Archive for June, 2009

we heart lao

June 29, 2009

Travellers joke that the “PDR” in Lao’s official title stands not for “People’s Democratic Republic” but for “People Don’t Run”. If Thailand is laid-back, then Lao is entirely horizontal.

For the most part, this quality is included in the “pro” column (world’s softest touts)  – except when it comes to bus travel. Shocking roads + PDR = very, very long days of travel. This equation already has journeys of a mere 120km taking about four hours and that doesn’t even make allowance for various statistical outliers, the value of which is X (unknown): waiting for enough passengers to accumulate so bus is filled to bursting point (they even carry plastic stools so that aisle space can be converted to seating space); waiting while driver jumps out and delivers bags of cucumbers/wads of cash to people he doesn’t know and therefore has to locate; waiting while bus is refuelled and tyres are changed; general waiting for reasons which are not at all apparent; and – our favourite – waiting while driver disappears for a rather lengthy “number two” stop. Even the Lao passengers got antsy at that delay.

That aside, there is a lot to love about Lao. Beautiful countryside, friendly people, tasty food. And the unit of currency is the cute-sounding and sleep-related “kip”.

Lots of photos in this post; we’ve been going snap-crazy.

Luang Nam Tha: Stifling heat and humidity confine us to being bantam-weight hikers these days, so we hired a guide for a very manageable one-day trek through the surrounding countryside. Leech count: 3; all on me. A really big one nestled happily in my boot and the sight of its engorged body even drew a small gasp from our guide, Pongse. Hard core. In addition to learning about the culture of local ethnic groups, we were also educated in one of the finer points of modern Laotian society: wrong number love. Nothing to do with numerology; rather, it is common and perfectly legitimate to strike up a courtship with someone when they accidentally call you after dialling a wrong number. There you go.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/catieandlinds/3661733515/

Nong Khiaw: Despite having already sacrificed many days on the altar of waterside lounging, we couldn’t help but kill a few more here.

bread

Luang Prabang: Or “the town that could do no wrong”. There’s a lot of hype about this place but it doesn’t disappoint – we adored it so much, it ached. Lots of nooks to explore and beautifully restored colonial architecture on every corner. Indulged ourselves daily with treats both local (BBQ chicken on a stick! fish in banana leaf!) and colonial (wine! rillettes! baguettes!) and thanks to the Stay Another Day organisation, we were able to ferret out some unique sights, including the wonderful Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre, My Library and a great photographic exhibition. Stay Another Day promotes “destination-friendly tourism” and we have been quite impressed with careful and genuine efforts throughout Lao to encourage fair trade, cultural preservation and sustainability in tourism, particularly in such a poor country where one might expect there to be an all-out, free-for-all grab for tourist dollars.

Notable mention has to be made of the Royal Palace Museum which proudly exhibits official and personal belongings of the royal family… who the State exiled to caves in the north where they starved to death in the early 80s. A little awkward, but no matter – perhaps easier to gloss over this minor indiscretion by simply stating that the palace (miraculously!) became a museum in 1975. Ah, that’s better.

On the upside, the museum does contain an eclectic collection of 1950s and 60s diplomatic gifts. Personal favourites include a to-scale model of Apollo 11 and a few crumbs of “moon rock” from President Nixon and what appears to be a set of hideous, opal-encrusted sardine tins presented by our very own Prime Minister Harold Holt. Hmmm… his future was about as bleak as the royal family’s.

Phonsavan: Ah, scenic Phonsavan. Home to the Plain of Jars – Lao’s answer to Stonehenge. No one knows what they are or where they came from. Cue Linds confusing amusing the other tour participants with jokes about Spinal Tap. And he wonders why we don’t make any buddies on the road. Thank God Kieran and Jane are meeting us in Saigon next week to deliver us from our social isolation.

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tropical beer notes #9

June 25, 2009

Beerlao Lager 5% Lao
Beerlao Dark 6.5% Lao

One word, hey? Never noticed that until now. I’ve been waiting for this one – every second backpacker on the Malay Peninsula and up into the north sports a Beerlao singlet. Dickheads.

The Dark was tasted soon after crossing the border into Lao. As always when tasting beer after a day spent on various long haul buses, tuk tuks and a boat, it was the best I’ve ever had. On reflection, it’s a passable darkish ale and a wonderful relief from the sea of fizzy lager to the south. Looks like a cola beer, slight biscuit taste, wee bit of hops and sweetness. 11/20.

Beerlao Lager’s most distinguishing feature is it pours really nicely – a good foamy head even when halfway though the king brown.. Picture of a thirst quencher.

Being in a “People’s Democratic Republic”, the Lao Brewery Company is half owned by the government, with the other 50% controlled by Carlsberg. The barley in their beers is imported from France and Belgium while the hops are German (Laotian rice also goes into the mash).  Apparently they control 99% of the Lao beer market which is not all together surprising, seeing they don’t really allow other beers be sold.

NB: There is no “falang” tax on vino up here like in Thailand (where, thanks to a pig-headed tax regime, wine is slugged with what appears to be a 400% mark up). Hey, you have to give the Frenchies some credit – they sowed the seeds that led to rule by despotic communist thugs but they left petanque, vin, patisseries and pastis! So over the next couple of weeks, we are looking to enjoy some cheap red wine over baguettes and pate. Genius.

bangkok: the redux

June 23, 2009

Since being on the road, we’ve been introduced to a term previously unknown to both of us: the “flashpacker“. Usually a little older with a decently paid job at home, this subset of independent travellers is often on a shorter trip and fills the category of accommodation at the upper end of “budget”. The flashpacker is, of course, in stark contrast to the old-skool “backpacker” who will seek out a city’s cheapest fleapit so they can instead spend their hard-earned pennies on beer/buckets and tubing*.

We find ourselves somewhere in between these two species. Most of our accommodation leaves a bit to be desired, but we rarely end up sleeping at the dodgiest joint in town. And while we’re generally happy with our budget digs, we are by no means beyond a bit of luxury every now and again.

Linds’ parentals, Richard and Mary, recently embarked on a SE Asian epic journey of their own and kindly invited us to join them in Bangkok before they jetted home. Needless to say, our second jaunt in Bangkok turned out a little different from our first. Deluxe buffet breakfasts; room service; World’s Comfiest Bed™, and a list of complimentary cocktails which we systematically worked our way through. Highest recommendations to the Grand Millenium Sukhumvit and massive shout-out to Richard and Mary for a few days of uncompromised bliss (and for being tireless camera-purchasing companions).

Our return to Bangkok also allowed us one final opportunity to seek out the much-fabled restaurant, Chote Chitr. Linds read a review of this restaurant ages ago on the New York Times website and armed with nothing but a completely useless set of directions (and umpteen internet reviews commenting on how difficult it is to find the place), we had attempted to track it down on our first visit to Bangkok. It would be an understatement to say that it didn’t end very well: both exhausted, hungry, sopping wet and on the verge of a homicidal rampage. However, in some sort of freakish omen a map was published in the Bangkok Post but a week after we left the city and as it turns out, the place is actually quite easy to find… if you have a map (funny, that). Even better, the food lived up to the hype so we dragged Richard and Mary back there a few days later.

And so ended our time in Thailand. She is a fickle mistress, both frustrating and lovable, and stark contrasts confront you at every turn – hardened tuk-tuk shysters crumple and coo at the sight of a chubby baby; amazingly liberal programs for prisoner rehabilitation exist in a country that has no qualms jailing those who contravene extreme lese-majeste laws. The New Internationalist’s country profile gives a pretty good round-up of the social-political issues.

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*Tubing: a backpacker phenomenon apparently unique to Laos. Combines floating down a river in an inner tube with a lot of beer. Incredibly dangerous and have a little think about the river, kids: I’ve seen where SE Asian raw sewage ends up and it ain’t in a sewer.

death of a camera

June 17, 2009

Once upon a time, Linds and Catie went to Chiang Mai. They were very happy there. They rode their bikes to yoga every morning; the cafe across the road made their own muesli and delicious wholemeal pancakes; the Sunday market was delightful and the secondhand bookstores were “all killer, no filler”. Life was good.

Then one day, a water bottle emptied its contents into the backpack and drenched everything therein, including Linds and Catie’s beloved PowerShot A640. That was a terrible day. The staff at Mike’s received an unexpected lesson in English expletives and after several attempts at resuscitation, the poor little camera was declared dead. Linds and Catie were very sad.

After several days of mourning, Linds and Catie decided they needed to get back in the camera saddle. Another little camera had caught their eye – the Canon G10 – although at first, it appeared to be unattainably out of their price range. Bolstered by buffet breakfasts and complimentary cocktails, they tackled the electronics malls of Bangkok with an almost religious bargaining fervour. And after many, many hours they emerged victorious, clutching the coveted G10 and more than a little pleased with themselves for having nabbed one at a bargain price. They loved their new G10 very much and spent many hours playing with it gleefully and discovering its new functions.

And they were happy because they knew the little PowerShot would have wanted it that way.

The end.

Poor Fellow My Country

June 6, 2009

Xavier Herbert’s “Poor Fellow My Country” has been sitting on my shelf for 11 years now – the olds gave it to me for Easter ’97.  First published in ’75, it’s set in the Northern Territory during the interwar years and follows the lives (amongst many others) of Jeremy DeLacy, a wealthy pastoralist, and his Aboriginal grandson, Prindy. At its core, the weighty tome is concerned with the struggle to create an identity for what Herbert calls “Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo”, or the southern land of the Holy Spirit…

As one who appreciates the odd rant, the sustained rage is impressive. The book itself is divided into three “books”, the titles and accompanying epitaphs of which give a pretty good snapshot:

Book One: Terra Australis – Blackman’s Idyll Despoiled by White Bullies, Thieves and Hypocrites
Book Two: Australia Felix – Whiteman’s Ideal Sold Out by Rogues and Fools
Book Three: Day of Shame – A Rabble Fled the Test of Nationhood

Without wanting to sound like a tit, it has been one of my life goals to get though this book, and while sitting in a Mae Sariang guest house – final success! It’s seriously long, just shy of 1500 pages, apparently making it one of the longest novels ever published. It has been a bit of a laugh carting it through Thailand. Other backpackers must think I’m reading the Bible – what an odd looking missionary!  I’m now going to indulge in Inspector Rebus for some page turning relief.

northern exposure

June 6, 2009
 
 
Sukhothai: Every time I say the name of this town, I can’t help but be reminded of Sylvester the cartoon cat and his catchphrase “suffering succotash.” A whistlestop tour to tick off the ruins of this 13th century Thai kingdom – impressive, but I think we had more fun just riding our dinky bikes around the historical park.
Mae Sot: We were very glad to arrive in Mae Sot after the prayer-inducing minibus ride from Sukhothai. Caught our first glimpse of the security around the border area as two of our fellow passengers were hauled off the van at a police checkpoint for not having ID but given the maniacal driving, perhaps it was a blessing of sorts. Being Australian, we have limited experience of border towns but Mae Sot certainly seems to be a typical one – a little seedy and bustling with illegal activity. Failed to notice until after we’d checked in that our guesthouse was in fact next door to the immigration lock-up – woops! – which is probably where our friends from the bus ride ended up. Some delicious Burmese food restored us after the depressing trip to the border where we gazed across the river as hustlers touted bootleg cigarettes and Viagra from the dry riverbed.
Mae Sariang: Even if this sleepy little riverside town hadn’t otherwise enchanted us, the journey there would have been worth it alone. Apart from one other farang passenger, we were the only ones who remained aboard for the entire journey from Mae Sot and quite frankly, six hours in the back of a sawngthaew is barely enough. We jostled for bum space with an ever-evolving cast of Karen villagers and their wide-eyed babies, sacks of mangoes and chillis, boxes of who-knows-what*, a stowaway frog and a clapped-out motorbike – but it was all strangely endearing. Our fellow farang was the irrepressible Ineke, a Dutch volunteer at the surrounding refugee camps, who showed us to our delightful guesthouse and introduced us to a band of other volunteers who turned out to be excellent company, formidable drinking buddies and a wealth of information on the best bits of Mae Sariang – the lovely Joy and her Oreo shakes; laab; riverside lounging and massages.
A quick aside to pay homage to the joy that is traditional Thai massage. What’s not to like about having your limbs used like stirrups? Masseuses employ their elbows, feet and forearms liberally and greasy oils, whale music and awkward semi-nudity are all avoided. It’s a lot like involuntary yoga. Particularly hilarious to watch a flock of tiny Thai women giggle nervously and draw straws for who massages the big farang. Invariably, their strength is disproportionate to their size but watching them massage Linds is kind of like watching Lilliputians conquer Gulliver.
 
Lampang: Another whistlestop to indulge myself with the one cheesy tourist thing I’ve been dying to do: ride an elephant. You’ll probably be able to tell from the number of photos taken that I was beside myself with excitement for the whole day and generally revelled in all things pachyderm. Two little words have never prompted so much squealing: elephant nursery. Oh. My. God.

*Anyone who has queued at the Singapore Airlines counter at Perth airport will surely have noticed that when Asian people travel, they are usually laden with a pile of cardboard boxes. WHAT IS IN THESE BOXES? I’m dying to know. We’ll know we’ve been in Asia for too long when we throw away our backpacks and replace them with boxes.

tropical beer notes #8 – clash of the thai-tans

June 5, 2009

Singha Lager Thailand 5%

Chang Beer Thailand 6.4%

We’ve drunk our way from Hat Yai to Mae Sariang so it’s time to report in on the two most famous and frequently savoured Thai beers. Thailand is a beer drinker’s paradise. There is nowhere you can’t find a life-giving ale: street corners; temple gates; internet cafes; deserted beaches. A steward offered me an icy bottle seconds after our train crossed the border from Malaysia. What a lovely country.

Chang and Singha (pronounced ‘sing’) divide the Thai beer market between them; there is no third.. It’s like the olden days in Perthland when Swan and Emu where the beginning and end of choice. “Dodd’s been on the birds”, as they’d have said.

Chang is the young Turk of the two. Only launched in ’95, it has successfully chipped away at Singha’s long-held dominance so it now controls 60% of the Thai beer market. Chang’s rise and rise has been largely thanks to aggressive marketing, comparative cheapness and very high alcohol content. It’s made by the giant Thai Beverage Public Company Limited – listed in Singapore it has a market cap of about USD$4 billion. Rumor has it that Heineken taught them how to make the stuff before the Thais broke off the relationship.

Singha does things differently. It was first first brewed in 1933 and is still made by Boon Rawd Brewery, a private family company on its fourth generation of management. The Singha website devotes as much space to production promotion as their community work. I especially like the can – it’s charmingly retro and kind of reminds me of Dad’s Swan Light back in the America’s Cup days. The bottom is painted white – how cool is that?! Yeah, yeah, but when did you last see a can with a painted underside? Anyhow, obviously this is not a company that is interested in fashion.

Singha did drop the alcohol content back a few years ago from 6%  to 5% which makes it a better drop. The late great beer hunter Michael Jackson never believed that it was that strong anyhow, but you have to wonder if Singha did a “new Coke” as the change has pretty much coincided with its demise.

When it comes to taste they are both pretty standard lagers. Chang has slight bitterness with a sweet finish; it’s too strong and the alcohol overwhelms the already weakish flavours (plus consumption of more than three tends to lead to early morning “Chang dry horrors”, as Catie and I have dubbed them). The Thais often mix it with ice, which does weirdly improve things. I give it 10/20. I prefer Singha: it tastes simply like beer, a bit of malt and hops; a nicely balanced commercial style lager. It wins by a (ruddy) nose: 11/20.

Just as a final note – it’s worth mentioning that the Chang being consumed outside of Thailand is technically a different beer with an alcohol content of 5%. A savvy move to avoid tax overseas and keep the punters at home happy.

By far the best ever photo anyone has ever taken of a Chang:

Pic courtesy of Rob and Critter