Monday, June 6, 2011

1 month in

After 2 nights and three days of the Gibbon experience, we were very excited to get to Luang Prabang. Nestled along the banks of the Mekong river, this city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in the 90's for its wealth of culture, history, and beauty. The King of Laos vacations here, and the king of Cambodia took refuge here during their civil war in the late 70's. A perfect place for Hope and I to relax after a 3 day trek in the rainforest.
Once we got into town, we walked from guest house to guest house till we found one that fit. We arrived early enough from our night bus that we were able to catch the procession of hundreds of monks in their orange robes taking Alms at 6am, as they do every morning. I can neither spell nor pronounce the name of the guesthouse we found, but what i can tell you is that it was right on the Mekong, we had our own balcony, and it was air-conditioned, all for only $12 a night. A steel considering the price of everything around it was $30 and up. After a long nap, we went to see the town on foot. Cobblestone roads, French Architecture (the city was a french colony in the 18th century), and Buddhist Wat's dominate the city scape. All that said, the food was what i was looking forward to. An amazing mix of traditional Laos and french influence. Weather it was a noodle dish served with a baguette of homemade bread, or a rack of lamb with wine and Laos spices, it was all delicious. After almost a month of moving around, this was where we wanted to take it easy for a few days. One day was spent visiting the Royal Museum and a few Wats. One day we rented a motorcycle (that's what the locals call them, but they are actually scooters) and with our friends Wessel and Maud, we drove an hour to the most beautiful waterfall i have ever seen. I think there were about 11 tiers, crystal clear water, and a BIG rope swing. The waterfalls got bigger the more you ventured up, to the last one that had to be 50 meters or higher. The rest of the time was spent eating and drinking. The nightly market has everything one might need from food for $1 an entree to clothes, artwork, and jewelry. We found a favorite bar for our night life where we would meet up with our gibbon experience friends called Utopia. you have to walk down some very narrow roads by a few houses for about 5 minutes. Then you get there and you see where it got its name. An enormous open air bar with vaulted ceilings, a long deck overlooking the Mekong, and a volleyball court. Laos being a communist country, they have a curfew of 11pm. All bars and business must be closed, and all people must be home, though not strongly enforced. Once the bars closed at 11 there is one place to go, the bowling alley. Locals say that they owners of the bowling alley pay off the cops somehow, but either way, it is where all the foreigners go to party all night. We went home fairly early, but definitely had a good time.

After about 4 days of that, we decided it was time to get moving again. We walked into a travel agency our last night there and purchased a flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for early the next day.
Cambodia is a hell of a country. Its hard to put my finger on it. We will start with Siem Reap. A tough town of a few main roads glitzy with all the money the foreigners traveling to Ankgor Wat pour into it, and dirt roads where the struggle of civil war and genocide from the 70's and early 80's is still very apparent. All the locals are as friendly as i have seen yet. Even the hordes of beggars. Beggars because of landmines laid down during the war that take away and arm, or both legs, or both eyes, landmines that have caused mass murder long after the war ended. Children beggars, homeless or orphaned, who sit beside your table at dinner begging for some rice. So hard to tolerate i lost my appetite, gave the kids the food, paid, and walked away. Anyway, Ankgor Wat was beautiful. We spent 2 days there on a guided tour. The first day was 9 hours long, and ended with us climbing to a hill top temple to watch the sun set over Ankgor Wat. The second day we got up at 430am so we could get to Angkor Wat by 5am and watch the sun rise. We returned home about 8 hours later. Long hot days, but it was worth it.
At the end of our second day, we booked a night bus to Sihanoukville. A town on the Cambodian coast line to get back to the beach. Its been about 3 weeks since I've seen the beach, and I miss it.

Tarzan and Jane

The Gibbon Experience was incredible!  It started with a two hour ride from Houay Xai to the Bokeo Reserve.  The road quickly disintegrating from a good paved road to a muddy trail surrounded by nothing, but lush greenness.  Rory and I decided to ride on the outside back of the truck instead of the inside cabin hoping to get more fresh air, but we soon realized that was a bad idea when we started getting hit with dust from the road, black smoke from passing trucks and branches from the thickening jungle.  After a short stop followed by a river crossing (in the truck) and then a bouncy climb into the jungle we finally got to the village where the treks start and finish.  We take a seat and watch as chickens, dogs and naked children go about their merry little way while our guides get our supplies together.  A few minutes later we were off on a two and a half hour hike with 6 strangers and two guides named Bounpeng and Eye.  We stop for lunch under a shady canopy and introduce ourselves, one couple is from Belgium, another from Amsterdam, one Canadian girl and one Englishman.  We continue our trek and don't talk much, we just take in the our surroundings of everything jungle.  A couple of hours later we are a waterfall for a well deserved swimming break.  The waterfall was small and had a nice, cool pool with a zip line crossing it from above which was fun.  After we cool off we start heading for our home for the night, Tree House #6.  It took 3 cables, one being 350 meters long and something like 300 meters above the ground to get there, but we zipped right into our new home.  Sweaty, muddy, leech bitten and pretty exhausted we explore Tree house #6.  It's got one floor, 8 mats to sleep on in each corner, a sink with clean dishes in the middle and one bathroom with a shower and a sink.  To our surprise the water that came out of the faucet was even safe to drink!  We each pick a corner to put our bags down and after a light snack of fresh lychee, apples and pears we go out for one last zipline lap before the sun goes down.
That night we sit around our round table and get to know each other.  Wessel is a photographer in Amsterdam, Jayme has been traveling for a few months and just came from China, James has been teaching English in China and met Jayme on the train from Taiwan.  They were both traveling alone and since they were headed in the same direction decided to join together until their paths seperated.  Martine and Jochin have been traveling for about 6 months and don't wanna go back to Belgium.
Dinner gets zipped in by Bunpeng (him and Eye sleep in a hut not too far away with the cooks) and explains to us that they next day we have a 2 hour hike and 7 cables to zip on to the next tree house, and in the morning before breakfast we have the option to go on an early jungle walk to try to find some animals.  He then says goodnight and zips away effortlessly and disappears in the trees.  We eat our delicious, freshly cooked veggies and beef with rice and watch the sunset from our tree.  We spend the night talking to each other about our travels and eventually go to bed.  The night was pretty restless for me, partly from excitement and partly from all the animals that seem to enjoy singing in the night, but the biggest reason was that I could not believe where I was.  I was in the middle of a Jungle in Laos sleeping in a tree house 200 meters up in the air with no other safe way out (option #2 would be to jump/fall out) other than attaching myself to a cable where I couldn't see the other end, stepping of the platform and falling into air only to get caught by my harness hoping that it'll hold my weight as I glide through the trees and above a valley that dips down to about 300 meters with my ears hearing nothing except ZEEEEEEEE from the cable and the pounding from my heart.... pretty awesome.
The next day we get a wake up call at 6am by Bunpengs zipping into the house which shakes the whole tree a good amount and after a few minutes of getting ourselves together we were off to find some animals.  Sadly our 1 and a half hour trek didn't include any animal sightings which is pretty hard to do when all you can see around you is nothing but green jungle.  We get back to our tree, gather all our things and head out to have breakfast by the waterfall.  As we were walking down to the picnic table my luck runs out and I take a wrong step and twist my ankle.  Eye, Bunpeng and Jochin who was in the military in Belgium helped patch me up and with some tender steps I make it to the table.  Breakfast was delicious with veggies and meat and rice again.  We take our time to digest and after Bunpeng makes me a walking stick we head to our next home.  My ankle begins to feel better with every step so we lose little time and make it to Tree House #5 in just a couple of hours.  We drop our bags and explore, #5 has two levels, the second level having enough space to sleep 2 and the first having 3 sleeping areas, one area to eat and hang out, in the middle there was a sink with dishes and a bathroom similar to the last house... except that the toilet, looking normal at first glance, but when you looked down into it you looked down 200 meters and saw the tops of the trees of the jungle below.  We had the rest of the day to explore our new set of cables so we put our things down and head out.  That's when we notice that in order to leave the house you had to open a gate, step out onto a platform which you had to sit on in order to clip in and then shimmy yourself onto the two steps below that led to nothing and required you to take a leap of faith, faith that the bouncing caused by your leap would disappear before you reached the landing platform.        
Bunpeng brings us dinner and explains that there are Gibbons that live near this tree house and that we have a chance of hearing them and possibly seeing them the next morning (if it doesn't rain because Gibbons only sings when it's not raining).  We spend the night talking again, the conversations being more personal since our time together has made us get to know each other better...and maybe because we drank the bottle of Lao wine that was in the cooler.  Either way we all enjoy it and don't go to bed until much later.
The next morning we hear the loud sirens of a Gibbon.  Even from far away it sounded impressively loud and clear and could possibly compete with a firetruck or an ambulance.  Bunpeng explains that they were too far away to see and I was pretty relieved because I can't imagine what it would have sounded like had it been 100 yards from our tree house.  After breakfast we gather our things one last time to make our way back, on the way we stop at a couple of tree houses to explore their zip lines and after 9 last cables we give up our harnesses and make our way out of the jungle, back to the village we started from. 
Sweaty, sticky and leech bitten we relax for a while and watch as a truck load of new zippers are dropped off looking fresh and ready to explore.  We pile ourselves into the trucks and start heading back to town, Rory and I fall asleep while riding inside this time.
We get back into town with just enough time to book a night bus to Luang Prabang, take a quick shower and have a quick meal.  All of us, except for James who opted for the slow boat, decided to take the faster night bus down to Luang Prabang so we say our good byes to James and head for the bus station.  It was a nice change to be traveling with some people so we enjoyed the company and it made the 14 hours go by pretty fast...well that and the 8 hours of sleep that we all finally got.    

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thai cooking crash course... then Lao time

The cooking class was pretty fun, although I'm not sure if i'll be able to cook the pad thai or prawn in coconut milk or sticky rice with mango properly without my teachers.  I was surprised at how well all my cooking turned out since I know nothing about cooking.  It was pretty grueling because we cooked 5 courses in 5 hours and had to eat each meal!  Needless to say, dinner was pretty light that night.  That night we went to a Muay Thai fight (ring side seats!) which was a lot more exciting than I thought.  They started out with kids, which was a little weird to watch at first, but they were pretty professional.  The most exciting fight were the women, whoe were best matched for each other and there was even a knock out!  At the fight we sat next to an Englishman who lived in Chang Mai and trained in Muay Thai and he helped us better understand events. 
The next morning we left Chang Mai for a 6 hour bus trip to Chiang Kong and later that afternoon we crossed the Mekong River and we were in Houay Xai Laos.  The town is simple and quiet, not like any other town we've been to yet... maybe it's because there's really nothing much to do here for tourists except for the Gibbon Experience.  Today we spent the day exploring on a scooter and had a delicious lunch looking at Thailand from the other side of the river.  It was a pretty glorious day because we had nothing planned at all, just a day to relax which we haven't gotten much of.  Our first day in Laos seemed like the perfect place to do this since Laos time is significantly more relaxed than any other place I've been to.  It's so refreshing...   
Tomorrow we leave for the Gibbon Experience!  All we know is that we'll be gone for for a few days, there will be waterfalls, trekking (but mostly flying) through the jungle and sleeping in a treehouse 100ft up in the air.  We're not really sure what to expect, but what's the fun in always knowing.  See ya in a few days!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Day ?

Khao Suk National Park was unbelievable. Being the rookies we are, we were not sure how to initially attack this monstrous playground. We arrived in the late evening and just pointed at a block of bungalows, or maybe tree houses would be a more apt description, which happened to be in our price range, ate some dinner and went to bed. At dinner we met a nice kid named Tyler from Washington State and decided to meet up the next morning to hike around the park ourselves. Great day filled with wrong turns, waterfalls, sweat and leeches. Ohhhh the leeches.
Funny story: apparently, if you want to avoid the leeches, you should walk at the front of the line. We were unaware, and we were all baffled that Hope had such a problem with the leeches. When hiking in the rain forest, the person in front wakes the leeches up, the people in the middle give them a scent to follow, and the person in the rear gets attacked. Such was the case. Neither Tyler nor I could understand why every time we stopped to do a leech check, Hope had twice as many as we did. Anyway, Hope didn't loose too much blood, and we all made it home safe after a grueling 7hr hike.
The next day was unforgettable. We had scheduled a tour of the giant lake that was the center of the national park, Chowlin Lake, as well as a tour of the Namtaloo cave. The lake was amazing. Endless with thousands of islands and limestone walls that raised 200ft.
After a 2 hour boat ride to the far end of the lake, we stopped to eat lunch and get ready for the hike to the cave. Will, Robin, Ryan and Jen; Fulford cave has nothing on Namtaloo. A deep cavern over a mile long with a stream at times lazily flowing and at times rushing through. the stream starts out innocent enough, about knee deep with slight pressure, then it just gets silly. Waist deep, then neck deep rushing so fast you need a rope to pull you up stream. Then some casual rock climbing over some actual rapids within the cave, until you stumble upon a pond with a waterfall at the far end, let me remind you, within the cave! Amazing! About an hour or so is spent exploring the cave with a guide until we are sent out. Then back to the boat and back home in time for dinner.
During our cave tour we met a nice German couple whom we ate dinner with and agreed to go tubing with the next day. A lazy and fun morning of tubing in the river, a rope swing, river monkeys, and even a python who swam right under my tube. Then we said goodbye to Khao Suk and headed to Phuket airport. Hope and I made the decision to fly to northern Thailand instead to taking the train to give ourselves a couple extra days. Worked beautifuly. Would have been a three day trip to the north, instead just a couple of cheap tickets and a couple hours flight.
We arrived in Chiang Mai 2 nights ago at midnight. found a cheap hotel and went to bed. Woke up and immediately regretted our choice of hotel. The dirtiest one yet. so we packed up and headed out. The innkeeper stopped us as we were walking out and pleaded with us to let her show us her nicer rooms, for only 100baht more, which is about 3 dollars, and we complied. The difference was astonishing. Air conditioning, TV, and a balcony. $3 to go from the worst room of our trip, to the nicest. so we stayed. and we've been there since. Yesterday we went to the Tiger Kingdom. Hey Curt, imagine a kingdome of cats, really big ones. No joke, tiger cubs in my lap. Giant mommy tiger rolling over so Hope could scratch her belly. Today we went on an all day trek in the mountains. We hiked for about 4 hours, with the hike broken up with one section of elephant riding(yup, on an elephant. Hope rode it bareback most of the way),
one waterfall to swim in, and one section of bamboo rafting down the river.  Tomorrow is our first cooking class. An all day event that starts at 9am with a trip to the local market to pick up ingredients, then to the class for cooking and eating. A 7 hour and 5 course event. Can't wait.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Day 3 Krabi was an amazing and very a tiring day.  We took a long tail boat (named after the long rudder in order to reach shallow waters) to Railay Bay - what a beautiful scene.  Limestone outcrops were scattered all over the bay, some small and some massive with caves from top to bottom.  We found a beach with not too many people with white sand and warm water on top with cool water below.  Only downside was while we were enjoying the incredible scene that enveloped us, a jellyfish tried to wrap it's tenticles around Rory's leg... serenity diminished and panic ensued.  Luckily enough the locals knew of a plant that they crushed up to numb the pain.  We watched a storm start small out in the distance and slowly make its way towards us, an awesome sight - clear, blue skies over greenblue waters with a dark and mysterious gray slowly engulping tiny boats into its rainy shroud.  It reaches us and cools us all down, soon it passes and we are off to explore the bay.  We rent a sea kayak and paddle into some dark and kind of scary caves, waves crashing inside sounding like a monsterous voice calling to us.  Limestone stelactites loom above like hands trying to reach down to grab us.  All of it looking like a science fiction movie. 

Temple from the top

Temple from the bottom
We meet a nice German couple on the ride back to Krabi who are on a 6 month vacation (oh how I wish!)  and Richard, an older english gentleman on a year long vacation.  We share a taxi with Richard to the tiger temple, a temple sitting on top of a mountain that requires you to climb over 1,300 steps!  Of course Richard reaches the top way ahead of us.  On the way up we see a monk (all the monks do the climb daily) gingerly skipping down the dangerously steep steps.  The reward at the top was well worth the soreness we'll be having tomorrow, besides the enourmous gold Buddah perched up on a pedestal,  a 360 degeree, panoramic view of what Richard imagined "to be what the surface of the moon looks like, without the trees of course."  Absolutely stunning!  The Andaman Sea in one direction with ourcoppings scattered until they disappeared into the haze and trees, lots and lots of trees in all other directions.  "Isn't it amazing how the trees grow even on the steepest faces, they just find the smallest cravices to latch on to."  Richard says while looking at the massive peices of limestones jutting out of the ground around us.  He leaves us to attack the decent and we stay to take in the view one last time.  The way up was strenous for the legs, but the way down was terrifying for the heart.  Sometimes you would look down and see steps in the form of a ladder, thank goodness for the railing!  Drenched in sweat with shaky legs, all 3 of us jump into the taxi and head back to town. 
We look into our transporstation for our next stop, Khao Sok National Park, and head into the night market for our last dinner in Krabi.  I discover that there's a Thai version of a favorite Filipino dessert, Halo Halo which literally means "mix mix".  I didn't have it this time, but instead indulged in Thai pancakes, basically a Thai version of crepes,  I had nutella on mine mmmm....
Now tired, sticky and full of food we are back at the "mansion" (most of the hotels here are named something something mansion) ready for a good nights sleep.

*We are not allowed to plug in our camera on this computer so pics will be added soon*       

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Eat Pray Love" to "The Beach"

Ubud, what a town.  So many artsy shops and, although we didn't get to see any because we were only there for one night. rice terraces.  The whole time I was there all I could think about was the book "Eat, Pray, Love."  Our room overlooked a race field and in the cool night we got lulled to sleep by frogs and crickets.  Why did we only plan to spend one night there?!  Now we're in Krabi and all I can think about is "The Beach."  Our room is an updated (no so scary) version of the same room Leo stayed in (we actually though about staying in the guesthouse that was in the movie).  The town is relaxed and once again the people very friendly.  Thais seems like a fun people.... I think we may like here.

Day 11

A cave we saw from the road
Quick sequence of events:
Left Gili on fast boat back to Bali. Caught free shuttle to Ubud up in the mountians of Bali. Stayed one night. Beautiful town. Taxi to airport in the morning to Phuket thailand. Landed. shuttle bus to south Phuket to Kata beach on a suggestion. Overpriced and dirty. We didnt like Phuket. Left the next day via ferry across bay to Krabi Town on the mainland. love it. Cheap hotel( about $6 a night) and cheap food. day one was spent traveling. On day two we rented a couple scooters and discovered the town by ourselves. Beaches and waterfalls. This is day three in Krabi, we'll see.