Whirled by the Hobags (200604-07)

There was a point on this trip when my Financial and Menu Adviser and I checked our bank accounts and discovered we had about twenty United States dollars between us. We looked at each other, and for just a moment, there was silence. That was a pretty strange thing, for starters. There are plenty of comfortable silences between us, but anybody who knows either of us also knows that we could both talk both balls off an elephant. So, on this beautiful sunny day in Kunming, China, standing outside an ATM, we looked deep into each other's eyes, as couples do, and shared one thought, as couples also do: Holy shit, are we fucked! The shock of finding ourselves buried up to our necks in catshit quickly gave way to anger. We knew this had nothing to do with our lack of planning, or our poor fiscal acumen. I'm all for taking responsibility for one's actions, but despite the constant, daily badgering by us of our insurers, the Lonely Planet-recommended World Nomads, they had not yet paid me for expenses incurred during my hospitalization. Now, at the far southwestern end of China and more than two months after the even, we were stuck with no way out. Neither of us is much of an idiot, either, and we saw this coming. Back in Lijiang, when we had US$45 between us, I called the US Embassy to ask them to exert some pressure on World Hobags. The guy I was speaking with explained that they couldn't do anything. I said I understood, which I didn't, and told him again how dire the situation was and that we had exhausted all other avenues. Finally, he agreed to give them a call and I gave him my case number. He called me back about a half-hour later, and told me that they said they couldn't access any of their computer records without my account number. Of course, they mysteriously neglected to tell this poor embassy employee that the case numbers are, in fact, the account number with an extra three digits, to differentiate one case from another. Do I even need to describe the rage seizure I had when I found out that Hobags was so unscrupulous and possessed so much chutzpah that they'd lie to the U.S. Embassy? Isn't that a federal crime? Heck, Clinton got impeached for less. Chutzpah doesn't really describe it, though. Chutzpah is when you have the guts to do something outrageous, doing something that others might not necessarily agree with but essentially is an act demanding of respect. The mere concept that one of today's insurance companies deserves any kind of respect is borderline black humor. To their credit, World Nomads did pay for the essential hospital costs up front. The medical care I received and the room were paid for in full and with a minimal of fuss, or so I thought at the time. When the doctor in Vientiane called Nomads to get authorization for my evacuation to Bangkok for treatment, they agreed immediately, although the doc was unlike his American counterparts who have refused to treat patients without proper insurance. In a flat but forceful tone, he explained his diagnosis and then said, "I'm sending my patient to Bangkok on the next available flight. I'm glad you agree," and hung up the phone. The contract I signed with them also agreed to pay for food, transportation/evacuation and boarding cost "incidentals" incurred by me and my travel partner during the treatment period. Midway through my recuperation in the hospital, though, World Nomads started behaving more like a typical insurance company rather than a good one. A fax was sent to the hospital stating that I was not authorized to be in a "private room" when I had received earlier authorization for it. There was confusion on their part during telephone calls as to just what "incidentals" meant - it's frightening to think that an insurance company wouldn't have a pre-existing definition for something so important. Throughout my recuperation in Bangkok, I was constantly plagued by the gnats working at Hobags that seemed incapable of communicating with each other, or even making simple notes in my file. One woman - the "team manager," whatever the hell that is - even accused me of not having authorization from the company to be medically evacuated to Bangkok in the first place. I started laughing at her, because the alternative would have been to call her every foul name I could think of and then slam the phone down. Which I did once before, and surprisingly - got me nowhere. After my release from the Bumrungrad Hospital Nomads put me up for a week in Bumrungrad Suites, a posh hotel mainly for those recovering from treatment at the hospital who don't need to be confined to bed but who do need to be within walking distance of the hospital. Throughout the six days I was staying in the Suites, I tried to get all kinds of information about reimbursement from Nomads, and was met with utter chaos. One person said I needed to keep all my receipts, another said that only some were necessary. A third told me that I could stay an extra night at the Suites, since Hobags booked me in only until Friday, the day of my follow-up appointment; a fourth person freaked out when she discovered that all I had for this one night extension was "verbal" authorization. (As opposed to a fax or some other paper document, I assume.) Each time I had to deal with a new representative I had to explain everything again and re-fight all the formerly won battles. It was "Groundhog Day" from hell. Another person, but perhaps it was one of the previous four - it's hard to tell where one Hobag ends and another begins - spent three hours refusing to authorize reimbursement for our plane tickets back to Vientiane, let alone to where we were going. Three hours utterly stonewalling me, despite the fact that the insurance contract explicitly stated that after medical evacuation, clients could be sent back to where they were evacuated from if they were deemed medically fit. She tried pointing out that the Hobag's chief physician, in Australia, had decided I should be sent back home - based on the doctor's report on the day of my admission to the hospital. Nevermind the fact that my Bangkok doctor determined that I had healed enough to travel again, because the doctor actually examining the patient just could not have a better idea of the patient's condition than some random guy in the pocket of the insurance company, sitting in his golf cart thousands of miles away. Eventually, she capitulated. I got back at her by purchasing plane tickets to China, not Laos, and getting reimbursed for them. But the payback was a long time coming. In the contract, it states that World Nomads will make a reasonable effort to take no more than 10 working days to resolve all claims. Eight weeks after they received my claim documentation, I still hadn't been paid. After the 10 working day period had elapsed, I sent polite but firm emails to World Nomads. After 20 working days had gone, these nearly-daily missives were merely firm. After 25 working days, I let the sarcasm and anger loose. During this time, my glasses were stolen in Shanghai (another, separate claim) and the FMA was still working to resolve her claims from India. She filed those in February. Obviously, their treatment of me was not some isolated incident of incompetence, as they would eventually get around to indicating. "We don't know why your claim wasn't handled in a timely manner, and we are investigating the matter," was what their final email said. Shyeah, right. After more than six weeks of delays, just as I was entering Laos for the second time, they finally wired some money into my account. After spending even more time comparing their detailed list of repayment to my list of claims, I found that they had shorted me by $400. So the game of email-and-response, threaten-and-wait had to begin again. This story has a happy ending. I did get all of my money back. The hardship, though, of having to argue for every penny that was owed to me, not to mention being lied to and worst of all, being very scared that the FMA and I might be stranded in some backwater without any money, provided a terrible undercurrent of tension nearly drove us several times to quit in the middle and head home. After we returned to Bangkok for our final stop before leaving Southeast Asia, she said that now she understands why all those "little people versus the evil mega-company" movies have such big audiences. As for me, I've learned my lesson: never trust a company whose name rhymes with "hobag," because you'll end up with a stress level far worse than any social disease.

Downtime with the Big Cats (20060717)

I've been fascinated with tigers since I was a kid. On the many trips to the zoo I forced my dad to take me on, one of my favorite animals was watching Prince Charles. A white Siberian tiger, he always looked a bit regal and out of place in his enclosure, a living black-and-white photo, his massive head held up as he paced through all the faded yellow rock and brown trees that surrounded him. That wide-eyed five-year-old that I was never would've imagined that actually touching a live tiger would be a possibility. It seemed more likely that I could be a tiger than touch one. So I was ecstatic to learn that around 40 km from Kanchanaburi, the province northwest of Bangkok that adjoins the border with Burma, there is a temple called Watpa Luangta Bua Yannasampanno. Nobody call it that, though, except for the bus conductor who was confused by where the FMA and I wanted to go. Everybody else calls it the Tiger Temple, including the monks who live there. The Tiger Temple started as a typical Thai forest monastery in 1994, where the orange-robed monks would continue to live their lives according to their Buddhist precepts. There were no tigers living there then, although there were several species of wild animals in the area, including rarely-sighted panthers. According to the temple's website, it has been a refuge for animals since it was opened. Injured wild birds started it all, which the temple nursed back to health, and then more injured birds were given to the abbot, Phra Acharn Chan. They were followed by a wild boar that made its way onto the temple grounds. Unwanted pets from nearby villagers followed, and in each case, the temple accepted them with gratitude and cared for them, even nursing them back to health when the monks had no formal training to do so. A few of the animals released back into the wild returned with their flocks, herds and other associated brethren. While all of this is well and good, none of it is particularly exciting or relevent except that from its first day, the temple has cared for animals without exception, but also without much experience in the matter. The monks learned in the hands-on, old-fashioned way, which makes what happened next even more unusual. In February 1999, a sick Indochinese tiger cub was given to the temple. Her mother had been killed by poachers, and she had been unsuccessfully poisoned by a taxidermist. The monks took care of her as best they could, but she died in July of that year. Just a few weeks later, two male tiger cubs were given to the temple by villagers, and a few weeks after that the Thai border patrol dropped off four female cubs, all orphaned by poacher's guns. Jump ahead seven years, and the monks and their group of Thai and foreign volunteers take care of the 16 tigers they now have. To help raise the enormous amount of money needed to care for them, they've invited visitors to come and hang out with the big cats in the afternoon, when the normally nocturnal tigers are sleepy. The logic behind this is obvious: the tigers are less likely to think that Bob from Alabamy is a new chew toy if they're sleeping with their heads in their water dishes. The entrance fee of 300 Baht is a bit expensive for Thailand, but since the money all goes to a good cause it's hard to refuse. In fact, the fee used to be 250 Bt. until recently, when the abbot raised the price to try and stem the flow of visitors. The experience was well worth the money. Down in the tigers' exercise area, the abbot sat calmly, watching the proceedings carefully. The biggest of the tigers were on chains in the front, and being older, they're the sleepiest. Since many of the cats were born at the temple, and all of them have been cared for since they were young cubs, they were extremely comfortable around the abbot. Nevertheless, they are tigers. One of the volunteers, Peter, told me how the day before, two of the male tigers were fighting. Not playing, as they do often, but having a good ol' claws 'n' teeth brawl. "What did you do?" I asked him. His eyebrows raied a bit. "You keep back. We had to wait until they'd calmed down, and nobody was allowed into the exercise area." Logical, of course, but this made a lot of sense. Despite looking like big versions of little cats, and moving like big versions of little cats, these were tigers: lethal, powerful, and not to be toyed with no matter how affectionate they can get. One of the older ones was even coaxed by the abbot to suck on his thumb to calm the animal down. So teasing them with hunks of meat, as you might tease a domesticated cat with some tuna, was out of the question. A swat from the housecat gets you a scratch; the same from a tiger gets you eviscerated. But touching them was okay. No, really. Two volunteers were assigned to each tourist, one taking photos with the tourist's camera and the other guided the visitor to the back side of the tiger, to pet them, sit next to them or just inhale the close-up stink of tiger. They felt less like a housecat than I would've thought. Their fur was a dense coat of hair, thick and matted, but their skin was loose, as if it had been cut too large for them. The muscles underneath were taught and firm. The power beneath was apparent; even at rest it felt like a gun hammer ready to drop. At the end of the day, as the tigers were walked back to their cages, visitors could also walk with the oldest of the tigers as the abbot led him. The abbot kept pace with the tiger, but just behind one of his ears, always staying a step or two after the tiger's lead. The tiger did lead, too: Over to some rocks, spraying a bit, and then crossing the path again to some low bushes for a sniff. The tourist walked near the rear haunches, one hand on the tiger, gently stroking if he felt brave. I was brave, or perhaps stupid. Touching a moving tiger sounds about as dumb as one can get. Yet there I was, left hand gently stroking the orange fur, damp from the light rain and stinking even worse than before. Little orange sheddings clung to my palm as we walked up the hill, and the power apparent beneath the loose skin was incredible. It was like touching a hurricane at rest. Some of the snippets of conversation from other tourists the FMA and I overheard outside the enclosure were a bit disappointing. "What other attractions do you have?" and other variations on that ignorant statement we heard from Israelis, British, Americans and everybody else. How could people become so jaded about touching a tiger, so quickly? This experience was possible only because the monks at the temple had dedicated their lives to treating all animals respectfully, and less than five minutes after leaving the compound they want to see something else? Something bigger, better, more unusual? They could try sticking their heads in a blender, and let me know after how exciting that was. Thanks to some serious media attention from TV crews from Russia and elsewhere, the Tiger Temple has become well-known enough to have nearly one thousand visitors a week. Volunteers can come and live as the monks do, for a minimum of a week, and help care for the tigers. Visitors with money to burn can buy 300 Bt. T-shirts, a 100 Bt. necklace with a faux tiger claw or spend 500 Bt. on a belt with the same claw. The belt purchase also includes the abbot taking you into the enclosure and finding the head of a docile tiger to put in your lap. Small children are allow to sit on the tiger's back. When I was originally researching the temple, I came across some Internet message board controversy as to whether the monks abuse the tigers or not. One poster claimed that the animals were injected with tranquilizers, another complained about physical abuse of the tigers. I asked several of the volunteers about the treatment of the tigers, and got answers that varied in word choice and tone. So, they could've been coached to tell inquisitive and nosy visitors that the tigers were well-treated, or that veterinarians visit at least three times a week, but that all seems unlikely. If the temple didn't want to take care of the animals, they could've donated them to a zoo. It seems like a rather dangerous and elaborate scam to push on tourists. The tigers all seemed sleepy, except when the younger ones were playing with each other or when one got up to roar at a volunteer we were told he didn't like since he was a cub. The only conduct I saw that was unusual occured when one of the younger tigers, too big to be called a cub anymore, growled at one of the Thai volunteers. The volunteer gave him a poke in the head with his fist, hard enough to remind the tiger who was in charge, but not hard enough to hurt him - no different from how you would train a dog or cat, but a proprotionally bigger punishment. Or perhaps it is different - I wouldn't know. But the monks and volunteers at the Tiger Temple are self-trained, and seem to genuinely love the animals they care for. Siegfried and Roy used a whip on their animals; I didn't see any of that. There have been no substantiated reports of abuse coming out of the temple, and seeing as how 16 Indochinese tigers are alive now that probably wouldn't be otherwise, it's hard to have anything but respect and admiration for the monks. Besides, their dedication has allowed the general public to get a lot closer to tigers than ever before. From seeing the respect and care given to them, perhaps more people will be aware of this endangered species of big cat and do more to save the tiger.

The Long Road… of Doom! (20060711)

Starting at Siem Reap and ending in a town whose name rhymes with "toilet," arguably the worst road in Southeast Asia stretches for a mere 155 km. The name is deceptive. Called the Cambodian National Highway, CNH 5 and CNH 6 were nothing more than a potholed dirt track that occasionally had delusions of paving. For 155 km, CNH 6 between Siem Reap and Sisophon and CNH 5 between Sisophon and Poipet were nothing more than blindingly dusty when dry and maliciously muddy when wet. The general rule for taxis on the route is that they take between two and a half to four hours; buses routinely take between four and seven hours for the traverse. Being low on funds and long on time, the FMA and I took the bus. It cost US$12 each to do the Siem Reap-Bangkok run in one day, and we were told it would take around 12 hours. But of course, there were complications on both sides of the border. The bus showed up 25 minutes late for our 7:30 a.m. departure, and we were on the road for five minutes, long enough to get to a gas station. While refueling, the driver noticed that one of the tires was flat, and so we drove straight to a tire repair shop to get that fixed. It was a quarter to nine before we were on the road again. The road, as promised, was bumpy the way that a rollercoaster has a few twists and turns. Riding the bus was more like riding the inside of a martini shaker. We had air-conditioning, but one woman pried open her window anyway. Why the physics of hot air and cold have proven so hard for people to understand is beyond me. In Japan, a fear of unprocessed air discourages people from opening windows on trains and buses, and the interior turns into a roasting experience. On the road to Poipet, we were roasting because there was no air circulation, and hot air rushed in from the dirt track making a mockery out of the very concept of roads, forcing the cold air being pushed on us from the ceiling vents to have no colling affect whatsoever. There weren't many turns on CNH's 5 and 6, their one saving grace. Nobody got motion sickness, unlike on the smoothly sealed and winding main roads in Laos. As we pulled over around 11 for a break, though, the driver noticed that the same tire as before was flat. Again. So we waited, because that's all we could do. The driver took the bus down the street to a repair shop, with all of our stuff in it, and we waited for nearly an hour for the tire to get fixed again. It passed slowly in the rising heat of the day, our books to distract ourselves with on the bus, along with our belongings and skin from our buttocks. Eventually, we got on the bus again, and stopped for lunch - the last stop before the border, we were promised. We waited for another forty-five minutes before leaving again. I'd had a baguette and cheese at the last stop, and just couldn't stomach the thought of eating more crappy overpriced food. We finally made it to the border, and I was assured by a British guy who lives in Vietnam and regularly makes the Siem Reap to Bangkok run that the crowd vying for their Thai visas was small. It took almost another hour to make it through, but by then the bus conductor, who was to guide us to the Thai bus that was part of our ticket package, had evaporated like the wet remains of a midday storm. So the FMA and I walked across the border from Poipet, Cambodia, to Aranya Prathet, Thailand, and kept walking. There were tons of touts, and we did our best to ignore them. I had our bus tickets in my hand and just kept showing them to people, who - surprisingly enough - pointed us in what would turn out to be the right direction. I was a bit shocked. I was not shocked in the least, though, when after being on the road - the beautifully sealed, smooth, paved road - for about 10 minutes, the driver pulled into a small restaurant parking lot. "Bus leaking," he complained, pointing out the rainstorm dumping on us. "We wait half-hour. New bus." About 45 minutes later, a new bus did indeed arrive. Long enough for most people to buy some food from the restaurant. The same British guy from before, who has done this trip many times, told me that the restaurant was owned by or at least in collusion with the bus company. "Why do you keep using this company," I asked him, "if they keep trying to scam you into buying food?" "They're still the most reliable company around. What other choice do you have?" He smiled, and we both nodded. There's nothing to be done about the realities of travelling in Asia, except pray you don't get taken for a ride. The bus finally showed up, and we finally got underway. It seemed, though, that I've seen half-blind octagenarians drive faster and with more confidence than the idiot behind the wheel of our bus. At one point, he got out to buy and change a lightbulb that had gone out on the bus. Where, I couldn't tell you. I was sitting in the front, and the road visibility looked the same before and after the stop. The bus eventually made it to Bangkok, pulling in to Banglamphu around 9:30. We'd been on the road for 14 hours. Our last long-distance bus ride of the trip, I, for one, will not be missing those ass-numbing, shuttlecocking trips.

The Mona Lisas of Angkor (20060708-10)

The temples of Angkor Wat have left tourists, travellers and adventurers slack-jawed and scrabbling for better adjectives to describe them since at least the middle of the 19th century, when they were visited for the first time since the fall of the Khmer empire in the 1600s. My Financial and Menu Adviser and I would be no different, despite the hordes of visitors who have been rumored to ruin the Angkorian experience. In fact, skipping a visit to Angkor would be like skipping the Taj Mahal. For better or worse, and I firmly believe this is A Good Thing, checking out the dozens of temples in the Angkor Wat area has become a smooth, easy experience. The FMA and I hired a tuk-tuk driver for three days through our guesthouse, which afforded us the freedom to do what we wanted with our schedule. This was an important issue for the FMA, whose migraines had been the bane of many a planned afternoon. So, for three days in a row we got up at 5:30 a.m. and headed out to the temples as soon as we were ready. We picked up our $40, three-day pass at the gate on our first day, where they took our photos and printed them on identification cards. The three-day passes seemed to be the best option. One day would be ridiculously short and expensive at $20, but the $60, seven-day pass seemed meant for hardcore Angkor enthusiasts, or archaelogical researchers. Since 90 percent of the temples are included on any of these three tickets, crashing the gate just wouldn't make much sense. Also, I'm not too sure about hiring a guide. If you're the kind of person who likes having stuff being dictated to you, then I suppose they're okay. It's not as if there weren't plenty of them around. Generally, though, they're as hit or miss as any guidebook. Angkor Wat makes the decision a real simple one. There were hundreds of vendors in Siem Reap and right in front of the temples, even, all selling guidebooks of varying qualities. Many, I'm sure you'll be shocked to learn, were photocopied from the originals. They all go for less than $10; mine cost $3.50. This doesn't mean I got the three-fifty tour of Angkor; I merely didn't have to pay through the nose for the uncomplicated operation of getting to the temples and looking around. It's not as if there are still Khmer priests performing rituals that need explainin, nor were the Khmer incompetent artists; I can see for myself that the bas-relief in front of me is of an elephant spearing a demon on his tusk. Angkor Wat itself was impressive, but not amazing. It's the world's largest religious building so even before seeing it the mind has pre-adjusted for an appropriate scale: Extra Large, Mega-Structure, Supersized Ancient House of Worship. The stairs leading from the second level to the third, where the central sanctuary is located and where only priests were allowed to go when the temple was in use, were treacherously steep. The stairs were so narrow I had to sidestep up and down. Why, I wondered, did I find the Taj Mahal to be amazing, despite having seen countless photos of it beforehand, yet Angkor Wat itself was merely impressive under the same cirumstances? Interesting, but not awe-inspiring? It comes down, I think, to two things. One of them is looks. The Taj is a massive white edifice, blindingly so. In design work, as the FMA has told me, white represents purity of form. This is one of the big reasons why Apple, for instance, refused to make their now-ubiquitous iPods in any color besides white for so long; that image has been indelibly burned into the consumer's consciousness. So too with the Taj. The photos of it do not do it any justice: it was so much more impressive in person than in imagery, I'd actually contemplated not visiting almost until I was actually standing before it. As balanced as its design is, and as memorable as the silhouette of three of its five conical towers is, it just didn't lay siege to a part of my imagination as the Taj did. The other reason is that all the hearsay and rumors, the photos, the travelogues and blogs and visiting flocks prepare the neophyte visitor in no small way for what is to come, regardless of how inaccurate or incomplete that preparation might be. It's kind of like how having a Naugahyde couch might prepare you for owning a leather one, had you never touched real cowhide before. There may be another reason for this betrayal of the hype: Timing. I saw Angkor Wat on the last day on my pass, anticipating it to be the font of impressive amazement that everybody had made it out to be. On my first day, though, I explored the Bayon temple, in the Angkor Thom complex. It was the first Angkorian temple that I saw, and it set the tone for all the other temples. Bayon is a massive temple built around half a century after Angkor Wat. It doesn't approach the dizzying heights of Angkor Wat, which is as tall as Notre Dame, but the artistry and complexity I found to be far more compelling. Like Angkor, walls with bas-reliefs encircle the temple, and the temple slowly ascends skywards on a series of platforms, each higher than the last. What distinguishes Bayon from every other Angkorian temple are the faces. Dozens of heads, as big and imposing as bull elephants, look not down on visitors, but straight ahead. Their lips are wide, and almost serious except for a slight curl at the each end. The heads are all depictions of Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva embodying the compassion of all Buddhas, which would explain the lack of a change in expression. They are the Mona Lisas of Angkor, and they are utterly captivating. Inside the temple, too, Bayon grabbed my interest and just wouldn't let go. The interior was labyrinthine, although that may have more to do with a lack of upkeep for five hundred years and restoration efforts than anything else. Every hallway I went down, though, had several openings into courtyards of different sizes, different hues of early morning sunlight streaming through the cracks, and increased my curiousity about the place just that much more. The rest of the Angkor temples were interesting to varying degrees. Ta Prohm, which was the setting for some of the Tomb Raider movie, was exactly what I'd hoped more of Angkor would be: covered in trees, like something out of a Edgar Rice Burroughs story. The temples of the Rolous Group, the first Khmer temples built in the area and the forefathers to the monuments at Angkor, were interesting for their simplicity. No matter how large or small, I was able to find something about every temple I visited that was unique or captivating, either photographically or just mentally impressive. Better than any other analogy, the temples of Angkor are the Taj Mahal of Southeast Asia. They are at least as impressive as the Taj, both singular architectural accomplishments that have become the modern symbols of their respective civilizations. Unfortunately, the host cities of both are also strikingly similar. Siem Reap has become the Southeast Asian Agra, seemingly with all the worst of Cambodia flocking to its doorstep. Guest houses offering services of questionable quality and outrageous prices were everywhere; also ubiquitous were crappy restaurants serving crappy Western food. Just about everything has been marked up for tourist consumption, and although I wish I could've spent more time at the temples, I couldn't wait to leave Siem Reap.

Recommended Laos (20060707)

Recommending restaurants and accomodation in Laos is a bit silly, since everything is so cheap and it's really quite hard to go wrong. Nevertheless, here's some information to help give a bit of focus to "The Jewel of the Mekong." Vientiane Do not under any circumstances stay at any of the fleabag super-low budget places near the river. They charge only slightly less money for significantly less attention to detail. The rooms are generally dirtier than any other in Laos, and were barely more than cubicles with bedding. Splurge a bit for a better hotel, since the rest of Laos is so cheap. Thawee Guest House was where I stayed. Run by friendly people, the air-con rooms generally go for $12 but you can try to talk them down. The fan rooms were fine, shared bathroom for $6 or private bathroom for $8. They can be reached at 856.21.217.903. Food in Vientiane tends to be a bit more than the rest of the country, but it often tastes great and they serve up slightly larger portions. I don't know why; they just do. I can't recommend the wonderful PVO enough. Their sandwiches are cheap, delicious, huge and what they're known for, but their coffee, shakes and other Vietnamese dishes like fresh spring rolls are excellent, as well. They've moved locations, and are now next to the Mekong on Thanon Fa Ngum near Thanon Manthatulat. If by some happenstance you get sick, go to the Australian medical clinic at the Australian Embassy, 856.21.413.600. Trust me. Northern Laos Luang Prabang: I stayed at Som Koun Meung Guest House on the recommendation of a Spanish couple I met. For US$5 per night, we got hot water, a clean room, two fans and complimentary water, along with the usual amenities. They were very friendly and the guesthouse is no more than five minutes from the night market, making it very centrally located. They don't have email, but they can be reached at 856.71.254.662. The food situation in LP was a bit touristy, but the food stalls next to the night market make eating affordable. Guidebook recommendations tended to be more miss than hit, although the bookstore L'Etranger served up some great movies. Speaking of, Joy Restaurant had atrocious food at outrageous prices, but they do have a two-for-one book exchange, and they accept any two books, as long as they're in good condition. The fruit shakes and smoothies stands down by the river are the cheapest way to get a big drink, where a large mug of the stuff goes for around $0.30. I've heard good things about the activities around Luang Prabang, but didn't spend much time out of the city since I did similar things elsewhere in Laos. Nong Khiaw: There's not a whole lot of stuff to be done in Nong Khiaw. It's a beautiful area, though, with a few of the limestone karst formations that stretch up into southern China, and so the trekking and similar outdoorsy activities should be great. I can recommend staying at the Chittavong Guest House, where the bungalows cost US$2 and are located in a lush tropical garden next to the river. The best food in town, though, was at the Sunset Guest House across the bridge. Their steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf was amazing, and affordable. I didn't check out the waterfall outside of town, but the caves offered an interesting view into Lao life during the Second Indochina and Vietnam Wars. There's not much up there, but it shows how far the villagers were willing to go to stay alive. The boat ride from here to Luang Prabang was superb, and well worth asking random strangers where they were going, to arrange for a cheaper boat price. The scenery was beautiful, the ride was peaceful, and there's just no excuse for travelling on Laos' roads when its rivers do the same job, but with less bumps. Luang Nam Tha: I strongly recommend the Manychan Guest House, not just because the rooms were clean and inexpensive and had attached bathrooms, but because the owner very kindly ran up a tab for the FMA and I when we were having problems getting money from the bank. She can be reached at 312.209. The food in the restaurant was average, but they're always there. Eating well in town was a bit of a challenge, especially coming from China where the prices were inversely proportional to the portion sizes. The Green Discovery Laos eco-tourism company was great, and I'd strongly recommend taking at least a one-day trip with their LNT branch. For souvenirs, the Panfa Art Handicraft store had the best-quality handmade silks that the FMA had seen in Laos, and for far cheaper than prices elsewhere. They also spoke excellent English. Southern Laos Savannaket: Saisouk Guest House was quite good, with reasonably-priced rooms in a convenient location. They can be reached at 856.41.212.207. The FMA and I went to the Lao-Paris Cafe on Thanon Tha He every morning we were in Savannaket. The coffee was the best we'd had in all of Laos, which is saying something. They also sold us a kilo of their coffee for US$2.50; we bought five. Walking around Savannaket was the best thing to do there. More than any other place I visited in Laos, the architecture here was the most varied of the dilapidated French colonial that permeates the country. I could've spent a week there, easy. Pakse: The Sabaidy 2 Guest House was good, with charming rooms for a budget place. They're on Thanon 24. Xuan Mai, on the corner of Th 5 and Th 10, had phenomenal food. With great portions and cheap prices, it was my first dinner in Laos, and what an introduction - don't skip it. Tadlo Falls: Tim's Guest House was a good place to stay, if a bit of a backpacker vortex. The bungalows were nice, the communal bathrooms were clean, and the food was alright. Tim's can be reached at 031.214.176. Tim's also has a couple of hand-drawn maps you can copy and use to explore the area, making for nice day hikes. The waterfalls were among the best in Laos, and that's saying something. Also, the elephant trek was interesting as much because the elephants were so well taken care of as for any other reason. Si Phan Don: Skip Don Det; stay instead on Don Khon. It doesn't really matter where, although I stayed at the Bounpha Guest House. The bungalows overlook the Mekong, and the hammocks are literally right over the water. It's great to be able to see the sunrise while facing one direction in the hammock, and the sunset when facing the other. All of the local restaurants we tried were quite good, although some of them need advance notice that you'll be joining them that evening, so they can buy and prepare the necessary ingredients. Definitely have the fish steamed in banana leaf here. Somphamit Falls were nice to walk to, although I'd recommend getting there in the morning to avoid the heat. In fact, everything in Laos is better in the morning, since it's cooler and most people go to bed early here. The boat trip to see the Irrawaddy dolphins was superb, a really enjoyable experience despite my initial skepticism.

Vientiane Without the Vermin (20060706)

The first time I was in Vientiane, things ended badly. Well, they ended just fine, in the sense that I'm healthy, whole and functionaling as normally as ever. But I just didn't get to enjoy Vientiane much. It turns out that my initial assessment of the city back in April was correct: there's just not a whole lot to enjoy here. It's a nice enough place, with wide streets and not too much traffic for a capital city. There are trees lining some of the roads, and breezes from the Mekong occasionally explore the gridded city blocks. Internet access is cheap enough, and there's a couple of unremarkable museums. But actually doing stuff? Fuhgeddaboudit. Nothin' doin', cuz there's nothing to do. There are some good restaurants, most notably PVO. For the budget traveller, or just anybody who loves a sandwich, PVO dishes up Vietnamese food and baguettes. Their "Everything" sandwich stuffs roast pork, pate, chicken, and a small garden of veggies and sauce into one crunchy baguette roll. For US$1.40, this sandwich filled me up for most of the day. There are good French restuarants as well, and the FMA and I celebrated leaving Laos by checking out the Nam Tha (or maybe Nam Pa) near the center of the city. A three-course set for two cost US$15, with wine. Wandering around the streets, the French architecture wasn't as prevalent as it was in Luang Prabang nor as charmingly decrepit as it was in Savannaket. The airport and bus stations, though, are only a few minutes on a tuk-tuk from the city. That's the real purpose of Vientiane: to rest for a day, enjoy some good food, perhaps mail some souvenirs or postcards, pick up a Western deodorant, and move on with life. Yet even in civilized Vientiane, you must keep the bugs away from your bits.

Vacation in a Vacation (20060703)

When travelling in a country surrounded by people who unhurriedly go about their business, Luang Prabang is clearly the place to let it all unwind. There really isn't much to get stressed about in Laos. Everything's cheap, almost everybody's friendly, and the food rarely sucks. It's not exactly the culinary adventure that China is, nor does Laos have the touristic appeal of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Cambodia's got Angkor Wat, Vietnam I've heard is a bit of "China-lite" in the north and "Cambodia with infrastructure" in the south, and Thailand has a couple of beaches. Still, there are the occasional stresses about Laos life. The roads are more pocked than a teenager's face, making getting anywhere a bumpy and ass-swelling experience. There are, as we here at Big in Japan know all too well, malevolent skeeters and other bugs that one must watch for at all times. Mosquito nets with holes, mosquito coils that don't burn, torrential downpours that blink in and then wink out of existence as if they were never there: truly, it's a hard-knock life travelling in Laos. Sarcasm aside, it is a great place to Just Chill Out. Nobody cares if you don't want to go see the caves of Pak Ou, and nobody cares if you sit in their restaurant drinking fresh fruit smoothies all day. Sometimes, when running around from one site to the next, it's hard to keep in mind that despite the hardships of travelling, it is a vacation. In Luang Prabang, after seeing the temples worth seeing and walking around the parts of town worth walking around, just what can you do there? There's the aforementioned bookstore L'√Čtranger, which overcharges for its books but allows customers to take a book upstairs and read in their lounge/bar area. They also show free indie movies every night. There are a string of places along the Mekong that offer cheap fruit smoothies, a perfect compliment to the hot breezes that come off the river. Any one of them will do; the FMA and I jumped for the cheapest one and were pleasantly rewarded. There's a lot of "foreign" food in LP, as well. French cuisine dominates, of course, and a four-course French meal can be had for as cheap as ten bucks. The markets, though, cater to locals, and are consequently far cheaper. Water buffalo pat√© steamed in banana leaf costs the same as a whole chicken breast grilled before your eyes - 10,000 kip, or merely a dollar. And if you're really, really cheap, there's two different locations offering a vegetarian buffet for 5000 kip. Any discussion of relaxing in Laos would be lacking with mentioning Beer Laos, one of the cheapest and best-tasting beers in all of Southeast Asia. A 750-mL bottle costs between 7000 and 10,000 kip, usually, and is only bad when you drink it right after brushing your teeth. Interestingly enough, Laos is the only place you can get it. It's possible that LP is like Jaisalmer, in India, where tourism brings in so much cash, the locals can afford to be polite and friendly. Except that in Laos, everybody is like that. Yet it seems unlikely that there are any problems in Luang Prabang. As a World Heritage site, not to mention just being beautiful, the place is assured an ever-growing stream of tourists. The money comes in, poverty in the form of begging is rarely seen, and book exchanges and Internet cafes are plentiful. Surrounded by jungle, mountains and two rivers, a short finger of land jutting into the brown waters of the Mekong, yet popular enough to sustain the conveniences of a city, Luang Prabang is the perfect place to do nothing for a while.