restaurants, returning with empty baskets.

The pigs, dogs, ducks chickens,one of which was so domesticated that it jumped on the tables and helped itself to some of the breakfast of the guests, all wander freely.

A young girl of maybe eight, was learning to ride a moped and she accelerated and braked until she returned with a wide smile on her face.

And the adults all going about their daily lives, happily returning a greating with a smile.

Later in the day, we explored going up the river to series of rapids and swam in the pools below.

The highlight being the washing of the elephants as they responded to gentle tugs on the ear and submerged like submarines with their trunks acting as periscopes to take in air.

We ended staying three nights, just wandering about the village and of course returning to Mama's for more food and share traveling tales with the others who wait patiently for her magnificent offerings.

There was the Jesus or Don Quixote look-alike who stood out at another diner in Pakse, who turned up here with two buddies and a Swedish girl. All the guys turned out to be Israeli and she, in her soft cotton dress was I am sure causing a 'Jimmy Carter' on a number of people present. Each of their lives unfolded quickly as it always seems to do in these type of settings, an soon to be 21 Jessica has traveled to 26 countries, an envy no doubt to many an adults twice or thrice her age.

Then we met a couple, who had just met the day before in Pakse. He 43 yuear old, a former Peace Core Volunteer, Phd, graduate from various business venutures, including a Boston Hedge Fund, thrice divorced, teaching in China, She on her own, with an overprotective mother in Italy, just quit a demanding job etc.

There were many others whose stories were served up as easily as Mama Pap's offerings.

Such is slow time in Tad Lo.

Tomorrow we are off to Champasak, where there is a full moon festival around some Angkor Era ruins, and then to Cambodia in a few days.

Wishing all slow times,


Sunday, January 24, 2010

on the hunt in Pakse

One of the benefits of not being distracted by a guidebook full of places to see that as I wrote earlier, its easier to focus on the journey and the simple joys of the road and how the experience is possessed. We have now travelled about 1000kms on this leg of the trip and head for the hills for a few days and then Cambodia awaits.

It took a while to register that for instance there are virtually no billboards advertising on the roads so that the few we do see merit special attention, but more importantly the awareness is heightened about all the the persuaders we are subject to, thanks to the constant market research to probe our psychological defences to create needs, when there is none, or to chose between brands of identical properties.

One that we have seen with some frequency, usually when entering a larger town said ""25th SEA GAMES, LAOS 2009". It took a while to reflect on the message, since Laos is a land locked country that, sea games would unlikely have taken place on the largest body of water, the Mekong, but that the sea in this case, was South East Asian, games which obviously was of considerable national pride and there has not been a message to replace it since the year's end.

Instead of market research, we engage in considerable market search, usually for the basic staples: water, bananas and the opportunity to have yet another noodle soup or friend rice. Once challenge being that Alison does not eat meat and its almost always added to each serving here.

This search also applies to finding places to stay, which at time involves the simple comparison of guest houses, especially if there is more than two that offers hot water, which seems to have some priority on the scale of desirability.

The bigger challenge is when there is no congruence between the place names on the map and the villages on the ground and the choice is to stay at the best place in town, meaning the only one that present itself.

This searching or hunting is a skill that hearkens back to our primeval roots. In fact, I recall one university course that argued that our brains evolved over about 5 million years and that we have only become the sedentary, urban dwellers over the last 50,000 years and modern only in the last 5,000 years or so, and that our brains are wired as that of the primitive man, so the pleasure of learning the day after, that the decision to stop at the guest house, with the next one being some distance away, is immensely satisfying.

The course on environmental psychology also talked about the pleasures we derive from water, green associated with foods, fire for protection and cooking, and of course the act of "hunting" and sex.

That water is the lifeblood of the land is so apparent from the irrigation channels that flood small parcels of rice fields to water buffaloes and children frolicking in mud holes, although usually not in the same ones.

There is so much more to share but so little time.

Happy hunting to all,

its about the journey

Tha Khaek, Janiary 18

At the end of each day, Alison keeps a brief summary of the highlights of the day, which at the end of the trip, she puts in the form of a diary and description of our trip.

Lately, its been like the parent asking the child coming home from school, "what did you do today" and the child responding "nothing". Since leaving Vientiane, I could easily describe the day as nothing of significance happend and yet, when we arrive, find a place to stay, shower, do some exploration on foot, have dinner etc. we are always elated and energized about the events of the day, even though nothing of great substance happened.

We have now covered over 600 kms in a week of riding, and my odometer clicked another 1000 kms so that its over 67,000 kms (and counting!) but each day is fulfilling despite not having much to write home about.

Feeling a need to continue the blog, a description of our days on the road is warranted, which leads me to the not so profound conclusion that its not about the destination, but its about the journey.

The road has been generally flat with gently rolling hills, albeit with moderate to strong headwinds, doing two 100+ kms days has been challenging, as has two days of only 40kms each but with severe hills, which caused us to push our bikes for about 10% of the distance so that the physicality of the journey is demanding and as always, at the end of the day it feels good to stop, but its not quite that pleasure is the absence of pain.

The scenery cannot be described as spectacular, but it can be quite riveting, especially when we pass brilliant green rice paddies or when reaching a peak on a mountain and the views are endless over jagged, black rock formations dotted with huge trees that reach to the sky.

Still its not so much the landscape but the active passing through it and slowly absorbing the essence of the lives that people lead and the inevitable questions that it provokes that starts to define the journey.

The people that we meet, most in passing as they, starting at the age they can barely walk, shout and wave vigorously, "hello, sabaidee" with a genuine smill and enthusiasm which only intnesifies as we return the same and there is almost a sense of loss when the fade over the horizon.

Beyond the fleeting meeting, one can quickly learn about the land, by observing the activities along the roadside. A huge hill of watermelons are an obvious indication of local agricultural activities, as are the make shift bamboo stands offering smoked fish, which are a signal that we are once again very near the mighty Mekong River, even though we are generally following the river south. As further proof, when we stop in the villages, and each will have a small market offering local produce, there is inevitably several plastic tubs with live fish flapping about.

We need to modify our eating habits and reduce expectations to find bananas in one area if they are not produced locally to find that the next village will have a half a dozen vendors offering a variety of one of our favourity consumeables (the variety of bananas, all generally small, are too many to describe in detail).

Since food is a constant pre-occupation as we are doing the equivalent of six or seven hours of aerobic classes in a gym a day, rule number one is to eat when there is an opportunity.

On this score, I am reminded how in our advanced society, shopping for food has become a bevildering array of choice, or pseudo choices, and a burden in light of our consciousness about calories, fat content, fibre, carb no carb, local vs.imported, impact on the envronment, global warming etc. Here, life is simple and we do eat almost exclusively local, organic and one that envolves virtually no options,and its all tastes great.

Breakfasts are a noodle soup with fresh local vegetables and an egg plus the classic Lao coffee with sweet condensed milk, although the coffee may have from a hilly region further south.

For a snack, it might be a couple of hard boiled eggs, still warm since it was prepared that morning and a few ears of corn on a cob, tied by their husk for packaging, and its not the perfect peaches and cream variety, but one that is a range of colour and has a wonderful chewy texture. The is no question about how you want your eggs done easy, over, sideways and the corn has no other fixings, so the focus is on the eating.

Lunch is usually in a simple place where the ingridients are all on a table and its cooked inview and once again no need to go through a complex menu that describes in glorious detail the repas to be had, the essence, and the rasberry reduct, and the stream of adjectives that are used the highten the expectation, and so often to disappoint, are all absent, and yet the end result, a simple fried rice or another soup is a culinary delight. An added bonus that one need not be concerned about food guides and portion sizes since if meat is included in a dish, its rarely more than the "recommended serving" and usually much less.

In towns and cities where more formal eating places abound, menus are often rare and its more a process of negotiotion as to what one gets to eat...

There are exceptions. We spent two days in Thankek, a small town with a French flavour, and I am willing to bet that the crusty baguette, was locally made but the highlight was the night market, where a dozen stands offered local meats, fish and deserts and we indulged by having a scrumptious whole barbequed chicken with rice, banana pancakes with sweet condensed milk, and freshly fried breads with a sprinkling of sugar, that beats a donut I have ever had.

A few days ago, we went on a 6 km trek to a well advertised waterfall through some pretty rugged terrain, and in the process I strained my ankle. It was for a good cause, with a tour guide for the two of us, that costs the equivalent of a nights stay in the local hotel and dinner for two, ie. about $10. The money went to the guide and to help preserve the trees in the national forest, otherwise they would be cutting down the trees. Needless to say, there was some water falling, but to dignified it as a waterfall would in most places constitute false advertising. But the walk was great and my ankle recovered in a couple of days(with bit of help from modern medicine)>

Such is our journey.


Monday, January 11, 2010

Four Days, Four Countries

We left Perth, Australia last Thursday afternoon, overnighted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew early in the am to Bangkok, Thailand and in the afternoon flew to Udon Thani later on Friday. Saturday morning we cycled a pretty easy 69 kms to the border town of Nong Khai and on Sunday morning cycled 30 kms across the four kilometer Friendship Bridge, over the Mekong River, to Laos and on to Vientiane.

Travelling in general, but so quickly in time and space, makes me not only sleep deprived but very conscious of the subtle and not so subtle differences in countries, not that we got a great sense of Malaysia from sleeping for about five hours in an airport hotel, but even the degree of humidity and the sense of colours were a considerable contrast to Australia, not to mention all the variety of foods offered in the morning breakfast buffet.

Thailand, and its our fourth visit to the country and the second to their new airport, is clearly the most advanced of the countries in south east Asia, but still retaining its exotic flavours, no more so than the food, which at the airport at least, is slowly being crowded out by the international favourites, sushi, pizza, burgers, Starbucks, while I crave the subtle and not so subtle spices of its national cuisine.

As I elected not to carry the guide book for Thailand, (the ones for Laos and Cambodia are heavy enough) and the one I read from an earlier trip was now about seven years old, and as such, the border town of Nong Khai turned out to be a delight. While not the sleepy little village that I expected, based on my reading, or fading memory, or perhaps just an image I conjured up in anticipation, it still retained a great deal of charm as the town continues to grow and develop about 5 kms along the wide expanse of the Mekong River due to the increased trade that resulted from the construction of the Friendship Bridge about 15 years ago.

We stayed in lovely, nearly new guest house just far enough away from the center to feel that we were in Thailand, versus another touring mecca and got good practice using sign language to convey the fact that the room did not have towels and toiletries, which were graciouscly provided. We also managed a long walk and view across to Laos in the setting sun and the mystical foggy dawn. Had some authentic food and after an American style breakfast headed to the border crossing.

For me, such crossings are a mix of dread and excitement. Dread because I hate bureaucratic procedures and excitement since crossing borders always has its anticipation of something new and different, even though in this case we were going to Vientiane, where we ended our trip through the northern part of Laos less then two years ago.

To enter the country it took almost an hour, not the least of which was getting the right form at window #2, submitting the completed form and the fee at window #1 and then waiting patiently at window #3 for the document itself and then going through two more check points and when finally on the road getting used to riding on the right, rather then the left, as we had been doing for the last two months.

Given the alloted time, I could not help but notice that the Visa fee for Canadians was US$42, for Americans $35 and for the rest of the world its was almost uniformly $30. Why?? To add insult to injury there was a surcharge, of one dollar in this supposedly communist country for processing the documents on the Lord's day, Sunday. The visa is only good for 30 days which is not a great deal of time, and at the same time Laos is promoting a campaign of "stay another day". Why not like India, allow multiple visits over a four month period?

I could also not help but hear the anguished pleadings and yellings of an elderly woman in French and English to be provided a visa only to be told repeatedly NO No NO! And after about twently minutes of heated exhanges and tears, I thought I saw another exhange, but this may have been my poor eyesight, and the woman was issued the document.

Speaking of documents, what do governments do with all the information they collect, often asking the same questions on two or three different forms, including the address and telephone numbers of the places you are staying, people one knows, profession and sex.

Speaking of which, in Thailand the entry and exit forms ask for sex, (as opposed to 'yes' or 'no please), on entry and leaving, I guess to determine the number of people having sex change operations in the country?

Approaching Vientiane, I was reminded of a quote from Nelson Mandela, something along the lines that "going back to a place that does not change through time, allows us to reflect better on the changes in ourselves". We did walk through the town, full of charming old French buildings and numerous colourful Wats and monks in orange robes which are the constant and found most of the restaurants that we had enjoyed two years ago are still here and to our good fortune we found a beautiful, brand new boutique hotel, with gleaming hard wood floors and a top floor corner room, which only appeal to the physically fit, with great views of the city. And as luck would have it, on one of the side streets, just around dinner time, a new Japaneese restaurant was offering a 50% discount in their five day old, ultra modern eatery, to "train staff"! We also had a great massage at a price that again seems to stand still, albeit, even here, the US$ has depreciated by some 12%.

Given our fabulous digs at Vayakorn House, we decided to enjoy the city an extra night which alas will only add to the midsection, since this will be the last opportunity to explore the French influence on the food and the general charm of this city. Once again, I am feeling less pressured to move on and see every monument so carefully described in our guide book, but rather just enjoy the time we have, for who knows if there will be a third time for us in Vientiane?

I am also carrying two pocket books, which I bought used, and on the cheap, with a view of donating them to the first English speaking local who happens to come along, and hence they are not great literature, but do provide a different activity, and sure beats watching the news, with its staple of violence, reports of cold weather etc.

In Wilbur Smith's African saga, there is a quote attributed to a Zulu warrior which resonated with me. "when a traveller gets a thorn in his foot, if he is wise he plucks it out. The fool who leaves it in and says I will keep this thorn to prick me so that I will always remember the road which I have travelled".

As a cyclist, I recall my early days when getting a flat, just fixing it or installing a new inner tube, only to have another shortly thereafter, teaching me the lesson that its important to remove the thorn or more likely a piece of glass, the caused the puncture, to not have the puncture repeat itselt.

As a metaphor for life, what would all the therapists do, if we dealt with our emotional hurts at or soon after the time of the trauma, and moved on, and how much happier would we be rather than carrying our pain with us?

happy travelling and to leaving all our thorns behind,


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Decisions, Decisions or Zen and the Art of Plastic Bag Maintenance


We are now about 24 hours from leaving Perth and having been away for more than two months, a month of which was packing up and unpacking almost on a daily basis, getting ready and packing would to the uninitiated appear to be an easy task; in reality, getting ready is taking much longer than anticipated, including dealing with a few larger questions of where exactly or approximately will we be riding and should I ditch my favourite plastic bag, repair it or use it as is?

Those of you who remember my early advocacy to ban the use of plastic bags, might be horrified to know that I have an ongoing, acute and passionate love affair with plastic bags, especially in the context of bicycle touring. I have a huge collection of favourite plastic bags, which I keep reusing and mending and should I live to the day when they truly become a rarity, or collectible on E-bay, I will set up a foundation for their preservation and exhibition.

First and foremost, notwithstanding a few mishaps, I am a firm believer in packing our bikes in clear, industrial strength plastic bags when we travel buy airplanes, versus a cardboard box, which most cyclists do. Boxes are awkward to carry and require the bikes to be disassembled to a considerable extent, and at the end of a trip, necessitates their disposal and on the return leg, a search for a box to repackage the bike. The plastic bags fit neatly into my front pannier and can travel with us, ready to be used at any time. As well, my hypothesis is that the fragility of the bike is more apparent in a bag, and handlers will be more likely to handle them appropriately, rather than just toss a box around. So far my average is pretty good.

But what prompted me to reflect on this topic is my heavy duty LCBO bag, and those not familiar with it, they were until about two years ago provided by one of Canada’s largest monopolies, with selection and prices to reflect, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, but one good thing about them was that they provided “free” very sturdy plastic bags to carry several bottles. One such bag I have now used for several years to pack my shoes (the cycling shoes when we are walking and the sandals when riding) but they were to my great anxiety gone temporarily AWOL. As well, they were a bit worse for wear and needed considerable TLC.

Then there are four large clear plastic bags, one extremely durable one from a well known shop that sells upmarket china, that hold the twenty or so items of clothing that I carry, as they can easily be scanned for content. Small sandwich sized bags are great for stuff that’s likely to leak, which they inevitably do as they bounce around on our travels. And larger, freezer sized bags carry precious maps, travel info and guide books etc. I also have a couple of larger blue bags given out by a vastly overpriced, yuppie enterprise in Toronto, whose value in my mind stops at the very practical plastic bags with a draw string that I carry to hold larger items, including food we pick up on the road. In all fairness, the store was sporting enough to give three of those bags, free of charge the last time we asked so I should be kinder to them. I also travel with a similar bag in yellow, from a well know retailer, specializing in cycling paraphernalia, perfect to hold extra water bottles on less populated stretches of our travels.

Given that the movement to ban bags has gotten considerable traction, I am acutely aware that some of these bags are irreplaceable and they will have to last a long time’ hence my desire to keep them in good shape and mend them with a variety of tapes, a subject I am sure is well beyond the interest of most people but I am prepared to divulge my secrets if asked nicely.

More importantly, given that the main activity in Perth was visiting family and friends and despite my limited understanding of the local Ozzy lingo, I managed to survive the main local activity: eating and drinking. Although a time consuming pass time, fortunately there was plenty of time (between celebrating our arrival, Friday nights, Saturday nights, Sunday nights, Chrisy, Boxing Day, day after Boxing Day, New Years Eve, Alison’s birthday day and several sorry to see you leave commemorations), for me to reflect on the upcoming journey.

Given that I had the benefit of an extremely slow computer to work with, and some time between the main events described above, I could take full advantage of Parkinson’s Law, which roughly states that a task will expand to fill the amount of time allotted to it. As such, I decided to systematically go through my minimal possessions and also to do more research on our intended destinations in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

On the packing side, I decided to leave my own slow laptop in OZ. Having downloaded our photos I have substantially used up its memory bank and thus its even slower than before. As well, doing research on our route convinced me that internet access will be even more limited than in India, and therefore I will have to post more spontaneous and have a valid explanation for even less crafted thoughts on this blog, and at the same time stop worrying about charging one extra gadget and most importantly, reduce the load carried by about four or so pounds..

Once I reached the topic of weight, I decided to be more systematic, albeit not to the extent of cutting the long handle of a toothbrush, which some ultra-light bicycle tourists do.
In this spirit, I decided to leave behind a pair of dress-pants, a couple of pairs of matching socks, since even I feel some disdain for wearing socks with sandals, and as long as I was dressing down, I felt at ease about leaving a number of other items of clothing in OZ.

I was also cognizant of the need to create space in the panniers to carry some extra food, as the number and variety of eating opportunities in Laos and Cambodia will be few and far between, as such, some roasted nuts and nutritious crackers will be a welcome change or supplement to a diet of sticky rice and noodle soup, if and when available, for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Lastly, with all the extra time in between digesting the many meals, I had time to search the internet and discover that, as in India, there are lots of off the beaten path places to explore, even if the paths are not that well beaten down, and are variously described as mud tracks in the rainy season that turn into dust bowls in the summer. As well, I have become more comfortable with the idea of deviating from the planned itinerary given the many places to explore on route. All the extra information, sheets of paper can really add up in bulk and weight, required space in the panniers, and I was once again forced to reconsider all the stuff I am carrying. The anticipation of less traveled roads caused me to also consider buying dust masks and how to carry additional water and food where even local staples may be unavailable.

With all the time to socialize and to ponder the future, the only weight that I can’t shed readily and leave in Oz is the belt around my mid-section; this will have to wait for the roads ahead.

Namaste, peace and love and soon, Sabaidi