Saturday, March 21, 2009

Random Musings

I'm stuck in the Taipei airport for 8 hrs and lucky for me they have free Internet access. Anyway, I definitely have a million thoughts about my month in Southeast Asia so maybe this post will be better as a list.

1. The sex trade is alive and well in SE Asia. I thought that it would be obvious in only Thailand, but unfortunately the business has made its way to Cambodia and Laos too. Walking down the street, you literally see dozens of ugly old white men with little Asian women. I've been trying not to judge it, but it's honestly such a gross thing to witness. Actually, on my snorkel trip there was a 40-ish yr old Russian man with his Thai girlfriend who we pegged as around 15 yrs old. Sick. Thailand especially is a glutton's paradise. There is so much debauchery here of all sorts that it's become a haven for all kinds of party loving expats. As most of you know, partying is not the reason I travel, so it really puts me off to be in a place where the hedonism is so obvious. It doesn't seem like the government in Thailand will ever try to stop the sex trade as it's such a large money maker here. Ugh.

2. Things I've learned: Not to inhale around large baskets as most likely it's awful smelling trash; I've become a squatter toilet pro; Keeping toilet paper in my pockets is second nature; My fear of bugs has diminished after several large cockroach sightings and even one stuck in my toiletry kit; Oh my, I've become a haggling pro

3. Best meals: 1. Grilled Whole Fish from a stall on the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, Laos: They literally stuff lemongrass in the mouth of the fish and marinate the skin in salt then grill the entire fish. So delicious! 2. Fish Amok in Cambodia: A Cambodian speciality. They bake local river fish in a banana leaf with a bunch of spices and it sort of tastes yellow curry-ish. I've developed a love for banana leaf packaging as well. Oh, for those going to Phnom Phen (I can finally spell the city name correctly now!) you must try a restaurant called Romdeng. It's run by a non-profit that employs and trains street kids. 3. Papaya Salad in Chiang Main, Thailand: I'll look up the place later, but it was a Lonely Planet recc. and was the best PS that I've ever had with lightly fried tofu... mmm. 4. Fruit Shake - everywhere! I've become an addict. 5. Beerlao, Laos: Not really a meal I suppose, but awesome, cheap beer. 6. Oh, and all of the street food here is genius. I fell in love with the chocolate waffle lady in Pai, Thailand, who makes hot choc. filled waffles on the spot. The street carts are really incredible and perhaps an idea to bring back to SF...?

4. Non-sequitor - Phnom Phen did grow on me the second time there. I learned that the best way to handle the city is to avoid being out during the peak heat hours and only stay away from you hotel respite for 2 hrs at at time. 2 hrs of using all of your energy to cross streets and dodge rogue traffic is definitely exhausting. The city does have a liveliness that is charming, and I guess from what I've heard, it's a quintessential bustling Asian city. I was def. ready to leave, but good experience.

5. This part of the world is cool in terms of "old culture" still being prevalent. I was told that most "modern" couples still visit a fortune teller before getting married in Cambodia to see if their relationship will work. The hill tribes are also still thriving in all countries. And, Laos is so charming because there's still an innocence of its "old ways" and a bit of naivety to the idea of capitalism. I've seen mountains, jungles, beaches, bustling cities, lots of rivers, and so much more which is awesome, in my opinion. Will I come back to this part of the world...? I do regret not seeing Northern Laos (there's supposedly some amazing National Park at the very top of Laos) and Southern Laos so I guess maybe I'd go back there, but I think I'm officially done with Cambodia and Thailand. The long bus rides are def. a challenge that you have be ready for in this region. Maybe Vietnam some other day, though after talking to so many travelers about their experiences there, Vietnam is no longer high on my list.

Alright, I think that's all for now. I caught my first stomach bug last night (just in time for my day of travel!) so need to go nurse that. It's not fun, but c'est la vie. And, I think it's awesome that I've eaten so much street food and this is the first sickness! I'm actually looking forward to being back in SF. This trip has felt satisfying. And, I'm looking forward to being out of the crazy heat! March is unbearably hot in Cambodia and parts of Thailand. And, the smoke from all the slash-and-burn farming that happens around this time of year in Northern Thailand sucked. Looking forward to some good, clean deep breaths of air :).

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Back to Cambodia

For my last week I've decided to be a bit bougie. I stayed in a $40 / night hotel called Funky Hut on the island of Ko Chang and it was literally like paradise. A secluded private beach where all you can hear is the waves, amazing service, and really nice owners who treat you like family. It was a treat to have a fancy room and 5-star service for only $40 a night! I had 1 mellow day to recover from my 24 hr journey to the island, 1 day of exploring the other coast of the island that is more developed than where I stayed, and 1 day of awesome snorkeling (though I got sea sick). I took a day long boat trip out to some islands that are about 18 k away from Ko Chang. The islands are surrounded by coral reefs so the wildlife was plentiful. I ended up hanging out with some of the diving instructors from the boat trip and had an adventurous night of a huge tropical rainstorm with the loudest thunder and lightening that I have ever heard. Very cool. Anyway, I left the island on Wed. to make my way back to Phenom Phen in Cambodia. I had to stay a night in the border town of Ko Kong, Cambodia, last night which was a bit sketchy (as all border towns are, I think) and made it back to PP this afternoon. I'm staying in another fancy place here for $40 night. A boutique hotel owned by a French couple called Blue Lime. It is tre swanky and so nice to have a pool in this hot city. Fly home on Saturday morning! Ekk!

Friday, March 13, 2009


Hmm, I guess it's been a bit since I last posted. I got to Chiang Mai in Thailand last Wednesday via plane from Laos. I ended up meeting a Canadian guy who is a mean harmonica player and getting taken to a local blues jam session at a nearby bar. Was an awesome little place with a friendly Thai owner and a mixed local and foreign crowd. The music was fantastic and definitely a nice surprise. They are super into reggae music here and it seems like all bands exclusively play cover tunes of reggae music. So, yah, live blues was rad. I can't say that I was too charmed by Chiang Mai. In fact, it's far from a beautiful city but I think it's a city that's meant to be experienced. There's a little bit of everything in the city which is kinda cool. I took a jewelry making course on Thursday, and for $30 I got a 1-on-1 lesson with a Thai silversmith and learned how to work with silver and got to design and produce my own pendant. Was a really cool class and I totally enjoyed the meditative aspect of jewelry making. The instructor was pretty rad too as he reminded me of Mr. Miyaji - he had a wispy beard and would come over and tell me 3 words like "Use More Pressure" and then disappear for like 20 min. On Friday I rented a bicycle to explore the city which is doable in a day - lots of temples etc. On Saturday I went on a "trek" that was pretty ridiculous. It spanned about 9 hours and during this time we went on an elephant ride, did some white water rafting, floated on a bamboo raft through the jungle, and met about 4 different hill tribes. It felt like a tour designed for those with ADD. Anyway, was a fun day all in all, but I was sort of hoping for a less touristy excursion when I signed up. I left Chiang Mai on Sunday for a small town 3 hrs north called Pai. I had read in the Lonely Planet that Pai is a sleepy riverside town that is a haven for musicians and artists so it seemed like it would be a town that I would love. And, lo and behold, it is. It's totally a place that I could get stuck in. $5 yoga classes in the morning, great organic food, bungalows with hammocks beside the river, easily navigable on foot, super friendly locals, live music every night... I met some folks on my bus ride and explored some nearby waterfalls / chilled with them for a few days. On Wed. I left for an overnight trek into the jungle close to the Burma border. We walked for about 4 hrs on Wed. and it was definitely challenging. Some super slippery terrain and lots of incline, but totally rewarding. We passed several rivers, waterfalls, and hill tribe villages. Wed. night we slept in a Lisu (name of the tribe) village in a family's hut and got to learn a lot about their way of life. Our guide cooked us an awesome dinner over a fire and then we slept on the hut's bamboo floors only to be interrupted by numerous animal sounds during the night (there were tons of chickens, cows, pigs, dogs, etc. roaming freely around the village). It seems like roosters don't just crow at dawn, it's all night long! Anyway, it was a pretty enlightening experience. There are still thousands of hill tribe villages scattered throughout Thailand. The people speak their native languages and only some go to school. The Thai government has recently been helping the tribes out with solar power cells and creating roads/ school, but things are still nowhere near modern. It was pretty amazing for me to witness how things can be done without modern conveniences and how nothing is really thrown away - just re purposed. Anyway, on Thursday we woke up to eggs and toast then hiked for about 5.5 hrs through a variety of settings. We returned to Pai at about 5:30 PM on Thursday and we were all pretty beat, but definitely the most rewarding thing I've done so far on this trip. We didn't see another tourist the whole time we were gone and were definitely in the thick of the Thai wilderness at points.

So, today is Friday and I'm just having a mellow day in Pai and nursing my sore body before traversing the country to get in a few beach days on the Thai island of Ko Chang. I think I'll be there from about Sunday night-Thursday morning then off to cross overland back to Cambodia for my flight home on March 21st. Feels like time is flying by. Alright, time for some reading in the hammock! Xo.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Laos to Thailand

Well, I've completely lost any sense of time and date which makes me really feel like I'm in vacation mode! In fact, my watch stopped working about 6 days ago so I think it's a sign for me to just tune all of those details out :). Anyway, what have I been doing since I last posted... My last day in Vang Vieng was absolutely great. It was the first real day that I have had with no set agenda for the day (and, based on past experience, those days are always the ones that yield the best adventures). I slept in for once (I've been regularly waking up at 7 am and going to bed by like 11 pm!) and wandered down the river for some breakfast. I ended up sitting down at this little restaurant portion of a homestay hotel (basically like a family's house) and seconds later this crazy Lao man sat down with me. He only spoke about 3 words of English but was intent on "talking to" me. It was a really funny exchange and eventually he grabbed my camera and started taking all sorts of photos. Anyway, he ended up coaxing me into a trip up to a blue lagoon and cave about 7 km away. Little did I know we'd be taking his 4-wheel drive tuk-tuk. This thing was classic - like he was seriously driving a tractor engine and I was seated on an attached wooden wagon. On really bumpy dirt roads. With a language barrier. It wasn't the most comfortable ride, but the adventure was a fun one and the blue lagoon was gorgeous (and you could swim in it which is the best thing ever since it's sooo hot out here). On the way back, we passed by a woman in a village who was weaving a silk scarf on a loom. I tapped the driver and requested a stop and got to see some awesome weaving in a non-touristy setting. It's crazy that they sell 100% handmade silk scarves here for $9 at most! Guess they don't charge anything for labor. Speaking of local products, I learned the other day that everything made in Laos is handmade as they have no industrial production at all. Everything that isn't handmade has to be imported. Crazy, eh?

On Saturday I took a van up to Luang Prabang which is about 4 hrs north of VV on crazy windy roads. Luang Prabang is a beautiful, peaceful town that has a mix of French and Laotian architecture. It's a super touristy town as it's a UNESCO heritage site and is generally just an easy place to be in. Lots of good restaurants, surrounded by 2 rivers, monks aplenty, sunsets, accessible hill tribe hiking, etc. Oh, and they also have a bowling alley. All of the restaurants/ bars in the town close at 11:30 and the only late night spot is the bao ling alley (that's how they spell it). I ended up there on Saturday night and had my first really late and crazy night on this trip. A bottle of Lao whiskey and bottle of coke costs $7 total and I split this with 2 guys that I had met earlier on in my trip. Anyway, I will never drink Lao whiskey again. The stuff is toxic. It was a fun night of bowling and I got my first introduction to the prevalent Asian "lady boys."

The next day I went to a lovely waterfall and to visit a Hmong hill tribe village (though it was a weird touristy village with all of these kids trained to chant "buy 1 5,000"). Yesterday I took a kayaking trip down the Nam Ou river which is about 1.5 hrs north of LP. It was really gorgeous and peaceful up there, and we actually tackled a few fair-sized rapids. I never knew how tiring kayaking can be - my arms are super sore today! We stopped by two hill tribe villages on the way which was awesome. Everyone was so friendly and the kids loved us! I started to show them the photos that I had taken on my digital camera screen and they thought it was the best thing ever. So cute. I was on the tour with 3 other girls who are all traveling solo too so that was fun. Lat night I had my last Lao dinner of lapp (minced chicken and herbs) and then tackled the big night market where they sell all sorts of local arts and crafts. Oh, one last Laos detial - for like 5 days, all of the ATMs across the country were broken. Umm, this equals major amount of stress. Luckily I had a stash of emergency US dollars to get me out of Vang Vieng with and then I was able to get a cash advance on a credit card in LP. I was literally left with the equivalent of $.50 when I got to LP and was really stressed about the situation. No fun.

Today I flew to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Most of you know that I wasn't planning on coming to Thailand and was instead planning to go east to Vietnam. I encountered a number of people in the past few weeks who have visited both countries and all of them have preferred Thailand. I was worried that Thailand would be a bit to backpacker filled and touristy for me, but the people that I have talked to have seemed to share my opinion of annoying backpackers and have still preferred Thailand. I was also swayed this direction by thoughts of some beach time (which I also didn't think I wanted when I left San Fran!). It's honestly so hot here (like 95 degrees with humidity) so the beach sounds idea. And, I'd love to do some diving or snivelling. So here I am (yes, Jamey, you can say that you told me so ;)). I'm off to get my first of many Thai massages shortly! (Oh, I also got a Lao massage a few days ago and it seemed pretty similar to a Thai massage with focus on pressure points and stretching). That's all for now!

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mmmm, Nature

Today was great. I started the day with mulberry wheat pancakes from a restaurant that is owned by a local organic farm and then met up with a group and went caving then tubing down the Nam Song river. The river is surrounded by huge rocky bluffs that are absolutely breathtaking. The first portion of the tubing is where all of the "frat bars" are which all have zip line rope swings (which look super fun, but the boyfriend of a girl I was with dislocated his shoulder on one yesterday so I opted out) and swarms of drunks, but after we passed those by I was completely at peace in a truly stunning setting. Can't complain at all about letting a light current float you down a river on a hot day. Ended the day with a chocolate and banana pancake crepe from a street vendor and am plumb tuckered out. I've decided to stay here for another day as sitting beside the river tomorrow with a book sounds like an excellent idea. And, the sunset today makes me yearn for another tomorrow. Fratville conquered, I guess (look how open minded I am ;)).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Yay for Laos! I arrived here on Tuesday via a somewhat shady flight on Lao Airlines and landed in perhaps the most basic airport I have ever seen. The "security" dude was reading a magazine and didn't look at the screen while my bag went down the security conveyor belt at all. Rad. So, everyone says that Laotians are super chilled out and now I get it. Relative to Cambodia, this place is a dream come true - no major pollution, motorists that seem to abide by rules, sales folk that understand the phrase "no thanks"... Everyone that I have met so far has been supremely friendly. I spent about 24 hrs in the capitol of Vientine. I got to see an AMAZING sunset over the Mekong River, eat a Laotian specialty of a grilled fillet of fish that is covered in salt and seasoned with lemongrass, and ride a bike to see lots of lovely Buddhist temples. Ultimately there aren't that many sights in Vientine so I felt like it was time to leave after a solid 24 hrs of exploring. I arrived in Vang Vieng (which is about 4 hrs north) this evening. This place is a bit nuts - I have yet to see it in the daytime, but the main attraction is the river that runs through town that is surrounded by limestone bluffs. The reason it's nuts is because the town has turned into a haven for backpackers and pretty much everything here caters to that culture. "Chill out" bars that show reruns of Friends, The Simpsons, etc. "Happy shakes" laced with drugs, and tons of cheap accommodation. Anyway, the scene here is pretty much my version of hell with hundreds of drunk 21 yrs olds wandering around drinking cocktails from buckets etc. Like one gigantic frat party! Ha, look how old and jaded I am :). That aside, I'm looking forward to my day on the river tomorrow. Going kayaking and tubing through some caves. Considering a rock climbing tour too if I can deal with fratville for another night. It really is bizarre to think I'm in Laos while in this uber-backpacker town.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Siem Reap, Cambodia (Gateway to Angkor Wat)

I've spent the last few days in Siem Reap which is the town that is the leaping off point for visiting the Angkor Wat temples. It was a joy to leave Phenom Phen to bus through the lovely and mellow Cambodian countryside. Passed by lots of corn fields, coconut trees, emaciated cows, happy Cambodian children, etc. Siem Reap is about 6 hours away on the bus, and somehow I ended up on a bus for locals instead tourists and got to chat with my seatmate who is a native Cambodian who works at a 5-star hotel in Siem Reap. He definitely shared some fascinating insights in the Cambodian culture, way of life etc. So far the people here seem to be incredibly friendly and upbeat in spite of their often difficult situations. Life is certainly tough here for residents. It took me virtually the full 6 hours on the bus to read and understand the political history section of my Lonely Planet book. The politics of this country are crazy, with some leaders who claim they favor democracy when they really have commuist ideologies and are insanely corrupt. I can't even begin to summarize what I read, but all I can say is that this country has been through a lot and I hope that democracy can truly come to this country for good.

Anyway, Siem Reap still has the Cambodian flavor of motorcycles and tuk-tuks aplenty, street vendors, etc., but the city really caters to tourism. You have no trouble finding a cappuccino or french fries here (though I haven't seen a McDonalds which makes me happy!). Since it's so hot here, I decided to suck it up and pay $25 / night for an awesome guesthouse with a pool. The place is called the Golden Banana and the hotel is a little slice of paradise in my opinion. Super nice staff, lovely bungalows, foliage, etc. I visited the Angkor Wat ruins by bicycle yesterday, which was awesome and definitely an adventure! It takes a lot of guts to brave the roads here (even just to cross the street on foot)! Today I hired a tour guide and did the "big circuit" of temples via tuk-tuk. The history is fascinating and the temples are all so intricately carved that it's mind-blowing. I opted to go for sunrise this morning and was at the site from about 5:30 am-noon, which was a nice way to sort-of avoid the hordes of tourists.

Anyway, I'm off to see some local dance shortly and to check one more local cuisine off my list (I've tried a little bit of everything food wise so far and it's really similar to Thai / Chinese food). I fly to Vientienne in Laos tomorrow!