The Changover: Thailand to Laos

Once we said goodbye to our friends, we checked in to a guesthouse on the east side of Chiang Mai for the next three nights. I’d be lying if I said we accomplished a lot those next few days. Truth is, once our friends left, we were exhausted. We had so much fun when they were in town that once they left, we were hungover from their visit. We basically just slept in, laid around, read, browsed the internet and watched movies for three days. In a way, it was bliss.

Finally, it was time to hit the road again. Our destination was Pai (pronounced “bye”) which lays just a few hours west of Chiang Mai by minibus. We arrived in Pai and were picked up and taken to a guesthouse on the hillside above town. Our bungalow for the night was as basic as it gets. Picture an 8×8 foot room with a mattress on the floor and a small table with a fan (sorry, I forgot to take a picture). It was a steal for $6.75 (for two people). And it was cozy…for one night. The next morning, we moved into a guesthouse that we found in the town center the evening before. For just a few dollars more than the bungalow, we scored some sweet digs which became the perfect base for exploring the small, lovable town.????????One day we went to the pool to chill out, but the following days, we took the motor scooter we rented ($4 per day) out to explore the surrounding area. We rode to Pai Canyon, a few waterfalls, through small villages and out to the countryside. DSC09243 (1024x681) DSC09259 (1024x681) DSC09260 (1024x681) DSC09233 (1024x681)It wasn’t the sights that thrilled us, but the remote back country roads. Cruising around by motorbike proved to be the most fun and efficient way to explore.DSC09255 (1024x681) DSC09275 (1024x681) DSC09289 (1024x681) DSC09291 (1024x681)The rest of our time in Pai was spent catching up on errands and relaxing. They say Pai is a state of mind. You don’t visit for the attractions because you’ll just be disappointed, you come to experience the ambiance. Even though it’s crawling with Westerners, we fell in love with the vibrant, artsy, bohemian town. We were only planning on staying for one or two nights but ended up staying for four.DSC09272 (1024x681)We had to go back to Chiang Mai to make our way into Laos. Two travel buddies from Texas, Kristin and Matt, just so happened to be in Chiang Mai for a few days so the timing worked out perfectly to meet them for dinner and drinks. Well, dinner and drinks turned into a night of barhopping, playing pool and beer pong. We last saw them on top of Sugarloaf in Rio so it was fun catching up and hearing about their travels since our last visit with them five months ago.DSC09308 (1024x681) DSC09313 (1024x681) DSC09318 (1024x681) DSC09321 (1024x681)Our time spent with Kristin and Matt was well worth the horrendous Changover we suffered the next (few) day(s). Our KFC, Subway and pad see ew fix only made a dent in making us feel better. By early evening, we reluctantly boarded our overnight minibus (10+ hours) into Laos. Chang beers are poison. Buyer beware!

We survived Thailand and made our way into Laos. The capital of Laos, Vientiane, was only a 20 minute tuk truk ride from the border. We arrived in the capital city at 10 AM and went to work finding a place to stay. Once successful, we didn’t leave the room unless it was to eat. Lucky for us, Laos has some great food. Large portions of noodles with vegetables were served at the local night market for $1. Fruit shakes are also very popular and very tasty. You pick out a cup of fresh fruit and they blend them together right in front of you.???????? ????????My favorite find? Fresh baguette sandwiches. France once ruled Laos and what’s left behind from that era is their influence in the local food (and architecture). Huge baguette sandwiches are offered at almost every restaurant and street corner for less than $2.????????We were only in Vientiane for two nights before we started north to Vang Vieng. We checked into Jammee Guesthouse, a lovely guesthouse on the outskirts of town, and stayed there for the next three nights. Our first full day in Vang Vieng was Chris’ birthday! We enjoyed a large breakfast and then walked a kilometer down the road from our guesthouse to a cave. To get to the entrance, we had to climb 130+ stairs until we reached the pretty view at the top. ???????? ????????Once we stepped inside the cave, it instantly reminded me of scenes from Indiana Jones. It was quite eerie. We were completely alone inside the massive cathedral of rock until the very end when a group of monks arrived.???????? ????????Below the cave entrance was a smaller cavern with a crystal clear swimming hole. Chris had a birthday dip before heading back to get cleaned up.IMG_0880 (1024x768)We walked the town streets and settled into a local family-run restaurant where you basically sit in their living room while you wait for your food (always the best and tastiest places)! For his birthday dinner, Chris chose rice soup with chicken for $1.20.????????He loved that dish. He ate it every night we were in Vang Vieng because the look and consistency reminded him of grits. After birthday cake and visits to a handful of bars for a few drinks and a birthday Jameson shot, we turned in for the night. Happy Laos Birthday, hubby!!!???????? ????????The next morning, we rented inner tubes in town and a tuk tuk driver drove us up the Nam Song River. We were dropped off a few kilometers from town and spent the next three hours tubing down the river enjoying the beautiful scenery.IMG_0901 (1024x768) IMG_0902 (1024x768) IMG_0907 (1024x768) IMG_0915 (1024x768) IMG_0917 (1024x768) IMG_0970 (1024x768) IMG_1001 (1024x768)We really liked Vang Vieng but it was time to head northeast to Phonsavan. The road to Phonsavan was one of the windiest we’ve ridden on in our entire trip. The roads were carved out of the steep mountainsides and lacked guardrails which reminded me of Death Road in Bolivia. The overturned trucks and wrecks along the way didn’t help to ease our minds.DSC09608 (1024x681)Thankfully, we made it safely to Phonsavan and were dropped off on a dusty street. You don’t go to Phonsavan for the town, you go for what lies around the area (just my opinion). It’s not often touched by travelers so perhaps that is why our first impression of the town was a bit dismal. ????????We checked into a guesthouse, grabbed dinner at a delicious Indian joint and called it a night so we could be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our trip to the Plain of Jars the next day.

The Plain of Jars are 2,000-year-old stones in the shape of jars that are found in clusters all over the Xieng Khuang province in Laos. The actual purpose and function of these jars is unknown and we wanted to have a look for ourselves.DSC09531 (1024x681) DSC09510 (1024x681) DSC09533 (1024x681)We hopped in a minibus with three other travelers and were taken to Jar Site One. There are more than 85 sites in total but Jar Site One has the most jars in one single location (335 jars). It also had the biggest jars out of the three sites we visited that day.DSC09505 (1024x681) DSC09512 (1024x681) DSC09516 (1024x681)There are a few different theories for what the jars were used for. Theories range from storage devices for whiskey or grains, cells for prisoners, banks for villagers or my favorite…cups leftover from parties thrown by giants. The theory that makes the most sense to us is that they were urns or coffins used for burial. However, after excavating all of the jar sites, they’ve never found remains of human bones in the inside of the jars…only on the outside. Dun dun dun. The true purpose remains an unsolved mystery.

Jar Site 2 was our favorite site. The location is home to 90 jars and can be found in a beautiful setting on the hillside.DSC09556 (1024x681) DSC09560 (1024x681)Jar Site 3 (150 jars) was also quite nice because it was set way back into the countryside.DSC09584 (1024x681) DSC09582 (1024x681)What really enhanced the experience to the Plain of Jars were the multiple warning signs and marked trails identifying where you could and couldn’t walk. During the Vietnam War, over a half a million bombing missions took place throughout the province.  More than 2.5 million tons of ordnance were dropped, 30% of which failed to detonate and still remain on or below the ground’s surface. The trails have been cleared of all unexploded ordnance (UXO) but outside the trails, UXO has only been cleared on the surface level, not below. This made for a very exciting day walking around the fields.

The Plain of Jars area is one of the poorest provinces in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia where the population heavily relies on the land for agriculture. Unfortunately, UXO covers 25% of the rice paddies, fields and hillsides which leads to lost crops and lost lives every year.

The UXO that is safely removed is often displayed in tourist offices or reused by the locals as material to help build their homes. Sometimes the aluminum from the bombs is melted down into souvenirs for tourists to purchase. Profits directly benefit the local families and communities.DSC09481 (1024x681) DSC09486 (1024x681)The day ended with a tasting of homemade whiskey from a local villager. The rice whisky was strong, but cheap. They were selling bottles for 60 cents…yikes!DSC09603 (1024x681)It was well worth the trip to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars and to come up with our own theories on what the jars were used for. We weren’t sure what to expect and it turned out to be a really great and educational experience. Having seen and done what we came to accomplish, we set off for our next destination in Laos…Luang Prabang!

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Northern Thailand: Chiang Mai

We landed in Chiang Mai after a quick flight from Phuket. Flights in SE Asia are very cheap and since our friends only have two weeks in Thailand, we were able to save a day or two traveling from the south up to the northern province of Chiang Mai.

We planned to stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, for the duration of their stay because there is so much to do in the city and surrounding area. We had pre-booked rooms in a hostel so we settled in and relaxed with a few Changs before hitting the town hard the next day.

We ate fried chicken with garlic rice and chocolate shakes (all for $2) at a local restaurant right down the street from our hostel. It was so cheap, convenient and delicious that Chris, Julie and I ate there everyday we were in Chiang Mai.????????Ready to start the day, we negotiated with a taxi driver to take us outside the city to Tiger Kingdom. I bet you can guess what happens at Tiger Kingdom…????????The difference between seeing tigers in Thailand versus the U.S.? If you put down some cold hard cash, you’re allowed inside the enclosures. Chris, Julie and I opted to hangout with the full grown tigers. ???????? ???????? ???????? ????????Seeing the tigers up close gave us a real appreciation for how strong and incredibly beautiful these cats are. ???????? ???????? ???????? ????????The tiger trainers encouraged us to take photos doing different poses. They really wanted Chris to pretend the tiger’s tail was his mustache. As you can imagine, Chris has informed us that tiger’s tails don’t smell very good. ???????? ???????? ????????In the meantime, Dan and Jason chose to cuddle and play with the smallest tiger cubs. Aren’t they so cute?image2 (640x480) image (640x480)Josh, the nicest and funniest taxi driver in Thailand, returned us to our hostel with 30 minutes to spare before Aon from Red Chili Cooking School picked us up in a tuk truck.  If you haven’t already noticed, we’ve really enjoyed eating all of food in Thailand. From traditional dishes to weird looking foods we find wandering along the streets, it’s all been amazing. Interested in learning more about the local cuisine, we decided to sign up for a four course Thai cooking class. We stopped to pick up a Scottish couple before heading to a local market where Aon taught us about Thai ingredients and the local produce.???????? ????????Aon cut us loose for a few minutes to let us meander through the market by ourselves. Chris was all over the stalls serving mountains of crackling (pork rinds).???????? ???????? ????????Once we had our fill of the market, we hopped in the tuk truck and arrived at Aon’s home, where he gives his Thai cooking lessons. He prepared a table for us to sit at outside and we had some refreshments before getting started. One of the local fruits, longan, is a cross between a grape and lychee. They are tasty little things!???????? ????????Aon limits his class to ten cooks so we each had our own cooking station fully equipped with all necessary utensils, dishes and cutlery.???????? ????????For the first course, everyone is able to choose from tom yung goong (spicy soup with prawns) or tom kha gai (coconut soup with chicken). Most of us went for the spicy prawn soup. As a group, we’d select, prep and portion out all of the spices and ingredients we needed for our dish. SONY DSC ????????We carefully watched and listened as Aon took us through the process of how and when to cook everything.????????We tasted his finished product and then went to work on our own. Once we finished, we sat down to enjoy our masterpiece. No joke, the tom yung goong was so good and so flavorful; it was my favorite dish of the night!????????Next up was the noodle dish. Each person could make pad see euw (fried noodles with sweet soy sauce) or pad thai (fresh fried noodles with peanuts). Chris and I both made pad see euw, one of our favorite Thai dishes. We gathered and prepped all of our ingredients into the appropriate proportions before systematically adding them all into the wok. DSC08858 (1024x681) DSC08861 (1024x681)Same recipe but the outcome looks completely different (Chris’ on left, Annie’s on right).DSC08865 (1024x681)After eating our second course, I was stuffed…but we still had two more courses to go! The next course was a curry dish. I chose to make a green curry while Chris went for the spicer red panaeng curry. This was our favorite dish to make because we learned how to make our curry pastes from scratch. The aroma from grinding all of the herbs and spices together by mortar and pestle smelled so good. Our curries were absolutely delish!DSC08871 (1024x681) ???????? ???????? ????????Our last course was a stir-fry and I think all five us made the gai pad med mamuang, more commonly known as stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts. The first step in creating our stir-fry was to make what Aon referred to as an “explosion.”????????That’s when he taught us how to create a fire ball in our wok. The key according to Aon? Make sure you have a lot of  “power” before you start.  Power = Beer. He was right…look at Chris’ power to fire ratio compared to mine.???????? ???????? ????????As the night went on, our presentation and cooking skills started to become a bit sloppy, but it all tasted fantastic. I really think that it was the best food we’ve had in Thailand and as Jason said, “I can’t believe we made food taste so good!”????????To complete the evening, Aon had us light and release a wish lantern into the night sky. It was a perfect way to end such an awesome night.???????? ????????Free plug because we had such an amazing time… Red Chili Cooking School is the heat! We highly recommend taking a class from them if you are in Chiang Mai. There are tons of cooking schools in the city to choose, but we can’t imagine that it gets much better than Red Chili. Aon is awesome and he has created such a wonderful ambiance to learn, eat and have fun. So book with Red Chili Cooking School, your belly will thank you.

The next morning we were picked up and taken to the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai to volunteer for the day at an elephant sanctuary. Riding elephants has always been on my bucket list, but I had a change of heart after learning more about the elephant tourism industry in SE Asia. I won’t go into detail here, but I do encourage you to reconsider riding on elephants if you care about their well-being. I’m lucky our friends chose to volunteer at the elephant sanctuary with us instead of going on a trek (which was on all of their bucket lists before they came to Thailand). For more info about why you should reconsider riding an elephant, you can read A brief education: the dark side to the elephant tourism industry and Speaking for the elephants…in memory of Mae Sai Roong.

Once we arrived at the sanctuary, our day started with playtime and snack time with the elephants. We fed them bunches of bananas, watermelons and pineapples right from our hands.???????? ???????? ????????The elephant sanctuary is home to more than 40 Asian elephants rescued from brutal days working in the logging, trekking and tourism industries. Every elephant had a rescue story. My favorite was a blind elephant named Lucky who recently retired from the circus and is fairly new to the sanctuary. Dan’s favorite was Dani who came from a life of logging and was about to be sold for a life begging on the streets before she was rescued. ????????One of the highlights was bathing the elephants in the river. Armed with buckets, we threw water on them to clean them off and keep them cool. They loved it. Look how happy Chris is making the elephant in the last picture…it’s smiling! Of course, once they were clean, they went straight to the mud for a mud bath which keeps them cool and protects their skin from the sun.???????? ???????? ???????? ????????After hours of playing with the elephants and one last feeding time, it was time for us to head back to Chiang Mai. Thank you so much to the Quanstroms, Hollingsworths and Kronengolds for the elephant sanctuary honeyfund. We all had the greatest time volunteering! ????????That evening, we walked around the famous night market where you can buy knockoff designer goods and Thai souvenirs. What we ended up buying a lot of were Chang beers and rum punches. The next morning, I had such a bad Chang-over that I decided to stay in to recover. Dan and Jason spent the afternoon shopping and Chris and Julie went to check-out a few local wats (Buddhist temples).???????? ???????? ????????In the evening, we all went out to the Muay Thai stadium to catch a few fights. Muay Thai, similar to boxing, is Thailand’s national sport and is even taught to children at school. Our fight night started with lightweight contenders, followed by a girl fight and then a hilarious blindfolded fight between four Thai men.IMG_0832 (1024x768)The featured fight of the night was the reigning Thailand national champion versus an opponent all the way from France. IMG_0856 (1024x768)It was nuts. You could see the sweat come flying off their hair when they were punched across the face. Thai men and women were cheering, screaming and going crazy the entire time. It was quite the experience and in the end, Thailand won against France. Hooray!IMG_0858 (1024x768)The next day was Jason, Dan and Julie’s last day in Thailand. Julie went to explore one more temple while the rest of us shopped and relaxed with massages. Chris and I enjoyed foot massages while Jason and Dan were worked over by two tiny Thai ladies. At some points, it looked pretty painful.????????We met back up with Julie for one last group dinner before we all had to say goodbye. It was amazing spending two weeks with friends and we were really sad to see them go. Their time here has made us realize how fortunate we are to have such great family and friends to come home to at the end of our trip. Jason, Dan and Julie – thanks for making Thailand so memorable. We miss you already!

Thailand: Bangkok and Beaches

We spent our seven month travelversary flying from Auckland to Singapore to Bangkok. This is the first time either of us has been to Asia and Thailand is our first stop on our southeast Asia itinerary. We were especially excited to meet up with three of our friends from Chicago who will travel with us for the next two weeks. It’s been nearly five months since our last visitor and we’re looking forward to the added company and catching up with old friends!

Chris and I arrived at our hostel in Bangkok around 10:30 p.m. and impatiently waited for Jason, Dan and Julie to arrive. After four hours of drinking Changs (Thai lager with 6.5% ABV though apparently the actual percentage is unknown and can vary between beers) they finally arrived! We were so excited to see them that we had a very late night in Bangkok and I forgot to snap a reunion photo.

The next morning, we powered through our Chang-overs in search of some Thai food for breakfast. We followed a few alleys and streets until we rounded the corner into a local food market. We sat down at a small “restaurant” stall where a woman took our orders. Each dish came out one at a time because she only had one burner to cook everything on. I ordered pad thai with shrimp and it was hands down the best I’ve ever had! It was sweet, savory and spicy and cost a little more than $2. Chris had shrimp fried rice and it was good but mine was clearly the table winner.????????
We walked from our hostel down to the Chao Phraya River where we boarded a ferry to take us up the river to explore the city. SONY DSCWe navigated through narrow streets filled with vendors selling everything from electronics, clothes, food, fresh fruit, pre-portioned meals to-go, drinks, jewelry, etc. Whatever you need, you can find on the streets of Bangkok. Thai bacon and eggs anyone????????? ???????? SONY DSC SONY DSC ????????We ended the day on Koh San Road, the gathering place and mecca for backpackers traveling through Bangkok and SE Asia. After a few Changs and a wild tuk tuk ride for five people, we explored the neighborhood around our hostel for dinner and drinks before calling it a night.

We spent the following day walking around Bangkok’s Chinatown. We’ve been to several Chinatowns in the U.S. (San Francisco, New York and Chicago), but this one takes the cake for most authentic. It was a sensory overload. The crowded streets were filled with shops, congested traffic and vendors selling exotic foods. Yes, those are grilled frogs on a stick – yummy. ???????? ???????? ????????The day before was the Chinese New Year so the area was fully decorated and incredibly festive. People were gathering around the main Chinatown gate and temple to pray and light incense.???????? ???????? ????????That evening we were back at Koh San Road to catch our overnight bus to the beach. Koh San Road is lined with bars, restaurants, shops and massage parlors. At night, backpackers flock to the area and the streets and surrounding alleys come alive with activity. ???????? ????????With a few hours to kill before we departed, we spent our time feasting on pad thai from the local street vendors ($1.50) and splurging on foot massages ($6 for 30 minutes).???????? ???????? SONY DSC ????????When we awoke from our overnight bus/ferry combo, we were on the island of Koh Tao. We disembarked the ferry and went to work finding a place to stay. We scored a beach house right on the water for five people – it was perfect! We literally spent the entire day swimming in the water and walking on the beach (while fitting a few Changs in, of course).IMG_0457 (1024x768) IMG_0458 (1024x768) IMG_0473 (1024x768) IMG_0468 (1024x768) IMG_0486 (1024x768)At night, we caught a fire show on the beach. We’ve seen fire shows before but this one was impressive (even to Julie who now lives in Hawaii). One of the highlights was when one of the guys swung two beach-ball sized balls of fire around in the air creating a whirlwind of flying fire. It was beautiful and completely unexpected.IMG_0504 (1024x768)The show started to become interactive with the audience. They lit a long jump rope on fire and encouraged the audience to run in and jump. I read about these several years ago. A lot of inebriated tourists will attempt it but will end up with burns on their bodies. We sat there watching and my heart started to race, which is the first sign that I really want to do something. Without telling anyone, I stood up and ran into the jump rope of fire. I jumped twice before I thought I should probably get out. I wasn’t worried about burns on my body, I was more worried about burning all of the hair off my scalp. When I ran out, I started to think the rope was going to catch me on the head so in front of the entire audience, I ninja rolled out of the line of fire. I wish we had photos but it was such a spontaneous decision, no one was prepared to capture the moment. Although the fire on the rope was on its way out, a few minutes later, Chris jumped in and I was able to take a short video:

The next morning, we rented kayaks and snorkel gear so we could explore Koh Nang Yuan, an island just a few kilometers away from Koh Tao. It took about 35 minutes before Chris and I reached the shore.IMG_0513 (1024x768) IMG_0515 (1024x768) IMG_0532 (1024x768)We were disappointed with the snorkeling because most of the coral was dead so we took a walk around one of the islands on the sketchiest walkway we’ve ever been on. We met someone a day before who was on crutches and when I asked what happened, they replied that they were on a bridge that collapsed. This must have been where it happened. With three civil and construction engineers in our group, we tiptoed around on the support beams while other tourists ran past us without any worry. A fire jump rope… no problem, but a sketchy bridge ready to collapse? Now that is scary.IMG_0545 (1024x768) IMG_0544 (1024x768)The walk and climb up the makeshift stairs to the scenic overlook was well worth the journey over to the three small adjoining islands. It was beautiful!IMG_0550 (1024x768) IMG_0556 (1024x768)That evening, we stocked up on provisions for our evening journey from Koh Tao to Koh Phi Phi. After an overnight ferry, tuk tuk, bus, mini-van and another ferry, we arrived in Koh Phi Phi the next morning. The boys found another room for five people just a few yards from the beach. We spent the day eating, swimming and soaking in our surroundings.IMG_0623 (1024x768) IMG_0643 (1024x768)We spent the evening roaming along the crowded streets people watching. The highlight was the street food and watching Jason play with a monkey.IMG_0661 (1024x768) IMG_0662 (1024x768) IMG_0663 (1024x768) IMG_0654 (1024x768) IMG_0657 (1024x768)The next morning Jason and Dan left to catch the early ferry to Phuket while Chris, Julie and I hired a longboat to take us to the nearby islands to snorkel and explore before catching a late afternoon ferry. Koh Phi Phi is nice but the main attractions are the uninhabited islands next door. We stopped at Monkey Bay to see more monkeys but the best parts were our visits to Pi-leh Bay and Maya Bay.IMG_0678 (1024x768) IMG_0688 (1024x768) IMG_0711 (1024x768) IMG_0714 (1024x768)People flock to Maya Bay to see the utopia featured in the movie The Beach. The island is crowded with boats and tourists but for good reason, it’s gorgeous!  IMG_0739 (1024x768) IMG_0742 (1024x768) IMG_0749 (1024x768) IMG_0760 (1024x768)The three of us caught our ferry to Phuket and cleaned up before meeting Dan and Jason out at Patong Beach. The main road along Patong Beach, Bangla Road, is the Bourbon Street of Phuket. It is wild. It is overly entertaining. It is awesome. Sorry, no crazy pictures of the evening’s events for our PG-13 audience, you’ll just have to use your imagination.IMG_0770 (1024x768) IMG_0786 (1024x768)We spent our last day in Phuket finalizing logistics for our last week in Thailand with our friends. We stole away for a couple of minutes to check out the beach before heading to the airport for our flight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.IMG_0787 (1024x768)This past week has been a whirlwind! We are moving much quicker than normal because there is so much to see and do while we have visitors here. It’s been incredible to share this time with our friends and we have a lot more planned for their last week!