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December 25, 2006

Happy Holidays

ALGOMA MILLS, CANADA - Just wanted to jump online and throw up a quick post to wish everybody a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwaanza or whatever it is that you happen to be celebrating.

I've been back in Canada for an entire week now. Macau turned out brilliant for me. I had almost no preconceptions about it before I got there and as a result every corner I turned as I explored the city was full of discovery.

Hong Kong was fantastic as well. Everything I'd imagined it to be. Full of glass and steel and action. I opted for wholesome accommodation in what is probably the nicest YMCA on the planet before jetting over to Tokyo then on to Toronto.

This holiday season I'll be making some minor adjustments to the site but don't plan to post regularly as it will only contribute to the disruption in continuity that this visit - by plane - represents.

Check back in the New Year to find me returning to Bangkok in order to continue my long march across Asia for Europe and beyond.

December 16, 2006

Laos - Bangkok - Macau

MACAU - I'm pretty sure I just checked into a whore house. At first everything seemed legitimate. The fact that nobody spoke English wasn't a problem. It had a good review in the guide book. I was a little surprised that they didn't know the word Internet; strange for a place that caters to foreign backpackers. I suppose it should be expected though, after all we're in China, not Kansas.

After settling in I decided to take the stairs down to the street, rather than the elevator, to do some exploring. That's when things got uhh.. funny. Each of the five flights of stairs, as I went down, had more and more Chinese girls loitering and smoking cigarettes; no men, just girls. As I squeezed past they each, in turn, first looked surprised to see me then quickly started either winking and catcalling or touching my arms. Despite my wishes, this is not the way the world works. Something is amiss. They're either 'women of ill repute', or I've accidentally infiltrated a strange convent of virgins and I'm the first specimen of the opposite sex they've ever seen. Either way, I'm afraid. I'm writing this as a fugitive from my own hotel.

Other than my accommodation, the city looks alright. I'm in the old part of town, the streets are very narrow and a little decrepit. The guide book refers to it as "faded colonial glory". Until 1999 the island was a Portugese territory. Now it's got the same status as Hong Kong; a 'Special Administrative Region' of China.

The overnight train to Bangkok wasn't so bad. I ended up having to ride 3rd class, as the sleepers were sold out. It was fun though as I was the only farang in the whole section. I made friends with everyone. The real Thailand. At 6am my new comrades made it their responsibility to rush me off that train and onto another where another group of equally determined Thais got me to the airport entirely by public transit. Trains, buses, transfers and eventually a free airport shuttle. 23 baht. Less than a dollar. Ha! If you'd ever been to Bangkok, you'd realize how much of a miracle it is. I was expecting to pay 20 or 30 times that.

Now that I think about it, every single person I've interacted with in the last few days speaks zero English. Even the Chinese man on the plane who insisted I help him eat his sandwiches (all six of them) wasn't any good for English conversation. He was, however, good for a free meal and some mutual smiling and cheers-ing of tuna sandwiches, which, with an empty belly, and a no frills flight, beats conversation any day.

Tomorrow I'll explore Macau before taking the ferry to Hong Kong as I continue my pilgrimage home for the holidays.

December 14, 2006

Si Phan Don (4000 Islands)

IMG_1435PAKSE, LAOS - Si Phan Don (literally '4000 Islands') is a remote group of islands in the extreme South of Laos. It's where the Mekong River fans out into an intricate network of channels, rocks, sandbars and islets more than 14km wide before crossing into Cambodia. It's paradise.

The whole place feels as if it's at the end of the Earth. The lack of 24-hour electricty contributes to the stars dominance of the night sky while the lights of fishermen glitter in the river. During the daylight hours, water buffalo wade in the shallows, women wash both clothing and kids in the river while longtail boats zig and zag in every direction. In this part of the world the river is life.

The rare Irrawady dolphins and a few very impressive waterfalls means that this place won't stay undiscovered for long. I give it 10 years. 10 years until it's completely unrecognizable as the quaint little backwater that it is today.

When we weren't cycling or lounging in hammocks we were white-water kayaked and sunned ourselves on the murky river while armed border guards on the Cambodian bank looked on. The dolphins appeared from time to time but were too shy to pose for photos.

This place also hold the distinction of having the least expensive accommodation I've seen so far. 70c (USD) per person for a bungalow on the river with a mosquito net, a balcony and two hammocks. (pictured here, here and here) What a steal! Who needs electricity? Not me.

I spent nearly a week away from 'civilization' before arriving back to this provincial capital called Pakse. For the first time in many months, I'm actually on my own as I've already started my long march home for the holidays. From here I'm looking forward to a full 5 days of travel before I actually arriving in Toronto.

Tomorrow's mission will be to cross to the Thai side of the border and secure a 2nd-class sleeper on the all-night train to Bangkok, where, if I'm lucky, I'll squeak in in just enough time to make my flight to Macau (a mysterious place I haven't really heard of somewhere near China). After wandering for a day in Macau, I'll jump on a ferry to Hong Kong to do the same before flying over to Tokyo to eat actual Japanese sushi. From Toyko it seems I'll be flying direct to Toronto which surprises me a little. Can a jet carry that much fuel? I'm sure they've worked it out. I hope they've worked it out. Then I'll be home in the snow. I plan to be extra merry and festive this year. I can't wait.

December 10, 2006

Home For Christmas

VIENTIENNE, LAOS - I made a personal promise several years ago, while spending a very strange Christmas on a beach in Australia, to do my best to be home for the holiday season.

In a week's time, I'll be flying from Bangkok to Toronto for a break in my journey; A much needed resumption of my name, identity and a perfect chance to catch up with friends and family back home. I understand that this 'vacation from my vacation' poses an awkward break in continuity for theroadislife.com; something entirely permissible in life but not on a shiny Internet travelogue. In this contest life wins.

I hope that any purists out there find solace in the fact that I'll be returning to Bangkok to continue the second half of this global circumnavigation in the new year. No forward progress by air travel.

Logistically Bangkok was the most logical departure point for me, thus making the last few weeks in Laos, part of a big loop back to the point I was nearly than a month ago. In the new year, I plan to travel from Bangkok through Cambodia, Vietnam, China and beyond.

For now though, I have six days to explore as much of Vientienne, the nations capital, and the Southern provinces as I can before I need to bee-line back to Thailand. Tick. Tock.

December 08, 2006

Two Days. Two Trips to the Hospital

No FunVANG VIENG, LAOS - Some countries have excellent medical facilities, some countries don't. The fact that Laos is a communist, war-torn, poverty stricken backwater means that it falls clearly into the latter group. Which, of course, is why I'm very glad that this x-ray isn't of my hand.

Any tourist infrastructure of this Northern Lao town is centred around Lao Beer, illicit drugs, river tubing and giant rope swings amongst some of the most beautiful limestone cliffs and caves.

Despite the spring-break attitude that prevails the topography of this Northern Lao town, Vang Vieng is absolutely spectacular. Limestone cliffs and caves provide a perfect setting for kayaking, hiking or just drifting in a tube down the river. It quickly becomes dangerous when combined with the cheap Lao Beer, illicit drugs, sketchy bamboo bridges and giant rope swings along the water.

In the last two days we've spent more hours at the local hospital than any other place in town. First it was one of our group who, after falling in the river, emerged from the emergency room with 20 stitches in his gut and few more in his wrist (surprisingly, still in good spirits).

The broken finger above, is that of a solo American tourist who fell while hiking back from a local cave. We stumbled upon him while bathing in a local lagoon. After realizing he was travelling on his own, we helped get him to the hospital and tried to look cheery as they straightened is finger before shipping him off to the capital for some extra surgery.

I'm happy for the opportunity to practice my first-aid but am treading carefully and playing ultra safe. I've seen enough blood and guts for a while. No matter how friendly the doctors here may be, I plan to injure myself in Canada only.

Tomorrow we're planning a white water kayaking trip South toward Vientienne, the capital, where there is rumoured to be an ATM that accepts foreign cards; it can't come soon enough. It's amazing how fast one can burn through a couple Million Kip. It seems like so much.

December 03, 2006

The Mighty Mekong River

LUANG PRABANG, LAOS - There are still places in the world where river travel is quicker and more practical than driving. The North of Laos is one of those places. And I'm very glad for it. The 3-days it took for us to get here were spectacular.

The slow boat from Huay Xai (at the Thai border) is of the long wooden variety. It's crammed full of nearly 80 people and outfitted with some of the most uncomfortable wooden benches on the planet but what it lacks in basic comforts, it makes up for with stunning scenery and camaraderie. By the end of the first day, everybody was happily sharing the limited floor space for sleeping along with any extra food, cigarettes and stories.

In total, the boat trip took two full days as it wound it's way down the mighty Mekong River toward the interior of the country where we got off at what might be one of the more charming towns in the world; Luang Prabang.

It's a lazy town set in the jungle on the banks of the Mekong river. The fading french architecture mixes effortlessly with Buddhist temples and jungle palms as monks, clad in orange robes, collect alms among the baguette vendors and patrons of the street side cafes. I've felt as if I've been living inside the pages of an issue of National Geographic Magazine for the last week.

*Part of the charm of Laos is the lack of Western development; there is only one international ATM Machine in the whole country, and from what I can tell, just as many Internet connections running fast enough for me to upload photos. It's too bad as this town is a photographers dream. If I find a suitable connection I'll upload some pictures, otherwise it may be a while.