Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Bangkok, Thailand - Bangkok: The Tattoo

This is a quick one because I’ve had a few people ask and ask about this, so here it is: I got the tattoo I’ve been talking about for years in Bangkok, and there’s a little (but overdramatic) story attached to it.

Khaosan Road in Bangkok is close to where we stayed our second time in Bangkok, prior to flying to Japan, and it is packed with tattoo parlours, piercing salons, places to get braids and dreads, etc etc. Since looking for a place to do it (or not) was one-stop shopping Scott and I went around to different parlours to scrutinize them. We narrowed it down to one called Full Time by Eak, an artist that was well established, was published in many magazines and who had, most importantly, an impeccable business. I took the first step, which already made me nervous, in telling them what I was “considering”, and came back one hour later to look at the design: I loved it.

So, to go through with it or not? I either did it, or shut up and stopped talking about it forever. Which forever should I chose? I took the plunge and booked for the next day. The next day came, during which I had hours upon hours to psyche myself out. Four o’clock finally came around and I actually walked into the appointment. The guy was incredibly nice, waiting until the last possible moment to ensure I wanted to do it. I really really did, but was playing mind games with, well, myself! I sat down, started getting all sweaty and nervous, and he began. It hurt, but not that much. It was bearable, but annoying. There was one problem: I focused on it so much, and breathed SO much, I started getting dizzy 2 minutes into it and looked at Scott, all pale and clammy and said: “I’m going to pass out”. He said, “No, you’re not!”. I said, “Yes, I am”…

This is Scott writing now. And then the head fell forward covered in her mane of hair and it was lights out. Jenn had just passed out on the chair. The guy had to stop doing the tattoo; I was trying to wake Jenn up to no avail. The artist and I had to pick her up off the swivel chair and then put her on a big reclining chair. After about 30 seconds of talking and cheek pinching she finally started to come around. Totally dazed she could not talk and had no clue where she was. The tattoo guy was so calm as if this was an everyday thing. He quickly went and got a can of coke to bring her sugar up and after about 10 minutes she was standing (only just) and we were out the door and back to the hotel.

Jenn here again. What a freak I am! It honestly wasn’t painful; I just spent almost 10 years talking myself in and out of doing it, so following through with it shocked me a little. Ok, a lot. And I seriously over-react physically to things I notice, so really, I’m just being consistent. The tattoo artist also told me it wasn’t unusual for that to happen to a newbie. Nice. Comforting? Not really. I had the problem then, of having a minute corner of a tattoo completed, so I had to go back the next day to do it all again! Since I now knew better, and had calmed down, I acted like a normal person the second time around and got the tattoo finished. It took about 2 hours, and I AM very happy with it.

So that’s my drama queen tattoo story. I know, what a loser I am for passing out, but it made me all the tougher for going back again right??

Ko Phangan, Thailand - Time to try the island of Ko Phangan

We have been unable to access internet in a few days, then we were on planes, etc so this entry comes a bit late… we are now well into Japan, but first is first, here is Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

So! After cutting our time down in Phnom Penh to one day, thinking we may not be able to change our flights, we rushed over to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat to find out that our flights had indeed been bumped forward… by ten days! Good news and bad news, as we now had more time in Cambodia, but not enough to backtrack and do it again properly. Oh well.

We decided to take a breather in Siem Reap and set down some roots for four nights. Our guesthouse was new and clean, but at night every mosquito hiding in the crevices of the building radared in on my location and spent their time feasting on my blood and flying straight into my ears, AAAARRRGGGHHH! One night I couldn’t take it anymore and got up at 3 a.m. and went and sat in the bathroom with the light on until the morning. It’s so awful when mosquitoes like you as much as they like me.

Siem Reap is nothing like we expected. It’s a beautiful little town, with the river running through it as is the case with most cities in SE Asia. The central area is very touristy, full of bars, cafes and shops. The riverside is also really pretty as it’s lined with trees, benches and statues. Now this is the centre of Siem Reap, as the surrounds where the locals can afford to live, eat, etc are much more underdeveloped. Incredibly disturbing to me in Siem Reap were the amount of very young children, anywhere from 6 years of age that were out late at night selling postcards or bracelets or books to help their families make a living. We had a really difficult time with this, as we read that it’s the tourists that have created this culture of working children, as they make more money each month than if their parents go out to do similar or very physically demanding work themselves. What do you do? I don’t want to support child labour, but you can’t blame the families for this, they need to survive and it may be their best form of subsistence! We personally decided against buying from children (really heartbreaking sometimes), but I think each person has to draw their own moral line in SE Asia; it’s definitely important to be informed first before taking any action.

Why do I always get on a soap box? I almost can’t help myself! Ok, I am getting off of it. Again.

We hired a tuk tuk driver through our guesthouse to take us to Angkor Wat, one day for sunrise, and surrounding temples. I had no idea that the Angkor temples covered many kilometers and that there were so many temples. It’s a true temple-a-thon and you go armed with water and sunscreen and stamina. Seeing Angkor Wat for the first time is, I think, akin to (although I haven’t been!) seeing the Pyramids for the first time. It’s massive and intricate and sometimes defies reason when you gaze upon the many bas reliefs on the walls and walk through dozens of archways and hallways, all carved elaborately with images of Buddhist and Hindu gods and pictorial stories of legendary battles. Did you know that Angkor Wat was built around the 1100’s to 1200’s? I had no idea it was that… well, recent. And did you know the temples of Angkor were rediscovered only around 150 years ago and the many temples, spread throughout kilometers were hidden by jungle? Can you imagine coming upon such a thing when trekking through the jungle? Gah!

We went to too many temples in two days to mention, so I’ll give you our two favourites (besides the obvious Angkor Wat), which were Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Angkor Thom was incredible much more compact but with giant faces carved into the towers and stone work detailed enough to make you think of Gaudi’s cathedral in Spain (has anyone seen it? It’s very detailed and bizarre). It was a genuine step back in time and it was difficult to believe that at one time the temple was actually functional. Angkor Thom was also like a little maze, with the main tower in the middle, giant steep stairs, towers all around… awesome! Our other favourite, Ta Prohm was the perfect image of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Phenomenal ruins, some crumbling, secret passages and courtyards, overgrown with vegetation, and most impressively MASSIVE trees growing shamelessly out of the walls, their imposing roots completely enveloping walls. I couldn’t stop smiling, it was so cool! Loved it loved it loved it.

Our two day temple- fest left us completely exhausted, but it’s definitely a wonder of the ancient world that is a must see. Now quickly onto food and restaurants, there are two honorable mentions. The first is Cambodia’s national dish, Amok, which is a very concentrated coconut and onion based curry, originally with fish, but also made with chicken and beef. It’s served in banana leaves adorably shaped into bowls and it is f-i-l-l-i-n-g. Good grief, I had two bites and was ready to explode. But yummy! As for the first unrivaled, place winner in the establishment area, that goes to the Singing Tree Café

. It’s like somebody read my mind about what I like, what I believe in, what I’ve studied, what I want to do… and shoved it all into one awesome little hippie joint! It’s eco-friendly, fair trade, organic, uses its own garden, has free internet, provides information on environmental and humanitarian programs in Cambodia, has seminars upstairs… oh ya!! And the food is amazing! And at night little frogs come out of hiding from the garden and hop around your feet! Ha! It really couldn’t have gotten any better. Scott found a brochure and fortunately we were able to go there on our final night. But two or three or more times would have been great…

In an insane twist of luck, on our night before heading to Battambang we ran into Bruno, an Argentinean guy we worked with in New Zealand. He’d just arrived at the same guesthouse. It was really good to see a familiar face for a bit.

The next morning we took the 7 hour boat down river to Battambang. Hmmm, interesting mode of transportation I say, the boat was for 30 but there were at least 45 of us so people had to sit on the roof in pretty intense heat. Luckily, that was not us, we got the last bench under the roof. Roofs are important my friends. We passed numerous floating villages along the way, sometimes picking up locals that would row over in their little canoes and hop on to the next floating village. We also managed to be violently whipped, numerous times by branches from mangroves in “river” areas (more like flooded mud flats or swamps) that were questionable in their size to squeeze a boat through. But no! Sometimes, say three or four times, we had to pass another oncoming canoe or boat through an area not even wide enough for one. That’s when practically the entire mangrove tree was inside the boat. Then we were drenched by the motor spray of a passing motorized canoe. Then Scott almost lost a tooth when a giant branch smacked him unexpectedly in the mouth. Then… there are too many incidents, let’s just say the ride was eventful and adventurous!

Battambang the city is uneventful in itself it’s more the surrounds of the country that appeal. Ironically, for a second day in a row we ran into people we knew, this time the Spanish guys we got along with famously in Halong Bay, Vietnam. As for activities, we did take in another cooking class, this time Khmer cooking, and learnt how to make curry paste (hard, but not as hard as we thought) from fresh ingredients and the national dish, Amok. We visited the market prior to the class which was, well, I’ll be honest, a bit gross. Dried snake anyone? Many other live things, mainly seafood flip, flop and writhe around in baskets. How long can a catfish-like fish (I can’t ID fish) live out of water?!?! A long time obviously because there were completely out of water and kept wriggling and jumping out of the baskets. These are not lung fish! I don’t understand. But ew.

We finished our time in Cambodia with the infamous bus trip to Bangkok. We read and read and heard and heard about the outrageously bumpy unsealed road you went on for 4 hours until you hit the Thai border, but although it was true, it honestly wasn’t that bad. The air con busting on the bus for the last half hour was a bit more unbearable (it was HOT), but otherwise, all too easy.

Sapa, Vietnam - Sapa and Halong in the mist

We have spent the last few days in Halong Bay, in the NE corner of Vietnam, followed by Sapa in the northern highlands just minutes away from the Chinese border.

Halong Bay is a Unesco World Heritage Protected Area. Local legend tells of a giant dragon that came down from the mainland and into the water, and as he went the land at the edges sank and his flailing tail left behind the 1,969 islands now in the bay which jut out of the water.

We began our 3.5 hour journey at 8 am in an overcrowded minibus to Halong City to catch what was known as our “Junk” boat. We sat beside the loveliest Vietnamese man, aged 20 and having saved up, was taking his mom and little sister to Cat Ba Island overnight as they were visiting from down south. He told me how a Vietnamese person had to save to even go out to a restaurant, so this was quite an event for the three of them. He also told us how he’d never been anywhere outside Hanoi, and how one day he would like to go overseas to work and maybe travel. He was such a hopeful and ambitious person, we gave him as much information as we could on where we’d lived and been should he realize his dream.

We arrived at the docks to utter chaos and got pawned off from one person to another to another to take us to our boat. Eventually, we arrived at the “Imperial Junk”. The boat was fantastic and romantic, and with a limit of only 20 people on the boat we got our little overnight room and headed to the top deck to catch the views. However, getting out of the harbour was another matter… bumper boats at the amusement park, as Scott called it. These large boats block each other in, and they literally smash the crap out of each other to push out into open water. Madness! And they don’t sink, there must be something special in that wood use for the hulls! We bumped and zigzagged and pushed our way out as the most amazing women on little row boats chased the larger ones, like ours, to sell them goods. These women were incredible maneuvering their little row boats while standing and straddling their boat and the large junks while making a sale. ANYTHING, including the doing the splits, to make a sale. Such marvelous and strong women, we were blown away by their stamina.

Our trip out to, and in amongst Halong Bay was more than we had imagined. Cliff faces punch out of the water all around you creating a labyrinth of jutted rock islands pocked with caves and the occasional sandy beach. Enormous hawks circle overhead repeatedly looking for fish which they then swoop to the water for and attempt to catch in their giant claws. The waters are calm and smooth, and the haziness made the islands further away look like they were behind increasing layers of veils.

After visiting some sprawling cliffside caves on foot we arrived at our docking point to go kayaking amongst the islands and into caves, something I desperately wanted to do! Scott, myself and two guys from Spain headed to the kayaks to be given oversized lifejackets that didn’t close and kayak paddles held together with duct tape. Go the duct tape! It fixes ANY problem, just ask Red Green (the Canadians understand this reference). I searched through the pile of jackets for any that resembled something that actually floated to be told by a guide, “It’s ok, fine, fine, fine, you fall in the water you just scream”. No, no, no! We can swim, swim, swim but could still drown, drown, drown! He wasn’t kidding though, so off we went, giant lifejackets and all. We kayaked for just under two hours and enjoyed every minute. We went through caves that led into coves that could be cut off during high tide. Scott and I found ourselves talking about where we would camp out for the night if a king tide were to suddenly swoop in! We saw a little sandy spot with a skinny, leafless tree, and decided that would be the hypothetical spot. Alas, no such thing happened of course, and we kayaked back out. Having done that we were up for a bigger, or should I say, smaller challenge. We found the smallest cave passage we could and sardined ourselves through the small hole with success! We had to suck in our breath and hold our paddles lengthwise, but how funny was it! High fives all around. Back to our Imperial Junk we went to watch the golden sunset and have some dinner.

Our plan had been to retire to our cozy boat room early, do a little reading, have a shower when all of a sudden the walls began to shake and rumble and we heard screaming: karaoke had begun at full volume. Out of our room we went to listen to the badly sung drunken ballads ranging from Lionel Ritchie to Abba. Other neighbouring boats became jealous and suddenly 4 Australians rowed over from their junk boat to join our obnoxious karaoke party! It was such a fun night, not the early night we had planned, but really funny nonetheless. A guy on our boat, just a little bit outgoing and named Daniel became our MC for the night and kept coming out with ripper jokes, such as “So let’s talk about what we did today… I went swimming in some faeces…” (we all die with laughter), “don’t tell me you didn’t see the faeces too!” You see, despite its world heritage status, the people of Halong Bay, as is the case with most of Vietnam, throw everything outside, or in this case overboard. EVERYTHING. Earlier, while kayaking we had passed by numerous floating plastic bags and pulled them out of the water and shoved them in the kayak. As yet, there just seems to be no education or awareness about protecting and keeping clean wild places, or even the urban spaces they live in.

After breakfast the next morning we sailed back to the mainland again, fortunate enough to see Halong in a different light of day and in slightly clearer conditions. We spent our 3 hour ride back to Hanoi cramped with the 2 Spanish guys at the very back of the minibus where they drew us a map and plan of action on how to tackle Spain when we get there, and we wrote for them what they should do in Australia, as that is their January destination. They also taught me how to swear in Spanish as I explained to them I had the innocent vocabulary of an 8 year old. I feel so much more grown up now!

That night, on the sleeper train, and in a compartment we shared with a snoring German man, we moved onto our next port of call, Sapa. Sapa was originally a hill station for the French and is now a beautiful little mountaintop town where many hill tribe villagers, primarily women such as the H’mong, Dzai and Red Dzao trek daily to sell their goods, mainly blankets and bags which they ornately hand- embroider. The hill tribe people are beautiful in every way, from their colourful traditional dress which they continue to wear daily, to their kind, warm smiles. They are also incredibly demanding: but with a giggle and a smile. Our path was regularly blocked by one woman or another opening her handmade blankets in front of us with the question/statement “You buy from me!?” Their voices slightly lilt up at the end to imply a question, but their assertiveness implies a demand. They also say it perfectly in French, same inflection: “Achetez de moi!?” We met with a young lady named Shol, aged 17 (I am inventing the spelling, this is how it sounded) who hooked her arm around mine and followed us through the town, chattering away about her ten brothers and sisters and how many did I have? Did I have babies? How old are my mom and dad? Remember that these women learn English from tourists, so their ability to speak it so efficiently is from hearing it alone. They are SO intelligent. Obviously Shol managed to sell me a bracelet I do NOT need, but after our thirty minute chat and walk through the town I had to give her the sale. She smiled warmly, laughed and grabbed both our hands and kissed them to say goodbye. Beautiful girl.

Our 13 km day trek from Sapa was a colossal highlight of this trip. We met our 19 year old H’mong guide Chan (pronounced more like Jane) and set off on our trip, followed by two additional H’mong women who were trying to sell us their bags and bracelets. The scenery was outstanding, and as we wound down away from Sapa we were able to take in a view of the entire town. The first half of our trek was simple and downhill through valleys and hills infinitely terraced with rice fields. The fog rolled in and out throughout our trek, and every turn around each corner revealed a new vista. We chatted to Chan about everything from the environment around us (apparently it’s incredibly green around July) to their education (children go to school from the age of 8 to 16, only primary is free, and high school has to be paid for) to being a H’mong female. Most of her friends, as is standard, have children by the time they are 16. In the past generations 10 children was not uncommon, but things are changing and 4 is now more the norm. Generally speaking, a girl is now allowed to choose her husband, family approved of course, but if she does not marry by the age of 21 is considered and old woman! I asked 19 year old Chan if she was married with children, and she replied “Nah, I don’t want to get married, I have things I want to do, I don’t care what they think”. Now there is a tough young woman! In her intimate village of 800 that must be a slight stigma to overcome… but no matter, she will do what she will do. Good for her! And her English was impeccable, again, learnt only from listening to tourists. She is brilliant! And does 13 km treks everyday! Can you tell we were impressed by her?!

The second half of our trek was a true trek indeed. We mucked our way through steep hills and rivers and mud and boulders, still followed by the other 2 women, who at half our size (literally) and wearing their traditional skirts with little sandals or no shoes at all, would offer us their tiny hand to help us get through tricky spots. We saw women doing the trek back to their village with their babies strapped on their back, as if they were taking a Sunday morning stroll along a paved path. They never set a foot wrong, and they were phenomenally strong. The 2 women also bequeathed us with handmade presents they made along the way from the vegetation along the path. We were given horse figures woven out of grass, head wreaths made out of ferns and flowers which they placed on our heads… as we overheard one woman doing the trek, we became human wall hangings. In total we saw two villages along the way, Lao Chai, which was Chan’s village where Black H’mong people live, and Ta Van with a large population of 3000 where the Dzay people live. Villagers all speak Vietnamese, but when in their villages they speak their own dialect which generally only they can understand. We did make a purchase at the Dzay village and the gorgeous old lady that sold us the item and a little girl (her granddaughter?) agreed to have a photo taken with us. They really like Canadians as there is a Canadian man that lives in Hanoi but has developed a close relationship with the hill tribe villagers and comes every couple of weeks to visit them. He has even spent their new year with them dressed in their traditional dress, which as Chan described looked ridiculous, but they liked it and found it hilarious nonetheless.

Individually, and the following day, we also walked to Cat Cat another H’mong village where we were greeted by a stunning waterfall and a lady selling rice inside bamboo which she heated over a coal pit, absolutely delicious and a great snack after our second mini trek.

Since we were such trampers in Sapa we rewarded ourselves daily by going to Baguette et Chocolat, a community project restaurant that hires and trains disadvantaged Vietnamese youth in the hospitality industry. The hot chocolate (that I spiked with rum): OHMYGAWD! Delicious. The pain au chocolat: WOWWWW! The waffle with banana and chocolate: WOO HOO! Definitely a worthy and deserved treat to go there.

Overall the contrast of the calmness of Halong Bay and the activity and life of Sapa perfectly rounded out our first week in Vietnam, and both were unforgettable experiences.

Patong, Phuket, Thailand - the Beach!!

Arrived in Phuket in the morning, extrememly unpleasant landing. Windy Wellington aint nothing compared to this pilot! Never knew planes actually 'bounced'.

From the airport we grabbed a taxi to Patong. Nice little town, it has like a hundred million bars...and a beach.

Wicki has joined us for the journey and is my new roomy. So much stuff for sale on the streets, not 'stuff', like jewlery and stuff like that. We over indulged a little the first night in Patong, had a great time in the bars. They each have a novelty, something to do to keep you busy...and at their bar, as its kinda competitive. Played some Jenga (Yes, that wasnt a typo..Jenga)....and rounded the night off nicely with some Connect Four. Most of the people out were actually working girls, hanging out at bars looking for some work.

So the next day was spent on the beach...I wasnt brave enough to parasail, I left that to Wicki, Mark and Jodi. SPent the day relaxing in the sun, swimming on the beach and getting massages. The old woman also painted my nails...artistic talent isnt her strong point, she should stick to massages.

A lot of Patong was washed away by the Tsunami. A lot of rebuilding, especially right next to the beach, was still happening.

Am starting to get a little anxious about travelling to London, although looking forward to it...a little nervous about searching for work.

Hanoi, Vietnam - Everything Happens in Hanoi

We entered into Vietnam early in the morning after a 45 minute drive in a private mini-bus, the complete lap of luxury, we didn’t know what to do with ourselves! We got stamped out of Lao and crossed what is known as "no man’s land", essentially a few hundred meters of street belonging to neither country between Lao and the official Vietnamese border entry. It is here that we met Hai, our Vietnamese guide whose English was so fantastic that we dubbed him the Vietnamese David Beckham. He sounded exactly like him, the accent, the slightly higher male voice... Uncanny! However, he learnt English from an American teacher, so who knows how he managed to pull his lilt off.

Our first pit stop in Vietnam was the city of Vinh where we would catch our sleeper train to Hanoi. Despite Vinh being a large city, let me tell you, people of the tourist kind are a rare and strange commodity, as we very quickly surmised. Traffic slowed to a crawl, cyclists and people on scooters rubber-necked, children pointed and waved and market vendors yelled to each other to inform everyone the circus, uh, I mean we were in town. The four of us just kind of smiled and stared at the ground as we walked, afraid of causing an accident or being asked to do something ridiculous. We were astronauts just landed from the moon! Movie actors! Rock stars! In the market, someone grabbed my arm and started patting it. Yes, I’m real, not a ghost. No please, no autographs, we’re really nobodies! It was as amusing as it was uncomfortable, but the four of us managed to get through it and I think we were all grateful to have each other that way no one person got gawked at for too long. Oh, and Hannah decided to wear shorts that day (not the culturally acceptable to the knee cap type), so that really helped to divert some attention!

Our sleeper train to Hanoi was the real SE Asian experience. Tiny little compartments were jammed with even tinier metal beds with worn down, 1cm mats. At barely 5’4 I filled the entire length of the bed, so you can imagine the free show Katherine and I got when we got to watch Hannah who’s a very tall girl and Scott squeeze into their beds. We had tears rolling down our eyes and our guts hurt from laughing so hard, it was like watching Cirque de Soleil when the man gets into a tiny box, but in this case he can’t, and this is no circus. It was hilarious! And then Hai, our guide dropped a bomb by announcing that the sheets provided by the train sometimes didn’t get washed so there may be bed bugs, just a warning… so Katherine started taking her sheets back off, at which point Hai said the mattress was probably worse. Thanks, David Beckham! No more out of you, please! But no, he went on, and began to pick on Hannah about Kuan, our Lao guide, asking her if she thought he was handsome and did she want a Lao passport? Hilarious! It was honestly the creepiest, most uncomfortable and funniest train ride imaginable. Eventually all the silly kids fell asleep only to be woken up at 4:30 a.m. by loud Vietnamese music and what smelled like a couple of lit packs of cigarettes at the base of our door. The latter made me jump out of bed faster than the former. Alas, we were in Hanoi.

We were beyond exhausted upon arriving at our guesthouse, and all four of us slept until the afternoon in which we had our last guided tour with Gecko’s of the city of Hanoi. Our local city guide was a like a strict teacher, excellent in his information delivery, adamant about having our attention, and insistent on having two of us on either side of him, three and one would not do! We visited the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius which later became a university (for men only, of course), and is now used for special events and academic gatherings; the One Pillar Pagoda, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum complex where Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body is kept despite strict instruction in his will to be cremated and scattered in different areas of Vietnam, as he was of the people. Up until recently Ho Chi Minh’s body was sent to Russia between November and January where embalming experts would do the necessary maintenance and then he would be shipped back. However, Vietnam now has the technology and experts available to do this macabre task themselves. For lack of an appropriate word, the highlight of our tour was Hoa Lo Prison, or the "Hanoi Hilton", as it was dubbed by the Americans during the Vietnam War. For Scott and I the gruesome history of this prison really helped bring into light the horrors Vietnamese people fighting for independence endured by the French. The conditions in the prison were cramped, diseased and inhumane. The guillotine used by French guards against any dissidents is on display, alongside photos of the executed… they were really difficult to look at. Women with babies were placed in cramped solitary confinement… it just went on and on. We found out that some French protesters burnt themselves alive to display their condemnation of how Vietnamese prisoners were treated by their country. Also in the prison were photos and objects from American POW’s which were imprisoned in the prison during the war. It was really moving to see the photos of the day in which they were released in 1973. Photography really does capture a moment in time, and to see the faces of prisoners on the day of their release was an overwhelming experience. We are so glad we went to the prison, and as disturbing as it was to see, we learnt so much more about this history. It helped us to better understand Vietnam from its thousand years of Chinese rule to French dominance to the Vietnam War and the effect it had on the Vietnamese people and the soldiers from other countries involved.

Hanoi was also the primary spot to see the Water Puppet Theatre. This is an ancient and traditional art developed by the Vietnamese, in which they used to flood their rice paddies after the harvest making it a watery stage for a puppet show. In Hanoi this is recreated in a theatre setting and is sold out one or two days in advance despite its six showings a day. We’d never seen anything like it, it was really interesting and imaginative, but even funnier and stealing the show was the little one year old two rows down that could not contain his excitement and pointed, squealed and clapped until his little hands were red whenever a new puppet emerged or even moved. We ended up watching him more than the show, and, as is the rule of the theatre, the proverbial "really tall guy" with the additional benefit of a big head sat right in front of us and clearly had ants in his pants. Oh well

Our second afternoon was dominated once again by market and boutique shopping where the true, anti-shopping beast I have inside me finally came thundering out in SE Asia! I couldn’t take it! I felt cramped and fed up and bored and wanted nothing to do with buying a stupid silk dress/scarf/shirt, I didn’t care how unique it was or how many "cheap for you" promises were made. I did behave though (except for one mini tantrum) as we were with Katherine and Hannah, no point in bringing them down into my I-hate-shopping pit of despair with me, and especially as this was the end of our Gecko’s Tour and our travels with the two of them, which we really enjoyed.

Overall, we really enjoyed Hanoi and learnt a new life skill: how to cross a road with 200 scooters, 30 cars, 10 bicycle rickshaws and 2 stray dogs coming towards you all at the same time with no intention to stop. You step out, walk with confidence, make eye contact with the drivers if possible and dodge or give way if necessary. When the other side is reached successfully, you breathe. Nobody will ever stop for pedestrians. Ever. You are essentially a moving pylon, all you can do is hope that everyone swerves around you at the right time.

Chang Mai, Thailand - 3 Day Jungle Trek

The three days in the jungle went pretty fast!
Day 1: We all pile into the back of a ute and are taken up to our departure point. We sit down for some lunch adn get a chance to chat with the rest of our group. Our trekking group consists of 3 Spanish girls, 1 English girl (Vicki, but our guide calls her Wicki) and myself Jodi and Mark.
Then...the walking starts. We walk up very steep hills, we havent reached the shelter of trees yet so its extremely warm. My body is slick with sweat...quite disgustingly really. But I'm not alone. We rest next to a river under the shelter of a hut for some lunch. Boon, our guide, has made some fried rice and sticky rice for us (which he carried on his own back to the lunch site). The rest of the day is spent walking, we walked through rice fields, stopped by a waterfall in the afternoon for a break and a refreshing swim. The water was pretty cold, but oh so refreshing. The water was hard, pounding down off the needed to keep a firm grip on your bathing suit if you wanted a back massage from the water! Besdie the waterfall was an old man hanging out in his hut, with his roosters. He was carving horn/whistle things...which were of course for sale. After the swim we headed up to the villiage of the 'Karin Tribe' where we were staying for the night.
Not a minute after we had got our bags off our back and gone back outside to check out our home for the night we had some visitors. Three young kids waiting for us to come out of hiding. They are very shy, no speaking, they just shove small baskets of bracelets and necklaces they have made, from wood and or rice, under our noses. As soon as you pick one up they find their voice...'50 baht'. Was so cute. So we all purchased a bracelet or necklace to keep them in business.
Sitting down for a rest with cold beer in hand was very welcome. The beers were stored in large chilled boxes that were locked when we werent there, they were a very reasonable price. The shower was four bamboo walls tied together guessed it...bamboo, and a bucket that you filled up and poured over yourself. The toilet was a squat in a shed, and it had a door so that was great news.
We sat under the house, sort of like a carport, and ate our dinner by candlelight. Chicken and Veg stirfry, tofu and bean sprout with rice...delicious. So much food, we're all famished...but still cannot eat all of it.
We have a nice group of people. We all have a sing song after dinner, feels like school camp!! Is a good night and sleep is very welcome...although it is very hot and I dont think a good sleep is had by anyone. Then theres the 100 roosters that were awake bright and early!
Day 2: We are joined by a Dutch couple because the rest of their group have gone back. Loads more walking, Wicki is unfortunately ill today...and it wasnt even self induced. It rained a lot. It was nice, but it just made the walking track slippery in parts...which caused some comic moments. Stopped for another yummy lunch, noodles and veg this time.
The afternoon walk was a little more exciting....there was so much covered our walking tracks. We're not talking getting our socks wet....we're talking getting our belts wet!! It was a great challenge, trying to balance on logs...that you couldn't see through the muddy water. Jodi went for a wash up to her armpits...hey, thay probably needed it anyway. Very quick thinking to save her camera though.
We settled in for the night at camp that was set up by a waterfall. We all jump in our bathing costumes and had a wash. Chicken and potato curry for dinner, our guide didnt carry all this food with him. He had other guys meet him at the camps with the food. This was our last night together so we endulged a little. The singing only got better as the night got on. There were about 4 locals there too, hanging out singing etc. I aquired the name 'Tiger Smile' over night, or maybe they just had the courage to tell me that night. I was given it because I am "happy and smile a lot, but can 'Grr'" there, make of that what you will. Our guide was great, Boon was relaxed, patient and pleasant.
Day 3: Wasnt that far to trek out of the jungle, to be honest I think we just went round in circles. We rode elephants the last day. It was quite an amazing feeling, knowing the strength and what they are capable of. They bit into bamboo like pieces of candy.

Went to a night of Muay Thai kick boxing. The ring was in the middle of a concrete stadium, chairs lined up around the sides. The night started with young boys (they were 14, but looked about 9) kicking the heck out of each other, then as the night on the contestants got older. Was a very exciting night, a sport of great discipline and bravery.

Spent the next day just hanging out, photos developed, flights to Phuket, nails and hair done (160baht, approx 5nzd). A nice relaxing day, ventured out to some markets in teh poured with rain, but before we were scared away Jodi and I managed to pick up some fabulous paintings from a young lad selling his wares. Magical.

Luang Prabang, Lao Peoples Dem Rep

So we entered sleepy Laos, what is, so far, the biggest surprise in our trip. This is a very poor country, with beautiful people, incredible food and stunning scenery. Lao (according to Lonely Planet the silent “s” at the end was added by the French) has been tugged at and intervened upon by many a nation, and the French influence in particular is very dominant in areas. It has only been sovereign since 1953 but has struggled to keep up with the rest of South East Asia since. In recent history, northern Lao was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, endured trade embargoes and is now struggling to not be amongst the Least Developed Countries. Lao is in a landlocked position, and shares borders, some more official than others with China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, making it a transitional point for many.

We arrived in Huay Xai across the Mekong from Chiang Kong in five minutes and almost immediately the economic disparity was evident. Huay Xai is a tiny border town and there we spent our first night in a lovely guesthouse. We were exhausted from our bus rides out of Thailand and crashed onto our rock hard beds (really crashed, we didn’t expect them to be completely solid, and it hurt!) to nana nap for a couple of hours. The evening was pretty cruisey; we walked to the temple atop a hill where two beautiful little girls were playing and posed by a temple statue for a picture. When they saw the photo they giggled and ran off! We watched the sunset from our guesthouse restaurant overlooking the Mekong, and there really is no sunset like it, the hills blend into each other and slowly fade along with the red sun. Lanterns were hanging from the wooden beam ceilings and one particularly enterprising kitty purred his way over to our table where we were drinking a Beer Lao (their national beer, very nice) and helped himself to Scott’s lap and mine respectively. Needless to say, we were stuck there longer than planned… I think he knew when we wanted to stand up because then he’d purr louder to increase the guilt factor at disrupting his cozy slumber!

We had dinner at another waterfront restaurant (now keep in mind, the town is one main street, so all eateries overlook the Mekong, and this is Lao, so get that image of the foo foo, posh, waterfront restaurant out of your head. It’s much more basic and charming than that) where our new local guide, Kuan, showed up with bbq’d chicken feet… on a stick. Told you “Things you can put on a stick” was a fun game! We asked him how you ate it, and he pulled a foot off, bit off the nail (relax now, I can hear your groans) and ate the toes, bones and all. Of the four of us Katherine and I were game (I was healthy finally, and after 5 days of nausea and a staple diet of crackers and water I felt adventurous), and we proceeded to bite off the sharp little chicken claw and eat a toe. But only one toe. Ok, only half the toe, but I did try it. Surprisingly, it tasted like chicken. But crunchy.

We had all read that the Lao Red Cross offered massages given by locals and that the moneys went directly into community development, so off we went after dinner. Unfortunately only three therapists were available and Scott was chivalrous enough to sit it out. What to say about Lao massage? It’s not what you expect! You are kneaded, smacked, stretched and not so lightly punched into submission. I had my arms locked behind my head with my legs crossed at one point while she pulled up on my arms and cracked my back by digging her knees in. Youch! At one point my leg was bent towards my back and then the floor, I thought, “Nononono! My leg doesn’t do that, oh ok, you made it do it, yes it does now.” Needless to say, the massage style in Lao is chiropractic meets physiotherapy meets deep tissue massage meets extreme yoga. Despite the pain (or was it pleasure?) the three of us walked out laughing and energized, so obviously it worked.

Our next two days were lazy, romantic journeys down the Mekong in a long boat, starting at 9 am and finishing at 5 pm. It was a great opportunity for snoozing, photography, and hours’ worth of reading. So laid back and relaxed, it was an abrupt and very welcome change from the Thailand bustle. The first day we did a midday stop at one of the Hmong peoples’ village and it was a scene right out of a movie. Beautiful and curious children ran down to the riverbank to look at us silly, awkward strangers and took us to their little village dotted with thatched homes and farm animals. You wouldn’t even know the village existed until you climbed the banks and were led in. Many villages in Lao still lead a traditional life of self-subsistence, and this is one of them. All the adults were away working in the fields, so only the children were left and two elders, a very smiley and welcoming man and a tiny, gorgeous old lady. We got a mini tour from the kids, and having asked permission to take photos, they then got a lesson in photography from me as they absolutely loved the camera. They all took turns pushing the shutter and seeing what they took to then descend into giggles! Scott then showed them the video and so it happened, as does universally, the boys gravitated to Scott and the girls hovered around us females.

It’s difficult to explain how a moment like that makes you feel. You feel overwhelmed with happiness at their attention and laughter, deeply distressed at the poverty, guilty about your wealth, proud of their traditional life and culture, humbled to be allowed to be part of it for a small moment… for Scott and I, it was definitely a moment we will never forget and feel so fortunate to have experienced it. It further puts your life into perspective. I officially fell in love with Lao children at that moment, and I’m still feeling enamoured.

The night was spent in the small port town of Pak Beng; you may wonder what I mean by port as the country is land-locked. The Mekong River runs the length of Laos (a very brown river) and is one of the main forms of transportation in Laos. Everything is shipped on slow long boats, corn, oats and even live buffalo who have figured out to stand very still side by side on the boats. Goods are offloaded in Pak Beng and then sent by road into all parts of the province. The town is basically one unsealed street with lots of guest houses and restaurants. We chose a restaurant and had chicken curry and koy chicken, an excellent Lao dish consisting of finely chopped chicken heavy on coriander and lemongrass and the obligatory chilies and sticky rice, along with a small sip of Mekong whiskey, 70% proof, yikes! An effective way to sanitize the digestive system! We then headed back to our guesthouse, where the electricity is only available in the evening, dotted with frequent blackouts and very cold showers in the morning, super refreshing, and definitely woke us up!

On our second day, we visited another village. Nearly all the homes had set up little thatched market stalls selling their gorgeous, hand woven silk scarves, bags and assorted jewelery, and were clearly accustomed to boats arriving to purchase their goods. I was immediately sucked in and purchased some very nice things, not telling you what. Hold on, this next sentence is written by Scott: If expecting presents the sad thing is that everything that Jenn purchases in a village with someone in mind she inevitably decides is too nice to give away and keeps it for herself. Hmmm. Yes, he’s right, I cannot protest… if you were me you’d understand! Anyway… further down river we also visited the Pak Ou Caves. The caves were carved in the 1800’s into a Buddhist temple and are a place of worship for those from Luang Prabang and the surrounding Mekong villages. The four of us in our tour were suddenly shocked and deeply troubled at the caves when some of the local people began to dangle tiny little cane cages in front of us to buy. The tiny cages contained different species of live birds, many chicks that could barely move. They essentially wished for us to buy them to “set them free”. Unfortunately, this is some people’s form of subsistence, and upon silly tourists buying the bird to “set it free”, the vendor easily catches and cages it again after the tourist leaves as they are unable to fly immediately from prolonged confinement or because they have not even fledged. As difficult as it was, we ignored the little cages and walked on. That is definitely a moment in travel when you have to take a step back and reflect upon why people and cultures do what they do, and consider how you can help to change a situation in a mature and positive way. Reacting instinctively wouldn’t help the situation. Having said that, there are some incredible programs held by many organizations in Lao that employ, train and encourage the skills of local people to help them become self-sufficient. A cool brochure I came across listed all the projects including a weaving one I'll mention below called Stay Another Day, but I can't find the site! Another site with information on local programs is

We arrived in Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and the French influence was obvious immediately. The town is a perfect postcard on the banks of the Mekong and heavily dominated by French Colonial architecture and Buddhist temples. Apart from the visual fare, the choice in food was overwhelming, ranging from the obvious French and traditional Lao to Indian, Thai and Vietnamese. And the prices! You know you’re in SE Asia when… we ate a traditional Lao bbq (food is cooked in the middle of your table over coals with spices, garlic, veggies, meats, etc) and the total food bill for 5 of us was $7.50. You almost feel guilty… we also ate the most delicious vegetarian buffet, set up by a street vendor for 5000 kip each. That’s .50 cents. I know! This is why all us tourists, even if traveling with Lonely Planet’s SE Asia on a Shoestring guide, truly are rich.

Approximately one hour from Luang Prabang were the Kuang Si Waterfalls, which were a fairytale in themselves. Pale blue and pastel green mirror waters formed in various pools down from the main wispy falls and we went prepared! As the locals swim in clothes we took our surf shirts and board shorts and braved the clear, icy water. It was amazing, so refreshing and clean. There was a tree overhanging one of the pools with a rope… crowds watched as an American guy went along the branch, grabbed the rope and swung in like Tarzan himself. That was it! I had to do it! I climbed up to the branch and got stuck by my lack of arm length and could not reach the rope, so the American guy came on the branch, grabbed the dangling rope and passed it to me, whispering as he went, “Don’t worry, there’s no pressure, nobody is watching!” I turned back to see the crowd of dozens that had gathered on the bank, cameras at the ready, waiting to see the silly girl fall. I looked down. Bad idea. I gripped the rope as high as I could, looked up and swung myself out and across to the middle of the pool where I performed a perfect rope dismount, and with a small shriek crashed into the water! Picture perfect, I didn’t let my fans down! I even saw a photo, and the woman that took it said I looked like Jane. Yessssss!!!! Naturally I had to go again, but first Scott, who was able to retrieve the rope himself and managed a spectacular Tarzan, with a bit of rope burn. No pain, no glory! It was a fantastic time and left us awake and ready for the rest of the evening, dominated by market shopping and a painful but effective Lao massage for Scott (we told him it hurt at the Red Cross!) while me, Katherine and Hannah ran across the street for cocktail happy hour!

Our last day in Luang Prabang we all rented bicycles, an incredibly effective way to get around, and visited the Museum, formerly the Royal Palace for the 1975 exiled, and never again heard from royal family. The family line continues, but cannot return to Lao and it is believed they reside in France. Slightly out of town we visited Ock Pop Tok, which translates into East Meets West, a community development project where Lao women’s weaving is made, displayed and sold, completely beautiful stuff. All silk worms and plants for natural dyes are on site, and courses, 1 to 3 days are even available and taught by the local women! Their on-site café also serves traditional Lao fare, and Scott and I tried the ginger and lemongrass refresher and the iced cinnamon bael fruit tea. We were incredibly impressed by Ock Pop Tok, and wish we’d visited it earlier.

Overall, Luang Prabang was incredible, and the first half of Lao has been a fantastic surprise. Everything about this country at a crossroads is so impressive, and more time could easily be spent discovering and visiting these areas. One of the cheesy tourist t-shirts sold state “I love Lao”, and I’m seriously considering buying one. We do love Lao!