Mention Luang Prabang to anyone who recognizes the name - and outside of Southeast Asian travellers, that's no easy trick - and blissful rumors gush from their mouths. "I've heard it's great!" "My best friend said she didn't want to leave!" "My estanged son who hasn't spoken to me since he was five, and besides which, is mute, called me up to tell me how amazing it was!" And so on. The fact is that Luang Prabang really is a great place to be. A bit of looking around and decent accomodation - hot water, clean rooms, comfortable beds and fans, if not air conditioning - can be found for around US$5. Food is a bit more expensive, but expensive in Laos basically means you're still paying less than five bucks for a meal. French baguettes are available all over town, with all manner of spreads and toppings, and fruit smoothies are as common as touts offering cheap boat rides. There's a good bookstore called L'Etranger, with Bangkok prices but a great selection, and free movies every night. There's plenty of tourist outfits willing to take the interested up to the caves in Pak Ou, on an elephant trek, up river, down river, or just about anywhere they want to go. I saw a few eco-tourism companies as well, including Green Discovery Laos. In town, there are so many temples around that you could spend two or three days walking from one temple to the next, slowly getting a sense for how religion and education are entwined in Laos. The orange-robed monks that glide around town under umbrellas to protect their shaved heads from the heat veer towards the extremely friendly. At every temple I visited, these boys - and I don't just mean males, I mean they were all boys from 10 years old or so to 19 or 20 - would start conversations with me. They wouldn't talk to the FMA, her being a woman, but they were inquisitive as to where we were from and how long we'd be in Laos. It was all an exercise in practicing their English, I imagine, but they were friendly enough about answering my questions so that it didn't bother me. Walking to the temples was pleasant, but walking around the town is truly enjoyable. There's the usual Laoisms of saying hello to foreigners, but generally not touting them, of kids screaming "Sabaidee!" at the top of their lungs, of cold drinks or a clean toilet never far from reach. There's the common architectural leftovers from French colonialism, although I do think that Savanaket has a far more interesting collection of them. Luang Prabang, for whatever reason, seems to have more of what I call "French communist" style, where the buildings have flairs that are obviously French, but all that poured concrete and lack of paint detracts from the overall feeling somehow. Best of all in Luang Prabang are the markets. The night market, with its food-stall adjunct, sells just about every kind of Laos souvenir available. For nearly the distance of a Manhattan block, the Beer Lao shirts, handmade slippers, scarves and blanket covers, Chinese-style parasols, ivory chess sets, Burmese jade, rice paper lanterns and so much more you can't even believe it just keep appearing. The variety of wares available and the length of the market, though, belie the noise. You'd expect it to be raucous, music blaring and vendors hawking out their wares. But that would be un-Lao. A vendor may, if you're lucky, come calling after you, but they're quiet about it and give up quick. The whole stretch is eerily silent, noiseless enough to hear cicadas at a nearby park. Given the subdued and restful nature of just about everything I've encountered in Laos, I shouldn't have been shocked. People were having fun talking to their friends, playing with their kids: one sibling even put her baby brother in a basket, watching the little guy roll around. After the markets of China, India and Thailand, I guess I'm just not prepared for the level of civilization in Laos.
Laos is like a slice of mystery meat that wonderfully turns out to be the best thing you've eaten in six years. Except, of course, that you can't eat a country. Everybody knows that. If you could eat a country, though, like some midget Galactus or a state fair contest winner done extra-large, Laos would be quite affordable. It's physicall small, only around 237,000 square km, and has a population racing towards six million people. It would be literally affordable, too: the cost of food here is dirt cheap. When 10,000 kip converts to one U.S. dollar, and a river fish steamed in banana leaf, caught fresh that morning, costs $3, you're practically being paid to be there. If the place looked like a desert or nuclear dump, well, nobody would blame you for not going. But the the scenery around the country is varied, from steep karst peaks to rolling mountains covered by primary-growth jungle and dotted with farms, to wide-open river deltas and even the occasional urban settlement. Although, to be honest, the cities of Laos are more like the well-educated countryfolk relatives of cities; calling Vientiane a city stretches the definition of the word to its most rural. The village of Nong Khiaw, in the best of Lao style, is much easier to get to by boat than by bus. I found this out by leaving the place in a narrow cigar of wood slats nailed together over a thin hull and outfitted with a motor in the back. Both getting to it and getting away from it, though, it's hard not to be impressed by the beauty of Laos, this self-proclaimed jewel of the Mekong. On the way in, the road twists and turns like a hungry boa after a goat. It winds up, down and over the mountains, straightening out briefly into the barest of blink towns, a smattering of huts on stilts before diving again into the forest or ascending a steep incline. In the rainy season, as it is now, the road also vies against the clouds, jumping into the thick of them, cutting visibility to zero. Water pours down on the sangthaew, the pick-up truck with a cargo bed converted into thinly-padded seats, and then it disperses into a fine mist, coating everything in a layer of wet so fine the water doesn't even bead; you just get soaked. Then, like some white fluffy ninja, the clouds lift up and away, and the view changes from zero to a breath-taking vista of clouds snaking around jungle and farm-covered mountains. Kids in their underwear playing some sort of volleyball and soccer cross with a wicker ball and their feet pause to chase after the truck, yelling, "Hello!" The 10 of us crammed into the back slam against one side as the truck peels around a corner, and the kids are gone. Not even their voices can still be heard. My Financial and Menu Adviser and I never made it to the reportedly-stunning waterfall of Nong Khiaw, but we did see the Tham Pha Tok Cave. This little hidey-hole was used by villagers during the second Indochina War to escape bombardment, and contained several empty chambers. The original bamboo ladder used to reach the caves, 15 or so meters above the ground. It wasn't much more than a skeleton, and it was a bit scary to imagine having to rush up that rickety thing while avoiding getting flattened by a bomb. Leaving Nong Khiaw by boat almost started off as an ordeal, when a Spanish couple we met got lied to by the boat driver they wanted to hire to take us all down to Luang Prabang. He had apparently promised them $10 per person, which shot up to $20 when he found out there were only five of us. (The FMA and I, the Spaniards, and an Israeli girl.) We talked him back down to $12 each, and off we went. The scenery on the boat ride down jumped from flat fields to Yangshuoesque karsts and then settled down with rolling hills covered by field patchworks. The land was all green: bright almost-yellow greens, dark, primordial jungle black-greens, rotting plant matter green and everything in-between. The Nam Ou was a murky brown, but fast flowing and the waves occasionally came up white-capped. There should be more boat trips in Laos. It's a pleasant way to maneuver from one idyllic location to the next, and this is one of the few countries that's pierced by more rivers than concrete. The breeze off the river was cooling, as was the rare wave that made it over the top of the boat and landed in my lap. Beats dust, rough roads and truck exhaust any day. The most interesting part of the trip, though, were the children. Occasionally, the boat would dock at some sandbank on the side, and one of the Laos passengers would get out. All five of the foreigners were going down to Luang Prabang; the rest disembarked at seemingly random points of jungle. Only as the boat pulled away could we see a few stray huts poking out of the greenery surrounding them. From the water, all of Laos looked uninhabited. At each of the three or four stops we made, children would rush from their hidden jungle posts, screaming and jumping on their way to the boat's side. They'd help pull the boat ashore, three or four big ones struggling as six littler ones did nothing so much as get in their way. They were dressed as all village children we encountered were dressed: T-shirts and shorts for the older boys, T-shirt and traditional skirt for the girls; next to nothing for the younger ones. There's no point in clothing a kid in that kind of heat. There was no adventure here, except for seeing how the rest of the world lives and functions. Kids were out of school for summer vacation, helping their parents with their fields and people still using rivers for transportation. Perhaps, because of the way that the country is, with its waterways and smaller population and slower pace of life, even compared to its neighbors, it all works just fine in Laos.
Most of the following column is an email from a friend of mine about some of the dumb and dangerous things you can do in Beijing when you don't keep your wits about you. I'll say this, though: be careful, especially of people who want to be your friend. I've added some paragraph breaks, for readability. Interestingly enough, when I was in Beijing, one of the expat mags there ran a column on dangerous traps for tourists and mentioned two of these. I can't stress how important it is for you to follow NOBODY ANYWHERE EVER. I'll try to give you the abridged version of the hell and anger story that ensued on my second day in Beijing. I should have heeded the warnings in the guidebooks but I'm an idiot. I was at a tourist site taking photos and this young girl, early 20's, walked up to me with her male friend of the same age and started chatting with me. They seemed nice enough, very well dressed and very polite. She introduced herself and her friend and I thought this was really nice, that I could make some friends in China and was excited about that. She invited me to walk around with them, that her male friend was visiting for the week and she was showing him around. So I followed them, I'm so FUCKING STUPID. After exactly one hour of walking around and sightseeing, she bent over in fatigue and asked if we could stop for a drink. She looked very serious, and STUPIDLY, I suggested we get tea. I saved them from having to suggest it themselves. They had actually led me to a tea house and I didn't even realize it. The guy opened the door and the girl walked up some stairs and the guy asked me to go before him (so I couldn't escape...) I went up stairs, long story short, we had a Chinese tea ceremony which I thought was cool, exactly 30 minutes. Then the bill came. $1,200 USD. I slammed my fist into the table and swore at them for tricking me. I reached to pick up my chair (I intended to kill him, I had been drinking for lunch so I felt loose enough already to do something dumb...) He stood up and stopped me, then sat down and pulled out a calculator (this meant he worked at that teahouse the little fuck). I kept swearing and he finally said, ok, just pay $120 USD. I said NO and the woman pouring tea sped over to my side, her hand behind her back, and I saw the knife clenched in her hand, and she said PAY NOW. So I paid it and left. Outside the girl asked me if I wanted to join them for dinner and I told them to fuck off and chased them up the street. I wanted to beat the hell out of them... but I lost and lost $120 USD. SO WATCH OUT! Be careful of any acts of friendship in the city. It happened again outside a restaurant but I was smarter this time. This was the other "kind" of trick, art students. Almost exactly like the guidebooks say, two or three art students will walk up to you and invite you to their gallery. Once inside, one will pull out a gun and threaten you to buy a piece of artwork before you leave, and the art is junk. So outside this restaurant, there they were, three cute girls waiting for me. They called to me and asked me to see their art gallery. I was going inside to have dinner at the restaurant and told them I wasn't interested. They followed me inside anyway and stood up and lifted my fists to them and told them off. They walked back outside, and when I finished dinner they tried again... Obviously I ignored them after the tea house incident, and I'm that much stronger now. It did suck though and put me off to most of the trip in the beginning, but I got over it fast and the cheap alcohol made everything better. Just be careful of friendship there, it's an illusion unless you get something given to you first or you have complete control over the situation. If you're ever cornered, the guys at my youth hostel said to just punch them in the face and leave, but the lady had a knife and I didn't know what to do. Oh, and taxis. A real taxi has the letter B in front of the numbers of the license plate. The government is VERY strict about this. If there's no B, then it's a fake taxi and they might try to mug you so be careful. The guy I stayed with at the youth hostel was shot at by a cab driver. It was 3AM and the driver pulled a gun out and shot past his head and demanded his money. He gave it to him and the driver pushed him out of the cab and started shooting at him. Fucking scary, so be careful.
While the eco-tourism kayaking trip that I took was fun and educational, despite one niggling, naive French boy, the 30 km round-trip trek my Financial and Menu Adviser and I did two days later taught me some unexpected things. Mostly though, I learned what an undeniable badass my FMA is. Let me back up a minute. Right now, wherever you are, it's probably raining somewhere in Laos. Probably somewhere all over Southeast Asia. That may seem a bit open-ended to you, but you must realize: It's the rainy season here. When it rains, even if it's only for five minutes, the water comes down like hammers and nails. There is no escaping the torrent, and the longer the deluge the more damage it does. Road flooding is not uncommon, and although we set out at 8:30 in the morning under a patchy blue-and-white sky, the night before had seen a large mass of water dropped on Luang Nam Tha. We reached the trailhead around 9, after a bumpy trip down a dirt road that was actually straight, despite all the twists and turns the truck made to avoid deep potholes filled with water the color of burned toffee. The group of five of us - a British couple, our guide and the FMA and I - disembarked, walked for five minutes and came to a creek. Or what used to be a creek, or a shallow stream; whatever it was meant to be, it was now a fast-flowing mass of water that could safely be called a river. The burned toffee rushed by and occasionally a stick or some other plant detritus would come up for air and then drown again. Into this we waded, shoes in hand and pants rolled up high. It wasn't a straight line across, either, but we went south a bit to avoid getting wet up to our waists, and then angled back to the far bank. When we got to the other side, we towelled off our feet with our socks and then set to hiking up the trail. The wife of the village chief appeared to carry our lunch food up, all of it in a basket balanced on her back, but with its weight held by a strap against her forehead. After about 30 minutes, the FMA started limping and walking slowly, finally mentioning that the old blisters above her heel felt like they had re-opened. When she took off her shoes, she found that they hadn't, but a new one had appeared, the size and shape of a red Oreo cookie. She couldn't the shoes on comfortably, so she kept them off and kept hiking. We hiked up some steep bits, and some easy bits, but it was all up. The FMA's shoes had come off not more than a couple of kilometers into the trek; the one-way route was about 15 km, all told. When we got to the top, I realized that she'd done almost the whole thing barefoot. Sharp stones were made even more uncomfortable by the heat of the day, and prickles were everywhere. She might've complained a bit, but she made it up all the same, and then back down, half in the rain, barefoot again for nearly the entire time except for a stretch where she borrowed the guide's flip-flops. If that's not the definition of badass, I don't know what is. The village of Ban Nam Yang was kinda interesting, too. The Akha tribe has little contact with the outside world. They often live in villages high on mountains, generally inaccessible to outsiders. There are Akha in China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, and like the other tribes the FMA and I visited during our kayak trip, exist mostly on subsistence farming and occasional hunting. The villagers were incredibly friendly, giving the women in our group hand-woven bags and giving the men their locally-brewed fire water. They were also extremely poor, and two villagers approached us asking for help in getting medical attention. There was nothing we could do, despite being Westerners. Children approached us with a mix of curiosity and shyness, but by the time we left, they were following us like they were our personal escort. There was a boy with a haircut that could only be described as physically abusive, with the front left quarter of his mysteriously shaven - perhaps, a playtime accident. Girls tended to be a bit shyer, but they also were taking care of their younger siblings. One girl of 11 or 12 carried her one-year-old sister on her hip like a shruken conjoined twin. Their clothes were invariably dirty, covered in swathes of gray and brown dirt stains. Akha families are started a bit different from ours. When a couple has decided to get hitched, they have to go spend time in what our guide described to us as a "love shack," where they "talk." Several of them were scattered throughout the village, which was home to about 250 Akhas. If the woman doesn't produce a live baby, however, the couple isn't allowed to get married. In the past 15 years, the tribe has been discouraged from killing off twins, which were thought to be bad luck. After killing the babies, they would burn the house of the parents and they would have to live in the forest, alone, for three years before they were allowed back into the community. But as I said, this practice is being actively discouraged by the Laos government. Opium smoking, too, has been given the boot, in favor of tobacco. Bark chewing, similar to betel nut, was rife, where the tree bark is mixed in the mouth with local mint. Malaria is still problematic, with a lack of mosquito nets; running water depends on the village's proximity to a river. It's a hard life. The chief and other villagers showed of some of the skills that they use on a daily basis. The chief's wife showed how the women spun cotton into thread, by hand. The men showed us their traps, mostly used for catching birds. Some were designed for killing the birds, for eating. Others were to keep them as pets; these were, thankfully, the of the non-lethal variety. The scenery was beautiful, with no modern structures visible. Mountains rolled down into hills, and then shot back up as cloud-blockers. The dense forest and lush fields seemed to swim together in ther ocean of green, lighter tones cutting into darker ones as two rivers might meet and mix. It was steamy and humid and idyllic. We made it back by the last nub of twilight, having stayed too long to talk to the villagers, exhausted and pleased with another well-done eco-trek.
The FMA and I had so much fun kayaking down the Tha River, we decided to give a trek a try. We hooked up with the eco-tourism company Green Discovery Laos one more time, because they kindly took my credit card. Remember that number from the last entry? Thirty-eight dollars, right? Well, the first time we went in to their offices, for the kayaking trip, we paid in cash. It was our first night back in Laos, and we left our brains in China, apparently. Thirty-eight dollars in the Laos currency of kip is a large enough sum of cash, best carried with a Land Rover. It equals 380,000 kip, and while the largest kip note available is the 50,000 note, its use is not widespread. I've only seen them once, in Vientiane. So 380,000 kip in 20,000 and 10,000 notes equals a wad of bills more than an inch thick. We'd completely forgotten that there was one city in all of Laos that had ATMs: Vientiane. We weren't planning on being there for another two weeks. No big deal, initially. There were several banks throughout the country, and since my American ATM/Debit card is also a Mastercard - will the wonders of modern banking ever stop? - I could easily pull money out of the bank the morning of the kayak trip, withdrawing it against the account. Or so I thought. I wasn't anticipating a random power outage, leaving the bank's phone lines down and unable to call in the card number. No worries, said the FMA, who had done the short walk to the bank. "The bank's open tomorrow, they said." This was a Friday morning, and we had to rush to get going on our watery adventure. If by "tomorrow" the bank meant "Monday," then yes, the bank was open "tomorrow". So Saturday morning comes and I stroll up to the Banque Pour Le Commerce Exterieur Lao, the BCEL, and find the doors locked and the wrought-iron gate sealed. I trudged back to the guesthouse, and the FMA and I explained the situation to the owner, who offered to credit us until the real Monday rolled around. I headed down to the Green Discovery offices. In my head, I was calling them "Green Chicken," not a comment on the courageous of their guides or anything. I just found the concept of green chickens to be far more entertaining than, say, green discoveries, which imply that something disastrous had happened to the nether regions of my refrigerator. Anyway, so I reach their offices just in time to find the American co-owner of the Luang Nam Tha branch, Bill Tuffin, establishing the first wireless LAN in Luang Nam Tha Province. I was nearly as ecstatic as they were, but my enthusiasm jumped considerably when they agreed to refund my cash, in full, and charge my credit card. Not only was I the first tourist to witness Luang Nam Tha's fastest (and only) wireless computer network, I was also the first to use the Green Discovery credit card machine. Later that night, when I returned to pay for the one-day trek the FMA and I wanted to take on Sunday, I would become the second user of the machine. If you can peer through all the lush forest and thick humidity, Laos is confidently tip-toeing into the future.
There have been no bug bites of horrific consequence, but then, I've only been back in Laos for a few days. Scary thoughts of emergency surgery aside, northern Laos looks to be much like the southern half of the country. There's the hot, humid, sticky weather; there's more rivers and waterfalls than you could possibly imagine, especially given that Laos ia a landlocked country; and there's more than a few friendly people who all seem eager to help you get to where you need to go, feed and house you, do a little dance if asked and even clothe you if necessary. Most importantly, there's the Laos coffee. I can't say enough good things about Laos coffee. Dark, rich, bitter as sin and when combined with the right amount of condensed milk, just as sweet. It's like drinking a hot mug of 97 percent bitter dark chocolate, and it's only slightly harder to procure yourself a jolt of it than it is to wake up in the morning. With the heat and humidity being what they are - omnipresent - I tend to wake at 6:30 a.m., regardless of how tired I am. Such is the hard life of a traveller. One of the most pleasant things about China, though, was the general lack of backpacker attitude. The sandal-wearing, unshaven, horrific-odor emanating dreadlocked presence of those people who think that because they're fortunate enough to spend a six months or a year or terrifyingly more living out of a bag, that they've some kind of special bunkie that truly groks wherever it is that they are. Not all the backpackers and travellers I've met were like this, but there were a damn sight more of them the closer to Bangkok I got, and Laos, being the calm, unhurried haven that it is, attracts the dispensers of BP 'tude much like flies to something that rhymes with "git". So I was a bit startled upon my triumphant and healed return to Laos to find the pleasant town of Luang Nam Tha infested with backpackers. This meant that the cheap accomodation was quite nice, but the food quality was a bit lowish and the prices a bit highish. Still, high prices in Laos means that you're paying US$1.50 to US$2.50 for something that's worth half that. It's not exactly highway robbery here. As I said, though, it's not as if all travellers and backpackers send me screaming into the primary-growth jungles. My Financial and Menu Adviser and I crossed the China-Laos border with a friendly Israeli guy named Eyal, and later that night, in LNT, he asked us to join a one-day kayaking eco-tourism venture he signed on for. Somehow, I talked the hydrophobic FMA into agreeing, and dumped a thick wad of Lao bills on the desk of Green Discovery Laos. This amounted to US$38 and will become relevent later, so keep your gray matter warm. The kayaking was to go like this: Meet up around 9 a.m., pick up a Laos lunch included in the cost, drive to a nearby river - the Nam Tha - and scoot down the river, stopping at two local villages on the way. The trip was so successful that at the end of the day, the FMA was clamoring for more. Part of the benefit of hooking up with an outfit like Green Discovery was that they give 1/3 of the cost of the trip to the villages they visit. They didn't specify what the money was used for in the village, but one assumes it's not for the chief to throw himself a little Laotian orgy. The other 66 percent goes towards guide training, permit fees, the guides themselves and the company. Unlike the eco-tours of local and ethnic minority villages in Thailand, where they've become so routine that some villages have built concerte bunks and showers for the tourists, the only monkey business on the kayak trip was when we saw some wild monkeys cavorting in the tall, whipping stalks of bamboo as we slowly paddled by. This kayak trip visited two villages, Ban Soptud of the Lanten tribe, and Ban Sopsim of the Khmu tribe. The Khmu, my guide explained, were originally part of the Khmer people who emigrated north for unknown reasons. The Lanten came from China, and emigrated south at some point in the past few hundred years. Their written language still consists of some Chinese characters. Huts were made of wood and had woven bamboo-thatch roofs. Although they did weaving and simple jewelry making, often from beads and the remains of aluminum cans, most people were engaged in the raising of pigs and chickens and subsistence farming. Despite having experience with foreigners via the eco-tourism trips, most villagers in both places were incredibly shy. Some children weren't, and they seemed to really enjoy having their picture taken. The chief, his family and other villagers were neither shy nor surprised, and many were quite welcoming. They gave no indication as to whether this was because they knew that we gave money to the village through our tour package, or if they were just friendly folks. I'd like to think it was the latter. In the Lanten village, I encountered an old man smoking on a bong longer than a meter. He had stuck a cigarette with the filter ripped off in the bowl, and seemed quite content with the chimney that was belching smoke out at him. After I got his approval to take a few photos, I asked my guide to translate for me. The first and perhaps most obvious question was: Did he used to smoke opium? The guide translated, and got a response, and translated again, and very much like those old carny machines that tell your fortune, I soon had my answer. "Yes." "When did you stop?" A pause as the translation machine worked its magic, and the answer came back. "Five years ago." The old man went back to smoking from his enormous device, and the guide moved on, which could've been a sublte cue to me to end the conversation, but had the effect of ending it regardless of social conventions. Later, the guide told me that five years ago, just after Laos opened its borders to the world-at-large, the government made a concerted effort to crack down on opium plantations. Some older people who were too addicted to the drug were allowed to continue smoking it, but the guide said that by this year, nearly all the villagers had stopped. Hill tribe villages are so prevalent in Laos that forty percent of Laotians live in them. Coming to the country and skipping out at least one village trip would be a bit idiotic. We didn't meet any village idiots; however, we seemed to have brought one of our own with us. The French boy, who dressed a bit too conservatively to be a Young Republican, brought along a dozen vials of perfume. Initially and indulging in a bit of stereotyping, I thought this might relate to his prefered bathing habits. Instead, he proceeded to hand out vials to the villagers. Despite his claims of "international friendship," there was no pattern to who received this boy's largesse. An elderly woman here, a six-year-old girl there. He didn't even have the courtesy to ask the village chief or the tour guide if this was okay. Only after he'd handed a few of the vials out did the guide notice, and then have to rush around to explain what the hell the stinky little glass tubes were. While I might come off as being harsh on this chirpy ambassador of French goodwill, frankly (sorry) I thought he was just about the dumbest backpacker I'd encountered during the whole trip, except for the Germans who thought it'd be a good idea to cavort on the wrong side of the barrier down at Australia's Twelve Apostles. Setting aside for the moment the fact that not going through the guide or village chief is incredibly rude, had the guide not intervened, something lethal could've happened with the vials. The villagers don't know what perfume is. It's not that they're simpletons, because they're not. But the little girl or the old woman might've swallowed the potion, not knowing what it was. These villages are very far from any hospital, in both distance and road conditions; the effects could've been tragic. It's very hard to go visiting places inhabited by people that are clearly not as well off as myself. The urge to do something for them, anything, can be overwhelming. We, as Americans, Australians, Europeans, Japanese, Martians or just people who aren't necessarily wealthy but definitely better off than they, should do something. Giving money to an NGO or other aid organization is a good place to start. Donating your time by volunteering for a group that needs help is another. Chucking glass vials of perfume in the name of some vestigial colonialism, however, is naive at best and dangerous at worst.
Offering recommendations on China is tricky business. Imagine a country where nearly every city block and major freeway changes location every few hours, like a self-contorting Rubick's cube, and you'll have a close enough approximation of the place. Gearing up for the Olympics and swooning in the heat of their economy, China is probably the fastest-changing country on the planet. Even the guidebook I used, the 2005 Lonely Planet China, had some glaring inaccuracies on nearly every map or location mentioned. Some of this could be ascribed to writer and editor errors, but without a doubt, some is simply the fault of the Chinese. They're just changing too damn much. Some other general thoughts on China. When possible, eat at cafeterias that attract locals. The food is great, the people were friendly, if a bit surprised to see a foreigner chowing down on baozi or a hotpot with them, and it's beautifully cheap. Despite their reputation, the FMA and I had fine times on the Chinese sleeper buses. Perhaps there's been a nationwide effort to clean them up in the past few years, or perhaps the rumors of their filth were greatly exaggerated. Whatever the reason, the sleepers we took were clean, with decent bedding and working toilets (except in Yunnan Province.) There was only one sleeper that allowed its passengers to smoke, better than the stories I heard about the hard-sleeper trains. And of course, wherever you travel, watch out for scams. When possible, of course, I've included contact info. Guangdong Province Guangzhong: Stay on Shamian Island, and walk to the Qingping (Peaceful) Market. It's a great market, with plenty of food, interesting alleys and of course, the culinary monstrosities-cum-weirdness that is Guangdong cuisine. Guangxi Province Yangshuo: Bamboo House Inn and Cafe turned out to be a fantastic place to stay, with friendly staff and decent food. Plus, free internet access, book and DVD rental for guests, and affordable bicycle rental. Most importantly, the staff were very good at giving advice for planning excursions through the area. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The night market up at the cross of Diecui Lu and Pantou Lu, just past the bus station nearest Xi Jie, was excellent, as well, serving beer fish by the kilo and offering other Chinese standards (sweet and sour spare ribs, for example) that were way above-par. Outside of town, I'd rent bicycles and tour the countryside and the rice fields. The hike up to the very top of Moon Hill was worth it for the excellent views. Ping'An: Near Longsheng, but located centrally in the middle of the famous rice terraces, this little village is a tourist mecca. Fortunately, it's easy to get the heck away from them. Hiking throughout the area involves walking up, down and around the rice terraces, one beautiful vista slowly melting in the next, and it's worth spending at least two days doing just that. Places to stay in Ping'An are average; the Countryside Cafe and Inn was tolerable. For food, I'd venture beyond the guesthouses and try to find a local joint. When I did that, the short trek was worth the culinary reward. There is internet access up here, but it's all by modem. The village of Dazhai is like Ping'An, but a bit further up the road and consequently, a bit less touristed. The rice terrace hike from one to the other was fantastic; it took about four hours. Chengyang: The village is known for its Wind and Rain Bridge, but the waterwheels that irrigate the rice fields were visually interesting. The people were incredibly friendly, and it's worth spending a few days strolling through the fields and towns here. Any of the guesthouses on the main road near the bridge charge 20 yuan per person per night, all have decent-to-excellent homemade food, and one has broadband internet access. Chongqing Municipality The Chongqing hotpot is one of China's most famous, spiciest dishes. Absolutely worth it. The FMA and I had one at the excellent Chongqing Qinghua Hot Pot Restaurant, 023.6292.0236. Skip the Yangzi River cruise. It doesn't matter how much you pay or what boat you're on, it's going to suck. The Three Gorges are flooded; it's over and done. Better to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge before that gets shitcanned, too. Hubei Province Yichang: The only reason to visit this city is if you're disembarking from the Yangzi River cruise, which you won't be doing since it's a waste of money. But, if for some reason you find yourself here, the Taohualing Fandian makes a good place to stay, considering that even if you camp out in their nice budget rooms you still get to partake in their complimentary and enormous buffet breakfast. Wuhan: Wuhan is a hot, stinking city, a mass of poured concrete that mocks you with the Yangzi that divides the town. There just aren't any cool breezes coming off the water, and the unpleasantness continues from there. However, if you can fly in for breakfast on Hubu Xiang (alley) you'd be doing your taste buds a favor. The morning food they served there was delicious, one of the best mealk I've had all trip. Just be sure to fly out again when you're done. Shanghai Municipality There's no such thing as cheap accomodation in Shanghai. But Maggie's Youth Hostel was affordable and in a good location, with good local restaurants nearby, along with a cheap 'net cafe and a bus that stops in front of the building and takes you straight through the heart of the city to the Bund. I heard a lot of complaints from expats living in Shanghai that the food there was too greasy. It is known for its oiliness, but some of it was still quite good. The seafood restaurants on Yunnan Lu, near Renmin Square, were delicious and affordable, and the Nanxiang Steamed Bun Restaurant lived up to its reputation as the best xiaolongbao joint in the city. If you go to Shanghai and you don't eat at least one plate of those dumplings filled with boiling soup, you're missing out. You can't get them anywhere else in the country. The Shanghai Art Museum is not to be missed. They feature an unbelievable collection of Chinese art, stretching back more than 5000 years. The well-done English descriptions were the icing on the cake; it'd be worth going to even if the exhibits didn't have bilingual explanations. Shanghai's a pretty spiffy place to get clothes tailored, but it's also dirt cheap. If you need a suit, male or female, custom design or generic, go see Amy at Shop #196, first floor, Shanghai South Bund Soft-Spinning Material Market. Email's good, too, or call her at 137.9523.3283. Beijing Municipality Like Shanghai, there's not a lot of cheap accomodation here. But the Poacher's Inn wasn't bad, and had half-decent free breakfast and a very nice free laundry service. I've heard good things about the http://www.zenhostelry.com" target="_blank">Zen Hostelry, but be sure you get a map and phone number first. As far as food goes, if you don't try as many local dishes as possible, you're missing out. Do some research on their names and pronunciations so you can ask if a place has what you want, they're well worth the effort. For something more concrete, the noodle shops west of Chongwenmenwai Dajie and north of the Temple of Heaven Park would be a good place to start. Also, the Chinese Muslim food here was nice and spicy. For fancy-shmancy, the FMA and I enjoyed the Red Capital Club; your mileage may vary. There's plenty to do in Beijing, just as long as you don't do anything stupid like skip the Forbidden City. But also make a point of hitting Beihai Park, which was a great place to mingle with locals enjoying the foliage. Yunnan Province Kunming: Go to Mengzi Guoqiao Mixian on Beijing Lu for authentic across-the-bridge noodles (guoqiao mixian). The rest of the city is pretty, but pretty boring, too. Dali: You could do what the FMA and I did, which was stay at Friends Guesthouse just outside of the South Gate of the old city. They offer free 'net access, free DVD rental, lots of help arranging tours and transportation in and out of the area. Or, you could do what I should've done. Upon arriving in town, head for Zhonghe Shan, the mountain just west of the West Gate. Hop on the chairlift or hire a pony to take you and your stuff up to the monastery halfway up the hill, which also runs a nice guesthouse. Very few people stay there, there's a small restaurant that serves reputably decent food, and it's a great base to hike the rest of the mountain from. There's more than a few trails winding their way through the forest, and it all looked beautiful. There's also an 11 km flagstone-paved trail that laterally crosses the mountain, which was nice, too. Eating in town is patchy, but The Sweet Tooth served good, affordable Yunnan coffee and excellent desserts. Plus, they employ deaf people, a cause worth helping out. Lijiang: Stay at Mama Naxi's. Give her a call at 0888.888.1012, let her know you're coming. Her English isn't so hot, but she really takes care of her customers: free 'net, help arranging transportation and tickets, friendly staff, and an 8 yuan Naxi buffet-style dinner. Also, her second building, near the first one, has a great, backpacker-free atmosphere. Away from the dorms, it's a pleasant break from the hectic tourism going on outside. Don't skip the Naxi Orchestra, a nightly concert of local musicians who hid their instruments during the Cultural Revolution and are now bringing an added renown to the town, beyond its World Heritage status. Tiger Leaping Gorge: Try to avoid spending a night in Qiaotou; instead, drop off your stuff in Margo's or Jane's storage locker and hike the first two hours to the Naxi Guesthouse as quick as you can. The food was better and the people far friendlier. Jinghong: Down in the semi-autonomous Xishuangbanna, more Southeast Asian than Chinese, like Laos but with pavement, Mei Mei's Cafe on the corner of Jingde Lu and Manting Lu. The food was good, the staff friendly, and the advice on exploring the region, complete with hand-drawn maps for bike explorations, looked great. Next time, I might even get to try them.