Family Gap Year Adventures – Chapter 6, Laos – a pretty laid back land

Sabei sabei

One of the first expressions you learn as a visitor in Laos, is  “Sabei, sabei“, meaning don’t worry, no problem.

– Bus is 6 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– Bus is 10 hours late? Sabei, sabei!

– You don’t have the stamp in your passport? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed? Sabei, sabei!

– Shop closed again? Sabei, sabei!

With such a heavy use of sabei, sabei, you feel that Laos is the backwater of South East Asia. Traffic is sparse, the population is more often sighted in a hammock, than rushing around, and it is part of the hospitality that you have to wait a few minutes or quarters of an hour, before the waiter, or receptionist, or clerk rises from the hammock, or couch, or chair, and is ready to face you. Some people accidentally mistake this ability to be laid back as rude, but nothing could be further from the truth. Time is an abundant luxury in this otherwise poor country, that doesn’t need to be watched, or accounted for. People seem immune to efficiency, the contagious disease of western culture. I remember Momo, and how she dealt with the time thieves, and am lead to believe that there must be a laotian connection.

Ziplines! Jungle fun!

We left Vietnam in a very comfortable sleeper bus from Dong Ha, and arrived hassle-free in Pakse, southern Laos. The mighty Mekong river flows slowly, the city hugs the river shores, and the pace of the city follows the same rhytm. We are here in order to try an eco adventure in the jungle, called the Tree Top Explorer, lots of fun on zip-lines of several hundreds of meters, canopy walks and swimming in a waterfall, all embedded in the green jungle of the misty Bolaevan plateau, famous for aromatic coffee.IMG_9654

The famous coffee is served every morning and dinner, cooked in a filter over a cook fire, strong and aromatic indeed. Accommodation is in small huts built in the crowns of huge trees, access true to the camp style, by zip line only. There is a shared kitchen and platform, overlooking the valley, the focal point of which is a majestic waterfall.

– Namtok – our guide Bun repeats patiently.

“Nam” is water, “tok” is falling, and all our activities are concentrated around the waterfall, we zipline above, below, bathe in the water, and gaze at the spectacle when sipping our coffees. After sunset, as the tropical night descends quickly, accompanied by a choir of cicadae, we zip into our tree top hut with a cat under one arm, a preemptive measure towards another inhabitant of the jungle trees, the rat.

We were thrilled, this trip is pure, destilled fun. Things are well organized, we eat picnic lunch off banana leaves, and can follow the enjoyable program, a mixture of zipping along the lines, trekking, swimming, and relaxing in the beautiful jungle camp, taking in the amazing view.

Climbing paradise

Next destination is Green Climbers Home, a climbing camp in Thakhek.

We look around for bus tickets, and pick the one that promises a 6 hours trip as opposed to the 10 hours, the other vendors are selling, only to arrive in Thakhek … 10 hours later. It is dark, and we have to bike to the climbing camp under the starlit sky, and the feeble light of the head lamps. After an hours bike ride trough the darkness, the climbing camp appears, a flood of light, we can hear the laughter.

When we arrive, I see friendly faces, that we have met in China, climbing bags skattered around, the talk the same at all climbing destinations in the world, this is my tribe.

We stay for two weeks, I enjoy the rush of climbing, while Pawel and Magdalena are reasonably bored. It is hard to climb again after so many weeks of abstinence, luckily I can team up with Marcel, a familiar face from Yangshuo in China, and he is patient while I freak out on the low grades, and the power slowly returns, I redpoint a 6a+, with shaking Elvis legs, and feel as a climber again.

We spend rest days going to the city of Thakhek, there is a single shop with ice creams, and wifi, a massage joint, salt baked fish at the stall next to the river, where one can sit and look across at the Thailand side.

I enjoyed the stay at Green Climbers Home so much, I didnt even wish for Christmas presents, but Christmas is only two days away, and we have to go to Vientiane, and pick up Solvej, a friend of Magdalena’s, that has decided to join us for the Christmas holidays. When we are leaving, I wish I could have stayed in this paradise.

Our Christmas Miracle

Our Christmas Miracle was to find Jungle house, an amazing guest house run by amazing people, Mike and Xoukiet. I am short listing this guest house as a candidate for the title “Best in all the world”. It is a very special place, mainly due to the personalities of the two people, that run it. Their home is a beautiful house, with a junglelike garden, and from the moment you arrive, you feel like a dearly missed friend. We enjoyed really roal breakfasts in the mornings, and the pleasure of sipping Mike’s gin & tonic, sitting above the water pond while listening to the frogs chatting at sunset, and the highlight of each evening, meeting other guests at the dinner table, engaging in fierce philosophical/political/cultural/../ discussions.

Our Christmas Miracle was to meet Mike and Xoukiet. This couple, both deeply engaged in making the world a better place to leave, fundamental humanitarians, was a huge inspiration. Xoukiet battles human traffiking, Mike has founded the COPE center, to help victims of land mines, cluster bombs, and other effects of the Secret War, bringing more bombs to this quiet backwater country, than any other place in the world.

– We should not aim for what is possible to do, but for what is right to do. – recounted Mike, of his stance at the discussion of the UN committee for cleaning up the country from bombs.

– How many casualties should we accept? 0!

Things become very simple, when you hold such a fundamental view, when you hold a plastic molded leg in your hand, looking into eyes of the crippled human, whose life you want to improve, then war, bombs, the war rhetoric is meaningless, we are humans, and should treasure our lives, as a superior value, not something that we have the right to take away from others, diminish, or end.

Our Christmas Miracle was a dozen of strangers, meeting around a table to celebrate a special day, far away from our homes, determined to launch a new friendship, and our miracle was a beautiful fusion of traditions.

So we went from sharing the polish “oplatek”, sent by my mom, dancing around the christmas three danish style, complete with running around the house, and singing “12 days of Christmas” in unison, with Mikes powerfull bass voice delivering “fiiiiive gooooolden rings“, enjoying listening to a story read alout, that was published over a century ago, and has been cherished by generations of Boddingtons since, trough sharing the warmth and joy of being human, and together.

The house was quiet and asleep, when we managed to connect with my family trough Skype, the time difference such, that they were just beginning to gather around the food. When my mothers voice came crackling trough the static, I felt a lump in the throat, felt the enormous distance, so far away from home 119, 17, as opposed to 10, 55

Elephants!

Next stage in our journey is a bumby ride along the Mekong river to Sayabouli, where we have signed up as volunteers on a paid program in the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). Rattle is the only word I can find to describe the progress of a bus in Laos, and our bus rattles north, together with the suffering passengers, the helper boy distributes vomit bags, grabbed by eager hands. A mommy, daddy and a toddler are seated next to me, the little family takes turns vomiting, the plastic bag wobbles between our seats, brimming full with a “road soup” of undefinable color.

After too many miserable hours, we stand with two legs on the red ground again, the bus station being a raised platform in the woods, excited to see the elephants of the center, to learn about our duties as volunteers. Soon a beaten up truck arrives, and after more bumbing around, we arrive at the camp, a collection of simple bamboo huts, the location incredibly beautiful, surrounded by a magical lake, that mirrors the sky, the clouds, the sunrise and sunset. IMG_2969

I remembered the buddist story about a nun, that saw the mirror image of the moon in her bucket, while carrying water, and understood the nature of things, showing thus, that enlightenment can be achieved doing mundane chores, and meditation is not anymore or less fancy, than carrying water in a bucket.

Or looking at a magical lake.

We meet the other two volunteers, a polish couple living in Scotland, and the six of us hang out together, sharing the same fate.

There isn’t really any work for us to do, and this being Laos, the staff seems worried about us not to over exert ourselves. The days pass with hanging around the elephants, or swinging in hammocks, every night has a camp fire, music and lao lessons.

Riding on the neck of the elephants is fun, but even more enjoyable is just being around these magnificient animals, sensing them. IMG_2951The mahouts are so gentle and caring, the look of concern and love on their face, when they speak to their elephant, the mighty animals are controlled using the voice and body language only, no metal hooks or other malicious inventions. Every day, there is a boat trip to visit the nursery, where a 23 months pregnant elephant lady is awaiting the birth, her belly huge, we are hoping to see the newborn, but the baby will arrive after we have left the center. The staff explains, how the elephant, the very national symbol of Laos is threatened, the species on the border of extinction, as natural reproduction is hindered by economical considerations, and 10 elephants die for every baby that is born. The purpose of the center is to provide veterinary services, and support mahouts with pregnant females, so that they do not loose their income for the two years of pregnancy and three years of nursing, that a baby elephant requires.

Being volunteers, we feel an urge to contribute to both the cause and the paradise, and we settle on a bit of gardening, doing a yoga class, and organizing a treasure hunt for the kids in the camp, which is well received by the target group.

The owners invite us volunteers to stay for the New Years Eve, and we say goodbye to the old year with a barbecue party, complete with a roasted calf, foie grass and lots of Beer Lao.

When we leave, it is with a feeling, that we leave a paradise.

Luang Prabang and north

Next stop, after the mandatory bus rattle, is Luang Prabang, surprisingly touristy, supplied by a steady stream of farang’s, meandering around the colourful markets, and the majestic temples. Not being a family of temple explorers, really, we want to see more of the simple life, and rent scooters, to ride 70 km north to Ban Na Ham. That is where we meet friends of the family that runs our guest house in Luang Prabang, and we are treated to a self-organized home stay.

The whole village is suddenly there, curious about us, we about them. Life is simple, belongings few, the house is clean, the people generous. We go with the boys to set the fishing nets in the river, a local school teacher helps with translating. We are treated to a royal dinner, and even more royal breakfast, with sweet rice cooked in bamboo over the fire, and a fish, and chicken soup, made from a chicken, that was walking proudly around a few moments ago.

We visit the village, walk among the houses where women are weaving, and give an english lesson at our teachers school, teaching the students to clap their hands to “If you are happy and you know it”. When we are leaving, we are leaving another paradise.IMG_3861

Birthday girl

It is Magdalenas 16 years birthday, when we wake up before sunset, as our night bus from Luang Prabang has sped trough the potholes of the mountain road, and has arrived in Vientiane hours ahead of schedule.IMG_3895

– Happy Birthday! – we hug the sleepy eyed main person of the day, and share a jar of cookies, as we wait on the bus platform, atop of our luggage, for  Mike to bring us to our beloved Jungle House.

The night is a hardly a surprise,  the Jungle House style elegant dinner, with stimulating converstation, champaign to celebrate the birthday girl, and a wonderful chocolate cake!

Having been on the road for a while, travelling, sleeping, eating, being together 24 hours a day, it is really hard to keep a surprise, and the birthday girl does not sound very surprised when the surprise is revealed.

I have found Backstreet Academy,  a company that connects travellers with local people, that have something to teach, the experience is thus authentic, and not to reproduce on mass scale, a platform worth supporting. The surprise we picked, is a lao style cooking class, in the garden of a family, the father and mother in law look at us, as we are instructed by the pregnant wife, the husband tends the fire, and a young student handles the translation, everybody enthusiastic  about teaching us how to cook the food. We relaxed while grilling the vegetables on the cooking fire, washed, peeled, and pounded at the ingredients, and the result was a delicous lunch with 5 dishes, that we could consume with our new Lao friends. IMG_3920

Goodbye Laos

Time passes fast, visas, even when prolonged, run eventually out, and we have to say goodbye, leave the cosy nest we have in Jungle House, and hug Mike and Xoukiet goodbye. We continue the adventure on our bikes, as we approach the border bridge to Thailand. After a half year of travelling, we have discovered how time flows in a different, slow, pace, and that small pieces of Paradise can be found on our planet, and Laos has an amazingly high density of these small Paradises …

Family Gap Year adventure – Chapter 3, Tibet

Getting there – worlds highest train ride

– Tashi Delek!

The woman is smiling, her dark face beautiful, a shower of colored braids surrounds her slender figure, a traditional dress, a baby strapped to her back.

I reply, to her, and to the line of dark faces around:

– Tashi Delek.

This means “hello” in Tibetan, and the short exchange has already let me run out of Tibetan vocabulary, the means of communication left to us being looking at each other patiently, smiling. We are in the waiting room of Xining station, the train to Lhasa has been running 1, and now 2 hours late, people are tired of moving the line back and forth, with their suitcases, sacks, cardboard boxes and precious bundles, as we are trying to follow the chinese signs announcing our train, that keep jumping to other gates.

We are waiting to ride the worlds highest train line, a feat of chinese engineering, leading up to the plateau trough a series of passes, the highest one 5200 m, tracks built directly on permafrost, leading into the holy, mythical city of Lhasa.

I am clutching a pouch with my passport, train ticket and travel permit.  Precious, magic documents.

The permit circus

Agata PermitThe paper work to obtain these was not for the fainthearted.

You need a chinese visa to go to Tibet. And a special travel permit. They will tell you NOT to mention the fact that you are going to Tibet, when you apply for a chinese visa.

You can not apply for the travel permit to Tibet without a chinese visa.

And you can not buy a train ticket to Lhasa without the travel permit.

And you can not get the travel permit, without your ticket.

(And you need to document your itinerary with tickets to obtain the visa, but thats another story).

We were still in Denmark, looking at a map of the world, planning our trip by letting fingers wander, if you turn left after Mongolia, you go to Korea and Japan, if you turn right, you go to Tibet. Seeing the improbability of traveling in big zig-zags, the decision was firm:

– Lets go to Tibet.

Despite the disadvantages, such as that free travel is not possible, we found a tibetan owned company that could provide the mandatory guide service, and started the somewhat absurd process of applying for travel permits.

We was told that it is almost there, almost ready. At least, well under the way. Only one stamp was still missing.

Weeks flew by, and we found ourselves waiting in Beijing, train tickets booked, train leaving next day, but still no permits.

– We need just one more stamp.

Then it arrived, luckily, on the day we were leaving, and we could praise our good fortune, as passengers are declined boarding the train to Lhasa without this document.

Lhasa

Everybody, even the dark skinned tibetan natives that have linguered longer in the lowlands, arrive in Lhasa short of breath. The plateau is at the serious altitude of 3600 m.

– Welcome to Tibet. I will show you many, many beautiful things in my country

We are greeted by our mandatory guide, given white silk scarves, and taken to one of the few hotels, that are licensed to admit foreigners.

We have arrived in Lhasa.

The first impression is soldiers, police, everywhere, on every street and corner there is a tank, or a police car, or a booth. Brought there to guarantee safety to the liberated people.

The city is beautiful, the dignified, white Potala palace, empty home of Dalai Lama , the Jhomsong temple, a place of power, sizzling with energy, surrounded by pilgrims day and night.

We are here for 2 days, to acclimatize, before we can leave for Kharta valley.

These are happy days, as on this part of our travel our family of three is joined by my sister and mum, and everybody enjoys the reunion. We get a foot massage performed by blind therapists, and have a hairdresser apply the Lhasa hair style with colorful braids to our hair. We watch the movie “Seven years in Tibet“, and marvel at actually being in Lhasa.

Old Kharta Valley Trek

We are driving trough the country side, so slo….ooooo…ooooo…wly….. The police check points on the way give time limits to tourist cars, arriving to early or to late warrants a fine, giving us an average speed of 60 km/h for several hundreds of kilometers.  After 3 days of driving, when everybody is grumpy and tired, we arrive at a river, a rather dirty camp site, and put up our tents.

Next morning we are waken up by yells, as the yaks have arrived, together with two yak boys, that can whistle and shout commands for the yaks to follow.

Accompanied by the boys whistles, and the yaks bells, we set out on an eight day trek to the high and remote Kharta Valley, in hope of catching a view of the worlds highest mountain.

We are not lucky with the weather, most of the days it is raining, at night the temperature drops below zero, we have strong wind, fog and snow, low visibility. We have and odd problem with our guide, he tends to wander of chatting with the cheerful yak-boys, leaving our group in the fog banks, unsure of directions.

Somehow it is difficult to explain to our guide, that he should prioritetize walking with us, the clients, as there is really no other reason to have a guide, that to show the way. We have some heated discussions and clashes, trying to explain this to our impatient man. After a long, and very wet day, it is easy to build up anger.I remind myself of a fundamental Aikido lesson:

– Look at your feet, before you walk.

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Our family posing with a view of the East side of the snow clad beauty – Chomolungma / Mt Everest .

The clouds are gone in the morning, and we get to pose with the snowclad beauty – Chomolungma, or Mt Everest in English. From here, to get back to civilization, it is either turning around and walking back for 5 days, or continuing towards the highest point of the trek, the Lhangma La pas of 5400 m.

Our coldest camp is the highest, at 4950m. Thats when we discover that the sleeping bags are wet. The potatoes are dry, though, as they have been riding in the sole plastic bag. And we are almost out of gas.

There are small simple stone huts, serving as shelters, and we huddle around the oven, together with tibetan yak-men and a few chinese trekkers. Suddenly, the man next to me collapses, and falls face down on the stone floor. My sister is a competent doctor, and after a quick examination, that reveals a gaping hole in his head, she is outraged:

– What is the man doing here, at 4900 m, with a severe wound in his head?

– Why are his clothes wet?

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Blank faces, murmurs, shrugging shoulders, thats the way it is, he was wounded, is walking back to receive medical treatment, when he hopefully arrives back to civilization in a few days. The wound is infected, the man is losing conciousness, he owes only the wet clothes he is wearing, it is below zero outside, there is no helicopter that will come to rescue up a tibetan yak-man.

The first rule of treatment being keep the patient warm and dry, she commands around, and reluctantly the other yak-men make room for him to lie down, we find blankets and dry clothes, after a cleaning and provisory dressing of the wound, and administering antibiotics from our first aid kit. It is a relief to hear the patient as he starts to joke a few hours later, when the medicine kicks in.

As we break the last camp, we discover that our crew is planning to leave two big bags full of trash, a sad contribution to an already suffering fragile ecosystem.

– We need to take our trash with us.

– No, I paid environment protection tax! Somebody else will come and clean this.

When we bumble on the road back to civilization, it is without the trash bags in the car. An unpleasant taste in my mouth.

It is a moral dillema, how much should we complain, where is the line between impoving a situation, and a man losing his job. We meet with the manager in a fast food restaurant, get a long explanation about ecology, and missing elements from guide’s education, and issues with local goverment, eco tourism being a very complicated affair. We interrupt:

– No, it is very simple. Don’t leave trash.

– Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

The long train ride back, down from the Tibetan Plateau to Wuhan gives time to think.

We met many people in Tibet, but didn’t really make friends, there was no connection, a sad feeling.

But a few days later, I get an email from Sonam, general manager of Explore Tibet, the company that organized our trek.

– Your guide worked really hard, he realized his mistake.

Explore Tibet staff working on their community project – cleaning up a mountain, and raising awareness.

As I browse the photos, and read his story, I can feel a smile growing on my face. Explore Tibet has decided to take responsibility, and go forward in protecting the fragile eco system, and has demonstrated the commitment by organizing a clean up day, sending staff to remove bag after bag of garbage from one of the holy mountains, and sponsored signposts stating a familiar phase in 3 languages:

– Take nothing but memories – leave nothing but footprints.

This phrase, this recognition, is the missing connection. Now, I feel, that we channelled a change, we left a mark.