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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Thailand: The Final Countdown

After Pai, I made a quick stop in Chiang Mai where I took an amazing cooking class at BaanThai Cookery School. I was stoked to learn how to whip up my favorite dishes like Pad Thai, Khao Soy and Spring Rolls - yum! I also learned the primary ingredients of all Thai dishes: chili peppers (spicy!), sugar, fish oil, and oyster sauce - not things I usually stock in my cabinet but I'll definitely be adding upon my return to the States.

From Chiang Mai I took yet another overnight bus to Bangkok to pick up my final visitor of the year from the airport, my little brother Chris! Chris was with me the first time I came to Thailand in 2004, so we didn't have to do any of the touristy things around Bangkok - which was nice because we were able to explore areas and do things  I hadn't made it to yet like Chinatown, a paddle boat ride in Lumphini Park, a rooftop bar downtown, and Wat Arun on the river.

After a few days in Bangkok and warnings of imminent floods, we decided to head down South to the island of Koh Lanta on the Andaman Sea.  Koh Lanta was just as advertised- white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, and gorgeous sunsets. It had a very chill vibe and was the perfect place to soak up the sun and eat curry for every meal.

While in Koh Lanta, Chris and I hopped aboard a long-tail boat for an island tour that took us to Koh Ngai, Koh Mook, Koh Chuek and the Emerald Cave, or "Tham Morakot." The Emerald Cave was a really stunning sight.  The boat dropped us off at the entrance and at the entrance of the cave the water glowed a beautiful green color.  As we made our way past the entrance it gradually got darker until it was pitch black, and our guide thought it was hilarious to turn off the flashlight - not cool! It's definitely a little scary to be swimming in a dark cave somewhere in the middle of the ocean and no idea where you're going...oh, and there were bats. However, once we saw the light at the end of the tunnel, it was all good. We came out of the cave to a beautiful sight, a tiny beach surrounded on all sides by limestone cliffs covered with plants.  It was amazing and one of those moments that made me realize how lucky I am to have seen so many of these hidden wonders in the past year - there are so many beautiful places on this earth!
From Koh Lanta, we spent one night in Krabi re-living our stay there 7 years ago by staying in the same hotel (totally same same and not different) and hitting up the night market for some chicken on a stick and banana shakes. The next morning we hopped a flight and were back in the BKK for my final days in Thailand.  I had planned on making a return trip to Suphan for one last night with my friends - but that ended up being impossible due to the floods - so I guess I'll just have to come back to Thailand soon! 
Nell joined Chris and I in BKK for our final night and my friend Game also came into the city to send us off with some Beer Leo! It was a really good final day/night in Thailand - capped off with my favorite Thai meal, Pad Grapow Moo sai Kai Jiew, and an iced coffee or two from a street vendor. It was weird to say good-bye and honestly it still doesn't feel real, perhaps when I get back to the States I'll have more time to think about it, but for now all I can say is, I LOVE THAILAND. It was the best year of my life, I could not have asked for a better experience, and I am eternally grateful to all of the amazing places I got to see, the students I got to teach, the friends I made, the locals I met, the food I ate, and the experiences I had. I will for sure be back, hopefully sooner rather than later, and I will always have a special place in my heart for Thailand...chop mak!!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Pai: Hippy Heaven

The next stop of my trip, after a horrendous bus ride on a "VIP" (cough) bus through some crazy Northern Laos "roads" (cough), was Pai - a lovely little hippy town way up in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. I had heard that there wasn't really much of anything to do in Pai, but that there were plenty of ways to relax, and that was exactly the case.  The scenery was beautiful, the town was full of cute little cafes and gift shops, there were some great restaurants serving delish Northern food, and I had a pretty amazing massage.  I stayed at a really cool hostel called SpicyPai, a little outside of the town area, but set back from the road literally in the middle of a rice paddy - felt like I was back in Suphan. The hostel itself was a bamboo hut with about 20 dorm beds, no windows or doors, and some handy mosquito nets.  It was a bumping hostel and made it easy to meet people since I was traveling solo for this part of my journey. 
I also of course made friends with pretty much every Thai person in town, impressing them with my (nidnoi) knowledge of Thai and one of the DJ's at the bar in town offered to take me around Pai in a motorbike - I could hardly say no since Pai is billed as the place in Thailand to explore by bike and there was no way I was going to drive myself around the mountains! We took about a 40 minute ride through some curved roads, beautiful coffee plantations, and some crazy fog and made it to a viewpoint at the top of the mountain. I was happy I was wearing pants and a light jacket because it was SO cold at the top of the mountain - my blood has definitely thinned out this past year and I cannot handle being cold, so I was glad to see the view but happy when we started our descent and were met with a blast of that hot Thailand air I love so much. I'm glad I was able to see outside of the town center and check out some of the amazing views from up top, Pai was a great little sleepy town and a really nice place to relax and chill chill.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Luang Prabang: Lanterns, Monks and Rockets

Luang Prabang is definitely one of my favorite SE Asian cities, I'm really glad I had a full 5 days there to soak it up. As an official World Heritage city, it is remarkably calm, peaceful, and beautiful. I spent most of the days meandering around the city center and stopping in the various wats to befriend the monks. It seems like a lot happened in my 5 days there, yet it was super relaxing and fun. Here are some of the highlights:

The Rocket Festival: It's one of the biggest holidays in Laos with the central celebration in LP. It was complete luck that we were there and able to see it, but it was a really cool festival of lights, lanterns, boats and fireworks. The monks especially were loving it, going wild all night shooting off rockets, sparklers and fireworks- it was fun to see them let loose and be the teenage boys they are!
 The Hilltribe handicraft night market: Let's just say my bags are definitely going to be overweight now.

The monks: So friendly and all of them were desperate to talk to us and practice their English, so cute!

The locals: I really enjoyed all of my interactions with the locals, be it on a boat across the Mekong to explore a little village or at a restaurant in the downtown area. Laotians are very friendly and always open to chat about their life experiences and culture. It was really interesting to hear some of their stories, and especially cool to hear how dedicated they were to their education and their goals for the future of Laos, one of the world's poorest countries.
 The drive: Once again, crazy windy roads, but a really cool glimpse at how people way up in the mountains live. Beautiful scenery and gorgeous mountain views.  I also got a glimpse at some of the local roadside delicacies, including beaver (I think?).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lovely Laos

When you join the backpacking trail in Southeast Asia there are a few places that keep coming up again and again as a must go and a must see, Laos is definitely one of those places. I've heard from so many people how beautiful, simple and amazing Laos is and I was eager to find out for myself.

The first stop was the capital city of Vientiane, right across the border from Nong Khai. There isn't a while lot happening in this capital, but there are a lot of amazing bakeries scattered around the city, and since Thailand has left me seriously deprived of baked goods, I made it my mission to try every cafe in my 24 hours in the city, and I did a pretty good job! Nell and Michaela and I also did a ton of walking and managed to see all the major wats and the Patouxai Monument, it looks very similar to the Arc De Triomphe, and I thought it was really cool. Apparently the people of Laos don't think too highly of it though because the inscription at its base calls it a "concrete monster" that is "even less impressive as you get closer" - burn!
The next stop on our tour took us to Vang Vieng, previously a small town amidst the mountains, but it has evolved into a backpacker favorite due to the introduction of tubing down the river. The tubing scene is pretty wild and crazy, and since we only had 2 days we decided to skip it in favor of chilling with the locals. The scenery in Vang Vieng is stunning, big mountains, lots of green space built around a lazy river. We spent one day trekking (9 miles) to the Blue Lagoon, it was a long walk in the usual blistering sun, but it was really enjoyable (at least on the way there) because it took us right through a few villages and it was really interesting to see how many people in Laos live. We made friends with some cute kids, baby chicks, puppies and kittens, water buffaloes and cows galore. It was definitely a good way to meet the locals and get up close and personal with the wildlife. Next stop on the trip: Luang Prabang, a city that deserves its own post!

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