The Distinction of China

Yesterday morning I had to wake up at 4:30am in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, to catch my flight to Kunming China. This was still several hundred km from Chengdu, my final destination, and I had to find my way there one way or another. Upon my return to China in Kunming International Airport I went upstairs to book another ticket north to Sichuan province. Immediately I’m happy to be back; there are no foreigners around, hardly any English anywhere to be seen, and the people at the ticket booking desk don’t speak any English. I had a 30 minute conversation with a group of ex-military businessmen while I waited for them to book my flight which was a blast.

I met up with Tenzin as soon as I returned in Chengdu and we talked for a long time about many things, including leaving and coming back to China. Tomorrow he leaves for Thailand for a month to unwind; off to almost the same place that I’ve been for the last month, for the same reason. But just like I told him: This is the first international vacation I’ve ever taken where I’m happy and excited to return home. Generally I associate the return home with an air of “back to work”. Other things are associated with my return, but that’s what seems to come to mind first, for me. Spending six weeks in Indonesia, Thailand, and Laos was a blast – but two things made it less of a blast for me than China is.

1. The language barrier

I can’t speak Indonesian and my Thai is very poor. I have no chance at reading a menu or communicating to someone who doesn’t speak English, but in a way this isn’t a problem because everyone speaks English. In another way, this is a big problem, because a key element of the adventure of traveling to another country is lost. If everyone can speak English, what motivation do I have to learn the language at all? I tried to learn; I really did, but found it incredibly difficult when there was no other reason for me to learn than for my own pleasure. The result of this futile linguistic struggle was that I’m relegated to being another tourist. I only feel marginally more a part of the community or culture than a group of fat sunburned sex tourists wearing Speedos.

2. Tourism and the local economy

Most of the places where I spent my time in SE Asia survive because of tourism. You can very rarely go anywhere where this isn’t evident. Everyone has adapted to the English language to support the influx of tourists, menus are all in English, and local communities are filled much more with tourists than with locals. Many of these countries don’t produce or export much of anything; tourism is a key element of their local economy. This compromises the culture, especially as it relates to any ethnic outsiders. Instead of a mutual culture exchange with people on the streets, they’re trying to sell me t-shirts. I didn’t come to Asia for t-shirts. That said, it’s great to be back. Everyone is friendly and surprised to see me, and no one relies on me to fill their mango milkshake or tourist t-shirt quota.

I wasn’t back for 4 hours before my cell phone rings; unidentified number. It turns out to be King; the manager of Focus Club in Lanzhou, north in Gansu province. Focus Club was the first club that I DJ’d at in China outside of Chengdu, last spring. I hadn’t talked to him in six months – within 10 minutes we’d reached an agreement for me to perform there on Friday and Saturday. What are the chances? I’m not here 6 hours and I get a pair of gigs out of nowhere from someone I haven’t spoken to in six months. I’m interested in using this time to do a lot of recording and collect and assemble new ideas for music, but I’m happy at the same time that business is great and there are zero concerns about finding work.

I’m listening to the new Boards of Canada album, The Campfire Headphase, which is unbelievable. I haven’t listened to it in its entirety yet, but I’m blown away by it so far.

When Tenzin returns from China we’re getting a new apartment in Chengdu and looking at more longterm plans to relocate south to Kunming, closer to the border with SE Asia. The apartment used to be the home of Chengdu’s biggest mob boss – the place hasn’t been rented out in over a year. I haven’t seen it yet but apparently it’s cavernous – we’ll use the space to build a studio. Tenzin, Jovian, and myself are all getting our equipment shipped over here from America.

Published on September 29, 2005

Glory Days in Vang Vieng

I took the “SUPER VIP” bus (which broke down) out of Luang Prabang at 8am this morning and arrived back in Vang Vieng in time for a late lunch. I’m overjoyed to be here; this is such a fantastic place. My arrival here was vastly different from last time; this time it seemed like everything was there to welcome me back. When I return to the same riverside bungalows, the owners wife hugs me and is ecstatic to see me. Okay! The two frenchmen are still on the porch of their bungalow smoking joints; virtually nothing has changed in the week that I’ve been gone. I have yet to visit the bar/restaurant which I went to the entire week that I was here last time – the pleasure of their surprise to see me will be mine this evening.

Shortly after my arrival I walked into town to say what’s up to Wayne, the proprietor of the internet shop which I frequented when I was last in Vang Vieng. I’ve hung out with him for most of today and I’ll spill most of what I know which is interesting.

Wayne is a 38 year old Chinese Malay entrepreneur from Singapore engaged to an 18 year old Lao girl he met a month ago. He made a boatload of cash in Taiwan selling counterfeit cell phone batteries and moved to Vang Vieng and started an internet shop, but he has wild ambitions and a good sense of business which I feel is sorely lacking in this particular corner of tropical paradise. He rents a space for $80/month and recently renovated the place for $1,200 which included new walls, furniture, ceiling, all kinds of shit. It took a month and he employed four local guys to do the work; they worked all day, hammering this or sawing that, getting paid $100 a month. Here’s where I come in, though.

A week before I arrived, he made the decision to expand his business. He offers MP3’s to travellers at the cost of $1 an album. People passing through sort through a list of albums available, pass him their iPod, and he copies whatever they want. This is a genius idea which would land you in jail in about 20 minutes in America, but is no problem over here. I saw a poster advertising this new feature in the window and walked inside to inquire and find out what the deal was. Well, this guy has a thing or two to learn about efficiently pirating intellectual property, and I was in a unique position to advise him while he offers me free internet and local insider information. I set him up with the software he needs to copy music from iPods (iTunes disallows this), so now he copies music from other peoples iPods as they pay him to add music to theirs, instead of his mainstay which has been Soulseek. (vastly inefficient by comparison). So we hang out and talk about this or that, Singapore or China, computers or music, or whatever. Today he closed the shop and took me to a local guys house for lunch; the guy is a Norwegian who sold his house in Spain and moved here, acquiring a guest house which he manages. He was joined by his son who’s a Norwegian hip hop MC and another guest house proprietor, this one Irish with an attitude. The plot of land that the Norwegian has staked for himself is unbelievable, with a flawless postcard view of vast mountains over snake-like river. We sat and talked for a few hours while he served home made ice cream made into floats; he also has a coffeeshop which serves drinks. As the sun was starting to set, his Vietnamese wife arrives, says hello, and goes straight to the kitchen. Twenty minutes later she sets a giant bowl of boiled snails onto the table, with some kind of sauce, and toothpicks to pry the snails out of the shells with. That was a first; the snails themselves have very little taste, hence the sauce that you dip them in. They were straight out of the Mekong, that afternoon.

I returned to the bungalows and spent a few hours catching up with Ellele and Jeremy on the porch of their bungalow, smoking joints with them as they also do. I’m surprised that they’re still there in the same place, but I can’t blame them for not being in a rush to leave. This place is wonderful. Thoughts of starting business here have come into my mind across the span of the last two weeks, and I’ll be keeping it in mind for a while.

The sunset was beyond words, and even the two frenchmen said they hadn’t seen one like that since they’ve been here. I went to the deck on the riverside restaurant to take some photographs and video of the sunset where I met a German couple. I spoke with them for about thirty minutes, as the girl seemed to laugh at everything I said. Either she was flirting with me, or she’s had some happy shakes. Either way, it resulted in entertaining conversation as we touched over the German election, travel in Laos, and DJ’ing in China.

Wayne is copying everything new he’s gotten onto my iPod which will soon be filled with who knows what. Apparently a lot of french and Isreal music in Hebrew. Anything new and different is good.

An hour ago a customer was here in the shop who introduced himself as Mark, from England. A few minutes of conversation reveal that he’s just been in China, Dali in Yunnan province, to be exact. I asked if he’d been to Bad Monkey, the bar owned and managed by my friend Scotty who lives half of the year in Chengdu. Turns out he was there for a week and they’d become good friends, being from the same district in London. I don’t have Scotty’s email address, so on my way back to Chengdu I’ll pay him a surprise visit.

My flight to Kunming, Yunnan province China, leaves on the 28th at 6:30am. I’ll fly there and then take a bus to Dali, and after that, find my way north to Chengdu. I can’t wait to return to China because I love that place, but I’m simultaneously grieving my departure from Laos, and most specifically, Vang Vieng.

I will be back.

Published on September 25, 2005

A Little Elephant for the Road

I had elephant for lunch today.

I paid for my Chinese visa and booked a flight from Vientiane to Kunming, China just now at the travel agency which I’ve been frequenting the last week. The people there are super nice and it’s a pleasure doing business with them. I thought they were taking me for a ride when they said that the Chinese visa would run me $47, so I said I’d shop around first and come back if that was the best price. Say that to any travel agent and behold the reaction. The guy assured me that I wouldn’t be able to find a better price, but he said that if I could, he’d buy me a Beer Lao (the national beer which is fantastic). If I couldn’t, I’d buy the visa from him and owe him a beer. I found it elsewhere for the same price, so when I came back today he set up a game. He wrote two prices on two pieces of paper – $45 and $47. He crumpled the pieces of paper, switched them around, and laid them on the table. I picked the $47 piece – I lost, but I’m a good sport, so I bought him a beer anyway. To celebrate their victory and my finalized travel plans, they locked the door, closed the shop, and invited me to lunch. This was the most traditional Laos meal I’ve ever had, and it included elephant. I won’t say it was delicious. I think he knew that I approached my meal with slight apprehension, and responded by giving me a huge portion. I ate it all while everyone else eating with me looked right at me, anxiously awaiting my reaction.

“DELICIOUS”, with a huge smile.

Like I said, it wasn’t really delicious, but¬†I was¬†paying my compliments to the chef and to the small group for being kind enough to invite me to have lunch with them.

I’ll see my last sight in Luang Prabang now, Wat Xieng Tong. I think I’ve seen most everything else along the tourist trail in the surrounding area over the last four days here.

Published on September 24, 2005

Luang Prabang, Opium & Whiskey Village, Leaving Laos

I spent the day yesterday on a slow boat headed down the Mekong to Pak Ou caves, which is a small network of caves surrounding Buddhist shrines which are hidden inside dark corners of the caves. The ride on the boat was about two hours, and provided fantastic visuals. The river seems incredibly dirty – it looks like chocolate milk. It moves at a very fast rate however, and the color could be due to the rapid movement of silt and dirt. The river winds and stretches through towering limestone mountains, many covered by bright green trees. Beyong the nearby mountains are more mountains, and beyond those are more mountains – they fade into the distance as far as one can see and from a distance don’t look totally unlike some of the mountains of southern Virginia.

On the way to the cave, we stopped at a small collection of villages. I can’t recall the names, but one was renowned for being a large producer of Laos whiskey, and the other for handwoven textiles. Both were tiny, with a population in the hundreds. The textile village had a dozen shops filled with the apparatus to make the textiles – large wooden structures build by hand, manned by women sitting in front of hundreds of threads extending five feet in front of them. They wove the threads into the textiles in a process which took weeks, depending on the size of the piece. A tremendously intricate and ornate 2×4′ piece which took two months to produce would sell for $100.

The whiskey village was filled with flaming barrels producing the high power drink which is everywhere in Laos. There are two kinds, one having a 15% alcohol content and the other with 55%, which is more akin to western whiskey. The weaker of the two is slightly thicker, sweet, and red, very much like wine. The more powerful is clear and tasted to me like grain alcohol. It was this that I drank with the old man on the porch of my guesthouse the day that I arrived in Vang Vieng. A wide assortment of both were available in bottles that filled large tables – many of them included various vegetation and snakes inside the bottles. I never really found what significance they had upon the drink; perhaps it’s just a cosmetic effect, or maybe the snake offers some kind of other purpose, as does the worm in tequila. I had a few shots of the clear whiskey with a vendor, bought a small bottle, and devoted half an hour to my own valiant attempt to communicate with the village locals. I passed a group of four women having lunch on wooden seats outside of the shop area and they offered some of their lunch to me and Cat. We both ate what they gave us, which wasn’t bad at all. I’m still not really sure what it was, but we both agreed that it tasted most like yams in coconut milk. We also found an area of the village entirely devoted to opium accessories, including weights and a truly wide selection of pipes. I saw one pipe in particular which caught my interest – it was nearly two feet in length and weight about four pounds. It was an intricately carved dragon, and the dragon had a small jade rock set into its mouth. This was really the champion of all non-glass pipes I’ve ever seen, and it was only $10. Although still too heavy and too large to travel with, so for now it will remain fondly in my memory.

I have to wait five more days until I can be issued my Chinese visa. My plan was to travel north, through Udom Xai to Boten at the Chinese border, cross there, and then head north through Kunming to Chengdu. Because I now have to remain in the country for an additional five days, and the travel from Laos to China would likely take another four or five days, I made the decision to depart from Vientiane by plane.

I truly love Laos, maybe moreso than Thailand, but at the same time I’m anxious and excited to return to China. In many ways, I miss it.

Published on September 24, 2005

Luang Prabang, Opium & Whiskey Villages

I spent the day yesterday on a slow boat headed down the Mekong to Pak Ou caves, which is a small network of caves surrounding Buddhist shrines which are hidden inside dark corners of the caves. The ride on the boat was about two hours, and provided fantastic visuals. The river seems incredibly dirty – it looks like chocolate milk. It moves at a very fast rate however, and the color could be due to the rapid movement of silt and dirt. The river winds and stretches through towering limestone mountains, many covered by bright green trees. Beyong the nearby mountains are more mountains, and beyond those are more mountains – they fade into the distance as far as one can see and from a distance don’t look totally unlike some of the mountains of southern Virginia.

On the way to the cave, we stopped at a small collection of villages. I can’t recall the names, but one was renowned for being a large producer of Laos whiskey, and the other for handwoven textiles. Both were tiny, with a population in the hundreds. The textile village had a dozen shops filled with the apparatus to make the textiles – large wooden structures build by hand, manned by women sitting in front of hundreds of threads extending five feet in front of them. They wove the threads into the textiles in a process which took weeks, depending on the size of the piece. A tremendously intricate and ornate 2×4′ piece which took two months to produce would sell for $100.

The whiskey village was filled with flaming barrels producing the high power drink which is everywhere in Laos. There are two kinds, one having a 15% alcohol content and the other with 55%, which is more akin to western whiskey. The weaker of the two is slightly thicker, sweet, and red, very much like wine. The more powerful is clear and tasted to me like grain alcohol. It was this that I drank with the old man on the porch of my guesthouse the day that I arrived in Vang Vieng. A wide assortment of both were available in bottles that filled large tables – many of them included various vegetation and snakes inside the bottles. I never really found what significance they had upon the drink; perhaps it’s just a cosmetic effect, or maybe the snake offers some kind of other purpose, as does the worm in tequila. I had a few shots of the clear whiskey with a vendor, bought a small bottle, and devoted half an hour to my own valiant attempt to communicate with the village locals. I passed a group of four women having lunch on wooden seats outside of the shop area and they offered some of their lunch to me and Cat. We both ate what they gave us, which wasn’t bad at all. I’m still not really sure what it was, but we both agreed that it tasted most like yams in coconut milk. We also found an area of the village entirely devoted to opium accessories, including weights and a truly wide selection of pipes. I saw one pipe in particular which caught my interest – it was nearly two feet in length and weight about four pounds. It was an intricately carved dragon, and the dragon had a small jade rock set into its mouth. This was really the champion of all non-glass pipes I’ve ever seen, and it was only $10. Although still too heavy and too large to travel with, so for now it will remain fondly in my memory.

I have to wait five more days until I can be issued my Chinese visa. My plan was to travel north, through Udom Xai to Boten at the Chinese border, cross there, and then head north through Kunming to Chengdu. Because I now have to remain in the country for an additional five days, and the travel from Laos to China would likely take another four or five days, I made the decision to depart from Vientiane by plane.

I truly love Laos, maybe moreso than Thailand, but at the same time I’m anxious and excited to return to China. In many ways, I miss it.

Published on September 24, 2005

Stuck in Laos

That’s what I’m calling it for now. Really I’m waiting for my Chinese visa to arrive and I’m doomed to spend 5 additional days in this awesome country. I’ll probably pass on Thailand in favor of Laos in the future, although I still miss the cultural tranquility of China. Thailand especially is a crazy mish-mash of international culture (backpackers), and I don’t think that generally adds up to a super travel experience for me. I’ve spent the last few days with a group of German guys and an American girl from NYC. One of the Germans is an ENT surgeon and the girl is a lawyer, so I’m the punk of the crew being the DJ. Today we went to famous waterfalls an hour outside of Luang Prabang, where I am now. It was really a collection of waterfalls – at least a dozen of them. And then one enormous one, which had a natural bridge leading up to it. You could stand probably 20 feet in front of the waterfall, where it pretty much feels like you’re facing a raging hurricane – you get completely blasted by high intensity wind and water flying at you at high speed. It’s pretty much fantastic. I don’t know if they actually enforce it, but the guest house that I’m staying at has a midnight curfew. That means I have two minutes. I expect to return, knocking the door, to wake up some dude sleeping on a cot just inside the door to enter. Will write more later.

Published on September 23, 2005

Adventures in Central Laos

Whatever ambitious travel goals I had for the next week are pretty much shot by this town being so much fun. Yesterday it rained almost all day long, but a friend and I rented mountain bikes and rode around in the rain all day, looking for a lagoon to go swimming at. We went down the main road until it hit the river, at which point we had to cross by being taken by a long, narrow boat. The boat is about 15 feet long and maybe 2.5 feet wide and is powered by a man standing at the rear with a hand on a bamboo stick attached to the motors directional fin. With three of us and a pair of bikes on the boat it sank down in the water until the side of the boat was only two inches above the water surface, not really keeping water from splashing in. We made it across and rode for about an hour through a small village and a long stretch of dirt road surrounded on both sides by vast rice paddies, as far as you could see. The colors were incredible – I was looking to the sides almost the entire time. We arrived an hour later, my hands hurting from clenching the wet handlebars while going through mud and water and over stones and branches. The lagoon was almost like a pond, except the most memorable part was the color of the water. Had I ever seen a lagoon before? I don’t know. The water is a bright indigo color though, not like anything that I can remember having seen before. The water was cold and clean, carried a strong current, and led into a cave in the side of a mountain. We were able to swim inside about 20m before it got too dark to see and swimming into sharp rocks became a hazard. Last night I was in the outdoor restaurant outside of my bungalow where I met Sean sitting across from a guy of about fifty with a young Lao girl. I didn’t know who he was, and the scene was a little strange. Come to find that he’s from Australia and the young local girl is his friend that he sent up to meet him in this city. No further questioning necessary on that. After we finish the meal the guy gets up and is like OKAY LETS PARTY. Right, so, he’s insistant on going the disco in town. The disco here is kind of like Meet the Feebles – like it somehow acquires some kind of good quality from being so mind-blowingly bad. I leave quickly and go to the bar a few doors down where they manage to attract all the solo travelers. Here’s how this place works: they don’t have seats or tables, but it’s like Japanese-style, take your shoes off and sit on an elevated seating place. They have one of these outside and they employ about 15 people who hang out there all day, rotating as if in shifts. If you walk by alone, like I did, and (like the German guy who was in there last night) they start with some “hey! come here real quick!” shit. They urge you to sit down, hang out, and have a beer and because you have nowhere else to be, why not? Everyone else at the table speaks broken English so I spend most of the time talking with Jong about Germany and traveling around Asia. As I’m sitting there, this local girl starts getting all on me. What I mean is sitting right next to me (INVADING MY BUBBLE), touching me, being talkative without saying much of anything, etc. I don’t know what the game is, and being traumatized by my foreigner-scam in Shanghai a few months ago, I’m friendly but not interested in someone who gets paid to entertain me. We hung out all night though, and she never did any of the things I was waiting for her to do before I could say ‘I knew it’. Maybe this means I’ll grow to be more trusting of strangers again. It’s drizzly and overcast outside; a good day to be lazy. Places all around here show movies during the day in their outdoor restaurants and lounges, and dozens of people sit around and watch movies or TV all day. Especially popular here is Friends, which to me is incomprehensible. Come to Laos and watch Friends. I came to this place to download Vajra’s new mix, called Saul Good. Vajra, from Boulder Colorado, is maybe my favorite American battle DJ’s of the last five years. He sells it online for $10, but I was hoping to find out if he could upload it online someplace for me since I’m really anxious to hear it. Not only did he put it online for me, but he put it on YouSendIt and made it public for a week. I haven’t even listened to it yet, but I still urge you to download this without hesitation if you like real hip hop. Here’s the link: Saul Good I’m now listening to the Sub Focus breezeblock mix on the Shuffle. It took me a few listenings to even get past the first half of it, since to me, most of it is slightly bland techstep. The second half is better than the first.

Published on September 19, 2005

Vientiane, Part Two

You approach the guesthouse looking for a place to stay. There’s an old man sitting on a couch on the porch sitting in front of a bottle that you can’t identify – he’s calling you over to have a drink with him. The bottle is a semi-clear liquid amidst nearly a bottle-full off vegetation that looks like Chinese tea.

I couldn’t tell what it was, so I sniffed the top of the open bottle and didn’t detect any alcohol at all. “Right on, pour it up”. The guy pours himself a glass, kills it, and pours me one. I drink the glass quickly, and it takes maybe a second to hit me before I’m gasping for breath. It’s been a while since I’ve been caught completely off guard like that – the shit was like grain alcohol or ether. I had one more shot with him and stumbled up to check into the guesthouse with my passport.

I took a three and a half hour very scenic bus trip to get up here, but unfortunately I couldn’t take a speedboat along the Mekong as I had planned. Last night I met a girl from Newcastle named Pippy who told me that she had seen the speedboat and it’s passengers strapped in with helmets on and told me that she’d heard that it’s pretty dangerous. Oddly enough, that hadn’t even occurred to me until she mentioned it.

The guesthouse here is less than half as much as the last place where I was set in Vientiane, and the accomodations are more or less equal. I haven’t had a hotel attendant offer to sell me marijuana yet, but it seems likely, as the strip that I’m located at on this city is filled with foreigners and establishments catered to foreigners. Aside from this small strip, I am entirely in the middle of nowhere. I was looking out the window for the majority of the extended bus ride over here and I very rarely saw anything aside from vast, bright green rice fields. There are an abundance of rivers here, very similar to north Thailand – at times I felt like I was back on an island.

I have my choice of kayaking, tubing, and spelunking (exploring caves) in this town. They don’t offer a shooting range like Vientiane did, but there seems to be much more to do here. And strangely enough, as I was walking down the main strip, which is of course a dirt road because nothing here is paved, I saw restaurants and bars filled with foreigners fixated on TV’s. This is really an unusual sight for me, but even more bizarre was when I took a moment to see what they were watching – two out of the three places that I saw were showing Friends. Yeah, that stupid TV show. They’re in the middle of Laos, a completely isolated and foreign country, hundreds of miles from any kind of real civilization, and they’re watching Friends on TV. I do not understand.

I had a traditional Laos dinner which was relatively difficult to find on the street that’s filled with pizza and burger places, but it wasn’t until the food was already served to me that I was told by my friendly server that they (people of Laos) eat it with their hands. Well, that explains why the rice is so sticky. It might have been my first time eating an entire meal with my hands without being yelled at by someone. I was sitting among a large group of friendly Koreans. The drink menu offered such choice drinks as wishky and
Barcadi, but I stuck with a Beer Lao, which Lonely Planet calls the best beer in SE Asia. I might agree with them, I’m still contemplating.

Tomorrow I’ll wake up at 8:30am and meet some others to spend the day kayaking, hiking, and tubing. I don’t know what the itinerary is, but I know that I’ll return around 5pm. I booked my room for two nights which should be enough to check this place out and be ready for the next stop in Laos – Luang Prabang.

Published on September 17, 2005