03 March 2008

missing in asia?

Oh dear, where have I been?

Pedalling out of Vang Vieng - bratpacker capital of Laos - past rice paddies and limestone karsts, receiving high fives in the saddle from little girls as I go. Scrambling round caves with glittery stalactites. All with lame back (cares to the wind, etc) which has finally stopped giving me grief.

Inadvertently gatecrashing a Laotian couple's valentine's dinner... at a bustling restaurant I spy what appears to be a communal table where people are waiting for it to be cleared. I wait too. The tables are cleared, separated, and there are two couples, two tables... and me! I share a table with the gracious Seng and Vern (who look about 12 years old but are, in fact, married with a six and seven year old!).

Bumping along potholes where roads should be, in sawngthaew (literally, 'two rows', in the back of a small truck). Trips are invariably long, hot, dusty and shared with whole communities, bags of rice and fresh produce, including live fish flapping in plastic bags. Eating en route is a prerequisite: street vendors shove bunches of radishes inside the truck anytime it slows and serve full-bowl meals during short river-crossings by barge. Old ladies chew betel and small boys pee on your leg (who needs nappies when your floor is dirt?) while the whole truck talks about the 'falang' (you) in Lao/Khmer, with much giggling. Still, this is first class compared with travel by motorbike, where whole families with sleeping babies, pigs, bookshelves and birdcages squeeze aboard.

Adventuring 'in the sticks' in southern Laos. After visiting the country's most significant ruins, a Canadian traveller and I baulked at a $10, one-hour return trip by chartered sawngthaew (a case of becoming accustomed to the local economy, the trip out there costing $1.50) and hoofed it before eventually flagging a lift in the back of a ute with some Chinese tourists - gratis. Ha!

Making my own (faltering) way off the beaten track... the Bolaven Plateau where I found my own private waterfalls and swimming holes replete with bamboo raft. There, after finally finding the only guesthouse in town, I drank beers with 'Bang', a teacher on the plateau (the only English speaker in town?) and a couple of Spanish blokes. After sharing his frustration at kids' lack of literacy/attendance at school etc, Bang gratefully received the books I bought in Luang Prabang for just this moment.

Hammock swinging in 'Four Thousand Islands' in the south of Laos with the emerald Mekong at my bungalow door. Bouncing along shady dirt paths by bike, dodging chickens, pigs and tail-less cats to gush over South East Asia's largest waterfalls before taking a quick dip at a river beach. Kayaking through the islands with a bunch of Spanish travellers. Sampling the national pride (BeerLao) as the sun sets over rice paddies where water buffalo graze.

Marvelling at crumbly Khmer ruins flanked with frangipani while propping the Cambodian economy with rampant spending after the glory days of low-cost Laos. Thankfully, options for 'conscientious' spending abound; I've directed my riel to support landmine victims, former street kids and people with a disability to support themselves. Also visited a wildlife conservation centre where I met the cutest ever baby leopards.

Continuing the food tour... organic mulberry pancakes with honey, butter and fresh lime; MYO spring rolls w loadsa herbs and dipping sauces; double espressos (AM) and BeerLao (PM); lychees, pineapple, mango, rambutan, dragonfruit etc; amok (steamed fish w lemongrass and coconut in a banana leaf); banana flower salad; pork, pineapple and coconut curry soup... too many temptations, too few mealtimes!

Ah, and Vietnam awaits. Bring on the nem (spring rolls)!

PS: have finally started downloading photos - to DVD, but of course can't find an internet cafe with a DVD reader I can use, so the wait for pictorial evidence that I've actually left Australia continues!