Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Three Elephant Cooking School

We had another busy planned for the next morning. My feet were really messed up but I was still excited to learn how to make (and get to eat) some Laos cooking. We chose a class through the Tamnak Lao Restaurant because the owner seemed really friendly and because a cookbook was included free with the class. We skipped breakfast because we were warned that it was going to be a pretty full day of eating. First we met our group (lots of Canadians, a couple British and Australian) and our teachers Leng Lee and Phia Yang and then we all jumped into a songtaew and went to the local market to pick up ingredients.

The market was such a busy and vibrant place. It was a bit off putting to see how they handle and store meat here but otherwise it was really cool. Phia explained about ingredients while Leng did the shopping. When we had everything we needed we headed back to the restaurant and had some tea while they set everything up.

Next they demonstrated how to cook two dishes: Luang Prabang salad and Feu Khua (fried rice noodles with chicken and vegetables). It was a bit like watching Martha Stewart since they were so organized and had all the ingredients in individual little bowls. When they finished we got to try our hand at making them. I have to say, they turned out really great and then we got to eat them right away! Yum! Lunch is served!

Talk about service too- we had done most of our dishes before we went to eat but the staff there finished everything (and did all of the other groups dishes). If only cooking was always like this. After lunch we were shown how to make three dishes: chicken larp (a traditional salad), Kheua Sen Lon (vermicelli noodles with pork, veggies and mushrooms) and Oh Paedak (Lao pork casserole). Of these three dishes we chose two to make (we chose the first and third). After some clean up it was back to watch them create two more dishes: Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo (fried eggplant with pork) and Geng Phet (chili casserole). They were both heavenly but we had to make the second one because it was sort of like a coconut curry. They also showed us how to make their traditional chili paste and then it was time to eat all of our creations. There was so much food!!! It was such a great day and I'm glad that we chose to go with this restaurant. The instructors were great and they are connected to a charity that supports a local orphanage (they also have a used bookstore that gives all its profits to the orphanage). Go here to see all the pictures.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Treking and Elephant Riding

So I finally have decent internet access and my pictures are all uploaded! So I will be able to tell you in detail about the rest of our adventures in Laos! Then I will just have to get the Vietnam ball rolling. Without further ado:

We woke up bright and early, had some ham sandwiches for breakfast and met up with our group. We had two guides, the main one had a warm smile and went by the name Mr. Bee. I was a bit worried about the trek when I saw the rest of our group- 4 extremely young guys from England. They were quite nice but I felt old and out of shape spending the day with them. The oldest of the four was “almost 20”. Hahah! The day started out fine but things started to get a bit ugly when we had to hike up a mountain side in the heat. Thankfully I wasn't experiencing any vertigo that day but the heat was really getting to me and I was getting tired much faster than usual. Of course walking up a steep mountainside in blistering heat didn't even faze the rest of my group so I was feeling embarrassed for not being able to keep up. Most of the trek was flat or downhill but there were 3 uphill portions that were quite difficult for me, in particular. The second climb was the biggest and I had to stop quite frequently, much to my embarrassment. I made it though somehow and was so happy to stop for lunch. There was lots of traditional foods to go around- two kinds of soup, fish, sticky rice, bananas for dessert. It was a real feast!

The trek after lunch wasn't so bad but my feet were getting pretty beat up and blistered. I was really happy when we made it to the waterfall so I could soak my feet in the cool water. Turns out I don't have great hiking shoes (although you should have seen what the British boys were wearing- cheapest tennis shoes ever!) but now that I have survived this hike I have decided to retire for awhile. I didn't really get to enjoy the waterfall because I was so fixated on my feet.

It was all worth it when we got to ride the elephants though. At this point my feet were throbbing, I was exhausted, hot and sweaty but I forgot all about that when I climbed up on that magnificent animal. We just rode through the jungle a bit but it was quite amazing. Elephants are so steady and sturdy and managed to walk gracefully through some really rough terrain. After our elephant ride we went down to the river and watched the mahouts bathe the elephants.

It was time for us to go home (the British boys were taking a 2 day course) so we took a boat ride back to the village where we started, climbed into the van and headed back to town. It was quite a day! I wish we had a picture of us on the elephant but we couldn't take one ourselves and the British boy took one with his camera but hasn't emailed it to me. To see all the pictures go here. I'm pretty proud that I survived this trek but if Matt wants to do another I think he's going to be on his own. Hahah!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spending All Your Money, Honey...

Just a quick note from Hoi An, Vietnam. What? You've never heard of Hoi An before? Yeah, I hadn't either but it's the most glorious place I've ever visited. If only I were a millionaire. Hoi An is FULL of hundreds of tailors and cobblers just begging for you to come in and get something custom made for low prices. It's not ridiculous prices, but it's often cheaper than buying the actual item from a store back home and this item is made to fit you and you get to make all sorts of demands and choices about it. We're getting tons of clothes made and I'm even getting boots (2 pairs!) and shoes. It's really exciting. Matt's having 3 suits made and each cost $50 US. It's incredible. Now as long as the post fees aren't too horrible it should be quite the bargain when we're finished. How will I ever be able to shop in Canada again?? Once everything is adjusted and shipped we're going to head to Nha Trang and enjoy some time lounging on the beach. I've got a new book so I'm raring to go!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Matt's New 'Do

If you've been following my blog(s) then you should know that Asia is a terrible place to get a haircut. This is a pretty sweeping statement and I should mention that this rings more true for males than females. As a result, Matt has suffered from some pretty horrible haircuts in the last 3 years. The most recent bad haircut happened in Thailand. His hair was getting shaggy and weird so after some deliberation he decided it was time to make the big shave. We both thought this would be the best time to try it out and that it would be low maintenance for the trip and if it looked terrible then it would have sufficient time to grow back before we get back to Canada. I have to say, I'm in shock. I miss his hair already but it doesn't look that bad. Does it? What does everyone think? Oh and notice that we found a hat that doesn't look ridiculous on him! But with the hair he looks sort of like he's in the army. Hmmm... I am expecting some comments and feedback people. Here's the before and after:

Hello From Hanoi, Vietnam

So I am working on getting things up to date with the blog and will be posting more about Laos but I thought I would write up a quick entry in real time. We arrived in Hanoi a couple days ago- we had an 18 hour bus ride from Phonsavan which was totally strange but not too bad. I made a short list (so I wouldn't forget) of strange things that happened on the trip:

  • We stopped a lot. Really, unusually a lot. It was nice though since we were both still sick. We seemed to pick up all sorts of random things and people including a ton of lumber and a package of rugs.
  • We narrowly avoided paying double for lunch- it was included with the trip. I am proud to say I was the smart cookie that prevented that. The Japanese fellow traveling with us wasn't so lucky.
  • Looking out the window at gorgeous countryside that was sadly filled with many craters (from the Secret War).
  • The road to cross the border being almost uncrossable. The bus couldn't make it so we all had to get out and walk.
  • This meant that we technically walked from Laos to Vietnam. Hehe.
  • A Laos man comparing his passport with Matt to check their ages. We were shocked to discover that Matt was a year older (that guy must have a hard life).
  • Constant honking, not at pedestrians or other vehicles as much as herds of water buffalo, cows and goats.
  • Getting dropped off in the middle of some deserted street in Hanoi at 2 am and having to find a taxi and a guesthouse. We managed.
I was still feeling pretty sick (Matt too) so we went to see a doctor. Now we're happily healing on antibiotics and some sort of disgusting electrolyte drink. Imagine Gatorade but without the sugar. It totally makes me gag but I'm feeling the best I have since the night we arrived in Laos. Finally I can really start to enjoy our travels!!! We've booked a 2 day, 1 night trip to Halong Bay for tomorrow and I'm really excited! We get to sleep on a boat! Oh, and Vietnam has amazing (and cheap) internet so hopefully I should be able to get things under control with my blogs and pictures. Stay tuned!

Luang Prabang

Matt was excited to arrive in Luang Prabang because he was keen on doing some trips into the jungle. We were both surprised at how off the pricing in the Lonely Planet guide was compared to the current prices in the town. It did mention that prices have been sky rocketing and that was surely true. Of course in comparison to Canada or another developed country it was still on the cheap side but not what you would expect for a small city in the middle of nowhere. This has been the most expensive city we've visited in Laos and they don't really seem to like to bargain. We sat down and had a serious talk about spending (I tend to fall into the category of raging cheapskate) and decided to loosen the purse strings a bit and live a little. We promptly booked a day trip to trek through the jungle, see some villages and the waterfall and then ride an elephant and a Laos cooking class for the day after. Both cost roughly $30 US/person but looking back, it was money well spent since we had a lot of fun.

Luang Prabang is a pretty place but I probably wouldn't spend as much time there if I was doing this trip again. We ended up staying a few extra days since we were both feeling ill (good old traveler's diarrhea) but it meant that Matt was able to study and I was able to eat a lot of delicious baking at JoMa's Bakery/Cafe. Divine. If you're in Laos you must go there and have the chocolate pie. You can find it in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

The Most Hellish Ride Ever

Since we decided to leave Vang Vieng on a whim we were a bit limited on methods of transportation and the air con bus was already full. This resulted in us paying a bit more for a “mini bus” which actually is a mini van. We rode with 3 American girls and an older American man and his young Philippino girlfriend. There were also 2 Laos passengers, along with the driver. What a horrible trip! I never, ever want to see another mini van in my life. The road was incredibly narrow and wound up and down countless mountains. Since the mini van is so low to the ground we could feel every twist and turn. Almost immediately Matt started feeling carsick. As luck would have it, I still had one anti-nausea pill left over for treating my vertigo. I don't regret giving it to him. Basically we spent 6 hours in what felt like a washing machine. I have the stomach of a goat so I wasn't sick at all but I spent the whole trip clutching Matt's leg in fear as we rounded each corner, passing buses, trucks and motorcycles on the tiny road overlooking massive cliffs. I have never been so glad to get out of a vehicle in my life. I'm proud to say that Matt didn't throw up and neither did any of the other foreign passengers. However, the old Laos lady sitting in the front seat puked her guts out of the open window about halfway through the trip. Nasty. We did get a bit of a rest stop and there was a freaky monkey chained up by the toilets. What a bizarre little journey.

Vang Vieng: The Land of Tubing and "Friends" Watching

After a day long bus trip we were dropped off in Vang Vieng. We'd read how small this place is but we were still a bit surprised. The locals knew this too since there was only one tuk tuk there trying to convince people to pay him to take them into “town”. We declined and walked- this took less than 10 minutes. We started shopping around for a guesthouse and found one for 50,000 kip/night with a private bathroom near the river. The downside was that all the clubs were located across the river from us so if we were in our room early then we could hear competing music. Vang Vieng was an interesting place. It is the biggest party town that I've seen in Laos. You wouldn't really expect a third world Communist country to be the best place to party. True enough, all the music stopped at midnight and technically all the clubs, bars and restaurants closed then.

I was still experiencing mild vertigo (but true to what the doctor said, the worst was over) but I discovered that it was lessened if I slept sitting up. So that's what I did for the next week or so. We spent some time exploring the little town and watching an incredible amount of Friends in various restaurants. There are a few places in town that play other shows on their TVs (we saw a place with the Simpsons and a couple with Family Guy) but far and wide it's Friends all day long. Luckily, we love Friends so we were more than happy to watch a million episodes while eating or lazing about.

We booked a day trip through one of the local tour agencies to go tubing in a cave and then to go kayaking down the river. I was a bit nervous since the last time I went kayaking (while we were in Koh Mak) I was clobbered a bit. They promised that the kayaking was very easy though. It's the dry season right now so what they said was true- in some parts the river was so shallow that we had to worry about getting stuck! Anyway, tubing in the cave was interesting, if not a bit spooky. We had a delicious lunch and then we stopped at a different cave that contained a large Buddha. Then it was time to kayak. We were given life jackets and we had a dry bag for our belongings and away we went. It was the highlight of Vang Vieng for us. We kayaked down the same route that the regular tubers take. We passed by numerous riverside bars and stopped at one for a beer and a swim. Matt had a great time going down the giant slide and swinging off the massive swing into the river. I was feeling yucky so I just chatted with the other people in the group and took pictures. It was a great day and we met some awesome people from Germany, France and Japan.

We took a day off to recuperate and so that Matt could study. I was also able to use Wifi at one of the cafes and so I attempted to upload some pictures. This was highly unsuccessful for the amount of time I spent there. After some deliberation we decided to continue on to Luang Prabang. This was sort of a spontaneous decision and if I was doing it again I would have stayed longer in Vang Vieng for sure. Oh well. Here are the rest of the pictures, but since it takes so long to upload, they are a work in progress.

The Trip to Vientiane, Laos

I'm excited because I actually have decent internet to post some details about our travels! I will try to add pictures as much as possible but uploading takes forever.

We woke up bright and early, said our goodbyes to Ali and Byrun and hopped on a bus that was running from Khon Kaen to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. The trip was pleasant enough and if we had planned a little better we would have gotten our visas for Laos before we left. However, we knew that you could get them at the border and decided to go about it that way. If I was going to do it again, I would have arranged the visa beforehand. On the bus we were the only non-Thai or Laos people and so everyone else had a quick line up at the border. It was only through luck that we grabbed our bags off the bus before lining up to do the visa proceedings. Some security guy told us too and we thought it was in case they had to search our bags. We stood in line, filled out forms, paid for and were presented with our shiny new Laos visas. Then we officially crossed the border into Laos to discover that our bus was nowhere to be seen! This was a bit shocking since now we were in Laos but with no way to finish the journey into Vientiane. We had also left a novel and our snacks on the bus anticipating that we would be re boarding it. We walked around a bit and were inundated by tuk tuk drivers trying to make a quick buck. Finally we asked a man who had a name tag claiming that he worked for information services. He pointed to another bus, not quite as nice as the one we had came to the border in, and when it pulled up we asked if we could get on. We showed our tickets from the other bus and the information man even came over and said something to the driver in Thai. At first they said we couldn't get on but then they allowed us to get in. So with a bit of quick thinking and a little bit of discomfort (we had to put our bags on our laps for the trip) we managed to get into Vientiane without having to pay for a tuk tuk.

We arrived at the same bus station in Vientiane that our other bus did and we were able to track it down. We woke up the driver, who was sleeping under the bus in the compartment where they stow luggage, and retrieved our novel. We didn't bother asking about the snacks. Next we bought a couple of sandwiches and sat down to think. The sandwiches were disgusting and we only were able to stomach about half of them. Then we haggled for a tuk tuk to the main part of the city near the Mekong River. From there we found a bank and changed some Thai baht for Laos kip and then wandered around looking for an appropriate guesthouse for the night. We found a cheap little place with the hardest bed I have ever encountered. We were both pretty tired and so we ate dinner and basically called it a night.

The next morning I woke up ill. It was really scary actually and pretty ironic since Laos isn't known for it's medical services but Thailand has excellent facilities. Basically I was experiencing vertigo and this was the first time I had ever had that happen to me. After taking some pain killers (I thought it might have been a tension headache or a pinched nerve) and sitting really still for awhile it basically went away. We decided to take it easy and just walked around the town a little bit and got a massage. The next morning (Sunday) I had the same problem. We concluded the rock hard bed must be the culprit and promptly changed to a guesthouse with softer beds. I took a nap and when I woke up things were pretty bad and we were both pretty freaked out. At this point we were considering turning around and heading back to Thailand. We noticed that there was an Australian run clinic located within the Australian Embassy in Vientiane and that it would cater to citizens from other Commonwealth countries.

We got up bright and early on Monday morning and headed there. It was a bit pricey ($81 for a check up and some pills) but worth it for the peace of mind it gave us. The doctor was fantastic and really attentive. Basically he said that the vertigo was likely caused by a viral infection (I'd had a bit of a cold in Thailand) and that it would go away on it's own in the next couple of weeks and that probably I'd experienced the worst of it. He prescribed some anti-nausea medication and advised if things didn't get better in the next 2 weeks to consider going to a hospital in Hanoi or one in Thailand for further tests.

With a positive prognosis we decided to continue with our travels in Laos and went back to our guesthouse, packed our bags, walked to the bus station and purchased tickets on the local bus to Vang Vieng. For all the pictures in Vientiane you can look here!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Still in Laos... Internet is slow.

Another quick note, but hopefully I can really update things soon. We're still in Laos and have enjoyed time in three cities so far- Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. We've been in Luang Prabang longer than we anticipated since we were both feeling a bit under the weather for a couple days. Nothing to worry about though- not serious and has subsided. I can't wait to update fully on all the cool things we have been doing. I also want to write a bit about some of the novels I've been reading while traveling. If you check out the sidebar on the right hand side you'll see that my list has been growing. The next book I plan to read is "Dance Dance Dance" by Murakami and it should be great. Much love to everyone! We're heading to Phonsavan tomorrow to see the Plain of Jars and then from there we're going to figure out how to get to Hanoi in Vietnam.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Greetings from Laos!

Just a quick note so people know that we are doing okay. We've been in Laos for a few days now and I have to say that I really like this country. It's incredibly beautiful and the food and people are fantastic. We stayed a few nights in the capital city, Vientiane, before venturing on a local bus (yeah, we're a bit cheap and crazy) to Vang Vieng. This looks like a big party town so I'm not going to spend too much time in the internet cafe. Things are good and we're both healthy and happy. Hopefully I'll be able to post some pictures sometime. Until then you'll have to either imagine (or google) the amazing sights we're seeing!