With our fingernails embedded deep into the upholstery on a breath-holding ride, the moronic taxi driver recklessly races through petrifying Bangkok traffic; spending equal time on both sides of the roads in pursuit of anything moving ahead of us. Taking stupid into the red zone, he’s also combing his hair while admiring himself in a hand held mirror. Out of thousands of sperms, it’s hard to fathom he was the fastest!
After a night in Bangkok we bus 12 hours and 700 km north to the ancient walled city of Chiang Mai. For side trips to the vibrant ‘umbrella village’ of Bo Sang and Doi Suthep temple, we use a three-wheeled ‘beepbeepmobile’ known as a tuk-tuk; named after the sputtering sound it makes. It feels a lot like riding atop a large lawnmower; surrounded by air so as not to miss ingesting any of the foul diesel fumes!
Attaining an appetite while trekking to a Meo hill tribe out in the boondocks, we pass an old lady cooking eggs by lowering them in a small wicker basket into a natural boiling hot spring. After buying a couple, we decapitate them and devour the contents, knowing that for the protein, hard-boiled eggs are hard to beat!
Aboard a long-boat, we sputter along the Mekong River to the area known as the Golden Triangle; where the three borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos all collide in one of the world’s biggest heroin and opium producing region. After a good explore daylight is dwindling so we head back, since lingering about after the sun says goodnight is not encouraged due to safety risks becoming a serious concern.
Hopping across the border into Burma our first experience is negative, as we stumble across a market with sellers peddling as aphrodisiacs; tiger skins, bear gall bladders, snake skins, antlers, and other body parts of endangered species. Burma appears to be a poverty stricken country, with its people desperately trying to scratch out an existence, and unimpressed we elect to leave a prolonged visit for another day.
From Chiang Mai we hike out to the Akha hill tribe, among the most impoverished of Thailand’s ethnic minorities. Originally from Tibet, they are a most distinctive looking lot; with ornate headgear of beads and silver, and everything between the nose and chin stained the color of red wine from constantly chewing cuds of betel nut. Peeking inside one of their sparse hovels we spot only three items; a bamboo sleeping mat on the dirt floor, an aged rifle propped against the wall, and most unexpectedly, a TV!
Chiang Mai is currently partaking in the Loy Krathong Festival, meant to pay respect to the water spirits of river, and frankly, casting a glance at the polluted water, it’s no great riddle why they grovel for forgiveness! Offerings consisting of elaborate decorations of flowers, joss sticks, and candles are floated on banana leaf platforms in a moat around the city, as well as the murky Mae Ping River. To ward off any bad luck, people also release rice paper sky lanterns containing lit candles inside, which resemble a swarm of huge florescent jellyfish as they swim off into the night sky like kites with their lines cut. The bright sight tonight is XQST!
We’ve been told of a fascinating ethnic tribe called the Padaung, living in a northern Thai province near Burma, and although getting there admittedly sounds rather awkward, we’re game to give it a try. A domestic flight takes us to the sleepy border town of Mae Hong Son and we secure lodging at Piya Guest House. Nearby, we feed the teeming bulimic fish in Jong Kham Lake, while being watched by curious women from the Lisu hill tribe clad in intricately embroidered blue and green ethnic clothing.
With a lack of transport available for hire, Piya, our guesthouse owner, agrees to drive us up country to the Padaung village in his 4-wheel drive jeep. Rocks rattle in the wheel wells as we negotiate a broken road more like a defunct riverbed! After spending equal time on the seats and in the air, and driving as far as possible, we’re more than content to use our legs as transport for the remaining stretch to the village.
Women of the Padaung tribe are known as ‘Longnecks’ or ‘Giraffe Women’, and rivetingly adorned with stacked brass coils circling their necks as a symbol of wealth and beauty. Girls first start wearing the coils about the age of five, and add a new coil each year. Over the years the weight of the brass rings squashes their collar bone and rib cage down, creating what looks to be an incredibly elongated neck.
Weighing up to 20 pounds, these coils can stretch the women’s necks over a foot, creating their surreal appearance! Adultery in the tribe is said to be punished by removal of the rings, which they believe would make the woman ugly and totally shame her. Not surprisingly, the adultery rate in the tribe is infinitesimal, even though the womenfolk here are unarguably involved in some very serious ‘necking’!
Eating looks both painful and awkward for these women, and the skin at the base of the heavy rings is a mass of scar tissue from the constant chaffing. The tribe also put similar rings around their legs, causing even further deformation of their bodies. The village has a subdued vibe and we feel sad for their plight, as smiles seem virtually nonexistent amongst the moping downtrodden bunch.
A hike to the Kayaw tribe reveals yet set of ‘stretchers’ known as the ‘Longears’. In a kinky perception of beauty, they use metal rings to alter the shape of their legs, and suspend weights from their ear lobes to stretch them to lengths worthy of the Ubangi. This custom seems as useful as a roll of soaked toilet paper, as clearly the ability to trip over an earlobe would not make my top ten beauty tips; but hey, that’s just me!
After seeing our fill of hill tribes we travel from Mae Hong Son back to Bangkok, and then on to Indonesia’s largest island of Sumatra. Things on the island get off to a rough start in the loathsome capital of Medan, with choking carbon-monoxide fumes on rubble-strewn streets and a prevalent Muslim unfriendliness. Unfortunately it’s necessary for us to overnight, and we settle for a dump called Hotel Sumatra.
Dodging the confusion of traffic in this soulless city, we rush about trying to find a place to swap a traveler’s check for rupiahs. After getting ripped off at a money changer we happen to spot the name of a cafe we think we’ve read about, supposedly serving good lobster. In this locale, lobster definitely strikes us as odd, but on a whim we check it out, hoping we may at least salvage a meal that excites the taste buds.
Zero English is spoken in the near empty café, and since we can’t see anything resembling lobster on the menu, I try to mime our request. I present my best imitation of a pinching lobster, which by the way, I think rates no less than 9 out of 10; but my humorous enactment leaves the waitress with an undeniably horrified look, as if I’ve just pulled the pin on a live grenade.
As her jaws on her scarlet face part company, a gaping hole replaces her mouth and her eyeballs bug out like those of an anorexic bullfrog, transforming her into a dead ringer for the iconic figure in Munch’s painting “The Scream”. Holy-crap; you’d almost think I asked her if I could take a dump in her pocket!
Backing away without taking her eyeballs off us, she bumps into another table almost toppling it over, and sending the cutlery sprawling. She manages to catch herself, and bolts through a door in the back of the restaurant. Avoiding us like we have the Ebola virus, she warily plays peekaboo around the corner every few minutes to see if we have left yet! Unclear of her interpretation of my gesture, it obviously had one hell of an impact, and although we didn’t score a meal, we laughed and laughed; and then we laughed some more!
Mercifully, the ‘café terrorists’ will be able to extract ourselves tomorrow from this spittoon of a city, having now secured a flight to Padang. This is great news, as I’d rather grab a Samurai sword and disembowel myself than squander another day in the joylessness of Medan!
Reaching Padang we locate a bus bound for the mountain town of Bukittinggi; a matriarchal Sumatran society where only the women can own a business and land. I guess you won’t be astonished to learn whose brainwave it was to visit such a ‘primitive’ culture. However, I’ve capitulated; in the off chance I might be able to accumulate some desperately needed brownie points!
The town is surprisingly pleasant thanks to the amiable Minangkabau people. Unorthodox methods of transport around town include pompadoured horse-carts trotting along as taxis and cannibalized bicycles with a passenger box rigged to the front and handlebars replaced with the steering wheel from a car.
A ‘Big Ben’ clock tower in town is the landmark for a colossal bazaar with perhaps the strangest assemblage of snake oil merchants and buskers in all of Indonesia. I’m both attracted and repelled by the bloody horror show in the meat section. Tapeworm central is a carne-copia of animal carnage looking like the work of a demented Jack the Ripper; a severed head here, chopped off hooves there, and a collection of disembodied tongues, tails, and various internal organs completing the gruesome crime scene!
We hike along Ngarai Sianok Canyon, respectful of its sheer rock walls plunging 120 meters straight down. It’s also known as ‘Buffalo Hole’, as every now and then one of the hefty quadrupeds roams too close to the cliff edge, and with what indeed must be a very fine splat, is spared the indignities of old age!
It’s the glum rainy season here on the visitor-shy island of Sumatra, and Christine and I are the only guests in Hotel Fort De Kock. Even so, our room is dismal, with countless mosquitoes, big enough to barbeque, drawing more blood than the Red Cross! We assume the role of military strategists and end up stuffing a bed blanket into the bathroom window slot, in an attempt to keep from being consumed in our sleep. However our efforts visibly fail, and each morning we awake to blood-speckled sheets; measled in itchy red bites courtesy of a bleed and feed by a nasty insect that makes you like flies more!
Moseying about town, our eyes suddenly follow our ears to a ruckus resonating from the ground near our feet. A Jurassic Park escapee known as ‘Dorcus Titanus’ or Giant Stag Beetle, is madly thrashing its wings while lying on its back like a capsized tortoise. The gargantuan insect’s menacing antler-like mandibles make it look as if a cockroach had sex with an elk!
The character running our hotel is named Amin, and oddly likes to be called ‘Idi Amin’! ‘Idi’ is an affable fellow who entertains us by explaining some of the interesting customs of his Minangkabau people, as they never like to say exactly what’s on their mind, and have a code of actions to convey their message.
For example; when a son’s father is really angry at him, rather than try and defend himself, the son simply pulls on a pair of his father’s pants. When the father sees this he backs off and nobody loses face. If a guest is over for dinner and there’s no more food left, rather than say so, the wife goes into the kitchen and stirs a pot loud enough for all to hear. When a son wants to get married, rather than discuss it with his parents, he simply hangs his clothes in the kitchen to relay the message! Idi is good fun, and during our discussions his favorite expression is ‘different field – different grasshopper’, which we believe sums it up pretty well!
Every seat is filled on the bus back to Padang, but the driver’s helper, who seems to have all the intellect of a pond plant, jams dozens more bodies into the isle using splintered wooden boxes as seats. We are the only foreigners aboard, and cuss the bus for its thick cigarette-smoky air and the migraine-inducing music blasting so loud it necessitates us fashioning earplugs, or more accurately ear putty, from wads of saliva-moistened toilet paper taken from a disturbing lavatory smelling like it’s been sprayed by a skunk!
Happily back on the island of Bali, we head straight for the quiet oasis of Suji Bungalows. This is to escape Kuta’s bat-shit crazy streets, where lured by our wallets, sellers with the tenacity of a leech desperately try foisting goods on us that include: perfume, transport, yo-yos, puppet ducks, and drugs. In one 30 second span we’re badgered to buy a watch, a pineapple, and an elephant! Sellers here simply do not know ‘NO’.
Bumping into a Swiss couple we met in Sumatra, we catch up on our travels and decide to travel north together. In Ubud village our lodging is at a calming spot called Artini II’s, where meticulous grounds staff actually cut the grass with scissors! When I cheekily ask if they do haircuts with a lawnmower, the guy looks at me totally baffled; much like a frog who’s suddenly found himself relocated in the desert.
Our happy hour ritual on the porch involves a few ‘Arak Attacks’ made from a kick-ass local moonshine called Arak. It is distilled from palm flowers, with an alcohol percentage ranging from 20 to 50%. Cute little sticky-toed chichak geckos with distinctive “chuck chuck chuck” calls scamper about the walls feasting on pesky mosquitos, and are sporadically joined by a larger cousin called a Tokek gecko. This gargantuan gecko distinctively voices a repetitive “Ech-Oh” sound which never fails to bring a chuckle as their call diminishes in volume after each of the ech-ohs, until the lyrical lizard’s lungs finally leak out the last of their air on or about the seventh repetition; leaving us with only an abbreviated ‘ech’.
Christine and I take pleasure in cycling through the scenic rice fields and villages, stopping occasionally to make purchases so large that a delicate circus balancing act is required to remain upright pedaling back. The four of us decide to rent a van to further explore the island, and our stops include Candidasa, Bedugal, Singaraja, Kintamani, Lake Batur, and Bug Bug. How could anyone not just love a village called Bug Bug?
For our last supper we’re treating ourselves to Bali’s most famous dish called ‘Bebek-Tutu’, which requires ordering 24 hours in advance. While it may sound like some sort of fancy ballet skirt, the meal is actually a Balinese smoked duck smothered in various spices, wrapped in banana leaves, and slow-cooked over a fire for 12 hours. Waiting for dinner to arrive, we keep the bar staff as busy as a centipede with athlete’s foot, and while getting slightly buzzed, we somehow arrive at the absurd conclusion our tasty quacker shall be henceforth be named Desmond, in honor of the dude in Africa!
Finally, Desmond’s cooked corpse puts in its long awaited appearance; escorted by the rest of our lavish banquet which blankets the table. Just as we’re about to grub down the power goes out, plunging us into darkness, but not to worry, the lovely staff scurries off to round up some candles. Finally we see the light, and attack the delectable ‘Desmond’ like piranhas coming off of a fast! Devouring our romantic candle-lit dinner under an indigo sky cluttered with brilliant stars is the perfect conclusion to our gratifying days in beautiful Bali; our all-time favorite Indonesian island.
Mark H. Colegrave 1993