Monthly Archives: July 2012

Week 11: Chiang Mai & Pai, Thailand

Hello again readers! I’ve taken a bit of a break from blogging to fully enjoy the wonders of Thaliand (and Borneo, but that comes in later!), but the time has come to put my head down and catch you all up with where I’m at. First up, Chiang Mai and Pai!

After finally making it into Thailand (see you never, ‘roads’ of Laos!), I arrived in Chiang Mai with two girls I had met while in Vang Vieng. As a side note, be sure to check your departure stamp in your passport when you enter a country- they missed seeing that I had a Thai visa (even though i wrote my visa number on the entry form!) and only game me 15 days instead of the 60 that I should have received. Not too big of an issue, but it was a royal pain to go to the passport office in Bangkok and get it changed. In the future, I will most definitely be handing in my passport opened to the visa page and then double checking it before leaving the border crossing. Oh life experience! Moving on… We stayed at a little place called Jaidee House, which cost us a whopping 350 baht a night (approx. $3.50 each), and settled in with some awesome 40 baht pad thai. It was good to be back in Thailand.

There are four activities that really stick out when I think of my time in Chiang Mai, but they are by no means the only things to do while in the area (that list is almost endless). Leading off we have prison massages, followed by a Thai cooking class, elephant mahout training, and an epic night market. Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? Here’s a complete rundown of each.

Prison Massages
We kicked off our time in northern Thailand, the good ‘ol fashioned way: by heading to the local women’s correctional facility and getting massages. Sounds a little off, I know, but it’s really a win-win for everyone involved. The women at the facility get practical skills and experience that they will be able to turn into a job once they leave and we get hour long massages at half the price! I’ll admit it was a little odd when we arrived there, but the women were very nice and the whole operation was well run. You’re going to get a massage (or 8) while in Thailand, why not do it in an environment that’s helping women turn their lives around? A must do in Chiang Mai!

Thai Cooking Class
This could very well be one of my trip highlights, out of everything. With so many different cooking schools to choose from in Chiang Mai, you’re pretty much guaranteed to find one that you’ll love. Haley and I chose ours based solely on the food options- five dishes in total and everything that I really wanted to learn how to cook. Luckily, Thai Kitchen Cookery Center has great food selection as well as awesome instructors and facilities. Highly, highly recommended! We started off the day by heading to the local market to buy ingredients and learn a bit about them. Our guide Gauw (pronounced Gail), showed us various types of basil, chilies, and even how to make coconut cream and milk. After this educational introduction we headed back to the cooking school to get started with dish number one: what else but pad thai? I had no idea it was so straight forward! It definitely helped they were super organized and everything was pre portioned, but still, totally doable at home. We followed up round one with green curry paste and then the green curry itself, chicken with cashew nuts, vegetable spring rolls, and caramelized bananas with coconut toffee sauce and ice cream for dessert. I can’t even choose a favourite, it was all that good. Plus, I got a recipe book to take home and help recreate it all, all y’all are welcome to come and sample my skills.

Elephant Mahout Training
For those who don’t know (I didn’t prior to this), a mahout is basically an elephant trainer and caregiver. Given this tidbit of information, you can now begin to understand what my second highlight was all about! We chose to go with Chiang Siam Elephant Mahout Training School Chiang Mai, which is a mouthful to say, but delightful in every other way (ha! rhyming). Our guide Noy was absolutely amazing, and it ended up only being the three of us on the tour, which made it all the better. After a quick stop to see a 6 week old baby elephant (beyond adorable), we made it to the center, grabbed a sack of bananas, and headed down to begin our training. Fully garbed in mahout training outfits, we started out by feeding bananas to a younger male elephant and then had a sit down with Noy to discuss all things elephant. From safety to riding commands, as well as their elephants stories and general facts, it was a really informative session. Next up we got to practice what we had just learned and hopped on Do Do’s back for some real hands on experience! Surprisingly, riding elephants is nothing like riding horses. Though I’m pretty at home on the latter, riding these beasts was a whole new ball game. I found that I was always leaning forward in order to balance, placing a lot of my weight onto my hands and wrists, while (trying to) control the direction with various leg positions and voice commands. Same same, but different, one might say. Quite a spread awaited us for lunch, and after we had stuffed ourselves to the brim, it was time to bring out the big guns and head out on our jungle trek. I had the pleasure of riding Boon Me, a 43 year old female who stood about seven feet tall at the shoulder. Jungle trekking was awesome and very surreal- I don’t expect I’ll ever be in that situation again. Once we got back it was time to treat our elephants to copious amounts of bananas and bath time. It was funny how much more comfortable we were with them by that point in the day; where at first we were timid and extra cautious, by bath time we were scrubbing their trunks and standing right next to them without batting an eye. They’re seriously cool animals, ridiculously big and strong, but at the same time utterly graceful. Definitely an experience I will not soon forget.

Night Bazaar
At this point, anyone who’s been reading about my travels knows how much I appreciate a good market (for those of you who haven’t been following, that’s a lot). I’m sure you can imagine how stoked I was to find a night bazaar in Chiang Mai that ran every single night. This thing was massive, the girls and I went three nights and I still could have gone again! So many vendors, so many items, so much bartering to do! Managed to score a couple tanks, a dress, and a jar of tiger balm (I’m sure I bought more, but it’s not coming to me at the moment). I have yet to find a market I didn’t like, and this one was no exception.

Well there you have it, my four highlights of Chiang Mai. As I said previously, this is by no means all there is to do there, the girls I was with also visited the zoo, and one night we went with Haley while she got a traditional bamboo tattoo (don’t worry Dad, I’m still ink free). There are treks, tiger sanctuaries, zip lines, and bungee jumps, among other things. Boring is one thing Chiang Mai is most definitely not.

Pai
After such an activity-filled five days, we then headed three hours north to the town of Pai. It was a glorious three days of almost nothing- eating, reading, card playing, and socializing was the everyday norm. That isn’t to say there isn’t anything to do- there are a couple of great hikes and waterfalls to visit, and as any place in Asia, a lively night scene. However, I decided to conserve energy and money and opted instead for a relaxing and cheap couple of days (which clearly make for riveting blog posts). Even though I don’t have much to say about it, I really liked Pai. It had a very chill vibe and everyone there was so nice. Mix that in with 100 baht bungalows and you have a real sweet spot. Before I knew it my time in Pai (and northern Thailand) had come to an end, it was now time for beaches, sun, and buckets on the islands. Hello hangover!

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Weeks 9 & 10: Laos

My time in Laos PDR (which the locals will tell you stands for Please Don’t Rush) can be divided into three distinct categories: relaxing, travelling, or Vang Vieng. I’ll got into detail for each of these below, but need to give you fair warning on the pictures you’ll find at the end of the post. Though I spent a full two weeks in Laos, I only have three pictures from Don Det, three from the day I left Vang Viang, and another handful from one of the days spent in Luang Prabang. Foreseeing a week of water filled activities in Vang Vieng, I had purchased a cheap waterproof camera in Vientiane with hopes a dreams of capturing some epic pictures while tubing the Mekong. Sadly, at the end of day three on the river my camera met it’s watery demise and floated down to join legions of other lost electronics, clothing, and sunglasses. It will therefore be necessary for you to use your imagination when reading the Vang Vieng section of this post, as there will be no photos to assist you with picturing this particularly entertaining town.

I began my Laos travels with a quick stop in Don Det, one of the famous 4000 islands. This teeny island isn’t home to much other than guesthouses, restaurants, and bugs. You are able to kayak around the surrounding islands, but I cheaped out and decided to spend my time doing as the locals do, which in Laos means a whole lot of nothing. Fitting with the country’s motto, I spent my only full day in Don Det reading, eating, and generally lazing about. It was lovely, and also completely socially acceptable. On my bus into Laos I met a cool Brit named Robb (Game of Thrones taught me Robb is spelled with two d’s), and after a day of nothing we decided to take the next bus up to Vientiane. Despite being the capital of Laos, here isn’t a whole lot to do in this city. Ate some great Indian food, read some more, and met up with Derek to watch 21 Jump Street (hilarious). Pretty chill time, save for an uneasy sleep following a rat running by me while I brushed my teeth. Thankfully my skin and bag were free of any rat teeth marks in the morning, so no harm, no foul.

Next up in Laos was the infamous Vang Vieng, but I’m going to leave that for the end of the post, and instead move along to Luang Prabang. This beautiful city is filled with French architecture, surrounded by mountains, and is the perfect respite after the madness of VV. As mentioned, I managed to meet up with Derek (and his friend Arne) in Vientiane, and they joined Robb and myself all the way up to Luang Prabang. The four of us met up with two awesome Canadian girls (more people from Nanaimo!) and the six of us had a grand ol time exploring the nearby waterfalls (which were stunningly beautiful) and relaxing a little bit more. There is an awesome little cafe in Luang Prabang called JoMa, and while it is a little expensive, the food is totally worth the extra buck or two.

Now that I’ve covered the relaxing portion of Laos, a quick note on the travelling part before I move on to VV. First of all, this country is deceptively big- I spent a grand total of 48 hours bussing to four of its most prominent cities. Though I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the buses (I had heard some horror stories), the condition of the roads left much to be desired. In fact, I’m being quite generous even calling them roads. They were more like destroyed dirt paths, with dips and puddles the size of small ponds, and more switchbacks than Bangkok has tuk tuks (that would be a lot). Needless to say, everybody has a travel drug of choice. I opted for straight up motion sickness pills, but lots of travellers use Valium, which is available over the counter in most SE Asian countries (seriously). One bonus of taking so many buses was I got to enjoy the stunning scenery for hours on end- Laos is hands down the most beautiful country I’ve ever visited. Everywhere you look, you’re surrounded by mountains and jungle; some of the best views were at rest stops halfway through a mountain pass. Almost made up for the general uncomfortableness of the ride.

Okay, the time has come to discuss Vang Vieng. I will definitely be censoring this part- parental units and potential employers could stumble upon my humble blog and certain things were never meant for their ears (kidding mom and dad… I tell you everything!). Here we go. As you may be aware, Vang Vieng’s claim to fame is their tubing, which is definitely not your everyday, run of the mill variety. This is tubing down the Mekong River, stopping at bars spaced every 50 meters or so, playing all kinds of games, collecting bracelets for every welcome shot of Tiger Whiskey (terrible stuff), and enjoying the incredible scenery as you float downstream.

Our days would go something like this: wake up and head down the street to Smile Restaurant, which served up both great hangover food as well as every possible episode of Friends on a big screen tv. There aren’t actually chairs at any of the restaurants in VV, just loungers and couch type things with low tables so you can enjoy food and Friends (or Family Guy) at the same time! A lazy man’s paradise. After we had gotten our fill of Chandler, Monica, Rachel, Joey, Ross, and Phoebe we would head back to the hostel to get changed for the river. The rule of thumb here is don’t wear or bring ANYTHING that you wouldn’t want to lose. Then off to rent tubes! After a short tuk tuk ride and ferry across the river, you arrive at the first bar where you are immediately greeted with a shot of the aforementioned whiskey and a bracelet on your wrist. What follows is always a bit of a blur, but it involved consuming alcohol, playing classics such as beer pong, and dancing around to the epic mixes. Then off to the next bar! Hop in your tube, grab the hand of the person closest to you and go floating for approximately 10 seconds downstream. At that point a plastic pop bottle on the end of a rope will come hurtling towards you. Once you get ahold of it, the kind bartenders will bring you in for more whiskey, bracelets and all around fun. As an added bonus, nearly every bar has some kind of attraction that you can participate in. The third bar sports a 10 ft platform to jump into the river from, there’s one that has a rope swing, and one further that has a tiled slide. Having said that, it’s pretty obvious that in addition to being an incredibly fun place, VV is also incredibly dangerous for folks that aren’t careful. Alcohol and rivers don’t mix very well. However! Our group kept our wits about us, and save some bruises and many, many mosquito bites, all escaped unscathed. After repeating the floating/pop bottle tow in/whiskey shot/party cycle a few times, you simply jump on your tube one last time and enjoy the gentle ride back to the rental shop. The trick with this is to leave with enough time that you won’t finish your float in the dark. Check with the locals! Once back on solid ground (around 6:30 pm) we would grab some dinner and then either head off to bed or head out for an epic evening! Although utterly exhausting and completely detrimental to your health, Vang Vieng was definitely a highlight of my trip so far. Like so many others, I only planned on staying a modest and respectable three days. And then stayed six.

So long Laos, hello Thailand!

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