Monday, November 17, 2008

Christchurch, NZ

After one last day in Bangkok eating cheap pad thai and trading in our dingy t-shirts for shiny new ones, we boarded the plane for New Zealand via Melbourne. It was strange to be ending another part of our trip and getting closer to the finish line, but even stranger to be back in a western country. The biggest shock by far were the prices. The US dollar was in the tank and where just a two days ago we were paying $20 a night for a hotel room with all the amenities we could possibly need, now $20 wouldn't even get us a bunk in a hostel dorm room. This reality forced us to get a bit more resourceful, so we finally decided to take advantage of - one of the best things to ever happen to independent travelers! Generous people from all walks of life offer to host travelers in return for nothing but a sincere thank you. What a novel idea!

Our host, Tony, was a super nice guy and not only had a couch to offer us, but the luxury of a spare room. He gave us some tips for touring downtown Christchurch, helped us sort out our car rental situation and even took us to a local couchsurfing party. A perfect poster boy for all Kiwis, who tend to be a very friendly and welcoming lot.

Christchurch seems to be a very nice place. It reminds me a bit of a New England college town in that it has a few cultural highlights, a handful of bars and a decent selection of international restaurants. But, for being the South Island's biggest city, it's not a very big city at all. After a couple of days, you might find yourself fondly endeared or totally bored to tears. We probably fell somewhere between those extremes.

Between the head and tail of our loop around the island, we spent about 3 days in Christchurch, which allowed us to take in the architecturally-stunning modern art gallery, visit the Canterbury Museum, which showcases regional history, and hit the weekend market at the Arts Center. We also had plenty of time to check out a couple of matches on the giant chess board in Cathedral Square and wander around the pretty botanical gardens.

On our last day in town, we headed out to the Banks Peninsula to check out the former French settlement of Akaroa. We never actually made it though, because we left on an empty take of gas and apparently there are no gas stations between the two cities - at least on the scenic route we took! The empty tank light had been on for about 40 kilometers when we reached a windy dirt road headed across the volcanically formed mountains from the northern coast. It seemed like a pretty risky move (one local we consulted said something along the lines of "gas? out here? good luck - you'll need it"), so we finally decided to turn around and head back toward civilization. We coasted down every hill in neutral and crossed our fingers as we drove on little more than fumes around the curvy coastline and finally through what seemed like an exceedingly long tunnel from Lyttelton back into Christchurch. Amazingly, we made it to a gas station, but it was certainly not the relaxing day we had planned!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Luang Prabang

The ride to Luang Prabang from Vang Vieng consisted of hour upon hour of twisty turns up the mountainside and back down, which caused many of the locals to vomit the entire way. The scenery was georgeous, but the frequent sight of smoke from fires being used to clear cut the land for agriculture was disappointing. It's tough to fault people trying to eak out a living, so hopefully with all the new initiatives aimed at fighting climate change we can figure out a way to provide some financial incentive for people to protect their native forests.

There are a few cities we've been to on this trip that seem to just ooze charm and Luang Prabang is near the top of the list. It's the cultural capital of Laos and you are surrounded by beauty every step that you take through its quaint streets. The architecture is georgeous - classic teak homes are interespersed every block or so by gilded temples. Luang Prabang is a World Heritage Site, and its setting, at the intersection of two meandering rivers, is quite fitting for such a lovely place.

Luang Prabang defintely has a more upscale and sophisticated feel compared to the bucolic south, but we happened to be there during Bpee Mai (Laos New Year), which meant the atmosphere was a bit wilder than usual. Bpee Mai lasts for 3 days in most parts of Laos, but in Luang Prabang it extends over 5 days. There are many rituals and ceremonies that take place, ranging from the banal (like house cleaning) to the kitsch (like the crowning of Miss Bpee Mai).

The festivities begion with a visit to a special holiday market where everything one needs for the celebration is available for sale, from noise makers to caged birds (which are released for good karma). Families tidy their homes so that old spirits can freely depart and then cross the Mekong to build sandcastle stupas. On the second day we saw a colorful parade down the city's main street, with women and girls made up in traditional costume, monks in bright orange robes and led by Pu No and Na No, two bizarre red-faced characters. In the days that follow there is a pilgramage to the wat that sits on top Phu Si (the hill that sits in the center of the city) and friends and families symbolically connect with one another by tying strings around each other's wrists. There is a special procession with a revered Buddha image named Pha Banga and all of the Buddha images are washed and blessed using a special naga-shaped spout.

Keeping with the spirit of "cleansing", the entire city breaks out into a huge water fight. We joined the workers at our hotel splashing passersby with water as a New Year's blessing. Young people cruise around in the back of pick-up trucks scooping buckets out of giant vats, while others return fire with water guns from the back of moterbikes. The main street is where the most intense battles take place, and you need to keep an eye out for the few people who are dishing out more malicious "blessings" like a smear of black ink on your cheek or a blast of white powder in your hair. No one escapes from the action - we saw a group of monks dousing folks from the upper ledge of one of the wats and saw more than one elderly grandmothers tossing out cups! Luckily, it takes place during the hottest time of the year, so you don't really mind that you're soaking wet. Everyone is in good spirits, and things wrap up by sundown so you can go out and enjoy a nice dinner in dry pants. It was definitely one of the funnest things we did on the whole trip.

Speaking of enjoying dinner, another highlight of Luang Prabang is its culinary riches. From the all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet on the street to some top notch traditional Lao and French restaurants, you really can't go wrong. There is also a wonderful night market with some of the best handicrafts we've seen on our long trip, including beutifully woven scraves and hand-quilted blankets. If you're anywhere in South East Asia, its worth making the journey here, especially now that you can fly directly to and from Bankgok - which is exactly what we did in order to catch our flight to New Zealand...