Friday, November 27, 2009

I'm confident it's either to the left or to the right...

We made it safely back to Chiang Mai from a four day, 750-mile motorcycle adventure on a decidedly secondhand bike with a very well-worn suspension (the left forkleg disgorged its entire oily contents in the first 30 miles of the journey) and seat (it did have good tires, though). Within the the initial hour of the trip we felt the first rain since Cat Ba Island in Vietnam. Fortunately, it was just a minor drizzle and ended shortly. Our trip took us northwest through the town of Pai, a bit of a hippie enclave, where Colin started channelling John Belushi's character in Animal House when he spied two separate dread-locked guys riding bicycles with guitars on their back. We made it through to Mae Hong Son, a scenic mountain city, without incident to anyone, to find that there were no rooms at the inns (at least the ones catering to thrifty foreigners). We did find accomodations at a clean, quiet hotel after searching farther off the tourist track and referring to the phrasebook alot, since the nice, young woman behind the counter spoke no English, and in fact, wrote the room specifics on a piece of paper for me in Thai. I am actually rather proud of the whole transaction, because not only did I score us a decent room, but I also got us an extra sheet (many places here have fitted sheets and blanket but no top sheet) and a DISCOUNT!
Day two, we got up, had a delicious breakfast of rice noodle soup with pork and headed onward. The first stop was Tham Plaa, aka the fish cave. It's basically a crevice in the rocks where thousands of fish swim up an underground stream. The people who look after fish believe the mountain's spirit protects the fish, so they never catch them (there are some BIG ones). The park is really beautifully landscaped and peaceful (except when you feed the fish- then the river roils). We got back on the incredibly twisty road (literally thousands of turns) with huge elevation changes and pavement that resembles either I-80 through Youngstown after the spring thaw or the moon's surface. The scenery is spectacular; we rode through fields of wild sunflowers in bloom, tons of fruit plantantions and rice fields, past mountains that reminded me of the islands in Halong Bay. We also passed probably two hundred saffron-robed monks of all ages walking along the roadside in one several mile stretch. I don't have a clue where they were going, but it was a long walk from anywhere. Our last sightseeing stop of the day was a calcite cave with at least five chambers, each different and more impressive than the previous one (no photos allowed, so sorry, no pictures of the "farkling" walls).
Day three involved more road twisties, tall, lush mountain scenery along the Thai-Burmese border and a whole lot of butt-burn (we're both out of long-distance riding shape). As we neared our destination for the night, Mae Sot, we saw what looked like a remote village of bamboo houses, but it kept going and going up the mountain from the road, and along the road for a couple of miles. From the signs we gathered that it is a camp for Karen tribe refugees from Burma. They cross into Thailand to escape their options at home: forced labor or persecution for rebellion against the government. They live in limbo, since they can't get ID cards from the Thai government so they can't travel beyond the immediate area or hold regular jobs, and they can't go home. Mae Sot was full of westerners who work for the NGOs helping refugees, and it had an interesting energy about it. We both would have liked to stay there longer, but we had to return the motorcycle the following day.
The next morning we got up and left Thailand and crossed into Burma (it's unfortunately the easiest way to extend one's stay in Thailand). We nervously left our passports in the hands of the Burmese officials and wandered into the city of Myawaddy. While we felt safe enough, it was really a different world, between the men in sarongs, betel nut spit all over everywhere, scabby looking dogs, and whirling dust clouds. Our impression from our brief, 30-minute stay is that it is much wilder than Thailand. We reentered Thailand and got back on the motorcycle and returned to Chiang Mai, unscathed but with really sore bottoms.
We took the train to Lopburi yesterday and are planning our next moves. Our new visas expire on December 9, after which we'll be heading for Cambodia for awhile. Hopefully the next week will involve a trip to an island somewhere along the Gulf of Thailand. Colin uploaded a bunch more photos to smugmug. Happy trails!

Friday, November 20, 2009


We've been in Thailand for a week now. We spent several days in Chiang Rai, which is a fairly large city in the northern part of the country. It was kind of strange to be in a city after spending time in Laos. They actually have real stores (including a Boots drugstore) and traffic! We visited the most important temple, Wat Phra Kaew, while we were there- the grounds are beautiful and calm. Colin agreed and commented that becoming a monk might not be too bad if he could hang out there for his three-month stint. We also went to the Hill Tribe Museum, which had rather interesting exhibits on the opium trade in the Golden Triangle and also on the infinite uses for bamboo. I want to grow a bamboo forest when we get home- it's so pretty growing in the wild, and it makes really nice walls and drinkware!
At the museum, we read about the hill tribe village where they allow visitors to watch what they do but without the rampant commercialism of so many villages in the region. It sounded like a good place to go, so we rented a motorbike the following day and headed north out of town. The ride was spectacular, passing pineapple plantations (the smelled sooooo good!!!!), rice paddies, waterfalls, and beautiful, lush mountains. The village, when we arrived, was, well... a disappointment (an understatement). The point of the village was to give tourists an opportunity to see a traditional village where people actually live and work, not simply selling handicrafts to busloads of tourists. Unfortunately, within moments of our arrival, five jeeps pulled up and disgorged their tourist contents. They were the worst kind of tourists- the literature at the entrance all said to be respectful of the people, not to give candy to the children, not to be loud, to ask before taking photos, and on and on. We apparently missed the message that it was opposite day, so we left in disgust and rode to see one of the large waterfalls in the area. The waterfall was supposed to be a good spot to admire the sunset, and we got to the parking lot at around 4 o'clock. A sign said the waterfall was 1400 metres away, and we thought, "not a problem," for the first 200 metres. Then, we crossed the woven bamboo bridge over the river and started to gain elevation. The path was packed, slick mud steps, up and around tree roots, under toppled stands of bamboo, and through REAL JUNGLE. It started getting dark before we got to the "waterfall 800 metres" sign, so we (the royal version) figured we needed to pick up the pace a bit. Colin started panting too hard to whistle the "Bridge on the River Kwai" theme, but we made it to the waterfall in time to see it before the sun set. It really was a gorgeous sight and definitely worth the trip.
We're now in Chiang Mai until tomorrow morning, when we rent a big motorcycle and head out for four days of riding in the countryside. Chiang Mai is the second biggest city in Thailand, with nearly as many temples as Bangkok. Cities here seem much more relaxed than in Vietnam- they're much quieter (no blaring horns, no crowing chickens) and more orderly. The people are very polite, and all the women want to give Colin a massage...hmm... .
Although we enjoy our time in cities, we really want to get out and see more of the country on our own schedule. We will be out of web range for the next few days, so look for the next adventure post in about a week. Colin has uploaded a bunch more photos to smugmug, finishing the images from Luang Prabang, our Mekong boat trip, and has started adding images from Chiang Rai. Later taters, until next time!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why does the thatched roof smell like cat poop?

After a two-day boat ride up the Mekong River, we made it to the city of Houay Xai, Laos. The guidebooks all say you should take the trip once in your lifetime, so we signed on (for quite a ride). The boat was about 60ft long, sat low in the water (you could drag your fingertips if you wanted) and had wooden bench seats that would make any church pew look absolutely deeee-luxe. We picked our seats (of course on the sunny side...again. Colin isn't allowed to select our seats anymore) and made ourselves comfortable (HA!). The scenery along the river is gorgeous; we saw tiny, isolated villages and long stretches with no signs of human habitation. If not for the discomfort felt in our ischial tuberosities (ie. butt bones), the sweltering heat, the fuel fumes, and the excessive decibels of the motor, it would have been a pleasant nine-hour trip. Plus, as an added bonus, I did not drink enough water (against Colin's sage advice) and found myself really sick when we stopped in Pakbeng for the night. While I was throwing up (and I didn't even realize I'd eaten all the ingredients of vomit), Colin found us the WORST guesthouse we've stayed in so far (and he swears it was the best of the four he looked at). They shut off the generators (there is no electricity in town otherwise), and thus, the fans, at midnight. Between the sounds of drunkards dry-heaving, wood furniture being rearranged overhead, and roosters crowing at all hours, we both had the worst night sleep of the trip. The morning of day two I found myself feeling much improved- it's amazing what a combination of focused, seething hatred of roosters and sufficient fluid consumption will do for the spirit! Things looked even brighter when we slid down the sand hill to see a different boat would carry us the rest of the way; this one had...VAN SEATS!!!!!!!!! Yes, we promptly laid claim to the last two cushioned seats and had much more comfortable journey: talking with several European travelers, taking pictures of the scenery, and staying adequately hydrated.
We got to Houay Xai on Thursday evening, found a much nicer guesthouse and some dinner, and relaxed. Friday, we wandered around town, ate ice cream, and I got a massage at the Lao Red Cross (gotta do my part to support a good cause). Saturday morning we packed and prepared to cross into Thailand. The border crossing was uneventful, although the Lao border agents seemed quite amused when the saw where we entered the country. Apparently we were correct in our assumption that they don''t see many westerners at that particular station.
We are now in Chiang Rai, after spending one day in Chiang Khong, which is the Thai city across the Mekong from Houay Xai. Our initial impression is that Thailand is a much more affluent country than Vietnam or especially, Laos. Colin commented that not only do people have cars here, but they have rims on their cars. I noticed for the first time in Asia, there are pet stores, with pet food. I take it for granted that we have enough money to actually buy special food for our animals and can get preventative and necessary veterinary care for them, but when you can hardly afford to feed your children and live in a boat under a tarp roof, animals' comforts are probably a pretty low priority. Colin and I both realize how truly fortunate we are to have been born where we were.
Our current plan is to stay in Chiang Rai for the next few days to see the sights in and around town (maybe rent a motorbike for a day). The food is spectacular, and our guesthouse's garden is a comfortable place to read, so we're in no hurry to move. Plus, the guesthouse has wifi, so I'm back to being an iPhone widow, sigh... (although I must admit, it is really nice to have it to call home). Colin is putting my elephant adventure photos on smugmug as I write this. After that, we'll be adding pictures to our previous blog posts, so scroll through them again for pics.

PS- About the blog title: while sitting at an outdoor cafe, we noticed a cat scamper across from a metal roof to the thatched roof directly across the street from us. We thought at first it was chasing something when it started scratching in the thatch, but then,...oh.

Monday, November 9, 2009


I had my day with the elephants today (thanks Mom and Dad, I spent my birthday gift on it), and what a day it was! I went to the Elephant Village, a "retirement home" of sorts for elephants rescued from the logging industry, where I learned the basic commands used by mahouts to direct an elephant. My gal for the day was Mae Cot, a younger elephant with food issues (don't KEEP those papayas from her). I said, "soeung," and she knelt for me to hoist my butt onto her neck (glad it wasn't the other way around). We first rode around the yard to get our "elephant legs" before we headed down the path through the woods, down the hill, and into the river. After lunch we rode back to the river for... a bath. They didn't really tell us how to wash our elephants, or where they like to be scrubbed, but I did discover that Mae Cot likes to be scrubbed gently behind her large, floppy ears. After bath time ended, we rode back up the path, where Mae Cot rubbed her side along the hillside and got herself dirty again... . It was a GREAT day!
This morning at 6, we walked to the town center to view the daily alms giving, where saffron-robed monks of all ages (some of the "monkins" as Colin says, appeared as young as 10) receive sticky rice from the faithful who lined the street. It was a solemn, peaceful experience.
Saturday morning we volunteered with an organization, Big Brother Mouse, to help Lao students learn English pronunciation. We sat and chatted with a dozen or so high school and college students for several hours about anything and everything. Somehow, I ended up in the street with a drawing of a truck and a motorbike naming all the parts, including lugnuts (who draws lugnuts on a truck?!?!). Three of the students didn't want to stop when the session officially ended, so we took them to the patio of our guesthouse and talked for another couple hours. Later that night, we met them again and helped them with their English homework. The students were Hmong from very rural villages who are studying at the teachers' college, with a goal of returning to their home villages to teach English. We both were surprised when the homework lesson referred to a refrigerator, and neither knew what it was. Since their villages don't have electricity, who needs a refrigerator? We were really impressed by their eagerness to learn and excitement over having someone to speak with, as well as their obvious love of their homes.
With the rest of our time in Luang Prabang, we've visited many wats (Buddhist temples), including one that was a cave that extended several hundred (I thought it was thousands) feet into the mountainside. A guide unlocked the gate and led us through the cave with flashlights. It was hot, damp, slippery, and darker than the darkest closet corner you've ever been locked in. Needless to say, I wasn't a fan. But Colin, who is usually claustrophobic, thought it was a picnic.
Other than all of this, we also were witness to a slice of "the circle of life" pie yesterday afternoon. During a beverage stop at an open air cafe along the Mekong River, a cat caught a rat, but was in no hurry to kill it (since it's fun to play with our food, no matter what you say, MOM). The proprietress attempted to shoo the cat away, which only led to the cat dragging the rat under our table and then under another couple's table. More staff appeared with sticks and tried to shoo the cat away. But...the cat came back...with the rat, who was looking worse for the experience. Colin told me to look away, and keep looking away, when the proprietress reappeared with a small club. When the scene ended, Colin told me that the woman was trying to whack the rat with the club, but the rat was still in the cat's mouth. Every time she tried to whack the rat, the cat pulled it away. She resorted to holding the cat by the scruff so it would hold still while she put the rat out of its misery. What started as macabre became rather hilarious by the end of the scene.
Tomorrow we are heading to a local waterfall for a picnic and some swimming, and the day after, we leave for a two-day slooooowwww boat trip to the Thai border. We'll post again when we get to Thailand.

Monday, November 2, 2009


We've now been in Phonsavan, Laos for two full days; it's small, quiet, and very friendly. Yesterday we decided to take it easy after our two days of traveling to get here. We went to the markets (of course) and wandered the main streets of the town. Last night, we went to the cafe across the street for a delicious BeerLao and met a group from the Ministry of (I think) Economy and Tourism, who are in town "studying" from Vientiane (the capitol of Laos). Two of the gentlemen spoke quite fluent English and struck up a conversation. Somehow, I also found myself sampling a salad made with green papaya and LOTS of HOT peppers that the Lao tourist dudes had the chef make for them. They were apparently baiting her to add more peppers and were most impressed that we ate at least some of what they offered us. This was possibly the hottest thing I've ever put in my mouth, and after several minutes of the burn creeping down my esophagus AND up into my sinuses, I thought my eardrums were going to burst into flames!
Today we got a map and walked to Mulberries silk farm, where we learned about the silk-making process start to finish. They do everything from growing the mulberry trees to weaving gorgeous fabrics. Our guide showed us the building where the silkworms eat and grow for many days before they begin spinning their cocoons. You can actually hear them munching on the mulberry leaves- it sounded like a low sizzling noise. While in this building, we also saw the cocoons, and depending on the species of worm, they are either pure white or a beautiful golden color. When I pulled on the edge of one (yes, the man told me I could) it looked like spun gold in the light. This facility brings people from the surrounding villages to teach them how to raise silkworms and process their own silk. We spoke with the woman who founded the organization 16 years ago, and her goal is to give people an avenue to earn a fair wage. They sell some of their finished goods through 10,000 Villages shops in the US and at their own stores in Vientiane and Louang Prabang. They are a certified fair trade organization, and her goal is to be certified organic soon. We took some cool photos of the farm and some year, we will upload them!
This afternoon, we went to the MAG office and watched the flim, Bombies, about the covert war in Laos and the ongoing effort to remove the millions of pieces of unexploded ordinance that the US dropped over 9 years. It was a sobering experience that made me ashamed of what our country did to the Lao people. People still die every year as a result of the cluster bombs we dropped 40 years ago. Huge sections of the countryside still cannot be used because of the danger of UXOs.
Tomorrow we go on a tour of the Plain of Jars and then on to Louang Prabang the next day (and we're paying the extra dollar each for the VIP bus!)