Jing Hong

My bus to Jinghong from Kunming rolled out about 12 noon and arrived in Jinghong about eight or nine in the evening. I had been planning to homestay, but the person didn’t live in town, but rather an hour outside of it by bus and the last bus left at 6. I wandered down the street, looking for an ATM or a cheap hostel. I asked some men seated on a corner at dinner, and they gestured down the street.

I couldn’t find an ATM, and had 30RMB to my name. I pulled into a hotel set back from the street, behind a street BBQ station and begged the girl to let me stay. She agreed, and gave me the key to the room. For the life of me, I couldn’t open the door. As I was tugging on the handle, trying to yank it open, I accidentally snapped the key off. Whoops! I had to trudge back downstairs and ask for another. I felt horrible. But they gave me another room, albeit without WIFI. Apparently you have to twist and lift the handle somehow, but I just elected to not shut the door again, ha.

I had to go sit upstairs in the hallway to get WIFI, but it wasn’t too bad, there wasn’t anyone around. My bus was set to leave at 8AM, but I needed to get money ahead of time, so I set an early alarm for 6. I was up at the crack of dawn, lumbering through the streets looking for an ATM, but I couldn’t find one. I wandered and wandered, but there was nothing.

I circled back to the bus station, but I had missed my bus. I then attempted to charter a tuk-tuk driver to take me to an ATM, but he couldn’t understand me, even though I drew the logo and wrote the name. He drove me around the town to various credit unions, and kept forcing me to go inside, even when I told him it didn’t work. Finally he came in with me, and the bank worker told him where to take me. The driver told me it would cost 30RMB. I said it was way too much. Then he wanted his fare now, but I didn’t have it.

Stepped.

Then he was really mad. I told him 30 to go to the ATM and back to the bus station and he agreed. He took me to the ATM, which was not far at all, and I pulled out money and paid him. BAD CHOICE. He tried to leave me again, and I stopped him and reminded him that he agreed to take me back to the bus station, but he shook me off and tried to throw my stuff out. He made me pay another 15RMB to get back to the station, and I was so pissed. We probably both looked angry by the time we rolled up, because an old lady asked what was wrong, and old man unleashed a withering diatribe. I haughtily collected my things and then dropped my phone on the ground, which exploded apart.

Then I sat in the bus station until the bus came. It cost 70RMB to get to Luang Namtha in Laos, which seemed reasonable. The bus was comfortable and the whole back was empty, so I just took a nap. We pulled over right before we hit Laos for lunch, but I couldn’t understand what the man was saying, so I assumed it was just a short break. It’s so stressful to not know when the bus is leaving, because you don’t know if you can have a sit-down lunch or just grab some snacks. I was so nervous, I was out wandering through the parking lot looking for our bus, which wasn’t there. Then I was really freaking out.

Finally, a young man took pity on me and tried to explain that the bus was coming back soon. And it did, stuffed to the gills with bags and sacks. I no longer had a backseat lounge, haha. I’m not sure what we were trafficking, but there was definitely radishes next to me.

Tea Fields.

If you have some time, Jinghong and the Xishuangbanna area is incredibly beautiful. Just like Laos, but whilst you’re still in China. Stepped rice paddies, jungles, steamy, flowers, rice snacks–it’s probably the most laid-back area in China. There’s a botanical garden, I read, but I didn’t have a chance to visit, obviously. You should definitely complete your Chinese travel here.

It’s also the Pu-Er region of China, so it’s crammed with tea fields, and signs warning people off from picking the tea illegally. Highly picturesque, and I’m sure the tea is cheap.

Luang Namtha

So, I think I mentioned that I booked a bus ticket to Boten. Well, that ended up being the literal border crossing point of Laos and China. So I had to beg my way back onto the minivan bus and for $3 USD be carried to an actual town by the obliging conductor. We rolled into Luang Namtha about 6PM, and I was instantly accosted upon exiting by a large, beaded woman. She directed me first to a guesthouse, then to the ATM. She was dripping in embroidery and beading, and selling small bracelets that she had presumably hand-beaded. The ATM charged me a royal 20,000 kip for a transaction, but I was once again penurious and had to do it.

Chickens.

Then I wandered over to the guesthouse she had suggested, and checked in at 40,000 kip per night, which seemed steep to me, in this dinky town (8,000 kip to $1), but it was much cheaper than any other place in town. I guess as the first stop across the border, the city–I use the word loosely–attracted a clientele that needed a place to stay, and fast. The room was pretty ghetto–I do not use the word loosely–but it had a giant row of windows and a huge bed. The WIFI was nonexistent, but it didn’t matter too much at that point. I accepted!

Bike Fun.

I lurked around the hotel/guesthouse, noting the standalone bathroom on each floor (mine was ensuite) that claimed to have hot water, not that it was necessary, Laos is very warm. On the third floor, where I was located, there was a large public area filled with rattan couches, a table, and an ersatz water heater/cooler. It seemed as though there was no one else staying in the place. Every time I left, the owners unplugged the WIFI, which didn’t work for the first 3 days anyhow. I had to come to the bottom floor for hot water from the water dispenser, which also had to be turned on prior, as it was generally left off.

City Streets.

There was a selection of children to be found in the house, and to this day I’m not sure which, if any, lived there. There was a small, peppy girl, a young, shy girl, and a very young, downtrodden little boy. There were also a couple different babes in arms floating around. Peppy kept strict hold over Junior and Shybo, and even whilst they were digging through all my stuff (the next morning), required them to say “Thank You” after each gifting of stale snack foods. She only spoke Lao, but was very compelling and confident. She took us all to the free mango trees (I’m pretty sure someone did own them, they appeared to be in a fenced yard), and we made a joint effort to knock green mangoes down for everyones’ enjoyment.

Dog Town.

There’s not much to do in Luang Namtha unless you like trekking (blech). There’s a Night Market in the center of town each night, which is a great place to go to for dinner until you find out about the local market a few kilometers away. Sticky rice is a constant 5,000 kip no matter what or where, though, so that’s a safe bet. The hamlet seems to consist of travel agencies and guest houses, with a couple off-kilter restaurants and cafes thrown in. For example, the Laotian pizza place on the corner that also sold fried chicken. Or the cafe advertising WIFI it emphatically didn’t have. Or the Bamboo Lounge, which actually looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working but I only ever read the menu and looked at the other gringos sitting out front.

Garden View.

The day after I arrived, I set out to see what there was to see in the town, and after looping up around a small hill, and through streets that actually had small shops (minimart-style: snacks and noodle soups) and stores (all hardware) I stumbled upon the market! There was the usual produce and meat, but there was also an assortment of precooked noodles, soups, and treats. Lao-style khanom krok. Lao borbor lot with a sour soup. Lao bags of deep-fried garlic…yeeah!

Noodles.

I opted for the “choose your noodle” and sour soup. This means you approach a bench filled with bowls filled with different noodles. Normal noodles (read: vermicelli), fat noodles (read: Chow Fun), noodle cubes (I don’t know, but Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working), noodle triangles, the aforementioned borbor lot, and much, much more! The soup was terrible, and a bizarre light pink–I added both sugar and soy sauce, but to no avail. In the end, it was something like 3,000 kip, and I still had room for snacks. I also haggled a sweet dress(definitely meant to be a t-shirt) out of a lady for $6 with a picture of a My Li’l Pony embroidered on the front.

Noodles.

The place was pennies compared to the already cheap Night Market, and I resolved to eat there every day. But, it was a trek, and we just talked about how much I love trekking, so…suffice it to say that I didn’t go there every day. But waiting for my sticky rice and grilled pork dinner at the Night Market instead of trolling sour soup stalls was a bittt more rewarding.

Namtha Street.

The day after I arrived, I vowed to go buy a bracelet from the friendly jewelry lady. She and her comrades lounge in the far corner of the Night Market area during the day. I approached and started to look at her wares, at which point she sneakily pulled a bag of weed out of her bag. I was surprised and declined, buying some overpriced bracelets instead, but later I found that these ladies are a common ornament at Luang Namtha and hail from one of the aboriginal tribes surrounding the area.

Lady Prop.

And that’s what I did for a few days. Play with children, try to scam internet, drink tea, read, look at the scenery, hear chickens all day every day, wander around, drink Kelly juices (just like giant melted Otter Pops)…

Ikat.

Luang Prabang

Eventually, I got tired of the slow pace of Luang Namtha, although it felt great after the freneticism that is China, and decided to catch the bus to Luang Prabang. I booked through the “Bus Ticket Service” which claimed to be the one serving all the others, but the prices are almost identical, so there’s no real reason to use one over the other. It cost 120,000 kip to go from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang, leaving at 8:30AM on a supposedly 8 hour trip.

Basil.

The tuk-tuk price was “included” in the bus ticket fare, so I was picked up right on the main street and taken to the bus station, which is horrifyingly about 10km out of town. Then I gingerly deposited my backpack in the holding area under the bus, uncomfortably close to the motorbike also jammed in there, and mounted the steps, whacking my head for the first time that day on the dangling nonfunctional television at the front of the bus.

Fence.

Flashback! It was exactly like the bus I had taken in Viet Nam with the double-decker space seats, if that bus was forty years older. It was like a giant version of my grandparents’ ancient pea-green RV. Every surface was covered, not in vinyl, but in well-used, tweedy fabric. The interior was rich beige (oxymoron?). But it wasn’t packed to the gills, and it had air-conditioning, so I didn’t have a problem. And then I did have a problem.

The old lady directly behind me was hacking and spitting into a transparent plastic bag about every 7 seconds. This sounds like an exaggeration. It is not. I made the mistake of looking back once to see what the hell was going on, and was rightfully annihilated with a glance at the clutched bag full of milky mucous and some unidentifiable brownish, tissue/leaf sludge. At that point, I just thanked God I’d bought new headphones in China, and proceeded to tune out.

Roadtrip.

We only made two stops that included buildings during the trip, but made a number of pullovers on the side of the winding, never-ending jungle road. It was fun to be able to pee amongst the foliage with all the other Lao ladies (almost all of whom simply wear the Laotian wrap skirt and some kind of top), although I did worry about bugs or spiders getting all up in it.

Every single time I got off of the bus, I whacked my skull on that godforsaken dangling television. The Lao people are all shorter than I am, so they probably didn’t see it as an issue. I was also almost last to get off the bus each time, because I hate pushing, and because I was afraid of somehow bumping Bag Lady and being covered in escaping creamy sputum, so no one ever saw my repeated head injuries, or they probably would have done something.

The conductor and his homies(?) were busily employed at each stop in taping the windshield back to the bus with packaging tape. It seemed to hold well; we made it to Luang Prabang with it still attached. However, it did not take 8 hours to get there. It took closer to 13, with us showing up around 9PM, to a bus station that is also outside of town. Another Aryan was tumbled from the bus with me (yeah, thanks, I like it when the contents of the pockets of my backpack are dumped on the inside of the luggage space and then driven away. byeeee deodorant…byeeee toothbrush…), so I asked if he wanted to share a tuk-tuk, and then haggled it to 30,000 kip for the 2 of us.

Lit Up.

Toby turned out the be German, and was incredibly laconic. We split once we hit the center of town (it’s almost impossible to go by twos through the Night Market), but both ended up checking into the same guesthouse–Bou Pha–and haggling the price down. My room had two twin beds and no proper door, so I asked Toby to camp out and split the bill. Backpacking economics, everyone!

The next day, we decided to look for a better place. Toby had a recommendation for one Spicy Lao Backpackers Hostel which was just a km or so away, so we hoofed it on over. 25,000 kip per night for a bunk bed, fan-cooled hostel. Sounds good!

Spicy Lao.

Sai/Psy, the owner, is an Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working guy. He just wants everyone to have a good time, and immediately put me in charge of the music (yay!)–complete with the mixer and fat speaker setup. He is constantly offering Lao beers and whiskey, and trying to help you make plans for the day. And the plans available are great. During the day, you can: wake up early to offer food to the monks, drive to the rice fields to see waterbuffalo and locals, take a free tuk-tuk to La Pistoche (a swimming pool cum bar that is NOT free–20,000 to get in, with a ridiculous 50,000 deposit [for food, you know? and drinks?] I always had to beg money off people, and I never spent it, who spends deposit money!?), two waterfalls (one is Barely Noticeable, Kuang Si, and one is lame and pipe-fed, Tad Sae), many temples, and local villages–besides other town-type activities.

Elephant.

At night, you can choose to go to any bar until it closes at 11, including the illustrious Utopia, which it seems everyone under 30 goes to. It’s really just a place to chill, not dance, as it’s jammed with grody little floormats and pillows inside the gazebo-like main structure, and then there’s a rickety bamboo balcony overlooking the river, and some tabled grottos via the nearby gravel path. There is a volleyball court though, and some questionable VJing, comprised generally of endless loops of people undergoing MODERATELY UNCOMFORTABLE and embarrassing accidents. Shots of lao-lao, moonshine, are less than a dollar each, and really don’t hit you until you stand up to play volleyball and the world tilts under you.

Leafy.

After the bars close, everyone who wants to keep the party going charters a tuk-tuk to the bowling alley, which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure how late it’s open, but I stayed till 3AM one night and it was still going strong. You can have more drinks and some classic bowling foods at this location. The games are 20,000 a pop, which is a bit steep for me, and you’ll also have to pay 5,000 to the tuk-tuk driver if you go with 6 or more people. Some people hate the bowling alley, citing it as a classic Western attraction and so not worthy of a good time, but I think bowling is fun and harmless, and there’s really not a lot to do at night, so options are slim.

Beheaded.

There’s also a Lao disco that goes until (whomp, whomp) 11PM. The music is good, but the bouncers are rude and pushy and nobody really dances. You can also choose to stay at your guesthouse and run through 3 packs of tuk-tuk driver weed with your homies. At night, the tuk-tuk drivers ask first, loudly, if you’d like a ride, then mutter, “weed, weed” at you hopefully. I’ve heard of the same sack of weed being bought for 50, 70, 80, and 100,000 kip, so it’s all about your bargaining skills I suppose. A pack of cigarettes can run anywhere from 3,000 kip upwards, depending on how fancy you like to buy your death sticks.

Donuts.

It’s illegal to use or sell drugs in Laos, but it seems that the guesthouses turn a blind eye, and the backpacker cafes all pay bribes to the police ahead of time. People seem to get into trouble when they smoke in public, I’ve heard 4 cases of drug arrests so far. More on that in Vang Vieng.

Hidden Gods.

So, I went to the pool. It’s nice, and the bar abuts the pool, so you can have your drink on a watery seat. 40,000 for 2 matched cocktails, but I didn’t try any, because I was pissed about my deposit. I went to both waterfalls; you have to charter a tuk-tuk out there, it’s about 30km, they’ll want 30 a person for the round-trip if you can get 4 or more. Kuang Si really is lovely, the water is a solid turquoise and refreshingly cool. You’ll feel chilled if you’re in it for more than an hour. It’s a cascade of falls that you can also clamber up and down, beginning with an enormous defile at the top. It’s also 20,000 extra to get in; Tad Sae is 10,000, but you’ll need to pay an extra 10,000 to take a canoe to the actual “falls”. Budget accordingly. There are also elephants there.

Boats.

After your outings, you’ll want to head to the 10,000 kip all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffets near the Night Market. They’re down an alley, directly in front of The Indigo, a swank hotel/bakery. You’ll see them on all sides once you hit a certain point, and it’s as much as you can stack on a plate–all vegetarian. I love these buffets. Noodles, noodles, and more noodles for yours truly–with a fat stack of pineapple chunks and fried spring rolls on top. I’m training, ok?! It’s ok not to take the first one you see, shop around a bit. You can also buy supplementary grilled meat sticks and drinks.

Sunset.

Before you gorge yourself, drag yourself up Phou Si Mountain to watch the sun set from the temple that’s up there. They’ll charge you 20,000 kip and give you a ticket, but it’s good for at least twice–no one seems to go more than that and report back–so don’t let that stand in your way. Coat yourself in bug spray, or whip out your cigarettes, ‘cuz those guys are hungry! All of the sunsets I saw were lackluster, but I have seen some gorgeous skies in Laos. It’s all in the timing I think.

Metal.

Eventually, it rains a little every day (July). By a little, I mean quite dramatically for several minutes, and then nothing. Just go inside or under a tree for a bit and you’ll be fine. Of course, you could be trapped for an hour if you’re unlucky in your storm. It’s Most Unexceptional to just give up the struggle to maintain dryness.

Road Out.

There’s the Night Market, the Morning Market–it’s next-door neighbor, and then there’s a local market, called something starting with N or M. I’m sorry, it wasn’t titled anything on my map, and it took an hour of wandering to find it. However, it’s really easy once you know where it is–nearish the swimming pool. It’s about a half-hour walk from the center of town and has clothes, produce, and some select cooked options such as sausage (yum), mango sticky rice (in Laos, the rice is green and the sweet coconut looks like light grey sludge). They’re open to light haggling–nothing on Chinese levels–and mostly can’t speak English. I walked there several times for dragonfruit–to which I am addicted.

Catfish.

Throughout the city, there are small booths selling “Lao sandwiches” and fruit shakes. These are ubiquitous throughout Laos. I’m not sure if it’s a response to Western tourism, or if these are just the snacks that have been most popularized through it, but you can buy a huge fruit shake for under a dollar 5-7,000 kip and a foot-long baguette with a variety of toppings starting at 10,000 kip. They’re open late, and many travelers choose to get shakes spiked with Tiger Whiskey or lao-lao, or to do it themselves.

Greens.

Speaking of Westerners, the entire town seems to be comprised of backpackers. The place caters to them–Night Markets, hostels, entertainment…the poor Laos have to turn a blind eye to public inebriation and flights of fashion. It’s the first place in Asia–outside of Koh Phangan and Bangkok–that I’ve seen so many foreigners. In a way, it’s nice to meet people “like me”, i.e. with a Western culture that obeys lines and washes their hands. But it also opens a whole other can of worms, like amorous cupidity, desired or otherwise.

Monks.

It’s also frustrating to deal with people’s ideas of you as a person from a certain country, and to hear your countrymen’s ideas on people from other countries as well. There have been many things posted on how to identify Americans in other countries, only a few of the ideas proffered do I actually agree with. Here’s what I think:

We are loud. I’m not sure how all of us ended up so loud; even when I’m talking quietly I feel as though I’m projecting for an audience of 15. It’s quite difficult for me to understand people, say, from Germany, who consistently speak in an undertone, and have an accent to boot. I can always hear other Americans, sometimes from half a block away.

We’re friendly. Americans are generally the first to introduce themselves, or to make conversation when entering a new scene. It’s nice, but seems almost embarrassingly ingenuous.
We also make a lot of jokes and ask a lot of questions.

We don’t understand when we’re being made fun of, especially by Brits, who delight in it. We seem to take everything at face value, not seeing “great” as anything less than great. We’re just so eager!

We also love to explain things. This goes hand-in-hand with the foregoing. If someone asks us something, we won’t see it as the opening scene of a lengthy joke, but as a great opportunity to lay some knowledge down. And, generally, the knowledge-laying is dishearteningly lacking in true information. But not as bad as the (not American) girl who, one night, told us all that gecko meant regeneration in Latin.

Lao.

Canadians do not fit this mold. You can always tell a French Canadian, but the biggest difference between our Anglo Northern Cousins and us is our confidence. Canadians never start conversations, offer information, or make jokes, and they speak almost as quietly as the Germans.

Floral.

New topic. If you want a massage, walk near the river. There are maybe ten massage parlors, and you can haggle that 40,000 down to 30,000 if you like. But my advice is, don’t get a Lao massage. They’re painful and amateurish, with the masseuses often seeming like bored teenagers at their part-time job–plugging in their headphones and singing along to cover your screams while straddling your back and digging their thumbs into the meat of your lats.

Vang Vieng

After you do everything there is to do in Luang Prabang, the next stop is Vang Vieng. No matter what time you leave, you’ll catch people you just saw in Luang Prabang, either just arriving, or a few days from departure. All of Laos is a continual meet-up. There’s only one or two “buses” leaving per day, and they’ll charge you a royal 100-120,000 kip for the 4 hour ride. We booked through our hostel (6 of us) and expected a minivan to ourselves. Not so fast! There ended up being a full set of 12 people in the car, with all our junk strapped on top.

Slow.

We then set out through the twisty mountain paths. The roads are good, but the bends are consistently hairpin. Luckily, our driver safely chose not to exceed a 30km/hr speed limit, so although it took much longer than 4 hours, we didn’t have A moment of fear. Our driver thought the Most Unexceptional course of action was to coast downhill in first gear, not faster than 10km/hr at some points. But we made it!

Paddies.

We rolled into Vang Vieng in the dark, and all piled out to find the guesthouse I thought I had reserved the night before. However, when we showed up, they hadn’t seen our email and had no rooms. It’s not really a big deal, actually, very typically Laos, so we just kept trekking. One girl of us had been to Vang Vieng already, and knew a good guesthouse, so we trudged there. Easygo Backpackers looks completely horrible, and it certainly isn’t the nicest hostel I’ve been in, but they did offer free tea and coffee, and had passable WIFI at some times, so we checked in.

Easygo.

My friend Tal and I decided to split a private room, the same price as a dorm room at 50,000 a night between 2. I asked the young gentleman for a room with a view; we got the 3rd floor and an over-roof scene of the mountains–not bad. There was one light, which glowed a gentle gold–very picturesque, but just awful for lighting purposes–and an ensuite bathroom. Then we set out for dinner.

Pink Sunset.

To our dismay we found that the only affordable meals in Vang Vieng are baguettes. The selfsame baguettes that pimple the streets of Luang Prabang. Although here, they’re more of a full-blown acne outbreak. They are delicious, and you get your $1.50’s worth, but it’s horrible to imagine eating a fried baguette for more than one meal per day. And of course the options are so tantalizing: Chicken Cheese Bacon, Omelette Ham Bacon, Bacon Bacon Bacon…I’m begging for bacon!

Best.

There are many and many a local road stand, but all are the same price, so it’s really just a matter of preference. If you choose to go into one of the restaurants hanging over the river, be prepared to spend at least 15,000 kip. The food tends to be about the same price throughout the entire town, but as you move away from the tourist center–southward, I believe, the portions start to get larger. Tal, of Israel, was in the habit of taking daily traipses about the town, and scoped out a great place for eating, only about a twenty minute walk away.

Road to.

Of course, we had to stare down the entire road before we could find it again, but it was worth it when we did. There are no distinguishing characteristics of this little shoppe, else I would tell you where to go, but it offers a huge, delicious, noodle soup, som tam, and other Lao traditionals.

And, naturally, the town is full of bars. Bars offering “happy” things such as pizzas and shakes, and “space” things, which I assume to have either opium, shrooms, or weed inside, or possibly all three. You can buy weed, opium, and shrooms at several different locations, in varying forms. Shroom Shakes seem to be a standard 100,000 kip, whilst shroom or opium tea runs a bit cheaper. Jaidee’s and the Molino (Possibly Torino)’s Pizza are the go-to places, although weed is probably also available on the streets, and I heard that Johnny’s Guesthouse was selling Ecstasy over the counter.

View.

Some bars have special offerings–Sakura and Fat Monkey give tanks and tees out to those who order enough drinks (Sakura is 2 vodkas at 25,000 each, I don’t know about Fat Monkey, but I’m sure it’s similar). Many places advertise free drinks between such-and-such a time, but I can’t verify. Sakura’s also sells nitrous oxide “balloons” between 10-15,000 kip. All in all, it’s a place where one can get really, really messed up.

Posed.

And not a night went by in which we (Tal and I) see a girl sobbing in front of the tube rental establishment. You’re meant to rent a tube for 55,000 kip (steep, right?) and then pay a 60,000 kip deposit. If you get back before 6PM, you get your deposit back. If you get plastered at the 2 (TWO) bars on the river, and don’t make it in time, you lose 20 right off the top. If you don’t make it back before 8PM, you lose your entire deposit. Every night, walking through the town around 8:30 or 9, we would see a barefooted girl in bedraggled swimgear, sobbing her heart out. Attempts to console the dazed and inebriated girl seemed ineffectual. The moral of the story is, don’t get that drunk/set an alarm/budget your 60,000 kip as gone if you’re going to get shwasted.

Blue Dream.

That being said, tubing is a ton of fun. It’s not imperative to get drunk. The tuk-tuk takes you up to the river (well, to a bar on the river) and you just float down at your leisure. The drinks are very expensive, and Tal and I just wanted to work on our tans, so we lugged our tubes to the shallows of the river and made rock paint for an hour instead. Then we set out, with a scarf held between us to keep together.

Bridge.

We got out at the next bar, and were interested in the free shots. It turns out the shots are only free if you buy something. Tal bought a water. I took the shot. It tasted like dirt. I’ve never had such a hideous shot. You also get a little bracelet. No, you cannot have a free bracelet. We played some basketball on a hoop that shot water at you, and some people played volleyball, and we did some dancing. The sun was already beclouded, so we were straight chilling. Some creepy dude tried to join up and talk about the sex appeal of clitoral piercing. We decided to leave.

The float from that bar to the end was maybe an hour and a half, max. After about half an hour, we went under a bridge, which had men seated on it, trying to coerce us out to take a tuk-tuk. “It’s 5 more km,” they say, “It will take 3 hours”. Don’t listen to these shysters. Just float on.

Communist.

I met a lot of Israelis in Laos. They were all very friendly and welcoming, and were quite cordial about my newly acquired horrible Hebrew skills. Tal was ever encouraging. I think my Hebrew is probably awful. Do you want to learn some Hebrew? Well, I can’t teach you via text. It’s all in the throat. I can teach you Lao, if you want. It’s just like Thai.

Suspicious.

There was a jungle party the Friday night we showed up. This consisted of paying 30,000 kip to be forcibly snuggled by a lot of sweaty, drunk dudes. The music was generally poor, but danceable in some parts. It was a great place to meet up with friends and scream at each other. It seemed like every night in Vang Vieng we were all up until it got light out. I’m not sure how this happened, but the nights just seemed to slip away. And not heavy drinking means you don’t have to nurse a hangover the whole next day!

Spotted.

There is a market on the north side of town, about 2km out. There’s the usual offerings of clothes, household goods, and food. Unusually, Laos is the best country to buy makeup. It’s very cheap, with an assortment of offerings. If you’re low on maquillage, buy it in Laos.

Temple.

Vang Vieng is a fun place, and it would be easy to spend a lot of time here. There’s always people coming and going, the river is RIGHT THERE, and you can spend your days just chilling out–like much of the rest of Laos. It’s a great stop if you’re looking to party, even during low season (read: monsoon season).

Vientiane

A few days later, everyone cool left Vang Vieng. Like I said, there are always people coming in, but you sort of get attached to a certain crew, and once they’re gone, it’s time to move on. We (Tal and I) booked a bus through one of the multiple agencies in the city, at 35,000 kip it was the best deal in time. It was supposed to be a 4 hour ride, and our minivan was set to leave at 9AM, and to pick us up in front of Easygo.

Cave.

Well, the bus wasn’t there by 9:04, so I called to the place we bought the tickets from. “Bus coming now,” said the harried sounding clerk. As long as we weren’t left behind, it didn’t really matter, but I’ve heard too many stories about buses leaving without passengers. As you may have read, I’m always worrying about this happening to me. Anyhow, the van came, and strapped all our stuff to the roof under a tarp (sigh). My iPod died, so we listened to Balkan Beat Box on Tal’s iPhone for a couple hours.

Snakes or Eels.

We rolled into Vientiane about 1:30PM, and rolled out to look for a hostel. Oddly, but conveniently, the minivan just left us in the middle of a parking lot in the center of town, not at the bus station. We tried to find a likely hostel on the pilfered cafe internet, but it was a no-go, so started walking down the road and figured we’d find something likely.

In this way, we stumbled onto the Vientiane Backpacker’s Hostel, a grody little dive with mostly rude attendants, free breakfast, passable WIFI and cavernous air-conditioned rooms. The place looked like a run-down asylum, or a Cambodian orphanage with air-conditioning. Later that afternoon, we stumbled upon the Crazy Monkey Hostel, or something similar to that, which looked like where better informed backpackers go.

Flags on Flags.

As usual, the first thing we decided to do was to look for the local market. We got a map from the front desk, and a friendly man had just clocked in and helpfully circled where the market was, stating that it would take about 30 minutes. We started out and seemed to be making good time. Then we got to no man’s land–far enough out of the center for the signs to no longer be in both English and Lao–and couldn’t figure out what to do. Where the market should be, there was nothing. The map was written in English, so no one could read it and help us, and when I asked for the “dalat Lao” people pointed us in all kinds of different directions.

Buddhist Tree.

As we traipsed along, people unashamedly laughed at us from what felt like all sides. I’m not sure if it was because we were hot and bothered, or if they really thought we were funny-looking for some reason (maybe an odd pair? a petite, curly-headed Israeli and a giant fluffy-headed chick with cheek piercings?) but we were less than psyched. Finally, a group of old people called us over and directed us to the market. Thank God.

Walls.

Outside the market, there were hoards of fruit sellers, so I stocked up on mangosteens and dragonfruit. Not bad prices, but then I had to lug kilos of fruit around the inside market. It was filled with produce and meat sellers, but also with a section entirely devoted to clothes. Poor Tal never haggles, and accepts first prices regularly. Apparently things are much more expensive in Israel, so everything in Laos sounds like a deal. Then we had to trudge home under our purchases.

Fence.

Upon reaching our hostel, we were ready for a shower. Vientiane is just like a small Vietnamese city, but without motorbikes. There are so many cars, it’s really surprising. How can poor Laos afford cars more readily than comparatively well-off Vietnam? We went out to look for dinner, and to see the night market afterwards.

Curlicques.

The Night Market is enormous, and it’s all clothes, with scattered stalls for makeup and electronics. It’s a ton of fun, and pretty much the only thing to do at night. You can haggle slight price decreases, but not much. Laos are not into bargaining. Someone explained to me that Laos thought they were setting fair prices, and didn’t like having to accept less. Laos is poorer than Thailand, yet the prices are higher. That’s what I don’t understand.

Key Maker.

The food is also very expensive. We covered a 6 block area and couldn’t find decent prices. We ended up having 15,000 kip noodle soup on the street, which was good, and came with cubes of congealed blood. Have I talked about that? Congealed blood is a thing in Asia. It’s not bad, much better than liver, and doesn’t taste like blood. I’m not sure how it’s made, but it looks horrifying in the market. I try not to think about it, ‘cuz I need the iron.

Wired.

In the hostel, there weren’t many friendly faces. Everyone was caught up in their own business. I’d been using the greatly improved WIFI to torrent like crazy. We decided to stay one more day, to see what we could see, and then leave the next.

Little Altar.

We ended up seeing nothing. The river is far off across a sweltering marsh, it’s hot and cloudy, and full of crumbling and decrepit buildings. Everyone wants money, no one has sticky rice. There are plenty of temples, if temples are your thing, but they’re all just local wats, and the monks don’t want you to take pictures of them. Tal left for Chiang Mai, and I set out for Pakse the following day.

Monk Time.

Maybe I did Vientiane wrong, but I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, and would warn people it’s a waste of time. I also picked up a tagalong in this way, by encouraging her to keep going, and telling her where I was going. Not my best move.

Don Det

I had determined to leave Vientiane as soon as possible, and accordingly booked a much-overpriced ticket to Pakse. I wanted to do “the motorcycle loop”, as I’d heard there was a tour you could do by motorbike to see some caves that took a few days. I read online that the motorcycle loop started in Pakse, so to there I booked a ticket.

The ticket for the bus ended up placing me and another girl who had attached herself to me in the very front of the bus, overhanging the driver’s area, a sort of loft if you will. It was actually a cool seat, but very warm and short. A brief night’s ride with two barely of-age British boys that my definitely of-age companion was flirting with and we were unceremoniously dumped out at Pakse.

Don’t go to Pakse. It’s essentially a one-road town–hot, dusty, and under construction. All the sleeping accommodations are overpriced, although Lamkhang Hotel is probably the most affordable, and is also a good place to rent bikes and keep your luggage. We rented two bikes for four days, the prices decreased according to the length of lease, but I assumed it would take about four days anyhow, it was supposed to be about 150 km. Unfortunately, about this time, I tried to find Tha Kaek on the map. It was about three counties away. I began to have a growing suspicion I was in the wrong place.

I dragged out the laptop and looked it up. Yes, I had bypassed the “cave motorcycle loop” for the “waterfall motorcycle loop”. Gutted. I really don’t care about waterfalls (sorry), and was severely disappointed, but decided to make the Most Unexceptional of it and tour the waterfalls anyhow. We set out with a terribly photocopied map with nothing written in Lao and tried to find our way onto the road that would lead us around the Bolaven Plateau. We drove for an hour, asking the entire way. We did not find the road.

We returned the bikes, and asked to book a bus to the 4,000 islands. Sorry, the bus leaves at 8AM. Once per day. No, we’re out of the cheapest rooms, even though there is figuratively no other visible guests. No, I won’t go halfsies on the bike rental because you only had them for a couple hours. But in the end, my stolid companion persevered on our behalf, simply by demanding the same thing over and over again. We only had to pay for a half day for the bikes, and we got a good room price.

My eye had been killing me since the bus ride the night before. My homegirl, Tal, had complained of eye pain a few days before, and I recalled that she had used her eye pencil on one of my eyes, consequently, the one that was now annihilatingly painful. That night, I went out to the pharmacy and bought some $1 antibacterial eye drops and began using them immediately. Results seemed positive.

The next morning came early for our minivan to the 4,000 Islands. Once you come to the riverside town, you must still charter a boat across the river, for an additional 10,000 kip.

Arriving in Don Det, I immediately began looking for a hostel, because I wanted to meet some new folks, and potentially off this other girl onto someone. But I couldn’t find a hostel! There were guesthouses, bungalows, and hotels, but no hostels to be found (at least by me—I’m pretty sure there is one, though!). As we trudged along the muddy path further into the island, I saw a likely backpacker boy and asked where he was staying. Sunset Bungalows, was the reply, but when I asked there, the man said they were full up. Which seemed impossible, as there was nary a soul on the island. It did look nice though, hammocks on a porch overhanging the water.

We walked a bit further, and stopped at the reggae-themed “Happy Bar”. I was quite rudely replied to by what I assumed to be the proprietress that yes, they did have rooms. We decided to take one, as the price was great, and it also featured hammocks and a waterfront porch, at 50,000 kip a day. After securing lodgings, I ambled back into town to see what was happening there.

The place was essentially a ghost-town, I saw maybe 3 people, including locals. The island included a bar creatively named “Adam’s Bar”, a “Reggae Bar”, some eateries, and a place where you could buy a hard drive and have music/movies/shows put on it, operated by Adam, of Adam’s Bar.

There’s not much to do on Don Det—you can pay an exorbitant fee to go kayaking and see “river dolphins” or go tubing + bbq, or you can get stoned and lay around. Adam’s Bar sold weed and edibles, as well as normal food, and played “choose-your-own” movies in the front, all day. The back overlooked the river, and had music going. You can also buy weed from the place I stayed, and from the Reggae Bar.

The going rate for a bag is 125,000 kip, and a joint is 30,000. No one will haggle. I ran into a friend who bought weed from some person in his bungalows for 50,000, who I never saw again. This friend had coincidentally been arrested by the police in Vang Vieng for drug possession.

If you don’t drink, don’t get stoned, and don’t pay to do things, there’s not a whole lot going on here. You can wander around Don Det trying to find internet (good luck, Adam’s Bar and the accompanying electronics shop are your best bet), eat amazing Indian food at Fajai (the little A-frame in town), jump into the chocolate river Mekong and swim a bit, sunbathe in the patchy sunlight, or read in your hammock. It’s actually a great retreat, but most of the people are frustratingly money-grubbing or brusque.

The woman running my bungalow tried to charge me for hot water, so I ended up going into town, paying to refill my giant water bottle ( 2,000 kip ) and getting hot water at the same spot, which I then carried home in my now-handleless tin cup, wrapped in a dirty shirt, and used it to make my coffee and oatmeal. In the afternoon I walked to Mama Thanon’s and bought an order of sticky rice, which I slowly consumed with soy and chili sauce, and my dried garlic.

In the evening, I went to Fajai’s, and took the little table in front, with a book. Every day, I ordered 2 chapatti, a bowl of raitha or straight yogurt, and a curry—usually eggplant or tofu. It was delicious, and very cost-friendly; I usually ended up paying around 35,000 kip, or a little more than $4. Obviously not as cheap as sticky rice for every meal, but that gets old quick.

And, that’s what I did in Don Det. At night, you can hear the peepers as you amble through the sludge-filled path home. There are huge patches of blackness you have to feel your way through with your feet, and often cats, chickens, or cows cross your path. It rained heavily, off and on, for the entire time I was there, but it was highly enjoyable to sit on the patio and watch the rain falling into the river. One night, there was a huge storm across the river, in Cambodia. We could see the lightning flashes, illuminating purple clouds with trees of light, but we couldn’t hear a thing! The stars broke out above us, and the wind blew steadily, tossing the palms overhead.

Xi’an

I elected to go to Xi’an after Lijiang. The guidebooks state it as the start of the Silk Road, so I was all for an ancient city full of spice and fabric. Well, it had some of that. Xi’an is full of ancient buildings, but there is nothing inside of them. Similar to the walls which ring the inner city, there is just a tantalizing taste of what used to be, but no substance inside.

Steaming.

I took the night train from Lijiang to Kunming, my least favorite city in China. I decided to take the bus to the only place I knew how to get to from the train station: The Hump Kunming. I camped there all day, paying 3 RMB to hold my pack, and another 5 to take a shower. I also bought a coffee, so I wouldn’t look like a freeloader.

Red Ensemble.

At 7pm, I took a 2-day train from Kunming to Xi’an. In total, it cost about $80 to go from Lijiang to Xi’an, a distance of 1,600 km. Top bunk. This means you can’t sit up for 36 hours, unless you clamber down and huddle up near the window in one of the fold-down chairs. However, these are usually all occupied. All day long. I had brought way too many snacks, so I just settled in like a squirrel in it’s hole and ate snacks the whole way.

No Seats.

In Lijiang, I had finally given in and purchased a cross-stitch kit. These are highly popular across Asia, and come with a printed fabric pattern and your string; mine cost about $3. However, I came to the painful realization on the train that one does not cross stitch with a doubled thread, but with A untied thread. So i had to shred the hell out of my pattern, ripping out the threads, to start all over. Then I ran out of that color. I’m looking on it now as a sort of Fatalist art piece, however much gets finished is how it was meant to be.

Decorative.

The train pulled into Xi’an around 7 in the morning, and I had already set up my homestay, but I couldn’t find her when I got out of the station. I once again begged a phone from some young girls and called, whereupon Wendy showed up to conduct me to her home.

Wendy was 4-months pregnant, and had moved home with her parents. Her husband owned a hostel in Xi’an, but was traveling on business, and her father worked in another town, so it was rather a like a halfway home, especially when the second couchsurfer arrived–another girl. Her mother offered me some corn porridge (soupy grits, as I call them) and “Chinese bread” (a plain fried bread, similar to topinka in the Czech Republic). I knocked out on the couch for awhile, then, in the afternoon we decided to visit the regional museum.

Zodiac.

Entry was free, but we had to wait in line. A little girl had been dogging me since the bus, and was the first Chinese child who wasn’t innately terrified of me. She was very sweet and friendly, and must have gone to an international school, as she was already speaking English. Throughout Xi’an, I met a couple more children who, it seemed to me, must have Western teachers, as they eagerly approached me and spoke in English–in direct contrast to every other Chinese child.

Inside the museum, the displays proceeded chronologically, with about a hundred wine-heating tripods in the material of your choice. There was also a small exposition on the terra cotta warriors. I thought the second floor much more interesting, when we had proceeded to ceramic works and glazing techniques. A tri-color glaze is endemic to Xi’an pottery–jade, burnt umber, and white (for your edification). Wendy found a display of found pottery which was said to have been found in an ancestral Lu burial plot. “That’s my family name!” she said, “We must be related!”

General.

After the museum, Wendy went home and I went to the Muslim Quarter. It was Moderately jammed with people. Every few feet, the same display: either people making candy by hitting it with hammers, or pulling long, taffy-like wads from a pole, or frying potatoes in a large skillet, grilling small skewers, or making cakes. I wandered through the crowd looking around, but all the shops seemed the same. Lijiang deja vu.

Some Cake.

I wandered down a little alley, and discussed pricing over many a small item, but bought nothing. Eventually, I wandered into a little store specializing in cut paper and haggled my way into 4 designs at about $1.50 each. It still seemed like too much, but haggling gets old so fast, especially when you’re expected to do it for figuratively every purchase, including lodgings.

Bronze.

On my way to the #37 bus station near the bell tower, I walked down an alley filled with little shops filled with cheap, cute clothes. I couldn’t resist. The lacy, pastel, neon miasma drew me in like a bug-zapper to moths. The prices weren’t nearly so cheap as Thailand, where you can have the same outfit for much less, but I was happy to have a couple first-hand buys for cheap, around 19 RMB per article ($3). The whole area was a gigantic shopping pit.

Xi'an Downtown.

Figuratively. There are stairs leading down to a Wal-Mart (they’re all over China), but no Wal-Mart in sight, just row upon row of dinky little clothing shoppe. Very similar to the Thai night markets. All selling the same or similar things, can’t try them on, but prices are rock bottom.

Busy Street

Chinese Wal-Mart is just the same as in America, including Equate brand cheap-o products. For me, the Most Unexceptional part was discount Hershey products, like Cookies n Creme bars–my favorite chocolate candy. Actually, I would recommend going here, because things are very cheap, and the attendants are actually nice, compared to every other Chinese supermarket.

Masks.

Eventually I took the bus home, but didn’t know which way to walk at the stop. I walked first one way, then the other, then stopped into some big, brightly lit building to ask the door attendant, who wasn’t there. I waited, and waited, and eventually started to unlock the cell phone sitting on the desk, having decided that it would either make someone appear, or I could just use it. Worked like a charm, a girl came running up and let me dial Wendy on the landline. But Wendy didn’t answer. So, I kept walking.

By luck, I had walked in the right way, and turned down the right alley, and ended up at home (thank you, photographic memory).

Atelier.

The next day Wendy suggested I visit the city wall and the calligraphy street. Sounds good to me! I took the bus and 1, 2, 3 I was there! You have to pay to go mess around inside the city wall, but I looked from afar. Wendy says you can also rent bicycles and pedal along the top of the wall, which extends 13km around the city. I did not do this, however, ha. I proceeded to Shu Yua Men street and started wandering. The whole street is filled with little wooden carts selling calligraphy paraphernalia and stamps.

Chinese Bible.

Do you know about Chinese stamps? In old times, and maybe today, important persons had a little stamp cut with their surname characters. This stamp is plunked in a little dish of red paint and printed upon all documents requiring their mark, read: wills, contracts, paintings, poems… The coolest thing we saw in the regional museum was an 8-sided stamp, because the person had so many titles. What a gangster!

The Thinker.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve always been a bit of a calligraphy nerd. So I couldn’t resist getting a couple more brushes (I already had one from Viet Nam) and an ink stick. However, when I returned home, I found to my dismay that ink sticks really don’t work well without grinding stones (which I did NOT want to carry), and that weak ink doesn’t show up at all. I was sorely disappointed, until Wendy asked why I didn’t get one of the sheets of practice paper you can write on with water.

Daffodils.

These sheets are the dopinest. They come in an assortment of styles, some with outlines to help you form strokes and characters, some with just boxes to facilitate proper character formation. When you put water on them, it shows up black as ink until it dries. What a fun toy! However, I hadn’t bought one. What I had bought was two thin books on calligraphic art–look forward to future masterpieces, everyone! And I had peered into many and many a calligraphic atelier, becoming much inspired. I highly recommend visiting this little area.

Studio.

The next day I had resolved to just lurk around home. However, Wendy and the other couchsurfer, Lynn, were going to go back to the calligraphy street. I supposed I could go again. I first posted a package of souvenirs at the post office near the Bell Tower (this was figuratively my only point of reference in all Xi’an. You can find most things within walking distance of this monolith).

Keep Off.

Oh, the postal service in China is also a bank. Don’t be fooled! It really is a post office. The signs are green with yellow lettering and a character that to me looks like a kite. Yes, my Chinese reading is progressing admirably, thank you.

No. 1

Anyhow, I went to meet up with Wendy and Lynn and wandered for an hour or so around the calligraphy street. That area is tiny, I don’t know how we kept missing each other. Finally, I borrowed a phone from a group of dudes and called Wendy, who answered this time. Upon leaving, I suggested we go to a cafe I went to the day before (I forgot to tell you) called Caffe Bene.

Cream Cups.

Apparently it’s a Korean coffee chain; I couldn’t afford any drinks, and so bought some gelato instead (imagine gelato being more affordable than a simple coffee!) Anyhow, it’s starts on the 5th floor of an 8-story building that also houses a dance club and a spa (I looked on all the floors). You should go! It’s a very fun place, and is actually less expensive than many other Chinese cafes.

After the cafe, we went to dinner at a place with endless rice and salad, as assured us by Wendy. Of course we agreed. We ordered three dishes, and were served many little bowls of snacks: watermelon, tasty crunchies, cabbage with thousand island, and a few other things. We were also provended endless sour plum drink, which is not only not sour, but is incredibly delicious as well. There was fried and white rice, and at the salad bar was just more of the same snackies we already had, plus some other distinctly Chinese offerings, such as medicinal jello, made from a tea-like herb. I believe it was the same herb used in the Vietnamese “cooling” drink.

Ice Peak.

The next day I elected to finally go to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, although I’ll have you know I was completely against the idea. It was easy enough to get there, and a nice man lent me the extra 1 RMB for the bus. It took about an hour and a half to get all the way out there, and I was let off in the middle of a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. The parking lot was the bus drop off, not the Terra Cotta Warriors place. I don’t even know the name of where they are, haha. I drew a nice, quick picture of a warrior, and started walking around pointing and asking.

Chinese Chess.

I was quite lucky, and the next place over was actually the entrance. However, I had to traipse through a giant parking lot and up and up and around and here and there and I got to the entry gates finally, to be told that I had to buy a ticket elsewhere. “Where?” I asked. I was pointed around the corner. It was not around the corner. I trailed a herd of boys who were leaving and asked if they could show me the ticket counter.

Priestess.

Naturally it was on the far, far right of the parking lot, completely tucked away and out of view. Then people kept trying to get me to hire a tour guide. “I can barely afford this ticket!” I expostulated, completely out of patience. The ticket cost 150 RMB, that’s about $25. That’s a lot, when you’re traveling on a budget.

Terra Cotta.

Then I had to trudge back up the hill to the entrance, and after entering, found myself in the middle of a pine meadow. The museum/dig pits are about a quarter mile away. It’s a pleasant walk, and tends to disperse the tour groups a bit. Then I arrived at a large, paved plaza with three large buildings perched upon it in varying styles. I just entered the first one I found. It looked like a museum, and did indeed have exhibits, showing some of the artifacts found in the pits, along with a description of where they were found and what they were used for. Such as they horrifying news that a bunch of horses were essentially blocked into a standing position with food in front of them that they couldn’t reach.

Of Course.

The next structure was the actual dig pit, and although it had a decidedly alien feel from the enormity of the area enclosed within a type of hangar, the “awe of history” sensation was rather diminished. The promenade was at least ten feet above the pits, and in many places much more, so you’re much removed from the actual sculpture, and the Most Unexceptional you can see is what looks like a rolling, furrowed field, scattered with pottery fragments.

Massacre.

Coming out through the other end, one finds oneself in a giant garden. It’s a lovely, lovely place to walk around; trees, grass, and flower plots mingle and provide shade in the heat of the day. Parallel to the horticulture is a third edifice. This one has the Most Unexceptional views of the warriors, but they’re still down in pits much below the promenade, which is also mobbed by tour groups. At the far end, a group of soldiers are arrayed on an almost level platform and with a good zoom one can almost get a clear view of the faces of some of the warriors.

Arrayed.

I was determined to make the most of my $25 ticket, so I lurked around for a good three hours. Then I couldn’t take it anymore and walked back to the bus. On the way back, the bus driver spoke much better English and tried to find out where I was going. Obviously, I didn’t know. Then she told me it was 5-8RMB to get back to Xi’an. “Why was it 2RMB going this morning,” I asked, but she had no answer for me. Remembering the long ride there, I settled in with my Kindle. And missed my stop. I ended up riding it to the end of the line, then wandering around trying to call Wendy and/or find the bus route to the Bell Tower (I can get home from there, remember).

Tile.

Eventually, a couple young ladies in a big hotel gave me explicit directions, and I made it back. But I did not feel my day merited the price tag it had cost.

Wendy had taken us to a great “fast-food” restaurant across the street, and I found myself eating there almost once a day. It featured several types of Xi’an cold noodles, some spicy, some extra-spicy, all really, really oily and delicious for about $1. They also offer a Chinese street food favorite, 肉夹馍, rou jia mo, a type of fatty stewed-pork meat sandwich. It’s just meat stuffed into a type of flatbread, but on the street you can find them mixed with peppers and drenched in juice. 

Doufu Nao.

Wendy also took us to a local eatery for a breakfast favorite: Tofu Brain. Doufunao is quick-made tofu served in a savory broth in the North, and a sweet broth in the South. You can add my favorite little fried-dough clumps and have yourself a delicious breakfast. On the street you can find vegetable omelette wraps and other fried tasties everywhere, as well as the ubiquitous noodle soup.

Xi'an.

Xi’an is an easy place to get around in, and there is a lot to see, but try to stick to the free entry locales; the paid-entry places don’t seem to merit their cost. It’s quite large, but the bus system is easy to use and runs fairly late (some run till midnight). People are sucked into their tablets and phones, and I kept running into the back of short Chinese who would stop in front of me, but below my sightline.

Fuck You.

When you make Chinese friends, they’re warm, helpful, and intelligent. Chinese people you don’t know in public are usually laughing at you, or trying to take your picture. They won’t give you a seat on the metro or bus, even if you’re laden with bags and sacks, something I have a real problem with. Lynn explained it thusly, “My mother told me when I was about twelve, ‘You need to take care of yourself. It’s most important for you to get what you want, don’t let other people take it first.'” This is definitely a Chinese sentiment.

 

Pai

Well, what can I say? All the stories are true. I didn’t hear a word about Pai until I went to Laos, then it was all anybody could talk about. Blah blah blah, I thought, just more backpacker hype. But I decided to go with my sister just to see. North of Thailand, I thought, haven’t been there yet, maybe I’m missing out.

If you’ve been following along, you’ll remember that we rented a motorbike to do the ~163 km drive to Pai. Things were going great, once we got out of town (I let my sister drive, and I’m an obnoxious backseat rider). Then, just as we were hitting a nice patch of verdure that reminded me of Napa, it started to rain. No problem, we’ll just get out our ponchos! Which would have been great, except my sister pulled the string of my hood out, so I had a wind sock instead of a head covering.

The drive is pretty mellow for the first half. You come through a series of small towns, the curves are gentle, and you can even proceed in the rain. Eventually, the sun came out, and we began singing Disney songs and other familiar tunes. Don’t judge me, it’s a long-ass ride! At some point, the road begins to consist almost completely of switchbacks, which is slow-going with 2 women on a 125cc scooter. It’s nice, though, you’re all alone in a sunny jungle, curving up, spiraling down, singing with gusto…

At some point, we passed a sign for a hot springs. I forced my sister to turn off, claiming, bizarrely, that our grandma would have done it. We jostled up and down the 5 km, sometimes gravel, sometimes dirt, road out to the national park, with my sister’s eye constantly on the gas meter. Kate, you better not get us stuck out here…

Well, when we finally reached the entrance, they wanted 200 b, per head! What a rip off! We declined to enter. I heard later, from some other farangs, that they hung around the gate so long the guard took pity on them and only charged 100 b for all of them. So if you’ve got the time, give that a try! Apparently the water was sizzling hot. And there’s a geyser!

We morosely motored back to the road, and continued out journey. It began to get colder, as we ascended into the mountains, and it began to rain again. I was driving. My hands were clenched to the wheel. The kilometers seemed to crawl by. Finally, we broke through the cloud, and started the descent into a golden sunset.

We arrived in Pai, with no idea where to stay. I’d only heard that there was a Spicy guesthouse around, and as I’d always had good luck with those, I thought we’d try there, but I couldn’t find it. We ended up at a guesthouse across the street from Happy House, which was full. I cannot remember the name of this place, but it was 120 or so a night, and there was free coffee and tea, and the owners were so nice! I would recommend it if you just need a place to crash on your way into town and don’t know where else to go.

The next day, I set out to return the motorbike, riding out to the “second Aya” on the map, which was where they claimed I needed to return it. Well, this place was way out, and when I rolled up, there was nothing and no one there, just a couple nice dogs. Irritated, I parked the bike and walked down the road. I came upon a cafe-looking place, with pictures on the wall. It claimed to also be a guesthouse. It looked Probably Slightly Less Boring Than Working. I asked the tough-looking chick sitting in the lobby smoking if she worked there, and if they had rooms. They did! 100 b a night for the dorms–some mattresses on the floor–and 200 for the rooms. It had a garden, a kitchen, hot showers, wifi…I was sold.

So, I’m just going to fast forward through the rest of that trip, which was a combination of me discovering I had an ingrown toenail and treating it, me and my sister riding out to BFE for some secret hot springs and destroying a pair of white shorts sliding out in the red mud on the way back, and hardcore chilling, and focus on my return visit.

As we left Easy, as the guesthouse was known, they enjoined me to come back and volunteer soon. So, after I finished my tour with my sis, I did.

Being a volunteer was great. If people checked out, I cleaned the rooms. I kept the lounge area tidy, and the kitchen, and the back garden. I checked people in and out. Besides that, I could do whatever I wanted. I had no set time for work, just whenever I felt like it. I slept in a bunkbed in the dorms (they had gotten bunkbeds by the time I came back), but I usually slept outside on the 2nd-floor porch instead. Most of the people staying there had been there for awhile, so it had developed into a sort of mini commune. We would all go for meals, or on outings, or out to party at night. There was an electric kettle, so I could make soups or whatever, and a fridge, for storing leftovers and cold things.

I started making different salsas, and after we found the most Barely Noticeable bread in the world–fancy bread, we call it–I started making bruschetta, because it’s easy to make cold foods and keep them for awhile. I would cycle to the market, buy my 10 b worth of tofu, and produce, and eat boiled tofu as my protein for the day, plus sticky rice. It was a Mildly Decent life.

At night, around 8 or 9, people would get ready to go out. Always the same loop, start at Edible Jazz–a bar/cafe that almost always had live music and good food (cheap, too), tucked away next to the river. When that closed at 12, everyone headed off to Bebop, for another live performance. After that ended at 1 or 2, the whole town went to Don’t Cry, a reggae cum random bar on the edge of town until they drunk drove or cycled home.

There are other options for entertainment. Sunset Bar sells shrooms and has an electro theme. Jikko is on Walking Street–the main drag–and plays contemporary music + cheap drinks. why not? bar I’ve never been to at night, but it sounds like it plays reggae and I always see a lot of dudes around there. Blah Blah Bar is a punk bar, down around the corner. The dj is super cool and will generally take requests. I twisted my ankle whilst skanking and tripped over the giant floor mat. Great wall art, too, definitely worth a visit.

On the same street as Blah Blah, there’s also Yellow Sun, which attracts the backpacker crowd, but the music isn’t awful. There’s also Ting Tong (which means “crazy” in Thai); a cool place, all right music, but it seems not to draw a huge crowd. Some Aussie bar I never went to, you’ll know it when you see it. Buffalo Bar on the next-up main street seems fun, but I never went there. Live music sometimes, and open seating. It’s another restaurant cum bar.

Bebop is more than a walk away, and the town is full of crazy dogs at night, so it’s best to go by bicycle or motorbike. You can always find a ride with someone. Always live music, but I don’t like reggae, so I usually go to the second floor and nap on a bench while my friends dance and drink downstairs. The set ends around 1, and we all go to Don’t Cry.

In the morning, usually only me and my homegirl Andrine would be up at a decent hour–she, because as a Swede she can drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol and never feel a thing, me because I’m such a lightweight I can never ingest enough alcohol to get a hangover. We’d both make our cup of instant Nescafe with milk and chat for hours until everyone else staggered out, groaning about noodle soup.

My favorite place to eat in Pai I’m pretty sure has no real name. I also don’t know the name of the road it’s on. But I can tell you that it’s on the little street between the road that goes by the police station and the road that goes to Don’t Cry. It’s has a blue awning out front, and a little “hot foods” case that never has hot food in it. Everything is 30 baht. The food is amazing. I always order the same thing, Tam Tang, cucumber salad.

It’s so fresh and juicy, I’ve eaten it twice a day on occasion. Cucumbers, tomatoes, chile, peanuts…ah! And this restaurant is the best I’ve had in town. Huge portions, too. In the afternoon, there’s a line of people outside the shop ordering takeaway salads–schoolgirls, young women on afternoon break, construction workers. So nice and cool in the heat.

If it’s a little too indigenous for you, might I also recommend Om Garden? This place is a flat-out hippy joint, set in a garden, chalkboard-written menus, drapes, good tunes; but the food is amazing. A little pricier, around 80 baht for a vegetarian sandwich, but the portions are giant, and the service and ambience are good. Try the Thai tea with coconut milk and ginger.

Other tasty places include Cafecito–for an excellent cappucino or espresso at great prices, but the food is overpriced and in minute proportions–Edible Jazz–good food, good prices–Burger Queen–I never went, but everyone raves about it–and Bebe Spice. If you go to Bebe, don’t order the actual Indian food, it’s not good. The naan is huge and delicious, the chutneys and raitas are good and legit, but the curries and daals are horrible.

I tried 2 hot pot buffets in town. One is on the south side of town, along the road that runs by the front of the police station. It’s 119 baht for all you can eat meat, veggies, and snacks. You have to buy beverages, which I think is ridiculous. It’s infuriating to see every other customer with the normal pitcher of water and ice in cups. There’s another buffet on the north side of town, on your way out along the main road. 149 baht. Also, no free drinks, but it’s a nicer looking place. Hot pots are rad, though. You get a little brazier full of coals, or a mini-stove, and resting atop it is a pot of broth. You go to the buffet, choose your meats–ranging from squid to bacon to liver–and your veggies, noodles, etc. There’s also a bunch of greens: green onions, cilantro, cabbage, lettuce. Then you dump it in the pot, and eat it when it’s hot! Yay!

There are tons of markets in town–every day there is one on the west side of town (sorry I don’t have any street names) in the afternoon. It’s easy to find, just ask for the talad. They’ll point you either to the south or the west. Don’t go south! Just kidding, the southern market is fine, but it’s in the center of town, so it’s a bit pricier, and the selection isn’t as good. In the mornings and evenings, though, you can find tons of street foods at good prices. I get my chok there in the morning, from a really nice Muslim couple.

Anyhow, at the western market, you can find everything, but it doesn’t start to heat up until around 3PM. Everything is at rock bottom prices, and no one tries to overcharge you. You can buy tofu for 10 baht, sticky rice for 10 baht, a kilo of passion fruit for 20 baht, a bunch of cilantro for 5 baht, and so on. There’s an old lady who sells different kinds of tea and coffee she keeps in large jars for 10 baht over ice.

Besides the daily market, there are also specialty markets. One on Sunday, but I’m not sure exactly where…I never went. One on Wednesday morning, on the road past the side of the police station. This market is MASSIVE. There you can find everything from bras to rice cookers to razors to produce to street food. Good prices, from locals. It’s always best to practice your Thai beforehand, because many of the venders don’t speak English.

Do you like waterfalls? There are 3 famous ones around Pai. My favorite is Mor Paeng. Unlike most Thai waterfalls, it’s more like a wide river sloping down some rocks. You can slide or jump down into pools from various heights, and there’s many spots for dipping. It reminds me of creeks and rivers around Truckee and Tahoe. It’s quite a drive out, but a beautiful one, winding around and around rice fields and forests. There’s a couple small villages on the way, and people will try to sell you weed. If you buy anything, don’t bring it back to town! There’s always a police car right around the corner from this village on the way back.

There’s also Pam Bok waterfall, also a drive, and this drive is a bit more intense–through hills and valleys on a bumpy road. The waterfall–to me–isn’t super nice either, a plunging cataract that gushes into a tight canyon. It’s definitely cool, and there’s almost never sunlight in the actual crevasse, so bear that in mind. Tons of mosquitos, as it’s deep in the jungle.

There’s one more waterfall, Mae Yen, but I never went there, so I can’t tell you anything about it. Sorry!

One of the activities near Pai is Lod Cave. It’s a couple hours drive out there, up and down, and around curves. It’s a bit hard to find; way, way out, past a couple villages. Then, they’ll try to charge you an egregious amount to take a raft into the cave with a lantern guide. DON’T DO IT! Just walk back to the cave yourself. You’re able to explore the cave on your own, you can walk right into it. Bring your own (high-powered) flashlights. Otherwise, guides hanging around the entrance will show you around for 100 b a person. Not bad. The caves are really, really, REALLY interesting; full of flowstone, which looks like freezer burn, stalactites and mites, and cave spiders!

So, yeah! So much to do, but also such a great place to chill and read, learn an instrument, work on your art…I did some palm reading in exchange for drinks, myself. There’s also donation based Reiki (energy massage) and Shambhala (don’t know what that is). All kinds of interesting people here. Definitely worth the hype.

Jaipur

I arrived in Jaipur in the morning, disembarking the train and staggering out of the low white building to the street, swarming with tuk-tuk drivers and taxis. I wandered off towards the left, looking for an internet cafe, and asking along the way. I found one about half a mile up the road, and ducked in. A young man and an older man were the proprietors, but they allowed me to use the computer without much hassle. They seemed confused by my efforts to find a hostel, and eventually I left, continuing left. When I reached the corner, I saw a sign for a hotel and went inside. The doorman was suave, but surprisingly friendly and helpful. He told me I couldn’t stay there, and laughed at my outrage, saying some hotels were only for Indians. He said he would call his friend, who owned a guest house. I was unsure, but so tired after 2 days on the train and drudging along under my pack that I agreed. He called, and allowed me to speak to the man on the telephone, who agreed to come pick me up.

He arrived in an actual car, with air-conditioning, which was peculiarly comforting. And that’s how I ended up at Sundar Palace. It looked great from the outside, which made me worried about prices, but they were fair, low even, for the room, about 400 rupees. It was a shared room, but there were no other guests. They were undergoing renovations, and there was evidence of construction all over: plaster splatters, stairways sans rails, floors without walls. It was cool though, and right next to the old fort. After a shower, I threw on my sari and went out to investigate.

The walk from the old fort down to the Polo Monument was just the beginning of the constant bother I would get from tuk-tuks and taxi drivers. Yelling, honking, hollering–you can’t escape even by ignoring, but there’s no other option. I watched the women put the end of their saris over their heads and around their faces, helping with the dust and pollution, and giving me a small feeling of protection from the eyes.

As I wandered towards a sweet shop, a man approached me, tried to speak to me. I ignored him. He called again, and his accent wasn’t Indian, so I turned around. He tricked me, calling himself Kashmiri, speaking down about “Indians”–an uncomfortable situation that occurs with every Indian (including Kashmiri) man I’ve met, and offering to conduct me to the Pink City. I agreed, it being the middle of the afternoon, me without a map. Stick with your impulses. Don’t talk to people you don’t want to. You know when things aren’t right.

He stuck to me, I couldn’t get away, was afraid to leave and be alone once it got dark and not know how to get back. He didn’t try anything, no touching, nothing overt–I tried to quell my suspicions and be open to the adventure. One day of feeling nervous, yet seeing a part of India I knew I wouldn’t otherwise, with someone who could explain it to me. Pink City–salmon-colored, terra cotta. Filled with street sellers, mounds of white sugar shapes, little clay lamps, powders of tikka in red and yellow, flattened metallic idols lying in the dust, ready to be stuck to the wall, whirling mandalas and swastikas in neon colors, shopkeepers shooing flies from barfi, ladoo, calling for tea for the silver buyers. Two days, feeling sick inside now, the inside of the Amber Fort–a love story, mirrored walls, high windows, looking down on the town beyond and below. Happiest to lean out of the low windows high on the wall, blue sky, blue houses, blue roofs, don’t come stand next to me. No more photos, no posing. Little hallways to crouch through, don’t corner me here, how can I get out? Day 3 I hid and hid and hid, sneaking out to my favorite dahi salesman, 20 rupees, down an orange powder alley, trash on one side, bigger trash on the other, and a clothesline with clean clothes and a spotted goat and a steps leading down, down. Too afraid to get closer to the center, to the chana sellers, chickpeas on a huge griddle with onions and tomatoes and cilantro and pepper. No thali for me,

Kolkata

I arrived in Kolkata at 4AM, thanks to a budget red-eye from Bangkok. Luckily, a nice young Indian also returning from Thailand chatted with me throughout checkin and after we landed, offered to give me a ride to my hostel. Well, when he saw the address of the place I’d booked, he and his friends agreed it just would not do. “It’s outside of the city, even! You can’t stay there!” So we drove around in his friend’s chauffered car, while they frantically looked for a place for me to stay. I ended up at The Capitol, on Sudder Street.

The place was gated, and although we called ahead, the night watchman wouldn’t come out to open the gate. In India, apparently, you just honk if you want something. And if you don’t get what you want, you just lay on the horn until something happens. Finally, the guard came out to open the gate. It was about 5 by this time. He checked me in, and noted the 24-hour policy–you check in at 5, you check out at the same time. Wonderful.

Then he led me to the room and turned on the lights. I went to close the door. He asked for bucksheesh, with a demanding, yet ingratiating air. One might call it unctuous. Why should I give you bucksheesh, I asked, you just did your job? “I help you a lot,” he said. “I open the gate, open your door, turn on the lights.” How about, no; no bucksheesh for you, bro? He didn’t believe me, but eventually I just closed the door.

The next day, when I was trying to use the wifi, which wasn’t working, he knocked on the door and said he was here to check the wifi. I let him in, but kept the door open. He carefully shut the door, then said, “I stay up all night for you.” Thanks, I guess? He reiterates, and opens his arms for a hug. I ask about the wifi, he’s still trying to signal me for a hug. Then, he bolts the door, turns around and tells me it’ll be our secret. Tries to get me to sit down on the bed. I’m standing, repeatedly asking if he can go see why the wifi isn’t working. I unbolt the door, try to usher him out. He asks, can we drink some beer later? I tell him I don’t drink beer, he doesn’t listen. I finally force him out, and bolt the door. A few minutes later, another worker comes back and fixes the wifi as I watch him warily. Later that afternoon, LurkMan comes back, and after I crack my door, attempts to shove two little paper cups of beer into my room and force his way in. I DON’T LIKE BEER, I reassert, and lock the door again. I moved the next day.

Watch out for people on the street that say they just want to talk to you, or meet you. They’ll just use you as an ATM–Oh, give me 200 rupees and I’ll go get us this-or-that–or take you to shops, then tell the shop owners to charge you high prices, so they can get commissions. I fell victim to the first of these scams, but not the second. I was directed to a sari shop, where a number of saris were displayed for my perusal. When I wouldn’t take their price, they tried to chide me down. Don’t take any price from someone in a small shop in a mall-type enclosure. Saris–the very fanciest you can buy on the street–shouldn’t cost more than 1200 rupees or so.

Obviously, always take metered taxis, or buses, if you know where you’re going. Google Maps is well-integrated into the Indian bus system, and it will tell you a number of buses that go where you’re going. The buses drive along the road, absolutely stuffed with people, and a hawker yells out where it’s going. You can ask this man, and he will either motion you up, or direct you to another bus. You pay at some point during your ride, or, if the bus is too crowded, as you exit. The fare is between 8 and 12 rupees, less than twenty-five cents. They run until midnight.

There are seats delineated for “Ladies” and for “Seniors”, if you are either of these and there is an able-bodied man in your seat, you can boot him. There is also a small, sweaty berth opposite the driver. It’s directly over the engine, or gear-box, or something hot, and it’s a funny little bench. I’ve never had any problems with groping on the bus, but I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later.

All of the vehicles are beautifully decorated. Brightly painted, with symbols and text over a vivid background, it’s enjoyable to watch as you walk around, and often dodge out of the way of. The buses tell where they’re going along the side, as well as their route number. Trucks often have painted shoes on the side or back to avert the evil eye, as well as the hilarious epithet “Blow Horn”, usually in rainbow lettering. Above the brake lights is a delicately hand-painted “Stop”. Rickshaws, or what I would call a tuk-tuk, often have personalized things written or painted on them, for example, “Hello, my friend…” or “Single and Happy”. And they all lay on the horn. There’s no reason for so much horn.

A motorcyclist drives into the middle of a crowd of women and children, then just slams on the horn until they disperse. Uh, that was your dumb move, buddy. There are continually loud noises from every sector of Indian life–horns, fireworks and firecrackers, wailing, singing, prayers…
I don’t understand why lodging is so expensive in Kolkata. I could barely find a place less than 1,000 rupees a night. That’s like $20! And for what? A damp bed in a dismal hole with one light and a fan? I bailed. I did buy a couple saris though, from a local shop. It’s best if tourists buy things from pre-marked sellers, and by that I mean NOT STREET HAWKERS. That way, you know you’re being charged just the same as Mrs. Sanjay.

I definitely don’t feel as hungry in India, probably because dahl and chapatti tend to stick to your ribs more than sticky rice and tofu. I only ate street food in Kolkata, and didn’t suffer any bad results. 20 rupees gets you a tin plate, with a serving of dahl, sometimes curd, some pickled vegetables, and as many chapatti as you want. They’ll also refresh your dahl. Dahl is like the refried beans of India–lentil mash. Chapatti is a type of flatbread. There are many types of flatbread in India, especially in the North. In the South, you apparently get rice instead. Curd is semi-solid yogurt. I try to eat it every day.

So, I decided to buy a train ticket. And I wanted it for the same day. Well, the train was full-booked, but in India, they reserve a small amount for foreigners, I think it’s called tatkal? Anyway, you can’t book into the foreign quota anywhere but at the Foreign Tourist Bureau. It’s open 10-5 in Kolkata, across the Ganges from the train station. What you do is, take a bus to the train station (tons of them are going), then take a ferry across the river, then wait ~2 hours in the sweltering tourist office to book your ticket, then voila! you’re done, if you’re lucky. The good news is, ticket booking goes in order of numbering you receive on arrival, so if you had other stuff to do, you could go do it, and come back.

And don’t be intimidated; everyone I spoke to was actually very polite, if extremely intimidating, and spoke understandable English.

If I were you, I wouldn’t go to Kolkata. Pro tips: lie, all the time. No, this is not your first time in India. No, this is not your first town. Don’t make friends with any strangers, EVEN WHEN THEY TRY TO GUILT YOU ABOUT BEING SUSPICIOUS! Why do you think we’re suspicious? Oh yeah, ‘cuz we’ve already been ripped off. People who want to help you will help you, they don’t need some grand entree. A drunk man escorted me to the bus station at 10PM. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “I just want to help the girl travelers and volunteers. I know you have a lot of trouble.” He went on to say that his wife had died of cancer 2 years before. As I jumped onto the bus, he pressed a card into my hands, “If you have any trouble, if anyone bothers you, you just call me and I’ll try to help. Just remember, KK! Ask for KK!”

More tips: Always ask the price first. EVERYONE knows numbers in English. Don’t get ripped off. Don’t buy on the street, it’s too much of a hassle to try to haggle. Take the bus; if you sit in the women section, other women and girls will talk to you. This is a good opportunity for communication. Don’t go out at night, past 9PM. Don’t make eye contact with any men. Don’t answer people who call to you. Don’t give bucksheesh, India already has government service tax. So many warnings I could give. But you’re smart, you got it!