A Travellerspoint blog

One last hurrah

Four months of travel can take it out of you. Hot crowded buses, strange food, time changes, staying up late, getting up early, hot guest houses, bug bites, etc., seem to wear you out, no matter how beautiful the sites are. Sometimes you need a vacation from your vacation. So we decided to fly back down to southern Thailand and spend a few days soaking up some sun and drinking tropical drinks. After a little bit of internet research, we discovered a sweet Sheraton that was just screaming to us to come visit. So we ended up in the small beach town of Khao Lak at Le Meridian Resort for 4 nights, which turned into 5 nights.

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"As expected from a 5-star resort" we were greeted with refreshing lemongrass towels and tea upon arrival. The place was beautiful, all it was missing was a friendly little elephant to swim with in the afternoons, but you can't have it all.

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Our days consisted of lounging on the beach, lounging in the pool, and lounging in our room when there were afternoon showers. Questions such as "Do you want to go to the big pool or the pool with the water jets?" or "Should we lay in the hammock under the palm tree or on the sundeck in the Andaman Sea?" became commonplace.

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Every evening, we would enjoy a drink outside on the beach while watching a spectacularly colorful sunset.

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This resort had all sorts of activities to keep you busy, if sitting in a beach chair reading a book wasn't enough to entertain you. So we took advantage of this and did some kayaking, windsurfing, beach volleyball, and hobiecatting.

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It was a beautiful end to a wonderful trip. We knew that in a few short days we would be looking down on the Pacific Ocean on our way back to familiar lands. We were of course looking forward to going home to see family and friends, but while watching the sunset with the warm breezes sweeping off of the sea, it made it just a little bit harder to leave. There is no such thing as a vacation that doesn't end and we know how fortunate we are to have been able to extend it for this long. What we've learned and will take back home with us from this trip is going to be the best souvenir of all.

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Until next time....

Posted by rebmamber 16:46 Archived in Thailand Comments (8)

Back to Thailand

As our journey is reaching its' end, it is appropriate that we complete the circle which we began and return to Thailand. In fact, we found ourselves in the very place where we entered this excursion: Chiang Mai. Upon returning to Thailand, we were surprised at how modern and clean everything was, which of course is in contrast to our first impression back in December.

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Before spending another 5 days in Chiang Mai, we took a quick jaunt up to the north into the mountains of Northern Thailand that we had missed on the first go. We spent three nights in the cute little town of Pai, which is nestled in the valley. Despite the fact that the town is overrun with hippie-minded westerners and lacks much Thai culture, it was a very relaxing place with yoga lessons and live music everywhere. Imagine being halfway around the world listening to a wonderful acoustic version of "Blackbird", pretty cool.

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Our adorable bungalow along the Pai River.

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A massive gecko. We have been hearing these in the evenings for a while, but this is the first one we actually got to see. It's easy to know when you are hearing one, they basically call out their presence: "Gecko, Gecko, Gecko".

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A preview of Songkran (Thai New Year) - more to come.

We returned to Chiang Mai in time to celebrate the Thai New Year, or Songkran. The main festivity of the week, other than receiving blessings for the new year, is to get every person in sight as wet as you can possibly make them. People of all ages hit the streets with buckets, hoses, and water guns to soak passersby. It is physically impossible to not get wet, but considering that it is the hottest month in Thailand (and it is really hot), you don't try very hard to avoid it. Chiang Mai is widely known as the best place in Thailand to experience this, so we bought some buckets and threw ourselves into the madness.

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The main street around the old city.

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Us before we were soaked. We were only spared because we had our camera out, once that was gone, there was no escape.

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The moat around the city where people have an endless supply of water.

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Justin getting more ammo.

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Justin getting his first soaking of the day from a few novice monks.

On the day before New Year's, there is a huge parade through the streets where people come to splash water on statues of Buddha (as well as each other and anyone else walking in or watching the parade).

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The monks giving blessings to the parade and passersby - water guns deserve blessings, too!

It was so nice to return to Chiang Mai and to feel not-so-foreign in a foreign city. Songkran in Chiang Mai may not have the reputation of Mardis Gras or the running of the bulls, but it was a wild time and highly recommended on things to do in your life (if you get the opportunity).

Posted by rebmamber 05:23 Archived in Thailand Comments (5)

Gibbon Experience

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For our last hurrah in Laos, we had kept hearing a lot of great things about the Gibbon Experience program. The "experience" is located in western Laos within the Bokeo Primary Forest Reserve. The program was set up by a westerner trying to encourage the preservation of the forests in Laos by getting the villages involved in making a profit through eco-tourism rather than logging. The forest is also home to many families of gibbons and other wildlife. Gibbons are the smallest of all the apes, are the least protected and researched financially, and are the most endangered. The premise of the experience involves zip-lining through the canopy of untouched forest to treehouses where you sleep. The nice thing about it (other than being a really unique idea) is that they limit the number of people and only have 4 treehouses to minimize the impact of the tourism.

We started our "experience" by leaving Luang Nam Tha and heading south on the "new highway". We had heard the road was to be completed in 2006, but considering that 200 out of the 220 miles is still under construction, I don't think they're going to make their goal. Needless to say, we got to spend about 6 hours in the back of a dusty truck to get to the tiny village of Ban Don Chai where we were being picked up the next day.

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The "new highway".

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Typical Laos transportation.

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This is the village of Ban Don Chai, this is about all there was to see.

The following morning we were picked up and whisked away for a hour drive into the surrounding forest to a village where we would begin trekking to the Gibbon Experience's base point. We hiked about an hour to a small base camp where we began the zip-lining. On our way up we passed a few people ending their experience and one of the guys said to us, "you're in for an experience". At the time we were not sure how to take that comment, but after three days with the Gibbon crew, I think we understand what he meant.

I'll spoil the ending now, just in case anyone is reading this blog who may be considering signing up for the "Experience" (if you don't plan on going to Laos and are not considering the Gibbon Experience, skip to the next paragraph). The Gibbon Experience is a great concept, with the zip-lines and tree houses, the forest at night sleeping high above the ground, and the project's goal to show the locals that they can make a good living by protecting the forest and not logging, poaching, etc. And apparently the concept is working as the forest people now carry full wallets to the markets and not bears, gibbons, and other such protected animals that carry a high price tag. However, the program is only about a year old and it shows a bit. For what it costs, a small fortune in Laos kip, the organization of the experience is very weak. We would suggest to anyone going on the Experience to check your accommodation over before your guide leaves, as one night there was only one small candle provided for us (lasting all of 20 minutes or so) and no towels were provided as promised in the brochure. Additionally, if you opt for the waterfall (hiking) option, make sure your guides understand what you want to get out of the hike. We felt quite rushed during the hikes and did not see a reason for the rush.

The main treehouse is the most spectacular, a tri-level structure built high up in the branches of an amazing banyan tree.

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Looking down.

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The view of the forest from Treehouse 1.

After that, the next zip-lines were wonderfully long and glided you through gorgeous canopy and stretches of open space over looking the region. Just spectacular.

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Leaving Treehouse1.

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View while zipping over the trees.

We opted for a route around the reserve that would include a night at a treehouse that overlooked a waterfall. However, this option also involved more hiking, but we figured it would be worth it. And as our first night's accommodation did not have water to rinse with, the waterfall proved to be very refreshing on the second night. The first night I (Justin) woke to thunder and lightning in the distance and a slight breeze kicking up. Remembering the safety instructions that read, "If wind, leave the treehouse", I thought, what constitutes "wind". And where do we leave to, we are an hours hike from the next treehouse and about another 1/2 hour of zip-lines from anywhere where there was a shelter on the ground. So, with no one to tell me that the swaying of the tree you are feeling is caused by the "wind" mentioned in the safety instructions, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep a bit. The storm never made it to us and in the morning we were woken by the gibbons singing in the distance. Their high-pitched song sounded like sirens and went on for quite a while.

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Sunset from Treehouse3.

The second day we hiked along a river for a couple of hours to a tree that hovered over the surrounding forest and waterfall like it was planted their for the sole purpose of sleeping in. As we zipped to the tree house the sound of the waterfall below got louder and louder. In the tree house, the view was spectacular as we were the highest thing around. After a brief tour of our accommodation we zipped back down to the ground and headed to the waterfall for a swim and wash. Of course the water was cold and of course Justin swam alone, but again, he needed a good washing.

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Our guides preparing dinner.

That evening we watched the sunset from our tree house and ate a great dinner cooked by our guides, who stayed in a hut on the ground not far from the base of our tree. The tree house had no facility so any bathroom trips involved putting a harness on and zipping to the ground.

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Our hike back to the village the following morning took us through some gorgeous bamboo forests. At times we felt like we were underneath a giant game of pick-up sticks.

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That evening (after another flat tire) we got dropped off in Houay Xai, the Laos border town where we would cross the Mekong the following day and enter Thailand. We were pleasantly surprised by the town and had a nice evening and morning before we said goodbye to Laos, until next time...

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Last Laos sunset.

Posted by rebmamber 06:23 Archived in Laos Comments (14)

Three-Day Trekking

Nam Ha National Protected Area

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Well-rested and full of steam, we left the tranquility of the river villages and headed to NE Laos in search of some trekking adventures. We booked a bus to the charmless city of Udomoxai in hopes of catching an afternoon bus out of the city and avoiding a night in the industrial Chinese trade city. However, when we reached the bus station we heard words from the ticket booth that we did not think were in the Laos vocabulary, "Bus full"????? We have been on buses with people sitting on rice bags in the aisles, people on top of the bus, and people standing on the bumper while the driver would stop for more people. Surprised and devastated, we put much effort into hiring a car to get us out of town that afternoon, but it was Sunday and the locals weren't interested. So we stayed the night.

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"Speaking" Lao with some local children using our phrasebook.

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An early morning alarm, a quick breakfast, a 6-hour crammed bus ride, a re-welded rim, and a spare tire later we made it to Luang Nam Tha in the early afternoon.

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One of our bus passengers, a rooster on a string.

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Every seat full including the "seats" in the aisles.

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Changing the tire took way over 8 minutes.

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The bridge made of bamboo baskets in Luang Nam Tha.

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Luang Nam Tha's big draw is the surrounding Nam Ha protected area, so we hooked up with three other travelers that we met on the bus north and signed up for a three-day trek with the joint Laos/New Zealand government's Eco-Tourism group.

The next morning, with the 2 Belgians and one Kiwi, and two fairly good English-speaking guides, we headed out into the jungle for a few days. We drove out of the city a little ways before making our first stop at a village where we would begin our hike. We also gained a local guide, who carried our lunch, and we headed up (straight up) into the mountains. After a couple hours of exhausting hiking, we made it to a small bamboo shade structure where we had lunch and a much needed break.

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Being followed by the village kids.

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Our lunch.

After lunch, the trail leveled out a bit and we got under the canopy of the forest and into the shade.

Our first night we stayed at the Saam Ngord village where we had a fine little structure shaded by the largest mango tree we have ever seen. As soon as we arrived, villagers made their way to us to check us out and bring us a refreshing papaya to munch on while dinner was prepared. We noticed one villager carrying a chicken upside down to the small kitchen in our hut. Low and behold, a few clucks from the bird and a little cleaning from the chef and we were eating (well, not Amber) Chicken Laab, a very typical minced meat dish in Laos (made with basil, green onion, garlic, chili, and mint). The town chief came to talk to us after dinner and we had a nice question and answer session with the help of our guides translating. They managed to rustle up a few beer Laos for us to enjoy and out came the cards and our guides now know how to play Shithead (quite well actually).

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Mango Tree.

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The village shower/watering hole/laundry/dishwasher, etc.

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Some curious village kids.

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Feeding time for the pigs.

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The small village school.

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Inside our hut.

Day two we hiked along the ridge tops for 5-6 hours with stunning views of the forest below. Again we had a local guide come along with us carrying our lunch. At lunch we discovered why we heard a pig making a heck of a racket the following evening. Yep, we got pork stir-fry for lunch (well, Justin did). At one point the local guide stopped, apparently, in the spot where a month ago he had seen a tiger. Maybe a set up to get a tip, well it worked.

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The second evening we stayed at the Nam Khone village, again in a pleasant little hut. This village was blessed with a small creek so once again, Justin bathed with the locals, but he needed it.

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Our hut.

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Our bathroom.

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That night we got to meet this village's second chief, which happened to be an attractive woman 48 years of age. She was pleasant to speak with, again through our guides and we were invited to come see her house in the morning. After the 2nd chief left, the beer Laos and cards were busted out as our guides wanted revenge for the whooping they took the previous night.

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Our dinner - who knew ferns and garlic would be so tasty.

The next morning we went to see the second chief at her house and got a quick tour of her house where she, her husband, 8 kids, and 1 grandchild lived. She was adorably shy to have us in her modest house. We also got to check out the village and to see the village school in session, however, we distracted them from whatever they were supposed to be learning.

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Interesting poster at the school depicting one of the problems kids are faced with here.

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A shy village kid.

After breakfast we were off to make our way down through the beautiful jungle for a 5-6 hour hike. The hike took us through many lush bamboo valleys, up over peaks and back down to small river streams. It was very beautiful, the only downfall was that we had to keep checking ourselves for leeches, which all of us had hitch-hiking on our shoes at one point and time.

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Our 3rd lunch consisting of sticky rice, bamboo shoots and rattan mixed with garlic.

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Our guide Xeng and Amber.

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Our local guide smoking the traditional way.

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"And then I said 'Hi' like a spider to a fly"

After a pleasant day we made it back to town in the early evening. That evening, after some much needed showers, we met our guides for dinner and came up with a plan to rent motorbikes the following day and go to Muang Xing, a small town about 2 hours north of Lunag Nam Tha. We were pleased to have one of our trekking guides, Xeng, coming along. Either he thought we were really great people, or he had a crush on the single blonde New Zealand girl that was with us?

The next morning we hopped on some motorbikes and headed north. We rode another beautiful protected area, taking occasional breaks to stop and rest our bums and take in the scenery.

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Xeng and Leah.

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Some village girls wearing our helmets.

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Don't ask me how he tied this bird to his stick, but it didn't seem to mind.

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Muang Xing is about 10 km from the Chinese border, so the town is quite influenced by Chinese culture, food, etc. We found the town with more charm than Luang Nam Tha and definitely less touristy. Amber and I decided to stay the night just outside of Muang Xing at a small lodge overlooking the rice fields, so we said goodbye to our friends and relaxed with our nice view from our balcony.

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The Muang Xing nightclub, unfortunately we didn't get to go back and check it out, but I'm sure it would have been hopping.

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Posted by rebmamber 23:31 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Northern Laos

We realize that we have had some delays in the recent blogs; it's not that we don't care anymore; it's just that Laos is not quite as technologically advanced as the other countries in SE Asia. However, that's part of its charm and we have been embracing it! Besides, who cares how and what we are doing, HOW ABOUT THOSE GATORS!!!!!!!!!!! We will leave the country come football season for good luck.

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Having relaxed in the tranquility and relative moderness of Luang Prabang for 5 nights, we decided to take a slow boat north to a less-traveled and more remote area of Laos. The “6-hour” boat ride as expected took 8-hours, but the scenery was amazing and the occasional splash of cool mountain water was refreshing. It being the dry season in Laos, the river was a bit low in places and going up river there were numerous rapids we had to traverse, practically reaching a stand still on a few of the bigger ones. At one point the boat stopped along shore and the captain made hand motions which either meant to get out of the boat and walk up river or he was being annoyed by a very persistent fly. So we stretched our legs a bit while the captain and first mate pushed the boat up river (and I say boat loosely, we're talking a wooden canoe with a engine). But, two sore butts later, one new propeller, and a bunch of pictures, we made it to the small town of Nong Khiaw.

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A view of the first mate in his skivvies.

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Nong Khiaw

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View from the bridge over the Ou River.

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The alleyway to our guesthouse.

We spent one night in Nong Khiaw and then headed up river the following day another hour to the village of Muang Ngoi.

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Packed in like sardines, no inch is wasted.

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The mountains that surround the small village of about 500 people are impassible by motor vehicles, so there is not a car, motor bike, tractor, etc anywhere to be found or heard! The coconut tree-lined dirt footpaths and the tropical jungle right down to the clear river give this town a real "south pacific" feel, although we haven't been to the south pacific, but we're guessing it's pretty nice.

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We stayed in a small bamboo bungalow on the bank overlooking the Ou River. A basic place, but what a view (I should mention it cost a whopping 1 USD!) Every night, the geckos chirped us to sleep while the roosters gave us our morning wake up call, which is quite typical throughout all of Laos.

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This is literally our view from our bungalow.

The village only has power, via generators, from 7 pm - 10 pm and very little running water. All day, kids played in the river, most buck-naked, as all kids love to be. Every evening before sunset, most of the villagers would make their way down to the river to clean themselves, their clothes, or whatever else in the river. I (Justin) partook in this bathing ritual and got many a strange look when I bared my pasty white chest.

We went on a nice hike into the surrounding mountains and villages one day and did a bit of tubing and canoeing as well another day. But our three days in Muang Noi pretty much involved relaxing and reading.

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Yes, the water was a little chilly.

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The water buffalo enjoying a dip at sunset.

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View of the town from the river.

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An adorable baby, called "Et Noi", which literally means "baby". We were told that the children are not given official names until they can walk.

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Some of the many bomb casings used around town. You'll see them as decoration, used as flowerpots, animal feeders and even supports for houses.

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Taking the local boat back to Nong Khiaw.

Posted by rebmamber 05:21 Archived in Laos Comments (7)

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