Archive for the 'Independent' Category



Notes on a Visit to Occupy Wall Street

Here’s something really New York for you: the people most excited about Occupy Wall Street aren’t in New York.

Again and again, the conversation went like this:

“Yo, you been down to that Wall Street shit?” (I don’t really talk like that, I’m just pretending.)

“No. I’ve been meaning to.” Or: “I went past once.” Or even: “Aw, I heard about that. What’s it all about?”

It seems like the rest of the country is stoked, excited, curious, enlivened—reposting photos and quips and words of encouragement, a newsfeed cluttered with that shit. But here in New York, it seems to have fallen into the static of the city—one more thing to negotiate, maneuver around, one more cultural phenomenon in a city of never-ending, never-sleeping cultural phenomena.

But I’m not a New Yorker, so I had to go down there. Check it out, see it for myself.

It was busy and crowded and loud at Zuccotti Park, in the shadow of the new World Trade Center—but not that much more than a normal street, at least not for how much virtual buzz I’d been hearing.

The park was surrounded by people stoically holding signs, standing still for the passerbys and the cameras and the statement it all made. It was a pretty even split between the protesters and passerbys—a mix of locals and tourists, curious expressions and viewfinders, everyone stopping to read signs and snap photos. I even saw a few Asian tourists posing for photos with the protesters.

I moved around the periphery, then headed into the center of the square. The encampments had been cut with makeshift streets, pathways where people buzzed around. An internet station and a free kitchen had been set up (dispensing, of course, pizza). Tables with leaflets and fliers stood before volunteers who answered questions and otherwise engaged with folks passing by.

Amidst the revolutionary fervor, there was also a distinct, well, Telegraph Avenue vibe. For those not from the Bay, this basically means young gutterpunky white kids with backdreads, bandanas, and a herd of mangy sniffing dogs, most often seen clumped together with sleeping bags, spare-changing. I think these were the kids critics were referring to when they critiqued the movement as being all unemployed, dirty hippie kids.

Or that they were entitled middle-class kids. To be fair, there was a decent mix of people. (“I haven’t been arrested for civil disobedience in 35 years!” I heard one man gleefully exclaim.) But the majority of the protesters appeared to fall into that category, at least to me. Which makes sense. I mean, who was it that started the Vietnam War protests? Who was it that was out there marching for women’s suffrage? Educated, middle-class young people with the leisure time to protest are usually the group with which change starts.

And yes—there yoga mats and Tibetan prayer flags and a band that included a bango and a stand-up bass. So there was a lot one could get snarky about. And I did decide that it was no coincidence that Occupy Wall Street cropped up a week or so after Burning Man.

But, really, that stuff aside, it struck me as really cool that people were out there, actually talking. Apathy is the poison of the MTV generation, my generation, so even if there isn’t a totally clear agenda or consensus on why they’re even there, it’s a start, and I guess that’s the most important part.

But more than the protesters themselves, it was cool to see the passerbys. People lingered, read signs, made comments, engaged. Which is so incredibly rare to see in this country. Occupy Wall Street was inspired by the events of Tahrir Square, but I also couldn’t help but think about recent protests in Chile or Israel (didn’t hear much about those, did you?). Somewhere along the line, we Americans have learned not to protest, and when we do, the backlash is incredible. Just look at the media reaction to the protests.

So the fact that there were people out there, who wandered down just to check it out, was really exciting. Sure there were frustratingly ill-informed debates going on, but shit, at least people were talking—as if every person that came by would take a little piece of something with them, a thought or impression or just the idea that we could try to do something a little different.

Because that’s the thing about New York—even if the majority of the city doesn’t make it down to Occupy Wall Street, even if it gets lost in the frenetic buzz of life there, of sidewalks and subway cars and trying to keep your fucking head above water—even if it’s just a small percentage that comes by, that small percentage ends up still being a pretty decent size. And it’s still there, and it’s still doing something, changing something, if only the way we think. And it’s a start.

This dude: most definitely not an entitled college student

Adventures in Vietnamese Bureaucracy: Dong Hoi Visa Shenanigans

I didn't take many pictures amid all this. So here's a boat.

Blond and sun-crisp, with a Marlon Brandon mouth and board shorts, Ben was the first Westerner I’d seen in Dong Hoi.

He lit a cigarette and sighed as his driver secured my backpack to the roof of the SUV. “Where are you from in the States?”

“California.”

“Ah, well,” he exhaled an agitated puff, “this is like the Alabama of Vietnam.”

I’d only spent 20 hours in Dong Hoi, so I wasn’t exactly in the position to agree or disagree. But I could verify that during those hours, I hadn’t seen any other foreigners. I hadn’t been able to communicate with anyone, hadn’t seen any English or any Western food, and I certainly hadn’t seen the travel agency I so desperately needed.

My first clue that I was officially off the beaten path was when the minivan from Dong Ha had more or less slid the door open and pushed me out onto the main strip of Dong Hoi, the tout smiling and yelling back at me, “Dong Hoi.”

I’d been lured to this part of the country by the Phong Nha Farmstay, an independent, family-run homestay that was also one of the few outfitters to run tours to the newly opened Paradise Cave.

But what I needed first was a travel agency—the kind I’d see all over the other places I’d been in the country, English-language signs advertising tourism services. I needed a visa extension: my 3-month, multiple-entry one was due to expire just 4 days before I fly out. While in Laos, I’d spent a good hour researching extensions, grace periods, whether I should just apply for a new visa or try to extend the one I have. I’d come up with zero in the way of solid, conclusive information. You could, it was rumored, overstay by 48 hours with no penalty. After that? Both Google and the Vietnamese Immigration website were wholly unhelpful. My plan was: get to Vietnam, find a travel agency in Dong Hoi, drop my passport there while I went to the farmstay for four days, pick up my passport when I returned to Dong Hoi for my bus to Hanoi. It wasn’t air-tight, but it was the best I could devise.

But after circling a dusky Dong Hoi a few times, I determined that there were no travel agencies. Because there were no Western tourists. I picked up a SIM card and called Ben, from the Phong Nha Farmstay.

“Listen,” Ben told me after I explained my situation, “I’ve got a guy in Dong Hoi.” He gave me the info of a man named Hung. After an ensuing half-dozen phone calls triangulating between Ben, Hung and myself, I ended up at Hung’s office the next morning, 2km down the main highway, a small room crammed with computers and tourism posters—in Vietnamese.

“Why didn’t you just get another visa?” Hung drilled me.

“Because I didn’t know I needed to.”

“Why did you wait so long to apply for an extension?”

“Because I couldn’t find any information on whether I had to extend it or not.”

Hung sighed. “This will be a problem.” He lectured me on much easier it would have been to just get a new visa while I was in Laos. I nodded, not bothering to explain the obscurity of Vietnamese bureaucracy.

He made a phone call; I sipped a glass on tea. He wheeled back over to me, giving a grave-faced and round-about explanation for why I couldn’t apply for a normal extension, why I had to have a rush, one-day extension. Which cost $100.

At which point Ben called me. “How’s it going with the visa there?”

I explained the situation. He sighed. “Let me talk to Hung.” The phone passed back and forth a few times. “Okay, listen,” Ben told me, “what Hung’s telling me is that you can’t leave your passport in Dong Hoi, because if the extension gets denied, we could possibly get fined for having someone illegal at the farmstay.” I chuckled at the idea of myself being illegal. “So it looks like you’ve got to do the rush, sorry bout that.”

After the initial wave of nausea, I succumbed to the idea that I’d have to part with $100. Live and learn—and blog about it so that other poor saps can learn too. Hung told me he’d call when it was done, around 3 or 4 o’clock.

I commenced to wander around the sweltering town of Dong Hoi, the faded colonial streets, the floating restaurants and wooden fishing boats, waving at the boys on bicycles that called out “hello” at me. I’d retreated to the lobby of my hotel—where I’d been the only guest—when Hung called. “There’s a problem with your visa. You didn’t tell me you have a business visa.”

I let out a laugh. “Well, I didn’t know I had one. I applied for a tourist visa.”

“The Immigration office says they need a health check and a letter from your employer to extend your visa.”

“But I don’t have an employer. I don’t actually work in Vietnam. It’s a mistake.”

“Then you’ll have to go to Hanoi. Immigration here can’t do it.”

That was about the time Ben showed up, an SUV packed with family and supplies he’d picked up in Hue. “Well shit,” he said, “let’s drive over to Hung’s.”

There aren’t hardly any Westerners in this province, Ben explained, so they aren’t used to dealing with tourists. The Phong Nha Cave might be the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that was only for Vietnamese. Westerners are rare, and everything having to do with Westerners exceedingly difficult.

On the sidewalk in front of Hung’s office, Hung shook his head and handed my money back to me. We stood around and ate ice-cream from the corner store, brain-storming.

“I mean, fuck,” Ben said, “you could just overstay.”

His Vietnamese wife Vik shook her head. “No. Better to do it the legal way.”

We discussed options. I could take a bus to Hanoi that night, and get it sorted out there. I could take a bus to Hue, hoping I could sort it out there, then take a bus back to the farmstay. Or I could say fuck it.

“I mean, what’s the worst that’ll happen?” I asked. “Will they arrest me or detain me?”

“No, no. I think officially, they charge you $25 a day. But a mate of mine overstayed and they just waved him through. Worst, I say, is they put something in your passport saying you can’t come back for three years.”

I shrugged. “I can live with that.”

I had something less than a chuckle when I imagined myself actually being an illegal in Vietnam. But after all the day’s shenanigans, I really could live with it..

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

Hand Tractors and Impending Tourism: Day Two in Ban Natane

My first morning in Ban Natane, I woke up with the sun and the roosters. It isn’t saying much—it could have happened somewhere in the States—but it was still a first for me.

The morning was misty and, as I sat up and peered through my mosquito net, I could see out the open-air common room into the dirt paths of the village, the common room of the next house over, where the TV already blared and the family sat on the floor around a metal table of steaming bowls. The day had begun.

I’d had to sleep with ear plugs. I’d become accustomed in SE Asia to geckos bellowing and incests buzzing, but I wasn’t used to the noise of the village: animals snorting, grunting, squawking, chirping, thunder booming and rain drumming. The houses are all open in the village—no windows or glass to enclose things—so you could also hear the neighbors talking. There were less filters, less divisions, more of a meshing of life, I thought as I crawled off my cot. I poured a cloudy glass of water that had been boiled and purified with local herbs, and swallowed my malaria pills.

I’d had plans to ride a hand tractor, then hike an hour out to a river, possibly visit some caves. “Too much rain,” Pauline’s supervisor—whose name I could never get straight—told me over our breakfast of sticky rice and more frog. It was determined, as we dipped clumps of rice into red chili paste, that I would instead ride a hand tractor around to the check out the neighboring villages.

This is romantic in theory. And it is pretty cool—the hand-crank wrench, the rumble, the foot pedals and gear shift, all the machinery exposed, retching and rumbling through brown puddles, water whooshing into waves beside you. Standing on a vehicle like that without falling over is another matter. I tried squatting, clutching the wooden railing, but the lurching started to make me nauseous. For some reason, I determined that sitting was my best option. (Three days later, I’m still paying for this decision with a bruised tailbone…)

Two guys from the Ban Natane took me around to three other villages. Which gave me more of a feel for life out there. It looks like this:

I suppose what struck me most was how much life there was, how much constant movement. It wasn’t exciting like a city, but there was this constant bustle, animals and people, babies of different species. It was intoxicating—I felt like I could sit for hours and just watch it pass.

Again, there seemed to be less divisions: the pig that snorted around today, for instance, could just as easily be dinner tomorrow. Even the land see more involved, more implicated, more imminently a part of life. We talk a lot about sustainable living in the West, but this was the real deal. It wasn’t ideal—there was plenty of trash strewn about, mostly wrappers for the products transported through the cave, and other trash, people still burned. But it was the closest I’d ever seen.

I met Pauline and her supervisor in one of the villages for lunch—another family’s house, another bare wooden room with modest Lao girly posters on the wall, an exposed shoulder, perhaps. On a cot on the floor lay an impossibly thin woman, skin loose on a coat hanger of an arm she raised to readjust her blanket. “She is sick,” Pauline told me, “with cancer.”

I tried not to watch as her family members brought a glass of the murky, purified water to her lips, as they rolled her over, readjusted her pillows. I stared at my frog lunch. These villages were traditional, isolated—and this was part of that too. It wasn’t just the agrarian ideal, the simple life; people here were also poor, didn’t have access to the arguably good aspects of modern life, like health care. It was all fascinating, intoxicating for me, glimpsing in for a few days—but this was these people’s lives. And this, too, was what it looked like.

Later that afternoon, I walked down to the stream by Ban Natane with Pauline. It was where locals bathe, wash clothes, where boys clutch bows and arrows shoot them into the water, actually managing to catch some fish. Pauline laid down on the shallow rocks—clothed, as they do in Laos—and let the water run over her.

“All the people I interview,” she told me, “they all want the tourism. They think it will be a good thing.” She looked over at the boys fishing. “But I’m not so sure. I think they will lose their way of life.” It had already happened, already begun, with the introduction of TV a few months earlier.

I thought of the sallow skin and boney elbow of the woman at lunch. “But who are we to say how their lives should be? If they support the tourism project—” I shrugged, made that French popping noise I’ve picked up— “maybe it will bring positive changes too.”

We talked for a long time about it—about the preservation and loss of culture, about isolation and poverty, about the role of outsiders and tourism, whether it ever does any good or not. I thought of a story I’d heard once, about some now-famous Greek statue that was discovered by Englishmen or Frenchmen, the locals unaware of how valuable and precious it was. They were going to smash it, until the explorers stopped them. I couldn’t remember the name of the statue, or where I heard the story or if it was even true or not. But I thought of broken-off noses and missing limbs in European museums, and wondered if the sanctity of some things might be seen better by outsiders, who have more of world to compare it to.

But again, I thought of the woman on the cot, barely moving. I thought of the earthy taste of the purified water, imagined that taste in her mouth as well as mine.

“There is not an easy answer, I think,” Pauline said, as the water ran over her clothed limbs.

I nodded.

Blessing of String and Sticky Rice: Day One in Ban Natane

The man held my open palm in his. In it, he placed a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raised his right hand to his face, murmured blessings in a language I didn’t understand. He waved a piece of string, then tied it around my wrist.

“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translated.

I smiled, bowed. Outside the open-air room, lightning stuttered the night sky white.

Sometimes you end up some weird-ass places traveling. Not that they’re weird, so much as it’s weird that you’re there, that you ended up there—that the gods of circumstance conspired, whispering in their thunderous perch above grey rock, to bring you there. And it was like that in Ban Natane.

To say Ban Natane is off the beaten path is an understatement. Cut off from the rest of world by impassable roads, the only way to reach it and its neighboring four villages is through the Kong Lo Cave. Which is how I got there.

I met Pauline trolling the town of Ban Na Hin for travel companions. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I was on the lookout for people to split the ride with. Pauline sat on the computer in front of her guesthouse. As it turned out, she was a French anthropology student doing her Masters research on Ban Natane and its neighbors; she was meeting her local supervisor and translator the next day and headed back to the village for another 10-day stay. “If you’d like to come with us,” she made that characteristic French popping noise, “it’s no problem.”

On the sawng thaew ride to the cave’s entrance, she filled me in the details. A French NGO was sponsoring the development of eco-tourism in the Ban Natane area. To date, all homestays and eco-tourism in the area have focused on the Ban Kong Lo side of the cave—you take a boat ride through, come back and sleep on the more developed side of the cave.

“No one stays on this side,” she told me, “because tourists don’t know the villages are there.” Since the only viable way to reach the villages is through the cave, Ban Natane and its neighbors have remained quite isolated, not reaping the rewards/wealth of tourism. “In all of last year,” Pauline told me, “only 20 tourists came to Ban Natane.”

The eco-tourism project was focused on developing facilities for homestays and training locals to act as guides into the caves and waterfalls that surround the region. Pauline’s project focused on documenting the traditional agricultural way of life, interviewing locals about the history and their feelings about tourism, and then studying the impact.

Emerging

So the Kon Lo cave became, not my destination, but the passageway into another world. Which actually what it felt like—a limestone cavern like a mouth, dripping with stalagmites, the squeal and swoop of bats, where mist floated off the cool water like thin ghosts. It felt like moving through some deeply internal part of the earth, through its innards or petrified organs.

We emerged on the other side. Where most people turn around, we began walking down a dirt road. My cheap flip flops had finally busted, so I walked the 2km barefoot. In the distance, the sky grumbled. We arrived in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupted.

My homestay was with one of the wealthier families in town. They owned the town’s only shop (and thus had packets of Nescafe in abundance), goods that had all been transported on skinny wooden boats through the cave, as they had been for generations. Even the TV. “TV only arrived here three months ago,” Pauline told me. “So the children,” she gestured towards the little ones gathered rapt around the glowing screen, “they are like this.”

The storm cleared and she showed me around the village. Everything enthralled me—I am, as previously admitted, a total city kid, so the presence alone of ducks, pigs, chickens and goats was thrilling, let alone the sarongs and hoes and looms beneath the stilted houses.

We shared dinner with the family that night, as we would for all our meals during my 2-day stay. As isolated as it is, the food was all local, not by trend as it is in the Bay Area, but by necessity—foraged snails, fish, frogs. “Frog season has just started,” Pauline translated from her Lao supervisor, “so we will eat a lot of frog.” (Sure enough, I had it 4 meals in a row.)

Walking that night, we three were called over to a large house. I could tell it was a wealthy person’s home because it had a ground floor, constructed of brick—like the TVs, this was new, Pauline told me, as traditional homes were all stilted and wooden. “It means you need more space, and have the money to build it.” She paused. “So modernity is already coming.”

Men sat on the floor around a type of altar, banana-leaf adorned in white flowers. It wasn’t a mystical vibe—they sat in polo shirts and slacks, chatting casually. A large silver bowl of pig parts, a leg and half a head, lay beside baskets of sticky rice.

We were motioned to sit, a village-made scarf thrown over our left shoulders. The man in charge began talking—“a blessing,” Pauline whispered. He held another man’s open palm, put a clump of food and a plastic cup of lao lao in it, chanted, tied the string. Then everyone commenced to bless each other.

“It’s a ceremony called baci,” Pauline translated. “They’re having it for special visitors—the district chief came today.” People took photos with digital cameras; I assumed those to be the wealthy and important visitors.

We were soon called into the mix. I wound up with a bangle of string around my right wrist and an even fuller tummy. The storms continued in the sky outside. Old men smiled as they blessed me, as they blessed each other.

And I had one of those moments when your life feels like a dream, some foreign place you don’t quite understand how you ended up in. Yes, I rode an old wooden boat through a cave and walked down a dirt road—but how I really got to Ban Natane or that ceremony, I suspected, had little to do with that. It didn’t make sense, to my Western mind, why I’d be so welcomed, so embraced here.

And so blessed.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Ban Natane

It’s actually pretty simple, even if you don’t have an anthropologist as your guide. Take your day bag, sturdy plastic sandals, a good flashlight and some snacks with you on your boat ride. It’ll still cost 100,000 kip, even if you only take it one way. So it goes.

Get off at the snack stands. Only buy the snacks if you’re desperate; since they have to be transported through the cave, they’re fuck-all expensive. Anyway, there’ll be a blue sign that haphazardly explains the homestays:

From the snack stands, there’s two dirt roads. Facing the sign, Ban Natane is down the road to your left. Straight ahead, across the bridge, is another closer village, though from what I understand, there’s less facilities for homestays. If you arrive in Ban Natane and say “homestay,” you’ll get hooked up. Or just show up and look like a Westerner, and they’ll know what to do with you.

Bringing a Lao phrasebook would be goddamn useful. There may be some people floating around who speak a few scraps of English; there’s rumored to be an English teacher at the school in the village, though she was out of town when I was there. If you can manage to communicate, there’s bikes you can rent or a couple good treks to go on, if it’s the dry season. Next month, an NGO will be holding a tour guide training course for locals, so I imagine there will be much more in the way of communication and tour options shortly.

Bananas and Plastic Bows: Sawng Thaew to Kong Lo Cave

Goat on the roof. Friendly driver.

Salt-and-pepper hair beneath a worn military cap, high cheekbones and pursed lips. He squeezes the bananas I’m clutching through their plastic bag, says something in Lao.

I smile, shake my head. He repeats; I repeat. He nods.

I can’t tell if he approves of the bananas or not.

When I climbed on the sawng thaew in Ban Na Hin, the old man slid over, made room for me between the empty gasoline barrels and bags of cabbage. We rumbled around the market. Old women climbed on with pink bags, still-alive fish flopping inside, while the driver kept climbing on the roof, adding to the goods secured atop: sacks of rice, a goat and my dusty red backpack.

The old man nudged me. “Kong Lo?” I nodded. He nodded. But where else would I have been going?

We headed out down the two-lane highway, lined with construction lots and signs for a Ford Motors Center. The main industry in Ban Na Hin isn’t tourism—as evidenced by the single-room tourism office surrounded by grass-chewing cows—but the nearby hydro-electric plant. The handful of guesthouses that run the length of the town’s main road are an afterthought, and the English spoken is minimal.

Despite this, Ban Na Hin is still the closest town to the Kon Lo Cave, a 7.5km limestone tunnel that’s purported to be creepy as shit and mildly reminiscent of the Greek underworld. But, 40-some winding kilometers from a main highway and serviced only by local buses and sawng thaew (pick-up trucks with two benches in the truckbed), what would be a top tourist attraction in any other country remains fairly off-the-beaten-path in Laos. Which, as much as the cave itself, is what lured me out here—after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I was tourism-weary and in the mood for adventure.

So I don’t mind as it takes two hours to go the 45km to Kon Lo. Past rock that jutted from the earth like jagged teeth, past slash-and-burn fields were the land looked as though it were gasping—we stop at every village, delivering groceries, dropping off canisters of gasoline. I watch the landscape, the farms, the clouds that ito the rock like scraps of cloth that had been ripped off. And I people-watch.

And now, slyly, I study the old man beside me. He has soft yellow skin the texture of crushed silk. I notice on his sleeve, he has small plastic bows haphazardly safety-pinned on. Beside his army-green cap, I imagine them as military decorations, badges from a make-believe army. I imagine them as gifts from grandchildren, secured to his shirt and forgotten about.

I pull out my notebook, to jot down the image between the bumps that stutter my handwriting across the page. He leans over, looks at the notebook, watches me write. He nods as though he understands.

I can’t tell if he approves or not.

I smile, point to the plastic bow on his sleeve. He laughs. I give a thumbs-up.

He tugs his sleeve, begins to unfasten one of the pins. He takes my sleeve, pins the bow. I touch it, smile. He laughs. I laugh.

(A little later on the ride, I discover what the bows are: a bunch of teenagers lining the road come up to the sawng thaew and, through the poles, pin bows to our shirts. They smile and sing, holding out a collection for something.)

The sawng thaew thins of its passengers and produce as we rumble along. A tank of a woman with a soft, laughing face pushes her way out, waves at me. We stretch our legs in the luxurious space.

The old man waves his arm at the driver, stands to a hunch beneath the truck bed’s dome. I tap him as he begins to shuffle off.

I open my plastic bag and hand him a banana.

He smiles. I laugh, he laughs.

I think he approves.

He steps off the back of the truck, place his hands together and bows his head. I repeat.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Kong Lo Cave

While researching Kong Lo Cave, the number one concern I encountered was over transport. The LP doesn’t have much info and it seems as though the lack of direct buses deters a lot of people from visiting.

Here’s the deal: Kong Lo and the nearby Ban Na Hin (nearest town, with guesthouses and an ATM) lie along Highway 8, which moves east from Highway 13. All buses between Vientiane/Paksan and Tha Khaek/Savanaket run down Highway 13, so the route you will often read recommended is to take one of these buses running along the 13, ask to get off at the junction, then take a sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin, where you can then take another sawng thaew to Kon Lo Cave or the nearby town, Ban Kong Lo, where it’s possible to homestay.

Another friendly fellow

I think it’s the transfers that deter people. It;s actually a lot less dodgy than it sounds. There’s enough of a trickle of backpackers that the bus drivers know where you’re headed—there’s not much else out here for tourists. Sawng thaew run from the junction to Ban Na Hin every 30-or-so minutes during the daytime, and there are supposedly a few direct sawng thaew to Ban Kong Lo every day, though it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting for those.

From Vientiane, there’s only one VIP bus to Tha Khaek a day at an inconvenient 1pm—journey takes about 6-7 hours, so you’d potentially be looking at doing the transfer after dark. Local buses, though, run every half hour beginning at 6am. They cost 60,000 kip, regardless of whether you get off at the junction or the final destination.

There’s also local buses to Lak Soa, the biggest town along Highway 8. The advantage of this bus is that you negate the feared transfer at the junction. These buses leave Vientiane every 2 hours, beginning also at 6am, and cost 75,000. This is the bus I took, and I recommend it: it was early enough in the day that the lack of AC was bearable, and even with a break-down, I still arrive in Ban Na Hin at 1pm.

I’ve also been told that there’s one daily bus directly from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo that leaves between 9-10am. However, if there’s not enough people, the bus will be canceled, so it’s probably best not to risk it.

From Ban Na Hin, though, there’s only three official sawng thaew per day to Kong Lo—more evidence of the undeveloped tourist facilities. The first leaves the town bus station at 10-ish, the others at 1 and 3-ish. But in reality, they seem to leave more often than that. Otherwise, you’re looking at arranging private transport, about 100,000 kip versus the 25,000 for the bus.

Coming from the South, it appears as though your best bets would be to take a sawng thaew from Tha Khaek, which is well-connected to Savannakhet and Pakse, or one of the buses coming up the 13 and doing the transfer. I did meet some grumpy Brits who had gotten on the wrong bus and had the journey take a day and a half—”All this for a bloody cave.”

Which brings me to my biggest recommendation: treat the whole thing as journey-is-the-destination adventure. Don’t focus on just Getting To The Cave—everyone I met who did this seemed fairly annoyed, or at least had to qualify it with “worth the trek.” I was armed with snacks and in the mindset of “well, let’s see where this leads,” and I had a grand ole’ time.

Scrap Metal and Tourist Scars in Phonsavan

On a small stand in the Phonsavan tourism office, bracelets are for sale.

So is flatware. They sit beside a postcard that reads “Make Spoons Not War.” Beside cartoon posters depicting the Dos and Don’ts of respectable Lao tourism, posted leaflets encourage you to purchase items made by villages out of metal scraped from the UXOs (unexploded ordinances) that continue to claim lives and limbs. From tragedy to hope, a brighter future for impoverished locals—your tourist dollars can make a difference.

Or something like that.

Phonsavan is an emerging tourist destination in Northern Laos. Its only draw is the scars of enigmatic history: a landscape scattered of mysterious, 2000-year-old stone jars (think Stonehenge in circular formation), and bomb craters and UXOs. The juxtaposition has, in the last few years, landed the grizzlied town on the independent traveler route, with broader tourism looming ahead like the black storm clouds of an early rainy season.

For now, the town remains rough-and-tumble and charm-challenged. A series of squalid guesthouses line its one sidewalked road. A handful of tour offices litter the same road. It’s the kind of place where you arrive, in a mid-afternoon downpour that muddies your shoes and seeps through your backpack, and think—Get In, Get Out, Get Gone.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town. I cruised the local market, bought some rice-paper rolls and steamed greens; the hunched old woman smiled at me and refused money for the greens.

I passed Craters Restaurant; decidedly Western, it had a makeshift fence of UXO shells. It felt cheeky, performative, self-conscious—something about it didn’t sit right. But I hadn’t had my requisite three fruit shakes that day, so I sat down and watched the traffic pass.

Across the street, the sign for MAG peeked through the bomb-shell fence. The most prominent UXO-clearing agency in Laos, MAG works both to defuse and remove UXOs, and educate local communities about their dangers. They screen a few documentaries on a small TV set every evening; I left Craters and went to watch that night’s showing of Bomb Harvest.

The documentary traces the work of MAG. It’s somewhat sensationalist and self-congratulatory (“In bomb disposal, you only make one mistake”), but overall the film achieves a really good end: educating people on the realities of UXOs in Laos today.

I’d known they existed; I had more than a passing familiarity with the devastation of US secret bombing in the country. And I knew that UXOs continued to kill and maim people throughout Laos. What I didn’t know was that scrap metal had become the new cash crop. And tourism, I’d discover the next day, was fueling it.

The basic story is this: in a country as poor as Laos, a lot of subsistence farmers struggle to feed themselves. The scrap metal peeled from UXOs fetches a fair dollar—some $100 for large casings. It may not sound like a lot to risk your life for, but when you don’t have enough to eat, your life is risked already. Despite public education campaigns, people continue to harvest and sell UXOs—many of them children.

In addition to selling scrap metal, locals began to use casings for planter boxes and building supports. As tourism trickled in to the Plain of Jars sites, Westerners were charmed with the aesthetic and ingenuity of this repurposing. Tourist-geared establishments are now getting on the bandwagon.

With this backdrop, I eyed the scrap metal bracelets carefully. I liked the idea of them, liked the feel of the dented metal and the notion that I could both accessorize and ease my American guilt. “It helps the local people make money,” our tour guide explained.

“Do they make the bracelets from harvested UXOs?” I asked.

He nodded.

“But isn’t that very dangerous? Don’t people die that way?”

He nodded again, this time more reluctantly.

I slid the bracelet off and placed it back down.

Our tour continued on bumpy muddy roads. We trailed one other 6-person group, but largely had the sites to ourselves. To get to one of the sites, we tromped through rain-soaked rice fields, down wooden slats and past families bathing in brown water.

Tourists, our guide told us, had only been coming to the sites in the last few years. There were plans to pave the roads, our guide told us; an international airport would soon open near the town. Only 15 sites of jar sites were currently open; several more were being de-mined. You got the feeling that mass tourism was just around the corner.

We stopped at a modest farm house. Standing behind the bamboo fence, our guide pointed our the bomb casings used as supports for the barn. We snapped photos. “Not many houses still like this,” our guide said. “Now, the casings are mostly sold to guesthouses and hotels, for decoration.”

I thought of Craters Restaurant and cringed.

Tourism can bring a lot of good to a community. Phonsavan is poised to become more wealthy because of it. But I thought of the children I’d seen in Bomb Harvest, carefully digging through the earth, crude metal detectors and frightened eyes, and wondered at what cost.

It’s hard to always be informed about where your tourist dollars go. Over lunch, I had a long discussion with a British couple about their experience volunteering at a “real” elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They told me about the farcical nature of most eco-parks, how the Thai government worked to block the release of information about the real conditions of the animals, information that would surely hinder the precious money brought in by Westerns who unwittingly wanted to ride elephants.

“And the sad thing,” I remarked, “is that all those people think they’re helping, that their money is going towards some kind of solution.”

They nodded. I leaned slightly and slurped another mouthful of rice noodles.

My spoon, I realized, thumbing its texture, was made of scrap metal.

***

Travel Tips: Phonsavan

Phonsavan is well-connected to provincial capitals and tourist destinations. I took a minivan from Luang Prabang, a bumpy and cramped 7-hour affairs; a bus would have been 9 hours. I took the overnight VIP bus back to Vientiane, getting about 2 hours total of sleep.

Guesthouses are in a sad state in Phonsavan, especially in the budget range. I ended up at the LP-recommended Kong Keo Guesthouse. It wasn’t great by any means and I’d read some sketchy things about the owner, but after checking out three other guesthouses, it was still the least squalid.

A tour of the Plain of Jars sites seems to be the best option, especially if you can buddy up with some people. The sites are pretty far apart, so you’ll need some transport anyway. We paid 150,000 kip (little under $20) each for a group of six, which included lunch. The guide was knowledgeable, and there’s plenty of outfitters to chose from.

Fellow travelers tend to be pretty friendly and less Spring-Break-ish than the backpackers I’d encountered in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, so teaming up should be easy. Definitely visit in the dry season, until the roads are paved and facilities modernized; it was super muddy, and Site 3 becomes impassable during the rainy season.

The only Wifi I found in the town was at the Western and fairly decent Vanaloun Cafe, along the main drag. Wifi is free, espresso drinks passable, and the breakfast was actually pretty good and not too expensive. They also have a small guesthouse. Might be worth checking out, though a girl I met in the cafe told me she couldn’t ever find the shower.

Photo Essay: Kep’s Abandoned Mansions

Before the war, beach-side Kep was a fashionable get-away for Phnom Penh’s well-heeled. Opulent homes were built into the cicada-buzzing green slopes, washed in the smell of salt and seafood. They were all abandoned, of course, in 1975; as the war reached on into the 90s, the facades crumbled and the green grew up in the cracks. It’s pretty much stayed that way since.

Kep is on track to regain its by-gone glory. For better or worse, bulldozers lumber across construction lots where crisp new buildings arch up behind shotty scaffolding. For now, Kep is a mellow mix of vacationing Cambodian families and independent Western travelers. Fishermen reel their nets, women season crab in fresh Kampot pepper and their adolescent children serve you at beach-side shack restaurants. You can hop on a boat and cruise out to Rabbit Island, where hammocks and coconuts and ramshackle bungalows will lure you away from any noble ambitions to trek to the top of the jungle-y island.

And of course, you can traipse through the remains of Kep’s past.

Makes my heart flutter

The squat toilet shall never die

The tile survives

View from the former second-story balcony

Peeking out: view from the street

Looking up

Looking out

Between the trees

Rising up

The walls of some of the buildings were covered, not in traditional graffiti, but children’s scribbles: faces, indiscernible Khmer, dirty drawings of women. It somehow made it sweeter, lent an innocence to the rubble that made you think of it, not as a relic of war and the country’s painstakingly slow march towards recovery, but instead as a child’s play place, a fantasy land, safe and hidden.

It’s hard to know what to say about Kep. The urban explorer in me was pretty stoked to traipse through abandoned building after abandoned building, surveying what was left and what was gone and what was growing up amid the crumble. But you couldn’t help but feel a sadness, adventuring around in this way you love, because you knew the reason for it was so heart-breaking.

It’s also hard to know what to say about the new development, the sure wave of resort tourism it will bring. It won’t be the same, that’s for sure, but will it actually go back to being something more similar to what it once was, before the war?

There’s no way to know right now. But I will say it’s a damn good place to hole of for a few days, eating crab and swimming in the ocean and climbing through ruins.

Battambang, Abandoned City

Battambang is a dingy balcony over a deserted street. Battambang is a tangle of electrical wires sagging in the heat, is a patch of sand between busted-up sidewalk, is discarded amusement-park bumper cars fading in the sun.

Cambodia’s fourth largest tourist attraction felt post-apocalyptic when we arrived, mid-afternoon during the biggest day of Khmer New Year. We wandered through nameless, signless streets, past shutters and padlocks and beach umbrellas with no one under them, looking for a guesthouse. We ventured out for coffee, through the wilted market, strewn stalks of sugar cane and vegetables rotting in the heat. The open lot across from the evening carnival, sleeping in the mid-day sun, reminded me of an old Freddy Kueger movie, dogs sniffing around the menacing clown smiles on the front of bumper cars.

While this impression isn’t entirely accurate—it would be like coming into any US city on Christmas Day—it did prove an apt opening to two days of wandering around the city and its surroundings. Battambang was, I’d learned, a major hub for people making the journey to Thailand in the post-Khmer-Rouge days, where they’d trade gold and hire shady guides to lead them through forests and mountains, landmines and bandits, that only some would survive. It’s probable that my friends’ parents passed through Battambang, and my friend, in a sense—in utero, sleeping inside the warmth of his mother.

It was hard with the holiday to get a sense for the city as it is today. And the coolest stuff we found wasn’t the temples, where monks chanted into megaphones, and it wasn’t the bamboo norry trains that have now turned into a shameless tourist trap—a police man with a crooked smile and a limp handshake, “$5 per person.” The coolest places in Battambang were the abandoned ones.

We walked down to the abandoned train station, a sweltering sidewalk lined with New Years decorations that look like tinsel pentagrams. During colonialism, the French built a train system in Cambodia, and it was still used through the 70s. I’ve read accounts of people who, early on in the Khmer Rouge reign, were transported to various work sites by train. At some point the system disintegrated, and the Battambang train station is proof of it, the clock out front permanently frozen at 8:02—a time that comes twice a day, like a train passing, but a year and date that remain silent, that will never pass by again.

Like everything old in Cambodia, there’s nothing to stop you from poking around the lot of rusted engines, boxcar carcasses, tracks obscured by long grass and cow dung. People live there now, poor folks in thatched huts, where once the wind of the train might have blown them down, but now they only have to worry about the ghost trains passing—the wind, I suppose, doesn’t blow so hard from those. One man had set up a home in an old warehouse; I glimpsed him, through a crumble in the wall, bathing in his sarong.

You’d feel funny walking through a place like that in any other country. In the US, it’d be dripping with graffiti and crackheads. But in Cambodia it was people just living their lives, sitting on bamboo platforms with their families, small children exclaiming, “Hello!” and giggling joyiously when we responded. You couldn’t help but feel welcome, though you weren’t sure why you were welcome, why they all greeted you so goddamn graciously. Something in me felt I didn’t deserve it. I smiled anyway.

The next day I went out solo to explore the abandoned Pepsi factory. It’d been shut down, I read, when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975—frozen like that, like the clock at the train station. I grabbed a tuk-tuk, a man who insisted I pity him for having to work on New Years. We rattled out there, dirt roads lined with kids throwing small plastic bags of water, a New Year tradition. They smiled at me, waved, but none of them threw a bag at me. I wondered why.

The Pepsi factory was a faded concrete building with a well-tended garden. It struck me as a curious juxtaposition—the crates of bottles I could spy through the windows, waiting for a delivery that never came; the burned-out remains of a warehouse further back, where a fire had once raged, fixtures hanging from holes in the ceiling; the barefoot children that wandered around, peeling back strips of corrugated tin and disappearing inside the blackness. All that, next to trimmed grass and perky flowers, a yard free of rubbish, where a couple of families picnicked in the shade of a tree.

My tuk-tuk driver wandered over to me, as I balanced up on a ledge, beside shorn hedges, trying to get a photo of the inside of the factory. “All the machines are gone,” he told me in surprisingly fluent English. “They went to Vietnam.”

The factory, he said, had sat empty during the Khmer Rouge regime. When the Vietnamese came in 79, they’d dismantled all the machines and took the parts back to Vietnam. Now it was just crates of empty bottles, a silent loudspeaker with its wires disconnected, exposed.

“Why is the garden so nice?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s a man who lives here. He’s very old, 80, I think. He used to work at the factory before the war. After, he had no family, nowhere to go, so he came back. The government let him keep the grounds. He lives back there.” He waved his hand back towards the burned-out warehouse, where I’d seen laundry lines and pieces of cooked rice sitting in the sun.

“That’s him,” the tuk-tuk driver said casually, gesturing towards an old man who walked slowly with his hands clasped behind his back. He wore an Angkor Wat t-shirt and a krama scarf loosely over his shoulders. You could tell by the way he sucked his mouth that there weren’t hardly any teeth left. The lines in his face were a fine webbing, like wrinkled laundry.

I smiled and bowed for our awkward introduction. What do you say to a man like that?—a man who’d seen all those abandoned places alive, who’d lived it himself, who’d set up a home amid the ruin and spent his days tidying what was left, memories green as grass?

“The garden is beautiful.” The tuk-tuk driver translated and the old man smiled a sunken smile, no teeth to stretch it taut. I bowed again.

Battambang is a dirt road and a child waving, an old man nodding to himself as he walks away.

On The Road to Nowhere: Finding an Anti-Place, Part 3

Mai Rut. Mai Rood. You couldn’t even be sure of the name, and you sure as hell couldn’t be sure of the history. But it existed, that was the important part, and I was going to find it.

I sat on the back of a motorbike and scanned the landscape. The town of Mai Rut was 5km from the main highway, and there’d actually been a motorbike driver, waiting on the platform in the shade for someone like me to set off a blue pick-up truck. Thailand was otherwise devoid of motorbike drivers; although a break from the constant barrage of “La-dee, moto-bike!” was refreshing, I kept finding myself needing a motorbike and finding none. But one appeared just when I needed it, and I suppose that’s how Thailand worked for me, how I’ll come to think of those three days spent along the border.

I’d seen footage of Mai Rut, at the Bophana Audiovisual Center, from an old French newsreel. I could piece together bits and pieces, stray words, but mostly it was a study in the visual, squinting at the screen and trying to memorize every little bit of earth. I knew I’d later try and find the place, what was left of the place, and this was the best clue I was going to get. (It was silly, but I kept scanning the faces too, as though I’d happen to see the two people I knew in the crowd, as though that would be a clue too.)

And now I was there, or whizzing through there, and there was nothing but trees and grass and the odd clearing. We moved too fast; I didn’t know how to tell the motorbike driver what I was looking for, or even to slow down, so I just let him drive, let us move through the landscape of lost stories.

He left me off at the end of the road, where earth gave way to water and boats bobbed and nets hung, flies buzzing over sheets of fish and the smell of fish, fish, drying in the sun. Houses stood on stilts and streets of cement had been made. This was the town, not the remains of the camp, which must have been somewhere outside of the town, fenced off by barbed wire the camera kept focusing on and off of, a beat-you-over-the-head kind of metaphor but a metaphor nonetheless, in a newsreel, which I could appreciate. This was not it, but it was the closest I was going to get.

Mai Rood was a quiet little fishing town with not a lot going on. People sat in doorways. Children ran naked, grinned and disappeared. Women sat cutting fish, and men reeled in the nets from painted wooden boats. Dogs sniffed at the sand, littered and muddy; a man picked at the wounds that covered his body, little scabs that spoke of disease and something else, a language I didn’t understand.

I looked at the faces—many of them were Khmer, obviously Khmer. There’s a brown to pure Khmer skin, while Thai has more of a yellow glow. I thought of what the man at the guesthouse in Trat had told me, how a lot of the Cambodian refugees had stayed once their camps had closed, resettled in Thailand.

Like him, there were stories trapped in these people—or rather, trapped in the incommunicable space between me and them. They held answers, and if I could have sat with them, listened to them, I could have pieced together an approximation of another story, trapped in a different incommunicable space, the one between live and death—the story I had come to understand.

In the picture my friends have from Mai Rut, there’s my friend, a newborn in his mother’s arms. His mother looks like the woman I knew, strong and sturdy and alive, and his father like the man I knew, small and frail and dark. Beside them were two little girls who looked nothing like my friends’ parents—different features, much too dark-skinned.

“Who are these girls?”

“Some girls that came over with us. They were orphans. Or their parents said they were orphans. so they could come to the US. Or maybe my parents said they were their kids too.”

“But they look nothing like you guys.”

He shrugged. “So what happened to them?” I ask.

Shrugged again. “They probably had family here already, and met up with them once we got here.”

“Have you ever tried to find them?”

“No,” he answered kind of far-away, as though the thought had never occurred to him.

And I thought of that picture and wondered if I had it, if I could show it to these people, even without a common language, and if anyone would have known or remembered. I wondered what the hell that would accomplish anyway, other than confirming that it had all actually happened. I wondered what the hell I was even doing there, what I was looking for, what any of it was, let alone what it meant.

I wandered.

Closest thing to a remnant I found: Red Cross symbol on a lamppost back along the main highway


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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