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Archive for August, 2012

Please Don’t Rush

The nation of Laos is officially known by the name of Lao P.D.R. (People’s Democratic Republic), but to many travelers this name also symbolizes a deeply rooted part of the Lao identity. It is often said that locals operate on “Lao Time,” meaning that they are friendly and helpful, but in no particular hurry to get anything done. So backpackers have dubbed it with the not so official name of Lao P.D.R. (Please Don’t Rush). We embraced the P.D.R. attitude and took our time exploring the town and outskirts of Luang Prabang.

It was a welcomed change to move away from the backpacker party scene in Vang Vieng and into the beautifully serene and laid back town of Luang Prabang. The town even has a nightly curfew of midnight which contributes to its low-key environment.

We hired bikes one morning and set off to explore the rolling hills that surround Luang Prabang. The Mekong and its tributaries wind through the landscape while temples and shrines speckle the countryside. On our single-track bicycles, we quickly learned that the “rolling hills” are steeper than they appear. Hydration stops and fruit shake breaks helped us get through the toughest parts.

Waking up very sore and stiff the next morning, we opted to take a boat cruise up the Mekong River.  We piled on board with two other couples and set off towards some villages and caves up river from Luang Prabang. There is something so mesmerizing about the Mekong. It really embodies the “please don’t rush” mentality as it meanders its way through the lush green countryside. The muddy brown waters were running high from the recent rains which made the journey to the cave a bit slower than usual but equally if not more beautiful. We stopped in a small village whose specialty is lao lao whiskey, made from sticky rice, had a few tastes for good measure, and kept on our way.

The caves at the end of the trip were more impressive than we’d imagined. For thousands of years, the two caves we visited have been used as places of worship. The native people of Lao used to worship spirits of nature and believed that the riverside caves were connected with the water gods. After Buddhism arrived in the region, the caves gradually became religious shrines and house countless statues of the Lord Buddha left as offerings by faithful pilgrims.

Another well-known attraction in the area is Kuang Si Falls. When it comes to waterfalls, Amy is hard to impress. The many falls of the Colombia River Gorge near her hometown of Portland, OR are tough to beat. This particular waterfall definitely met her expectations. At first, it seemed like nothing more than a fast flowing jungle river with some small drop offs, pools, and rope swings. As we made our way upstream, we stopped for some fun and took a few turns on the swing ourselves before running into one of the most spectacular waterfalls we have ever seen. This bad boy seemed to stretch on forever as it disappeared into the clouds escaping the reach of our camera lens.

Luang Prabang is the type of place where you can easily get swept away by the nightly market, amazing scenery and easy going locals. Our goal of circumnavigating the globe, however, means that we have to keep moving, even when we want to stay. The lengthy bus ride through winding, mudslide-ridden, mountain passes that we took from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was more than we could handle for a second time, so we opted for a short 30 minute flight to Vientiane. In true Lao fashion it turned out to be the easiest and most stress-free travel experience of our trip so far; factor in the brand new airplane, tasty on-board vegetarian snack and breathtaking aerial views of the Mekong, and it may go down as the best flight ever!

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The Road Ahead

One question that we get a lot revolves around how we plan our travels. People want to know if we are using an around-the-world plane ticket, or if we have just been flying by the seat of our pants. We have been operating somewhere in between. Early on in our trip, we did have some plane tickets booked in advance, for example our departure from the States to Spain and our visit to Denmark. Knowing that we have tickets paid for and dates set helps build a certain type of excitement, but midway through Europe, we took our last scheduled flight; at that point, we were truly free with no solid future plans. It felt great, liberating and new.

After some weeks, we realized that we wanted to visit destinations that required flying. So, in an effort to save money, we booked our airfare to Asia. Following a couple more pre-arranged flights to China, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, we again switched into open-schedule mode through SE Asia, purchasing last minute buses and trains as we pleased. Traveling with no concrete plans is the way to go in this part of the world. It’s so easy to hop around that we found ourselves in places we had not intended; truly letting the road choose our course.

The only certain thing in life is change, and as the months slipped away, we again found ourselves faced with some long distances flights approaching. Nature gave us the nudge we needed. Trapped inside during a monsoon downpour in Luang Prabang, Laos, we went on a booking frenzy! When the dust had settled, we had booked six flights and laid out a time table for the next four months of travel.

Here is what lies ahead…

  • Singapore: A weekend in this intriguing city-state.
  • Sumatra: Indonesia’s large but lesser explored island.
  • Malaysia: SCUBA diving in some of SE Asia’s most well-preserved waters.
  • Australia: A week visiting friends in Perth, plus a trip to Sydney.
  • New Zealand: A month of road-tripping and trekking around the north and south islands.
  • Chile: Returning to where Mike studied abroad, Thanksgiving, Amy’s birthday (her parents are meeting us down there!) and a wedding to top things off.
  • Argentina: Christmas and New Years with some of Mike’s family.

We have found this approach of on-and-off planning to be a great way to piece together our RTW trip.  Advanced booking means locking in lower airfare for long hauls, but once you reach a fun region of the world, leaving the “meat” of the journey unplanned keeps every day feeling fresh.

We look forward to blogging about our up-and-coming adventures on the road! If you have any travel suggestions for these parts of the world, or if there is anything in particular you’d like us to write about, let us know. Cheers!

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To Tube, or Not to Tube

There is pretty much one reason that young travelers go to Vang Vieng, Laos: to tube down the Nam Song River. But would you hop into an inner tube and float down a river where nearly 30 people died last year?

We arrived in Vang Vieng last week after an exhausting journey on four different buses. Our original plan was to spend a few days in Vientiane before heading north, but pretty much everyone on our mini-bus was enthusiastically headed to Vang Vieng for some tubing, and since we had already been on the road for 14 hours anyway, we decided to tag along. It wasn’t until we arrived in town and started doing some research that we realized just how fatal the activity can be. While any river can be dangerous, it’s the atmosphere in Vang Vieng that makes the Nam Song especially treacherous. The banks of the river are lined with float-up bars that indiscriminately hand out welcome shots of whisky and serve everything from beer to opium.

After some deliberation, we decided to attempt floating the river the next morning, but with safety, not partying, as our first priority. By 11:00am the next day we were at the river’s edge with inner tubes in hand. The summer is rainy season in Laos, and the mud-brown river was flowing quickly with water levels high. Needless to say, we were feeling a bit apprehensive. The tubing launch site was located at a bar on the opposite bank, and as we crossed over on a ferry we couldn’t help but wonder, “What the hell are we getting ourselves into?” To be honest, we did accept the free shot of whiskey for a bit of courage and set off down the river with our life jackets strapped tightly and a leash that we devised for keeping our tubes together. Once in the water and on our way, the tranquility of the scenery hit us. We had expected raging crowds and loud music, but what we found was a bit of solitude. In a lightly falling rain, we drifted alone along the base of tall stone cliffs. The lush vegetation and blanket of fog that covered the peaks made them appear to stretch on forever.

The experience was completely different than what we had expected. Many of the bars along the river had not yet opened for the day, but we did stop at two. The families that ran both places were happily surprised to see us. Since we were the only ones on the river, we were able to spend some time talking with them. We learned that the mayhem starts daily at around 2:30pm and got a tip about the best bar to visit for a chilled out couple like us. Having survived one trip down the river and having seen the serene side of the Nam Song, we decided to return for a second run after lunch to see just how wild things get.

At 3:00pm that afternoon, we were again standing across the river from the launch site, but this time with countless others ready to begin their first run of the day. Again we felt a bit uneasy, but for a completely different reason. As we looked upon the scene at the bar on the opposite bank, we witnessed sheer insanity. The tranquil wooden shack from that morning had been transformed into an all-out raging party. Blasting music, buckets of liquor, spray painted bodies, beer pong, chugging contests…you name it, it was probably happening there. As one sign read, “Anything is allowed.” The place was jam packed with people in their late teens and early 20s, some already nearing blackout status before even getting in the water. We quickly realized that we were among the few who were actually wearing life jackets. Some people were even sharing one inner tube between five or six people, barely managing to hang on as they jumped into the water. Keep in mind that there are no lifeguards, no rescue boats, no paramedics and only a very basic hospital in the town. It is said that the reasoning part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until around age 25; Vang Vieng may be the perfect place to prove this theory. At 26, we were amongst the oldest in the crowd.

The idea of cutting people off at the river bars is non-existent. We could only stand to stay at the first place for one beer before deciding to take off and stay ahead of the drunken masses. Along the way, the debauchery continued and bars began to up the offering from alcohol to laughing gas, magic mushrooms and opium (for obvious reasons, we did not partake). The most inebriated became separated from their groups. It became ever clearer that the Nam Song River is not responsible for the high yearly death toll; extremely poor judgment is the real culprit.

The further we separated ourselves from the crowds of annoyingly wasted backpackers, the more we enjoyed the experience. The last bar along the river is located on stilts high above the water and hidden around a bend. We reached it just as the skies opened up to a torrential rain and sat around a fire under the thatched roof, chatting with new friends and contemplated our great day of tubing.

Although we thoroughly enjoyed our day on the river, Vang Vieng is sadly another example of tourism gone array. The city now depends on its tubing industry to survive, so despite the near 30 tourists deaths attributed to the river last year, the madness will continue. Any genuine Lao culture that the city once held has been obliterated. We are glad that we made our way down the Nam Song, glad that we had a good time, and glad that we did it in a reasonable manner. To tube, or not to tube? We say go for it, but remember that only you are responsible for your own safety.

7 Tips for a Fun & Safe Tubing Trip:

  1. Wear a life jacket!
  2. If you drink too much, DO NOT go back in the river. There are plenty of tuk-tuks along the banks to drive you back to town
  3. Stay away from drugs
  4. Don’t share a tube. 1 tube=1 person
  5. Never float the river alone
  6. Stay away from swings, slides, cliffs or anything that sends you plunging into the river
  7. Finish your run before it gets dark

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A lot can happen in a week. Since we last wrote, we’ve played with tigers, ridden on elephants, watched knockout Muay Thai, honed our motorbike skills, climbed Thailand’s highest peak, and so much more.  Where did we do all of these spectacular things? A little place called Chiang Mai.

Not so little actually, Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand making it somewhat of a “capital” for the northern region of the country. While it doesn’t have the skyscrapers, mega-malls, and constant adrenaline of Bangkok, Chiang Mai still seems to have something for everyone. We easily could have spent a month there, but the tourists visas we acquired at the border with Cambodia were only valid 15 days, so we had to leave before we were ready to say goodbye. Thanks to our friends Daniel and Libby, we got a taste of home and some great suggestions of what to do and see in the city. Here is a glimpse at the different faces of Chiang Mai.

On the Wild Side

Amy is a cat lover through and through, and since childhood Mike has been watching Jake Jabs play with baby tigers on those annoying American Furniture Warehouse commercials; so when we learned about Tiger Kingdom just outside of Chiang Mai, we jumped all over it. As the name would suggest, this place is crawling with tigers! Tiger Kingdom does not drug their animals prior to allowing visitors into the animal enclosures. This is evident from their playfulness and alert demeanor. For our visit, we chose to get in the cage with the little guys. The tiger cubs we played with were 2-4 months old and beyond adorable. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come up with a plan for lifting one in the fifteen minutes we were allotted, but we did get plenty of pictures.

As Thailand’s national animal, elephants are an important symbol of the country’s culture and history. Chiang Mai is home to numerous elephant sanctuaries, some more concerned with the elephants’ well-being than others. We took the advice of our friends and visited a place called Maesa Elephant Camp, a place that rescues elephants from bad situations and breeds baby elephants to increase the dwindling population in Thailand. During our visit, we saw a 4 month old calf with his mother, fed bunches of bananas and sugarcane to a herd of hungry elephants, and even rode on the back of an old-guy by the name of Poo Somboon. He was 41 years old and carried three of us on his back like it was nothing. The camp even has a daily show where the elephants play harmonicas, paint incredible pictures, and shoot soccer goals. There is no doubt that the elephant trainers love and care for these animals, and we can only hope that the elephants themselves also have fun preforming.

We also got a close look at one of the most dangerous animals around, the Muay Thai kickboxer. You don’t want to mess with these guys or gals. Muay Thai is the nation’s favorite sport and for good reason. We spent an evening watching several fights at a local arena in Chiang Mai. The night began with two female fights then moved on through increasing weight classes of men. Although gambling is technically illegal in Thailand, throwing down a few Baht between friends is common and makes things a bit more interesting. While small, the female kickboxers who started things off fought with great ferocity. The male fighters, on the other hand, were more methodical in their attacks. Unfortunately, the “main event” didn’t even last one round; a knee to the kidney and kick to the temple ended things quite quickly in a knockout.

The Street Food Scene

We can say with confidence that Chiang Mai has the best street food scene that we have experienced thus far in SE Asia. The weekly Saturday and Sunday markets boast endless options of Thai food and other interesting specialties like sushi, Indian and Burmese food. We spent our weekend evenings in Chiang Mai grazing through the stands and ended up absolutely stuffed each time.

Greater Chiang Mai

For those with more than a few days to spend in Chiang Mai, we recommend getting out of the city center to visit a doi (meaning mountain in Thai). We spent one day with our friends driving up Doi Inthanon, the tallest mountain in Thailand. The air became cooler and less tainted with pollution as we scaled the mountainside. Thick fog had engulfed Doi Inthanon that day, and the rain was relentless, but we still had fun walking through some trails and visiting a few waterfalls.

Another more easily accessible mountain is Doi Suthep, which is a short 25 minute drive from the center of Chiang Mai. We rented a motorbike one day to visit the temple that is perched on the top of this mountain, Wat Phrathat. The temple itself is stunning, and the panoramic views of Chiang Mai cannot be beat.

Taking it Easy

After several action-filled days, we were ready for some relaxation. Having heard of the infamous Thai massage, we wanted to give it a try. You can’t walk down a street in Chiang Mai without seeing two or three spas, so it was easy enough to find a spot. We can’t say that getting a Thai massage is the most relaxing experience, but it definitely awakens your muscles and works out the kinks. It’s kind of like visiting a masseuse and chiropractor at the same time.

An afternoon stroll through the streets of Chiang Mai will lead you by countless ornately decorated temples. We spent an entire day just marveling at these wats and stopping for Thai Tea along the way. Turns out that it was Buddhist Lent during our visit to Chiang Mai, so we saw lots of activity at the temples.

There is nothing like a familiar face, especially when you haven’t been home in seven months. This blog is dedicated to our friends Daniel and Libby – thank you for sharing your home with us for the past week and showing us a great time in Chiang Mai! The hours spent playing cards, telling jokes, and sipping coco locos made us feel so at home. The farewell lanterns were the perfect end to a great week.

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While on a 15 hour train ride across Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we decided to kill some time by writing a blog post. We were going to write about another of our adventures, but then something on the train caught our eye…Travel Guidebooks. As we looked down the aisle, Lonely Planet, Frommer’s and Fodor’s were in the hands of nearly every backpacker on board. We’ve discussed our dislike for guidebooks before, but at nearly seven months into our RTW trip, our pent-up emotions about these over-hyped stacks of bound paper has reached critical mass.

To all our fellow globe trotters out there, we wish to inform you that despite what you may have heard, Lonely Planet is NOT the Bible. Yes, both books are ridiculously thick and claim to have all the answers to life’s questions, but one has served as the basis of a religion for millennia while the other has a new edition every year (we know the Bible has many editions too, but you get the picture). We are constantly amazed at the number of travelers we see who won’t dare do a thing without consulting their holy book. “Better not stay at this hotel, looks great but it isn’t listed here on page 163.” “Mmm, this street food smells delicious, but the book says that it may cause traveler’s diarrhea.” If you only do what the guidebook says, you’re missing out on a whole lot.

Travel guides claim to be a great resource for the independent traveler, but how independent are you really if you’re reading the same damn book as everyone else? Like our friends at UNESCO, guidebooks have a way of massively publicizing truly special travel destinations, which in turn, leads them to become nothing more than a check mark on people’s bucket lists. “This restaurant is a hidden gem amongst the bustling streets of Tokyo.” Well now that you just told the whole world about it, it’s probably not too secret any more, is it?

While they all include sections titled “Best Of” and “Top Picks,” what guidebooks really give you is mediocrity. Do you really think the writers have the time to visit every hostel, hotel, and guesthouse in a city? They pick a few places, check them out (maybe), and if the place isn’t lethal then it’s good enough for their publication. Their one saving grace may be that when we see a restaurant with a big sign that says “Recommended by Lonely Planet” we know to steer clear. What that sign really means is “we know Lonely Planet is sending a bunch of mindless zombies our way; time to jack up our prices, lower our quality, and give crap service.”

We are not quite done yet. Do you have any idea how much a guidebook costs? If we bought one for each country on our RTW itinerary, we would be out nearly a thousand bucks. We used to think college texts books were the biggest rip-off around; then, we decided to travel the world and found out who the real crooks are. Why pay so much for information that is out of date before it is even published? We find that online forums provide much more accurate and useful information. The cost of these: FREE.

Perhaps it’s our desire to travel the unbeaten path that makes us hate guidebooks, or maybe it’s that we don’t want to see all of the same faces in every city as we make our way around the world. Either way, it’s not hard to realize how empty guidebooks’ suggestions are. Just pick up a copy of Lonely Planet for your country, flip through to the section on your hometown and read it. You’ll notice how much they’ve left out.

So now you have it. That’s our two cents on the guidebook industry. However, unlike the producers of these texts, we don’t think that our opinion is the only one that matters. We want to know what you think! Please take our poll below and/or leave a comment to share your thoughts about guidebooks.

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