Thursday, August 31, 2006

rains and waterfalls

Finally managed to get to the waterfall. On Tuesday it was baking hot and I planned to go and sun myself at a nearby guesthouse's pool but Rick rang to say he and Jing were off to the waterfall.

I gathered my stuff and we whizzed up the mountainside, praying that it would be as sunny up there as down in Pai.

The falls were beautiful - water gushing over huge smooth rocks and we sat near the top looking out towards a gap in the mountains where we could see mountain ranges in the distance.

You could sit in the water and sunbathe at the top of one of the drops or lie on the smoothed rocks. But the best thing was that you could use the falls as waterslides. It looked terrifying to sit and launch yourself from the top of a 15-20ft fall and it looked as though Jing was crashing against the sides of the rocks.

I decided to do it and was gathering the courage when Jing grabbed me and threw the pair of us off the top...

It was great fun and although it looks as though you crash against the side, it is a natural smooth slide.

The Falangs around the side of the falls looked mightily impressed as I threw myself off time and again until all the lads were joining Jing and me.

Later that day, Jing took me on a motorbike tour and it was such a feeling of freedom to be on the back of a bike among stunning mountain ranges. We went up Pai Canyon again and walked further than I had with Matt - it looked beautiful in the soft dusk.

When I returned to Wonderland, Gemma and I decided to cycle to the hot springs, about 8km away. There are natural springs and then pools where you can bathe at neighbouring spa camping place. It was a third of the cost to be in the waters at the camping place so we sat there and chatted and analysed the world.

It was very dark when we left at about 7pm. Luckily Gemma had brought a head torch as the road was very windy and extremely dark. After a while we biked in silence, concentrating hard on trying to see what was just a few metres ahead of us.

The relief was palpable when we hit street lights and civilisation.

The last two days have been miserable weather and we are slightly concerned about trekking if it is very wet. But we are going to talk about it with the guides later and see if the weekend looks any better.

Thanks to everyone who has sent stuff out - fingers crossed it will arrive in time but I'm sure my friend can pick anything else up for me and bring it when we hook up later in September. But does this mean I have to wait until September 11 to open the stuff?!

Right now it is still pouring and I want a big mug of cocoa, even though I have just eaten all the iced gems I bought for the children today and my teacher treated me to the biggest Phad Thai you have ever seen - and I wasn't even hungry! But a movie and a mug of hot chocolate... now that would be good.

But since then, the weather has not been great.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Caves, bamboo and books

Pai is a traveller cliche. Imagine every tale of travel in Thailand, role it up into one place, minus the beaches and the full moon parties and you pretty much have Pai.

I am getting frustrated by the western influences everywhere, the rude tourists, the influx of people who think they are so individual and different that they are all wearing the same clothes.

Like in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang in Laos, every few shops there are massive signs for the tours and treks you can do around the area, massage parlours and internet cafes. And Pai is still a relatively young place.

People predict that in a few years it will be too expensive for the likes of me. Bigger budget places are to be built and the town will expand to become the trekking centre of the country. At the moment it still has atmosphere, a sense of fun and that it can be adopted by the travelling community.

In some backstreets and side roads, there are small eateries such as Mama Falafal and Hiccup where Gemma and I went this evening. We lay on cushions around a low table while a few other customers drifted in and out and ate good food, with the option of putting on a movie if we felt like it or reading one of the books on the shelves around the place.

Still, it is nice to have those comforts occasionally, even if you can't afford to buy Marmite, it is nice to see the little brown jars, and the rows of Cadbury's chocolates, the Walls icecreams and even bottles of Ernest and Julio Gallo and Jacobs Creek and vastly inflated prices. And to eat filet mignon at a good steak house or to get a baguette for lunch.

Equally, there remain a few street vendors selling barbecued chicken, phad thai, pork balls and soups at the sides of the roads for reassuringly little money.

This weekend Matt and I decided to explore the area in his hire car. We got up early Saturday and drove to the World War II memorial bridge. Less dramatic and a fraction of the size of the bridge over the River Kwai, Pai's bridge has its own place in history, being part of the last link of the Thailand-Burma railway that was built by Western allied prisoners of war overseen by the Japanese.

It stands over the muddy, rushing river intact but rusty and alongside its sturdier concrete brother which is the only one still used.

A few miles up the road was Pai canyon. A brisk walk up the hill led us to a fine view of the valley and reddy brown cliffs of this natural canyon. It is not huge or particularly breathtaking, but it is peaceful and totally given over to nature. There was no one else there and it seemed like a perfect and haven for wildlife.

We continued on our route into Pai by a different route and then out towards Mae Hong Son. The road twisted out of the town and was soon bending steadily up the mountainside, where the road was punctuated by diggers clearing mudslides and large boulders which had rolled into the road.

There was even a huge King Cobra in our path which Matt cheerfully rolled over in the 4x4 before we looked back and saw it raise its head and slink off into the scrub at the side of the road.

After driving for an hour through stunning mountain ranges, we came to Lod Caves near Soppong.

We got very excited because there are three large caverns and you can take a bamboo raft between them and through some of them with a guide.

However, it being the rainy season (read wrong season to do anything but look at waterfalls), two of the caverns were inaccessible.

However, to get to the first, we had to walk alongside the fast-flowing river and follow it into the mouth of the cave. Inside, we took a long raft made up of several pieces of bamboo strapped together and punt to the other side of a pool of water. Here we disembarked and were led through a series of chambers with fascinating stalagmites and stalactites and thick columns formed when the two meet.

It was breathtaking to see small stumps rising from the floor of the cave and realise that these were the beginnings of similar formations - but thousands of years behind neighbouring pillars. Or to see a tiny drip drip of water into a small hole which the guide said would become these small stumps and then form into the columns.

Unfortunately the tour did not last long so we had to console ourselves with a drink, some noodles and a philosophical debate for a few hours, while it rained cats and dogs outside.

Later, we returned to Pai to drink wine and eat steak and drink some more wine.

On Sunday, I attempted to go to a waterfall in the mountains with Rick and two Thai friends. Jumping on the back of Jing's motorbike, sweating in the bright sunshine, I was full of hope for a fun afternoon sliding down the rocks into pools of blue water.

But as we climbed into the mountains, the sky turned an ominous grey and the peaks were hidden by swirling mists. About 500m away, it began to rain. We knew we had about two minutes to get to shelter and dived into the shelter of an open shop as the heavens opened. We sat on dusty plastic chairs next to an unsmiling woman with a towel turban, long sarong skirt and dirty white blouse who looked as old and the hills and brown as the soil.

There was nothing to do but have a drink. We decided to turn back as the path to the falls would be slippy. As we approached the valley, our clothes dried out from the hot rays of the sun. It had not been raining in town.

So the afternoon slipped away in occasional bursts of sunshine and Gemma returned from Chiang Mai. But the evening held further storms and it refused to stop raining to let us go out to eat. We were drenched despite our raincoats and shivering. In the end we had to search for hot chocolate - it was the sweetest concoction known to man but it was hot and chocolately and we were delighted to taste it.

Today, however, the sun shone down as we taught our classes the difference between 'a' and 'an' and months, days and clothes. Tomorrow I want to ride an elephant. And the week's plans include a return trip to the waterfall, hot springs, films to watch, different places to eat, new people arriving, books to read lying in a hammock in the sun...

Friday, August 25, 2006

pai pai pai

Not an awful lot to report... Here time goes in fits and starts. We spend our evenings eating in the many restaurants here, going to a few bars and ending up at Chanon's Bar where our friend Eek works (and we can choose the music) and then going to Beebop bar for the live music.

There is a band that performs there most nights and the singer plays a pink guitar with the Hello Kitty cat on it. All the volunteers are crazed over him. He is a kind of Franz Ferdinand frontman - stadning very straight-backed and still with his hands strumming the guitar crazily.

Matt, the guy I met in Laos, has come to visit for a few days and has hired a car so we are going off to see the canyon and some waterfalls this weekend - hopefully. He is also going to teach me to ride a moped too.

It has gone very hot again, although it rains at night. Too hot to do much in the midday heat.

Today I took over Rebbekah's classes and taught three groups this morning. I really enjoyed getting back into the swing of it and the teacher Pat told me they think I teach well and enjoy the lessons.

There are a lot of Chinese and Hill tribe children in the class. This means they not only speak Thai, but their own language, plus trying to learn English too. They are very beautiful and look slightly different to the Isaan children.

I miss Isaan - the food and the smiles, the lushness and my class. But I love the mountainous scenery, the colourful clothing of the Hill tribe people in town, the variety of skin tones, hair type, and dress of the students and the buzz of town.

Pai is not a big place and some would get bored here with the same bars, same bands, early closing of everywhere but a few places, same crowd, different day. Others get stuck here with the yoga teachers, fortune tellers and jewellery sellers.

I had my fortune told the other day. A man worked out my future from my birthdate and time (vague) and my palm and pointed to translations in a book.

Apparently I am to have at least three husbands (maybe concurrent, maybe consecutively), lazy, argumentative and disrespectful children, go travelling for at least three days in the next year (ha!), have allergies to something and beri beri, paralysis or abdominal disease. He also said I was stubborn and a flirt - I could have told him that.

So, 50B well spent I think (about 75p). I may go and see a fortune teller soon. Massages here are fantastic and cheap - I came out smelling of wonderful herbs yesterday - relaxed and stretched.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

and so to Pai...

Well I made it to Pai eventually...

I got on my bus at 5.30pm and sat next to the window but the FATTEST Thai girl I have seen was booked into the seat next to me. I was really annoyed and decided to stand (sit) my ground and make myself as large as possible. But after a few minutes I just had to laugh. It was so ridiculous that I had another hellish journey squished into the window of this uncomfy bus for four and a half hours.

The cliche about travelling - particularly by yourself - is that you learn stuff about yourself. Well, I learned that day that I could destress myself and shrug my shoulders when faced with a ridiculous amount of unnecessary travel and silly situations. Mai pen rai - it doesn't matter, no problem - as they say here.

I got to Chiang Mai at about 10pm and headed for a neon blue hotel sign. Naturally it was beyond my budget (stinky backpack and marble floors do not go well together), and even my winning smile could not budge them on the price. I was reluctant to head back to the tuk tuks to take me into town as I had to be at the bus station around 7am and some of the drivers were a bit scary.

Luckily, one of the staff popped me on the back of his motorbike and took me a couple of blocks to a guesthouse - it was a bit overpriced but fine and even had a TV. The only thing that i could vaguely understand was the Man City v Chelsea match with Thai commentary.

Unfortunately a bright neon light lit up my room all night but otherwise the place was fine.

I got to the bus station (passing a dead rat on the street the size of a cat) at about 7.20am to find the 8am bus was full and had to wait for 9am local bus. Trip was uneventful - mists clouded the peaks of the mountains so the view wasn't as good as hoped.

Rick and Mem, the travel to teach coordinators, met me at the bus station and took me to Wonderland House - the pai dorm. There is a big kitchen with balcony and four bungalows with shower rooms (hot showers!) and I have one to myself. Rick took me on a tour of the town by motorbike and we had much at Mem's sister's restaurant.

He asked me what I wanted to do and see here and I mentionned trekking, elephant riding and rafting. A cloud passed over his face. Two weekends ago one of the volunteers drowned rafting.

Her name was Susan and she was 23 I think. Dutch. She was a week and a half into a three year round the world trip with her boyfriend.

No one knows what happened but she was sucked down by the current. Her lifejacket and helmet were found seperately. It is just so heartbreaking. Her boyfriend had to pack up all her stuff, all the new things they had bought for their trip which such joy just weeks before. It leaves me cold. It could have been anyone.

The other volunteers are Gemma, an Australian journalist - an ex Sun and Sydney Daily Telegraph reporter, Rebbekah, a German girl who was in Namsom the first week I was there, Yessica and Elkie - two German girls I have only met briefly.

Coordinator Rick was staying at the bungalows until this morning when he moved out because he saw a rat in the room. Luckily his is the only all-wood bungalow...

Pai is a lot lot busier than Namsom but much nicer than Vang Vieng. The mountains surround Pai's valley but not in an overbearing way. The town is full of westerners (although it is not peak season) off to do hikes and treks and the sort of travellers you imagine meeting in hippie places - dreads, colourful baggy clothing... the kind who get stuck here for years and create a mini-Glastonbury green fields.

But there is plenty to do, from visiting waterfalls to hot springs, climbing to temples on the mountain (I did one yesterday), to watching movies in private rooms in bars.

At the weekend I hope to ride an elephant (don't get jealous Natalie) and go swimming with it, and go to the waterfalls. I may even treat myself to a day spa - all the volunteers will have left except Gemma and she is doing a visa run this weekend.

However the teaching is manic. Unlike my lovely Namsom class - I have three hours in the morning at one schools (various classes from Year 4 to Year 6 and all pretty naughty) and then two hours in the afternoon at a different school (much better behaved and varying from Year 1 to 6). I think I will be glad to see the end of the teaching next week...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Farewell to Laos

It has been an eventfull week in Laos. I have met some wicked people and some idiots too. I have successfully broken my camera, lost my umbrella, one shoe of my new leather sandals that I went all the way to Udon to buy, broken the lid on my contact lens solution so it all leaked out, lost a padlock for my bag, been soaked to high heaven and scorched to death. I have travelled hundreds of kilometres of winding mountain roads to get just get across the country, which is not far as the crow flies, and spent two days sailing up the fast flowing rivers.

On Wednesday I met Amnon, a crazy Israeli guy, who sort of latched on to me. Couldn't shake him off even when I broke my camera, tried to find a fixer man (couldn't) and said I had a headache. To which he replied, "but everyone I meet travelling says they have a headache" ha!

Luckily that night after an expensive but distinctly rubbish curry, we headed to a bar where they promised two for one Lao Lao (rice whisky) cocktails.

I spotted a likely looking guy on his own and quickly invited him to join us. Matt is a northerner in his early 30s who has escaped England for a life in Chiang Mai. He was very amused by my budget travelling and pirate style clothes (doncha just love the travelling look!) and agreed to come to the waterfalls the following day - a blessing not to leave me with Amnon all day.

We had a good laugh and rather a lot of drinks (well I did) and I stumbled home to bed.

The next day, after ambling the streets for a while and having breakfast, the three of us met up to hire a van to take us to the falls.

It was quite a long and bumpy trip of about an hour into the mountains. Through simple villages of wooden homes, where women worked in the fields and walked the streets in their long, dark sarong skirts with bags over their shoulders, pointed hats on their heads to keep off rain or sun.

We got to the waterfalls, saw some bear cubs which had been rescued by a poacher and a young female tiger (ditto) and could get right up close to them. I saw some friends from the minibus and chatted to them and then we went up the mountain.

We trouped through rainforest-type woodland where massive leaves scattered the ground and wandered over wooden bridges past pools of water and small streams around the lower parts of the Krung-sae fall.

There were several places to swim but we had our picnic and then walked to the bottom of the biggest part of the waterfall - a huge drop with water tumbling off it in great waves. We bodly continued up the steps to about two thirds of the way up the drop. Here you could edge along a path, under tree trunks, through pools of water to walk through part of the fall. To the right were steep rocks with water cascading into a shallow pool at your feet. On your left was a rickety fence at the edge where the water tumbled off to the pools below.

We got rather wet but enjoyed the Indiana Jones style of adventure. We sheltered from the daily 3pm shower with some American girls and then all, except Matt, went for a dip in the cold and slightly muddy water.

Waiting for Amnon in the tuk tuk, Matt and I made a pact to run away from him and find some dinner later on. Luckily the Israeli was too tired to care or suggest we all met up later on anyway.

So after showering and buying my ticket for the slow boat, Matt and I met up and went to a Chinese Buffet he had seen.

We were one of only two couple in there and were sat right at the front of this enormous hall tryig to figure out what was going on. On stage infront of us were Lao traditional dance performances, with musicians sat at the side playing odd-looking instruments shaped like boats.

After an initial confusing exchange with the waiter, we realised we got everything on the menu but could choose a few select things such as the way the fish was cooked.

Out came a mountain of food enought for 8 people - Seaweed and pork soup, tofu in hot sauce, chinese-style fish, duck, pork, vegetables, rice.... fruit afterwards....

We felt so guilty about all the food and the poverty around us that we ate way too much and then decided we had better go for a few drinks to ease the pain of fullness. We found a ncie bar and sat outside and then discovered Luang Prabang's most happening bar - Hive - a dark, unusual bar populated by the young and trying to be backpackery trendy.

The next day I was up early to go on the first stage of the boat trip to Pak Beng. I had been warned against doing this trip because of the length and low level of comfort. I can see their point. Going downstream to Luang Prabang, the boats are packed full with around 200 people and their luggage. You sit on hard, straight-backed wooden benches with a thin cushion and can hardly move.

Going upstream, however, is a less popular option. It takes two hours longer because of the tide but you get at least one bench all to yourself.

I put two benches together and lay down and slept for the first three hours, missing the most stunning part of the scenery - allegedly.

When it rained, they brought plastic sheets down the sides of the boat so you were all cosy inside but couldn't see much.

The boat was wooden and low to the water level but fairly quick. The boat left half an hour later - at 9am, and we reached Pak Beng at 6.30pm after unloading and loading cargo at various points and switching boats to a far more comfotable one half way through.

This change was annoying though. someone grabbed my rucksack to put on the second boat and I noticed the zip was open when I walked past (I couldn't find the padlock that morning). I checked inside and all looked rosy except maybe I was missing one of my Birkenstocks - but no matter because they were cheap fakes and so uncomfortable I had been going to check them anyway.

Unfortunately, I later found out I had both bloody Birkenstocks but had lost oe of my lovely lovely leather thongs (flip flop that is). So gutted.

Found a very cheap but pretty horrid guesthouse quickly. Too tired and too far to look anywhere else. Bed was clean with mosquito net. Bathroom was fine when arrived but when I returned from a beer later, it was smelling of both ends of human mess.

I had dinner with some French people who had been on the boat but their speaking was too fast for me so I ventured to find some coffee, beer, a book or decent company in the main part of town. Hadn't realised the walk would be so dark but I perserved and came upon a motley bunch of people - Will, the Norwich chap who now lives in Hong Kong and knows far too much about drugs, Jose, a Spaniard from Malaga who was escaping a cheating Scottish girlfriend, a Danish guy who I thought was Dutch and kept asking where he lived in Holland (was confused by his answer of Copenhagen and thought he must have emigrated), and Leon, a surf bum from Melbourne with a big heart.

We drank some beers and chatted away - all very pleasant but this is the middle of nowhere and generators are shut down overnight which means no electricity.

I slept well until about 2am when I heard banging noises against the wooden wall of my room and was unsure if it was animal or human. It went on every now and again, all night and I think I shouted out at one point that there was someone in the room - I thought they were trying to break in. In the morning, I realised it was a balcony next to my room where some people were sleeping. In fact, I realised this at 5am when a baby started crying.

Saturday, another boat trip along the river. It was even more rainy and much colder. I put my fleece on as we powered upstream, past villages so remote that boat is their main mode of transport. They must live so simple, eating the rice they grow, killing their chickens, living simply and bathing in the muddy river.

Halfway upsteam, they unloaded bags of colourful materials which we had assumed were for the markets of Chiang Mai. We discovered they were, but they were to go overland to Thailand and avoid taxes.

We arrived at Huay Xai (way say it is pronounced) at 6.30pm, just after the border shut. It was pouring. I walked with a dutch guy and his Thai friend to a find a guesthouse - much nicer this time. And then he treated the two of us to dinner by the Mekong, overlooking Thailand and then we went for an Ovaltine (me) and ice cream (him) and chatted away, Turns out he's spent a lot of time studying Buddhism and lived in a monastry for four months. Very interesting guy.

Saw him again this morning as I tried to figure out how to get to Pai. An agency on Laos side of river said I could get a minibus from Thai side. Thai side said not til 7am next day. Decided to go to bus station and see what they proposed. They told me to go to Chiang Rai (two hours) and then go to Pai. Happily I set off for Chiang Rai, smug that I hadn't got on a minibus to Chiang Mai and paid a fortune.

But when I got to Chiang Rai (where I am now), they told me to go to Chaing Mai (four and half hours away) and then go to Pai (four hours). The next bus with seats is not until 5.30pm. I arrived at 12. So I am rather annoyed, very tired and faintly amused. It is typically Thai and I should have just stayed in wet, grey and dull Chiang Khong and got the minibus at 7am for five hours. But that would have been no fun eh?! What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger...

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Wonderful Laos

It has been strange to leave Namsom and its comforts and friends behind and head off into the unknown again.

On Friday I was invited to the Mother's Day ceremony. All the mums had been invited and we sat out in a huge hall barn thing. I had to say a few words to say goodbye and everyone clapped wholeheartedly though only a few teachers must have understood what I was saying.

Then some parents and teachers were awarded prizes for something. Children from all classes then performed Isan dances, pop songs, plays and other delights. My bottom started hurting after about two hours.

But then each class came forward to bless their mothers.

The women came to the front of the hall and sat on a row of plastic chairs infront of the stage. Their sons and daughters came up to them offered a flower and then bowed down at their feet before nuzzling into their mothers laps and then cuddling them.

Many were crying, mothers had tears in their eyes. And it was all I could do to stop the tears from flowing too. It was such a wonderful display of love and devotion and recognition. Not sure about the bowing at their mother's feet - but I'm sure my own mother will think it is something all respecting children should do...

My teacher, Pi Nang, gave me a necklace with a pendant of a treble clef and two notes embelished with some shiny stones, and bought me an ice cream. She presented me with a letter (I had given her and the students one to thank them for their love and care) which told me to keep in touch and that I was a nice lady who deserved nice things. Bless her.

I rushed back to the dorm before being picked up by Mooy for a lift to Udon and then the bus to Nong Khai.

The trip across the Friendship Bridge, where you sign out of Thailand and into Laos, was realtively uneventful but long and tiring getting off and on buses.

On the Laos side, I got a tuk tuk straight to a hostel in the Lonely Planet and had to spend $8 on a room because I was too tired to go anywhere else. Luckily it was clean, had a large comfortable bed, balcony and clean shared bathroom.

I wandered around Vientiane that afternoon, along by the Mekong where there were tables and street vendors, past huge Wats (temples) and many internet cafes and restaurants.

I went back to change and then went to Full Moon cafe for chicken and tzatziki wraps with big fat chips - not particuarly Laos! I met Jenny there, a Parisian woman with a filthly laugh and great sense of humour before Marty, a volunteer from Nong Khai, stumbled upon us and joined us for drinks.

He had just whacked a Laos masseuse in the face with his knee and was unsure whether this meant their 'date' at the bowling alley was on or off.

It turned out to be off because her parents wouldn't let her go out, so we went to a rooftop bar by the Mekong and drank white wine spritzers and cocktails.

The next day I walked to the city's version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was baking hot at 9am and I was feeling nauseous from the malaria tablets and couldn't face a walk to the top.

After grabbing a cold drink I braved Talat Sala - the market - and bought a few souveniors and a things there.

I then headed back for lunch, my bags and went to the bus station to go to Vang Vieng.

The local bus I got on was packed and I was wedged between a Korean girl and a Laos boy with my legs at a very odd angle. After three hours someone moved and I was able to get more comfortable. Except that people here like to stare and I had a different Thai or Laos boy staring at me or the Korean girl the whole way there. Marty turned out to be on the bus too.

Vang Vieng was fun at first. It was strange to see Friends being played out of most restaurants night and day. The scenery was stunning around but the town itself had little real atmosphere. The traveller centre consisted of people getting pissed or stoned or watching Friends all night.

On Monday I went tubing - one of the attractions of the place. I arrived at about 11.30am and started chatting to two British guys who I thought were friends, then lovers and later it turned out they were brothers.

We three,another English couple and a French couple boarded a tuk tuk in our swimming gear, laden down with dry bags containing our valuables and life jackets, and a load of inner tubes of tractor tyres atop the vehicle.

We drove upstream and were dropped off to take the trip downsteam. I was a little apprehensive because during the rainy season it is reported to be very fast and two weeks ago a girl died tubing.

No need to worry. The river swung gently around mountains and past villages for several kilomteres while enterprising Laotians had set up bars with swings into the river, plenty of drinks and snacks and seats in the sun and shade.

But because we had set off early it was pretty quiet in the bars. We got back about 3pm and I went to shower, had to get it fixed (again) and then, instead of hiring a bike again, watched a thunder storm unfolding around the mountains and drank coffee and had a fantastic cinammon bun.

Later, I met James and John (from rafting) and we went for some food in a more Laotian place than most (and no Friends!) before heading to play pool on a wonky table and drinking Laos whiskey and red bull. After a few more whiskeys and some card cames in a few other bars we were invited to a party.

Places in Laos should close at 11.30pm to discourage a party culture but there are always places to go. We went to the bar at the end of the tubing route and sat around a fire getting steadly drunk until at about 3am we realised we had buses to catch early in the morning.

At 7.50am I awoke with a headache to realise I had slept through my alarm and had about 20 minutes to get to the bus.

I made it in time, even having a moment to buy a sandwich and water before being packed onto the minibus for a 5.5hr trip.

In Luang Prabang, the minibus crew clubbed together to get a tuk tuk to town and i wandered the guesthouses with them to settle on a nice one for $4 a night.

I really like it here. It is very chilled out and beautiful, Next to the Mekong River and with a nightmarket lit up by soft ropes of lights. It is very hot during the day but tomorrow I will go to some waterfalls for a swim and then make my way to border of Thailand on a two-day boat trip which is apparently hell for 10 hours a day. Hoepfully then I can make it to Pai on Sunday ready to teach on Monday...but it is a long long way....

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Just a quick update... and try and upload a few pics.

I am in Laos - in Vang Vieng. It is backpacker heaven and my idea of hell in many ways but the scenery surrounding this din of restaurants and falangs and tours is frankly stunning.

I took myself on a 6km bike ride today out of the main town and through villages at the foot of the mountains. It was scorching as I passed children playing in the river and old women dozing under bamboo shelters. So close to western food, music and programmes are these people living very simple lives.

And the schools... just long, low huts with very few resources.

But rather tanned (burnt nose) I came upon my goal, a blue lagoon with swing ropes and benches and little huts to lie in and I cooled off. (pictured above).

Later I climbed up a virtually sheer cliff to a cave and decided to go with a guide around it. I paid 10,000 kip ($1 US) and we set off with the aid of his torch. Inside was a reclining Buddha shrine but we bypassed this and all the guide-less backpackers and slipped and slided up and down boulders. I honestly though I was going to slip down one of the sides into a gaping hole here or a pool of water there.

Eventually, with much flustered effort from me, we came upon some stunning caverns with stalagmites and stalagtites bulging everywhere. Was a bit nervous as it was pitch black apart from the guide's torch and I could hear bats everywhere.

Also because the only English he knew was "Beautiful" which he would use to indicate the cabe and then me.

On the way back, we passed a party of torch-less French people so I agreed to let them have my guide when I got near the opening and daylight.

I scrambled out of the cave to find a storm raging.

I had a choice - stay and wait for the storm to stop or go now. I didn't have a clue what the time was and as it was quite dark I decided to go for it.

Hmmm. Back slipping down the rockface path was not fun, especially when out of the cover of the trees. I was drenched head to toe.

About half an hour after I reached the lagoon the rain stopped. I jumped back on my bike and peddled back to Vang Vieng.

Everything looked newly washed and fresh. Mists clung to the mountains and the rice fields looked lush in the dampness.

I spotted a group of three Laos boys and took a photo. A cheeky one who turned away when I took it motioned to the seat on the back of my bike. I beckoned him on and we whizzed down the stony dirt track both laughing at the speed and careless joy.

He jumped off five minutes later and ran into his wooden home without a backward glance.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Farewell to Namsom

So it is my last day here and I am running around like a mad fly. Everyone wants to say goodbye and help. Everyone wants to have dinner and drink the night away.

Tomorrow I must be up early to go to school for Mother's Day ceremony where I will take the place of the children's mums who cannot be there.

Then run home to get a lift half way to Nong Khai where I can go over the bridge to Laos.

Still lots to do lots to pack. It is boiling here and I have been washing with fury at home. Dressed in nothing but underwear, with fans turned full blast on me and still sweat dripping down my back. I am shattered but relieved to have made a decision whether to go or stay.

It is too hot today even for the Thai people. Canvas is pulled down infront of the shops. It is 5pm and still people are walking around with parasols to protect themselves from the searing sun.

I am sad to leave this beautiful little place, especially after a wonderful bike ride yesterday afternoon.

Natalie and I biked out pf town along dirt tracks, on paths through rice fields and through small villages where children played on bikes and tractors were pulled up outside homes instead of cars.

Pai Nai? people asked as we whizzed past. Where are you going? We didn't know so couldn't even tell them if we knew the Thai. It was much cooler yesterday but a balmy evening for the full moon.

Usually in the rainy season you cannot see the full moon but it was very bright last night and we sat on the balcony at Ban Falang listening to music with Tae and Pi Mon after a very satisfying Korean barbecue. So much for my diet.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


I returned to green and pleasant Namsom on Sunday evening and had the most bizarre experience.

I met a lovely Algerian-Belgian man on the buses back who has been living in a village near Namsom for the last four years. He married a Thai woman and has an 18-month-old baby boy with her.

But she has run off to work in Bangkok so he has been left holding the baby and living in rural Thailand near his parents-in-law. He would like to return to Belgium with his little boy but cannot because his ex-wife will not sign the papers. Children can pay parents way when they are older, especially as a half-falang boy could command more money in certain industries.

So he is stuck here for the time. Very sad.

After saying our goodbyes, I carried on to Namsom and got off the bus at the station as normal when the bus driver started calling to me. I had no idea what he was saying.

I understand 'What is your name?', 'Where are you from?', 'How old are you?', 'Is is delicious?' in Isaan and Thai, 'Are you hungry?' and other random questions. This however was beyond me.

I heard someone mutter Ban Falang and assumed he must be telling me I should get off and did I know where I was going - maybe so he could hire me a tuk tuk from his brother or something.

I motioned that I would walk and started off without thinking much of it. Suddenly the orange bus pulls up alongside me (it doesn't normally go this way) and the driver motions me to get in the cab.

So I hop in and he chats merrily away and I nod merrily and repeat some of the things he says and point to two cuddly toys and say na rak - cute.

He drives me home but his chatting means he takes no notice of my hand gestures and eventually I hop out a few hundred metres from Ban Falang rather confused with the whole experience. I then spot a huge cow grazing on a leash held by two men at the side of the road.

Later I realise it is a buffalo.

As I arrive at the front door of the house, the bus driver sails past me, waving merrily.

I go to dinner with Pi Mon at the hospital and we catch up on the weekend's events and we chat about the differences between home and here and she tells me about Isaan weddings. She is very sorry that I am to leave at the end of the week and promises to come to dinner with us.

Tae, Pi Mon and I attempt to use the hospital computers for illicit emails but the gods must be watching because every time we log on, they crash and we ave a fun half hour guessing whose internet will turn off someone elses.

On Monday, Pi Mon borrows Tae's motorbike and comes to take me on a tri. It is threatening to thunder but after a while we decide to brave it. Natalie has returned from Laos so the three of us jump on the bike and potter about 15km to the big Buddha.

This is a large golden Buddha on a hill next to the road to Ban Phue and as all the vehicles pass it, they beep there horn and passengers offer a prayer. We park the bike at a peaceful lake and walk to the Buddha.

Before the shrine is a kind of fortune telling exercise. We hold a tube full of sticks and shake until one falls on the ground. The number of the stick corresponds to a card telling your fortune.

Typically I throw am unable to get any out for ages and then six fall at once and I have to repeat it.

Number 56 shows that while things are ok now, I will be very happy in the future. Right now I must be on my own but I will be very lucky in love soon. As Pi Mon put it, great love is 'coming soon'. We think this is very funny and rather accurate. So that's nice.

We go back to Ban Falang and make our way to a noodle stand where we meet Mooy the thai coordinator here - who joins us for lovely noodle soup.

I find a baby cockroach in the toilet at Ban Falang and spray it to within an inch of its life and later fall asleep to the sound of a dragonfly larger than my hand trying to escape the large attic room I sleep in.


should any of you wish to mail me anything (love letters, photos, designer clothes, money...I'll even accept the odd birthday card), I will not be in Namsom after this week.

You can send anything to Pai until beginning of September to:

Charlotte Spratt
Pai postoffice
58130 Maehonsong

But you had better let me know if you have sent anything as it will not be delivered to the dorm. I wait with baited breath...

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Hiking and drinking

Very energetically, Natalie and I went to Wat Phuna lao on Thursday afternoon.

It was a slightly cooler day so we took our chances, bought a picnic of Phad Thai and cycled several kilometres out of Namsom to the temple.

Wat Phuna Lao is set into a small mountain and is as beautiful and ornate as most of the temples in Thailand. However, most do not have 600 very steep steps up the mountainside to a pagoda or shrine at the top.

It was hard work hiking in the early afternoon heat even on a slightly overcast day. Sometimes the steps were so steep we almost had to crawl up them.

But it was worth it for the view at the top. The mountain fell away to reveal the green valley which stretched out to the mountain ranges in the distance. We sat and admired the peace and calm. We were the only ones there and the only sound was the tinkling of the bell on top of the pagoda as it swung in the light breeze.

We ate our phad thai looking out at the view and sat taking in the beautiful surroundings which are seen by so few westerners. It seems crazy so few people venture to the north east when there are dinsoaur remains, cave paintings, national parks and scenery like that before us.

Going down was hard on the legs and but the cycle back was luckily mostly downhill.

That evening we felt justified to go for fried chicken at the market (not an American delicacy but an Isaan one) and to eat the rest of our delicious banana dessert with Pi Mon.

On Friday we came to Nong Khai after school and Natalie went to Laos for the weekend. I was invited bowling in Udon Thani with volunteer Becky, coordinator Nick and their Thai friends A, Moo, Pik and Bird.

We played several games with Becky, Nick and I winning one each and Becky introducing me to the wonder that is the wine cooler. It is basically an alcopop drink but you can buy it in most places. Like a fizzy sweet wine. Much more my kind of thing.

We went for large ice cream sundaes and then headed back to Nong Khai for a night on the tiles. For the first time since I arrived I felt like a proper night out drinking and hit the whiskey and soda with Becky and Nick. We then went with the other volunteers and A and a few others to Bar Nana for a dance.

Later we stayed up chatting to Norbert and Geoffrey, two new volunteers from Holland who seemed like they had known each other their whole lives. They were hilarious and we spent a late night talking about the wonder of the Bar Nana shows.

On Saturday, Becky, Nick and I went for Vietnamese breakfast before spending a lazy day in hammocks and the sunshine and drinking iced coffee.

That night we went for a meal with paid for by Travel to Teach and met some lovely new volunteers and ate great food overlooking the Mekong. We went to a bar and then I showed the new people where they could get milkshakes and bubble tea sat on mats on the outskirts of Nong Khai by the Mekong.

I was persuaded to go to Bar Nana again but could barely keep my eyes open. It must be the heat which is killing my stamina...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Sunsets and smiles

The past few days have passed by in a blur of colour.

On Monday night we slept at Jeab's home on the outskirts of Namsom - almost a little village of its own.

We cycled out after nightfall - a scary experience with no headlights on our bicycles to see potholes and dogs jumping out from the bushes.

Her parents home is very simple - a wooden room atop a breeze block ground floor. They seem to live in the one downstairs room.

There are the kind of shutters as the front door that you might find on a shop front, a concrete floor covered in places by rattan mats and motorbikes inside the front door.

There are old-fashioned wardrobes with glass fronts filled with Isaan pillows and adorned with photgraphs of Jeab, her sister, brother and parents, certificates and kitsch pictures.

A large squishy chair with no springs and a torn imitation leather sofa are infront of a cabinet with a TV, brand new DVD player and old fashioned hi-fi system.

Behind the TV unit is a large mosqutio net that covers Jeab's the beds. A wardrobe to the left of the net marks the sleeping area from the kitchen part. There is no table and no kitchen chairs. They eat on a mat on the floor.

The bathroom is an adjoining outhouse with green water in a stone container for the shower. There is no sink.

It is simple. The walls are not plastered. Sticky rice is rolled on the floor.

Natalie and I watch a hilarious Isaan film about a village girl from the north east who goes to Bangkok to fulfill her dream of becoming a factory girl but ends up working as a maid for a rich lady. She speaks in Isaan language so there were subtitles in Thai and English. She is very torublesome so the slapstick film was great fun - a lot of bungled kidnap attempts by beauty queens and gay men, who they thought wanted to rape them. The subtitle acutally had the line 'We simply abhor women!'. Brilliant.

After a poor night's sleep (we had no mosquito net and I kept imagining spiders, grasshopers, scorpions... jumping on me off the floor or creeping in under the shutters) we were awoken by Jeab's scary grandmother at 5.45am.

This large Thai lady was peering at Natalie, much to her surprise. I couldn't quite grasp what she wanted at that time of morning. Or night as it felt.

Jeab was making sticky rice for the monks. It was a special Buddhist day and we were to give food to the saffron-robed monks.

We had bought flowers and bags of curry and added these to a plate of sticky rice and waited at the side of the road as the monks approached.

We had to take off our shoes, kneel with the bowls in prayer and then stand and put a little rice in each bowl and give the curry to one monk and flowers to another. I was rather eager at first and ran out by the time the smaller monks came by.

By this time it was only 7am and gloriously sunny in a way that makes you feel superior to be up earlier than normal.

Jeab bought sticks of liver and chicken and we took these back to her home to eat with sticky rice - something us Brits and Americans were not used to so early.

We cycled back to Ban Falang and sat on the balcony until it was time for school.

Later, I read on the balcony as the sun set in the most stunning oranges and pinks, getting deeper and more beautiful as it fell darker. It had a strangely calming effect - as if nature was saying things would be fine - tomorrow, the day after, and in the future. It was a serene moment and I felt some of the Buddist philosophies and the ways of Thai people were sinking in.

They believe that if you want to feel happy, you should believe that you are. They think the mind can heal. One of their favourite phrases is mai pen lai - it doesn't matter, don't worry, it's fine, you're welcome. Another is sanook - fun.

They believe you should enjoy the moment that you are in and not continously look to the future for enjoyment or fulfillment.

Contentment is possible to find from yourself and should not be gained by material things or other people. Of course, this does not stop them wanting American clothes and large 4x4 vehicles - the prized possesion of Thai people.

Last night we had a Thai cooking lesson. We cooked a kind of fish soup which we ate with red curry bought at the market. We also made a delicious and very simple banana dessert. It consists of boiled (!) bananas, sugar, coconut milk and condensed milk. And it is stunning.

Things at school are going well. I find lessons easier to plan although the teacher, Pi Nang, wants me to use a textrbook that teaches them things such as asking to find a payphone when they can hardly say, My name is...

Today, she told me I was a good teacher. However, I feel a little guilty. I have confirmed that I am to go to Pai on August 18, so I will leave the quiet and peaceful Namsom next week to take a week in Laos. Travelling through the north of the country will bring me to North Thailand and then I will travel to Pai, near the border of Myanmar (Burma).

She doesn't want me to go and would like me to help with an English seminar later this month. She also wants me to take trips with her family and go to dinner with them and I feel terrible that she has been so kind to me.

However much I love this place, I am itching for more to do at weekends and in the afternoons. Around Pai are beautiful waterfalls, hot springs and plenty of Thai nightlife. There is also trekking and Chiang Mai (the main town in the north) close by.

Today the children went to the temple to learn about traffic safety with the police. Anticipating a lie-in, Natalie and I planned to climb to the top of a mountain where there is a pagoda and views across the valley.

However, Pi Nang arrived and invited me to join the seminar. The children were sat very properly in a hall at the temple that was open on all sides. Tree trunks (possibly imitation or covered in some preservative) held up the roof and at one end was a Buddhist shrine. It was not a particulary beautiful temple to my disappointment.

But the teachers were kind and police were delighted I had come. One sat down to practice his limited English and insisted on calling me darling. He took photos of me on his camera phone and then showed me photos of his daughters and wife, making very sure that my prouncement was correct.

I chose not to tell him churlay was not my name but charlie - it seemed rude to correct him. Another thing different in our cultures.

I kept getting into a tizzy about whether I could cross my legs, as I do by habit. Pointing your feet at people is considered very rude and touching something or someone with your foot is a cardinal sin.

I wondered if pointing them at one of the tree-trunk pillars was fine or if it was not proper to display them at all - and I had painted my toenails such a pretty colour too.