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Sunday, May 30, 2010

Bokeo, Laos: Ziplines, Hikes and LEECHES

The videos and photos say it better, but the Gibbon Experience definitely lived up to expectations. Which is saying a lot since I have been thinking and dreaming about doing it ever since Mike showed me the link well over a year ago (thanks Mike, my South East Asia mentor ;) I suppose I should explain the title of this post. This last adventure in Laos before saying goodbye to this amazing country was 3 days in the Bokeo Rainforest consisting of 2-3 hours of hiking each day, sleeping in a treehouse about 150 feet up that you reach via zipline. The rainy season is starting to move in here, so there have been heavy rains most nights, but clear and still SWLERTING during the day and on our inital hike in. But I was feeling good - and cocky about my awesome 100% waterproof half sandle, half hiking shoes that I reallllly didn't want to buy at REI back in March. The hike was muddy and we had to cross countless rivers and streams. Some of which had two-bamboo-planks-wide bridges to use for crossing; which I really am not a fan of. Anyone who knows me, knows that balance and grace are not exaclty my strong suites. Plus, I've already had one embarassing fall from one of those in Vietnam - much to the joy of my hiking buddies, one of whom thankfully was carrying my camera at the time! SO anyway, I just went trapsing right through all the water and sludge thinking how glad I was I wasn't wearing big old hiking boots. About 3 hours in we reach a waterfall with a swimming hole at which point I take off my left shoe to reveal not 1 BUT 3 leeches on my feet, one of which had obviously been there for some time as it was HUGE. After, I am embarrased to say, a frantic swatting at my feet with a stick and the girliest shrieks ever, I managed to clear them off and calm down. Of course only long enough to find 2 more on my OTHER foot. This time I paused long enough to get a photo of it - not as big as the first, but still GROSS, not mention annoying because the small bites DO NOT stop bleeding! Thanks to my Weird True and Freaky trivia I remembered that leeches anesthetize you once they bite with their saliva so you don't feel them at ALL. Needless to say, the next three days of hikes were spent with an eagle-eye out for approaching leeches which turned out to be EVERYWHERE. If you stopped for a minute on the trail you'd spot at least 5 if not more inching their way over, reaching up just waiting for some poor innocent flesh to walk by. And now I've gone on for two paraghraphs about a few leech bites. I'm choosing to hike in the forest in Laos, so what did I expect I guess, right? And I haven't even explained about the Ziplines...Once the major days hike was through with the rest of the day was spent Zipling around the jungle canopy and across stunning valleys. Zip-walk a little way to the next-Zip-Walk-Zip. By the third day of zipping you start to feel pretty confident with it and can kick your feel out, lay back and let your hands free and really get going fast. Its got to be the closest feeling to flying. If only it wasn't over so quickly! Eventually you zip back into the AWESOME treehouse you are sharing with just three other people - which was really nice because you never had to wait long at the ziplines. Then for dinner, you'd hear the zipline singing and look over to find one of the guides crusing in with your meal on his shoulder. It was so funny. The first time I hooked up to the zipline on that first day and looked over the ledge it hit me that I was actually THERE. It felt surreal because I have been dreaming about the Gibbon Experience for so long and talking about it to just about anyone who would listen back in San Fran while planning this trip . It feels a bit weird that it's over now! But, I came back to civilization to find that my insurance void in Thailand was lifted to only Bangkok; so I am spending a few days in the VERY laid-back Pai in Northern Thailand, soaking in some Yoga and lots of live jazz and reggae music before flying down to Malaysia at the end of the week. Up here, you'd never know there was any turmoil gooing on in the country whatsoever.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Last stop Laos

Now having said farewell to the elephant conservatory, I've made my way back toward the Lao/Thai border on a 3 day boat journey down the Mekong. Each night graced with the most intense lighting and rain storms I have EVER seen. It was beautiful...but I am glad to not be on a boat for 9 hours a day! Today, a day of relaxation before the last adventure in Laos, the Gibbons Experience - check it out: Ziplining around the Bokeo forest and living in tree houses for 3 days.
The plan originaly had been to then work my way into Northern Thailand and overland to the Thai islands. Now due to the unfortuante political situation in Thailand my travel insurance is void there, curfews are in effect in the country and the situation seems to be worsening. Very sad.
So, after some deliberation about whether to take a jaunt over to Burma with the additional time or to fly down to Malaysia and then cruise over to Sumatra and Bali in Indo before my final stop in Singapore - I've decided on Malaysia and Indonesia as it fits better into my loop and timeframe. And to be honest, I am SO ready for some paraside beach time. After all the trekking and Jungle terrain and countless temples some white sand beaches couldn't sound better. I think I'll save Myanmar for the next big trip...perhaps on the way home from Australia. Burma-Nepal-India. I think I can safely say the most profound affect this trip has had on me is the intensity with which I wish to see so much more! And seeing how most of the world lives certainly makes you grateful for all that you were so lucky to be born into.
I've uploaded here a collection of photos I wanted to post from Laos now that I have an actaul high speed connection. And as a total aside, I am listening to the newly released Black Keys album 'Brothers' proeduced by Danger Mouse again and it is EXECELLENT. Do check it out. Tighten Up and Everlasting Light are such a great songs! Now, if I can just figure out how to get it on my ipod here without itunes and without deleting the rest of my music, hmmm...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mahout training in Laos: land of a thousand elephants

I have SO much to catch up on in my past 2 weeks in Laos! I am now all the way up in the North of Laos, outside of Luang Namtha, where I am spending the week as a volunteer at an elephant camp and learning the ways of the Mahouts (elephant keepers/trainers)
My 3rd day here I have discovered a few things - sitting on this wooden chair right now the most poignant discovery are muscles I never knew existed, screaming in agony after 3 days on the back slash neck of an elephant! Upon arrival I was given my Mahout uniform - a very uncute and totally unfashionable outfit, as you can see in my photos. I tried to get out of wearing it, though now, after experiencing being shat on and shoveling giant elephant crap and being sprayed at with a mixture of elephant snot and brown mekong river water, I'm rather grateful for it!
My elephants name is Tuomin. By today he finally seems to be responding to the commands I have been memorizing now that I am actually saying them in an accent that at least somewhat resembleds what it is I am supposed to be saying. Today I told him to kneel down "Toi" and he did it first time. I climbed up and directed him the 2km to the river without a hitch! Big step from the first two days, let me tell you. It all goes fine until the Mahout teaching me tells Tuomin to lay down, roll and "Buon-Buon" (spray) me everytime I take him for his bath in the river. All the the while I am yelling "yao-yao, Hoa!" (No, No, Stop)
Aside from the cleaning after the elephants (not cute)it is really great being so close to these really amazing animals! The afternoons and evenings are extremely peaceful. I either kayak or tube along the river, looking up at the specatacular mountains. Im learing to cooking Lao Lap a traditional dinner here and eating lots of Papaya Salads.
Laos has been a very welcome step back in time. Especially coming from the very fast pace of life in Vietnam. When I first arrived in the capital city of Vientiane I was amazed by how quiet it was. And that was in the capital city! People don't honk like crazy here and are very considerate in general.
I've also made stops in Vang Vieng - an insane backpacker party town, but which should not be missed soley for the AWESOME trapeze swings that are rigged up over the river that I was totally addicted to and could not lift my arms because of for a day after leaving. From there we took the picturesque bus ride through the Lao montains to Luang Prabang, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and you can easily see why with the French architecture and TONS of Wats (temples) set on the Mekong River.
Well, I am hoggin the one computer with a decent internet connection out here. So, more to come later...

Friday, May 7, 2010

Halong Bay and Trekking in the Northeast

This past week has been the most fun and eye-opening yet. I am truly in love with Vietnam and with 3 days left in the country I know I will be back! I signed up for one of the package tours out to Halong Bay - which is basically the only way to do it and it is a bit of a toursit trap. I was fortunate though and ended up with a great group of people all around my age and from all over the world.

The first day was exploring the "Amazing Cave" in one of the Islands. It was quite a cave, but the beauty was sort of lost with the blue and gree lighting they had set up and the hoardes of westerners being shuttling along the the roped off path. All it needed was the Indiana Jones theme song and I was at Disneyland. BUT from there we got on a boat and cruised around the bay which has thousands of islands of all sizes that rise straight up out of the water. Made for some realy great kayaking. I decided to take my sleeping bag up to the deck of the boat that night and sleep under the stars. Waking up to sunrise on Halong Bay and diving off the deck of the boat for a morning swim will be a hard one to beat. It only got better when we spent the second night in huts on a secluded beach on Monkey Island. And to top it off, our Vietnamese tour guide sounded EXACLTY like Borat everytime he said anything in English. Absolutely amazing! I've never laughed so much in 2 days in my life!

I am now sitting in a cafe in Sapa, a town in the North East region of Vietnam, near the border to China. I came up here via train with 2 friends I made on Halong Bay who were dying as much as I was to get into to the hills and do some hiking. We've been trekking along the valley of rice paddies from village to village sleeping in some VERY hunble homestays at night. The trekking has been great in the Valley, but a few of us are dying to climb up the the peaks above the valley and really get the panaoramic view. So tomorrow I'll be setting off to hike up to apparently the tallest mountain in Vietnam - a 2 day hike that we've hired a local guide from the Balck H'mong hilltribe for at $5 a day! I'v got my mozzy net and some rice and mangosteens(best fruit EVERR) and I'm ready to go!

This area of the country is so lovely; the air is fresh and the village kids - while hounding you to buy their textiles and bracelets nonstop- are still so cute and their traditional attire is awesome! The most fun though is the conversations you have while trekking with other travelers from all over the world who work in all kind of different careers. Their stories have added to my endless list of places I want to see - there are just too many things to see in this world. I think Nepal/ India has definitely moved to the top of my list! Who's with me??!