Saturday, April 30, 2011

Best bathroom sign... EVER!

Looks like we are in the big city!

Wee-en-chan (Vientiane)

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So far we are enjoying the capital city. I am back to single finger typing on my phone so forgive any mistakes! We got in around 2 pm... once again the intrepid travellers were out hunting down a guest house in the hottest part of the day! Not so lucky this time as option 1 was only available tonight and not the next 2. At first, we thought we would forge on but after sitting down to plan our next move CK decided (yes, I was chirping in his ear!) 1 night was enough for the moment! I think the stream of sweat flowing from his forehead was pretty convincing, too!
We settled into our 'one night only room' long enough to cool off and for the afternoon storm to blow in and then we sat in the lobby listening to the rain and looking for another room via my phone and the well worn guidebook. Success came relatively easy and we are now booked at a hotel up the street over looking a wat.
With the Cipro antibiotic and strange brown pills now in full force I was ready for food... all I have eaten in the last 2 days are a few Pringles, some Pho (bad bad idea!), a croissant, some oreos and french fries! A chocolate croissant and iced coffee at a little boulangarie did the trick. However, CK is fighting off traveller's tummy with a steady diet of curry and beer! It has only been moderately effective... the boy has a tummy of steel! We had a stroll along the Mekong and are now enjoying the cool evening at Full Moon cafe... curry pitas, Beerlao and free wi-fi, what more could the intrepid travellers want?

Fwd: On the road.. CK's account of our morning

So it's only 10am here and you might be thinking what could have happened in the few hours we've been awake that deserves an email?  Well our morning started very normal, after breakfast we checked out of our guest house and waited in the lobby for our mini-van to arrive.  We decided to spend an extra 10000 kip each (a little over a dollar) to upgrade to a minivan rather than take another VIP bus with no a/c.  Our hotel was kind enough to arrange for us for a small fee and have them pick us up from the hotel, which saves money on not needing a tuk-tuk to the bus station.
The minivan arrived and our hotel front desk guide said "here's your bus, and lucky get first pick of seats".  To put his comment into context, all buses and vans cram as many people as humanly possible into their vehicles. A van built for 8 can easily fit 20 in their world...they even have short bar stools in the trunk and put them in the aisles when extra seating is needed.  So we were ecstatic to have a brand new, beautiful Toyota minivan pull up with free pick of seats.  We jumped in and our bags were loaded in the back....ecstatic with our extra dollar of spend. New car smell, plastic still on the sun shades and a/c vents everywhere.
We then pulled away from the hotel and the woman took our ticket and gave us another ticket in return. We drove about 3 blocks to another guesthouse, presumably to pick up more travelers.  We pulled up and the woman got out, looked at us and yelled "you get out and get on bus" pointing to another bus parked at the guesthouse.  This thing was a 1970s style van that looked like it was being held together by duct tape. It was already crammed with backpackers and luggage was piled high on the roof.  I said "hold on, I don't understand" and she explained in broken English that this was only the shuttle to the van that would take us to Vientiane.  This was followed by a shrieking "get out" and the driver getting out of the van and taking our bags out of the back.  I was shocked - I looked at Jen and she said "let's just get out".  I looked at the other bus again and said to the woman "we paid for this minivan and we're not getting out".  This didn't sit well with her - there was a stand off that lasted a few uncomfortable seconds and followed by lots of words in a completely foreign language but which I fully understood the meaning.  She got back in the van and our bags were put back on.  We then started driving back towards our guesthouse without a word from driver of the shrieking woman - I assumed they were just going to drop us off where we started.
We stopped at some random travel office and the woman jumped out - we then continued...passed our guesthouse...down a dirt road.  I started to worry where he was taking us, and then we arrived at a guesthouse with backpackers standing outside. We then proceeded to pick up lots more passengers, including the shrieking woman again, who acted like they hadn't just tried to rip us off and had the nerve to ask us again for our ticket!  We kindly reminded her of the incident and she ignored us and walked away.
I'm sure there plan was to pocket our money and buy us a dirt cheap ticket on the other bus.  Pretty sad scam.
The good news is that we're now on the road in the nice air conditioned bus with the best seats on the bus, and a little wiser from the experience.
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A Royal Wedding in Laos

While looking for a place to eat dinner we happened upon a pizza place showing the royal wedding. How strange to be sitting at a pizza joint with the karst mountains and Nam Song River behind us and the royal wedding on the TV in front of us. This week has been an experience to say the least. We have felt rushed to jam as much as possible into every minute so are constantly reminding ourselves to slow down and let it all sink in. We have met several travellers who arranged home stays in Laos or Vietnam and I am now wishing we had done this as well. I can't quiet come to grips with how day to day life must be like for a typical Laotian. Riding through villages and watching from the back of a tuk tuk or the top of a bus only gives a quick glimpse.

More on this later... We are waiting on our bus and trying to book a guest house in Vientiane and only have one computer!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha at Tham Poukham

The Long and Winding Road

I have never (until now) been on a bus of any kind for 8 hours. We left our guest house in LP at 7:15am sharp and realised on arriving at the bus station that one ticket said 8 am and the other 8:30 departure! A voice came on the intercom and spoke for about 10 minutes in Laos and then in English said "Eight o'clock to Vang Vien get on bus now." And away we went! CK and I secured the two front seats in hopes of preventing any unfortunate bouts with motion sickness... which also afforded us amazing as well as gut wrenching views! The mountains, jungles and villages along the way, including little children waving as we passed, left us wishing we could slow down a bit and enjoy it. However, the bus didn't stop in any of the scenic spots just at a few road side stands and a market that was muddy, hot and full of flies. Once in Vang Vieng we hopped in a tuk tuk with a few other travellers (including a couple who had been on the trek to the waterfall with us) and found a guest house.

Just a few minutes ride through the small town was enough to make us realise we were not in Luang Prabang anymore. We passed more westerners and backpackers than we did locals. All the restaurants serve 'happy' pizza, shakes, etc and are full of twenty-something stoners watching endless loop episodes of Friends. I couldn't help but think why would you travel halfway around the world to sit in a shack, get high and watch Friends... I think I am officially getting old! The town itself is rather dirty and lacks the atmosphere that LB offered around every unsuspecting corner. Gone are the little old ladies sweeping the streets in front of their homes with grass brooms, gone are the monks pattering down the street at dawn in their bare feet, gone is the silence as the sun sets... replaced by prostitutes soliciting their next marks, hippies with dreadlocks and Japanese tourists singing very (very!) bad karaoke very (very!) loudly!

So with all that being said this is still a beautiful place. The mountains are amazing and riddled with caves. The Nam Song flows gently through the middle of VV and is full of life. We watched this morning as a lady with her coolie hat and fishing gear waded through the water for her days catch. The clouds were low and the sun just barely skimmed out. It was one of the most breathe taking sites. We also took a tuk tuk about 7km out of town to a little village and climbed up a rock wall (maybe I am exaggerating but it was steep) to explore a massive cave with a reclining Buddha. This posture means that Buddha is about to enter Nirvana. The cave had a second opening that allowed sunlight to pour through and directly onto the Buddha. While we were inside a storm passed through and chased off most of the other tourists so when we came down to the blue lagoon outside the cave area it was empty. CK wasted no time jumping in for a quick, refreshing dip. Just as we made it back to the guest house another storm came through... a perfect opportunity for a nap!

On a side note to all this... the moment we dreaded has arrived. I am not feeling well. Likely just a case of traveller's tummy but not very pleasent to say the least. I survived the 8 hour bus ride but spent most of last night in the room and then made a trip to the local hospital this morning. In any other place I would just let nature take it's course but considering most loos here are turkish style I went to the doctor... Actually, I just walked up to a window and talked to a guy in a white coat. There were some rather entertaining hand gestures and after about 3 minutes I was hand a few different meds. The most important being Ciproflox an antibiotic that should kill what ever bug has taken up residence in my tum tum! Here's to a happy bus ride tomorrow as we head further south to the capital Vientiene!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

We've been blessed by a Buddhist nun...

It is 6:30 am and we are checking out of Villa Lotus in Luang Prabang and heading on our first Laos bus journey! 8 hours on a bus should be amazing!!
Yesterday was a rather relaxing day. We rented a couple of bikes and round around town. We found a 'local' swimming pool and went for a quick dip. It was a bit rainy and very overcast but the water was refreshing. The pool was pretty funny especially when compared to the photographs on the leaflet. It was down a muddy road full of giant potholes and local homes. I can't imagine what they were all thinking watch CK and I bounce down the road on our rented bikes with me in a ridiculous floppy hat... did I mentioned we found a market selling nothing but knock offs and I got a big brimmed hat...
Post dip we jumped back on the bikes and headed to a temple that the host at our guest house recommended. He said we could see the entire city from the temple and for some reason that did not register to us that the temple was atop a gigantic hill! So up the massive hill we rode to the temple. And yes it was well worth the effort. It was a massive complex of wooden homes for the monks and a huge temple topped in gold. After we had walked around inside a little old Buddhist nun offered us a blessing. She spoke no English but chatted away as she rubbed out right wrist with a saffron colored bracelet that she tied around our wrist. Once she had blessed both Chris and I she smiled widely and rubbed her two fingers together in the universal gesture for 'ow you give me money!' I guess not even a blessing is free these days! The host at out guest house explained that the blessing is meant to get rid of the bad, unwanted spirits and to tie the good spirits to us. Here's hoping this is a knot that doesn't come undone for a long time!
In all, LP has been an amazing little town. So relaxed and calm with incredibly nice people. I can't imagine it during peak season when the tourists and backpackers must out number the locals. Luckily the town has avoided massive bus loads of tourists descending on it all at once but I can't help but wonder what it was like 5 or 10 years ago.
I have so much more to write but alas... my chariot (aka tuk tuk to the bus) awaits! Until next time...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Florida Girl takes on Laos Waterfall

Apparently, all I needed to do for a good nights sleep was to trek 6 or 7 miles through the jungle and then jump off a waterfall!

The trek was through a few villages about 20 km out of Luang Prabang. It felt very weird to be walking through peoples yards and looking into their homes. However, the guide explained that the Laos people don't mind. Firstly, the tour company we used gives a portion of the money to the village and secondly, this is the only way these people get to see the world... through the faces and languages of the people who visit. When we first arrived there was a group of teenage aged youth sitting outside listening to Mary J Blige! I guess the saying "Same Same" applies here as well! The houses were mainly grass and bamboo with the occasional cinder block building... and by building I mean something the size of a medium shed big enough for a riding lawn mower, a few bikes and other bits. The traditional houses sat up on stilts about 4 to 6 feet off the ground. Apparently, these people used to live in the low lands and as they moved higher into the hills they continued to build the same way despite the absence of flooding. According to our guide, they are not Buddhist because they have too many mouths to feed (5 to 15 children per family) and because they need their sons to work the fields so don't want to send them away to be monks! They believe in 3 spirits: the House or Guardian Spirit, the Field Spirit and the Mountain spirit. They make offerings to the spirit and use a shaman if things get too tricky!

Once through the villages we headed into the hills and jungle. I have been surprised the entire week here at the butterflies. They are everywhere and not just a single variety... I have seen about 15 or 20 different ones! Throughout the walk little white ones would be fluttering ahead in the path... very magical! It was not a difficult trek but it was hot and rather humid... There was also about an hour of walking through the farmland with no shade which was probably the worst bit. We stopped  around noon in a clearing for a traditional Laos lunch... I am unsure what I was eating but had little choice but to dig in! The guide said it was pork, vegetables and an omelet as well as a tomato and cilantro salad all eaten with your fingers and balls of sticky rice. Thank the Guardian Spirit for hand sanitizer!!!

Post lunch we explored a cave with hidden Buddhas (and bats!) and then carried on for another hour or so through the jungle to the waterfall!!! We arrived to the top and were able to wade out to the very middle to look down and take pictures... relax everyone, there was a railing and we were safe ;-) the water was cool and refreshing on our tired feet. However, the leach in my shoes after the refreshing water was not so nice!

Once down at the bottom we were able to take in the full magnitude of the falls. It has 5 cascades and ends in limestone pools that are pale blue. Further down we were able to swim... and here is the part you have all been waiting for... I jumped from a smaller water fall into the pool below! It was about 15 feet and my knees were knocking like you wouldn't believe. Chris didn't have his swim suit (or shorts for that matter) so I was left to my own. I stood at the top and thought 'I will never stand here in this spot with this opportunity again' and before the last word left my mind I jumped! It was great! I think that thought will be the mantra for the rest of the trip and I plan to live every moment!!!

This morning is a bit rainy so we are going to head to an English language centre for a drop conversation and then off for a traditional Laos massage. And if the sun comes out we will go to the pool this afternoon. I think we earned our R and R yesterday! Tomorrow will be decided later!

I almost forgot that we enjoyed an amazing Laos meal last night... We ate green soup (I think it was most Mekong seaweed.. seriously it really was!), stuffed lemongrass, water buffalo, Laos sausage, Mekong fish in banana leaf and of course sticky rice. Yummy!!!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Wats, River and Mountains... Oh My!!

The Mekong River
Florida Girl and Boy and the Mekong River
CK on top of Mt Phousi
View of Northern part of Luang Prabang and mountains from Mt Phousi

Where to start... Luang Prabang is everything I hoped it would be and more. I am still struggling with the right words to capture the unique feel of this unfamiliar world. Being further away from home than ever before with nothing to compare every new sight, smell , sound... I keep going on about the senses because I don't know how else to put it!
We found a great guest house near the northern tip of town just a few blocks from Wat Xieng Thong. Once again we set out to explore in the hottest part of the day! However, within a few minutes we were watching as Laotian people washed a special Buddha with water, flowers and perfume. The host at our guest house explained that the ritual which ends tonight is part of the new year celebration... sort of like washing away the past year to make way for the next. It was so touching to watch as people, young and old, said their prayers. I wonder what it must feel like to the people who live here to have us watching them go about their normal lives? We are doing our best to be apart of it all without being in the way!

After we left the Wat we headed down to the Mekong and more importantly to a little bit of shade! Once again... no complaints just observations about the weather... it is hot and humid like I have only felt a few times before and when it is not raining we want it to but once it starts we just want it to stop! Our shady spot by the river offered a chance to take the two first pictures. We eventually wondered to the main street just in time to see the local school letting out for the day... Just to put this in context: Everyone in LP rides a scooter. They ride with and without helmets, with and without shoes, occasionally they even ride with an umbrella for shade or protection from rain. However, you haven't lived until you have seen an entire family of five on a single scooter. With mom driving and little ones (smaller than Trey!) perched in the front and the rest of the gang hanging on in the rear with school bags, dinner, laundry and the rest nestled in between the passengers! It is a sight to behold and makes me admire the ability of these people to teach their children how to be still from such a young age!

We found a nice little cafe across from the school to continue our silent observations over a bowl of beef pho... a delicious soup with rice noddles, beef, fresh vegetables, cilantro and broth. After eating we headed to the top of Mt Phousi and snapped the last two pictures. The views were amazing but a bit hazy as they are currently burning the forests to make room for more farm land... I won't get started on this but I will say we are staying at the most ecologically friendly guesthouse in LP. While taking in the views and enjoying the temple, the wind started to blow and before we could make to the bottom of the 300+ steps it was pouring down rain! We made a dash for the guesthouse only to make it about half way before dodging the worst of the down pour in a cafe... I guess it isn't a really trip until you get rained on!

The guesthouse is closing up the lobby so I can't write much more but will try again tomorrow... We are heading on a trek through the jungle that ends in a waterfall! Until next time...

de plane de plane...

On a prop plane to Luang Prabang!

Haven't been on plane this small since I went to Montgomery to meet up with CK! And that plane wasn't painted with palm trees and fish! On the agenda for LP are the Pak Ou caves where Buddha statues are taken when they are broken as it is against the religion to destroy them. There is also a waterfall about 45 minutes out of town. And CK will be hunting down any opportunity to take a boat on the Mekong... I think he was a little old fisherman in a former life!
However, the first order of business is to find a guest house! How odd it feels to be flying into a foreign country with no language understanding and no where to lay our heads!! Like nothing we've ever done.
Have a list ready of what to do when we come back through Bangkok. Mainly involves markets and photography. I am finding it tough to describe the scenery. Everything is so different yet also the same... I guess that explains the Thai saying "same same" but different. I have been hesitant to get my camera out for fear of offending people. So I will be trying some covert photography methods... report to follow ;-)
Will try to find a WiFi spot once we land and post this... until next time!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Emerald Buddha is not...

I am typing this entire entry on my phone with one finger so please forgive spelling errors. I am also sitting outside listening to the sounds of Thai people. From what we have seen in 2 short days this is a city that lives on the sidewalks. Cooking, eating, washing up and socializing even sleeping...on the front steps. It makes for an interesting combination of smells and sounds. There are stray dogs and cats everywhere as well. CK is constantly reminding me that we cannot bring them home... mean ol'Chris ;-) Needless to say between the people, the animals and us there is not much room for walking.
Last night we found our way to Khaosan Road... it was a people watching smorgasboard! This is the go to spot for backpackers and since we are backpackers we had to go... right? Found a bar with a Thai guy playing the guitar and singing. He played songs from the 90's and knew most of the words. Californication lyrics were particularly entertaining. We tipped generously and encouraged him to play more but he ended his set and was replaced by a guy in a Sex Pistols shirt. God Save the Queen... played a kazoo and we have video!  We eventually made our way to Upstairs Bar... yep, it was upstairs! Listened to more top 40s and enjoyed the local beverages... a good night in deed which end with a pad thai chicken pitta and a rather wild tuktuk ride back to the guest house. We had to ring the bell to get in and realised it was about 2am! Felt like we were back in high school about to get busted for missing curfew!
After sleeping in and enjoying the AC and hot shower, we went down to the Grand Palace. Wow! Not sure what I expected but this blew those expectations out of the water. I think we could have wondered for hours. However, being there in the hottest part of the day was not the best option! Please note that is not a complaint, just an observation. And here is another... it is hot as h e double l! I love it!! The Emerald Buddha sits atop a massive shrine of gold. As you eyes travel up to the top there is a itty bitty Buddha smiling down... okay he is about 2 or 3 feet tall. Originally found in 1434 covered in plaster until a monk noticed the green beneath a chip. Thinking it was emerald he dubbed it the Emerald Buddha but it is in fact carved from a single block of jade!
So much more to say but I am going blind staring at this phone and my typing finger has a cramp! Will look for an internet cafe. Until then...

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pictures are not always worth a thousand words...

This time of year in London is amazing. Each morning when I open the windows to see blue sky and bright sunshine I am giddy with excitement. My path to the office takes me through St John's Wood Church Gardens, a place that I often photograph. However, I am nearly always disappointed with the photos... something is always missing but I can never figure out what 'it' is that is missing.  I've tried various compositions, angles, view points and nothing seems to fill the void. As I walked lazily along the flower petaled path yesterday trying to delay my arrival to work it dawned on me... Photos fail to capture the sounds of traffic in the background, of birds signing morning sounds, of children squealing on the playground. They don't capture the cool breeze or the warmth of the sun as you step out from the oaky shaded pathway. And they don't capture the scent of the slightly past their prime tulips that are spreading their pollen or the freshly mown lawn. Pictures can capture the color and the look but they can't capture the feel, the smell or the sounds of this peaceful oasis in the midst of morning rush hour. Days like yesterday it takes all the will power in world for me to not kick off my shoes and ignore the signs warning to 'stay off the grass' as all I want to do is feel the cool blades of grass between my toes and spend the day soaking up all that a photo can never capture.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Conflict of Heart and Mind

Since before Christmas we have been plotting the Florida Girl take over of South East Asia. Months of preparation have gone into the trip and we all know what I am like when it is time to plan. I initially told Chris, "let's just go for a few weeks and let the tide take us where it will. No need to plan or stress... just pack a bag and set off." He doubted my ability to give up control... he was right. It started with a few Internet searches and then I insisted on a few trips to various book stores around London. Now I have a calender, it has destinations, I have notes... pages and pages of notes, and I even bought an old school folding map of Laos and Cambodia. I have asked everyone and their friends about where to go and what to do... I plan like a germ-a-phobe washes their hands, without regard for our relaxed 'go with the flow' holiday. Alas, I am who I am and I am a planner. In 8 days, we are off to Bangkok and then to Laos and finally to Cambodia. That gives me 7 days to create daily itineraries, plan out every meal and ensure no stone goes unturned... just kidding, I am not THAT bad ;-)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Quintessential English Weekend at the Shore

A few months ago a friend posted pictures of a weekend in Winchelsea near Rye. A quick look at the pictures and I was on the phone getting details about where it was and how I could go there! Chris's birthday seemed liked a perfect excuse to rent a car and hit the road for a quintessential English weekend at the shore... coats, gloves and all! Lucky for us the sun decided to make it's long awaited spring debut! Not so lucky for us the heat in the house wasn't working. C'est la vie!
The front gate to Pebbles Beach House
Pebbles... our home if only for a few days!
Gnewa likes it... caught him out in the yard picking flowers to refresh his basket!

The beach... no sandy white beaches here. The water makes a hypnotising sound as it washes against the pebbles. I could have stretched out on the beach in the sun and listened to it for hours without getting any sand in my pants!

The house sits beside a nature preserve. We set off on Saturday morning for a short walk... a few hours and 7ish miles later we had walked along the beach, through the nature preserves, through the middle of some random campsites, hung out in a field with a horse, walked through a field of sheep, stormed a castle, bird watched, drank a pint in a harbour with the locals and explored the shale ridge. A productive morning to say the least!

The best part of the weekend was being disconnected from technology. We had no Internet, spotty cell phone reception and a tv out of 1978 that wasn't worth the effort that turn on. We listened to music, read, talked and just enjoyed being together... something that we don't do nearly as often as we would like!

We finished off the weekend with a drive to Dungeness... a uniquely odd but breathtaking beach in Kent. The beach is dotted with old rail cars once used to carry the shale but once the railway was abandoned they were turned into fishing huts. There is an eclectic mix of architecture and people but the most striking site is the massive nuclear power station and it's pervasive hum. And did I mention the miniature railway?

I was limited to only 50 or so pictures as I grabbed an old memory card but I think I managed a few good shots of the weekend. Have a look here.