Thursday, July 28, 2011

Day 121 – Culture Shock!

I’m back in Australia. No, my trip isn’t over. I’m in Perth, my hometown for my sister’s engagement party (Congrats Elle and Gael!). But, whoa, culture shock.

I felt the first effects when I stepped off the plane.  It was freezing! Going from 30°C+ to 14°C was horrible.  Perth isn’t known for it’s cold weather, but it hit me like a tonne of bricks!  Being surrounded again by Australian accents also sounded so unfamiliar, I could really hear the Australian twang in everyone’s voices.  Then, after seeing my family and telling them all my travel stories, they told me I had a new accent!!

Another thing that struck me was how clean everything was.  Not that Thailand is especially dirty, but Australia is hospital grade clean in comparison.  I immediately felt unclean, and like I needed to jump in the shower ASAP.

It was definitely nice to walk on carpet again (I think I forgot it existed!), and I really missed using a big fluffy towel (rather than a thread-bare sarong).  It’s also become apparent that I have developed some strange travel habits, like looking for a water bottle before I brush my teeth, or grabbing toilet paper from my backpack when I need to go to the toilet.  Drinking water straight from the tap also felt strange.

But the biggest thing is that even though I’m at “home”, even though I’m here in the “real world”, I feel like I’m on holiday from my regular life.  Catching buses every couple of days and dragging my backpack everywhere has become so second nature to me, it feels strange that I’m not doing it!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Day 69 - Redemption and Depravity in Laos!

I don't think I've ever been so uncomfortable in my entire life. My shoulders ache, I feel like I no longer have movement in my neck, my knees are killing me and this is all compounded my the fact that I feel like I've haven't been to the toilet in my entire life. I'm currently crammed on a minibus on my way to Udomxai.  There are seats for 20, but there are 28 of us on this bus. But, I'm one of the lucky ones. The man next to me doesn't even have a seat to sit on, he is perched on top of a bag of rice instead. But that's Laos transport for you.  I'm sure we are bound to pick up at least another two extra passengers before we reach our destination.

I've just left the town of Luang Namtha, and the journey there was a similar story, and I'm only just recovering from the lactic acid build up in my thighs from that one.  Luang Namtha was mostly a disappointment.  I had wanted to go into Northern Laos to get into the local food, do some trekking or kayaking, and escape the tourist trail.  However instead what we found were expensive (by Laos standards) guesthouses, annoyingly slow internet connections and very over-priced trekking offerinfgs. Luang Namtha felt like a town built on tourism, with one problem, it was empty.  There were barely any tourists around.  This is not the experience I was seeking.

Yesterday Luang Namtha redeemed itself a little however.  Our original plan was to hire a scooter and just generally ride around town whilst trying to suck any fun we could out of it. But after studying the map of the city once more, Tom came up with the idea that we could do a walk through some of the nearby villages instead, and perhaps we would stumble across something that inspired us.  Stumbled indeed we did, but let me explain first.

We set off from the town centre and made our way across a little (but surprisingly sturdy) wooden bridge over the river.  As we walked through a couple of small villages, I was (apparently rather annoyingly) pointing out every species of wildlife I laid my eyes on, from butterflies and dragonflies, to cows and baby chicks.  We soon found ourselves walking along a dusty track surrounded by rice padi fields on either side.  Once we reached the main road, not so helpfully named 3A, we took a left to make a loop back to town.  As we were walking along the main road in the searing hot sun, a friendly 'Sabai Dii' (that is hello in Lao) was called out to us from a small group of locals, we smiled, waved and returned the friendly greeting.  One of the men hand signed to us 'eat?'.  Tom and I looked at each other, 'Really? Should we?', 'Free lunch! It would be rude to refuse'. So there we were, eating lunch with the locals in the middle of a rice padi. Whilst enjoying a generous spread of sticky rice, bananas, papaya salad, boiled spinach and some sort of chilli paste, we explained in broken english we we're from, how long we are travelling for, and 'why you in Laos?'. Then, with the help of a 'Speak Lao' app on our iPhones, said our names and learned there's.  Who needs to pay US$75 a day for a 'cultural experience'? Not us.  Such a friendly and generous gesture gave us both a fresh outlook on the town, and we continued our walk with a bit more spring in our step.

A couple of kilometres from town we saw a big blue tent and one hell of a sound system set up, seemingly in the middle of the street.  With a refreshed perception of the locals, we decided to gate crash whatever this party was.  We snuck around the back and found ourselves being invited to take a seat at one of the many tables set up. Immediately plastic cups full of ice and Beerlao were thrust into our hands.  After a chat to some more of the very friendly locals, we learnt we were at a party to celebrate the birth of a baby.  These local guys spoke amazing English, I was thoroughly impressed. All the while having our cups overflowed with Beerlao, we introduced ourselves, and spoke mostly to a guy named Tag.  He'd just finished studying in Luang Prabang and worked for the electricity company as an engineer.  He earns just $1 million kip per month. Thats about AU$115. I was astounded. It hit home that Laos really is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Before we could protest, our drinks of ice and Beerlao soon had a new addition: Laolao, the local spirit.  Which is a nasty spirit let me tell you. I think Laolao could strip paint stripper! So feeling rather tipsy, we were invited by a cute local girl to 'please come and dance with me'.  We danced some traditional Lao dances and were introduced to a whole new group of locals, this time, law students. Again, they spoke impeccable English.  All the while more and more drinks were being forced upon us.  After politely refusing a number of times, and after I'd consumed far far too much alcohol, it was time for me to call it a day. I couldn't walk straight, think straight or see straight. It was time to throw in the towel.  Tom wasn't quite ready to leave yet, so I left him with some very cute Lao girls and walked in what I hoped was the direction of our guesthouse, leaving the blaring Lao music behind me.

It wasn't until I was a couple of hundred metres down the road that I realised Tom had the map and I really had no idea where the hell I was.  Drunk and lost in the boiling afternoon heat, I stumbled all the way to our guesthouse. I'm not really sure how the hell I found it actually, I kind of just turned a corner and there it was; I was overcome with relief.

I shall leave the story of the remainder of Tom's debauchery for him to tell, but I will say this; Tom busted into the guesthouse about 3 hours later, stumbled up against the wall, hiccupped and then said "We HAVE to leave tomorrow".

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Day 66 - Into Laos!

Finally we have entered Laos!  Last night we caught an overnight minivan to Chiang Khong, the border town that will get us to Laos.  Originally we had decided to get up at 6am (the bus arrived in Chiang Khong at 3am), to get the earliest bus we could to Luang Nam Tha.  That didn't happen.  Instead we are on the 12 noon bus.  Definitely the right decision given just how cramped this bus is.  This minibus regularly sits 17 people. We currently have 27 people (and one dog) aboard.

Cramped is not a strong enough word. Perhaps claustrophobic might be a better description.

Besides the muscle pain in my legs, and the joint pain in my knees, my first impressions of Laos are good ones.  The people here seem a little more cautious of foreigners (or falang)than Thai people are, but the serenery is absolutely amazing. All around us are huge, luscious green mountains.  The only thing I can liken it to is driving through a movie set.  Everything just looks so green and amazing.

One thing that really threw me though; in Laos they drive on the right.  Already I feel a bit disoriented and I've only had to cross the road twice.

By the way, there are now 33 people (and still one dog) on this minibus. Welcome to Laos!

Day 61 - Back to Chiang Mai

I'm back in Chiang Mai.  This city is just to inviting to not visit once more before we make our way across to Laos.  We caught the local bus down from Pai yesterday, and spent the night catching up with our friends at Mojito bar.

Today we visited a couple of temples on a scooter.  Tom wanted to go back to one in particular where a monk had blessed him and given him really good luck for the last month.  Unfortunately, the monks were not doing blessings when we visited, but we still explored the litte temple and it's grounds.  The meditation room was amazing.  It felt like you could sit in there for hours without moving and not be at all bothered.  I guess that is kind of the point of a meditation room!  The temple also has an amazing little area called the Garden of Reflection, and on all of the trees there are quotes intented to invoke thought.  I took pictures of the quotes I found the most powerful.

There is a stark contrast between how I spent the day, and how I spent the night.  By the time we got back from the temples, I could tell I was getting an onslaught of food poisoning.  My stomach felt like it was doing backflips and twisting itself into knots.  Not wanting to miss out on all the fun, I medicated myself with paracetamol, gastrostop, stomachease and 3 shots of vodka. The plan was to start the night at Chiang Mai's famous beer buffet, and then onto a house party.  Beer buffet was fun, as all you can drink beer for AU$5 usually is, however, it was at the house party when my cocktail of drugs and alcogol came back to bite me.  All was going extremely well, or so I thought. We even got the songthaew driver to stop at 7-11 for supplies. My supply of choice was a chicken pizza toastie. But once we'd arrived at the house party, and within minutes I'd already convinced a cute boy (with 20baht) to take off his clothes, it was time for me to throw in the towel.

By the time I got home, the food poisoning was back with a vengence, and kicking me twice as hard given my previous level of intoxication.  The next few days aren't looking so good...

Day 57 - Fishing for some change

Fishing in Pai.  It's the perfect pastime for a little town like Pai.  It doesn't require much effort, you just sit back and enjoy your surroundings, and if you happen to have a little snooze, no-one is too bothered.  So that's how Tom and I spent the day.

I wasn't too good at the fishing part, but I was really talentedat enjoying my surroundings.  I was particularly taken by the amount of beautiful dragonflies and butterflies going about their day around the pond.  Tom was a bit better at the fishing portion of the day, and caught two catfish.  Both of which we threw back but not before we took a sexy photo!

The fishing ended perfectly at sunset with a massive buffet, including  spaghetti bolognese, pad thai, fried rice, chicken curry, prawn crackers, potato chips and barbeque kebabs.  This, of course, was also accompanied by a couple of large Changs to wash it all down.

Once we'd had enough fun pondside, we decided to venture into town for cocktails.  Jikko was the place of choice, firstly because the cocktails are two-for-one, and secondly, because they are amazing.  After sipping on Mojitos, Tom Collins and Long Island Ice Teas, it was back to the house in the pouring rain.  What we realised once we left, is that we never paid for our cocktails! Once again I had walked out on my bill.  I better not keep making a habit of this... It could be dangerous :P

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Day 56 - Time Machine

Time really does slow down in Pai.  I got here about 6pm yesterday and haven't really done anything of substance. The pace is slow here. No-one is in a rush to go anywhere or do anything.  On one hand I can see how people get sucked in to being here, just chilling out, taking life as it comes. On the other hand, I can see how it would drive me crazy after a while.  You can't spend your entire life sitting in a hammock watching the world go by. Especially when there is such a big, beautiful, unexplored world out there.

Tom has spent the most part of the last month here in Pai, so even though I was here a month ago, Tom is my tour guide. Tom has sussed out all the good places to eat, drink, get laundry done, he has even discovered the best cobbler in town.  It's great cruising around Pai with Tom, like being with a local.

Last night we ate at Curry Shack, where I ate the best Masman curry I have ever had in my entire life. In fact, it was so good, it was one of the best meals I've ever eaten.  And, truth be told, I'm not even a big curry fan to begin with.  My level of enjoyment may have had something to do with the fact that I hadn't eaten a proper meal since the day before the full moon party (3 days earlier!). Oops, that's traveller's nutrition for you; too much alcohol, too many trips to 7-Eleven, dodgy street food and the occasional vitamin C tablet.

I feel like I've only just recovered now from the epic night that was Full Moon.  After no sleep and travelling for 31 hours straight to get to Chiang Mai, I was only a shadow of a person. Its taken the last couple of days to really get me back on track, and pay off my sleep debt!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Day 52 - The Full Moon Party

After numerous local expats telling us not to arrive at the full moon party til midnight, "after all the dickheads have already had too much", we planned to leave our bungalow around 11.30pm.  Myself having to wake up at 6.30am that morning to go diving, desperately needed a nap if we were to last til sunrise! So after a couple of hours sleep we cracked out the neon paint and started to get ready.  At 20B a pot, we decided to buy one of each of all the colours.  Leah's idea was to paint an all black dress in all the colours of the rainbow, whilst Mallary and I had purchased obscenely bright outfits already, so planned to paint our skin instead.  My plan was to cover myself with as much neon paint as my skin could possibly sustain.  I needed something quick and cheeky and that would cover most of my exposed skin. Then the idea struck. Neon handprints it was! So after pressing my handprint onto myself at least one too many times, and it being strangely reminiscent of fingerpainting in preschool, we were finally ready to go!

We made our way down to Haad Rin, and as we walked through the laneways to the beach we could hear the party long before we could see it.  It occurred to us we must be really late as we passed people who were on their way home.  We'd already made a pact to not bring along any time-telling devices, so we asked someone the time, and it was already 1am! We hadn't even eaten dinner yet! We needed something that was quick and tasty, and that could soak up the copious amounts of alcohol we were about to subject our bodies to. So we stopped at what has become one of my western comforts here in Asia: 7 Eleven. So we induldged in our most favourite of their offerings: Chicken Pizza Toasties. Two each. That should do the job! We ate them as we walked down to one of the biggest parties on the planet.

I think from here on in, the pictures tell the story far better than I ever could....

7-Eleven: even better in neon!

"Hello Haad Rin!!"

Watch out here I come!

I'm here!

Stopped up short.

Got a little tired...

Laughing til we cried!


Do you think I need some more handprints?

Playing in Fairyland

I'm sooo bright!

The sun is up... WE MADE IT!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Day 51 - Painfully Pissed on Picnic Tables

I have the hangover from hell.  If anyone is keeping count, I think I've written far too many blogs in this state. My poor liver.  On the brightside, Mallary and I have decided that we are "the most pleasant hungover people ever".  Even though we had to wake up incredibly early to pack all our stuff and move to our new bungalow, the entire day has still been full of laughter and smiles (that is, between rushed trips to the bathroom, which
has an over-sized lizard as a resident).

So how did I arrive in this familiar state this time around? Well, yesterday we were super keen to explore the island of Ko Phangan.  It is much bigger than we all imagined.  We had a bit of a problem though.  Only Mallary is competent enough to drive a scooter, and three of us can't fit on one (yes we tried).  Plan B? Hire a jeep! Hang on, another problem, only one of us know how to drive a manual.  And its not me.  It's Leah, who has only ever driven left hand drive. Everything is backwards!  But not to worry, Leah took the challenge in her stride, and with me in the front seat to remind Leah to "stay on the LEFT!", we set off for Haad Rin beach.  That is, the beach where the infamous full moon party will be held! After filling up with copious amount of fuel, and getting mostly hazy directions, we arrived at Haad Rin pier. The beach must be near.  Walking around this area, we knew we were in the right place given the amount of Full Moon memorabilia, outfits and everything you can imagine in neon colours.  

We had been forewarned not to swim at Haad Rin beach following the party (due to the shenanigans that go on at the party), so we had to take a dip now, otherwise we would miss our chance.  We also had to make 100% sure we were in the right place.  The beach was amazing. The water a translucent turquoise, the sand an enticing shade of white, a backdrop of lush green mountains, and the sun was shining.  What an amazing place to have a party!

After stocking up on supplies (read: every colour of neon paint imaginable), we wanted to eat dinner whilst watching the sunset. And what an amazing sunset it was.  The sky was a delectable shade of pink, splashed with some blue and yellow, whilst the water reflected these colours in a perfect way.  We just couldn't resist a sunset swim.  If you've never swam at sunset, on a very calm beach, you're missing out on an amazing experience.  What happens is that thermoclines develop.  That is, the top layer of the ocean is a warm day time temperature, whilst the lower depths are changing to a lower, night time temperature.  To swim through these thermoclines is a strange but wonderful feeling.  Not like being hot and cold at the same time, but rather like experiencing warm patches of hot tub and sudden refreshing pools at the same time.

After having such an enjoyable day, we didn't really have any big plans for the night.  Our initial intention was to simply take the jeep out and cruise around for a while.  We had also seen a number of signs about a jungle party that we thought we'd check out. 7-11's played a big part in our demise last night.  It started with large Leos, and when downhill, or uphill, from there; depending on your perspective.  

After following extremely dodgy and vague signs to the jungle party (at one point it was a candle that marked our turn off).  We parked out the front and were told it was 100B entry each.  We couldn't see anyone of interest inside, and it didn't look altogether impressive. We said we'd pass.  The sour door bitch called us back and told us she would let us in for free, as long as we don't tell anyone. Alright we are in.  But our initial impressions were confirmed, other than a couple of other enthusiastic guys covered in neon paint, there was nothing going on. On top of that, the music was shit.  We all decided that we were having way more fun driving around in the jeep instead.

We piled back into the jeep, wound down the windows, and turned up the music. I'd forgotten how much I missed cruising around in a car. Something I hadn't done in over a year.  With the Leos all dried up, another stop at 7-11 was in order.  Mallary and I decided we would make our own bucket.  In fact, we even had to convince the 7-11 attendant to sell us an empty bucket to mix our ingredients in.  But our efforts were well worth it, we had our very own homemade bucket.  We ate chips as our chaser (twisties to be exact), as we may have made it a little too strong.

Our cruising evidently brought us to Haad Rin beach again. Our current state of inebriation meant we thought it was a perfect time to pick out our full moon outfits.  Even though we definitely made appropriate outfit choices, our bargaining skills were not what they could have been!  By this time, the bucket was approaching shallow levels, so it was time to stock up again.  No 7-11 required. We'd stumbled upon a street stall selling buckets for cheaper than we had purchased all the ingredients separately at 7-11!

This is where the events of the night start to get a little hazy.  I vaguely remember chatting up a Canadian restaurant tout, and then one very attractive boy jumping in the back of our ute. Don't remember where he ended up.  But I do know where we ended up. We were on Haad Rin beach! The party had started early! Bucket in hand, it was time to dance. But dance on the sand? Pfft, that's for beginners. I chose my dancefloor, the top of a picnic table!

Events following this are not within my powers of recollection, however I am told they were fun-fueled and definitely not lacking in debauchery. The bruises we sustained suggest that perhaps our dance floor picnic table was not the best place to show off our moves.  However, if last night was a trailer for the full moon party, bring it on!