A Travellerspoint blog

The Final Frontier

less than a week away from home, our last blog is a look into paradise...

sunny 105 °F

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I can't believe this will be our final blog! We have officially been away from home for WAY TOO LONG!! My constant obsession with countdowns tells me that I've been away from home for 642 days, Joe's been away for 563 days, and we've been traveling for a whopping 86 days!! There was never a question in anyone's mind that Joe could handle all the adventures backpacking threw at us but I genuinely can't believe I've made it this long!! Who would have ever known that I had it in me?!? That being said, the most important countdown tells me that we have 5 days and 19 hours until we're taking off enroute to America!

We haven't been blogging as much these days since life has just been a beach. We've been greedily soaking up the sun, relaxing away all those stressful SE Asian bus rides and utter craziness, and laughing so much that we actually have tan lines in our dimples!

You can tell you're a seasoned traveler when this is what you look like waiting for a taxi... nothing can phase me these days.

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We arrived in Phuket on May 1st and spent a few days relaxing on Karon Beach. Unfortunately, it seems the rain came a bit early this year and it rained almost everyday we were there. I was stressed and threatening to come home early because if I wasn't getting a tan, I wasn't staying 8,000 miles away from my family! After that threat, the sun started to peak out here and there. We went for a nice motorbike ride around the island and got stuck in our first of many monsoons, haha. The perks to Phuket were Starbucks for the second time since we started traveling and Joe finding Wolverine claws. The man selling them assured us that customs would have no problem with us bringing them home. Watch out America!

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Our next stop was Koh Yao Noi. We found Yao Noi completely by happenstance but my God, WHAT A TREAT! This very small island is reached by speedboat from Phuket in 30 minutes and it's so small that it can be circled on a motorbike in less than 30 minutes. There are only a few restaurants, two bars, and one 7-11 on the island. It was completely quiet, undeveloped, and the views were amazing!!! The water was indescribably blue and spotted with limestone cliffs. Do you remember when we went to Halong Bay?? This is a smaller bay with the same beautiful cliffs but since the island was so small and quiet we felt like we were getting such a unique, one-of-a-kind experience. We were one of the first people to stay at these gorgeous, newly opened villas. We stayed for a week and got the place for an absolute steal! Every single time we walked out of our room, we both lost our breath at the beauty and couldn't believe it was real! We really hate tours so instead of being packed onto a boat with tons of other tourists we had a local fisherman take us around the bay on his longtail boat . It was so romantic. He took us island hopping, snorkeling, and even had a home packed lunch from his wife for us to eat on an abandoned beach. Joe and I looked at each other and couldn't believe this was just a Thursday lunch, staring out at some of the world's most beautiful creations. We are just so blessed.

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After a week in Koh Yao Noi, we reluctantly decided to leave and head to Krabi, another 30 minutes to the east for our last stop on the Andaman Sea. Krabi gave us another few days of rain but luckily, Starbucks again as well. We actually stayed at a hotel that provided a free shuttle to Starbucks... that's a BIG WIN!! As I'm writing this, it's occurring to me that rain and Starbucks seem to go hand in hand, haha. In Krabi, we stayed on Ao Nang Beach. The nice part of this town was that while we were able to look out onto the limestone cliffs in Koh Yao Noi, in Krabi we were literally on the beach nestled between the limestone cliffs. The city was more developed so it allowed us to get laundry done, sent out post cards, and go souvenir shopping! :o) We also got to sneak in some time on the beach to keep up our tan between monsoons. While they are a bit annoying and they come in fast, they bring with them beautiful black clouds on the way in and amazing spotted sun on the way out.

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Rather than beaching everyday, one day we went to an adventure park called "TreeTop Adventures". We spent about 5 hours living among the trees. We ziplined, climbed, swung, and completed numerous obstacles high above the ground. Some of these obstacles included skateboarding, bike riding, and surfing among the tree tops. It was one of the best things we've done in SE Asia! We had so much fun!! I was nicknamed "Monkey" by one of my uncles when I was younger and I definitely filled the shoes for the day. Joe was amazed at my confidence and grace on the courses.

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Our last stop has been Koh Samui. The weather has been absolutely gorgeous here and we're staying in absolutely beautiful accommodations. There are a few popular islands right off the coast here that could be reached in a day trip but I'll admit that Joe and I agreed we were too greedy for relaxing beach hours to spend time and money going anywhere else. We feel so blessed to have such a beautiful location, amazing room, incredible pool, fantastic beach, and each other - We don't need to move anymore! We have been on the move for such a long time, we dedicated our last 9 days to staying in one place, enjoying each other's company and celebrating the fact that, as of tomorrow, we've been adventuring together for 5 years now!


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If you have a few minutes, take a look at this video we made to help take you on a tour of the our beach adventures. As you all enjoy Memorial Day weekend, it will surely get you into a summer state of mind!

If you'd like to take a look at all our pictures you can view them here:

Thai Beach Pictures

Tree Top Adventure Pictures

As always, we love & miss you but this time... WE'LL SEE YOU SOOO SOON!!!

Posted by nlpolyak 23:59 Archived in Thailand Tagged beach relax enjoy Comments (0)

Make a Rewarding CHOICE

Cambodia is one of the world's poorest countries, brought down through an era of horrific & tragic genocide, yet full of wonderfully optimistic people trying to rebuild~Here's a chance to make a real difference in the lives of real people 8,800 miles away

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Let's start with a few questions...

What's your favorite part of the day?? Your morning coffee? Going for a drive with your music turned up loud? Browsing the internet? Sitting around the dinner table talking to your family? Calling your mom? Going for a run?

What's your favorite childhood memory?? The ice cream truck? Learning to ride your first bike? Christmas? Visiting your grandparents? The first day of school? Your first crush?

Now, describe your home. Three or four bedrooms. Two bathrooms. A kitchen and dining room. Living Room. Front & backyard. How many TVs? 4, 5, 6......

The majority of Cambodia's population, more than three-quarters of its people, still lives more or less as they did 1,000 years ago. This rings true as you travel about one hour outside the capital city of Phnom Penh, where you will find some of the poorest people in Cambodia. These people own no land, living on the outskirts of government owned dirt roads or along privately owned land. Their houses are maybe twelve by twelve feet, built of bamboo and palm leaves, with few visible possessions, no electricity or running water, no telephone or television service, no means to cook food other than to build a fire... no real evidence of the modern world.

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Until the 1940s, Cambodia had no schools. People relied on village monks to teach the principles of Buddhism, but education ended there. There was not one single elementary, middle, or high school, let alone a university. In vast expanses of the country, schools did not begin to appear until the 1990s, and still today there are areas where children have never set foot into a school. These small villages of land-less people are full of excited children who have never been given the opportunity to go to school. If the opportunity for education presents itself, the average child will leave school after second or third grade to help their family on the cornfields or in rice paddies. It's estimated that about 60% of the nation's women are illiterate.

Another growing concern is the "business" of orphanages. As millions of tourists flock to Cambodia to visit the beautiful temples of Angkor or to see further into the horrific reign of terror led by the Khmer Rouge, they good-willingly volunteer their time and money at orphanages as well. While these tourists hope their effort and money will have a positive impact on the children of Cambodia, in fact, it is doing quite the opposite. It's estimated that there are about 12,000 children living in Cambodia's orphanages today but, alarmingly, only 28% of these children have lost both parents. That means nearly 1 out of every 3 children in Cambodian orphanages have a parent ~ why then are they orphans? While parental illness, disability, abuse, or desertion account for some of these children, the truth is most of these children are sold to orphanages due to extreme poverty. The parent(s) cannot afford to take care of the child so they are sending them to orphanages, believing they will have better access to food, education, shelter, etc. Unfortunately, the business of orphanages is not only allowing orphanage owners to grow rich off the business of guilting tourists but it may also be harming the children with ineffective volunteer work, a feeling of loss from the constant flow of new volunteers, exposure to child predators, and orphanage owners keeping the children in substandard conditions in hopes of drumming up more donations.

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This isn't all bad news though. While in Cambodia, we too wanted to volunteer our time, money and effort. We did a lot of research to ensure our money was not going towards any unscrupulous organization and we learned about an NPO called, CHOICE. This team of expats, all volunteers, have passionately dedicated their time to making a difference in the lives of the poorest people around Phnom Penh. They target Cambodians who are homeless, isolated, landless, or without education or healthcare. We spent a Sunday with this incredible team delivering food packages to two of the villages they visit daily. Every Sunday, CHOICE visits the villages with volunteers delivering food and medical treatment or providing educational trips, games, or arts & crafts. The water in the villages was toxic, causing innumerable diseases and deaths so they now also deliver fresh water to the villages daily. CHOICE supports nearly 200 families, providing medical care, food, fresh drinking water, and educational opportunities. When the CHOICE truck comes down the road, the children rush out to the street with heartwarming smiles, full of excitement! The villagers all have smiles on their faces and they are so genuinely happy to see the team arrive.

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I'd like to share a few stories with you from CHOICE'S website so you can get a better idea of what they do and undeniable examples of the priceless value of their work.

"In March 2011, CHOICE was notified about Sokha, a 53 year old lady who had fallen off the back of a truck. Having no money for an operation, she had laid paralyzed and in agony for 10 weeks with a broken neck in 2 places. Her 16 year old son Channy had quit school to look after his mother. CHOICE arranged and paid for her operation and later instigated Physiotherapy. During her ordeal we have supported Sokha and her family with essential items the whole time. This family of four is extremely poor, they do not own a house or have land or any such assets, and a friend allows them to live in what I could only call a “chicken shed” with a dirt floor. Sokha, much improved now, has been released from the Physiotherapy centre. We have built a concrete area for Sokha, all on the one level with a bedroom and undercover Physio training area; we have provided a wheelchair, commode, walking frame, and other essential items to help her manage. Now Sokha is stable we have arranged for an operation for her brother who has leprosy, one leg has been amputated below the knee. In the future he may have to have the other leg, plus his hands removed as well. We will continue to monitor and look after this family. "

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CHOICE'S medical team visits villages every other Sunday. Hundred of people are treated in the villages or at a nearby clinic. For more severe cases, CHOICE provides transportation into Phnom Penh for the villagers, help them get admitted to the hospital, and most costs are paid for by CHOICE. Some of these cases include a 2 month old baby girl who need an operation to remove a life threatening abscess from her head and a 3 year old girl who was treated for sever burns and infections and remained in the hospital for several months.

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CHOICE believes firmly in keeping families together at all costs. This story exemplifies the benefits of providing for a family, rather than allowing them to separate due to financial constraints. CHOICE provides extra support to the parents of children, rather than allow poverty to separate the children from the family.

"Early in the year we discovered an abandoned mother with 2 week old twin boys plus two older boys, she had nowhere to live and had no income. As she struggled to breast feed the babies, she begged us to either take her babies or else she would have to drown them. Not an option for us. She had been staying with relatives but they could no longer afford to keep them so they had to leave. They moved into an unoccupied grass hut, had no money, no food, no work, no property, and four children. We can happily report that we found a sponsor to help her family, built her a hut, and provided baby milk powder, rice, water, food, clothes, chickens, batteries, mosquito net, baby clothes and light etc. CHOICE also sent the older boys to school, giving them a bike."

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As I mentioned, many of the children from these villages have never stepped foot into a school before. Schools are far away from most of the villages and it’s too expensive for families to pay for their children to get to and from school on a daily basis. CHOICE decided to take matters into their own hands and organize schooling for these children. They found 2 qualified teachers who live in the Village, gave them a salary of $50 per month, and erected a tarp structure in one village. In the other village they could not find flat ground, so they arranged to set up a school in an existing house. They provide all necessary books, boards, bags, etc. for both villages but are aware that this is only a temporary fix. The children cannot advance to secondary schools without attending a recognized school, such as a government school.

At the same time, CHOICE has set up the CHOICE Center. Using a vacant lot, the organization has built a main building with a TV & DVD player to show educational DVDs, a kitchen to provide the children with a healthy breakfast and/or lunch, toilets were installed, and classrooms were built. They intend to not only teach standard Khmer education, but to also train the older children vocational skills such as sewing, hairdressing, and mechanics. They also intend to pay for the fees, uniforms, transport, and books to enable as many children as possible to enter the Government school in October, the beginning of the school year. The CHOICE Center was opening two days after we volunteered so we were lucky enough to take a tour of the final product. They've done an amazing job with the grounds and the excitement was palpable, seeing all the hard work pay off and start to come full circle.

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It was amazing to see that every dime donated to this organization was being given to these overwhelmingly grateful families. It was in the bags of food each household received. It was in the walls of the new center. It was in the chairs the students will sit in as they excitedly get their FIRST day of school. It was in the children's smiles as they rushed to the CHOICE truck as if Santa was arriving. It was in the clean water containers delivered by CHOICE daily. It was in every ounce of effort this organization puts forth. No member of CHOICE'S team is employed by the organization. It is solely volunteer run, meaning every single cent goes right to the people of these villages. CHOICE is doing wonderful, exciting things and I love the invigorated spirit that comes with this team. They see a problem and stop at nothing to find a solution for the well-being of others. I ask you to please consider these stories and if possible, take the time to visit their website to read more in their blog. http://choice-cambodia.org/ There are also links on their website to donate to this registered charity. I earnestly hope they can continue to expand and achieve endless success. I hope they can afford to send each of these children to receive the education that all children deserve.

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Posted by nlpolyak 06:35 Archived in Cambodia Tagged history war donate Comments (3)

Wats & Wats & Wats & Wats .... & Beach

Angkor & Sihanoukville

sunny 115 °F

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With a new, third member added to our traveling act, we were ready to take on Cambodia and all the wonderful adventures it had to throw at us. Our first adventure would be to travel from Bangkok to Siem Reap. The nearly 300 mile distance was traveled by a 4:15 AM taxi to the bus station, 5 hour bus ride to the border, walking a few kilometers across the border, clearing Thai & Cambodian customs, a free government shuttle to the Cambodian bus station, a rip-off of a taxi ride for another hour & a half, then a tuk-tuk to our quaint guesthouse... and that's one of easiest travel days! Since we got such an early start, we arrived at our guesthouse, Bou Savy, around 1:30 PM. After some lunch and a little downtime, we got right to exploring! We rented bikes and headed into Angkor to buy our park passes for the week and watch our first Angkor sunset.

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Let me start by giving you just a little background on Angkor. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site only 20 years ago, the Temples of Angkor claim a place among the world's most incredible ancient ruins, alongside the majesty and epic construction feats of Machu Picchu, The Acropolis, and Pompeii. Angkor's temples are spread over some four hundred square kilometers of forest, mountainside, and countryside with the most famous temples near Siem Reap. As one of the most important archaeological sights in Southeast Asia, it contains magnificent remains and priceless information about the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th through 15th centuries. The wats, or temples, of Angkor vary widely, just as the kings who built them but together they tell the story of the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire. While the temples are breathtakingly beautiful in and of themselves, full of ornate details and striking in their size, one of the most amazing aspects of visiting the sites is nothing about these temples feel like you are visiting a museum. In fact, as you clamber around the ruins, climbing up dangerously steep steps, walking under precariously lying blocks, and running your fingers over disintegrating details, it's hard not to feel sucked back into time, imagining what it must have been like to worship in these indescribable buildings in the 10th century.

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On our first full day in Siem Reap, we hopped on our bikes and headed into Angkor. The day before our taxi driver told us that 3 million people were coming in from Thailand to see the ex-President of Thailand speak at Angkor. We thought maybe he had gotten his zeros mixed up... how could 3 million people be migrating into Cambodia on the same day as us just to leave in two days?!?! As we approached the park and were overwhelmed by tour bus smoke and forced to make some dangerous bicycle maneauvers, it quickly became apparent that his zeros were NOT wrong. We were told we could not ride our bikes into the park for the day because "Thailand is here". We watched as millions of people lined up to walk across the bridge into Angkor Wat as they were being sprayed with a fire hose. The line of people just kept going forever. If you look closely in the second picture, you'll see a million ant sized people walking over the bridge.

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It was clear that we could not see Angkor Wat that day so headed over to Angkor Thom to see the Bayon, the Terrace of the Elephants, and Prasat Suor Prat.

Entry to Angkor Thom
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The Bayon was built in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century and was intended to embrace all of the religions of the kingdom. It was later consecrated as a Buddhist temple though. As you approach the temple area, all you see is stone towers but as you approach you see that each side of it's 37 towers have four faces built into it. It is said that there are more than 200 faces in all. It's just beautiful!

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Although, I'd seen many pictures and documentaries on Angkor Wat, nothing prepared me for the awe of my first sight of this absolutely incredible building. In 1854, Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix spoke about the building saying, "... the workmanship is so astonishing that the Cambodians themselves always refer to them as the work of angels rather than men...". I see no better way to describe this architectural masterpiece, even 158 years later. Consecrated around 1150 to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is the world's largest religious structure with the walls of this huge temple measuring almost one mile on a side along with a 1,200-foot-long walk leading to the temple, lined with 54 huge stone figures holding a Naga, or a serpent. All of this and it's thought that it only took 30 years to complete! Although it's undeniably stunning from a distance, what is even more incredible is that every single nook and cranny of this humongous feat is filled with beautiful, intricate detail.

We got the 'wow' moment of a lifetime as we biked into Angkor early one morning and this is what we were greeted with....

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Later, I helped to rebuild some of the ruins....

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The next day we looked for a private location to watch sunset since many popular places are insanely overcrowded. We decided to head to Ta Keo. Our tuk-tuk driver said it was closed and we couldn't go but we told him to go anyway. We stepped over the construction signs and climbed up some of the steepest steps I've ever seen for a wonderful sunset!

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On our last day in Siem Reap, we got up extremely early, determined to get the most out of our day. We took a tuk-tuk this time and headed to Srah Srang, formerly a royal bathing pool, to watch the sunrise. Although our sunrise at Angkor was magnificent, this was, BY FAR, the best sunrise I've ever seen in my life.

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Afterwards, we headed over to the beautiful Ta Prohm. This temple has been left in the middle of the jungle and has become one of the most iconic and most photographed of the ruins. Enormous trees grow out of the temple's terraces and walls with the massive roots growing over, through, under, and everywhere between the giant stones. None of the 39 towers are intact, most are partially collapsed, creating a maze-like incredible state of disarray that is so fun to explore. This temple was a playground built for adults, almost like a magical tree house of the 12th century. We spent a lot of time just sitting, taking in the peace, and being allured with the ground's overall charm.

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This walkway actually was completely destroyed and they picked up the rubble, labeled every piece, and rebuilt it to look exactly like the original structure with all of it's original pieces. They are doing this with a lot of the areas of the temple. There are labeled giants stones all over the grounds. What a fun, intriguing, incredible job!

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After so many days of 110-115* weather, biking, climbing, and exploring, fighting off heat exhaustion and dehydration, Meg treated us to a few days at a beautiful beach resort in Sihanoukville. We headed to the beach, ready to enjoy our last few days with Meg in complete relaxation.

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We had the most amazing time with Meg in such an incredible place! We were so sad to see her leave and head back to America. We tried our best to convince her to stay for our last month but unfortunately real world responsibilities pulled her back home. Meg, thank you for coming and sharing such a fantastic experience with us! You added so much to our trip and we couldn't be happier that we were able to spend time with you! Thank you for being part of our adventure!


Today we are headed to Phuket for our last 30 days to be spent on Thai beaches. Who wants to join us for a beach vacation?!

Posted by nlpolyak 20:46 Archived in Cambodia Tagged beach ruins biking exploration Comments (2)

Laos Mahoutin', Thai Recharging, & everything in between....

Laos: Luang Prabang & Vientiane ~ Thailand: Ayutthaya & some Bangkok

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We've now officially survived 40 days of traveling!! We've covered a lot of ground, seen a lot of cool things, experienced and learned an incredible amount, endured approximately 100 hours on trains and buses, researched for about 100 more, combed through the good, the bad, and the ugly in terms of hotels and we're still kickin'! We even still like each other... what a good sign! :o) Take a look at all of our stops so far:

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That being said, we still have 50 more days of excitement, challenges, and exploration. Joe's sister, Meg, is most likely somewhere over India right now, on her way to us! She'll be here today and for the next two weeks we will be exploring all Cambodia has to offer. We're so unbelievably excited but before we get too ahead of ourselves I want to tell you about the wonders of Laos.

Luang Prabang

After that 27 hour hell bus, Joe and I were in dire need of a city full of beauty and opportunities to slow down and take a deep breath. Boy, did we come to the right place! Luang Prabang is the kind of city that lures you in, makes you fall in love, and leaves a lasting impression that keeps you yearning for more. It's endless beauty and charm is enough in and of itself, but combine that with incredible temples, clean streets bustling with tangerine robbed monks, and the friendliest & happiest people you'd ever want to meet and you've got yourself a recipe for love. It's definitely well-earned it's spot as one of Southeast Asia's most romantic cities.

We spent a lot of time strolling around the beautiful streets, taking in our surroundings, and watching the Lao people in amazement. They seem to have found the right balance in life. Everyone has a smile that shines down to their soul. Walking down the street you can't help but smile, it's truly contagious. Each night the city transforms and the main road fills with vendors selling any souvenir imaginable at the night market. We have experienced markets in every country and city we've visited and this is the first clean market that was not full of haggling touts, yelling, and over stimulation. It was quiet and when I say clean, I mean REALLY clean, full of warm lighting and women laying around gossiping with each other, eager to talk to you, and of course ~ ALWAYS smiling. Here's a little photo tour of the town.

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Everyday for lunch we would eat a vegetable sandwich and a strawberry-banana smoothie at the whopping price of $4 for both of us! Delicious and cheap ~ how can you go wrong?!?!

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One thing we did choose to skip out on was the Laos whiskey, called Lao-Lao. This alcoholic staple was not one that we were willing to step outside the box for and when you see the pictures, you'll understand why! Similar to Moonshine but with a twist... of cobra, various other snakes, scorpions, weird centipedes, all sorts of creepy crawlers left to ferment, creating a very strong whiskey that'll put some hair on your chest!

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Laos was once called the Land of a Million Elephants, so it seemed fitting for us to have some fun with elephants while we were there. The streets in Luang Prabang are lined with travel agencies selling tours but we knew we didn't want to give our money to a company that mistreated the elephants or did not provide a proper environment for them. Based on recommendations from friends, we booked a day at the Elephant Village. Set in a jungle, along the Nam Khan River, this sanctuary is not only home to 9 elephants that are kept away from abusive work, it has also created more than 40 jobs in the surrounding, disadvantaged villages. Even further from that, it has bought the rights to the surrounding land, ensuring the preservation of the valley in a country where logging is ruining much of the ecosystem. This is a company determined to make a difference in not only the lives of elephants but of the people in the surrounding communities as well. Once the Land of a Million Elephants, Laos now only has about 1,500 elephants left since many have been poached, cannot survive because the forests have been destroyed from logging or slash and burn farming techniques, or are brutally overworked in the logging industry. We knew our money was well spent at the Elephant Village where the elephants were provided a permanent home in the jungle, checked by a veterinarian everyday, and kept from being overworked... not to mention the local benefits to investing our money in a company that invested it's money back into the people of Laos.

We got to spend the day learning 7 elephant commands in Lao, taking about an hour ride on the elephants through the jungle and the river, feeding our elephants, then getting to wash our elephants. It was amazing!! It's unbelievable to be able to say a word and have this MASSIVE creature pick up its leg to make it into a step for you to hop up on it's neck and be able to tell it to go right, left, forward, backwards, and to stop. You can play with them and they play right back. While we were bathing them, they behaved more like little kids than 5 ton pachyderm, splashing around, dipping into the water like submarines and spraying you with it's trunk. It was definitely a day to be remembered forever!!

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Our last stop in Luang Prabang was at Kuang-Si Waterfalls. There isn't much to say about this other than it's the most gorgeous waterfall you'd ever want to see with ridiculously blue water! They even had a bear sanctuary at the bottom full of bears that behaved more like people than like bears. It was kind of weird but we found some amusement watching them. Joe also did a pretty sweet cannonball off the rope swing! One of the sweetest parts of the waterfalls was that we got to really stretch our legs on our negotiating skills. We've gotten quite good! Our tuk-tuk driver initially told us 200,000 kip ($25) but with our master negotiation skills we got him down to 140,000 ($17). No big deal... we're just that good!! hahaha

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Vientiane

Laos' capital, Vientiane, also feels more like a town than a capital city. While not quite as slow and charming as Luang Prabang, the city is set right on the Mekong River directly across from Thailand. Like most of Vietnam and Laos, this city was a French colony and it still retains much of it's European flair with colonial mansions, wide, tree-lined streets, and a diverse culinary culture. Vientiane was more of a stopover on the way to Bangkok to meet Meg than it was a destination but it didn't stop us from seeing a few good sights.

So far from home:
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In the 1960's, the US donated funds to build a new city airport but the Loatian government decided against that cause and instead, used the money to build a monument for those who fought for independence from France. The monument's officially name is Patuxai, meaning Gate of Triumph but it is commonly referred to as the "vertical runway". Patuxai looks like an Asian version of Arc de Triomphe but to this day, it remains unfinished.

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While in Vientiane, we decided to take on the adventure of taking a city bus to visit Buddha Park. I wish I had a picture of the bus and the amount of people we had packed onto it to share with you but we didn't have enough room to move our arms to take this picture! haha (Who can complain about space when an hour bus ride costs you less than $1) I must say the ride to Buddha Park was more exciting than the park itself but it did contain a lot of cool, bizarre, and crazy statues.

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So, funny story.... We needed to get train tickets to Thailand and the train station seemed relatively close to Buddha Park. I've become mildly obsessed with saving every cent, dong, kip, baht, or riel that we can. I couldn't bare to spend the extra $3 to have our hotel book our train tickets for us, we could do it ourselves!! We got back on the city bus from Buddha Park and watched for signs for the train station. Once seeing it, we somehow conveyed to the driver to pull over and we got off. Walking back to where we saw the sign for the train station, it said it was 2 km down a side road. Great - 2 km... we're close! Now, anyone who knows me, knows that I LOVE to walk... after dinner walks, mid-afternoon walks, morning walks, weekend walks, Tuesday walks... I love them all! Not only do I love to walk, I love to walk fast. My mom always jokes that I walk so fast because I was always running around with her when I was little but regardless, Joe always tells me that he can jog at my walking pace so I figured 2 km was no big deal! To set the scene for you, it was about 110* with 300% humidity and we were walking down a dirt road that looked a lot like this.

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For the next 45 minutes we walked along with the sun, no clouds, goats, stray dogs, bulls, and locals oh so confused at why two white people were sweating and walking down this seemingly abandoned road. Eventually, we made it! At first, we thought the train station must have been a mirage but luckily it wasn't. After buying our tickets, rejoicing at the $3 savings and the satisfaction of knowing we did everything ourselves, we asked the woman to call us a taxi, tuk-tuk, ANY. FORM. OF. TRANSPORTATION. to get us back to civilization. Naturally, she couldn't... Sooooooo, we headed back out into death valley and made our way to the main road where we used our killer negotiating skills to get a tuk-tuk back to our hotel. Yet again, we're surviving!!

Into Thailand We Go....

We took a 12 hour sleeper train to Thailand. We usually take sleeper buses but this time, we went for the older, dirtier mode of transportation... the train. The perk to the train is that we actually had seats and then a man came around and changed them into beds. A word of advice, if you ever find yourself in Thailand, don't play on the train tracks. The toilets on the train are actually just a hole that empties right onto the track. Don't say no one ever warned you!

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Joe's feelings on the train:

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First authentic Thai Pad Thai:

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Ayutthaya

An hour and a half north of Bangkok, we stopped in a small city called Ayutthaya. Interestingly enough, this city is actually an island in the center of the country. It's surrounded entirely by a river. How weird! Ayutthaya is a very old city, full of history and tons of temples (wats). We rented bicycles and spent two days exploring the wats, getting excited for our impending visit to Angkor Wat in Cambodia!

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Joe also found what we think is a Komodo Dragon. We were calmly sitting in the park near a lake, joking about what we'd do if an alligator or crocodile came out of the water. All the sudden, Joe jumps up and tells me to grab the camera because he saw a huge lizard. I grabbed the camera, threw it at him, and said SEE YA!!! I ran to the other side of the bridge and waited while he discovered the wild side.

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The best news here is that, despite popular familial belief that I am unable to ride a bike, I am, in fact a lot like Lance Armstrong.

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Bangkok

We got to Bangkok on Monday, April 9th and, to be honest, we were really dreading it. We both did some research and every description of the city sounded like everything we hated. We also watched Hangover 2 and well, we were less than enthused. After keeping an incredibly strict budget everyday, staying in less than savory places, we decided to treat ourselves a bit. We spent a whole $50/night for a room! We took a really hot shower with substantial water pressure for the first time. We got our first Starbucks in 40 days. We drank a Corona. We went on a date to see Titanic in 3D. We ate Auntie Anne's pretzels. We went shopping in malls where you could actually believe you are in America. We laid in a bed without concern of bed bugs. The list could on but needless to say, we got to experience the taste of the the West that we so badly needed. We are soo thankful for the opportunity to travel the world but after 19 months in Asia, we've needed a Western recharge and boy have we taken advantage! It's been great!

Take a look at how sweet our hotel room is! It's so exciting!

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Not only do we have all the perks of home, walking down the streets of Bangkok provides you with so many shopping opportunities. Opportunities that you just don't have in America....

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We have two more days of enjoying "the West" in Bangkok before heading east to Cambodia with Meg. Now, we're off to pick her up at the airport!

One last announcement: Joe has decided to try a new hairstyle... the Mohawk. I'm hoping this phase doesn't last long!

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Posted by nlpolyak 03:37 Archived in Laos Tagged history thailand laos wats Comments (1)

Heaven & Hell

Halong Bay & a 27 hour bus ride from Hanoi to Luang Prabang

overcast 67 °F

Halong Bay

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Halong Bay is about a four hour bus ride from Hanoi's city center but in terms of scenery and atmosphere, there could not be two more polar opposites. Halong Bay's dramatic and beautiful landscape is indescribable with words and impossible to capture in pictures. The bay, known as Descending Dragon Bay, is home to 1,969 limestone islands that rise out of the tranquil sea, each with a unique shape, height, and characteristics. According to local myth, this is how Halong Bay was created:

"Long ago when their forefathers were fighting foreign invaders from the north, the gods from heaven sent a family of dragons to help defend their land. This family of dragons descended upon what is now Ha Long Bay and began spitting out jewels and jade. Upon hitting the sea, these jewels turned into the various islands and islets dotting the seascape and formed a formidable fortress against the invaders. The locals were able to keep their land safe and formed what is now the country of Vietnam. The Dragon family fell so much in love with this area for its calm water and for the reverence of the people of Vietnam that they decided to remain on earth. Mother dragon lies on what is now Ha Long and where her children lie is Bai Tu Long. The dragon tails formed the area of Bach Long Vi known for the miles of white sandy beaches of Tra Co peninsula."

Regardless of how they were made, Halong Bay is, by far, one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sights we've ever been blessed to see, let alone sleep among. Everyday hundreds of cruise companies bring hundreds of tourists to hundreds of cruise ships, or as they are locally call 'junks', to tour around the thousands of islands. We spent hours upon hours researching junks to ensure that we did not end up on one of the 'horror junks' we had read about, full of rats, bad food, and a horrible itinerary. Late one night, unable to listen to one more sales pitch, we ended up choosing an 8 month old boat called the Alova Gold thinking it couldn't be too much of a disaster since it was so new. We were right. We spent two nights and three days touring around the islands, kayaking among them, and relaxing as our boat floated among them. Unfortunately it was too cold to really enjoy the water and the sun was not out much, but regardless, we had a wonderful time exploring the "Descending Dragon".

Even though we've said pictures don't do it justice, we tried our best so we could share the experience with you!

Our Room:

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The locals have named 989 of the islands, mostly after animals and birds. Just as we can spend our time looking at the clouds, imagining what they look like, they do the same with the cliffs. This one was named "Kissing Cock Island" because it looks like a hen and a chicken kissing. I don't see it, but I'll let you be the judge!

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In the last blog, I told you about an entire village that went underground during the Vietnam War. In Halong Bay about 1,600 people actually live on Halong Bay in four different floating villages. They live on floating houses, study in floating schools, pray at a floating temple, and make a living through fishing, selling goods to tourists on their junks, and marine aquaculture such as cultivating pearls in pearl farms. Most people living in these villages will never spend a night sleeping on land, unless they become extremely ill. For the most part, only men will visit land for supplies and come back the same day.

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Pearl Farming

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Selling Snacks and Drinks to Tourists on their Junks

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27 Hour Bus Ride: Hanoi to Luang Prabang

All travelers experience their ups and downs. We had just experienced a magical up and now it was our turn to board what is commonly referred to as the "Hell Bus" on travel forums for our almighty down, hahaha. I'll give you a brief timeline of our trip from Hanoi to Luang Prabang and provide you with a comical documentary Joe made of our experience. We're becoming stronger people everyday!

3:30 PM: Eat our "last supper".

5:00 PM: We're supposed to be picked up by our bus but there is no one in sight. We sit, anxiously.

5:30 PM: Man arrives on a motor scooter and tells us to follow him. We run, with all of our earthly belongings, behind his scooter, dodging deadly Hanoi traffic until arriving at another travel agency.

6:00 PM: Pack 30+ smelly, gross, sweaty, unbathed travelers onto this minibus.

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7:00 PM: Arrive at bus station, entrust our passports into the hands of a stranger to buy our bus ticket and stand alert and ready to rush and get seats together on the bus.

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7:30 PM Board our home for the next 27 hours. We got seats together... SUCCESS! No toilet... FAILURE!

7:45 PM: Minutes after getting on the road, we pick up 3 people from the side of the highway and start blaring techno with a side of exotic dancing. Wow, we're already getting more than our money's worth!

8:00 PM: We make our first stop. This restaurant not only came with delicious maggots, it also included top-of-the-line overflowing squatter toilets, 15 fighting pigs, the delicious scent of diarrhea, and food hand washed on the ground! Lucky us!

9:00 PM - 6:00 AM: Occasional flirtation with sleep, awoken by honking, screaming, and near head-on collisions. Several prayers and swears later we arrive at the Vietnam/Laos border.

7:00 AM: We are screamed at to get the f* off the bus?!?!

7:00 AM - 8:00 AM: Stand outside in the freezing cold, brush our teeth behind the customs building, and wait for the border to open.

8:00 AM: Once again, hand our passports over with no explanation of what we should expect then sit and wait.

8:30 AM: Vietnamese Customs Agent begins to return passports to foreigners. He calls my name, I walk up to the window, and he screams "NO!" and points at another girl. He won't believe that my passport is mine and refuses to give it to me. He closes my passport, pushes it to the side of his desk, and begins to call other people up. I now scream at him "NO! It's me!" I reach my hand through his plastic partition and point to the date of issue, then point to my face and say "Same-Same but Different". I rattle off my passport number, birthday, passport issue and expiration date and he finally concedes. Phew!!

We then walk up a dirt hill into Laos.

9:00 AM: Have Laos visas hand-written for us.

9:30 AM: On the road again. This time, we are not allowed to use more than one blanket for every two people, even though there are about 40 extra blankets sitting on the bus and all Vietnamese passengers are allowed 2-3 blankets each. We are pushed and screamed at by the bus drivers and blankets are ripped off of us.

9:30 AM - 9:00 PM: Twelve wonderful hours of being yelled at for not following an unknown and constantly stricter code of conduct. Breaking this code resulted in one girl being threatened with a metal pipe, another with a knife, I was pushed and got screamed at inches from my face. Things got real dangerous, ridiculous, and unbelievable real fast! All of this happened while we continued evasive driving maneuvers on roads not much bigger than the width of our bus with nothing between us and a slip off the side of ridiculous mountains. Oh, and every hour or so we would stop, pick up weary travelers from the side of the road and watch our drivers blackmail and rob them.

9:00 PM: Arrive at the Luang Prabang Bus Station. The craziest of bus drivers pushes me one more time, screaming at me for the blanket under my butt. He proceeds to try to rip the blanket out from under me as I'm trying my best to move. He pushes me too far. I scream at him, take the blanket, and throw it in his face. He gets off the bus and I proceed to unfold every blanket on the bus in a liberating attempt at redemption! I know, it wasn't right but it felt good!

Once we arrived in Luang Prabang everything changed. We're back in an up, probably the highest up we've had since we've started traveling. People are incredible nice, the city is remarkably clean, and every corner is utterly picturesque but more about Luang Prabang next time.... for now, spend the next 7 minutes in the best way you can... watching Joe's video!

59 days until we're home & 9 days until Meg is here!! Woo hoo!!! Woooooo hooo!!!!!

Posted by nlpolyak 02:53 Archived in Vietnam Tagged boats nature transportation beauty hell Comments (0)

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