START OF THE TRIP TO SOUTH-EAST ASIA
Finally, half way through my sabbatical, I did move to South-East Asia (SEA). Encouraged by many people who were interested in knowing how my trip was going, I have decided to share my impressions and thoughts about this trip in this travel blog.
As any big trip of mine, this one didn't start smoothly either. My initial plan was to start discovering the region from the ancient capital of Laos, Luang-Prabang. I booked a one-way flight from Paris to Luang-Prabang via Bangkok, but ten days prior to the trip the airline company cancelled the second flight and suggested another flight 26 hours later. I went through a lot of discussions with the intermediary agency via which I booked the tickets in vain, and finally I took my flight without any of the discussed changes being confirmed. My decision of not waiting for 26 hours in Bangkok was final, and I came up with a new plan consisted of arriving to Bangkok, continuing with a flight to Chiang Rai in the north-east of Tailand and then taking a slow boat to Luang-Prabang.
That was it, on Feb 6, I took my flight from Paris to Bangkok... The whole trip from the start was surrounded by uncertainty and let-see-what-life-brings atmosphere. I am a person who likes to control pretty much everything, and here I was about to give it up. But this journey may also turn in just one of the most amazing experiences in my life …
I arrived well to Bangkok and had no problem to buy a ticket to Chiang Rai. Things were going well - next flight was just in two hours and I could buy a relatively cheap tickets (that would be even reimbursed by the airline company later).
And here the true journey began, I arrived to Chiang Rai. I love Free telecom company that gives you 25GB of 3G in multiple countries around the world, and Thailand being on the list was a great news upon my arrival. I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel and was positively surprised that the taxi driver spoke good English. The first thing he said was that it was unimaginable for a thai woman to travel alone. I would hear it often since then, also from local women who would admire what I was doing. At the same time, I would meet many solo female travellers from all the world, and the first ones were already waiting for me on the border from Thailand to Laos :)
FIRST STOP: CHIANG RAI (THAILAND)
Chiang Rai turned out to be very nice, with a very warm and pleasant weather, a lot of Buddhist Temples, a street of thai massage salons and a night bazaar with lovely live guitar music. So see by yourself ;-)
My stay in Chiang Rai was really short, only one day and half, because I had a hotel booked in Luang Prabant. A mistake I would neved do again - booking hotels in advance :) It would have been nice to stay at least a couple of days longer and go, for example, hiking to the mountains to visit different ethnicities living in mountains. The best way of doing it would be by hiring a guide from the association PDA that helps these tribes. The ethnicity of long-necked women is not to visit though as apparently, these women are imported from nearby Burma to attract tourists.
Thai people are very nice, kind and smiling.
In my last travel in Latin America, I was disturbed by a number of plastic bottles I had to buy because drinking water was not available. So this time I bought a bottle-filter that could filter out viruses, bacteria, etc. But I really liked and found it great that in many places you can refill your bottle with drinking water from coolers for free.
You can have a pretty good room for about 15 euros per night. Your shower would just stick out from the wall in the bathroom but apparently it is more or less the case everywhere in South-East Asia.
What surprised me is that you can't pay by card even in relatively high-standing places while ATM takes about 5 euros commission for withdrawal.
In terms of transportation, one can, of course, take a tuk-tuk, but otherwise, Grab is a nicely working analogue of Uber where you can choose to ride in a car or on a motorbike. The latter one is a very popular means of transportation.
Various mountain tribes of North Thailand. Source: PDA Chiang Rai website
FROM THAILAND TO LAOS BY SLOW BOAT
So on day three of my stay in SEA, early morning I got into a van to get to the Thailand-Laos border just two hours drive from Chiang Rai. Border-crossing went smoothly, and shortly after, I arrived to Huai Xai to get on the boat for Luang Prabang by the Mekong river. When booking a ticket with an agency organising the whole trip from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang, I asked if I would get an assigned seat on the boat. The answer was positive, but the reality was different. Seats with such numbers even didn't exist, and nobody could care less; so first come first served. That was a true mess. I ended up being in one boat while my backpack was in another. Nevertheless, this mess spoiled nothing. I very much enjoyed this little journey of about six hours on a slow boat.
This was so peaceful. Beautiful landscapes of small mountains and plains covered by tropical forests. Swirling water. Passing by boats. You could see people living by the river who would wash their cloths or children playing in the water.
On some occasion you could see burning fields but the air was quite clean. The burning season was only starting. I learnt before coming to Thailand that farmers in Nothern Thailand and Laos practice agricultural burning, practice of setting fire to cultivated fields to clear stubble, weeds and waste before sowing a new crop. During this season which should start in about a month the sky is covered by the smog and the air quality becomes so bad that it is hard to breathe and certainly bad for health. This practice common around the world is economical but very unsustainable as it produces large amounts of the particle pollutant black carbon and reduces the fertility of soil. For the moment I was observing this practice from far, asking questions to myself, judging a bit, but later on I would get very close to it, almost hands-in, and I would have to re-assess my thinking.
Another very sad observation during travelling is the amount of plastic used and amount of waste produced and spread around. Plastic became so indispensable and ubiqutous - everything is wrapped and packed in plastic. Recycling is limited if any. Culture of collecting waste and bringing it to trash bins is often inexistent both from locals and from tourists. So you see trash all around flowing in the river, in the sea, in nature. While cities and towns are managed pretty well, you see much less or no trash there, nature remains defenceless. And this is something that I always found disturbing and behind my comprehension: how can people live in a place or come and enjoy it and just throw away whatever is not needed anymore? Is special education needed to understand that littering is bad and inappropriate? Is it the absence of any consideration for nature?
I got interested in the problem of waste in Laos and more generally in developing countries, and I invited a Lao Waste management expert, Souksaveuy Keotimchahn, to talk about this problem in my podcast. You can check the episode here. The problem of waste turned out to be complex, and it requires coordination and work of multiple agents - governments to provide legislation and necessary facilities, business to provide technical solutions and reduce packaging, and people to do their bit to use available facilites and sort waste if possible. For example, in Laos people burn or throw away waste because there are either no facilities for waste disposal or because they have to pay fees for waste collection and management, and people naturally prefer to save money. Another problem is that companies use a lot of packaging, and people end up with all the platic and waste by using these products. One way of solving the waste problem in emerging (and developed) countries would be to regulate international corporations who produce this packaging - next turning to waste - in the first place. It has probably been a long digression from my main story, but the problem is so huge and ubiquitous, so it is actually a part of my journey.
The boat was full with tourists, probably around thirty people. The majority was young (20+) European or American, but there was also a number of Asian tourists. Some old people, like 60, even 70+, and a couple of families with children completed the picture.
Sidetrack: why people litter in nature (this part has no relationship to travelling so it can be skipped)
Asking myself this question about littering, I googled what research studies say about it. Three things came up.
First, people litter for convenience because they don't want to carry trash with them (rather obvious reason indeed).
Second, people litter more in dirtier places when litter is already present.
Third, people litter in the absence of sense of ownership. This may be common for tourists who come, enjoy and go, feeling no responsibility or ownership for the place. This is a bit more difficult to understand about local people who live in this environment.
Interestingly, studies also show that people do not like littered places like beaches or forests. Seeing litter spoils the mood, and people prefer unlittered places.
Ultimately, for me littering in nature boils down to the lost connection with nature. We kind-of tend to think that nature is there to serve us, we do not consider it being our home, we feel no responsibility of taking care of it. The argument could be even extended further: we start with litter and we end up with climate change crisis, and mostly due to a very utilitarian approach to nature. Nature is useful as long as it serves us, but it has no value of its own.
The environmental psychology, with big contribution of Susan Clayton, has proposed a concept of environmental identity, a construct measuring the extent to which people perceive themselves as a part of nature, incorporated in it, and defined by it. And studies show that high score in environmental identity is connected with nature conservation behavior and empathy towards people and nature (Scott & Willits; Paul, Hartmann, & Apaolaza-Ibáñez; Tam; Modi & Patel) .
So what are the solutions? There are several.
Ideal but more of a long-term solution is to develop environmental identity and to make caring and protecting attitude towards nature an important social value and norm. And there are various ways of doing it, from educating children, "adopting" a forest or a wild species, to putting forward socially desirable behavior or even encouraging nature-based therapies like forest-bathing which is beneficial both for human health but also for creating a closer relationship between human and nature.
A bit shorter-term solutions is to provide trash bins, organise waste management and recycling facilities, run public campaigns of not littering. When people do not have innate respect for nature and non-littering reflex, regular reminding and educating information is key. Furthermore, studies show that the way a message is formulated is equally important.
The researchers compared the standard message, “Help save resources for future generations” with one that evoked a descriptive norm, “75% of guests who stayed in this room used their towels more than once.” The first message led to 30% of guests reusing their towels after the first message, while 50% of guests reused towels in response to the second message (Nijhuis, 2007). Pairing descriptive with injunctive norms (e.g. “Many of our guests value conservation”) was even more effective than either message on its own (Schultz et al., 2008).
This second solution requires significant efforts from the government and thus goes hand in hand with country economic development. As it came up in a conversation with a guest from France in the same hotel, it is barely 20 years that French people stoped throwing bulky waste in the fields, mountains and forests. Though disheartening, it is the process of progress. The best each of us can do is to lead by example and to encourage environmentally-friendly behavior to steer and speed up the transformation process.
And an answer to my a bit rhetoric question if we need special education not to litter, it turns out that we do. There is a small percentage of people that are naturally tuned in with nature, but the majority does require learning to treat nature with respect just as much as they are taught to treat with respect another human being.
Reference: Not an easy read but a very interesting book "Conservation Psychology Understanding and promoting human care for nature" (2009) by Clayton and Myers.
FIRST DESTINATION: LUANG PRABANG
Finally in Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos with a large cite under UNESCO protection.
I fell in love with Luang Prabang (LP hereafter) from the first sight, and spent here around 10 days. It is a pretty big city, though with only about 55 thousand inhabitants. The centre of the city is located on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong River. What I liked about LP is its atmosphere: walking around and getting lost in the small streets, discovering multiple Buddhist temples, admiring fine houses of the French colonial style, and enjoying beauty and fragrancy of exotic plants. Combine it with multiple restaurants by Mekong river, variety of food on the night and morning markets and you get a perfect place :)
THE CITY SPIRIT
Night markets are common in Asia. Food courts in big malls probably have their origins from Asian night markets. It is essentially a square with food stalls around and tables in the middle. You order your food and sit down at a table. The question not to ask is how it is all cooked, just pray that you don't get sick. Most of the time you don't :) but still stories about a couple of days of diarrhea or nausea every now and then are commun among backpackers. Actually, as funny as it is, this is one of the most popular topics that backpackers talk about: who was sick, when and how bad it was. Interestingly, people take it just as part of the travel package and keep eating all kind of food and beverages. Personally, to most of these things, I wouldn't even come close, like fried rats and dogs and blood of freshly cut chicken (this I heard from some travellers I met).
Now back to the market, the variety of meat on the market was mind-blowing. True or not, by strolling around Asian night and day markets, I had an impression that Asian people ate all parts of animals, and almost all animals too.
Overall, the food is really good. It has a lot of flavor. Lao people eat very spicy food, but you can also order non-spicy, and I almost never had a problem with dishes being too spicy hot. You almost never see bread except in some more international restaurants. Rice replaces bread here, and sticky rice is rolled up in small balls and eaten with hands, thus really resembling bread. Variety of vegetables and herbs is rich, and being vegetarian is really easy.
My big food discovery was mango sticky rice. It is nothing fancy, simply rice cooked in coconut milk and served with fresh mango, but it is really tasty. And restaurants try to innovate, but the simpler the better.
CULTURE AND TRADITIONS
Alm is a Buddhist tradition when monks pass every morning by the streets to get some food for the day, usually a bowl of sticky rice. For me, preservation of this tradition itself is questionable, but turning this tradition into tourists' attraction (for tourists mostly from other Asian countries) is even more questionable. Sits and food for tourists are prepared in advance. Tourists are brought in groups and instructed what to do. They often give candies and buscuits that monks do not eat. According to the locals, that was not appreciated neither by local people nor by monks. Later on, in a small town, I would discover a true ceremony which was sincere and touching.
Thanks to a group of French that I met, I went to a Royal Opera. It was certainly worth seeing, but the tradition is very different from anything I have seen and used to :) The same was true for my French friends, with some having a good nap during the performance. To summarize, the performance is aligned with a slow and hasteless pace of life in the country, though I must admit not knowing the language impedes a proper appreciation of the show.
Something that I liked much more was a storytelling theatre. A storyteller tells you stories, local legends and myths, accompanied by the national instrument, khène. And a great advantage he tells them in English!
OUTSIDE OF LUANG PRABANG
Just 30 minutes tuk-tuk drive from LP is Kuang Si waterfall, one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. It consists of multiple pools with water of zian color. Together with my new French friends, we spent there three hours, and it was not enough. The way to the waterfall with rice fields of an amazing green color greatly contributes to the experience.
On an another day, we ventured to cross the Mekong river and found ourselves in a completely different surrounding. It was not anymore a city but a deep village with goats crossing the road and bamboo and brick houses alternating. We went to an organic farm BanSuanAiAoun Organic founded by a 30-year old man, and the contrast of the green farm next to completely yellow and dry landscape was stunning.
This is a burning season, and burning fields were all around. Most of the days you could smell some smog, but on certain days the air pollution was so bad that I wore a mask, and a usually beautiful sunset on Mekong looked more like an apocalypse.
CONTRASTS OF A COUNTRY IN DEVELOPMENT
If there is one thing that attracts your attention in a developping country, it is its contrasts: two-stores "mansions" with two cars stand next to bamboo houses; children from very poor families playing on smartphones; trash dumped on sideroads or burned on the streets; or solar panels used to light the bamboo bridge that itself is built every 6 months after the end of the rainy season. Crossing the bridge is not free, the passage fee is paid to the family who builds and maintains it. And, of course, the contrast between cities and remote villages.
What this contrast reminds me about is that development is a process. It reminds me that not long time ago other countries went the same path. It reminds me that that the reality is not black and white, all good or all bad. Things change, and we can make change happen. Sometimes things change too slowly for one's taste, but it is important to keep moving and if needed correcting our direction on the way. And certain things are key and help open other doors.
I thought it was amazing that kids even in poorest communities have smartphones. I thought with everything that internet offers they can have access to the best educational sources from over the world, like Coursera, and get out of poverty without going to a university that their families cannot afford. What I realised is that to be able to use it, one actually has to know English. Some people with whom I talked seemed knowing English, but … they didn't know how to read and write in English. All they knew was how to speak English, essentially learning it from tourists. And bingo! literacy! something that I, and probably many of us, take for granted is really key for getting out of poverty and having an opportunity for a decent life. Now education of kids is mandatory in most countries, and English is part of the curriculum, however, I would say (without any expert judgement) that correlation between the quality of education and country development is very strong, and mutually reinforcing.
One nice initiative in Luang Prabang which I found inspiring is Big Brother Mouse. Their main mission is to publish books for Lao children, make books available even in remote areas and promote reading, but they also organise a place where local kids can meet foreigners and practice their English. The place is open every day for two hours in the morning and for two hours in the afternoon, and any foreigner can drop by and just talk to one or two kids and help them improve their English. I thought that this is a sample initiative that can be easily replicated in other places. What I noticed is that most western tourists, at least backpackers that I met, had very good intentions, were respectful and interested in the countries they were visiting, and were eager to help too.
What I am saying here is not a revelation in any general sense, and a reader may say it is all obvious. Probably so, but it was a revelation for me. After living for years in a certain bubble, and only reading about various problems around the world, this time I was on the way to discover the world as it is and see the process of development in progress. Facing all the hardship, I was asking myself questions what should be done, where do you start, and many other that I will share later in this blog.