Friday, May 22, 2009

Farewell Southeast Asia

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

Ko Chang- Learning Thai Massage

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 ( 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

Weaving 101

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

River Kayaking and Caving in Vang Vieng

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- A Love-Hate Kind of Town

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

Kuang Xi Waterfall

The last day in Luang Prabang we hired a tuk-tuk out to the Kuang Xi waterfall and I was expecting your standard waterfall cascading down the hillside with a trail walking along it to the base.

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...

Bargain me this, Haggle me that

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. :)

Luang Prabang

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

Travel in Laos

Transportation in Laos between cities is more expensive than most places we've travelled, and I think it's probably because they are trying to raise money to build infrastructure- goodness knows that the roads could use some, though it's supposedly much better now than a couple years ago.

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....

Laos Cooking 101

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

Flying through the Jungle on a Cable

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.... :)