Tuesday, August 29, 2006

In Fond Memory Continued

Just trying to finish this up.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

In Fond Memory

It occurred to me today that if I put this off any longer then it simply won't ever get done. So I will now try to look back in fond memory of all the events that took place in the last month of my sojourn in the Orient. My last full blog came from the busy city of Bangkok where, suprisingly, I don't feel like much managed to be accomplished in all three of my loops through the city. During Tucker and my first visit to the megatropolis in Thailand we really only had two goals. First, was to safely pick up our two other travel partners, my sister, Stacey, and Sara Kelly; Second, was to find affordable or even dirt cheap return tickets back to the US of A. The shopping around for tickets was a good opportunity to get overexposed to the tourist mecca on Khoa Son Rd.. Some people, obviously a lot of people, really like the effect tourism has created on Khoa Son, in effect eliminating Thai culture and creating a smorgasbord of young foreign travelers. If nothing else then at least this provided a great opportunity for some hilarious people watching. Tucker and I managed to do a bit of sightseeing as we ventured to the US Embassy for extra passport visa pages and it was on this trip that we had our first kick-ass hot street curry.
One highlight that I cannot allow us to forget was our bus adventure, or more appropriately misadventure, to visit Chinatown for dinner. We truly enjoyed authentic Chinese food, especially the spicy Sichuan stuff, and decided that it would be a good opportunity to visit Chinatown while in Bangkok. Well, one would expect to see Chinatown and all its neon glory pop up as you ride by on a bus; that was really our expectation as we had no other knowledge as to when to disembark the public bus. During our ride, nothing caught our eye, certainly nothing that resembled a caotich bussling Chinatown, so we continued on. Once we crossed the river we realized that we had somehow missed it. We were faced with a difficult decision; do you ride the bus all the way around its route and try again, do you get off and catch the bus going to other direction. Not knowing how long we could be on the bus before it returned to familiar territory we decided to get off, cross the road, and get back on the same bus going the other direction. Again, Chinatown seemed to be asleep as we looked even harder for any indication as to where to get off and eat some Chinese food. Long story shortened, we rode all the way back to where we started and ate dinner across the street from our hostel. We love to reminisce of this misadventure and laugh at our inability to navigate even after two months of practice. Little did we know that this was not the end of our transportation mishaps. I encountered more issues with transportation when I went out to the airport to pick up Stacey. At the hostel they informed me of the easiest way to the airport which was by bus and then train. Turns out after a relatively simple public bus journey to the trainstation that the train wasn't running when I needed it to (immediately). I was directed outside to catch another public bus, which to the best of my knowledge and the knowledge of a dozen passerbys that I hassled was not anywhere in the neighborhood. I eventually caved and took a taxi which I had really wanted to avoid for the sake of saving a few dollars and getting my confidence back in big Asian city public transportation. Fortunately the driver who picked me up was a very nice man with no malice in him and I managed to get to the airport on time and with no hassle, ie being taken and having to bribe said driver (not uncommon, but also not something I we had to deal with to regularly). We left quickly the very next day to save the trauma of big Asian city shock on the newcomers and picked a national park to visit. Sounds easy enough if you are anyone else not cursed with the transportation hickups. Long story short, we boarded a bus headed in the wrong direction and doubled the length of our journey. We managed to arrive at the national park in one piece, just a day late, and took off that same evening on the first of our two park tours. That evening we explored some caves and learned all about the local bat population, which is enormous, and was the purpose of our tour that evening. We waited on a knoll for sunset to overtake the day snacking on various fresh fruits of the region and passing time telling stories of traveling with our fellow tour folk until it all began. It started with a handful of bats pouring out of an opening in the cave up on the hillside and then more followed, and more, and more, until it was just a steady stream of bats pouring into the air. We stuck around for a while watching and taking pics, but didn't have the patience to wait for all the millions of bats to exit the cave (it takes roughly an hour and all the while your not convinced that you are actually seeing what you think you are seeing).
Our little bus hiccup on our way to the park help determine our direction of travel for the next week, and that was up through Laos and back into Northern Thailand before heading down south for all of that fun in the sun. We spent a day negotiating buses all the way up to the border and I am pleased to say it all worked according to plan. At the quiet border town of Nong Khai, Thailand we just mossied around for a while and rented bikes for a little town tour and to visit the sculpture park of a very interesting sculptor, a Hindu/Buddhist. Crossing the Friendship Bridge we arrived in Vientiane, the capitol of Laos. At around a million people, although I don't believe that number, Vientiane was one of the more quiet layed back capitol cities we spent time in. After a relaxing few days we ventured north through the rolling Lao hillsides and on to the beautiful, small city of Luang Probang. Tucked on a piece of land where a lesser river meets the mighty Mekong, Luang Probang is every bit of riverside tranquility that you dream about and sometimes hear about. Travelers through Asia had been telling Tucker and I about the paradise to be seen in Laos, and especially Luang Probang, and it was all that they had described and more. We spent evenings meandering the great crafts market out on the street and days strolling around town and biking out into the countryside. I also must admit I spent a fair amount of time sipping delicious iced coffee and eating bagel sandwiches at a local cafe. It isn't often you run into bagels in Asia, and when you do find them you have to gorge yourself, at least if your at all like me you do.
Since I am in a hurry to keep things short I am going to leave Luang Probang to your imagination and move on to the exciting boat ride from Luang Probang to the Thai border. Most people choose to navigate this upper stretch of the Mekong River by the two day slow boat, because the bus option takes even longer, however, we decided to jump in a speed boat and finish the journey in one day. In general I found the trip thrilling, if not a little hair raising, while others considered it slightly insane and potentially unsafe. The ingredients for the journey were one very small canoeish vessel, one Toyota motor with a straight shaft propeller, more people than could fit in the boat all sitting on the floor with their legs tucked up to their chins, luggage stacked up front, and a driver who looks at the raging Mekong rapids and yawns. The rapids were not worthy of a whitewater raft trip, but with so much water going through the area the whirlpools could be a foot deep and the current more than willing to swallow up our little boat. I am comfortable in saying that I found the thirty mile an hour tour up the valley very intriguing and beautiful, while my cohort, Tucker (the raft guide), didn't take to it so well. So much so that he wouldn't recommend it to anyone else visiting the region, while I would choose to repeat the journey if I am ever in the area again.
From the border town we rushed to Chiang Mai in Northcentral Thailand completing the entire journey from Luang Probang in one excruciating travel day. Chiang Mai is a bussling city that long ago busted from within the confines of it's wall and moat. We spent a good amount of time in the area exploring the city and nearby sites; national parks, zoos, etc. It is here in Chiang Mai that so many visitors choose to take Thai cooking courses, and we were no exception. I am no master Thai chef at this point, but had a wonderful time out at the Thai Farm's farm learning about all the ingredients and mixing up some mean Thai dishes. A side not to the story was me getting a little Thai red pepper juice (spicy kind) shot into my eye as I was grinding up some curry paste with a mortise and pestle. Quite possibly one of the most terrifying moments of my life; instantly blinding, horribly painful. Our master Thai chef fixed me right up with a little splash of the water to my feet. "What," your screaming, as was I when it happened, but it actually worked! Chiang Mai also provided me with my first elephant ride in Asia as well as my first bamboo rafting trip. I would love to say so much more about the area, but with our quickened travel pace I can't say that I had the opportunity to do and see much more of this amazing section of Thailand.
Budget travel eliminates the use of planes except to get to and from the place of exploration so we climbed aboard two separate trains in order to arrive in Thailands beach paradise. We spent a long night on a train, followed by a long uneventful day in Bangkok (we attempted many events, most of which fell through or were closed for one reason or another, typical Bangkok hickups), and another long night train to finally arrive in Surat Thani and jump on a bus to cross over to Thailand's Andaman coast.
There are many exciting stories that I want to thoroughly recount from this section, so I must leave this with; to be continued, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Fun in the Sun

It has been a great long while since I last did this, and I apologize. However I don't feel I am to blame, it is all this fun in the sun. Since whirlwind tours are the norm for me then that is how we also spent the last four weeks in Thailand and Laos. I am getting my last few hours of sun in before beginning the long (3 days) journey back to Montana. I will make sure to give a more adequate account of my last months wanderings once I get back, but for now I need to play on the beach. We don't have those in Montana, so I need to take advantage of it while I can. Signing off from Asia. - Justin

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Big, Bigger, Biggest

I have made a quick trip from southern Vietnam straight through Cambodia and I now sit in Bangkok, Thailand. Vietnam was a great country and I really enjoyed the time I spent there, even though it felt like a whirlwind tour. The first big site we came across in the recent weeks was the Mekong River delta of Vietnam. We chose to take the slow boat tour from Saigon through the delta up the river to Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia. Witnessing the life on the river was very interesting, but for the most part we sat in boats and slowly made our way up river. We had a very brief stay in Phnom Penh, starting what was a brief trip through Cambodia, and went south for a few days on the beach. While at the coast we took a little national park tour to see a preserved section of the great Mangrove forests of Asia. A quiet and peaceful day-tour with beautiful scenery highlighted by a great rainstorm that hit while we were on a deserted beach we had hiked to. It is very surreal to swim in the undulating ocean while rain is pelting the water all around you. You can't discern whether or not it is actually raining from above and not from the surface of the ocean. We had other plans for this part of Cambodia but the constant threat of rain kept us close to the hotel.
We went back through Phnom Penh for a night on our way to Siem Reap and the great Angkor temples. All in all we spent something like 25 hrs in 3 days enduring 36 degree heat to see 25 temple ruins. Of the bigger things we saw it was the bas-reliefs at every temple, hand carved in stone, and telling great stories and historical accounts of the Khmer people that takes the cake. At Angkor Wat itself, the Biggest, the reliefs stretch for 600 meters along a wall and are 2 meters in height. Seeing the greatest architecture of a civilization is somewhat overwhelming, but with it all so close together, and all so grand in size it is truly difficult to take it all in. It's as if all the Cathedrals of Europe were located in the same city, and over a couple of days you could see them all. I don't have the ability to properly describe what we saw so I won't even try. Some of the other highlights were the quiet temples that were left totally in ruin and slowly being taken over by the forest; you could spend hours getting lost, digging and exploring your way around these ruins. The ruins of Angkor stand out as one of the most amazing places I have visited.
We left the ancient ruins and are now meandering the busy streets of Bangkok where modern life is slowly taken over the ancient city of canals. Tucker and I have added two people to the mix; Sara and my sister. They bring some new enthusiasm and we are looking forward to some adventures in Thailand. Off for a night on the town to celebrate Tuckers birthday, and what better place to do it than in Bangkok.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Finally, I have taken the time to upload a handful of pictures from my adventures. I started at the beginning of the trip, and therefore at the beginning of the posted blogs. Check back to those posts and view some of my pics. I am currently resting in Bangkok, Thailand awaiting the arrival of my sister to travel with me for a month. All is well, and I should have a more detailed post about the last few weeks coming soon.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Free Beer

For those of you following my adventures I just wanted to report on a rather remarkable find; free beer! In all my travels it is something of a habit to try all the local beer, usually because it is cheep, but also because it is something to connect you a little more with the local population. In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) we have stumbled upon what might be the greatest deal in the history of buying beer. This beer is not entirely free, so I fibbed a little there, but at 3,500 dong for each liter it gets as close to free as you can find. We have dubbed it "street beer" because it is sold at street stalls all over the country, as is everything else in Vietnam. You can buy one gallon of this "street beer" for less than one dollar, try and beat that! Ok, it is obvious that everything else is just great, how could it be otherwise with such a wonderful discovery.

Monday, June 05, 2006

On the road again

We have taken to the bikes again. I guess I am a little too quick with all these updates and I don't allow time for us to waiver back and forth between life styles until we find the one we like the most. Ok, I really can't exaggerate this last bike trip too much because we were not even driving, both Tucker and I relinquished control to the Easy Rider's of Dalat, Vietnam. They are a private group of bikers that organize personal tours of Vietnam, all of it. The experience we had today was among the best of our entire trip. From the back of their bikes we cruised through the surrounding country and listened to explanations and stories for everything we saw, and a lot for things we didn't get to see. Had we discovered them earlier we might have taken this mode of exploration the whole way through Vietnam (and provided we could afford the custom tour and we needed to be going northward and not south, minor details). These men have found work in a way that makes them most happy, to be riding bikes through the countryside educating people about Vietnam. We saw a couple of tourist sites (temples and waterfalls), but we also witnessed the birth of silk, from worm to fabric, and also strolled through a coffee tree field. In a few wonderful hours today I feel that we learned more about Vietnam and its people than we have in the last two weeks of travel. In just a few more days we are heading into another country and leaving Vietnam behind. However quick this tour of Vietnam was it provided us with great adventures and some wonderful memories.