Thursday, November 24, 2011

Laotian Sun Bear Rescue Center- Kuang Si Falls (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Surrounding Kuang Si WaterFall in Laos is absolutely stunning emerald rain forest, and two of the jungle's native inhabitants are the Malaysian Sun Bear, and Asiatic Black Bear. Their sacred duty is helping spread the seeds of trees from digested fruit far and wide, helping keep the forest, alive, healthy, and strong.
Asian Sun Bear- long tongue

Sadly, idiots in China use bile from bears' liver for medicinal purposes, which creates demand for these poor creatures to be shot.
The Free The Bears rescue center is located by the falls in the protected forest, and has saved cubs from the wild, who otherwise would have little or no chance of survival, after their mothers had been poached. The small bears are then raised in captivity, underneath the forest canopy.

Let me make something clear China. Bear bile does nothing! It is a rumor that it has any medicinal value, and if you want, there are cheaper, and reproduce-able medicines that perform the same tasks bear bile proponents claim it has. STOP using bear bile dammit! Wise up!

Here is a quick video of the bears playing together. They have serious balance. feel free to make a donation to the rescue center, whose website I believe is here. I know I did when I visited.
Free The Bears

Keep biodiversity and the forests alive! PEACE- And enjoy Kuang Si Falls!!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Don Quixote Tarzans Kuang Si Waterfall- (Luang Prabang, Laos)

Posse up! Don Quixote has convinced five hapless souls to join him on a 32 km bike ride to Kuang Si Waterfall. We rent our noble steeds in the early morning for, as we will discover, the too cheap price of a $1.25, and start pedaling through the city.
Whoops, the Portugese girl’s chain just fell off. The nobleman will help her fix it, okay, we’re good.
Oh no, my chain just fell off. Now my hands are dirty. These bikes are hoopties. One speed, rusted, barely move, par for the course here in Laos, but that’s okay. Portugal is in trouble again. It’s going to be a long ride isn’t it ... 
Trying to fix her bike
 Can’t work it, can’t manipulate the chain, it’s really stuck. Lyndsay from Montana stays behind, as the others, unaware of our recurring plight, continue onwards. A half hour later we’re no closer to fixing the bike, just a heck of a lot dirtier. The temptation of course is to say, “Sorry girl, ain’t my bike,” and pedal away. I guess it’s growth as a person that makes me want everyone I’ve come with to have a good time, and forces me to make sure she’s up and riding before I move on.
Well, that or stupidity.
Game theory, which takes a very dim view of humanity, predicts that people will always act in their best overall selfish interests, and only penalties and consequences keep people “honest."  … ‘I’d like to steal his Porsche, but I might get shot, or imprisoned, better not.’ I simply am too decent a person to succeed in an arena where game theory is the rule of the land. (Hollywood)
I need tools, that little shop 100 meters away might have some. We walk the bike over, and communicate with a small Laotian man. He instantly grabs a wrench, and starts at it. His hands dirty, oily, and within five minutes, Portugal’s chain is back on and functional. Wow, saved me some time and heartache there. I’m grateful.
I’m waiting for her to do something more than just verbally thanking him. Waiting … She’s getting back on the bike. I can’t hold back any longer. “Aren’t you going to tip him?” She pauses, and then purchases three small bottles of water for twenty cents apiece. She makes no additional move. When she turns around I pull out a dollar and hand it to the small man.
We’re way behind our cohorts, the hills becoming too steep to ride up, especially with our hoopties. Lindsay and Portugal start walking up. I’m too manly (see stupid) to admit defeat; persisting, pedaling hard, the slope seems to be swallowing me whole. To gain speed I change direction, moving almost sideways before careening off the path and into the bush for one-million negative style points … Then my chain falls off.
Me pedaling into the bush (caught by Lindsay)
We continue, riding the flats and downhills, most often walking up the inclines, passing small farms, dodging chickens and water buffalo attempting to block the roads, and young Laotian children at play.

Tourists in tuk-tuks drive-by smiling, shaking their heads, wondering at our choice of transport. Well, the choice of a charismatic, but not so bright Don Quixote, who convinced the others to join his quest.
By the time we get to kilometer thirty, the girls are complaining of hallucinations, completely spent. They’re out of water, almost unable to move. The Don pours some of his own water down their throats, re-hydrating them, urging them onward.
Eventually we arrive, and enter into the protected forest area, walking by a rescue center for Malaysian sun bears whose mothers have been poached in the wild, and onto Kuang Si Waterfall, the rainy season having upped the usual torrential volume of water cascading over the rocks.

Kuang Si Waterfall- the hard journey was worth it! So beautiful!

The area consists of several pools, the water collecting and then quickly dropping to the next. The current is voracious. Let it grab a hold of you’ll end tumbling down onto the jagged rocks below.
I carefully wade into the water. The surroundings are ethereal, the tall trees and emerald jungle accented by the roar of the falls. Only Mother Nature’s bellows could sound so peaceful.
Kuang Si Falls (lower pool with Tarzan rope)
A Laotian man climbs onto a tree whose trunk curves and hangs over the pool near the junction of the falls. There is a rope hanging off an upper branch, but only after he pulls out a hidden hook do I realize how people manage to grab onto it. He pulls the line to him, swings over the water, lets go, and plunges in.
Slowly, I make way there, noting where my feet are in relation to the slippery rocks, wading barefoot through a fast moving feeder stream, treading carefully. I climb the tree, hook the rope, and swing Tarzan-like over the water, releasing at maximum elevation. SPLASH. The current has me. I feel myself pulled quickly downstream. I look up for a second and realize I’m much closer to the next waterfall than I thought. I swim like a mad man towards the riverbank, racing sideways against the swift current. With fear coursing through me, I reach my feet down, the rocky riverbed sediment stopping my momentum; I’m able to stand. I breathe a sigh of relief.

Rich, then Jeremy and Paul swing off the rope. Check out how the current carries me as I swim
towards the riverbank
Rich emerges from falls (highest pool)
A minute apart, my friends Paul and Jeremy plunge from the rope and into the waters below. I yell for them to swim hard towards me, as if they needed my direction. Elated at having survived unscathed we play in the waters.
Paul, Rich, and Jeremy 
“Ouch!” What was that, “Did I just get bit?”
“Fish,” replies one of the locals.
The bites keep coming in the murky water, it's frightening. Suddenly I feel sorry for the worms.
I am told they are “doctor fish,” often found in the massage parlors of SE Asia, used to nibble away the dead skin on patrons' feet.
Another bite, this one hurts. I don’t know what they’re doing in this fast moving pool of water, but their getting a free lunch. We exit stage left, and up the riverbank.
We hang out in the beauty of the forest for an hour, chatting with other travelers, listening to the gushing water. I feel both elated and peaceful at the same time, a tendency I have when being in the midst of stunning nature. If darkness weren't set to fall, I feel like I could stay here forever.
Lindsay Houska and Karin at play
The sun begins to disappear behind the mountains. No one besides me is even considering the possibility of cycling home. The girls negotiate with an eager Laotian who piles our bikes atop his Tuk-Tuk and drives us back into town.
Load up bikes, our way home
We arrive exhausted, having enjoyed our day at the magical waterfall, playing Tarzan, swimming, and in a reversal of usual circumstances, being served as lunch for the fish. Tonight Don Quixote will be back chasing windmills in his dreams. He's tired. It will be well deserved.

Luang Prabang Night Market (Laos, SE Asia)

Luang Prabang night market
Each evening in South East Asia thousands upon thousands of vendors haul their wares from all over to a centrally designated locale, in hopes of making a few (and I do mean only a few) dollars selling their goods, mainly to foreigners eager to grind their asking prices into the ground.
For many tourists it’s almost a game to see how cheaply you can purchase something. Often for the seller, the small amounts of money make the difference between their children eating or not. In Luang Prabang, a debate over 5,000 Laotian Kip might seem to be a numerically big deal, but the translation in dollar terms is a mere sixty-three cents.
A night market negotiation
Each evening the vendors sit for hours upon hours courting customers, many of stands selling nearly identical goods, hoping you purchase from them. Maybe you like their smile, their energy, or maybe something really catches your eye. “Buy mister, buy! Give you good price.”
The street is long, and the number of stalls seems mind boggling as you browse. “Buy, buy, sit down. Buy from me.” It makes me dizzy.
If they go home with a $5 profit, it was time well spent. We all like low prices, don’t we?
Monks in Luang Prabang

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rocking Bus Ride on Stormy Seas to Luang Prabang

When you arrive in Hawaii, a beautiful woman welcomes you by adorning you with a flowered lei. Similarly here in gorgeous Vang Vieng, to punctuate what a pleasant ride the bus company promises you to Luang Prabang, upon boarding, they hand you a pink plastic barf-bag.

The Northerly trek through Laos is covered by one sole, beaten-up dirt road which winds its way serpentine-like through steep mountains. I get motion sickness relatively easily. If I’m aboard a 30 person boat on choppy water I’m usually the second or third person to heave-ho, so I know in advance I’m in trouble.
“Hey, does anyone want to make bets on who throws-up first?” I offer the four couples sitting around me, “I’m likely the favorite.”
We start talking. Two of the couples have been travelling for years, as if seeing the world was a profession. One of the guys had been travelling for--
-- “Eight years??”
“Eight years,” he affirms.
“How do you do that?” I ask, “At least I have some belief I have a home,” my mind flashing back to an already hazy Los Angeles, realizing I’ve been away for the better part of the last year.
“Well, I stop places and work to make money as a dive master.”
“Hey, we’re dive masters too,” chimes in a couple from Denmark.
“Us too,” states a surprised Canadian couple.
“Seriously?” I question, looking around for the hidden camera. “All of you are dive masters?”
Even the Swedish couple that by some miracle bucked the odds and weren’t dive masters, had lived on a boat for a year. The conversation naturally turns to the under-water world, including stories of their dumbest students who pay the hefty fee to SCUBA and promptly refuse to so as much wade into the practice pool.
For my benefit, they speak of rough seas and novice divers on small boats, unable to handle side-to-side sway of the ocean, regurgitating their lunch for the fish, laughing as my face turns a darker shade of blue. They're like bullies on the playground teasing the weak kid. I slump in my seat, realizing that in the “Puking Sweepstakes,” I’ve gone from merely favorite, to sure-fire lock.
A view from the bus
Meanwhile, the old bus plods ahead down the dirt road like a shoe-less drunk navigating a street littered with glass, slowing down to stall speeds while traversing the road's many pot-holes, and taking the serpentine mountain bends like a grandma in a wheel chair. The 100 mile trek is set to take 8 hours. Any MIT mathematician with the help of an advanced supercomputer could calculate our average speed as “slow.”
Our large vehicle continues to rock back and forth like a small ship on stormy seas, bad shock absorbers unable to handle any bump; each dip in the road creating the sensation of being nearly capsized by twenty foot waves. I start to feel nauseous, and attempt to meditate my way out of it. No dice, the body and brain's equilibrium seem to have a mind of their own.
I look out the window at the spectacular views of mountainous jungle and the valleys below, hoping the natural beauty helps me regain some semblance of balance, as I bravely battle the elements. My forehead falls back into my hands as I fight the losing battle.
Almost seven hours in, I’m somehow still afloat.
By some divine intervention we hit a stretch where we actually seem to moving straight ahead; perhaps the storm has passed.
Dark clouds quickly cover the sun, the wind howls. The serpentine passes start anew. A horrible mechanical burning like smell emanates from somewhere, something’s wrong, it actually gives me hope.
 It’s gotta be our bus! Please be our bus! We’ll stop, I can walk off the dizziness. Ten minutes later we’re still sailing, the putrid stench becoming stronger. We go around a sharp bend, hitting a bump, the bus leaps off the road, landing, rocking back side to side. I’m enveloped by a wave of nausea. I look around for the pink barf bag.
BLUUURGGHHHHHHHHH!!! My stomach evacuates itself. Then again. And one more time for good measure.
“Well you were prediction came true,” excitedly shouts the bald Danish dive master with mock encouragement.
Seven and a half hours of the eight hour ride I lasted. So close.

Wait, why are we pulling over, why are we stopping?
“Fixing the clutch,” answers a bus employee.
“Couldn’t you have stopped have stopped five minutes ago?!!” 
broken down
It's wasted breath. A half hour later we pull into the Luang Prabang bus depot, I'm still not feeling well. We disembark, and I grab my belongings and start slowly walking away.
The bald Danish guy throws his arm over my shoulder and teases me, "Hopefully your children have stronger stomachs." 
If I wasn't so dizzy I'd punch him.  
"Hopefully your children have hair," I retort back weakly as he walks away. He laughs. He knows he deserved it. Fucking bullies.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Battling the Vang Vieng Mud Monster with Hmong Help

Laotian village against mountainous back-drop near Vang Vieng 
Rent a bike- $2. Head out of the tiny tourist area and start cycling up the main drag. Contrasting the small bars, restaurants, and convenience stores that line the streets stands a Buddhist temple, lighting the road in its splendid colors, behind it the lush, rain forest covered mountains. I keep pedaling, not exactly sure what I am looking for or where I’m headed, but secure in the knowledge it’s impossible to get lost, this being the only road and all.
I stop at Vang Vieng high school, watching students ride in on their bicycles, all holding umbrellas, to shield them from the tropical sun this moment, and for their way home, the afternoon's guaranteed rain storm.
Vang Vieng children riding to school with umbrellas
Passing trucks and buses kick up dust from the dirt road. The drivers of SE Asia's ubiquitous motorbikes smile and wave friendly hellos to me as they slowly ride by. 
Seven km outside Vang Vieng, I pull off the road and onto a gravel path. Not far ahead a water buffalo sits lazily in a gigantic mud-hole. I try to impress him by riding through his domain, but instead of proudly passing by, my tire collapses into the foam-like softness of the terrain. If I was going more than 1 mph I would have flown over the handlebars, but without the necessary forward momentum to perform this feat, I instead fall off the bike to the side, my legs sinking close to a foot into the mud. 
I pull my right leg out with great difficulty, placing it back on more “solid mud” but my left leg is stuck. “Hey water buffalo, call for help! Use your bell!”
With enormous difficultly and strength, I remove my leg from the trap, well, most of it at least. The Mud Monster has swallowed my shoe. I had to pull so hard to get my leg out, my sneaker was the left over prize in the battle for survival. Warily I reach in, and attempt to pull it back to safety. The Mud Monster growls, but relents.
I continue, finally arriving at the river and the local Eco-Lodge. No one’s there, but looking around I find evidence of Laos’s Communist past.
Photo of Lenin on the wall in Vang Vieng at the Eco-Lodge
The bar is fully stocked and if someone were dastardly enough to wish to steal from these poor people, it would be all too easy. Instead I meditate for 15 minutes by the river before someone comes and offers to cook me lunch.

I keep going down the road, 14km later, I find signs pointing me towards the ”Great Caves of Vang Vieng.”  What choice do I have but turn-off and head in this direction. I stop by a canal with children playing, cannon-balling, diving into the water and cooling off on this hot day.
Hmong children at play in this distant canal
I finally arrive at cave headquarters, a simple stand renting “torches” (flashlights) for $1.25. A group of men lies on a wooden deck beneath a thatched roof. After briefly exploring the caves, which I was ill-equipped for, I ask if I can join them.
Their Hmong, a minority group in Laos who fought against the communist Pathet Lao during the Laotian Civil War, and were allies of the United States during the horrendous, turbulent times of the Vietnam War. Knowing that now, I shouldn't have been so surprised to find them able to speak some English
They tell me stories from when they were young children, of an American fighter jet being shot out of the sky, the pilot successfully crash landing close by to where we are. The Hmong found him first, alone, injured, and naturally frightened. “Come with us,” they implored him. He refused, behaving like a cornered animal.
“Come with us, we will protect you,” they tell him again, but he won't leave his downed plane which might be the only way the U.S. could locate him.
“Come with us before the Communists find you, they will kill you. We will hide you and contact your commanding officer.” Finally, he heads out with them. A few weeks later he is re-united later with his squadron.

They ask questions about America, amazed as I tell them the differences between their impoverished country and my own. Amazed at the possibilities, the resources, wealth, and ability to advance economically that America offers. It's as if I was describing Disneyland to a child who had never been. 
me and the local Hmong
I ask about the forests, and whether not there are tigers.
“Not here,” comes the response, “But over the mountains, yes.”
“Do you hunt tigers?”
“No, it is illegal. Plus when we have guests we like to show them the wild nature. We don’t see tigers, but occasionally, deep in the mountains, we hear them in the night. Their roars are very loud, but they are scared of man.”
“For good reason. So these forests are protected?”
“Oh yes, protected forests. The trees provide air conditioning, create rain, we like our forests. The government protects the forests.”
“The government protects the forests?” I ask a little surprised. ”Is the government in Laos good?”
I didn’t know it when when I asked, but this is a taboo question in Laos. It’s a one party system and there is no opposition. Speak badly of the government and you wind-up in prison, for how long no one knows. Only later did I realize that most people would refuse to respond honestly, but they answered me, and I believed them sincere.
“Government is good,” they nodded, “Protect forests, help us a little. Government okay.”
Later research corroborated that they were correct in telling me their forests were under protection, the reason for this however is not necessarily a forward thinking government, but rather how difficult it is to remove lumber from the very steep mountains, so why not go ahead and deem them “protected lands.”
fishing in the rice paddy
“It’s going to rain soon, you have long ways back to Vang Vieng,” they tell me. I nod my head, and thank them for their time. Before I leave, they ask me one favor. “Please tell all your American friends back home, that the Hmong people love them. That America is number one. We love America.”
“I can do that.”
“Tell them Hmong of Laos say America is number one. You promise?”
“I certainly do.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Tubing in Vang Vieng with the Grim Reaper

Stunning jungle mountainous backdrop
Nestled in the highlands, a five hour bus ride climbing the sole Northerly bound road emanating from the Laotian capital of Vientiane, lies the small town of Vang Vieng.

The unbelievably beautiful backdrop of mountainous jungle is in seeming stark contrast to its famous party atmosphere, a cheap place for backpackers to drink themselves into oblivion, before swinging Tarzan like on a rope over a fast flowing river, or willingly plummeting nearly twenty feet off the Death Slide into, at times, the rather shallow waiting waters below.
Death Slide- note size of person compared to drop
Reflexes and common sense dulled by liquor, a few extra souls are harvested here yearly by the Grim Reaper, saying nothing of the everyday injuries that range from mere scrapes to broken bones or worse. The accidents are no secret, and tales are commonly discussed among adventurers, an awkward pause between downing shots of homemade Laotian whiskey. It’s party at your own risk.

The rope swings, the zip-lines, mud volleyball ring, Death Slide, and the other attractions of this riverside backpacker amusement park are built with the sole purpose of enticing the relatively affluent traveler into purchasing a few dollars worth of the identical liquor served in each establishment.

After tiring of one bar, you hop into river, sprawled out on an inner-tube, floating downstream with the current, and a bar employee from overhead heaves a lightly weighted water bottle tied to a rope in your direction. Grab a hold of it and they'll reel you in. Fishing for backpackers- pays more than any other catch on the river.

I don’t drink a drop of alcohol, but still enjoy myself, watching everyone else play their drinking games, spray painting their bodies, diving in the mud like pigs, and exchanging travel stories. If people want to drink and take part in risky behaviors that’s their right, so long as they don’t endanger others. 
Mud warrior - dirty girl
As I tube down the river, I pass the last bar, ignoring the fishing lure thrown to me, and head towards “open water.” With the spectacular scenery around me, and the quiet solitude of nature whispering in my ear, I feel immense peace. The water swirls, a bird flies by, the sun warms body. I see the Grim Reaper in his black hood standing on the riverbank. I smile and wave hello, Death smiles back.

Vang Vieng- like any other moment, there is no place I would rather be.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Trekking Through the Laotian Jungle

A Swiss girl, a Finnish couple, myself, and two guides pile into the four wheel drive vehicle necessary to traverse the often muddy and impassable unpaved back-roads of South East Asia. We've signed up for a trek run by Green Discovery Laos, an eco-tour company whose prices I don't mind paying as a portion of my fee goes towards keeping the forests in tact, and children schooled in the distant village where we'll be spending the night.
Three hours later, we begin our adventure, floating down a river, friendly bathing trees whose lower halves are swallowed by the bloated waterway, point us towards the jungle.

Take a quick look at the height of our the river

Twenty minutes later we exit off the boat and begin exploring the wilderness. Being in a national park means an intact rain forest with almost unbroken vegetation, but sadly, here, most of the mammals have been hunted nearly out of existence, and those that remain, are incredibly shy.
Can you blame them?
Me crossing a fast flowing stream any way possible
Regardless, I am entranced by the forest's beauty; the fallen, often rotting trees blocking our path, the vegetation poking us from every angle, the sounds of the cicada, a type of cricket which rubs its legs together producing a sound far louder than its body would suggest possible, and the lush green plants- cleaning pollutants from the air, supplying us oxygen in return, the lungs of the earth.
To some it might seem an area in complete disarray, a messy, muddy, unpredictable mass of vegetation, to me, I see perfect harmony, billions of years of almost unspoiled evolution.
Laotian jungle

A large, spiked, poisonous caterpillar on a tree branch is swarmed by red ants. To avoid an un-fateful end, it releases it grasp of the bark and falls onto the low lying vegetation.
Awesome shot of poisonous caterpillar if I may be so bold

The jungle is green beyond a color reproducible on any computer, in any movie. One must see it in person to fully appreciate its vivid nature.
waterfall in rainy season

A view of the trees and jungle below

While I dream of spotting a wild tiger, which still exist in the furthest reaches of Laotian forests, the last known sighting in this National Park was five years ago. The few wild tigers left, even if their habitat somehow becomes protected across the board, will be poached out of existence by demand coming from idiots in China who believe that eating tiger penis will armor them with greater sexual prowess than Viagra; or exercise. The world must be educated, and quickly.

The jungle however, is not without its dangers. From deadly centipedes, to king cobras, to green vipers, one of which I nearly step on, getting lucky I wasn't a few feet faster. (see a shot of it in the video below)

A tour through some of the sights of the Laotian jungle

We have lunch by the waterfall, enjoying the rushing water, the tranquil and steady sounds of the forest. I feel blessed to be able to see one of the few truly wild places left on earth, with humanity ever encroaching on Mother Nature, making her take what might soon be her last stand.
Consumerism, rapid population growth, man's avarice, and egoic need to dominate, will, unchecked, lead to the demise of the human race. I see human beings as fleas, sucking our host dry, greedily extracting all they can, without realizing the possibility of living in a sustainable and harmonious manner.
A river in the jungle, our guide Ola in center. No crocodiles here! They're just about extinct! Hooray?

Is there hope? Will humanity destroy itself and our beautiful planet, or will we take collective action, before it's too late, allowing dorks like this Laotian rapper to continue performing his "craft." Either way, it's hard to be enthusiastic about our future. 

The greatest rap in Laotian history. Grammy? You be the judge.