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Unexpected Epiphany

December 29, 2004 Leave a comment

HOI AN, VIETNAM – A delicious breakfast at Thu’s, some grafitti (I wrote “Love me Thu times baby! – Karsoe, Sydney Australia 28-12-04”) and I then hopped on a bus for the trip to the seaside town of Hoi An.

This town is renowned for it’s tailors, and there are a lot of them, all willing to run up a suit for not a great deal of money. I’d like to grab one, except I’ve still got a while to go on my trip.

I tried to have some peaceful beach time today. The weather was not amazing, it rained quite a bit last night. I figured that the tourists would stay away from the beach, and that it would give me a good chance to get down there and have some time on my own.

I was right, there were very few tourists. There were, however, many many people selling handcrafts, drinks, snacks, cigarettes, massages. And they were very insistent, as they have been everywhere here. I bought a few things but felt pissed off. What the hell do I have to do to get some quiet time on my own in this country?

I walked back without having said much to the ocean. I felt a bit of animosity towards the people, the mentality, just the whole thing was making me angry. All I wanted to do was go to Da Nang and hop on the next plane to Bangkok where the tuk-tuk drivers know what ‘no thank you’ actually means.

But as I walked back from the beach I started figuring things. I was staring down at my feet as I walked. My world was small. I could be walking past a magnificent temple, a beautiful river, a lovely woman, and I’d never have known. I didn’t care then, I wanted my world to be small because I felt angry that the Universe had conspired to deny me some quiet time.

The people who “hassle” you to buy, invite you into their shop, they’re not shop assist ante. Nor do they employ any. They aren’t wage earners. They don’t earn if they don’t sell, and they don’t eat if they don’t earn. And while this revelation didn’t inspire me to spend more, it did at least give me some perspective as to why they’re so insistent.

At that moment I heard a “Hello!” as my side. Another child, a little girl, a toddler really, who could already call out in English to a huge Western stranger without fear. She teetered towards me, smiling, waving, her slightly older brother stood nearer their house, also smiling but watching carefully. The girl shook my hand firmly, Westerner-style. Her mum watched from the house, happy to see her kids exploring their world.

As I continued back to town I began to wonder how I lost that sense of adventure, the desire to explore. How did I? Why did I? Why do we? Why is it that when our bodies get bigger, our minds get smaller?

I remember family picnics in Binya Hills near Griffith, me and the other kids would always go off ‘exploring’. That’s what we called it. We’d climb rocks, jump crevices, wade through creeks and climb trees, totally convinced that we were the first to do so since creation. We “claimed” everything we saw as ours but never too anything with us. And we shared it all. There was no ‘mine’ because it was all to big for one.

Early bus to Nha Trang tomorrow, I should be getting some sleep.

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Still alive

December 27, 2004 Leave a comment

From: Paul Carson
To: Y’all
Subject: Still alive
Date: Mon, 27 Dec 2004 16:31:05 +0700

Hi all,

Many of you have probably heard of the earthquake and resulting tsunami that has smashed bits of Thailand about, and casued shocking damage & loss of life in Sri Lanka, India & Indonesia. Even Somalia copped some of it.

A couple of people not being sure where I am have asked if I’m OK. As the existence of this email strongly suggests; yes, I am. I’m still in Vietnam, well away and well protected from the disaster. I had a friend who was panning on going to Phuket but I’ve confirmed that she’s fine (thank God).

I’ve had a bit of a strange time emotionally the last 2 days, I’ve met some great people & had some kind of intense things happen, and this tsunami thing has gotten to me a little. But I’m alive, physically intact, have clothes and food and a place to sleep, so I’m a hell of a lot better off than many.

Take care everyone.

– Paul C./Karsoe

Seeing the sights in Hué

December 25, 2004 Leave a comment

Righto… if you ever find yourself in Vietnam, specifically the city of Hué, look up Café On Thu Wheels (10/2 Nguyen Tri Phuong, Hué). It’s run my a brilliant lady named Thu (pronounced like To). Amazing food, great tunes, cold beer, hot coffee. The walls are covered with scrawlings from travellers indulging in written smartarsery based on the owner’s name, which she herself started with the name of the café. Thu be or not Thu be. That sort of thing.

The name also derives from the fact that she organises motor scooter excursions of this lovely city, and her brothers take you around for about 4 hours and take you to a number of very interesting cultural & historical sites, complete with in-depth commentary. One of the cool things I did was ring a 2-ton bell at a temple, the bell was cast in 1601.

And let me tall you, busy city traffic will never appear the same once you’ve driven through late afternoon pandemonium in Vietnam on the back of a Honda Dream being piloted by a Vietnamese geezer half your size. Well, half my size anyhow. Davo, you might be happy to know that I’m now pretty much cured of my phobia over motorised 2-wheeled transport.

This is *the* best tour in town. Cheap (US$7), and the brothers know their stuff. Very informative, and if you survive you can confitendly say that you’ve cheated death a few times. :)

So yeah, if you end up here, resist the 10 trillion cyclo offers for every step you take on the street & hasten to Café On Thu Wheels. What have you got Thu lose? :) (Sorry, been hanging out there too much)

Cheers,
Karsoe/Paul C.

Sold my soul with my cigarettes

December 23, 2004 Leave a comment

HUE, VIETNAM – Today I did something quite touristy and went on a tour of the old DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) near what used to be the border of north and south Vietnam.

Initially I was going to just do the tour and get the bus back to Dong Ha, then spend the night and get another bus on to Hué tomorrow. I was then told that the bus goes on directly to Hué anyhow, so here I am.

The tour took us to the old border gate (painted red on the north side and yellow on the south) and then continued on to a series of North Vietnamese tunnels near the town of Vinh Moc. This region was so heavily bombed by the US during the war that families actually lived in these tunnels for days at a time. I was in them for 15 minutes and started feeling claustrophobic! But then again, I didn’t have B-52s dropping tons of bombs on my home.

The Aussies on the list will really appreciate this… after the tunnels at Vinh Moc we went to the Khe Sanh Combat Base. This was the scene of one of the biggest battles of the war. Now it’s very peaceful, green, but in 1968 it would’ve looked considerably different. Just to be there was quite awesome.

I’m now in Hué, and haven’t seen much of the city yet but it has a pretty cool vibe so far.

Getting late, just thought I’d drop a quick g’day on yez.

Categories: Travel Tags: , , , ,

Safe & sound in Savannakhet

December 18, 2004 Leave a comment

Hi all,

Yesterday I very reluctantly left the Lao capitol of Vientiane and headed south to the township of Savannakhet. I had a feeling the bus trip was gonna be something special when I climbed on and the driver fired up the on-board karaoke machine. :) Unfortunately, I can’t speak or read Thai, nor did they have any English VCDs othewise I would’ve gotten up and given it a bash.

Being just under 6’1″ and taking a 10 hour ride on a public bus designed for people significantly is not a whole lot of fun. I have a dodgy knee and have discovered that if it isn’t moved for about 90 minutes it starts to really f_cking hurt. For about two hours that was all I could think of, I couldn’t take delight in the lovely countryside, my friendly co-passengers (only one other being a Westerner, from Melbourne, bloody Aussies are everywhere!), the karaoke, and it annoyed me. I managed to temporarily remedy the knee and the world reappeared. I cannot sleep on transport, and it got dark before long so I couldn’t read. So I just let all the experiences, sights, sounds, tastes and emotions of the last 5 weeks flow through me. It was quite an interesting exercise.

I arrived in Savannakhet at about 8pm, accepted the first tuk-tuk ride offered to me (at a cost of 10,000 kip into town, a very good deal), and was deposited at a pretty cool-looking almost French colonial style hotel. There were a few Westerners in the courtyard having a quiet ale. Once I saw the price of the room I grabbed it. Once again, a very good deal.

And as is the custom in the region, everyone has a little side business going. The bloke on the reception desk said to me, “If you want girlfriend, you let me know, I arrange.” It was kinda strange to think that the offer coming from a hotel guy has a greater feel of non-shonkiness than the same offer from a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok.

I dropped my bags and went for a walk, getting utterly disoriented as I had no idea which way north was. But there was nothing to fear; disoriented at night in a Communist South-east Asian country where I don’t know anyone and can’t read or speak the language, what could possibly go wrong?

It seems that practicing English on random Westerners is a favourite pasttime here. I was greeted by a young boy about 16 years old, he invited me to sit down and he practiced his conversational english on me. What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been in Laos? His three friends soon joined him and they all had a go as well, except the youngest who was about 8 years old.

In an attempt to get my bearings I asked which way the Mekong River was. They all pointed (in the same direction, thankfully), and then the elsedt one offered to take me there on his motor scooter for a look. How very cool. I declined and thanked him in English and in Lao. I shook their hands as I left and they were absolutely over the moon.

I returned to my room about 45 minutes later and was soon comatose on my bed. Slept better than I have in a long time.

So… on Monday I think I’ll start making my way to Vietnam. There’s a lot just south of the DMZ that I want to see.

Not a lot else to say, I wrote tons in my journal while in Vientiane, I guess you’ll have to wait unti I’ve compiled that into legible form.

Hope everyone is cool and groovy and etc.

Cheers,
Paul C./Karsoe

“There is a difference between knowing the Path and walking the Path.”
– Morpheus, ‘The Matrix’

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Can you say “trademark infringement”?

December 13, 2004 Leave a comment

This is a drink produced in Laos. Very tasty. As they would say in Southeast Asia, “Same same only different!”

51

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Lao Enchantment

December 10, 2004 Leave a comment

VIENTIANE, LAOS – I’m sure some of you have met someone that just strikes you as so extraordinary, so beautiful and gentle, that within five minutes of meeting them you know your heart is at risk of being stolen. You might even think to yourself, “Hang on, this is a bit quick, maybe I should ease off a bit, take my time and see if this is real.” But you look, and listen, and the attraction becomes stronger.

This has happened to me quite recently with someone so amazing, and it happened to me again this afternoon when I crossed the border into Laos. I can’t even describe what it is about this place that makes it so beautiful. But I just walked from me guesthouse with a smile on my face, my darker mood of the last day or so gone.

The crossing was a mini-adventure. I’d heard that you can get a visa on arrival, so I fronted at the checkpoint in Nong Khai with naught but my travel gear. Gave my passport to the bloke at Departures, who removed my Thailand departure slip. At that moment, I truly felt in limbo. Officially, I was not anywhere. The Thai govt. now had me on record as having left, but I still didn’t have any documentation for my destination.

I spotted a building labelled Immigration, and inquired there. It was staffed by some very harrassed-looking officials who told me, “Visa you get there, sign, Vientiane.”

Hmmm… having never actually arranged this sort of thing on my own, I was a little skeptical. I thought a visa had to be arranged before actually setting foot in the country you were going to.

So I asked at the office labelled Customs, only to be told to talk to Immigration.

The same Immigration official was a little less patient this time. “Lao visa there! You sign in Laos!”

I thanked numerous deities he wasn’t armed.

I spent about 10 anxious minutes looking for a Westerner who might know what was going on. The only signs in English were ones warning about likely penalties imposed if you were dumb enough to get caught taking drugs into Laos (“1. Prison. 2. Execution. 3. Goods confiscated.” I’ll take what’s behind door number 3 thank you.) Anyway, by that point I’d decided that my first night in the first Communist country I’d ever been to would be in a basement room somewhere in a Lao government building with a weary Australian embassy oficial shaking his head sadly over having to bail another clueless farang out on a matter that should be uncomplicated.

A tiny minibus arrived and about 7 people too many squeezed into it. I was last on board, the only Westerner. A little old Thai lady grabbed my 12 kilo pack and dropped it on her lap. She smiled and nodded at me, a silent “Mai pen rai” (no worries) passed between us.

I was starting to feel better.

It took 5 minutes to cross the Friendship Bridge, many people standing with nothing to hang on to. Fortunately we were stuck behind a lumbering fuel tanker, it was not possible to go faster than about 5 km/h.

I was relieved to see “VISA ON ARRIVAL” displayed prominently over a set of darkly-tinted windows in the side of a concrete bunker near where the bus stopped. I hopped out, my feet touching Lao soil, but I’d not be fully “there” without a visa and entry stamp.

I presented myself at the window, and a little slide-door opened to reveal an absolutely stunning young Lao girl wearing what seemed to be an old Russian army uniform. She smiled and took my travel documents, the slide door slamming closed quickly.

I filled out my arrival and departure forms and struck up a conversation with a Dutch lady who was backpacking through the region with her husband and two young daughters (both somewhere between 7 and 10 years old). They were heading to Sydney soon, so I did my bit for Australian tourism and told them to visit Manly. Might hit the council up for a commission when I get home.

My paperwork was processed in less than 10 minutes. I was disappointed to discover that the Lao beauty who took my credentials (as it were) had been magically replaced by a man who was probably ancient 500 years ago.

Waiting in line to get the entry stamp, the Dutch husband was standing in front of me. He glanced into the entry stamping booth thingy, stifled a laugh, then softly told me that the official doing the visa stamping was actually playing a snooker game on his computer. I sneaked a peek and he was right. We both had a good laugh over that. Fortunately, his offsider behind him seemed to be actually doing some work.

And wallop! I was in the Laos People’s Democratic Republic.

The Dutch couple offered to share a cab ride into Vientiane, and I agreed. I was feeling better but still very Twilight Zone. One of the cab touts hailed what allegedly passes for a taxi, but in Australia wouldn’t even pass for registration. It was an old Toyota Corona, no seatbelts, none of the instruments worked. But it beats walking 22 kms.

The Dutch family checked into the most expensive hotel in town (with a pool, etc., for the young ones). I continued on to slightly cheaper digs. 15 Us dollars, 600 Thai baht, 20 Aussie dollars, or 162,525 Lao kip for some very civilised accommodation near the Vientiane town centre. Beds with sheets! Air conditioning! Hot water! Western-style toilet! And a TV and phone, but that don’t impress me much.

Much of the signs are in Lao and French, and while my comprehension of French is tres petit (but better than my spoken or written Lao), I think I might be able to get by. The French influence is very strong here. Kind of more like what I’d imagined Southeast Asia to be like.

So yeah, that’s my story in Laos so far. It’s been real. :)