At breakfast, we heard a loud crash down the street. Some tourist had crashed a motorbike into one of the women cooking food along the street. A short while later when we went hunting for motorbikes to rent, word had already spread through the little town. The couple renting our bike said, "Are you sure you can drive it, if not, we will not give it to you." I assured them I'd driven one before, a manual dirt bike in fact (though only once and many years earlier). Despite the look of fear and doubt on my face, they handed us the key to our Typhoon-R 125.
It was driving around the crowded streets in town that made me nervous. They drive on the left in Thailand which threw a little confusion into the mix. Once we were out on the open road though, things were smooth sailing. We road down the 1095 to the local hot springs but quickly turned around after finding out that admission was 400 baht (the motorbike cost 100-baht to rent for 24 hours!) We continued to the waterfall but read that it was a 5 hour hike on foot. No time for that, besides, we had a motorbike. Finally we found Pai Canyon which was a short climb from the road side. The canyon has these amazing footpaths running through it that rise hundreds of feet from the bottom. We walked out to a few of them to get some photos but my slippery shoes made me worry about taking a tumble so we wandered around a bit, had some snacks and headed back out on the road.
We road up and down the hills around Pai, riding through villages and passing by resorts, farmland, and elephant parks. As long as we had gasoline, we kept on going. North of Pai airport, we got lost a bit through some beautiful countryside before somehow ending up on the familiar path back to town. At the end of the day, we returned with smiles [and bugs] on our faces and hunger in our stomachs. It was a shame to have to leave the next morning but time had run out.
Cheesy music added for full effect.
We've got places to be this weekend though so there's no getting stuck. In fact, the whole idea of me moving forward right now fills me with anxiety. My head is so full of thoughts my ears are leaking. Tomorrow we'll do a bit more exploring on bikes. Tonight, I'll retreat to a riverside bungalow and try to sort my head out.
To Laos or not to Laos? That is the question.
We went on a great one day trek in Chiang Mai yesterday. Hiking, elephant rides, waterfalls, cage rides, white water rafting, bamboo rafting, pad thai in the jungle... We had a fun group from Holland, Bangkok, and India. It was one of those days where you're just laughing non-stop. Lanna, our guide, loved us so much he took us out for dinner at Riverside restaurant and to a joint called Heaven Beach. Good times. Woke up a bit sore today from mad paddling, Carlien and I got oil massages. Nice. Tomorrow, we head out to Pai for a couple of days.
The twelve hour night bus (we're getting pretty sick of these) dropped us off at a gas station in Chiang Mai before sunrise. Disoriented and groggy, we jumped in a pickup truck to some guesthouse where we were given a brief orientation on the city center and offered rooms. We opted to walk 15 minutes into the old city to try to find some guesthouses that were recommended to us. After getting a bit lost (most of the building numbers are in Thai or something) we both agreed to grab a room in the Na Inn, mostly because we liked the sign. It's a comfy place which meant a comfortable nap til the afternoon.
We woke up and followed Lonely Planet to Heuan Phen Restaurant to sample Northern Thai cuisine. I had Northern egg noodles with a curry paste. Kind of a noodle soup, slightly spicy served with pork (they were out of chicken), crispy noodle things on top, small onions, and some pickled veggie. It was one of the most delicious dishes I've sampled in Asia. I'm going to have to find a place that serves it in the States.
Chiang Mai has endless travel agencies on just about every street. We walked around a bit and randomly stopped into one to look into a trek, a bus to Pai, and perhaps a quick way into Laos. There were too many options, too many prices, and nowhere near enough days to do everything. (unbeknownst to us, there's a huge Loi Krathong festival taking place here where lotus shaped banana leaf boats are floated down the river with incense, thousands of paper lanterns are flown up into the night sky, fireworks are lit off on every street, candles shine in along sidewalks, and parades are held this weekend) We deliberated over banana pancakes and hot drinks at a nearby cafe and have decided to hang out in Chiang Mai for the festivities until Monday when we'll take a day trek in the mountains. The rest of the week we'll check out Pai and on Friday, we'll shoot back to Bangkok where the girls will head on to Malaysia and I'll figure out my next move.
In the evening we followed a parade to the river and watched people light lanterns into the air and fire off bottle rockets and pop off fire crackers. We couldn't help but want to jump in on the action.
It wasn't until we'd sent our lantern up into the sky that we figured out why people were doing it... to venerate Buddha with light and send away your grudges and anger from the past year. At the night bazaar we did a bit of shopping around and had some more noodles at the food center. All of the walking (and getting a bit lost) had us in bed by midnight. Today we'll check out the Sunday market and enjoy some more Loi Krathong madness.
Stepping off of the plane in Siem Reap, I was reminded of the little island airport in Kerkyra, Greece. The sun was bright, the weather warm and pleasant. Inside, passengers filled out visa apps, paid their $20USD, and watched as passports were passed down a line of immigration officers for processing. At the other end of the counter, passengers lined up waiting for their names to be mispronounced with a Cambodian twang.
After changing some Vietnamese Dong to Cambodian Riels, I made my way out to find a tuk tuk driver holding a sign that read: TONY SWARTHOUT from CARLIEN and STEPH. Barang was the friendly driver's name and he led me to a two-wheeled rickshaw type thing, towed behind a motorcycle. Another SE Asian form of transport to add to the list. At the Family Hotel, I quickly checked into my room and pulled some clothes to throw into laundry service. My cargo shorts hadn't been washed in ages, food staining the front and mud spots staining the back. I accidentally locked my keys in the room. Not a big deal unless the caretaker doesn't have a spare key, which was the case discovered after ten minutes of going through a tangled bunch of keys. Finally, a couple of guys worked a window open and used a long stick to fish the keys from my bed. I wondered why I have such clumsy luck sometimes.
After sorting that out, I went up and met the girls. We headed to the Red Piano for lunch. I had a pile of Belgian fries and Lok Lak, Cambodian stir-fried beef with garlic, onions, and pepper sauce. A hefty meal provided by my friends AMY & DAN. A couple of hours later we tuk tuk'd over to Bakheng to watch the sunset. It could have been a magical experience if not for the hundreds of tourists swarming on top of this temple on a hill. Still, it was a nice first taste of Angkor's ancient ruins.
In the evening we stopped off for ice cream and free wifi at De La Paix cafe. They serve the worst homemade ice cream I've ever tasted in my life. Hideous and expensive. Turns out that the US dollar is the predominant currency used in Cambodia. This drives the prices up for everything. Using Riel instead of dollars sort of makes everyone sigh like you're being difficult. I wasn't used to seeing my home currency used for transactions. It made spending ultra real.
The next morning we woke up to head to Angkor Wat at 5am to catch the sunrise. This was miserably early. You'd think that this might me a good time to 'beat the crowds' but everyone's been told that sunrise at Angkor Wat is a magical experience. It wasn't. We were too tired and irritable to hang out with tourist groups laughing and shouting and snapping photos at 5:30 in the morning. The crowds reminded us of being in Europe in the dead of tourist season. We made our way around to three or four other temples the rest of the morning, some completely empty and others swarming with people. By noon we were hot and sleepy so we called it a day and napped the afternoon away.
In the evening we at at the Temple Bar which offered a free Apsara dancing show. I'd ordered some strange Cambodian dish, mainly because it contained morning glory and I wanted to know what that was. I'm still not sure. I've noticed that I get really excited when there's something weird on a menu or if we see some weird fruit at a market. Custard apples, jack fruit, dragon fruit, lok lak, larb gai, curry of every color... unfortunately, food poisoning has made me a bit less daring when it comes to tasting things like dog or duck embryo (sorry Dan).
In the morning we hopped a 7am bus through the bumpy and dusty roads of Cambodia to the border of Thailand. We switched buses on the other side and spent a few more hours making our way to Bangkok. Steph's left to Koh Phangan to meet her friend and I'm heading to Chiang Mai this evening with Carlien for a few days. But right now, it's time to hunt for knock-off Rolex watches and cheap t-shirts.
Tell you about my two days in Siem Reap tomorrow.
Charley and I went to see the house where my mom lived when she grew up here in Saigon. Pretty cool. We popped into Ben Thanh market to pick up some items for our grandparents ancestral shrine. We found some new threads to reek havoc on the streets, too [that's us above, guarding our grandfather's house]. Check out more photos from Nha Trang and the last couple of days in Ho Chi Minh City in the gallery. Sorry I don't have time to caption anything right now. Gotta run and have dinner with the family as it's my bro's last night here.
Tomorrow night I'm catching sunset at Ankor Wat and sunrise the next morning. Can't wait!
My brother and I strolled around Nha Trang yesterday, checking out the beach and nearby temples. We heard there was a storm coming so we've decided to hop on the next plane out of town. With that sorted out, we had a feast at Crazy Kim's, a restaurant that donates a portion of its profits to prevent pedophilia.
I reunited with Carlien and Steph the other night in Saigon. Had a nice time running around town and trying to work out travel plans. The four of us had a great meal at Quan An Ngon. I'm actually craving it right now. There's a thank you vid coming to you, Val. The girls are off to Cambodia and I'm off to the beach.
Oh man, what a day. After gorging ourselves at lunch on Khaosan Road, we ran into a film shoot where they were recreating the Songkran Water Festival. This thing's usually held in April and is said to be the biggest water fight in the world. Some music video was trying to recreate it with a few hundred Thai extras and a water tanker truck.
We had a bit of a frustrating moment at the Grand Palace that soured our afternoon for a moment until we met a nice guy who gave us tips on what temples to visit. He helped us grab a tuk tuk driver who was even nicer. After visiting one temple and feeding enormous catfish in the river for good luck, we discovered these 'nice' guys were just scammers trying to get commissions for taking us to tailor and jewelry shops. Our good humor ran out pretty quickly. Fortunately, we checked into a nice hotel room and power napped before our evening show.
But this is where things went wrong again. We were insanely late and had to cross town in traffic. I somehow navigated us through two train systems but once we arrived near the Thai Cultural Center, we got lost on foot for an hour. Sweaty, frustrated, and much too late for the show, we hopped a cab back to the hotel (the driver was kind enough to point out prostitutes on the street for us, we declined the offer) I'm about to go to bed for a few hours. We're catching a long tour tomorrow at 6am. But the photos should be some of the best yet. Unless more goes wrong.
Days like this, I'm just tired of traveling. Doldrums perhaps. I don't know. Definitely need to sleep though.
We shopped around MBK in Bangkok for a few hours yesterday, checked into a swanky hotel , and in the evening caught some Thai boxing matches (not my decision). We had ring side seats which turned out to be roach side seats. Three cock roaches refused to get off of my brother's chair so the attendant swapped it out. Hilarious. It was an interesting experience catching a fight from outside of the ropes. I realized that I'd never been to a boxing match before. Watching a young kid get kicked in the head and crumble to the floor made me feel a bit ill. I cringed, remembering what it was like to be smacked in the face. It was hard not to think about my own fight and where I'd gone wrong. Still, the betting action inside the stadium was a fun sight and I can cross Thai boxing off of the to see list I suppose.
Afterwards we wandered the Khaosan area to grab some street food and do some people watching. This morning I rushed out to the Vietnam embassy once again and secured my visa for the next leg of my trip. The multiple entry visa costs more than all of previous visas combined. Charley keeps telling me not to worry about money ("You can't take it with you") but I can't shake the whole backpacker mentality where every dollar means so much. Sure I'll go back and make more money in the States but right now, if I can stretch my cents a bit, it means seeing more before I actually have to return to the job.
I'm still sleepy.
My brother Charley has joined me here in Ho Chi Minh City. He pretty much spent the first day in bed. We chatted while I sorted through the supply drop my mom sent along and put together the 12 pounds of extra baggage I was happily shipping back with him to the States.
The next day, we hung around our cousins' camera shop, visited a friend from the States, and checked out the War Remnants museum. There, I went through a pretty cool collection of photos from the Vietnam/American War. We were spooked by recreations of war prisons and impressed by displays of large weaponry. Outside, we joked around with people trying to sell books and motorbike rides. My brother's been handing candy to everyone on the streets. When someone tries to sell us something, we give them candy and try to charge them for it. Hilarity ensues.
We had haircuts in the evening, dinner with the family, and later in the evening, our friends Sonia and Martin picked us up for a drink at Allez Boo in the Pham Ngu Lao area. Big thanks to Sonia and Martin for buying me a Bulgogi burger at Lotteria. It hit the spot.
Next stop for the Brothers Bui: Bangkok.
We spent the first day of our Halong Bay tour on the Halong Phoenix Cruiser, a beautiful junk with three floors and amazing rooms. The girls and I commented that the rooms on the boat were better than a lot of the places we'd stayed in Thailand. The food and service was great, too. In the afternoon we took a shuttle boat to explore a cave inside one of the big karsts before hopping in kayaks for a paddle around the bay. After a nice dinner (which I probably should have had less of), we hung around the top deck for a bit listening to music. The group was made up of mostly backpackers with a few older couples trying to enjoy a romantic cruise. Still exhausted from traveling, we went to bed as the rest of the lot started boozing. My roommate, a young Irish plumber obnoxiously woke me up in the middle of the night to drunkenly explain his thoughts on women and to quiz me on my musical tastes as he fumbled with his iPod. I shooshed him to sleep and curled up for a few more hours of Z's.
At 7:30 in the morning, we had a quick breakfast and hopped a boat to Cat Ba island. It was there that I had the seafood lunch that I'd soon 'see' again. We spent the afternoon on a beautiful empty beach where everything was lovely and smiles. But as soon as I returned to the hotel, my stomach was rumbling again. I skipped dinner, choosing to remain in the fetal position in the girls' room instead. When they returned, I politely excused myself, returned to my room, and experienced the worst food poisoning reaction I'd ever had in my life. 'Every orifice' some people call it.
We'd wished we had more time on the Cat Ba beaches but it was a nice couple of days in Halong, despite the tummy troubles. In Hanoi, we had at 69 (my dinner was a piece of bread) and drinks at Half Man Half Noodle (my drink was juice) before hopping a night train to Hue. We lucked out and got a four-person sleeper cabin to ourselves. In the morning, Carlien and I surprised Steph with a candy bar 'cake' for her birthday and a treasure hunt that ended in us watching the Sound of Music (which I'd never seen before).
Hue was a nice city, quieter than Hanoi and Saigon with all the charm of Vietnam. I treated the girls to lunch at La Carambole (feeling that my stomach was stronger, I jumped back into the eating game with a plate of noodles) before saying goodbye for perhaps the last time.
Last week I shot up to Hanoi to see a bit of Northern Vietnam and to spend one last jaunt with the Britons. My stomach seemed to be fine on the train but as soon as I hopped into my shuttle to the hotel, things were feeling 'funny'. Thankfully, my driver had to stop for gas. When you gotta go, you gotta go... even if it's one of the worst squat toilets you've ever encountered (though the door locked which was nice). It's times like these that I am pleased that I carry a spare roll of toilet paper and a pack of anti-bac wipes.
The architecture coming into Hanoi was interesting. Narrow buildings, three to four floors high with French colonial (?) facades. Basically tall buildings with fancy columned and balconied fronts and plain sides. Even the newer buildings used this style. Unfortunately, I wasn't in the snapping from a car window mood so I don't have any photos of this.
I checked into the Pacific Hotel off of Cua Nam, a street where one of the oldest Hanoi markets used to exist (I recently read that many of the markets in Vietnam are being demolished and replaced with modern supermarkets as land prices start to rise... culture destroyed in the name of profits). I chose this place mostly for the free internet access. The girls showed up in the afternoon and we started researching tours. Carlien and I booked all of our arrangements at the Pacific's travel services desk, saving us a trip to Sinh Cafe. We took in a Vietnamese water puppetry show in the evening. Imagine a pool of water in a small theater and two foot tall wooden puppets dancing, spitting, swimming, and splashing around in front of you. A traditional Vietnamese band performs and sings off to the side. The puppeteers operate all of the characters from behind a bamboo screen, waist deep in water. It's pretty fun but entirely too loud for my throbbing head. Our last minute seats placed us next to the speakers.
Hanoi is a busy little city, zooming with motorbikes, and crowded with market stalls and merchants. Walks around the lake are nice with young and old Vietnamese couples canoodling and contemplating on benches along the water. You can still get a feel for what it may have been like under France's influence if you squint your eyes and walk around the historical buildings in the Old Quarter.
For lunch the next day, we ate at Koto which runs a program to help less fortunate Vietnamese youth by training them how to work in fine dining. The training helps them earn jobs at some of the leading restaurants in the country. The food was pretty decent and the bathroom immaculate :)
Afterwards, we got blatantly ripped off taking the taxi to the Museum of Ethnology. Either the driver drove us twice as far or his meter was crooked. My mom had warned me that Hanoi was 'difficult' like this. But we found the museum and wandered around for a few hours learning about the different minority groups that live in the country (it was a nice primer on the people we would meet the next day in Sapa). Outside we climbed into traditional houses of minority peoples. To offset our losses in the taxi, we hopped the cheap bus back to town. It must be pretty uncommon for three 'white' looking people to be taking the bus in that part of town because everyone stared as us as they rode past the bus stop on their motorbikes. Granted, we were staring right back.
In the evening we caught a train to Lao Cai, arriving at 5:30am to catch a bus that shuttled us up to Sapa town. There we showered up and took a nap on a bed with no mattress before meeting Duc, our mountain guide. We trekked for five hours through rain and mud. Hmong girls walked along with us, helping us negotiate slippery rice terrace walls (see the video), and steep mountain paths. At the end of our trek, the girls turn around and ask you to by embroidered wallets, bracelets, and other handicrafts. "You buy from me, please. You buy something. I walk with you, you buy from me." No guilt trip there. The problem was, I'd only brought one pair of pants and one pair of Geox walking shoes. Both were now soaked and covered in mud. All I needed from these girls were boots or trousers.
We stayed at a Dzao family's house for our mountain home stay. The family was made up of two grandparents, a couple, and their three kids- including a cute little one year old. We spent about four hours straight, huddled around a bowl of charcoal. It was raining outside and getting chilly inside. As we sat, Hmong women would come to the door to try to sell us things. I jokingly mentioned wanting their rain boots and one seemed to be ready to sell. I told her no thank you and mentioned trousers. To our surprise, they had trousers! Hemp pants, hand made and died in indigo. I debated for a bit and decided to buy them. Very warm and comfy. At dinner, the family prepared a nice little feast and shared shots of "happy water". I explained to the guide that my stomach wasn't in good shape so the host spared us from a rough night of "Happy Water to you!" silliness. Exhausted from our trek, we slept early under really warm blankets in a sort of loft area upstairs.
The second day of trekking was shorter but twice as difficult. The rains had stopped but the paths were steeper and muddier. My feet slipped ankle deep into rice paddies and I slid around precariously through bamboo forests where leeches apparently lived (didn't spot any unfortunately). I couldn't believe the paths we were taking. My shoes were entirely ineffective in the mud. I wasn't walking anymore, just sliding. I refused the help of the mountain girls as they just made me more nervous. At one point, my flailing arm smacked one right on the forehead. I'd warned her not to stand so close!
The hardest and most ridiculous bit was a muddy path that ran along a water fall. There was zero traction between me and the ground. I cut my hands frantically grabbing the growth on the mountain side to keep me from sliding into rocks. Finally, with everything covered in mud anyway, I just crouched down and slid several feet at a time down the path while the locals laughed at me from the bottom. In the end, we all agreed that seeing the beautiful mountains, rice terraces, and minority people was worth the difficult trek and ruined clothes.
Back in town, I showered off and changed into my Hmong pants. Just about everyone stared at me. A woman at a coffee shop said, "Nice pants." I asked her if they were men or women's pants. She just said, "No one wears those pants." Heh. Eventually, we made it back to the train station and zoomed back to Hanoi where the Pacific Hotel fed us and sent us on to Halong Bay.
Had a nice time in Sapa, very very very muddy. Videos and photos in a few days. We're just about to hop our next transport to Halong Bay. My tummy ache may be going away! Woo hoo!
P.S.- That is the cutest baby buffalo I've ever seen in my life.
Last night we took in the Thang Long water puppet show here in Hanoi. It was pretty entertaining but sitting next to the loudspeaker rattled my brain a bit. Today, the Museum of Ethnology!
I don't think I'll be online for the next seven days as I'll be in the mountains or on a boat. But you never know. I'm sorry I haven't properly thanked everyone yet but until I can get around to some fun videos or photos, thank you to Laura, Myleen, My N., and My L. for the feeding and fundage. (Yes, that's a lot of "My's" isn't it) I'm thinking of you here in Vietnam.
If you haven't seen the latest photos from Azad in Tehran, Iran hop over to Life Goes On In Tehran
I can only describe my time in Thailand as a roller coaster ride with all of the rises, dips, and unexpected corkscrews. It's a warm country, in temperature and hospitality. Outside of the cities, I always felt like I was on an island. Thick jungles and laid back attitudes create this sensation.
The final leg of my Thai trip included four days on Koh Phangan. Monsoonal storms had stirred up the ocean really well right before I boarded a Lomprayah catamaran. Two hours of misery. Within' a half hour, fifty people had become seasick. Women wept in agony, some carried away to the bathroom. Every half hour the number of people vomiting seemed to double. The three cute girls in my row lost their allure as they lost their lunch. After the one next to me puked for the third time, I lost my own gut. We made it to Koh Tao but the 20 minute stop provided only a false sense of well-being. The remaining journey to Koh Phangan was just as filled with yacky goodness.
My time on the island was rockier than the boat ride it turned out. I won't go into it in this venue but much appreciation goes out to Mozart and his symphonies for calming my tortured soul. And huge thanks to Myleen for buying me a 'comfort meal' of sirloin steak and roasted potatoes. I wish you were there to enjoy the meal with me because eating alone while watching Red Dragon (prequel to Silence of the Lambs) was a bad choice.
The day after the Full Moon Party, things seemed to sort themselves out rather oddly. It was one of those times you shouldn't ask why but just smile and appreciate the peace.
The sun was laughing at us as it shined the day we were leaving the island. This, after four days of rain and gloom. Perhaps the heat had distracted me as I'd somehow lost my boat ticket between the bungalow and the pier. I had to buy a pricier ticket as spots were quickly selling out. My friends and I mused that everyone had to lose something on Koh Phangan (for them, it was two pairs of sandals and 700 Baht). A dimenhydrinate-hazed boat ride brought us to Sura Thani where hundreds and hundreds of young people poured out of the ferry like soldiers of boozing. Big backpacks were strapped to their backs. Each one was either off to Bangkok or going south to other islands. I wondered why we couldn't mobilize so many able bodied people for a greater cause than partying. Everyone likes to have a good time, sure. But imagine what a force like this could do. I entertained ideas in my head of 'parties for peace'. 10,000 people on a beach in Thailand and what do they have to show for it? Hangovers, hookups, and empty wallets. If it were 10,000 people building a village, how much better would we all feel getting off that boat?
A bus and a tuk tuk later, we were on yet another night bus, perhaps the most uncomfortable night bus we'd been on. Lesson learned, last minute cheap seats mean sore necks in the morning.
In a couple of weeks, I'll be back though and I can't wait to see how Thailand will treat me then.