Sunday, March 20, 2011

Southeast Asia Wrap Up

Indiana Jones Temple of Doom..really
It's been just over a month since we left the Southwest desert to begin our tour round the world and I can confidently report our enthusiasm hasn't waned. This morning we "Face Timed" our two daughters from Bangkok, our first stop on our trip and our last stop in Southeast Asia. After discovering the best green curry since we left Sala Thai's in Phoenix served in a tiny air conditioned restaurant, we toured the National Palace this afternoon the 38 degree C hot humid weather that has worn us out. As the sun begins to rise tomorrow morning Sharon and I will board a Jet Airways flight to Kathmandu with an extended Nepal forecast in the mid 20's C. In American terms that's in the high 70's F. In addition, we are definitely looking forward to being met by our trekking guide Sherpa Dawa in Kathmandu to hike the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains for a week.

On the beach in the Andaman Sea with Phi Phi island behind us
Looking back though, Sharon and I have gathered incredible memories from the experiences many of which are included in my blog and others that can't fit into a frame of words and photos. We realize a trip like ours just whets our desire to want for more time in areas such as Laos. Traveling like we do is an education on what to do or not do on a return to a city or region of a country. It's the adage "now we know" that will make the next trip better.
Relief from the heat, a Thai Potato Popsicle

 Returning to Bangkok has made us appreciate this enormous city. For example, last night we left the airport to our hotel by using the Sky Train instead of just hopping into a cab riding to a hotel, And our accommodation is a small guesthouse along a canal in the old part of the city. It felt great arriving to some familiarity and we flow much freer along the hectic boulevards and in the dark lonely backstreets winding through the back neighborhoods. Last night after checking into our hotel after 9PM, we stopped at a corner pub, drank a couple beers, listened to some great live music and watched a bit of the British Cup Championship Soccer. Sharon said she felt like she was in Liverpool England only Asian style.

Today I discovered my favorite Thai restaurant in Bangkok

Packing up for Kathmandu, Nepal
So as we say goodbye to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia we have to smile at our antics and be thankful for all we've seen. Now it's time to head west on our second segment of our journey and from what I feel right now we've got no regrets. Fortunately both of us are feeling fantastic ready for Mount Everest.

PS: I just down loaded about 230 photos on my Shutterfly link. Just click onto the upper right corner "Back on the Road Images" and you will be dazzled beyond belief. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Lost near Krabi

Within the last two days a few fans have wondered if we're still alive or maybe too busy for me to report on our activities though I find it touching some are missing my blather but I have to confess...busy is not an item in my prognosis as for the reason of my lack of blog. My day begins with a simple poolside breakfast provided by the hotel as part of our nightly fee and as we enjoy noshing on a bit of fresh fruit, yogurt, and croissant washing it down with some coffee, a decision is made as what we plan to do for the day and even that may change once we get back to our room to dress for the action. The following is a brief run down on some of our activities. Now mind you it has been searingly hot and humid here half way down the peninsula of southern Thailand so mid afternoon is "X'd" out for napping. That's a daily given.

Sharon relaxing after long boat ride, but she didn't get sick!
Three days ago we jumped aboard a 30' speedboat with friends from Korea, Japan, China, Canada, Russia, France, and Germany. We were representing the good ol' USA.  Catherine #8, our boat, left the harbor about 9AM to visit three islands all in the vicinity of Phi Phi island. You may not recall that name but in 2004 Phi Phi received the same treatment northern Japan has recently suffered. Our captain, Johnny Depp, said 1400 people lost their lives in that vicious tsunami. Seven years later you wouldn't know the town was totally wiped from the face of the rock. Bars, hotels, shops, dive shops, shops, shops now permeate the small cove that a couple thousand Thai islanders call home.

Before pulling into Phi Phi our captain had us explore a small spot of tropical land where the government didn't permit any building of any kind except the bambo fisherman huts all clumped together on one end. Sharon and I hiked down to the end of the smooth sandy beach past the fishing huts and found a nice spot to swim and take some photos. The captain warned us to be back at the boat by 10:30AM. We carefully took note of the time and dutifully returned and came aboard with five minutes to spare along with everyone else except a couple who was late showing up at the original cast off. Fifteen minutes went by and the captain, tour leader, and first mate exhausted their patience and energy looking for them (mind you there are 6 to 10 other boats pulling in and out and our leaders didn't quite remember what the couple looked like so when the clock said 10:50AM, the captain fired up the engines and pulled away from shore leaving the couple to fend for themselves. Everyone in the boat jaws dropped in disbelief these people were being left behind when only minutes  earlier the UN team of boatmates wanted them chastised but leaving them was a reality check none of us believed would actually happen. I was kind of digging this scene, but hoping nothing was really wrong with them other than being arrogantly stupid.
Stopping for lunch after scooter exploring...Cockles local fav

As the boat pulled around the reef the captain spied a man running waving swim fins in the air. The boat reversed into the sandy beach and the man seemed like he was smugly grinning as he walked near the boat's twin 225 HP Johnson Outboards tilted half up so as not to dig into the sand. Mr and Mrs Lateski walked up within 8' of the rear swim ladder when the captain rev'd both engines sending up a tsunami  6' high wall of water to welcome the Russian couple back on board. The UN committee cheered with approval, the ruskies sufficiently shamed, sat down, the engines dropped, trimmed and off we went to Phi Phi. (the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo diCapprio  was filmed here)

After a dismal lunch in a school cafeteria setting provided by the boat tour, our captain took us to a couple coves to snorkel and to my surprise the reef had decent color and a variety of small fish so I assume the diving is pretty decent around the area as well. Sharon doesn't dive and I don't think I'd like to dive not knowing any of the dive crew or fellow divers so that will have to be another trip.

Once everyone was back in the boat, this time with the Rusky couple, we darted back to port and docked about 4PM, took a nap, caught some dinner and off to dreamland.

Our Honda 125cc expedition scooter
The next day after our breakfast, it was decided to rent a scooter (I was dying to get some motorized two wheel action) and look for the real Thailand. The rental place (actually a hotel we stayed the first night in Krabi) provided us a map, we packed a backpack of survival gear, and off we zoomed through the jungle and beach lands towards sites as depicted by miniature photos inset into the map. Beaches, waterfalls, and crystal pools peppered our route. It didn't take long before we discovered the map names and the lack of highway markers made finding these sweet spots hopeless so we settled on the ride and what we could find without the useless map. Discovery is easy, getting back was another story. I've never done a complete loop three times not on purpose. It was unnerving and a bit embarrassing because both of us were really serious about getting back and the roads from the air must look like bed springs. Eventually we found our way back but not without having major sun on my hands from an all day cycle event. But it was much so we did it again today and the same thing happened going another way but this time the discovery was fantastic and not finding our way home directly was understood so we calmly ignored all real common sense and went soulfully on instinct. It worked like a charm.

Accidental discovery can be good for the mind..check out the tree growing in the middle of the photo.
After these long days I'm ready for a swim and a nap. Tomorrow we return to Bangkok and within two days after that we board Dharma Air and fly to Kathmandu to trek the Himalayas. So it's goodbye Southeast Asia and hello K2.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Tourist Sightings

All set for that perfect 6:30AM sunrise photo op
The money shot again and again at Angkor Wat Cambodia
You can't escape the old worn line "I'm not going there, it's just a tourist trap!" which has been the credo for so many travelers that wish to savor the pure, untouched, unaffected, never been opened, new in the box, mentality. To ignore these wonders such as the Roman Coliseum or the Parthenon I feel is cheating yourself but you can train yourself to adjust schedules and tune out the throngs of vendors as you exit your transport though in Cambodia the vendors and Tuk-Tuk drivers have taxed even my patience.   Occasionally in this shrinking world you can maybe have that "got it all to myself" experience.  I ponder about the French and British explorers that tripped upon ancient sites in early 1900's such Machu Pichu, Tulum,  or Angkor Wat for the first time since the primitive civilizations occupied them. I do know the discovery of these sites wasn't a walk in the park to get to them and these adventurers earned every ounce of virgin amazement for persevering through the unwelcoming elements. Most of the ruins of ancient metropolis were reclaimed by the aggressive jungle trying its hardest to reclaim what man had erected. We've seen great examples of this in the last two days from an ancient Khmer site named Ta Prohm. The tree roots have wedged into the structure and over time will pulverize the building materials back to dust.

So back to the "Tourist Trap" issue, I don't understand how some people punish themselves to view some of the most incredible man made and natural wonders of the world just because many others, thousands of others wish to join that same day to marvel at such beauty or incredible feats of engineering. To experience the size of these early feats and to touch the texture of the stone can't be interfered by sharing it with so many others. You just can't discount the importance of such creativity. Lately we've been visiting the "traps" with throngs of professional cultural tough tourists that specialize in traveling in groups the size of Bisbee. But as quick as the enormous human wave comes, they leave retreat much like the Tsunami.  To visit these sites without being injured you have to study and observe the site-seeing habits of most tourists. First, early morning is a great choice. Most tour company organizers can't herd their clients from the hotel to the tour bus much earlier than 10AM which means you don't have to meet the crack of dawn to enjoy peace and quiet for at least an hour or two before the big wave arrives plus the photography light is better. Same goes for the late afternoon. Most tourists don't possess  the physical stamina to sight see much past four. The only draw back is for where we are and the time of year it is, the heat and humidity isn't friendly.
Waterfall just outside of Luang Prabang

About a week ago we left our guesthouse early to hike to a waterfall just about 30 minutes from Luang Prabang, a town we loved in Laos. This seemed like a popular spot so I was prepared for the worst but the photos we saw of the tall falls and the turquoise water seemed like a must see plus we heard they encouraged you to swim in some of the pools. It sounded perfect. Our driver got us to the entry within a short time and we a little perplexed because we seemed like the only ones entering but within minutes realized we were in the right place but totally vacant of others. Walking up the pathways viewing small cascading falls into the brilliant blue pools and continued back to the main falls that measure about 250' high. Sharon and I spied a trail off to the side of the falls that seemed to go to the top of the falls so we hiked up the very steep trail, got to the top and looked out over the falls. This trek to the top of the falls now had us beckoning for the pools below. We scampered down the trail and passed a couple people on the trail and finally decided on a pool to swim. Both of us stripped down (to our bathing costumes) and entered our private beautiful paradise pool with incredible falls to massage our necks and backs. We couldn't believe it was ours alone. We enjoyed this pool for about an hour and then the crowds arrived as we dressed and returned to our driver and retreated to town for breakfast.  

Our private paradise for an hour. Luang Prabang, Laos

Yesterday Sharon, Barbara Haar a vivacious traveler we met in Laos and I decided to catch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. This experience has been touted by many others as "the" time to experience this Khmer temple at it's most holy hour. This means I had to pry myself out of bed at 5:AM, dress in appropriately dress for the heat, flag down a tuk-tuk driver, negotiate the price ( a whopping $15.00 for a half day), climb in the Tuk-Tuk only to discover we have chosen the slowest Tuk-Tuk in recorded history which isn't all that bad but the slow speed was attributed by drivers concern over a extremely worn wheel bearing and the wobbly wheel beneath Sharon and I. Fortunately it was on Sharon's side of the cart so I sat back and prayed we'd get to Angkor before the sun crested behind the Wat and get us back to Siem Reap.

Traffic in Cambodia is wild no matter what time of day or night but to turn the heat up on this crazy experience, ride in the slowest vehicle with hundreds of impatient drivers behind you taking insane chances to pass you, flash you the stink eye, and gun their engines as the rocket by our struggling little cart pulled by an underpowered motorcycle.

I released my breath when I saw the reflection of the bridge that leads to Ankgor from the moat that surrounds the complex. There was still at least 30 minutes to find the perfect place. Finding the perfect place at sunrise wasn't to difficult. All I had to do is follow the hundreds of others to the reflecting pond just off to the left of the main building. The crowd was quiet and patient with anticipation to get that incredible money shot to impress their friends and family. I had to chuckle after looking at the LCD displays of the cameras all pointed towards the same target. It was amazing how many of the same image there was and it didn't matter if you had a Samsung point and shoot, an iPhone, or a $20,000.00 camera kit set on a tripod, the images all looked good.

The sun rose, the camera shutters all released and the crowd wondered off in different directions. Another great photo op notch on the old camera bag.

PS For those who haven't figured it our yet, click on each photo for a better view of the image and click on the upper right "On The Road Again Images" for much more photos.  Til we meet again!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Monks on Parade

Ever since I was confirmed a Lutheran at the Our Saviors Church in Phoenix when I was in the 7th grade, I've always highly respected others religious ceremonies and services. Our Pastor generously taught us many other religions and even mentioned that maybe being a Lutheran is not for everyone but it is important to have faith, something that provides you guidance and strength throughout your life.  With that bit of wisdom I never returned to the Lutheran church once I passed my confirmation studies. It wasn't the faith that dissuaded me but the fact the parish was guilting it's congregation into tithing to build a flashy new church which I didn't think was necessary to deliver the word of God.  

Our "Feed the Monks" guide
I have a bit of paranoia and guilt of straying from my base faith being out of respect for my Mother who introduced me into the Lutheran faith, though my father never participated in any of the Sunday activities because he was a Catholic and since he married a Lutheran he was no longer welcomed among his own flock so he didn't partake into anything at that point. I don't think he was too disappointed by the church's decision.

I remember working as a counselor at Camp Geronimo Boy Scout camp and deciding to attend the catch all Protestant Sunday service but it was too far of a hike at such an early time of the morning on my only day off so my cabin mate being Catholic invited me to his service which was within 50 yards of our front door. I went and much of the mombo jombo was close to what I was taught so I was feeling pretty good through most of the service, in fact I even nervously  took communion and at the end the service the Lords Prayer was recited and I was totally unaware the Catholics shortened the prayer by a long phrase which I loudly and confidently finished to the hush of everyone else including the piercing eye of the priest zeroing in on the heathen in the rear pew which was me. I spun around and dashed out the door never to return....until I married.    

The Monk morning treat
Sharon & I doing our spiritual duty....not.
It's impossible not to be introduced to many other faiths and beliefs while traveling the world. Religions come in many forms and some are obvious with passionate displays of places of worship, statues, and rituals so when we heard about the Buddhist monks morning collection of alms I was genuinely curious and agreed we should witness this ritual. This ritual wasn't new to me because I've been up at sunrise in Chiang Mai, Thailand to occasionally see a monk wonder down the small alley ways collecting the food gifts people leave out for them. It's very private and quiet in the cool morning dawn. This giving of alms in Luang Prabang begins at 6:30AM with a loud banging of a drum and 200 monks line up single file and walk on the south side of the main road through town collecting the prepared food items and some money into covered metal bowels with shoulder straps supporting them.

Waiting for goodies
But I'm getting ahead of myself, we left our guesthouse which was a single block from the main street at about 6AM and walked up to the corner before turning left and venturing another two blocks but before we reached the main boulevard a woman came up to us with a yoke type carrier carrying prepared alms made special for the monks. She convinced each of us to purchase about 10 small banana leaf wrapped items, a basket of sticky rice, and about a dozen small bananas to give to the monks. We accepted the offer which cost us about three dollars each. With the purchase from her she would pick a premium spot, place a ground cover down on the sidewalk, and provide a bowl to place all the gifts ready to distribute. We waited for the procession to reach us and as we waited bus loads of tourists arrived and suddenly this seemingly somber acceptance of alms has become a circus. Loads of Japanese tourists with cameras and lenses longer than my arm jostled for position and worked the young Lao children like a fashion model shoot, waiting to give their alms. Within minutes I caught a glimpse of the first monks that seemed to be the older ones and as the line lengthened the age seemed to diminish. At first I was very hesitant but then I was able to grab a wad of sticky rice, place it on a banana leaf bundle and drop it into one of the passing metal bowls. The bananas were easier, just break one off and drop it into the bowl. I worked quickly to try to rid myself of all the booty I had purchased when suddenly our native guide was shoveling more stuff into our bowls. Hey, wait...(we were tricked into doing all the work of handing out her food!) we did most of it and the 199th monk passed and I was done. We got up to go when our spiritual helper wanted much more money which I realized was a scam. I handed her a small additional amount and walked away much to her disappointment and our dismay.
A sincere devote

The sad part is most of the food items given to these monks was discarded to street kids or thrown out. The true intent was lost but we walked fast and got ahead of a good size section of the parade  and I did see sincere locals provide alms and a prayer so my deepest thoughts of this ritual was restored. Later I found there is a great push to prevent this tradition from being exploited by having tourists not participate and on lookers to stay clear of this daily event. In fact the people like the women who scammed us are looked down on because she is profiting from this ceremony.  I can certainly appreciate that because what I saw and experienced was nothing more than how Sharon described it as "Monk's Trick or Treating".

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Laos on a Million a Day

Our room on the whole second floor balcony
A daily trip to the ATM has developed into a ritual because of the local currency which the current exchange is 8,000 Kip to 1 American Dollar. We've discovered buying some gifts, fruit smoothie drinks, coffees, eating, transportation and a night at a guesthouse can average almost a million a day. The ATM vending machines restrict the maximum amount of withdrawal per transaction but allow multiple transactions and of course each transaction is accompanied by a transaction fee. Oh these financial wizards have this ATM business dialed in!

Finely woven silk fabric
Today we checked out of our luxury hotel at noon, walked down the road and found a beautiful room with a balcony over looking the Nam Kham River. We scored the best room in the place which only has about six rooms, with a nightly cost of $320,000.00. Once settled we into our new room, I inquired about renting a couple bicycles and soon after began touring around the city, first visiting a village of fabric weavers across the river but first we had to pay the bamboo bridge toll fee of $5000.00 Kip each. ( Kips fly out of my pockets like moths to a porch light) Walking through the village Sharon fell in love with the silk fabric woven by these very talented women and bought a silk scarf for $200,000.00. Then we returned to our bikes, slowly pedaled through the main part of town, stopped at the ATM to reload and tried a new restaurant called Roots and Leaves set on the edge of a large fish pond. The lunch was incredible array of Lao dishes such as Spicy Fish Watercress Salad, Vermicelli noodles and Eggplant Caviar wrapped in Colandar Leaves, and Water Buffalo Grilled Steak. Our drinks were Mango and mixed fruit, still water, and....yes a Margarita! I just had to try one and it was spot on tasty. Well that added up to a tidy $296,000.00.  We are now in our siesta mode but latter will be desert time and when you add it all million cool big ones.
Vermicelli and Eggplant Caviar with a cup of peanuts & dried peppers

Monday, March 7, 2011

Part 2 - Eden

There is nothing like being woken by songbirds and roosters at daybreak and it seems to happen more often in third world countries than in the more developed countries...I wonder why? The bliss quickly disappeared when my eyes focused on the images about our room and the recall of our plan we made over dinner the night before. We slipped from our sleep condoms, rinsed in the all in one water room,  packed our bags, staged them on the bed, and slipped out the door to check out Plan A. That plan was to switch boats to a luxury boat we had caught a glimpse of through our portal the day before. This boat had many empty seats, relaxed appearing passengers and white gloved assistants serving cocktails. At this bend in the river, money was no object but that plan was soon dashed because these boats don't really stop at Pakbang or at least the day we needed them. This meant we default to Plan B, so we returned to our room, swung our bags onto our backs and trekked the quarter mile down to the landing to get in line early to score better seats providing us a view on our  seven hour last leg to Luang Prabang leaving at 9AM.

Breakfast shopping before shoving off
At 7:15 we hiked the steep decline to the boat and I spied a few passengers already boarding. I confirmed the destination with the captain and he motioned us to come aboard. Having our pick of any seats, I began to feel tears of joy well up as we chose a pair of great seats signifying a change in our luck. The plan worked...shortly after the crowds came and the lingering late comers were forced into our previous days position. I had no remorse...I served my time and now Sharon and I were to enjoy the ride into our destination in style.

While waiting for 9:AM to arrive I first went back up the very steep incline and road to the beginning of the village to score food for our journey. I returned with a large sandwich, bananas, two green iced teas and Oreo cookies. Just as I returned Sharon noticed the girls in front of us had coffee in to go cups. Back up the incline and up the steep road I hiked to find the coffee. Knowing I didn't want to make the trek again, not only did I return with coffee but also lovely buttery, real french croissants. That little extra allowed me to board the boat, the lines cast off and we were on our way to Luang Prabang.

Laos village above the Mekong River
Navigating through the rocks and rapids on the Mekong River
The ride was incredibly beautiful, quiet (unless we ventured back to the bathroom next to the engine room), peaceful which satisfied our souls. The tropical countryside was populated with thick forested mountain tops and terraced lush garden aprons at the base of villages dotted in the safety of the high banks along the Mekong. Midday the long sleek slender fishing boats were moored in the eddies behind the large outcropping of rocks our captain maneuvered around with solemn confidence. Once in while this maze of large rocks would incorporate level three rapids but our captain throttled back the engine and worked the wheel with aplomb. Periodically, our boat would drift spin and power back up to a stop point where locals would embark or depart. This was a lively time when information was passed, goods distributed, and farewells offered from the families of villagers precariously jumping from the boat to the floating makeshift dock or just hopping to the shoreline.
Waiting for bags at the port of Luang Prabang

We were all grins until the sun began to touch the horizon and I saw the port or should I say the bank of the Mekong with a few buildings perched at the top of a steep embankment. I was expecting something more substantial for a large-ish city especially at the port, again no dock. Our bow touched land, the lines secured, the engine killed and now the wait for our bags stowed deep into hull of the boat, we waited on the near vertical bank looking for the yellow and red bags to appear. Within a half hour our bags appeared and I climbed down to the bow where they were staged. The first bag I swung onto my back but the second caught me off balance a bit and the captain gave a reassuring shove to upright me and we both had a bit of a laugh. I thanked him for the help and for being such a great captain. We shook hands while we both flashed each other friendly grins and I scrambled up the embankment to the steep road to meet Sharon waiting with our other smaller daypacks. Together we slowly made our way up to Luang Prabang as the sun began to set. Reaching the first main paved street I went to the corner restaurant and asked the sweet young waitress for her recommendation for a guesthouse. Within one block she introduced us to the manager of the small Villa Luang Prabang and fortunately they had an airconditioned room with one bed, breakfast included,for $40.00 US (that's 320,000 kip, to give you an idea of the local currency, perhaps they should drop a few zeros) per night. PERFECT.

Checked in, cleaned up, and ready for dinner we first walked our sidestreet up to the main boulevard to the night market. On the way we walked by a beautiful restaurant called "The Blue Lagoon" and thought it was a good possibility to give us a special treat from our ordeal of the last three days. But we weren't going to make a snap we walked through the market to view all the beautiful handicrafts. This market went on for many blocks and my stomach was now overriding my vision so I asked Sharon if we could direct our energy back to The Blue Lagoon.
Celebratory dinner at the Blue Lagoon, Luang Prabang

The young Laos waiters lead us to the rear outdoor eating area next to a small water feature. The restaurant was beautifully lit and constructed with excessive use of teak hardwood. The efficient and attentive wait staff promptly brought menus,  wine list, water, and wonderful french bread with herbed butter, a good sign. We treated ourselves to a bottle of Chilean red and ordered local dishes. The food was remarkably presented and served. This is very very rare in our trip so far. The concept of serving both people simultaneously has not quite caught on yet. Half way through dinner a large German gentleman came by our table to ask if everything was to our liking and we couldn't rave enough about the food and service which brought about a very friendly grin. He introduced himself as Peter, the restaurant owner and thanked us for our patronage.

We returned to our air conditioned lovely room knowing we had just reached Eden.

Friday, March 4, 2011

From The Gates of Hell to the Garden of Eden

Sharon and I had a religious experience, not one you could research in a book of passages or quotes from shamans, priests, or other spiritual leaders. The three days of travel in the hands of tourist commanders shouting out orders and ignoring the pleas of the weakened, bewildered, and perplexed.

Our travel to Luang Prabang, Laos started with suggestions that we should take the "slow boat" to our destination is an exotic adventure and one of the most beautiful boat trips in the world. The biggest issue was getting to the Laos port of Huay Xai from Chiang Mai, Thailand where we stayed for 5 days in a nice guesthouse called Charcoa. I noticed at our front desk they had information on traveling to Laos and taking the two day boat trip on the Mekong River. So I had the hotel to arrange the passage all the way to Luang Prabang via the "slow boat" which they did for about $65.00 each. The trip included being picked up at our guest house in Chiang Mai via Mini Bus to the Thailand border, a room at the Boom Guesthouse at the border town of Chiang Khong, transportation to Thai immigration, ferry boat to Lao immigration, taxi to boat station, boat to the town of Pak Bang Village (stay the night at our expense about $15.00, the boat to Luang Prabang our destination.

The above seemed all so organized, so simple and that is why we will never trust prearranged rooms or trips again because more often than not the following will happen.

Our suite at the compound hotel

After 3 hours of sleep we're off to Thai immigration

Sharon in search of our boat number 65
The first issue we fortunately recognized was the mini van was to pick us up at our guesthouse in Chiang Mai at 8:30.  All through Europe, Asia and the rest of the world except the United States, military time is standard but in this case it was not. Our trip to the Northeast border of Thailand began at 8:30 in the evening and realized we were going to travel all night and will get to our hotel in Chiang Khong at roughly 4AM only to be awakened at 7AM to get to the included breakfast at 7:30AM then shuttled to Thai immigration, then the ferry boat at 8:30AM to arrive to Laos immigration.

Ready to board not knowing the yacht is full
A view from our seats in the luggage/engine room
Our minibus arrived at our guesthouse promptly at 9:15PM, then picked up three more Japanese passengers at another hotel. Now the minibus, an oversized Toyota minivan, modified to now hold up to 15 passengers tightly. The driver said we only had five passengers so this all night drive didn't seem like it would be too bad. That was a bad assumption on my part but we are just beginning this trip folks. After our other passengers were loaded into the van, the driver now is proving just how fast he can drive and how this minivan can handle. His method of driving was full throttle or brake, anything in between was useless to him. After stopping at the transport company's office to check our passports and paid receipts,we drove for about one hour and then pulled into our first 7-11 market to meet up with another minivan from the same company. Our driver informed us that we must now transfer into the "other bus" (same size minivan) which when I walked over with all my gear and looked in to the ten frighten faces of the passengers suffering from their drivers skills,  the thought of now riding six hours in a fully packed van was now our destiny. I suffer from a bit of claustrophobia and being shoved into this van wasn't happening except if I had the one seat by the sliding door which allowed me leg room. Fortunately the travel gods were with me and I got the only seat I could have endured this trip and I scored the end seat in front of me for Sharon. The others in our van weren't so fortunate, they were literally squeezed into the back next to the luggage. I vocalized my concern for safety and requested another van but the drivers just mimicked me, "Yea two vans sure!" and became a bit more stern with the reluctant remaining couple passengers. Within minutes a couple switches in the size of passengers in certain seats allowed us to begin the ride to hell.
Location has it's benefits such as this lovely family
This new driver now is a bit pissed and is going to show everyone in the van just how fast and fearless he is by driving unbelievably fast, diving into the curves so fast that the suspension on the van was bottoming out and squealing the tires and on top of it all, rode into oncoming traffic around blind corners. Everyone in the van was stunned until the Japanese girl who was in the far rear of vehicle had her boyfriend beside her phone their friend in the front seat to tell the driver she was ready to throw up any minute. The driver pulled off the side of the road for five minutes for the passengers to empty themselves and ordered them back in the bus for another hour until the scheduled smoke, pee, drink and eat stop at the second 7-11 around one in the morning.

Keeping my eyes closed and wishing for sleep to prevent me from a cardiac arrest I was pitched back and forth and maybe lulled to sleep for a few minutes but the van pulled to a stop at 3AM in a dirt parking lot of a concrete compound to which we were order out of the bus. "Hotel" he shouted. I asked, "Is this the Boom House?" I questioned it because I looked up the hotel on the internet before we left and this didn't resemble it at all. My question was ignored and I knew I had to act fast or Sharon and I would be sharing a room with two to four strangers for the evening or should I say for about 4 hours before having to get moving again.

Fortunately with my sleep deprivation I was very forceful with my request for a single room with a single bed. They seem to honor us old married ones a bit more than the average 20 year old backpacker. The main woman who seemed to be in charge yelled out the order to her underling to give us a separate room and we were shown to our beautiful spartan suite. I'm kinda of used to this sort of raw accommodation but Sharon whispered a subtle gasp but we had no choice and both of us just needed to get prone to capture as much sleep as possible for the long day on the boat bobbing along the Mekong River.

Full capacity and then some
Our past experiences traveling in third world countries has provided us insight as to what to pack in the way of emergency gear such as the handy silk sleep sack which I describe as a full body prophylactic in case of being faced with a bed dawning untidy linens. Within minutes we slipped into our sacks, new meaning to the term, "hit the sack," and woke up 3 hours later ready to meet the day. I was ready for breakfast at the assigned time of 7:30 and the rest of our group wondered down to the center of the compound looking for coffee and a bite to eat as promised by our tour description. There wasn't any movement anywhere that would indicate even a kitchen let alone actually getting food. About 8:AM a small pickup pulled up and a stern stocky Asian man commanded us to get into the back of the truck with all our baggage. We all looked confused but I immediately jumped into the back with Sharon and other followed suite until the truck to overflowing with bodies and gear. He yelled at the others to stay and he will return. So off we went to somewhere actually not knowing what to expect. In the back of my mind I believe he was taking us to the Boom Guesthouse for breakfast and within a couple minutes my guess was correct...he turned down a small alley towards the river and there was a sweet looking little guesthouse overlooking the Mekong River...the place where I paid to stay but...let's just leave it at that. We got out of the truck and they exchanged a breakfast of two scrambled eggs and two pieces of white toast for seeing your paid receipt. We sat outside high above the river while devouring our pittance of food enjoying the view and not wanting to think about what's to come.

The peaceful and spectacular Mekong River in Laos
The time came and the commandant order us to get into the truck again to take us to the immigration office where we will depart Thailand, then walk down a long ramp to a group of "long tail boat" water taxi's to take us directly across the river to the Laos immigration check in. Our boat had Sharon and I and two locals and with that allowed us to move out before the others. Little did we know our group was way behind many others who crossed earlier and when we arrived at immigration the single window had gathered a massive crowd around it on the verge of total chaos. The drill here was (which we didn't know or do right the first time) is to get a proper Visa Immigration Form, fill it out, insert it into your passport with a visa photo of yourself and hand it to the Visa On Arrival window. Then if everything is in order, they hand your passport with the photo stapled to the VIF and you wait around the next window for them to press your passport up against the glass. When you see it, you push your way through the crowd, give the official $35.00 American currency and he hands your passport back to you. Then you leave the concrete platform, walk 50 meters up the street to the Visa and Passport check point and then you have to figure out how to get to the "Slow Boat" dock. We walked up to the end of the steep dirt road where the...are you ready?, that's right, the Tuk-Tuk driver meets you. For about a $1.50 he took us and a family from Montreal to the dock. He dropped us and the family off. We were instructed to join up with our group waiting at a small restaurant for further instructions from our commandant. Our boat was supposed to leave at 10:30 and we didn't get to our group until near 11:AM. Everyone in our group looked pretty haggered from lack of sleep and still suffering mentally from the insane drivers the evening before. The leader gathered all our passports and inserted boat tickets inside each one and before returning them to us he gave us strict instructions on what to expect on the boat and when we arrive at our midpoint for the evening at a small town called Pak Bang Village. He also warned us there are many people traveling this time of year and the boat that usually carries on the average of 40 passengers today will have 150 passengers and we are leaving two hours later so we are going to be getting into Pak Bang near dark and the rooms will be scarce. He gave suggestions and said he could arrange rooms ahead for those wanting them. I was first in line, got a room, got our passports and off to the docks at the end of the steep road to the river Sharon and I went to find Boat 65. There were many boats but old number 65 was waiting at the end of a steep embankment. The idea of actual docks hasn't come to this part of the world yet. All boats run up gently onto the shore so you have to step up to board. When Sharon and I stepped aboard we were greeted with a 98% full boat so we continued to walk to the back of the boat and found two seats together in the cargo hold which also serves as the engine room. While the others up front enjoyed the vistas, quiet sound of the boat cutting through the water, and a constant cool breeze coming off the river, Sharon and I got to view the river through a 3' x 3' window and listened to the incredibly loud engine along with feeling the heat from its cast iron casing.  To add to the charm, a mountain of luggage was stacked in front of us for this seven hour journey to Pak Bang.

I shouted to Sharon next to me..."Toilet Paper". She pulled out the roll and I tore away a couple sheets, wadded it up and stuffed into my ears...ah...relative quiet to keep my sanity. During the trip I would get up and walk over to a larger window in hopes to snap some photo but mostly I sat and shot some images of the Lao family next to me. We were together in the cargo area living the life of the lower caste, an experience that makes real stories.

A cute side note Sharon told me over dinner later that evening was the two sheets of toilet paper she had each in her ears to deaden the sound of the boat engine had to be removed from her ears, unfolded, and used when she went to the head and discovered no toilet paper. I about busted a gut laughing because I remember her returning and sitting down. I looked over to her and she didn't have any toilet paper in her ears and I thought she must not be bothered by the extreme engine noise. She was genuinely happy to have those two sheets with her when she really needed it. You just can't get those stories traveling first class.

We beached the boat at Pak Bang at 7:30 that evening. Sharon and I disembarked and found our $15.00 a night suite at the Bon Amee Hotel. The manager was out front of the hotel sitting at a table with the keys lined up. He gave us room #2 and we entered the room only to be a small bit better than the compound the night before but the bed still required us using sleep sacks. We checked the shower and the water just trickled out. That was it...we left the room to confront the manager about the water issue. I was in a really really foul state of mind at that point and after hovering over Mr Manager vocalizing with tone just short of a threat I gave him one hour to get the water fixed while we found some dinner. He promised profusely and apologized while the two of us became shadows toward an Indian restaurant we saw on our walk up the steep road from the boats.

At dinner I promised Sharon things would be much different once we got to Luang Prabang. I researched it on the internet and knew they had lots and lots of nice hotels there but we just had to get there without losing our sanity. Our plan for the next day was to beat everyone to the boat and get a seat up front and live like humans for the journey to Luang Prabang.

Tomorrow...Part 2....Pak Bang to Luang Prabang
PS. The Luang Prabang internet has to be the slowest I've experienced in quite some time which can be a bit frustrating but I got this blog out, now I'll try to get part two up within a day. Currently we are in beautiful hotel overlooking the Mekong delta.