Laos

Chennai – Good bye

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This was our only photo in Chennai (CHUH – NYE) – our last dinner on the roof our hotel.

We only had two days in the city. The last two days of our 10 month long trip, and we chose to spend it at a buffet table and a shopping mall. We were tired, and wanted a couple of days to gather our stuff and relax before our next leg of travel back to our home and native land.

Suffice it to say, we didn’t have any grand tales to share from our time in Chennai.

Instead maybe some advice:

1. Go to more breakfast buffets.

2. Take your time there: don’t blow your appetite on an overfilled, first plate of waffles and pancakes.

3. Aim for four plates. For example, start slow with salad. Move over to the omelette station next, and pay service to some sausage and bacon. Then for your third plate, you could bring in some insulation like pancakes, waffles, or french toast. This means you can finish on a light note. As your reliever, go with some fruit.

4. Get the fresh stuff: is there one piece of french toast left in the container? do another couple of laps, or distract yourself with the colours at the salad bar then double back to get the new batch.

5. Treat it as your own food museum: people spend hours touring museums, taking history in slowly, one piece at a time. There’s no reason you can’t do the same. Consider a buffet, your own edible museum or art gallery that you can enjoy, bit by bit, digesting it all slowly.

Enjoy.

We’ve now been back in Canada for a couple of months, and I can confidently say that the first impression of life here is cold. Not groundbreaking news for winter in Canada – but we’d been living under sun for the past 10 months, and hadn’t been below zero in a long time. Our East Coast is having it rough, getting hammered with one snow storm after the next, which I think, is well summed up in this ditty:

Toronto is just cold. I know, in comparison to other parts of Canada like Saskatchewan, Alberta, Northern B.C, and Quebec we’re living in a paradise. My eyelids aren’t freezing shut, my nose hairs aren’t growing icicles, and it doesn’t hurt to breathe outside. And yet, I still feel cold. Maybe the sun has made me soft.

There’s a lot of good things to being back:
– fast WiFi
– good coffee
– personal laundry
– maple syrup

And some bad:
– The Toronto Maple Leafs

It was an amazing trip overall – with a ton of different experiences along the way, which I’m sure we’ll return to again and again as our memories are randomly triggered.

” Do you remember that drunk guy singing in a microphone on that Indonesian ferry?”

” Remember those mountain goats we saw off the trail in Nepal”.

” Remember that Chinese trekker who had a teddy bear on his bag to remember his wife”.

Blah, blah, blah. We can go on forever – and think it enormously interesting, while boring the shit out of everyone around us. However, in place of our subjective impressions, here’s something we can include people on: our trip by the numbers.

Months spent travelling: 10

Countries visited: 10

Planes taken: 32

Longest single flight: 14 hrs 35 mins. (Vancouver to Auckland)

Trains taken: 5 (overnight) + 2 (day)

Longest single train ride: 14 hrs (Delhi to Varanasi)

Buses taken: 2 (overnight) + 19 (day)

Longest single bus ride: 13 hrs (Mumbai to Goa)

Tuk-tuk/rickshaws taken: 100+ (at least)

Cars/Taxis taken: 40-ish

Cars we rented and drove ourselves: 2

Mopeds we rented and drove ourselves: 5

Boats/Ferries: 7

Longest continuous day of travel: 26 hrs (Phuket to Sukothai)

Guesthouses stayed: 84

Nights sleeping in airports: 2

Bouts of food poisoning: 2 – Marc 0 – Rose

Countries where one or more nationals mistook Rose as a fellow citizen : 8

Scuba dives: 12

Highest altitude climbed: 5416 metres (16, 878 feet)

Lowest depth swum below sea level: 30 metres (98 feet)

Trail hikes: 4

Longest hike: 20 days (Annapurna Circuit)

Major news stories of our disappearance: 5 (Google search: Marc + Rose + Nepal)

Strangers who asked me to pose in a photo with them: 4

Temples visited: beaucoup

How many times we changed time zones: 10

Most times zone crossed in a single day: 10

Total distance travelled: 98, 885.4 kms (two times around the earth + 18k leftover)

I may fill in a few spots here and there, add some more travel books and odds and ends. But otherwise, that was our trip.

Merci bien. Thanks for reading.

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Strolling along in Luang Prabang

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While Rose got excited about orange robed monks in Vientiane – it was only a warm-up to her ecstatic adoration in Laos second major city, Luang Prabang (LOO-ONG – PRUH – BONG)

Every morning, the monks in this town, get up at the crack of dawn to participate in a ceremony called “Tak Bat”. Townspeople line the streets with alms in hand, usually a rice ball, and as monks pass by they drop it into their basket. In return, the giver hopes to improve their karma.

It’s had a long tradition, but people like us – tourists – unfortunately have steadily been interfering with the ceremony by stepping up to the monks with a camera in hand and flash turned ON, imagining themselves a National Geographic photographer on a self-appointed mission to capture ART or at very least a better photo than the next blog.

Sadly, the result is that it upsets the monks’ procession and the exchange they have with the residents of the town.

It’s even gotten to the point that tourists have started to participate in the ceremony, which fine enough if you’re Buddhist, but if you’re a backpacker passing through, to me it feels like you’re trivializing it, approaching it as if it’s an activity like ziplining.

It’s the notion that: I want to do that myself. I don’t want to watch people do it. In other words, it’s not worth it unless I can join in.

We saw plenty of examples from tourists sticking the snouts of their cameras into a Buddhist temple during a nighttime ceremony only to let their flash fly: once, twice: as long as it takes to ensure they got the picture they wanted while others walked into another temple at night to join a procession of monks who were carrying candles and circling their temple as part of a ceremony.

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Again, fair enough if you’re a Buddhist, but given two of the guys in the procession with the monks looked totally confused and apprehensive about every move they made, essentially giving the impression that they were in over their heads, I had my doubts.

In any case, it was only a small group doing it, and didn’t undermine everything. Ok, rant over. Back to Luang Prabang.

It was originally the capital of Laos, and the home of the royal family who lived in the palace until Communism took over in 1975:

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They also had their very own private temple, which, surprise, surprise was much more elaborate than other temples in the city:

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However, we visited another popular temple in the city – Xieng Thong – and it’s artwork, I felt, seemed a lot purtier than that there Royal guy’s – probably because we actually had access to walk inside them:

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As usual, the heat was intense.

One morning we made our way up these steps to a spot called – Mount Phusi:

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which, at the top, had a wicked lookout on the city with a view of the two rivers that run around Luang Prabang – the Mekong and Nam Khan:

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Plus, more temples, with our friend, ever present (yet impermanent) Siddartha:

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Despite getting up early to walk around in the morning to beat the heat. Already at 9am, it was clear we (I) were deluding ourselves:

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Similar to Vientiane, Luang Prabang had French influences from colonial restaurants:

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to croissant filled cafes:

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But, one of the best spots we found was across this bamboo bridge to a restaurant on the other side of the bridge, which we found out, coincidentally, was owned by a Canadian:

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Since the town juts out into a peninsula, we alternated between sitting on one side of the town to watch boats swing themselves around the Mekong:

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Then to the other side to watch people fish in the Nam Khan:

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It’s an incredibly calm, and slow-paced town with one of the most elaborate craft markets we’d seen until now, which happens every night, and is filled with hand woven quilts, pants, shirts made by Laotian craftspeople along with ¬†trinkets of all stripes:

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Plus, during the day, a regular food market with all kinds of fruit and local spices:

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After four relaxing days, we moved on to a more active schedule in Vietnam where we met up with two friends from Toronto, who came out to visit. Next stop, dodging traffic in Hanoi.

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Buddha & Butterflies

 

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Laos is often referred to as the “Land of a million elephants”, because the majority of Laotians are obese.

I’m kidding. The complete opposite is true.

Laos is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, and many Laotian children suffer from malnutrition. Excess calories and XXXL clothing remain our North American privilege.

However, in non-metaphoric terms, Laos wins out.

Elephants in Laos were abundant in the 11th Century, and were often bedecked with gold decorated saddles and used as modes of transport by the Royal family.

While there are tourist packages available to see and ride them today, their numbers are not what they were, largely a cause of human encroachment or industry (slight as it is) and while not cited as a direct cause, I can’t help but think that 2 million tons of dropped bombs had an effect on their habitat.

So, given their declining numbers, I thought of tweaking Laos national motto to reflect a view, albeit limited from two cities: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, of the most common sights we saw: “Land of a million Buddhas and Butterflies”.

Both are ubiquitous. The majority of Laotians are Buddhist (60%) and it’s expected by many young men to spend time in a monastery before they enter the world or decide to stay on with the order.

The result is that on the streets of Vientiane (and in Luang Prabang – which I’ll get into in a later post), we passed tons and tons of monks, wearing their orange robes, who, after staring at them in awe, wondering what mystical journeys they were on, we later found out, were just on their way to school, the dentist or any other errand that you and I have. Even the path to enlightenment crosses banal street.

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Regardless, this didn’t dampen Rose’s love affair. Whenever we passed any of the many Wats (temples) in the city where there were crowds of the orange robed savants, Rose would almost squeal with excitement staring at them while extending her hand out to me, able only to say one word: “Camera. Camera. Camera” or “Look. Did you get it.” asking me to take a picture:

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Some of the most popular Wats were a couple near the national emblem; a stupa named: Pha That Luang – which also included a museum where we sweat in silence, next to a series of Buddhist statues, big, small and doll-size:

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Then, outside the stupa, a huge Buddha, sitting how Rose and I wished we could, given the heat and our diminished electrolytes:

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Still unsure what the dominant religion was? Hey, what’s on your left:

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Now, your right:

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Confused, still? Even this cat was happy to give us a big hint:

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Through the course of a day here, it felt like living inside a Buddhist kaleidoscope. Wherever you look, there he is:

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Now, that brings us to the other side of the new motto: butterflies. Also, along with Buddha, they are a majority, as it seemed, any vista or view of the middle distance contained a fleet of the erratic bunch of flyers in all colours: monarchs, white ones, brown ones.

While, I did look closely, I didn’t spot anyone painting butterflies with a hammer and sickle. They appear to fly naturally, free of outdated propaganda.

The effect of Buddhas and butterflies everywhere, kind of created this blissful worldview, where I wandered around in a semi-dream state, half-expecting to see a unicorn gallop across the road.

Unfortunately, it turns out, we came across something much different.

On our trip, I’ve learned that I have a talent to use my imagination to sabotage any peaceful scene: (i.e. while enjoying a quiet day in a cafe in Laos listening to birds chirp I said to Rose: “Ya know in the Vietnam War this would be the kind of cafe in Saigon where a guerilla fighter would run in and drop a few grenades”).

So, I was having one of these peace busting moments, walking down a stretch of road, and I thought to myself: “Ya know. In Borneo, there were vipers in trees. There must be snakes here”.

That moment, I heard a big clang across the road, turned and saw a guy throwing a rock at the wall.

At first, I thought he was a local nut, but then I looked, and in an insane coincidence, saw he was throwing the stone for a reason, (though a very unBuddhist-like reason) to kill a snake:

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Apparently, it had fallen out of a tree above, and the guy thought it better to kill than let it go free. After employing another burgeoning talent, miming, I asked him through hand gestures and acting if the snake was dangerous, and he nodded vigorously.

Okay. Shit. There’s snakes:

And, as Rose will agree, that pretty much set the tone afterward every time we sought shade under a tree, went to a public bathroom, or, in my paranoid case, got into bed in our hotel room.

Thankfully, this was the only appearance of a snake in the flesh, though versions of serpents appear all over Buddhist temples:

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I still preferred butterflies.

Next stop: Luang Prabang where Rose continues her crush on Buddhist monks, and we drift away the days between the cities two rivers: the Mekong and Nam Khan, and good coffee and croissants.

Talk soon

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