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.

It's Time to Perfect My Bartering Skills

Once we arrived on Koh Chang, we caught a taxi to the beach we stayed on, Klong Prao.  We got a bungalow for $9 a night and decided to grab some breakfast.  At breakfast, we discovered the joys of fresh pineapple pancakes (They might even rival your pancakes, Dad) and fresh fruit shakes.  In fact, when I ordered a watermelon fruit shake, the guy had to go down the road to the fruit market to grab a watermelon to make my shake with!  After breakfast, we explored the local shops a bit and decided to go on an elephant ride. The company provided transportation for us from our bungalow and we were able to ride an elephant through the rainforest for about an hour!  Although the tour guide’s English wasn’t very good, we did learn a bit about the elephants and the rainforest plants during our ride.  After our ride, we got $5 massages from a little place right next to our bungalow.  This was enough relaxation for us to realize that we were absolutely exhausted from our non-stop travelling, so we crashed on a resort’s private beach a short walk from our bungalow for a long afternoon nap. (It had padded lawn chairs!)  We grabbed dinner in the evening at a delicious seafood restaurant and shopped and bartered for souvenirs from the locals.  The bartering process goes a bit like this: you grab an object and ask, “How much?”  Then, the shopkeeper grabs their calculator and puts their initial price in.  You then glance at the price, laugh incredulously, and shake your head.  The shopkeeper asks, “How much you give me?”  You then type your counter offer into the calculator and continue the process until you seal the deal.  We got so good at bartering that we were afraid we’d try to barter for items once we were in Australia too!

The next day, we grabbed a taxi to a fishing town called Bang Bao on the southern tip of the island.  We grabbed another bungalow for the night ($8 a night this time!) and headed to the boardwalk and pier, where they have a ton of souvenir shops and seafood restaurants.  We bartered for some more souvenirs and enjoyed watching the fishing and touring boats come into the pier from the Gulf of Thailand.  That evening, we found an adorable seafood restaurant along the water and enjoyed some delicious seafood and Thai cuisine.  Sunset on the water and the incoming boats’ twinkling lights made the view from the restaurant a gorgeous one!

            In the morning, we grabbed a taxi all the way back up the coast to the northern pier and rode the ferry back to the mainland.  We took a taxi from the ferry to the bus station and bought tickets on a VIP bus from Trat back to Bangkok.  The use of the term, “VIP” is grossly overused in Australia and SE Asia, so we laughed at the idea of taking a “VIP” bus.  However, we were pleasantly surprised.  The bus had slightly hideous pink frilly curtains, and free blankets, candy bars, and Coca Cola for the passengers.  (All the makings of a proper VIP experience!)  However, our experience was kind of ruined when they turned on obnoxious Thai “comedy” on all the bus TVs and blared it through their surround sound system.  So much for a quiet and pleasant VIP ride!  We met an English woman on the bus ride, so we shared a taxi with her from the bus station in Bangkok to Koh Sahn Road, the backpacker district of Bangkok.

I'm not sure if this is going to work, but here is the link to my Facebook photo album of Koh Chang (Just copy and paste it into your address line!):