Our fingernails are embedded deep into the upholstery as our moronic Bangkok taxi driver recklessly races through the petrifying traffic; spending equal time on both sides of the roads in perilous pursuit of anything that’s moving ahead of us. Taking stupid into the red zone, he is also combing his hair while admiring himself in a hand held mirror. Out of thousands of sperms, it’s hard to fathom that 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 the Doi Suthep temple we use a three-wheeled ‘beepbeepmobile’ known as a tuk-tuk; named after the sputtering sound it makes. It feels somewhat like riding atop a large lawnmower surrounded by air so as not to miss ingesting any of the foul diesel fumes!
Trekking into the countryside to a Meo hill tribe we pass by an old lady cooking eggs by lowering them in a small wicker basket into a natural boiling hot spring. After purchasing a couple, we decapitate them and devour the contents for the protein; knowing hard-boiled eggs are hard to beat!
We sputter along the Mekong River aboard a long-boat into 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 regions. After a good look about daylight is now dwindling, and we have no desire to linger any longer, as we’re informed that after the sun says goodnight, safety risks are a concern.
Hopping across the border into Burma for a walkabout today, we’re saddened by sellers with little regard for the disappearing wildlife; offering tiger skins, bear gall bladders, horns, snake skins, antlers, and other animal parts from endangered species. Burma appears to be a seriously poverty stricken country with its people desperately struggling to survive. Unimpressed, we elect to leave a prolonged visit for another day.
From Chiang Mai we hike out to a curious hill tribe called the Akha, who are among the most impoverished of Thailand’s ethnic minorities. Originally from Tibet, they’re 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 show gratitude to the river for the water it provides. Frankly, looking at the polluted water, it’s no great riddle why they grovel for forgiveness! Elaborate decorations of flowers, joss sticks, and candles are floated on banana leaf platforms in the moat surrounding the city as well as in the murky Mae Ping River. To ward off any bad luck, people also release rice paper sky lanterns with lit candles inside, resembling a swarm of enormous florescent jellyfish as they swim off into the night sky like kites with their lines cut. A most XQST sight!
We’ve been told of a fascinating ethnic tribe called the Padaung who live in a northern Thai province near Burma. Although getting there admittedly sounds rather awkward we’re game to give it a try, and a domestic flight takes us to the sleepy border town of Mae Hong Son. After securing lodging at Piya Guest House, we stop nearby to feed the bulimic fish in the teeming Jong Kham Lake; watched by curious women from the Lisu hill tribe clad in heavily embroidered bright 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; a wise choice for a broken road more like a defunct riverbed! We have been spending equal time on the seats and in the air, and after driving as far as possible, are 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 a genuinely 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 the plight of these ethnic ‘ringers’, as smiles seem virtually nonexistent amongst the moping downtrodden bunch.
Hiking on to visit the Kayaw tribe reveals another set of ‘stretchers’ known as the ‘Longears’, who in an intriguing perception of beauty, add metal rings to alter the shape of their legs, and suspend heavy weights to stretch their ear lobes to astonishing lengths. This seems about 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!
Having seen our fill of hill tribes, we travel from Mae Hong Son back to Bangkok, and 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 that will 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 we decide to 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 goes over like a pregnant pole-vaulter.
The waitress cannot conceal her undeniably horrified look, and her jaws part company leaving a gaping hole where her mouth had previously been; transforming her into a dead ringer for the iconic figure in Munch’s painting called “The Scream”! With her eyeballs bulging as if being shoved out of their sockets from behind, she seems in a state of shock; as if I’ve just asked her if I could take a dump in her pocket!
Backing away without taking her eyeballs off us, she bumps hard 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’ve yet left! 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 the town of 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!
In 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 friendly 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 has a carne-copia of animal carnage that looks like the work of a demented Jack the Ripper; a severed head here, chopped off hooves there, and a collection of scattered tongues, tails, and various internal organs completing the gruesome crime scene!
Putting our legs to work, we hike along Ngarai Sianok Canyon being very 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 is spared the indignities of old age!
It is 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, we’re about as happy as a wet cat with our dismal room, and end up stuffing a bed blanket into the bathroom window slot in an attempt to keep from being consumed in our sleep by the invasive mosquito multitudes. This obviously proves unsuccessful, as each morning we awake adorned with itchy red bites and bed sheets speckled in blood, courtesy of a bleed and feed by a nasty insect that makes you like flies more!
Moseying about the town we hear a ruckus resonating on the ground in front of us, and look down to see a Jurassic Park escapee known as ‘Dorcus Titanus’, or Giant Stag Beetle. Madly thrashing its wings while lying on its back like a capsized tortoise, the creature’s menacing antler-like mandibles make it look as if a cockroach had sex with an elk!
The character running the hotel is named Amin, and likes to be called ‘Idi Amin’! ‘Idi’ is an affable fellow and entertains us by explaining some of the interesting customs of his Minangkabau people, who 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!
We’re the only foreigners aboard a return bus to Padang. Every seat is filled and the driver’s helper, who has the intellect of a pond plant, jams more bodies into the isles using splintered wooden boxes as seats. We cuss the bus for its thick cigarette-smoky air, and a horrid music blasting so loud it necessitates fashioning earplugs, or more accurately ear putty, from wads of saliva-moistened toilet paper taken from a disturbing bathroom that smells more like a skunk room!
Happily back on the island of Bali, we head straight for the oasis of Suji Bungalows; away from Kuta’s bat-shit crazy streets, where a swamp of sellers lured by our wallets, try desperately to foist their goods on us. In one 30 second span touts try to sell us a watch, a pineapple, and an elephant. At other times they badger us to buy perfume, transport, yo-yos, drinks, puppet ducks, and drugs. Sellers here simply don’t know ‘NO’.
Bumping into a Swiss couple we met in Sumatra, we catching up on our travels and then decide to travel north together. In Ubud village we stay 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 out on the porch involves a few ‘Arak Attacks’ made from an alarmingly potent and less than swell swill called Arak. Cute little sticky-toed chichak geckos with distinctive “chuck chuck chuck” calls scamper about the walls feasting on pesky mosquitos, sporadically joined by a larger cousin called a Tokek gecko distinctively voicing a loud and repetitive “Ech-Oh” sound. This 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 run completely out of air on or about the seventh repetition, and we’re left with only an ‘ech’.
Christine and I have savored cycling through 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 also rent a van to explore the island, stopping at places including 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 getting slightly buzzed, we somehow arrive at the absurd conclusion that 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 scurry off to round up candles for our devouring of the delectable ‘Desmond’. Our romantic candle-lit dinner under the 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