Monday, December 17, 2007

Oh Bangkok...

This place is mad! I tell ya, it makes me just that much more anxious to get home after being here in Bangkok. It's just manic here. Kho San Road especially, but I must say, the shopping is phenomenal!

So I took a series of vehicles to make sure that I would get to BKK in time and not miss my flight. I started in Luang Prabang with a bus that took me to the capital city of Laos Vientiane which is where I wrote to you from last. From there, I rode in a tuk tuk, and then in the back of a truck to cross over the border in northern Thailand. Bangkok is central (which is quite a ways if you check the map) so I decided to take the sleeper train from the northern border to Bangkok, which was and always is a great move. I took one in the beginning of my trip from Bangkok north, and now I was set to do just about the opposite. It's so fun and relaxing, you get your very own little bed and there's food and drink service as well. I met some friends to hang with this time, so that made it doubly fun!

We arrived in Bangkok at 9am and went our separate ways to find accommodations and more importantly showers! I decided pretty much as soon as I got into town that I wouldn't stay the night in a guest house, but rather use the money I would spend on accommodations for Christmas gifts and a last dose of Thai food. I decided that sleeping at the airport was a good, cheap and efficient option, and I was game! It actually turned out to be quite fun, but more on that later!

I was happy to be on my own for the day as I needed a day to collect my thoughts and of course do some power Christmas shopping on the legendary Kho San Road (famous for great shopping at great prices), and I didn't want anyone to get in my way. After storing my back and buying a shower at a local guest house, I spent the rest of the morning shopping. I was on a mission, and on no body's schedule but my own, which felt great. I went to the same shop 2 or even 3 times, and really put a lot of thought into my purchases. Around lunchtime, I was pretty shopped out and took the local bus to Lumphini Park to eat the other half of my sandwich from breakfast. It was perfectly quiet and tranquil, the ideal escape from the madness of tourists in Bangkok. I took what I thought was the last bus back to my bag spot, and ended up at the end of the bus route, necessitating an expensive cab ride back.

Grabbed some dinner with a friend that I had now met up with 3 times along my journeys and had a really great conversation about recovering alcoholics (which he is) and passed the time rather quickly. After dinner, he wanted me to come with him to the tattoo parlor to help him confirm the perfect tribal tattoo for in between his shoulder blades (lame, but I played along with my teeth clenched the whole time!)

We said goodbye, and I headed to the bus stop where I met a lovely girl named Laura from England who was in the same boat as me with the airport-guesthouse situation. We hit it off instantly and stayed up till 3am in the airport eating Asian Ramen noodles and drinking a few cold ones. I slept for 2 or 3 hours on the bench seats, and hopped on the plane to Taipei where I sit now awaiting my connecting flight back to the good old U S of A!

I can't believe it's over. So much has happened in such a short time. I met some amazing people, saw incredible places, had life changing experiences and suffered a rather large cultural slap in the face...all for my own good. Traveling is so important. I urge each and every one of you to do everything in your power to travel as much as you can. If you want to really open your eyes, ears and heart up to the world, it's the only way.

I've already got my next trip in the works...more on that later!

See you all real soon!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Trek #2: Louang Prabang

After searching for just the right price with just the right food, we decided to go with the cheapest trekking option we could find (which was fine by me with my end-of-the-road diminishing bank account) and were to head off for a trek in the Louang Prabang wilderness at 8:30am Wednesday morning.

We were picked up and shuttled off to the start of the trek with a hurtin' Lily and Emerald. I wasn't feeling so hot either to start. We all had a bit of a sore throat, and tried to convince ourselves that the achey muscles we aquired were not the warning signs of Dengue Fever, but rather the aftermath of some radical rope swinging. We trekked for about 5 hours through jungle and a few Hmong and Khamong villages seeing a scorpion (dead) and a few other unwelcome insects. Our guide wasn't much help in the field of information since his english was limited and he was fighting a hangover from drinking too much Lao Lao the night before.

We arrived at our home-stay in the Khamong village, and Lily wasn't feeling too hot. While I went and played with the village children (pulling out all the tricks that I had on the last trek including air guitar, follow-along songs, and the human swing), Lils had developed the chills, and wrapped herself in warm clothing and blankets by the fire...chills...another sign of Dengue, but we were all determined that she didn't have it. Everyone gets a bit of a scare when traveling in SE Asia, and because she is so sensitive to skeeter bites, she was especially worried. We had a late dinner in the bamboo hut, and called it an early night, hoping to get a good night's sleep and wake up feeling rejuvinated. This was impossible due to the sound level of animals and people at the village. Roosters crowing every 20 minnutes, large animals scattering near our heads, and village men drinking and talking loudly were not condusive to a good night's sleep!

In the morning, Emerald and I still had a trace of a sore throat and some sore upper body muscles which I accredited still to the rope swings, but Lils was not feeling any better. She decided that she would go back to town and check into a guest house and get some antibiotics so that she could get back on her feet. She was lead by one of the men in the village an hour down to the main road, and made it back safe and sound, and Emerald and I continued on.

We hiked 4 hours to the next village and arrived early enough to get to spend some good old QT with the village kids. We taught them Karate moves, and dance moves and played games with them for a couple of hours. We marveled at the simplicity of the village, especially their shower and cleansing system...3 bamboo "pipes" that carried spring water to the village from the mountain. This is the place where everyone bathes (in their undies) washes clothes, dishes and brushes teeth. Pretty darn amazing actually. I've got photos to better tell the story.

We spent the evening sitting around a candle with 6 of the village kids and 2 of the women singing campfire songs like "Old Mac Donald" (they loved that one!) and BINGO. The kids responded with their favorite songs and we had a good old fashioned sing-alog. Amazing how much you can do even when you can speak a single lick of a language. After the sing along, we walked around and poached a couple of camfires and talked to the elders for a bit. We learned how to say a few words, and they laughed at our horrible attempts at pronunciation. It was such a special moment when we were sitting among the tribe teaching them the english words for body parts and them teaching the Khamong words.

The next morning we woke up, found a "toilet" aka, a pile of leaves, and rinsed in the bamboo shower which was phenomenal. So refreshing to rinse in nature like that. It just feels so organic and right. After breakfast, we packet our things, and on the way out of the village we stumbled upon their morning "excersizes". This consists of every member of the village joining in somewhat of a field day, or competition between the 30 families that inhabit the village. They were doing piggy-back races and fill the beer-bottle with a plastic bag full of holes races! (I got video, don't worry!) Everyone was laughing and cheering eachother on. Such a great feeling of comeraderie. We trekked another 3 hours, stopped off at a waterfall for a quick swim, and made it back to the main road in one piece, and feeling great! We were hopping that Lily was feeling better.

She met us at the trekking office in town, and seemed to be feeling a bit better. She had gone to the pharmacy and the pharmacist looked at her throat and immedietly gave here some antibiotics. We don't think it's Dengue, hopefully just a bad case of strep that the medicine will cure up in a few days. I was releived to see that she was feeling better, and up to walk around and share our last hour together. She and I did some quick shopping before I had to catch my bus out of town headed back to Vientienne where I sit right now. It was sad to say goodbye to Lils after the great time we spent together. We made so many memories and met so many great people. I'm just jealous that she has another week to go!

Had an 11 hour bus last night, an d killing time until I get on the bus headed for the Thailand border, and then onto an overnight sleeper train (yessss, love those!) I'll have a day to shop in Thailand, and then it's back on the plane headed towards the good old U S of A!

Did somebody say Lobster and Pizza Regina?

One more update before I get back...hopefully!

Tire Tubes, Ziplines and Organic Farms...

What do all of these things have in common? They were all part of a fun-filled trip to Vang Vienne. Once we recovered from our intense bus-trip, we arrived at our guest house on an organic farm in Vang Vienne. The farm was complete with organic fruits, vegetables, goat cheese and mulberry wine...yum! Much needed after city food and grueling travel!

We settled into our dorm-style room where me, Lils, the 2 Aussies and Hulk shared 4 beds, and then headed down to the restaurant for some great eats where we made some friends quickly. Aite, a dutch guy from Holland who was working as a bartender on the farm (one of the stops on the tubing trip) invited us down to the river for the bonfire that he was starting up. We all agreed, and continued our beers and conversation in front of a view that we wished we could see in the darkness of night. A few beers and some dutch cigarettes later, we were ready to turn in. Apparently the Hulk had a bit much to drink, because he wasn't feeling so hot the next morning and missed the float, which was the highlight of the trip!

We rented some tubes (which were actually just inner tire tubes complete with valve and all) and began the infamous float down the river joined by hundreds of other westerners primed with a decent morning buzz. Aite started us off with some Mojitos, and in the water we went! Business owners on the river have strategically figured out that liquor and rope swings and zip-lines seem to go perfectly hand-in-hand and are capitalizing on this noble idea. Without the tubing, the town would be nothing but a few bamboo huts along the river with some stunning limestone scenery. Sad, but fun all the same.

We floated the river for 4 1/2 hours stopping at every bar for a zip or swing launching us into the water sometimes from 30ft in the air. Soooo fun. That night we went to the bar that everyone who floats ends up at and ended the night off nice and late once again. Lils and I took it easy because we knew we were headed north for Louang Prabang early the next morning and didn't want to make that mistake again.

The Aussie uncertian of his sexual orientation had a jealous freak-out when we got back to the room because we were trying to get the shy Hulk to take his shirt off (what...girls just wanna have fun!) and threw a hissy fit! We were glad to get out of there the next morning and be back on our own again after traveling in a herd for the past 3 days.

8:00am and we were off to the bus station in the back of Mr. Tea's school bus (he's the owner of the farm). Another bus ride, another destination..for me this was my second time in Louang Prabang, and I was anxious for Lily to see it because of the phenomenal beauty and shopping. She appreciated it as much as I thought she would, and we met another girl from CA named Emerald who stayed the night with us and decided to trek with us the next day. After a night of great vegetarian buffet and some quick shopping and emailing, we were off to bed to get a fresh start in the morning.

And I think this next bit deserves it's own entry as well. It's like one of those shows that you just keep getting sucked into because they play re-runs back to back, isn't it?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Laos...need I say more?

Well, yes I do! Such a pleasant change from 'Nam, and we felt it the moment we got into the country! Well, that is, after a 21 hour bus ride over the border...that's right 21 hours!

I know that sounds like a lot, and most of you will probably think I'm crazy when I tell you that I actually enjoyed it! From Hanoi, we shared bus with 2 more Australians (one definitely gay and the other we still haven't determined yet) and a 20 year old Norwegian guy whom we refer to as Hulk due to the nature of his bulky shoulders. These guys became our friends quickly as we boarded the "disco bus" after our first bus broke down a half hour into the trip!

Believe it or not, the trip went quite quickly, and as soon as we sat down at a cafe in the capital city of Vientiane, Laos, the speed of life instantly slowed down about 75%. No touting, no begging, just smiling faces eager to help you and beautiful countryside to boot! For a capital city in Asia, or anywhere in the world for that matter, Vientiane was quite surprisingly quiet. We met a really cool guy from San Fran and settled in with some beer Lao and some Lao Lao (rice whisky) to start the night up right!

Once we finished our drinks and had some street food (Pad Thai....yum!) we headed off to the "disco" inside a huge hotel decked in Christmas lights and trees. You'd never know it was there unless someone told you, and what was behind the doors of the club was equally surprising. We found that about half the girls inside the club were actually "lady boys" which are Asian transvestites (mostly post-op) who were exceedingly friendly... especially to our gay friend(s). One of the lady boys pulled Rene (out of the closet) into the bathroom to show off his/her recent operation goodies! The stories were hilarious to say the least. Ended up being a late night and we awoke the next morning feeling it for sure.

We woke up slowly and jumped on another bus headed toward Vang Vienne, which is famous for it's river tubing. Groggy as hell, but excited, the 4 of us boarded the bus ready to sleep for the short 6 hour trip up the coast. Sleep was absolutely out of the question once we saw the local-packed bus we were about to step into. Once we each found a single seat, we plugged in our ipods in an attempt to drown out the sounds of the horrible Lao karaoke and local chit-chat. Just starting to settle in, Rene tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the man sitting across the aisle from us. I looked over annoyed that he had interrupted my near slumber to see the man carrying a concealed AK-47! I nearly shit my pants, and so did Lily. We looked at each other with cloudy eyes wanting to scream, cry, jump out the window, anything to get us out of this vacation gone-wrong. We sat tense and completely silent for 20 minutes running through every possible

scenario in our flustered minds. Maybe he had just bought the gun and was bringing it home? Maybe he was a hijacker? Maybe he was a security he was too young to be a security guard. Why was he concealing it? Did they let him on the bus with that? Did they even see it? Why didn't anyone try to stop him? Should we just get off the bus and can the measly $3 we spent on the cheap bus out of town? Was the window big enough that we could jump out of the moving bus if need be? It all whirled around in our heads just long enough to really freak us out. Luckily, on the other side of the "hijacker" was a Western Expat (or angel as I'd like to call him) who explained to us the purpose of this man. He was indeed a "guard" of sorts who is meant to protect (or shoot back) in case the bus is shot up by local terrorists. Don't ask me what the hell good it would do, especially because he was asleep nearly the whole ride, but that's what he was! I guess that explains why he was so anxious and clenching the seat in front of him for the first half of the ride. But what it doesn't explain is why he would cover the gun anytime someone walked towards him...still seems kinda fishy to me.

We made it off the bus in Vang Vienne and hi-fived to each other's well being...I think I'll start a new blog to explain the rest of our time in VV... One of the Aussies got a picture of the gun, sespite the fact that I begged him not to during the melt-down....whatever you do, I said, don't take a picture! HA!

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Photos from "Back in 'Nam"!

A couple to tide you over...a rickshaw, Halong bay, me, lils and our new Spanish Friend Ingrid,
and all the crazy kids on the motorbike...there's 5 nationalities in that picture!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Vietnam by Bus!

What a long strange trip it's been! Sorry about my last blog, I know the last half of it got cut off, but for some reason, I can't check it and see where I left off. I know that I was in Dalat when I last wrote, so I'll continue on from there...

So, I think I wrote this already, but you can get an Open Bus Tour ticket which takes you from the south to the north (Saigon to Hanoi) for only $22, and you can stop all along the way and spend as much time as you'd like in each place. After Dalat, we stopped in a bustling little beach town called Na Trang.

Natrang is a trip. There are tons of hotels right on the beach (a perfect sring-break situation, and it almost feels like it!) The crazy part about Natrang is the beach beggers, or should I say "merchants". You'd think it would be great having people come right to your beach towel and offer you everything from beer to sunglasses to fresh fruit to hair removal, but I'll tell ya, it got old QUICK! As soon as you set foot on the sand, you are nearly bombarded with touters. They will literally come back to your towel 3 or 4 times until you either be very stern with them and say leave me alone, or cave and buy something. The water there however was beautiful, and again, the seafood was great. The waves were incredibly strong. One Vietnamese girl got sucked out to see and died there the day we arrived, so needless to say, we were very careful. Lily and I met a couple of guys (who were really fun, but turned out to be kinda sleezy asking if we thought "Happy Endings" were okay) and we went out and danced the night away at a really neat beach bar and dance club. Lily says I did the worm, but I conveniently don't remember ( I never do!)

The next morning, we thought it would be a good idea to do a little boat tour to the 4 islands of Natrang. For me it was a blast, but Lils had a bit more to drink than I, and was feeling pretty sickies the whole day. The water was a bit rough, and not very condusive to hangover status! The tour was fun though, we went snorkeling around some pretty mankie reefs, swimming, had some red wine at the floating bar (which was basically a guy in an innertube handing out free wine and pineapple) and stopped at a beach for a dose of dry land which helped sober us up a bit. They had some really dodgy parasailing, and two tourists got stuck in a tree during their sand-landing, we saw the whole thing happen. Everyone was okay.

We ended our trip and hopped on the "sitting bus" (not to be confused with the sleeping bus) on the first of December for an overnight trip up the coast to Hoi An. The bus played really bad Vietnamese Christmas music complete with red, green and yellow flashing lightbulbs until 4am. Luckily, Lily had a valium that came in handy and allowed us to sleep until the wee hours of the morning.

We arrived, and after a heated search for the best hotel deal, checked in. We headed to the market to check out the highly sought after tailors who will make anything and everything you want perfectly coutured to you exact size. I had a lovely jacket and pair of jeans (that fit amazing!) and Lily had 2 suits and jeans made. These people are incredible. They whipped up our clothes in the same day, and we went back for second fittings to make sure they were exactly what we wanted. We also visited the beach there and had quite a nice swim, and and even better dinner on the river. Hoi An has a lot of very interesting arcitecture, with a mixture of Chinese, European and Vietnamese buidings. I got some great photos. They also do a lot of wood carving there. If you had a shopping problem, you'd be in big trouble here too! Lily and I had a hard time restraining ourselves!

From Hoi An, we hopeed back on the open bus tour up to Hue for a quick lunch stop before our overnight sitting bus to Hanoi. I met back up with a really cool girl named Ingrid from Spain! I had met her in Cambodia, and wanted to travel on with her, but we were going in different directions. We had a great connection, so I was bummed to not travel with her, and equally as excited to meet back up with her on the bus! She has been with Lily and I for the past couple of days, and she is just a doll. I have been practicing my Spanish for my next trip which I'm thinking will defintely be to South America!

Anyways, after the quick lunch stop (where we also re-acquaineted with the Sweedish girls) , we parted ways with Ingrid and the Sweeds as they were using a different travel agency than us. We chose the cheaper option with the 11 hour overnight sitting bus....BIG mistake.

The cute little Vietnamese girl that was curled up like a cat on the seat behind us turned out to be not so cute when she starting vomiting violently into her hands and onto Lily's seat. She continued to vomit all night long into a plastic bag. When we realized that she was quite sick and sweating profusely, we decided we'd fare better setting up a bed in the aisle between the seats on the floor and sleeping there, which worked out a bit better. We also met some really nice Argentinian guys who offered us their seats half way through the night, and we took them up on it.

Once we arrived frusterated and worn in Hanoi, we met back up with the girls, and the Argentinian boys! Ingrid, Lily, Hanna and I all got on the same tour to Halong bay which was simply phenomenal. We did 2 nights and 3 days on the boat visiting the 4000 limestone jutting islands of Halong which are simply breathtaking. We made some friends on the boat that we shared meals and conversations with, did a trek in the Cat BAh National Park, stayed a night on Cat Bah Island, and this morning, we kayaked at 7am, and jumped off the top of the boat after breakfast. It was such a great time. Only $40 for the trip with everything included! Not bad, huh?

We are staying a night in Hanoi with the crew of Spainiards, South Americans and Sweeds. Tomorrow we part ways, and Lily and I go onto Laos which we are quite excited about. I anxiously await the calm demeanor of the Lao people after being hassled like crazy in Vietnam. 'Nam has been great, but I'm ready to move on.

...And we go!