Hello, Hanoi

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Our original plan for the last year was to travel South East Asia and settle down in Vietnam to teach English. This week, we finally made it to the place we’ve been dying to see: Hanoi, Vietnam.

The city is more than we expected. Busy streets, incredible food, everything you could ever want or need being sold, and beautiful lakes.

Actually, when I said the streets were busy, I think that’s a tad bit untrue. The streets are insane. They’re more than insane — they’re bursting with people, motorbikes, cars, buses, vendors, bikes, cats and chickens. Our hotel had a notice that stated: “To cross the street, remain confident and walk at a steady pace”. Every street crossing is a brush with death, but I think we’re getting the hang of it.

The people are very friendly here. We’ve taken to eating a lot of street food and almost every time we sit down with a new bowl of something, the staff will butt in to help us figure out how to eat it. I suppose we’re not fooling anyone here.

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Can you spot Samie?

We’re getting into eating Pho, which is a traditional Vietnamese soup with broth, noodles, meat, and herbs. Back in Toronto, we pronounce it “F-oh” but here, when you ask for it like that, people look at you like you have three heads. It’s pronounced “Fuh” here (thank you, Google).

We went in search of “The Best Pho in Hanoi”, which is next to impossible. Hanoi is renowned for Pho. It’s being sold nearly everywhere. You get it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You can get it with beef, chicken, pork, or just tofu. You can dress it up any way you like it with sauces and chilis. It’s pretty damn good and for some reason, we never seem to get sick of it. The other plus? It usually costs about $1-2.

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Pho at 49 Bat Dan

Our favourite place so far was a small spot at 49 Bat Dan. It was packed full of people, and you got to see the entire soup-making process happen right in front of you. First came the butcher, who endlessly chopped and shaved her way through racks of salted beef. Next, a serving of white noodles was tossed into your bowl, the beef was added on top, and some raw beef was put on the other side. The man with the boiling broth came next, and he blanched the raw beef, then put a big handful of greens on top. It was an efficient chain – from the slab of meat to the finished product took about a minute flat.

Another great thingIMG_3352 about Hanoi is you can get anything you want (knockoffs, of course) for super cheap. Want fake Toms, Nikes, or Zara clothes? They’ve got that. Need a broom? Oh, there’s a woman with a cart walking past your house right now with 10 different kinds. Phone cases, suits, purses, sporting goods — they have it all. And before you go knocking knock-offs, it’s become a sport to try and ‘spot what’s missing/wrong’. With a lot of items, we’re hard-pressed to tell the difference.

The weekend night market is also jam packed. People line the streets selling just about anything, and on the side streets people cram in, sitting on small little stools frying up their dinner.

We decided that Hanoi is the place for us to settle down for at least six months, and we decided to find ourselves an apartment. We’ll save some pictures of our new place for once we’re all moved in! For now though, we’re heading south to Hoi An – be patient while we drop off the grid for a week or so!

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Vientiane – Amazing food and infinite Buddhas

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I’m happy to report that we have safely completed our last van trip in Laos. After another bumpy and windy ride, we arrived four hours later in the Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

For the record, the roads in Laos are absolutely terrible. You’re either nearly losing a tire due to deep pot holes, or about to fall off the side of a mountain. Not to mention the many offenders on the Laos roadways:

Worst of Laos road offenders (in order):

  1. Cows – Crossing the road, just hanging out and staring at you in the middle of the road, or giving you the stink eye as they walk straight down the middle of the road – they really are the true owners of Laos roads.
  2. Goats – A step below cows, we’ve actually seen them nonchalantly napping in the middle of the road. Our van changed lanes, they didn’t blink.
  3. Dogs – They happily jog along the side of the road, and make calculated dodges across/through traffic. Frogger would be proud.
  4. Toddlers – New walkers, these children have yet to learn how to use their peripheral vision. A quick honk can usually do the trick to guide them back to safety.
  5. We have a general tie for last place: potbellied pigs, roosters, drunks, and anything else not bolted down.

It was interesting to get back into city life after spending so much time hanging out in the smaller towns. Vientiane reminded us a lot of Montreal, Canada. Lots of French bakeries, architecture, and tactfulness. The cost of living in Vientiane was the highest of anywhere on our trip. Sleeping, eating, and getting around was double the price we’ve spent anywhere else in Laos and most of Thailand.

A highlight of our trip was the food. We quickly made ourselves at home at Noy’s Fruit Heaven. She’s an absolute sweetheart and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone smile so big all the time. If you have the chance, stop in for a fruit smoothie. They’re delicious.

We had a date night at Lao Kitchen as well, which hands down had some of the best food we’ve had on our trip. It’s a local restaurant that served all of the authentic Laos dishes with a tourist twist. For example, if a normal Laos dish includes fermented fish and ‘organ meat’, they thoughtfully leave that out for you. One night, we went back late for mango sticky rice (mango, sticky rice, coconut milk … yummmm) and they stayed open just to make us some for take out. Yes, we were ‘those people’. We were extremely grateful, though.

To top off the date night, we went for a two hour full body sugar scrub and massage at Mandarina Massage. It was a splurge for us, at $20 (USD) for the two hours, but it was well worth it. The spa was classy, relaxing, and the service was excellent.

Buddha Park

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The pumpkin’s charming entrance

One of the things I was extremely excited about was the Buddha Park just outside of Vientiane. Also known as Xieng Khuan, the park is a strange blend of religion, sculpture, insanity, and lots of concrete. Bunleua Sulilat, the creator, was a priest-shaman who fused Buddhism and Hinduism in a way the conservative Laos government was not overly fond of. He eventually fled the country, leaving behind a garden filled with grotesque demons, gods, and animals. There were many buddhas, as well as a massive pumpkin. The pumpkin, three stories in height, represented heaven, earth and hell (the three floors). Each floor was filled with small statues and scenes, and was entered through the mouth of a 10′ tall gorilla-demon head (picture an Indiana Jones movie).

We rented a motorbike ($10 CAD) and hit the road to drive 25 km to the park. Entry was 10,000 kip ($1.50 CAD) each to get in, and a bit for parking too.

The statues were fascinating and well designed. It’s crazy to think someone put so much time and effort into making these all happen. We can go into describing each one, but we figured some pictures would best do the job. For more pictures, check out our photo stream.

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Vang Vieng’s Blue Lagoon and Tham Phu Kham Cave

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Luke gearing up for a flip in the Blue Lagoon.

Coming to Laos, the one thing we were most excited for was finding the tranquil blue lagoons pictured by so many travellers before us. When we planned our trip, we didn’t even know where they were. Upon arriving in Vang Vieng, we discovered that it was home to the simply named Blue Lagoon.

The road to the Blue Lagoon is bumpy, so we were told by some friends that either riding a bicycle or taking a tuk tuk ride was the best way to go. It’s hot enough in Laos to fry an egg on your back — I swear — so we opted for the tuk tuk. Tuk tuks were charging 150,000 ($21 CAD) kip for the trip, since they take you all the way there and wait as long as you want before taking you home. We rounded up a total of 6 friends, and haggled it down to only 20,000 kip ($3) each.

To say the ride was bumpy is the understatement of the year. It was a knock your head on the roof, feel your organs slosh together, be thankful you’re still alive at the end kinda bumpy. The ride even includes a “are we going to make it through this?” puddle partway through. Just don’t eat lunch before you go, or you may need to eat again once you get there.

Once there, it took a few minutes for the beauty of the lagoon to set in.

This. Place. Was. GORGEOUS.

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Me and Jane, enjoying the day.

The water was a thick aqua blue that I’ve never seen in my life. There were these shiny fish swimming in such a way as to make the water look magical. There was a perfectly placed tree with rope swings, ladders, and a high and low branch perfect for diving. There were places to lounge, tubes to float in, and venders selling food.

People were doing backflips, front flips, and dives off the tallest branch. There were people (like me), scared out of their minds to jump, but were encouraged by everyone with clapping, countdowns, and cheers. With some encouragement, I got over my fear of jumping and made it off the lower branch twice. Luke, on the other hand, was jumping and flipping all day off the highest branch.

Tham Phu Kham cave

Another great part about the Blue Lagoon was that you could trek about 10 minutes (200m up) to the Tham Phu Kham cave. Definitely bring some good hiking sandals for this part, since the walk up was pretty steep and rocky. There were some bamboo railings to help, but it can be a bit nerve-wracking at times.

At the cave, we needed our phones’ flashlights to see. If you have head lanterns or more powerful flashlights, try and remember them! You’ll need your hands to brace yourself against rocks as you go. Slowly but surely, we made our way down into the cave on some slippery rocks. Once deep inside, the depth and height of the cave left us speechless.

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The air was damp but fresh, and there was a bronze reclining Buddha fittingly basking in the sunlight that shone through an opening. I stopped and let Luke carry on further inside of the cave. He said that as he went through some more tunnels, he popped up into another chamber about the size of a small stadium. The size of these caverns made us realize how small and fragile we really are compared to nature. And on a side-note, it also made Luke want to go camping inside a cave system some day.

We uploaded a whole bunch of pictures on our Flickr, so make sure to check them out here.

Tubing in Vang Vieng – what it looks like today

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The tube launch – where the fun begins

This past week we visited the lovely town of Vang Vieng, halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The town was nestled among a picturesque range of limestone karsts, the Nam Song river, and colourful buildings.

The incredible scenery nearby has turned this small community into a backpacker’s haven, and you can see the effects everywhere. With bars lining the roads, shops selling neon shorts and tank tops, and restaurants playing endless reruns of Friends, South Park and Family Guy, it was a little disheartening to see. The town was still lively with local culture, but you definitely had to look past the drunk westerners to see it.

We had heard that Vang Vieng was famous for its parties and tubing. In 2011, the hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths and countless injuries that occurred in the river. People would tube down the river, stopping at each bar along the way to get drunk on free shots of whiskey, try a magic mushroom shake, or swing into the water on ropes. There were no safety standards, and the fluctuating river levels hid logs and rocks from view.

Nowadays, most of the bars are shut down and the ropes and swings are no where to be seen along the river. Despite the dark past of tubing, it’s still an extremely popular and fun thing to do. There are only three bars open on the water now (six total, but they alternate days). We decided to give it a try when some of our friends we’d met encouraged us to come with (and yes, after much reading and researching on the safety nowadays).

After renting a tube and signing a waiver, we were dropped off at the tube launch. This was also the location of the first bar, and the party was in full swing by the time we arrived. Electronic music was blasting, and people were playing drinking games like flip cup, beer pong, and shotgunning beers. Whiskey shots are free and plentiful in Vang Vieng, since it’s a cheap local product.

We decided to skip the first party and head right to the second bar. We got in our tubes and floated about two minutes down river until we were thrown a rope and pulled in by some locals. The bar was really fun. There was a basketball court with water blasting out of the backboard, hammocks aplenty, and the obligatory soundtrack that included every Western hit from 1990-2010. We played beach volleyball with a bunch of Canadians teaching English in Malaysia, which was a lot of fun. Most were from Toronto, and on was from Halifax. The sun was scorching hot, so when it was time for a break, we decided to trek to the Lom Cave.

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Partway in – eroded limestone caverns

After walking several hundred feet up bamboo stairs, we got to a rather unimpressive entrance.
The opening was about the size of a double door, and there was a set of stairs descending down into the wet limestone. Using the flashlights we had been given, we explored onwards. After about 200 feet, the cave tunnel suddenly opened up into a room that would easily fit the average high school gym. The locals had built a small Buddhist shrine here, and apparently the cave kept going much further, had we had the time the explore.

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Bar #2 – volleyball, flipcup and water-basketball

Once we got back down, the party was in full swing as everyone from the first bar had now made their way here. Our friends from the hostel had also arrived, and we joined them for some lunch. We spent a total of $3 CAD for a plate of sautéed vegetables and a sandwich. Girls were dancing on tables in bikinis and taking selfies. Buckets of booze flowed freely and everyone was in high spirits. It felt like a freshman spring break, in the middle of the jungle.

The whole tubing trip takes a total of two hours to get downriver, and since we were only five minutes in and the sun was moving behind the mountains, we decided to hop back into the water.

The last bar was a bit dead, probably because the rest of the party was still behind us. So, decided to finish out our tubing journey. The view from the river is stunning and drifting slowly in a tube has got to be the best way to take it all in. We saw men working in rice fields, kids throwing fishing nets, and a cow swim across the river to join his family.

At one point we came upon little local boys jumping off a small bridge into the water. As we got closer, they spotted me and raced towards my tube. Luke pushed me closer to them, and once they caught me, they hung on for dear life as I floated towards the bridge. Laughing and splashing, they were ecstatic until they eventually hopped off to climb back up on the bridge. I guess in Laos it’s the little things, like commandeering a stranger’s tube for a few minutes!

Finally our journey came to an end, and the last stop had a gorgeous bar with hammocks and cabanas situated to watch the sun set over the mountains. Snagging a cabana with two hammocks, we dried off and watched the view while drinking smoothies. At $1.25 for a banana chocolate smoothie, with relaxing music playing in the background, we were finally at a venue where we fit in.

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Sun View Bar – this is how we party 🙂

 

Sunset yoga and cascading waterfalls in Luang Prabang

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After arriving in Laos, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Despite it being close neighbours to Thailand, we still experienced a bit of culture shock yet again.

We touched down from the slow boat and slugged it from guesthouse to guesthouse until we found one that was up to par. Lately, this has been our go-to method for finding a lodging, as booking online has proved to be more expensive and crappy. Going door to door is simple in most places, since most hostels are often clumped together. Owners are used to backpackers asking to see the rooms and haggling prices is not uncommon.

On our first day, Luke wasn’t feeling the best due to our malaria medication so I went solo to sunset yoga. Ock Pop Tok offered sunset yoga right on the Mekong River for 60,000 kip ($8.50 CAD). Jenn was my teacher and she was incredible. The hour and a half class was challenging, but the best part was being able to glance up and see the sun setting over the water. Being a huge yoga fan, it was a surreal moment — I never dreamed I’d be doing yoga on a river in Laos. I’d highly recommend yoga in the great outdoors, wherever you can experience it.

The next day, we headed to Tad Sae Waterfall. Brian and Jane caught back up to us sooner than we expected, which was awesome. We all split the cost of a tuk tuk to the waterfall, costing us about $2 each. He drove us 30 minutes to the falls and waited three hours for us to get back and drive us home.

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Tad Sae Waterfalls – well worth the trek!

The waterfalls were stunning. The aqua blue water was like nothing we’ve seen, and the way the water cascaded through the trees made it look like the jungle was flooded. We trekked up the falls until we found the perfect place to go swimming. There was a peaceful patch of water right after a bunch of falls that was refreshing as it was beautiful. We had brought Laos sandwiches (baguette with cucumber, carrot, lots of onion, tomato, and Laughing Cow cheese) for lunch.

There were elephant rides at the falls as well. We felt pretty bad for the animals, since they were chained up and had big wooden chairs on top of them so they could offer rides all day. It’s frustrating to see them abused for profit so often here in South East Asia. Nonetheless, getting a chance to see the herd swimming and walking through the falls was pretty fascinating.

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$1.75 = soup for two

The night market in town proved to be the best place to grab food. Luke and I bought a soup for $1.50 CAD and she split it into two filling bowls for us. The food is so fresh, you actually pick your veggies and they fry it right in front of you. There was also a buffet where you filled your plate for $1.75 CAD and the cook would fry everything together with some seasoning. In the morning, you can get smoothies, sandwiches, and crepes all for $1.50 CAD each. It’s insanely delicious and cheap.

We stayed for four nights in Luang Prabang. Overall, the city was definitely underwhelming. While the travel books glamorized the Luang Prabang as a world heritage site, the quaint city was overrun by Westerners both backpacking and on vacation. So, if you want to get a true taste of Laos, Luang Prabang isn’t the place to seek it. Also, it wasn’t very easy to get around. Tuk tuk’s were the priciest we’ve seen, and scooters cost five times the usual Thai rate to rent. There were a lot of packaged tours available, but the value seemed lacking.

If we did it again, we would have cut our trip in half. Regardless, we can’t wait to see what Laos has to offer.

– S & L

P.S The wifi is terrible in Laos. Sorry for the sporadic updates. We’re safe and loving life in Vang Vieng, so don’t worry!

How to: Two day slow boat from Thailand to Laos

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(An assortment of slow boats just like the one we took)

Reading online about the journey from Pai (or Chiang Mai), Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos was quite daunting. We had read many horror stories and began to dread our prospects. There were several options, and each had a long list of complaints and critiques. At the end of the day we chose the path most traveled, and we bought a ticket for the 3-day slow boat.

On Saturday, we headed down to aYa travel agency in Pai and grabbed a packaged journey to Luang Prabang. For a five hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, one night’s stay (breakfast included), and two days on the slow boat, it cost us 1750 baht ($61 CAD) each. On the second night, we would have to spend a night in Pak Bang on our own dime, which was not included in the price.

Sunday evening we left at 6:30 PM for our second round at the 762 curve drive to get out of Pai. It was pitch black and Samie was struggling a bit with the curves this time around (she hates night driving, let alone speeding around twists and turns). After about two hours, we finally mastered the hardest part and were on a straight away to Chiang Khong.

We got into Chiang Khong late at around 2 AM and checked into a less-than-ideal hotel. We were exhausted, so it didn’t matter that much to us. A lot of reviews online complained about the hotel but really, for a few hours it’s not bad at all. We had our own room with an en suite bathroom. It wasn’t entirely cleanly, but we closed our eyes and pretended we were at the Hard Rock Hotel and drifted off.

The Laos border

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(The shuttle bus at the Laos border)

In the morning at 7 AM, we got free scrambled eggs and toast and took some passport photos for 100 baht ($3.50 CAD) before jumping into the back of a truck and heading to the border. At the border, we needed to pay 20 baht for the shuttle to cross the friendship bridge into Laos.

Once at the border, it was pretty painless. Again, we’ve heard that the visa process can be a nightmare but luckily it wasn’t busy at all when we arrived at 8:30 am. We had to go to a counter, get our visa ($42 USD for Canadians — we’re the only country that had to pay that much!), and give them our passport. After about 10 minutes, they called our name and we got our passports back. I can see how easily this could be a big mess, but again we were lucky.

The slow boat – Day one

After we had our visas, we headed to the slow boats 10 minutes away. Once there, we grabbed some sandwiches from a local café and boarded the slow boat. The guy running the tour told a few fibs, such as ‘the boat wasn’t even at the dock yet’ (when it was, and already almost full 20 minutes prior), and that he had booked reserved seats for us at the front of the boat (it’s actually impossible to reserve seats). Thanks to him, we were all pushed to the back of the boat right next to the engine, which was extremely loud.

Luckily, there was a lot of floor space at the front of the boat, and we went up for fresh air and sat on the floor with a bunch of other travellers. The view was spectacular and the breeze was perfect. The locals on board had cute toddlers playing with everyone and the captain let some people sit at the bow of the boat outside.

The boat had old van/bus seats throughout for passengers to sit on, which was nicer than other boats which have wooden seats. We heard most of them are being upgraded to these sort of seats.

For a five hour journey, it was a really nice way to go. The views were unbeatable, and we got to see water buffalo, stray dogs, goats, and locals clear-cutting and farming the mountainous hillside. The Mekong River winds through some incredibly lush, dense jungle forest – the kind of stuff you expect to only see while watching Jurassic Park.

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(Sitting on the bow – the view was alright…)

Pakbang

When we arrived in Pakbang, we stuck with some travellers we met and walked up to the town. Avoid the tuk tuk offers — you won’t need them! It’s a short 5-10 minute walk into the city where there are tons of guest houses to choose from, ranging from about 30,000-50,000 kip/person ($4.25-6.25 CAD).

We found a private room for 50,000 kip called Vassana. It was clean with wifi and cold showers. For the price and location, we were happy. The power went out a few times (but we heard this is normal for Laos), only lasting for about 20 minutes. We went to dinner with some American friends we made and went to bed early since the boat was leaving at 9 AM.

Slow boat – Day two

The boat was scheduled to leave at 9 am, but it didn’t leave till 10 am (but, we’re on Laos time, so this is to be expected). We got to the pier at 8:30 am to get a nice seat right up front. Once we got moving, it was an eight hour trip to Luang Prabang.

A note to anyone thinking of taking the slow boat: bring food! We only brought a few sandwiches and were pretty hungry by the end of it. They sell ramen noodles, beer, pop, and chips on board, but nothing of substance.

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(A village on the Mekong River)

We arrived in Luang Prabang around 5 PM, and the boat didn’t take us to the proper pier. We had heard this was a common scam happening these days. There is a pier downtown, but the boat instead takes you to a shoreline 10km outside of the city claiming that the downtown pier doesn’t allow for passenger boats to dock. A woman on our boat was getting pretty mad with the captain, but he didn’t seem to care.

This part sucked a bit, but we had expected it. We walked up a huge sandbank to the road where the tuk tuk’s were offering obscene prices (20,000 kip/person, or $2.50 CAD) for a ride into town. Considering tuk tuks usually charged no more than $1.50 total for a ride, and these tuk tuks were filling up with 6 people at a time, it was a pretty clear cash grab. Some friends and us decided to walk a few minutes before we finally found one we were comfortable paying. We payed about 10,000 kip each, 60,000 total ($7.50 CAD) to get into town. We wouldn’t advise walking all the way into town, since it was definitely a hike.

Overall, we really enjoyed the experience. If you come into it with no expectations, it’s really not that bad. Yes, the sleeping arrangements weren’t five star, but who cares? On a shoestring budget, the slow boat provided the best views, time to relax, and opportunity to meet some new friends.

– L & S

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Falling in love with Pai

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We’ve spent the last five days in Pai and we’ve absolutely fallen in love with this little town. A short three hour van ride around 762 curves up the mountain from Chiang Mai to Pai was well worth it. It’s been such a welcomed change of pace from the two cities; since arriving, we’ve mostly just been relaxing by the pool and enjoying the mountain’s cooler weather.

On a quick side note, we’ve been updating our Flickr account with all the pictures we’ve been taking, whether they made it onto our blog posts or not. Feel free to peruse here!

Touching down in Pai, we rented a motorbike right away (140 baht a day, $4.50 CAD) so we could drive around and find a nice hostel. We usually only spend We stumbled upon Chang Pai Resort, a bunch of little bamboo bungalows with a pool, tucked away just one minute from the town center. A bungalow to ourselves cost 350 baht ($12 CAD) a night with AC.

It’s safe to say that the view in Pai is absolutely stunning. You can get to waterfalls, canyons, caves, and temples all in under 20 minutes by bike, and you can walk everywhere in town. At night, there’s a market lining the main streets with the cheapest and best street food we’ve encountered. Everyone in Pai takes life slowly, so we spent most of our days swimming and sunbathing with our Irish friends, Jane and Brian (hi guys!).

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(Pai Canyon. Click the picture to see it full size!)

The Pai Canyon was a 10 minute drive out of town and was both scary and breathtaking. Luke and Brian had fun hiking atop the narrow canyon ridges, while Jane and I tried not to watch nervously. The sun was absolutely scorching on the canyon but you really couldn’t beat the view.

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(Pambok Waterfall and Luke about to jump in)

 

After that, we all headed to the Pembok Waterfall. Although it was the furthest drive from town that we took, it was only a small hike after you park your motorcycle. We explored the waterfall that was nestled inside of the rock cliffs, creating a half cave. The water was refreshing after nearly baking in the canyon. Luke and Brian got excited about climbing the rocks and doing back flips into the water while Jane and I watched on.

By now we felt fairly hungry, so we biked back down to ‘the land split’. This split is a piece of land on a farm where the farmer says that one day in 2008 he woke up to a massive fissure running through his property. Each year the crack grows, and new ones are created. He’s placed year markers atop each ridge and crevice, showing the progression.

Since most of his land is no longer useful for farming, it has become a tourist spot, where the woman serve roselle juice and a spread of snacks. Luke and I tried a passionfruit for the first time! It was delicious, and so was the juice. They also provided peanuts, lady finger bananas, boiled potatoes with salt, and a small bottle of roselle wine. They worked only on a donation system, so if you stop by make sure to give what you think is fair. Given that a small lunch in town would have cost us 30-40 baht, we gave accordingly.

On our way back to town, we stopped by the famous Pai coffee house, Coffee In Love, for an iced latte and a piece of cheesecake. You can’t beat the view from the patio, so if you’re ever in Pai make sure to take a second to stop and have a coffee.

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(I think we managed to get 100% of our sunburn attempting to take this photo)

Since everything in Pai was so close, we had time for one more stop at the Buddha on a hill. The sun was still out in full force, so walking up all the stairs to get to the Buddha nearly melted us. Once at the top however, it was well worth it. As we’ve been finding with Buddhist temples, they’re almost always located on real estate with incredible views of the city.

Later that evening, we did our nightly tradition of street food and walking through the market. Luke and Brian tried baked locust, crickets, grasshoppers, and larvae, which didn’t go over so well. After about two each, they gave up on the rest. Jane and I walked from store to store trying to find the perfect postcards to send home. There are a bunch of shops in Pai that allow you to buy a post-card and stamp right there, sit down to write the postcard, and mail it, all in-store. Very cute! We developed a bit of a postcard addiction…

We managed to squeeze so much into our visit to Pai that at this point, I’m going to have to summarize most of it. Some highlights: tea in bamboo shoot cups at the market (30 baht for the cup and tea, then 10 baht for every refill), thai massages, sunbathing, more iced coffee, finding the best pizza in Thailand, and playing Jenga while sipping Mojitos and Mai Thais in a little deep-house lounge.

It’s with a heavy heart that we split up with our travel companions Brian and Jane. They’re staying behind in Pai to finish a Thai massage course while Luke and I move on to Laos by slow boat. With plans to meet up again, I guess it’s just goodbye for now to our “savage” friends from Ireland. It’s been a gas!

– S & L

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Playing with Elephants in Chiang Mai

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It’s not every day that you get to feed, bathe, and play with a herd of elephants. In Thailand though, there are tons of opportunities. We knew that hanging out with some massive, grey teddy bears was on our Asia bucket list, and when we found an elephant retirement home in Chiang Mai, we knew we were in the right place.

It was important to us that we find a place where we felt comfortable with how the elephants were treated, as unethical tourist traps are everywhere here. It’s quite common for the companies to use abusive training or to sell endless rides (which is hard on them) at the animals’ expense.

We had heard nothing but good things about the Elephant Retirement Park, so we signed up.

At 9 AM, we met our guide Yui. We drove in a van with eight other people to the market where we grabbed bananas and sugar cane to feed the herd. It was an hour out of the city, but we had Yui to crack jokes, sing, and tell his life stories in broken English to pass time.

Once we got to the park, we hopped into the back of a pick-up truck and went out to meet the six elephants. As we drove up, we could hear them trumpeting out to each other. It was quite surreal. As we rounded the final jungle hill, we saw all six of them eagerly waiting to be fed.IMG_0750

The herd consisted of two matriarchs, one older male, two adolescent girls (6 years old), and a six month old baby girl. The first command we learned was “bon” – which was what we said to make them open wide for treats. It was important for us to feed each elephant individually, as they had to learn our scent before we joined their play time.

The baby by far was the cutest. She acted like a rambunctious puppy dog, ignoring commands and horsing around. She would constantly head butt people, trying to get them to push back as hard as possible.

The whole group was incredibly playful. Each elephant had their own owner (mahut), who lived and played with them.

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(Luke wrestling with the 6 month old baby girl)

A girl volunteering at the park told us that elephants in Thailand are no longer for sale (unless by black market), so all of these magical animals had been passed down within their respective families, always going to the eldest son. The bond between the mahut and elephant was fascinating to see. You could really see the love between them all as they tugged on the elephants ears, wrestled, and worked with them.

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(Luke before he got stepped on!)

After lunch, we went back to give the elephants a mud bath. The mahuts quickly escalated things to an all out mud-war (which was understandable… they probably didn’t get out much) and the elephants happily flopped around, getting covered in clay and cooling down.

Luke was a bit too eager and got underfoot one of the biggest elephants as she slipped in the mud. The result was a pretty big scratch and bruise, which made any more muddy horseplay off limits. I happily sat on the sidelines watching with him, since I’m not a “get muddy” kind of person anyway.

Overall, it was a great experience hanging out with elephants all day. The guys running the place were so friendly and loving, and the opportunity to spend a day with the gentle giants was priceless. We would highly recommend picking their elephant home if you’re considering something like this in Thailand.

Zipping around in Chiang Mai

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Although Bangkok was interesting and busy, the smog and constant haggling on the street really began to wear on us. As the train pulled into the Chiang Mai station, we instantly exhaled a giant sigh of relief. This city is small and slow. Once surrounded by a moat, the cityscape is perfection: mountain views, canals, and temples. Not to mention a gentle and friendly population.

Our first hostel was a bit of a bust. The room was small, hot, and lacked any privacy. While the staff was very nice, we decided to get out of there as fast as possible. At $5 CAD a night, we learned a very valuable lesson about trying to save money. Luckily, we found The Green Tulip House for $15 CAD next. This hostel has been incredible, and the people we’ve met here are amazing. Our room has AC and a private bathroom, the main floor has a restaurant and plays deep house music all day, and there’s a rooftop patio overlooking the city. We feel right at home here!

Here’s what we’ve done in Chiang Mai so far:

Day one

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(Samie packing up to leave hostel #1. Not sure this was the safest, but we survived.)

We rented a motorbike for 230 baht ($7 CAD) a day (sorry mom!), which gave us access to the whole city as well as the nearby mountains, waterfalls, and temples. The price includes insurance and helmets for two as well and you’re free to make day treks anywhere outside of the city. If you break down, the rental place will come and pick you up. We rented from Mr. Mechanic which doesn’t have a website, but locals highly recommend the place.

We spent the day driving around and getting to know Chiang Mai. After a few hours, we got really hot and decided to head to the Eco Resort for some swimming. A delightfully designed retreat, there were acres of botanical gardens, as well as hotel-style rooms, a large rustic dinging/bar area, and some private villas. It was 100 baht ($3 CAD) each for pool access for us. Well worth it!

Day two

This is the day where we moved all of our stuff to the new hostel. It was such a relief to be somewhere where we were comfortable. Instantly, we made some friends with two other couples. Luke helped them each get a motorbike as well so they could join us on our way to the Mae Sa waterfalls.

The ride took about 30 minutes and the national park was 100 baht ($3 CAD) to get into. It was trickling rain when we arrived, so we stopped to eat at a food cart. The menu was definitely intended for the locals, with very little looking like it was within our comfort zones. We stuck to charcoal fried chicken, sticky rice, and barbecued eggs (who knew?). The chicken was incredible! If only we were more daring, there was also salted fish and barbecued pork intestines for sale.

When it stopped raining, we made our way up the waterfalls. At Mae Sa, there are 10 locations where you can stop, swim, picnic, and hang out at different levels and waterfalls. It’s really incredible. Some of the locals convinced Luke to jump in the waterfall, and he had a blast trying to stand under the crush of the water. We’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. You can see more here.

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(Luke and Brian taking in a real waterfall massage)

We got caught in the rain on the way home as we were biking, so we stopped in to have tea at this stunning resort called Cool Downs Resort. They let us in even though we looked like a bunch of drowned rats, but we took a look around and were in awe of how gorgeous the set up was with an outdoor infinity pool, a fire pit, and an overall beautiful modern design.

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(Grilled squid, cooked to rubbery perfection.)

Later on after we all warmed up, Luke and I went out in search of food. I stuck with some chicken fried rice, but Luke got his hands on some grilled squid. It was put on the charcoal grill whole, and cooked thoroughly (maybe too thoroughly, as the texture became pretty tough… but at least it was safe to eat!) before they chopped it up and bagged it. Just before we left with our purchase, they offered a sauce. Luke unwittingly said yes, and watched his dinner get doused in a chili-seed marinade. Overall, the squid tasted great – but next time we’ll go easier on the liquid fire.

Day three

We went to an elephant retirement home. But, you’ll have to wait for that post!

– S & L

6 Most Common Scams in Bangkok (and how to avoid them)

Welcome to Bangkok, the land of the most persistent scam artists.

In the one week we spent in Bangkok, there were at least half a dozen scams attempted on us. The first scam we fell for within hours of landing. The sad part for us was hearing the exact same lines being used and reused with most people having no idea how easy it is to spot and avoid these common mistakes. Here is a quick list of the scams, and how to avoid them.

1. Tuk tuk prices

Tuk TukOne of the cheapest forms of transportation around Bangkok are these glorified motorcycles. Tuk Tuk’s are something every traveler should try at some point on their trip to Thailand. They’re cheaper than taxis and fun to zip in and out of traffic. Bear in mind, however, that they have no taxi meter. Locals are familiar with the ‘going rate’ of getting from point A to point B, but tourists are asked for exorbitant rates, hoping they’ll simply agree since tourists don’t know their way around. Our hosts told us that most locals pay 10-20 baht, and never any more than 50. Tourists should expect to pay between 50 and 100 baht for anything under a 20 minute drive (give or take).

Our first tuk tuk ride: 400 baht.

2. Taxi meters

You can spot an available taxi with ease in Bangkok — a cotton-candy pink car with a red digital sign in their windshield. They operate exactly like every other taxi driver you’re used to, except they prefer not to activate their meter. If you make it all the way to your destination without the price having been discussed, you’ll be at their mercy of whatever they ask. If you insist on them turning it on partway through, they’ll begin the haggling then. If you want a fair taxi fee, always insist the taxi meter be used before you get in. If they won’t agree, find another.

3. 20 Baht ‘Tours’

A tuk tuk driver approaches you and asks you if you’d like a tour of the palaces for only 20 baht. It seems like a great deal, but before you know it, you’re in a high-pressure sales pitch at some place you may or may not have wanted to go to. Tuk tuks like to deliver tourists to certain shops and tourist attractions in exchange for a commission, which is why they’ll offer you the cheap ride. While it’s not the end of the world for the tourist, it can get uncomfortable, or you can end up buying things you never intended to.

As a rule: don’t go on cheap tuk tuk tours. When it seems too good to be true, it typically is.

4. Temple is closed

You get in a tuk tuk and ask to head to the Grand Palace, but partway there you are informed that the Grand Palace is closed. Have no fear however, he can send you to a riverboat cruise instead, or to a more interesting destination. This happened to us on the way to Wat Pho, but we called his bluff and arrived at a temple which was (not surprisingly) open. When a driver tries to divert you from your destination, don’t buy it. Stick to your guns – temples don’t close for lunch. Note that guides out front of the temple may attempt this line as well, since they too can get commission for taking you to a nearby ‘travel agency’ to book other tours while you wait for the temple to ‘open’.

5. Commission Scalpers

Friendly strangers or drivers approach you with the same line, “Where are you from, where are you going?” While there’s nothing wrong with chatting, this line of conversation often turns to them suggesting someone for your next tour, or the best railway line, or someone who can hook you up with a cheap bus pass. The reality is that almost every shopkeeper, tour company and travel agent will pay a referral fee. If you need a suggestion for who to book with, feel free to take their advice. However, if you think their suggestions are unbiased and honest, think again. They’re simply recommending the routes which have the highest kickbacks lined up for them.

6. Pickpockets

While a lot of the downtown area has a bit of a pickpocketing problem, the major tourist attractions are where you need to be careful. Some temples have put up signs warning tourists, and several of our tuk tuk drivers took it upon themselves to educate us on the dangers of being careless. When gazing upwards and snapping pictures, bags should be securely zipped up and held close. Back pockets are no place for valuables and make sure to not rest your bag down without keeping a close eye on it.

-Luke