#8 – 2700 km through Vietnam

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After an odd last night in Laos, I crossed the border to Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, in the far north. The motorcycle riding I had done in Laos and Thailand barely prepared me for the style of driving I was to encounter in Vietnam. My first wakeup call was no later than 20 km after crossing the border, when a small semi-truck completely barreled out from a side street in front of me. It was like a car chase scene straight out of a movie. This was the first of many times that I came to a near-screeching halt on my bike because of what seems to be the utter disregard that bus and truck drivers have for motorcyclists on the road. It’s absolutely insane. Needless to say, I definitely prefer the less populated Vietnamese countryside over the cities. It’s completely sublime. The sweeping rice fields and blue skies were dreamy on a bike. The countryside – particularly in the far north – was also the most remote and the least touristy place that I’ve been to thus far on my trip. Oxcarts, water buffalo, roosters, cows, horses, and dogs populate the muddy, pothole-laden streets more than traditional vehicles do, and western faces are extremely few and far in between, and some days, completely absent.

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My first breakfast in Vietnam. Fresh cooked wide vermicelli noodles, topped with fried shallots and rousong.

I headed northeast from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa – a small and touristy mountain town about 50 km from the Chinese border. The scenery was superb and the culture extremely diverse. Sapa is home to six different groups of ethnic minorities, Black Hmong, Red Dao, and Giay to name a few. When the rice paddies do not require their day’s work, many of the hill tribe women come into town to sell their handicrafts and trekking tours.

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Sapa is interesting; you have the amenities of a fairly modern and developed town. And then you can walk an hour or two into the villages of the ethnic minorities, where most live very simple subsistence-based farming lifestyles and have preserved a number of their archaic traditions. For example, some of the Red Dao females still shave their eyebrows because they consider a completely hair-ridden face to be alluring.

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One of my favorite parts about Sapa was the 7th floor dorm room I stayed in. It cost me $5/night and the view was killer. Watching the clouds roll over the mountain range directly in front of it was sweeeeeet.

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I enjoyed Sapa, but the constant presence of Hmong women relentlessly trying to sell me something eventually became an annoyance. If you’re headed there, I’d suggest staying away from the very center of town for this reason alone. Even walking 50 meters to get a breakfast banh mi was impossible to do without getting swarmed. It’s a good thing they’re so damn tasty. After 4 days in Sapa, I headed onwards towards the capital: Hanoi, home to the dish that was easily the pinnacle of my Vietnamese eating experience: Bún chả Hanoi!! (Thanks to our friend Tommy Lee for teaching me the correct pronunciation).

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Alright, so you get a plate of room temperature rice vermicelli noodles. Then you get a bowl of soup broth – a little on the sweeter/saltier side – to which fresh off the grill pork is added, usually in two forms: fatty skewered pork, and pork meatballs. Thinly sliced pickled vegetables are either included on the side or in the broth. A picture doesn’t do this dish justice, nor does my lackadaisical description. At 30,000 Vietnamese Dong ($1.50 US), it’s a winner. I’m not sure if I should be proud or ashamed of this, but one day I came back to the same location three times for my bun cha fix. I’ll choose proud.

I found Hanoi to be an absolute eating paradise. I was in denial that it would match Chiang Mai, Thailand in terms of the abundance and variety of delicious food, but it completely did. Nearly every street in the old quarter of the city is lined with these miniature tables and stools to pop a squat at and enjoy some cheap eats and pint or six of bia hoi (fresh beer).

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Xoi Xiew Thit Kho – A Hanoi specialty – yellow sticky rice topped with mung bean paste and fried shallots, served with slow cooked pork belly (Thit Kho). Succulence.

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Vietnamese coffee and tra da (pronounced chara – green tea). Cheap, strong, and ubiquitous.

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From Hanoi, I tossed my bike and myself on the train to Dong Hoi, where I rode 50 km north to Phong Nha, which is home to some massive cave complexes — most notably Son Doong (the largest cave in the world). At $2000 US for a week-long trip, Son Doong was a bit of a stretch for me…but thankfully there were plenty of budget-friendly caves to visit. One of them is completely pitch black inside and only accessible by kayak, really adding to the Indiana Jonesy feeling of it all. You begin the cave exploration on gravel, which turns to sand, then dirt, then dirt with a few puddles, and by the end you’re wading through thigh-deep mud the consistency of melted Hersheys chocolate. Besides finding dried mud in my ears a week after the cave tour, it was wicked.

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After two nights in Phong Nha, I headed onwards towards the Vinh Moc Tunnels, an underground complex where roughly 300 Vietnamese people hid to avoid the bombs and American troops during the US-Vietnam war. The first day I actually couldn’t find the tunnels (ha!), which made me realize this is probably how the Americans felt back in the day when they too searched for the tunnels to no avail. So, we returned the next morning determined and eventually successful, after a Vietnamese girl dropped a pin on Google Maps for me exactly where the tunnels were. The tunnels reach depths of 23 meters deep and stretch 2 km long, and are extremely impressive. The local population safely lived in these tunnels during a period of six years…talk about resilience.

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Following a night in Quang Tri after the Vinh Moc tunnels, I rode further south from Hue to Hoi An over the Hai Van Pass, which was easily one of the more breathtaking stretches of the trip.

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Once I arrived in Hoi An I quickly realized why everyone loves it there. It’s a relaxed little riverside city with the ocean super close by, there’s delicious food everywhere, and the people seem to be moving at a slower pace than everyone else in Vietnam. I stayed in a homestay called “Under the Coconut Tree”, which I can’t recommend highly enough. The staff members were some of the friendliest people I’d met in Vietnam, the food was tasty and cheap, and it was a 100-meter walk to the beach. Hoi An definitely ranks as my second favorite city in Vietnam, after Hanoi.

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The smiley staff at Under the Coconut Tree.

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Cao lầu – a Hoi An specialty consisting of homemade chewy noodles, soy-marinated pork, deep-fried crisps, and fresh greens. It’s a palatable mixed bag of textures that go so extremely well together. Apparently the secret is that the noodles are made using water from centuries-old wells around the city.

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Mangosteen….I had a bag of these on me the entire month in Vietnam.

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One of my many repair pitstops.

I was heading into town one morning when I spotted a little sign on the side of the road advertising banh beo, another specialty from the Hoi An area. I was slightly hesitant at first to join the large Vietnamese family gathered at their table, but they enthusiastically invited me to sit with them, and damn was I glad I did. Banh beo turned out to be one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten thus far in Asia. For 2500 Vietnamese Dong (that’s about ten cents), you get one miniature steamed rice pancake, topped with fried shallots, ground peanuts, chilies, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and in my case, some sort of garlicky orange peanut sauce. I noticed the tall stacks of empty plates next to each person and then felt it was completely appropriate to order eight of them for my first time, which was met with a warm applause and collective grin by the entire family. I returned to the same place each morning while I was in Hoi An, but I’ll always remember my first!

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This bánh mì was my first meal in Hoi An. Heo quay is this crispy roasted pork meat, which I’ve discovered that the Thai and Vietnamese are exceptional at cooking. This stall is another place I visited daily for a $1 sandwich.

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Sidewalk BBQ.

I set off and rode south until my lower engine seized near Tuy Hoa, about 550 km north of Saigon. This really sucked. At this point in my trip I was growing tired of traveling on my bike, and the engine seizure just exasperated me that much further. Saigon was close on the horizon though, and should I decide I wanted to sell my bike, I could do it there. All in all it cost me US $55 to get the necessary pieces rebuilt and replaced, which is expensive by Vietnamese standards, but in the states might cost anywhere from 10-20 times that amount.

South of Tuy Hoa I really noticed the scenery change…the waters became bluer and the greenery more lush. The coastal roads in this central part of the country were some of my favorites, and they completely took my mind off of the thought of selling my bike anytime soon.

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The Hon Gom Peninsula, Vietnam’s farthest east point. This was the first beautiful beach I saw in Asia that was completely untouched by tourism – not a single resort, bungalow, or beach bar. Just miles and miles of rolling white sand dunes and calm aqua blue waters.

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I spent the following night at a hostel in Nha Trang, an extremely underwhelming city that’s overcrowded with Russian tourists. But at this point my mind was on Saigon – it was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I’d been driving throughout the country for some 25 days now, but I still found myself anxious to navigate the city’s infamous traffic jams.

After a night in Phan Thiet, halfway between Nha Trang and Saigon, I set off for my destination. With 100 km left, it started raining heavily. I took a break under a gas station’s overhanging roof and waited for the weather to clear, which it didn’t. So here I am, already slightly nervous about facing the heaviest traffic yet in Saigon, and it’s relentlessly dumping rain. Semi trucks and busses scream past, everything I’m wearing is soaking wet, and it’s starting to get dark. Welcome to Saigon! The traffic turned out to be a piece of cake though, not much tougher than Hanoi’s in my opinion. The swarms of motorbikes during rush hour were like I had never seen, it was awesome. It might be chaotic, but the Viets have found a way to make it work well. Streetlights and roadsigns are merely suggestions, and the only rule of the road is that you usually yield to any vehicle larger than yours.

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Saigon didn’t interest me much. I’d already relished in Hanoi and fallen in love with what it had to offer, and to me Saigon just didn’t have much appeal for a big city. Sometimes in Vietnam there’s this underlying feeling that you’re being hustled anytime there’s money involved, and in Saigon it seemed a bit more blatant to me. That’s not to say that the city isn’t home to some great people though. Friendly university students are everywhere, wanting to take you out for a bite to eat or for a tour of the city to practice their English. Elderly groups practicing Tai Chi and aerobics in the central park crack a friendly smile as you pass by. And some of the food vendors seem to light up out of happiness when you return to their stall. Although I’d heard from others that the Vietnamese people were rude and cold, I found them to be really lovely. They were without a doubt more abrasive than the Thai and Lao people I’d met, but they were every bit as curious and eager to make a foreigner friend as anyone else I’d encountered on my travels.

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I spent my time in Saigon the same way I did in Hanoi…walking around, people watching, and eating through the city’s cheap and delicious offerings.

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Savory roadside pancakes

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The legendary heo quay

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Bún thịt nướng is a winner. It’s similar to Bún chả Hanoi, but without the soup broth to go along with it.

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The friendliest family served up bún thịt nướng here in the morning at the Thai binh market. I made it a daily stop while in Saigon.

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I’d had enough of Saigon after 4 nights there. I’d made some necessary repairs on my bike, and decided to keep it and try and sell it in Cambodia. I left the city heading southwest, towards the Mekong Delta with Ha Tien as my destination. The Mekong Delta was gorgeous, it’s where the Mekong River splits into a ton of little legs that empty out at the ocean. I eventually reached Ha Tien for my last night in Vietnam. I look back and wonder how different my experience might have been if I’d decided to travel the country without my bike, and to tell you the truth now I really can’t imagine doing it any other way.

TLDR

#7 – Laos to Vietnam – Oudomxay Stopover

I set off for Vietnam on motorcycle in early May with a massive grin on my face. I wrote earlier in my blog about that exhilarating feeling of freedom and adventure that occasionally comes over me during my travels. Traveling by bike brought that out on a daily basis. I had purchased a Chinese 110 cc Honda Win style motorcycle in Vang Vieng, and I intended to get to Vietnam on it and explore the S-shaped country by moto.

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My route started in Luang Prabang, Laos, where I set off north for Oudomxay, a small city in northern Laos about 100 km from China. Oudomxay had a straight up weird vibe about it. Situated in the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s famous poppy growing regions, I noticed that there were all types of anti-drug and “report poppy transport” signs within the city. The guesthouse I decided to stay at seemed run-down and a bit dodgy, but it was the cheapest place my friend and I could find. I don’t really need much beyond some fairly clean bedding and a locked area to keep my stuff. But this place probably wouldn’t have fit the bill had my friend and I not been completely exhausted from the ride. Riding some 200 km on a dusty, pothole-laden dirt/asphalt road caused us to drastically lower our accommodation standards. We found ourselves staying in some sixth floor ramshackle room with plywood walls and a spent condom caked on the floor outside the door. Not to mention the sound of our neighbors next door doing the happy dance. That was when we pieced it together and realized our night’s accommodation was likely in a brothel. Oh well – it was already 6 pm, and we were both leaving early the next morning, so we just decided to laugh it off and roll the dice. I started noticing that whenever I’d leave the room, someone across the hall would open their door, peek out, and make a somewhat mumbled and disconcerting sound as a greeting to me. That’s when my suspicions about the place sort of spiked. We decided to keep one of us around the room at all times to play it safe, and we rock paper scissored to determine who got to head out to eat first. When I returned after my victorious fried noodle meal, my friend Dominique told me that he’d had gone for a shower and come back to some strung out girl sitting on his bed smoking something. He told me of her attempts to get him into bed, her speech impediment – which explained the mumbled sounds I’d heard earlier – and then he told me that she’d been a really sweet girl despite her desperate pleas to try and sleep with him for his money. Dominique and I hung around the room, had a couple beers, exchanged some travel stories, and then she was back – this time at around midnight, as we were getting ready to hit the hay. She barged in with a huge smile of rotten teeth and sat down on my bed this time, holding some papers and a few other tweaker looking items in her hands. She appeared far from dangerous, so Dominique and I conversed with her for awhile using hand motions, drawings, and the Lao-English dictionary. It turns out that at one point she had been together with this guy who was staying next door to us (with another girl), and it sounded as if now he was essentially her pimp. Using more hand motions and by drawing on pages of her passport (we tried to provide paper!), she explained to us that her speech impediment was the result of her ex beating her years ago. She showed us some brutal bruises to prove that he’d still been doing it. We couldn’t glean much more from the depressing game of charades, and the night ended with her pulling out some white powdered drug in a bag – assumed meth by the look of her teeth – and freebasing it in our room. We obviously did not join, but we didn’t stop her. She came off pretty harmless to us, and in fact she did seem to be a sweetheart as Dominique had initially said. Both he and I had never personally spent time talking with someone who was currently living in such an appalling state. The whole reason I so vividly remember this experience though is because in spite of her repugnant meth mouth and dire living situation as a drug-addicted prostitute, she had an infectious smile that lit up the room. She shared some yogurt snacks with us, and we gave her some of our oriental pub mix, which in hindsight was stupid considering she probably had a really hard time chewing the almonds. After awhile we asked her to leave so we could get some sleep. It was a saddening turn to what started out as a pretty comical situation in Oudomxay. Whether this girl’s smile was simply meth-induced or not I’ll never know. But she had all the reason in the world to sulk and frown, yet she smiled radiantly – and that’s what I’ll remember most.

#6 – Return to Thailand

I knew I didn’t get enough of Thailand the first time around. I left Luang Prabang, Laos for Chiang Mai, Thailand, on one of those dreadful 16-hour overnight busses that everyone complains about out here. This one turned into a 21-hour journey, as the bus broke down at 1 AM for a solid five hours because of a torn belt. Most of the passengers passed the time drooling on themselves and each other in a comatose-like state as a result of the cheap Laotian Valium. If I could have done the journey on my motorbike, I would’ve, but unfortunately you can’t cross the border from Laos to Thailand with a Vietnamese plated bike. Thankfully, I made a Laotian friend in Luang Prabang who was kind enough to let me leave my motorcycle and gear at his house during my month-long return to Thailand. After the bus journey was all said and done, I arrived in Chiang Mai exhausted and sweaty, but mostly just hungry. And there’s no better city in Thailand to be hungry in than Chiang Mai. I was beyond excited to be back in my favorite city in SE Asia. Better yet – Tara and Heather were to arrive in a few days. There’s nothing more enjoyable for me than sharing good eats with loved ones. Unfortunately, I didn’t snap too many pictures of our eating endeavors in Chiang Mai. You’ll just have to trust that the three of us stuffed our fat faces together for all of you back home.

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We made friends with the lady here, and she started letting us grill our own Moo Ping (marinated BBQ pork skewers) in order to obtain optimal crispiness/succulence level

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Laab Gai, a spicy favorite

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Don’t even get me started on Chiang Mai’s Khao Soi, seriously

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This place serves up Kao Ka Moo (stewed pork leg and rice) that’s to die for. The green bowl on the sign to her left signifies that her stall is one of Chiang Mai’s most distinguished.

Songkran //

We were lucky enough to be in Chiang Mai during Songkran, the Thai New Year, when the city erupts into the world’s largest water fight for three days straight. Traditionally, sprinkling water on people (specifically the Thai elders) during Songkran signifies a purification process, washing away the bad thoughts and actions and bringing good fortune in the new year. Over time though, the holiday has turned into a massive street party, especially in Chiang Mai, where 50 gallon barrels full of ice cold water line the streets, and both Thais and foreigners alike use buckets to “sprinkle” water with enough force to wash away any bad thought you’ve ever even thought about having. Experiencing this holiday in Chiang Mai is an absolute blast. Thai people are already so happy and cheerful, and they’re that much more radiant during Songkran.

View on Vimeo for full HD

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Unlucky water location!

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From Chiang Mai, Tara, Heather, and I took a hellish night train down to Bangkok. Normally we’d buy a sleeper ticket for a train that long (~12 hours), but they were sold out because of the holiday. This resulted in us taking the 3rd class (aka 90 degree bench-seating) train with this cute little turd who mistook his spring roll for a microphone.

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Koh Tao, Koh Phangan //

We met Yim and Emily in Bangkok and took the train south together to Chumphon, where we connected to Koh Tao and Koh Phangan. We spent about six days on Tao trying to hunt down the ever-elusive black tip reef sharks and cruising around the island on scooters, before hopping over to Koh Phangan. Life is hard!

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As much as I really enjoy meeting new people when I travel, every so often I come to a stretch in my trip when I’m a bit tired of going through the same motions of meeting the people in whatever hostel dormitory I’m staying in. “Where are you from? Where have you been? How long have you been on the road for? And where to next?” Don’t get me wrong – I’ve made some really good friends throughout my travels, most of whom I’ve met at hostels along the way. But there are low points, where the conversations begin to seem repetitive. Many times you wake up the next morning and either you, or your new friends, have moved on to the next destination (where you will likely repeat the same process). That being said, I feel really fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet up with people from back home. Definitely cures the loneliness that you inevitably encounter when you’re solo on the road!

After some goodbyes, we all parted ways: Tara and Heather back to Australia, Yim and Emily to the west coast of Thailand, and me back to Laos. As tough as the goodbyes might have been, I certainly had plenty to look forward to: a motorcycle waiting for me in Laos to explore Vietnam and Cambodia with, and zero obligations until my flight to Bali in two months. I distinctly remember sitting on the train from Bangkok back to Laos and feeling a tad reality-smacked when looking at a roadmap of Vietnam. Transportation is all fun and games on busses and trains. You get to blob out and chat with others, relax, read, and EAT. I had no idea what I was in for with this trip. I grew up riding dirtbikes with friends, but I’d certainly never taken a trip like this on a motorcycle. My journey had truly turned a new page with the purchase of my bike, and damn was I stoked for it.

#5 – Laos P.D.R. – Waterfalls, More Noodle Soup, and a Trip-Changing Purchase

Leaving Thailand was bittersweet, I must admit (albeit a bit more bitter than sweet). After 3 unforgettable months there, I entered southern Laos on a 5-hour bus that I had to stand for the entire time, as I was the last passenger on board. Welcome to Laos!

To me, this place seems like a much quieter, less touristy, and more rural version of Thailand. The people are similar in that they’re generally very welcoming and warmhearted, however I found Laotians to be a bit shier and more conservative than Thais. Still though, you’ll come across a warm smile and a “sabaidee” (hello) on just about any Laotian street you walk.

Pakse //

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Pakse was an absolute ghost town by comparison to the places I had visited in Thailand. The first thing that I noticed here were the advertisements that foreigners had posted around the city trying to sell their motorcycles. The Mae Hong Son Loop in northern Thailand had created an itch that I just couldn’t scratch. In the weeks following the loop I’d catch myself casually daydreaming of what it would be like to see Southeast Asia by motorcycle. The whole thing was inconceivable before – there was no way I’d buy a bike here, that’s absolutely ludicrous…right? By the time I got to Pakse though, I had decided that it wasn’t ludicrous at all, and that if it were right for me to pick up a bike over here it would fall into my lap at the right time. I was trying to make a conscious effort to not let my search for a bike dictate my trip through Laos. It turns out I had zero self control in this regard, and I did exactly that, and pretty much let my search for a bike dictate my trip through Laos. My search first brought me to:

Don Det, 4000 Islands //

I wasn’t initially planning on seeing this area, but I’m really glad I did, even though the primary reason I went was to take a look at a bike that I saw an advertisement for in Pakse. It turns out that the bike was a no-go, but hey, staying riverfront on the Mekong at $5/night was well worth the trip. There’s really not much to do here besides lounge in a hammock, float down the river, and ride around on a bicycle. A few days were all I needed here.

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The Bolaven Plateau Loop //

I had heard of this loop a week prior when I first arrived in Pakse, but I sort of wrote it off without researching it because I was so dumbfounded and blinded by my search for a motorcycle. Big mistake, and I’m glad that I caught it, because this was easily the highlight of my trip through Laos. The Bolaven Plateau Loop is a 400 km trip that stretches across Laos’ extremely rural Champasak province, with waterfalls scattered every 15-50 km. I set off on the loop with a Swedish friend I met in Thailand, Adam, who just so happens to know my cousin who lives in Göteborg, Sweden. Ridiculously small world.

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Tad Sou Lin – The pinnacle waterfall of the loop.

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Following the Bolaven Plateau Loop, I returned to Pakse to have one last look around town for a motorcycle. With no luck, I was forced to head northward on one of the sluggish local buses through central Laos up towards Vientiane, the capital. There’s absolutely nothing going on in Vientiane, except for this delicious bowl of noodle soup:

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Vang Vieng //

From Vientiane I headed northward towards Vang Vieng, Laos’ party capital – home to the world famous tubing. The vibe here plain sucks. Within the city are guesthouses upon guesthouses serving up fish and chips, pizza, and cheeseburgers to their either hungover or shit-faced customers, all of whose eyes are fixated on the big screen TVs playing reruns of Friends. I kid you not, within a quarter mile radius there were at least 10 joints that all looked like this, which made the central block of the city a bit repulsive. The scenery around the area is beautiful and without a doubt worth exploring though. On my way out to visit the nearby lagoon, I spotted a black motorcycle with Vietnamese plates and a for sale sign slapped on it. Pretty sure my heart skipped a beat. A rural road far from the tourist center – this was the last place I was expecting to find a bike. A few test rides and a trip to the bank later and I – much to the dismay of just about all of my family – HAD PURCHASED MY BIKE!!

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YEEEEEHAAAAWWWWW

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Days after the purchase of my new little beast, I geared up and fixed a few minor things on the bike, and headed 185 km north to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ride up was gorgeous, though unfortunately really smoky due to this region’s slash-and-burn season through March and April. The city of Luang Prabang was charming, though extremely touristy. Out of everywhere else in Laos that I visited, the remnants of French colonialism were most apparent here, with extremely upscale French eateries, spas, and hotels. I spent my time here eating delicious street sandwiches (the first real bread I’ve had since I’ve been in Asia), visiting the impressively blue Kuang Xi waterfall, and sorting out my Vietnamese visa.

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One of the more poignant experiences of my trip thus far was a visit to the UXO Laos Visitor Center in Luang Prabang. UXO stands for unexploded ordnance – something Laos has been ravaged by over the years. Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world (per capita), which sadly to admit I had zero clue about prior to arriving here. During the Vietnam War, parts of Laos were invaded and occupied by the North Vietnamese, who used areas like the Ho Chi Minh Trail to run supplies from the north to the south. In an attempt to cut off these supply routes, the U.S. dropped 2.5 millions tons of bombs throughout Laos from 1964-1973. 580,000 bombing missions over 9 years – that’s one planeload of bombs dropped every 8 minutes over a country that’s slightly smaller than the state of Oregon. If you’re not familiar with the way that cluster bombs work (one of the primary types of bombs dropped on Laos), here’s a run-down: large canisters (like these) carry hundreds of smaller munitions called bombies (like these), which are about the size of tennis balls. When these large canisters are dropped, they open mid-air, projecting the smaller munitions over an area about the size of a football field. Roughly 30% of the munitions didn’t explode though, leaving the country scattered with around 80 million unexploded bombies. Since the war ended in 1973, 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the unexploded ordnance. Roughly 300 people die every year. A quarter of the victims are children, who stumble upon the bombies while playing outside. Laos is already an extremely impoverished country – the majority of the population relies on a self-sufficient farming based lifestyle. However, because of the UXO, these farming communities can’t access the agricultural land that they need to provide for themselves, their family, and their local markets. And when the extremely bold do farm their land and face a UXO accident, they struggle to find rehabilitative support from a health institution. As a result, the economic situation of many rural communities in Laos remains stagnant.

What’s being done to help?

– Organizations like UXO Laos, MAG, and GERBERA aid in the risk education and clearing of the UXO in Laos.
COPE is the provider of prosthetic, orthotic, and rehabilitative services, working alongside the National Rehabilitation Center. Unfortunately, these are the only two organizations in Laos working in this regard.
– Foreign aid: Laos spends US $30 million annually clearing UXO, assisting victims, and educating communities about the risks of UXO. Official U.S. aid to Laos for the purpose of UXO clearing totaled US $12 million for the 2014 fiscal year. Since the end of the war, the US has provided US $74 million for UXO programs in Laos. 32% of this has been allocated within the past five years.

To think of a young child in a rural village whose life changes forever when he steps on a bomb that was dropped 40 years before he was even born is tragic. This is an extremely saddening situation for a country whose people I really admired for their overall warmth and hospitality. My visit to the UXO center was humbling and I told myself that I’d do my best to draw attention to the issue and suggest that others educate themselves on it. That being said, if you’re ever in Luang Prabang or Vientiane, please pay either of the UXO Laos centers a visit, you won’t regret you did.

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MAG Lao, 2004 Many Laotians supplement their incomes by searching for and selling scrap metal from the bombs, an extremely risky trade.
Photo by MAG (Mines Advisory Group) / CC BY

UXO (UneXploded Ordenance)
Photo by ManMan / CC BY

All-women UXO clearance team, Xieng Khuang, Laos, May 2012 A UXO Laos team in the field.
Photo by United Nations Development Programme / CC BY

FSD deminer Mr Dasone Sitthipone working with a detector at a UXO clearance area, begins excavating an unidentified object.
Photo by Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

Detonation of clearance charges for bombies
Controlled bombie detonation in the Laos countryside
Photo by Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

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Photo by Goh / CC BY

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Photo by Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade / CC BY

#4 – Thailand

My first destination was Koh Lipe, Satun Province, Thailand. I made reservations for four nights, and stayed for 15. The turquoise waters and white sand beaches I was dreaming of? This place hit the spot.

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A best friend of mine, Max, met me here for the latter third of my stay. Not a bad way to spend Christmas.

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From Koh Lipe Max and I worked our way north. A few highlights from this stretch of the trip:

Railay Bay //

Everything here was beautiful, except for the palm-sized spider that lived in our bungalow for three days (we named him Alfred).

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Koh Tao //

Met some wonderful people here, and got a chance to swim with some small black-tip reef sharks, which has been one of the more thrilling experiences of my trip. It’s a pretty exciting feeling swimming with these guys…definitely hooked and seeking an opportunity to do it again.

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Black-tip

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Prachuap Khiri Khan //

Home to these inquisitive monkeys and the best noodle soup I’ve encountered thus far.

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View on Vimeo for full HD

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Bangkok //

Ubiquitous cheap and tasty eats, and the protests. Some people love this city, but personally, every time I’m here I find myself just waiting for the next destination.

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Kaprow muu

BKK Protests

BKK Temple

Chiang Mai //

All in all, I spent a little over a month in Chiang Mai. It’s dirt-cheap, has a young student vibe, and has a charm to it that’s slightly reminiscent of Seattle. Despite the fact that it’s Thailand’s second largest city, I found it to be super relaxing. It’s also northern Thailand’s culinary capital and is home to the best food I’ve tried on my trip. ‘Nuff said.

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Noodle Soup
Tom yum noodle soup with tamarind-chili paste. An all-time favorite.

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A 60 baht ($2 USD) meal

Khao Soi
Khao Soi is a Burmese influenced soup commonly served in the north of Thailand. It starts with a yellow curry and coconut milk broth, to which egg noodles, tender chicken, and crispy noodles are added. Served with fresh shallots and pickled cabbage. The breakfast of champions!

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Pups everywhere.

The Mae Hong Son Loop //

The Mae Hong Son Loop is considered to be one of the mecca motorcycle routes of Southeast Asia. It starts in Chiang Mai, and loops about 600 kilometers through rural northern Thailand, at some points coming within 30 kilometers of the Myanmar border. The scenery is beautiful and the road is empty…it’s a dream of a trip to take on a nice bike. Before I left for Asia, I tried to pay my bud Max the money I owed him for rent. He told me to instead keep it and spend it on something out here that I might not normally indulge in under my backpacker budget. I used that money to rent myself a proper dirtbike to do the loop on rather than just a scooter.

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MHS Loop #3

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MHS Loop 2

MHS Loop #3

View on Vimeo for full HD

Pai //

Altogether I spent about 10 days here. The best way I could describe this place is that it’s like summer camp for adults (draw your own conclusions) – tons of stuff to do and great vibes all around.

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Pai Zorbing

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Surin //

From northern Thailand I headed towards Surin, which is in Isan, the northeastern region of Thailand. There’s really not much going on in this part of the country, which can be a good and bad thing depending on what you’re after. It seemed to me that there was minimal western influence and intrusion into the culture. The friends I met here are what really made it for me though. Thai people are without a doubt some of the warmest, most generous, and most welcoming people I’ve encountered on my travels, and that was ever apparent to me in Surin.

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Surin 4

#3 – Beginnings

I arrived in Bangkok on December 6th after 25 grueling hours in transit. If you’ve ever been to Bangkok, you know that it’s not exactly the the most comfortable city to walk while sleep-deprived, disoriented, and fresh off of a full day of layovers and air travel. Motorbikes with their exhaust mufflers removed scream past, touts persistently haggle, and the oppressive heat and humidity feels as if it permeates your skull. From the instant I touched down, I was daydreaming of serene white-sand beaches and turquoise waters.

I spent the first week or so visiting family and getting acclimated. My uncle’s friend Mam and her family took me out to a few incredible Thai meals, as did my cousin Mike and his wife Thanya. Thai hospitality is warm and welcoming. As much as I really enjoyed meeting and spending time with my Thai family over here, it didn’t take long until I started feeling a nag inside to head south to the islands.

I purchased my ticket and boarded the train that would take me from Bangkok’s Hua Lomphong train station, 900 kilometers south down Peninsular Thailand to Hat Yai. This is just about the farthest south that the average sane tourist would go before entering the province of Yala, one of three of Thailand’s southern territories ridden with daily car-bombs and other attacks waged against the state by terrorist insurgencies. I felt a sudden rush of liberation and excitement sweep over me, characterized by an ear-to-ear grin on my face and a bead of sweat on my forehead. The thing is, if I had wanted to visit that region of Thailand and see the direct results of Thailand’s separatist violence – all while risking my legs and other beloved limbs – I could have. I had nothing holding me back. I had graduated 7 months prior, and no longer had a university telling me I had X amount of credits to complete in order to obtain my bachelors. I had left the two jobs that were consistently taking up 70 hours a week of my time. My family members – parents specifically – were in full support and had given me their blessing. I was as free as a bird, and the only one that could dictate my next step was me. I had put in the time and done the legwork to get here, and now I would revel in the freedom that I had worked my ass off for. This feeling was so incredibly empowering and electrifying, and is one that I come across often during my travels. It was at this moment boarding the train that I felt as if I had been given a blank canvas to plan the trip of my dreams throughout southeast Asia. And so I did! 

My go-to album when I’m on the road.

#2 – Pre-departure jitters

I’ve always had an itch to see Southeast Asia. I had pondered the idea of taking some time to visit the region after I graduated, but I certainly didn’t see this as a realistic option until I lived in Spain and backpacked parts of Europe. I was moved and inspired by my travels, and it became clear to me that my immediate post-college plans needed to be to see more of the world. I returned from my time in Spain and had a year left until I graduated. All I had to do was soak up my last year of college, save my money, and buy my plane ticket. Steady coastin’ from there, right? Wrong. The months leading up to my departure were rough. I was excited, scared shitless, and a billion other emotions at the same time. I’d purchased a one-way ticket to Bangkok and planned on being abroad solo for roughly a year. I’ve never had so many questions run through my head at once. There was now an official date when I’d have to say goodbye to my loved ones for quite some time. I’d be tossed into a pool of uncertainty far from home. I questioned myself as this reality approached, wondering if I were some sort of nutcase for doing this solo. Despite my pre-departure anxiety – which looking back seems entirely normal – my aspirations are fundamental to this trip and helped me past the discomfort. Ultimately, I want to satisfy the curiosity that I have about this world. There’s a thrill that we get from stepping outside our comfort zones, and I’m seeking to make that thrill a part of my everyday life by traveling alone to a part of the world that will challenge, inspire, and teach me.

I would have never dreamt to write something this personal on a public website, but what the hell. If this inspires just one person to step outside of their comfort zone and travel somewhere, I will have done my job.