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:
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.
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.
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?!?!
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!
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!!
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
Joe's feelings on the train:
First authentic Thai Pad Thai:
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!
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.
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.
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!
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....
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!