Monday, December 30, 2013

Easy Riding in Laos - 4 days through the Khammuan Province

In our travels to date we are discovering that to really see things off the beaten path you have to have wheels. Buses will get you between towns and cities but to see the villages and the backcountry you need another form of transportation. In Iceland and Europe that meant renting a car. In SE Asia that means either signing up with a tour which is expensive and lumps you together with a dozen other falang (Westerners) or if you want to do it yourself then renting a motorcycle. This is what we decided to do to explore the central high plateau of Bolikhamsai and Khammuan Province in Laos. This is a very rural area so that helped take away some of the traffic menace. Riding motorcycles in Laos is not entirely without risk (see later in this blog) especially since the medical care in most of the country is minimal to non-existent. Most of the hospitals/clinics have minimal supplies and many don't even have electricity. If something happens you really have to get to Thailand for any real care. However, we decided that in order to actually see the countryside the risk was worth it and we went off on a 4 day ride of the mountains. This area was near the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the Vietnam War and was heavily bombed so we were interested in seeing if there was any signs of that (see previous blog "American Legacy in Laos").
Wishing this sign had an American flag on it

Day 1: We rented a motorcycle from Mr Ku in Tha Khaek. He was not the cheapest guy renting bikes in town but he promised to pay for any repairs along the way and that alone was worth the extra couple of dollars a day he charged ($12/day total). Mr Wang Wang was the cheapest in town but the reviews we got about his bikes were not good. Kathleen had never driven a motorcycle and it had been 20+ years since I owned one so that made me the "qualified" one. Kathleen elected to trust her life with me and hold on as I drove. 

125cc's of get up and go
The first day was the "small" cave day. As soon as you left Tha Khaek and the Mekong River valley there started to be steep limestone mountains and karsts (steep towers). Rock climbing is the other popular activity in this area. We stopped at 3 different caves. The Buddha Cave is a holy site that has a multitude of Buddha sculptures in it from an unknown source that have been there and not touched for over 600 years. Like many of the caves in the area it had a river running out of it. 
River coming out of Buddha cave (no pictures allowed inside due to it being a holy spot)

The next cave was the best. Xieng Liab (Elephant Cave - because of a stalactite formation looking like an elephant head) was completely undeveloped and the biggest cave of the day. As we parked the bike 2 small children - Da (age ~7 ) and Tha Hamle (age ~5) appeared out of nowhere and mentioned that they wanted to show us the way which is good because we were not sure where the cave was and it turned out to be down a little path through the jungle. Soon we were there and they showed us the route through the cave.
Being led by toddlers

They kept running ahead and hiding in little holes and cracks to try and scare us. At the far end of the cave we could have reached the other side but it involved swimming the river so we did an out and back through the cave. At one point we skipped rocks into the river. They would count the skips in English and I would count them in Lao. 
Skipping rocks with Da

We gave them 5000 kip each for their guide services (the Buddha Cave had cost 2000 kip for entry - 25 cents). The last cave (Tham Sa Pha In) was the most touristy with walkways and lots of Thai tourists. At 1pm we had been warned to be on the road to get to our guest house in Tha Lang before dark. Driving a motorcycle at night was not a risk we wanted to take. The road soon went up a steep long hillside until we were on the upper plateau. It was there that we passed the Nam Theum 2 dam which is the largest hydroelectric project in Lao to date. Like all dams it has produced a large amount of controversy. Many people had to be relocated due to the huge reservoir created and are now in "Model Healthy Villages" according to the signs in front of them that line this stretch of road. It does however provide power, water, and revenue to a country that is far poorer than the nations surrounding it and has helped relieve some of the poverty in the area. It was on this stretch of road that we met Frank, a Swiss guy who was having trouble with his motorbike. We were going to tag along with him to make sure he was ok but we stopped to take pictures and he disappeared ahead of us. Turns out we passed him in a small town where he had the bike repaired. He stayed at the Sabaidee Guesthouse like us that night but did not arrive until after dark. It was there that he informed us that he had just been the second person on scene to a head on motorcycle to motorcycle accident. One person was obviously dead with a broken neck and the other one was questionable. It was a poignant reminder that we needed to be super careful with what we were doing.

Day 2: Every Lao we had talked to had pointed to the map of the section we were going to cover and said "Bad road! Bad road!". I had also heard numerous stories about people crashing or dropping their bikes in this section. The plan initially was for the people we had met at the guesthouse that night, Nikki (Canadian), Amy (Kiwi), and Frank, to go with us as a group through this section. We all mounted up and started off but within 30 yards I realized that our back tire was flat. They continued on while Kathleen and I went back to the Guesthouse. We pumped the tire up with a bike pump which was good enough to get the bike back to the last village where there was a mechanic. The garage was basically a wood hut and I did not realize it was the garage until I asked the people standing in front of it where I could get a tire fixed (this was done through sign language and the word "baw dee" (no good). The mechanic turned out to be crippled with no use of his legs. It appeared to me to be from polio more then an accident. He crawled around on his hands and knees to get around. What was cool was that despite being severely handicapped he was definitely the boss there. He had several guys working for him and seemed to be the most knowledgeable about fixing motorcycles. They changed the inner tube while various villagers came by, chatted, brought a load of fish, and asked about their own motorcycle problems. 
Fixing the flat                 

The catch of the morning

I always wonder what is being said as the villagers were obviously talking about me and laughing but it was a very friendly vibe I got from everyone. After the tire was reinflated I took off but only made it about 100 meters before PSSSSSSST, it was entirely flat again. I showed back up at the garage after about 3 minutes and shook my head. "Baw dee, Baw dee". This time they replaced both the tire and the inner tube but they only had a front tire and it was the rear one that was flat. At a fundamental level though a tire is a tire and this time the repair worked. I went back to the Guesthouse, picked up Kathleen, and we headed onto the bad road. This was one of those roads that was bad and just when you thought that it was as bad as it was going to get, it would deteriorate another level. 
Sometimes it was hard to know what to do

I can see why people would crash going through it, especially if the dirt was wet making it muddy. We are traveling during the dry season so dust and loose gravel were the main obstacles. We passed miles and miles of the reservoir formed by the Nam Theum 2 dam with lots of dead trees sticking up out of the water. 
Nam Theum 2 Reservoir

Eventually the road passed down from the upper plateau and entered back into the limestone mountain and cliff terrain. We had such a late start that we ended up stopping at the first town we came to big enough to have a hotel. This town was Lak Sao which is located near the Vietnamese border and has a fair amount of logging going on in the area. This town does not see many falang. We saw no other Westerners while we were there. It turned out this was New Years Eve. When we got there the partying had already started. I was suffering from a cold so I took a nap when we got to town but Kathleen went and wandered the market. This market was the real deal. No cleaning things up for the tourists. Piles of guts and organs, every kind of body part of the animals (chicken feet were the least of it), live chickens in baskets, fish alive in buckets and on ice, rats, weasels, dead parrots, and even bats were on sale. Half the population in Laos is "food insecure" so people eat what they have to. There were Lao women drinking and dancing in the market. Another loud party was going on behind our hotel with lots of hooting, hollering, and staggering around. As the afternoon went on into evening it got even crazier. Fireworks, more dancing, shouting, singing, and within 10 minutes of leaving our hotel to find some dinner we saw three different people crash their motorcycles - all slow speed but they all seem to be alcohol related. We went to a hole in the wall bar where it was obvious Westerners didn't go. Mice scurried across the floor at one point. The men there asked us in broken English where we were from and kept raising their glasses to us and wishing us "Happy New Year". Definitely one of the coolest and most unusual New Year celebrations I have ever been at. When we got back to our hotel that night we were amused to see that even though everyone takes their shoes off before going inside they had parked all the guests motorcycles inside in the lobby.

Day 3 - The morning was foggy as we left Lak Sao which just showed the tops of the mountains poking out of the top of it. It was also very cold since we left early in the morning to try to make up for lost time the day before. Kids were going off to school and people were starting their days. There were many small campfires in the towns with people gathered around them for warmth. The farmers here work from sunrise to sunset and were already in the fields. Within a couple of hours the fog had burned off and the sun had things warmer. We were back on pavement so the kilometers ticked off faster than the day before. On this day we were headed for Kong Lor Cave which was the main goal of the whole trip. As we got closer after 5 hours the steep limestone mountains that lined the valley closed into where Kong Lor Village was. 
Kong Lor Valley

The valley was mostly rice fields with some other crops interspersed. The villages we passed were very poor. Laos has a little over 6.5 million people in a country twice the size of Pennsylvania. 44% of those people live on ~$1.25/day. 70% of the population are subsistence farmers. 
Working in the fields

As we passed through these small villages people would wave, children would run along smiling and shouting "Sabaidee" (Hello) and "How are you". It was one of those days and moments when both Kathleen and I thought separately "If I could be anywhere in the world doing anything I want to be right here!" 
Loving life on the road

Then we got to the cave and it got even better. This cave has been known about since the 16th century but it was not fully explored until the 90s and a motorized boat had not gone through until 2002. It is basically a 7km (almost 4 mile) underground river (the Nam Hin Boun River) that goes through the middle of a mountain. 
Entering the Kong Lor Cave

This cave is big. Almost big enough to fly a plane or at least an ultralight through except for a few spots where it narrows down. There are a couple of spots where the river gets narrow and there are small cataracts where we had to get out so the boatmen (a guy in front with an oar and a guy in back who ran the motor) could push the boat through shallow area.
Getting boat through small rapids

There was one part where we stopped and walked through a section where there were a large amount of stalactites and stalagmites for about 200 meters. On the other side of the cave there is a small village after traveling up the river another mile or so where we stopped and had lunch and a beer. There is a way to 4 wheel drive to this village but there was a truck stuck in the river ford so that afternoon the way in/out of town was blocked. 
Can't get there from here

The trip back through didn't take quite as long as it was downstream. We spent that night in Kong Lor Village. It is also a poor farming village but has the good fortune from its location that it is able to supplement its income from the tourists coming to the cave. The back porch of our Guesthouse room overlooked rice paddies with cows grazing nearby and chickens pecking around for food. 
View from the porch

The only down side to the whole day was that my cold was worse to the point that I thought I was dehydrating through my nose.

Day 4 - I woke up with my cold much better. I could actually smell things again. This was the highest mileage day but most of it was highway so we were able to go much faster. It was another gorgeous morning with mist over the mountains and at one point the clouds were flowing over the ridgeline like water in a wave. It would have made a really cool looking time lapse movie. The first part of the drive went over two mountain passes with extensive views of the sharp limestone ridgelines that extended out in layers toward the horizon. The landscape reminded me of the Needles in South Dakota some. Lots of rock climbing potential in this area. 
Limestone ridgelines

At the last gas station we stopped and the electric starter on the motorcycle stopped working but I was able to kick start it with no problem. Once on the main highway it became much more boring. It is mostly flat plain that runs along the Mekong River and we had seen this when we took the bus from Vientiane to Tha Khaek. We went as fast as the bike would go for this section though still being very careful of the trucks, cars, motorcycles, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, and children that like to periodically get in the way. We got the bike back to Mr Ku with no further problems and he paid me back the 120,000 kip ($15) we had spent to get the tire fixed at the mechanics.

Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars, Luang Prabang, and the Nam Ha National Protected Area are next on the agenda.




Friday, December 27, 2013

American Legacy In Laos

  We were going to post our blog about the weeks in Thailand but we are going to hold off for a few days because we want to talk about what we saw and learned today.
Sculpture made from recycled bomb parts, COPE Centre, Vientiane, Laos

Today we visited COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. There we learned some incredible and horrifying facts:

- Between 1964 and 1973 the United States carried out 580,000 bombing missions dropping over 2,000,000 tons of ordinance (more than all sides in WWII). That works out to 1 raid every 8 minutes for 9 years straight making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the world. This was onto a neutral nation that did not support either side during the Vietnam War though the Vietnamese did use their territory to move men and supplies to the fight in South Vietnam.

- This bombing campaign left a legacy of 80 million unexploded bombs and bomblets (cluster bombs). No part of the country is spared though some areas are more heavily affected. Since then 20,000 civilians have been killed and injured with a new person being killed or maimed every 3 to 4 days in 2013 - 40 years after the bombing stopped.

- Laos, while growing, is still one of the 25 poorest countries in the world and its development has been hampered by this problem that it doesn't have the resources to deal with. Until an area has been cleared of unexploded ordinance things that everyone should take for granted can't be done. New fields cannot be developed for farming. Roads cannot be built. Schools cannot be built. Clean water projects cannot be developed. Children will not stop dying because they are looking for scrap metal to sell for 12 cents a pound. This is a finite problem. It can be fixed. Once these bombs are gone they are gone for good.

The world has passed a treaty banning cluster munitions (the most common type of unexploded ordinance) that has been signed by 110 countries but not the United States. We have not signed it because then it makes us liable for the medical care and support of the victims of our bombs, the Russians and Chinese won't sign it, and because we have claimed that we can build "smart clusterbombs" with self destruct mechanisms in them. There are a lot of countries that have unexploded munitions problems, often secondary to proxy wars during the Cold War. However, here in Laos this is an entirely American made problem. These bombs are stamped "Made In The USA" and were dropped by the United States Air Force. This is our problem! We should be the ones fixing it.

Things you can do:
- Get educated. See or for more information on these issues.

- Donate. It only costs $75 to fit someone with a prosthetic limb here and that can change an entire families life.

- Write your Congress(wo)man urging them to push for the signing of the Convention of Cluster Munitions.

- Volunteer - if you are an orthopedic surgeon, physiotherapist, or occupational therapist then your skills are very much needed here.

Canoe made from a B-52 fuel drop tank, COPE Centre, Vientiane, Laos

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The two of us become one

     And we are off again on World Tour though part of us feels we never stopped.  What better way to start the next phase of the journey then by having a big party on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand to celebrate us getting married.  We were blessed to have 31 members of our family and dear friends travel half way around the world to come share this day and week with us. 
      We had done most of the planning before I had left for Baja in February.  Trying to organize a wedding from the other side of the world and a year in advance was a little nerve racking.  Ann was the wedding planner at Rocky's where we had the celebration and from the very first emails she was incredibly helpful, professional, and willing to try to make any idea we had about the day a reality.  We didn't really know what we were going to get until we arrived and our expectations were blown away.  We very much wanted to make sure that our guests that traveled from afar would have a good time and be taken care of, and Rocky's delivered.
     We boarded our flight from Seattle to Thailand with Kathleen's mom and sister where we spent a few initial days in Bangkok. We then flew to the island of Koh Samui and stayed at a smaller beach town on the north end of the island.  We met some of the early arrival friends there and played in the water and kayaked. 
     My mom, brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and dad also flew out and we ended up meeting them at Rocky's several days later.  Rocky's was the perfect place to have picked for our wedding.  An incredibly charming and romantic spot on the southern coastline with tastefully designed rooms, a private beach with kayaks, tiki bars, delicious food, and the friendliest staff ever.
     We had wanted to combine Eastern (Thai) tradition with Western tradition in our wedding celebration.  The ceremony started off with a Thai drum parade playing music while chanting in Thai "Here comes the groom".  My nephew Elias (the ring bearer) and I walked behind a few Thai dancing girls who were throwing flower petals. 
We all walked down to the flower arch on the beach and then waited for Kathleen.  The drummers kept up their music and then began chanting ("Here comes the bride") while a traditional Thai fishing boat came into view around a point of land with Kathleen aboard. 
The wind and surf had been high that day so the boat was bobbing around a lot.  As it was directly off the point the engine began to sputter and guests had visions of capsizing or washing up on the rocks.  However, the crew were able to get the engine to recover and make it to the beach without soaking or drowning the bride.  The boat entrance had never been done at Rocky's before (uniquely Kathleen's vision) and the staff was very concerned that there would be a disaster, especially with the waves the way they were.   Kathleen's Mom Uta then walked Kathleen to the altar.
     Our officiant was Krissy Moehl.  She had been Kathleen's roommate when we first met and had been one of the first people to watch us as we got to know each other in the beginning including our first trip out of town together when we all went and spent New Years on Orcas Island.  Krissy had never officiated a wedding before and she turned out to be the absolute perfect person.  She's like family to us, knows us well; including our favorite things and incorporated all of this into a very personalized and meaningful ceremony.  We can't ever thank her enough for performing our ceremony.  It was incredibly thoughtful, tailored to us and just perfect!
The ceremony ended with us releasing 50 butterflies to symbolize new beginnings, good fortune, and joy as the butterflies go out to spread news of our love and commitment.  Soon they were all over the flower arch and even landing on our guests.
Champagne and canap├ęs were served as we signed the marriage certificate and had some pictures taken.  We want to thank all our friends who took so many wonderful pictures and have shared them with us.
     The party then moved off the beach and headed to the tiki bar while dinner was prepared.  Soon it was time to move up to the room above the restaurant where dinner and dancing would occur.  I had asked my brother Tom to be the master of ceremonies since he tends to have a loud voice when he needs to.  Little did we know that when he would announce our entrance to dinner it would be in the manner of a WWF wrestling announcer (it probably didn't help that he had been at a Thai boxing match the night before). He had everyone, including us, in hysterics as we entered while "Celebrate" blared from the sound system.  Appetizers were served along with a delicious Thai buffet.  We had a guitarist play several sets during dinner.  His voice was so good that we kept thinking it was a recording until you would look in the corner and there he would be playing.
      Following dinner there was dancing with DJ Blair keeping a great mix of 70s, 80s, and modern music going that had everyone dancing (including several people who had not danced in years or decades).  Somehow (and we are still not sure how) Blurred Lines ended up being our first dance.  It wasn't really planned that way, we had opted out of a first dance when planning with DJ Blair, but we started to dance to it and everyone backed off to let us have it as "the first dance".  If you don't know this song then Google the words to see why it was so funny (and start listening to the radio because it gets played every 15 minutes).  It was perfectly inappropriate and therefore appropriate for us.
     After working up a sweat on the dance floor there was an intermission for fire dancing.  Two Thai fire dancers performed on the beach to blaring techno music.  Everyone was fired up (pun intended) and was hooting, hollering, and dancing cheering them on.  We were so appreciative and rowdy that they ended up doing a double encore for us with exploding fireworks swinging all around them.  The entire beach was alight with swirling flame and exploding sparks.  We had seen fire dancing before but never anything like this.

 Then it was back for more dancing including a "dance off" between Chelsea and I.  I consider myself lucky that I didn't end up with a knocked out tooth, broken nose, or just being head butted to the ground.  After another hour or so we went back out onto the beach to release about 25 Chinese lanterns or "Himmel's Lanterna" (Sky lanterns in German).  As the balloon takes off from the hot air inside, a wish is made.  A lantern was sent off in honor of Kathleen's dad Joe and everyone made their own wishes with their lanterns.  A few crashed into the ocean but most of them drifted off and could still be seen miles away floating down the coastline.
     We went back to one last round of dancing until we couldn't anymore.  When we finally got back to our room we found that the Rocky's staff had decked out our bed with a towel sculpture and flower petal heart.  Rocky's really knows how to throw a wedding. 
     Thank you from the bottom of our hearts to all our family and friends that came and shared that day with us.  It was the people around us more than the place and activities that made it such a special and wonderful day.  The memory of that day and the days around it will be lifetime treasured memories.