Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shopping spree in my future?

I made it to Hoi An last night (Sunday) around 5pm. I met up with Rhian and Marina again and the three of us are staying in a triple at Grassland Hotel for $5 per person per night.

Hoi An is kind of known for shopping. There are tailors all over the place making custom clothes. There are three ways you can shop here: 1) Go to the clothing store and buy something off the rack, 2) Go to a tailor, show them a picture or pictures of what you like, and have them make it for you to your measurements, and 3) Custom design an item to your specifications: you pick the material, design, everything. Depending on what you're interested in, even custom items can be bought fairly cheaply and you can have them in 1-3 days time. For example, I can get a simple, cotton summer dress, custom made, for about $15-20. Rhian and Marina have been talking about all the things they'd like to buy here almost since I met them. I, on the other hand, figured I'd maybe buy one dress.

Last night after dinner we walked around to a couple of the shops to get an idea of designs, fabrics, and prices. I think I might be in trouble. :-) I'd still like to get that simple, summer dress, but now I'm thinking that I might also want to get a silk robe and another, fancier dress (that I'd have to ship home because I'd have no use for it now). If I didn't have two gorgeous suits at home already, I'd also probably want to get one of those. Today we'll walk around to the shops and do actual shopping and buying. I'm looking forward to it because I haven't really done any clothes shopping for myself yet except for a tank top I bought in Laos. Having clothes custom made seems like such a posh thing to do, and yet my bargain hunter sensibilities are on high alert to the deals that are to be had here! I'll keep you posted and hopefully I'll have some pictures to share soon of my new items.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Now with pictures

I'm in Hue (pronounced hway), arrived this morning around 7:45am on a sleeper bus from Hanoi. The sleeper bus was different from any other overnight bus trip that I've taken so far in that the seats were more like beds than seats. Rather than just reclining a bit, my seat actually laid nearly flat which helped with the sleeping quite a bit! I don't think the driver stopped even once, so we made good time. Once here, I broke a cardinal rule of mine and went with a tout to the Ngoc Binh Hotel. I still wasn't fully awake and figured it couldn't hurt to at least look at the room. So, I'm splurging a bit and spending $9 for the night. I get my own room, hot water shower with awesome water pressure, satellite tv, and breakfast included.

I've also decided to make the best use of my time in Hue and join a tour. It's a one day tour that I've split into two parts to cover two days. This afternoon I'll do one part, I'll do the other part tomorrow morning, and then I'll take a bus to Hoi An tomorrow afternoon where I'll meet up with Marina and Rhian (they went to Hoi An straight from Hanoi last night). I know what's on the tour agenda, but I don't want to ruin the surprise. Besides, I have a couple hours until it leaves, so I figured I'd show some pictures since they are mostly uploaded now.

(A look at the hallway between the cells at Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton.)

(The picture on the left is of John McCain being treated for his injuries.)

And, on a lighter note, here's some of that amazing Halong Bay scenery.

(Mysterious looking, huh?)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hoa Lo and Halong Bay

Just a warning ahead of time that I'm about to talk about some amazing pictures...that you won't actually get to see for a couple of days or so. Sorry about that! I've either lost my flash drive or it was stolen (most likely it was lost) and until I get a new one, it's going to make uploading pics kind of difficult. Luckily my pictures aren't totally lost since they're on Flickr, and I should be able to pick up a new flash drive "cheap cheap" (as everything in Vietnam is declared!).

The British arrived on Monday night, a bit later than they expected after a 25 hour bus trip from Vientiane to Hanoi. We'd originally planned on leaving Tuesday morning for a trip to Halong Bay, but their late arrival meant that we didn't really have the time that we needed to plan, so we spent Tuesday running some errands in the morning and then we went to Hoa Lo Prison Museum in the afternoon. Since the weather wasn't great anyway (overcast since my arrival last Friday and on the cool side), we figured we'd leave on Wednesday for Halong Bay and only spend one night there instead of two.

Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, is where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War, although it had been in use since then late 1800's when the French built it. Most of the focus of the museum was on the French colonial time when Vietnamese prisoners were held captive and these sections didn't hold our interest for very long. Some photo captions and artefact descriptions were in English, but not all, and there wasn't a lot of information given so we were left with more questions than answers. I'm sure those particular exhibits have more meaning for the Vietnamese than they had for us.

The exhibits that focused on the American War (as it's known here) were more interesting. I knew going in that I was going to get a completely different perspective from what is taught in US schools. No disappointment there. After the last presidential election, we all heard from John McCain plenty of times on the torture he received while he was a POW (he was held at Hoa Lo). At the museum, however, there's a picture of McCain receiving medical treatment with a caption testifying to the great level of care and attention given to the prisoners. There's also a number of pictures of smiling American prisoners sitting down to a huge Christmas dinner, playing chess and sports, receiving care packages from home, and otherwise not looking particularly unhappy to be prisoners. As I continue my travel in Vietnam and go to other places that tell the story of the American War, it will be interesting to get more of the other side's point of view.

After the prison museum, we needed some light heartedness. We decided to go to the grocery store for dinner and snacks for the boat trip, and then go back to the hotel where Rhian and Marina were staying to watch a movie and call it an early night. I had checked out of my hostel to stay at the same place as the other girls. It was four of us in the room, including Holly, another British girl Rhian and Marina had met on the bus to Hanoi. Kind of like a slumber party - as soon as the lights went out, that's when the talking and giggling began, lol. But, as we all are adults, we knew that being up and ready for our 7:30am pickup the next morning meant that we had to get some shut eye.

There was a bit of tension between us and the front desk staff the next morning, but that story will have to be saved for another day. After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel room, leaving our luggage for storage and just taking a small day pack with us for the trip. We took a van about three hours away to Halong Bay and then transferred to the junk (aka boat, but I'm not sure why it's called a junk). Actually, before we got on the boat, there was more tension because there was a question of whether the boat would be able to leave or not. It was kind of misty and very foggy and pier management wasn't allowing boats to leave. That's understandable, but the tension came about because there were rumors that we wouldn't get our money back. Long story longer, our boat was able to depart - yay!

This is when pictures would be really helpful. The scenery was absolutely amazing. There were huge limestone cliffs and random islands jutting out of the bay all over the place. Those of you on my SPOT email list received this link with my GPS coordinates. Pretty cool, huh? While some people were complaining about how crappy the weather was, I was snapping away on my camera because I thought the mist and fog made everything look very mysterious and romantic. After lunch on the boat, we stopped off at Hang Dau Go (Cave of Wooden Stakes), a cave that was quite possibly the coolest cave I've ever seen. It was massive and had a number of very large rooms to walk through. The stalactites and stalagmites were lit up with pink, purple, green, blue, and yellow lights and while that wasn't exactly authentic or natural, it certainly made everything look pretty! We had dinner on the boat, too, and then we spent the rest of the evening playing cards with Andy and Katherine, a Canadian couple living in China that we'd met earlier in the day.

Today we had the option of kayaking in the morning, something all of us were keen to do. Except that kayaking was to start at 6:30am and none of us were keen on that. We slept in instead and woke up to a bright, sunshine-y day, the first I'd seen in almost a week. After breakfast, we all went to the top deck of the junk to read and soak in some rays. When the boat arrived at Halong City, we got off the boat for lunch and then got back in the van to head back to Hanoi.

In case you hadn't figured it out, there's been a minor change of plans. I'd said before that I was going to HCMC today, the 25th. Obviously that didn't happen. I decided that I'd change my flight and fly from HCMC to Hanoi on March 14th instead. This way, I can work my way south in Vietnam and hang out with Rhian and Marina a bit more. We won't be traveling together the whole time, but since we're going in the same direction instead of the opposite direction, our paths will cross more frequently. I leave tomorrow night on an overnight bus to Hue where I'll spend a day or two before going to Hoi An.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Your interesting title here*

Except for the pictures from the last post, I haven't really explained much about what I've been doing for the last few days that I've been in Hanoi. That's what I'm here to do today!

After I arrived and got settled on Friday night, I set out for food. I asked at the front desk about favorite nearby food stalls (my first night in the city, it was dark, and I have a tendency to get lost - it needed to be nearby!) and was referred to a place next door that makes chicken soup. Chicken soup? I've been eating chicken soup (and pork soup and veggie soup) throughout Thailand and Laos. I wanted something different and decided to take my chances with a place across the street from my hostel serving, well, I have no idea what it was. There were a lot of people eating there, always a good sign, so I just sat at a table and pointed to what everyone else was having. I was served a plate of lettuces and mint, four or five differently shaped fried things, and a bowl with slivers of apple in a more-sweet-than-sour liquid. I also had no idea if there was a particular way I was supposed to eat it, so I just watched and copied what everyone else was doing. It was tasty - and came in at under $2 - but I only recognized that one of the fried things had to have had pork sausage in it. That was kind of it for Friday night. I did try one of the free beers when I got back to the hostel, but that was a mistake. It's free for a reason, I guess, and the reason is that it has a strange vinegar-y taste to it.

Saturday I wanted to get a lay of the land, so I did a walking tour of the Old Quarter. This wasn't a group thing or anything, I was just vaguely following along with a path described by Lonely Planet. That was the day that I took all of the pictures of the markets and such that I already posted. There are way more, though? Have you seen them? I also went to Ngoc Son Temple out in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake; it's the most popular and widely visited temple in Hanoi. (Which, btw, is about to turn 1000 years old as a city. Pretty crazy, huh?) I also had another meal in which I didn't know what I was eating, but I finally went to an official restaurant that night and ordered off of a menu. How strange to know that I was about to eat spring rolls, sticky rice, beef, and vegetables. Where's the mystery in that? :-) On my way back to the hostel, I happened upon a huge crowd of people and went to check it out to see what the fuss was about. I don't know what the occasion was, but there was a man on stage with a pet monkey doing tricks. Pretty random, but it was interesting, at least. That was Saturday in a nutshell. Lots of wandering around, checking out markets and shops and food stalls.

Sunday was more lazy. Maybe as a break from all of the walking I'd done the day before? I did do some walking, but there was no real destination in mind, so it was more of a stroll than anything else. I had a few long, leisurely meals with a book and some
very good Vietnamese coffee. I'm not sure how they make it, but it's served in a tall glass that's only about 1/3 filled with coffee and a small pitcher of hot milk alongside so you can decide how much to add (I add the whole thing). It's kind of chocolate-y for some reason and not like coffee I've had anywhere else before. You can also get weasel coffee, something I'd really like to try! Besides this, I also ran a couple of errands as I needed to buy hair conditioner, toothpaste, q-tips, and gum, and I needed to book a flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) for Thursday the 25th. The only tourist-y thing I did was to go to St. Joseph's Cathedral for the 6pm mass. I'd read that the sermon was projected out onto the street and hoards of people would listen from their motorbikes in the street. I'd never heard of something like that before, so I had to see it for myself. Afterwards, I walked in a direction I hadn't walked before to find a place for dinner. I came to the Thien Quang Lake (the name of which I only figured out later after consulting the map) and it was quite pretty. All lit up and magical looking.

Monday, today, I was more productive. Maybe as a break from all of the leisureliness of the day before? Lol. My first goal was a stop at the Chinese embassy so I could get a visa. It was a 25 minute walk to the embassy and a half hour wait in line to find out that visas aren't issued to tourists in Hanoi, only in HCMC. Argh. What's up with all of the visa issues I'm having? Luckily it wasn't a wasted walk as all of my next stops were in the area, too. I went to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Ho Chi Minh museum, One Pillar Pagoda, and the Temple of Literature. After all of that, I was famished so I went to KOTO for lunch. KOTO stands for Know One Teach One and it's a not-for-profit project that helps street kids and other disadvantaged kids learn skills that will one day get them off the streets. It's a very successful program, one that boasts a 100% job placement for graduates and I was eager to contribute to it by having lunch there. Unfortunately, I was fairly underwhelmed with the food which was on the expensive side. It's not that it was bad, it was just kind of meh. Oh well. At least the service was good.

Now I'm back at the hostel where I will read and drink coffee for awhile while I wait for Rhian and Marina to get here. Remember them? I'm really excited to see them and hang out with them again and they arrive in Hanoi today. The plan is that the three of us will head to Halong Bay together and we'll part ways again once I head to HCMC. Who knows, though? Since they'll be heading south in Vietnam and I'll be heading north, maybe we'll meet up again somewhere in the middle.

When I Skyped with my parents yesterday, my father said, "So, Hanoi's a beautiful place, huh?" Well, no, not exactly. It's a large and chaotic city: motorbi
kes everywhere, lots of noise and people. But there are some beautiful parts and there are definitely a lot of interesting things to look at. It's beautiful in a Bangkok way rather than in a Muang Ngoi way.

*Sorry, I just couldn't come up with anything. Suggestions? :-)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pictures say more

(A somewhat typical street in Hanoi. Bird cages everywhere!)

(The eye is kept busy in Hanoi.)

(Markets have all kinds of interesting and unusual things. . .including bowls of fish, shrimp, and snakehead fish.)

(Hoam Kien Lake is beautiful, even on a cool, gray day.)

(Back to a big city!)

I named it

Someone came to my blog recently because they did a keyword search for the "name of cheapest dirtiest guesthouse in vientianne." Hopefully I saved them from my own fate and they managed to find some place else. Unless, for some strange reason, they actually wanted to stay in such a place. I can't imagine why they would, though.

Friday, February 19, 2010


See that number right up there? It had me a bit stressed earlier today. I arrived at the airport in Luang Prabang with plenty of time before my 3:10pm flight. I handed over my passport at the check-in desk to get my boarding pass. . .and proceeded to wait for quite a while, not knowing what was going on or what the problem was. One guy called over a second guy and they peered at the computer and looked at my passport, then back to the computer. Still nothing was said to me and I was running through all the possibilities. Visa all in order? Yes. Reservation made? Yes. At the airport on the right day?? Yes, to that one, too. Finally, the second guy turns to me and tells me that my visa is supposed to start on the 20th and today's the 19th.

Wow. I've looked at that visa who knows how many times and every time I saw 02/02/10. I even showed it to others and asked why it was issued on 11/02/10, but the first date of validity is 02/02/10. When I filled out my application, the proposed travel dates I gave were 23/02/10 to 23/03/10, assuming that once I had the visa, my 30 days would start right away, regardless of what date was on the visa. Then when I saw the earlier (as I saw it) date, I figured I was golden.

In fact, there was no problem at all. A Vietnam Airlines rep called immigration in Hanoi and said I was good to go. I half thought that I'd get to Hanoi and be told that I couldn't leave the airport until midnight, but that didn't happen. Immigration simply told me that since I came a day early, I'd have to leave a day earlier than what was on my visa. No problem with that! Whew, disaster averted!

Ah, Hanoi. I know it's awfully early to make a judgment, but I'm pretty sure I'm gonna love it here. I haven't been in a city of this size in well over a month, since I was in Bangkok. There's hustle and bustle and lots of shops and amazing food smells. Yay, I'm excited! I was also tipped off to what seems like it's going to be a pretty cool place to hang my hat for a couple of days. A British guy I met in LP the first time I was there told me about Central Backpacker's Hostel. It's right in the Old Quarter of Hanoi and opened less than six months ago, so everything's so clean and new. It's $5/night including free internet, free breakfast, and free beer from 8-10pm. Those are the kinds of tips I can use!

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Here's a recap of the last few days while I was out in the middle of nowhere:

The trip from Luang Prabang to Muang Ngoi was mostly uneventful. I arrived in Nong Khiaw just after 2:30pm and had missed the last boat to Muang Ngoi by a half hour or so. The logistics of how I got to Muang Ngoi don't really matter. In the end, I got a boat and only paid a little more than what I should have, after some hard core bargaining (and another passenger coming by, which helped, too).

(What a view!)

The boat trip to Muang Ngoi took an hour and gave me a chance to talk to Adam, a British guy who'd been in Nong Khiaw just to grab some cash before heading back to Muang Ngoi. He said that the whole village had been preparing for a wedding. Foreigners and locals alike were chipping in to help, particularly since there's a huge set of steps leading from the boat landing to the main road. Adam was clearly psyched about the place which got me in the mood for it since I'd been less than thrilled with my Laos experience up until that time.

(Foggy morning beginnings)

Muang Ngoi is truly a village. There are dirt roads and electricity only works from 6:30-9:30pm. There are just a handful of places to eat and locals outnumber foreigners. I went to a few guesthouses to see about a room and everyone was full. Not a great sign since I was hours away from civilization. Then someone said that I should go to the guesthouse on the corner because the owner was letting people sleep on the balcony. Apparently, the wedding party was the cause of all the full guesthouses. One enterprising owner, Penny, recognizing that she had unused space, decided that she'd supply hammocks, mattresses, and mosquito nets, let people sleep on the balcony, and only charge 10,000 kip a night (just over $1). Not too shabby, huh? I got my bag situated and immediately felt like I'd just joined a hippie commune except Pink Floyd was playing instead of Grateful Dead - more my speed anyway. :-) I walked down the street for a bottle of water and got a proper welcome to the village. A group sitting outside called me over to offer me a shot of lao lao (rice whiskey). It's bad form to turn down a shot lol, so of course I took it. Some people like it and some people hate it, but I think it's pretty tasty. The locals asked "good?" with a thumbs up and when I said yes, good, they cheered and offered me more. That time I had to laugh, but pass, and I went back to the guesthouse.

For the next little while, the guesthouse was the hangout spot. But then someone said something about a bonfire on the beach and the whole crowd started the somewhat treacherous trek to the beach. It was dark, see? Very, very, dark. So the people who didn't have torches (flashlights) stuck really close to the people who did. Once there, the bonfire was built and everyone settled in. It was a great night for a bonfire beach party. It was cool enough that the fire was needed and the sky was dark enough and clear enough that as far as your eye could see were stars, stars, stars. Some people had iPods, some had guitars, most had a Beerlao or two and we just hung out, joked around, and got to know people.

The next day my first order of business was to find a room. I found a riverside bungalow, complete with my own (cold water) shower and a hammock for 50,000 kip. On my way to the bungalow I'd seen some people from the night before, so after I checked in I went back to join them for breakfast. They were trying to get a group together to go on a fishing trip and since I didn't have any other plans, I decided that I would join them. On the trip were our Lao guide (Kao) and two of his helpers, me, a Japanese couple (whose names I never did catch), three Aussie guys (Tom, Aiden, and Cam), and a guy from New Zealand (Jason). We fished with nets rather than with poles and it entailed getting in the water and really wrangling the fish. On our first attempt we caught a fish and we were all so excited! After more fishing, some nets coming back with fish, some not, we did some tubing and then went to a weaving village about an hour up river from Muang Ngoi. The villagers didn't speak Lao, but they were happy to see us and show/sell the silk scarves that they are known for. The kids, particularly, were very excited and wanted to play and see the pictures we were taking of them. As excited as they were, they were also very wary of Cam and Tom who both have beards (Cam's especially is pretty big and bushy). The kids got used to the guys, but you could tell they still weren't totally sure that there were actually men behind all that hair. :-) When we eventually left, all the children followed us down to the beach to wave us off and say goodbye. It was really sweet.

It was finally time for lunch and what a spread we had! While we'd been shopping and playing with the kids, Kao's helpers had been preparing the food. Huge banana leaves had been laid out on the beach with place settings for each of us. We had grilled fish, sticky rice, community bowls of fish soup, pickled greens (which we guessed were a local green called morning glory), and sardines in a spicy sauce. Man, was it ever good! Everyone dug in and we ate until we didn't think we could eat any more. Then the lao lao came out and was passed around before we all helped clean up the banana leaves and clean the dishes in the river. Back into the boat for us, back down river to a spot where we were going to tube the rest of the way to Muang Ngoi. As the sun was going down and it was starting to get cool, I wimped out and decided to stay in the boat and not tube. In order to save face, though, I offered to take pictures of everyone with their cameras and that seemed to do the trick!

(Cam, the Japanese couple, Tom, me, Aiden, and Jason, getting ready to enjoy lunch.)

After a quick shower - and a shot or two of the sunset from my balcony - I was ready for the evening. Kao, our fishing guide, had invited all of us to his family home for dinner that evening. None of his family joined us at the table, but they all crowded around to join in the conversation (or try to, at least, as most of them spoke very little English). We had the most delicious noodle soup with chicken and some more of that ever present lao lao. The group of us ate, laughed, and hung out for hours before we decided that we should mozy on and let the little kids go to sleep. There was brief talk of another bonfire, but I think everyone was tired from the night before and the fishing, so we mostly just hung out at the restaurant near my guesthouse until people slowly started dropping off and making their way back to their rooms to call it a night.

Day three ultimately brought complete laziness. By this time I'd met my bungalow neighbors Julie and Adam, siblings traveling from Australia. The three of us seemed to get on well right from the beginning and it didn't take long for us to be laughing, joking, teasing, and all around giving each other a hard time. The cause of the laziness were the hammocks - they're just too darn tempting and way too comfy once you're in them! The most any of us could muster was a trip to the restaurant about 10 yards away. :-) Eventually Julie and Adam did go for a walk to a nearby cave (which they declared "meh"), but I pretty much didn't move. Later, Leslie (Canadian) and Lars (Norwegian) came around and we all hung out on the balcony, watching the sunset again and listening to Adam and Leslie play their guitars. The rest of the night was more of the same, pretty quiet, as a lot of people including me had decided that the next day was going to be the day they left. The first boat is at 9:30am, but it can often sell out so people try to get their tickets as early as possible. The following morning, I joined Adam and Julie for breakfast after packing up (and giving a passing-by Aiden money to buy my boat ticket for me!). Emails were exchanged all around with promises of "If you're ever in Australia/America, let me know and you can stay with me!"

(Dusk from my balcony with a tiny sliver of a moon.)

So what boat was I getting on and where was I headed? Well, after much back and forth, I decided that I was going to have to leave Laos a bit earlier than I'd originally planned. I'd wanted to head east and cross the Laos/Vietnam border overland, but the bus from Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua is 12 hours long and leaves once a day. Logistically, it was looking like it was going to take me longer than I'd have liked; if I have any hope of being in Beijing by mid-March, I need to get started on Vietnam to do it justice. It was back to Luang Prabang for me where I've booked a flight on Friday to Hanoi.

In closing: Muang Ngoi was just what I needed to end my short jaunt through Laos on a positive note. It was incredibly beautiful and laid-back. The people were fabulous - I can't remember the last time that I saw so many foreigners working together with locals to get a job done. And I met people from all over the world: Lao, British, Italian, German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Israeli, Japanese, Australian, New Zealanders, American, Canadian, and probably a handful of others that I'm forgetting. I think I must not be doing a good job of explaining why it was almost a magical place. Not just for me, either; some people would come for one or two nights and end up staying for four or five. Eventually you have to leave because if you don't, there's a chance you never will!

* * * * *
Pictures: Yeah, who knows when they'll be uploaded. I think there's a total of 24 shots on Flickr now, but there are at least 100 more to go. The connection for uploading is painfully slow, but I'll get there eventually.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Hello world!

Well, I'm back. Didja miss me? :-)

This is going to be a shorty-short post because I've been back in Luang Prabang long enough to find accomodation (same place again, this time in a tent!), take a shower, check the bazillion emails that happened while I was without electricity for four days, frantically search for a flight to Hanoi for tomorrow (!) (also: probably won't happen at those prices!), and now I am meeting some friends for dinner soon.

Here's what you need to know: Muang Ngoi was fabulous. Gorgeous, relaxing, great people. Totally a place I would recommend and go back to again.

More later. . .

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Into no-man's land

Laziness today. Pure laziness. Although I went to bed around 11pm last night, I still didn't get out of bed today til about 10am. I had coffee at my guesthouse, took a quick walk up the street for bottled water, and then went back to the guesthouse...where I proceeded to do absolutely nothing that didn't involve a book or a hammock.

After a few hours of that, I started to get hungry, realized the time, and then realized that I knew *exactly* what I was going to do. I walked to the market and got another one of those chicken sandwiches. What can I say? It was good, cheap, and portable! I took my sandwich up 138 steps to the first landing of Wat Tham Phu Si. There are more than 400 steps in total, but I wasn't feeling that energetic after my day of laziness. I ate my sandwich, read some more, and watched a lovely sunset. Since my pictures aren't up and running yet, check out some of these images instead.

Now I will head back to the guesthouse where I suspect I'll do more of what I'd been doing earlier. In addition to a new novel (a 900 page Stephen King/Peter Straub doozy), I've also spent time looking through a guidebook (oh! did I mention that Simon gifted me with one before he left?) to figure out next steps. I can't stay in LP, in a guesthouse out of my budget, for much longer, after all. Remember when I said I was pretty sure I was going to head to Luang Nam Tha? Well, change of plans, peeps. The only concrete reason I can think of for changing my mind is that Luang Nam Tha is west of LP, so I'd have to do some backtracking since Vietnam is the next country I'll visit and that's to the east. Backtracking wouldn't have been so horrible, but I think Vietnam is calling to me more than Laos these days.

The new plan is to take a bus to Nong Khiaw tomorrow where I will then transfer to a boat to Muang Ngoi Neua. Neither of these places have much in the way of infrastructure and I highly doubt they will have phone or internet connections. I'll be out of pocket for a few days, but I'll still try the SPOT to see if it works. Back in a few days!

Friday, February 12, 2010

More than a leetle

I half thought that I'd have a hard time getting a seat on the bus to Luang Prabang last night, so I got to the bus station early just in case. As it turns out, I was there 20 minutes before the 6pm bus left and it was cheaper than the next (8pm) bus, so I took it. A few hours in to the trip, I turned to look out the window and was amazed at the number of stars I saw in the sky. I ooh'd and aah'd for a second and then just as quickly as the thought "I wonder if they can still see stars like this at home, what with all the snow they're having?" sprang into my head, tears just as quickly sprang into my eyes. Hey, whoops, whaddya know? I actually am more homesick than I realized. So I laughed at myself for crying like a baby on a bus and tried to get some sleep.

The bus arrived in Luang Prabang on time. I didn't expect that. I certainly didn't expect to be plopped at the bus station at 4am either. (Maybe next time I'll pay the extra money just to be sure that I don't arrive in a new place before sunrise?) My tuk-tuk drove me to the guesthouse and then drove right off again, regardless of the fact that the place was very obviously closed and locked up for the night. I couldn't exactly go looking for another guesthouse because it was likely that at that hour all the others would be closed, too. So I sat and waited. For, I don't know, almost two hours? Only to be told that they were full. Argh. Here goes the search-for-accommodation walk again. Some places were full, some places were out of my budget. It was at about 7:30am when I started thinking that maybe Laos didn't want me to be here. I've never had such a hard time finding a place to stay before and then my stomach revolts on top of it all? Jeez. Right about then I found a place called Wat That Guesthouse. It's a bit out of my price range at 70,000 kip, but it's a single with a nice view and a CLEAN, hot shower. Let me tell you, after a long, hot shower and a nap, I was feeling restored. Still more than a leetle homesick, sure, but restored nonetheless.

After my nap, I wandered around LP to get a lay of the land. It's very cute and is bordered by the Mekong River on one side and the Nam Khan River on the other side. There are tons of wats and since I'd been templed out and avoiding them recently, I actually checked out quite a few of them. Wanting to give my stomach another day or so of a break, I ordered a chicken sandwich that came on the largest baguette ever with tomato, cucumber, lettuce, and mayo - for just over $1. I ate half and saved the other half for later, that's how big it was. When I finish up with email I will go back to my guesthouse and plop down on a hammock with a book for awhile before I go out to see the night market.

So - I'm feeling better. My stomach's been back to normal for 36 hours now and homesickness hasn't gotten the better of me and forced me to pack it in early. Thank you to everyone who commented with kind words. The comments brought on some tears, too, but this time just because I was reminded how much people miss and love me.

Pictures coming soon. The connection in Vientiane was pretty bad, so hopefully it will be better here and I can get everything uploaded.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


I'm feeling very out of sorts today, although I guess the feeling officially started last night. I went to bed early-ish, very tired, but unable to sleep because of the mosquitoes. They were buzzing near my head and biting wherever they could find an open patch of skin until I pulled the blanket over me to make it harder for them to get at me. I eventually fell asleep, but woke up very hot (blankets aren't really necessary when it's in the mid-70's at night) and, well, putting this somewhat delicately (and I apologize ahead of time for TMI), needing to be in the bathroom RIGHT THAT SECOND. Do you know how much fun it is to jump down from the top bunk, grab your shoes in the dark (because that gross bathroom without shoes? Hells no.), unlock your door, get to the bathroom, and barely get there in time? And then realize that in all that commotion you DIDN'T GRAB TOILET PAPER??

I'm not really sure what caused my stomach issues, although if I had to guess, I'd say it was the papaya salad I had for dinner last night that was so spicy my lower eyelids were sweating. I was still feeling a little off this morning, but that was probably due to the three ginormous cups of coffee I had for breakfast (no appetite), which I only stopped drinking because it was making me nauseous.

All of these things combined with the fact that I'm feeling a leetle bit lonely and homesick? Well, apparently it makes me overuse caps lock and italics, but it also makes me anxious to get out of Vientiane and (hopefully) to a place where I feel like myself again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The plan? Still tentative.

Last night I sat outside my guesthouse, reading and playing a new game of Solitaire that I learned called Clock. (Btw, remember when I said that my room "wasn't exactly dirty, but also wasn't exactly spick and span?" Yeah, well, I've changed my mind. I have to sit outside because - yuck. I can't wait to leave this place which just may well be one of the dirtiest places ever. Sabaidy Guesthouse. Remember that name and only go there if it's your last choice.) I met a Texan named Simon who has been teaching English in China for the last two years. What's with Texans teaching English in Asia? Zach does the same thing. Anyway, Simon was a wealth of knowledge. He'd come to Vientiane from the north, the direction that I am somewhat blindly heading, so he was able to recommend some places. He also was telling me all about different ways to get from Vietnam to China via bus and train because I'd told him that the flight from Hanoi to Beijing was more expensive than I thought it'd be, but that I'd already committed to being there mid-March. When it came time for Simon to go to bed because he needed to be up at 6:30am, I gladly offered him the use of my cell phone to use as an alarm since he'd lost his. He made it seem like it was the biggest deal ever, but as far as I was concerned, he helped me much more than I helped him.

Today I went to the Victory Monument, a new-ish 60's building that is also referred to as the vertical runway. Apparently the US donated money was supposed to have been used for a new airport runway, but this concrete monstrosity was built instead.

You'll just have to trust me when I say that it looks much better from far away. For a 3000 kip entrance fee, you can walk to the top for a view of the city, but even that was just so-so. Afterwards I went to the morning market which I'm sure started out as a traditional market, but now it's more like a mall. In fact, check that, I just remembered that they are doing construction work and are actually turning it into Talat Sao Mall. There was jewelry, iPods, washing machines, cameras, fabrics, slippers, bamboo baskets, and all kinds of other stuff for sale. I was half-heartedly looking for a tank top, but didn't find one in my size.

I decided then to go swimming for awhile. There's a public pool right near the national stadium and they only charge 10,000 kip for a swim. I was already wearing my suit and had a big, thick novel with me, so I figured it would be a good way to while away some time. I also spent some time trying to figure out next steps in Laos, but I'm not too much farther along than I had been. I had wanted to go east to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars, but it's a little too out of the way, I think. So my current plan is to take an overnight bus on Thursday to Luang Prabang. I will most likely go to Luang Nam Tha, in the far north bordering Burma and China, after that. After that, I have only the slightest idea.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

But how is it pronounced?

Twenty-four hours later and I'm still not any closer to figuring out how "Vientiane" is officially pronounced. Most westerners seem to say vee-en-tee-ann, but I've also read that it's pronounced we-en-chan, vee-ang-chan, we-en-teeyan, or some combination of these. I also haven't figured out how to say hello (but I think I'm on the right track) or other basic phrases, and I have no idea what traditional Lao food is like. This may be forgiven since I have only been here for a day, but this is one of the (many) reasons why couch surfing has been so great. Having Toto in India and Sam in Bangkok show me the ropes was truly invaluable, particularly because I met both of them in large cities in countries that I'd never set foot in before. Have I sung the praises of recently? Because it's high time I did.

Anyway, I mostly just wandered today to get a feel for the city. Although I wanted to get both my Vietnam and China visas, I only applied for Vietnam. With the upcoming Chinese New Year's celebrations, embassies will be closed so I would have had to pay extra for one day processing for one of them and then do regular three day processing for the other (your passport can't be in two different embassies at the same time). The Vietnam visa is only good for 30 days and I could only get single entry (I half think this was a language barrier issue, though, as single and multiple entry were both options on the application form). Since I'm trying my hardest to get to China to meet a friend on March 15th, it's looking like I will only be in Laos for two weeks before heading to Hanoi. I'm still trying to figure out an itinerary, even a very loose one, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to reenter Vietnam and Laos after China. Fingers crossed!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Not really working

This morning I checked out of my guesthouse in Nong Khai, briefly checked email, and then headed for the border. It was my first overland border crossing in SE Asia and my first crossing into a Communist country. It was all very easy, actually. I went through customs on the Thai side and got my passport stamped, then I got on a bus to ride into Laos. The application process took a little while, but less than the hour they told me it would take. From there I got on a tuk-tuk and went 20km or so in to Vientiane.

And that's about when my plan to ditch the guidebook stopped working. Didn't take very long, did it? You see, I didn't know where I was going, which guesthouse I was looking for. So I just picked a direction and started walking. I saw ZERO guesthouses. Yes, clearly I went the wrong way. I eventually ran into some farang and asked them. Finally I was at least in the right part of town. One of the first guesthouses I went into was the right price (20,000 kip)*, but I wanted to check other prices because it was a dorm that wasn't exactly dirty, but also wasn't exactly spick and span. Besides, I thought I might be able to find a single for 40-50,000 kip. Dudes. I walked the streets for about 3 hours and couldn't find anything. Guesthouses were either full or 150,000 kip (or more) and out of my price range. By this time, I was absolutely exhausted, annoyed, on the verge of tears, dripping sweat, thirsty, hungry, and probably some other things thrown in, too. I went back to the first guesthouse (praying the whole way that the bed I'd seen - the last one - was still available). Luckily it was and my first order of business was a shower.

I'm not giving up on the no guidebook plan just yet, though. I do want to at least get a map tomorrow. I'll try to do it sometime before or after my embassy run. I'll be going to the Vietnamese and Chinese embassies to get my visas sorted out. Since I'm guessing that it could take 3-5 days, I want it to be top priority.

And now, I'm off to grab a beer. I think after the day I had, I deserve it!

*$1 = 8,480 kip, so 20,000 kip is about $2.35. It was really easy to spend money in Thailand. See tigers, elephants, and cheap massages for just a few examples. So I'm going to try to keep a better eye on my budgeting in Laos. I'll be aiming for somewhere between 85-125,000 kip/$10-15 per day. Not a lot, but I think it can be done. But not if I stay in a room that's 150,000 kip!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Getting ready for Laos

I haven't written anything since I've been in Nong Khai, mostly because I haven't really been doing a whole lot. I've been sleeping in, having breakfast in the garden of my guesthouse, reading, and occasionally going on a search for something interesting.

The other day I went to a sculpture garden called Sala Kaeo Ku. Luang Pu, a Lao mystic and artist, is the man behind the garden. The sculptures are made from concrete and some are as tall as seven story buildings. They are quite impressive and have both Hindu and Buddhist influences. Check out my pics here. Luang Pu died in 1996 and his mummified body is in a building on the same grounds. Supposedly, his hair still grows and needs to be trimmed every now and then!

So. The other thing I've been doing is thinking about Laos and a game plan there since I'll be crossing the border on Monday. The last month in Thailand has been absolutely fabulous and I've loved it here, but I want to try to do things a little differently in Laos. I seemed to be firmly on the backpacker path in Thailand - I was running into the same people and/or meeting people who'd just come from where I'd been or were going to where I was headed next. This was mostly okay because I met and hung out with a lot of great people. But it also probably prevented me from meeting more Thai people. In Laos I'd like to ditch the guidebook, stretch the limits of my comfort zone a bit. Perhaps somewhat ironically, this has meant pulling out a guidebook. . .but only to study the maps and get an idea of which border crossing to use into Vietnam.

Tomorrow (Monday) I'll cross the border into Vientiane, the capital of Laos. I will stick around probably for the week because I will apply for my Vietnam and China visas. After that. . .who knows?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Happy Birthday. . .

. . .to ToadMama! I'm hoping that since I'm a full 12 hours ahead of everyone on the east coast of the United States that I'll be the very first to wish her the happiest birthday in the happiest year yet. In fact, why don't you go on over there now and wish her a happy birthday, too?

ToadMama, aka Kathy, aka my stepmom, besides the fact that she's been one of my biggest supporters during this round the world year of travel, is also one of my closest friends who I miss very much. You know how they say that you don't know what you've got until you don't have it anymore? Well, ToadMama and I have always gotten along well and over the years we've gotten closer, but I don't think I realized until after I left the States that I count her among my dearest friends. Now I have to hurry home so I can give her a hug and tell her in person. :-)

Happy Birthday, Kathy. I love you and miss you and hope your birthday - however snowy it may be - is fab!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Trekkers (NOT Trekkies)

The bus ride from Pai to Chiang Mai on Tuesday was rather uneventful except that we met an American guy named Lloyd who hung out with us for the rest of the night. The four of us - me, Rhian, Marina, and Lloyd - found a guesthouse, plopped down our bags, and went on a search for banana roti (my new fav snack food). Later, after we'd showered, we all went out to the night market to do some shopping since I hadn't made it there my last time through CM.

On Wednesday the girls and I had booked a trek. We were picked up from our guesthouse a
t 8:15am and an hour drive outside of CM brought us to our first stop, Phutawan Elephant Camp. We went on elephant rides! There was a little bit of unexpected excitement when we first got there. The mahouts (the elephant trainers) were moving the elephants around and getting them in place. One mahout led a mama elephant away from her three month old baby and when mama realized her baby wasn't right next to her, she literally roared and ran back to her calf. It was kinda scary seeing this huge elephant run past you, but we all just got out of her way and were fine. (I didn't get pics of the baby, btw, which is very disappointing. Rhian got a couple, though, that she said she'd send to me). After mounting our elephants we got to ride for about an hour. It's a weird feeling being on top of an elephant. In some spots of the ride, it almost felt like we were gonna fall right off, but then you'd look at the mahout and he seemed cool as a cucumber. Once the riding was over, we got to feed the elephants bananas and take more pictures of them. Here's my favorite elephant shot:

Next was a quick ride to a Karenni village, but this was a White-Cloth village (so called because unmarried women show their status by wearing white clothing), not a Long-Neck village. It was almost more interesting than the first Karenni village because our guide gave us more information about the community instead of just dropping us off and leaving us be. We then trekked for about 20 minutes to a waterfall where we could have swam, but the water was way too cold. We got some nice pictures, though, and at least stuck our feet in.

Another 20 minute trek landed us in a Hmong village. This was a less interesting stop and seemed to me to be more about getting us to buy stuff than anything else. Twenty minutes of more trekking - very convenient chunks of trekking time, btw, as it's enough to give you a taste of things, but not too exhausting - and it was time for a communal lunch where everything is brought to the table and passed around and shared. We had rice, potatoes, salad, chicken and vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce, and fresh pineapple and watermelon. The food was so-so and geared more towards westerners than locals, but after all that walking we would've scarfed down just about anything.

We finished up our day with bamboo rafting which was very fun, but I don't have any pictures to prove it. We had been advised to leave our cameras behind because we (and they) would get wet and that turned out to be a pretty good idea. The raft drivers? pushers? steerers? were having a bit of fun and took every chance they had to splash us or otherwise get us wet.

One hour drive back to town dropped three very tired girls off at the guesthouse. It was the last night the three of us would be together, so we showered and met back downstairs for one last round of fruit shakes, dinner, and card playing. My bus to Udon Thani left at 8pm and was a VIP bus. This meant that passengers were given water, snacks, and blankets. I was also lucky enough to get a ghetto upgrade, so I got to stretch out a bit. Twelve hours later I was in Udon Thani where I transferred to a second (much shoddier) bus for the hour and a half ride to Nong Khai.

I'm in Nong Khai now, staying at the Mut Mee Guesthouse, at the bargain rate of 100B. One of the staff asked me if I wanted to room with another girl who was traveling solo, Cat from France, because we'd both asked for singles and they didn't have enough. All Cat and I really wanted was a bed and we didn't care if it was in a dorm, a single room, or a double room, so we're roommies now. :-) Nong Khai is my last stop in Thailand for this go around. My visa expires on 8 Feb, so I'll be heading into Laos on either the 7th or the 8th, but I will definitely be back for more of Thailand (and it's beaches!) sometime in April.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Bicycles and motorbikes

After the day of doing nothing, Rhian, Marina, and I decided we'd rent bicycles on Sunday and head out toward a waterfall that we'd heard about called Mor Paeng about 8km away from Pai. Gabby had told us that it would take about an hour to get to the falls and then only about a half hour to get back. Remember when I mentioned all the curves on the way to Mae Hong Son and Pai? All those curves also end up meaning a lot of hills, too, so this is why it would take longer to get there than back.

It was probably the longest 8km of my life. We took liberal rest breaks - more than I'd have taken if I were on my own - and it took us 3 hours to get to the falls. We took a tiny little wrong turn at one point and were faced with the steepest hill ever. It was so steep that we got off our bikes to push them up the hill and that was tough. I stopped to take a picture of this oh so steep hill and, Miss Clutz that I am, I dropped my bike. The pedal came down on my right foot, leaving a scratch and an egg sized lump. The handlebar came down on my left leg, leaving another scratch. The bruise on my right foot hasn't shown up yet, but it sure feels bruised. Almost worse than going up a steep hill we didn't have to go up and almost worse than injuring myself was that we had to turn around and go down that very steep hill. It was terrifying, especially since the brakes aren't all that great on rented bikes. The three of us were literally gripping the hand brakes (and maybe praying just a little bit) the entire way down. It didn't seem fair that when we finally had a chance to give our legs a break from the hills that the work switched to our hands and arms. Once we were back on the right track, the waterfalls just couldn't come soon enough. There were a number of times when we had to give up and push the bikes for awhile. Every time a motorbike passed us, we could feel the pity in the riders' eyes, lol.

We did finally make it to the falls and it was quite pretty. We immediately stripped down to our bathing suits, tested the waters (COLD!), and laid out with our books. Ahhhh, relaxation after such a long trip! Even though we knew the return trip would be much better, we still were in no big hurry to get back on the bikes. Eventually the sun started to go down, though, and we had to get back into down. Any guesses as to how long it took? The hints: 1) we stopped once for about 40 minutes for a soda - not because we needed a break, but because we wanted to enjoy the view from high above Pai - and 2) we didn't need to pedal at all the entire time. Needless to say, we were all pretty exhausted last night. We didn't even go out for fruit shakes and cards, the evening activity of choice recently, and Marina and Rhian went to bed at 10:30pm.

Today we wanted to explore a couple of other waterfalls and a hot spring, but this time, we decided to go for motorbikes instead of bicycles. None of us had ridden a motorbike before, so we were a bit hesitant, but when we asked around at the rental place, they said they'd show us how and let us do a few test runs before we decided to do it. Once you get the hang of it, it's really very easy, especially because the rental places have the option of manual or automatic (we went with automatic). What a difference a motor makes! Instead of huffing and puffing and being hot and sweaty, we had a pleasant little drive through the countryside. Being on a motorbike meant that fewer pictures were taken, but I did manage to have one of the girls snap this one of me: