It’s hard to resist cooking classes when you’re surrounded by such good local food so we signed up for a 3day/3night cooking course up in the hilly farm lands outside of Chiang Mai. It wasn’t until we looked at the poster a second time that we found out it was an organic vegetarian farm. We were worried we’d be surrounded by granolas but the people there were really friendly and fun. Okay, so we were the only two people that didn’t practice yoga, meditation and mantras daily.
There was yoga class at dawn, fresh baked bread for breakfast from the sustainable farm next door, then we would cook 3 dishes for lunch and another 3 for dinner. We even made tofu from scratch. Everything was fresh and made from raw ingredients. The kitchen was completely outdoor and had a great vista of the village and farmland below. While we were there we stayed in a hand molded mud hut right out of the flintstone’s. There is a wealth of knowledge there and a seemingly endless list of active projects. One day a group of 25 monks came by for a tour of the place and to learn how to make natural soap and shampoo. The day that we left they were mixing up organic paint. Who knew! It was easy to see how most people there were repeat and extended stay visitors.
The people that we met were part of the highlight we spent the nights laughing at everyone’s stories and screaming at rowdy card games. The Thai couple that owned and ran the cooking class were incredibly funny and awesome cooks. We made so much food that we couldn’t eat it all.
All in all it was a great time and we now we know how to make really good pad thai, tom yum soup, curry pastes, and an awesome peanut sauce among other tasty thai dishes, with or without meat.
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When we got to the village we were told the first souvenir booths were of the short neck people so we should walk without stopping until we get to the long neck tribe. Yes, we were part of the short necks. The road was muddy and slippery and completely lined with souvenir stalls on both sides so that you didn’t see the villages right behind them. The women were sitting at their shops making scarves. Many of the people on display were young girls. They were quiet and seemed not to mind the attention of the cameras and people that would crowd around them. They would pause and smile for the photos then get right back to their threading like seasoned veterans. Many of the faces were painted in addition to make-up. No one seems to know why they started doing this practice of lengthening the girls’ necks but the three prominent stories are
1. because tigers bite necks (but then
why don’t the men do it?)
2. to make them ugly because the ruler could pluck any girl he chose
3. as a beautification that makes them look more like a swan.
Yes, the last two contradict but so goes theories. I asked Ren if the girls thought it was pretty and his answer after a hesitation was that he thinks they do it for the business. Otherwise no one would come up here. And inside their straw huts were portable DVD players so it shows it definitely pays off. One old woman had the solid brass rings off her neck which I was surprised by because I had thought that they couldn’t survive long after taken the rings off because of a lack of support. But it seems they can live with their extruded necks bare. The girls start the process at 5yrs old and put on progressively taller rings until their late teens. Thus taking advantage of the growing years. They definitely mov
ed about with a stiff neck, like someone wearing a brace.
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This is our 3rd time in Thailand and it won’t be the last. We’re spending a week in the northernmost province of Chiang Mai. We visited an orchid farm and went into a cave in the highest limestone mountain in Thailand that was a temporary shelter for the Burmese army during the war. All that was only mildly interesting compared to the small temple sitting outside the cave that had prayer machines. That’s right, prayer machines! With their flashing red lights you could see them from the parking lot. There were eight Vegas style slot machines and a weekday Buddha in each. Wednesday gets two for some reason; one for the day and another for the evening. Each of the 8 boxes had slots for the offerings.
Sadly there were no levers to pull but wow, this was ‘Lord of Light’ put to action. I knew the book’s idea of prayer machines would catch on sooner or later. It was too good to pass up for any entrepreneurial religion.
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Laos was a quiet and less populated country than its neighbors, by far. The capital Vientiane feels more like a resort town with its laid back atmosphere lack of traffic. There are plenty of expats living and thriving here to provide the comforts of western life amongst the stupas. The US embassy rep gave us a funny look for needing extra pages added to our already double wide passport.
Vang Vieng is best described as spring break for wannabe backpackers. The main street is lined with open air restaurants blaring episodes of Friends and The Simpsons. The river right outside the otherwise dusty road town is one bamboo bar after another. The locals meanwhile take advantage of the dry season and drive their tractors to the middle of the river for gravel while others stoop over to collect river weed. The river weed is dried and compressed to look like thick seaweed then roasted and sprinkled with sesame seeds. It made me hurl for 24hrs.
Luang Prabang was all about temples. Everywhere you walked there were monks going about their daily activities in their saffron robes and often matching umbrella to keep off the sun. The monk schools were packed with boys of all ages. Here more than anywhere else it seemed monkhood was a way to get an education.
To get from the northern Laos town of Luang Prabang to the Thai border we would have to endure a two day journey by slow boat up the Mekong. Each day’s cruise started at 9am and ended just after 6pm. There were no stops along the way except to drop locals at their villages so we had to bring all snacks and beverages along, as well as entertainment. At least we were going against the grain of the travelers so we had space to spread out on the wooden boat. The boats going in the opposite direction were notorious for packing in 100 passengers on a 40 capacity boat so people had to fight for room and some slept on the piles of cargo and backpacks. We had less than 20. The first night we slept in a border style town with nothing but guesthouses and snack shops. The next day was full of rain and we had to put the tarps down to stay dry. At the end of the second day we arrived after the border closed so we had to wait until the next morning to make our third entry into Thailand.
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In Laos and Thailand elephants are still being used in the logging industry despite animal rights activists. Some projects have popped up to try to save the ailing beasts of burden. One idea is to buy the sick and injured elephants away from the loggers and try to restore their health. To
offset the costs of maintaining such large animals the ellies are then trained for their new job in tourism. We wanted to see for ourselves so we spent two days at a mahout camp. The herd was made of 8 adult girls and one baby boy. Physically they looked to be in good health and well fed. These Asian ones are much smaller than their African cousins, almost 3ft shorter. The shape of their heads, back and mouths are distinct as well. We rode on the necks and felt their bristly hair poking up at us. It’s not easy to stay balanced on a moving elephant. You can feel their shoulders alternating with their stride rocking you to and fro. And it feels like you’re sitting on a rotating turret swinging from side to side as the elephant takes in its surroundings. There’s nothing to hold onto except your will to not fall 8 feet to the ground and get trampled under foot. We walked them up the mountain where they spend the nights eating and sleeping. In the morning we met up and they gave us a lift down to the river to give them a bath. The mahouts gave us scrub brushes and though the elephants got cleaner we got dirtier. The adults went back up to camp to get ready for the next tourist rides while the baby was in a tyrate for being left behind. The mahouts found the girls wouldn’t work if the baby was around. The ellies and mahouts work for 14 days then get a day off. The elephants get their 200-400lbs of food a day and have medical supervision so most will live to the natural ripe old age of 65. Whereas ones stuck in logging only survive half that lifespan. Given that freedom is not an option the tourism gig seems a better life than logging.
Surprisingly there are sparse wild elephants in the mountains but their days of freedom are numbered as people encroach on their territory
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Laos is cluttered with limestone mountains which is prime for caves. What better way to explore them than by innertube. In addition to the big rubber donut we were given headlamps, though Steve’s was as bright as Mars as seen with the naked eye standing in downtown San Jose. The battery pack was what killed me. They loo
ked just like car batteries, except a quarter of the size and weight. They were attached to the lights by exposed wires and were made to hang from your neck. Supposedly they watertight and I was going to test that out as mine kept slipping into the water. There was a rope that we could pull ourselves into the cave with. The jagged entrance was no more than two feet high so you had to flatten yourself and exhale to pass through unscathed. The sunlight didn’t penetrate very far into the cavernous tunnel. The rope led us farther into the pitch with only our headlamps and echos to break the darkness. It was a good thing there were so many of us. Advancing along the rope while dodging the many head gashing traps in the meek light was trying enough then add keeping the camera out of the water to take video and I was at my multi-tasking limit. Next we hit a shallow flat with about six inches of water so we walked our tubes across. The cave was so low we had to stay bent. On the other side we hopped back onto our tubes but this time we linked up to form straight lines with the guide at the lead. I had to give up my light so he could navigate us as we went deeper in back first. With our shoes on our hands we all paddled slowly through the water like a caterpillar walking on water. The light from the other tubers’ lit up the cavern walls. They were twenty feet across, curved and smooth on the sides and came together in a jagged crevice ten feet overhead. That gave the illusion of a rib cage a spine. As Steve put it, we felt like Jonah inside the whale. It would’ve been nice to have a light but it was also a good idea not to look at the water or the cave too closely. Watching all those points of light dance on the curved tunnels lighting us various features and colors was mesmerizing. The guides sang soothing Laotian songs that echoed through the chambers as we paddled to the end then turned back. That was good, dark, wet bum fun.
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From Hanoi we were thrown into a tired bus with the locals at 7pm. The rear four aisles were jammed floor to ceiling with cargo, overflow from the roof. It was amazing that it wasn’t caving in with half of Vietnam strapped to the top. Our bags get tossed in the back and the bus guys try to shove us into seats with baggage at our feet. This is a 21 hour bus ride so there was no way we were going to compromise with legroom. The pushy punk finally takes the box out from under the seat ahead of us so we sit down. Some others weren’t so lucky. There were bags and boxes under all the seats. A few of the locals have the double seats to themselves but over the course of the night we would pick up others to fill those spots. The seats weren’t bad. There was a noticeable lumbar support and the cushion was still intact. Each seat even had a blanket. Later we found out that that was because the aircon would blast all night. The locals were prepared with their knit hats, gloves, and winter jackets. We huddle together under our two blankets draped over us. At least once every hour and a half we made a stop for petrol, food, smoking, bathroom, more passengers, and once at a mechanic for reason unknown. Of course there was onboard entertainment. Now I know what a Vietnamese award show looks like. Ugh! That was when the earplugs and eyeshades came out. Steve seem to conk out pretty early on. I read and struggled until after midnight. Even then I kept waking every twenty minutes readjusting within my confinement before finally dosing off for a longer spell. The brief moments that I open my eyes the bus was crawling in fog so thick you can barely see the back of the bus ten feet ahead of us. I knew it would be cold but I didn’t expect pea soup. One time when I opened my eyes I noticed that we weren’t moving but there was another bus next to us. The mist is so heavy that I have no idea what’s around us or where we are. I just figured it was too hard to see so we stopped.
At about 6:30am I peep out from under my shades to see Steve awake. It seems we’ve been waiting at the Vietnam border waiting for the office to open so we can exit. We must’ve been there for at least an hour, maybe two. The bus punk collects the passports without explanation and I watch him put them in a plastic bag. Next he grunts at us to leave behind the others. It is freezing outside. The thick mist is still burying us in and we follow the cajoling guards into the sparse building. We join the mob and I squeeze to the front of the counter so I can see what the guards are doing. There are stacks of passports on the inside of the glass. Doubtless from all the other buses and trucks waiting next to ours. Luckily the guards grabs our plastic bag pile first and starts to slowly check each one through. He’s being particular with which ones he fishes out first. Ten foreigner passports go through before he grabs mine. It gets stamped and he calls my name out. Before he hands it to me he demands $1. It was too early in the morning to question him about the fee so I tell Steve who is two people behind me to hand over the cash. Even he doesn’t want to deal with it either so we pay the bribe and get our passports back. Then we had to walk across the checkpoint to officially leave Vietnam. We walk into the fog not knowing where or how far to go. The mist is clinging onto every surface. I feel my backpack and it’s soaked. Finally we see another gate through the haze and the door is open. We rush through knowing there would be a mob behind us. The border guards here on the Laos side actually speak english and they’re as helpful as can be given the conditions. We pay for our visa on arrival in addition to an extra $1 that everyone has to pay. At least we get a slip of paper to make it feel like a real fee. We’ve been doing this type of free-for-all queueing so I work my way to the front of the counter and shove my hand through the opening in the glass as soon as the guard glances up. You can’t too early or it’s taken as an affront. You have to be assertive but not aggressive. It’s a fine line and the difference is getting what you want or the cold shoulder. Yay! We’re through. As soon as we see the bus at the gate we hop on and hide under our blankets. My earplugs and eye shades go back on and I sleep until Steve wakes me after 10am. The sun was out and the sky blue. What a difference a few hours make. I felt like I was coming out of the blinding cold cloud that was Vietnam and stepping onto the clear, sunny warmth of Laos.
That night Steve fell asleep pretty early. I stayed up and did some yoga. 21hrs on a bus really makes my back and butt sore. It could’ve been must worst though, we know. We’re actually quite content with this record breaking bus ride. Our previous longest bus ride title holder was when we left Bukittingi in Sumatra. That was 19hrs and this one was smoke free.
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Rather than suffer through two days of buses we flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. The capital was another busy and smog ridden asian city. The weather was much colder here than the south. So when we took a few days excursion to scenic Ha Long Bay we pulled out the long sleeves. The bay is dotted with thousands of sheer limestone rocks that shoot straight up out of the calm waters. Spread amongst these karst formations are small fishing villages adrift in the sea. There are caves to see and viewpoints to hike to but the main draw is sitting on the roof of the junk ship watching the rock islands cruise by. We did bike through one of the larger islands and kayak around others before the weather got too cold and we had to retreat to the sheltered cabins.
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The Cu Chi tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war to hide from the American troops were 65km outside of Ho Chi Minh City. To keep us entertained on our bus out was Mr. Bean our engish speaking guide. When he was young he lived in various parts of the States eventually becoming an officer of the US Navy. When the US became engaged in the Vietnam War he was sent here to train the Charlies to fight in the foreign fields. The VC eventually captured him and sent him to prison for four years to get re-educated. Everyday he went out to the fields to pick up land mines with his hands. At the end he emerged a happy man knowing his rightful place was in Vietnam and that the US government was full of lies. I’d say the re-education worked perfectly on him. He kept telling everyone over the microphone ‘You know nothing!’, ‘You understand?’, ‘You really want to know?’
He said the Vietnam war really started in 1858 when the French occupied the country. Then the US financially backed the francophones and when they pulled out over half a million American troops showed up in rice paddies. The VC’s guerrilla warfare kept the Americans at bay and forced them to eventually give up the campaign. From there the Vietnamese fought Cambodia, actually invading them but he left that part out. And finally it was war with the Chinese which finally ended in 1980, the official end of the Vietnam War according to him. But it was because of the false media and internet that the world thinks it ended in 1973 when the US troops left. There was a VC award called American Killer Hero. So for the entire ride out we heard his take on the war, Americans, and the Vietnamese farmer forced to become a killer. And of course he presented this as his obligation to make sure we got something out of our $4 tour. At the Cu Chi tunnels we first sat down to watch a fifteen minute communist propaganda of the Vietnam War made in 1967 with smiling gun toting VC. Needless to say it was highly anti-America. From there we were lead from one hidden entrance to another, to holes made by B-52 bombs, to booby traps, to bunkers, to a destroyed tank, and even a firing range where you can shoot a variety of war guns for only $1.3 per bullet. Sure the people actually firing the AK47s were given earmuffs but the rest of us sitting twenty feet away just had to bear the deafening noise in silence. After all that we crawl ed into the cool, but stuffy darkness of a tunnel. At first it’s high enough to walk through totally bent over but after dropping down to the second level, about 6m below the surface, crawling became the mode of transportation. The tallest spots were no more than one meter high and sixty cm wide. The lowest places were two feet high. It was pitch dark but smooth. The earth was ripe for tunneling here as clay is easy to dig and hardens with heat which meant the napalm bombs on the surface only strengthened the tunnels below. In Cu Chi the tunnels ran 258km in all and some went under US bases. Mr. Bean praised the craftiness of the VC and told us in many ways why they were better than the Americans. This included using American trash to throw the dogs off the trail of the tunnel entrances. Also they used discarded US bombs to make mines and used truck tires for sandals which they wore backwards to throw their pursuers off. But Mr. Bean’s attitude wasn’t unique. Walking around this country you can sometimes sense a muffled anti-Americanism. But any anomysity they might have against us disappears when they see the dollar.
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In southern Vietnam the mighty Mekong river is the prominent artery and thousands of brown veins branch off into a network of canals. The lives of the people here are heavily dependent on these waterways. There is no end to the list of the river’s uses. We spent hours upon hours along various watery passageways seeing the ways people here live. There were several floating markets with mountains of coconuts, bananas, pommelos, potatos, green onions, and so many other fruits and veg. Each boat had a bamboo pole at the bow with their wares hanging prominently. Near Can Tho the floating houses sat over fish farms with up to half a million fish below. There were duck farms, dead floating rats, monkey bridges, muslim villages, rice paddies, noodle factories, and trash galore. During one 8hr tour our boat driver had to stop the engine 11 times to unwrap the various plastic bags, weeds, and ropes from the small propeller. By the time we made it to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) we were delta’d out.
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