Friday, February 26, 2010

The Road to Luang Prabang

When we were planning our trip we knew that we couldn't plan out each step very far in advance. It was too difficult to know what the conditions would be at a given time and place. Plus, we wouldn't have wanted to be held to a specific itinerary; we knew that we'd discover new places we'd like to visit along the way. This is how we arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos. (Our guide book spells it Louang Phabang so you'll see us spell it both ways or just abbreviate it LP). Located in North-central Laos, LP is a charming, very much French-inspired town with lots of little temples, street vendors selling fresh sandwiches on excellent baguettes, and myriads of coffee shops and guest houses.
We've had two sandwiches in two days from this lady
However, getting here can be quite the adventure, as we can attest. First there was the border crossing. We took a pick-up truck to the border and went through Thai customs, which was easy, then boarded a boat across the river where we went through Laos customs, which involved securing a Visa from one guy, paying $35 US dollars each to another guy who stamped our passport, then getting it all checked by a third guy. I'm pretty sure the TSA from the US were involved in training the Laos border agents.

After getting checked in along with a large group of French and French-Canadian tourists, and one Japanese guy (who bragged that his Laos Visa was free!) we all boarded a van (14 of us in an 10-seater van) to the private bus station where we had two hours to wait before our bus left. Little did we know this would be the "calm before the storm."

First of all, although we had assigned seats, nobody sat in them because the seat numbers were underneath the luggage space so no one saw them so people just sat where they wanted and even after showing the people in our assigned seats, they wouldn't move because it would have meant the people in their seats would have to move, etc. Therefore, since we were the last on the bus (seeing no point in boarding early since the seats were assigned), we got seats in the last row, squished in between a monk, a Chinese and a Laotian, who I'll just mention were constantly on their respective cell phones most of the trip. Each phone had its own ring tone so after a while we would know who was getting a call just by the ring. "Oh, the monk is getting a text message now," we'd think as the bus creeped along the windy, bumpy roads.

Without going into too much detail I'll summarize and say the bus was delayed by over 10 hours, we broke down twice, got rescued by another bus (but only the locals had to get on that bus), and eventually made it to LP 25 hours after we left our Thai guest house.
The guy in the green sweatshirt was actually a passenger
We were so sleep and food deprived that I felt like I was hallucinating. (Why is everyone speaking a weird language? Where are we?) We tried going to a Guest House recommended by the Korean we met in Chiang Mai (he gave us the guest house business card and everything) but when we found the place we couldn't make out if 120,000 kip (the Laotian currency) was a good deal or not. Let's see, it's about 8,500 kip to the dollar or 260 baht to the kip, so that means 120,000 is? It's not easy even with all your faculties, which we definitely did not have at that point. Eventually, with the help of a calculator, we found out this was about $14 US, and being significantly more than we were used to paying, we decided to move on. We found a place down the road (you can't walk more than five feet without going by a guest house) where a room was 80,000 kip (about $9.50 US) so we took that.

After a street sandwich each and a couple cold glasses of Beerlao we crashed under the fan of our room. Today we switched to another guest house where we could have our own bathroom for the same price.

LP has definitely made it on the "tourist track" and we can see why. In fact, today we ran into a couple that was in our cooking class in Chiang Mai (they arrived today after only a 15 hour bus ride and just one breakdown). The town itself is very cozy, the food is good, and compared to the hustle and bustle of streets in Thailand, it's pretty quiet here. We're not sure how many days we'll stay. We might rent bicycles for a day and tour around or possibly take a boat trip down the river. Since we were supposed to arrive by boat initially, it would be nice to at least experience it for a bit. We do know we don't want to leave right away as the thought of getting on the bus anytime soon is not very appealing.

Here are pictures all the way from Chiang Khong to LP (we'll be adding to it as we do more stuff here).

Monday, February 22, 2010

No boat for us

We are leaving for Laos in about an hour, taking an overnight bus directly to the town of Louang Phabang. We had originally planned on taking a two day "slow boat" trip down the river, but the river levels are too low for the slow boats. Apparently, speed boats are still running and will make the trip in one day, but they can only take four passengers because of the water levels. Some fellow travelers we met in Chiang Mai (who's blog is quite good, by the way) alerted us as a comment on our last blog post that the boats were canceled, but we would probably have come up here anyway, as our 15-day visa for Thailand runs out in a couple days. Our super-friendly guest house sells bus tickets that include the border crossing ferry so we've decided to just go with that.

We spent the night at the border town of Chiang Khong, which is a nice enough town, as far as border towns go. We got off the bus around 8PM and were met by the owners of the Baan Rimtaling Guest House, a Thai woman and a guy from Florida, who as it turns out, can talk your ear off. We were lucky to get the last double room in the place, which at only 160 Baht (less than $5 US) is quite a steal. Plus, they ran a decent restaurant, so after the seven hour bus ride from Chiang Mai, we enjoyed some good curry and beer.

The water levels of the river are quite low, which we could see in the morning from our guest house:

We went for a short walk around town this morning, saw some monks buying cell phones (see our pictures), and Jaimee bought some yarn (surprisingly hard to find around SE Asia) and got a massage. Overall, a decent stopover.

Update: It turns out that just like airlines, buses also get overbooked. The bus to Laos was overbooked by two people, so in exchange for free dinner at the restaurant tonight and a discount on a room with our own bathroom (it's amazing what becomes a luxury after awhile), we decided to stay another night and head to Laos tomorrow.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Temples and Markets

After spending five days and nights here in Chiang Mai, this turns out to be our longest stay in one place since WWOOFing in New Zealand. We've wondered around, visiting all the temples inside the city, and last night we went to the Night Market, an area of town that becomes a huge outdoor shopping pavilion from 5PM onwards. There's a Sunday Night Market that we plan on visiting tonight, although since we're not really in the market for t-shirts, fake Tiffany jewelery, fake Rolexes, jade elephants, wooden bowls, etc. we don't plan on buying anything. It's fun to look around though.

Today we took a little side-trip out to Wat Doi Suthep, about 10 miles outside Chiang Mai, which was more of an adventure getting there than actually seeing the temple.

We went to the meeting place where taxis take people out to the temple. As we approached the line of waiting songthaews (pickups with benches in the back) we were beckoned towards a group of tourists waiting nearby. Apparently the songthaew drivers like to get around 500 Baht ($15 USD) per trip, and the trucks hold about 10 people so if it's full it costs 50 Baht each. The driver doesn't care if it's full - he just wants his 500 Baht, so when we approach the group (a Polish couple, a Korean man, and a mother/daughter from France) the driver is negotiating prices for the trip. He's also trying to sell side-trips to other temples, palaces and the like, some of which the Polish couple wanted, but the French lady did not. Being that we spoke the best English amongst the group we became lead negotiators. We brokered a deal to leave immediately for 60 Baht each for those that wanted just the temple, and 80 for the Polish couple to go to both the temple and the palace. This seemed like a fair deal, and we were ready to go when the Polish couple said no, they wanted 50 for the temple and the palace. The driver walked away disgusted. Luckily, four Chinese walked up and we all agreed to just go to the temple only for 50 each and let the Polish negotiate their palace tour separately.

The temple was quite pretty, but extremely touristy (should have expected that I suppose). It was also under going some renovations:
We walked around the grounds, had some pineapple and fried bananas, and came back to town.

Tomorrow we leave for Laos. We plan on taking a bus to the border town, spending the night on the Thai side, then crossing over in the morning where we hope to take a two-day boat ride down the Mekong river to the town of Luang Prabang. At least that's our plan...

Update: We added some more pictures, including some of our visit to the excellent Sunday Night Market.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dreaming about Curry

We are now relaxing in Chiang Mai, in the North of Thailand. We took an overnight train from Bangkok, and although we had an upper bunk again like we did from Hat Yai to Bangkok, this train ride was much more comfortable. The air-conditioning was not freezing us out and the ride itself, although 13 hours long was on-time and relatively pleasant.

Chiang Mai is quite a contrast to Bangkok. Although it's a bustling city with all sorts of traffic the weather is much cooler. It gets hot during the day, but the mornings are very cool; we noticed it right away getting off the train around 7AM.

The train station in Chiang Mai was a zoo - everyone offered us ride, places to stay, tours. Since we didn't know where we were staying we decided to walk the 2 km into town, especially since the weather was so cool. Apparently people don't walk in Chiang Mai; we had to dismiss tuk-tuk drivers and taxi cabs every 100 feet or so.
Walking into town
Eventually we got into town and after looking at one grungy guest house, found Libra House, a very nice place with a lovely courtyard and free wifi! The rooms are small, but adequate, and at 200 Baht per night ($6 USD) it's certainly within our budget.

The only thing of note we've done here is take a Thai cooking class. We had a great time at this class. The class took place on a farm about a half-hour outside the city. They picked us up in the morning, we went to the market to look at the ingredients we'd be using that day, then went to the farm. The class was outstanding. We made green and red curry (from scratch, using a mortar and pestle), tom yum soup, spring rolls, phad thai, papaya salad and mango with sticky rice. We ate part of what we made for lunch, but also brought enough home for dinner later! The class is run by Thai Farm Cooking School and it comes highly recommended.

Other than the class, we've been eating yummy food, drinking lots of fruit shakes and reading in the hammocks at the courtyard of our guest house.

Here are the pictures, mostly of our cooking class, but a few of the Chiang Mai itself. Maybe if we get motivated we'll see some of the temples outside the city, but for now we're just enjoying relaxing and not doing too much.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Six Months

Today marks six months of traveling since we left Seattle on August 15th of last year. Our first adventure in the Enchantments of central Washington seems far away in both distance and time from our current adventure in Bangkok Thailand.

From Langkawki, Malaysia we took a ferry to Satun, Thailand, where after a fairly painless border crossing (didn't speak a word to the customs agent), we bused it to the town of Hat Yai where were caught an overnight train to Bangkok. Pulling into the dock at Satun, this is our first view of Thailand:
From Bangkok
Public transport in Thailand is interesting to say the least. If it has a motor, people use it as public transportation - motorcycle taxis, "tuk tuks" - small vans or converted three wheel motorcycles, boats of all kinds, vans, taxis, etc. For example, they packed 12 adults into the back of a two-wheel drive Toyota pickup (not an extended bed truck either) to get to the bus station in Satun. (Why they don't just put the bus station near the ferry, I don't know...) We took this picture, pitying the poor people who had to ride in it before we realized we were taking one as well:
From Bangkok
The train ride was not very comfortable, but what 17 hour train ride is? We bought a 2nd class "sleeper" car, but that's a misnomer; someone comes through around 9PM and converts all the seats into "beds", essentially five foot, 10 inch sofas (I'm six feet tall). Plus, the only seats available were upper bunks, right next to the air-conditioning vents. It was like sleeping outside in the winter it was so cold. I actually pulled out my 25 degree sleeping bag, which had been pretty useless since we got to SE Asia and crawled inside it to try and sleep, although with the florescent light on right above my head, there wasn't much sleeping.

Once in Bangkok, we worked our way over to the area of town where our couchsurfing host lived. We took the subway (yes, Bangkok has a subway), the sky train (ditto) and finally a taxi. We later realized taking a taxi the whole way would have been both cheaper and faster, but what did we know?

Our host, Nuch, met our taxi (the taxi driver had to call her on the cell since he couldn't understand our instructions or read the English script version of the address), gave us the keys to the apartment and said she was "busy" and had to go. We let ourselves in to discover one room with a double bed, a small empty wardrobe, and a bathroom. We didn't understand what was going on. Did she live here? Were all three of us going to sleep here? Only when she came back three hours later did she tell us this is an extra "apartment" that she has for family and friends. So, we had the place to ourselves.

The neighborhood reminded me of the Puerto Rican/Dominican neighborhoods of New York City (do these even still exist?) because of all the mid-rise apartment buildings, lots of little convenience stores and tons people on the street. Nuch says she likes having couchsurfers stay here because they get to see how real Thais live, as opposed to the touristy (or sex business) areas. There certainly were no tourists in this area, and we've enjoyed the relaxing atmosphere of having our own apartment. Our first evening we caught a beautiful sunset off the roof of her building (we're staying on the 12th floor):
From Bangkok
I was still feeling kind of sick our first full day in Bangkok so we took it easy just wandering around and not doing too much. I started feeling better toward the evening and we went to the Khao San district and had an amazing organic vegetarian Thai buffet at May Kaidee. I think after a few days of not feeling well and not eating very much, I was ready for scrumptious healthy food. I shoveled in loads of curries, spring rolls with peanut sauce, tempura vegetables, noodles, rice and salads. It was super tasty, amazingly fresh, and lucky for us since they only do the buffet once a week on Saturday. And the best part? It was only $3 a piece, including fruit shakes!

Yesterday, we took the canal boat by the apartment out to a floating market, a meeting place along the river where every weekend hundreds of boats meet up along a dock and form an impromptu market to sell various products and food. We had a scrumptious lunch of rice, noodles and spring rolls (we could live off these things!) before taking a three hour canal tour. Our boat was a low slung affair packed full of holidaying Thais. It was Chinese New Year, after all. We got squeezed into a bench built for much shorter people, right next to a young man who was "on the spectrum." Jaimee believes she is a magnet for people like this. You know the ones; personal space issues (either you are in their space or they are in yours), always facing the wrong way, and that nice mumbling and singing. While sitting beside this fellow he spread way out in the seat causing us to have less than half the row for the two of us. Then when we piled back into the boat after a stop he was RIGHT behind Jaimee, exhibiting his personal space issues again... The best part was when there was a big splash (the canal was full of fish) and his family wiped the water off his face for him. Jaimee felt nervous because a family that jumps to at a time like that only does it for one reason - to avoid a meltdown.
From Bangkok
The tour was pretty lame - there was a guy who would talk about all the sights (including at least 10 temples), but he only spoke Thai (maybe that's why we were the only white people on the boat?) and one of the stops included a visit to a zoo where there was a snake show.

Before ever complaining about conditions in American zoos again, I'll realize the animals could have it much, much worse. This zoo was depressing, and although it was kind of amazing how close the snake handlers got to the snakes, we also felt kind of bad for the snakes. Here's one performer with three cobras:
From Bangkok
We're staying one more night in Bangkok before heading North to Chiang Mai tomorrow night. We plan on heading up there to see the forests and mountains of Thailand, as well as take some cooking classes at a farm we read about on the Internet. To be able to make anything close to the amazing green curry we've been devouring here would be awesome.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Last stop before Thailand

We've had a pretty relaxing three nights on Langkawi. It's been really hot and humid, and the guest house we stayed at didn't have air-conditioning which was kind of a bummer. But, we were lucky to actually find a room along the beach strip. The days leading up to Chinese New Year (Feb 14) are a huge travel time for people in the region, and although Langkawi has a lot of foreign tourists, there are also quite a few local tourists too.

The ferry from Penang was pretty straight-forward, about a three hour ride. It was on a Victoria Clipper type fast ferry that was completely full. We got a kick out of the fact that they screened the movie A Perfect Storm during the trip, especially since the ride was a little rocky.

One of the days here we did an "Island Hopping Tour" where we got to visit the Island of the Pregnant Lady and swim in a fresh-water lake on the island, which supposedly helps with fertility...
Also in the lake are hundreds of catfish that will rub against your feet if you stick them in the water. This is a popular spa treatment around Malaysia; we've seen "fish soaks" advertised all over the place here.

After the lake, we went to an "eagle feeding" where the boats dump food into the water and lots of eagles come out to grab the food out of the water.
And lastly we went to a third island where there was a beautiful beach for swimming and beer drinking!
Other than the tour, it's been pretty low-key here. And today was a recovery day (unrelated to the beer drinking). Last night I went to bed with a pretty high fever and didn't sleep all that well. I also had to take Imodium...which thankfully worked quite well. I'm feeling a lot better, the fever has subsided and I'm hoping that's the worst of it. It may have been caused by something I ate or drank, but Jaimee didn't get sick and we pretty much ate/drank the same stuff. Anyway, there are few people who come to SE Asia and don't get sick, so I guess it was only a matter of time.

Tomorrow we take the ferry on to Thailand, where we hope to catch an overnight train to Bangkok. We've arranged couchsurfing in Bangkok for the weekend. We'll see how that works out...

Here are all the photos from Langkawi (including monkey pictures!)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Pearl of the Orient

According to our travel brochures, the island of Penang on the Northwest of Malaysia, is the "Pearl of the Orient". The brochures promised "lovely beaches, colourful history and rich potpourri of cultures." We found it to be your typical Malaysian town: loud unruly traffic, loads of excellent food choices and shopping malls. We did find a beach but it wasn't as lovely as the beaches we found in the Perhentian Islands.

After taking the ferry off the islands we waited for a bus back to the main town. And we waited some more. And we had to shoo away taxi drivers who asked us every 20 minutes or so where we were going. Eventually we broke down and took a bus that wasn't going to the town we wanted but was at least getting us away from the taxi stand in Kuala Besut!

Where the bus took us was the town of Kota Bharu in Northeastern Malaysia, right on the Thailand border. When we got off the bus we couldn't go 10 feet without teenagers harassing us. One group followed us to the ATM and then the Pharmacy and we had no idea what they wanted. Turned out they wanted to practice their English. They went to a private English school and had an assignment to find English speakers. We chatted with a couple groups of them. I thought it might be a scam, but we left without being pick pocketed or anything else happening and in fact we got some presents from them in return.
From Penang

We caught an over-night bus to Penang, but the bus got in two hours early so we were dropped off at 4:30AM. We shared a taxi into town with a woman from New Zealand and then got to sample some of the left-over nightlife of Penang. There was a drunk Irish guy who said we could stay at his hostel - he ended up taking a taxi three blocks when we finally got him to leave us alone. And there was a really nice bar owner who let us rest in the back of her bar while we waited for any of the hostels/guest houses to open up.

Luckily a guest house nearby opened up fairly early and let us check-in around 8:30, where we took a nap before hitting the town. The main town of Georgetown on Penang is Malaysia's second-largest city it seems to be quite popular with both tourists and locals for vacationing. We took the bus out to a huge temple complex, Malaysia's largest Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si Temple. It was quite beautiful all lit up at night:
From Penang

Although we loved the street food in Georgetown, the city wasn't all that exciting so we heading along the coast of the island out to a smaller town of Batu Ferringhi, where there are some beaches. There are some foreigners here, but it seems very popular with Malaysian vacationers. The beach reminds us a lot of our trip to Mexico a year ago; there are people selling things along the beach and offers to do all sorts of water activities.

Tomorrow we take the ferry out to Langkawi.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Heading West

We're leaving the Perhentian Islands today. We're catching a Noon boat back to the mainland and then heading across the peninsula to the West Coast of Malaysia. We hope to visit Penang and possibly the island of Langkawi. From there we hope to cross over into Thailand.

We enjoyed our stay here in the Perhentians. Yesterday we went snorkeling and saw sharks, turtles and a million fish. The sharks were small, but it's still pretty scary to be within 15 feet of a shark! If only we had an underwater camera!

We uploaded a couple more pictures since our last post. Have a look at the full set:
Perhentian Islands

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Island Time

After more than a week in Southeast Asia we've finally hit the beach! Following our blitz tour of Kuala Lumpur we took an overnight bus to the Northeastern coast of Malaysia. The bus ride itself was fine as it was air-conditioned (a little too well in fact) but we noticed a definite difference on the east coast. For one, it's much poorer and rural. KL was super built-up, and although chaotic, relatively modern. And Melaka was also quite modern.

Second, the muslim influence is much more pronounced on this side. The scenery is mostly disheveled houses surrounded by beautiful Mosques. Here's a fancy Mosque we snapped a picture of from our bus window:

After the overnight bus we boarded another bus to take us a few hours north, and then a local bus to the small port town of Kuala Besut and finally a boat out to the Perhentian Islands. Overall it was a journey of over 13 hours. The Prehentian Islands are two islands, called Perhentian Kecil and Perehentian Besar (Small and Large). Since it's sort of off-season we decided to stay at the more built up of the two islands since we didn't know how much was open yet. During the monsoon season (roughly November to February) the islands pretty much shut down. However, because it's the off-season we scored an awesome bungalow with our own bathroom and air-conditioning for 50 ringgits a night (less than $15 US). We love SE Asia!

And our first two days were beautiful weather, today being the only day with a little rain. It's super humid and hot, but we can escape to our room if we need to cool down or we've been swimming in the ocean. There's one main beach on the island, called Long Beach (a short walk through the jungle) where we spent a good chunk of yesterday, lying out and swimming. We even built a little sun shelter with Jaimee's sarong she got in New Zealand:

It's very relaxing here. We plan on taking a snorkeling trip tomorrow and then maybe leaving the day after that. There isn't a ton to do here, other than drink fruit juices, eat yummy food and swim in the ocean. In other words, it's pretty awesome!
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