Elephant Rides. Waterfalls. Riding through an endless rainstorm. Massive crop fires. Driving in the dark yet again. Another day… Another crazy adventure. Wahooooo!
Hello my family and friends,
(Flashback – Captain’s Log – March 8th, 2011 – Tad Lo Village, Laos)
The day started out like any other day. OK, that’s a blatant lie. I woke up at about 5:45 AM, unable to sleep for some reason. To be more specific… woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head… Found my way downstairs and drank a cup, and looking up, I noticed I was late… (haah haah haah haah.) Found my coat and grabbed my hat. Made the bus in seconds flat. Found my way upstairs and had a smoke, and somebody spoke and I went into a dream (ahhhhhhhhhhh.)
Everybody get it who’s going to get it? OK, let’s move on. Name that tune… Anyone?
It was still dark outside. I hopped in the shower quickly and grabbed my camera… time to go take some sunrise photos of the waterfalls as the little Laos village was waking up.
So I walked out my riverside guest house door and found a nice vantage point on the bridge. I set my camera up on a mini-tripod, set the video to take one photo every second (aka time lapse), and then watched the day unravel.
Three little village boys appeared out of nowhere, none older than maybe 8 years old, and one of them carrying a baby on his back They sat the baby on the concrete bridge support just about 15 feet below me, gathered a few dead pieces of bamboo and wood, and lit a fire. Actually, they first lit an empty plastic water bottle and then used it to light the bamboo and wood.
Then the boys stripped down to their underwear and began to swim and wade in the river, checking and collecting the fishing nets they had set the night before. They jumped effortlessly from rock to rock and walked through the rushing river like they had done it a hundred times before. Maybe because they had.
Every now and then one of the boys would come back to check on the baby, who was sitting quietly on a piece of broken Styrofoam, playing with the fire. The boys actually had a few small fish in their nets, which made them quite happy. After collecting all the nets and fish, the boys returned to the baby and fire.
(Sidebar…) If this little baby would have been back in America, his over-protective parents would not have allowed him to accompany the older boys that morning. At the very least, they would have made him wear those blow-up arm swimmie things, insect repellent, sunscreen, a helmet, a GPS-locator, and probably a sensor that would alert everybody if he fell in the water.
And he would have had to wash his hands with anti-bacterial soap before eating the fish. He would not be allowed to eat with his hands. He also could not be anywhere near the fire or sitting alone on a concrete pier with the river passing just below him while his buddies were busy fishing and swimming. I’m just saying… (end Sidebar…)
They threw some more wood on the fire and snapped off a few branches from a nearby bush. One minute you’re a branch… the next you’re a fish skewer in a fire. That’s the life of a river bush.
They sat around the fire, talking, laughing, singing, folding up their tangled nets, and getting warm after their cold morning swim. Soon the fish was ready. They gave the baby some fish, and each of the kids ate a fish or two.
Then they kicked the fire into the water, grabbed the rest of the cooked fish, grabbed the baby, and slid back across the rocks to their village. The way they jumped and walked across the slippery and submerged rocks reminded me of Gollum in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ Effortless. Precious. My Precious!
Here are the kids making a fire while the baby plays with his Styrofoam toy/seat and looks up at me… (click on any picture to see a larger slideshow)
While I was watching the kids and enjoying the beautiful loud waterfall, an amazingly beautiful Asian woman walked toward me on the bridge. I said ‘Sa Bai Deeee’ (‘Hello’). She said ‘Sa Bai Deeee’ back to me. But her pronunciation was perfect, so I thought maybe she was a local. She walked across the bridge and up toward the bigger waterfall to watch the men fishing and wading upstream.
I remained on the bridge for maybe an hour that morning, standing by my time lapse set-up and enjoying the people fishing and starting their morning village routine. The woman spent about 30 minutes upstream before returning to cross the bridge. We started talking about how amazing the sunrise was, the fishing activities, the waterfall, and this great Tad Lo village.
She was from Japan. Nao asked me what my plans were. I told her I had a 10 AM reservation to ride an elephant. I invited her to join me. She was very excited. She said she had ridden an elephant in Thailand a few weeks ago, but it was kind of lame.
So we walked about 15 minutes to the beautiful Tad Lo Lodge, where the elephants live and the rich tourists stay. She bought her ticket to ride with me. We went back toward the bridge, grabbed a quick breakfast, and shared stories and travel adventures.
We rode ‘Dirty Harry’ (my dirtbike) back to the elephant lodge. I wanted to get some photos of Dirty Harry with the big creatures. The elephant ticket cost 100,000 Laos Kip per person, which is about US$12.50. The lady at the reservation desk told us that it would be about an hour ride on the elephant. Giddy-up!
A photo of Dirty Harry with the three resident elephants of the Tad Lo Lodge.
A few pix of Dirty Harry, The Elephants and me… wahooooooo! FYI… I’m the dude with the pale feet?
It turns out that we rode the elephant for almost 2 solid hours. Across the stream. Up and down big inclines. Through a few villages, bamboo forests and beautiful jungle. I had not been on an elephant since 1994 when Michelle and I rode them in the Chitwan Jungle Preserve in Nepal.
It was a blast. The way the elephant lumbered up or down the inclines was amazing. Slow but sure-footed. Kind of like an SUV, only no emissions or pollution. That’s a lie too, the elephant farted and crapped a lot. When an elephant farts, you notice. And it ate a lot, so it crapped a lot. When it crapped, it was like she was dropping soft bowling balls on the ground. I’m just saying.
A few photos of Nao and me and the elephant… I like this first one when I was riding on the elephant’s head.
A Few Videos of our Elephant Adventure…
This elephant was using a tree to scratch her side. Watch how she lifts her leg and gets totally into it. ‘Ooooh, that’s the spot. Right there… right there!’
‘Sa Bai Deee, Elephant.’ I like how the gentle massive creature has a petite little bell on her neck.
Leaving the lodge, crossing a small stream with some of the local kids watching. There were some very loud cicada-like insects performing a concert that day in the trees.
Crossing a bigger stream, the elephant paused to drink a ton of water and spash her belly to cool off. True Elephant Fact… an elephant doesn’t drink through its trunk… it needs to suck up water in its trunk and shoot it into its mouth. Or all over my leg. Whatever. At the end of the video you can see the kids having a blast in the water.
As the elephant was lumbering up a hill we saw some more kids playing in another small stream. ‘Sa Bai Dee Nik Noi’ means ‘Hello kids’ in Laos. Please note the huge satellite dish in the backyard of this village hut at the end of the video.
Nao and I said goodbye to our elephant and very sweet elephant handler, hopped back on Dirty Harry, and headed back into ‘town’ (about 3 minutes away.) I told Nao that I was going to grab a quick lunch and then drive 2 or 3 hours to go see the tallest waterfall in Laos. ‘Wanna come along?’ ‘For sure’ she quickly said.
So we grabbed a quick bowl of noodle soup, packed up a few things in my backpack, borrowed an extra helmet from my guesthouse, and hit the road.
We drove about 45 minutes from Tad Lo toward Paksan, and then it started to drizzle. And then it started to rain. And then it started to pour. I had been in Laos for 5 weeks already, and this was the first time I had seen rain. I was drenched. Nao was wet but not drenched like me, as I was taking the brunt of the rain as we drove into the storm. After about 15 minutes of driving in the rain, I realized it wasn’t gonna quit any time soon, so we pulled over at a small local storefront.
The very nice man motioned us to drive Dirty Harry up a ramp and park it under his bamboo hut front porch. He spoke no English. And he was drunk. And it was only Noon. And he was selling lottery tickets. But he was VERY nice. His wife quickly appeared and said ‘Sa bai dee.’ She was a sweetheart too. My t-shirt was soaked, and my cargo shorts were very wet. I was freezing cold, and wet. I was shivering. The man told me to take my shirt off. (I’m not gay… that’s not where this is headed…) I said no thank you. He insisted. So I took my shirt off and gave it to the man. He then led me around the back of their house and showed me his washer/dryer combo. The dryer was actually just a centrifugal spinning machine, which is more energy efficient than a regular dryer. He tossed my shirt into the spinner and we walked back out front.
Normally, when I take my shirt off, girls run away, screaming and reaching for the pepper spray. Not this time. Nao did not run away, mainly because we were an hour away from our village, she did not know how to drive a motorbike, I was wearing her shawl, and she thought I was funny. And handsome. And humble.
It was still pouring rain. I was VERY cold, my fingers were numb, and I was shivering. I asked the man if he had any coffee (go figure.) He said yes and plugged the electric kettle in. A few minutes later we were drinking instant coffee. And then the rain slowed down. I walked back with the man to get my shirt, which was surprisingly dry already after about 10 minutes. I put my shirt back on and tried to pay the man for the coffees. He refused to take any money.
So in a nutshell, this nice man (and his wife) let us park Dirty Harry on his front porch, dried my shirt, let us stand around his house and store during the storm, gave us coffee… and wanted nothing in return. He refused payment. He was just being nice and helpful. I’m telling you, the Laos people are the nicest people on the planet!
A photo of Dirty Harry parked on the front porch in the rain…
The gracious and generous Dryer Man and me… (that’s me on the left)
So Nao and I rode off again, laughing and smiling about our encounter. Then about 5 minutes later, it started to rain again. Hard. This time we pulled over under a gas station to get out of the rain. I was drenched again, and my white fingers were totally numb, and I was still shivering. We waited about 15 minutes, the rain slowed, and we drove on.
This was the Bolaven Plateau, an elevated region of Laos where some of the best coffee plantations and waterfalls in Southeast Asia thrive. We were heading from the Tad Lo waterfalls through Paksong on our way to the Nam Tok Katamtok waterfall. The waterfall is about 350 feet high (110 meters) and very hard to get to and find. There was an easier way to get there on (mostly) paved roads, but it was a longer route, and much more boring (Dirty Harry did well on paved roads, but he and I really loved the dirty remote roads.)
Finally we got to the T-junction where our paved road split off either into a dirt road or another paved road. We needed to take the dirt road to get to the waterfall. The road was ‘under construction.’ It was a muddy mess. Again, this was the first time I had seen rain in the 5 weeks I had been in Laos. Normally Dirty Harry would have no trouble on this road, but it was in horrible muddy shape today. Horrible.
We drove about 30 minutes in the light rain. I was totally drenched. Huge piles of dirt and gravel blocked the road every minute or so. All cars and trucks and motos had to go around these obstructions by driving on a temporary path below the elevated road. So every minute or so we would come to a big mud pit. I would drive Nao as far as the road would go, and she would have to walk while I backtracked a bit and struggled through the thick deep mud.
I tried to drive through a deep mud stretch with Nao on the back, and I dropped the bike in the mud. Neither of us got hurt, thankfully, but it was scary. I really did not want to get hurt, but I REALLY did not want to hurt Nao or anybody else. It was the first time I had dropped the bike on my 18 day trip, and it turns out it wasn’t the last.
Nao snapped this photo of me trying to navigate through the muddy mess. You can see how the temporary detour path is below the main road at the left of the picture. My legs were caked in mud. ‘This wasn’t part of my plan!’ Rock on!
So we pulled over yet again and waited at a local ‘pool hall’, where kids and grown-ups were playing billiards. I was shivering. Nao was cold, but she wasn’t drenched like me. It kept raining. We played with the kids. It kept raining. And raining. And raining.
Here is a video that shows how dirty my legs were, the kids playing pool, Nao chatting it up with the locals, and Dirty Harry waiting patiently in the pouring rain…
About 90 minutes later the rain started to let up. But it was now 4PM, the waterfall was at least an hour away on a good dry day. This road stunk today. I told Nao that I did not feel comfortable going any further because when it got dark around 6:30, this muddy road would be a dangerous nightmare. So we decided to head back to Tad Lo.
The muddy road was now twice as bad as before. The mud was deeper and the puddles much larger. On the way there it took us 30 minutes to get from the T-junction to the pool hall. On a dry day it would have taken 5. On the way back it took us almost an hour to get back to the turn-off. And I dropped Dirty Harry again. And Nao had to walk a bunch while I slugged through the mud. But we made it. Nao was a trooper! We laughed a lot. It’s all part of this big adventure.
Driving in the dark was the one thing that I tried not to do while riding Dirty Harry for 18 days in Laos. Turns out I did it at least 4 times, including this day with Nao on the back with me. The sun quickly went down soon after we hit the paved road (I was soooo happy to be back on the paved roads!) It was hard to see with my dim headlights. I was shivering. Cows and dogs and people littered the road. Oncoming motos and trucks and cars were blinding me with their headlights. I took it easy, making sure Nao and I arrived back in Tad Lo safely.
We dropped back down out of the Bolaven Plateau hills and beautiful coffee fields. Slowly we were returning to the valleys, the skies finally cleared and the warm air gradually returned. About 30 minutes from our village we came upon yet another massive fire, where the local farmers were burning their dry fields to get ready for the coming rainy season and the new crops. We stopped on the roadside and walked into the center of the fire ring. It was warm and toasty. We were laughing. Our clothes dried quickly. My hands un-numbed slowly but surely. We took a few photos and videos, joked with the locals who were watching/managing the fire, and then hopped back on Dirty Harry for the final ride home.
A video of the inside of the fire ring. Toasty!
And a still photo of the fire.
Dirty Harry and my helmet with the fire in the background…
Nao and I got back into Tad Lo about 2 hours after dark. Happy and safe. We got cleaned up, had dinner and a few beers, and then walked along the river and waterfalls in the dark.
I realize this might be a fairly detailed recap of our day. I hope I did not bore you with too much typing. What I really want to relay is this… One minute I can’t sleep and get out of bed as the sun is coming up. The next I meet a beautiful talented Japanese woman. We ride an elephant. She hops on my dirtbike (a first for her.) We ride through rainstorms. Through mud. We fall down. We laugh. We meet lots of locals. One minute I’m shivering and the next we’re standing inside a raging fire. And a few cold beers and a hot bowl of noodle soup to cap it off. This is just one big long adventure.
Nao and I had never met before. We spent the entire day and evening together. Maybe we’ll never see each other again. When I woke up that day, I had a basic idea of how my day was going to look, but it turned out completely different.
It’s hard to explain to (some) people back home how quickly I can make friends on the road, and how those friendships can quickly become very deep and authentic. And it’s hard for (some) people to grasp the concept of an un-scripted adventure, where the details are almost always fuzzy and flexible, where hotel rooms and bus tickets and meals are almost never arranged in advance.
This un-scripted adventure is what I love most. And the people I meet along the way, like Nao and countless others, are doing this as well. We just make this crap up as we go along. And it always works.
I had my dirtbike for 18 days in Laos. I could write boring volumes about each day, but I won’t. But soon I will tell you more about my river crossings on bamboo rafts, dropping my only key into the Mekong River, driving through knee-deep water in the dark, and hitting a chicken at full speed. (I think I heard Dirty Harry’s front tire say… ‘Mmmm, tastes like chicken.’)
After 7 glorious weeks in Laos and 3 more weeks in Vietnam, I am now back in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Laos was amazing. And Vietnam treated me very well (factoid: They have really good Vietnamese food there.) I spent the last 6 days in Vietnam on gorgeous Phu Quoc Island. I could have easily stayed there another month. But alas, it was time to move on. Funny how a random conversation with an Italian couple in Hanoi on my first day of this Lexpedition (January 1st) lead me to Phu Quoc Island almost 3 months later.
Siem Reap is the home of the mind-boggling Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temples, and home of The Spitler School. Check it out – www.spitlerschool.org – it’s an amazing school that my good friend Danny Spitler and his wife Pam created over the past few years (with the help of a talented administrator, Sarin.) I visited it back in 2007, and I am happy to be here again to play with the sweet kids and help propel the school forward.
Last night as I was sitting in an Internet cafe here, 3 guys from Quebec (Felix, John Sebastian and Louis) walked up and tapped on the window. Wow! I had met them about 5 weeks ago in a remote village in Laos, and here we meet up again. So we went out for a few beers and swapped travel stories. They gave me a few ideas on where to go here in Cambodia. And tonight I meet back up with Carla, another Canadian who I met on a bus trip from Saigon to the Cu Chi tunnels about 3 weeks ago. I love this adventure!
After Cambodia I will go (briefly) to Bangkok (again) to arrange a visa and transportation to Burma. I hope to spend a month in Burma. Then somehow I will make my way back up to Northern India to play around in the Himalayas all summer. That makes me a happy boy! Yahoooooooooo!
Then after that I will be enjoying a relaxing tour of The Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Iran. Just joking, I’m only going to Iran (please don’t tell my dad.)
As my good friend Omar always says, ‘Begin well and do not fear the end.’
That’s just how I roll!
And as my hilarious friend Patrick reminds me, ‘I’d make this shorter if I had more time.’
Peace and Love from way over here,
First Woman Astronaut to Walk on the Moon
Inventor of the Hammer
Voice Double for Kevin Costner
Stunt Double for Colonel Sanders
Prime Candidate for the Prestigious 2011 ‘Keyboard Diarrhea’ Award (fingers crossed)
P.S. Nicolas Cage Stinks!