Friday, August 5, 2011

Chiang Mai, our favorite city yet!

Chang Mai is amazing, the people are lovely, it is full of culture and great food, its a decently big city and yet has a very small feel to it. We loved it.

We got there in the morning and spent around 1 hour finding a good deal on a room and ended up at Nats Guest House. Decent accommodations for a good price. We than went a gorged on food considering we hadnt eaten any real food in over 12 hours. After that we spent most of the day walking around the city and checking out some sites and of course, eating the entire time. We really enjoyed the city as it has lots of shops, restaurants and tons of interesting people to meet along the way. We signed up for a Thai cooking course for the next day and were very excited for it.

The next day we got up early and were picked up at our hostel. We went to the cooking location in the city but unfortunately someone had burned part of the kitchen days before so (blessing in disguise) we had to go and cook at their brand new location on their organic farm (which normally costs $20 extra per person). First we got a tour of the local thai market where they showed us how to pick the correct rice, freshest veggies, and gave us some time to walk around. Soon after, we hopped in a van for a 20 minute ride and arrived at a beautiful countryside organic farm. We took a tour and quickly got to cooking. We each got to pick 7 meals to make so Lila and I did the obvious and chose different meals so we could share 14. We learned to cook pad thai, pad seyou (sp?), spring rolls, papaya salad, sticky rice and mango, fried bananas, red curry, panang curry, and 2 types of soup among a few other things. It was an amazing experience and our teacher was amazing. He taught, helped, and was hilarious the whole day. Whenever he asked how spicy we wanted it, he would say "how sexy do you want it"... apparently in Thailand, the spicier, the sexier.

We finished our class, went for some food, witnessed an awful looking but not too bad car/motorbike crash that made lila lose her appetite for dinner, went for a couple of drinks and went to bed early because we had to get up early for our tour of the tallest mountain in Thailand... longest sentence ever? run on? maybe.

We got picked up in our luxury minibus and headed for our tour of don inthanon national park which contains don inthanon, the tallest peak in Thailand. We started at a gorgeous waterfall in the park where our guide told us about a closed path to the top of the falls. it was closed because a drunk Thai man slipped on some rocks and went straight down the falls... and i can assume it didn't end well since its about a 100 foot drop straight down.. from there we visited a tribal village and toured their farm and watch them hand making scarves. After this we saw another gorgeous waterfall and went to lunch which was included in the tour. We got SOOO much food- soup, fried veggies, curry, rice, and fruit. We got our own separate food from the group since we are vegetarian and could hardly finish. After lunch we headed to the top of don inthanon and the view was... well, cloudy. Very cloudy. I guess it typically has an amazing view but we were literally in the clouds and could see nothing further than 20 feet away. Fortunately it was one of the most beautiful places weve been. The forest was protected and has never been touched and it was amazingly gorgeous, cant wait to show you pictures! We took a 45 minute tour around the area and headed to another village and the king and queen pagodas which were erected to give the king, queen, and country of thailand good luck... they were gorgeous from what we could see through the fog. The tour ended up being better than we could have thought and we thanked our guide profusely. We got dropped off at the market where we bought the 3 levels of spanish rosetta stone for not $1000 dollars, not $500... but $5. Thanks Thailand for not having copyright laws. We bought this in a mall, not the street, but a legitimate mall. Beautiful.

We stumbled our hungry selves through the rain to a mexican place where we gorged since we had waited so long for dinenr. Afterwards the weather was awful so we bought the movie "Happy, Thank You, More Please" on lilas iphone and watched it before bed.

We got up the next morning and hopped on our bus to Pai, which was 3 hours later than expected. This bus ride was different than all the others in one particular way. It went 50 km faster than all the other buses. 125km/hr was a speed we saw a decent amount... which isnt good when you are driving through small country winding roads.

Lila almost puked... Close one.

We arrived in Pai and kissed the ground and were so happy to be alive. With a group of new friends we met on the bus we headed out to search for a new home.

Tonight is our last night in Pai and we are going out for a drink with our friends before we head south to krabi tomorrow for tons of climbing and beach time!
We had an amazing time here touring waterfalls and taking a 2 day rafting trip which was one of the highlights of our trip.. more to come on all our adventures here soon!

Hope you are all doing well, this trip is going too fast but were having such a great time.

With love from Pai,

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Vientiane and Vang Vieng

Hello again,
We've been having too much fun to find computers to blog on but we finally found time tonight after we have just stuffed our faces with the best mexican we've had on this trip (which isn't saying much..)
Savannakhet was a really fun small town. We really enjoyed walking around a seeing a few temples, the dino museum, and of course tasting the local cuisine. It was small and we probably saw less than 10 barangs (white people) while there, which was nice because we like getting off the beaten path. The people were very friendly and it gave us a nice taste of the real Laos.
We took a night bus to vientiane, meaning the bus leaves at 930pm and arrives around 6am... The bus has beds and you can sleep during the ride. The bus was much nicer than the sleeper we had in cambodia HOWEVER they ripped us off about 3-4inches on the seats. Luckily there was no bar between beds so i could take up half of lilas but that was no help and i slept in fantastic 15 minute increments all night. This aside, the bus was pimped out in beautiful asian pink decor, it was really nice and cold all night.

We arrived in vientiane weary and hungry and ready for adventure in a new city. After hopping off the bus and denying the first rip off artist tuk tuk driver, we got a reasonably priced ride to a guesthouse we had heard of. It was way too expensive so we took to the streets and found a nice place in about a half hour. It was in the guesthouse dense area of town with a lot of bars and seemed like a great place... plus we had aircon and a shower.

We quickly headed out to a much needed breakfast and ate at a nice french cafe. we walked around downtown, checking out a few sites including a city park and the river.. we were exhausted so we went back to the room and watched Reality Bites- a great 90s movie and another movie called cemetary junction. We finally got some energy and headed out for happy hour at a fun bar and went to indian food afterwards. after dinner we got some desert and passed out.

After walking around all day and finding out that the only things to do were to see a few temples of buddhist sites, we decided we had better things to do and wanted to head north to vang vieng sooner knowing that we had to pass through vientiane again and if time allowed, or we wanted to, we could come back for another visit. So we booked our bus to vang vieng for 930 the next day.

We got up, got some cheap street food, and hopped on our bus.. surprisingly at 930 since no buses are ever on time... but than we waited 45 minutes before leaving... close, but no cigar..

Anyways we start on the ride and Lila instantly gets bus sick. It didnt much help that northern Laos is more mountainous and after 30 minutes the roads became constant a constant 'S' around mountain corners. We met some guys from canada about half way through so the conversation almost helped get her mind off of it... but the ride did come to an end and she survived.

We got to Vang Vieng and went to find a guesthouse with our new friends Dan and David, 2 jews from canada. We found a great cheap place and headed out to check out the town. Since the bus was so late we didnt have time to do much but walk around and relax, luckily we had friends to do this with also! And after we ate we met George and Arianne who joined the crew... Dan and David had met them on the bus.

We walked around and ended up at a bar on the river for happy hour. We had fun having a few drinks with our new friends, playing pool, and walking around the city a bit more before we went to bed.

We got up the next day and met everyone for breakfast before going tubing, the adventure vang vieng is famous for. Let me explain, this isn't just tubing, its extreme tubing. The reason being is that you dont really float as much as just float from bar to bar down the river...

We got our tubes, hopped in a tuk tuk to the river and soon were at the first bar. After a round of beer pong and free (horribly low quality) whiskey shots they gave out we headed for the next bar in our tubes. this consisted of getting in our tubes, frantically wading to the middle of the river and having a rope thrown to us from the guys at the next bar... they conveniently pull you in so you can drink at their bar. Our friend george let his hands slip on the rope and got pretyt brtual cuts all over his hands and at the base of his fingers.. ouch. 10 minutes after, our friend david had a red rash on his stomach from going on a tire swing and having the current push him as he tried to get out. And i had cuts on my knee from jumping off a rope swing and having the current push me hard as i was getting out... mind you, none of us were drunk at this point so think about how the kids that were pounding shots all day were doing...

We went from bar to bar which included mud volleyball, 2 giant waterslides, tons of music, and lots of ridiculous crowds. We finished late and ended up tubing the river into the darkness of night. After maybe 25 minutes in the river in the dark we found town, got out, returned our tubes, took a quick shower and all met up for dinner. After dinner we went to the 'trendy' bar where all of the partyers were and had a few beers and hung out before bed.

The next day me and lila got up and ventured out ourselves on a motorbike. It was the first time i ever drove a semi manual but it wasnt hard. We headed towards a huge waterfall to start. The countryside drive was absolutely gorgeous and looked something like this the whole drive (image from yahoo)
We arrived at the waterfall and it was spectacular.. after jumping off a platform into the deep pool at the bottom we headed off to the blug lagoon... A short drive later we arrived here..

We jumped off the tree a few times and than ventured into a MASSSSSSIVE cave before it got dark and we headed home on the motorbike as dusk started to set in. We made it home before dark and nothing else exciting happened that night, except the fact that we knew we were going rock climbing the next day!!!

We got up early and met at the gear shop at 830, got our gear and headed out with our guides. A short drive later and a 25 minute moderate approach we arrived at the rock... Damn it felt good to see a rock I was going to climb again... It has been about a month and a half since I was climbing in Colorado and I was itching for my fix. The guides quickly set up 3 easy routes and after Lila and i proved we were actually experienced they set up a 5.10a... for those non-climbers- this is the level that climbing starts to get tricky. I climbed it and lila was soon to follow. they than set up a 5.10d which i climbed but it was a little too tough for lila so she took a break. after this we ate lunch and than i lead a 5.10b which was really fun and exciting... After i set the top rope Lila climbed the route. We were pretty tired but the guide and i climbed another 5.10c before we headed out for the day.

There was a japanese man there taking pictures of us all day and we found out it was for a promo package the company was going to try to sell to tourists in thailand... so lila and i might be featured as climbers in their brochures... who knows, theres no copyright laws out here anyways..

After climbing we got some great dinner with 2 girls we met climbing, who were from the dc area... and afterwards ended up catching up with dan and david and going out for a beer... actually it was a beer tower... actually there were a few and we stayed up pretty late hanging out with everyone.

We got up reluctantly very early the next day to get a motorbike and check out the watercave we had to see before we got on our 24 hour busride at 130pm to chang mai. We rented our bike and took the 30 minute drive to the water cave. Here we rented tubes and headlamps and holding onto a string in the water, followed the guide into the cave. Yes we entered a cave in a tube, and yes it was awesome. After a short visit we rushed back to catch our lunch. Lucky for us we met dan and david in the street and since we had 30 minutes til the bus we ate a quick lunch before we had to say bye and head to thailand. We hopped on the bus and were the last ones on for some reason and got the best seats on the bus, the back seats... Not only were we above the blazing hot engine, but the ac hardly worked and the back curtain fell so we had the sunlight on top of us... oh yea and its the back so lilas bus sickness was going full throttle. fantasstic! after meeting some fun kids from london and hearing all about their sports teams hazing rituals our 4 hour bus ride to vientiane came to an end at the bus station. we stayed on the bus as more people boarded and headed to the border. 10 minutes later they dropped everyone off on a random city corner with all our stuff and told us to wait... we were all confused and they hardly spoke english to us so all we could do is wait. we met a guy from louisiana on the bus so we were talking with him this whole time. finally another bus came and again hardly any english was spoken so we hoped this was our bus. It was and we were soon at the border.

After 'checking out' of Laos and getting our new thai visas we got on the next bus where we got to sit in the bottom that was pimped out with tables and tv for karaoke... but this wasnt our last bus... we soon arrived at a restaurant for our free fried rice dinner which was included in our bus ticket and got onto our next and final bus to chang mai. it was about 8pm at this point and we were really excited to see we were on the nicest bus we had been on for our entire trip... it must be less than a year old, drove smoothly, and had big leather reclining seats, pretty much the best situation we could ask for. We headed out and after a night of stopping at least 4 times with a drivers nap included we arrived in the beautiful city of chang mai around 10am.

Were heading to bed soon and are leaving for Pai in the morning but will post about all our fun in chang mai very soon.

Miss you all and cant wait to see you soon!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Adventures to the Laos border

Hello! (its jason posting this time)
We got up the next morning in ratanakiri, ready for our adventure to Laos. After a delicious breakfast of eggs and baguettes, we paid our bill, and boarded our bus. Again they tried to convince me to sit in the third row of a minibus. for those of you who are not 6'6" let me fill you in... this is an impossible task as my legs are so long they literally take up two seats because i have to sit sideways. after a few minutes of hand gestures to show im too tall they finally got it and let me sit in the second row, unfortunately lila gets carsick and was stuck in the third row.. oy vey. so as we head out from town we picked up more people. and more people. and more people. until a 14 person minibus was holding about 24. rows of 3 seats now held 4-5. the front two seats, including the drivers seat, now held 2, and there was a guy on the floor in the front. luckily it was only a 2 hour busride until we stopped in stung truang, our hub before the last bus to the border. lila had to sit next to man whose breathe she described as death. he smoked and maybe hadnt brushed his teeth, ever.. gross..

we got on another minibus that was full but not as crazy as the first and headed off towards the border. let me remind you that these are not just transportation vehicles but also the fedex of laos as we stopped at multiple countryside residences to drop off chairs, scrap metal, rice, fruit, and to pick up money. finally we reached the border... and got ripped off again. luckily only 15 total this time. i guess it takes twice to realize we cant do borders the right way.

we made it across, got on our third mini bus, arrived at the port soon after and hopped onto a rickity, 2 person wide wooden boat with a small motor. this boat took us across the giant mekong river to an area known as si phan don (aka: 4000 islands). we got dropped off on our island, don khon, which we were told is a quieter island with les backpackers. we found a room, got som food, caught up on some reading, got more food, relaxed in our hammocks after realizing there was literally no nightlife and passed out.

we got up the next day and rented bikes to ride around our island and don det, and island next door connnected by a bridge. we biked our island first, finding a huge waterfall, which was more like heavy rapids but really cool because we had never really seen a river this wide, it was massive! we ventured onto a path in the woods and than got some cold water and a coconut to cool down, it was brutally hot.

we headed off to the beach area which was again on the muddy river, we swam and lila got detroyed by a few fireants on the beach. after watching some french kid play fight and turn into shoving sand in each others mouths and watching one pretend to gag and puke in the water we headed for lunch on don det.

we rode down a road in between rice paddies with the midday sun, HOT!, beating down on us for 4 km and came to paradise restaurant. after some amaaaziing pumpkin burger and pumkin potato curry we rode around the island and ended up at a bar with some backpackers around happy hour and sat down for a few beers.

we played some pool and met 3 guys from holland. after some beers and interesting cocktails of laolao(local whiskey)honey lime and sugar we headed back on the pitch black unlit road to our island. after an hour of walking our bikes we made it back, bought some bus tickets and went to bed.

we got up the next day to get breakfast. hopped on a boat that took us to the port. got on our first unpacked minibus and headed for savannakhet. we stoppped and got onto a big bus around 3 for the last leg of our trip. we ended up dropped off 30km away from savanakhet and the last minibus wanted us to pay. this is bogus because our ticket was all the way to savannakhe... apparently not. after dealing with the first obnoxious locals we had met in a long time we finally got on the bus and they took us to our destination, sort of. yet another scam... instead of dropping us at our guesthouse like every other minibus had done before, they stopped at the bus station and toldus to take a tuk tuk, for another $3 to our hostel. while not a lot of money, its annoying to get scammed like this. after yelling and calling them all sorts of names they didnt understand i decided to pay and not risk getting a knife pulled on me in the middle of nowhere laos. we walked to town as to not support the scam tuk tuk.

we landed in a bar where we got some food. the bus we took didnt stop for 6 hours which is funny because every other bus we had been on stops about every 2 hours for food... you think we eat a lot? the locals eat more!

at this bar they told us ou guesthouse was far and a young guy offered us a ride for free. we hopped in the truck and got a ride only to find out it was closed. they found us another thuogh and as we pulled up, the guy in the passenger seat ran out into pouring rain twice to see if they had a room for us and how much, another act of ridiculous kindness. we stayed the night and got up yesterday to walk around town.

savannakhet is a nice, quiet small town. we saw 3 temples, a small dinosaur museum, got really delicious food and just wandered around all day, the city cant take more than maybe 5 hours to see the entire thing. we spent the night relaxing and watching movies on tv.

we slept in and are just having fun today.. checking out the local casino, getting massages, going to a lonely planet "certified" restaurant for dinner and running some errands before we take the night bus to viantiene, the capital of laos. after vientiene we head to vang vieng for climbing, kayaking, and tubing, and than to the beautiful city of luang prabong.

much love and big smiles from asia,

...Lila says hi too

Ratanikiri Province

So techinically it is Jason's turn but he is busy at the moment so I will get it started.

We woke up in Ratanikiri, praying for a day of sunshine and luckily we were so blessed because it was a beautiful day. Over breakfast, we talked with the owner of the lodge about the best way to go around the city and she recommended by motorbike. Quite nervously, we decided to rent an automatic bike and navigate the city on our own. With a small map, our helmets, and the key to the bike, we tentatively started our journey. Except we didn't know how to start the bike. Some nice man showed us how, so again we started down the street. But the bike stalled out. So we walked to the gas station, filled up, and started again. Finally, we had begun to drive. We rode along and followed the map all the way down to a beautiful waterfall, called Kachung Waterfall, about 6 km out of town. The road there was filled with beautiful houses on stilts and friendly children selling sweets. Fields were flooded with rubber trees, with small paths weaving between the groves. At the waterfall, Jason went swimming and I wandered around the rocky area, watching children fish and play. A wooden bridge hanging across the river gave us a view of the flowing water and the trees leaning towards one another, eclipsing the sun in the distance. We exited the waterfall area and headed on our bike to the next location, another waterfall called Cha Ong, in the north of town. This time we both got in and climbed underneath the waterfall for an intense power shower that almost blasted us off the rocks. At the waterfall, we accidentally discovered that my camera takes panoramic pictures, so 15 minutes and a ton of film later, we decided to head on our way for some much needed lunch.

We pulled the bike off for a quick stop at a beautiful temple located at the top of the hill. The temples are full of beautiful colorful paintings and all the monks are dressed in bright orange robes and carry vibrant yellow umbrellas. The paint and colors are incredibly intoxicating and full of charm.

A quick look at our map showed us an interesting sounding restaurant, called Cafe de la Nature, and according to our map, it was just up the road. We sped off, and turned a corner and could not find the restaurant. When we asked some people (who did not speak very good English) they told us to go further down the road. We continued down the road for about a half hour and realized that we had probably gone too far. We finally found someone who could semi speak English and asked him where it was. He kind of laughed at us and told us we were wayyyy too far down. We turned our bike around and started driving for about 10 minutes. All of a sudden, our bike was no longer moving. We had run out of gas. Jason and I just started laughing because we were in the middle of nowhere and quite far from any petrol station. Then, out of nowhere, a man stops on his bike, jumps off, pours us a water bottle of gas from his tank and speeds off without enough time to even say thank you. That type of kindness is not unique in Cambodia. The gas he gave us was enough to take us all the way to a station to fill up and to another restaurant for lunch. It was one of the best meals of our trip, complete with avocado and mixed fruit shakes. Fully refreshed, we geared up for the next part of our day, a trip to Yeak Loam Lake, a volcanic crater lake.

A quick ride later, we arrived at the lake for a late day swim. The dock was pretty crowded when we arrived, so we walked around the lake to an empty dock on the other side. The water was still and beautifully green and the perfect thing for the end of our day. We were sitting and relaxing when a group of young students came onto the dock, very excited to meet some young Americans. A few of them were pretty drunk, but one student spoke very good English. I sat and spoke with him while Jason entertained the drunk guys who spent most of their time marveling at his intense height.

The man I was speaking to was named San, and he was a student on the weekends, but worked during the week at an NGO, teaching English to his students. He was extremely friendly and invited us to come practice English with him and his students. Unfortunately, we were leaving town and were not going to be there on the right day. After a long talk in which San may or may not have proposed to me (his English wasn't perfect), he invited Jason and I to go with him to the market. We followed his car home on our motorbike and then followed him to the market. On our way there, he decided to detour and take us to the home of what we think is his girlfriend. Or at least the girl he plans on marrying once he has enough money for the wedding. It was an incredibly sweet gesture and an interesting glimpse into the gender relationships in the country.

On a side note, I was reading a book all about the sex trafficking trade in Asia, which really had me thinking a lot about all of this. The women are treated very differently and I won't get into logistics, but it was quite eyeopening for both of us, as I was constantly reading excerpts to Jason.

Anyway, San then took us to the night market for some fruits and late night dessert. After saying goodbye, we headed back to our Lodge and talked with some people. One of them was an American kid from California who was working for an NGO for the last three weeks but was preparing to head back home. We made plans to meet the next morning and went to bed.

We were awoken at 7 am by some construction being done in the room next to us, because no one sleeps in here and they could not understand how we could still be sleeping! They put us in another room for a nap, and I went right back to sleep. We woke up, ate breakfast, and headed with our American friend to the market. We bought a few needed items and a couple presents (Caroline, get ready) and walked around a bit. We stopped for coconut shakes (AMAZING) and who should show up, but our friend San! Apparently, someone had called him and told him we were there so he stopped by to hang out. Gotta love the people here. He drove us to lunch, we hung out, and went back home.

That night, Jason, Reed (our American) and I decided to try out a restaurant we had heard about, called Sal's restaurant, known for it's amazing Mexican and other food. We hitched a ride from a guy Reed knew and pulled up to a poorly lit house with a sign pointing to a restaurant out back. The only person there was a young 10 year old girl, who was quite excited to serve us food. She indicated that her mother was in town but that she would be back soon, but in the meantime, would we like something to drink? We ordered beers which she quickly brought to us and some french fries which she scurried off to make. Before she left, we asked to turn the lights on, but she said they were not working. Now let me explain. This restaurant is a little open air bungalow, the second story of which has a few tables and chairs and a bar. Surrounding the restaurant is a gorgeous forest, but as the sun dropped lower, it became less beautiful, and more...creepy. Very creepy. A fog began to roll in as the three of us began to debate about which scary movie this would be the best setting for. Apocalypse Now? Something with Zombies? We agreed on a tie and Jason headed to the bathroom. He ran back to share what beautiful things he had discovered. The bathroom had worms in the toilet and he was pretty sure he heard a rat in the kitchen with the little girl working in the dark. At this point, we were all terrified and had the paln to et the french fries and get the hell out of there when we saw a car drive up to the house. A woman got out, carrying her 2 year old son and came to greet us. She brought a big flashlight and explained that the power had gone out all over town and that she was sorry. She was so lovely and calmed us down quite a bit, so we decided to stay and order dinner. The menu was organized by the amount of time it would take to cook, and we ordered some vegetarian tacos and lasagna and expected to wait "quite a bit more time". It was well worth the wait. The tacos were divine, filled with fresh purple cabbage and delicious melty cheese, and the lasagna was oozing with flavor. We couldn't get enough. With our bellies full, we headed home to give in to our food comas and sleep.

We love you all!

I know, we are so bad!!

Ok, sorry for the lack of blogs but we have not had internet and for some reason blogspot won't work on my phone's wifi, but we are finally somewhere with internet cafes so here we are with another string of updates!

The morning after our trek, we woke up to stormy weather. Instead of going to the waterfalls with Cham, we hung out and read for the morning. Yes, Jason has been reading like a fiend, which is new, but also very convenient, as I have been reading like it is my job. So we spent the morning reading and eating (which we have become very good at, as asian people eat 5-6 times a day) and then decided to head into town when the rain slowed. We hopped on a couple of motorbikes and got rides to market. We ate delicious burritos at a local restaurant that also served some really delicious tea. Jason wanted to know where to buy some, so we got directions and headed down the street. On our way, we bumped into Cham, who was taking the day off to hang out! We showed us around and took us to buy tea, fruit, snacks for traveling the next day, and candy to give to children. After we stocked up, Cham squished Jason and I on the back of his bike and drove us back to Nature Lodge, where we were staying. We said our goodbyes and relaxed in the common area for the night to get ready for our early bus the next morning.

After a nice rest in our beautiful, hillside bungalow, we woke up, had a hearty breakfast and boarded our mini bus to Ratanikiri, a northern province in Cambodia known for it's waterfalls and coffee production. We were not looking forward to a ride on a minibus, which is quite small and pretty tight of a squeeze. We had no idea what we were in for. The minibus is supposed to fit 12 people. We had 22 people riding in ours, but only if you count the guy riding on the outside of the bus, holding onto the mirror so he didn't fly off. We kept stopping and adding more people and at one point we had a woman sitting in the trunk so they had to tie it shut with a rope. It was a ridiculous few hours. We finally stopped at the halfway point, at a town called Kratie (pronounced Kra-chee). No one spoke English, and we were waiting for our next bus to leave but every time we asked when it was leaving, someone would say a different time. Finally, after waiting for 3 hours, we tried to communicate to someone that we were going to eat quickly and be right back. After a quick lunch, we walked back to our bus....that was no longer there.

I got ready to cry and Jason immediately ran into the office and started yelling the name of our location over and over again. Finally someone looked at us, took out a phone and motioned for us to go outside. All of a sudden two motorbikes zoomed up in front of us and told us to hop on. A little too trusting, we jumped right on and sped down the street, not really knowing where we were headed. Miraculously, out of nowhere, we saw our minibus sitting on the side of the road waiting for us! We gleefully boarded the bus full of people laughing at us and set off on our way for another few hours.

On the bus, I was sitting next to a Cambodian man who spoke pretty decent English. We began to talk about his life and I found out he works for a small NGO in Cambodia and was traveling to the Northeast to establish some more infrastructure to bring more order to the provinces. It was so interesting to meet people from all over the world who are working towards different humanitarian causes. We talked about how he met his wife and how he never finished his last year at University because he was sent to the countryside by the Khmer Rouge. I can't get over the impact that the war had on the country and how incredibly resilient the people are.

Our minibus drove us right to our hotel, a beautiful place called Tree Top Lodge. We got a beautiful room with a private bathroom for the whopping price of $7. We stuffed our faces with yet another amazing meal and PASSED OUT.

Miss you all so much and can't wait to see you in a little less than a month!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Mundulkiri (meaning: meeting of the hills)

So we got up bright an early and hopped on a bus to mundulkiri. We were told the ride would take 8 hours, which is 10 in cambodian bus time. The bus came late, stopped immediately for breakfast and than again for lunch 2 hours later. We thought we would end up on the bus for at least 11 hours. Surprisingly the trip went really quickly and we arrived in sen monoram in the beautiful sunshine of the afternoon.
We hopped on the back of a couple of motorbikes and made our way to the nature lodge, our hostel. The common area/bar/ front desk area looks like a huge tree house and we felt at home immediately. we checked into our $12 room which was beautiful, made a few friends, and went for a drink at a local bar (which was a bamboo hut with 2 tables and 75c beers). we called it an early night after having a nice conversation with an ex navy soldier, some czechs, and a brit... quite a crowd.
The next day we got up and decided to take it easy after spending almost an entire day on the bus. we slept late and woke up to walk to a coffee plantation. we sampled their delicious blend, walked around to pick fresh fruit, and got to play with a monkey they found that was 1 yr old. from their we hopped on a motorbike that took us to town so we could walk around the market. the smell of half rotten fish filled the air and it was definitely an experience as i had to bend halfway over most of the way as to not knock my head on the tarps over the walkways. We came back to our hostel for dinner and booked a 3 day trek with our new friend amanda that we met here. We went to bed early because we had to get up at leave the hostel at 9.
We got up, checked out, met our guide and got a ride in the back of a pickup to a pnong village (the pnong people, commonly called the minority, are similar to the native americans of the US. the only difference is that when the khmer people came to cambodia they didnt shove them into reservations but they let them live off the land. no land in the countryside is owned and the pnong can farm wherever they want). in the village our elephant and its mahoot (elephant guide) met us and we headed into the jungle... me, lila, amanda, cham (our english speaking guide), our elephant and the mahoot (who only spoke pnong... only cham could communicate with him). We hiked through the countryside which was mostly hills with scattered forest. we got drizzled on a few times but nothing serious and got to our camping spot around 4. the camping spot had huts to put hammocks in (to guard from rain) and was next to a beautiful waterfall we swam in. We swam, made some dinner, ate early and stayed up for a while talking with cham about all sorts of things... we all became close friends and we were really lucky to have such a great guide.
after dinner i was craving something sweet and we had some extra rice. first i made rice and sugar and everyone tried it... it was pretty mediocre.. i thought it tasted like rice pudding and asked if we had yogurt jokingly... we didnt but we did have sweetened condensed milk which i mixed with the rice. cham thought it was really gross and weird but after trying it admitted he loved it, along with the rest of us.
The next day we got up and started on the elephant because we were crossing deep water (side note: elephants never slip and fall... ever). we continued our trek in and out of jungle and hillsides. we stopped for lunch and as soon as we stopped eating it poured. really, it was pouring and we were totally soaked for about 2 hours of hiking. nothing miserable but the most rain we had to walk through since our trip started. we finally arrived at a village of 27 people (living in maybe 5 huts) and stayed with a wonderful family. the family had 9 children, from 9 months to 19, and farmed to make a living. It was probably the poorest household i have ever stayed in yet the family was extremely happy, hospitable, and wonderful to be with. lila, of course went straight for the babies and played with them all night. When we first got there one of the little girls grabbed lilas hand and guided, without talking, all around the village and showed us one of their gardens where they grew green onions. it was an interesting site, it was cut down and burned forest with veggies growing all over but they left most of the burnt trees there to rot as fertilizer. the family made their traditional food and fed us. it was delicious... if you like the taste of fish sauce which made me and lila and little queezy. after dinner we dad busted out some rice wine and we all sat in a circle drinking and trying to learn each others language. the rice wine was somewhere in the middle of wine and spirits and was plentiful. we had lots of extra potatoes and made french fries for the family, something they had never had before but the kids lovvvved them. lila learned how to say french fries in pnong "ta poom barang" and taught them how to say it in english and proceeded to sing songs with them about it all night. we went to bed after laughing and joking in our hammocks, and surely keeping the family awake for a bit. I woke up in the middle of the night sick from the rice wine and maybe the super spicy chiles i decided to eat with dinner... even though i didnt drink excessively, it just made me twist and turn all night... probably my first and last experience with that..
We got up today and walked about 2-3 miles in dense jungle before our guide said we should get on the elephant due to the fact we were walking through "the land of 1000 leeches" we hopped aboard and started off... immediately this is what we heard from our guide every 5 minutes, who was wearing shoes and high socks ..."oh, theres the first one... got it off" "oooh theres 2 on my feet, hold on..ok got em" "yep theres another"... to which we responded "how many have your counted on the ground?" and after 20 minutes the count was about 11. the elephant ride was fun until the forest roof started getting lower and lower. we spent the better part of the day ducking and diving and pushing away branches and vines, most of which dropped all sorts of bug varieties on our laps and faces... that was fun for the first 10 minutes... and just a challange after that. we made it to our lunch spot, waited like hungry wolves for our ramen and veggies to cook, downed it in about 2 seconds, and packed up for the last 2 hours of the hike. we were tired, exausted, and hungry because we had pretty much only had rice and white bread for the last couple of days... we made it back to the pnong village where we took our bags off the elephant and went into a mans house that offered us more rice wine. i politely declined by smiling, nodding "no" and rubbing my belly. maybe he understood me... who knows..
the truck picked us up and brought us back to nature lodge where we took the most amazing shower ever and chowed down on falafel, noodle soup, bananas, and an avocado sandwich.
me and lila booked cham for tomorrow and hes going to pick us up on his motorbike and take us to 'the sea of trees' and multiple waterfalls around the outside of town.
we just played pool and are looking forward to our much needed rest.
the adventure was absolutely amazing. challenging at times but always fun. we learned a great deal about the khmer people from our guide, and friend, cham, and are really looking forward to hanging out with him tomorrow.
oh yea, the first day lila and i both got leeches on our feet and i also got another one today. nothing too bad, we flicked them off immediately, but still gross nonetheless.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Phnom Penh


So we have spent the last few days in a city called Phnom Penh, which is actually pronounced Pnom Pen. It is a beautiful city with a very unique history.

For those who don't know...
In 1975, an organization called the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Cambo0dia. They were a communist organization who aimed to turn Cambodia into a classless, agrarian society. As soon as they took over, they evacuated all the large cities and forced people to move out into the country. The next three years were full of destruction, terror and heartbreak. To achieve their goals, they "eliminated" anyone who was a threat to their organization. This included anyone who had worked for the previous government or had received an education in the city. This even included people who wore glasses, something they considered a sign of intelligence. Soldiers controlled areas in the countryside where people were forced to work 12-14 hour days in the rice fields, with extremely limited food rations. Many died of starvation. Families were ripped apart, as some were sent to labor camps and many children were sent to train as child soldiers because of the innocence they possessed. Often, soldiers would arrive at people's homes with odd excuses about them needing assistance from a specific family member. When this happened, families knew it would be the last time they would see that person again. When this happened, it meant the family member was being sent to Tuol Sleng or the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng was a primary school that had been converted to a prison. There, people suspected of being traitors were kept and tortured until finally being executed. Around 20,000 prisoners are estimated to have been taken there. While Tuol Sleng was the main prison, it was only one of many used for this purpose. The Killing Fields are giant fields that the government controlled that were used to dispose of those who were no longer needed. Soldiers, who were recruits from local communities, many times teenagers, would bring hundreds of people there a day, make them dig their own graves and then brutally murder them. To save money, they used tools and other handy items so they did not have to spend money on ammunition. After three years, the country was taken over by the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge was taken out of power. Refugees fled to many countries to try and rebuild their lives. Before all of this occurred, the population was at 7 million people. In three short years, the Khmer Rouge committed a genocide that killed at least 2 million people, but affected everyone in the entire country. This horrible tragedy continues, as those responsible have yet to be brought to justice for their crimes. It wasn't until 2009 that the trial really took off. In fact, those in charge of the Khmer Rouge were able to hold a seat in the United Nations for quite some time after the Vietnamese came in. Also, Pol Pot, the man named as the head of the party, passed away before ever being charged in court.

So, Phnom Penh is the center of all this conflict and houses the two sites I spoke of earlier. I was especially excited to see it, as I just finished reading a book called First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung. It was the first hand account of a woman who was 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge took over. I cried through the entire book and definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a new book to read. Jason just started it, so I'll let you know if he cries at all.

Anyway, after we arrived in Phnom Penh, we decided to take a day trip to see the two locations. We woke up in the morning and headed out with our two British girls and another person we picked up on the way. Our first stop was Toul Sleng. I thought I was prepared, but I was not even close. The prison had three buildings in it. The first building was full of large classrooms that were converted into torture chambers. When the prison was discovered after the fighting ended, 14 bodies were found in the rooms. Now, when you walk through them, the original beds are in them with a picture of the body they discovered and oftentimes, the original tool used on them. It was sickening and disturbing and really showed the depravity of the people who ran the Khmer Rouge. The second building was broken down into small brick and wood prison cells. They were numbered and had small windows so the guards could view the prisoners. Standing inside the cells, I realized that I have had closets larger than most of them. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to have been there and know that you are going to die for no reason whatsoever. The third building showed a movie on the top floor that I was able to catch the last ten minutes of. They interviewed people living in Cambodia who were forced to become soldiers in the prison. One man described how he had to murder people or else he would be killed for being a traitor. The third building also had room upon room full of pictures that the Khmer Rouge had taken of prisoners that had come through. Many of the pictures were of young children and their mothers. There were also original torture devices they had used on prisoners and interviews of different people who came through Tuol Sleng. Only 7 people ever made it through alive.

After Tuol Sleng, we were taken to the Killing Fields, where many of the bodies were disposed of. Walking around, we saw beautiful, lush foliage, a stark contrast from the death that surrounded the whole place. Previously an orchard, the fields are now a memorial to those killed during the Khmer Rouge Regime. A large stupa holds the skulls they have found in the fields. As we walked around, there were signs telling us about different areas. There was a mass grave that held over 450 bodies. Another mass grave was reserved for women and their children. Next to this grave was the most horrific thing I have ever seen. It was called the Killing Tree, named because it was the place that they smashed children's heads to dispose of them. Their logic in killing the children was to prevent them from ever taking revenge. When I saw the tree, I immediately broke into tears. Jason was ahead of me, but knowing how it would make me feel, waited until I got there before moving on. Even now, I cannot stop picturing it and the evil of those who stood next to it.
There was a glass box we passed by that was full of the bone fragments that had been collected. We found out that they are still being collected because the heavy rain causes them to be washed out of the ground. When we looked down at our feet, we could see bits of clothing and bone slightly peeking out of the ground. At that point, it hit me how recently this had occurred. This ended only 33 years ago, which means that anyone we meet in Cambodia who is that age or older has been through this horrible time. This created such a contrast from the loving, kind people and the beautiful temples and scenery that we have been surrounded by.

The incredible resilience of this country has completely blown me away. The ability to go through such tragedy and to emerge so positive has gotten me completely enamored with this place.

After we returned from our day trip, we went to a few markets, ate some delicious, ridiculously cheap food, and said goodbye to our British friends as they boarded an overnight bus to Thailand. We caught up on some much needed sleep and spent today running errands and preparing for tomorrow's journey. We ate at a delicious pho restaurant (a type of soup) and spoke to a young man who was graduating high school to attend university. We learned all about the differences in our education and a little bit about each others' lives. After that, we went to the local flower market, where Jason bought a coconut to drink and I of course held someone's naked baby. Tomorrow we leave for the Mondulkiri Province, an area in Eastern Cambodia known as the Wild East. We have no plans as of yet, but we are excited to be somewhere that is not touristy. We want to meet the locals there, the Pnong people, and possibly do a homestay. They also have treks into the local areas, led by the guesthouses.

Sorry we have been so slow to update but we hope this helps! We promise to be better and we love and miss you all so much. Please make sure all our family members get to read this,as some of the more "mature" ones may not use facebook.