Farewell, Chiang Mai

We are sitting in the Tokyo International Airport, waiting for our flight to Chicago, and we’re so excited to be on our way home!

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But, we thought we’d take the chance to reminisce about the final week of this incredible journey. For our last eight days in Thailand, our great friend Angelica was able to join us in Chiang Mai. It was so much fun to show her around the city, and to have an excuse to do all of our favorite things in Chiang Mai one last time. We even threw in a few new attractions for good measure.

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We started off the week with some excellent jazz at the North Gate on Saturday night, and the next day wandering around the old city, where Gelli found her favorite food of the trip: glass noodle salad (but not too spicy!). We ate and perused the wares for souvenir bargains at the Sunday Night Market, and on Monday at the overwhelming Wararot Market, both of which were convenient walking distance from our hotel.

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Tuesday we went to the major tourist temple of Chiang Mai, Doi Suthep, which proved to be a little commercial for our taste. That evening however, we returned to the lady boy Cabaret for another amazing show that did not disappoint. We didn’t realize this before, but the dancers perform a different show every night, and this one was just as fantastic as the first. We even went up on stage after the show to join in on the impromptu dance party!

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On Wednesday, we woke up early to catch the local intercity bus to Chiang Dao. We arrived at the cave temple early enough that we were some of the only tourists to be seen, which made it very peaceful. We decided to take the 30-minute guided tour through the caves this time around, which turned out to be very worthwhile. Our guide was patient as we stopped to snap photos, and she was happy to point out rocks in the shapes of three-headed elephants, frogs, lions, and the like. The cave was pretty tight in a few places where we had to squeeze through, but it was mostly large caverns populated by huge numbers of tiny squeaking bats.

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In the afternoon, we went to the mountain temple, where the views were beautiful and serene. As we were crossing the parking lot to head back to the bus stop for our return, a nice couple passed and asked if we’d like a ride back to Chiang Mai. We accepted, and learned that the woman’s son was studying to be a Buddhist monk at that temple. We enjoyed talking with them, sharing our snacks, and listening to the Thai Lanna Folk music they had playing in the car before being dropped off to eat dinner.

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The next day was spent sightseeing in the old city at the Three Kings Monument and museum. We sought refuge from the incredible heat in the air conditioned and beautifully furnished library and enjoyed the few issues of National Geographic that were in English. That evening, we went to a Muay Thai fight at Thapae Boxing Stadium. There were seven fights in all, and although most were fairly one-sided, a couple of the fights went to judge’s decision.

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Friday, our last full day in Chiang Mai, was spent the same way as our first full day: at A Lot of Thai home cooking class. The recipes are original and authentic, and the instructor and owner of the class, Yui, is a fascinating and interesting person. She’s very talkative and her stories about cooking in Thailand and other  countries over the years provide unique insight into Thai culture. She’s also an excellent teacher and an amazingly skillful cook. Since she’s self taught, she prefers the terms food lover or Thai cook to the more pretentious “chef”.

After a long day at the cooking class, all three of us were ready for a calm and relaxing evening. Being the last day of the four month journey, however, we decided to go out and do some karaoke.

The karaoke bar we went to offers rooms for rent by the hour. Each room has an incredibly cheesy theme, a few couches, and a tv with a computer with karaoke software. The English language song selection was fairly small but offered enough fun singalongs from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Highlights included Spice Girls and TLC.

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And now the trip has come to an end. It’s been a great four months. The saying is that time flies when you’re having fun, but in the case of this trip, it seems like the opposite has happened. These four months have felt incredibly long, in a good way. Individual days can go by quickly, but the weeks and months have seemed like years. When your surroundings are constantly changing and you’re constantly surrounded by different kinds of food, language, currency, weather and people, there’s no way to fall into a rut or routine. We’ve perceived these four months as much longer, but in a great way. This taste of travel has made us want to see more of our own country, too, and the sleek little car we just bought should be the perfect tool for that task. And we can’t wait to get back to our family and friends (and cats)!

Mekong River Trip

For the final leg of our journey, we traveled from Laos back into northern Thailand. This journey can be made by bus, through the air, or the slowest and most scenic way, by slow boat up the Mekong.

Mekong River Trip-2The first day of the boat trip began early at about 7:30am on a small dock at the outskirts of Luang Prabang. After loading up with about 30 passengers and their gear, we were ready for the nine-hour first day to our overnight stop in Pak Beng, Laos.

Mekong River Trip-15The boat was filled with all different kinds of travelers: tourists, local Lao people, Buddhist monks, and even a few brave families traveling with small children.

Mekong River Trip-21Mekong River Trip-1The leisurely cruise up the river was a great chance to see rural Laos. We saw children playing on the sandy beaches, boats hauling in nets of fish, water buffalo grazing and goats climbing on sheer cliffs. We took the chance to wave at everyone we saw (even the water buffalo), and most of the humans we passed waved back.

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Since we were cruising against the current, the trip from Luang Prabang to the Thai border at Ban Houayxay took two full days. We had the option of taking a smaller and faster vessel that would have cut the trip down to one day, but we’d heard some horror stories about the safety of these speed boats. It was also a little bit disconcerting to see the captains of these tiny vessels wearing crash helmets and life vests as they zipped by.

Mekong River Trip-3Sunset on the Mekong was one of the major highlights of the journey. While we brought reading materials, we spent most of our time on the boat staring out at the gorgeous scenery all around us. It was also fun to chat with fellow travelers, especially those who spoke French and Italian.

Mekong River Trip-6 Mekong River Trip-8Mekong River Trip-11 Some of our favorite new friends were a Kuwaiti man named Redha and an Italian woman named Selvaggia. When we stopped for the second night on the Thai boarder, we invited them to join us for dinner, and we all had a great time getting to know one another better over spicy food and cold beer.Mekong River Trip-22 The last day of our trip back to Thailand was a flurry of activity getting through customs on the Lao side, and arriving on the Thai side of the boarder, followed by a sleepy, four-hour bus ride back to Chiang Mai. So now we’re back where we started, and looking forward to one last week in Thailand before finally making our way home!

Luang Prabang, Laos

Nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, Laos is a landlocked country with a difficult recent history. After gaining independence from the French, Laos enjoyed a brief period of monarchy with a modest but beautiful palace in the city of Luang Prabang, where we spent most of our stay in Laos.

Luang Prabang-47Luang Prabang-30Luang Prabang-29Unfortunately, this period of peace was followed by a long period of strife, as Laos was invaded by Northern Vietnam in the late 1950s, and was heavily bombed by America along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (which functioned as a Northern Vietnamese supply line during the Vietnam war). Laos then experienced a long period of civil war and violence as the country completed its transition to socialism.

Luang Prabang-28Compared with Eastern Laos, Luang Prabang was left relatively intact. The entire city is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning it is of special cultural or physical significance. The whole of the old city is filled with beautiful Buddhist temples, restaurants, and resorts, topped off with incredible views of the Mekong river. The whole city also smells like flowers, which makes Luang Prabang the most aromatic destination we’ve experienced on our trip.

Luang Prabang-46Luang Prabang-16As Laos is now a communist country, the Lao government has no interest in restoring the temples or Buddhist statues that were destroyed during the country’s periods of war and neglect. At the Haw Kham Royal Palace Museum, we observed a Japanese group who volunteers one month every year to visit Luang Prabang and teach local university-level art professors how to properly restore damaged Buddhist statues. We also had a chance to visit the former Royal Palace (unfortunately, there were no photos allowed inside).

Luang Prabang-14We were somewhat surprised at the modesty of the former royal residence. Although there were ornate and intricate mosaics and murals on the walls of many of the reception rooms, the size of the palace itself was quite unassuming. The inner rooms were outfitted with quite simple furniture, and paintings of the few generations of the Lao monarchy. On display were gifts to the Lao government from many different countries, including a presentation of small moon rocks from the United States.

Luang Prabang-19Luang Prabang-42While in Luang Prabang, we had the chance to visit several well-kept Buddhist temples, Wat Souvanna Khiri, and the spectacular Wat Xiang Thong, the most well-known temple in the city. The temples were covered in gold leaf designs applied by hand, gilded relief carvings, and mirrored tile mosaics. They were truly spectacular to behold, but it gave us pause to think of the disparity between the lavish temples and the third of the country that lives on less than $1.25 per day.

Luang Prabang-17 Luang Prabang-21The interiors of the larger temples tend to feature a large image of either a seated or reclining Buddha surrounded by smaller sculptures of Buddha and his followers. Most of the temples also feature a statue of a particularly revered monk who practiced in that temple or city.

Luang Prabang-12 Luang Prabang-36 Luang Prabang-40Luang Prabang is home to an enticing night market where primarily tourists can sample Lao cuisine and handicrafts. Of particular interest were small aluminum trinkets and jewelry made of recycled bombshells.

Luang Prabang-2 Luang Prabang-4Despite its tumultuous history, the Lao people remain friendly and welcoming to all visitors. Luang Prabang is a city that’s used to tourists, so it’s hard to gauge the general feeling in other areas of the country. Laos is a country that’s rapidly developing, and still lacks much-needed physical infrastructure like highways and railways, particularly in rural areas. Still, it’s a country that appears to have a lot to offer and look forward to, especially as neighboring Thailand continues to grow.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Located roughly 30 kilometers from Luang Prabang, Laos, Kuang Si Falls has been one of the most incredible stops of our journey so far. From our hotel in Luang Prabang, a half hour van journey took us to the entrance to the waterfall grounds.

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The water at the Falls is incredibly clear, and gathers into pools of bright turquoise.

Kuang Si Falls-9The water, even on a rather hot day, is quite chilly. That didn’t stop crowds from swimming in the cascading series of pools, and we got our feet wet as well, although we opted not to jump from the top of a medium-sized fall into the pool below, as some did. It was very serene to sit on a log in the shallows and watch the water froth down into the pool we were in.

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It’s a touristy stop, but an incredibly worthwhile one. We’ve seen several waterfalls on this trip, and the series of falls and pools at Kuang Si were in a different class.

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Kuang Si Falls is also a well maintained, clean park. It was refreshing to see trash receptacles (a rarity for anywhere in Southeast Asia), and people using them. Park workers maintain the grounds nicely, and there are various signs asking visitors not to litter. There are also private changing booths for changing into and out of swimming suits, and picnic areas as well.

Kuang Si Falls-5Kuang Si Falls-2Kuang Si was a great way to spend a hot afternoon in Laos, and although we came prepared with plenty of SPF, the Falls are actually quite shady. The Falls are surrounded by a forest and the path alongside the pools is lined with trees as well. There is even a small mossy cave that we took the chance to explore.

Kuang Si Falls-7          As we headed back to the van, we passed the sun bear sanctuary near the exit. Unfortunately, the bears seemed to be in for the evening, but we were glad to see their enclosure was quite large and full of bear amusements. As we left the park, we stopped at a stand selling delicious iced Lao coffee and bought one for the ride back.