Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Job Hunt

I've been back in the states for a solid month now... in Portland for a bit over two weeks. I haven't experienced too much 'reverse culture shock'. Mostly things seem comfortable and normal. While I was in Thailand it really felt like I'd been there over a year, but when I got back to Portland it felt as though I'd only been gone a little while. So at times I am shocked to see things that have changed. One of the grocery stores I used to frequent has gone upscale and I nearly made myself dizzy trying to place the old blue-print of the shop over the new design. It's been really great to meet up with friends again though.

The main thing occupying my time right now is looking for a job. I've signed up with (or tried to sign up with) about 4 different temp agencies, and as of this morning I've applied for 48 jobs. I'm pretty sure that's about four times more jobs than I've ever applied for in my life. Writing cover letters is killing me. It's tough to walk the line between confidence and arrogance when stating my skills (especially when I don't feel particularly confident in the first place)... and trying to manufacture enthusiasm for an admin job is no easy task. "Data entry thrills me to my soul and keeping files organized is my raison d'etre."

While I'd love to find a job with some kind of adult-education/training component there's not a lot of that out there so I've been applying for more general administrative or accounting jobs. The whole situation is just terrifying. In the past I've always been able to find a temp job within a couple of weeks and twice those have turned into long term positions... but I haven't gotten anything from the temp agency yet.

My next big task will be 'networking'. Whenever I read about networking I want to crawl under a rock and die. It's just so totally against my nature to call up random people and go talk to them. The examples given in all those advice articles just kill me (one guy walked up to the CEO of a company while the guy was eating breakfast and started talking about his strategy for the company's future), and they all seemed far more geared towards sales or marketing positions than general office work. I just couldn't imagine myself calling up the chair of a University department to discuss the formatting of his most recent grant application. But this seems to be the way one taps into the 'hidden job market' so I need to work on that. Anyone particularly good at this who wants to give me some advice??

Well, that's my exciting & adventurous life right now. I'm knitting again, which is good... but I knit too much the past few days and my hand hurts... which is bad. Gotta ease into these things I guess. Someday, when I have a job, and an income, and can get my camera fixed, I will take pictures of this terribly exciting 1x1 ribbed scarf, but until then...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Home! Sort of.

I'm back in Portland and pretty excited to be back on familiar turf again. I am set up in a sweeeeeet apartment, the part time residence of a friend's parents. It's big, clean, stocked with the basics and situated next to a Trader Joe's and across from a Max station, so I can hop on the train pretty easily and get anywhere I need to go. The only down side is that there's no internet access there, but that's literally the *only* downside. I'm really feeling blessed that I have friends here who are so willing to help me out.

At the moment, I'm hanging out at the downtown library and pretending to look for jobs. No, actually I did apply for one, but I really need to quit procrastinating and channel my anxiety into this whole job hunting thing.

As my life is not likely to be particularly interesting for the next few months, I don't anticipate writing much more on this blog. I know I promised all kinds of posts about American food, and about the King of Thailand (who I am no longer forbidden to call a 'giant poopy head' if I so wish... I don't really wish to, but it's nice to have the option) but now that I have real live people to talk to, pouring my guts out online is not so much of a driving need. But who knows?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays (the other being Independence Day), and I'm super excited to get to celebrate it in the US, and with a family I used to do Thanksgiving with back in college. It's not home, but it's the next best (or possibly better) thing. =)

And I'm baking! Despite my Sunset Breads cookbook being locked safely in a friend's basement, I decided to make challah. I summoned the gods of the internets (posted on a forum) and aquired the measurements for the ingredients & baking temp/time. I mean, I know how to make this bread...just wasn't sure of the numbers.

Then, last night as I was going through some of my old pictures I found this one:

And I cracked up, because even though I'm making onion bread (and presumably my roasted veggie-basil soup) in this picture, the cookbook is open to the challah page. =) And thanks to the obscenely high level of resolution on the camera I had at the time, I was actually able to enlarge it enough to read the recipe.

THIS! This, my friends, is why I support the photo-documentation of all cooking / baking endeavors. Because one day, you may be recently returned from overseas adventure, miles away from your favorite cookbook and need (yes NEED) to make your favorite dish.

At this moment I'm hanging out at Starbucks as my challah dough goes through it's first rise*. Let me tell you, I haven't mixed dough by hand in a good long time, and I miss Betty dearly. But I am extremely thankful for the strength in my arms, digital photography, the best laptop a girl could ask for, a well stocked kitchen, a loving (and endulgent) friend to stay with, and a 100% American Thanksgiving meal in my forseeable future!

I am also thankful for all my cyber-friends who have supported me this past year (or longer!), and wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving filled with both kinds of stuffing & plenty of gravy on top. =)

*well, I decided to start it with a sponge this morning which I let rise as I showered / got ready, but this is it's first *official* rise with all the proper ingredients mixed in. I'm not sure this recipe is meant to be started with a sponge, so encorporating the eggs, oil & remaining flour was a bit tricky.... and sticky.... and very very messy!

**Edited to add a picture of the little challah I made. This was consumed in about 4.7 seconds by the two of us. This was like a sacrificial challah to keep us away from the big challah I made for tomorrow. =P

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I'm not dead.

I'm still in the Bay Area but will be heading up to Salem tonight. My social life has experienced something of an explosion while here. I met up with Bobby who is living in SF now - we went on an epic quest to find this particular Mexican restaurant but alas, it was closed. But we had Indian food instead and it was yummy. I also met up with two friends from High School and had fun drinking a few beers with them... since we were all such good kids and never drank together back in the day. Mostly I've been hanging out in J's apartment, eating cheese and looking for jobs on craigslist. No responses yet... cross your fingers.

One thing I was able to accomplish here was to recover pictures from my camera's corrupted memory card. Yay! So here are pictures of Vietnam:

I met up with Jonathan & we went for beers at 'beer corner'.
Then to a cafe in downtown. Look ma - I'm in a communist country!

How to cross the street in Hanoi: close your eyes, start walking and hope for the best.

I went to the Temple of Literature which was surprisingly peaceful. I was expecting books.There were no books.

Jonathan took me to a concert at the Opera House which was fabulous, and to Indian food, which was... architecturally inspiring. Ha Long Bay was beautiful.

"Beautiful" and "Enjoyable" are different.

So yeah, I'm heading up to Salem now for Thanksgiving. I'm pretty sure that I've gained back about 10 lbs this week. J. keeps telling me I was standing on the scale wrong the first day I weighed myself, but I think she's just being kind. At this rate I'll be back to pre-Thailand weight by the time I get back to Portland. Which is not too terrible, because then at least all my warm clothes will fit. =P

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Safe & Sound in SF

I'm here in San Francisco, my flights were long but uneventful... and unsleepful. I'm really happy to see J again and am happily installed on the futon in her living room. The fridge is stocked with cheeses & Dr. Pepper. There are about a dozen different magazines in various stages of cheesiness on the coffee table. There's CARPETING! So far I haven't really experienced any reverse culture shock... just a sense of "Yes! This is how things are supposed to be!" you know, like you're supposed to be able to walk on sidewalks and not have to walk in the street to avoid the street vendors / welders / rats / etc. on the sidewalk. The cross-walks crack me up... we actually stopped at a 'don't walk' sign with only about one moving car in sight.

It's COLD. Well, cool - about 54F when we landed... but walking home from the BART stop I needed to zip my jacket... then a few blocks later I had to pull one of my pashminas out of my bag to wrap up in. We walked a good half mile and I DIDN'T SWEAT! That was refreshing. When J went to work I took a good long nap - under about three blankets. Her apartment is really cozy, and I'm enjoying that tremendously.

Tomorrow I start with the job hunting... wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Last night in Bangkok

I'm trying to think of some profound closing thoughts.. .but it just isn't happening.

I stayed in Ban Phe for a couple days, got my things, closed out my bank account, mailed yet another package back to the states, and even had a bit of time on the beach. Now I'm in Bangkok... did a little last minute souvenir shopping (because I really needed more scarves??) and have just been chilling out. I walked around China Town today, all through some narrow market streets, but honestly I'm all market-ed out.

Marie is living in Bangkok now, going to University, so I'll get dinner with her tonight. Then I need to get up at o'dark thirty for what looks like a 2 hour flight to San Francisco. We take off at 6am local time on Thursday 11/12/09 , and land at 8am local time on Thursday 11/12/09. Somehow I think it's going to feel like a bit more than 2 hours. =P

It's all just beyond surreal that this long strange trip is ending. It'll be tough to get back to my 'normal' life again.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Final Stretch

It's hard to believe but I've got just under a week left in Thailand before I return to the States.

Coming to Ko Phangan was a good idea, it's touristy in the extreme, but it's relaxing. The Full Moon Party was good - tons and tons of people, crowds from one end of the beach to the other. It was reportedly one of the mellower ones of the year - which was fine with me. I hung out with some Irish boys and chatted with folks from all over the world. Very fun indeed.

Then there were a couple days of stormy weather though, so I didn't get to spend as much time on the beach as I would have liked. Walked out to watch the waves for a while when the rain stopped though. It was quite spectacular ... but the wind was really strong and the waves were coming all the way up to the row of shops lining the beach so I couldn't really stay out for long.

The weather got better this afternoon, the sun came out for a couple hours and people were actually able to go out swimming. The waves were impressive - for Thailand - it almost reminded me of swimming in NJ and NC. A few folks tried surfing with limited success... the waves weren't *that* big. But they were big enough to smack you around a bit if you didn't watch them.

I'd like to stay a few more days but am feeling a bit antsy to get my stuff all sorted, close out my bank account and all that. Tomorrow night I'll be on the bus, the next I'll be in Bangkok... then I hope to make one more trip to Ko Samet before heading back to Bangkok... then HOME.

It's going to take a long time to wrap my brain around this whole experience and get back to normal life.

TAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay is a world heritage sight and arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth. It would be difficult to fuck up a simple cruise out to the bay to see them. The tour group I chose managed to do so in an amazing number of ways.

I booked the tour at Sinh Cafe Travel one of the major travel agencies in Hanoi. I would recommend that you never step foot into the agency and certainly NEVER book a tour with them. Let me repeat... if you are in Vietnam DO NOT EVER BOOK ANYTHING WITH SINH CAFE TRAVEL!!! There were a number of different options offered - a two day one night cruise, a three day two night cruise and an open ended cruise which allowed you to stay on Cat Ba island for a while. There were also three levels of cruises, budget, luxury and superior. I went with the mid-level luxury hoping that I would get what I paid for... a slightly nicer boat and food. Gah... I was sooo mistaken, so very mistaken.

The travel agent told me I'd be picked up at 7:30am but my ride didn't arrive until nearly 8am leaving me waiting on the side of the road inhaling exhaust fumes and having my eardrums assaulted by the never ceasing honking of Hanoi. He drove me to a different branch of the travel agency and had me wait for the van that would pick us all up. Here I was told to leave one of my bags for safe-keeping because there wouldn't be room on the boat for too much luggage. Fine, okay, no problem.

Considering the travel agent had told me "There's already a group formed for tomorrow's cruise, so you can join them." I had assumed that the folks on the van were all on the same cruise. But no, once we got to the docks, the guide started dividing up people based on whether they were going on the one day or two day tour.... having to ask *us* which packaged we'd chosen because he didn't have a clue.

THEN HE WENT TO BUY TICKETS TO THE BAY!!!!! Somehow this ever so minor REQUIREMENT was something they decide to leave until everyone's at the dock ready to go. A group of four of us, an English couple, a 40 something Swedish man, and I were left sitting around for the better part of an hour while our guide got the tickets and sorted out the other groups. Fine fine fine... I've been in Asia long enough to be used to waiting around for things. I had a book - no problem.

Finally the four of us board a boat - which is not entirely dissimilar to the boat in the advertisement except that rather than it being "a new boat" as we were all told, it was at least a decade old and not at all well maintained. The varnish was completely gone from the stairs & banister and the floor threatened splinters and upturned nails to those who neglected to wear their flip flops the whole time.

We joined a group already in progress - four retirees from America. They'd been on the three day, two night cruise, and on day two of their cruise rather than say... cruising around the bay, they were brought back to the harbor made to wait for an hour or two then rapidly made to switch boats when a large group of Japanese tourists showed up. Way to treat a person like a valued customer! =(

The bay itself was gorgeous, amazing, beautiful, etc... and I wish I had the pictures to show you... but honestly even the amazing beauty of the surroundings were overshadowed by the incompetence of the tour organizers.

The first stop was a cave, and since the retirees had visited the cave the day before they were made to wait in the boat while the new group of us went and spelunked for a while. It was actually quite cool, all lit up with colored lights and satisfyingly spooky. Were it not for our tour guide's insistence on absolutely butchering the English language while retelling several legends about the dragons of the cave, I might have enjoyed it.

"The pissermen were pissing in the bay." "Pissing???" "Yeah, yeah... the pissermen, you know catching pish." "Oh FISHERMEN?" "Yeah, yeah, pissermen. The pissermen." and on and on. I was basically the only one who could understand him and occasionally had to translate to the others in our group when they couldn't make heads or tails of what he was saying. To make up for his poor English he made sure to repeat each sentence about five times to make sure we all understood him. Now, I'm more than willing to listen to a student struggling with his pronunciation but if I'm paying for an English guide, it would be nice if he actually spoke English, or at least didn't pretend he could and let us wander around in peace. Finally he did leave us to explore another cave on our own if we wanted to. I wasn't in the mood for more climbing so I sat on a bench to wait for them, the Swedish guy got himself a beer and we sat and chatted for a bit.

Back on the boat I went up to the top deck to chat with the retirees. As we were pulling away from the docks I noticed that the young couple I'd been chatting with were on the boat beside us. "Are you supposed to be on that boat?" I asked them. "Yeah, the guide told us we had to switch to this boat for the rest of the tour." Um... ok... bye. The retirees told us (the Swedish guy and I) that the same thing had happened to them the day before, they'd been with one group and those folks left in the evening only to be replaced with us in the morning. And sure enough, down in the dining area there was a new, even younger couple from New Zealand waiting to join our group.

Up till this point we'd not been allowed into our cabins, despite having asked to see the rooms & put our stuff away. But now that we were well out to sea, the guide started handing out room keys. He handed a key to one of the retirees and said "This is for you and... " and pointed to the woman's husband. She joked with him "But I wanted to stay with my boyfriend!" And the guide joked that he'd see if he could find someone for her. He handed the other keys to the other couples and then he handed me mine. "This is for your room with him." he said motioning to the Swedish man (who was on his third beer by my count.) At first I thought the guide was joking... but he was serious.

"No." I said firmly. "We're not together... only one person." To this he laughed in my face and said "Yes, yes, together." "That's not okay." I replied.... "Yes, you booked a shared room" was his answer. Now... I had, in the travel agency, asked for a single room saying that I would pay the extra $10 since I was alone... but the woman told me "No, no, sharing is better." and I consented. Never EVER would it have occurred to me that I would have to specify that I was okay sharing a room with another WOMAN, but not a man I didn't know.

I didn't want to make a scene, nor to offend the Swedish guy who by all accounts was a decent guy, so I decided to suck it up. But for the love of Pete! In which country is it okay to assign a single woman to room with a man she'd never met????

The sudden forced intimacy of being roommates DRAMATICALLY changed my feelings towards the Swedish guy. Before we were joking around and almost flirting... but that was when I thought I'd be going to my own room at the end of the night. I didn't want there to be any confusion about the fact that we were JUST roommates. I decided to spend the rest of the evening chatting with the retirees, reading my book, and staying STONE COLD SOBER. The Swedish guy, on the other hand had switched from beer to whiskey and offered me one. I politely declined.

Back up on the deck and preparing for a nice mellow night under the stars I saw (and heard) another boat pulling up beside us. It was a group of completely plastered 20 somethings - mostly Canadian but with an Irish lassy leading the charge. They were hollering hello and shouting greetings to the retirees on the deck below. One of the guys actually climbed from their top deck to ours and announced "You're being invaded!"

Surely not. No... absolutely not, they are clearly mistaken.

Oh no... apparently these were the folks who'd been cruising with the retirees the day before, back to rejoin their original group. Are you keeping track? Personally I'd had enough of this giant game of musical tour groups and as soon as dinner was over I went to my .... sorry OUR room to read for the rest of the evening. I was in bed, covers up to my neck and book in hand when my roommate came in to unpack his stuff. He kept up a steady stream of conversation despite my attention being clearly focused on my book... and at one point said something like "I was surprised you were arguing with the guy about sharing a room with me - I thought - what kind of guy does she think I am?" He'd mentioned earlier that he had a daughter, so I asked him "Would you let your daughter share a room with a man she'd never met before?" before I'd even finished my question he was saying "Hell NO!" He assured me I was safe with him.... and then offered me some whiskey before pouring more of it into his beer can. "Um... no thank you."

I actually did sleep relatively well, waking only when my roommate came in to go to bed and then when our alarms went off in the morning. Rather than getting to sleep in we were instructed that breakfast would be at 7am and if we missed it, too bad, there would be no more food until lunch time back in the harbor. Tell me can you feel the love?

Day two was more of the same, we paid extra money to get into a tiny boat to see a particularly interesting karsts and to go swimming inside it. But once in the tiny boat we weren't allowed to go swimming and in fact spent all of five minutes exploring it before getting back on the boat. Shortly after this excursion both the Swedish guy and the retirees boarded yet a different boat and I was left with the New Zealand couple and the pirates I had not spoken one word to the night before.

We headed back to the harbor on exactly the same route we'd taken to get out there, seeing the exact same sights we'd seen on day one... only this time much slower. Back at the docks we had to wait for a good hour before a bus came to take us to lunch. Then after lunch we had to wait again to get on a different bus back to Hanoi. It was all of 24 hours after my tour had started and I was the ONLY person left from the original group.

As we got into the city, the tour guide asked us where we'd each been staying so he could drop us off. I told him I wasn't going back to my friend's house (where I'd been picked up), that I needed to go back to the travel agency where we'd started so that I could pick up my bag and get a ticket for the 6pm bus to Hoi An. The agent had originally said we'd be back to Hanoi by 4:30, but it was rapidly approaching 5pm and we weren't even at the center of town yet.

At one stop near the lake he let off a couple in front of their guest house and then motioned for me to get off the bus too. I reiterated that I needed to be dropped off at the travel agency where we'd started.

"It's over there." he said pointing across the intersection and motioning that it was just down the street.
"Just there" he pointed again and I saw what looked like a travel agency.
"Can I have my receipt so I can get my bag back?"
"No - gave it to the company already."
"Um... ok, but how will they know it's me?"
He jotted a number down on my hand and hurried me on my way. I wandered off to attempt suicide by way of crossing the two streets.

I walked into the Sing Cafe Travel agency - I didn't think it was the same one I'd been to before - but they all look the same. "I went on a tour of Ha Long Bay today - do you have my bag?" I asked.

The guy looked at me like I was crazy. Gah! It wasn't the same place. "This morning, I took a tour and I left my bags at the travel agency - is it here?"
"No." He said plainly, and clearly not particularly interested in my dilemma.

And then I flipped out. The tour guide was gone, I was in the middle of Hanoi, intending to catch a bus within the hour and had no idea where my bag was. I saw the couple from New Zealand walking down the street and caught up with them. They were as supportive as they could be, pointing me down a street that had the agency where they'd booked their tickets. I related my story to her and she was mildly sympathetic but not at all helpful.

"Where did you buy the ticket?" She asked.
"I'm not sure - they all look the same. Can't you call the other branches to see who has my bag??"
"There are hundreds."
I showed her the number that the guide had scribbled on my hand but it meant nothing to her. It didn't seem to matter that I was asking her point blank to help me. It wasn't her problem.

I stormed out of the shop and at this point I just lost it and wandered through the traffic, the honking and the vendors shoving things in my face "Buy something madam?" in tears. I could not take it anymore. Finally I found a familiar street and located the agency where I'd originally booked my tour. I was hysterical when I entered the shop but took a second to try to pull myself together enough to speak.

"What is the problem?!" One of the guys fairly shouted at me.
I relayed the situation as clearly as I could, mostly that I needed my bag back... but also that it had been a completely shit tour - the drunk Swedish man for a roommate, the constant changing of passengers, getting dropped off in the middle of Hanoi with nothing but a number scribbled on my hand to guide me. I was done, and it pissed me off that I couldn't even really let into them because I knew they didn't understand half of what I was saying anyway. Eventually the agent got on the phone with someone and seemed to have located my bag. "Don't worry." "No problem." they kept telling me (forget "I'm sorry" or "That's terrible." - those words apparently haven't made it into their vocabulary). "It IS a problem! This is NOT okay!!!" I told them.

Eventually the guy who'd picked me up the morning before showed up on a motorbike with my bag. I reamed him out (in slow basic English) and told him I wanted a refund for the tour because it was so crap. He put me on the back of his motorbike and we headed out - I thought back to the office to give me my refund. "We go back to your friend?" he asked. "NO!" (You fucking moron!!!) I shouted... and wanted to shout. I was done done DONE with Vietnam. I got off the motorbike, and headed back to the main tourist information office (not the shitty little shop-front agencies - the expensive one). I walked up to travel agent and asked for the first flight to Bangkok.

It was, unfortunately, too late to go anywhere that night, so I booked a room in a mid-range hotel nearby, and spent the in an air-conditioned room watching some old movie about a mummy. The next morning I got up at 6am to the soundtrack of Hanoi, honking horns, yelling vendors and an occasional rooster crow. But soon enough I was on a flight 'home' to Thailand.

I can't even tell you how relieved I was when I stepped out of the airport. There were tons of cars and taxis outside the airport.... and no one was honking. They were just stopping and going and ... more or less... staying in their lanes. On the bus ride to backpacker-ville (Khao San Road) I was amazed at how peaceful and orderly Bangkok traffic was, and how much cleaner the air seemed. It could have been Portland for the difference from Hanoi.

I considered staying in Bangkok for a night, but I realized that if I hustled, I could get down to Ko Phangan in time for the famous Full Moon Party. And so I did. I booked an overnight bus / boat combo ticket and spent the next 18 hours in transit.

Everything is fine now. Despite not having a reservation, I was able to find a nice fan room (at Bongo Bungalow) walking distance from the beach where the party will be. It's far enough away to be relatively quiet, and it was only 400 baht/night. It even has hot water & a flushing toilet. Paradise as far as I'm concerned. I got a nice long night's sleep, and ate breakfast while watching several episodes of The Simpsons in the restaurant. Yeah - it's tourist mecca, but I don't care. I'm done with adventuring and fully intend to spend my last week or so in Thailand parked on a beach with a frosty beverage in hand.

Speaking of which... it's nearly noon and I'm still sober. I will be rectifying that shortly. I don't intend to do anything interesting (well aside from the Full Moon Party).... and have no camera to share pictures, so if I don't post for a while... don't worry, I'm happy.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Day one Hanoi:
I'd decided to fly into Hanoi, and had arranged with my guesthouse to be picked up at the airport. This did not happen, and I should have taken a clue. Instead I took a taxi ($15 US - not cheap!) into town. I checked into my guest house where they charged me $20 instead of the $12 that was listed on the website. I got settled then went out for something to eat. My first impression of Hanoi was one of sheer chaos and noise. I've been in Asia long enough not to be phased by sidewalk vendors or crazy traffic, but the street activity of Hanoi was well beyond anything else I'd encountered. The cars and motorbikes never stop and they never stop honking. Crossing the street is an act of ultimate faith... you just step out in the street and pray to whatever god you believe in that the traffic will swerve around you as you *very* slowly and steadily walk across.

I had some Pho... but I just don't like it. I've had noodle soup in Thailand but it tastes different. Whatever the secret ingredient is (anise?), to me it smells/tastes like body odor or dog or something unpalatable that I can't quite put my finger on.

Later I met up with Jonathan who is unquestionably the nicest man I've met in SE Asia. He walked me through the Old Quarter, where we had a beer. We then walked down to the beautiful lake Hoan Kiem. He guided me skillfully across many scary streets, for which I probably owe him my life.

Hanoi Day 2
On Day two I went to the Temple of Literature, and took many wonderful pictures of stone tablets and Vietnamese architecture. I attempted to do the Lonely Planet walking tour of Hanoi but simply could not get over the constant honking of the 47 million cars & motorbikes in the city. They're all just honking to say "I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here." but with the most ear-splitting and annoying horns and it DOESN'T EVER STOP! So I took refuge in the KFC and actually met up with a nice Belgian man and chatted with him for a while.

That night Jonathan took me to a Vietnamese restaurant where we had some kind of pancakey type thing... there were pickled root veggies and a basket of greens and all kinds of goodies to stuff inside a rice-paper wrapper. Very yummy.

Hanoi Day 3
I'd neglected to book my Ha Long Bay cruise the day before so that is what I did this day... I spent a great deal of time hanging out near the ticket counter for the Water Puppet Show but never did get tickets.

But that night, we had an absolutely amazing Indian food dinner. It involved a huge dosa (pancake type thing) that was rolled up like a dunce cap in a manner that made it both dinner & centerpiece.

A friend of Jonathans got us tickets to a concert at the opera house. We weren't quite sure what it would be, but I was pretty sure that if it was happening in the opera house I'd enjoy it. It turned out to be a joint Vietnamese and Brazillian concert of woodwinds and piano. As we stood on the steps watching visiting dignitaries from several countries drive up in their flag-adorned limos, we realized we might be a *tad* underdressed, Jonathan in his jeans and me in my capri pants. Oh well. The concert was LOVELY.

So while I wasn't exactly fond of Hanoi... the first three days were actually pretty good. It was fun to meet in real life, someone I'd been blog-stalking for ages. But the noise, the pollution and the crazy traffic were really wearing me down... I was eager to head out for Ha Long Bay for some peace and quiet in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I hate everything!

Ok... as if I hadn't had a horrid enough time in Vietnam, somewhere in my promiscuous computer usage I picked up a virus on my camera's memory card. I tried to open it to upload some pictures and after trying several options to delete/repair/quarantine the offending file to no avail I managed to delete the entire card. I'm pissed because there wasn't even ONE window that popped up to say "Do you really want to wipe out your entire memory card?" and from everything I could see it looked like I was only deleting the offending file. My travels in two different countries completely wiped out GONE - with one (not even that retarded) mouse click. GAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Ok... so you'll have to put up with my blathering without even pretty pictures of Ha Long Bay to break it up.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Good Night Vietnam

Despite rave reviews by pretty much everyone I know who's visited Vietnam, I've had a pretty crap time (with the exception of the time I spent with my host) and am ready to go. I'll be in Bangkok tomorrow and I'll spend a good week going through the details and uploading the pictures.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

WTF was I thinking?

I have to tell you that living abroad, and now traveling has so radically changed my perspectives on everything. I just don't make the same decisions or have the same opinions I used to have about what I would or wouldn't do. I'm taking far more risks than I ever imagined (some good - some not so good) and living well beyond my edge. I'm also traveling on a budget and during low season so there are times when I'd love to fly rather than take a bus or stay in a bustling resort with a lot of other tourists... it's just not always an option.

But sometimes, honesty, I just do stupid things.... like on Thursday. I wanted to do a trek or a tour or something while in Luang Prabang, but despite the number of tour agencies on the main street, there really weren't that many tours. Most of the tours involved Elephant riding and rafting or hiking... but as I'd already done that in Chiang Mai I was hoping for something different. I saw half day kayaking tours and half day waterfall treks and asked about them... but because it's low season most of them didn't have enough people signed up to actually do the activity... they wouldn't do it for just one person. Finally I saw a sign for a half day biking, half day kayaking and asked about it.

The travel agent (naturally) told me that the bike ride, although it was 15 kilometers, was easy and on flat ground. I imagined a nicely paved bike path beside the river. The we would stop at a waterfall, swim and have lunch before kayaking back down the river. We'd kayak for about three hours, but the water is flat calm and we'd be going downstream. What could be more lovely? A leisurely bike ride, a nice swim and then an afternoon spent drifting lazily down the river.

CLEARLY I was out of my mind when I signed up. And as soon as I walked away bothersome little thoughts like "I haven't actually ridden a bike since High School" an "I've never actually gone kayaking before." drifted through my mind along with a much simpler thought "Oh fuck."

The next morning I got up, had a solid breakfast and met up with the tour group. Two of the people who had signed up were sick, so it ended up being just me and an Australian gal. She was young, tall, and had the body of a marathon runner. I knew I was in the *wrong* tour group. But I went along with it... got on the bike, which although new, was instantly uncomfortable. I pedaled a bit around the street realized that indeed, it was just like riding a bike and I had not forgotten how. Onward!

We coasted down a gently sloping residential street which flattened out for a while. OK - this isn't all that bad, I thought. I'm uncomfortable, but I can do this. Then we turned a bend and promptly onto a dirt road.... a well rutted dirt road strewn with small rocks and pebbles. Hmmmm. Doubts started asserting themselves in my mind... but I kept going. Until the hill. It was not a spectacular hill, just a bit of an incline, but it took all my strength to power up it and just before the top I just gave out. I was out of breath, sweaty and my legs were dying.

"I can't do this." I told them. "This is not even a big hill, but I'm dying... I just can't do this."

"You can, the rest of the ride is just like this - no big hills, just a little up a little down - it's easy, go slowly." the guide reassured me.

"It's okay" the other woman said, getting off her bike "I'm a bit tired too... we can just walk for a bit."

I put a little too much faith in their comments, and although I knew I'd be sorry, I stuck with it. For THREE HOURS. The downhill parts were fun, and the flats were okay too... the seat was uncomfortable and the bike a bit too big for me... but those parts were okay. It was the hills... not big hills, just little slopes here and there that just KILLED me. Every time we went downhill I tried not to break too much and go down as fast as I could without losing control of the bike so I could get some momentum for the next hill. I got over a couple of them okay, powering through the tops in low gear. My legs were dying, but I am actually quite strong and managed to keep going for the next hour and a half. Yeah, we walked up some of the hills... I was always glad when I saw the other woman pull up in front of or beside me and get off her bike.

My heart was pounding and it always took me a good long time to catch my breath. I was afraid on a couple of occasions that every cheeseburger I'd ever eaten would finally catch up with me and give me the heart attack which is my due. We took a couple of breaks and drank as much water as I could without getting nauseous, but this was well beyond my endurance. Just past the halfway point I really started breaking down mentally. I tried the whole "I think I can, I think I can..." but I couldn't. I knew I was well out of my league. I'd done nothing in the way of formal exercise in a few years... my only physical activity in Thailand was walking around and swimming a bit on the weekends. I was in no kind of shape for 3 hours off-roading on a mountain bike. At one point I very nearly broke into tears at the sight of yet another incline. I got off and somehow put one tired foot in front of the other and got to the top of the hill. Honestly I thought I was going to die.

Unfortunately, I was so preoccupied with trying not to die, or cry in front of everyone, that I neglected to take pictures. And this really is a sin because 1. I would love photographic proof that I did in fact ride a mountain bike on a dirt road in Laos. and 2. There was some spectacular scenery. Again, we were riding through the jungle, and occasionally caught views of the Nam Khan river. Every once in a while we'd ride past a little village with bamboo houses and local people hanging out... the kids would wave at us and yell "Sabaidee" (Hello). And there were hills and limestone karsts in the distance. Periodically there would be some water buffalo standing in the road, or grazing just a few feet away. There never seemed to be a herder nearby, they were just wandering. Fortunately they're quite lazy creatures and made no attempt to move as we came by, because they are BIG and have HORNS and would not be fun to accidentally crash into as they tried to cross the road.

And then we were there. It was over, I'd ridden 15 kilometers, over the course of about 3 hours in the tropical sun, and somehow was still standing. But waiting for us were the kayaks and I knew that rather than get to collapse in bed for the next 10 days like I wanted to, I had another 3 hours of exercise ahead of me. I very nearly broke down into tears and asked to be taken home on the songthaew with the bikes. I couldn't even look at anyone, I just walked to the other side of the van and chugged the better part of a bottle of water and tried to pull myself together.

The guide assured me that the biking was the hard part, kayaking would be easy. We'd kayak for five minutes to the waterfall, then have lunch and a good long break. I don't know why I didn't ask to go home with the bikes... I think I was just too embarrassed, didn't want to be a quitter. But the truth is... in this case, I never should have been a starter!

After not nearly enough rest we got into the kayaks and he showed us how to paddle. The water was flat calm, and it wasn't particularly challenging, but I was tired and it was an effort. The five minutes of paddling to get to the waterfalls was enough to tell me that I'd live to regret this whole effort. We pulled up to the other side of the river, then up up up I don't want to know how many painful stairs. Then there was the waterfall.

And it was amazing.



But really really refreshing, it was exactly what I needed. I hopped in and swam around for a bit, it was icy cold and the force of the waves was pretty strong. Oh it felt so good, sooooo good. After a while we got out and had some lunch. For some reason I really wasn't hungry. I think it had to do with how hot it was and how much water I'd been drinking. I had a few bites of curry (one of the better meals that I've had on a package tour actually), an apple and MORE water, took one more dip in the water then we were off for stage two... kayaking.

The kayaking was in fact easier. Which is not to say it was easy, despite the predominantly flat water. We were still in near constant motion paddling and paddling down the river. Again, an hour would have been great - three hours was a *bit* much! And again, the scenery was amazing but i didn't get a single picture because my camera was in the dry bag in the back of the kayak. My arms were killing me after the first hour but we just kept going. I had to take several mini breaks just setting down the paddle and stretching my arms for a bit - I was glad I was in the back because the other gal took far fewer mini breaks. ;)

At one point we just completely stopped and drifted for a few minutes. This was wonderful. We'd been floating past little gardens and water buffalo relaxing in the water, here and there a local doing laundry or bathing and a few kids hanging in the trees over the river calling to us "Sabaidee, Sabaidee". For the few minutes we drifted it was so peaceful - the only sounds were crickets chirping, a bird tweeting and the low dull ca-lank ca-lank of a water buffalo's bell as he grazed by the river. The current of the river wasn't strong enough to carry us along too swiftly, it was just enough to spin us slowly around so we were drifting backwards past the little farm. Honestly, I could have drifted for a good hour of the trip. But eventually we put paddles to water again and kept going.

After about two hours, our guide rowed up to us and told us we were about to go through the rapids. Two class two rapids and one class three. Um... what was that now??? My arms were beyond tired, my muscles aching and my hands had begun to get sore. There was very little energy of any sort in my body... just kind of a brainless ability to keep going going going.

We were told to just keep the kayak as straight as possible, and we had already started to get the hang of maneuvering in the river so it wasn't too bad. We navigated the first set of rapids relatively well, we got spun around once, but got ourselves straightened out again and took each of the waves head on. It required a fair amount of coordination, and some fairly powerful digging into the waves as they tried to pull us sideways. We did NOT capsize... which is about as clear a sign of success as you can get.

There was a nice stretch of flat water before getting to the class threes so I tried to rest up my arms a bit. And again, we dug in hard, and managed to fight against the waves that wanted to turn us. At one point we were really being dragged to the right and we were furiously paddling to the left. There were a bunch of scrub bushes in the water and we were heading right for them, I actually got scratched by a few branches as we went past - then between two of the bushes we saw a water buffalo! OMG! We kicked it up and really had to paddle as hard as our exhausted arms could to avoid crashing into it. But again, we were pretty fuckin' amazing, and managed to slide right past him and get straightened out again.

Another rest and another set of smaller rapids (we were quite the experts at this point) and that was about it. Another fifteen minutes of flat water and he called us to the side. In our eagerness to get to the side we ran aground in a sandbar several meters short of the landing space and we were just about too tired to care, but the guide encouraged us, we got unstuck, allowed ourselves to drift down a bit then pulled in.

When we were finally done for the day I was about dead on my feet. I could not believe I'd accomplished as much as I had. That was a fairly intense day and I haven't done any serious exercise in years. The Aussie girl said we should feel proud of ourselves, but at the time all I wanted to do was collapse.

We decided to meet up for dinner later that evening (after our respective naps) at the Hive bar. It was a really cool place, expensive & swanky. We ordered veggie pizzas, and when they say veggie they mean veggie - carrots and green beans among the olives and peppers. And it was happy hour so we got a free Beer Laos. They also did a weird hill-tribe fashion show set to modern music. Cool clothes, but it was all just a bit surreal.

When the fashion show was over we got up and were about to leave when a couple from the boat showed up. I chatted with them for a bit and they said they were meeting up with a few more people from the boat. So we ordered another Beer Laos and got caught up with everything we'd been doing in Luang Prabang. Well fed, a bit rested, and with a couple of beers easing my sore muscles my perspective of the day improved dramatically and we started regaling everyone with tales of our adventure. When I mentioned that it we started with a 15 km. off road bike ride the Irish girl responded "Oh sweet Jesus!" which sums it up nicely. It was really great to meet up with everyone again, and we exchanged facebook info so we could keep in touch for the rest of our travels. Having people to chat with (and drink with) at the end of the day makes all the difference in the world!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is an old royal city, but also a French colonial town, so it has a different flavor from any of the cities I visited in Thailand. There is a difference in the architecture as many of the buildings are from the colonial period, and others are built in that style. Add in the fact that it's a stop on the tourist trail and you're left with a city which is a pretty balanced mix of East & West, stray dogs & temples, street markets & internet cafes.

I relaxed in the city the first day, just walking around and reading in cafes. I stopped in at a museum about the different ethnic minorities and learned a little about some of the local hill tribes. The exhibits were well done, and emphasized that the hill tribes are not frozen in time, but ever evolving through trade with each other and exposure to the modern world. They've modified some of their traditions while still holding onto their beliefs and ethnic identity. Much of this identity is expressed through clothing... and Ireally enjoyed inspecting the embroidery and embellishments on the different outfits.

After that I grabbed some lunch at the Morning Glory cafe. It was, without hesitation, the best chicken sandwich I have ever had. There was a warm baguette, sauteed chicken breast, letuce and cheese, but also an herbed mayonaise that was just delicious. I chased this down with a solid liter and a half of water in hopes of replacing the water I'd sweat out earlier in the day. It is HOT here!

I walked around a bit more, saw more temples... honestly, at this point, it's like walking past a Methodist church - they're everywhere here, and it's getting harder an harder for me to tell any two apart. I looked at the different tour options available. Again, it's low season so most of the tours advertised weren't actually going for lack of people. But finally I found a tour that sounded okay... and I'll tell you all about that tomorrow!


This is just a quick post to say that I am, in fact, in Laos! And actually have been for about three or four days now (one loses count) I have LOADS to post and have been trying to get all my words & pictures together but internet access is not quite as abundant nor as speedy as in Chiang Mai. Stay tuned! See below for posts from the 3 days it took to get here. =)

Journey from Thailand to Laos:
Day one - Minivan from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong Thailand.
Day two - Slow boat from Chiang Khong to Pak Beng
Day three - Slow boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Slow Boat to Laos - Day three, Pak Beng to Luang Prabang

Day three was the final step in my journey from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos.

I got up pretty early - thanks to some ungodly sounding roosters (I swear one of them sounded like a goat) and got some breakfast. Some of my fellow travelers were there already, so I just pulled up a chair. Again - it's nice to have someone to chat with over a meal.
on the deck overlooking the Mekong

Breakfast was AWESOME... even if nearly as expensive as the room (trying to mentally convert everything between baht, kip and dollars, this was not something I figured out until the next day). I had an omelet with cheese* (Laughing Cow) and a freshly baked, warm from the oven baguette. It was AMAZING. Oh it was delicious. And I was not the only one to mention it, as more people kept coming down we all kept recommending the omelets "It has CHEESE in it!" A nice hot cup of tea was the perfect touch as we sat on the terrace overlooking the misty Mekong we would soon be traveling down .... again!
The guesthouse as seen from the river.

I picked up another sandwich to go, and headed down to the docks. The boat was not the same one we'd taken on the first day.
Nope... it was smaller, and if possible even less comfortable. Again the cushions were a good investment, but just not enough. People were laying in the aisles, under benches, on the benches, on each other... just trying to eek out some comfort. I did okay managing to score a whole bench for myself (I'd saved it for someone from our group - but he decided to sit in on the floor in the back), so I can't complain too much.... well I can - it's damned uncomfortable... but at least I had more room with which to be uncomfortable than other folks had.

The scenery was more wild green jungle, more muddy river, more mists in the hills. Honestly, it's beautiful... but an hour or three is plenty. Two days is a bit much. But it did get quite spectacular as we got closer to Luang Prabang.

And then, right on schedule we were there.
I got split up from my travel group, but followed another couple from the boat and found a cheap guest house near the center of town. VERY basic and with a shared bathroom... but I'm telling you, my standards have gotten quite low here. I figure Laos will be where I try to save a bit of money and get back on budget. We'll see how that goes.

So, my final analysis? The slow boat from Thailand to Laos is not completely horrible. It's long and uncomfortable, but there's beer & you see a LOT of really amazing scenery. The thing is, you can see the best of it on a 2 hour slow boat tour from Luang Prabang to the Buddha cave. Sooooo.... I would suggest flying or taking a bus to Luang Prabang from where ever, then doing the tour. You'll have get a taste of the experience without having like DAYS of it. Unless you really do want to send a couple days on the Mekong - which really is quite an experience!

*Or, as written on the menu 'Sheese'

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Slow Boat to Laos - Day Two Chiang Khong to Pak Beng

On day two of the trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, we woke up bright and early (or cloudy and early, actually) to cross the river to Laos... which is not to be confused with "Laos" - wherever that "is".
This was my first view of Laos from the Thai side of the border. Not the most spectacular sight, but it was reassuring to see signs of civilization.

We crossed the Mekong on these tiny little ferry boats - they fit about 6 or 7 people each. Then we were ushered through the immigration process somewhat painlessly.

After the immigration office there was a LOT of nonsense, we had to have our passports checked by our guide and by various officials a few different times. I also had my temperature scanned to make sure I didn't have H1N1. That part was actually all fine... normal border crossing annoying, but fine. But then we kept getting packed up into minivans, driven like four blocks, told to wait, then packed up into different minivans, driven four more blocks then told to wait again. If you can imagine a group of maybe 12 people and all our assorted gear, this was not a minor undertaking.

While we were waiting for the final minivan to take us to the boats our guide gave us some "information" about Laos. It was like something off of Survivor. He told us that we'd been lied to by our Thai travel agents, that the first leg of the slow boat tour would not be 6 hours, but rather more like 8 or 9. We were told there would be NO FOOD on the boat (this point had also been stressed at the restaurant where we'd had dinner the night before so we'd all ordered sandwiches to go already). He told us that when we got to Pak Beng - the half way point and our overnight stopping point, that there would be schemers trying to take our bags or overcharge us for carrying them. He said that there was no electricity in Pak Beng and that 90% of the accommodations were 'not good'. "Your door has a key, but some person can just open it and take your things." The whole time, he's telling us "I just want to give you information - you can decide for yourself. In Laos some things are good, but some things are bad - I don't want you to have a bad experience and think that everything in Laos is bad. I want you to make up your own mind, so I give you all the information."

Naturally he started talking about the other options... there is a speed boat that will take us to Luang Prabang in about 6 hours, but it was very dangerous, very uncomfortable, very expensive. There's also the government bus which may or may not brake down, or... if you decide for yourself .... a mini van service that will get to Luang Prabang by midnight. He did say that the road was not completely paved, but that it was 90% good. After give us all the "information" he told us he would leave us alone to discuss what we wanted to do, and if some people decide they want to change - we could trade our tickets (with an added cost of course) for one of the other options. "I will leave you alone for five minutes, you can think it over."

I swear, it was like being told we had to vote someone off the island! The Irish gal (who was more or less on her own but had partnered up with a Canadian guy for travel purposes) immediately announced she wanted to take the minivan option... she was well and truly freaked out. There was another German woman who was traveling alone and she hadn't realized the slow boat would take two days, so she'd decided to take the minivan as well. Lion heart that I am, I was about pissing my pants with terror at *any* of the options.

But then I walked over to the other group of people and asked what they were going to do. An Aussie gal traveling with her boyfriend said "Well, why don't we just take the boat, and stick together when we get to Pak Beng - we'll get off the boat together, make sure we all have all our stuff, and stay in the same guest house." That, to me, was like the best thing anyone had ever said, and I was like "I'm sticking with her." Her boyfriend, during this discussion made the necessary (and to be oft repeated) comment - "Yeah, let's stick together, because at the end of the day - we're all in the same boat."

We talked to the other group and basically were like "Whatever you do, it's going to be okay, but if you're not comfortable taking the boat, don't" And ultimately the three of them decided not to. I have to say, it was really nice to have a group to latch onto at this point in my trip... but the anxieties that the guy provoked were not completely assuaged. Every time the boat stopped & turned around (to drop off mail or something) I felt nauseous until we were going in the right direction again.

The boat wasn't completely full, but there were quite a lot of us in a fairly small space for a looooooong time. The benches were uncomfortable even with the cushions we purchased from our guest house. There was a small snack bar on the boat, serving chips, cookies, water, sodas and beer. So the whole "NO FOOD" admonition wasn't quite true, but still I was glad to have a packed lunch & some water.

It absolutely helped to have some travel-buddies to chat with. We passed the time playing Yahtzee- my first time!

And of course, gazing at the scenery as we went by. This is a situation where the journey really is the experience. The point was not to get to Luang Prabang in the most efficient manner... it was to see Laos.

It is an amazingly country. The river is brown but the hills on either side are green and wild. There were a few isolated villages where locals gathered eagerly to pick up or drop off mail & cargo, but mostly it was mile after mile after mile of jungle. The only other time I'd been that surrounded by unspoiled nature was when I drove through Nevada...and frankly the desert in October wasn't much to look at.

It was cloudy and cool and rained on and off all day... but really this just added a little variety to the scenery. The mist in the hills is beautiful in it's own quiet way.

We pulled into Pak Beng after about 5 & a half hours - so just a little ahead of schedule as stated by the Thai travel agents... and well ahead of schedule as stated by the Laos guide. Our group did stick together, and got our bags from the back of the boat before we docked. One man did reach forward and offer to take my hand bag, but I said "No" firmly and he left me alone. There were guest-house touts aplenty at the dock, and this is always unsettling to me. But again, having a group there made all the difference. Someone else checked out a couple of the deals and decided on one. Rooms with fan & bathroom for 200 baht (CHEAP! ABOUT $6 US). We piled into his minivan and drove ... yes... about four blocks. To be fair, it was rainy and uphill, and none of that is fun in the rain, but it did seem a bit unnecessary. The rooms were basic but clean enough... and had electricity from about 6am - 11pm. My shower hose came out of the heater unit at one point... but I just stuck it back in and went on with things. And then there was a fairly good sized spider on the toilet, but I just asked one of the Australian guys to get it for me.

At the end of the day we had dinner & a few Beer Laos at the guest house restaurant.

We all complained about the Laos guide trying to scare us out of taking the slow boat (and succeeding in the case of the three who took the minivan), but we also agreed that having set our expectations so incredibly low, everything that actually happened seemed just great!
She's not flipping off the camera, she's showing off the bruise she got when her finger got slammed in the bathroom door - on the boat.

I turned in pretty early because the boat was leaving - with us or without us at 9 the next morning and I wanted to make sure I got some breakfast first. So day two... and my first day on the Mekong went just fine.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Slow Boat to Laos - Day one Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong

I booked my trip to Laos from my guest house in Chiang Mai. I think pretty much every guest house and travel agent ends up sending people to the same tour group so it doesn't much matter where you book. There's a slow boat and a fast boat, but from what I'd read online, the slow boat is safer and more comfortable than the fast boat, although it's all relative I'm sure.

She told me it would be a three day affair:

Day one: Minivan to the Thai border city of Chiang Khong, guest house provided
Day two: Cross the river into Laos, where a guide would usher us through the visa process, then the slow boat would take 6 hours to get to Pak Beng where we would need to find our own place to spend the night.
Day three: Slow boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.

There was an option to leave at night and arrive in Chiang Khong quite late, or leave at noon and get a full night's sleep there. Old lady that I am, I opted for the full night's sleep even if it did cost a bit more. The total trip cost.... 1,800 baht, including the minivan to the border, one night in a guesthouse and two days on the boat.

I had a late and leisurely breakfast at the cafe across from my guesthouse (rapturously delicious ham and cheese bagel sandwich btw) and then was ready to go. It was about a 4 hour minivan ride, but the driver stopped about once an hour for a good long time each stop. It was nice to get a break now and then... but it did seem a bit excessive. The rest stops were good too... lots of choices for food, little markets, decent toilets. One stop had Thailand's highest geyser.

Another stop had this amazing white temple. I don't know what it's called or what the story was... but it was cool!

Finally we rolled into Chiang Khong at about 5pm, dinner to be served at 6pm. The room was basic but clean enough, decent bathroom again. My tolerance has increased considerably from living here though, so opinions may vary. Dinner was free, and pretty good. Rice with curry, and stir fried veggies. I had a beer and introduced myself to my fellow travelers - another couple of minivans had arrived and we'd all be going to Laos together.

my first view of Laos from the Thai side of the Mekong

After dinner we walked across the street to a bar, had a few beers & played some pool. It was pretty low key - just comparing where on the backpacker's loop we'd been, where we were going, and what the heck we were doing here in the first place. It turns out that pretty much everyone was 'between jobs' in one way or another. It was nice to find travelers I could relate to. At one point I told the Irish woman "I'm on my own so I'm just going to latch onto you guys if that's okay." and she said, in the way that only an Irish woman could "Don't be ridiculous, a' course a' course! We're all just travelin'." Which made me feel loads better. =)

Old Lady Tour of Chiang Mai

After my cooking course, but before the trekking, I decided to take a mini-tour of local hand-crafts. Mostly I wanted to see the silk production and weaving, but I was interested in seeing what else there was. Shortly after I booked the tour it occurred to me that this would end up being a glorified shopping trip - and I was right. I was the only one on this 'tour' so basically, it was just like hiring a taxi for the day.

The first stop was the silk factory and it really was interesting. They had trays of silkworms on leaves, and in each stage of their development.
Then they showed how they boil the cocoons to release the fibers. They pull the threads from the outside of about fifty different cocoons and start spinning it. After they have a suitable amount, the silk is washed & put into hanks (it was interesting to feel the difference between the rough unwashed silk fibers and the well, more silky washed thread). As you probably know, the silkworms are killed in the process, and they did show a pan of the dead silkworms. Personally...since they would have become moths and moths like to nibble holes in lovely wool sweaters, I'm not too sad about this.

After the thread is washed & dyed, it is spun onto bobbins.

Then the bobbins are used with the looms to weave the cloth. The patterns are created by elaborate machinations involving threading different colors onto the loom to start, then lifting some threads up and some down at different parts and shuttling different colored bobbins of thread through them. I would really like to learn how to actually do this since it's all a bit vague and theoretical in my mind.

After this I was set loose in the shop and spent a long time fondling silk scarves & shirts and in a near superhuman show of restraint, I did not actually buy anything. Mostly this was because earlier in the morning I'd just spent over $30 sending souvenirs home and was not eager to make another trip to the post office just yet.

The rest of the stops were about the same, a five minute talk about lacquer-ware, gem cutting, ceramics, whatever, then move on to the shop. There were a LOT of factories on the tour but I called an end to it after just a few more of them. I'd done more than enough shopping at the night markets, and wasn't in the mood to spend any more money. But all in all, it was a fairly cheap tour and I got to learn a little bit about this and that.... not a bad way to spend the day.

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