Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Well, it's taken an hour, but I've finally uploaded our photos since crossing the border into Laos. I'll just jump right in with photos and commentary and save some general stuff for the end.

Beerlao. What can you say? Most places it costs a dollar. It comes in a 640ml bottle (about 22oz), unless you get the Beerlao Dark (a lager) or the Beerlao Light (which I've never seen). Those are 330ml. Anyway, it's obviously delicious.

Whoops. Back up a step. This is the night market in Chiang Mai, which is in Thailand, not Laos. Sometimes our camera files the photos out of order. Bear with me.

This innocent looking plate of vegetables and basket of rice is probably the spiciest meal I've had in 15 years. The culprit is that little bowl of Jeow (sp?), kind of like the Lao equivalent of salsa or curry. You can eat this a lot of different ways, but I think the most common is to ball up the sticky rice with your hand, then make a flat disc to grab some of the jeow and veggies. Anyway, it was insanely hot. I can't claim to handle very hot spices anymore, but I *have* gotten better in the last month or so. But this was definitely a little out of my league.

Another meal with Jeow as the centerpiece. This one we ate in the middle of the Nam Tha river. Not pictured are a couple fried fish and a giant basket of sticky rice.

At the end of our day-long kayaking trip. More details to follow.

The river was really colorful at this point, but hard to capture.

OK, here's where I can tell the whole kayak story. We signed up for a one-day kayak trip with Green Discovery tours in Luang Nam Tha. We toyed with the idea of doing another multiple-day trek, as the area was supposed to be a great base for them, but in the end it would have been too expensive. Also I was tired of sleeping in villages. So we did a one-day kayak trip (which was still expensive, especially by Lao standards). Our guide was Phet, pictured below. I have been kayaking 3 times, and I am a better kayaker than Phet. This should tell you something. However, he was a very nice guy, so we let it slide with the tour agency when we were filling out feedback forms afterward. Anyway, the kayaking was fun, if a little frustrating. Liz and I were sharing a kayak, and at first I was getting annoyed that she couldn't steer from the front seat while paddling. Then we switched, and I found that I couldn't do it either. Sorry, Liz! We switched again, because with me in the back we had better overall control (even though it was super uncomfortable for me). It was also frustrating trying to communicate with Phet. He spoke decent English, but wasn't exactly forthcoming with the details. At the end of our trip, he kind of pulled over to the side and started speaking to a villager. We just kept going... right into some more rapids. So we shouted back, "Hey, Phet, is this where we're stopping?" Of course it was. Thanks for telling us, buddy. Earlier, when it was about lunchtime, he asked us if we wanted to stop and eat. "Whenever you're ready... it's up to you," was our reply. So about 2 minutes later he crashed his kayak into a giant rock in the middle of the river and told us that's where we'd eat lunch. I looked longingly at the dozens of flat sandy beaches that surrounded us before I hauled our kayak up onto the rock and sat down to one of the most uncomfortable meals of my life. Again, Phet was not a bad guy. Just an inexperienced guide. For $78, you'd expect a little better.

The bus ride from Luang Nam Tha to Luang Prabang was very scenic toward the end, but it was hard to get a picture out the window without having your arm ripped off by oncoming traffic. Nevertheless, we scored this one, although we missed all the gorgeous mountain ranges.

This is a little too happy for 7.5 hours into a 9 hour bus ride, don't you think?

Sunset over the Mekong. We snapped this one at one of the many riverside restaurants within 5 minutes of our guest house.

God bless America, this was our Christmas Eve dinner. A giant plate of raw meat.

Not to worry; we cooked it over this contraption. While the meat was self-explanatory (meat + fire = good eatin'), we also made a soup that inexplicably turned out delicious. Basically you pour water around the outside trough of the metal bowl, add some noodles, veggies, chilis and eggs, and it comes out amazing!

Brian and Brooke, our new friends from Philly, enjoying their XL Western Christmas Table Barbecue Dinner Deluxe.

Our side of the table.

Later we went to a bar called that was running a 5 drinks for $5 special. I can't believe a place like this exists in Laos... it was just like any club you might find in Seattle or Portland, except you would never be able to get 5 drinks for $5 at a hip place like this in the States.

Your standard Christmas morning in Laos, exchanging presents.

There's a great store in town with DVDs for 20,000 kip each, and if you buy 5, you get a 6th free. That works out to about $1.70 per DVD. Holla.

Ok, this is some awesome Engrish notebook we picked up a lot earlier on the trip. I just photographed it in case we end up losing it at some point.

Yes, it reads, "playing whit myself" on the spine for no reason whatsoever.

More detail.

Christmas Day. We had the DVDs; Brian and Brooke had the laptop (I left mine in Bangkok so I didn't have to lug it around these "rural" areas, which, of course, have wifi on every freaking corner). So we watched "Rescue Dawn" together. 16 stars out of 20 on the Seth scale.

The exchange rate in Lao right now is about 9,500 kip to the dollar. The largest note that they make is 50,000 kip. You do the math.

If you want to be a huge baller, move to SE Asia.

The Christmas tree at our guest house was a little sad (although the guest house itself is lovely).

Artistic shots of one of the Wats in town. Credit: Liz.

Ok, the internet went out as I was writing this last night. Luckily I had all the copy saved, but it's now Thursday the 27th as I'm writing this. FINALLY the pictures load. God, the internet is really slow here. It's generally faster in Thailand, I guess.

So yesterday we took a minibus up to the local waterfall. Liz had been up there before and said it was worth the trip. Bonus: They had this awesome Tiger, Phet (yes, the same as our kayaking guide). You can get really close to the tiger, unlike at zoos in the States. They also had some bears that were pretty cool, but we didnt' get any good photos.

Part of the waterfall; rope swing just out of the picture to the right.

Another part.

It was cold, but how often do you get to swim in a waterfall? If you're in southeast Asia, the answer is as often as you like.

Ok, I'm not going to press my luck by writing more. I'm just gonna post this and save the other stuff for later when the internet is more reliable.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

I completed the Huay Xai 3k Fun Run and all I got was this stupid visa...

Last time I posted, we just arrived back in Chiang Mai from Pai, and were about to make our way further north to the border town Chiang Kong.

In my head, the plan was to arrive in Chiang Kong, spend the night, and cross the border to Huay Xai in the morning. Then we'd spend one night there, and grab a bus the next day to Luang Nam Tha.

However, we met a couple other travelers that were going to cross the border that evening (the crossing is open until 6pm; we arrived at 3:30 or so), so we decided to be ambitious and join them. There were two small problems with this plan.

1. You need a passport-sized photo of yourself (in addition to your actual passport) to gain admittance to Laos.

2. I needed to stop at an ATM before we crossed. Apparently ATMs are rare in Laos and they usually only let you withdraw 700,000 kip (or about $70).

It was easy enough to get passport-sized photos; they had a service set up right at the border and it took 5 minutes. But all the ATMs were 1,000 meters or so back into the town. We had about an hour left until customs closed, but you have to leave yourself enough time between getting your exit stamp from Thailand and catching a ferry across the river to Laos. The last thing you want to have happen is to officially exit Thailand without a way to get to Laos.

So I ran the 1,000 meters back into town to the first ATM. It was only 80 degrees or so by this time so the heat wasn't too bad... but the pollution was pretty awful. And the first ATM didn't work. Some guy told me that there were more another 500 meters down the road... so off I went. After waiting 5 minutes for the person in front of me to finish (the longest 5 minutes ever), I quickly grabbed some cash and started off on the 2nd half of my unexpected 3k fun run.

Long story short, we made the crossing just fine (although I was purple and dripping with sweat at the Thai customs office) and spent the night in Huay Xai.

The next day we took another long bumpy bus to Luang Nam Tha, where we spent 3 nights. We did a day-long kayak trip one of the days; I'll write more about that later. Then we caught another long bus (8.5 hours) to Luang Prabang, where we'll stay through Christmas.

Gotta run for now, but since we'll be in one place for a few days I should get a chance to update again with more photos and details. Hope everyone is having a good time back home. Hard to believe that tomorrow is Christmas Eve... given that it's probably 93 degrees outside right now.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bye Bye Pai

Last time I posted, we were in Chiang Mai. Right now, we're in... Chiang Mai. But we did head over to Pai (pronounced "bye") for the weekend. It was actually pretty nice, despite some reports we had read to the contrary. Apparently the party scene was much more mellow than usual, however, because of the elections going on in Thailand right now. Turns out, nobody is allowed to sell alcohol during the elections! We found a couple restaurants that would still serve us falang, but all the bars were closed, and they even covered up the beer in 7-11 with newspaper and cardboard. Funny stuff.

Anyway, we have a bunch of photos to share, so I'll just jump right in.

Thousands of lights near the walled center of Chiang Mai, still up a few weeks after the King's 80th birthday celebration.

This is a dish called Khao Soi... which we're eating at a restaurant called, "Just Khao Soi." As you might expect, it's the only dish they serve. The dish is tough to find outside of northern Thailand and Burma, which doesn't make sense because it's absolutely delicious. Liz discovered it last time she was here, and she turned me onto it during this trip. Basically it's a rich, creamy (well, the Thai version is creamy, anyway) curry with egg noodles, crispy noodles and usually chicken. You are also given a dazzling array of condiments to make the dish your own, including coconut cream, hot peppers, fish sauce, sugar, shallots, lime, banana and some sort of pickled vegetables.

A closer look.

Not all the food in Thailand is delicious.

One day in Chiang Mai we rented a motorbike and drove up to Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain temple. According to legend, someone sent an elephant up there to meet with a monk (or something). Yeah, I didn't exactly learn the whole story. But basically the elephant climbs all the way up this huge hill, and then dies. And that's where they built the temple.

Another night, Liz found a "rooftop bar" where we could go check out the sunset. She thought it was called "THC Bar" or something... but didn't think that was REALLY the name. Of course it is. The place has this insane reggae/marijuana theme, and we were a little embarassed to be there. But the view was decent, and it was mellow (there were like 2 other people there) so we had a drink.

This is one of the worst massages I've ever gotten. Good thing it only cost $1.80 for half an hour. Some people may have enjoyed it, but I personally did not appreciate this 90 pound woman balancing her entire weight on my shoulder blades with her elbows.

Some temple that Liz checked out while I was losing money at poker.

Pig face, anyone? Earlier in the trip, Gavin and Emily told us they had spied some lucky dog eating a pig face in the street. Must have nicked it from the market.

Another day in Chiang Mai we took a Thai cooking class. This was a lot of fun, and we got to get out of the city a bit. The company we signed up with took us out into the country to their farm, where we walked around and saw how they grow the ingredients to our meal.

The farm was lovely.

Getting ready to make curry paste.


In the kitchen, where we made pad thai, papaya salad and stir-fry.

Our instructors.

Our Pad Thai. Not bad, eh?

I freaking made this!

This is the biggest spider I've ever seen in my life that wasn't part of a zoo exhibit. It was on the way back down from Doi Suthep; we stopped to check out a waterfall. This [censored] was [censored] huge. I am getting the chills just thinking about it.

Liz channels Tarzan.

On the way to the famous Riverside restaurant in Chiang Mai, we had a lovely sunset.

I pledge, under allegiance, to not consume Beer Chang during the election weekend...

Day trip from Pai. This is called the "grand canyon" of Pai, or something. Anyway this path was pretty nuts.

I wish I could zoom in and crop this for better effect. That's me, if you can't tell.

Another in the continuing series of Lady Cop Speranza shots.

Small but cool waterfall we hiked to after failing to reach the larger waterfall.

Pai is a hippie town, and therefore herbal tea is extremely popular.

Colorful display at the night market in Pai.

The view from The Sanctuary, an "expensive" restaurant in Pai. We went there to have a couple smoothies and watch the sunset.

Street pancakes. These were about the size of a silver dollar. They're sweet and a little bit crunchy and coconutty.

A health food restaurant in Pai that we liked quite a bit. They had a terrific selection of tea and coffee (french press, no more nescafe for me!), and great food too. One morning I ordered two pancakes, and they brought them on separate plates.

Pretty self-explanatory.

In addition to beautiful fabrics, cool T-shirts and fancy imitation watches, they sell some crap on the street too.

Rando cute kids.

That's all for now. Tomorrow we head to Chang Kong, and the next day we will cross the border into Laos. I'm guessing there will be pretty decent internet there, so hopefully I'll be able to continue updating the blog and keeping in touch via email.