Thursday, June 18, 2009
1. One elephant ridden, bathed, and attempted to command
2. Bargaining techniques worked on and are much improved
3. One battle with Dengue Fever, one stomach virus, and a bazillion mosquito bites- survived.
4. Finished 20% under my original budget- yeah!
5. Received my box I mailed myself with souvenirs so can officially trust the Thailand post.
6. 2 cooking classes, 1 massage course, and 1 weaving lesson taken.
7. 1 river kayaked
8. 1 day of climbing and abseiling
9. Lots of hiking
10. Lots of sightseeing- got tired of Wats after awhile, and temples...
11. Tried some different foods, became addicted to mixed fruit shakes and sweet chili sauce
12. Didn't kill my travel partner, and he didn't kill me- in fact, we got along really well and had a great time!! Here's to my BFF! ;)
13. Travelled by planes, trains, taxis, buses, automobiles, boats, tuk-tuk's, sangatheaws, bicycle, ferries, and kayaks
14. Slept in 2 treehouses
15. Stayed in 2 REALLY nice hotels, stayed in 1 bad one, the rest were average
16. Only learned how to say "Thank you" in each country, otherwise my foreign language skills are nil
17. Discovered my limit on the amount of sticky rice I can or will consume
18. Participated in a city wide water fight with people of all ages
19. Experienced a caffienne jolt like none other from Vietnamese coffee
20. Considered going vegetarian after wandering the food markets meat sections, I think I'll be okay
21. Went snorkelling- reaffirmed my fear of open water, or at least of things touching me in it
22. Rewrote the Vietnam/Cambodia Lonely Planet book, I'll be sending them my edits later...
23. One shady taxi ride
24. Lost a couple pairs of underwear having my laundry done by others...wierd
25. Duped in to joining Facebook
26. Read the whole Twilight series, fell in love with the second hand books stores everywhere
27. Got a SIM card for my phone for each country, loved calling home to talk to family each week
28. A new found appreciation for cold weather and air conditioning
29. One inspiring cello concert performance
30. Discovering my best time limit for travelling should be about 8 weeks, and then I get tired of living out of a backpack and want to be in one space for a bit...
Friday, May 22, 2009
We were fortunate enough to stay in the Hilton Millenium in Bangkok for the last couple of nights in Thailand and it was so nice! The beds were so comfy and the room was awesome. The pics here are the view from our window out over the city at night. We did some last minute shopping, and I went to the Thai Red Cross again to get another shot in the HPV series- I still can't believe how inexpensive it is here.
Another note- you can walk in to any pharmacy here and pic up just about any prescription drug you could need- the pharmacist can help you determine something that will work for you if you are having a problem. And of course- it's cheap and you don't actually need a prescription. Now with this, I caution you to be careful when it comes to things like antibiotics and antiviral drugs- because things are so easily purchased here and the drugs are readily available, people can use them more often than maybe is needed. This leads to problems in viruses and bacteria building resistance to the drugs we have. So keep that in mind and only get what you need, when you need it.
So that pretty much wraps up our trip. Flying home to Utah and packing up to move to Colorado. Our trip was 11 weeks in total, we decided to head home a week early- we're pretty tired and it's time to see family and friends now instead. I'm starting to panic about all the stuff I have to take care of as well before the move.
It was a great trip- I hope you enjoyed following along.
On to the next adventure....
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I'm a little behind on blogging, but it seems that the remainder of our trip was relatively lax in activities and so there wasn't as much to post. After Vientiane, we headed back in to Thailand for the last 10 days of our trip. We took the overnight train from Laos- this was a bit complicated as you have to cross a few border checkpoints- one thing I wanted to mention is that you will be approached by Tuk Tuk drivers once you are in Thailand telling you that you'll need a ride to the train station and they can take you. If you booked with a travel agency- they will get you all the way to the train station- do not take a tuk tuk. Also, be aware that the visa issued at a land crossing in Thailand is only good for 15 days instead of the 30 days that you are issued when you come in at an airport. We fortunately had changed out plane tickets to go home a week early, so we did not have to apply for a visa extension.
Once in Bangkok, we stayed overnight and then went on to Ko Chang by bus/ferry. Ko Chang is a larger island, and was nice to stay at to mellow out. We're entering the rainy season, and so it stormed every other day we were there for the week we spent there, and the other days were sunny. The high season for tourism just ended so it's much quieter. We stayed at Paddy's Palms which was good, and you should expect to pay about 30% less for accomodation during this time of the year anywhere you stay.
I took a Thai Massage Course through Bodiwork Spa (www.bodiworkspa.com) for 5 days and recieved my certification. I was lucky enough to have private instruction since it's the slow time of year, and I spent 4 days learning the steps, and then did the practical exam, and was given pointers on where to improve and how to do so at the end of it. I also got a massage at the spa as a reward at the end of the course. The owner and professor, Siriluck, is a wonderful woman and I very much enjoyed her company over the days. We had dinner with her and her husband one evening which was really nice, they took us to one of their favorite Thai restuarants and ordered several dishes for us to try- all of which were wonderful. Be sure to try Papaya Salad if you go to Thailand. I also had lunch with her the day of my exam at a local BBQ stand which was yummy too. There is also a cafe at the resort which is where I had lunch each day of my course, and I tried cold Thai tea there, which I wanted to learn how to make, and so she told me I could go in and have the barista show me how to make it one day, and she took me to the store so I could buy the tea to bring home with me as well. They were really nice and accomodating for everything- I recommend them if you are interested in a course. They also offer several other courses if you are interested in something else.
In between the sporadic torrential downpours and my class, I layed out at the pool and worked on a tan. Life's pretty rough here. :) Pictures of some of the rain and my certificate are scrolling above.
Headed back to Bangkok on the 20th, and meeting some friends of the family who have graciously put us up at the Hilton Millenium for a couple nights- I'm excited for a nice hotel before heading home!!
Thursday, May 7, 2009
We've been in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, for a few days, and I spent the first 2 of them at then Houey Hong Vocational Training Center for Women learning how to weave.
This scarf took me 2 days of blood, sweat and tears to make- okay, there was no tears- though my butt hurt enough from sitting on that wood bench to almost cause some, and there was no blood- though I poked myself with a pin a few times in the process, but there was sweat- it's hot here. So this is my first woven piece- a scarf that's about 6 feet long (plus some with the fringe) and it's made from silk- and the threads were just that- threads, which is why it took 2 days. :)
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
We booked a one day tour with Green Discovery to do some kayakng down the river and to explore a few caves. Great scenery, don't forget your flashlight for the caves- there is no light in most of it which was pretty cool, wear something other than flipflops because there will be some hiking involved (we were prepared- the rest of our group was not), and put sunscreen on your legs- all of us have tanlines or burn lines where are shorts end from sitting in open kayaks paddling down a river all day.
Oh, and Jim got his first leech attached to him- it was gross, but the guide got it off right away.
Vang Vieng is known for being a town that creates a love-hate relationship for some people and I can understand why.
This town is notorious for being a backpackers stop- which generally means an environment conducive to drinking, partying, "happy" pizzas and brownies, and other various things of this nature.
On the other hand, the scenery here is amazing. It's beautiful all around, and looks like one of the last untouched places on earth that might still resemble what it looked like during an era when dinosaurs roamed the earth (minus the town of course.)
Worth the stop?
Yes. But don't stay longer than a couple days. And book activities to get you out of the town and to the surrounding area. We went kayaking on the river for a day (next post) and saw some caves, this was a nice way to see some of the area. You will float past the area where all the riverside bars are, many of the backpackers spend a lot of time just floating down the river in inner tubes, stopping off at the bars, and swinging in to the river via rope (which is not really very safe right now because the water is low- but no one stops you from going anyways.) We also saw what is called "the Slide," which is literally a huge slide that has been built on the side of the river and you can go off it with or without inner tube and in to the river- it's a pretty big drop in to the river from the slide. I'm not sure how deep the water is right under it, but a girl died here last week when she went off of it- and it's not the first time. It sounds like she may have injured her back or something and she popped up once for air, then went back under and didn't come up until 2 guys went in after her, which by then was too late. So beware the risks involved I guess- we were not willing to try this. If you're here earlier in the year, the whitewater rafting would be pretty fun to do, it was too low to make it worth it right now.
We booked our day trip with Green Discovery which has a good reputation, and the more people on the trip equals a cheaper price for each person (there is a limit which keeps the group small, which is good.) The restaurant scene leaves something to be desired, and every bar will be playing reruns of Friends- kind of bizarre in a way, but funny too. Don't order anything with the word happy, ecstatic, etc. in the name unless that's what you are going for. You can get a sandwich baguette and huge fruit shake at Le Bon Cafe for a couple bucks which were yummy! We stayed at Kamphone guesthouse which was alright- made even better when we went to check out and there was the 4th book in the Twilight series on their shelf for sale!! I'm reading 2 books right now and I'm having to exercise a huge amount of self control to not start this one as well. :)
Sunday, May 3, 2009
This is not what it was.
It was better- way better than I could have imagined.
This is one of the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen. There are dozens of pools as you walk up towards the highest part of the falls. And they are this clear blue-green color- I've never seen this color water at a falls- it was so amazing. The water just cascades from pool to pool over short drops of about 5-15 feet as it works it's way through the jungle. The top of the falls is a large drop, and there are sitting areas around this. You can swim in some of the lower pools, and considering this is the end of the dry season, I can only begin to imagine how much more water there is here in the wet season and how different it must look. I imagine that many of the paths we walked on might be covered with water for the next few months of the wet season. We had a swim in one of the lower pools, which also had a rope to swing out from and rocks to jump off of- one of those great childhood moments relived. Another interesting thing to watch was all the Asian tourists who were jumping in fully clothed (they don't traditionally strip to a swimsuit in public) so it was interesting to watch a group of highschoolers jumping in to the water in their jeans, shirts, and some even their shoes. The water was cold, but not freezing- it was nice in the heat of the day. There are less people as you work your way up the falls for swimming, but there will be a group at any of the pools you are in. Be sure to spend an afternoon here...
We've been to several markets for shopping while in Asia, it's part of the whole experience I understand, but let me tell you- I hate bargaining. I just want to know what a fair price is to them so they make enough, and I get a good deal. But bargaining is still a way of life here- and so I've had to give it a go and work on negotiating a fair price- which seems to be about 2/3 of what they ask for in Thailand, and much less of a difference in Laos.
My two favorite markets out of all of them have been the Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai Thailand and the Night Market (which is everyday) in Luang Prabang. The reason I like these two markets the most is that they are the most mellow and least aggressive when it comes to the sellers. The atmosphere is much more relaxed and you don't have sellers leaning out over mounds of things trying to get you to buy something. We went to the night market in Luang Prabang a few nights just to wander through and pick up a few things- if you go here, spend one night asking around at different vendors for what they'll charge you for something you are thinking of getting. It's worth finding out the range of prices you are quoted so you can negotiate better the next night- we did this. If someone is quoting way too high, make an offer that you will pay (it's best to decide in advance what the max is your willing to pay- then you won't crack under pressure- hence the research the night before) and stick to the price- walk away if they don't drop it. Now with this, be reasonable- if they are asking for something equivalent to one more dollar, give in- it's much more to them than it is to you.
I also loved watching some of the kids at the market (yes Shuttle Bill and Joe- you'll be happy to know that there's the possibility that I might have a biological clock that will eventually kick in- but not for awhile). The market is really a social event, all the sellers are there to see friends as well and they visit with eachother in between sales. This little girl I took a picture of was thoroughly entertaining while I had a piece of cake and I spent the time watching and laughing. My favorite thing was her goofy 3 pigtails sticking straight out and she was running around and laughing while her mother watched on. Childhood was so much simpler wasn't it... Sometimes I think losing my mind might be good because I could go back to wearing mismatched outfits and 3 pigtails and thinking this was the best thing ever while I ran around and played in the sprinklers with my friends, and people wouldn't look at me funny because I'd already be in an institution for this type of behavior at my age. :) Then again, I have these moments and I think, who cares what others say? I think it's incredibly important to embrace our childhood innocence as often as we can- so much creativity and energy stems from that place in yourself. And trust me- when it's hot enough outside- you won't care what people think when you're walking in the sprinklers, or in the rain splashing through puddles- both activites I highly recommend at your next opportunity.
What would the world be like if we went back to following the rules we learned in Kindergarden? We certainly wouldn't be trying to negotiate a price- we'd just be fair about it.
And I'd trade you my cookies for your fruit snacks. :)
I'm backtracking a little bit here before my last post back to our time we spent in Luang Prabang. Our time in Laos has been nice in that we aren't rushed at all, which is appropriate in a country that is noted for it's laid back and relaxed people. Cramming all the things we did in Cambodia and Vietnam has afforded us the time to just arrive in a town and relax for awhile before moving on- and that is exactly what we did in Luang Prabang. A small, mellow riverside town, marked by French influence in it's architecture and yummy baguettes and coffee, we spent 4 days here.
We stayed at Sackarinh Guesthouse, which was quiet, clean, and had friendly staff. We told them we didn't know how long we were staying, he said that was just fine and we could stay forever if we liked. :)
I spent the first day at the spa- Aroma Spa- massage, facial, manicure, pedicure- all for the price of what I'd pay for one treatment at home- and this place is on the pricier end. Now, granted the treatments are not exactly on par with some of the ones I've been spoiled with in the past working at a spa, but still, a nice relaxing way to spend my afternoon. (Oh, and I figured out that apparently the massage therapist standing in the room while you strip down to get on the table is normal here. Luckily it's been with women, or I might have had something to say about that. )
Mornings were spent getting up when I feel like it (which yes Aunt Nancy- was before the crack of noon, thank you very much), eating breakfast at a bakery and getting a strong iced mocha. The second day in Luang Prabang was the cooking class- see previous entry. The third day we wandered around the city to see the Royal Palace Museum and different Wats or Temples. That's what these pictures are from.
Read the next posts for what else we did while here...
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Those of you that suffer motion sickness be prepared- these roads wind every which way and they get bumpy. Our trip from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang was okay- 13 hours in a bus is never that fun- but the worst part is how many people got sick. The first thing they hand out when you load on to the bus is little plastic bags- which at first glance you think is for trash, but about 20 minutes in to the ride you see what they are for. I suffer from motion sickness- and I held up fine- but I've never seen one person get sick over and over again that many times. I have renamed this leg of our journey "The Vomit Express." I'm so glad I had my MP3 with me to put in headphones and try to tune it all out. Ugh...
The next portion of the trip- Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is noted in the book as being a problem for people with motion sickness- and I can see why- these roads were so windy it'll make you dizzy. I recommend booking on a minibus because I think the lower center of gravity helps with all the movement- and it's the cheapest and fastest option anyways. But the thing I think should be mentioned most about this drive is how amazing the scenery is! I almost always fall asleep in cars and I stayed awake for most of this. When I did doze off for a bit it was towards the top of the winding road over the pass, and when I woke up we were on the downhill side and in another world- scenes straight from the Lost World. Gigantic limestone karsts coming out of the ground everywhere, everything covered in different shades of green jungle plants, coconut trees, and peaks surrounding you everywhere. One of the most beautiful places I've seen....
There is a restaurant called Tamarind in Luang Prabang that is gaining worldwide recognition and has been written up in a few foodie reviews and travel guides. We booked a 1 day cooking class with them which was a great time. This was a totally different style from Thai food- in this class we used a mortar and pestle for more than half the dihes to grind up all the herbs and veggies for either mixing in the meats to, or eatng like a salsa. The food was great! We made a kind of Laos salsa (mine was pretty spicy from this little teensie weensie red pepper- yowza!) and we are the salsa with little balls of sticky rice. Marinated fish in a bunch of smashed up herbs and then steam cooked it wrapped in a banana leaf. We smashed chicken with different herbs and then we had to slice open the bottom of a lemongrass shoot and shove all the meat in there to cook it- this was a technique I've never seen and it was so yummy!! More mango and sticky rice dessert of course, and then a soup too. We managed to get more pics of this class and all our classmates. The class was taught at this little remote house amid a beautiful garden. We also made a trip to the local market in the morning to see what the ingredients were. The meat section almost turned me to a vegetarian, but I made it through okay.
Friday, May 1, 2009
So the first thing we did when we arrived in Laos in a little town called Huay Xai (not worth spending any time in except this is where we had to start this trip) is booked the Gibbon Experience.
Which in hindsight, should really be renamed the Jungle Experience since we didn't see any gibbons- though we did get to hear them singing at the crack of dawn which was pretty cool. The next few days were spent zip lining through the jungle above the treetops a couple hundred meters off the jungle floor, sleeping in treehouses (how cool is that!!), hiking through the jungle, and eating a lot of sticky rice.
So here's how the itinerary went:
Day 1: 4 hour ride in the back of a sangatheuw- which means covered bench seats in the back of a pick-up truck pretty much, though this one was slightly more minivan like- still had sideways benches in back though. Get a flat tire on the way in- watch the guides perform a tire change in NASCAR pit crew time. Get to the start of the hike- 4 hours long- in the heat of the day- through the jungle- uphill a lot. Now this probably would not normally bother me as much to hike this distance- but the heat got to me really bad and so being a bit too close to heat stroke and I've either developed allergies or something is bothering my breathing here when hiking- it was not as pleasant as desired and so I had to take it easy. Jim was nice enough to carry my bag for a bit for me to try and get back on track- I was so tired by then I told him that if I became delusional and confessed my undying love for him to just blame it on the heatstroke and ignore anything else I said until my body temperature was reasonable again.
So we arrive at the first treehouse we are staying at which is a couple hundred meters off the jungle floor, and we drop our bags and then zip line back over to a small waterfall with a small pool and everyone went for a quick swim. We went back to the treehouse and had dinner there and it got dark pretty early, so we start to play cards by candlelight and mosquito coils- yes the little buggers actually bother to fly up this high. I get my headlamp out for when we are going to bed, and while sitting and playing cards I glance up- and there is the biggest spider I have ever seen- at least in close proximity that did not involve a glass case between myself and it. And about 6 inches away from it is another, and a foot from that one, another, and so on and so forth- everywhere on the ceiling. They weren't big fat hairy ones (which I think would have been slightly less unnerving)- they were creepy, long-legged, beady-little-eyes-that-glow-in-the-dark-size-of-my-hand spiders. And to add to the experience- there was a herd of rats too. Now I was told about the rats- which were not so bad- though they were pretty loud at night sometimes as they rustled the empty plastic bags in the garbage can. But the spiders are what kept me up at night- it took me awhile after we had climbed in to bed- and checked every inch, and then tucked the mosquito net in under all the edges and sealed off the sleeping pads- to drift off and try to not think about them too much. And as it turns out- no spiders climbed in bed with us, and no rats either. So, it was fine- you just have to talk your mind down about it. Be prepared.
Day 2: Next morning we got up and zipped out to breakfast and then hiked for a couple hours and did several zip lines to get to our next treehouse- this hike was not as bad. We got in around lunch time which was nice, and had the whole afternoon to enjoy the view from our treehouse and relax. Some people went and zip-zipped (as the guides say) around to other treehouses, and Sara and I stayed back in the treehouse and took a nap and showered.
I'm staring out over the tops of the trees in the middle of a pristine jungle in Northern Laos, and I'm taking a shower that's a slow drizzle from the shower head- and when I look down- it's through slats of wood straight down to the jungle floor. And after I dry off and get dressed, I'm hanging in a hammock in a treehouse- something you dream of as a child- reading a book while I wait for the sun to set and my next meal of- surprise- sticky rice with cabbage and some other kind of vegetable.
Now, there are a few downsides- I have to hose down the toilet to get the bees to move out before I go to the bathroom on a squat toilet (which- no surprise here- just drops straight from the tree down to the jungle floor.) And there are a few spiders in this treehouse- though no where near the numbers as the first treehouse that sits further in the jungle. The water is pumped from a "spring" somewhere down below- so we used the Steripen on all of our water we drank- which was just an extra precaution against any bacteria. I've never eaten so much sticky rice in my life-every meal- and this isn't exactly conducive to keeping you regular- but I'll just live on fruit when I get out of here. :) The mosquito nets over the beds are really sheets sewn together which keeps all the bugs and rats out- but they get warm inside them at night.
Plus side- our group of people consisted of a couple- Carolyn and Casey from Idaho, and Sara and Renee from Melbourne, Australia- and we had a great time together. Sleeping in close quarters makes people get comfortable real fast- and I laughed so much- I still laugh when I think about different moments. And we all had different phobias- spiders, rats, bees, oh, did I mention leeches- thank goodness I didn't have any of those climb on me- I can imagine the scream now that would have sent the gibbons in to a panic.
Day 3: Get up at 3:30 am. Yes- you read that right- a time when no sane person gets up- much less in the dark, in a jungle- oh and what activity is up first- zip lining!! WAHOO!!!! Seriously- one of the craziest things I've ever done and so fun! Pretty much a battle of wits and mind to get myself to clip in and head off in to the dark where I can't see anything except the 10 feet of cable in front of me lit up by my headlamp. The jungle is literally pitch black at this hour. Maybe not being quite awake helps your psyche get over what you are doing. It was awesome. Then hiking in the jungle in the dark with just my headlamp- trippy. Even weirder- as we're walking I can hear this noise like someone is dropping handfuls of sesame seeds on the leaves all over the ground in short spurts. It took me a minute to realize that it was actually thousands of ants running out of the spotlight of my headlamp as it passed over them on the ground. Such a weird sound.
So we hike and zip line for about an hour and a half to try to reach a spot where we might see gibbons at dawn. Ah, dawn- something I don't see that often- which I think makes me appreciate it more when I do. (Though not enough to become a morning person.) And so we get to a platform in the trees right as dawn is breaking, and you can hear the gibbons start their singing in the distance. Such a cool sound. We couldn't see them- they had taken off for somewhere in the valley that day- but it was still worth it. We spent a couple more hours zip lining around and then had breakfast, a nap, and then hiked out an hour back to the pick up point for our ride back to Huay Xai.
I'd recommend this trip because it's such a unique experience. The cost is a little high- but I guess they can charge what they want since their the only ones that do it. The guides we had were no good- we learned more from some french guy who was volunteering there in 20 minutes of meeting him than from our guides in 3 days. We heard some groups had okay guides- don't expect much from them- if you get a good one you can tip them, otherwise don't. Book in advance of getting to Huay Xai- otherwise you'll be stuck in this town with nothing to do but wait til you can start the trip. If you aren't keen on the spider/rats treehouse and extensive hiking we did which is called the Waterfall Experience- you can book the Classic Experience which is only about 2 hours hiking in and then you stay in the nicer treehouses and spend your mornings trying to see gibbons- but you only have to get up at about 5 am instead since they are closer to where you are staying. It's the more tame version of the trip I guess.
But now, where would the fun in that be- think how much less interesting this blog posting would have been.... :)
Thursday, April 30, 2009
We've been travelling 8 weeks and I was holding out just fine, but then these 2 girls from Australia teamed up against me and held photos of me hostage from the Gibbon Experience that we all did together until I joined Facebook. So you can blame Renee and Sara for this- or thank them- for those of you that have been waiting for this to happen.
But I still hold that I hope I still get personal emails and handwritten letters/postcards from people and phone calls. I feel like communication between people is getting too impersonal and distant with all these networking sites. But it is an easy way to track people you meet briefly while travelling. So I guess it's got both positives and negatives going for it. We'll see how it goes.
Those of you who have my email- friend request away.....
Monday, April 27, 2009
I just finished the first 3 books of the Twilight series in a week- easy reading- which also occupied me while I was sick again in Chiang Mai- my latest guess would be Dengue Fever according to the symptoms listed in the book- but I pulled through alright.
So, I've picked up another 3 books, which I'll add to my Shelfari on here once I've finished them.
There are book exchanges everywhere in Asia, and I think it's such a great idea- I'm not sure that this really exists in the States, I'll have to look in to it more when I get home. But everywhere you go here pretty much has a shop that you can buy/sell/exchange books at, and I love the idea of reading something that so many before me have already enjoyed- props to the recycling factor here!
Monday, April 20, 2009
This is one of the coolest things I've done while in Southeast Asia. I did a one day Mahout training course at the Elephant Conservation Center outside of Lampang (about an hour south of Chiang Mai.) I put captions on the photos here to tell how most of my day went so you can look at that. We attempted to learn 15 commands, rode around on the elephant, gave them a bath- which was more I think them bathing us, watched the elephant shows, saw how paper was made from the dung, and fed them. It was an awesome day! You can book more than one day- but be aware that it's exhausting and you get saddle sore after just one day. :) My elephant's name was Jan Pen- which means full moon, and her mahout was Peng. He laughed along with me most of the day. I had a big grin on all day! And I got another thing marked off my list of things to do in life!
This center is also great because they rescue elephants from all over Thailand as well as take in any brought from other countries. They have a huge amount of land for the elephants to wander on, a hospital, and even a seperate center for "retirenemt" for those that are older or disabled. The center has a great purpose and I'm really glad we went to them for this experience!
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Okay, so I'm probably over-exaggerating a little with the Food Network thing, but I did take a Thai cooking class with the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School for a day and it was great! We did vegetable carving in the morning, which you can see the results from above, and we made 6 dishes over the course of the day. I was too busy cooking and eating to take many pictures, so there are only a few here. We made:
Clear Soup With Minced Pork(Tom Jued)
Spring Rolls (Paw Pia Tord)
Roast Duck Curry (Gaeng Phed Ped Yang)
Fried Chicken With Ginger (Gai Phad King)
Chicken In Pandanus Leaves(Gai Hor Bai Toey)
Mango With Sticky Rice(Khaaw Neaw Mamuang)
All of it was delicious! This is definitely something worth doing while here, and this school was very good. Skip breakfast- you'll never be able to finish all the dishes either way, but this helps.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Now, the tradition behind the water is actually supposed to be a blessing for the New Year- good luck and health and all that jazz. It's a nice idea, that I think has gotten a little lost over the years- but still a good time to be involved in. Kids would love this if you bring them along- and it's safe.
I did not get any pictures of this madness because I feared for my camera, but here is a YouTube link that gives a pretty good picture of the chaos.
We spent close to a week in Chiang Mai just relaxing in an effort to recover from our whirlwind through Vietnam and Cambodia. This effort was well spent and much needed. Chiang Mai is a pretty mellow city and I enjoyed it here. We stayed at YourHouse Guesthouse which was good, basic accommodation.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
One thing that you should be sure to do while in Hanoi is to go to a Water Puppet show. This is a traditional art form in Vietnam and is entertaining to see. They control the puppets with sticks/strings that are underneath the surface of the water and the coordinated choreography is pretty impressive. There is a live group of musicians playing traditional music, and there are about a dozen puppet masters, who will be shown at the end to take a bow. Book your tickets as soon as you arrive in Hanoi as they might be sold out for a few days. And go for the first class seats.
If you go to Vietnam, be sure you book a trip to Sapa. We booked again with Ocean Tours- though if you have time to get to Hanoi and then book something once you get there you can find much cheaper tours that did the same things we did through many tourist agencies in the Old Quarter.
If you book with Ocean Tours- make sure that they have informed someone to pick you up from the train station when you return- I think they are usually good about this, but they forgot to tell them about us. So we had to call the girl who made our reservations at 0430 in the morning (we couldn't find the phone# to the hotel), which I felt bad about, and she told us to go ahead and take a taxi and the hotel would reimburse us. Well, after asking several times throughout the day for the reimbursement, they decided that they would only reimburse 50,000 of the 70,000 dong it cost us. Now- 20,000 dong is only about $1. So, while the amount itself was not the issue to me- I find it to be poor business practice to not have reimbursed the full amount, especially because we were not told there should be a certain cost to the taxi, and it's their fault for not picking us up in the first place. I think that they should realize the impact of the negative feedback this will create regarding their company over $1. So, due to this, and that the tour we took seemed to be similar to all the other ones that cost half the price- I would not recommend booking with this company.
Now that you've got my recommendation for how to do this trip- I highly suggest booking one. You'll take an overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai, and then a minibus to Sapa. You'll be met by a guide- who has to be a member of a local tribe- who will guide you on your trek. Note that you are NOT allowed to trek without a guide. Our guide was So, and she was great- her English is excellent and she was very nice and great to talk to. If you can book with a company that books through the Sapa Golden Sea Hotel, try to request her. We booked for 3 days, 2 nights (plus 2 nights on the train getting to/from Hanoi). You spend most of the first day hiking down in to the valley, then you stay in a homestay, and the second day is hiking for about half the day up and over hills, and then you are driven back to Sapa. We had the rest of the afternoon to wander around Sapa and stayed at a hotel in Sapa that night. The next day we hiked through Cat Cat village and then had the afternoon to ourselves, before heading back to Hanoi. You can see everything we saw (except for much of Sapa- though there really isn't much except for the market to see) in 2 days and 1 night, as an option.
We went through the villages of Lao Chai, Ta Van, Giang Ta Chai, and Cat Cat. We saw people from the Black Mon, Green Zai, and Red Zao tribes. The tribal clothing is beautiful- all made from hemp cloth that they create the fibers from hemp and then weave together and dye, then embroider for countless hours. As you start each day, you will be met by a group of women from the next town's local tribe who will escort you the entire way in hopes of selling you items at the end. Now, the nice part is that they will not harass you or ask you to buy anything the entire time you walk with them, and they will help you over hard parts of the path. It can get a little much- I had 2 girls holding my hands on the second day leading me down the path (I looked like the photo above of Yolanda being helped) and sometimes I think it made it harder than if I didn't have help- but it was still nice of them. The bad part it that you will get the guilt trip at your final destination about how they helped you all day and what would you like to buy from them in return- so decide in advance if you are going to purchase something and for how much, otherwise try and avoid any help to avoid the guilt trip. Do not cave to any woman who brings her baby in to the mix for bargaining- it's normal for them to carry children on their backs the whole time they hike. They are persistent until you leave. It can be wearing while you eat- avoid eye contact with any of the women or the items they are selling while you are eating unless you want to be approached about purchasing something.
For bargaining- mind you I'm not great at this, and I hate doing it- I'd rather be told a fair price and just pay it. But this is the way of markets in Asia. So, I'd start with at least 1/3 of the price they ask and work from there- do not pay more than 2/3 of the original asking price at the very most. The easiest way to get the price you want to pay is to stick to it, and if they don't come down, walk away- this always works in your favor. For prices- I think the following is about what you should pay: a pillowcase-50-60,000, a wall hanging- 80,000, a blanket- 200-300,000 dependent on size,a purse- 30-60,000 maybe. We found out later that the market in town is much better to buy at- prices tend to negotiate more in your favor as there isn't a guilt trip attached.
So anyways, this is part of the deal when you do this, so be prepared for it. You do not have to buy anything-you'll just have to have a very good ability to ignore them while they stand next to you and guilt you.
The other thing to be aware of is that it can get cold and wet here very fast- this is the only place we suspected of possibly getting a little cold at, but we were surprised how cold it could get. Make sure to have some layers and a rain coat- there's quite a market for these items in Sapa for unsuspecting tourists. Bring good walking shoes and pack light- you'll be carrying it all.
The rice paddies and fields are beautiful. We had clear mornings and misty, foggy afternoons. Both were beautiful scenes- and I loved being in a quiet, peaceful place for a few days.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
We did a 3 day, 2 night tour in Halong Bay. This is one of those touristy must-do's.
The bay is beautiful, we had very misty weather and some rain, but it just changes the atmosphere in to a different sort of ambiance. We stayed on a private beach in a bungalow for both nights, though there are several different tours to pick from that involve different activities and sometimes accommodation on the boat for a night.
They transport you from Hanoi to Halong by minivan, then you get on a boat which takes you to the island they have the bungalows at- this is right across from Cat Ba which is a good sized town (more a tourist spot filled with hotels) on Cat Ba Island. On the way we also went kayaking through one of the floating villages and around some of the islands. There were some strong currents and the paddles were heavy old metal ones with straight crummy blades (don't expect good equipment here) so this was pretty tiring. I was so excited when we caught a current going the direction we wanted through this cave above- until we got through it and I realized that we had to paddle BACK through it. But, this turned out to be one of the funniest moments. All of us in kayaks got through the cave and were realizing at the same time we had to get back through it against the current, all the while watching this small boat of people having a hard time getting through it. So, you see all of us starting to line up our kayaks to go back through, and it's like someone fired a gun for the start of the race, because the moment Jim and I decided to get paddling with all our strength to get back through, so did everyone else. So now there are about 10 kayaks headed towards this opening, that is only going to fit about 3 of us at the most to get through at a time, so some start to slow down, others pull ahead, and Jim and I are in a pretty straight line to go straight through the middle of this cave, when all of a sudden one of the boats ahead of us gets caught in the current and goes sideways, now there are about 3 kayaks trying to avoid this one, including us, which are now playing bumper-kayak in the cave, and some of us are getting pushed back out by the current while the next wave of kayaks is starting to try and get through, and then another kayak is sideways. At this point- I start laughing uncontrollably- it's one of the funniest things I've seen- made worse by the fact that I'm in it, and there's hardly anything anyone can do about it. People are trying to figure out a way around the current, trying not to run in to each other, and, trying not to waste paddle energy at the same time. It took us 3 or 4 tries to get a clear path in front of us and to get through finally. And we were some of the more consistent paddlers- those with no experience were having a much harder time. So while it was tough, this was so entertaining. Once on the island we had a BBQ dinner- this trip involved more food than I could ever consume. Each meal was like 7 courses, except breakfast, and all of it was good.
The next day we went to Lan Ha bay by boat and hiked inland til we got to a village there which we had lunch at. We were set to hike up to a peak for a view out over the bay and Cat Ba park, but it had been raining and was very muddy and slippery, and it was overcast so we weren't expecting to be able to see much, so we decided to skip the hike and head back to the island for an afternoon of relaxing on the beach. This sort of turned in to an afternoon of reading in the cabin since it was raining pretty hard but that was good too.
The last day we went to Cat Ba and saw a little of the town, and then took a minibus up to Hospital Cave and took a tour through that- this cave was used as a makeshift hospital during the wars and was never discovered by outside parties. We then picked up Mountain Bikes and biked about 12 kilometers up and down some steep hills til we got to the place we had lunch at. Another boat ride and then a bus back to Hanoi.
Anyways, they also have a hotel called Hanoi Star Hotel which we stayed at because we got a promotion with them when booking our package, and this hotel was good to stay at- no matter where you book- make sure you stay in the Old Quarter- this was recommended by a few people, and it's a neat area to stay in. Very busy streets all the time, and it changes at night with people cooking on all street corners and it's busy very late. It's central to most things- shopping, bookstores, the water puppet show. There's a lake nearby as well, which is a nice walk around in the evening. There are women doing group jazzercise around the lake which is pretty funny to see in the evening.
Beware that there are several scams going on in Vietnam, in particular revolving around Taxis. We used a company called Hanoi Taxi for the most part and they were fine- it's one of the recommended and also the one that places will call for you when you need one. Many taxis have rigged meters that will jump up in fare too fast, so be aware. Also, while in Halong, we heard of someone getting mugged by a driver of a taxi from the airport to Haiphong. The odd part of this is that he had booked a driver to take him from the airport to Haiphong, and when he was in the taxi the driver told him he would not accept US dollars and that he would have to go to an ATM to pull out Dong. So they stopped at an ATM, the guy was punching in info and before he knew it the driver had punched in the max amount (4 million dong- which is only about $240) and grabbed the money. He said he'd hold on to it for the guy. Since his bags were in the taxi, he wasn't sure what to do and so got back in (this was probably not the smartest move either) but the wierd part is that the driver still took him all the way to his location to be dropped off as if this was normal. The guy fought with him the whole way telling him to give the money back, and apparently got in a scuffle once they reached the destination and was able to grab about half the money back (again- not so smart). So strange, but that's what happened.
Also, while you are in Vietnam- try to coffee. It's so good. I don't drink normal coffee because it's too acidic or something and I don't like it- but I can see why people get addicted to Vietnamese coffee. (Thanks for the recommendation Kate- I'll be coming off this addiction for weeks- oh wait- I bought some to mail home!!) The flavor is smooth and very nice with some milk and sugar. Jim's not allowed to have it much since he pings off the walls if he does. And I have a hard time shooting a moving target. :)
You can purchase bamboo dishes here very cheap- I bought some rice bowl sets that are pretty cool looking. There are also tons of other things- Chaco's and North Face Bags are everywhere and cheap- neither of which I need- but if you're looking for that- here is good.
We went to the Museum of Ethnology which was interesting- a lot of information about the hill tribes of Vietnam. There are several- so be warned that it starts to blur together after a while. There was an interesting exhibit funded by the Catholic Church about the introduction and presence of Catholicism in Vietnam- it's funny how much of a huge thing that the exhibit made out of Christmas in the commercialized sense- it seemed more like an Ad campaign for the Catholics than an informational exhibit.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
A brief note about the travel guide we are using- it's a Lonely Planet guide from 2007 for the Greater Mekong area- Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and parts of China. This book is not old- but it's got a lot of misinformation and a lot has changed since this was published. More than half the restaruants we went looking for in our time in Vietnam no longer exist, some of the accomodation is not up to par with the standard Lonely Planet recommendations, and the prices are grossly inaccurate- double and triple it all to get a more current price. I wouldn't blame Lonely Planet, it seems that Vietnam is particularly fickle and changes businesses like clothing, so it would be hard to keep up with anything here. Just realize that when you buy a guide for these areas, it's more of an outline rather than a detailed guide. Use TripAdvisor.com to check out places to stay. And I recommend calling ahead to businesses to see if they are still there before walking all the way to them.
Let's just say it's a good thing I've got comfortable walking shoes and that it wasn't too hot...
Friday, April 3, 2009
We had a couple days in Hue to wander around the city. We spent one afternoon going to the Imperial Enclosure and the Forbidden Purple City and wandering around the complex- most of the buildings were destroyed over the years, so there's really not a whole lot to see. Jim spent the afternoon trying to decide how many concubines he wants to have when he becomes king of some unknown land (more like planet in all likelihood.) :)
Then we went looking for the Citadel- which we found according to the map and what we were told- but it turns out that this is really just an area from what we can tell and was turned in to a university at some point. So there's not really anything to see from what we could find. So we walked a lot and then had dinner at a restaraunt that had traditional music playing while we ate- the food was okay and the music was entertaining.
We stayed at a place called New Time Hotel and it was fantastic (probably made all the better by the less than okay places we have just stayed at while in Vietnam.) Mr. Duy who manages the hotel was very helpful, picked us up from the bus, made any arrangements that we needed. The room was big and clean and they even had fresh mangoes waiting in the room for us. :) And as I mentioned before- an elevator which was a plus. :)
We also took a day tour the next day and went to see some of the tombs of past kings, as well as a boat ride down the Perfume River- and we didn't know this- but the tour also went back to the Imperial Palace- so I'd recommend skipping this on your own and doing it with the tour. The tombs were pretty- the grounds are quite extensive. It's been raining a lot while we've been in Vietnam- but I don't mind- it keeps the temperature cool. But that's why most of our pictures look a little soggy...
A short note- I had a massage while in Hue, and it was at a hotel a few doors down from our hotel. I'm not sure if it's like this all over Vietnam, and the massage was fine itself- but it was an odd experience. There is not much covering while you are on the table like most people are used to, so I would say this is probably not the place to get a massage. And the woman I had talked so much- which for those of you who know me- I pretty much prefer to just go to sleep during my massage while I have the knots beat out of me. And the language barrier made it very difficult- she was either telling me she loves me or she's looking for a boyfriend that loves her since the last one I think beat her- I'm not sure- it gave me a headache. At least my calves felt better afterwards I guess.
I must have climbed more than 500 stairs alone at the Marble Mountains and my legs hurt today. But this is not the only place with stairs- they're everywhere! We arrived in Hue and I was SO excited to see an elevator in our hotel- it's the first one we've had on our trip!! And we've been anywhere from the first to the 5th floor so far.
If you plan to travel in Asia, be prepared to climb a LOT of stairs. It's at least the equivalent of an hour on a stairstepper machine each day. I should have calves of steel by now.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Well, first thing, when you arrive at the airport, it's a somewhat more difficult task to get a taxi in to town than you'd think. That's because this is the main airport for all those wanting to go to Hoi An, which is south of Danang, and thus taxi drivers will earn a higher fare for taking you there. So we had to negotiate a taxi into town at more than we should have payed, but at some points you don't feel like bargaining anymore. I tend to justify these moments with "Well, we would have payed this much more if we were in the States." Oh well.
So upon arrival at the hotel, the gal at the desk was very helpful, however we had already payed for a night online, and she didn't seem to understand what I was talking about, which eventually resulted in me finding a printer and internet to get the voucher email to show her. Our room was smaller here than anywhere we've stayed- and upon a closer inspection- not so clean either. I wrote the online agency and let them know that the expectations were not met, as well as I'll be notifying Lonely Planet as to the inaccuracies in their description. So when you are booking hotels in Vietnam- go with mid-range places and look them up on Trip Advisor. Oh yeah- the name of the hotel was Binh Duong.
(a follow up to when I started writing this- the booking agency has pulled the hotel from their site and will not use them anymore.)
Anyways, so we chose to go to Danang so that we could make our way out to the Marble Mountains to see this area. This was an interesting place to visit. We took a taxi to the mountains- it's about 12 kilometers from the city. There are 5 peaks that are clustered together, which used to be islands, when this area was surrounded in water. There are carvings of Buddha images done inside several caves throughout the area that are carved right out of the rock that is in the caves. They're quite impressive.
There are also several dozen marble carving shops along the way to the entrance to the site- each one claiming that their old grandfather is the one who carves each of the items in the shop. I don't know how much truth is behind this, but if you're looking to pic up a small marble buddha, or you know- that gigantic front yard lion guard you've always wanted to haul around with you- then this might be to your liking for a look.
When the taxi drops you off, you will be met by one of the women from these shops who will be very helpful, giving you a map and everything, but she'll want you to visit her shop afterwards- and low and behold- she was waiting with her sister on motorbikes at the exit to meet us. We turned down the motorbikes, and said we prefered to walk, which was a mistake as well since we were looking for a taxi and someone pointed us down the street- which we later realized was a ploy to get us to walk down the main shopping road. Oh well, so we end up at the shop that the helpful woman is at, we tell her we need to get a taxi, she says- my sister will call one for you, come inside while you wait- we say that's very nice and thank you but we are not going to buy anything- she says it's okay- just come look- we tell her again okay, but not buying anything. We get in the shop, and the showcase of items begins, everything you can imagine carved from marble, and my only thought it- I am not carrying anything that heavy for the next 2 weeks. So after many "No thank you's" and "Sorry" the taxi does show up, and we pile in and get the heck out of there.
We also went to the Cham Sculpture Museum which is the largest collection of it's kind anywhere.
We spent 2 days in Danang, you could do both the items we saw in one. We took a bus to Hue from here.
Monday, March 30, 2009
We stayed at a place called the Yellow House in the main part of the city- I do not recommend this place- very loud at night with lots of backpackers and fixtures coming off walls and doors. We only stayed 2 nights and then left to go to Danang, but would have found new accommodation otherwise.
While in Ho Chi Minh, all we did was go to the Cu Chi tunnels and to the War Remnants Museum. I recommend both of these things if you go to Saigon.
The Cu Chi tunnels are outside the city aways, we took a bus trip with the place the hotel booked us through which was fine. The tour was not long, but you get to climb in the tunnels that were used by the Vietnamese during the war as escapes and hiding places. Contrary to the statement that the people lived in these tunnels during the war, our guide informed us that this is not true, and I am inclined to believe him- the tunnels are too cramped and small for anyone to live in- an average person cannot even turn around in them- it's one way out for us taller people- and yes- I fall in to that category.
We also went to the War Remnants Museum (the tour from Cu Chi Tunnels will drop you here on your way back to town if you want, then you can make your own way back to your hotel) and so we wandered around this for a little over an hour. It's obviously got a different slant to the war in favor of Vietnam, but I think I still learned more about this war in my time here than I ever did in school. The atrocities in war are both expected and surprising, and they spared no feelings when they created the displays here- photographs of victims and stories create some distant mental images of what occurred here.
From Ho Chi Minh, we fly to Danang. It's really inexpensive to fly on Vietnam Airlines if you book more than a week in advance and saves you a lot of ground travel time. If you are going to stop along the way, I would do it in your journeys in Southern Vietnam, as there are a few towns that friends recommended as nice stops along the way, whereas from Hue to Hanoi (the northern half) there were no recommended stops from anyone.
Saturday, March 28, 2009
On our last night in Siem Reap, we attended a free cello concert performed by Dr. Beat Richner, who runs the Children's hospitals throughout Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The man is amazing- he was first in Cambodia with the Red Cross as a volunteer when the Khmer Rouge first moved in and began to cause chaos. He left the country shortly after the conflict started, and when peace was later restored in the early 90's, he was asked by the government to return to Cambodia to build a children's hospital.
And thus Kantha Bopha was born. A foundation that started with one seemingly impossible task of building a children's hospital with western standards of medicine, that would be free to all children that came. This was a success and over the years, through the astounding management and planning of Dr. Richner and the generous donations of independent donors, he has built 5 hospitals and a maternity ward. The hospital we went to the concert at in Siem Reap is a beautifully designed building and is built for function as well. The hospitals have treated more than 8 million children through the years, and what's amazing is that 90% of their funding comes from private donors. Only 5% comes from the Cambodian government and 5% from the Swiss government. The hospital was rated by 2 independent agencies to determine it's effectiveness with regards to cost and results, and it is the highest rated hospital in the world- meaning the best treatment at the lowest cost. The hospital employs over 1,900 Cambodian employees, and has only 3 non-Cambodian staff. This alone is tremendous as the hospitals train the staff as well in their careers, and they are payed a fare wage, which is was keeps the hospital from becoming corrupt at all.
If you are in Siem Reap, I highly recommend being there on a Saturday evening so that you can attend this concert.
For more information...
Friday, March 27, 2009
I took this in the Angkor Thom area- we were followed by these 2 young monks for a good while as we walked, and I got a few pictures with them in it. This is my favorite shot....
This temple is the furthest from town that we ventured to- about 60 K out of town. It's in a very quiet secluded area and is falling apart piece by piece. This temple is less regulated than the others, and so you are free to climb about and wander along the crumbling walls. Our guide led us through some pretty tight squeezes which I looked at and thought- yeah right- but we got through with a bit of maneuvering.
Recommendations for temple tours: I would recommend 3 days of temples total- you get tired of them after that. I would book the Angkor Discovery tour with the Villa as previously mentioned, but for the other 2 days I would not book the tours that we had done. Instead, I would hire a driver only (do this from the Villa as they are reliable) and just have them take you around to the temples I've listed here and any additional ones you'd like to go to. This will save you money, and really you don't learn a huge amount of info that I think is worth paying the guide for.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
This temple is further out from town and I think is worth the visit, as it has some of the most elaborate and detailed carvings of the temples. I don't think you really need a tour guide for this one, so just hire a driver to take you out to look at it.
It seems like visiting the temple that Tomb Raider was filmed at would be a cheesy touristy thing to do and that it would be a real disappointment to see- right?- since we all know that movies make things out to be a lot more impressive than they tend to be. Well, Ta Prohm is the temple where Lara Croft had some of her adventures, and while it is not what is pictured in the movie- it was my favorite temple and is none the less impressive.
We did learn that the movie involved shooting at approximately 6 different locations in Siem Reap for the scene that looks like she is just in one temple, and there are really only about 2-3 shots from Ta Prohm- mostly of her climbing through holes in walls and the impressive trees around- some of the shots are in the photos here.
My favorite part about this temple are the trees- they are called Spung trees- and they are overtaking the temple inch by inch. It's amazing. The trees have been growing for hundreds of years- some seem to be causing the walls to crumble, others are the only thing holding the pieces together. Ta Prohm is a huge complex and you can easily wander around here for a hour or more. I highly recommend going to this temple.
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
This pony tried to kill me. I'm not kidding- Jim witnessed it- here I am wandering on up to the pony from the front and he's just eating and minding his own business and looking at me, then when I get to about 2 feet away from him, he decides he doesn't want to be bothered and starts grunting and turns around to kick me. I got out of the way and wandered off in time, but it's absurd that for something that a child might wander up to as well, that this pony is just wandering the Angkor Wat grounds as it pleases.
Beware the pretty ponies...