Thailand: Part 2

Hi Everyone!

As many of you know, Chris and I made it back safe and sound to Canada a week ago, concluding our 380 day around the world trip. My next post will be the final post on our time in Thailand and I will then try to convey in a conclusory post what we learned during our 380 days visiting 35 countries on all but one continent. I will also share the varying degrees of reverse culture shock I am experiencing on a day to day basis being back in the great white north.

Picking up where my last post left off: Our gaggle of a group made our way to the DMK airport in Bangkok via the extrodinary metro system to catch our very cheap domestic flight to the South of the country. Had it been just Chris and I we would have opted to take the 12 hour overnight bus, but where our companions only had a limited amount of time we decided it was in their best interest to fly. We caught a quick van transfer from the airport to the nearby pier, where we hopped into a long-tail boat that transported us from the pier to Railay Beach. We arrived on Railay Beach and quickly got lost trying to find our way to our accommodation, somewhat of an achievement considering the island takes 10 minutes to walk around. We finally made it to where we intended to stay, a recommendation from Lonely Planet as one of the only budget options in the area. Chris, Rilla and I were to share a three person bamboo hut, which we had a look at and agreed that for the price ($9 CAD each a night), it would be sufficient. The other two guys had one look at their hut and quickly bee-lined for the door. They felt it was more than just basic, and were rather shocked by the lack of toilet seat on the toilet. They were also put off by the number of chickens running around the property, and affectionately named the place, ‘The chicken coop.’ Alas, for being on a 3 week trip they were going for comfort over a true backpacker experience, for which we couldn’t fault them. They found a lovely resort down the hill with air-conditioned cabins and a pool.

Having ditched our bags we changed into our swim gear and headed for the beach. The beach was absolutely stunning, being surrounded on both sides by the spectacular karst limestone cliffs. These rock faces are extremely popular for rock climbers and allow for free climbing as if one falls it is into the ocean below. The beach was very picturesque but had very little in way of shade. It was a scorching hot day so we spent the majority of our time in the shallow water trying to keep cool. After the beach we hung out at the guys pool, and then splurged on some Changs.

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The next day was another beach bumming day, and it was an even hotter day than the previous. By mid-afternoon we all had to call it quits and find a respite from the heat. Rilla had a thai massage in an air-conditioned spa, the guys hung out at the pool, and I took a nap in our hut. That evening we watched the incredible sunset from the beach before heading to bed early, the combination of the heat and the humidity overwhelming us into an early slumber.

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The next day we explored the island, starting first with the two caves that you can enter (I would rate both as a miss), and then scrambling our way up a very steep hill to one of the viewpoints. This was a major workout and had us all breathing heavier than anticipated, but afforded some beautiful views of the peninsula. After the viewpoint we began to make our way down to the lagoon, which I gave up on half way down as I had worn my sandals that lacked any semblance of treads, and it was becoming exceedingly difficult and dangerous on the slippery rock face. The rest of the crew continued to the lagoon, hooting and hollering along the way, and reported it was a very tough climb down and back up.

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Having worked up a sweat we went for a swim before heading back to town for lunch. We stopped at a great restaurant where the food was authentic and cheap. We spotted a western restaurant close to where we had lunch that was serving a mean looking chicken strip and fries platter and collectively decided to return for dinner.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on wifi, and playing with the lovely cats and kittens at the guys resort. One little kitty captured all of our hearts and we lovingly referred to him as Stevie French (from the Trailer Park Boys).

That evening we returned to the restaurant we had scoped out and all ordered the chicken fingers and fries. They were as delicious as they looked, and despite being approximately 5 times more expensive than a thai dish, they were worth it. After dinner had us head to a bar to watch a live Muay Thai fight. The fight promoters were going around and trying to entice foreigners to sign up to fight, regardless of ability, for a free bucket of booze. I kid you not, they serve alcohol by the bucketful in Thailand. Picture a bucket a toddler would take to the beach to make sandcastles with, but instead filled to the brim with alcohol and ice that certainly isn’t made with filtered water. In Bangkok the hostel we stayed at had warnings about these buckets, stating most establishments use homemade booze to fill them as it is cheaper, but it is often so potent it burns peoples stomach linings and they end up vomiting like they have never vomited before. There is also absolutely no way to protect your wide brimmed bucket from someone slipping something in your drink which made me very concerned for the hoards of young girls I observed sloshing their buckets around everywhere we went in Thailand. I personally obstained from the buckets, but having a few sips of the guys lead me to the final conclusion that buckets in Thailand are just an overall disastrous idea.

Muay Thai is the traditional form of fighting found in Thailand and is one of the most exciting forms of martial arts you could ever watch. After a few drinks and much banter, Chris and Brad coerced Tanner to accept a fight with a fellow foreigner. Both Tanner and his opponent were very large lads, and luckily neither had ever had training or been in a fight (even just for fun) before. There were provided with all necessary protective gear and were thrown in the ring to go toe-to-toe for three, two minute rounds. They were both very good sports about the whole thing, and Tanner ended up winning the fight by a landslide. It was a very entertaining 6 minutes and the people in attendance cheered as Tanner was declared the winner. He was treated to not one, but two, free buckets for winning the fight. After the amateur fight the pros took to the cage and we witnessed one of the craziest, most extreme and exciting fights of all time. One guy got knocked down in the first round and it seemed like he was all but finished, then he came back and knocked the other guy down in the second round and that guy seemed like he was finished, and then he came back for a very exciting third round but ultimately lost by KO from a crazy kick that remains one of the best finishes of a fight any of us have seen live or on TV. The guys were jacked up on adrenaline from both Tanners fight and then the pro fight, and were content going over blow-by-blow both fights on repeat. Rilla and I decided that was our cue to head to bed.

The next day we caught the early morning ferry from Railay Beach to Koh Lanta. I personally wanted a low key island as it was coming to the end of our trip and I wanted to relax, reflect and unwind before heading back to Canada. Koh Lanta seemed like the perfect place to do this. We spent our first day at the five mile beach, a spectacular stretch of white sand and turquoise water that is the stuff postcards are made of. That evening Rilla and I had dinner at a local restaurant across the street from our hostel, while the guys went further down the road in search of a burger for Brad. With the burger came a heavy dose of food poisoning for each of the guys that had them up all night and decomissioned the entire next day. Rilla and I had booked a snorkelling excursion for the day and were unaware of the strife of the boys until we arrived back at the hostel in the evening. We had a lovely day on the long tail boat, and while the snorkelling was a bust, we explored a cave and a secret lagoon that made up for it.

We left Koh Lanta the following day destined for Koh Phi Phi. If all things were equal, I would have skipped Phi Phi for Koh Lipe. However, Phi Phi is a major stop on the tourist trail, made famous by the film “The Beach” staring Leonardo DeCaprio and draws thousands of visitors every day.  We arrived to Phi Phi after a few hour boat ride, and walked the 10 minutes along the beach to our hostel. We checked in and then headed to the beach to catch a few rays of late afternoon sunshine.

Rilla and I headed to a Thai restaurant for dinner without the guys as they were quite turned off anything but bland food due to the recent food poisoning. As we made our way through the small town I couldn’t help feeling a sense of guilt about what I was observing. To accommodate the throngs of tourist that assault its shores every year the island seems to have a plethora of shadily constructed guesthouses, hotels and hostels. The town seems to be sagging under the pressure of accommodating so many people and this is visible everywhere you look. All you have to do is inhale and you were overwhelmed with the stink of raw sewage due to improper waste management facilities. The number of massage parlours, tattoo shops, bars/pubs, and restaurants were a further testament to the driving force of the tourism industry. And that is only what is above ground. The damage the mass tourism industry is having on the coral reefs and water is devastating. What was most devastating to me however, is the effect the mass tourism is having on the Thai people. Before travelling to Thailand I had been told time and time again how kind, warm and friendly the people of Thailand are. We certainly experienced this in the North of the country. However, in the South, the demeanour of the Thai people is the complete opposite. The disdain they have for the tourists oozes from their very beings. You can sense how jaded the booming tourism industry is making them, and rightfully so. It is absolutely shameful how the majority of tourists conduct themselves in Thailand, and how they treat the Thai people. I felt incredibly saddened by this as one of the best parts of traveling is interacting with the local people and learning about their lives. I am not saying all Thai people feel this way, but the overwhelming number of experiences we had in which I  came away with this impression outweighs the handful of positive experiences I had. Simply by being there I was contributing to this destructive cycle, making it difficult to shake the nagging feeling of unhappiness and guilt of my choice to travel the region.

Back to dinner: Rilla and I had a romantic candlelit dinner at a restaurant before meeting back up with the guys to check out the infamous beach party of Phi Phi. The tide had come in and the water came right up to the stages that had been set up for the parties, making it hard to navigate without getting wet. Each bar had deafening levels of music playing and various forms of games where rewards of shots or buckets were promised. Alarmingly, most of these games involved fire in some shape or form. Such as fire limbo (Free Shot!), fire skipping rope (More Free Shots! Free bucket if a lady did it topless or man sans clothes), etc. The people participating were fuelled with liquid courage, an intensely dangerous combination. After walking through town and taking in the destructive nature of the unsustainable tourism, I looked at things from the perspective of the locals and the impact we as tourists were having. The end result was a scathing view of these activites (as I am sure you can detect in the tone of this post) and I retired to bed by 10:30 pm.

The following day was lazily spent by the pool at our hostel, with little ambition to do much else. That evening we headed to a rooftop restaurant to catch the sunset and indulge in Mexican food. The food was delicious, but the sunset was definitely the star of the show. We then checked out a small pub with live music before heading to bed in anticipation of our travel day.
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The next day was a long travel day to Khao Sok National Park, where I will pick up in my next post!

**Most of the pictures were taken by our fellow travellers- I cannot take credit for them 🙂

Thailand: Part 1

Hello Everyone!

We planned to visit Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand as our first stop in the country based on the incredible number of people we met (and read about online) who raved about the city. It is a very popular city for digital nomads to live and work in and as such there is a thriving expat community, and more importantly for us, reliable internet.

We made it to Chiang Mai from Laos without any issues and grabbed a shared minivan to our accomodation, A Little Bird Guesthouse 2. We checked in and were pleased with our choice of guesthouse for the week. We got the run down on things in the vicinity of the guesthouse and headed out to grab dinner and make our way to the famous Saturday Night Market.

Each evening a local food market set up around the corner from the guesthouse and we stopped on the way to the night market for our first introduction to thai cusine. I opted for a soup as I had thoroughly enjoyed the soups in Cambodia and Laos. It was the wrong decision and a rather poor first dish in Thailand. Chris’s dish was much better, albeit more of an appetizer than a full meal. We continued our walk to the Saturday night market, drinking in the beauty of the city. We stopped at several temples along the way where we observed monks lighting lanterns and hanging them in trees. The combination of the lanterns and the temples lit up in the night made for a beautiful and peaceful scene.

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We arrived to the market area where there was an insane number of food stalls wafting incredible smells through the street. We grabbed some dumplings for the walk and fell into step with the mass of people entering the market walking street. The Saturday and Sunday night markets are renowned to be the best in Asia, and are popular with tourists and Thai people alike. This means there are an obscene number of people at the market, and you are forced to shuffle along rather than walk due to the sheer number of bodies in the confined space. If you wanted to stop and look at a vendor you had to break step and dance sideways through the crowd until you could find a small space to pause for a moment. Despite this we still had a lovely time, and went on a total culinary adventure by stuffing our faces with as much food from the food vendors as possible. Highlights were pad thai from a small hole in the wall local stall, and our first (of many) mango sticky rice. The handicrafts and souvenirs were very high quality and I severely regret not buying more, but I was not in battle mode to negotiate prices (and the crowds).

After several hours we had had enough and slowly made our way back to our hostel where we crashed into bed after a long day.

The next 5 days were dedicated entirely to catching up on all things pharmacy. We knew once our friends arrived on the 4th we wouldn’t be able to get anything done, so we committed ourselves to refreshing before they arrived. We fell into an easy routine of waking early, grabbing mango shakes and iced coffees from a lovely vendor around the corner and hitting the books (so to speak). Lunch was fried chicken for 22 bhat (less than $1 CAD) for the first few days before I discovered a local restaurant across the road famous for the northern dish, Khao Soi, for 40 bhat. After lunch was more learning before the local food market opened around the corner for dinner at 6 pm. As you can most likely gather, food was the centre of our time in Chiang Mai. Chris researched and found a recommendation to seek out a lady in a cowboy hat at this market who serves pork dishes. The pork was absolutely amazing and became our go-to dinner for the rest of the week. We also loved the steamed dinner buns, and sometimes opted for the buns stuffed with custard for dessert.

After dinner we would indulge ourselves by watching shows online as the internet was fast enough to stream! Making a Murderer was all over Facebook, and we were curious what it was all about, and we were hooked after the first episode. We also watched the HBO 6 episode series called Jinx, and for those of you who are done Making a Murderer and craving more reality murder t.v I highly recommend Jinx. The ending is one of the biggest bombshells I have ever experienced!

We took a break from gorging ourselves on tv for one evening to take in a cooking class at Basil Cooking School. We were picked up from our hostel and brought to a food market where our entertaining teacher, Apple, went over the ingredients we would be using that evening. After the market we headed to the school where we quickly set to work creating our dishes. We each were able to choose a dish from 5 different categories, meaning we were all cooking different dishes simultaneously. I really enjoyed this as Chris and I were able to make twice as many dishes! We each had our own prep and cooking stations, and drill sergeant Apple would shout commands to each of us to help us prepare our individual dishes. For having to coordinate 9 people who were cooking different things, the class ran very smoothly. After we prepared the first few dishes we were able to consume them immediately before preparing the additional courses. I loved this as it gave us a break and chance to spread out the eating (Chris and I barely ate all day so were famished) and interact with our group. The group was really fantastic, we got along famously and ended up sending one member to grab a few bottles of wine to share. There was another couple from Winnipeg in the class and we had great fun getting to know them. The food we prepared stands as some of the best and most authentic food we experienced while in Thailand. I would highly recommend this class!

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We relished in the simplicity of routine for the week, it was a welcomed change after so long without any semblance of mundane normalcy.The days flew by (funnily enough) and before we knew it, it was New Years Eve. We didn’t plan to be in Chiang Mai specifically for NYE, but it turned out that it is one of the best places to experience bringing in the New Year in SE Asia.

Our night began with dinner at an all you could eat fondue place, similar to what we experienced in Laos. We then headed into the old city to check out the festivities. On the walk we could see hundreds of lanterns being released into the sky. It is tradition in Chiang Mai for locals and foreigners alike to write a wish for the New Year on a lantern and release this wish into the sky. I absolutely adored the idea of this, and how incredibly magical the sky looked with the thousands of lanterns illuminating the sky. The closer it got to midnight, the more lanterns were released. The feeling of hope for the New Year was palpable, and all you had to do was look to the sky to see the dreams of those around you for 2016. Chris and I released a balloon together with the wish (or perhaps prediction) for our best year yet. I took about a thousand pictures of the lanterns, we smiled quietly together at midnight, and felt excitement for what is to come. In the past I have lamented how NYE is usually a major let down, but this was the most perfect NYE I have experienced due to the beautiful symbolism in the releasing of the lanterns. It is a tradition I would like to keep for future years.

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The next day we treated ourselves to a 2 hour oil massage at a very interesting spa. The spa is called ‘The womens massage centre for ex-prisoners’ and is staffed by women who were trained in massage therapy during their incarceration in the local womens prison. The prison itself has a massage centre where women serving their sentence can get hands on experience, but the spas for ex-prisoners provides employment opportunities once the women are released. A wonderful initiative that could be employed throughout the world. The massage was devine, and I ended up booking a 2 hour traditional thai massage for the following day! Chris opted out of this as they twist, crack and contort your body and he was worried (rightfully so) about his shoulder. The thai massage focuses on releasing tension from pressure points, and the masseuse uses her body to stretch and crack your body. It was an incredible experience that worked out all the kinks from backpacking that have accumulated throughout the year. I felt like a whole new person after!

While one could say we didn’t “do” much during our week long stay in Chiang Mai, we accomplished a lot in this week and thoroughly enjoyed our stay in the city. Chiang Mai has an incredible feel to it, and is a major hub for digital nomad workers for very good reasons. The week was culinary heaven for us, and we had some lovely interactions with the local thai people. I have to say it is one of my favorite cities that we have visited. Writing this blog retrospectively means I have experienced a lot more of Thailand since our time in Chiang Mai and I can honestly say it was my favorite part of Thailand and I wish we spent more time in the North as it is almost an entirely different country from the rest of Thailand (more on that to come).

We took an overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, arriving to Bangkok very early in the morning. We grabbed an over-priced tuktuk to our hostel in Sukhumvit where we crashed in the lounge until being able to check-in. Once checked in we grabbed showers and hopped on the metro to check out the famous Chatuchak weekend market for the day. The metro was a fabulous way to take in the city and was a worthwhile experience in itself. The market was absolutely ginormous, over 35 acres, and we only saw one tiny corner of it before we had to head back to the hostel. I managed to snag a few new dresses that I sorely needed for the hot weather, and most of my clothes being pretty sad condition at this point.

We got back to the hostel and eagerly awaited the arrival of Tanner, one of Chris’s best friends from pharmacy. Tanner had a friend joining us as well and they were meant to be on the same flight, but there was a problem with their ticket and had to reschedule for the following day.

Tanner arrived without incident and we hit the town running to grab food and take in the sights and sounds. Bangkok is infamous due to the movie ‘ The Hangover 2’, as well as its reputation for sex tourism. The later was evident everywhere you looked, from the ladies sitting outside the “massage” parlors hooting and hollering at the guys, the ladyboys winking and whispering explicit things to the guys in passing, the scantily dressed girls with numbers pinned on their outfits outside the many questionable establishments, and my least favorite of all; the old, overweight white men with extremely young looking thai women on their arms wherever you looked. Unfortunately, it is a big business and is thriving on foreign money. It is incredibly depressing to me and I had to practice serious restraint not to voice my opinion in certain situations. We nevertheless had a fun night people watching and taking it all in.

The next day we got up early, grabbed a copy of the hostels DIY walking tour, and set out for the day. We made our way to the canals and waited for a taxi boat to take us to our first stop, The Golden Mount temple. The boat ripped in to the pier at an alarming speed, and we boarded hurriedly. The boat took off again at an even more alarming speed, displacing the canal water at a rate that had it crashing against the walls and back at us with enough force to cause the locals to pull the “splash guards” on the sides of the boat into place. As we raced down the canal Tanner pointed to the water where there was numerous dead fish floating on the surface, a clear indication of the quality of the water. The trip cost 11 bhat each, required switching boats once, and is a trip I won’t soon forget. We managed to get where we wanted and walked the short distance to the golden mount.

Before entering the temple site the boys grabbed another pad thai, while I went with an iced coffee. We then made our way up the many steps to the top of the Golden Mount for a spectacular view of Bangkok.

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We then made our way to the temple of 37 spires, before all admitting our crushing fatigue due to our big night out and the insane humidity of Bangkok. We headed back to the hostel for a snooze and a shower before Chris headed to the airport to meet both his childhood friend Rilla, and Tanners friend (who happened to end up on the same flight) and escort them back to the hostel. While he was out Tanner and I had headed to dinner with one of my brother Patricks closest friends, Mel, for dinner. It was such a pleasure to be able to meet up and she gave us some great advice on what to see and do in Thailand, as well as keep us endlessly entertained with her stories.

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After dinner we met up with the newest members of our now 5 member traveling gang and headed out to experience Bangkok for the second night. It was much the same as the first, and I was very happy to be leaving the city the next day.

I will chronicle our time in the South of Thailand in my next post!

Laos

As I alluded to in my last post, getting from Cambodia to 4000 islands (or Si Phan Don) in Laos was a little tricky and definitely a haul. I had read numerous reviews and blogs on the journey and none of them sounded pleasant nor reliable. They mentioned a new “super highway” several times and advised that this was in fact a dirt road that took just as long as the journey from Phnom Penh to 4000 islands. A recuring theme was travelers being left on the side of the road with the promise of another van coming to pick them up “soon.” I was seriously skeptical of booking the trip until I came across Asia Van Transfers website. They are a relatively new service ran by a friendly European. I called and spoke with him and he was able to give me a very detailed and honest itinerary. Although it was expensive at $30 USD, we opted to go with this company as we felt they were the safest bet.

We were picked up at our hostel on-time and brought to the main office where the owner went through step-by-step how our day was going to go. It was all very useful information and removed any feelings of doubt we had. We climbed into the minivan and took off, stopping once for gas and the driver to stock up on M-150’s (An energy drink found throughout Asia that is so cheap it might as well be free. There is a direct correlation between how many M-150 drinks your driver has had and how fast you arrive to your destination). We arrived to the border town of Stung Treng at precisely the time the owner said we would, and were able to grab a reasonably priced lunch before switching vans to continue to the border. We made it to the border an hour later and disembarked the van with our belongings to complete the border crossing on foot. We got in line at the Cambodian post to receive our exit stamps, with a young European couple shoving infront of me, despite the fact we were all traveling together and would all need to finish the border formalities before leaving. When the Cambodian official asked them for the $2 fee (corruption is rampant at this border, which we were warned about by the owner of ATV in the morning) the demanded a “receipt.” They had read online, as I had, that some people get away without paying by doing this. With all of our experience crossing borders however, we know that trying to elude the demands of an official is futile and while it is right to stand up against corruption in certain circumstances; this is not one of them. The border official uttered, “You want receipt? Come back tomorrow!” and threw them back their passports in a disgusted fashion. The young guy in the couple turned to me smugly and said, “if you ask for a receipt you won’t have to pay!” I don’t know if it was a language barrier as english was not the couples first language, or just a general feeling of invincibility that only a 20-year-old can have, but they took off towards the Laos border, heads held high! I had to call after them to come back as the official had not stamped their passports as they did not pay. You could see their spirits deflate as they then had to join the back of the que and wait all over again. Karma for butting so rudely ahead of me!

Chris and I made our way to the Laos side where we filled out our visa application and paid the ridiculous fee of $42 CAD (the highest of any nationality) and waited for our visa to be processed. Once processed, we then made another donation of $2 to the Laos officials to receive our stamps. Once our minivan of people all had their visas we were lead by the driver of our minivan to a small restaurant on the Laos side of the border to wait for our final minivan ride of the day. And we waited. And waited. Constantly being reassured that the minivan was on the way. This is the part of the story where I would gripe we were left on the side of the road, but we anticipated as much and therefore were not overly concerned. Half an hour later the minivan arrived and we clamored on, eager to finish the long travel day.

We arrived in Nagasaon 20 minutes later and had to wait for our group to be ready before heading to the small wharf to the traditional boats that would take us to 4000 islands. At this point we were 10 hours deep in the travel day, hungry, and a little grumpy. Most of us had bought the boat ticket in combination with bus ticket, but the ever-annoying couple from Europe had opted to buy the boat ticket separately once they arrived to Nagasaon. What this translated to was all of us boarding the boat and then being forced to wait for this couple while they argued over $0.50 cents for the fare of the boat. At this point I was seriously ready to blow a gasket at them, as were the rest of our companions, and we all joked we would donate the $0.50 if they would just get in the boat so we could leave. I think you have to keep a fine balance when traveling developing countries; never get ripped off, but never sweat anything under a dollar. If you are going to argue over every single penny you are going to be absolutely miserable and waste previous time and effort. Not to mention it is incredibly ignorant considering the money means nothing to us, but could mean everything to the people you are fighting with. The male of the couple had previously also tried to get a better exchange rate from a local currency exchanger, the rate was 8000 and he tried to claim it was 9000! I was appalled, he actually made an effort to rip off the locals.

The ride itself was beautiful as the sun was just setting, allowing me to forget the deplorable behavior of the young European and soak in the beauty around me. It was one of the best sunsets of the trip aside from Africa, and was the perfect end to the long day.

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We landed on the tiny beach of Don Det 20 minutes later and hit the ground running to find a place to stay. 4000 islands is extremely remote and it is impossible to book anything except luxury hotels in advance. You can stay either on the sunrise or the sunset side of the island, and we opted for the sunset after witnessing such a magnificent one on the way in. We found a decent enough room with hammocks on the balcony for under $10 USD a night total. We went to the restaurant attached to our accommodation and ordered food, combating thousands and thousands of bugs while we ate. The sheer number of bugs was off-putting and we collapsed in bed immediately after our meal.

The next day we wandered into town in search of food, and found numerous cafes with travelers sprawled out watching re-runs of Friends or South Park while slurping “happy” shakes (weed in oil form is legal in Laos). I do love Friends, but the whole scene had a bit of a sad feel to it. We ate and then quickly headed back to our accommodation to relax in the hammocks for the afternoon.

We ended up leaving Don Det after only one night as I landed a job interview for the following day and we needed to head somewhere with more reliable internet. We opted for the first big city, Pakse, which we reached via minibus. We stayed at Alisha Guesthouse which was pleasant for the price. I was able to complete the interview with only a few connection breaks!

We decided to stay the next night as well as we had some catching up to do on the stable wifi connection. Nothing exciting to report other than we found a great Indian restaurant that was significantly cheaper than even the local Laos food. The prices in Laos were much higher than in Cambodia (and Thailand), making it one of the more expensive countries to backpack in SE Asia.

We then took an overnight bus from Pakse to the capital Vientiane. Unlike overnight buses in the rest of the world, you are provided with essentially a single bed for two people that even I wasn’t able to fully extend my legs in. It was one of the worst bus rides we have experienced and we were worse for wear by the time we reached Vientiane. The frustrating thing with the buses in Laos is they drop you outside the city so you have to take a songthaew (a pickup truck with 2 benches in the bed used as shared transport everywhere in SE Asia) for exorbitant prices to the centre. We arrived to our hostel and catnapped in the lobby until we were able to check in.

The main reason for our visit to Vientiane was to organize our Thai visa. We had originally planned to just get a visa on arrival via the land border crossing in the North but Thailand has decreased the number of days given via land border from 30 days to 15 days on arrival. The maximum you are able to extend this once in country is 7-10 days. As we were going to be in Thailand for more than 25 days it meant we would have to get a pre-arranged visa OR book a flight (30 days are still given at international airports). We did our research about obtaining a visa in Vientiane and learned it is one of the most popular places for ex-pats living in Thailand to renew their visas and it isn’t uncommon for 500-700 people to be at the embassy for visas on any given day. We wanted to have all of our paperwork done ahead of time and show up extra early to avoid a several hour wait in line. We had all our paperwork complete and just needed to exchange money to thai baht (they only accept baht). We headed into town to an currency exchange bureau but were shocked to learn that because it was Sunday they were only able to exchange to kip! They didn’t re-open until 8:30 on Monday morning, while the embassy opened at 8. This meant if we exchanged money the following morning and then headed to the embassy we would have several hours waiting in line to submit our application.

At this point in our trip this process wasted far too much of our precious (dwindling) time. We headed to a coffee shop to re-group and discuss our options. We found flights from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai (our first stop in Thailand) for $100 USD. When we crunched the numbers along with the time wasted to get the visa we decided to go ahead and book the flight and obtain a visa on arrival for 30 days. If this had occurred at the start of the trip we would have had no problem tackling it, but for the sake of approximately $40 CAD extra each we were happy enough to save ourselves the headache. By flying we also gained 4 days extra to spend in Thailand!

Having settled all that, we canceled our hostel for the next two nights and bought minivan tickets to head to Vang Vieng the following day. To celebrate we headed to Rays Pub and Mexican Grill and indulged in some truly fantastic burgers.

The minivan ride the next day was absolutely horrendous; the driver swerved all over the road and accelerated and slammed on the breaks so often I couldn’t tell if we were coming or going. Chris was motion sick for the entire ride and barely kept it together. We arrived in Vang Vieng shaken, but ready to really explore Laos as to this point we had basically taken care of online business and wasted time figuring out visas without experiencing much of what Laos had to offer!

We crossed the seasonal bamboo bridge to reach our accommodation, Maylyn Guesthouse. We were very pleased at the serene garden setting and views from the guesthouse, and the surplus of cats looking for snuggles. We relaxed for the afternoon before heading into town to explore.

A bit of history of Vang Vieng: The town is located on the Nam song river and surrounded by the beautiful karst hills. The little town saw a huge surge in tourism in the late ’90s until 2012 due to the popularity of tubing down the Nam song, the availability of mushrooms and weed, and the plentiful bars that lined the riverbed selling Beer Lao and Lao-Lao rum by the bucketful (literally). The bars also erected slides, rope swings, and ziplines from the bars to the river as activities for the booze-fueled tourists. Naturally, the combination of drugs, booze and water activited lead to accidents and deaths. In 2011 alone over 27 tourists died on the river. The actual number isn’t known as any tourist they had to transfer immediately to Vientiane wasn’t accounted for in this toll. The government cracked down in late 2012, forcing all but two riverside bars to close permanently. This has drastically reduced the numbers of young backpackers and increased the number of older tourists. Additionally, the town has become very popular with Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists. The tourist activities have shifted to biking, kayaking and trekking.

Baring the history in mind there are still a lot of pubs and restaurants playing Friends and South Park episodes in the town. Virtually every establishment caters to tourists in some way. However, there is a relaxed feel to the small town and you can relish in the beauty undisturbed. That is exactly what our first evening was about, and we were afforded an incredible sunset from the deck of one of the restaurants.

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We had a delicious dinner at a small restaurant before leisurely making our way back across the river to our guesthouse.

The following day we rented bikes and headed out to explore the area. As we biked we were both in awe with how beautiful the hills surrounding the town were, and we couldn’t help remarking how glad we were the town was no longer the “party” city of days past.

Our first stop was to check out a small cave you are able to swim in. To reach it we had to bike quite a distance down a small side road, walk through some beautiful fields, and go down a small rickety ladder. A local kid used a branch to grab the tubes in the cave for us to sit in, and lent us his headlamp to use while we were in the cave. It was a small cave but still very enjoyable as we had it to ourselves!

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On the way back we tried to find the stream to swim in and inadvertently bumped in to Jeremy who is from New York. We got to chatting and ended up spending the rest of the day and evening together!

Our next stop was to climb to the lookoff point. It was definitely a steep 500 meter vertical climb but the views more than made up for it. What a stunning landscape!

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After the viewpoint we made our way to the famous Blue Lagoon. It was so over crowded with people attempting to take the “perfect” picture while jumping in the water, but it was still beautiful and so refreshing.
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After the Blue Lagoon we biked back to our guesthouse for a shower before meeting back up with Jeremy for sundowners at the restaurant we watched the sunset the previous night. Unfortunately, the cloud cover made for a poor sunset, but we had a great time chatting. We then made our way to Garys Irish Bar, where low and behold there was actually two Irish men working the bar! What a novelty. A stop at another bar and a sandwich from a delightful street vendor later and our night was complete.

The following day started off with the amazing news that I had been offered the job I had interviewed for in Pakse. I am excited to share with everyone that Chris and I will be re-locating to Antigonish, Nova Scotia at the end of January. Antigonish is home to St. Francis Xavier University and a mere 45 minute drive from my parents house. Halifax has treated us very well for the last number of years but it is time for a change and after much deliberation we decided on Antigonish for a variety of reasons. We are very excited about this move and are looking forward to “settling” down for a while.

We happily made our way to the tubing rental agency and rented tubes for the day. After a quick mulberry shake at the organic farm at the drop-off site for the tubing we hit the river. As we lazily floated down the river the remnants of former bars, ziplines and swings lined the riverside, an eery reminder of the crazy party days. Many bars have signs stating they aren’t allowed to service tubers. The 2 remaining bars that are allowed to be open are at the start of the river and employ young Laos boys who wait with a rope to throw to you to pull you in with promises of free shots. We did stop for a celebratory beer at the bars, swinging in hammocks and watching the rest of the tube-goers pounding drinks, unwilling to accept the party days are finished. We moved on quickly, preferring the lazy pace of the water to the fast pace of the kids drinking. It was a marvelous day, the scenery from the river was absolutely incredible. I recommend tubing, but give the bars a miss, they aren’t worth it. I would also recommend going early in the day as the afternoons tend to cloud over and it can get quite cold in the tube.

After our long day tubing we had a delicious dinner before falling into our warm, comfortable bed.

The next day got off to a very rushed and rocky start. I had to run into town to withdraw money to pay for our accommodation before our mini-van pickup at 9 am. The first ATM I tried denied the transaction, the second seemed to be out of money, and it was the third ATM where something very suspicious occured. I put my PIN in, selected the amount I wanted, and then I heard a noise from within the machine and then a receipt printed, but no money was dispensed. I knew something wasn’t right but I had to continue trying ATMs as otherwise we wouldn’t be able to leave. After the suspicious attempt I wasn’t able to do anything, the ATMs displayed the message “Please contact your bank.” As it was 8:30 by this time and our guesthouse was 1.5 kms from the town I sprinted back to the guesthouse (in a total frenzy) and explained what happened to Chris. I tried to log in to my online banking to see if money was withdrawn but I couldn’t access my account. I then attempted to call my bank over skype but the quality of the connection was awful. Luckily the guesthouse kindly accepted USD that we had leftover from our time in Cambodia. The minivan picked us up and we took off for Luang Prabang at breakneck speed, and I was left wondering what was going on with my account for the 5 hour drive.

When we arrived to Luang Prabang I immediately called my bank and was told that they detected that my card had been copied at the ATM that gave a receipt but no cash, so they froze my account. I was very thankful for this, but it means I am unable to use my card any more, which we have used for the entire year. A relatively minor inconvenience considering how disastrous things could have been.

As it was Christmas eve Chris and I headed to a fancy restaurant to have a nice meal for the occasion. The restaurant was located on the other side of the river that intersects the town and requires crossing a bamboo bridge to reach. The views of the river and the town from the beautiful deck of the restaurant made for a relaxing meal. We tried the Laos BBQ fondue, where a bucket of hot coals are placed at your table and you cook your meat, vegetables and broth over them. It was really delicious, the best broth we have ever had. They also had games you could play and we spent some time playing backgammon. It was the perfect way to spend Christmas Eve together.

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After the meal we carried out the 5th installment of the Home Alone Christmas marathon tradition. While we did not have rum and eggnog, we did have whiskey and ginger ale. All that was missing were Jack and Zuri!

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The following morning had us waking very early to skype with all of our loved ones. It was particularly exciting to skype with Wes and Paula and the girls as it was still Christmas Eve in Nova Scotia due to the time difference. We made sure to tell them we had let Santa know they had been good all year and to pay them a visit in NS which made them very happy. We shared the news of my job with our families which was a very special moment.

When we finished skyping we spent the rest of the day finishing the Home Alone series and then heading to a lovely pizza restaurant run by a fellow Canadian. It certainly wasn’t a turkey dinner, but it was familiar and the company was bar none.

The next day we caught our quick flight from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai.

A long post- thanks for sticking it out to the end! We enjoyed our time in Laos, but much of it was spent in transit or carrying out interviews so I think we missed out on some Laos highlights. I would have liked a bit more time to go to the north of the country and did some trekking. However it is all worth it in the end as I am gainfully employed, hooray!