Saturday, February 27, 2010

Day 130 – Vietnam

February 12, 2010 – Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Eric and I wake up excited and eager for the day – we are going to via boat to Halong Bay, a World UNESCO site.

The weather is still cold – apparently it always drops during Tet – but we don’t let it dampen our spirits.

Halong Bay is absolutely stunning and we have a fantastic time. We putter around between the numerous islands on our boat, pass local fishermen and check out some spectacular caves.



For lunch we have an amazing feast of grilled fish, steamed clams, jicama salad, spring rolls, fried tofu, sliced cucumbers and steamed rice.


And to finish the trip off, we hop in a kayak and check out some of the smaller bays and inlets – it’s a great adventure.


All and all we have a fantastic day!

We wrap it up by having a nice dinner and a few laughs with some of the people from our boat.

What to Bring: Toiletries

I hope you read this list as not so much a “why to bring” but a “what to bring”.

If you don’t know why you should use these products at your age, well then…

Ew.

Toothbrush

Toothpaste

Dental Floss

Deodorant / Antiperspirant

Shampoo & Conditioner

Soap / Bodywash:


I know some people try and save space by using their shampoo as soap.

I guess this makes sense if you’re using regular shampoo. But some of that fancy-shmancy stuff made with herbal extracts and root vegetables is really expensive, so I might think twice about it.

Face Wash:

I’ve been informed this is different than soap.

Moisturizing Lotion

Shaving Gear:


Be sure to clean yourself up for border crossings.

I know a 5 o’clock shadow may make you look like a badass to the ladies, but when you’re dealing with customs officers, it’s good to look clean cut.

Badass’ tend to get probed by rubber gloves.

Tampons:

See “Travel Tip #33”.

Hairbrush or Comb

Hair Elastics & Bobby Pins

Hair Products

Some Make-Up

Toilet Paper:


See “Travel Tip #2”.

Q-Tips

Nail Clippers

Face Cloth:


Yeah, sure – you can bring one of these. I bet it works well with face wash.

Sunblock

Day 129 - Vietnam

February 11, 2010 – Hanoi to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Hooray for Vietnam’s public transport system!

We take a taxi, a public bus and a public ferry and we arrive on Cat Ba Island with no hiccups… except for the fact that Cat Ba Island is not what Eric or I expected.

We were looking forward to warm weather so we could enjoy some time on a beach surrounded by beautiful limestone cliffs.

Instead we find Cat Ba is a tourist town in a bad way.

Apparently it used to be a very quiet town. But now it seems to be a victim of its own success as its waterfront is inundated with multi-coloured hotels that block the view of the cliffs. There appears to be no beach and the weather is cold – about 12 degrees – though I guess technically we can’t blame the island for this. Yes, we are Canadian, and yes, we brought our toques, but when you travel to Southeast Asia you don’t expect the temperature to feel like Toronto in late October.

We spend the afternoon and evening walking from one end of tourist lane to the other, hoping to find a silver lining. Since Tet is this weekend and we’re not sure how long we’ll stay here, we book ourselves to go on the “mandatory” boat cruise around Halong Bay for the next day.

Days 127 & 128 – Vietnam

February 9 & 10, 2010 – Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the city for getting lost…

There isn’t a grid system to follow, the street names change randomly and without any reason or warning, the sidewalks are used as parking lots and the roads are jammed with scooters. So Eric and I find ourselves playing “Frogger” for the next two days while we visit the sites and explore the city.

But despite the madness, Hanoi is also an amazingly green city – serenity can be found throughout it.

Song Hong – the “Red River” – runs along the east side of the downtown area, numerous lakes are scattered throughout the city, there are multiple parks to stumble upon and giant trees line many of the streets. The second largest of the lakes, Hoan Kiem Lake, is located adjacent to the Old Quarter where we are staying, and we begin our first full day in Hanoi with a stroll around it.


After spending the last two days in a state of transition, trying to get from one city to the next, we finally have a day to enjoy Vietnam. We wander around, getting lost, getting found and doing both everything and nothing at the same time… it’s a great day.


The next morning we sleep until we wake up, which is at 10:00am… oh, what a rough life we live.

The only thing on our “to do” list for the day is breakfast, which we achieve by eating one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had.

“Banh Mi” sandwiches are a Vietnamese specialty and we love them. They’re pretty simple - a fresh baguette filled with a bit of mayo, pate, roasted pork, sprigs of fresh herbs like coriander, dill and basil, cucumber, maybe a bit of tofu and a touch of chili sauce… delicious!

After breakfast, we decide to go find Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature.

“Van Mieu” was Vietnam’s first national university and is noted as a “must see” because of its well-preserved 11th century architecture. And although the architecture is impressive, we find we enjoy it for a completely different reason – when you enter the gates, it feels like you’re leaving the city completely. The constant noise of traffic is replaced by peace and silence, so Eric and I have a nice walk around the courtyards and some quiet time sitting by the reflecting pool.


After a while, we make our way back to the Old Quarter to check out Memorial House.

“Memorial House” is a traditional Chinese-style dwelling, which has been preserved to give you an idea of how people used to live in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It’s a simple tourist attraction, but we really enjoy it and make a few mental notes for our future home.

That evening Eric and I make an amazing discovery – a Vietnamese version of “chicken fingers and fries”.

However, instead of breaded strips of chicken, it’s ground pork mixed with herbs & spices and shaped into little “fingers”.

And instead of French-fried potatoes, it’s jicama cut into crinkle fries. That’s right – CRINKLE FRIES, the best cut of fries ever!

The meal is absolutely delicious, though we are disappointed to find it so late in the game. We swear we will now be on the lookout for more of this deep-fried goodness in our travels. Who knows… maybe another trip to Hanoi is in order?


As I mentioned before, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is happening this coming weekend and since neither of us are big New Year’s people, we want to get out of the city. We’ve been land-locked for the last month or so and we desperately need some “beach time”, so we decide to leave Hanoi tomorrow and head to the coast.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Day 126 – Vietnam

February 8, 2010 – Vinh to Hanoi, Vietnam

GOOOOOOOOOOOOODDDD MORNING VIETNAMMMMMM!!!!

Sorry… I just had to.

Since we’re ahead of schedule we decide to sleep through the rooster alarms and wake up when we wake up.

Again this is another travel day, so Eric and I stumble our way along to the bus station. I use the word “stumble” because we have no map of the city and no idea where the station is – the only directions we have are pointing fingers and following other buses.

Eventually we find it and arrive just in time to catch a sleeper bus to Hanoi. A “sleeper bus” is a bus with beds instead of seats.

Yes, you read correctly...

Beds.

Mind you, they aren’t four-post canopy beds with spring-coil mattresses. They’re basically a bus seat with a long reclining cushion so you can stretch your legs outs in front of you. They’re stacked like bunk-beds along the sides and down the middle of the bus, and they have guardrails to prevent you from rolling off, which is a good thing with the way people drive over here.

5 hours later we arrive safely in Hanoi and walk out of the bus station only to be overwhelmed by the traffic… traffic like we have never seen before. We thought Jakarta was bad but this is absolutely nuts!!!


It’s a constant stream of scooters and taxis, honking and beeping at each other, weaving all over the road. It also doesn’t help that it’s about a week before “Tet”, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, so there are a lot of people travelling and prepping for the weekend. We find a very nice taxi driver and join the chaos on our way to the Old Quarter.

After we get settled in, Eric and I brave the traffic and begin exploring Hanoi.

We soon discover we absolutely love Hanoi – it’s just a fantastic city!

The festive feel helps to sell it to us!

In Vietnam people work very hard, all year round. They rarely take days off, with the exception of about one week around Tet, so you can imagine the vibe. There are people everywhere smiling and laughing, meeting friends and shopping, and pretty much getting ready for their big break – you can just feel the excitement in the air!

We go to bed exhausted but excited for our next few days.

Day 125 – Laos to Vietnam

February 7, 2010 – Vientiane to Lak Sao, Laos to Vinh, Vietnam

Once again, we are up before the roosters to make our way towards the Laos-Vietnam border.

We need to take multiple buses to get ourselves into Vietnam and sometimes the Laos bus system isn’t that reliable, so our goal is to get as close as possible with no expectation that we will make it across in one day.

Fortunately for us, our buses are on time and the schedules sync up, so we make it across very easily – no fuss, no muss, no hassle, not even with customs. We do have to pay a $1US “stamping fee” at each side, but considering everyone else does too – Vietnamese, Laotian, Westerner – we don’t feel too frustrated by it.

After a very long day, our bus driver drops us off in the city of Vinh, where we celebrate our first night in Vietnam with a bowl of Pho and a Pepsi.

It’s a good start to Vietnam.

In Memory Of…

They say you don’t appreciate some things until they’re gone.

And now I truly understand what this phrase means.

You see, today I lost something very special to me…

My sideburns.

You laugh, but here’s the thing…

Sideburns are very important.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say they’re one of the most important parts of a man’s body.

Do you know how I know this?

Well, unlike say a kidney or an arm, you can’t live with just ONE sideburn.

You need TWO of them at all times… NO EXCEPTIONS!!!

So when my first sideburn disappeared with a flick of the clippers, all I could do was take a deep breath and wait for its twin to follow.

It was tough, but I knew I had to be brave.

I had to be strong.

I had to only go to English-speaking barbers from now on.

I tell you, whoever writes the book “How to Get Your Haircut Around the World” will make a killing.

Rest in peace, sideburns… you will be missed.

Days 121-124 – Laos

February 3-6, 2010 – Phonsavan to Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos

For the last couple of days, Eric and I have been debating whether or not to make the 12-hour bus ride to Vientiane all at once or to break it up with a small stopover in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng – or “V-V” for short – is known as a backpacker hub and a party town. The major attraction is “tubing”, which basically involves floating down a river in a rubber tube and stopping at every waterside bar along the way for beer and free shots. Although this really isn’t our scene, we figure we might as well check out the place anyway because from what I remember, the landscape around the town is beautiful.

Plus we have a serious craving for pizza and we know we’ll be able to find it there.

So at 7:30am we hop on a bus and arrive in Vang Vieng 7 hours later.

I’m amazed by how much it has grown since I was last there in 2005 – there are tourists everywhere!

We find a very nice guesthouse to crash at and then wander about in search of pizza. We easily find it, though to our waiter’s dismay we only order the regular pizza and not the “happy pizza” V-V is also famous for.

We opt not to join in the tubing and instead rent bicycles and peddle around the countryside, checking out the small villages, rice fields and amazing limestone cliffs. We have a great time but we both think that V-V has lost its Laos feel to the backpacker world and decide to head to Vientiane the next day.


Once again we wake up really early and catch a bus. We’re up so early in fact that we’re actually awake before the roosters. I think if we knew where they were kept, we would have gone and yelled at them… let’s see how they like it.

We arrive in Vientiane and after finding a guesthouse and having a late breakfast, we begin the search for a barber. It’s been a few months since Eric’s last haircut and he really wants one.

We have little luck searching together, so I return to the guesthouse to relax and Eric continues without me. Eventually, he returns with a new look and well, let’s just say his head may look smaller in the photos to come… but don’t worry, it’s not.

Vientiane is the capital of Laos and is a very interesting city at the moment. It seems to be in the middle of a transition as there’s a lot of construction happening, particularly on the waterfront. We rent some bicycles and cruise around, exploring the city.

Because of the French influence, it contains some great building stock, with the most obvious example being the replica Arc de Triomphe, officially called Patuxai. “Patuxai” was built in 1969 using cement donated by the United States to commemorate Laotians who died in pre-revolutionary wars. Of course, the fun part about that is the US had donated the cement to be used to build an airport. It’s actually quite impressive and we enjoy cruising around it on our hot wheels.


We also visit Wat Si Saket, the oldest temple in Vientiane. Although we’re starting to feel “templed out”, it’s definitely worth the visit. The interior walls of the cloister contain hundreds of niches housing silver and ceramic Buddha images and we snap way too many photographs… god bless digital cameras.


We spend our last night in Laos calling our families and enjoying our new favourite street food, banana pancakes.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Days 119 & 120 – Laos

February 1 & 2, 2010 – Phonsavan, Laos

Our first full day in Phonosavan is uneventful. We wander around, relax and do a whole lot of nothing…

It’s wonderful!

Our second full day is the reason we made the trip here – it’s the day we explore the Plain of Jars!

The Plain of Jars is like the Southeast Asian version of Stonehenge. It’s a series of 58 individual sites, containing a collection of 50 or more carved stone jars, varying in size from 3-feet-high and 3-feet in diameter to over 6-feet-tall and 6-feet in diameter. And no one knows when the jars were made, who made them or why!

There are a couple of theories floating around - that they were used for making Lao Lao, that they were used as cremation urns and that they were used to collect water. And after visiting the sites, I haven’t a clue… not that I’m a scientist or archeologist or historian.

They have been deemed World UNESCO Heritage sites, but up until recently not much research has been completed because of the lack of access. Until about two years ago, they still contained numerous UXOs, so before UNESCO would promote them, they needed to be cleaned up. The three main sites are generally cleaned up now, although you do need to stay on a marked path.


The first site we visited is probably the most impressive of all the three because of the number of jars in the area. However, the other two are spectacular in their own right because of their locations – they’re both located on hill tops, overlooking vast fields which you have to walk through to get to them.


It was absolutely fascinating!



We wrap up our day with a stop at the remains of Russian tank left over from the war. It was just lying there at the side of the road in a farmer’s front yard.


We’re fortunate enough to meet a British doctor on our tour – Dr. Abby – and she’s kind enough to take a look at my leg. Because of the heat, dust and dirt, my wound’s starting to look a little infected, so she recommends a course of treatment to supplement our treatment to date.

NOTE: My wound is okay – it’s just healing slowly. No need to get worried – we’re just taking precautionary measures.

So, with sightseeing and an impromptu doctor’s appointment complete, Eric and I grab dinner of delicious Indian food and call it a night.

Day 118 – Laos

January 31, 2010 – Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, Laos

The bus ride from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan takes 8 hours through winding mountainous roads. The distance between the two places is not great – only about 300 kms, but because of the road quality and the sharp curves, it takes 2-3 times longer than it would back home.

We arrive in Phonsavan to find it a lot bigger than we expected, having all the necessary amenities, meaning an ATM and an Indian Restaurant.

We spend the rest of the day checking out the town, looking into tours of “the Plain of Jars” and just enjoying some down time – watching Season 2 of “Dexter” and playing Skip-Bo.

Days 116 & 117 – Laos

January 29 & 30, 2010 – Luang Prabang, Laos

The next couple of days in Luang Prabang are pretty fulfilling.

We spend the morning of Day 115 walking around the city and taking care of some business. In the afternoon we join Stephanie and Michael and get a Tuk Tuk to take us to the beautiful multi-tiered waterfall, Tat Kuang Si. Along the way, we see an actual working elephant at the side of the road. We’re all pretty excited, especially Stephanie and Michael because it is their first elephant of their trip.


We have a great time walking the tiers and swimming in the aquamarine water. The waterfall has a collection of different “swimming pools” – some of them are just shallow enough to sit in, while others are deep enough to dive into from a rope swing, and all of them are packed with people enjoying the break from the heat. Laos is a land-locked country, so the swimming opportunities aren’t as readily available.

Eric insists we swim in the top pool to prevent what he refers to as the “trickle-down effect” – if someone were to pee in the water, it would travel down from pool to pool… being at the top prevents this.


The four of us meet up with our South African friends Philip & Renee and go out for a lovely dinner to celebrate Philip’s birthday. The meal is great, but the atmosphere is amazing – the restaurant overlooks the Nam Khan River. At the end of the evening, we are sad to say farewell to Stephanie and Michael as they continue their journey south.

The next morning, Eric and I wake up bright and early, visit “our crepe lady” on the main strip for breakfast and then make our way to Big Brother Mouse.

“Big Brother Mouse” is a not-for-profit organization that raises money for education in Laos. It also promotes learning English, so every day there is a two-hour practice session where English-speaking tourists are invited to come and converse with locals to help them practice their English.

Both Eric and I find ourselves talking with about 3 young men each, all at once. The session is very rewarding for both of us and we have a lot of fun. I am amazed at the conversations I find myself having – I’m asked to explain tenses, why words are spelt the same but have multiple meanings, etc. – it just reiterates how confusing English is. We finish off helping a young man proofread an essay he’s written for school – all-in-all a very fulfilling day. We leave flying high from the wonderful experience.

www.bigbrothermouse.com

We grab a lunch of sticky rice & papaya salad and then check out Wat Phousi before heading in separate directions. Eric heads “home” to complete some writing and I head off to check out a photography exhibit and do some sketching.

We meet up for dinner and then do some shopping at the night market. Tonight’s our last night in Luang Prabang, so there are some purchases that must take place.

Day 115 – Laos

January 28, 2010 - Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang, Laos

We catch a slow-boat in Nong Khiaw for a six-hour journey down the Nam Ou River to the city of Luang Prabang.


We’re both really looking forward to this ride – mainly because the scenery is supposed to be stunning, but also because it’ll be a ride in something other than a bus. And we’re not disappointed the scenery is absolutely amazing and quite diverse – from running rapids and rocky shores to shear limestone cliff and rolling green hills. The photo opportunities are endless.



Of course, after about 2 hours of sitting in a loud, cramped boat, we’re wondering if there is somewhere we can be dropped off to catch a bus.

Oh woes us – such a hard life we live!


We arrive in Luang Prabang late in the afternoon and begin the search, once again, for somewhere to stay.

This time it proves to be more difficult than usual. The city is quite busy and prices have gone up considerably since I was last there. Remembering the area where I had stayed last time, we head in that direction and eventually find a great place with a hot water shower!!

In the evening we go out for our usual stroll to explore and begin to understand the new place we are in. Compared to the small towns and villages we’ve been in the last few days, Luang Prabang is a booming metropolis – stores, stalls, fancy hotels, shi-shi coffee shops! Actually, L.P. is a very pretty place along the river, with a strong French influence in its architecture – it’s become quite the tourist mecca in Laos, but it still maintains a small-town feel.

In the midst of searching for dinner and momentarily stopping to buy some sausage-on-a-stick as an appetizer, who do we see but our friends Michael and Stephanie from Germany. So we hook up with them to grab dinner on the food street. The food street is literally a street lined with outdoor food stalls selling everything from fried vegetables to fish on a stick, so it’s easy to find something that suits your appetite.

When dinner is complete, we stroll through the night craft market and eventually end up at a bar for drinks. We spend the rest of the evening catching up and arranging a trip to a local waterfall the next day.

What to Bring: Clothes

Deciding what you’re going to wear is probably the most difficult part of packing.

Not only is it dependent on your personal style and interests, but also on where you’re going, when you’ll be there, how long you’ll be there for and what you plan on doing.

Someone doing a weekend trip to New York City to check out the night life is going to bring a very different wardrobe than someone doing a month-long trip in South America to hike the Inca Trail.

Since we’re going for a year and plan on visiting a number of different areas, we really tried to bring clothes that combined both function and style. When we’re in more rugged areas, we need clothes that can handle the elements, ie. rain, wind, mud, mosquitoes. But when we’re in metropolitan areas, we don’t want to look like we just walked out of the jungle, ie. 2-in-1 convertible pants/shorts = a really bad idea.

And on top of that, you need to consider the local taboos – is there an expectation of you by the community you’re visiting? Travelling through the Middle East is very different than travelling through Australia.

I can’t tell you what to bring, but hopefully I can give you a few things to think about. Here’s a list of everything we brought to wear, along with a few “whys”…

Bathing Suit:


2 each… bikinis for Robyn, surf shorts for me.

A plea for the guys out there…

PLEASE DON’T WEAR SPEEDOS!!!

Unless you’re swimming in a competitive race – which you’re not – there’s no justifiable reason for you to expose yourself to the world in that way.

Rashy:

1 each.

They’re great for protection from the sun. And they kinda make you look like a surfer which is, like, totally gnarly dude.

Toque & Gloves:


1 Toque & 1 pair of Fleece Gloves, each.

I know SE Asia may not seem like a place where you will get cold, but when you’re riding in the back of a pick-up for 2 hours going 60kmph down a highway, it is.

Plus we’re Canadian… we’re required by law to bring a toque with us wherever we go.

Sandals:

1 pair, each.

I prefer sport sandals to leather sandals. They give great support, they’re more comfortable when you’re doing lots of walking and if you’re caught in a sudden shower during rainy season, they dry out faster and won’t stretch. Plus they give you really cool tan-lines.

The downside though is after a while, they stink… I don’t care if your feet are made of rose petals and you sweat perfume, after 3 months of wearing sport sandals, your feet will REEK!!!

Robyn also brought a pair of fancier sandals for when we go out… I can get away with a pair of Tevas, but sport sandals don’t work with a nice dress.

Hiking / Running Shoes:


1 pair, each.

We each brought approach shoes because they’re very versatile. They have the traction & support of a hiking shoe and can handle the wear & tear of being on the road. But they’re a little more stylized than running shoes or hiking boots, so we can wear them with trousers or jeans and not look ridiculous.

Sunhat / Ballcap:

1 each.

I brought a baseball cap and Robyn brought a “Gilligan hat”… but then she ended up buying a nice baseball-type hat along the way.

I’m not quite sure where I stand on the “Tilley” hat debate:

One side of me thinks no self-respecting person under the age of 40 should wear one.

But the other side of me knows they give good sun protection and they can survive the digestive system of an elephant, which is pretty badass.

So I’ll leave it up to you whether you bring one or not.

Underwear:

10 pairs, each.

DON’T SKIMP ON UNDERWEAR!!!

If you’re gone for under a week, bring 1 pair for every day you’re away and then 1 extra pair.

If you’re gone for over a week, bring at least 10 pairs.

Reusing underwear is gross.

“Oh but Eric, you don’t understand… these are specially designed, quick-dry, sweat-proof underwear – you can just rinse them out and wear them the next day.”

Oh but you know what?

Still gross.

I’ll wear shirts & shorts a couple days in a row, but I don’t like dirty fabric touching my special bits.

Socks:

4 pairs, each – 2 pairs of Merino wool socks and 2 pairs of running socks.

You’ll need them to wear with your shoes, but you’ll also need them for cold nights in uncarpeted rooms.

Shirts:

4 T-shirts for me; 3 T-Shirts & 2 Tank Tops for Robyn.

I tried to bring a mix of cotton T’s and those made out of dry-weave fabric because when you’re lugging your backpack around in the heat, cotton T’s make your sweat more obvious and are harder to dry & clean out. Dry-weave shirts breathe better and can easily be rinsed in a sink and hung out to dry.

Plus, one of the beauties of T-Shirts is you can get them anywhere… in shopping centers, markets, on the street, whatever. So if you happen to spill red wine all over one and you need a replacement, it’s easy to do. Just be sure to check the size… “L” in North America is very different than “L” in Vietnam.

But remember this – the same rules apply for travelling as they do for concerts… you wouldn’t wear a “Rolling Stones 2010 Tour” shirt when you’re at a “Rolling Stones 2010 Tour” show, so don’t wear an “I Love Thailand” shirt while you’re strolling down the streets of Bangkok… it’s just bad form.

Long Sleeve Shirt:


1 each.

These are good to have for when it cools down a little bit… like when the bus driver keeps the A/C cranked during your 8-hour journey.

Yeah, you could ask him to turn it down, but he’s probably doing it to stay awake… you pick.

I recommend bringing ones made of a dry-weave material because they’re just a little more versatile. I brought the “Shift Long-Sleeve” from Beta Clothing and it totally kicks ass. It’s light & breathable and keeps me warm, and it looks at home both hiking a rainforest in Borneo and walking the streets of Singapore.

www.betaclothing.ca

Sweater / Jumper:

1 each.

Gawd bless the inventor of “Polar Fleece” – it’s light, it’s durable and it stays warm even when it gets wet. It’s perfect to use as a blanket on a sleeper bus, as a pillow on a train or as a seat cushion on a wooden boat.

And you can wear it too!

Rain Jacket:

1 each.

Two words… “Monsoon Season.”

Shorts:

2 pairs, each.

It’s good to bring a mix of shorts… casual shorts for everyday use and sport shorts for hiking or an impromptu game of pick-up soccer.

I just brought casual shorts because I’m able to use my bathing suits as sport shorts … can’t do that with a Speedo, can you?

Trousers / Pants:

1 pair, each.

It doesn’t matter how hot a place you’re visiting, always bring at least one pair of long-pants.

To start, you’ll need them to enter most temples, mosques and churches, as well as some government buildings. Plus if you wear them on the plane, it increases your chance of getting a seat upgrade.

I brought casual pants and not blue jeans. Blue jeans are heavier, harder to dry if they get wet and really bad at keeping you warm.

Pajamas:

1 pair, each.

If you’re going to be in shared or dorm-style accommodations, don’t sleep in the nude. This just makes for awkward moments in the morning. And even if you’re not planning on doing “the dorm thang”, keep in mind there’s usually one rogue mosquito that’s able to get through the net.

Belt:

This is more for fashion reasons… if you’re not wearing a belt, you’re not fully dressed.

Flip-Flops / Shower Shoes:

Also known as “thongs” in Australia, they’re great for wearing on a casual wander, a trip to the beach or in a really gross shower… I don’t know if hoof & mouth disease is contagious in humans, but why take the risk?

We forgot to bring them with us, but we picked up a couple of cheap pairs along the way.

Scarf:

1 Scarf, for Robyn; 0 for me.

For women, these are great because it’s a simple way of covering your shoulders when visiting a temple or a mosque. But they’re also good for keeping sand and dust out of your face when you’re in the back of an open-air vehicle.

I didn’t pack one but you’re damned sure I’ll be getting one before we get to Egypt.

Extras:

Robyn also brought a dress, a couple of skirts, a sports bra and a regular bra.

I brought none of these.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Day 114 – Laos

January 27, 2010 - Nong Khiaw, Laos

Eric and I wake up to the sound of a rooster cawing. It seems roosters have replaced the sound of prayer calls at a mosque as our alarm clocks… the jury’s still out on which one we prefer.

For breakfast we find a little restaurant that serves local Laos food and we enjoy a great meal of Laos warm sticky rice bread, ground pork soup, plain sticky rice and coffee & tea. It’s known as the Khamu Laos breakfast and it is delicious!


After breakfast we walk up the main village road, which takes us past farmer fields, limestone cliffs and lots of small villages, until we reach Tham Pha Tok. “Tham Pha Tok” is a series of caves that were used by the villagers during the Vietnam War to hide during the bombings. It’s fascinating to see how they adapted their everyday life to exist in a cave.



During the Vietnam War, and the subsequent "Secret War", the United States dumped thousands of tonnes of bombs across Laos. About a third of these didn’t explode and are now scattered across the countryside. UXOs – Unexploded Ordinances – are still a huge problem, not only physically, but also socially as they’re a major contributor to the local poverty by preventing people from expanding their farm land and building new roads. Organizations such as MAG are working hard to locate the UXOs, but it’s still advised to stay on well worn paths and roads to avoid areas that may still contain UXOs.

The rest of our day is spent chilling on our porch reading.

At dinner, we meet up with Phillip, Renee and a newcomer, Rolf, for dinner at the Laos Restaurant we had breakfast at. Our meal includes pumpkin soup with dill, fish steamed in a banana leaf, spring rolls and sticky rice and once again, it’s absolutely delicious!

Day 113 – Laos

January 26, 2010 - Luang Nam Tha to Oudamxai to Pak Mong to Nong Khiaw, Laos

We begin our journey to Nong Khiaw with a mini-bus ride to Oudamxai.

Along the way we stop at a roadside market where every stall seems to be selling “jicama”, which is a sweet root vegetable, kind of like a potato crossed with an apple. And after the market stop, one of our “seat neighbours” offer us some jicama they purchased, so we swap them some jicama for some bananas we have.

Our other seat neighbor doesn’t have much to swap considering he is a chicken.


We finally arrive in Oudamxai around 12:45pm, after a long, dusty and bumpy ride through the northern mountains of Laos and we have just enough time to catch our next mini-bus, which will take us to Pak Mong.


This minivan is smaller than the last one we were in and it seats about 12 people comfortably. Of course, they cram 16 of us into it and we’re on our way again. The back has 3 seats, yet they cram the 4 largest people in the entire van – Eric, myself and Phillip and Renee, a couple from South Africa.

Again the ride is quite dusty, bumpy and mountainous but we pass the time asking questions about South Africa, in preparation for our next trip leg. Phillip and Renee introduce us to a saying they use back home and it applies perfectly to Laos…

“There’s always room for one more.”

Once we arrive in Pak Mong, we jump in a sawngthaew and begin our last bit of the journey to Nong Khiaw.

And boy is the long day worth it – Nong Khiaw is stunning!!! When we step out of the vehicle, our mouths drop as we stare at the beautiful limestone cliffs, surround the Nam Ou river.


We gather our things and begin the hunt for a place to stay. We end up in a lovely bungalow, down a little laneway at the side of the river. We spend dinner chatting with Phillip and Renee until a crazy semi-tornado interrupts us. The restaurant is open-concept, so we quickly find cover and wait out the storm before returning to our bungalow, where we enjoy a well-deserved sleep.

Day 112 – Laos

January 25, 2010 - Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha, Laos

We take a bus from Huay Xai to Luang Nam Tha.

Our ultimate goal is to get ourselves over to Nong Khiaw, but the journey directly there is longer than we want to travel in one day. So we decide our best bet is to break it up, which is why we find ourselves arriving in Luang Nam Tha early afternoon. Eric and I drop our bags off at a guesthouse and begin exploring the town.

It looks like a festival is going on, as there are tents set up along the side of the road and loads of men sitting at tables, drinking “Lao Lao” – Laos rice whiskey – and playing cards. We walk by, intrigued by the scene, only to find ourselves being summoned over by one of the older gentleman. Eric and I smile and politely decline, but he’s very insistent, so we head on over.

The next thing we know we’re doing shot after shot of Lao Lao and trying to have a conversation with our new friends Buon Than, Dom Keo, Kham and Bua Xay. But seeing as we don’t speak Laos and they don’t speak English, the range of topics is very limited… what our names are, where we are from, where the whiskey is from, etc.

As Eric says, “whiskey” in Laos is really a loose term for what we in Canada would call “moonshine”. And after four shots of “whiskey” in 10 minutes, we try to make a graceful exit. I’m not partial to the taste of the good whiskey, let alone the kind made in discarded oil barrels, and I’m starting to feel the effects… both of us haven’t had too much booze since we began travelling, so it doesn’t take much.

But we are not getting off that easy as Buon Than ends up giving us two more shots.

Since this stuff is quite literally distilled in someone’s backyard and we can’t ask a bartender to deliver a round on us, as a “thank you” Eric gives him the Canadian key chain off his bag. Buon Than graciously accepts it, wishes us a safe trip and we’re able to slip away.

I stumble my way back to our guesthouse and Eric isn’t far behind me, laughing at my current state. On arrival at the guesthouse, they owner’s kids are trying to saw a huge log with a two-person saw. And wouldn’t you know it, Eric decides to hop in and help them out.

So I leave Eric sawing away on a log and head up to our room, where I pretty much pass out.

It’s been a great day in Luang Nam Tha.!

What to Bring: the Necessities

Although I may be a little loose with the term “necessity”, here’s a list of what I think are the most important things you will need to bring with you.

Losing your clothes, cameras, toiletries, etc. would be frustrating, but they can be replaced relatively easily.

But losing any or all of these items will be a huge PAIN IN THE ARSE. It wouldn’t be the end of the world – they can, for the most part, be replaced as well – but it definitely would be an inconvenience, so be smart and safe with them.

Passport:

Well duh… you’re not going to be able to enter or leave anywhere without one, so make sure you have it up to date. Some countries will not let you in if it’s not valid for at least 6 months after your date of entry, so make sure you have this sorted out before you go.

Depending on the number of countries you plan to visit, it could be worth getting a business-sized passport. The standard Canadian passport contains around 26-28 pages, while a business-sized one contains 48 pages. As well, some countries are very cliquey and won’t stamp on pages that other countries have already stamped on… how very “high school” of them. So combine that with all the visas you may need to get, it could be a good idea. It only costs an additional $5 when you renew, though you do have to write a quick letter outlining why you want one.

Visas:

Some countries issue basic tourist visas on arrival, while others require you to get them ahead of time. It’s also good to confirm whether you can receive a visa at all entry points or just at specific ones – ie. only at airports and not at land crossings. As well, be sure to keep in mind how long your tourist visa is – 7 days? 14 days? 30 days? – otherwise you may have some explaining to do when you try and leave 3 days after it’s expired.

Passport Photos:


Some countries want a photo of your pretty l’il face before issuing you a visa on arrival, so stock up on a couple before you leave. Yes – you can get passport photos pretty much anywhere, but do you really want to have to deal with it on your vacation?

Medical Information:

This includes your Immunization Card and copies of your prescriptions. Countries like Kenya will not allow you entry unless you have proof you’ve received a Yellow Fever vaccination. And customs officials get very suspicious of jars of pills without proper documentation – “proper” being official documentation from a doctor, not something written on the back of a napkin.

Wallet:

I’m going to assume you know what a wallet is for… just don’t put ALL of your cash & credit cards in it. Just put in what you think you’ll need for the day. That way, if it’s lost or “borrowed” you don’t lose everything. The rest of your cash, etc. should be kept in your…

Money Belt:

A money belt is a small pouch you put money into and then wear discreetly under your clothes. IT IS NOT A FANNY PACK, so don’t wear it on the outside. When you do that, you defeat the whole point of having it – you might as well just wear a sign that says “hey everybody – look where I keep all my cash!” If you want a fanny pack, then buy a fanny pack – I believe they’re still for sale in 1987. But if you want to keep your money safe then bring a money belt and use it properly. And one other thing - avoid wearing your money belt under form fitting clothes, like tights & a tank top, because you can still see it.

Bank Cards:

ATMs are available almost everywhere… ALMOST everywhere. You’ll find them for sure in major cities and I think they are still the most reliable way to get cash. Despite some of the extra service charges your bank may have, they still tend to give you less hassle than private exchange services.

Plus ATMs don’t typically try and rip you off as much as the guy who owns the Dry-Cleaning / Coffee Shop / Currency Exchange booth in the market. Just check to see that the machine hasn’t been tampered with… try ejecting your card once BEFORE you type in your pin number. As well, make sure you have the Plus or Cirrus or Maestro symbol on your card – some banks, like PC Financial, can’t be used internationally.

A little trick – I actually opened up a new account with TD for my trip and because I’m carrying a large enough balance on it, they’ve waived all transaction fees, which in the long run will save me a couple days worth of expenses.

Credit Cards:

I tend to only use these for major purchases, like flights, etc. , though you can use them if you need a cash advance… just be sure to see if there are additional fees – some places transfer the 2-3% fee they’re charged by the credit card company over to you.

In a lot of developing countries, credit cards aren’t accepted. It’s really only an option at the more upscale chain hotels and restaurants. But if you do use it, check your balance regularly and report anything you don’t recognize… additional purchases have been known to “pop up” on statements.

It’s also good to let your bank & credit card companies know where and when you’re going so they don’t freeze your card… if you live in Kitchener and suddenly there’s a purchase in Hanoi, it can look a little suspicious.

US$ Cash:

It’s accepted pretty much everywhere worldwide and is easy to exchange. In fact, some countries only want their visas purchased in US$, so it’s good to have some. But if you can, bring some smaller denominations in case you need to pay an unexpected “fee” to a government official (ie. an extra $1USD to get your passport stamped).

Emergency Travel Insurance:

Don’t leave home without it. It’s not expensive and worth every penny should you need it, from personal injury to “lost” baggage.

If you’re leaving the country for a significant time and you’re an Ontario resident, you can sometimes extend your OHIP benefits to cover you while you’re away. It’s usually only for emergency situations, but it can help cover any costs your insurance won’t. You can do it for up to 2 years in your lifetime, so check with your local Ministry of Health office to see if you’re eligible.

I’m not sure if other provinces do this or not… and since I’m not from another province, I don’t care enough to look it up – do it yourself, you lazy bum.

Copies:


Make sure you have copies of all of your important items… passports, visas, plane tickets, immunization records, driver’s licenses, health cards, credit cards, etc. Instead of carrying photocopies of everything, get digital scans of whatever you may need and then save it to a little USB “jump drive” which you can carry in your money belt… though having at least one photocopy of your passport is a good thing.

It’s also good to leave a copy of everything with a friend/family member back home – in an emergency, they can fax or email you whatever you might need.

Guidebook(s):

This may not fall into the typical category of “necessity”, but I think guidebooks are pretty important.

They can give you an overview of what to expect, hints & suggestions on where to sleep & eat, what to do and where to go, as well as quirky little tidbits about what you might see. They have basic maps of countries, provinces & cities and are a good way to remind you of little things, like getting a visa.

But please remember, they’re only a guide – DO NOT TREAT THEM AS LAW!

Prices change, schedules change, politics change… so even though your book may say an entry visa is $25, the armed border guard telling you an entry visa is now $30 is probably right.

The number of times we’ve heard travelers get in arguments over a price they have in their book versus a posted price in a store/bus station/hotel is amazing… “but it says here, in this 3 year-old book which has no affiliation to you and your private company, that a beer is 20 Baht and not the 25 Baht you have clearly posted on the sign over the beer cooler!”

Some travel agents have a tendency to only know about the products they sell and may give false information in order to make their packages the best option, so asking them about public bus tickets & times isn’t always reliable. So when in doubt, it’s best to go directly to the source… ie. the bus station, the embassy, the taxi driver, etc.

An Open Mind:

Ultimately, this is the most important thing you can bring with you.

You are a guest in another country and culture, and an ambassador for your own country, so keep that in mind. No matter what you do, you’re automatically going to be treated as a tourist, but your actions can determine whether or not you’ll be treated as a welcome guest or an ignorant foreigner.

For instance, you don’t have to learn the whole language, but try and learn a few things as a sign of respect, such as “hello”, “good-bye”, “please”, “thank you”, “delicious”, etc. You may get a few smirks and giggles over your mispronunciation, but you will also earn some respect which can go a long way.

And remember, there’s a big difference between something being done “wrong” and something being done “differently”. Your expectation of how things should happen may not be the way they’re going to happen, so there’s no point in getting upset over minor details. For example, in Asia, food is typically served when it’s ready and it’s up to you whether you wait for everything or not before you start eating. So even though the spring rolls you had planned as an appetizer arrive after your main course, there’s no point getting upset – that’s just how it’s done, so try and enjoy your meal.

That being said, just because you’re a tourist, doesn’t mean you can be taken advantage of. If something serious is not going right – we’re talking real “serious”, not my eggs aren’t cooked right “serious” – don’t be afraid to stand your ground. Be firm but be polite and 9 times out of 10 a solution can be reached that will make everyone happy.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Days 109-111 - Laos

January 22-24, 2010 - Bokeo Nature Reserve, Laos

It’s Gibbon Experience day and we are full of excitement – my back is feeling way better and we are ready to go!!!

We arrive at the Gibbon office at 8:30am and are summoned into the lobby, where we meet our other group members and watch an introductory video on protocol and safety. We’re then loaded into a pick-up truck and driven to base camp.

And what a ride it is!

Eric and I offer to sit in the back of the pick-up thinking it’ll only be about 30-40 minutes, but we are way off. It turns out to be a 30 minute ride on a smooth-sealed and moderately hilly road, then another 1 ½ hours on a very rough-sealed, potholed, hilly road and finally another 30 minutes on a very hilly, very bumpy, dirt road. Thankfully, after the first two hours, our new friend Michael offers to switch spots with me and I get to sit on a cushioned seat in the cab of the truck. Both Eric, myself and my back thank him for it…

We make it to base camp in one piece.

“Base Camp” is a hill tribe village about half an hour hike from the jungle proper and on arrival we meet our guide Bomin, who wastes no time in getting us hiking to the jungle. After about 45 minutes we stop for a lunch of chicken baguette sandwiches, which are pretty tasty. We then continue hiking uphill, into the jungle – it’s a very mountainous area, so we find ourselves going up a lot.

Along the way we stop at a small grouping of huts, where we suit up in our zip-line harnesses. Eric is invited to play takrau with two of the guides before continuing on our way. He’s actually getting pretty good at it, considering he’s only played about three times in his life.


With our harnesses on, we continue our hike up until we reach our first zip-line run.

This is where Eric and I get really excited.

As I’ve already mentioned, this is one of the things we’ve been looking forward to since we began planning our trip and the feeling of actually being here is overwhelming.

The first zip-line is amazing… words can’t describe it.


It flies us 150 metres in the air, over the jungle canopies and into a small tree-house. From there, we take another zip-line back to the jungle floor and once again the zip is amazing.

The stop however, is not so amazing.

I’m having difficulties with my brake and the next thing I know, I’m crashing into a tree trunk with my right butt cheek… good thing I still have some cushioning there. I’m more worried about my back, which seems to hold itself together, but I’m sure I’ll wake up tomorrow with a good “bruise of honour”.

We keep hiking through the jungle and make our way to another zip-line. This one looks to be about 500 meters in length and soars over a valley.

Eric offers to go first and with a huge smile on his face, he takes off like a pro. About 5 seconds in I hear him holler – he’s lost his hat in the trees below. I can tell he’s pretty disappointed – it’s his “Dirty Business” hat, which has a lot of meaning for him – but unfortunately there’s no way for any of us to retrieve it.


And then it’s my turn.

I hook myself in, re-clarify the use of the brake with Bomin and take off.

The view is spectacular. I feel like I’m flying.

And then I see the landing platform and it’s approaching very quickly.

I begin to brake but I don’t seem to be slowing down as much as I would like to. I pull down harder and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

And then the platform is right there.

I kick out my legs to help brace my landing, but somehow I miss the top of the platform and crash into the end of the platform boards, legs first.

I manage to right myself, but there seems to be searing pain coming from my right shin.

I look at Eric and he looks at me.

I hear him say “oh, shit!”

And then I look down.

My leg is pouring blood and Eric jumps into action.

He knows I’m a wimp when it comes to seeing my own blood, so he sits me down and begins to clean me up. My crash has taken two big chunks out of my shins, which are very messy, but thankfully nothing is broken and I can walk on it alright.


Everyone is across by the time Eric stabilizes the bleeding. Between our first aid kit and the other people in the group, he manages to bandage me up enough to get me to our tree-house for the night. I get myself together and our group begins the final portion of the hike.

We arrive at the “sleeping tree-house” mid-afternoon and it is awesome. It’s essentially three levels:

The first level is the landing area for the zip-line you come in on.

The second level is the main floor with the bathroom, kitchen and sleeping area for six people.

The third level is another sleeping area for two more people.

It has a roof but the sides are open except for the safety railings. We have a complete 360 degree view and all we can see is jungle.

All we can hear is jungle.

It is humbling.




After Eric cleans up my leg again, he leaves to retrace his steps and see if he can retrieve his hat. Unfortunately, he comes back empty-handed but stoked from the additional zip-lines he did.

Revved up on adrenaline he heads back out to continue zip-lining and he’s joined by our new friends Michael & Stephanie.

After a great dinner, we relax and induct Michael & Stephanie into the world of Skip-Bo. Unfortunately, we discover we’ve created a monster in Michael because he is determined to win. It becomes a game of Canada versus Germany.


We spend Day 2 of the Gibbon Experience hiking, zipping and hanging out at a secluded waterfall.



Eric switches his equipment with me, which helps me out considerably. He’s able to manage the brake I had, so all is good.

We hike another 6 hours in total and most of it is uphill. The zip-lines run over tree canopies, valleys and rivers. One of the best lines we do is over a river just down from our tree-house – the scenery is breathtaking!


We arrive at our second tree-house mid-afternoon.

My shin & back seem to be doing alright, so Eric, Michael, Stephanie and I head out to complete one loop before I retire for the day and rest my leg. Eric goes out to run a longer course and Michael & Stephanie continue on the short course.

It’s hilarious because Eric returns from his course and Michael & Stephanie are still going on the short loop. They ride it over and over and over, and get more and more confident that eventually we see them doing tricks and hear them singing aloud. They must have done the course five times!

The second tree-house is two levels. The first level is the landing platform and bathroom and the second level is the main living area. The bathrooms in both tree-houses are open to the world, but they have running water & a shower and when you pee it just falls to the jungle below… so look out monkeys!!!


The final day is more zipping and then we hike back to the base camp.


Our last run of the trip also happens to be the longest zip-line of the trip – it’s almost a kilometer long! Besides the guide, Eric and I are the only two that make it from end to end without having to pull ourselves to finish, which I think is pretty cool. After as much zipping Eric has done this weekend, he’s starting to look like a pro!


When we get back to Huay Xai, we have a shower and then meet up with Michael & Stephanie for dinner where we rehash the weekend.

Oh and of course, we get a game of Skip-Bo in, which Michael finally wins!!

Day 108 – Laos

January 21, 2010 - Huay Xai, Laos

We wake up and grab a baguette for breakfast.

One of the many great things about Laos is because of the French influence, baguettes are available everywhere. It’s been so long since we’ve had access to good bread that we’re very excited for this dietary option.

I’m relieved that my back is feeling much better. It’s not a 100% yet, but another quiet day and I will be ready to experience life as a gibbon.

On a positive note, the down time will allow us the perfect opportunity to catch up on our blog. During our whirlwind Indonesia trip, we fell behind in updating it, but we now have a great system for writing in place, so we should be back up in no time… I dump all of my thoughts onto the computer and then Eric goes through and polishes my thoughts, adds his 2-cents worth and then writes his commentaries. We seem to make a great team, which is good ‘cuz we’re stuck with each other for the rest of the trip.

Dinner is Indian food, which is a welcome and delicious change, and packing our small bags for the 3-day / 2-night adventure.

Day 107 – Thailand to Laos

January 20, 2010 - Chiang Mai, Thailand to Huay Xai, Laos

Our day begins with a 5:00am wake up… these early mornings are becoming a regular thing for us, which is a little concerning.

We finish packing our bags, hail a tuk-tuk and off to the bus station we go, arriving much earlier than we had anticipated. After Indonesia we’ve learned to give ourselves plenty of flex time – sometimes it works to our advantage and sometimes we arrive way too early.

Today we arrive way too early, so we take off our bags and grab a seat to wait.

It’s an eight hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, the Thai city used to cross the border into Laos. We arrive there in good time and hop in another tuk-tuk to take us to the Mekong river crossing.

Immigration is quick and painless, we get on the ferry for the 5 minute ride to Huay Xai, Laos and just like that, we are in Laos.

The on-arrival visa process takes about 20 minutes and after that, we walk up the road to find ourselves a place to sleep and grab some food.

Eric and I are thrilled to be in Huay Xai because this is where the Gibbon Experience is based out of.

The Gibbon Experience is a series of tree-houses located in the rooftops of the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Laos. Each of the tree-houses are connected back to the jungle by zip-line, so you spend your days hiking and zipping through the jungle and your evenings sleeping in the trees… just like gibbons. It’s a great eco-tourism project which provides employment for the local community and education to visitors and locals alike.

www.gibbonx.org

We’ve been looking forward to this adventure for a while and we’re scheduled to do it on January 22nd…

… which is perfect because I need a couple days of recovery. This morning, while we were waiting at the bus terminal, I lifted my backpack wrong and tweaked my back… ironically just after Eric offered to help me lift it and I told him I was okay.

“Doing nothing”, here I come.

Happiness is…

…not being the one who gets sprayed by an elephant.

video

Days 103-106 – Thailand

January 16-19, 2010 - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Unlike the last overnight bus we took, the one to Chiang Mai arrives on schedule and at a reasonable time.

We find a place to stay and begin wandering around, trying to figure out what we want to do over the next couple of days. The opportunity for organized activities in Chiang Mai is mind-blowing and all of the guesthouses seem to be one-stop shops.

The first activity we decide to do is go see a Muay Thai fight.


I keep mixing up the name and calling it a Mai Thai fight and Eric points out that although they’re very different – one is a Thai kickboxing match and the other is a cocktail – in both cases, you’ll probably wake up the next morning with a headache.

When I was in Thailand in 2005, I went and saw a proper Muay Thai fight at a stadium in Bangkok, so I had a certain expectation in mind. However, when we arrive at the “stadium” it turns out to be just a bunch of bars surrounding a Muay Thai ring. It’s obvious these fights are scheduled for the tourist benefit and despite my initial reservations, we see some great fights and have a fun evening. And as a bonus, we get entertained in between matches by a bunch of “Lady-Boys” performing Abba, the Village People, Cher, etc. Again… one-stop shopping.



The following day we take part in a Thai cooking class. There are lots of options for learning to cook in Chiang Mai and we sign up for the “Chili Club” which is run by Mr. Vissut.

Mr. Vissut has been teaching Thai cooking at our guesthouse for over ten years and when we watched him with another group the day before, we could tell he really enjoyed his job. His enthusiasm seemed contagious, so we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And since the class takes place right outside our bedroom door, how could we say no to the convenience of it all?

There are four of us in the class – Eric & I, obviously, and two ladies from Australia. And wouldn’t you know it – they’re vegetarians… and we all know how Eric feels about vegetarians. Luckily, Mr. Vissut is a genius when it comes to modifying recipes to suit both omnivores and herbivores and he comes to our rescue.


We start off by picking the dishes we would like to cook.

The first two we choose are dishes we’ll learn together as a group - Thumb Yam Goong (Hot & Sour Prawn Soup) and Kow Nee-ow Ma-muang (Mango & Sticky Rice).

Then we each get to choose two individual dishes.

Eric chooses Pat Pet Moo (Stir-Fried Spicy Pork) and Geng-garee-guy (Yellow Curry Chicken) and I choose Pat Pre-au Waan (Sweet and Sour Chicken) and Pat Paneng (Stir-Fried Curry). We also learn to make Yam Woon Sen (Spicy Glass Noodle Salad), as if there isn’t going to be enough food already!

After choosing the menu, it’s off to the market we go, carrying our little woven rattan baskets. I have a good chuckle watching Eric skip down the laneway with his basket.


At the market, Mr. Vissut explains the various produce we see and collects the ingredients we need for the day. Once we have all our supplies, we head back to begin cooking, grinning ear-to-ear.


We cook and we cook and we cook and then, we eat.

And boy do we eat – I’m stuffed by the end of the day!

Let’s just say Eric and I are in heaven considering both of us love to cook and haven’t cooked anything – not even toasted a piece of bread – for over 3 months.


The next morning we wake up bright and early and head to the bus station… we’re going to see elephants!

Elephants are a huge part of Thai culture and with the exception of a brief glimpse of them in Ayutthaya, we have yet to see any – so it’s off to the Thai Elephant Conservatory we go!

For generations, Thailand used elephants for everything from agriculture to logging to construction, much the same way we used horse and oxen in North America. But since technology has become more accessible, the role of the elephant has significantly changed. They are no longer in demand for work and unfortunately many of them have been abandoned. As a result, Thailand created the Elephant Conservatory to take care of them. It has a hospital, a nursery & breeding center and rehabilitation centre, which they open to the public in a great mix of tourism and conservation.

We’re very excited to go, so we grab a local bus heading south along the highway to Lamphun and with the help of a nice mathematics professor, we let the bus driver know where we want to get off. About 1 ½ hours later we reach our destination and he pulls over to the side of the highway. We hop off...

… and are immediately “greeted” by about two dozen policemen and military personnel, all waving at us, telling us to get back on the bus. Eric and I look at each other confused and give the nearest policeman a bewildered look. Through the help of our trusty phrasebook, he informs us that the Conservatory is closed and we need to get back on the bus.

But since we don’t want to continue to Lamphun, we tell him we need to go back to Chiang Mai. He waves the bus onward and then escorts us to the opposite side of the highway. We’re still not sure what’s going on and why the Conservatory is closed, so we ask him why and he points to a banner at the entrance of the park. It has a picture of a woman who we think is the Queen. In unison we say, “the Queen?” and he nods.


Ah… I see.

So now we’re on the side of the highway, waiting for a bus. We begin to notice an eerie silence settling around us and all of the police officers and military “folk” are now standing at attention.

So Eric and I also stand at attention.

We notice the traffic has been stopped about 1 km away from the park entrance in both directions.

We hear voices rising from the forest behind us.

A procession of official-looking cars crosses the highway and enters the Conservatory.

And to make things even stranger, hundreds of people dressed in traditional Thai clothing suddenly emerge from the forest and come down the hill behind us.

All we can do is say “sa-wat-dee ka/kap” – which is “hello” in Thai – because I imagine two foreigners standing at attention at the side of the road looks as strange to them as this looks to us.

After about 20 minutes traffic starts up again and an officer hails the first bus that goes by and sticks us on it. Never mind that it’s full and we have to sit in the aisle – the officers want us out of there and who are we to argue?


We make our way back to Chiang Mai and finish off our day visiting the night market and scoping out the shopping potentials.

The next morning we wake up bright and early and head to the bus station again… we’re going to see elephants!

After learning the Queen has visited, we’re even more curious and this time we catch the early morning bus and arrive without a hitch.

We start off watching a demonstration of the elephant’s skills… dragging rocks, lifting logs, playing music and painting. Yeah – that’s right… playing music & painting!


We then move on to my favourite part of the Conservatory – visiting the elephant nursery and getting a chance to feed the baby and mother elephants. It’s awesome – we get to feed them and pet them, though one of babies wasn’t too impressed with me for running out of food and let me know.

You’ll see what I’m talking about in the next article.


We really enjoy our time there and head back to Chiang Mai early afternoon.

As we are walking back to our hostel, weaving our way through the city from the bus station, wouldn’t you know we stumble upon a road block with about a dozen police officers. They instruct us to take a seat at the side of the road and we wait about 15 minutes before we’re allowed to continue our walk down the street. As we are walking past a very institutional looking building, who do we see?

Yes, you guessed it.

The Queen.

Again.

Seriously – she’s really starting to cramp our style!

We finish off our last night in Chiang Mai by visiting a local haunt for some Chiang Mai noodles and making some purchases at the night bazaar… Eric finally finds the Yoda T-Shirt he’s been looking for.

Tomorrow we’re off to Laos!!!