Monday, December 19, 2011

Capital Hill

Hey girl hey
Oh hey you... what's up from Vientiane, Laos. After spending two nights in the boonies of Vang Vieng (a.k.a. the very lovely organic farm about 1.5 miles outside of town) we spent the next two nights in the heart of the small city. Byebye to the goats and the quiet farm life and hello  to the loud, busy and drunk streets of the downtown. We settled on a guide book recommended spot that has a gorgeous view of the river, stunning karsts, a free breakfast and angry fighting french neighbors. This area of Laos is known for it's rock climbing, even though the sport is actually very new here, so we decided to give it a shot. We decided with some guy named Adam, legend has it that he brought climbing to Laos. Whatever the truth, he charges the most (but perhaps this is an activity for which you want to pay more?). We spent some time finding the right sized gear for us, and settled on two very stinky, questionably safe harnesses and well worn shoes. The rock climbing spot was on two sharp facing rock walls. Luckily we knew what we were doing because the safety and rock climbing 101 was about a couple minutes long. We started climbing and could immediately feel the difference between limestone here and the granite we are used to at home: limestone freaking hurts. We climbed about seven routes and munched on some rice, spicy!!! chicken delight. Post lunch we climbed a couple more routes but quickly noticed that we were sore and weak. But the last climb was nice, hanging over the river, and exposed to the extremely rough elements of drunk frat boys, sunshine, and fresh air. Washed our hair, shaved our pits and headed over some grub. Plopped down at some riverview, dr. dre playin' restaurant where we invited ourselves over to the table next to us. We spent the rest of the night eating and chatting (and sharing redbull infused whiskey buckets) with Joe and Craig, of Wales and England. Nice guys. Tina went "tubing" and Brooke went swimming the following day.
Apple's, our rock climbing guide,

So, tubing is fun. Yeah. Tubing. At least that's what the whole spectacle of Vang Vieng started out as. Today, most people just walk between bars along the river, which is what we did. At every bar they pour a shot in your mouth, give you a bracelet, and tell you to get your groove on. It is similar to Spring Break Cancun, but on a river, in Asia, next to homes with little kids running about unaware of the ensuing alcoholism. But it was fun. It's kind of sad to see this beautiful city being over run by disrespectful and drunk foreigners who don't abide to the Lao customs or dress code but cest la vie!
Enjoyed the delicious Lao coffee, baguettes and headed off for our day of kayaking to Vientiane. The ride was ridiculous because we were piled into a tuk tuk with 8 other people and by the end of the hour and 1/2 ride we were two shades darker from all of the sand. And did we mention the poor road conditions here? But we finally made it to the river where we got our 5 minute instructions on how to paddle and what to do in the rapids, and we were off!
Day one hundred and thirty two. Still no sign of the mystical white gorilla. The river has become one long strand of liquid numbness in my head.... aka Tina is on drugs.
Kayaked for an hour and hit our lunch spot, the best cliff spot everrrr! The guide started out with some pussy jumps and then gradually the guide took Brooke to some places that made you want to throw up. The giant of the group jumped in and after he survived, I figured there was a pretty good chance I wouldn't die. The impact pushed Brooke's top over her head, took off an earring and I think there is still water in my nose.Tina did the pussy one.
We kayaked for another hour and then took a less claustrophobic tuk tuk ride for the remaining 2 hours to Vientiane. Tina's legs are so tan!
Anyway, Vientiane is the new capital of Laos, with a huge French influence from the mid-century colonization of the country. And it has some pretty good Indian food as we've ordered that every night. The mix of expats, loc-dogs, that whole communism thing, and Thailand across the river make it a pretty interesting place. We went to the Laos National Museum, where, without giving any historical explanation, there seems to be a directed hatred of the "U.S. Imperialists and their puppets." Good baguettes they got here. After doing a bit of research on, supposedly post '75 the government created a new history for the country which includes mixing up what the Vietnamese or Chinese did with the U.S.... no big deal, where as the elderly Lao people just play along.
Yesterday Brooke went to the Sengarda Fitness Center here in Vientiane. For 65,000 kip (9 bucks) you get a free massage, steam/sauna room, tea service, gym equipment, a clean pool, and aerobic classes. It was awesome and weird to find yourself at a gym on vacation but it was actually fun.
Tina, after Brooke brought him to the guesthouse, convinced Joe to join her in renting bikes and riding to the Buddha Park. About 7 miles in, only slightly covered in dust, Joe said he hated me as a friend. He stopped talking to me for the next 4 or 5 miles. Once again, the road conditions aren't the best here and I am very surprised that the bikes we rented didn't just fall apart. But we made it, sunburns and all, and it is a very interesting park. More than 50 rock statues of Buddha and other gods. We paid 150,000 kip for a tuk tuk back into town.
Tonight we head to 4,000 Islands on the southern tip of Laos by overnight bus.


=Learn sumthin=
Sa Bai Dee- Hello
Khoy Sa Bai Dee, Khop Chai- I'm fine, thanks
Khoy Khit Hot  Chao- I miss you
Khop Chai, Lai Lai- Thank you very much

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tubing City!

So we have some catching up to do. We left for our trek early in the morning from Mae Hong Son with our first stop being the Karen Tribe/ long neck people. The long neck tribe seemed a bit weird, like a human zoo. The long neck people are Burmese refugees that can't work in Thailand and can't go to Burma so their best bet is standing around for tourists. And off to the trekking path, which started just behind our trek leader's home at the base of a mountain. We had two trek guides, Nok Nok and.... the sweet guy we can't seem to remember his name... they took us up the beautiful, sticky hot mountain for about 12 km. Brooke had barefoot running shoes, Tina had hiking shoes and our French friend, Pierre, had.... converse chucks.... probably not the best choice for climbing up steep loose rock trails. Poor Pierre. The sweet trek leader was quite an expert at several natural tools, such as his hand carved bamboo cups and spoons and tea kettle he made for all of us. Beautiful views from atop the mountain, tarantulas, banana spiders, and banana leaf hats culminated in a sunset behind the local village we were staying at that night. Nok Nok prepared a delicious feast of stir frys, tea, soup, and for dessert some mountain herbal whiskey. Strong stuff. We got our beds ready- a nice arrangement of blankets on the floor covered in mosquito nets, and went to sleep in the cold air with the pigs and dogs running around below the house. Woke up to the sound of pigs sucking on their mom and enjoyed some breakfast before taking off on our "downhill" hike. Basically straight downhill we ended at the local river and crossed it, for which we needlessly took off our shoes and socks, because little did we know the river would be our main trekking path the rest of the trip. The rest of the hike was probably one of the most gorgeous routes with a waterfall and tigers at every corner. It's kind of interesting because when you sign up for one of these treks, they don't really go into detail telling you what you are actually getting into... which leaves some victims such as our precious cigarette frenchman. Poor guy had it bad. But we think the local people just don't realize what badasses they are at these things. We got back to the city late in the afternoon, quickly took showers and spent our last night in Mae Hong Son. Not to forget to mention that we had a large Chang beer and some popcorn from the sweet yet odd Wisconsin expat who recently opened up a restaurant with a large "american icecream" sign hanging on the outside.
The next morning we caught a bus back to Chiang Mai, which was missing the window at Brooke's seat. We got there on the eve of the king's birthday, a national holiday. The ride was sooooo pretty. Even with the sardine packed, baby crying, crazy drunk tourists- it was still ridiculous. On the night of the King's birthday we were hitting up all of the 100s of vendors that line the downtown streets and right as we were getting some   tom yum soup and papaya salad, the King's national song comes on and everyone stops... for about 10 minutes.
Next day we took the long awaited Thai cooking class which turned out to be a quick over view of Thai cooking along with the fullest we have been in a long time. Tina learned that 4 chillis is too much. But it was a good experience and we got cookbooks, so get the palm sugar and chilli sauce ready. The next morning we left for the slow boat that would take us into Laos. The ride to the Thai border was long, and we ended up staying the night in a town called Chiang Kong with Laos just across the river. Chiang Kong turned out to be a delightful little city for which we can thank Malwaaen, our sweet Thai guesthouse owner. Got our visa for 35 bucks and jumped on the slow boat for Pakbeng, Laos.  Take a big motor boat, put a bar in the back, and line it with carseats taken from the back of pickup trucks and voila you have a slowboat. The first day was about 6 hours and ended at the halfway point, a just-for-tourists-stopping-by river town called Pakbeng. We were talked into having a free shot, for happy hour, at a nearby bar/restaurant where we had our first taste of Lao whiskey... which could have been our last because of the sweetness and overall taste. Unfortunately we didn't plan accordingly with our money and exchanging it so we ended up losing some money in having to pay in US dollars and Thai baht.
Just another photo of the MeKONG!
In the morning we searched out some sandwiches and fruit and headed on the boat for day two of the Mekong River. We got some "fancier" seats and set off on the 7 hour journey (aka they didn't have a hole on one buttcheek). We befriended some British boys and a Canadian and reached Luang Prabang just as the sun was setting over the river. The boat passed down the murky waters along side mountainous rainforest, bans (villages) and every mile or so the children playing in the water would turn at the sight of a boat and wave to all of the passerbys. Long but beautiful trip. When we arrived in Luang Prabang, the former french colony, we walked around with 2 boys we had met in search of a guesthouse for about an hour before we finally settled into one and then headed off to get dinner. We quickly stopped at a crowded riverside outdoor eatery that was serving a buffet styled d.i.y. barbeque. It wasn't the best meal we've had but it was more for the experience of throwing raw meat on fire. We spent the next 2 days in the very small, but unique and cute town. We were able to see the mountains and go to the Pak Ou cave that is a double leveled cave that houses hundreds of carvings of Buddha.
Scary Buddha Eyes!
The chilly boat ride then dropped us off at the whiskey village, where they quickly throw shots of their questionable whiskey's in your face. The whiskeys all have unusual creatures fermenting inside. Lizards, snakes, and even a small bear.
I spy .... a BUDDHA!
Unlike all of Thailand, it was too cold there so we decided to head to a small town named Vang Vieng, notorious for its drink filled tubing adventures down the river. The dizzying minibus ride was picturesque with its endless mountain ranges and dusty roadsides. We passed by several villages who are literally alongside the main road, so much you can see villagers urinating and taking showers.

We saw the most beautiful sunset and golden full moon and arrived 90 minutes late. We are currently staying at the Organic Mulberry Farm just before the city. The farm is known for its Mulberry Pancakes and the opportunity to milk the goats, teach English and protest the loud and over the top river bars music, due to the tubing that goes on here. We plan on going rock climbing and tubing tomorrow, and the rest we shall find out soon...

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Bonjour from Mae Hong Son

We have arrived to the small 8,000 person northern Thailand city of Mae Hong Son. We were going to book a trek from Chiang Mai but met a wonderful Frenchie on his way to Mae Hong Son and he convinced us to join.
We have some catching up to do since we have mistakingly lost track of time and have to update on the last five days, oops.
We spent the bd night at a very hip and loud restaurant called the riverside in Chiang Mai, where we both had the most ridiculous cocktails ever- one red and one blue. We then continued the party at Cocktail Cycle Bar- imagine a cable car on wheels with bicycle seats attached to the outside sitting about 5 feet above ground with loud music and bright lights. There we met Narrin, a very flamboyant Thai bartender who convinced after birthday shots, to go to the Reggae Bar we swore we wouldn't return to.  A few more cheap drinks, conversation with a high maintenance traveling Ethiopean, a smoke filled multileveled dance bar with crazy drunks almost falling through the ceiling and the night ended well.
Caught up on some more Chiang Mai sight seeing, and made our way to Dash restaurant to visit Maddie's aunt and cousin. 5 hours later with full tummys and well conversed mouths we went home because we had planned on seeing a Buddhist holiday at 6am the next morning. Of course we slept in until 630am so we hurried to purchase offerings for the monks. We picked up bananas and some hot food and made it to the event as it was closing up. Nervously we placed the goods into the young monks' bowls and continued to view the 12,600 monk spectacle. So many monks. So many bowls. Later that night we went to what we were told was the market that "no tourists go" to... or that EVERY tourist goes to. Peaced out of the trap and discovered the "real" market where we found all sorts of goods that we found out supply the whole country of Thailand, at a cheaper price.
The next morning we changed guesthouses for the fourth time (need a suggestion? we can tell you...where not to go...) and tried our, aka Brooke's, skill at driving a motorbike. We took a drive to Wat Doi Suthep, a mountain top temple that has been around since 1383 and overlooks the city and has about 300+ stairs to get to the top. We then went back down the mountain to Wat Umon, a temple consisting of underground-like tunnels located in a huge garden. It was definitely a favorite of all the temples we have visited so far.

Tina took her practice run at the moto bike and sadly... failed. A simple mistake, confused the gas with the brake and thus an abrasion to the knee and some mental scars.
So after Brooke drove us back (mind you driving here is like playing frogger with your life on a moving and unpredictable freeway) we went to see our favorite cousin of Maddie (he says you never write him by the way, Maddie...) again. For another 5 hours. We played some card games, sipped tea, talked to Patt (a sweet expat who teaches English at the Burmese Friendship Library), and were invited to a Muay Thai fight... which we declined.

Following day we caught up on sleep and met a friendly, very French, Frenchie, who we are currently traveling with. The bus ride the next morning to Mae Hong Son was the greatest ride ever, and Tina means that in the most sarchastic of ways... but it actually was a very beautiful ride through the mountains of Northern Thailand- a mix of Lake Tahoe and Amazon jungle. We decided to stay at the human made lake-side guesthouse, Johnnie's place where you can hear dog and cat fights as if they are in your room. We have just signed up for a trek, finally, which we will be taking off for in the morning and returning from the following night. Even though we have been hesitant to enter the "human zoo" of the long neck tribe, we are planning on visiting them tomorrow morning. We have read that the government pays these indigenous peoples money to wear the iconic gold rings around their necks so that the tourism will continue. Kind of gross but we will have to decide for ourselves.
Mae Hong Son is a pleasant town, with very few tourists, but we will probably head back down south after we return from the trek.
As for tonight, we search for this sausage stuffed in snake fish head and strong thai whiskey. Kisses and buttrubs.