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Laura's Travelling Through It

My better late than never gap year

Why Travelling Through It?

The thought started forming in October and it didn’t end. I couldn’t escape it and it seems that things were aligning to make it happen.

Some dramatic life events happened in 2016 – some good, some great, and some the absolute worst. When my apartment was put up for sale then sold, I had no choice but to move out. So instead of looking for a new place, I followed through on my decision to go travelling.

My news was met with mixed reactions, most of them as I’d expected. When telling mum and dad, the obvious parental concerns came out: Where will you go? Is it safe? What about your house deposit? Friends were supportive and excited for me. Work colleagues were excited yet disappointed I’d be leaving them after such a short time.

At that stage, I wasn’t too sure about the exact where or when, but I knew I had to do it. As my sister pointed out, I will always have the opportunity to save money again, but I won’t have the opportunity to travel with no responsibilities again.

So the next few months passed, and here I am. Sitting in a hotel in Bangkok with the next 20 days planned and then nothing. I’m telling myself that I’ll be away for three months but I’m not sure. It’s a start. I’ve tried not to give myself any expectations or commit myself to anything except letting me be me.

In life we have many regrets, but travelling isn’t one of them. After a tumultuous 2016, I’m ready for a more relaxed and rewarding 2017. That’s how I’ve come to be Travelling Through It.

 

 

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First Impressions of Myanmar

The high praise and recommendations for Myanmar better not have ruined my experience. I’ve mentioned before how little I’ve known about the places I’m visiting, that I like to figure things out as I go along and go with an open and empty mind (within reason!).

Myanmar was not on my list when I left home, it hadn’t been considered. I didn’t know much about the country, hadn’t met anyone who had been and it just wasn’t on the radar. I think I also thought that it was still a no-go country and there simply wouldn’t be the possibility of going.

I realise that is not the case, the country has been working hard over the past few years to open up to foreigners and try and make good in the world again. I don’t know much of the history here, perhaps I never will. There are still vast areas that are completely off-limits to foreigners and I feel that even just wondering the streets of Yangon that there are still many secrets that will never be revealed.

Aside from all of that, I’ve come here because of the recommendation of people I’ve met on my travels. So many people have said that Myanmar has been their favourite country in South East Asia; that the people and culture are unlike anywhere else and you must absolutely go. I saw pictures of the fields and fields of temples in Bagan, golden pagodas and fishermen on lakes and I got caught up. This is a place I had to to visit.

I’ll be honest – I have only been here three nights, but the hype has yet to be lived up to. Yangon is the commercial capital of the country, and quite frankly, it’s a dirty, messy city. Traffic is chaotic and the footpaths are scrambled and falling apart. The buildings are a complete hodgepodge of old mixed with new, with wires hanging around all over the place. Satellite dishes hang from apartments, big spots of blue interrupting the grey and rusty colours of the concrete buildings, with yellowing air conditioning boxes filling in the other gaps. It does not look attractive.

There are some beautiful buildings – you can see they once were stunning with British facades and large columns – but they are in a massive state of disrepair. But the majority are just big, stark concrete buildings without character. At least the streets here make sense, they are in a grid like system (thank you!!!) so it is easy to walk around down town and find your way. Most of the lanes of traffic are one way, however that doesn’t stop the impatient drivers tooting their horns at other drivers, at pedestrians and anyone or anything else that gets in their way.

My hostel is on a main street in downtown and all day you hear the cars and buses rumble past – mainly the horns blaring and men yelling out of the buses announcing the route and stops. It does stop at 10pm, so getting to sleep is not a problem, but during they day – I may as well be back in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City!

It is also rainy season here. I’ve been a believer in not letting the weather disrupt your travel plans – we live on a planet that experiences all types of weather of which all are important for the planet. Some areas experience extreme weather, and others don’t. SE Asia gets extreme rain from May to October. It happens and it allows the land to regrow and refresh. Local people deal with this year in, year out. Why should us travellers allow a little rain to prevent us from visiting an area?

Yangon Buildings

I’m not going to say I regret coming here, as I absolutely do not. I’m not going to wish the rain disappeared, but I do wish it would back off a bit. There have been a few dry spells throughout the days, but the sun hasn’t come out. The city is covered in a grey haze, with the sky completely overcast by low rainclouds. I’m sure with a blue sky and bright sun the city could be much more attractive.

So, my initial response to Myanmar was a mix of awe and fascination with a big side serving of disappointment. My flight from Bangkok was uneventful and pleasant, the flight wasn’t full and there was a spare seat next to me. Immigration was quick and simple – we all fought for a space at the small writing counters to complete our customs and arrivals cards – then straight to an immigration officer to present my passport, visa and documents. I was stamped into Myanmar with a slight nod and sent on my way. Had the officer not chatted to the security guard a little way off, I’d have been done much quicker.

I took the opportunity while waiting for my bag to use the ATM and withdraw some cash, hoping that 300,000MMK (Burmese Kyat) would be sufficient for now – at just under $300AUD I should be fine for 10 days… hopefully! Then my bag arrived, I didn’t have to fight crowds to get to the luggage belt and I was on my way. I handed my customs card to the guard by the green nothing-to-declare line and exited arrivals.

There were a number of people waiting and I found my name on a piece of paper, having arranged an arrival transfer with my hostel. He was a lovely older gentleman wearing a white business shirt and longyi – a sarong worn by men tied with a large knot at the front. Many of the men were wearing these and I tried not to be too obvious at looking at them all. I was thankful I had covered my shoulders, but was aware of my skirt barely skimming my knees.

The drive into town took over an hour – it was only 20kilometres away. The traffic was ridiculous with cars pushing in front of each other and seemingly making up their own road rules. We seemed to be stuck at an intersection for an exceptionally long period of time – as we passed through, I noticed some local men waving their hands about – acting as traffic controllers as the lights were not working. This was going to be an interesting journey.

As we got closer to town, I people-watched. The women were wearing beautiful brightly coloured skirts down to their ankles with matching tops, their dark hair flowing; the look of elegance. Many had what looked like dried mud on their faces, yellow circles on their cheeks, lines on their noses and foreheads. I’ve since learnt this acts as a protector against the sun and also is a type of make up – it makes you look more beautiful I was informed.

On arrival at my hostel, I was greeted warmly by Suu and checked in with no issue. I was shown to my dorm room – a four-bed room where I was the only occupant. The room had the smell of fresh paint and was clean. Oh so clean! I was told that another girl might check in later that night.

Whilst the city is wet and unattractive, the people are anything but. They are friendly and kind and full of smiles. I’m trying to smile as much as possible, build a small connection with people as I walk by and nowhere have the smiles been returned like they have been here. People talking to each other, on the phone or sitting at their stalls – they all smile back at me. Their eyes crinkle and their cheeks spread. Thailand is known as the land of smiles, but I think Myanmar may soon take that over.

Whilst I have not warmed to Yangon as a city, I have warmed to the people, the culture. Ugly buildings in disrepair and dirty footpaths covered in cracks and holes do not make a country’s essence. The people do. And so far, the people of Myanmar have not failed.

My first impressions are just that – my first impressions. As much as I’ve listened to everyone’s impressions – which are yet to be lived up to – I do still have many blank holes to fill on my own. There is plenty more to see and do in this country. I’ve only been here three nights and am moving on tomorrow night, there are plenty more impressions to be made.

Please Don’t Rush Laos

I’ve left Laos.

I still had another week on my visa, but the time came. It was time for me to leave. It’s now the day after and I’m really not sure if I was actually ready to go. The country changed me. It had a power that I didn’t think existed and I fell prey to it.

My Facebook memories this week have shown me that eight years ago I was leaving for my first trip to Malaysia, six years ago I was in Spain and three years ago I was once again in Europe. In one of my posts, I commented on the surprising change in scenery between Germany and Austria. I’m glad I saw them before experiencing Laos – looking back, I imagine I would have only been disappointed.

I’ve been away for almost four months now and this is the first I’ve felt like this. I can’t even describe it – I’m a ball of emotions and they aren’t sure how to respond with each other.

I very nearly cried on Thursday – sitting in the car after leaving a waterfall, I felt myself get overcome with emotion. It was more than feeling surreal, it was more than joy and happiness, it was more than anything I’d felt before. But it was there and it was about to pour out of me.

I whipped out my phone and started making notes, I commented on the scenery, specifically the colours; the lush green, the white clouds, the dusty red roadsides and the blue sky. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen anything like it. How could I possibly be here with all of these colours, using and truly meaning the word ‘lush’? The scenery was stunning and it was making me emotional.

Lush is the perfect word for Laos. I’ve done a fair amount of travel over the past 15 years and have honestly loved each of my trips – I’ve got an immense soft spot for Japan being my first trip and my only time working overseas. I’ve got another soft spot for Peru with the culture, the history and again the scenery. But I oddly feel that neither really compares with Laos.

I wrote a status update on Facebook about me leaving Laos and I commented that I was a changed person, that I’d learnt so much – about the country, about travel, about myself. All of this is true, yet it doesn’t seem enough. These words don’t truly capture what Laos has risen in me. What is still trying to claw its way to my consciousness.

It was time to leave, there are new places to explore and people to meet, food to eat. But as I was driven to the bus stop, I couldn’t help but keep looking out the window and wondering what else I should have done, where else I should have gone. What else?

I was the only western person on my bus and I was seated in the back row, right by the toilet. I wasn’t able to fully recline my seat as there were people sitting on the floor behind me. It should not have been a comfortable journey, yet I appreciated it for what it was. It was a $36AUD ride from Pakse to Bangkok – over 700 kilometres in distance. Who was I to complain about not being able to recline my chair? I had a chair and I had leg space.

No English was spoken on this bus – I don’t think I even recognised a sabaidee or kopchai. The Lao was quick and quiet and it was not intended for me. Yet without understanding a single word and feeling quite out of my depth on an international journey, I was calm and relaxed, albeit a little sad and quite pensive.

The ride to the border only took about an hour, I hadn’t realised how close to Thailand I actually was. I followed the crowd to the immigration for departures and paid my 10,000 kip then walked into Thailand. I was provided with an entry and departure card, which I completed and handed to an immigration official. I was stamped into Thailand and left the building.

There was no fuss or fanfare but as soon as I stepped outside, it was different. The air felt thicker, the people looked different, the atmosphere had changed. The market stalls were definitely Thai, there were banks and ATMs lined up and of course, a big 7/11. It was so typically Thai and so un-Lao – there was no mistaking that I was back in the land of smiles.

I wasn’t sure that I liked it.

I did duck into 7/11 – it’s the number on place to go for a refreshing hit of air conditioning and a cheap snack. I however felt a little like I was betraying Laos. My first purchase outside the country was to a massive commercial enterprise – a commercial enterprise I can and do encounter back home.

I’m still trying to work out what Laos did to me and why I’m feeling this way. Perhaps I’ll never know and I should just appreciate the feelings it brought out in me, the subtle changes it influenced. A part of me stayed in Laos, yet I took a big part with me. Laos has helped me appreciate travel, the world, history and myself.

I commented on Facebook that I was a changed person. I am. Laos makes you appreciate life and all it has to offer. Laos – Please Don’t Rush.

 

COPEing with Challenges

Today was a hard day. It started off with my having to farewell yet more friends and face the prospect of a night bus on my own. I posted a picture with the girls and hash-tagged ‘challenge’ in it.

There is no challenge with saying a temporary farewell to friends (yes Mog and Bog – it is a temporary farewell!). There is however a challenge in losing a limb, in being injured by an Unexploded Ordinance (UXO). There is a challenge in not knowing that help is available and therefore spending two years of your life crying on the floor, giving up on school and life.

Today I visited the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitors Centre in Vientiane. COPE is a wonderful organisation that are working with international experts to train and educate local people on how to deal with loss of limbs, rehabilitate and educate, and provide support to those affected.

I visited the UXO Centre in Luang Prabang, and whilst the information was well presented, it was also quite clinical. There were lots of stats and information about the bombs dropped on Laos throughout the Vietnam War, yet apart from a short documentary, there was nothing else personal. I am exceptionally glad that I visited – even prouder knowing that as an Australian, my government has provided much needed funding to this great cause. After having travelled through Vietnam and Cambodia, I gained quite the insight into their histories and was curious to learn more about Laos.

Laos really is an unknown frontier. I’ve mentioned before how little I knew about what I was visiting on arrival and how I’ve been happily surprised by everything. When I visited a sweet café in Luang Prabang, I asked if there had been a war in Laos, if there had been a strong conflict here, similar to that in Cambodia or Vietnam. She said there had been small tribal conflicts, but nothing to the extent of other countries nearby.

What I have found out is that bombs decimated Laos. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world. Over two million tonnes of ordnance were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This equates to a bombing every eight minutes for nine years. Every eight minutes a bomb was dropped over Laos. For a war they were not involved with.

The USA bombed Laos during the Vietnam War to cut off the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ – the route being used for travel between the North and South. There seemed to be little to no consideration for the local people and the thousands of civilian lives lost. Of the 270 million ‘bombies’ dropped, it can be estimated that 30% of them didn’t explode – leaving anywhere up to 80 million left in the ground.

80 million unexploded bombs, waiting for children to find and play with, waiting for farmers to unearth when ploughing their fields, waiting for innocent bystanders to step on. The results are devastating. Children don’t recognise these ball type objects, so pick them up to play with. Teenagers get metal detectors to look for them and hope to make money selling them for scrap metal. If lucky, when the bombs explode, they’ll only lose an eye or an arm, or end up filled with shrapnel. The unlucky ones will die, and die painfully.

COPE is there to help these victims and the visitor centre has a short film on the story of 9-year-old Hamm. Hamm was playing with two school friends and following some ‘big people’ around who were looking for scrap metal. The big people recognised the bombs, so placed them in a pile to the side. The kids didn’t know why they were put aside. They picked two up, and Hamm’s friends banged them together. The result was instantaneous. The two boys died immediately. Hamm was injured, but survived.

Local villagers heard the explosion and went rushing for Hamm’s parents. They managed to get a truck to take Hamm to their local hospital. They were told that there was no blood or oxygen; Hamm couldn’t be treated. They made the journey to the next hospital – being bigger, they hoped for a better response. They didn’t get it. Again, no blood or oxygen. Hamm’s ‘guts were hanging out his side’.

The bigger hospital was too far away and the truck driver didn’t want Hamm to die in his truck. His mother and father were forced to make a decision. It was better for him to die at home. They got home and Hamm was thirsty, he asked for water. His mother told him they had none. He then passed away. Hamm’s mother broke down in the video, as did I. The film cuts to Hamm’s father ‘it was better for him to die at home’.

A nine-year-old boy died from a UXO in 2005 – forty years after the bombing stopped. A nine-year-old boy died because his country was bombed during a war that they had nothing to do with. A nine-year-old boy died because up to 30% of the bombs dropped didn’t explode.

I walked throughout the entire exhibition at the visitor centre with Hamm at the back of my mind. I have an eight-year-old nephew – the thought of him dying because of a bomb from 40 years ago – I can’t even begin to imagine. Yet this is a reality for so many rural villagers in Laos. There are steps being taken to clear farm land of any remaining bombs – it had been initially thought this could take up to 100 years to finalise, however due to a change in technology, it is hoped that the land will be cleared by 2021.

As much as there was a strong focus on the UXOs and the remnants from the war, COPE is helping not just those affected by explosions. Due to illness or accident, many people require replacement or support limbs, and COPE help with all of that. They use recycled materials as much as possible and are making a huge difference to the lives of many. They even provide financial support to those who can’t afford the surgery or rehabilitation – including board and meals for a support family member.

The visitor centre is filled with stories and images of recipients, and the smiles now on their faces, the joy radiating from them as they can now ‘go back to work/school’ and get on with their lives and support their families. It is so refreshing to know that organisations like this exist and are making a real life difference. They are training their staff to up skill and hope to stop relying on international aid and assistance in the future. For a country that is extremely poor and has seemingly little to no medical infrastructure, their accomplishments are outstanding.

Whilst I did cry today with Hamm’s story, and other children’s drawings of blood, body parts and bombs, I am heartened to know that through adversity there is help and support and kindness.

There is so little known about Laos and so much to be discovered. I was told that Vientiane didn’t have much going for it – well clearly those people hadn’t visited COPE or simply don’t know much of the history. Laos has made a huge imprint on my heart and I can’t see me seeing life and simple things in the same way when I get back home.

There is so much more to traveling than seeing a city and posting a picture to social media, than speaking with a few locals, to having drinks on a tube floating down a river. There are lessons to be learned and being thankful and grateful for what you have and who you are. We can all try to be half as helpful as the people of Laos to help those less fortunate than us.

Today did present some challenges, but nothing that I can’t easily overcome.

 

*stats obtained from COPE Visitor Centre, Vientiane, Laos
I urge you to visit them in person, or electronically: http://www.copelaos.org

Tubing and Real Life

It’s time for me to be real. On my flight to Bangkok over three (!!!!!) months ago, I had chatted with the ladies sitting next to me. They mentioned how they were impressed with my quitting my job and leaving my things behind to go and travel for a bit. I admitted I was quite apprehensive about what was to come and how I’d manage. I then mentioned that I would then have to return to the ‘real world’.

‘Don’t say that! This is the real world, this is a real life.’

I had often thought that my going travelling was me running away; escaping from what was an extremely eventful 2016. I didn’t want to be around my ‘real life’, my everyday life and witness others’ happiness while I was stuck in a rut. So, while I did give a hell of a lot of thought and discussions with loved ones and my psychologist before leaving my ‘real life’ behind, I did still think in the back of my head that I was running away. I was simply escaping to come and have a fake life for a while.

Fear of being lonely, of not meeting people, of not enjoying myself or realising it was all a big mistake plagued my mind. I’m a 34-year-old woman who was saving for a house deposit. I had a reasonable job and amazing friends and co-workers. Why the hell give it all up? Shouldn’t I focus on furthering my career, buying a house and make steps to start a family? Shouldn’t I focus entirely on my ‘real life’?

I’ve met some incredible people along my journey, and some of these people know the full story as to why I’m travelling, why 2016 was a complete upheaval and why exactly I needed to get away for awhile. Each and every person I’ve shared with has praised me. I have been told that I am brave, smart, even inspiring. I have not once been told that it wasn’t real.

Each day gets easier, but like real life, each day also presents its own challenges. How is my budget tracking? Where will I sleep tomorrow? When will I go to such and such? Who will I spend the day with? When should I go home?

I needn’t have worried about not meeting people, not connecting. I’ve turned my older age into a fun fact and embrace it. Everything I’m doing is real – 100% real.

I did however slip up this past week. For those who don’t know, Vang Vieng in Laos is considered a party town – a rather epic party town. So much so, that other towns in Laos use Vang Vieng as an example of what they don’t want to turn into. When tourists started coming here, they built bars and restaurants and guesthouses and gave the tourists what they wanted, primarily cheap drinks and accommodation. They built ugly buildings on every street corner and offered ridiculous happy hours – free beer or whiskey. You can get extremely drunk in Vang Vieng without paying a single kip.

There is next to nothing to do during the daytime in the town except find a bar or restaurant with ceiling fans playing old Friends DVDs. The scenery here is gorgeous, but in this weather, it is too damn hot to go and enjoy it. So, you watch Friends, go to one of the blue lagoons – number three is apparently the best – or you go ‘tubing’: float along a river in an inner tube and go from bar to bar. You drink silly amounts of beer or free-pour liquor and jump into the river, play volleyball or dance on make shift rickety dance floors.

I do like to party and have of course had some fun nights out over the past few months – my roommate from my group tour refers to me as ‘drunk Laura’ and loves the stories that drunk Laura provides. But Vang Vieng…. Well, it has beaten me. The party scene is intense and you cannot escape. And without knowing it, I needed to escape my real life for a bit, go a little crazy and forget about all the little challenges that travelling can present.

So, when the sun goes down, you go to the bars, as it’s now somewhat bearable to be outside and away from water and you get drunk. And because it’s free, you drink and drink and drink. Then when you think you shouldn’t drink anymore, you realise that happy hour ends in a couple of minutes, so you get another drink.

I guess the consolation with all the drinking is that I also dance, so whilst not helpful to my liver, my calorie input versus output should be fairly even…??? My first day I was a little hung over, but made it to breakfast and then went out again when my friends arrived. I will admit that I was happy when I was recognised by the bar staff and fellow patrons on my return. But on the flip side, I was also ashamed that I couldn’t remember all of them in return. So, big hugs returned and smiles granted and we were on our way. We are here to party after all!

Subsequently I missed the next breakfast and was feeling sorry for myself. But I was much better than my friend – 14 years younger than me! I did gloat, quite a bit. I was extremely proud of myself. We did however choose to have a quiet night in. None of us were up for it again, especially as we really wanted to go tubing the next day.

Monday arrives and a group of us go tubing and made the most of it. We chose the ‘red tubes,’ which included a tuk tuk ride to the river and back as well as a guide for the day. We did only stop at two bars and we didn’t have a large group of people, but we got along well and enjoyed ourselves. My only disappointment was that we did only ‘tube’ twice – the feeling of floating along the river in a tube was amazing. Even with the sun beating down, there has been little else as relaxing for me.

Tubing was initially created by a local farmer to get his staff around the farm easier – this of course was then taken on by tourists and turned into the madness that it is now. That being said, prior to April 2012 there were more bars, more tubes and more people – much higher levels of madness than today. Sadly, there were a number of deaths and serious injuries, resulting in the Laos government restricting the numbers and activities. Whilst there didn’t seem to be a big emphasis on safety, I did feel safe at all times and trusted in the local guide and workers to be there should anything have gone wrong.

The overall experience of the tubing was exhilaration. The buzz wasn’t quite the same as going ziplining, but it was something I doubt would happen at home and was exciting. With a waterproof bag around my neck for my cash and phone, I jumped (well, struggled / fell) into my tube and took off. It’s surprisingly hard to guide these things – I did ‘crash’ into a shrub once and went off course another time. Getting the correct arm movements is actually quite a difficult feat. Then we get to the first bar, and I wasn’t close enough, so rather than get onto the platform with everyone else, I floated to the end and had to get the bar lady to grab my foot to pull me in. I am pure elegance!

After a couple of hours, we left for the next bar, and even with a slight buzz (much needed for me to jump off the two-three metre high platform into the river – twice!!!) this time I felt more in control and made it safely and easily to the next bar. We ended up joining forces, holding each other’s hands and feet to stay together.

This next bar was bigger and had a volleyball net, a zipline and a bigger dance floor. I was sensible enough to stay away from the zipline, but others enjoyed it. And I rocked it at the volleyball net and on the dance floor. It was a great afternoon and on our drive back to town, we all took turns singing our national anthems and then joined forces for some good old rock and pop tunes. By far, one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

Of course, after tubing, you need to go out and continue partying. So, out I went for my third night in five nights. That can only end well, can’t it? I do know I had a good time and we all enjoyed ourselves. But that did mean that yesterday was a complete write off for me. Hostels in Vang Vieng are not designed for hangovers. Air conditioning is turned off at 10am and a single ceiling fan is left to cool down a small room with six people in it. You have no choice but to sweat. I guess as dad would say: ‘sweat it out’. If only… the dampness only makes you feel worse. Then comes the realisation that you’ve spent almost a week in the town and all you’ve done is go tubing and party. Real life has been forgotten about for a few days.

Real life in Vang Vieng is quite bizarre, unlike anything I’ve experienced so far. It has gorgeous scenery – the green rice fields, the karsts, and the river – all stunning. But the town – well, it’s not particularly pleasant. I know I am one of ‘them’, but the tourists have ensured that there is no Lao culture here. The locals set up bars and restaurants to feed the drunk tourists, which subsequently led to them watching their traditions die. I have made an effort of saying ‘Sabadee’ to everyone I encounter, whether passing in the street or getting food, and I always received a greeting and smile in return in Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. I rarely get either here in Vang Vieng.

Many travellers say to avoid Vang Vieng at all costs – there isn’t any culture, it’s just a party town and it’s over run by tourists. I do agree with this, but it does open up the question again of what will happen if the tourists stop? At the end of the day, it’s us travellers that need to be accountable for our actions and know when to stop, when to slow down and enjoy life. This may not be what is considered ‘real Laos’, but it is. This is a town in Laos that has created a niche activity in tubing and made it profitable. They’ve created an alternative lifestyle, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is Laos and it is authentic.

Real doesn’t have to be defined as good or bad nor should it dictate what we do, where go or who we see. Real is what we do and experience every day. What we do, see, say and feel is real. We should never dismiss this, even if simply joking about going home to ‘real life’. Travel is real life – it is life that I am living, seeing, talking about and feeling. Whether escaping or not, this is real life and no one can take that away from me.

Views of Vang Vieng

I say this about everywhere I go, but I love Laos. I know I’m optimistic, but I’m also a realist. How can you fall in love with every city, every destination? How can they all have something different to offer? But seriously, I love each place I visit. I may change my mind afterwards (Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh City), but I honestly always really like where I end up.

I was truly surprised with how much I liked – loved – Vietnam. I had no idea it would be as beautiful, the food as delicious, or as friendly as it was. I had no idea that the Cambodian landscape would be so flat, the country so full of culture and all around so damn happy. I didn’t think I’d like Thailand, being that I didn’t like Bangkok on my previous visit, everyone goes there and it’s full of international companies and commercialism, but the north changed my mind. It truly is the land of smiles.

And then Laos… yes, it’s only been nine nights, but wow. There is something about this country. It has an unrivalled chill out feeling to it. I’ve never felt so little pressure or such pure relaxation. And I’ve only had one massage!

Laos is the country I knew least about, and for that I am thankful. Yes, it’s always a good idea to do some sort of research before you go to a place; it’s really important to be aware of local customs and familiar with laws and rules that are different to your usual. But for Laos, my thoughts on here were simply based on word of mouth. I was told to spend two or three nights in Luang Prabang, same in Vang Vieng and max two nights in Vientiane. Well, I spent seven nights in Luang Prabang, have so far booked three nights in Vang Vieng and am likely to extend.

The people of Lao are experts in chilling out. There is no need to rush. Officially Laos is Lao, People’s Democratic Republic. Curious in itself as it is actually a communist country (what?!?!). I read somewhere that the PDR affectionately means ‘please don’t rush’. And apart from our tuk tuk driver to Kuangsi Falls and our minivan driver to Vang Vieng, nothing here is rushed.

You’re given your food when it’s ready, you’re given your bill when it’s ready and you check in and out as it suits. There is no need to rush. You will not miss out on anything.

At lunch today, I took my time. I ordered a sandwich (baguette) with fries and a mango banana smoothie. The smoothie came out within minutes, throwing me by surprise. It took about 15minutes for the sandwich to arrive. Once handed to me, the older lady sat back down in front of the TV and the two younger girls also sat down. After having my head buried in my phone, I looked up and noticed that all three did as well. I sat there for about an hour and all four of us sat on our phones the entire time.

As I got up to pay, the younger girl took my money and cleared my table. The others stayed in their seats, glued to their phones, the TV still crackling in the background.

Laos is something else. The scenery, the people, the weather. South East Asia is full of motorbikes and scooters, tuk tuks and manic drivers. In the rain, Vietnamese riders will wear ponchos: ponchos that cover not only themselves, but their bikes as well. Thailand has plastic lining for tuk tuks so that passengers remain somewhat dry. But Laos – when it rains, they hold umbrellas. Protection from the rain is more important than protection from a potential head injury or gravel rash. Passengers will sit there and hold a large umbrella over themselves and the driver – they stay dry and get to their destination. Back home, bikes will stay at home and cars will be driven instead.

I take so many things for granted back home and don’t take enough time to enjoy the small things. I get frustrated when things may not go the way I’d hoped; when it rains and I have to take an umbrella; when I have to wait for my bill to be prepared so I can pay. These and so many other things that get in the way of me doing stuff and moving on. Here, I relish the time it takes to do things. I can sit and do nothing, I can watch the locals interact; I can try and make sense of the weird soap operas on the TV. I can enjoy the views.

The view from my hostel rooftop here in Vang Vieng is spectacular. I don’t know how anything gets done here – slowly I guess. Rocky carsts covered in lush greenery and high stretching trees rise from the bright green rice paddies. The clouds dance over, in front and behind them. The sun makes an appearance at its leisure. Rain comes and goes and the sky changes colour. How can you not enjoy it, take it all in?

I wonder if I could ever tire of these views, of this relaxed lifestyle? Thank you Laos for everything you are.

Please don’t rush. Appreciate the chilled vibe; be thankful that it takes a few minutes for your bill, for your drink or food. Enjoy the scenery and views.

 

 

 

Loving Luang Prabang

I’m not really sure where to start today. I’ve now been in Laos for a week, and I love it. The atmosphere is quite different to Thailand and Vietnam, yet eerily similar. The local saying of ‘same same but different’ has never made more sense.

Luang Prabang has a night market, selling the usual souvenirs, trinkets and clothing; there is street food available and food markets in the daytime selling fly covered meat and vegetables to local mothers and grandmothers. The streets are also filled with travel agencies, tour companies, money exchange offices and westernised cafes offering coffee and eggs for breakfast. Street corners have tuk tuks waiting in line with drivers yelling to any tourist that passes ‘tuk tuk, waterfall?’ But there are no chains, no 7-11s, no Maccas, no Burger Kings. Nothing internationally commercial – everything is local and one off.

Traffic is quite light here with just the one main road through town. As light as traffic may be, cars, motorbikes and tuk tuks still drive however and wherever they wish, with the right hand side seemingly just a guide here. Unlike Vietnam, there are footpaths here for pedestrians to walk on, yet most seem to favour the roads and traffic doesn’t seem to mind. There is an odd patience of the drivers, simply waiting for space to go around when the road narrows.

Whilst it wasn’t particularly hectic in Chiang Mai – certainly not at all in comparison to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City – there was still a lack of patience and craziness of the traffic. Since arriving in Laos, I don’t think I’ve heard a single car horn beep apart from when our tuk tuk approached a blind corner and warned of his arrival. I like it.

The boat journey here was long, yet peaceful. My time in Luang Prabang has also been long, yet peaceful. I initially booked my hostel for four nights, then added two, then one more. I’ve got time on my side and since I’m not putting any pressure on myself, why not stay a little longer?

I’ve been to Kuangsi Waterfalls, I’ve kayaked along a Mekong River tributary, along the Mekong River itself and I’ve visited local cafes and temples. I went to a museum today, dedicated to teaching locals and visitors about the impact of the Indochina 2 War – the Vietnam War.

Whilst not directly involved in the conflict, due to its location, the Americans and North Vietnamese used Laos as a path to get into the south – causing devastation along the way. Millions of bombs were dropped in the countryside and approximately 300 people die from unexploded devices each year. Coming into South East Asia, I knew of the Vietnam War, knew of the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime throughout Cambodia, I knew of the Death Railway and Japanese infiltration in WWII, yet knew nothing of the aftermath or affects in Laos.

So many people consider SE Asia to simply be a cheap place to visit, buy cheap drinks, cheap street food, and cheap souvenirs and take for granted the lush countryside and beautiful beaches. What they don’t realise is how rich in history this area is, what they have been through – at the hands of others. How they have recovered from this and welcome and embrace external cultures and smile at every tourist that walks by. Bargaining may be a fun activity for tourists to partake in, but this is a constant way of life for these people. While we move on after a day or two, they do the same day after day, night after night.

What I have appreciated is that there has been strong Australian government support provided. The signage at the waterfalls were graphic designed by the University of Sunshine Coast, the bear rescue centre was partially funded by the Australian government, and along with Unicef, the Australian government also helped set up the UXO (unexploded ordinance) museum. I am already very proud to be Australian, yet this makes me prouder.

I feel conflicted at times as to whether the tourist dollar and tourism culture is a good thing for the region. Without the tourists, would the locals have money to survive? But without the tourists, they wouldn’t need the high levels of infrastructure and costly food and sleeping items. Without tourists, they would live in quiet, history-ridden streets and continue with their customs.

What I do know is that I’m taking the time to learn and observe. I may not be immersing myself in the culture, but it’s not my culture – I don’t want to offend. I want to witness the locals being themselves and I want to appreciate what they have been through, what they are going through and what they will continue to go through.

I can’t read the language here – it’s similar to Thai and I have no clue what any character means or reads. I have however picked up two words: ‘sabaidee’ (hello) and ‘khop chai’ (thank you). Each time I use them, they are met with smiles and acknowledgment. The small things do go a long way. A sabaidee can turn a person’s face around; it can light up and change the vibe of where you are. It shows them that you appreciate them and their culture. I am here for their culture; I am not here for mine or to force mine on them.

After only a week in Laos, I’m truly feeling the peace. The country is poor – immensely poor – yet the people are rich. They are friendly, helpful and kind. This is a community-based country and market stalls don’t compete with each other. They swap stories, money and tourists. They care for each other’s stalls and share child minding responsibilities. Young kids sleep at the stalls, older kids sell at the stalls. Community and family working and living together. There’s nothing poor about that, only peace and love.

Tomorrow I am off to Vang Vieng; the once tubing tourist mecca: alcohol, drugs and adventure activities combined. Luang Prabang has an 11.30pm curfew, monks collecting alms at sunrise and market stalls. Possibly same same, but most surely will be very different.

Mekong Reflections

So for about the past five hours, I’ve been floating along the Mekong River. We’re supposed to ‘land’ in about an hour and a half in Pakbeng, find somewhere to sleep for the night and then come back for another day along the river tomorrow.

It’s been okay… not too sure what I was expecting. The boat is bigger than I thought and more comfortable. While eating breakfast this morning, our host gave us information about the day’s proceedings and what to do, where to go. He told us that the boat was a 100-seater, but our group was only 21 – it was low season. Before Songkran, the group sizes were usually about 60+. He led us to believe that we’d be the only ones on the boat. This of course makes no sense – the boat is full – full of other groups, of locals, of other travellers. They wouldn’t send a quarter full boat down the river. But we were told that the boats have improved over the past couple of years. Instead of having wooden benches, resembling church pews, they are now car seats.

Yes, we are sitting on seats removed from vans – nailed to wooden posts, but not nailed into the flooring of the boat. Some recline, some don’t. Some are in sets of two or three, some recline individually, others recline in pairs, and others don’t recline at all.

Some reading I’d done had said to get to the boat early to get a ‘better’ seat – we were all assigned seats and my ticket has ‘60’ on it. Thankfully, it’s an aisle seat, located in the rear of the middle section. All seats are forward facing, though as they aren’t nailed down, all could easily be moved around. I wonder what it would actually look like if it were high season! And how the numbering would have been had they still been wooden benches.

The weather has cooled down today. My room last night only had a ceiling fan, and my two roommates were in there first, so claimed the beds under the fan. I’m so glad that it did cool down – so the only things keeping me awake last night were my wondering mind and the loud, annoying crowing of the rooster outside.

Even with the crowing, I missed out on sunrise this morning – I set my alarm for 5.20am after Google informed me that the sunrise was 5.44am. I did a snooze, then perhaps another snooze, thinking I’d have some time. But no – as I emerged upstairs, it was completely light. I’ve told myself that as it was quite cloudy I may not have seen much anyway – the landscape looked much the same as the night before. Perhaps I’ll try tomorrow, but no pressure.

After we’d crossed the border and were outside and officially in Laos, the air had thickened, the humidity had increased and I wasn’t sure what I’d got myself in for. Thankfully, it has been quite cool with a strong breeze coming through the open plan boat and the sun hidden behind the clouds all day. We’ll see how this continues – the weather forecast for Luang Prabang is storms today and tomorrow and clouds for the weekend, but still low to mid thirties.

I tried to have a little nap earlier – I’d just finished a book and decided to tuck my head down. As much as the girls I’d been sitting next to have gathered at the front of the boat to drink and play cards had allowed me a full row, I couldn’t get into the groove and wasn’t able to get at all comfortable. I opened my eyes and allowed myself to relish the surreal-ness of the moment.

I’m currently in Laos, in a slow boat, travelling along the Mekong River – one of the longest rivers in the world. I’m in a brand new country and am surrounded by hills covered in jungle – startlingly green, leafy trees and grassy roots covering the ground. It certainly is an experience. It does remind me a little of the Amazon, yet much less wildlife. I wonder that is hiding within those tree branches and leafy roots?

The boat is long with quite a high ceiling – it’s quite steady and comfortable to walk around. There’s a small concession stand at the back, with a further back area for the smokers and presumably locals to hang their washing. The toilet on board of course leaves a little to be desired, but at least there is a toilet. That being said, there is no way I’d touch it with my bare skin, so it may as well be a squat or hole. And of course it doesn’t flush, so you need to plop a bucket of water in there. But hey, we’re in Laos, floating along the Mekong River.

We’ve had two brief stops along the way – the first had a policeman there which garnered some attention and curiosity from us foreigners, but the locals and staff seemed to joke with him and then some packages were placed on board. Perhaps rice or other food items – they appeared to be hessian bags. Perhaps some locals got on board, or got off. This is so far a great view into the Laotian way of life. Things are simpler; houses are barely wooden huts, perched on stilts, buried within the trees. There are a couple of houses with iron rooves, but most are thatched. So far I haven’t seen any satellites – quite the difference from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Perhaps priorities are different here.

The border crossing was interesting. We were sitting in limbo for over half an hour. We were taken by truck to the Thai border, stamped out of the country and left to wait for the shuttle to take us to the Laos border. On arrival, we were provided with paperwork for our visa on arrival. I’d already completed mine due to the pre-planning with my Vietnamese tour guide. So, I handed it in with my passport photo and $30USD. Being an Australian is great here – UK and US passport holders have to pay $35USD and Canadians are required to pay $42USD. I won’t question, I’m just happy to finally be out in front!

Of the 21 of us from the guesthouse, I’m the only Australian – the majority seem to be from the UK or Canada. I’m hearing stories of people meeting other Australians, yet I’ve not met many at all. I heard quite a few Aussie accents in the streets of Chiang Mai, however never specifically met any.

So, money and passport handed over, I walked to the second window and waited for my name to be called with visa provided. I was nervous letting my passport out of my sight and also having given over $50USD – we’d been warned that change may not be provided unless pushed for, I’d also read to ensure that my passport was stamped with 30 days and not just 15. I needn’t have worried – I was given a receipt for my visa payment, $20USD change and the full visa validity. The visa was even a proper visa sticker with details printed on it. All quite professional, even if the immigration workers were paying more attention to their phones than the foreigners waiting.

For the most part, it’s all been quite straightforward. There was confusion as we left the immigration and entered Laos – we were expecting a short woman, however an average height man gathered us all into a truck / bus and took us to the pier. We were all encouraged to buy food at the café stop and told that there wouldn’t be food on the boat. We’d been previously informed that there is food on the boat, but pricey due to no competition. Any chance for the locals to make a few extra dollars. Many went up the street to stock up on drinks; I elected to enjoy some peaceful standing while I had the chance.

I’m not sure how I’ll go meeting people here. Many are enjoying themselves with beer and local whiskey, content with turning this into a booze cruise. I get that – but perhaps this comes with an average of 10 years age over them all – but this is quite possibly a once in a lifetime experience. Two days on a slow boat in Laos along the Mekong River. Surely it’s best to be sober and remember the experience for the sites, the locals, and the people? The genuine look into their way of life rather than the taste of beer and whiskey?

Again, likely due to being a little bit older, but I don’t know… who’s to say I wouldn’t have been up there joining them 10 years ago? So long as they’re enjoying themselves.

We’re pulling into another stop now – kids and adults are all watching from above, peering over their fences, from their homes or simply from a small field. The boat staff are hovering on the front with bamboo sticks ready to help dock the boat, then push us off again. A young girl runs down the hill to help someone carry up a loaded bag – it’s a real community effort. As well as being a means for transportation, the slow boat is also a method of communication and delivery. Everything is used here for multiple purposes.

We may cringe at the amount of plastic and rubbish that lines the streets and many riverbanks, keep the numerous convenience stores in business, but everyone does what they need to survive. There are many places that use glass coke bottles – they are genuinely reused and recycled. And a tourist boat isn’t just a tourist boat – it’s used for deliveries as well. There is so much more to the eye than what you initially see or think when you travel throughout South East Asia.

The sky is clearing a little now – there are more blue patches than there are clouds. Perhaps a sign for things to come?

Right now, I’m floating along the Mekong River on a slow boat. Life sure does seem pretty relaxed right about now.

Writer’s Block

So I’ve been a bit silent lately. It’s been hard to find the time to sit down and write. Actually, let me rephrase that. It’s hard to get myself motivated to sit down and write.

It’s not like I’ve been super busy doing things all the time, trying something new and going somewhere everyday. It’s almost been the opposite. I found myself extremely comfortable and felt like I was at home at my hostel in Chiang Mai, so I acted as if I were at home. And at home I rarely wrote.

So on my travels, I’ve been sitting down, opening word, have my hands hovering over the keyboard and want to write, but words elude me and I end up reading my newsfeed over and over again on Facebook. I soon get sick of that so open up Candy Crush and other silly games on my phone. Then friends would appear, so we’d chat, play cards. And any other excuse I can think of.

I went to Pai for a few days – it was hot. Super hot and extremely humid. It wasn’t possible for my overheated body to do much. I spent a lazy afternoon lying on a hammock. I started with good intentions and had my laptop with me, but after losing all lives in my games, I settled back and had an afternoon nap. The laptop case left a lovely sweat mark on my lap.

But no more excuses. I have been up to some amazing things and I need to share them. Right now I’m sitting down by the banks of the Mekong River on the Thai / Laos border. I’m crossing into my fourth country tomorrow, I’ve been travelling for 12 weeks, and I’m sitting alone. No more excuses. I don’t want to come across as anti-social or unfriendly, but I have to do this. I need to write. Headphones in and iTunes rocking, this is going to happen.

I’ve also figured out that the guesthouse where I’m staying is facing east, so there should be an epic sunrise. I’ve managed one sunrise on this trip, I can manage another. And how memorable will a sunrise over the Mekong River be? So, once I’ve exhausted my words tonight, it’ll be straight to bed and ready for an early morning.

There is a lot to update you on and so much for me to try and put into words, words that will give justice to everything I’m experiencing, what I’m seeing and who I’m meeting. It will take more than a night with a full moon looking over me. For now, I’m satisfied with these little bits. It all needs to start somewhere.

I posted on Instagram that I was going to sit down for 30 minutes each day and write. Well, over a week later I’m finally doing that. And with two days ahead of me where I’ll be sitting on a slow boat from Thailand to Luang Prabang, I’ll have plenty more than 30 minutes a day to sit down.

What I have found is that while the motivation to sit down and write isn’t strong, the motivation for me to make notes along the way is almost overwhelming. I feel like I’m setting up a filing cabinet in my head and each time I take a picture I take a moment to reflect on it after it’s taken, I then look over it again at night. The memos app on my phone is also filling up with random thoughts, words and snippets of conversation. So I can be assured that I am doing something about getting serious about my writing. It may not be traditional, but I don’t think there are traditional writers out there. We all work differently and some methods work for some, while not for others.

One thing I have learnt, and am still learning, is that I need to forgive myself. We truly are our own worst critics and I’m backing away from that. I’m enjoying the moments for what they are, making memories and relishing life. The same is to be said about my writing, I’ve been annoyed with myself for not settling down and getting into it, I’ve been resenting the thought of doing it. So when I have sat down, fingers at the ready, I’ve gone into a complete writer’s block.

I’m not too sure what is different tonight, if it is the setting or perhaps that I’ve allowed myself to relax. I’ve left friends behind and while that has got me a little nervous, I’ll meet more people and make more friends. So as much as we’re all sitting in this guesthouse together, we don’t all have to make friends tonight. It’s okay for me to sit here in the common area with my headphones in and my fingers flying over the keyboard.

It’s oddly exhilarating. I haven’t typed like this in quite awhile – and I miss it. I’m enjoying it. I need to keep writing as a joy for me and not a chore. Yes, I want to go further with my writing and see what happens, but I don’t have to do it all now. I can relax and enjoy myself. I can set a rhythm now; get into a routine. And it can be fun.

I’m crossing the border into Laos tomorrow. My fourth country in three months and the one I know the least about. This is an exciting time and I’m looking forward to crossing new territories in my mind, exploring new places with my eyes and walking new steps with my feet. With all of this newness in front of me, how can I not write?

This certainly isn’t your usual travel blog. But I’m also not your average traveller. And I’m fine with that – travel isn’t just about getting from door to door. It’s a journey externally and internally; and I love the internal journey as much as I love the external journey. There’s nothing usual or average about any of this.

Sorry I haven’t written in awhile, but things are about to change.

Taking the time

Sometimes you just need to chill out. Take some time to be by yourself and simply be. It can be difficult to find the time to do this whilst travelling. There is so much pressure to get out there and do as much as you possibly can in as short a time as possible. You won’t be there forever, so get out there and enjoy it.

I’ve decided to spend an extended amount of time in Hanoi. My next places are experiencing less than ideal weather conditions, so I figured I’d stay here and relax. Yet I’m actually finding it difficult to do so. I’ve covered off most of the sites or ‘must sees’, yet I feel guilty at the idea of sitting around and doing nothing.

I had planned on spending yesterday planning my next moves, arranging buses or trains and a hostel. Instead, I simply extended my time here. I spent most of the day in the common area of the hostel and felt like I’d wasted a day. To make up for this, I had a night out with some girls I’ve met – had a great time, but certainly not planned (or budgeted) for. Yet, had I been at home, I probably would have spent the day on the couch playing games or watching TV. And I wouldn’t feel as though I’d wasted a day.

Before I left home, I told myself and my friends that I wasn’t going to put any pressure on myself; that I would take things as they came and do as much or as little as I pleased. I’ve got time on my side. Why pressure myself into doing something right away? I had grand plans to write blog post after blog post. I’ve been away for four weeks now and this is only the second post.

I left my life and friends and family behind so I could spend some time on me, for me. It’s okay that I’ve barely touched the surface and it’s okay that I’ve only done two posts. I’m not in a rush – good things take time. Yet, is it enough?

Travel can be therapeutic and it is so far proving to be. I certainly need a lot more therapy, but for now I need to be satisfied with working on my ‘R’s. Refresh, reboot, reset and relax. My first three weeks were manic, the only down time was on the bus and that certainly wasn’t relaxing. The short time at the beach wasn’t enough to reboot and the two night stops weren’t conducive to resetting.

Finding time to master those Rs is proving to be quite the challenge. In the real world, it’s near impossible. In the travelling world, it should be a given. Realistically, finding time for yourself is tough, no matter where you are. The ability to remove the guilt and take the time to be you, be yourself and work on you, it’s bloody tough. But it needs to be done. Tomorrow I plan on seeing a movie – being in Vietnam that could be a challenge in itself – however it’s a perfectly acceptable activity for rebooting.

We all need time to and for ourselves. Travel is no different. Live in the moment, but don’t forget to allow yourself to relish the moment. There’s no need to be guilty for taking some time out.

Make yourself a priority to ensure that you can continue to live in the moment.

 

 

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