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Category Archives: Laos

Love note to my passport

Because of complications with obtaining a work visa (I couldn’t) I was forced to do Visa runs if I wanted to stay in the country and work for my school. Along the way, I completely filled my 25-page passport and was worried about having the space to get home. So literally as soon as I rang in 2013, I headed to the Canadian Embassy to get a new passport.

Despite having the forms printed off the internet, and filling everything out thoroughly, plus extra, I was asked to fill out a new form. I handed in the new form, my two pictures, and my fee and that was it. “The new one will be sent to you.”

Seriously easy. Despite worry that I didn’t have a guarantor that could sign my photo or the documents, despite fear that I would have to spend the entire day running around Bangkok finding a lawyer to act as a guarantor for me, sign everything and follow-up with my four references and previous addresses of the past 5 years, it was the most simple process. To be honest, I think it was easier even than in Toronto.

I am excited to have 48 brand new pages to start stamping and plastering with visas. My passport hasn’t seen me through a million countries; it hasn’t been all around the world with me. But it does clearly define the last 5 years of my travel life: Amsterdam, South Africa, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and of course those random stamps through American customs despite not ever leaving the airport. WHY do they do that?

Looking through a passport is always one of those things that you reserve to do while you’re waiting in line at the border, when you’re terrified that you’ve overstayed, when you’re trying to plan the next few months of your life and wonder how in hell a visa run is going to fit into it, or simply when you’re feeling nostalgic. I love the pages in my passport. I love looking at all the stamps and all the visas and remembering the exact moments that I crossed the border and with who. I’m glad that they returned my passport in pristine condition so that I can continue to be nostalgic.

Maybe if I’m feeling crafty, I’ll make sure to save my passport in a scrapbook of the past year so that I can accurately remember dates when I look back.

I do have a favourite page, simply because I love the variety of stamps that share these two pages.

South Africa, Amsterdam, Laos, Thailand and America all on two pages..

South Africa, Amsterdam, Laos, Thailand and America all on two pages..

Do you have a favourite page in your passport? Do you sit and look back through it in the same way that I do?

Laos – a nostalgic collection

So it’s been a year since I properly travelled Laos. Of course, it’s only appropriate that I now make a video compilation of a bunch of the footage from those two separate trips.

While in Laos with Melissa in January 2012, we visited Vang Vieng and I fell in love with the views, but not the cheesy tourists making a mess of the town. We trekked through the mountains and countryside, kayaked down rivers, and stayed overnight in a Khmu village in Luang Prabang.

I also returned later, in April 2012, on a more interesting method of transport, to float down the river on an inner tube, contributing to the whole mess that the town is currently in. I’m happy that I was able to tube the river while everything was still open, so that I could see just how dangerous it was and so that I could actively contribute to the conversation about what Vang Vieng did wrong in terms of tourism and how they can turn it around in the future. For more information into the drunken beating this town took, the government crackdown, and how they’re currently doing, check out this article from the Sydney Morning Herald. (Appropriate source, since most of the deaths / drunken idiots where more often than not 18 year old Aussie’s.)

Unfortunately my old camera didn’t take the best video quality. Which I’m really sad about. I also wasn’t really thinking about taking the best video footage at the time, but nonetheless I spent some time yesterday working with a crappy downloaded free program (that is so different from Final Cut that it actually made me cry inside a little bit) to make this for you, friends.

Enjoy.

Vang Vieng… Again

I knew I’d be back. There is just something about Vang Vieng that makes me simultaneously love it and hate it. I hate the cult-like way that all the kids (and I mean anywhere from 18 to 25 here) sit and watch friends during the days. Zoned out to oblivion from whatever “happy” thing they ate or drank. I both love and hate the multitude of free buckets. I hate the way the shirtless, paint covered; shoeless, drunken kids coming back from tubing behave.

I love the chilled out vibe, and I love the view.

The last one always seems to win out. It seriously is the most gorgeous view, and the riverside restaurants are working hard to capitalize on that fact. Low tables made for lounging for hours overlooking the river and with a wide open view that never ceases to take my breath away.

The first time that I was in Vang Vieng, all I wanted to do was sit and stare, breath the air, drink fruit shakes and eat giant chicken baguette sandwiches. This time, however, I decided to take in what the town is known for: tubing down the river.

The tubing itself isn’t the focus, however, drinking while you’re doing it is. Where the tuk-tuk dropped us and our tubes off, there was a bar with quite an enticing offer to get us started. Once we got to the river, we were greeted by a free shot and someone to wrap a bracelet around our wrist.

Even trying to ignore the bars and tube down the river is next to impossible; there are people whose main job is to throw a rope with a weighted water bottle out to you to pull you in. It’s way too easy to get roped in (see what I did there?) to visiting the many bars along the river. Once you abandon your tube and climb the ladder, each bar has a dance floor, a restaurant for food and a little something extra. Whether it’s a rope swing, a high platform, a trapeze, giant slide or inflatable launching pad there is enough to distract you from the goal of getting your tube (and refund) back before six.

Unfortunately we spent too much time at the beginning relaxing by the water and drinking beers to actually visit all of the bars and attractions. Simply floating down the river became impossible and we had to peddle ourselves toward the end, trying not to get raped by rocks as the water became gradually shallower.

Luckily we made it back just in time to get our deposit back, went out for dinner and then made our way down to the bars by the river for our free buckets. It ended up being a dangerous day / night.

The next day, despite hangovers from hell, we went exploring the caves in the area surrounding the town. While we were disappointed with the first, and closer one, the second one we went to had a lagoon in it ready for swimming. However, by the time we got there it was so dark there was no light coming in through the roof of the cave and we were scared of snakes and other critters in the water, so opted out of swimming.

I don’t know if I’ll make that crazy trek into Vang Vieng again, so I’m glad that I was able to experience it twice, in two very different ways and with two very different people.

Bus travel in Laos = a death wish

In the process of obtaining my B-Visa, I had to make the trek into Laos to go to the Thai Embassy. So after me and another teacher, Raiyna, got our passports back, we decided that we would stay an extra few days and head to Vang Vieng since we had some time before school training starts.

Somehow, we got dropped of at the public bus station, so ended up taking one of the local buses into Vang Vieng. The bus itself was the oldest I’ve seen on the road and was completely rammed full of people, filling every seat and even on the platform at the front that I thought was for luggage. While we waited, people climbed on top of the bus to rope their luggage and shopping onto the top, throwing bags from the ground to whoever’s job it was to tie everything down.

After finally getting going did we fully realize the shape the bus was in. Every time it would stop, it would chug and shake and rattle to get going again. Having a comfortable, air conditioned bus to compare it to from the first time I made the trek with Melisa, I was laughing hysterically at the state of the bus and at us for being the crazy farang on it. We swore that it wouldn’t make it, but it was at least amusing to all the village kids that we passed who laughed at us and the bus as it tried to start up again. Stalling and shaking and generally making a gigantic amount of noise.

After chugging up the steep inclines where I swore we were going to roll backwards, and down steep hills where I was only praying that we didn’t fly off the cliff taking the turn at the bottom, we finally got to Vang Vieng. I grabbed my bags, admired the imprints of my fingers on the seat in front of me from gripping and praying that we would make it and jumped off the bus.

The only ride that I have to compare to the terrifying Laos roads would be the pick-up truck drive on Koh Phangan in the rain. Even in a mini-van (or maybe especially in a mini-van because they’re driving faster) I feel like I can see my life flashing before my eyes. There are no rules on Laos roads, passing happens on corners, hills, between two other cars if there’s room (or even if there isn’t: they’ll make room). Making it even more ridiculous are the abundance of cows, water buffalo, goats and kids that you have to avoid while plummeting down the road.

It makes all other travel seem like a piece of cake. I’m looking forward to a relaxing train ride to Chiang Mai for Songkran (Thailand New Years) in a couple days, despite being stuck in a metal box it won’t feel like traveling after the 30+ hours I’ve spent in buses in the past week.

Thai Spirit Houses

Since one night on the beach at the Sanctuary on Koh Phangan where I saw a random light hidden in some bushes, I’ve been drawn to Spirit Houses and their ornate decorations and offerings that can be seen throughout Thailand.

A spirit house overlooking the beach at Haad Tien

Statues inside a spirit house

Spirit Houses are a Buddhist tradition that essentially welcomes and distracts spirits with an appealing place to rest as opposed to inhabiting places like trees, lakes, waterfalls or the heavens. These houses are meant to appease the spirits to bring good luck on the house, business or farm and they are everywhere. Considering that Thai’s believe that if a spirit is unhappy, they can cause the business or venture to fail, the importance of pleasing these guardian spirits of the land is very important.

A set of Spirit Houses outside MBK

The houses themselves look like little temples, complete with little statue families inside of them, sometimes there are also animals and furniture to make the home more comfortable. But they can also be huge to represent the building that they are meant to be residing over, for instance the larger than life one at the MBK centre in Bangkok, or the ones built to reside over an entire city block.

Offerings are commonly placed around the alter on the outside of the spirit house, of food, flower garlands, drinks and incense that is lit everyday. The importance of keeping up with the spirit house is seen by the fact that you’ll rarely see a spirit house with rotting fruit or incense that hasn’t been recently lit because that is seen as disrespectful to the spirit.

In Vietnam, because we were there for Tet, the offerings were exorbitant. They had everything from money, to food; to beer and alcohol to make sure that the spirits were happy with them and to bring good luck to their home or business for the New Year.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of these, but they were seriously overflowing!

In Laos, during our trek and talk with the tour guide over Lao Lao we talked about Buddhist culture and he explained that they create the spirit houses to make spirits of their loved ones more comfortable in the after life. That is why, Micke explained, some of the houses have furniture or cars and the family offers money, food and drink to make their afterlife as comfortable as their earthly life.

I was saddened when I saw a stack of discarded alters and spirit houses in Bangkok, but after a little research I’ve learned that this is because the family or business has decided to upgrade the spirit house. They perform a ceremony to transfer the spirit to the new house. Still, seeing where spirit houses go to die outside of a Wat (temple) may have been a tad depressing.

Small, discarded spirit houses

The “I’ll be back” feeling

Something weird happened to me while I was traveling around Laos and Vietnam with Melisa, and even when I was in Chiang Mai with everyone else. I wasn’t concerned about buying a bunch of mementos, of taking a million pictures or fitting in as much as humanly possible. I had this crazy feeling that I would be back and that I would be able to do my shopping at another time that it made more sense to keep my load light for the time being. The only thing I bought from each place, was a postcard or two to send home to loved ones.

I fell in love with Laos. Looking at photos of Melisa’s return to build a school outside of Luang Prabang made me realize just how much we both fell in love with it. There are so many parts of it that are seriously untouched, hill tribes living with the bare minimum to survive, electricity being a relatively new concept, and the pace of life being so quiet that the entire country shuts down almost as soon as the sun sets. I love the pace of life here in Thailand, but the pace in Laos is turned down about 5 notches. But I don’t know if I could live there for that very reason. I’m a city girl, through and through, and I need streetlights and late nights. But I will be back. Maybe even for the chance to ride down the river on an inner tube and the view of the mountains in Vang Vieng.

I hated Vietnam at the time, but know that if I go back when everything is actually open and the country is its vibrant self I might feel differently. I hated Bangkok, but what I’ve realized is that I really hated the drunken, partying foreigners on Khao San. I might also feel differently seeing other parts of the city, although I think that once I’ve experienced the small town life here, it’s doubtful that I would fall in love with it.

The other thing I realized while at the Luang Prabang night market was that the trinkets sold at the markets are the same all over the place, and finding something specific to that culture takes a little more searching and knowing about the culture instead of just searching for something that “looks cool;” those can be found anywhere.

Setting up for the daily Luang Prabang night market

That reason alone made me not want to buy anything until I was sure that it accurately reflected the culture and wasn’t some cheap little trinket that was mass produced in China or some sweat shop. If I wanted stuff like that, I could head down to Chinatown and buy them by the armload.

It was another reason that I loved the Chiang Mai Sunday market, those were all local artisans selling their own handmade goods. It was like the Thai version of a one-of-a-kind show, but on the street, and with lots of amazing food. If I end up working anywhere near Chiang Mai, I can guarantee that I will be there every Sunday evening doing a weekly splurge.

While here in Ban Phe, on Monday and Thursday they have night markets and on those nights it’s routine to go and wander and buy market dinner. The first real local market that I’ve come across, it’s aimed not at tourists, but for the locals in Ban Phe to stock up on vegetables, snacks and used (or sometimes new) clothes.

Culture Shock: Laos to Ha Noi

The first memorable thing about arriving in Vietnam for Tet (Vietnamese New Years) wasn’t the chaos of the motorbikes, it wasn’t the haggling of the taxi drivers or the unscrupulous way people would call out to you from their hotel or shop.

No, it was the fact that once we dropped our bags and started asking about arranging train tickets out of the city in the next few days, there was nothing available. Nothing for a full week. Neither Melisa nor I have been in one place for a full week since we were at the Sanctuary, surrounded by friends and beach and lazy days. There was no way that we were going to spend my last free week stuck in the city that was meant to be a launching off point for side trips.

After some heavy drinking, we met a group of Aussies who had found a place where they bought bus tickets to go to Ha Long City, and from there they would hire their own Junk boat to do a tour of the Bay. They figured that since they were such a big group, and a boat usually holds about 10 people, they would find a good deal. So the next morning, first thing, we booked our bus tickets to join them on the adventure out of what will be a dead city.

We were able to do some wandering around the city, but quickly realized that all the streets look the same, with either more or less traffic. The farther we got into downtown, the more hectic it got. Melisa compared it to the streets in Delhi, minus all the squatting old ladies. Everywhere we went people had peach and mandarin trees strapped to the back of their motorcycles and people where frantically doing their last minute shopping in preparation for all their New Year visitors.

Tet in Vietnam is mostly a family celebration. The elders give the children money, same as Chinese New Years, and the children all get new clothes to look presentable for the New Year and for family gatherings. Everything will be closed, there are very few parties, and everyone will be traveling out to the country to visit family.

Nonetheless, wandering got old fast and we turned to planning mode and headed back to our room to book my ticket to Bangkok and Melisa planned for what she’s going to do when I head back to Bangkok.

Headed to Ha Long without a plan:

So Ha Long turned out to be just as dead, if not more, than Ha Noi. There was seriously only one person around booking tickets for boat tours and the group we were with was trying to do everything on the super cheap, so denied her. Melisa and I were seriously considering ditching the group, whom we were getting weird vibes from anyway, to take the $60 two day tour through the bay.

Following the group turned out to be the worst idea, considering that apparently a couple of them decided that they wanted to ditch us and essentially told us so.

“We’re already a big group, planning is hard enough as it is, plus this is our last few nights in Asia together… so…”

Whatever, we left the children and walked back towards the tourist wharf to take the lady up on her deal. Hopefully everything I’ve read about boat tours and friendly people doesn’t play out in our case, because this woman took us into her hotel for a good price, offered us the same price 2-day boat tour that she offered when we were in the group, and even found us a cab back to her hotel from the wharf. Kind of a relief after the slight disappointment of being ditched.

It’s been seriously cold here, and we’re probably going to catch hypothermia out on the boat tomorrow, but the view of the islands and the caves should be worth it. I have 6 more days before I’m headed somewhere warmer and with better health care, so if I do get sick I can worry less about it in Thailand.

Obviously I’m taking every precaution to stay as warm as possible (despite the fact that my only sweater is a ‘summer night’ long sleeve shirt, I’ll be doubling up with Melisa’s cardigan and scarves). I seriously don’t want to get sick when I settle into classes.

Even if we do end up on the same boat as the Aussie douchebags, we’ll make the best of it and enjoy our trip. We are the older and more mature people of the bunch anyway, so we’ll prove it.

UPI’S and KPI’S – Constantly Updated!

I’m generally a very clutzy person and bruise like a peach. The day I arrived at the Sanctuary, I picked up some slang for “Unknown Party Injuries” and “Known Party Injuries” or U.P.I and K.P.I. I also always have a wealth of mystery bruises, too many to catalogue. Reminded by a couple friends back home […]

Living, Eating and Walking like a Laos Khmu Villager

So we arrived in Luang Prabang the other day after the most beautiful drive through the mountains, and settled in to a hotel around 9, only to realize that everything closes at 11pm. So Laos culture (which we were NOT exposed to in Vang Vieng) follows pretty close to daylight hours. Because most Laos people are used to living in villages (80% of the population still lives in one) with limited electricity, and working in fields during the day, they are used to living and working between sunrise and sunset.

So despite being in a full-on city, there is nothing to eat and no shops open past 11pm. That’s lucky for us old ladies because by the time night fell we were too exhausted to stay out anyway and headed to our room to Facebook and sleep.

On our second day in town, we woke up early to join a couple other girls for a trek through the mountains and a few Hmong and Khmu villages by a guide who we later learned had been a monk for 11 years.

The trek, also known as the first time I ever experienced heat stroke, lasted about 7.5 hours. Most of it was uphill, all of it was beautiful.

Walking through the villages and seeing the children laughing and playing with each other was heartwarming. All the kids came out to smile at us and yell, “Sabaidee” (Hello) before running away shy.

By the time we got to our homestay in Hou Fai for the night everyone was thoroughly exhausted (me especially, Melisa has a video of my final words taken somewhere in the hills). We showered with a bucket (the cold water was seriously refreshing, but the first bucket caused every single girl to hit operatic notes), and wandered around the village before sitting down for a dinner of chicken stir fry and sticky rice.

Also in the village was the most adorable 5 month old monkey whose mother had been killed. The villagers had taken it in and fed it rice and bananas, but the only thing the poor thing wanted was to be held and cuddled. She would jump from one person to another, but once she found a warm, comfortable spot, you would have to pry her hands off of your clothing.

The next day, we sat around the fire for breakfast with the local people, men who would walk past and warm themselves for a minute by the fire as well as an old lady who tended the fire and won Melisa’s heart.

After breakfast, we headed back onto the trail for another hour to get to the Tad Sea waterfalls where we had intended on swimming. Once we got there, however, the water was so shallow that it wouldn’t make sense to even sit in the water, let alone swim. The falls were truly beautiful though, surrounded by huge trees that the sun was shining through. It was beautiful to sit and relax listening to the sound of the water flowing. (I forgot how relaxing that was! The Sanctuary in Thailand feels like ages ago.)

Off to the side, there were some elephants that were part of the elephant sanctuary where we started the trip. We bought some sugar cane and bananas and fed them, picking favourites and rubbing their trunks. I seriously love elephants, their sheer size and the way they turn their head to look you right in the eye kind of makes my heart skip a beat. We met a girl at the bus station in Chiang Mai who talked about the elephant sanctuary that she went to in Thailand where they played videos of how elephants are mistreated and their spirits broken in order to be a more obedient worker, and just hearing the story seriously broke my heart. If I had $20,000 I would buy a work elephant and donate it to one of these sanctuaries that actually takes care of them and loves them and lets them live relatively wild.

After the heartbreak of the chained elephants, The real fun began. I’m not sure why water sports are the most appealing to me, but anything in, on, or around water makes me happy. We kayaked down the Nham River, falling in only once when Melisa and I got out of hand with our coordinated paddling.

After another day back in Luang Prabang walking around the city, watching the sunset from the top of the temple on the hill, and eating another buffet dinner at the night market for 10,000 Kip ($1.25) we called it an early night. Mostly because we were quickly running out of Kip, partly because we were still exhausted from our trekking and kayaking the day before. It was a work-out with a view.

From Chiang Mai to Vang Vieng

Leaving Pai resulted in three nervous breakdowns and an almost fist fight between a Thai woman and a Turkish woman. We watched a bus come and people start getting on it, and thought that our tickets reserved our spot. Rookie mistake. We didn’t realize that we were supposed to check-in and double check in to reserve our spot on the bus. So, while the bus was full and sitting there we were pleading our case about all the connections we had to make and then one woman said the next bus was coming at 4:00. Since it was currently 2:00 and the three of us had connections with the hour upon arriving in Chiang Mai we were all slightly stressed out. After the time miscommunication and some frantic screaming, we were assured that there was a bus coming within 20 minutes.

After finally getting on the bus and getting to Chiang Mai, I narrowly avoided a possibly very public and very emotional goodbye and we plopped down our bags, checked our watch and headed off for dinner.

Notice a step missing?

We didn’t check in at the desk. So for the second time that day, we didn’t check in. Not until we noticed another large group of people with their passports at the desk did we realize that we were going to miss another bus, so we went up and handed our passports over and got our names on the list for the next bus.

Eventually the bus left, what was supposed to be 7:00 turned into 8:30, but we were on the road.

Driving down a Thai highway is a lot like driving down any highway unless you see the road signs. We could have been anywhere in the world. So we just cuddled up and tried to sleep through countless 7-11 bathroom stops and 4 loud girls from New Zealand in the back.

The border was uneventful; we filled out our departure cards, got our passports stamped and Visa’s issued and we were on our way. We were surprised at how pricey the Visa was since we had read on the internet that it was $35US, but we had to pay 1,800 Baht. We took a Songthaew into Vientienne where we waited for a big bus to take us on to Vang Vieng. This time we were prepared to jump on that bus as soon as it arrived to ensure our spot.

The ride into Vang Vieng was beautiful, through villages and up and down mountain sides. Many times the driver had to stop and honk at cows and goats to move out of the road. In many places the paved road gave out to gravel and I learned later that it’s because the roads are new, but they’re not paved properly, so every time there is a big rainfall, it washes out the road.

Arriving was such a relief, we had picked a place to stay out of Melisa’s book and grabbed our bags and headed out in search of it. However, since Vang Vieng is known as a party town because of the tubing down the river and bucket drinks, everything that was remotely cheap and clean seemed booked so we just grabbed a room at an upper class place with the most wonderful view in the world.

After hitting the bank machine to get some KIP ($1 = 7,800 KIP! I’m a millionaire!!) and dropping off some laundry, we proceeded to grab something to eat and drink. And so the night begins. Almost immediately, we met one of the adopted locals, an American who has been coming back here for 9 years to teach English, give Chiropractic care to the people here and run a restaurant in town. They actually completed an adoption ceremony to accept him into the family that consisted of the sacrifice of a couple chickens, a lot of candles and a shaman, and n ow most of the town calls him “poppa.” Him and his partner fed us Lao Lao, essentially Laotian moonshine, and we were able to ask him all our questions and they took us on a tour of the towns best bars. We were thoroughly upset by the 19-year old crowd (or younger?!?!) and called it an early night. Also, exhaustion and drinking hard liquor don’t mix very well. The crowd here seem to be as rowdy and reckless as the Haad Rin crowd that we constantly made fun of at Haad Tien, except that here there is a constant stream of people coming and going and the party continues every day of the week.

The weirdest thing about this town is that every other restaurant plays Friends on the big screens. So they have the low tables and mattresses on the ground with pillows for relaxing, as one would expect at a truly Lao restaurant, but restaurants side by side play continuous episodes day in and day out. On a day like today, with the rain coming down so hard that you don’t really want to be anywhere else, it was a simple comfort to sit on the internet, beer by my side and an episode of Friends for background noise.

Popa told us that the reason for this is that one bar started playing it one year, and everyone flocked to it because it was so random. Other business owners saw their success and followed suit and started doing it to the point that if you’re sitting on the patio, you can hear three different episodes playing simultaneously. Some have swayed a little and started playing Family Guy or South Park, but for the most part Friends is the staple.

One of the things I love about Melisa is that she absolutely loves animals. Of all kinds. But today we saw a poor dog that had a limp and her heart just broke. Heading over to cuddle it and give it some love the poor thing whimpered while it was trying to sit down. The owner kind of shrugs and says that it got hit by a mini-bus. So for the next half hour, she’s asking everyone around if there’s a vet or animal clinic around somewhere that she can take the dog to so that his leg could get fixed. Alas, there is nothing close at all, and most people tried to send us to the hospital, so I had to take her mind off of it before she broke down into tears. Sometimes animal culture shock can be the hardest reality there is to face. (Popa also told us that if the people here have a particularly bad year as far as tourism goes, the dogs are the first thing that they turn to for food… And I thought they didn’t do that here!!)

Since the rain started today instead of a trek that we had planned to do in the mountains, we’re going to head into Luang Prabang tomorrow, where we’re hoping to trek and spend a night in a Northern village. I’ve come to learn that planning and expecting things while traveling can really only be done from each location you’re at. So I’ll have to book my ticket back to Bangkok, but until then we’re going to take every day as it comes and play by ear.