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Category Archives: adventures in asia

Soi Bar in Chiang Mai


Soi Bar in Chiang Mai, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Ah, Chiang Mai. I’m not even sure how many days we’ve been here, but it’s been a while. We’d been talking about finding a place to hang out and relax for a while, and it seems we’ve found it. The old city at the heart of Chiang Mai is full of temples and surrounded by the remnants of the old city walls and moat. The eastern section of the old city doubles as the tourist quarter, and this is where we have spent most of our time. It’s run through with leafy lanes, called sois (pronounced ‘soys’) meandering between guesthouses, coffee shops, bars and restaurants. ‘Walking the sois’ has actually become a favourite pastime of ours, as they often provide a surprise. Such as the cute cocktail bar set up by a local family, with two tiny flower-painted tables and a few teak chairs atop a metre-wide wooden deck in front of their home. Or being startled by the otherworldly screech of a lone goose patrolling another home’s front yard, neck outstretched, wings spread (we think it actually is a ‘guard goose’—for reals!). The sois have become a real form of cheap entertainment for us. An ancient Buddhist temple seems to exist on every corner, and saffron-robed monks rub elbows with tourists at the night markets. It’s nothing like the noise, speed and intensity of Bangkok.

It’s been nice to stop and catch our breath, read a book or two, play some scrabble, and get to know a place. We have favorite restaurants (Prego, and the noodle soup stand by Wawee Coffee), coffee shops (MoRooms) and bars (UN Irish Pub) that we return to. In fact, we’ve become regulars at the UN, thanks to Canucks games on delay and Thursday night trivia. Not to mention the inexpensive Sang Som sets: a bottle of Thai rum, two frosty old-school bottles of coke and a bucket of ice, all for about $8. Just don’t drink the whole thing before the first round of trivia.

It hasn’t been perfect, though. Food poisoning finally got us. Well, one of us. A street food dinner at the night market took Janelle out for a couple of unhappy days and nights. For those keeping track at home, Janelle has, since we started traveling, had a root canal, been dragged behind a motorcycle by thieves, subsequently re-injured her arm ziplining, and now, the food poisoning. I, on the other hand, got a sore tummy from eating too much fruit, but I’ll be okay.

Aside from that, though, it’s been pretty good. We got our Chinese visas this morning, and spent the afternoon sketching out the route we’ll take to get there, hopping through towns in northeast Thailand and northern Laos en route to Yunnan province.

Ziplining for the Brave Coward


get ready to drop, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

After a few days in Bangkok watching bad movies, knocking back happy hour drinks and swimming in a hotel pool mostly used by sunbathing Russian prostitutes, we decided our injuries were healed enough to take a train north to the pleasantly touristed city of Chiang Mai.

One thing you need to know about Chiang Mai: the town itself is very pleasant, but there’s not a huge amount to see or do except look at wats (temples) and eat. After eating my own weight in Laotian baguettes avec fromage, I’m on a diet. And we’re all done looking at wats.

So all the signs advertising the ziplining park an hour out of town start to catch your eye. Tiny wooden platforms high in the treetops. Emerald-green foliage. Shrieking tourists in harnesses and banana yellow helmets frozen photogenically in the air. The posters are all over the leafy lanes and narrow side streets of the old city. Beckoning from every guest house and travel agency. How can you resist a come-on like that? You can’t.

And so, we found ourselves with a group of assorted Europeans in little yellow helmets of our own, crowded onto a tiny treetop platform. We wait our turn to be clamped onto the line, peer 20m down to the forest floor, grab onto the harness strap with white-knuckle dedication… and…

1… 2… 3… JUMP!

A falling sensation, then acceleration forward along the line, sailing through a tunnel of leafy branches, and you’re on the next platform. After the first couple of ziplines the fear pretty much evaporated and I enjoyed the experience quite a bit.

Janelle did not. On one of the early ziplines, she was convinced that she heard something rip inside the harness. At that point, it became a lot more… well, I’ll just let Janelle report in her own words:

When Eric says ‘convinced’, it sounds like it didn’t really happen—that I imagined it. I can assure you, fans, it HAPPENED. Definite sound of stitches ripping in the 2cm-wide piece of webbed fabric that was the only thing holding my not insubstantial frame from plummeting to earth. It was the good-natured ‘bouncing’ of the line by the guides that did it. Thinking they were giving us a bigger thrill and all that. Well, on the downbeat, I hear ‘the sound’ and it resulted in me screaming and grabbing for the line (Rule 2 of ziplining: “don’t grab the line”).

So for all of Eric’s ‘sailing through the trees’ bullshit—can I just add that I found the experience terrifying from that point on? I spent the rest of the day with my hands tight on my harness praying for a happy outcome.

Ahem. That’s what she said.

I should also say, our two guides and I all took a good look at the harness and whatever the sound was, everything was intact. But it’s still the kind of thing that captures your imagination in a bad, bad way. Like me, with amusement park accidents. Sure, the odds are in your favour, but really, should you be rolling those dice? Apparently, yes.

The rest of the expedition involved a few variations of ziplining, including a couple of vertical drops and one terrifying combination of bungee/zipline which more than one of my zipliners-in-arms had to be ‘coaxed’ into starting. Not me, though. I just thought to myself, “well, if I am to die here, so be it” and launched myself, arms and legs spread like a chubby little starfish.

I don’t know if the experiences we’ve had in our Asian travels have made me braver, or just more jaded about my own mortality, but things like this seem to phase me a lot less. Maybe next time I go to the Gold Coast I’ll be able to ride The Giant Drop at Dreamworld.

Or maybe not. That thing is freaking horrifying. I’ve had nightmares.

mêlée du Laos


Robbery!

After a few pleasant days among the low-key backpacker debauchery of Vang Vieng, we took a stunning bus ride to Luang Prabang on Thursday afternoon. We easily found a nice guesthouse and went out for an early dinner at a French-Laos restaurant. After dinner, we were walking down a side street and stopped to read a flyer when two guys on a motorcycle pulled up and grabbed the backpack Janelle had slung over her shoulder. Before we knew what was going on they took off, trying to snatch the bag, but what they didn’t know is that Janelle is the kind of person who is both constantly aware of the possibility of bag snatching and who will be damned if some piece of shit is going to rob her. This was the moment she had been mentally preparing for since we left Australia, and she held on tight. Unfortunately, that meant she was pulled behind the motorcycle for a short distance, maybe 10 meters. After that, the bike fell over and Jan grabbed the bag away and bolted. It was only at this point I realized what had happened to my wife. I’m not a violent person by nature, or one especially inclined to act out of emotion, but this was an affront. I very clearly remember thinking “Janelle is safe, these guys are little, they just fell off a bike and I really, really want to fuck them up.” I (very stupidly) ran at them and got a few ineffectual punches in, but they managed to knock me down, right the bike and speed off. 

The French bartender at the popular Ikon bar across the street took us in, helped us clean up and took us to the police station, which was literally on the nearest corner, maybe 30m from where this all went down. She told us we were actually the fourth bag snatching on that same side street in just the past few weeks. Presumably the same guys, but who knows. I doubt the police will be able to do much to catch these dudes, but maybe they can keep a better eye on what goes on outside their door at 7 PM. I’d like to think clocking one a few times in the face would give them pause, but realistically I suspect that if you’re in the bag-snatching business, the times you’re successful more than compensate for taking the occasional nerd-punch.

Anyway, aside from being shaken up, we are fine. Janelle has some scrapes and truly impressive bruises where the bag strap pulled her behind the bike, but that’s it. She lost her glasses in the struggle, but she has a spare pair and we didn’t lose the backpack, which happened to have all our cash and passports, as we had set out to get our Chinese visas that afternoon. 

We do both recognize the “right” thing would have been to just let the bag go, but instinct tends to kick in, and we’re kind of glad we didn’t lose our stuff. And while attacking two criminals in a foreign country is clearly idiotic and incredibly dangerous and could have ended badly, I’m not particularly ashamed of it. On a primal level, it felt more right than the “right” thing. I’d just never, ever do it again, is all.

It’s disappointing this happened in Laos, because we really love the country and it felt very safe. However, even aside from the attempted robbery, it’s clear Luang Prabang has lost quite a bit of its charm since our last visit. There were more tourists on the street right now, in May, the slowest month, than there were in 2007, when we were there in January, the busiest month for SE Asia travel, and it’s clearly bringing out the undesirable elements. We had our passports because the travel agent we went to earlier had suddenly shifted the Chinese visa wait time from two days to six after we did all the paperwork, so we grabbed the passports and walked out. Even more obnoxiously, after the mugging, the tuk-tuk driver who drove us to our guesthouse took advantage of our clearly upset and battered condition to rip us off a small amount. It’s really too bad, but the Luang Prabang we fell in love with four years ago now seems like it’s on its way to becoming a Phnom Penh with Disneyland French colonial  architecture.

This has far from spoiled travel for us, but we did decide there wasn’t much point in sticking around LP. Our planned next step had been to hop through the villages and parks of Northern Laos en route to China, but to be honest, while our injuries are minor, strapping 15-kilo backpacks to our bruises and oozing scrapes or sitting though eight-hour sweaty bus rides on bumpy roads with painfully sore backs and shoulders is probably a bit beyond poseur honeymoon flashpackers like us. So we’ve made our way back to Bangkok to rest up and recuperate for a few days in a nice little Sukhumvit hotel at off-season rates. We’ll watch a few bad movies, use the free wifi, and figure out where we’re going next.

Peoples Democratic Republic of Laos-Pronouned-Lao


Lao: Land of Beer And Coffee, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Burma was definitely an experience, and, as experiences tend to do, it wore us out a bit. The language and cultural barriers, the lack of communication and the terrible, terrible food, both Burmese and Western: it gets to you. After Burma, we spent a few days in Bangkok, just long enough to buy much-needed new shoes and earphones, check the Internet, mail some unnecessary baggage back home, eat a decent meal or five, and crash another expat cocktail party. Then, onto an overnight train to Laos.

We hadn’t initially planned to go to Laos this trip, but after a couple of weeks in Burma our minds started to drift to nostalgic thoughts of fresh baguettes, strong Lao coffee, and cool mountain climate, so we decided to come back to relax for a bit.

Our last trip was in January of 2007, where it was a real highlight of our first SE Asia expedition. Back then, tourism in Laos was just taking off in a big way, but it was still a place where you avoided traveling the crumbling roads, power outages were commonplace, and when people said they were going to the ATM, they meant they were going to take a riverboat to Vientiane to use the country’s single machine. While nowhere near as isolated or poor as Burma, there were, shall we say, definite infrastructure development issues.

While we’ve yet to travel beyond Vientiane this trip, things already feel different. Just getting in was different: our train from Bangkok dropped us off at the Thai-Lao border from where we travelled across the Mekong to Vientiane on Laos’ first train since the French ran the place. Wifi isn’t quite as ubiquitous as Cambodia, but still common, reasonably fast, and uncensored. The trunk roads have improved so much that boating on the Mekong is now considered slow, uncomfortable and expensive compared to buses. It’ll be interesting to see how Luang Prabang has changed when we get there.

One thing that hadn’t changed is the food. While traditional Laos food probably isn’t as tasty as Thai food, and Bangkok technically has better food in that you can get pretty much anything there if you look hard enough, the kind of on-every-corner food in Lao is fantastic. Fresh-baked baguettes stuffed with meat, fish or cheese (good cheese! in Asia!), Western and Thai-style salads with fresh vegetables, pho noodle soups, and tropical fruit shakes. And that’s not even talking about Beer Lao, the best of SE Asia’s cheap national lagers, or Lao coffee with sweet milk, probably the best coffee I’ve ever had, available everywhere for about 60 cents a cup.

As Janelle likes to say, if the food is good, everything is good. I think we’ll stay in Laos a while.

Adventures in Burma, Part III: The Leg-Rowers and Jumping Cats of Inle Lake


the road to town, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Flashlights in hand, we walked through black hallways and common areas of our sprawling, four-story guesthouse.

“Sorry, the generator is a little broken,” said one of the half-dozen staff gathered out front. It wasn’t too hard to see why fixing the generator might not be a priority: as far as we could determine, we were the only guests they had, and seemed to be two of what I’d generously estimate were around a dozen and a half Westerners in Nyaungshue.

The tourist trail in Burma is clearly-marked but populated by a slow trickle of foreigners, which means you tend to spot the same people repeatedly. On the downside, an off-the-beaten-path place like Burma attracts the dregs of the backpacker circuit, sour-faced budget-travellers like The Nazi and The Troll, two backpackers with a penchant for Hitler-themed shirts and dubious hairstyles, or Le Squad Francaise, a group of we-are-the-hardest trust-fund hipsters who haggled over pennies and glared hatefully at every other foreigner.

On the plus side, though, it threw us together with Uri and Chen, two incredibly nice, funny, well-traveled young Israeli professionals. We encountered them first at Yangon airport and ran into them again in Bagan, where we took shelter from a sudden windstorm at their table in one of the Burma’s many “I have no idea what the hell Westerners actually eat but I know they like cheap beer”-themed restaurants. We had a surreal reunion in Nyaungshue when we both cut down the same unlit side-street from opposite directions. In the dark, they look like any other couple, and we almost passed them by, but we have the distinction of being a pudgy 5’4″ dude holding hands with his 5’9″ wife. Even without streetlights, we’re easy to spot. We chatted for a bit and decided to hire a boat to see the sites of Inle Lake together the next day.

Which was spectacular: a real highlight of our travels so far. Seriously, it’s straight-up National Geographic out there.

Inle is a smallish, shallow lake, though it would be hard to determine the exact size, as all around the edges, it transitions into huge expanses of reedy marshland—not dissimilar to many of the lakes in southern Saskatchewan, actually. Unlike Saskatchewan, though, the marsh is dotted with villages built out onto the lake. Entire towns are built up on stilts: houses, workshops, even bars all loom overhead as you go through on boats. The local people spend much of the day on little skiffs, which they paddle to get from place to place, and use as floating platforms for work. Going to the store? Paddle your skiff on over for some soap and a coke. Hanging the laundry? Take the skiff two meters and hang it over the water. A drink with your buddies? Tie up your skiff to the little rattan stilt-house with all the liquor ads taped to the walls (just don’t ask if they’re licensed). Not surprisingly, we saw everyone from toddlers to uniformed schoolgirls to fishermen to elderly women gracefully guiding their little boats along the regular gaps between rows of stilt houses that serve as roads. 

Intha fishermen, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

The Intha people of Inle Lake have also mastered an unusual leg-rowing technique, where they keep their hands free by tucking an oar under the arm and wrapping a leg around the oat to row. I can’t imagine mastering it, but we saw six-year-olds for whom it was as natural as walking.

Of course, folks aren’t there just to be scenic—they’re making a living out there. The lake echoes with thundering slaps from the local fishermen, who catch fish by striking the water with huge poles and scooping the stunned fish up in nets. Even more unusual are the floating vegetable gardens: blocks of earth and seaweed suspended on the surface of the lake by long bamboo poles driven into the lake bed, planted with tomatoes and gourds. I found it kind of fascinating, actually. I’ve never heard of this style of agriculture, and I wonder if it’s unique to the region. So many questions! Does being on the lake protect from pests? Does the sun and water increase yields? Is lake seaweed a good fertilizer? Do the poles keep the gardens from sinking, or just from drifting in the currents? Where’s an aquaagronomist when you need one?

We took a few side-trips off the water, too, to local markets, workshops and pagoda-studded hillsides. There’s a well-known “jumping cat” monastery where the monks have taught cats to jump through hoops. The afternoon jumping cat show was the only place we saw a significant number of other tourists, as boats from the upscale lakeside tourist resorts paid visits, too. It was… tremendously disappointing. Not even lame enough to function as Buddhist kitsch. But it was worth it for the song Janelle and Chen made up:

Jumping caaaats, jumping caaats,
What are they feeding you?

Inle Lake is a pretty incredible place. More than Bagan, even, it was the real highlight of our Burma trip. And it was great to hang out with Uri and Chen! Jan and I are comfortably introverted people and don’t feel much need to party with 22-year-old backpackers or strike up conversations with middle-aged package tourists. But we hit it off quickly with these far more outgoing travellers, not too dissimilar from us in age or temperament. Like hanging out with Mark in Bangkok and Yangon, it brought us out of our little travel-couple bubble a bit which is probably not a bad thing from time to time.