Sunday, September 28, 2014


Hello from Thailand! We crossed the border from Laos a couple of hours ago and are on our way to Chiang Mai, the first stop on our Thailand tour. We’ve got a few hours on a mini-bus, so I’m gonna give you a brief (sorry, I meant it when I initially wrote it I swear) rundown of what happened in Laos! Ok? Ready? 

Part 1 : Thailand -Vientiane

I technically flew from Hong Kong into Thailand as it was much cheaper than flying into Laos. I spent a few days in a very sleepy little town called Nong Khai, located right on the Mekong River in Thailand. You could see Laos on the other side of the river, pretty cool. There wasn’t a tonne to do in Nong Khai, but after the craziness of Hong Kong I didn’t mind a few days of quiet. The one highlight of this town is the sculpture park, cyclable distance from my guesthouse! Dozens of Buddhist sculptures made by one holy man, I think is the story. A couple days before I was scheduled to cross the border into Laos, I met a guy at my guesthouse who had gotten stranded after being too late to get across the border. He had rode his motorbike up from Bangkok and was on his way to Vang Vieng. He offered me a ride to Vientiane on his bike, but I would have to go a day earlier than planned. Why not right?? It was only like an hour drive away, so it wasn’t THAT dangerous. The only thing that went wrong was that I burned my damn leg on the exhaust pipe as I was getting off, and that mess has taken quite a while to heal (it was two weeks ago and it’s still scabbed over!)

crazy sculpture park

Vientiane itself was really nice. It gets a bad rap as being “boring” from most travelers, but I found it pretty charming. Lots of cafes, bars, restaurants, a beautiful riverfront promenade and park that was full of people enjoying it every evening (too hot during the day), good bookstores, decent hospital (because I had to go there for my burn…stupid!). In one word, I think what was going t through my mind was “livable”. Anyway, I was there a day or two before my friend Josh showed up, just chilling and hanging around. The day Josh arrived we went for a bike ride around to see the handful of recommended tourists sites, nothing amazing. We went to a centre run by Mine Action Group (MAG) where you can learn about the Secret War and the thousands of bombs dropped on Laos by the US Airforce in the 60s. Once again, I found something that I previously did not know ANYTHING about. Example: Did you know Laos is the MOST bombed country in the world? Did you know there are unexploded ordinances all over the country? Did you know President Kennedy pronounced Laos “Lay-os”? Anyway, that was really informative and worthwhile, if you’re looking for somewhere to put any extra money look into the MAG group. The are training local people on how to diffuse the bombs properly without harming any people or villages, and educating villagers and farmers on what they should do when they come across anything that could potentially blow them up.

Vientiane looks nice right?

Part 2: Vang Vieng

After a couple days in Vientiane we headed to Vang Vieng, the tubing capital of SE Asia. The bus ride there was pretty standard, met some British girls who helped us decide which guesthouse to stay in on the way. We got there a little late in the day so we just walked around, witnessed some of the tubers making it back to shore and chilled in some hammocks. That night it rained the whole damn night, thunder and lightning too. We woke up and the sun was out so we headed down to get our tube on. You can imagine our devastation when they told us that the river was too high and dangerous for tubing! After a few minutes of collective stunned silence, we opted to go to the “Blue Lagoon” for a swim instead. The photos we had seen showed a beautiful, shimmering turquoise pool, perfect for a swim. What we arrived to was a brown, muddy area with some picnic tables, which is what happens when you visit places in the rainy season. The water was still lovely anyway, and there was a cave to explore nearby as well. It turned out to be a pleasant day.
the "blue" Lagoon

Our second day in Vang Vieng we had purchased a tour (for so cheap). We set off in a tuk-tuk, like 15 km up river. Our first, and actually most difficult mission was to cross the river in a kayak. Josh and I were determined to have no problem, and we were off to a good start until we got stuck on some rocks! I’m pretty sure the guy had to give us another push to get us going. One boat got swept waaaaaay down the river and needed to be rescued with a motorboat. Once the river was crossed we took a very picturesque little hike through some rice fields until we reached a mountain. Here, we each got a tube, put on our headlamps, grabbed the guide rope and entered into a cave river. We couldn’t go all the way in because the water was too high (and the ceiling too low), but it was still a very very cool experience. After tubing in the cave we had some nice BBQ skewers and walked back towards the river. From here, we spent the next 3 or 4 hours kayaking back to town. It was sooooooo lovely. The water wasn’t too scary, just really fast with a couple tiny little “rapids” that we handled no problem. Along the way we stopped at one of the tubing bars for a beer.

The next (and last) day in Vang Vieng, we finally got our tubing in! At the first bar we made friends with a Russian, a German, and 3 Thais, and these were our tubing buddies for the rest of the way.There used to be many bars open along the river for tubers, but now it is limited to 3, which is probably still plenty haha. Our goal was to get the tubes back before 6 so we didn’t get charged extra (but also because it gets dark not long after that), and we JUST missed it. It was a really fun day. We were luckily able to meet up with the German and Russian people afterwards, but lost contact with the Thais, probably forever, which is pretty sad. Maybe I’ll bump into them in Bangkok?

The next day we woke up, headed to Luang Prabang. I did NOT feel so good for the duration of the bus trip, but I made it!

Part 3: Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabag with no idea where we should stay. It took a couple hours but we finally found something and set out to find a nice Laos dinner. The next day I woke up and did NOT feel well. This lasted the whole day. It was also raining so I basically did nothing. The next day I was still not quite well, but managed to rent a bike and cycle around to see all the many temples in LP, which is basically what it is famous for, being a UN World Heritage Site. At one of the temples a young monk started talking to us, and invited us to come to his temple at 4:30 so we could sit in on the daily chanting. We were like “cool!”. After we saw the rest of the temples, we biked over to our monk’s temple. He met us and we chatted some more, and two more tourists showed up that he had invited to witness the chanting. We met another monk who’s English was even better, AND could speak Mandarin really well too. They told us that their goal is to either get into a good university in Vientiane, or even better, get a scholarship to a university in China or Australia. They spend tonnes of their free time studying to do these things, when they aren’t fulfilling their monkly duties. Anyway, we hung around for the chanting, which took like 40 min, but was pretty cool. At the end of it they had like, a daily meeting, where the monk in charge gave them a rundown of stuff to do the next day or something. Get this, the monk in charge, the oldest monk at the temple, was 24 years old. The monks we were speaking English to were 18 and 19, and they both told us the 24 year old was too old to study English hahaha. After the chanting, we hung around to say thank you to the monks for letting us be present during something that is probably actually quite important and serious to them and the one guy, who named himself Jack after the Titanic character (no joke), gave us these special good luck monk bracelets which he had made while meditating or something. I had all my tubing bar bracelets on my right wrist so I made him put it on the left wrist because they actually look identical and I didn’t want the monk bracelet mixed in with my beer bracelets. That just didn’t seem right to me.  Then Jack gave us this awesome pro-tip. In Luang Prabang, one of the big tourist draws has been to watch the monks collect their morning alms. They all walk around in the morning and the local people give them rice, and that’s what they eat. Recently, tourists have been actually taking part in this special religious process, which is kind of messed up. There were signs ALL over town asking tourists to respect the sacredness of the ritual and to not ruin it by posing for photos with the monks, or giving them bad food, etc. I clearly wanted to witness the morning alms giving, but hoped to do so in the least intrusive way possible. Jack told us that if we walked further away off the main road and closer to his temple, we would be further away from the other tourists and we’d be able to get better photos, and it would look more like what it’s supposed to. Jack was the best! King of the world!

Which brings us to the next day. I woke up at 5:30AM to go get some photos of the morning alms giving. I ended up going alone because 6am is an insane hour for a backpacker. I walked back over to Jack’s temple and saw a line of older people waiting for the young monks to arrive to give them rice. Using all two words of the Laos language that I learned, I politely asked if they were ok with me taking their photo, and they said yes. YAY! So we waited together for the monks to arrive. So much success! Each monk has a pot, and each person puts like a handful of sticky rice or whatever they have into their pots, and that’s what the monks eat for the rest of the day. When this was finished, I went back to bed to sleep because it was still insanely early. Later in the day we headed out to visit a beautiful tiered waterfall. However, similar to the “blue” lagoon experience, it was not quite what it looked in the photos we had seen. There was water EVERYWHERE. The areas where you would normally swim the water was twice as high as usual, and had engulfed most of the surrounding trees and picnic tables. We were still able to take some neat photos near to the big waterfall, and my friends climbed to the very top. So not a total waste. We got home and I was STILL feeling a little sick (at this point I had started to take antibiotics, which helped immensely), but dragged myself out to the night market to make some purchases. And then I passed out.

On my last day in Luang Prabang, I woke up and was STILL SICK, but getting better, slowly. When I was feeling well and brave enough, I ventured out to what is called Ock Pop Tok…or Ock Tok Pop…? Anyway, it’s an organization that fairly trades and sells traditional handicrafts made by hand by villagers in Luang Prabang and throughout Laos. I enjoyed a lovely lunch of bread and butter and jam (sick remember, UGH) and took the FREE tour! I learned all about silk worms and natural dying processes and how they make the weaving patterns. Did you know that silk worms only live for like 42 days? So there was me and this one other Korean guy on the tour, and we both really wanted to buy something, especially after taking the tour, but we were also both very cheap. So after hunting around the shop for like 20 minutes, we found the cheapest scarf there was and each picked one out for our moms haha. It was really quite cool. Then I went straight to the post office and mailed all the junk I bought home, so let’s hope it makes it there. On the evening of this day I sought out a neat little organization that has been working on literacy and book access in Laos called Big Brother Mouse. They run a daily informal English Conversation gathering and encourage tourists to drop by to volunteer to help locals get some English practice. I got a little (a lot maybe) lost and showed up kinda (pretty) late, but was only the second foreigner there. The study group consisted almost entirely of young men aged like…17-35 (maybe like 2 of them over 28 though), and ONE local woman. Really good way to take a crash course in everything local and current in Luang Prabang and Laos. Most of them were studying English with hopes to be English teachers, tour guides, or to become involved with the tourism industry in some way. I wish I hadn’t been so sick while I was there or I would have been able to go more than once, it was pretty memorable. The next day:

Part 4: Slow Boat

The final part of the Laos journey was a 2 day slow boat river cruise from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, where you can cross the border into northern Thailand. Day 1: 8 hours to Pak Being. Day 2: 8 hours to Huay Xai. 1 Boat. No stops. Luckily, the boat was nowhere near full and we were able to sit very comfortably and gaze out while the scenery went by. The boat had no windows so it was fresh air the whole way. Along the way we DID actually stop, but just for a few seconds (literally) to let someone off or to buy some fish or fuel for the family that owned the boat. The back part of the boat is actually the home of the family who owns it, and each boat is a little bit different based on how they have chosen to decorate it. At one village we stopped and the BIGGEST CATFISH I HAVE EVER SEEN was carried past us to the kitchen in the back. It was still alive. On the second day, when we finally made it to Huay Xai, there was no space for our boat to “park”, and we had to latch on to another boat and climb into it in order to reach dry land. They took a great deal of time to figure out and we missed the border closing and spent one more night in Laos. That was yesterday. We’ve now made it across and on our way to the much hyped Chiang Mai! Yay!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Hong Kong Wrap Up

Hello hello! I've got some time to kill at an airport, too early to check my bag even :(, so you get a blog update! I'm sitting in the Chaing Mai airport, having just flown from Hong Kong, waiting to fly to Udon Thani, to take a bus to Nong Khai, where, for the first time in 2 or 3 weeks, I will sleep in a bed in a room all to myself. I have been couchsurfing and hostelling since I moved out of my place on August 24th. It's gonna be glooooooriouuus!!

So, Hong Kong

Day 1 - September 3
I arrived in the afternoon and easily found the bus to take me to my hostel. Hong Kong is amazing to find your way around, I've never seen a city with so much tourist friendly signage. I don't think you could get lost there even if you tried (unless you couldn't read or something). Checked in, hung around and relaxed until the evening, when I met my friend who lives in Hong Kong for dinner. She took my to a super grimy Indian/Pakistani restaurant located in the back alley behind Chungking Mansions. The food was as delicious as the location was terrifying. After dinner we walked down to the harborfront to check out the nighttime skyline. It was impressive.

Day 2 - September 4
On my second day I ventured out to strike off some of the obvious tourist stuff to do. I slept in kind of late, then headed to the peak in the afternoon. The tram on the way up was pretty impressive, frighteningly steep. The official "peak" tourist area was pretty disappointing. Usually, when you think about the top of a mountain, you don't picture a shopping mall. But that's what was there. So I tried to find this walking path, walked the wrong way, twice, and by the time I found it it was too late to get around the whole thing before it got dark and I got attacked by mosquitos. So I just walked partway up to the very top of the mountain, turned around and took a nighttime photo of the skyline before descending on the tram. When I got back to the hostel, I found the table of people with the most empty beer cans and persuaded them to join me on a pubcrawl I had heard about. Unfortunately this was not the most memorable night out, I think there might have been TOO many people joining. That being said, I still managed to lose my phone without remembering how, so maybe things got more interesting later on.

Day 3 - Friday, September 5
Woke up with a killer hangover, had to pack my bag and officially check out by noon, had to make my prebooked cable car by like 2pm. Not possible. Got to the cable car about an hour late, but lucked out and caught them when they weren't busy so it wasn't a big deal for me just to jump on. The cable car is the main attraction of Lantau Island, and takes you across the mountains to the "big Buddha" and a monastery. The cable car ride was definitely the best part, the big Buddha was cool, the monastery was alright. I had some time so I took a bus to the "idyllic fishing village, "the Venice of the east" Tai-O. Waste of time. It was just a Chinese fishing village. It smelled bad, the old men didn't wear shirts, and to top it off, I nearly got stranded there! The bus stopped running back to the cable car at the ridiculous hour of 5. Luckily, several Chinese speaking tourists were also stranded, and were very helpful in finding us a way back. The guy who worked at the bus terminal ending up borrowing a car and driving the 20 minutes back to the cable car. That night, I moved my stuff into my friend's apartment, and, as it was her birthday, went out for some drinks with her Hong Kong friends. This turned out to be quite a good night, much more my speed than the pub crawl haha.

Day 4 - Saturday, September 6
My friend and I went to a little neighbourhood called Stanley, a scenic 40 minute bus ride from Hong Kong Island. It was SUPER hot when we got there, so we just walked around a bit, got a beer and a pizza, and headed home. That night I again sampled the Hong Kong expat life, ate some mediocre Chinese food had some drinks.

Day 5 - Sunday, September 7
Went to the beach at Shek O. It was beautiful! We joined in with a barbecue and had a fantastic day. The water in Hong Kong is almost TOO warm, feels kind of strange and unnatural. Stayed at the beach the whole day, grabbed some icecream on the way home, and called it a day.

Day 6 - Monday, September8
Woke up with a sore throat. Decided to stay home and take naps all day. Went for more mediocre Chinese food for dinner, had a few drinks (although I switched over to ginger tea instead of beer haha).

Day 7 - Tuesday, September 9
This was the Midsummer Festival, so everyone had it off work! We went to the beach again, this time to an island called Lamma. It was a really cute area! Reminded me of Bayfield back home. Spent a few hours there, went swimming, went home, had some tasty street Dim Sum, then home.

Day 8 - Wednesday September 10
Woke up with snot literally pouring out of my nose, decided to cancel my plan to take a day trip to Macau. Slept all morning, but exerted the effort in the afternoon to go and pick up my passport from the Chinese embassy. I got another Chinese visa! Success! Had a last meal in Hong Kong of so very tasty tasty sushi.

September 11- That's today! Woke up early and flew to Chiang Mai! Flying with a head cold SUCKS. We landed and hour and a half ago and my ears still haven't popped :(

I will actually be back in Hong Kong in about a month. I was only planning on staying a couple days at the most, but because China's visa is only 30 days (dumb) I can't go in until October 20th, which means I will get a second chance to do some of the stuff I missed because I wasn't feeling so hot.