Saturday, March 27, 2010

4 Countries and a Visa Run

I have to admit I've been quite remiss in updating the blog in the last few weeks. Okay, really over a month. I think it is just a testament to how much fun we've been having and my reluctance to spend hours in front of a computer. I'm actually writing most of this out before I type it to lessen computer time. Since so much time and so many other events have passed between now and the time I'm writing about I'm hoping this has the positive affect of leaving only the highlights that are still fresh in my mind. Enjoy!
Saigon/HCMC (The End of Viet Nam)
As Chris mentioned in his write-up of Saigon, he was sick and that meant I had some time to wander around the city by myself. I was surprised by how tame Saigon was. I had in my mind a vision of a loud and vice filled place, probably from Viet Nam war era movies and stories and from the description in Lonely Planet, but I found the city surprisingly quiet and safe. The tameness may have been due to many places being closed for the Tet (New Year's) holiday. While Chris was trying to feel better in the hotel I visited the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum. Of course I did this after searching the city with our hotel manager for a pharmacy that was open to get some meds for Chris. The Reunification Palace was kind of like visiting the White House only it looked like it was last decorated in the 1970's. The only point of interest for me were the tanks that had originally knocked through the gates HCM and his crew "freed" the southern part of the country during the Viet Nam war. The War Remnants Museum was for me one of the most poignant things I saw in all of Viet Nam. For whatever reason, I don't remember learning much about the Viet Nam war in high school or college. I wonder if others my age have the same experience. This war museum was obviously told from the victor's point of view. There was one section called "Historical Truths" that showed a timeline of the occupation of Viet Nam by France, the US $ and power supporting the French, and ultimately invasion of Viet Nam by the US. It was difficult to be in the room alone, reading these "truths" that basically described the US as having no reason to be in Viet Nam and actually that the US being there was directly against the Geneva Accords. The worst part about this was that I felt so ignorant as to what the US position on these matters was and is. I'm sure the Viet Nam perspective advocated in the museum is on one end of the spectrum and the US perspective at the time is at the opposite end while the "truth" is somewhere in between. I wandered the rest of the museum looking at portraits of Vietnamese people and children impacted by the chemical warfare for years and decades after the war ended. People with overgrown chins, shrunken limbs, and various other contortions staring at me, making me feel ashamed for something I don't know enough about. I left the museum with a list of books I need to read and things I'd like to research. As I walked back to the hotel, lost in my thoughts, I heard a man sitting on the ground say pardon me and ask for money. As I looked down at him it was all I could do not to scream. His face looked like acid had been thrown on it and virtually all of his features were melting off. Was he a victim of the chemicals left behind from the war or some other misfortune? Instead of stopping to ask, I have to admit that I walked away having come face to face as it was with the guilt I was feeling from the museum. In the end, what I took from my time in Saigon and Viet Nam in general was the kindness of nearly everyone we met in spite of all that happened just 30 - 40 years earlier. Overall, the people seem interested in moving on from that time and I am inspired by their ability to forgive, adapt, and progress. Maybe they have different attitudes behind closed doors, but I"ll just take their kindness at face value and do my part to learn more about what happened in the not so distant past.

Here are some more pics of the tunnels that Chris described in his Saigon blog:

Cambodia - The Angkor Wat Compound
We only spent a few days in Cambodia, mainly just to see the Angkor Wat. It was a totally amazing place. I was just expecting to see the one building of the Angkor Wat when really the whole area has hidden temples in a few square miles, hence the word compound that I've added. You basically have to take a tuk-tuk to get from place to place. Really here the photos speak for themselves. The main thing that I enjoyed about seeing the temples was seeing how the jungle had basically eaten these huge buildings up over time. If they hadn't been rediscovered in the 1800's they could have been lost for ever. It was amazing to see how the trees were growing right out the top of the stone temples and could reduce huge structures into a mass of rubble. It got me thinking about what people would think about our times if they came across some of the buildings we have now without any of the computer or wires or papers, only the bones left over. What would they know about us?
We had a few mishaps at the compound. 1) You can't go to the third inner sanctum of the Wat with a skirt on. Never mind that other people wear shorts that are shorter than your skirt and that there is no "no skirt" sign on the list of no-no's you can't do it. Luckily we still had the next day to go back to the third inner sanctum. 2) You can't see the sunrise at 5:30 in the morning if it's cloudy. Bummer, we woke up totally early and sat with 100 of our closest friends to watch a grey day reveal itself. It was still nice to be at the Wat before the heat of the day though. 3) When you go back to visit the third inner sanctum, make sure that it will be open and not closed for cleaning. Also make sure that you are not leaving on a plane the next day if you haven't seen all that you want to see. 4) It is hard to sleep with a frog (or later I learned a gecko) running all around your room trying to get out to see its frog/gecko buddy. Ask me sometime and I'll do an imitation of what a frog/gecko sounds like when you are trying to sleep. All in all, our short time in Cambodia was amazing, but I definitely want to get back to see that darn inner sanctum!


Luang Prabang, Laos
After Cambodia, Chris and I spent about 10 days in Laos, most of which were in Luang Prabang. LP is a quaint town with French influences, a fabulous night market, great outdoors activities and wonderful people. We did a ton of shopping at the night market and sent three boxes of crafts, household good, etc. home. We also visited the great Utopia bar/restaurant that our friend Rob from Canada works at, although he was in Thailand while we were there. Utopia is a super chill place to relax if you ever find yourself in LP. We also had some wonderful sweet sticky rice with mango as a recommendation from Rob. So yummy for breakfast by the Mekong.


Besides shopping and eating and hanging out at the air conditioned coffee shops, we did a few outdoor excursions. First we kayaked down the Nam Khan river. We had a great time with a few other people making our way down the river through about 5 separate rapids. Chris and I made it through all of the hard rapids then got a little cocky and were making jokes on a super easy one and totally capsized! It was hot out so the water felt great and no one was hurt so no worries. We had a great meal on the river eating sticky rice with mushrooms, beef and morning glories by hand and shared our left over food with local kids that were happy to have it. The rest of the kayak river tour was pretty laid back. We watched locals panning for gold and drifted down the river.

For our second excursion we hiked about three miles through two mountain villages to the beautiful Tat Kuang Si waterfall. It was so rewarding and perfect to swim in the cool pools after the long hike in the hot sun. It was amazing to see the tiny spring that all of the water for the waterfall came from and then to see the huge power of the waterfall.

LP is a great city to visit and I would totally recommend it if you are in the area!

Northern Thailand
When we were done with LP, we had planned to take a slow boat from LP to northern Thailand. However, the Mekong river was so low that it was impossible. We heard varying stories as to why the Mekong was low. Some said the Chinese were damming the river upstream, while others said is was just due to being an exceptionally dry dry season. Instead of taking the slow boat, we took the slow bus. Our overnight bus broke down in the middle of the night, but we only had to stop for less than an hour, luckily. After a one night stay in the tiny border town of Huay Xai, we took a minibus to Chaing Mai.
The area surrounding Chaing Mai was in many ways like LP in that there are mountains, trekking, kayaking and a lot of outdoorsy things to do. The city of Chaing Mai is much larger with over 1 million in population vs. 50,000 of LP. We saw the first Starbucks of our entire trip, which obviously is a sign of westernization. We stayed in a nice, clean, guesthouse (Libra Guesthouse) and the owner suggested some great activities.
The second day we were there we went on our first excursion. A trip to a waterfall outside Chaing Mai, a nearly six mile trek through two mountain villages to a third where we spent the night, and the following day a 30 minute elephant ride and three hour bamboo rafting. We had a great time with 4 polish people and a guy from England as well as our three Thai guides. (No, that's not the beginning of a joke.) The trek was really long and as we went higher and higher up in the mountains and as the heat of the day hit I got pretty tired, but I noticed some of our guides were slacking too, so I didn't feel so bad. We made it to the small village be dusk and had dinner.
The village had maybe seven families that lived there and the accommodations were minimal. There was the biggest pig I have EVER seen staying there and she was very picky about where she wanted to sit, what she wanted to eat, etc. A total ham, if you will! The seven of us, (4 poles, 1 brit + 2 americans) stayed in what can best be described as a bamboo hut. I didn't really sleep at all with the bamboo shoot digging in my back, the dogs barking, and the cat in heat, but I was still up for our activities the next day. The elephant ride was a little depresso - the mahout of one of the elephants kept hitting it on the head with a stick when it didn't go. I don't think we'll be taking an elephant ride again. The bamboo rafting was fun, but a long ride. Again, the river we were on was low because it's the dry season, so it wasn't running very quickly. I think Chris did most of the work on our raft while I just sat for most of the time because there were only so many poles (sticks, not people). We only crashed over once, but it was pretty crazy. We were going through a bunch of rocks and before you know it we fell over to the left in slow motion and there were arms and legs everywhere!

After our two day trekking excursion we decided we still wanted more action and the next day we got up early in the morning to do zip lining. I had done this before in Guatemala, but there were only four or five lines, while this time there were 22 "stations." This included zip lines and free falls, the longest of which was 40 meters or 120 feet. (I'm getting quite good at metric conversions.) Chris and I lucked out and were the only ones at 6:30 in the morning, so we had a private zip lining excursion. Our guides were hilarious and we had a blast going across like superman(woman) with our legs in the sky or with them bouncing the line. Chris was great at going across nearly upside down! I have to admit that I forgot the camera and am totally bummed about that. Sorry!
Living it up in KL
After Chaing Mai, we spent a few days in Bangkok and met up with Rob that usually is in LP, as mentioned earlier.

While we were in Thailand we learned that when you enter Thailand overland, as we did, the visa is only for 15 days, as opposed to 30 if you come in by air. That was a problem because we were supposed to volunteer for 2 weeks in the south and then spend some more time in Thailand after that. After some research, we decided to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for a few days and fly back to Thailand for the 30 day visa. That turned out to be cheaper than buying the visa outright and made more sense than doing a visa run to Myanmar border because we would only get 2 weeks and would have to go back again.
Anyway, we decided to live it up a bit in KL, staying at the Ritz for a few days. I enjoyed one of the best massages I've had yet and we both enjoyed the hot saunas. KL is a ritzy place, the shopping malls are insane and blow Rodeo Drive away. Of all the places to spend a little extra, that was a good spot. We had great time relaxing before we head back to Thailand for volunteering or working if you like, which we aren't really used to anymore!

Bicycling video from Luang Prabang
video

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