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.

Laos
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!

 

 

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.