Monday, December 8, 2008


After falling in love with Cambodia, Mikaela and I decided to alter our travel plans and head to Sihanoukville instead of Koh Chang in Thailand. What awaited was a perfect white sand beach, crystal clear turquise waters that seemed like the world's most perfect and salty swimming pool, amazing new friends, and life-changing memories. We met most of our new friends on the bus from Siem Reap: two funny english guys from Darby and a german couple from Stuttegard. Nothing like a 10 hour bus ride to ensure group bonding. We got to Sihanvoukville and found a guest house and immediately wandered down the beach for some food. We had seafood barbeque almost every night we were there, and I already miss it. The idea of going to Sihanoukville was to celebrate my birthday on the beach, which we did with style. I couldn't imagine a better birthday. Our german friends introduced us to the custom of starting the party at midnight of your birthday, and continuing it for 24+ hours. One of our darling english friends requested a birthday song to be played at midnight, and the DJ obliged. With 25 cent drafts, it was a very happy birthday for everyone. The actual day of my birthday, we went to Otres beach. Don't tell anyone. I feel like I have stumbled upon a magical travel secret. Otres is a long streach of perfect white powder sand and amazing, amazing water. It's so clear you can see the beige crabs scuttling on the bottom several yards out. It's also almost deserted, there are a few beach bars with lounge chairs happy to cater to your every whim. We made a habit of frequenting the "I don't know" bar, where the staff spoiled us silly. After we discovered Otres, we went there every day. We fell into a comfortable routine of waking up and heading to the beach, comming back and grabbing seafood barbeque, then heading out for happy hour drafts. Sleep and repeat. It was so hard to pack, knowing that not only did I have to leave paradise, but that I was headed to Bangkok where I would fly back to Seattle. It was even harder to get on the bus that took me away from Sihanoukville and across the boarder. Now I sit in Bangkok, and every part of me wants to grab a bus back to Sihanoukville. I can't believe I fly home in 2 days. This will be my last post until I am home, then I will sum up Bangkok and post all the picture albulms.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Amazing Angkor

Well, this post is a bit over-due. Cambodia is captivating, it's hard to force yourself in to an internet cafe. Our next stop after Phnom Pehn was Siem Reap, famous for its proximity to the temples of Angkor. And they are every bit as impressive as we were told they would be. Our first day (we got a three day pass) we attempted the grand circuit by bicycle, and did over 30km on old creaky bikes over bumpy roads. We ran into trouble at sunset, as the lights didn't work! So, we took a tuk-tuk for the remaining two days. Biking was fun, but we were so sore after the first day I couldn't fathom getting on one again. We went to several temples, but two stood out as my favorite. Running around Ta Prahm and Bayon was probably one of the coolest things I've ever done. Ta Prahm is where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed, it is a massive temple over run with trees growing everywhere. Just incredible. As soon as I get home, I will post the pictures. Bayon is famous for its big stone faces. And famous for good reason. The only reason we didn't visit for a second time is that it is immensly popular, and we were shoulder to shoulder for much of our time there. I took so many pictures of temples! Feel lucky that I will only post the best ones to the website, and not make you sit through them all....

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Heart-Wrenching History Lessons

Well, Mikaela and I took a bus, a train, a plane, then a tuk-tuk, but we finally made it to Phnom Penh, the capitol city of Cambodia. What a place! It's loud and hectic, with painfully obvious poverty, yet I can't help but love this country. Cambodian history is not pretty. They have been under colonial rule, subjected to American bombs and landmines(along with the rest of the countries we have visited), and then when the rest of SE Asia was finally able to start putting the pieces back together after the end of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia was experiencing its greatest tragedy: a civil war in which the country was overtaken by a crazy, blood-thirsty regime called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge sought to rid the country of anyone even mildly associated with the previous regime (and their families), intellectuals and an upper class, and systematically exterminated everyone they thought fell into those categories. The whole of the nation suffered, as this meant no doctors, or medicine. Between intentional killings, food shortages and a lack of medical care, almost 1/4 of the country's population died. This is one of the many reasons it blows my mind that everyone we meet is wonderfully friendly, in spite of everything they have most likely had to endure. The tourist industry provides for many who would otherwise have no way to support their families. This makes for a lot of people in your face pushing tuk-tuk rides or tourist trinkets, and while overwhelming, I am made constantly aware that these are people working very hard just to get by. And the lack of bitterness at the hand they have been dealt, there are just no words. Obviously, I have seen poverty and witnessed people who are struggling over and over again on my journey through Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. But here, they fight tooth and nail for a job taking you across town for a couple of dollars. And they do it with a smile on their face. And if you reply, "No Thank-you" to their well-intentioned pleas, they respond by welcoming you to their country anyway. And all the while that you are experiencing this over and over again, you are in a beautiful country with extraordinary architecture and cuisine, both the native Khmer cuisine (somewhat similar to Thai) and western cuisine that has been heavily influenced by the French colonial rule. Combine this with the ever-present gentle breeze of warm, sultry night air, and how could anyone not love this country? Of course, our time in Phnom Penh was not just about good food and good times. While we did have our fun, we also could not avoid a visit to Tuol Sleng, or S-21, the Genocide Museum. What is now a museum began its history as a public high-school, before the Khmer Rouge turned it into a prison for the torture and execution of anyone they deemed worthy. What can I write about standing in a place where 20,000 people were subjected to tortures I cannot even begin to fathom, then sent to dig their own grave before death by blunt-force trauma in order to save bullets? What words are there to describe viewing the entry photographs of the children that died here, innocent smiles on their faces because they had no idea what lay in store for them? Needless to say, Mikaela and I left Phnom Penh for Siam Reap with heavy hearts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Finding Nemo

I was apprehensive about leaving Ton Sai, we had had such a good time there that it seemed logical to stick around for as long as we could. But we headed over to Koh Lanta anyway, lured by the promise of amazing diving and the beaches of Koh Phi Phi. Koh Lanta delivered in spades. We stayed right on the beach in an amazing bungalow. The next day I went diving at Koh Haa, on possibly the most amazing dive I have ever been on. To be fair, my dive in Austrailia was almost 10 years ago(!) and it's possible I don't remember it as thoroughly, but I was absolutely ENCHANTED by Koh Haa. Perfect crystal waters, warm but not too hot, and an AMAZING diversity of marine life. It was like diving in the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit of the Seattle Aquarium. Large, colorful schools of fish, shoals of barracuda, sea cucumbers and starfish and corals carpeting the sea floor. So many different kinds of pufferfish, including the large porcupine pufferfish that curiously follow you around like a yellow spikey puppy. What I was really hoping to see was a whale shark, but I was almost to distracted by all the vibrant colors teeming around the reef to bother to gaze out into the distant murky blue for what might be swimming in its depths. Turns out, I did see a whale shark. While I was on the boat, eating lunch. Oh well. Someday, I will see one while diving, but at least I saw one with my own two eyes, even if I wasn't in the water while it showed up. The next day, Mikaela and I went on a snorkeling/beach tour around Koh Phi Phi. The beaches were absolutely as phenominal as the hype makes them out to be. The snorkelling paled a bit in comparision to Koh Haa, but was still decent. We went snorkelling in Monkey Bay, and stopped at the beach where we were immediately surrounded by a troop of monkeys! They came right up to us, in all honesty, I was more timid about the whole thing than they were! So our time in Koh Lanta paid off, and a bit sadly, we left for Cambodia. But we weren't to sad about it, Cambodia is an exciting prospect in itself!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Soaking Wet

After two night trains and part of a day in Bangkok, we arrived in Ko Phangan in the POURING rain, which continued for the entirety of our time there. Not too much fun. But we met some cool people and drank beer and had some late night pool parties in our beach front infinity pool, as the rain seemed to only subside well after dark. Eventually, the monsoon-like atmosphere proved to be too much, and we jumped ship for the Adaman Coast before our originally intended departure date. We missed the famous full moon party, but still had a great time under the moon nonetheless. November's full moon is when Thailand celebrates New Year, so we lit a candle on a boat made from leaves and flowers and sent it off into the ocean with our bad luck, along with everyone else at midnight. It is such a beautiful holiday. Ao Ton Sai is an amazing place. Everyone is laidback, both the travelers and the locals. The beach next door is one of the prettiest in Thailand, plus there is amazing kayaking and rock climbing, so we were well taken care of. We made some new friends on our first night, and hung out with them all week. We left today for Koh Lanta, where we are essentially staying right on the beach, another gorgeous one. Tommorrow I will go diving at Koh Haa and the day after, Mikaela and I will day trip to Koh Phi Phi for some snorkeling.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Yes We Can

The conclusion of my time in Chang Mai will live in my heart forever. I took an amazing cooking class and ate the best thai food, and I made it myself. I went trekking in the mountains surrounding Chang Mai and swam in waterfalls and rode an elephant. I met people resisting the urge to join modern society and instead holding on to unique and beautiful cultural traditions and ways of life. I met amazing people both from Thailand, living abroad in Thailand and just visiting Thailand like me. In every country we visit, Mikaela and I have paused to marvel over the very fact that what we are expiriencing here in Southeast Asia will live deep within us for the rest of our lives. I just never thought I would be so truly moved by America while so far away from it. In a bar in Chang Mai, we watched the election with what felt like every American in the city. In that morning, we met far more Americans than we had in total since starting our trip. At 9 am, we all showed up to watch the election on CNN and were immediately greeted with good news. Obama was way up, and we were waiting to see how Ohio and Florida would unfold. As everyone is well aware, we won them. The whole bar errupted in cheers again and again all morning. We were shouting and laughing and drinking and crying and celebrating. As Obama addressed the crowd in his speech, I was embarssed to realize I was crying, until I noticed that there were very few dry faces making up the room. "We are Americans!" we kept telling each other. And I knew without question that I would remember clearly that final morning in Chang Mai.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Slow Boat to Thailand

We left Luang Prabang on a two day cruise up the Mekong River headed to Thailand. Day 1 was very cool. It was a lot of fun to be on the river, I spent a lot of time listening to my i-pod, leaning off of the side of the boat watching the scenery pass by. Day 2 was not so great. Our boat had wooden benches instead of cushy seats, and being on a boat had lost its novelty after the 10 hours spent on one the day before. Also, the beds in our guest house were reminsicent of partical board, an unfortunate trend that lasted for four consecutive nights, until we moved to our second guest house in Chang Mai. I did not love Thailand until I got a good night sleep last night. We haven't done anything really exciting here yet, except for the fact that everything we eat is amazing! Once we crossed the boarder into Thailand, we jumped on a bus to Chang Rai, where we ate lunch and hopped on a second bus for Chang Mai. I sat immediately behind a monk for that trip, and we chatted a bit and mostly exchanged smiles during the ride. I have never before in my life encountered a person that seem to radiate good karma like that. I can't really put it into words, but it felt as though all of my bad vibes from the gross guesthouse rooms and the LONG boat ride blew right out the window, merely as a result of sitting behind someone like that. Since arriving in Chang Mai, Mikaela and I haven't done much. I have been spending a lot of time online, trying to complete the last of my applications to grad school. The end is in sight! I will try to finish the Laos photo albulm and write more about Chang Mai once we start to get out and about.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Millions of Monks

After our stop in Vang Vieng, we took a bus north to Luang Prabang, our last stop in Laos. It is a beautiful city, everything is really nice compared with what we've seen on our previous stops. The whole town lights up at night with lanterns and fairy lights, because the main thing to do, when you are not occupied with temples and monks, is go to the night market. There were so many amazing things to buy! It was hard to resist not grabbing everything, but my backpack definitely limited my purchasing ability. The food was great at the market, too. There was a vegetarian buffet for very little money that served up amazing veggies and noodles, which we washed down with fresh-fruit-and-coconut-milk-shakes. Mikaela and I indulged ourselves with some of the great inexpensive massages. And the best part of all is that an evening of shopping, eating, and getting an hour massage all cost less than my portion of the bill at an average restaurant back in Seattle, including my part of the guest house bill for the night. We were living the high life in Luang Prabang, for sure. One of the coolest things we saw was the monks receiving their morning alms. They line up at dawn and receive food from the villagers that they eat later in the day. It is so amazing to see a line of brilliant saffron robes drift down the road. Unfortunately, Mikaela and I could only stomach the beautiful procession once. Many of the tourists are entirely disrespectful of the manners and traditions the Laos people have regarding monks, and swarmed upon them like visitors at a people zoo with complete disregard to the fact that they were interrupting the procession and embarrassing themselves and every other westerner present. I actually scolded a German couple next to us, Mikaela and I were in utter disbelief that people could have such blatant disregard for proper conduct. And ignorance was no excuse, the town has posters up everywhere urging tourists to follow a few simple rules around the monks. So while it was an almost magical way to start the day, we only went once. We did see a few more temples and went to visit an immense and beautiful waterfall. On one of our last days in the city, we rented bicycles and took them out of the city through the rice paddies, which was a lot of fun. I will finish the Laos photo album soon, because my pictures are better than my words could be for many of the things we saw. I did manage to complete the Vietnam photo album, the same link in the Ha Long Bay post takes you to the updated album.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Jars and Tubes

To start off our trip into Laos, we opted for the decidedly touristy excursions. In Phonsavan, we toured the Plain of Jars, an archeological site of unknown origin. There are a few different theories of how the jars came to be, along with local legend. But, in a nutshell, it is a bunch of large stone jars scattered in various locations just outside of Phonsavan. On a heavier note, the location of these jars coincides with sites that the U.S. bombed in the 60s and 70s. There were the remnants of bomb craters and trenchlines scattered everywhere as we wound our way through the jars. We had to follow an exact path on our tour to remain on the land that had previously been cleared of landmines. Red and white painted bricks warned us not to stray too far. As we drove home at the end of the tour, we saw large pink bags that marked the presence of detected bombs that needed removal. There was a field full of hundereds of pink bags that couldn't have been more than 10 meters from a school. Heartbreaking. After our tour, we packed up and prepared to take an early morning bus the next day to Vang Vieng. There was nothing historical about Vang Vieng. It was absolutely beautiful, and a place where relaxation reigns supreme. The tourist highlight of Vang Vieng is tubing down the Nam Sung. It is full of karsts and jungle, and takes your breath away at every turn. And then you float through the bars, where a couple hundered drunk kids in their twenties from around the world are partying it up at a bar/waterpark-esque mass of insanity. Super fun, but definately not a "real" taste of Laos. Mikaela and I went and partied with a really fun group of Irish and English kids we made friends with, played on the slides and acrobat swings and had some beer lao. The next day, we chose to kayak on a quiter part of the river, so we could actually see Vang Vieng, a place worth expiriencing apart from the bar scene. We also spent some quality time in hammocks, reading books and drinking coconut shakes, watching the river float by. I have started a Laos album, and linked it below. It has all of the Phonosavan pictures, and the start of the pictures from Vang Vieng.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Road Less Traveled

It was hard to leave Vietnam, besides it having all our new friends there it was safe and known and we had been having such a good time. To further complicate the issue, we had no idea how we were going to get across the boarder, as the bus we needed to catch had a non-working number and no address listed in the guide book. Being the intrepid travelers we are, Mikaela and I pused onward, catching an overnight train to Vinh armed only with our packs and a list of questions written in Vietnamese, curtosey of the nice girls who worked at the front desk of our hostel. We quickly secured a taxi to the bus station, where we were connected to the man that runs the very busline we need. The friendly woman at the front of the bus station called him over to us after reading our Vietnamese note. Turns out, it was her husband. He spoke amazing English, and verbally walked us through our journey ahead and order us some Pho for breakfast. The bus took off at 6AM, and we were the only foreigners on it. What a trip! I'll spare you the details, but it was hot, dusty, humid, EXTREMELY SMOKEY (no non-smoking laws here...) and lasted for 12 hours. In Vietnam, apperantly, men stop to use the bathroom on the side of the road, and women just don't pee. Some how, we made it through the journey and ended up at Kong Keo Guesthouses in Phonsavan, Laos. The best part of the guesthouse was the owner, Mr. Kong. After checking in and showering off the layers of bus grime, Mr. Kong invited us to join him and another guest at the bar for a beer lao, while they entertained us with conversation until we couldn't stay awake any longer. It was so great to be able to speak to a native Lao who had that level of English mastery. He told some great stories.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Happily Hedonistic in Halong Bay

Just returned from the most amazing time in Ha long Bay. I thought it was doubtful that the place could live up to the hype, but if it gets any better than that, I have yet to see it. I started out the trip with a useful Vietnamese lesson from our tour guide. Vietnamese is a very tonal language, and pronunciation has everything to do with meaning. Seems that instead of "hello" I was saying "Noodle soup, please". We passed the van ride fairly uneventfully, and boarded our ship. As soon as we were in the bay, we could see the karsts from afar, but they were hard to see clearly through the haze. Since I didn't know what exactly defines a "karst", I googled it for you: Karst topography is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite. The effect of these massive rock formations jutting through the water behind a thick layer of haze was kind of eerie, and very beautiful. As we got closer, we could see them better. Impressive, to say the least. I'll let the pictures do the talking, but even they don't do it justice. A link to my pictures is here:

The weather cooperated, bring us warm sunshine for the trip, with a bit of sea breeze. Everyone in my group was great, we were all about the same age. There were people from Canada, the US, England, Ireland and Australia, about 25 total. We sailed through Ha Long Bay for awhile, then we picked up some sea kayaks from a floating fishing village. We took the kayaks out through caves and into a hidden lagoon where we all went swimming. The water was about the same temperature as my swimming pool in St. Louis in August (cooler than the air, but not by much). After a great dinner of Vietnamese food, we all partied on top of the boat until way too late. The next morning, we sailed off to our next destination, Lan Hai Bay, where some of the group turned back and the rest of us went rock climbing. It is a totally different experience out on real rock. Quite a bit different than in the gym, but it was so much fun. Afterwards, we did some more swimming, then headed to Cat Ba Island where we spent the night. The next day, we headed home on the van after about a 1/2 day sailing back to the harbor. We arrived back at the hostel just in time for the free keg on the roof. We had a couple of beers with some of our new friends, then headed to a concert. It was the best $1.75 concert I've ever been to. The openers were a Vietnamese cover band that played Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, and the main act was Australian, and played a mishmash of different types of music. It was a great way to end my time in Vietnam, I am going to miss it here. In a couple of hours, we take a sleeper train south to Vinh, where we will (hopefully) catch a bus across the boarder to Phosavon in Laos. There might not be internet in Phosavon, if so, I'll write when I get to Vang Vieng.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Hello, Moto

Hanoi is like a smack in your face. But I'm loving it. There is a constant stream of crazy sights and sounds, it's a definite overload of the senses. Everyone here drives a scooter, or is hoping you'll pay them to drive you around on a scooter. Walking down the street, you are constantly assaulted with, "Hello, moter?" "Hey. Moto." or "You, Moto!" The traffic system here feeds into the chaos- buses do whatever they feel like, regardless of the direction of traffic where they are, and everyone yields to them. Cars watch for busses and no one else, and so on down the line. Pedestrians make up the bottom rung of the ladder. The crosswalk doesn't mean much over here. I spent my first night in Vietnam completely wired from jetlag. When it's 7:30Am Wednesday in Hanoi, it's 5:30PM Tuesday in Seattle. I woke up before the sun on my first real day in Vietnam, and mustered up the courage to venture out alone (after the sun came out, of course) and go find food. Luckily, the only word I knew in Vietnamese happens to be what everyone here eats for breakfast- Pho (noodle soup). It was really good, and cost 20,000 dong (just over $1.00). It's so hard to keep track of the dong- the ATM limits you to withdrawls of only 20 million at a time, LOL. Anyway, after my pho, I found my way back to the hostel and crashed until Mikaela arrived. Then we walked around Hanoi, and afterward we partied at our hostel (until 8:30, because jetlag struck again) . Everyone is really friendly. A common theme with this city, everyone is really friendly- both Vietnamese and tourists. This morning, we awoke at a more normal time and went to get our Laos visas. We were pretty proud of ourselves for navigating the city so well, no easy feat since English is not *quite* as prevalent as I had thought it might be. We went to the Temple of Literature, which was beautiful and surprisingly peaceful given that its in the middle of the city. We found a place with the most amazing milkshakes, mine was mango and Mik's was coconut. Definately somewhere we'll have to hit again. Then we just kind of walked around and shopped. Tommorrow, we leave for a 3 day boat trip to Halong Bay. It's one of the things I'm super excited for, its nominated to be a natural wonder of the world. I'll let you know if it lives up to the hype when I get back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Adventures in Korean Blogging

Well, this will be a short post, because I spent most of my alloted free wifi time figuring out how to change the website preferences into English. But how cool that the Seoul airport lets you use laptops and wifi for free! I made it through the first leg of my flight, and am now waiting for my plane to Hanoi to board. The plane ride was pretty uneventful, except that I lost a day and the sun never went down. Well, I love everyone, and miss you all already! Hopefully, I'll have more to write soon.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Serious Denial

Well, this is really more of a trial blog then an informative one. I am deep in the midst of cranking out grad applications and last minute trip preperations. It doesn't feel real. If I had time to actually sit for awhile and think about what's to come, I would probably feel quite differently. But for the moment, I'm just desperately trying to get it all done. Just so you know, there will be no hurt feelings if you don't want to read my blog, I'm not that self important, but since I'm not bringing a computer, I thought I'd set something up where interested parties can check in. 4 days to go.