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The Slooooooooooow Boat to Luang Prabang

After leaving spending Christmas in Chiang Mai, we were determined to get to Laos to ring in 2011. So of course we took the slowest way possible. Over the course of three days, we traveled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos by a combination of bus and a slow boat (not to mention pick-up trucks, songtheaws, and a “ferry”). They call it the slow boat because it involves two very long days of cruising on the Mekong River, as opposed to the fast boat that makes the trip in a zippy six hours but requires motorcycle helmets and a potential death wish. Here’s how it all went down:

Day One: Ride what is a serious contender for our worst bus yet from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong on the border. The ride was at least seven hours and I spent all seven of those hours smooshed in between Sean on my left and a Thai boy on my right because why have four seats across when you can have five? I’m certain the Thai boy had to be upset with his dumb luck getting stuck next to the two ginormous Westerners but these seats weren’t even wide enough for five Thai people to sit comfortably. Of course there was obnoxiously loud music; it is Southeast Asia, after all.

Day Two: First leg of the slow boat. On the first leg, you alternate between, this sucks and this is awesome. They say it is easy to meet new people on the slow boat to Luang Prabang and it is true; misery loves company. Shortly after departing from the border, we met our German counterparts, Rod and Lizzy, who we ended up traveling with for the better part of two weeks.  Besides meeting new friends, the first leg is characterized by consumption of Beer Lao and daydreaming while gazing at the Mekong. The views are fantastic, but the seats are not. Unless you arrived at least three hours early to grab the “premium” seats (i.e., old car seats), you were stuck sitting on a “handcrafted” bench. I’m not sure what would be worse – extending the already long day by three whole hours or sitting on the benches, which are basically two narrow pieces of wood nailed to each other in a crude fashion. I really don’t know whose butt would fit on those things, but my first impression of the Lao people is that they are even smaller than the Thais so maybe it is possible that a Laotian butt would fit. If you are considering taking the slow boat, B.Y.O.C. is a must. Your butt will thank you.

Day Three: After spending the night in Pakbeng freezing in a room with a broken window, and being very confused as to why we could see our breath in the tropics, we board the slow boat for the second leg. Of course all of the “premium” seats were gone, so we snagged our own wooden bench and waited for the boat to depart. As with day one, the slow boat doesn’t leave anywhere near the time it is supposed to. Our first introduction to Laos: the land of hurry up and wait.

We sat there, getting more and more hemmed in by the never ending stream of backpackers boarding the boat, and wondering how in the hell they are going to fit all of those people. Just when you thought another person couldn’t possibly fit, someone else who slept in would straggle down the hill. I’m not sure exactly how many people filled the boat, but at one approximate count it was over 100. Here’s the thing; on the first boat leg, they split the group into two boats, but on the second leg, they put everyone on the same boat. By the time we pulled away from shore, we were down to one bench and a small space on the floor. Within the hour, Sean was sharing his bench with a local and I had to sit cross-legged in an increasingly shrinking floor space.

Remember how I wondered earlier how they could possibly fit any more people? I must have thought that at least twenty more times over the course of the day. You would think, after adding person after person after person, all of whom were toting luggage, cargo, rice sacks, and chickens, that I would learn that there’s always more room in Lao.

To sum it up, the second leg was characterized by discomfort, boredom, stir-craziness, horror at the guy on our boat who insisted on sticking his camera right in the locals’ faces as they boarded the boat, shivers, a headache from the previous day’s Beer Lao, and many thoughts of are-we-there-yet-for-the-love-of-all-that’s-holy-and-divine.

My Two Cents

If you wish to subject yourself to the three day journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, here’s some tips, for whatever they’re worth:

- Although everyone on both sides of the border will try to convince you otherwise, there’s no need to book any of the transport as part of a package. In December, the high season, we bought the bus tickets at the bus station (but we did have to wait for three hours before the bus left) and we bought the boat tickets straight from the boat operator (located on the left of the path leading down to the slow boats).

- I’m serious about bringing your own cushion, unless you are able to snag a premium seat (which requires getting there as much as three hours early, according to some girls who did just that). Don’t skimp and go without the cushion, even though they work out to be almost $4. They may be cheaper in the center of Chiang Khong of Huay Xuay, but we didn’t pass by these areas so we snagged them on the path leading down to the slow boat.

- Beer Lao gets progressively more expensive the closer you get to the boat, teaching us that perhaps communist countries aren’t quite so communist after all. Beer Lao is normally about 10,000 kip, but we paid 15,000 at a restaurant close to the dock. The beer is chilled on the boat, but it will cost you anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 from the boat operator depending on what they feel like charging.

- There’s no food for sale on the boat other than some chips and ramen noodles, so bring some snacks and water. Our guesthouse in Chiang Khong boxed up fried rice for us for the first leg and we bought some Nutella and baguette sandwiches from a stand in Pakbeng.

- In December, Laos can be chilly (see comment about shivers, above), and that goes double for cruising on the river. Dress in layers.

- Accommodation in Chiang Khong and Pakbeng leave a lot to be desired. The owner of Baan Rimtaling Guesthouse meets the bus with her pick up truck. It was late, so we ended up piling in the back with others from our bus. Our room, in the “Ghost” house portion of the property, had a lovely sagging bed and a shared bathroom past the woodpile outside, but at least it was only 200 baht ($6.67 USD). Since everyone empties off the slow boat at once, our plan was to have one of us book it up the hill to try to snag a decent room while the other grabbed our backpacks. But anxieties over horror stories we’d heard about rats in the rooms in Pakbeng and exhaustion caused us to pre-book a room with a guesthouse with decent reviews on Travelfish (Villa Salika) from a guy on the boat. As mentioned, the room came with a broken window, which was fabulous with the chilly weather, and also had a majorly leaking toilet to boot. At least no rats were spotted. Anyone associated with the guesthouse disappears after you check in so you’re pretty much out of luck if you have any problems. I wish I could say the room was cheap but we way overpaid by pre-booking (500 baht, about 17 USD). Since we got our room in advance, I’m not sure if the hunt for accommodation was as bad as people make it out to be online.

- Remember, your experience on the slow boat could vary depending on the number of travelers, whether it is rainy or dry season, and the particular boat you end up on. You can research the trip all you want, but it is the type of thing that comes down to a big fat depends.

- Would we take the slow boat again? I’m not sure. There’s really no good option. Three days of bus rides sounds just as unappealing if not more and of course flying is expensive, although I’d jump on that flight in a heartbeat if we weren’t on a budget. The three day, two night slow boat experience is just that, an experience, with lovely views to boot, although I think a guy on our boat said it best: the slow boat is one of those things that royally sucks while you’re doing it and only becomes legendary later.

You know the bus is crowded when you can't even get a proper photo showing just how crowded it was.

First view of Laos from across the border in Thailand. Isn't she a beaut?

Slow boats, all ready to go. We saw ones that were really pimped out, but of course both of the boats we ended up on were nothing of the sort. If someone could solve the mystery of how exactly one gets on premium transport in Southeast Asia, please let me know. Right now I'm convinced they're just for show to torture you.

Sean, with his game face on.

One of my 4,000 photos while cruising along the Mekong.

Sean chatting with Rod and Lizzy, leg one.

It is true that Beer Lao makes the boat ride better, until you have to pee in the tiny on-board bathroom.

All Mekong, all the time.

The other slow boat, leg one.

There may not be a fancy dock but at least the tourists can usually get off the boat without wading in the river or climbing sand hills, unlike the locals.

At some of the boat stops, it seemed like the whole village would come to greet the boat. These little Laotians could care less about the boat and just had fun tumbling down the sandy silted riverbank.

Leg two. There's a chicken in that carrying case.

More people? Sure, why not?

As soon as the boat dropped him off, this Lao guy commenced smoking his bong on the riverbank.

Love that magical golden glow, but why aren't we there yet?

Rice paddies on the riverbank ALMOST in Luang Prabang.

Our reward for three days of travel: we arrived just in time for sunset on the Mekong.

Scenes from Chiang Mai

All in all, we spent 18 days in Chiang Mai, between taking care of business, Sean’s trip to the hospital, and Christmas.  On what turned out to be our actual last day in Chiang Mai (as opposed to the days we thought were our last days before we got waylaid), Sean twisted his ankle so bad we contemplated going back to Chiang Mai Ram Hospital.  At that point, we were starting to think it was a sign that we should just move in somewhere.  Luckily, Sean’s ankle was okay after some ice so we got out before something else happened.  But not before taking tons of pictures…

I can't really think of anything else one might need. Yep, Chiang Mai clearly has been "discovered."

Khao soy - red curry, coconut milk, meat and veggies, egg noodles, and fried egg noodles. A delicious northern specialty.

The river in Chiang Mai, as taken as we walked off our khao soy to make room for cheesecake.

Mango cheesecake at Love at First Bite, a bakery owned by a Thai couple who learned how to bake in the United States. Love at first bite, indeed.

Mango and sticky rice. Delicious, whether on the street or all fancy-like. I'm sensing a mango theme to this post.

Iced mocha at Akha Amma coffee cafe. The cafe is a bit out of the way but that's all the more reason to go. Akha Amma is leading the way for fair trade and organic coffee in Thailand. We would have loved to check out their coffee plantation in Chiang Rai, but the dates didn't coincide with our visit to Northern Thailand.

Another reason to check out Akha Amma - gorgeous flowers in their outdoor garden.

My favorite smoothie at Dada Cafe, aptly named "My Favorite Smoothie." Mango, passion fruit, pineapple, and homemade yogurt. I can't tell you how many of these I consumed during our time in Chiang Mai.

The market by the Chiang Mai gate, where we ate dinner on the cheap many a night. Hmmm...this post is turning out to be all about food.

Pad thai from the street vendor on the other side of town.

Nimmanhaemin road - the best place to get away from the tourists and frog ladies. The neighborhood, which is not too far from the university, is filled with trendy shops, restaurants, and clubs.

Speaking of Nimmanhaemin Road, it is where we ended up spending Christmas. The cafe where we ate Christmas dinner was full of locals NOT eating Christmas dinner. Despite this, we thought this balloon popping contest was a Christmas celebration, given that it was next to a Christmas tree, but it turns out it was to celebrate the cafe's anniversary. This is me, kicking butt. I popped three balloons with one dart to win a stuffed puppy.

After dinner, we took our new travel companion out for some dessert. Turns out Puppy likes cheesecake.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, all of the tourists can be found at the Sunday Night Market. But so can lots of locals. The streets are stuffed to the gills during the Sunday Market, but the energy gives you a buzz, the street food is cheap and tasty, and some of the stuff for sale might actually be things you actually want. (I broke months of no jewelery purchases to buy a really nice stone handcrafted necklace that could easily go for 4 to 5 times as much at home).

You didn't think we'd leave Chiang Mai without taking a cooking class, did you? It's practically mandatory but also super fun. Here's Chef Sean, grinding up some curry.

Chiang Mai: The End.

Chatting with Monks

Sometimes, I’ll come across something in our guidebook or on the internet that sounds like a cool idea. I’ll think to myself, hmmm, that sounds like a cool idea. But then I’ll never do anything to execute the idea because it either requires more effort than wandering around or involves too many unknowns. Every once in a while I’ll get in the mood to make something happen. Which is how I ended up sitting around, chatting with a bunch of monks about Buddhism and life and such.

It really involved very little effort, but the description in Lonely Planet was slightly on the vague side. It only mentioned that certain temples held monk chats to allow foreigners to find out more about Buddhism and to allow the monks to practice their English. Because I am rather on the uptight side and not adventurous by any means (traveling the world notwithstanding), this left a lot of unanswered questions in my mind. Do I have to schedule an appointment? Or do you just show up? If you’re just supposed to show up, what do I do when I get there? Do I just find any monk and say, monk, do you want to chat?

Yeah. I way overanalyze things, I know. I would be a bad Buddhist.

Turns out you do just sort of show up. The temple I visited was only a few streets away from our guesthouse, and they have a designated area for the monk chatting. Monks who are feeling chatty sit over there and strike up conversations. My first monk was a rather shy fellow, leading to lots of awkward silences. From him, I learned the basics of monkdom. All Thai men must serve a period of monkhood. Most do it around age 21, but some voluntarily because novices at a younger age. The men don’t have to serve for long periods, but many decide to stay monks for several years. Monks must leave their families behind in the villages and come to live in either a forest temple or city temple. They wear varying shades of orange, yellow, red or brown depending on what temple they are from. Monks get up early to chant in the temples, and only eat the alms donated by others.

My second monk, on the other hand, was born to chat. Good thing he didn’t take a vow of silence. From him, I learned that monks must shave all body hair, including their eyebrows. Funny how I never noticed before he mentioned it, especially since the eyebrow shaving scenes in the Wall and on the Sopranos by Anthony Jr. really freaked me out. He told me about how monks are not supposed to play sports or exercise, but he sneaks a few push-ups everyday to stay fit. He gets up at 4:00 every morning, but doesn’t usually go to bed until midnight. He doesn’t see a need for any more sleep.

Either sensing my slightly aimless state in life or just the type of monk to not let the chat end without imparting a few words of wisdom, the second monk decided to talk Buddhism with me. If you have a problem, said the monk, solve it. And there’s no sense worrying about the past, because it already happened. Nor should you worry about the future, because it isn’t here yet. Focus on the present, the monk said, for it is the only thing you can control.

Wise words.

Good afternoon, Vietnam.

It’s a New Country Day and we arrived in Vietnam a few hours ago.  We hear Vietnam is pretty wired, which is good because I haven’t had the chance to post much due to a combination of being on the move and not having the best internet.  But I won’t be on Facebook for the next three weeks or so, courtesy of the Vietnamese government.  They better not block the Super Bowl!

Olifants, Revisited: A Day at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai

Elephants are awesome. They are huge, but don’t flaunt it; they are vegetarian after all. They’ve got the whole tusk and trunk thing going on that other animals don’t have. They have (relatively) smaller babies who look like little mini-me versions of their parents. And they stick together. We enjoyed watching elephants so much during our safari in Kruger National Park, we wanted some more elephant action while we were in Thailand. We came to the right place – elephants have held a special place in Thai culture for centuries.

Visits to elephant parks in Chiang Mai are big business; it is practically mandatory for vistors to hang out with elephants in some way, shape, or form. But not all elephant parks are created equal. Some exist solely for the tourist’s entertainment and the owners’ pocketbooks. In those types of places, elephants dance, give rides, and even paint pictures. Others exist solely for the elephants, and the tourists’ entertainment is a secondary byproduct or a means to support the elephants. Elephant Nature Park seems to be one of the latter places.

I first learned about the Elephant Nature Park from Jessica and Tim over at Hedgehogs Without Borders. Their one day at the park turned into three which turned into seven whole weeks! They even returned to Thailand from the United States to adopt their dog Belly and bring him home from the jungle heat to the snow of New England. (Sadly, Belly passed away earlier this year). Jessica and Tim’s enthusiasm for the park and its mission was contagious, and when I read about Bessie and Kyle’s experience over at On Our Own Path, I was totally sold and signed us up for a day at the park.

We spent the day hanging around the elephants and learning their stories. The parks serves as a sanctuary and rescue center for elephants, and many of them were abused before they came to the park. Although I had the best of intentions to remember all of the elephants’ names and their stories, as usual, I failed miserably. Luckily, I had a cheat sheet. We met and learned about Jokia. Before she came to live at the Elephant Nature Park, the logging company who owned her forced her to work during her entire pregnancy. While she was at the top of a hill, pulling heavy logs, she delivered her baby and the baby rolled down the hill away from her. Her mahout wouldn’t allow her to go to the baby. Jokia, depressed over the loss of her baby, protested by refusing to work over the next several weeks. In return, her mahout slung rocks in her eyes with a slingshot, rendering her completely blind. We met and learned about Hope, an orphaned elephant so named after the founder of the park gained Hope’s trust and taught him to become a gentler elephant through non-aggressive methods. We met and learned about Lilly, an elephant who was forced to work under the influence of methamphetamines, so she could have the stamina to work all day on trekking expeditions and all night pulling logs. We learned about elephants that are forced to put on a happy show for tourists but beaten behind the scenes. We learned about elephants who are forced to roam Thailand’s city streets so that tourists and others will buy bananas and feed them for money, while they rock back and forth from the stress of being out of their element.

During our day at the park, we fed the elephants (watermelon is their favorite but they also need their veggies). We got right in the river and bathed the elephants (and watched them dirty themselves promptly thereafter). We were reminded that elephants are still wild animals (when one of the babies ran away from her protective mother who was determined to not let her own of her sight).  I even got kissed by an elephant (which turns out to be a rather wet and smelly experience). And, as an educational bonus, we learned by firsthand experience exactly how big an elephant schlong is (really big, in fact. Really, really big).

Each elephant has his or her own personality, and spending a day up close and personal with these fantastic animals was definitely a highlight of our Thai travels.

Elephants eat. A lot.

Applying natural sunscreen.

We knew something was amiss by the sound of our guide yelling, Baby running! Baby running!

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