Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The end

Southeast Asia in the numbers:
  • 9 countries
  • 27 cities
  • 10 dives
  • 2 bouts of food poisoning
  • 24 flights 
  • 6 bus rides
  • 4 ferries
  • 11 massages
All in all, I can say it was FREAKING AMAZING. I feel so luck and blessed that I had the chance to go on this wild adventure and see so many incredible places. The highlights for me were Laos - the whole country. Myanmar, too. And Thailand, and Cambodia, and Indonesia, and Vietnam, okay fine....the whole trip! I have a feeling I will be going back some of these places. It was just so great. Did I mention it was great? Just a quick update on the map and I'll sign off until my next big trip! Thanks for following me around the world :)

Gili Trawangan

The journey is almost over and I think I saved the best place for last! Five days on the pristine white beaches of Gili Trawangan is definitely the best way to end the trip. I'm staying at Trawangan Dive, a great hotel, restaurant and dive shop. What more could you ask for? I met a colorful Welsh fellow on the ferry ride over whose birthday it happened to be, so we had a couple of beers on the boat. He invited me to the hostel that he owns for drinks later which turned out to be a great way to meet some people and have a fun night bar hopping around the island. I wisely planned to go diving on day 2 in the afternoon, so I was able to sleep off the previous night's festivities. My first dive here was amazing! We saw two black tipped sharks, loads of sea turtles and lots of fish. One of the turtles was as big as a car! After my dive, I wandered down the main road and noticed that Gili Yoga had a vinyasa class starting in about half an hour. What a great was to end the day. I think I'll have to make a habit of it while I'm here.

With water so clear and diving so convenient, I went diving everyday while in Gili T. Staying at a dive shop was the best decision! All you have to do is sign up, hop in the boat, and 10 minutes later you're at the dive site ready to backward roll off the side of the boat. I dove Shark Point, Sunset and Turtle Heaven and saw lots of sharks, turtles, cuttle fish, garden eel, a moray eel and tons and tons of fish. It was some of the best diving I have experience anywhere in the world.

Liz, my dive master from the first day, wanted to show me more of the island the following day. I went along with him for a bike ride around the island to a great sunset spot. Gili has amazing sunsets! I could stare at those skies everyday for the rest of my life and never tire of it. After the ride, I went to an Indonesian cooking class at Sugar and Spice. It was a lot of fun and the food was SOOOOOO good! We made Mie Goreng, Gado-Gado, Chicken Taliwang, Fish in Banana Leaves, Peanut Sauce with Tofu and Tempeh and Kelepon which are these weird little green balls filled with palm sugar and rolled in shredded coconut. Yum!

I went out with some guys I had been diving with a few nights and enjoyed the Gili night life to its fullest. I even ran into a friend from Chile who happened to be travelling around this part of the world too!

On my last morning, I woke up to an email from the booking agency I used to book my boat back to Bali to catch my flight home saying that the boat at 9:00 was cancelled, but not to worry because I had been issued a ticket for the 10:30 boat. I went to an internet cafe to print my ticket and reported to the appropriate boat check-in. The guy looked at my ticket and said "Boat is full, You needed to check in 48 hours prior." I argued with him to no avail, took a deep breath and decided that the worst that could happen is that I got stuck in Bali for an extra day. Boo hoo! I called the agency back with a little edge in my voice and about 30 minutes later, after running out of both phone credit and charge, I had a new boat ticket at 11:20 back to Bali. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to make my 4 PM flight, since it's an hour and a half to Bali and another hour and a half to the airport from the jetty, but luck was on my side. I got to the airport around 2:30, checked in and began the long journey back to London. 


After ten days of athletic activities in Laos, including trekking, ziplining, rockclimbing, kayaking and more, I needed some R&R. Bali delivered! Finding a restaurant on my first night that had queso lured me to TJ's for dinner. It wasn't the queso from El Paso Country Club, but it wasn't bad for Indonesia! I woke up early the next day to travel across the island to Tulamben to dive the USS Liberty shipwreck.

I'd never had the chance to dive a wreck before, so it was pretty cool. The boat was a US Marine ship sunk by a Japanese submarine in 1943. It was pretty broken up in the original blast that sunk it, and over the past fifty years has moved a bit due to a volcanic eruption, but you could still make out parts of the ship, the anchor, some ladders and other boat stuff. The coral that has grown on it makes it a really popular hangout for fish and turtles too.

I spent the rest of my time in Bali basically laying on the beach, hanging at the gorgeous pool at The Stones in Legian and pretending I was on my own honeymoon with myself. I even ordered room service and stayed in bed watching movies one night. I wandered around Seminyak and browsed the shops there, but there is no room in my backpack for anything else. The shopping really looked great though!

Friday, June 12, 2015

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng once held the reputation as Asia's party town where backpackers died at the rate of 20 per year from heart attacks, broken necks and drowning. Nestled on the side of the river, tourists would rent old tractor inner-tubes, plop in the river and bar hop down the shores to makeshift parties where opium and mushrooms were favored to beer Lao. In 2012, the government cleaned things up and most of the bars closed. Well, it's been three years and five of them have snuck back on the scene at a more mellowed-out scale. Tubing is still hot, but it reminds me more of tubing down the Guadalupe outside San Marcos than legends of the past. Trade the Jell-O shots famous in Texas for Malibu and pineapple slushies and you've got the scene I encountered in Vang Vieng. The day was loads of fun and I survived it with little more than a bruised foot and a hangover. 

Aside from tubing, Vang Vieng is known for endless options for outdoor adventure. Traveling in Southeast Asia is a bit like summer camp for grownups. My favorite activities at camp were usually those that involved a harness or a gun, but since I think the idea of an American shooting a rifle is a bit of a sensitive subject in these parts, rock climbing sounded like a fun option. I booked a full-day rock climbing tour to Sleeping Rock, just 15 minutes from town. My muscles haven't been this sore in years! It was an awesome day that ended with a completely unsafe climb to the top of a peak that I rapelled down landing on the banks of the river. The scenery from the top was gorgeous, like the rest of Laos. This place is seriously the adventurer's paradise. 


After Yangon, I wasn't too excited to go to another big city on my last day in the country, but Vientiane wasn't so bad! For one, it's not as hot here - today has a high of 97, but it's only 82 right now. That's cool enough for a walking tour in my book! I started my morning with a pastry from the Scandanavian Bakery around the corner from my hotel, iHouse. I got a late start because I don't need to leave for the airport until 7:15 and needed to fill the hours somehow (so an HBO movie kept me in bed until 9:30). After fueling up at breakfast, I hit the pavement en route the Patuxai Monument, Laos's answer to the Arch de Triomph. The monument was built with cement donated by the U.S. intended for a new runway back in the days of the secret war. Instead, the Lao government directed their efforts towards a giant middle finger (or arch) to the French in celebration of their independence. I didn't climb up to the top because the city doesn't really seem like one worth taking the stairs to the top for the view. Just not that much to see. 
I continued on my stroll to That Dam, an old misplaced stupa in the middle of a traffic circle. The stupas in Bagan eat stupas like this one for breakfast, so being the spoiled little stupa voyeur I am, it didn't really excite me too much. 

Wat Si Saket seemed like a good next stop as it was nearby, so I popped in for my weekly temple visit. It was pretty, but still doesn't hold a torch to anything in Myanmar. Gosh! That beautiful country ruined me for the rest of Buddhism. 

Though I couldn't go in, I tried to pay a visit to the president at his royal palace afterward. Instead, I just took an awkward picture through the gate before I was seen by security. 

Lunch at Sputnik Burger was the answer to my desire to avoid Lao food. Their Beer Lao Tempura Tilapia sandwich was delicious. I didn't really understand the restaurant's communist James Bond space theme, but the food was great! Feeling like my walking tour had pretty much exhausted the sites in Vientiane already, I opted for some shopping. The guidebook had recommended T'Shop Lai Gallery so I headed over to check out the handmade bath products with little intent to purchase. Twenty dollars later...I have a new collection of organic natural bug repellent, butterfly pea and kaffir lime shampoo, coconut oil and lip balm. I'm sure I needed this stuff, right? With five hours to kill, I decided a book shop was a good next stop. Monument Books around the corner was a bit of a disappointment. Usually I walk into a book store and can't leave without at least two or three books. I didn't really want to spend five hours with any of the pickings in the shop, so I went to Joma Cafe to catch up on my blog. Blessing in disguise! Laos has kept me so busy I was three cities behind. I needed a taste of the Parisian influence left behind in this city where the cafe culture has hung on strong. Now I'm all caught up in time for Bali! If only I had a book to read on the beach. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a town they say that you can do all kinds of fun activities or nothing at all.  I went for the lots of activities plan and had a really good time. After a long shower to get the overnight bus off me, I met up with Maree and Jeremy, an Australian couple who had been on the Gibbon Experience. We had breakfast at a great little French cafe called Le Banneton before bargaining with the tuk-tuk drivers for a fair fare to get to Kuang Si falls. We talked one down to 40,000 kip and satisfied that we were paying the right price, we were on our way. The falls were with the $5 trip! There is a large sun bear sanctuary on site too which was a nice surprise. The bears were so cute!

We also got the chance to see what monks do in their free time - and it's not praying!

For dinner, I met up with my new buddies at the night market for a street food feast. There are rows of stalls with all you can eat for 15,000 kip (or about $2). You literally just fill up a bowl with as much as you can, hand it to a lady to cook it all up on a frying pan and voila! The good news is I've been in Asia long enough that it didn't make me sick either!

We shopped around a bit in the market after we ate, but it had my fill of souvenir shopping, so I didn't pick anything up this time. The next day, I joined Jeremy and Maree again for a kayaking trip to the Pac Ou Caves. It rained most of the day, but since we were already in the river, it didn't really matter. The caves were full of thousands of Buddhas that are taken there annually in some ceremony in October. I think that makes my fifth or sixth cave (I have lost count at this point) on this trip. I've said this before, but now I'm really caved out. 

Huay Xai

I made it to Laos! This part of my journey was never part of the original plan. I should be in Nepal right now volunteering with orphan novice monks. Sadly, the massive earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25 interfered with those plans and the volunteer organization I was meant to be working with has suspended operations until July. I was really looking forward to the project in Nepal, but I guess I'll just have to go another time. With three weeks before my flight back to London, I decided to spend two of them in Laos and end my trip on the beaches of Indonesia. I crossed the border into Laos from Chiang Khong to the town of Huay Xai. Huay Xai is a miserable little town on the Mekong River that is known for little more than being the place to catch a boat to Luang Prabang and home of the Gibbon Experience. All that I cared about was the Gibbon Experience. What is that, you say? A dream come true! That is if you dream of flying through the jungle on zip lines suspended 140 m above the ground and sleeping in treehouses for three days. I certainly do! I opted for the Waterfall version of the Gibbon Experience where you also get to swim in a pretty awesome waterfall for a while. The other options include a 2 day express trek and a 3 day classic trek where you are more likely to see gibbons. Monkeys are cool and all, but I like swimming in waterfalls more. Especially in this heat! 

The hiking was a bit more than I bargained for, but I'm always down for some exercise. A few weeks ago when Sarah and I were in Khao Sok and went trekking, our biggest fear was leeches. We had been warned that they could be lurking in the shallow water we waded through in streams and in the caves. Nobody warned me before coming on the Gibbon Experience that there could be leeches so I was in an ignorant bliss until a leech lodged itself in between Lauren's toes. The little British girl handled it surprisingly well, allowing the guide to detach it and light it on fire with his lighter. It bled quite a bit, but overall seemed like a pretty minor incident. I felt much better about the presence of leeches after that - and it's a good thing - because only ten minutes later, I slipped on a rock while crossing s stream and two leeches found their way to my ankle. One of them didn't have much of a chance to latch on, but the other little bugger got a nice lunch out of my ankle. Aside from a weird looking purple spot, I'm not much worse for the ware. Result: I'm no longer afraid of leeches! How's that for conquering your fears? I don't particularly want another one to snack on me any time soon, but if he did, I'd be happier than if, say, a mosquito carrying malaria bit me (which let's be honest, is pretty likely where I am). I probably should have picked up some malaria tablets before I came. 

We had some visitors to the treehouse on the last night. I heard some rustling and thought there was some sort of critter nearby. I woke up Lauren who didn't seem to care much and rolled over and went back to sleep. I, on the other hand, was on high alert. My backpack was already safely inside our tent-fort-mosquito net, so I figured all that the little critter could be after was the trash or our leftover dinner which we'd tried to put away as well as one can when living in a treehouse. Turns out, he was also safely inside our fort which I discovered this morning based on the hole chewed through my backpack pocket where a bit of peanut brittle had been. So happy I didn't turn on the flashlight to check things out to find a rat in my tent! A couple of leeches and a tree rat were totally worth the rest of the exhilarating experience. I'll put up some better pictures once I have a chance to pull them off my camera. 

Like all good things, the Gibbon Experience had to end. Fortunately for me, I made a few friends who were carrying on in my direction on the overnight bus to Luang Prabang. This bus experience was even worse than the last from Inle Lake to Yangon. I traded one puker for three this time - all in the sleeper bed right above mine! These poor children couldn't stop barfing all night long - for twelve hours straight. At one point, something wet dripped down onto my arm and the bed where Monty (pictures in the center above) was sitting. I'd like to believe it was just water, but am pretty sure that's just wishful thinking. All I know is I am glad that is my last overnight bus!