Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Laos

There are no words to describe the beauty that is Laos. This small country nestled in the heart of indochina is without a doubt the least developed country that I have been to in my life - but the lack of economic development also means that it's breathtaking scenery and mountainous landscapes remain largely untouched. Entering Laos was like stepping back in time (80% of the Laotian population still practices subsistence agriculture). Recently, however, tourism has begun to grow in the region, making it a new "hot spot" for backpackers, largely for its relaxed lifestyle and for retaining a sense of "original" Asia, a sense which has been lost in other areas infiltrated by mass tourism.

The past week in this country has been incredible; from riding an elephant to tubing down a party river, Laos has enveloped me in its warm embrace, and it is heartbreaking to have to say goodbye. After disembarking from the slow boat in Pak Beng, we spent one night in this small village perched high on the banks of the Mekong river. Although it consists of only one main road, we managed (as always) to make our own fun by partying all night at the only bar in the entire rural village, Hive Bar.


Getting off the slow boat in Pak Beng, Laos

Pak Ou cave temple 

Pak Ou cave temple in Laos 

Thousands of Buddhas at the Pak Ou cave temple 

For the next couple of days, we made our way through the picturesque village of Luang Prabang. As an introduction to this UNESCO listed heritage site, we biked around the town, stopping a couple of times along the way to visit temples and to sample some of the local delicacies. Along the river, we stopped at a little makeshift stand selling SNAKE whisky. Yes, you read that right. The whisky is made by fermenting snakes in a bottle. Apparently, the Laotians believe it gives them strength and virility. I, on the other hand, think that all I got from it was a horrible after taste and a crazy headache for the ride back. After the effects of the snake whiskey had worn off, me Kristian, Dave and Aidan went to hike up Mount Phou Si, a 100m-high hill in the centre of Luang Prabang. Bordered on one side by the Mekong river and on the other side by the Nam Khan River, it is a local religious site housing several Buddhist shrines. The hike is by no means hard - but factor in a steep hill, 100 degree heat and 100% humidity, and it becomes one of the most arduous tasks in the world. Finally at the top though, you will be rewarded with one of the most breathtaking views - the sight of the orange-topped buildings, of the lush green forests and of the life-sourcing rivers makes the hike worth all the while.




Snake whiskey - as gross as it sounds
Our happy faces quickly turned sour after that shot

A man grilling dog by the river in Luang Prabang 

Biking through Luang Prabang

A buddhist shrine on the way to the top of Mount Phou Si 
The Breathtaking view of Luang Prabang 

Drenched in sweat from the hike 


Dave, me, Aidan and Kristian at the top of Mount Phou Si, Luang Prabang 

A rainbow over Luang Prabang! 

The next day was probably one of the most memorable days of my life. First, we woke up at 4:00 am to witness - and take part in! - the daily tradition of giving alms to the monks. Since monks do not make any money to buy food, they rely solely on the generous donations of the villagers. This white rice consists of their only meal throughout the day. After, we went to the Kuang Si waterfalls, where we spent a couple of hours jumping from the top of the falls, swinging from trees, and enjoying the crystal clear waters of the natural pools. As if the day couldn't get any better, in the afternoon, we went to ride elephants!! This has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember. Seeing these majestic animals was one of the highlights of my trip so far - and getting to ride on it's bare back through the jungle was unreal! At night, we were all exhausted and completely in awe of the amazing day we just had (is this real life???) Of course, we had to finish off the perfect day with some beers at Utopia - literally, a backpacker heaven.

 Waking up at dusk 



 Giving alms to the young monks in Luang Prabang





 Franciska feeding the elephant bananas


 Kuang Si Falls







Thursday, July 19, 2012

Mighty Mekong

As I am writing this, I am crossing the Mekong river on a two day boat journey from Thailand to Laos. The beauty of the Mekong and the untouched land around it is absolutely breathtaking. Cruising down this giant river spanning most of Southeast Asia is like a dream - nothing but forest and water ahead for what seems like an eternity.

 Mighty Mekong 
Cruising down the Mekong


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Magical Fairytale : Chiang Rai

Today we travelled through a landscape of rice paddies to Chiang Rai, a quiet town in the far northern part of Thailand. Chiang Rai is known as the "Gateway to the Golden Triangle" - the meeting point between Thailand, Burma and Laos.

Right before entering Chiang Rai, we visited Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple - which is one of (if not the most) unconventional modern Buddhist temples in the world. An artist-turned-architecht named Chalermchai Kositpipat began constructing the temple in 1996, and because the construction is entirely funded by him, the government does not have any say in the design of the temple - inside or out. The result is definitely one-of-a-kind, and sometimes a little wacko.

From the outside, the temple looks magical with its completely white fa├žade, signifying the purity of the Buddha. The architecture looks like something out of a fairytale, with intricate details and sculptures depicting different spirits. Water fronts the temple to separate heaven from earth, with a beautiful bridge connecting the two. Some say that the water represents the obstacles that man must surpass in order to reach the nirvana offered in the temple.

 Wat Rong Khun



 Would you believe me if I said this is the bathroom? Because it is. The whole thing. 

When you look a little closer though, the fairytale turns into a nightmare - there are disembodied heads dangling from trees, pleading hands of men suffering in hell emerging out of the earth, and various depictions of the devil.

 Dangling heads outside the temple

Then, as you walk inside the temple, you will be completely awestruck by the giant mural covering the walls; it looks like the masterpiece of a prodigal artist gone insane (think Van Gogh on crack perhaps). An elaborate mural has been created, regrouping the most random and peculiar collection of people and popular characters. And when I say random, I mean random: Michael Jackson, George Bush, Osama Bin Laden, Kung Fu Panda, the Hulk, Batman, and a couple of Angry Birds all find their own spot on the walls (umm...what?!)
Avatar, Transformers and the Matrix -- Wat Rong Khun White Palace, Chiang Rai, Thailand
(not my picture) 

The entire back wall of the monastery is dedicated to a painting of a giant red demon with George Bush in one eye, and Osama Bin Laden in the other. Inside the mouth of the demon is a scene depicting the fall of the Twin Towers.

After visting the temple, we made our way to into the surrounding mountains of Chiang Rai where we learnt about the Hilltribe peoples who live in this land. Over 100 years ago, Hilltribe peoples migrated south from China into what is now northern Thailand. The 6 major tribes still remaining in northern Thailand are the Hmong, Yao, Akha, Lisu, Lahu and the Karen (long-neck peoples). Each tribe is distinct, with its own culture, religion, language, art, and dress.



Me posing with girls who are a part of the Karen long-neck tribe

Thailand has been amazing - from the South all the way to the North - and I'm so sad to be leaving this beautiful country tomorrow. But on a positive note, I'll be crossing the Mekong to get to LAOS! See you soon ;) 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tigers and Temples: Northern Thailand


So much has happened since my last post in the islands...let me backtrack a bit to catch you up to speed. I arrived back in Bangkok on Sunday with a day to myself before meeting up with my Contiki group that night. So I spent the day playing tourist in the buzzing city, with my awesome tuk-tuk driver as my guide. For a mere 2$, he took me around all day to different sites. Of course, there was a catch: I had to go to his "brothers" tailor shop. I had heard about these scams before even stepping foot in Thailand, but this deal still seemed to good to pass up. So off we went, tuk-tuking around the city. Later that evening, I finally met the group that I will be traveling with for the next 25 days! On our first night together in Bangkok, it only seemed appropriate to break the ice by going to an infamous Bangkok Ping Pong Show (and no...I'm not talking about the table tennis game). Let's just say that it was one of the most horrifying, intriguing (HOW do they do that?!), and just plain gross demonstration of female skills (is that the right word?) that I have ever witnessed.

The next morning, we set off early to catch a boat to drift along the Chao Phraya river, allowing us to see great views of Bangkok and the Wat Arun temple. That night, it was time to take another night train  to Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. However, one of the girls on the tour was missing - an 18 year old American freshman named Cathleen, who clearly wasn't ready for the insanity of Bangkok. My roommate Franciska and I were the last ones to see her that night, and after that, nobody heard from her again...

Chao Phraya river, Bangkok

Arriving in Chiang Mai in the early morning, we set off immediately to the Tiger Kingdom!!! There, we got to cuddle up to these big furry kitties - who were NOT drugged - and I even taunted one by pulling his tail, even though the tiger trainer said not to (I'm a daredevil, I know...)


Taunting the tiger at the Tiger Kingdom, Chiang Mai

Later, it was time for our Thai cooking class. We began by visiting the Chiang Mai market, where our guide explained to us the different Thai ingredients used in their cuisine. We picked up the ingredients we would need, and headed to the kitchen! I learnt how to make some very popular - but surprisingly simple - thai dishes: tom yum soup, pad thai, panang curry, cashew chicken and sweet sticky rice with mango. And guess what....I didn't burn a thing!!!! (I was pretty proud of myself considering that I'm a complete klutz in the kitchen)

 Our guide picking out ingredients and the market, Chiang Mai
 Thai cooking class
 TOM YUM!
I did it!! Sweet mango sticky rice, cashew chicken, pad thai and panang curry. Delicious!

After the class, we headed to the Chiang Mai night market to do some shopping, and topped it off with a dozen towers of Chang beer at an outdoor pub. 

The next day, we visited the stunning Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, an ancient buddhist temple perched 1,676 meters above the city of Chiang Mai. As the legend behind the origin of this sacred site goes, a 14th-century monk from Sukhothai had a vision one day: he saw a fire in the distance, and when he followed it, he is said to have found a relic from Buddha. He took this relic to his king, but it failed to reproduce its magical powers and the king lost interest. However, King Keu Naone of the Lanna Kingdom, fascinated by this monks story, invited him north to Chiang Mai and offered to enshrine the relic. The building was completed and preparations were made to house the relic. When the time came, the relic broke in half, leading the king to make a new plan. At the northern gate of the city, now known as Chang Puak (white elephant gate), he placed half of the relic on the back of a sacred white elephant and sent it off into the wilderness. The elephant headed due west, climbed slowly up the slopes of Doi Suthep mountain, trumpeted a last call and then suddenly dropped dead. On that same spot, the temple was built in 1383. True or not, the beauty of the temple is captivating, and it is one of the most revered religious sites in all of Thailand. 

 Climbing up the 300 steps to the Doi Suthep temple

 A young monk at the Doi Suthep temple, Chiang Mai
 Receiving a blessing from a monk-in-training - Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

 Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep