Monday, January 25, 2010

The Mekong

I'm hanging out at the Organic Mulberry farm near Vang Vieng now! It's a bit expensive at 75 000 kip per night but I guess for a week or so it's Ok. If I learn some good stuff about farming then it's well worth it I suppose. But that's not what I want to post about. I want to post about my journey here!

On the way here I took a slow boat down the Mekong River. It was a memorable journey travelling down this mighty river for two days. The currents are strong and the underlying geology is fierce. Most of my pictures here show beach but much of it is not so gentle. A lot of the river has aggressively jutting rocks. The river was fairly low when we went through it so a lot of these beasts were visible. The water churned and formed whirpools to show showed that these formations exist underneath as well. No doubt some of them are close enough to the surface to sink a boat. Actually one of the boats we were travelling with did get stuck on a rock but it didn't seem to do them any harm. Our boat helped them get unstuck. I'm sure it could be a less happy situation if a rock met with one of the spindly little speedboats that race up and down at twice the speed we were going.

After the first day's travel we got dropped off at a little "guest house town". The town seemed to consist of little more than guest houses, restaurants and stores selling bottled water and sandwiches to tourists. We stayed in a cheap, sewage-smelling guest house and got up at 6:30 the next day to get comfortable seats on the boat (The old car seats rather than the wooden benches). 6:30 was three hours before the boat left but we all agreed it was worth it. The eight hour journey was rough enough on an old car seat. The photo to the left is my new friend Sully in front of all the boats. Sully is a nurse who specializes in working with indigenous communities. The Huay Xai-Luang Prabang journey had the service of two of these long boats.

Along the way there were lots of little villages, the houses made of bamboo and grass. Some of the villages were literally about 5 houses. I think they are occupied by one of the many indigenous groups in the area. They have this way of "unrolling" the bamboo and weaving it into panels to form house walls.

I was surprised to find that the beaches are used for agriculture, to grow soy beans and corn. Most of the area we passed was very hilly so was probably difficult to use for agriculture. That being said, blank patches in the hills announced that the area was being used for slash and burn agriculture. None of the forest was very old and I wonder if it's because it was logged or if it is just because of the slash and burn agriculture.

Along the way the captain stopped at random places to give us a chance to use the toilet and buy drinks. On one stop it was pretty funny when a little boy came up to us to sell "very cold" Beerlao (the national beverage, along with whisky Lao). It was obviously lukewarm but his imagination insisted otherwise :-). Pepsico seems to have a bit of a grip on the area as Lays, Pringles, Ovaltines, and Oreos were ubiquitous on our stops.

One town we stopped at had a neat little microhyro project going on. They had a series of these generators. The main export of Laos is actually hydro power.

Traveling the whole way by boat allowed us to see the geology change which was pretty cool. We passed by this stunning cliffy area. By the end things were a lot more gentle. More sandstone type stuff.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chiang Mai

It's quite pleasant here in Chiang Mai. The inner city is surrounded by a moat and the streets are remarkably quiet and nice. It breaks the usual trend of being busier and more unpleasant with taller buildings at the center of the city. There are lots of vegetarian restaurants and people actually sometimes know what vegan is which is awesome. It's about 60 baht for some yummy organic pad thai and 200 baht a night for a single room at a decent hotel so living is not so hard :-). The exchange rate is about 31 baht to 1 USD.

I had some time today to finally get a guide book about Thialand and actually learn something more substantial about the culture here.

The Kathoeys are one of the more interesting things I've come across. Thialand is much further ahead than the US or Canada in their acceptance of people who don't fit into either male or female gender roles. Kathoeys are people born male in sex and decide to change it up to become more along the lines of a transgendered person. It's not that simple though, kathoeys are generally considered a third sex altogether.

A great film about it is Beautiful Boxer. I haven't seen the whole thing because I can't find a version with english subtitles but from what I could see it seems really good. Check it out if you have a chance and you're interested in this kind of thing.

There is still a lot of rough things that kathoeys have to deal with. They are not officially recognized by the government and face discrimination in a number of ways. But I was surprised to find the Chiang Mai Technology school has built a third washroom, the symbol being an intertwined male and female symbol. The school is only a few hundred meters from my hotel at the moment.

Saturday, January 9, 2010


At the moment my dad and I are in Phuket, Thialand! Basically this island is famous for it's beautiful beaches. It's a holiday destination for tons of Europeans and right now is peak season. Mostly I'm using our stop here as an excuse to do some research for grad school and my future travels around the area.

The beaches here are super nice. I noticed what makes a "nice" beach is basically a dead beach. The less life, the more pleasant people seem to find it for swimming. There's lots of life offshore of course which makes for good snorkeling etc. But I wonder why there is so few crabs etc. on the beach. Maybe they are just run out of town by so many humans being around.

Like most big holiday destinations there are lots of resorts, and stuff like German restaurants. All the hotels and guest houses seem to be owned by Europeans or Americans. People seem to take their savings or their pension and just move here for good, setting up a little guest house or restaurant. And who can blame them? It's really nice here. And the cost of living is cheap, maybe half the price of living in most parts of europe or something. It's an expensive area compared to most of Thailand. The Thai government is getting a little tired of people doing that so it's getting harder to get long term visas apparently.

The Thia people are awesome. They are mostly buddhist and have a very friendly way about them.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Orchids of the Cameron Highlands

On Jan. 4 my dad and I went looking for a guide to take us through the rain forest and teach us about the plants in it. We really lucked out and found this guy Madi who is an orchid expert. He's been living in the Cameron Highlands all 55 years of his life and knows a ton about orchids as well as some of the other plants. The biodiversity is enormous, even compared to Canada. There are just so many species, all growing on top of each other.

We started our tour in a little botanical garden near our hotel. Madi pointed out this flower, which apparently we were really lucky to see.

I always saw orchids as a mysterious and beautiful plant that had an enormous number of varieties. But I never really knew anything about them. They have such a patient majesty about them. No wonder people get so 'obsessed' with them.

Orchids can spread by spores - like mushrooms and ferns. They release a great number of these tiny little seeds which drift in the wind. They also spread by vegetative reproduction - they are like a vine and a piece of the vine can drop off, starting a new plant where it lands. They also sprout "suckers" which can be cut and planted in a log. They seem to have a symbiotic relationship with moss, so when planting an epiphitic orchid you have to plant it with moss on the log.

After the botanical garden we moved into the wild forest. There are orchids everywhere! Mostly they don't have flowers and I wouldn't have noticed them if Madi hadn't showed us.

They have this fascinating habit of making bulbs to store nutrients. Here you can see a bulb just hanging off the main vine part. Sometimes these bulbs sprout leaves and flowers, other times the leaves and flowers come directly from the vine. I found orchids to be oddly flexible that way. One plant can apparently sprout leaves or flowers from more than one place! Most plants have a much more strictly defined growth pattern.

Here are some orchids that Madi has taken from the jungle in order to get them to flower and potentially catalogue them. He has attached them to a piece of wood, together with some moss. At first they are held on with wire, later they attach themselves. These orchids don't even have any leaves at the moment, just bulbs and roots! Orchids thrive in 30% sunlight, so that's what the green stuff is in the background; to provide shade.

Many orchids are epiphytes: they don't grow in soil, but rather on top of old logs. The roots are very exposed to the air which is totally odd. These type of orchids will die if you try to shove them into a pot.

So why are people so obsessed with orchid flowers? There are an estimated 30 000 types of orchids, about 10 000 are currently 'known'. The only way definitively to tell the species of an orchid is by the flower.

Sometimes it takes years for orchids to flower! Here is an orchid for which Madi has been waiting 5 years to see the flower. It flowered the very day we called him for a tour and we were so lucky to be able to come and see it! Madi thinks it is a new species.

We also saw tons of other things in the rainforest. Madi pointed out the largest fern species in the world. Here is my dad, standing next to Madi, holding onto the stem of the fern.

Madi pointed out a cinnamon tree with a branch that someone had previously cut off, so I took some cinnamon home! We walked by tons of wild bananas too.

We also saw this plant called Amorphophallus aff. bufo. Before Madi documented it in the Cameron Highlands this plant had not been seen by botanists for 100 years! It flowers only every 5 years and its flower smells like rotting meat!

More pretty orchid photos:

A "lady slipper" orchid.

At the end of our tour through this little piece of Jungle Madi told us that the are area was going to be destroyed! It is condemned to "development" :-(.