Crossing the border – Goodbye China, “bye bye” Laos!
After two month of China, it was finally time to change the country. I had to take a bus to the border to be in time. After 13 hours transport, I arrived to the small city of Mohan and checked in the first hotel I could find.
The next day around 13 o’clock I made my way to the border. After one stamp from the Chinese office to confirm that I was leaving, I could move to the Laotian border. It seems that swiss people can get a visa for one month for 35$, but I got two weeks for free (probably because of a misunderstanding from the border police). First I’m paralyzed after of the stories I’ve heard about Laos: The border might be dangerous because of drug traffic and I’ve read about a couch-surfer having escaped to dealers through jumping out of a window. The consequence is that I don’t speak to anybody for kilometers, probably without a good reason.
My first impression of Laos was at least as much of the cultural shock as the one of China. After the reign of Chinese concrete, buildings are made of wood and bamboo. Most of the houses are built on stilts. People live outside, in front of their habitat. There is often only one water supply per village. You can see men in bathing slip and women with a towel around the waist bathing there in the late afternoon. That’s probably the first real Third World country I cross. Poverty seems not to affect the kids mood, who often abandon all their activities to run to the border of the street and salute the “farangh” (foreigner) with big “bye bye”s, shaking their little hand. Sometimes they make it a game to run against my bicycle, or sometimes they even push me to help win against a slope. To put a tent at the entrance of a village provoke always an emotion wave: I find myself by all the children of the village, laughing when they see the tent taking shape or when they see me blowing into my air mattress (in this case I’ll engage them into the process by making them blow into the mattress for me – hey, I don’t have to work alone!).
These kids don’t always have an easy life. The majority of them goes to school, at least to primary school. But after what I’m told, class has to be paid day by day, and some of them don’t have the money. I saw many young people between 6 and 12 at the border of the street (also between, where they should 100% sure have been at school), cutting herbs with a machete before they hit them on the road to get rid of the dust and dry them. The goal is to make sweepers out of them.
This precarity contrasts with with capital, Vientiane, where shops of luxury cars are abundant and where I find abusively rich houses, resembling palaces. Notice that we are in a communist country..
Spending one night at the place of a Laotian Hmong family
I tried to put my tent at the entrance of a Hmong village, but this 27 years old father of two children came to me and invited me for sleeping in the family house. A great experience!
First we walked by a house where an animist cult was going through. They sacrificed a little pig to heal a person (physically, mentally or for good luck, I don’t know). I could see quickly inside: Two people were sitting on the floor, two others on a bench, while the priest was singing and dancing in the middle of the room.
We then walked into the house, where the whole family and some members of the village were watching an extremely violent Thai movie. The story was obviously a love story. A man was alternatively kissing a woman, then threatening her with a Kalashnikov. I can’t tell you the end, since either electricity went out or the movie was not fully recorded, which had to effect that everybody went back home without a word.
I was then proposed to sleep on the floor, respecting the traditions: You can’t lay down with your feet in direction of the door. It’s how dead people are buried and it brings bad luck, if not the wrath of spirits present inside the house. I was indeed told by a Belgian ethnologist in Luang Prabang that the first step of ancestors live in the pillars of the house, the second one in the door, the third outside the house. Once a new generation of people die, they live in the pillar, and everybody moves to the respective further steps.
The next morning, I was given some sticky rice and could continue my way through the tough Laotian mountains.
The Mama of the house. A funny lady, who made the bridge between the shy members of the family and me. She cooked some rice and vegetables for me in the evening and gave me some sticky rice for breakfast.
Two days trip with neighbors
I met Jonas and his girlfriend Emmanuelle by pure chance north of Laos. He grew up 4 km away from my home, but I never met him until this point. We decided to drive two days together.
In the morning, after one night camping on the beach, we had the visit of little monks. They stood still in front of us for like 10 minutes, as we were finishing our morning muesli. After some time, Jonas decided to entertain them by drilling rocks. It provoked generalized hilarity, and the little monks tried themselves to drill…
Luang Prabang, Waterfalls
I went to the waterfalls next to Luang Prabang with Jonas and Emmanuelle, the swiss couple I met at the border of China, and with a Korean and a Chinese I met at the night market, where you can eat cheap food buffet.
There you have a big waterfall, which has the particularity of having a extremely strong green-blue water color, due to the carbonates in the water (same principle like the waterfalls of Pammukale in Turkey). You can also visit a huge cave of at least 400 m long with a little lamp.
Julie, a woman with character! She manage the same way than I did by bicycle on her own. But after her stories, it’s much tougher to do it as a girl! Respect to her!
I’ve finally crossed the border of Thailand! I met again with the swiss Journalist, Thomas, who I saw the first time in front of the Turkmen embassy in Tehran, Iran. We ate together in a ship-restaurant on the Mekong, and had a few Chang-beers. Never ever! Since I never had a hangover because of alcohol until now, I blame it on the beer quality 🙂
The biggest stop of the first part is Ban Chiang, a UNESCO registered site. It expended from around 3000 BC to 200 AD. The ceramic was classified by an American team: The earliest one is decorated by motifs made with a string, the ceramic of the middle and late period show complex painted ornaments. The Ban Chiang culture is otherwise mostly know through the burials. Settlements are know only from few holes of wooden houses.
One big surprise was that I appeared to be there just on time for the big yearly UNESCO festival. All the villagers of Ban Chiang and area disguised in traditional cloths, evenings were filled with concerts and it was an amazing occasion to mix up with local people. I was one of the very few foreigners and was even made fun of by ladyboys at a show…
Southern Isan and central Thailand
-Khon Kaen: Nice to visit were the city museum and museum of the region, where you learn more about local Thai traditions. It seems that there is a big religious feast every month, from the fertility cult of the Rice goddess, to the feast of giving new cloths to the monks.
-Phimai: This temple is known as one of the most spectacular Khmer temples in Thailand, and indeed : It’s a huge complex with a big central prang, that you see only once entering the central court (what a nice view effect!). The museum houses an incredible amount of reliefs and statues, showing myths of the Hinduism, like the creation of the universe (ocean of milk) and scenes of the Ramayana (old hinduistic myth, war of the gods).
-Nakhon Ratchasima/Khorat: A extremely boring city! As a tourist you won’t find many things to do. A big statue of a woman stands in the West of the original city wall. She once saved the city against foreign troupes and is now revered as a goddess. It’s interesting to see all Thai people, from very young to very old, standing in queue to burn incense make a little prayer and touch the head of a smaller sized statue of the woman. I found it very reveling of the Thai society: Religion and superstition seems to be everywhere. Far away from our totally idealized hippie representation of the Buddhism, Thai people mix up actual Buddhism with cult of the spirits (of the dead, ancestors, spirits of trees and water, and so on…) and random beliefs. We can find also many Chinese influences (Chinese temples are numerous and you can sometimes find Chinese style lions in front of temples).
-Khao Yai: I paid myself a little trip to a nature paradise, the park of Khao Yai. This park is the oldest one in Thailand and counts many wild animals. First I saw a whole monkey family. I was maybe a little too close, a big muscular male stood in front of me and made me understand to leave. I pushed my bike further, monkey were doing random monkey stuff (babies playing around, adults eating the parasites of their friends…). After some time, I decided to go to a platform to enjoy the view on the plain. The big muscular monkey stood again next to me – this time I became a little nervous. I tried to make him understand to leave like I would do for dogs, but he didn’t move at all. All during a second, he jumped on my bike, grabbed a plastic bag and jumped into the next tree. Luckily it was only my garbage bag (incl. empty bottles and biscuit bags) – probably that he smelled the bananas in the other bag down from this one! I went a little to the side and saw the garbage falling from the tree, with all other monkeys running to grab them. After some time, I could collect most of it before leaving. Again, the big monkey stood next to me – This time I’m not a fool, dear mister! I grabbed my pepper spray and put it to his face, of course without pressing. Funny thing: He seemed to understand that this little bottle was dangerous for him and made a funny face, jumping a little back… Anyway, nobody got hurt, nothing really got stolen.
I reached the center of the park, where I could find informations. I paid myself some corn, and again, troublemakers came by. This time it was deers, which were totally not afraid of humans. Shouting at them brought nothing, even kung fu 🙂 I just grabbed my bicycle and went further…
During a night safari, we had the pleasure of seeing a wild elephant, a porcupine and some deers. Anyway, the next day, leaving through the south gate, I met another elephant, which was eating grass next to the road. What an amazing animal! It’s a pity that it’s endangered…
-Ayutthaya: I spent four days in the former capital city of Siam. Very interesting are the foreign quarters of the city. The dutch were particularly powerful in the region and traded spices and other goods not only to Europe, but also to China and Japan. The French also had a small settlement, but mainly to propagate Christianity (today you can still see a catholic church and monastery).
The biggest attraction in Ayutthaya are the numerous temples with stupas, and the treasures scientists found inside. One of these buildings housed about 100 kg of gold objects, but only 10kgs remain, while the other 90 kg must have been stolen by illegal looters.
-Bangkok: This city is so huge! I still don’t know how to move here, since the metro and areal train are only in the center and east of the city. You have to move through the old city by foot, bus, taxi or boat, but I still didn’t find a plan for it. The diameter of the city seems to be around 60-80 km and housed 7-8 millions people, as many as in Switzerland…
Sunset on a temple of Ayutthaya
The laws are not always to be taken too seriously. This monk is smoking in his temple just next to the sign « smoking prohibited »
Cambodia, hearth of the ancient Khmer empire!
It was such a great adventure visiting this country, since I wanted to see it since years. I was not disappointed: Driving bicycle on the countryside allowed me to encounter amazing people. First I made my way to Banteay Chmar, to see one of these stunning Khmer temples. I could enjoy sleeping at a homestay of a small community. People there are really poor, this homestay system is a way to develop tourism in a region that is too often disregarded by tourists, who only run to Angkor.
Nevertheless, Angkor is really an amazing place. You can’t plan enough to see all the religious buildings standing high. Don’t expect the wild place lost in the jungle that tourist offices want to sell you: The place is full of little villages and easy to travel by bicycle on a road. I couldn’t get tired of watching all the variety of reliefs, depicting Khmer armies or hinduistic mythology. The most famous scene is probably the « churning of the milk sea », the creation of the world »: Vishnu was sleeping, as Brahman dropped out of his belly on a lotus flower and creating the universe. To produce the elixir of immortality, gods and demons had to ally to turn giant snakes around a pole, to churn the milk of the world. As the pole began to sink, Vishnu took form of turtle to sustain it (you may know the stories of Terry Pratchett of Turtle holding the world, it comes from here).
Phnom Penh was a nice city, on a Cambodian level. But she also has a dramatic history and shows wounds at many corners: As the Khmer rouges took the power, they emptied the city, letting people believe that Americans would soon bomb the city. They killed everybody who insisted to stay, and soon opened one of the worst prisons you can imagine, S21. There, opponents, thieves, spies, or more often people suspected for no real reasons, were tortured and killed. Stealing a banana would be enough for death. Soldiers cut once the belly of a girl with a knife, as she was totally conscious, because she was accused of stealing rice, so they could see if you had rice inside her stomach. They let her die of bleeding out.
Some kilometers further south of Phnom Penh, archaeologists found massive graves of people killed with anything that can kill, from a bamboo stick to a hammer…
The moments visiting these places were very emotional. Maybe still more because you know that everybody in this country had suffered of war effects. You never knew if the person who was selling you a soup would have lost family members, or maybe she was herself a soldier and tortured many…
Still, Cambodia was a great experience, and I put it to one of my favorite places I saw until now…
I spent way to little time in Vietnam, since I already had book a flight and had limited time. I regret it somehow, since people seemed to be amazing and the culture incredibly interesting. Still, time for a museum was there. The funny thing was to see the propaganda in it: The museum people tried to separate Vietnam as much as possible from China and presented Chinese as enemies. Still, Vietnamese culture is extremely influenced by the Chinese one, even in its smallest details.
One last time, I enjoyed shopping on the not-too-touristic markets and bazaars and cheap food, before going to the overcrowded and overpriced Bali.
Moments in Bali were very beautiful. Landscapes and animals you can see are breathtaking. The culture is impressive, religion is everywhere to meet.
Still, the overly touristic atmosphere didn’t please me, and you get to pay way to much for what you get (in comparison to other Asiatic countries).