Friday, June 22, 2012

Lazy Days in Laos

{This is the last installment of blogs from my Asian 2012 trip!}

After two days on a slow boat down the Mekong river we were ready to get out and stretch our legs. We weren't, on the other hand, ready to do much else. Luang Prabang provided the perfect atmosphere for the lazy days we were craving. 

We walked around the old town--soaking in the river views and French colonial archetecture, took naps, got massages, drank our daily intake of fruit shakes, and read. Leaving town we met some other tourists who had hiked to waterfalls and trekked through the jungle. They sounded like they had the time of their lives, yet neither one of us regretted our decision to kick back Lao style. 

{The best meal of the Lao portion of the trip (sticky rice is in the little basket). The grandma who made it wasn't too nice, but I guess you can be that way when your food is fantastic.} 

{Gotta squeeze in a little time with the local monks...}

{A buddha making school}

{We stumbled upon a lane that had all you can eat buffets for $1. Also, as an aside: I love Chinese broccoli!}

{We also finished off our supply of rambutan and mangosteen}

{Textiles in the market}

{Dueling street vendors}

After a few days we were rested up and ready to move on. We booked an overnight bus to Vientiane, the capital. I was thankful not to be traveling alone on the overnight bus because instead of seats you were assigned two person "bunks." Thankfully I was traveling with both my "sleep sack" and a friend.

The bus ended up being, I don't know? 5 hours late? We were next to the bathroom and at the back where it was pretty bumpy, so it was a pretty long night. 

Once we got to Vientiane we dropped our bags at the bus station, had lunch and took a quick look at town. 

I also almost passed out from the heat (at least 110 in the shade)

{A garden on a bike!}

This is Vientiane's "Arc de Triomphe"--an interesting mix of Lao and French

From there we put our sweaty selves back on another bus that took us over the Thai boarder, and from there back to Bangkok. 

It was a whirlwind of a trip (and one that included just about every form of transportation imaginable!). 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Floating the Mekong

I've always thought river travel to be the most romantic way to travel. Train travel is a close second, especially when it comes along with old smokey stations, but nothing beats river travel. It might be that it conjures up nostalgic ideas of floating down the Mississippi back in the frontier days, Mark Twain, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Amazon rides all at the same time. 

Back when I was planning my big trip, I really thought about doing some Amazon exploration (see my post here), but South America got put on hold. I finally got a chance to get in some serious river travel in Laos.

It was long. It was hot. It was crowded. But it was also my favorite part of the entire trip.

Supy and I slept at a tiny hotel on the Thai side of the border where Grandma rented us a very basic room (super cheap, but we did decide to spray down our mattress with bug spray before sleeping). We woke up early and headed to the boarder crossing. After Thai immigration you walk down to the river... 

And hop a small boat across to Laos. It's one of the world's only border crossings by boat. 

From there we went through Lao immigration, which was a bit more involved, but still pretty easy. We bought ourselves a boat ticket and some sandwiches and fried rice for the long journey. (We also attracted an annoying and somewhat sketchy German traveler who was difficult to shake...) We sat on the boat until every single seat was filled and then headed out on our two day route. 

The boats were long and skinny. This is from the engine/storage room looking forward to the front of the boat. Their wooden benches had somewhat recently been refitted with old Thai bus seats. 

A closer look at the engine (with a few Buddhist offerings on and around it). This bad boy was loud.

Only one boat makes the trip each day. Families live on the boats when they aren't shuttling passengers and cargo down the Mekong.

The scenery was varied. Sometimes the river was narrow, sometimes extraordinarily wide. Sometimes the banks were sandy, sometimes there were rapids and massive rocks everywhere. 

We also saw lots of wild life--cows, goats, water buffalos, etc. 

Lots of local fishermen and women, and children swimming around too. I'm sure things have modernized considerably in the last few decades, but it seemed as if life was going on as usual as it had for centuries. 

The sunset on day one was pretty spectacular

This is Pak Beng, where we stayed the night. The boat pulled up to the dock and we were surrounded by people trying to get us to come to their hotels. Supy found a kid who gave us a good deal and some banter (and promised that the electricity would run all night), so we followed him to our home for the evening. 

It turned out that making sure our hotel had a generator was a good move because the electricity in town went out before we could even get back out the door. The electricity flickered on and off all evening (making it difficult for us to get our daily quota of fruit smoothies), but we eventually found food in the form of buffalo sausage hot dogs and strolled around town a bit. Finally we figured out the reason for the black outs--a storm was coming. Unfortunately we didn't make it back in time and got ourselves a soaking. 

Everything was clear the next morning though

This is the boat and family that ran the boat on day one. Day two we switched out to a different boat for the rest of the journey. 

 What is a long trip without some snacks? Supy was in love with seaweed flavored anything, but I will admit these seaweed flavored sunchip-type things were tasty. On the right is a ball of flavored sweet fried noodles. It wasn't bad but had a flavor I couldn't place. Finally I figured it out: it tasted like popcorn dipped in sweet and sour sauce.  

River pictures from day two: 

Day two was particularly scenic. These pictures can't do it justice. After two days on the boat though, we made it to Luang Prabang--which was laid back and lovely. 

A sneak peak of the Mekong from Luang Prabang: 

It was my longest water adventure to date, and my first real stab at river travel. The travel was slow--but that was probably just why I liked it. There was plenty of time to read a novel that's been passed along through 2 friends and 3 continents, listen to Joe Purdy sing about the Mississippi, nap, chat, and just enjoy the world floating by. 

Not a bad way to travel at all. 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Chiang Rai

After spending an extra night in Chiang Mai and deciding to spend a night at the Laos border (to make crossing less stressful) we didn't have much time for Chiang Rai. I am sure you could spend some significant time there, but we had an afternoon. We made it work!

Hello Chiang Rai!

Chiang Rai has the feel of just about all mid-sized third world cities--low buildings, a lot of telephone wires, traffic--until you get to it's main drag. There's a clock tower in the center and lots of similarly fancy light posts branching out from there. Bling, bling!

Chiang Rai was also especially toasty. Despite our best intentions we seemed to always find ourselves out exploring in the hottest part of the day. Chiang Rai unfortunately was no exception. It was so hot that, before we dropped our backpacks off at the luggage storage in the bus station, I pulled out my umbrella. I might've looked a bit odd to a western eye, but the umbrella provided ready made shade. Supy took to running from shade to shade. 

Quickly after finding the main street Supy and I fell into our normal routine. First things, first: find food. 

We found a grandpa with a food cart who whipped us up some tasty noodles and got Thai teas from another cart. I thought the carrying bags they gave us were brilliant!

Supy also find's grandmothers to be irresistible, so we ended up with about 2.5 pounds of lychee. I had never tasted them before, but, while a bit weird, they were delicious. 

We binged on them all day. The next day I woke up and my feet, ankles and hands were swollen. I started to wonder...Am I allergic?

I had a severe allergic reaction in high school and since then have been panicky when my hands or feet swell. It turns out that I was just swelling because of the ridiculous heat, dehydration and for sitting on so many trains/buses/boats for hours on end.

Crisis averted.

Next, we continued our routine and took in some temples. 

According to the sign outside: I was regarded that was built in 1385.

You can just hang out and relax in the temples. Usually they are pretty cool and breezy so we took a break and sat in this one for a little bit. Actually we sat there long enough for me to want to stretch out my legs--where I accidentally pointed my feet at the buddha (a huge no, no!). Thankfully I quickly caught myself before anyone saw. (In Thai culture it's extremely rude to point the bottoms of your feet at someone. To point your feet at an image of the buddha is a huge cultural faux pas.) 

This particular temple also had very old, fancy carved wooden doors. 

We also found ourselves a mosque

To round out our stay we toured several 7-11s (Thais love 7-11s. They are on probably every second corner in most cities. We loved them because they had cheap water and air conditioning.)

Did you know that Red Bull originated in Thailand? You see it everywhere. 

We also felt the need to continue taking as many of these kinds of pictures as possible.

Finally, we spotted a picture of the current king (whose public image is very carefully guarded) in a realistic manner. It was fitting for the afternoon. I like to call it:

In Chiang Rai, Even The King Sweats

We shade hopped our way back to the bus station at the end of the afternoon and took a local bus (with the windows down through some beautiful farmlands) to the Thai/Lao border. Next stop: Laos!