Travel

1957 Minsk

I met a traveller outside a café in Saigon who was strapping a variety of tools and parts to the back of an antique motorcycle. He told me it was a 1957 Minsk and he was riding it to Hanoi over the next few weeks. He had just bought it for $300 (USD) and had it overhauled by a local mechanic for the equivalent of $20 and he was heading out for a day’s test ride.

I’ve seen a few old Minsks since then and it makes me wonder how he’s getting on. Antiques aren’t known for their reliability, but I imagine these are relatively easy to fix and well known by the local mechanics.

This all brings to mind Jas’s stories of East German motorcycles (though to be clear, the Minsk is made in a different former Soviet republic.)

Vietnam might be a good place to do motorcycle touring, but I’m not sure. I’ve seen western motorcycle tourists (sometimes on Minsks) driving into town in the early evening, and they never look happy. Traffic is absolutely crazy and there’s a high death toll on the roads. The rules of the road (as practiced by the locals) seem to be:

  1. Don’t hit anyone.
  2. Don’t get hit.
  3. Use your horn at every opportunity.
  4. Wear a helmet.

The helmets are the one nice thing.. in other countries, I’ve had to beg for helmets (even when renting motorcycles as opposed to getting a ride across town) but in Vietnam, a moto driver will hand you a helmet after your negociations as if to say "OK, I will take you to your destination at the agreed upon price."

As a cyclist, riding through mostly 2-wheeled traffic feels safer and easier than riding through mostly 4-wheeled traffic. The big downsides are the noise and pollution. The little 100- to 125-cc engines on the motorcycles used in Vietnam put out a lot of both, and the constant horn use doesn’t help with the noise either.

Riverside Hotel

A few days ago in Saigon (nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City), we were on a bus for a day tour, the kind of bus that drives around and picks everyone up at their hotel. The tour guide checked his list, and then:

Tour guide: "Does anyone stay at the Riverside Hotel?"

Tour guide: "Is anyone here from the Riverside Hotel?"

Tour guide: "OK, nobody here is from the Riverside Hotel?"

British woman: "Yes."

Tour guide: "Yes nobody here is from the Riverside Hotel, or yes you’re here from the Riverside Hotel?"

British woman: "Yes."

Tour guide, exasperated: "What hotel are you staying at?"

British woman: "The Riverside Hotel."

Tour guide: "Thank you."

(It’s sad when a Vietnamese tour guide who’s never been outside Southeast Asia speaks your native language better than you.)

Elephants

Boun! The beast standing before me opened her mouth and hooked her tongue forward, ready for some food. I fed her a banana which she ate in one gulp. Boun and this time a tamarind ball, salted to make her drink more water later. Boun and a stick of sugarcane – she really liked the sugarcane, flapping her ears and tail appreciatively. Like this, we worked our way to the bottom of the food basket and Boonthong and I got to know each other. It turns out elephants and I are a lot alike – feeding us a good breakfast is a sure way to our hearts.

Then it was time for a quick health check. Ben, our guide, explained the things to check every morning to make sure the elephant is healthy, including a stool inspection. After that, bath time. I led Boonthong down to the river…

Nan Lang! With that command, Boonthong lowered her immense bulk into the river, allowing her trainer and I to wash her with buckets of water and a scrubbing brush. It’s important to wash elephants before riding, so that dirt and rocks on their skin don’t get ground in and cause irritation or cuts. I also helped Robin wash her elephant’s tusks, since mine had none.

Look means "up" in Elephant. Boonthong was ready to leave the river and go for a ride! I led her out by her ear, and we learned the basics of riding.

Tan Lang! This is the most fun way to mount an elephant. It means "trunk down." You can then climb up her trunk, step over her enormous head, and place your feet on either side of her neck. Then you just have to turn around and you’re ready to ride!

Pai means go… and we were off!

Riding Boonthong took a bit of getting used to. Despite the breakfast, she was still hungry and repeatedly demonstrated her ability to uproot and eat an entire sapling, or haul off large tree branches. Yana means "stop that!" but I didn’t know what she could and couldn’t eat, and I didn’t want to upset her too much, so I left most of the yanaing to the trainer.

We rode to a river, ate lunch (us first, then the elephants got the leftovers and the papaya leaf tablecloth), and went swimming together. Swimming with elephants is more like surfing – you have to stay on top while the elephants roll around, usually submerged apart from the tips of their trunks. Incidentally, kapow means "spray with your trunk!"

After lunch, more riding: back along a different path and the side of a highway. I was getting the hang of things, patting Boonthong and saying deedee: good elephant. Boonthong flapped her ears appreciatively.

For our last ride of the day, Robin and I rode double on her elephant, and then sadly parted ways with our huge grey friends. We bought them a basket of bananas though as a final treat… more boun, more deedee, then we said goodbye. The trainers rode the elephants home and we got a ride back to Chiang Mai.

Yay elephants! They’re so nice.

Here are some photos.

(We rode elephants on Robin’s birthday, March 28th.)

I’m on a boat

Robin and I are on a boat to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.

We passed a couple of days in Siem Reap, visiting the temples of Angkor. We visited Angkor Wat last and found it somewhat anticlimactic, mostly because it’s bandaged up with scaffolds for restoration and packed with tourists. Bayon, with its hundreds of huge stone faces, lived up to its reputation, and many other temples were amazing as well. My favourites were the ones where you could just wander the ruins, and especially the ones where trees had taken up residence in the stonework. To me that’s more interesting than temples artificially restored (at great expense) to an earlier state.. nature reclaiming her own.

After Siem Reap, onto Phnom Penh. It felt small and laid back for a capital, though traffic was crazy. We visited some relics of the brutal Khmer Rouge era: the killing fields and a former secret prison. It was sobering to see how brutal and self-defeating this regime got within just a few years in power. Wow.

And now, onto Vietnam. We’ll probably spend a few days in the Mekong Delta region before heading north to Saigon and eventually China.

(Written April 9, 2010)

…take a good hard look…

Louang Prabang and a waterfall

Robin and I took the "VIP" bus to Louang Prabang a few days ago. It wasn’t a great ride – no aircon, twisty roads, an unscheduled stop when the bus in front of us hit someone in the middle of the road and waited (blocking both directions of the road) until the police photographed its skid marks. The ride was interesting though. We got some nice views of the mountains of Laos, and passed through lots of little villages: sometimes a poor one with school children lined up behind a tap marked "World Vision" or "UNICEF" and sometimes a richer one with big C-band satellite dishes outside every house.

Yesterday, we wandered around Louang Prabang, visiting temples and climbing Phou Si, the hill in the middle of town. We also took a boat across the Mekong to visit an abandoned temple and get a good view of the city. The air everywhere was thick with smoke and we would learn the reason for this later.

Today we went on a trek through the jungle – a great experience! We started out in a Hmong village and the first thing we saw was men forging knife blades in a hut at the side of the road. This wasn’t a tourist attraction but how they still live. The next village over was a different ethnic group with a different language, and between the villages was a school teaching the Lao language to children from both villages. It looked well equipped and staffed for this part of the world – I wonder if all Lao schools are like that, or just when they’re trying to teach different groups the language of the majority.

From the second village, we trekked through the jungle, past small plantations of rubber trees and teak trees and burned fields. Our guide Tim explained that since the new year was approaching, it was burning season: time to burn off all the weeds and old growth in the fields in preparation for planting in the new year. I also reached a life goal of mine, which was to see pineapple fields. Now I know how they’re grown! I’ve always wanted to know, but didn’t want to ruin the surprise by researching it.

On the way up the trail, we met an old woman who was gathering, in the "hunter gatherer" sense. She was collecting wild nuts, and borke one open for us to try – it was tasty and moist. Along the way, Tim showed us a few more things: a tree with small berries that are bitter or sweet depending on the exact species of tree, and a spiky branch that can be used to tell if you have malaria. He cracked the branch and tasted the pulp inside and prononuced it bitter. Robin and I did the same with the same result… but about a year ago, he had malaria and the pulp tasted sweet! He then drank 5 pots of water boiled with the same branch, and when the fifth tasted bitter he knew the malaria had gone.

We stopped for lunch outside a cave. The lunch was amazing – a spread of fresh, traditional Lao dishes served with sticky rice. Then we went into the cave. It was huge! Not quite as big as Akiyoshi-dai in Japan but impressive, especially since it was spooky and undeveloped (we explored it with a flashlight.) There were a few Buddha statues scattered throughout the cave, apparently dating from when the cave was used as an air raid shelter, but otherwise the only sign of life was one bat sleeping on the ceiling.

After the cave, we saw the fresh, clear spring that acts as the source of the waterfall we were hiking to. It was full of fish. Local superstition says that a spirit protects the stream and misfortune will befall you if you even touch the water at this point, so we didn’t.

And onto the Kouang Si waterfall… we first saw it from above, then walked down the sides to see it from below and swim in it. There are three pools that you ARE allowed to bathe in, and one includes a rope swing and a small waterfall that Robin jumped off!

After that, back to Louang Prabang for some food and a sauna… what a great day!

Photos of Louang Prabang and area

(Entry written March 25, 2010)

Pizzeria names in Siem Reap, Cambodia

  • Happy Herb’s Pizza
  • Happy Angkor Pizza
  • Ecstacic Pizza
  • Happy Special Pizza

(We were in Siem Reap Apr 4-7, 2010)

Kitty says mow… tiger says Lao

Robin & I have been in Laos for a while… we spent 2 days in Vientiane, 3 in Vang Vieng, and today we’re heading to Luang Prabang.

The journey here was good. We took the sleeper train to Nong Khai and then a short connecting train over the Thai/Lao border. This train is neat: they close the Friendship Bridge to car traffic and run the train straight down the middle. It stops in the Vientiane suburbs at Thanaleng, so we shared a van with some other climbers we met at the train station into town.

The country is very laid back and friendly. It’s also noticeably poorer than Thailand, even in the areas that see a lot of tourist spending.

Vientiane is a nice place to spend a few days or even longer. The food is great, mostly thanks to French colonial influences. There’s lots of good, real cheese, the coffee is usually excellent, and fresh baguettes are everywhere. Actually, this goes for Vang Vieng as well. I’ve had excellent bacon at least once a day here :) They also serve the favourites from Thai cuisine and a few local dishes.

Some highlights from Vientiane: we visited Patuxay, a monument that my guidebook said was based on the Arc de Triomphe. "Inspired by" would be a better description. At its base, the most honest tourism sign I’ve ever seen:

Honest sign

I also made it to the Buddha Park, the morning after my failed attempt to reach it by bike. It’s pretty cool – there are several concrete safety hazards sculptures that you can climb, including a reclining Buddha that’s become a local object of worship. Unfortunately, I was too early for monks to be climbing the Buddha.

So onto Vang Vieng. Now this is a strange place. The town has more or less grown around the "needs" of the party animal type of backpacker. The locals have named the main street "TV Road" because every second building houses a restaurant or bar with televisions playing Friends, The Simpsons, or Family Guy. Many bars have a "happy menu" offering concoctions based on pot, mushrooms, or opium. And of course there’s booze, sold in buckets with straws, and Lao Beer (which is excellent.)

And then there’s tubing. The basic idea is to rent a tractor inner tube, take a tuktuk a few kilometres up the Nam Song (river), and ride the gentle currents down. The real attraction is that there are many bars along the banks of the river selling beer, buckets, and "happy" things. It’s basically spring break with tubes.

When I read about this, I decided I should visit and try tubing once. What I didn’t realize is that people make a lifestyle of it, tubing every day for a week or more. They get up around noon, hit the river until dusk, then shower and head to one of the many bars in town. Many of them also get a lot more drunk (or stoned) while tubing than I would consider wise, and there are one or two drowning deaths every year :(

Fortunately, there’s also climbing here. It’s not as well developed as in Tonsai, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting without a partner (unless you’re willing to hire a guide), but you can rent ropes and a few crags are bolted. I climbed with Robin for a day, then climbed with some people we met on our way. It’s about the same kind of climbing as Tonsai: heavily pocked and featureful limestone. The routes are dirtier because they’re climbed less, but on the upside they’re a lot less crowded and it’s about 10°C cooler at this time of year. I managed my first 6c lead (it was short and well protected) but I stopped about halfway up the 6c+ that shared the top anchor because the top holds were full of spiderwebs.

One of the cool things about the crags here is that they’re actually in the jungle, so you get the things you’d expect: big spiders, huge anthills, seed pods the size of your fist, weird spikey vines, and dense vegetation anywhere off the trail. No weird animals; it’s still too close to civilization. There are goats and ducks living near one crag though.

And now: onto Luang Prabang, then we’re flying to Chiang Mai on Lao Airlines.

Vientiane photos

Vang Vieng photos

(Entry written March 23)

…and I’m not even bored!

Many years ago, I found a text file of "things to do when you’re bored", one of which was "Make up a language and ask people for directions in it." I got a taste of how that might go today.

Robin and I decided to visit the Buddha Park, which is apparently a quirky ferro-concrete tourist attraction built in the 60s. It’s in Tha Deua, 27km from Laos, so the cheapest sensible way to get there is by bus. The bus station is 2km from the city centre, so we rented bikes for the day and I bought a map.

By the time we reached the bus station, I had decided I’d like to ride to the park, so I set off. The first half (or so) of the ride was uneventful. Traffic in Laos is slow, patient, and used to dealing with slower 2-wheeled vehicles since some of the locals ride bikes and many more ride motos.

Then I reached a fork in the road, labeled only with the names of a few temples that were not on my map. The fork also wasn’t on my map, but neither was a roundabout a few km back (which was labeled with Tha Deua so OK.) I took the paved side of the fork, and the paved side of another fork a few km later.

It was a pleasant ride, and definitely off the beaten track. I was the only white person in sight. People waved from streetside shops and restaurants and yelled "hello!" I saw people of all ages riding motos and bicycles, including school children and monks. There were many schools and temples along the road, the only structures that didn’t appear grey and run down.

I was beginning to worry if I was going the right way, so I asked a man at a roadside shop for directions to Tha Deua or the Friendship Bridge (to Thailand, on the way to Tha Deua.) He was completely unable to understand what I meant, and the same held for everyone else I asked. I rode along the road some more but without much hope – I had ridden far enough that I definitely should have reached the Friendship Bridge by now if not Tha Deua.

When the pavement ran out, I turned around. Shortly thereafter, a 12 year old on a Honda Wave pulled alongside me and asked "where you going?" I again tried to ask for directions to Tha Deua or the Friendship Bridge but he only looked at me blankly and said "sorry." He rode alongside a bit longer, then said goodbye and pulled away.

On the way back, I stopped at a stand selling pressed sugarcane. This is a green/yellow drink served in a bag of ice with a straw, produced by running sugarcane pieces through a motor-driven press. It has a strange taste that I didn’t really like, as well as being very sweet (instant sugar rush, moreso than I’ve had with any cola or sports drink.) It was worth a try though, especially since it cost me the equivalent of 25¢.

So oh well. Robin phoned me from the park, wondering where I was. We’re meeting up at the guesthouse when she gets back, and if she recommends seeing the park, I’ll take the bus out there early tomorrow. If not, it was still a fun ride so no loss!

(Entry written March 18, 2010)

Onto Laos

Robin and I are now on a train to Nong Khai, just across the border from the Lao capital Vientiane.

After Tonsai I took a longtail boat to Ao Nang (the closest community with a road), a minivan to Surat Thani train station (actually in the neighbouring town of Phunphin), and a train to Bangkok. There I met up with Robin, who left Tonsai before me since she was tired of climbing.

In Bangkok, we did some tshirt shopping (it’s a little known fact that Bangkok is one of the tshirt capitals of the world), visited the Reclining Buddha, and Robin visited the Grand Palace (I’d already been.) We also got to hang out with Julie, who’s been living in Thailand for a few years now.

It was a short visit though – our Thai visas run out today. So onto Laos, where we hope to visit Vientiane, Vang Vieng, and Louang Prabang before heading back to Thailand to visit the north and see more of Bangkok!

(Entry written March 17, 2010)

Reflections on Tonsai

The rest of my trip to Tonsai had: lots of great climbing, a rest day where Robin and I went sea kayaking (different muscle groups!), and Robin’s first grade 5 leads (including one onsight!) I led a 6b+ and toproped a hard 6c. I’m not ready to lead a 6c yet. If only I could stay another week…

Like I said, Tonsai is a great place! There’s a friendly community, mostly made up of climbers. The population is small (probably under 100 permanent, 400 transient at this time of year) and it’s almost completely isolated at night because the hike from Railay becomes significantly more difficult and dangerous even with a flashlight, and longtail boats don’t run.

There are about 25 longtail boats based in Tonsai. Other vehicles include: 3 pickup trucks, about 6 motorcycles with cargo beds, and about 10 regular motorcycles. The longtail boats are moored with old climbing ropes, of course.

I’ve learned that when renting a climbing rope, it’s important to check the length and make sure the middle point is marked (as well as checking for excess wear and abrasion, which you should do with your own rope anyway.) Also, a reminder: always tie a knot in the other end of your rope when leading. I’m very glad I did :)

After climbing, Tonsai has a decent nightlife. It’s not a spring break-style party like you’ll find on other beaches, and there’s almost no dancing. It’s mostly people sitting around and talking, and an occasional live band – which is more my scene anyway.

A couple of hints of Burning Man are around: there are generators everywhere at night, random bars with random decorations (though they charge for drinks), and firespinners! Some of the resident climbers have taken up firespinning in the evenings, and they’re really good. There are also slackliners, and one guy (at least) who combines both!

Reggae music is everywhere, and Bob Marley seems more popular than the King of Thailand (anyone who has ever been to Thailand will be amazed by this last statement.)

The food in Tonsai is great! The cheapest places to eat are the most popular. These are the "chicken ladies", two restaurants based out of shacks on opposite sides of the main road. They have big communal tables where people are (as usual) happy to talk to strangers. The most common morning food is sticky rice with mango (and there’s a recipe in the climbing guidebook for when you get home.) The most common morning greeting is "are you climbing today?"

Everyone lives in a hut: maybe with power, maybe with running water. Nobody complains. Everyone just wants to climb!

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