Saturday, 27 February 2010
We're lucky to be staying with one of Mark's friends from high school who is teaching at an international school here in Hanoi. She kindly offered us her spare bedroom in a really authentic area near a small lake called "Truc Bach". She warned us to not try to pronounce the name, but to just show the driver the written version. Vietnamese is a hard language and if you don't get the tones right, they don't always understand you. Luckily, the writing is quite phonetic for those game enough to try.
It's been a welcome change to get a view of a city from someone who lives there rather than just as a tourist. Our first evening, we went around the lake to meet some of Cathy's friends for dinner and beers. The place was a little local Bia Hoi, which is like the Vietnamese version of a Beer Garden. We were the only westerners there. To get there, I hopped on the back of Cathy's motorbike and Mark cycled behind us- with a headlamp attached to his head. Due to the traffic, he was able to keep up pretty much the whole way and I was impressed with his ability to negotiate the crazy Hanoi traffic with such confidence. I would have completely freaked out and was much more comfortable on Cathy's moto. At one point, we found ourselves off-roading through a park to get to our destination. This was normal and we passed many other motorbikes doing the exact same thing.
The lakes here are well used by couples that like to watch sunsets whilst snogging, socializing older people that sit on stools to drink coffee as well as those trying to get some exercise. I'm sure that's not all they are used for judging by the strange green colour of the water. Although they are far from clean, I think people even eat fish out of them. This seemed to be a specialty of the Bia Hoi we chose, but we avoided it in favour of fried morning glory, fried corn kernels and a bunch of other tasty snack foods. The beer costs 18 cents and it's fresh and very light. I think you'd need to drink about 4 glasses to get the equivalent alcohol to one Heineken.
Another highlight of Vietnam is watching the early morning workouts in all the surrounding parks and around the lakes. Mark woke up early this morning and took his TRX to a chin-up pole that he saw near the lake. While there, he met lots of locals that were using the area for their regular morning workout. If you want to get an idea, go to You Tube and check out "Hanoi Morning Exercise" You see people doing the most random exercises including hip thrusts, fanning themselves vigorously and just moving their arms up and down. It's quite popular and very funny to watch. This morning, Mark had many curious spectators as he started his workout and he ended up teaching them some TRX exercises and leading a little impromptu training session. It sounded hilarious! I'm sure they thought Mark was quite curious himself. Cathy saw him half-way through his workout and got some on video. I'm sure he'll post some for you to see. These men were having a great time and so was Mark. They are his new local mates.
We're off to Halong Bay tomorrow. Really looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing some beautiful nature. This is an exciting, interesting city, but the heat, humidity and air quality mixed in with the smells and honking makes the prospect of a night on a boat and some kayaking very appealing.
Sunday, 21 February 2010
The first morning,we stepped over sleeping bodies (two staff were sleeping the Guest house floor in mosquito nets) and left our guest house at 5:15AM to watch the alms giving ceremony. This is a daily tradition whereby buddhists give food to monks from a nearby temple. There are over 45 temples in Luang Prabang so this is a big deal for the city. We watched a very small procession in front of our guesthouse and then a bigger one at around 6:30 AM on the main street. The alms basket of each barefoot, orange clad monk, receives a ball of sticky rice from the right hand of all the villagers and tourists that kneel beside the road. The idea is that the monks receive sustenance and the townspeople gain merit which helps toward their karmic balance.
We didn't buy any sticky rice baskets as it seemed to be more something for observing respectfully rather than participating. I was most impressed by how calm and impassive the monks were as they passed by the people. There was no real acknowledgement needed. Most of the monks were quite young and I noticed that at the end of the procession a line of young children with plastic bags had formed in a kneeling line. As the monks passed to go back towards the temple, many of them reached into their urns and threw some rice into the youngsters bags. It was the monks turn to provide sustenance to the poor.
The following day felt a little like Christmas- we were going to ride elephants! We hooked up with a German owned company that aimed to help preserve and care for older elephants in the area by having them work with the tourists. Most of these elephants worked in logging at one point and came to the camp with their original Mahout. "Mahout" is the term for elephant riders and it is a really special thing in Laos. Elephants live about the same time as humans so normally an elephant and a Mahout will start working together around 15 years old and they will be together for their whole life. You can really see the bond that these people have with their elephants. The elephant camp had 9 female elephants between 36 and 65 years old. In essence, it was a little like early retirement for these animals as they were able to earn their 100-200kg of food that they consume daily by taking light rides in the jungle with tourists. The rest of their day is spent bathing in the river, eating, resting and eating again. Our Mahout was a very happy fellow who had been with Mae Bo (the elephant) for 20 years. He kept asking us if we were happy and telling us how happy Mae Bo and he were that we were there. It was quite endearing and I sure was happy to be riding with an elephant so it wasn't even annoying! Peng let us ride on the neck of Mae Bo about 5 minutes into the ride and it was pretty incredible. You just had to nudge her ears and she'd trundle along. I was scared at first, but I was rather in love as well.
Due to the French influence (or the fact that they conquered Laos a number of years ago), Luang Prabang is known to have fine French food. After eating BBQ in the market for $2 for the past two nights, we decided to splurge a little and sit down for a nice meal at L'elephant- well named. Mark had a prix fixe French menu with Laos infused flavours. Pumpkin soup with coconut and Lime kaffir and pan friend dory with pasta. I, on the other hand, opted for the Laos prix fixe menu. I thought it would be a good opportunity to try some of the food in the market that I didn't dare taste without knowing what it was. It turns out, the meal was enough for 2-3 people so Mark and I both got a very good idea of typical and well prepared food from Laos. On the menu:
Lemon Grass soup with beef cubes
Chicken basil salad
Steamed fish in a lotus leaf
Pork and herb skewer
Fried pork in a lemon grass leaf
Dried seaweed with sesame seeds
A condiment of spicy chili and dried buffalo skin
Ginger ice cream with Fresh Fruit
We rolled out of there, but it was delicious and only came to $60 with some very cold and tasty white wine. A recommendation for sure! We finished the night off with Sophie (2nd cousin from England) and her boyfriend Drew with drinks at a cafe called Cafe des Arts. It was such a nice surprise to meet up with them a share some stories. They recommended a few good places in Vientiane and Cambodia as well as a good herbal sauna in Luang Prabang. I think we're going to check that out tonight. They have three more weeks of travels left and it looks like they are heading more North. They seem like seasoned travellers and are looking for some good treks and local experiences. We'll see if they make it out of Luang Prabang in short time.
Off to Vientiane tomorrow- 10 hour bus trip!
Probably the highlight of our trek through northern Thailand was the time we spent in the small, remote villages. The first day of trekking ended in a Lahu village. We arrived to a welcome from many different types of livestock and the smiles of many local children who were eager to take us swimming in the river. We welcomed the swim as we were dirty and hot from a full day of hiking through the jungle. As you can imagine, the water was cold being in the mountains, but was very refreshing indeed!
We spent the night in the kitchen hut that belonged to the chief of the village. The chief was 33 years old and had been already married for 20 years! A seasoned veteran. The kitchen consisted on a large open room with a bamboo floor. There was a fire / coking area in the middle of our hut, which made it quite smoky, but the smells of dinner were fantastic. After dinner, we sat around with our guide, the chief and a few women from the village that showed us some crafts that they were selling. We chatted a bit with the locals using our guide to translate where our sign language did not cut it.
We slept on a bamboo floor with only the padding of a light blanket to cushion us. They also had plenty of blankets to keep us warm in the cool nights. The floor was actually not as uncomfortable as we thought it was going to be. Those cheeky chickens and their 4AM wake-up though!!
The children were just as curious with us as we were with them. They were free to play throughout the village, the river and the surrounding hills. The village even had a small cement volleyball / badminton pitch that the kids used to play volleyball with their feet and a ball made from bamboo. Simple, but fun.
The adults had hard lives, but they all seemed quite happy. Most of them cannot read or write. In fact, some of the boys become monks so that they can receive an education. Their lives primarily revolve in providing for themselves....food and shelter. Many of the children leave the villages when they are old enough in order to go work in surrounding towns or cities. The money they earn will go to support their families in the village.
The second night of the trek was spent in a Karen village. The majority of the Karen people live in Burma, and yet they also form by far the largest of the major tribes of northern Thailand. There are as many as 280,000 Karen's living in Thailand. The family we stayed with housed us in their son's hut where we again slept on the floor. The couple that housed us were 57 and 59 years of age. They have 6 children. The father was addicted to opium at one point and left the family to cure his addition. He was successful in his quest, but now apparently loves his whiskey.
The wife was constantly busy. If she wasn't preparing food for the pigs, she was preparing food or making clothing for her family. The husband would get up at 4AM and head out to the fields to attend to his cows. All in all, it made our lives seem quite easy.
Overall, the people were very kind and accommodating to us. We loved every moment. They say that Thailand is the land of smiles. This definitely applies to the hill tribes of northern Thailand as well.
We have posted some pictures of the villages, but will post more as we go along.
Monday, 15 February 2010
So, we're back from our 3 days in the jungle, valleys and villages of northern Thailand. What an amazing experience it was. While the hiking was fantastic, the real experiences that we'll remember for a lifetime were in the local villages that we stayed each night.
On average, we hiked about 5 hours per day. Our guide, Pat, was very good at ensuring we maintained a slow, but steady pace. We often stopped in the shade on a bank of the Pai River to catch our breath, soak in the scenery and gulp some water. This also proved to be a good time to count the number of bug bites on our bodies! The terrain varied. We climbed hills, shuffled down slippery rocks, trotted across dried up rice fields and crossed meandering rivers.
Yesterday, we crossed the river about 7 times. On our first crossing, we all took our shoes and socks off and carried them as we crossed the knee deep water. On the other side, we scrambled to dry our feet and wipe the damp sand off them before putting on our socks and shoes again. The guide even filled up his bamboo cups to pour water over our feet to rid them of the sand! Ridiculous! We've signed up for a 3-day trek and here we were getting a poor man's pedicure after getting a little dirt on our toes! He was hiking in flip flops!
As we strolled along, the guide would often point out interesting things to us. It's amazing at how the village people use and rely on the trees and plants for many aspects of their lives....from building material for their huts, to medicines, to cooking utensils. The growth of opium poppies used to be a huge problem here, but the government seems to be getting a handle on the situation. Villages used to be able to make a lot of money of selling opium crops (much more than selling rice or other food).
While we did not see that much wildlife, there are apparently many varieties of birds, insects, snakes and other interesting creatures that call this land home. Most of the animals we saw were actually in villages. Roosters, hens, pigs, wild cows and dogs were very well featured. The bloody roosters wake up at 4AM....and then snooze until 5AM....closely followed by another cat nap until 5:45AM. Click here to learn more about the most annoying animal / alarm clock in the world.
Probably the most interesting part of the daily hikes were when we hugged the river, which was jungle country. Although it's the dry season here (it has not rained since late October), the jungle was very green and lush. The air was refreshingly cool.
More to come....stay tuned for part 2.
Thursday, 11 February 2010
We found a sweet little cabin for $30 off the main road that is a definite improvement from our stinking hot hostel room in Phuket town. It is downright swank in comparison! We can't wait to explore and have already booked a thai cooking class with "Mr T" tomorrow. It's called "Wok with Tee" so we couldn't resist (Sadie, Erin and Gail will appreciate).
After our time in the treehouse in Koh Phi Phi, we moved on to Koh Lanta. We decided to skip Krabi and head to Ko Lanta in hopes of getting a little off the well-worn route. If Koh Phi Phi was relaxing, Ko Lanta was catatonic. It was pure bliss to sit in a cabana sipping Singhas and watch the most beautiful turquoise water roll up on the long, white beach. Originally, we went to Koh Lanta because we wanted to stay in this place called Sanctuary that was recommended by Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, they were so laid back that they didn't answer emails or phone calls so we ended up booking a bungalow down the beach. It was somewhat spartan (the bathroom looked like a cement jail cell) so I took to calling the bathroom "the Gaol" I am reading Stieg Larsson's Swedish mystery right now so it seemed appropriate. Also, did you know it's possible to flush a toilet by dumping a bucket of water down it? Yessiree, Mark and I figured it out when there was no lever in site.
Anyways, enough about toilets, onto Katoys (again, I know). There were three highlights in Koh Lanta:
1. We had the best seafood BBQ restaurant on the beach right in front of LD Bungalows (our place) called Thai Cat. The staff were so cheerful and Mark and I shared a delicious whole grouper with rice, salad, BBQd corn and Singhas. It was delicious.
2. Both evenings around sunset, we played beach volleyball with an eclectic mix of locals and tourists. Three of the best players happen to be girl-boys. I use both because they had manly faces yet full breasts and they could squeal with the best girly girls! These girls had some serious game and I had a blast playing with them. Mo and Nat were my new buddies and we challenged the boys to a game. We lost by a hair but there was lots of flirting and joking going around. Such a laugh. I don't understand Thai, but I did hear one of the girls use the word Katoy whilst referring to herself. I think my new friends were part of this elusive thai club- but definitely not as convincing as the ones we saw in Patong, Phuket.
3. Yoga on the beach. Both mornings, Mark and I walked 25 minutes down the beach to the Sancturay and did a Ashtanga class. It was gorgeous with the view of the ocean and a slight breeze. I would have bee in heaven if it wasn't for the sound of Mark's heavy panting as he worked that downward dog.
Have to run! Mr T invited us for dinner tonight since his class made too much food. Hope they are good students.
Saturday, 6 February 2010
We are in Koh Phi Phi...feels a bit like taking a big exhale after a 2 hour yoga class. Pure relaxation. It looks exactly like the post card... warm azure waters and white sand beaches. We are staying at the Viking Nature Resort which looks like a cross between Bungalows and tree houses set in a forest with an Andaman sea view. I almost feel like I'm at Shoal Lake when navigating the path and stepping over roots and rocks to get to our place. It's also run on a generator so lights go off at 11PM and our flash lights (torches) have come in handy.
We are staying just off the main port of Koh Phi Phi (short boat trip away) and some of the trees are quite mature. I'm not sure if we are on part of the island that wasn't in line of the tsunami, but that is my guess. If not, these trees must have some seriously strong roots. The place we are staying is really laid back and as I'm sitting here typing, there are boats going by in the bay and Mark is sipping a Singha beer in his swim suit. There are quite a few European families here on holiday and one little thai boy that lives here seems to be quite a hit among the kids. He must be about 4 and his shorts are always yanked way up above his navel. He seems to run the place and all the little kids follow him around and imitate him. He's right at home and is always sitting with various families and chowing on ice cream. I think it's amazing how kids don't need language to play and have a great time.
The people on Phi Phi seemed to be more relaxed than Phuket and Bangkok. The hotel has some English staff as well as a mixture of thais. For some reason, many of the thai staff here at the hotel seem to be of undefinable gender. Mark has invented a new pronown for addressing them : "hisher" Kinda flows and definitely works. One of them in particular has quite manly features yet has the most feminine walk (move over Giselle Bundchen), full (and prominent!) breasts and long hair. They look nothing like some of the people we saw in Bangkok and Phuket who were also along the blurred gender lines. The ones we saw in the city were for the most part gorgeous and so feminine. I had to stop and stare because they made beautiful women.
Time to sign out. We're going on a snorkeling trip tomorrow. I will try and post pictures before we head off to Koh Lanta or Krabi on Monday.
Monday, 1 February 2010
After 7 hours being jostled by a guy with sharper elbows than Lindsay Rowe in a tight corner of a hockey rink, we arrived in Dubai. Sadly, we only had 2.5 hours in Dubai. This was enough time to take in some botanical gardens, waterfalls (yes, in a desert airport) and every American fast food chain you could think of. We could easily have been in Florida with the Burger Kings, Dunkin Donuts and all the other familiar names- if it weren't for the Arabic writing beside the familiar logos. However, the tides did change when we checked in for our second leg of the journey. The lovely red lipped ladies from Emirates upgraded our seats to Business class and we were like two kids in a candy shop for the next 6 hours. Bubbly, a la carte menus and beds that fold out. Mark kept trying out all the gadgets and peeking over so I could ooh and ahh...including the massage function in his chair and the ability to move up and down, up and down...did I mention we were kids?
We arrived in Bangkok and thanks to Uncle Dick and Auntie Elaine, we had brilliant directions on how to get to our hotel in Koh San.
Top Observations so far:
-Tukstuks are fun...for 10 minutes. NEVER get in a traffic jam for 1.25 hours in a Tuktuk behind a belching bus.
-Thais are the most friendly people. Everyone carries around a pen and gives directions, and marks up your map for you. They will also flag down cabs or tuktuks for you. Funny how we always seem to get a good fare and then end up in a tailor shop, travel agent...etc. We haven't quite figured this out yet, but we're enjoying the chats and circuitous city tours.
- My favourite bar name in the Night market? Thigh bar. Doesn't it just make you want to take a nibble? We definitely saw a few western men partaking...
-Pad thai from street vendors for a dollar. We think we are in heaven.
-Thais like candid shots of their royalty. Posing doesn't seem to be the way to go. They seem to prefer their king gazing into the distance or caught mid-sentence. It's kind of refreshing yet humorous when blown up to massive proportions and posted in the middle of a boulevard.
-People in the night market really like the game of Ping Pong (think dirty on this one, moms, we'll explain later)
-Who is this Budha guy? He features well in all parts of the city, looks really good at a 45 foot height and he has a nice tummy.
Today, we plan to walk down one of the many canals and hopefully rent a river boat so we can get a better view of how people live on the canals. We also want to see the Royal palace and get our first massage - of many.
Hope everyone is well and we hope to post pictures soon. Send us an email!
Over & Out,
Sara & Mark
p.s. I woke up to Mark doing a TRX workout in the room today in his undies and runners. He is a GRINDER!