Kissy kissy

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Greetings from Myanmar*!  The title of this post refers to the most entertaining cultural habit we’ve observed so far: To get someone’s attention in this country, you make kissing noises at them.  Ryan has noted that this is awkward for him when he wants to call the teahouse waiter for the check (because all the waiters here are prepubescent boys).

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c’mere you

Speaking of attention, we sure have been getting a lot of it. I guess  Western tourists get a lot of attention almost anywhere they go in southeast Asia, but here it’s less, “Hello motorbike where you go?” and more, “Hello!” followed by giggling.  People will stop and make small talk with us, and an astonishing amount of the time, they don’t even want to sell us anything.  For anybody who’s traveled to the big tourist spots in Cambodia or Thailand, this kind of friendly, curious behavior from locals can seem like a small, strange miracle.  You…you just want to know where I’m from?  Really?

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Obviously, though, not everybody is totally free of ulterior motives when they talk to us.  Meet Sai:

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He came up to us on our first day in Yangon, saying he was a former monk who still lived at his monastery as a layperson, and he was on his way there, and would we like to come with him?  We did a very out-of-character thing and said yes (or rather, I said yes and Ryan looked at me like I was insane).  So we all took a local bus out there and he showed us around the place, which was huge, a small city of monasteries and monks.  Then he took us to his dark, teak-wood monastery and sure enough, when we started making polite noises about needing to go, he set in about how his head monk was very, very sick and how they couldn’t afford any good medicine for him.  So we were like yes yes okay here’s a donation, Sai.

I’m still glad we went with him, though – it’s not like we didn’t see the plea for money coming a mile away, and we actually learned and saw some pretty interesting stuff, thanks to him.  For example:

1.  While we waited for the bus, Sai pointed to an old, red, boarded-up colonial building and told us about the military snipers who stood at the windows and shot people down on the street during the 2007 protests.  Then he pointed to a swanky, high-rise hotel and said, “The security was very good at that hotel!  Many people tried to run inside, but they couldn’t get in.”

2.  He’s from a village way up north, in a restricted zone. He came to Yangon in 2007 with an invitation to study at university but he can’t return home now, because as a member of the Shan minority he doesn’t have the necessary documents and IDs that he would need to travel back to the restricted zone.  This kind of blew me away.  Here is an interesting article about, among other things, the ethnic diversity of Myanmar (which I, being an ass, knew nothing about before coming here) and how it relates to national identity.

3.  When we saw him, he said he’d just finished teaching a lesson at a local orphanage.  He himself was orphaned by the civil war in the border states; he said a lot of the boys he teaches also lost their families to conflict, and many of them will eventually become monks, like he did.

But never fear, we also learned less-depressing things from Sai.  For instance, he took us to this crazy concrete bunker where people could come to make offerings to a gallery of nats, or spirits:

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There were nats to protect you in the forest, and nats to protect you at sea.  The two boy-nats in the photo above used to be princes, killed by the man in the middle (who was then executed by the king).  Our favorite nat was this mustachioed fellow, Gojijo:

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He was an alcoholic who died after a night of heavy drinking.  Sai told us that if you say his name when you raise your glass, he will watch over your party.  Seems like a pretty good deal.

And finally, if we hadn’t visited Sai’s monastery, we wouldn’t have met this character:

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The second-in-command at the monastery, he demanded to see one of my bracelets and then, after examining it and proclaiming it to be teak, he shuffled over to where we were sitting and hand-fed us some pineapple chunks.  Then he chuckled and told us that monks usually only feed babies like that, and so, we were his babies.  I guess you had to be there?  It was kinda funny.

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Yangon was overwhelming in a good way, at first. We stayed in the heart of the city and every time we went outside, the street was a riot of crazy shit we’d never seen before: Moldy, crumbling colonial architecture; men in longyis; faces smeared with golden thanaka; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Burmese, Indians, Chinese and minority people, all mixed together and weaving through the loud, crowded streets and grinning their bloody betel nut grins at us. We’ve never been to India so maybe that’s why Yangon overloaded my senses, but man. I don’t have any pictures that really capture how bonkers the streets were around our guesthouse.  I just wandered around in a sweaty daze, picking my way around the destroyed sidewalks, trying to return all the smiles from strangers.

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After a few days, though, Yangon stopped being overwhelming in a good way, and started just wearing us down. The city was sunny and loud; our guesthouse room was hot and windowless; the few air-conditioned cafes were far away and pricey.  So we traveled north for about 24 hours to a town called Hsipaw, which has been my favorite place on this trip so far and I haven’t been able to shut up about it.  But that’s for another post!  Another breathless, gushing post!  Get ready to roll your eyes at me as you’ve never rolled them before!

In conclusion, I give you our regularly scheduled gif, of Sule Paya in Yangon:

And I bid you a good day.

*or Burma, obvs.  I am not sure where I come down on the Myanmar/Burma debate.  Aung San Suu Kyi calls it Burma and so that seems like it should be the end of the argument, but everyone we’ve met here so far – local and foreign – uses “Myanmar” to refer to both the country and the language.  Obviously that doesn’t prove anything: Maybe people say “Myanmar” because they’re making a political statement, but maybe it’s just out of habit, or maybe it’s still not a good idea to use the word “Burma” out in the street, despite the recent liberalizations.  I have no idea; I haven’t asked anybody about it.  Initiating a conversation with somebody about something so potentially controversial seems unwise?  And so we’ve been saying “Myanmar” here, which seems like the most appropriate thing to do as foreigners who are not interested in making any waves.

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O Friends

Just in case you think we’re the only M21s still bumming around in southeast Asia, look who we ran into:

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We met up with some buds once we got back to Luang Prabang, and then later we met another bud in Vientiane, and not a moment too soon!  We’ve had some good conversations with other travelers on this trip (mostly with people over 40; what this says about us, I don’t want to know) but it sure was nice to see some familiar faces, especially ones who are jobless hobos like us.

We spent a couple days in Luang Prabang with Pecaut and Sarah  (a kindred lady M21 bloggin’ her way across Southeast Asia!  Read it, love it) before the four of us headed out on a two-day trek. But it turns out I forgot to take any pictures of us virtuously slogging our way through the jungle; all I have are pictures of us being buttheads in the city the day before.  Oh well.

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more beer in my beer, please

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These kebabs are too spicy: A Portrait

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How we do

My other picture from karaoke will remain unpublished, for leverage.

Here are some of the kiddos from the Khmu village we passed through on our first day:

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I asked these girls for their photo, and they giggled and obliged.  Now we can all breathe easy because my entitled little scavenger hunt – “Types of Laotians I Want Photos Of” – has come to an end.  Basically I just wanted to take a picture of schoolgirls before we left.  I like how they wear blingy silver belts with their sarongs, like the girl on the left.  I was tempted to get a pencil skirt made out of similar fabric when we were in Luang Prabang, but my previous misadventures with tailored clothes stopped me.  And could any white girl pull off something like that back in the states?  I mean if I walked into a room people would definitely go, “Oh good, here comes Katie in her fucking ethnic skirt again.”  I would think that, anyway.  And everybody else in the world is just as small-minded as me, I’m pretty sure.

Here is Mr. Hot Stuff, who, after an initial period of wide-eyed shyness, was posin’ up a storm the whole time our group was in the village:

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He knew the drill for sure.

Sarah mentioned this in her post, too, but: This trek was a tad weird, for two reasons.  One is the simple fact that there were other people there. There was one Irish lady and three other Americans, a couple of whom were particularly photo-snappy. There is nothing quite so awkward and guilt-inducing as walking through a village with a group of other foreigners and seeing your own behavior reflected in them (they were sometimes jerks about it, dancing right on that razor-thin dividing line between “zealous but friendly and engaging tourist photographer, who smiles and asks and tries to be human” and “robotic, dead-eyed picture-taking machine who sneaks photos of bathing villagers”).

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We stayed the night at another Khmu village, and our guides walked the eight of us around before dinner, pointing out various things: Boys playing sepak takraw, a volleyball-like game using feet, heads, and a rattan ball; old ladies chewing betel nuts; a blacksmith, hammering out a small scythe (when he saw us coming, one of the blacksmith’s buds laughed and told our guide to thank the foreigners for all the free, high-quality metal we sent down from the sky) .  The other shutterbugs went in for the kill each time, and I had to wander away from the paparazzi brigade before I felt comfortable enough to ask anybody for photos (there is a whole other blog post where I dissect the feelings of privilege and entitlement that go with my desire to not be part of a “paparazzi brigade” when I’m on the hunt for photos in the mountain villages of Laos, but let’s just let it be for now and proceed under the assumption that I know I’m a jerk).

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This guy was making a new roof for his house.  According to our guide, they have to be replaced every couple of years.

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I kept these in color only because you can see a hint of betel nut red around Mom’s mouth.  We played a game where Mom would have me toggle back and forth between the photos and have the little girl shout out everyone’s name.  She shouted hers the loudest, obvs.

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The second reason this trek was weird is that the other Americans were maybe the most joyless group of people we’ve ever encountered.  The less said about them the better, but man.  They just kind of clumped together and glowered the whole time.  They didn’t even really talk with either of our guides, which, I mean, look at this guy:

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When BK the Tour Guide breaks out the homemade lao-lao, you drink it, and you listen to him ramble on about his time in the corrupt monk education system, and you like it.  Duh.

Anyway, on day two there were some elephants:

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And some waterfalls:

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(Guess who we saw there, guiding some other poor saps?  Hint: Although the rocks were really slippery, he did not tell us to be careful, which was disappointing)

And finally, some kayaking:

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Which Ryan and I did not do, because we are lazy, and because I can’t even remember the last time I paddled a boat.

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So that was that!  We said our farewells and made our move into Thailand, picking up our pal Aaron along the way.  Here is another gif for you, of Aaron and me crossing the Lao-Thai border, and it is a small work of art methinks:

I hereby pledge to have at least one gif per post for the rest of our trip.  Why did I not start making these things sooner?  They are SO EASY!  Hooray!

Oh what the heck, here’s one more:

Okay, so, wrapping this up, jesus.  Aaron, Ryan and I went straight from Vientiane to Bangkok.  We stayed for one night in Chinatown, in a large, empty, scary crap palace of a hotel.  Then we spent the day wandering around the packed alleyways, congratulating ourselves on our choice of neighborhood.  No Western tourists anywhere!  Crazy-ass Chinese commerce as far as the eye could see!  Delicious street food, e’erywhere!

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Alas, there was one thing missing from Chinatown: An air-conditioned place for us to sit and have a beer and use the internet.

And so we immediately decamped for Banglamphu, otherwise known as Ground Zero for Assclowns.

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Pad thai on Khaosan Road. Very original, you two

We spent a week in the city, mostly indulging in first-world kind of stuff: Seeing a 3-D movie, stuffing our faces in mall food courts, riding the air-conditioned Skytrain, making fun of white people with dreadlocks.  I think most traveling RPCVs think of our vacations as a transition, a way to ease back into life in the states; what’s strange about Bangkok is that a lot of the city makes a lot of the US seem shabby by comparison.  After experiencing the polished splendor of Siam Paragon I know that as soon as I walk into a mall back home, my first thought will not be, “Ah yes! Back in America,” but rather, “ew, what a dump.”

We also indulged in THE BEST PAD THAI IN BANGKOK, according to the Lonely Planet anyway:

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All wrapped up in its eggy shell

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oooh

We kept being amazed at how many tourists there are in Bangkok, and yet how easy it is to leave them behind.  This restaurant isn’t any secret; it’s right there in the guidebook, and only a 15-minute walk from Backpacker Central.  And yet we were the only foreigners there.  Can imagine how smug we felt, strolling back to our guesthouse that evening, having eaten these delicious goddamned noodles?  Can you?  I bet you can.

And then, finally, speaking of indulgences, somebody had his one millionth three-piece suit tailor-made:

Lookin’ good, pal.

And so!  The three of us parted ways; Aaron back to the motherland, and us here to Yangon, which is like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  Here’s hoping the internet holds out!

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Upriver, downriver

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After Luang Prabang we headed north to Nong Khiaw, a small town on the Nam Ou that most tourists seem to just pass through, which is weird, because it is a quiet, pretty place, with all the  limestone karsts and cheap lemongrass cocktails you could want.
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Because we like to make things difficult for ourselves, we spent a lot of time and effort trying to find the perfect river bungalow.  The first night, we stayed at a place that had a nice breeze, but no hammock and no wifi.  Nights two and three, we stayed at a place with a hammock, but no breeze, and the wifi didn’t reach our bungalow.  We finally found a place with a hammock and a breeze for our fourth night, but alack, I regret to report that we never found a place with wifi that would reach our breezy hammock.  Ugh, why doesn’t anything ever work out for us?

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oh woe

Then we took a longboat a little farther north to Muang Ngoi, an even smaller village with no roads and no electricity (but, incongruously enough, with guesthouses and English speakers).  We stayed there for another few days, repeating the rhythms we’d established in Nong Khiaw: Eat, hammock, eat, beer, hammock, eat, beer, hammock.  It didn’t take long before the proprietress of one of Muang Ngoi’s two cafes would say, upon seeing us coming down the road for our 3:30 snack,  “Two big Beerlao and french fries?”

But we did manage to expend energy on things other than the 50-meter commute between our bungalows and the closest cafe.  Two things, specifically.  Those things were:

1.
An afternoon of bike riding around Nong Khiaw.  By “an afternoon” I mean about 90 minutes, but hey, it’s still pretty hot around here, and stuff.

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We passed through villages on our way to visit some kind of cave system, which turned out to be closed (we found out it was closed only after we tightrope-walked across the ricketiest of the many rickety bamboo bridges we’ve encountered so far on this trip).  So we rode back and decided to stop for a drink in town, outside of the tiny backpackers’ ghetto we’d been lazily confining ourselves to.  I was immediately bummed that we’d waited until our last day to do this, because the busy street scene was basically everything you could want while you sit and drink your frosty Beerlao:  Schoolkids passing by in the street, dudes playing a rowdy card game down the road, and a friendly family across the way, selling kebabs and THESE THINGS:

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(they were, we have since learned, bamboo rats)(and we did not buy one, but the guy in the photo informed us that they are very tasty barbequed)

2. 
A day of self-guided trekking in Muang Ngoi, made possible by the clearly-marked paths that lead out of the village, through rice paddies and into even remoter villages.  After two years in Mongolia anything “remote” shouldn’t surprise me much, but I was still kind of blown away at how, to get to these villages, you need to 1) drive to Nong Khiaw, 2) take a 1-hour boat up the river to Muang Ngoi, then 3) walk for two hours.

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Thus we were not surprised when we weren’t able to get a beer at our first stop.

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Mountain crab, ahoy

So I’m glad we went on this hike —  we did have to ford a couple of streams and navigate some gigantic mud patches,  but at least it was all flat.   If we did it again, though, I would hire a guide.  As awkward as it is to stroll through a tiny village with a local showing you the sights, it sure is even more awkward to do it without a guide.
We also encountered a crowd of “Hello candy” kids, which just makes you want to go back in time, locate the tourists who first gave these children candy, and smack them.  And then eat their candy.
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These boys, though!  We saw them when we were on our way into the second village, and they were on their way out.  They gave us a big sabai dee, and then posed for this photo like champs.  We saw them again an hour or so later, their heads bobbing above the rice in the distance.  When we passed each other, I peered into their baskets and asked, “Whatd’ja get?”

“PEEESH!” the littlest one yelled.

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This is not exactly a thing that required a lot of energy, but at one point in Muang Ngoi my Friendly Monk Spidey Sense tingled.  I looked up from my hammock and said, “I think I’ll go poke around that wat at the end of the street.”

“Mmph” came the reply from Ryan’s hammock.
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The head monk, who was all of 20 years old, spoke really excellent English and we chatted for a few minutes while the other boys watched and giggled. “Ask her how old she is!” they said. “Ask her if she’s married!”

When I finally asked if I could take a photo, the head monk smiled serenely and shook his head, saying, “I don’t do that.” Meanwhile, the six other guys bolted to their quarters to put on their best robes.

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Very gangsta, fellas.
Oh man, I have more things to tell you about Laos and Bangkok, but Ryan and I have to go catch our flight to Myanmar now.  We’ll be back in three weeks; I shall leave you with these gifs, to keep you company.

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Trekking with Vong

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We spent a week in Luang Prabang — eating some seriously legit bagel-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, lounging at riverside bars, nervously approaching monks with my camera (me) and drafting fantasy football players (not me) — before we put our crusty boots back on and headed out into the jungle again.  Pictured above is our guide Vong, a 23-year-old Hmong guy who took us up the mountain to stay in his family’s village.  We slept at the house of his uncle’s second wife, interestingly enough.  Hmong polygamy!  Who knew?  Not I.

Vong was a capable but somewhat annoying guide, mainly because of his two catchphrases, which were:

1. “Be careful!”

I feel like Ryan and I will be saying this to each other, in our best Vong voices, for many years to come.  Mostly because Vong — poor, sweet, well-meaning Vong who I am just throwing under a bus here but whatever — sounds a bit like Elmer Fudd.  Be vewwy, vewwy careful!*

Vong was very fond of this phrase.  Trekking in Laos in the rainy season is a muddy affair, and every time we came to a particularly slippery incline (which was every five minutes) he would cheerfully call out, “Be careful!”  And when Ryan and I would, inevitably, eat it, Vong  would knit his brows and say, “Oooooooh.  Sorry.”  Then, brightening: “Be careful!”

“Okay, Vong,” we’d mutter, wiping our hands on the nearest tree.

* Can you figure out how to write “careful” in an Elmer Fudd voice?  I tried for about ten minutes but came up empty-handed.

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2.  “Poor people”

We were about five minutes into the trek when Vong started talking about his favorite subject: money.  First up was a story about how, when he was a high school student, he fell madly in love with a 19-year-old Hmong-American girl who came to visit Laos with her parents.  He ditched school and they spent one glorious week together, motorbiking around the countryside and etc; alas, it was not to be, as her striving, upwardly-mobile parents didn’t like the idea of their daughter starting a relationship with some dropout from the sticks.  Just in case we didn’t understand why, exactly, they would disapprove of him, he drove the point home (“They think: Our daughter must marry an American.  A rich man.  But I am a poor, poor boy!  So she cannot marry me.  I have no money.  They don’t like this”).

Next up was a morality tale about a recently-married Lao couple (“very poor”).  As the story goes, the husband coerces his beautiful wife into posting her photos online (“because they have no money”).  Soon enough, an American man (“very rich”) starts writing her, and over the course of several months he sends lots of money, which the husband uses to buy a new house and a car.  The American eventually starts asking when he can visit; the husband tells his long-suffering wife that she will meet the American at the airport and take him back to a hotel, where the husband will be waiting to rob him for even more money.  The wife dutifully goes to the airport, but — what’s this? — the American turns out to be a very young, handsome man.  And so the two of them fall in love and run away to America together, leaving the conniving husband behind (“He is so sad after that.  And: he has no more money”).

Then there was the part when Vong took us on a walk around his village, pointing out things of interest — which, to him, mostly consisted of explaining which families were receiving remittances from relatives in the states, and which weren’t.  “They get money from America,” he would say, pointing.  “Two thousand dollars.  Now they have a new house!  They are rich.”

(a pause;  he considers the next homestead; we feel it coming and brace for it)

“But they are poor, poor people.”

So by the time Vong launched into what seemed like a well-rehearsed speech about how we, as rich foreigners, may have been feeling quite surprised indeed upon seeing way people live in the mountains of  Laos (“Maybe you think people live a different way!  Maybe you think they live like you!  But no!  They do not. They are very, very poor people”), we were obviously ready to set him, and ourselves, on fire.

Of course, we can’t really blame him for any of this. Vong is definitely a bit of a doink, but he probably doesn’t have any idea how uncomfortable Westerners are with direct, unvarnished talk of money and class (especially when that talk is coming from a self-proclaimed poor person).  If we were better people we would have tried to explain to him how we felt, although I can just imagine how this imaginary feedback session would have gone.  There we’d sit, wringing our hands, our mouths pulled back in desperate, grinning rictuses of embarrassment:

“You see, Vong,” we’d begin, “you talked a lot about…about money on this trip, and, ah, people from the USA don’t really like to…to talk about…ah…”

“…Poor people?” he’d ask.

“YES, YES, POOR PEOPLE, AUGH,” we’d scream, clawing at our ears.

But instead, at the end of the trek, we just gave him a tip and fled.  And now I’m making fun of him on my blog!  And aren’t I ashamed.

Well.  Despite my pretty complaints, Vong still showed us a real good time:

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These shots are from the Khmu village we passed through on the first day.  This guy may look stern, but he was jolly indeed when he waved over our little group and insisted we have some of the whiskey out of that jug.

We had another of those weird moments in this village, those “ah yes I can feel how Peace Corps has changed my reaction to this situation” moments.  During our walk, Vong pointed up the hill and said, “There’s the school.  Let’s go have a look.”

“But…aren’t they in the middle of their lessons?” we asked, getting closer to the little two-room schoolhouse.  “Aren’t we going to interrupt?”

Then we strolled up.  The two teachers, smiling, one with her baby on her hip, came out to say hello and chat with Vong.    Some kids watched and giggled from the doorways, some kids stayed at their desks and worked, some kids goofed around in the back of the classrooms, and nobody was even a little perturbed by our unannounced visit.  And then we were like: Oh right.  Classroom culture in the U.S. ≠ Classroom culture elsewhere.
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Once we got to our homestay village, we sat in front of our host’s house, ate cucumbers, and watched a large group of unsupervised children amuse themselves by playing with fire in the street.  The boys hacked up kindling with gigantic butcher knives while the girls used a discarded can to cook some kind of hobo soup consisting of flowers and twigs.  After a while, Grandma came out and distributed big sticks of sugarcane to everybody, including us.  It was all pretty heartwarming, in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.

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And once it got dark, we all went inside to let the baby play with Ryan’s beard.

All in all, a good trek indeed!  Thanks, Vong.  We shall think of you whenever we fall on our asses in the mud.

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Kao tai hoop day

Greetings!  The title  of this post is a very rough transliteration of the question “may I take your photo?” in Lao.  By “very rough” I mean Ryan asked One, our Luang Namtha guide, to say it a few times, and then he wrote down what he heard. I tried to find a version of this phrase online, but a solid ten minutes of Googling didn’t turn up anything.  Does this say something about how often falangs bother to ask Lao people for permission to take a photo?  Is this blog post going to once again involve me complaining about the behavior of other tourists, while simultaneously revealing myself to be a hypocrite who indulges in the exact same behavior? Do Asiatic black bears shit in the jungle?

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They sure do!

So I’ve been repeating myself a lot in these here travel posts, and here I go again: I’ve been trying to embrace a relaxed photo-taking philosophy on this trip.  Something along the lines of, “I’ll get what I get, and they won’t be the best shots in the world but they’ll be mine and that’s good enough, and whatever.”

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PUPPY

All the previous photos were taken in Huay Xai, a little town on the Thai border where we hung out for a couple days.  From there, we signed up for a two-day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, in a longboat that seated a few dozen people.  Most of the passengers were tourists, but there were enough locals along for the ride that the boat made plenty of stops at riverbank villages to let things on and off: People, goods, giant gasping catfish, et cetera.

At all of these stops, our boat would ease up next to a muddy bank, where local people – mostly kids – had gathered to swim, see their relatives off, and check out the boat traffic.  And at all of these stops, the tourist passengers would whip out their dinky off-brand prosumer DSLRs,* lean as far as they could over the boat railing, zoom in, and snap snap snap away.  Not looking people in the face, before or after; just squinting into the viewfinder, taking the shot, then immediately peering down at their screens, to evaluate the prize.   It was like a hit and run: The boat docks for only a minute or so, so you get to be as aggressive as you want with your camera and then, just as it’s getting hard to avoid eye contact with your subjects (who are staring at you), just as you’re really starting to ask yourself ‘am I…the king of the dicks?’ the boat launches itself down the river again, and you are swept away, absolved.

But obviously I AM REALLY ONE TO TALK.

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The ride I just described reminded me of a Cambodian river trip we took from Siem Reap to Battnambang six years ago.  I took the three photos above, plus dozens and dozens more, on that trip.  The insensitive tourists I’m bitching about, with their sub-par equipment and their overzealous photo-taking and their willful lack of regard for their subjects’ feelings: I was them.  I am still kind of them.  I judge me!  I JUDGE ME OKAY.

And did I refrain from the same kind of manic, antisocial behavior on this trip because of some kind of newfound piety, or was it just because I didn’t have a zoom lens on me?

Well anyway.  This is what the Huay Xai – Luang Prabang boat ride looked like to me.  Señor Short Shorts with his Sony Shit Whatever may have gotten better photos than me, but these are mine, and I am like 80% sure I didn’t alienate anybody getting them, and that’s good enough, and whatever.

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* “Dinky off-brand prosumer DSLR” is a dick thing to say, but I mean, if you insist on a)  taking out said camera at every fucking opportunity like your livelihood depends on it, and b) using the strap that came with your kit – the one with the make and model embroidered in bright yellow thread all up and down for everyone to see – then I reserve the right  to sit here like Dr. Evil, lovingly stroking the full-frame Nikon in my lap, judging you

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Then we got to Luang Prabang: Land of temples, UNESCO-listed French colonial architecture, and monks.  Monks everywhere!  Monks going here, monks going there, monks with their color-coordinated umbrellas and bags, kid monks, teenage monks, all monks all the time.  Because there are so many monks in such a small, quaint space, the dawn alms procession is, like, a thing, a must-see thing in Luang Prabang, but it’s still a religious ceremony, so you’re supposed to watch very quietly and from a distance.  So for our first night there, much to Ryan’s chagrin,* I booked us at a kind-of-pricey boutique hotel because I knew we would have a good view of the procession the next morning.  “Well I hope this is worth it to you” he muttered after we checked in, our budget blown to smithereens for the day.

It was!

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*[Ryan says he was only negligibly chagrined, jeez — Ed.]

It was worth it to be able to roll out of bed and watch the procession on the balcony, in our pajamas.  It was also worth it to be able to take a couple photos from what I hope was a respectful enough distance.  And sure enough, even though there are signs posted on the street begging people not to act like idiots during this silent,  holy ceremony that represents thousands of years of living culture, we saw a couple tourist guys down on the street, shoving their cameras right in the monks’ faces.  Now I enjoy being given an opportunity to judge other people (surprise!) especially when it makes me look like a saint in comparison (surprise again!) but I didn’t get any pleasure from watching these men; it was just kind of sad and horrifying, the way they were behaving.  Ryan and I considered sending silent messages to them somehow – maybe pelting them with wadded-up papers that would open to read “YOU ARE THE WORLD’S BIGGEST DOUCHEBAG.”

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But other than that it was a mesmerizing thing to watch, this endless line of boys receiving their daily sticky rice.  What I’ll remember is how, in the quiet of the ceremony, the loudest sound was the shuffling of their feet.

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So, for the next couple of days, we bummed around.  I tried to be happy with the photos I was getting but I wasn’t really, because there were no people in them, specifically no people with shaved heads and orange robes.  I guess I should add here that Laos is usually way too quiet for me to get away with any shooting from the hip, which is my favored slimeball way of taking candid photos (but if I COULD get away with it, would I try? Even on the monks, or on traditionally-dressed hilltribe women, or on any other population that is already besieged by falangs and their cameras?  Or does that even matter, is there some kind of spectrum of Acceptable People To Steal Photos Of, with “Lao Monks Already Wearied By Aggressive Picture-Taking Tourists” on one end and “Regular Beijingers Going About Their Day” on the other?  I guess I’m also making a distinction between stealing a candid photo – when you can be reasonably sure that your subject will not notice you – and stealing a portrait, where you just point your camera right at people on the street and don’t give a flying fuck that they can see you.  Whether or not people are aware that you’re taking their photo without their permission is obviously a very small moral distinction but I think it matters and OH GOD I AM TIRED OF THIS are you? ).

So I gave myself a goal: Before our time in Luang Prabang was up I had to ask five monks if I could take their picture.  And maybe they would all say no, but even if they did, at least I would have tried.  At least I would have asked.

But what do you know?  They all said yes.

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He doesn’t really look like it, but this guy was super smiley and friendly. His wat was interesting – there were monks AND nuns, and they all wore white instead of orange – but I couldn’t ask him about it, since he didn’t speak any English, and I don’t speak any Lao, except of course for the question that got me this photo.

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This kid said yes, but by the look on his face I kind of wish he’d said no. Sorry, buddy!

These next three teenagers, god bless ‘em, all made the first move: They struck up conversations with me because they wanted to practice their English.  I think it’s worth noting that these conversations happened when I was wandering around by myself, with my biggest, dopiest, “oh boy look at this beautiful wat I sure am a very non-threatening kind of lady” smile on my face.

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I forget this guy’s name. We chatted about the province he’s from, and how long he plans to be a monk. When I asked him what his favorite Lao food is, he said, “Everything.” I said, “Really? Everything? Come on.” And he said, “Yes, because I take what people give me, and I am happy with that.”

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And these two were delightful. Look at those smiles.  They said they like to hang out where they do — next to a little cave that claims to have an imprint of the Buddha’s foot inside —  so they can catch the tourists that walk by.

“You guys must have a lot of foreigners take your photo,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sing, the guy on the right, “but I don’t mind. Americans are the most polite, I think.”

“Oh really?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “They always ask.”

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Luang Namtha for lazy cheapskates

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So, like I mentioned before when I was proclaiming my sartorial decisions to be the only legitimate ones, Luang Namtha is a quiet little place next to a big national park, and you go there to sign up for one of three things: trekking in the jungle, kayaking in the jungle, and/or motorbiking in the jungle.  But we had just finished our three-day trek in Xishuangbanna, and although that had been good, memorable, clean (though not in the literal sense) fun, it was hard to work up the desire to spend another few days in wet boots after they’d just finished drying out.

There was something else we wanted to try: Chartering a longboat to take us on a two-day river trip to the Thai border, with a family homestay at a village along the way.   This turned out to be twice as expensive as we thought it’d be, though, and seeing as how neither of us is going to be employed anytime in the foreseeable future (OH GOD)(it’s fine, it’s going to be fine), we gave it a pass.

All out of ideas, we signed up for the laziest, wimpiest (and cheapest) thing there was to sign up for: A one-day, guided bicycle ride around the outskirts of the city.

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ADVENTURE IS OUR MIDDLE NAME

Our guide was a quiet fellow; when we met him, he introduced himself by holding up a finger and saying, “My name’s One.”  Since then, we’ve met a woman named Thu, pronounced “two;” now we’re on the lookout for Three, Four, and/or Five.

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So One took us in a big loop around the countryside.  We rode through tiny villages; we wandered through a market; we had an old hilltribe woman show us her indigo-dying operation; we watched a lady weave a new schoolbag for her kid; we drank home brewed lao-lao in a family’s yard; we visited One’s buddy from high school and had some iced BeerLao in his stilt house, looking out on workers in the endless rice paddies below.

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We could have done this loop by ourselves.  Our guesthouse had free maps of the area that marked all the villages and roads, and everywhere you go in Luang Namtha, somebody wants to rent you a bicycle.  Indeed, there was one moment that day when the three of us passed a group of other tourists on bikes — they stopped us to ask whether the road we’d just turned off was good enough to ride on — when I wondered, did we just lose the world traveler pissing contest?  I mean, now these Spaniards know we hired a guide to do the exact same thing they’re doing; they know we spent money to make things easier on ourselves.  Are they cooler than us?  They probably think they’re cooler than us.  God damn it.

I guess there’s this feeling (among all independent travelers?  Only in my own head?)  that the more people you employ to provide you services, the less authentic your trip is.  This is sometimes true.  I’m aware, obviously, that many organized tours can be terrible:  Air conditioned minivans crammed full of backpackers; vendors hawking trinkets at every stop; the whole thing seemly designed to ferry you from one souvenir-buying opportunity to another.  Things like that are pretty gross and yeah, they fill me with existential despair, too, like an endless loop of it, the kind where you go “I didn’t come on this vacation to feel guilty about how privileged I am” and then “okay that’s a terrible thing to think” and then “but seriously, what’s with all these poor people trying to get my money?”

In Ayutthaya six years ago, I remember turning down a tuk-tuk driver who offered to take us on a one-day tour of the town, because – and can I quote myself, here?  Ah I can, because I’ve been writing about myself on the internet for forever – “it doesn’t seem worth it to pay 600 baht just to avoid looking at a map for a few hours .

I no longer agree with this, for several reasons.  First, having somebody else handle the navigation is actually kind of relaxing?  I’m pretty sure that, if we had done the Luang Namtha bike loop by ourselves, our cherished memories of that day would not have included the many times we would have stopped to pull out the map and bicker about where we were.

Second, having a guide is nice in a lot of other ways, too, not the least of which is the language/social lubricant factor.  When we met those other tourists, we’d just emerged from a village where One had introduced us to the couple making moonshine and the mom weaving on her homemade loom.  These families weren’t stops on any kind of tourist trail; they were just people that One walked up to and asked, hey, can I show these fat sweaty falangs what you’re doing?  So when the other tourists turned down the road to the village, I kind of felt sorry for them – would they get to try some lao-lao?  Would they talk to the lady with the loom?  Or would they just ride through and gawk at people and feel like stupid asshole tourists?

I’m not saying we aren’t stupid asshole tourists, too.  I’m just saying that it’s nice to pay somebody to make me feel like a little bit less of a stupid asshole tourist.

It’s also nice to pay a local to ask people, for me, if I can stick my camera in their faces.  Every time One turned to me and softly said, “Would you like to take a photo? I will ask if it’s okay,” I wanted to fucking marry him.

And finally, it’s just nice to pay a local.  Especially when, at the end of a long day, he’ll take you to his buddy’s house for a beer.

So!  Our bike tour wasn’t especially adventurous and it did bust our budget for the day, but whatever, I’m glad we did it, and hooray.

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hooray I say

The other thing we tried to do in Luang Namtha was rent motorbikes.  Ha!  And ha and ha again!  I’ve told this story to some people already so I’m sorry if you’ve heard it, but you know how I like to document my humiliating experiences on my WebLog.

Okay well there isn’t that much to tell, sorry I’ve built it up, I am alone and somewhat drunk at a riverside bar in Luang Prabang right now and the place kind of smells like farts.

So there were guided motorbike tours on offer in Luang Namtha, and we looked into them, but they were also a little expensive (which, at this point in our trip, really just means “they cost more than ten dollars”) and while we were looking into them every citizen of Luang Namtha, man woman and child, zipped by on the street on a motorbike.  So, how hard could it be to ride a motorbike?  Is what we thought.  We don’t need a guide.  We don’t need anybody to teach us.  We just need to go for it.

I am pretty sure somebody is smoking pot in this bar right now.

The next morning, we walked into the closest bicycle/motorbike rental place and proclaimed that we would each like to rent a motorbike, please.  The owner, who had minimal English, indicated that we should choose what kind of motorbike we wanted; not knowing anything about anything, we pointed at some blue ones.  “We’ll take those,” we said.  The owner wheeled them out to the street and started them up for us.  Upon noticing just how intently we were watching what he was doing, he pointed to the bikes, then pointed to me and asked, “You know?”  I shook my head.  He turned to Ryan: “You know?”  Ryan also shook his head.  The owner made a skeptical noise and indicated that I should try to ride the motorbike down the alleyway.  I did this.  It was terrifying and about five seconds in I was like “NOPE NOPE NOT DOING THIS I CAN’T DO THIS OH GOD” and then the owner grimaced some more and said, “Maybe bicycle better?”

Yes maybe bicycle better.

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P.S. Do you like how my pants/flats combination makes me look like Calvin’s mom?

Because I do!

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Zai jian China, sabai dee Laos

I haven’t been writing anything in my notebook, and so the days are blurring together.  To the photos!

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The Mighty Mekong

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The Robust Ryan

Our last few days in China were pretty uneventful, for several reasons, some of which were weather-related.  I’m not sure I’ve mentioned lately just how hot it is in this part of the world right now, so, again: It is crazy hot.  Plus, we keep making the rookie mistake of heading out in the middle of the day, when any sane person would have her ass firmly planted in a chair under an air-conditioning unit.  Above you see a couple photos from one such blunder.  After we came back to Jinghong from our trek  I thought we’d spend an afternoon exploring the city, but it was all we could do to find the river, look at it for a second, and then drag ourselves to the nearest bar, drenched in sweat.

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Our midday exhaustion might be partly due to our malaria  meds, which can apparently increase sensitivity to the sun even for people such as us who were already pale, delicate, oversensitive flowers to begin with.  Here I am, about to wash down my daily pill with a beer, which was a pretty good idea I’m sure.

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When it wasn’t hot and sunny, it looked a lot like this.  I’m on my second poncho of the trip so far.

So, that was the end of our time in China.  Sweat, doxycycline, rain, and fried rice from this delightful man:

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This was the mom ‘n’ pop place across from our guesthouse that we discovered on our first day in Jinghong.  We went there at least once a day because their food was good, and because we were lazy, and because it’s nice to develop little micro-routines in a new city.  They were also very sweet and patient with us.  One day, while we were eating a late lunch and they were shelling peas at the next table, we speculated about how they would make a nice host family for a Peace Corps Volunteer.  We found ourselves doing that on our trek, too – walking around the villages, watching TV with the homestay families, and thinking about what it would be like to be a trainee in that place, with those people.  This is a strange new dimension that Peace Corps has added to our travels. I’m pretty sure that, the last time we were on vacation, we didn’t spend a lot of time wondering what it would be like to insert ourselves into peoples’ home lives.

I’m sure  we get a lot of things wrong when we look at the lady frying our noodles and picture her at home, but just conjuring that picture is easier now, after living with  our Mongolian host families and spending two years in Erdenet.  Basically I just hope we’re a little more empathetic than we used to be, and that much less likely to become raging sociopaths at some point in the future (I sometimes worry about becoming a sociopath).

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Hello, imaginary host brother

In case some poor sap Googles his way to this blog, looking for concrete information about how to get across the China-Laos border:

We didn’t need American dollars.  We spent a stressful morning in Jinghong trying to convince various bank branches to give us cold hard Benjamins (just one Benjamin actually), only to get to the border and see another American pay for his visa in Lao kip.

I’d been worried about being the only visa-less foreigners on the bus to Laos, and about how the driver and all the passengers would surely get impatient and abandon us while we waited in line.  But even though the ride started out with a bunch of locals on board, by the time we’d actually reached the border the only people left were us and a handful of other tourists.  The bus driver even disembarked and patiently shepherded everybody through both immigration checkpoints.

The disparity in infrastructure between these checkpoints was pretty crazy. Gleaming new glass on the Chinese side, dusty squat concrete on the Lao side.  It reminded me of the time we crossed the South Korea – North Korea border, except the Lao police officials looked a lot nicer than the DPRK ones.

Speaking of which:  We said our first “sabai dee” to the jolly Lao policeman who came on the bus to search (not very hard) for drugs.

Basically, everybody was very friendly and helpful, except for the ladies who came onto the bus to change our yuan to kip, who pretended to be very, very, very, very bad at math.

And then couple hours later we arrived in Luang Namtha, where our breakfasts stopped looking like this:

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And started looking like this:

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I ain’t complaining.

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