Friday, November 30, 2012

Loy Krathong

Day 25 (Tues)

After finally making it to Chiang Mai, I headed to check in to my hostel, called Deejai Backpackers. Out of all of the hostels/guesthouses that I have stayed in, this is definitely the best! I am staying in a fan dorm room with private bath. I have two roommates and our room is pretty clean and complete with hot shower (luxury)! The common area is really great to meet people and today the hostel was providing materials for anyone who wanted to make a krathong (basically like a water lantern).

Loy Krathong (or Lantern Festival, as I have been referring to it) is a huge festival in Thailand, but the place to celebrate it seems to be in Chiang Mai. The festival is a time when Thais pay respect to the water goddess by making krathongs and setting them afloat as an offering down the river. It is celebrated during the last full moon of the Thai calendar, which usually falls in November. Thais also believe that it is a way of sending bad spirits off with the krathong, ensuring good fortune for the coming year.

The hostel provided us with the materials to make our own krathong. Using the trunk of a banana tree as a base, banana leaf is used to cover the base and as decorations. The krathong is also usually topped with flowers, sticks of incense and a candle. It was a great way to get into the spirit of the festival and to meet new people as we all took part in an afternoon of 'arts and crafts'.
Making my krathong.

After making our krathongs, a few of us decided to wonder out into the city to find some good Thai food. We passed this one restobar that had a pretty good list of Thai food options. We were greeted by a very well dressed and tall "ladyboy" who worked there. She told us that we must eat there because they had the best food in all of Thailand. Of course we were a bit skeptical but figured this place would probably be as good as any. So we asked her recommendation for us to order. Without hesitation she told us to get kao soi. So we did. And it was the most amazing meal I think I have had yet! It is a Thai soup made with chicken, rice, and coconut milk, usually having a chicken leg in the bowl and topped with crispy noodles. SO GOOD. After we had our fill, we, slowly, made our way back to the hostel in time for the evening festivities.

At around 6pm the hostel arranged for a number of taxis (which  resemble more of a jeepney to me) for about 20 Baht each to take us all to the river to set our krathongs afloat. Despite a little rain, we were able to successfully launch our offerings down the river (though whether our candles stayed lit was doubtful).  After making our Krathong offering we walked around Chiang Mai, taking in the sights of the festival - lanterns being launched, krathongs floating, fireworks in the air, music and tons of delicious looking street food!
Lighting out lanterns.
Sending out lanterns down the river.
Street food!

I had a great time enjoying the festival and reconnecting with some of my volunteer friends who are also here for the festival. But it didn't take me long to get pretty tired (especially considering the previous 24 hr of travel), so we headed back to the hostel and now I look forward to a good nights sleep!

Day 26 (Wed)

Today I decided to take it easy. I woke up and had some breakfast while looking through my guidebook trying to decide what I wanted out of my time here in Chiang Mai. Then I went out with some of my volunteer friends to walk around and get to know more of the city. There are of course lots of wats (temples) but I have to say that as beautiful as they are, I am getting kind of wat-ed out. But while walking past yet another wat, we were able to watch as three Buddhist monks launched a lantern into the air. After it got a few meters from the ground, the tail of the lantern started exploding as the fireworks attached went off. Pretty cool.

Sights around town.

Enjoying a leisurely walk around Chiang Mai.
So it was mostly a pretty chill day, just walking around Chiang Mai. I really enjoyed again being able to hang out with fellow Peace Corps Volunteers. We were able to share some of our experiences of our different trips and talk about what we already miss about the Philippines. I can't believe that I have little more than a week left in Asia. Time has gone by so fast!

Deejai backpackers yet again proved its awesomeness by having lanterns for us to send off for free! So we went to the courtyard behind the hostel and lit the giant cylindrical paper lanterns, wait a few minutes for it to fill with hot air and then made a wish before sending it into the night sky. Afterwards we headed to the river for more of the festival activities. Today is the last official day of the festival and we were craving some good festival street food!

Getting ready to let our lantern fly!
When we got to the riverside we had to manage our way through the massive crowds of people. It seemed like the entire city must have been there for the festival. And everywhere you looked there were people sending their lanterns into the air. The entire night sky around the city was filled with lights from lanterns floating up high. The lantern lights seemed to outnumber stars in the sky! I have been to many different festivals around Asia but this one was truly magical!

People lighting lanterns in the street.
We walked down the street further and found some really great food stands. The first we headed to was the fried noodle stand where we had a variety of fried noodles to choose from for only 15 Baht ($0.50). After devouring our noodles we moved on to the sushi stand. Now I know street sushi might sound sketchy but it was amazing! We choose from a variety of rolls, for either 5 or 10 baht each (so cheap!) The stand was also pretty popular so the rolls were actually very fresh as the vendors worked laboriously behind the stand, making rolls and trying to keep the stand stocked.

Noodle stand
About to chow down on some fried noodles!
Sushi cart! My favorite!
After sushi we moved on to the tempura cart and ordered an assortment of tempura fried chicken and shrimp served with a sweet chili sauce. At this point we were getting pretty full, but next we walked past a fruit cart and the strawberries looked so amazing that I just had to get some. I got a cup of strawberries for 10 baht and the vendor sprinkled a sugar concoction on top. It wasn't until after the third bite that I realized the strawberries had a bit of a kick to them! The sugar mixture that he sprinkled on top had crushed red pepper in it too! I never would have thought it would be good, but sweet and spicy strawberries are pretty amazing!

more street food!
Strawberries with sugar and crushed red pepper - spicy sweet!
The parade going past us.

At this point we are moving pretty slow. We stood around for awhile digesting and watching the parade as it went by but then the food coma started to set in. So we walked back to the hostel, every few steps glancing up at the night sky to watch the lanterns rise. What an amazing festival night!

Day 27 (Thurs)

Today was our tiger day! We decided to visit Tiger Kingdom to see and even pet tigers. Now I know these places are sometimes known to drug the animals to make them sleep but I did some research before going and Tiger Kingdom does NOT drug their tigers. The tigers are bred in captivity and therefore use to being around humans. Tigers and also nocturnal animals, therefore it is natural for them to be somewhat sleepy during the day. The only tigers that are pet are females and only up to a certain age.

Now this was an especially amazing experience for me because tigers are my absolute favorite animal. EVER. Ever since I was young and begged my mom to buy me Zoobooks (as advertised on t.v.) I have been mesmerized by tigers. I think they are the most beautiful creature in the world and could spend hours watching them at the zoo, never thinking I would one day be touching them!

When we got there we were able to choose what tigers we wanted to see. There were four ages of tigers that you could see: smallest, small, big and biggest. I decided to see the small (6 month) and biggest (18 months). It. was. amazing. And those tigers were most definitely not sedated. It was later in the day when we went so the tigers were slowly getting more and more active. The 6 month olds were really cute, but still bigger than the average house cat. I couldn't believe how big their paws were for still so young. We had to always approach them from behind and we weren't allowed to touch their heads and paws (apparently they don't like it). It was so surreal. At times I would look down and see how cute and sweet they looked lying around that I almost just wanted to jump on them and hug them. But then I remembered that they could quite literally rip my face off, so I resisted.

A childhood dream comes true!
The big cats were even more surreal. The tiger we saw would occasionally get up and start walking around, at which point the handler would caution us to move back and give her some room (we quickly obeyed). The size of these cats is really amazing. Their heads and paws are so big and it was amazing to see how muscular they are when they are walking around. Truly beautiful and amazing creatures!

The most beautiful creature in the world!

So my experience at Tiger Kingdom was pretty awesome. It was a lifetime dream of mine that I never thought would come true. But it also makes me sad to think that in my lifetime the wild tiger will probably become extinct. Habitat destruction and illegal poaching has left the tiger population in the thousands and decreasing every year. But I am so glad I was able to experience them here in Thailand. It was most definitely an experience I will never forget.

to be continued..

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How I almost didn't make it to Chiang Mai...

Day 24 (Mon)

Yesterday I arranged and bought my bus ticket from Vientiane, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. It's a long 17 hour ride that involves riding an international bus from Vientiane over the border then about 2 hours to Udon Thani, Thailand where I transfer buses to get to Chiang Mai. The bus ticket cost me around 1200 Baht ($40) but I was excited that it was going to be so easy to get there.
Or so I thought.....

The guesthouse I stayed at is the one who arranged my trip for me but they use a tour company. I was told I would be picked up at the guesthouse around 3pm and taken to the bus terminal, and my bus would leave around 5pm. So I waited in the guesthouse lobby for my pick-up. My ride to the bus terminal was a little late, not arriving to get me until after 3:30 but I wasn't worried since I knew that my bus wasn't leaving until 5. On the way to the bus terminal we also picked up 4 Chinese people at a different guesthouse. Only one of them spoke much English but I found out from her that they were also going to Chiang Mai. The driver took us to the town bus terminal, but he didn't make a move to let us out or direct us anywhere. So we tried to ask him where we should go. Turns out our driver didn't speak much English either so he brought a woman who I suspect works for the tour company I booked through to explain to us that we would wait there until the bus arrived.

While we were waiting my driver left and came back with a very delicious looking Lao baguette. I tried to ask him where he got the sandwich, though he didn't understand at first and tried to give me his. After a few more hand gestures he understood that I wanted to also buy a sandwich like his. He went over to his motorbike and motioned for me to get on. I was a bit confused because I thought the sandwich place must be close but the bus hadn't arrived yet so I hopped on the back of his bike. He drove me literally to the other side of the bus terminal, where he ordered me the same sandwich he had. It was so yummy (tho I am not even sure what was in it except lots of chili sauce!) Then he drove me back to the other side of the terminal.

Around 4:30 the bus arrived. We watched as it unloaded its passengers and then people started to board again. My Chinese travel companions and I tried to ask our driver if we should get on the bus (our bags were still in the back of the van he picked us up in)  but he only motioned that we should wait for a bit. So we waited and waited. I didn't think anything of it really, because I figured that he knew what he was doing and would make sure we got on the bus.... until it looked like it was about ready to leave. Then he started to frantically motion for us to get our bags and get on the bus. Oh boy.

So we got our bags from the back of the van, shoved them under the bus and boarded. ...Only to find there were no more seats left on the bus. At this point I have not started to panic really, but worry has definitely set in.

The woman from the travel company came on the bus and apparently tried to buy back some of the seats from the other passengers so we could have seats, but no one seemed to want to give up their seat to Udon Thani, Thailand. Eventually the bus driver said it was time to go. Things started to get a little chaotic as the bus driver was trying to kick off the travel company woman, while she was trying to tell us she was sorry but we might have to stand for the ride to Udon Thani. At one point the driver was yelling "bus full, you get off" and "time to go", a western man sitting in the back was complaining about the bus not leaving on time (jerk), and the woman is yelling at us to stay on the bus and yelling something in Thai to the driver. It was all very confusing but I was determined to stay on that bus and make it to Chiang Mai!

So finally we started to move and the woman stepped off the bus. I went and sat at the back of the bus on the step that is above the engine....

Not too much later we arrived at the Laos border. So we all got off to go through exit immigration, which was pretty easy. While I was getting through immigration, I talked to two other western guys who were also going to Chiang Mai (though they had seats). I found out they had paid the same amount and was explaining my situation (as best I could, since I really didn't understand what was going on).

After we boarded back on the bus, the bus conductor was waiting at the back of the bus for me and the Chinese people. He tried to tell me that I needed to pay 500 baht (about $15) to ride the bus going to Udon Thani. I told him that I would not pay that since I already paid 1200 Baht for the whole trip. Of course he also didn't speak hardly any English. He kept repeating to me that I only paid for Udon Thani to Chiang Mai until I showed him my receipt that said from Vientiane to Chiang Mai. After that he left me alone, for a bit.

Next we came to the Thailand border. At this point I was pretty worried. I remembered reading in my guidebook that sometimes the international bus is in a hurry to get through immigration. To get into Thailand we had to take our bags from the bus storage and take it through immigration as well. So I started to worry that if I took too long through immigration that since both me and my bag were off the bus they might try to leave me. So I quickly got my bag and ran ahead to immigration where I jumped in front of people to get an immigration form, filled it out and got through. I headed back to put my bag back on the bus when the conductor again was waiting for me..

He told me I had to pay 100 Baht this time and tried to motion for me to take another vehicle. Now I was not about to pay any more for this trip and I was certainly not going to get on another vehicle not knowing how I was getting to Chiang Mai. So I had to make a decision, one that was probably the key decision I made that night. I told the conductor 'no, I am riding this bus' and despite his yelling, I threw my bag inside the bus and quickly boarded. He was gonna have to carry me off that bus if he wanted me out.

After the other passengers were on the bus I saw my Chinese companions outside looking very confused. They saw me on the bus and started to try to get on as well. Turns out the bus conductor was able to get 100 additional Baht from each of them so he came looking for me next. I told him I was not going to pay 100 Baht (a little over $3, but still..) to sit on the floor for 2 hours. I motioned to the seat next to me, "do you have a seat for me then?" He understood so he started motioning for me to follow him to the front and sat me down in his bucket seat next to the driver.

Now at this point the driver has already started the bus up again and we are on our way to Udon Thani. So the way I figure, I am getting there. So why pay more? I ask the conductor who will get the 100 Baht he is still asking me for. I motion to my pocket and then his, asking "is it going into your pocket only?" At this point he laughs and says yes, motioning it will go into his pocket. Now I was not about to let this guy make some money off of my misery. So I said no. Then he told me "you stand, you stand". Since he wasn't getting any money from me, he wanted his seat back. But I was tired of his game. So I just sat in his seat a little longer and stared quietly up at him and smiled until he was quite frustrated with me. Then I pointed to the step behind the driver and said "I will sit there." I think he was so happy to have me out of his seat that after that he didn't bother me any more for money or a seat.

As I sat there on the floor I was feeling much better. I made it past the border and would at least make it to Udon Thani. Then the very kind Thai woman who was sitting in the front row started to ask me questions about my trip. I explained to here how I had bought my ticket and she tried to explain everything to the driver and conductor so they could understand and she told me what they had said earlier. She also told me what the woman who I assumed worked for the travel company had been saying to the driver earlier. She had been begging the driver to let us stay on the bus. The Thai woman told me she thought what had probably happened was the tour company had cheated me and that when I arrived to Udon Thani I was probably going to have to buy another ticket to get to Chiang Mai. So I settled into thinking that that was the way it was going to be. At least I would make it there.

When we arrived to the bus terminal in Udon Thani, the Thai woman explained to me that this was the old bus station and that I needed to get to the new bus station for a bus to Chiang Mai. So she took me by the hand and told me should would talk to a tuk-tuk driver for me to make sure I got there OK. But wouldn't you know, when we got off the bus a man approached us in a red vest, saying he was with our tour company and would be not only getting us to the new bus terminal but also getting us our bus tickets! So it wasn't a scam afterall! WOOHOO! I rounded up the other passengers going to Chiang Mai and explained to the Chinese people what was happening. The Thai woman made sure we were all ok and then I thanked her in the traditional Thai way of putting my hands together, as if praying, and bowing my head while telling her "kab-kun-ka". She reciprocated the gesture and wished us good luck.

So we all followed the guy in the red vest and piled into the back of his pick-up truck. He took us to the new bus terminal, gave us our Chiang Mai tickets, and took us to the bus. And oh what a glorious bus it was! After the tortuous ride I had from Luang Prabang and the chaotic time getting to Udon Thani, this bus was like heaven. It had nice seats that reclined all the way, comfy blankets, working aircon, a bathroom on board, and they even gave us snacks along the way.

I sat with the other travelers that had been on my bus and we talked about the crazy time making it there, speculating on what had caused all the confusion. It could have been the bus workers, who, wanting to make some extra cash, sold our seats and then tried to charge us more too. Or it could have been a simple miss-communication between the tour company and the bus company to reserve us our seats. We will never know. So we just toasted our success, with cans of BeerLao, on making it on the right bus and to how things always work out. Because they really do. They may not work out the way you expected or hoped for, but as long as you persevere, they will work out. Everything always does.

So now I am in Chiang Mai, and have reunited with some of my volunteer friends. The hostel I am staying at is really awesome (it's called DeeJai Backpackers and I highly recommend it). I have already met a lot of fellow travelers and we are all excited about participating in the festival activities!

to be continued!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Laos - Land of Elephants

Day 20 (Thurs)

Today we decided to visit the KuangSi waterfalls, which are supposed to be amazing. We booked a van through our guesthouse to take us and some others to the falls, by far the cheapest way to do it. It was a windy 45 min drive through the mountains surrounding Luang Prabang but we made it to the falls! They are so beautiful. Natural formations of limestone and turquoise water! There was a swing and people were jumping off the smaller falls. The water was so cold but very refreshing. We enjoyed taking pictures and swimming for a few hours before heading back with our van crew.

We got back around 3:30 which was just in time for me to get ready for my cooking class! I had originally planned on taking a cooking class in every country I have been in but haven't been taking time (or money) to do it yet. At around $25 to $30, it can be a bit expensive for the budget traveller but you get what you pay for and I thought this Laos Cooking Class was one of the best experiences I have had here in LP!

I had originally wanted to book the day class but it was already full for days, so I booked the evening class instead. I took the guidebook's advice and went with Tamarind Restaurant's cooking class. It has a reputation for being excellent and it really was!

There were 12 of us in the class and since it was evening time and the restaurant needed its space for the dinner crowd, we headed outside the city for the class to a small farm lot. It was picturesque! A beautiful outdoor set up with a long table by a pond for eating our creations together. The instructor's table was filled with fresh herbs and vegetables and there were coal pots (the native way to cook - no stoves for us!) already lit and burning.

Our ingredients
Rice cooking

We made three Laos dishes and one dessert using ingredients the locals use, including lemon grass, basil, peppers, garlic, shallots, green onions, tomatoes, Chinese eggplant, cilantro (which they call coriandor here), ground chicken, and of course, sticky rice!

The first dish we made was a jeow, which is a kind of paste. It was very simple and included toasting peppers, eggplant, onion and garlic and then using a mortor and pestle we ground it together with fish sauce, salt, herbs and chicken flavor. Then we put plastic over it for later.

Next we prepped our steamed fish in banana leaf by making a similar paste for seasoning, soaking the fish and then wrapping it in banana leaf and leaving to steam cook.

Our last main was chicken laab (Laos salad) stuffed into lemon grass. We made a jeow and mixed in the ground chicken. Cutting the lemon grass correctly was the hardest part. I, embarrassingly, went through a few lemon grass sticks before I finally got one that would hold the chicken mixture (and my instructor made my second one, which was much prettier than mine...). Next we coated the stuffed lemon grass in egg and fried in a pan.

Finally we prepared our dessert. We had already had cooking some red sticky rice, which we then put into a pot with a bit of sugar, and pinch of salt. Next we extracted coconut milk from some fresh coconut shreddings and cooked the sticky rice in it. The final step was to add some delicious native fruit. I added to mine banana, mangosteen, mango, tamarind, and dragon fruit. Then, time to eat!

We had a great time cooking together and during dinner it was nice to talk to the other travellers. Some British, some Dutch, German, Australian, and even another American. We talked and swapped travel stories while we ate. It was a great experience to meet other travellers from around the world and bond over learning to cook Laos food!

Day 21 (Fri)

So today was our tour to elephant village! We went through a company called Tiger Trails, which I mentioned before. Elephant Village and Tiger Trails were both started by  German guy who travelled to Laos and fell in love with the country. Many elephants are still used as a main source of labor in logging. This can be a very hard life for an elephant. So the creator of Elephant Village wanted a place for captive elephants to have an easier life. Elephants can consume between 150 and 250 kg of food each day, making them quite expensive to keep. By using them for sustainable tourism, they can in a sense pay for their keep while living an easier life than if logging.

Elephant village is currenlty home to 11 Asian Elephants, 3 of which are owned and 8 are rented. I was told that often times the owner will not sell the elephant to elephant village, so they are rented instead.
The elephants all come with their mahout, or elephant trainer/rider. Most of the time, a elephant will have only one mahout so the bond between the two can be very close.

For our tour, we started with just a small trek sitting atop an elephant carriage. Along the way we would stop at points for our elephants to grab a palm frond which they would munch on along the way like a giant celery stick.

When we got back we were able to "thank" our elephants by feeding them bananas, which they seemed to really love! Next we had our mahout training. We learned the proper way to approach, mount and ride an elephant. We had to learn the calls in Laos since that is the only language the elephants understand. We also learned how to ride on the back of the elephant head/neck, which is where the mahout usually sits.

After our class (and a lunch break for us and the elephants) it was time to use our mahout skills and take the elephants for a bath! This was my favorite part! The elephant I rode is named Mae Unk, and was the same one we trained on. I asked her mahout, named Sae, what her name means. Sae told me "Mae" means "mother" and all female elephants are called this, and "unk" means "hangover". I asked Sae why he would name his elephant hangover, and he just laughed and said because she always over eats and has hangover, moving very slow! And sure enough, although Mae Unk was not the biggest elephant, she was certainly the fattest!

So I rode Mae Unk down to the river. She really liked to go underwater, dunking me about waist high into the cold river water. She would stay under for a few seconds before emerging her head and trunk to take a breath. I scrubbed her thick skin and pat her head, which was covered in course hairs. It was an amazing experience to sit atop this huge elephant as she played and bathed in the river!

After the river bath, the elephants headed back to their home in the jungle where they can eat and rest for the remainder of the day. Meanwhile we continued on our tour to see the Sad Tae waterfalls just a little way down the river. The falls were smaller than Kuang Si falls but just as beautiful with clear refreshing water. It was also much less crowded at these falls and a bit more enjoyable. I was able to talk to the other two travellers on our tour, sharing travel stories and advice and talking about how much we enjoyed our elephant experience together.

After the falls we made it back to Luang Prabang and arranged to meet one of our new friends for dinner later. This was such an amazing day that I am sure I will never forget!

Crepes bought from a street cart.

Day 22 (Sat)

So today we left Luang Prabang to head back to the capitol, Vientiane. Linds has her flight back to the States tomorrow. We left on a bus at 6:30am for the 11hour trip south. This time the bus was full, mostly of locals including 3 monks. Two monks sat in the seats directly across from us. At one point they took out some kind of snacks wrapped in bamboo. As they were eating, the woman sitting behind me said something in Lao to them and offered some other food for them. So the younger monk sitting on the aisle seat stood up, allowing for the woman to place the food on his seat. Then he picked up the food and sat down again. Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch women, even in the most innocent of ways. (I have heard that if they do touch a woman, even by accident, they have to undergo a cleansing ritual, but I am not sure if this is true..)

Later on the bus ride, Linds and I had just finished a cup of noodles that proved to be a bit spicey, and we were both coughing a lot. Then Linds tells me she thinks the monk is trying to get my attention. So I look over and he has fashioned a stick with a small package strapped to it by rubber band, and is holding it out to me. At first I was confused until I realized he was trying to give me the small package, which was a cough medicine. So I took the package off and the rubber band came with it. I thanked him and Linds and I split the medicine. Then I wanted to give him the rubber band back so I held it out to show him and then placed it on the arm rest. So he grabbed it and put it back in his bag.

Our small interaction with the monks was probably the highlight of the bus trip, which ended up being the most grueling trip I have ever been on. Our bus broke down numerous times, at one point we slowly pulled up beside a very rural repair shop in the middle of nowhere, where we waited for the bus to be fixed again. Our 11 hour trip turned into 13 hours and when we finally arrived, the bus that had left at 8am was also arriving...
What a trip!

Day 23 (Sun)

It rained all last night but Linds and I were comfy in our hotel room. We decided to splurge on a nicer place since we were so exhausted from the long trip. Our room had aircon and really comfy beds, and we ended up paying $10 each. Today she will be leaving for her long trip back to the States. So I arranged for a cheaper accomodation for myself down the road. My new guesthouse is also arranging for my bus trip to Chiang Mai. I have reservations there starting Tues and really can't wait to get there just in time for the Lantern Festival festivities! Unfortunatley my bus trip to get there will be 17hr overnight.... oh boy.

So today and tomorrow I will wonder around Vientiane, perhaps see a few more temples and the famous Buddah Gardens (if the weather improves) and then tomorrow evening I will be leaving Laos and heading back into Thailand (for the 3rd time this year!) This will be the last leg of my trip before heading home!
But first, a few pictures from Vientiane:

to be continued!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hello Laos

Day 15 (Sat)

So today we had our diving adventure! Lindsey officially has her Open Water SCUBA certification and I joined her for two dives today. I have to say the coral was definitely not as good as I have seen in the Philippines but there was an abundance of fish! Right after we finished our descent, our guide tapped his tank and made the hand motion for barracuda! and sure enough above us a few meters away was a serious looking barracuda, scoping us out! We also saw a bluespotted stingray, which are so beautiful, a puffer fish, filefish, trigger fish, parrot fish, and schools of other reef fishes.

Ready to dive in!
Blue Spotted Stingray
And on our second dive we ran across a sea turtle! Now I have been lucky enough to see sea turtles on just about every dive I have been on in the Philippines but I was not expecting to see one here in Thailand. But this was probably the best sea turtles sighting yet! It was a beautiful and healthy looking Hawksbill Sea Turtle looking around the reef for food, and she didn't seem to mind us one bit! According to our guide, this particular turtle is known to hang around the reef so she is pretty used to SCUBA divers being around. We hung around her for a while, just watching her look for food, so amazing!

Hawksbill Sea Turtle
After while it was time to continue on our dive, but I felt like I could have watched her forever (or at least till I ran out of air).

Now we will spend the rest of the day relaxing on the beach. It has been a really awesome detour to Thailand but it's time to move on. Tomorrow we start the long journey to Laos!

Day 16 (Sun)

We left around 6:30 am from our resort on Koh Chang Island. It took about 3 hours just to get off the island since our van had a few other stops to make picking up other people and the ferry took longer than expected. All in all though I am very impressed by public transportation in Thailand. The infrastructure is well maintained and well organized. Minibuses are the popular mode of transportation for tourist, and tend to be a faster and more comfortable way to get around. These minibuses are really just big vans, but they have good working aircon and the drivers almost always seem in a hurry. They are sure to make plenty of bathroom and snack breaks along the way but still get you to your destination in a good amount of time.

Although we could have gotten to Laos in a more direct path via bus, it would have been probably a longer and more frustrating journey, consisting of many bus transfers. So we decided to head to Bangkok and take the night train. Our minibus dropped us off at the airport and the railway station was on the other side of town. But again the Thailand public transportation system impresses. There is a "airport link" metro that runs from the airport into town and connects with some of the other sky train metro lines. It was an easy ride and train transfer to the MRT, which ran right to the railway station. The metro trains are clean, easy to use, cheap and announce all stops in both Thai and English. Thank you Thailand!

So we bought our train tickets for the night train to Laos and then took the sky train again to the mall to get a bite to eat and kill some time. We have a 12 hour train ride but Laos here we come!

Day 17 (Mon)

Our train arrived into Nong Kai this morning, at the Thailand/Laos border. Despite the sleeper beds on the train being pretty comfortable, I wasn't able to get much restful sleep, but I have to rally for another long day of travel!

After exiting Thailand, we were able to ride a shuttle bus across the Friendship Bridge into Laos. Getting through Laos immigration was pretty painless, especially since we had printed out our visa application ahead of time, allowing for us to be one of the first ones to get our visas. But after getting through immigration, it was a little more confusing to determine how to get to the Northern Bus Terminal. (We decided since we had a detour in Thailand, we would just go straight to Luang Prabang so we can maximize our time there.) After two somewhat stressful tuk-tuk rides we finally made it to the bus station. Unfortunately we missed the 9am bus so we waited around for the 1:30pm bus. Despite being only a few hundred kilometers away, the trip from Vientiane (where we were) to Luang Prabang takes an estimated 11 hours via bus. This is due to (as we found out) the many break downs of the bus. In the first three hours alone we made three stops to allow for the crew to tinker with the bus engine. Although these stops were nice for bathroom and snack breaks, I was really hoping to stay on the road longer so we could get to LP before it was too late.

Although the trip is long, the scenery is pretty breath-taking. Rice fields melt into mountains and jungle landscape. It certainly makes the bus ride less dull.

We eventually made it to LP at about half past midnight. We took a tuk to a cheap guesthouse recommended in the guidebook only to find that it was full. So were the next two we checked. But finally we found a cheap place to stay for the night. After getting some semi-restful sleep, we set out to look for a guesthouse located a little closer to central town. After checking in and dropping off some laundry to get done (some of my clothes are getting a little too smelly...) we went to book our much anticipated elephant trek!

Mmmm yummy noodles - I can't get enough!
Our cute hostel.
Now there are a lot of elephant treks you can go on but I am always worried about how the animals are treated, so we went to a company called Tiger Trails. Although their tours are a bit more expensive, they have a good reputation at being sustainable and doing what they call "fair treks" which involve and benefit the local community. We planned a one-day trek for Friday, that will include lessons on how to properly treat  and ride the elephants, then we will take them on a trek through the jungle and a bath at some waterfalls. Should be fun!

Day 18 (Tues)

This morning I wanted to get up early and witness the cultural event that happens every morning at dawn in Luang Prabang - alms giving. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And part (or most) of the reason why is that is is home to numerous Buddhist temples and monasteries. It is home to monks, old and young. If you aren't familiar with Buddhist Monks, they are they guys with shaved heads wearing orange robes. They live their life as simply as possibly, attempting to eliminate suffering and temptation from life, spending much of the time in meditation, trying to achieve the Buddhism goal of Nirvana.

As a way of living this life, they rely on the support of their community to live. A few times now I have been riding a tuk-tuk somewhere and we will pick up a monk who will sit in the front with the driver, who will give him a free lift to wherever he is headed. And every morning at dawn in Luang Prabang, the community comes out to the street to give alms, mostly sticky rice, to the monks as they pass down the street. The food that they collect will be the only food they consume for the day.

So needless to say one of the things I planned on experiencing in LP is to wake up and witness the giving of alms to the monks. So this morning I woke up and headed out to the street. I barely got out the door of the guesthouse before women approached me to buy sticky rice and other foods to give to the monks. I wasn't planning on participating in the ritual because I am not Buddhist and don't want to offend practicing Buddhists, so I just kept walking. When I arrived to the street where the monks walk down to collect alms, there were tourist lining the sidewalk with alms to give. Again I was confronted by women telling me I needed to give alms. I was quite confused at what I should do but ended up deciding that if I was going to come to take pictures that I might as well give alms in return. She wanted me to buy bananas and some small wrapped candies but I insisted on only getting a bowl of sticky rice to give, and I am very glad I did..

Further down the road from me there were many more tourist so I stayed near the end and positioned myself after three local women so I could watch and mimic what they did. I have to say that I was very disappointed in the attire of some of the tourist. I was wearing long pants and a t-shirt since you are never supposed to have exposed knees or shoulders in temples or around monks. But there were women wearing short shorts and mini-skirts with tanktops. Um really?! It's not even that hot outside since the sun is barely up and these girls are wearing beach wear when they should be wearing temple attire. I just don't understand coming to a country to experience the culture without first researching what is culturally appropriate. I think it is very disrespectful for them to come to such a cultural and spiritual ritual dressed like they are going to a bar.
OK end rant.

So the monks came down the street and I did my best to give them alms of sticky rice as they passed by but I noticed as they came past the local Laoation women sitting next to me that they were taking the candy packages out of their alms buckets and giving them to the street children. In fact the street children had bags full of candy, bananas and rice, as it seems the monks were getting too much alms. They are trying to live a simple and modest life, after all, and eating too much would be sinful. Meanwhile tourist are almost getting in the monks' faces to take pictures of them.

After awhile I was getting uncomfortable being there. I felt like an intruder. And I didn't like being associated with the other tourist wearing skimpy clothes and getting too close with their cameras. So when there was a brake in the monks' procession, I quietly got up and left.

I thought that witnessing and participating in the alms giving would be a great cultural experience. But as I walked back to my guesthouse, all I felt was sadness and guilt. Sometimes tourism can benefit the community, but other times I think it just slowly destroys it. When I got back to the room I looked over the few pictures I had taken and couldn't help but to feel a pang of guilt. That is why I have decided not to share the pictures. I won't be posting them on facebook or this blog, or anywhere for that matter. I deleted all but two and will only keep them as a personal reminder of how I never again want to cross the line between respectful observer and cultural intruder.

So although it was nice to get a glimpse of this spiritual ritual, I won't be going back. I think some experiences are better remembered as quiet observer. But it would be hypocritical of me to say don't visit  Luang Prabang to witness the alms giving. So instead I will just recommend that if you do, sit across the street away from the alms giving, be as less intrusive with your picture taking as possible, and for God's sake (or in this case, Buddha's sake) wear appropriate clothing. And if you can resist the temptation of taking any pictures, you might find you enjoy the whole experience better, as just a bystander in a sacred community ritual.

to be continued...