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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!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Northeastern Thailand is so Random!

The first stop on my 5 week trip was to Bangkok to show off the main spots to Michaela who had just arrived from the US. We hit up the Grand Palace, the weekend market, and Khao San Road (with one if our rockstar friends, nbd).

From BKK we headed to the Northeast, or Isan region, first stop: Khon Kaen. We quickly realized that there isn't actually much to see or do in this city, but we did our best to explore it by foot and tuk-tuk. We took a walk around the town's giant lake and checked out the city's main wats. We stumbled upon a group of monks in school and Michaela wanted to take pictures, suddenly we were all being led to the front of the monks and asked to make a speech. I did the honors and introduced us all and the monks had a fun time trying to say our names "Sallllah", "Neil", and "Michaaalaaaah". It was really cute and they seemed very happy to meet us.

After Khon Kaen, our next stop was the border town of Nong Khai which is located on the banks of the Mekong River. We rode a packed local bus that was a bit chaotic to get there, but we made friends with some little girls along for the ride. Nong Khai was bustling with activity because of the upcoming dragon boat races, huge longtail boats with 57 people propelling it down the river, it was fun to watch and hear them yelling out "neung, song, sam" (1,2,3) as they raced. We also saw a beautiful sunset over the Mekong, got some Thai massages, and enjoyed some local food specialties like laab and som tom- delish!

While in Nong Khai we also checked out the giant sculpture park called Salakaewkoo. It features huge sculptures and a wheel of life that is slightly confusing but also very impressive. While we were there we ran into some primary kids on a field trip so of course a photo shoot took place, and it was funny to see how well Michaela fit in: short, small and long dark hair 555.

I'm glad I got to check out this area of Thailand, a lot of what there is to see and do is really random, but it was my last major unexplored section of the country and the food was just as good and the people just as friendly as the rest of Thailand. Up next: Laos!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jub Jub Suphan! Chan Ja Kit Tueng Suphan Mak Mak!

The time has come. Suphan has been a wonderful home these past 12 months. Thailand has made me a very calm, blessed and happy person, mee kwarm sook mak loey! Here's just a few of the things that I have loved and will really miss about living in Thailand:
Sights: the wai greeting, cute students, dogs riding shotgun on a motorbike, pictures of the King in every store, restaurant and home, food carts pushing their way down the street, bugs for sale at the night market, elephants walking down the street, geckos climbing all over the walls, standing to watch the tribute to the King at the beginning of movies in theaters, peace signs in pictures, shoes lined up in the hallway, students walking single file into school, Oat climbing all over our table at Dton's restaurant, 555 all over my facebook wall, stuffed tuk-tuks, people sitting on chairs on top of bags of rice on a moving truck, old shirtless men sitting on their stoops late at night, babies on a moped...

Sounds: tuk-tuk motors, chanting monks, the students daily greeting "Good Morning Teacher," the Thai language, the band at Chaba Cafe, old-school Thai music, the Suphan accent, Thaienglish, people yelling "farang" at me, the gecko squeak, the national anthem every day at 6am, 8am, and 6pm, the ding every time you enter a 7-11, motorbike drivers going past yelling out "I love you!," the Thai reactions "oh-hooooo","aow","oyyy!", "chon gow, mot gow" at the bars, traditional Thai tv show at PTL, chup chup!, Grandma babbling in Thai at PTL, 25 Hours concerts...

Smells: fresh coffee, Thai street food, bug spray, loaded up on sunscreen, toasties from ImD. (Okay, I'll be honest, there are more smells here that I won't miss than those that I will...)

Touch: Thai massages, cramming my longish (in Asia) legs into a seat on the public bus, riding on the back of a motorbike, hugs from the students every morning when I walk down the hall, dancing to too much so much very much whenever it comes on, tuk-tuk rides around town, hot and sunny weather all year long...

Tastes: chili peppers, fresh fruit, som tom, Thai style iced coffee, bamee noodles, flower water, rice bread, banana shakes, pocky, sticky rice, pad thai, khao soi, beer with ice, fried donuts, grapow moo, Thai style omelettes, locally grown rice, cornettos from 7-11, kai jiew, siracha sauce...

I've now pretty much moved out of my apartment and I'm no longer an official "resident" of Thailand.  I'm off to live the backpacker life and be a vagabond for the next 5 weeks. Michaela has arrived and starting on Saturday we will head to Bangkok, up through Northeastern Thailand, into Laos, then I'll go back to Chiang Mai, and on to Pai and Mae Hong Son, back to Bangkok to pick up my brother, down to Koh Lanta, one final night in Suphan, and then on to Seoul, South Korea for a few days before I head back to St. Louis, Missouri, USA!

It's been amazing, Thailand. I'll always consider Suphan home and I'm so happy I've got such a big family here to come back and visit. Khop Khun Mak Mak Mak Mak Mak Ka!!

SYEP Good-Bye Ceremony
Photo by Clare
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