Saturday, October 31, 2009
I'd decided to fly into Hanoi, and had arranged with my guesthouse to be picked up at the airport. This did not happen, and I should have taken a clue. Instead I took a taxi ($15 US - not cheap!) into town. I checked into my guest house where they charged me $20 instead of the $12 that was listed on the website. I got settled then went out for something to eat. My first impression of Hanoi was one of sheer chaos and noise. I've been in Asia long enough not to be phased by sidewalk vendors or crazy traffic, but the street activity of Hanoi was well beyond anything else I'd encountered. The cars and motorbikes never stop and they never stop honking. Crossing the street is an act of ultimate faith... you just step out in the street and pray to whatever god you believe in that the traffic will swerve around you as you *very* slowly and steadily walk across.
I had some Pho... but I just don't like it. I've had noodle soup in Thailand but it tastes different. Whatever the secret ingredient is (anise?), to me it smells/tastes like body odor or dog or something unpalatable that I can't quite put my finger on.
Later I met up with Jonathan who is unquestionably the nicest man I've met in SE Asia. He walked me through the Old Quarter, where we had a beer. We then walked down to the beautiful lake Hoan Kiem. He guided me skillfully across many scary streets, for which I probably owe him my life.
Hanoi Day 2
On Day two I went to the Temple of Literature, and took many wonderful pictures of stone tablets and Vietnamese architecture. I attempted to do the Lonely Planet walking tour of Hanoi but simply could not get over the constant honking of the 47 million cars & motorbikes in the city. They're all just honking to say "I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here. I'm here." but with the most ear-splitting and annoying horns and it DOESN'T EVER STOP! So I took refuge in the KFC and actually met up with a nice Belgian man and chatted with him for a while.
That night Jonathan took me to a Vietnamese restaurant where we had some kind of pancakey type thing... there were pickled root veggies and a basket of greens and all kinds of goodies to stuff inside a rice-paper wrapper. Very yummy.
Hanoi Day 3
I'd neglected to book my Ha Long Bay cruise the day before so that is what I did this day... I spent a great deal of time hanging out near the ticket counter for the Water Puppet Show but never did get tickets.
But that night, we had an absolutely amazing Indian food dinner. It involved a huge dosa (pancake type thing) that was rolled up like a dunce cap in a manner that made it both dinner & centerpiece.
A friend of Jonathans got us tickets to a concert at the opera house. We weren't quite sure what it would be, but I was pretty sure that if it was happening in the opera house I'd enjoy it. It turned out to be a joint Vietnamese and Brazillian concert of woodwinds and piano. As we stood on the steps watching visiting dignitaries from several countries drive up in their flag-adorned limos, we realized we might be a *tad* underdressed, Jonathan in his jeans and me in my capri pants. Oh well. The concert was LOVELY.
So while I wasn't exactly fond of Hanoi... the first three days were actually pretty good. It was fun to meet in real life, someone I'd been blog-stalking for ages. But the noise, the pollution and the crazy traffic were really wearing me down... I was eager to head out for Ha Long Bay for some peace and quiet in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Saturday, October 24, 2009
When the fashion show was over we got up and were about to leave when a couple from the boat showed up. I chatted with them for a bit and they said they were meeting up with a few more people from the boat. So we ordered another Beer Laos and got caught up with everything we'd been doing in Luang Prabang. Well fed, a bit rested, and with a couple of beers easing my sore muscles my perspective of the day improved dramatically and we started regaling everyone with tales of our adventure. When I mentioned that it we started with a 15 km. off road bike ride the Irish girl responded "Oh sweet Jesus!" which sums it up nicely. It was really great to meet up with everyone again, and we exchanged facebook info so we could keep in touch for the rest of our travels. Having people to chat with (and drink with) at the end of the day makes all the difference in the world!
Friday, October 23, 2009
Journey from Thailand to Laos:
Day one - Minivan from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong Thailand.
Day two - Slow boat from Chiang Khong to Pak Beng
Day three - Slow boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I got up pretty early - thanks to some ungodly sounding roosters (I swear one of them sounded like a goat) and got some breakfast. Some of my fellow travelers were there already, so I just pulled up a chair. Again - it's nice to have someone to chat with over a meal.
Breakfast was AWESOME... even if nearly as expensive as the room (trying to mentally convert everything between baht, kip and dollars, this was not something I figured out until the next day). I had an omelet with cheese* (Laughing Cow) and a freshly baked, warm from the oven baguette. It was AMAZING. Oh it was delicious. And I was not the only one to mention it, as more people kept coming down we all kept recommending the omelets "It has CHEESE in it!" A nice hot cup of tea was the perfect touch as we sat on the terrace overlooking the misty Mekong we would soon be traveling down .... again!
I picked up another sandwich to go, and headed down to the docks. The boat was not the same one we'd taken on the first day.
The scenery was more wild green jungle, more muddy river, more mists in the hills. Honestly, it's beautiful... but an hour or three is plenty. Two days is a bit much. But it did get quite spectacular as we got closer to Luang Prabang.
And then, right on schedule we were there.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
This was my first view of Laos from the Thai side of the border. Not the most spectacular sight, but it was reassuring to see signs of civilization.
While we were waiting for the final minivan to take us to the boats our guide gave us some "information" about Laos. It was like something off of Survivor. He told us that we'd been lied to by our Thai travel agents, that the first leg of the slow boat tour would not be 6 hours, but rather more like 8 or 9. We were told there would be NO FOOD on the boat (this point had also been stressed at the restaurant where we'd had dinner the night before so we'd all ordered sandwiches to go already). He told us that when we got to Pak Beng - the half way point and our overnight stopping point, that there would be schemers trying to take our bags or overcharge us for carrying them. He said that there was no electricity in Pak Beng and that 90% of the accommodations were 'not good'. "Your door has a key, but some person can just open it and take your things." The whole time, he's telling us "I just want to give you information - you can decide for yourself. In Laos some things are good, but some things are bad - I don't want you to have a bad experience and think that everything in Laos is bad. I want you to make up your own mind, so I give you all the information."
Naturally he started talking about the other options... there is a speed boat that will take us to Luang Prabang in about 6 hours, but it was very dangerous, very uncomfortable, very expensive. There's also the government bus which may or may not brake down, or... if you decide for yourself .... a mini van service that will get to Luang Prabang by midnight. He did say that the road was not completely paved, but that it was 90% good. After give us all the "information" he told us he would leave us alone to discuss what we wanted to do, and if some people decide they want to change - we could trade our tickets (with an added cost of course) for one of the other options. "I will leave you alone for five minutes, you can think it over."
I swear, it was like being told we had to vote someone off the island! The Irish gal (who was more or less on her own but had partnered up with a Canadian guy for travel purposes) immediately announced she wanted to take the minivan option... she was well and truly freaked out. There was another German woman who was traveling alone and she hadn't realized the slow boat would take two days, so she'd decided to take the minivan as well. Lion heart that I am, I was about pissing my pants with terror at *any* of the options.
But then I walked over to the other group of people and asked what they were going to do. An Aussie gal traveling with her boyfriend said "Well, why don't we just take the boat, and stick together when we get to Pak Beng - we'll get off the boat together, make sure we all have all our stuff, and stay in the same guest house." That, to me, was like the best thing anyone had ever said, and I was like "I'm sticking with her." Her boyfriend, during this discussion made the necessary (and to be oft repeated) comment - "Yeah, let's stick together, because at the end of the day - we're all in the same boat."
We talked to the other group and basically were like "Whatever you do, it's going to be okay, but if you're not comfortable taking the boat, don't" And ultimately the three of them decided not to. I have to say, it was really nice to have a group to latch onto at this point in my trip... but the anxieties that the guy provoked were not completely assuaged. Every time the boat stopped & turned around (to drop off mail or something) I felt nauseous until we were going in the right direction again.
The boat wasn't completely full, but there were quite a lot of us in a fairly small space for a looooooong time. The benches were uncomfortable even with the cushions we purchased from our guest house. There was a small snack bar on the boat, serving chips, cookies, water, sodas and beer. So the whole "NO FOOD" admonition wasn't quite true, but still I was glad to have a packed lunch & some water.
It absolutely helped to have some travel-buddies to chat with. We passed the time playing Yahtzee- my first time!
And of course, gazing at the scenery as we went by. This is a situation where the journey really is the experience. The point was not to get to Luang Prabang in the most efficient manner... it was to see Laos.
It was cloudy and cool and rained on and off all day... but really this just added a little variety to the scenery. The mist in the hills is beautiful in it's own quiet way.
We pulled into Pak Beng after about 5 & a half hours - so just a little ahead of schedule as stated by the Thai travel agents... and well ahead of schedule as stated by the Laos guide. Our group did stick together, and got our bags from the back of the boat before we docked. One man did reach forward and offer to take my hand bag, but I said "No" firmly and he left me alone. There were guest-house touts aplenty at the dock, and this is always unsettling to me. But again, having a group there made all the difference. Someone else checked out a couple of the deals and decided on one. Rooms with fan & bathroom for 200 baht (CHEAP! ABOUT $6 US). We piled into his minivan and drove ... yes... about four blocks. To be fair, it was rainy and uphill, and none of that is fun in the rain, but it did seem a bit unnecessary. The rooms were basic but clean enough... and had electricity from about 6am - 11pm. My shower hose came out of the heater unit at one point... but I just stuck it back in and went on with things. And then there was a fairly good sized spider on the toilet, but I just asked one of the Australian guys to get it for me.
At the end of the day we had dinner & a few Beer Laos at the guest house restaurant.
We all complained about the Laos guide trying to scare us out of taking the slow boat (and succeeding in the case of the three who took the minivan), but we also agreed that having set our expectations so incredibly low, everything that actually happened seemed just great!
I turned in pretty early because the boat was leaving - with us or without us at 9 the next morning and I wanted to make sure I got some breakfast first. So day two... and my first day on the Mekong went just fine.
Monday, October 19, 2009
She told me it would be a three day affair:
Day one: Minivan to the Thai border city of Chiang Khong, guest house provided
Day two: Cross the river into Laos, where a guide would usher us through the visa process, then the slow boat would take 6 hours to get to Pak Beng where we would need to find our own place to spend the night.
Day three: Slow boat from Pak Beng to Luang Prabang.
There was an option to leave at night and arrive in Chiang Khong quite late, or leave at noon and get a full night's sleep there. Old lady that I am, I opted for the full night's sleep even if it did cost a bit more. The total trip cost.... 1,800 baht, including the minivan to the border, one night in a guesthouse and two days on the boat.
I had a late and leisurely breakfast at the cafe across from my guesthouse (rapturously delicious ham and cheese bagel sandwich btw) and then was ready to go. It was about a 4 hour minivan ride, but the driver stopped about once an hour for a good long time each stop. It was nice to get a break now and then... but it did seem a bit excessive. The rest stops were good too... lots of choices for food, little markets, decent toilets. One stop had Thailand's highest geyser.
Another stop had this amazing white temple. I don't know what it's called or what the story was... but it was cool!
Finally we rolled into Chiang Khong at about 5pm, dinner to be served at 6pm. The room was basic but clean enough, decent bathroom again. My tolerance has increased considerably from living here though, so opinions may vary. Dinner was free, and pretty good. Rice with curry, and stir fried veggies. I had a beer and introduced myself to my fellow travelers - another couple of minivans had arrived and we'd all be going to Laos together.
After dinner we walked across the street to a bar, had a few beers & played some pool. It was pretty low key - just comparing where on the backpacker's loop we'd been, where we were going, and what the heck we were doing here in the first place. It turns out that pretty much everyone was 'between jobs' in one way or another. It was nice to find travelers I could relate to. At one point I told the Irish woman "I'm on my own so I'm just going to latch onto you guys if that's okay." and she said, in the way that only an Irish woman could "Don't be ridiculous, a' course a' course! We're all just travelin'." Which made me feel loads better. =)
The first stop was the silk factory and it really was interesting. They had trays of silkworms on leaves, and in each stage of their development.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
There were five of us... a newlywed couple from Germany, a Canadian couple a year out of college and on their way to a year in New Zealand for a working holiday.... and you know, me... myself.... alone... khun deo. But really it was okay, the other couples were very friendly and we had fun chatting. It's kind of cool to be doing the travel bit after my year of working because when we get around to the whole "How long have you been in Thailand?" game, I always have the trump card.
And after a year of trying to fit into the Thai culture, it's fun to be a genuine tourist here. Since there are soooo many tourists here I have no problem whipping out my camera and snapping pictures of anything that's "weird."
For example, all kinds of random stuff at the market, where my cooking class started.
The instructor, "Miss Bitch" as her t-shirt proudly announced, told us a bit about the different Thai ingredients, then let us wander around while she did the actual shopping.
Back at the school we started on breakfast - for me Pad Thai. All the ingredients were set out for us, all we really had to do was mix this and that and do the stir-frying. It's definitely more for fun than for actually learning how to cook... but that was fine with me.
After Pad Thai came the appetizers, Spring Rolls for me, and Som Tam (papaya salad) for two of the other students.
Miss Bitch had quite an entertaining teaching technique: "Crush the garlic like your ex-lover", swirling the egg in the wok for the pad thai: "swirl the egg, swirl the egg, swirl your hips - sexy sexy sexy!" and admonishing the guys not to use the toilet after touching peppers to avoid getting chili willies "I cannot help you with that!" It was a routine, but it was still really funny.
Next I made Tom Yam Gung, a very popular sour coconut shrimp soup. It starts with coconut milk, lemon grass, chili paste, keffir lime leaves and... something else I've already forgotten. =( We only add the shrimp at the end, and don't stir because it makes it taste too fishy, according to Miss Bitch.
For the main course I learned to make both stir fried chicken with cashew nuts and yellow curry. Although she demonstrated making the curry paste from scratch with a mortar and pestle ("now treat it like your new lover - harder! faster! harder! faster!") she told us that even most Thai families buy their curry paste at the market...it's cheaper than buying the ingredients separately.
Both of these dishes were absolutely delicious, and I cannot wait to try them at home. After each dish we stopped and ate, and napped.... it was a LOT of food for one day.
And when we were more bloated than could possibly be imagined, we made dessert! I chose mango with sticky rice, which I think could be well adapted to peaches depending on your climate.
I started feeling relatively comfortable with the wok, and we got a recipe book at the end, so in theory I should be able to make all these wonderful dishes at home.
You know, at that time in the undetermined future when I actually *have* a home again!
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