Monthly Archives: January 2010

It’s beginning to feel NOT like Christmas- Koh Phangan,Thailand

A few weeks ago I was asked to housesit for Sam while she went back to England for the holidays. It was a wonderful move for me because her charming home is situated on a very secluded beach.Although it is about half the size of where I was living, the quietude and simplicity is well worth the trade.

I am taking care of her two dogs who don’t love my cat and keep chasing her up the tree. Luckily my lovely neighbors whom I have become quite fond of keep helping me rescue her. Its quite cute when Naema is wobbling around on Andreas’ shoulders coaxing down my frightened feline.

I guess I should be grateful that natural predators are her biggest worry now that I have moved away from the main road. There are a lot of crippled animals on this little island and a serious stray dog problem. Today I watched a pregnant dog die after being hit by a motorbike. I tried to console my laundry lady who was quite upset about losing her dog. I wanted to tell her it was probably for the best but I am sure the sentiment would have gotten lost in translation. I opted to go the actions speak louder than words route and bought her flowers instead.

Everyone on my beach is in a silent retreat for a couple weeks so there is not a lot of opportunity for chitchat. There may be a chance that I am spending too much time alone. I have begun feeling a bit isolated and lonely. It really hit me hard on Xmas day when for the first time in my life, I missed the snow. I spent the morning feeling sorry for myself until I decided to make some presents for my silent neighbors.

Here on Koh Phangan Christmas is not a big deal and other than a few token Happy Holiday signs near the touristy restaurants, the holidays may pass you by completely. You can imagine how glad when Gaby from Argentina arrived on the island. Having only met online, I was a tad timid with my not so wonderful track record with Argentines. But I reasoned that as two single woman travelers, we should stick together. It took about 5 seconds after I climbed into the taxi with her to realize that Gabriella and Carmella are like two peas in a pod.

We adventured down to Haad Rin for their version of an Xmas party. It turned out to be identical to a typical Full Moon party with hundreds of wannabe Santas running around. I had a chuckle at just how “merry” some of my counterparts were and ended up gifting my hat (which had been gifted to me earlier that day at the internet café) to one of them. Gaby, who has a penchant for Aussies, had her first FMP romance with the lucky recipient. The two of them looked adorable in their matching hats so I wasn’t so sad to have lost my playmate. I found some new friends and even spun some fire before packing it in for an early (3am) night.

Grateful for Christmas spirit.


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Bed hopping in Charming- Chiang Mai, Thailand

I arrived in Chiang Mai which is just 700 km north of Bangkok a couple days ago but already, I feel a strong affinity with this place. I am not sure if it’s the people, the atmosphere or the scenery, but I feel a strong sense of calm laced with little flecks of delightfulness. Certainly a big change from the aggressive hustle and bustle of the smoggy metropolis that I just came from. Don’t get me wrong…there is place for everything. But this is the place for me right now.

Where the tallest spires of temples are not shrouded by modern skyscrapers and where the street trash is sorted into their respective recycle bins. Where the busiest streets are still tame enough to walk across rather than the run for your life speed one must adopt to navigate CM’s bloated big brother, Bangkok.

I am sitting on the 5th floor rooftop restaurant of my hotel having breakfast as a morning breeze caresses my cheeks. Although the sun is beating down on me unfettered by clouds, it’s not too hot but I can feel myself already getting a tan. Nine AM and the city hasn’t quite woken up yet. The occasional market goer plods on briskly to discover what’s on offer for today. The birds chirp merrily as I admire the stunning mountain backdrop which surround this quaint gem.

I am feeling much better now. I am still a little sick with my cold but I am convinced the worst is over. My heart and soul feel a lot better too though I am not sure what changed. Perhaps it was the couple days I dedicated to serious self care. When I first arrived I stayed in a 10 person dorm room of a cheap ($3/night at A Little Bird Guesthouse) but cheery hostel. This was great for socializing and getting tips from other travelers, but not very restful.

The next day I splurged on a highly rated hotel ($80/night Rimping Village) a bit further from the center. It was very quiet and comfortable but rather isolated in its remote little neighborhood. This can be easily remedied by taking the complementary bikes for a spin and I saw many families doing just that. As for me, I was determined to heal my sore lungs. The caring staff brought me limes and honey for my tea and I crawled into my king size bed. Tucked in snuggly into the fluffy duvet, I watched the DVDs that I borrowed from the front desk until I fell asleep.

The next day, I felt a little better though not quite out of the woods yet. I decided to find somewhere in the middle where I could be comfortable for a few days but not break the bank. I decided on a cute little boutique hotel called The Small ($30/night). I thanked the owner of Rimping Village who insisted on driving me and checked into my new home for the next three days.

As soon as I entered the lobby, I was impressed by the vibrant colors and bold design. The fun continued up into my room on the 5th floor which was adorned with a pink and bright orange color scheme. I loved the high ceilings and sharp lines agreeing with almost all the artists choices. I was fascinated by the open shower concept. With glass on three sides, one could lift the blinds and look into the sleeping area or out to the street to watch the city below. I decided this could be a entertaining feature for couples and exhibitionists especially.

I am delighted to have found this place and am contemplating extending my visit already. I thought about taking some cooking classes as this is one of the major activities this region is famous for, along with massage schools and spiritual pursuits. I get the feeling my plan of heading to Laos may be delayed some as there is so much to explore here first.

Grateful for changing skylines.


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Trillions of Trinkets at the Night Bazaar – Chiang Mai, Thailand

Early in the evening I made my way down the street to the infamous Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. I had heard about this place and since I love markets, it seemed like a obvious excursion. Little did I know that just two blocks away from my newfound home, was the market to end all markets. I was floored to say the least. The amount of stalls, stores, booths, and vendors was staggering. It just kept going and going and going…I was there for a good 3 hours walking at quite a clip and I am sure I still didn’t see it all.

Selling everything from kitschy t-shirts to hand stitched bags to massages of whatever body part is sore to pointy hats to glowing lanterns and crafted umbrellas to intricate jewelry to Italian gelato (I had coconut and amaretto) to creative expressions of bugs/dragons/motorcyles portrayed by rope/used cans/wood/leaves/you name it to eco-friendly stationary to scarves of every color of the rainbow and every texture under the moon to spices to sexy underwear to Muay boxing shorts to humongous murals painted on canvas being worked on by the artists who glance up every now and then with a gentle smile.

Even if I wanted to buy something, I would have been paralyzed by decision. It took my 6 tasters and 10 minutes just to choose an ice cream flavor! At one point, I just sat down overwhelmed by the vastness and perfection of it all. Each seller took great pride in their space arranging their wares neatly and symmetrically. Though many seems to be selling similar things there was always some variation in presentation.

And the prices! I don’t even want to go there. Lets just say that this place would test even the most staunch anti-consumerism advocate. Even I, who has been on a constant quest to live more simply (which in this moment means to lighten my backpack) found myself rationalizing how it was my duty to support the local economy. I had to shake myself when I began eying the suitcases and plotting how much STUFF I could cart home with me.

But I am happy to say that other than tasty treats, I did not buy anything. My strength of will prevailed and I came home empty handed. I relayed my excitement over having experienced such a fantastic market to the owner upon returning to the hotel. He seemed amused when I congratulated myself on showing such endurance at not succumbing to the peddlers.

“Ahhh Just wait, Little One! Tomorrow is Sunday,” the animated grey haired man pointed out knowingly.

“And? What does that mean?” I inquired with a curious frown noting silently that he was the littler one between the two of us.

“The Sunday market is much bigger and even more extravagant than the nightly bazaar. You shall see,” he promised with wink.

“Oh no!” I gasped only half joking. Perhaps I wouldn’t escape unscathed after all. I sighed with playful exasperation as I turned on my heel up to my cozy home for the night. Over stimulated and feet sore, I knew I had better get some rest if there was any way I was going to make it out to the main event.

Grateful for precise organization.

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Cooking Thai and Travel Into Laos – Vientiane, Laos

The Sunday market on Walking Street in Chiang Mai did turn out to be massive and I got entirely overwhelmed by it all. But again, I managed to spend baht only on food and services rather than useless souvenirs I will regret later. I tasted a bunch of different flavors from the hundreds of choices including 10 baht pad thai (just ok) and 20 baht passion fruit/apple/watermelon smoothie (yummy time!) and 1 baht coconut pumpkin sticky rice in banana leaves (drool). By the end of night I felt I earned a serious massage having navigated the shoulder to shoulder packed crowds. For 120 baht I got a nice hour long massage in one of the rows of recliners set up.

The next day, I took a cooking class at “AsiaScenic” which included an educational field trip to the food market. Gay, our young bubbly teacher, took us into her garden and told us about all the spices and herbs she grew there. Our group of 10 young traveler all chose different dishes so we got to learn almost the entire spectrum on offer. My selections included spring rolls, pad see uw, coconut milk soup, massaman curry, deep fried banana and what turned out to be my favorite, chicken with cashew nuts. The whole day was exciting and I thoroughly enjoyed not only preparing my dishes but eating them too. Everything turned out perfectly and I couldn’t believe that I was responsible for creating such flavorful fare with such little effort. I am really looking forward to cooking these again in my own kitchen for future dinner parties.

The next day, I decided to head over to Laos for a spell as my Thai visa was about to run out. A small group of us (some friends I had met down in Koh Phangan) climbed aboard the night bus for the 12 hour journey. Unfortunately for me, I was seated in the top very back by the window which I believe was the coldest place on the bus. I watched “Where the Wild Things Are” on the laptop before trying unsuccessfully to contort myself into a decent sleeping position.

In the morning, we were dropped off at the bus station where we got a tuk tuk to take us the 10 minutes to the Thai-Laos border. After getting stamped out of Thailand, we got on a shuttle which carted us over the “Friendship Bridge” over the Mekong River. I paid the $42 dollars for a visa (Canadians have to pay substantially more than any other country for a Laos visa) and happily walked on into a new country.

We were all pretty exhausted and I was really looking forward to getting some rest in Vientiane (literally “City of Sandalwood”). I would have gladly overpaid for a bed to sleep in but the others I was with were hell bent on finding a good deal. After scoping out a dozen guesthouses and hotels, we finally found one we could all agree on which happened to have a great view of the river. We grabbed a quick bite at the Joma bakery before I packed it in for the night. I zoned out a bit in front of the TV which was showing some awful Ben Stiller movie before passing out.

It’s a new day now and I am back at the Joma café as I write this. I am feeling a little sad because this morning I watched a cat get hit and killed by a car. I didn’t cry but I felt really really empty and cold as I watched her body twitch and convulse as her spirit left her. I said a little prayer for the dead cat as a local walked over casually picking her up by her tail and flinging her off the road. I hope I never get so numb to death.

I am going to go for a wander in this very French influenced town and look for a place to get a massage. Its certainly much more European here than I expected and the place is chockablock with tourists. It is a interesting fusion of French Asian but still, I am very well aware of the basic quality of life here.

Grateful for affect.

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Meow Laos – Vang Vieng, Laos

I never did shake the disturbance in my spirit after watching that cat die. I did everything I could to bring me out of my funk. I went for yummy coffee and wrote for a while perched in the local bakery. I had a great two hour Lao massage which I learned is mostly just pressing rather than the more painful Thai pretzel maneuvers. I went for a tasty healthful Lao meal of fish laap with my friends who tried to cheer me up with gifts. I even played with the street kitties though I admit I was slightly hurt when they turned their noses up at the ball of sticky rice I so kindly offered them.

When a couple of young local girls rode by on a pink bike trailing behind them a hundred balloons, my inner child completely took over. They heard (as did everyone else in a 20 mile radius) me squeal with delight and promptly made a wide U turn back towards me. How the little 10 year old could double her sister and cart around such a wide load without losing one balloon and/or her balance, I will never know. I couldn’t resist the businesslike and very convincing sales pitch of these two little beauties. They took their job quite seriously and I admired their work ethic. After helping me carefully sort through the crowd of SpiderMan, Transformers, Minnie Mouse and other cutesy cartoons paid them 10,000 kip (about a dollar) for a Hello Kitty.

I justified the frivolous purchase by dedicating the balloon to the kitty that died that morning. I solemnly covered my heart with my hand and looked up to the sky honoring the little life that was lost. I know it sounds silly but somehow it made the heaviness feel better. Alana and I giggled as we took turns carrying the bouncy ball of floaty joy reliving a flash of childhood. Who *doesn’t* love carrying a balloon around?

Needless to say, although yesterday ended better than it started, I still felt it was time to move on this morning. After waking way too early, I purchased the 40,000 kip ticket from the tour company across the street from my hotel. I puttered around on the internet while I waited in the lobby for my supposed VIP transportation. A couple hours later, I was herded onto a large coach along with 40 or so others. There were not enough seats for everyone so they placed plastic lawn chairs in the aisle near the front and motioned for the last few to sit down. I was amused in a shocked kind of way.

A little over three hours later, we rolled into the small getaway of Vang Vieng. Most known for its bizarre tubing experience that attracts young crazy backpackers from far and wide, I was a little leery. But the breathtaking nature that surrounds this town is not to be missed. I was completely blissed out as watched the sun sparkle off the river then melt down into karst peaks. I munched on some fresh spring rolls (15,000 kip) while I sipped my orange/carrot shake (5000 kip) which was surprisingly more than enough to satiate me.

After taking the very long way around, I finally found the accommodation that my friend Lisa recommended me. Molina Bungalows were just as she described and for just 50,000 kip I have a new home for the night. They are far enough away from the racket that the drunken revelers kick up yet close enough to partake in the array vittles of offer at any number establishments. I knew the deal was sealed when a jet black brand new kitten wobbled over to me as the owner was writing me in the register. The tiny furry face peered up at me and slowly blinked her somewhat crossed eyes as if trying to focus. If a cat ever needed glasses, it was this one. I scooped her up excitedly and asked her name.

“Her name is Black Cat,” stated Mr. Phet very matter of factly.

“Well…can I take her to my house?” I inquired hopefully snuggling the ball of fur as she started purring loudly.

“Obviously,” he replied with a warm smile and a laugh.

Grateful for cats and kittens.

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Creature Parade – Vang Vieng, Laos

It has happened a handful of times now and seems to be coming more frequent as the day goes on. It reminds me of scenes from the Matrix where in mid-fight scene, everything will slow down to a snails pace just for a few seconds. The effect is that everything is near frozen creating an intense sensory experience. I am not sure what it is that is creating this bizarre phenomenon that has me caught in the moment. I swear I haven’t been partaking in the local drink or any other substances for that matter. Infact, I have been eating relatively clean since discovering Laap, traditional Laos food.

Laap is a savory mixture of herbs, spices and mint leaves mixed with your choice of protein (fish for me but I have tasted it done successfully with tofu). There appears to be no added fat or oil so the dish is extremely healthy and surprisingly light. It is usually served with sticky rice but I prefer steamed and brown if possible. Matched with the long green beans and cucumber and you have yourself quite a meal. After eating it I find I have tremendous energy and feel light yet pleasantly full. Needless to say, it is my new favorite food and I shall be eating it every day so long as I can find it.

It is almost as if for a few brief moments gravity and time are warped. I find myself moving a whole lot slower and a sensation of warm happiness saturates me from the inside out. It’s very cool indeed. After the initial shock and worry that perhaps there may be something seriously wrong with me, I have begun just observing it. So far there are no consistent similarities between the occurrences so I have wonder what brings it on….

Nevermind. I am just going to enjoy it rather than analyze it to death. I will chalk it up to this heavenly environment that I find myself. I am currently laying in my hammock watching the kids splashing about in the river. Their laughing is accompanied by the clang of the cowbells. Twice a day, a herd of about forty of the healthiest looking (read: not fat nor skinny) cows I have ever seen, wander past my bungalow along the riverside. Many of them adorable tan color little calves tails swishing away contentedly. Sometimes some lost straggler will come barreling past to catch up with the others. The loud chime around its neck ding a ling a linging away frantically. Now that’s what I call more cowbell!

Yesterday I was walking down the river and got caught in the middle them so reached my hand out to pet one of the babies. There was no fear or trepidation from the creature, just a curious look right into my eyes. I understand that not only the cats and dogs are happier here but so are the cows and chickens. The animals I have seen so far in Laos seem to be more “natural.”

Today, I fed Black Cat some coconut milk which she lapped up greedily. Together we cuddled in my hammock watching the butterflies land from flower to flower. I have been watching the army of ants parade up and down the big tree beside my balcony for hours. Its amazing how polite and organized they are in efforts to complete their operation, whatever that may be today. I still can’t figure out what they are doing. It’s quite the mission, that’s for sure.

I haven’t tried the tubing or any of the adventure activities yet. I am supposing I may be too old for the tubing (bum immersed in cold water for three hours) but that maybe could get away with kayaking down the river. The bobbing around in the authentic tractor inner tube or paddling the more sophisticated kayak? Revisit my indulgent youth or celebrate my maturity gracefully? A growing awareness of my impending birthday doesn’t help the decision making process, that’s for sure.

Grateful for simplicity.


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Lucid Tubing – Vang Vieng, Laos

I really enjoyed Vang Vieng but when it was time to go, it was really time to go. I did end up doing the tubing but didn’t partake in the party aspect of the experience. It wasn’t a hard decision to make especially after I arrived at the scene. A picture of gross debauchery, I was happy to keep my head about me among the stupidly drunk (sometimes downright dangerous) westerners. I think I may be one of the few people who actually make it back to town in their tube. Most, as far as I can tell, have to be taxied back in droves from the riverside bars at the end of the day. Many barely able to stand up safely, much less float down the river for hours in their inner tube.

I really enjoyed the ride although by the end three hours later, I’ll admit I was eager to reach the shore. I certainly appreciated the stretches of river I covered with no one else in sight. No kayakers, no tubers, no motor boats, no swimmers. Just me and the birds. I admired the nature which included some little goats grazing in the tall grassy banks. A little local boy playing solo in the trees yelled and waved at me excitedly. The water was not as cold as I thought it would be and the sun kept me warm. I used my new fake (they just CAN’T be genuine for only two dollars) Croc flip flips as paddles to get me to town before the sun hit the tops of the rounded limestone tree covered peaks.

When I finally pulled in, I was pretty proud of myself for making it the whole way. I forced down some of the worst Laap ever made while watching the sunset over the clouds of smoke. They were burning the grass across the river and it made for quite an interesting show. I was glad the wind was blowing away from me but the smell of burnt grass was still quite overwhelming. I turned in for a relatively early night in preparation for the long bus ride up the country I would be embarking on.

Grateful for safety first.

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The Fun is in the Getting There – Luang Prabang, Laos

The next day I boarded a small 8 passenger minibus that would take me to Luang Prabang. I was directed to sit in the front seat as I was the only one traveling alone. Part of my job was to periodically open the drivers water bottle and keep him hydrated for the 7 hour ride. The time flew by and I suppose that had something to do with the breathtaking landscape we were traversing.

We passed by more than a dozen tiny towns full of old wooden boxes houses with dirt floors. Majority of the people, old and young, were working at smashing bunches of long grass on the road repeatedly. At first I thought they were making the brooms I have been so used to using here in SE Asia. Then I began to think that this has something to do with rice…I am not sure but there was way too much of it to be all brooms. I felt a little ignorant that I didn’t know how rice is made but I resolved to find out.

Perhaps the thing that struck me most was the children. They were exceptionally beautiful. I couldn’t get enough of them and their rosy cheeks. I hoped that we would make a stop somewhere I would be able to have some interaction with them. One brave young toddler yelled and waved his arms in lighthearted defiance at our passing van. Our driver blasted his horn in response and scared the little guy practically out of his skin.

We stopped at the top of one mountain at a remote makeshift restaurant that was obviously a family home. Our driver popped out of the van and motioned to us that we had 15 minutes. He was obviously expected as the small thin woman quickly laid out a veritable feast for him.

I followed suit and ordered some vegetable dish which infact, turned out to be one of the best I have had yet. I suspect that the greens were plucked from her garden minutes before hitting the pan. And whatever the sauce was, it was perfectly seasoned which is tough to do for a picky salt lover as myself.

My favorite part of this journey so far was the interaction that I had with the children at this short but sweet rest stop. They were two girls about three and six with the rosiest cheeks I have ever seen. Shy but curious they peered out at us slowly sneaking closer and closer. I was able to tempt them with a few sparkly stickers which I stuck on the tops of their hands. Just when you think their gorgeous brown eyes couldn’t get any bigger, they did. Suddenly I was their new friend and to be honest, I couldn’t get enough of them. I was the last one back to the van after having dragged out my goodbyes to this charming little family as long as possible.

Finally we arrived in Luang Prabang which was not as beautiful as I had expected it to be. Maybe because it is a UNESCO world heritage site I thought it would be much more…majestic. But it was kind of more geared towards history and architecture. I guess I left the magical nature behind in Vang Vieng.

Grateful for chance encounters.

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A Blast from the Past – Luang Prabang, Laos

I ended up finding a cute guesthouse that was just built and though it would normally be out of my price range, I splurged. I decided since it would be my birthday tomorrow, I had better enjoy it. One of the many presents I was planning on giving myself.

I wandered around town and noticed it was quite small. I liked all the activity and the market stalls that were spouting up all over the place. It seems that at night, this place comes alive. I went for a massage and ended up giving the girl at the front desk my lip gloss. She was so enamored by it and explained to me that they cannot get such things here. I wondered how different it would be to live in a culture that so values modesty. The petite young lady wistfully revealed her secret wishes to wear short skirts and makeup. She explained that Australians and Canadians were well known for our sense of style. Really?

I wandered home that night through the quiet streets and realized that this town seems to be stuck in another era. Sure there are cars and electricity but the attitude seems to be from a simpler time. I think I would trust the honor system here more so than most other places I’ve been. I tested it a few times when I had to promise to come back and pay later having run out of Kip (the local currency). Every single time they just smiled with eyes brimming trust, nodding their heads with understanding. They didn’t even want me to leave anything for insurance. My Word was sufficient.

I meandered down the main street which turns into a huge market at night. The atmosphere was subdued yet delightful and children were visible at every other stall. I admired the colorful handmade wares and their impressive attention to detail. After having asked a few prices, I was sure I would not be escaping Luang Prabang without a few reminders of my time here.

Grateful for honor.

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