Archive for January, 2008

Make that 100 days

In my last post, I mentioned that music has been banned throughout Thailand since the death of the King’s sister on Jan. 1.

I mentioned this because I truly could not imagine something like this happening in the States or in any other Western nation. If our president was assassinated, you could play any song you like at the bar the next night. And if his sister died of cancer, many Americans would not even hear about it.

Can you imagine what would have to happen before every bar in a major American city agreed to stop playing music for more than two weeks?

How about three months?

Here in Chaiyaphum, the city appears to have decided that 15 days was not sufficient to pay its respect to the late Princess. The city has extended its period of mourning to the full 100 days that will be observed by the royal family. The initial mourning period ended on the 16th, but the full mourning period will last more than three months.

That means us teachers are expected to wear black to work for the full 100 days (teachers are considered government employees, since we work for public schools). It also means there may be no music played at the city’s annual festival, which was already pushed back to the 17th so it would not take place during the initial period of mourning.

At the time of the Princess’s death, the government declared a national mourning period would be in effect for 15 days, during which time all government officials and state employees will wear black clothing and flags will fly at half-mast.

Apparently, the interior ministry also asked businesses to “refrain from entertainment activities” during the national mourning period. I’m not sure what else falls under the mourning ban, but live music was among the “entertainment activities” that businesses have dutifully refrained from for the past two-plus weeks, at least here in Chaiyaphum.

There is an annual festival here that was scheduled to begin shortly after the mourning period began. It was pushed back to the 17th, the day after the 15-day mourning period ended. The festival has been on for four days now, and it will continue until the 25th. But it now appears it will do so without music.

Traditionally, music is played each night at the nine-day festival, often with a big-name act playing on the final day (I’ve heard Body Slam, one of the top pop bands in Thailand, was supposed to play this year). But so far, the live music has been called off out of respect for the late Princess.

I’m not sure whether the ban will be lifted for the final night of the festival (I’ve heard from some people that it will be, and from others that it won’t), but I’ll keep you posted.

The music ban is not being enforced in tourist areas (I was in Ayuthaya this weekend and one of the bars there had a guy singing terrible American oldies songs and playing an acoustic guitar; I’d imagine the same sort of thing is happening in Bangkok and some of the islands in the South), but at least in the northeastern provinces it’s being taken quite seriously.

Incidentally, this is not the first time the government has banned “entertainment activities” nationwide since I’ve been here. There was an alcohol ban in effect for the weekend before the national elections, presumably to ensure the nation would be sober when votes were cast.

Here in Chaiyaphum, that was extended to include the weekend two weeks prior to the election as well. Bars and restaurants strictly observed the ban, refusing to serve drinks during both weekends. As foreigners, we were able to convince someone to sell us alcohol at a convenience store, but only after we agreed to conceal the bottle in a handbag before leaving the store.


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Cities, as a general rule, are formed for a reason. A city may form near an important body of water, at the junction of major roads or rail lines, on the outskirts of a larger city that got too crowded or too expensive.

Vang Vieng, Laos, is a different kind of city. As far as I can tell, Vang Vieng is a city that was built on a fun place to get drunk in an inner tube.

Sharon, Adrienne, and I went to Vang Vieng a few weeks ago for that very reason. At least among the 20-something backpacker/English teacher crowd, tubing down the Nam Song River is the main reason to go to Laos. It’s rumored that a fair number of people go to Vang Vieng for a day or two, spend an afternoon on the river, and end up staying for weeks and going through copious amounts of mushrooms (more on that later).

So, with only a three-day weekend to see the entire country, we had a nice lunch in Vientiane (pesto fettuccini and real coffee!) and went straight to Vang Vieng for some tubing.

Two hours or so in Vientiane and the three-hour drive to Vang Vieng were enough to explain why Thais have developed such an arrogant attitude with regard to Laos.

In Thailand, Chaiyaphum is the butt of a lot of jokes. It’s the nation’s poorest province and, to be fair, there’s not a lot here. I live in the provincial capital, which means it’s the largest city in the province, and when I asked my Mathayom 4 students (that’s fourth year of high school, or 15-16 years old) to describe the biggest problems in Chaiyaphum, one of the most popular responses was that a traffic light on the main street shuts off too early at night. Another was that there aren’t enough garbage bins in town.

Here in Chaiyaphum, the butt of the jokes is Laos. If you want to call someone a moron, you either say they’re a buffalo or you say they’re from Laos.

There’s a bar in town that has a few waitresses who come from Laos. The one who usually serves us is Thai, but we tease her by calling her Laos. When I asked my Mathayom 4 classes where they would go if they had a time machine, one student said she would go to Laos in the past, when it was more beautiful there. I asked her why Laos isn’t as beautiful as it used to be, and she said, “Because Laos people aren’t very smart.”

I didn’t understand it before, because to me Thailand is a developing country. I’d heard that Thais are rather arrogant about their status in relation to neighboring Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, but I didn’t get it.

I giggled when my Lonely Planet described Thailand as an “economic powerhouse.” After all, this is a place where a taxi means either a pickup truck with bleacher seats bolted to the truck bed (called a songthaew) or a cheap motorbike dragging a three-seat coach (called a tuk-tuk, after the ridiculous sound of its struggling engine). It’s a country where a restaurant often consists of a wok and three plastic tables on a sidewalk. And it’s a country that can ban music for 15 days after the death of the King’s sister and people will actually listen (here in Chaiyaphum, an annual festival was rescheduled to avoid holding a concert within the 15-day national mourning period; can you imagine what it would take to cancel every concert in the United States for 15 days?)

But after seeing Laos, it started to make a lot more sense. Compared to Thailand, Laos was another world. Laos looked more like Africa than it looked like Thailand. It hardly looked Asian. It just looked poor.

I literally could not believe that Vientiane was the capital of a country. It’s barely the size of downtown Bethesda. We got dropped off in the center of town, and three blocks later we were on the outskirts of town.

The city felt a bit like a beach town in autumn. You could tell that there was a city there and it felt like it might have been crowded at some point, but at the moment there was almost no one around.

I must have asked Sharon and Adrienne at least three times if they had ever seen a country small enough for this town to be the nation’s largest city. They hadn’t.

If you put Vientiane in Thailand, it would hardly be worth talking about. Walking through Vientiane, I felt like I was in Khon Kaen (that’s a fairly small college town in northeast Thailand with a handful of really good restaurants, some pretty cool bars, and a nine-story temple that some might describe as a tourist attraction).

The only real evidence that we were in an important city was the amount of Western food on offer. You can only find Western food in cities that Western people deem worthy of traveling to, which generally means the larger cities or the cities with noteworthy sights and attractions. There was plenty of Western food available in Vientiane, and the small bit of it that we tried was actually quite good.

But comparing Vientiane to Bangkok is a bit like putting Madison, Wisconsin next to Manhattan. There was no traffic in Vientiane. In Bangkok, there are enough taxis to cause their own traffic jams. There must be three Bangkok cab drivers for every resident of Vientiane. Maybe more.

The drive from Vientiane to Vang Vieng was gorgeous. There isn’t enough money in Laos to destroy the scenery, so the entire ride felt like what us Americans would term a ‘scenic drive.’ If this road was in America, it would be in the guidebooks.

And then, all of a sudden, we were in Vang Vieng. The town came out of nowhere. There was absolutely nothing around it, aside from trees, mountains, and the small river that I presume was the reason someone decided to put a backpacker town there.

Vang Vieng is definitely a backpacker town. Aside from the fact that no one would go there unless they planned to spend an afternoon and early evening drinking their way down a river in a plastic inner tube, the entire town consisted of one main road (maybe six blocks long) with nothing on it but Western restaurants (nearly all of which played reruns of Western sitcoms on a constant loop), bars, and little tourist souvenir shops.

Surrounding that road in all directions were tiny hovels that housed the local population, who presumably lived there so they could work in either a Western restaurant, a bar, or a little souvenir shop. The streets leading to those houses weren’t always paved.

Tubing, by the way, was one of the best afternoons I’ve had since coming out here. Just imagine yourself floating down a slow-moving river drinking an organic mojito out of a plastic bag that you just bought at the head of the river from an organic farm that claims the proceeds from their riverside bar goes to the local community (they had a handwritten sign that read, “Drink for the children”).

After floating for about four minutes or so, you reach the next riverside bar, where someone local hands you a piece of bamboo and pulls you to shore so you can buy a drink at his bar. You have a drink, ride the zip line into the water, and jump off a diving platform maybe 15 feet high, before hopping back in your inner tube to drift to the next of 5 bars you will float to that day (all of which have either a zip line, a rope swing, or a diving platform, and many of which will have either a backpacker pouring you free shots, an aging hippie handing you free bananas, or an older local man pouring you more free shots from an unmarked bottle that almost certainly had mushrooms floating in it). Even if you can only stay a few days, it’s well worth the 1,500 baht fee for your Laos entry visa (or $36, if you have US dollars with you).

In addition to its reputation as the drunken tubing capital of Laos, Vang Vieng is also known for its drugs (this is really more of a nationwide thing in Laos, I hear, but its definitely true in Vang Vieng). When you sit down at a place you thought might have good dessert, you will be handed two menus. One lists food, drinks, and desserts, and the other is the drugs menu. Our drugs menu listed prices for three categories of drugs (mushrooms, opium, weed), with a handful of consumption options for each (shake, tea, individual joint, bag, etc.).

This was particularly odd in a town that strictly enforces its 11 pm curfew (there are literally bars in Vang Vieng that boast of the fact that they are permitted to stay open past midnight due to a special arrangement with the police; the entire town is basically dead by 11:30 pm). But I suppose there is little use wondering about the legal reasoning of a country where one of the main tourist attractions involves serving people copious amounts of alcohol while they float down a river in an inner tube.

PS: Life jackets, incidentally, are voluntary on the river. This is true even if you admit to the guy renting inner tubes that you can’t swim, as my Scottish friend Sharon did before declining the offer of a life jacket. A few drinks later, as we were floating drunkenly down the river, she mentioned that she really wished she had taken a life jacket so she could use the rope swing at one of the riverside bars (there are rope swings, zip lines, and diving platforms on offer at all of the riverside bars, which is great fun). She proceeded to use the rope swing anyway, when I offered to tread water in the general area I figured she would land and drag her back to shore after she jumped into the water.

PPS: If someone at a riverside bar offers you “Medicinal Root” and starts pouring you free shots from an unmarked bottle that has lots of grey somethings floating in it, don’t be too drunk to realize that he’s offering you some kind of liquor with mushrooms in it. This is particularly good advice if the man at the last bar on the river repeats the word ‘Happy’ no fewer than seven times while pouring your drinks and laughs when you drunkenly nod to him and say, “Yeah, happy, happy, sabai, sabai…” If you make this mistake, do not be surprised when you somehow lose both of your friends in the few meters of water between the last bar on the river and the end of the line, where a local 12-year-old girl will grab your tube and pull you out of the water.


Even in Vang Vieng, the poverty of Laos is visible. This house was right next to my fairly fancy guesthouse on the main backpacker strip. I took the photo from my balcony.


This is where they drop you off when you suddenly and unexpectedly arrive in Vang Vieng. It looks like an unused airstrip, which it may well be. As you can see, it is located in the middle of a bit of gorgeous, undeveloped nature. Behind the ‘airstrip’ are mountains and a few blocks away is the river.


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I don’t remember much about the New Year’s Eve I spent with 20,000-some drunk people and exactly 20 TEFLers on Koh Phangnan, but I’m going to assume I had a fairly amazing time.

What I can recall are the two separate modes of transport that attempted to kill me in the space of a few hours as I tried to leave the island on New Year’s Day.

The first was a boat taxi from the main beach, Haad Rin, which hosted the New Year’s Eve festivities, to the beach we stayed on with our local friend, Nini, who works at a hotel on Haad Yuan where a few of the TEFLers working in the South had previously stayed.

Despite Nini’s warnings about the water conditions (he kept motioning with his hand to indicate the size of the waves, while explaining that he wasn’t going to try to get back to Haad Yuan for awhile), we foolishly decided to hop on a boat taxi between beaches so we could attempt to get home in time for school the following day. It was about 8 a.m. when we came to this decision, and the beach was still pumping disturbingly loud house music to entertain the few thousand drunks who remained from the night before.

We had already missed the 7 a.m. ferry we had to catch to make our noon flight out of Surat Thani, but we thought we might be able to catch a bus or a boat or a train of some sort and get back in time to teach the next day. To do that, of course, we had to retrieve our bags from Nini’s place on Haad Yuan.

So we piled into a little wooden boat with a not-particularly-trustworthy-looking engine, the same one we had been using all weekend to shuttle us back and forth from our beach to Haad Rin. We could see that the water was choppy, but we didn’t expect the ride to be quite as memorable as it was.

We spent the next twenty minutes or so laughing nervously, as waves poured over the front and sides of our little motorboat taxi. So there we were, being swamped by waves every minute or so, still dressed in our New Year’s Eve outfits from the night before (mine was a pair of mesh shorts, Nike flip-flops, and a black button-down shirt), trying to convince ourselves that the boat wouldn’t actually capsize, and that the driver must know what he’s doing, and that he wouldn’t have taken us out in this if it wasn’t safe, and…

The driver, the same one that had driven us around all weekend, was laughing. And cracking jokes. He had a huge smile on his face for the entire ride, and he kept saying things like, “Don’t pee in my boat.”

On my left and still drunk from the night before was my Scottish friend, Sharon, who can’t swim. That hadn’t stopped her from climbing into an inner tube and drinking her way down a river in Laos the weekend before, but it added a bit to our anxiety nonetheless. Sharon spent the ride telling us all about a conversation she had apparently had with someone on the beach who claimed he/she had been in a boat exactly like this one that actually did capsize in similar conditions. I imagine that conversation couldn’t have been much more than a few minutes before Sharon, by Scottish friend who can’t swim, climbed into a little wooden boat with a not-particularly-trustworthy-looking engine and began to be pelted with waves.

In any event, we eventually made it to our beach on Haad Yuan, where my friend Joel stumbled out of the boat and nearly got himself run over. We then spent a few hours trying to figure out how we were going to get back to Chaiyaphum and generally enjoying the fact that we were all still alive, before someone arranged a motor taxi to take us back to the main beach and on to the pier to catch a ferry. We had already decided that we weren’t getting on another boat taxi, so a motor taxi seemed the natural solution.

We had been told that there were no motor taxis from our beach because there were no roads to drive on. This was mostly true. The ‘taxi’ ended up being the back of someone’s pickup truck (he was driving into town with about nine friends and a few dozen trash bags), and the road ended up being a steep, winding, mud path that was slightly wider than our pickup truck.

And so it was that the ride back to Haad Rin was even more memorable than the ride from Haad Rin had been.

Instead of nine TEFLers and one laughing driver, there were four TEFLers and nine locals (including a few women and children, who sat in the front) to laugh at us as we held on to whatever we could grab in a clumsy attempt to avoid falling out of the truck. In my case, it tended to be either Sharon’s knee or my overnight bag (which was particularly foolish, since my overnight bag was just sitting in my lap, not any more attached to the truck than I was).

At one point, the inevitable occurred and the truck got stuck on a particularly steep, muddy incline. It took four or five attempts to push the thing out (the women, children, and foreigners all got out of the truck and the half-dozen Thai men pushed). My contribution to the effort was mostly to stand with my hands on the back of the truck and try not to slide all the way down the hill, which was quite difficult in the slick mud.

By the time we got to the pier, I didn’t mind that the only way we could get home was a 14-hour bus ride. I was just glad we would be doing it on paved roads.

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