Discovering the world on $20 per day ......................

Post 382: Boonville Bound: California USA

The last few months have vanished, gone in the blink of an eye and it’s time to move on.  The monsoon rains of Thailand I certainly won’t miss, but the people and the place I will, especially Nongnoo. The book; ‘Poor Circulation Ashes to Boonville’ is now finished and should be available in the UK within the next couple of weeks. I’ve got to thank so many people for making it possible, all of whom get a mention in the Book, but a special ‘Thank You’ goes to my sister-in-law Torrey for having the ability to polish the detritus that I called a manuscript.
I’ll be flying to California at the end of April and spending a few months with the family in Boonville. It’ll be good to be back there, hanging out with friends and hopefully lending a helping hand with the final stages of the house build and with the animals around the farm. My nephew and niece Sam and Willow are growing up quickly, and after six months away it’ll be amazing to see how much they’ve grown. I’ve bought them clothes and shoes that I’m taking with me, but I’m useless at shopping for myself never mind others, especially buying clothes for kids who always seem to be taller and broader than you remember, so I hope they’ll forgive my taste in fashion and sense of size. I'm also missing my daughter Hannah who I haven't seen for far too long. She'll be leaving college and starting university at the end of the summer and I want to be back in England around that time. Birth to University in the blink of an eye! If I ever needed one, it's a reminder of how old I really am and a motivator to get the things done that I need to get done while there's still enough time and mobility to do them.  
In Boonville I’ll be writing/finishing/polishing the second book; ‘Poor Circulation Homeward Bound’ and hope to have it finished and available before Christmas 2013. Writing and rewriting the first book so many times has taught me some valuable lessons, one of which should be never to promise a delivery date, but hopefully the peace and quiet of Boonville will help me to concentrate and get this one out on time.

Thanks for following, and internet permitting, I'll be back here soon.     

Post 381: Laos, Vang Vieng

My original intention was to ride up to Luang Prabang, about another 250km to the north. But, I’d originally planned to be riding a motorcycle with slightly longer legs than the Suzuki Smash. The bike’s casings tell me that it’s blessed with an engine capacity of 110cc, but from the feel and sound of the motor, it seems to have a 100cc piston slapping around in its oversized bore - a piano playing in a great cathedral. Luang Prabang will have to wait, but the charms of Vang Vieng are drawing me in.

The hills surrounding Vang Vieng are not really mountains; they’re what my old geography teacher always referred to as ‘hummocks’. Tall fingers of rock with rounded peaks covered in vegetation and marbled with natural cave formations. At the undisclosed entrance to one of these caves, I find a local entrepreneur who wants to be my best friend and guide. At each of the caves, the price is always the same, 10,000 kip ($1), but it’s a price worth paying. Without the local guide you’ll struggle to find the hidden entrances and if you haven’t brought your own flashlight and large ball of string, then you’ll likely get lost inside, or fall down a chasm and die.
Inside one of the cave complexes at Pheung Kam, the air is strangely cold as chilling currents flow from somewhere far below ground. Stalactites hang from the high and not so high ceilings, and stalagmites rise from the ground to meet them. The tunnels are narrow, the floors are well trodden and unannounced gullies threaten to swallow the incautious tourist. And then, around a corner, ducking to avoid another collision between forehead and rock, sits a substantial image of Buddha. Too large to have come in through the entrance, it must have been constructed where it sits. It’s old but not ancient and according to my guide, it dates back to the 1970's when these caves were used by ‘People’ to shelter from the almost continuous US bombing raids. I’ve no idea if that’s true, but being here now feels quite claustrophobic and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like in a time of war with bombs raining down on the mountain above. Actually, I don’t think Laos and the USA were ever technically ‘At War’, which seems surprising, because in the 1970's America dropped more ordnance on Laos than the total amount of ordnance dropped on the entire world during World War II .... mai pen rai kap. 

Back on the roads around Vang Vieng, sandy tracks that cross dry river beds and shallow flowing streams, the majority of the people in and between the small hamlets are young. School kids ride from school to the river on their bicycles while younger kids hang out of their clothes and around their grandparents on the bamboo porches of lopsided homes. Apart from those people working in hotels and restaurants, the people here are either old or young, there's nobody in the middle. The parents of the kids, I suspect, are away making money in the city while the older folks take care of the family.  I’d earlier joked about feeling like the poorest kid in town, but that had been back in Vientiane. Here things are different, very different, worryingly different. The shirt on my back makes me feel rich and I suspect that tonight I’ll be eating far better than many of the people that I’ve seen around here today. I don’t feel guilty for being here, I just feel ‘aware’ of my surroundings. Laos is clearly experiencing a period of rapid economic change and in Vientiane that new wealth is visible, often rudely so, but it’s an economic surge that appears to be bypassing these rural communities to the north. 
The town of Vang Vieng is now a community dedicated to the service of tourism, but thankfully, not in a trashy kind of way. In Laos there are no McDonalds, Starbucks or KFC’s, and aside from fuel stations and convenience stores, most small businesses seem to be independently operated. I like that, it gives a degree of uncertainty and character to a place and makes everything feel just a little more genuine. 
Outside of the small towns, agriculture is the main activity and it reminds me very much of Thailand back in the 1980’s. It’s a manual economy that runs with the seasons and still employs more buffalo power than diesel. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed, but that’s very easy for me to say. I’m not the one who’s bent double in a field beneath the burning sun thinning-out the rice crops.

Post 380: Laos, Vientiane to Vang Vieng

Memo to Self: ‘Keep Right Stupid’. Yes, here in Laos they like to drive on the right side of the road. Riding on the right isn’t a challenge, it’s forgetting to ride on the right that seems to create the problems. Hopefully I’ll remember and not become another painted outline on the road.
Vientiane is a great city, but leaving it is easy, Highway 13 North. The roads are busy, busier than I can ever remember. Congestion, lots of cars, many of them shiny and new. Billboards to the side of the road explain why. ‘Cars 4 Cash’ - ‘Cash 4 Cars’ – ‘No Deposit + Easy Payments’. The world of Easy Credit has arrived here in Laos and I’m suddenly feeling like the poorest kid in town. Laos is starting to mirror Thailand, but with longer skirts and slightly shorter smiles. Even the rural farmers are the same. Each and every one of them is a pyromanic with a penchant for setting fire to anything that’ll burn. I twist the throttle wide open and try to outrun the choking smoke, but all I seem to get is a lot more noise. It’s another 150Km to Vang Vieng, but fortunately I’ve got a 30 Day Visa .... No need to hurry.
The density of buildings reduces and the road imperfections increase, but the Suzuki Smash just seems to fart along like a vegetarian grandmother. Random detours down sandy tracks and across bridgeless streams add interest to a maximum speed of 80Kph and away from the tarmac, the Suzuki starts making me smile and reminding me that I’m free. All is good in the world. 
Vang Vieng is an interesting town with a local populous of older grandparents and younger kids, and a tourist population of twenty-something Europeans who appear to be strangers to grooming. I feel like the oldest Farang in town riding the slowest scooter in Laos, and it's probably true. Vang Vieng reminds me of Goa thirty years ago, but without the beach and the blow. It’s a good place to kick-back with cheap rooms, stunning views and a relaxed approach to everything. Beyond the town, rough tracks lead to swimming areas, deep caves and tall mountains. With a total disregard for Health & Safety, Kids jump from high bridges into not so deep rivers below and European travellers swing from high rock faces on unreasonably skinny ropes. But, nobody dies and everybody seems to smile.     
At the side of every track, I find constant reminders that life in Laos hasn’t always been quite so carefree. Shell casings litter the area, hopefully dormant or defused, but there are no guarantees. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 280,000,000 bombs onto Laos, that’s 47 bombs for every man, woman and child in the country, and according to the Mine Action Group, at least 20% of them failed to explode and many remain deadly to this day.

Post 379: Accidentally Into Laos

Entering Thailand from Cambodia at the small border town of Ban Laem, is normally an administrative breeze. However, experience tells me that even the easiest of border crossings can be unpredictable:
Official: ‘Your Thai visa expired on March 11th, today is March 12th and your visa is invalid’
Me: ‘Please look at my passport, my Thai visa expires tomorrow, March 13th, my visa is still valid’.
Official: ‘The computer says 11th March. Sorry, entry is denied’
It was like a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, but for a traveller with very little money, it was slightly more serious. Unfortunately in this particular version of the game, it seemed that ‘Computer’ trumped ‘Passport-Stamp’ every time. I was clearly on an administrative hiding-to-nothing and decided to cut my losses. After much discussion, they finally compromised and allowed me to enter Thailand for just 14 Days. It wasn’t the 60 Days that I’d expected, but it was certainly better than the alternative: ‘Entry Denied’.
It’s always surprising that a task’s appetite for time can ebb and flow according to the amount of time that’s available to complete it. So, after just 12 Days in Bangkok, my tasks were finished and it was time get out of Thailand. At Bangkok’s Mo Chit bus station, I boarded the overnight VIP Coach to Nong Khai and 12 hours later, I crossed the ‘Friendship Bridge’ into Laos.

Welcome to Laos, or to use its fuller name, the Laos People’s Democratic Republic. Any nation that feels the need to include the words ‘People’ and ‘Democratic’ in its name, always makes me slightly suspicious. Such inclusions often reflect a gentle misinterpretation of the facts, like a chocolate bar described as being ‘Fun Size’ or a tent that ‘Sleeps 4’.  But, when applied to Nations, such misrepresentations are probably slightly more serious. North Korea is officially called The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I rest my case. 
Democratically speaking, the 6,500,000 citizens of Laos are represented by 132 elected members of the National Assembly.  Every five years, National Assembly members are elected via a national ballot, a ballot that seems to include everything but choice. It appears that all electable officials are members of the only legally recognised political party in Laos, The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. Thus, I suspect that the words ‘People’ and ‘Democratic’ in Laos’ name are as silent as the letter ‘S’ in Laos.
So here I am, an Englishman governed by Cameron and Clegg, a man living in a world shaped by Bush and Blair, and I’m questioning the true level of democracy here in SE Asia. Shame on me. 

Moving on, in order to travel in Laos, I’ve secured a rental scooter from a Vietnamese food vendor here in downtown Vientiane Capital. It’s a little red Suzuki Smash with a big chrome exhaust pipe and four evenly spaced gears, all of them down. What else can I say? Well, what I should say is that before leaving Thailand I’d pre-booked a rental bike, a 250cc Honda Baja, but when I’d arrived to collect the motorcycle from Jules Classics they’d denied all knowledge of my reservation. I’d shown them the booking request and their subsequent confirmation, but the man from Jules Classics had simply said ‘No’.
Having collected the unfortunately named Suzuki Smash, before leaving Vientiane I stopped to visit a chirpy gentleman who sells handmade wristbands on the pavement outside of Jules Classics. Yesterday I’d left Jules Classics feeling slightly pissed-off with the world, but this man had put everything into perspective. As a youth, he’d lost the use of his lower legs in a landmine incident but had smiled, got over it and got on with it, making the most of what he could do and ignoring what he couldn’t. I chat with him for a few minutes before selecting ten of his beautifully crafted wristbands and handing him a sum of money equal to the cost differential between renting the Honda and Suzuki. It felt good to make someone’s day, but I also introduced him to the wonders of Marmite and that was quite a different story .... a different story for another time.