Friday, March 21, 2003

Vang Vieng - Somewhere in Northern Thailand

Man by a Bus

Okay, details are still hazy. For the past thirty minutes I've been forensically trying to reconstruct my journey between Vang Vieng and Bangkok--in other words, I've been googling a lot. The sole line I've got to go on is: "Travelled from Vang Vieng to Bangkok, hooked up with an English lass named Melanie."

The only thing I know for certain is that when I say hooked up I don't mean any exchange of saliva. It was a purely platonic relationship that lasted less than twenty-four hours. I see glimpses of the day but they don't connect together. I feel like I'm trying to look at a whole piece of artwork by examining tiny details of the piece. It's frustrating as hell--I mean, that was a whole day and I have near zero recollection of it.

A Restaurant with a View

What I do remember are very brief moments: guarding bags at Vientiane's crowded bus station; walking around a duty-free warehouse stacked with cigarettes, alcohol, and perfume; eating lunch with Melanie in a deserted restaurant that overlooked the Mekong in Nong Khai; killing time at the station waiting for the night-train to depart. They feel like scenes from a David Lynch film--logically incoherent with a strange or soundless audio overlayed.

Killing Time

Maybe I'm stitching together moments from different days, different years. It's a scary thought considering the fallibility of memory. And it's not just a long-term thing. Different observers recollections of the same event an hour before are notoriously diverse. It pays to remember we're never objective observers when we recall the past. We bring a lot of baggage with us--our psychological frameworks, our neuroses, our emotional states. What we notice says more about ourselves than the events. Keeping a diary is a great way of reminding yourself about this. It helps to make you more than just this bundle of impulses and rationales at the particular time in question. It helps to avoid self-deception that can allow a person to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.

So, I say this: get in touch with your younger self and reflect on who you were and who you are now. Have you changed? Have you confronted your demons? Do you know why the things that happened in your life happened? Life is unique, don't get stuck on a railroad loop.

Thursday, March 20, 2003


Chemistry in Action!

I don't know what I did today. The journal entry for this day is sparse on details of the itinerary. My mind was occupied by events back home that are too personal to go into here. All I wrote about the day itself is "Didn't go tubing today as I felt hungover and not especially sociable." Not very colourful is it--although you might be curious about tubing.

Tubing does involve a tube, but it's not got anything to with colonic irrigation. The tube in question is an inner tube--a huge tractor wheel of an inner tube--that you ride down a river in. I guess it can be fast and furious and involve whitewater rapids, but around Vang Vieng the waters move slowly and tubing is a leisure activity more similar to smoking a big fat reefer than anything else. First, if you don't feel like it you don't have to move. You can sit with your butt dipping into the mild waters and let the current take you downstream as it pleases. Second, every five hundred metres or so (the distance equivalent of the time it takes to roll and smoke a bifter) there is beer and refreshments available. These are served by locals from the banks of the river. Using elaborate hooked-poles they snare the tube and pull you in for not-very-chilled bottles of Beer Lao. A three or four hour ride can result in some very merry campers--kind of like a pub crawl for the pathologically lazy.

I have some regrets about not doing this iconic activity so representative of Laos, but having the right company in this kind venture is critical. If you get stuck with the wrong person it's like being cornered by the pub-bore with no easy means of escape (I mean, how fast can you paddle?). Since there wasn't anybody I'd really hit it off with in Vang Vieng the impulse to go tubing wasn't so strong.

Cool dudes or frontin' tosspots? And how does she put out her fag?

One of the other big draws of Vang Vieng, aside from the magic mushroom, is the incredible limestone geography of the area. Karst formations abound with limestone hills riven with caverns and tunnels that have been forged by the action of acid rain. It must make for some spectacular potholing. But maybe that's too energy intensive for a place like Vang Vieng...

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Writer's Bloc

Fancy a stroll? After you, then.

I must be one of the slowest writers ever. In the two months I've been away, I've managed to write one-and-a-half tales. That's a pretty poor return when the sum total of things to do on an average day is feed yourself and get to the bus/railway station.

It's not for lack of ideas or being in the wrong environment. I've learnt pretty quickly that ideas are more common than landmines in Laos (between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped 2 million tons of bombs along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese supply route that snaked through Eastern Laos--see Laos: Exploding the Past for an in-depth report), and that the only things you need to be able to write are the implements and the right frame-of-mind. External distractions can be a pain, but if you start to seek that perfect writing space you'll probably find it's like going after the holy grail. It's much simpler to change a personal attitude than it is to change something like the sound of the streetlife outside your hotel room. I used to be a writing-space junky--lining up pens and books at home, or going to the library for peace--but travelling has helped me realize that the only thing I need is an uncluttered mind. For me this extends to having an uncluttered space--too much stuff around distracts me and my attention wanders.

Writer's heaven...what crime to do the time?

So what's been the problem?

Tangibly, a lack of discipline. I am a great procrastinator when it comes to writing. A perfect window of time and space opens up to scribble away and all I'll do is fritter the hours away on convoluted flights of fancy, or worse, make an excuse that this particular piece of fiction would be better done tomorrow/when it's sunny/under a full moon while wearing a pink sombrero. Before too long, the experience of sitting down to write and not writing actually makes it harder to try it again the next time. It's very easy to get into a vicious circle where an hour of writing will steadily become some terrible mental torture that leaves your skin crawling and your fingers crippled.

The answer, as anyone who's flipped to the first pages of those self-help books knows, is to just write. Write about wild elephants, write about that kid you bullied at school, write about the really fucking annoying guy who sits in the cubicle behind you at work and starts every sentence with the word 'Presumably'...see, I'm doing it now! Trouble is, this advice was never especially persuasive for me. A good story isn't made of stochastic literary impulses--although I understand it worked for James Joyce. A good story is a crafted thing, perhaps sub-consciously shaped, but shaped nonetheless. It has a structure, a narrative flow, an inevitable-in-hindsight conclusion. In the best work, all the aspects of the story bind and reinforce one another. The opening line informs the last. The minor character on the second page holds up a mirror on the protagonist. The setting supports the thematic heart of the piece. It's clever, subtle, and when done well, devastating in it's impact on the reader. To achieve this, as well as skill and experience, you need a plan. Writing whatever pops into your head is unlikely to lead to prize winning fiction.*

And here I spy the crux of things in regard to my indiscipline. I am afraid. Afraid of failure. Afraid of writing laughable sentences, characters, and plots. Afraid of trying my damn best and still falling well short. Better not to try and always have maybe. I think that's a truer depiction of the world than the old motto, better to try and fail than never to try at all.

But to never fail is to never learn. So I will embrace failure. I will take every rejection and rejoice, for I know by examining my failures I will improve. Let me just re-iterate that last part. Failure itself is no key to betterment. As I learnt from Samuel R. Delany recently, writing bad fiction only helps write more bad fiction. The analysis of the ugly mound of congealed clay that is your first story holds the secrets of producing that stunning vase.

Today I embraced that philosophy. I probably began with dull exposition, left commas hanging, and didn't leave out all the parts that people skip, but by Jove, I got some material to work with. And I still managed to tit around and climb a limestone hill, watch HBO dramas, and check my email. Life is looking good.

There's a deep, pitch-black cave in that hill. Honest!

*In free writing's defence, I would say that it aids lexical suppleness, and helps unearth a writer's voice--one of the magical ingredients of a good read.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Sports Day

Gentle waters. Check. Incredible karst topography. Check. Story about where Thai women keep their ping-pong balls. What?!

In an effort to re-balance my increasingly sedentary travelling lifestyle, today was an action-packed sporting bonanza. First up was an early morning kayaking trip on a nearby river. We arrived at the launch site around ten, the stones of the shallow banks already hot from the sun. After a brief safety demonstration, we slipped our vessels into the slow-moving waters. I paddled along with a cheerful Australian who gleefully recounted tales of hookers in Hanoi, trannies in Thailand, and cunnilingus in Cambodia. Not the kind of conversation that is well-suited to the brisk, uplifting, respectable world of kayaking--especially through such spectacular scenery. Kinda like scoring a gram of speed at the local church. There's a time and place.

This isn't me. Small clue: the kayaker is upright.

By the time the Ozzie began another story with "Let me tell you about a good friend of mine, Prince Albert," I'd had enough and made my excuses. Not only did this soothe my disturbed mind, it gave my body a refreshing workout too as I put several lengths between our kayaks. Maybe that encounter warded me off casual socialising this morning, because I barely spoke to anyone else for the rest of the journey. Since the river was slow, except for a small section of rapids, or rather, a small rapid, the physical exertion of paddling was high and I enjoyed a lonely buzz not unlike that a good gym routine gives. Some guys took on the rapid several times, carrying their kayaks up the rocky banks after they'd plunged downwards. Later downstream there was another stop so anybody who wanted to, could dive elegantly from a high outcrop that jutted over the river--that or bomb.

Not me again. Crucafix poses are against my religion. Instead, I dive-bomb!

On the way back in the truck, being the sole passenger amongst a stack of kayaks, I took a nap. The great thing about daytime naps, expecially after excercise and in unusual places, is the weird, surface-floating dreams that you experience. I remember waking from a dream convinced I was a miner trapped under an avalanche of multi-coloured wasn't so far from the truth.

In Vang Vieng, refreshed from the sleep and keen to stay energetic, I soon found myself hitching a ride to a game of football with the locals. Organised sport, along with friends and family, is one of things I've missed most while away, and it felt great as we got closer to the pitch. Few activities give me the same level of anticipation that football does. Even though the pitch was a dustbowl, the sides were uneven, and there was no referee, I still felt the butterflies and the prickly urge to win. Because of school, the game didn't kick-off until twenty minutes before sundown which didn't help matters. Nor did the ongoing gambling, which had to be settled every time a goal was scored, and seemed to involve about forty players. Inadvertently, I'd got myself involved in this by handing over a thousand kip at the beginning, which I'd mistakenly thought was some entry fee for foreigners. It was only when we scored and somebody gave me the money back that I realized this was Laos' version of Saturday afternoon at the bookies. Now, I'm all for a flutter--providing you're betting for your team to win--as it adds an extra frisson to proceedings. What's not so good is settling-up while the game is still going. Can you imagine an Arsenal-Chelsea derby with the players carrying around wads of notes in their pants and couting out bundles every time there's a goal?

Man on!

Not that the football was anything to write home about. From afar the game probably looked more like a riot between two groups of amnesiacs who kept forgetting who was protesting and who was keeping the peace. Apart from an admirable tendency to uphold the law of handball, other small matters such as acknowledging fouls, having one goalkeeper per team, and complicated tactics such as spreading out and passing to a teammate were noticeably absent. It was schoolboy stuff--probably because they were schoolboys and I was a grown man. A friendly tip for picking an outsider at the next world cup. Avoid Laos no matter how long the odds. In the football world, Laos is no sleeping Asian giant. It's more like a weedy child in a long-term coma.

News of Iraq's invasion filled the screens back in town. CNN have taken the lead in Dr. Strangelove-esque pronouncements--one commentator talking about cruise missiles: "The beauty of these weapons is..." You gotta love the free press.

Monday, March 17, 2003

Luang Prabang - Vang Vieng

Chalk and cheese. Astrology and astronomy. Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.

Luang Prabang, Sat, 5pm: Lads getting ready for a big night out...

Whereas Luang Prabang--royal capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site--is studded with temples, palaces, and stuppas, Vang Vieng is a motley collection of guest houses, restaurants, and internet cafes. The only thing both places share is a slow-moving river. This contrast of physical make-up contributes to their different vibes. In the streets of Luang Prabang, amongst the gentle Buddhists and white-washed buildings, dignity is dominant--tourists whisper, tread gingerly, and act respectfully; in Vang Vieng, amongst the restaurant chatter, box-office movie screenings, and the heckles of commerce, travellers (not tourists!) stomp down the dusty main thoroughfare like gunslingers in frontier towns.

Vang Vieng, Sat, 10pm: Nobody's even out yet this town is so clarkey!

The journey between the the two towns was packed full of incidents--in my head. The combination of the snaking road, rancid meat in my stomach, and spookily empty buses going the other way meant that I kept imagining myself lurching to the front of the bus, throwing-up, and then getting bullet-sprayed by rebels hiding in the jungle. Not ingredients for a relaxing ride. Fortunately, two English lads, Nathan and Scott, were on hand to put my mind on other things. In Kasi, a small trading post near Vang Vieng, we played 'Pop the Balloons' which was literally a game involving popping ballons. No expensive arcade machines to maintain here when it comes to entertainments...

Upon arrival, at dusk, the first task was to traverse the decrepit runway that divides the town from the road. During the Vietnam War, Air America (an airline covertly owned and operated by the CIA) used this as an airfield to ship passengers and cargo into the region. For the briefest of moments, with the red glow of the town ahead, the thrum of the bus engine behind, and the heavy pack on my shoulders, I felt like a US Marine planted down in enemy territory. A thin rivulet of sweat ran from my temple as I imagined Vietcong snipers setting me in their sights. I hit the ground hard, seeking cover, while mosquitos buzzed around. "Game over, man. Game over, man!" I screamed and threw a grenade--an apple, in fact--at a trio of approaching gooks.

'Nam Flashbacks

Actually, that's all lies. At the time I thought 'What the fuck is this massive, weed-ridden, cracked, piece of tarmac?'. 'A dozen concrete football pitches back-to-back?'. We walked across the airstrip and booked ourselves into one of the more swanky establishments in town--a new hotel with ensuite bathrooms. Price? Three dollars per night. After checking in, we headed out into the night for traditional Laos cuisine. Or pizza.

Pizza it was then. One of the specialities in town is large pizzas liberally dressed with tomatoes, mozzarella, and magic mushrooms. A special you don't see on the menu at Pizza Hut. Still feeling ropey from the bus ride, I went for a more traditional option though. A brief tour of the place and then it was back to the hotel for a smoke and hip-hop. Throughout the day I'd been battling my innate prejudice against the English (which I still have to this day--I only have think back to this morning's trip to Sainsbury's to happily characterise the whole of the nation as a brain-dead, lethargic, selfish, self-centered, and po-faced lot), or more precisely, the English lad (hostile, unmannered, boring). In their hotel room, listening to their stories, I realized perhaps I'd unfairly judged them. That's the advantage of travelling when it comes to social encounters--you have enough days to take chances on people you wouldn't otherwise mix with. And sometimes that can make life a richer experience.

An Englishman adjusts his chair

Hell, they probably were doing exactly the same when they hung-out with me, the Oxbridge, physics nerd.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

Muang Ngoi Neua - Luang Prabang

Time for the gang to go its seperate ways. After a low-key breakfast we took a boat down-river to a non-descript town where the roads began again. Simon, Vero, and myself were headed to Luang Prabang while Katherine and Fred were headed elsewhere. Our bus was first to leave and there were hugs and well-wishes before we set off--only for the bus to stop fifty yards down the road. Katherine and Fred, in the meantime, caught up with us, and we had that awkward situation where you've already said your goodbyes and been solemn and offered serious words, and then you have to take the conversation back to more easygoing pastures until the real moment of departure arrives.

A live boar, trussed up with fraying rope and hauled onto the central aisle of the bus, provided a diversionary talking point while we waited. Eventually, we left, our animal cargo reminding me that if I thought I was uncomfortable the boar was in a whole different league. In circumstances like these--as an average Westerner shielded from the living conditions our livestock--I find it impossible not to consider the treatment of animals.

When the boar was pulled off the back of the bus--landing on the tarmac three feet below with a meaty slap and making a horrible whining noise--the first instinct, the natural instinct, is to imagine the animal is suffering. But is this really the case? Is the animal actually experiencing pain or is this just misplaced anthropomorphism? The boar has a face. It has two eyes, two ears, a mouth, and a nose. It has skin and hair, and below the hide we know its internal structure shares many organs with our own physiology. But do these similarities lead logically to the conclusion that the animal is experiencing mental phenomena like pain?

If I built a mechanical device--like Vaucanson's Digesting Duck of France--that displayed lifelike behavior such as waddling, squealing, eating etc you wouldn't ascribe any kind of awareness to the machine once you saw its cog-based insides. But isn't an animal just such a machine? To my mind, the only part of the animal we should be paying attention to is the brain. According to the current position in cognitive science, the mind is directly correlated with the activity of the brain. And the only cognitive feature of mind that should have any bearing on the question of animal suffering is consciousness. Without consciousness it doesn't seem possible to experience. For example, when a hospital patient is anaesthetized they are unable to feel the cut of the surgeon's life.

So the question becomes are animals conscious? Or, how high up the animal kingdom do you have to ascend before you find conscious creatures? Again, seeing those "puppy eyes" or that "playful grin" on your dog's face doesn't logically mean the dog is conscious. Sadly, modern neuroscience has not yet developed a theory of consciousness consistent with the biological structures of the brain. Current studies from the victims of brain injuries suggest that consciousness arises from a complex interplay of various localized parts. We know some structures or connections that are necessary for conscious experience but not the set which is sufficient for such experience. Some scientists have posited humankind's unique ability with language as the touchstone for consciousness--even going so far as to suggest that humans pre-1300BC or thereabouts had no awareness. If that's true then animals are nowhere near the threshold! This seems to be a minority position, however.

The fact that humans are naturally evolved creatures offers partial evidence that the animals most likely to share this special attribute are those species most closely related to ourselves. Primates in particular, and mammals in general. Some evolutionary psychologists have suggested that consciousness, like other skills such as sight or hearing, confers certain survival advantages--for example, problem solving, decision making, adaptation. An insight like this suggests that an indication that an animal posseses consciousness would be the manifestation of these abilities.

So where did all these speculations leave me as I rode that truck along dusty roads? The question of whether animals suffer is still an open one. The only way to be sure of not inflicting pain is to treat animals humanely. In my opinion, this doesn't preclude eating them though! Which is just as--self-servingly--well for me as I love a bacon butty.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

Cave Dwellers

America may have been gearing up for "Operation Iraqi Liberation", but for us, deep in the heart of one of the world's least developed countries, in a village only accessible by river, we had other things on our mind. Like the challenge of swimming across the lazy, wide river. Or, after negotiating the trials of a particularly leisurely lunch, exploring a large cave system a kilometre from the village. We were like Enid Blyton's Famous Five, except we didn't have a dog, and there was no mystery to solve. Instead we just pratted about.

Throughout the day we did our best to be obnoxious tourists. First, we harrassed a local kid for a ride back in his canoe when we got to the other side of the river, probably paying him way to much in the process and annoying his parents. Second, to guide our way in the dark of the cave, we used a plastic bottle stuffed with lit paper that spewed toxic fumes and smoke into the darkness. Third, the running joke for the day revolved around denigrating the local culture: first, someone would say where they planned to go next--when they were asked what was there, they'd reply "Waterfalls, caves, temples...and treks to minority villages."

Sad, but ultimately, fair comment on the average traveller's experience.

In the evening we went back to the previous night's restaurant hoping that meat was now on the menu. It wasn't. At least not until a live chicken was brought in, hanging upside down and struggling for its life. Sometimes you get the freshest ingredients at the remotest places.