Sunday, March 29, 2009

Last Asia Post

Somehow, nearly four months later, I find myself again at the Bangkok airport, this time heading East, back to Los Angeles. I had a couple great, very hot days in Bangkok, shopping Chatuchak Weekend Market (15,000 stalls = mother of all markets), sweating buckets in the 100F+ heat, and eating Thai street food. I also spent a lot of time in the air conditioned mega-malls, cooling it, amazed at the incredibly polite crowds (this was noticeable after spending so much time in Vietnam, where people in crowds push and shove you out of the way, even if you have no place to go).

I will admit that I didn’t much enjoy Railay, the “paradise” of which I wrote earlier. The backdrop was stunning, the water warm, and hotel very nice. But it was entirely devoted to foreigners, and bore little resemblance to the Thailand that I have grown to appreciate. The people working in the area showed all the signs of foreigner fatigue that comes from too many rude and demanding people, day after day. Add to that the unbearable heat and hordes of mosquitoes, and I was glad to leave for Bangkok.

After I get home I plan to chill out in Encinitas for awhile, surf, and enjoy the perfect non-humid weather. I will take a few small trips in the U.S. and then my sister may come to visit in June. I am still thinking about the next phase of my travels, but it will probably be Europe for 4-6 weeks, then South America in the fall. I will continue to post to this blog, so if you are not someone I talk to regularly, you can check in here to see what’s up.
Thanks for joining me on this fabulous trip!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


Railay Beach West, where I stay now, is perhaps the nicest beach in Thailand. The folks at Lonely Planet think so anyway. It is on a rugged peninsula of limestone karsts, and the little sliver of pristine beach where my resort is located is accessible only by boat.
I arrived late in the evening and from the Krabi airport I was whisked by minivan to a waiting speed boat. There being no marina, I had to wade to in the water on both sides and I couldn’t believe how warm it was – probably 90 degrees, hardly refreshing. For the first time in weeks I could see stars. In the evening the restaurants lining the beach are lit with many tiny yellow lights, and pulling in there amid the darkness of the rest of the peninsula was utterly charming and romantic.
Unfortunately it is even hotter here than in Chiang Mai, and I have just accepted that I will be sweating constantly. This has been broken up my tropical thunder and rain, but it hardly made a dent in the heat.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Week in Chiang Mai

When I left you last, I was enjoying the tropical thunder of an evening storm in Northern Thailand. The week in Chiang Mai proved to be an uneventful one. I spent 2 days in cooking classes, took 4 yoga classes, went to the pool twice and had a massage every day. I went to a handful of the 100 or so exquisite wats (temples) in the city limits (outnumbered only by massage places and ATMs). Of course there was a fair amount of eating too. I took advantage of the many vegetarian restaurants to renew myself, stocking up on organic yogurt, wheatgrass, fresh juices and smoothies as well as outstanding Thai food. I feel like I missed many things available in and around Chiang Mai, but in all honesty, it was too bloody hot during the day to do much of anything; the heat caused all interest in exploring to evaporate. However, I am resolved to come back in the cooler months and see more. This is an easy place to imagine coming back to.

Perhaps now is the time to mention that I have managed to put away 24 books on this trip, including many of the classics that I missed in school. I have become a particular fan of Charles Dickens, having read David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist in the last couple months. Isn’t that the beauty of traveling – having time to read and hotel rooms without cable TV? I must confess that Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Bronte), consumed me for several days in Chiang Mai, which is the real reason I didn’t post to my blog very often, sorry!

Next stop: Railay Beach in Krabi province for some snorkeling, kayaking, swimming and rock climbing before heading to Bangkok and then home. I’ll be back in Encinitas on Monday, March 30. Looking forward to seeing everyone!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Raining in Chiang Mai

It’s late on St. Paddy’s day, and a rain, thunder and lightning storm is raging over Chiang Mai. The monsoon season is not due for a couple months, so I don’t know how unusual it is, but seeing the lightning flash over the old temples and ruins in the center (visible from my 4th floor window) is spectacular. I felt the suffocating heat start to break up with a breeze earlier this evening, and this show may be the hammer to drive it away.

I am again having culture shock in Thailand. I think I am just happy to be in a country that wasn’t bombed by the U.S. But like my return to Bangkok from Burma in December, my arrival in Chiang Mai from Laos has me a bit stunned. First, there are loads of foreigners here, not all tourists, but lots of ex-pats. There are gleaming shopping malls and flashy cars, fast food restaurants, and even, gasp, Starbucks (but a good latte is easy to get from a local place, so no need to go). I was contemplating what Thai people think of all the foreigners in town, but then I considered that in the U.S. alone we have a lot of Thai immigrants, so maybe we can look at it as one big exchange program. I guess some Thais would rather live in the U.S., and some Americans would rather live in Thailand. I can see why: all the comforts of home (nearly), and a fraction of the price. Indeed, Thailand is proving to be the cheapest of the bunch, confirmed by my informal “Cost of Coronette Index”, which is a comparison of the cost of a pre-packaged ice cream cone (think Drumstick) across Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. (This is similar to my “Cost of Burrito Index” for California).

Other than the obvious tourist factor, Chiang Mai (although it is a big city) is laid back, and a good place to just be for awhile. I think there as many Thai massage places in Chiang Mai as there are coffee places in downtown S.F. (2-3 per block??), packed in among loads of ancient temples (no, I haven’t gone in one yet).

Tomorrow is cooking class – more ammunition for my home culinary adventures!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Food Court

I have landed in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. So many people have been to Thailand, I won’t spend much time describing it to you here.

One thing I missed in the other countries was the Thai food court, seemingly unique to this Asian country. For the uninitiated, a food court is a collection of food stalls (like the street kitchens in Vietnam) around a central seating area, where the food is cheap and delicious (about $1 for a meal). The large fashionable malls throughout Bangkok have them too (much sleeker and with fancy pre-pay cards to ease purchase), and they are one of the best eating options in town.

I think everyone has seen bad English translations of Asian languages, but the following menu from the night bazaar food court in Chiang Rai tops them all:

The Moustache is Tiny Squid Roast - 10 Baht
The Demon Moustache Squid Roasts – 20 Baht
The Ark Shell Scalds/Burns – 40-50 Baht
The Meatball Fries, Every the Wood – 10 Baht

Say what???

The other thing I can wholly appreciate back in Thailand is the 2 hour Thai massage for only $6 (the going rate in Chiang Rai). I think I could have one every day….. And that is what I may be doing since I am trekked-out and templed-out at this point (the 2 main attractions in Northern Thailand).

Laos in Real Life

In search of the real Laos (Vientiane and Luang Prabang cannot qualify for this), I had taken a bus up into the northern mountains, disembarking at Vieng Phouka. The guesthouses in town were all of local construction, very basic. Mine had bamboo walls, a concrete floor, and a bathroom consisting large bucket of water next to a squat toilet. Hey, it was only $3 a night, so you can’t really complain. And when you consider that a lot of people in the village don’t have running water, and wash everything in the river, it seems like pure luxury.

In Vieng Phouka I hired a guide to take me trekking in the jungle – some of the least spoilt in Southeast Asia. We spent the night in an “eco-lodge” in a Lahu village. In this context, eco-lodge means living as the villagers do: just an elevated bamboo hut, with a dirt-filled area for making a cooking fire. No electricity, no water, no toilet. This is the real Laos for much of the population.
I have met some travelers who revel in living like the locals, but I was thankful to get back to Houay Xai (at the border) and my modern guesthouse for one final night before crossing into Thailand.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Mighty Mekong

An early departure from Luang Prabang afforded me no last glimpse of the golden city, and immediately we were enveloped in the pervasive haze of the Northern Laos mountains caused by swidden (slash and burn) fires. It is the dry season and the mighty Mekong River is approaching its lowest yearly level, leaving behind enormous sand dunes on the banks and in the middle of the river, as well as large formations of ship-wrecking rocks which get submerged and become dangerous when the water levels rise. Standing on the banks of the river outside Pak Beng, one gets the impression of being at the bottom of a narrow desert, until you look up and see the dry leaves of the teak jungle closing in.

The trip up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai, at the Thai border, is a 2 day affair on any so-called slow boat (think river barge) versus 1 day on a “fast boat” – a white knuckle adventure that often leads to tragedy and is not recommended by anyone as a safe option for tourists (or locals, for that matter). It was surprising that the morning air on the river was quite brisk, and the boat crew gave us blankets and jackets and I was thankful to still have my Patagonia fleece (I had considered donating it to the Red Cross in a fit of bag-lightening). I was on the boat Luang Say, a “luxury” boat, as that goes on that part of the Mekong. The most obvious advantage being the full size Western bathroom (with sink and soap!), instead of the hole in the floorboards covered by a dirty tarp.

One of the other advantages of the posh cruise was the inclusion of all meals, and a night at the Luang Say resort in Pak Beng. However, of all the thatched roof huts, towers and homestays in which I have stayed so far, at this posh resort (where the windows were wooden slats and the eaves were open), I felt the most like the jungle was coming to get me, and was supremely grateful for the provided mosquito net to keep it at bay.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Moving On

Just a quick note to say that I am hopping on a boat tomorrow for the 2 day trip up the Mekong River towards Thailand and the infamous Golden Triangle. We stop for one in Pak Beng, and I not sure what the internet access will be. The next update will either be from Thailand or from farther north in Laos. I have not yet decided on which way to go. The precious days are ticking down...

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sticky Rice Heaven

I think I posted way back about how much I love sticky rice. I think it goes back to one of my earliest childhood memories of my Aunt Elizabeth (yes, I was named after her) feeding me dollops of sticky rice rolled in sesame seeds for breakfast. I must have been 3 or 4, and my aunt had just arrived from Burma with her family and they were all living with us.

In Laos, sticky rice is an integral part of the diet and there is even sticky rice etiquette. I learned this, and some other secrets of Lao cuisine at a cooking class last Thursday. It was the best cooking class I have had so far, being set in the garden of the restaurant, a few kilometers outside of town. The owners have open air cooking pavilions set up over a large fish pond where the breeze takes away the heat and smoke of the wood-fired braziers (true Lao cooking – over a wood fire!) Laos cuisine has elements similar to Vietnamese and Cambodian, not too spicy, but with some nice curries. We made fish in banana leaves, a local stew with herbs I surely cannot find at home, and lemongrass stuffed with chicken and herbs. I am looking forward to trying the new dishes at home!

The day after the cooking class, I went for a 3 day mahout training camp. Mahout is the term for elephant driver, keeper or trainer, and the idea is to let tourists learn how to give commands and control the elephants. My sole purpose was to get up close and personal with the magnificent creatures for more than a photo op. I mean, how useful would the training skills be after the camp? (I can imagine adding to my resume under Other: “Elephant Control Skills”!)

I achieved my purpose, and spent hours atop various elephants, until my knees were rubbed raw by the brush bristle hairs on their massive heads. Some of the heads still bear the scars from knocking down trees in their logging days, as most of the elephants are retired or rescued from logging operations up north.

As for controlling the elephants, I didn’t have a chance. The mahouts explained that they make the elephant scared of them, in order to maintain control. They have a hammer-size stick with a curved nail-like piece on the end to dig into the elephant if it won’t obey – and of course using that thing is something I just won’t do! I think the elephants could sense that I would do them no harm, so when it was just me on top, they did whatever they pleased, which was mostly to eat. An average Asian elephant eats 300kg of plant material a day, so they are constantly stuffing things in their mouths. Since I spent hours watching them, I could spend pages writing about the amazing things they do with their trunks, and how nimbly they maneuver their massive bodies, but I’ll spare you. I’ll just say that if you ever get a chance to spend some quality time with an elephant, it’s worth it!

The photo below is of the top of an elephant's head so you can see what I mean about the the wiry hairs!

To let you all know of a change in plans, I will be staying in Laos until March 16 only, then I am off to Thailand. As much as I like Laos, my malaria meds are running out, and I am craving civilization. Still a few more adventures to be had!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Luang Prabang has captivated me. I am not sure what I expected. The only photos I ever saw were of gilded temples, similar to the ones in Vientiane. While it’s true that there is a stunning temple on nearly every corner of the Historic Temple District (where I am staying), there are also well preserved French colonial mansions and shop houses, huge shade giving mango trees, and orchids in bloom in every yard. Even though there are heaps of tourists here (again, outnumbering the locals in the historic areas), the dusty streets are quiet, and one can just walk in peace. For anyone considering going to Southeast Asia, my top 2 picks would be Siem Reap (for the Angkor Temples) and Luang Prabang.

I have noticed that there are a lot of guesthouses. More than anywhere else I have been, and I read that these fill up in January, which is the peak tourist month. So keep that in mind; it could change the feel of the place to have 5x as many tourists around. March technically is still high season, but the very end of it, and there are no crowds anywhere.

I am so intrigued by this country, that I have changed my plans and will be spending the rest of my time seeing a bit of the north instead of going to Northern Thailand. Next up: a cooking class, mahout training, and a slow boat up the Mekong River.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Buddha Found

Back in January, on arriving in Vietnam, I had a blog post entitled “Where’s Buddha?” Well, I found him! On my last day in Vientiane, I visited more of the wats (pagodas) which seem to be in every square kilometer of the city. At Wat Sisaket - the oldest original one (most were destroyed by the invading Siamese army in the 17th century), I saw, literally, piles of Buddha images, recovered from underground ruins all over Vientiane. In niches of the walls of the courtyard around the wat were another 2000 images, in addition to many bigger brass images. The place is quite remarkable, and I tried to capture it a bit with my camera in the setting sun.

So far, Laos reminds me a lot of Burma, in the prominence of Buddhism in the culture, the gentleness of the people, and the poverty. But there are a lot more foreign aid dollars here, which you don’t see in Burma. You see it everywhere, and certainly the large number of ex-pats helps local economies too.

Wild Elephants

On Sunday morning, I took off with an eco-tourism company to potentially see the wild elephants in Ban Na, a village 82k out of Vientiane. The village is trying to capitalize on tourism, since the elephants have wreaked havoc on their farming, and it is their best option if the elephants and their habitat are to be preserved interesting that the whole thing was planned and completed by a German). Asian elephants are endangered, and number less than 40,000-60,000 worldwide. While I paid extra to be the only one on the “tour”, I realized later that it is completely possible to go it alone, and hire a local guide from the town, which is required for entry into the area.

First we (the tour guide, the driver, and the local guide) walked a steamy 4 kilometers through the jungle to a tower, which serves as an observation tower, storage and bunk house. After lunch we walked another 3 steamy hours (roundtrip) to a scary swimming hole – a dark brown deep puddle of water that looks like it could contain crocs (not the kind you wear!) The tour guide and the driver stripped to their underwear and jumped in. Why is that Asian men can gallivant around in their underwear, but women have to cover up and swim in clothes or a sarong, lest we offend the traditional sensibilities? As Helena knows, even being fully clothed does assure that you are not stared at when wet (remember the hot springs in Bhutan?)
Later in the afternoon, as I read well into dusk, the 3 Laotians cooked and drank rice whiskey. All of the information posted in the tower said that in order not to scare the elephants (who are not assured to come), turn off lights and cell phones, be quiet and don’t smoke. The 3 guys together violated all of these precepts, and I figured they didn’t care whether the beasts showed up or not. Miraculously, about 8:30, through the din of their drunken laughter (indeed, they were all drunk by this point), I heard crashing and breaking branches. After much urgent pleading, they quieted down and we killed the lights. We were rewarded by dim outlines and lots of trumpeting, hurrumphing and calling, as the magnificent creatures lapped up salt and bathed in the watering hole nearby. One of the men tried to flash a light on them, but this scared them of course (man is the only real predator of Asian elephants) but I caught a vivid glimpse of 4 adults and a baby.

Despite the thrill of being so close to the wild creatures, I was quite distressed to learn that the guides were throwing things to them in order to induce them to come for the tourists. I was indignant at this blatant violation of one of the precepts of the tower and told them to cease immediately. As they were all drunk, it became a big mess and marred an otherwise special experience. Then, since we were all to sleep on bamboo mats on the wood floor of the tower, the 3 immediately passed out, snoring loudly, with the tour company guide uncomfortably close to where I was to sleep. I couldn’t get him to move away and had to smell his sickening alcohol breath all night. Ick.

One more night in Vientiane (see next post), then on to Luang Prabang.