Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sed Laao

With only a few days left of my travels, I knew I had to end it in my favorite place, Chiang Mai. I had bought my plane ticket home based around Loy Krathong and the YeePeng Festival. To celebrate the full moon, thousands of lanterns are sent into the sky, while krathongs are placed in the water to push away any negative feelings and actions from the past year. My hostel was awesome enough to provide supplies so I was able to make my own krathong. At night, I put a few baht and some of my hair (apparently the norm) and sent along my well wishes. The release of the lanterns was honestly one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Thousands of people grinning and excitedly releasing them into the sky, while candlelit krathongs slowly drifted down the river as fireworks blasted all around us was a sight I will never forget. And good thing- because it is pretty impossible to capture on camera. Womp womp. But it was such a perfect way to thank and say goodbye to Thailand, and I'm not going to lie, I got a little emotional. Just let it happen. 

Beyond celebrating Loy Krathong, I had myself an amazing time in Chiang Mai. I luckily met an insanely great group of people and highly enjoyed getting to know them. I spent most of my time with 4 other solo girl travelers, which I thought was pretty, pretty awesome. I ate an obscene amount of Khao Soy, took a really great cooking course, and basically just soaked up my last days of Thai living. I probably looked a little creepy, wandering around town, smiling at everyone in sight, but I couldn't contain my happiness as I reminisced over the past year. I guess it was okay because one man stopped me and said "Thank you for your smile." Maybe I'm not creepy after all. 

It was sad to say goodbye to Chiang Mai, but I was also looking forward to one last night in Suphan. After driving 4 hours through heartbreaking floods from Bangkok, I made it back. I had a really fun night with some of my favorite people in the world and I was just so happy to be around them. Suphan is really a special place and I will cherish it forever and ever and ever. I'm in complete denial that I'm boarding a plane in a few hours, and I know in my heart that I will be back here again. It will take a lot of will power to not come back within the next few weeks, but maybe in a few years I will come back. This year has just been the absolute best and I am so grateful to have had such a welcoming, happy experience here in Thailand. The people I have met - the students, my fellow teachers, my Suphan friends, Baanya, Wat, 25 Hours, Pad Thai lady and so on- will stay forever in my heart. Thank you all for making Suphan my home for the past year :)

But now, it's time to go back to see my family and my adorable little nephew. I'm sure it will be a tough transition, and my heart will still be in Thailand, but at the same time, I'm excited to start anew in the good ole U S of A. So watch out, I come....


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Chill Chill

With a short stopover in Phnom Penh, I made it back to Bangkok to spend Sarah's final weekend in Thailand with her and her brother, Chris. We checked out Wat Arun on the very swollen river, saw a Thai movie, ate lots of street food and enjoyed some Thai nightlife. It was definitely weird to say goodbye to Sarah. It didn't feel real at all. We made this amazing journey together and I was so lucky to have my BFF with me during the best year of my life.

With way too much baggage, I headed to Suphan for a quick visit to see my favorite people, eat my favorite food and to organize my stuff for my next adventure. And dang, I love Suphan. Let's just leave it at that. The usual hour and a half journey back to BKK took way longer because of the flooding, but I'm not going to complain about a long van ride when a huge portion of the country has been devastated by water. The flooding situation has definitely added some stress and anxiety to my final weeks in Thailand, and I hope and pray things don't get worse here for the sake of the country.

When I got to BKK, I went to the bus station with no definite destination in mind. I had three islands in mind and a little game of Eenie-meenie-miney-moe decided my fate. Within 2 hours, I was on a bus to Turtle Island, or Koh Tao, which is known as the diving hot spot in Thailand. Koh Tao was the perfect spot to chill out for a few days and basically mentally prepare myself for home. I ate a lot of beach BBQ, I read a whole lot, I swam, I mingled with the locals, I got one of the best massages of the year ( top 2 for sure), and I did the best snorkeling I've done in Thailand. I went on a one day boat trip around the island and to the small surrounding islands to snorkel, swim and enjoy the scenery. The snorkeling was unreal. There were so many beautiful fish and colorful coral (yeah alliteration!). Besides that, I did a lot of lounging on the beach. But, being Thai, I escaped the sun by sitting in the shade, slathering on sunscreen and hiding under my sarong. So I'm more sun-high-fived, or sun-awkward hugged, than I am sun-kissed. I'll fit right into the cold days of Boston. For now, it's off to the last leg of my trip, my beloved Chiang Mai, to celebrate Loy Krathong.

No big deal

Beautiful view from Nangyan Island

I'm really cool

Saturday, November 5, 2011


When I decided to spend a fair bit of time in Siem Reap, I knew right away that I wanted to spend some time at an orphanage or a children's home to volunteer. It was extremely evident in my past visit to Cambodia that street children are of abundance here. It's really hard to see because, at one moment you are captivated by the beauty and culture of Cambodia, and then in the next moment, a child in tattered clothing, with a newborn slung across her shoulder, is quite aggressively tugging at your arm, following you around and begging for food or money. It's extremely hard to ignore, but all tourists are forewarned not to give in to this behavior, or else you are condoning a life of begging rather than education. Luckily, Cambodia has numerous NGO's and schools for these children to better their lives. So the second part of my Siem Reap tour was less about touristy fun, and more about children. And let's be real, kids can be a whole lot more fun than any tourist site.

A couple months back I had heard about one particular children's home, The Cambodian Children's House of Peace (Santepheap), and so I applied to volunteer there for a week. When I arrived, I was immediately, within seconds, told to teach English class. Fortunately I have experience here, so I wasn't completely thrown off. The kids were so incredibly welcoming and so smart. They are aged 10-19 years old, and they are either orphaned or else their families cannot afford to raise them. So, they come to Santepheap to form one large family. There are a little over 30 kids and they truly act like one big family, teasing each other, eating all of their meals together, playing games together and doing chores together. They are continuously looking out for one another. Their English skills were really impressive and they didn't hesitate to joke around with me and hassle me. I loved it. Some of the younger ones couldn't quite master my name, and decided calling me 'NearOppositeFar' was much easier. Riiight.  I was so blown away with not only their openness to me, but also to their constant positive attitudes. Their home is not very big....15 boys share two small rooms, with only a few mats to share. Some sleep in hammocks out the rear of the rooms. With the recent flooding, their outdoor areas were ruined, and instead of playing football in their spare time, they created traps to catch fish in their new "lake." They eat a variation of the same meal everyday. They learn English through one photo-copied book. But none of this bothers them. Rather, they were filled with happiness. Some of them couldn't even contain themselves and would spend the hours singing and dancing around. It was such a great experience working with them and getting to know some of these children. They seemed to enjoy my presence as well, getting really into the games we played and spending time with me in their free time. I really wish I could have spent more time there because it's really obvious that they are a special group of kids.

My favorite part, however, was seeing these kids perform in the weekly Sunday night dance show. Many of the orphanages in the area put these on, and I attended a few, but seeing the kids from Santepheap dancing, singing, and all dressed in traditional attire was definitely the highlight of my week. They just looked so happy to be up on stage and it was so sweet to watch. I wish I could stress how little these kids live with, but you would never know with their optimistic attitudes. The home could really use any help available, so I highly suggest you check out their website, and if you're feeling a little charitable, donate a few dollars.

The Cambodian Children's House of Peace

Thursday, October 27, 2011

No Tuk-Tuks, No Massages...and DON'T call me Lady

Way back in March I had traveled to Cambodia but only made it to Koh Kong, Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. I was head over heels in love with the people, the food, and the overall attitude of the country. However, due to time constraints, I never made it to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, but I knew I wasnt leaving SE Asia without going. So with 6 weeks to travel, I decided to dedicate a good chunk of time there, but first I had to get there from Laos, which was quite the trek, so I made a few stops.

As ecstatic as I was to be back in the Land of Smiles for a few days, my stopover towns left me feeling creeped out and anxious to get to Cambodia. For logistical purposes I stopped in Udon Thani and Khorat, both of which were oozing sex tourism. In Bangkok, it's one thing- it's easy to avoid the notorious streets- but there, I was not only THE ONLY female foreigner, I was also the only foreigner under 50 years old. I was very out of place and didn't do much with my time there ( except almost get crushed by an elephant and see this awesome movie).

So when the time came to get on a bus to the border, I hopped on, as ready as ever. (Actually, I was mildly freaking out because Siem Reap has been affected by flooding for the past month and I was dreading doing a hectic border crossing by myself and finding a safe and cheap 2 hour taxi ride to Siem Reap.) Alas, with no travel buddies to be found, I got in a tuk-tuk and braced myself for craziness. And what do you know?- I got dropped off at the scam office, but luckily I didn't fall for it. As I angrily headed towards actual immigration, a girl in a tuk-tuk was waving and grinning at me, but in my state of confusion, I had no idea who it was. But after I heard my name, and I focused a little more, I realized it was a girl, Krissy, I had met very briefly a couple months back in Chiang Mai. And with that, I had a travel buddy (and a dang good one at that!)

I was so excited to be back in Cambodia, and especially to see Angkor Wat. I was a little startled, however, when we neared the town and floodwater filled the streets. I ya. The taxi couldn't quite make it through the water, so Krissy and I hiked up our skirts and waded through knee deep water to get to the hostel. All part of the adventure, right? Within a couple of days, the water had receded and I was soon able to walk, not swim, my way through town.

The first part of my 10 day stay was filled with touristy fun. We found the cutest tuk-tuk driver and spent two days exploring the many temples of Angkor. We even got up bright and early one morning to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat. The temples were gorgeous and it was really amazing to be around such old structures. On one of the days we lucked out because not one other person was around when we toured some of the bigger complexes. I'm guessing it's because we had to trek through floods to see them, but it was totally worth it. For realz.

Besides the temples, it's easy to fill up days in Siem Reap... strolling around, shopping at the markets, lazing at a cafe, drinking an Angkor beer and eating at the variety of restaurants. Lucky for me, Krissy is also a foodie, and we were all about trying new places and making friends with aaallll of the workers. (I've become such a flirt with the locals!) But one of my favorite outings in my time was jumping on the back of a motorbike and going to the Landmine Museum, which tells the amazing story of a once soldier who now defuses the mines scattered across the country. The small museum is about an hour away from the main town, and I absolutely loved the ride to and from, through the villages and past the countryside. My moto picked up on the fact that I love exploring, especially on a motorbike, and drove me around more of these villages. I mastered the side-sit on the motorbike and tried to take as many photos as possible. As you can see from the epic length of this post, I loved everything about Siem Reap (sorry!). Cambodia is definitely something special, and I found that out in Part 2 of my Siem Reap adventures...

Te Phrom, my favorite temple!

Sunrise at Angkor

*Sorry for the lack of pics....these are just courtesy of my Ipod

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Love in Luang Prabang

We left Vang Vieng to embark on a long, windy, but insanely beautiful drive to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Unfortunately, I had to keep my eyes closed for a majority of the drive to avoid getting sick, but trust me when I say my glimpses into Laos living in the mountains is simple, but absolutely gorgeous.

Upon arrival Mick had spotted a sign for coffee oreo milkshakes so we headed (AKA ran) there and delighted ourselves with shakes and the first of many Laos sandwiches ( French bread... Oh. Em. Gee.). Refueled and ready to go, we were ready to take on Luang Prabang. Having 5 days to spend there, we covered a lot of ground, so to break it down, our trip consisted of meandering, monks, markets and.... Being fatties (shocker!)

Meandering: We strolled up and down the cobblestone streets, admired the French architecture, oohed and ahhhed at the breathtaking views from both the Mekong and Mae Kok Rivers, and popped in and out of shops and galleries. The town was so darling and so charming that we happily spent our days wandering around. Our little photographer, Mick, enabled us to meet a lot of locals and have some chats and we even scored a free concert from Mr. On, who was playing a Laos instrument in his home. He brought out some plastic stools and entertained us with his tunes for the next 30 minutes. One morning we jumped (and wobbled) on a shabby little boat across the Mekong and explored the village of Chomphet, where we were led by cute little children to a secluded Wat about 1000 steps up (I kid...I think). I loved the fresh, old, cozy feeling that the town had, so meandering the streets was the perfect way to experience it.

Monks: The monks in Laos are much more friendly and a whole lot more eager to practice their English, so we spent a lot of time this week chatting with monks from various Wats. Luang Prabang is lined with gorgeous, and quaint, Wats, and we spent a good chunk of time wandering through them. By chance, and by pure luck, we happened to get to Luang Prabang during Boun Lai Heua Fai, or the Festival of Lights. All of the temples were filled with hundreds of lanterns, candles and boats made of bamboo, that were later paraded down the main road and into the Mekong River. It was such a stunning sight and we were so happy to be able to witness the monks lighting their candles and going absolutely wild with fireworks, firecrackers and sparklers. For 3 days straight, the town was filled with lights and lanterns and the crackling and popping of fireworks. Rocket launchers filled the sky, giving the appearance of dozens of shooting stars at any given  time. It was definitely a happy time to be there. And of course, as the main toursist attraction, we woke up one morning at 5:30 am to see the procession of monks during the alms-giving in the morning. We may have slept a little too late and witnessed only 5 minutes of it, but it was still enjoyable.

Markets: Who knew that Luang Prabang would have a pretty epic handicraft market? A little too epic... Let's just say that maybe too much time was spent here and my suitcase is going to be a little harder to pack. On the other hand, the morning market was a different sight to see. Frogs, pigeons, chickens, snakes, bats, cockroaches, turtles and worms lined the street, twitching in their last minutes. It was a little too much for me, but Michaela had a field day with the photo opps.

Being fat: Naturally, we ate our way through the town. Both the Laos options and the Western options were irresistable, and so I chowed down on local cuisines like laab, som tam and loads of sticky rice, while also indulging in sandwiches and pizza. Yum! Being the charmers that we are, we made friends with the waiters at various places, and maybe took it a step too far by creating a heart made from the melting wax of a candle and gave it to one of them. One restaurant even held an Ethnic Fashion Show, displaying the various styles of dress from all of the Laos people. It was pretty awesome!

Luang Prabang made me smile. I fell in love with its people, its food and its gorgeous views. It was sad to leave and say goodbye to not only the city, but also to Michaela and Sarah, as we all went our separate ways. I dreaded the long journey ahead of me to Siem Reap, but I still had a day of Vientiane to look forward to and maybe one more chocolate croissant.

Mr. On!

Morning Alms

Fashion Show

Pretty Lanterns

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pastry Binge and Machetes

Border crossings are usually stressful, but luckily, the Friendship Bridge into Vientiane was easy peasy and after a short time, I was on my way into a land of baked goods...I mean, Laos. Before coming to Thailand, I knew little about Laos and didn't have much of an interest in it. But, after hearing travel stories from backpackers and learning more of its history (and the destruction the US caused upon it during the Vietnam War), I was really ancy to get there. It definitely lived up to, and for sure surpassed, anything I had envisioned.

After wandering the streets to find a hostel, we dumped our bags off and basically ran to one of many bakeries.Within an hour of being in Laos, I was happily eating a sandwich and lemonade. As much as we wanted to go cafe-hopping, we knew we should explore the area, so we strolled through the streets, popping in and out of shops, galleries, and Wats (and many monk chats!) before succumbing to cafe #2. What can I say? I've been deprived in Thailand. We then set off on an epic walk around the town and made our way to Patuxai, a beautiful gate that resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The three of us thought it was gorgeous, but apparently the city disagrees. The description on the structure calls it 'a concrete monster.' Sad! We continued meandering through the streets, observed a pretty large carnival, drank the best chocolate milkshakes in the world and then called it a night. It was a quick visit because we were leaving the next morning for Vang Vieng.

Unfortunately, Vang Vieng is known among the backpacker crowd for its ridiculous drunken tubing scene. There is a beautiful river in the midst of lush green mountains and small town Laos, and it is now filled with drunk backpackers raging throughout the day and night. Luckily, the scene was pretty easy to avoid and we opted for a more local and scenic tour. We took a 9 mile trek to the Blue Lagoon. The long walk was absolutely breathtaking and gave a huge glimpse into Laos living. As we made our way through the mud and dirt paths, we came across kittens, puppies, cows, water buffalo, pigs, and cute little chldren playing with machetes. It was really cool to see and interact with the Hmong people living with basically nothing. We took the time to "chat" with some people and to take lots of photos of the ridiculously pretty surroundings. By the time we made it to the Lagoon we were more than happy to take a dip in the serene waters.

After roughing it for the day, we found one of 20 or so restaurants that aired episodes of Friends all day and night, and enjoyed some food with Ross, Rachel, Phoebe and co. Vang Vieng had done us good. It's definitely sad to see a town, so rich in culture and beauty, taken over by backpackers, but Vang Vieng is still able to retain its true identity and we definitely took advantage of it. So far Laos had really stunned me and I was totally crushing on it. And when we arrived in Luang Prabang, I was done for. It was love at first sight.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Perfect Remedy

Leaving Suphan was really hard. My last few nights were some of the best, and the last night especially left me joyed beyond belief. I literally woke up with a huge grin on my face. The smile disappeared quickly when reality struck and I realized I had to finish packing up and leave my beloved Suphan. But, luckily, I found a quick remedy for my sadness... Mick OB. Mick, one of my awesome friends from  the States, decided to join the first 2 weeks of my backpacking adventure with Srall. When I turned over in my bed, struck with waves of giddiness and then depression, I got really excited upon seeing Mick with me in Thailand. After showing her the hot spots in Suphan and getting some of my final meals at Baanya's  and PTL, we set off on our journey. First stop: Bangkok.

We did the normal touristy jazz in Bangkok and may have had another epic night involving 25 Hours before hopping on an overnight bus to Khon Kaen. Over the past year I've covered a lot of ground in Thailand but the Northeast was the only general area I had left to conquer. And after experiencing it, I understand why- there isn't much going on there. Don't get me wrong- I still enjoyed myself. I mean I was in Thailand with two of my best friends, eating amazing food, getting massages, meeting cool Thai peeps and exploring new places. But, in terms of things to do and see, Khon Kaen is lacking. We did spend one day wandering around the big lake and strolling through the many wats. One in particular stands out, not only because it was a gorgeous 9 level chedi, but also because Mick joined monk school.   I guess i should preface this by saying that Mick is a photographer and getting up close and personal with a camera comes easily to her. So when she took a seat at an open desk during monk class, she was met with a lot of giggles, myself contributing. We also had another monk moment when we stumbled upon a hundred or so novice monks being addressed before they took a big exam. Their teacher, so excited to see farang, asked us to speak to the group. Sarah took charge and hearing 100s of monks repeat after her was pretty awesome. So although Khon Kaen didn't deliver in terms of sights, it sure gave us a lot of happy monk moments, which obviously makes it a success.  

After two days we made our way up further north to Nong Khai, the border town between Laos (our next destination) and Thailand. I personally thought Nong Khai was a beautiful little, homely town. Their was a gorgeous riverwalk along the Mekong, in which boat races were taking place. We spent our days wandering the town, eating some delish meals and taking lots of pics. Nong Khai is also home to this incredible sculpture park, Sala Keow, where these giant stone sculptures, depicting various religious and non-religious concepts, tower over you. It was really different and I enjoyed walking around, although the descriptions were only in Thai. Mai Pen Rai.

I was super excited to continue our trip into Laos, but that also meant saying goodbye to Thailand for a little bit. My heart was still aching with the absence of Suphan, so the thought of leaving Thailand altogether pulled at my heartstrings. But, we cheersed with some bia Singha and watched a Thai band sing some of our faves (per our request) and prepared to journey into Laos the next morning.

You'll have to excuse my lack of pictures, but without my laptop, I can't upload my pictures. I swear I will actually make a  facebook album when time allows.