Thursday, April 8, 2010

The countdown

We only have 10 days left on our journey, the next 6 of which will be spent alternating between laying poolside and seaside, reapplying sunscreen, watching gorgeous sunsets, writing postcards, reading, and savoring the last days of our 10-week-long travels!
We are currently on this island of Ko Lanta, Thailand, surrounded by the sparkling blue Andaman Sea.

Cambodia Recap

On March 23 we crossed the border from Laos to Cambodia. Here's a recap of the 2 weeks we spent there, in vague chronological order:

-Spotted the rare Irrawaddy dolphins migrating up the Mekong River while watching the sun set.
-Toured the National Museum and Royal Palace in the capital, Phnom Penh.
-Sipped on a cocktail at the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCC).
-Spent an uber-depressing day visiting the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields.
-Supported many socially responsible businesses and restaurants recommended by
-Ferried over to Rabbit Island, off the south coast, for our first sight of the ocean in months!
-Spent a night in the town of Kampot- famous for their Kampot pepper.
-Dragged ourselves up and down Bokor Hill.
-Made a horrible decision in choosing to stay at Koh Ru "Resort" on Bamboo Island. Rat-infested bungalows are not synonymous with Resort.
-Watched the sun set on the temple of Bayon on our first night in Siem Reap.
-Arose before the crack of dawn to witness a beautiful sunrise over Angkor Wat.
-Indulged in a lot of ice cream at The Blue Pumpkin Cafe in Siem Reap.
-Crossed the border into Thailand the town of Poipet (often referred to as 'the town that rhymes with toilet')
In all we spent countless hours busing across the country, sweating profusely in the midday heat of April, trying to track down tofu, haggling with tuk-tuk drivers, and applying bug spray- but we came away having enjoyed the vast majority of our time there, thanks to great food, great people, a deeper understanding of Cambodia's history, and a great appreciation for the country's beauty.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Bokor Hill Station, Cambodia

At 8am, standing at the foot of Bokor Hill, we were already sweating buckets, not a good sign considering we had a 2.5 hour hike ahead of us. The previous night's thunderstorm left the air full of moisture, even though the temperature itself was quite pleasant. At our first water break the other American in the tour group, Ali-Ï'm from Philly but live in Seattle"- made us play the name game. The group consisted of Danny, who proved to be our useless guide, a young dutch coupe, an oder French coupe, an engaged British and Scottish pair, 3 teenage British boys, a solo Dutch guy with a love of insects, and a Spaniard named Roberto. We began complaining in unison as the trail turned vertical through a muddy, jungley landscape. We complained until we heard that a Hong Kong woman was attending the ascent in flip flops. When we saw her approach at our second water break Mason and I could not hold in the giggles- nor could the other 20 people gathered there. It wasn't just the flip flops, it was the fact that she was wearing a floral sarong as a dress, tied around her neck, with a fanny pack around her waist. Clearly no one told her this wasn't going to be a day at the beach.
In 2.5 hours we ascended 1km, where the "bus"waiting to take us the remaining 30km turned out ot be a construction site dump truck. all 15 of us piled into the bed, including the Äk-47 toting "park ranger" who was there to "protect"us. The most uncomfortable hour of my life then ensued. we were bounced and jostled into each other's mud-covered shoes and the metal railing, all the way up to Bokor Hill Station. The station is the site of the abandoned Bokor Hill Palace, a casino/hotel, destroyed in the 1970s by the Khmer Rouge due to the fact that is was a bourgeoisie symbol. A new hotel/casino is underway, funded by a Cambodian company. by the looks of the artist's drawing the place will rival any in Vegas. The Palace ruins were amazingly creepy, covered with orange lichen and shrouded in fog. gass shards still hang from the window panes and the ceiling is caving in. great place to take photos. just as we were beginning to recover from the trip up and enjoy the company of our group members, we had to begin the brutal journey in reverse. All in all worth the $23? Not so much.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What to Expect for $3

'When you are sleeping do not smoking' announces an inscrutable 'Law in Guest House' sign on the door. The room's the size of a milk carton and as sturdily built. As if to confirm the metaphor, part of the wall has been repaired by inserting a sheet of galvanized iron, stamped 'Siam Box Company'. Other walls are haphazardly hammered, rough wooden planks whose mosquito tempting gaps previous occupants have attempted to plug with assorted rags and grimy wads of toilet paper. In a different context this would be a contender for the Turner prize. But if you're crossing the room don't look up to admire. You'll need all your concentration to negotiate a safe path across the rough bare floorboards with the minimum of splinters -- another inappropriate house rule is 'no shoes'.

The bed seems clean enough: the under sheet is discolored, but by years of hand-washing rather than by anything more sinister. Of course if you want a top sheet you bring your own. This being a relatively luxurious place there's an attached bathroom. Once you've stepped across the malarial pond at its center theres a slip seated western toilet and beside it a bucket into which soiled toilet paper should be thrown to prevent blocking the cantankerous sewerage system. The droopy showerhead has fallen from its dangling hook and nestles unappetizingly against the grimy bog-brush. The water pressure is far too low to make the jerry-built water heater funtion, but who cares -- the engrossing ant and gecko show is performed free, 24 hours a day.

I had to share this hilariously vivid account of budget accomodations in Lao from our Graphical Guide to SE Asia (a collection of hand drawn maps of towns). It was written in 2003, and while its wildly accurate, it's also been seven years. And most of these places haven't changed - they've merely added perks such as rat nests (with occasional appearances by said rats), roosters living under your floorboards -- a bird that is quite challenged with being able to tell when the sun actually rises, and light-magnet bugs (bugs that swarm around lights in masses only to have nowhere to go but to you when you turn the light off) - we should be so grateful for the electricity.

Yes folks, there is a difference between 'cheap' and 'getting what you're paying for.'

Sleeper Bus in Lao

I spent the summer of 2006 sleeping on a bus while on Warped Tour. I found that my best nights of sleep were on good ole bus number nine - cradled to sleep by the swaying of the bus and roaring of the engine. So when I heard we could take a sleeper bus from Vientiane (northern Lao) to Pakse (southern Lao), I immediately told Kelly we weren't even going to look into other forms of transportation - we were definitely taking a sleeper bus.

We were picked up from our guesthouse in Vientiane by a massive tuk tuk filled with about 12 foreigners around 8pm and were whisked off to the sleeper bus terminal, a good 20km outside of town. As we waved goodbye to the guesthouse staff they replied "Good Luck!" Questionable. Didn't think we had anything to worry about - I was beyond excited about the journey. Once we arrived we realized that no one running the buses spoke a single word of English. So we followed the crowd and boarded a bus. On Warped Tour there are mainly two types of buses: the slightly roomier 12 bed buses, and what veterans call 'the slave ship' buses which sleep 18. In Lao they've managed to find a way to sleep 48. YEAH. Two people to a bed and beds popping out of nowhere - clearly not made to fit westerners. (To Warped Tour Production: imagine all the money and gas you'd save with Lao sleeper buses!)

Unfortunately we did not arrive in time to score lower bunks nor did anyone seem to know where a bathroom was. But even more startling were the new bus tickets we received. Everything was written in Lao except two words at the bottom: Good Luck.

The lack of bars to hold us into the bed on the many curves was a bit disturbing but I guess they figure you're already in close quarters, what harm would a little closer spooning do to hold on to the outside person?

Nevertheless, we made the 10 hour journey to Pakse. It wasn't quite as soothing as the nights on Warped Tour, but we got there in one piece. To any solo travelers lookin' for lovin' out there, a night on the sleeper bus is a sure bet to get someone in your bed.

Tubing in the Vang Vieng

Welcome to Vang Vieng. On your right you'll see the river, popular for tubing in, on your left you'll see opium dealers posed as sugarcane stands, and straight in front you'll find a cafe with a TV playing Friends. Yes. Vang Vieng is quite the backpacker hotspot, nestled a little more than halway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. A perfect town for breaking up the bus ride, it's a tragedy to see what years of rowdy backpacker demands amounts to.

We began our day of tubing just like any other tuber (extreme sarcasm) - a 9am 3km bike ride to the organic farm for a breakfast of mulberry pancakes, fresh goat cheese on baguettes, and fresh fruit juice.

By 12:30pm we decided the tubing course must be well and active by now. Wrong. We were tubers numbers 15 and 16... We should have known not to start so early. How silly of us to think anyone else would be awake and on the river at that hour. Nevertheless, we jumped on a tuk tuk for a ride upstream, tubes in hand. We were immediately greeted by about 20 bars -- all of which hosted a free shot with the purchase of a drink. Oh -- and no jumping off the rope swing until you buy a drink! (Because that always ends well...). So we jumped on our tubes in the chilly, rather stagnant water and began our journey downstream. In the wet season the route takes about an hour. In the dry was going to take a much longer time.

Two seconds after jumping on our tubes we quickly realized that "Tubing in the Vang Vieng" does not mean tubing at all; it means floating from riverside bar to bar. We desperately tried to avoid this but the bartenders were not taking no for an answer so we spent the first 30minutes dodging plastic-bottles-attached-to-ropes being thrown at us with the hopes of reeling us into their bars. How this Pirates of the Caribbean-esque village of bars started, I have no idea. It's truly unique, and worth youtubing the title of this blog to find some videos to see for yourself.

The next two hours dragged on very slowly and we realized that maybe the bar part wasn't so bad after all...we would have used far less muscles as holding on to a plastic bottle wouldn't have taken too much effort. Paddling with our hands down a 4 inch deep river dodging large rocks on the other hand...

Around 3pm we passed a sign saying "2km to end of tubing." Not so bad, right? We must have gone 4km at this point. About an hour into this 2km 'drift' we realized no one, and I mean no one, has probably ever actually tubed the entire 'tubing route' distance. Instead of dodging rocks and bars we now encountered an entire water buffalo herd lounging in the middle of the river, a kayaking tour group, and motor boats. This was far more dangerous than dodging roped plastic bottles. And the water was dead still. Just as Kelly began to 'float' by the herd a big daddy water buffalo stood up. "This is it," I thought, "I'm going to have to explain to the tubing authorities that not only did we not support their bar businesses, but we also tried to tube the entire river which point my friend was attacked by a water buffalo." They would never believe us. But lucky for us the water buffalo was merely walking over to protect the calves, and we continued on down the river dodging kayaks and motorboats until we finally reached the end. 4:30pm. I'd probably recommend just hitting up the riverside bars by foot in the late afternoon and foregoing the $6 tube rental fee next time.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The first 36 hours in LPB

In my intensive research the night before flying from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos, I stumbled upon this article:
36 Hours in Luang Prabang, Laos. Since we didn't have any set plans for our time in this cute colonial town we decided to follow the article- almost exactly- then compare and critique.
On Friday March 12 around 5pm we somewhat begrudgingly trudged up the 300+ stairs to the top of Mt. Phousi. We were a bit skeptical at first, knowing we wouldn't see much of a sunset, considering the sun wasn't very visible layers of haze and smog. Instead of setting the orange orb slowly faded in the haze, quite undramatically. The mountain is clearly a tourist "trap"- costing 20,000 kip, but I'd say it's still worth it, just to get a sense of the city's layout and a glimpse of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers.
By the time we returned to the main street the night market was in full swing. Locals lay out their handicrafts and Beerlao t-shirts for the tourists to peruse, but we were hungry and headed straight to the baguette sandwiches- a delicious and cheap Parisian dinner, just one of the many great things left behind by the French colonizers.
We were not so excited about Saturday morning's activity which required getting up early. But we did it, although not quite early enough. We caught a glimpse of a line of monks, walking single-file to find their next hand out, but not the spectacle mentioned in the article. So we went back to bed. This morning however (Tuesday), I decided to try again- this time what I found were a bunch of obnoxious tourists acting like papparrazzi as the monks tried to collect their morning meal. We've read and seen many warnings around the city to be respectful of this tradition, but most people don't seem to care.
At 10am we opted for nap time over arts& crafts time, but made up for in in the following days. There are many great shops along the streets here, a few of which also have galleries displaying the artwork process. Today we visited the Ock Pop Tok weaving village 2km outside of town to see where their silk is made, dyed and woven into beautiful scarves, ties and more.

At noon we ate lunch at the recommended Tamarind, which is part of the Stay Another Day foundation, giving tourists meaningful ways to spend time and money in the city. We ordered the vegetable dipping platter which came with 4 dips and a basket of sticky rice to dip with. Mason quite enjoyed it. I had the warm noodle salad which was also really good. If nothing else, we came away with a desire to eat more sticky rice.
At 2pm we boarded a 6-person long boat headed for the Pak Ou Caves. The journey took 2 hours upstream! While monotonous at times, we appreciated being on the water and were in awe of just how low the Mekong really is. Our "captain" expertly weaved through rocks and banks until we pulled up in front of an impressive limestone cliff with a large hole carved out. The lower cave, which is as far as we got, is really just a big Buddha shire, but the geology is awesome. The highlight of the trip came as we headed back, when we stopped at a river-side whiskey village and were given 3 taste-test shots of the potent stuff. We each came away with a bottle of the unfiltered version- a little less hard on the system.
While we knew it might be our most expensive meal, we decided to go for it and even made a reservation at 3 Nagas (which was quite unnecessary, I think we were one of 3 sets of diners at time). Our pizza appetizer was great- although more than we expected. The meal itself was less than stellar. We had difficulties communicating our orders- involving 3 waiters- and clearly something was lost in translation. When they brought a whole fish to the table we went into momentary shock. We have no idea where they got that idea from. We were left with unexciting steamed veggies for Mason and mashed potatoes oozing with butter (in a bad way), and my pasta was missing the protein.

The NY Times redeemed itself through it's Sunday breakfast recommendation. JoMa cafe quickly became our new fav place when we saw they had chocolate chip muffins- and when we tasted them they were delish! Lots of choc chips! We've been back twice since then. And the best news is that thereis a JoMa in Vientiane, which we will surely seek out once there in a few days.

After breakfast we toured the Royal Palace/National Museum which is shrouded in mystery since the royal family was abducted by the communists in 1977. To this day no one knows the story, or where they are now.

The one thing we did not complete was the Wat-lingering. We chose to rent Hello Kitty bicycles and explore instead!
On Monday we visited the beautiful Kuang Si waterfalls- definitely recommend fitting that into the 36 hours (or just spending more time in the adorable town.) Today, Tuesday, is our last day here so we are trying to hit up some of the cafes we've missed, and tonight we are going to a fashion show at the local bar!
Off to backpacker mecca, Vang Vieng, tomorrow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Fav place in the World

Chocolate Fact. This is a cafe in Chiang Mai, Thailand that serves ONLY chocolate goods and drinks...and we have spent 3 afternoons there. Unfortunately we left Chiang Mai today after spending 3 days there (and 2 nearby at Elephant Nature Park), but we have already tracked down homemade chocolate brownies at the internet cafe we are currently at in Chiang Rai, so I think we'll be fine.
Chiang Mai was a great place to hang out for a few days. The pace is much slower than Bangkok, itss much cleaner and there is less traffic to dodge. We stayed at an aborable guest house called Green Tulip co-owned by a hilarious energetic woman named Stella, who was continually making animal noises, hugging us, or dancing with other guests.
There is a plethora of great food to be had in Chiang Mai. On our first night we came across a crowded restaurant called Lemongrass while walking through the Night Bazaar. The pad thai (which I've tried in many Thai restaurant at this point), was one of the best. The night before leaving for the Elephant Nature Park we went to their affiliated vegetarian restaurant, Taste from Heaven- which pretty much lived up to it's name. And last night we stuffed ourselves with the falafel plate- including hummus, baba ganoush, pita, and more- at Jerusalem Falafel.
However, by far our favorite meal was probably what we cooked ourselves on Thursday at Thai Orchid Cooking school. The menu: tom yum (Thai soup), spring rolls, green and yellow curry, and pad thai! Absolutely delicious. A, the owner, was a really sweet lady who's culinary talents are all passed down from her family members. Halfway through the day, allowing us time to digest the first 2 courses, she took us to the local market to show us all the fresh ingredients we were using. We were totally stuffed by the end of the day but since Chocolate Fact. happened to be right around the corner..... we couldn't resist! The cute French family that was in the class with us even showed up shortly thereafter, due to our recommendation!
Yesterday was our first real splurge day of our travels thus far- after a very leisurely morning we headed toward the massage parlor, Lila Thai, that was founded by a former director of the Chiang Mai Women's Prison. Inmates can learn the massage craft and thereby set up a career for themselves after being released. Ironically, when we changed into the "outfits" they gave us pre-massage, we were the ones that looked like prisoners. They top and bottom were bright orange, baggy, and just generally the most unflattering pieces of cloth you've ever seen. We opted for the Thai body massage- it was quite relaxing other than the fact that they had us turn over about 3 times. I could have used a little more power too- for an ex-prisoner she didn't seem to have much upper body strength!
Last night we got caught up in the shopping frenzy that is the Sunday Walking Street-loads of vendors set up shop along Chiang Mai's main street. We ended up buying a lot of fun souvenirs!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Save the Elephants

Jokia is a 50 year old elephant that looks well beyond her years. Her spine is crooked, her ears are torn, her body is scarred all over, and she is blind in both eyes. These aren't signs of age however, they are all human inflicted wounds. Jokia, like most of Thailand's domestic elephants, worked in the logging industry for many years, and when logging was banned in 1989, her owner kept her in the trade as he persued logging illegally. Her mahout, elephant keeper, was ruthless. While she was pregant he forced her to continue hauling logs up and down the steep hillside, and one day she gave birth while trudging uphill. The baby rolled away from her and her mahout would not allow her to turn back and try to save her newborn. When she was finally allowed to seek at out baby at the end of the day, it was dead. Jokia fell into a deep depression. The mahout used cruel techniques to prof her to work, but she did not respond. He used a slingshot to shoot rocks at her eye, blinding her, and still eliciting no response. So he used a bow and arrow to shoot her other eye.
Unfortunately this type of treatment of elephants is not uncommon. In addition to logging, many of Thailand's only 2500 remaining domestic elephants work in the tourist trekking business, hauling people on their backs for 6-8 hours a day, or even worse, as street beggers, prowling city streets at night temping foreigners to pay their mahout for the chance to feed and pet the overwhelmed creatures.
Luckily for these abused animals there is a woman named Lek Chailert, who has a deep love of elephants. In 2003 she opened the beautiful 150 acre Elephant Nature Park an hour north of Chiang Mai, and began buying elephantseir freedom. Now 33 elephants graze on her land, are fed watermellon and sweet corn, and romp in the nearby river at their leisure.
In our 2 days and 1 night at ENP Mason and I learned many of the personal and tragic stories of the rescued elephants, and were absolutely shocked. We became close with one elephant, Medo, a young girl in her early 20s who is severely handicapped yet loving her second lease on life.
We spent time feeding and bathing them, and oogling over the two babies- 11 mo. old Faa Mai and 8 mo. old Chang Yim.
The organization is extrememly well run with the focus being on education, so that all of thier visitors can inform others about the plight of elephants, and hopefully, change the face of elephant tourism in Thailand.
We highly recommend a visit!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Holi War, Nepal

I feel like we're in the middle of a war zone. Dressed in our "war uniforms" of raincoats we must constantly look up, right, left, and behind ourselves as we navigate our way through Thamel, Kathmandu in search of food. We begin each journey by peering out from behind the building walls to the street in front of us to see if our "enemies" are there. And then we must walk as fast as possible to the next alley way to hide if we can't make it to our final destination in time. No, the Maoists have not gone crazy constructing roadblocks again. And no, India and China have not decided to battle it out for Nepal - no, no, it's just Holi. Holi is a day - or weekend really - when boys of any age (far beyond an age when it would be considered cute) fill plastic bags ("balloons") with water, paint, and god knows what else and then proceed to throw these balloons at any passerbys - especially girls. Unfortunately for our sake Kathmandu is a city built on tiny streets and alleyways with rooftops and balconies hovering over you. There is no where to hide. You are guaranteed to get hit from every direction with the greeting of "Happy Holi."

As Kelly mentioned in the last blog, electricity here is comical. Nepal is entirely dependent on hydroelectricity and since it is the dry season, the river beds are low so electricity is more or less nonexistent. But somehow the Nepali boys have found more than enough water to fill these balloons with (to mix the paint in) -- not only wasting water but also adding to the ever-present trash that covers the streets, definitely putting Kathmandu ahead in the running for world's most polluted city. I'm still trying to figure out how this HOLI-day began and what exactly they're celebrating. For now I'm safe in the guesthouse's generator-run internet cafe. But as soon as we get hungry again, we'll have to face our brightly-covered friends in the 'zone. Wish us luck.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

hello from the himalayas

I apologize that is has been sooo long since my last post! The main reason is that Nepal only has electricity about 5 hours a day- which happen to be during the hours we are normally sleeping. We thought losing power 5 times a day in Bangladesh was bad. We were wrong.
We arrived in Kathmandu, Nepal on Feb. 15 and the moment we arrived at our hotel- 4pm- the power went out- meaning our room was dark and freezing cold. We requested extra blankets, were too cold to shower, and got in bed at 7:30pm- not to emerge from our respective cocoons of warmth until almost 10am. The night before we bought a Nepali cell phone and were able to call home for the first time!
On Feb. 16 Zach arrived and although we planned to go visit expat prisoners in the Kathmandu jail we ended up hanging out in Thamel, the backpacker district where we were staying, and eating and book shopping. We also planned out the rest of our time in Nepal- which was to include a few day trips and a 4-day Himalaya trek- which some of us have come to regret....
On the 17th- the fourth day of the Tibetan new year- we went to Boudha to circumambulate (walk in circles) around the stupa- where a ceremony was taking place. We returned to Thamel in time to catch our taxi to Nagarkot- 1.5 hours out of Kathmandu and a great place to get a view of the Himalayas. We stayed at a place called Hotel at the End of the Universe- and it felt like it. It was perched on the edge of a cliff, far away from any other hotel or restaurant, so instead of venturing out we played cards for about 3 hours waiting for the sun to set. Unfortunately it was a bit foggy/hazy for a great sunset- and it got cold really fast- so we huddled at the hotel restaurant, ordered a pot of hot chocolate, and went to sleep- hoping for a brilliant sunrise.
The morning view did not disappoint! And little did we know that this would be only one of the many amazing views we could see over the next week.
On the 19th we headed out of the capital to the city of Pokhara, an eventful 7-hour bus ride away (we had some steering issues at one point). Upon arrival we rented sleeping bags and jackets in preparation for the next morning's departure up to the mountains. Our enthusiastic guide, Zeban, was to accompany us for the duration of the trip. After a 1.5 hour windy ride up to Nayapul we were dropped off, not to see civilization again for 4 days. After about 15 minutes of walking- when we stopped for lunch- Mason and I looked at each other and seriously thought about reconsidering. At this point- she really wishes she had!
The first day took about 4.5 hours- we stopped at a tea house in Tikkedunga for the night- and were then told by Zeban that the next morning we would have to climb over 3200 stairs- consecutively. We didn't think much of it until the steps began the next morning- a seemingly endless hell. Hours later we made it to the "top"- we still had many hours ahead of us before quitting time- and I though Mason was going to behead me for suggesting that a Nepal trek might be fun.
Finally we made it to the town of Ghorepani-2570 meters-where we sat by the fire in the common room and ate some apple pie.
The plan for the next morning: rise at 5am and head up to Poon Hill at 3200m to see the sunrise over the mountains. Well, it all went according to plan until we were 4 minutes into the walk- at about 5:34am- and Mason and Zach decided to go back to bed- leaving me to scale the mountain alone! (Well, with Zeban and my headlamp). I thought the climb was well worth it! The view was awesome. The only drawback being that after returning from Poon Hill we still had a solid 8 hour day ahead of of us. Mid way through the day- as soon as we started descending the mountain via steep stone steps- Mason's knee/leg injury flared up and Zach's knee also gave out- so I was left with 2 pained people for a good 5 hours of trekking. Needless to say it was a bit unpleasant.
I was really enjoying myself until I woke up in the middle of that night stiff and sore, utterly dreading the final day's 5-hour descent. It was a painful day for all of us- but definitely more for them than me- and again- I though Mason would like to kill me in my sleep.
But finally we made it- after a small rain storm dashed any remaining ounce of morale- and we have lived to tell the tale.
This is a very mild version of the story- more details to come- and i'm sure Mason would love to fill everyone in on her hatred of nature and mountains.
Today none of us can walk properly so we basically sat around eating all day.
Heading back to Kathmandu tomorrow.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The World's Second Worst City

You guessed it....Dhaka, Bangladesh.
My Dad passed this article along to me, I don't know about living here, but for foreigners Bangladesh is a rough place. At the moment I'm sitting in our hotel lobby, which is in the aristocratic neighborhood of Dhaka, and I feel like my lungs are being squeezed. Every breath is full of exhaust, dust particles and mosquito spray. I cannot get the dirt out from under my fingernails and I have about 72 mosquito bites- malaria is imminent. Bangladesh is eating away at my immune system.
We've been in Bangladesh for one week and on about the second day we decided to move up our flight by about 4 days. We leave on Monday.

But enough complaining... We came here to partake in a Grameen Bank training program- and for the last four days we've been 200km north of Dhaka in the rural villages outside the city of Rajshahi, near in the Indian border. The journey there took 5.5 hours by bus, and despite the incessant honking, the terrifying recklessness of the driver, and potential bladder infections from lack of a bathroom, we made it one piece.
We stayed in one of Grameen's 2,000+ branches, in a village called Parila. The visit was set to be 3 nights, and when we were shown our dormitory we weren't sure we'd make it that long. The large concrete room had two "beds" which consisted of a thin blanket laid over iron slats. After we found our mosquito nets we hung them haphazardly, creating little forts for ourselves which seemed like the safest place to spend the remainder of the trip.
The situation only got more hilarious when they showed us the "bathroom"- a pit latrine on a pedestal. And a sink with a dribble of water. Truthfully the bathroom was not horrible- and we both consider ourselves pretty pro pit-toilet users now. But no shower...for four days...
Thank goodness for baby wipes.

When forced out of our forts we made the rounds through the villages. Immediately a group would gather behind us and continue growing...and growing...and make us increasingly uncomfortable. Bangladeshi people do not see foreigners very often... if ever.
Those that we were able to spend time with were incredibly sweet- offering us food and drink and hospitality beyond what they could probably afford.
The Grameen Bank has around 8 million borrowers currently, something like 97% of them female. Grameen found out early on that the female borrowers have a much higher repayment rate than the males, and tend to use their loans to better their families, rather than for personal gain. In reality most women are in joint ventures with their husbands- they own plots of land and sell vegetables, work with iron, sell cow's milk or fish, etc.- but the loans are made only to the women, and all paperwork is in their name. The women are incredibly proud of the advancements they've made with the help of Grameen: saving enough to build a new house, owning a small plot of land, consistently putting food on the table. The women were very eager to show us around and show off their goats, cows, and TVs.
We were able to spent time with other people benefitting from Grameen including students taking education or scholarship loans. One university student in particular was a beautiful, smart girl who's dream is to study in America. (Of course this is very common). She asked us if it was possible and we told her that US Under Secretary Judith McHale was just in Bangladesh and spoke about increasing the number of Bangladeshi students in the US from 2,500 to 20,000. (Of course this is not likely to happen anytime soon.)

It's extremely hard to imagine living the life of a Bangladeshi.
We couldn't resist the urge to take 20-minute long showers yesterday upon our return to the hotel, and subsequently went out for Italian food for dinner.
The culture shock is certainly extreme, and we keep reminding ourselves that the culture shock would be just as bad, if not worse, for someone from here to walk off a plane in America.

We've have a few hilarious stories to hopefully I'll get around to those later today.

For those of you wondering- Mason has tried a few times to blog. Earlier this week she wrote a whole post on sex tourism in Thailand but then the electricity at the hotel went out (that tends to happen a few times a day.)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Back to the city

After our toast and smoothie breakfast this morning we'll be leaving Kanchanaburi and spending the night in Bangkok before flying to Bangladesh tomorrow a.m.! We finally have our accomodations set up for our first few night in Dhaka and we have a great translator who already has been amazingly helpful. We are glad things have fallen into place and we will begin our Grameen training on Sunday.

Yesterday we had a pretty relaxed day in Kanchanburi. We rented bikes and rode to the famous WWII site, the Bridge of River Kwai. After that we rode to the Thailand-Burma Railway Museum to learn about the history of the bridge and the railway, built by Allied POWs held by the Japanese.

For the rest of the day we hung out by our guesthouse pool- delightful!

Wish us luck in Dhaka!!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Yesterday we took the train out of Bangkok to the riverside town of Kanchanaburi. The third class train, ventilated only by open windows and electric fans attached to the ceiling, was by far out most sweat-inducing outing yet. It was also an-all day event because we arrived at the station a full three hours ahead of time, only to hurry up and wait for the three-hour ride. Upon arrival in Kanchanaburi we found that all the guest houses that were recommended to us (and the only ones with pools) were booked, so we pouted about that for awhile before deciding upon Ploy guesthouse. Luckily this morning our first choice guest house, Pong Phen, said they have availabilty so we'll be poolside there tomorrow! Today we took a local bus an hour north to Erawan National Park- home to a beautiful seven-tier waterfall. Unfortunately I severely offended a monk on the bus ride there by sitting within an arm's length of him. We weren't sure why he was so grumpy the whole ride and why he kept shooing me away- until Mason rememberd- 5 minutes AFTER we got off the bus- the no females within arm's lenth rule.
Finally we made it to the water and were comleted refreshed after jumping in. We only jumped to get away from the fish that descend upon and nibble on your feet if you stand in shallow water. That creeped the heck out of us so we decided to tread water out in the middle. After a few more hours of taking in the pretty waterfalls we headed back to town on the bus (no monks to offend this time luckily). Now we're looking forward to dinner and a movie at our guest house. Last night we ate dinner there and they were showing what we think was the season finale of Prison Break- captivating.
We are also really looking forward to dinner because it has become the only real meal we eat each day. For the last three days we've had breakfast at our guest house which consitis of fruit and 2 slices of toast. It is a great meal but usually not enough to last all day- however- we have had to make it last (with only a Luna bar as a supplment) due to a. running around greater bangkok trying to get our Cambodia and Lao visas (which we did successfully on Monday), b. being stuck on the train (yesterday), and c. being stuck at the waterfalls (today).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Culture shock in Bangkok

Mason and I successfully met up at the airport in Korea (we easily spotted each other since we were wearing idential outfits.) After an entire day of traveling we made it to Bangkok, where Mason's friend Zach kindly met up with us to escort us into the city. We stayed at a pretty swanky hotel our first 2 nights- with cable TV and AC! Yesterday we ventured into the humidity and ate lunch at the food court of the MBK center (a massive, airconditioned, multi-story mall). We met up with Mason and Zach's friend James, who guided us to the other side of Bangkok where we boarded a river taxi to Wat Po- home of a very large reclining Buddha. The water taxi is quite an adventure because it's extremely crowded and it's difficult to tell which stop to get off at since most docks look the same. On our first attempt to disembark Mason, James and I got stuck in the crowd and watched as Zach- who got off first, had to jump back on the taxi as it pulled away. Finally we got off and made our way to Wat Po. We didn't even get to see the reclining Buddha because it was closed off for some event that was being set up. Wat Po is also home to Thailand's original massage school. We figured this would be the perfect place for our first massage in the country. After wandering around the complex we finally found the school, where 3 ladies intercepted us and said they would lead us to where the massages take place. We followed for about 5 minutes until the ladies began to leave the complex- at which point we got a bit sketched out and decided just to go find a cafe. We went to the Kao San Road area- a major backpacker mecca- and spent most of our time sizing up other people's backpack sizes and trying to reassure ourselves that our aren't that bad! (But they really are.) Already dreading lugging them around.

At the end of the day we headed back to our hotel- as we had been wanting to swim at our hotel's 6-floor balcony pool all day! Unfortunately we would have preferred to be there in the heat of the day (the water was quite cold!) but it is an awesome pool with fountains and jets and we took a quick dip. There is also a sauna and we thought that would be a perfect way to warm up after the cold pool...unfortunately it wasn't on and didn't heat up in the 20 minutes we waited. We got too hungry and headed to dinner at a yummy Tapas Cafe!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Mason and I are flying out tomorrow from our respective hometowns and we are still making last-minute packing decisions! As of earlier this afternoon my backpack weighed in at just under 30 lbs. (not including my day pack, which is probably another 5 lbs.).
My nerves are definitely starting to kick in- mostly I hate saying goodbyes! It will be very hard to leave this face! Stefano will be so big when I get back! If anyone is interested in puppy-sitting while I'm gone I'm sure my mom would appreciate it!

Tonight Katie and I are watching Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs- a funny and entertaining distraction on my last night home. I recommend it! My one criticism is that it doesn't rain Pad Thai.

Wish Mason and I luck!...Together we'll have 70 lbs. of crap to lug around Asia and that doesn't include stuff we don't yet know that we've forgotten. Let the fun begin!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The route

Thanks to Mason's awesome cartography skills we have a mapped out route.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Some history & the plan

Mason and I met in Jan. 2008 as we stood in line in the sweltering Bahamian sun, waiting to board the MV Explorer, Semester at Sea's floating campus and our home for the next four months. On Jan. 28, 2010 we will reunite after 2 years (almost to the day), when we meet up at the Seoul airport. From Seoul we will board a flight to Bangkok, Thailand where we will commence a 2.5 month tour through Asia. (I am hoping it will not be a wheelchair tour of Asia as Mason is currently getting her knee scanned in an MRI!)

Upon arrival in Bangkok we hope to a. Catch up on sleep in a cute guest house, b. Get a Thai massage, c. Scramble to obtain visas for and flights to the other countries we will visit!

Even though we haven't seen each other in quite some time (other than on Skype and Mason & Evan's quick but memorable visit to Lewisburg, PA), we are pretty confident that our time on SAS proved our traveling compatibility. At least we know our priorities are aligned: eat ice cream in every country, take lots of pictures with our newly equipped Nikon dSLRs, and laugh our way through any situation.

Above is a photo of us at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China - eating ice cream and still laughing about a certain culturally-specific potty-training technique that the Chinese employ with their toddlers: the ass-less pants.

You'll also notice that in both of these photos we are dressed almost identically. We noticed early on in the Semester at Sea (SAS) voyage that we happened to pack many of the same items (including the very handy j.crew skirt/dresses that transition from temple to beach quite seamlessly!). In the photo at top we are wearing them as dresses in Langkawi, Malaysia.

I think we will try to bring a little more variety to our outfits this go-around.

After a few days of recuperation in Bangkok we hope to catch a flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh to partake in a training program with the Grameen Bank. The Grameen Bank was founded by Muhammad Yunus in order to provide micro-loans to poverty-stricken Bangladeshis. Now Grameen programs (and programs based on the Grameen model) are in place all over the world.

From there we will hop over to Nepal for a few weeks of adventure, and hopefully a sighting of Mt. Everest! (Or if we feel up to it we'll try to beat the world record and summit Everest in less than 8 hours. Wish us luck.) I am really looking forward to Nepal as I have gained a lot of insight about the country from my coworkers here at the American Himalayan Foundation.

After Nepal we will return to Bangkok to begin a round-trip tour through Northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Southern Thailand, flying out of Bangkok in mid-April.

One of the main reasons Mason and I chose to return to this region of the world was that neither of us were able to visit Cambodia during SAS due to lack of space on the field excursions from Vietnam.

One our way home we will spend a few days back in Seoul, South Korea (4 for me, 10 for Mason). Mason spent the last year teaching English to youngsters in Seoul so she knows the ropes on that one. (And I think she has every meal and outing planned out for me!)

This is a brief overview of our itinerary, more to come...

SAS recap

For those people who don't know about our Semester at Sea voyage in 2008 here is the itinerary and some highlights. It should give you a better idea about our travel experience and the countries/cultures we are familiar with:

Jan. 24- Departed Nassau, Bahamas

Jan. 26- Arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Spent days at the beach, went kayaking, fort-touring, salsa-dancing and even observed a cockfight.
Jan. 29- Out to Sea

Feb. 5- Arrived in Salvador, Brazil in time for the last night of the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival! Successfully avoided getting robbed or punched. Also chose a horrible port in which to do a walking-tour of the city as it was ungodly hot.
Feb. 10- Departed Brazil, headed toward South Africa!
At some point Evan joined us and we traveled as a trio from then on! And some time after that Clint made our group complete. (Most future excursions include some combination of the four of us together.)

Feb. 19- Arrived in Cape Town at 0500 (5am). Watched the sunrise over Table Mountain as we pulled in! Amazing!! I Safaried for 3 days at Kwazulu Natal National Park. On our last days in Cape Town the four of us visited Khayelitsha Township and played with the adorable kids; Ferried to Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela carried out many of his 27-year term); Took in the view from the top of Table Mountain, and more!
Feb. 25- Departed Cape Town and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. (We survived the roughest waters in the world!)
While at sea we went to class, watched movies, hung out in the piano bar, ate LOTS of ice cream on the 7th deck, read by the pool, and exchanged photos.

Feb. 30- Arrived in Port Louis, Mauritius (A little tiny African island past Madagascar).
We went on an amazing ship-family outing to La Vanille Crocodile & Tortoise Park where we ate chocolate cake and watched the tortoises get intimate. Swam in the amazing blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
Mar. 5 - Departed Port Louis.

Mar. 11- Arrived in Chennai, India (formerly Madras). India was perhaps the most colorful, dirty and overall most eye-opening port experience. Mason made it to the Taj Mahal and I lived vicariously through her. I taught her all about the temples of Mamallapuram. Neither of us got sick thanks to pepto bismol before and after each meal!
Mar. 16- Departed Chennai. Watched stragling and intoxicated SASers get dock time for being late to board the ship. So entertaining.

Mar. 19- Arrived in Penang, Malaysia. Took a sleeper train to the capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL) and visited the Petronas Towers (then second, now third tallest building in the world). From there we flew Asia Air to Langkawi Island to get some R&R.
Mar. 24- Departed Malaysia and sat on the ship in Singapore while she refueled. Oh well, we didn't want to be bound by their stringent laws anyway.

Mar. 27- Arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam. Our parents did not join us here on the SAS parent trip so we spent lots of time at Fanny's Ice Cream Parlor. Mason went north to Hanoi & Halong Bay. I stayed in HCMC and bought pirated DVDs. Once reunited we visited the very graphic War Remnants Museum and crawled through the Cu Chi Tunnels.
Apr. 1- Departed Vietnam.

Apr. 3- Arrived in Hong Kong. High school friends Miho and Shobo showed us a good time on our one day in HK. The next day Mason and I flew to Beijing as part of our Tshingua University program. In China we really had to rely on each other for entertainment, hence the infatuation with the ass-less pants. We also climbed the Great Wall. It was all for naught since we couldn't see a darn thing through the smog.
Apr. 9- Ship met up with us in Shanghai and we departed from there.

Apr. 11- Arrived in Kobe, Japan! With bullet-train passes in hand we were off and running for a jam-packed 4-day tour of Japan. We spend the first day in Hiroshima and saw many remnants of the A-Bomb destruction. We also hit up Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka! One over-rated experience: Staying in a morgue-like capsule hotel.
Apr. 15- Departed Japan for long haul accross Pacific Ocean!

Apr. 22- Arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii for an 8-hour stop-over. Enough time to visit Pearl Harbor and Waikiki Beach! (And apparently enough time to lose my digital camera. whoops.)
While here we stocked up on chocolate for the next stage of the long-haul.

May 3- Arrived in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We ventured to the cute beachy town of Montezuma for our last SAS adventure.
May 5- Departed Costa Rica. Heading home....

May 9- Arrived in Miami, USA. Sad day for all. Mason's family greeted us at the port. I rushed off to catch my flight and subsequently lost my cell phone. whoops again. (Amazing how I only managed to lose things in America.)