Thursday, October 29, 2009

Morning markets, temples up high, and Lao traditional ballet

Our first guesthouse in Luang Prabang was conveniently located just a dozen or so meters from the small street that houses the morning market. The morning market in Luang Prabang is primarily a food market for the local homes and restaurants and features both delicious looking and truly bizarre food stuffs. On the delicious side of the spectrum you have the yum-tastic local veggies, including our newly favorite choko (more on that in another post soon), some really interesting and tasty fruits, fermenting fish sauces, more kinds of rice than you've probably ever seen, and grilled meats. On the more eccentric end of the spectrum you'll see dead or dying bats, hundreds of toads in a net covered bucket, buckets of slithering eels, some kind of mole-guinea pig looking things, and what I thought looked like grilled rat on a stick. It was great fun getting to walk around and take it all in.

Since the market is primarily a locals-only sort of vending location, there are a few confused looks that you get as you walk around. You don't feel unwelcome mind you... I don't know if the Lao have it in them to make anyone feel unwelcome ever, but you do get a sense from a few of the vendors that they don't want you to get in the way while they try and real in a sale from locals passing by.

In the heat of the day (in hindsight not the greatest time to do this) the three of us, Kerry, Kat, and I, hiked up the large hill that sits right smack in the center of town. As you make your ascent you see stair counts passed and stairs remaining that both encourages and discourages you as you go. There were around 300 stairs and some of them quiet steep. By about half-way up, we were all gasping in the 100+ degree heat. Once we made it to the top, we found a large collection of shrines, a cave, and a Wat tucked and hidden amongst lots of tiny blind paths. It was really fun to walk along the paths and not know what you might run into next.

The most hilarious thing was that there were all of these signs for "Buddha's footprint". We kept meandering around trying to find it, and we think we did, though it was not what any of us had expected... it was more like what you see when someone finds Elvis giving Jesus a high-five in their toast in the morning than a footprint... There was a rock with a sort of Sasquatch inspired indentation that had been painted in with gold paint... ya... nice... Buddha's footprint. Good lookin' out. WTF right? That was a little funny and disappointing, but the rest of the sights up there certainly were not. I think my favorite thing up there was this really cool looking moth that just sat there next to us as we took photos and tried to cool down. It was there when we arrived, and there when we left, just idly moving its wings now and again and staring longingly West.

That night, the three of us decided to check out the Luang Prabang Royal Ballet. They were performing that evening and Kerry and I wanted to make up for not having seen traditional dance the last time we were in the region. The music leading up to the dance performance was really beautiful and lots of fun to see performed. They were all playing traditional Lao instruments that seem to resemble familiar things, but sounded a little different from much of what we had heard before.

The show was of of the Search for Princess Sida. A tale about a missing princess, a monkey army trying to help find her, red and green birds fighting, and a final showdown with the evil giant Thotsakan. As I understand it, it is a portion of a much longer story, but they show this bit because of all of the fun-to-watch conflict. The overall performance, dancing, and costumes were really great, especially the simian mannerisms injected into the portrayal of the monkeys. What the performers young and old might have lacked in some synchronicity, they more than made up for with pride and showmanship. It was great fun for us and Kerry and I were glad that on this trip, we had made the time to see some traditional dance.

Next up, a homestay in a mountainside Hmong village!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Landing in Luang Prabang

Kerry and I have commented about a lot of things, but I think it's worth making note of how warm it is here in Laos. In the evening, with a breeze, while on the water, the temperature is 95 degrees, (about 35 for your Celsius peeps), but we have pretty much adjusted and now, when we do a trip at altitude where it drops to a bracing 85 degrees, we need a jacket... SF is going to feel frosty!

OK, enough about that. Since my GI distress was all shifty, we flew rather than bussed it out of Vientiane to to Luang Prabang. The flight was SUPER short, 45 minutes, rather than a 10+ hour bus ride! Score. My belly was feeling pretty stable and kosher by the time we arrived in town. And wow, what a cool town. Definitely the cleanest place we've seen in Laos, and oozing with... well... lots and lots of charm.

Our pho lunch was right on the Mekong. The views of the surroundings kept us pretty distracted for a good chunk of time.

That night, we stayed in a super cute B+B style guesthouse on a charming narrow brick side street called Pakam Guesthouse. It has dark wood details, is very clean, and run by a friendly family that keeps the place tidy and quite. They have a small veranda with a couple of teak chairs that was great for the three of us to chill and have a few glasses of lao lao at night.

Luang Prabang is known, among other things, for its night market so we had to dive in a check it out. One of the side streets is nothing but finger lickin' delicious food, (though here, of course, you can't lick said fingers without a heavy bout of colon cleanse the following night, lol). The rest of the market is filled with handicrafts made in the surrounding villages consisting of carving, textiles, snacks, lao lao concoctions, and lots of other bobs and bits. It is really beautiful just to stroll around, which is exactly what we did as long as our legs would allow it.

Friday, October 23, 2009


Our arrival in Vientiane was uneventful other than the fact that none of us had slept well on the overnight bus, and Isaac's GI distress was getting worse. He decided to start the 3 day cycle of antibiotics that his GI doctor had prescribed. They are a new kind that only targets the bacteria in the GI track and don't effect the rest of your body (nonabsorbent). So Isaac will find some yogurt in the future to help replace the good bacteria.

Isaac slept most of the morning while I wrote blogs on our laptop and saved them for later (no internet in our place). Our place is not cheap ($16) by southern Laos standards (we are in the capital now), but was the best we could find with clean sheets and a clean bathroom, and later we found out it's in lonely planet which I didn't even know. We told the tuk tuk driver to take us here because I had found another place, next door, on tripadvisor and it ended up being double the price listed. It seems everything is quiet a bit more expensive then what lonely planet, tripadvisor, etc has listed. Not just hotel rooms, everything. That's probably due in part to the weak exchange rate for dollars. Lucky for us, it is all still cheap by US standards and we had budgeted for things to cost more.

The next day, after breakfast and internet time at the wi-fi place, the three of us headed out to see Pha That Luang, which Lonely Planet names "the most important national monument in Laos". It's a giant golden stupa that has been rebuilt several times over the last 200 years. It was pretty, but not terribly interesting for me. Still, it was nice to see and I got some good photos out of it. There was a young boy and older woman selling small caged birds (looked like sparrows, maybe) outside the temple, and I got a neat shot of that. They kept trying to sell them to us and I wasn't sure why, since I assume they are either for eating or for pets, or maybe to release as an offering at the temple. Anyways, they looked neat.

We went to lunch at Makphet, a restaurant that serves modern Lao food and trains former street children to be waiters and cooks. All of the profits go to the nonprofit that runs the place, and after being trained the teenagers/young adults can find work in other restaurants. It was nice to support the place and the food was really good, although I think I prefer the traditional Lao food to the modern Lao food. The flavors of the modern Lao food seemed a bit milder to me, but still delicious. Isaac got a really delicious watermelon/lime blended drink and even ended up ordering a second one, so you know it was good! The service was very good (as it has been everywhere in Laos) so I think they are doing a good job of training the street kids.

It was sooooo hot out, that we all decided to walk back to the hotel and shower. After the shower Kat decided to hang out in the cafes and Isaac and I decided, in the interest of cultural research and to put money in the hands of those who need it most, to get massages. After our $12 hour long massages we decided we hadn’t truly helped out and given the masseuses enough money, so we added on 1 hour foot massages. It was truly a selfless act on our part, I know. Of course when we found out the foot massages were only 50,000 kip each (8,500 kip= 1 dollar), we totally felt like we had robbed them. But they were very happy and we were totally blissed out, so all was good.

After the massages we found Kat and all decided to go to a nice French restaurant for our last night in Vientiane. We had an AMAZING meal of soup, salad, wild boar, venison, good wine, and a Belgian chocolate mousse for dessert. It was the best chocolate mousse any of us had ever had. Totally overly full after our decadent day, we waddled back to the hotel.

When we got to our room (Kat stopped by before going to her room to pick up something) we all remarked that it smelled strongly of body odor, which was weird because we all had been showering enough to keep the dreaded falang-stank off of us. After Kat left I sat down on the bed (which was strewn with our belongings, just as we had left it) when I noticed there were a few plastic bags with items wrapped in newspaper in them. They weren’t ours. Then I noticed a backpack on the floor that wasn’t our either (and turned out to be the source of the stank). What the what??????? We checked around and all of our stuff was still in the room, and the room had been locked. Isaac brought everything that wasn’t ours to the front desk and they were as perplexed as us. So I don’t know if they gave some drunk falangs our room key or put it in our room by mistake for them (although the hotel service certainly didn’t seem swank enough to do that). Hmmmm. Anyways, the stank left with the backpack and we slept with the manual slide bolt locked!

The next day Kat took a 9 hour bus ride to Luang Prabang and we took a 45 minute flight, since Isaac’s tummy was still upset. Next up: Luang Prabang!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Don Khone to Vientiane

After spending our last night in Pakse we took an early morning mini-van ride to the 4,000 islands region of Laos, about 3 hours south of Pakse. It is named 4,000 islands because there are tons of tiny islands, although the two that seem to have the guesthouses and tourist infrastructure are Don Det and Don Khon.

Let me back up a little and mention that a European young man walked up to us as we were walking to breakfast to ask if we knew how to get to the islands, as he had just arrived on the overnight bus from Vientiane. Trying to be helpful, I suggested he see if our minivan was full yet and if not he could buy a ticket on it for the islands. Big mistake. He ended up being incredibly loud and crass, swearing loudly and talking about his sexual exploits during his travels. Think typical frat boy, only Dutch. He said we seemed responsible and fun so he latched on to us and ended up deciding to go to Don Khon with us (which is significantly less touristy then Don Det). In a way I feel bad writing this because he didn't seem like a bad person, but truly so loud and uncouth. During our first lunch on the island I just wanted to say to all the locals "he's not with us- really- we aren't going to be acting like that!". The islands are so quite it's like shouting in a library when you loudly talk about "getting fucking pissed in Vang Vien". After lunch we managed to get a different guesthouse than him, telling him we just wanted to chill in our hammocks and that we would see him around because it's such a small island. We did run into him several times on the road, and he always asked where we were going and we would just say "out for a snack and then back into the hammock" which was actually true. The rest of the time we actually avoided him because he found another traveler to hang out with and when he was talking he was so loud we could hear him before we saw him and run away. Isaac described it as being like a cat with a bell.

Anyhoo, we ended up at some little 5 dollar bungalows with grimy showers but clean beds and most importantly, decks with hammocks right on the Mekong. We walked around town a bit but it was rainy so we decided to forgo trekking or taking a long boat ride in the rain to try and see some rare freshwater dolphins. That would have been nice but we were unanimous in thinking reading a book and drinking lao lao by candlelight in the hammock would be nicer. It was lovely.

There were baby water buffalo, little chicks, kittens, and other cute animals everywhere, and everyone was very friendly and said "sabadee" (Hello) when we passed by.

The locals all bathed in the river (adults wearing sarongs) and all the open air restaurants were almost always completely empty. There were very few falang around, although we kept ending up at the same places as this group of 3 younger and 2 older french people. We orginally planned to only spend one night on the islands but ended up spending two. The only real downside was that everything became damp so quickly and started to smell like mildew. The second day we ran into the manager of Green Discovery from Pakse (whose uncle we stayed with during the homestay); he was giving a family a 5 day rafting tour. Small world! He had us convinced we should go see some waterfalls but then it began to rain and the lethargy set back in. Back in the hammocks we went. We did get the energy up to go to Don Det, just to see it, check our email, and get a drink. Well, the email was not so good (see previous posts), the town had this nasty Khao San Road vibe, and the menu was full of western food and "happy" shakes. We got a very non-happy drink each and then hopped on the boat back to our hammocks.

The next day we took a minivan back to Pakse, stopped by Green discovery to pick up some things we had left there and got to see Udon and Aot again. I also got to talk with a very interesting American woman who has been living in Laos for 7 years teaching English, and is just about to start managing the hotel that Green Discovery operates near Wat Phu. We bought overnight sleeping bus tickets from them, said goodbye to Pakse and left on the 8pm bus.

When we got to the bus station the man assigned me and Kat in one bunk and Isaac in another. The bus bunks consist of smaller than double sized beds that they put 2 people in, which might be a stranger if you are traveling alone (but same sex if it's a stranger). We asked if we could have me and Isaac in the same bunk and he seemed very put off by the idea, so we figured maybe opposite sex was against Lao culture so we agreed to me and Kat sharing a bunk. When we got inside the bus we saw lots of other couples, both Lao and Falang, sharing bunks! Turns out his being put off was just that he had assigned a man with Isaac's bunk and if that had been Kat's bunk he would have had to do 2 minutes worth of work to rearrange the seats. There ended up being a empty bunk, so that would have been ideal because then Kat and Isaac's bunk mate would have had their own beds. Le sigh. Isaac spent the entire night with a strange man and Kat and I ended up bunking together on a top bunk of a swaying bus with Kat trying not to fall out of the bunk and me trying to wedge myself up against the glass so that I didn't push her out. None of us got much sleep and we all agreed it was the worst night yet during the trip. When we arrived in Vientane we all had a touch of GI distress but Isaac's was the worst and we couldn't do much other than blog and (finally) mail that huge @#$% musical instrument back to the states. Oddly enough, I have had a fine day just hanging out and blogging. We will spend tomorrow in Vientane as well and hopefully get to see some of it, because it seems lovely. Kat roamed the city alone today and said it was very nice. She is resigned to taking the bus to Luang Prabang the day after tomorrow to save money but if Isaac's GI distress isn't absolutely cleared then the two of us may fly and meet her there. At $80 a ticket vs $20 for the bus, it's an expenditure we don't want given the news about Isaac's job, but the road to Luang Prabang is supposed to be hellish if you get motion sick (which I do), and even Dramamine won't keep me from falling out of a bunk that's wildly swaying back and forth for 10 hours. So we are going to think about it tomorrow, but the flight is only 45 minutes vs 10 hours. Tempting. So we will see. It's looking less likely that we will fly down to Siem Reap to see John and Narissa, as much as we would like to, due to finances and time. So that remains to be seen also but if we don't go then we will have almost a full week in Luang Prabang, which I think would be fab. So either way, we win!

Leeches in Laos

The roosters woke us up at dawn, but Kat and I laid in bed for a little while longer, not wanting to wake the guys sleeping in the main room. eventually we decided to get up once it was a little light out, and suddenly Kat looks down at her chest and sees that she is covered in big blood stains. she holds up her hands and sees one is covered in blood and still bleeding. Thank goodness the blood only got on Kat's clothes (and white jacket!) and not our hosts' bedding. that would have been a nightmare. Kat reported that her hand didn't hurt at all and remembered feeling "something gooey" on her hand in the middle of the night (after we had our midnight wee) and flicking it off. Leeches! well we couldn't sleep after that, so we got our flashlights out (it was just barely light in the room) and searched the bed. the leech was on the mosquito net just over where my face had been! lucky me we woke up before it got hungry again. We patched Kat up and everyone had a big laugh about Kat getting a leech in bed. Then we had a yummy breakfast, sampled a little "medicinal" lao-lao (just a sip, it was 7 am!) and went for a walk around the village with Udon. It had rained during the night and everything was wet and muddy. At one point Kat realized she had another leech on her foot and flung it off in time. Then we all realized we had leeches on our feet/legs and all got them off in time before they attached (except Udon, who had no leeches, and told us to keep moving for goodness sake, then we crazy falang wouldn't keep getting leeches). When we got back Isaac took off his hiking shoes and realized a leech had attached to his foot. He removed it and it bled like crazy, but luckily we had band aids. Then Fredrick found a leech on his leg, already attached unfortunately. a little while later Kat found a leech in between her toes, that had gone unnoticed for quiet awhile. In the end, I was the only one who didn't get a leech attached to me! And everyone thought I would be the first, because I am so accident prone. I always say: being accident prone makes me more cautious. Hah.

However, I did get an innocent enough looking bite on my chest the day before that days later got a little infected and started to look really nasty and you could see 2 huge fang marks half centimeter apart where a rather large spider must have bitten me, so what are you going to do, you can't win them all.

We continued back to Pakse at a leisurely pace after saying goodbye, good luck, and thank you many times over to our hosts and the other villagers. We then went to see some waterfalls, a coffee plantation, a tea plantation, a market where Udon explained the strange fruits and vegetables and encouraged us to buy some outrageously entertaining Lao music videos (which we did, the hip hop being the best that we saw), had another yummy lunch where Udon ordered off the menu venison for us, since by that time he learned we did not want falang food but real Lao food.

We stopped by some road side huts where people were making the knives that the farmers cut rice with (Isaac bought one). The metal of the knives comes from truck struts as nothing is wasted in Laos. It was pretty cool and I got some video of them hammering the steel. None of us noticed what all the anvils they were using were made of until Udon nonchalantly pointed it out. They were huge unexploded ordnances from the Vietnam war. They were literally hammering as hard as they could on the base of the inverted bomb again and again. Obviously at some point someone had taken the charge out of them (or "the boom" as Isaac says, since neither of us are bomb experts). This was not some show for the tourists. Every knife making hut we drove past was using huge bombs as their anvils. And that's about all I have to say about that.

We said a very sad goodbye to Fredrick, Udon, and Aot and exchanged email addresses when we got back to Pakse. As luck would have it, we did run into Udon and Aot again after our 4,000 islands trip, and now that we are in Vientiane and completely done with traveling through Pakse, I am a little sad. I won't be able to think of Laos without thinking of our homestay with Udon, Aot, and Fredrick. Next up: Don Khone and 4,000 Islands!

Bolaven plateau and homestay: part 2

That evening we arrived in the rural Lao village where we were to spend the night, after navigating some of the worst roads I have ever seen. They were so flooded and full of holes and ruts I thought for sure we would have to get out and push, but Aot is a fantastic driver and we never got stuck. Add to this any number of water buffalo, little kids, stray dogs, pigs, and chickens and you can imaging how hard it would be to drive on those roads. I can assure you we held on for dear life in the back to keep from flying up and hitting our heads on the top cover of the sawngthaew.

When we booked our 2 day tour with Green Discovery eco-tours in Paske (and I cannot say enough good things about Green Discovery, I highly recommend using them if you are in Laos, and from the Pakse office you can request Udon or Aot as your guide) The traditional trip had us staying in a guest house. I asked if we could do a homestay in a village instead and the office manager, who was also wonderful, said he would call around and see what he could do, even though that wasn't the way the package was planned. When we got to the village, Udon explained that we would be staying with the uncle of the office manager. He had put us up with his own family! This was beyond generous and cool. Everyone in the village is a coffee farmer (at least for one job, it seems everyone in Laos has at least 2 jobs) and they had only had one other group of falang spend the night in the village, ever. The previous group had been all women so Isaac and Fredrick were the first male falong to ever stay in the village. Ever, people. When we arrived Udon told us that since coffee bean harvesting had just begun the previous day, all of the heads of the households had all gathered for a day long meeting to discuss the harvest, and to celebrate drinking beerlao and lao-lao (rice whiskey moonshine, tastes like Awamore from Okinawa, anywhere from 40 proof to make-you-blind proof) since the morning. Needless to say the atmosphere was festive and friendly. the house was built on stilts with a kitchen, communal room, 3 bedrooms and electricity. The bathroom is outside and consists of a squat toilet (everywhere in Laos) and a large tub of rain water and a bucket to pour the water over yourself to bathe. we all took turns bathing and let's just say it was brisk, to say the least, since the sun was almost down and the Bolaven plateau is cooler anyways. I would say it was in the low 80s upper 70s at that point. The bathing was an interesting experience and I'm glad for it since that's how much of the world bathes. Still, I wouldn't voluntarily give up my nice hot showers when they are available!

They were out of beerlao so they sent someone to get more (on the awful roads, in the rain, no less!) and then Udon said he had a surprise for us. He had been telling us since our tour the previous day that we were special to him, friends now, and he had a surprise for us.

The surprise turned out to be a baasii ceremony, which every Lao person (we were in a Lao village, not a minority village) has before or after a trip, during a wedding, when they are very ill, or other special occasions. They were doing it for us as their special guests, and this village had never done it for falang before.The ceremony was beautiful, moving, and very special for all of us. it was a big honor and it's hard to put into words but I will try to condense it for you. The ceremony consists of the head of the village making a long speech calling our Khwan, or guardian spirits, back to us if they have wandered away because we will need them to protect us on our journey. White cotton strings are placed around a stupa-like arrangement of banana leaves, rice, lao lao, candles, and water. All the adult villagers who were present (maybe 10-15) reach in, touch the arraignment, say something in unison, and take the strings. then they one by one come over to the 4 of us, and Udon and Aot also, and tie the strings around our wrists while wishing us well. the strings stay on for 3 days to bind the guardian spirits to you and then need to be untied, not cut. After that it gets even more festive and we pass around a cup of beerlao that we keep refilling and all drink from, with everyone encouraging whomever is pouring to give the fullest glasses to whomever is already drunk, or whomever is saying they shouldn't have any more, naturally. I guess some things are universal. And keep in mind most of these guys had already been drinking all day during their meeting. Festive! Udon and Aot taught us some Lao drinking toasts and we all talked about our lives and families and got to know each other better, while Thai soap operas and Lao music videos played on the TV. From what we have seen of Laos even the poorest huts have satellite dishes. Everyone likes their TV! The villagers seemed especially interested in what the weather was like where we are from, and what we thought of Lao weather. Natural I suppose, seeing as how they are farmers. The more beerlao that was drunk the more it seemed that that everyone forgot we can't speak Lao so I had some people trying to ask me these questions directly and I had to run over and grab Udon or Aot to translate! Dinner was, as usual, delicious. The men all slept in the communal room, the Lao women slept in the 2 childrens' bedrooms, and Kat and I were given the nicest sleeping room, the parents' bedroom. When we got up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet (which is outside of the main house) the stars were incredible (Isaac saw a shooting star when he went to pee). Apparently, that's when Kat got her first leech, although we didn't know it until the rooster woke us up at dawn. Next up: leeches in Laos!

Bolaven Plateau and homestay- part 1

We had the most amazing 2 days traveling to the Bolaven Plateau with Udon, our guide (from the previous trip to Wat Phuo), our driver Aot (who also speaks English, pronounce "ought"), Kat, and Fredrick from Belgium. Everyone was 23-35 years old and full of energy so it was a great match of people. We rode in the back of a small pickup truck with a roof and bench seats called a sawngthaew, which is pronounced similar to Tsing tao (the beer) so that's how I remember the name. Everyone had great fun listening to my tone deaf attempts to pronounce words in Lao, since Lao is a tonal language. Sadly, I don't think being fluent in Lao is in my near future. We first stopped at an eco preserve near a waterfall where the Lao government has set up several different households of minority groups to live in the same village, each in their traditional dwellings and clothes. This is the villagers' choice, and Udon says the families choose to do this because they get plenty of food and their children get to go to school, which I gather is rare in the minority villages as well as the poorer Lao villages. Udon said even if school is free, which it often is out in the countryside, if the kids don't have money for the uniform, books, paper and pencils they can't go. Also they may be needed to work on the farm or at the family business and therefor not be able to go to school. This eco preserve also helps the minority groups because it funnels the majority of tourists into this manufactured village, where they can take a million photos and see the tribes without damaging the actual tribal villages' culture by exposing them to too many outside influences. Isaac bought a neat but awkwardly shaped musical instrument that we are hoping to mail back home today or tomorrow. I am sitting in our hotel in Vientiane writing this and it has certainly become the proverbial albatross around our neck at this point, albeit a funny one, as we attempt to transport it on tuk tuk, sawngthaew, and my favorite, overnight bus. But I digress. After that we had a yummy lunch at another waterfall, and Udon ordered our food for us so it was delicious. Everything was eaten with sticky rice and we loved it. Soup with lemongrass and tamarind is my other new favorite thing.

After that we rode elephants from the river into the jungle to another village. It was Issac and me on one and Kat and Fredrick on another. The seats were pretty rickety, (Isaac's back/side support was completely broken), so we hung on for dear life when the elephants needed to go up or down hill. I will say that the sun was blazing when we weren't in the forest! We had a great time, with butterflies everywhere and everyone in the village staring at the strange falang (foreigners) as we went through. Not many falang visit the villages that aren't off a major road. Our elephant was pretty hungry and kept veering off course to sneak some leaves, much to the dismay of the elephant trainer. We had just seen her eat a ton of bananas but what can I say, she is a foodie like us. She was pretty slow but managed to pick up speed quiet a bit when she saw a variety of leaves she liked! Kat and Fredrick's elephant kept using her trunk to blow air on them and made sounds that sounded like a dolphin. Truly adorable. We also had a funny moment where I heard Kat (behind me) say to Fredrick "what a weird looking bug OHMYGODITLANDEDONKERRY" at which point I shook my entire upper body, heard a loud buzzing sound, and saw a huge brightly colored beetle fly off my shoulder. Oh, and twice I had the same spider-as-big-as-my-hand in a web right by my head experience as the last time we rode elephants in Cambodia. This is always slow motion scary, almost comically so, because the elephants move SOOOOO slowly, rocking way out of the spider's path and then lumbering back into it. I ducked way down and the spiders scurried away when they saw us coming, so it ended well. Ironically, both spiders were on the side of the elephants that Fredrick and I were on, and we are the two most scared of spiders! Udon later told us that Lao people cook and eat these spiders. No thanks.

After that we continued driving east, into Salavan and Paksong. The weather got cooler the higher into the plateau we traveled, which was a relief, and we stopped by several Katu and Alak villages along the way. The Katu historically carve their coffins way in advance and store them under their raised houses/huts, but since there is a wood shortage we only saw a few concrete coffins. I'm not sure if these are just symbolic now or if they still use these as their coffins. The kids were really excited for me to take their photograph and when I would show them the image in the display they would shriek and laugh and all the other kids in the village would race over and try to get in the next photo.

I must have showed them 10 photos in a row and their screams of delight never seemed to diminish. I could have stayed there all day . I did get a little video of Kat showing them their photos and their reactions after. Incidentally, Aot and Udon love that Kat's name is "Kat" so they renamed her "Meow" or "meow meow", which is Lao for "cat". Everyone keeps thinking Kat is Lao and they don't initially understand that she is American. Udon explained that they never see Asian Americans or Asian Europeans although they do get tourists from other Asian countries. "Falang" refers to white or black foreigners, not asian foreigners. So Udon was explaining to the other Lao people that Kat is secretly "Falang", since she is American. I think Kat has gotten used to the response she often gets after she replies that she is American, which is "but you look like us, where are you really from?". So she just says Korea now when they say that. I am curious to read Kat's blog and see her thoughts on the whole ethnic identity/nationality thing. She has been writing in her paper journal and calling it "blogging" so I anticipate some Kat's Meow blog action when we return. Maybe it's nothing to Kat but I am fascinated by the fact that she is Asian and American seems to be blowing everyone's mind. Next up: Homestay!

Slipshod Slipgate

Here we go. It has been several days since our last post, and much has happened both good and bad. The bad first, to get it out of the way: 2 days ago we had brief internet access and Isaac checked his email. He got an email from his friends at work saying his game studio is shutting down and everyone is out of a job at the end of December (actually, they are out of work now, but get paid until December 31st). This is quiet a shock since everything was going so well and the company even hired several people right before Isaac left. Gazillion is keeping it's other studios, Slipgate Ironworks is the only one shutting down. Obviously there must be some reasons behind this drastic move but everyone just keeps telling Isaac that they will tell him more when he gets back. After the initial shock and requisite panic over money, we realized we will get by with my job and his unemployment check as long as we live frugally. And that's assuming the worst; that he doesn't get another job before the end of the year. Now Isaac is just really bummed that the job he loved and the game he was so proud of is ending so suddenly. Hopefully he won't be out of work long, more from a self esteem point of view then a money one. He really wants to stay in the game industry which will be more of a challenge now that he doesn't have a shipped AAA game credit under his belt; he did however make a lot of contacts and is very talented so I believe it will happen. We've seen many friends in worse situations get laid off and handle it with grace, so we will just try to follow suit. When we were on the Bolavan Plateau (more to come on that soon) our guide Udon heard the fourth member of our tour, a very nice Belgian named Fredrick, lament that is nice SLR camera was stolen in Bangkok and now he has to take photos with a crappy replacement point and shoot his entire trip, and lost some of his photos as well. Udon said that in Laos it is considered good luck to lose a material possession because then later you won't lose something important like and arm or leg. He said that especially on river trips Lao people try to lose a little something in the river! So that made me think of all the "bad news from home" emails we could have gotten, and this one was by far the best. So maybe this will save us from getting worse news later. Plus there is nothing like being in a country like Laos, where most people have lives that are so much more difficult then most Americans, to put how lucky we truly are in perspective. OK, enough with the sentimental talk...

On with the adventure!

P.S. Jim, Isaac showed me your email and I almost peed my pants laughing. Let's hope that you don't need to pass out your resume while wearing the eat AT(Kerry had to stop typing... she's laughing again... and almost peeing), "eat at Quiznos" sandwich board. If you do I hope it's not in the K-mart parking lot. I guess though if it is you and Isaac can take a break from your sandwich board wearing at the K-mart cafe. cheers! Thanks for making me laugh :)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Sorry for no picture but we are sitting in an Internet cafe in Pakse, Laos right now. We have had an interesting few days. We took the overnight bus from Bangkok to the border of Thailand/Laos, which is fortunate because we almost missed it. We got an amazing Thai massage and spent way too much time at a cafe overlooking the river (and by way too much I mean just enough) and hadn't planned for Bangkok's massive traffic at rush hour. Our driver told us it would take 1-1.5 hours to get to the train station, and when we told him we only had 50 minutes he finally said "oh, then is highway ok?" This is ridiculous because the highway only costs about $3 more in tolls (which we pay, not him), and took 20 minutes rather than 1.5 hours. I think he wouldn't have even offered the faster route if we hadn't been in a hurry! Anyhoo, crisis averted and we got on the train. Sleep was difficult for me and Isaac because the train was super loud, we had top bunks, and the train was swaying and banging and hopping so much I woke up a few times in the night and literally thought that the train was derailing. Kat slept fine, but she did have to pee a lot (even more than me!), which brings me to my list of new things I now know about Kat:
1. her bladder is really tiny, and like me and Lisa she has to pee RIGHT before bed.
2. she is afraid of cockroaches because she thinks they will crawl in her ear and she will need a doctor to remove them. She said it "wouldn't be a big deal" if one crawled in her mouth. She has been wearing earplugs to sleep because of this.
3. she can drink more booze then me.
4. she is super awesome and chill about traveling like Isaac, and I need to chill out more too. She is being chill about my freak outs too so that's nice.

Oh by the way the malarone is making me a little dizzy. between that and the heat I am riding a boat on choppy seas in the cafe. but I press on! It's been dark for over 2 hours and it is still sweltering. Laos is HOT.
When we arrived in Pakse after a relatively uneventful border crossing (neat Visa for the passport!) this cute old man who had befriended Isaac asked if we wanted to see his home, and we said yes, but it ended up being a wild goose chase because his english wasn't great and he was either mildly scamming us (wanted us to pay for an over priced car to go with him) or he was senile but I think mostly a little senile. Anyway long story short we were hot, tired, and hungry and we promptly got ripped off at the money exchange place, the lunch place, and the hotels we looked at were all way overpriced. Oh and we over packed, again. I know I said I wouldn't but our packs are way too heavy. The place we ended up staying has a cute little porch on the Mekong and is cheap but is pretty grubby. Pakse was feeling like a bit of a border town but we woke up today in better spirits and found a reputable travel agency and we went on a tour of Wat Phou (sp?) part of the ancient Khmer temple sites. It was awesome and our guide is really nice. We had already signed up for another tour with the same agency tomorrow so we asked for the same guide. His English is good so that makes a huge difference. It really lifted our spirits and made us think that maybe heading to southern Laos is a good idea after all. I can't wait to show everyone the photos we took!

So tomorrow we are going to the Bolaven Platue and Paksong. we will ride an elephant into the jungle a bit, and see some minority lowland tribes and stay in a village for the night. The next day we will see a coffee plantation and Tat Fan, a huge waterfall that is very well known. It might rain but we have been lucky so far. There will only be 4 of us taking the tour- the three of us and someone we haven't met. Wild card! so I think we will have a great time no matter what. After that we want to head down to Don Det in the 4,000 islands region for an overnight. we may not blog for several days after this, so our next blog should be a big one! That's what she said.
Peace out,
Isaac wanted me to add that we ate lotus seeds, had an amazing authentic Lao lunch in a restaurant overlooking the mekong, took a homemade car ferry boat over the river, and saw a ton of monks in their orange robes. And waterbuffelo and people picking rice in conical hats, like oldy times. That is all.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bugs, noodles, rice, pork.... but not at the same time.

Our first day in SE Asia starts with us landing in Bangkok after a long air trek. Once we landed in Bangkok, one of the first things that hit me was how much things have changed. Gone was the 70's era airport decor and hyper-chaotic crowds. What has replaced them is an absolutely gorgeous architectural structure housing art, and orderly queues... (I know right?!). It was a very smooth few queues and we were off in a natural gas powered cab, (again, I know right?!), from the airport our first hotel, On 8.

Once we were rolling on Sukhamvit it all stated just pouring back for me. Bangkok, while much has been upgraded and there are far more points of exposed technology and advertisements, is still the scent-rich, bustling, and fantastic city.

We got into the hotel, dropped off a few things, and powered on to the Chatuchak market. We knew, as tired as we were, we needed to buck up and keep ourselves up until night to ensure our body clocks are properly reset. The market proved to be a great place for distraction... almost too much! There are many thousands of vendors selling everything from opium pipes to Tibetan skull and silver carved totems, and lots and lots, and lots of clothing vendors. We found a fucking great bar in the middle of the market that provided us with some much needed chill-and-drink time which was desperately needed due to the oppressive heat and zero air circulation amongst the vendor stalls. As cool as the bar was, once we did the mental conversion on the price, we realized it was really expensive for Thailand... the drinks were about 180 baht (6 bucks)!!! For the record, an awesome meal can be had for about 45 baht. Speaking of food, I also had bugs for the first time! Kerry, Kat, and I ate grasshoppers, crickets, tiny lizards (whole), and even some grubs! They were soy sauce flavored and full of crunch. The grubs tasked like polenta to me, (strange, but true), and the easy favorite for all of us the whole tiny lizards, they were really ugly looking, but tasted awesome. Pictures coming soon of the munchies :)

Eventually fatigue took over and we had to take the skytrain back to soi 8 to the hotel. Once back, we had a quick bite to eat and kicked back with a bottle of Sang Som. Good times :)

Tomorrow we will explore more in Thailand... get a massage, and then hop the train over to Ubon Ratchathani to border-cross over to Laos! It is just so great to be here.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chillin' in Taipei, and by chillin' I mean sitting and really tired.

So the first flight is behind us, and we are, as one might expect, lots of tired going on. The flight was roughly 12 hours and we are now an hour away from the last hop over to Bangkok. The best tidbit thus far was losing our friend Kat on the plane while we were exiting... Just take a moment to let that sink in. A plane, (a 747 to be fair), with two aisles, we are all walking in single file lines... very slowly towards the ONE exit, and somehow... inexplicably, we lost an adult human female laden with baggage, (backpack etc.). After some terribly confusing standing in one place and circling to look around, we were certain that she was either still on the plane, or far far ahead of us. Eventually, we went to the next gate and set up camp. I stayed around to watch our packs and keep an eye out for the Kat, while Kerry went out to wee and hopefully find the Kat wondering around scavenging for some snacks. Turned out, after the wee, Kerry was washing her hands and Kat walked up to her and said, "Oh, hi."... So there we are. We are all back together, just spent a ridiculous amount of cash on terrible food and are now a few minutes closer to Bangkok. w00t!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Packed and ready!

We are packed and ready to call the cab to take us to the airport. A nice glass of single malt, and a final email check, and we will begin our journey, starting the first hop to Bangkok!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Peace Corps volunteer needs your help! (ok, mostly your money, but it will be used to help)

My friend and ex-coworker Andrea has been in Niger as a Peace Corps volunteer for over a year now, and is raising funds to buy textbooks for her students. This is a really good project, so you peeps should cough up a little dough if you can. Even $10 would help. She needs $4000, and I think if we can spread the word then she will get it. She has a great blog ( but can't post to it right now because her internet connection is spotty. Cause it's Niger, y'all (say it in a Britney voice)! here is the info from her email:

Hello all,
I hope you are doing well and enjoying the last bits of summer. It's mini hot season here in Niger and while it's not nearly as hot as it is during the true hot season, it's pretty darn warm around here (and humid). But, I am doing well, staying healthy, and getting ready for another eventful school year in Niger.
I am proud to finally announce that my project proposal has been approved and posted to the Peace Corps website. So, I am now officially asking anyone who is able to donate to the project - any amount will be incredibly helpful. I'm also asking those of you who are willing to share this email with your friends and family so that I can reach and even broader group of possible donors.
Here are the steps to take to donate to my project:

1. Go to the Peace Corps website:
2. Click on the Donate Now link on the left
3. Type my last name, Schuitema, or the project number, 683 172, into the search box
4. Scroll down a little and you will see my project, which they have titled: English Textbooks
5. Enter in the amount you would like to donate, click donate, and then follow the directions for entering your information

It's as simple as that! Thank you all for your continued support, I can't put into words just how much I appreciate it. Be well :)
Andrea M. Schuitema