Archive for June, 2006

the ghosts of luang prabang

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

we’re in luang prabang, laos – a surprisingly beautiful and elegant little town which has been preserved in the style of crumbling french provincial. elements of former colonial grandeur are still in evidence nearly everywhere – from the sweeping cobblestone streets to the carved balconies overlooking the river. inky black coffee thick enough to coat a spoon and croissant are de rigeur. lingering traces of opulence combine with lush exotica to produce a heady mix. dozens of golden wats stud the skyline while camellia and hibiscus blossoms litter the pavement. rice cakes are set in the sun on bamboo screens to dry while men congregate over games of boules. the ghost of laos royalty wander the quiet alleyways at night and whisper through the palms during the day. these were the boulevards of kings, not so long ago. and luang prabang carries itself with a dignity which lets you know they have not forgotten.

file under: pet peeve

Tuesday, June 6th, 2006

ugh – those linen “fisherman pants” that backpackers seem to love. they make the wearer look like they’re walking around with a load in their undies.


feverish night

Monday, June 5th, 2006

j’s been sick since we hit luang prabang – fever, chills, nausea, aches. which only becomes worrisome when you remember the guidebook saying “healthcare in laos is so poor as to be virtually non-existant” and recommending that for anything more serious than a stomach bug, you immediately hop the next flight to bangkok for medical attention.

you never think about it until your imagination starts wondering if this could be something more serious. thankfully we have the resources to *get* on the next plane, if need be. but it gives a concerned wife a sleepless night, until the next morning she finds the fever has broken, thank god.

the slow boat

Sunday, June 4th, 2006

it’s the second day of our slow boat trip down the mekong river, from chiang khong, thailand to luang prabang, laos. the river is strangely hypnotic, with it’s thick muddy whorls and eddies, its cragged shores. its size belies the power that lies just beneath the surface. even as we motor along, it pulls at us, tugging us towards the jagged rocks. fishermen in long-tail boats cast their nets. children run alongside at the banks, waving to us as we float by. women bathe neck deep. small scattered huts hint at the lives clustered close to shore. the mekong is a natural infrastructure where unpaved land and “unexploded ordnances” are a part of everyday life. the mekong *is* life, in these parts.

we stopped overnight in pak beng, a tiny smidge of a village with nothing much more than a few hasty guesthouses. people bathe at the side of the road, chickens run rampant, and the electricity only comes on between 6 and 11 pm. (”lights out” is fairly common in much of impoverished laos, where electricity is luxury.) after finding a room for the evening, we walked out to find some dinner, and somehow stumbled into a local wedding reception, where we were plied with homemade moonshine and 50 cent blaring from the stereo.

muzzy headed this morning, we’ve fortified ourselves with bottles of orangeade and baguette sandwiches, and settle into the narrow wooden benches for another eight hours. time drifts. the river drifts. we float along, pulling in at random bends and banks to let locals on or off. we take on a cargo of several hundred kilos of rice. we sleep and we eat, and we watch the river and river life. we pass through rainy patches and alternate scorching streaming sun. we gaze at the unending hils of jungle and landmines which rise up on all sides, surrounding us with heavy air and the buzz of insects so loud they pierce the drone of the motor.

the slow boat is uncomfortable and long and , true to name, slow. but it’s an essential part of the bonding process. to understand life in laos, you must understand the mekong. appreciating that is something which cannot be rushed. photos here.

file under: bizzare

Saturday, June 3rd, 2006

becoming strangely attached to having a myriad of geckos in my bedroom

not my ordinary everyday

Friday, June 2nd, 2006

it’s just another bus trip, so similar to so many others, yet i’m once again amazed by what i see out my window. changing landscapes of flat fields or rolling mountains. banana plantations and ramshackle villages scroll by. farmers, schoolchildren, and elders – farms, schools and cemetaries. rivers and mango trees. it’s all so vastly different from my everyday world, and yet somehow, it has become my momentary everyday. and the people i watch go past – it is their everyday. these landscapes are not mine to keep, but to glimpse only as they flash by. these vignettes will soon be gone from view, existing only in my memory, soon enough. and yet, sometimes i forget this is not my ordinary world. i forget that this is extra-ordinary.

but i could watch it go by forever.

a day with the ellies

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

what an incredible day!

since we arrived in thailand, i’ve been trying to find a way to spend some quality time interacting with elephants, without supporting any of the practices which are so exploitative (trekking, rides, shows, etc.) I feel so strongly about respecting and caring for these gorgeous creatures that i’d sooner ride a trained tiger than get on one of the park benches strapped to the back of so many of the tourism elephants. so i was beiginning to think i’d end up leaving the country without getting up close and personal with any ellies, when i finally stumbled upon elephant nature park. it’s an organisation run by a woman named lek, and it’s so unique to these parts that it’s been featured by national geographic, the bbc, discovery channel, animal planet and others. and i consider myself so lucky to have found it too.

lek runs a sanctuary for elephants which is devoted to respecting, protecting, and caring for these giants without violence or exploitation of any type. she currently provides a home for around 30 ellies, all rescued from a variety of “work” backgrounds or orphaned. and in the course of saving these animals, she has become a one-woman crusade for changing the treatment and legal protections of elephants in thailand.

as a country which purports to revere the elephant, it is shocking to learn how few protections and resources the thai government grants them. one hundred years ago, there were 100,000 elephants in thailand – today there are fewer than 5,000. and that number is continually dropping as more elephants die from overwork and abuse. the elephant has no more protection than a common cow in the eyes of the law, and in practice, elephants are objects of property, with which the owner can do whatever they like, almost free of consequence. and so the ellies which lek rescues all come from a myriad of horror story backgrounds. deliberately blinded, victims of landmines, orphaned by poachers, shattered by tractor-trailer trucks, even addicted to speed. the one thing they all have in common, however, is as victims of the pujan. the pujan is a traditional rite for “breaking” an elephant – physically, mentally, spiritually. footage of the horrific ceremony makes grown men cry, and once you’ve seen it, it’s impossible to erase the nightmare from your memory. the elephant is isolated, bound into a crate for 4-10 days, nearly immobilised and deprived of all food and water and sleep while they undergo hour after hour of torture. they’re stabbed, burned, and beaten with knifes, nails and sticks. they’re roped and gagged and bloodied. their eyes are wild with fear and pain, and the helpless cries would haunt you. the more they resist, the worse it gets, until finally, there is no more resistance, only a shell of an animal left. wounded, traumatised, and scared. all in the name of creating a submissive elephant which will respond to commands and perform party tricks. almost every elephant undergoes this at the age of two – emerging from it much like a p.o.w., scarred, and like all victims of extreme abuse, potentially dangerous.

this custom is so widespread, yet so little known. and lek is on a mission to eradicate it, by publicising it internationally, and receiving death threats as a result. ( in fact, one of her ellies was tragically poisoned while she was in hiding, as retribution for the negative publicity – a guilt and grief she still carries with her.) she’s out to prove that elephants can be raised and trained with positive reinforcement, and to keep other ellies from enduring the pujan. she’s determined to prove that ellies can be just as profitable to tourism in their natural environment as they can performing on the streets or in trekking camps.

and so our magical day with the ellies was spent feeding them, bathing them, watching them play – just being with them, being ellies. which is really all the universe intended for them in the first place.

again, i can’t endorse lek’s work highly enough. if these stories moved you, please consider donating to her cause. she’s an incredible woman doing incredible things, and i am in awe of her passion and commitment. see the rest of the photos here.

in the “it’s a small blogosphere” category, we met a couple named tim and jessica at the elephant park, and as we we’re talking, i couldn’t shake the feeling that i knew them from somewhere. then, suddenly it hit me: i’d been reading their round-the-world blog before we left on our trip! it was all a bit surreal. we had a great time chatting with them, and wish them well on the last leg of their journey.

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