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.