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Archive for April, 2010

March 11th

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Above: I’ve seen photos of me wakeboarding and skiing. I have the exact same scrunched up face of grim gritted-teeth terror.

After Babs posted his take on our 3-day 2-night jungle-trekking-treehouse-living-ziplining adventure at The Gibbon Experience in Laos, a few friends pinged me to ask “Hey where’s your version? We wanna hear your version!”

This is not because they discount Babs’s point of view in any way. It’s also not because I am any kind of renown travel writer or an expert on nature or gibbons or adventure sports.

Nooooo. This is largely because anyone who has ever met me will know that this adventure was going a complete disaster for me from the getgo. Those who know me best started laughing hysterically the minute they heard I was going at all.

See, all through my growing up years I’ve been a fan of the great indoors. Which means now in my adulthood I have physical coordination of comic proportions. Moreover, I am a mosquito magnet. So the first thing Babs and I do (for a couple of hours) in any new hostel in the road is to seal the room and hunt down every damn mozzie in the room and clap them back to that special chamber of hell where they belong. (But how do you seal off any kind of area in a jungle?) Finally, I am never going to win any awards for being quietly longsuffering about physical discomfort.

In short, if this were a movie, the character playing me would be someone who has the lithe acrobatic coordination of a Chris Farley character and the gentle lilting humour of Roseanne Barr.

Right then.

The Gibbon Experience started off in Huayxai, Laos, on the other side of the Mekong River from Chiangkorn, Thailand.

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Above: View of Huayxai, Laos, from across the Mekong

We check into The Gibbon Experience office in Huayxai the day before our appointed start date. We then sign away any right to sue the organisation should anything untoward happen to us, even if it’s caused by their faulty equipment. I start squawking at Babs.

The next morning, we show up at the office again to meet our gibbon group mates and watch a 10 minute instructional video on how to use the zipline equipment. Interesting that they show this video only AFTER we’ve signed the liability waiver forms. I feel more, not less terrified after the video.

We then pile into 2 trucks and hit the road for 1 1/2 hours to get to the organisation’s village on the fringe of the Bokeo Nature Reserve.

Get your toilet trips done before you head out — otherwise you’ll have to look for a nice bush on the side of the road enroute. You will then have to choose between the risk of exposing yourself if you choose a bush too close to the road, or the risk of encountering a leech or 2 if you wander too far into the undergrowth.

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Above: Toilet break enroute

We have some time at the village waiting for the later van to show up. People start snapping pictures of the very rustic wooden-plank huts, and the kids running around. I went straight for the free-range black pigs.

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Then we kick off a 1 1/2 hour hike into the jungle. It all looks lovely and pastoral here. But see that nasty upward incline on the far left background? That’s where the path heads.

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Pretty soon it’s all uphill, and along narrow paths that overlook a jungly (is that a word?) ridge. Both my heart and my legs are soon constantly threatening to give out — my legs from a combination of trudging uphill and going soft from the terror of being close to the ridge’s edge.

Mind you, we had signed up only for the “basic” package. The “waterfall” package involves an extra 2 hours of trekking on top of our 1 1/2 hours, to get to their (further out) treehouses. What kind of people sign up for this?! I want to meet them. Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to meet them. They might give Babs ideas.

Finally I spy our treehouse (I’d be told ours was the closest). I was about ready to kill somebody or myself if this turned out to be a mirage. But thank God, it’s really there. I fumble with the zipline, take many deep breaths, grit my teeth, and zip in.

Victory! I’m alive! Now I just have to stay put here till we leave in 2 days.

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But no! I’m thwarted! Our guide tells us to drop our bags, and go with him, and that we’ll be back in half an hour. What?! Why?! We just got here! Where are we going?!

Unfortunately our guide doesn’t have enough English for such complicated questions. So I find myself inadvertantly doing another 4 zip-lines. And, as it turns out, learning a thing or 2 about them.

Like how ziplines are not all built equal.

Some ziplines have more of a slope than others. So you have to brake before you reach the end of the line so that you can land at a comfortable speed and find your footing like a pro. I squeeze the brake. Nothing happens. So my backup brake kicks in. By that I mean my right shoulder lowers my speed by slamming into the tree anchoring the zipline. There’s no TV in the treehouse, obviously, but my shoulder provides quite the intriguing range of technicolour developments in the days following.

Some ziplines have less of an incline than others. So you may not have enough momentum to make it to the platform at the other end, and have to haul yourself in, hand by hand at a time. This is still a tolerable scenario. Except I start slipping backwards. I know it’s not far, but for the life of me I can’t bloody reach the end of the zipline! And so instead I reach the end of my rope.

So our guide (I give them a lot of credit for patience with my epic ineptness) has to zip out, hook up to me, and haul me in. Later, while scrolling through the photos on my camera, I discover that my loving husband has captured this moment of panic, despair and humiliation for posterity.

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Finally, finally finally we make it back to the treehouse, and get to settle in and have a proper look around. Here’s our living cum dining room.

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Our 6-person treehouse has 3 “split level” platforms for bedrooms. Each bedroom has a couple of mattresses, pillows, and a large hanging blanket tent for privacy and mosquito netting. It reminds me of the blanket tents I used to set up in my bedroom or living room during pyjama parties growing up. Yes I did my childhood camping trips in the great indoors as well.

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From our “bedroom”, I have a spectacular view of this wasp nest below. Each little round brown “dot” you see in the semi-circle is a wasp. The rougher pattern on the left half of the semi-circle is the awake and moving half of the nest. Delightful.

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Here’s our treehouse bathroom, where the wasps like to hang out. Specifically, in the squat toilet hole, for whatever reason (disgusting creatures). Which makes squatting on the toilet a fairly stressful affair. I suspect we used more water spraying the wasps down the toilet before using it, than showering. A Scandinavian chap from another treehouse tried to use our toilet, but just couldn’t bring himself to. He was completely freaked out. I feel his pain. And you shouldn’t mock him either, till you’ve bared your ass a few inches from 6 angry looking wasps!

And now let us take another “give credit where credit is due” moment to admire the fact that the tree house has a running-water shower at all, some 50m off the ground. Hell, it was more than we had on the ground, while volunteering in Western Kenya.

And by the way, this stuff was drinkable spring water. Amazing. Do not try drinking water from the tap in the rest of Laos, kids.

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The treehouse also has a little solar panel to power a few strategically placed lightbulbs at night. There’s also a canister of gas so that we can make hot tea and coffee. I’m impressed. Especially with whichever little Lao person had to zipline in with that monster of a gas can.

Meals are all cooked by the Gibbon Experience staff at base camp 2 (close to the end of the 1 1/2 hour hike) and then zip-lined into the various treehouses by tiffin-bearing guides. Kinda like Tarzan takeout.

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Our treehouse mates — 3 teachers and a occupational rehab therapist from a mix of Australia, Austria and Canada — are lovely people, but let’s face it, my favourite treehouse mate was this ginger tabby below. Yes. More favourite than Babs, for these 2 days anyway. What’s not to like? The cat is cute, it’s clean, it’s sociable and affectionate, it hunts and eats cicadas and whatever else (people in other treehouses were constantly traumatised by giant spiders and rodent-like gnawing and rustling sounds at night. No such frights at our treehouse). And most importantly, the cat didn’t make me go hiking, did it.

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Above: I catch the cat winking at me. But I think it loves me only for my dinner plate.

The cat does make me nervous, though, when it pads around the edges and railings of the treehouse, which is some 35m off the ground.

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Our meals — mostly rice with lots of vegetables and wee bits of meat — are nothing much to write home about. Much more interesting is our supplied chest of anytime-snacks, consisting largely of local fruits, including green mangoes, tiny and incredibly sweet clementines, and lots of fresh tamarind straight from the pod. Also, some peanut brittle candy and 2 tins of sweetened condensed milk for our lovely smelling hefty-bodied Lao coffee.

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Guides are on standby the next day to take anyone who’s interested trekking and ziplining, in the hopes of sighting some gibbons.

I respond enthusiatically. (see photo below)

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Turns out, the gibbons came to me! Or at least, to a tree in direct line of sight from our “bedroom”. I watch them for about an hour, swinging about, picking fruit, howling their gibbon howl at one another, feeling pretty damn smug.

Eventually everyone else ziplines back from their morning trek and crowds around to watch the gibbons as well. Word gets around and people from other treehouses zipline in as well.

That afternoon I fall asleep in the afternoon heat reading my book. Unfortunately I forgot to use bugspray (usually necessary only starting at dusk). When I wake up my left hand is so bugbitten and swollen that I’ve lost my knuckles and found 2 purple fingers. About the same shade of purple as my shoulder that day. Well if I can’t be physically coordinated I can at least be colour coordinated, I suppose.

Finally it’s time to leave. The hike back downhill to the village is still painfully slow — this time because I am whatever is the complete opposite of a surefooted mountain goat (a cat with taped up paws, so I’ve been told), rather than lousy cardio — but at least my spirits are high.

Epilogue

I learn that for all my whingeing, things could have been far worse (is it perverse that that always makes one feel better?). Back at the village, I meet an Australian girl I don’t recognise from our troupe going up 2 days before. I say hello and we start chatting. Turns out she was in the waterfall group which started a day after us. It also turns out she was too large to fit comfortably or safely in any of the harnesses. So she and her friend had to part ways and she had to sleep overnight in the village to hitch a ride back to Huayxai with us.

We later met another girl from that same waterfall group. This was hours later. It was hours later because in the whatever deeper darker part of the jungle these crazy waterfall people go, she too, had failed to brake adequately on a zipline, and so braked by slamming, and potentially breaking her leg against a tree. And so with this potentially broken leg, she, her boyfriend, and a guide, had to inch their way back to the village through an excruciating combination of ziplines, motorcycle and donkey.

Gotta love those indemnity waiver forms.

To wrap up, I’d just like to say, in case you feel like I’m just rubbishing the whole thing, take another look at the title of this post. The gibbons were fun to watch, the guides were patient and sufficiently attentive, the jungle was lush etc etc. It’s just not for everyone. Some, like Babs, will have a whale of a time. But some others, like me, will simply feel like a whale the whole time.

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18th March 2010

I confess. Earlier this week I was ready to pull the plug, throw in the whole travel-eat-blog towel, and crawl under a rock. Maybe somewhere softer.

We’d been in Laos for… I lost track of how long, I realised when a fellow tuk-tuk passenger asked me. Two nights and too many hours were spent trekking, treehousing, gibbon-spotting and zip-lining around the jungle canopy, a terrifying 150m above ground. Babs loved it, of course. Unfortunately the only enthusiasm I experienced was my now-purple shoulder enthusiastically slamming into a tree during a clumsy zipline landing, and a plethora of nasty bugs enthusiastically chowing down on my arms, neck and ankles.

And then there was the food poisoning from Luang Namtha. Was it the buffalo satay? Or the skewer of chicken butts? Or the noodles with meat ragu? Or the BBQ duck? Say it ain’t so, night market BBQ duck!

Whatever it was, it made for 14 hours of stomach churning, a mild fever, a splitting headache and the shakes as our bus wound around endless half-baked Lao mountain roads, with even more endless Thai / Lao karaoke videos which all seem to be about 1) a girl who gets her heart broken by a cheating bastard pretty boy; 2) a boy who gets his heart broken by dating a rich girl with a disapproving father; and 3) how life in the country is idyllic and how life in the city sucks. Just in case you didn’t pick up the pattern within the first 5 songs, there’s another 80 to help you out.

IMG 0407I’d lost interest in writing. Posts, emails, tweets, whatall. I’d lost interest in taking photos. I just gave a weary shrug when I realised I had lost my little Canon Ixus somewhere in Luang Namtha (the grief is sinking in only now). I’d even lost interest in eating — always the point where Babs starts to really worry.

And then.

The bung-me-up pills finally worked for long enough, for Babs and I to walk through Luang Prabang to sign up for Tamarind’s cooking class, run by Lao-husband and Australian-wife team Joy Ngeuamboupha (right) and Caroline Gaylard.

Being back in the arena of delicious sights, smells and tastes (on terra firma I might add) was just the thing to yank me back from my personal netherworld of jungle-trekking-bus-meandering-gut-treachery.

The morning started with the very bubbly Caroline taking us around Luang Prabang’s Phosy Market, the city’s largest market, introducing us to local herbs and snacks.

I was especially intrigued by how the spartan waste-not-want-not Lao lifestyle — influenced by a mountainous landscape and a war-torn history — showed prominently in their food.

Turns out, for example, that chunks of chili wood (the short stumps 2nd from left below) are added to stews, and have the taste and numbing effect of Sichuan peppers.

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I forget the Lao word for buffalo, but it translates to “paradise meat”. And the Lao eat it nose to tail and then some. Below are dried buffalo skin, which can be added to stews or deep fried to make buffalo scratchings, tofu bricks made from blood, and (this takes the cake) the half-digested contents from intestines, which are bagged, sold, and cooked along with buffalo meat to tenderise it.

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Below is padaek, the Lao rendition of fish sauce. Mekong fish (I saw some tilapia), spices and water are left in the sun to ferment… until the rapture it seems. The stuff is bloody pungent, but offers more way depth and earthiness than the much thinner and more sugary Thai or Vietnamese factory-bottled fish sauce. I wonder how the sniffer dogs will react at customs…

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Breakfast snacks at the market include a young jackfruit salad. Lovely and light.

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IMG 0332And we’re off to class! The Tamarind classroom is 10 minutes out of town, a tranquil spot on the river flanked by its own fishponds and the beginnings of a few veggie beds. The workstations give plenty of elbow space for a group of 12, and the “stoves” are a line of charcoal-fire pots, all fired up to perfection.

The unflappable Joy — with twinkles of deadpan humour — first introduces us to the key building blocks of Lao cooking, then gently guides us through our assignment of making a whopping 6 dishes for lunch: Steamed sticky rice; Jeow, the ubiquitous salsa-esque dipping sauce made from whatever you dream up; Mok Pa, fish steamed in banana leaf; Ua Si Khai, lemongrass stuffed with chicken; Orlarm, a Luang Prabang specialty stew; and a dessert made from purple sticky rice cooked in sweetened coconut milk, topped with fruits, tamarind sauce and sesame seeds.

Overall it was definitely an exciting new palette of tastes for me. Very green, and on the woody, bitter medicinal end of herby. Anthropologically stimulating to taste, but not about to become a source of comfort food anytime soon. Three of the dishes, however, I look forward to introducing to friends and family over a dinner party at some point. Though that might have to wait, because the Joy of Luang Prabang’s Tamarind has, for now, revived in me the joy of travel. And for that I am thankful.

Jeow

Take your desired concoction (in this case I went for tomatoes, 2 chilis, garlic, shallots and a spicy green pepper) and skewer and chuck on a charcoal fire to singe for a lovely smoky edge. Remove skins, bash about with mortar and pestle, and then use as dipping sauce for sticky rice. Also great with BBQ meats.

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Mok Pa

Herbs — shallots, garlic, chili, kaffir lime leaf, dill, basil and spring onion — are chopped and pounded, then used as a marinade for chunked up whitefish. As yummy as it is, I think it’s all about the pretty banana leaf package, secured with bamboo twine.

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Ua Si Khai

Again, a combination of fresh herbs is used as a marinade — this time, minced chicken. The real fun here is using a scalpel to creat these lemongrass “cages” to hold the meat. Dunk in beaten egg mixture, then deep fry.

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Tamarind: Restaurant and Cooking School
Opposite Wat Nong
Luang Prabang, Laos

+856 20 777 0484
As of March 2010, the class takes 12 people per session, runs from 9am – 3pm, and costs US$28 per person.

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