Friday, May 22, 2015

Day 6...or the day we rode elephants

The beautiful scenery around the elephant village
Words rarely escape me, but that could be the case in trying to put into words the indescribable joy that this day brought.  Before my trip, I did a lot of looking into elephant riding places to make sure wherever I went treated their elephants well, fed them enough, and didn't use hooks.  It just so happened one of the best-rated Elephant Villages is outside of Luang Prabang.  Jeff loves animals so he was totally on board.  I don't think it was until he was riding the elephant the awesomeness of the experience really set in.  I'm sure our photos do the experience justice, I can't help but smile when I think about it still!
Jeff riding the elephant

The day started with an early morning pick up from our hotel. Rolled out of bed around 7:30 so we could enjoy breakfast on the river (super gorgeous).  Our guide spoke English pretty well and we chatted a lot about his life and our lives.  Lao is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of $1200 per person.  It's one of the last remaining communist countries. Walking around and seeing hammer and sickle flags was pretty bizarre.

When we arrived at the Elephant Village, we started with just hanging out with the elephants and watching them eat some sugar cane (I'll get around to a video one day). Then we spent a little time learning some basic commands for the elephants.  The commands were, naturally, in Lao and kind of hard to remember. After we went over the directions a few times, Jeff and I took turns riding one.  Getting up is about as hard as you'd expect. You step with one foot on the elephant's bent leg and kind of haul yourself up with a lot of help from the guide and mahout.  Once you get up on the elephant, the directions kind of disappear and you just laugh and smile.  It was one of the coolest experiences of my life!
My turn was through town!

After we both got a chance to ride bareback, the mahout got on the elephant and we sat in a saddle of sorts. It was REALLY high up.  The elephants move super slow and the day was so sunny.  I thought we might melt cause it was SO HOT.  We crossed a river on top of the elephants and walked around for about an hour.  At two different points, the mahout got off the elephant and let one of us ride bareback while he took pictures.  Between the two of us, he snapped over 100 shots.  IT WAS SO AWESOME.

When we got back to the Elephant Village, we could buy a huge bunch of bananas to feed the elephant as a "thank you."  He'd been so good with not trampling us, it was the least we could do. Feeding the elephant was fun...their snouts actually kind of tickle as they grab the food to put into their mouths. It was also a little scary because you realize how incredibly strong they are!
Not sure if the baby elephant or Jeff has a bigger smile

After this, we took a boat to see a baby elephant.  I swear it's the happiest elephant I've ever seen!  It smiles in the pictures! We bought bananas again and that baby was super smart. She kept trying to steal the basket right out of our hands!  We took turns feeding her and then said goodbye and headed to the waterfalls.

Unfortunately since we're there in dry season, this waterfall was almost totally dried up so we couldn't really swim in it (on the flip side, dry season=very few mosquitoes).  It was really cool to walk through the whole falls though.  We climbed on the rocks and stuck our feet in some of the little pools of water,  It was SUPER refreshing after the hot elephant rides.
I love hiking in weird places!

After this, we had lunch.  It was pretty delicious and included REALLY cold water.  I think Jeff and I were both tempted to douse ourselves in it, but stopped ourselves cause bottled water is expensive in Lao (well for Lao people). After we were done, the tour guide asked if we wanted to try some of their spicy papaya salad.  Jeff was totally down since he loves spicy things. I let him go first cause he knows how much spice I can take.  It was too hot for me, but he loved it.  We're pretty sure the guide was attempting to play a joke on the foreigners with the spicy food, but Jeff's been preparing his whole life for this!

After lunch was the adventure we'd all been waiting for...bathing elephants!  We actually rode the elephants into the river with a mahout and played with them in the water. My elephant couldn't wait for the five minute walk down the river bank so he stopped at their eating place and sprayed a bunch of water all over my mahout and I. Jeff's elephant loved diving. Often I'd turn and look and his elephant would be almost totally submerged.  On the other hand, mine barely even sat down, but LOVED spraying me in the face.  I couldn't stop laughing because it was just so much fun.

The visit to Elephant Village ended with an hour in the pool with a swim up bar. It was such a perfect ending to a hot, sweaty, and exhausting day. We just floated around and looked out into the Lao mountains.  It was super duper perfectly amazing.

Temple #1 of the trip!
When we got back to town, we took showers pretty much immediately. Who knows what dirty stuff

was in the Mekong River. Then Jeff grabbed a quick nap and we headed out for dinner. We took the long way to the river and stumbled across an old temple where Jeff got his first take off your shoes and walk around buildings experience. We walked around it for a little bit and then kept on walking towards dinner.

Sunset from our restaurant
  We ate at a little place on the Mekong River (the other side of town from our hotel).  Jeff ordered a dish that sounded delicious "with spices."  Later that evening when I was looking at Lonely Planet's guide for Lao, we found out it's one of their Top 10 spicy dishes you have to try.  That means it was SUPER SPICY.  He took it like a man and the Lao workers were pretty impressed.  They took pity on him towards the end and brought a glass of ice water because we were sweating from the heat before Jeff started eating.  I think they also laughed at him a little bit. I had a chicken and egg dish wrapped in banana leaves...no spicy food there!



BONUS PICTURES:


"Our" elephant

The whole city looks like this...absolutely breathtaking.



Our boatman and the skyline


On the edge of a waterfall!

Jeff's elephant loved going under water!


This is WAY HARDER THAN IT SOUNDS

Elephant showers haha

Heaven <3


Day 5...or the day I received a massage from a Thai ex-convict before going on my first dinner date in another country

Today, my time in Thailand was coming to an end, but not until the afternoon. Since I wake up early pretty much all the time, I decided to do a spa day!  I asked at the front desk of my hostel for a recommendation and he sent me to a location right around the corner.

When I got there, I found out it was a place that employs former female convicts. Much like in the U.S. recidivism is driven by financial need so a philanthropist started this organization that teaches former prisoners how to give traditional Thai massages and a wide range of other spa services.  Their prices were kind of high though so I only got a massage here.

I still had three hours until I needed to leave for my flight, so I headed down the main street to get a pedicure and manicure. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that with the high humidity and heat, the pedicure would literally melt into my socks a few days later. BUT at least I looked super duper cute when I met up with Jeff!

The descent into Lao
The flight to Lao was uneventful...mostly. It is the smallest plane I've ever been on.  They made people move to the back of the plane because all of our luggage was loaded in the front and they wanted to even out the weight. That made me feel SUPER confident!  When I landed, I was bouncing off the walls with excitement! Between both of our graduations and Jeff's work trip to Korea, it was over a month since we had seen each other. Lo and behold, my ATM card doesn't work in SE Asia and that I could use it in Thailand was a fluke of nature.  That's fun. Luckily, I have back up USD to exchange. I was the first one off the plane and through customs and one of the last to leave the airport!

When I got to the hotel (yah, Jeff spoiled me and I didn't sleep in an 8 person dorm this trip), he was
waiting for me in the lobby!  Lao was HOT and the people's English wasn't very good. I shared a taxi with an Indian woman who recommended a swanky restaurant down the
Inflation is crazy...

street. We were both hot, tired, and hungry so we decided to take her suggestion.  For like $30 we had what would've been a $150 meal easily in the U.S.  It rivaled the quality and presentation of Coach Insignia!
Afterwards, we walked through the night market.  It was pretty low key compared to the markets in Thailand.  I was really surprised how not busy the market was. We got about half way and it started to thunder and lightening. It was SUPER cool to watch them pack everything up in just a few minutes. Everything from scarves and dresses to postcards and trinkets were gone in less than 10 minutes.  It was crazy how organized the whole thing is.  Jeff "helped" me pick out a table runner as my souvenir from the night market. I say helped because his job was just to tell me it was pretty because I had to explain what a table runner is at first.


Jeff chilling at our restaurant 
Two options for beer: Beer Lao or Beer Dark...

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Day 4...or the day I rode up a mountain in the back of a pickup truck

Since I went to Mass last night, I had a gloriously lazy morning. I ate a really awesome breakfast with fruit and yogurt and started chatting with a bunch of other travelers. One of the best parts of backpacking is the friends you make!  Two British girls had just rolled into the hostel from Bangkok. We decided to make a trip to the temple on the mountain, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep.

This entails a 45 minute ride up the mountain in a red truck taxi.  They're a little less sketchy than tuk tuks, but still pretty out there.  At least it's a lot more enclosed so you feel a little safer, but it's all a ruse.  If this thing got into a wreck there'd be hell to pay.

There's really not much to say about the trip or the temple.  It's just really pretty, so I'll leave some pictures for your enjoyment and peace out!

After the temple and all those stairs, it was time for a solid air conditioner break. I hung out in my room at wrote the blog for Day 3 and just chatted with mom and Jeff some.  Around 6:30 or so, we headed out to the night market. It was massive.  We started walking and there were booths set up endlessly everywhere.  Remember all the temples? THEY were full of vendors. The streets were lined on both sides, sometimes down the middle too.  Anything you can imagine, food, clothes, shoes, neck pillows for flights, iPhone cases, EVERYTHING.  

We ate dinner from some of the street vendors.  I introduced Rebecca and Rachael to mango and sticky rice. It's more of a dessert, but still so delicious! We walked and walked and walked through the market. I bought a few little trinkets along the way.

All in all it was a good, relaxing Sunday in Thailand.  Tomorrow, I head to Laos to meet up with Jeff, which I think might be the best moment of this whole trip!
The view from a lookout halfway up the mountain

The red taxi that took us up the mountain

Had to climb all the steps to get to the temple.  

I find similarities between religions interesting. Here, a Buddhist monk is blessing people with water.

I thought this was a super polite way to say SHUT UP!

Absolutely beautiful!

After the tour, we had time to tour a jade factory. Cool fact, black jade is actually green when you shine a light through it.
Chiang Mai street market...this goes on for blocks down like four different streets!

This little bamboo table is where we got to eat our sticky rice and fresh mango!

Food vendors were out in full force too!

I thought these patterns were very Polish-esque, but I resisted the urge to buy them.

The monks were leading some sort of night time meditation. It was cool to see the temple full!

Day 3...or the day I spent at a Thai farm.

The food market
One of the top things on my Thailand bucket list was taking a Thai cooking class.  There are a ton of
options in Chiang Mai so I just went on my hostel's recommendation to Sammy's farm.  Sammy was born in Chiang Mai and studied Thai culinary arts at the university in town.  He bought a farm outside of the city a while ago and built a huge cooking area for tours.  It probably was a great investment for him as the day-long course cost 1,000 Baht (or a little over 30 dollars).  To put that in perspective, I can buy a water bottle at 7-11 for 7 Baht.

Sammy squeezes some milk out of shredding coconut
The farm is family run, Sammy's daughter even helped us out.  I'll spare you the play by play of the cooking in the bulk of this blog post, but you can scroll down and see pictures of the process!

The tour was pretty fun, especially since a bunch of American exchange students were along for the ride. Their semester in Thailand wraps up this weekend and it was an end of the year treat for them.  I gave a lot of reverse culture shock advice, which I imagine might be even worse moving from Thailand to the U.S. than Poland.  One of the girls on the program was from MSU and she owns a DCFC shirt!  I was wearing mine and she asked me right away if I was from Detroit!  The world is such a small small place.  I was wearing the shirt quite on purpose as I watched City play on a live stream this morning before the tour started.  One of the guys bought me an apple. It was a weird tasting apple but the first uncooked piece of food I ate in Thailand so it was really delicious.

We started out the day in the market.  Sammy showed us different types of rice. The really cool part
was seeing how coconut milk and oil is processed.  Thai people go to the market almost every day and buy it fresh.  Anywhere you go in the markets, there are huge coconuts being sold to drink from.  You buy one, they cut it open and give you a straw. I haven't tried it yet, but maybe tomorrow night when I go to the markets.  Also, shredded coconut tastes 100% different than coconut we have in the States.

My first round!
The cooking class included a lot of different options.  Everyone made a main course, appetizer, soup, dessert, and stir fry.  In each category, we got to choose from three different options. I made a green chicken curry, chicken in coconut milk soup, mango and sticky rice, papaya salad and Pad Thai (a noodle dish with eggs and stuff).  The food is so freaking good.  It's better than even the street vendors, probably because I helped make it all.  I was pretty impressed with myself.  There's a pretty good chance I'll even be able to recreate some of it back home because we all got a cookbook!  I loved everything that I made,but the mango and sticky rice was one of the most delicious things ever.  The papaya salad was kind of weird because it's raw papaya mixed with some spicy dressing (we even made the dressing from scratch).  The dressing had chili pepper, garlic, and lime...so there were lots of different flavors, but it was DELICIOUS!

Chilling in a hammock
Sammy gave us a break from cooking halfway through the day.  During that time, we could walk around the farm and hang out in hammocks.  It was the most peaceful I have felt the entire time I've been gone.  There were even butterflies in his garden!  The "siesta time" was well-deserved and just absolutely beautiful. Laying in the hammocks, no one really talked so all you could hear were birds chirping. It was so different than being in the city!

Check out the video. It's so peaceful and silent. Seriously, your speakers aren't broken it's really that quiet!

video


The only downside to the farm trip was it was a full 8 hours without air conditioning.  Sammy's farm had some fans, but they weren't all that numerous.  Maybe some sweat added flavor to our food. Hahaha.  After the getting back, I took a shower at like 3 in the afternoon...something I would never do back home!  I hate showers, but here it's one of the few times I feel cool.  Except, in the middle of the day, the water is super warm from the sun.  Oh well...disappointing!

One of the temples I wandered through
I found a Catholic cathedral in Chiang Mai and decided to go to Mass that evening so I could have a
lazy Sunday morning. Plus, if the Mass times weren't right, I could try again on Sunday without stressing out.  Since I got back at 3 and Mass wasn't until 7:30 p.m., I decided to chill out in the hostel for a little while (air conditioning break!).  Around 5 though, I got kind of bored of sitting in the hostel (first day I've had energy at this time) so I decided to walk the 2 1/2 miles to the church instead of waiting around for a taxi.

Wandering is one of my favorite parts of traveling.  I had 2 1/2 hours to do a 45 minute walk so there was a lot of wandering.  I wandered through temples and more
temples.  I wandered through residential streets and alleyways. I wandered through some local shops. And then I wandered right through the set up for the night market!  I hadn't planned on checking out a market, but I figured since it was halfway between the hostel and church, I would return after Mass to check out what kinds of souvenirs I might want to buy.

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart
I didn't wander enough though.  It as about 7:05 as I walked up to the cathedral.  There were already people going in so I was relieved that there was probably going to be Mass.  Well, the sign said Mass started at 7:00.  Oops.  Good thing I didn't wander too much!

The most beautiful thing about Catholicism is even though I speak zero Thai, I know what's happening. I can't even for the life of me remember how to say "Thank you".  However, I could still mutter along responses in English because Mass is the same. Walking into a church in a foreign country is the closest I can feel to going home!

One of the many night markets
Afterwards, I walked through three or four different night markets.  The Thai styles of scarves and
clothes are just so beautiful. I wish I had ten million suitcases to take things home in!  I was a good kid and only bought one scarf and a few gifts for my cousins.  I was proud of myself!






More Pictures! 
Everyone gets their own work station.  I was pretty impressed with this because my "cooking class" in Barcelona involved just watching a dude cook for us.
My work station
The main ingredients of curry paste. We mashed them up with a mortar and pestle.
Working in the heat for my fooood.
We were all super hungry so Sammy started cutting bananas off a tree.  Not even joking.




Green chicken curry...but we didn't get to eat it! Had to make soup and pad thai first.

Ingredients for Pad Thai...tofu, bean sprouts, rice noodles, egg, and pickled radish

Garnished with some peanuts for a little extra crunch!

Siesta time.

Papaya Salad ingredients.  The lime, chili pepper, bean, and garlic were the dressing.

So weird, but so yummy...and the first raw fruit I've had in almost a week.

Mango and sticky rice. Oh. My. Goodness. The sticky rice is made in sweetened milk and it's so bad for you but so good for your taste buds.

Sammy's toilet or the "Throne" as he called it.  Weird place to pee.