Dan and I walk through a paddock inhabited by slightly angry cows. Then we climb a stile made of bamboo over a rickety fence and into a grove of banana trees still bearing fruit. We come to a stream bridged by long bamboo poles held together with twisted baling wire.
"Where are we?" Dan wonders as the path takes another turn.
"In Laos," is all I can offer him.
We are lost in Southeast Asia, gloriously lost, but at the same time we know that once we find our location, our long vacation is evaporating behind us even as the dust settles behind our knock-off Tevas.
This week we're still on vacation, and next week and next month too, but the 'endless summer' portion of our wanders is over.
Tomorrow, we take a bus to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, then the next day we train it down through Thailand to Bangkok. The day after we fly to Tokyo to spend a day looking for sushi. And the day after that we touch down in Portland, Oregon for a nice long visit with my extended family and friends.
I'm thrilled to go to the States (it's only been three years since my last visit) and happy to check out Tokyo, but as Dan and I walked down this Laotian path startling two-toned butterflies being stalked by the most patient of lizards, it occurred to me that this was really the end of our Big Trip through Southeast Asia. We're entering the visiting phase of our travels and ending the traveling phase of our trip.
We climbed one more bamboo stile over a barbed-wire fence, rounded a clump of particularly thorny bushes interspersed with the most delicate purple flowers and passed into the shadow of the limestone cliff that bordered the farmer's lands. We were headed today, mostly, for a look at a limestone cave and a dip in a river. On our rented bicycles we'd passed a hand-lettered sign that promised both, so we'd paid a man 10,000 kip each to come traipse through this field, jungle and cow pasture to do so.
As we stepped from the 1 p.m. sunshine into the shadow of the bluff I noticed a quick, distinct temperature change--at least 10 degrees difference Fahrenheit according to Dan's thermometer. After our sweaty bike ride in the near-100 degree heat, the suddenly cool breeze was refreshing. A few more steps down the path and it got nicer--a grotto with a pool large enough for us to take a dip in. We changed into swimming clothes and eased into the glassy pool, disturbing the muddy bottom only a little.
The cave-fed stream bubbled up out of the rocks behind us and went falling through a man-made weir through to an underground cavern we could hear but not see.
The cool water woke us up, took off the grime and sweat from our bike ride, and made me start to think about the sensations of heat and cold. After spending the last nine months in countries where the climate ranged from boiling to steaming, transitioning to North America at Halloween seemed a chilly proposition. New clothes are in order.
I looked up from the pond to the craggy limestone ceiling and out to the light green leaves of the jungle we'd just walked through. As gorgeous as I'd hoped.
We dried off with our t-shirts and put on our soon-to-be-obsolete clothes and then started off toward another cave on the way back Vang Vieng. If this was the end of the Big Trip, it was beautiful.
h, no problem. It's flat."
The small man in the office in McLeod Ganj didn't look like a mountain climber, but he seemed sure of himself. Lots of tourists use his guiding service, he said.
"Triund, 9 kilometers. Snowline, 3 kilometers. One day!" he said with confidence. And he quoted his prices with confidence too--4,400 rupees for the two of us to take a guide up to the snowline, spend a night in a mountaintop lodge and come back down.
We decided that instead of spending five days' budget on one hike, we'd rather try the trek by ourselves, using a map we bought from the tourism office for two rupees.
'How hard could it be?' we asked each other. 'We just hike up the hill, then to the snowline, it's flat!"
Yeah, flat like a mountain is flat.
In China, briefly, we considered ourselves good hikers. We would power up the hills in the national parks, leaving whole families of Chinese tourists in our wake. Well, that was when the competition wore high heels and the trails were antiseptic, cemented parodies of nature.
Unfortunately, a real mountain and real hikers kick Dan's and my collective butt.
The general consensus of the several guiding agencies and the talkative man at the tourism department was that it would take us about three hours to hike up to Triund, the 'base camp', and then a further hour to the snowline below Ilaqua pass.
Four hours up? No problem, we said at 7 a.m., lacing up our boots and stocking our backpacks with bottles of water. We'll be back in time for dinner.
At 8 we stopped for breakfast.
At 8:15 we stopped for breath.
At 8:20 we stopped to take pictures.
At 8:25 we stopped for a pee.
At 8:30 we were down a liter of water.
At 9:30 we were wondering where that shortcut was.
By 3:30 we were in Triund.
Evidence of our weakness passed us by every half hour or so. A Japanese or Korean couple who ate breakfast when we did passed us at the halfway mark - but they were going back down, at 11:30. A Dutch mother-son duo got to the snowline by 12, took a few hours to relax at Triund, and strolled leisurely back down to the village for meditation classes. An Indian man afflicted by childhood polio passed us on crutches, smoking.
And the day, when seen from the top, was gorgeous. At Triund, we could see the three snow-frosted peaks
clearly. Down below, back the way we came, the afternoon sun lit the flowering rhododendron trees to a flaming red.
A man came out of one of the stone and tarpaulin shacks at the top and offered us tea. We ended up renting a tent from him too and staying the night on top, watching the moon light the snow caps and the stars shift through the night.
A group of recent college grads, three Tibetan refugees and a Nepalese guy, invited us to sit by their campfire with them. They talked about sports and some of the hardships of being a refugee.
The next morning we got ourselves up for the sunrise and continued to the snow.
Flat it wasn't. But it was fantastic. **Click here to see photos of McLeodGanj**
Monkeys relaxing at the palace.
f there's anything I like more than a palace, it's a ruined palace.
Better than a ruined palace? One with monkeys.
Boy, did I love Bundi.
One day there, we trudged up the cobblestone hill from the quaint, blue-painted city to the palace, swinging the peeling red monkey stick our guest house lent us for the day. The sunny morning of a Rajasthan spring was nearly too hot for us, but it didn't seem to bother the monkeys much. They rule the ramshackle avenues of this town.
Eating breakfast at a nearby rooftop cafe, we watched a monkey nearly make off with our egg sandwiches. Across the narrow alley below our cafe, a family of macaques
sneaked across the roof to some pots left by a careless housewife. One by one they dipped their inquisitive paws into the leftovers. A cunning youngster jimmied a rooftop water cistern open and took a swim. A baby and his mother scavenged a garbage heap far below.
A woman a few doors down, a laundress hanging up bright clothes, wasn't having any monkeys in her washtubs, though. She kept a slingshot handy while she worked and took accurate aim at monkeys climbing the old city walls. They avoided her.
At the 17th century palace, wires and screens had been put up over one of the rooms with the best-preserved murals. The marbled corridors and rooftop garden were fair game though, and monkeys swung from the trees and balustrades eyeing the tourists walking into the encaged area below; a strange zoo reversal.
Farther uphill, at the 14th century fort, was where our day changed from ordinary sightseeing to living out childhood Jungle Book
fantasies. The red monkey stick didn't do much to scare off the loop-tailed langur
monkeys who fed on leaves in the overgrown courtyards and patrolled the maze-like hallways.
And, while Kipling didn't visualize the exploits of a boy raised by wolves while in Bundi, he did write part of his book Kim
here. Our third day in Bundi, we tried to go a little farther than the monkeys' hilltop kingdom by hiring an autorickshaw (three-wheeled taxi) to take us to some nearby villages.
The driver was willing enough, if not real sure where us crazy foreigners wanted to go. His vehicle was another matter.
We got about 30 minutes out of town, into a thorn-tree desert landscape of ochre fields and lonely brick houses, and stopped at an intersection for a cup of hot tea at a roadside shack. While we waited for the tea Dan went around to all the turbaned men drinking tea and gossiping and took their portraits. I tried to chat to two women waiting for a bus, a conversation that mostly consisted of smiles. We all waved goodbye exaggeratedly and repeatedly, which was why it was such an anticlimax when the rickshaw wouldn't start.
Five would-be mechanics, five attempts at pushing and one at towing later we got back to Bundi one adventure richer. **Click here to see our photos from Bundi!**
Dan, Dan the Strawberry Man
hen the people of the Cameron Highlands
decided to move into tourism, they threw all their eggs in one sweet basket.
Walking by the night market in Brinchang, we were amazed by the products we saw for sale: Strawberry-shaped keychains, magnets, pencils. Real strawberries turned into dried fruit, preserves, jams, syrups, tea. Strawberries coated with chocolate, yogurt, and powdered sugar. Strawberry picture frames, strawberry t-shirts.
Coming back to our base of Tanah Rata from one of our 16 km walks we stopped in at the Big Red Strawberry Farm in Brinchang. At the cafe in the visitor center we weren't surprised to find strawberry milkshakes, cakes and treats. But the adjoining gift shop? Someone had scoured the globe for every kind of strawberry product available—from Hershey's syrup to Japanese candy to soaps and plush toys.
Walking to a village where the local Aboriginal people were resettled when the British decided they wanted to hack down the jungle for tea plantations
(and strawberry farms) Dan got homemade strawberry-durian flavored ice-cream and we watched girls wearing strawberry-print dresses. Passing us were cars kitted out with strawberry-shaped pillows, strawberry-print seat and steering wheel covers and little plush strawberries dangling from the rear-view mirror.
On our first jungle walk to a short waterfall near the golf course, we found a welcoming gate—festooned with giant, fiberglass strawberries. Finally, inundated by the fruit, we sat down in a homestead strawberry farm and sucked on homemade strawberry Popsicles. An hour later, near our hotel, we found ourselves drinking local tea (thankfully, not the strawberry blend) and smothering fresh-baked scones with strawberry preserves and whipped cream.
So much for our New Year's resolution to cut back on sugar.
* * *
The Highlands, about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) above sea level, offer clean mountain air and a break from the humidity and heat of Kuala Lumpur.
We were in the Cameron Highlands waiting for our Indian visas to be processed back in Kuala Lumpur. We had thought about another beach vacation or a trip to Malacca, but decided that we'd been inactive enough for the last three weeks in Australia and what we really needed was a few days walking, to get our strength up for whatever will face us next week in India.
Next stop: Kuala Lumpur **Click here to see our photos from the Cameron Highlands, in our Gallery****Click here to see our travel advice for the Cameron Highlands, in our Forum**