Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Always Listen to Your Mom

Brisbane (pop. 2,000,000) is just north of the Gold Coast and only about an hour’s drive away.  Each weekend, there are various markets around the city, so my friend Caitlin and I decided to check it out!  We hitched a ride with one of my Aussie friends who was headed up there and had him drop us off at a hostel in downtown. After checking it out, we decided it was a bit dodgy for us and opted to stay in at an American friend’s apartment who goes to Griffith University at one of the Brisbane campuses.  He was actually in Gold Coast for the night, so we were able to take over his room.

The area of South Bank in Brisbane borders the river and it is a gorgeous place to spend the day.  There is a river walk with a canopy of flowers covering it, a massive Ferris wheel, adorable cafes, and best of all, markets!  We checked out the markets and found some things we decided we really “needed”. I went to the cash machine to get some cash for the purchases, only to have it take my card! (Cue the Panic Button)  I called the bank, they said they couldn’t do anything about it, called my bank, couldn’t get any information, and finally, called my mom.  I was out of cash and any way to get cash, so I was definitely in a bind.  We decided to cut our weekend a bit short and got a ride back to Brisbane with my friend who brought us up.  

So, not only was my Brisbane weekend cut short, I was now in a bind for money.  I just happened to be all out of groceries, nearly out of minutes on my phone, and out of money on my GoCard (public transportation card).  How do you eat, call your bank, or travel to open a new account without any of these things?  Answer: You can’t!  I valiantly ate cereal and PB&J sandwiches for the rest of the week, had my mom communicate with my bank, and walked back and forth to school.  I learned that one can survive on cereal and PB&J for a week without adverse effects and decided that listening to my mom to set up an emergency account when I first arrive in Australia probably would have been a fantastic idea.  Emergency money arrived the next week, and the first thing I did was set up an emergency account at an Australian bank. J


Australia is home to the world’s largest sand island, Fraser Island, and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along with one of my American friends and an Australian couple who are family friends of hers when they headed up there for the weekend.  A friend who studied in Gold Coast a year before me told me that I absolutely must visit Fraser Island, so I was delighted at the prospect of seeing what beautiful scenery it had to offer!  It’s tough to plan a trip to Fraser Island because no one can get on or around the island without a four wheel drive vehicle.  There aren’t any paved roads on the island… just one-lane sand clearings between trees. If you’re a tourist, you must go with a tour group or brave the driving by renting a 4WD on your own.  (And we’re talking bare-bones 4WD… no A/C, seatbelts or upholstery, just seats!)  The driving is pretty treacherous and dangerous, so I was relieved that we would be traveling with a couple who not only had a comfortable SUV but had driven on the island plenty of times. 

We spent the Friday night of the weekend in Brisbane with the parents of the wife.  They took us to South Bank, which is a beautiful park area right along the Brisbane river.  A birthday celebration for Buddha was being held on South Bank, so we got in on some delicious Asian food and perused booth after booth of cheap Asian-looking paraphernalia.  (Yes, you know what kind of stuff I’m talking about.)  Once it got dark, we got on the CityCat, the ferry system along the Brisbane River that is part of the Brisbane/Gold Coast transportation network.  The view from the river of the city all lit up on a Friday night was so pretty!

The next morning, we were up bright and early to drive up to Fraser Island.  I think it was about a 3 hour drive (My friend and I slept most of the way!), and when we got there, we took the ferry from the mainland to the island.  We drove all along the beach and hit up a couple of hiking paths on our way to Lake Mackenzie, a freshwater lake in the middle of the island.  Lake Mackenzie did not disappoint the visual senses.  It is a body of beautiful clear blue-green freshwater with a beach around it… basically the most perfect body of water you could ever have, in my mind!  We then headed over to the other side of the island to a resort to watch the sun set over the ocean… breathtaking sight!  That night, we stayed in another resort on the island and were delighted to find out the restaurant was serving Mexican for dinner!  We hadn’t had or even seen a Mexican restaurant since we had been in Australia! (For obvious reasons… there isn’t any Mexican food because there aren’t any Mexicans.)

On Sunday, we continued to explore the island and traveled along the beach to Indian Head, a tall cliff you can climb, Eli Creek, a perfectly clear freshwater creek leading to the ocean, Champagne Pools, where the ocean crashes over the rocks and creates fizzing bubbles, and the Maheno, an old shipwreck right along the beach .  We also headed inland to another freshwater lake named Lake Wobby, which is only accessible by walking about a mile across a massive sand dune.  The dune steeply slopes downward into the lake, and the Midwesterner in me thought, “Wow… now that would be a fantastic sledding hill!”  That evening, we headed home, and I spent the rest of the night trying to get sand out of EVERYTHING I took with me!

Weekends are the Best!

My weekends in Australia were definitely days to look forward too.  With choices of going to the beach, heading to Brisbane, going to Aussie Rules football (footy) games, or traveling to nearby tourist destinations, I almost felt busier during my weekends than my weekdays!  One especially beautiful Sunday, my friends and I decided to spend the day at the beach.  We hopped on the bus and headed to Burleigh Heads, a beach about an hour or so bus ride from our apartment complex.  Burleigh is known as one of the more beautiful beaches in Gold Coast, so we weren’t disappointed.  It was so relaxing to soak up the sun, get lost in my book, and take a dip in the water every once in a while to cool off.  Later that evening, we were delighted to find out that every Sunday night, people put on fire-throwing shows in the park right next to the beach… cool!  They also have a drum and bongo circle going, and we had a great time dancing and watching the fire twirlers.  (A couple of my friends joined in on the fire jump roping; some had success… others had burned feet!)

Another weekend, an Australian friend of ours who plays on a minor league footy team in Gold Coast invited a bunch of us to head up to the Sunshine Coast with the footy team for one of their games.  (Cute footy players? Umm… count me in!)  We hitched the 2-hour ride with one of the players, dropped our stuff off at our hostel, and headed to a 3-story condo overlooking the beach where a bunch of the players were staying.  We had a great time and spent the rest of the night watching AFL, the professional Aussie Rules Football league and trying to learn all the rules!  (WAY different from American football!)  The next day, us girls headed to the beach for a bit and then watched the game from our friend’s truck.  It was so much fun eating snack food, soaking up the sun, and starting an impromptu dance party with our friend’s boombox and iPod.  It was almost like I was tailgating at a Mizzou game again!  (Except in a bikini… MUCH warmer weather!)  That night, the guys made a bonfire on the condo’s beach, so we all chilled there for a while then went out!  On Sunday, everybody was pretty burned out, so we spent the morning hanging out at the beach and headed back down to the Gold Coast that afternoon… what a weekend!

I'm Back!

As I’m sitting here in Los Angeles’s LAX with hours to spare between flights (and by hours, I mean 7 hours), it seems strange to me that my great Australian adventure is coming to an end.  If it weren’t for the American accents surrounding me and the funny-looking green money I just used to buy a smoothie, I think I would attempt to tell myself, “Don’t worry Lydia, it’s not true… you’re still in Australia.”  But alas, I have set foot on American soil once again.  And, luckily, it feels good!  I’m not quite to my wide-open and fresh-aired country farm surrounded by cornfields, but for the first time in almost half a year, my passport was considered “normal” and I wasn’t jumbled into the “foreign passport” line.  It’s nice to be home.  I know I’ve been a bit lax about writing in this since… well… a few months, but you can trust that it wasn’t because I didn’t have anything to report about.  I was simply having too much fun!  (And, uh, studying at the library.)  So again, I’ll try to work on an installment thing… after all, I’ll need something to keep me company while I recover from more than 30 hours of traveling (whew!) and the severe jetlag and Australia withdrawals that I’m sure will come in the next few days.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The End of An Amazing Trip...

When we arrived in Vientiane, we went on our search for a hotel.  We quickly found one, and although it was a little more than we had been paying for accommodation ($12/night), it had air conditioning and warm water, so we were elated!  We cleaned up and chilled for a bit before heading down to the banks of the Mekong, the major river that divides Thailand and Laos and runs throughout SE Asia.  There were a couple of markets along the river, and we found a cool restaurant three stories up from the street where we decided to eat for the evening.  The restaurant overlooked the Mekong, so we were able to watch the sunset!  We enjoyed some Laotian beer, and the restaurant had really good food.  We had a great time meeting people at the restaurant and even ran into a young couple from Wisconsin who were backpacking across Asia together.

The next morning, we took a tuk tuk to the Wattay International Airport in Vientiane and flew from Laos to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  When we arrived in Malaysia, we grabbed a taxi to a nice resort close to the airport.  To save money, we decided to stuff 6 people in one room, meaning 1 guy on each loveseat and 4 girls in a king sized bed… a formidable task!  The actually city of Kuala Lumpur is about an hour away from the airport, so we took an airport shuttle to Chinatown and perused the hundreds of vendors, who were all selling exactly the same products, and bartered for knockoff souvenirs.  (I came away with a cool orange Prada purse!)  We found a cool African restaurant named Nando’s and spent the rest of the evening at the restaurant chilling, chatting, and laughing.  Later, we flagged down a taxi and took it back to our resort for the night.  The next morning, we enjoyed a complimentary full buffet breakfast, where we hoarded fruits, rolls, and sandwiches for our 8-hour flight back to Australia.  Our plane miraculously left on time, and we arrived back in Australia at around 9:00pm on Sunday evening.

My trip to Thailand, Laos, and Malaysia was an absolutely amazing experience, and I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to have this trip of a lifetime within my experience of a lifetime in Australia.  Enjoy my pictures!

Vang Vieng: My New Favorite Place

We were exhausted after our day of travelling on less-than-ideal roads when we arrived in Vang Vieng, so we got a cheap hotel and just chilled out for a bit.  For dinner, we discovered our new favorite hangout, a restaurant we dubbed “The Friends Café” because they had three big screen TVs that constantly played episodes of the TV show “Friends.”  We ended up eating there multiple times during our stay and befriended a couple of the waiters.  We explored some of our options for activities for the next couple of days and decided to go tubing on the Nam Song river, which runs parallel to the town.  So the next morning, we grabbed breakfast (and I had my millionth fruit shake) at a local café and took a tuk tuk down to the river.  The only problem is, you’re supposed to rent the tubes BEFORE you head down to the river.  So, we sent the boys in (naturally) to go rent six tubes for us while we bathed in the sun and chatted it up with the locals by the river.  Tubing along the Nam Song is very popular because the locals have built cool tiki bars that line the shores on either side of the river.  They serve Laotian beer, free shots, and have cool rope swings to swing out into the river on.  The atmosphere was really fun, and we had a great time stopping at bars along the way and meeting backpackers from all over the world.

The next day, we decided to rent scooters and go explore the caves around the area.  After some troubles finding the actual roads that lead to a couple of the caves (“Legitimate” roads look like dirt tracks and maps are not drawn to scale. Perfect.), we came upon a deserted cave that apparently had a Buddha statue in it.  Using only our cell phone lights and the hand-holding system, we ventured into the cave to find the Buddha.  Luckily, it wasn’t too far into the cave!  We grabbed some pictures, went swinging on some vines, and ventured on to find the next cave, Tham Phu Kham.  The trip to Tham Phu Kham led us on a bumpy dirt road through a couple of villages and herds of cattle on the road.  However, the best part of the trip was the absolutely breathtaking scenery we encountered!  We were surrounded by gorgeous mountains and pristine fields.

Once we got to the cave, we were surprised by the amount of people there!  We found out they were having a New Year celebration, complete with a live band and lots and lots of vendors selling suspicious looking meat products.  We rented a light to explore the cave with and started the extremely treacherous hike through the woods up to the cave. (The path was nearly vertical, I swear.)  The inside of the cave was cool and cavernous and we spent the next hour or so exploring it.  The cave had no definite pathways or lights, so it was up to you to find your own way.  My friend and I started following a guy who looked like he knew what he was doing (and he had a light… a definite plus), but we found out too late that he actually had no idea where he was going.  We ended up on the wrong side of a large ravine and had to go through some painful (and slightly scary!) measures in order to be able to get out of the cave.  A couple of foot cuts, some dirty clothes, and a pair of ripped shorts later, we finally got out of there!

At the bottom of the path leading up to the cave, there is a lagoon that all of the local children were swimming in.  It was the perfect way to cool down, and we had fun jumping out of trees and swinging on the rope swings with the locals.  That night, we returned our scooters and checked out a local restaurant owned by an Australian man.  We had fun chatting it up with him and enjoyed the Thai/Australian food.  The next day, we shopped for souvenirs and reluctantly hopped on a bus back to Vientiane.

Here are the links to my Facebook photo albums of Bangkok and Laos:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Bangkok Was... Interesting

We quickly realized that it was not just a typical weekend in Bangkok.  After being doused in water multiple times while attempting to find our hostel, we soon learned that it was Songkran, the Thai New Year.  To celebrate the new year, the Thai line the streets with water buckets, water bottles, water guns, and any other imaginable container that holds water.  They then douse anyone and anything that passes them with the water.  In addition, some kids had a curious colorful clay substance that they wiped all over the face and arms of any unsuspecting victim.  We finally found our hostel, changed into dry clothes (a futile action, we realized), and decided to go to the one thing that looked familiar to us: Subway.  After we indulged in some delicious Subway sandwiches, we headed to the MBK, a popular shopping center in Bangkok.  We had to barter hard for a tuk tuk, a three-wheeled motorized open-backed vehicle used as a taxi in SE Asia.  It was frustrating to us knowing that the drivers charged us WAY more than the locals for a ride. 

It was on our way to the shopping center that we saw our first communist demonstrations.  We didn’t think much of it until we were on our way home from the mall and the tuk tuk driver said we’d have to go the long way around the city back to Koh Sahn Rd. because the communists had basically taken over all of Bangkok’s major roads.  I was honestly pretty freaked out riding in the back of an open-aired vehicle on the dark side streets of Bangkok knowing there were communist demonstrations going on all around the city.  (But no worries Mum, I survived!)  We were planning on staying two nights in Thailand before we headed to Laos, but because it was Songkran, many of the sightseeing attractions around the city were closed, and the communist demonstrations made transportation around the city a difficulty.  Additionally, negative press and warnings about the communists made our decision to get the heck out of Bangkok very easy!  We booked an overnight bus ride from Bangkok to Laos for the evening and spent the day getting soaked, eating Thai food, and chilling on Koh Sahn Rd. before our bus headed out.  While we waited, we also checked out a really cool bar that was 3 stories up from the street.  We were able to try some genuine Thai beer, watch and laugh at the people down on the street getting wet, and listen to a very talented musician (he was on the first season of American Idol!) play some live music for us.

Before we headed out on our 20-hour bus trek from Bangkok to Laos, we decided to try out some really cheap Thai whiskey for the ride.  Needless to say, it was absolutely disgusting, but it made the ride go a bit more quickly!  We arrived at the border crossing between Thailand and Laos in the morning, bought our Laotian visas, and hopped on another bus to Vientiane, the capitol of Laos.  From Vientiane, we took another bus to Vang Vieng, a fun backpacker town about 4 hours away from Vientiane.