Monthly Archives: February 2017

The Plain of Jars


The Plain of Jars is a 15 km stretch of rolling hills and meadows littered with ancient monolithic jars (hewn from solid pieces of rock) from The Iron Age (500 BC – 500 AD) and thought to be associated with prehistoric burial practices. There are over 90 jar sites with 1- 400 jars per site. I took the bus to Phonsavan and rented a mountain bike to visit the large mysterious stone jars.

Passing through villages with happy barefoot children running about, I climbed higher and higher into the hills until the road became a dusty track alongside grazing cattle. No jars, no people, no food stalls. I was lost. I pressed on, but didn’t stray off the beaten path on account of all the unexploded bombs.

Between 1964 and 1973 the US Air Force, operating against North Vietnamese forces, dropped 262,000,000 cluster bombs (more than they dropped in World War Two) on the Plain of Jars. 80 million of those did not explode and remain a deadly threat. Today, approximately 300 people a year are killed by exploding ordinance in Laos.

I rummaged through my bag looking for food and found my riverweed. The previous day, a street vendor had thrust a bag of interesting looking seaweed at me, and knowing my love of dulce, I bought it. Rather, it was riverweed; the long strings of algae that hang off rocks in northern Lao rivers. They are gathered, washed, rinsed, and laid out flat and thin on mesh frames, then soaked with an aromatic dressing and topped with sesame seeds, garlic, tomato slices and left to dry in the sun for a day before being flash fried in oil. The end result is a delicacy called Kaipen. I wasn’t crazy about the thought of eating Mekong River algae, but it tasted good.
And I figured it was either really good for me or really bad. 

Still in search of the elusive jars, I was zooming as fast as I dared down a steep dirt track trying to maintain top speed to give myself a fighting chance on the uphill stretch. Out of nowhere, a random chicken ran right out in front of me, almost annihilating us both. Imagine! There is absolutely nothing dignified or glamorous  about being taken out by a chicken! But it was a good reminder of how life can take a sharp left with no warning, and reninforced to me to take good care.

I eventually found an obscure jar site, and explored it until I hit my ‘turn around time’.  When I was only about 10 km from my hostel, I also found one of the main sites that I had missed earlier. It was fascinating to see, but by that time I had been on the bike for over nine hours and all I wanted was a cool, flat place to rest my bones, where the vultures couldn’t get me and a gob of tiger balm to rub on my aching butt. And food – I was hungry enough to eat the business end of a scabby water buffalo.  At the first roadside food stall I came to, I bought whatever they were selling – it turned out to be a handful of ‘sticky rice’ with a glutinous clump of ground wild boar parts steamed in banana leaves. In Lao, people eat with their hands and that suited me just fine; I was too tired to hold a fork.

The Slow Boat to Laos


The White Temple in Chang Rai is achingly beautiful and pictures do not do it justice. Millions of glittering glass pieces embedded in pure white plaster and stunning mythical carvings create an illusion of an enchanted, frozen castle. I felt like I had slipped through a portal into the kingdom of an ice queen. Created by famous Thai graphic designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, the white symbolizes the purity of the Buddha and the glass symbolizes the truth and wisdom of his teachings.

I left Thailand and took the slow boat to Laos; a two-day lazy chug down the Mekong River on a longboat to Luang Prabang. 

Laos has only been open to the outside world since the 1990’s and has been ruled by the same communist regime since 1975. Landlocked, the Mekong River is the life blood of the country and small jungle villages dot the winding shore. People wave a red flag signalling that they want to be picked up. If the longboat can get to shore, it stops; if not, the villagers board mid-river from a fishing skiff. It’s hard not to use cliches when describing the scenery. It was as spectacular as you can imagine; rugged cliffs, jungle mountains, herds of wild water buffalo, and small thatched tribal villages. I soaked up every minute. 

A group of western kids were drinking non-stop at the back of the boat. The party culture here, that so many kids engage in, terrifies me. I eavesdropped on a conversation about a kid who flatlined for 56 seconds in an ambulance after taking acid, opium and meth, but according to the the kid talking, the drugs were fine; it was the energy drinks that rendered the other kid unconscious. And he was laughing about it! We all have our issues, but excessive drinking and drugs frightens me on so many levels (not the least of which is death). Especially in a foreign county where it’s essential to keep the survival instincts sharp. For me, that means constant awareness of where I am, of the people around me, of their customs, and of my personal belongings.  Having said that, most of the young people I have met so far are completely awesome and the generation gap is not noticeable – until it is. 

I was happy to meet Marianne, possibly the only other lone female backpacker of my generation in south east Asia. Marianne is a Finnish woman, who is travelling in more style than I am, but we both live a little off the beaten track, are in bed by nine, suffer temporary muscle mutiny after waking, don’t use apps, need glasses to read our 100 lb. guide books, and forget what we’ve read five minutes later. Funny story – at the Lao immigration office I filled in my visa form without my glasses and it turned out that everything was in the wrong place. The officer wasn’t the happiest corpse in the morgue and wasn’t amused.  Thoughts of my wonky form and his grim response entertained me for hours (clearly, I’ve been alone a long time). 

The Lao currency is the kip and my first Lao meal was som puk, a dish of steamed rice topped with fermented garlic, chilies, lime, and morning glory leaves. It was fiery and fragrant with a healthy dose of sour, but delicious. 

The Spirit Caves 


I am finished my massage course and am now camped on the Pai riverbank at the Paizen River Jam Hostel. It has thatched bamboo huts, tent camping, an open air kitchen, and 2 rambunctious puppies. I pitched my tent, went to the night market for green curry soup, and hurried back, eager to snug into my cozy sleeping bag. It was not to be. 

I returned to find my tent netting ripped in several places, my zipper partly opened, and my stuff strewn about the grass, some of it never to be recovered. Grrrrr – the carnage smacked of puppy play! On the upside, if your tent is going to be attacked by animals, puppies are probably your best option. In any case, my beloved wigwam needs repairs before it is spider/mosquito/reptile safe again. So, for now, I am sleeping in a small complimentary River Jam tent. It’s not mine, but it will do.

Motor bikes are the local mode of transport and are available for rent on virtually every corner for as low as $6 a day. Most young travellers rent them whether they know how to ride or not. I wanted to be a bad-ass-mama on a motorbike, and ride to Tham Lod Cave (about 55 km away), but scars of my last riding attempt a few years ago, and seeing the bandages of the walking wounded, dissuaded me. Not to mention, the added complication of driving on the opposite side of the road and general public safety. I splashed out for a tour of the caves instead, and the 500 baht ($20) was money well spent.

In a predominately limestone region, Tham Lod Cave; the Spirit Caves, as they are locally known, are an impressive series of caverns full of mind-blowing stalactites and stalagmites. I, and two very nice Europeans girls, walked the wooden planks and hard packed dirt trails to the rickety wooden stairs. Clutching guano-coated handrails, we climbed high into the dark depths, guided only by the the propane lantern of our non-English speaking guide. 

The enormous and convoluted cave network is approximately 1½ km long and not one I would want to explore alone. Among the varied contours and colours of the fascinating formations,  we saw a faded prehistoric drawing of a deer. It made me wonder how many other pictographs and valued caches were in close proximity, undiscovered, untouched, and unseen.  

Teakwood log coffins, dating back thousand of years were also nestled along the trail. The extraordinary grottos were occupied from 9000 BC to 5500 BC by a Stone Age community of hunters and gatherers called the Hoabinhian Tribe. 

Back at the bottom of the cave, an hour or two later, we poled our way along the Nam Lang River on a narrow bamboo raft, through eerie swarms of large black fish. As we glided in and out of gaping inner sanctums, I tried to tune into some deep, ancient communal memory, and listened for spirit echoes. Alas, I could access no memory, and heard only bats and the swish of water as the bamboo poles slowly powered us along. But in my mind, I imagined scenes from the prehistoric age in clear and vivid colour. 

We finished the day at Pai canyon, watching the sunset. A lovely end to an awe-inspiring day. 

Learning the art of Thai Massage and Cooking in Pai


Set in a lush valley, Pai is a small, rambling hippie town, 135 kilometres north west of Chang Mai. On arriving, I immediately got a massage and almost decided not to learn the legendary manipulations. It was excruciating! But after some humming and hawing, I chose to stay the course – this old dog is going to learn some new tricks.

Mr. Bann, the good-natured 76 year old owner of the “professional school” said that staying healthy was simple and that he knew everything to keep the peacock feathers of his 40 year old wife open and his own snake strong as he waved a packet of mysterious elixir. No doubt, he had a lot to teach me but I wasn’t ready to dish out 30,000 baht ($1200.00) for 10 days. Not to mention, I was already emotionally exhausted by his all-knowing chatter. Off I trundled, leaving Mr Bann and his ‘strong snake’ oil behind. When I got to the other school that I had researched, it had shut down. I asked a rheumy-eyed old Aussie man (who looked like a permanent bench fixture) if he knew of anywhere else that I could learn massage. He pointed next door to where I was standing; she teaches massage, he said.  

Dao is a tough, scary, shrewd business woman with a good heart. I arranged for private lessons  with her (rather, she told me what I needed and I meekly agreed). I have a week of full-time instruction and accomodation in a little bamboo hut sitting on stilts behind the kitchen of her open air restaurant/cooking school/massage school/home. Bizarrely, she is registered as a massage school and I will get a certificate. I am enjoying learning Thai massage with its pulling and stretching and contorting but there is a lot to remember and all new to me. It’s a good challenge for my aging brain. Dao, who knows her stuff, doesn’t spare the verbal rod and after  37 years as an RMT, I need to keep reminding myself, that in my life at home, I am proficient and capable. But now that I know her better, I can see through the verbal lashings to her generous spirit. An added bonus of being here is the food and learning to cook.  

I was invited to join Dao, and her boyfriend Ning, at the temple for his birthday ‘feast offering’ to the monks,  where he received a special blessing from them. At the end, we were each given a cup of water to pour on a tree outside. I figure that the symbolic gesture of sustaining and respecting all life invites good karma. That night for his birthday dinner, Dao served an array of fruit, baked fish, roasted pork pieces with a spicy chili/garlic/lime sauce, and a traditional birthday dish of raw water buffalo salad. I didn’t partake of that particular delicacy on account of the fear of intestinal worms. But I’m pretty sure I ate my weight in mango and papaya.   

The last couple of nights, I have been assimilated into Dao’s cooking class and am learning the delicate balance of blending sweet, spicy and sour. We made curry paste with a mortar and pestle, khao soy (a northern Thailand coconut milk and curry dish), pad thai, papaya salad, thai noodle soup, spring rolls, and deep fried banana. And then we ate it all. My ‘mindful eating’ resolution has taken a crushing blow the last couple of days. I also fell off the rails with a sugar cane, coconut milk, roasted peanut fudge that, once I had a small taste, progressed into a train wreck of astounding proportion.  I am now fighting my way back to sugar sobriety. And for this mut, that’s the toughest trick of all.  

Meditation Retreat in Chang Mai


The soft voice of the monk filters through my concentration – “You must control yourself. Go to your breath. Observe it. Breath in, breath out. Discipline your mind. Don’t think about the past, don’t think about the future, stay in the present. Breath in, breath out”.
I am at the Meditation Centre of the Buddhist University Chang Mai campus, at the Wat Suan Dork temple for an intensive 2-day Meditation Retreat. Our teacher, a Monk named Phra Simlapachai instructs us that we must be silent – to speak only if absolutely necessary.

 He tells us that Buddhism is not a religion; it’s a philosophy. Buddha was not a god, he was a man. The word Buddha means “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One”. They believe that there have been many Buddhas in the past and there will be many in the future. The present Buddha was born into a royal family in Nepal, near the border of India in 623 BC. Raised in luxury, he found that wealth did not guarantee happiness. He was deeply moved by the suffering of his people and resolved to find the key to human peace and happiness. He left the palace when he was 29 years old for a simple life of meditation and moderation. When he was 35 years old, on a moonlit night, sitting under a Bodhi-tree in deep meditation, all delusion and ignorance fell away and he understood the true nature of things, and became “Enlightened”. He spent the rest of his life (until he died at 80 years old), living simply, teaching about finding peace and happiness through mindful development, self-understanding, and spreading kindness and compassion; the basic premise of Buddhism.

We begin each session by kneeling, hands in the  the wai position (palms together at chest level, fingers facing up). We bow our head to the floor three times in succession; in respect to the Buddha, to the Dharma (means truth), and to the Sangha (means followers of the Buddha). Between bows, our novice voices chant soothing unfamiliar words. Legs crossed, palms resting easy, we start to meditate. I concentrate on my breath but my monkey mind jumps from branch to branch. I bring it back to my breath, again and again. Before long, my side iches and my back hurts. “Let it happen and then try to detach”, Phra Simlapachai says. I observe the sensations, acknowledge them, and let them go. After hours of practice, many sensations have come and gone and I feel like I am floating a foot above my cushion.

We are released from practice at 9:30 pm. Disciplining the mind is hard work and I sleep like a zombie until the 5:00 am gong. We have 15 minutes before we meet in the meditation room at 5:15. By breakfast at 8am (rice soup), we have already been practicing for almost 3 hours. We also practice walking meditation and laying meditation (during which I am shamed to admit, I fell asleep). We do alms – giving rice to the monk, and in turn, are blessed by him. Lunch is curried potato soup and rice.

At the end of the second day, I am both exhausted and peaceful as I stuff my new white clothes into my pack. Regardless of belief, one unalterable truth has been hammered home – everything is impermanent and being able to let go with grace is an absolute necessity  – and, in some aspects, that is a tough one for me to make peace with.  But over my 2-day retreat, serenity and acceptance come. With patience and practice, I hope to hold onto it for awhile. The words of Phra Simlapachai echo in my mind, “Don’t think about the past, don’t think about the future. Stay in the present.  Breath in, breath out”.