Monday, March 22, 2010

Vietnam: Big city chaos


When you enter Laos, you breathe a sigh of relief because it is so relaxed.  Then you get into Vietnam, and that feeling of anxiety returns with a vengeance.  Every time I crossed the street I swear I broke into a cold sweat.  The Vietnamese use honking as a defense mechanism, or as it would seem to me for no apparent reason except to warn you they were driving by you.  This made for an incessant loud stream of horns.

The Vietnamese do everything really fast which is a sharp contrast to the Thai who do everything “Slowly, Slowly”.  Katie and I did a tour of Halong Bay, and they literally are shoving you into the buses, and shaking their head at you if you are a minute late.  It took a bit of time for me to adjust to the busyness of Hanoi city.



I do have to say though, that I LOVE the Vietnamese coffee, and the sandwiches.  No one makes coffee like the Vietnamese. 


The shopping is supposed to be the cheapest too.  I was surprised to find knock off Converse for only about $10 CDN in all the trendy colors, boot and leather options.  Travelling must really be changing me because I actually didn’t indulge in much except the country patches to sew on my bag, and postcards for family and friends.


Enter one of my new friends, Roel from Rotterdaam.  Katie and I hung out with the Dutch people from Holland for a solid four evenings.  Every time we said goodbye, we would stay an extra day, or run into them in unusual places.  It was a great group connection. 


We all even went to see a water puppet show which originated in Vietnam about 1000 years ago.  It was a fancy evening set to a live traditional band, and music.  


Next we took the bus to Halong Bay where we boarded a boat to tour the unusual lime stone formations.  The views are stunning, especially during sunset.  Unfortunately I took some amazing photos but they mistakenly got erased because I was impatient and didn’t want to wait for them to download thinking I could do it later …. ah well live and learn!    


This was the amazing Vietnamese family on our tour.  It was super cute: the two daughters and son touring Vietnam with their mother.  Hopefully my dad and sister will come out and meet me in China – it was such a great dynamic!

My next post will be about volunteering in Cambodia.  Late January, when I first began my travels, I met Jon a fellow from the U.K. who had just come back from a small town called Takeo. 

This orphanage is run by Neville, a guy from the U.K.  Originally it was run by a Cambodian family who had told Neville he could volunteer for a couple months there.  After 2 months of fundraising, Neville had questioned the family on where all the donations were going because they certainly weren’t  going to the kids.  After a bit of a fight, the family took off and left Neville with 52 kids, no money and 10 months of rent outstanding. 

It’s been 2 years since Neville has taken over and he has made it a beautifully run organization with a steady flow of volunteers from all over the world.

I was inspired by Jon who is so passionate about his work there that he had tears in his eyes as he described the impact to me.  He had built a tree house and a playground for these kids and he told me that usually orphans are stigmatized in school.  But kids from regular families would start to come over and play at the orphanage offering more integration with the rest of the kids.

Most of the kids there are there because they have no parents, or their parents are too poor to support them.

Needless to say, I was determined to come here.  Stay tuned for the next posting which I will use to describe my experience at the New Futures Organization (NFO).

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Laos part II – Buddha Park and The Plain of Jars


There are many words that I can use to describe this trip.  But the one sentence that plays over and over in my mind is that this trip is the most humbling experience I have ever had.  Third world travelling can be viewed by some as dangerous but it has opened my eyes to how privileged we are to live in North America.  There is such a huge disparity in classes out here, and many people do not have access to even the most basic things we take for granted every single day.


These photos are taken at the Patuxay monument which is modelled after the Arc de Triumph in France.   It is a must see there because it boasts the most beautiful view of the city.


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Our final tourist attraction was Vat Xieng Khuan more commonly known as Buddha Park. This is a lush green park filled with concrete statues. There is one statue of a reclining Buddha which is more than 50 Km long. It was started in 1958’s when Luang Pu who was a yogi/priest/shaman built several huge statues depicting both Buddhist and Hindu figures in an attempt to unite the two religions.



One of the coolest things about the park is the beehive shaped building that depicts the 7 levels from hell to heaven. The stairs are steep, heaven of course is beautiful but some of the statues show dark torture scenes from the afterlife which are truly creepy.

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Today we headed into the Xieng Khuang province where every town and village has been bombed between 1964 and 1973. I can’t even describe the feeling of arriving here. Most tourists come through here to see the mysterious Plain of Jars where approximately 2000 year old antique jars are spread across a large geographical area. They range from Khorat Plateau in Thailand in the South through Laos and to the North Cachar Hills in Northern India. The jars appear to be laid in a linear path that was probably a trade route, but their real nature is a mystery… It’s a sharp contrast to Vang Vieng as there are only a handful of tourists here and there’s not much to do in town.

We visited a couple of the UXO centres. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance. They basically explain that between 1964 and 1973, two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos. Around 30% of them had failed to detonate leaving Laos littered with UXO. Seeing the visitor centres was an eye opening experience. When you see how these people live and the atrocities they face everyday, it makes our problems back home seem really trivial.

We read stories of how children find these florescent colored balls, and play with them only to have them explode. Or the farmer who sees something that looks valuable like gold in his paddy field, picks it up and loses both hands. The people are so poor that they even risk their lives taking apart bombs to trade in the scrap metal for about $0.20 a piece. The farmers under produce their crops because they are afraid of having bombs go off in their fields. And this is what keeps Laos one of the least developed countries in the world.



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Of all the jars, this is the on jar that has a decoration of a man carved on to it.  It is mind blowing to think how the people got these jars here, as they are crazy heavy and in really hilly spots. 

The sad part is a lot of the jars have been destroyed in the war, and as you walk through the park you see war trenches that are dug in super deep.  There’s not much to see in Phonsavan other than the plain of jars and it was quite out of the way but definitely worth seeing.


The trip out in itself was quite an adventure.  It was a whirlwhind tour as our bus broke down and was cancelled at 7 AM in the morning.  This was the direct bus to Hanoi which only came once a week, and some of the other travellers waited extra days just to catch this one.  We ended up travelling for 24 hours on a regabonde bus which was hounded and had to pay off a motorcycle gang (who was threatening with hand signals they were going to kill the driver if he didn’t pay) and made hardly any stops.  However, we met some amazing people who we introduced our drinking games to and bonded with over $0.20 cent beer.

Which brings us to Vietnaam.  More on that later!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Laos: Land of a Million Elephants



Laos is considered one of the most relaxing countries in SE Asia to travel in.  It has an old world laid back charm as Laos is less developed than Thailand.  the mountains in the North serve as a beautiful backdrop, and the Mekong river flows through the entire length of the country.  Sometimes I feel like the Laotians don’t know what to do with the Farang’s (Foreigners).  There are not as many local people that speak English as there are in Thailand so it makes communication trickier.

Especially for me, who has been studying the “Lonely Planet – Thai phrasebook.”  This trip has made me realize how much I love learning languages.  The Thai people are really friendly with me because they always think I’m Thai and try to speak with me in their language.  Words can’t describe the feeling you get when you can connect with people who live on the other side of the world.  I love Thai people because they love to smile and eat spicy food probably even more than I do!




It has officially been 2 months since I entered Thailand, I know this because my Thai Visa expired after 2 months.  Which meant I had to rush to the Laos border to avoid the $500Baht/Day penalty charge.  Here’s Katie and I crossing the Mekong River.

I am so thankful that I have met such a great travel buddy and friend.  Katie and I work well together because we have complementary strengths.  Katie is studying to be a chartered accountant so she is really good with money and also amazing with directions.  I am awful with a map so having her around is great.  My strength is in schmoozing.  I’m great at research and finding out from travellers where the best places to go are.   In addition to being safer, we are also able to save money by sharing accommodations.



Luang Prabang is described as a photographers wet dream because of the lush forestry, mountains and beautiful French colonial buildings.  The city is not big, and the best way to get around is to rent bicycles to tour the city.



We were able to cover the entire city within an hour.  The cool thing about renting bikes was that we could leave the touristy area and truly get a feel for what local life is like as we zipped by them on our crappy bikes.  We were told to never put anything in the baskets, as theft is common so that’s why you see us with our bags always slung across our shoulders.



The old quarter has a beautiful collection of French architecture, intricately decorated Buddhist temples and emerald green mountains.  It was a 15 hour bus ride to get here from the border city with quite a few toilet stops just on the side of the road.  But it was worth it!

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I’m not sure if I mentioned that Katie and I have a tradition.  Every city we have been together, we spend at least one evening playing a drinking game called Slapjack.  Thanks Dad for the teaching me this when I was young.  I don’t know if its meant to be a drinking game but it has kept us occupied for many a great night.  Here’s us playing with all the people we met on our crazy bus ride.


Since Laos is a Communist country, there is a 11 PM curfew.  This means that all the clubs close at 11, and many guest houses lock up at this time.  The only place that still serves alcohol is the Bowling Discotheque.  It’s filled with drunken tourists but still great fun!


The bowling teams are as follows:  Holland Vs. Canada Vs. U.K.  Holland kicked Canada’s butt.  And Canada beat U.K. purely based on the fact the 2 English dudes were drunk.  Go figure!


The next day, we took a 5 hour bus ride to Vang Vieng.  This is a small city that travellers either love or hate.  I was sceptical at first because I heard how cheesy and touristy it is.  Upon arrival I did notice a whole lot of young tourists and it was not until I went tubing (what the city is known for) that I fully understood.  


On a hot summer afternoon, thousands of tourists rent tubes and sail down the Nam Song river.  This place is like Ibiza in a river.  The river is lined with all these bars that serve free shots of Laos whiskey, buckets of booze, chicken sandwiches and some even have drug menus that include hash brownies, joints, and mushroom shakes! Did I mention the rope swings, the slide and the mud volleyball?


We met a couple of promoters from Finland who work the bars.  This is the deal for people who love it so much they decide to live there.  As long as you’re friendly, speak English and love to party, you can work at one of these bars in town.  You don’t actually get paid anything, but they will provide you a place to sleep, feed you, give you free drinks all day, and all you have to do is hang out and talk to people all day.  It’s a perfect way for some of the travellers to sustain their party lifestyle. 


As for the rope swing, I decided that I had to try at least one.  Of course this is after strategizing with others about how not to get hurt.  I heard two different opinions going in.  One guy had said to me, you have to try it – there is nothing like it back home.  It’s the best thing ever.  The other guy had said, You really shouldn’t try it – I see people coming out of the water bleeding from the head.  So I was very careful.  I can’t even describe how great it is, I felt like a kid again.  Afterwards, I found out there is actually a death rate associated with the swings.  There are about 5 people that die every year, and get air lifted out of the river.  But I think those people must have overdid it on the alcohol.  Anyways, glad I made it out alive! 



We ended the night at the bucket bar where they actually serve free buckets between 8PM-9PM.  Well we did go to the market and get some cheap eats from the market Laos style.  I tried a dish made out of ant eggs and sticky rice.  It sounds disgusting but was actually quite tasty.


Now we are in the capital city of Vientiane.  Tonight we are boarding the night train to head into Phonsavan which is where the mysterious Plain of Jars is and after that Vietnam.  Will keep you posted on that as well as Buddha Park.   Having a great time.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

“There’s always room in life for this…”


Get ready for the biggest blog post ever.  I have some catching up to do as there was a bit I left out before the meditation post.  Also I’m heading to Laos tomorrow morning so I might as well get caught up.


These photos are taken at Doi Suthep  the temple in the skyI went to check what their Vipassana course was like.  But when I got there I was disappointed because it felt really touristy.
It was beautiful but I just didn`t like the energy there.  And I wouldn`t have been able to complete the full 10 days because Chinese New Year was right around the corner.  It was great to visit though.  And although it boasted some beautiful sunset shots, we were disappointed to find the temple blocked the view.

The sky was still beautiful though.  It`s just that by this point we had seen so many temples we were pretty much `watted out.`
I was fortunate enough to watch Muay Thai kickboxing while we were in Chang Mai.  Some of the backpackers we met were heading there, and although it`s something I personally probably would not have planned to go to,  I was really happy I did.  It is one of those things that just gets your adrenaline pumping!




It`s an event that draws just as many locals as it does tourists.  Also I should mention here that I also had a chance to watch a Ladyboy pageant in Pai!

IMG_2328Here`s a photo of a Canadian fightingCanadian battling a Thai man.  Sadly he lost based on points.  He was much bigger and threw some mean punches and kicks.  We were all cheering for him but ah well you win some, you lose some! 
And the maximum number of people we have ever fit into a Tuk Tuk…. our personal record is – count them – 6! 

After I had completed the Vipassana meditation, I met up with Katie in Pai.  Pai is a small town of 3,000 people.  It is basically on the hippie trail so when you get there, there are tonnes of healthy organic food options, and gourmet coffee to be found everywhere.
Our only escape from the heat midday was a wonderful place called Fluid Lounge.  A place with great food, a cool swimming pool and amazing food.


Here`s the crew that Katie had met during my 10 day meditation.  It`s a really nice group of people from Australia, the U.K., and Sweden.



Pai is known for it`s easy days and crazy nights.  It`s a place where you run into everyone you know, and everyone you meet on the street at some point.  One of my favorite towns so far!


Pai is also a town that is known for it`s beauty and charm.  It`s a place where the farang and the locals are all super laid back and really friendly.  I fell in love with Pai very easily!


Wokking with Tee!

Lucky for me, Katie didn`t do any of the things we planned on doing together during the past ten days.  So we were able to get back on track with our travel plans.  Here we are making fresh curry paste from scratch.


One of the best parts though was being able to invite all our friends to come join us for dinner after.   And Tee was this cool Thai hippie, who provided all the Thai Whiskey for the night.  I think we all left there a little tipsy!

There were a lot of breaks, and we were advised to do everything `Slowly, Slowly`.  And intermittently he would yell `Taste!`  It was just my style to learn how to cook.


The next day we went on a beautiful 2 day jungle trek.  You have to burn off the calories some how, right

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I am a sucker for sunsets.  And this was the gorgeous pristine view from the bamboo hut where we stayed the night after hiking and swimming in a beautiful water fall.  After our swim, our guides made us bamboo tea, which we drank out of cups made out of a bamboo chute.


This is where we slept.  A one room bamboo hut with a family from the Karin tribe.  The floor was really hard, and it was cold during the night.  But we were kept warm by a blazing fire lit in the living room.


We were lucky to get to visit the different hill tribes in their natural environment.  There was no scheduled song or dance, or anyone trying to sell us anything.   It illustrates such a simple yet peaceful way of life.

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And then we hitchhiked home!

This is the friendly visitor I found in my hair over breakfast this morning.  I thought the lime green was a nice contrast to the fuschia purple.


The White temple in Chang Rai.  This is the modern day temple set to be completed in 2070.  It`s a contemporary work of art which encompasses sculpture and current figures in some of the murals.  In the temple, there are scenes of Nirvana, and if you look carefully you can make out Spiderman, Superman, and my favorite Keanu Reeves depicted as Neo from the Matrix.

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You can see the sharks that swim in the moat by the temple!
This is my favorite part of the temple.  these hands depict human suffering and anguish.  The physical attachments that keep us in pain.  The only way to let go of physical suffering is through meditation and it is only through our separation of this that we can reach the state of Nirvana.
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And no smoking!  Smoking is the devil!  It`s considered a burdensome habit that everyone should be rid of and it is not at all conducive to meditation.  Actually I read an interesting fact at the Hilltribe cultural museum today.  Smoking actually causes more deaths than drugs do.  More people die from smoking cigarettes than they do from drugs on an annual basis.  Smoking is more culturally acceptable because a) it`s legal and b) people that smoke are not considered a `hindrance on society`.  Just a little food for thought!