Southeast Asia Travels #3: Thailand's Urban Bangkok, Laos' Rural Muang Ngoi

January 14, 2002

To my dear friends and vicarious travelers,

I made it to Thailand to meet Elbert and within 15 minutes of his arrival at
Bangkok's beautiful Shanti Lodge, we'd decided to go explore Laos some more, and
we had our plans organized a few hours later. We're now back in Thailand, on the
resort island of Phuket, where we spent yesterday on an empty beach and catching
up with Patti's friend Scott and are planning a trip to explore some submerged
caves by sea canoe and do a bit of scuba diving (Elbert) and snorkeling (me).

I'm feeling a little homesick around now, but not enough to keep me from
enjoying every day and every moment here.

Here are some bits and pieces from the journey:

+ Movies in Style in Bangkok

We had a bit of time in Bangkok, though, and so after spending the a day on
foot, we decided to catch a movie.

We caught a cab over to Siam Center, a big mall with a movie theater on the top
floor (a common arrangement in Asia -- I saw "Lord of the Rings" in Singapore in
a mall with a similar configuration). They sure do malls well here -- creative
architecture, great use of light and plants, and an impressive lineup of stores
make for a very modern, hip feel. We saw lots of hip Bangkok teens in high
fashion and funky hair hanging out at the mall that night.

We purchased two Gold Class tickets for "Ocean's 11" for 300 baht each (US$7.50)
and got a bite to eat before the flick. I had pad thai from a fast food joint at
the mall called Rider. Their slogan is "Good Guys Eat Noodles". :-)

Once it was time for the movie we showed our tickets and were ushered along a
red carpet where a pair or translucent doors automatically slid open as we
passed through into a plush bar/lounge area. We proceeded to the theater and
were guided to our seats. I sat down in disbelief in a plush red velvet lazy boy
that had a full recline mode. A table sat between my chair and Elbert's and a
waiter in black and white was on hand to take our snack/drink order before the
movie started. The screen was as large as any theater in NYC I've been to
recently. There were 25-30 seats in the whole place and the audience was split
between tourists and locals.

After previews and before the feature presentation, we rose to sing a song
(well, listen in our case) honoring the king of Thailand. Then I kicked off my
Tevas, curled up in my chair and enjoyed the movie, ignoring the Thai language
It almost made "Ocean's 11" seem like a really good film!

+ Up in the Hills of Laos

In northern Laos, there's a small town called Nom Kiaw. It's on Route 13, the
best road in the country, so it's easy to get to. We got there via song-thaew
(literal translation: two benches, for the two benches that passengers sit on in
the back of the covered, converted pickup truck. It's a beautiful spot, and we
snapped a few pics that inevitably won't do it justice before boarding a river
boat. We took the boat about an hour up the Nam Ou to the tiny village of Muang
Ngoi that has become a stop on many backpacker's itineraries for it's natural
beauty and remoteness. A generator runs in the evening until 9 PM there to
provide some light for bedtime preparations, but otherwise, there's no
electricity here and forget about phone lines or cell phones.

Wandering through the tiny town on our second day there, we met a high school
teacher named Kong Keo roasting some fish with his family outside his home. He
works as a trekking guide in addition to teaching and we arranged with him to do
an overnight trip into the mountains near Muang Ngoi to a few hilltribe villages
there. (As we arranged the details, a 4-year-old bounced down the street hugging
in his arms a surprisingly docile chicken!)

The hill tribes are indentified as a separate ethnic group in Laos because they
live in different types of houses and tend to be animists as opposed to
Buddhists. Animism remains part of many Buddhist Laotian's lives, actually. Kong
Keo told us that when one of his children is sick, his wife wants to kill a
chicken to cure the sickness. He counsels against it, suggesting instead that
they sell the chicken and use the money to take the kid to the hospital.

Anyway, the next morning we hiked out through rice paddies and crossed streams
in our sandals and stopped for lunch at the first village after about three
hours. I drank a bit of lao-lao (homemade rice whiskey) with the men of the
village and then Elbert, the Canadian couple we invited along, and I entertained
the local kids with a combination of origami, language, mime and paper
airplanes. The kids were wonderful in all of Laos, but especially in these
villages. They were universally tickled by seeing themselves and them friends on
the LCD of my digital camera, and many hung around and watched as we ate our
lunch of fried fish, sour mixed vegetables, omelette, a spicy chili sauce for
dipping, and sticky rice.

After lunch, we crossed two more streams and then swapped our sandals for boots
and started to climb. After about three hours of hiking, some tough, we reached
the second village, where we spent the night.

In keeping with our practice of sampling of the local drink, we took Kong Keo's
suggestion and asked for a jar of lao hai It's an alcoholic drink made of sticky
rice and something else that we weren't able to indentify, served in a large
earthenware jar and sipped through a long bamboo straw. Lao hai has a distinct
fermetnted taste and a bit of sweetness.

After a bit of that, I walked through the village, amidst the chickens, pigs,
and dogs. The roosters chased hens, the pigs hung out in the shade and the dogs
slept in the embers of last nights cooking fires. I watched a woman pounding
rice with a large lever contraption and then came across the kids. Initially
scared of me but curious, the digital camera technique won them over and soon
they were eagerly teaching me their language. I would mime something and they
told me the word and cracked up when I put together a short story of mime and
words based on running, walking, eating, drinking, and crying.

Over dinner, we asked Kong Keo questions about the village's operations and
customs. Women eat after men. The village is led by a chief. The chief's appoval
is required for someone to move into the village. Crime is uncommon, but if
someone is caught stealing, first offense is a warning, second is a fine and/or
community service, and third is exile from the village. There was a conversation
about the village wanting to save up and buy a generator and music system. They
wanted to know from Kong Keo if a guesthouse could fund the expense. Doubtful,
we decided after running the numbers, and if it could, Elbert pointed out, it
would ironically lessen the village's tourist appeal.

We slept early that night in the home of a village family under a big mosquito
net. The house, like all in this village was made of about 90% bamboo/10% of
wood. New York City morning street noise has nothing on the sounds of a
hilltribe village at dawn. Rooster's cock-a-doodling, pigs oinking, dogs
barking, kids shouting and the rhythmic pounding of rice.

In the morning, I went to woods ouside the village to go to the bathroom and
heard the sounds of someone following me. Some kids? Elbert? I turned and saw a
big ol' pig. I ignored him, and he watched curiously but thankfully, left well
enough alone.

There's more to tell, but my fingers tire. Stories of Jing, the Hmong kid with
the slingshot, and the founder of the third village, who smoked a bit of opium
before offering us a mediocre (probably sounded good to him) musical performance
on a bamboo-based wind instrument. But these and others will have to wait until
another time. Phuket's beaches call.

One more thing on my mind, though...

+ Asian Imagery

The imagery of Asia has always occupied a special place in my mind. Workers in
the fields with pointed hats. Bamboo huts. Misty mountains. Gnarled bare trees
peeking out above a mountain landscape.

In my life, they've been implanted in my head in a variety of ways. "Crouching
Tiger, Hidden Dragon", designs on tea cups, photographs from the Vietnam War and
movies depicting that period.

To see the reality of it as I traveled through rural Laos was somehow a
completion of feelings and thoughts I didn't know were unresolved. A bit
esoteric, I know, but I figured I'd mention it in case you can relate. A big
piece of the beauty of the area comes from the way man-made phenomena and the
natural landscape interact. Rice paddies grow bright green in a terraced
landscape against a dark green mountain behind it that rises into a white mist
in the morning. Open-sided bamboo huts, built for naps and lunches in the shade
on hot afternoons dot the paddies and rice farmers work as other folks walk the
tiny raised path separating field from field balancing today's wares across
their shoulders on their way to market 

It really is beautiful to look at. And to become a part of the scene rather than
a passive viewer through a media or artistic interpretation... that's sublime.

+ Sawat dee khap

That's hello and goodbye in Thai, and appropriate, because this is probably the
last installment of this travelogue for this trip. I return to New York in 5
days, and to work the day after. BTW, I disconneted my cell phone before I left,
so I'll have a new number sometime in the next few weeks.

Until I return, may the road rise to meet you and the wind be always at your