Tuesday, March 29, 2011

You Can't Always Get...

There's this great thing about traveling in Southeast Asia. You never really know what you are going to get. Our friends Deena and Jamie booked an elephant tour through a travel agent. What they asked for was an All Laos tour--a reputable elephant camp with ethics located 7km outside of town. What they got was a 40 minute tuk tuk ride to the middle of nowhere, and one sad little elephant chained to a tree. Presumably, this was the travel agent running a scam with a buddy or two. When our friends complained, the guides' english skills vanished into thin air. Deena had to fake sobs of distress (the sobs were fake, the distress was real) before they were taken back into town.

Much less harrowing but still somewhat humorous was our visit to the spa yesterday. Ian decided on a facial for his birthday, this particular one was 60 minutes long with an added facial massage. Most of this time was spent alone in a room with some tingling concoction on our faces, but at one point they spread what smelled and felt very much like honey onto our skin and proceeded to smack us lightly with their fingers and pull away quickly. At this point I was positive the substance was honey and the sensation didn't even resemble a massage. When we walked away our skin felt softer and we were only out 7 USD so all was well and I felt no need to use the tactic Deena had to employ. Today I may try a pedicure and I really hope they find a way to involve honey again.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


Excerpt from travel journal: 25.03.2011

En route to Luang Prabang via slowboat down the Mekong. By far the most pleasant transport yet. Last night there was an earthquake. Big deal. Something else far more shocking happened.

Call me a paranoid tourist, but I ALWAYS have my valuables on my person. This is why it came as a complete and total surprise when I went to pay for my breakfast this morning and all of my little cash stashes were gone (I spread it our it my bag to make it difficult for potential pick-pockets). My mind frantically searched for any moment my bag was not in my possession. Did I leave it unattended during the earthquake? No. Did I leave it in the room when I went to the store? No. It was always on me.

Except... when I... was sleeping...

Even then it was right next to my head. Then the pieces started falling into place; the mysteriously unzipped pockets on my backpack by the window, my missing packet of face wipes, my clothes on the ground when they had been left atop my backpack. Ian tried opening the window, it was smooth and easy, virtually soundless. This is where the creep factor sets in.

Someone climbed INTO our room through the window in the middle of the night.

What I don't understand, but am eternally grateful for, is that the thief took the time to riffle through my things, taking the little pockets of cash while leaving my passport and credit cards.

Alright strange bandit, you only wanted my cash and comodyne face wipes. At a loss of 65 USD, 250,000 K, and 1500 B it could have been worse. So... thank you?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

keep on trekkin'

This is a story about six trusty trekkers, the lady boy song, and why I WILL NEVER DRINK LAO LAO AGAIN.

The facts:
3 days/2 nights trek with green discovery. New trail.
One night jungle camp.
One night tribal village.
$86 USD
Meals included.

The players:
Pon (Lao), Chris (Ireland), Malko (Belgium), J.B. (France), Lise (Norway)

They told us it would be one of the more difficult treks. I flexed my biceps and said "sign me up!" We left Luang Namtha in northern Laos and traveled by sawngthaew (a flatbed truck with two rows of seats in the bed) down a dirt road for about an hour into the Nam Ha National Park Area. The first part of the trek took us through some rice paddy fields and on into the forest. After a couple of hours, we stopped in a shady area for lunch where our local guides fashioned a table for us out of banana leaves, then dumped out little mounds of spicy eggplant, friend green beans, fern, and beef with ginger. We were each handed a leaf-wrapped bundle of sticky rice and we dug in. All of our meals were amazingly delicious, but this would prove to be my favorite of the trip. Especially that spicy eggplant. My first taste of traditional Laos food. Spicy food is a natural mosquito repellent and i have been careful to learn "I like it hot and spicy" in the native tongue (mak phet in Laos). We topped our lunch off with a cute little banana and headed up what would prove to be a very steep mountain, with bricks of scrumptious sticky rice expanding in our bellies.

What goes up, must come down and by the time we reached our jungle camp I was pretty sure I had let my leg muscles know that I mean business. No more fat, lazy, relaxing holiday--we are on an ADVENTURE!

Along the way our trekking company guide Pon pointed out some fun and useful edible plants--sour plant stems for hangovers and cow shit tree bark for diarrhea. Pon proved to be an excellent guide and friend who had a penchant for singing while hiking and also playfully flirting with Lise the Norwegian.

Dinner was AWESOME (and I do mean that literally). I had no idea bamboo could be so versatile. You can eat it and turn it into floors and cutting boards—this I know—but with the use of a machete and some ingenuity, you can boil tea, make sticky rice, construct a water pipe, and build an entire camp out of it, as our local guides proved to us with impressive speed and skill. Pon made J.B. a bamboo shotglass and the Lao Lao was passed around the table. This was my first experience with Lao La, a rice liquor... not too bad... not too good... ok, kind of bad. Pretty bad. Mostly just tastes like rubbing alcohol and they drink it everywhere in Laos.

Lise let us in on the fact that Pon wrote a song about Lady Boys which set off a campaign to get Pon to sing the Lady Boy song. "Not enough Lao Lao," he said.

We retired to our bamboo sleeping quarters relatively early and as I passed out I was convinced I was listening to the "Sounds of the Forest" CD from Target.

DAY TWO. Caffe a letto! My sister and I discovered the bliss that coffee in bed can bring while we were traveling together in Italy. Pon must have known that this is the way to my heart because he brought me my coffee in bed–and in a handmade bamboo cup, no less! Sticky rice with egg was on the menu. Make us strong for a day that Pon described as "Not steep. Mostly flat, but longer than the first day." Lise and I would spend the rest of the day pondering Pon's concept of "steep," but the man hikes these trails in flip-flops so we already knew his level of bad-assedness far exceeded our own.

It wasn't too long of a day and I enjoyed hearing Pon repeating my phrases, trying to master the California accent. It has come to my attention that I say "great" far too often.

I think now is a good time to mention the sheer volume of sweat that we were able to produce on this trek. It was shocking. I've never seen anything like it. When we dragged our salty-browed white asses into the village, we walked straight past all of the ridiculously adorable piglets and chicklets, past the colorful hanging laundry photo-ops and right into the river for a bath.

The Lenten tribe children were splashing about, convincing me beyond all doubt something that Angelina Jolie has known for years, white babies are the ugliest of all babies. My favorite pictures of the trip thus far are of these expressive little cuties. Lise let one of the girls borrow her SLR to take pictures of the girl's family. The results are shaky at best but Lise gained a fast friend. This little girl loved both sides of the camera and shows promise of being Laos' Next Top Model.

That evening we were served a candle-lit dinner with a few of the tribe elders. Perhaps you have heard me refer to myself as an "opportunivore." Staying true to my diet, I could not pass up the opportunity to try duck liver, heart and skin in a spicy raw duck blood concoction. It was the least I could do after witnessing the sacrifice and slow bleeding out of the poor little duck. I'm going to go ahead and say it was tasty. Green pumpkin soup, fried bamboo and sticky rice constituted the rest of our meal. This delicious dinner would make an appearance later.

In Laos it is considered rude to refuse if someone offers you a drink. This becomes a problem of epic proportions when bottle after bottle after yes, bottle (one. two. THREE bottles, 'a 'a 'aaa) of Lao Lao shots are being passed around the table. The good news is that we finally got to hear the Lady Boy song. The bad news is obvious.

If I ever wake up with a hangover again, I will be overjoyed knowing that I do not have to climb a mountain. It is absurd to go trekking hungover, but 4 out of 6 of us have done it. I was so miserable the only way to deal with it was humor and I haven't felt this kind of amusement since that one time I accidentally sold art for the Scientologists.

We made it up and over what Pon teasingly called "Farang Hill" (Farang is Lao and Thai for "tourist", and you hear it A LOT), it was a long hot journey, but the trek remains one of the highlights of the trip and i now know that I AM NEVER DRINKING LAO LAO AGAIN.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

lucky lucky lucky

it is not lost on me that i am blessed to be in one of the most beautiful places on earth. even the bus ride into laos was spectacular. tomorrow i will be heading out on a 3-day trek into the nam ha national park area. the bed i have been sleeping in (and will be joining in less than ten minutes flat) is the most comfortable thus far in southeast asia. it's $4.50 a night. i met a couple today who has been traveling in southeast asia for 5 years. they live on a tight budget, even for here (they each pay $2 a night at their guesthouse) but... 5 YEARS! yes!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Where Am I?

for a few days it seemed like maybe thailand was just a dream and i'd never left oregon. if it weren't for the delicious sum tam and the cozy guesthouse overlooking the mekong river, i may have forgotten i was on vacation. temperatures dropped to 11 degrees celsius (that's about 52 degrees fahrenheit for us 'mericans). most of the time i was bundled in blankets, drinking beer leo and watching numerous pirated movies with other travelers, which wasn't bad... it just wasn't what i expected. it's been the little joys each day that remind me what a glorious life i am leading. i have been able to sleep in as late as i please, taking little damp bicycle rides into town for the best coffee i've had thus far on the journey (a place called bamboo mexican house in the border town of chiang khong... the owners are very friendly and they bake fresh bread for their sandwiches, make an incredible pumpkin soup and they have a sweet spotted dog named salsa). they didn't at all mind us sitting and playing card games, reading, drawing and journaling for hours until the rain let up enough to head back to the guesthouse.

it's been great to stay in one place for a while, but tomorrow we must say goodbye to baanrimtaling guesthouse and chiang khong for we head to nam ha national park for a trekking adventure, then on to luang prabang for another extended stay.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Notes for Next Time

(and there will be a next time)

1. more dresses
2. less lotion
3. make note of thai holidays, do not travel on those holidays (especially if your digestion is in a questionable state)
4. you will want to buy everything the hill tribes craft. resist.
5. drink water. then drink more water.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Thailand S01E01

Excerpt from travel journal:

10.03.11 09:22

Ayutthaya -> Sukhothai

The night before last we ended up in Ayutthaya due to a minor transportation misunderstanding, The Lopburi bus driver told us "no" for reasons the language barrier prevented us from understanding. The Ayutthaya bus driver noticed this and sais "Lopburi" while furiiously nodding his head and pointing to his bus. We, understandably, took this to mean he was headed to Lopburi. A couple of hours later we pulled up in Atutthaya and our driver motioned for us to get off, pointing some distance up the road, again furiously nodding his head and saying "Lopburi." Ohhhhhh... I see... from here we could take out third very sweaty and bumpy bus ride to Lopburi.

Uh uh.

A small amount of searching landed us in Chantana Guesthouse. Quiet, 2 beds, private bathroom, 500 Baht.

Uh huh.

After showering off whatever had made me inexplicably sticky from head to toe, we went on a meandering night walk in search of ancient ruins rumored to be lit up for a couple of hours each night. What we discovered was undeniably gorgeous. Standing near these ruins, nary another tourist in sight, you couldn't help but feel the former greatness embodied in these walls and temples. Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam for over 400 years. Named after Ayudhya (Sanscrit for "unconquerable")it was dubbed by the first Western visitors from Portugal as the "Venice of the East."

Packs of wild dogs (found everywhere in Thailand, these dogs test my ability to refrain from petting everything cute and fuzzy--they do bite) were our only company as we wandered the ancient city and I was grateful for mistakenly ending up there. Happy accidents are part of the journey and so far I adore my journey through Thailand. The people are always willing to offer a smile and the food--oh, the food--sweet, spicy, sour & savory. Always a perfect blend and i love a meal that makes me sweat.