Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hi! I'm in Laos!

Just a very quick note to update you all on where we are and what we're doing. The internet here is fast but so, so expensive!

Several days ago (a blur...), we left Chiang Mai and made it late in the evening to the Thai\Laos border. Backpacker central. We knew we'd be seeing more backpackers as opposed to regular tourists, as we are now on a heavily travelled backpacker route, but wow! We didn't know we'd be seeing so many!

We spent the night at the border and crossed the Mekong over to Laos early the next morning. We met some friends and we all planned on taking the slow boat.

"Great!", I thought. "We won't be bored silly on the slow boat! There will be other people!"

As we reached the customs building in Laos we realized we had nothing to worry about. Every single backpacker was planning 0n doing the same thing as us. We got our slow boat tickets, hoping we'd be on the same one as our new friends, and realized there was only one, very big slow boat with absolutely everyone crammed in there. No problem.

The slow boat took two days on the Mekong to reach Luang Prabang (the second largest city in Laos... but it's really just a town). The first night we stopped in a small village that was clearly benefitting from being the nightly stopover for all travelling foreigners to Luang Prabang. We had dinner with the people we met on the boat and went to bed, exhausted. It felt like Spring Break in our guest house, with lots of drunk frat boy-like behaviour (and thin walls).

The next day we spent another seven hours in the boat, playing charades and cards and watching the world pass us by. We saw no signs of civilization. It was like we were discovering Laos for the first time.

We arrived in Luang Prabang and we're immediately taken with the French colonial architecture, the kooky foreign-owned jewellry shops (Pat not so much) and the most amazing night market I have ever come across. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Luang Prabang made me fall of the wagon. And no, I'm not talking about alcohol (or opium, which we were at times offered!). I'm talking about my continuing addiction to textiles.

Go to Luang Prabang's night market and you will be overwhelmed by the textiles. The cotton, the silk- THE AFFORDABLE DUVET COVERS! ( Got a beauty for under 20 bucks Canadian- and managed to get the matching pillowcases thrown in for free!)

In short, I love Laos.

Immediately you are aware that you are in a country very, very different from Thailand, although linguistically and traditionally, Laos is more similar to Thailand than any other neighbouring country. Maybe it's the fact that the communist government cut Laos off from the world for so long. Maybe it's the extremely laid back nature of the Laos people. Whatever it is, it's interesting. People seem a bit suspicious of foreigners here- although their suspicions don't adversely affect their hospitality. In Laos, my usually charming smile doesn't charm anybody. Not a one! They stare back at me with suspicion and wonder why I think their baby is so darn cute. Or their puppy. Lots of puppies here. Cute ones.

In Laos, people don't want to do any more than they have to to get by. They don't seem to attack bargaining with the same fervour as their neighbours. If I start to walk away from a haggle, they don't call me back with a cheaper price. They don't budge on transportation costs. If someone asks if we have a guesthouse and we say yes, they leave it at that. In some ways this means we get fairer prices, but usually, it works to our detrement. They love American dollars here- indeed, just to get IN the country you need to pay for your visa with American dollars- and every country pays a different price. Get this: Canada pays more than any other country in the world! The US pays the least! Why, Laos? WE never bombed you in a secret war campaign! Why must you punish Canadian citizens!?

In any case, this whole Laos concept has made for excellent travelling so far. I love the fact that Laos people don't give a rat's ass about where you come from. They don't worship your white skin or your fair hair (for once, in Asia). They treat you as the outsider you are. And they're still nice, polite people. And they make amazing scarves. And silver jewellry. The food's ok.

Right now we're in Vang Vieng, a tiny town where backpacker's flock for one thing- ok, maybe two things: tubing down the river, and restaurants that show Friends, The Simpsons and Family Guy DVD's. We just spent two hours watching a season of The Simpson's I hadn't seen yet! Excellent. So we're off to tube tomorrow. We got a great deal on a guesthouse, with cute, clean rooms and an amazing view of the river for less than 6 bucks a night. This is the life!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Chiang Mai in a (Large) Nutshell

Hello All!

I haven't been able to post recently because of the firewalls on most of the computers here in Chiang Mai (they think you're trying to look up inappropriate websites so they block all the blogs). Finally, on our last morning here, I have found a computer that allows blogger and I am relieved, to say the least! We are going to Laos tomorrow and who knows what state the internet cafes are in. I wouldn't want to have to blog allll about Chiang Mai (I have a lot to say) and Laos (I will probably have a lot to say) in one go. This works out quite nicely.

ACTUALLY, we were supposed to be on a bus by now to the Thai/Laos border but the 8:30 bus was full, leaving us the morning to exchange used books (I'm going through books on this trip like you wouldn't believe), have a nice lunch and peruse the internet.

What to say about Chiang Mai? Well, a few things:

1. It's hot. Like... really hot. It doesn't cool down at night, it doesn't rain, and it doesn't let up. And it's landlocked, so there is no wind. It's really, really hot.

2. It's a very old city (located in the North of Thailand) and is surrounded by a deep moat. Inside the moat is the old city (where we're staying) and outside the moat is the new city, as well as the famous Night Bazaar.

3. There is way too much to do here. We could have stayed here for an entire month, just checking off all the possible activities within and around Chiang Mai.

4. We love it here, despite the heat and the mysterious bug bites that have been appearing on my bod.

When we arrived at approx. 10 PM last week sometime (I lose count of the days easily here...), I felt like we had literally been living on busses and just wanted to stay somewhere until I felt rested up a bit. We had taken a four hour bus from the small town of Khuraburi (in Southwest Thailand) to the city of Chumpon (Southeast Thailand), then took a ferry from Chumpon to the island of Ko Tao (so Pat could dive, but then he got an ear infection so he couldn't dive). Ko Tao was too expensive so we took the ferry back the next day. Then we took a 9 hour bus from Chumpon to Bangkok. We arrived in Bangkok at about 10 PM. We wanted to just get a night bus to Chiang Mai from there, but we were too late and were forced to fork over 25 bucks for the "only available" room on Khao San Rd. When we took to the streets of Bangkok to find some noodles, we were bombarded with guns- waterguns, to be precise. It was Thai New Year, and on Thai New Year you can expect to get soaked... and then covered in mud. Don't ask me why.

The next day we got a ten hour bus to Chiang Mai- it left at 11:30 and arrived at 9:30. We quickly found a place to stay and fell asleep, exhausted.

The next morning we slept in, and then found a cheaper guesthouse (Same Same Guesthouse). This was when the booking started, my friends.

Same Same is a great place to stay if you're ever in Chiang Mai. The best thing about the place (other than their extremely cheap beer) is the fact that, if you book your Chiang Mai activities through them, you get it for cheap. Yay! And they don't ever try to rip you off. Ever. I love Same Same.

First, we booked for "Flight of the Gibbon"- a ziplining adventure through the jungle. For approx. 20 bucks Canadian, you go ziplinging (ziplining is where you go flying through the jungle canopy, attached to a sturdy wire) for two hours with all the safety equipment, you get a delicious lunch (we had green curry, stir fried chicken and veggies, rice and fresh fruit), transportation to and from your guesthouse annnnd a free tee shirt. Yesss.

This was Pat's activity. Actually, I didn't want to do it. I don't like heights. And speedy things. I was scared. Pat was, as usual, amused. I admit, I screamed the first few times but then I got the hang of it. It was fun! It was exciting! The zipline trail included ziplines (duh) as well as two suspended bridges and two repelling ropes (where they tie the rope to your back and scare you by almost dropping you a gazillion feet and then stopping just as you're about to land). It was great fun, and I wasn't angry at Patrick anymore :)

Then we booked my activity. There's a place outside Chiang Mai called "Tiger Kingdom" where the tigers have all been bred in captivity in Bangkok and then sent to this place in Chiang Mai. The workers have a great relationship with the tigers and they love rough housing and playing. Much like a large dog, I noted. I have no idea what animal rights groups have to say about this place, and I must admit that, I don't care. I wanted to play with tigers, too! Doesn't everybody want to pat a tiger on their head and live to tell the tale?

Normally I am against caging animals up, if it isn't necessary. I think a lot of Asian zoos are awful, and in general, animals in many Asian countries are not treated with a great (or even a little) amount of respect. I was excited to see the tigers, but also apprehensive. Maybe the tigers wouldn't look happy and I would regret giving the place my money. However, my desire was greater than my apprehension and off we went (everything organized by Same Same, of course).

It was amazing! The tigers were so well looked after, and you could see how much the workers loved their tigers... and vice versa. First we went to see the babies. It was naptime, but I still got to hold one, and the other put his little head on my hand, like a pillow. They were so cute, I was close to tears. They were healthy and chubby, and we had to wash our hands and take off our shoes before we were allowed to touch them. We spent 15 minutes with the bebes, and then moved on to the big guys. It was the middle of the day, and extremely hot, so they were all asleep too, with the exception of one or two.

When approaching the tigers the workers tell you to approach from the back, not the front. If you approach from the front, the tigers will think you want to play. And they'll pounce. And you won't be ready. Also, we could not touch the tiger's heads or front paws. Fine, fine. They looooved getting their bellies rubbed. They were all well fed (the girls were chubby while the boys were more lean) and we spent another 15 minutes rubbing their bellies and getting pictures taken. It was such a great experience! These tigers would never make it in the wild, and to be honest, I don't even think they're native to Thailand. They were Indo-Chinese tigers from Burma, China, Laos, etc. but I don't think Thailand was mentioned in the explanation. Oh well!

Our next morning was spent at our Thai cooking class! Amazing! Wonderful! Yummy!

We started at the market, had a lesson on Thai ingredients, herbs and spices, and then got down to business. We started with soups and stir fries. I chose a coconut chicken soup, and Pat chose the ever popular Tom Yum soup with prawns. I chose pad thai for my stir fry and Pat chose cashew chicken. Amazing! I loved learning about how to balance Thai flavours (fish sauce for salt, suagr for sweet, lime for sour and chilis for hot) and get a beginner's technique with a wok.

The food itself? Delicious. Using the right aromatics, my coconut chicken soup tasted spicy, salty and coconut-ey all at the same time. Pat's soup was as hot and sour as it should be. It was the best Thai food I had eaten so far- all thanks to our teacher, of course!

Next we made our curry pastes. Pat was making green curry and I was making red. It was fun to smash our ingredients to bits with the mortar and pestle. I need to get one of those...

Then we made the curries, as well as spring rolls (from scratch) and a sticky rice and mango dessert. All delicious. We got recipe booklets at the end of our course and had a great morning. I should point out that, while Pat never cooks at home, he really enjoys the cooking classes we've done and his food was really good. Busted.

We planned on having free meditation sessions that afternoon and evening at a local temple, with the monks, but they must have been busy that day because no one would answer the phone. Oh well. We spent the day resting. Actually, this was good because I had eaten some not-so-great street food the night before and was a bit ill... I'm just on the mend now, after three days, thanks to some charcoal tablets I've been taking. It's a shame because I could only have a few bites of each of my creations during our cooking class before running to the bathroom, but what can you do. I know I'll really enjoy them when I'm in Toronto, remembering my travels.

Last night we went to a Muay Thai boxing match. I expected to be disturbed and leave the place in disgust, but I ended up being only a little bit disturbed and left the place bored. The fighters were mostly teenagers and children... the children's match was great- they clearly loved the "sport" and were quick and resourceful and very evenly matched. They crossed the line, however, when one of the little boys- kicked in the gut one too many times- threw up. Right in the ring. And then proceeded to keep boxing. The kid couldn't have been older than seven, and his opponent looked even younger. I mean, when a kid pukes after being kicked too many times, isn't it time to call it a day? Who cares if he loses? Oh well. I think the event in Bangkok is more professional and hopefully less exploitative (and less boring). The real reason we chose to go was because an Irish boxer was fighting against a Thai boxer and we wanted to see what would happen. That fight was over in less than five minutes; the Thai boxer victorious. Don't mess with the locals.

And so, after coming to Chiang Mai to relax and rejuvinate, we find we've been so busy we haven't done either, our daily budgets for Chiang Mai long ago ditched, and we are very happy. Onto Laos, the land of tubing and Lao-Lao whiskey and French baguettes! Pictures soon to come.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Ko Surin: Go for the Snorkeling; Stay for the... Snorkeling...

So, Thailand is pretty neat!

We just got back to civilization... sort of... after spending a few days on the Surin Islands near the Thai/Burmese border. We thought a lot of people went to these islands, but as we found out in Krabitown, no one had any idea (especially the Thais) where the Surins even were.

Why the Surins? Well, I wanted a beach, but there had to be more than that to keep Patrick happy (he sunburns easily, the little ginger kid...). We found out that the Surins were reputedly one of the top ten areas in the world to dive, and often in March and April you can see whalesharks. Well that information was more than enough for Pat to concede to going to the beach again. Plus we would have to sleep in a tent, and Pat likes camping. I tolerate it, but I love the beach. See where I'm going here? We're both making sacrifices.

So, after much speculation as to how to get there from Krabitown (since nobody seemed to know) we decided we would just go to the bus station and try our luck. Sure enough, the very first bus that we saw was going to Khuraburi, a small town which is also home to the National Park headquarters (because the Surins are also a National Marine Park). The only boat left at 9AM, so we spent the night in Khuraburi and relaxed. As soon as we got off the bus, a woman had approached us and asked if we would like to stay at her guesthouse. She also arranged absolutely everything else for us: boat tickets, a tent, snorkels and masks and fins, and transportation to the boat. She was really nice. She also had a nice cat and a cute little daughter. And her bungalows were nice, too.

Anyway, we got up bright and early the next day to catch our boat. There are two kinds of boats you can take- the fast one and the slow one. We were supposed to go on the slow one, but this past week was the Thai Lunar New Year and every family in Thailand ALSO decided to go to the Surins (which simply told us that we made the right decision- it must be a sweet place if every Thai and their dog was going there for vacation), so the slow boat had already filled. Don't worry, though! We got on the fast boat, at no extra charge.

I think everyone on this island has a share in the profits from tourism, so if you buy a boat ticket, it doesn't matter what tour company you go with- if one tour is full they just put you on the next one. Everything here is a cooperative. I would really find this out later.

When we arrived my jaw dropped. It was beyond gorgeous. It was the best place we had been to yet. I didn't care about having to sleep in a tent- I felt so special to be on this amazing island with an extremely small number of other foreigners. You won't get this at Ko Phi Phi, where, according to Lonely Planet (I hate that I have to keep quoting them!) you'll "be sharing the beach with every speedo known to man" or something like that. There were plenty of Thais there on vacation, but there is still a limited amount of accommodation so even if the place is full you're still only one of about three hundred souls spread out over a large area. The beach rarely had more than ten people on it at one time.

And let's talk about the water! So blue and crystal clear it brought tears to my eyes. Perfect for snorkeling, which is what I planned on doing while Pat went diving.

Unfortunately (or is it forturnate?), diving was not to be. You can only arrange trips from the mainland and, we hear, while the diving is amazing, it's in a dangerous spot and only divers with a minimum of 70 dives can do it (?). Anyways, not to worry, because everyone we spoke to said that you see more snorkeling than you do diving in this area. The snorkeling is spectacular. The water's visibility is, at times, at a maximum depth of 20 metres. That means while you would normally have to dive to see things like sharks and turtles clearly, you can enjoy them just by snorkeling in the Surins.

Um... let's make one thing clear. I love snorkeling, and I'm even getting better about snorkeling in deeper water (I'm a 'fraidy cat), but I do no, repeat DO NOT ever want to see a shark. Ok? No sharks. I want to feel like I'm floating through a magical world, full of colourful, cute fishies and pretty coloured corals (the Surins have an abundance of coral- over twenty different kinds- and it was hardly damaged at all by the tsunami). For me, snorkeling is a soul enriching exercise, like yoga. I don't do it for thrills. So when I heard the word "sharks" I almost didn't get in the water. How silly of me!

The snorkeling was everything I like it to be, only a million trillion times better. At one point, you're snorkeling past massive boulders of "brain coral" with large, colourful Parrotfish pecking at the parasites that call the coral home. The next moment, you're among little seafans and thousands of little fish, every colour of the rainbow are flying around you in a circle. The next moment, you're watching a school of big, black fish chase each other. It was just an amazing experience- and at 80 baht per snorkel trip (about CAN 3.00) it was a cheap one, too! I went on three different trips over two days and each time we went to a different spot around the islands.

On my last trip I was snorkeling solo while Pat was relaxing in the shade of our tent and, while trying to get away from the crowd (the Thai's splash too much and scare all the fish) I almost ran smack dab into a barracuda! I think he was as surprised as I was and quickly changed direction. I changed direction, too, and headed back to the boat. No thanks, don't want to see anything that might bite, poison or sting me! I'm paranoid; I get it.

After my last snorkeling trip we packed up our things and headed off the beach to get the boat back to Khuraburi. As we were about to board the slow boat, I realized that I had accidentally left the bag full of the tent, snorkels and masks that the woman had lent us. Oh no! We frantically tried to find someone to translate for us and finally got our point across to our boat taxi drivers. They didn't have to, but they agreed to take me back to get the bag and return me to the boat as quickly as possible (it was due to sail any minute). We sped back to the beach, I jumped off the side of the boat into the water (Lara Croft style), ran to where the bag was, and ran back to the boat. We raced back to the big boat, but it was too late. They had already left with my boyfriend on board!

Not to worry, friends, because I had given my boat taxi dudes my sincere thanks for taking me back to the beach (plus 160 baht, for their trouble). They were very grateful and took me to the fast boat that was just about to leave, meaning I left after Patrick and arrived in Khuraburi an hour before he did. Take that! I really loved the people on Ko Surin; they were very kind and didn't want my money.

Now we're on Ko Tao, on the other side of Thailand, because poor Patrick didn't get to go diving on the Surins. This place is full of Europeans and everything is overpriced. Today, I hate everything about it except that the island is full of rabies free dogs, and our guesthouse even has a Golden Retriever! And they have a cute baby, too. But still. I'm angry. This place is too expensive. More tomorrow? If I can afford the internet...

We were greeted by clean, clear water and wooden boats upon our arrival...

Our beach at low tide.

Takin' a little walk.

Our accommodation (less than 3 bucks a night!). Very uncomfortable.

However, the view wasn't so bad. That made up for it a little.

I did a lot of this.

And this.

Pat did a lot of sitting in the shade... oh! The totems were made by the indigenous people that still inhabit the island. In English they're known as "Sea Gypsies", but in Thai they're known as the "moken" which comes from a word meaning "salt water". They ran the whole island, and lived in a little community on one of the islands.

A slew of snorkeling boats.

Pat and his beach. At high tide. Notice: he is still sitting in the shade.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Our Journey Through The "Danger Zone"

We spent Wednesday night in Kota Bahru. This time we found a great, newly opened little guesthouse. I mean, it was ok. The owner was really nice and helpful and there were all kinds of DVD's to watch, which means I got some real relaxation time on the couch. And that hasn't happened in a long time, so I was happy.

The guy at the guesthouse asked us where we were headed. We said Thailand. Kota Bahru is really close to one of the Malaysia/Thai borders (there are three altogether) so it was much easier for us to cross over at this border after spending time in the Perhentians. That being said, Southern Thailand has been in a state of emergency for some time. We were fully aware of this and had discussed the border crossing with every backpacker we met who had gone that way. Every backpacker said the same thing: lots of soldiers with guns, and no problems whatsoever.

I remained unconvinced. Lonely Planet had warnings about the area in their guidebook and the Canadian government website (which one should never read if they ever want to travel ANYWHERE because there are warnings about every country) said that travel through the area should be avoided at all costs. The supposed "terrorists" (really, they are Muslim separatists who have a huge beef with Thai Buddhists) have never directly targetted tourists as they have no problems with them, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time has seen a few Canadians shot in past years. The same goes for Halifax, or Toronto. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can really suck.

So, taking the word of allll the other backpackers who have crossed the border here already (and because we really had no other choice in the matter), we got up early Thursday morning, had a quick breakfast and boarded a bus to the border- about an hours drive away.

You can tell you're reaching the border immediately, simply due to the army's presence- on both sides of the border. There have been problems at this particular border in the past and both sides were heavily guarded as a result. As we got off the bus, we sudden;y heard all kinds of sirens. Later, Pat would tell me he cursed under his breath as soon as he heard them, because he knew I would be difficult enough to get across the border. As we watched all the "Bomba Squad" trucks race past, I stood firmly and told Pat we were NOT going across this border today. No way.

Well, Pat put his foot down and practically dragged me across the border. And I was glad he did. It was only a drill, and there was noone threatening our safety. As we crossed over into Thailand, the number of men in khaki with large guns drastically increased. We got through the border with no problem and made our way to the train station. The number of soldiers with large guns increased even more! The train was full, so we found a minibus to take us to the city of Hat Yai, where we could get another minibus to Krabi and out of the conflict zone. I was still nervous but I didn't have to be.

About every few kilometres there were blockades set up to slow vehicles down as soldiers checked inside (with very large guns). After awhile I began to feel very well protected, and of course we made it to Krabi without even a scratch. The food here is amazing.

The "conflict" in Southern Thailand is rarely brought up on the news, but over 2000 people have been killed- both by these "terrorists" on the Muslim side and by Thai soldiers. While the separatists have never targetted innocent civilians in the past, when the military coup happened a few years ago the government took a verrrry heavy handed approch to the conflict- which included brutally killing over a hundred young men found with machetes and strangling another 70 soon after. Thing escalated after this, and the separatists began more indiscriminate acts of violence, stating that "they would kill all Thai Buddhists".

It's a very sad situation. And it's taking place in a very beautiful part of Thailand, which rich culture. I hope some peace comes to the area someday. I'm glad we went through there, even if we weren't really supposed to.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Random Pictures from Pat's Camera

We've been travelling with two cameras and finally we have a fast enough connection to upload some serious photos... here they are, in no particular order!

The view from our little hut in Perhentian Cecil.

The Ol' Swimmin' Hole. Teman Negara, Malaysia.

Taman Negara.

On the Canopy Walk, Taman Negara.

View from the canopy in Taman Negara.

Pat's shirt says "Save the Earth", incidentally enough, posing in front of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur.

Teman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Out for a little walk.

On the Skybridge, Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur.

View from the Skybridge.

My dream really HAS come true!

Kuala Lumpur's public gardens.





Central Market: Kota Bahru. Old Man Making Roti Canai.

I asked for my tea to go... Jerantut Station, Malaysia.

China Town, Kuala Lumpur.

Korean advertising in Melaka.

Portuguese Egg Tarts in Melaka. Amazing.

The night food market in Melaka.

Food market in Melaka.

Posing with "Cat" at Nora's Homestay in Bukit Lawang.

Bukit Lawang

The crazy bus to Bukit Lawang. Notice the motorbike and spare tractor tire? Anything goes!

Our jungle trekking guide, Sanur and I on the shady bus to Bukit Lawang.

The beautiful mosque in Medan, Sumatra.

On the balcony of our guesthouse in Medan, wearing the Batik shirt my honourary Javanese sisters gave me on the ship.

Waiting... and waiting.... and waiting... for the driver to take us to Medan from Belawan.

The crazy port of Belawan, Sumatra.

My roomies. Meet sister, Auntie, Janine and sister.

Pat and I and some of our many fans in Yogyakarta...

Working hard, or hardly working? Guard at the Sultan's Palace, Yogyakarta.

Thoroughly impressed, apparently, with Yogya.

Lotus flower, Ubud, Bali.

Art stands in Ubud, Bali.

Pat at the Raja's palace in Ubud.

Once a golden retriever lover, always a golden retriever lover.

Babi Gulung! Ubud, Bali.

Enjoying my Babi.

Getting tired of their "steal the glasses" game. Monkey Forest,

Temple at the Monkey Forest, Ubud.

Taking a little nap on our way to Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

Our first day in Bali... overwhelmed by artistry!