Friday, August 31, 2012

PHOTO FRIDAY: ENOUGH WITH THE CUTE ANIMALS


It's hard not to love the face of this tiny spectacled leaf monkey, which we spotted chowing down on a beachside breakfast near Railay, Thailand. She and four friends ate, scratched, grutned, and jumped around from tree to tree bascially acting like happy monkeys all morning. We couldn't stop watching and wondering how we could sneak her back into the U.S. without getting arrested.

If you have any ideas, let us know.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

MORE THAN ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK

We’ve been living high on the hog in Bangkok, at least from a culinary perspective. The food here--and all over Thailand, for that matter--has been incredible. Even the stir-fried scorpions taste like something far better than you'd think a stir-fried scorpion would. We're particularly fond of the food stall across the street from our hotel. Everything (and we mean everything...soup, chicken, unrecognizeable meat) is cooked open-air by a skinny transvestite in one large wok over a propane tank burner (the food's in the wok...not the tranny chef).

About our hotel...we weren't sure where to stay in this city of 12 million that seems to go on forever. From the train station, we hopped a city subway to the infamous Sukumvit Road, which we thought would give us easy access to quality cuisine, crazy night life, lots of embassies, and hotels galore.

We hauled our packs from hotel to hotel…to hotel...looking for a cheap room that wasn't rentable by the hour. After a long haul, we find a spot called “The Miami.” This place is like an off-strip, run-down Vegas hotel, in the center of Bangkok. We booked a room with air-con, cable TV, and a rotary phone for less than $30 per night. Luxury, at least for us. The craziest part--everything is pink. Except the pool (yes, this place has a pool),which Kip was brave enough to venture into…one time.

After hearing where we're staying, a traveler we met said he’d read something about The Miami in a book about Bangkok. We found an excerpt from the book:

"Opened in 1963, the Miami hotel has always been popular, drawing in some guests for its tatty but atmospheric lobby, and others for its reputation as a “hooker friendly” fleapit.  The debaucherous Thermae coffee shop, once the dead centre of the city’s sex trade, was located right next door until its closure in 1996. More recently, the street corner outside has become popular with African drug dealers."

But hey, the price is right, and if we ever need a sleep aid for the long bus rides ahead, we know where to find some.

Our main reason for being here was to get our visas sorted out for the next few countries--Burma, China, Tibet, and Nepal. On our trek to the Chinese Embassy, we stepped into a coffee shop in a mall to wait for the embassy to open. We soon found ourselves with a front row seat to the alms giving for Buddhist Lent, similar to the ones we saw in Laos. The juxtaposition of a Starbucks, a "one-day free pretzel" sign, and a nearby highway, topped off by two lines of over 100 monks making their holy procession out front with shopping carts was an interesting sight to behold. 

Maybe monks love pretzels?
While the event proved scenic, it turns out it was a national holiday in Thailand, meaning the embassy didn’t actually open that day. Oops.
To celebrate our amazing knack for timing and advanced planning, we strolled back to our favorite food stall and stuffed ourselves with pad Thai, Panang curry, and fresh mango smoothies.
After a nap, we headed to Khao San Road, where we picked up two sweet hats that will look as good on our wall back home as they certainly look on our heads in this photo. Although the Nepali woman selling them assured us they were the genuine article, we're pretty sure these are not traditional Thai headwear. And we've learned our lesson not to sit at the table closest to the street in a restaurant. The street vendors know how much beer you've had, and when to make the sale...
  
We will be sad to leave Thailand, the Miami, and the incredible tranny-cooked food, but the mysteries of Burma (aka, Myanmar) await! We're looking forward to some views like the sunset below...though every day will likely be topped off with lots of rain, since it's the dead center of monsoon season. Good thing we look good in ponchos.

Monday, August 27, 2012

FUNNY MONDAY: REMOTE CONTROL TOILET?


What will they think of next? Liz has been fascinated by the numerous styles of toilets we've encountered on this trip--squat toilet with auto flush, automated seat covers, electric heaters. But her recent discovery truly caters to the toilet connoisseur. 

To the right of the bowl can be found the above remote control, complete with volume-adjustable "flushing sound" for the shy, a "powerful deoderizer" for the smelly, and a sprayer with adjustable water pressure for the royal.

This gadget truly is a throne fit for a queen, or anyone who wanders into the ladies' room in this Asian airport. Sorry gents, Kip confirms that these do not exist in the men's room.

Friday, August 24, 2012

PHOTO FRIDAY: TRAIN RIDING IN THAILAND

Liz enjoys the air conditioning of our third class cabin on the overnight train...
When we decided on traveling by train through rural Thailand, we envisioned a scenic, relaxing, even romantic sojourn...a throwback to the golden age of travel on an overnight train from Bangkok south to the country's famous beaches.

What we got was far from it. Instead of scoring a first class sleeper compartment with beds, someone (Kip) booked us two 3rd class seats located right next to the squat toilet...for the entire 13 hour trip. No air-conditioning, but at least we could stick our heads far out the windows when it got too warm or smelly. 

In all honesty, it was just part of the charm and so much more scenic. Or at least, that's what Kip kept repeating.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

DEEP WATER SOLOING IN THAILAND

Kip...trying hard not to soil himself.
When we got to Railay Beach in southern Thailand and Kip heard about deep water soloing, there was little doubt of what the next few days would involve.

Not that he knows anything about rock climbing. But as he pointed out, it's not every day you get the chance to scale the faces of sheer limestone cliffs, dangling high above jade green waters without ropes or harnesses to hold you back (or up, as Liz pointed out).

Soon after arrival, he signed up for a day trip with one of Railay's climbing companies, of which there are quite a few.

As he quickly learned, there's not a ton of skill required. You pay your fee (about $30 for a day), get a two-minute briefing, and grab a well-used pair of climbing shoes. Then, off you and your group go on a half-hour sailboat ride on the Andaman Sea.

Once at the chosen spot, your instructor points to a rock wall, asks who wants to go first, and off you go. It really is that straight forward.

Two guides were on hand to shout directions to you if you couldn't figure out where to go. "Up" was the most-often heard word of advice. And so, driven on by such professional instruction, up everyone went, until we couldn't go anymore.


It was everything you can imagine and then some. Because you're so terrified when you fall or jump from the cliff face, there's not much pain when you hit the water.

Usually.
Our deep water soloing guide. He's scared of heights and was terrified to climb without ropes. Seriously.
Our climbing group. Kip's in white shorts. Our fearless guide (black shorts) hugs the stalactite below him to the left.

Monday, August 20, 2012

FUNNY MONDAY: TRUTH IN LABELING


Either southeast Asia has some incredibly strict food labeling requirements or butter maker Astra needs a new marketing firm. Either way, calling your product "fat spread" is probably not the best way to boost sales, even if it does give consumers a  "Good Start" to their day.

The stuff sure tasted good though. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

SE ASIA'S MOST RELAXED CAPITAL

Kip and friend Chris check out Vientiane's Patuxai Arch.
Compared with the sprawling Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, Laos’ capital city Vientiane seems like a small town. While KL has soaring skyscrapers like the Petronas Towers and KL Tower, Vientiane’s skyline features few buildings more than five stories tall. Instead of glitzy shopping malls the former French-ruled city has tiny mom & pop shops selling everything from custom-tailored suits to old stamps from decades past. But what Vientiane does not have in height or glitz, it makes up for in charm and tranquility.

Together with a good friend of Kip's from Norway traveling with us for two weeks (hey, Chris!), we would soon explore on foot numerous Buddhist temples and countless placid streets along the Mekong River. However, we agreed unanimously that our first stop must be a visit to the brewery of Laos’ most well-known product, Beer Lao (which holds a stunning 95 percent market-share of beer sold in the country).

When, after a 30 minute tuk-tuk ride to the Beer Lao brewery, we learned sadly they no longer offered tours (our very innocent tuk-tuk driver promised us they did) our entrepreneurial chauffer suggested he drive us back into town to the city’s lone bowling alley, where we could sample the product first hand (we later learned even the often-stodgy New York Times suggests going bowling while here...who knew).

While the closure of the Beer Lao factory tour didn’t keep us from learning about the flavors of the national beverage, we certainly didn’t do much to represent our nation’s bowling prowess (none of us even broke 100…being shown up by a little girl’s birthday party in the next lane). In the following days, however, we did manage to see some of the other amazing sights beyond the alley. 

An official sign posted on the Patuxai Arch describes it as a "monster of concrete." Marketing help, anyone?
Patuxai, the victory gate modeled on the Arch d’ Triumphe in France, is an impressive sight surrounded by what must be some very sacred grass. The 50-foot tall arch was supposedly built with concrete donated by the United States to build an air strip for delivery of foreign aid. Instead, Laos built this concrete monstrosity (their words, not ours!).

There is also a large stupa in the center of town where many Laotians believe lives a seven headed dragon that once protected the city. The stupa is called That Dam (pronounced Tawt Dam). This results in many of the restaurants/hotels/bars to be named after it, including “That Dam Bar”, “That Dam Restaurant,” etc. Obviously, we found this play on words highly entertaining, as evidenced by this photo.

One of the most important sites in all of Laos is the wat (temple) That Luang. It’s a long walk from the city center, but the shine of the gold in the sun is worth the trek. On the day we visited, there were many monks hard at work in the baking sun.
 
Monks hard at work outside a temple in Vientiane.
That Luang
After Vientiane we're headed across the Thai Lao Friendship Bridge and onward to Bangkok for a few days to sort out our visas to some very exciting places...if they let us in. Too cheap to fly, we've opted for the romance of the train.

But first, a toast to this lovely capital as we enjoy an unforgettable sunset on the Mekong.

Friday, August 17, 2012

PHOTO FRIDAY: SMELL SOMETHING?

A curious baby elephant takes a strong sniff of the camera lens during our visit to the Elephant Village near Luang Prabang. An elephant's trunk is one impressive sniffer--it's sensitive enough to pick up a blade of grass yet strong enough to uproot a small tree, not to mention it's ability to suck up a few gallons of water to drench a clueless photographer who gets a little too close. Oops. 

Weirdest elephant fact: These mighty pachyderms don't perspire...except between their toes.

PHOTO FRIDAY BONUS: IN THE LAND OF THE KIP
Kip has always imagined that having more Kips around might be fun. Liz, on the other hand, is quite certain one Kip is more than enough. 

But one million Kips?!  

Only in Laos...where the currency is actually called "the kip," could this be possible. Above, Kip holds up a cool million...kip. 

We've always imagined what life would be like as millionaires. At the current exchange rate of 8,000 kip to the dollar, now we know. Sort of. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

DELIVERING BOOKS TO KIDS IN LAOS

Liz holds a book while a girl and her sisters read aloud in Lao. The donated books are the first they ever owned.
Thanks to libraries, caring parents, and Barnes & Noble, people take books for granted. But not everyone has that luxury.

In Laos, where the literacy rate is one of the lowest in Asia (68%), many children have never even seen a book, much less owned one.


We joined up with a local nonprofit here called Big Brother Mouse in its mission to help address this disturbing issue.

As mentioned in a previous post (Speaking English with Monks), Big Brother Mouse creates and publishes children's books in Lao and English. The organization then seeks out travelers visiting remote areas in the country to help distribute the books. 

Before leaving Luang Prabang, we took a big stack of the group's publications with us. We weren't exactly sure where we were headed or to whom we'd give the books, but the folks at Big Brother Mouse assured us we would find the right opportunity. They were so right. 

A father reads to his daughter and some kids he invited over from neighbors' homes. 
We were an hour's scooter ride into the hills that surround Phonsovan in north central Laos. We had come to learn about and meet modern day victims injured by unexploded ordinance, aka, bombs that didn't go off, leftover from the days of the Vietnam war, when the United States made Laos the most bombed country per capita in the world. 

What we found, in addition to the tragic stories of the victims (more on that in another update, hopefully), were children--and their parents--eager to get their hands on books they could call their own. 
Parents and kids alike got excited about the books. A mom reads from one of the donated books.

While hesitant and terribly shy at first, the kids soon began to line up to get their book. As soon as they had one in their hands, they would gather around to read to each other (and to Liz). 

Even more eye-opening was the behavior of the adults. One father sat in a hammock and read to his kids. Another sat and read to herself as if she were holding a bestseller. 

Books simply don't make it to some places in Laos. It was a touching, if not educational moment, especially for us. All four of our parents were teachers at one time. We were lucky--not only did they teach us to read, but they also taught us the value of a book. 

To learn more or support Big Brother Mouse, visit www.bigbrothermouse.com

Monday, August 13, 2012

FUNNY MONDAY: ENGLISH IS HARD



Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language knows that certain things don't always translate.  That and English is hard. Plus, we only know how to say "hello" and "thank you" in Lao. That said, we still get a big kick out of the signs around town.

Friday, August 10, 2012

PHOTO FRIDAY: WAT AT SUNSET


Laos is home to lots of wats. Above, lights illuminate Luang Prabang's famous Wat Sen, built three centuries ago with 100,000 stones from the Mekong River. Beyond the temple, the dying sun sets the sky aglow, silhouetting a line of mountains in Thailand just across the river that separates the two countries.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

ELEPHANTS AND ROAD CONSTRUCTION

Elephants wade the river near the Elephant Village, where we spent a "Lao-some" afternoon. 
As you may have guessed by now, we are big fans of Laos. We even coined our own corny adjective from the country's name--"Lao-some" (yes, as in "awesome"; you love it, right?! us, too!!!). Southeast Asia's only landlocked country, Laos is stunningly beautiful, with the aforementioned mountains and temples and markets, etc.  

Now we've "discovered" something else. Elephants. Yes. It is totally Lao-some. 

Perhaps we should've been clued in by the nation's nickname, "Lan Xang," which means "Land of A Million Elephants." Maybe we missed that in our pre-trip research. No matter. 

Just outside of Luang Prabang are two places with their own herds of the massive creatures. Having heard mixed reviews about one of them, we opted to combine one of Kip's favorite things (driving a scooter) with one of Liz's (riding on the back of a scooter, helping Kip drive) and get up close and personal with some elephants. 

The ride out wasn't exactly on a major highway. For 10 miles, we followed a dirt track frequented by water buffalo herders and rice farmers. 
Kip learns the hard way that the herd of buffalo have the right of way.
This woman found Kip very amusing.
After inhaling lots of dust and making a couple wrong turns (Liz's fault), we finally arrived at the Elephant Village and Sanctuary.

The plan was to arrive, have lunch, hang out with the elephants, and head back. Unfortunately, with our wrong turns, buffalo road blocks, and bird watching, not to mention a torrential downpour that made the muddy road almost impassible at times, we arrived too late for lunch. To top it off, staff told us a large group of elephant riders had just left, leaving behing only one very feisty elephant--Mae San, a recent arrival that had labored  for years in the timber industry--that didn't take too well to traditional rides they offered. 

The elephant handler asks us, "So, you come back tomorrow for elephant riding?" 

Not a chance. After a long discussion and negotiation, we reached an agreement. Instead of taking Mae San out for a ride, we were offered to take our new elephant friend down to the river and give her a bath. While this was not some amazing volunteer opportunity, (turns out, it's something tourists pay for), it definitely will go down as one of the highlights of our trip.

Liz got to ride the elephant down a steep muddy hill to the river, and we both got to take turns swimming out to Mae San and playing in the water. That's right. We played in the river with an elephant. The below photos should be emanating joy. If you don't see it, check your monitor. This was seriously fun.



And then, our mahout, or elephant handler, decided he would let both of us ride the elephant back up to the village, and he would take photos for us. That's right. We had a private elephant AND our own pachyderm paparazzi. Guess what's going on our Christmas cards...that is, if we can get them sent before February, like last year.


So, after the happiness overload, we sneaked into the Elephant Village's private pool. Yes, in addition to a herd of elephants and personal photographers, this place even has a pool, randomly, in a grassy area behind the elephant pen. And...wait for it...not only is there a pool, but the place even has a swim up cappuccino bar with locally grown coffee. We obviously had to try a few things on the menu before the long ride home...(thanks Cameline, H. Myers, and S Zipse!)

Fully caffeinated and with staff starting to question if we belonged in the pool, we decided to call it a day. Our timing was perfect, as usual, and we left just as it started raining pouring. 

As we rounded a muddy curve, we approached a mudslide and resulting roadblock. Kip (being Kip) decided to ignore a man in a bright yellow jacket who told us to stop (the jacket had "police" on the back, but Kip insists he didn't see it or understand what the guy was screaming). He barreled right through. That's right...through a washed out road. 

The scooter was sliding all over the place, Liz was yelling directions, and Kip was doing all he could not to drive off a cliff. Finally, Liz got off and walked barefoot through knee deep mud and rocks (flip flops were useless). From the other side, she was able to snap this photo, which shows Kip on the scooter directly in front of the yellow "JCB" backhoe as a local man stares at him incredulously
Yes, that's Kip right in between the backhoe and the front end loader. This is how those "stupid tourist" stories get started.
Eventually, the scooter and both of us made it through in one piece. After sunset, we returned safely to Luang Prabang. The man who rented us the motorcycle asked us where the heck we'd been.  "Just cruising around town" we told him, staring at monks and such.

Oops. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

MARKETS, MONKS, AND WATS ON THE MEKONG

One of many wats around Luang Prabang, Laos. Great view from the top, reachable by lots of stairs. 
People come to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang for lots of reasons. Some, like Kip, enjoy checking out the countless temples while watching the daily rituals of saffron-robed monks that constantly roam the streets. 


Liz peruses the night market.
Others, like Liz, can spend hours at the morning and night markets when they're not soaking up the beauty of the town and its Parisian cafĂ© culture. And then there's all the Thai-influenced food, cooking classes, sunsets, volunteer opportunities with Big Brother Mouse, and day trips into the mountainous countryside. 

The city is surrounded by two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. Well-preserved, French-colonial architecture mingles with ornate Buddhist wats, the result of two centuries of Buddhism topped off with five decades of French rule that ended only in 1953.


Beyond the city limits, we spent one afternoon at the incredibly beautiful Kuang Si Falls, just 30 km from Luang Prabang. 
The largest falls, complete with its own "do not swimming" area.
We had a photo with us in it, but it had some obnoxious
tourists in the background. We think this is more serene.
To Kip's enjoyment, the waterfall even had a rope swing, which of course he had to go off of with a back flip. The video can be seen here.


After the waterfall and rope swing visit, we headed back to explore the city. The former capital of Laos until the government was relocated to Vientiane in 1560, Luang Prabang is still known as the religious and spiritual center of the country. At virtually every corner, you can see monks of all ages strolling around town, usually carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the baking sun and frequent rains. Subsequently, Liz has really taken to this practice. She now goes everywhere with an umbrella and wonders why more people don't do this back home.




Watching the pre-dawn procession of monks receiving their alms is one of the top things for tourists. Each morning monks of all ages walk the streets with empty baskets. As they walk, residents and visitors alike solemnly place food and other items into their baskets. 


It's quite the spectacle, and many visitors seem to forget the ritual is actually a religious procession, not a circus act for photo-happy tourists to set off flash bulbs in the faces of the monks. There are rumors of stopping the processions due to the bad behavior of some tourists.  That said, it is a beautiful thing to witness, if done respectfully, which we tried our best to do. So, since none of our close up face shots of the monks turned out (kidding) above are a couple of images from the processions we were lucky enough to see (when we actually woke up on time to make it).

Bats for breakfast?
And now, for the markets! Luang Prabang has the most incredible markets we've seen in Asia. And trusts us, we've seen a lot of markets. The morning event kicks off around 5 am, and usually ends by 9. 


Lining both sides of a narrow street, vendors lay out their wares on bamboo-woven mats and blankets. Overflowing baskets of rice, piles of noodles, buckets of live eels, grilled frogs, bats, pythons, bug larvae...if it's edible and in the area, it's probably here. We'll let the photos below speak for themselves.  Or, if you feel like getting nauseous (not from the market sales, but from Liz's shaky camerawork) you can view some videos here, and here.
Live, writhing eels straight from the river...come and get it!
Fresh python for sale. 
Lots of veggies, too.
In addition to the morning market, which again, we think was absolutely amazing, there is also a craft and souvenir market in the evenings. While most Asian markets can be chaotic and filled with screaming hawkers giving visitors the hard sell, Luang Prabang's may be the most tranquil and enjoyable on the continent. Needless to say, Liz went a little nuts, particularly with the purchase of elephant trinkets and coin purses.
Liz...still shopping. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

FUNNY MONDAY: DEER MEAT, SOAKED IN...


You can see some strange things on menus and in local markets everywhere around the world. Heck, in Louisiana we even heard there are places you can eat nutria rats and raccoon. At a tiny hole-in-the-wall place in rural Laos though, we found something that tops even those. Seems that, if you like your deer meet with a bit of a bitter taste, you can order it with liquid feces added. For you healthier eaters, you can even have your deer meat over a nice salad..."soaked in liquid feces in the intestine."

Call us cowards, but neither of us tried it. We opted for chicken soup instead. Maybe next time.

Friday, August 3, 2012

PHOTO FRIDAY: GANGSTA MONK?

In some places in Asia, monks and monks-in-training aren't even allowed to ride bicycles. In Vang Vieng, Laos, however, it seems things are a bit different. The young novice above, pedaling across a bridge in early morning, apparently not only can ride a bike, but he can also do so while throwing up gang signs. Considering the kid is studying to some day become a Buddhist monk, it's more likely he was just letting the photographer know he should probably move to the other side of the bridge to avoid a nasty collision. Lest things get ugly. Fast. Wurd. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

WORLD'S LEAST LIKELY PARTY TOWN

Kids play in a rice paddy just outside Vang Vieng, called "the world's least likely party town."
Vang Vieng is a nature lover’s paradise. Or at least, it used to be. 

Around this small town in central Laos, there are cliffs for climbing, caves for exploring, a river for kayaking, and unpaved roads through rice paddies for biking.
But then, there is Vang Vieng’s top tourist draw--tubing. 

Yes, that's "tubing," as in the state sport of West Virginia

Tubers, including Liz and Chris in the front, cross the river to begin their float trip down the Nam Song. 
On the backpacker circuit for several years now, floating down Vang Vieng's Nam Song River on an inflated tractor tire tube has become one of Southeast Asia’s “must do” attractions, at least for 19-year-old gap year students.


Considering the bucolic setting, the more surprising part is that the large majority of participants "do" the Nam Song while drinking and partying as if it were an MTV-hosted spring break in Cancun. One of England’s top newspapers even called Vang Vieng "the world’s least likely party town." 

While we came for the scenery, naturally...we figured we should at least take a closer look at this unique tourism phenomenon, for the sociological if not cultural experience.

People have lots of fun, that's for sure. We certainly did. What you see along the two-hour trip (without stops) can be shocking, both for its natural beauty, as much for the hedonistic scene that awaits you around every bend. 

The Nam Song roars downstream, particularly during rainy season. In dry season, the shallow water hides rocks and other hazards. Meanwhile, the drinks flow as quickly as the current nearby. Everything along the river happens with little to no safety supervision. Not surprisingly, participants are injured constantly. More shockingly, more than 20 international visitors die on the water each year, mostly from head injuries. Little effort has been made to improve safety. 

Despite the dangers, people keep coming, drawn by the party, as much as (or likely more than) the landscapes.
Liz and Chris float past a 200-foot cliff and yet another bar on the way to Vang Vieng.
In addition to bellying up to one of the bars numerous bars along the shore, you can lounge in a hammock for hours, jump on a trampoline, fly down a 50-foot slide, jump from 20-foot towers, as well as soar off of numerous rope swings, which is one of Kip's favorite things (once the water depth and safety of the rope are closely examined, of course...).

video

In the end, it's hard to beat safely lazing down a rolling river on a steamy afternoon, sipping an icy Beer Lao while sandwiched between rice paddies and 200-foot cliffs. 

And though it's hard to find anyone overtly concerned with safety on the river, we did locate one enterprising bar owner who says he's found a way to help local school children...at his watering hole, there's a sign that reads, "DRINK to help CHILDREN: All profit goes to education!" 

The owner swears all profit from his bar go toward improving education for local kids. We were dubious, but either way, we had a beer and a toast, hoping for all involved that scenery, safety, and education become more of a priority in Vang Vieng.

Kip and Chris supposedly support children's education in Laos.