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.

TAG: Code Watermelon

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An afternoon of riparian entertainment

The travel agency at my guest house (and actually the travel agencies on every corner here) offer several different treks... the one most hardy young backpackers go on is the three day two night trek through the jungle, risking dengue fever from the mosquitoes and hepatitis from the toilet situations to get close to the 'real Thailand'. I, however, have been living in the 'real Thailand' for a year now, so I decided to go on the wussy one day trek that the tour guide promised me involved no more than about an hour and a half of walking. Sounds good to me!

There were three other girls on the trek - they were all Korean yoga teachers in Chiang Mai to take a Thai massage course. They all spoke a bit of English, and one was pretty good.

The first stop was the elephant camp! First we fed them some bananas (20 baht a bunch) then we rode them around a pretty well worn and muddy path through the jungle. My elephant kept grabbing leaves and eating... or trying to eat. I'm guessing that only some of the leaves are actually edible.

It was an interesting perspective, and I tried to imagine being royalty riding up in a big throne, or riding one into battle. But I have a terrible imagination and all I could do was think 'this is kind of cool' and try to ignore my pangs of guilt about the ethics of elephant tours in Thailand.

Oh well... the scenery was amazing when we got to the clearing.

The woman sharing my elephant with me was really scared. As soon as our elephant started to move she put her hand on my leg. I reached over and held her hand, because god knows I know what it's like to be scared out here! Eventually she was comfortable enough to let go, but any time our elephant did anything even remotely weird (like climbing half way up an embankment to grab some bamboo, or wandering over to snack on some grass after our mahout had gotten off) she grabbed hold of me again.

After the elephant camp we went bamboo rafting. Our guide was quite adamant to point out that we WOULD get wet and that the river contained river water, not drinking water -100% not drinking water! Ok... we got it. What I could not get was pictures... with the whole being in a river and getting wet thing.

The rafts were basically 10 bamboo logs strapped together.... that's it! Once I sat down I was wet, and wet in the very particular way that made me look as though I'd peed my pants. Delightful! The water was cool and looked like watered down hot cocoa - made from a mix, not the real kind. Since it's the rainy season (it had rained in the morning) the river was full and satisfyingly tumultuous*. The river meandered around bends and under trees. We saw cows & even an elephant on the riverbank. Fortunately, I guess, we dipped and turned enough to get my pants thoroughly wet, so I could avoid any question about my bladder control.

In fact, after lunch my bladder was emptied in the appropriate, if horrifying location.

We visited a couple of hill tribe villages. Initially I didn't want to do anything like this... because I just don't know how I feel about treating actual families as a tourist attraction.... but it was part of the trek so I went. And being a tourist - I took pictures. The background sound was the quiet cheep-cheep of several dozen baby chicks, and the background smell... pig sty. There were a few little kids running up to us with bracelets "Hello, five baht...hello, five baht." I really don't know the right thing to do in this situation, I resorted to cheap apathy - didn't buy anything.

The rice fields were really beautiful. These are just for the hill tribe's consumption, not for sale.

We hiked** around the fields and through a jungly bit and made our way to a waterfall. Not the most spectacular waterfall I've ever seen, but quite respectable. It was loud enough to hear well before we could see it.

OK - I started writing up this post last night...and I'm just now uploading pictures... but every time I do so, blogger adds like a page of blank space between each paragraph! ARGH! And you know, I have to drag the photos down to where they should be (17 brazillian page lengths down because of all the extra spaces). It was a good trek and I'll post more about it later, but now I've just got to call it quits.
It's Monday morning, and in about half an hour (or like two hours factoring in "Thai time") I'm catching a mini-van to start my trip to Laos. I'm not sure when I'll get to post again, it's half a day in the van, then a two day boat trip. I don't know ... it seemed like a good idea when I was sitting at the travel agent's desk. I will of course update again as soon as I have internet access again.
Wish me luck!

TAG: Code Mango

*which is to say not at all turbulent, but occasionally reached a level of activity that could be described as 'rather splashy'.

** walked slowly on reasonably well maintained trails and/or dirt roads.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cooking with gas!

I'm starting to feel human again, getting over my cold and the crappy stuff that happened towards the end of my time in Rayong. So I decided to venture out and take a cooking course. It was a good decision.

There were five of us... a newlywed couple from Germany, a Canadian couple a year out of college and on their way to a year in New Zealand for a working holiday.... and you know, me... myself.... alone... khun deo. But really it was okay, the other couples were very friendly and we had fun chatting. It's kind of cool to be doing the travel bit after my year of working because when we get around to the whole "How long have you been in Thailand?" game, I always have the trump card.

And after a year of trying to fit into the Thai culture, it's fun to be a genuine tourist here. Since there are soooo many tourists here I have no problem whipping out my camera and snapping pictures of anything that's "weird."

For example, all kinds of random stuff at the market, where my cooking class started.

The instructor, "Miss Bitch" as her t-shirt proudly announced, told us a bit about the different Thai ingredients, then let us wander around while she did the actual shopping.

Back at the school we started on breakfast - for me Pad Thai. All the ingredients were set out for us, all we really had to do was mix this and that and do the stir-frying. It's definitely more for fun than for actually learning how to cook... but that was fine with me.

After Pad Thai came the appetizers, Spring Rolls for me, and Som Tam (papaya salad) for two of the other students.

Miss Bitch had quite an entertaining teaching technique: "Crush the garlic like your ex-lover", swirling the egg in the wok for the pad thai: "swirl the egg, swirl the egg, swirl your hips - sexy sexy sexy!" and admonishing the guys not to use the toilet after touching peppers to avoid getting chili willies "I cannot help you with that!" It was a routine, but it was still really funny.

Next I made Tom Yam Gung, a very popular sour coconut shrimp soup. It starts with coconut milk, lemon grass, chili paste, keffir lime leaves and... something else I've already forgotten. =( We only add the shrimp at the end, and don't stir because it makes it taste too fishy, according to Miss Bitch.

For the main course I learned to make both stir fried chicken with cashew nuts and yellow curry. Although she demonstrated making the curry paste from scratch with a mortar and pestle ("now treat it like your new lover - harder! faster! harder! faster!") she told us that even most Thai families buy their curry paste at the's cheaper than buying the ingredients separately.

Both of these dishes were absolutely delicious, and I cannot wait to try them at home. After each dish we stopped and ate, and napped.... it was a LOT of food for one day.

And when we were more bloated than could possibly be imagined, we made dessert! I chose mango with sticky rice, which I think could be well adapted to peaches depending on your climate.


I started feeling relatively comfortable with the wok, and we got a recipe book at the end, so in theory I should be able to make all these wonderful dishes at home.

You know, at that time in the undetermined future when I actually *have* a home again!

TAG: Code Sweet Chili Sauce