Khawp Jai Lai Lai (Thank you very much, Laos!)

December 28, 2012
Current Location: Vientiene, Laos


I think I could spend the rest of my life on this group tour. 14 little ducklings scurrying after our mother duck as she leads us from village to ruined temple to street market. I’m used to traveling on my own, planning my own trips, figuring out my own transportation. We don’t stay at comfortable hotels, but the conveniences of a group tour are pretty amazing (she checks us all in at the border crossings, translates for us everywhere we go). The conveniences aren’t really what make it so great, though. For me, the structure given to our days and schedule is exactly what I needed. Instead of constantly worrying about logistics, following their schedule has freed my mind for introspection.

One thing my inner self was telling me is that I’m kind of done with temples, monks, and elephants for a little while, and I need some beach time ASAP, so I changed my travel plans. I’m cutting out Chiang Mai, and instead spending NYE in Bangkok with three of my tour mates. Then, I head straight to Koh Samui on Jan 1. That gives me about 6 days in the islands to seriously relax, get some sun, do my laundry, read, write, and deal with the 1600 (and counting) photos I’ve taken. I’m feeling very backpacker-esque, floating wherever my whims take me!

Laos is actually an amazing backpackers’ retreat. It’s warm but relatively pleasant, beautiful, exotic, full of historic AND adventurous things to do, and the people are relatively relaxed (compared to Thailand and Cambodia). Luang Prabang, the historic capital, isn’t anywhere I would have thought of visiting, but it’s a really charming, nice town. I could spend a week there, if it weren’t so hard to get to from the US.

The woman offered “Noodle Soup?” and we said “YES!” Best mystery order ever.

Also, Facebook wins – over and over. Meeting up in random towns in SE Asia with friends from the US I haven’t seen in 10 years, all because we saw each other’s plans on Facebook, is amazing.

We’ve packed some of the most memorable and death-defying moments of my life into the last few days. Although, admittedly, every moment here is kind of death-defying since everyone seems to take anything related to safety extremely casually.

I was the only one from our group of 14 to jump off these waterfalls. It was the best! (Dude included in the photo for scale.)
Kuang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang, Laos

Who volunteered to ride for an hour on the angry elephant’s neck with nowhere to hang on? Me, of course!

Omg, you guys – I need one.


Hot air balloon ride over Vang Vieng this morning.


Tomorrow, we poke around Vientiene (the Capitol of Laos), cross the border to Thailand, and then take an overnight train to Bangkok — and then go our separate ways. I’m definitely still in denial. Then the clock really starts on my time left as a wanderer.

It’s not all bad, though. Ending the tour portion of my trip means no more:

  • Squat toilets
  • 7 hour bus rides
  • Potentially deadly ice in the drinks

On my first day in Bangkok over two weeks ago, I was overwhelmed and wondered if I could survive it for a month. Now, after Cambodia and Laos, returning to Bangkok feels like returning to full, modern civilization — almost like returning to the US. I don’t care if this makes me uncool — I am going to eat SO MUCH PHAD THAI when I get back to Bangkok!

Unexpected Return to Civilization

December 24, 2012 (Christmas Eve)
Current Location: Pakse, Laos

Goodbye: flat, dry, hot Cambodia! Hello: leafy, mountainous Laos!

Laos is a pretty mystical place. The jungles are so dense and unexplored that it leaves a lot of room for stories about hidden monsters and magical beings. Our local guide told us about 40 meter anacondas that will kill you just by looking at you, and 8 meter dragons (snakes, I think?) in the Mekong. The walk up the road to Vat Phou was definitely magical. This ancient, crumbling road with white trees bending overhead felt a lot like walking up the yellow brick road to Oz. Or like the city of the Wheelers in Return to Oz.

Vat Phou, Laos

We’ve reached the midpoint of the group tour. Half the group has food poisoning, and stress is getting higher. Since Angkor Wat, accommodations have gotten progressively rougher as we’ve journeyed deeper into Cambodia and Laos. The water & food has become less safe, the power less reliable, the showers worse, and the mosquitoes more evil and malaria-ridden. We all signed up for this, of course, and will all love the memories, I’m sure, but it’s a bit draining in the moment.

That said, I love the group. I love sitting for hours at a restaurant on the Mekong River drinking Beerlao with 7 other women from around the world, playing MASH and laughing, as we tell each others’ fortunes with the silly schoolyard game. (We all swear to update each other on facebook when those fortunes obviously come true!) The group is generally pretty respectful and well-behaved as we travel around, so I don’t think we draw more attention than necessary as “tourists”, but people are certainly interested in finding out the story behind this mixed group.

The tour group consists of 15 people:

  • 8 women traveling alone (2 Americans, 1 Canadian, 2 British, 2 Australian, 1 Swedish), 21-42 years old.
  • 1 married Australian couple
  • 1 German couple in their 20s/30s traveling together
  • 1 older Canadian guy traveling alone
  • 1 British guy traveling alone
  • Our tour guide is an amazing Thai woman.

Thank goodness for Facebook! There is actually a teeny, tiny chance that I won’t completely lose track of all of them when the tour is over.

We hit our first real snag on the trip yesterday. A storm on the Mekong River was causing waves and a dust storm. We were supposed to cross the river via rickety ferry to get to our overnight homestay in a village on one of the Lao islands. We all prepared for no running water, no power, and were ready for our authentic Lao experience. But no one felt safe getting on that ferry. We watched skeptically as other boats really struggled to make it, remembered all the news stories about ferries sinking with tourists onboard, and we counted the life jackets on the ferry (count: zero). So we turned back to Pakse. They put us in one of the only hotels that could accommodate our group, the Pakse Hotel, and it turned out to be the nicest hotel we’ve stayed at so far. Steady Internet, modern showers, and $5 60-minute massages next door was EXACTLY what we all needed.

I’m on Day 5 of food poisoning. We all spend a lot of time trying to figure out which meal caused it, but then we all happily keep eating everything my doctor told us not to — any ice, fruit that we didn’t peel ourselves, food that isn’t broiling hot when we receive it. Carrying my backpack became really hard when all I’d eaten for 3 days was white rice. Luckily, we are all walking First Aid kits, and most people take care of each other.

A few random photos from the past few days:

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Rickshaws in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Having a hard time not snuggling the probably-rabid feral cats. My roommate swears to hit me if I get too close. She’s tough, she’ll probably do it!20121224-062937.jpg
Dolphin watching on the Mekong River at sunset