Monday, May 9, 2011

Stay tuned for more!!!

Sorry its been so long since we've posted our adventures.  After leaving Chiang Mai, we had 2 days in Bangkok, flew to Hong Kong stayed a few more days there and then crossed into mainland China.  China definately practices censorship!!!  We couldn't access our blogspot, Facebook, search for jobs in the States, or book airline tickets on American carriers.  I couldn't even watch the royal wedding!!!  It was so frustrating when you are used to having information at your fingertips.

I have several more blogs to post in the coming days to update everyone on our past adventures.  Currently, I'm writing this from a little store in Busan, South Korea.  We jumped on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Beijing and that will be our ride home.  We have one more port of call in Vladivostok, Russia, before the boat begins its trans-Pacific crossing.  We arrive back into real life on May 21 via Anchorage. 


Chiang Mai, Thailand (April 7-13)

We left Luang Namtha in the morning via tuk-tuk for the bus station.  We had purchased our tickets the night before from the same travel agency we had booked our hike through.  So when our tuk-tuk pulled up to the bus station and the driver pointed at the already packed bus, we knew we had a long day ahead of us.  This bus was so packed there was no way that we were going to fit on.  However, since we had pre-purchased tickets, we got seats and people that had planned to buy tickets on board, had to get off the bus and wait for the next bus to depart.  This bus ride was pretty much like the rest of the bus rides, hot, bumpy, and mostly uncomfortable, although it was made a little bit more interesting by the caged bamboo rat that was by the door.  It would hiss as you got on and off the bus during stops.

We made it to the boarder and sadly checked out Laos.  To get back to Thailand we had to take a long boat across the Mekong.   We got to the Thailand side found that we had missed the public bus for Chiang Mai and would have to get into a minibus if we wanted to make it that night.  This minibus turned out to be worth the money.  Not only was it nice and the air-con worked really well, but we only had to share it with two other people.  We arrived into Chiang Mai around 9 o-clock pm and then wandered the streets for a good hour or so before we found a cheap clean guesthouse to stay at.  The night guard had checked us in so in the morning I went to the front desk to pay and confirm that we could keep the room.  The guesthouse was completely booked for over a week due to Songkran, the Thai new year.  So we packed up our bags, stored them at the guesthouse and went to the Chinese consulate to apply for visas.

Before I go any farther, let me update you on our plans.  We planned to stay a couple of days in Chiang Mai, then Bangkok, fly to Hong Kong, travel in China for two weeks before jumping on a cruise ship in Beijing that ends in Anchorage.  We’re reached the bittersweet part of our trip; where it’s sad its coming to an end, but we’re starting to be excited to get home too. 

Anyways, we rented a couple of pedal bikes and rode to the Chinese consulate only to find out that they are closed until the following day because of some Chinese holiday.  So we pedaled back into towards where the guesthouses are and started another search for a place to stay.  We found a guesthouse with a really nice gentleman that ran it.  He filled us in on the Thai New Year.  It traditionally is the start of the rainy season and the Wats and temples hold ceremonies bathing their Buddhas with scented water (Buddha’s yearly bath time).  It also is a time for celebrating and the streets turn into a huge water fight.  Originally, we weren’t planning on staying for so long in Chiang Mai, but we decided to stay for almost eight days to experience Songkran first hand.. 

Chiang Mai can really grow on you in eight days…. We made it to the Chinese consulate, turned in our paperwork and received our visas about six days later.  We took a Thai cooking course from a professional chef.  He also took us on a  market tour.  This was very informative as he explained the different ingredients in Thai cooking and he also explained what we could use as substitutes if things weren’t available at home.  Jeff and I also learned what we had been eating some of the bowls of noodle soup we had.  In some soups, there would be brown chunks that had tofu like consistency. We were fairly confident it wasn’t organ meat, but it turns out it was steamed chicken blood.  I’m glad I didn’t know that before I tried it!  During our cooking course, we made Pad Thai, chicken with cashew nuts, banana spring rolls, tom-yum soup, and a yellow curry dish.  It was a great evening!

On another day we did a tour called Flight of the Gibbon.  It’s about a 45 minute drive out Chiang Mai, and is a series of zip lines strung in the jungle canopy.  I’m scared of heights and was nervous as our guides fitted us with harness and went through the safety briefing.  The first platform you come to is a short line and it was pretty easy just to sit back in the harness and let go.  That being said I screamed on almost every line!  The longest line was 850 meters long and the fastest line was about 550 meter long.  It was a lot of fun flying through the jungle and we did see three gibbons.  There was a black male and a tan female carrying a baby. 

We spent a day lounging by a hotel pool and another day wandering around Chiang Mai looking at the Wats and temples.  On Sunday, Chiang Mai has a Sunday walking street market.  They close one of the main roads and the street becomes lined with market stalls, food stalls, and places to get a cheap foot massage.  The fruit smoothies and street noodles were awesome! 

Songkran (the new year) didn’t officially start on Wednesday April 13, but starting on Monday if you didn’t want to get splashed or wet, you didn’t go outside.  In fact the drier you were the bigger the target on your back.  Jeff and I bought some water cannons and buckets and were armed to protect ourselves.  On Tuesday, we spent our time in the main square and shot water at anyone that walked by.  The streets were packed and everyone was wet.  There were refill stations at  every store doorway; the shop owners would fill up barrels or garbage cans with hoses.  It really was the biggest water fight I’ve ever seen let alone been in!In the evenings for Songkran, the city would shut down the same street that the Sunday night walking market was held on.  Here Jeff and I stuffed ourselves full of noodle soup, pad thai, sushi, fresh fruit smoothies, and all other sorts of yummy street food.

The next day, we spent on a side street from the main square.  We hung out at a bar that had a huge container of water to refill our weapons at.  Pick-up trucks would drive by with people piled in the back, slow down as they approached the bar, and then the water started to fly.  Sometimes, the water in the trucks would be ice cold and would quite a shock as a it hit you.  Another favorite target were the tuk-tuks as they came whizzing down the street.  If you timed it right, you could a full bucket on water dumped right onto the passengers!  We spent the afternoon engaged the water festival, ate some delicious street food and hopped on a night train to Bangkok.  Bye northern Thailand!

Me flying through the jungle

J doing a pretty good job of freaking me out on the zipline

Sunday walking market in Chiang Mai

The first bucket of water thrown for the Thai new year

Jeff getting ready for battle

Direct Hit!

Happy Songkran!

Luang Namtha, Loas (April 2-April 6)

We arrived into Luang Namtha and booked a 3 day-2 night trekking trip in the jungle of Northern Laos.   The area is inhabited by 20 different ethnic tribes and there is a lot of focus on eco-tourism.  So the money we paid for our trip was broken down into what the travel company would receive, what the guides were paid, how much each village received, what went to the national preserve, and so forth.  

In the morning we met our group, which totaled 12 people, including our two guides. Thai and Sedeep were our two guides, who bravely lead us into the jungle. There was Jeff, Leah, and I plus one other American named TJ.  There were three Israelis, Ita, Maayan, and Noa. Two Italians, who really confused me because they spoke a German deltaic and are a minority in Italy, Peter and Celica .  And rounding out the group, was Pacome from southern France.   To get to the trail head, we took about a 45 minute tuk-tuk ride and then our guides had to ferry us across a small river by a bamboo raft.  The rafts could only accommodate two other people besides the guide, so it took a little time for all of us to reach the other side.  Then our march began.  It was a fairly nice trail that wove in and out of a bamboo jungle. At some spots along the trail, we would see locals digging up bamboo shoots to sell at market. Up and down hills we went in the muggy hot weather.  We stopped for lunch at a little hut after several hours.  While our guides, cut down banana leaves to use as tablecloths and bowls, people were wringing the sweat out of their clothes.  Lunch was eaten with our hands and consisted  a curry dish, a tomato dish, and sticky rice.  After several more hours of hiking, we reached another river with a village on the other side that would be our home for the night.  Once again, our group was ferried across the river via bamboo raft, but this time a boy of about ten was the skipper. 

Once reaching the other side, we were greeted by the little kids of the village.  Leah, who had taught English in China, sang the ‘head-shoulders-knees-n-toes’ song with them both fast and slow.  The kids giggled through most of it.  A couple of little boys really enjoyed playing and laughing as TJ teased them.  Jeff went down stream little bit where the men of the village were fishing and tried his luck with them.  He did not end up with a very exciting fish story… The only one he brought to shore was the dead one he plucked out of the net and it wasn’t a very big.  Everyone else sat and swam in the river and just relaxed.  The villlage was very peaceful and it was nice to just soak it in.  Evening seemed to be the time when the ladies and children came down to the river to bath and wash clothes as the men fished.

Thai and Sedeep showed us to where we would stay of the night.  It was a little house, more or less in the middle of the village.  It was built on a platform like the rest of the houses, had bamboo floors, a metal roof, and the walls were made of woven strips of bamboo.  It had one main room and a small kitchen off to the side and an outhouse in the back.  Although, it was a traditional house, no family lived here; it was built for trekkers , like us, to stay at for the night.  After a long day of hiking, everyone was craving a Beer Lao.  We weren’t sure if we were going to find any, but we lucked out at the little general ‘store’.   The village was on a road and recently in past couple of months had electricity supplied to it, so not only was there Beer Lao, but it was cold too!  The group sat around, enjoying our beers, exchanging smiles and greetings with the local people.  The little boys ended up getting into a hide ‘n seek chase with TJ and one of the little girls sat on the bench next to us, shyly holding her little baby brother. 

In the space next to the store, the villagers were in the process of moving a large pile of dirt to another area.  The women were shoveling dirt into the wheel-barrels and the older children would cart it away.  TJ, Jeff, Ita, Peter, Thai, and several others from our group got their hands dirty as well by helping shovel and cart the dirt away. 

Dinner was served on the floor of our little house and was delicious.  While the women had been out shoveling the dirt away, the a few men of the village had been in our little kitchen cooking us a wonderful meal.  After dinner, the rice wine was brought out.  The rice is fermented in a pottery jar and drank with bamboo straws, like LaoLoa it must be an acquired taste!  At bedtime, mats were laid out on the floor with mosquito nets and we slept peacefully. 

In the morning, we were woken up the roosters, chickens, and pigs rooting around under the house.  Thai look us on a tour of the village and showed us where the villagers were building a new house and where their grain store houses were.  The most beautiful experience was watching the villagers go about their everyday lives; feeding livestock, cooking meals, washing clothes, and visiting with each other.   After breakfast of eggs, spicy noodles, and sticky rice, we were off.  We walked along the road for about a kilometer and then it was off into the jungle again.  Just before lunch, we stopped a waterfall and saw a big eight hundred year old tree.  Lunch was severed in a little hut on banana leaves and we were able to try some bamboo shoots that we had seen being dug up the day before.  They taste a little bitter, and weren’t my favorite, but the rest of the food was wonderful.  Everyone ate their fill, which some of us regretted because right after lunch, we hiked up 400 meter hill.  It was hot, and even more uncomfortable with a side ache, but we made it!  After the climb up the hill, we had to go down and then cross an agricultural area.  Slash and burn farming is very popular in Laos, and this area was drying up, waiting to be burned.  There was no shade and the sun was shining brightly.  It was a relief to finally see the little homestead we would be staying at for the night.

Unlike the previous night, we would be staying with a family just outside the village.  The was river nearby that we swam in and we were surprised to see that this family had their own little hydro-power system rigged up.  Their home was a series of several buildings.  The kitchen, store houses, and sleeping areas all had their own buildings, and us trekkers had our own building to sleep in. There were dogs, pigs, and chickens running around the yard.  The family killed two chickens for our dinner and TJ, who had never seen a chicken be killed, helped out.  After dinner, the elder male of the family brought out the ever famous  LaoLao and Sedeep, Thai and him took turns singing traditional songs while the rest of us clapped along.  It was a great evening. 

In the morning, we had breakfast (scrambled eggs with grated ginger might be my new favorite breakfast food) and we headed out.  The elder male had to wish us all a safe journey by toasting each of us with a shot of LaoLoa before we left…. He was back in bed before we left the courtyard; 12 shots of LaoLao is just too much!  We walked about 20 minutes before coming to main village.  The tribe that lived in the this village was very different from the other village.  The women all wore black clothing, with silver decorations in their hair and ears, and they were strikingly beautiful.  Their facial features were so different compared to the other peoples we had seen in Laos; almost more Chinese.  This village was not only know for weaving and dying their own cloth, but for making bamboo paper as well.  I bought a huge piece for 10,000 kip (about $1.25) for a future art project when I get home. 

We hiked about three or four more hours, before we came to the last river of the trip.  The group had a great time swimming and cooling down before walking up to the road where the tuk-tuk was to take us back to Luang Namtha.  Thai and Sedeep were wonderful guides and were so informative of their culture and of the villages we visited.    They made this trip spectacular and we’ll never forget their hospitality as they shared their country with us.

That night after we checked into our hotel for the night and cleaned up, we meet most of our hiking group for dinner and Beer Laos.  We also met back up with Mondona and Denise, the French couple we crossed from Thailand into Cambodia with over a month earlier.  They had spent their time in Vietman and it was great to catch up with their travels and give them some advice for traveling in Laos.  We ended the night as the restaurant ran out of Beer Lao and we said goodbye to our friends.  We said goodbye to Leah as well, who traveled into China the next day as we went the other way into Thailand.    

Lunch the first day

Leaving the first village morning of the second day
Hiking in the blazing hot jungle

Group photo

Locals in the last village we visited