Monday, January 28, 2008

China, Waterfalls and Underage Fighting. Laos.

(By Joe)
Hello Everyone. We have just arrived back in Bangkok from our one month trip through Laos. I want to make sure to cover things besides pigs tied to truck bumpers with rope.
On my birthday (January thirteenth) I had only one wish. I wanted to touch China. We were staying out in a little cluster of huts built on a hill overlooking rice paddies that faded off as far as the eye could see and we were only about 5 miles from the border checkpoint. Mia said the whole idea of touching a country was ridiculous, but, since it was my birthday, she humored me. We climbed onto my motorbike and hit the road. Wind in our hair. A few fluffy clouds struggling against a high altitude breeze cast intermittent shadows over the neon green rice fields. A perfect temperature. The bluest of skies. When we were one kilometer away from the border we came to a natural barrier of steep hills and nestled in the only pass was a guarded checkpoint. Men in green uniforms wearing aviator sunglasses milled about a wooden structure attatched to a red and white lifty gate. They stopped us. I explained to them my goal, that it was my birthday and I didn't want to CROSS the border. Just reach one arm over and touch the other side with one finger. For my birthday. Turn it around Whitey. I got back on the bike and debated making a run for it. By the time they got on their bikes, caught up, and opened fire I could be crossing the line. Thelma and Louise style. Bonnie and Clyde. Mia suggested that instead we head into town and get some massages. We found a place next to a restaurant kitchen where they performed massages in a spray painted up old bamboo hut with the background noise of clanking pots, screaming babies and revving diesel engines. I couldn't even think enough to get irritated because it was BY FAR the best massage I ever had in my life. It was followed by a steamy herbal sauna. Great birthday.

On the topic of motorbike touring we rented a bike in Southern Laos to tour the Bolivan plateau region. The lowland areas are all flat and dry much like northern Arizona, but rising up from these brown, scrubby fields and sparse forests are massive plateaus covered in lush jungles and magnificent waterfalls. We got out on the road and I kept the speed low. With no traffic laws in Laos you have to be constantly aware of everything. It's hard to ignore the police spray paint outlines every kilometer or so which serve as constant reminders of how often accidents can happen here and how wild they can be. White outlines of motorbikes, cars, assorted livestock and people litter the roads accompanied by tiny arrows indicating the directions of movement of each involved party before the crash occurred.

Armed with a map provided by the Lao Peoples republic that had all the detail and accuracy of a hastily drawn table napkin sketch we navigated our way over hundred of kilometers of winding, open road. Our destinations were the falls. The first ones we arrived at were inaccessible on foot so the best we could do was look over a cliff and see the top half of the falls as the water plunged 400 feet straight down. The next falls were far better. Only about 100 feet tall but a well built concrete path designed to look like natural stone led down to the lake and caves at it base. Mia and I sat beneath it on the rocky banks and watched two overweight people repeatedly swim too and from the base of the falls while ate tuna fish and cheese on vegetable crackers. My strength bolstered by the snack I decided to take the heavy folks advice and head over to check it out.

On first entering the water I become aware of how much a layer of fat helps in staving off cold. The jolly smiles that they wore on their faces as they kicked around in this mountain spring water are no place to be found on my face. Instead there is the face of trying to breath with lungs that have seized up from the cold. To others it probably just looks as though I am trying to solve a difficult SAT question out there in the water, but I am really trying to figure out how to stay alive. As I get closer to the base of the falls I realise this is not going to be easy. The sound of the water hitting the rocks is that of a continuous dump truck on dump truck traffic accident. I climb onto the rock face. It's slippery but full of holds for the hands and feet. It's all about placement. Moving slow. The force of the water pounding onto the rocks on either side of me is creating an effect not unlike a hurricane. Liquid shrapnel is tearing at my skin from all direction. The wind is roaring in my ears and shoving me side to side, trying to loosen my grip on the cliff. Further up I am forced to put a portion of my body into the falls itself. My vision is now reduced to a swirling strobe effect of black rocks and white water as seen through a rainbow tunnel. Rainbows everywhere. I keep climbing. Up to the platform directly between the two falls. From here I can look up at the falling water rushing toward and past me like barricades on either side of a freeway and look out over my kingdom of Laos. (A portion of it. Mostly just the pool below the falls and some hills.) Then... I climb back down.

We also visited some tamer but more interactive falls where we whiled away a whole day swimming in the pools, laying on the warm rocks of waterfall tiers and reading to each other. We saw a snake there. The biggest we had ever seen. We also were repeatedly attacked by an extremely agile and aggressive green and red spider that didn't do us any harm. The acrobatic abilities of this fearless creature were no doubt the inspiration for Spiderman. It tormented us all though breakfast, swinging from the table to our bodies to nearby branches and back. I would catch it and release it some distance away and then 5 minutes later it was, "Oh, no... Look at the condiment basket... its covered in webs now... and my fork that I just used has webs on it... and AHHHHHH! Hold still hold still, it's in your hair again! It didn't bite us though.

Twice during our motorbike trips we got flat tires. The first one occurred on our way back to the town we were using as our jumping off point. 80 KM outside of town we were riding though some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my life. To my left was a steep plateau blanketed in rich, green rain forests. The nearly full moon had just risen and seemed to be hopping from treetop to treetop along side us in the deep blue sky of the early evening, joined by a few of the brightest stars. On my right the setting sun burned a hot red-orange, low on the horizon of hills and plains shrouded in a lavender haze. The sky was a watercolor rainbow rising up and over us to meet the moon. All the trees to my right were silhouettes flying by, except for the giant broom tipped plants whose white fuzzy puffs, backlit by the sun, burned with all the ferocity of ancient whale blubber torches. The well oiled wooden fences on either side of the road reflected the opposite sides choice in lighting. With orange against the blue and blue against the orange. Straight ahead on the road an orange glow was constantly present in the air from the bits of dust kicked up by vehicles, feet and hooves. Dark shapes moved though the glow in the distance. A cart. A child. A hog. Beautiful.

Oh yeah. The flat tires. Both times we got flat tires the first person we flagged down spoke perfect english and happened to be going to the same town as us. The first time we rode in the back of a pickup truck with our bike and a live turkey and the second time we rode in a tuktuk driven by a man who was heading to his guesthouse in the town we were headed to. The guesthouse happeded to be next to a mechanic who fixed the tire for 50 cents.

In Pakse we went to a kickboxing match that was held on the front lawn of some public building. The fights were a face off between two rival training centers, with fighters acting as assistants while they weren't in the ring. The first side was made up of young men who all looked distinctly Emo and Hollywood. They were skinny or pudgy. They lacked any real muscle definition, had silly haircuts, wore thick eyeliner which ran once they began to sweat making them look like girls who had been crying, and they wore very, very flashy shorts. Pink with gold embroidery and gold tassels. Green and pink and see through. Etc. The other gym had turned out guys who you wouldn't even want to meet on the street. Chiseled with over sized jaws, shaved heads, and shorts that said "M-150 Energy Drink" on them.

All fights are accompanied by techno type music featuring traditional instruments that blares through loudspeakers and builds in speed and intensity through each round. The first fight was between two ten year olds. Not what we were expecting, but we went along with it. It's strange to see kids who should be at home in bed placed into a ring where they get kicked in the head for 20 minutes. They didn't seem to mind. These kids were professionals. The fights between the younger boys all ended with a winner being decided on points rather than knockouts. It was the older kids who really got the crowd riled up. Three fights took place between older guys.

Fight One
A chiseled militant type gets out there against a skinny Emo type kid. We all rooted for the Emo guy because everyone likes an underdog. Maybe he had something we couldn't see. Turns out he didn't. After every punch he threw his silly long hair cut to lay over one eye would fall back into place blocking his vision. While he was busy moving it off his forehead with his boxing glove he would take a serious kick to the ribs, jolting his hair back over his eye. He was taken down with an extreme kick to the balls. End of fight.

Fight Two
This was a fight for the Championship. Another chiseled cookie cutter image of the first adult fighter climbs into the ring. Opposite him is a chubby, sad looking young man with longish hat hair and a scraggly gotee. He looks like a Sharpe puppy. Looks can be deceiving. He keeps the sad look the whole time, his mascara runs down his cheeks and he keeps his head tilted down toward the mat like an outcast kid slinking through the halls of a high school full of bullies. But he is no wussy. He delivers flying elbows to the head and kicks to the ribs like Jean Claude Van Dam. At one point he catches his opponents kick and throws him up and backwards into the turnbuckle and crashing onto the mat. He never looks up through this. Just stares sadly at the ground. Lost in thoughts of a lover who has left him or an ice cream cone whose scoops were piled too high and fell to the barren, dusty ground on a hot summer day. In the end, the champion kept his belt, but not because he deserved it. Pink shorts was ROBBED!

Fight Three
Another lanky emo kid enters the ring, gets kicked around for awhile and then gets kicked so hard in the balls he is lifted into the ropes and lands on his butt like a rag doll. He get up before the ten count but his face shows that he has been weakend. The other fighter has discovered his Achilles Balls. Knee after knee is driven at the crotch of the wincing mascara man once the fight recommences. For a few minutes it seems as though he has learned how to defend against these flying knees but then one lands. Hard. The knee is driven into his crotch with an upward jump kick while he is pushed down into it by the chiseled fighters hands on his shoulders. He drops, screams. Everyone clears the hell out of there. Maybe because it is the last fight and they don't want to battle their way out of the parking lot or maybe because they don't want to see his trainers depants him and massage cold water into his groin under the glare of the ringside lights. Within seconds the lawn is empty save for Mia and I staring open jawed at the man rolling in agony on the mat. There is no modern hospital in Laos (which makes fighting that much more exciting) and we are hoping this man will recover. He is eventually helped to his feet and let out of the ring. We breathe a sigh of relief and head back to our hotel for brownies and milk. Yum.


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