To Ride or Not to Ride…the Elephant

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We came to SE Asia sound in our decision to NOT ride an elephant. It is the quintessential tourist activity to do here and yet there are many reasons one should not partake (brutal training, back breaking work). My friends and family know I can be holier than thou and they love me anyway, so they humored me as usual when I said we would absolutely not ride an elephant.

And then what did we do? Yes. We did it. We rode an elephant.

And it sucked.

Our intentions were true. In Luang Prabang, tuk tuk drivers called out daily “Elephant camp?” No, no, we’d shake our heads, not for us. We would be heading to Chiang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park (ENP) in a few weeks, where one feeds and bathes but does not ride elephants. We were resolute.

At ENP, we shared a special day with the kids and their grandparents marveling at these beautiful creatures. Our guide, Ruby, pointed out an elephant whose back was deformed from years of giving tourists rides and we were grateful to be here vs down the road where tour buses sat in droves while tourists were paraded in a long line up and down the dirt road on their ellies.

Ellie Moments

Ellie Moments

We listened to Lek, ENP’s founder, discuss the important work necessary to save this graceful creature headed to extinction. We left happy, satisfied and a little smug.

A few weeks later we were in Kanchanaburi province, an area four hours west of Bangkok rich with national parks and green peaks that separate Thailand from Myanmar. I was travel planning weary and had scheduled four days with a tour company to rest my Trip Advisor satiated brain.

Lek & ENP's Ellies

Lek & ENP’s Ellies

In my inquiry, I said we were a family that loves animals but prefers not to ride them. I was a bit perplexed when the suggested itinerary returned with an elephant trek. I responded that we weren’t interested in the trek. No worries, I was told.

After a wonderful 1st day on the tour in gorgeous Sai Yok national park, day two brought a visit from one of the tour company’s lead guides telling us that the trek was ethical, the ellies only worked four hours a day and they lived free in the jungle with the Mon villagers. We were told the ellies would be put to work in the forest industry if they weren’t carrying tourists. The villagers needed a way to pay for the enormous amounts of food the elephants ate. The guide was concerned whether our kids could trek on foot which was our plan. And on and on.

We started to waver.

My family was uncertain and left the decision up to me. And I made an error in judgement. Despite our conviction and all that we’d read telling us NOT to ride an elephant, I went to that “once in a lifetime” place…when would we ever have another opportunity like this? So we said yes.

Fast forward to two beautiful elephants and two mahouts with bull hooks and menacing voices. The instant knowledge that this was wrong. The village leader trying to coax a smile out of us to take a picture while Julia was close to tears and the rest of us were miserable.

Here’s the truth. Riding an elephant is not fun…even if you could not give two hoots about whether its ethical. It’s super uncomfortable and add to it the ethical context and its just not worth it. Read more here: http://adoreanimals.com/blog/the-ethical-elephant-experience/

Learn from our mistake. Enjoy your ellies at great organizations like ENP or Boon Lott’s…bathe them, feed them, whisper sweet nothings to them, but please, please…don’t ride them.

Elephant Nature Park

Elephant Nature Park

Bath, Feed, Walk, Scoop…& Start Again

I am pleased to welcome a guest blogger this week, one of my two fabulous kids, Julia.  Julia, Sean, Kyle and I volunteered for four days at a wonderful nonprofit this week in Thailand.  Julia, take it away!

Doggy Love

Care For Dogs is an organization that provides shelter, care, and food for dogs in need. Most of the dogs are really sweet-they love to be pet and play. But others are aggressive or scared of people because of what has happened to them in the past. All the dogs are street dogs, and some of them have been saved from awful fates such as the dog meat trade, or abusive owners

Care For Dogs has close to 200 dogs and we spent four days feeding, bathing and walking them.  We also spent a lot of time socializing the shy dogs…just giving them love to help them adjust to humans.  And my parents scooped a lot of poop.

One of the dogs I really liked was Cara. She is medium sized with a white coat and brown markings. She was really nice and she loved the puppies, whenever I went into their area she would always try to get by. She was always happy and playful.

Cara

Cara

The puppies were really cute, there was a litter of six that were brown and really small. The other three were all different types, and they were older and bigger than the the brown ones. They were all teething, so they would bite on my fingers, shoelaces, and hair. The brown ones were so sweet. One time I went in their pen, they were all sleeping but one got up so he could sleep on my lap instead. They were so helpless, sometimes they would fall into a gutter on the ground and cry until I came to carry them out. I felt bad for them because they didn’t have their mother-she was too scared to be rescued. CFD is still trying though.

Oh the Ears!

Oh the Ears!

The big puppies weren’t so needy. Two of them went to the adoption fair on our last day, the other one stayed because he’s sick. The biggest one was white and brown, he looked like Mickey did when Mickey was a puppy. Then there was one who was black and brown striped. The last one was the sick one, he was white.

Hey that's my camera case!

Hey that’s my camera case!

When I saw them they were all locked up in a cage. I gave them water and let them out. They drank the whole bowl of water in a minute, they were so thirsty. The problem with the big ones is that they try to playfight with the little ones, but they are too rough and end up hurting them.
Aw shucks

Aw shucks

On our second day of volunteering, the shelter got a call for twenty puppies. They went to pick them up, managed to get one of the mothers but not the other. The puppies were dewormed and are going into the puppy area in a week.
Hello!

Hello!

Some of the dogs were missing legs, eyes, or ears. There was one who had half of his face gone, but I never saw him.
Celine

Celine

Emily

Emily

Poey Poey

Poey Poey

Care For Dogs slogan is “Saving one dog won’t change the world, but surely the world will change for that one dog.”  You can help by going to http://www.carefordogs.org and making a donation.  You might ask “Why Thai dogs? There are plenty of dogs at home in need.”  This is a valid question.  The average annual Thai salary is under $9,000 annually, so spending money on sterilizing and care for dogs is not a priority.  Think how much impact a small $20 donation could help!

Chiang Mai: Activities for Kids Beyond Tiger Kingdom

We arrived in Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang and started to spin, rudderless. The city — 2nd largest in Thailand — was bigger than anticipated and we were overwhelmed with where to start. Our first base was near the heavily touristed night market and the calls of tuk tuk drivers to take us to see tigers, elephants and the night safari were endless.

Here’s a few activities we found in Chiang Mai with nary a wild animal in sight.

Be in the Art at the 3-D Museum, Art in Paradise 

Located on Chang Klan Road just passed the Shangri La, this museum requires you to interact with the art. Perhaps you won’t see any masterpieces here but you’ll laugh heartily while trying to create your own.

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Make Your Own Art at Noina’s Studio 

A sweet neighborhood studio in the NE corner of old town, Noina offers a three hour course using whichever materials interest you. Kyle did sketching, Julia and I did watercolor and Sean used acrylic. A chill afternoon to just summon our muse was relaxing. 500 baht/pp for three hours.

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Make Edible Art at Thai Farm Cooking School

I think my son is a future chef! We wondered if the kids would be bored at a full day cooking course. But they both dived in, had fun and whipped up wonderful dishes and Sean was particularly apt at making his feast. I am dreaming of a cold, rainy night back in Seattle, when I say “Children, I’d like green curry and phad thai for dinner. Oh, and some mango sticky rice please! Thanks, I’ll be reading in the bath.”

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Be an Archeologist at the Terra-Cotta Garden 

Baan Phor Liang Meun’s Terra-Cotta Arts is a sprawling garden of moss covered clay sculptures. The labyrinth of Buddhas, disciples, and Lanna representations in a sumptuous, verdant setting can mesmerize all people, big and small. The garden can be found a few blocks west of the south Chiang Mai Gate (turn right on Roi 6).

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My mother found out about this gem while chatting up an Aussie Chiang Mai regular. My mom has a genuine sociability to get the inside scoop. It isn’t hereditary. We part ways tomorrow for the duration of our rtw tour and I will have to uncover secret treasured spots on my own.

So did we turn our backs on the mighty tigers and elephants?  Of course not.  More on an incredible day at Elephant Nature Park soon!

The Luang Prabang Files

It’s funny how ones thoughts on a locale are defined by what came before and after. As we sit in sprawling, hectic Chiang Mai, I am wishing for the peaceful calm of Luang Prabang.

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It’s true that it took us a while to love Luang Prabang. But in the end, we fell for the town and we fell for Lao. And here’s why:

DO:

Waterfalls

Kuang Si Waterfall leads the pack: Its true…it is simply stunning. So what if hordes of tourists arrive by minivan loads in the afternoon…go in the morning, swim through that robin egg blue water, swing from the tree rope, climb up the stairs as water cascades over you, and take a ton of pictures because it doesn’t get more beautiful than this. Takes about an hour in a tuk tuk, 160,000 kip (US$20) for a “private” tuk tuk (just our family of four). You’ll see the bears of Free the Bears on the walk in. Rescued from poachers, they recline on tree trunks and watch you as you watch them.

Tad Sae Waterfall: Most take a longboat to Tad Sae…we hiked in on day two of a trek. It’s a bit bizarre to emerge from the quiet jungle, muddy and sweaty, into a sea of tourists enjoying BeerLao and elephant rides. Nevertheless, Tad Sae is gorgeous…an oasis in the jungle complete with swimming, elephants and zip lining. Bring plenty of kip…we didn’t have enough on us to all zipline…the boys went while the girls swam. We had made the conscious decision before going to SE Asia not to ride elephants and simply watched…more on that in a future post.

Tad Thong: hmmm…the brochure looks so promising. We hiked there from Hillside Resort — I think if we’d taken a tuk tuk all the way from the city, it would have been a disappointment. What it has going for it: it’s tourist-free. And a series of concrete steps have been built meandering for some time from waterfall to waterfall which makes for a lovely walk. However the waterfalls themselves are no comparison to Kuang Si and Tad Sae and there is trash in the water.

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Ways to Engage in the History & People

Jungle Trek & Kamu Village Homestay: This will be one of my best memories of our trip period. I love a good messy hike where my job is to simply put one foot in front of the other. The jungle and mountain views were incredible, the guides lovely, the homestay eye opening. We used White Elephant Adventures. More on that here: http://www.greenleycoffeebreak.com/2013/10/24/a-trek-beyond-our-comfort-zone/

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UXO (Landmine Museum): A five minute tuk tuk ride from the peninsula, this is a must do. While not as large as the Siem Reap Landmine museum, it is more direct to the issue and has a striking video explaining the history and state today. I frankly wasn’t understanding cluster bombs until seeing on film a huge capsule open with hundreds of “baby bombs” being dropped from the sky. The stories of children discovering and being injured by bombs while playing hit a chord with the kids. This is a must do. And make a large donation while you’re there — we saw at least a dozen people during our time in Lao missing limbs due to U.S. bombs and financial support is still needed to clear landmines.

Movie Night at L’Estrange Cafe: Funny how being abroad for long periods of time makes one crave the comforts of home…a book in English, a BLT for lunch, a movie we can understand. L’Estrange provides all that and is an oasis for English speakers in LP. Downstairs are used books for sale and a cafe. Upstairs is a small museum on the ethnic tribes of Lao and a movie room. Every night an English movie is shown at 7PM. And you can go during the day and pick a movie to watch if anyone else lounging there agrees. The kids spent an afternoon watching Ice Age while an obliging Brit, Aussie and Indian giggled with us.

Tamarind Cooking Class: Kyle took this all day class (lucky me that he is the chef in our family) and highly recommends it. He paid 270,000 kip (US$34) and was able to sign up two days in advance — during busy season, I’d get a reservation sooner. The site of the course is different than the restaurant, out of town on the river and beautiful! You cook up a storm with an engaging instructor, eat, and start again. The class also toured the Phousi market — if you’re a vegetarian, you might want to sit out the meat portion of the tour…yech.

Big Brother Mouse: From 9-11AM and 5-7PM every weekday, students come to Big Brother Mouse to improve their language skills with native English speakers. This was a great way to learn more about the culture while adding value. You can just show up and chat but it helps to have a few lessons up your sleeve, e.g. have them pick a noun and describe it using the five senses. We were impressed to see students go to school all day and then spend each evening at BBM improving their English skills. You can also purchase books from BBM to either donate or take to villages on treks. BBM is easy to find behind 3 Nagas Restaurant.

Palace Museum: Ok, the boys went here so I don’t have a first hand view. However they thought it was worthwhile — shares the history of the Lao royal family who was there one day and gone the next. It’s right at the beginning of the peninsula across from the library and Mt Phousi.

Ock Pok Textiles: Julia, my mother and I spent half a day at Ock Pok learning Lao natural dying techniques. The setting is outside of town on the riverbanks — there’s a cafe for a welcome beverage and post class lunch or drink. I really enjoyed picking and digging my dye ingredients from the garden…tamarind, beets, indigo. This was a fun, educational activity for three generations to do together. We walked away with a silk scarf and two silk samples — all that we dyed ourselves. Highly recommend.

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STAY

We stayed in five different places in LP. Most were great. The one we stayed in the longest was not.

Thongbay Guesthouse: There’s a reason Thongbay is highly rated on TA. There’s just a wonderfully chill feeling there. The staff are so kind. The bungalows along the river are a must…eating breakfast each morning on your veranda watching the river life is a great way to get to know Lao. The food was delicious, the setting beautiful. We paid $75/night for a family bungalow. I’d call Thongbay more of an Eco-lodge. I think because of its rating on TA, people expect luxury, which Thongbay is not. It’s also a ten minute ride from the center however there are minibuses that go in regularly and a tuk tuk ride back runs 30,000 kip ($4). We’d go back there in a heartbeat.

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Private Home Rental: We had assumed we could meander into town and find a cheap, charming home rental for a month. Wrong. LP is bursting at the seams and in town home rentals are tough to find. Especially for only a month. We felt a little desperate and landed a house about a 20 minute walk from the peninsula. The price was right…$35/nt, and the space was good (3 bedrooms), but that was about it. The place just had a bad vibe, was not cleaned before we moved in and we had a constant feeling of “yuck” during our time there. The owners were very lovely people and apparently its not the norm to clean homes before renting them…so one learns along the way.

Hillside Lifestyle Resort: To escape our city rat poop abode, we spent a weekend at this resort, about a 45 minute bumpy ride outside the city. I have alternating views of this place as either heaven or apocalyptic. The setting is gorgeous, the bungalows sweet. A Frenchman runs the place with an interesting staff — at times smoking, drinking BeerLeo and listening to jazz music because what else was there to do? We were the only guests during our stay — this is clearly an unfound gem. The food was quite good — a large and growing organic garden is on site. There are treks that can done from the resort. The pool is an interesting shade of green…slightly off putting but we enjoyed our swim, lounge and beverages everyday nevertheless!

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Lotus Villa Laos: Ahhh, to throw budget to the wind. We needed to be out of our rental by Oct 31st and had a few more nights in LP, so we splurged and moved to the peninsula. We stayed in one of the Orchid Suites, which are set up wonderfully for families. Our veranda was a perfect place to quietly watch the morning alms procession. The hotel also very carefully leads guests through the alms ceremony — we personally didn’t participate but I saw others doing so and it was clear the hotel took care in doing it right. The included breakfast each morning was very good and the location is as good as it gets — on a quiet street at the far end of the peninsula close to some of the best bakeries in town and riverfront restaurants. We paid $226/nt and at some point will need to not eat for a week to make up for that decadence.

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Nong Khiaw & Muang Ngoi Neua: I’ve reviewed the hotels we stayed at in these towns here: http://www.greenleycoffeebreak.com/2013/11/10/moments-in-muang-ngoi-neua/

EAT

This is tough — we had some great meals in LP and spent a lot of time in the bathroom afterwards. I’m not going to call out which places made us sick because its always hard to really know where to attribute it. We enjoyed: L’Estrange, Tamarind, Le Banneton, Joma, Blue Lagoon, Dyen Sabai and Coconut Garden. Coconut Garden was a good find….clean food in a nice environment at a reasonable price. Dyen Sabai is a short boat ride across the river if the bamboo bridge isn’t up. It was a nice place to spend a few hours in a beautiful environment, sipping a beverage and playing board games. We did not eat there however the reviews of the food are quite good. If you know LP, you can tell by this list that we weren’t too adventurous. We didn’t enjoy the street baguettes and fruit smoothies as much as we hoped…so cheap but kind of tasteless.

TIPS

Shopping for essentials can be tough in LP. Set up your phone at Dara Market. The young women at the cellphone stalls all work together so it really doesn’t matter which you pick…they’ll happily take your phone and input the details so the data package gets loaded correctly. Sometimes you will need to reset the language on your phone to Lao so they can follow the prompts, then set it back. I paid under $10 for 1GB of data for my iPhone…when it ran out, I’d simply pop back and buy more.

Across from Dara Market is the one grocery store that has cheese. Check the expiration date. This grocery also has wine and there is also a wine shop now on the peninsula.

Yes, data, cheese and wine…these are my essentials for a month in the wonderful Luang Prabang.

Moments in Muang Ngoi Neua

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After a month in Lao, our last foray was six hours north of Luang Prabang by boat to the sleepy town of Muang Ngoi Neua with my parents. This is where I fell in love with Lao.

The village sits on one short dusty road surrounded by thick green mountains — baby sisters to Rio’s sugarloaf — while the Nam Ou river flows by. We spent two nights there and it was snapshots of memorable moments, beginning to end.

I watched two boys, about nine, run to the river edge at dawn, strip to their underwear, soap up and scrub down before turning their attention to washing their clothes.

We scrambled up a mountain to a vast cave, stunned silent by the size of it and the thought of hundreds of villagers hiding there huddled together while listening to the bombing of their village as the Vietnam war bled into Lao.

Meals were leisurely as single proprietors greeted, cooked and served the tourist crowd. We learned to bring cards, books and a chill attitude to any meal. A few BeerLaos helped too.

A highlight was to simply sit and watch life along with river. Children hopping from longboat to longboat before jumping into the water. Local commerce unfolding before us in the form of bamboo and rice bundles being transported up and down river. Boats of new tourists arriving twice daily…and the locals who still had a room to rent meeting them at the dock, presenting their accommodations “river view, hammock, no hot shower, $15 dollar.”

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We met a most mellow couple from Denver…on the road for 17 months and not planning to leave it anytime soon. I could tell they had their travel rhythm…the ability to just BE in your surroundings vs our continued itch “What’s next? Do we like this?” In the end this couple also became our benefactors as there is no ATM in Muang Ngoi Neua and despite knowing this, we somehow did not travel up river with enough kip. Phyllis and Jared lent us enough money to eat in style and get home safely. When we returned to Luang Prabang, mom left reimbursement for them and they left inspiration for us.

The river. Oh the river. We returned to Luang Prabang by a five hour trip in a longboat down the river. I could not get enough of the rich colors — the longboats painted primary colors, the bursting greenery traveling up the mountain ranges, the silk browns of the river and dusty browns of the shores. The river life in full display — the water buffalo escaping the sun, the villagers fishing, the children playing — one even taking time to wave hello and then bend over in full moon position until we passed (we debated a bit whether one could be mooned if the mooner was naked to begin with). The many garden patches along the shore — so neat, so newly green, so virgin.

Having three generations on this trip made it even more special and as we merged from the Nam Ou River to the impressively big Mekong, I thought about what an incredible memory this was for my children…to sail down the Mekong River with their grandma and papa. Who does that?  Well…besides the locals.

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Sleep

We stayed at Lerdkeo Sunset Guesthouse. It’s the newest group of standalone bungalows (five total) along the river and one of the last accommodation options if you turn right on the main road. It’s also the most expensive and you can book it on Agoda, which was helpful as we needed three rooms. If you plan to take the early boat up, there’s little reason to book ahead except in the busy season (Dec-Mar). If you take the later boat, it would be wise to book in advance. Lerdkeo lacks the must have hammock and hot water was infrequent but the room was nice, views beautiful, and pancake and fruit breakfast on our balcony each morning just right.

Eat

We ate almost exclusively at the Riverside. The proprietor speaks a little English and had helped me through a language barrier dance with the guesthouse staff (“I paid online…Agoda? You know? Internet?” Blank stares.) The food was good, not great but satisfying and the atmosphere was the best of all of the riverside restaurants we tried. Ask for the pumpkin curry and request that they amp up the spice.

Tips

To get to Muang Ngoi Neua, we rented a minivan from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw. I was quoted 800,000 kip for six people from one of the many travel agencies in LP. We ended up paying more booking through my mom’s hotel as we wanted to be sure we had a good driver and seat belts. Of course in the end we had neither. Whiplash and barf bags a plenty. Once in Nong Khiaw, we took the 11AM boat — it took 1-1/2 hours and cost 25,000 kip per person. We heard there is a road now to Muang Ngoi Neua but why miss the beautiful river journey?

After seeing many a weary passenger disembark the boat from Luang Prabang, we decided to arrange for a private boat with minibus seats back versus sitting on a wooden bench for six hours with twelve new friends. We had been quoted 1,500,000 kip in Nong Khiaw. In Muang Ngoi Neua, we arranged a boat for 1,800,000 kip, all in all 150,000 kip (or $19) more than if we’d taken the public boat back to Nong Khiaw. The owner of Lao Youth Travel arranged this for us and we had some trepedation about handing over 1.8M kip two days before our departure (he was heading out in a trek and needed to pay the boat driver) but it all worked out fine and the owner called the driver a few times during our boat trip back checking in.

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Do

Don’t do much! Bring a good book. Buy more at the cultural center or swap at a guesthouse. We left electronics in Luang Prabang and supplemented at the cultural center with a puzzle book for Sean, dogs personality book for Julia and a history book on the mayflower for Kyle.

See the caves. There are three…two that you can see simply continuing to walk on the road past the school and one that takes an adventurous route behind the Wat and up a steep mountain climb. If you take the latter, you’ll be rewarded with great views.

Bring books from Big Brother Mouse and drop them off at the school.

Walk past the caves to visit waterfalls or villages further afield.

Leverage Lao Youth Travel for organized treks and kayaking trips.

Chill, watch the river life, play Uno, breathe.

Leaving Lao*

We leave Lao today. I’ve started and halted many posts on Lao as my feelings on the country have evolved. When I think back to our first week in Luang Prabang, we were turned off. Turned off by the tourist strip of ticky-tak stores and backpackers in short shorts and tank tops walking with bottles of open BeerLao. Turned off by the garbage and dust and animal feces. Turned off by the tourist weary residents.

So I waited. Because first impressions can be wrong. And mine was.

Luang Prabang is a picturesque town with a fushion of traditional Lao and European colonial buildings situated on the confluence of the mighty Mekong and the Nam Kham rivers. Haven’t lush greenery and colonial architecture always gone together so well?

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I look out from our balcony at white French buildings with blue shutters, narrow brick side streets, palm trees and colorful, opulent flowers. The elderly Lao women on our block are packing up their rice and mats after having spent the first hour of their day on their knees methodically offering a pinch of sticky rice to the sixty or so monks — shaved heads, orange robes, so young — who quietly plod by in bare feet…every day!

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I am struck by the ingenuity of a people to make do with the resources they have. A hydro electric generator made from a bike wheel. Children’s toys in the form of straws, used plastic cups, and sticks. The ability to leverage the earth to eek out a small living — harvesting bamboo, rice, river weeds, and carving small garden beds into the river banks.

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The annual per capita income in Lao is US$3,000. The landlocked country is surrounded by China, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. The latter two exert a heavy influence on the socialist country, both culturally and politically. This proximity also led to the Northern Vietnamese using Lao as a supply route during the Vietnam war and as a result, Lao is the most heavily bombed country (per capita) in history, with the U.S. dropping over 2 million tons of ordnance on the country. (As an American, it has been eye opening to witness the impact of the Vietnam war and U.S. Secret war on Cambodia and Laos. A future blog post on this topic…waiting to visit the Opium Museum in Thailand to increase my education on the secret war. Out of respect to those involved on all sides, I want to get the facts right.)

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The buddhist and animist country is changing rapidly due to the foreign investments in mining and hydropower and the continued growth of tourism. You can feel the infrastructure straining at the onslaught.

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But the beauty of the country lies in the landscape, the sing-songing “sabaidees” of the children as you pass, the devoteness of a Buddhist nation, and the calm relaxing breeze carried from the Mekong River. Khawp jai lai lai, Lao.

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* In the U.S., we commonly refer to Lao as Laos. However the country calls itself Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic).

More to follow on Tips, Sleep, Eat and Do plus a few Luang Prabang getaway recommendations soon!

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A Trek Beyond our Comfort Zone

With backpacks on and sweat already starting to seep through our shirts, we joined three game German girls and two local guides for a two day trek into the Laos mountains.

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We drove an hour outside of Luang Prabang, hopped a longboat across the Nam Khan river and started walking…up. During small stream crossings, leeches hopped on for a ride and lunch.  We stepped over ridiculously big cowpies and stepped in ludicrously high mud until we realized the two were intertwined. Yech!

We stopped at a Kamu village to have a water break and small children in tattered clothes gathered around us. We were told we could take their picture if we showed the image to them. It felt odd…like it was staged versus spontaneous. A girl younger than Julia had her baby brother wrapped tightly to her in a sarong and protectively kept his face away from the camera. You won’t see many pictures of people in my blog because I simply struggle to take them.

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We stopped for lunch at a Hmong village of 25 people. I was curious to see the Hmong after reading numerous books about their plight — run out of China, caught up in the war in Laos, fleeing through the jungle to Thailand, resettled in California and Minnesota among other places…spiritual farmers rerooted to a strange land.  (A great read: “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures” by Anne Fadiman)

This particular village was set against a putrid pond with pigs, chickens and cows intermingling at the waters edge with children in various states of dress. The village was too small for a school…the kids just didn’t go. Small children and young mothers quickly set up their fabric wares for our perusal. A young child, likely two years old, pantless, climbed down from her mothers lap and defecated in front of where we sat eating our lunch. No Pampers here. Boy did we feel obnoxiously wealthy.

We purchased small cloth purses and woven wrist bands from each mother. We pulled out reading and coloring books we had brought for the kids. Out of desperation to make a connection, I opened one book on African animals and began pointing at pictures — it broke the ice and the kids joined in as we all shared Hmong, Lao and English words for each animal.

We left the kids coloring as we continued our trek to the Kamu village where we would spend the night. Sean, Julia and I debated what we’d just experienced. Was it ok for kids to live like that? Who were we to judge? Is their reality ok because it’s what they know? As usual, we had multiple points of view and one thing middle age has given me is the comfort to ponder without solid resolution.

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In reaching the last Kamu village, it felt like an oasis in comparison. The school building sat at the village entrance. Huts were outfitted with mini solar panels and some with satellite dishes. Now, granted, homes were basic…bamboo walls and thatched roofs. Our accommodations for the night were basic as well, a series of thin mattresses on platforms wrapped in mosquito nets.

We meandered through the village, which was clearly used to hosting falang (foreigners) as they paid us no heed. At night we gathered with our host family for the dinner they had prepared…chicken soup, mixed vegetables and sticky rice and tried to cross the language barrier. A sweet baby girl sat nestled in her grandfathers lap during our stay…we were told her Kamu name meant “foreigner” as the family’s living was improved through the hosting of funny, large, white falang.

With no showers, we washed the mud off with a bucket of water and used the squat toilet only as urgently needed. I felt so badly for one of the German girls, who, hit with a case of intestinal distress, spent the evening navigating the dark to and from the squat.

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As I lay in bed that night, listening to the village life in full force around me, I thought about how much I cherish the simple pleasures of home — a comfortable bed, a good cup of coffee, a hot shower. We take such simple things and complicate them…what fabric should my duvet be, do I want to drink Sumatra or Colombia today, what thread count and color should my towels be?

I’m not sure how, or even if, this trip will change my family. But as the experiences seep in, our comfort zones are expanding and our needs are simplifying. And that satisfies for now.

Details

There are many outdoor rec companies in Luang Prabang and they are lined up next to each other on Sisavangvong Road. We chose White Elephant Adventures. We simply told them what we wanted to experience — trekking, kayaking and a home stay and they showed us on google earth where we’d be traveling. Our two guides were great…while language was at times a barrier, they spoke enough English to communicate with us and they also spoke Kamu and Hmong to help us interact with the villagers. We could have had more guidance on the 3 hour kayak portion of the trip — two of the German girls capsized in rapids and I came close to it. All in all, we would recommend White Elephant and emphasize that the trek is not for the faint hearted.

Looking Back at Japan Wistfully

We spent our last two nights in Japan in the sleepy alps town of Tsumago along the Nakasendo, the pathway that connected Tokyo to Kyoto in the Edo period.

We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Sleep was on thin futons on tatami mats, bathrooms were shared, and food was sensational. We’d been looking for this meal during our five weeks in Japan and were over the moon to experience it as our grand sayonara to the country.

Tsumago

Tsumago

To spend the last few days hiking from one small village to another, evenings strolling in traditional robes through the quiet cobblestone streets before sitting down to an amazing spread of new foods (baby wasps…really!) was the perfect way to reflect on our time in Japan.

Now five weeks is truly not enough time to understand a culture so private. These are my novice impressions.

Gracious
We’ve been out of Japan for two weeks and I’m still bowing. It’s embarrassing to the children. The respectful bowing, the singing chant of “irashaimase” (welcome) when you walk into a store, the multiple “arigatou gazaimasu” (thank you very much) after making a purchase will ring in my ears for years to come. It’s easy to leave it at that…a simple retail interaction however we have so many examples of people going out of their way to help us. We were chased down twice when the kids left a travel bag behind. When we perplexingly looked at a subway map people stopped to offer help. And our guesthouse hosts went above and beyond to share the culture with us.

Details
We were struck by the level of attention to detail around us. If you purchase a baked good, it is wrapped in a small plastic bag, taped, put into a larger bag and taped again. An apple resting in a styrofoam cozy, on a plastic tray, wrapped in plastic. The ritual of detail could also be agonizing…both for the environment and for an American used to a speedy transaction.

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Order
We were struck in our Tokyo neighborhood of Setagaya how bicycles were left out by the dozens, unlocked. We watched children as young as six making their way to and from school on their own…on the subway…in Tokyo! Unimaginable to most Americans…whether it be for safety or helicopter parenting. However, in Japan, the level of order provides a safe environment for both unattended bicycles and more importantly, unattended children.

Quirky
Plush stuffed animals sitting in the cabs of construction trucks. Maid cafes where girls in get ups speak in over the top high voices while fetching you coffee and calling you “master.” There seemed to be many contradictions — tough but cute, modest but sexy.

The most perplexing of all was Tanuki. We saw sculptures of Tanuki everywhere in the country and we were a little shocked by this fox like creature whose private parts are proudly on display. We finally learned that Tanuki is thought to bring good fortune and is a welcoming icon in front of businesses.

Tanuki

Tanuki, a Modest Version

As we started our 2nd week in gritty, topsy-turvy Luang Prabang, Laos, Julia wistfully said “I miss Japan.” And I agree. I felt a peace and balance there that I believe is unique to the land of the rising sun.

Kyle-san

Kyle-san

Sleep

Fuijito Royakan, in Tsumago, is a special place. The owners are on site, involved in every detail. While the rooms are simple, the property is beautiful and the food is simply the best. It was quite pricey, this was our planned last hurrah in Japan and worth every penny.

Eat

The ryokan provides a large breakfast and a very large dinner. We skipped lunch to save ourselves for the dinner. The menu for one of the evenings is noted below. Incredible.

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Do

Besides chilling with tea and a good book, a trek from Tsumago to Magome is in order. It’s an easy 8k hike one way though picturesque countryside. Bears are said to live in the woods and there are bells to ring along the way. You can chose to round trip it or take a taxi or bus one way. We took a taxi to Magome and then hiked back to avoid the mostly uphill trek in the opposite direction. We owned the path that day and cherish that quiet meander.

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Ugly Travelers

Our last image of Japan was the ground crew, standing at attention as our plane pulled away from the gate, waving goodbye in unison. It was another perfect example of the Japanese courtesy, respect and ritual we’d come to appreciate so much.

It was also the last courteous behavior we’d witness that day.

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My household loves The Amazing Race. And there is always a team or two that seem on the verge of self-destruction because of their sharp, disrespectful talk to each other. We’ve rolled our eyes at those teams, been annoyed by them and silently hoped their demise was imminent. Well, this travel day…we became that team.

Our path was Tokyo to Siem Reap via a connecting flight in Shanghai. I was elated when I found cheap flights to Cambodia — the day after booking China Eastern Airline, an article came out stating it was #2 in the world for worst on time record.

So we were mentally prepared for delays and even entertained a nights sleep in the Shanghai airport. Bring it on.

We kicked off the trip with a four hour delay at Narita. No problem. When we arrived in Shanghai, we raced through the airport in an effort to make our connection. There were formal stops along the way in which serious looking Chinese airport officials in military-like uniforms looked at our paperwork and grunted humorlessly at us. It was clear we were not in Japan anymore.

We made it to our gate in time, sweaty but elated and quickly realized the flight to Siem Reap was also delayed. We first scoffed at the claim of bad weather but a nearby TV showed newsreel of a typhoon that had passed through and flooded the area. We settled in, still winning at mind over matter, playing UNO and judging those around us…a foursome of Russian men lumbering loudly, a pair of older European women in a huff about English language inability of the Chinese airline clerk. WE weren’t ugly travelers.

Our flight took off after a four hour delay, and somewhere in the skies between Shanghai and Siem Reap, my family turned. The kids became electronic game junkies, eyes glazed over, barking at each other loudly despite much of the cabin trying to sleep. I hit my no sleep wall and clambered away from my responsibility of shushing the kids to an open bank of seats to give in to rest. Seemingly every minute a chorus of “mom, mom, mom” combined with poking fingers would wake me up with some trivial need. At some point, the cup runneth over and we all combusted…sharp tongues delivering harsh words resulting in loud tears. The two European women who we had judged earlier sat across from us now able to return the favor.

We landed in a flooded Siem Reap at 2AM. There were no taxis – they could not reach the airport. The airport itself was shutting down and we were pointed to outside damp benches that could serve as beds until morning. Kyle and I tried to be philosophical about it…this experience would help harden our kids, make them tougher. Then I pulled out my iphone. I reached our guesthouse, the Golden Mango Inn, by phone and begged for help. There were no promises, the road to the airport was flooded.

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Almost two hours later, trying to rest next to the now sobered Russians, I heard a voice in the distance say “Golden Mango” and I was up like a shot. And that is when we met Hou. He was drenched from head to toe and he was our tuk tuk driver. We clambered in, backpacks and all, and sped off to the hotel. The streets were flooded and muddy water sprayed our legs and our luggage as Hou navigated the scene.

Hou became not only our hero but our driver for the week.

Hou became not only our hero but our driver for the week.

And after such a long day, I looked at my family closely. Here we were, in our first tuk tuk ride ever, rain and wind and the promise of refuge setting our spirits straight again. Everyone was smiling…our ugly travelers faded. From misery to miracle at the speed of a tuk tuk.

Happy again in Hou's tuk tuk

Happy again in Hou’s tuk tuk

The Takayama Files

Takayama is a small city in the Japanese Alps and taking the train into the mountains felt like coming home. As Seattlites, we are mountain and water people and climbing up the alps next to a rushing river…we knew we were going to a special place.

There’s little in Takayama and that was perfect for us. The town was small enough for the kids to tool around on their own…either watching the koi in the river that flows through the town center or purchasing green tea ice cream in the Sanmachi historical district.

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Sleep
We stayed at Hida Takayama Tomaru Guesthouse. The owner, Shingo, set up a bunk bed room as a family room. With six bunk beds in the room and only four of us, the space felt luxurious. Seriously. The guesthouse was small and quiet and we’d recommend it. Shingo and his wife have a lovely two year old son and it was nice to interact with a toddler. The location of the guesthouse was perfect…2 mins from the train station and walking distance to all attractions.

Sights
With five nights in Takayama, we actually did very little but wander and roam and rest. We wore our fleeces for the first time in the trip, which felt worth while since they likely won’t see light again until December in Germany.

  • Kamikoche: I’m glad we experienced Kamikoche, a national park 90 minutes from Takayama. Now, let the record show that I am a hiking snob. I expect a challenging incline vs a pleasant path, and a good hike to me is one completed without seeing another soul. What’s cool about Japan is the love for the outdoors, particularly among the senior set. What’s not cool about Japan is most outdoor places will have hordes of seniors with walking sticks, backpacks and bear bells blocking the path in front of you. Now, granted, we were not in remote parts of Japan, so I’m sure there’s my kind of hiking heaven somewhere. Kamikoche was a very nice long walk in a beautiful setting (and at least this national park was open!).
  • Higashiyama Temple Walk: I believe there are 15 temples along the temple walk. The path is set up on a hill from the town and the views of the mountains beyond are quite lovely. I first did the temple walk as an early morning run and was the only person in sight…perfect. However I did not run there again as I felt some might be offended by my Japanese purchased size-large-but-still-too-tight-running-shorts in a place of worship. Later in the week, the family did an evening walk — it was lovely. Wish I had taken time to meditate there.
  • Library: The Takayama library has a few shelves of English books. The kids hit pay dirt with a series of Peanuts cartoon books and I learned about the art of Furoshiki, Japanese present wrapping.
  • Cycling Tour: We took a fun bike tour with Hida Satoyama Cycling through the neighboring town of Furukawa, learning about rice and buckwheat fields, fisheries and cattle along the way. I highly recommend this tour company. Our tour guide was originally from Tokyo, working himself to the bone, when he up and quit and moved to the country. He had recently purchased an old traditional home with the intent of restoring it. His enthusiasm and love for his adopted town and the architecture and environment in it was catching.
  • Morning Markets: There are two small but sweet morning markets in Takayama…walking distance from each other. The kids enjoyed strolling through them in the morning on the way to visit the koi.

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Eat

By now we’d been in Japan four weeks so I think you’d forgive us for eating tacos and hamburgers in Takayma. In fact the two highest rated restaurants on TripAdvisor for the town are Chapala and Center for Hamburger. Chapala was over rated but that didn’t stop us from going…twice. Center for Hamburger was the best burger I’d had in a long time and I don’t know why we didn’t go twice!

Once we met our American needs, we turned to the traditional food of Hida Takayama, beef. We had a delicious grilled beef dinner (my apologies to my mother and any other vegetarians). But the best meal was Kyle and my happy hour. The kids were wandering on their own, and Kyle and I had a sake tasting and then sampled simple and delicious Hida beef skewers from each street stand we encountered. As we sat perched by the river with our happy hour faire, Japanese tourists took pictures of us, exotic birds that we were.

We truly loved Takayama and if we were settling in longer in Japan, we’d plant our roots there.