time machine 2…

… it seemed a hundred years had passed since I’d heard the first whale blow and every nerve ending in my body was sparkling. Soaked in adrenaline, buzzed on nicotine and cocooned in a humming halo of nervous energy, my monkey brain overloaded – ‘eeeep!’ – then shut down.

Fight, flight or freeze.

I froze: hands glued to the rail, body completely locked in place, scanning the deep night for any signs of movement. Anything at all. Nothing stirred. Nothing.

The world held its breath.

‘WHOoosh’… 

This was really happening!

The forgotten cigarette burned my fingers, shifting focus. Suddenly free, I flicked the butt into the Canal (sorry guys) turned and bolted into the cabin like a wild-eyed child on Christmas morning. Knocking frantically on the bathroom door…”Jen,Jen,Jen,Jen,Jen….the whales are back!….the whales are back!…”. Running back out onto the deck.

She followed me out a thousand years later, wrapped up in pyjamas and towel against the cold. We stood together close by the low deck rail, staring out into the night.

More whales sounded, much closer than before.

At least 4, scattered out across the entrance to our little cove no more than a few hundred meters away.

But weird behavior. What’s going on here? They weren’t just on the way through. Something was up.

We could clearly hear their vocalisations as the Orca spoke to each other: the ‘whapping’ of finslaps, high pitched warbling whistles and deep rumbling vibrations.

They seemed to be coordinating and changing their locations, out in the black water no more than 100 meters away.

“A little bit to the left, a little bit to the right…come closer…yeah that’s it” in Orca-talk.

It finally dawned on us what was happening.

‘My God, they’re hunting!’

It made sense. There were several harbor seals that lived in and around our little Calm Cove. At night they slept on the floating pontoons and under the docks that were scattered around the canal. 

The whales hunted these seals, and years before had wiped out most of the local seal population in a destructive orgy of blood, guts and fur close to Robin Hood resort in Union. Herded them into shore and massacred them all. It is spoken of in awed whispers by the locals apparently.

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The few seals left were the smart ones.

I moved over and put my arms around Jen, lost in the moment, forgetting. When the whales were whistling to each other, I whistled back, trying to emulate the sound.

“If you must hold me, at least be quiet”.

Ouch.

The pod had positioned themselves around the entrance to the tiny cove.  It seemed they were forming a loose cordon  – a net – with the aim of driving whatever prey out of their hiding places and close to shore.

Once in place, the 4 whales began to close up  – sonic ghosts, the only sign of their presence now being finslap splashes and their haunting vocalisations as they maneuvered out in the black.

Then they stopped, falling silent again.

For a minute or so, all was quiet save for the soft lapping of the wavelets against the deck supports below.

We looked to each other. “Now what?”

Then, far out towards the middle of the canal…

…’WHOoosh’

There was a 5th whale.

It passed through the cordon of Orca and entered the cove. The only physical sign a subtle warping of the reflected streetlights – a swell and surge breaking the amber ripples of light as something massive but invisible passed silently beneath. It began to slowly sweep across the cove from one side to the other and then back.

A sudden dread enveloped me. Gone was the wonder, replaced by a primitive irrational fearfulness. I knew it was larger than the others by the sheer menace of the thing. It radiated danger.

Now it was coming closer to us and the deep waters edge. Unseen. Impossibly close. Once, twice, three times it moved across the cove, closer and closer with each pass.

Directly below us lay black, freezing water that at high tide we could bend down and touch at arms length. Just ahead, barely illuminated by the low voltage Christmas lights on the cabin, bobbed a series of buoys about 20 meters out – where the neighbor usually moors his jetskis and canoes.

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Halfway to the closest buoy in the rusty pool of light, the black surface surged upwards.

Completely silent save for tiny tinkling splashes of water, the tip of a black curved fin broke the surface with barely a ripple  – up and up and up it came. Massively tall. Improbably close. A gleaming obsidian blade followed in slow motion by the glistening head and curved back of this enormous predator.

I felt my heart tear as this wonder emerged from the invisible, rising silently in the semicircle of light before us.

“WHOooosh”… a shower of misty silver, tinkling tiny splashes.

It checked us out. I’m sure I felt its dismissive gaze pass over us – the boring little monkeys standing huddled and frozen up on the deck.

And then it was simply gone. Slipping quietly back under the surface with nothing to mark its passing but the oilslick swirl of the icy water.

It was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.

…………………….

After the bull had swept the cove, the pod became chatty again, and one by one moved off around the point to the next cove along. It was obvious now that they were systematically working their way down though each cove searching for food.

We never saw the other Orca – only what I’m assuming was the big male.

As they moved around the point to the left, their slaps, blows, chirps and whistles became fainter and fainter until finally we couldn’t hear them any more.

After a few minutes, the world around us exhaled and came back to life.

A seal barked loudly just off to our right, scaring the crap out of us both and breaking the spell. We jumped and laughed – that was the luckiest seal in the world tonight.

It splashed into the water and got the Hell out of there as fast as it could swim, heading in the opposite direction to the pod.

……………………

So why am I sharing this…

Well for one thing, these stories would eventually be lost unless I write them down.

I spend a lot of time in this memory and I love the physical and emotional sensations it evokes. Even writing this today has the hairs on my neck standing up and I’m buzzing. 

Secondly, one simple comment recalled now speaks volumes.

“If you must hold me, at least be quiet”.

Who says something like that?

Seriously.

That shitty recollection popped randomly into my head the other day as I was going through some pictures from last year. 

This time it didn’t sting – it just made me a little sad.

Scientists and Romantics simply don’t play well together I guess. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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time machine…

Few positive events in your life burn themselves into your minds eye so deeply that whenever you return to that moment, your body immediately reacts – chemically, viscerally : your heart races, your breath catches in your throat, nerves tingle -racing up and down your spine. Even the tiniest hairs on your body prickle into goosebumps like you’ve been caught outdoors naked in monstrous electrical storm.

You are there, transported.

It’s actually a post traumatic stress reaction, in a way. One that is not debilitating but can be addictive. Taking pleasure in past experience to escape the present. Trauma doesn’t have to be ‘bad’ to have a lasting effect, I guess. 

Hmm…discuss.

I’ve been living in the past a little bit lately, purposefully re-examining some events with the benefit of a year’s emotional distance.

OK. Stay with me. I aim to wander.

Flip back to mid May last year. 

One of the highlights of last May was getting to watch a pod of killer whales transit the Hood Canal near Union WA – followed by a flotilla of small water craft. The pod were virtually chased out of the area by excited locals. There hadnt been a pod here for years.  But Killer whales! Man!

I was staying with my ex gf at their family’s cabin on the Canal at Union.  Oysters, whales, seals, forests, mountains…luckiest guy in the world no doubt. 

Beautiful place. 

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I didn’t know it at the time but the relationship was winding down – she was heading in another direction, I was definitely in denial. Maybe I wasn’t. That’s a longer story for another time.

Anyway…

Jen had a job interview in Portland as an archaeologist for one of the big Utility companies; an unexpectedly awesome opportunity and everyone was excited for her.  I’d gone with Jen for support (and shopping) and we’d stayed in Portland overnight. After spending the day shopping, the evening apart and staying in separate hotels (she needed to prepare) it was an odd night. The next day as it turned out the Interview had gone well, and she was elated. We decided to do a road trip out to Eastern Washington where she had gone to college, lived and worked for a time. Explore more of her past. Long story short, I met more of her friends and saw even more of her WA life than before.

To be honest the trip confused the Hell out of me, but I got see see where they filmed Northern Exposure (Roslyn) and Twin Peaks (Snoqualmie, North Bend…coffee and Damn fine Cherry Pie at Twede’s cafe) so, you know : swings and roundabouts.

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Anyway…

We’d gotten back after our weird 3 day road trip, talked our asses off and our issues to death, endured the awkward silences that followed, but ultimately had a good time. We visited her parents in Shelton on the way back through. Then it was late and we were heading back to the cabin.

Still with me? I’m setting the mood here hopefully.

It was past 11pm when we got out to Union.

The canal was moonless dark, winters day cold and unusually silent. Apart from the odd barking of a seal and the distant “shHHhh” of a passing car, it was graveyard-still. 

As we were in a little cove, so the road curled around the waters edge, following the shoreline. The streetlights threw long rippling shafts of soft amber light out along the surface of the black water – delicate grasping fingers that reached blindly out into the darkness. A mile away on the other side, the scene was a perfect mirror – distant pinpoints of houselights, rippling reflections, softly glowing streetlights, and silence.

Jen went inside and jumped in the shower. I stood out on the deck and rolled a cigarette, contemplating the Universe and marveling at the night.

I leaned on the deck rail and took a drag of the cigarette, enjoying the nicotine buzz. Pale smoke curled out over the low deck railing down to the dark water lapping a few feet below.

…now: take a single big breath, hold it. Purse your lips, and exhale forcefully, push all your breath out at once…

‘WOOoosh…’

Soft. Sounding like it was a million miles away but crystal clear in the night air, the deep sound whispered across the canal…

Did I imagine that? What the Hell was it?

I couldn’t see a thing in the inky darkness so I froze – held my breath and waited.
It came again. Closer this time.

‘WOOoosh…’

A massive exhale, followed by the tiniest series of tinkling splashes. Another, further to the right. then another even further along. Right out in the middle of the canal but definitely coming closer.

The hairs on my neck stood up.

I forgot to breathe.

Oh my GOD!

The whales are back…

tbc

 

 

 

 

 

…time

My mother died today.

She was a complicated woman, who found a strong quiet man that loved her completely.

The best thing about today is that they are together again.

We all seem to think we have enough time.

We don’t.

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…not in Iran.

I’m actually in Bali at the moment, and NOT Iran as the hacker trying out my account names and passwords seems to be.

Remember …  Bali? 2 week Yoga Therapy Course ? 

Please keep up.

Returning from 11 month sabbatical, my recreation leave balance was way up – so take 2 weeks? Well, if you insist.

Ahh the joys and benefits of a government job in Australia. Recreation leave out the wazoo. 

Anyone would think I’d actually planned it ! 

Escaping and taking some relief in a mild season here whilst accidentally dodging the worst heat wave in Australia in a zillion years.  

A dry 46 degrees in my usual part of the world – a balmy 28 degrees and 80% humidity here in Bali-vegas.

Just grabbing a $5 breakfast and a perfect coffee before meeting my travel buddy for a day out . 

Mmmmm … life is good.

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Finally the little creative child me is cautiously peeking out from behind the curtains.

Its been a while since the “putting the words in order’ part of my mind has been stimulated enough to start working again, let alone write anything even vaguely interesting. 

The past week here with Module 3 of the Svastha Yoga Therapy program has given me almost a whole week of pranayama and asana practice.  This has settled my mind and salved my soul immensely. 

Meeting up with old friends, making many new ones, and continuing my exploration of this wonderful practice feels just so…right.
But one more week of training and then back home next weekend. Better make the most of the day.

This is just a short note to let you know I’m alive. I know you’ve been missing me terribly. 

So just fuelled up my trusty Scoopy and am off on a scooter excursion in the rain for in a little bit…should be fun to explore some old favourites and new spaces with an adventurous travel buddy.

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Later.

 

 

checkout time…

It’s 11.45am on Sunday, Islamic New Years Day.  As I sit here at Kafein editing the crazy out of this post, the call to prayer is echoing around the city from every mosque in town. The blend of calls, all slightly out of time and with different tones and voices, create a dull but powerful roar when heard from outside the city but from the inside it feels comforting and warm.

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There is a particular vocalist who’s voice is absolutely beautiful and it literally moves me to tears every time I hear him.

(I recorded a bit on my Instagram so check it out there as I’m only on the tightarse WordPress plan).

It’ll be a bit hard to leave this time as (per usual) in my last few days  I’ve met some fascinating people and just as we are getting to know each other, its time to go.

Megan, Ollie, D’e, Ilva, Iris, Ahmed – uniquely talented individuals : photographers, artists, performers, businessmen. All travelers like myself on various personal journeys and battling their own demons. Despite my best intentions I still seem to collect people.

Letting go is a skill for life – whether its a partner or a friend, or just personal baggage or belongings. It gets easier as you go along I think but the sooner you get used to it the better. Its the whole impermanence thing.

Its almost time for me to check out and move on…next stop Tunisia on Monday for a little while. Going to work my way across the top of Northern Africa and see whats what.

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So some entertaining stories for you. How about the nightclub hostage thing. ūüôā

Lets start here.

I met Megan  at my hostel, (we were roomies there) and she’d been her a week already when I first arrived. An American girl on her first trip to Egypt but this wasn’t her first rodeo. Here long enough to make friends with the locals and have some insight into where to go/what to do. We went to a film at a local mega mall (Magnificent Seven – so good!!) and the next night decided to go out to a local bar with some of her Egyptian friends. Met up at a local joint, drank beers and smoked many exotic things, and eventually ended up going to a seedy belly dancing place downtown.

You know the type of place – dark stairs leading up to a black door and doorman on the desk. Tinny arabic dance music blaring, serious sweaty men leaning in shadows.

I let my guard down for a time and relaxed into the evening.

We got to the place, and the sting began.

We had to pay a ‘foreigner’ charge to get in the door. OK, fair enough i guess (entry was free to locals).

So in we walked like hammered lambs to the slaughter, our local friend getting an earful from the host, us largely oblivious and my spider sense chemically dulled. We were guided carefully to a ratty table near the centre of a space where a terrible 3 piece electro-arabic band were belting out belly dance music on a small stage. Fog machines and cheap disco lights. You know what I’m talking about.

The place was a joint. Filled to the roof with a thick layer of smoky haze, tacky tables filled with swarthy men, my friend the only woman save for the dancer on stage weaving through the swirls of fog and spinning disco lights.

At this stage I’d like to paint an exotic picture of your idyllic bellydancer but the reality was closer to a tired old stripper going through the motions, in costume but barely moving at times, stopping occasionally to take a drag of a cigarette or have a brief chat to her thickset handler lurking off to the side of the stage. She coughed heavily several times in the middle of the routine. Possibly spat the phlegm out discreetly into the stage. Bored. Barely there. On autopilot.

The men, all smoking and drinking, never looked directly at her. Eyes to the floor, or ceiling, or each other.

Now for some reason all the lounge singers here appear to be men. The dude on the mike was giving it his all but the incompetence of the band was exceeded only by the shrillness of this guys voice. Using tinny speakers with the treble jacked up to 11, his performance was both interesting as a cultural phenomenon and in the way it made your nose bleed when he hit the high notes – like a slightly blunt dentists drill the ululations made your eyes water.

The drinks started coming immediately – unasked for and unendling. A large silver alfoil swan appeared filled with exotic dried fruits and sliced dates – again unasked for.

Our local friend leaned in “no matter what happens, do not give anyone money. Under any circumstances, ok?

Yeah sure I mumbled, soaking it all in. 

Still no spidey-sense tingle.

Then the dancer seemed to notice us for the first time. She  spun closer and closer and closer, working her way down the tables of now demure men who refused to make eye contact with her.

She got to our table, shimmied up to me and held out her hand… “Hello, where are you from?” she said in perfect English.

Now me, being the canny traveler that I am, immediately smiled my biggest, drunkest smile, shook her hand and said “Hi, my names Jamie. I’m from Australia!”

Snap…and the trap was sprung.

So she smiled and danced on, shimmying her bits,  refusing to let go of my hand, all the while shaking her thang right in my face while I was trying desperately to maintain eye contact. The music played on, her dancing got a little more urgent, her handler came over, and the creepy men around us looked on expectantly.

Then she leaned in and whispered those magical words…

“Money…money?”

huh? (what was that tingling down the back of my neck?)

“you give me money now…”

I looked to my friend quizzically. He was looking at the floor.

Ahh sorry I don’t have any money on me. (the tingling became more urgent)

Her black rimmed eyes hardened. I wouldn’t have thought it possible.

The dancer got closer.  She leaned in and this time practically hissed in my ear.

“money…you give me money. Money.”

The handler put his hand on my shoulder.

Ruh roh.

I looked around nervously – my ‘friends’ were all staring at the floor or off into space, every other eye in the club was on us.

In an unintentional Hugh Grant impression, I tried to bumble my way out of it…lots of umms and ahhs, “sorrys”, “you are lovely but no”, “you danced really well” and such.

With a disgusted snort she eventually turned away and moved on to the next table.

I turned to my ‘friend’ – WTF? Did I do something wrong? You said no money!!!

He just said “No don’t worry about it”. But he looked worried.

But from that moment on I was suddenly sober and on high alert. The club had taken on a sinister tone and I could sense the attitudes towards us foreigners had changed. We weren’t the ATMs that they were hoping for and as such our value had diminished.

I’d completely relaxed my guard and look where it had gotten me. No more beers (I’d only had 2), no more food, no more drinks at all. It was 3am.

Megan had had enough of it all, got up and left, ostensibly for the loo.  One of the local guys at our table left to follow her and they didn’t come back. That’s when I knew we were screwed.

I stayed there with the 2 local guys left at the table and waited for them to finish their drinks – my plan to pay the bill and get the Hell out. My share should have been about 150 Egyptian pounds which was good as that’s all the cash money I had on me (at the last place the beers were 20 Egyptian pounds each and here I’d only had 2)

We asked for the bill.

550 Egyptian pounds.

Fuck.

Explaining that Megan had left and I didn’t have enough money to pay the whole bill, the mood changed. The minders put a hand on each shoulder and guided me back to the table, telling me politely to ‘sit down’ while we waited. And waited . And waited.

I knew shed gone home, but just played dumb.

The locals tried to call Megan and she had gone home, driven home by the other guy as it turned out. She wasn’t in the loo. The local guys tried to call their friends to borrow money (as they had none either but for some reason I was the one being held accountable).

The general atmosphere worsened, the smiles disappeared completely,  and I desperately faked a loo visit to see if there was a way out.

2 guys followed me – 1 stayed at the door, 1 came in and stood next to me.

Damn.

By this stage I was thinking of an emergency exit strategy and whether I outrun and evade 3 tattooed bouncers in their own city.

2 flights of steep stairs, 2 guys at my elbow, one guys at the top of the stair blocking one guy at the door below. I did the math and came up really short.

Anyway, long story short, the local guys finally got a friend to go see Megan, she gave him cash money, we paid the bill at 5am and they finally let me go.

So that’s the story.

People may think that I’m uptight and serious all the time but in truth I’m just as capable of letting my guard down, being stupid, and getting into jams as anyone else.

I’d just prefer not to most of the time.

That’s just one of many tales of this trip though. Its been a buzz.

There’s the hair raising car trip up to Alexandria with Megan and Ollie, the Nile River cruise and the buffet from Hell with Iris, sitting on balconies and talking about life with D and Ilya. To many to elaborate on but they’ll stick with me forever.

The scene here in Cairo is relentless – all-nighters are the norm and the local watering holes are open ’til practically dawn (For a muslim country there sure is a lot of alcohol and weed here).

So my time in Egypt has been enlightening in so many ways. Apart from the massive changes in this countries economy post-revolution, there is a resilience to the general population that is amazing – they just gets on with the job of living, loving, walking their dogs, hugging their children and earning a living. Just like us all in times of adversity.

Much of what happens here stays here and isn’t even reported in the West. We had a car bomb here on Thursday afternoon in New Cairo, locals trying to assassinate the Minister of the Interior – heard the ‘boom’ from here but apart from sirens the locals didn’t even bat an eye. This happens a lot and people get on with life.

Anyway, Ive haunted the streets here for almost 2 weeks, getting to know the city on foot and seeing how people live at ground level.

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I went out to the pyramids a while back – caught an Uber out from my downtown hostel (33 Pounds) and spent the day out there virtually alone for most of it. Explored the entire complex, sat and  rested in the shade with the hawkers out there, who welcomed a chat after realising that they couldn’t sell me anything. As Muhommed said to me after selling me a bottle of water at 1000% the street price “Tell your friends in Australia to come to Egypt. We need you”.

Then I walked back to downtown. 15kms. Took me 4 hours as i wandered and got lost in the alleys and fringes of Cairo. It was the Cairo that you see in the old movies, all alleys and tenements, bumper to bumber traffic mingle with donkey carts and camels, street urchins and marketplaces, all dirty and dusty yet vibrant and alive. Buzzing with energy that I drank deeply of.

If you come here, take time and get out on foot. try not to just do the tourist things and leave as it wont do the city justice.

It is tourist-safe here on the streets and out in the desert, even wandering the alleys and streets at 4am alone  (unless you are an idiot then Darwinism will apply). Ive never felt threatened or anxious about my personal security and literally everyone Ive met has been extremely friendly and welcoming.

If you are thinking about going to Egypt – just do it. they need you.

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Plus the pyramids are nice.

Watch out for dodgy belly dance clubs though.

 

 

 

 

rain…

Its been almost 24 hours of solid rain here in Chiang Mai and my third soaking by traffic this morning alone. It appears inevitable that no matter what I do today, I will get soaked.

Just as well that I wore the fancy swimming shorts.

I hadn’t even had my first coffee of the day¬† – 9am standing at the flooded road crossing waiting for a break in the traffic, just thinking about the rain and¬† – DOOSH – Tourist bus got me…DANG IT¬† (or words to that effect) had just crossed my mind before…DOOSH, DOOSH, DOOSH, DOOSH, DOOSH – a stream of tuktuks carrying gaggles of excited Chinese tourists careered on through the same water, almost drowning me. I fully expected to find a fish wriggling in my pocket.

After the first DOOSH, I was like ‘Grrrr’…then after the third DOOSH it was funny, and after the 6th DOOSH it was ridiculously funny.¬† Certainly lightened the mood and set me on my course for caffeine (and a warm towel).

Thailand has been an experience that I am totally thankful for however. I’m loving every moment.

Thank you Big Green Bus, for drenching me at the traffic lights. It was a hoot. Thank you tuktuk drivers who delighted in hugging the curb to ensure I got more drenched  from the calf-deep rivers overflowing from the open drains, thank you waterproof laptop backpack for saving my phone and my macbook.

Thank you, immune system.

I’m house sitting another house here in Chiang Mai for 2 weeks before heading a looooong way West on the 21st of September. My days here are numbered. Flights booked, plans made. Bags packed. Affairs sorted.

This time its is closer to the old city, a lovely 3 storey family home, complete with 2 awesome cats and 2 not-so awesome snakes to feed and look after. Friends of friends have gone back to Europe for a time and needed someone to feed the animals. Its so good to sleep in a real bed again and have a place to come ‘home’ to , rather than a hostel. I’m so grateful and feel so lucky that these opportunities keep popping up. Sorta makes me feel I’m on the right path.

Chiang Mai is flooding and I’m now trapped in a cafe, so rather than wade through streets knee high with sewage, I’m determined to finish this latest entry, probably post it tomorrow or later today.

I do actually have some almost normal work to do – a while back I volunteered to be on a Committee as the IT Admin guy for Autismcarers.org back home – a wonderful organisation doing some great work but sorely in need of some assistance with their web site and content management. Time to step up I guess.

So I’ll finish that up then I’m going to hide at the local cinemas for the rest of the day.

And then maybe find an unbrella.

Later.

 

 

 

 

a muddy Utopia…

Laos has NEVER been on my list of places to see or things to do, so when a really cheap flight with Lao Airlines to Luang Prabang came up a week ago my initial reaction was … meh.

Where the Heck is it again?

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I needed to renew my visa for Thailand in a week and I had to actually leave the country this time to do it. In the time I had left my options were: a 20 hour bus ride or fly.

Easiest decision ever. Why the Hell not! Another new stamp in my passport so Laos it is.

So…booked a flight (5000 baht return) and a few nights in a shitty but well reviewed Hostel in town and hoped for the best – at $7 AUD a night I wasn’t expecting much.

On to the airport!

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Sexy eh?

…at the airport 2 hours early as I usually do. But I needn’t have bothered – its so casual here. Breezing through Thai security and immigration in about 15 minutes. Waiting waiting waiting.

Lao Airlines is much like Qantas or Rex out of Dubbo, except it’s an international carrier¬† and the airline staff are actually friendly and efficient – the planes are the usual dual prop regional shuttles and they run reliably several times a day between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang. This ‘special price’ was around $200 return (usually its about $300) but it had the added bonus of another free 30 day Thai visa upon my return.

Flying into Laos was fun but I didn’t get to see much : shrouded by grey clouds and mists it was impossible to even see the ground and¬† it wasn’t until we were just about to touch down that we finally broke through the low cloud cover, nose first into the driving rain. The plane bounced and clunked and thumped heavily down onto the flooded tarmac and massive arcs of water sprayed up from the wheels as we skidded along towards the terminal building.

Disembarking about 100 metres from the new terminal, the ground staff kindly handed out umbrellas to the passengers and pointed us in the vague direction of the terminal building. Soggily trundling across the tarmac, past the refuelling trucks and luggage trailers, eventually shepherded into the furthest door of the terminal building towards the immigration cattlecrushes.

Immigration was a pleasantly well organised surprise! Fill out the arrival card, hand over a passport photo, your passport and 1500 baht/$30 USD Рget your change and then wait in the second line for processing. Another photo taken by teenagers in military uniforms  and thats it. Total time about 10 minutes. 30 days tourist visa for Laos. Easy peasy.

As I only had a carry on bag and no luggage I wandered through Customs barriers and bag scanners and security who pretty much ignored me.

Hitting the ATM for some local currency (kip) and suddenly I had several hundred thousand Kip in my wallet which was cool. An airport Americano and a croissant costs about 30,000 kip – we deal in thousands here.

**Travel tip : the main part of town is about 5 kms (or a 15 minute drive) so catch a taxi from the airport for 50,000 kip (about $8 Australian). TukTuks are everywhere but aren’t allowed to pick up at the airport so walk out the airport gates and up the road a bit and hail a tuktuk.

We passed the old terminal building on the way into town – it looked like something from a Vietnam War era movie, all fenced up but intact, and had a feel like someone had just locked up the doors and walked away from it never to return.

Luang Prabang eh? Pretty damn rainy (for 2 out of the 3 days as it turned out) but shows some promise.

*This guy was paddling upstream¬† – a mean feat considering the super strong current and the bobbing partially submerged tree trunks hurtling down the Mekong in said current – but he still seemed to be enjoying himself and waved when he notice me taking his picture (at least I’m going to assume it was a wave and not him flipping me the bird)

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The first thing that you notice though is the quiet. I’d been told it was a laid back place but wow – they weren’t joking. Lazily lounging alongside the Mekong River, the old french quarter of the Heritage Listed township looked so out of place in the steamy jungles of Laos. The twisting paved alleyways, patisseries and bakeries transported from a different time and place. The French Colonial architecture and cafes added such a surreal feel to the usual dirty streets, crowded noisy markets, palaces and golden stupa dotting the muddy township. Very cool!

So I aimlessly sploshed around the town, bundled up in my now omnipresent rain jacket. Wandered the morning wet market, walked the soggy streets and alleyways,

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haunted the muddy riverbanks and watched the longboatmen ply their trade (snoozing or fishing for catfish and tourists alike). A short hop across the muddy Mekong and back in the floating deathtraps a mere 30,ooo kip each way for tourists, 10,000 for locals.

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Mt Phousi is a pimple of a mountain right in the middle of town, with a lovely little stupa and temple on top that you can access for the grand price of 20,000 kip. The short steep hike to the summit lets you enjoy some stunning 360 degree views of the township, the surrounding countryside, Mekong river and the mountains. Sunsets the best time and its worth the price and the trip for the blessed silence of the place.

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OK time to check in so I headed for  the hostel.

FFKS  seriously?

I took no photos of the hostel. It is burned into my memory like the pain of an abscessed tooth that hopefully will dim with time. I wont name and shame the place but its one of the top ranked hostels on Hostel World.

This is what $7 a night buys you in Luang Prabang

Rude staff who yelled at the guests, that came and went into your rooms at will, that left doors unlocked and open, that kept deposits and gave back incorrect change on purpose, that pretended not to speak english, that grizzled and growled if you asked them anything. Everything was a hassle for them.

The dorm room was filthy, the walls were mouldy, the rooms smelt of mildew, the bathrooms flooded and mouldy, the aircon only available after 9pm at night (centrally wired so all aircon were only turned on between 9pm and 8am). The yard was constantly flooded, the roof leaked, the toilets leaked effluent onto the floors, the showers didnt work, the beds got dripping wet.

BUT it forced us all out of our rooms and the common room was a riotus rabble of languages and fun. Americans, French, Jewish, German and Swiss backpackers all passing though on the obligatory 3 days in Luang Prabang made for some lively time at the hostel. Couple that with the fact that there is only one place in the city that foreigners can go to for a decent drink and a meal meant that you made friends fast.

Hmmm…yep tourist hell. But I asked for it.

So unable to stomach the hostel for very long, I explored. Explored the streets and the fresh market in the morning with its confusing variety of odd vegetables, fresh fish, bunches of frogs, barrels of toads, buckets of eels, nervous chickens in pots, and mushrooms.

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So many mushrooms of crazy shapes and sizes, sold as fresh or fried snacks from street vendors across the town. Nutty yumminess and amoebic dysentery all rolled into a delicious yellow bundle.

And snake whisky, of course.

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A vicious and vile concoction of whisky, a small cobra and/or a large scorpion that apparently gives you a real (ahem) boost and is a cure all remedy for everything here. Or so the twelve year old girl (bored, world weary and complete with the lit cigarette hanging out of her mouth) trying to hawk it at the markets told me.

Small bottles were available from the markets as a curio, but a seriously happy guy by the river has an enormous garage full of large glass mason jars PACKED with whisky drowned snakes (some as thick as your wrist). I kid you not. Not for the fainthearted and for your info it tastes disgusting and I’m lucky I’m not blind.

I’m gagging a little as I think of the actual taste¬† : basically imagine the cheapest nastiest tequila that you have ever drank and a weird snaky rottenness that just doesn’t go away. Gives you a gaggy buzz though.

So apart from enjoying the scenery, architecture and snake whisky, what is there to do in Luang Prabang?

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The big ticket items are waterfall, elephant park, and bear rescue centre (which I only found out about on the last day and am really pissed I didn’t go). After that, its scenic wats and temples and cafes and bakeries.¬† Two days in Luang Prabang is all you need. After two days most move on to either Vang Vien¬† (Air America was based there during the Vietnam War) or Vientienne, and then get the Hell out of Dodge.

I had three. Dang.

Which is why I decided to finally head to Utopia on my last night in town…

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Utopia is a funky little bar/eatery that really is THE only place to go after dark in Luang Prabang.  Its very laid back, very cool with great music and after 9pm very very busy.

Getting to Utopia is a challenge in itself as its off a main street but hidden away. Opposite the “Aussie Bar” (jeez) you turn into an alleyway and begin your search. Winding your way though muddy backstreets or dark and unlit alleyways with only the odd “Utopia¬† —> this way” sign nailed to a gateway or fence to show you that you aren’t hopelessly lost.

And the place is a total surprise, all bamboo and thatch, peppled pathways and chaise lounges, right next to the Mekong river and perfectly situated for sunset. The staff friendly, the beer cold and the food amazing.

I got their way too early but managed to get a great seat by the Mekong and just sank some brewskies and watched the world go by, chatting to random strangers¬† and generally wondering why the Hell I hadn’t been here every night. If you want to meet interesting travellers then this is the place to be.

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The thing to do is Utopia til closing (11pm) and then hit the local bowling alley – the ONLY place that sells booze after 11pm at night. Its a weirdarse 70’s style bowling alley and it is virtually guaranteed that every backpacker in town will be there until at least 2am or 3am getting incoherently hammered and trying not to kill themselves (and the people in the next lane) heaving bowling balls left right and centre. I suck at bowling but its amazing how that doesn’t matter when you are lit up.

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Anyway, hangover successfully installed and it was time to go back to Thailand.

Seeya Laos. Its been real.

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Getting out of Laos took about 10 minutes. Getting through security and immigration super fast, and as the flight was on time it all went smoothly and, a fresh 30 day visa in hand, I soon found myself back in Thailand. Sorely needing a walk I decided to wander from the Chiang Mai airport the whole 9 kms back to the old house to pick up my scooter (I really really really needed a walk)

Anyway so I’m back in Chiang Mai, in a nice clean cheap but comfortable Hostel (Bed Addict – right in Nimminhaeman) looking for some more inspiration and direction.

**My friend Megan is flying in from Zurich tomorrow to hang out for 2 weeks. I’m a little bit excited as I haven’t seen her for a year and a half. Should be fun!