Monday, October 23, 2006

Laos, The Land of A Million Elephants

24th October - 7th November

We crossed into Laos at Huay Xai and caught the two day slow boat down the
Mekong. Destination: Luang Prabang. An uneventful night was spent at the half way stop Pak Beng - a veritable shit hole; an over priced tourist trap. Luckily, we managed to find probably the worst guesthouse in town - despite the clear grafittied warnings....

The two days on the boat were pleasant with river views of working elephants and suicidal speedboat captains. We were, however, glad to reach Luang Prabang. Here's the sunset view across the Mekong from our guesthouse.

Inside, here was one of many of our fellow guests. This ol' girl was about as big as your big toe.

Who wants to be a Millionaire? Here, Casey basks in his first and last moment of glory of holding 1 Million Kip, equivalent to about $100. Luang Prabang is a busy and lovely little city, literally made up of three main streets. The Hmong Night Market heaved with street vendors selling textiles, handicrafts, mulberry-paper lanterns and other souveniers for what seemed to be entirely for tourists. We ate like kings from the street food vendors on grilled fish, whole roasted chicken, papaya salad and ubiquitous sticky rice.

The Phu Si temple, bang in the middle of town on a hill gave us a stunning view of Luang Prabang. However, due to the editors dicision to cut down on boring landscape shots, here's zhenia's stolen shot of the monks inside. This one was smoking a fag.

The lying Buddha sleeps...

...while Sean prays with the disciples.

Tat Kuang Si. The most stunning waterfall i've ever seen in my life. Further down stream it broke out into pristeen turquoise swimming pools where we jumped from over hanging trees.

Here's the view from the very top. The path takes you right across the very edge of the fall.
Before arriving in Vientiane, our last stop in Laos, we stopped off in Vang Vieng for some outdoor recreation (btw Vang Vieng is the tubing capital of the country). We floated down the Nam Song River in big black rubber doughnuts and every hundred meters was a makeshift bar that served us a Beer Lao and offered us some silly entertainment. It's funny to note that it took us the entire day to make the 3 km trip down the stream.

On a more productive day, we decided to hike to Tham Phu Kham cave, which also boasts a lagoon. The hike started early and the 6 km through a shade-less road wasn't enjoyable but the scenery was wild. Part of the US led carpet bombing campaign in the 1960's, these bombs have been recycled to mark where the road begins and ends. The entire countryside seemed to be surrounded by golden rice fields and rugged mountain peaks.
A sweet farewell image from Vang Vieng as Ursula walks across a newly-made bamboo bridge on the Nam Song River.

Don't you love the sentiment?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Pai ปาย

17th - 23rd October

One of those old hippie stops, Pai, is now packed full of aging fareng coining it on the tourism trade - those dirty sell outs. It's also a a damn good time surrounded by serene mountain jungle packed full of insects the size of your fist.
Here's where we lay our heads at night.....a sweet bungalow shack with stalks of green bamboos growing on all sides.
Our first full day happened to be Phil's 30th birthday so Pat and Tom planned a white water rafting trip down the Pai river.......but not before we got Phil completely hammered the night before.
The next day, as the hangover was creeping back, we tightened our helmets and lifejackets and boarded our rafting boats. Down the Kong and Pai Rivers, we passed some killer waves and scarry whirlpools...Tom's look says it all.
Another stop down the river was a 7 meter cliff from which almost everyone (minus Zhenia) jumped into the rushing waters. Here, Tom cliff jumping mid-stream....
After a day of recovery we rented bikes and headed out of town and over the mountains to the Mo Paeng waterfall. But before we got to the waterfalls, we passed some Elephant camps with many baby elephants.
Here, Tom takes a dive down the rock slide.

That day we decided to continue our expedition and see the Lot Caves. Here, Tom poses with mini Sean on Pai's lookout.
The Lot Caves rise in height of nearly 60 meters. It's a wild scene when one realizes that all the shapes and contours within the cave were caused by water. In one of the caves a wooden coffin was found so there must have been a civilization that lived in this magical darkness.
We needed to take a bamboo raft to get to the main attractions in the cave.

Later....a view of Pai from above from the Wat Mae Sen.

Fanny (from Paris), Pat and Zhenia took a ride through Pai. Rice paddies grow wild here.

We never got to our destination but took a walk through the jungle that surrounds Pai. The fullness and vastness of life here is unimaginable. It is everywhere you look.

Many of nights were spent at Taku Art Bar, a chill loungy venue with great artwork by our friend (from Chiang Mai) Suwat Arvui. Here is the large gecko he sculpted from metal that hangs above the bar.
Here, he poses holding a marble (yes, the stone) lamp. Zhenia and Ursula swear by it.
Note: A GREAT BIG thanks to Suwat for all his advice on Pai, the best Thai food we EVER had and for all your 'love and happiness'. You're truly a guru!!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Chiang Mai - เชียงใหม่

12th October - 17th October

We arrived to Chiang Mai with the Avenue I gang and before we could figure out a local bus route to our guesthouse of choice, we saw two guys from BANANA guesthouse waiting for us at the train station! A breeze of a tuk-tuk ride later, we ordered some kao-soi (curry noodles served with red shallots, pickled cabbage and some damn-HOT chilly paste) and sat back feeling satisfied from head to toe.

Everyone in Chiang Mai, or anywhere in mainland Thailand, rides mopeds. Even the elderly ride it wild without a helmet. By word of mouth, we were recommended to see the waterfalls in Mae Rim just 25 minutes north of Chiang Mai.
Here, our partners in crime, Phil and Ursula (another great Brooklynite travelling in SE Asia), ride the country roads to the waterfalls.

Here, Phil poses in front of the Mae Sa waterfall. The waterfall was beautiful and the misty air cooled us instantly but the brownish color of the water, especially after the recent flooding in the area and the 'parasitic leeches' we read about in the papers, changed our minds about taking a dip.

On our ride back to Chiang Mai, we stopped at the Insect Museum, which happened to be closed. So we spotted a farmer tending his double-hunchback cows, a new variety to us.
Chiang Mai has a famous Sunday Night Bazaar whose legacy dates back to the original Yunnanese trading caravans that stopped here along the ancient trade route between Simao (China) and Mawlamyine (on Myanmar's Indian Ocean coast). On Sundays, half the city is closed down to allow street vendors and local artisans to show off their art and craftwork of wood, jewelry, clothing, etc. In addition, Chiang Mai boasts to have as many wats (or Buddhist temples) as Bangkok, even though the city is much smaller in size than the capital. Here, is an example of such a wat.
Our stay in Chiang Mai wouldn't be the same if it weren't for all the great people we met there. This page MUST end to Chiang Mai's hospitality and her cool residents: Suwat, a teacher cum artist cum bar-owner cum social slut extraordinaire from Pai taking a break to see his bar owner friend in Chiang Mai. He could be found spending hours drawing the customers at the Freedom Bar, our main entertainment base in Chiang Mai.
Zhenia helped Hoy paint the front of the Freedom Bar. Here, she giggles at the camera.
Jennifer, another wonderful Brooklynite teaching in Russia for the last two years, also was a solid member of the Freedom Bar/Avenue I-in-Thailand crew.
And last but not least, Selly, the owner of the Freedom Bar who fed and satisfied the thirst of many, many customers in the larger Chiang Mai area. We love you!!

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Koh Pha Ngan - เกาะพะงัน

5th October - 10th October

Following a week long stay in Beijing and our 6th month anniversary on the road, we were too eager to see the familiar faces of our Brooklyn friends and booked a flight to Bangkok. An overnight train, a ferry and a taxi ride later, we arrived onto the sandy beaches and leafy goodness of Koh Pha Ngan, where the famous full moon (along with black moon and half moon-damn! the Thais sure know how to have a good time) parties are held.Our first few moment with Pat, Phil and Sean were spent goofing around in our new base, the Lighthouse Guesthouse.Most of our evenings were spent in Haatrin, drinking buckets of thai whiskey and red bull, chiang beer and "special" shakes. Here Zhenia (the undisputed party Queen) holds court....
The boys from Brooklyn: me, Pat, Phil and Sean Casey...
All the partying and tourists aside, Koh Pha Ngan is a haven of a place and offers spectacular views from every direction...a sure rest for the mind, body and soul. Oh yeah, and the daily Thai messages and Thai curries don't hurt either.

Here Zhenia has her party spectacles on, ready for a night out after watching the sunset.For the next four days, we can safely say we didn't do a great deal other than eat well, play lots of yatsi, drink bad thai whiskey and cool off in the sea. We didn't get a great deal of sleep - who would when you can stay up for a sunrise like this??

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Beijing - 北京

25th September - 4th October

We ended our Trans-Siberian route in Beijing, a city of grand (and at the same time--infinitely small detail) scale from architecture to landscape to people and, of course, food. This city is ALIVE beyond anything we have seen so far and the streets are surprisingly safe at night. We found the 'adapting to changes' in the category of food relatively easy after Mongolia's culinary delights of boiled mutton and (yak and goat) dairy products (no offense to Mongolia). We made our temporary home in the Dashilar district down the colorful and bustling hutong (narrow alleyway that create a circuit of never-ending streets and one-storey ramshackle dwellings and courtyards) off Quianmen Dajie.

The Forbidden City, the palace where the Ming and Qing dynasty resided (and forbade everyone else to visit or live alongside--hence the name) contains 800 buildings and 900 rooms. Unfortunately, the main ceremonial building was under construction (SHOCKER!!!) so Zhenia took it upon herself to pout away...

Buddists have their own way of 'acting' Buddists, hence the happy touching of the knobs of the front gate of the Forbidden City.

These glass sculpted ornaments were all over the place; we're talking doors, wall ornaments and garbage cans.

Behai Park is situated around the Beihai Lake and offers a splendid and serene atmosphere of a park with a lake. Here it is peaceful and relaxing...but don't forget the fierce salsa couples doin' their thing in the middle of the park.
The While Dagoba, built in 1651 for a visit by the Dailai Lama, sits splendidly in the background.

The Temple of the Heaven is a 267 hectare park which contains the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest whose temple's wooden pillars support the ceiling without a single nail!!
Here Tom (as always) appreciates a finely-trimmed lawn at the Temple of Heaven Park.
We rented bicycles one morning and decided to see Beijing ourselves. To our suprise, the roads were really safe since bicyclists have their own lane and everyone rides like a buddist.We could not show our face again if we did not visit The Great Wall while in, here it is. Tom, Miguel (from Argentina) and Vit (from L.A. via Czech Republic) act natural while climbing the steep hill that took us up to the Wall.
View from top.
After 2 hours of walking on the wall, Zhenia gives Tom (the photographer) a sexy pose as a testament of conquering the damn thing.
There was no end to the celebrating in Beijing and since the food was so good, Tom decided to risk a little (with Vit's help) and try the fried chicken head (in which he proceeded to suck out the brain in one quick inhale), the fried sparrow (several babies on a stick) and other kosher goodies.
Here, Tom's chicken head fights back for dear life.