Decidedly urban couple who quit their jobs and successfully backpacked their way through Asia for a year. They met Buddha, drank baijiu and learned to master the squat toilet. Now appearing in a new life as ex-pats in Singapore.

South East Asia
The Urban Hikers play Ping Pong in Bangkok

The Urban Hikers play Ping Pong in Bangkok

Warning: This post is sexually explicit, morally questionable and potentially offensive. If you are my parents or my parent’s friends, please don’t read this. Thanks -K

Welcome to Bangkok!

When I was a child I thought that ‘Bangkok’ was a dirty word.  At the time I didn’t know that the real name for the city Bangkok is:

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

In English this translates to:

The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukam

None of this matters at all because what you really want to know is:  While in Bangkok were you involved in the degrading, demoralizing, dehumanizing, misogynist, anti-femenist sexploitation of women?

Did you see a Ping-pong show?

To which I will say, yes. And it was a sight to behold.

A trip to Bangkok is not complete without a visit to the ne plus ultra of tourist ghettos, Khao San Road. The famed street of hostels and whores where you can not walk for 5 meters without hearing a man smacking his lips together, ostensibly the sound that ping pong ball makes when exiting a vagina. Who can resist wheezy little men who sidle up to you with an overpriced drink list and a promise of sexual depravity?

Not us, apparently.

Cheap! Cheap! Sexy Lady! Cheap!

We soon found ourselves exiting a tuk-tuk and walking down the tiny, raucous Patpong alley where you could pursue the market for a handbag, purchase some fashionable Ray Bans or pop into one of the dozens of strip clubs that line the street.

I chose to look at the handbags. That’s right.  We went all the way to Patpong, walked along the street and turned right around and went home. I just couldn’t manage to walk into a club full of bored bikini-clad women, and watch them place foreign objects into their hoo-ha.

Round one winner: Moral Compass.

Patpong, Bangkok taken by bridgeandtunnelclub.com

Round two went a little differently. Notably, I was drunk so it was much easier to walk into a dark club, order a 200 baht beer and watch a 75 year old woman shoot a pellet gun with her kegel muscles.

The club was full of incredibly bored young women who stood on stage gazing soullessly at the crowd. Together we all watched as an old, skinny topless woman hopped on the stage and without  any fanfare whatsoever whipped down her panties.  She didn’t shimmy or shake or dance, she simply stepped on stage, grabbed both sides of her red underwear and pulled them down.

Grandma had the hooha of a teenager.

She enthusiastically placed a hollow stick inside herself, took aim at the floating balloons and with her legs spread wide, shot a bullet and burst the balloon. I wasn’t quite sure what I was seeing. Is it even possible to shoot a pellet out of your va-ja-ja? We watched a young guy from the audience joined her on stage, placed a balloon in his mouth and closed his eyes. POP! Yes it is possible and the woman had perfect aim.

I learned that there are a lot of things that you can do with your vagina, like open coke bottles!

I watched a man pull eight feet of multi-colored neon ribbon from a woman’s vagina. He pulled and pulled and pulled until yards of ribbon stretched across the room and gathered at his feet. I saw a woman use a straw to suck up tiny rings and gently stack them in a row. But the highlight of the night and the real reason d’etre was the ping pong show.

It’s exactly like what you imagine, except you’re HOLDING THE PING PONG PADDLE.

This I did not expect.  I didn’t realize that this was a two-player game. It wasn’t until a bright orange ball was bouncing towards my chair that I realized that I could either hit the ball back or have it touch me.

Please god, don’t let the ping pong ball touch me.

Although by this point in the night I could barely focus (having indulged in several courage boosting belgian beers) and my hand-eye coordination was severely impaired, I managed to hit almost all of the ping pong balls. Mostly because they don’t move that quickly.  The balls sort of bounced towards me rather than fly.  I assume that’s because it’s really fucking difficult to shoot a fucking ball out of your hooha.

And now we’re seen it all and there is only one thing left to do.

Tonight we leave for India where we will drive a rickshaw from Goa to Mumbai. That’s right!  It’s time for the nine-day ass numbing, death defying Rickshaw Challenge.

 

 

 


 

Human zoos and elephants

Human zoos and elephants

Four days on the Mae Hong Son loop can give you a serious case of raw-ass, but with scenery as gorgeous as what you find in Northern Thailand, raw-ass is a small price to pay.

Gorgeous views!

There are a number of strange and unusual sights to behold while scooting the loop, from elephant variety roadblocks to entire villages of longneck Karen woman. I expected to see amazing views but I did not expect  to find an entire animal kingdom on the road back to Chiang Mai.

The mahout’s (elephant drivers) couldn’t seem to understand my excitement at finding a parade of elephants in the middle of the road.  I threw my scooter to the ground and charged towards the giant beasts. “TAKE MY PICTURE!” I shouted at the guys who were walking alongside the group.

I also tried to befriend the baby elephant hiding between her mother’s legs but the entire group refused to stop walking. I guess they must encounter many overly excited white people during their afternoon strolls.

Roadside elephantal encounter

OMG! OMG! OMG! Elephants!

I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for taking a pictures of the Long Neck Karen.  The tribe is utterly fascinating. The women of this Burmese refugee tribe elongate their necks with metal necklaces, eventually crushing their collarbone and weakening their neck muscles to the point that they are unable to remove the jewelry for fear of asphyxiation. (According to some sources the women would be unable to hold up their head.) This practice is illegal in Myanmar.

Instead of living normal village life, these women are kept sequestered in a small section of houses where people (including me) pay to visit. The women sell handicrafts while dozens and dozens of tourists gawk, buy scarves and take photos. It’s a human zoo.

Long Neck Village sign

Long Neck Karen and Big Ear Karen

In between facing down elephants and losing a battle with my moral compass, I attempted to avoid the rain. I was not successful.

Seriously unsafe driving conditions

Soaking wet and in the middle of nowhere

 

Solo scooting the Mae Hong Son loop

Solo scooting the Mae Hong Son loop

It’s pretty hard to tear yourself away from Chiang Mai, it’s almost the perfect place to vacation. There are fabulous ancient temples ready to explore, decent MEXICAN food and dozens of spas that charge US$3  for an hour-long painfully relaxing Thai massage.

A common sight in Chiang Mai – Buddhist Chedi

But I am not on vacation, I am backpacking! I don’t need nice hotels, delicious burritos and relaxation! Instead of enjoying the soft life, I set out on a four-day adventure through the back roads of Northern Thailand. The Mae Hong Son Loop is a famous, tremendously steep and winding road that runs through national parks, hill tribe villages and into the heart of hippie-dom in Thailand. The 600 km stretch of highway is known as road of 1,000 turns and it sounded like just the thing for another scoot adventure!

And before the monsoon rains kicked in on day 2, I had a great time.

Mae Klang Waterfall, Doi Inthanon

Mae Klang Waterfall, Doi Inthanon

The first thing to get used to was driving on the “other” (ahem, the wrong) side of the road. I can barely cross the street with traffic whizzing by from the left, so learning to make a lane-crossing left hand turn was particularly nerve racking.

After nervously fighting my way out a surprisingly congested Chiang Mai, scooting through Doi Inthanon was dream. The national park is full of small Karen villages, stunning waterfalls and towering mountain cliffs. But the park map is bull shit.

After scooting for several hours, my first inkling that perhaps I was headed in the wrong direction struck when I noticed a severe change in both temperatue and altitude. The clouds has set in, it was freezing cold and I could see Burma in the distance. Instead of heading through Doi Inthanon park, I was heading straight up the Doi Inthanon peak.

Mae Hong Son loop, scoot

Steep and cloudy with a 100% chance of rain

Little known fact: Scooters don’t go uphill. They certainly can’t make a 2,500m climb. Second little known fact: it’s very hard to turn a scooter around on a steep hill.

I learned both of these little known facts as my scooter stalled 100 meters away from the top of Thailand’s tallest peak. As I attempted a dicey turn on a 90 degree incline sans gas, both the scooter and I fell to the ground, skidding down the hill. Luckily scooters don’t need much gas to go straight down hill and the park is peppered with hill tribe villages.

It’s an odd day when dropping in on the local Karen village to buy a glass bottle of petrol feels normal. Welcome to Asia.

mae hong son, doi inathnon loop

Just walk up and ask for gas!

Fill ‘er up!

I had a tankful of gas but I was nowhere near Mae Sariang, the next town.

The twisting roads were beginning to lose their appeal, they sky was ready to let loose and I started to get nervous about finding a place to stay. Although 70 kilometers doesn’t sound like a lot, it is, particularly on a scooter. And that’s how far I had to go.

Suddenly there it was! The Navasorn Resort!

Gross lodging along the way, part of the fun?

The manicured hotel in the woods certainly looked fancy and I had exactly US$25 (a fortune in Thailand but certainly not enough for gas, a meal and fancy digs). I didn’t have much of a choice when I scooted up and boldly asked for their cheapest room. After 8 months in Asia I was ready to bargain but I didn’t have to try. Instead the woman in charge led me past their fancy guest bungalows and showed me into a filthy windowless back room complete with an outdoor insect-infested squat toilet. For my added enjoyment, there were free used porn mags. The room cost 10 bucks – well within my budget though pretty far outside my comfort zone.**

I slept in my clothes without touching the blanket and woke up at 8am the next morning ready to hit the road. I still had three more days of scooting ahead of me and the rain was about to begin.

The perfect place for sexy time

** This is before I found out that porn mags in cheap hotels are par for the course.

There is no ketchup in Pad Thai!

There is no ketchup in Pad Thai!

It’s not unusual to sit down in a new country, take the first bite of food and discover that it tastes completely different than we expected.

Unexpectedly massive and delicious Dosa!

It’s shocking to taste just how badly we Westerners have butchered a recipe and created a less tasty, more fattening version or the original.  Here are some of our more egregious errors:

* There is no duck sauce in China. In fact there is very little orange colored food in Asia – including sweet and sour anything. General Tso must have served in US military because he’s an American creation. We can all cry fat tears into our third chin because Chinese food as we know it was created for us by Mao Zedong in a long tail effort to eliminate the US  imperialist enemy.

* There is more than BBQ meat in Korea. The cuisine also includes soup, rice, and even the occasional Chinese cabbage. Surprisingly there is one key ingredient that we don’t use in the US. Korean food includes a not un-substantial amount of added flavor from blood. Ox blood, duck blood, blood-blood.  In America we generally don’t use blood as a topping.

* And now I have discovered that Pad Thai is not made with ketchup and peanut butter. Somehow I always knew that 1,068 people that reviewed Osha Thai Noodle were as dumb as they look when they dine on a plate of neon orange, sugary sweet $15 pad thai and sip their overpriced ‘Hott Pink’ soju martini. PS Assholes: Soju is Korean, go drink it and dine on ox blood soup.

This is how you drink Soju in the ROK.

ANYWAY.

Way back in the glory days of 2006 when I started to enjoy cooking, I decided that I would master the art of Thai food. I failed miserably, notably because I used half a jar of crunchy peanut butter and ended up with peanut noodle soup. But now thanks to the help of the best cooking school in Chiang Mai, I have  learned the secret to Pad Thai!

A Lot of Thai's van

Yui and her husband picked me up in her VW van and we spent an entire day cooking my favorite Thai food. We shopped, chopped, and stir fried until the rain came pouring into our outdoor kitchen. Yui and her family are awesome! Her daughter threw a tantrum in her tutu and her son ate my spring rolls. It actually felt like I was cooking in a real kitchen for a real family.

But beyond the family atmosphere, Yui is also one fantastic teacher. Generally speaking, I am not a consummate stir fry queen, (I’m more of a soup and sauces kind of girl). To be honest woks kind of scare me. But I overcame my fear of lid-less cookware and since we had to use a Wok for all of the 5 dishes, I think I may have actually learned how to mitigate a smoking, burning stove top.

Hint: Vegetable oil is your friend. Keep that Wok well oiled!

Master Chef Kristine

So what you’re really asking is, if peanut butter and ketchup don’t make an appearance in Pad Thai, what makes it orange?  Let me share the secret – Tamarind Sauce!

Here is Yui’s recipe (it’s also in her cookbook and on her website). If you happen to be in Chiang Mai, stop by and learn how to make the real thing.  Yui is awesome and the class was a blast.

Pad Thai - I made this!

Yui’s Pad Thai from A Lot of Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai

3 tbsp cooking oil

1/4 Tofu (cut into itty bitty pieces)

1 tbsp Shallot – chopped

1 tbsp Garlic- chopped

50 g Minced Pork (Yes! Mince it! The pork should be in tiny pieces)

1 tbsp Fish sauce

1 tbsp Light soy sauce (Hint: light does not mean less salty it means light in color)**

2 tbsp Tamarind paste

1 1/2 tbsp Palm sugar (Palm sugar is nutty and less sweet.  This may be the place where we go wrong in the US)

200 g Fresh narrow rice noodles -or- 150 g  Dried rice noodles

4-6 tbsp water or chicken stock

100 g Bean sprouts

1/2 cup Chinese chive (cut diagonally into bite sized pieces)

2 tbsp Ground Roasted peanuts

Optional and delicious

1 tbsp dried shrimp

1 tbsp sweet turnip

Directions:

If using  dried noodles, place them in water and let them soak until they’re almost bite-able. They will soften more during cooking.

Fry tofu in 2 tbsp of hot oil over medium heat.

Cooking school hint: Add the oil, tofu at the same time and then turn on the heat.

When the tofu starts of change color add garlic and shallots

When your kitchen begins to smell of delicious garlic and shallots, add pork and turnip. Cook for about one minute.

Cooking school hint: Make some room in the wok.  Push all the cooked ingredients to the top of your wok and make room for the noodles.

Add the noodles and then immediately add water. Cook until noodles are soft.

Cooking school hint: Email me if you want noodles that aren’t sticky.  This is Yui’s huge secret and I don’t want to put it on the ‘net!

When the noodles are soft, mix all the noodle with the other ingredients in the wok.

Add fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind puree and palm sugar.  Cook for about one minute.

Add bean sprouts and cook until soft-ish, then add the Chinese chive.

When the Chinese chive turns bright green, move all the ingredients over to the side of the wok.

Add 1 tbsp cooking oil and cook the egg.  When the egg is nearly cooked (but still a little runny), mix in the noodles once again.

Turn off the heat and add roasted peanuts.

Garnish with a lime, cabbage and bean sprints

To Serve

At this point your job as a chef is done, it’s all up to the people eating your food to customize their Pad Thai.  Every meal in Thailand is served with the following accompaniments: chili flakes, sugar, salt, pepper, chili sauce and two varieties of fish sauce.

The Pad Thai that you just whipped up is probably less spicy, less sugary, less salty, less whatever than you expected. But it should be.  Let your guests add their preferred amount of heat or sweet.  That’s how it’s done!

Thanks Yui!

A lot of Thai and an Urban Hiker

** If you’re in the States, you may want to try Aloha light soy sauce or Pearl River Bridge light soy sauce.  Or if you really want to discuss light and dark soy sauces, join the intense conversation over at Chowhound! There is something for everyone on the internets.

The fast boat to hell

The fast boat to hell

Vinnie had escaped to Singapore. I was alone and needed to get out of Laos as fast as possible: everything I put in my mouth made me sick, the hotel was infested with little mice and the smell of goat had begun to permeate into the very fabric of my being.

There was only one choice: The Fast Boat.

Fast boat outta Laos

The Fast Boat in Laos has something of a reputation: it’s incredibly unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable.  The word ‘deadly’ is thrown around a lot. At this point, I was willing to take the physical challenge.  I would survive anything just to get out of Laos.

It turns out that this journey wasn’t about survival, it was about endurance. The fast boat isn’t even a proper boat, it’s a flimsy fiberglass canoe that’s outfit with a high speed industrial motor. I waited at the dock as an after-market special boat smoked into port. The men threw my bag into the shallow hull and pointed to an empty spot that measured exactly one foot wide by one foot tall.

Photographic evidence of our fast boat misery

I looked in at my fellow passengers: seven fully grown adults who had forced their aging bodies into unnatural, space-defying contortions. They sat in pairs with their backs against wooded planks, their feet awkwardly turned inwards and knees tucked under their chin. Half the people were given motocycle helmets and life jackets. The rest of us were left to deal with what comes.

It’s like a freaking dirty joke:  A girl gets in a boat with a Chinese couple, two 50-year-old Korean men and a German backpacker.  What can go wrong?

Answer: Everything!

Smiling as the boatman paddles away

#1 The boat broke down

#2 The driver pulled over to the side of the river.  He motioned for us to get off and began to take the engine apart. As our eclectic group of eight looked on, the boatman dismantled a wooden seat, and used it as a paddle to push the boat away from shore.  Without a single word he had abandoned us on the side of the freaking Mekong river.

Stranded on the rocks

#3 Half the group decide to hike to safety.  After several hours of waiting on rocks the Korean man began to get agitated. He stood on the rocks jumping, waving and calling to passing speedboats. The only thing that I  – as a native English speaker – could recognize was “Hey-uh! Need Boat-uh! BOAT-UH!”

Kris and the German

The Korean man became so agitated and his garbled english became so compelling that he convinced all the Asians in the group to abandon the space on the rocks and walk to the nearest village. There was no way that I was going hiking through the Laos jungle and lent my shoes to the Chinese man had left his on the boat. They were too big for him.

The closest "village"

Now it was only me and the German. Several hours passed. The sun began to set. It became clear that we were NOT going to make it to the Thai border on time, and we were going to be abandoned on this freaking rock over night. And just as the German and I began to build our shelter for the night, we heard a familiar roar. Our boat was back. In it were the Korean men and the Chinese couple.

Spot the Korean (Hint: it wasn't raining.)

#4 Of course we didn’t make it to Thailand. We didn’t even make it to port. Our boat driver pulled over at a random location close to the lights of a small downtown. He roped the boat to a steep, muddy embankment and pointed for us to get off.

View from the boat

The hill was covered with mud, thorny plants and waste by-product run off. It was a real life Japanese game show:  The Chinese girl slid down the hill and wiped me out, together we rolled  into the German who fell backwards into the Korean. After 40 minutes of sliding down a 30 foot hill, we finally got to the top, covered in mud and nowhere near any semblance of a town. And for the first time in Asia, there were no Tuk-tuks.

The Korean man found a store, walked in, pointed to his Korean guide book and began saying “ho-tel-uh! ho-tel-uh!”

People in Laos don’t generally speak English and they certainly can’t read Korean. Instead of a hotel, someone led us to a local Karaoke bar.

I nearly cried. At this point I had been traveling for 11 hours.

Somehow we made it to town. A town without an ATM and we were a group without cash. The German and I, who had already been through so much, decided to share a room. A small, dirty twin bed room where the German proceeded to strip off all his clothes and sleep in a pair of bright pink briefs. After a miserable 12 hours of traveling and now having seen him nearly naked, I finally asked his name.

Get me the eff outta Laos!

 

 

Super Happy Singapore

Super Happy Singapore

In addition to momentous battles with jungle foliage and struggling to find inner peace, Vinnie has spent the last three months planning Singapore’s first Super Happy Dev House.

Huh? Work?

Jack Sparrow and his band of miscreants

People in Silicon Valley have a sneak peak into the cutting-edge concepts and technologies that are destined to change the way we communicate. Even better that just passively observing, anyone with a little gusto can jump in and take part. It’s an exciting place to be and a difficult place to leave.

Co-co-co-coding.

The stress of not working and being away from Silicon Valley was just too much for Vinnie to bear and by mid-January he was connecting with far-flung Valley-types who, oddly enough, all seemed to be based in Singapore.

And in typical Vinnie fashion, he went from casual conversation about Asia’s tech scene to becoming directly involved, and within days he was planning Singapore’s first hack fest, getting in on some early stage investing, and flying off to Hong Kong to judge South East Asia’s best new startups.

While I was hard at working scooting around Vietnam, Vinnie was planning Asia’s first Super Happy Dev House.

This is how we party in AMERICA!

Tonight was the culmination of three months of work; hundreds of geeks, hackers, business-y and not so business-y people showed up to discuss new ideas and quickly code them into reality. They dined, they drank and they developed technology that you might just find yourself using one day.

It was pretty freaking cool and, judging from what folks are saying, a resounding success. Huge congrats to Vinnie, Adrianna and Jason for throwing a kick ass party.

Kicking it old skool with MEETRO!

PS: Someone showed up in a MEETRO shirt.  Rep-re-sent.

 

Luang Pra-longed Sickness

Luang Pra-longed Sickness

There is nothing like a food borne illness from raw meat to ruin a trip to new country. We’ve become unusually accustomed to the toilet situation in Asia- the lack of toilet paper, the need to squat in the middle of an open room and the general inability to actually flush your waste. It’s gross. But you know what’s worse: a week of the runs in one of the least developed countries in the world. Laos. Damn you Laos!

Shit happens but it’s not nice.

But you know what is nice: Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site full of temples, novice monks and American standard toilets.

Wat wat?

Blue skies and green insides.

Wat!

Out for a stroll

Taxi in Laos

I spy Buddha

 

 

Raw meat and Moonshine with the Akha People

Raw meat and Moonshine with the Akha People

After an entire day of mud-surfing our way through the jungle we finally reached our destination: a large, remote Akha village deep in the middle of nowhere.  And we arrived just in time. The entire village was gearing up for a massive party. A party that could rival any full moon rage fest on any beach in South East Asia.  The village was just wired with electricty and this made everyone very, very excited. It was time to celebrate.

Birds eye view of the village

Very Excited!

The village was in a state of mass preparation. Pigs, chickens and naked children ran around unattended while men stood at large caludrons, stirring bubbling vats of fatty meat. The women, some topless, watched from the windows of their houses. Even the little girls were in on the excitement. They huddled around small huts watching an Akha village dance on the brand new TV and practiced for their upcoming performance.

I joined in.

Prepping for our dance

It seemed like the only people not getting ready were the village teenagers; they had something more important to prepare for – impressing each other. Akha people have a very progressive way of encouraging reproduction. Every night teenage boys and girls meet at the designated ‘flirting area’  to chat and get it on. The ‘get it on’ part is highly encouraged. Boys of  ‘getting it on’ age build love shacks where they can wisk away the girl (or boy) of their choice and enjoy a sexy evening full of pre-marital baby making.

If a baby is made, the couple marry.  If, after some time, there is no baby, the girl and boy break up and hit the loveshack with someone else.

In our Akha village there were dozens of love shacks, and the teenagers were clearly dressed to impress.

Love shack!

Akha ladies looking good for the men!

Looking sharp for the ladies - the local barber shop

The next morning Vinnie and I started out early. The rest of our group was hesitant to explore the town but we wanted to mingle. Within minutes Vinnie and I found ourselves at the village chief’s house right as he was sitting down for breakfast. He invited us in.

Breakfast was served on a long tarp on the ground. Small bowls were laid out with serving spoons. We weren’t sure exactly what the floating brown meat could be and honestly, it didn’t look that appetizing.

Chief saw us deliberating and took matters into his own hands. He spooned up a chunk of red meat, motioned for us to open our mouth and spooned it in.  We chewed slowly, trying to process the texture, the flavor, the temperature of the meat. It was RAW.

It was at that moment when I noticed the giant skinned buffalo head in the corner of the room. We were eating him. RAW.

Of course, the perfect accompaniment to raw meat is Lao-lao.  Moonshine. Laos rice whiskey. Poison. Chief was ready to celebrate and wanted us to feel welcome in his house; he began to pour shots.  Chief didn’t speak english and we don’t speak Akha but with a little moonshine you don’t need words. It was 8Am.  I was drunk. Vinnie was eating raw meat. Could the day get any better!?!

A Breakfast of Champions

Buffalo head in the house

Shots and a cigarette for breakfast
After breakfasting with the Chief we wandered around to see what was going on. And with our inhibitions at a drunken low, we were able to easily chat with everyone and anyone. Vinnie headed off to play cards with the men while I made friends with women. Both of us soon had our own posse of kids who followed us around town, clamering to look at a little picture book or laugh at us when we tried to communicate.

One styling Akha baby.

Grandma!

Vinnie charming the ladies

Kris and the kids

Akha Village

It was NOT a good idea to befriend the villagers.  Just as the Lao-lao was wearing off, the party was starting to begin; our new friends wanted to make sure that we had an amazing time.

The men who had spent the morning cooking buffalo and setting up for the party were now seated and ready to be served. Bowls of meat were placed in the middle of every table, alongside them sat a huge bottles of Lao-lao.  We knew the party began when dozens of colorfully clad young women entered the tent.  Everyone applauded and the drinking began.

The girls each carried their own bottle of Lao-lao and a small plastic cup.  They began at the head of the table, filling the cup with clear whiskey and handing it to someone, encouraging him to quickly drink the shot. At first we all took the glass, shot it back and smiled. But the shots continued and the girls woudn’t take no for an answer.  The only revenge was have each girl take a reciropcal shot, which she would spit onto the ground.

The world started to spin. Chief fed us more meat. We drank more lao-lao.

The Akha party spread

You will drink this lao-lao

Drinking with the styling teenage boys

No more Lao-Lao for Kristine!

We clearly were not in any shape to manage a jungle trek back to Luang Namta. When we were sober it took us ove six hours through difficult, slippery terrain to reach the village. Happily (because he was also drunk), our guide confessed there was a shortcut – a bumpy, unpaved dirt road that would take just four hours to hike down.

By the time we reached town the lao-lao had worn off, but the hangover from hell was just beginning. It was 4:00pm.

Drunk and happy

Jungle Trek: Leeches and Ticks

Jungle Trek: Leeches and Ticks

Luang NamTa in northern Laos has a reputation for being a trekking paradise. The one-street town is filled with hiking outposts, saloons, and a large variety of farmyard animals. People don’t come to Luang NamTa to explore the urban jungle, they’re looking for the real thing.

I suppose that somewhere along the way Vinnie and I forgot that we strongly dislike the great outdoors and that hiking is not something we adore. We came to our senses a little too late – three hours into a two-day hike.

Making our way to the jungle

It started out just like any other day: waking up in another new time zone, accidentally arriving an hour early for our group outing, eating spicy meatball soup for breakfast to pass the time. But the day did not progress as planned.

This may appear to be easy. It wasn't.

In Luang NamTa, foreigners are asked not to trek through the jungle or to visit local tribes without a guide.  So we hired a guide.  His name was Pet and he had a massive machete strapped to his leg.  I didn’t have to wait very long before discovering why he carried freaking machete. And why foreigners aren’t permitted to wander around all by themselves.

We began in soggy rice fields and soon found ourselves skirting huge swaths of burning jungle.  It turns out that, unlike in Borneo where companies seem to be doing the most damage, in Laos it’s the people who are tearing down the rain forests so they can feed their families.  Burning is the easiest way to clear the land to make room for rubber plantations and rice terraces.  It’s pretty sad all around – the people are so poor and the environment is being destroyed.

Good bye rainforest, hello dolla dolla bills

The smoldering landscape soon gave way to a dense forest with towering palm trees and a thick underbrush. This was not a leisurely hike through the woods on a defined path, in fact, there was no path.  Pet took out his huge machete and with sweeping blows, took out the trees, bushes and branches to clear the way.

Our guides cutting a path through the jungle

In the jungle there is no north or south,  no graffiti trail marker pointing out the path – nothing but green trees and insects and rain. We had no idea where we were or how to get out. Not that we could have planned our escape from the jungle, the ground was so slick with mud and discarded palm fronds that we couldn’t even stand up.

You couldn’t call what we did hiking.  You could call it falling, or mud surfing, or even slip-and-sliding. Whatever you call it, we spent half the trek on our ass, sliding down steep embankments or falling over each other to grab the nearest plant as someone wiped out into you.

Our second guide made me a walking stick

Occasionally we would take a short break.  Pet would stand at the front waiting for everyone to catch up, while the rest of us stood frozen, clinging to tree trunks, hoping to God that the end was in sight.  The end was never in sight, instead Pet would point out to a fruit or a seed and say, “Don’t eat this.  You be dead.” Once he reached into thin air and pulled back a huge colorful bug that our second guide held on to for lunch.

Lunch!

But it wasn’t the colorful giant bugs that we were most worried about, it was the brown slimy snail-like creatures that jumped onto your skin and sucked away as you waded through a sea of mud and plants. LEECHES.

After an hour of jungle trekking we were covered with them. Nasty, heat-seeking, blood sucking Leeches.

I hate them. I hate the jungle.  I hate hiking. And I have officially sworn off trekking in any form.

 

The hills are alive with the sound of....

The hills are alive with the sound of….

“Buy from me! No! Not the same as one you already have. Same-same but different!”

Sapa is a small town so high in the mountains that the streets are perpetually covered in a sheen of mist and cloud. The entire region, when you can see through the clouds, is simply stunning. Miles of soaring mountains surround small villages where local hill people tend to the scaffolded rice terraces that were created by their ancestors over 2,000 years ago. It’s magical.

Beautiful Sapa!

Rice terraces in Sapa

Sapa is also a huge tourist magnet and the local people have learned exactly how to rid you of your American dollar.

From the minute you step into town, local H’Mong and Red Zdao women try their best to coerce you to buy their handicrafts. They follow you down the street, escorting you to a restaurant as they pitch their story, “I get married at 15! I have three babies!” The ladies compete with each other, shoving earrings and bracelets towards you shouting, “Buy from meeeeee!” They run after tour buses and stand in doorways, waiting for unsuspecting visitors to exit before attacking them with embroidered pillowcases and purses. These gorgeous women are rapacious!

While many people take a tour bus to the villages, we headed off to explore the countryside on our own. Suddenly it wasn’t just the two of us – we had attracted the attention of three local woman and they began quietly following in our footsteps. The silence was broken when women began to talk, asking the same questions over and over and over.

“Where you from!? How old are you! You no look so old! How many babies you have!”

It was clear that the H’Mong women were going to stick with us for the entire day, hoping to sell some handicrafts at the end. Our own private sherpas…

Our Sherpas!

The women led us down the mountain, easily maneuvering the wet landscape in flimsy jelly shoes while carrying huge bamboo baskets of handicrafts. It was only slightly embarrassing to see local people nimbly run past us as we slipped and fell through into huge puddles of standing water. It became obvious that I was not in peak physical condition when tiny woman with a child on her back pushed me up a steep, rocky hill.

Don't Fall!

After several hours of hiking we reached the village where we introduced to relatives, visited wood homes and negotiated a fair price for the handmade goods that we were destined to purchase.

Our H'Mong guides

The same thing happened every day as we explored the surrounding villages. Each time we would set off on our own, and suddenly a flock of women would surround us, asking us the same questions, showing off the same handmade goods, inviting us into their homes. The local people may come from different tribes, but they all have the same sales method!

Grandma and her grandchildren

Warming up by the fire in Ta Phin Village

We came to Sapa hoping to visit the hill people and instead found ourselves on private tours – personally escorted by from village to village by entrepreneurial women whose beauty rivaled that of the Sapa hillside . We visited the homes of local people, met their children and petted their pigs. How could we not spend a little money in exchange for such an experience?

Hopefully my loved ones won’t mind the matching blue purses and exact same “hand embroidered” pillowcases that I plan to offload on them.

Red Zdao woman in the Ta Phin Village

RANT: Planes, Trains and Sleeper Buses

RANT: Planes, Trains and Sleeper Buses

We’ve been traveling for over six months.  At this point we have slept in over 75 beds in 57 different cities and have taken 11 planes, 12 trains and 35 buses. We can now emphatically state that public transportation is gross.

Being cooped up with several hundred people for hours at a time is never a pleasant experience, but it’s particularly unpleasant when your social norms are at odds with those around you. Our most recent train ride proved too much to handle.  Now it is time for a rant.

Vinnie and our 24th bus ride (through Brunei)

Social Norm #1: Keep the stink to yourself

The 8+ hour train ride began with a stench worse than death. Our impeccably dressed seatmate had placed a 15 pound bag of human excrement above our heads – except instead of human stank, the bag was filled with a massive fruit called Durian that is disallowed in every hotel because of it’s long lasting, highly offensive odor.  The smell penetrates your every pore, leaving behind a stench fouler than rotten eggs and vomit even after it’s gone.

Every jolt of the train brought a fresh waif of creamy, nutty, baby shit in a bag. Puking in the bathroom wasn’t an option, given the predictable state of the train toilet.

No Durians. No live Chickens.

Social Norm #2: Headphones

And during that same odorous train ride a few old men decided to whip out their ancient cellphones to play each and every single ringtone at full volume. Adding to the cell phone cacophony, several teenagers decided to pump out Asia’s top ten from their shiny new Android phones. There is nothing worse than a 24 megahertz rendition of the Black Eyed Pea’s ‘Tonight’s gonna be a good night’ – now the most overplayed song in America AND Asia.

Cell phone nonsense

Social Norm #3: Throw your trash away

For some reason people in many places of Asia think it’s perfectly acceptable to chuck their trash right on the ground.  Not just out the window or onto the street or in the river but directly on the floor beneath their feet. The term “don’t shit where you sleep” doesn’t seem to resonate with people at all. Instead it’s perfectly normal to both throw shit and sleep in the same place – that place being a fucking train filled with a hundred other people.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to wake up to a train full of cigarette butts and banana leaves (but I was).

Floor of our train

Sleeping after throwing remains of meal on the ground

This doesn’t even come close to being our worst experience with public transportation, just the most recent. And none of this is really that bad on it’s own, but given a perfect storm of sensory overload, I lose my shit.

Asia can be one stinky, loud, dirty place, but somehow her charms get you in the end. As we got off the bus and wound up at our final destination, this was the view waiting for us –
totally worth an eight hour train from hell.

Foggy, Hazy, Gorgeous Sapa Vietnam

H'Mong people near the Lao Chai Village

Attack of the Commie Zombies

Attack of the Commie Zombies

A Mausoleum is not the same thing as a Museum, a fact that Vinnie didn’t know when he ventured into Mao’s final resting place last November.

A Commie-style tomb

Those commies keep Mao on lock down.  You can’t get into the Mausoleum if you have a phone, a camera or any method of recording what you see inside those four walls. Vinnie and I were running late for our visit with the Chairman, arriving just 30 minutes before he was due for his 12:00 nap.

After standing in line and being frisked by the police, we found out that only one of us could enter the Mausoleum, the other had to wait outside with all of our electronic devices (of which there were three).

That’s how I ended up waiting outside the exit, watching a maniacal Vinnie run past hundreds of Chinese patriots. From yards away he began shouting:

V: “Do you KNOW what’s IN THERE!”

K: “Mao?”

V: “YES!  There is a dead body in there!!”

K: “How’d he look?”

V: “I didn’t know that I was going to see a DEAD BODY! I thought you were saying MUSEUM. I walked in and thought, man, this feels like a funeral home and all at a sudden there was a dead body! Mao’s dead body is inside there!”

K: “MAUSOLEUM. Dead bodies. So! How’s he look?”

V: “Ummm…. He’s wearing a lot of make-up.”

And he is. But you know who’s not? Ho Chi Minh.

The Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum is decidedly less grand than the Chairman’s. It’s hard to compete with the Chinese when it comes to massive showings of Communist strength. Tiananmen Square is the king daddy in display of state power.  A sea of pavement stretches from the Forbidden City to the Zhengyangmen, the front gate of Beijing’s ancient city, and right in the center of it all sits Mao’s cavernous final resting place. Your every move is observed by the watchful eyes of Chairman Mao whose oversized painting looks over the plaza (along with the thousands of strategically placed video cameras).

This way, Comrade!

Outside the gate of the Mao mausoleum a line of Chinese tourists sporting matching neon orange baseball caps wait impatiently, occasionally running, pushing and jumping the queue when space opens between people.  It’s highly controled chaos.

But the Vietnamese also know how to paint a grand post-mordem scene. The squat marble Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum overlooks the large square where the Vietnamese declared their independence. The grass and the nearby colonial-style Presidential palace gives the entire complex a genteel and inviting, rather than imposing, presence.

Vin and Uncle Ho

Uncle Ho’s mausoleum is smaller, more intimate.  The entire complex is approachable. The line is short. The guards quickly dispatch your camera without much hassle or confusion. Inside the Mausoleum there is no towering marble statue greeting you at the front door. The air is chilly. You walk up a short flight of stairs and suddenly a very pale, very dead Ho Chi Minh is lying just feet away.

Mao and Ho were embalmed by the same Soviet embalmers who first worked on Lenin. Along the way they learned some tips from Cher’s makeup team.

Everything in the Mao mausoleum is imposing, except Mao himself. Inside his crystal coffin, a halo of light beams down on Mao’s waxy, overy-rouged face. His hair is perfectly oiled in place, his fleshy pink cheeks are still plump and his body is shrouded under a wrinkle free blanket.  It’s entirely possible that Mao is just a head. A brightly lit floating head.

Mao and his security detail (a postcard)

Ho’s Mausoleum may be less grand but he certainly looks more dead.  The dim light does nothing to put Ho on display. Everything about the man is white – his face is devoid of any coloring, his white hair clings to his head and his colorless goatee flows down the front of his white outfit. Ho’s decrepit hands rest on top of his stomach and they’re clearly attached to decaying white arms.

Obviously, the Soviet’s hadn’t yet mastered Rouge 101 in 1969.

Someone took a sneaky shot! (Stolen from the interweb)

Mao and Ho are quietly resting inside elevated crystal tombs, their head’s positioned as if they’re staring down on the passing visitors. As you walk past the Chairman, you’re only able to peer in from one side before you’re hurried out the door. Mao gazes down at the four guards that are standing watch over his dead body, but Ho!

Ho lies there inviting his guests to view his body from every angle. As you circle around  the base of his coffin his elevated head lies facing you straight on, like he could wake up at any minute and declare, “American! Get out! The imperialist aggressors can never enslave the heroic Vietnamese people!”

And it’s creepy.

Kris and a lifesized Uncle Ho

The Chairman wins the prize for the most fake looking Commie – Madame Tussauds could do a better job! As for Uncle Ho, he simply looks dead.  Which is how a man whose last breath was more than 40 years ago should look (though you know that takes a lot of cash to keep them looking fresh-ish).

Now that we’ve visited Mao and Ho, we ‘re on a mission to meet the remaining two Commie Zombies.  It’s now a life goal to visit the the Eternal President of North Korean, Kim Il Sung and the founder of the USSR, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

We’re taking bets to see if Fidel will follow his fellow commies to a final resting place filled with glycerol and potassium acetate.

Our next dead Commie, Lenin!