Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I know I just finally finished posting about LP but I thought that I should mention something about Hanoi just so I feel like I am up-to-date a little bit and not stress about blogginb 24-7.

We arrived in Hanoi late Sunday evening. I think I mentiond before but it is rather cool here. It was a welcome change from the blazing sun of LP but the weather has since gotten colder and neither of us is really prepared, clothes-wise, for the situation. It started raining last night and then started up again this afternoon pretty hard. The temperature has since dropped and is currently 55 degree Farenheit (I just checked).

I'm way too lazy to dig my tennis shoes out from the bottom of my bag (and clean them) so my feel had been pretty perpetually frozen in my sandles. But at least I did bring jeans.

We have't really done too much here even though we've been here two full days. Nicole has been on-and-off sick or headachy for a bit and we've both been sleeping a lot (I think from the drastic temperature and pressure changes we have endured in the past couple days).

We've walked around a lot and seen the city pretty well, I'd say. Nicole got in a pretty dramatic near-fight with an attendant at the Hanoi train station which she ended up winning, I walked to a really beautiful (and very old) temple set in the middle of a lake, we went on a veritable pilgrimage to find just about the most out-of-the-way vegeterian restaurant in history, we've been lost about two dozen times, and nearly gotten hit my motorbikes about a million times.

I'll update more later. Tomorrow we go on a two-day one-night "cruise" to Halong Bag. We decided to take the "deluxe" cruise since we've been staying in such cheap places for so long (our beds at our current hostel are pretty rediculous). I'm exciting to see the islands and go kayaking and hopefully it won't rain.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Luang Prabang - Part 2

So the previous post was my writings about Luang Prabang while I was still there. I didn't really have time to finish writing everything so I thought I should make a second Luang Prabang post to finish things up. As I mentioned earlier today, we are now in Vietnam and have been here for two days so we left Luang Prabang Sunday afternoon (and now it's Tuesday evening). It's getting difficult to remember exactly what I have talked about so bear with me if I mentioned something I already did.

Also this computer doesn't have English spell check so if there are typos, please bear with that too.

I think I was in the middle of writing about the historical museaum in LP and talking about the various gifts from various countries which were housed in the museaum.

After visiting the museaum we decided to attend (later in the evening) a performance of a traditional Laotian drama which were held in a building on the palace grounds a few times a week.

The performance was interesting. I can't say much more about it other than how interesting it was considering it was entirely in Laotian and also had very little dialogue in general. It WAS interesting though. The drama, while it did have a story (although I had no idea of any of the details at all), was mainly a series of dances. The Laotian dancers had on very elaborate and interesting cotumes in a very particular style. The men also had special masks on which covered their entire while the women had a particular type of hat. We had seen some of these types of masks (old ones) on display in the history museaum and it seems as though there are different styles of mask to depict differnt specific people or characters in the plays giving the impression that the people watching would know (if they were familiar with Laotian dance, anyway) who was who based on the mask that they had on. I did know at least (thanks to the placards in the museaum) who was a person, who was a monster, who was a monkey, and who was a bird (although it was generally pretty obvious), and these four types compromised all of the characters (thankfully).

(Side Note: right now both the Vietnamese guy at the front desk of my hostel and the French backpaker websurfing next to me are mumbling along to the same hip-hop song playing on the radio.)

This is what I gathered was the plot of the drama/play/dance. First there was an opening dance with a bunch of women. Next came in two men (I think kings, or important men) they talked about something for a while and then in came some monkies. The monkies talked to the kings and then they monkies went on a hunt. I think they were hunting this red bird because when they found the red bird they tried to kill him. They did not succeed in killing him but instead ending up talking to him. Then there was what seemed to be a side story involving a monster and his wife. The wife was not happy being married to the monster and she fell in love with a blue bird who passed by. The monster and the blue bird fought and the monster won so he won the girl. Then we went back to the monkies and the red bird. One monkey (the while monkey) flew on the back of the red bird for a while doing something. Then there was a dance with some giants. Then there was another dance with a bunch of women. Then it was over.

I am sure it all made sense in Laotian.

But I got the impression that, like other traditional art forms, it was a lot more about the dance than it was about the story. It reminded me of the feeling you get with opera (or at least the feeling I get) where it isn't really about knowing or understanding what the singers are saying more more about their singing in general and their motions and the drama of it. Or maybe I'm just bad with opera. The way the dancers moved was very particular. There was a particular way that they moved to signify walking or running or fighting or even when they were talking. The actors did not talk. Instead there was a voice-over on the speaker-system whenever anyone "talked" and the "speaker" made specific motions to indicate he was talking. This actually made it very difficult for me since the dancers who were "listening" we also makeing particulr "listening" motions. It's all hard to describe and unfortunatly I couldn't take any videos but I do have some pictures of the dancers at the end (which will be up EVENTUALLY).

One thing that struck me was that pretty much everyone in the audiance were tourists. This isn't really suprising considering that the same performance is done three times a week and the town only has a population of about 100,000. If anyone in the city had wanted to see it, I am sure they already did so long ago.

But it was still interesting to think how these people felt. They were all pretty young, probably around my age. Do their parents make them do this? Is this a sort of cultural thing that they feel obliged to do or do they do it to make money? Is this like an extracirriculr activity? I feel like, it would be weird if, say, when I was a kid and was still doing ballet, I would do it a couple times a week but ONLY for foreigners, not for community members, especially since I knew that the foreigners both did not understand the performance nor did they have any cultural connections to it.

I can't remember if I mentioned it earlier but Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site. Beacuse of this the town is very restricted as to what kind of building and so on happens. The old buildings cannot be destroyed. It's weird to think about this considering that the old buildings that are being protected are so because they are of French-influence and are therefore a special blend of Laotian and French architecture. This town (while it does get most of its income from the tourist business, I am sure) is special and protected because of the influence it received while the French ruled Laos. When you think about it that way its kind of strange. I wonder how the Laotian people feel about it.

The dances were another thing. Obviously being protected and passed down to younger generations as a cultural heritage. But was it a cultural heritage more for the Laotian people or more for the tourists? Who decides when something becomes culturally historically significant? The Laotian people obviously had been developping this particular style of dance for I don't know how long. It didn't spring into being one day all of a sudden a thousand years ago, it has been refined for centuries, I am sure, and it was practiced, in the way it is still today, not really that long ago. But now, since it has become a historical cultural tradition, will it cease to develop? It is now a part of the history of Laos, I think. There weren't any Laotian people at the performance. Maybe they had already gone but it was clear that this was mainly for the tourists. The Laotians I saw about seemed much more interested in watching Laotian soap operas (like the girls at the massage parlor we went to) or Laotian action films or music television (like our hostel's owner). But the world has decided that whatever was the tradition at a specific time in history (when this dancing was still a popular entertainment, before soap operas) is historically the culture and will be preserved even though it had been evolving throughout history all this time. So maybe soap operas are the next step for the evolution of Laotian entertainment. So maybe the definition of a certain region or group of people's culture is where it was before the influence of world culture. But cultures have been influenced by other cultures forever. I think its hard to see the line. Modern times are confusing.

Anyway I am sorry, that was a really long tangent and I am sure I did a poor job explaining myself succinctly since I am pretty tired.

I didn't do much else in LP. On Saturday morning I took a cooking class which was awesome and lot of fun. It was very relaxing to be able to just be in the same place for a few hours. We're starting to get worn down rapidly. In the afternoon I had my hair cut. In the evening we went to the night market in town and then that was about it. We took Laos Air out the next day (Sunday) to Hanoi and there we are now.

One last thing. The night market in LP boasts a number of food stalls each of which offer a number of foods for a cheap (10,000 kip, or approximatly 30 cents) buffet. These we had two nights and they were absolutly delicious if not some of the least sanitary meals I have ever eaten in my life (but I'm still alive, Mom).

Luang Prabang was great if only to have a nice place to just stop and chill out for a while. As I think I mentioned, its a fairly small place with relatively little to do. We had a lot of time to just relax and it was welcome to say the least.

Not Dead

I know I haven't managed to get a post out in a couple of days so I just thought I would do a quick update. I know last time I posted I was a little sick. I got over that pretty quick; it's not the reason I haven't been posting. The reason also has nothing to do with the current crisis in Japan. That is over 2500 miles away from here and there are no affects in that area. I know some people have been worrying, that's the only reason I mention it.

I kept working on a post and then having to leave and go do things for one reason or another and not finishing the post. Then I would have more things to say and have even more trouble finishing. Hopefully I'll take some time tonight and get that post pushed out finally.

Anyway, we're in Vietnam now. We got here day before yesterday and we have been staying in Hanoi in the North which is the largest city and also the capital. The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the plane is how nice and cool it is here. Laos was so hot and sunny and it was starting to get to me. Vietnam is now in its cooler season and so far its been a nice temperature and breezy and right now its even raining pretty hard. It's nice. Tomorrow we plan to travel to Halong Bay to the East of Hanoi. I'll hopefully talk more about that later.

With regards to pictures, I know it has been a looooong time since I have uploaded any but I am doing the best I can. Most internet cafes the internet is too slow for me to upload so many pictures at once (and it's a LOT of pictures by now). I'll do what I can as soon as I can and they will get up eventually.

People who asked for postcards: I sent a big batch off from Laos so they're on their way. Anyone else who wants postcards please comment with your address. Thanks. :)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Luang Prabang

This is the post I was trying to publish for about four days. The first part was written the 12th of March (Saturday) and the second part was written the 13th of March (Sunday).

I'm feeling slightly nauseated after what was perhaps too much really good food this morning but also significantly better tempered than I have the past two days. One reason might be the food, another might be the fact that I FINALLY got a haircut this afternoon.

One of the main things that I am looking forward to in America is being able to get haircuts from other Caucasians. Yeah, I know that sounds bad but my hair type is strange enough for people to deal with as it is (apparently): I rarely get haircuts I'm happy with in America, in Korea I was just happy it cut. Maybe I'm expecting too much. Anyway, all of my haircuts in Asia (today's being no exception) have ended about the same: The last fifteen or so minutes are spent, by the hairdresser, in a sort of quiet struggle where they try and try in vain, using various methods, to get all of my hair to wave approximately the same direction. Its futile. In America its not much better. There they generally just nuke it with chemicals until it does actually all wave in the same direction, at least for the next 48 hours. I've been strongly considering getting a straight perm for the past few months and just circumvent the issue altogether. I almost got one today but I talked myself out of it last night. Instead I opted for a trim to at least get rid of my very damaged split ends (last haircut: circa August 2010) which turned out to be difficult enough as it was. The hairstylist had to ran across the street to grab a friend to translate for me. I still couldn't quite explain to this fiend the idea of layering anyway. In the end I just said, if its wrong, it's okay, and went with whatever happened. Which ended up being not that bad at all, and at the very least, much cooler. In any case it was worth the 40,000 kip (just shy of $5).

But enough about my hair.

The last time I posted was Thursday morning (I think) and now it's Saturday afternoon (almost evening). After Nicole returned from her volunteer teaching around noon on Thursday we decided to go out to the waterfalls just outside of Luang Prabang. We grabbed a tuktuk that was waiting for more passengers to take us just there. The driver already had a young British couple and set off once he had us.

The drive to the waterfalls took about an hour and was beautifully scenic. We drove past the poorer outskirts of town and then a bit into the surrounding countrysides, the landscapes quickly changing from town to endless fields backed by forested foothills. It's the dry season here in Laos so the roads were a bit dusty even though they are paved. It was a bit difficult to breathe but well worth the view.

Once arrived, we paid 20,000 kip to enter. The first thing we came to was a bear preserve. Apparently this group rescues and then cares for captures Asiatic Black Bears (also called Moon Bears named for the moon-shaped crest on their chests) there were a number of bears living on the reserve, mainly chilling out, and playing with one another.

After the bears we came to the waterfalls. Everyone we have met before this in Luang Prabang had told us time and again that we HAD to see the waterfalls. I always listened to them thinking, in my head, how great can waterfalls be? They can be big, they can catch the light in beautiful ways, they can be multi-layered or something similarly interesting. I felt like I has seen the gamut of what to expect when it came to waterfalls.

These waterfalls were ridiculous. I feel like, now having seen them, that I have seen countless images and paintings, perhaps in some bright, gaudy colors, depicting something similar to this place. Those types of pictures that you look at and think, wow, that's beautiful, but... too beautiful; that's the kind of thing that only exists in some artist's imagination but it doesn't really exist in real life. You think to yourself, this artist went a little too far, this is cheesy. Maybe you expect there to be whales flying in the sky and a rainbow-colored sunset in this picture too, its that kind of cheesy. You think, yeah, okay. Nice. But too nice.

Well these waterfalls were it. I have never seen such blue water. I mean BLUE. I am sure the pictures won't do them justice. The water was absolutely bright blue. So blue it looked as if it had been dyed. The water in the pools was not clear, but instead, slightly cloudy, giving it an even bluer look and making the pools seem considerably more other-worldly. The water fell from one pool to another over short little ledges that connected a series of pools to one another. People just lazed about, swimming in the pools or jumping in from a swinging rope attached to a tree overhanging one of the largest and deepest.

These were all fed by one big, grandiose waterfall from way up a cliff. Nicole and I walked up and then down what was one of the most treacherous paths I have ever taken in my life to get to the top. This was well worth it.

It was clear that, while many people visited the waterfalls, very few people bothered to climb up to the top of the largest one.


What I wrote up until this point was written Saturday afternoon before I ran out of time at my internet cafe. Now it's Sunday afternoon.


Anyway, at the top of the waterfall it was so peaceful. The waterfall was not fed by any kind of river but instead at the top the floor of the forest was covered in a few inches of water. The water was generally stagnant and flowed so slowly where it did flow at all that you would never have guessed that it fed a waterfall. The water was also perfectly clear and great to step in (which we had to to cross to the other side) though in some places there was something of a path formed from dirt which looked like it had been hardened by hundreds of footsteps. The water cut through the hardened path in various places to leave a little patchwork of organically shaped chunks of path squiggling through the shallow water. Somewhere up there my camera battery ran out.

One the way back our tuktuk driver also carried home a group of two Americans and a Canadian who had actually biked up to the waterfalls. As we drove back over the 27 kilometers of rolling hills between the waterfalls and the town they (and we) kind of marveled at their accomplishment. They also turned out to be ex-English teachers from Korea just like we are. I'm not sure I have mentioned this so far but I think all of the young Americans and Canadians (of which there are relatively few compared to Europeans anyway) have been English teachers from Korea either on vacation or just finished and on their way home. It's kind of ridiculous.

That evening we went to a used bookstore that had advertised free movies each evening. We ate pizza and watched Inception. I think I was the last person in the world to have seen that film. After all the hype I have heard about for the last billion months, I actually wasn't that into it. The pizza was pretty good though.

I went to bed with one of the worst headaches I have ever had, however. The sun here just gets to me sometimes. It's so bright and so constant.

Friday and Saturday we didn't do much. After almost two weeks of a lot of sightseeing and moving around, we took advantage of some peaceful time. Luang Prabang is a good place for this kind of thing. Its so small and so quiet its easy to relax. But the smallness and quietness has another benefit: there really isn't a whole lot to do in all honesty. We spent a lot of time taking walks or reading or just enjoying the scenery.

Luang Prabang is Laos' third most populated city but only has about 100,000 residents (the largest city and capital, Vientiane, has about 800,000 residents; the national population is about 6.8 million). Considering that, its easy to understand how the place is so quiet. It was also declared a UNESCO world Heritage site which means (I believe) that a number of restrictions are placed on the town. There are no chain restaurants or chain anything here (no McDonalds, no Hilton) and building is very restricted. It's all in an effort to preserve the town's unique feel, mainly because of the architecture which is an interesting blend of Laotian and French giving this place a strangely European feel. There are no large streets and most of the lighting at night comes from buildings or occasional streetlights. That means that when you're walking along the river at night and there's a beautiful bamboo bridge lit up with Christmas lights down the road from you, those Christmas lights are the most noticeable thing in your line of sight. With that said, bamboo is a lot stronger than it feels like when you're walking on it. That also means the water in the river is pitch, pitch black and the streets glow moodily instead of shine. It's pretty beautiful.

One thing interesting that we did on Friday was to visit the cultural museum in the center of town. The building was once the palace (and Luang Probang the capital) for the kings and royal family of the Kingdom of Laos until it became a Socalist/Communist nation in 1975 with its capital moved to Vientiane. The museum, which is beautiful, houses royal artifacts and some religious historical relics as well as a great many gifts from other nations to the kings of Laos over the years. What interested me the most were these gifts, most of which displayed were from the late fifties to the mid seventies. It was just strange for me to see things, which really aren't that old, being displayed as they were. While they're not that old they are still relics of a decades-dead government for the Laotian people making them as much a part of history as the little metal-cast buddha statues in the cases nearby which were hundreds of years old.

Another thing that interested me about this exhibit were the gifts themselves. A lot of the gifts were books and most of these books were something similar to a tourist book. There were a lot of pictures depicting famous places or long national histories. What impression I got was that some country or another (some examples included Thailand, Japan, France, USSR, or USA) would send, as gifts, books in some way to teach about their own country. Maybe a history or a set of classic novels or folk stories. It makes me think about that time as it relates to our current time where information runs rampant on the internet. Back then, even though it was just fifty or sixty years ago or less, maybe these books compromised a lot of what the Laotian leaders knew of, say, the finer details of Belgium's culture, or something. Maybe its weird that it's hard for me to conceive of this kind of exchange of knowledge.

Another interesting piece. Apparently one of the gifts from the USA was a miniature model of the lunar landing pod. Another was a tiny Kingdom of Laos flag, under glass, with an inscription telling that this flag had traveled to the moon. With it were some fragments of the moon, under glass. All a gift from R. Nixon and the USA.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Slow Boat

So it's now about 9:30am on Thursday morning. Nicole went off because she wanted to volunteer at a school teaching English for the morning, something she had heard about doing. I preferred to stay in and catch up on my blogging. And also catch up on my lounging-around-in-my-pajamas time. You'd think after two days sitting on a boat I wouldn't be so lazy. But I am.

So the morning after my last post (Tuesday morning) we got up early and took a tuktuk down to the boat pier. There we bought our tickets for the boat and got on board. Before seeing the boats I really had absolutely no idea what I was in store for (a number of different possibilities of what this "boat" would look and feel like had passed through my imagination) but it was, on the whole, much better than I had expected. I should have figured as such since, apparently, the slow boat is really now just for tourists. Locals use the quicker, cheaper, and considerably more air-conditioned bus to go the route that we took. I didn't know this until I was already well into the trip and was pondering why most everyone on the boat was a tourist. That was the first thing that I noticed. There were barely any (if any at all) Laosian people on the boat. There were a few other South Asians but after a while (and after talking to the Thai woman in front of me) I started to get the hunch that they were tourists as well.

I've mentioned before how Korea is not the most racially diverse place in the world. I haven't seen so many blue eyes and so much blond together in one place in a long time.

As I said, I had no idea what to expect (basically, I'm too absent-minded, I'd say, to Google the idea). One tour book or another had warned against wooden seats. So the four of us (this includes J&J) bought cushions which were sold on the street in Huay Xai.

I'm not sure I mentioned, basically because I half the time am not sure exactly where we are, but the Laotian border town we were in, and the place where we picked up the slow boat is called Huay Xai. Halfway through the slow boat ride we stopped in a little town called Pakbeng for the night. Our final destination (which is where I am now) was Luang Prabang. The river we traveled is called the Mekong.

The seats ended up not being wooden at all. Instead, there were rows and rows of disembodied car seats, like the ones you'd find in a van, linked two or three together. It was a pretty interesting way of getting decently nice seats into an old boat. The boats were all wooden, long, and brightly painted. Ours, number 106, was teal. There were about maybe 80 to 100 seats on the boat, all filled, mainly with youngish tourists, mainly from Europe.

We got to the boat around 9:30am. We were meant to leave at 11:00am but didn't leave until 11:30. This was when I first began to realize how antsy Nicole is when she has to sit for long periods of time on transportation.

At first everyone sat in their seats but it didn't take long for people to start moving about. The boat moved pretty slow and it was beyond safe to do so. I should clarify something I mentioned in my last post regarding the fast vs. slow boats. The fast boat is dangerous only because it goes fast. There was absolutely nothing dangerous about this slow boat. I have heard stories of a slow boat breaking down and all that came of it was that its passengers were somewhat stranded on a sandbar for some hours. The Mekong is narrow enough to easily swim to either end from the middle and shallow enough that I'd say it would be hard to drown. It's shallowness is what makes the fast boat dangerous, as the river is rather rocky, especially in the dry season when it's even shallowed (which I think we are in right now).

So people started moving about on the boat. The boat was not going incredibly slow, it is motorized, but it was pretty slow. Enough to create a nice breeze over all us passengers but not much else of note. There wasn't even much rocking, the river is so calm. So it didn't take long for some guys, who probably thought they were pretty cool, to sit up on the railing of the boat. They sat there drinking beers and staring off into the jungles on either side of the river. Soon other people started doing the same. The boat was a mix of people sitting, lounging on the railings, sleeping on the seats, sitting around talking or playing cards. One group of buys started playing a clapping game like I remember playing when I was a kid in elementary school. It was pretty amusing.

For the first two hours or so I read. And then I finished my book. I spent the remainder of the day (6 hours on the boat the first day) sitting on the ledge of the boat listening to music and staring at the jungle. I don't think I could have ever gotten tired of it, I am serious. The jungle is beautiful. There was almost no signs of civilization the entire time we were on the boat. There were villages here and there that we could see from the river. There would be a little collection of buildings just off the edge of the river. Usually there would also be a few long wooden canoe-like boats in the river, and maybe some fences on the beach, made of sticks, blocking off plots of cultivated plants. There might be some kids on the beach, or in the water, who would wave at us. Sometimes we saw fishermen about, in boats or pulling up nets. But usually it was miles and miles of just jungle. Maybe with clusters of empty plastic bottles bobbing in the river holding up a sunken net in the river and giving some indication that there must be villages out in the jungle somewhere but there wasn't much else. Huge swatches of time passed with no sign of people anywhere else but in our boat.

We reached Pakbeng and were greeted, as we left our boat, by a mass of people advertising their hostels. This little town seems to have geared itself towards the tourists that pass by on the boat, makes sense. It was nice there. We stayed in a hostel and ate dinner at an Indian restaurant which was actually owned by an Indian guy. Why this one random Indian guy chose to make a restaurant in this one little town in Laos is beyond me. Beyond me.

I forgot to mention in my last post that I have recently been feeling a bit sick. It has had nothing to do with the boat, which I actually felt totally fine on the entire time, but I think perhaps the Laotian food has gotten to me a bit. What I have had so far has been surprisingly oily. I'm not sure if that's part of the cuisine or if I've just been unlucky. Regardless, I've skipped a couple meals in the past couple days.

Anyway. We got back on the boat at about 8:00am the next day and set off around 9:30am. My iPod had run out of batter just before docking the night previous and Nicole had refused to unpack her laptop to allow me to charge the thing so I was without music. I also had finished off all my reading material with the exception of Moby Dick which I realized promptly is not a very rapid read. In addition to this, we had changed boats from the day prior and were on a new boat (also teal) which had railings thus preventing us from sitting on the edge of the boat. Therefore my time spent on the second leg of our journey (9 hours) consisted mainly of the following schedule: read approximately 1-2 pages of Moby Dick, stare out at the scenery for approximately 10-20 minutes, fall asleep for approximatively an hour, repeat. Occasionally I ate something and occasionally I had short conversations with the people around me but in general I spent the time passed out asleep in the way that ones body sleeps when its warm and breezy out and there's nothing to do but sit on a boat. I think I slept about 80% of the trip which I consider to be a pretty solid accomplishment when it comes to ways to pass time especially since I had gotten a good nights sleep the night before and also slept well last night (the night after the boat ride). Apparently I've got the gift of just being able to shut things down when I've got nothing better to do. That or I've got a blood parasite. Either way its quite helpful.

We finally reached Luang Prabang round about 6:30pm. We walked about and found a hostel and later had some dinner. Luang Prabang is a very chill little city and so far has been very relaxing. We plan to stay a couple of days here and then fly out to Vietnam the 13th (yes, we added another flight). It feels like a nice place to regroup. After dinner we ran into, on chance, Emma and James from our trekking trip. Sometimes I feel as though all these people we pass by are taking about the same route. At least it has seemed so in the past three days or so, since the Laos border cross. We keep seeing a few of the same people. I suppose when there's a two-day boat involved, you do sort of get stuck on the same path. Most people, however, seem to be going to Cambodia next instead of Vietnam so Nicole and I might be taking a slight detour off the main path.

After dinner we got massages which were pretty amazing. In Thai massage they pull your arms and legs as part of the treatment. At some times its a bit painful but I definitely felt amazing when it was over. My masseuse managed to crack my back about half a dozen different times. At one point, very near the end of the hour, she pulled me up by my arms and bent my back over her knees (its hard to explain). My back crackled, even after nearly an hour of massaging and she chuckled at me. I think I have a bad back. Anyway, I think all her pulling is how I slept so well last night even after having slept for ages on the boat yesterday.

There's wifi in the hostel we're in so I'm on Nicole's computer. That means I'll have pictures up soon. They're uploading now, slowly but surely; there are a lot of them. I've moved them from Flickr to Picasa and actually organized them so hopefully that will make it easier for everyone.

One side note: Phnom Penh is in Cambodia, not Vietnam. I put it down wrong on my introduction post. It's now fixed. Thanks Bryan!

Bryan: I had a decent bowl of Tom Yum in Korea but it's close enough to SE Asia I suppose they have a much better chance of getting it right. I'm bound and determined to make it when I get back to the states, however. We'll see how that goes...

Monday, March 7, 2011


So we made it to Laos. This morning we got up, met up with J&J and took a rather authentic-looking three-hour bus to the border town. During the drive I had some of my last looks at Thailand and also some of my favorites. When we took the bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai most of the trip was at night and it was almost all through mountainous hills. On this ride we passed through a lot of small towns and farmland. There were a lot of really beautiful vistas. The towns, where a lot of new building seems to be going underway, had many bright, new-looking, beautiful homes. I realized, while looking at them, how rather drab Korea can be. Seoul is lit up with a lot of bright lights but when a building is erected the color of choice seems to be generally some variety of steely gray. Even America, where sometimes eccentric individuals paint their houses blue or pink or something, couldn't have rivaled some of these places. There were really some beautiful colors out there. Of the new buildings, the plainest ones were stark white with red roofs. But some of the others were blue and pink and green and all colors mixed up together in trims. Some places had blue fences or a yellow porch or intricate bright red detail on the eves. It was pretty cool.

There were rice paddies dominating the landscape between the small towns. These places were like oceans of bright, bright green punctuated with little open-air huts which I assume were either for storing rice or for people to rest.

Somewhere along the way there was this huge mountain just jutting straight out of the ground. In the distance ther were some other mountains but they looked like normal ones, gently rising out the landscape. This one mountain just stuck up, almost at right angles, from the ground. It was startling to see the bright green, hyper-flat expanse of the rice paddies broken by this huge mound, dark-green with tropical vegetation or black with rock. It was a weird thing to see.

At the border town we passed through what was just about the easiest international crossing I have ever been to. On the Thai side a guy just took our passports and stamped them, gave us a smile, and sent us on our way. Then we took a boat for 40 baht over to the Laos side. These boats were also rather authentic looking and I'll get up some pictures eventually...

On the other side we sat on ceramic picnic tables at a lovely open-air sitting area while we filled out our visa applications. We got our passports stamped and our Laos visa added in, changed our baht into kip (the currency of Laos, 1 USD is approximatly equal to about 8500 kip) and went off to find a hostel.

After finding a hostel and eating we took advice from our Lonly Planet travel guide and hired a tuktuk out to a remote village some distance South (I think) from the border town. This proved to be a rather interesting idea. The tuktuk we hired happened to semi-breakdown two times on our way to the village. Regardless we saw some interesting sights on the way. The first time it broke down we happened to be at a spot on the road overlooking the river between Thailand and Laos which was an amazing view. As we got farther into the country we saw more farms with cows and rice fields. We saw a kid driving a motorbike who couldn't have been older than maybe 10 or 11 with who was probably his little brother on the back. We kind of laughed when we saw him and he kind of laughed back at us but looked very proud of himself at the same time.

Going to the village was a mistake which also made it perplexing as Lonely Planet hasn't steered us the wrong way yet. The place was interesting enough but it was, and was nothing else, a village. The people there stared at us as if to ask "what are you doing here?" and from the moment we pulled in, we felt like we were intruding. There are places which are built for tourists and places which aren't. I felt bad shoving ourselves into this little town. I feel like having tour groups run bus through Stevensville, MI poking their heads in the grocery store and school to gawk at people would have been similar to what these people felt. As I said, it was interesting, however, but be left pretty promptly. At least the drive was relaxing.

Tomorrow we are getting up early and then heading out for the pier for the slow boat.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Chiang Rai

So I know that I said I was going to post the day before yesterday but I ended up being so zonked I didn't. After the last post I fell into what was perhaps the deepest sleep I have ever been rudely awoken from as I was awoken from it two hours later when I had to wake up to go out. After meeting up with our trek group and having a couple drinks, I returned to the hostel and zonked out again not to wake for about ten hours.

So I never really ended up posting.

Now it's two days later and we're in Chiang Rai. We arrived here by bus late last night and scouted out a hostel with a couple of Danish girls. More on that later, now to catch things up with the trek.

So the last thing I talked about, I think, was what we did on Wednesday walking and biking around Chiang Mai. We were picked up for the trek Thursday morning by not much more than a truck which we all sat in back of. There were eleven of us: a pair of French brothers and their father, a middle-aged French couple, a young British couple, a young Irish girl, a young Korean girl, and Nicole and I. Along with our Thai guide, that made twelve. And yes, a Korean. Talking to her made me start to miss Korea. Is it strange that, in light of the fact that we've met many other Americans or at least English-speakers and Westerners, that she was one of the most familiar-feeling people I have met so far. I think I've just gotten used to Koreans. She was from Seoul, in an area she didn't think I'd know but I happened to have a friend who lived one stop away from her on the subway. It's a small world...

We picked everyone up from their respective hostels and drove out into the country. Our first stop was to eat lunch followed by an elephant ride. I didn't actually know that we would be riding elephants. Perhaps this was my fault as I entirely neglected to read the confirmation email that Nicole forwarded to me but I was suprised nonetheless. I wasn't so sure how I felt about the elephant ride at the time and I'm not so sure now. I'm not a fan of taking wild animals and using them for entertainment even if all these elephants did was walk around. Regardless it was rather exhilirating, especially when the elephant is on some very steep slope and you're holding on feeling like the whole animal is about to just topple over. It's funny how your mind thinks about it. If I were in a car the size of that elephant going on the terrain we were on I am sure it would have toppled over, or at least gotten very stuck, but I was on an elephant and not in a car. Elephants are suprisingly graceful creatures for being so large.

The elephant did sneeze on us a number of times. Much to Nicole's dismay.

After the elephants we started on our walk. Since for the first part of it we were on a slightly inclining road we all kind of laughed it off. Over the course of the day (and I use the term "day" here lightly as we were walking for maybe about three hours only) the terrain and the path just got steeper and steeper. It was alright for a while but I remember, at some point during the day, having not much energy to do much else other than stare downwards at the path in front of me and contemplate my existance one step at a time. I mean that, and focus on the song playing on my ipod, haha. That was during the last leg, or perhaps the second-to-last leg, where things got really steep. It was a beautiful view though.

We stopped halfway through at a waterfall and "took a shower" as our guide advised us. There was a small hut with one guy in it selling water and cokes. "7-11" was carved on one of the posts exterior. Haha. Ha.

At the summit we stayed in a little village. I am not entirely sure I heard right but I think our guide said that there were about 180 people in this village. It was so small that kids older than 7 had to board at a school down at the bottom, near the main roads. The view was fantastic, and I'll put up a lot of pictures once I get the chance. It was serene and quiet and at night there were a billion stars. I forgot what it was like to see so many stars. In Chicago there aren't many and in Seoul there are none so I haven't really seen them in a while. It was amazing. Some of the women in the town offered us massages and I think everyone bought them. The next morning I wasn't stiff at all and I think that was the only reason. We had a great dinner, prepared for us by some people in the town, of curry vegetables, some potato thing, and bananas, and then talked into the night for a while. Our guide played us songs on the guitar and was suprisingly good. We slept in the "guest house" of the village on mats and with wool blankets and mosquite nets. I went down easy but the next morning it seemed like I had been the only one who had gotten a good night's sleep.

We had breakfast (toast, hard-boiled eggs, and bananas) and then started back down the other side of the mountain. Down is always easier than up but it was still tricky and most of us slipped at one time or another. I don't know what happens if someone breaks a leg or an arm; we were in the middle of nowhere. I didn't really want to think about it and it didn't happen. But it definitely could have and I'm sure it does. A dog from the village followed us the entire way down. Who knows where he went after.

There was another waterfall halfway down the hill and after that the going was pretty easy. We reached the road again finally and walked it a bit before arriving at the rafting place.

The rafting was fun but certainly not the most trecherous I have ever been on in my life. It was certainly designed for over-relaxed and under-skilled tourists althought they tried to make it seem daunting with tales of crocodiles which absolutly none of us believed. One guy on our raft (who was not part of our group) did actually get flipped in and frankly could have broken something the way he hit a rock but the boat was barely moving at the time and he was just being un-observant about things. Eventually the guides got all of us in the water no matter how against our will it was. It was rather against my will mainly because I didn't want my pants to get wet but it was fun swimming in the water. Thailand has just been a mix of being overly-hot or overly-cold. The times when I am at a perfect temperature have been rare. Right now is pretty good though. Night is coming on and its breezy but still warm. It's certainly not bad being a little over-heated. It just makes me want to sleep all the time. I think that's mainly what a lot of the tourists (and locals, sometimes) spend a lot of time doing.

After rafting we had lunch and then were driven back to Chiang Mai. I actually managed to fall asleap in the truck, my head against the metal wall of the back of the cab, despite the fact that we were bumping along country roads. Ahh... sleeping anywhere. We returned to our hostel where I promptly took a shower, wrote the poor attempt at a blog post from the other day, and fell asleap.

Yesterday morning (after sleeping until about 11) we traveled to the bus station in Chiang Mai to get a bus to Chiang Rai. Despite the fact that we arrived at the station around 1:30, the next bus available (that wasn't filled) was at 5:00 so we had to wait around for a bit. Nicole and I walked around, had a mediocre lunch, and then split an excellent chocolate brownie from Starbucks. The bus ride was not long (4 hours) and was relaxing. It's always relaxing to be in transit for me. You know where you're going and all you have to do is just sit and look out the window, which is pretty much all I did. They played a movie (Night and Day with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz) but it was dubbed into Thai. It didn't matter much, however. It looked like it was about the worst movie I had ever seen, and I didn't even know what was being said.

When we got off the bus we didn't know where we were going to stay so we kind of buddied up with this pair of Danish girls (Julia and Josephine) from the bus who also were looking for a place and together we found rooms. We then had dinner with them and walked around for a bit. We decided to meet up the next day and also to cross into Laos and take the boat togeher (which we will do tomorrow).

Chiang Rai is much smaller than Chiang Mai and, more than the other cities we were in, the tourist area seems so confied to one small place its stifling. When I say confined, I mean that, if you walk outside of the tourist area the establishments change so fast from restaruants, massage parlors, and travel agencies to gas stations and residental streets its a bit startling. I think I like Chiang Mai the best so far of the three although I do admit it was one of the most tourist-oriented cities I have ever been to. Regardless, it's beautiful and breezy and natural.

We didn't do much today. We met up with Julia and Josephine around 11:00 and then had lunch and took a bus to a temple just out of town. This was our "bus adventure" as we called it since we basically just walked to the bus station to get a map but ended up being persuaded by a middle-aged Thai guy to get on this one bus after we told him where we were trying to go. The bus was a bit old and cramped but it felt rather authentic so we were rather pleased with ourselves. We traveled to a temple which deserves its own post so I will talk about it later because I'm getting almost too tired of typing at the moment to really do it proper justice.

We parted ways with Julia and Josephine who I will henceforth refer to as J&J and later had dinner and that catches everything up until now.

Tomorrow morning we will take the bus to the border town between Thiland and Laos to cross. Tomorrow night we will be in Laos and stay at a place just over the border before starting off on the boat down the Mekong River tomorrow morning. This boat (dubbed "the slow boat" by all tourists and tourist agencies we have come across) takes two days to reach its desination, Luang Prabang (I think that's correct). Apparently the itinary is 9 hours the first day, docking to sleep, and then another 9 hours the second day or something to that effect. There is a "fast boat" as well but apparently this boat involves wearing helmets and the occasional fatality. Well... we have to choose one way or another. I suppose we could fly. But what's the fun in that?