Suits, Stitches, and Sales

Before our sea-legs had even worn off, we were boarding an overnight bus due south for Hoi An. The journey lasted 12 hours through the night until we made a pit-stop in Hue (pronounced Hu-way), which was “on the Hue.” 😉 It was a town we wanted to see, but were told it didn’t require much time. Rather than going through the hassle of finding a place to stay, unpacking, then touring the town for a day or two, we opted for a 5-hour layover from 8am-1pm. Then, another bus would take us the rest of the way to Hoi An, another 4 hours.

Hue was a major city of interest during the Vietnam War. It was conquered by the Viet Cong and held for 24 days, during which over 1,000 people were killed for sympathizing with the south. Subsequently, the Americans bombed the city in order to take it back. The main attraction is the Imperial Citadel, comprised of temples, pavilions, walls, gates, and moats. We rented bicycles and cruised around town for a few hours. The sun was blazing hot and the sites weren’t all that interesting. We were glad we decided not to stay the night.

      

We arrived in Hoi An around 5pm. The streets buzzed with quaint shops and restaurants that stand no more than 3 stories high, giving a feel of stifled development. The Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 2,000 years of history. It was a major port city in the 16th and 17th centuries, which makes it quite picturesque as the sun sets over the river. Our hotel was a bit more than we were used to paying, but for $19/night it included buffet breakfast, A/C, bicycles, and a swimming pool. Most other accommodations wouldn’t budge lower than $15, even with seasoned bargaining skills. (and that’s without all that other cool stuff!)

The main attraction in Hoi An is getting custom-made clothes. There are over 400 tailors within a few square kilometers. Literally, more than half of the stores we passed were ready to make us a new wardrobe. It was a bit of a struggle to find the right shop to do quality work for a good price. Everyone wants your business and it’s hard to know who to trust. There are reviews online for a few of the reputable ones, but they use that to their advantage and charge more for it. We also found some of the shops to be a bit pushy and urged us to commission more clothes before even seeing their work.

After a couple days of research (and some more effective bargaining) we settled on Thu Van to make a suit for me and 2 dresses for Gabriella for $150. I picked out a grey Italian fabric made of cashmere and wool with black accents on the pockets and maroon silk lining. Gabriella found images of her dresses in catalogues, then tweaked the specifications to her liking and selected the fabrics to be used. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to get another one, especially for that price, but one suit is good for now. The experience of having custom clothing made can easily get carried away. I overheard a conversation of one woman asking someone for a box to mail things home. When asked how big it needed to be, she said, “Well, I have 3 winter jackets and about 20 skirts.” 20 skirts?! Some shops displayed written testaments from past customers that walked away with over 30 articles of clothing! I’m sure it’s great for people that are going home soon and have a job that requires them to wear dress clothes, but I don’t envision myself in that position (either of those positions) anytime soon.

   

While our clothes were being made, we used the bicycles to ride down to the beach about 5km away. I was pretty impressed with how clean and scenic it was. A thin forest of palm trees provided shade, then an open space of white sand lead to the South China Sea. The water was clean, calm, and warm. There were also a few islands in the distance and mountains off to the north that supplemented the scenic surrounding.

Back at the hotel, we went for a relaxing swim one evening. The pool was small, but I dipped under and pushed off for a gentle glide from one side to the other. Waiting for me at the other end was a bench extending out from the wall that I failed to see. Although my hands were out in front, they went under the bench and my forehead bumped the concrete underwater. It wasn’t a hard impact, but it was enough to split the skin right at my hairline. I immediately felt blood on my face and Gabriella calmly told me get out of the pool. As we went into the lobby, a French family was just coming in and the mother was a nurse. She said her friend is a doctor and he’s right behind. Their kids were immediately interested in the action and the hotel attendant was panicking about closing the wound (he offered scotch tape). I was quickly surrounded by 10 people all vying for a glimpse of my bloodied face. The professionals looked at the gash and helped to stop the bleeding, but suggested I get stitches. Luckily, the hospital was only a 2-minute walk down the street and I was seen right away. Within an hour after the accident I had 3 stitches in my forehead and was back at the hotel. Although this type of incident is never pleasant, I couldn’t imagine being in a better place with more helpful people. One week later, Gabriella was cringing as she removed the stitches in our hotel room.

From Hoi An, we continued south to Nha Trang. After the overnight bus to Hue we swore we wouldn’t do that again, but here we were, boarding another 12-hour bus at 7pm. The ride actually wasn’t that bad, but it’s difficult to get any kind of sleep when the bus is veering in and out of traffic and honking the horn every few seconds. We arrived around 5:30am to the reddish sunrise over the Sea in a beach town buzzing with early exercisers.

Nha Trang is supposed to be the beach town in Vietnam. While the beach was nice, it was also very crowded. Our hotel was about a block away and right in the heart of the tourist district. Because of this, every time we stepped outside we were constantly approached by salesmen and women offering books, sunglasses, cigarettes, and fruit, which continued on the beach as well. Promoters stand outside places of business and hand out flyers all day long (my least favorite form of advertising). We couldn’t walk 10 seconds without uttering “no thank you” to someone. The restaurants typically place their menu outside to allow customers the chance to look it over before deciding where to eat. Every time I wanted to glance at a menu (where there wasn’t someone handing out a flyer), an employee would rush out from the restaurant to tell me to come inside or help me flip the pages while making their best pitch in broken English. Even after politely explaining we’re “just looking” they would stand over us and stare at the menu, patiently waiting our decision. Some would even begin to read the menu! Needless to say, this got old fast and I had to resist my rising temper a few times when I simply wanted to be left alone to decide. I know it’s a different culture, but the constant barrage of sales had me longing for a hoodie and headphones.

   

We spent 4 nights in Nha Trang alternating between the A/C of our room and the sunshine on the beach. We walked to the aquarium one day, but it was nothing like the museums back home. The nightlife was livelier than we expected, and peace and quiet was fleeting. The barrage of people trying to get my dong every time I stepped outside brought unnecessary stress to what was supposed to be a place to recharge our batteries. Fortunately, we found that when we went south to Mui Ne, which prompted us to stay a little longer than expected.

p.s. Dong is Vietnamese currency. Get your mind outta the gutter!

Advertisements
Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Goooood Morning, VietNAM!!

Our longest bus ride so far took us from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam. It was a full 24 hours from start to finish, including time for the border crossing. When we arrived at the bus station, our receipt was taken and we were told to follow a man to board a particular bus. Our bags were stowed underneath and we were instructed to take seats all the way in the back corner. We insisted on seats near the middle, especially after the horrible bus ride from Rishikesh to Dharamsala in the last row, but the man in charge pointed voraciously and seemed to only know one English word: “No.” We were very early and only a couple seats were already taken. Why were we forced to take the worsts seats on the worst bus in the lot?! The bus itself was not what we were promised; no bathroom, standard, not deluxe, and shabbier than the pictures showed. Something didn’t seem right and we had a bad feeling about the situation. I tried to get our receipt back, but it was no use. When I went to get our bags out from the storage compartment, the door was locked. They didn’t want us leaving.

When you’re staring into the prospect of a 24-hour bus ride in a foreign country, comfort is a top priority. I especially wanted to make sure Gabriella would feel alright, but she was already regretting not flying. We had about 90 minutes until the bus actually left, so I walked around the station and found a few other buses that were also heading to Hanoi. There was a VIP bus that was exactly what we had in mind. After some negotiation, I was able to get us seats on the bus for only $22 each (the other bus was $25). Buying a second ticket wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t feel good about the original bus and there was no way we were getting our money back at this point. I had to drag our bags out through an adjacent door since the compartment was locked and we discreetly boarded the nicer bus. It was much more comfortable including a blanket, pillow, and bottle of water and we were able to sit in the middle, which made the ride much more bearable.

After an early morning crossing the border and 9 hours through Vietnam, we finally got off the bus around 6pm. Motorbikes dominate the streets of Hanoi. Zipping and weaving through every possible inch of concrete, even on the sidewalk sometimes, they are giant mosquitoes buzzing through the jungle of the city. Much like India, vehicles honk whenever they get near another object, which is constantly. Crossing the street took some getting used to, but you just have to keep walking and trust that everything else will move around you. If you hesitate, the oncoming driver won’t be able to anticipate your next move and that’s when accidents happen. Don’t try to play Frogger; just keep moving.

Despite the overwhelming presence of motor vehicles, Hanoi is actually a decent city. The Old Quarter is defined by its narrow streets and organic structure. Locals eat outside at tiny tables and chairs that look like they belong in a Kindergarten classroom. Stores draw in customers with custom clothing, cheap electronics, or old communist propaganda posters. This capital city is booming with history and cultural significance. They say communism is alive and well in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but it seems capitalism is the way of life these days.

Aside from roaming through the Old Quarter and around the lake in the center of the city, we visited the Temple of Literature (oldest University in Vietnam) and the Vietnam History Museum. However, the most interesting site was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. In case you didn’t know, the Vietnamese have preserved Uncle Ho’s body (against his wishes for cremation) by embalming him and keeping him on display for visitors. He died in 1969! Say it with me now: creeeeeepy. We woke up early on Saturday and joined the procession of people making their way to the entrance. It’s only open Tues-Thurs and Sat-Sun, from 8-11am. No cameras are allowed inside. Visitors maintain a steady flow through the frigid room around three sides of the display case with armed guards at each corner. The whole experience was less than a minute, but at least it’s free. It’s basically an open casket at a funeral, except this casket is a glass box and has been on display for 43 years! No matter how weird you think it is, it’s a must-see if you’re ever in Hanoi.

From Hanoi, we decided to head east to Ha Long Bay, recently named one of the 7 New Wonders of the Natural World. We opted for 2 nights on a house boat to explore the bay, and then planned to spend 2-3 nights on Cat Ba Island before heading back to Hanoi. Our first day, we ventured out to Sun Sot Cave, aka Surprise Cave. It has three sections that get more impressive and grandiose as you get further in. The rock formations, stalagmites, and stalactites were incredible! It didn’t even look real! I kept waiting to see the Bat-mobile somewhere. Our guide was a cute little Vietnamese girl who kept pointing out auspicious figures in the rock formations, although some were a bit of a stretch. Later, we explored the bay on kayaks. Then it was back to the boat for swimming and dinner. There was a perfect sunset that we enjoyed from the top deck, which made it all worthwhile.

That night, as we were sharing a bottle of wine with a friendly couple from Holland, the wind started to pick up and slammed a window closed. Soon after, it was a full blown storm that rocked the boat all night. The morning came with overcast skies and a light drizzle, which was disappointing, but added to the mysticism of the scenery. We boarded a smaller boat that took us to a different area of the bay for the day where we went kayaking and ate lunch. The rain was pretty light during the kayaking and a nice alternative to a blazing sun and humidity. The scenery was even more stunning than before as it towered overhead from our two-person kayak. We paddled through different caves and around massive rocks. After lunch, we were supposed to visit the beach, but the rain had picked up so we went to an oyster farm instead to see how pearls are made; quite an interesting process. Later, we went back to the big boat and met some new people who were about to spend their first night on the water.

Unfortunately, the rain never quite let up and got even worse the following day. We felt fortunate to at least have the first clear day with a nice sunset. Instead of heading to Cat Ba Island for a couple of nights, we went back to Hanoi to escape the rain. As we were boarding the mini-bus, we heard that some people who were just arriving at the dock were being turned away and that no more boats were allowed to go out on the water due to high winds. Can you imagine driving 3.5 hours from Hanoi just to be told you can’t go on the boat and then turn around to drive back to Hanoi!? Timing is everything.

We were back in Hanoi by 4:30pm and had some decisions to make. Head north to the hills and terraced rice fields of Sapa? Or head south to Hoi An in central Vietnam to relax near the beach? Both involved an overnight bus. We heard the rains were affecting all of northern Vietnam, so we chose to go south. All we wanted to do was relax on the beach for a few days in Cat Ba, but that wasn’t in the cards for us. Gabriella and I were both feeling a bit stressed from moving around every few days for the past couple of weeks, especially after going from the capital of Laos to the capital of Vietnam. We hopped on a bus heading south to Hoi An and have finally been relaxing in one spot. Things have been going great, aside from a trip to the hospital, but more on that later.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Living Laos to the Fullest

A quick water taxi across the Mekong River brought us from Thailand into Laos. It’s a bit odd that they only accept US dollars for the visa-on-arrival, but luckily we had some with us and didn’t have to pay their ridiculously skewed exchange rate. It wasn’t long until we boarded the slow boat that would take us all the way to Luang Prabang. Passengers poured onboard with cases of BeerLao and bottles of Lao whiskey. Capacity was certainly met, if not exceeded, making it easy to start a conversation and meet someone new. There was a couple from Holland, a couple from Canada, a girl from France, and tour group of about 10 people with the Stray Bus that we became friendly with over the next few days. (side note: Stray is a hop-on/hop-off bus that circles through Thailand, Laos, and back to Bangkok. Tickets are good for one year and passengers can spend as much time as they want at each destination. A guide accompanies each bus and does the short/long route in 10/18 days.)

The first day on the boat offered spectacular views of untouched Laos. Rolling hills spattered with towering limestone and villagers fishing and bathing in the river. The party atmosphere on the boat wasn’t our cup of tea (we’d actually prefer a cup of tea!), but we had fun. The Stray guide (Scrub) was a sociable character that never allowed a dull moment. At one point, someone started a sing-a-long with an acoustic guitar so I busted out my harmonica and joined in! I faked it pretty well for a bit, until he asked me what songs I knew, to which I had to answer, “I don’t really know what I’m doing, I just thought it’d be fun.” 🙂 As the sun was setting, we stopped in the village of Pak Beng for the night. Everyone continued the binge drinking to the only bar in town, err…village, and made a fool on the dance floor. It’s kind of hard to say no when a 640ml (22oz) beer is only $1.25…

The next day on the boat was much quieter once everyone was hung over. The scenery was still stunning and the rock formations were more impressive. It was 8 hours until we arrived to Luang Prabang, but time passed with good conversations. The following day, we met up with the Stray group and visited Kuang Si waterfall. Even through the light rain, the waterfall was beautiful with its turquoise water and popular rope swing. It was nice to travel with a group and a guide instead of figuring things out on our own.

The quaint architecture of Luang Prabang along with baguettes and croissants on every avenue imposes a French atmosphere, and with good reason. (Excuse the historical tangent) The French established Laos as a territory in 1907 and only granted full independence in 1953, although still present. A struggle continued between various factions for control, and the Pathet Lao sought to overthrow the French-leaning monarchy with an alliance with Communist North-Vietnam. This led the US to drop nearly 2 million tons of bombs on Laos during the decade-long Vietnam War, which became known as “The Secret War”. It’s estimated that about 30% of these explosives are still buried in the ground waiting to detonate on the innocent farmer tending his land. In fact, Laos has the unfortunate distinction of being the most-bombed nation in the world, per capita. It was only in 1975, when Saigon fell, that the Pathet Lao took control of the capital Vientiane and ended a six-century-old monarchy, but French culture and language are still prominent in this quiet country known as “The Jewel of The Mekong”. But enough history for today, there will be more tomorrow…

Rain put a damper on the majority of our time in Luang Prabang. The one semi-clear day, we rented bicycles and rode all over town visiting markets, temples, and enjoying the scenery. Every night, the main street is blocked off for a huge night market. Vendors set up an endless s row of canopies to keep their customers and merchandise dry. There’s one area for food that is an all-you-can-eat (or fit-on-a-plate) extravaganza for $1.25! (it was my favorite) After 4 days of rain and 3 night markets, we headed south to Vang Vieng.

Despite the clouds, the drive south was an awesome display of jagged limestone formations and mountainous scenery. The town of Vang Vieng isn’t much to get excited about if you’ve already been through college. It’s a bit trashy and the main attraction is tubing down the Nam Song River, stopping at riverside bars and going deaf from blaring pop music along the way. The main stretch of road in town is littered with lazy lounges looping episodes of “Friends” or “Family Guy” all day and night. It’s tailor-made for nursing a hangover before breaking open another brew. Unfortunately, this wasn’t really our idea of fun. However, we went on a tour one day that took us tubing through a cave and kayaking down the river (much better than a tube!). The scenery was spectacular and easily made up for the less-than-stellar town.

As soon as we arrived in Vang Vieng, we ran into a friend from the slow boat journey and ended up staying at the same guesthouse. The next day, she told us she got an email from someone back in Luang Prabang that Joe, one of the guys on the Stray Bus tour group, was found dead in his guesthouse. We were in utter shock. We had just gotten to know him and were hanging out a few days before. Joe was in his early 30’s, lived in Canada, and had recently decided to take a year off of work to travel and enjoy life. We still don’t know the cause of death, but some think it was blood poisoning from a new tattoo he’d just gotten (a snake circling his arm from shoulder to wrist). No matter what the cause, his death came much too soon and stunned us all. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends.

Apparently, death is quite common in Laos. Upon hearing about Joe, the owner of our guesthouse mentioned an 18-year-old boy that died a few days ago tubing on the river. Our guide from the kayaking day-tour told us he knows of 36 people that have died in the last 3 years. Another gentleman told us that 27 people had died tubing in Vang Vieng last year alone. Bartenders aren’t prone to cutting people off because more drinking equals more money, which is hard to refuse in one of the poorest nations. Most of the time, people jump into the water with impaired judgment and impale themselves on rocks. Other times, it’s simply alcohol poisoning. Terrible things happen when drinkers become swimmers.

After shaking off the gloom of Vang Vieng, we traveled south to the capital, Vientiane. It’s a bigger city than the previous two, but much more relaxed than other SE Asian capitals. It’s still got an air of French culture, but not quite as pleasant as Luang Prabang. Our first day, we visited Buddha Park. It’s an area on the Mekong filled with hundreds of stone Buddhist and Hindu sculptures that include just about every deity imaginable. Yesterday, our last day in Laos, we toured the city on bicycle and saw some temples and monuments that are important to Lao history. And would you believe it…the sun was shining and there wasn’t a drop of rain! Then we left on a 24-hour bus to Hanoi to begin the Vietnam adventure.

All in all, I have mixed feelings about Laos. The natural beauty is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the cost of living doesn’t get much cheaper. The people have been friendly and generally don’t try to rip us off. The streets are clean and the food is mediocre. However, the underlying theme of death that pervades my impression of this country, along with the macabre history of The Secret War, is a bit unsettling. It’s never pleasant to know someone that has passed, but it does put things in perspective. Part of me didn’t want to mention this aspect of our trip for fear of worrying friends and family, but it’s been an important part of our Laos experience, dovetailed by the fact that we’ve had gloomy skies and daily rain. We always travel safe and responsibly, but this was a simple reminder to be more careful and aware. We are so incredibly fortunate to be healthy and have the opportunity to see the world, living life to the fullest. It may worry some of you reading this right now, knowing that I’m bouncing around on the other side of the world, talking to strangers and visiting countries we used to bomb. I’ll be home soon, but right now I just have to get up there and pretend to play the harmonica.

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Heavenly slice of Pai

Everything happens for a reason. Our time in Chiang Mai seemed to have been cut short, when in fact it was simply the universe’s way of telling us, “I made this Pai for you and you’re gonna love it!” It only took three hours to get to Pai, weaving our way through the northern Thailand countryside. If Chiang Mai was supposed to be a relaxing break from Bangkok, then Pai was a relaxing break from Chiang Mai. The main part of town existed on four streets forming a square with sides no more than 300 meters long. Quaint guesthouses and artistic cafés populated the two-lane roads. The place we decided to stay at was a simple bamboo bungalow with glass-sliding door, front porch, and a hammock for $6/night (wifi and TV included).

For two days we rented another motorbike to explore the surrounding area. We drove to Pai Canyon, the WWII memorial bridge, Pai hot springs, and one of the many waterfalls in the area where you could use the rocks as a waterslide. There were a few elephant camps in one stretch of road and artsy little cafés here and there. Most of the time was spent just cruising around the winding streets, embracing the mountainous scenery of banana trees and rice paddies. I think I drove about 150km (90 miles) on one gallon of gas! (a gallon that cost over $5, I’ll have you know)

The rest of our time we spent relaxing at different cafés and browsing the bric-a-brac at the nightly street market. Pad Thai was deliciously consistent from one vendor for $1/plate. There was usually a fruit shake or two in there as well ($.80/$1 for one/two fruits). A couple of places even had kombucha! One day, we got simultaneous massages with a hot herbal compress in a (get this…) air-conditioned room! We thought we’d only stay for 3-4 days, but stuck around for 8. Time doesn’t seem to exist in a place like Pai…

From there, we took the quick journey back to Chiang Mai in order to book a slow boat package to Laos. Unfortunately, my body didn’t agree with leaving Pai (so soon?!) and my neck and upper back became incredibly tight and painful the day we left. We spent two days in Chiang Mai, instead of one, so I could get a couple oil massages and start to feel better.

We left Chiang Mai Friday morning for a 3 day/2 night journey to Luang Prabang on a slow boat down the Mekong River. Day 1 took us to the border in a minivan and Days 2 and 3 were on the boat. Included in the package was a stop at The White Temple in Chiang Rai en route to the Thailand/Laos border. I thought it would be “just another temple”, but this place was unbelievable! It’s a contemporary Buddhist and Hindu temple designed in 1997, but still under construction. Check out the pics, but they certainly don’t do it justice. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen so far. (this site has some pretty good pics and a better description: http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/white-temple-chiang-rai-a-photo-essay/) I just wanted to mention it because it’s in Thailand, but the details of the rest of our adventure into Laos will have to wait for another post…

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Kanchanaburi and Chiang Mai…it’s a Thai!

A few days in the hustle and bustle of Bangkok got us eager for the countryside of Thailand. Our first stop was two hours west to Kanchanaburi. Some of you may recognize it as the home to the bridge on the River Kwai. The movie (“The Bridge On The River Kwai”) came out in 1957 and was actually shot in Sri Lanka, but the true location is here in Thailand. There are lots of historical WWII sites in town that are sobering and educational, but tend to level out our otherwise high spirits. I have a feeling there will be plenty more moments like this once we venture to Vietnam and Cambodia.

The main thing to do in Kanchanaburi is to explore outside of Kanchanaburi. We rented a motorbike one day (kinda like a Vespa) and drove 65km up to Erawan Falls. It has seven tiers spanning just over 2km that can be hiked progressively. It took just over an hour to get all the way to the top, which had clear blue water and powdery white stones. There were also fish in the pools that would nibble the dead skin from your feet if you kept them still long enough (a treatment that costs about $5/half-hour in Bangkok massage parlors). We jumped into a couple of the waterfalls on the way back down, but felt a bit rushed because we still wanted to get to the Tiger Temple before it was too late.

The Tiger Temple was founded by a Buddhist monk in 1994 as a forest temple and refuge for wildlife. In 1999, it received its first tiger cub when its mother was killed by poachers. Since then, tigers have been raised and cared for by Buddhist monks. As of May 2012, the total number of tigers has risen to over 100. The amazing thing about it is that since the tigers have been raised by hand around humans, they’re used to being touched and handled without much complaining. They used to roam about freely, like all of the other animals, but due to their population increase and popularity amongst tourist they are now kept on leashes for safety. Also, the only time they are brought to the public is from 12:30-3:30pm (hence the rush from Erawan Falls) when they’re the most sleepy and mild-mannered. Like your typical house cat, tigers sleep around 16-18 hours/day, especially during the afternoon heat.

Some argue that the animals are mistreated and drugged in order to be so docile for tourists. Others claim that this is simply a front for illegal tiger breeding and trade. Because of this, we were a bit hesitant to visit, but decided to see for ourselves anyways. (I mean really, how often do you get to pet a tiger?!) Although we were only there for just over an hour, we didn’t get the impression that they were abused or drugged. They’re just big cats! But there’s no way to know what goes on behind the scenes. Overall, we’re pretty happy we went and only wish we had gotten there earlier to savor this rare opportunity. (see more pics here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3706653938897.283698.1051984216&type=3&l=b57c19cf32)

The rest of the day was spent cruising around the countryside and seeing how fast this little bike could go. I think I topped out at 105! (don’t worry mom, it was in km/hr) We even woke up early the next day to watch the sunrise and visit The Cave of the Buddhas before the motorbike was due back at 9am. The landscape in Thailand is beautiful; rolling blue hills set behind fields of cultivated land speckled with bamboo huts. Two days later, I rented a bicycle and rode out to visit The Giant Monkey Pod Tree and soak in the scenery.

Transit from Kanchanaburi to Chiang Mai required a pit stop back in Bangkok for a few hours. We hopped on an overnight VIP bus at 9pm and arrived around 6:30am. This bus was by far the nicest we’d encountered so far – double decker, reclining seats, neck pillow, blanket, bottle of water, and snacks in the evening and morning! I can’t tell you what a difference this was from India and Sri Lanka. We were even able to get some sleep during the journey.

Chiang Mai is a backpacker haven with a university atmosphere. Inside the walls of the old city, narrow streets wind their way to a multitude of restaurants, guesthouses, and travel agencies (most of the time all three in one) filling the space between magnificent Buddhist temples. We arrived on a Sunday, which meant we could experience the Sunday Night Market. Endless booths filled the main streets with everything from clothes to jewelry to artwork and eateries (even a booth with fried insects!). It would be great if we were near the end of our trip and could buy all the wonderful things for sale at ridiculously cheap prices, but we’ve still got a lot to see and every ounce counts when it’s being lugged in a backpack.

Due to the abundance of prepackaged tours with a range of activities we’d been waiting to do, we decided to book an all day tour with the company Chok Chai. It included a little bit everything in a neatly packaged itinerary. We were picked up from our guesthouse around 9am with the first stop being an orchid and butterfly farm. Only 20 minutes of viewing pleasure here, then it was off to the Longneck Hill Tribe village. This was a bit awkward since it is strictly intended for tourists to see how indigenous tribes in northern Thailand and Myanmar live. The women spend days sewing shawls and making knickknacks for tourists to buy, and every little stall has exactly the same stuff. The main attraction is that the women also wear brass rings around their neck beginning from a young age. Over time, the progressive addition of rings elongates the vertebrae and creates an unusually long neck (hence the name of the tribe). It felt almost like a zoo or a museum, but with real people.

Then we were driven the Chok Chai facilities. First, it was a 40 minute elephant ride with the most gentle of giants that couldn’t stop stuffing their faces every few steps. They say an elephant never forgets, but this one didn’t seem to remember when he had his last meal! Then we suited up to go zip-lining through the forest. It only took about 70 minutes, but there were 15 lines and 3 vertical drops – enough to make me satisfied! After lunch we took a ride upstream to go whitewater rafting. The water wasn’t too intense, but there were some exciting moments with twists and drops. From the river, we drove a little bit to a waterfall and had time for a relaxing swim. Then it was back to the Chok Chai grounds to end the day on a slow-moving bamboo raft and enjoy the scenery in the setting sun.

Out of all of this non-stop activity, my favorite part of the day was something that wasn’t even in the itinerary. As we were waiting for the guide to take us on the bamboo raft, some of the other employees were training a 5-year-old elephant for a show they do at night. We got to feed and pet him if he responded properly to the commands. I even played around with his trunk for a bit and he almost ate my hat! To have that sort of interaction with an animal that I’d otherwise never get to be around is one thing that makes traveling to a different part of the world so much fun. Unfortunately, we got the feeling that these animals are sometimes mistreated, unlike at the Tiger Temple. Here, every worker has a 15” stick with a 5” sickle on the end of it that they use to jab into the elephants when they want it to do something. The elephants also spend most of the day with a chain around their foot. One was simply swaying and pacing back and forth in the small area that his chain allowed. They seem so innocent and docile; I don’t know why anyone would want to harm them!

The next day, we planned to rent a motorbike again and see the surrounding area of Chiang Mai. When we went to the front desk to tell them that we’d like to stay an extra night, we were told that there are people coming back from a trekking trip and they need our room for them. Instead of hopping on a motorbike we headed upstairs to pack. Faced with the decision to find another guesthouse or move on to another town, we took this as a sign that our time in Chiang Mai had ended. We went to the bus station and took a twisting, turning, three-hour journey to the quaint bohemian/backpacker town of Pai. We’ve been here since Wednesday and it was the best decision we could’ve made! It’s going to be so hard to leave…

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Confucius say: “Man who go through airport turnstile sideways going to Bangkok”

Sawatdee Khrap and welcome to Thailand! We arrived in Bangkok over a week ago to begin the SE Asia portion of our trip. We planned to stay with my old friend Dustin, but a few days before we arrived his eye became irritated and inflamed. He thought might be remnants of a recent eye infection, so we booked a cozy little room (9’x9’) near Khao San Road (the bohemian touristy area) for the first night. It was only about $19/night, but almost twice as much as we’d been used to paying. After a long day of travel, we immediately set out for authentic Thai food. The first place we came across was a small shop that seemed a bit commercial, but Pad Thai was only 60 baht (about $2) so we each ordered one. The portion was small, especially coming from India and Sri Lanka, and the taste wasn’t anything special. Something didn’t seem right…

Winding our way through sidewalk stalls of salesmen a few blocks away, we hit a lively street with outdoor restaurants and neon lights. I saw a street-side vendor cooking up something delicious, so we sat down and I ordered another Pad Thai. This time the portion was twice as large and only 40 baht! Now we’re talkin’! We then indulged in a cup of coconut ice cream out of a hollowed coconut with coconut shavings on top ($1) for dessert. There were many other little carts cooking all sorts of different dishes. The bars were coming to life with outdoor seating and live music. It was a far cry from Sri Lanka as it seemed the Westerners outnumbered the locals and everything was tailored for tourists. This is Khao San Road.

Luckily, Dustin’s eye was not infected, so we moved over to his place the next day to save on accommodations and experience Bangkok with the locals. What a great guy he is! That night, he took us out to a nice Thai dinner with his girlfriend, Ped, and we finished off a tower of beer to celebrate the reunion – we hadn’t seen each other in over 6 years, since he left to teach English in Japan. Over the next few days, Gabriella and I set out to explore Bangkok.

The city is sprawled out like any major metropolis. Traffic floods the streets into a frustrating gridlock; walking is quicker than driving between 3-7pm. Motorbikes fill the empty space between cars, tuk-tuks, and pedestrians. Bicycles are rare. The public transit system is clean and reliable, but only runs on two lines covering the eastern part of town. Advertising is rampant. Entire metro cars are blanketed with logos, and video screens speak incessant propaganda on the platform and inside the train. Images of the King creep around every corner. Building façades have begun to sport the logos of major corporations in the space billboards can’t occupy. Establishments alternate between restaurants and massage parlors with questionable sanitation in both. Vendors clog the sidewalks like the arteries of an overweight carnivore forcing pedestrians to pass through single file. Anything is for sale—tee-shirts, backpacks, knives, electronics, movies, Viagra—all of the knock-off variety. The smell of food drifts from sweet to savory and there’s always something new a few meters away. It’s a buyer’s market for the wide-eyed Westerner.

During our days, we visited the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center, took a trip down the Chao Phraya River to see Wat Pho, and explored the weekend Chatuchak Market (as if we needed more stuff to buy). Buddhist temples are scattered throughout the city, but Wat Pho is one of the oldest and largest temples in Bangkok. It is home to one of the largest Buddha images (The Reclining Buddha, which extends 160 feet) and is believed to be the birthplace of traditional Thai massage. The temple grounds were extraordinarily ornate with an intense attention to detail. There are over a thousand Buddha images throughout the 20 acres of temple grounds! We’ve seen quite a few more temples since then, but Wat Pho was certainly the largest and most interesting.

Coming to Thailand has been quite a shift from the India/Sri Lanka experience. Living is still cheap, but slightly higher than India. In return, the standards are a notch higher and the environment a bit cleaner. Bangkok is a bustling capital competing for international recognition in its own stress-free style. Although the setting can be overwhelming, the people are nonchalant. Most are more interested in what’s happening on their smartphone or iPad. Thailand is well-accustomed to tourists and possesses the infrastructure to help foreigners get the most bang for their baht. After Bangkok, we headed west to Kanchanaburi!

Categories: Thailand | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

Una wanna tuna?

I know…I know…it’s been a bit since the last posting. We took it easy in the sleepy little beach town of Unawatuna for about a week to let our bodies recover from all of the hiking. We moved slow, but the days moved fast. One day we took a trip to the town of Galle (5km away) to see the fort area, which was quite interesting. Other than that, we simply relaxed by the beach, got massaged, and ate delicious Sri Lankan cuisine. Gabriella also did a cooking class on our last day, which I’m sure she’ll recount in her G-log. 😉

We left Unawatuna June 26 to go back to Colombo by train, then up to Negombo by bus (closer to the airport) and left for Bangkok by plane June 27. We’ve been immersing ourselves in pad thai and acclimating to the new culture. I’ll certainly have more to write in a few days to fill in all of the details. Don’t worry, we’ve been in good hands with my old friend Dustin!

For more Sri Lanka pics from everywhere except Arugam Bay, check out the link to my facebook album https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3674379492056.282996.1051984216&type=1&l=68e181471c

Categories: Sri Lanka | 1 Comment

Thrills in the Hills

I feel like I’ve walked from east to west through the heart of Sri Lanka. My calves are still sore, despite being back at the beach for 2 days now. Nothing the ocean can’t fix, right? After leaving Arugam Bay, we headed west to the small town of Ella. Tea estates blanketed the rolling hills between massive rock formations rising in the distance. As we exited the bus, a nice old man offered a place to stay. “Only 2 minutes’ walk down the road,” he promised. Yes, it was 2 minutes down the road…then another 4 minutes on a rocky path through the forest, down stairs, over a rickety bridge, up stairs, (with our packs) and finally to a quiet guest house overlooking a valley and famous Ella Rock. Luckily, it was a beautiful little place, newly remodeled, and the price was right, so we stayed.

The next 2 days we did various hikes around the area; Little Adam’s Peak, Rawana-Ella Falls, and Ella Rock. Little Adam’s Peak was about 2km from town. It offered beautiful views of the surrounding area, a nice trek through tea gardens, and only about 300 stairs to the top. Rawana-Ella Falls is about 6km from town and 90m high. When we got there, we sat down to have a snack and a monkey almost snatched a cracker out of my hand as I handed it to Gabriella! They were suddenly everywhere at the first sight of food! But the best hike was to Ella Rock. A solid 4 hours there and back, down the railroad track, over a waterfall, through the forest, and a good 40 minutes of incline until reaching the summit. The weather was still clear and the view was amazing! This was a nice warm-up for the days to come.

After 3 days in Ella, we took a 3-hour train west to Haputale. As with Ella, the only reason to stay in Haputale is to see the surrounding landscape. We decided to splurge a bit and visit Horton Plains National Park. To save on transportation, our hotel manager recommended taking a 40-minute train to Ohiya, then getting a tuk-tuk for the remaining 11km into the park, which would be about 1,000 rupees. Unfortunately, there was only 1 tuk-tuk at the station in the ghost town of Ohiya and he wasn’t going to get out of his chair for anything less than 2,000 rupees. We even started to walk for a bit, figuring we’d see another taxi since we’re usually barraged with transport options everywhere we go, but there wasn’t a soul in sight. We reluctantly headed back to the station, gritting our teeth, and agreed to his exorbitant price. (We later found out that we could have hired a tuk-tuk all the way from Haputale for 2,000 rupees) As if this price-gouging wasn’t enough, we got hit with a foreign visitor fee (10x higher than locals), service charge, car charge, and 12% tax at the park entrance. All said and done, it was about $30/person for this little adventure (which feels like a lot when you’re living comfortably on $15/day). Luckily, the weather was in our favor and the park was stunning. It consists of a 9km loop that takes visitors past various sites and lookout points, including World’s End, Mini-World’s End, and Baker’s Fall. The sites are interspersed throughout a trail of cloud forest, streams, and open plains. The view from World’s End, which is the main attraction, was bright and clear. It’s a sharp 825km drop down the cliff face! Despite the trouble (and fees) to get there, we both agreed it was worth it.

The next day in Haputale we visited Lipton’s Seat and the Dambatenne tea factory. Lipton’s Seat is named after (you guessed it!) the famous Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton’s Tea. As legend has it, he used to go to this particular lookout point to brainstorm about sharing the wonders of his favorite drink with the world while pondering the meaning of life and sipping a piping hot cup of his soon-to-be-famous tea. It’s here where the idea for tea bags was first invented. Ok…so maybe I made that up, but the view does have a tendency to incite some existential thoughts; as does a hot cup of tea. 😉 At the Dambatenne tea factory, we witnessed industrial tea production first hand. It’s still used by Lipton’s tea and sent all over the world. Seeing the whole process was pretty neat, from people picking leaves outside to the dried, cut, and finished product that is bought in stores.

From Haputale, we took a 2.5-hour train to Hatton, then 2 buses to Delhouse for the famous Adam’s Peak hike. Adam’s Peak, standing at 2,243m, is a Buddhist pilgrimage. At the top is a temple that claims to have a footprint from the Buddha. Others believe it is the place where Adam was placed when he was exiled from the Garden of Eden (thus, the name). Although the path is merely 7km, the ascent takes about 3 hours due to the 5,500 steps along the way. Many chose to begin hiking around 2am in order to make it to the top for the sunrise. On a clear day, the peak casts a shadow to the west of a perfect triangle (search “adam’s peak shadow” in google images), which is said to represent the Triple Gem of Buddhism (similar to the Holy Trinity). During pilgrimage season, the trail is lined with lights, pilgrims, and tea stalls all along the way. Unfortunately, the season is Dec-May, so we made the climb at night, in the dark, and alone.

We left our guesthouse at the foot of the trail at 2:50am. Through the darkness, clouds, and leaches, we arrived at the peak around 5:10am. Despite the cool air, we were sweating profusely. Clouds surrounded us and the wind threatened to fling us back to Earth. The sunrise came soon, but it was too cloudy to see anything. There were moments when the clouds would break and the view was clear to the land below, but it was quickly swallowed up and obscured again. It wasn’t until we descended a bit and got below the clouds that we could enjoy the spectacular views. We had no idea the area we had been trekking in through the night! Off to the northeast was a giant cliff face with waterfalls trickling down. Adam’s Peak itself was covered in a lush forest rich in biodiversity. In the distance we caught a glimpse of the early sunshine shimmering off a lake creating a silhouette of shoreline trees that made us believe we saw heaven. Pictures do it no justice. Going down the mountain felt harder than going up, because our legs had turned to jelly by then, but the spectacular views made it worthwhile and gave us a rush of adrenaline. We made it back to our guesthouse around 9am and sat down for a large, well-deserved breakfast. Then we packed our things and headed off on the next bus to Hatton where we caught the 1:54pm train to Kandy.

Kandy is the second biggest city in Sri Lanka, located in near the middle of the country. Gabriella wasn’t too keen on stopping by, but since we had to pass through on the train anyways, I wanted to have a look. We thought we’d stay 2-3 nights depending on how we felt. After a good night’s rest from a long day of hiking Adam’s Peak and traveling to Kandy, we planned to explore the town. Our legs thought otherwise. Overnight, our calves sought revenge and tightened up like a snake around its prey. We could barely wiggle our toes without wincing in pain! But we couldn’t afford to simply lie around, since food and our accommodations were more than double what we had been used to paying. We did a few stretches, rubbed on the Tiger Balm, and gingerly went about exploring Kandy. Every time we came to a set of stairs we had to take them one at a time! Only now can we laugh about it…

The main attraction in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. It claims to possess a tooth from the Buddha that was recovered from the ashes of his cremation over 2,500 years ago. The temple is decorated with many ornate artifacts and beautiful Buddhist artwork. In the center is another two-story building that actually houses the tooth. On the second floor is a chamber that contains the tooth in a dagoba-shaped gold casket, which contains a series of 6 more caskets of descending size, like Russian dolls, the smallest of which contains the tooth. You can’t actually go into the chamber with the relic and the entrance is inaccessible for most of the time, except after the daily pujas. Even then, spectators must file past the doorway for a quick glance at the gaudy capsule and take pictures from a distance. We toured the grounds for a few hours in the afternoon, and then returned at night for the evening puja for a glance at the sacred relic. In between, we must have had some crazy juice because we decided to walk up a large hill for a close up look at a massive Buddha statue that overlooks the town, wincing the entire way. It was about 20 minutes to the top, but we were suddenly caught in a rain storm on the way down and got drenched. Luckily, the warm summer air dried us quickly before returning to the temple.

After such a long day of walking around the city with sore legs, up and down hills and stairs, we figured we had enough of the hills in the countryside and would leave to the southern beaches the next day. When we got back to our hotel, the manager asked us, “What time would you like to have breakfast?” to which we told him that we wouldn’t be having breakfast (since we found a much better and cheaper place to eat nearby) and that we were leaving to the train station in the morning. He quickly threw a guilt-trip hissy-fit in our direction saying that he had already bought the food for breakfast, although we hadn’t requested it, and that we agreed to stay 3 nights, not 2, which is why he gave us a “deal” for the room. His tone was quite aggressive and bitter, which didn’t make us want to sympathize or stay any longer, especially since we were being price-gouged as it was. Perhaps it was because we were the only guests in the place. We quickly said goodnight and retired to our room, avoiding further conflict.

The next morning, we packed our things and went to pay and exit, but there was no one to be found. I called out for anyone who was around, but no answer. I tried to look out the front door, but it was locked from the outside. We were trapped! Rage quickly set in because we had a train to catch. I explored other options for an escape, which would be difficult since the hotel was perched on a steep hillside. I found a way out on the top floor so we grabbed our things, climbed 2 flights of stairs and fled. As we were making our way down the outside stairs (still in pain), we saw the man who worked there and bitterly handed over some money for the 2 nights stay. “You need a tuk-tuk?” he asked. “Not from you,” I responded. My temper finally cooled over a delicious Sri Lankan breakfast at a reasonable price down the street. We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare and made our way west to Colombo, then changed trains to go south to Galle.

We’re now relaxing in a small beach town called Unawatuna where life is slow and the water is warm. Our legs are still a bit sore, but getting better each day. We’ll be here until Tuesday, recovering from the amazing hikes, long train rides, and crazy hotel owners. Oh the joys of traveling!

Categories: Sri Lanka | 1 Comment

ArugRAM Bay

Bus, train, taxi, train, plane, bus, taxi…Sri Lanka! What a breath of fresh air! Sitting at just seven degrees north of the equator with an area slightly larger than West Virginia, this small island nation has a touch of everything, from beaches to mountains and over 2,000 years of recorded history in between. Few islands of similar size contain such natural beauty and diversity. Marco Polo once described it as “the finest island of its size in the world.” I would describe it as “one hell of a break from India!”

The Colombo airport is actually located about one hour north of Colombo, which is closer to the town of Negombo. Instead of trying to make it straight down to the bustling city as day quickly turned to night, we headed to Negombo with a nice German couple we met on our flight from Chennai. We found accommodations at a lovely guesthouse on the beach and decided to stay for three nights while we formulated a plan for our new territory. After speaking to Ram, we decided to head straight to Arugam Bay, on the east coast.

Ram is a small, native Sri Lankan in his seventies. His brother, Sooriya, is one of the founders of Kahumana, the farm in Hawaii where Gabriella and I met last summer. Ram’s son, Ranjith, is currently the head chef at Kahumana Café. Gabriella met Ram briefly during her stay on the farm, but we both got to know Ranjith pretty well. He told us if we were ever in Sri Lanka that we would have a place to stay with his father. Well…we’re in Sri Lanka!

Ram runs a café and guesthouse in Arugam Bay. His property is located across the street from the beach and dotted with seven unique cottages along with a main kitchen/dining room/library area. We arrived just before 7am after an excruciating overnight bus (8 hours) from Colombo. We thought the worst of the bus rides was in India, but this one was equipped with smaller-than-normal seats, non-stop blaring Sri Lankan music videos, and people standing over top of us in the aisles for what seemed like all night long. Fortunately, Ram welcomed us with open arms, a clean bed, and fresh pineapple juice.

Arugam Bay is a popular surfing spot for many Australians and New Zealanders. In fact, we may have been the only white people in town from the northern hemisphere. We met heaps of friendly Aussies over the week, especially those staying at Ram’s. Two of the guys there at the moment have been coming back every year for over 10 years! After dinner our first night, I quickly realized why. Ram is an amazing cook! That must be where Ranjith gets it from! Every night we had a family-style dinner of vegetable curries and rice. He kept adding food to the table until no one could fit another morsel. Some nights we had fish and one night we even had shark. It tasted like a leaner tuna. It certainly was nice to not have to deal with bones!

Most of our time was spent lounging on the beach alternating between reading and swimming. One day we made a trip out to Whiskey Point, which is a smaller break that’s good for novice surfers. The beach here was actually a bit nicer than A-Bay and much less developed. We made the trip out with fellow Ram’s-guesthouse-resident KC, who is currently making his way across Sri Lanka on bicycle. (Hope you’re reading this and doing well, buddy! Keep it on two wheels! Thanks for the movies!) Towards the end we found a litter of puppies at one of the guesthouses and made excuses to walk by and play with them. Puppies and beaches: what could be better?!

After eight days of saltwater baths, we made the tough decision to move west into the hillside. It was sad to leave the wonderful hospitality and home cooking of Ram, but our time in Sri Lanka is limited and there’s so much more to see. The visa is only good for 30 days and we’ve already bought our flight to Thailand at the end of the month. We arrived in the town of Ella yesterday and found an unbelievable place to stay that could easily be considered the Ram’s-of-the-hill-country. We’re slowly adjusting from lazy beachside strolls in the sand to rocky hillside hiking in the mountains. Tough life, right…? 😉

Categories: Sri Lanka | 4 Comments

The B in Ooty

Our arrival to Ooty was pleasantly uneventful; pleasant also in the way of milder temperatures and cool mountain air. Our hotel was situated upon a hill and set back from the noisy town center. A lavender lined path led the way to a quiet cottage run by an older Baha’i family.

On our first day, we set out to explore the town and do some urban hiking through the hills. We started at the Boat House and watched Indian tourists glide on the lake in peddle-boats. There is also a Thread Garden, an entire display of 150 varieties of plants all made out of thread. It took 50 workers 12 years to complete, “which is either really impressive or really sad,” says the guidebook. We then made our way to the fancy hotels in town to have a nice lunch and pretend we were guests. We relaxed at a quaint cottage for an excellent meal that made us feel like British royalty in the 1850’s. Finally, we walked to the Green Shop, a store specializing in environmentally-friendly and fair-trade products. After walking all over town, we relaxed in the evening. Unfortunately, Gabriella caught a stomach bug and spent the rest of the night exterminating it.

The next two days we took it easy so she could recover and I played caretaker. Sure enough, as soon as she was feeling well, I began emptying my stomach down the drain all night and our roles reversed. It’s like India was giving us one last pinch on the butt on our way out! Luckily, we managed to take a guided tour on our last day in town, once we were both feeling better. We went to various lookout points and tea gardens and got to see more of the countryside surrounding Ooty. The views were amazing and the tea was delicious. The hills were covered in tea gardens that would soon be harvested and packaged for our drinking pleasure. We also stopped by the Rose Garden, which had more varieties of roses than I ever thought possible.

Ooty is a nice a hill station and a welcome break from the heat, but it wasn’t anything that really amazed me, like some of the other places we’ve been. Perhaps I’m a bit jaded from our consecutive illnesses… Regardless, the rolling hillside, endless tea gardens, and towering eucalyptus trees are nothing to complain about.

After leaving Ooty, we departed on a 4-hour bus to Coimbatore and a 7.5-hour train to Chennai. We stayed in Chennai Tuesday night and flew south to Sri Lanka yesterday. Thus, our time in India has come to an end. The past two months have been an experience like none other, with its fair share of ups and downs (more ups than downs luckily!). I can’t imagine there being any other place more diverse, historical, cheap, beautiful, dirty, confusing, and welcoming than India. No matter what you’re looking for, chances are you can find it there. It’s time to explore Sri Lanka now, but if I can handle India, I can handle anything!

Categories: India | 2 Comments

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.