07 Nov December 2005 – Dan Green – Thailand & Laos
(12/11/05) Day 102: In the Big Bang
I arrived in Bangkok late last Thursday night. For the last 3 days I have been mostly taking it easy taking care of three months worth of neglected logistics and relaxing with all the comforts a big city has to offer that a monastery in the middle of the mountains does not. Today my friend Giles who is in Bangkok for a few days before he fly’s back home paid me a visit. He’s been traveling for 3 months with two other friends. It’s strange to think that while he’s heading home to his family and fiancée for the Holidays, I am just beginning the next leg of my yearlong journey. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been away for that long yet. I think maybe it will sink in as I travel on my own for a bit.
One thing I have noticed since being here in Bangkok is that my time at the monastery really was an experience that has prepared me for life on the road in South East Asia. Arriving in the city that many people consider crazy, dirty and foreign seemed like going back to the west after being in Tibet. Most people here speak English, the sidewalks are clean, there are tons of other foreigners and there are 7 Elevens on almost every corner. Talking with a few people here at the guesthouse, I have realized that not everyone feels this way. To many people this city seems like a dirty, scary, zoo where nothing is familiar. To me, this is a walk in the park. While I am glad that my experience over the last three months is making my transition to a new country easier to deal with, I almost miss the excitement that the fear of encountering an incredibly foreign environment brings.
(12/12/05) Day 103: Phatpong
We take a tuk tuk to the red light district to see what all the fuss is about. Five of us pack in to a vehicle made for 2 and drink our beers as we rocket down the bustling streets of downtown Bangkok. We get out and while I’ve never been here before, I know what this place is. Strolling through the isles of the night market one can barely notice what lies on the outside isles. We walk by the flesh cafeterias and I am blown away by what I see. Peering into the dark clubs we see stages overflowing with Asian women in bikinis. Each one has a number pinned to her top. A perverted flesh buffet, you can actually go in and “order a number 22 to go”.
(12/15/05) Day 106: Arrival in Chiang Mai
Arrived in Chiang Mai today. A beautiful old city laid out in a perfect square and surrounded by a moat begged to be explored upon arrival even if it was 6:00am and I hadn’t slept much on the bus ride here.
I booked a trek today for 2 days and one night. We leave tomorrow morning and head north into the hills.
In the early afternoon I stopped at a temple to talk with a monk about the differences between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. We sat around a stone table under the shade of a large tree with a canopy that leaned in our favour, shielding us from the setting sun.
As we talked I thought about what I can take away from my Buddhist studies and bring back to the budding field of conflict resolution in the west. I wonder how much of my own culture, as steeped as it is in its own ways, can absorb and I mean truly internalize the tenants of Buddhist thought. Since I left home I have been living in places that truly have a culture of compassion. I wonder how much of the selfishness, the materialism and the greed of our culture can be undone. We try to internalize the “win-win” mindset back home but if I wonder if it is in vain or at the very least, a trying uphill battle. For in the monastery I have seen the only place I know to be living something close and it is different from what we teach. For them, there is no concept of “win-win”, for that assumes a dichotomy that just isn’t there. The one cannot be separated from the whole. For them a loss for someone else doesn’t just mean a damaged relationship or even bad karma. There is no self, so that loss is felt by all. What can I take away from that? What can I internalize? What understanding can I bring back home?
(12/16/05) Day 107
I sit in a bamboo hut overlooking a mountain valley being dusted by the last rays of a setting sun. We hiked for many hours to get here but I am not tired. I am the furthest thing from it. The fire glows outside keeping the gathering crowd warm. Stories are told, names are learned but quickly forgotten and the group makes room for the village elders as they join. They pass around homemade wine and smoke tobacco from bamboo leaves, an age-old tradition for them, a fascinating novelty for the handful of western trekkers.
I wonder how they see us. Are we nothing but a dollar sign to them or are we truly welcome guests. If I were sitting in almost any other place in Thailand I would know the answer to that but here I’m not so sure. This village is so remote, so primitive and so beautiful that it’s hard to believe these people have even heard of coca-cola, let alone have it on hand. There is no power here and running water can be found only in a nearby stream. I wonder what time will turn this place into. Will my children be able to see a place like this here? Will they be able to see a place like this anywhere?
(12/17/05) Day 108
Far away from the village that took us in as guests last night, today I was snapped back to reality as we continued our trek. White water rafting, elephant riding and floating down a river on a handful of pieces of bamboo tied together, I feel more like a tourist than a traveler as I see other groups of white skinned, light haired people sail by.
I wonder how long riding on elephants has been a touristy thing to do.
(12/18/05) Day 109
Rented a motorcycle today and drove up the mountain outside of town. The drive was spectacular and almost as picturesque as the temple on top. In the afternoon I went to the zoo with Noah, an American guy from Colorado that I met on yesterday’s trek. Entry was 35 baht, or about 1-dollar Canadian.
We wandered around until close to sundown before deciding to go grab something to eat. Dinner at a traditional Thai restaurant and it is refreshing to be the only foreigners on hand. Not something that you get in Thailand all that much.
At around midnight we stopped in to see a Thai band doing rock and roll covers. The atmosphere is lively and friendly. I think about the last time I saw a bar fight and feel both glad and almost ashamed that that sort of thing is so uncommon over here and so common back home.
(12/20/05) Day 111
A five-hour bus ride takes me to a little border town called Chiang Kohng. I am on my way to Laos.
On the bus I sit next to Mike, a Doctor from Manchester City England, now living in London, which he initially only refers to as “the UK”. We get along from the start. Dinner is included in the fee I paid to get here along with my 15-day visa and the two-day “slow boat” down the Mekong.
We ship off early tomorrow and for the next two days I will travel down a river that has seen more violence than I can even bare to imagine. I am about to enter a country that has had more bombs dropped on it that any other country in all of history. Mike and I talk about how strange it is that we are traveling through it and how it is even stranger that for many travelers it’s just another place to go get drunk.
(12/21/05) Day 112: The Mekong
I sit here on the rickety wooden bench of a boat that seems as old as the river itself. The engine roars from the tail end, vibrations echo through the sliver of wood that supports my lower back. The exhaust fumes periodically waft across the deck but are quickly washed away by the passing cool mountain air. Staring through a thick layer of fog and mist I see the outlines of a mountain range haunted by a nightmarish past. I’m torn between two extremes. I am in awe and wonder as I peer out at the beauty of it all. The lush greens, the misty rolling hills and gray pastel skies paint a picture that grabs hold of the eye and refuses to let go. Over thirty years of overgrowth and a thick morning fog come as close as possible to concealing the other extreme. But you can’t bury the past; you can only cover it up.
Every now and then, when the fog parts just enough, I’m given a window into what took place here not long ago. I see the faint outlines of the thick, impenetrable jungle and shivers run up my spine. I think about the atrocities took place along these shores. Gazing upon a ridge on a river bend, I realize what that sight could have meant for so many young men some thirty years ago. To them, the beauty of the river’s banks would go unnoticed. The sense of wonder and excitement that I feel as I travel downstream now would have been replaced by a type of terror that I pray I will never have to know. How many men my age have died in these very hills? How many mother’s robbed of sons, women of husbands and children of fathers? I can almost hear the sound of shells falling, the screams of thousands forced to fight a cause that the horror of war has made them forget. Perhaps they never even knew. The high-pitched wine of the exposed engine almost seems to be muting their cries. Then, as my mind wanders, the river whirls into downward spirals that seem to swallow those screams, perhaps for the second time.
I wonder what those men would have thought about what I’m trying to do on this year. I wonder if they would feel vindicated that a generation of young people are trying to resolve conflict in a way that doesn’t cost the lives of their children and their children’s children. Or would they have thought it was in vain? Would they even have believed it or did they already know that I, we would not survive without the notion of “win-win”? My gut tells me that my heart speaks the truth, that what I’m trying to do is right.
We stop at a small town on the edge of the river to spend the night. I share a room with Mike, the doctor from the UK and we discuss the idea further. I drift off to sleep listening to the sound of backpackers’ bottles clinking and music playing and wonder if they are struggling with the same thoughts or if they have ever even crossed their minds.
(12/22/05) Day 113
Day number two on the slow boat and the haunting images fade but remain, lurking just beyond the opaque wall of gray mist and fog. I chat with other traveler’s on the boat, always interested to hear how no one’s story is as simple as it was when you made it up for them from afar. We seem to have developed a group mentality over the last few days. People share food and drink as though we’ve known each other for some time. I’m again forced to wonder why people don’t act this way back home, why I don’t act this way.
We arrive in Luang Probang, the oldest city in Laos, in the late afternoon, everyone happy to be on dry land again. I find a guesthouse with Mike and two Canadians we’ve met, Lucas and Dustin. We pay $7 US for the night for all four of us and the owner is happy to get it.
The place isn’t a hotel but that’s not what we’re looking for. We feel like his guests and like Uncles to his five-year-old daughter who won’t give us a moment’s rest. This place is different from anywhere I’ve been so far in a way that I can’t yet explain.
(12/23/05) Day 114
Surprisingly tired from the last two days on the boat, today is a lazy day. We wake up early but do very little. I rent a bicycle for $1 and peddle around for the day seeing nothing and everything at the same time.
(12/24/05) Day 115: Christmas Eve
5:30am, we walk up to the main street to see the procession of monks going to temple. I buy a large breakfast served in a bamboo basket and offer it to the monks as they pass.
In the afternoon Mike and I climb to the temple on the hill in the center of town. Looking down over it all we talk about Buddhism and how trendy it has become in the west. How things like Yoga have become so divorced from their spiritual nature that many people don’t even know it exists.
Wondering what divorcing spiritual practices from the accompanying ethical codes of conduct will mean for society, we discuss politics, conflict, war and the nature of the human condition. It’s so nice to talk to someone, really talk to someone again. It seems like it’s been months and when I think about it, in one way it has.
It’s Christmas Eve so we celebrate with a barbeque at a decently upscale restaurant where the food costs $4 instead of $1. It doesn’t seem real to me.
(12/25/05) Day 116: Christmas Day
Christmas day, but it feels like the furthest thing from it. I call home where Dad’s side of the family is over for dinner. It’s Christmas Eve there. It’s good to here from everyone. I realize how much I miss them and how far I am from being ready to come home.
I hear someone call my name on the street and it turns out to be my friend Simon. Seeing him here makes Christmas seem even more surreal but why I’m not sure.
After booking our bus trip to Vang Vien we decide to take a day trip to a waterfall. The bus leaves at 7:30pm so we still have plenty of time. They tell us there is a Tiger there and some bears so I look forward to what a zoo in Laos has in store.
When we arrive we follow the signs for the Tiger cage. Off of it’s large enclosure there is a small brick house, a feeding cage. We enter to come face to face with a giant Bengal Tiger. We’re separated by less than a foot and a set of bars that I am forced to trust with my life. I am in absolute, indescribable awe at the giant cat. The size of it! It’s paws and head are frighteningly large. I am well aware what I would mean to it should the welding on those bars fail for even one instant, dinner.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to mind our presence. Back home you would not be allowed within 100 feet of a Tiger; here we are allowed within one. I ask the Tiger master if anyone ever goes in the cage with it, he shakes his head at the stupidity of the question. Then, just when I thought the experience could not get any more up close and personal, the Tiger master feeds it a piece of meat. As it ate, lying down next to the bars, he allowed me to stick my hands through the bars and make contact with the 140kg mass of orange and black cat.
Putting my hand on a Tiger’s back and hind haunches is a feeling that I know I will never forget. My heart was in my throat, eyes a flurry of movement from jaws to claws and back. My mind and body are as alert as they have ever been in my life.
After the adrenaline had stopped pumping through my veins, we went swimming in a blue lagoon at the base of a giant waterfall. Christmas dinner was eaten at a small makeshift restaurant set up on the streets of Luang Probang. . This has definitely been the most bizarre and unforgettable Christmas of my life.
(12/26/05) Day 117:
In Vang Vien and calming down from the bus ride from hell. What was supposed to be a routine 6-hour trip from Luang Probang to Vang Vien, turned into a 12-hour trip from Luang Probang all the way to the capital city of Vientiane and then back to Vang Vien. Apparently, the driver neglected to pull over at one of the major tourist destinations in Laos, and second stop on his route.
Stopping to change a tire along the way, we noticed the machine gun hidden under our driver’s coat. I would later find out that the stretch of highway we took has been riddled with conflict between insurgents and government forces, private bus lines and basically anyone coming through who may having something the local people don’t have or can’t get.
Grumpy and exhausted when we arrived in Vientiane, dealing with people trying to take advantage of us was an experience in cross-cultural communications and negotiations that could have been easier.
Anyways, here in Vang Vien we are recuperating from the ordeal and not planning on doing much of anything. We are looking into Kayaking from here to Vientiane. Sao, a local in his late 20’s with thinning hair and an accommodating nature explained to us the nature of the sex trade industry in South East Asia as we flipped through his brochure of kayaking trips.
“Everyone pays for boom boom”, he says, including him. Filled with knowledge about the everyday exploitation of women and acceptance of opium smoking and other drug use, I’m left wondering why so much of the world regards the west as being “sinful”.
(12/28/05) Day 119
Today Lucas, Dustin, Mike and I kayaked down a river whose name I never learned from outside Vang Vien to outside of Vientiane. Stopping along the way to jump off of the surrounding rocks and barbeque local meat and vegetables, I was able to see a part of the country virtually untouched by foreigners and rarely visited by locals.
Here in Vientiane we have checked into another hostel that costs less than half the price of a cheap meal back home.
(12/29/05) Day 120: Last Day in Laos
Today is my last day in Laos before heading back to Bangkok. It was sad to leave the three guys I have been traveling with for the last week or so. I felt like I was retiring from a sports team, leaving them on their own. I had lunch with Lucas at a restaurant overlooking the Mekong. We stared across a few hundred meters of water at the shores of Thailand on the other side.
The bus ride to Bangkok is about 12 hours, a routine trip for this part of the world.
(01/01/06) Day 123
New Years day and I’m feeling surprisingly well. We left the hotel around 4:00pm to catch our bus to Koh Phi Phi, a small cluster of islands on the west coast of the southern tip of the country. The plan is to catch up, reflect on what we’re doing over here, where we’re going in life and do some serious scuba diving. I have a million unanswered questions about what I’m doing this year and how I’m going to accomplish the things I want to.
My hope is that Rob can help me shed some light on the overall theme of my year and where I want to direct the majority of my efforts vis-à-vis concrete research. I am still struggling with what aspect of conflict resolution to focus on from here on out. I think it makes sense to center my research around some form of cross cultural aspect of negotiation or communication and ideally, some sort of fusion between the two schools. I have been analyzing the various cultural subtleties in effective communication and negotiation in every place I have visited but am very far from forming any sort of thesis or even creating a research question.
I am finding it difficult to make any substantial progress when I am left up to my own devices. I think what I really need is a “sounding board”, someone to bounce ideas off of. Maybe Rob can help with this or perhaps it will have to wait another week until I get to India.
(01/02/06) Day 124
After an 18 hour journey, we arrived in Koh Phi Phi, an absolutely beautiful group of small islands most well known for their appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster “the beach”. They are also known to have endured the majority of casualties from last year’s tsunami. The island we’re on, Koh Phi Phi Don, is nothing like it used to be, or so the locals tell me.
Johanne, a blond haired, blue eyed Swede running the dive shop we are taking our respective certification courses from gave us a first hand account of that tragic day last December. The majority of the island’s commercial infrastructure once stood on a thin sand bar connecting to larger sides of the island. Due to the size of the island, the tsunami wrapped itself around each shoreline and hit the sand bar from both sides completely obliterating everything that once stood there and almost everyone on it. 20% of the people on the island were killed, about 2000 foreigners and locals altogether. It was shocking to see the extent of the damage first hand, even a year later. Many pomtrees were either torn in half or completely destroyed and all the buildings were wiped out. The island is a skeleton of it’s former self but still spectacularly beautiful.
I decided to sign up for a 2 day, 5 dive advanced scuba diver course while Rob is doing his open water certification dives. I’m not too sure what I’m in for but I’m excited for my first dives in water where I don’t need a 5mm wet suit that includes hood, gloves and boots.
(01/03/06) Day 125
I did three dives today. That is one dive less than my total dive count to date. One deep dive down to 100 feet, one navigation training dive and one dive worth writing about, a night dive. Ignoring, or perhaps neglecting the fact that I don’t even like swimming at night, I suit up on the dive boat as the sun sets on the horizon tearing the sky into a thousand different colours with names I can’t pronounce.
Descending into the darkness we rest on the bottom in a semicircular formation and I feel like a navy seal. Gliding along the bottom I look into a the distance and see darkness, real darkness, for what feels like the first time in my life. I feel like I am the only person, no, the only living thing in this ocean. As we swim along that feeling passes and suddenly I am in outer space. The rock formations are different on this planet, very different. I look above me to see phosphorescence spiral off the blades of a diver’s fins with every kick. She is reordering the night’s sky as she goes, sending stars off into the depths of oblivion. I feel myself start to panic and then calm. This is not the time to lose your cool.
When it’s over I am left with a number of feelings that are not easy to express in words. One is a form of excitement that has annihilated every single trace of fatigue in me. I’m on an adrenaline rush that doesn’t feel like it will ever stop. The other is new to me. It is the feeling that I have just done something that is wholly and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever done or imagined doing. Those 45 minutes underwater were so different from diving during the day that the terms “dive” and “night dive” shouldn’t even be used in the same sentence. My head is reeling as I try to make sense of the experience. I look at the dive master and can only muster up one word- “yeah”.
(01/04/06) Day 126
Day two of the advanced Scuba certification course. A wreck dive turns out to be the highlight of my travels through Thailand. Jumping off the boat into meter high swells, I narrowly avoid smacking my head on the hull and am able to grab hold of the buoy line. We are in the middle of nowhere and it becomes readily apparent as we descend. Hand over hand gliding down the line I lose sight of the surface and cannot see the bottom. Suspended in what feels like an abyss I am forced to trust my gauges and continue the descent.
At around 60 feet I catch my first glimpse of the wreck. The stern of the ship emerges through the haze of silt kicked up by the stormy seas and my heart skips a beat. The size of it! I feel like I am gliding by the edge of a sunken city. Flying over the deck I chase schools of fish so thick I can barely see through them. Over the deck and under fallen debris, I am lost in an underwater world of wonder and excitement until that sharp clap of a knife hitting an air tank rings in my ears bringing me back to reality. I turn to see what the fuss was about and a giant ray sails past, over the deck of the ship and into the fog with a grace unparalleled by anything I’ve ever seen on land. Unable to express my excitement in words, I can only give my dive buddy the sign for ok. He understands.
Walking around the town that night we run into Chris, an old friend from high school. We sip beers, exchange travel stories and roam the streets until closing time. A “good” day just doesn’t seem to do justice.
(01/05/06) Day 127
A 16 hour journey from the south of Thailand back to Bangkok and overnight bus trips have lost their appeal. I take a sleeping pill but I am too nervous for it to make a difference. The man next to me has been slugging off his bottle of Thai whiskey, straight shots for the last 10 ounces or so. His eyes widen and head rolls in a way that tells me he’s not in control. He lights a cigarette, oblivious to the world around him. Fears of him losing his lunch far exceed those of him losing control. I pull a blanket over my waist as a shield before I doze off.
(01/06/06) Day 128
Back in Bangkok and itching to get out. I know a new world is waiting for me, just 24 hours away. The idea excites me, frightens me and brings on an anxiety that I haven’t felt since as far back as I can remember.
(01/07/06) Day 129
Bangkok airport, 5:30pm. I sit and watch a collage of travelers of varying ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds shuffle by wondering what I’m getting myself into. It’s a few thousand kilometers between here and India, yet for me it will be only a handful of steps. I stare at my gate of departure wondering what lies beyond the ticket takers, pilots, copilots, ground-crew, customs agents and cab drivers. I know only that I know nothing of a land that’s only been a distant dream for me for so many years. India. Over a billion people and I know not one of them.
While the thrill of traveling to new and foreign lands has not seemed so foreign to me over the last few months, I know I am stepping into an unknown. Talking with well traveled backpackers of all different ages and nationalities, I’ve heard only one consistent thing about India. Love it or hate it, you won’t forget it.